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 of the best of the genre because of Heston’s rock-like presence, the stark images of a deserted downtown Los Angeles and the kill or be killed relationship between Heston’s character, a scientist with plenty of weapons, and the light-sensitive cultists who survived a plague and want to kill Heston and his representation of technology. Fellow survivor Rosalind Cash, tough talking and sharp dressing, introduces a wary romantic angle.

Sex and death go together in Omega Man. Heston’s violence and his coupling with Cash and her big Afro hairstyle hit me at just the right age to be dazzled by the combination of love in a time of danger.

The impressions stayed with me as I read Stephen King’s The Stand, wordy but with powerful images, and saw the mini-series with adorable Molly Ringwald. Independence Day, 28 Days Later, 28 Months Later, The Day After Tomorrow (the rare apocaptic movie where global cooling is the threat, not space aliens or zombies or viruses) and the compelling World War Z, with an Israeli angle. Lately I’ve found myself turning to books with the long slog of Seveneves, when the disintegrating moon creates a hard rain that destroys life on the surface of Earth with the survivors reduced to seven women in a space station; Station Eleven, a very well done novel of survivors after a fast-moving virus (is there any other kind?) wipes out most of humanity, with some very eerie imagery, such as planes taking off from an airport and never returning.

Read enough and patterns emerge. What’s left of society inevitably returns to a Hobbesian jungle where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short; the Age of Aquarius isn’t part of the picture although false hopes of new ways of living tantalize survivors (a theme in TWD).

The fearful attraction of the literature comes down to the question of a personal test: Could I survive? Against the weather, the aliens, the breakdown of civil society; could I bring any useful skills and the mental toughness to make fast, sometimes bloody decisions? My Significant Other says about herself, “Oh, I would be the first to die.” I’d like to think more positively, but I know the feeling. I’m an Eagle Scout, so if being able to tie a square knot, pitch a tent and find the Big Dipper enhance the odds of survival, I’m all set. But the characters on TWD and in the world of Station Eleven need more of the stalking and skinning skill set, not to mention lethal combat.

Still, I try to nudge the odds in our favor. I’ve already planned our escape route if society goes totally haywire. We’ll load up backpacks, put on our sturdiest hiking boots, stock up on granola bars and my multi-tool Swiss Army Knife and we’d hit the road (driving, I’d hope, not walking) to my brother’s ranch in the Houston area, stocked with a fish pond, cattle, trucks and enough other protective devices to keep a small army of zombies, foreign invaders or overly sensitive college students at bay.

And I’d take a cell phone charger. I don’t know how I could survive at all without that.

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 connects young New Yorkers to elderly Jews. She wanted to know if I had a nice time at the office party of my then-employer, Quick Frozen Foods magazine.

“I’m sorry, Rena, I can’t talk right now,” I said before reaching for a trash can.

“Oh dear, oh dear!” she said with alarm in her heavy Berlin accent. But I slept it off and put her mind at ease.

If that was the low of holiday parties, the high, in several senses of the word, came in December 1996. After a gruesome year of unemployment after being laid off from my last job in journalism, I had landed a position in the firmwide communications department of Price Waterhouse, then the smallest but best known of the Big Six accounting firms.

PW lived up to its quality reputation with the 1996 holiday party held at the Rainbow Room at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center. As a fan of art deco, I found the building breath-taking, and the event itself marked a graceful return to employment, if not life stability. I wore a suit (which PW employees did as a matter of policy in what I now recall as days of high formality in corporate attire) and felt I had slipped into a 1930s high-society film.

I strolled around the Rainbow Room and looked at New York on a snowy night. That’s what I recall most clearly — the snow falling and blurring the lights spread before me. After the family-wracking challenges of unemployment, that 1996 holiday party marked a new beginning, the end of a year of chaos and the start of another of hope and stability. From high above New York, I stood, I hoped, at the end of a rainbow.

