Friday, January 1, 2016

Would It Help?

I recently saw the excellent film, Bridge of Spies. In the movie, which is based on a true story, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer, James Donovan, who defends Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy. A couple of lines from the movie particularly resonated with me. Given the title of this blog, you won't be surprised which ones.

When Donovan meets Abel shortly after his arrest. Abel seems calm and unconcerned about his dire situation. Donovan, perplexed by this, asks, "Aren't you worried?" Abel replies, "Would it help?" This exchange becomes a humorous refrain throughout the film. Later, Donovan asks more pointedly, "Do you never worry?" Abel's reply is still the same.

These exchanges are oddly endearing and signal a growing respect between the two men. To me, they also signal an unattainable state of mind. If only I could make a decision not to worry and stick with it for more than a nanosecond.

After I saw the film, I found myself imagining the life of a spy. Clearly, not being a worrier would help. Spies, after all, live in constant danger of discovery, arrest, or even death. Not only would worrying not help; it might create a self-fulfilling prophesy, since any outward sign of anxiety — worried glances, furtive looks, trembling hands — could give them away.

I'm a fan of the AMC series, The Americans. Watching it, I'm often amazed that the Russian spy couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, can make it through five minutes, let alone their entire lives, without being (literally) consumed by worry. The "otherness" of the characters is partly what I love about the show. There couldn't be people more different from me than the Jennings, unless perhaps undercover narcotics agents or Formula One race car drivers.

As surprising as it may seem (to me at least), many regular people (and one I actually live with) aren't worriers. They care as much about their friends and family as I do, but if they're concerned about an issue whose outcome they can't control, they're somehow able to put their worry into a secret compartment (secret to me, anyway), and get on with their lives. Why worry if it won't help?

I'm so not one of those people. Even when those I love are healthy, I worry that they might get sick. If someone I care about has a job interview, I worry that he or she will be rejected. If I'm planning a long drive on a beautiful day, I worry about brake failure and sun glare. Okay, not really. Well, maybe just a little.

My guess is that a person like Rudolph Abel could no more choose to worry than I can choose not to. Still, this being New Year's, I'm tempted to make a resolution to worry less in 2016. But would it help? Not likely.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Good Walk Unspoiled

The other day, I took a walk to the pond near my home. The foliage, though past its peak, had a muted beauty. I admired the yellow and rust tones, filtered through a soft light, and breathed deeply the sweet smell of drying leaves. I walked through piles of leaves, crunching them underfoot.

A day earlier, I had taken the same route to the pond. Just before I left the house, though, I'd started listening to an NPR broadcast remembering Tom Magliozzi, the Car Talk host who recently passed away. The program consisted of clips of Tom laughing uproariously at one thing or another, mostly his own jokes. I didn't want to stop listening, so I grabbed my iPhone and earbuds and set off on my walk.

I ambled through the lovely autumn foliage but barely noticed it. My mind's eye focused on Tom and I felt surrounded by his laughter, scarcely aware of the trees, the leaves, or the car that almost hit me because I didn't hear it driving up behind me. I've never been good at multi-tasking, so my inability to simultaneously listen to a radio program and take in the beauty of autumn shouldn't have surprised me, but it did strike me how easily I distract myself from being in the moment.

I'm a news junkie and I listen to the radio while washing up, folding laundry, or cooking dinner. I read the paper during breakfast, read a book with my lunch, and talk with E. while eating dinner. Unlike me, though, E. is capable of simply eating. I've actually observed him doing this at breakfast. He simply sits at the table and eats. He doesn't read. He doesn't watch television. He doesn't engage in conversation with me. He just eats (and, I assume, thinks deep thoughts, perhaps about cereal). Amazing.

But, back to my walk, the one without earbuds. When I arrived at the pond, I saw familiar sights — mallards floating on the water, two by two; a great blue heron fishing among the cattails; an elderly couple sitting on a bench. Then I spotted something different in the middle of the pond, a crowd of small creatures, flashing white as they swam to and fro. As they approached the shore, I thought they looked like little ducks. Out of some fuzzy corner of my brain flashed the word merganser.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When I got home, I searched "merganser" on the Internet and in short order found the bird I had seen, a hooded merganser. I felt pleased to have spotted a new bird on the pond and even more pleased to have half-known its name. But the thing that made me happiest was finding photos on the web that let me know for sure what I had seen.

