Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

Its distorted vocal opening had gotten stuck in my head despite my stated antipathy toward the band—really more pose than position, in retrospect.

Whenever I run a bath, I like to be in the tub while the faucet(s) run. Until quite recently,[1] when the tub was nearly full, I would turn off the cold water and turn on the hot water to its scalding limit, counting down “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in the same slow tempo as the opening of “Taxman.” Only then would I turn off the hot water and settle in for a steamy cleansing soak.

I realize the actual track opens with “one-two-three-four, one-two” before George Harrison sings “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

At some point, I stopped employing that ritual to start a bath—only to replace it with one for exiting a bath, even as most of the water had drained around me. During my senior year at Yale, two other seniors and I lived off-campus. Our second-floor walkup had a bathtub, which I used most nights. One night, for…reasons, before the water fully drained, I squatted down and scooped up some water, quickly shaking it out of my hands as though I had just washed my hands in a sink. I repeated that sequence twice, except on the third iteration, I stood up, shaking out my hands as I did so. Only then did I step onto the bath mat.

I have performed this ritual—or some slight variant of it—every single time I have exited a bathtub since the fall of 1987. It is not as though I expect something bad will happen if I do not do so—I am not warding off anxiety; when that particular coin is flipped, it lands on depression for me nearly every time. It is simply that having started doing it, I continued to do it, making it an essential part of my bathtub “routine.”

Funnily enough, I have yet to mention this routine to my psychotherapist.

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In a recent post, I detailed ways the Netflix series Stranger Things had resonated with me at a deeply personal level. As of the evening of December 26, my wife Nell and I had watched the entire series—25 episodes over three seasons—twice, the second time with our two pre-teen daughters. Nell’s pithy takeaway: “I would watch it again.” Our younger daughter may already have, quietly watching in her bedroom on her new iPad. She now very much wants her friends to watch the show so she can discuss it with them…or at least have them understand why she suddenly—and with great affection—calls folks, mainly me, “mouth breather” or “dingus.”

Meanwhile, over the course of winter break, a small army of Funko Pop! figures appeared in our home, which our younger daughter arranged in rough chronological order; the short video I took of the sequence is my first ever “pinned” tweet.

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Clearly, I am not the only member of this household now utterly obsessed with the admittedly-excellent series. And one peek inside our younger daughter’s room, decorated in true Hufflepuff fashion, will reveal I am not the only member of this household who easily becomes obsessed.

But I am one of only two members of this household legally old enough to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and I am the only one who refused to drink alcohol until well into my college years—even as my high school classmates would try to get me to join them in beer drinking as we stayed in hotels for Youth in Government or Model UN—because I was very wary of my obsessive nature. I was well aware how often I could not simply enjoy something—I had to fully absorb it into my life.

Indeed, once I did finally sample that first Molson Golden in the converted basement seminar room I shared with two other Elis sophomore year, I liked it far more than I would have anticipated from sampling my father’s watered-down beer at various sporting events. Age prevented me from drinking too much, though, until I turned 21 early in my senior year. On my birthday, those same off-campus roommates took me to a local eatery called Gentree. An utter novice at drinking anything other than beer, I had no clue what to order; the gin and tonic I settled upon did nothing for me. Shortly thereafter, after a brief flirtation with Martini and Rossi (I still do not know how that bottle appeared in our apartment), I tried my first Scotch whisky.

It was love at first sip.

Over the next few years, I never drank enough for anyone to become, you know, concerned, but I did feel like I needed to have a glass of J&B or Cutty Sark with soda water—usually lemon Polar Seltzer—every day. When a close friend came to visit me in the Boston suburb of Somerville in January 1992, he presented me with a bottle of Glenfiddich—one of the better single-malt Scotches—and it was like having a revelation within a revelation, as this photograph from that night depicts.

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This photograph reminds me I spent the 1990s and a significant chunk of the following decade living in turtlenecks—of all colors—because I decided one day while getting my hair cut, I liked the way the white cloth band looked around my neck. You know, the one hair stylists use to keep freshly-cut hair from dropping inside your shirt.

Eventually, I settled on Johnnie Walker Black (light rocks, club soda on the side[2]) as my primary poison—though I also developed a taste for a port wine called Fonseca Bin 27. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent way too much time at the bar of an terrific restaurant called Christopher’s. In 2005, I used old credit card receipts, which I had stuffed into a desk drawer for years, to calculate I spent $1,939.23 there (roughly $3,500 in 2019) in just those three years—and that sum excludes cash payments. Apparently, a hallmark of being both obsessive and a math geek is the construction of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to calculate inconsequential values.

