Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VIII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of April 1, 2020, the flip chart had not changed from the previous day because Wednesday has become the morning to chill and watch episodes of The Blue Planet.

In that same vein, our daughters and I began to discuss the history of those two profoundly American art forms: jazz and rock. From 3 pm to 4 pm, we watched the first hour of the first episode of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I had first watched it six years earlier, so I knew how broadly entertaining and informative it could be.

After a 36-minute-break, we reconvened to watch the end of the 87-minute episode. We then moved ahead in time a few decades to watch a short video about “The Godmother of Rock-and-Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Once that ended, our older daughter vanished into her pre-teen bedroom. Our younger daughter, however, having burrowed deeply under her dark blue quilt on the blue sofa, wanted to watch something else. And by “something else,” she meant an episode by “the boys,” our nickname for BuzzFeed Unsolved’s Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej. This being a lazy day—as many days are these days—I pulled up the most recent episode, one Nell and I had watched a few nights earlier: the mysterious death of Thelma Todd.

About an hour later, I knocked on her bedroom door to get her attention. When she removed her headphone, I told her in my best deadpan voice her mother and I had just decided we would watch five more hours of Jazz that evening. Before she could complete the indignant protest forming in her throat, I yelled “April Fool’s” in my most absurd voice. I repeated the process with her older sister, who barely deigned to roll her eyes at me.

In reality, what Nell was doing was cooking some exceptionally delicious chicken parmigiana.  I consumed a hearty portion as we watched All In With Chris Hayes. Offered seconds, I hungrily accepted essentially what remained in the casserole dish, leading our younger daughter to observe I do “not know what no means” when it comes to second.

Thanks, kid. Thanks a lot.

For all that, I had to stop eating about 2/3 of the way into my seconds so as not to get sick, though I did finish it over the course of the evening.

By 10:45 pm, I had finished cleaning the kitchen, and I decided to tackle aspects of the living room. First, as I watched the most upbeat segment I have seen on television in weeks, I thoroughly scrubbed our glass coffee table with Windex. Even before our actual dining room table became a centerpiece of our “classroom,” the coffee table had become the predominant dinner-eating surface. Once the coffee table was clean, I turned to the pile of clean laundry on the blue sofa crying out to be folded.

In general, Nell is the laundry maven—she finds great satisfaction in working her chemical magic on piles of dirty clothes using Mrs. Meyer’s detergent and OxyClean. Folding, however, is another matter entirely. I am perfectly happy to fold all shared linen and towels, as well as my own clothes.  Theoretically, she and the girls fold their own clean laundry. In reality, however, their clothes take longer to fold, leading me to step in on occasion.

Turning lemons into lemonade, I pulled out my old VHS copy of the Yello Video Show; we still have a dual VCR/DVD player. The upshot: I may also have done something akin to dancing during the 30 minutes it took me to fold those clothes. I freely admit to singing, but the rest is between me and the living room windows.

Later that night—early that morning—I returned to my computer. For reasons that escape me now, I located the “Sun City” video for on YouTube and watched it a few times. And as it has for more than 30 years, it made me weep silently.

But then it was down to business: deciding which film noir I would screen in class Thursday afternoon. The first question was whether I wanted to zero in on a key author—Cornell Woolrich—or a key cinematographer—John Alton. If the former, would we watch Phantom Lady, Black Angel or Deadline at Dawn. If the latter, would we watch Border Incident or He Walked By Night—or perhaps even Raw Deal?

I eventually made a decision, as you will see.

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Perhaps it was all the folding and dancing the evening before. Or perhaps it is my current—some may call it absurd, though as a lifelong night owl who relishes the peace and quiet of the dark night, I refute that description—sleeping schedule:

  • clean the kitchen/take out our golden retriever/take out garbage and recycling
  • work until 3 am or so,
  • soak in a long hot bath or revel in a quick hot shower,
  • take my 5 mg melatonin and over-the-counter sinus medication—I am particularly fond of half doses of CVS brand Severe Allergy and Sinus Headache, though I also like half does of DayQuil combined with a dose of CVS brand chlorpheniramine maleate
  • sack out on the white sofa to watch YouTube videos
  • drowsily turn off television to fall asleep on white sofa
  • wake one or two hours later to wander upstairs to brush my teeth and get in our actual bed

Whatever the reason, I had a more difficult time than usual rousing myself on afternoon of Thursday, April 2, 2020. And when I went downstairs and hour or so later, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 2

Technically, what I first saw was both of our daughters sitting in their usual classroom seats, attentively waiting for “school” to begin—or perhaps it had already begun? Almost before I could ask Nell why our daughters, who usually require some nominal cajoling to begin their afternoon classes, were already there, she said, “Maybe you should go look for yourself.”

So, I did.

Oh.

Dr Dobby

Our younger daughter was now in stitches; she had been plotting this since my “April Fool’s” prank the night before. The piece of paper in front of “Dr. Dobby,” meanwhile, was written by our older daughter to attest to the pedagogical excellence of my temporary replacement.