The rainbow receded, its colors slipping beyond my grasp for more years. The family and the job changed in ways I couldn’t imagine. Oddly enough I eventually worked for a law firm right there in 30 Rock, and I walked through that art deco lobby every day. Over the past 20 years of holiday parties, I’ve smoothed out the wretching lows and the snow-dome highs to find a pleasant balance that matches a life lived moderately. That’s a positive place to be.

And I’ll always have the memory the snow pelting down beyond the windows of the Rainbow Room, suggesting magic.

 

 

 

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 Wilson’s name throughout the rest of the University, President Eisgruber promises to email Katie Hall, the chair of the Board of Trustees, to start discussions with the Black Justice League (BJL) about Wilson’s legacy on campus. President Eisgruber also promises toward greater ethnic diversity of memorialized artwork on campus.

Ridding Princeton of the troublesome Wilson will be easy. Finding replacements could be almost impossible as Princeton plays the Game of Names. That’s the problem Eisgruber and the Board of Trustees will encounter as they try to balance the BJL demands with the needs of Princeton as a 259-year old institution and the views and pocketbooks of thousands of alumni.

Let’s look at the obstacles, and then some of the leading contestants.

Left to the administration and the alumni, straightforward options for new names would emerge, based on a combination of civic significance and donations to the University. Recent examples would be Whitman College, named for Meg Whitman ’77 after a $30 million donation, the Frist Campus Center, Icahn Laboratory, Bloomberg Hall, Lewis Library and more. Eric Schmidt ’76 (Google) and Jeff Bezos ’86 (Amazon) donated millions for endowed technology programs. Every Princeton class has entrepreneurs, public servants, business leaders and artists who could endow a building or program. Given my modest finances, I may be able to endow the Wallach ’80 Memorial Urinal Cake Dispenser at Building Services, but I’ll do what I can.

The troubles begin if protesters get to apply the heaviest thumb to the scales of selection in the Game of Names. Given veto power on new names, the BJL will, I imagine, concoct a vetting process with a rigor and pitilessness rivaling the Spanish Inquisition. Woe to those Tigers whose interrogations uncover the slightest implication in any deed or thought, public or private, that could be construed to show racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, colonialism, heteronormativity, white privilege, climate change denial, Zionist tendencies, suspicious use of Yik Yak, or excessive enthusiasm for the First and Second Amendments. Readiness to write a $100 million check—my estimate of the minimum donation required to chisel your name across the Wilson School—would mean nothing against the taint of incorrect thinking. The proceedings in Nassau Hall would combine Stalinist show trials with The Maury Show, as in, “Bob, the political DNA results are in and you ARE a racist!”

Think about candidates for Woody Woo’s new name. They should be people of high-profile civic accomplishment and impact. Off the top of my head, I can suggest:

  • John Foster Dulles 1908, the Secretary of State under President Eisenhower.
  • Allen Dulles 1912, first civilian director of the CIA and a longtime diplomat.
  • George Kennan ’25, a diplomat and Ambassador to the USSR and Yugoslavia. He wrote the hugely influential “Long Telegram” and the article “The Sources of Soviet Policy,” which influenced U.S. policy during the Cold War. I had the honor of seeing Kennan in person in September 1976. As a freshman interested in Soviet affairs, I attended a discussion at Woody Woo on the topic of “Alexandr Solzhenitsyn as a Historian of the Russian Revolution.” That summer I had read Kennan’s book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, so I knew about the legendary diplomat and thinker on Cold War issues. He sat in the seminar room and listened, then offered some cogent comments.
  • Donald H. Rumsfeld ’54, whose career in public service began as a U.S. Congressman from Illinois in 1963 and wrapped up 40 years later as Secretary of Defense for during George W. Bush’s fateful first term.
  • Ralph Nader ’55, who needs no introduction.

Except for Nader, all are non-starters. They are straight white male conservatives who led or influenced U.S. strategies in the Cold War or, in Rumsfeld’s case, the ongoing War on Terror. None would pass the vetting process for the new generation of anti-Wilsonians. I could see Rumsfeld getting alumni support, but given his role in the Afghan and Iraq wars, student demonstrators and their allies would never, ever go for the Rumsfeld School of Public and International Affairs. Well, what about the Senator Ted Cruz ’92 School, honoring a distinguished Wilson School grad?  Don’t even THINK about that macroaggression!

