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Personal Essay

Children Watching TV in the Past (5)

When people look back and romanticize the summers of their youth, they usually rhapsodize about swimming holes, the beach, boardwalks or picnics, but for me, what I most remember about the summer is the many many hours I spent in front of the television set.

It’s a rule of thumb that TV viewing declines in the summer when people start spending more time in outdoor leisure pursuits.  That’s not the way it was in our house.  Freed from the shackles of homework and all those hours of sitting in school, my sister and I plopped ourselves in front of the TV for hours at a time.  It’s a law of physics that all matter will eventually succumb to entropy, but there is nothing quite as entropic as a kid left to his own devices in the summer.

This was back in the day before parents planned every second of their kids’ lives.  And both my parents worked long hours so we didn’t have a lot of supervision.  Eventually at some point during the day, we’d go outside and run around in the back yard, ride our bikes or find some other kids to play whiffle ball with, but first we had to conserve our energy in front of the TV set.

We watched lots of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Wood Woodpecker, Might Mouse), game shows (“The Price is Right,” “To Tell the Truth” and “The Match Game”) and syndicated sitcoms (“I Love Lucy,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “The Danny Thomas Show.”)  In other words, not the most elevated programming.

And when we’d go to visit my grandparents on Nantucket we’d log even more hours in front of the TV. In fact, it was on Nantucket where I saw my first color TV.  Every Friday night we’d go down to my great-grandfather’s house and watch Mitch Miller’s show in color.

I wince now to think of those Nantucket visits, but there we were in a summer paradise and instead of chasing girls, exploring the island or learning how to catch fish, I’d be hanging out in my grandparents’ living room watching the tube.  How well I remember the summer I insisted we return from the beach by 3:00 pm because I wanted to watch “Dark Shadows.”  The chagrin of it all.

When I became a parent myself, my wife and I made sure our son spent his time more productively.  Even though the cartons he wanted to watch seemed vaguely educational or socially redeeming, we still restricted his TV time and signed him up for plenty of summer activities.

Of course TV today is actually the least menacing screen.  Video games are violent, computers provide easy access to porn, and smartphones are addictive.  My wife and I were lucky that smartphones didn’t become pervasive until our son was in high school.  If I were currently the father of a young child I’d probably WANT him to spend more time watching TV, if that is what it took to keep him away from the other screens.

But when all is said and done, I wonder if all this anxiety about screens really matters.  Left to our own devices my sister and I watched a lot of TV during the summer but we still turned out to be productive members of society.  Eventually I grew out of game shows and cartoons and started reading books.  To namedrop a big one, I even read “War and Peace” a few summers ago, so my powers of concentration were not shattered by a childhood of watching “I Love Lucy” reruns.  (On the other hand, who’s to say, maybe if I’d had the right stimulation I might have WRITTEN my own “War and Peace” instead of simply reading it.)

I still watch a lot of TV in the summer, but now it’s baseball, Netflix, and Shark Week.  Unlike my youthful self, though, I would never watch TV during the day, so that must be a sign of maturity.  Maybe when I’m retired I’ll recline on the couch in late afternoons and reacquaint myself with “The Andy Griffith Show.”  That would be a real second childhood.

 

 

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Henry_David_Thoreau

July 12, 2017 is the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau, the godfather of the Green movement, the original proponent of civil disobedience, a likely virgin and one of the world’s great aphorists.

Like many others, I first real “Walden” in high school, and found it inscrutable.  I reread it in college and was inspired by the themes of independence, simplicity and naturalism.  I thought it might change my life, but alas, it didn’t really. Or at least not too much.

And then as a worldlier adult I read it a third time and found myself vaguely annoyed at the impracticality of it all.  It’s all well and good for Thoreau to live simply because modern capitalistic society has made it possible for someone to easily acquire the basic necessities of life.  Five hundred years ago a person living in the woods alone would have spend all his time growing and hunting food and would have no time for writing books.

Walden book

(My very dog-eared copy of Walden from high school)

It’s probably not useful today, if indeed, if ever was, to look at “Walden” as a practical guide to living.  However, it is a remarkable self-help book.  His exhortations to simplify your life, to stop chasing material wealth and to get more in tune with the natural world are more important today than ever before.

Walden Pond itself has been a place of pilgrimage over the years and I’ve been there twice myself.  Both times the site of Thoreau’s cabin was represented by some stone markers, although I understand an actual replica cabin has since been constructed.

Gary At Walden

(This was the site of the cabin in 1980)

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(Here’s the cabin today)

Whatever you think about Thoreau’s philosophy, there’s no denying he is a remarkable writer.  Walden is full of beautiful inspiring language.  Almost every page has a sentence worth underlining (and having read the same volume three times, there is plenty of underlining in my copy.)  Here are some of my favorite quotes from Walden.  It would not be hard to assemble twice as many from his other writings.

  • The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.
  • Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
  • I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
  • I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
  • However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.
  • As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
  • Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
  • Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
  • A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
  • Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
  • Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.
  • Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

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When some Nineteenth Century Harvard genius had the bright idea to schedule a “promenade” for the upcoming graduating, he had no idea that it would eventually evolve into a bacchanal for high school juniors and seniors featuring limousine vomiting, lost virginity, floral abuse, ruffled tuxedos, untold hurt feelings, and incalculable charges on already stretched credit cards.

