Pandemic Chronicles #5: Sports-inspired nostalgia
I know I’m hardly alone in spending more time watching television during this public health crisis. As I wrote a couple of a weeks ago, I’ve sharply reduced my watching of TV news, and that decision has held. Instead, I’ve been spending time with assorted series, especially highly-regarded police procedurals and historical dramas. Last night, however, I checked out the first episode of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part ESPN documentary series about the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, centering around the final championship season (1997-98) of its iconic, superstar guard, Michael Jordan.
The series is being televised in weekly installments, rather than being released in its entirety. That said, I already understand why “The Last Dance” is drawing accolades from sports writers and fans desperate to feed the beast while professional and college leagues are shut down due to the pandemic. (As further evidence, the just-completed National Football League annual draft of collegiate standouts earned its highest-ever ratings.) It’s a basketball junkie’s delight. If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you followed the great 1990s Bulls teams, then you’re in for a treat.
For me, “The Last Dance” is prompting a major nostalgia trip. The Jordan-era Bulls teams overlapped with important events and transitions in my life. Jordan first joined the Bulls for the 1984-85 season, which happened to cover my final year of law school at New York University. Even in New York, the sometimes snobby sports intelligentsia knew that this guy in Chicago was something special. Jordan immediately became one of the league’s best players. I began closely following his career and the fortunes of the Bulls from afar.
Alas, Jordan had joined a team in a deep state of mediocrity. The Bulls of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a pretty sad bunch. It would take several years of key player acquisitions and coaching changes — most notably star swingman Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson — before the team became a serious playoff contender. In fact, not until 1991 would the Bulls win their first NBA championship, the first of six during the halcyon 90s.
By then, I had been practicing law for six years in New York City, first as a Legal Aid lawyer, then as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State. But in 1991, my career was about to shift. I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level instructor in NYU’s Lawyering Program, an innovative legal skills curriculum for first-year law students, starting that fall. I was tremendously excited to be returning to my legal alma mater,as a faculty member, no less! I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of an academic career.
I would decamp from New York to Boston in 1994 to accept a tenure-track position at Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve remained since. My devotion to the Bulls followed me, and watching the team’s successes provided welcomed breaks from the demanding workload of a new assistant professor.
The academic calendar would provide greater flexibility in my own schedule, with added opportunities for travel. My fond memories of that team include visits to home in Indiana. My mom, of all folks, had become an ardent Bulls as well. We would watch games together in the TV room, cheering on what would become one of the sport’s legendary dynasties.
As a lifelong Chicago sports fan who puts those great Bulls teams on a pedestal, I look forward to watching the rest of “The Last Dance.” I’m sure it will continue to inspire nostalgic episodes as well. It’s all good, as we comb the memories of our lives during this challenging time.
Pandemic Chronicles #2: Turning off the TV news coverage has made me better informed and less anxious
Television news coverage and commentary are designed to get an emotional rise out of us. They can inform but also inflame. That’s how they get and keep viewers and thus build their ratings. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, I found myself watching a lot of TV news programming. And with it rose my anxiety levels, without necessarily feeling better informed.
During the past week or so, however, I’ve cut my TV news viewing to a bare minimum. I’ve limited most of my television time to binge-viewing great television series. (For example, I’m delighted to recommend “Foyle’s War” — a crime drama set in WWII-era England — for its depiction of history, appealing characters, and rich story lines.)
I subscribe to a lot of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, both online and in print. I also listen to radio news coverage. I’m a news junkie, and I like to be an informed citizen. Furthermore, my work as a law professor and legal scholar requires me to be well-informed.
Because of the coronavirus, however, my focus has become more intensely local. While I’m interested in the national and global aspects of the pandemic, I’m now closely drawn to what’s happening in Greater Boston specifically and Massachusetts generally. I find that three regional news sources, in particular, have become lifelines for helping me stay informed about, and feel connected to, my local scene during this challenging time: The Boston Globe (daily newspaper), WBUR-FM (public radio news station), and Universal Hub (online news site).
