Tuesday, February 18, 2020

MEME: The Unifying Force of Music

     As you know, I am part of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble (MEME) of the University of Chicago. I thoroughly enjoy the practices and three annual concerts we give: Turkish in November, Persian in February, and Arab in May.
     I have posted six times on MEME. MEME and ME explains how I learned of this fantastic orchestra, became a part of it, and what it means to me. The other five times were profiles of musicians preceding the various concerts.
     The overwhelming theme has been the camaraderie, the magical and unifying nature of the music we love, and how playing at practices and concerts is a delightful escape from our daily activities and concerns.
     The 2020 Persian Concert is Saturday, February 29. It is the only concert in which we do two performances. This year, the two concerts will both be on the same day with an early show at 3 pm and the second show at 7.
     This unifying nature of music is even more special for the Persian Concert. Since the Iranian hostage which lasted from 1979 to 1981, relations between the US and Iran have been hostile, cold, or tense. US – Iranian relations were very tense in January when we began to practice for this concert. The US assassinated an Iranian General and the Iranians shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet. We were a little gloomy with worry that war would break out when we convened for practice. But, as we started to play, we all got lost in the camaraderie and enjoyment of playing.
     I had a chance to watch a news report from Tehran. It was from December 21, 2019 and was about an Evening of Armenian Music performed by Iran’s National Orchestra. Composer and Maestro Loris Tjeknavorian was quoted as believing that “Music is the language of God and is understood by all people and needs no translation.” The Maestro articulated beautifully what the musicians in MEME firmly believe and feel.
     In MEME, we celebrate all of the cultures of the music we play. We appreciate each other for our differences, backgrounds, and, ultimately, for our shared love for the music. We are proof that people can not only get along form wonderful friendships. We, well at least me, are reminded that differences and hatreds are bred by some government and organized religious leaders.
     Of the three concerts, I knew the Persian music the least. I was familiar with the popular Iranian - Armenian singers Vigen and Andy. I have a CD of the famous chanteuse Hayedeh. But that was about it. The Persian standards I played were Shah Doomad and Chera Nemiragashi by Vigen and Gole Sangam. Playing in four Persian concerts has exposed me to the more classical side of the rich heritage that is Persian music.
     My two favorite songs, over this past year, have been Jane Mayram and Morge Sahar. We have performed Jane Mayram three times and Morge Sahar every year in my participation in the Persian Concerts. Both are beautiful. I featured Jane Mayram on a piece I wrote about the passing of the renowned Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani.
     Morge Sahar is a beautiful song. It is associated with the beloved Persian singer Mohammed Reza Shahjarian. Morge Sahar (Morning Bird) is a song set to a poem by Mohammad-Taqi Bahar (1886 – 1951). The English translation, which I am sure is only an approximation of the original, is:
morning bird, mourn, further renew my pain
with a sigh that rains fire, break this cage and overturn it
flightless nightingale, from the pine cage, sing humanity’s song of freedom
from the breath of the masses, fill the open earth with fire
oppression, the oppressor, the hunter’s oppression, it has left my nest dwindling in the wind 
O god, O universe, O nature, make our dark evening into dawn
it’s a new a spring, the flowers have bloomed, the clouds in my eyes, are filled with dew
this cage, like my heart, is suffocated and dark 
oh fiery sigh! start a flame in this cage,
nature’s hand, don’t cut short the flower of my life
give the lover a look, my young flower, make it more!
you heartless bird, make it brief! make it brief, the story of separation
     When Shajarian sings it people both cry and sing along. I have listened to this countless times and look forward to playing it in our practices and the February 29th concert I invite you to attend.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Chidem Inch: Armenian… I mean Amazon Prime Video

