Moving serendipity

The moving van arrives Tuesday morning.

Friday afternoon (yesterday as I write this) we finally drove two packed cars to the storage unit we rented when we relocated my mother-in-law to the Boston area five years ago (the stuff one can accumulate over more than four decades in a three-story Georgetown brownstone is mind-boggling). Our eldest daughter—let’s call her “Jenny”—rode with me, while our youngest daughter—let’s call her “Laura”—rode with my wife Nell.

The trip served multiple purposes. One was to clear space for the rapidly increasing piles of taped-shut cardboard boxes continually rearranging themselves in our apartment in a persistent game of Whack-a-mole. We also wanted to assess the dimensions of multiple sets of well-constructed wooden bookcases.

A third purpose became apparent once we started rummaging through the haphazardly stacked piles of boxes.

When we moved into our soon-to-be-vacated apartment nearly 11 years ago, Nell and I were disinclined to share a bedroom (primarily out of long-ingrained habit). Thus, she occupied the upstairs bedroom, and I the downstairs bedroom. Jenny’s arrival, however, followed less than two years later by Laura, necessitated increased creativity with our space. For a few years, the baby girls slept comfortably in the large walk-in closet downstairs. Once that became untenable, the girls moved into the downstairs bedroom, where they sleep as I type this, and my wife and I began to share a bedroom.

The purchase of a luxurious king-size bed—and my surgery for a deviated septum and other sinus-related irregularities—greatly eased the transition. The walk-in closet became my office. But the accompanying reorganization mandated a significant purge of my ever-increasing library.

In the ensuing seven years, I had forgotten what happened to all of those books. There had been a vague plan to sell them, though the memory sort of ends there. Well, no, it had also gotten mixed up with the massive cleaning I performed some months ago of the shared hallway leading to the door into the backyard, a storage limbo for long-departed tenants. I had placed a number of boxes of abandoned books by the blue recycling bins in the alleyway which runs behind our building; they disappeared within days.

So, imagine my delight when I discovered four boxes of books toward the rear of the storage unit (sadly, there was no time machine). Watching Jenny effortlessly clamber over them reminded me of playing on the pyramid-stacked rolls of used carpeting in my father’s store when I was a boy.

Laura was not there because she wanted to visit her grandmother–and because she was not feeling well. Curiously, as Jenny and I loaded Nell’s car earlier that day, I threw out some stuff and moved a green plastic newspaper sleeve (aka “dookie bag”) onto the seat. While Nell and Laura were driving, Laura became queasy…and there was no way Nell could pull over in time (nor did she have anything to capture the impending outburst). Luckily, the green “dookie bag” was there next to her, and it efficiently served the same purpose as one of these.

Happily, a quiet air-conditioned afternoon sipping a Coke with “grandee” made all the difference. Later, when we were all home again, Jenny asked Nell if Laura had used the green dookie bag that “Daddy had left on the seat.”

**********

Back in the storage unit, meanwhile, I decided to remove the four boxes of books to donate them.

When I had performed a more recent purge of my own accumulated odds and ends (all that paper!), I had filled the equivalent of seven canvas bags with books for disposal. Last Monday, Jenny and I took them to the excellent Brookline Booksmith for sale; their book buyer selected the equivalent of one canvas bag for purchase. Hey, $35 in store credit is better than nothing.

But there still remained the equivalent of six canvas bags of books for disposal.  While the internet offered few palatable options, I finally settled upon a small Waltham non-profit called More Than Words, hitherto unknown to me.

I drove there the following day—and they could not have made the donation process any easier. A staff member offered to help unload my car (I politely declined as I have been enjoying the “workout”) then carefully unpacked my bags so I could reuse them. A small iPad was set up for creating a tax-donation receipt (perhaps unwisely, I did not use it). As I was walking out, I spied a pristine copy of the first full-length work of detective fiction I ever read (excluding the episodic adventures of Encyclopedia Brown)—and key part of the “detective fiction” chapter in the book I am (in fits and starts) writing.

Tower Treasure.JPG

At only $4.95 (what More Than Words charges for every hardback book), it was a steal.

Wait, did I say “seven” canvas bags of books?

Sorry, I neglected the five bags of books that have been living in our garage for years. THEY got taken to More Than Words Wednesday; this time Jenny and Laura came with me. They love Mexican food (especially Jenny, who would happily eat burritos every meal), and I promised them we could have supper at a nearby Margarita’s.

After donating our books, the girls and I spent a few minutes browsing their selections. Jenny did not find anything, though Laura found a beautiful book of sea stories. I found a book for myself and a $3 copy of the best high school film (with no disrespect to John Hughes) ever: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

We then piled back into my car and pulled left onto one-way Felton Street. I quickly turned right, then right again onto Charles Street, intending to loop around to Moody Street and Margarita’s. But we immediately drove by a charming hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Taqueria Mexico. Changing plans on the fly, we parked and went inside the Zagat’s-rated restaurant.

Need I say the food was excellent (particularly given the relatively low cost)?

**********

Back in the storage unit…when I loaded the four boxes of books from the storage unit into my car, I naturally assumed I would visit More Than Words for the third time in four days. On a lark, Jenny and I turned left out of the storage unit parking lot instead of right. This briefly looped us through some lovely residential areas back onto Route 3A, albeit a bit further north.

Literally as I turned onto Route 3A, however, I spotted this large used book store. Pulling into the parking lot, I saw they accepted donations. Most of the contents of four boxes placed carefully into their donation bin later (I opted to keep maybe 10 of them), I had a 15% in-store discount chit. Jenny, meanwhile, had found a couple of gifts for the ailing Laura (including this) plus the Pseudonymous Bosch book (Write This Book) she had been seeking.

