Pandemic Chronicles #3: Carless in Boston

Model and make of the only car I’ve ever owned

It has taken a global pandemic to get me to a point where I feel limited by not owning a car.

Here in Boston, we’re experiencing a predicted surge in COVID-19 cases. Sheltering-in-place and social distancing remain the recommended best practices for those of us not working in essential businesses, and I’m taking these directives seriously. Thank goodness that my local grocery store and a number of area eateries continue to offer reliable delivery. But a car would make it easier to take occasional trips for other goods.

It has been over a month since I’ve taken the subway, which during 26 years in Boston and 12 years in New York City has been my primary way of getting around besides walking. I haven’t ordered a taxi or Uber since then, either.

As for having a car, well, I haven’t had a car of my own since 1982, when I left my home state of Indiana to attend law school at New York University, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. During college, I owned a 1968 Buick LeSabre, a hand-me-down from my parents. A quick visit to New York during the summer before starting law school easily persuaded me that keeping a car there was neither practical nor affordable. I decided that the gas guzzling Buick would remain in Indiana.

The seeds of my new lifestyle had been deeply planted a year before, during a formative semester abroad in England through Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater, which included a post-term sojourn to the European continent. Walking, buses, subways, trains, and the occasional boat trip became my modes of transportation, fueled by a sense of adventure. In addition, I didn’t have to worry about stuff like parking, upkeep, and insurance.

So, upon moving to New York, I became a happy city dweller and a creature of public transportation. I’ve never lamented a lack of wheels to take a quick trip to the country. In fact, since relocating to Boston, I’ve never traveled to Cape Cod or Nantucket, and I don’t have a burning curiosity to visit either.

In other words, for well over three decades, I’ve felt quite free bopping around cities without a car.

Until now, that is.

This afternoon, I left the immediate area of my home for the first time in a couple of weeks, to walk over to the drugstore for various provisions. Donning safety mask and gloves, I walked up the street, maintaining distance from the handful of others on the sidewalk. With a car, I could’ve completed a more ambitious shopping trip, and maybe hunted around a few other places for those elusive rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.

Honestly, though, I wasn’t unhappy about that. I did, however, feel genuine sadness at the eerie quiet in my neighborhood and the occasional sight of other masked pedestrians on what normally would’ve been a livelier Friday afternoon.

Okay, I’m not about to buy or lease a car because of this. I just hope that between various delivery options and occasional short walks to shop for necessities, I can continue to obtain the goods and supplies I need during this shutdown and any similar stretches, as we wrestle down this damnable virus.

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.

 

Pandemic Chronicles #1: “Be careful what you wish for…”

Back in November 2018, I wrote here about my “dream vacation” (link here):

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.

. . . 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.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. To the extent that 2020 delivers a “vacation” of any sort, it will likely resemble what I described in that blog post, only without the occasional restaurant and sightseeing visits that I imagined a couple of years ago.

Of course, this is looking at things from a positive angle. Truth is, this global pandemic has suddenly and deeply reached into our daily lives at the most granular levels. We are still in the early stages of understanding and responding to this coronavirus, which is hard to grasp given that the past few weeks have felt like, well, forever. This time is scary and heavy and unlike anything most of us have ever experienced.

Here in my Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, I’m hunkered down in my modest little condo, grateful to be able to do my academic job from home and to have the ability to order deliveries from my local grocery store and restaurants. I’m taking this public health threat very seriously. Massachusetts has entered a dangerous stage of this pandemic, so I’m mostly staying inside and wiping down package deliveries with disinfectant spray.

In terms of work, like countless other professors, I’m now teaching my classes via distance learning. The mass migration from face-to-face teaching to classes by videoconference has been a major adjustment for instructors and students alike. Still, I’m glad that we have the technology to continue the semester, and we’re making the best of the situation.

Which brings me back to my so-called vacation. It’s not going to happen, at least not in the carefree way I envisioned it. But in looking ahead to the summer, I hope I’ll be able to carve out a few days to dive into my personal library, for the pure pleasure of reading. In my home, I’m surrounded by good books, and perhaps a silver lining of this terrible situation will be an opportunity to spend more quality time with them.

***

I’ll be using this blog as a personal chronicle about this experience. During this time, I hope that I’ll be relatively healthy, physically and mentally, but I also know that difficult times are ahead. Like during the early stages of a war where your side is losing, the news seems relentlessly bad right now. Although I’m confident that effective therapeutic treatments and vaccines will be developed, the time between now and then will be very challenging. I hope that we can find ways to cope with the uncertainties, support one another, and find meaning in activities that bring us satisfaction and healthy distractions.

