Various friends and family write annual holiday letters, and it’s a neat way to share the year that is about to pass. However, I cannot get my act together even to send out cards, so these meanderings will have to do!
As 2018 comes to an end, it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge the state of public affairs here in the U.S.
I’ve been an amateur student of history and politics for some four decades, and, at times, a political activist. Nothing in my experience or learning approaches the situation we face today. The core fabric of the country is fraying and tearing apart, and it won’t be repaired easily.
The news cycle coming out of the nation’s capital is set to hyper-speed and is shaped by daily tweets and bombasts coming from the White House. Characteristics such as reason, kindness, and understanding are increasingly foreign to the current political culture. It’s all about react, respond, and lash out. It is exhausting and dispiriting simply to be a relative spectator. This is a deeply unsettling time, and it casts a pall over our daily lives.
And what of the year’s end on a personal level? Does hanging a new calendar on the kitchen wall also call for looks back and ahead?
Writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau has used this time to do an annual review. Here’s the lede from his piece about that personal assessment and planning process:
Every year since 2005, I’ve spent the better part of a week in late December planning my life for the next year. Overall, this is probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of working towards multiple goals simultaneously.
The idea is to create a road map for the year ahead—not a rigid daily schedule, but an overall outline of what matters to me and what I hope to achieve in the next year. I complete this process in bits and pieces over several days, partly because of my ADD brain but also because it helps to think about it slowly. Some of you who have the ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time may prefer to do it all at once.
In this essay I’ll take you step-by-step through what I do every December to help plan the next year. . . .
Guillebeau’s annual review process is quite the undertaking, and it’s a bit beyond my inclinations or self-discipline. However, inspired by his example, I will engage in some reflective thinking and planning during the days to come. It may not yield any major revelations or changes, but I’d like to head into 2019 with a good and healthy focus.
Indeed, when I wasn’t distracted by the news, I had the proverbial full plate this year, and I feel like I am sort of dragging myself to the end of it. I’d like to use some welcomed down time during the coming week to take stock.
Maybe you’d like to do the same. If so, I hope it is time well spent.
Among the reasons why I revived this blog is to take closer and more serious looks at the role of Generation Jones (b. 1954-65) in shaping American society during the years to come. We are now squarely into our 50s and 60s. I think this is prime time to consider what Chris Guillebeau has called our “legacy work,” i.e., the lasting, signature contributions that we make to the world.
Of course, a lot of folks have already done some wonderful legacy work, even if they haven’t labeled it as such. It may have been a meaningful career accomplishment. Perhaps it was being a parent or caregiver. Maybe it was a form of community service or a creative endeavor shared with the world.
In any event, I’d like to think that many of us who have entered life’s second half still have plenty of gas in the tank to do remarkable things that contribute to our communities and make a positive difference in the lives of others. We can do so with the benefits of hindsight, experience, and wisdom.
It’s something to ponder as we approach the New Year.
Can a sense of place be virtual? Can we create personal space in an online environment? Can we stake a claim to our own little home patch of the internet?
I know it’s just a bunch of digital images, technologically speaking, but the internet is a very real place to me. One of the main reasons why I revived this personal blog was because I missed having this virtual patch. While I post to my professional blog more often and to a wider readership, this blog gives me a platform for writing about more eclectic and personal matters.
Brad Enslen, a long-time friend and college classmate, is a fan of blogging as a social networking tool. Here’s what he wrote in a post earlier this month:
You can have multiple blogs. You may have a dormant specialized blog that you want to revive, plus start a generalist, personal, everything blog. I would find having one single topic blog too limiting.
If you are new to this I strongly recommend starting with a generalist blog and write about whatever is on your mind.
Me? I have 3 blogs:
- Micro blog on Micro.blog. I use this for short posts to both the Micro.blog and Twitter social networks because it’s so slick and fast.
- My Web Presence (you are here) on self hosted WordPress.
- A specialized self hosted WP blog.
Remember, networks and networking, are human creations for humans. If you engage your readers and more importantly engage yourself, that is all that matters. I think blogging is a less toxic environment to do that from.
I embrace blogging as way of sharing more organized thoughts, information, and ideas in an essay or news column type of format. Although blogging originally became popular as a way for political commentators to beat the print media to publication, it has grown into a platform for many uses. Among these is the philosophy and practice of “slow blogging,” which uses the platform for reflective (rather than reactionary) writing. This is one of my preferred uses of the blogging medium, especially for this site.
