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.

I, Techie

Here I am on the 7:17 a.m. train to Grand Central, typing my first blog post on my brand new refurbished Dell Latitude E6430 laptop. After a three-year gap, I finally have a new used laptop so I can pound out my prose on the train.

The gap started when my Apple PowerBook G4 became too outdated and gave up its iGhost. I bought it off Craig’s List in 2006, having gone through two Dell laptops over the years. While I wrote much of a book on the PowerBook, I never warmed up to the Apple experience. After it became impossible to use, I pried the hard drive out, spiked it with a screwdriver and jumped on what remained a few times, then left it on the recycling table at the Westport, CT, town dump.

Since then I’ve done fun writing on my home desktop, with a Lenovo CPU and Acer monitor. Still, I missed my laptop. My hour-long train commute gives me a great window for writing, away from the phone and Internet. From past projects I know I can be highly productive (like I am now, stopped at the Chappaqua station). The time had come to take the tech plunge.

That plunge can be a chore since I work on an inverted scale of time involved in consumer purchases. The bigger the decision or purchase, the faster I make it. Buying a slightly used Hyundai Elantra in 2005 to replace an unreliable 1986 four-door Saab was a breeze, compared to a computer or camera. I still have the Elantra, so when I make a tech buy, I’m in it for the long haul.

The opportunities for months of dithering are enormous. The laptop process lasted about four months, as I endlessly compared best-of lists from PC Magazine, ZDNet, Consumer Reports, Laptop Reviews and Amazon. I slummed through Craig’s List once more. I solicited opinions on Facebook, where I was whipsawed among fans of Apple, Acer, HP, Asus, and Lenovo. The one piece of tech wisdom that broke through my befuddlement came from a college friend, who urged me to get a laptop with an SSD drive, said to be quieter and more reliable than a hard drive. That made sense and I used this insight to greatly narrow my search.

(Just left North White Plains, what productivity!)

Then I made the rounds of test drives, laying my hands on laptops at Best Buy, Staples, Target and Walmart. Quickly I realized that size really mattered. The 11-inch screens were too small, the 15.6 inch screens were too big. I couldn’t see myself stuff one in a backpack. My 14-inch Lenovo work laptop is fine, but 15.6 inches for a laptop meant for mobility—I just can’t handle that. Like Goldilocks testing the porridge, I decided 14 inches was just right. Along with the mysterious but now required SSD drive, the field narrowed more. I also talked to my tech-savvy son, who uses a Dell Alienware gaming laptop, which makes perfect sense given that he is a video-game designer.

“A lot of the reviews I read Amazon say negative stuff about the laptops,” I breathlessly related to him, in tones usually reserved for those who discover a new prime number.

“Dad, that’s because the people who have had bad experiences are the ones who tend to post comments,” he patiently explained (cue gentle exasperation since he’s heard this from me before). “Just make a choice and it’ll work out.”

Sam had great advice that I promptly ignored. I kept flipping through reviews, looking at holiday specials, maniacally typing on laptops at retail locations in search of a digital love match. When would my fingers gently caress the right keyboard and ignite a passionate flame of creativity that the machine made visible? The dithering, I knew, seriously hampered creativity. After all, I can’t write if I can’t find the right tool, right? I had a ready-made excuse for double-barreled procrastination. No laptop, no writing, what could be better?

Finally, the reading and store visits and consultations with friends reached the saturation point. Unless a fully configured laptop fell out of the sky and bonked me on the head, I would have to make a decision. Or not make a decision and live with the consequences and the vain hope of writing on my desktop before or after my long work day

I found myself cycling back to Staples, long my go-to source for office supplies. The website listed SSD laptops with 14-inch screens, with the added benefit of using Windows 7, rather than the hip and trendy Windows 10, which I’ve never used. The refurbished Lenovos started looking good. The price range was fine, and I knew Lenovos inside and out because that’s what I use at work

I was ready to make a decision.

(Harlem-125th Street, I’m feeling productive this morning.)

Then I took a final (in)sanity check by reading the Lenovo reviews on the Staples website. They were mostly good, but a consistent concern was battery life. Given I would use the laptop on the train, I wanted a battery that could at least get me to Manhattan and back. This drove me to look at the Dell laptops. The Staples commentariat were uniformly positive.