Like many rituals of the middle and lower classes, the prom began its existence as an exclusive, somewhat snobby display by the One-Percenters.  Most historical research suggests that it evolved from dress-up Ivy League dance that eventually filtered down to the masses.  Based on no historical evidence whatsoever, I also believe that the early high school prom was also inspired by the “coming out” traditions of High Society in which rich parents would present their daughters for inspection by their friends, neighbors and eligible bachelors.  In other words, the early prom was actually a poor man’s debutante ball.

For about 50 years the American prom was a relatively innocent affair: a fancy, heavily chaperoned dance in the high school gym.  And as rites of passage go, this seems fairly benign and a little sweet.  And there was a certain logic to the original proms: until the 1960s, young adults wanted to be actual adults — they yearned to grow up and enjoy the freedom and excitement of being  independent contributing members of society.  Wearing a first formal dress or first tuxedo really was a sign that they had crossed the line into adulthood.

But just as they ruined so many other aspects of American culture, the Baby Boomers ruined the prom.  Baby Boomers famously worshiped youth, not adulthood.  They didn’t want to grow up, get a job, and go out in the world.  They wanted to prolong adolescence.  So the prom morphed from a rite of passage into a costume party, with participants dressing up as adults without actually planning to be adults anytime soon.

At the same time, post-war affluence meant that a simple dance in the gym was no longer good enough.  The prom moved to restaurants, country clubs, and other event spaces and the price of admission rose correspondingly.

When I came of age in the 1970s, the prom was on its way out.  I didn’t go to the prom — none of my friends did either.  It was not even a consideration.  The prom?  What a joke.  I was hardly a radical cultural revolutionary, but the prom reeked of corniness, wastefulness and affectation.  It was such an inconsequential event in our eyes that my friends and I didn’t even bother to arrange a counter-event to demonstrate our anti-prom solidarity.  I don’t remember what I did that night — probably just stayed home and watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

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This is an actual picture from my high school yearbook!

Having said that, I was surprised when I later looked in my high school yearbook and saw that the prom had been fairly well-attended, not only by the well-to-do kids but by a bunch of ordinary schmos in powder blue tuxedos and frilly shirts who really should have known better.

I went off to college fully expecting that the prom would die out completely in the next few years, especially after the movie “Carrie” exposed its deep social pathology.

What I didn’t foresee was that Ronald Reagan would be elected president in 1980 and that a lot of cultural events that seemed helplessly retrograde in the Seventies would be resurrected with a patina of traditional American values.    Just ten years after “Carrie,” the prom would be transformed back into a delightfully romantic event in John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” (1986).

Traditional values?  An homage to a more innocent time? As a young enthusiastic Reaganite, I was, for the first time in my life, suddenly OK with the prom.  And I didn’t really think about it again until my own son was old enough to attend his own prom.

Remembering how much my friends and I had disdained the prom in the 1970s, I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone was against the prom now.  If my son had opted out he would have been branded a social misfit, and worse, would have betrayed his social group by failing to offer himself up as an acceptable date for one of his female friends. Should some poor girl go dateless because he didn’t see the point of it?  How selfish would that be?

I was also surprised to find out that from the perspective of most of the guys, the prom is not that much fun.  So if it’s not fun, why does it still exist?  it persists because there are powerful forces arrayed behind it.  In terms of who wants the prom to exist, here is the ranking from “most in favor of the prom” to “least in favor of the prom”:

  1. The girls’ mothers
  2. Girls
  3. Dress shops and tux rental businesses
  4. Florists
  5. Limo drivers
  6. The boys’ mothers
  7. Venue owners and caterers
  8. Fathers of either gender
  9. Boys
  10. School administrators and chaperones

The worst thing about the modern prom is the sheer scale of it.  It’s not just a dance any more, it’s an industry.  The most insidious recent development is the advent of the promposal,” in which the inviter (usually the guy, even in supposedly enlightened 2017!) has to come up with an elaborate stage-managed invitation that’s supposed to be even more original and creative than a marriage proposal. And it needs to be social media-worthy.

Once the dates have been sorted out, the credit card gets a work out.  Which leads to my second objection to the prom: the cost.  I try not to be too judgy on how other people spend their money, but the the cash outlay for show-off ceremonies like the prom, weddings, bah mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties, even funerals, always rubs me the wrong way.  The ticket to the prom in the town where I live is now up to $85 a person, and what you get for that doesn’t even include a band — just a DJ.  But the ticket is just the start of the expense — there’s the tux rental, the new dress, the flowers, and the hair appointment. Needless to say, the hair is so important that 90% of the girls get their mothers to call them in sick to school that day so they can go to a hairdresser instead of wasting time in classes.

Then there’s the cost of the transportation.  Because no one actually drives themselves to the prom.  You need a limo, or better still, a party bus, to drive you and your friends from the photo location to the event.