As soon as I stepped out of my home today and felt the near-wintry chill against my face, I knew that I’d be paying a visit to the venerable Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston. You see, for some reason, I associate cold weather with books and bookstores, especially used bookstores. It’s like a Pavlovian response.
The Brattle just happens to be one of America’s truly historic bookshops, tracing its origins back to 1825. It is a treasure trove for those of all budgets. You can watch a short video about it here:
For this visit, I made two purchases: A hardcover edition of Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio (2002), and a beautiful Folio Society edition of Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008). Total tab? $20 plus tax. Darn good.
I also chatted briefly with Brattle’s proprietor, Kenneth Gloss. Along with local radio personality Jordan Rich, he does a regular podcast titled the “Brattlecast,” which can be accessed here. It’s a geek’s delight, full of Gloss’s stories about books, bookselling, and book collecting.
As to cold weather and bookstores: Maybe I simply regard winter as a perfect time to hunker down with some good books. Or perhaps in a past life I lived in London and frequented its quaint little bookshops, following in the footsteps of Dickens & Co. Boston is a fine match for all that. It remains a city where books, reading, and learning still count for a lot. It is steeped in history. And we have real seasons here, including some brutal winters.
In any event, bookstores continue to serve as places of discovery, enlightenment, and sanctuary to me. When the temperature starts dropping, I am drawn to them even more.
Even though I’ve been teaching for some 27 years, I don’t get overly enthused about semester breaks. They usually involve a fair amount of grading exams and papers, followed by catching up on other work tasks and getting ready for the next term’s classes. They’re all good, but they’re more of a respite from teaching than a break.
Nevertheless, as the weather gets colder here in Boston and classes come to an end, I do get especially nostalgic about two semester breaks that date back to my own student days.
The first was during my senior year (1980-81) at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Had I planned to spend my final semester of college on campus, I would’ve been at serious risk for developing a bad case of “senioritis” — i.e., playing out the home stretch of my undergraduate career without a lot of enthusiasm. However, I was about to spend my last collegiate semester at VU’s Cambridge, England study center. As I’ve written on this blog, it turned out to be a deeply formative experience.
Of course, I didn’t anticipate how life-changing that semester abroad would be as I completed my fall semester papers and final exams and then left my Brandt Hall dorm room for home. The nostalgia trip for me today is recalling how totally, utterly, completely clueless I was about the experience that awaited me.
In keeping with my procrastinating nature back then (less so today), my preparations for the trip were last minute and minimal. Honestly, I wasn’t even all that curious about England and Europe. I had signed up for the Cambridge semester largely because friends with whom I worked on the VU student newspaper were going. I also welcomed a change of scenery from our small town Indiana campus. (Of course, today I also get nostalgic about those days in Valparaiso. Click here for an essay I wrote, “Homecoming at Middle Age,” published in The Cresset, VU’s journal of the arts, literature, and public affairs.)
As a collegian, although I managed to maintain a certain confident front, in reality I was a jumble of ambition, insecurity, immaturity, and uncertainty over the future. I wouldn’t trade my current level of wisdom (umm, still a work in progress!) for said jumble of that stage of my life. However, it’s kind of neat to look back at that time with the gift of hindsight. As I pondered what to stuff into a suitcase and a backpack, I had no idea that the next five months would shape my personal culture, worldview, way of living, and base of friendships for a lifetime.
The second memorable semester break was during my third and final year of law school (1984-85) at New York University. I was in the job hunt, and my hope was to secure a public interest legal position in New York City for after graduation. During my short time in NYC, I had fallen in love with the city. New York of the 80s was a much grittier and affordable place than it is today. It was possible to enjoy the city on a tight budget. I badly wished to stay.
In addition, I was committed to working in the public interest field. During the previous summer, I was a summer associate at a large commercial law firm in Chicago. The money was great, and the firm treated its lawyers and staff with respect. But my heart wasn’t into corporate legal work, and so I would end up turning down the firm’s offer of a full-time associate attorney position for after graduation. Instead, I returned to the reasons that attracted me to law school in the first place, doing some type of public interest work in the non-profit or public sector.
I interviewed with a wide variety of public interest employers during the fall, and things started to develop during the semester break. During the break I received and accepted an offer for an attorney position from the New York City Legal Aid Society in downtown Manhattan. I was going to be a public interest lawyer in New York City, and I couldn’t have been happier about it! (The realities of paying rent and repaying student loans on a $20,000 salary would come later.) I recall spending a chunk of that break diving into my growing little collection of books about New York City, delighted that I would be staying in my adopted hometown.