Of course, virtually any news coverage related to this public health crisis is going to push some emotional buttons, but I’ve found myself less anxious and better informed by turning away from TV news and toward sites like the Globe, WBUR, and Universal Hub. They have also given me an even deeper appreciation for the high-quality journalism that still exists in this city, despite the challenges facing the news business. We need these resources now more than ever.
Early winter binge viewing
The combination of a cold and some holiday downtime has led to a lot of binge viewing during the past couple of a weeks, and the televised rewards have been substantial. Here’s what I’ve been binging:
“TURN: Washington’s Spies” first appeared on AMC in 2014. It’s set in the American Revolution during the late 1770s, and it develops the story of an American spy ring operating along the east coast. When TURN first appeared, I watched most of the first season and thought it was okay, but I didn’t follow the series through its full four-season run. Although I’m a lifelong history buff, for some reason I didn’t take to it during the first viewing.
But I started TURN from the beginning last week and finished this week, via Netflix. I was completely drawn into it. At times the loyalties and deceptions were hard to follow and seemed to flip flop in head spinning ways, but the core narratives held the series together. I especially liked the focus on ground-level operatives. Major military and political figures entered the fray as well, but the perspective was that of the rank-and-file spies, soldiers, and civilians. It deepened my interest in this aspect of American history.
Despite all the awards it’s racking up, I didn’t expect to be so smitten by “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” But I was hooked by the end of the first episode.
Set in 1950s New York City, Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a young wife and mother who quickly discovers that she has a gift for doing stand-up comedy. Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), who works at the Greenwich Village nightclub where Midge does her first impromptu gig, becomes her manager. Brosnahan is perfectly adorable as Midge, and Borstein is a hilarious scene stealer as Susie.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has now completed its second season. I won’t say anything more, except that if you like a funny, charming TV series replete with entertaining doses of New York City nostalgia, family dysfunction, and Jewish culture, this is a winner.
“Mindhunter” is about an unlikely pairing of two FBI agents during the late 1970s who commit themselves to understanding more about the psychology of serial killers. It’s not for the squeamish.
As some readers know, much of my work as a law professor concerns bullying, mobbing, and psychological abuse in the workplace. I have been deeply engaged in this work for some 20 years, and during this time I have deepened and broadened my understanding of psychology, especially in the realms of abuse and trauma. A lot of the psychological themes in “Mindhunter” resonate with me, especially when it delves into the outward “ordinariness” of serial abusers.
I also like how the series tackles the reality of a law enforcement bureaucracy resisting the usefulness of psychological research and insights. Modern, common understandings about serial killers today were quite unknown some 40 years ago, when old fashioned attitudes and assumptions towards hunting down criminals weren’t working for catching this newer breed of killer.
“Dirty John” is about a severely narcissistic, dishonest charmer and his relationship with his latest romantic target. It’s based on a real-life story that was the subject of an award winning podcast. Eric Bana stars as lying drifter John Meehan, and the remarkable Connie Britton stars as Debra Newell, the object of Dirty John’s attention and manipulation.
The limited series is getting mixed reviews, but I love it. I concede that my interests in psychological abuse and deception are a big part of the draw, but I also enjoy the performances and find the storyline creepily compelling. Check it out and see if you agree. And when it comes to Connie Britton’s portrayal of intelligent, accomplished, kindhearted, but clueless Debra, don’t be surprised if the title of a popular self-help help book, Smart Women, Foolish Choices, pops into mind!
Folks, this heavy dose of binge viewing underscored a fundamental truth for me: We’re in the true Golden Age of television. Networks, cable, public television, BBC, and streaming services are producing high-quality new programs in abundance. Cable stations, streaming services, and DVDs are preserving and offering classic television programs from the past.
Although cable bills have gotten out of control, the remaining viewing options are relatively affordable, even on a modest budget. There’s so much good stuff to watch. Bon appétit!
My dream vacation is pretty geeky and dull
My current dream vacation doesn’t involve traveling to popular or exotic tourist sites. In fact, it may sound downright geeky and dull to a lot of folks: A few weeks with a box of selected books, DVDs, and magazines. Television with cable. Favorite music. Some tabletop sports games to play. Several good eateries within walking distance. Maybe a few tourist attractions or get-togethers with friends, but no demanding sightseeing or social calendar. I’d have my computer with an Internet connection to keep up on the news and do some writing, but work-related activities would be kept to a minimum, including e-mails.