The aforementioned photo location is actually the most important part of the whole prom process.  In the old days, the photos would be taken when the guy would arrive at his date’s house to pick her up.  Usually his parents would come with him and then both sets of parents would snap photos of the happy couple in her living room.  The process now is that the parents drive their own kid to a central location where five to ten other couples are meeting for photos.  This is the backyard of the richest family in the group, a country club, maybe the beach, or a park.  All the kids line up one one part of the yard and then their parents line up opposite them for an orgy of photography, trying as many permutations as possible: all the girls, then all the boys, then everyone with their date and then groups of best friends in small groups, etc, etc..  When the parents have had their fill and have all mused on how it doesn’t really seem that long ago that they brought this kid home from the hospital, then the dates pile into the limo or bus.

The limo and party bus came into fashion because it was once generally understood that there’d be a certain amount of out-of-sight drinking at the prom and parents wanted to make sure their kids got home in one piece.  That’s not so much the case anymore – after too many vomit-splashed proms, high schools started breathalyzing, so now you can’t even get through the prom doors without proving your sobriety.

prom bus

No, the real point of the limos and party buses is to make the night that much more special — like Cinderella and her coach.   But also, let’s face it, the party bus enforces a certain exclusivity.  If you’re not tight with a group of friends large enough to support a bus, you’re out of it.  Sorry!

As for the event itself, it’s kind of a letdown after the photos and the ride in the bus.   My guess, not having seen the polling data, is that the girls have a more intense experience, either positive or negative, than the guys, who see it as one more ritual that must be endured.

Here’s an indication of how kids really feel about the prom — the doors have to be locked to prevent them from leaving early because God knows what kind of shenanigans they’d get into if they were allowed to sneak out after an hour, which totally would happen, $85 ticket or not.  If they really loved eating buffet and standing around listening to a DJ in formal wear, the school administrators wouldn’t need to guard the doors.

The doors are unlocked 15 minutes before the official end of the prom and five minutes later the venue is empty.  Time for the after-parties!  More often than not, this involves drinking and a co-ed sleepover at someone’s house and if you’re a parent you can only pray the the host’s parents have the good sense to keep an eye on things.

afterprom

In the end, most kids survive the prom.  Maybe there are some hurt feelings over the being asked/being rejected element; or maybe there are some hangovers and rueful memories.  And maybe there are some people who who actually don’t look back on it with chagrin.  All I know for sure is that as I parent of an only child, I’m glad I only had to go through this twice (when my son was a junior and then as a senior). I’d hate to have a parcel of kids and go through it more six or seven times.

So for all those seniors and juniors heading out in your limos tonight — keep expectations low, relax and go with the flow, and stay sober enough to remember all the craziest parts so you’ll have a good story to tell forty years from now.

westworld

Is it fair to pop off about a television show you’ve never seen?  Must you remain silent at the water cooler when your colleagues are discussing a series that has never graced your TV screen?

In a world with 500 scripted TV shows and countless reality series, this is more than an academic question.  No one has the time to watch more than a sliver of contemporary TV content, but chatter about TV is everywhere — and who wants to miss out on the fun conversations?

The extravagant lead-up to the debut of HBO’s “Westworld” and my subsequent aversion to it got me thinking about this.  Initially intrigued by the premise of an adult theme park in the form of an old West town populated with humanoid robots, I was soon repulsed by warnings that the misogynistic male visitors raped, tortured and killed the female robots. I watched exactly one-minute of the series premiere before deciding, nope, don’t want to watch robot rape.  And yet a lot of people were talking about it.

But not watching the series hasn’t stopped me from having a strong opinion about it.  I know the show has intellectual and artistic ambitions and is ultimately supposed to be a meditation on artificial intelligence and the definition of humanity.  And I gather that the violence perpetrated by the flesh-and-blood characters raises questions about whether humans are really all that great in the first place.

So based on watching just one minute of the show, my official opinion is this: All the intellectualizing in the world doesn’t justify the soul-deadening depiction of brutality that is central to the show.  I just don’t want to become inured to violence by watching too much of it on TV.

Is that a valid opinion?  I don’t know for sure, because, you know, I’ve never actually watched the show.  The point is that I have a fairly well-informed opinion in the first place.

The reason I’m confident in my judgment is that when a new series makes a play to be a cultural event, a whole buzz-making industry swings into action.  First comes the in-network promos, teasing the show months ahead of time. Then come the traditional media ads, followed by the online ads.  Multi-episode screeners are mailed to the critics, who dutifully write reviews, first in legacy print publications and then online.

Then the podcasts begin – just about every critic has one, and if the show is important enough, it will get chewed over on dozens of them.  There will be tweets while the show is airing, and about a week or two later the thumb-sucking opinion pieces will start. maybe there will be one in the New York Times Arts section, followed by a commentary on that piece in Slate.  And if the network is really lucky, the show runner will be interviewed on “Fresh Air.”

In other words, if you’re interested in TV, you cannot escape knowing a lot about shows you don’t watch.

And once the buzz-making machine starts, there will be in-person discussions at work, at dinner parties, and family gatherings, when people desperate to find a connection start asking what each other TV shows they watch.

