Dispatches from Brookline: Social Distancing and Home Schooling I

In response to widespread social distancing being used to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, I plan to increase the frequency of my posts. And with the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest having effectively ended, I will not post nearly as often about American politics. Rather, I will describe how my family and I are dealing with the crisis, while presenting what I hope will be entertaining stories about…well, anything. 

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As of Monday, March 16, 2020, public schools in the suburban Boston town of Brookline are closed until at least Friday, April 3, 2020. I write “at least,” because public schools in Boston closed on Tuesday, March 17, 2020 and will not reopen until at least April 24, 2020; Brookline traditionally follows Boston’s lead in this regard.

My wife Nell—a former elementary school teacher who now works part-time as a children’s librarian at a local Catholic school—saw this coming the previous week. Knowing we would need to implement some classroom structure for our 4th– and 6th-grade daughters, we immediately took the following steps:

  1. We converted our dining room into a classroom, complete with white board and flip charts
  2. Nell ordered teaching supplies, including workbooks for math, science and reading; puzzles and drawing projects
  3. We began to sketch out a teaching schedule, determining that Nell would take the morning shift, and I would take the afternoon shift.

We divided the “school day” this way because while Nell is a morning person, I am an extreme night owl. Since I was laid off from my last professional salaried position in June 2015—and especially after I declared myself a writer in July 2017 and launched my “interrogating memory” book-writing project—I have maintained a distinctly counter-cyclical schedule. Basically, once the household quiets down around 11 pm—and after I have finished cleaning the kitchen and taking out any trash and/or recycling—I settle down at the desk in my home office for a few hours; this is why I publish most posts at around 3 or 4 in the morning EST. Following some quiet down time, I go to sleep close to dawn, awaking well past noon. There are exceptions, however. I awake at 7 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays to take the girls to school, allowing Nell to go to work. After taking the dog to the park for 20 or 30 minutes—often bathing in the upstairs walk-in shower when we return home, though, I get back in bed for a few hours until I need to pick up the girls from school…though I spend way too much of that time reading on my iPhone.

Still, this meant that I was already working at home. With Nell working just two days a week, this is far less of an adjustment for us than it might otherwise have been.

Meanwhile, putting my advanced degrees in political science and applied math (biostatistics, epidemiology) to good use, I decided to devote an hour each day to a general introduction to politics and government and an hour to a general introduction to statistics. That is, from Monday to Thursday. On Fridays, I plan to do something different: discuss the history of film noir, or watch a documentary about Hedy Lamarr, or something equally offbeat but still educational.

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On Monday, March 16, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 16

According to Nell, the girls had very much enjoyed their first morning of home-schooling. In fact, given the chaos that has recently descended upon the Brookline public elementary schools (e.g., two principals recently resigned in protest, even as the school district is negotiating a new teachers’ contract), they may learn more in these few weeks than they might otherwise have. I do not mean to disparage the quality of teaching in the Brookline public schools, which is generally very high. Our younger daughter has attention deficit disorder and a yet-to-be-formally-diagnosed learning disability, but with her school-based IEP (individual enrichment program) she has advanced by leaps and bounds; our older daughter is a voracious reader and diligent student, so she could probably thrive anywhere. It is just very difficult to teach and learn effectively in elementary schools with shaky leadership.

When it was my turn to teach, I used this document as a guide to begin sketching out the notion of politics as power: who has it, who decides who has it, and for how long. The section headings suggest the path our conversation took:

  1. What is politics?
  2. Birth of civilization
  3. Ancient Greece
  4. The Fall of Rome and its aftermath
  5. John Locke and the social contract

After an hour-long break, we reconvened—even as our younger daughter was fading somewhat—and I started talking about statistics, which I described simply as a way to describe a lot of information with only one or a few numbers. These latter sessions are far more interactive. Using a sheet of data about the presidents of the United States—year he first took office, length of term, age when took office, height and party affiliation (labeling Andrew Johnson a Democrat for simplicity), we focused on the most basic statistic—counts, also known as frequencies; this led to the idea of a variable, as opposed to a constant. They genuinely enjoyed seeing how old and how tall the various presidents were—and learning that about two-thirds of them were taller than my five feet, 9¾ inches.

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This is what greeted me on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, when I came downstairs.

March 17

When “Daddy school” started, we briefly reviewed what we had learned on Monday, then returned to Ancient Greece and Aristotle’s six types of government. This easily filled half of our time before we turned to a broader discussion of two types of modern governments: liberal democratic and authoritarian. The former we grounded in the social contractand John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle;” I pulled out my old paperback copy of On Liberty to read the key passage directly. We drew a distinction between classical liberalism (though I did not use that phrase; as Nell has pointed out more than once, these are not 20-year-old college students) and libertarianism. We then dipped briefly into ideology, contrasting liberalism with nationalism and fascism.

In the “applied math” class, we reviewed frequencies before turning to measures of central tendency (without using that term): mode, median and mean; we also defined range as the arithmetic difference between the maximum and minimum values. The president dataset was once again up to the challenge. And our older daughter got to use the white board to practice adding more than two numbers of two or more digits as well as long division.

When “Daddy school” ended, I ventured out into the world, stopping at our local CVS to pick up prescriptions for Nell and a few other items before driving to a nearby Star Market. The bread shelves where practically empty, as were most of the frozen vegetable freezers, though I was still able to find broccoli and spinach. Neither here nor at CVS could I find a single bottle of rubbing alcohol or can of Lysol disinfectant for our downstairs neighbors. As I waited quietly in the checkout line, the quirky young cashier—who told us she was 19 years old and this was her first job—told the man in front of me the Star was now limiting customers to two containers per day for milk, eggs, and a host of other products. I was only buying one gallon of milk and no eggs, so I was in no danger there. And despite 19-year-old-cashier’s worry people would try to skirt the two-per-day limit or, worse, get into fights, everyone I encountered—which was not very many people—was patient and understanding.

When I came home, I tried to convince Nell to make the following day’s word of the day “rationing.” She chose a different word, though, as you will see.

Much later that night—err, early morning—I was unwinding to various YouTube videos on our big screen HD “smart” television. I have long been a fan of WhatCulture’s take on pop culture, but this video I watched—in which members of the staff present how they are responding to the need for social distancing—is especially remarkable for how they address the new reality both soberly and comically.  Malinda Kathleen Reese’s humorous take on how properly to wash your hands is in a similar vein.

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This is what greeted me on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, when I came downstairs.

March 18 schedule

This was the first day the strain of being homebound began to show on our daughters. The older one—hormones coursing through her five-foot-six-inch frame—melted down in the morning over a range of issues; for the record, our younger daughter is only a few inches shorter. The latter daughter, meanwhile, perhaps responding to the fact one of her closest friends was having brain surgery that day, felt extremely nauseous.

Nonetheless, despite our older daughter now careening into wild hysterics over the Kool Aid man (your guess is as good as mine on this one), we soldiered on into “Daddy academy.” After another brief review, we turned to the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, we wondered how 13 disparate colonies, after overthrowing the “no taxation without representation” rule of tyrannical—Aristotle’s term for a solo ruler who makes rules solely on her/his own behalf—King George III of England could then fashion themselves into a nation.

It was while reading the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence that our older daughter decided she wanted to visualize the word “usurp.” This is a fairly accurate depiction, actually.

Usurp

Careening rapidly through the Articles of Confederation, we came to the process of writing the Constitution of the United States between May and September 1787. And once again, our older daughter had some thoughts on two unfortunate historical realities of the document as originally drafted: a slave being considered 3/5 of a citizen for the decennial census, and the fact women could not vote until 1920.