     The rise of video and audio streaming apps is changing the we listen to music and watch TV, video, or whatever we call it now. Needless to say, I have been slow to adapt. Case in point, I was most certainly the last one on my block to get Netflix. I have had a Spotify account for, I am guessing, two years and have maybe listened to it twice and only for a few minutes in total.
     It is not that I am shunning or afraid of technology even though I am well within the age bracket where that could be the case. I am a tad reluctant to adapt new technology until it is clear there is a clear winner. MySpace and other forgetful similar failed apps versus Facebook? I could not and did not choose until it was clear that Facebook was the winner.
     One of the reasons I have avoided the music streaming services is because of my taste in music. I love Armenian music especially what is called kef style and the Turkish, Greek, Arab, and Persian styles that overlap with that style. At the beginning, music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora did not have much to offer for the style of music I want to listen to like 98% of the time.
     That has changed. With time, the major streaming service have expanded their catalogs and have gotten around to having an awesome array of playlists that appeal to me. They still do not have it all. I still have esoteric recording that still are not in the catalogs of these services. Lastly, I doubt they will ever be able to provide the live recordings my musical buddies and I have. But… I know better to say never when it comes to such things.
      The motivation for this post is my recent experience with Amazon Prime Video. It was something I have had access to for a long time. On a whim, I decided to poke around and see the breadth of their offering. I accessed the search and started to type Armenian. I had only typed “armen” when the header offered me Armenia, Armenian, Armenian movies, Armenian genocide, and more. It must be noted then while I was typing armenia I noticed that there were a surprising number of movies and documentaries on arm wrestling.
     When I clicked on Armenian, there were 148 selections. I was kind of astonished. Of course, Ararat and The Promise were there. There were several other minor films I have seen such as The Cut and Lost and Found in Armenia but many I have yet to see such as Lost Birds, The Bridge from Vegas, Mariam’s Day Off, and Ultimate Heist to name a few. There were documentaries on the Near East Relief, the murder of Hrant Dink, Anjar, travelogues, and more on the Genocide. I was amazed and, at the same time, not surprised.
     What to watch first? It took a while to decide. My first selection was the Eye of Istanbul. It is a most excellent documentary of the famed Istanbullu photographer Ara G├╝ler (nee Terteryan). I have seen his photos online and in a coffee table book I bought. As the documentary was produced in 2016, two years before he passed, it was wonderful to see the man, hear his words, and get a feel for his personality.
     After that documentary, I opted for humor and rewatched Lost and Found in Armenia starring Jamie Kennedy a movie that makes me laugh out loud. This weekend, I watched two more documentaries.
Anjar: Flowers, Goats, and Heros
The History of One Village: Hatchik
     I recommend them both.
     Clearly, I am hooked on Amazon Prime Video's Armenian catalog.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Business 101

    As you know, I have the good fortune to have found my dream job at the end of my working career. I am a professor in the School of Business and Nonprofit Management at North Park University. I am having the time of my life doing what I love and believe I was truly meant to be doing.
     In my classes, I want my students to have a sense of what business is all about. I want them to understand the functions and processes that comprise a business and how they all fit together. So, I have come up with a short definition that I use in my Operations Management course. I call it Business 101 though it is not really a course.
     It is my definition and clearly from my point of view. I started in quality management and over the span of my career it gradually gravitated into supply chain management. I have only worked at companies that made products. I worked in the auto and consumer packaged goods industries. I have only worked for Fortune 500 companies. I have never worked in finance or investment banking nor have I ever really had any desire to work in those fields even though I must admit the kind of money some make is indeed a lure. All of this, biases whatever insights I think I might have. But it doesn’t stop me from trying to have, codify, and present insights and observations. It is what I do by nature, was trained to do in a way as a mathematician, and certainly paid to do as a quality and reliability engineer.
     Not every student will run a large business or have the entrepreneurial wherewithal to start one. But, almost every student upon graduation will work in a business and ought to know where and how their job and functional areas fits into the larger scheme of things.
     Here is my Business 101 definition.

  • Defining business success is pretty simple. Business is about making a profit. It is cut and dry. 
  • How is that done? Well for me, it is first and foremost providing products and services that customers want. 
  • It is then selling these same products at a high enough volume to more than cover ones fixed costs and at a price higher than the cost of goods and production, and, voila, the business is profitable and can thrive and grow. 
  • Don’t do this and the opposite happens, the business loses money and will eventually have to cease operations, call it quits. 
  • This is not a one-time deal. A business to do this continually. 
  • To make it even more challenging, the competition of the business would love to steal their market share and acts aggressively to that end. 
  • On top of this, markets and the customer preferences are continually changing. 
  • So, a business needs to be aware of all this and adapt and innovate their product and service offerings to remain competitive and relevant to their customers and ahead of their competition. 
     As a result, some businesses expand and grow while others shrink and even go out of business.
     It may well be a big “duh.” But I wonder. Seeing the way so many companies flounder, I am not sure this is so front of mind of everyone. Even if it is making it all work is not so easy. Look at the Detroit Auto companies, Chipotle, Boeing, and Sears just to name a few.

