How the West Was Watched

Almost by accident, I’ve become a fan of classic Western TV shows on METV. The titles alone take me back a half-century or more to a boyhood with a family that huddled around the RCA console to watch Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Wild Wild West.

The more I have watched after finding the programming on Saturdays, the more I felt I had circled back to something vital in my life. Where do our values come from, our role models, our sense of how the world works? The interest took a darker turn after the latest gun-driven massacres in our country, in Las Vegas and a Baptist church in rural Texas, which led me to consider violence as a culturally learned form of expression and problem solving. How do westerns depict violence, who wields that tool, and why? Is the gunplay gratuitous or the last resort against an onrushing threat? How else are conflicts resolved? Before the genre shrank and became the subject of radical rethinking, the western was a big part of the cultural puzzle that shaped these perceptions. I belonged to the last generation that lined up outside places like the Border Theater in Mission, Texas, to see the latest John Wayne movies, like El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit. Through METV, I hoped to learn something about 2017 in the entertainment of the 1950s and 1960s.

METV gives a snapshot of each show and a short description of each episode. The programs deal with social and ethnic issues that could be the background for today’s more revisionist westerns. Two chosen at random from The Big Valley in October 1965:

  • Heath investigates violence during a strike at a Barkley mine. He finds that the miners hate the Barkleys for promises not kept. The family sets out to make things right before the Molly Maguires strike again.
  • A hispanic family is in a land dispute with the Barkleys. Maria, the young daughter of the family, falls in love with Heath. Her father disapproves of Heath’s illegitimate birth, and uses the land crisis as leverage to force Heath and Maria apart.

From Have Gun, Will Travel, 1957 and 1958:

  • At a stagecoach stop, Paladin sees a peaceful Cherokee rancher being beaten by white men who think his cattle are spreading a sickness. Paladin offers his help.
  • Paladin is hired to stop a vineyard from being ruined by seepage from an adjacent oil well.
  • Paladin defends a schoolmistress who’s being theatened for teaching about war crimes that took place during the Civil War

The influence on me includes literature. In my early teens I read several books in the Sackett series by Louis L’Amour. As an adult, I read the whole Lonesome Dove trilogy by Larry McMurtry (much of it set in the South Texas where I grew up), the blood-soaked novel The Son, also set in Texas and spanning the 1830s into the 1980s, and the outstanding non-fiction book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne.

Next up on the Western reading list: The Virginian by Owen Wister, a 1902 novel I saw at a local library book sale and tossed into my $5/bag of books. I recall the series inspired by the book being on in the 1960s, until I was in my early teens, but it didn’t make nearly the impression on me of, say, The Wild, Wild West. I’ve heard the book was memorable, so I’ll dip into some 1902 entertainment.

Whatever the media, the possibilities to touch on hot-button issues are endless. I’ll find the episodes that jump out at me and take a look. My goal is to view them from two directions at once: as I saw them as a kid, and what messages I can tease out 50 years later as an adult.

Searching For That Red-Letter Day at the Hidalgo County Courthouse

My father recently called me to find out the date he and my late mother were divorced. He needed the information for a matter involving his military pension.

“You were one of the parties there, not me,” I said, both amused and annoyed.

The papers had all been misplaced, he replied, in moves from South Texas to Michigan to the East Coast. He hoped I could apply my sleuthing skills to dig up the details. With some reluctance, I agreed. I knew I’d be walking into an emotional minefield.

My parents were married and then divorced in Hidalgo County, Texas. The divorce took place between 1960 and 1962. I hoped the public records would be online, but the Texas divorce decrees are online only back to 1968. The county government’s website offered up a likely source to call for details. Never could I imagine, 40 years after I last lived in Hidalgo County, that I would be dealing with the district court in Edinburg to request this document. But I pulled up my big-boy britches and did what I had to do. If not me to help, then who?

I called and spoke to a woman who took my details and said she would contact me when she found something. I pictured her rummaging around among the divorce decrees buried deep in a box on metal shelves down in the basement of the county courthouse, like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

After several days, my father called, anxious to get the information. I didn’t have anything to report.

“I could give you the contact’s name and number and you could call her,” I suggested.

“No, you have the right accent to talk to her,” he said, a comment that would have riled me 40 years ago as a dig at my South Texas roots but these days I just let it go and take it as a point of pride.

While waiting for a response, I recalled my mother, who died in 1984, carried in her purse her divorce notice from the public records column of the local paper, the McAllen Monitor. That must have been some kind of red-letter day in her life. I checked with my brother, but he didn’t remember that and didn’t have a clipping.