Kool Aid man was not happy about these things.

Molly react to Constitution

The applied math was far less dramatic. We reviewed range, mode, median and mean before turning to types of statistical distributions—how data are arranged from lowest to highest value—including normal, poisson and exponential. I also touched briefly on the idea of variance, or how narrowly or widely dispersed around the mean values of a variable are.

Later that night, this appeared on the white board—courtesy of Nell, who once made extra money drawing wall murals; as she says, she cannot draw something original, but she can copy anything.

Welcome to Thursday

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…

Reaching milestones of my own invention

In my last post, I described how a great friend of mine and I exchange generous Amazon gift cards for our birthdays. One gift I have already used this year’s card to purchased is this four-DVD film noir box set:

Filn Noir collection.JPG

Filn Noir collection--titles.JPG

Of the four titles in this no-frills set (the only extras are trailers for every film except Storm Fear), the only one I had already seen was He Ran All the Way. Both the surprisingly-well-made Storm Fear and the classic He Ran All the Way are superb examples of what could be called “hostage noir.” Other examples would be Suddenly—featuring a spellbindingly psychotic Frank Sinatra; Blind Alley and its 1948 remake The Dark Past; and the underrated gem Dial 1119.

Witness to Murder, despite featuring Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders and Gary Merrill, is a watered-down version of the brilliant Rear Window; what redeems it is mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography by the ground-breaking John Alton. The titular witness, Stanwyck, does her best with the material, including a hard-to-swallow romance with Merrill’s homicide detective. Sanders, however, is believably menacing and creepy as he-who-is-witnessed; no spoilers here, as the trailer itself reveals Sanders is the killer.

A Bullet For Joey is a 1955 film best described as “bonkers,” albeit generally entertaining. Edward G. Robinson, terrific as always, is wasted as a homicide Inspector—working in a Montreal which looks suspiciously like Los Angeles, and where nobody speaks with a Canadian accent. Audrey Totter looks bored, and George Raft is—well, George Raft, wooden yet strangely charming. Both Robinson and Raft had great early success in early 1930s gangster films, but while Robinson seamlessly shifted to other roles, Raft always seems stuck around 1931. To be fair, Raft is quite good as a homicide detective in a 1954 film I quite like called Black Widow, a rare example of color film noir from the “classic” era, roughly 1940 to roughly 1960.

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But wait, IS Black Widow a film noir?

Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote about the “personal journey” I had taken to become a devoted fan of film noir. Two months later, a conversation with my wife Nell about career paths inspired me to write the book I am close to finishing (working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive into My Family’s History…and My Own). My original plan was simply to flesh out the multiple facets of my personal journey into book-length form, but it quickly morphed into a full-on investigation of…what the working title sums up nicely.

In that May 2017 film noir post, I introduced my quantitative film noir research project. Essentially, I collected as many published—either as a book or on a credible website—film noir lists as I could find. These lists could be explicit (encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, filmographies) or implicit (discussed as film noir within the text of a book about film noir), and needed to include a minimum 120 films.

Ultimately, I acquired 32 such lists, from which I created an Excel database of 4,825 films at least one “expert” labelled film noir, however indirectly. From these data I calculated a score cleverly called “LISTS,” which denotes how many lists feature that title. The idea is simple: the more film noir lists on which a film appears, the more widely it is considered film noir. Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a measure of how “noir” a film is, merely how often it is cited by acknowledged experts as noir. To date, no agreed-upon definition of “film noir” exists.

Somewhat to my surprise, only four films appear on all 32 lists: Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice; not surprisingly, these are exemplary films noir. Along those lines, only 201 titles (4.2%) appear on as many as 20 lists, and only 478 titles (9.9%) appear on as many as 12 lists; at the opposite end, just under half of the films appear on only one list.

Using additional information from 1) 13 shorter lists and 2) lists within lists, such as the 50-film Canon in The Rough Guide to Film Noir[i], I next calculated a score called “POINTS.” The maximum number of POINTS a film can receive is 67.5; Double Indemnity comes closest with 62.0 POINTS, followed by Out of the Past (59.0); The Maltese Falcon (58.0); Kiss Me Deadly (54.0) and Murder, My Sweet (53.5). As with LISTS, shockingly-few films had as many as 20 POINTS—249, or 5.2%–while only 515 (10.7%) had as many as 12 POINTS. Just under half—48.2%–of films had only one POINT; by definition, they appeared on only one list as well.

You may review my 46 total sources and POINT-allotment system here: Film Noir Database Sources.

Based upon the similar distributions of LISTS and POINTS[ii], every title is classified as Universal (≥12 LISTS or POINTS), Debatable (>5, <12 LISTS or POINTS) or Idiosyncratic (≤5 LISTS or POINTS); the percentage of films in each category is roughly 10%, 10% and 80%, respectively.

So, to answer the question with which I opened this section: Black Widow has 7 LISTS and 8.5 POINTS, putting it squarely in the Debatable category. I encourage you to watch it and draw your own conclusions.

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When I first wrote about my film noir fandom “journey” in May 2017, I had seen 558 (11.6%) of the films in the database. Incrementally increasing the LISTS minimum from 1 to 20, the percentage of films I had seen increased steadily to 87.1%. And the films I had seen comprised well over 30% of total LISTS and 40% of total POINTS; unfortunately, I failed to record the precise percentages at the time.

However, through my recent viewing of Storm Fear, every one of those values has increased. I have now seen 698—14.5%–of the 4,825 films in the database; that is 140 first-time film noir viewings in nearly 30 months, or nearly five titles a month. Updating the original breakdown:

Any film        698/4,825=14.5%

LISTS≥3        564/1,613 =35.0%

LISTS≥6        470/890    =52.8%

LISTS≥12       362/478    =75.7%

LISTS≥15      308/364    =84.6%

LISTS≥20      193/201    =96.1%

As of this writing, the only films with LISTS≥20 I have yet to see are The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Suspense, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Rogue Cop, Nightmare, The Thief, The New York Confidential and World For Ransom. The bottom line, however, is that the 698 films I have seen total 8,887 LISTS, or 46.3% of all LISTS in the database, putting me 705 total LISTS shy of a majority. I could reach that milestone by watching the top 40 films, by LISTS, I have yet to see, which I very much look forward to doing.

Meanwhile, when my DVD set arrived, I had seen 695 films totaling 10,735 POINTS, or 49.85% of all POINTS in the database. Witness to Murder (19 LISTS, 19 POINTS) got me to 49.94%, while A Bullet For Joey (10,10) got me to 49.98%. And…after watching Storm Fear (16,16), I was at 10,780 POINTS, which is 50.06% of the 21,534.5 POINTS in the database.

Having seen a set of films comprising a majority of all POINTS in my film noir database is a milestone I invented, but that makes it no less fun to celebrate.

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Speaking of milestones…I am extremely reluctant to tout my blog statistics. I write on this site because I think I have something interesting to say, not for accolades or gaudy view numbers—not that I am averse to either, mind you.

This reticence, to be honest, stems in large part from the statistics themselves: as I approach the end of three years writing on this site, I have “only” 109 followers, and my posts have been viewed “only” 8,814 times. Still, the rate of increase for both—and the latter especially—has been steadily accelerating over time. And I greatly appreciate every single follower and view—even the fellow on Twitter who said that someone to whom he had shown this post—which I published two year ago today—had called it “trash.”

And, to be fair, a number of my posts have been (relatively) widely read. In fact, in September 2018, Film Noir: A Personal Journey became my second post to receive 100 views; it has now been viewed 148 times. One month later, this post on now-Associate-Justice Brett Kavanaugh became the third to reach that milestone, and last month it topped 200 views, my second-ever post to do so. It has now been viewed 215 times, while five posts in total have now topped 100 views—133 or more views, actually.