All because we turned left instead of right.

**********

We were hungry when we left the used bookstore, so I kept my eyes open for somewhere good to eat. Rejecting a Mexican restaurant (I was not in the mood), I talked Jenny into stopping at a venerable (if vanishing) New England chain: Bickford’s.

The low number of patrons (she has seen Restaurant: Impossible) made her dubious, but she was quickly won over by the presence of clam chowder (New England, of course–though I confess to loving Manhattan as well) on the menu, which proved quite delicious (as was the rest of our meals). After bemoaning the decline of Denny’s in my last post, this was a welcome surprise.

While we sat there, I played the voicemail—from an unfamiliar Cambridge number—on my iPhone. It was a very nice lady from Gentle Giant calling to confirm our movers were scheduled to arrive between 8:00 and 8:30 am, Monday, July 30.

Wait…WHAT?!?

Had I really forgotten the movers were arriving Monday morning instead of Tuesday morning?

Yes…yes I had.

Words fail.

To be honest, Monday morning would be perfectly fine…except I had already obtained the required moving truck parking permits for both ends of the move—with date and day of the week indelibly written on them.

And wouldn’t you know it, the Town of Brookline Transportation Department closes at 12:30 pm on Friday (it was now nearly 3 pm).

But this being that sort of day, when the nice lady from Gentle Giant returned my voicemail she told me that there was no problem switching the date of our move from Monday to Tuesday.

Calling her a “lifesaver,” as I did, does not even come close.

**********

As a reward for what was proving a magical day, I decided to meander over to a terrific bakery in Belmont I had discovered quite by chance five years earlier, snapping this photograph in lieu of a mental note.

Ohlins Bakery

Turning left from Trapelo Road, however, we saw nought but an empty storefront; I now know why.

Disappointed, we kept driving. A little further east, I turned right onto Grove Street toward Mt. Auburn Street. Just after crossing Mt. Auburn, a police officer was standing in the road directing traffic out of the Tufts Health Plan parking lot. Rather than go straight, I randomly turned right onto Calvin Road, little more than a back alley.

After almost immediately turning right, and realizing we were literally around the corner from where Laura practices gymnastics, the Danish Pastry House was right in front of us. I do not expect our box of assorted scrumptious baked goods to last 24 hours.

Jenny and I arrived home with our treasures (including more empty boxes, our new currency) a little before 5 pm. I took a quick shower and settled down in my office to catch up on mail and my regular websites. Ironically, the first post I read also dealt with selling books to a used book store.

I also checked to see if my Philadelphia Phillies (who hold a shocking 2.5 game lead in the National League East as I type this—fivethirtyeight.com now gives them a 54% chance to win their division) had made any trades with the July 31 non-waiver deadline looming. No sooner had I read that they were not likely to make a major move, I saw that they had just acquired former All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera for a AA pitcher named Franklyn Kilome.

Is it any wonder that when the Phillies fell behind 5-2 to the Cincinnati Reds, I figured they would rally to win?

Alas, every magic show must come to an end; they lost 6-4.

Until next time…

Moving memories

I asked Nell to marry me in June 2007.

Thankfully, she said yes—sending us scrambling to find a place to live together by summer’s end. After touring apartments that were either “absolutely not” or “great…wait, it’s already been rented?,” it was crunch time. Going into internet overdrive, Nell (then I) could not believe our good fortune when she found an appealing-sounding apartment on a quiet Brookline street a short walk up from commerce and public transportation.

The apartment comprised the bottom two floors of an attached red-brick, three-floor townhouse. By “bottom two floors,” I mean the ground floor (opening onto the road) and a basement level (opening onto a shared back yard).

Despite odd features—three fireplaces occupy too much wall space, oddly-placed single steps—the apartment was exceptional, especially the large round window looking west from the living room. Best of all, it had TWO covered parking spaces—the Holy Grail of Brookline, which disallows overnight street parking.

We moved in at the end of August. Since then,

  • Nell and I married.
  • Both of our daughters were born
  • We put one golden retriever to sleep and acquired another.
  • Nell turned 40, and I turned 50.
  • Nell oversaw the sale, packing and cleaning of her childhood house in Washington DC before moving her mother to a nearby retirement community.
  • I was laid off from one grant-funded job then spent four years at another grant-funded job before being laid off again.
  • I earned a doctorate in epidemiology from Boston University and finally obtained a Master’s Degree in political science from Harvard I had completed in 1991.
  • I launched this blog and began to write this book.
  • I completely rewrote the story of my genetic heritage and adoption.
  • I discovered the Film Noir Foundation and attended five consecutive Noir City festivals. You may read about my experience at the 2018 festival beginning here.
  • The United States elected, then reelected, its first African-American president, whose party then nominated a woman for president for the first time; she lost.
  • The Philadelphia Phillies went to the playoffs for the first time since 1993, won their second-ever World Series, made it back to the World Series and were National League East champions five consecutive years.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles won their a Super Bowl for the first time.
  • Etc.

Unfortunately, the townhouse we have called home for nearly 11 years was recently sold; we move into our new apartment, a seemingly-better (and more expensive) one less than 10 minutes away by car, at the end of July.

In preparation for the move, I undertook a massive purge of masses of paper and other detritus in the downstairs walk-in closet I have used as my office since 2011. Items I uncovered and the fact of the move itself led me to reflect on transitions: previous moves, vanished landmarks and era ends.

**********

Excluding being brought to my childhood house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown in early October 1966, when I was five days old, my first move came in March 1977.

