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Showing posts from 2015

Ghosts of Holiday Parties Past

The 2015 office holiday party passed peacefully last week at the Edison Ballroom in Manhattan. I had some sushi, talked to colleagues, sipped a Diet Coke and skipped the desserts that always tempt me. The DJ played the immortal 1981 dance favorite, "Don't You Want Me" by the Human League. The song, freighted with hooks and the mysteries of past relationships, sent my mind spinning back over the ghosts of holiday parties past.

Working in New York for most of the past 35 years, I've had my share of holiday parties at swanky locations, among them Tavern on the Green, the Marriott Marquee in Times Square, the Waldorf=Astoria, and surely other places. At one of the first ones, 1981 or 1982, I imbibed the screwdrivers a little too much and found myself green around the gills when I returned to my studio apartment in Brooklyn. As soon as I walked in the door the phone rang. The caller was Rena, an elderly German-Jewish friend, a woman I knew through Project Dorot, which con…

Farewell, My Woody Woo: Princeton Plays the Game of Names

Students who occupied Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber ‘83's office in stately Nassau Hall in November must have felt they hit the protest jackpot. After 32 hours of sit-in, the Black Justice League (BJL) had Eisgruber's signature of a deal that called for study of their demands, starting with "the legacy of Woodrow Wilson on this campus." The name of former president of both Princeton and the United States now defiles a residential college and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (a/k/a Woody Woo, WWS or the Wilson School). His thin-lipped visage also adorns a mural in a dining hall in Wilson College.

Here’s how the University Press Club summarized the action steps:

Demand 1- Concerning Woodrow Wilson
President Eisgruber will write to the Head of Wilson College about removing the mural of Woodrow Wilson. It’s ultimately up to Professor Cadava, but Eisgruber will say his personal opinion (that it should be removed).

As for Woodrow Wilso…

American Sniper Déjà Vu

I recently watched American Sniper and responded strongly to it. The Texas culture of sports and faith that gave rise to Navy Seal Chris Kyle felt accurate, as did the American wrath after 9/11.

What also struck me was how familiar the scenes and emotions felt when lined up against another film about an elite military unit dropped into a different world in the Middle East, where the men were fighting to protect each other. That movie was The 9th Company, a 2005 Russian movie about Soviet troops in Afghanistan near the end of the Soviet incursion into the country, which started in December 1979 and ended in early 1989. Like American Sniper, 9th Company had a factual base, about a 39-man Soviet unit pinned down by mujahadeen attackers in a mountain outpost.

While 9th Company deviated farther from history for its dramatic punch, the two movies track closely in their emotional arcs. It starts with bravado and tough training, the families left behind, the arrival in an Asian country (Afgha…

The Long Long Read

Earlier this week I finished reading The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning, three books set in Bucharest and Athens at the start of World War II. I read the first book, The Great Fortune, several months ago, took a breather, and then powered through the next two, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. Still to come is Manning's follow-up trilogy that continues the story of a married couple repatriated to Egypt, The Levantine Trilogy.

I'll need a break after the one-volume edition, which ran 924 pages. That's a long book, the longest I've read in years. I struggled to get through it, to find the time in between the Internet flotsam and jetsam that too much clutters my vision.

I miss the days of what I call the long long read, books that grabbed me and ran on and on free of distractions. What were they?

Looking back, many had a classical or historical theme. In junior high school, probably 1971, I read The Winds of War by Herman Wouk, who first came to my attention when…

Robert Conquest, My Guide to Soviet Hell

Yesterday's passing of Robert Conquest, the scholar who studied the blood orgies of the Soviet Union in the Stalin Era, brought back memories of how his work intensely interested and educated me almost a quarter-century ago.

A native of England who served in the British Army and Foreign Service, Conquest wrote several books that I devoured in the early 1990s, when Soviet history interested me so much that I seriously considered returning to graduate school to become a scholar of the topic, along the lines of Conquest himself, in my dreams, anyway. That never happened, but Conquest's research educated me in the horrors of the period, written with the flair and clarity one would expect from a man who was also a published poet.

I still have the three books of his I read, each noting the date I bought it. The first was Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, on April 20, 1991. The book dealt with how Stalin starved Ukraine, killing millions in the 1930s. …

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" at Princeton

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" -- The Italian poet Dante begins "The Inferno" with those words, "Midway upon the journey of our life," interpreted to mean when he was 35 years old. That passage came to me after I read the survey from my 35th Princeton reunion, held in May. A staple of Reunions activities, the  survey tracks the lives and thoughts of my fellow Tigers of the Great Class of 1980.

This year's survey hit me harder than past ones. While my classmates and I are in our late 50s, we are more middle-aged as Princeton classes go -- after 35 years, we're in the center of the long orange line that marches across campus in the P-rade that's the highlight of Reunions. The Old Guard, the men (still men for a couple more decades, and then the relentless logic of coeducation and the actuarial tables will kick in) and the families form up starting with the Old Guard and moving back, year by year, to the class that is graduating in a few d…

The New (Brian and Mary) Wilsonianism at Princeton

As the hunter-killer squads of social justice warriors rampage, they are looking farther afield for new offensive flesh to devour. The Confederate flag fell first, now they are vandalizing and calling for the removal of Confederate statuary. Next up: schools and streets bearing the names of Southern generals and statesmen. Lee, Jackson, Davis, Forrest and others will be erased.