So which post beat “Personal Journey” to 100 views and “Kavanaugh” to 200 views?

It was one I wrote on a lark as I began to write the “Charlie Chan” chapter of my book, the one in which I describe how my love of classic black-and-white crime and mystery films was predicated upon my discovery—just shy of my 10th birthday—of the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films of the late 1930s and early 1940s[iii]. Collecting information about those films, I built an SPSS database containing, among other data, how various organizations and critics rated those films. Combining those data into a single value, I was able to “rank” every Charlie Chan film in relative quality from lowest to highest.

I published Ranking Every Charlie Chan Film on August 26, 2017 to what could best be described as crickets. It was viewed only seven times that month and only 23 times through the end of the year, close to the median 25 views my posts receive. By the end of April 2018, it had received 42 views, just over my post-average of 40.

But starting in July 2018, something happened. The post received 20 views that month, followed by 33, 34, 46, 55 and 53 views over the next five months; by the end of 2018, it had been viewed 299 times. And, of course, the more it was read, the higher it rose on Google searches, and so the more it was read. Over the first eight months of 2019, in fact, it was viewed an astonishing (to me, anyway) 823 times, or 103 times a month. And in July 2019, nearly two years after I published it, it crossed the 1,000-view threshold. As of this writing, it has been viewed 1,234 times.

Not coincidentally, if you Google “Charlie Chan films,” the 41st entry is my post; until recently it had been 16th, but I am not complaining one bit. And if you add the word “ranked” to the search, the very first entry is my post.

As esoteric and specific as that is, I am deeply humbled by it.

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There is one last thing.

I do not read or follow as many blogs as I am “supposed” to in order to a “successful” blogger, but there are a handful whose latest posts I am always excited to see appear in my Inbox. In no particular order, they are:

In Diane’s Kitchen

bone&silver

MadMeg’s Musings

JulieCares

What these sites have in common, besides each author’s gracious reactions to my, at times, long-winded comments, is they are all authored by women with uniquely interesting and powerful personal stories to tell. I always have something to learn from them.

Until next time…

[i] Ballinger, Alexander and Graydon, Danny. 2007. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London, UK: Rough Guides, Ltd.

[ii] The correlation between the two scores is 0.983.

[iii] There is a lot more to this story, of course, mostly involving my relationship with my father, his gambling and an old family business, but I save that for the book itself.

The Noir of Who: Part 4

I have long been fascinated by “two worlds collided” connections between disparate things. Emblematic of that fascination has been observing the influence of classic-era film noir on the television series Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. Emerging from those observations was the essay “The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who,” which I first wrote in the summer of 2018. I had hoped it would be published in a particular film noir magazine, but it was deemed too long and off-topic. To be fair, the criticism was valid–though I did not agree with the presentation of that critique.

The upshot, then. was that I edited the original essay down to roughly 7,600 words for publication on this site in four parts.

You may find the full backstory and Part 1 (establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself) here. 

You may find Part 2 (characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong) here. 

You may find Part 3 (doubling/mirroring) here. 

You may find the last installment of the essay, Part 4 (fatalism: convoluted timelines and inexorable fate) below. I will make a PDF of the complete essay available on this site shortly.

Please enjoy.

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The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 4

After watching the “death” of the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio, Utah (“Impossible Astronaut”), River is stunned when a two-centuries-younger version of the 11th Doctor walks out of a nearby diner bathroom. After slapping him, this exchange occurs:

The Doctor: Okay. I’m assuming that’s for something I haven’t done yet.

River: Yes, it is.

The Doctor: Good. Looking forward to it.

River’s relationship with The Doctor is so convoluted each maintains a journal (resembling the TARDIS) to track when they are. When the 10th Doctor first meets River in his timeline, it is the last day of her life: the word “spoilers” epitomizes their interactions.

Film noir similarly disoriented viewers with non-linear narratives. Single continuous flashbacks (Double Indemnity, The Guilty, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, Possessed, etc.) were sometimes divided, as in They Won’t Believe Me. Rebecca embeds a flashback within a flashback, while The Locket embeds a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. There is the drunken recollection of murder in Black Angel, an alternate-timeline dream sequence of The Chase, and characters-as-children flashbacks from Ruthless and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. But these pale next to the multiple flashbacks, from different points of view, in I Wake Up Screaming (aka The Hot Spot), The Killers (both versions), Mildred Pierce, and, of course, Citizen Kane.

“Blink” contains the definitive Doctor Who statement on temporal complexity. Having been sent with Martha Jones (and without the TARDIS) by a Weeping Angel to 1969, the 10th Doctor seeks help by filming his responses to a written transcript onto what will become a DVD “Easter egg.” Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) watches the clip in 2007, mystified how The Doctor can respond, 38 years earlier, to everything she says; her words, meanwhile, are transcribed by Larry Nightingale (Finlay Robertson) onto a copy of The Doctor’s end of the conversation. In the final scene, Sally hands her copy of the now-complete conversation to The Doctor, who has not yet been sent to 1969, completing the narrative loop.

On the DVD clip, The Doctor says:

“People don’t understand time. It’s not what they think it is…It’s complicated. Very complicated…People assume that time is a strict linear progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.”

The 12th Doctor breaks the fourth wall in “Before the Flood” (October 10, 2015) to provide this example of the bootstrap paradox: taking Ludwig von Beethoven’s music to Beethoven’s time, finding no such person existed, then publishing the music under the name “Ludwig von Beethoven” (who, then, wrote the music?). These explanations do little to assure us time travel’s paradoxes “by and large work themselves out” (“Hide”).

While Doctor Who’s fractured timelines mostly serve as entertaining narrative devices, they can have painful consequences. In “The Girl in the Fireplace” (May 6, 2006), the 10th Doctor, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and Mickey find a fire burning in an 18th-century French fireplace—on a crewless 51st century spaceship. They talk through the fireplace to a young girl in 1727 Paris named Reinette Poisson (Jessica Atkins)[1]. When The Doctor revolves through the fireplace wall moments later, months have passed on Reinette’s side. Rotating again shortly thereafter, an adult Reinette (Sophia Myles) is so delighted to see her childhood friend she kisses him passionately (a series first), leading the latter to say—when queried by a manservant—“I’m The Doctor, and I just snogged Madame de Pompadour.” The ship contains random portals into Madame de Pompadour’s life; one traps The Doctor in the past until he locates Reinette’s original fireplace. Before making one last revolution, he says:

The Doctor: Give me two minutes. Pack a bag.

Reinette: Am I going somewhere?

The Doctor: Go to the window. Pick a star. Any star.

But the faulty wall decrees that when he returns moments later for him, years have passed and Reinette has just died (aged 45), leaving a heartbreaking note for her “lonely angel.”