It sounds like pure paradise to me.
You might logically assume that creating this vacation should be easy for someone who enjoys the flexibility of an academic schedule. But in reality, academic work has a way of collapsing work-life boundaries, such as they are. So long as you’re checking your work inbox, or opening a Word file just to peek at a draft of something, you can get sucked back into it in a second.
This geeky vacation fantasy also reflects a considerable downsizing of my travel bucket list. I’ve been fortunate to visit some pretty cool destinations during my life. And there are still places that I’d like to visit or revisit.
But I’m not yearning to spend more time on the road (or in the air). Right now I travel a lot to see friends and family, and to participate in conferences and other work-related events. I look forward to these trips, but I’m always happy when my calendar shows several approaching weekends that don’t involve printing out boarding passes.
Maybe I can make this aspiration a reality. At the very least, I could plan it as an extended staycation. I wouldn’t need a list of sites to see, performances to attend, or beaches to visit. Just a comfortable space to read, binge watch, order pizza delivery, and think big and little thoughts.
My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
Sometimes we can go home again, and if we’re lucky, the experience can be even sweeter than the first time around.
In a year of ups and downs, one of my most memorable, positive experiences was returning to Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, to receive an Alumni Achievement Award during fall Homecoming festivities. The awards presentation ceremony was part of a Sunday Homecoming service in VU’s Chapel of the Resurrection, followed by a luncheon in the new student union.
From the vantage point of my 1981 graduation from Valpo (the school’s informal monicker), this was an unlikely return to campus. As an undergraduate, I was a department editor and writer for The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. At the time, The Torch editorial board was something of a campus rebel cell, post-Sixties edition. Though too young to have experienced the student movement, we were given to questioning things and mildly anti-authoritarian by nature. Whether it was creeping vocationalism that threatened the liberal arts, behavioral excesses in fraternity behavior (“Animal House,” a wildly popular movie during that time, was influential), or challenges with various diversities on campus, we believed that our editorial mission was to take on the university for its supposed shortcomings.
Some of our critiques were insightful, the products of bright young minds applying the lessons of a liberal education to the institution that provided them. Others were more sophomoric, using the print medium to launch a few post-adolescent salvos. Mine mixed the two categories in a sort of hit-or-miss fashion. In any event, by the time Commencement rolled around, I had internalized those grievances and smugly assumed that I had outgrown the place.
Accordingly, when I first informed long-time friends that VU’s Alumni Association would be recognizing me at Homecoming, several humorously noted the irony of the sharply critical student returning to campus decades later as a grateful middle-aged award recipient. (Several senior VU administrators back in the day wouldn’t have predicted this development, either, though with less bemusement.)
However, my relationship with VU had been in a state of positive change for some time, marked by a steadily growing appreciation for the excellent education I received there and for friendships forged via experiences such as The Torch, a life-changing semester abroad, and everyday dorm life.
In fact, I was extremely blessed to have a group of friends, mostly fellow alums from our close-knit Cambridge, England study abroad cohort and several of their spouses, joining me for the Homecoming award ceremonies. (I know that “blessed” is an overused term, but that’s how I felt.) During my extended visit, which included time as a visiting scholar at VU’s law school, I also enjoyed welcomed opportunities to reconnect with other friends from my VU days.
Returning to campus was both nostalgic and slightly disorienting. For many years after our graduation, Valpo’s physical landscape had remained basically the same. However, during the past decade or so, new buildings have sprouted up seemingly everywhere, and even some streets and pathways on campus have been rerouted. On Homecoming weekend, our shared memories mixed with exclamations over how building so-and-so had disappeared. The downtown area of the small city of Valparaiso also had changed markedly, with a much greater variety of restaurants and public spaces. It was fun to make these discoveries with my friends, as if we were once again undergraduates exploring England and the European continent — even if this time we actually were in America’s heartland.
Valparaiso’s longstanding affiliation with the Lutherans and the importance of faith traditions in general are core parts of its institutional mission. During the early decades of the last century, Valpo was a secular, independent university well known for its vocational training. Hard times would visit the school, however, and its survival was in question until the Lutheran University Association stepped in to buy it in 1925. Among the continuing manifestations of this association are daily Chapel services, open to those of any denomination.