     Oh yes, W. Edwards Deming probably had some influence on my definition...

W. Edwards Deming 1950

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Year of Southern Studies?

     In December, I wrote about 2019 being A Year of Soviet Studies.
     Well, I have continued reading but I have definitely moved away from books about the Soviet Union and Russia. It is early in the year and I have only read two books, both of them novels and both of them taking place in the South: To Kill a Mockingbird and Where the Crawdads Sing.
     Both are beautifully written gems, written be female authors and have female lead characters in their youth, and impart wisdom and insight in terms of depth with a pace that one would expect from a novel about set in the US South before they all became red states. When I say beautifully written, I mean it in a few ways. The plots of both are engaging and developed with a slow hand that intensifies as the novels progress. Both authors also are amazingly gifted at describing people and scenes poetically.
     I read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens first. I was at a Barnes and Noble in a nearby town. I was looking for a novel to read. So, I asked the helpful folks at the information desk as they are always helpful. Before they could answer, three ladies behind me in line all said “by all means read Where the Crawdads Sing, you will love it.” I had never heard of the book but was impressed that three ladies, who did not know each other, emphatically endorsed the book. I was unaware of the author and certainly had never heard of the book. One of the ladies added, “It starts a little slow but stick with it you will not regret it.”
     They were absolutely correct. Once I got into the book, I couldn’t put it down and read it in two days. What a great book. It is a coming of age and murder mystery entwined. It is set in the Carolina marshlands and is also a celebration of nature in that part of the country. I do not want to give much away here and leave you with the recommendation that brought me to this beautiful novel, “by all means read Where the Crawdads Sing, you will love it.”
     This was the first novel for Delia Owens but not her first book. She and her husband Mark are both zoologists. In the 1980s, they moved to Africa and went into the Kalahari Desert and Savanna where they lived for seven years studying animals. Together they wrote at least three other books: Cry of the Kalahari, Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savanna. All of their books are written as travelogues, a genre I have always loved but rarely seek out. Their books, from reviews I have read, are beautifully written. The Cry of the Kalahari is an international bestseller which I have put on my reading list.
     When I finished Where the Crawdads Sing, I felt that dichotomy after reading a good book. I was fulfilled and wanted more at the same time. I then remembered that I had a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird tucked away in a drawer in my office. I was talking with my cousin in-law, Sylva, a few years ago and in the course of general chit-chat, she mentioned that she had finally gotten around to reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I mentioned that I had never read it either. A month or so later, when she finished reading it, she gave it to me.
     Anything accolades and praises I write about Harper Lee’s classic should probably evoke a big and resounding “duh” from anyone who has read the book. If you are like me and managed somehow not to have read this classic, I would recommend doing so without hesitation. It was a great novel to finish just before the Martin Luther King national holiday.

     Upon finishing the novel, I watched the 1962 film, To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Not surprisingly, I never have watched the film either. It is a very good adaptation of the book. I was glad to have watched the film after I read the book as I was happy to have Harper Lee’s well-crafted words and not the scenes from the film provide the images of the peoples and places in my mind. It was impossible to have an image of Atticus that didn’t look like Gregory Peck however.
     My wife asked me how it was possible that I had not read it in middle or high school. I had no good answer except that, we read other books. We read Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. We read some Shakespeare as well. I never read Moby Dick until 2011. Back when I entered college, there was an assumed list of classics every student was to have read per several English and Humanities professors. Public schools including the Detroit and Livonia public schools where I went, had long before moved away from whatever was on those lists. Even though I read more classics in college, I have read many more since and will continue to do so. 
     Why haven't I read To Kill a Mockingbird on my own since graduation?  The answer to this question may be the most inane thing I have written in this blog:  I did not like the title.  There was nothing about the title that made me want to pick up the book and read it.  Oddly, when the ladies in Barnes and Noble suggested Where the Crawdad's Sing, I had the same reaction.  Yes, I am that shallow and I do judge books by their covers... er.... titles.
     There are lists all over the internet of the 25, 50, or 100 books we should read or even read before we die (like we have the ability to still read when we can no longer breathe). Depending on the list, I have read somewhere from a third to half of the books.
     If this is the year of southern studies, I may have to consider William Faulkner. Flannery O’Conner, Cormac McCarthy, or William Styron. We shall see.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Trying to Make Sense of it All

