Moving, Non-Publication…and Dada?

I rarely break the fourth wall here: personal stories I tell are usually contextualized within some larger theme, like interrogating memory.

Today, however, I speak directly to you – to explain why, after 16 posts in 3½ months, I have not posted since June 25. I will not, however, explain why I did not post at all between November 17, 2020 and March 8, 2021 – other than to say I was burned out from the 2020 elections, finishing my book (see below) and dealing with some serious family health issues.

On March 14, 2021, meanwhile, the owners of the two floors of a Brookline house we had called home since August 2018 – informed us they were selling the unit and we had to vacate by June 30. My wife Nell, who had skillfully located our prior two apartments, put her mind to the task of finding a new apartment. She succeeded brilliantly: our new home, two floors in Brookline much closer to our daughters’ middle school, is a little bit of very spectacular. We both feel liberated by the move for reasons we are still deciphering.

My task, meanwhile, was to start another purge. Nell’s mother moved to Memory Care at her senior living center in March 2020, precipitating the cleaning out of her small apartment. Moreover, Nell had moved her from a packed brownstone in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC nearly seven years earlier. A rented storage unit helped us manage this influx of stuff – a combination of high-value antiques and the normal detritus of 70+ years of living.

Still, unneeded stuff was strewn throughout our spacious half of the basement, so that is where I began to make things disappear, after which I proceeded to the apartment itself. Some disappearance was via normal trash pickup, some via these kind folks, and some…suffice to say I know where the nearest industrial-sized trash bins are. In the end, we removed at least 40 large green trash bags filled with stuff from our home. At the same time, large piles of books, clothes and dishes made their way to stores and Red Cross bins. And Nell contacted purchasers of antique silver and furniture, who seized upon much of it, some of which we transported in a rented U-Haul van with poor shock absorbers – our eldest daughter has vowed never to travel this way again – on a particularly hot and sunny June Saturday. Not all of it, but enough to make our actual move a little bit easier.

To wit, we cannot sing the praises of Gentle Giant movers enough. After a few weeks of packing, four strong handsome men arrived at our apartment with TWO trucks early on the morning of July 1. It took them nearly 10 hours to pack some final things, load their trucks, then unload them in our new apartment, but not once did they lose their sense of humor, their good nature or their camaraderie. They politely placed anything where we requested – including up and down numerous flights of stairs. They were professionals in the very best sense of the term, and they did not charge us nearly as much as we had feared.

Our younger daughter – who gets very anxious with substantive change – stayed with a cousin for a few nights, while Nell, older daughter and I set to work constructing our new home. The three ladies (our beloved golden retriever Ruby died from lymphoma at the end of April, a few weeks before her seventh birthday) then departed for the family home on Martha’s Vineyard on July 6. Over the next 10 days, meanwhile, I finished the last 90% of the “construction,” loudly singing to iPod playlists blasted through computer speakers as I unpacked – then deconstructed before tossing them into a special bin in Brookline – box after box after box. I repositioned bookcases, ordered and shelved a few thousand books, washed glasses, rearranged the kitchen multiple times, collected like items into one place…and so forth. I essentially completed the job two days ago, with only a few old bins of clothing left to explore – or not.

There is absolutely no rush at this point. And I will leave most of our artwork – including eight pieces we never unpacked in our last apartment – for Nell and her stud finder to hang. The piece we most missed the last three years is this self-portrait of my cousin, the artist Lois Lane. Yes, Ervin and Celia Lane named their only daughter Lois back in the 1940s; her husband’s last name, Bark, improves matters only slightly.

But having finally constructed our apartment, it is time for me to get back to my regular job – writing.

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The other thing I have done this year is query literary agents about publishing my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. A well-worn copy of WRITER’S MARKET 2019 (“WM2019”) informed me most mass-market publishers no longer accept submissions directly from authors. Instead, prospective authors contract with an agent to do that work for them. Why this changed, I do not know, but Christopher Vyce of the Brattle Agency pithily summed up what this new “rule” has done to literary agencies.

Thank you for your interest in the Brattle Agency. Since the founding of the agency in 2008, the Brattle Agency has prided itself on accepting unsolicited submissions for consideration. The industry is founded on discoveries. There are many great writers out there who have never had an agent or somehow escaped an agent’s radar and that was why we were always interested in hearing from prospective clients. Unfortunately, the industry has changed in that nearly no publisher will accept a manuscript unless it is submitted to them by an agent. This institutional change has meant that nearly every hopeful writer has had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to secure an agent to start (or in a few cases further) their career. That has led to a tsunami of submissions to the pool of agents who are willing to read and evaluate unsolicited proposals. That tsunami has engulfed the Brattle Agency. On any given day our inbox of submissions numbers in the hundreds. It is untenable. It has to change.

Between February 5 and May 12, I submitted 100 queries, using the list in WM2019 –members of the Association of Author Representatives (i.e., do not charge “reading fees”) who represent non-fiction writers and are open to new submissions. As Mr. Vyce predicted, I spent an inordinate amount of time drafting these queries – there is little-to-no query uniformity across literary agencies.

As of this writing, I have been formally turned down by 22 of them – including Brattle; Mr. Vyce, as did nearly all of the other rejecting agents, wrote an encouraging note emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of the process. One agent, though, was remarkably rude, writing “Hi, Matt, normally when I read a proposal I have a lot of ideas about where to take the project. In your case, I have none.” Ouch!

Nonetheless, these were the “polite” agencies, those that took the time to e-mail even a form-letter rejection. I have passed the “if you don’t hear from us by…” date for an additional 68 agencies. A further four allow you to follow-up or contact a new agent after a certain date; I will do so shortly. That leaves only six other agencies who are still “in the running,” one of which has apparently not yet made a decision about my query after 151 days. Like every reputable literary agency, they are trying to dig themselves out of an avalanche of queries – and so it is still possible those deadlines are extremely loose, and I will finally hear something positive from one or more agents soon.

I am not holding my breath, however. In fact, I am already brainstorming how to get this book published – I believe that strongly in it – without a traditional literary agent. Assuming that is possible; I may eventually have to accept the fact it is not.

Back in early April, when I could first sense finding a literary agent was going to be challenging, I began to write a post in which I ruminated on the nature of failure. In this still-unfinished post, I primarily critiqued the absurd, particularly American notion that if you somehow keep trying just a little harder, you can achieve anything.

Horse manure.

There are often profound structural barriers that prevent even the most talented and “deserving” persons from achieving their goals. Reading dozens of loose descriptions of what agents – the vast majority of whom are female, interestingly – seek to represent, few were a good fit for me: an Ivy-League-educated cisgender white heterosexual male in his 50s raised in the suburbs of a northeastern American city.

Bor-ing! I can hear them cry.

Now, given the deliberate vagueness of the 22 formal rejections, I do not know with any certainty why any given agent declined to represent me. The most direct answer is a nicer version of “I have no idea where to take this book”: s/he simply could not figure out a way to market a 400-page book about Jewish immigrants to West Philadelphia, the backstory of my adoption and genetic families, film noir and my suburban childhood – complete with dozens of illustrations, three appendices and 30 pages of endnotes – to a mass-market publisher. I had not realized, for example, going into this process that having a large, preexisting platform from which to promote your book is apparently a prerequisite for publication. It sort of strikes me that is the job of publishing house Marketing Departments – and is yet one more example of the rich getting richer.

As an aside, the formal proposal question with which I struggled the most related to “similar works published in the last few years.” Huh? When I began to write Interrogating Memory in July 2017, I was simply telling a related set of cool stories, stories illustrating what an epistemically-sound critical thinking approach to one’s own life can yield. Because, wow, did I learn some stuff – both new stories and debunked old stories. But I did not set out to write another “XXX” book, I set out to write the first “Matthew Berger” book. Now, I was certainly heavily influenced by a wide range of books – some relatively recent, some dating back to the 1970s. I discussed those books, of course, none of which were massive sellers – but the clear subtext of the question was not lost on me: we only want books guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies.

