Category Archives: england

That final exam anxiety dream

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Marlene Cimons writes for the Washington Post about a recurring anxiety dream experienced by many, including yours truly:

For most people, including me, it goes like this: We’ve signed up for a course that we never attend, or we forget we enrolled in it. When final-exam day approaches, we are panic-stricken because we never went to any of the lectures, never took notes and never did the readings or assignments. (In one bizarre twist, some people report that they show up on final exam day naked — perhaps feeling vulnerable?)

For some, the course is one in which we did poorly in real life. Others dream of a subject in which they actually did well but had worried about failing.

She digs pretty deep into the commonality of this dream, interviewing therapists and others about why so many people continue to have it many years after their formal schooling ended.

My academic anxiety dream usually is situated in my final semester of college. It’s exam period, and — in keeping with the script! — I suddenly realize that I’m facing a final exam in a course I’ve never attended and for which I’ve never cracked open a book. Furthermore, it’s in a subject area in which I have no interest or aptitude.

Oh no, I’m screwed, I dream-speak to myself. I’ll flunk that course and have to take a summer school class in order to graduate. What will my parents say? And what will this do to my law school aspirations?! Maybe I calculated wrong and I really don’t need that class to graduate!

At some point I realize it’s a dream and will myself to wake up, but I’m a tad rattled until I confirm that all is ok.

The roots of my academic anxiety dreams have some basis in fact. I spent my final collegiate semester participating in Valparaiso University’s study abroad program in Cambridge, England. For some of us, including me, close proximity to one of the world’s greatest universities failed to inspire complete devotion to our studies. Although we were graded on essays rather than examinations, it’s fair to say that work on said written products often got left until the last minute.

In fact, one of my two phone calls home during that semester (remember, this is pre-cell phone 1981) came after our grades were reported. I wanted my parents to check my grade report — most notably because of a worrisome Art Appreciation class that I pretty much blew off completely — before I embarked on a post-semester romp through Western Europe. Fortunately my grades were pretty good, except for a barely passing grade in Art Appreciation. Phew…dodged that bullet!

It so happens that I’m writing this from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. I have a fall semester research sabbatical from my home school (Suffolk University in Boston), and I’m spending part of it at VU as a scholar in residence, working on a book project. I’ll have more to say about this stay in my next blog post.

In the meantime, hopefully no academic anxiety dreams will be triggered by this visit.

From college move-in days to reunions

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Hello dear readers, it has been a while since I’ve posted! I’ve been hip deep in various publication projects related to work, and they’ve drained much of whatever writing energies I’ve had this summer. But with another academic year about to begin, I’d be remiss if I didn’t write something to mark it.

Here in Boston, the arrival of thousands of college students during late August and early September is an annual ritual. Here’s what the Boston Globe had to say about it this morning:

This late-summer ritual, the return of tens of thousands of college students to more than 50 area schools, replenishes Boston and infuses it with youth. The transformation is hard to miss. Boston traffic backs up and horns blare as families double-park to unload; the city’s shops and restaurants bustle with new activity; the Esplanade fills with joggers and bikers.

Boston, the country’s ultimate college town, is back.

The so-called “college experience” — that of going off to school, usually starting with a year (or three or four) of living in a residence hall — became a standard middle class aspiration during the last half of the 20th century. It holds this status today, too, even in the face of rising costs of higher education and a shaky economy.

And so in college towns big and small, the students are returning in droves. For those of us who enjoy seasons, this is a harbinger of fall, which in New England is our best time of the year weather-wise.

And fast forwarding…

Among the pieces of advice I want to share with today’s college students is this: If you work on it and are fortunate, you can start building some lifelong friendships.

Every five years, our Valparaiso University study abroad group holds a reunion to catch up with one another and to exchange increasingly exaggerated and dramatic stories from our semester together in England. Many of us manage to see each other on other occasions as well.

We met in Chicago earlier this summer. Our gathering was a little smaller than usual because of a tangle of family and personal schedule conflicts, but we had a wonderful time nonetheless. A photo of most of this year’s attendees appears below.

Sometimes it’s just the way things work out: A group of 20 or so people are tossed together for a term overseas, and many of the bonds created and strengthened during that time ripen into lasting friendships. True, the “college experience” should be about learning, growing, and preparing for the rest of life. And if it includes the forging of friendships that endure, well then, that’s an awesome thing indeed.

