Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Shore Enough

It is beach weather, so I’m told, and I have no reason to disbelieve it. I probably won’t be testing it though. I am not much more than an hour’s drive (during off-peak traffic) from the Jersey Shore, but I don’t visit it much. The last time was last October, and, as the reader may have guessed from the month, my destination wasn’t the beach; it was a block away from the beach at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park to see the Russian surf band (yes, really) Messer Chups. That was close enough.

Earliest photo I can find of myself
on a beach: Islamorada Florida
1954 with my father and sister
I don’t actually hate the beach. It’s not entirely out of the question that my feet will walk on beach sand in NJ or elsewhere before 2018 expires, but I’d give modest odds against it. This indifference comes not from a lack of past exposure. My family went to the beach with some regularity when I was a child, and back then I enjoyed the sand, sun, and waves in the way that kids usually do. Crowds didn’t bother me. Not even the painful sting of a Portuguese man o' war (Physalia physalis) at age 10 at Miami Beach deterred me from splashing in the ocean. I’ve swum in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, by the time I was arranging my own vacations, beaches were well down my list of preferred destinations – not off the list altogether, but well down it. Oh, I’d be happy to give beaches in Tahiti or Thailand a try if someone handed me a free plane ticket, but anyplace less exotic offers little attraction. I get that beach sports (surfing, salt water fishing, beach volleyball, etc.) can be fun. I also get that tacky boardwalks next to beaches can be enjoyable. However, simply sitting in the sun on a towel is something I’d rather do (if at all) in my own backyard rather than on a public beach. De gustibus.

My lack of enthusiasm is more in keeping with the bulk of human history than is the modern popularity of sand and surf. Ancient peoples exploited littoral resources far into prehistory, of course, but that was for a livelihood. With the exception of the Polynesians, who invented surfing (and one might note that beaches are rather hard to avoid in Polynesia), few ancients seem to have enjoyed beaches recreationally. There are no Sumerian or Greek accounts of pleasant daytrips to the beach. On the contrary, ancient writers tended to look at the sea with fear and disquiet. In Roman times, it is true, the upper 1%, built villas overlooking the seashore, but “overlooking” is not quite the same as “on”; the sites were chosen for vistas and docks rather than frolicking on sand. Seaside villas were beyond the economic reach of ordinary folk anyway, as are seaside houses in most places today.

Jersey Shore 1925: photo taken by my
grandfather of his friends and my
great aunt (center back)
The British were the first really to popularize visits to the beach as recreation for average people. In the 1700s the mineral waters at Scarborough turned the city into the first modern seaside resort; visitors took to bathing in the sea as well as enjoying the spa waters. In the 19th century the number of seaside resorts multiplied as the idea took root that sea air and salt water bathing were healthful, as indeed they were compared to the cities choked with coal smoke and overflowing sewers. At the same time, rising wages and better transportation made resorts accessible to the middle classes. The fad spread from Britain to the Continent from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. The Americas weren’t far behind. By the 1860s Monet was painting scenes of people at the beach (scenes notably absent from earlier art). At the same time in the U.S. beaches had their first wave of popularity. Moralists complained about the (relatively) scanty attire and mixed company at beaches, but those complaints only made the beach more popular.

Whatever the health benefits of seaside spas, the shore has special hazards of its own. There are risks of rip currents, sun overexposure, and accidental drownings. The Jersey Shore did President Garfield no good in 1881 when he traveled there to recover from a gunshot wound. He died 12 days after his arrival. In fairness, the location probably didn’t do him in. His doctors deserve the credit for that. All the same, the seaside didn’t help. However, most daytrips and vacations at the shore are survivable. So, perhaps I’ll go at least once before the summer is out, if only to take a look around. Chances are that I’ll fare better than Garfield.