At this point you can either 1) interrogate the people who are watching the show and ask what they think, in order to make your opinions more fact-based, or 2) you can throw caution to the wind and start telling everyone else what YOU think, while carefully avoiding the fact that you don’t even watch the show.  I’ve followed both strategies, and found that you can definitely get away with faking it, because there’s a chance that your interlocutor is faking it too.

How many people have opined about “Downton Abbey” even though they gave up during the first season?  These folks probably have something to say about whether it was good idea to kill off Cousin Matthew regardless of whether they watched that episode.  Similarly, leading up to the “Mad Men” series finale, everyone seemed to have a point of view about whether Don Draper should die at the end.

This strategy doesn’t work for just scripted shows.  I’ve watched not a second of a “Real Housewives” episode, nor learned to tell the Kardashians apart — but I’m more than happy to weigh in on the merits of those shows. It’s not strictly ethical, but it’s not that different from commenting on “Fifty Shades of Grey” without cracking the book.

There are worse sins in the world than stealing other people’s opinions (maybe we should call it “plagiar-pining”).  You could, for example pretend to have read “Moby Dick” in your book group.  Somehow literary fakery seems worse than telling people what you think of Rick Perry’s performance on “Dancing With The Stars” without the concomitant viewing.

So I say, what the heck?  Jump into the conversation. But don’t lie outright about watching something you haven’t seen.  There are so many other ways to fake it.  Just act like a politician.

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I’m Quentin’s son, Gary, and on behalf of my mother and sister Thalia, I’d like to thank everyone for attending today. The support we’ve received from my Father’s friends and community has been a blessing. I hesitate to mention anyone by name because the list would be endless, but I would particularly like to thank the Checklicks, who got my father to the hospital when he was stricken with his blot clot. We’re especially grateful to this church, which has more than fulfilled its mission of Christian fellowship and compassion this past week. In times like these I feel sorry for people who don’t belong to churches.

As I’ve thought about my father’s time on earth there is one theme that keeps recurring. He wouldn’t have put it exactly like this, but my father would have agreed that of the three things that abideth – faith, hope and love – the greatest of these is love. We Holmeses come from the Yankee branch of the WASP tree so that is a word that is never spoken aloud. But I see now that his whole life was motivated by love – love for his friends, love for his community, love for his church, love for his country, and love for his family.

I doubt that there’s anyone in this room who wasn’t touched at one time or another by his personal kindness or acts of generosity. He was the kind of person who literally could not do enough for you. If you needed a ride he’d take you to your appointment and then insist on driving you the next day whether you needed it or not.   Or if you admired one of his lightship baskets, he’d weave one to your own specifications and then ask if he could make another for your spouse. He was remarkably outgoing and yet somehow also reserved. For an extrovert he didn’t really like the spotlight and always wanted to listen more than he talked.

A lifetime of helpfulness and generosity is not what you would have predicted for the youthful Quentin Holmes. Before he was a man’s man he was a boy’s boy, combining Tom Sawyer’s mischievousness with Huck Finn’s wildness. He was the kind of kid who, when he was kicked out of class for misbehaving, would proceed to set the school’s rain gutters on fire to see what would happen. He was never malicious but this kind of behavior did not endear him to his stern, rules-bound parents. Today he would have been diagnosed with ADD, but 80 years ago he was a bit of a black sheep.

He was always a wise guy. He’d later joke that he picked up my mother in a bowling alley. Like all good jokes, this has a grain of truth. When he was in the seventh grade, his parents bought land on Nantucket for raising gladiolas, and in the summer the family would be on the island working the fields. My father wandered into the local bowling alley one night and there was my mother and her friend making pocket money setting up pins. Remember this was seventh grade, so he only came up to my mother’s shoulder but that didn’t stop him from flirting. He wouldn’t tell them his name so they called him Butch all summer. When the summer was over, he returned to Brockton and my parents became pen pals, reconnecting in person every summer when the Holmes family returned. But it was after the Holmeses moved to the island full-time that the romance really bloomed.

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My parents were classic high school sweethearts and graduated together – two out of 22 graduates in Nantucket High School class of 1950. My father went off for a year of agricultural school at UMass and my mother went to business school in Boston and they married in the fall of 1951.   He was barely 20 and she was 19.   They were so young but they became professionals at being married and we celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary back on Nantucket last October. It really was a love match, even after all these years, because each of my parents dedicated their lives to making the other one happy.

My father’s dream had been to open a dairy on Nantucket and he did so, selling eggs and milk locally. After a few years he realized he couldn’t compete with larger off-island dairies, so he closed the operation, loaded the cows onto the ferry and moved the family, first to East Bridgewater and eventually to Brockton.

Five years later he’s 30 years old, working in the warehouse of Star Market, with a wife who’s a bookkeeper in a shoe factory, two kids in elementary school, a mortgage and probably some debt related to the dairy. It’s at this point that his life becomes a classic American success story. My Aunt Jean and my Uncle Jimmy have just bought a swimming pool and my Uncle Jimmy remarks that he has no one to service the pool and that maybe this is an area my father should explore. So he takes $100, buys a drum of chlorine and some pool cleaning tools and starts a side business.   Eventually he quits his job at the warehouse to do this fulltime. The service business leads to a store where they sell equipment and supplies and that eventually leads to Swim Incorporated, which sells and installs pools.