It would be another 10 years before I worked Scotch into my emerging Friday night bath ritual—the one with the curated music and the darkness and the single large pine-scented candle from L.L. Bean and the lavender milk bath stuff and the way I would turn off every light before walking into the candle-lit bathroom with my full tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black, or 10-year-old Laphroaig on special occasions. Ahh, that delectably peaty aroma…

More recently, Nell and I moved away from beer and whisky, respectively, toward red wine, going so far as to join Wine of the Month Club. Well, I also developed a taste for rye whisky, be it neat, mixed with ginger ale or in an Old Fashioned.

The point of this borderline-dipsomaniac history is that my high school instincts about my obsessive nature were remarkably close to the mark. Prior to being diagnosed with depression, I self-medicated with alcohol far more than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Perhaps not coincidentally, I recently cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, though my stated reason is the toll it was taking on my sinuses, which have had more than enough trouble already.[3]

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Family lore holds I learned to read at the age of 2½, which my elementary school educator wife tells me is physiologically impossible. Whenever it was, by the time I was eight or so, I had already amassed a solid library of books.

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

With that, it no longer sufficed to organize my books alphabetically by subject or author or title, or even to use the Library of Congress classification system. No, I had to Dewey-Decimalize them, which meant going to Ludington Library, where I spent a great deal of my childhood and teenage years, to photocopy page after page of classification numbers. I still have a few books from those days, penciled numbers in my childish handwriting on the first page just inside the cover. I even briefly ran an actual lending library out of my ground-floor playroom—the one rebuilt after the fire of March 1973.

Meanwhile, my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living in the “penthouse” of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would make the 60-mile drive southeast from Havertown, PA most weekends. In those years, the roughly 2½ miles of Pacific Avenue between Albany and New Hampshire Avenues were dotted with cheap motels and past-their-time hotels. The Strand was one of the better motels, with a decent Italian restaurant just off the lobby, dimly lit with its semi-circular booths upholstered in blood-red leather; I drank many a Shirley Temple over plates of spaghetti there. In that lobby, as in every lobby of every motel and hotel along the strip, was a large wooden rack containing copies of a few dozen pamphlets advertising local attractions.

At first, I simply took a few pamphlets from the Strand lobby to peruse later. Then I wanted all of them. Then I began to prowl the lobbies—yes, at seven, eight years old I rode the jitney by myself during the day, at just 35¢ a ride—of every motel and hotel along Pacific Avenue, and a few along Atlantic Avenue one block northwest, collecting every pamphlet I could find. They were all tossed into a cardboard box; when the winter felt like it was lasting too long, I would dump the box out on my parents’ bed and reminisce.

In the year after that second summer, I became attuned to pop music, leaving Philadelphia’s premiere Top 40 radio station, WIFI 92.5 FM, on in my bedroom for hours at a time, while I did homework, read or worked diligently on…projects.

Back in 1973, my parents had bought me a World Book Encyclopedia set, complete with the largest dictionaries I had ever seen. The W-Z volume had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. Late in 1976, I received a copy of the 1977 World Almanac and Book of Facts, which also had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. And I soon noticed some events were on one timeline but not the other.

Thus, in February 1977, with WIFI 92 as my personal soundtrack, I began to write out a collated timeline, drawing from both sources. Thirty-six lined notebook pages hand-written in pencil later, I had only gotten as far as June 30, 1841—so I decided to slap a red construction paper cover on it and call it Volume I.

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I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

You could say I came to my senses—or I bought a copy of the astounding Encyclopedia of World History—because I never did “publish” a Volume II. In April 1978,[4] however, I wrote a similarly non-knowledge-advancing booklet—no cool cover this time—called 474 PREFIXES, ROOTS AND SUFFIXES. This volume, assigned Dewey Decimal number 423, was only 10 pages long, despite being more comprehensive.

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Even before I immersed myself in hours of 1970s Top 40 radio, I had heard bits and pieces of New Year’s Eve countdowns of the year’s top songs. The first one I remember hearing was at the end of 1974, because I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974—though I could be mixing it up with John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” released as a single the previous year.

In January 1980, Solid Gold debuted with a two-hour special counting down the top 50 songs of 1979. I was particularly curious to know the ranking of my favorite song at the time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk;” if memory serves, it led off the show at #50. A few days earlier, my cousins and I had listened in the house we then shared to WIFI-92’s top 100 songs of 1979 countdown.