     On January 3rd, Qasem Soleimani was assassinated in a drone attack by the US while the Iranian general was in Iraq. Immediately, the world feared that war was imminent. People believed that the assassination of a man responsible for countless deaths himself was a good thing or they believed it to be an abhorrent act a global leader, such as the US, should never have even considered. There was very little in between.
     The Persians vowed revenge and retaliation stating that the US had made a grave error. Our President said if there were any retaliation, the US response would be overwhelming and vowed to hit 51 cultural sites in Iran; one for each of the hostages taken in the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy by the Iranians. Again, there was no middle ground in people’s reaction. People here were either totally against the even the suggestion of targeting cultural sites which is against the international rules of war. Others wished we would have just attacked those sites back in 1979. The next day the Pentagon said we would never target cultural sites and Trump was thereafter silent on the matter.
     People were defriending each other on social media over their hawkish or dovish perspectives on the assassination, the potential war, or Trump. And we waited. We waited to see what Iran’s retaliation was going to be. It came on January 7th. Iran launched a dozen missiles at two US military bases. Momentarily, there weren’t two sides. Everyone knew it was coming and everyone’s spirits sunk as it seemed a long, costly, and ugly war was about to begin.
     Shortly after reports of the missile attacks were all over social media, there was a report of a Ukrainian plane crash in Iran. The Persians immediately reported it was a mechanical malfunction. It did not take much longer for the US and others to report that there was evidence that the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile. Things were looking very dismal indeed. If a plane is shot down by a missile, debris is scattered for miles whereas if a plane crashes due to mechanical failure, the debris is contained in a much smaller area. In this case the debris was cast over a large swath of land.
     Then, the next day, war began to look a lot less imminent. The report of the Iranian attacks on the US bases were that there was very little damage and no causalities. I thought “hmmm.” Was it just one of those cases where it was retaliation for show with no intent to harm? Was it one of those cases, where there was a courtesy call or text sent to us to inform us of an impending attack?
     Things got even more curious when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada made a statement about the Ukrainian jet incident as 63 of the 167 passengers, none of which survived, were Canadian citizens or residents all of Persian descent. He said there was strong evidence that the jet was downed by a missile and then added it may have been done in error. Later, I heard a clip of President Trump giving the exact same message. Yesterday, the Iranians admitted that, yes, they had mistakenly and sadly shot down the Ukrainian jet.
      For all the saber rattling and being at the edge of what promised to be a horrific and costly war, tensions had eased lot. Golly, gee whiz, we basically forgave the Iranians for errant downing the Ukrainian passenger jet before they even fessed up. How and why did we become so thoughtful in their regard?
     I don’t know about fake news in this case, but I feel like we are not getting the full story. It is more like manipulative news by omission. It seems to me there has been a lot of talking behind the scene as some of this seems very orchestrated. 

     On one extreme, it may be all coincidental. I really doubt this to be the case.  On the other hand, maybe there was a huge conspiracy between Iran and the US to get to some kind of detente. My out-there theory works as follows.  First, they had to get rid of Soleimani. The US would take him out. Iran would huff and puff and then fire missiles at two bases with forewarning so the missiles would just thud into the desert killing no one and damaging nothing. The Ukrainian jet liner? Unplanned, an unfortunate consequence that can easily happen in the fog of military operations.  It was truly unfortunate but deftly handled by Trudeau, Trump, and the Iranians.
     Why might the Iranians want to get rid of Soleimani? They are a one-party government that needs the support of the people in order to hold power. The US sanctions are hurting their economy and eroding the support of the populace. Probably the leadership, except for Soleimani the hardline regional organizer and supporter of fundamentalists and terrorists, were leaning for dialogue with the US. Thus, Soleimani had to go.
     In this continually evolving story, there are protests in Iran over the Revolutionary Guard admitting they downed the Ukrainian jet. Also, the leader of Hezbollah, warned that the ineffective missile attack against the US bases were just the first many that he threatened to inflict on US forces in the Middle East. I can spin these two items to support my theory or to debunk it. That is how unsure I am.
     Ok. As a child of the conspiracy theory laden 60s and 70s, I am probably way off here. But there is something odd about how this whole thing has unfolded. We are all missing a puzzle piece or three that would allow us to make sense of all of this. I am trying to make sense of all this... and not doing very well at it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

