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Showing posts from 2016

Killing the Russian, 1934 and 2016

Observers with a historical bent sought a proper framework for the Monday assassination of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, in Ankara. I thought of the killing of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, which led to World War I:  The parallels were clear: Balkan-ish location, unknowable repercussions, regional conflicts inflamed.

The more I think about what happened, as murky as it is still, the more I cycle back to another December murder of a popular Russian (then Soviet) official who was also a victim of a mysterious collapse of security arrangements.

I'm referring to the December 1, 1934 murder of Leningrad Communist Party boss Sergei Kirov, which took place in Kirov's office at the Smolny Institute. The usual tight Soviet security had vanished. Petty criminal Leonid Nikolayev had tried to kill Kirov before and didn't even get his wrist slapped, According to Wikipedia (as succinct a discussion as I could find):

With Stalin's approval, the NKVD h…

Beach Reading at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof

My September vacation in Berlin and Amsterdam with my son gave me a chance to do something I rarely enjoy: read novels, in big blocks of time. By leaving the laptop and iPad at home and limiting my smartphone use, I found sweeping vistas of unencumbered, undistracted time, the way other people chill out with their paperbacks on the beach. On planes, on trains, at hostels after a long day of pounding through the Old World’s streets and museums, I could turn to books.

Here are notes on what I call my "beach reading at the Hauptbahnhof," named after the main train station in Berlin, located a five-minute walk from our hostel.



My  selection hewed to genres I like. At home, I sometimes dip into books with limited page-turning potential, like those of late English authors Anita Brookner and Virginia Woolf. This time, however, I skipped intricate, interior-focused, emotionally challenging reads in favor of, in this order:
World War Z by Max Robins (borrowed from a Little Free Librar…

1980 and 2016: A Tale of Two Graduates

I’ve never wanted to live vicariously through my son Sam. His mother and I imparted good values to him, and we let him blaze his own path. With a passion for all aspects of video games since he was a tyke in Batman pajamas, Sam did exactly that, majoring in the interactive media and game development (IMGD) program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. From the day we toured WPI and learned about the game program, he knew that was the right direction for him. He applied, he was accepted and now he’s a graduate.

I’m delighted with Sam because he made a huge academic leap from my undergrad years at Princeton University. Bowing to pressure my divorced parents to find a “practical” major that would give me something to write about as an aspiring journalist, I majored in economics rather than English, history or even classics or Slavic studies. Only one economics class grabbed my interest, “Analyses of Capitalism,” with its focus on philosophy rather than equations. My B- gra…

You Lose It I Find It

I’m a finder. Staying alert to what’s going on around me means I find moments in time that need a little personal attention. That may include a FedEx deliverer struggling with a load of spilled boxes; a frail woman pushing groceries to her car; a tired mom with an even more tired kid stepping into a crowded subway. I must give off a finder vibe; once in New York an elderly, well-dressed woman on Park Avenue grabbed arm and said, “Help me get across the street.” And I did. If I don’t give the universe a push in the right direction at that moment, who will? I must have picked up that attitude from reading Raymond Chandler’s novels about LA investigator Philip Marlowe, sallying forth to right the wrongs of the world.

The same drive to act goes even more so with lost objects. They’re not so common, but they drop into my field of vision at times. I’ll snatch them up and treat them as a portal into an adventure. After all, a lost object implies a loser of that object, who typically has a ve…

A Farewell to Netflix

I had a great run as a Netflix subscriber, six or seven years of film exploration, one red envelope at a time. But after my Significant Other got the full FIOS package with HBO and Showtime plus Amazon Prime plus Netflix Streaming, my cable choices became so massive that I found myself taking longer and longer to watch a DVD from Netflix. The days when I could turn around two movies a week (as when I swept through Mad Men) dwindled down. And my queue was growing stale. Some genres, like Holocaust documentaries and the collected works of John Cassavetes, had been lingering there for years as French fare of the Belle de Jour type and 1950s film noir rocketed to the top. As a result, I pulled the plug.