In my case, it would be an understatement to say that I was not a frequenter of Chapel services as a collegian. However, at Homecoming I now found myself unexpectedly moved by the fact that the University would devote a Sunday worship service to recognizing its graduates. As a denizen of higher education, I know well the differences between giving obligatory nods to alumni/ae honorees and showing genuine appreciation. This was a very touching example of the latter.
The memories stoked by this weekend went well beyond student life and into the realm of world events that transpired around us as undergraduates. Among other things, little did we know at the time that we were bearing witness to the emergence of at least two major mega-trends — the primacy of the Middle East as an American foreign policy hot spot and the conservative resurgence in American politics — that would help to define our civic lives well into middle age.
In November 1979, young Islamic revolutionaries took some 60 American hostages during a seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranian hostage crisis, as it soon would be tagged, would endure for nearly fifteen months until the hostages were freed in January 1981. During that time, ABC journalist Ted Koppel became a national media figure with his daily hostage crisis updates on “Nightline,” a program that followed the late night local news. At Valpo, many of us tuned in each night in our dorm rooms, watching on our rabbit-eared portable television sets.
The fall of my senior year also marked my first opportunity to cast a general election ballot for President. Jimmy Carter was the Democratic incumbent, having successfully run on an anti-Washington platform in 1976. However, change was brewing in the form of a conservative movement that would sweep Ronald Reagan and a group of new Republican Senators and Representatives into office.
I was deeply into politics at the time. In fact, I was majoring in political science and planning to go to law school as preparation for an eventual political career. My own political views were in a state of flux, moving from right to left. In terms of presidential candidates in 1980, I had become enamored of an Illinois Congressman named John Anderson, a one-time conservative whose own views had become more liberal over the years. Anderson ran as a liberal Republican in the spring presidential primaries and then decided to leave the GOP to pursue an independent candidacy in the fall. I would serve as the Northwest Indiana coordinator for his independent campaign, a volunteer assignment that said less about my political organizing skills and more about the green talent the campaign had to rely upon in certain parts of the country.
Looking back, I now understand that Anderson’s departure from the Republican Party represented a harbinger of things to come. The 1980 election marked the beginning of the GOP’s rightward turn and a coming out party for a conservative movement that has dominated much of American politics since then.
My collegiate years at Valpo felt heavy, as if I was carrying the weight of my future on my shoulders, fueled by a growing desire to explore life outside of my native Indiana and anxieties over where I would be and how I would fare. In 1982 I would decamp to Manhattan for law school at New York University, thinking that Indiana would be viewed mainly from a rear-view mirror.
Fast-forward to 2016: During a moment in the alumni hospitality tent at the Homecoming football game, I remarked to VU President Mark Heckler that it felt very light to be back on campus — a stark contrast to my emotional center of gravity as an undergraduate.
Indeed, this return to VU was accompanied by gifts of appreciation and maturity and was made especially meaningful by the company of dear friends who now richly deserve the label “lifelong.” A homecoming can’t get much better than that.
As the weather turns cold, the small screen becomes a strong draw
Here along America’s east coast, dropping temperatures are reminding us that winter is just around the corner. Boston has been downright chilly, and a quick trip to New York City for a conference had me bundling up tightly. Other parts of the country are getting snowstorms.
When the weather outside is frightful, watching quality TV shows at home — binge viewing, if blocs of time allow — becomes especially delightful. If you’re looking for a sharp, informed, and opinionated guide to the best of the small screen, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (2016) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, is a good starting place.
Sepinwall and Seitz review and rank what they believe to be the 100 best American television dramas and comedies, devoting several pages to each. There are no news or reality shows here; it’s all about scripted TV.
Many of my favorites appear, including no brainers such as “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” and underrated standouts like “Friday Night Lights.” Some of my childhood favorites are here, too, including “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Sorry, fellow Gen Jonesers, but “Green Acres,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “F Troop” don’t make the list.)
Fans of British dramas and comedies will have to wait for a different book. “Prime Suspect,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Monty Python” would appear on many lists of frequent PBS viewers, but not here.