Messer Chups – Cemetery Beach

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Short Stuff

I like a 400+ page novel as much as the next fellow, but I’ve always had a special affection for short story collections. Short stories have a long history. A True Story and Lucius the Ass by 2nd century author Lucian certainly qualify. But the 19th and 20th centuries were the real heyday of the form. Widespread literacy combined with limited competing sedentary leisure activities created a market filled by a wide proliferation of magazines and newspapers. Writers could make a good living writing short stories for them. Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Cather, and others made their names with short stories. F. Scott Fitzgerald earned as much from the stories he published in the Saturday Evening Post as he did from his novels. For readers, short stories were perfect for a ride home on a commuter train or an hour in a lawn chair on a warm afternoon. They could be consumed in full in one sitting without any cliffhanger and without losing one’s place.

Short stories often were an author’s best work. I like everything Mark Twain ever wrote, for example, but I’d recommend his collected short stories over any single one of his novels. I also like Hemingway’s collected short fiction better than any of his novels. 20th century pulp fiction magazines – science fiction in particular – tapped the market further and made the careers of folks such as Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury. Some of the finest short fiction came from pulp scifi writers. If anyone has any doubts, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volumes I & II, containing 48 classic short fiction pieces written prior to 1964, should settle the issue.

In some ways today it is easier than ever to get short fiction published if you include Webzines and similar online sites. (A collection of my short stories, by the way can be found at Richard’s Mirror.) However, traditional venues that pay more than a pittance (e.g. The New Yorker, Atlantic, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and precious few others), if they pay anything at all, have dwindled, and those are reserved almost exclusively for established authors. No matter how catchy a writer’s turns of phrase may be, making a living today as a short fiction writer is, if not outright impossible, wildly improbable. Traditional publication venues have dried up because the market for them collapsed. Westerners in general and Americans in particular have been scaling back on recreational reading for decades, but the trend accelerated in the 21st century. Time spent reading recreationally is down 30% since 2004. According to Pew Research, 25% of the adult population hasn’t read a single book in the past year; the survey didn’t distinguish between recreational reading and other kinds such as academic assignments. The median book count for adult (over 18) Americans is four books per year, but, again, assigned reading figures into that. Yet, book readership is holding up better than short fiction. On that commuter train back home in 2018, we are far less likely to read a short story in The New Yorker and far more likely to watch a YouTube video on a cell phone.

Nonetheless writers continue to write short fiction even if they keep their day jobs. Some of it ends up in novel-length collections or anthologies, which is one of the few ways the format still can be commercial if the stars align. I’ve enjoyed two this past week:

Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl
Dahl (1916-1990), a former RAF fighter pilot, is best known for his children’s literature (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Witches, et al.), but the adult literature of this prolific author is wickedly humorous fare on a par with the tales of Robert Bloch (author of Psycho). First published in 1960, Kiss Kiss contains eleven tales of betrayal, murder, passive aggressive games, and comeuppances. The short stories still bite as well as kiss. Strongly recommended.

Mash Up edited by Gardner Dozois
This scifi anthology is gimmicky, but that is OK. The gimmick works. 13 of today’s leading scifi authors (Robert Charles Wilson, Mike Resnick, Elizabeth Bear, Allen M. Steele, Daryl Gregory, Lavie Tidhar, John Scalzi, Nancy Kress, Jack Campbell, Paul Di Filippo, Mary Robinette Kowal, Tad Williams, James Patrick Kelly) were asked to write stories, each starting with a famous first line from literature. So, there is a tale with someone called Ishmael, while in another a spectre haunts Europe, while in yet another a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, and so on. Some of the stories are heavily influenced by the works from which the opening lines are borrowed, and others go off in completely different directions. Anthologies by their nature are uneven, but there is some good work in here. Moderately recommended.
**** ****

It’s hard to comment on the decline of reading without sounding judgmental, and to some degree properly so – but not entirely. Many of our substitutes have merit, too, and most are, at bottom, literature after all. Screenwriting, for example, is, as the second part of the word says, writing. Short story anthologies have their screen analogs, such as the marvelous 1923 Buster Keaton vehicle Three Ages (love stories set in the Stone Age, ancient Rome, and modern 1920s), the edgy 1932 precode If I Had a Million (vignettes of eight people picked at random by an eccentric millionaire to inherit $1,000,000 each), the dubious Woman Times Seven (1967) that forces one to wonder if the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini knew seven women, and the superb Argentinian film Wild Tales in which acts of vengeance by legitimately aggrieved parties are shockingly disproportionate to the initial offenses. Given the books on my coffee table, it seemed appropriate on Saturday finally to see one such film that was recommended to me long ago.