I’ll always think fondly of Netflix because it let me broaden my film knowledge. The ease of searching and suggestions for related films let me go deep in emerging interests, like French new wave, which I found I really enjoyed. Films like Jules and Jim, Breathless and Rififi were very app…

My Life as a Sydney Schanberg Fanboy

The passing on Saturday of Sydney Schanberg, the NY Times reporter and columnist best known for his coverage of Cambodia, stirred me deeply. He had been one of the writers I most avidly followed in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

I can't remember when I first became aware of him, probably in college in the years after the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia. I'm sure I read Schanberg's New York Times Magazine story  "The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia," the basis for the movie "The Killing Fields." I remember my excitement to see the movie version when it appeared in 1984.

I still have some of the "New York" columns that Schanberg wrote for the Times. A sample, from December 4, 1982, is titled "Wall St.'s Turn to Help," The lead got right to the point of the column:
That the city's fiscal bind is urgent seems to be seeping in. Once sign of this collective acknowledgement is that Mayor Koch is proposing to revive th…

This American Life's Shalom Auslander and Elie Wiesel: It's All in the Timing

Writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel died on Saturday, July 2. On Monday, July 4, I heard writer Shalom Auslander using Wiesel in jokey Holocaust-related material in a podcast segment called "Paradise Lost" on This American Life. The episode had the theme of "Got You Pegged," about snap judgments gone awry. "This American Life" summarizes Auslander's segment like this:
Shalom Auslander goes on vacation with his family, and suspects the beloved, chatty old man in the room next door is an imposter—and sets out to prove it. This and other stories about the pitfalls of making snap judgments about others. The timing seemed peculiar, to say the least. I realized this was a podcast and it might have been scheduled well before the airing, which was on July 1, according to the home page of This American Life. Especially on a holiday weekend, the archive would be a good place to find material.

Still, wry Holocaust observations two days after Wiesel died surpri…

My Night at LaGuardia Airport

The devastating attack at the Istanbul airport came a day after I had flown into New York's LaGuardia (LGA) Airport, returning from my high school reunion at South Padre Island, Texas. The confluence led to some very sobering thoughts about the vulnerability of at least LGA to a terrorist attack. For all the talk about beefed-up security, what I saw through the daze of 10 hours of travel alarmed me as I stumbled around LGA after midnight.

A series of unfortunate events placed me at the airport far later than I had planned. My plane from Dallas was supposed to arrive at 10:20 pm on Sunday night, Instead, it left Dallas an hour late and I arrived at LGA at almost 11:30 pm. Then I had to wait 20 minutes for my carry-on suitcase to arrive in the baggage pickup, after I had had to check the carry-on because of a lack of overhead-bin space in the back of the plane -- I was in the dreaded "group four."

LGA was already shutting down. My plane must have been one of the last to ar…

Mt. Kisco Noir

I was heading into the Mt. Kisco Target for a new kitty litter scoop today when the two Westchester County Public Safety prowl cars rolled up by the front doors. At the same time, an elderly woman and another woman, probably a caregiver, came out to talk with them. I kept walking; I had two containers of Edy's ice cream from the adjacent Stop & Shop in my car, quickly melting, and I needed to get the scoop and get going. Lost wallet? Angry voices over carts bumping? I didn't know. I wasn't sticking my nose into somebody else's business, especially since the cops were there.

Ten minutes later I had my scoop and hit the exit, wondering if I'd find a puddle of ice cream in my Hyundai. The prowl-car boys were wrapping up with the women. The older one spoke with some agitation into her cell phone and told the caregiver she needed to call Social Services. Something about an alarm going off.

"But I don't have a pen and paper to write things down on," she…

The Long Good-Bye, As Recorded in the Back of the Book

When the new issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW) rolls around, I read through it carefully. The back of the book sections, Class Notes and Memorials, are always worth a close scan. I've made occasional appearances in the former and have no current plans to pop up in the latter.

Details of the memorials sketch the great swaths of social and political history in which individuals lived. Men's lives (and they were only men until co-education in the early 1970s) mostly followed patterns of early marriage, entire careers spent at a single company, civic involvement and a graceful retirement, often involving either a boat or golfing.

