What is it about cold weather that draws me to bookstores?
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.
Heaven is a used bookstore (2014)
A bookstore visit triggers memories of meeting an intellectual hero (2014)
As the weather turns cold, the small screen becomes a strong draw
Here along America’s east coast, dropping temperatures are reminding us that winter is just around the corner. Boston has been downright chilly, and a quick trip to New York City for a conference had me bundling up tightly. Other parts of the country are getting snowstorms.
When the weather outside is frightful, watching quality TV shows at home — binge viewing, if blocs of time allow — becomes especially delightful. If you’re looking for a sharp, informed, and opinionated guide to the best of the small screen, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (2016) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, is a good starting place.
Sepinwall and Seitz review and rank what they believe to be the 100 best American television dramas and comedies, devoting several pages to each. There are no news or reality shows here; it’s all about scripted TV.
Many of my favorites appear, including no brainers such as “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” and underrated standouts like “Friday Night Lights.” Some of my childhood favorites are here, too, including “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Sorry, fellow Gen Jonesers, but “Green Acres,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “F Troop” don’t make the list.)
Fans of British dramas and comedies will have to wait for a different book. “Prime Suspect,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Monty Python” would appear on many lists of frequent PBS viewers, but not here.
What truly distinguishes TV (The Book) from other “best of” books and magazine features is the quality of writing. These guys know what makes for quality, groundbreaking television, and they’re good at explaining why a show belongs on the list. It’s not all praise, either, as they engage in very fair criticisms of very good shows. It makes for fun reading and good winter TV planning.
Life’s little scratch ticket wins
The other day I was getting ready for a short trip, and I went online to print out my airline ticket. I was delighted to see the TSA Pre-check designation on it. Pre-check means that you can go through a shorter, faster security line without removing your shoes, belt, computer, and small liquids. It saves some time and hassle and makes a plane trip a little bit more pleasant.
Of course, I could also send Uncle Sam a check and a completed form to fly Pre-check all the time. Maybe I’ll do so, because it does restore a dose of civility to the air travel experience. In the meantime, I greet the printing out of my ticket with hopeful anticipation that I’ll win the Pre-check lotto via whatever process the TSA folks use.
I call Pre-check one of life’s little scratch ticket wins: You know, those lottery tickets or customer cards where you scratch off an opaque covering to see if you’ve won a little something. Maybe it’s a small payout, a free sandwich, or a discount on your next purchase.
Life’s scratch ticket equivalents can pop up anywhere. Maybe you’re running late and you make the next subway train with seconds to spare. Or perhaps you discover that the very thing you want to buy is on sale. Until they went with all-day breakfast, making it to McDonald’s just before the morning menu ended would count, too!
As an educator, I used to think of snow days as being a scratch ticket win. But then came Snowpocalypse 2015 in Boston, with so many class cancellations that we had to have monster make-up classes once we dug out of winter. Suffice it to say, I greet snow days much less enthusiastically than before we got hit with 100+ inches of snow that winter.
Obviously we’d all like to win Mega Millions, but winning scratch tickets can put smiles on our faces as well.
Year two at Hogwarts
Last week I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the series. A few days ago I started in on book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve never been one for fantasy literature. But I’m now comprehending what the Harry Potter hype has been all about. J.K. Rowling is a brilliant, clever, imaginative, and socially intelligent story teller. And going from book one to two, I am bearing witness to her growth as a writer.
Of course, I may be biased because the stories are placed in a school setting. Hogwarts is basically a junior high and high school boarding institution, albeit a quite unusual one. But because of ongoing references to specific books and courses — a wonderfully imagined “curriculum” on Rowling’s part — it also feels like a sort of Cambridge or Oxford for junior apprentice witches and wizards.
I don’t know if I’ll read the entire series straight through, but I’m betting that I will finish the books by sometime in the fall. It’s fun to lose myself in that world, so I’ll savor the stories rather than speed through them. No need for a Nimbus two thousand here.