The point is, I did not start with a marketing strategy, I started with an idea: turn this essay about why I love film noir into a full-length book. I then wrote the book that resulted from that process. It is, if I may say so, an excellent book. But it was not designed with readers in mind, not sales. And, to be fair, I do see a market for this book, as I summarized in many of my query letters:

Interrogating Memory is both objective history and deeply personal, informed by a meticulous curiosity and rigorous academic training. It is a love letter to investigation, film noir, Philadelphia, Judaism, true crime, the immigrant American experience and, of course, my families. While fans of these specific topics–and presumably of my families–will enjoy it, so will a wider audience, drawn to its core conceit: every life is fascinating when framed properly and investigated thoroughly. 

I do not want to sound bitter; I am not. Rather I feel frustrated and let down by a broken system. I recognize that traditional publishing – hardbound books sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores or online – is being challenged on many sides. I also recognize we live in a time when diversity is being actively sought; this is an excellent thing. I represent the very opposite of that diversity – simply put, my timing stinks. I could also argue – as I may do in a later post – that fiction and what I might term “coffee table non-fiction” (celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, pop psychology, self-help, etc.) is vastly more popular with mass market publishers than more serious non-fiction. Not that Interrogating Memory is especially academic or ponderous. Quite the opposite: it is eminently readable, despite its emphasis on careful research and critical thinking. If anything, it may not be rigorous enough for the university presses who typically publish this type of non-fiction. To be fair, I do not know that my book is not right for these presses, as I do not know if the literary agents I have thus far queried typically interact with those presses.

Still, for now, I appear to be caught betwixt and between – too non-diverse for literary agents, too academic for mass-market publishers, not academic enough for the university presses and unwilling to self-publish. Having devoted 3½ years of my life to this book, I want the full backing of a reputable publisher, even if that publisher is relatively small.

Well, and it is now a matter of pride – this has become personal.

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So…what does ANY of this have to with the early-20th-century artistic movement known as Dadaism? Perhaps nothing at all, which would please the original Dadaists.

Dadaism – a kind of anti-art – emerged in February 1916 when five artists from France, Germany and Romania, all fleeing the horrors of World War I, converged in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. Disgusted both by the unprecedented carnage of the war and by the establishment “rules” that led to it, they designed an art that was in opposition to war, to traditional rules – in many ways to art itself. In a world where suddenly nothing made sense, where traditional ways of thinking had led to millions of pointless deaths, the idea of “making sense” seemed pointless. These five artists opened the Cabaret Voltaire, where – among other things – they dressed in paper outfits, read absurdist poetry and engaged in Dadaist soirees. “Dada” is itself a nonsense word whose origins are obscure.

It is one of the great personal ironies that I, a highly-trained researcher who just wrote a paean to critical thinking and who revels in a kind of ritualized order and structure, have always been particularly drawn to art influenced by Dadaism and its immediate successor, surrealism – art that defies rational, conscious structure and meaning. To begin with, my cousin Lois’s work is clearly Dadaist-influenced. From a young age, meanwhile, I was drawn to Salvador Dali (“borrowing” a book about him from my maternal grandmother) then to Man Ray. I have long loved the comedy of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python – heavily reliant on non-sequiturs, bizarre juxtapositions and joyous anarchy – and, more recently, anything directed by David Lynch. Animator Terry Gilliam, the lone American-born member of the Python troupe, is clearly influenced by the photomontage style pioneered by the Dadaists. As for Lynch, easily my favorite director not named Alfred Hitchcock, his work explores the buried, the hidden – the unconscious, as the surrealists would call it – within the everyday. And his penchant for letting ideas lead where they will is extremely Dadaist, as we shall see. Finally, one of the best books we ever bought for our children reflected the surrealist art of Rene Magritte.

I myself have mastered a kind of Dadaist sense of humor.  I love to intentionally mishear things, replacing the banal with the absurd – even going so far as to say, “Nah, my version is funnier.” I sometimes vocalize a series of ululations of varying volume, pitch and tone and call it “opera;” one such opera apparently glorifies the Treaty of Ghent. And, in December 2019, I constructed what I called “a surrealist epic” poem: a sampling of lyrics from every track on that year’s Thanksgiving clean-up playlist. In retrospect, given that it repurposed existing art into a new piece of art, it is actually Dadaist, not surrealist.

The point is that I am drawn to art that challenges my ordered, button-down nature, ignoring and even disdaining artistic “rules.” I did not even mention the avant-garde music of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and cinema of Koyaanisqatsi. I love all of it.

One could also point out that I am…dissatisfied…with the “rules” and processes surrounding contemporary publishing. While I am not yet prepared to tear down the process and publish my book in some yet-to-be-determined non-traditional way, I am determined to get Interrogating Memory into the hands of anyone willing to pay a reasonable cost.

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All of which brings me to my late-night viewing habits.

Writing Interrogating Memory, I got into the habit of starting to work around 10 or 11 pm, once the rest of the family had gone to sleep. After working a few hours, I would crash on the sofa in front of YouTube – on our big screen HD television – to watch informative videos. Even my relaxation is somewhat educational.

Recently, I have been delving deeper into film history beyond film noir, which is how I discovered excellent channels like Cinema Cartography, 100 Years of Cinema…and Crash Course Film History. Meanwhile, when I was unpacking my books, I rediscovered Mel Gordon’s terrific history of the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. This led me to videos about the Grand Guignol – this one is particularly good – and to Crash Course Theater; Episode 35 is about the Grand Guignol.

It was only a matter of time until I watched the episode (#37) about Dadaism, Surrealism and Structuralism – and here we are. One thing I learned is that in 1920, Tristan Tzara wrote his rules for constructing Dadaist poetry.

TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

For the record, I do not thing anyone who reads my posts is in any way part of “the vulgar herd.”

Having finally constructed our apartment, I decided to entertain myself by applying Tzara’s rules to song lyrics, replacing the hat with a random number generator – this is still a data-driven website. Likely because it has been one of my favorite songs for more than 40 years, I chose “Him” by Rupert Holmes (excerpt from Chapter 10: Night Driving):

“Between my window and the walkway was a small outdoor patio bounded by a rough semi-circle of five walls, alternating brick wood brick wood brick, each about six feet high. Female-first-cousin and I clambered over these walls one night before we moved in. In my memory, Rupert Holmes’ “Him”—still a favorite—plays in the background; one year later, on March 28, 1981, male-first-cousin and I sat near the stage during his performance at the Host Farm Cabaret—my second-ever concert.”[1]

You may find the actual lyrics here. And let me make clear I mean no disrespect to Mr. Holmes, one of my artistic heroes.

To construct the poem, I copied the lyrics into Word then made sure there was only one word per line. Next, I copied the 288 words into Excel. Using the random number generator on my iPhone calculator – dividing each number by 3.47222 to scale values from 0.001 to 0.288, I selected each word below. If I repeated a number, I chose the nearest word – going down one for the first 144 words and up one for the last 144 words when given the choice.

This is what I created – my first Dadaist poem, although the punctuation and line breaks may be verboten:

Leaves about or stays without

Have she?

Ooh!

Let know, for I don’t…it’s…is…it…

Not forgets…don’t do…let about who, for to time

Don’t!

By can, it’s gonna

Girl, how…what’s to him, say him, do, make.

I, with.

Not free, it free, me have her time.

Him gonna, it’s she one, him…him…him wants to.

The…what’s, or do, of to, with her, we get, or do

Goodbye is left – both get without

Hide ways – the?

Me, him, him wants, she once – sometimes him, him do

Of me, a window stays or gonna do the…free him!

It’s gonna…and…and me – it, three?

It can’t, without there’s…without over

Pack cigarettes, many

His have, she without too, me me

To mine, it get she those blind

Who thought – like – she’s without us, him

For him, gonna me, him to, to he, him…or gonna him!

Gets – or gonna – NO!

She’s me, them one, it’s…it’s…him?

Gets do my without back – what’s do?

She’s were…ooh…OOH!

One, the…I…him…free

It’s about do me – I is brand

You, but I’ll understand…to know

Ooh…him…HIM!

To…what’s gets him for

Ooh…I’m me

Want forgets see have…if one

Ooh…she – and smokes him – she want, get, have

Would to…to own her?

Ooh…friend do!

I, I, me…behind him

Ooh…that why know looks?

Just he…oh!

Ooh…me, what’s me without, exactly?