What strikes me with the most impact for graduates from the late 1930s through the late 1940s, however, is the connecting tissue of military service. The natural course of life now offers up the long good-bye of memorials for men who fought in World War II. Their memorials are matter of fact, with just the basics of involvement, but the backgroun…

Stephanie Lee's Art of Everyday Joy

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening of artist (and friend) Stephanie S. Lee's new show, "Roar," at the Piermont Flywheel Gallery in Piermont, NY, on the west bank of the Hudson River, just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.




contemporary ideas. Indeed, "Roar" vibrates with the presence of big-eyed tigers, house cats, dragons and other creatures. She also touches on themes of motherhood, car keys, and desktops (real desks, not computers) with a touch of both the everyday and the fantastical. I found it all approachable and observant, and marked by painstaking attention to artistic technique. Her website summarizes her outlook aptly:
My humble wish is for you to seize a tiny sparkly moment out of endlessly chaotic everyday life routines to be grateful for and for that moment of gratitude to be accompanied with my paintings. Stephanie's artist statement on the Flywheel site describes the cultural drivers of her artwork:
Dejected to see the Korea…

The Law of Attraction on Metro-North

About once a month somebody starts a conversation with me on the train. I don't go looking for these exchanges, but I must emit electromechanical impulses that pull the lonely talkers toward me. Call it the Law of Attraction on the Harlem Line. I never completely ignore the talkers since I'm curious about where the conversations will go. While some get a polite murmur or two as I keep my nose in a book, I avidly engage others when I sense a common ground. Sometimes I'll even start the conversation if the person is reading a book I've enjoyed or is wearing some obviously orange-and-black Princeton attire. Usually I do more listening than talking, knowing that, one way or another, I'll exit the train an hour after it leaves Grand Central Terminal.

Two talkers grabbed me in the past week, both times on the way home from New York. The first time, I was sitting in facing seats, with two visiting tourists laden with bags across from me. I sat down after they moved some b…

Synchronicity, Cubed; Or, the Greatest Blog Post Never Completed

[I started to write this almost three years ago and I had a brilliant topic in mind. Then I got distracted and completely forgot what I was going to write about. But here it is, in all its frustrating glory. Maybe lightning will strike again and I'll take better notes.]

When a phrase or concept appears twice in unrelated contexts, that's notable. Twice, it's proof of intelligent design in the universe. Three times, and I need to write a blog post about it.

I had the brain-tickling but unnerving triplet of coincidences lately. I always pay attention to these connections because they happen so rarely.

Let Me Have a Euro-Word With You

As a language buff (or dilettante), I found the book Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe riveting. Author Gaston Dorren covers a lof ground in 60 chapters organized into nine parts. I can pay this book the highest compliment: it made me stop and think about languages, including my own, those I have tried to learn, and those I hadn't heard of it. His book is best enjoyed as a feast of individual items, selected according to a reader's interest, rather than a single integrated explanation of linguistic issues.

Dorren ranges across the history of obscure and major languages, and how they survived and struggled. He stops in Iceland to consider a language that's mostly unchanged over the last thousand years, makes a pit stop at Esperanto and ponders the number of ways the language of the Samis, better known as the Lapps, refers to the concept of "snow." After a while my head started spinning, especially with languages and ethnic groups that weren't fam…

Apocalypse Now, and Then

I recently watched seasons 4 and 5 of The Walking Dead (TWD). I found the series mesmerizing and haunting, brimming with moral questions about survival, loyalty, the need and nature of violence, how societies function, how societies evolve when traditional structures vanish. I kept putting myself in the show, wondering what I would do and how long I would survive (probably answer: not very long).

TWD is simply the latest in my long chain of fascination with apocalyptic literature and film. I never tire of the genre and I'm not the only one to look for such works. The new NBC series You, Me and the Apocalypse is just the latest.

As with so much in life, I can trace my apocalyptic vision back to adolescence.  In junior high school, I read the book Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Published in 1958, it is about a town in Florida that survives a nuclear attack.

What really drilled the end times into my consciousness was the Charlton Heston film from 1971, Omega Man, for my money still one …