Reunions 352-edit

The Cruz School? Not yet. His rendezvous with destiny comes later . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A better bet: Nicholas Katzenbach ’45. An Army Air Corps flier and POW in World War II, Katzenbach was a law professor in the 1950s and served in the Justice Department in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, rising to Attorney General. As Deputy AG, he confronted Gov. George Wallace in 1963 during successful efforts to desegregate the University of Alabama. He also played a role in the Warren Commission investigation into the killing of President Kennedy.

Despite Katzenbach’s fine qualifications, I can’t help but think the BJL would demand a bolder direction, a definitive break from the WASP past. So my best guesses for Woody Woo: Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 or First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama ’85. Both would bring the gender and ethnic diversity that demonstrators want.

I’m placing my bet on Sotomayor. I heard her speak at the 2014 Alumni Day, when she received the, umm, Woodrow Wilson Award, the University’s highest honor for undergraduate alumni. She has an inspiring life story and a long legal career. Sotomayor impressed me as a confident, warm and fast-on-her-feet speaker who charmed the audience during a speech and Q&A at Alexander Hall.

Bottom line: Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a good all-around choice who could satisfy most stakeholders. Farewell, Woody Woo, hello SoSo! Sorry, Rummy.

Now, what about Wilson College? I know the place; I lived in 1938 Hall as a sophomore in a six-man suite of colorful characters, including one we nicknamed “Disco Tony” and another who had the complete Warren Commission Report. I made good friends at Wilson College, friendships that continue to this day.

Wilson College’s new name should go in a different direction from that of the Wilson School. Woody Woo is a sober place where students wrestle with fateful global issues. Wilson College is a dorm and social complex. The new name should break away from typical Princeton pattern of honoring individuals known for seriousness, purpose, industry, achievement and philanthropy. Princeton has plenty of that; what’s missing campuswide in building honors, as far as I can tell, is “fun.”

So if President Eisgruber and BJL want to win over wary Tigers, they should offer up a name that is a little less “Princeton in the nation’s service” and a little more “Princeton in the nation’s entertainment.”

Possibilities abound, from the late actors Jimmy Stewart ’32 and José Ferrer ’33 to director Ethan Coen ’79 and actor David Duchovny ’82. Director Andrew Jarecki ’85 causes a stir whenever he releases a documentary, such as Capturing the Friedmans, Catfish and The Jinx. Robert Johnson *72, who earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the Wilson School, founded Black Entertainment Television and has a stellar record as an investor, corporate board member and philanthropist. I don’t know anything about their politics, but the inquisition can uncover any counter-revolutionary tendencies, Some members of the Junior Anti-Sex League might take offense at Duchovny’s naughty 1990s Showtime series, Red Shoe Diaries. “Kidnap” episode, anybody?

To me, the most compelling choice would bring more gender diversity with a well-known name and face. This person may not have the right revolutionary chops, but I’ll nominate her anyway:

Wrap your mind around Brooke Shields ’87 College.

Shields majored in French literature, appeared in the Triangle Show and is a loyal grad. Granted, she joined the selective Cap & Gown eating club, made those sizzling ads for Calvin Klein jeans (“You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”) and starred in a series of racy movies—Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love—but Shields would be a big, bold, beautiful name in my brackets of the Game of Names. Not that Princeton needs more applicants, but the draw of Shields College could attract lots of positive attention at the high school level.

How these issues will play out is anybody’s guess. The ink was barely dry on the Nassau Hall agreement before other students formed the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, which won a splash of publicity as a counterbalance to the disruptions sweeping college campuses. President Eisgruber will meet with POCC soon. BJL and others will encounter other determined Tigers who are going to speak out on the Game of Names. The commentaries pro and con Woodrow Wilson speak to the passions of the moment.