Then I started wondering, maybe I should step up to new Dell, get the latest bells and whistles, whatever those are, rather than opting for a behind-the-curve refurbished model. I wrote down a model number and headed to a suburban Staples to look at the shiny laptop. But with the 15.6 inch screen, I knew it just wouldn’t be feasible. After all, I was looking for a machine upon which I could write and get web access, not watch TV or play games.

Basil delights in the seductions of the "new computer" aroma.

Basil enjoys that intoxicating “new computer” aroma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By process of elimination, I finally opened my eyes, heart and wallet to the love match laptop, a Dell with enough heft and weight to feel like a little Sherman tank but still fit in my backpack. I ordered, it came quickly, I set it up and loaded my trusty Windows 2003 software disk. Everything worked perfectly. The web access clicked in, I imported bookmarks and set up anti-virus protection, and now I’m banging out this post in an hour of fevered inspiration, which amazes me in that I really could translate thought into action and even stay awake on the train.

(Pulling in to Grand Central Terminal, time to disengage for now.)

Beach Reading at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof

My September vacation in Berlin and Amsterdam with my son gave me a chance to do something I rarely enjoy: read novels, in big blocks of time. By leaving the laptop and iPad at home and limiting my smartphone use, I found sweeping vistas of unencumbered, undistracted time, the way other people chill out with their paperbacks on the beach. On planes, on trains, at hostels after a long day of pounding through the Old World’s streets and museums, I could turn to books.

Here are notes on what I call my “beach reading at the Hauptbahnhof,” named after the main train station in Berlin, located a five-minute walk from our hostel.dsc00481-edit

My  selection hewed to genres I like. At home, I sometimes dip into books with limited page-turning potential, like those of late English authors Anita Brookner and Virginia Woolf. This time, however, I skipped intricate, interior-focused, emotionally challenging reads in favor of, in this order:

  • World War Z by Max Robins (borrowed from a Little Free Library box near my home)
  • The Heist by Daniel Silva
  • The Drop by Michael Connelly
  • Lock In by John Scalzi (left at home at the last moment, as I figured three books would keep me entertained for 13 days)

I loaded the list with two-fisted authors and genres that are my equivalent of beloved childhood bedtime stories—dystopian visions, spies and big-city noir police procedurals. I’ve read other works by all the authors except Robins, so I had total confidence in my ability to engage.

World War Z. I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead (TWD) and Fear the Walking Dead, so I immediately grabbed this book when I saw it at the Little Free Library. I had already seen the movie and found the book had a real depth and haunting quality. Following the format of Studs Terkel interviews with participants in momentous events, the book looks at a zombie apocalypse from viewpoints worldwide. It held together well and presented a vision of a situation similar to TWD but with a epic scale—military, political and social, and how a conventional war against the undead doesn’t make any sense. As much as I like TWD, I came to see it as a subset of World War Z, one story arc on a global stage.

The Heist. This book couldn’t have been better timed since part of the plot involved the theft of a Van Gogh painting from Amsterdam. Our itinerary included a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I didn’t notice anything missing. I’ve read one other book in the multi-volume saga of art restorer-master spy Gabriel Allon, and friends are telling me to start at the beginning. All I have to do is figure out where the series begins and I have my beach reading lined up for years to come.

The Drop. I’ve read two of Connelly’s books about LA lawyer Mick Haller: The Lincoln Lawyer and The Reversal. Both took me deep into the criminal justice system and techniques of the cops, the lawyers, the weasels at City Hall, the prosecutors and the perps. Connelly is just so good at capturing the milieu and personalities, with a minimum of bloodshed and a maximum of surprises, locales and strategies. Detective Harry Bosch is Haller’s half-brother and a minor player in The Reversal. He has his own series and I decided to give one a read. This one is about the soon-to-retire Bosch juggling two challenging cases at the same time. One is the murder (or suicide?) of a politician’s son, the other a cold case involving a murder by a sexual predator. More Bosch is on tap.

I made great progress on The Drop on the flight back from Amsterdam to Boston’s Logan Airport. The westward trip, eight hours in the sunshine, gifted plenty of time to race ahead without any sleepiness. By the time I grabbed an Amtrak train at South Station bound for Stamford, Connecticut, I had wrapped up The Drop and was starting to drag. Fortunately, I had picked up a final bit of beach reading at Berlin’s Topographie des Terrors documentation center, with the bilingual title Deutschland 1945 Die Letzten Kriesmonate/Germany 1945 The Last Months of the War. However, my eyes refused to focus, so I simply tried to stay awake as the train flashed through the Connecticut topography-booknight.