What she’ll know don’t me for…or…or say

For to he, she gonna him or/and do to me…me!

Gets? No to one…no girl, see it’s she

Me, a…me, ah…do about him?

She’s me without – have just, he’s…no

To make girl, it’s me.

Until next time, please by safe and healthy…and get vaccinated if you have not already done so!


[1] Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA), March 13, 1981, pg. 17

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing III

In two previous posts (I, II), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I were coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 3, 2020. Other than 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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On Friday, March 20, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 20

And this homage to the brilliant Netflix series Stranger Things by our 4th-grade daughter was on the always-popular white board; apparently she still retains the obsessive love of the show I instilled in her, and one I discussed last December.

Upside Down Nora

While that same daughter had something of a rough morning, our 6th-grade daughter had a terrific morning; the latter girl is genuinely enjoying her workbooks and other projects. Providing ample time for each daughter to exercise and/or FaceTime friends helps immensely as well. That said, it was our younger daughter who, in the evening, asked if we could have “school” again tomorrow (Saturday). I am certainly happy to oblige—I have a review “quiz game” I have been thinking about putting together—but Nell and I suspect her outlook will be different in the morning. Still, to the extent these “classes” are about imposing structure and routine in the era of social distancing, maybe we should do some form of group learning activity every day, including weekends.

As I noted in the first “dispatch,” I planned to teach basic politics/government for an hour and basic applied math for an hour every weekday afternoon—except Friday. To break up the monotony, I will teach a hopefully-more-entertaining form of history on Fridays.

It is no secret I am a massive film noir fan. In October 2018, I had the opportunity to teach a course titled “What Is Film Noir” through Brookline Adult and Community Education. I only had six students, and I had a series of technical glitches trying to show movie clips—using my own DVDs—using Nell’s ancient laptop, but I nonetheless immensely enjoyed those four Wednesday nights.

Our daughters have actually watched a handful of classic films noir: both girls have seen The Maltese Falcon; Murder, My Sweet; Laura; The Naked City; Strangers on a Train and Rear Window; as well as long chunks of Out of the Past. Our older daughter has also seen Double Indemnity. They each spent some time at the first-ever NOIR CITY Boston in June 2018, watching the aforementioned Murder, My Sweet and helping their father sell Film Noir Foundation merchandise; this was my “reward” for having help to set up the festival. And they have certainly heard their father talk at great length about the subject.

It thus made perfect sense when it was time for “Daddy Prepatory” yesterday afternoon for me to set up my desktop computer in the “classroom” and open the PowerPoint slides from my first class. While I basically jumped ahead to slide 22 (of 130), in which I begin to tell the history of film noir as an idea, we did linger briefly on two photographs I had used to help to establish my bona fides to teach this class in 2018.

What is Film Noir

The first one I took in July 2017. It shows part of the “film noir” section at the now-defunct Island Video Rentals on Martha’s Vineyard.

IMG_3137

The second photograph was of yours truly attending NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, California the following winter.

IMG_3603

The two-part class went extremely well, with both girls asking insightful questions for the most part; our younger daughter did try to invoke Stranger Things once or twice, along with other more recent bits of pop culture. In the first hour, we focused on how “film noir” was a label first imposed after the fact on a particular set of American crime films, starting with two French film critics in 1946. After a 30-minute break, I told them two different, albeit broadly overlapping, “origin stories” for film noir:

  1. Traditional story: it was an inevitable organic artistic movement
  2. What in my opinion is a more accurate modification: it emerged from economic and creative necessity with the rise of B-movies in the 1930s

To be fair, by the middle of the second origin story, the usual doodling-based fidgeting had become sitting on the floor playing with our golden retriever, so I wrapped up quickly.

And with that we ended—possibly—classes for week one of our necessary experiment in home schooling.

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In my previous post, I briefly discussed some thoughts I had about the efficacy of using a designated test to determine whether a person has a condition such as the novel coronavirus. Specifically, I introduced the concepts of sensitivity (the percentage of persons who have the condition who test positive for it) and specificity (the percentage of persons who do not have the condition who test negative for it). And, given how hard it is to have 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, I asserted epidemiologists generally prefer to have higher specificity (i.e., fewer false positives), which is achieved by loosening the criteria used to identify the condition. This preference stems from the relative rarity of most conditions epidemiologist study, which results in having many more false positives than false negatives.

Being the sort of person who does these sorts of things, though, I decided to use Microsoft Excel to test this idea. I set up a series of 2×2 tables such as the following in which I varied four values: sensitivity, specificity, prevalence (a proxy for whether everyone is tested, or only those persons deemed likeliest to have the condition) and the total number of tests performed.

Truth

Positive Negative
Observed Positive 142,500 42,500 185,000
Negative 7,500 807,500 815,000
150,000 850,000 1,000,000
Sensitivity 95%
Specificity 95%
Prevalence 15%
# Tested 1,000,000
Ratio FN/FP 5.7

What I was primarily interested in, beyond the raw number of false positives (FP) and negatives (FN), was the ratio of the former to the latter. Table 1 summarizes the results; the number of tests administered did not alter these ratios given the same set of sensitivity, specificity and prevalence values, so I omitted it from the table.

Table 1: Ratio of False Positives to False Negatives Using Different Combinations of Sensitivity, Specificity and Prevalence, Based on 1,000,000 Tests

Prevalence Sensitivity Specificity FP/FN #FP #FN
15% 95% 95% 5.7 42,500 7,500
90% 95% 2.8 42,500 15,000
95% 90% 11.3 85,000 7,500
80% 95% 1.4 42,500 30,000
95% 80% 22.7 170,000 7,500
33% 95% 95% 2.0 33.350 16,650
90% 95% 1.0 33.350 33,300
95% 90% 4.0 66,700 16,650
80% 95% 1.5 33.350 66,600
95% 80% 8.0 133,400 16,650
50% 95% 95% 1.0 25,000 25,000
90% 95% 0.5 25,000 50,000
95% 90% 2.0 50,000 25,000
80% 95% 0.25 25,000 100,000
95% 80% 4.0 100.000 25,000
85% 95% 95% 0.18 7,500 42,500
90% 95% 0.09 15,000 42,500
95% 90% 0.35 7,500 85,000
80% 95% 0.04 30,000 42,500
95% 80% 0.71 7,500 170,000

A test with sensitivity<80% and/or specificity<80% should not be utilized. Also, for any prevalence, the ratio of FP to FN will be the same across cases where sensitivity=specificity, albeit with different raw values.

Here are the primary conclusions from Table 1:

  • The lower the prevalence—or, in the case of COVID-19, the less you restrict testing only to those deemed likeliest to have it—the higher the likelihood you will have many more false positives than false negatives, irrespective of sensitivity and specificity
  • Within a given prevalence level, FP/FN is
    • Lowest when specificity > sensitivity
    • Highest when sensitivity > specificity
    • In the “middle” when sensitivity = specificity
  • The total number of “false” values (FP + FN) is
    • Lowest when both sensitivity and specificity are equal and close to 100%
    • Highest when sensitivity >> specificity

I saw a report on Twitter that 33% of persons testing positive were false positives. Based on these 20 scenarios, that would seem to indicate a situation where a fairly wide swath of the population is being tested (prevalence=15%), both sensitivity and specificity are at least 90%, and sensitivity > specificity. That percentage, which is not THAT meaningful, to be pehonest, would decrease if specificity were equal to or higher than sensitivity.

If you want to explore other scenarios like this, here is a protected copy of the workbook.

Disease Testing Worksheet

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

Interrogating memory: The Beatles, wax museums and a diner mystery solved

To the extent my writing over the last three years has a theme (or perhaps even a brand), it is what I call interrogating memory.

At one level, this is just a fancy term for “fact-checking,” as in looking through my elementary school report cards (I am missing the one for third grade[1]) to confirm my fourth-grade teacher was named Ms. Goldman, only to discover she was my fifth-grade teacher and her name was “R. Goldberg.”

Quick story.

On the first day of fifth grade at Lynnewood Elementary School, my new teacher called me up to her desk. Ms. Goldberg, an attractive woman with an unwavering platinum blonde permanent, was curious about my father, whose name she had seen was David Louis Berger. We quickly established (most likely through his age and being raised in West Philadelphia) they had been in the same confirmation class at Congregation Beth El in 1951. It was also clear from the way she spoke about him (my aunt once wrote me, “He really was lovable you know”) she had a serious crush on him. I do not recall how I reacted, or what my father said when I told him.