I may be just embarking on year two at Hogwarts, but in real life I’m finishing another academic year. Grading final exams and papers isn’t nearly as bad as taking them, but nevertheless I still manage to summon the procrastinatory habits that served me so
well steadily in college and law school. This has been an exhausting semester for reasons that have little to do with my courses or students — let’s just say that the internal politics and drama of academic institutions can be very draining and unnecessary — so I will be happy to close it out.
On a local note, we’re finally seeing some real spring weather here in Boston. I shot the picture below on late Wednesday afternoon. It’s right outside my subway stop in Jamaica Plain, and after exiting the station I sat down on one of the benches and did a bit of reading and catching up on e-mails. For a while I forgot about the pile of exams and papers awaiting me!
Memo to self: Experiences, not possessions, bring greater happiness
Over the weekend I was fiddling around with some photos using the editing tools on my computer, when I reminded myself of an important lesson, buttressed by scientific research: When it comes to using my discretionary cash, I am more likely to derive longer-term happiness by spending it on experiences than on material possessions.
Jonesing for bad weather
The photos were taken during a 2012 storm chase tour with Tempest Tours, a company that offers storm chasing expeditions into America’s tornado alley for enthusiasts of bad weather, led by highly experienced storm chasers.
I have been drawn to tornadoes ever since I was a very young child, when one passed through our NW Indiana neighborhood. (I’ve told the story in more detail here.) This fascination has continued well into my adult years, to the point where I’ve devoted to several vacations to storm chase tours with Tempest. In fact, one of the most exciting days of my life was the first day of my first chase tour in 2008, when our group intercepted a single supercell in northern Oklahoma that spawned multiple tornadoes throughout the afternoon and early evening.
My summer 2012 tour happened to deliver a great week of storm chasing, even without the benefit of post-facto tornado verification. We had a wonderful group of people that simply jelled, and thanks to our expert lead guides, we witnessed memorable storms, including several tornadoes.
But just how many tornadoes remains uncertain. One of the notable characteristics of that tour was encountering a number of “Is it or isn’t it?” views of possible tornadoes. You see, not every tornado is a sharply defined funnel from cloud to ground, with a visible debris field at the bottom. Light, distance, and angles may make it difficult to discern whether a funnel has actually reached the ground, thus becoming an “official” tornado.
So here I am this past weekend, playing around with photos from the 2012 tour, especially the “Is it or isn’t it?” shots. By using the photo enhancement tools on my Mac, I was able to make out various funnel clouds and apparent tornadoes on the ground. Four years after the fact, I now understand that we witnessed more tornadoes than originally met the naked eye!
Studies tell us…
I have great memories of these chase tours, and I’m still in touch with many of the professional storm chasers and fellow tour guests. Now, I don’t blame anyone for questioning the wisdom of someone who wants to spend precious money on a week of traveling thousands of miles in vans, eating grab & go meals from fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and staying in motels that will never be highlighted in travel guidebooks.
But for me, it’s an awesome experience that gets into my bones.
As I noted above, this isn’t just me talking. A growing body of psychological research suggests that, when we are making discretionary spending decisions, using our money to create good experiences rather than to accumulate more “stuff” will likely create greater happiness over the long run. Experiences, studies tell us, have staying power. They become a part of us, sometimes even more positively as time goes on. (Remember that vacation when everything seemingly went wrong? Now it’s the stuff of great stories.)
New possessions, by comparison, may give us a momentary new morale boost, but after that, the happiness they bring tends to level off. (Think about the fleeting pick-me-up of “retail therapy.”)
This is not to say that we do not derive satisfaction from buying nice things. After all, how we use, consume, or view them can provide ongoing pleasures, i.e., they may help us to create experiences.
Think about a favorite book, movie, game, item of clothing, or piece of art. Or new cooking utensils that lead to delicious meals. And, yup, the computer that enables us to sort out and play around with our collections of photographed memories.