My parents’ marriage had been decaying for months. By February 1977, my mother, having had enough of my father’s gambling addiction, had decided to move with me and our Keeshond Luvey into a nearby apartment. To her credit, she made the disruption as “fun” as possible, poring over floor plans with me and giving me the illusion of choice. She also guaranteed I would not change elementary schools.

My father rarely helped me with schoolwork. However, the night before we moved, he sat at our kitchen table and typed my two-page report on George Gershwin. When he finished, he asked me if I understood what was happening the next day.

Yes, I said.

He started to…actually, I do not remember what he said, but it was the first time I saw him cry. Even at 10 years old, I could see how devastated he was by the impending separation; I comforted him more than he comforted me.

**********

Two years later, my mother decided the three of us (Luvey included) would move into the house where her only sibling and her two children lived. My aunt had also recently separated from her husband, and to the sisters it made sense to share a four-bedroom house in the upscale suburb of Bala Cynwyd (pronounced kin-wood).

No disrespect to my aunt and cousins, to whom I remain close, but I was vocally NOT HAPPY about this move. For one thing, I had to change schools in the middle of 7th grade—the worst grade of all. Also, I had to share a bedroom for the first time in my life. Finally, while I had at least the illusion of control in the first move, I had zero control this time.

A cold cleverly delayed the first day at my new school for three days. Finally, on a March Thursday, just after noon, I was ushered into my first class: science. All I had with me were a three-ring binder filled with lined paper and a paperback copy of a Cheiro numerology book.

I countered adolescent lack of control by dabbling in numerology, astrology, card reading and other dubious pseudo-sciences. I affectionately blame my mother’s copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs I read when I was around nine years old.

The science teacher introduced me to the class, all but one of whom was paired with a lab partner; this boy’s lab partner had left school for some reason. Naturally, I was sent to sit with the un-partnered boy. Exchanging hellos, I asked him when his birthday was (a vital piece of numerological information for assessing interpersonal compatibility).

He told me, and I excitedly said, “Oh, you’re a 3!”

My new lab partner (who remains one of my closest friends—his mother introduced me at his wedding as “my third son,” which was a great honor) just kind of looked at me. Our relationship improved considerably a short time later when I performed nearly all of the frog dissection.

**********

Some months after we moved to Bala Cynwyd, my mother (with help from her own mother) bought the small carpet and upholstery cleaning business for which she had worked as telephone solicitor since October 1976. This made my mother the most financially secure she had been in nearly five years, and she decided—a hair under one year after moving to my aunt’s house—she, Luvey and I would move into an elegant two-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment in the recently-built Oak Hill Estates in beautiful nearby Penn Valley.

While my cousins and I had gotten along just fine, the idea of having my own bedroom again—with my own color television hooked up to HBO!—appealed to me immensely. Actually, everything about that move (my third in four years) was exciting, from the platform a family friend constructed in one corner of the living room for my mother’s new white and silver desk to the modern-feeling navy, silver and white decor (down to new navy plastic-handled silverware; a lone fork survives) to the two adjustable tall white bookcases our friend built for my bedroom. Best of all, I could finish 8th grade at my current school because I could simply walk to my aunt’s house from there, where my mother picked me up after work.

Capping off the sense of a fresh start, I enrolled that fall at Harriton High School with yet another group of new classmates.

**********

In June 1982, when I was a 15-year-old rising 11th grader, my father was walking to a diner to eat with his fellow cab drivers when he suffered a massive, instantly-fatal heart attack (his third) and died on the sidewalk in front of a Philadelphia hotel.

That fall, my fellow high school Latin students and I opened the school year by relating the best and worst things that had happened to us over the summer.

Imagine the stunned silence that followed by turn to share.

That tragic time aside, however, I loved high school. So much so that, despite knowing I would be attending Yale in the fall and having a fun summer job delivering food for long-defunct Boardwalk Pizza and Sub, I did not want to leave.

The day of my high school graduation was hot; the red robes we wore over our clothes did not help. Moreover, I was well aware that sitting with her parents in the audience was a girl (a rising 11th grade sister of a classmate) on whom, without her knowing, I had a long-term crush.

At some point, the Vice Principal announced the academic, community and other awards. Each recipient would stand briefly to be acknowledged.

Having been president of the Harriton High School Math Team (still one of my proudest achievements), I received seven awards, mostly math-related. I still remember hearing, “Don’t sit down, Matt” to increasing laughter.

After the ceremony, most of my graduating class and I piled onto school buses bound for a restaurant where we would spend the rest of the night eating, drinking (non-alcoholic beverages), chatting and dancing.

Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the embarrassment of continuously standing—with my secret crush watching me—for all those awards. Maybe it was going from days of fin de siécle overdrive to…nothing. Maybe it was leaving a comfortable place where I had happily thrived for four years. Maybe it was not having any quiet time to sufficiently process the intense emotions of that day, and all the equally-intense preceding days.

Whatever the reason(s), I started brooding on the bus, and I continued to brood as I sat at a table with friends. As my mood and words darkened—I commenced tearfully announcing (to an increasingly alarmed group of friends) I deserved none of my awards.

Reaching a saturnine crescendo, I began to tear them up. It took the gentle ministrations of my friendly academic “rival’s” girlfriend to snap me out of it. And suddenly I was ready to dance and chat away the rest of the night.