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
This consists of eleven vignettes, all using coffee and cigarettes to keep people together at a table who otherwise would be unable to tolerate each other’s company. The first vignette was filmed by Jim Jarmusch in 1986 and the last shortly before the final release, by which time smoking no longer was legal in most of the movie’s locations. The encounters in the vignettes range from absurd to merely uncomfortable to openly hostile. There is a good cast and some good dialogue. Some of the actors play themselves. Cate Blanchett plays herself and her envious cousin. It’s a fun flick…once. I don’t anticipate watching it again. Thumbs Up, but not way up.

**** ****

Last week belonged to the shorts, but this week I think something longer is in order: perhaps Empire (1965), Andy Warhol’s 8-hour single shot slow motion picture of the Empire State Building – or perhaps not.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Taking the Heat

The view of my backyard March 11 2018

To complain about the weather is human, so it is no surprise that almost every conversation I’ve had in past few days included complaints about summer heat, which locally ticked up to around 92 degrees (33 C), and about the characteristic NJ humidity. The complaints are not from me. I don’t argue though. I listen politely, but then move on to other topics. As a schoolboy I used to claim that winter was my favorite season. It was a lie. I was just being contrary. Yes, some snow sports are fun, but summer activities are better – and what kid doesn’t like summer vacation? Still, I liked winter well enough back then: it just wasn’t my favorite three months of the year. Nowadays when I have to shovel my own walks, drive myself on icy roads, and pay my own heating bills, I have little affection for winter. I remember what my backyard looked like just a few months ago. I remember what my house was like during a cold week without heat and power when a wind and snow storm took down power lines this past March. Given a choice I’ll opt for too warm over too cold – assuming non-lethal temperatures either way, that is. What of spring and autumn? They have their attractions but they aren’t the opposite of winter. As a favorite quarter-year, at least in this locale, it’s summertime for me.
The view out back this morning

According to a Gallup poll, only 11% of the U.S. population say winter is their favorite season. Summer is chosen by 25%, autumn by 27%, and spring by 36%. In a way it is surprising that summer gets no more than a one-quarter share. Humans are, after all, tropical creatures fine-tuned for the savanna. According to the very untropical Professor Hannu Rintamäki of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, unclothed people, when at rest on land, are most comfortable with an air temperature of 27 C (80 F); to be comfortable in water, people require a water temperature of 33 C (92 F). I can attest anecdotally to the air/water difference. I rarely heat my pool, and guests complain (a lot) about the cold when the water temperature is 80 F (27 C). (They also usually disbelieve the temperature reading and insist it can't be more than 60 [16].) In truth 80 degree water is cold enough for hypothermia to set in. (Scientific American: “Even water temperatures as high as 75 and 80 degrees F [24 and 27 degrees C] can be dangerous, but it would most likely take much longer than 15 minutes to become debilitated.”) For a person unclothed in open air with no wind chill, one hour at -1 C (30 F) is enough for lethal hypothermia.

The comfort zone of temperatures depends on activity, of course. The greater the exertion, the more heat we generate, and the cooler we like our environment to be so we can shed that excess heat. Professor Rintamäki mentions that people feel discomfort when their skin temperatures rise above 35 C or fall below 31 C. We feel best with core temperatures between 36.5 and 37.1. Hard though they may be on our clothes, our sweat glands are a great help in regulating body heat. Humans have far more sweat glands per unit of surface area than any other primate.

Speaking of clothes, they are the most likely explanation for why most people set their home thermostats well below 80 degrees (27 C) and favor seasons other than summer. Even the lightest fabric reduces heat loss substantially – in effect creating a tropical microclimate at the skin surface. We crank up the air conditioning to compensate. We have a pretty good estimate of when people started to wear clothes. DNA analysis shows that human body lice diverged from head lice some 107,000 years ago. Body lice don’t really attach to the body; unlike other lice, their claws are adapted to inhabit clothes. So, clothes have been around for at least 107,000 years. They were a key technology for permitting the spread of modern humans out of Africa and into cooler regions starting some 60,000 years ago.