Sometimes good experiences overlap directly with buying stuff we like. For example, I love checking out used bookstores and used book sales, and I confess that I get a little soggy over some of my book buying expeditions.
I get it
But I understand the larger point. As I scroll through this personal blog, I sense my energy levels rising when I write about favorite experiences, which include singing with friends, extended visits with friends and family, quick weekend trips, holiday rituals, and even academic conferences in the company of great people. They contribute to the fabric and richness of my life, often in ways that my latest purchases cannot.
That’s something to think about whenever I walk into a store or browse the retail world online. Better to seek out stormy weather, yes?
Weather report: Dodging the big one in Boston (this time)
After last year’s multiple monster snowstorms in Boston, you might think that I’ve had my fill of them. I thought so too, as news of Winter Storm Jonas built during the past week and reminders of last winter started to re-enter my head. But I admit that I also felt a bit of weather envy as other locations received so much attention in anticipation of this huge storm, while increasingly it appeared that Boston would dodge the brunt of it.
As you can see from the Sunday morning photo above, Boston was indeed spared the worst of this giant storm. While this constituted our first significant snow of the winter, it was nothing compared to what dropped on other parts of the country and the region. In my neighborhood, we had steady snowfall from late afternoon onward, but on the scale of things it added up to comparatively mild stuff.
In any event . . . I’ve spent chunks of the last few days watching The Weather Channel, keeping up with online weather reports and Facebook postings, and talking to friends in the Washington D.C. area who have been hammered by Jonas. The weather geek in me simply couldn’t turn away from this.
I’ll add another photo, taken late yesterday afternoon from right outside the subway stop in my ‘hood. The snow was starting to come down, and there was a heavy, dull, wintry look and feel to the surroundings. Upon looking at the photo, I immediately wanted to title it “Bleak Midwinter.”
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.
As summer approaches, winter has given way to spring in Boston
The brutal winter that we experienced here in Boston has finally given way to more civilized weather, even if piles of snow collected during January and February and deposited in designated snow removal areas have not fully melted.
Summer beckons, even though the temperature here remains very cool and spring-like. I’m not complaining — I can live with spring and fall weather very happily, thank you. But especially now that my classes are done and I’m finished grading exams and papers, I sort of expect it to be warmer.
Nevertheless, the cool, nice weather has made it comfortable to walk around a bit and take a few snapshots, which I’m happy to share with you.
This time of year triggers bouts of nostalgia for me. Thirty years ago, I graduated from NYU School of Law and began studying for the New York bar exam, a fun little ordeal I wrote about last year.
I had already accepted a position with New York City Legal Aid Society, fulfilling my wish to work as a public interest lawyer. First, however, I had to get through the summer bar study. I managed do to so, but not without feeling sorry for myself an awful lot of that time. In particular, as I wrestled with studying for the exam itself, I badly missed many of my best friends from law school, who took their talents across the country to start their legal careers.
My previous law school summers were memorable. I spent the summer after my second year working as a summer associate at a large corporate law firm in Chicago, an experience I wrote about in a post last year. It taught me a lesson that I share with many of my students: Sometimes experiences that help you eliminate options are as valuable as those that help you to create choices.
I spent the summer after my first year working at the New Jersey Public Defender’s office, while living in one of the NYU law dorms. Heh, one of the things I remember most about that summer was the opening of Steve’s Ice Cream in the Village. Steve’s was a Boston ice cream brand that popularized the practice of toppings hand mixed into your chosen flavor of ice cream. I was making the princely minimum wage that summer, and a chunk of those meager earnings went to Steve’s.
Thirty-five years ago, I had finished my junior year at Valparaiso University. I spent a lot of time serving in a key Indiana volunteer role for the independent Presidential campaign of John B. Anderson, which I wrote about here last June. I also studied hard for the Law School Admissions Test, which I took that summer.
A few weeks after taking the LSAT, I would learn that I did well enough to have some attractive options for law school. Originally I had every intention of attending law school on the west coast, but NYU was too appealing to turn down.