An Very Small Slice of Life

      I took my car to the Toyota dealership today for a routine check-up, oil change and tire rotation. As it wasn’t a long service, I sat in the waiting room, sipping coffee, and read the two most recent Wall Street Journal. I perused the sections, read some articles, and clipped others that will help illustrate concepts to my students in microeconomics, quality, IT, and operations management with real life, current, examples.
     As I read the sections, I put them on the floor next to the easy chair I had nestled into. When I was done, a fellow stopped and asked me, “Are these your newspapers.” I looked up and noticed he was a rather executive looking fellow about my age. I am guessing he was from the subcontinent. I answered, “yes, they are but I am guessing you really want to know if you could take and read them.” He responded, “Yes, if I may.” I said, “Of course, I am done with them. Just know I have ripped out several pages and kept an entire section.” He said something about me “doing busy work to pass the time” and then gathered up the papers and walked off. 
     I got up to get a cup of coffee after finishing reading the article by Jason Gay on whether or not Tom Brady was going to retire, stay with New England, or sign with another team. I would never have noticed that the newspapers were gone except of the fact that this fellow who took the papers left the two plastic bags the papers were delivered in on the floor. 
     It struck me as odd. The plastic bags were in between the various sections I had folded and placed on the floor next to the chair. This means that this fellow had to pick up the papers, separate the plastic bags, and drop them back onto the floor. Why didn’t he just toss them away?
     The fellow was sitting at table on my way to the coffee urns and the trash can. As I neared him, I noted, “You took the papers and left the plastic bags for me to throw away?” He looked at with a gaze that I interpreted as a mix of sheepishness and not giving a damn. He didn’t say a thing. I proceeded to get my coffee thinking only I will probably blog about this guy. 

     I wasn’t mad. Truly, I was feeling quite content, chill in today’s parlance, just coming out of the Christmas break. It just struck me, as mentioned, odd. Odd enough to get me to blog about it (yeah I mentioned that too). Things strike us as odd simply because someone else’s behavior is different than our own in an unexpected way. It is the unexpected part that makes it odd (OMG what an insight). 
     The truly odd thing about this little slice of life is that I am focusing on this small, insignificant, thing rather than deal with the escalating tensions between the US and Iran after we assassinated General Qasem Soleimani in Bagdad. Will there be retaliation? Will there be war? I just don’t want to deal with that today when I am still basking in the glow of my great trip to Los Angeles. 
     Tomorrow? I will start working on getting ready for the Spring Term that begins a week from today and, yeah, reading about what the pundits are thinking about this Iran thing.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Dawn of a New Year and Decade

     I am sitting in my daughter’s house in greater Los Angeles watching the sun rise on a new year and a new decade. It is my favorite time to write; in the early morning in a house full of family and where I am the only one up and about. I am not sure why this is my favorite time other than I do enjoy this short solitude before the pitter patter of my grandsons running to engage me in more amazing, heartwarming, and memorable activities from puzzles to breakfast and playing outside to having me build things they can knock down. .
     En route on the plane here I read articles in the New York Times from Sunday December 29th. They were in the Lifestyle Section and the New York Times magazine. The articles were retrospectives on the past year and the past decade. I had the time and really wanted to delve into highlights of a decade that seemingly went by too fast.
     In two words, I was disappointed and bored. The articles were very well written but boring. They were boring to me, at least. They focused a lot on folks who passed, as such annual retrospectives do. I was amazed, and maybe a bit embarrassed, that I did not recognize many of the names they highlighted. Were they great statemen or industrial leaders? Not as much as would have been in my youth.  The focus was more on celebrities. Sadly, the articles that resonated most with me were two articles on the that focused on our growing polarization in our country are what resonated most with me. Hopefully, this decade gets us closer where we can improve our collective lot and truly make America and the world better places. Me? I would most definitely start with allocating more funds to education and infrastructure.
     There were two photos from these biographical sketches in the New York Times Magazine that I just loved. One was of the famed designer Karl Lagerfeld.
Annie Leibovitz for Vogue
It showed him at work on the largest and most cluttered desk I have ever seen. I loved it because it made me feel like that it was OK if my desks and offices were often in the same shape as the great designer’s. The second photo was of Doris Day doing a handstand on a diving board. It depicted her beauty, grace, and incredible athletic ability all at the same time. She had an amazing Hollywood career though she was unlucky in love but finally managed to achieve contentment through her dedication to animal welfare after her film career and troubling love life.  She showed that celebrity does not guarantee happiness and, also, that we can reinvent ourselves at any age.