Fate’s malevolence is even more apparent when a character attempts to alter fixed points in time. In “Father’s Day” (May 14, 2005), Rose saves her father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) from being killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking to a wedding in 1987, leading vulture-like Reapers to kill humans to “heal” the time rupture. Realizing who the young woman who saved him is, and what she has done, Pete allows himself to be killed by the car after all—though at least he does not die alone this time. In “Vincent and the Doctor” (June 5, 2010), after spotting a monster in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers at a London exhibition, the 11th Doctor takes Amy to 1890 to meet him (Tony Curran). Aiming to prevent his suicide that July 29, they bring Van Gogh to the same exhibition, where a curator (Bill Nighy) proclaims him “not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.” Moved as Van Gogh is by this affirmation, he still takes his life, as a devastated Amy soon learns. And in “The Waters of Mars” (November 15, 2009), the 10th Doctor arrives on the first human base on Mars the day in 2059 it was mysteriously destroyed. Base commander Adelaide Brooke’s (Lindsay Duncan) heroic death inspires her granddaughter to pilot Earth’s first lightspeed ship, triggering space exploration by her descendants. When the virus-infected humans that destroyed the base threaten Earth, The Doctor must choose between rescue and not altering a fixed point in time. With no companion to ground him, he cracks:

 “There are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people. And those people were in charge of those rules. But they died. They all died. And do you know who that leaves?!? ME! It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine, and they will obey me!”

laws of time will obey me

Safely returned to Earth with two colleagues, Adelaide worries The Doctor has altered history for the worse. Taking matters into her own hands, Adelaide shoots herself, essentially restoring the original timeline—and shocking The Doctor out of his arrogance (“I’ve gone too far.”).

The Doctor’s inevitable regeneration (a form of death), though is the definitive fated moment in the resurrected series. As the 11th Doctor plaintively observes to Clara in “The Time of the Doctor” (December 25, 2013), “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment…like breath on a mirror,” echoing Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final words in the neo-noir Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in the rain. Time to die.” And when the 12th Doctor was convinced by the 1st Doctor (David Bradley, “Twice Upon a Time”), also resisting regeneration, to accept his fate, he still claimed “one more lifetime won’t kill anyone…well except me.”

Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish), more of whose stories were adapted into films noir than any other author (arguably 17 just between 1942 and 1956), provided the definitive noir statement on death. Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins, Jr. wrote it was…

“…perhaps the most important moment of his life, literally his dark night of the soul, when he suddenly understood, not just intellectually but in his heart and blood, that someday like Cio-Cio-San [of Madame Butterfly], he too would have to die, and after death there is nothing. It happened…’one night when I was eleven, and huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and I knew I would surely die finally, or something worse.’ This…was the beginning of ‘the sense of personal, private doom.’ […] I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t’[2]

The 10th Doctor most actively resisted this fate, famously crying “I don’t want to go” just prior to regenerating (“The End of Time, Part Two,” January 1, 2010). He told Donna’s grandfather Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbens; “The End of Time, Part One,” December 25, 2009) his regeneration will be signaled by “four knocks.” Eventually (“End of Time, 2”), he faces a choice: save Wilfred by exposing himself to a massive dose of radiation or let him die (as Wilfred suggests—after, you guessed it, knocking four times on the door of the booth in which he is trapped). Wallowing in self-pity, The Doctor declares “Well, exactly, look at you. Not remotely important. But me…I could do so much more! SO MUCH MORE! But this is what I’ll get, my reward. But it’s NOT FAIR!” That he ultimately saves Wilfred, calling it “an honor,” does not excuse his arrogant petulance.

Of course, the most catastrophic alteration of a fixed point in time in the resurrected Doctor Who is River NOT shooting the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio: all of history happens simultaneously. Once the younger 11th Doctor discovers his scheduled demise, he spends Series 6 trying to “outrun” it. Finally realizing running is futile, he accepts his fate…though not before figuring out how to survive.

You may not be able to outrun destiny, but you can occasionally delay it.

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It took only nine episodes for Doctor Who to reach its aesthetic noir pinnacle. The two=part “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” 2006 Hugo Award winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, are the first of six episodes (“Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” and 2008’s “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”) Moffat wrote before becoming showrunner in 2010. Gorgeously photographed in electric blues and muted browns by Ernest Vincze (2006 BAFTA Cymru winner, Best Director of Photography—Drama), the story unfolds over a single night during the 1941 London Blitz.

Chasing an unidentified cylindrical object, the 9th Doctor and Rose park the TARDIS in a shadowy London back alley. While The Doctor seeks answers in that most noir establishment, a nightclub, Rose spots a small boy (Albert Valentine) on a roof wearing a gas mask and calling for “Mummy.” Climbing light-slicing fire escapes after him, she winds up dangling from a barrage balloon during a German air raid before Captain Jack rescues her. The Doctor, meanwhile, follows teenaged Nancy (Florence Hoath) to a house with a supper abandoned due to the raid, which Nancy shares with other kids “living rough.” The Doctor joins them, inquiring about the gas-masked-boy following Nancy asking “Are you my mummy?” As the boy (who we soon learn is Nancy’s brother Jamie, killed by a German bomb the night the unidentified object landed) seeks entry, Nancy warns The Doctor not to let Jamie touch him, lest he become “empty” as well. Following Nancy’s advice to visit “the doctor” in Albion Hospital, The Doctor wanders its shadowy halls to find hundreds of patients with precisely the same injuries—down to fused gas mask—as Jamie. Captain Jack confesses he tried to con The Doctor and Rose into buying the cylindrical object, a “harmless” Chula battlefield ambulance, before transporting them to his ship. Realizing Captain Jack’s ship (also Chula) is loaded with nanogenes, microscopic robots which heal living tissue, The Doctor concludes the nanogenes from the ambulance saw mutilated dead Jamie in his gas mask and thought that is what humans look like. They then “healed” other humans by turning them into Jamie. When Nancy tearfully claims it is “all my fault,” The Doctor finally understands: “Teenage single mother in 1941, so you hid, you lied, you even lied to him.” At The Doctor’s urging she embraces Jamie and tells him, “I am your mummy, I will always be your mummy.” In a moving sequence, the nanogenes recognize the “superior information” of the parent DNA.

everybody lives

Running to the child, The Doctor pleads, “Oh come on, give me a day like this, give me this one” and pulls off the gas mask to reveal a fully-healed, slightly confused boy. The Doctor then uses “upgraded” nanogenes to restore everyone, proclaiming: ”Everybody lives! Just this once, Rose, everybody lives!”

That moment of supreme jubilation, however, the idea that “just once” nobody died when The Doctor triumphed, only underlines just how much classic film noir influences the resurrected Doctor Who.

Until next time…

[1] For the record, she did not actually gain the nickname “Reinette” until 1731, when she was 9. http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/pompadou.html Accessed June 30, 2018.

[2] Nevins, Francis M., Jr. 1988. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York, NY: The Mysterious Press, pg. 8.

The Noir of Who: Part 2

I have long been fascinated by “two worlds collided” connections between disparate things. Emblematic of that fascination has been observing the influence of classic-era film noir on the television series Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. Emerging from those observations was the essay “The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who,” which I first wrote in the summer of 2018. I had hoped it would be published in a particular film noir magazine, but it was deemed too long and off-topic. To be fair, the criticism was valid–though I did not agree with the presentation of that critique.

The upshot, then. was that I edited the original essay down to roughly 7,600 words for publication on this site in four parts. You may find the full backstory and Part 1 (establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself) here.

Part 2, addressing characterization (femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong), may be found below.

Please enjoy.

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The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 2

An archetypal film noir character is the strong, seductive and duplicitous woman (or man) who uses a willing man (or woman) for selfish, often deadly, ends. The Rough Guide to Film Noir lists 10 exemplary femmes fatale including Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in The Lady From Shanghai, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past, Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo) in Criss Cross and Kitty March (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street.[1]

A thought-provoking variation on the femme fatale in the resurrected Doctor Who is the psychopathic River Song.