After a week, the court official called. She found the divorce decree, which she scanned and emailed to me. I thanked her for her service and immediately called my father with the date, from 1961. I mailed him a printout of the decree, having no interest in keeping a hard copy for myself. To the extent I can, I’ll leave the past in the past rather than dwell on it. My father was deeply grateful for my successful South Texas sleuthing.

The document unsettled me. Here I am, on the verge of my 60th birthday, reading about my brother and me when we were still toddlers. There was the child support order, payment of legal fees and the other mopping-up of the end of a marriage. I read it once and gladly rid myself of it. The decree had a toxic quality, since I knew the rancor, resentments and silences that would follow in the decades after that red-letter day in Hidalgo County. I can envision the day, my mother taking time off from her job as a secretary at an insurance agency in Mission to drive to Edinburg in her Chevrolet Corvair. She did what she had to do in court, probably smoked a cigarette and returned to work to support her family. Knowing her, she might have sent a thank-you note to her lawyer for his service.

Fifty-six years passed and the decree cycled back to me. I did what I needed to do with it.

To close the loop, I mailed a handwritten thank-you note to the court official who sent me the document. She did her job well and made several lives a little more secure. Meanwhile, my father and I will share a weekend lunch with our significant others at a Chinese restaurant after my birthday.

The Unspeakable Number Explained

During an August visit to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I enjoyed the huge exhibit “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950.” It ranged over painting, prints, photography and murals, with plenty of explanation of the pieces’ context.

And then I came to one that stopped me cold and sent my memory back 50 years. The exhibit showed a poster with the title “Los 41 Maricones” and below that a poem “Aqui Están Los Maricones . . . Muy Chulos y Coquetones,” based on a 1901 scandal in Mexico City where 41 men were arrested at a social event where 19 dressed as women. The exhibit translated the title as “The 41 Faggots . . . Very Cute and Coquettish.” The history of the episode can be found here.

The notorious illustration.

The notorious illustration.

 

The poster and explanation stunned me because it explained a mystery that goes back almost 50 years. During my 1960s days at William Jennings Bryan Elementary School in Mission, Texas, boys regularly invoked the number “41” to signify something. What, nobody knew. But the meaning always spanned naughty to rude to vile and shameful. I never asked, and I wonder if anybody, kid or adult in my heavily Hispanic town, knew. If anybody knew, they weren’t talking.  Maybe this was common knowledge that the gringo population never picked up on, in our ignorance (emphasis on “ignore”) of Mexican culture and history.

Mystery surrounded the number 41. When smirked on the playground, it had vague but alarming vibrations, something best avoided. By the time my classmates and I reached Mission Junior High School, puberty ran wild and numerology mattered far less than the adolescent blossoming all around us.

The forbidden number sank like a stone to the bottom of my consciousness. But it’s there. To this day I can’t see the number on a sports uniform or license plate without a tiny shake of recognition. He said 41. Still, I never knew what it meant and never even looked it up.

Then, at the Museum of Fine Arts, I read all about it.

The explanation made perfect sense, a direct allusion to homosexuality that nobody, but nobody, back then would want to explain or acknowledge except as a sneering shorthand.The number and the episode behind it referred to matters far beyond social propriety. Hearing it in South Texas made sense, given that Mission was three miles from the Rio Grande. The permeable border allowed cultural influences to cross both ways. Over the decades the Mexican meaning of 41 seeped into the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. It became part of the myths and mysteries that kids passed along.

Does the meaning still resonate in the Valley? I don’t know. Maybe this essay will shake some memories out of the trees of 50-somethings. I did discover that the 1901 scandal continues to echo, with a group reversing the number’s shameful meaning into an affirmation. Honor41.org describes itself as

Honor 41 is a national Latina/o LGBTQ online, 501 c3 non-profit organization that promotes positive images of our community, creates awareness about our issues and builds an online family/community.

The word “Honor” means pride in English and Spanish.

The number 41 has a derogatory connotation in Mexican culture. For over 100 years calling someone “41” or associating anyone or anything with that number labeled them maricon/joto which in English translates to calling someone faggot/gay.

By adopting 41 in our name, we take away the negative, oppressive power associated to the number; we educate others about this important moment in LGBTQ history; we honor their legacy; and honor our own lives and contributions to society.

Honor41 envisions a world where Latina/o LGBTQ individuals can live their lives with honor, by being “out”, with acceptance from their families and community, and fully integrated in all aspects of society.

I like that approach. Take the term, turn it around, own it, use it for good. Take 41 out of the shadows and nullify its sting. Maybe the meaning will be different for the next generation.

Breaking and Mending, Forgetting and Finding

First Basil the rascally cat pushed my favorite coffee mug off a kitchen counter and it shattered. Then my six-month old Sony a5000 camera froze up while I was on a lunchtime photo prowl in midtown Manhattan. I lost my favorite kippah from the Jewish Hospital in Berlin. Finally, I accidently recycled my $369 commuter rail ticket; I’m sure I did.