I was vaguely aware there were weekly magazines that tracked top songs and albums, but I did not buy a copy of Cashbox until late April 1980.[5] My Scotch whisky revelation nearly eight years later was a mere passing fancy compared to this slender combination of music and data. I pored over its charts for hours, even calling my best friend to all but read the singles and album charts to him; utterly disinterested, he was nonetheless very patient with my exuberance. That fall, I noticed that every Saturday, the Philadelphia Bulletin published that week’s Billboard top 10 singles, albums—and two other categories, possibly country and soul. Reading these charts—literally covering them with a napkin which I slid up to uncover each song/album from #10 to #1—became a staple ritual of my regular Saturday morning brunch with my father, from whom my mother had separated in March 1977. Not satisfied with reading them, I clipped each set of charts so I could create my own rankings along the lines of “top songs, September 1980 to March 1981.”

On December 31, 1980 and January 1, 1981, I heard two radio stations present their “Top 100 of 1980” countdowns. I listened to the first one with my cousins in my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Lancaster, PA; my mother and her sister were also there. The second one my mother and I heard in the car driving home, although we lost the signal halfway through the countdown; I still was able to hear one of my favorite songs then: “More Love” by Kim Carnes. The following weekend, I found a paper copy of yet another 1980 countdown while visiting the Neshaminy Mall with my mother and severely mentally-impaired sister, who lives near there. It was probably there I also found Billboard’s yearend edition, which I purchased—or my mother purchased for me.

After a delirious week perusing its contents, I obtained a copy of the first official weekly Billboard of 1981, for the week ending January 10—albeit released Tuesday, January 6. One week later, I bought the January 17 edition, then the January 24 edition, then the January 31 edition. In fact, I bought every single issue of Billboard for the next seven-plus years, ritualistically digesting its charts using the same uncovering method as the charts published in the Bulletin. I brought each issue to school with me, where my friends and I would pore over its contents during lunch period. Later, I happily scrutinized airplay charts from a selection of Top 40 radio stations across the country—I underlined particular favorites—while waiting to make deliveries for Boardwalk Pizza and Subs in the spring and summer of 1984.

On the few occasions I did not have the $4 purchase price, I sold an album or two to Plastic Fantastic, then located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, PA, to make up the difference; this was after cajoling my mother to drive me to the excellent newspaper and magazine store which then stood a short walk down Lancaster Avenue from Plastic Fantastic. While new issues of Billboard were released every Tuesday, in 1981 and 1982, I would have heard the new week’s Top 40 singles counted down the previous Sunday night on the American Top 40 radio program, then hosted by Casey Kasem.

Sometime in 1981, I began to compile weekly lists of the Top 10 groups, male artists and female artists…so it is not all surprising that over winter break from my sophomore year of high school, I calculated my own “Top 100 of 1981” lists. In the days prior to Excel, this meant I gathered all 51 weekly issues (the final chart of the year freezes for a week) into what I would later call a “mountain of Billboards” on the floor of my bedroom—sometimes the mountain would migrate into the living room—and tally every single and album that had appeared in the top 10 on blank sheets of paper, using acronyms to save my hands from cramping. I used a combination of highest chart position, weeks at that position, total weeks on the chart, and weeks topping such charts as Adult Contemporary, Rock, Country and Soul to generate my rankings. There would always be fewer than 100 singles or albums entering the top 10 in any given year so I would then move into the top 20 for singles and top 30 for albums. I had ways—long since forgotten—of adding up an artist’s singles and albums “points,” allowing me to produce an overall top 100 artist countdown.

Digging into my record collection, and pestering friends for whatever tracks they had, on January 1, 1982, I sat in my bedroom with my cousin and DJ’d my first Top 100 countdown, using a snippet of “Lucifer” by Alan Parsons Project for “commercial breaks.”

That first year, I stuck to the primary charts, but ambition seized me over the next few years, and I began to contemplate creating sub-generic lists; I would usually run out of steam after a week or so, however.  Fueling this obsessive data compiling were large navy mugs filled with a mixture of black coffee and eggnog. Even after enrolling at Yale in September 1984,[6] I would look forward to arriving back in our Penn Valley, PA apartment so I could dive into Billboard mountain and immerse myself in that year’s charts. I would come up for air to visit with family and friends, of course, but then it was right back into the pile, MTV playing on my bedroom television set.

Over the years, I never threw any issues away, which meant schlepping them with me on the Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia; my poor mother had to move giant piles of them twice, in 1986 (~275 issues) and 1987 (~325). They were a bit lighter then because I had gotten into the habit of taping some of the beautiful full-page ads depicting covers of albums being promoted that week. It started with Icehouse by Icehouse, then Asia by Asia; when my mother moved from our Penn Valley apartment, I had taped up a line of pages running nearly halfway around the walls of my bedroom.