A few weeks ago, while collecting my diplomas together, I found the surviving scraps (the archivist in me was unable to discard them) of the three awards I had shredded. In the same spirit of self-forgiveness that led me to apply for my “consolation prize” A.M. from Harvard, I carefully taped the pieces back together again:

Math Award 1

Math Award 2.JPG

Math Award 3.JPG

Other than not speaking to another close cousin for months (after I “playfully” pushed him into a pool in his work clothes), the rest of the summer was terrific, and I made it to Yale in September 1984—my first move across state lines—without a hitch. Ignoring, of course, the awful case of mononucleosis that sent me home to bed for two or three weeks and a tumultuous relationship with a sophomore…let us skip my first semester there entirely.

**********

Let us also skip returning to Penn Valley (summer 1985), interning at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC (summer 1986), my off-campus apartments (summer 1987, senior year), living with my mother in a different Penn Valley apartment (summers 1988, 1989) and the intervening year I again worked at Brookings.

Instead, the next move of consequence found me driving a rented U-Haul truck north up I-95 in late August 1989 to the Boston suburb of Somerville. There I would share a spacious (and wicked inexpensive) four-bedroom apartment comprising the second floor of what I later described as “the ugliest triple-decker on Summer Street” with three young men.

306 Summer Street 1992

Actually, the view from our large back porch was lovely.

Backyard 306 Summer 1992

Wait, did I say “three young men?” Sorry, I meant to say, “During my six years living there, I had 14 different apartment-mates,” though two of them only stayed a month or two; my last year there, I lived with three young woman.

We did have our moments of absurdist irreverence.

Lenin tie 1991

I had moved to Somerville to enroll in the doctoral program in government from which I resigned six years later. We had to “minor” in a different field, so I chose psychology (voting behavior greatly interesting me). One course was an in-depth study of Sigmund Freud’s work.

While I could write entire posts about him, I will simply describe Herr Freud as a phenomenal writer (check out his seminal The Interpretation of Dreams and his dire-warning Civilization and Its Discontents) who, despite formulating many theories now seen as late-Victorian anachronisms, fundamentally revolutionized the treatment of mental illness by moving it from the dungeon to the doctor’s office.

And as I noted here, my therapist and I have discussed Freud’s conception of “screen memories”…

…in which we essentially replace a traumatic childhood memory with a more innocuous memory.  In her telling, a screen memory could be any set of memories which have become jumbled together, with the affect from an unpleasant event displaced onto a more pleasant event.

So it was neat coincidence when I came across this in a long-ignored folder labeled “Freud” in the back of a filing cabinet drawer:

Screen memories.JPG

I reread the essay. Typically well-written, I felt Freud’s analysis lacked testable hypotheses and reproducible evidence. Clearly, I have transformed over nearly four decades from impressionable adolescent devotee of numerology to scientifically-rigorous empiricist adult.

Epidemiology is, like, a gateway drug to epistemology, man.

**********

As the summer of 1995 approached, I had finally wearied of finding new apartment-mates on average every year, and my girlfriend of two years (call her “NZ”) was pointedly lobbying for us to cohabitate.

On June 30, after a last-gasp year funded by a Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant (I would deflect NZ’s marriage talk with “Got the Mellon, can’t elope”), I officially de-enrolled from Harvard. Liberating as that move was, it raised the question of “If not a political scientist, then what?” I had little time to answer the question, because late that August, NZ and I moved together to a second floor apartment at 58 Cherry Street, literally a three-minute walk away.

It took a year (and a miserable stint as Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University) before I landed my first health-related data analysis gig. Four years and two similar gigs later, still living as boy/girlfriend with NZ, I was working for a company headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI.

As my colleagues and I wrapped up a few days there, about to drive to the airport, I wandered down a hall in search of a friend/colleague. A woman walked by me—tall, darkening blonde hair, blue eyes, white turtleneck over black jeans.

My heart skipped a beat…and I truly understood what “love at first sight” meant.

Of course, the friend I sought was hanging out in her (call her “CO”) cubicle. I recognized CO’s name from data-related conference calls. After I returned to Somerville, we chatted briefly by e-mail. One month later, we took a training together in Ann Arbor. An intimate connection was forming, which neither of us tried very hard to stop, even while each was in the dark about how the other felt.

Matters came to a head one Monday evening in mid-November. I had spent a restless weekend (NZ sensed something was amiss) wrestling with my feelings. I loved NZ, and we had built a good life together, but if we had still not married after a little over seven years together…well, I never had the courage to finish that sentence in my head, fearing the mutually assured disruption.

CO and I were chatting in our offices (650 miles apart) after work as usual, and she also sensed something with me. I hemmed and hawed, deflected and dodged, until—finally—I told her how I felt about her.

Thus began the longest pause of my life.

After it ended, the only thing I remember CO saying is “…because it’s really mutual.”

All this time, the message light on my office phone had been blinking: NZ had been leaving messages telling me she would swing by to get me.

When I replay the scene in my memory, no sooner do I hear CO’s four life-changing words when NZ is literally standing behind me like some avenging angel.

It was not quite that dramatic, but…close enough.

Within a few weeks, NZ and I had split up. Had I had somewhere to go, I would have moved out immediately…but I struggled to find a new place. And as CO and I tried to figure out our new relationship (made official during a roller-coaster work at her Ann Arbor home as 2000 became 2001), my work suffered.

Then CO and I split up a few weeks later—meaning I was working a job I hated and living with my ex-girlfriend while my overly-intense new relationship crumbled.

I lost about 15 pounds those two months from stress.

But that stress prompted a decision I had already been mulling: returning to Philadelphia. In mid-January 2001, I gave notice and found a new gig near Philly; my mother secured me a studio apartment. As painful as splitting was for both of us, I later learned NZ had already begun to date the man she would eventually marry.