Major junctures and events in our lives often don’t appear significant until we can look back at them via the rear-view mirror. Then they become part of our personal narratives. As mythologist Joseph Campbell observed, “when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another” (Diana K. Osbon, ed., A Joseph Campbell Companion, 1991). That’s how these two semester breaks fit into my story.
Both of these remembrances embrace a post-Second World War, American middle class ideal that has valued higher education as a stepping stone to a better life. I was not fully appreciative of these gifts back then, but I certainly am grateful for them today.
For middle class and working class folks in the U.S., the path to upward mobility that I enjoyed is narrowing sharply. The “college experience” of going away to school, while cobbling together enough money from financial aid, summer and part-time jobs, and parental assistance to make it relatively affordable, has too often given way to sky-high tuition and costs subsidized by significant student loan debt. Many students and their families are pursuing less pricey alternatives as a result, such as two-year colleges and distance learning programs.
Indeed, it may be that Generation Jones (born 1954 through 1965) was the last major cohort to have higher education opportunities that didn’t come with enormous price tags. That reality should inform our potential choices for charitable giving and at the ballot box. Those of us who work in higher education should also be advocates for reducing student debt. We need to ease the financial burdens of higher learning, so that more may have such life-changing experiences.
This really cool eight-minute 1950 United Airlines travelogue of a Boeing Stratocruiser flight from California to Hawaii pushes nostalgia buttons for an age that preceded my earthly arrival. It harkens back to an era of commercial air travel before the jet airliners arrived. The post-WWII years featured powerful propeller-driven aircraft capable of making the long Pacific flights. And as the video shows, it was a pretty special experience.
For many, this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It called for dressing up, even if seated in the main cabin (i.e., coach). The flight alone was an event. Watch the video and feel your mouth water at the plated meals and pre-landing buffet! (It’s easy to forget that even domestic flights within the continental U.S. often included a hot meal for everyone.)
The contrasts to the present are pretty obvious. There is nothing romantic or adventurous about standard-brand air travel today. Oh, it’s still the case that a trip to an exotic locale or to see cherished family and friends can bring excitement and anticipation. But otherwise, hopping onto a plane for a flight is a more practical experience designed to get us from point A to point B.
Of course, modern air travel is also less expensive than it was back in that day. With luck and timing, a plane ticket can take us a long way and back at relatively affordable prices. Vacations and reunions still await us upon landing. For the flight itself, just expect cramped seating and swap out that in-flight entrée for a bag of chips.
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.
I’m happy to report that I’m reviving this little blog after a 15-month “visit” elsewhere. In 2017, I decided to try the TinyLetter platform for my personal blogging, but I missed writing a blog with a more defined theme. I also missed the editing options and flexibility provided by WordPress.
The original hook for this blog played on the concept of Generation Jones, the term often used to describe that cohort of people born from 1954 through 1965 who fall between classic Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. In contrast to my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, which often delves into some pretty heavy themes about workplace issues, I wanted Musings of a Gen Joneser to strike a lighter chord. And so, for roughly four years, I used this blog to share personal nostalgia, bits of trivia, and popular culture.
I’m going to retain that emphasis with this revived edition, and I’ll be adding more serious commentary about lifespan issues and adult learning — especially as relevant to members of Generation Jones. I continue to believe that, on balance, our age cohort has experienced and viewed life in ways that are different from our Boomers and Gen Xers friends.
In addition, I may also repost a few writings from my TinyLetter entries, as I think several are worth re-sharing.
I hope you’ll enjoy the return of Musings of a Gen Joneser. Thank you for reading.
I launched this little blog four years ago, and during that time I’ve published over 260 entries. I hope you’ve enjoyed the lion’s share of them! I’m now inviting you to follow me to the TinyLetter platform, where I’ll be writing a personal newsletter titled Y Lines starting in September.
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve decreased my posting frequency markedly over the past year. I’ve been very busy, mainly in good ways, but I’ve had to make choices on where to cut back. More substantively, I’ve felt that the format of this blog had run its course for me, and I wanted a platform that was a little more personal and informal.
I recently discovered TinyLetter, a straight-to-inbox social media tool that serves up a blend of personal newsletter, e-mail, and blog style writing. As described by Teddy Wayne for the New York Times, TinyLetter is something of a digital throwback:
We now find ourselves in the era of the personal email newsletter, an almost retro delivery system that blurs borders between the public and the private, and mashes up characteristics of the analog and digital ages.
Thanks to, among other services, TinyLetter, a division of the email marketer MailChimp, people who want to apprise a subscriber base of their thoughts and goings-on have a new, straight-to-inbox outlet.
