Category Archives: holidays & celebrations

Memorial Day weekend edition: Victory at Sea

Many students of history will recognize this iconic opening theme of Victory at Sea, the celebrated 1952 television documentary series about naval warfare during the Second World War. The 26-part series first aired on NBC, and it garnered Emmy and Peabody Awards. With extensive archival film footage of WWII naval operations, the steady, serious narration by Leonard Graves, and the beautiful score by Richard Rodgers, Victory at Sea was a television milestone that has held up to this day.

VAS has been part of three distinct chapters of my life. The first was as a grade schooler in the late 60s, when a local television station would rerun episodes every week. These years marked the beginning of my lifelong enjoyment of history, and I couldn’t get enough of the series.

The second was when I bought a cassette tape of the VAS soundtrack at the Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan during law school. While others may have walked the city streets grooving to the latest creations from East Village bands on their Walkman portable cassette players, I bopped around town listening to the soundtrack from a 1952 documentary. Geekdom, indeed.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed watching VAS episodes when visiting one of my dear friends, retired naval officer and fellow history buff Brian McCrane. Brian grew up during the WWII era and later entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, followed by a distinguished career as an officer and captain on destroyers during the Cold War. It’s fun to watch these episodes with someone whose own career contributed to the making of history.

When first available on VHS and then DVD formats, the complete set of Victory at Sea was somewhat pricey. But now, a full DVD edition, re-released in 2012, lists at $9.98, well within the budgets of most viewers. It remains a stirring, impressive work of documentary filmmaking on a vitally important chapter of history.

Memories as we turn the calendar

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If you’ve been following this blog, you probably know that I am a nostalgic creature by nature. I often joke that I can get all soggy over the sandwich I had for lunch yesterday. I’ve been this way since I was a kid.

The turning of the calendar to a New Year only reinforces this trait.

In a piece for the November issue of Quest, a membership publication of the Unitarian Universalists, minister Mary Katherine Morn writes about themes of memory and hope.

Our memories serve to create and re-create us all the time. What are we, but this series of stories that we tell ourselves and these images that we conjure? Even our vision of the future is anchored in the stories and images we remember. And the present is some powerful spark, fueled by what we remember and what we imagine about the future.

I recently sat down with a dear friend of mine who enjoyed a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy, starting with an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and including service as a officer and captain on destroyers during the Cold War. Over the year, his daughter sorted through his personal papers and assembled a series of albums centered on his career, and they evoke rich memories for him and tell compelling historical, human stories to me. The albums are among the keepsakes and remembrances of a good life.

Nevertheless, Minister Morn urges that memories both good and bad “can hold us back from living fully and well.” Dwelling upon “an idealized vision of our past” can cause us to overlook the gifts of the present. For example, sad is the life of the former high school football star stuck in the glories of touchdowns past, or the frustrated actress who lives in the moment of her one star turn decades ago.

By contrast, adds Morn, defining our present “by means of a memory of abuse or illness or some other terrible thing” will cause us to have a “fitful and troubled” sleep through the present. She adds that “(t)he challenge with memory is to hold it lightly, to avoid being trapped in the comfort or terror of it for too long.” For example, in my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, I often write about those who are dealing with memories of severe bullying and harassment at work. Post traumatic stress can cause people to rehash details of bad experiences over and again, undermining their ability to move forward.

Those who are not beset by long and sharp memories (especially you non-Cancerians!) may find it hard to relate to these observations. Consider it a partial blessing! For those of us whose memories stick around, here’s to finding and keeping a proper place for them.

And, while I’m at it, allow me to wish you a safe, healthy, and meaningful 2014!

Holiday reflections: The end of limitless possibilities (and that’s good)

Christmas at Rockefeller Center, 2010 (Photo: DY)

Rockefeller Center during NYC’s post-Christmas blizzard, 2010 (Photo: DY)

Like birthdays, end-of-year holidays can be a time for taking stock. However externally provided, these recurring milestones give us opportunities to look back, assess the present, and peer into the future.

Some four years ago, writer Judith Warner blogged for the New York Times about listening to her daughter sing the title song of the musical Fame:

…I heard Julia’s voice, stronger and more confident than mine: “I’m gonna live forever. I’m gonna learn how to fly. (High.)