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This fall, I’ll be revisiting Valparaiso University when I return to campus for homecoming (35th year) and an extended stay to do some work on my writing projects. I’m fortunate to have a research sabbatical this semester, and so I arranged to do a “visiting scholar in residence” arrangement at VU, whereby I’ll be camping out in the library with my laptop and research materials for a few weeks.

This also will give me another opportunity to connect with some of my VU classmates. I look forward to writing about this visit later this fall.

Adult student enrolling in Hogwarts

Many years ago, my long-time friends the Driscolls gave me the first two books in the Harry Potter series. Give them a try, they said. All five family members were big Harry Potter fans, and they thought that I might enjoy the books.

I did give the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K.), at least a half-hearted try. But after a couple of chapters, I put it aside. I’ve never been into the fantasy genre, and despite the legion of grown-up Harry Potter aficionados, I just couldn’t see what the big deal was all about.

Fast-forward to this week. It dawned on me that I’ve read rave comments about the Harry Potter series from favorite writers, ranging from Stephen King to Brené Brown, praising the stories and their insights on the human condition. I’ve also admired author J.K. Rowling for her down-to-earth demeanor and sense of social responsibility. So I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of giving Sorcerer’s Stone another try, and several friends share effusive praise for the books.

(Slight spoilers ahead…)

I’m now about 100 pages into Sorcerer’s Stone. Folks have cautioned me that it’s a little slow going at first, that the set-up takes a while to build, and that the story won’t start to sparkle until later in the book.

And yet, I already find it charming, engaging, and very, very clever. Of course, as someone steeped in workplace anti-bullying work, I couldn’t help but to pick up on the bullying themes in Harry’s life with the Dursley family. Now Harry is preparing to enter Hogwarts, and I’m excited for him. With Hagrid’s help, he is picking out his school supplies. Rowling captures beautifully the anticipation and nerves that go with starting a new school.

I haven’t read many fantasy or children’s books, but I can tell a great storyteller from an okay one, and this early foray into Harry Potter’s world is enough to show me that Rowling is a brilliant writer. Her ability to create vivid detail and her sense of empathy and humor come through from the start.

Being something of an Anglophile, I love the little references to London, including the Underground and Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at the King’s Cross rail station. As someone who has been around schools and public transportation all my adult life, maybe I’m already identifying with parts of the story!

On Facebook, one of my friends suggested that I suspend my grown up reader’s worldview and let the inner child in me enjoy the stories. The only problem is that I didn’t like to read fiction as a child. I emphatically preferred non-fiction, and my 11-year-old self would’ve rebelled at having to read the Harry Potter stories. Even today, I estimate that some 80 percent of my personal library is non-fiction.

No, mine is more a tale of arrested reading development. Call me a late bloomer, but it’s a twist that I’ve had to go deep into adulthood to be “ready” for the Harry Potter series.

It may take me another week to finish Sorcerer’s Stone, as lately, I haven’t been one to rush through novels and stories. But I’ve already got Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ready to go, so it appears that I am matriculating into Hogwarts as an adult student. Better late than never.

Welcomed year-end perspectives from across the pond

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Visits to England over the years have given me a great appreciation for two venerable news periodicals published there, The Economist and The Guardian. A venerable staple in England, The Economist, has become very popular in the U.S. The Guardian, a long-time British daily newspaper, now offers a weekly edition perfect for those of us in other nations.

Of the two, The Economist is the better known. Published since 1843, it favors free-market economics and globalization, while staking moderate and occasionally liberal positions on social issues. All articles and editorials are unsigned, and great care is taken to produce each issue with a consistently understated, analytical, and often witty tone of voice. For liberals like me, it offers a thoughtfully reasoned, contrasting point of view.

The Economist‘s holiday double issue has long been an annual treat. Loaded with features on lively, quirkier, more offbeat topics than its normal fare — see the pieces under “Christmas Specials” from this year’s holiday issue — it’s an enjoyable way to spend a more contemplative turning of the calendar.

The Guardian has made a big American visibility push in recent years, especially online, with increasing coverage of major news events in the U.S. With its generally liberal social, political, and economic perspectives and a punchier style of writing, its weekly edition — global in scope and drawing from the Observer, Washington Post, and Le Monde — is emerging as an informative, left-leaning counterpart to The Economist.