While we’re waiting for the Game of Names to start, how about a traditional Princeton Locomotive cheer for my favorite candidate?

‘RAH! ‘RAH! ‘RAH!
TIGER! TIGER! TIGER!
SIS! SIS! SIS!
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
AHHHHHHH….
BROOKE! BROOKE! BROOKE!

A Story of Sevens

When it comes to time cycles, the Torah had some unnervingly accurate things to say. Just in Genesis, we find the seven days of creation, the seven years that Jacob worked for Rachel (getting Leah, and then working again for Rachel), the seven cows and the seven ears of corn in the dreams that Joseph interpreted. The stories take a personal meaning because they helped me view my own life over the last 35 years as a series of seven-year cycles. Or, more accurately, I’ve lived through major life changes come around every seven years. I’m sure deeper thinkers have more to say on the Judaic significance of these cycles, like this guy.

The seven-year cycles began in 1980. In the most fateful decision of my life, I moved to Brooklyn a week after I graduated from Princeton University. I was starting a job at Forbes magazine as a reporter-researcher and needed a place to live. A Forbes editor had just left a share situation in a brownstone on State Street so I moved in. My hometown of Mission, Texas receded into my personal history as Brooklyn and a high-pressure job in publishing set my future. As soon as I moved, I began a quest for a Jewish experience that I had lacked in my life. My quest took me through every mainstream branch of Judaism, with stops at the Village Temple, the Flatbush minyan, Lincoln Square Synagogue and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, before I finally settled on the Kane Street Synagogue.

1987: After three fun but poorly paid years as a freelance writer, I join Video Store Magazine. As the same time, the glorious summer of 1987, I start dating my own Rachel, whom I would marry two years later in the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn. After months of diligently studying Russian at the American-Soviet Friendship Society I embark on an epic tour of the USSR with two college friends, with stops in Moscow, Tblisi, Sochi (yes, the Olympic Sochi, which I’ll always think of as a seaside resort) and Leningrad. Life is extraordinarily good.

1994: I’m still at Video Store, and that summer my wife and I become the parents of Samuel, with the Hebrew name of Reuven Yisroel. A bris on the eighth day welcomes him into the covenant. I’m a work-at-home dad — not so easy to do as I imagined. What did I expect? A year later, Video Store lays me off from what became my last job in journalism. Good-bye reporting, hello (eventually) corporate communications!

2001: Seven years later and everything falls apart rapidly. I’m laid off a writer/editor job by a consulting firm as the economy tanks, then 9/11 happens six weeks later and 45 miles away from my home in Connecticut. Sam is at a Jewish day school iwhen I learn of the attacks, and I recoil with fear at the thought at his school could be an unprotected target. Then my marriage finally reaches its end. Life reaches a nadir of personal and professional bleakness.By early 2002 I have a job as a proposal writer for an accounting firm, and by October I move out of the house as the divorce process picks up speed.

2008: By the time the next cycle turns, the wreckage of 2001 had been gradually repaired. In 2008,after five years of thrashing around in the online dating world, I meet Naomi, a graphic designer, and we start building a relationship that looks very promising, built on a sturdy foundation of indie music and film and ice cream. I weather the financial crisis that hits in September in my new job doing proposals at another accounting firm.

2015: A new cycle, a new place. After seven years as a couple, I moved in with Naomi. I’m in a new town in a new state — or rather, I returned to New York after 24 years in Connecticut. In a nifty bit of cyclical magic, I celebrated my 35th Princeton reunion in May, gong back to the launching pad from which I started my adult life in 1980. Sam is doing a senior college project in Kyoto, Japan and will return in early October. I’m now visiting shuls in my new area to find one that works for my partner and me. I’m at a Modern Orthodox shul for the High Holidays, a place with services remarkably similar to Beit Chaverim, the Modern Orthodox shul I attended in Westport. We’re checking out a range of places, with no denominational restrictions. Indeed,  The year 2015 will no doubt find me settled into a new shul with a liturgy that now sounds very familiar to me.

