Various friends and family write annual holiday letters, and it’s a neat way to share the year that is about to pass. However, I cannot get my act together even to send out cards, so these meanderings will have to do!
As 2018 comes to an end, it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge the state of public affairs here in the U.S.
I’ve been an amateur student of history and politics for some four decades, and, at times, a political activist. Nothing in my experience or learning approaches the situation we face today. The core fabric of the country is fraying and tearing apart, and it won’t be repaired easily.
The news cycle coming out of the nation’s capital is set to hyper-speed and is shaped by daily tweets and bombasts coming from the White House. Characteristics such as reason, kindness, and understanding are increasingly foreign to the current political culture. It’s all about react, respond, and lash out. It is exhausting and dispiriting simply to be a relative spectator. This is a deeply unsettling time, and it casts a pall over our daily lives.
And what of the year’s end on a personal level? Does hanging a new calendar on the kitchen wall also call for looks back and ahead?
Writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau has used this time to do an annual review. Here’s the lede from his piece about that personal assessment and planning process:
Every year since 2005, I’ve spent the better part of a week in late December planning my life for the next year. Overall, this is probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of working towards multiple goals simultaneously.
The idea is to create a road map for the year ahead—not a rigid daily schedule, but an overall outline of what matters to me and what I hope to achieve in the next year. I complete this process in bits and pieces over several days, partly because of my ADD brain but also because it helps to think about it slowly. Some of you who have the ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time may prefer to do it all at once.
In this essay I’ll take you step-by-step through what I do every December to help plan the next year. . . .
Guillebeau’s annual review process is quite the undertaking, and it’s a bit beyond my inclinations or self-discipline. However, inspired by his example, I will engage in some reflective thinking and planning during the days to come. It may not yield any major revelations or changes, but I’d like to head into 2019 with a good and healthy focus.
Indeed, when I wasn’t distracted by the news, I had the proverbial full plate this year, and I feel like I am sort of dragging myself to the end of it. I’d like to use some welcomed down time during the coming week to take stock.
Maybe you’d like to do the same. If so, I hope it is time well spent.
Among the reasons why I revived this blog is to take closer and more serious looks at the role of Generation Jones (b. 1954-65) in shaping American society during the years to come. We are now squarely into our 50s and 60s. I think this is prime time to consider what Chris Guillebeau has called our “legacy work,” i.e., the lasting, signature contributions that we make to the world.
Of course, a lot of folks have already done some wonderful legacy work, even if they haven’t labeled it as such. It may have been a meaningful career accomplishment. Perhaps it was being a parent or caregiver. Maybe it was a form of community service or a creative endeavor shared with the world.
In any event, I’d like to think that many of us who have entered life’s second half still have plenty of gas in the tank to do remarkable things that contribute to our communities and make a positive difference in the lives of others. We can do so with the benefits of hindsight, experience, and wisdom.
It’s something to ponder as we approach the New Year.
The 1916 Easter Rising was an armed insurrection centered in Dublin, and led by Irish Republicans who opposed British rule and sought to establish an independent Irish Republic. Although the Rebellion was quashed, it planted the seeds for British-Irish relations during the 20th century and remains one of the most significant events in Irish history.
As I wrote here last year, I became interested in this subject during a 1981 collegiate semester abroad in England. “The Troubles,” as they were dubbed, had reached tumultuous and violent stages. Irish political prisoners were staging well-publicized hunger strikes, and a prominent Irish Republican Army leader, Bobby Sands, was among them. (He would die in prison that May.)
I devoted part of my spring break to visiting Belfast and Dublin, and the tensions were evident. I was in Dublin over Easter weekend, which marked the 65th anniversary of the Easter Rising. A large, boisterous protest and rally ensued in the downtown.
I’ve put together three snapshots from that event. During the protest march, a young man stopped to allow me to take the photo at top.The rebel headquarters for the Easter Rising was the General Post Office, shown in the second photo above. The third photo was taken in front of the Bank of Ireland.