And here’s where I’d like to do a commercial for the American small businessman. Southeastern Massachusetts is dotted with pools that my father installed – pools where kids learned to swim, the site of thousands of pool parties, graduation parties, squealing kids and a lot of fun. My father also put more people through college than most billionaire philanthropists. Swim Inc. hired 10-15 college guys each summer to install those pools – and those were good decent-paying jobs too that helped cover tuition. My father later became an active volunteer at too many charitable organizations to mention here, but I think his main contribution to society was that business.

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My father was a successful businessman because he worked hard. In all time I was growing up, I never remember either of my parents watching TV for pleasure and the only movie we attended as a family was The Sound Of Music. In the winter, when the pool business was closed he worked in an ice rink, plowed snow, and eventually opened a Christmas shop.

In his mid-fifties, my parents sold the company and retired, expecting to live off the proceeds of the sale. Unfortunately the new owners mismanaged the business and reneged on their debt to my parents. So in the early 1990s, when my father was in his early 60s, they founded a second pool business, Pool ‘n Play, which they ran for a dozen years before turning it over to their employees. And even then my father didn’t retire. In his 70s he started a pool service company on Nantucket, first alone, then with my cousin Dwight, who now owns that business.

Obviously my father was a person of great energy but the professional side of his life only tells half the story. He was a gregarious and social as anyone I’ve ever known. He and my mother had a wide circle of friends – everyone from truck drivers to judges, and electricians to psychologists. And as they got older their friends got younger. Our house was always filled with people and New Years Eve was a special night. Even into the last week of his life my parents maintained a whirlwind social calendar of dominos, Christmas parties and family dinners.

My parents made friends everywhere – in Brockton, in West Bridgewater, down here in Falmouth.   They were close friends with other swimming pool company owners that they met at conventions, and they were the center of an active social scene at their condo complex in Florida. My father went to coffee every morning with an evolving group of guys and after he retired for good he took up Nantucket basket making and made a whole new group of friends there. He would not stop making friends – he knew everyone at the Hyannis ferry to Nantucket, at the hospital where he drove cancer patients to appointments. He was active in the church here – always a ray of sunshine to his fellow parishioners.   And he had a special soft spot for kids – neighbor kids, grand-nephews and nieces, kids of all kinds. He went to their high school concerts, their volleyball games, their eagle scout ceremonies and took so much pleasure seeing them grow up.

Among all the things he cared about, his biggest priority was his family. He was a devoted son, always attentive to his aging parents. He dearly loved his brothers and sisters and was especially close to my Aunt Jean. He cared deeply about the lives of my cousins and was a mentor and surrogate father to several of them.

As a father he was ahead of his time, not distant and remote like other Dads back then. He was always on the floor wrestling with us or playing with us in the backyard. He never had much free time but he always made sure we took a family vacation in the fall.   Later when I played soccer in high school he would frequently be on the sidelines, one of only two or three parents cheering us on. And he was immensely supportive of my sister and me all in all of our endeavors. Playing golf with Thalia was one of his favorite things. And over the years the two of them because closer because they shared many interests and a similar personality.

My father believe that only two people walked on water. One was our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the other was his grandson. “Doting” is not a strong enough word to describe how he acted around Christian. Here’s just one example. My son and I graduated from the same college but it wasn’t until his grandson attended that my father started to wear the school hat. And then he’d never take it off.

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To wrap up, I remember a moment when I was a little boy and was crying because I’d just learned about death and the inevitability of loss.   My father took me in his arms and said that when it was my turn, he’d be up in heaven waiting for me and that when he saw me approaching he’d nudge his friends and say, “Here comes my boy.” It comforted me then and it comforts me now.

Bye Dad, we love you.

Nixon Nantucket 3

Thirty-five years ago this month, Richard Nixon visited Nantucket Island and gave a pretty good demonstration of how a disgraced ex-President runs a reputation rehabilitation campaign.  Plenty of high-level politicians have come to Nantucket since then, largely to empty the pockets of wealthy donors at private fundraisers or to pose for pictures of themselves windsurfing off Brant Point (I’m talking to you John Kerry), but few have put on the performance that Nixon did on September 13, 1980, just six years after he’d resigned as president in the wake of the Watergate debacle.

I was a young, callow reporter at the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror then, more acquainted with covering selectmen than presidents, and I was a little out of my league with national politicians.  In fact, I almost missed the whole thing.  September 13 was a Saturday and I was home working on another story.  The news that Nixon was coming to visit Nantucket was all over the radio and newspapers, but no one would tell me when or where.  The local police had obviously been sworn to secrecy by the Secret Service and after a fruitless morning trying to track down the rumor I gave up, assuming that Nixon would sneak into town and be whisked off to a private estate.