The reading splurge was a treat for me. Pre-Internet, I regularly knocked off massive books, like The Gulag Archipelago and the Children of the Arbat trilogy, the thousand-page Russian novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, The Stand by Stephen King, Moby Dick, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk (the sequel to The Winds of War, which I read in high school). The dizzying array of distractions now gnaws at my time and attention. The main respite comes on Shabbat, Saturday afternoon, when I shut down the desktop and can sit on the couch and read. Checking the Drudge Report can wait.

As a writer, I get better by writing and also by reading. I pick up ideas on styles, research, dialogue and how to craft a story. As much as I enjoy reading, say, instapundit.com, diving into fiction stretches out time and my mind. Books stay with me. Blog posts, however enjoyable, carry less nutrition, even if they do get my synapses firing in socio-political rage at times.

The reading marathon encouraged me to keep up the pace after I returned. I’ll step away from the desktop as much as possible. I’m well into Scalzi’s Lock In. On Saturday I picked up three books from the Katonah Public Library. Given that I spent a week in Germany, the choices show my historical bent:

  • Judestaat by Simone Zelitch, alt-history about the aftermath of the 1948 creation of the sovereign state of Judenstaat in the Saxony region bordering Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Film noir meets the Holocaust in converging stories. I don’t even know how to describe it.
  • If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. A novel in a series featuring Bernie Gunther, the house detective at Berlin’s Adlon Hotel when the action starts in 1934. Things then jump 20 years to Havana in 1954, where Gunther lives after being booted out of Buenos Aires.

I might race through all of them, or find myself bogged down. None of the books are translations, which means I’m reading straight-up English prose; translations often fail to connect with me, which was the case with the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz. Given enough open vistas of time (time to close down Chrome!) and alertness on my daily train commute, I could get the Germany out of my system and move back to challenging fall reading.

Maybe even Anita Brookner.

1980 and 2016: A Tale of Two Graduates

I’ve never wanted to live vicariously through my son Sam. His mother and I imparted good values to him, and we let him blaze his own path. With a passion for all aspects of video games since he was a tyke in Batman pajamas, Sam did exactly that, majoring in the interactive media and game development (IMGD) program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. From the day we toured WPI and learned about the game program, he knew that was the right direction for him. He applied, he was accepted and now he’s a graduate.

I’m delighted with Sam because he made a huge academic leap from my undergrad years at Princeton University. Bowing to pressure my divorced parents to find a “practical” major that would give me something to write about as an aspiring journalist, I majored in economics rather than English, history or even classics or Slavic studies. Only one economics class grabbed my interest, “Analyses of Capitalism,” with its focus on philosophy rather than equations. My B- grades for my two junior papers and my senior thesis reflect my lack of passion. My enthusiasm for classes on 19th century English literature (Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence both electrified me and I still have my heavily annotated version of The Rainbow), the politics of civil liberties (Mapp v. Ohio sticks in my memory), European intellectual history with Carl Schorske and modern Jewish thought with Ellen Umansky all point to roads not traveled.

Indeed, I don’t even have a copy of my thesis, that intellectual capstone on the edifice of your Princeton studies. So deeply did I bury my thesis that I couldn’t even remember the title until I looked it up on the university’s thesis directory. And there it was, “An Analysis of Board-Level Union Representation.” It clocked in at 86 pages, pounded out on an gunmetal grey IBM electric typewriter. At least I turned it in on time, an improvement over my fall junior paper.

While I muffled my passions, Sam celebrated his. His mother and I supported him all the way as Sam turned a passion into informed, logical academic and career choices. Even better, he had a fantastic experience with his senior project, the group equivalent of Princeton’s thesis. He could have played it safe with a project in the U.S., but he rolled the dice on the most challenging, exciting project option. As a result, he joined of a four-person team that spent three months in Japan creating a video game, titled Chinmoku, for learning Japanese. Based at a college near Kyoto, the team pulled together the game and also saw some of the country, taking the bullet train to Tokyo for several days. The final report the team submitted to WPI runs 73 pages and features much cooler illustrations than any of the feeble mathematical equations I scattered around my thesis.

By contrast, my great immersive experience was a bleak bus trip in January 1980 to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Studies to research the idea of workers’ input into company management.