Once Dr. Dobby and I had agreed I would teach this particular class, I opened some of the PowerPoint slides I had used to teach an adult and community education film noir course in the fall of 2018. First, I wanted to make the point—using my LISTS and POINTS system—that while film noir certainly peaked between 1944 and 1953 in the United States, it was and is an international film type that continues to this day.

Woolrich April 2

Second, and more important, I presented the tragic life of Cornell George-Hopley Woolrich, who sometimes wrote as William Irish. As you can see from the slide, more films noir have been adapted from Woolrich stories than from any other author; this slide only lists the 15 films released between 1942 and 1954 which have at least 10.5 POINTS.

This quote from a 1988 biography perfectly distills Woolrich’s noir fatalism:

“…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’”[1]

One thing I forgot to tell the girls was how I opened the eulogy I delivered for my mother—their grandmother—on March 2, 2004. Observing that Woolrich was a renowned writer who had essentially invented the psychological suspense story, I noted only four people attended his funeral in September 1968. By contrast, I continued, there were twice that many people in attendance that morning who had never even met my mother, primarily my coworker “family.”

And with that, we settled down in the living room—note the blue sofa devoid of clean unfolded laundry—to watch Phantom Lady. I chose this film because it…

  1. has the most POINTS (42.5) of any Woolrich adaptation, tying it for #27 with The Naked City,
  2. features a strong heroic female lead in 23-year-old Ella Raines,
  3. was directed by the man I most strongly associate with classic film noir, Robert Siodmak and
  4. includes some of the most famous scenes in classic film noir

Just before we started to watch Phantom Lady, there was a brief conversation over whether the girls could use their Nintendo switches at the same time. I started to say no, but then gambled the movie would be compelling enough to draw then in. I knew I was correct when, about 15 minutes in, our older daughter showed me some green animal on Animal Crossing, adding “It’s a good movie, though.”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, that same daughter had had something of a meltdown that morning over the fact she could not see her ribs; we seem to deep in that phase of pre-adolescence. But that makes the exchange we had over Ms. Raines—who I confess I find very attractive (those clear blue eyes…), but who also strikes me as too thin—that much more cringeworthy.

While agreeing Ms. Raines was attractive, she took exception to my fancying her, crying “She’s 20 years older than you!” Learning Phantom Lady was released in 1944, she amended her outrage to note she was 22 years older than me—not counting that she was in her 20s when she starred in it. To this, I unhelpfully added that she was also dead.

Strangely enough, these conversations never took place with my six “What is Film Noir” students. Nonetheless, as a teacher I did pause the film a number of times to point out something about Woody Bredell’s lighting scheme or to comment upon Woolrichian coincidence.

Meanwhile, when Elisha Cook, Jr. first appeared on screen, our younger daughter immediately said, “He was in that other movie,” recalling his key role in Stranger on the Third Floor, which she and I had watched the previous Sunday. This is the same daughter who sliced open an avocado for a snack, somewhat raggedly using her child-safe white plastic knife, while her father instead had a toasted whole wheat bagel with cream cheese.

In the end, both girls enjoyed the film, although the intensity of the penultimate “damsel in distress” scene could be why our younger daughter had her own teary meltdown around dinner time. Being her, however, she recovered within five minutes.

A short time earlier, I had taken the dog out into the backyard. Ten or 15 minutes of frolicking in the mud later, I trotted her upstairs and into our walk-in shower for a long-overdue bathing. Wrestling a wet 50-pound dog in such a confined space is a serious aerobic workout—never mind toweling her off afterward—but on this occasion I punctuated with the loud shrieks of a cooped-up maniac—not unlike the noises Mr. Bergara made when he and Mr. Madej returned to the “Winchester Mystery House.”

When I suggested to Nell, who had overheard my chorus of madness, that such vocalizing was an expression of stir-craziness, she observed “this is only the beginning.”

A short time later, as Nell was preparing Trader Joe’s chili and cornbread, she noted that when she spoke to her friend in Chicago it was 65 degrees and sunny, so that weather should be here soon.

“No,” I replied, “All of Chicago is on lockdown. The weather can’t leave.” She found that genuinely amusing—unlike the usual “that joke never gets funny” response my quips merit—saying, “That’s…that’s funny.”

Thanks, Nell. Thanks a lot.

Later that evening—early that morning—I wrestled with how I wanted to teach the girls about the early history of rock and roll, which I realized was not my strongest area. Girding myself to prepare a set of PowerPoint slides with links to YouTube videos, I quickly found this hour-long documentary from 1984. I watched it and decided it would be good enough.

Which it proved to be.

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I may only have been joking about the weather, but I did not expect to wake on Friday, April 3, 2020—thanks to Nell, since I had neglected to set my alarm—to a near-nor’easter. An hour-plus later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 3

Dr. Dobby was back as well, albeit willing to stay in a supportive role:

Supportive Dr Dobby

I had briefly debated offering the girls the choice between Episode 2 of Jazz or the rock and roll documentary, but I realized I had already set up the latter with the Sister Rosetta Tharpe video. The girls liked the documentary, although our older daughter had a difficult time with Elvis Presley’s slicked-back hair, finding Jerry Lee Lewis much more attractive—well, at least until she realized he had married his 13-year-old cousin.