Then, one week in September 1988, I did not buy the new edition of Billboard. Most likely, my musical tastes were shifting after I discovered alternative-rock station WHFS. Another explanation is that election data had been slowly replacing music chart data over the past four years. Moreover, I had landed on a new obsession: baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. Whatever the reason, I have not bought a Billboard since then, though I still have two Joel-Whitburn-compiled books from the late 1980s.

Besides the Phillies and American politics, I have had a wide range of obsessions since then, most recently film noir, Doctor Who, David Lynch/Twin Peaks and, of course, Stranger Things. My obsession with Charlie Chan is old news. But none of these had quite the immersive allure those piles of Billboards had in the 1980s.

Alas, my mother finally threw out all of them in the 1990s. While I wish she had at least saved the eight yearend issues, perhaps it is all for the best. Did I mention a college girlfriend once broke up with me—on Valentine’s Day no less—because I alphabetized my collection of button-down Oxford shirts by color, solids to the left of stripes?

Until next time…

[1] Nell reminds me that at some point in the year before our October 2007 wedding, she came into the bathroom while I was counting down. She apparently interrupted me because I told her, “Now I have to start again!”

[2] For reasons long since forgotten, I switched to Jack Daniels—bourbon—for a few years around 2000. I must have talked a lot about that being my default adult beverage order, because on a first date in December 2000, my soon-to-be girlfriend (my last serious relationship before Nell, for those keeping score at home) waited expectantly for me to ask for “that thing you always order.”

[3] I have long joked that if my upper respiratory system were a building, it would have been condemned decades earlier. In October 2011, I finally had surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps. I may still snore, but it longer sounds like I am about to stop breathing.

[4] April 19, to be exact

[5] I remember “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s being listed, which narrows the editions to April 19 and April 26.

[6] I was so obsessed with Billboard, I actually suggested I analyze its charts for a data analysis course I took my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, that was a non-starter with the professor.

Upon further interrogation…

In the middle of August 2019, I spent nearly a week in Philadelphia—where I was born 53 years ago Monday—conducting further research into my family and personal history for the book I am writing (new tentative title: Interrogating Memory: A Love of Film Noir Spurs an Investigation into My Family History).

Unlike last year, however, I chose not to chronicle this journey in a multi-part post. To some extent, that was simply to avoid repetition, as once again I explored multiple Jewish cemeteries and wandered through a variety of municipal buildings—including City Hall, where I nearly had my Swiss Army Knife (a long-ago birthday present from my mother-in-law) confiscated by a distinctly-not-amused security officer.

But to an even greater extent, it was because some of the people with whom I interacted, including two relatives (one genetic, one legal) I met in person for the first time, wish to remain quietly in the background.

Finally, I thought I simply had not learned very much on this trip…until I arrived home, looked through my notes and photographs, followed up on a few leads, and realized I had learned a great deal.

For example, here I explore three memories that had, until then, defied attempts to interrogate them. One memory I updated successfully here. The first-listed memory, meanwhile, is as follows:

Memory 1: My father and I are in a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged store somewhere in Philadelphia; I THINK it was in a line of stores on a commercial street somewhere to the east of Ridge Avenue just east of the northeastern edge of Fairmount Park. Everything in the store feels dusty and old. Half-empty shelves line the wall, on the right-hand side as you enter from the sidewalk, all the way to the ceiling (I cannot picture the opposite side of the store). There are some counters as well. I am unclear what the store sells—or even why we are there—but I get the impression of adding machines and typewriters. My sense is these were used machines, or possibly repaired, or maybe neither. In the darkened back of the store is an open doorway leading to a back room through which I see light. I do not know why we are there, but I BELIEVE my father and the proprietor of the store—a shorter older man?—went into the back room alone for a brief time; I read and/or fiddled with the machines while I waited. This visit almost certainly occurred between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my father’s death in June 1982.

On my recent trip to Philadelphia, I interrogated this memory by examining the 1979 Philadelphia Yellow Pages, stored on microfilm in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, I was not as adept at recording images of the relevant pages onto my flash drive as I thought I had been, and I did not capture every page. Still, I had skimmed every listing under TYPEWRITERS on site. The pages I had successfully copied reinforced my tentative conclusion the store had been at 1507 N. 33rd Street, across the street from the eastern section of Fairmount Park. That is, until I looked at the address on GoogleMaps…and saw that it was more of a warehouse/storage unit than a retail store.

Nonetheless, I plan to visit the site the next time I go to Philadelphia, partly because I have not completely ruled it out as the typewriter repair shop/office supply store of my memory, but mostly because it is literally next to the John Coltrane House.

