A Farewell to Netflix

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

I’ll always think fondly of Netflix because it let me broaden my film knowledge. The ease of searching and suggestions for related films let me go deep in emerging interests, like French new wave, which I found I really enjoyed. Films like Jules and Jim, Breathless and Rififi were very appealing and approachable, nothing tedious or discordant. Most “art house” movies, I realized, just had subtitles. .

Looking back, several movies stand out. I’m sure I saw most on Netflix, although some might have come from the impressive international section of the Westport, Connecticut, Public Library. They’re all foreign movies. That’s not by design, simply they were the movies that took me from my daily world to places and matters far from my experience. They said something about the human condition, that’s all. Titles that stand out, with some commentary.

Alexandra, Russian. Set in Chechnya on a Russian army base, the movie follows the grandmother of the Russian commander, who comes for a visit. Her interest in and appreciation of weaponry hint at an intriguing life for her during World War II. Alexandra also shows the uneasy interactions of the Russian military with Chechen civilians. The tension builds but never goes in an easy, explosive direction. Honorable mention: Hipsters, a romantic musical comedy set in 1950s Moscow. Not quite girl-meets-tractor, but close enough.

Daughter of Keltoum, Arabic and French. A young adoptee returns from Switzerland to birth family’s home in Algeria, as she searches for her mother and family. Jolting encounters and revelations appear along the way, with sharp commentary on the social situation facing women in Algeria. Outstanding.

Mother, Korean. How far will a mother go to protect her son? This movie explores that question with plenty of twists and turns.

Owl and the Sparrow, Vietnamese. This was the last Netflix movie I saw, a romantic drama set in Ho Chi Minh City. Given the enormous role Vietnam played in U.S. history in the 1960s and 1970s, very little entertainment from that country comes here. We have plenty of U.S. novels and films, but how do the Vietnamese view their society? This is an intensely human movie that shows the universal nature of yearnings for security and love, with nobody truly bad or good.

Strike, Polish. Actress Katharina Thalbach is a force of nature in this look at the factors leading to the Solidarity labor movement in Poland. It follows the main character’s life from the 1960s on, exposing the pitiless working conditions and uncaring union bosses of the Gdask shipyards. The comic and dramatic moments of the beginning are beautifully balanced.

Ascenseur Pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), French. Director Louis Malle’s debut is a crime caper with music by Miles Davis. French crime movies, I discovered, are insanely entertaining and stylish. Breathless and Rififi are just as great.

Knife in the Water, Polish. Before Chinatown, before Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski was a gifted Polish filmmaker. Knife in the Water was his first full-length feature and it shows how highly effective films could be made in the constrained circumstances of communism. Constantly surprising, Knife in the Water gave me a feel for life behind the Iron Curtain, on a boating trip.

Z, French. You’d think a French-Algerian movie based on Greek political intrigue would be a heavy slog, but it’s not. Costa-Gavras’ 1969 thriller has a sense of humor and a driving plot, and it surprised me.

Gloomy Sunday, Hungarian. This is one of the best of the genre of Holocaust revenge movies. Another excellent Holocaust movie, which I saw theatrically, is Black Book, a Dutch film.

I can think of others that impressed me, like one about a young woman drawn into a kidnapping ring (Sequestro Express, maybe?), but I can’t recall the names. These are the highlights from my Netflix years. They all resonate in me and influence what I enjoy watching, when I can find the time. .

My Life as a Sydney Schanberg Fanboy

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

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

I still have some of the “New York” columns that Schanberg wrote for the Times. A sample, from December 4, 1982, is titled “Wall St.’s Turn to Help,” The lead got right to the point of the column:

That the city’s fiscal bind is urgent seems to be seeping in. Once sign of this collective acknowledgement is that Mayor Koch is proposing to revive the recently phased-out stock transfer tax and, more revealing, that this time the financial community is not threatening, in knee-jerk outrage, to move en masse to New Jersey.

(Truth be told, I might have saved that op-ed page because of Russell Baker’s “Observer” column of the same day, on editorial variations of the “man bites” dog story.)