Her younger sister, meanwhile, quietly watched a few tears roll down my cheek when they showed footage of the February 3, 1959 plane crash which effectively ended the first phase of rock history. Later that night, in honor of Buddy Holly, I finally purchased 18 of his songs on iTunes.

After a 30-minute or so break, the three of us gathered in the classroom, where I “lectured” from these notes (which I admit are mostly cribbed from the Internet minefield which is Wikipedia):

April 3

Three observations I neglected to include in my notes, but which I improvised:

  1. An oversimplification of the Hegelian dialectic
  2. The replacement of the aging Dwight Eisenhower with the much younger John F. Kennedy in 1961
  3. How the emerging songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David found their muse around 1962 in the person of a New Jersey gospel singer named Dionne Warwick.

My point was that far from “dying,” American music other than rock and roll thrived between February 3, 1959 and the first appearance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. While there was no guarantee rock and roll would reemerge in those five years—let alone become the dominant pop music for generations to come—it is only with a particularly rock-centric hindsight we say “the music died,” with all due apologies to Don McClean.

And with that, at 5:12 pm, week three of home schooling came to a successful end.

Which Nell and I celebrated by watching the first three episodes of season two of Broadchurch, after consuming her scrumptious steak fajitas.

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On March 30, at 10:53 pm, I replied to a tweet to the effect one’s “pandemic” song is the #1 song on your 12th birthday:

Oh dear. 

Oh oh OH DEAR.

Mine is…

Kiss You All Over” by Exile

So inappropriate in so many ways.

Wow

The Billboard magazine week began on my birthday in 1978, so I could have fudged the issue by going with the previous #1: “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey. To be fair, I love both songs.

Meanwhile, when I explored the 20 number ones single of 1978 (accursed Wikipedia again…I am slipping), it was hard to miss the fact five were by the Bee Gees or their younger brother, Andy Gibb, and that they occupied the top spot a combined 22 weeks.

Despite being inundated by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack when I was 11 and 12 years old, I have long since come to appreciate the excellent Bee Gees tracks of the mid- to late-1970s. However, I had continued to dismiss the younger Mr. Gibb for decades, despite his tragic death from heart failure in 1988.

And yet as I looked over those song titles—“(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing” among them—I found myself mentally humming them, surprised how good I recalled them being. I played snippets of them on iTunes, realizing I had forgotten he had had performed some of them—or I had never known it in the first place.

On Friday afternoon, as I discussed the formation of The Beach Boys—the American yin to The Beatles’ yang—our older daughter half-disgustedly proclaimed them the first “boy band.”  I indignantly shot down that comparison, repeating my contention one of the hardest things in all of art to do is write a memorable, three-plus-minute pop song. The Beach Boys did it many times…

…and so did Andy Gibb, I realized to my chagrin.

Which is why, before I purchased those Buddy Holly tunes, I bought six Andy Gibb tunes; I am enjoying them immensely.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gibb. Your songs remain your greatest legacy.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

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

And for my 100th post…100 random facts (about me)

This is post #100; thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.”

December 19 is also the two-year anniversary of this site’s launch (so I should gift myself either cotton or china, and it should be red).

To honor this symmetry, and to lighten the mood from my previous three posts (dealing—however obliquely—with the deaths of President George H.W. Bush, Pete Shelley and my maternal grandfather), I present 100 random facts about me. These tidbits of personal trivia are in no particular order.

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#1-19. I have seen every episode of…

Barney Miller*

Columbo*

Coupling

Documentary Now!

The Green Hornet (co-starring this guy)

The Honeymooners (classic 39 episodes, 1955-56)

Night Court

Police Squad (all six episodes)

Portlandia

Remember WENN

Sherlock

Soap*

Square Pegs*

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Sweet Genius

Taxi*

Twin Peaks (including this movie)

The Untouchables*

WKRP in Cincinnati*

 Shows with an asterisk I own on DVD.

#20. Barney Miller remains my favorite sitcom, followed by Taxi and Remember WENN (in some order), then CouplingWKRP and Soap (in some order) along with Cheers and Get Smart.

Barney Miller DVDs.JPG

#21. I have likely also seen every episode of a truly obscure 1980 late-night soap opera called The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts. 

#22. I have seen (and own on videocassette) all 20 adventures of The Mighty Heroes that aired as part of the 1966-67 series Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes.

mighty heroes

Picture from here

#23. I have seen every episode of Doctor Who since the 2005 revival.

#24. I have seen every episode of Dragnet released as part of the 1967-70 color revival. 

#25. I have spent the night in 24 states (25, if you count the District of Columbia [DC]). Roughly in order from most to least: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, DC, New Jersey, California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, New York, Vermont, Maryland, Illinois, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina and Tennessee (one night each on an April 1990 road trip).

#26. By contrast, I have never woken up in a foreign country.

#27-30. The only foreign country I have visited is Canada, three times in total.

The first time was to attend a Montreal Expos game in Montreal[1] on the afternoon of May 5, 1990 (which is what I told the gentleman at the crossing from Vermont).

