My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
A door stopper of a look at Stephen King’s body of work
I stumbled upon George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion (2015) at one of the local bookstores earlier this week. After checking out the table of contents and skimming a few chapters, I knew I was going to buy it. This is an exhaustive (just under 600 pp.) examination of King’s body of work and life, and a much needed update of Beahm’s original 1989 edition. You don’t have to be a fanatic devotee of King’s books to appreciate this volume; earnest fandom will do.
If you want to gauge the influence of, and regard for, a contemporary writer, check out whether others are writing books and articles about the author that go beyond reviews of their latest work. If the answer is yes, it means that their work — however “popular” or grounded in a certain genre — has achieved a certain literary quality. There are plenty of writers who continually churn out bestsellers. Few of them, however, inspire others to write books and articles about their books. J.K. Rowling has achieved this status with Harry Potter and Co. The late Stieg Larsson has managed to do so with only three books, his Millennium trilogy crime novels published posthumously.
And then, of course, there’s Stephen King. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about King’s work last November:
On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. . . . King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come.
What distinguishes these authors from other writers of best sellers is that their work has a level of intellectual depth — perhaps with a psychological, social, historical, or philosophical angle — that invites commentary, speculation, and discussion.
So . . . let’s say you’re an avid reader who, like me, has trouble sticking with the classics or the “Great Books.” But you also may not want to spend your time on books that are here today, gone tomorrow. If Shakespeare, the ancient Greek philosophers, Jane Austen, or even Dickens aren’t commanding your attention span, then you could do much worse than spending quality time with modern authors whose work has invited commentary, speculation, and discussion.
Stephen King and the art of the slow read
Among the writers whose books merit the appellation “page turner,” Stephen King ranks high on the short list. After all, millions of loyal readers have been enjoying his books for decades now. He remains a master storyteller who continually demonstrates his growth as a writer.
I’m a Stephen King fan, but not necessarily one of his “Constant Readers.” In fact, since discovering his early works during college and law school (starting with Salem’s Lot, which scared the hell out of me), I’ve gone through lengthy stretches of years when I didn’t pick up a King novel. In recent years, however, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of his books, and I anticipate that his work will be a regular presence in my reading rotation.
During my current incarnation as a King reader, I have moved away from devouring one of his books in a short period of time. Rather, especially for his longer novels, I take my time, usually several weeks.
With that practice of slow reading has come a revelation: Stephen King is a brilliant writer because his stories stay with you over a long stretch of reading time. You get emotionally invested in the plot and the characters, to the point where you can pick up the story a week later and be right back in its world.
Those of you who are avid readers may know the opposite experience. You begin a book that seems promising, but then life intrudes and you put it down for a few days or a week. When you try to pick it up again, even the major characters seem foggy to you, or maybe the developing story simply isn’t all that compelling.
By contrast, I just finished a slow read of Pet Sematary (1983), and oh my, is it good. This is one of his scariest and most emotionally wrought stories, a family-based tale that plumbs the depths of death and loss. For some reason Pet Sematary escaped my attention when it first appeared, but I know that I appreciate its richness more today.
A couple of years ago, I read King’s superb novel built around the Kennedy Assassination, 11/22/63 (2012), in the same fashion. (I took over a month to finish it.) Framed by a time travel device, the story spans several years. Reading the book slowly actually helped me to “experience” that passage of time.
On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. Dickens’s stories also had a slow read quality to them, in his case by design or necessity, as many of his works were serialized in weekly and monthly magazine installments. His plots and characters had to be sufficiently memorable in order to maintain the interest of readers over the longer haul.
Stephen King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come. May I suggest that doing so slowly is a great way to appreciate his great talent?
New England autumn, that Halloween feeling, and scary stories
Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.
I read an entire, hard copy book — and enjoyed it!
This is a rather pathetic title for a blog post, especially by someone who calls himself an avid reader. But lately my reading has been very task-oriented, both books and articles alike, and almost entirely of the non-fiction variety.
So I credit Stephen King for serving up a novel that I eagerly read from start-to-finish over a week’s time. Mr. Mercedes (2014) is King’s foray into hard-boiled detective fiction, and it’s a good one. The main protagonist is a retired police detective, Bill Hodges, who gets caught up in an unsolved multiple homicide. The perpetrator — identified very early in the story (no spoiler alert necessary) — is a pretty messed up dude with serious mommy issues.