Still, knowing it was fifth, not fourth, grade and that her surname was Goldberg, not Goldman, does not materially alter the story: my teacher had known and liked my father when they were teenagers.

The thing is, however, I pulled out those report cards in the process of reassessing an entirely different memory, one that better exemplifies the complexity of interrogating memory.

As a child and young teen, I hated The Beatles (or, at least, refused to succumb to the pressure to love them). And until a few weeks ago, I believed this disdain stemmed from my active resistance to being told what to like and what not to like. My attitude from a very young age was that I will decide for myself what I like and do not like, thank you very much.

My proof, other than my own memory?

I was certain that mixed in with otherwise glowing comments from my elementary school teachers on my report cards was a common phrase along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.”

But when I pulled out my five surviving report cards from Lynnewood, this sentiment was far less ubiquitous than I had remembered. Mrs. Virginia Hoeveler did begin her extensive (and humbly flattering) comments, dated June 13, 1973, by noting I initially had “difficulty conforming to a classroom situation,” though I quickly adjusted. She also added a postscript: “Matt is quite the ‘individual – he likes to do his ‘own thing.’ “

Five months later (November 7, 1973), Ms. C. Edwards—who broke the heart of every boy in my second-grade class when she became Mrs. C. Stevenson at the end of the school year (many of us attended the wedding, sitting in a mezzanine area of the church, overlooking the ceremony, stage left)—wrote, “Matt sometimes gets carried away with his intelligence. He seems to feel that he doesn’t need to follow directions.”

Ouch.

Still, as of June 1, 1974, I had “become much more social with [my] peers.” Good to know I was ceasing to be a curmudgeon at seven years old.

But…that is it. I have no third grade report card, neither Miss Nichols nor R. Goldberg wrote more than a token sentence or two, and Mr. Bianco (a good-looking man who wore platform shoes and was smitten with my mother) merely noted I would have had an “O” (Outstanding) instead of an “S” (Satisfactory) in Social Studies but for too many missed assignments.

Oh.

The point is, my memory was not, strictly speaking, incorrect; there were comments along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.” It was just that they were confined to first and second grades, when I was apparently still adjusting socially and academically to a formal classroom environment.

Here is the kicker, though. Even before I pulled out those report cards, I had already concluded my aversion to structured guidance was not why I had hated The Beatles (which I no longer do; quite the contrary, in fact[2]). Or, at least, it was not the only reason.

Just bear with me while I wax rhapsodic about Atlantic City, New Jersey.

I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living with my mother and our dog—a Keeshond named Luvey—in Penthouse A (really, just one of two slightly larger rooms with two queen beds and a walk-in closet sharing a small semi-circular concrete balcony overlooking the pool) of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City. On weekends, my father would drive the roughly 80 miles from our home in Havertown, Pennsylvania (just west of Philadelphia) to join us.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2.jpg

The Strand Motel, which sat between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenues, and between Providence and Boston Avenues, was knocked down around 1979 as part of the construction of the Golden Nugget Casino (which, after many name changes, closed in 2014). I am reasonably certain this photograph was taken in the lounge directly below the penthouses one of those two summers; my father is the silver-haired man in the blue jacket sitting at the bar, while the left side of my mother’s face is just visible on the right (her natural red hair was back).

Scan0011.jpg

Those two summers, I spent my days wandering up and down Pacific Avenue (either on foot, or riding a jitney for 35 cents) and the Boardwalk. By myself, at the ages of seven and eight, that is; I cannot imagine that happening today. I especially loved going into the lobby of every motel and hotel along the roughly three miles of roads/Boardwalk in my purview to collect one of each pamphlet available in the large wooden racks there. During the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and rummage through them, wishing I was back in Atlantic City.

One of those pamphlets was actually a red-covered brochure for Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum, then located at 1238 Boardwalk (yes, the Boardwalk is considered a road for mailing purposes), roughly halfway between North Carolina and South Carolina Avenues.

I do not know why I suddenly recalled this wax museum a few weeks ago (which was opened by Madame Tussaud’s somewhat less-talented great-grandson). Perhaps it was researching my book, and thinking about how we stopped summering down the shore (as those of us raised near Philadelphia say) in 1976, just before the casinos started being built, effectively ending “my” Atlantic City. Along those lines, I have reflected a great deal this summer on how much my wife Nell and our daughters love spending much of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and how much, frankly, I do not. And I have concluded no longer spending summers in Atlantic City, even as it was inexorably changing (for the worst, in my opinion)[3], was a deeply painful occurrence I have yet fully to process. But, the result is a silly jealousy of Nell’s childhood (and current) summer home.

Or, Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum came to mind for no other reason than the 1953 Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax was recently on TCM OnDemand (I did not get a chance to watch it).

Regardless, what I specifically recalled about that slightly tacky museum was that one of the first tableaus you saw when you entered from the Boardwalk was of The Beatles circa 1964. Walking by the four wax figures, I would hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” playing; perhaps songs like “She Loves You” played as well. In fact, now that I interrogate that memory, the point of the tableau may have been to reproduce their historic February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I could not tell you what other tableaus I saw in Louis Tussaud’s because, frankly, the only other thing I clearly remember is the Chamber of Horrors.

Again, I was seven or eight years old when I viewed those displays, some of which were particularly gory and graphic. This nostalgic video includes two of them: a low-quality rendition of the Lon Chaney version of the Phantom of the Opera and a gruesome Algerian Hook (speaks for itself, despite being misspelled in the video).

As an aside, the photograph in the video of the Boardwalk in front of Steel Pier in the summer of 1974 was like stepping out of a TARDIS: that is the Atlantic City I remember. To be fair, I preferred Million Dollar Pier, whose Tilt-a-Whirl I would foolishly ride every weekday, around 12:30 in the afternoon, after eating a slice of pizza from a little stand just where Arkansas Avenue meets the Boardwalk. Seeing that photograph was both exhilarating and painful; I may have known Atlantic City at the very end of its family-resort glory, but I loved being there.

Returning to the Chamber of Horrors, I was both terrified and fascinated by the scenes it depicted. If memory serves, they also included Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963. As deeply unsettling as they were, I could not stop poring over the photographs of those displays in my souvenir booklet back home in Havertown.

But rather than admit they scared the bleepity-frick out of me, I displaced that emotion onto the completely banal and non-threatening (if mildly creepy, in the way all wax figures are mildly creepy) wax renditions of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Simply because they were what I saw before I entered the Chamber of Horror, which truly did scare me. This may not be quite what Sigmund Freud meant by a “screen memory,” but the concept is broadly the same.

In some ways, “interrogating memory” is like the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories to get at any underlying meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything, putting all data points into context—usually chronological), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history.

Or, to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on a minute, did that really happen that way, then, in that place?”

*********

Speaking of persistence, I may have solved a mystery I first identified here:

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

In the post, I concluded I had almost certainly turned north on Route 152 from Business Route 202 that night, eventually wending through the Montgomery County towns of Chalfont, Briarwyck, Silverdale, Perkasie, Sellersville and Telford (where Route 152 ends at Route 309). It was just that none of these towns had the sort of urban-feeling center in which my memory placed the diner.

Frustrated in my efforts to find a diner that fit the necessary criteria, I concluded thus:

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

As I said, though, a key element of interrogating memory is persistence, so the other night I resolved to trace my possible route that night, starting at the intersection of Routes 152 and Business 202, using StreetView on Google Maps.

Patiently clicking the forward arrow, waiting less patiently for the photographs to resolve on my computer screen, I made my virtual way through Chalfont and Briarwyck and Silverdale and Perkasie into Sellersville. I took a few wrong turns along the way (Route 152, like many state routes, has a habit of randomly turning left or right onto a different street), but always righted myself.

After getting lost multiple times at a particularly tricky five-way intersection, I continued along South Main Street, heading away from the center of Sellersville. In that confusing way of state routes, by following “North” Route 152, I actually travelled south. After passing a few scattered two-story brick houses and local businesses, a large (for the area) parking lot appeared on my left.