The second time was on September 2, 1990. I began an eight-day road trip (1990 was my year for road trips) the previous day, driving west on I-90 through Massachusetts then deep into New York. Once it got dark, my rental car radio was able to pick up 1210 AM, the Philadelphia Phillies radio station, so I heard my Phillies sweep a double-header from the New York Mets (and the debut of a young second baseman named Mickey Morandini).

Believing I could simply find a room at an exit-ramp hotel, I had not booked one in advance. What I had not considered, however, was that it was Labor Day weekend. I remember one hotel clerk telling me there was not a room for “a hundred miles in any direction.” Exhausted, and unwilling to shell out an exorbitant amount of money for a hotel room 20 or miles away, I drove my rental car into the back of a Holiday Inn in Batavia, NY. I had had the foresight to pack a pillow, so I curled up in the backseat, using my robe as a blanket.

rental car September 1990.jpg

After sleeping for four hours, I roused myself at dawn and headed for Niagara Falls (which genuinely impressed me). I also found a pay phone and booked a room at a Motel 6 near Detroit, MI for that night. After touring the Falls, I drove into Canada, heading north to Toronto. It was a Sunday afternoon, so I listened on the radio as the Toronto Blue Jays playing the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays had their best starting pitcher, Dave Stieb, on the mound.

As I got closer and closer to Toronto, Stieb had still not allowed a hit. And I was literally in downtown Toronto when Jerry Browne lined out to right for the final out of the only no-hitter in Toronto Blue Jays history (by contrast, the Phillies have had six no-hitters since then).

I did not stop in Toronto, but rather drove directly to Windsor, Ontario, where I took the Ambassador Bridge north into Detroit—the only place you go north from Canada into the United States[2].

The third time was far less dramatic. On June 21, 1997, my then-girlfriend and I spent the night in Island Pond, VT (which I had first visited the day of the Expos game; different girlfriend, however). We listened to this painful loss in the motel room as it poured outside.

Since Island Pond is only 16 miles south on Route 114 from the border with Quebec, we drove to the border that night, crossed into Canada, drove a short distance then turned around and drove back into the United States.

#31. On that same September 1990 road trip, I was in the original Comiskey Park the night (September 3, 1990) Bobby Thigpen broke the single-seasons saves record.

#32. Speaking of old Comiskey Park (and Olympic Stadium in Montreal), I have been to more major league baseball stadiums that no longer exist (six[3]) than ones that are still in operation (three[4]).

#33. Over four consecutive summers (1978-81), I was a day camp camper, an overnight camp camper, an overnight camp worker (co-running the canteen) and a day camp worker (junior counselor at the same camp as 1978, Indian Springs).

#34. I was a camper at long-since-closed Camp Arthur-Reeta in the summer of 1979. For reasons which eluded me, my bunkmates gave me the nickname “Disneyland.”

#35. That same summer, I was sent home from camp for a week or two with the worst poison ivy I have ever had.

#36-48. I have also worked as a/an…

…part-time assistant (gluing samples into a display binder) for a specialty stationery store in Narberth, PA (summer 1982)

…file clerk in the G.H. Arrow periodical warehouse near 4th and Poplar (Philadelphia, summer 1983)

…delivery driver for Boardwalk Steak and Sub Shoppe (aka Boardwalk Pizza) in Ardmore, PA (spring/summer 1984)—still my favorite-ever job; I combined the Sea Isle and the Margate into my signature sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Boardwalk Sub 1.jpg

Boardwalk Sub 2.jpg

Boardwalk Pizza.jpg

…cashier in a WAWA food store in Belmont Hills, PA (summer 1985)

…cashier in a Washington, DC pizza joint (two weekends, summer 1986), while I was an unpaid intern at the Brookings Institute.

…shelving assistant in the Social Science Library at Yale (junior year, 1986-87)

…cashier at two different B. Dalton booksellers in Philadelphia (summers 1988, 1989)

…teaching assistant (three courses) and three-time senior thesis advisor at Harvard (1991-95)

…research assistant for multiple professors at Yale and Harvard

…data entry assistant at Pegasus Communications in Cambridge, MA (summer 1995)

…Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University (January-May 1996; the less said, the better)

…conductor of telephone survey research in Media, PA (spring 2001; see previous gig)

#49. My mother and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City (between Boston and Providence, the beach and Pacific). Back then, before the opening of Resorts in 1978 destroyed Atlantic City, a long string of motels stood along Pacific Avenue between Albany Avenue to the southwest and New Hampshire to the northeast. My favorite pastime was to collect pamphlets from their lobbies; in the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and reminisce.

#50. Another pastime was to charge fellow patrons of the Strand pool 25 cents (or was it 50 cents?) to “bowl.” If memory serves, I had six cheap plastic trophies I stacked in a pyramid, and the goal was to knock them over with a ball of some sort

#51. My mother and I (and my father on weekends) occupied “penthouse” A at the Strand. Penthouse B was occupied by Leland Beloff, whose golden retriever Whiskey I used to walk with our Keeshond Luvey. One day I asked “Lee” (then 31 or 32 years old, what he wanted to be when he grew up (had he only known…).

#52. Along the same lines, my orthodonist (on whom my mother had a crush), nicknamed “Dr. Touchy,” was convicted of sexually molesting his female patients.