I enjoyed this book, and easily place it in the “didn’t want it to end” category. Thus I’m delighted that King launched it as the first of a planned trilogy featuring Hodges and his sleuthing pals, with the next title expected sometime next year.
Back in January, I sang the praises of the latest incarnation of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, especially for folks who travel often. However, last weekend I decided to take this hardcover edition of Mr. Mercedes with me for a quick out-of-town visit with friends, even though it took up precious backpack space. (Although this is not among King’s longer works, it still clocks in at a hefty 440+ pages.) I’m glad that I did. Reading Mr. Mercedes as a printed book rather than as an e-book was such a pleasure. Hey, it’s not often when you’re wishing the plane ride was just a little bit longer so you can squeeze in another chapter!
I know it has become something of a cliché for those who love the printed page to say they prefer the tactile experience of reading a physical book to the convenience of using an e-reader. Nevertheless, count me among them. Even with my fifty-something eyesight (oy…) and frequent travel schedule, there remains something very cool about reading an old fashioned printed book.
Revisiting my collegiate alma mater
“The past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to change.”
So we are told in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy. The main protagonist — a school teacher — learns that even when we go back in time, the past mightily resists our attempts to change it.
I have no idea if time travel and changing the past are even possible, so I’ll put my fascination with the subject aside to make a more accessible point: We may not be able to change the past, but we can change how we regard it. Historians revisit the past practically every day, and not infrequently they alter and sometimes substantially revise our perceptions of it. At times, subsequent events and reflections contribute to those changed understandings.
This occurs even more frequently at a personal level. In fact, that’s what I’d like to explore here, by taking a look back at my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University (also known as “Valpo” or simply VU) in northwest Indiana. For readers unfamiliar with it, Valpo is a small-to-medium sized Lutheran-affiliated school, noted for its strong liberal arts curriculum and attention to undergraduate education. Most students live on or near the campus, which is located on the outer edges of the small city of Valparaiso.
If relationships with institutions over time could be described in Facebook-like terms, mine with Valpo would get the “It’s complicated” tag, without question! Indeed, this topic reminds me of how our emotional ties with institutions can be quite powerful and evolve over time.
In 1981, I graduated from Valpo with a B.A. degree and a political science major. During my time there, I was a very engaged student. I did well academically, worked as a department editor of the weekly campus newspaper, and served in various student government positions. I also spent a life-changing study abroad semester in England.
Taking all that into account, one might reasonably assume that I enjoyed an idyllic, residential, Midwestern-style collegiate experience. But for many years I harbored attitudes toward VU that alternated between resentment and anger, grounded in grievances about its limited political, social, and racial diversity and its lack of national renown.
Now, let’s be honest here. It’s not as if I arrived at the VU campus in 1977 with a very cosmopolitan personal history. I was born and raised in Northwest Indiana. A handful of family trips to visit relatives in Hawaii were the closest things in my life to “multicultural experiences.” In addition, I started college as a Republican, and my political opinions were a hodgepodge of reactive, inconsistent thinking. Although I had endured racial taunts growing up in Indiana neighborhoods, I wasn’t exactly a trailblazer for civil rights.
However, my worldview was changing, and by the time I graduated, Valpo’s campus culture wasn’t as good a fit for me. My work for the campus newspaper, The Torch, was especially enlightening. I wrote dozens of articles for it, including some hefty investigative pieces about campus life. It served as my primer to the insular wackiness that characterizes many university cultures and decision making processes, though at the time I erroneously attributed these traits uniquely to VU. (Believe me, I since have been corrected on that point!) My writing for the paper also gave me a closer look at some of the diversity issues at VU, and I became acutely aware of how black students experienced the predominately white campus and surrounding community.
By the time I graduated from Valpo, I was disenchanted with it and blamed it for all the things that it was not. Throughout college I had planned on going to law school, and eventually I began to see it as an opportunity to sink roots into a different part of the country. Despite many rewarding college experiences and friendships, I was determined to put Valparaiso way back in my rear view mirror.