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Locating this store was the first of eight research “questions” I prepared for my trip to Philadelphia. The second one related to what in the 1930s and 1940s was the 40th Philadelphia police district, headquartered at 28th and Oxford Streets in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood (just five blocks east of the John Coltrane House, actually). As frustrating as obtaining concrete information on my maternal grandfather Samuel Joseph Kohn’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) has been, I knew he had been based here in February 1937, early in his time on the force[1]. However, this was a low-priority question.

Other questions related to the precise location of the tragic death of my paternal great-grandfather David Louis Berger in October 1919 (Business Route 1 off-ramp over Neshaminy Creek just northeast of Bristol Road in suburban Middletown Township), obtaining a copy of my father’s high school yearbook (no dice, yet), meeting my genetic relative and visiting cemeteries.

At Har Nebo Cemetery, where my maternal grandmother’s father is buried,

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I located the grave of comedian and author David Brenner, a high school classmate of my father, born just 46 days after my father.

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That leaves three primary questions, the latter two described in detail here):

  1. Further details on Samuel Kohn’s time with the PPD
  2. Date and details of the fire at the John Rhoads Company between April 1972 and September 1974
  3. Date and details of the fire in my childhood house, almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

The first two questions led me to the pristine and well-managed Philadelphia City Archives, where the laudable David Baugh patiently responded to my ever-evolving queries. First, he handed me a short stack of PPD “roster cards” alphabetically-adjacent to “Kohn, Samuel” to demonstrate they had lost or misplaced my maternal grandfather’s roster card.

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Second, Mr. Baugh brought out a series of boxes containing records of property transfers for the lot at 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue, home of the John Rhoads Company from its inception in 1886 until 1972 or so. My hope was to find clear evidence of when my father sold the building at that location, thus narrowing the time frame in which the fire could have occurred.

That proved a dead end, as the only records after 1931 for that lot were for the sale of the property—still credited to “John Rhoads Company”—in April 1983 (less than a year after my father died) by Sheriff Joseph A. Sullivan to the City of Philadelphia for $500. Sheriff Sullivan acquired the property sometime before March 1981, perhaps explaining a childhood memory of “the sheriff” coming to my childhood home to talk to my father one evening in the fall of 1976. I had always thought that visit was for non-payment of the mortgage on our house, but now—upon further interrogation—I suspect it stemmed from financial issues related to the Lancaster Avenue property.

But what I did learn from those documents more than compensated for that hopefully-temporary dead end. First, the John Rhoads Company lot was far larger than I had realized, forming a sort of lower-case-r shape with a triangular hat, with one entrance on Lancaster Avenue and another on N. Holly Street, which intersects Lancaster Avenue about half-a-block east. A few days after my visit to the City Archives, when I took some photographs of the empty lot from N. Holly Street, a woman came from across the narrow street to question what I was doing. It turned out she and her genial family themselves wanted to know who currently owned the lot so they could encourage her/him to develop it. I explained my father, who died in June 1982, had owned it, as had his father and uncle before him.

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“So who was John Rhoads?” the woman’s mother (aunt?) asked me.

“He was the original owner, a confectioner from Harrisburg,” clarifying my grandfather had kept the original name when he acquired it.

Meanwhile, not only did they remember the fire (but not the exact date beyond “oh, it must have been in the 1970s”), but the large warehouse doors through which trucks would drive, as well as the giant rolls of carpet cleaned within those doors. These are memories I do not even have, given I was at most seven years old when that fire took place. In exchange for graciously allowing me to interrogate their memories, I mailed them all the information they asked of me as soon as I returned home, with a request they send me any additional information they remembered; I have yet to hear anything new.

Returning to those boxes of property records, meanwhile, I found myself carefully holding papers documenting the original acquisition of three parcels of land by John Rhoads himself in the mid-1880s, as well as various within-family transfers over the next four decades. But what made me almost start to cry were finding the deeds transferring ownership of the John Rhoads Company to my paternal grandfather Morris Berger on July 15, 1926, as well as a subsequent ownership restructuring in April 1931—making “John Rhoads Company” legal owner of the property.

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I had been so fixated on uncovering details of the fire, I had not even considered finding such documents. And while I have no more clarity on the exact date and circumstances of the fire itself, simply holding in my hands those pieces of my personal family history—specifically relating to a grandfather and great-uncle I never knew—more than compensated for that.