#53. My mother once told me that I was not allowed to do drugs until I was 32 years old, because that was when she started smoking marijuana (1970).

#54. I think I was in ninth grade when my mother ruined my adolescence by telling me, “Do what you want, just be careful.” Nice, appealing to my “good doobie” nature.

#55. As this signed napkin (my mother and me) clearly shows, Nancy Spungen was the niece of Joe Spungen, my first cousin, once removed, by marriage. Actually, that should be grand-niece…not sure if the error was in the speaking or the recording.

Nancy Spungen.JPG

#56. Another first cousin, once removed is Lois Lane[5], but she is not THAT Lois Lane. This is one of her paintings.

IMG_3789 (2)

#57. On a field trip to Washington, DC on May 6, 1980, I threw up in a men’s room in the United States Supreme Court building. I had a stomach bug.

#58. I still do not know how to ride a bicycle.

#59. However, according to family lore, I was able to read at the age of two-and-a-half. Supposedly, one day in the spring of 1969 I was driving in our Havertown, PA neighborhood with my maternal grandmother, when I read a street sign: “Watch Children.” (In the retelling, it has become “watch childwenz.”). Upon returning home, she insisted my mother had had me memorize the sign. In response, my mother handed me a copy of Life magazine, opened to a random page. I read it perfectly.

Again…that is the story. My wife Nell, a former elementary school teacher with an MA in early education, does not think that is physiologically possible.

#60. What is true, though, is that I was a voracious reader as a child, and I built an impressive library of books—which I eventually Dewey-Decimalized. I once set up a “lending library” on our front lawn. One kind gentleman actually rented a book.

#61. I used to borrow substantial American history textbooks from my elementary school library to read over the weekend.

#62. In sixth grade, two other male friends and I formed the Bibliophiles and Explorers Club. No records of “BEC” meetings survive.

#63. While I still love reading history, my tastes have changed, as reflected by my ownership of 21 books dealing with Jack the Ripper; I think that qualifies me as a Ripperologist. (Ed. note: see here for more).

Ripperology.JPG

#64. Overall, I have 70 books I would broadly describe as “true crime.”

#65. That total is dwarfed by my detective fiction collection (and associated biographies, critical studies and histories): 522 (+/-10). Note that some volumes contain multiple novels.

#66. As a boy in the mid-1970s, I loved watching reruns of Batman–especially when the opening credits featured Batgirl. In retrospect, it is clear my first celebrity crush was Yvonne Craig.

#67. Excluding a girl I helped get around our elementary school after she broke her leg, my first crush on a person I knew started on a December weekend in 1978. My seventh-grade class had just read A Christmas Carol. A local second-run theater was showing the 1951 film version. As my buddy and I were settling into our seats towards the darkened rear of the theater, I happened to look over to the right. Settling into her seat maybe 20 seats away was a lovely blond female classmate, who I already liked in a platonic way.

My brain did not literally go “zoing!” but that is as good a description as any.

#68. Five months later (May 1979), after my mother, Luvey the dog and I moved in with her sister (and her two kids and Spanky the dog), I flew on an airplane for the first time (I was 12). My maternal grandmother took my cousins and me to Walt Disney World. I have not been back since then.

#69. That was not my last trip to Florida. In March 1993, on a lark, I flew to Clearwater, FL to watch four Phillies Spring Training games (in another baseball stadium that no longer exists, Jack Russell). The first game I saw was an afternoon game in St. Petersburg against—I believe—the St. Louis Cardinals. I arrived about noon for a 1 pm start and took a seat in the bleachers. It was a hot, sunny day, so I took off my t-shirt—and kept it off the entire three-hour game (we lost 9-7). Coming from wintry Somerville, MA, it did not occur to me to apply any sunscreen.

I have never been so sunburned in my life…though that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying the rest of the trip.

#70. In fact, I returned the next March, this time with my then-girlfriend (and an ample supply of sunscreen). We skipped 1995 because of the strike, but returned in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Phillies did win any of the 12 games we watched in 1994, 1996 or 1997—an impressive 12-game losing streak with us in the stands.

#71. During that last trip, we stayed at a Hampton Inn (now a La Quinta Inn) on Route 19 north. One night, I was relaxing in the outdoor hot tub. I was 33 years old at the time. A number of young men were also in the hot tub, and they were discussing to which lower-level Phillies minor league affiliate they had been assigned. One of them then turned to me and asked something to the effect of, “So, where have you been assigned?”

Yeah, I was pretty flattered.

#72-74. I was even more proud of the following accomplishments (the first two of which are sort of repeat facts):

-Unanimous election as president of the Harriton High School Math Team

-Winning Harriton’s first ever Latin and Mathematics subject area awards.

-Unanimous election as chair of the Ezra Stiles College Council

#75. The latter election took place on September 21, 1986. Later that night, I visited the room of a young woman I liked. Very early the next morning, I wandered up Broadway—happy and bedraggled—to my own room. Along the way, I passed the Master of Ezra Stiles College, Traugott Lawler. Taking in the situation instantly, he simply nodded cordially to me, and I to him. To this day, I appreciate his discretion.

