Saturday, August 29, 2020

Chance and Time

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem is an interesting and engaging read. 

It is about the 1964 earthquake in Anchorage and centrally about Genie Chance a radio broadcaster who, by chance, was thrust into the role of communicating to all of the world about what was happening in Alaska. 

Mooallem takes a very challenging approach to presenting the narrative. He frames it within the context of the Thornton Wilder play Our Town which just so happened was scheduled to be performed in Anchorage a few days after the earthquake. 

He suggests that he, the author, is the stagehand like the stagehand in Our Town. And that this earthquake is best understood by viewing the various characters in Anchorage during the quake and after the quake, in the same way as the stagehand presents the characters and story in Our Town

I read a positive review of the book which is what caused me to request it from my library network. Someone, maybe that reviewer maybe another, commented that there was too much about the background of the various characters in the narrative particularly Genie Chance. That the space dedicated to background and what happened before and after the event was relatively inconsequential to the central events of what happened in Anchorage that Good Friday in 1964.

 I disagree, I think the background and the character descriptions does just what the author wanted to do, frame the event as an extraordinary incident within which ordinary people acted.  We learn mostly about Genie Chance, why she came to Alaska from Texas, her children and their father, and what happened to her after she gained a sort of celebrity status. There are several other characters who had a part in the drama surrounding the earthquake.  The author tells us how they arrived in Anchorage and, while relaying the present, how they died in the future.

Like the author I am a fan of Our Town.  Like Our Town, a point in This is Chance is that we don’t acknowledge while we are going through time the priceless phenomenon of time.   It was in large part chance, that Genie Chance, was put in a position to become an important resource and celebrity. Yet, how she got to where she was, so that when the earth quaked, she could be such a resource was not by chance. Even the most introspective among us have a difficult time looking at the present as a point in a series of episodes that will affect the future, and collectively, like an artist's rendition depict and capture our lives.   

Friday, August 21, 2020


 I am reading rave reviews about the Democratic Convention.  While I will be voting for Biden and hoped Biden would get the nomination--(not because I think he would be the best president among the democratic contenders, but because I think he has the best chance of beating the abomination)--I was not as carried away as the pundits seem to be by the four days this week.

Even a Fox correspondent commented that Biden's speech was excellent and put to rest concerns that he has lost an edge.  I did not hear him stumble, as he did during the campaign, but I found his talk boring. When I climbed up to bed on Thursday night relatively unimpressed I thought that the best strategy for the democrats is to let Trump speak because it is Trump who will energize people to vote against him.

Kamala is a strong pick and, once Biden announced he was going to pick a woman, the best pick.  The question is can she, particularly in a COVID era, get the vote out.  How easy will it be to reach the people and create a sense of urgency when there will be limited campaign stops?

I've spent quite a bit of time looking at polls and the electoral map. As I see it, right now, Biden wins with 337 votes, but stuff happens. Trump has yet to get a bump from the Republican convention. And the news from COVID could not get worse, so it will likely get better, which will allow those Republicans who want some reason to vote for Trump to vote for him even though they find him repugnant.  Never mind that he is actively and even transparently trying to suppress an election; that according to him every woman is Nasty; that he did indeed commit an impeachable offense with the Ukraine; that he has yet to reveal his taxes or do many of the things he promised when he campaigned.  Never mind that he is clearly creating division in the country; or that he is capriciously firing inspector generals; and commuting sentences of enemies of democracy. Never mind that he sat on his hands when a foreign power paid an adversary to kill American soldiers. Never mind all that--there are those hoping for some reason to vote for the guy.

I wish I could have felt more buoyant after these four days.   I know that in the past I have been a very bad predictor of political outcomes. I can remember George McGovern's acceptance speech in 1972 as if it was yesterday. (Tell me, how did a mensch like McGovern, come from a state that has elected a governor who, moronically, invited citizens to NOT social distance to celebrate Herr Trump's visit to Mount Rushmore). When McGovern finished that speech I thought Nixon did not have a chance.  Very bad prediction. When Reagan was nominated I can remember, in the summer of '80 thinking to myself "who the hell is going to vote for this guy? He's an actor."