So I was surprised when  the local correspondent for the Cape Cod Times called me about 3:00 p.m. and said that Nixon was on a yacht at Swain’s Wharf and that I should get down there as soon as possible.  It says a lot about the closeness of the Nantucket media fraternity in 1980 that an erstwhile competitor would help me out like that.

In any event, I rushed to the waterfront and sure enough, there was a big crowd at one of the docks waiting to see if Nixon was going to emerge in the flesh.  I later learned that Nixon and his pals Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanap had cruised over from Martha’s Vineyard on Abplanap’s 115-foot yacht Star Mist and that they were headed back later that night because there were no available hotel rooms on the island for Nixon’s Secret Service agents.

Nixon and Rebozo did eventually materialize, walking down the dock and into the crowd.  It surprised me that the spectators were as excited to see Nixon as they would have been in a solidly Republican state.  They actually applauded.  Even K. Dun Gifford, the well-known Kennedy aide, made it a point to reach out his hand and warmly say, “Welcome to Nantucket Mr. President.”

What I didn’t realize then but have since learned is that people are always excited to see celebrities – even disgraced ones.  Nixon worked the crowd like an experienced politician, shaking hands and offering benign conversational tidbits.  At one point he passed a tourist on a payphone who yelled out that Nixon had to say hello to his wife because she didn’t believe he was there.  After asking the wife’s name Nixon took the receiver and said, “Hello Betty?  Who’s this woman your husband’s with?”  Uproarious  laughter.  You’d have thought Bob Hope himself had delivered the punchline.

There was only one bit of heckling.  Some guy started yelling, “Where’s Checkers?  Where’s Checkers?” (As a vice presidential candidate in 1952 Nixon had made a famous television appeal called “The Checkers Speech” in which he defended himself against allegations that he’d accepted gifts from welcome donors. The speech mawkishly culminated with Nixon saying that his daughters had been given a pet dog called Checkers and that no matter what anyone said, they were going to keep Checkers. You had to be there.) Nixon seemed unfazed  and simply said to the heckler, in all apparent seriousness, “Checkers died in 1964.  Cocker spaniels don’t live long you know.”

Nixon Nantucket 2

Here I am checking my camera while the big guy heads to his motorcade

Eventually Nixon and the gang reached the end of the wharf and approached a mini-motorcade. We reporters approached the driver of one of the cars – Randy Norris, then a sergeant and eventually the police chief – and asked if we could come along.  To my surprise he said yes, and also to my surprise, already sitting in the front seat was the Boston Globe photographer Stan Grossfeld, who would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, although not for this assignment.

Eventually we formed a five-car motorcade.  Altogether there were eight secret service agents, two police sergeants, one state trooper and us three reporters.  Apparently the point of this excursion was to show Nixon a bit of the island, but since this had been thrown together at the last minute, there was no plan.  Eventually Randy radioed ahead to the lead driver that he should head up Main Street past the Three Bricks, then loop back past the Old Mill and then drive out to the eastern end of the island, called Siasconset.

As we motored out on the ‘Sconset Road (at 35 miles per hour for some reason) I realized that Bebe Rebozo had peeled off at some point and that Nixon was sitting by himself in the back of his car, which was being driven by two Secret Service agents.   It’s hard to imagine any other major politician being satisfied sitting alone just staring out the window – at the very least they should have grabbed a local official as a tour guide – but that was Nixon the loner in a nutshell.

When we got out to Sankaty Light in Siasconset everyone hopped out of their cars and starting strolling down the Sconset Bluff Walk.  Thanks to years of erosion, most of this foot path no longer exists but at the time you could walk from Sankaty Lighthouse all the way to Siasconset Center along a beautiful high bluff.  Nixon was particularly taken with the walk, later saying it reminded him of the California beaches he was more familiar with.

Eventually Nixon noticed that Stan and I were taking pictures of each other, trying to photobomb ourselves into photos of him and he motioned for us to approach and take actual posed pictures.  So I took a picture of Stan and Nixon and he took a picture of me and Nixon.  This also offered an opportunity for a chat.  Everything that people always said about him was true – he mostly wanted to talk about sports.  He was hopeful that the Houston Astros would make it into the play-offs that year so that Nolan Ryan would have a shot at a World Series appearance. He knew the Red Sox had a history of bad pitching. He was not optimistic about the Redskins’ chance in the upcoming season.  Stan then asked him about the upcoming 1980 presidential election and he correctly predicted that Reagan would beat Carter.

After the Bluff stroll we all piled back into our cars and headed back into town, ostensibly so he could buy a pipe and some tobacco at the Tobacco Shop on Old North Wharf.  But he also strolled up and down Main Street, posing for photos, making chit chat with tourists and generally causing a mini-sensation.   In retrospect this was clearly part of his carefully calibrated strategy to rebuild his reputation.  Along with writing books and advising politicians behind the scenes, public events such as these man-of-the-people promenades eventually did lead to his evolution as an elder statesman; and when he died in 1994, all the living former presidents except the ill Reagan attended his funeral, which was shown live on TV.