What is it about attaching a name to a bird that gives me such satisfaction? Possibly it's because I'm generally not very good at it, so when I make an identification it feels like a hard-won accomplishment. Certainly, naming is a very human preoccupation. The hooded merganser, after all, gets along swimmingly without ever knowing my name, or its own, for that matter.

Which brings me back to where I started — a gorgeous autumn day, when nature's beauty is on display, oblivious to whether I or anyone else takes note of it. While I'm pretty unlikely to give up all the things I do to distract myself during the course of a typical day (did I mention crossword puzzles?), I'm not planning to bring my earbuds along on future walks. And I won't check the number of steps on my Fitbit until I get home. Or look at my email. But if I'm walking with E. or with friends, all bets are off. I can't not talk.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Favorite Cerebral Place

As some of you know, I received a law degree from the University of Chicago. I was hardly the typical hyper-intellectual U. of C. student. Nor was I destined to be the typical Law School graduate—that is, one who actually works in the field of law. Nevertheless, I harbor an inordinate love for the entire university, a feeling that was confirmed yesterday, when I attended an inspiring lecture by Juan de Pablo, a U. of C. professor in the newly-created Institute for Molecular Engineering.

Perhaps you've heard the line about the University of Chicago—the place where fun goes to die. During the late seventies, when I was there, it could certainly have been called the place where fashion goes to die. People simply didn't care how they looked. But they did care about ideas. If "the life of the mind" had a physical location, that spot would have been Hyde Park, where the University is situated. Back then, for those inclined to engage in non-stop intellectual discourse, the U. of C. was the very definition of fun. Yesterday's talk confirmed that the University still deserves its cerebral reputation.

Professor de Pablo's lecture was part of an alumni series that brings University of Chicago faculty to locations around the country. Over the years, E. and I have attended lectures in both Boston and South Florida on subjects as far-ranging as astrophysics, literature, mathematics, education, and psychology. We've almost always enjoyed not only the content of the lectures but also the enthusiasm of the lecturers.

The U. of C. has long been known for collaboration across disciplines. The Law School pioneered the field of law and economics. In fact, E.'s cousin, Aaron Director, a professor at the Law School for many years, founded the Journal of Law & Economics. The Committee on Social Thought, another example of the interdisciplinary approach at the University, uses literature, philosophy, history, religion, and art to explore trans-disciplinary issues.

Now comes the Institute for Molecular Engineering, the University's latest endeavor reflecting its long tradition of cross-collaboration. Its mission is to "translate discoveries in basic physics, chemistry, and biology into new tools to address important societal problems." The approach of combining basic research in the sciences with cutting-edge engineering techniques seems simultaneously obvious and brilliant.

Prof. de Pablo illustrated the concept with a discussion of his own work in directed self-assembly of nanoparticles for use in integrated circuits. As with the best lectures, I gained a glimpse into the thought processes of an insightful mind. On the one hand, I was reminded how little I know or understand about the universe. On the other, I felt just smart enough to be thrilled by the exciting new developments in nanotechnology. And, once again, I found myself caught up in the passion for learning that's the hallmark of my alma mater.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Call Me Grandma

What's in a name? A lot, apparently, when it comes to deciding what your grandchildren should call you. When my granddaughter, Raina, was born ten months ago, I thought friends might ask me about her uncommon name, but invariably the question they posed was, "What do you want to be called?"

I assumed I had a while to decide, unless Raina turned out to be even more of a prodigy than I expected and began speaking at three months. Besides, I figured that whatever moniker I chose would be subject to Raina's unique pronunciation. I had seen that happen when my father-in-law asked to be called by the Yiddish word for grandfather, Zaide (pronounced zay-dee). His first grandchild, my nephew Jesse, gave it the more original and winsome pronunciation of Zepa (zay-pa), so Zepa he became, for Jesse and all subsequent grandchildren.

Still, the question nagged at me. My kids had called my mother Grandma, which seemed so uncreative. I wracked my brains for alternatives, but hardly anything came to mind. A friend told me that her husband had checked out grandfather names on the Internet. Really? It hadn't occurred to me that people could search for grandparent names the way expectant parents look for baby names. I felt reassured that I wasn't the only grandparent in need of inspiration, but when I perused the lists of "traditional," "trendy," and "playful" names, I didn't find inspiration after all. Somehow Bamba, G-Mom, Granana, or Mimo just didn't do it for me.