2022: To be continued.

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 (Afghanistan for the Russians, Iraq for the Americans) where the foes don’t wear uniforms and use children for attacks, and where the local culture sometimes shows an eerie and chilling politeness to the military forces. Both movies feature tough operational lectures by commanding officers. 9th Company is especially striking with the in-country professional outlining what’s “haram” — forbidden — in Afghanistan and he stresses the women. That’s not an issue in American Sniper, but the cultural context is similar. Out against the enemy, the geopolitical forces that drove the interventions vanish into the background and the motivation force narrows down to protecting your squad and yourself while executing the mission. The western technology edge, especially the helicopters, looms large.

The films share a climactic battle, with Russians stranded on a hill, Americans isolated in a building under attack. The Russians get the worst of it in the movie (although the reality wasn’t quite as Alamo-like as film version with the Russian version of the Lone Survivor) and the Americans, with Chris Kyle, do what Americans do in a howling sandstorm.

I wondered what the discussions would be like if U.S. and Russian veterans met to talk about their war experiences. The U.S. government opposed the Soviet invasion and imposition of a Communist regime in Afghanistan, and funded the mujahadeen, with fateful results. The Russians came and went, and then 12 years later the Americans came and threw out the Taliban, but we’re still there. What would they say? What did they accomplish, what bonds, if any do they share?

I won’t push the parallels too far; The U.S. Army is by no means the Red Army in training or combat approach. Still, the overlap of the experiences as strangers in a strange land is striking. I can only hope the genre does not grow larger.

 

 

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 I read a paperback version of The Caine Mutiny, complete with illustrations from the movie. In high school, the great long long read was The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gone with the Wind figured in, also, along with seeing the movie in one of its periodic re-releases. College found my nose stuck in Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Bleak House made me a confirmed Dickens fan and I went on, post-college to read many of his books, all of them doorstoppers in size. I tried Atlas Shrugged at one point but just couldn’t get going, although I still have it. Stephen King’s enormous The Stand also gripped me, with some truly haunting scenes of social chaos and survival. I even watched the mini-series with Molly Ringwald.

My literary wanderings continued with two 19th century books always linked in my mind: Les Miserables and Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick especially impressed me with passages of startlingly modern sound, while Les Miserables played nightly on Broadway, providing constant encouragement to read the book and then see the play. I didn’t see the play until I enjoyed a New Jersey high school production 30 years after I read the book.

For true poundage and long Russian earnestness, nothing can top my early 1990s excursion into Life and Fate by Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman, clocking in at 896 pages in the paperback. I needed two or three rounds of reading to finish this epic of World War II, but it was worth it. The hardcover was enormous and I doubt I could even get it in the backpack I use for my daily train commute.

More sprightly, if you can use that term, was the Children of the Arbat trilogy by fellow Russian writer Anatol Rybakov, consisting of the novels Children of the Arbat (685 pages), Fear (686 pages), and Dust and Ashes (473 pages). Chronicling a decade of life in Stalinist Russia from 1933 to World War II, the trilogy entranced me with is mix of historical and fictional characters

Then there were the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, which I flew through in about a month in the early 1980s.

Which brings me back to The Balkan Trilogy, another war epic. I didn’t read it for length but because the issues and setting grabbed me enough for me to devote considerable time to crunching through the volume. The sense of getting lost in a work, of shutting out the world, still happens, albeit with somewhat shorter works, like, to name some off the top of my head, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Man’s War, The Lincoln Lawyer. I can still find books I like a lot and even write about, but I look for the monumental reads that demand that time and distraction stop and, in the words of Arthur Miller in The Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

In the Internet era, reading a long long book takes dedication, a willingness to get lost and forget the distractions that lurk at screen and phone. That’s not easy. I know. Every time I take a swing through my favorite sites, I’m losing time I could spend on books. Short books, long books and the books I always plan to write. My daily commute, while it requires me to wake up at 5:30 a.m., actually is a treat for me because it gives me a solid hour to read whatever I want free from laptop and desktop, and my smartphone doesn’t count for much. If I can stay awake on the train–always an open question–then I can make some progress, especially if I have a page-turner.