#76. I had officially become “a man” seven years earlier, at my Bar Mitzvah. As part of my months-long preparation, I was required to write out the answers to a series of Judaism-related questions in a notebook. I never got that notebook back because Rabbi Maltzman (who I adored) decided to use it as an example for future Bar and Bat Mitzvot. 

#77. I saw Talking Heads live twice, in the summers of 1983 and 1984. While I was at the first concert, someone asked my mother where I was. “Oh, he’s gone to see the Walking Dead.”

#78. The only acts I have seen live as many as four times (excluding my cousin) are Genesis (1982, 1983, 1987, 1992) and Stan Ridgway (2007, 2009, 2010, 2015).

#79. The first concert I ever saw was Cheap Trick, on October 5, 1979 at the now-gone Spectrum in Philadelphia. My father—to his great credit—drove and accompanied my buddy (the same buddy with whom I had watched A Christmas Carol) to the concert. While seated near us, someone offered him some grass to smoke. He politely declined.

Cheap Trick.jpg

#80.  The first album I ever bought (Spring 1977?) was Wings Over America—which I still have:

Wings Over America.JPG

#81. The second summer I worked at a B. Dalton Bookseller (1989), an African-American man in a long raincoat came into the store while I was cashiering. He perused the magazines before selecting a Playgirl.

He paid for it with a wrinkled $20 bill. Something about the bill felt…off…but it was almost the end of my shift, so I paid little attention. Shortly after the man left the store, my supervisor (who did not like me at all) saw the bill in the cash drawer—and realized it was a counterfeit.

We had to make a statement in a nearby police station.

A day or so later, I was fired.

C’est la vie.

#82. I left my last full-time position—data guru at Joslin Diabetes Center—on June 30, 2015. Three days later, with Nell and our daughters in our house on Martha’s Vineyard, I drove to the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, ME for a little R&R.

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For supper, I drove north on U.S. 1 to King Eiders Pub in Damariscotta, which I cannot recommend enough. With my substantial meal, I had a glass of red wine and a single malt Scotch.

After the meal, I drove north on U.S. 1 to Rockport, where the Denny’s I had visited a few times in the late 1990s with an ex-girlfriend sat. I had something desert-like there, along with decaffeinated coffee.

When I left, it was past midnight…meaning it was the morning of July 4. I began to drive south on U.S. 1, winding my way through the “urban” streets of neighboring Rockland.

Almost immediately, the blue flashing lights of a police car appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and waited (license and registration in hand) as not one, but two, male police officers approached my car.

One officer came to my driver’s-side window to inform me I had been driving 40 miles per hour (MPH) in a 25-MPH zone; this was likely true, I confess. However, he then asked me what I had been drinking earlier that evening. I was honest, though I emphasized how much food I had eaten as well. He clarified that I had not imbibed any alcohol at Denny’s.

I was then asked to step out of the car.

Oh boy.

I was told to lean against the front of the police car, where I went through a battery of tests. The one that stands out is being asked to follow his fingers with my eyes WITHOUT moving my head.

Which I did well enough, apparently, that I was told I was free to go.

Here is the kicker, though.

I had ostensibly been pulled over for speeding.

However, I was not even given a warning, let alone a speeding ticket. And while I was being put through my DUI paces, the other officer was carefully inspecting my black Honda Accord (Massachusetts plates).

My suspicion is they were looking for a car matching my description, and they needed a plausible reason to pull me over.

Still…oy.

For the record, that Denny’s closed for good recently.

#83. My favorite question as a child—the one that used to send the adults in my life completely ‘round the bend—was “Howcum?”

#84. One day after school (an early elementary school grade), a family friend named Hank asked me how school had been. I responded that “it was a cinch.” From then on, Hank (later a second father to me before his own untimely death in October 1983), called me “Cinch.”

#85. My father, however, preferred to call me “Pal.”

#86. When I was 13 years old (November or December 1979), I took the est training. While I now view its “teachings” with great skepticism, I enjoyed the experience. My mother spent much of the 1970s exploring all manner of consciousness-raising (or altering—I remember lots of marijuana and green glass jugs of white wine), though when she tried transcendental meditation, she immediately forgot her mantra.

#87. I actually did much the same for a few years in the late 1970s (coinciding, not coincidentally, with the start of adolescence and post-parental-separation moves), becoming fascinated with astrology, card reading and, especially, numerology (Chaldean, not Pythagorean, thank you very much). To this day, despite my capital-s skepticism, I still unconsciously ascertain whether a number (a day of the month, say) is “compatible” with me or not (before dismissing the notion).

But when I met one of my closest friends (his mother later introduced me at his wedding as “my third son”)—literally the first student I met in my SECOND seventh grade—I immediately asked him when his birthday is; all I had with me were a blue three-ring binder and my numerology book.

He told me, and I excitedly responded, “Oh, you’re a 3!” (I am a 3, and 3’s get along with other 3’s, you see.).