Yet in my brief exposure to him, even I could tell that he was one of the most unnatural politicians we’ve ever seen.  Clearly an introvert, he repeatedly fell back on formulaic discussion topics.  He seemed stiff, particularly in his get-up.  To stroll the island, including the Siasconset Bluff, he was dressed in a blue-grey sports jacket, a maroon turtleneck, blue slacks and cordovan loafers, an outfit more suitable for “dress down Friday” at IBM than a weekend tour of Nantucket.

At the end of his stroll he told us he’d like to bring “Mrs. Nixon” back to Nantucket because he thought she’d enjoy the shopping, but after a dinner at the Chanticleer and a 10:00 p.m. return trip to Martha’s Vineyard, he never set foot on the island again.

Some post-mortem observations.

  • In the days after Nixon’s visit I dutifully tracked down as many details as I could, but wasn’t exactly Woodward and Bernstein about it. For example, instead of calling the Chanticleer directly and asking about the meal, I relied on the second hand account of someone who knew a waiter who had told her that Nixon ate pheasant pate, Nantucket scallops and a Grand Marnier soufflé, drank Chateaux Margeaux ’59 at $180 per bottle and was happy to have Bebe Rebozo put the $900 meal on his credit card.  Were those details accurate?  No one contradicted them.
  • In my newspaper piece I wrote that I couldn’t tell whether the “Checkers” heckler was drunk or obnoxious. The next week the heckler himself sent a “Letter to the Editor” claiming that we’d maligned him and that his heckling was justified because Nixon was a war criminal, etc.  The letter was accompanied by a drawing of a standing pig wearing a jacket and making Nixon’s “V for Victory” sign.  The letter was signed by Richard Scarry.  Yes, that Richard Scarry, the children’s author!  We didn’t print the drawing, which some thought was disrespectful but which I thought was funny.  It’s one of my great regrets that I never kept and framed that drawing.
  • Four years later, I found myself working in the Reagan White House myself, and when I told my Nixon story to one of the researchers in the speechwriters’ office, she said that they were in touch with Nixon because he was constantly sending in thematic suggestions for Reagan’s speeches. She volunteered to get him to sign the photo of the two of us that Stan Grossfeld had taken on the Bluff, which she did.  That autographed photo still hangs on my office wall.
  • About 15 years ago while my family was vacationing on Nantucket, we noticed that Stan Grossfeld and Dan Shaughnessy, the Globe sportswriter, were having a talk at the Unitarian Church, so off we went to see them. Stan showed many of his moving photos of starving refugees, his remarkable sports photos and many other beautiful shots.  There were even a few photos of Nantucket, including the picture of him and Nixon, which got a laugh.  After the talk I went up and reintroduced myself as the photographer of the one picture he had not taken himself.   He claimed to remember me and made a big deal of remarking to my son that he was “big fan” of mine.  What a nice thing to say, although my son was probably too young to know what a compliment it was to be praised by Stan Grossfeld.

Last August when my wife and I were on Nantucket, we picked up the Inquirer & MIrror and saw a short notice that Hillary Clinton was having a fundraiser on the Eel Point Road, but would make no public appearances.  How things have changed in 35 years!  After decades of having presidents, veeps and other politicians visiting Nantucket, an appearance from the leading Democratic candidate was just another ho hum.  These days it would probably take a visit from Pope Francis or Queen Elizabeth – or maybe Kim Kardashian herself – to generate the kind of attention that Nixon did in 1980.  I kind of miss those more innocent days.

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Oh for those halcyon pre-digital days when I wasn’t constantly worried about measuring up.  Not that I didn’t comprehend my vast inadequacies back in the Dark Ages, but at least I never quantified them on an hourly basis.   How things have changed — and not for the better.  From personal experience I can tell you: self-awareness is not all it’s cracked up to be.  There’s nothing Zen about checking digital metrics twenty times a day to establish your in-the-moment performance.

Not only is the constant review of one’s personal metrics obnoxiously narcissistic, it’s also exhausting.  At a time when I should be focusing on more important things, like what’s the matter with the Red Sox, I’m worried about my pathetically low Klout Score.

Cast your mind back to the Analogue Age, back when there were only a few ways of tracking progress. As recently as the turn of the 21st Century here’s practically the full range of how you could calibrate your own performance:

  • Hop on the scales in the morning and check your weight.
  • Track the progress on your financial investments when you receive statements in the mail.
  • Make a mental note of how many times you are praised by your bosses or co-workers (usually a very easy metric to track given the rarity of these occurrences).

And that’s about it.  Maybe you could get a general sense of your popularity by throwing a party and seeing how many people attended, or by counting the number of personal notes you received in the mail, but no one except for a psycho or Upper East Side hostess would actually measure and track this.

With the advent of the digital age I am now constantly monitoring one metric or another.  Sometimes this is out of boredom; sometimes it’s anxiety; sometimes it’s because I’ve challenged myself to a goal.  Either way, it’s led to a very serious case of neurosis by numbers.

Take my financial investments.  I used to be perfectly content to review the performance of my 401k four times a year when the quarterly statements arrived in the mail.   But now that everything’s digitized, I log in and analyze the results every day.  I’ve even gotten impatient that the numbers aren’t updated until after the Market closes at 4:00 p.m.  Really?  I’ve got to wait each day to see how much money I made (or, God forbid, lost)?