What truly distinguishes TV (The Book) from other “best of” books and magazine features is the quality of writing. These guys know what makes for quality, groundbreaking television, and they’re good at explaining why a show belongs on the list. It’s not all praise, either, as they engage in very fair criticisms of very good shows. It makes for fun reading and good winter TV planning.
Those random moments when you discover great music
When it comes to discovering my favorite genre of music — old standards by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like — I’m a bit of a late bloomer. Not until moving to New York for law school would I start discovering this wonderful music. In fact, I can pinpoint the evening in front of the TV set when began to realize the brilliance of George and Ira Gershwin.
Late in 1991, I was watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and among Johnny’s guests was a young man who sang and played on the piano a couple of classic Gershwin tunes. His name was Michael Feinstein, and he was performing numbers from his first album, “Pure Gershwin.” (Today, of course, Feinstein is a star in his own right, having built a wonderful career out of preserving and promoting the Great American Songbook.)
Well folks, a lightbulb went off. I had been familiar with the works of the Gershwins and enjoyed them, but upon watching Feinstein on TV, I knew that I wanted to listen to more. The next day, I went to Tower Records in the Village and bought the cassette (yup, cassette) version of “Pure Gershwin.” I played that tape to death on my Sony Walkman and eventually had to replace it.
Fast forward to today, I have stacks of CDs containing different renditions of the Gershwins’ music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Maureen McGovern, Sinatra, and more from Feinstein.
In the weekly voice class I take and the periodic open mic cabaret nights I attend, it’s not unusual for me to sing a Gershwin number.
Recently I went to a Boston Pops concert featuring the music of the Gershwins, and the finale was a brilliant, moving performance of George’s masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Okay, so here’s my what-if, time-travelish, is-life-that-random question: What if I had not caught that episode of “The Tonight Show” back in 1991? Would this body of music mean so much to me today? What would my music collection look like? Would I be singing something else in my voice class? Would I even be taking a voice class at all? Are such discoveries completely random or somehow part of a grander scheme?
Watching a show within a show: “The Day After” on “The Americans”
If you’re wondering whether we’re still in a Golden Age of television drama, then look no further than “The Americans” on FX. The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-planted Soviet spies, fronting as parents of an All-American family living outside of Washington D.C. during the early 1980s.
During its first three years, I’ve regarded it as an excellent drama, though perhaps a step below iconic classics such as “The Wire.” In the current season four, however, “The Americans” has moved to the next level. It is delivering other-worldly acting, morally complex storylines, and the look-and-feel of 1980s America and the last decade of the Cold War. It is riveting entertainment.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re a regular viewer but haven’t caught the recent episodes, you might want to come back to this later!)
In the last episode, many of the major characters find themselves gathered around their television screens, watching the November 1983 airing of “The Day After,” an ABC made-for-TV movie depicting the devastating effects of a Russian nuclear attack on America, centering on the small city of Lawrence, Kansas. Here’s how reviewer Hank Stuever described the episode for the Washington Post:
On “The Americans,” the characters all watch in stunned silence, including secret Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and their friendly next-door FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty). Even the Russians who work at the Rezidentura in Washington tune in – Oleg Burov and Tatiana Ruslanova (Costa Ronin and Vera Cherny) watched it curled up on the bed.
In real life, watching “The Day After” was a very similar experience. The Post‘s Stuever writes:
As seen on . . . “The Americans,” people really did set everything aside on the night of Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983, to watch ABC’s depressingly sober TV movie “The Day After.” It told the story of a handful of people in and around Lawrence, Kan., who had the misfortune of surviving an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Please understand: This was a television event in a way that we’ll probably never see again. You see, when it comes to watching stuff on screens, we’ve become increasingly atomized (pun intended). A century ago, a theater would bring together hundreds of people to watch movies and newsreels. Fifty years ago, folks watched programs with family and friends in front of television sets. Today, we often watch TV programs and movies in different rooms of the house or stream them on our various devices.
Americans viewed “The Day After” huddled together in front of our television sets. I was in my second year of law school at NYU, and a big group of us gathered to watch it in one of our dorm rooms. Today, with so many actual horrors captured on video and posted to social media, it may be difficult to grasp that this fictional movie was jarring and upsetting to many. But such was the case. We talked about it for days.
