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 background details of disrupted education and families, and ever-present danger, can be imagined. These are the ones, after all, who survived the war; one of every 30 Princetonians who served was killed, a total of 355. We will not see the likes of this common martial bond again in our lifetime, God willing.

Memorials from the May 11 issue of PAW bring out the terse language and what followed in a handful of lives. Some samples from just one issue, all illustrated with graduation photos:

Bruce R. Alger ’40: “After a brief stint with RCA, he joined the Army Air Corps and captained a Boeing B-29 based on Tinian Island, logging 23 bombing missions over Japan.”

George H. Erker ’44: “During World War II he was a Navy pilot and served in the South Pacific. In 1943, he married Barbara Griesedieck. He became a stock broker in St. Louis after the war, a career that continued for more than 50 years, up until the day he died.”

Edward D. Walen ’44: “During World War II he was in the Air Corps Technical Training Corps and was assigned for 18 months to the China-Burma-India theater. After the war, Ted returned to Princeton with his wife, Barbara Gahm, to earn his degree, then went to Harvard Business School.”

Joseph K. Gordon ’47: “A graduate of Episcopal Academy, he did not begin his Princeton career until he had served three years in the Navy, including seven months on a light cruiser.”

Alfred F. Shine ’48: “He served with the Marines during World War II, was stationed in the Marshall Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific, and was wounded in combat. After he graduated from Princeton in 1947, Al was called again to active duty, first in Korea, and then for a year in the U.S. military’s occupation of Japan. Meanwhile, he married Mary in 1949, and they were together until her death in 1995. Al’s entire business career was with Prudential Insurance Co.”

With the decline of military service, either conscription or voluntary, the memorials fragment in the last 50 and 60 years. The military is no longer a given in life arcs. Men and women from Princeton still serve ably, and I am proud that my class counts among its members Gen. Mark Milley, the Army Chief of Staff, along with ambassadors and other skilled diplomats and public servants. What common themes will memorialists from the coming decades say about the classes ever more distant from the Greatest Generation? I leave that to them.

Well, maybe not totally to them. As both an ’80 class officer and a writer, I may have a certain control over what my memorial says, in the far future (so I hope in terms of timing, anyway. But as my late mother, a World War II veteran herself, used to say, “When your number’s up, your number’s up”).  The first memorial in the May 11 issue shows how that’s done. Read the memorial of veteran and tunesmith Richard R. Uhl ’39 to the end.

Dick died July 1, 2015, at his home in Redding, Conn.

He prepared at Lawrenceville and graduated from Princeton with high honors and a degree in music. Dick’s career in advertising as a musician and producer of radio and TV shows began immediately but was interrupted by four years in the Army. After being discharged as a captain, he joined Sullivan Stauffer Colwell & Bayles as executive creative director.

Dick was a trustee of the Westover School for Girls, a member of the board of the Aaron Copland Heritage Foundation, and an elder of the Huguenot Memorial Presbyterian Church.

With lyricist Tom Adair, Dick wrote the song “Everybody Every Payday,” the official song of the second War Loan Drive in 1943. His song “A Romantic Guy I” was the theme song of Robert Cummings’ first TV show. His bicentennial hymn, “We Who Love Our Land,” won an award from the Hymn Society of America.

Dick is survived by his wife, Emily Detwiler; daughters Laura, Emily, and Elizabeth ’82; and three grandchildren.

Our class secretary from 1981 to 2007 and memorialist until 2010, Dick wrote 453 columns and 418 memorials, including all but the last two sentences of this one. The class expresses deep gratitude for his faithful chronicling of our lives and our deaths.

 

Yes, that’s how I can see my last PAW appearance taking shape. But the story has a way yet to go before the long good-bye.

 

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.

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Her paintings are big and bright, blending traditional Korean themes and styles with 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 Korean traditional folk art (Minhwa) becoming disconnected and distant from the modern day society, Stephanie S. Lee had a discerning desire to preserve it by reenacting it. Employing the unique symbolic, decorative, and symmetrical attributes of the Minhwa while applying the traditional methods, Lee compares and reinterprets the lost touch with the tradition while reconnecting with the modern art.