#88. Astrology actually led to another lifelong friendship. Just after the end of my freshman year of high school, a friend threw a picnic at nearby Ashbridge Park. I had just had my braces removed, boosting my self-confidence. Spying two girls I recognized from their visit to Harriton High School[6] during the preceding school year sitting in a tree, I climbed up to join them. I do not recall if they were already discussing astrology, or if it emerged organically in the conversation, but it was an immediate ice-breaker.

#89. The first occupation I remember seriously wanting to be “when I grew up” was archaeologist, around 7th grade or so.

#90. I have only been bitten by a dog once. When I was maybe five years old, I climbed over our backyard fence and down a boundary stone wall into the backyard of a house on a parallel street. There, the only truly vicious dog I have even known (all I remember is that it—he?—was black) came out of nowhere and bit my right hand in the fleshy part between the bases of the thumb and forefinger.

That traumatic experience, however, did not dissuade me from wanting a dog. So, one night in early January 1973, my parents and I drove to a pet store near Wilmington, DE (my father knew a guy…), where we acquired a Keeshond. It was my mother’s idea to name him Luvey “because he loves everybody.” This photograph was taken just outside the door of our “penthouse” at the Strand.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2

He would have been 46 years old (that’s 322 to you and me!) on December 17.

#91. You can have your air guitar. I far prefer air keyboards, with air drummer a distant second.

#92. I have never been arrested.

#93. In the unlikely event I am ever arrested, however, under “distinguishing marks” would appear “White scar under left eyebrow.”

One Saturday or Sunday in the summer of 1974, my father (who knew another guy…) took me for a speedboat ride on the Absecon Inlet (separating Atlantic City from the mainland). We were two of maybe six or seven people on this guy’s boat. At one point, another speedboat zipped by us traveling way too fast and way too close. The resulting wake tipped our boat enough that I went flying into the side of the boat. My head landed on something sharp (or with enough force to break the skin) just above my left eye. A few millimeters lower…

Now, does my father take his profusely-bleeding son directly to the hospital on Ohio Avenue? Nooo…he brings him to his mother at the Strand. After reading him the riot act, she took me to the hospital, where I believe I needed 16 stitches to close the wound.

#94. That arrest report might also include “Small white scar on chin.” That would be from the time I whacked by chin into the kitchen counter, after I slipped trying to climb up to reach something (a cookie? a box of cereal?) in a cabinet.

#95. However, I did not require stitches—or emergency medical treatment of any kind—the first time I was ever in Island Pond, VT.

After the Expos game, my then-girlfriend and I wandered south through Quebec, somehow finding this blink-and-you-miss-it village. We decided to get some exercise by pitching and hitting; we had baseball bats, balls and gloves with us. Doesn’t everybody?

Things were going well until I threw a pitch that caught a bit too much of the plate—and she sent it screaming right into my face.

Luckily, it did not do any actual damage.

Except to my ability to throw a strike, for longer than I want to admit.

#96. My clear favorite “guilty pleasure” movie is Times Square. You can see why this movie would have appealed to 14-year-old me.

#97. I rediscovered it the year I lived in DC. I was so blown away by the soundtrack, I walked miles from my apartment to a downtown store that sold it (on vinyl, of course).

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I recently bought a copy of the film on DVD as well; it is a key part of how I came to love film noir.

#98. The first time I ever bought condoms was that September night in 1986. In those days, they were stored behind the counter, meaning you had to ask for them—with everyone listening. As I did so (“ummm, I’ll take the, uhh, the blue box there.”), a friend was standing in line with me.

The next day, he wrote on a piece of paper attached to the door of my room, “A brave man dwells within.”

#99. Next to dogs, my favorite animal is the horse. This is somewhat ironic in that it was horse racing (and cards) that fueled my father’s gambling addiction.

#100. That is why I never gamble.

Until next time…

[1] The Expos lost to the San Francisco Giants 4-1, with John Burkett outdueling Dennis Martinez. While my then-girlfriend and I sat in the leftfield stands, Kevin Mitchell hit a home run which just bounced off my glove—but into the hands of a youngster sitting just in front of me.  That remains the closest I have ever come to catching a ball. http://www.thebaseballcube.com/teams/def_lineups.asp?Y=1990&T=25

[2] I spent the next five nights just south of Chicago; just outside Iowa City, IA; in Fremont, OH; in Pittsburgh, PA; and in my mother’s apartment in Penn Valley, PA (in the Philadelphia suburbs).

[3] Besides the two listed—and, of course, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia—they are Busch (St.Louis), Shea (New York) and Three Rivers (Pittsburgh).

[4] Citizens Bank (Philadelphia), Fenway (Boston), Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore)

[5] Well, at least until she married Jed Bark.

[6] Harriton allowed students to bring a guest to classes with them for one day. The picnic hostess and another girl had brought these two friends from a nearby high school. The four girls all knew each other from a local church.

Why I chose…The Big Knockover

I am not generally a fan of Facebook “challenges.” Nonetheless, when my friend Rebecca nominated me for the seven-day book challenge, I accepted.

The rules were simple: on each of seven consecutive days, post a book cover, with no explanations, while also nominating another person for the challenge.

On May 16, 2018, I completed the challenge (other than only nominating one person, my wife Nell).

Just bear with me as I explain my seven choices.