And here’s the 1916 Easter Proclamation:
Although Christopher Columbus isn’t on my list of favorite historical figures — click here and here for reasons — the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that bore his name was a sight to behold. The “Columbian Exposition,” named to recognize the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas, attracted a global audience to the brawny, growing metropolis of Chicago.
The 1893 Fair was a celebration of the world, its past, present, and future. This awesome little picture book, a gift from my long-time friends the Driscoll Family, presents a collection of photographs that capture some of that fascination. I’m delighted to share a sampling:
The Palace of Fine Arts was a chief showpiece building of the Fair. It is now Chicago’s famous Museum of Science and Industry.
This panoramic shot of the Fair helps to explain why it was called “The White City.”
While striving for an Old World look, the Fair celebrated scientific invention and manufacturing capacity.
Disney’s Epcot Center doesn’t hold a candle to the small scale re-creation of other nations at the 1893 Fair.
The Fair offered looks at exotic parts of the world. Check out the expressions of these ladies.
You could do some simulated exploring as well…maybe this inspired a future Indiana Jones?!
Refreshment stands dotted the Fair. I’m sure they were especially welcomed during hot Chicago summer days.
Guys who were bored with all of the cultural exhibits and displays could line up for this distraction. (This photo contains one of the longest lines of any exhibit in the book!)
America’s emerging role in international affairs and growing military strength were exemplified by the U.S.S. Illinois, a full-scale mock-up of a modern battleship that presaged even larger warships to appear at the turn of the century.
For more foreshadowing of events to come in the next century, the Krupp company, a major German gunmaker, had its own building.
But we shouldn’t finish our photo tour with ominous signs for the future. Rather, let us close with a reminder of the Fair’s beauty, via this wonderful night shot.
Could we ever have another World’s Fair? Probably not. The last genuine Fair was in 1964, in New York City. Subsequent efforts to stage such expositions haven’t generated the same levels of interest and attendance. In an age where the Internet, television, and international travel combine to shrink the globe, it’s hard to foresee anything like the 1893 Fair occurring anytime soon.
But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining the sense of fascination and wonder that drew visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair experienced back then. The Old World was making way for the New one, and these photographs make it clear that the Fair captured that moment in time.
If you want to learn more about the Chicago World’s Fair, check out its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a snippet:
The layout of the Chicago Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. It was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be. It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. Many prominent architects designed its 14 “great buildings”. Artists and musicians were featured in exhibits and many also made depictions and works of art inspired of the exposition.
The exposition covered more than 600 acres (2.4 km2), featuring nearly 200 new (but purposely temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. . . . More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.
Dedication ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until May 1, 1893. The fair continued until October 30, 1893. In addition to recognizing the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Europeans, the fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.
Also, the Chicago Historical Society has an excellent online feature about the Fair.
Finally, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003), interweaves the story of the Fair with the gruesome tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes, whose private torture chamber was located a close west of the city’s fairgrounds. It’s a riveting book.
Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.
As a young grade schooler, I really wanted a camera. Already being an independent type, I was drawn to the Polaroid cameras that produced more-or-less instantaneous photos, as opposed to the Kodak-brand models that required you to take or mail your film to a photo lab to be developed. Unfortunately, the Polaroids also cost a mint, and so I assumed it would never happen.
But in 1965, TV commercials for a new model, the Polaroid Swinger, started airing, with catchy lyrics that hyped its (barely) under $20 price point: [Trivia questions: (1) Who is the leggy brunette featured in the commercial? (2) Who wrote and sang the jingle? Answers below!]
In case you want to sing along:
Hey, meet the swinger
meet the swinger
It’s more than a camera
it’s almost alive
it’s only nineteen dollars
Swing it up (yeah yeah)
it says yes (yeah yeah)
take the shot (yeah yeah)
count it down (yeah yeah)
zip it off
Don’t get me wrong; $19.95 was a lot of money back in that day. But it made it under the line for a Big Gift, and so for Christmas 1965, the Swinger made its way under the tree.