After leaving the City Archives—followed by my ignominious (and ultimately fruitless) trip to City Hall—I visited here…

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…which, for obvious reasons, is often called The Roundhouse…

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…to obtain any information they could give me about my maternal grandfather’s time on the force. Due to extremely tight security, I could only speak to the Personnel Department by calling it on my iPhone from the darkened entrance hallway, where a vintage pay telephone was still bolted to the wall. The woman to whom I spoke was very patient and engaging, checking every alternate spelling of “Kohn” we could think of, but she was unable to locate any records of a Patrolman/Detective Samuel Joseph Kohn. She did inform me badges get recycled (explaining why my aunt no longer has it) before making an absolutely brilliant suggestion: that I check with a different city department.

In order to maintain privacy, all I will say about this department is that upon hearing it, I had a smack-my-forehead, “I could’ve had a V8!” moment, realizing I had neglected a key investigative dictum: follow the money.

The Monday morning after I returned to Brookline, I dialed the number I had been given. Nobody answered, so I left a detailed voicemail. Five or ten minutes later, a Philadelphia-area number called my iPhone.

“Hello?”

“Is this Matthew Berger?” a voice asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Explaining (s)he was returning my call, (s)he asked why I wanted the information.

Uh-oh, I thought, answering, “Well, I am simply curious, and I am writing a book.”

“Oh, cool,” came the response. “So I have 67 pages of information here…”

I nearly fell out of my desk chair.

Much of that information could not be released to me, but after we chatted about what I could learn, including:

  1. Samuel Joseph Kohn served on the PPD from August 11, 1931 (a few years earlier than I had thought) to October 9, 1953.
  2. He was still a patrolman as of January 20, 1947, though he had transferred to an adjacent police district.
  3. Following a brief stint as a Detective on the Crime Prevention Squad, he was once again a Patrolman—in the very district where his future son-in-law lived.
  4. He was briefly suspended for “conduct unbecoming an officer” in June 1953, spanning at least two additional police districts (I suspect one other as well).
  5. Patrolman Kohn badly cut his thumb responding to a burglary in an upscale section of the city in July 1953.
  6. He left the force on good terms, as he received his monthly pension until his death in November 1978.

…I received a packet of photocopied documents in the mail a few days later, which I have been poring over ever since.

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But what really made the trip were two photographs.

The first came when I visited a cousin on my father’s mother’s side of the family. After eating at the beautifully-renovated Silk City Diner then chatting in her apartment, she suddenly remembered what she most wanted to show me.

It was this enormous framed photograph, probably taken in 1903, perhaps in October when my grandmother Rae—the fierce-looking baby front and center between Morris and Hinda Zinman Caesar—turned one year old.

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As little as I knew my father’s father’s family, I really knew nothing about his mother’s family; it did not help that both Morris and Hinda died before my father was born, and my paternal grandmother died when I was five. Which made seeing my great-grandparents, my infant grandmother and her seven siblings even more exhilarating.

A few days later, on my last day in the Philadelphia area, I visited a handful of buildings in Havertown, the suburban town in which I lived until I was 12 years old, seeking details of the March 1973 fire in my childhood house. After striking out at both the Haverford Township Free Library and the Township Building, a short—if hot and sunny—walk down Darby Road, I drove on a whim to the Manoa Fire Company; this is the unit most likely to have responded to that fire.

It took some time to alert someone I was standing at the locked side door, but finally a man named Rick opened the door for me. When I explained the information I sought, he invited me into the dimly-lit building. There was sufficient light, however, for me to see the many framed photographs of fires strung along the hallway down which Rick led me.

A few minutes later, I was talking to Assistant Chief (he demurred politely when I called him “Chief Emeritus”) Mike Norman. He was a burly, slightly stooped white-haired man in perhaps his late sixties. Standing in a small kitchen area, I explained I was seeking information about a house fire almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

He paused a moment before asking, “Was it snowing that afternoon”

“No,” I answered, reiterating it was a warmish spring night, perhaps midnight or 1am.

Reaching past me, he pulled a framed photograph from the wall just to the right of the sink and countertop.

“Is this your house?”

Stunned, I looked carefully at this photograph:

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The sharp lights made it hard for me to get oriented in the picture, but I could easily have been looking at the side of my house from our driveway—or maybe from the front lawn? We looked at the back of the framed picture, where the words “Sue Ellen Drive” were written.

Paraphrasing Chief Norman, “Those uniforms are definitely from 1973, and the only other fire I remember on Sue Ellen Drive was on a snowy afternoon.” Later, when I told my wife Nell about the photograph, texting her a copy (she and our daughters were still on Martha’s Vineyard), she said it was a “no-brainer” this was a photograph of the aftermath of my childhood house fire.

We talked a little about my suspicion the fire was not an accident, but once I told him my mother’s version of the cause of the fire—she had left on a hair-drying unit, the sort you sat under, intending my father to turn it off when he returned home—he cut me short.