And one of those all-too-frequent choke-in-the-throat feelings came over me.

This was her song now. Not mine.

The sense of limitless possibility: hers. Vaulting ambition: hers. Anticipation, excitement, discovery, intensity: all hers.

Later in the piece, she laments, “This is the cruelty of middle age, I find: just when things have gotten good — really, really, consistently good — I have become aware that they will end.”

I hope that, for Warner’s sake, she was writing her blog post at a time when she was briefly caught in a down mood. But even her attempt to locate the silver lining sounded a bit sad:

There are trade-offs: intensity versus contentment, exaltation versus peace. And perhaps the best exchange of all: you trade in an idea of yourself for a reality that, if nothing else, can make you laugh.

Ack. Even the top benefit of her “really, consistently good” life today is the ability to chuckle at her current self.

I’m not quite sure why I’m using Warner’s piece as the foil in a holiday reflection (of all things), but obviously it has stuck with me. Although I won’t claim immunity from all of Warner’s lamentations about getting older, I now feel ready to write my response.

For me, among the genuine blessings of the passing of time have been authenticity and self-definition. I have been afforded the extraordinary privilege of being able to make choices — hundreds of millions of people in this world are not so fortunate. I have squandered some of that privilege, but thankfully a kernel of inner wisdom has helped me to narrow down the limitless possibilities, rather than struggling to keep them open.

As I see it, in making the right choices we find the “(a)nticipation, excitement, discovery, [and] intensity” that Warner has now reserved for her young daughter. When that happens, the would’ve beens and could’ve beensi.e., the roads not taken — simply don’t matter as much.

I do know of those youthful feelings that Warner writes about. That sense of the world being your oyster, wrapped in a seemingly boundless optimism of things to come. I remember those days well, and sometimes I get nostalgic for them.

However, if I’m being honest with myself, I also must acknowledge piles of anxiety, insecurity, immaturity, and posturing (a kinder way of saying inauthenticity) that were very much a part of my twentysomething self and, umm, beyond. By no means do I assume that everyone of this age range is similarly afflicted, but those qualities were very much a part of me.

Okay, so today I’ve got a lot less hair, more paunch, and my knees creak, but I have a sense of what I’m supposed to be doing and that feels good. I now understand Joseph Campbell’s sage advice, follow your bliss. Campbell (1904-87), whose writings and lectures on mythology, faith traditions, and the world’s societies made him a singular authority on the human experience, suggested that following our bliss will lead us to the life paths that have been awaiting us. When we reach this point, opportunities and connections seem to materialize.

In a popular PBS series of interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell replied to a Moyers question about whether “hidden hands” guide and facilitate our work once we’ve found our path:

All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time — namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you. . . .

As I suggested above, many people are not afforded this opportunity. If life is largely a fight to obtain food, clothing, and shelter, then it’s awfully hard to pursue one’s higher level aspirations.

But I’m guessing that most folks with the ability to read this have a degree of choice. Some may be struggling to find their purpose in life, or to recover from setbacks. For those dear readers, especially, here is what I wish for you at this holiday season: Opportunities to discover and follow your bliss, and the wisdom to do so.

***

Cross-posted with my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

Remember the Sears Christmas catalog?

sears.wbcover

Yes, I know that Christmas, or any other religious holiday for that matter, shouldn’t be all about receiving presents. But around this time of year, I can’t help thinking back to the days when the arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog — later called the Sears Wish Book — meant the beginning of the holiday season for kids across the country.

Sears is facing rough times right now, and it may not be long for this retail world. Back in the pre-digital age, however, brick & mortar stores found themselves competing with home delivery giants like Sears, which also had their own bustling retail outlets.

But no matter how big the Sears department store, it couldn’t compete with all the goodies in the Christmas catalog. I don’t think I was alone in spending hours turning the pages, daydreaming of what it would be like to have all those toys! For most of us, it was pure fantasy, but it fueled our imaginations in the process.