Clothes aren’t going away anytime soon. On the whole, I’m happy with that on purely aesthetic grounds. It is the rare person who looks better out of clothes than in them. Those that do actually can make a living displaying themselves. (That’s never really been an option for me.) So, I suppose it is understandable that 75% of our garmented public prefer seasons at least somewhat cooler than summer; it is likely I will remain in a minority for the foreseeable future. That’s OK: the coming and going of the seasons are not subject to majority vote. Until the next equinox (September 22 this year) I’m in my preferred element. If the mercury climbs enough to tempt me to gripe, a peek at my photos from last winter will be enough to restore my equanimity.

Janis Joplin – Summertime

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Secondhand Seventies

Sometimes my reading and viewing choices form unpremeditated themes. This week three in a row evoked “life in the 70s.”

The 1970s were my favorite decade: I don’t mean in the history of the world, but just in the portion of it (starting in the 1950s) through which I personally lived. Partly that has to do with my own age (17 to 27) at the time. If that isn’t a vital time of life you are either very unfortunate or doing something wrong. But there was more: the 70s really were unlike any other decade. The sexual and cultural revolutions of the 60s went mainstream in the 1970s without the PC constraints of the 2010s. (As minor examples, it’s hard to imagine Blazing Saddles or even Animal House being greenlighted today; for a thorough account of the decade's mores, see Thy Neighbor's Wife by Gay Talese.) The Baby Boomers, all of whom spent at least some of their teens or 20s in the decade, by weight of numbers dominated the popular culture like no generation before or since. (The Millennials slightly outnumber Boomers in 2018, but they are a much smaller percentage of the total population than Boomers were 40 years ago.) Such youthful abundance ramped up the already hedonistic zeitgeist to a degree hard to believe to anyone who didn’t experience it.

First up was a short story collection by Ian McEwan, which actually dates to the 1970s. Not so the two movies that followed; they were released in 2016, but both are set in the 1970s. I think the common decade in all three was a coincidence, though it’s possible some unconscious selectivity on my part was at work. As that may be, together they synced nicely. Quick reviews are below. By the way, two short stories of my own set in the 1970s, one fiction and one nonfiction, can be found at my Richard’s Mirror site: Brown Acid and The Roxy Caution.

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McKewan
Ian McKewan is a superb British writer who creates detailed characters and images in finely crafted sentences. Those characters and images can be pretty dark, however, and never more so than in this early collection from 1975. There are tales of adolescent incest, murder, betrayal, an aunt’s theatrical perversity with her young nephew, and an infantilized man who sleeps in a cupboard. McKewan humanizes his characters – even the most criminal – in a way reminiscent of Nabokov. This differs from the modern tendency to demonize those guilty of wrong-think along with those who fail to join in the demonization for being “part of the problem.” In truth, though, such darknesses are, quite naturally, in all of us (even if we don’t act on them), which is precisely why McKewan’s stories are so disturbing.

All but one of the short stories were new to me. I recognized the exception as one I had read in the 1970s, but I don’t remember in what publication. It is a clever and darkly humorous tale that (alone of the bunch) verges on science fiction: “Solid Geometry” in which a mathematician discovers how to fold an object (including potentially a person) out of 3D space.


**** ****
The Nice Guys (2016)
Despite the presence of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, this neo-noir comedy didn’t make much of a ripple when it was projected on screens in 2016. It should have. In decadent and tawdry 1977 Los Angeles private detective Holland March (Gosling) and enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe) are allied on the same case. Amelia, who objects to being called a porn actress for her work in politically significant porn, is missing. People connected to her and her last movie are dying. The reason involves corruption involving auto companies and government officials including Judith Kuttner (Kim Bassinger), chief of the California Department of Justice, who happens to be Amelia's mother.

The movie, directed by Shane Black (screenwriter of much straight-up noir including Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight), hits the right notes of action, humor, and camaraderie. It also catches the feel of the ‘70s (at once shiny and seedy) accurately enough to ignite the nostalgia evident in my intro to these reviews.

Thumbs Up.