(Nell and I encountered NZ by chance at a Maynard, MA restaurant with that husband and their two-year-old daughter a month before we became engaged. NZ seemed very happy, so I consider that circle well-squared.)

One afternoon in early February 2001, I climbed into another rented U-Haul and began to drive west and south.

**********

On what became an epic, snow-delayed drive, I stopped to eat dinner at a Connecticut Denny’s.

Remember that cousin I pushed in the pool soon after graduating high school? He (call him LC) and I had become such close friends our names had fused into MattandLC. By then Denny’s had become a favored hangout, not only because they were open 24 hours a day. I have sought out Denny’s ever since. NZ and I took an epic three-week-long road trip in the summer of 1997, and it was not until we hit a Denny’s outside Lancaster, PA that I had a meal I genuinely enjoyed (a scrumptious loaded cheeseburger). When purging my office, I came across this 1996 directory, likely acquired that trip.

Denny's directory.JPG

There used to be seven Denny’s within a two-hour drive of my Boston-area homes. And then there were five. The one in Salem, NH became a go-to destination on my occasional long meandering nocturnal drives. Last December, I read that the Salem Denny’s was closing.

A few weeks ago I took one of those night drives. On that drive, I decided to visit the Denny’s in Lawrence, MA instead.

Gone.

OK, how about the one in Danvers?

Also gone.

It was seeing my personal history boarded up and hollowed out.

The franchise had clearly been going downhill, at least in New England (and when LC and I ate at one in Langhorne, PA two years ago), but three of them closing? Now that is fin de siécle—the end of an era—even as Denny’s remain in Leominster, MA and Nashua, NH.

Returning to Philadelphia: the job I thought I had fell through for still-mysterious reasons—but that June I started to work at the Family Planning Council; my four years there remain the pinnacle of my professional career.

CO and I got back together then split up, she moved to Baltimore, we got back together again, we split up again, and we sort of got back together again. Finally, a few weeks after my mother died (March 2004), and CO could not attend her funeral, I angrily told her in a contentious telephone conversation that I needed to get on with my life. In so doing, I lied to her about my true feelings…but that was that.

Despite what Nick Lowe sang, in retrospect there was no kindness, only cruelty.

**********

A year after moving to Philadelphia, I moved into a dumpy one-bedroom apartment in Drexel Hill, just as my mother was beginning to battle the ovarian cancer that ultimately claimed her life. A year after that, however, having received a substantial raise, supplemented through consulting, she helped me find and move into a lovely apartment in King of Prussia. It was not the Oak Hill, but it still felt like a fresh start.

Just two-and-a-half years later, though, after an emotionally-draining legal battle with my late stepfather over my mother’s estate, I was headed back to Boston to pursue a master’s degree in biostatistics. Settling into a nice one-bedroom apartment in a Waltham, MA development, I dabbled on the now-defunct Friendster.

On Halloween night 2005, barely two months after returning, a lovely and bored woman named Nell sent me a message. Messages became e-mails (her first to me had the subject line “Persiflage;” I had to look up its definition) became phone calls.

Five days later, we met at the Harvard Square MBTA stop; I was so nervous, especially after seeing her in person, I kept dropping the Good Night, and Good Luck tickets I purchased before we ate at Bertucci’s.

And yes, both the movie theater and the restaurant have long since closed.

As for Nell and I…well this is where you entered the story.

Until next time…

Updating the Doctor(s)

This spring, we learned that the charming three-story brick townhouse whose ground and basement floors Nell and I have occupied since September 2007 was being sold. As a result, we four will move into a nearby Brookline apartment (nicer and with a spectacular view of Boston, to be fair) at the end of July.

While that was happening, I was finishing an essay on the manifestations of film noir in the resurrected Doctor Who I would love to have published in the Film Noir Foundation quarterly e-magazine or other equally-solid periodical. If nothing else, it will better contextualize this photograph.

IMG_1524

To prepare for the move, I undertook a massive purge of my office space, throwing out/recycling at least one full trash bin of detritus. Some items I re-discovered will likely be fodder for an upcoming post.

Needless to say, things have been hectic around here.

But given the revelatory side effects of moving, my essay and the full-episode debut of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor—the first to be played by a woman—this fall (see the 12th Doctor’s “brilliant” regeneration here), I decided to dig deep into my own timeline (here, here and here) for this post. Specifically, I updated (all data as of July 17, 2018) and edited those original Doctor Who posts into a single continuous narrative:

Along the lines of my Charlie Chan film ranking, I collected data on the relative popularity of the 144 episodes of the resurrected Doctor Who[1], from “Rose” (March 26, 2005) through the 2017 Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time.” Excluding John Hurt’s War Doctor, there have been four incarnations of The Doctor during this time period: #9-12. These 144 episodes comprise 10 12-13 episode Series plus 13 Christmas specials and four specials, three featuring the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) as well as the November 2013 50th anniversary epic, in which Doctors 10 and 11 (Matt Smith) teamed with the War Doctor to save Gallifrey, The Doctor’s home planet.

For each episode, I collected four values:

  1. Its BBC “Audience Appreciation Index” (AI) score, an integer from 0-100 revealing how much the (British) audience enjoyed each episode when it first aired. Higher scores indicate greater enjoyment.
  2. Where the episode ranked that week (Chart), with a lower score indicating more viewers.
  3. Its weighted-average Internet Movie Database (IMDB) score on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the most favorable) and…
  4. The number of IMDB “raters” whose scores were averaged. The higher the number of raters, in principle, the more “compelling” the episode—though higher ratings could also simply reflect a longer rating time frame.