The Guardian Weekly‘s year-end issue isn’t quite as elaborate as The Economist‘s, but it, too, is an informative assessment of the year behind us and in front of us.

Both periodicals are somewhat pricey as print subscriptions, so some may prefer to check them out online. For news junkies like me, they offer interesting, informed, and global alternatives to so much of the celebrity-driven drivel of typical American “news” coverage and the noisy, sound-bite yammering of our cable news stations.

Imagining the Ye Olde English coffee houses

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In 1750, the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford, and it wouldn’t take long for the concept to take hold across the country. According to Aytoun Ellis’s The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (1956), by the end of that century, London was home to over 2,000 coffee houses, located throughout the city!

Ellis used the term “penny university” because a penny would gain entrance to a place of strong brew, the newspapers and periodicals of the day, and lively discussions about politics, literature, and commerce. Not surprisingly, when it came to ambience, location mattered a lot. Coffee houses located near universities filled with intellectual exchange. By contrast, much business would be conducted at coffee houses located in commercial districts. And still others would be host to gambling and other less refined activities.

Though I’d enjoy a quick time machine visit to a few of these old coffee houses, I doubt that I’d long to spend much time in them. I imagine that many were pretty loud and boisterous places, whereas my ideal of a coffee-consuming establishment is a café quiet enough to read or do a little work. Some brew to help awaken the mind and a place to sit down and read (or think) big thoughts . . . I like that.

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When crime novels, espionage thrillers, and mysteries connect us to favorite places

I just reread a book that I first encountered some 20 years ago, Don Winslow’s A Cool Breeze on the Underground (1991). Winslow has established himself as an entertaining, edgy writer of crime and mystery novels, and this was his very first.

The protagonist is a young private detective named Neal Carey. Early in the book, we learn how Neal’s hardscrabble upbringing during the 60s and early 70s New York City led him to become part of a secretive detective agency that achieves difficult results for high powered clients. Although not expressly stated in the novel, the primary story is set in the summer of 1976, and there’s a connection to that year’s Presidential campaign.

I found Neal to be an endearing character when I read the book 20 years ago, and I felt even more so this time around. In addition to becoming a savvy P.I. at a young age, he’s a scholar in the making, enrolled in an English literature graduate program at Columbia University. Some of the implausibilities of this scenario are overcome by the charming way it fits into the main plot, which eventually takes him to London.

I love the book’s uses of New York and London. The more familiar the reader is with these cities, the more vivid the story becomes, whether it’s grabbing a burger at the legendary Burger Joint in Manhattan, or navigating the labyrinths of London’s Underground subway system.

Winslow’s references to specific places send me off on my own journeys in those cities, today with more nostalgia than my during first reading. For example, one scene puts Neal at London’s Embankment along the River Thames:

Neal paid the cabbie and started across the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. The view up and down the Thames was one of his favorites. It might be the best spot to see London, he thought, and he stopped about halfway across to take it in.

This vista includes “a postcard view” of “Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament,” as well as the “stretched Victoria Embankment.”

I have to put the book down to drink in this passage. That’s my own favorite view of London, and I’ve made a point of crossing that footbridge during every one of my visits there!

For me, therein lies the appeal of so many crime novels, espionage thrillers, and mysteries: They take me back to places I know and enjoy, sometimes even prompting me see them in a different way, with scenes woven into plots full of suspense and intrigue.

In fact, the right location can lift a so-so plot for me. If a story is set in a place I don’t know, it better be a compelling tale to keep my attention!

In the U.S., New York is my favorite setting for mystery and suspense tales. Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. also appear on my list. When it comes to international intrigue, give me London, Cambridge and Oxford, Paris, and major cities in Austria and Germany, the latter especially if we’re talking about historical stories.

When it comes to fiction, I confess that I’m not a devotee of serious literature. Rather, this is my favorite genre, and when good stories are placed in cities I’ve come to know and love, it’s an added treat.

Old standards about great cities

A wonderful 1980s Book-of-the-Month Club music collection, Songs of New York

A wonderful 1980s Book-of-the-Month Club music collection, Songs of New York

In my not-so-humble opinion, what separates a truly iconic city from many other fine places is that the great 20th century lyricists and composers wrote songs and music about them. They are the stuff of the Great American Songbook (and that of London and Paris, too).