Some other background: Stephanie and I worked together in the early 2000s in the New York proposal department of a Big Four accounting firm. I was a writer and she was a designer using Quark to put the final proposal packages together, work that involved a lot of late nights working with teams in our Park Avenue office. Tat lasted for several years until we were laid off on the same day in 2006, along with almost the whole of our national operation. Stephanie and I went our separate career ways and finally connected on Facebook. Still, we hadn’t seen each other in a decade and I was grateful for the chance to see her vibrant art and catch up on our lives over the past decade.

“Roar” is on display at the Flywheel Gallery through March 27, so treat yourself to something different and get over to Piermont. If not, Stephanie’s website gives a wide-ranging overview of her work in different formats.

 

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 bags. Then a man got on at 125th Street and offered to move the remaining bags to sit down. The women didn’t understand English and couldn’t tell what he wanted.

“Ok, I’ll go stand out in the vestibule,” he said with a belligerent edge in his voice. Finally they saw the point and he moved the bags to an overhead rack. I was deep into reading the book “The Beautiful Bureaucrat,” and put out now conversational vibes. I did notice the man didn’t have a backpack or briefcase, just a cell phone and a tablet. He made some calls, either to family members or business related. We sat knee to knee but I studiously avoided interacting with him.

The train moved along and he started talking about how lousy the train system was. “The German and the Japanese, after the war, got the latest technology. We’re still using train technology from the 1840s,” he groused.

“I think the Germans and the Japanese paid a pretty high price to get that technology,” I said.

“If we had the $7 trillion we spent in the Middle East we could rebuild the infrastructure.” He sounded like a man on the edge, needing only one comment cross-ways from his world view to push him in a direction I didn’t want to see. I gave fewer and fewer details to questions about my family or work.

Then he began griping about real estate prices, how he had lost a lot of the value of the home he bought in Westchester. I said I wasn’t aware of that since I didn’t own any real estate. I really began to back away when he said people weren’t moving to communities in our area because the public schools were becoming, shall we say, more diverse, and guys like him had to send their kids to private schools even as their property values tanked.

He finally got the point I was trying to avoid him. “I’m sorry, you’re reading,” he said. I relaxed for a stop, then he started in again. I feared he was getting off at the same station I was, but he left a few stops before, to my relief.

Saturday night, I was coming home after seeing the play “A View From the Bridge” by Arthur Miller. My favorite newstand at Grand Central happened to have the Jewish Press,the voice of Orthodox and black-hat Brooklyn, and I buy the paper when I can find it; the newstand veers in and out of stocking it. I snapped up a copy and settled in to browse the paper, which is now far thicker than the venerable Village Voice, another publication I’ve read since I moved to New York in 1980.

I’ll admit I liked to display the Jewish Press to see if anybody notices it. Not only am I one of the rare souls on the train reading a print publication, but I was reading one a little different from, say, the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker. For some people, the Jewish Press may be a provocative as American Rifleman.

Sure enough, before the train left Grand Central, an elderly woman across the aisle asked me where I got the paper. I said my favorite newstand happened to have it, so I bought it.

“Is is Orthodox leaning?” she asked.

I pondered my answer. “It IS Orthodox, and moves out from there,” I said. “You’re not going to find any Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist tendencies in the Jewish Press.”

I said I have subscribed to the Forward newspaper since it began publishing an English edition in 1991, and she was interested in also subscribing, but didn’t know who to contact. She lacked a computer and didn’t know how to proceed. I looked up the subscription number on my phone and jotted it down on the Press’ front page — and told her I’d give her the Press when she was leaving the train.