Traveling on the TARDIS after their wedding, Rory impregnates Amy. Soon after, Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) has The Silence kidnap Amy, replacing her with an avatar. “Melody Pond” is born in the 52nd century on the asteroid Demon’s Run (“A Good Man Goes to War,” June 4, 2011) then taken to 1960s Earth by Madame Kovarian. Conceived in the time vortex, Melody has both human and Time Lord DNA, meaning she can be conditioned to become a weapon against The Doctor. Amy, Rory, River and the 11th Doctor unknowingly encounter young Melody (Sydney Wade) in Florida in July 1969 (“The Impossible Astronaut,” April 23, 2011) as she escapes her captors. One night six months later, she wanders into a noir-lit Manhattan alley, where she assures a concerned wino “It’s alright, it’s quite alright. I’m dying. But I can fix that. It’s easy really. See,” before regenerating in a chiaroscuro explosion of light (“Day of the Moon”).

1970 regeneration.jpg

Later, a newly-regenerated River engages in a flirtatious cat-and-mouse game with The Doctor before kissing him with a poisoned lipstick with no known antidote (“Let’s Kill Hitler,” August 27, 2011). However, River soon begins to fall in love with the man she was raised to kill, upending her femme fatale persona (at least where The Doctor is concerned), using her remaining regeneration energy to save The Doctor. Nonetheless, Madame Kovarian eventually recaptures River and forces her to kill the man she loves. Indeed, we are told over and over that this is a fixed point in time—it must happen where, when and how it happens. Thus, when River instead empties her weapon pack, time itself collapses (“The Wedding of River Song,” October 1, 2011). Literally to “save time,” the 11th Doctor marries the psychopathic daughter of his closest friends—the woman who is ultimately incarcerated in a maximum-security prison for his “murder.” No classic film noir ever contained so many twists of fate.

river berlin

Film noir hommes fatale, meanwhile, include Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) in Born to Kill, Webb Garwood (Van Helfin) in The Prowler, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) in Shadow of a Doubt, Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum) in When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed) and multiple Zachary Scott portrayals (Danger Signal, Mildred Pierce, Ruthless). Jerry Slocum provides a homoerotic twist in The Sound of Fury.

the empty child

Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, above on the right, along with Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler and Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor) is the resurrected Doctor Who’s clearest homme fatale. When we first meet him (“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances,” May 21/28, 2005), he is a con artist who left the 51st-century Time Agency after two years of his memories were erased (amnesia as HR policy). He is also a sexually-flexible man willing to betray and/or seduce to get what he wants. Handsome, charming and intelligent, Captain Jack briefly travels with The Doctor before turning the Torchwood[2] Institute, founded by Queen Victoria (“Tooth and Claw,” April 22, 2006) to protect the Earth from aliens (even The Doctor), into The Doctor’s ally. In fact, the spin-off series Torchwood (2006-11) is an even darker, more violent and sexually-explicit version of the resurrected Doctor Who.

But The Doctor’s own transformation best exemplifies noir in the resurrected series. In “Into the Dalek” (August 30, 2014), the 12th Doctor asks Clara for help:

The Doctor: I am terrified.

Clara: Of what?

The Doctor: The answer to my next question. It must be honest, cold and considered, without kindness or restraint. Clara, be my pal and tell me. Am I a good man?

Clara (taken aback): I…don’t know.

The Doctor (resigned): Neither do I.

Their exchange captures The Doctor’s struggle to remain (in Craig Ferguson’s pithy summation) a “force for good in an otherwise uncertain universe,” evoking Chandler’s idealized detective/hero:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be…a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world […].”[3]

As we saw with Ford’s Dave Bannion, this heroic persona can be difficult to sustain down those mean streets: Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) cuckolds his partner and sends his lover to prison in The Maltese Falcon; Mike Hammer is a narcissistic thug in I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick and, especially, Kiss Me Deadly; Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is all too willing to run away with his client’s lover Kathie in Out of the Past.

And not only detectives go off the moral rails. Decent men like Bart Tare (John Dall) in Gun Crazy, Professor Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) in The Woman in the Window, Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) in Roadblock and Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) in Nora Prentiss are lured by desirable women into criminal activity. Failure to provide for his family drives Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) to join Jerry Slocum’s crime spree in The Sound of Fury, with fatal results. But the definitive noir good-man-gone-wrong is Robinson’s milquetoast bank teller in Scarlet Street who lies, embezzles and kills—before allowing Johnny Prince’s (Dan Duryea) unjust execution for the crime—to win Kitty.

The “good” Doctor sees his character eroded by unbearable guilt and self-righteous egotism. In “Dalek” (April 30, 2005), the 9th Doctor is locked in a pitch-black room with an unknown alien subjected to brutal torture (like Grayle’s Weeping Angel). After The Doctor offers aid, the alien slowly reveals itself to be a Dalek—albeit one too weak to “exterminate” a terrified Doctor, who then maliciously describes how he destroyed both their races. When the Dalek notes they “are the same” because both are “alone in the universe,” The Doctor snaps, viciously torturing the Dalek himself. Later, having regained full power, the Dalek (now on a killing spree) seeks orders:

The Doctor: Alright, then. If you want orders, follow this one: Kill yourself.

Dalek: The Daleks must survive!

The Doctor: The Daleks have failed! Now why don’t you finish the job and make the Daleks extinct? Rid the universe of your filth! Why don’t you just DIE?!?

Dalek: You would make a good Dalek.

This theme is repeated in “Into the Dalek” after the 12th Doctor and medical personnel are miniaturized to enter a dying Dalek—evoking 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, coincidentally directed by film noir veteran Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery, Follow Me Quietly, Bodyguard, etc.). Confronted with its race’s atrocities, the Dalek observes The Doctor’s own cancerous hatred: “I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek.” And in “Witch’s Familiar,” the 12th Doctor angrily confronts the Daleks he mistakenly believes killed Clara, leading Missy (about whom later) to tell her, “Listen to that. The Doctor without hope…Nobody’s safe now…He’ll burn everything, us too.” Befitting a Doctor fighting his own demons, Ali Asad photographed “Witch’s Familiar” in near-constant darkness, creating an oppressive sense of doom reminiscent of the neo-noir Se7en.

It is not only Daleks who trigger The Doctor’s dark side, though. In “Family of Blood” (June 2, 2007), the 10th Doctor (David Tennant), arrogating judgment to himself, metes out eternal punishments to the titular family: “He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord.” In “Journey’s End,” the 10th Doctor is shown the collateral damage of his righteous arrogance. The Doctor, companion Donna Noble, some allies and a “human” Doctor (created when The Doctor short-circuited regeneration after being mortally wounded by a Dalek) are trapped on a Dalek base by their creator Davros, who seeks to detonate a “reality bomb.” In response, former companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) threatens to destroy Earth with nuclear weapons (thwarting Davros’ plan), and Captain Jack threatens to destroy the base with a “warp star.” Davros easily stops them, then delivers his coup de grace:

The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons…Behold your children of time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor, you made this…How many more? Just think. How many have died in your name? [A sequence of 15 faces from prior episodes plays] The Doctor, the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dares not out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor, I have shown you yourself.

But The Doctor’s fall from grace is most clearly displayed in “A Good Man Goes to War.” highlighted by River’s climactic voiceover:

Demons run when a good man goes to war.

Night will fall and drown the sun when a good man goes to war.

Friendship dies and true love lies.

Night will fall and the dark will rise when a good man goes to war.

Demons run but count the cost; the battle’s won but the child is lost.

Stunningly photographed by Stephan Pehrsson in ethereal reds, blues and greens, nearly every face is shrouded in shadow. Outside the brightly-lit white room in which Amy is held captive,

amy demons run

little light is visible on the base in which most of the action takes place.

demons run

To rescue Amy, The Doctor calls upon those he once helped. However, when Rory tries to recruit River, she refuses, adding “This is the Battle of Demon’s Run, The Doctor’s darkest hour. He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further.”