So, my reaction to the convention is not that significant. But I, someone who wanted to be energized, was not that wowed. Part of this could be that except for Biden, I kept falling asleep before the heavy hitters gave their speeches. I heard Obama and Harris and Bernie and Powell leveled Trump. However, I was already leveled by that time.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Those Who Save Us

 Donna was about to donate the book, Those Who Save Us. The Viet Nam Vets were coming for a pick up on Wednesday and one bag was filled with books.  I looked through them and, for the most part, had no interest in what was in there. But I did stop and take a look at Those Who Save Us.  I decided to keep it and give it a shot.

I snorted it.  It's not a short book, not enormous, but about 500 pages.  Zip Zip.  Of course, I have completed a writing project so I've got some time before school begins again. Still some books even when you have time can take a spell because you're not that engaged with what's happening between the covers.

This is a page turner.  Some extraneous characters and sections that now, in retrospect, I have no idea why she decided to include, but she writes descriptively and the topic was of interest.  

The book starts at a funeral. Mother and daughter are in a church with neighbors in a cold Minnesota rural town. Townsfolk are there for support. Jack, has passed, and Trudy the 53 year old daughter, and Anna the widow and mother are attending.  We learn a bit about the mother, and the daughter's relationship with the mother, and the townsfolk's attitudes toward Anna in the first few pages.

The book then toggles between scenes from Weimar during the Nazi years and the Twin Cities where Trudy is a history professor.  Anna had been in Germany during the war years. The author goes back and forth until we learn what happened to Anna and how she wound up in rural Minnesota married to a fellow from Minnesota with a--by the time the novel ends--57 year old daughter.

How did the Germans who survived the war live with themselves after the war knowing what was done and what they, personally, did during the war?  Do you forget the past? Do you vow never to speak of it? Do you change the narrative of the past to permit sleep at night?  And what exactly did Germans do in order to survive during the war?  

This is Jenna Blum's first novel and hats off as she was born in 1970 and has gotten in the weeds with the Nazi era which took place thirty years before she was born.  As I wrote above there are some scenes--with Trudy's ex husband for example, and Trudy's colleague, and Trudy's videographer--that just seem to be--while not uninteresting--not central to the story. 

Recommended. If you're looking for a message beyond what one can glean from the plot line, it might be disappointing.  I was not disappointed.  It was a good weekend read, and a book that will stay with me. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

artificial intelligence

 I took a book to a spot by the Charles River yesterday.  There's a large parking lot nearby, lots of walkers, bikers, picnickers. It is within a ten minute drive of five major research universities- Boston College, Boston University, MIT, Northeastern, and Harvard.     All five schools are within the top forty ranked universities in the country.  Harvard and MIT are ranked second and third respectively.

I've brought a coffee mug to my bench.  Just before I exited the car I poured the coffee out and filled the container with beer.  There was no need to be sneaky.  I noticed a couple on a nearby bench that had a cooler out and had stacked an impressive number of empty bottles nearby.  I'd seen picnickers on other occasions with open wine bottles on their blankets.

From my perch I could see the river and the practicing crew teams.  Looked very peaceful by the Charles. But what bothered me and has increasingly unnerved me since last evening was what was going on behind me and a little bit to the east on the winding bike, walking trail.  On a number of spots along the river, beer gardens have sprung up. There are at least two of these that I know of. One is closer to downtown than where I was yesterday. The one near where I was reading sits adjacent to some public gardens and a now defunct open theatre.

I've got nothing against the concept of a beer garden. I've been in this one in previous years, and my buddy Kenny and I spent a good afternoon a year or two ago sitting in the one that is further east. (Quite an operation that. It started to rain that day and it was impressive how they were able to close shop in moments to avoid the thunder and lightning).

I strolled east on the path and saw the beer garden.  In optic deference to COVID the picnic tables where the drinkers could be seated were spread six feet or close to six feet apart. However, what troubled me was that the imbibers were sitting sometimes six or seven to a table while consuming their beverages.  And noone, but noone at any of the tables were wearing masks.  Now, I know they were on occasion raising a glass to their mouths and the masks could get in the way. But this was not a guzzling contest, most people were just conversing. And I did not see anyone with a mask or anyone who seemed to give a whit about the fact that we are in a pandemic.

This is not Sturgis, South Dakota where 250,000 fools are flaunting reality and will be sickening innocent people. The governor of Massachusetts, (unlike his criminal South Dakota counterpart that encourages gatherings--nothing short of conspiring to commit murder) has urged caution.