I was ecstatic. I probably took a full roll on Christmas Day alone, all 12 shots. And while I didn’t exactly become a serious photographer, I used it often and at one point had quite a stack of prints. I remember being especially proud when my Uncle Kenny asked me to take his picture so he could use it for his next U.S. government employee I.D. photo!
I also was a perfect example of the emerging power of television advertising. That darn jingle got into my head and stayed there, both before and after I received the camera as a gift.
You can read more about the Polaroid Swinger in this piece recently published on Boston.com, marking the camera’s 50th anniversary.
Trivia question answers: (1) Ali McGraw; (2) Barry Manilow. Yup!
I know it’s the holiday season and all, and I’m supposed to be radiating Christmas cheer. I even devoted my last post to my favorite childhood Christmas specials on TV, and I watched “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” the other night. But I’m just not quite feelin’ it right now. Nothing bad, mind you, but the word “festive” isn’t registering with me.
Perhaps my inner contrarian is at play, rebelling against the expectation to feel a certain way as a given holiday approaches. But more likely is that during this stretch of the holiday season, my introvert side has won the wrestling match with my extrovert side. That could change, but currently I’m in a good steady state, wanting to use this time to work on some projects, catch up with friends, and do some serious and not-so-serious reading.
That said, in the holiday spirit, I’m happy to share one of my favorite snapshots, a photograph I took four years ago when I spent Christmas week in New York City, enjoying the company of family and friends. (This is my third recent blog post centered around NYC, but aside from the fact that I love visiting the city, it’s more coincidence than anything else.) The region was hit by a major blizzard the day after Christmas, and I took this photo as I was walking over to meet up with my cousins. Pretty cool shot, huh?!
If asked to identify an iconic animated holiday special for members of Generation Jones (born 1954 to 1965), my first choice would be “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Rudolph made his first TV appearance 50 years ago, which places him right in the heart of our childhoods.
The story has rented permanent space in some of our minds. If you’ve used the term “misfit toys” in everyday conversations, or mention of the “Abominable Snowman” strikes fear in your six-year-old heart, or you still can hear Clarice singing “There’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true” to a saddened Rudolph, then you know what I mean.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” comes in a close second on my list; its mere mention starts the theme music running through my head, replete with the kids skating on the ice pond! Interestingly, though, the program seems more thoughtful to me as an adult. That’s one of the compelling qualities of the world of Charles Schultz and the Peanuts gang.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman” are honorable mentions on my list.
For those of us who grew up in the Greater Chicagoland area, there also was a black & white animated short, “Hardrock, Coco and Joe,” shown during the holiday season on a kids’ TV show. However, the animation looks a little creepy to me today:
Later this week, I’ll be hopping on an Amtrak train from Boston to New York City for the welcomed annual ritual of Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends.
What began over a decade ago as an impromptu gathering of cousins and dear friends has become a tradition: The same home in Brooklyn, with a steady cast of about a dozen regulars, a mix of adults and fast-growing kids. A fulsome, traditional Thanksgiving menu (and it’s always amazing). People congregating in the kitchen as the food is prepared. An evening feast — this is New York, after all, we tend to eat later. During dessert, some migrate to another room to play guitars and sing (a lot of 60s and 70s stuff), while others hang out at the dinner table and talk, and the kids go off to do their things.
You know what’s odd? As far as I can recall, we’ve never taken any pictures. That’s why I had to snag a picture of the Amtrak train to illustrate this blog post! Among our group of late Boomers through Millennials, with smartphones abounding, Thanksgiving dinner has never been a photo op. Hey, maybe we don’t need to post photos to our social media pages to remind us about what this gathering means.