On to the next book.

“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 days. From the centenarians to the 22-year olds, we’re all there. My own favorite Old Guard memory: Seeing Judge Harold Medina ’09 in a golf cart, looking dapper at Reunions in the 1980s — he lived to be 102 and theoretically could have made his 80th Reunion in 1989.

The survey reflected the issues of aging baby boomers: places to visit, 12 percent with grandchildren, location changes and impending retirement, caring for our own aging parents, dozens of comments on career advice, political beliefs. I could pick out some of the comments I made, and I identified with others.

The responses became emotionally grueling when they reached the question about regrets; we all have them. Divorce, living in fear, insecurities, not spending time with parents, no children, no family, limited risk-taking, depression, misplaced values, i nodded my head at several of these, although I never made the mistake of “selling Apple stock,” since I never had any to begin with.

The P-rade sign ideas, mostly jovial, revealed some dark undertones of issues swirling around me as an undergrad that I never imagined, like, “Fear of physical violence as a gay man all my time at Princeton,” Several other sign ideas made that point. I never knew. I never suspected. Was I blind, wrapped in my own gnawing insecurities and academic struggles? Reading these I cringed at the idea of people I know feeling unsafe at Princeton–the fishbowl so apart, I thought, from the mean world. but it wasn’t. And then there was my sign contribution: “A memory: Getting blindly drunk as a freshman, the first time in my life. A valuable learning experience!”

In the middle of the journey of our Princeton life, I hope the classmates who felt unsafe have found their secure harbor in a more accepting society, and that those with regrets balance them with other sources of happiness and peace of mind as we edge closer to the front of the P-rade line. Every five years brings a time to take the pulse of the class. If this is 35, the center between youth and age, what will 70 be, in 2050, closer to the end? I hope to still be around to find out and post another update.

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. Almost 90 years later, with Ukraine independent, the two countries continue their Russia-imposed conflict.

Next I found The Great Terror: A Reassessment (March 14, 1992), Conquest’s masterpiece on the history of the purges of the 1930s. First published in 1968, the book was revised after Soviet records became more open to scholars in the glasnost era. The scholarship is vast, and the details are gruesome, It echoes with analysis, statistics and shocking images of the inhumanity of the era. One passage to give the flavor of the times:

Even when not arrested, families suffered terribly. An attempted mass suicide is reported by a group of four 13- and 14-year old children of executed NKVD officers, found badly wounded in the Prozorovsky forest near Moscow. The daughter of an Assistant Chief of Red Army Intelligence, Aleksandr Karin (who was arrested and shot, with his wife), was 13 in the spring of 1937. The Karin apartment was taken by one of Yezhov’s men, who turned her out into the street. She went to her father’s best friend Shpigelglas, Assistant Head of the Foreign Department of the NKVD, who put her up for the night, but was virtually ordered the next day, by Yezhov’s secretary, to throw her out. Shpigelglas remembered she had relatives as Saaratov and sent her there. Two months later she came back: “She was pale, thin, her eyes filled with bitterness. Nothing childish remained in her.” She had meanwhile been made to speak at a meeting of the Pioneers, approving the execution of her father and mother saying that they had been spies.

Finally, on April 27, 1996, I found Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, which focused on one part of the gulag system described in The Great Terror.

CoConquest booksnquest was also generous in supporting the work of other scholars. In 1990, he wrote a forward for the book Stalin’s Prosecutor: The Life of Andrei Vyshinsky, by the Russian investigative journalist Arkady Vaksberg. I bought it on May 25, 1991. He opens with an invocation of the rebirth of “historical truth” in the USSR under glasnost as archives opened up, and credit Vaksberg as “one of the supreme examples of this new research. He wrote,

Arkady Vaksberg appears in this book as a sane man quietly gnawing away at the roots of paranoid falsification. he is not, of course, the only Soviet citizen responsible for bringing that rotten enormity crashing to the ground. But he has played a unique role in the process. Above all, as I have said, he has shown that extraordinary instinct for the discovery of records which in principle still remain inaccessible, but of which copies exist i the possession of various institutions or individuals.