Again paraphrasing: “Would you believe how many high school girls put their hair curlers away still hot, only to lose a bathroom or two?”

As for why the fire was contained solely to the playroom directly beneath my sister Mindy’s room, he (still paraphrasing) recalled, “We must have been on our way back from another fire. I remember we got there and knocked that [fire] out in a few minutes.”

Wait, “we?”

A week or so later, after I had donated $50 to the Manoa Fire Company, I received an e-mail questioning my Havertown, PA donation from a Brookline, MA address. I wrote back, explaining who I was, concluding:

When I realized that Chief Norman himself was in the photograph, I was humbled. He and his colleagues helped to save my life, and that of my mother, sister and dog.

I wanted to do something to show my gratitude, so I made the donation.

The handsome young man staring directly into the camera, wearing a white firefighter’s hat with the red number “5” on it…

…is Mike Norman himself.

Until next time…

[1] “GUNMEN FLEE POLICE SHOTS IN TWO DUELS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 28, 1937, pp. 1,4.

As I head to the APHA meeting in Atlanta in November…

There have been times, especially lately, that I start to write one post and end up writing an entirely different post.

I originally conceived this post to be a simple repository for a set of documents related to my previous career. The impetus for this was two oral presentations I will be delivering in Atlanta on November 7 and 8, 2017.

As I began to explain why I was posting these documents, however, I found myself plummeting down a rabbit hole, describing a series of unpleasant interactions I had with my doctoral committee a few months after I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation in epidemiology.

It made sense to me at the time (doesn’t it always?), but it soon dawned on me that the tone of that section was…off, and that this is simply not the venue to rehash these private interactions, even as I am still processing them.

But once I stepped back (metaphorically, as I was sitting down at the time), I understood more clearly what I was trying to say.

Let me start at the beginning, if you will just bear with me…

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While writing my doctoral dissertation, the members of my doctoral committee and I agreed in principle that after my defense we would work together to publish as many as three peer-reviewed journal articles from it (publication was not a graduation requirement).

From my perspective—a 48-year-old married father of two who was 18 years into career as a health-related data analyst/project manager—publication was more “cherry on top” than  necessity, and perhaps also a courtesy to the members of my doctoral committee and other Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) personnel to whom I felt grateful.

I defended my dissertation on December 16, 2014. I was not actually in dark shadows, nor was there a bottle of champagne in front of me, but I love this noir-tinted photograph, and it gives you the flavor of that happy day.

IMG_1458

This was my moment of vindication, the culmination of a journey I had started 26 years earlier. In September 1989, I enrolled in a doctoral program in government at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). Six years later, I resigned from that program with no degree to show for my time there[1]. But just 15 months later I landed the data analyst gig with a Boston non-profit specializing in substance use and abuse that launched my career. Nine years after that, following a four-year sojourn in Philadelphia, I was back in Boston, enrolling in the BUSPH biostatistics master’s degree program. Four years later, I enrolled in their doctoral program in epidemiology.

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I have written elsewhere about the deliberations that led me to walk away from that analytic career towards a writing career (although this blog still allows me to analyze data and write about my findings). That transition “officially” occurred in late June 2017.

However, in February 2017, before I made the career-change leap, I was still actively pursuing positions related to my doctoral studies (assessing the health impact of the built environment, as I detail here).

A few months earlier, I had renewed my long-lapsed membership in the American Public Health Association (APHA); that is how I knew that they would be holding their Annual Meeting & Expo (Meeting) in Atlanta, Georgia November 4-8, 2017. I had delivered work-related talks at their 2001, 2002 and 2003 Meetings, and I had presented a poster at their 2004 Meeting, but I had not attended a Meeting since 2006.

Given that this year’s APHA Meeting theme is “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health,” it appeared to be a perfect opportunity to advance the job search ball down the field. I thus submitted three abstracts, one for each of my three doctoral dissertation studies. To my surprise, two of them were accepted for oral presentation[2]. And as Meatloaf once sang, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

A few weeks ago, I began to pare the hour-plus-long PowerPoint presentation I had delivered at my doctoral defense down to two 12-minute-long talks. This meant  leaving out many interesting “sensitivity” analyses, including estimates of what my incident rate (IRR) and risk ratios (RR) would have been without exposure or outcome misclassification.

(For a rough translation of that last bit, please see here.)

Realizing how much important detail I was forced to remove from these PowerPoint presentations, I hit upon the idea of making all of the background materials (i.e., my actual dissertation and the PowerPoint defense presentation) publicly available.

