With vaccinations on the increase and safer travel becoming a realistic possibility during the months to come, memories of past sojourns have become prominent in my nostalgic mind. Chief among them is my final undergraduate semester in 1981, spent at Valparaiso University’s study abroad centre in Cambridge, England. I have written with great affection about this formative time on this blog (e.g., “First-time sojourn across the pond,” here) and highlighted that experience in a reflective essay on my college years published in the university’s literary journal (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, here). Suffice it to say that seeds planted during that semester took hold in so many ways, shaping my sense of vocation and personal culture for a lifetime.
This writing finds myself contemplating a specific set of memories about that semester. Forty years ago this week, I was spending a part of our spring break in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which at the time were marked by “The Troubles,” a span of great and violent political and nationalistic discord over the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. My brief visit occurred during a period of hunger strikes by Irish prisoners being held at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, known as “H-Block” because of its physical configuration. Ten of these prisoners would die of starvation.
Upon arriving in Belfast by bus, I felt very lost as I gazed around, with map in hand, wondering how to find the youth hostel where I planned to stay for a couple of days. Apparently I looked very lost as well, because a man approached me and asked if he could direct me somewhere. I explained that I was looking for the hostel, and he offered to give me a ride there. I readily accepted his offer. (Keep in mind that hitchhiking was a common practice for students studying abroad back then.)
In the car, I introduced myself and added that I had become interested in the political strife surrounding Northern Ireland. Well, that opened up a conversation. It turns out that this fellow was a BBC reporter, and he explained that he had just finished interviewing members of the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organization that was challenging British rule in Northern Ireland. He then asked if I had a few minutes to spare, offering to take me on a quick driving tour through parts of working class Belfast where he had talked to IRA members. Being a college newspaper scribe and fancying myself as a sort of foreign correspondent, of course I said yes.
I took the two snapshots above during that impromptu tour. To this day, I understand that this chance meeting gave me an opportunity to see parts of Belfast that I never would’ve ventured into on my own, during a violent and painful time in the city’s history.
Belfast felt like a proverbial war zone during my visit. Security checkpoints screened entry into the city centre. Stores and movie theaters employed guards to search bags. One afternoon, as I walked back to the youth hostel, I saw a British troop car ahead of me. Soldiers were exiting it quickly, while their leader was focused on looking across the street. As I passed by, I asked what was going on, and they told me in a terse tone to just keep walking. I followed orders, briskly so. I have no idea what, if anything, happened later. However, I did manage to snap the photo above.
From Belfast I traveled south to Dublin, via three hitchhiked rides. It was Easter weekend, and this marked the 65th anniversary of the historic Easter rising, an armed insurrection by Irish nationalists challenging British rule. Dublin was at the center of the insurrection, which led to nearly 500 fatalities and some 2,600 wounded.
Obviously, the current H-Block hunger strikes gave this anniversary considerable meaning. I took these photos of the Easter weekend protest march and rally. Above, the young man pictured struck a pose for me. (Note also the titles of movies playing at the city cinema!)
The Old Post Office and Bank of Ireland buildings, both of which were occupied by Irish nationalists during the Easter Rising, were prominent sites for this rally as well. I got snapshots of both.
Looking back, I now grasp how I had dropped myself into places that could’ve made for dangerous situations. At the time, I was sufficiently young and ignorant to assume that if any bullets flew in my direction, they would simply miss me.
That I visited Belfast and Dublin during this tumultuous time was a bit of a twist. You see, among our student cohort, I was not the most adventurous of travelers, often preferring to spend weekends remaining in Cambridge, while many of my fellow Valparaiso U students traveled around the UK.
Happily, though, the days spent traipsing around Cambridge did stick with me. I did not have plans to pursue a career in academe at the time, as I intended to go to law school as a prelude to entering the bloody world of politics. But the time I spent drinking in this historic, medieval university city worked its magic on me and contributed to my opting for the bloody world of academe instead.
In any event, my ongoing gratitude for that study abroad experience leads me to dearly hope that international study programs will recover and revive as we get through the worst of this pandemic. As I wrote last May (here), “(o)ne of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities.” We need to restore these chances to have life-shaping experiences.
Many years ago, when I was easily inspired by catchy phrases, the expression “may you live in interesting times” first sounded waaaay cool to me. As a late Baby Boomer (i.e., a member of Generation Jones), I had missed out on all of the drama and tumult of the 1960s. As a history buff, I was fascinated by the Second World War (and remain so). Now those were times that mattered, I thought to myself.
In stark contrast, my formative years included watching lots of bad TV, being amazed at the culinary convenience of Stouffer’s French bread pizza, and wearing clothes that threatened to melt if I got too close to a radiator.
I would later learn that “may you live in interesting times” was thought to be an old Chinese curse, not a blessing! And now we know that its allegedly ancient provenance is apocryphal. Heh, perhaps the whole tale was invented by someone who knew that impressionable fellows like me would fall for it.