The goal is to assess the relative popularity of individual episodes, both when first released and with hindsight, as well as of the Series and Doctors. I decided to ignore “Chart” values as they were difficult to compare over time.

Table 1 provides details on each Series. It excludes the 13 Christmas specials (2005-17—“Twice Upon a Time” technically marks the start of Series 11), two 2009 10th Doctor specials (“Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars”) and “The Day of the Doctor.”

Table 1: Doctor Who Series (2005-17)

# Dates # Episodes Doctor Primary Companion(s)
1 March 26-June 18, 2005 13 9 Rose Tyler
2 April 15-July 8, 2006 13 10 Rose Tyler
3 March 31-June 30, 2007 13 10 Martha Jones
4 April 5-July 5, 2008 13 10 Donna Noble
5 April 10-June 26, 2010 13 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
6 April 23-June 4, 2011;

August 27-October 1, 2011

7

6

11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7a September 1-29, 2012 5 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7b March 30-May 18, 2013 8 11 Clara Oswald
8 August 23-November 8, 2014 12 12 Clara Oswald
9 September 19-December 5, 2015 12 12 Clara Oswald
10 April 15-July 1, 2017 12 12 Bill Potts

Individual episodes. Overall, the resurrected series has been very well-received with a “global” IMDB rating of 8.7 (173,072 raters). Upon first airing, average AI score was a remarkable 84.8, with a very small standard deviation of 2.7 (all but six episodes between 80 and 89). Enthusiasm has not diminished over time: average IMDB score is 8.13 (sd=0.8), with 110 (76%) between 7.0 and 8.9. Two highly-regarded episodes—2007’s “Blink” (9.6) and “The Day of the Doctor” (9.4) each attracted ~15,000 raters (median=4,132; 106 [74%] between 3,000 and 4,999), accounting for the discrepancy between “overall” IMDB ratings.

Table 2: Most- and least-admired Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) when first aired

Title Series-Episode Doctor AI Score
Journey’s End 4-13 10 91
The Stolen Earth 4-12 10 91
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 89
Doomsday 2-13 10 89
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 89
Asylum of the Daleks 7a-1 11 89
The Parting of the Ways 1-13 9 89
The Big Bang 5-13 11 89
The End of Time: Part Two 10th Doctor Specials 10 89
14 Episodes 3  to 50th Anniversary 10 (8), 11 (6) 88
16 Episodes 1,8-11 12 (14), 9 (2) 82
Twice Upon a Time 11-Christmas 12 81
The Eaters of Light 10-10 12 81
World War III 1-5 9 81
The Long Game 1-7 9 81
The Woman Who Lived 9-6 12 81
Heaven Sent 9-11 12 80
The Unquiet Dead 1-3 9 80
Sleep No More 9-9 12 78
Rose 1-1 9 76
Love & Monsters 2-10 10 76
The End of the World 1-2 9 76

According to Table 2, British audiences did not immediately warm to Doctor Who’s resurrection (with Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor): the first two new episodes (“Rose,” “The End of the World”)—are tied with the execrable Series 2 episode “Love & Monsters” for lowest AI score; five of the first seven are in the bottom nine. There was also a severe drop-off in the reaction to new episodes with Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor: 18 (45%) of his episodes rank in the bottom 27 in AI score.

Meanwhile, four of the five episodes with the highest AI scores came as the 10th Doctor’s song was ending: the two-part Series 4 finale (“The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) and the two-part “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” The top nine is rounded out by four other “finale” episodes: “The Parting of the Ways” (9th Doctor’s regeneration), “Doomsday” (Rose Tyler [Billie Piper] trapped in a parallel universe), “The End of Time: Part Two” (10th Doctor’s regeneration) and “The Big Bang” (Series 5 finale), as well as the first episode of Series 7a, “Asylum of the Daleks.”

If AI scores are a fixed (British audience) starting point, then the IMDB ratings (flaws and all) in Table 3 represent evolution in regard for Doctor Who episodes over time, after they have been watched and re-watched, shared with others, and discussed at length.

Table 3: Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) with highest/lowest IMDB ratings

Title Series-Episode Doctor IMDB Rating # User-Raters
Blink 3-10 10 9.8 14,970
Heaven Sent 9-11 12 9.6 7,138
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 9.5 6,471
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 9.4 6,198
The Day of the Doctor 50th Anniv 10/11 9.4 15,365
Doomsday 2-13 10 9.3 6,099
Vincent and the Doctor 5-10 11 9.3 7,441
The Girl in the Fireplace 2-4 10 9.3 7,637
5 Episodes* 3,4,5,7,10 10 (2), 11 (2), 12 (1) 9.2 2,642-5,746
4 Episodes 1,3,8 9 (2), 10 (1), 12 (1) 7.1 3,990-4,475
Evolution of the Daleks 3-5 10 7.0 4,017
The Idiot’s Lantern 2-7 10 6.9 4,197
Victory of the Daleks 5-3 11 6.9 4,075
The Curse of the Black Spot 6-3 11 6.9 3,957
The Lazarus Experiment 3-6 10 6.7 4,054
Love & Monsters 2-10 10 6.3 5,035
Fear Her 2-11 10 6.2 4,445
In the Forest of the Night 8-10 12 6.2 3.624
Sleep No More 9-9 12 6.1 3,254

      * The Family of Blood (3), Journey’s End (4), The Big Bang (5), The Name of the Doctor (7), World Enough and Time (10),

        † Aliens of London/World War III (1) Daleks in Manhattan (3), Kill the Moon (8)

Twenty-six resurrected Doctor Who episodes have an IMDB rating of 9.0 or higher, topped by “The Day of the Doctor,” Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” the penultimate Series 9 episode “Heaven Sent” and, of course, “Blink.” The extremely high number of “Blink” raters would seem to confirm this is the episode most often used by Doctor Who fans to introduce the show to non-fans. Somewhat less often used this way (ranked 3rd and 4th in raters) are the bittersweet episodes “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Series 2) and “Vincent and the Doctor” (Series 5). The heartbreaking “Doomsday” rounds out the top eight. My personal favorite episode, “A Good Man Goes to War” (Series 6), is tied for 14th with a 9.1 IMDB rating.