Here are a few pages from a 1966 edition I bought off of eBay a few years ago:

sears.viewmaster

Remember the View-Master? It gave us vivid, color, stereo views of people, places, and stories from all over the world, courtesy of photo reels that turned with a small hand-operated lever. Nowadays, with Google and YouTube available to give us an endless array of photos and video, it may be hard to imagine just how cool it was to stare into a View-Master.

sears.spykit

Many of the toys and accompanying marketing were very gender-specific. I spent a lot of time looking at the toys for boys, like the spy kits above and the GI Joe sets below.

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Paging through this 1966 catalog, you might be stunned at the many toy guns and military playthings. Memories of the Second World War were very fresh, and the heaviest protests over Vietnam were a few years away.

sears.barbie

Of course, the girls had plenty of their own pages as well. Barbie was huge, as you can tell. It’s around this time that toys like the Easy Bake Oven appeared. I have to say I envied the girls for this one — the thought of making and consuming cakes and cookies at will was quite appealing!

sears.tapeplayer

Before cassettes, 8-track tapes, CDs, and now MP3s, we had records and early attempts at tape players. Here’s an example of the latter, and if you look closely you can read the names of some of the featured performing artists.

Today, Amazon probably is the heir to the big Sears catalogs that plopped onto our steps every few months. Like the Sears catalogs, it seems to have everything. Amazon is also, of course, the biggest threat to brick-and-mortar stores, including Sears.

But I’ll relegate debates over the social and economic desirability of these developments to other writings, and simply leave you with the memories of days of being lost in a child’s world of toys.

Scary stories: It’s Halloween time!

Once again, I'm all in for Halloween! (Photo: DY, 2013)

Once again, I’m all in for Halloween decorations! (Photo: DY, 2013)

As a kid, Halloween was all about trick-or-treating. It basically involved the short-lived joy of my brother Jeff and I returning home with our bags full of candy, dumping our catch on the kitchen table, and sorting out the A list candies from all the rest. A couple of weeks and a few gazillion grams of sugar later, it was over.

Truth is, I always felt kinda dopey dressing up in a Halloween costume. But you gotta do what you gotta do to get the annual haul of candy.

There also was the annual viewing of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It took a far second place to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but still managed to give us our fix of the Peanuts gang.

Nowadays…

I can’t recall the last time I went to a Halloween party, and more often than not I’ve found myself teaching on Halloween night. This year, scary movies are my way of ringing in the Halloween season. Here are the three I’ve viewed so far:

The Haunting (1963) (**** stars) — An old house in a remote part of New England has a bad history, and four paranormal researchers descend upon it to learn more. A very scary psychological thriller, enhanced by the black & white cinematography, starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom.

Paranormal Activity (2007) (*** stars) — A young woman has been dealing with a paranormal entity for much of her life, and it’s not about to let her and her boyfriend (played by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) settle comfortably into this otherwise perfectly normal San Diego house. A low-budget movie that delivers some real goosebump moments.

The Ring (2002) (**1/2 stars) — I enjoyed this more than I expected after reading mixed reviews. Naomi Watts stars as a Seattle newspaper reporter investigating the unexplained death of a friend’s daughter. It’s already a “period piece,” as the story is driven by a VHS tape and use of extensive videotape technology.

I hope to squeeze in two more by Halloween, a couple of high-touted oldies that I’ve never seen before: The Uninvited (1944) (starring Ray Milland) and The Innocents (1961) (starring Deborah Kerr).

Ghosts and “chicken skin”

I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever seen a ghost or an apparition, but I believe they exist. I’ve never gone on an actual ghost hunt, but I enjoy going on ghost tours in cities I visit and reading about local ghost stories and supposed hauntings.

Over the years I’ve been on ghost walking tours in London, Cambridge (UK), Oxford, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and Boston. I’ve also walked around parts of Hawaii, Gettysburg, PA, and Salem, MA, figuring ghosts must be hanging around. These occasional wanderings are supplemented by a small collection of books about ghosts and the supernatural that I enjoy dipping into now and then.

Technically, of course, none of this has much to do with Halloween, other than the general idea of scary stories. There’s a part of me that says you don’t wanna mess with this stuff too much, but I guess the “what if” is part of the fun of it all. It’s about what the Hawaiian folks call “chicken skin” stories, the tales that give you goosebumps.

******

Related post

Fall is my most nostalgic season (September 2013)

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