This spring brought more its share of micro-exasperations as favorite possessions broke or vanished. Chalk the string up to forgetfulness or disorganization or the fragility of consumer electronics, but I kept stumbling over myself, only to take a deep breath, pick myself up and try again. The lesson: Things can work out if you give them time.

First, the coffee mug that Basil nudged over the edge was from the Red Bull gift shop in 20170507_105011-1Crawford, Texas. I bought it in October 2008 during a visit to Central Texas before starting a new job in the days before the fateful presidential election. Besides armadillo refrigerator magnets, I picked up a coffee cup that hit all the right notes, with an outline of Texas, and, best of all, signatures of George and Laura Bush. I used it for nine years, each sip a little political jab of decaffeinated pleasure. Then Basil combined with gravity to bust it up.

I have relatively few purchased possessions that mean something to me; my Crawford coffee cup is one of them, purchased at a time of enormous personal and national change. I whisked the pieces into a bag. Determined to replace the cup, I checked eBay and even emailed a gift shop/restaurant in Crawford. No suitable replacement could be found.

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After some brooding, I fetched the bag with the remnants out of the garbage. The cup had shattered into a half-dozen big pieces with a few shards. Armed with the strongest glue I could find, I reassembled Cup Crawford, except for the shards. I’m not drinking out of it but it’s holding together and I do have this memento of the turbulent fall of 2008. It sits on a shelf in my home office, well away from feline attention.

 

Next, I couldn’t find my favorite kippah, which I got at the historic Jewish Hospital in Berlin in 2014. The hospital, t20170507_104908he only Jewish institution in Germany to operate through World War II, was where an elderly friend of mine had studied nursing. Twenty years after her death, I finally paid my respects with a visit to the hospital. I use the kippah on special occasions. I wore it to an event at my synagogue, and the next time I wanted to use it I couldn’t find it. I flipped through other kippahs in my office—on the shelf under the glued-together Cup Crawford—but it wasn’t there. Checks of my coat pockets and the floor of my car turned up nothing. After a few days I worked through the other bar mitzvah and wedding kippahs, and, sure enough, there it nestled. I’m using it about as often as the broken coffee mug these days.

The real problem, with a price tag, emerged on March 31, when I opened my wallet and realized my April Metro-North commuter ticket was not parked directly behind my March ticket and my driver’s license. That’s where it always goes. Having once thrown away the new ticket rather the old one, I have a ritual to avoid such screw-ups: I remove the ticket and put it immediately in my wallet. Human hands do not touch it until the first day of the new month on the train, when I carefully remove the old ticket and rotate the new one to its rightful visible place in my wallet.

But the April ticket had vanished. I removed every scrap of paper from my wallet in case I misplaced it. Nothing. I distinctly remembered opening the envelope, since I noticed, grumpily, the increase in the fare to $369. And then . . . did I toss the ticket and the envelope and various inserts into the recycle bag? I methodically dug through the recycle bin outside, checking every piece of mail. Then I checked my pants and shirts from the laundry, in case I had carelessly tucked the ticket there. Zip.

This put me in a jam since the next day was April 1. I knew I could use my March ticket for the ride in, which I did, then I used an off-peak with a $6 extra charge for the ride home. Rather than spring for a new monthly or even weekly ticket, I decided to tough it out for the month by telecommuting, and buy single tickets for the times I had to go to the office. I talked to the customer service desk and couldn’t cancel or replace the lost ticket, which is just like cash, I was told.

“A lot of people are filing complaints that they didn’t get their April ticket,” she told me.

“But I remember getting mine,” I replied, morosely.

So, I was up the creek without at MTA paddle.

Working remotely is nothing uncommon for me, so I humped along all week. Then Saturday, I flipped through the mail and—there it was, the MTA envelope. Stunned, I opened it and found the April ticket that I had convinced myself I had received and opened. But I hadn’t. Instead, I had auto-inflicted some public-transit version of False Memory Syndrome. Going forward, I’ll treat the monthly ticket with even more TLC. I thought about getting an electronic version of the ticket for my cell phone, but then what if I lose my cell phone (something that’s never happened in the 16 years I’ve had one)?

Finally, the tale of the broken Sony a5000 camera deserves telling. The malfunction especially irked me because the Sony replaced an earlier camera, a Panasonic Lumix, after it malfunctioned. To provide the full context, the Lumix froze with its zoom lens extended after it fell out of my backpack the night before. Nobody could fix it, so before a vacation I got the Sony (side note: I eventually fixed the Lumix myself by giving the zoom lens a firm twist, like wring its neck, that kicked loose whatever glitch kept it extended). It worked fine during two weeks in Berlin in Amsterdam and I learned more about its operations.