What’s up with this behavior? Partly I want to make sure that the money’s still there (i.e., to confirm that identity thieves haven’t diverted it to an account in Romania), but mostly I’m tracking the horse race angle: Am I ahead? Am I behind?  In truth I’m not much better than a miser like Silas Marner who counted out his gold every night. Not a pretty sight.

Then there are the social media metrics, which really are the devil’s work.  Oh, those golden “likes” and comments on Facebook!  I’m worse than Sally Field (“You like me! You really like me!”)   I’m like a dog constantly waiting to be patted on the head.  Getting a sugar rush of satisfaction on Facebook is easy. Whenever I ever need a jolt of personal affirmation all I need to do is post a TBT 20-year-old photo of my then-baby son.  Ahhh – Can you believe how cute he was?  (like, like like)

Would that it was so easy on Twitter. Sadly, I’m a Twitter flop, hardly ever getting favorited or retweeted.  I’ve come to realize that the only way to be a success on Twitter is to already be famous or to be an amazingly prolific joke writer.  If you’re a celebrity you don’t even need to work at it.  Last spring Jimmy Fallon tweeted “Happy Easter,” which was then retweeted by three thousand followers and favorited by another two thousand.  I do not understand why someone would feel compelled to retweet “Happy Easter” from a celebrity; couldn’t you accomplish the same thing with an original tweet of your own?  In any event, such is the power of celebrity; and as a non-celebrity, I have a very meagre Twitter following and commensurately poor metrics.

I’m not doing much better on Instagram either.  I know the young people are on it, but I don’t understand how it’s different from Facebook, other than the fact that it’s NOT Facebook.  I did create an account — to keep up with the times – and do post occasionally, but my metrics are lousy and unsatisfying.

I’ve had somewhat more success with my blog, the very platform you are reading now.  WordPress has a “statistics” page where you can see the cold hard truth of how many people read each post.  WordPress also has a “like” function, but mine must be broken since so few people like my posts.  Every once in a while, though, I’ll post something that seems to generate a little approval, which causes me to check my stats hourly to see how many more people have read it in the intervening 60 minutes.

I used to get more excited about Linked-In.  There’s an interesting function that lets you who’s looking at your profile.  Just this morning I noticed that the woman who sits three desks over from me in the office had snuck a peek at my Linked-In profile.  What was that all about?  Maybe I should ask her, but I don’t really want to let her know I was snooping on who’s snooping on me.

And then there’s Reddit, which is verily the spawn of Satan for those of us who get wrapped up in metrics.  Reddit is basically a message board upon which you post observations or interesting links that you’ve  read online (in other words, you’re telling the world that you “read it”).  There are four separate ways to measure your success on Reddit.  1) People can “upvote” or “downvote” your post, with popular posts going to the top of the message board.  2) You can generate a lot of comments, some nice, some extremely snarky.  3) You can get “link Karma,” which are accumulated bonus points based on how many people like your links; and 4) You can get “comment Karma” based on how many people like your comments.

There is nothing quite as crazy as trying to build up Karma on Reddit.  I takes a lot of time to find the perfect link (and it has to be a link that no one else has already posted) while writing a catchy observation that makes it stand out from the thousands of other similar Reddit posts.  I keep promising myself not to think about Karma, but then I notice that some guy has 20,000 Karma, compared to my own 64 and I feel my own inadequacy all over again.

Social media metrics are silly.  I get that.  You’d think that medical metrics would be more serious.  And they would be if I could ever remember to take by blood pressure.  But because my blood pressure device is in the bathroom closet, I always forget to take it, and then when I do remember, the batteries are dead.  If Apple could figure out how I could check my vital signs just by pressing my iPhone against my wrist I’d be all set.  I’d be checking them ten times a day.

What I DO check ten times a day is the health app on my iPhone.  It measures the steps, distance and flights of stairs I’ve achieved throughout the day.  But to get “credit” for your ongoing exercise you’ve got to have your phone in your pants pocket, which I don’t always do.  So I’m in the ridiculous position of being annoyed at myself for not capturing steps that I know I’ve taken, but which don’t “count” in my health dashboard. If I walk up the stairs and don’t have my phone, I want to go back down stairs, grab the device and walk up a second time just to get the credit.  No one sees this dashboard but me, yet somehow it becomes important that my real performance is fully credited there.

And the single worst thing about a serious metrics addiction is that there’s no let-up.  Every day brings a fresh demand for more and better performance.  Great, I got 25 Facebook likes for a cute baby post yesterday.  So what?  That was yesterday.  What about today?  There’s no resting on your laurels just because you had ten thousand steps yesterday.

My problem with metrics addiction would be easy enough to solve.  All I need to do is to get a real job that occupies one hundred percent of my attention.  These little metric check-ins are only possible when you’ve got five or ten minutes of downtime. Instead of getting up and going for a walk (which would generate 500 much-needed steps!) it’s too easy to switch the screen to Facebook to check out my likes.  Or maybe the answer is to just chuck the digital world altogether.  Good luck with that!