My TinyLetter will be Y Lines (subscribe here for free), and it will mix pop culture observations, book/TV/movie recommendations, nostalgic remembrances, travel experiences, more serious reflections about life at middle age, thoughts about lifelong learning, occasional history and politics, and personal updates. (I’ll continue to save most work-related topics for my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, which is in its ninth year.) I’ll be sending missives from four to six times a month. I’ll post some of them to my Facebook page, too.
In the meantime, I’ll be keeping this blog available for those who want to look at previous entries and for that steady trickle of folks (still around 200+/month) who find it via a search engine.
I’m very grateful for your readership here. I hope you’ll follow me to Y Lines and the TinyLetter format! It’s free, easy, and you can unsubscribe without hassle.
With many thanks and best wishes,
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Life has been very busy, and this personal blog has been rather neglected as a result. I will be writing more in the weeks to come, but for now I wanted to do a quick snapshot array of Boston at night, using my trusty iPhone 4s camera phone. (Yes, it’s time for an upgrade!)
I took the photo above last Wednesday. It got a lot of likes and loves on Facebook, so I thought I’d share it here. This is the Southwest Corridor Park in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, where I live. When I got out of the subway that evening, I saw the fog creeping in and figured it would make for a good picture. I think I was right! It’s definitely atmospheric, and the moisture in the air helped to give sharp angles on the light coming from the streetlamps.
Here’s another side of the same park, only right after a snowfall last year that created a beautiful scenery, at least until it quickly started to melt and turn to mush!
Of course, it wouldn’t be a set of Boston photos without a snow scene. This is from the infamous winter of 2015, when we got over 100 inches of the white stuff! Once again, we’re in my ‘hood of Jamaica Plain. The cross street ahead is my street.
Another wintry scene, here looking at the historic Old South Meeting House, where the rebellious colonials planned the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Old South continues today as a museum and host for public events, such as talks by noted historians.
Here’s the university building where I teach, in the process of being decorated with a banner celebrating the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots earlier this year. Our building was on the parade route.
This old, narrow city street — really, a walkway now — is in the historic Downtown Crossing part of Boston. Cobblestones have been replaced by modern sidewalks, but it still has that very old look and feel, especially at night.
As some of my pals on Facebook will attest, the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library, located in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood, is one of my favorite places to work. Here’s an early spring shot of the library’s Italianate courtyard, with snow still on the ground.
Imagine a bookstore as a sanctuary, a place of refuge to read, think, and reflect.
Reporting for The Guardian newspaper, Kareem Shaheen writes about Pages, a bookstore and cafe in Istanbul, Turkey, which serves that very role for Syrian refugees. The bookstore’s founder, Samir al-Kadri, wants nothing less than to “change the lives of Syrian youth”:
“I’m incredibly happy,” said Samer al-Kadri, 42, founder of the first Arabic bookstore in the city. “I get to meet this generation, between 18 and 25 years old. This generation is surprising me with their understanding, their openness, their dialogue.”
More than three million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian, live in Turkey. With Pages, Kadri hopes to create a space for young Syrians curious about the world, who want to escape the isolation of refugee life, and, for a fleeting moment, pretend they are back in their homeland.
Not surprisingly, the most popular titles at Pages reflect a longing for their home country and a recognition of the terrible situation they left behind:
Among the most popular books at Pages are translations of Elif Şafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, which tells the story of the legendary Persian poet Rumi, as well The Shell, a memoir by the Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa detailing his torture and detention in the notorious prison of Palmyra.
The translated works of George Orwell are also popular, particularly Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian fictional worlds of which bear a striking resemblance to [Syrian President] Assad’s police state.
Let’s treasure our access to books
As I read this article, I thought about how easy it is for some of us to take for granted access to books.
I’m especially spoiled in this regard. I live in Boston, which, despite the general demise of brick and mortar bookstores, continues to offer abundant choices for buying and borrowing books. But even beyond such overly bookish locales, good books can be readily obtained via bookstores, online booksellers, used book sales, and libraries. Those on limited budgets can put together a very respectable personal library if they have a sharp eye for bargains.
It should humble the more fortunate among us that young refugees go to Pages bookstore in Istanbul in search of a safe and comforting place to read and learn. Let’s think about that the next time we’re tempted to watch a reality TV show or get caught up in a Tweet storm between politicians or celebrities. A bookstore, library, or simple shelf of books at home is a much better option for enriching our minds and souls.