In the middle of the lot was a light gray single-story building with a double-sloped roof. The front of the building was a two-story structure from which short flights of concrete steps, under red awnings, protruded. Above each awning was a lighted sign, white with red letters, reading “A & N DINER.” A yellow road sign embedded in the asphalt just beyond the sidewalk read “A & N DINER/ FAMILY RESTAURANT / OPEN 24 HOURS”; with “HAPPY LABOR DAY” spelled out in removable black plastic letters just below that.

Say what now? How did I miss this 24-hour diner in my extensive search?

Something about it seemed vaguely familiar, especially adjusting for the fact these September 2018 photographs were taken during the day, while my drive occurred at night, when the A & N Diner would have been brightly lit in the darkness. I clicked on the map’s icon to learn it is no longer open 24 hours. If that change occurred between Labor Day 2018 and early March 2019, that would explain why I could not find it searching for “24 hour restaurants.”

Scrolling through the accompanying photographs, I observed a small counter area to the left as you entered. One photograph showed five dark pink (almost gray) leather-covered stools bolted to the floor. To the left of the counter was a window, which another photograph confirmed overlooked the parking lot. And the wall one faced sitting at the counter might be the one I recalled—the glass shelving could easily have been replaced since I was (possibly) there in 2003 or 2004 (or existed only in my memory).

The only problem was that this was hardly the urban downtown my memory insisted housed the diner. However, I may have an explanation for that.

One of the classes I took in the first semester of my biostatistics Master’s program at Boston University School of Public Health was on probability theory. While I earned an A on the first of three exams (which comprised ~90% of the final grade), I bombed the second exam. Forget getting an A in the class; I was simply hoping to salvage a B with the final exam. Sometime after that disastrous second exam, say in November 2005, I had a powerful dream. In that dream, in which I learned I did in fact earn an A, it was night. The dark second floor room in which I stood extended far behind me as I stared out a large bay window; perhaps I was in bed first, it is all a bit fuzzy 14 years later. Below me was an urban corner with low buildings, lit by a single street lamp; a kind of brick culvert was off to my right.

This dream made such an impression on me, I still remember it relatively clearly nearly 14 years later. It is possible I mixed up looking out the window into the dark parking lot at the A & N Diner with looking out the window at the urban street corner in the dark in my dream. Why, I could not begin to tell you…unless the former somehow got worked into the latter? I would have to drive to the A & N Diner at night to be certain.

Another slight variation is that I recall the diner being on my right, but I would have approached it from the left that night. That could easily be explained, however, if I parked on the opposite side of the building (putting the diner on my right as I entered) and/or if I drove past it at first, decided to stop in for a snack, and turned around, thus placing the building to my right as I drove to it again.

There is one additional small point of confirmation. In my memory, the diner is shiny and new. Well, a little digging on the invaluable Newspapers.com uncovered a February 2000 article in the NEWS-HERALD of Perakasie, PA[4]. The gist of the article is that Nicholas and Vasso Scebes had assumed control of Angelo’s Family Restaurant on January 31, 2000, renaming it A & N Diner and Family Restaurant.

The key passage is this:

“Later this month, the manager said, they hope to be settled in enough to change the environment of the restaurant, starting with the interior wall colors, which are currently a bright two-tone lime green. Vasso said that’s the first thing regulars asked to have changed.”

Later in the article, Vasso avowed her intention to “clean up this place and make it respectable.”

If those renovations were completed sometime in 2000, they could well have seemed “shiny and new” three or four years later, when a young man out for a meandering night drive almost certainly stopped in with his book for a meal and lots of decaffeinated coffee, black.

For the record, dreams sometimes do come true. I studied intensely for the final exam, and earned something like a 92. Great, I thought, that will get me a solid B in the course. When I learned I had actually received an A, I e-mailed the professor to make sure he had not made a mistake. No, he said, he thought well enough of my participation in the class to essentially “throw out” the middle exam as an unfortunate outlier. Oh, I replied, thank you very much.

Until next time…

[1] Itself a curious slip of memory, as I originally wrote (from memory) “fourth grade.” I only pulled out these report cards to review a week or two ago.

[2] I am even listening to Abbey Road as I edit this post.

[3] This shift is beautifully rendered in Louis Malle’s 1980 film Atlantic City.

[4] Baum, Charles W., “New family takes over operation of former Angelo’s in Sellersville,” NEWS-HERALD (Perkasie, PA), February 16, 2000, pg. 3.

A Skeptic is Born

If this blog has anything like a unifying theme, it is evidence-based investigation.

In fact, my original stated purpose was to use a careful presentation of data to answer what I felt were interesting—if not always momentous—questions. Sometimes that took the form of challenging conventional wisdom, and at other times it took the form of thinking critically about arguments I had encountered online. Elsewhere, I engaged in speculative history backed by the best evidence I could gather.

I have even critiqued my own data analyses.

An unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, outcome of that original purpose is the notion of “interrogating memory.” I am even writing a book with that title.

In other words, I strive to examine every assertion, every question, every story with the same critical-thinking eye. I may not always succeed (confirmation bias, for example, is powerful—and admittedly one reason I prefer MSNBC to other cable news networks), but that is always the goal.

This was not always the case, however.

**********

One of my favorite phrases as a child was “howcum?” Inherently curious—and with otherwise-solid report cards often featuring a variant of “does not like to follow directions,” I questioned everything.

Fairly early, that need to know why led me straight to detective fiction and, a bit later, classic mystery films.

But at other times my innate curiosity failed me, and I allowed the allure of “unknowably mysterious” to blind me to the non-existence of actual “mystery.” This transpired even as Scooby Doo and this underrated movie told me that “supernatural” events have prosaic explanations.

Just bear with me while I outline a pre-adult life spent immersed in pseudo-mysteries.

Fact-checking what I wrote here, I was probably closer to seven years old when I first encountered my mother’s copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, the first astrology book I ever read. My mother was particularly taken with the section on the Libra child, because it seemed to describe my (at times) indecisiveness; the example in the book is how the Libra child cannot decide which breakfast item placed in front of her/him—orange juice, toast, cereal, etc.—to select first. For the record, my wife Nell also ascribes my “on one hand…on the other hand…but on the one hand again” mode of analysis to my being a Libra (just as she ascribes some of her own personality traits to being a Scorpio).

Goodman’s broad overview launched a deeper immersion in astrology, whose ostensible quantitative precision—all those beautiful charts and numbers!—appealed to my mathematical mind. This was followed in short order by numerology, the prophecies of Nostradamus (and other alleged clairvoyants), card reading and many other forms of divination.

Decades later, this is all that remains of my “occult” book collection. You can see how battered and well-thumbed these books are.

Occult books.JPG

Using the red hardback book, I spent much of high school (1980-84) doing “card readings” for my mother and her friends (and, on occasion, my own friends); in retrospect, I was really doing a kind of layperson therapy: having the cards “reveal” (with a healthy dollop of intuition and psychology) what the person being analyzed wanted (or needed) to hear. Between the rush I got for being the “expert” and the attention my “clients” received, it was benign fun for all concerned.

The numerology text picture here is the successor to my first text from the late 1970s; I am not sure what happened to it. And the World Almanac volume is taped together because I practically memorized it in the summer of 1980, when my job co-running the canteen at Camp Kweebec allowed me ample time to read. (It was also when I had perhaps the greatest steak sandwiches of my life—man, those chefs were friendly and talented; hold that thought).

Meanwhile, even as I was absorbing all of this, I was being introduced in Hebrew school to the Gematria. The teacher who taught us this Jewish version of numerology was a Chasidic man named Mr. Devor, who also taught high school science: a juxtaposition which fascinated me). He was also a brilliant and gentle man who I completely adored. In essence, what Mr. Devor taught us was that a proper decoding of the arrangement of Hebrew letters in the Bible would reveal mystical truths (or something). To be fair, I still have the copy of the Hebrew Torah (the first five books only) I bought for further numerological investigation.

Hebrew Torah closed.JPG

Hebrew Torah open.JPG

Looking back, the thing about these divination methods that captured my imagination was the sheer audacious confidence of the assertions presented. To these authors, it was simply an established fact (sometimes couched in the language of “ancient wisdom”) that the relative positions of celestial objects influenced our lives, or that certain combinations of numbers or letters or cards were better or worse (according to Cheiro, they “vibrated” better—whatever that means).