And thus you find here:

  1. A PDF of the full text of my doctoral dissertation—Measures of Neighborhood Walkability and Their Association with Diabetes and Depressive Symptoms in Black Women—minus the Acknowledgments (to protect privacy) and CV[3].

Berger Doctoral Dissertation Dec 2014

  1. The PowerPoint presentation I delivered in defense of my dissertation (excluding the “thank you” slides). The last slide was originally this short clip showing the 10th Doctor towards the end of the 2005 episode “The Christmas Invasion.”

Berger Doctoral Defense 2014

  1. The PowerPoint presentations I will be delivering at the APHA Meeting (although not until after I have presented them on November 7 and November 8).

Matthew Berger Measurement Talk 11-7-2017

Matthew Berger Depression Talk 11-8-2017

But this begs a question.

Why haven’t I already published these studies in peer-reviewed epidemiology journals? Isn’t that the usual procedure?

And here we find the rabbit hole I found myself hurtling down as I wrote an earlier draft of this post.

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A few months after my successful defense (and once the final logistical requirements had been completed), I received an e-mail from a committee member asking, in effect, where the drafts of my articles were.

Technically, my doctoral dissertation was on track to be published in the ProQuest Dissertation and Theses Global database, where it currently resides.

That is not the same, however, as advancing science through a peer-reviewed publication process; I understood (and had a very high regard for) that then, and I still do now.

But in the spring of 2015, I was still wicked burned out from completing the doctorate itself (with all that had preceded it) while working full time and helping to raise a young family.

I also had higher priorities in my life at that time. My grant-funded Data Manager position was ending in June 2015, and I needed to a) complete the data analysis and final report for that project and b) search for a new gig (or so I thought at the time). My eldest daughter had her tonsils removed and needed a lot of parental TLC. And so forth.

In short, while I was perfectly happy to draft peer-reviewed journal articles from my three dissertation studies, I was not able to do so at that time.

Cutting right to the chase, the member of my doctoral committee and I engaged in an increasingly unpleasant e-mail exchange which ultimately ended in December 2015, when they decided no longer to pursue publication. The details of that exchange are irrelevant.

It is only now, however, that I understand what was really happening then.

For example, as I concluded my Data Analyst requirements, I was actively discussing a related, higher-level position with a different organization. Something kept holding me back, however, and I kept offering (sensible to me at the time) objections. I clearly never accepted that position.

Over the next two-plus years, as I applied to the few relevant positions I could find (58, although some of them were re-postings), my heart was simply never in the search. When I earned in-person interviews, I attended them with what you might call “subdued enthusiasm.” There was always some reason why this position was not quite right…even the last one, in March 2017, that seemed perfect when I first applied.

Even when I was twice offered exciting adjunct teaching positions (I would love to teach again), I ultimately talked myself out of both of them.

Do you see a pattern here?

What I have come to understand as I prepare for APHA, leading me to “publish” my doctoral dissertation here, is that my decision to change careers did not happen a few months ago. It happened, ironically, almost as soon as I walked out of that small meeting room on Albany Street in Boston on December 16, 2014.

In the perceived necessity to find a new position in my then-current career, supplemented with my newly-minted PhD, I could not comprehend, or accept, or grasp, that decision for another two-and-a-half years.

And so this post is not about reliving my unsettling communications with the members of my doctoral committee. It is about squaring a circle, or closing a loop, or whatever “completion” metaphor you prefer.

When I submitted those three abstracts to APHA in February, I was filled with optimism that the November Meeting in Atlanta would be just the place to rekindle my health-related data analysis spark, and where I would joyously engage in the networking necessary to land my next (first?) epidemiology-related position.

It turns out that it will actually be the last hurrah, the period at the end of a nearly 21-year-long sentence.

If you attend the APHA conference next week, I would be thrilled to have you listen to either or both of my presentations.

Otherwise….until next time…

[1] Upon completing my epidemiology doctorate, I finally (and successfully) applied to Harvard GSAS for the Master’s Degree I had earned before resigning.

[2] The incident diabetes study was not accepted.

[3] And, as far as I am concerned, this is tantamount to publication. Consider this passage from the BUSPH Epidemiology Doctoral Program Guidelines (2007, pg. 8): The research…must meet the current standards of publication quality in refereed journals such as American Journal of Epidemiology, American Journal of Public Health, Annals of Epidemiology, Epidemiology, International Journal of Epidemiology, Journal of the American Medical Association, and New England Journal of Medicine. It is understood that the thesis papers may be longer and have more tables and figures than permitted in published papers. Basically, once the members of my doctoral committee signed off on my doctoral dissertation, they were admitting that it already met those standards. Ergo