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I quickly decided not to choose my seven “favorite” books, however defined. There are books, like Stephen King’s The Stand, with which I was once obsessed (my 9th grade Latin teacher and I spent hours casting a hypothetical film version), that clearly had an enormous impact on my life, but excite me far less now. This also eliminated key influences from my childhood like the Encyclopedia Brown books, The Tower Treasure, The Absurdly Silly Encylopedia and Fly Swatter and, the books I reread most often, Charlotte’s Web and The Ghosts.

I also wanted to avoid picking only works of detective/crime fiction, or only books on film noir, or only true crime books, or only books on politics, or seven editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia, or …well, you get the idea.

Finally, I deliberately excluded books by friends/mentors, including David Mayhew, Edward Tufte and Eddie Muller.

In the end, therefore, I chose seven books that were both meaningful and influential in their own right, but that also represented a distinct area of interest. And even then there were entire fields (baseball, epidemiology/statistics, random gems like Ten Restaurants That Changed America).

Other than getting the easiest selections out of the way, I posted these books in no particular order.

And that is the order in which I will explain my choices (with up to five “honorable mentions”) in a series of posts, starting with…

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When I was an undergraduate at Yale, there were 12 residential colleges; I was in Ezra Stiles College (class of 1988). These were intended to be smaller communities—each with its own residential building(s) with interior courtyard, dining hall, library, seminar rooms, Master and Dean, etc.—within the larger community of undergraduates.

At the time (and probably still) there were course offerings called “college seminars.” These seminars, in which we met once weekly for two hours to discuss assigned readings, were housed within a residential college and offered instructors (many, like former Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] Director Stansfield Turner, from outside the Yale faculty) the opportunity to teach something outside the regular curriculum.

I thus had the opportunity junior year to take CSBR311b (College Seminar, Branford College, #311, spring semester): “Power and Pleasure in Modern Crime Fiction,” taught by the contagiously-enthusiastic Richard S. Lowry, now on the faculty of the College of William and Mary.

This was one of those courses that grabbed me by the collar, shook me and forcibly expanded my literary horizons. Up to that point, I had been comfortably settled in the “golden age” of detective fiction (John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.); I was particularly devoted to Carr, to the point that I struck up a correspondence with his biographer, Douglas Greene. I even based my could-have-been-much-better final project (detective fiction course syllabus with detailed justification) on Carr’s work. I still managed to earn an A-, though.

But it was in this course that I read my first ever works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (two pioneers of the “hard-boiled school” of detective fiction): their first novels, Red Harvest and The Big Sleep, respectively.

As much as I enjoyed them (more than I did Mickey Spillane’s debut I, the Jury or the ultra-violent Strega, by Andrew Vacchs, which I could not finish), it would be a few years before I sought these authors out again.

Once I did, though, I was hooked. And while I have read nearly everything I can find by both authors (as well as Sara Paretsky, whose debut Indemnity Only I also read in Lowry’s seminar[1]), it was ultimately Hammett—whose tight, spare verisimilitude reflects his own experiences with the Pinkerton Detective Agency—who I came to admire most.

Simply put, Samuel Dashiell Hammett is my favorite author, and “detection” is my favorite fictional form. This superlative collection of short stories (written 1925-29) featuring unnamed detective “The Continental Op,” accompanied by a fragment of the autobiographical novel “Tulip” and a biographical essay, lovingly curated by long-time lover Lillian Hellman, is my favorite combination of the two.

For a good sense of Hammett the short-story writer, I recommend the 1982 Wim Wenders film Hammett, in which Hammett (played by Frederic Forrest) himself becomes embroiled in a story he could have written (and then does…).

Honorable mentions:

Trouble is My Business by Chandler.

This volume contains four of Chandler’s best stories, including my favorite detective fiction short story, “Red Wind.”

Deadline At Dawn by Woolrich (as William Irish)

This tale of just-met lovers racing against time (and a palpably sinister Manhattan seemingly determined to thwart them) to clear a sailor’s name of murder is Woolrich at his breathless, suspension-of-disbelief best.

The Three Coffins by Carr

Not only is this my favorite Carr novel, hands down, it is the only detective (or any) novel I know in which the detective (Dr. Gideon Fell at his most incisive) literally addresses the reader with his chapter-length lecture on locked room mysteries.

And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians) by Christie

Upon reading this locked-room tour-de-force in high school, I memorized its central poem (“Ten little Indians, sitting down to dine/One went and choked himself, and then there were nine”). I even bought a copy for a friend to read. Christie was the undisputed master of the innovative solution, and this is one of the best…ever.

A Surfeit of Lampreys (aka Death of a Peer) by Marsh

What makes this novel so good is that you get about a third of the way into a gripping story of a young New Zealand woman living with a family of English peers and suddenly you say, “Oh, right, this is a detective story!”

To be continued…

[1] In 2003, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Paretsky at a book-signing (Blacklist) in Bryn Mawr, PA. After discussing some superficial similarities with her detective V. I. (Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawksi, she graciously signed my book thus: Matt: To a Black Label-drinking Cub-loving mystery-reading dog-walking guy Sara N. Paretsky.