But it was not only divination methods which called to me. For my sixth grade “gifted program” final project, I chose to put together a compendium of the most interesting “unsolved mysteries”—or enigmas—I could find[1]; I even appropriated the word “enigmatologist” to describe what I thought I wanted to be. From Sasquatch (or Yeti or Murphysboro Mud Monster), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Loch Ness Monster, to Atlantis, to reincarnation, to UFOs and so on—I fervently read what I could find. That is not to say I was not smitten with less “fanciful” unsolved mysteries: I was equally enamored with the Oak Island “money pit,” the statues of Easter Island, the possibility that Anastasia Romanov survived the 1917 execution of her and her family, etc[2].

The thing is, the appeal lay not in the potential to “solve” these “mysteries,” but in the very idea there was any mystery at all. Despite my “howcum?” refrain, I broadly accepted the truth of divination methods; the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, dangerous vortices, Atlantis and ancient aliens (heck, I even wrote a book report in sixth grade about one source[3]); that the lovely Anastasia[4] had somehow survived; and so forth. I suspect some of this was resulted from intellectual malaise; quotidian reality was not exciting enough for me. It may also have been a way to assert some control over my life as my parents’ marriage ended, which began when I was nine years old—or, rather, to cede control to unseen cosmic forces. There was nothing I could do to fix my parents’ marriage—or prevent a series of moves—but if all of this was preordained in some way…

Ancient Mysteries book report.JPG

Or I simply had a child’s combination of imaginative awe and undeveloped critical thinking skills.

And yet…and yet…

Tarot deck.JPG

What strikes me now is how much I kept searching (without quite acknowledging it) for some sort of proof—or at least for some underlying reason for how these things could be true. While it was not until high school (at the earliest) that I first heard the phrase “correlation does not equal causation,” what began to nag at the back of my mind was the question WHY would the location of distant constellations or specific numbers or the random ordering of playing/Tarot cards (I still have my pack, as you can see) have ANY measurable impact on, well, anything? What was the causal mechanism at work in these instances? Or, as I would later frame the question as a data analyst and practitioner of epidemiologic methods (itself a form of epistemology):

What is the most direct and logically-coherent story I can tell to account for the association I have measured between variables X and Y?

Here is where Occam’s razor comes into play: the least complicated explanation for any unexplained phenomenon is usually the correct one.

**********

Not that I necessarily wanted to be dissuaded from my beliefs, mind you.

I do not remember when I first heard of Alan Landsburg, but it was probably around the time my parents separated (March 1977). The book I reported upon in elementary school—In Search of Ancient Mysteries—was first published in 1974 (co-written with his wife Sally Landsburg), launching the “In Search of…” series; I devoured these books. The television series of the same name debuted in 1976, quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

However, when (probably in 1978) I started to read about Atlantis in Landsburg’s 1976 book In Search of Lost Civilizations, I found myself reading instead about Minoan civilization and volcanic eruptions on the island of Santorini. What did any of this have to do, I asked myself in annoyance, with a sunken continent somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean that was once home to the ancient world’s most advanced civilization and maybe had something to do with the Bermuda Triangle—or the Bimini Road?

Pushing through my annoyance, I slowly realized that Landsburg was providing one possible rational explanation for what had inspired Plato’s original story of Atlantis—the conflation of a highly advanced civilization (long since vanished) with an epic natural disaster.

Oh, I thought, that is really cool—and far more intellectually satisfying than the other possibilities. It was the first time I began to shift from “mysterious, just because” to “what mystery?”

Still, I was not quite ready to shift completely from being Ryan Bergara to being Shane Madej (for fans of the Buzzfeed Unsolved channel on YouTube, in which conspiracy-theorist true believer Bergara and extreme skeptic Madej jointly investigate unsolved crimes and supposedly haunted locations)[5].

The real turning point would not come for another six years.

**********

I have written about the nighttime drives I took in the summer of 1984, during the joyful limbo between graduating from high school and enrolling at Yale. In that post, I described how I found the 24-hour Vale Rio Diner—which I would frequent on and off until it suddenly closed in early 2008 (I was horrified to drive there that May, only to find a Walgreen’s instead!),

This diner stood opposite where Route 113 north veers off from Route 23 (to the right if you are driving west, with the Vale Rio on your left). If you follow Route 113 north for 0.3 miles, it makes a sharp left turn towards downtown Phoenixville.

In the summer of 1984, at 450 Bridge Street, directly in front of you before you made that left turn[6], was a pizzeria called Nardi’s that made a pretty fair cheesesteak[7]. That was the same summer I worked at Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA and, while fiddling around on the grill one day, created my specialty sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Given that I was not quite old enough to take truly late-night drives (I wanted to be home by 11 pm to watch Star Trek, after all), I would generally seek out a place to have such a sandwich supper—and maybe some pie and decaffeinated coffee for desert.

I always had a book with me on these drives. One of those books—which I avidly read in Nardi’s on at least one occasion—was a black paperback with blue lettering and an angry-looking SOLVED written in shiny red letters on its cover; it had first been published in 1975. I had started to read it once before, but like In Search of Lost Civilizations six years earlier, it had annoyed me.

Bermuda Triangle book (original)

Why did it annoy me?

Because rather than proposing something, you know, interesting like energy vortices or force fields from Atlantis or alien abductions as the solution to all those unexplained disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, Lawrence David Kusche—amateur pilot and former research librarian at Arizona State University—was proposing something far more radical.

He proposed that the solution to the Bermuda Triangle Mystery is that there never was a Bermuda Triangle Mystery!

As Kusche puts it:

“My research, which began as an attempt to find as much information as possible about the Bermuda Triangle, had an unexpected result. After examining all the evidence [including contemporaneous newspaper accounts, ships logs, etc.] I have reached the following conclusion: There is no [single] theory that solves the mystery. It is no more logical to try to find a common cause for all the disappearances in the Triangle than, for example, to try to find one cause for all automobile accidents in Arizona. By abandoning the search for an overall theory and investigating each incident independently, the mystery began to unravel.”[8]

Indeed, after a 16-page opening chapter titled “The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle As It Is Usually Told,” Kusche devotes 52 relatively short chapters to a detailed investigation of 50+ supposedly mysterious events, from the first voyage led by Christopher Columbus through the Triangle in 1492 through the Linda in October 1973, nearly always finding a rational (even mundane) explanation that fits Occam’s razor.

And when Kusche could not provide such an explanation?

“With only a few exceptions, the mishaps that remain unsolved are those for which no information can be found. In several cases important details of the incident, and in other cases, entire incidents, are fictional.”[9]

More to the point (and more damning to purveyors of the Bermuda Triangle “mystery” canard):

“Many incidents were not considered mysterious when they occurred, but became so many years later when writers, seeking reports of additional incidents in the Bermuda Triangle, found references to them. It is often difficult to find complete information (even when one wants it) on an event that occurred many years before. […] .Many of the writers who published the events did no original research but merely rephrased the articles of previous writers, thereby perpetuating the errors and embellishments in earlier accounts. […] In a number of incidents writers withheld information that provided an obvious solution to the disappearance.”[10]

Finally, here is Kusche’s lament from the “Update” to the 1995 reissue I recently purchased (I do not know what became of the copy I had in 1984):

“These examples are typical of what has happened in the Bermuda Triangle in the past ten years. Nothing has changed. Incidents of various types, some big, some small, continue to happen. They can be hyped into “great unsolved mysteries” by almost anyone. It is very easy to do. Just don’t bother to check the facts thoroughly, do some imaginative speculating, toss out a few unanswered questions, and use a few exclamation points. Personally, I find it more interesting to dig deeper and look for logical explanations.”[11]

I was on my second attempt to read Kusche’s clear-eyed, well-structured accounts (which should be required reading for any serious student of epistemology) as I contentedly munched on my mushroom provolone pizza steak that night at Nardi’s in the summer of 1984. This time, for whatever reason[12], I was willing, in the author’s words, “to think more critically, to be more skeptical, to be more concerned about the quality of what”[13] goes into my mind.