The Times dumped Schanberg as a columnist in 1985 when he criticized the paper’s coverage of the Westway Highway development project; he soon left the Times (slick personnel move there, Sulzberger family!) for New York Newsday, where he was an editor and columnist for a decade. I read him at Newsday,where I had been a summer intern in 1978 and 1979, and retained a great affection for the paper. Schanberg was a terrific addition to a paper that was on the go in those pre-Internet times  Schanberg went on to write the “Press Clips” column for the Village Voice–and he resigned from that position in protest of the policies of the Voice’s new owners. He never let a paycheck stand in the way of his principles. I followed him from place to place, and if there were reporter versions of baseball cards, I would have collected all of his.

These days, I don’t follow any Times columnist with the same enthusiasm. Roger Cohen holds my attention because he’s literate and somewhat unpredictable, and I glance at Ross Douthat,Nick Kristof and Charles Blow. David Brooks? I think of him mostly as a punching bag for more conservative writers. Among the Schanberg generation of reporters, I remain a big fan of 91-year-old Nat Hentoff, who writes fearlessly about civil liberties, the media and his Jewish upbringing in Boston. He had a 50-year run at the Village Voice, then got dumped. But he’s a man with a mission and he’s still out there going wherever his principles lead him..

My editorial tastes shifted to the Internet, and the stable of columnists that most resonates with me now is at PJ Media: Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Fernandez, Roger L. Simon, Ron Radosh, David “Spengler” Goldman. You probably don’t know them; Hanson and Fernandez could add some intellectual heft to the Times op-ed page, but I’m not expecting that to happen since their views would cause a riot among the survivors left (in every sense of “left”) in the Times’ newsroom.

The world moves on, technology guts the old media and something new and shiny and loud replaces it. Schanberg is now gone, but I hope his spirit and tenacity can infuse the tweets and snapchats of the new generation of journalists.

 

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

Writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel died on Saturday, July 2. On Monday, July 4, I heard writer Shalom Auslander using Wiesel in jokey Holocaust-related material in a podcast segment called “Paradise Lost” on This American Life. The episode had the theme of “Got You Pegged,” about snap judgments gone awry. This American Life summarizes Auslander’s segment like this:

Shalom Auslander goes on vacation with his family, and suspects the beloved, chatty old man in the room next door is an imposter—and sets out to prove it. This and other stories about the pitfalls of making snap judgments about others.

The timing seemed peculiar, to say the least. I realized this was a podcast and it might have been scheduled well before the airing, which was on July 1, according to the home page of This American Life. Especially on a holiday weekend, the archive would be a good place to find material.

Still. wry Holocaust observations two days after Wiesel died surprised me.

In the spirit of the podcast’s theme of avoiding snap judgments, I checked This American Life’s website and found that the episode originally aired on August 22, 2008. The confluence of material and demise was simply one of those crazy, unintended trapdoors that the universe occasionally sets in front of me.

What did the formerly Orthodox Auslander say, anyway, that snagged my astounded attention?

He relates a family trip to a Caribbean island for vacation. The elderly, chatty man in the next villa casually mentioned that his wife and parents were killed in the Holocaust, mostly at Auschwitz. The extended quote from the show gives the rich flavor of Auslander’s darkly Jewish ruminations. He said,

I should have been compassionate, I know. I should have taken pad and pen and committed his story to paper for future generations. Instead, I seethed. Twenty minutes of genocide stories later, I went into our villa, closed the door sharply behind me and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips.

I threw my hands into the air.

Auschwitz, I said.

Pardon? (said his wife).

Auschwitz.

What are you talking about, she asked . . .

He’s a survivor, hon, a Holocaust survivor.

I don’t have anything against Holocaust survivors. Some of my best friends are Holocaust survivors. OK, that’s not actually true, but I don’t have anything against them. But if I want to relax and forget about life for a while, maybe hit a bar and get a drink, I’m not going to call Elie Wiesel. “Hey, Elie, how’s it going? I had a tough day, want to come over and we’ll watch Schindler’s List? Bring beer!”

In typical circumstances, the Wiesel reference would have flown by me, a rebellious knock against Wiesel’s somber image. But coming 48 hours after his death, the passage left me queasy. At first I thought I had Auslander pegged as somebody willing to score literary points off a death, but my fact check showed he did nothing of the sort. Anyway, the rebroadcast had been on July 1–the day before Wiesel died. Reality had simply arranged itself to make a line in a long-ago recording reverberate like a crashing gong.