After “too easy” a victory, The Doctor insists that Colonel Manton, allied with Madame Kovarian, tell his troops “to run away” so children will mock him as “Colonel Runaway,” adding…

The Doctor: Look I’m angry. That’s new. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen now.

Madame Kovarian: The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.

The Doctor: Good men don’t need rules…But today is not the day to find out why I have so many.

While The Doctor spars with Madame Kovarian, a trap is laid for Amy, Rory and five allies, three of whom are killed in the ensuing battle (over which River recites the poem). Too late, The Doctor realizes his vengeful blood-lust blinded him to Madame Kovarian’s plan to kidnap Melody Pond, as revealed by the just-arrived River:

The Doctor: You think I wanted this. I didn’t want this. This isn’t me.

River Song: This was exactly you. All this. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. “Doctor,” the word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean?…To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word means “mighty warrior.” How far you’ve come. And now they’ve taken a child, the child of your best friends. And they’re going to turn her into a weapon just to bring you down. And all this, my love, in fear of you.

Even though 12th Doctor tells his next incarnation (“Twice Upon a Time”)…

“Never be cruel. Never be cowardly…Remember, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind […] Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”

…the necessity to remind his future self (“let’s get it right”) of Chandler’s precepts underscores the inevitable tension between the “untarnished hero” and the “mean streets” in which (s)he labors, be they in mid-20th-century Los Angeles or across all of time and space.

[1] Ballinger, Alexander and Graydon, Danny. 2007. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London, UK: Rough Guides, Ltd., pg. 210.

[2] “Torchwood” is an anagram of “Doctor Who.”

[3] Chandler, Raymond. 1944. “The Simple Art of Murder” (revised edition) in Haycraft, Howard. 1946. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc., pg. 237.

 

Organizing by themes VII: Words beginning with “epi-“

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

In this post, I sketched the winding road on which a 28-year-old man who had just resigned (without any degree) from a doctoral program in government ended up a 48-year-old with a doctorate in epidemiology.

And in this post, that degree turns out to the endgame (for now), not the starting point.

In between those two points, that man found a genuine resting place in the field of epidemiology. So much so, that when his blog—OK, my blog—debuted in December 2016, I was already contemplating the need to publish an epidemiology “primer” to provide context for the many epidemiology-centered posts I just knew I would be writing.

Ultimately, there was only one such post, based upon an unsettling implication from my doctoral research.

This latter post appeared in April 2017, just three months before I decided to stop looking for an epidemiology-related position (or, at least, one that built upon my 19 years as health-related data analyst that was commensurate with my salary history and requirements, education and experience[1]) and focus on writing and my film noir research.

In this two-part series (which includes links to my doctoral thesis and PowerPoint presentations for each of its three component studies), I describe my experience at the 2017 American Public Health Association Annual Meeting & Expo. In January 2017, when I still considered myself an epidemiologist, I submitted three oral presentation abstracts (one for each doctoral thesis study). Two were accepted, albeit after I had announced my career shift. Nonetheless, I traveled to Atlanta, GA to deliver the two talks; the conference became a test of whether the “public health analyst” fire still burned in me the way it had.

APHA 2017 1

APHA 2017 2

Spoiler alert: not so much.

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Here is the thing, however.

I still love epidemiology in the abstract. As I wrote in my previous post: “In epidemiology, I had found that perfect combination of applied math, logic and critical thinking…”

In fact, I even have a secular “bible”:

modern epidemiology

In essence, epidemiology was both an analytic toolkit and an epistemological framework: critical thinking with some wicked cool math. Moreover, the notion of “interrogating memory” is informed by my desire to “fact-check” EVERYTHING–I am innately a skeptic.

Well–I was not ALWAYS a skeptic.

And much of my writing about contemporary American politics reflects my concern that the United States is facing an epistemological crisis.

Given my ongoing love for epidemiology (even if it is not currently how I make a living) and my desire to promote critical thinking, it is very likely I will revisit my doctoral field in the future on this blog.

Until next time…

[1] I hesitate to say that I was the victim of age discrimination (at the age of 50), since I cannot back up that assertion with evidence. I am on far safer ground noting that the grant-funded positions I occupied for most of the last two decades barely exist anymore.

Two posts diverged…though not in a yellow wood

This post began as the seventh in the “organizing by themes” series, the one that would contain annotated links to my posts related to epidemiology, epistemology, public health and career changes.

THAT post may be found here.

When I started writing, though, I realized that I was telling the full back story of my adult professional and graduate student life. So rather than clunkily shoehorn the “theme organization” post at the end, I acceded to the inevitability of two distinct posts.

This was not the first time I had started writing one post only to find myself writing an entirely different post; it is a welcome process of literary free association.

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As I have alluded to elsewhere, I sort of stumbled into my previous career as a health-related data analyst.

On June 30, 1995, I walked away without a degree from a six-year-long pursuit of a doctorate in “government” (rea: political science) from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). In June 2015, however, I applied for—and received[1]—the Master’s Degree for which I had already qualified when I resigned; it was not the worst consolation prize ever.

IMG_2337 (3).JPG

With no idea what to do next (other than remain in the Boston area, having just moved into an apartment with my girlfriend of two years) and a set of quantitative and “critical thinking” skills, I spent the summer of 1995 performing data entry at a long-defunct firm called Pegasus Communications. That bought me some time…though I did not use it as wisely as I could have.

The following January, despite my better judgment, I accepted a position as an Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University. To this day, I do not know why I was offered the position: I was a 29-year-old political science major with zero experience in higher education administration who would be supervising three highly-competent professional women a few decade older than me.

In retrospect, I think my relative youth and inexperience equated to “willing to work long hours for a lower salary.”

Still…you get what you pay for: it was a terrible fit from the start, and I was unceremoniously let go late in May. As relieved as I was to be free from that position, that was the most drunk I would be until the day my mother was buried in March 2004[2].

Regrouping, I narrowed my focus to positions which would allow me to utilize the data analytic skills I had acquired at Yale and Harvard (though, in retrospect, I did not know nearly as much as I thought I did).

My break came in October 1996—just after I turned 30. I accepted an Analyst position with Health and Addictions Research, Inc. (HARI), in part using baseball statistics. And for the first time, I truly enjoyed a full-time adult job[3]. However, the federal grant funding for this position expired (not for the last time) in June 1998, so a few months later I moved on to North Charles Research and Planning Group then the MEDSTAT Group. These latter two gigs were, in order, horrific and not-bad-for-a-few-months.

All of these companies were located in or near Boston (and no longer exist in late-1990s form). However, as 2000 ended, so did my relationship with the woman my wife Nell half-jokingly calls my first wife. As a result, I decided to resign from MEDSTAT and seek a fresh start in the Philadelphia area, where I was raised.

I actually had a good position lined up with a psychometrics firm in King of Prussia (about 21 miles northwest of Philadelphia), but for still-unexplained reasons, I was “unhired” two days before I was scheduled to start. Nothing breeds paranoia like “we are withdrawing our offer but we won’t tell you why!”

The silver lining, however, was that I was unemployed when a Senior Research Associate position became available at the Family Planning Foundation of Southeast Philadelphia (FPC) in June 2001.

This was where a collection of loosely-related health data positions became a full-fledged career in “health-related data analysis.” Following the abrupt departure of my initial supervisor, I effectively ran a grant-funded research project. When that project ended after one year, I was promoted to direct a new grant-funded project; this latter project remains the most rewarding professional work I have ever done.

