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.

 

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, and Victory.

The remembrance struck the right balance of comfort and grief, recalling roommates and friends lost over the decades, a reminder of our own mortality as the fresh graduates of 1980 are now working through retirement and grandchildren and whatever comes next in life on the far side of middle age.

On Sunday, thoughts of the memorial were on my mind when I found a copy of the Hartford Courant newspaper to read on the trip home from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut. I scanned the obituary page; this section is a signal function of newspapers, a printed record of lives as recalled by family members and friends. They reflect not just lives, but also the economic, spiritual and civic aspects of a region.

As I looked through the Courant, I found a most notable memorial, a very rare example of a literary genre you could call the do-it-yourself obituary notice, a first-person summing-up of a life well lived. Diane Cusson began her life celebration with these words:

I, Diane (Hanson) Cusson, 72, grew up in East Hampton, CT., a small rural town and died on May 27,2015. I met my husband, Kenneth “Ken” Cusson, in Manchester, CT.. I graduated from Manchester High School, Class of 1960. While Ken was home on leave in 1963 from the Air Force, he called me. We started dating and I wrote daily letters. I dedicated “Since I Fell for You” by Lenny Welch to him on radio station WDRC in Hartford. He could pick up the station while at Loring Air Force Base in Maine. I got a phone call on New Year’s Eve of that year and he proposed marriage. We got married on June 13, 1964 and have been partners and friends for 51 years. We went back to Maine for our honeymoon in my 1954 red Chevrolet with $50.

Cusson’s life review goes on for hundreds more of compelling words; I’ll leave it to readers to click through and explore her travels, faith and family. She sounds like the kind of friend and neighbor we would all value.

The idea of writing your own memorial, be it for a newspaper or the Princeton Alumni Weekly, makes sense. Have a say in your final narrative. I’ve never thought about it, but now I will. We Princetonians are practiced at this sort of retrospective self-analysis. Those of us who revel in the pageantry and rituals of the major Reunions will put pen to paper every five years to write an essay for the class Reunion book. Your collective essays add up to a relentless statement of life’s progression through decades. Last weekend marked my seventh major Reunion–and now the heat is on for me to get cracking on my online submission for the 35th Reunion essay. I’ve been a laggard about this, unusual given that the idea of writer’s block is foreign to me.

My essays, which chronicle work, lack of work, marriage, lack of marriage, fatherhood  and other highs and lows of my life, get me started on the DIY memorial. They sketch my view of life at key dates; all that’s lacking is classmates’ perspectives. When the moment comes in far distant decades for PAW to run my memorial, I’d like to think the memorialist of that time can draw from my own words in the Reunions books to capture my thoughts on my life, just as Diane Cusson wrote so well about her life in the Hartford Courant.

If technology makes it available, perhaps even this very essay will be quoted as a meta-memorial, my final message to the future.

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.

Bklyn Museum-edit

That’s all. No address, no name, no closure. After my pulse returned to normal, I wet a finger and ran it across a word to see if this was, in fact, an actual written note and not a pre-printed piece of performance art that some transgressive artist had photocopied and stuck into my backpack as performance art.

The black letter smeared slightly. The writing was real.

I thought about this mind game of a note, which did not match any reality that occurred that evening at the museum, where I strolled with my girlfriend the whole time. The only time a note could have been slipped into my backpack was when it was in the check room. Not even a Mossad super-agent could have done the drop in the seconds between the time I got the backpack and when I noticed the note.

I’m left with a mystery of identity and intent that cannot be solved.

This comes about 40 years after other mysterious notes blossomed in my locker in high school. The similarity in anonymous, teasing targeting is remarkable. Somebody knows how to get inside my head, first in 1975 when I was a teen, then 40 years later when I’m past middle age and relentlessly approaching senior citizen status. Times change, but the mysteries of human contact linger on.

I still have the notes from the years of high school confidential. They bore the initials “M.R.” The apogee came with the piece shown below. I thought I had saved them, but I can’t find them. Somehow I expressed my curiosity to M.R. and she responded with loopy adolescent female notes that eventually make references to her buck teeth. I’ve turned over every file and yearbook I have but can’t find anything but the piece de resistance, a piece of heavy mat card, colored on one side in a stylized “W” and written on the other.

MR front-2507_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The back of the card said, “Someone lost something, all yours, FINDERS KEEPERS. This is a suviner from an admirer ‘M.R.'”

MR back-2510_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never heard anything else. I doubt M.R. used her actual initials. It could be one person, it could have been a group project from kids who wanted to see how I’d react. I imagine I reacted exactly the way they wanted me to.