Of course, I also enjoy walking around New York City during the holidays. I’m not big on the festivities — during the 12 years I lived there, I never even went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade(!) — but there is something about New York during this time that activates my nostalgia buttons.
For some reason I have an especially sharp memory of my first Thanksgiving in New York. It was during my first year of law school, and several of us waifs from the Midwest decided that we would make our own Thanksgiving dinner. However, it became clear that no one had actually ever done this before when we learned that you cannot start to defrost a turkey on Thanksgiving morning and expect it to be ready to eat later in the day. So we did what many New Yorkers do and splurged on a nice restaurant for our holiday dinner.
Given that my cooking skills have not dramatically improved over the decades, it remains a good thing that my Thanksgiving role is more about enthusiastic consumption than preparation. Such is my happy place at the table. Here’s wishing a bountiful meal and great company for you, too.
Given that trick-or-treating is a hallowed Halloween activity for kids, I thought I’d take a stroll back to my childhood and list out what made me cheer and boo when I checked out the goodies in my stash. How does my list compare to yours?
1. Baked goods (donuts, cupcakes, cookies, or Rice Krispy treats) or caramel apples — These items were the gold standard. However, by the late 60s and early 70s, urban legend paranoia about poisoned homemade treats and apples containing razor blades had invaded suburban Indiana, and some parents warned their kids not to consume anything that wasn’t pre-packaged. Properly warned, we made sure to eat those items before we got home. For some reason, I retain a memory of an exquisite, fresh hot donut given out by an older couple in the neighborhood.
2. Kit Kat bars — Kit Kats didn’t make their appearance until the early 70s, if my memory is correct, but I remember being pleased to see them in my Halloween sack!
3. Nestlé’s Crunch bars — I’m developing a theme here of chocolate with crunchy stuff.
4. Money — Yes, cold hard cash. Every once in a while, someone would give out money, usually a quarter, which back in the day was real money to a little kid.
5. Nestlé’s $100,000 bars — Add gooey stuff to the chocolate and crunch.
Honorable mentions — Peanut M&Ms, Milk Duds, Whoppers, Almond Joys, and Milky Ways were solid staples. I would develop an affinity for Reese’s peanut butter cups later in life.
I was indifferent toward Snickers bars, Mars bars, Hershey bars, and various peanut candies.
Overall, chocolate ruled the roost.
1. Anything with licorice, especially Good n’ Plenty — I just couldn’t deal with licorice as a flavor. I still feel that way!
2. Necco wafers — Bleeecccchhh!
3. Candy corn — I never understood the appeal of what tasted like pure chewy sugar.
4. Chewing gum — Serviceable, but it didn’t rock my trick-or-treat world.
5. Lollipops — Eh….though Dum Dums and Tootsie Roll pops were okay.
As you can see, I was less crazy about the super sweet stuff.
Tonight I took a short break to watch an old favorite, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, one of the classic Peanuts TV specials. It’s funny, sweet, innocent, and clever. As a kid, I so wanted the Great Pumpkin to make an appearance! Nowadays, I especially enjoy Snoopy’s adventure as a First World War flying ace.
This particular appearance of the Peanuts gang means that we’re into the heart of October, and Halloween beckons. Ghosts and goblins are also part of the story. To get the supernatural atmosphere right, it helps to be in a part of the country that experiences genuine changes of seasons, and New England certainly fits the bill. Although today happened to be a tad on the warm side, we’ve already had several days of fall chill.
To help capture the season, I’ve included this photo of Joseph A. Citro’s Weird New England (2005). You see, in New England, that Halloween feeling is about more than simply the weather. This is an old part of the country, and old stuff tends to bring a lot of haunted spirits, or so they say. (By contrast, while I’m sure they have ghosts in Los Angeles, it’s just not the same.)
Halloween still has the power to bring out the little kid in all of us, so here’s to ghosts, Peanuts specials, and maybe a candy bar or two to top them off.