**** ****
Free Fire (2016)
Once again we are in the disco decade: 1978 this time. One reason, quite aside from atmosphere, is that cell phones would disrupt the whole plot: a significant portion of the action involves attempts to get to a land line in order to call for backup. The primary reason, though, is the atmosphere, coming through in speech, style, and attitude. Free Fire does indeed have the look of a 70s action film minus all the usual plot and character development between the episodes of violence. Director Ben Wheatley doesn’t make the audience wait long for the gunfire to begin, and that is the rest of the movie.

The set-up: Twelve men and one woman (Brie Larson) meet at night in an empty warehouse near Boston for the sale of assault rifles to the IRA. Unfortunately, a few of the people involved on opposite sides of the trade know each other, are hot-headed, and have unresolved issues. For reasons completely unrelated to the actual trade, tempers flare and shots are fired. From that point there is no going back, and for the next hour and a half the shootout continues. Everyone is a lousy shot. So, despite the intensity of the action, wounds accumulate slowly and fatalities are long in coming. There actually are some character revelations in the midst of all this and, against all odds, a degree of offbeat humor. Who, if anyone, will survive to walk out with the money and/or guns is the question to be resolved at the end.

Thumbs warily Up: Definitely not for everyone, but it keeps the viewer’s attention more than one might imagine. At least this one didn’t make me nostalgic.

**** ****

What unplanned themes will emerge from future reads and views? I don’t think it will be the 80s – not quite yet anyway.

Trailer: The Nice Guys (2016)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Getting Schooled

The month of May is traditional for college graduation, but June overwhelming is the month of choice for handing out high school diplomas at annoyingly named “commencements.” Even when I was 17 this was as groan-inducing for me as movies that end with the words “The Beginning.”

Yours Truly, a few Junes ago
High school is such a near-universal experience in the developed world that we tend to forget how recently in historical terms this wasn’t so. A few generations ago, high school was primarily for the elite – most often at private academies. Public or private, high school attendance was rare in the U.S. before 1870 at which time only 2% of 17-year-olds had any secondary education. The numbers slowly climbed over the next 30 years, but in 1900 still hadn’t topped 6%. None of my grandparents (all born between 1896 and 1900) attended high school. I doubt they ever considered it. Attitudes and school budgets were changing, though, and by the 1920s at least some high school became the experience of most teens in the U.S. Still, not until the 1930s did a majority actually graduate, thanks partly to stricter enforcement of truancy laws for those under 14: enforcement inspired less by ideals about education than by a Depression-era desire to keep teens from competing with adults in the labor force. By 1940 75% of young people earned a high school diploma. Because older generations mostly had not, however, it was not until well into the 1950s that the median education level for the adult population as a whole was higher than 8th grade.

Today nearly 90% of students finish high school, but high school has changed since the 1940s. Today, high schools almost universally provide a college-preparation course of study to all students. A college-prep study course was an option in public schools in the ‘40s, but most students took the far more practical business course of study. At right is an image of my father’s high school credit certificate that accompanied his diploma. (My father was not actually at his graduation on June 16, 1944, by the way; at that time he was on a Liberty Ship resupplying the Normandy beachhead, but Morristown High nonetheless graduated students who left school in the final year to join the military if they had accumulated enough credits.) How different is this list of credits from what students typically encounter in high school today? 

I use the word “encounter” rather than “learn” because what is forgotten the moment an exam is passed cannot be considered learned. A study from the University of East Anglia in the UK found that students remembered only 40 percent of their high school studies by the first week at a university – and the study tested with multiple choice exams in which the correct answer was present. Said lead researcher Harriet Jones: “What our research shows is that students are arriving at university with fantastic A-Level grades, but having forgotten much of what they actually learned for their exams.” U.S. studies have similar or worse findings. Despite a tripling of school budgets in inflation-adjusted terms in the past 40 years there has been no improvement at all in student proficiency at the time of high school graduation, and much of that proficiency is lost over the following summer anyway. Half of all students entering community colleges require remedial education. Across all colleges and universities the average college student reads at an 8th grade level: only slightly better than the U.S. population as a whole.