The contrasts continue. My thesis had no afterlife after I submitted it. Sam’s team, however, kept polishing the Chinmoku game. Not only did the final report earn an B from the professor, it won honorable mention in awards for senior projects in his department. The game also won honors as the top game in the indie college/serious game category of the competition of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDIGI).

I thought about ordering a copy of my thesis. The price is minimal, but I decided to avoid a wrenching trip down memory lane; I just don’t want to see a reminder of those days or hold that cracked capstone of my Princeton academic journey. I’d much rather follow and cheer on the saga of Chinmoku. It might come in handy for those already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Sam and I went in directions in another big way post-graduation. I had visions of joining the Foreign Service or Princeton in Asia or just spending time on the road in Europe before I joined the workforce. In 1980, journalism jobs were plentiful and I figured I’d be a cub reporter in Wichita or Baton Rouge or Corpus Christi, putting my hometown and college experience to good use as a feature writer. Instead, to my shock, I talked my way into a reporter-researcher job at Forbes magazine. The magazine wanted me to start quickly, so instead of traveling—or even arguing for a week to go home to Mission, Texas to catch my breath—I scrambled to find a place to live in Brooklyn and began riding the sweltering subway to work less than two weeks after I graduated. To be fair, had I not moved to New York then, I might never have moved there, and my life would have been radically different, probably lived within a 100-mile radius of San Antonio.

Now, Sam, he’s taking the smart approach. He’s got his resume, a website and a Twitter account, all the tools of the aspiring game designer. He knows the market and where his skills fit, and he’s networking and going to events. The right job is out there for him

Better yet, he’s had time after graduation to enjoy life. I tell him he’ll be working for a long, long time, so don’t go crazy in the beginning. And Sam’s also hitting the road for European travel. With the Japan experience from last year, he’s a pro at border crossings. He studied German in high school, so he has tickets for almost two weeks in Germany and then Amsterdam.

Actually, this is a joint project for two graduates, one from 1980 and one from 2016. Sam and I are going together, the new graduate and the one who never took that post-graduation trip.

We leave for Berlin tonight.

You Lose It I Find It

I’m a finder. Staying alert to what’s going on around me means I find moments in time that need a little personal attention. That may include a FedEx deliverer struggling with a load of spilled boxes; a frail woman pushing groceries to her car; a tired mom with an even more tired kid stepping into a crowded subway. I must give off a finder vibe; once in New York an elderly, well-dressed woman on Park Avenue grabbed arm and said, “Help me get across the street.” And I did. If I don’t give the universe a push in the right direction at that moment, who will? I must have picked up that attitude from reading Raymond Chandler’s novels about LA investigator Philip Marlowe, sallying forth to right the wrongs of the world.

The same drive to act goes even more so with lost objects. They’re not so common, but they drop into my field of vision at times. I’ll snatch them up and treat them as a portal into an adventure. After all, a lost object implies a loser of that object, who typically has a very high level of interest in getting that object back. Finding the lost object starts an adventure of discovery, connection and a little mystery about the way the world works.

Not always. Some objects resist return. Nobody cares except me. When living in New York in the 1980s I found a briefcase brimming with test materials from the NYC Board of Education. I couldn’t decipher them but I thought the BOE would be a better judge of that. I made some calls, only to find nobody at the bureaucratic ziggurat on Court Street in Brooklyn particularly wanted this great find. I could have tossed the whole package, but I finally located an official in the sub-sub-sub-basement willing to take it off my hands. Case closed.

Decades later, I found a battered flip phone on Post Road East in Westport, Connecticut. A barely legible email address was taped to the back of the phone, so I fired off some messages to that. Nobody responded. I finally gave up and turned the phone in to an AT&T store to let them figure out if anybody wanted it.

At the other end of the attention spectrum, both wallets and iPhones have fallen under my scanning gaze. These steamer trunks of modern identity are invaluable and yet so easy to misplace. Their absence immediately becomes a crisis of finance, social connection (quick, what’s your best friend’s phone number?) and identity. In these cases, the adventure puts me into Marlowe mode, sallying forth to right the wrongs of misplaced objects. I become the confident private investigator who takes on the case for clients when they are at their most vulnerable and exposed and uncertain. Their identity depends, literally, on the kindness of strangers. My job is to be that stranger and be that kindness. That’s what Philip Marlowe would do.