Other sources give details about Conquest’s life and enormous impact. I think of him as my guide to the vast stretches of the inferno that was Stalinist Russia. I can only thank God that my ancestors left Ukrainian shtetls around 1900 for the US, or I could have been caught up in the nightmare. His comments on the deluded Western intellectuals who supported the Soviet enterprise and the Stalinist show trials stand as a warning to us in 2015 about those who excuse or rationalize new forms of terror and suppression of free thinking.

His works cannot be studied enough.

 

 

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 the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows.

All are now tainted with the branding reproach of racism. Down the memory hole with them all.

But wait, can’t we reason together to find another solution somewhere between acceptance of the status quo and ISIS-esque destruction of anything associated with the detested ancien regime? Yes we can!

While Woodrow (actually, that’s his middle name, Thomas being his actual first name) is a distinct moniker, Wilson is a common name shared with many accomplished and noble individuals who should pass through the fires of political correctness relatively unscathed.

My idea: let’s simply remove “Woodrow” and replace it with a more suitable first name. Problem solved!

Princeton can lead the way in the de-woodrowing process, as painful as it may be. The Wilson School, otherwise known locally as Woody Woo, can be our starting point.

An elite school favored by aspiring diplomats and law-school applicants, the Wilson School has a great reputation. A new name must reflects its worldwide standing and connect it with innovation, leadership, creativity and, given Woodrow Wilson’s health-impaired last years, a degree of poignancy and sadness.

In all the Wilsons of the world, I can think of none more fitting to assume the heavy mantle of leadership than the founder of the Beach Boys and an authentic musical genius, Brian Wilson.

Newly renamed, the Brian Wilson School of Public and International Affairs would be a pacesetter in the application of surf tunes and soaring vocals to the world’s most pressing problems. Where all the chi-squared regression analysis, Keynesian economic theorizing and multilateral “getting to yes” negotiations fail to move the needle on global crises, why not try “Little Deuce Coupe” to set the right tone for a conference on green transportation alternatives? Try locking the Ukrainians and the Russians in a room and listening to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”—they’d find common ground for an agreement. And for any Princetonians who ever had a post-high school summer romance with a girl named Barbara Ann, like I did, then “Barbara Ann” would be the perfect song to play when Tigers leave campus for summer adventures.

On a more serious note, Brian Wilson’s struggles with mental illness and drug abuse connect him to Woodrow Wilson’s stroke and impairment in the second term of his presidency, when his wife served as the “real” president, in sort of the way that therapist Eugene Landy controlled Brian Wilson’s health and career.

The timing could not be better for the name change. The biopic Love & Mercy about Brian Wilson just debuted to great acclaim. I’m confident that, with the right approach and serious intent, university management could make the Brian Wilson School of Public and International Affairs a reality by the time the movie appears on Netflix. A gala screening, combined with a Beach Boys set on the plaza outside the Wilson School, would be a perfect way to start afresh.

That’s one Wilson on campus. Now, what about Wilson College, a residential college where I lived in 1938 Hall when I was a sophomore?

This could be easier to fix, since it’s known as Wilson College, not Woodrow Wilson College. Still, the name must be detoxified. Out of all the Wilsons in the world, I’ll suggest the marvelous singer Mary Wilson, an original member of the Supremes along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. She stayed with the group even after the others left and she was the only original member. For that kind of dedication, along with her work advocating for musicians’ rights, she deserves to have a Princeton college named in her honor. She’s organized museum exhibits of the Supremes’ famous stage costumes, and such an exhibit could work well at Princeton as an adjunct to the garish orange and black Reunions costumes favored by alumni.