Bringing up the rear are nine episodes with IMDB ratings between 6.1 and 7.0, three from Series 2 alone: “The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Love and Monsters” and “Fear Her.“ This remarkably uneven series featured these three episodes AND “Army of Ghosts (8.5)/Doomsday,” “Girl in the Fireplace” and “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” (8.8, 8.9); Series 3 episodes “Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks” and “The Lazarus Experiment” are similarly poorly-regarded. Rounding out this list are two 11th Doctor episodes (“Victory of the Daleks,” “The Curse of the Black Spot”) and two 12th Doctor episodes (“In the Forest of the Night,” “Sleep No More”).

These three rankings clearly overlap: “Doomsday,” “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End,” “The End of Time: Part Two,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “A Good Man Goes to War” and “The Day of the Doctor” remain among the most admired and oft-rated episodes, while “Sleep No More” and “Love and Monsters” are still best forgotten. On the other hand, an episode like “Heaven Sent,” which was relatively poorly received when it first aired in November 2015 (AI score=80), is now the 2nd-highest rated episode on IMDB!

A correlation coefficient (r) measures how well too measures “agree” in a linear way. R ranges between -1.00 and 1.00; if r is negative, then as one measure increases, the other decreases, and if r is positive, as one measure increases, the other measure increases. When r=0.00, the association is completely random.

The correlation between AI score and IMDB rating is a solid 0.44, while that between IMDB rating and number of raters is an even-better 0.48. These associations are seen more clearly in Figures 1 and 2 below. The correlation between AI score and number of user-raters was a more modest, though still positive, 0.24 (data not shown).

Figure 1: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-17 (n=144)

Doctor Who Figure 1

Figure 2: IMDB Rating vs. # Raters, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-17 (n=144)

Doctor Who Figure 2

Evolution of regard. Comparing each episode’s AI scores and IMDB ratings will show which episode’s appeal has increased over time, and which have declined. To do this, I converted each value to its z-score (number of SD above/below average—this allows valid comparisons between values with different scales); every z-score has average=0 and SD=1. For example, “A Good Man Goes to War has an IMDB rating of 9.1. Subtracting the average of 8.1 from 9.1, then dividing by the SD of 0.8 yields a z-score of 1.2, meaning this IMDB rating is 1.2 SD more highly regarded than average.

Figure 3: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating (z-scores), Doctor Who episodes, 2005-17 (n=144)

Doctor Who Figuere 3

More than half (60%) of resurrected episodes are still either better regarded than average (both z-scores>0, n=47) or less well regarded than average (both z-scores<0, n=39). Once again, “Blink” and “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” were, and remain, highly regarded, while “Love and Monsters” and “Sleep No More” were, and remain, episodes best to avoid.

Thirty-five episodes (24%) went from above average to below average in regard (lower right quadrant of Figure 3), most notably the Series 3 episodes “Daleks in Manhattan” and “The Lazarus Experiment.” The former declined 2.1 SD from a respectable AI score of 87 to a well-below-average IMDB rating of 7.1, while the latter dropped 2.3 SD (85 to 6.7). The only episode to drop as many as 2.0 SD is “The Curse of the Black Spot” (86 to 6.9). Other episodes to decline at least 1.5 SD to become less well-regarded than average are: “Planet of the Dead,” “The Poison Sky,” “The Vampires of Venice,” “Night Terrors,” “Partners in Crime” and “The Doctor’s Daughter.” These disparate episodes are split between the 10th (6) and 11th Doctors (3), though nothing else obviously links them. I quite like “Partners” and “Daughter,” the latter especially because it is how Tennant met wife Georgia Moffatt (the titular “daughter”), who is the daughter of Peter Davison, the 5th Doctor.

Finally, 23 episodes (16%) went from below average to above average in regard (upper left quadrant of Figure 3), most notably “Heaven Sent,” which increased an astonishing 3.7 SD (80 to 9.6) in less than three years; this episode—the Groundhog Day of Doctor Who—rewards repeat viewing. The only other episode to increase at least 2.0 SD is “Listen” (82 to 9.0), one of the 12th Doctor’s earliest and most personal adventures. In fact, five of the seven other episodes to increase at least 1.5 SD to become more well-regarded than average—“Hell Bent,” “The Doctor Falls,” “The Husbands of River Song,” “Extremis” and “Twice Upon a Time”—feature the 12th Doctor. Perhaps his imminent departure from the series prompted this positive reevaluation; “The Empty Child” and “The Girl in the Fireplace” round out the list.

Series: As seen in Table 1, there have actually been 11 resurrected Doctor Who Series, as Series 7 was split into two halves: one with companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and one with companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). While Series 6 featured a nearly three-month gap between the first seven and the final six episodes, I consider it a single Series because it the same companions and a unifying story arc.

Further complicating the demarcation of individual Series’ are the 13 Christmas episodes, three 10th Doctor specials and the 50th anniversary special. It is not clear into which, if any, Series these episodes should be placed.