But here in blue state MA, within a ten minute drive of five major universities are adults--some I am guessing are students and faculty members at these institutions--sitting hip to hip, without face coverings, during a pandemic.


Friday, August 7, 2020

joe--fifty years later

Sometime in 1970--it likely was the fall after Kent State-I saw, on the Albany State campus, the movie Joe.  One of the great things about going to a large research university (and working at one) is that there are daily so many things going on that one, if one so chose, could spend the day attending one event after another. When I was an undergraduate at Albany I, appropriately I guess, often engaged in sophomoric activities as opposed to those academic ones held for the benefit of Sophomores.  But I did go to see Joe. It was not in the movie theatre, but there was a screening--as I recall it--in a room in the library.  I spent a fair amount of time in the library during my college years.  It could have been that I was stumbling out of it one day and saw a poster advertising the screening. And it could have been that a crony had seen it earlier and urged me to go.

Fifty years later, last night to be exact, I thought to use the On-demand feature (misnamed for sure, since unless you want to shell out additional money beyond the exorbitant amount one pays for cable, many of the movies you want to see are not available on demand without shekels).  Joe, however, was available. 

I think of the movie from time to time when I write about organizations and culture. And recently, I have been doing that.  (The fourth edition of my org comm text is, lick your chops, essentially done and will be available for those hungry for my wisdom and recap of theories in January--knock on wood).  I think of Joe because the main character in the film Joe, a bigot, is first seen in the movie spewing a venomous monologue disparaging minorities and "hippies." It is a classic rant of an Archie Bunker three notches down.  Bunker, but nothing funny about it.  He, Joe, is moaning about how the culture is going south because of everyone but those of his ilk.  Later in the movie he issues another rant about how culture is being ruined by hippies.  I think of Joe and include mention of him in the book, because among the many things Joe does not get, one such thing is that culture is a function of communicative behavior. And what becomes societal (or organizational) culture is the distillate of all peoples' communications.  So Joe can squawk about how the so called hippies are ruining the culture, but the reality is that the culture that he claims is being sullied is a function of his rants and behaviors just as the amalgam that becomes the culture is affected by those he derides.  

The movie was apt for the era around Kent State because it attempts to present a clash between "hippie" culture and their parents. I recall being affected by the movie and thinking it was powerful.  

How does it hold up fifty years later?

Well, I knew how the movie ended up so any drama and powerful effects that were based on surprise were gone.  I was surprised at how I remembered specific lines from the movie exactly as they were uttered, and remembered scenes precisely as they happened.  So, I knew what was going to happen and that could have limited its value on the second viewing. Still.....

It is a lousy movie.  Stunningly trite at least from a distance of half a century.  The opening scene--which I remembered nearly event for event--is as lame as a scene can be.  I don't remember thinking that was the case at the time.  Peter Boyle as Joe is very good. And the young Susan Sarandon as the female lead, is excellent as well.  But the story is just a cliche.   I was "there" so to speak and recall the counter-culture (which as I suggest above is just another part of the culture).  The so-called hippies in the film are caricatures. There is an orgy scene in the movie which, at least to my experience, was beyond unlikely. 

Were there "Joe's" during that time? yes.  Were there people in the counter culture who bore some resemblance to those played in the film? Yes.  But the event on which the film sits, is very unlikely to have occurred, and what happens in its aftermath, just is ridiculous.

So, how does the movie hold up in retrospect?  Not that well.  The media is a powerful player in creating culture. That film could not have done a good deal to inform our troubled 1970 society or affect our culture positively.  Probably worth it to see Peter Boyle as a young actor, and Susan Sarandon as well.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020


It's been a year. Today, at right about this time, I was being carved up.  And, as far as I can tell, I am on the road to complete recovery or already am fully recovered.  I have to take medication daily, and I've  cut down significantly on red meat consumption.  (Have had next to no red meat in the 365 days).  But I am alive and from what I was told had the problem not been detected I would not know from COVID and would not have lived long enough to see Donald Trump ignominiously defeated on November 3rd. I trust that I will be alive to witness the latter, and will be alive when we have therapeutics for COVID.

 The top photo was taken two weeks after the surgery.  The bottom was taken just this morning at around the time, a year ago, that I was taking a tomahawk to my chest.