At a family gathering when Raina was six months old, we batted about names for grandmothers. I felt pressure to make a decision. My daughter-in-law, Karen, said that even though it would be a while before Raina could talk, she wanted to be able to show Raina pictures of me and know what to call me. I tried to imagine myself as Nana, Mimi, or Grammy. None of them felt right. I longed for something original and charming, like the sobriquet chosen by my mother-in-law—Fuffy.

The next morning, having slept on it and still come up empty, I told my son, Aaron, that I would keep thinking about a name and let him and Karen know my choice soon.

"Why not be Grandma?" he said. "I called your mother Grandma and she was a wonderful grandmother to me, just like you are to Raina."

Who could say no to that? I realized I'd been looking for a sense of connection, and here it was. I recalled the special relationship Aaron had with my mother and how much they loved one another. She was Aaron's "Grandma" and I'm Raina's. I can't wait to hear how she pronounces it!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Where Are My Followers?

Unlike Hillary Clinton, when I opened a Twitter account, I didn't attract thousands of followers. More like one. This was back in the fall of 2008. I wanted to find an appealing way to stay in touch with my son, Alex. He suggested we tweet back and forth. Since I only hoped for a few pithy lines from him now and then, Twitter, with its 140-character limit, seemed the perfect medium.

Once I opened my Twitter account, I treated it as a private link to Alex rather than using it to expand my social network. Still, I loved our communications. Alex wrote clever, often hilarious, tweets to me, while I inclined toward overwrought poetic messages, such as this one:

"Saw a little fish leap out of the water with a littler fish in its mouth—beautiful and tragic."

Over time, our tweets petered out and we reverted to more traditional modes of communication, like phone and email. But it was fun while it lasted.

Recently, I decided to revive my Twitter efforts. I've been taking an online class that aims to help students use social media to increase the audience for their writing. But before tackling Twitter or Facebook, the instructor urged us to tweak our own blogs to make them as attractive as possible. Plus, I needed to come out of the closet. For the first time in many years of blogging, I created a home page that reveals my full name. In fact, you can access the home page by using the url

One thing I've learned—it's hard as hell to keep up with 20-something techies when you're pushing 65. The recent redesign of my blog took me days of trial and error. At some point while I was tearing my hair out trying to get just the right background color, Alex decided to redesign his blog. As far as I can tell, it took him about five minutes and the result is fabulous.

Don't get me wrong. I had a fantastic experience trying out various templates, brushing up on my html, and taking risks (it seemed as if every time I altered the template code, I risked losing all my work). But my brain just doesn't have the hard wiring to do this stuff easily. And my brain is having an even harder time adapting to Twitter.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Above and Beyond the Call

If you'd asked me before this week, I would have said that nowadays most people don't take pride in their work. I would have been wrong. Wrong, at least, in the case of Olde England Painting, the company E. and I hired to paint the exterior of our house four years ago.

When we first met Paul Adkins of Olde England, we were favorably impressed. We had interviewed several painters and Paul's bid was quite reasonable. He seemed very knowledgeable about exterior painting in general and also about a particular problem our house presented—the nail heads of the thousands of nails used to hold the clapboards in place had rusted, causing rust to show through the stain applied when the house was built nine years earlier.

Paul proposed to fill each and every nail head with putty, then sand it down, all in preparation for a new coat of stain. His suggestion sounded good to us, so we hired him. We were impressed every step of the way. Paul showed up with his crew exactly when he said he would and he was a hands-on boss, up on the ladder and prepping and painting alongside his men. All of them were pleasant to have around, worked hard, and cleaned up after themselves. They did a great job. So good, in fact, that I offered to act as a reference for Olde England Painting.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Department of Culinary Affairs

Today, I have several worries to discuss. My sanity, for one. Also, my hearing. Plus, the strange state of restaurant names.

Last things first. There are a couple of restaurants in the Miami area whose names have caught my attention recently and, frankly, horrified me. The first, in South Beach's trendy SoFi neighborhood, is called La Gloutonnerie. Yep, that's right, the restaurant is named Gluttony. Isn't that a sin? Not, apparently, to the restauranteurs who opened the place in 2012. "Go ahead. Indulge," the website invites. "Sin is in." This is, after all, South Beach, fabled for its hedonistic tendencies, but still, isn't there something unseemly about gluttony? Wouldn't the same food served under a different name taste the same?