The threat of nuclear annihilation was very real during this final decade of the Cold War. That same academic year, I was on the staff of NYU’s international law journal, one of several student-edited law reviews published at the law school. A few weeks before the airing of “The Day After,” our journal hosted a panel discussion on nuclear arms control, moderated by McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor to President Kennedy) and featuring a prominent group of diplomatic and military policy experts.
The subject matter of the panel extended way beyond mere academic speculation, and I recall a tone of seriousness in the dialogue among the speakers. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game around the world. “The Day After” would show us what that meant with more dramatic effect. This episode of “The Americans” brilliantly brought back those memories.
A personal note: At NYU Law, I volunteered to help out with that nuclear arms program. By doing so, I got to join the pre-panel dinner with the speakers in the faculty dining room. I mostly kept my mouth shut out of fear of saying something stupid. Nevertheless, I was thrilled — I was sharing a meal with some heavy hitters — this was cool stuff for me!
In return for this perk, however, I was handed a lot of grunt work by the senior editors, for our main post-panel task was to transcribe and edit the proceedings for publication. I was assigned to proofread the transcript and to generate dozens of footnotes documenting facts and events described by the panelists, a hefty pre-Internet research project that ate up countless hours in the dungeon level of the law library.
Working on this journal was my introduction to graduate-level scholarly work. I can’t say that the experience of developing footnotes from scratch to verify the accuracy of the panelists’ remarks was all that enjoyable! In fact, it persuaded me to pass up an opportunity to serve as a senior editor during my third and final year of law school. I didn’t want to spend my last year at NYU editing more manuscripts and chasing down more sources in the library.
Now, of course, I’m writing hundreds of footnotes for my own scholarly articles. What a twist! Let’s just say that this was not a foreseeable development during my more anti-authoritarian law school days.
Herman Wouk at 100
Celebrated writer Herman Wouk has reached the century mark, and he has just published what he tells us is his final book, a slim autobiographical sketch titled Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author (2016).
I cannot claim familiarity with Wouk’s full body of work, but two of his signature novels, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), and the pair of award-winning television mini-series they spawned (in 1983 and 1988-89, respectively) have profoundly shaped my understanding of the Second World War. I know that I am not alone in saying this, especially among those of my generation.
The Winds of War starts in 1939, introducing us to the Henry family, headed by U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, along with his wife Rhoda, sons Warren and Byron, and daughter Madeline. Joining them as major figures are famous Jewish author and retired professor Aaron Jastrow and his niece, Natalie, who are living in an Italian villa. Their journeys also become focal points. Also prominent are Pamela Tudsbury, a young British woman who travels the globe helping her father, foreign correspondent “Talky” Tudsbury, as well as foreign service officer Leslie Slote.
Winds finds Europe on the brink of another war, and it proceeds on through the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. War and Remembrance picks up where Winds leaves off, continuing with the stories of the Henrys and the Jastrows. But it quickly gets much darker. Remembrance uses its characters to cover the broad sweep of the war, including the Holocaust, which is portrayed in horrific, vivid detail. The mini-series includes brutal depictions of Nazi death camps, with many scenes actually filmed at Auschwitz.
Both stories continually weave in defining political and diplomatic figures of the day, including Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin, as well as many of the war’s prominent military officers.
Thanks in part to the great success of the mini-series, The Winds of War is better known to a lot of people. However, in Sailor and Fiddler, Wouk — a WWII Navy veteran — informs us that War and Remembrance was the story he had to tell.
I confess that I have immersed myself in both stories to a point of obsession, and I have learned valuable life lessons from their leading characters and lot of history from the books and the mini-series. I consider Winds and Remembrance to be the epic tales of the war era, Homeric in scope, and richly American in perspective.
If Wouk had produced nothing but these books, then I would consider his life a special one. But that is not the case. He has been a prolific writer and led a rewarding, full life. And at 100 years old, he still had enough gas in the tank to write this neat little book about his life.
I often say that if we want to live good lives, then we can learn from the stories of good people who are our seniors. Herman Wouk is a prime example.