The talk went in a political direction. First she asked what I thought about the death of Justice Scalia, and I told her the vicious comments about his passing saddened me. She felt his positions went against Jewish values and she had no problem with his death. For the election, she was a strong Hillary Clinton supporter. I wondered how she would react if I declared, “Hillary doesn’t belong in the White House, she belongs in the Big House!” but that would have been unfairly provocative and cruel. As with the earlier conversation, I simply let her talk.

“Do you like Bibi?” she asked, referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“He’s the right man for the time,” I said, and we moved into Israeli politics, where her views surprised me. Besides liking Netanyahu, she also was a huge fan of Ariel Sharon. I would have never suspected. Then again, she had lived in Israel and had experienced the country first-hand.

We talked more about family issues, dating, and she asked about my Significant Other, knitting and listening to a podcast beside me. We exchanged business cards in case topics of mutual interest arose, She asked me to keep an eye out for a not-tall cultured single man who was looking for a similar New York Times-reading woman. I made a pitch for my dating book, so we both used our chat as a sales opportunity.

Her stop came and she left, Jewish Press in hand. I’m glad we engaged.  I’m looking forward to the next encounter that the Law of Attraction throws at me.

 

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 familiar to me. From Polish name formation to the struggles between Russian and Belarusian, Dorren covers the linguistic waterfront.

Let’s start with the last entry, titled, “The global headache: English.” I’ve always sympathized with those trying to learn English, with its maddening spelling and pronuncation. Dorren takes the difficulties one step further and compares English to Chinese in degrees of difficulty as a global language with the most speakers. Dorren comes down on the side of English as the more difficult language. While learners of Chinese get used to the pace and varying tones of Chinese, it can be done. But English vowel sounds and the subtle differences in them are baffling to learners. Moving on the spelling, Dorren thinks the Chinese are more likely to come up with a simplified spelling system. The lack of inflection is a plus for both languages, so nobody gets extra points for that.

The comments on Finnish also caught my attention. I’ve always heard that Finnish is one of the truly hard languages to learn. in fact, it’s the easiest of all European languages to spell, with its economy of letters. He writes,

When it comes to the letters themselves, Finnish is also easier to learn. There is no c, q, w, x or z, except in foreign words, and even these are often respelled: pitsa, taksi, kvanttimekaniikka. B and f are only seen in loan words. For a genuine Finnish word, 21 letters suffice (19 common ones plus ä and ö, which count as separate letters). In other words, five fewer than in English. This amounts to a savings of nearly 20 percent.

The chapter on Italian jumped out, detailing its wealth of diminutives, augmentives, pejoratives and affectives. The process is common enough with other European languages, but Italians excel at this. What was striking is I had never contrasted this aspect of language to English:

In English, however, they are quite scarce, though the -ie suffix is used to create diminutives such as “Ronnie,” “hottie,” “sweetie” and so on. And English does have a lot of old diminutives, such as kitten (a small cat), darling (a small dear), towelette (a small towel) an buttock (a small butt — have the size, to be exact). There is, however, no mechanism for the routine production of new ones. In Italian, on the other hand, there are loads.

Dorren provides some examples relating to women, mostly with negative connotations, which is too bad, since I immediately conjured the image of Sophia Loren when I read the chapter. There’s donnicciuola, a simpleton of a woman, and donnicciuoluccia, a very small woman, and then donnina, donnetta and more. For the big-boned ladies, Italian has donnona, donnone and donnotta, each with shades of meaning. On the more pejorative side, with an aspect of size, you have donnettaccia, donnacchera, donnaccia and donnucciaccia — nothing I would want to apply to my dear Sophia.

I thought about how English covers this topic. While Italian has a system in place to create a bewitching edifice of words based on donna, in English takes another direction. Some of the concepts exist but they are distinct words, not flowing from a common root. That may just reflect English’s status as a language with a huge vocabulary that easily borrows from other languages. A little German, some Spanish, a little Old English, maybe some Irish (“lassie”?) and you’ve got your word list in place.

Now, what language am I inspired to study (or re-study) based on this? What Sophia Loren movie is next up on Netflix? Che bellissima!

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.