That brings us to my alma mater, Princeton University, where half the campus seems to bear the name of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, University President from 1902 to 1910 and, by the way, U.S. President from 1913 to 1921. Besides involving the U.S. in World War I and introducing the income tax, Wilson had a quite a record as a stone-cold racist in word and deed.

This wretched record has prompted calls for Princeton to scrub Wilson’s name from the campus. That’s a tall order, given the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Wilson College. Then you have non-Princeton entities such as th…

Next on the Discard Pile: The Rolodex of Memories

First I replaced the LG dumbphone with the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone, then I stopped renewing my annual purchase of monthly Day-Timer inserts and now . . . I'm ditching the Rolodex.

Unlike the other techno tools, I haven't used my Rolodex in years. I had a circular one once, but the current one is flat. After a recent move, I'm trying to simplify my life and a Rolodex brimming with cards for people from decades past at companies that no longer exist looks like a prime candidate for Goodwill. Jotted in my jiggly handwriting and free from any email addresses, URLs and Twitter handles, the cards record a pre-digital life that must be impossible for young people to imagine. Those were the days you memorized phone numbers and carried them in your head, not your pocket.

Still, I linger before sending it off, mostly because the names evoke times and places, both personal and professional.

Most of the cards date from 1987 to 1995, when I was the east coast editor of Video Store…

A Most Notable Memorial

On Saturday, I had the honor of co-leading the memorial service for the Princeton Class of 1980 at our 35th Reunion. We held the remembrance in the 9/11 Memorial Garden on campus, which honors the Princetonians killed on September 11, 2001, including our classmate Robert Deraney. An a capella group sang hymns, the class president read from the Book of Psalms and I read the conclusion of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. While not a conventional selection for a memorial service, it immediately came to my mind when the class officers were creating the event. It always strikes me as mournful yet hopeful:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, …

Mind Games, From Texas to Brooklyn

On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum, I checked my backpack. When I retrieved it several hours later, I noticed a piece of paper tucked into its outside webbing. The page had been torn from a museum map and said this on it:
I caught you staring at me from across the room but you didn’t come right over. Were you being coy, well it worked. Maybe you felt the need to see the others, knowing that I would seize your full attention. You held your hands behind your back, resisting your desire to touch me. I longed for you to come close but we had to keep our distance under the watchful eye of another. You slowed, staying long enough to see all sides of me. You quietly traced my contours with your looking. I am wondering how I appeared in your eyes. I don’t know if I am projecting but you seemed to be trying to uncover something, as if I held a secret for you. So did you get what you wanted from me? Course I am left with the lingering feeling of our encounter.


That’s all. No address, no n…

A Matter of the Heart

Last Sunday I worked with a community group at Westport's new YMCA at an all-day Hands-Only CPR training event. I did the training as well, developed by the American Heart Association and I highly recommend it as essential knowledge for everybody. Besides hands-on CPR, attendees learned how to operated a type of simplified automated external defibrillator (AED).

I visited a table set up at the gym by a group called the Michael Vincent Sage Dragonheart Foundation of Hamden, Connecticut. The foundation honors Michael Sage. The website tells his story and its connection to the event:
 Michael was only 29 years old when he suffered a fatal sudden cardiac arrhythmia (SCA).  He was active in sports for most of his life and never exhibited any of the warning signs associated with SCA, such as episodes of dizziness, fainting, or seizures.  He arrived at work on a beautiful February morning, got a cup of coffee with his colleagues, collapsed and died.  People on the scene attempted to revi…

30 Days Without a Day-Timer

April wasn't the cruelest month, but it was the first month I've arranged my life without the trusty Day-Timer organizer I have used faithfully since the 1980s. How did I survive without my scribbled-in sidekick, my companion since the later Reagan years?

Well enough. This marked a lifestyle change I never thought I would make, since I started using Day-Timers after I began a job as East Coast Editor of Video Store Magazine in 1987. I latched on to using the monthly version and just kept ordering it, decade after decade. I slipped monthly inserts into a leather holder of great sentimental value with my name embossed on it, where I also stored business cards (including that of the lawyer who did my will . . .  just in case), my Metro Card for subway journeys and inspirational items, like a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Like clockwork, the Day-Timer people alerted me each April to renew and each April I did. While worn and held together in one place with tape, the leather carr…

Diving into My Box of Books

My version of Black Friday comes every summer when the Westport, Redding and Pequot libraries in Connecticut hold their gigantic tent sales. Over the years I've made some great finds, especially in foreign language books with emotional or historical interest -- an 1862 Hebrew-German prayer book from Stuttgart, Germany, a 1938 volume of Yiddish poetry by Peretz Markish, who was executed in Stalin's Russia in 1952. This summer, I stormed the tents but saved my big purchase for the last day of the Redding sale, when I could get a box of books for $5. At that price, I could scoop up books I ordinarily wouldn't even notice, just because I could. Here's the haul of my awesome Box of Books, with notes on what I've read, what I thought of them, and what comes next:

The O'Hara Generation, John O'Hara. I'd heard of O'Hara but after watching the film treatment of his novel Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor, I wanted to get a taste of him. I'm now reading…