Forty years later, the note in the Brooklyn Museum sent my musings backward to M.R. For all I know M.R. and I are connected on Facebook, or I’ll see her (and never know) at my fortieth high school reunion next summer in the pulsing humid heat of Hidalgo County, Texas. Maybe she’ll read this and come clean, if she even remembers.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and the other digital toys, I wonder if the art of the handwritten anonymous mash note has been lost, dissolved and made beyond quaint in the waves of the Web. The Brooklyn writer must at least be in her 40s to have the wit and drive to actually write an anonymous note. I can’t see somebody raised on iPhones doing that. Writing a note and sticking it in a book bag or in a locker — that’s basic training in the emotional arena of mind games. The impulses must play out online, but I just don’t know. I can safely guess, however, that nobody is going to hang on to a tweet or IM for 40 years.

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 revive Michael using CPR, but there was no AED available, and by the time the paramedics arrived, Michael could not be saved. In a matter of moments, Michael was gone.

The foundation was formed to educate the public on AEDs and collect funds to support research and donate AEDs to places where they can be available to save lives, like schools and sports facilities. It has donated AEDs to groups throughout Connecticut, and outside of the state. More information about its finances can be found at the Charity Navigator site.

Michael’s mother was working at the table and graciously shared information about the group. I instantly liked her and the simple focus of the Dragonheart Foundation. Educate, donate, save lives. Nothing about it was flashy or overdone, just one group with one goal, based on the loss of one son, husband and friend.

If your group could benefit from an on-site AED, consider filling out the nomination form to get a donated AED. The nomination form can be found on the site. It’s better to be prepared than not. Knowing CPR and having access to an AED are things you never need . . . until the desperate seconds when you need them more than anything.

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 carrier dutifully carried the Day-Timer insert with me around the world, surviving moves among a half-dozen Lands’ End shoulder bags and now backpacks.

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Over the decades I scribbled dates, reporting notes, lurches of inspiration, song lyrics, phone call records, books to read and movies to see in the pages. Some pages became reminders of fateful occasions, and I saved those for September 11, 2001 and June 13, 2003, the latter the day I got divorced at the courthouse in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Even as friends ditched Day-Timers and Day Runners, inertia and a lack of alternatives tied me to my favorite organizer.

And then I finally, reluctantly, got a smart phone in October 2014.

I was way late to that digital revolution, having stuck with my LG Chocolate “dumb phone” for four years while everybody else snapped up iPhones. But ever the techno-Luddite, I stayed with what I had.

I stayed with it until I finally realized that lack of access to email and limited IM were causing me social problems. After loads of research, I settled on a Samsung S5 and entered the brave new world of smartphones.

When I leaped into the smartphone lifestyle, I still had eight months of Day-Timers left, and I kept using them, but I noticed what I used them for. To be honest with myself, note-taking took up more space than actual date keeping, given my simple lifestyle. My social calendar takes little upkeep.

When March came around, I downloaded a Google Calendar and then the Evernote app and bravely decided to ditch the Day-Timer.

I expected a blizzard of mail and even phone calls from the Day-Timer marketing team, alarmed that I had not renewed. After all, I had always heard that client retention drives businesses, that once you have a client, fight hard to keep him. I’d had that experience with the American Civil Liberties Union, which I joined for a year after losing a Facebook bet that the ACLU would support a particular party in a free-speech issue (I thought the ACLU wouldn’t support a group; it did, but it did, so I ponied up for a membership). I let my membership lapse after a year and have had the ACLU regularly sending renewals for years. The Forward newspaper, to which I’ve subscribed since its English-language edition debuted in 1991, always expresses alarm when I fail to promptly renew, although I finally do, but I delay just to see how hard the paper will work to keep me as a subscriber.

So what would Day-Timer do after over a quarter century of clockwork renewals?

Nothing.

No calls, no emails, no price reductions, no expressions of concern at the onrushing loss of an annuity stream of income, nothing to indicate I counted for anything more than a few easily ignored digital blips in the Client Relationship Management (CRM) database. How hard will Day-Timer need to work on new client acquisition to replace an old-timer who probably could have been won over with a price reduction, just for old time’s sake?

The silence says everything I need to know. At least the ACLU and the Forward tried, and the Forward always wins, I just like to make the paper work for my capitalist shekels.  My Galaxy S5 apps are keeping me on top of my schedule, and I have a yearly page-a-day diary at work as backup in case I need to supplement the phone with something scribbled down.

Despite the month without a Day-Timer, I still carry the insert around in the beloved leather holder. I’m realizing the concept and the holder (a memorable gift) satisfy some deep psycho-social need, far beyond practicality. Call it an office version of a security blanket. Forsaking the monthly inserts, I may try to find the notepad inserts at Staples and use those, for the moments when my reporter instinct kicks in and I have to start jotting notes.

Old habits may not ever die, they just transmogrify themselves to another plane of existence.

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