Since becoming a professor, most summers have been devoted in large part to various research and writing projects typically leading to the publication of articles in scholarly law journals. During the summer of 1998, for example, I did a lot of the spadework on my first article examining the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying, eventually published in 2000. It would prove to be a groundbreaking piece that helped to plant the seeds for a movement to enact workplace anti-bullying laws.
This summer I’ve been finishing up a piece on legal scholarship and “intellectual activism,” the latter being a term that I use to describe the process of engaging in research and analysis of a significant legal problem, designing proposed law reform and public policy responses, and then going into a more public mode with those proposals. It harnesses many of the experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned over the past twenty or so years.
Of course, I also am grateful for the flexibility my job affords me to spend the summer working on a largely self-defined schedule. That very flexibility allows me the time to step out the door and take a few photos of this walkable city.
Dreaming of spring training
During this winter of our discontent here in Boston, baseball season seems as far away as the moon. Perhaps that’s why I find myself waxing nostalgic about the game, thinking back to my boyhood years when I became a fan.
During my latter grade school years, I discovered baseball, both watching and playing. The watching was inspired by my 80-something grandfather, who was living with us in Northwest Indiana and enjoyed Chicago Cubs games on television. He didn’t speak much English, but he could follow the ballgames, and so after school and during summers, we’d often watch with him in our little TV room. Here’s the song that would open many a Cubs telecast:
The playing was by way of my friends, who were big sports fans. A few were on organized Little League teams, but for most of us baseball was a pick-up game played on the local parkway, with improvised diamonds. I was terrible at first, but I had fun and kept at it, to the point where I could hold my own hitting and fielding.
In fact, my affinity for the game grew quickly, and the slightest sign of spring became reason to get out my baseball glove and bat. Once the temperatures hit the 60s, I would be full of anticipation for the coming Cubs season and for our parkway ballgames. I’d check the newspaper for news about spring training and search out neighborhood pals to play catch. I also became a fan of tabletop baseball games that used statistical charts and cards to simulate the performances of real-life baseball players — the forerunners of today’s sophisticated computer and video games.
As I got older my focus on baseball waned. But after I graduated from law school, I rediscovered the game. I was in New York City by then, and in the mid-1980s it was still possible to get Mets grandstand seats for under $10. I shared a pair of season tickets with friends during the Mets 1986 World Series championship season, and it was a blast. I also joined fellow Legal Aid Society lawyers for weekly softball games in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Yup, those were good years.
Today, I’d be in better physical shape if I was still playing softball, instead of anticipating the start of fantasy baseball season and playing baseball board and computer games! Whatever. Until this snow starts to clear up, any manifestations of baseball around here will be virtual anyway.
July 20, 1962: It was a dark and stormy day
With March on the horizon, we’re now approaching the severe storm season, and I’ll be paying attention to forecasts and reports about tornadoes, building on a fascination that traces back to my early childhood. And thanks to an incredible database, TornadoHistoryProject.com, I can track down the history and path of the very first tornado I ever experienced, albeit down in the basement of my childhood Griffith, Indiana home.
It was July 20, 1962. Mom had taken my brother Jeff (almost 9 months old) and me (almost 3 years old) down to the basement by the time the tornado passed over our house. After it was safe to leave the basement, I went upstairs to see that our swing set had been knocked over. That was the worst of it. Thankfully it was a relatively weak tornado, with no reported injuries. However, as I’ve learned from the Tornado History Project, it had some staying power, traveling nearly 15 miles.
This is one of my earliest and sharpest childhood memories. In fact, I cannot recall anything else from that time making such imprint. My next firm memory comes from over a year later, when I was watching President Kennedy’s funeral.
I guess this helps to explain why I’ve been so captivated by tornadoes. In recent years, I’ve been going on storm chase tours and hanging out on Facebook with storm chasers and other bad weather enthusiasts. I guess some experiences just stick to the ribs, yes?
My first storm chase tour: May 2008 (May 2014)