Anyway, I thought about the expression as I prepared to make one of my occasional trips to my university office yesterday, in order to pick up some materials to help me prep for the coming semester. You see, this decision involved a bit of personal calculus that directly reflects our current situation.
First, for me at least, every trip on the Boston subway now involves a standard risk assessment. If I catch COVID-19, I’m at moderate risk to develop a severe case of it. So, I wear a KN-95 mask, put on gloves (once our infection rate started to surge again), and liberally use my bottle of hand sanitizer. When I enter a subway car, I do a quick scan for folks not wearing masks. I will try to transfer cars at the next stop if there appear to be blatant violators.
Second, I decided to go in yesterday, even though classes don’t begin for another two weeks. According to credible news reports, the same insurrectionist cells that stoked the violent occupation of the U.S. Capitol last week are threatening similar events in both Washington D.C. and all 50 state capitals for next week. Boston is the capital of Massachusetts, and the State House building is a short walk up the street from my university office. I plan to avoid the area. (In fact, a few days ago, I wrote senior university administrators at my school to suggest that all buildings be closed for most of next week, out of an abundance of caution.)
Interesting times, indeed. The coronavirus has changed the way we live, while an ugly and deeply divisive election and its aftermath have been playing out before us. Although I sincerely believe that 2021 will be better than its predecessor, the next few months will be dire in terms of our public and civic health. This time will be remembered as one of the most challenging periods in our history.
I’ve always been a news junkie, but I’m following daily developments like never before. I guess you could say that I got what my younger self wanted. But that younger self was not always very wise or perceptive. In a 2017 remembrance published in The Cresset, the literary journal of Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater), I opened with an observation that I had long regarded my collegiate years as covering a rather dull, uneventful stretch of America’s history. Subsequent events, however, would prove otherwise, revealing that a lot of important developments were occurring during that time.
In reality, the ebb and flow of history suggest that there are no truly uneventful times. Something is always going on, even if its significances are not always evident in that snapshot moment. Moreover, we can live meaningful and interesting lives under virtually any general set of circumstances. I think that’s the more important consideration to keep in mind.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
Like many folks, I generally don’t like being at hospitals. It has nothing to do with the dedicated health care professionals who work in them, but rather because I associate hospital stays with serious disease or injury. Nevertheless, last week I joined a guided tour through historic parts of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and it was very interesting.
The tour was sponsored by Old South Meeting House, the non-profit organization based in the historic Boston building of the same name. Old South (the building) dates back to colonial days. A public meeting hall, it was the site where rebellious patriots planned the Boston Tea Party (1773) in protest of taxes levied by the British crown. Old South (the organization) maintains the historic site and hosts programs and talks devoted to Boston history.
I learned that MGH was founded in 1811 and is the third oldest general hospital in the U.S. The “general” hospital distinction is important, because it means that (1) its services are open to all; and (2) it treats a full range of health conditions.
The highlight of the tour is a visit to the “Ether Dome,” the name given to the operating theatre that hosted the first public demonstration of anesthesia in 1846. The space is still used for meetings today, and it has been maintained to look as it did during the 19th century.
This 2000 painting depicts the historic event, which you can read about at the Wikipedia page about MGH:
And here’s my snapshot of the location shown in the painting:
Yup, we were right there. It gives you chills.
For reasons stated above, I probably won’t be signing up for many more walking tours of hospitals, if at all. But MGH is a historic site in Boston history and a significant institution in the history and ongoing delivery of health care in America.
The tour was also a reminder to me of how much fascinating history is present in Boston. Even as a history buff, it’s easy to take for granted how much evidence of early American history is all around me. I’ve decided to spend more time exploring that history, and toward that end I recently renewed my membership with Old South Meeting House. It’s neat to play tourist in my own hometown, and I want to do more of that.
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!
Lately I’ve been watching movies depicting aspects of trench warfare during the First World War, including “Journey’s End” (2018), “King and Country” (1964), and “Westfront 1918” (1930). I highly recommend each of them.
They also have been fitting lead-ins to a stunning new documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old” (trailer here), featuring a masterful restoration of film footage from the war, enhanced by expert colorization. Using this footage and recorded interview excerpts from WWI veterans, the documentary recreates the experience of British soldiers being recruited, trained, and sent to the front, where they are soon confronted by the terrible realities of trench warfare.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” presents the Great War as no succeeding generations have ever seen it. Director Peter Jackson headed up this project, and the visual results are breathtaking. I saw the film at a local movie theatre in Boston as part of a limited national release here in the U.S. It was accompanied by a fascinating short feature on how the restoration was done and how the sound component was developed.
If you want to read reviews and commentary about the documentary, these pieces from the Guardian, Atlantic, and New York Times are worth checking out. Variety reports that the limited release has been a huge success and that a wider release is scheduled for 2019. The Thursday afternoon showing I attended was sold out. If you have any interest in this important chapter of history, then by all means get a ticket to “They Shall Not Grow Old” when it comes around to a theatre near you.
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.
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.
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.