Truth be told, the majority of adults retain and get by – often quite well – on 8th grade level math and literacy skills just as their great grandparents did. This is as true of college graduates as of high school graduates. Obviously there are fields of study in which this is not true: students of engineering, medicine, and various hard sciences really do acquire knowledge useful and necessary to their future careers. Graduates in these fields make up a smallish minority (14%) of the total however. Viewed purely in career terms, the more typical college grad learns nothing new at college that is applicable to later jobs; nearly all the important aspects of their jobs are learned on the job. Even well-paid professionals commonly let high school (never mind college) level skills atrophy if they aren’t used in daily practice, as most aren’t.

So, is sending people to school past 8th grade a waste of money? In a purely economic sense, yes and no. For an individual average student in the world as it is, a diploma is an extremely wise investment. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, makes this point in The Case against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. For an average graduate – comparing him or her with someone who tests the same in every way but lacks the sheepskin – a diploma is never a waste of time and money. A Bachelor’s degree will boost lifetime earnings by 70% over someone with just a high school diploma, who in turn earns 50% more than high school dropouts. The reason is “signaling.” Employers use the diploma as a quick way of ascertaining if prospective employees have the skills and temperament to do the job: they successfully completed four or more years of at least modestly intellectual drudgery at school, the thinking goes, so they probably can do as much at work. This is especially true today when completing school is a social expectation. Many occupational licenses and many employers currently require college degrees even though most of those jobs do not actually require skills beyond a competent 8th-grader. For this reason, while pursuing a diploma makes sense for an individual, Caplan argues that, for society, pushing everyone to get one (at enormous cost) does not. The increase in college graduates in particular has devalued their degrees so that many now seek jobs that in the 1950s were held by people who didn’t finish high school: “If everyone got a college degree, the result would not be great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation.” He is keener on vocational schools, which demonstrably pay earnings dividends to the individual and to society at large as well.

I’m more sanguine about education than Caplan – certainly through high school anyway. A lot of students are not average, for one thing, and it’s not always clear which ones unless we expose them all to school. For another, not every consideration is economic. Having some understanding of science and culture is essential to becoming a well-rounded human being. Ideally, high school provides a framework for future self-education in these matters – self-education being the only real kind of education there is. College can reinforce that framework. Neither is absolutely necessary to this task, but the schools and colleges can make it a whole lot easier. As for the majority of philistine graduates who don’t give a whit about academics and who will forget it all in a year…well, at least they had the chance.

I’ll be in the audience of no high school graduations this year, but at least there is one Commencement I will be celebrating tomorrow without any groans at the word: the onset of summer. Happy Solstice!

Nat King Cole - You Don't Learn That in School (1946)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Trackside Recap: Jerzey Derby Brigade vs. Hartford Wailers

On June 16 The Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) at its home track in Morristown hosted the Harford Wailers for what proved to be a bruising bout.

#1200 Liberty Violence the Wailers put the first points on the board for the Wailers. They were far from her last. With a depth of jammers (notably #24 Sabatage Saval, #1200 Liberty Violence, #1965 Pretty Bizaarbie, and #528 Ginger-vitus) and well-practiced blocking, the Wailers took an early lead. For JDB, #8 Lil Mo Peep and #3684 Californikate showed their usual jamming skills, but encountered stiff blocking. Both teams’ blockers were tactically competent and showed individual aggression when separated from teammates, such as a solid block of #64 Madeleine Alfight by Wailer #608 Rebel Scum and a knockdown #528 Ginger-vitus by JDB skater #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes. The Hartford defense had the better of it overall, however, which allowed the Wailers to build its lead throughout the first half. JDB remained competitive with hit-it-quit-it point gains and occasional multipass jams, such as a 19 point jam by #128 Val Royale and another 19-pointer by #3684 Californikate. #1965 Pretty Bizaarbie put the Wailers over the 100 mark and #8 Lil Mo Peep did the same for JDB several minutes later. The first half ended with a score of 111-162 in favor of the Wailers.

