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.
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.
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?!)
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During a quick visit to Brooklyn for a workshop related to my work, I didn’t expect that a nostalgia trip would be part of the deal. But it came with no extra charge!
As I wrote in 2015, I lived in Brooklyn for nine years, which back in the day was a housing refuge for fellow Legal Aid lawyers and other non-profit and public sector types pushed out by the sky high rents of Manhattan. I spent chunks of that time traipsing around Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful, historic neighborhood located one subway stop away from Manhattan.
This workshop was hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in the Heights, located in a beautiful Gothic Revival building erected in 1844. As I approached the church on my walk from the subway, I encountered a familiar building that I hadn’t seen in decades: The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, Second Department. Oh my! I was admitted to the New York Bar in a ceremony there, and as a Legal Aid lawyer I would argue cases before the appeals court in its majestic courtroom.
I’m the kinda guy who doesn’t like to be late for things. Especially when I’m relying on public transportation to get me to and fro (which is, basically, almost all the time), I plan to get to my main destination a little early. The subway zipped me over from Manhattan to Brooklyn in minutes, so with time to kill and some rumbling in my stomach, I found Fascati Pizza, a classic New York slice joint, and ordered a slice of thin-crust cheese pizza. It hit the spot on a cold, wintry day — hot, flavorful, and crispy underneath.
Of course, my main purpose for this brief Brooklyn sojourn was not to wallow in memories, but rather to attend a workshop on bystander intervention training for harassment and related situations. The topic is pertinent to the work I’ve been doing on workplace bullying and abuse for many years. You can read a write-up on this excellent training session that I posted to my Minding the Workplace blog.
And so I found myself interspersing good memories with the work I’m doing today. The two are fairly distinct. My focus on issues of workers’ rights, workplace bullying and abuse, and human dignity was not on my radar screen when I was a young lawyer. I was drawn to law school generally by an interest in politics and a desire to engage in good works, but I was pretty clueless on so many things. Fast forward to today, I’m feeling the march of time, but I know what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.
Right now, however, I wish I could go back to that pizza place for another slice. My mouth is watering just looking at that photo.
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.
Sometime during the last year, my cell phone morphed from being a oft-annoying gadget to an occasionally annoying virtual appendage. I am not a likely candidate to have made this transition. I have cursed cell phones more than praised them. Multiple days have gone by when I didn’t even bother turning on my own phone.
But now it’s fully accurate to say that my cell phone has largely supplanted my landline and office phone. After some four years of owning an iPhone 4s, I am finally using it like so many other people deploy their smartphones. I use it for calls (the ear buds free up my hands), texting (I finally gave in and started texting), taking pictures (the 4s camera isn’t state of the art, but it does the job), and checking online sites (mostly e-mail and Facebook).
I haven’t come close to exploiting all of its features. When it comes to technology, I’m the opposite of a “first adopter.” But it’s now close to being an indispensable tool. It has become especially valuable while traveling.
Before this transition, I couldn’t understand why people went into a panic if they feared that they lost or misplaced their phone. What’s the big deal? Just get a new one, I’d say to myself. Not anymore.
I still don’t get how some folks basically live in their phones. I shake my head when walking the streets of Boston turns into an exercise in dodging people looking down at their phones. And I think it’s unfortunate when people can’t be in the moment with each other because their face-to-face social interactions are interrupted by ever-present pinging and furtive (or not-so-furtive) glances at their phones.
That all said, the technology contained in the average smartphone is nothing short of remarkable. Our phones shouldn’t be ruling our lives, but they sure can make certain aspects of life more convenient. Call me a qualified but devoted convert.
My current visit to northwest Indiana marks the first time I’ve driven a car since, well, my last visit there over a year ago. As a city dweller who hasn’t owned a car since Air Supply’s earliest U.S. hits, let’s just say that driving is not my forte. Night driving is a special adventure, during which I’m reinforcing unflattering stereotypes about Asian drivers.
The last and only car I ever owned was a hand-me-down 1968 Buick LeSabre that got about seven blocks to a gallon of gas in mileage. I gave it to my brother Jeff when I left for law school at NYU in the fall of 1982. I had learned during an earlier trip to New York City that, unlike your typical Indiana campus, universities in the heart of Manhattan did not have parking lots adjoining their residence halls.
Since then, I have been a creature of the subway, first in New York, and now in Boston.
This, of course, brings the adventure back to driving on those rare occasions that I do rent a car.
Oh, and speaking of Air Supply, I’ve once again used the unique experience of driving to listen to an oldies station that plays a lot of stuff from back in the day. As I wrote last year:
Concededly, I am positively masochistic when it comes to self-inflicted nostalgia. During much of this trip, I had my rental car radio tuned to an oldies station that played songs mostly from the late 70s through early 80s. Like many, I associate old Top 40 songs with memories of earlier days, so I basically had a series of mental videos going through my head, prompted by whatever was on the air.
And so it is with this trip, as the pop sounds of Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Styx, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, and others waft through my rental vehicle. I usually don’t immerse myself in this music at home — I’ll take the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like over more recent popular music anyday — but the post-adolescent oldies do bring back memories.