Here are some of my favorite songs about New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, and Paris. Sinatra versions predominate; he knew how to croon tunes about great cities.

Click, listen, watch, and enjoy.

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When I decided to go to law school at NYU in New York City in 1982, I did so sight unseen. I didn’t have much money, so I evaluated law schools by studying their catalogs and consulting write-ups about them in published guidebooks. (This was pre-Internet, of course!) I finally saved up enough cash to visit New York for the first time, during the summer before starting law school. I came back knowing that I had made the right decision. Sinatra’s “New York, New York” quickly became my personal anthem, and it still gives me goosebumps to listen to it.

“Take Me Back to Manhattan” is a Cole Porter number often included in productions of Anything Goes. This version was performed by Judy Kaye for a 1980s collection, Songs of New York (pictured above).

True, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a musical composition, not a song. But as this video set to George Gershwin’s masterpiece will attest, it is a perfect ode to New York City. I can listen to it over and again.

The “Lullaby of Broadway” was written in 1935 and is now part of stage versions of 42nd Street. This is a great video of the 1980s Broadway production, starring Jerry Orbach (later of Law & Order) in the lead role, which I saw in 1984.

When I opted for law school in New York, it marked one of my early forks in the road. Before deciding to go east, I had looked very, very hard at schools in California and, especially, in the Bay Area. On occasion, but without regrets, I’ll wonder what if. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett gets me nostalgic for a city I’ve only visited.

I grew up in northwest Indiana, right across the state border near Chicago. I took Chicago for granted back then, but today I appreciate it as a big, brawny, quintessential American city. “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” is my favorite song about the Windy City, and no one does it better than Sinatra.

“My Kind of Town” is Sinatra’s other tribute to Chicago, and it’s a great song too.

“A Foggy Day (in London Town)” is part of the George and Ira Gershwin songbook, and it sounds especially fine with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong doing the honors.

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is a wonderfully evocative song about London during the Second World War era, here performed by the incomparable Vera Lynn. It’s one of my favorites, one that I sing often in my weekly voice class and at open mic nights.

“I Love Paris” is another Cole Porter standard from the early 50s, just years after the end of the war. Sinatra captures the city’s beauty in this rendition.

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What? No song about Boston, the city in which I’ve lived for over 20 years? Sadly, no. Boston has its attractions, but there’s no classic standard to mark it. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

Visits to London

My first ever snapshot of London (January 1981)

A grainy image alongside my sharp memories: My first ever snapshot of London (January 1981)

London has long been one of my favorite places, a huge yet walkable city steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. Not too long ago, a week-long trip to London was easier and cheaper than making similar visits to many locations in the U.S., at least from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days.

Jonesing for a return to London

During a formative semester abroad in England (1981), I visited London several times and was awestruck by it. It was just this fascinating, intimidating colossus. After that semester, I often daydreamed of returning. However, as a law student and then as a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City, spare cash was in extremely short supply.

Throughout the 1980s, London had this weird hold on my imagination from afar. I even was drawn to “Ticket to London, ” a role-playing game for my Commodore 64 computer, featuring the city’s major landmarks and geography. The simple graphics allowed me to “interact” with the city, which felt like the closest I would ever get to going back there.

But in 1990, an opportunity to return presented itself. I was enrolled part-time in a master’s degree program in labor studies at Empire State College in New York, which was co-sponsoring a two-week, interactive study tour in British public policy, hosted by the University of Bristol. Given a chance to earn degree credits, see something of the U.K., and spend a few extra days in London, I signed up! (While still cash crunched, I had learned to juggle credit cards by then.)

It was a great trip. The formal program was excellent. I learned a lot about British public policy and labor relations, and I enjoyed the company of my American and British colleagues. Equally important, I was able to spend a few blessed days in London. The way I spent my time there — seeing a play with friends from my Bristol group, visiting museums, taking a walking tour, and searching out bookstores — would set the pace for future trips.