The Wailers lead at the start of the second half was formidable but not insurmountable. Blocking on both sides became more aggressive – as it frequently does in second halves – with more than usual number of takedowns and pileups. Despite JDB’s best efforts, which included repeated hit-it-quit-it jams by Lil Mo Peep and a 21 point jam by Californikate, the Wailers expanded their lead. #24 Sabatage Saval showed a special talent for slipping through defensive walls. #45 Black Mamba took the Wailers over 300 and Californikate put JDB over 200. The final jam started with 25 seconds on the clock. #24 Sabatage Saval picked up lead jammer status and could have ended the match after the 25 seconds, but she chose to let the jam play out as both she and #8 Lil Mo Peep battled the pack. The whistle blew with a Final Score of 205 – 365 in favor of the Hartford Wailers.

Blocker – #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes
Jammer – #8 Lil Mo Peep
Blocker  – #1965 Pretty Bizaarbie
Jammer – #24 Sabatage Saval

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Make Yourself at Home

In NYC the other day on a personal errand, my route on foot took me across Union Square. For those unfamiliar with the city, Union Square is one of Manhattan’s less attractive parks (largely paved) in a very busy part of town between 17th Street and 14th; more broadly, it is an area name for several blocks surrounding the park. Go south on Broadway or Park Avenue from midtown and you’ll run into it. I don’t have much occasion to walk there these days. I’m usually either south of it in the Village or north of it in the theater district. Back in the 70s, though, I walked there a lot. I’d frequently get off the Path subway at 14th and walk eastward through Union Square to 18th. I dated a young lady who lived there. (I used to joke with her about dating an older woman: she was one month older.) It didn’t work out (not because of the age joke), but it took three years not to work out. 40 years later on my most recent stroll through the area I had a strange and unexpected sense of nostalgia: a sense of coming home even though the area never was that – for me, that is. It is home to plenty of other people.

The association of particular places with memories and emotions is called geotagging. We all do it. We do it even when the places aren’t real, as in the virtual worlds of video games: see “Neural Activity in Human Hippocampal Formation Reveals the Spatial Context of Retrieved Memories” by Jonathan Miller et al. in Science magazine. Humans form mental maps of particular locations in the same place they form long term memories: the hippocampus, which is also the seat of our emotions. It’s no wonder some spaces bring up an associated mix of memories and emotions. Naturally, the response is greatest when the emotional content of the memories is strongest. As Christopher Bergland notes in Psychology Today, “The nostalgia of being home for the holidays is a perfect example of this type of memory encoding...For most of us, the locations we spend Thanksgiving and Christmas are coupled with strong memories and emotions linked to that environment.” Some location-triggered memories and responses are anything but pleasant. An intersection where someone had an auto accident could trigger fear or discomfort, for example; some people might deliberately avoid the spot thereafter.

Washington Monument 1971: I'm in that
crowd somewhere
We tend to be most conscious of the nostalgia-laden geotags though. In WW2 Frank Sinatra crooned I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places. (Oddly, Civil War doctors often listed “nostalgia” as a cause of death for hospitalized soldiers. I think they meant depression from homesickness. The risk of dying from nostalgia per se is not really a worrisome one.) All sorts of places – some of them quite mundane – can evoke a flood of memories: a train station, an old high school football field, a local drug store, Main Street in Disneyland, the Top of the Mark in San Francisco, etc. It all depends on what we experienced there. Sometimes one memory dominates. I’ve stood on the Washington Monument grounds in DC many times, for example, yet every time I do I have a shadow-vision of the grounds in 1971 packed shoulder to shoulder with young people; I still can smell the burning hemp. (See my account of this in The Quiet Riot.)

For the ultimate sense of being “home again,” though, it’s hard to beat one’s actual home. I have the good fortune to live in what had been my parents’ house and hopefully I’ll be able to hold onto it for a while – no sure outcome in this ridiculously high-tax state. One good reason for traveling, aside from the fun of new places or the nostalgia of old ones, is the enjoyment of returning home. I also can see the attraction, however, of leaving all one’s geotags behind and building (literally or figuratively) a new home elsewhere. Maybe one day I’ll try that, too. For now, however, maybe I’ll just let my familiar environs evoke what memories they will – and I’ll try not to die from nostalgia.

Devil Doll - Union Square