On the other hand, a link from Auslander’s website to a list of his This American Life essays has “Got You Pegged” at the very top. Perhaps Paradise Lost holds a special place in his heart or in listener popularity. I may even listen to his other presentations to hear what else Auslander has to say. I can tell by looking at his credits that our paths have crossed in some ways.

 

 

My Night at LaGuardia Airport

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

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

LGA was already shutting down. My plane must have been one of the last to arrive for the night as retail stores and the TSA area were closed. I had planned to grab my bag and dash to the M60 bus that would take me to the Metro-North Station at 125th Street, where I would get a train home to the suburbs. Instead, the night dragged on. While irately waiting at the baggage carousel, I decided to use the courtesy phone nearby to ask about the schedule and where to get the M60 bus, which I’ve use before at LGA. It’s a great convenience for the price of a subway fare.

I punched in the number on the phone for ground transportation details. I heard only a rapid beep-beep-beep. The phone didn’t work at all, not even a busy signal or endless ringing. Total malfunction. This made me wonder about the state of communications equipment at LGA. That was my first concern.

I got my carry-on after midnight and followed a sign to where the M60 would be on the ground level. I walked past the chaotic taxi line, where hundreds of people waited for cabs to come. Honking confusion colored the scene outside baggage claim. At the late hour people were exhausted and frantic to get away from LGA. If anybody wanted to cause problems, they would find a target-rich environment right here.

I didn’t see the M60. Nor did I see any central point where I could get customer service information, nor did I notice any security. I asked one of the very few airport workers around where I could find the M60. She pointed me to the center island of the pickup area. I didn’t find anything there. I asked another worker, who told me the bus could be found on the upper level.

“How do I get there?” I asked.

“Go inside and take the escalator,” she said.

But the building’s doors had signs saying the terminal was closed from midnight to 5 a.m. for maintenance.

“How can I get upstairs if the terminals are closed?” I asked myself. Simple — I just pushed on a door and went right in. Even at 12:15 am, the terminal felt wide open, if dimly lit. People sat against walls with their luggage, others wandered around. Nobody moved them out or kept a security eye on the terminal. Again, maybe I was missing security that was keeping a low profile, but I felt I could stroll anywhere and nobody would stop me. I could have overlooked some type of security in depth — I was more focused on my escape of LGA than on taking mental notes.

I found the escalator and scrambled upstairs. I did indeed find the M60, bought my ticket from a vending machine, got on the next bus to come and arrived at 125th Street five minutes before the 1:14 am train arrived. That was the next to last train of the night.

My night at LGA unnerved me. I’ve used the creaky, unloved, inaccessible and under-construction airport for decades. New York Governor Cuomo promises a massive overhaul to raise it to a more world-class level. I applaud that effort, but what I saw suggested he’d better kick some NY butt to raise the basic operations of LGA right now. Have courtesy phones that work; have readily visible customer service reps at all hours so travelers aren’t stumbling around confused and trying to sort out their transportation options. Monitor access to terminals so that “closed” means “closed,” not “closed unless you push on the door.” I can’t imagine the desperation of travelers with small children or those who can’t speak English or lack a sense of where they are going at LGA.

In the wake of the Istanbul bombing, New York will, as always, ramp up security at airports, train stations and other target-rich hubs. That’s all well and good and I welcome the additions. But unless the basic infrastructure works, I’m afraid a temporary uptick in the police presence is not much more than security theater.

And I don’t want to be there when the theater’s curtain comes down.

 

 

Mt. Kisco Noir

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

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

“But I don’t have a pen and paper to write things down on,” she said, as I walked by

I went five steps and remembered I had a pen in my shirt pocket. I turned around and took it from my pocket.

“Ma’m, here’s a pen for you,” I said.

“Thank you!” she said, sounding relieved.

“You can keep it,” I replied and turned back to the melting ice cream in my car.

When I see a dame in distress, I don’t look away. Sometimes I’ll give her the shirt off my back, sometimes the pen in my pocket. What can I say? I’m a writer. I carry a pen.

When I got home, the ice cream was slightly mushy, but tasted great.

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!