Once I made that mental leap, though, I was riveted—and each chapter was more satisfying than the last.

And a skeptic was born.

OK, it would still be another two decades or so—during which I learned advanced quantitative methods which forced me to frame every research question with care, precision and the most accurate data available—before I became a full-fledged SKEPTIC with the purchase of this essential volume. But once I finished Kusche’s landmark book, there was no going back.

Until next time…

[1] A combination of over-ambition and laziness resulted in my never finishing the project.

[2] My fascination with unsolved murders would not come until later.

[3] I think it was sixth grade—I neglected to write a date on it. At any rate, my grade on this hand-written, five-page gem was a 98.

[4] I freely admit that I developed a crush on the late Grand Duchess—and, yes, genetic testing finally confirmed her death—the first time I saw a photograph of her.

[5] I recommend watching some episodes, typically around 20 minutes long, if only for the friendly—and often-profane—banter between the two hosts. Despite not accepting the existence of ghosts, I seriously want a spirit box.

[7] I did not actually remember the name of the place, but I found it an advertisement on page 118 of the April 18, 1985 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com.

[8] Kusche, Lawrence David. 1995. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pg. 275.

[9] Ibid., pg. 275.

[10] Ibid., pg. 276-77.

[11] Ibid., pg. xiii.

[12] I would say my impending enrollment in Yale College triggered an upgrade in my intellectual maturity (or something equally pompous), but that is probably just a coincidence.

[13] Kusche, pg. xiii.

When memories defy interrogation

I first used the term “interrogating memory” in August 2017.

One month earlier, I simultaneously

An unanticipated side effect of these intertwined activities (the book has also become both a search for “identity” and a social history) was the need to subject memories and stories to rigorous analysis and validation; given my post-graduate academic training in biostatistics and epidemiology (with its toolkit of quantitative epistemological methods), this should not have been a surprise.

For example, I had long believed my genetic father was Colombian. My adoptive mother was so convinced of this fact that in the summer before I was born, she went to the library to look for photographs of Colombian children. I have no idea what she actually saw, but she expected me to be much darker-skinned than I actually am[1].

Imagine my surprise (and, yes, disappointment) when genetic testing revealed that I was almost exclusively northern European (British, Irish, French/German, Scandinavian), with less than 1% Iberian (i.e., Spanish or Portuguese) I hoped against hope was the source of my “Colombian” ancestry. But that was only the first iteration of my results. Subsequent algorithm changes readjusted the relative percentages to 64.4% British & Irish, 12.8% French & German, 1.6% Scandinavian, 0.9% Italian and 0.2% North African & Arabian, plus 19.7% Broadly Northwestern European, 0.2% Broadly Southern European and 0.2% Broadly European[2]. What little Spanish ancestry I thought I had vanished with this final recalculation. Moreover, the Native American maternal great-grandparent that was also part of my “adoption story” did not seem to exist either[3].

In other words, rather than being a “walking UN,” I was, like, the whitest white boy ever.

Further research (and my near-certainty about the identity of my genetic father) led me to hypothesize that my mother, when meeting with the lawyer who arranged my adoption, somehow translated the fact my genetic father (unnamed in official court records) “grew up in the District of Columbia” as “he came from [the nation of] Colombia.” Short of my genetic mother flat-out lying about (or not knowing herself) who my genetic father was—and until I ask her directly (yes, I know her identity), this is the best explanation I have.

This is merely one example of a memory—or collection of related memories, or story—I was able to interrogate using available sources of information: public records available on Ancestry.com (Census data, city directories, birth and death certificates) and elsewhere on the internet (Google maps, “White Pages,” obituaries, etc.), the indispensable Newspapers.com and my own personal archives (including e-mails, bank and credit statements, diaries, address books, family documents).

But then are those intense nagging memories that simply defy interrogation.

Below, I present three examples of such memories (to the best of my ability to reproduce in words what I see with my mind’s eye), along with the less-than-fruitful steps I took to interrogate them.

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.

This memory has been near the forefront of my conscious mind ever since I began writing my book, which (as of now) has four chapters devoted to my film noir “journey[4].” One, which I am tempted to call “Night and the City,” explores the interplay between my life-long love of the night and my suburban mythologizing of “the city.” This “old dark urban store” visit is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about pre-adulthood trips into “the city.”

Growing up in the 1970s in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, “the city” meant two things: 1) Center City, home to most of the historical and cultural attractions and 2) everywhere else, including predominantly-minority and/or less-well-off areas. This was when “law and order” Frank Rizzo (seen here in 1969, when he was Police Commissioner, with a nightstick tucked into his cummerbund) was mayor (1972-80), and the city—like many in the United States—was facing a shrinking tax base and “white flight[5].”

Rizzo NightStick

At this young age, I mentally conflated every section of Philadelphia north, south and west of Center City[6] with the presentation of “inner cities” in popular television shows like Welcome Back Kotter[7], Good Times and What’s Happening!!—and even All in the Family, an inescapable part of the cultural zeitgeist even though I rarely watched it. And like many suburban children, I came to mythologize “the city” as a place simultaneously exciting and dangerous, alluring and repellent[8].

As for this particular store, which I mentally locate in what I have learned is the Allegheny West neighborhood, I have been unable to locate it using Street View in Google Maps or by searching for advertisements for it on Newspapers.com. The 4000 block of Ridge Avenue sort of fits my memory of the store’s exterior, except for the Route 1 expressway bridge looming overhead. What I need, actually, is a set of Philadelphia Yellow Pages for the late 1970s; one of the listed “office supply” or “typewriter repair” shops listed should theoretically match my “mental location.”

Even if I am able locate the store itself, however, I still may never know for certain why my father and I were there—although two possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is where I acquired my beloved portable blue-and-white Olivetti (?) typewriter to replace the battered old Royal typewriter I had been using. While it is hard to imagine such a new typewriter emerging from the musty store of my memory, it does fit with what I remember being IN the store (as well as my father’s penchant for getting “deals”). The timing works as well, since I received that typewriter sometime around the first week of March 1980, when my mother and I moved into a new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley; whether by design or not, the typewriter matched the fresh décor my mother chose: navy, white and silver.

A more sinister possibility is that my father was conducting some less-than-legal business with this man. Following my parents’ separation (and the loss of a family business), my father had a series of temporary positions—salesman for Sylvan Pools, selling roadside signs with removable plastic letters, cab driver (he found some peace and contentment doing this, I think[9]). He was also a bookie for a time[10], and he was deeply in debt to enough people that he would never sit with has back to the door of a restaurant. Perhaps he was collecting payment from, or delivering winnings to, the old man in the back room?

The former explanation is far more likely (would my father really conduct an illegal transaction while he had his 12- or 13-year-old son with him, even in a back room?), but there is a “noir” feel to the latter explanation that appeals to me.

In fact, it is revealing how dark I envision this store being, as though the darkness itself was somehow nefarious. It was daytime (I am almost certain), and perhaps quite sunny, so the store may simply have felt darker by comparison. But the impression of that darkness is something entirely different.

Someday I may figure out why that is.

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

 The late-night drive in search of—something or other (ideally including a previously-unknown-to-me 24-hour eatery)—has been a favorite pastime of mine since the summer of 1984; I have yet to heed the warnings offered here.

But the nature of those drives—wandering down unknown roads for hours until I figure out once again where I am, then find somewhere to stop to eat before driving home—means that I cannot exactly reproduce many of these journeys. That being said, however, I never forget a 24-hour-diner, no matter how much I meandered to get there; that is what makes this particular memory so frustrating. It is conceivable that I had a very poor experience there…but why do I not remember THAT?

What I also remember—assuming I have not conflated this part of the memory with various dreams[11]—is that a) the “road with a number” from which I turned left was Route 202, b) the “road with a number” onto which I turned (forming a three-way intersection) was Route 152, and c) I strongly associate this journey—maybe even this particular intersection—with a female coworker with whom I had become very friendly. She was raised in a Montgomery County town just north of Philadelphia.

I literally clicked my way along the entire stretch of Route 202 on Street View between Norristown and the border with Montgomery County. While I found the intersection with Route 152, it was far too rural to be the one in my memory; no other intersection was even close. As I was writing this, I again looked at Google Maps—and realized I had forgotten about Business Route 202.