In the meantime, I was preparing and delivering talks at scientific conferences (American Public Health Association, Eastern Evaluation Research Society—on whose Board of Directors I would serve for a year). My colleagues and I wrote and published a peer-reviewed journal article for yet a third grant-funded project; I was listed as second author[4]. When the woman who directed the Research Department retired, she hired me as a data-analytic consultant.

And so forth.

That first project for which I was hired related to the association between the establishment of neighborhood youth development activities and teen pregnancy rates. As I recall (more than 16 years later), these activities were established in selected zip codes in North Philadelphia (the “exposed” group), but not in West Philadelphia (the “unexposed” group—unless it was the other way around.

FPC was one of 12 sites chosen nationwide to receive one of these teen pregnancy prevention grants. At the end of the project, we began to write an article summarizing our findings. This was scheduled to appear in a special edition of a peer-reviewed journal (I forget which one) presenting the results from each funding site. While I was well-educated in quantitative methods (albeit from a social science perspective), we needed a more specific type of statistical expertise.

Enter Dr. Constantine Daskalakis on a consulting contract.

This man was a revelation to me. I had not known there was such a thing as “biostatistics,” and, despite working in public health as a data analyst, I was only vaguely aware of what “epidemiology” was.

In fact, all I really knew about epidemiology was an odd remark my Harvard doctoral committee chair made while teaching one of my graduate American politics classes: “Getting a PhD in political science is tough, but if you really want to do something hard, get a PhD in epidemiology.”

Make of this what you will: I did not complete the political science doctorate; I did complete the supposedly much-harder epidemiology doctorate.

What most impressed me about Dr. Daskalakis-who had only recently completed his own biostatistics/epidemiology doctorate—was his sheer clarity of thought. He laid out an effective analytic approach in a few quick steps.

It was, for all intents and purposes, my first epidemiology lesson.

For various reasons (the timing and efficacy of the youth development activities was wonky?), we wrote a solid draft but never submitted it for publication; there went my first chance to be a first author.

Until then, I had fully rejected the idea of completing a doctorate in a different field; the wounds were still too raw. But the idea of directing my own grant-funded projects—even directing a non-profit research department myself—began to appeal to me. And that would require pursuing a public-health-related doctorate in either biostatistics or epidemiology (they were already cleaving into distinct fields of study).

It remained simply a vague notion, however, until the summer of 2004 when in quick succession 1) my mother died, leaving my stepfather and I co0-executors of her modest (but not trivial) estate, 2) the second grant project ended, 3) the next grant-funded project proved less appealing and 4) the siren call of Boston grew ever louder, especially after a trip there which combined a HARI reunion and catching up with friends at the 2004 Democratic National Convention[5].

At the reunion, I heard excellent things about the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). With no desire to return to Harvard (and/or fearing they would not want me back, even in a different graduate school), that was the only viable option I had.

That Fall, as the lawyer-driven[6] rift between my stepfather and me grew wider, a solution to our impasse occurred to me: sell the condominium my mother had intended me to have (and from which I was earning rent) and use the proceeds to pursue a doctorate at BUSPH.

Starting around my 39th birthday, no less.

My intention had been to apply for a doctorate in epidemiology, but the deadline for biostatistics was later, so that was what I chose. My GRE scores had long since expired, so I needed to take those again. My scores, after re-learning how to study for any kind of exam (the last time I had taken anything close to an exam was May 1991, when I somehow passed my Harvard GSAS oral and written exams), were…good enough.

But when I submitted my application to BUSPH, their response was a qualified acceptance: given how many years (20) had passed since I had taken a pure mathematics class, they enrolled me in the Master’s Degree program. I was excited and disappointed in roughly equal measure.

[Spoiler alert: they were not wrong]

Nonetheless, I was returning to Boston for what was shaping up to be a multi-step process. I submitted my resignation at FPC, and left—with an emotional send-off—at the end of June 2005.

In the meantime, I was still waiting for my stepfather to settle my mother’s estate with me…which he finally did in July 2005. In the interim, I had to borrow money from a friend to secure the apartment I had located in the Boston suburb of Waltham (yes, where Brandeis is located).

The final dispensation check was dated August 9, 2005; I know the date because I took an enlarged photocopy of it (it is resting comfortably in a filing cabinet behind me and to the left). No, I am not going to include a photograph of the photocopy.

However, just bear with me for a brief romantic digression.

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On October 31, 2005, my first Halloween night back in Boston, I received a message from a woman named “Nell” on Friendster, one of the original social networks (and quasi-dating site). On a lark, I had posted on my profile page 10 trivia questions based upon key interests/likes (sample question: “Freddie Freeloader sits between what two greats?”[7])

Only a few miles away in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, Nell, a private school teacher from Washington DC, was bored. Something about my profile appealed to her, so she took the time to research the questions to which she did not already know the answers.

Naturally, I was deeply flattered—and intrigued by her profile (and, later, her use of the word “persiflage” as the subject line for her first e-mail to me). We struck up a  brief correspondence then went on our first date (meeting in Harvard Square to eat at Bertucci’s—which is no longer there—and watch Good Night, and Good Luck—at a movie theatre which no longer exists). I was so nervous, I kept dropping the movie tickets.

I must not have been too nervous, though: we married 23 months (and one day) later[8].

*********

My plan had been to complete all of my coursework in two semesters (while not earning any income other than interest) to save money. I had already paid off some substantial credit card debts and lingering student loans—and a few days after I returned to Boston, my 1995 Buick Century died. Rather than incur new debt, I paid in full for my black 2005 Honda Accord (it was love at first sight when I spotted it on the dealership lot); I still drive that Accord.

Four courses a semester proved too stressful, though, so I paid for an additional semester.

On a Thursday night in early September 2005, I drove down to the Albany Street campus, parked and walked into a classroom—more of a small auditorium, really—for the first time (as a student) in nearly 15 years. It was Dan Brooks’ Introduction to Epidemiological Methods; the two disciplines may have cleaved into different departments but they were still interconnected.

And, just like that, I was home. In epidemiology, I had found that perfect combination of applied math, logic and critical thinking I had not even known I was searching for until I found it. Even as I labored joyfully through, first, Intermediate then Modern Epidemiology (perhaps the best course I have ever taken), I knew I would soon be applying to the BUSPH doctoral program in epidemiology.

It had to be soon, actually, because my GRE scores would expire in 2010.

By January 2007, I had completed both my “theoretical” and “applied” qualifying exams, and I received my diploma a short time later. I had already parlayed my impending degree into a Quality Researcher position at the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership (MBHP), where I would remain until I was laid off (expiration of grant funds again) in June 2010.

My application to the BUSPH epidemiology doctoral program was accepted early in 2009 (“We were wondering when you were going to apply!”), and I enrolled that September. Thank goodness I did, because when I left MBPH the following June, we lost our health insurance; BUSPH picked up the slack.

In May 2011, I accepted an Outcomes Analyst position with Joslin Diabetes Center, where I would remain until June 2015, when—you guessed it—the federal grant funding expired. Yes, not only did my father die on June 30 (1982), I left four different positions (only one truly voluntarily) on that day in 1998, 2005, 2010 and 2015. And yet it is not even close to my least favorite day of the year; I reserve that honor for Valentine’s Day, which I utterly loathe.

Unlike my doctoral program at Harvard, the BUSPH epidemiology program had an elegant, well-ordered rhythm to it: two years of coursework—culminating with the dreaded hurdle known colloquially as “Dan Brooks’ seminar.” After that came the “biostatistics” and “epidemiology” qualifying exams, selection of a three-person committee and a thesis topic, drafting of a short letter of intent outlining the three connected studies you were going to conduct, drafting of a very-detailed 25-page outline of the final dissertation, then the researching and writing of the thesis itself.