When, some 10 years after graduation, I received from VU a detailed questionnaire for “diverse” alumni/ae about their student experiences, I filled it out and added a long letter explaining some of my answers. I was very blunt. Looking back, I regret the tone of my responses, but at the time, I saw it as an opportunity to unload.
Decamping for the East Coast
Predictably, the lion’s share of my law school applications were filed at schools on the two coasts. Originally I had designs on heading to California, and the Bay Area seemed especially hospitable to my evolving left-leaning political views. But ultimately I opted to head east to New York University, located in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. It was the right move, both at the time and in retrospect.
New York quickly became my Wonder City. NYC of the 80s was a more raw and edgy place than it is today, but it also was possible to enjoy it on a shoestring budget. Its many bookstores, revival movie houses showing old classics, and endless array of ethnic eateries were among the offerings that competed for my attention.
I have lived on the East Coast since the early 1980s, first in New York City, and now in Boston. Given the past 30 years, it’s fair to say that I am more city boy than country boy, though at times I think that it might be nice to live in a traditional “college town.” In any event, while I have long described myself as an “East Coast person,” I now understand and appreciate that I am the product of many different places.
Valpo revisited: More than rose-colored glasses
My moves aside, my Valparaiso story didn’t end with faded images in the rear view mirror. Rather, I have experienced a gradual but in some ways significant change in how I regard that past. Perhaps the rose-colored glasses of time have contributed to that change, but it’s more than that.
You see the people in the photo below? We were together for a memorable spring 1981 semester in VU’s study abroad center in Cambridge, England. There were about 20 of us in all. We have reunions every five years, and each time over half of our group has attended. The photo was taken at our 2011 reunion. I count a good number of these folks as lifelong friends, and I value my associations with all of them.
How many other study abroad groups hold reunions every five years? That question, and my knowing answer (very few), have played an important role in changing my relationship with my alma mater.
A few years ago, I realized that my attitudes toward Valpo were changing. It wasn’t due to a conscious effort on my part, nor had I forgotten the issues I had with the school. Rather, I was beginning to appreciate what it had given to me.
Most importantly, I have continuing friendships that were forged during those years. They have evolved, matured, and renewed over the decades, and they manifest themselves in ways ranging from periodic get-togethers, to back-and-forth e-mails, to playing in fantasy sports leagues. And through the Internet (and social media in particular), I now count among my friends a fair number of folks I knew only casually during our student days.
In addition, I received an excellent classroom education at VU. I have been a teacher in higher education settings for over 20 years. As a law professor, I’ve seen the undergraduate results of many types of colleges and universities. I now understand that the academic experience at Valparaiso compares well with any of them.
In fact, I likely underestimated VU’s higher ed street cred as a student. In the various reputational surveys and assessments of colleges and universities that started to become popular in the late 1980s, Valpo has fared quite respectably.
Working on The Torch honed and developed my writing skills in ways that continue to deliver today. Any success I have at writing for a less specialized audience — especially via my Minding the Workplace blog — has direct roots in that experience. The Torch also served as the wider social base I didn’t have during my first two years of college. (Suffice it to say that some of us practically lived in The Torch offices.)
Lastly, the study abroad semester I spent in England was the most formative educational experience of my life. So much of my personal culture and the way I live today can be traced back to those five months overseas. My natural penchant for nostalgia notwithstanding, I generally do not yearn to relive even the best experiences of my life. My semester abroad is an exception; I would access Stephen King’s time travel wormhole in a heartbeat to revisit that experience.
My writing for VU periodicals didn’t stop with The Torch. In 1996, I penned a long essay about my study abroad experience in England for the university’s literary and current affairs journal, The Cresset. More recently, I published an article titled “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership” in the VU business school’s Journal of Values-Based Leadership.
A different view
The issues I had with Valpo as a student and recent graduate were legitimate, and some remain relevant to the school today. But with the gifts of hindsight and maturity, I am grateful for many of my collegiate experiences and for the related friendships and opportunities that are a part of my life now.
I’ll leave it to the physicists to determine if we can change the past, but I know from experience that we can change how we think about our own. Sometimes, as here, those changes can be good ones.