And…lo and behold…the intersection with Route 152 north is a three-way intersection whose building layout broadly corresponds to my memory.

But that is as far as I can go. Following Route 152 north into towns like Perkasie and Sellersville, there is no commercial urban corner even close to what I recall. Moreover, I literally searched “24-hour diners” on Google Maps for all of Montgomery County north of Philadelphia—not one of them is the diner of my memory. Finally, I was not able to find any record of such a diner existing on Newspapers.com, even going back to 2002.

There is one possible explanation for the association of the intersection of Business Route 202 and Route 152. At some point during this time period, I spent one Saturday afternoon in the charming Bucks County borough of Doylestown. While I was perusing the shelves of a used book store, literally on Business Route 202, my cell phone rang. It was my work friend wondering what I was doing and whether I wanted to hang out with her that night. It is a near certainty I would have taken Business Route 202 back to my apartment in King of Prussia (which means this diner visit could not have occurred earlier than February 2003). As I think about it, the intersection with Route 152 north is one I could easily see filing under “explore this some Saturday night soon.”

Doylestown book store

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

Memory 3: One night between July 2010 and April 2011, I drove either to a public transit station (likely on the MBTA–or “T”) or to a medical building because a male friend—let’s call him “EH”—needed a ride home. EH emerged from my left as I sat in the driver’s seat of my Honda Accord—perhaps down a ramp or short driveway. Immediately in front of me and to the left is a chain link fence. Rows of triple-deckers are both in front of me (lining the far side of a road intersecting with the road on which I am sitting) and to my right. When EH enters the car, the conversation quickly turns to my frustration with finding a new gig as a health-related data analyst. Having just been working with hospital employees (?), EH suggests I look for such a gig in local hospitals. “They always need biostatisticians!” (or words to that effect). Beyond what the area around the pickup looked like, however, I am at a loss where this was—or why I was picking up EH in the first place. This drive may also be when the idea (now an annual event) of my wife Nell and I watching a film noir on my birthday with EH and his wife was first formulated; the possibility that there was snow on the ground, however, would mitigate against this idea because my birthday is in late September.

I actually called in reinforcements on this one: I wrote to EH and his wife, who were every bit as baffled when, where and why this pickup occurred. The conversation is ongoing.

That said, I can at least pinpoint the “when” with some precision because of the conversation about hospitals hiring biostatisticians[12]. I was laid off from Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership on June 30, 2010, then started at Joslin Diabetes Center on May 11, 2011; those two dates are the absolute earliest and latest this event could have occurred. IF EH and I also discussed watching films noir on my birthday—that tradition began in late September 2010, narrowing the window of time to July, August and early September 2010. Again, that is IF we had that conversation; there may also have been snow on the ground, which would most likely put this event in December 2010, or January to March 2011.

EH and his wife both scoured their e-mails and calendars for further evidence; I searched not only my e-mails, but also my bank and credit card statements, in an attempt to find, say, a gasoline purchase in an atypical station. None of these efforts bore fruit.

I was left literally examining, using Google Maps and Street View, every T station and medical center northwest of Boston—where I am almost certain this event took place. And I thought I had hit pay dirt with the Oak Grove T station in Malden, MA; the view looking south on Washington Street, with the T station to my hard left, the chain link fencing in front of me and to the left, and the triple-deckers in front of and to the right of me almost precisely matches my location memory. However, when my daughters and I drove there one recent night, the area did not quite match my memory; though neither can I rule it out entirely.

Oak Grove 1.JPG

Oak Grove 2.JPG

But here is the thing: I may well be conflating the area around where I picked up EH with what I recall of the houses in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC; during the nine months or so I lived there starting in September 1988, I visited some acquaintances there once.

And this is precisely why interrogating memory, no matter how certain we are of what we recall, is so tricky. Over time, memories decay and become confused with other memories—and even with images recalled from dreams. As an example, I was convinced that I saw my first Charlie Chan movie one afternoon during the summer of 1976. A careful search of television listings in the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, revealed that it was actually at 8 pm. And then the diary I kept in the summer of 1976 told me that on the following afternoon, I watched A Night at the Opera. Despite my eventual near-obsession with these Charlie Chan films, it was the Marx Brothers classic that was most salient at the time, as evidenced by it being recorded in my diary and not the Charlie Chan (and Sherlock Holmes film; it was a double feature). But, later, when I looked back, I mistakenly took the emotional impact of a film I watched the following afternoon to mean that I had watched the film with more current resonance at that time, rather than the night before.

For all that I have been frustrated to this point, though, I will continue to interrogate these memories as best I can. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

[1] OK, she actually said “black” (or maybe even “shvartze?”)  in a furtive whisper. Behold the casual racism of mid-1960s white people—the daughter and son of Jewish immigrants from modern-day Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, no less—who had just moved to the suburbs from West Philadelphia. THAT said, she and my father were no less excited to adopt me.

[2] With 50% confidence, that is. With 90% confidence, I am 13.9% British & Irish, 1.7% French & German, 66.8% Broadly Northwestern European, 15.8% Broadly European and 1.8% Unassigned.

[3] I pieced together the root of this story through e-mail exchanges with a genetic maternal aunt (who herself had been given up for adoption, as had her older sister—to the same family, no less—by my genetic mother’s mother). My maternal grandmother truly believed that her own mother was part Cherokee, likely because of where in Oklahoma she was born, though it was not quite where the Cherokee Nation lived.

[4] These follow chapters that discuss my film noir “journey” and research more generally; my family’s immigration from the Pale of Settlement to (ultimately) West Philadelphia, as well as the lives they led there; my parents’ childhoods, meeting, marriage and eventual move to Havertown with my severely mentally-challenged older sister, their only natural child; the Freemasons and their connection to the lawyer who arranged my adoption; the adoption itself.

[5] To be brutally honest, this included my own parents. My father was raised in West Philadelphia, while my mother grew up in Strawberry Mansion and Overbrook. Following their January 1960 marriage, they lived for four years in Wynnefield, just over the city line from the Main Line township of Lower Merion. In 1964, they moved to a new housing development in the borderline-Main-Line suburb of Havertown.

[6] To the east is the Delaware River and New Jersey

[7] On a trip to Philadelphia last August, I visited Har Nebo Cemetery, where, among other family members, two of my paternal great-grandparents are buried. Looming over that cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia was a large building eerily reminiscent of the Brooklyn school shown in the opening credits of Welcome Back, Kotter.

[8] Moreover, when I consider why I love film noir so much, I realize that what these films gave me—particularly the so-called “classic era” of the 1940s and 1950s—was a completely different version of “the city.” This was a vibrant, middle class city in the era before suburbs as we know them today, the city my grandparents helped to build and in which my parents were raised. Indeed, my maternal grandfather was a Philadelphia police officer between roughly 1935 and 1953 (the exact dates have been hard to pin down), rising to the rank of Detective before serving briefly under the very same Frank Rizzo. The contrast between the older—and to be completely honest, lily-white—city of film noir and the city of my childhood continues to fascinate me.

[9] Making it that much more tragically ironic that he died while on a break from this job. On the evening of June 30, 1982, he was on his way to meet some fellow cabdrivers at Little Pete’s coffee shop for a meal when he suffered a fatal heart attack directly across the street, on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel. He was just 46 years old.

[10] There was a rumor he also sold drugs, but given his disapproval of my mother when she began to smoke marijuana in 1970 (when she was 32, which was thus when I would be allowed to start doing so—event though I smoked my first joint when I was 19, quite ineffectively), that seems highly unlikely.

[11] One, from 1990, involved driving up a similar road with businesses on either side of it before reaching a 24-hour eatery on the left-hand side, complete with curved driveway. A second, from 2005, includes my being in a darkened front room at night. This room is on the second floor of a two-story building. Through a bay window I can see a darkened commercial street corner with a street lamp; there may be a railway tunnel to the right.

[12] I did not yet have my doctorate in epidemiology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APHA 2017 1

APHA 2017 2

Spoiler alert: not so much.

**********

Here is the thing, however.

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

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

modern epidemiology

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

Well–I was not ALWAYS a skeptic.

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

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

Until next time…

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