Spring Break trips to London

That return visit to England whetted my appetite, and fortunately air fares and travel costs were very agreeable. During the early to mid 1990s, I could get a round-trip ticket from either New York or Boston to London for around $300, book a safe, clean, modest B&B room for less than $50/night, and enjoy the city fairly inexpensively.

I did these London trips during spring breaks, usually on my own, occasionally meeting up with friends along the way. The total cost was a meaningful dent in a young professor’s budget, but it was a very good deal for a week’s visit to such a grand city.

I’ve always been a creature of habit, and my visits to London mixed routines with a little variety. Here are the recurring themes:

Walking tours

A quality walking tour is a great way to explore a city. A variety of commercial tour operators provided fun and affordable opportunities to see and learn about London. My preferred walking tour company was London Walks, which I’m pleased to see is still around. With London Walks, I went on ghost walks, crime walks, “hidden London” walks, and, of course, Jack the Ripper walks.

Of the various tours offered, the Ripper walk was my favorite. The city’s East End — site of the Ripper murders — was still rather gritty in the early 90s, which added to the walk’s authenticity. During my London visits, I went on several Ripper walking tours, some of which were led by were serious researchers tackling the still-unanswered question of the killer’s identity. (Sidenote: On any given Ripper walk, I would be one of dozens of fellow Americans, causing me wonder why we hadn’t had our fill of serial killers on our own side of the pond.)

One Ripper tour (not London Walks) turned out to be an unintentionally comic relief version. The guide showed up somewhat inebriated, a condition exacerbated by the ritual pub stop that is part of a typical London walking tour. Let’s just say that his commentary caused some to walk away in exasperation, while the rest of us stayed out of pure amusement and tried not to laugh too loudly.

History

The 1990s overlapped with the 50th anniversary observations of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War (1939-45), and as a history buff this was tailor made for me. I made return trips to the Imperial War Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of artifacts and displays about both world wars. Skillfully and tastefully curated, these exhibits made for one of the best historical museums I’ve ever visited. Also on the WWII theme, I went to Winston Churchill’s underground war rooms, where Britain’s leaders plotted military strategy while the city above faced attacks by Germany’s Luftwaffe and long-range rockets.

Further drawn by the city’s earthy history, I enjoyed the Museum of London, the Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge, and the Clink Prison Museum. Let’s just say that all these sites helped to illustrate how life for so many denizens of Jolly Olde England wasn’t all that jolly. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes‘s characterization of life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” comes to mind.

South Bank

Its lack of aesthetic appeal notwithstanding, I loved spending time in the concrete jungle of the city’s South Bank arts complex, running along the Thames. I would arrive in the late morning to buy a cheap day ticket to a play or show at the National Theatre later that night. I would then spend the rest of my day poring over the open air used book stalls next to the theatre and hanging out at the nearby Festival Hall area, where I could buy a sandwich, catch a free lunchtime concert, or read a book.

Although I lived in New York for 12 years, my appreciation for the theatre was stoked in London, and the National Theatre had a lot to do with it. Starting with my collegiate semester in England, and proceeding into those 1990s visits, I was fortunate to see a lot of first-rate stuff there, including The Elephant Man, Murmuring Judges (a devastating portrayal of the British criminal justice system), and revivals of Oklahoma! and Carousel.

Bookshops

London is a book lover’s delight, or at least it was prior to the emergence of the same online competition faced by America’s brick and mortar booksellers.

Whether we’re talking huge bookstores selling new titles, musty old used bookshops, specialty sellers, or even museum gift shops, London’s offerings were the biggest threat to my budget. My purchases also made it hard to pack for the trip home. I recall two occasions when I had to buy an extra bag in order to bring my new acquisitions to the States.

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Looking back, I realize how my 1990s visits to London transformed this giant metropolis into a comfortable place that balanced familiarity with discovery. This process was eased by the city’s subway system — the Tube — which could connect me to just about anywhere I wanted to go.

Since those trips during the 90s, I’ve been back to London on several occasions in connection with conferences and continuing education programs in the U.K. I look forward to returning again someday, though no longer with the haunting sense of yearning that drew me back there some 25 years ago. London is now a part of who I am, regardless of how many times I go back there.

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I’d been working on this post for some time, but the inspiration to finish it up was this neat Yestervid.com video (about 11 minutes) containing some of the oldest known film footage of London, going back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. If you enjoy London, then this is a treat:

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