Twenty-five years in Boston…whoa!

Appreciating “At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight),” by Childe Hassam, 1885-86, during a recent trip to the Museum of Fine Arts with long-time friends Don and Sharon Driscoll, visiting from Illinois (photo credit to Sharon)

Friends, it makes my head spin to think that I’ve been living in Boston for a quarter of a century.

In the summer of 1994, I packed my bags and left New York City for a tenure-track teaching appointment at Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston. Leaving New York was not easy for me. I had moved there from my native northwest Indiana in 1982 to attend law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village, a truly wonderful urban neighborhood and one of my favorite places on earth. I fell in love with New York instantly, and that strong affection remained throughout my time there.

Boston, on the other hand, would prove to be an acquired taste. In fact, I struggled mightily with it for years. I found truth in its reputation as being a cold place for newcomers, and my early years here were downright lonely. In addition, I badly missed the 24/7 energy of New York. Boston, I would quickly learn, turns in a lot earlier by comparison. At times, it seemed more like an oversized, sleepy college town than a major metropolis.

And yet, I am still here. Although I have not yet claimed the status of Bostonian in the full-throated way I quickly called myself a New Yorker, I now understand that here is where I have grown into the best and truest version of myself so far. It hasn’t always been easy, and it has taken a heckuva lot longer than I would’ve preferred, but I feel pretty grounded, and I’m happy about that.

Among other things, in Boston I have developed my true vocation. At the time I left New York, I had yet to discover the core focus of how I could make my most meaningful contributions to the world. Little of what I now teach, research, write about, and advocate for was on my radar screen back then. Today, however, I have a strong sense of what I should be doing with my life. (You can get a better sense of my work by visiting my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, link here.)

But there’s more to it than that. In Boston, I have matured as a person and honed my personal culture. Important seeds of who I am today were definitely planted during my time in New York and other locales, but here they grew into something more definitive.

I’m still processing how and when Boston eventually felt like home to me. I do know that Boston is a more cosmopolitan place than the city that, uh, sorta greeted me in 1994, largely because of newcomers who have decided to stay and helped to make it a more inclusive and vital community.

I’ve also become more appreciative of Boston’s older, traditional side. Among other things, Greater Boston retains a strong intellectual component. This remains a place where books, ideas, learning, and history still count for a lot. I’m especially fond of its bookstores and libraries. Although I need to take greater advantage of them, I also enjoy Boston’s historical sites and museums.

In addition, as I’ve written before, there’s a lot of music here, including opportunities for even complete amateurs such as yours truly to make some of it. They include the voice class that I’ve been taking for many years and the karaoke studio that I frequent on an almost weekly basis.

I also enjoy the way I am able to live on a day-to-day basis. My neighborhood of Jamaica Plain is a neat place to live, with a diverse, eclectic populace. Boston is a great walking city. Its public transportation systems are showing their age, but they usually get me where I need to go. I have never owned a car here. (In fact, I haven’t owned a car since I moved to New York in 1982!)

Through it all, I’ve made a core group of friends here through the work we do and the music we make. (Interestingly, most of them are from other places, too.) I have also enjoyed playing tourist guide for friends and family who want to explore the city’s attractions.

As for New York, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I typically travel to Manhattan several times a year, and I always look forward to those visits. I have family and friends there, and on occasion I participate in conferences and workshops in the city as well. I long assumed that I’d move back to the Big Apple at the drop of a hat if the right circumstances arose. But in recent years I’ve reached a point where visits to New York are followed by a welcomed train ride back to Boston and its slower pace.

So is Boston to be my home for the duration? I’m inclined to think so, but who knows!? For now, at least, I am happy to call this place my hometown.

A walking tour in Ancient Rome

Inside the Roman Colosseum

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

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

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

Outside the Colosseum

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

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

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

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

Palatine Hill, minutes from the Colosseum

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

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

The ruins of the Emperor’s Palace

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

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

Ancient Rome was actually full of color

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

At the front of the dining hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking down at the Roman Forum

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

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

Tour guide Giulia, Ph.D.

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

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

Music as time machine: 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

Hooked on karaoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the fickle reading heart

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

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

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

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

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

Outgoing and incoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I get it

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the lonely people

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

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

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

Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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