Nothing to it, he wrote with a shudder of remembrance.

And, of course, what followed that five-year journey (nine if you count the biostatistics MA) was the doctoral defense.

Oh my…the defense.

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Technically, this photograph was taken (on the late afternoon of December 16, 2014) after I had successfully defended (when the three doctoral committee members leave the room to “confer”—and return with cake and champagne), but my slides are still being projected, so it is close enough.

Not long after, I collected this from…somewhere…on campus.

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Nearly 20 years after I had walked away from one doctoral program, I had successfully completed an entirely different one.

And this is essentially where you came in to the movie.

Until next time…

[1] In December 2015

[2] After the funeral (at which I eulogized my mother), I spent much of the evening walking around my late stepfather’s house, where we were sitting shiva for my mother, swigging directly from a bottle of Scotch. When I walked out the house later that night in the direction of my parked car, a family friend with the superb nickname “Yo!” said he would “rip out [my] fucking distributor cap” if I attempted to do drive myself home. Not being a complete fool, I permitted a close male cousin to drive me home.

[3] And where I taught myself my first geographic information systems (GIS) software package.

[4] A 2000 article based on HARI research listed me as third author.

[5] In June 1991, a late friend of mine from suburban Philadelphia asked me to come to St. Louis to support his candidacy for Treasurer of the Young Democrats of America. I rented a car and drove to St. Louis, renting my very own room in the conference hotel, and joining the Pennsylvania delegation. I became friends with some members of the Alaska delegation, one of whom served as a whip at the 2004 convention in Boston. She was the one who invited me to Boston. I was actually in the rafters of the Fleet Center (the former Boston Garden, now the TD Garden) for former president Bill Clinton’s address—having walked by then-Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio on the way in to the building. I was in a local bar watching with dropped jaw as a charismatic young Illinois State Senator and candidate for United States Senate named Barack Obama gave the keynote address. While I was there, Mr. Obama spoke to few dozen or so people at nearby Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park; I saw his speech, but I regret not meeting him and/or getting a photograph with him.

[6] I still do not quite understand why he chose to fight my mother’s—his wife’s—crystal-clear distribution of what property she had. But he did so—then tried to intimidate me by hiring a man named Vito Canuso, who had been the chair of the Philadelphia Republican Party…at some point. I countered by hiring the lawyer—Barbara Harrington Hladik—my mother had used for my sister Mindy’s guardianship hearing (she is severely mentally retarded; I am her legal guardian now). It was a mismatch from the start—Canuso never had a chance.

[7] Answer: “Freddie Freeloader” is the 2nd track on the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue, “sitting” between “So What” and “Blue in Green,” my favorite track…period.

[8] It was not all smooth sailing—but we made it there in the end.

Organizing by themes III: Interrogating memory and identity

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

The sequence of events that resulted in the unifying concept of “interrogating memory” went like this:

  • September 2014: Facebook post for my 48th birthday rank-ordering 24 favorites films noir
  • December 2014: Defend epidemiology doctorate at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH); within two months, doctoral committee and I begin to haggle over publication
  • March 2015: Start building comprehensive film noir database (4,825 titles as of January 2019) as result of September 2014 Facebook post
  • May 2015: Skip official BUSPH Commencement in lieu of informal private ceremony; haggling had become personal and nasty
  • June 2015: End four-year senior data analytic position at Joslin Diabetes Center (19 years in health-related data analysis career) when federal grant funding expires
  • July 2015-July 2017: Look for new position in field, more half-heartedly than I care to admit
  • Early 2016: Realize 50th birthday coming in September, begin to think about discovering truth of genetic family as present to self. This goes nowhere fast.
  • August 2016: Commence long-overdue psychotherapy and begin to take low-dose anti-depressant. Early sessions zero on in establishing my “identity.”
  • September 2016: Turn 50. World does not end.
  • December 2016: Debut Just Bear With Me blog, inspired to large degree by the accessible data journalism of FiveThirtyEight.
  • Early 2017: Realize am spending far more time writing about American politics and culture than anything related to epidemiology (which, along with biostatistics, was focus of 10 years of graduate study at BUSPH).
  • May 2017: Publish Film Noir: A Personal Journey
  • June 2017: Begin to express doubts about my career path 
  • Summer 2017:

By August 2017, I was fully engaged in three interlocking processes:

  1. Writing a book with the working title Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family’ s History…and My Own.
  2. Using online tools (and documents I had carefully archived over the years) to build comprehensive, ever-expanding family trees, first for my legal family (the only family I ever knew until the last 18 months) and later for my genetic family
  3. Using 23andMe’s DNA Relatives tool to supplement slow-moving legal process to learn about genetic family.

This is easily the single most entertaining and rewarding process I have ever undertaken—especially when you learn the death of your father’s father’s father—the handsome and dapper David Louis Berger—made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in October 1919!

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

And it is far from complete.

On July 4, 2019, I wrote a series of tweets that tied two sets of genealogical strands into a single, all-American narrative.

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The funny thing is that I had never intended to write that much about these genealogical research process, given that I had originally conceived this site to be a place to disseminate “data-driven” odds and ends.

The innate storyteller in me could not resist, however, and on July 22, 2017, I wrote 23and…Who? This proved to be a relatively popular post, so whatever residual disinclination I felt to continue writing about my familial research evaporated almost immediately.

In fact, in a span of four days in mid-August 2017 I wrote three consecutive posts about what I was learning.

Making personal connection, 60 years later

Querying the impossible, just for fun

Interrogating memories of childhood fires

One month later I returned to the research with a cri de coeur about the perils of genealogical research.

I had little new to report until December 2017, when I wrote the following three consecutive posts; in the second one I finally dropped the tattered pretense that this site is solely devoted to “objective data-driven” analyses:

Querying the impossible once again…

In which the objective is to get more…personal

Interrogating memories of the LAST Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl

After a two-month hiatus during which I described in glorious detail my recent adventures in San Francisco, I returned to my genealogical investigations with two posts:

Questions of identity

Two worlds collided…

These were followed by a May 2018 post focusing less upon genealogy and more on my ongoing search for identity.

That August, I traveled to my birth city of Philadelphia, PA to conduct on-site research (and to visit friends and family). I shared what I learned from that trip in a three-part series:

Visiting Philadelphia 1

Visiting Philadelphia 2

Visiting Philadelphia 3

With a follow-up visit in August 2019.

From September until mid-December 2018, I was preoccupied with the 2018 midterm elections. It was not until what would have been my maternal grandfather Samuel Kohn’s 104th birthday (or so I had always understood) that I returned to both the book and the research. I followed that up with a cri de coeur reprise less than one month later, followed in February 2019 by the tale of my paternal great-great-uncle.

The assimilation of Samuel Joseph Kohn

The many Samuel Schmucklers

Louis Berger, Charles Rugowitz and the Three Stooges

But what happens when memories defy interrogation? Well, persistence is often the answer (plus the real reason I once hated The Beatles, with a postscript).

Finally, here are the posts that are about my life (separate from my taste in music and love for baseball) but do not necessarily fall under the heading of “interrogating memory.”

Welcome…and just bear with me.

July 2017 Odds and Ends

Questions asked…and answered

Moving memories

Moving serendipity

And for my 100th post…

Remembrance of restaurants past (and present)

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 1)

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 2)

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Epilogue)

Four stories and 12 years ago…

Two posts related to the Netflix series Stranger Things touched on such deeply personal issues as mental health, my relationship with my parents and my obsessive nature”

Stranger Things…about me?

Ritual and obsessions: a brief personal history

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Wait…did I mention that in June 2018, I formally learned the name of my genetic mother?

Until next time…