Then from one minute to another it went on the blink. YouTube videos suggested the problem was a dirty connection between the removable lens and the camera’s body. That didn’t work, so I contacted Sony, which advised me to take the camera to Photo Tech, the authorized repair place in New York for warranty work. Yes, the camera was still covered by the one-year warranty.

On the day before Good Friday, I walked down to Photo Tech on West 36th Street. I didn’t know what to expect, given the problems I’ve had with dead laptops and printers before. From the moment I stepped up to the counter, Photo Tech impressed me (unsolicited rave to follow). The customer service rep noted the problem, removed the battery and memory card, gave me a receipt and a time to check on the repair status.

There’s no drama in the story. At the end of the next week I picked up the camera, fully fixed, something about a problem with rings in it. No charge, no nonsense, all professionalism. Thanks, Photo Tech. If a camera breaks again, I know where I’m going.

The camera repair closed out my month-long crazy cycle of losing and finding, breaking and repairing. Everything worked out, other than a cracked coffee cup from the Western White House. I’ve got plenty of other coffee cups, anyway.

Balm of Baseball Memory

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A portrait of the writer as a 13-year old Astros fan.

Now that Super Bowl LI has moved from conclusion to legend, let’s turn our attention to baseball. Our story begins after a recent lunchtime workout at the New York Sports Club in Rockefeller Center.

In the locker room, I walked by a guy who must have felt strained. He was rubbing himself down with balm. While I didn’t see him, I caught the aroma of the balm wafting around us. That scent, that instant, was all I needed to trigger a cascade of 45-year old memories.

The smell of balm carries me back to the athletics center of Mission High School in Mission, Texas, where I had been the baseball manager for my freshman and sophomore years in the early 1970s. I became manager by default; my delusions of actually playing for the Eagles baseball team ended quickly, given my inability to hit, field or throw. Still, coach Jake Longoria shrewdly pegged me as the perfect manager, one who combines the talents of a mule, farmhand and nurse to lug the equipment, rake and water the infield, store the players’ watches and wallets during the game and play faith healer to the pitchers’ achy-breaky arms.

So I became the manager and that’s where the balm comes in.

As baseball history shows, pitchers have a rough job, in the physical sense. They do a fast, repetitive motion that puts their young arms to enormous stress. Those arms get sore during a game and need TLC. At some point after a game I’d rub down pitchers’ arms with balm. I especially remember working on Rudy Gallegos, our pitcher with the overpowering fastball.

Over my two years as manager, the aroma of balm imprinted itself in my memory. Cozy, warm, immediate, relaxing, even a marker of male bonding—balm packed all those positive connotations. Over the last four-plus decades, that unmistakable scent takes me back to steamy Texas nights, road trips to McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville, the crack of the bat, pranks on the bus, wins and losses, the swoosh of sprinklers watering the field after a game, the sharp knock of bats rattling around in a maroon canvas bat bag (which I used as a laundry bag in college).

The smell of balm is my gateway drug to other baseball memories. The Houston Astros moved into the Astrodome—accurately touted then as “the eighth wonder of the world”—when I was in elementary school. A family friend took my younger brother Cooper and me on a trip to Houston to see the Dome. Fifty years later, I can still remember the thrill of walking into that cavernous space age oddity. Round, cool and ringed with those candy-colored seats, the Dome could easily hold the entire population of Mission five times over. In those days, when the three- or four-story Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg was the local skyscraper, the Astrodome simply had no rival for a “wow” factor. I became a staunch fan of the struggling Astros.

Summer nights passed with a transistor radio pressed to my ear, listening to the staticky radio signal from almost 400 miles away. On drives back from family vacation in San Antonio, my family would listen to AM broadcasts of games in our 1968 Chevy Impala with the white vinyl roof. While New York kids cheered on the Mets’ 1969 pennant drive, I was happy that the Astros finished the season at .500 (including a July 30 sweep of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium). My mother thrilled me on my 12th birthday with the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I devoured its lists of players, teams and their records, and wondered how Connie Mack could spend 50 years managing just one team, the Philadelphia Athletics.

Since then I’ve seen major league games, with stops at Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field (well, across the street in the rooftop viewing areas), and long-gone Cleveland Stadium, plus the Astros at Minute Maid Park. I can still read a box score. Despite the sleep demands of my post-middle age body, I prop myself up to watch every World Series game to the final out and beyond, no matter how late it goes. Of course that included the rain-delayed seventh game of the screaming, stomping, heart-stopping 2016 Series.

And if I run out of energy and doze off during the midnight commercials during the Series, I know I’ll eventually wake up and smell the balm.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.