The most recent cases both involved young people from Latin America forgetting a wallet and a phone, respectively, on the Metro-North Harlem line that I use for commuting.

I spotted the wallet under a train seat around 2 a.m. on January 1 several years ago, groggily returning home after a New Year’s Eve party. I was getting up to exit at my stop when I notice the wallet. Nobody else was around. There it sat. I looked around, nobody claimed it so I scooped it up.

At home, I emptied its contents on a table. U.S. cash, foreign credit cards and ID. Clearly this came from a visitor who let festivity run ahead of caution that cold and raucous night. The problem was, I couldn’t find a way to contact the owner. Everything pointed back to Brazil. I ran through the materials again and finally found a name and phone number. At 3 a.m., I decided I’d wait a while before calling to avoid freaking out the reveler.

I called that morning. The number was for the uncle of the teen who lost the wallet. We arranged to meet that afternoon at the Katonah train station, where the teen and his girlfriend (ahh, was she the 2 a.m. distraction?) gratefully accepted the wallet and gave me a bottle of wine.

More recently, I found an iPhone on the seat of the Harlem Line train, the station before I reached mine. I slipped it into my shirt pocket and minutes later I sat down at the same dining room table where I traditionally spread out materials and start down the trail of contact.

The phone had no security, so all I had to do was swipe and I was in—to everything. This alarmed me and I clicked around only long enough to find the phone owner’s name and his emails. The owner lived in Central America, in a city I had visited, so that gave the case a special twist. How many degrees of separation came between us? He must have been visiting the New York area and dropped the phone, I reasoned. I saw some frequently called numbers but decided to reach out via email, the better to explain myself.

I IM’d the phone’s owner and his wife on Facebook, and wrote to his home and business emails. No replies. I decided to let the case simmer. Then the phone rang that night. The screen showed somebody with the owner’s last name so I hit the talk button.

“Are you calling about the lost phone?” I said. “I’m the guy who found it.”

The caller was the sister-in-law of the phone’s owner. It turns out the owner’s son had been visiting his aunt and uncle near me, and the son was using the father’s phone. The son had left the phone on the train.

“I took a chance on calling and hoping a good Samaritan would answer,” she explained.

We arranged for a hand-off the next afternoon at the Katonah Public Library. At the appointed time the boy emerged from his aunt’s car and he bashfully approached me outside the library. I pretended to bobble the phone, then gave it to him. In return, I got a hefty bag of fragrant Central American coffee beans and a charming handwritten thank-you note. The boy’s aunt and I chatted awhile and then they were on their way.

That night the phone’s owner IM’d me on Facebook and thanked me for my attention to the matter. He had been reluctant to respond to my IM because he feared I might be a scammer. I could see his concern — who wouldn’t be wary of a message from somebody claiming to have a lost object? Ill intent abounds in our times, especially when technology is the connection. Anyway, the phone call and hand-off established that I was on the level.

He said my act actually took on more urgency than I imagined, because his son and the U.S. family were flying down to Central America on Saturday, and MTA lost-and-found probably would not have connected with the family before then.

We played the six degrees of Central American separation game and we did indeed know people in common in the capital, so that gave the connection extra sweetness. I mused about the times I had visited his country.

“I developed a taste for pupusas and Pollo Compero,” I wrote, and that got a laugh, as I flaunted the limits of my familiarity of the regional cuisine. The chat capped the case and that was that.

At this point, you may be thinking, “That’s great, but what about when YOU lose something, Van? You like to say ‘what goes around comes around.’ Does it really go down that way?”

Good question. Answer: Sometimes. I’ve left a gym bag, a sports coat and a shopping bag with my lunch packed in favorite Tupperware containers on the train from the suburbs. Despite logging the loss in the lost and found website, I’ve never got anything back. On the other hand, I forgot a credit card once in a Middle Eastern restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and that I got back.

Just last week, in a drowsy ride home, I didn’t put my wallet away after showing my ticket to the conductor. I left it on my lap. When I stretched and got up at the station before mine (the same station where I found the iPhone), I did my traditional patdown and realized my wallet wasn’t in my pocket. I didn’t find it on the seat, nor under my backpack. I searched under the seat and there it, was on the floor. A close call! I doubt anybody would have seen the wallet as the train sailed north to the end of the line. A car cleaner might have spied it and turned it in. I hope so.

In any case, I lost it AND I found it. Philip Marlowe would approve.

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.