Table 4: AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Christmas and Special Episodes (2005-17)

Title Date Doctor AI Score IMDB Rating
Christmas Specials
The Christmas Invasion 2005 10 84 8.2
The Runaway Bride 2006 10 84 7.6
Voyage of the Damned 2007 10 85 7.7
The Next Doctor 2008 10 86 7.6
The End of Time: Part One 2009 10 87 8.2
A Christmas Carol 2010 11 83 8.6
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe 2011 11 84 7.4
The Snowmen 2012 11 87 8.5
The Time of the Doctor 2013 11 83 8.5
Last Christmas 2014 12 82 8.4
The Husbands of River Song 2015 12 82 8.6
The Return of Doctor Mysterio 2016 12 82 7.5
Twice Upon a Time 2017 12 81 8.3
 

10th Doctor Specials (after Series 4, excluding Christmas)

Planet of the Dead April 11, 2009 10 88 7.6
The Waters of Mars November 15, 2009 10 88 8.7
The End of Time: Part Two January 1, 2010 10 89 8.9
 

50th Anniversary Special

The Day of the Doctor November 23, 2013 War, 10, 11 88 9.4

For simplicity, I assessed individual Series’ using only the 128 episodes listed in Table 1; the AI scores, IMDB ratings and number of raters for the 16 non-Series episodes are listed in Table 4.

Figure 4: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Series’ (2005-17)

Doctor Who Figure 4

Series 1 started slowly (Figure 4; AI scores are divided by 10 for an apples-to-apples comparison), although four of the final five episodes rank among the most well-regarded now (“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” “Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,” average IMDB score=9.0).

While Series 2 is now slightly less well-regarded than Series 1, and average IMDB rating for Series 3 drops to 8.03 without “Blink,” Series’ generally became better-regarded through Series 4. This latter Series is the best-regarded of the resurrected Doctor Who, both when first aired (average AI score=88.1) and now (average IMDB rating=8.46). It started slowly: while “Partners in Crime” through “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (n=7) have a solid AI score average of 87.3, their average IMDB rating is only 7.84. Starting with the brilliant “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” however, the six episodes through “Journey’s End” have an astonishingly-high average AI score (89.0) and IMDB rating (9.18)! Outside of the three-episode sequence “The Name…” (88, 9.2), “The Day…” (88, 9.4) and “The Time of the Doctor” (83, 8.5), this is the pinnacle of the resurrected Doctor Who, rivaled only by the conclusion to Series 9.

Following the 10th Doctor’s regeneration, however, Series’ 5 and 6 dropped back to Series 3 levels. The latter Series had two distinct parts: the seven-episode sequence of The Impossible Astronaut through A Good Man Goes to War have solid average AI score (86.7) and IMDB rating (8.26), which drop to 85.7 and 8.10, respectively, for the final six episodes (Let’s Kill Hitler through The Wedding of River Song).

Starting in Series 7a, these measures diverge, with average AI score jumping to 87.2 and average IMDB rating dropping to 8.10; the Series started (Asylum of the Daleks, 89, 8.7) and ended (The Angels Take Manhattan, 88, 9.0) well, though it faltered in between (n=3, 86.3, 7.60). The advent of companion Clara Oswald in Series 7b appeared to spike a further decline in regard, which only deepened when she teamed with the 12th Doctor in Series’ 8 and 9, excepting the average IMDB rating of 9.03 for the three-part Series finale (“Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent”). Finally, Series 10, with the first openly lesbian companion (Bill Potts [Pearl Mackie]), signaled a return to Series-8-level regard.

By contrast, Christmas episodes were less admired at initial airing (average AI score=84.1 vs 85.2 for all other episodes) and now (average IMDB rating=8.05 vs. 8.15 for all other episodes). The other four Specials, however, were—and, excepting Planet of the Dead, are—better-regarded.

Figure 5: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Doctors (2005-17)

Doctor Who Figure 5.jpg

Doctors. Figure 5 displays average values for all 9th (n=13), 10th (n=47), 11th (n=44) and 12th Doctor (n=40) episodes; excluding Christmas episodes and Specials made no appreciable difference.

While websites like WatchMojo.com suggest David Tennant’s 10th Doctor is the best-regarded Doctor ever (rivaling Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor), this is not necessarily borne out by the data. There is a clear demarcation between the 10th and 11th Doctors, on one hand, and the 9th and 12th Doctors on the other. And while the 10th Doctor edges his next incarnation on both average AI score (86.3 to 86.0) and IMDB rating (8.19 to 8.15), the values are not materially different.

Summary. The Doctor Who resurrection did not find its footing until late in Series 1. The 10th and 11th Doctors were held in modestly higher regard than the 9th and 12th Doctors, even if the ends of Series 1 and 9 are very highly-regarded now. The pinnacle of the revived series is the latter half of Series 4, although the most highly-rated episode currently is “Blink” (Series 3), followed by “Heaven Sent” (Series 9) and “The Day of the Doctor (50th anniversary special). “Blink” and “Day” also have received the most IMDB user-ratings by far (~15,000 each). By contrast, it is best to avoid the Series 3 episode “Love and Monsters” and the Series 9 episode “Sleep No More.” While many 10th Doctor episodes have lost stature over time, a similar number of 12th Doctor episodes have done the opposite. Finally, average AI scores and IMDB ratings of 84.8 and 8.13, respectively, are remarkably high, demonstrating just how well-received the Doctor Who revival has been.

For those who are interested, here is a PDF of the data I used in these analyses.

Doctor Who Episode data, 2005-17

Until next time…

[1] The “classic” series aired from November 1963 to December 1989, with only one 1996 television movie—intended to be an American series pilot—before its triumphant return in 2005.