Mary Wilson College would have a grand inauguration. Brian Wilson, of course, would head on down from his Wilson School for some soulful singing. And given that Mary Wilson sang with a very special group, I could imagine her for musical numbers with Princeton alumni serving on the OTHER Supremes—Supreme Court justices (in order of class year) Samuel Alito ’72, Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81. Together, this tuneful trio could join Mary Wilson and honor her for her decades of music. They might even perform a Supremes classic that deserves to be the theme song for American universities’ campaign for consensual canoodling on campus: “Stop! In the Name of Love.”

The festivities would conclude with a gala bonfire to incinerate portraits of Woodrow Wilson and his collected writings.

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 Magazine. The cards give contacts at movie studios, retailers and trade associations involved with entertainment and consumer electronics. Some cards of note:

  • CompUSA
  • Bizarre Video Productions
  • Mark Harrad, the very savvy PR manager for the anti-piracy program of the Motion Picture Association of America. He would arrange for members of the press to attend FBI raids on places making or selling illegal videos; I was an observer at a Brooklyn raid, an edge experience.
  • Sega
  • Kay Bee Toys
  • Montgomery Ward
  • New York Public Library telephone reference
  • Artist Mark Kostabi, who did a book of his paintings called “Sadness Because the Video Rental Store Was Closed;” I did a story about the book and he gave me a copy, which I still have
  • Tandy Corp.
  • Atari Computer Corp.(written on the back of a Rolodex card that bore the name and phone number of a fellow Princetonian I dated once, more details to come)

Video Store laid me off 20 years ago this month, ending my career in business journalism, so those cards lost any value, but I hung on to them anyway.

Rolodex

Other cards stir memories of personal connections:

  • The phone number for the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; I fantasized about studying Russian there and becoming a kremlinologist or East Bloc-hopping journalist in the twilight of the USSR. But I stayed in journalism and fate took me in a very different suburban direction.
  • Project Dorot, a group matching volunteers with the Jewish elderly, where I was a friendly visitor from 1980 to 1994, teamed with a German immigrant named Rena Frank.
  • A woman named Shira, who I had one date with and then we both moved on to other things and she made a very good life for herself.
  • A woman named Shula (a/k/a Sheila when I met her at a singles event in 1981). We had a date on my 25th birthday and a photo shows us both looking spiffy. She’s wearing a beret like Faye Dunaway wore in “Bonnie and Clyde.” She urged me to eat organic foods and was into algae products.
  • That fellow Princetonian who I dated once or twice, who has the same 212 phone number, over 30 years later. Good for you!
  • Women with the confusingly universal Jewish name combination of Laura/Laurie/Lori/Lauri/Lauren Friedman/Freeman/Friedman/Friedmann/Freidman. I could never remember which was which, although one walked out on a first date we had to see Shakespeare in Central Park. She had to get ready to go to the Hamptons the next day and she saw I was “really enjoying the play,” so she up and left during the intermission. I scratched her off my dating list, but I kept the phone number, or was that the number for Lori/Lorie/Laurie/Laura/Lauren in Brooklyn who liked to get stoned? I’ll never know. Trying to find one Laurie Friedman in New York is like trying to find one Maria Garcia in Texas — the proverbial needle in the haystack of similar names.
  • Texas Monthly, when I dreamed of relocating to Austin in 1990 for a completely different career in journalism.

Two or three decades separate me from these people and memories. Technology moved on. The discardable contact entries in cellphones and computers store the intricate contact details for hundreds of contacts, across multiple phones and emails. I make no more scribbled updates on Rolodex cards or address books. I type updates in bloodless Arial fonts, or just hit “delete and they’re gone.

The Rolodex kept the old paper life around long after the Rolodex lost its use. I’ll save some of the cards just for old time’s sake (a sentimental weakness of mine). But something’s got to give in my endless efforts to declutter and this small tool, a rope tying me to the past that will never be relevant again, has got to go.

Still, for all I know, Shira/Shula/Laurie/Lauren still has a forgotten address book that includes some guy (wasn’t he a writer? Whatever happened to him?) who lived at 131 Amity Street in Brooklyn.