     The boredom of the rest of the 2019 and decade reviews simply confirmed what I have known for a long time. While it is important to note the great events of the past year and decade and the notables who passed away in the same timeframe, it is really the notable events and people in our own lives that make the most impact and
have a firmer place in our hearts and memories. I first wrote about this in
May 2005: Memorable School, Memorable Teachers. At the beginning of this piece, I presented a quiz a friend of mine forwarded to me in an email. It is a short but impactful quiz that is worth taking every New Year when many of us take stock of the past year. It really highlights the perspective I have been focusing on. (The quiz is presented at the end of this piece.)
     So, I closed my eyes and reflected on the decade from a personal perspective. It was the decade in which my five grandchildren were born. What a joy and blessing they are. It was also the decade where my father in-law, father, uncle, and two aunts passed away. It was the decade in which two dear friends passed on. We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary.  It was the decade in which I fulfilled a life-long dream to be a full-time college professor and celebrate my five-year anniversary of doing such. It was the decade in which I began playing in the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at the University of Chicago. It was the decade where I almost stopped blogging and came back strong.
     As eloquently stated in Job 1:21: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. No matter what else is going on in the nation or in our work lives, it is this cycle of life, births, deaths, what we do in our own lives, and the impacts that we have on each other in that underscores and defines… well, everything.
      I started to write this piece on New Year’s Day and am finishing it on January 4th. It took quite a while to capture this simple message of several

hundred words. I was not focused on writing but rather on enjoying this precious time with grandsons Vaughn and Sasoun. On New Years Day, they dutifully wore Michigan garb as I was. We attempted to watch the Citrus Bowl in which Michigan was u against Alabama. Michigan lost. I barely watched the game and cannot relate the final score as I barely watched what, for at least three quarters, seemed like a pretty good game. I was having too much fun playing with the boys. Seems like a great way start to a new year and decade to me. 
      Wishing everyone a most healthy, happy, and prosperous 2020.


Here is the quiz:

Take this quiz: (mentally)

1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.
3. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest.
4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer prize.
5. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.
6. Name the last decade's worth of World Series winners.
How did you do? The point is, none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.

Here's another quiz. See how you do on this one:
1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.
6. Name a half dozen heroes whose stories have inspired you.
Easier? The lesson? The people who make a difference in
your life are not the ones with the most credentials, money or
awards. They are the ones that care.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Year of Soviet Studies

      Teaching at North Park University has a lot of benefits. I love being in the classroom. Being around young people keep me young at heart and gives me a wonderful perspective on what young folks are really like. I really enjoy the schedule that provides for lots of free time. I am free to improve my courses, do research, and to write. I am also “free” to squander that time. It has been a lifelong and constant struggle to use this free time productively.
     This year, I have been using said free time to read and watch some film. I did not start out with this in mind, but the theme has been the Soviet Union. I have read two books and watched the HBO miniseries on Chernobyl. This experience provided an insight on an aspect of the dysfunction of the Soviet system that I had not been truly aware of: the push for productivity to the point where corners and quality were cut to give the illusion of achieving goals.
     Secondly, I watched a wickedly delicious and dark comic film, The Death of Stalin, which provided another perspective on Beria, Khrushchev, Molotov, and Zhukov in the passing of Stalin and ascension of Khrushchev. I also watched the very well-done Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, that documented the story of about the exchange of Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers the US U2 pilot.
     I was not planning on reading more on the Soviet Union during this winter break between terms. I planned on reading a few books but had not queued up any titles. I saw a book, Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews, on one of our bookshelves and started reading it. It was a book that my wife actually picked up thinking it might contain an Armenian connection. I assumed it was about Stalin’s actual children Svetlana and Vasily which is why I started to read it. I was definitely wrong and there were very few Armenian references in the book.
     The subtitle of the Stalin’s Children is: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival. The book is a telling of the Bibikov family saga starting with the author’s grandfather Boris. Boris Bibikov was too young to have participate in the Bolshevik revolution but certainly was swept up by the fervor in the 1920s. From the book:

I don’t believe that my grandfather was a hero, but he lived in heroic times and such times brought out greatness in people large and small. The slogans of the Bolshevik Revolution were Peace, Love, and Bread; and at the time this message must, to ambitious and idealistic men, must have seemed fresh, vibrant and couched in the language of prophesy.
     Boris was young and ambitious to took to the Bolshevik slogan. He became a party member in the Ukraine and rose quickly in the ranks. By the early 1930s he was a central figure in building the giant Kharkov Tractor Factory that was one of the great achievements of the first Five Year Plan.
     Boris married and had two daughters Lenina and Lyudmilla. The family was doing well and living the Soviet dream, if there was such a thing. As it seems that most happiness in the Soviet Union was temporal, it didn’t last. Boris was swept up in the Stalin’s purges and was killed or died in prison. His wife was banished to Central Asia to a gulag and the daughters, stayed together, but were bounced around in the Soviet orphanage system where they were considered Stalin’s Children.
     Lyudmila was to become the authors mother. His father, Mervyn Matthews, hailed from a coal mining town in Wales. Mervyn raised himself out of his humble beginnings, developing an interest in all things Russian and being educated at Manchester University and Oxford. Circumstances and career moves took him to Moscow where he worked at the British Embassy. This is where Mervyn met the equally well-educated Lyudmila who was working at Institute of Marxism and Leninism. They fell in madly in love and decided to marry. During this same time, the KGB tried to recruit Mervyn. He turned them down and as a

result their application to marry was rejected and he was summarily deported. The remainder of the book is how Mervyn spent five years trying to get reunited with Lyudmila. He worked every angle of PR and subterfuge to achieve the goal. He ventured, illegally, to the Soviet Union a few times to see her and was lucky that he was only arrested and not jailed. Finally, he prevailed in an exchange akin to another great movie of the era, The Bridge of Spies, involving the same East German lawyer from the movie, Wolgang Vogel.
     When finally, together, Mervyn and Lyudmila settled into a life where the passion and desires when separated were never equaled in married life. I was kind of hoping what we all hoped would happen if Lara and Zhivago had ever reunited. But that would have been more Hollywood and this true story was definitely more Russian.
     I am not sure if my Russian studies will continue in 2020 or if I will gravitate to a new subject of study. Rest assured, I will blog about it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas 2019

Our Home - Ready for Christmas Eve
     I like to write a Christmas letter each year. When I can, I prefer to start when it is still dark out and there is that “not a creature is stirring” kind of quiet. It is a time for reflection and thinking about family and friends that I will see later today but more so, those I will not being seeing today and those that have passed.
     For today’s edition, there is not quite that pre-dawn ambiance. Our Christmas Eve celebrations were wonderful and ran later than usual. As a result, I awoke after dawn. I have texted Christmas greetings to folks hither and yon including a bantering exchange with the inimitable Ara Topouzian. I am on my second cup of coffee and it is a rather late 9:05 am here in Chicago.
     This later hour, in the daylight, has me in a less reflective mood than normal. Maybe, this is just the result of already having texted or called many folks I would otherwise be thinking of right now. It could also be that in previous Christmas letters, I have already expressed what I would want to express now… again. Last year’s letter sums it all up better than this meandering attempt.
     Yet, I am still sitting in front of the keyboard typing whatever this is. I might have even started this later or perhaps not even gotten to it all but for a text from a friend: “I am assuming you are writing or have written your article. Have a wonderful Christmas.” Well, that got me to pour that second cup of coffee and to fire up the computer!
     Christmas and this season, the twelve days of Christmas, that begins with the Christmas most celebrate on December 25th and ends with Armenian Christmas on January 6th. In between, there is New Year’s Day which for some is a time to reflect on the past year and resolve what to do and how to behave in the new year. This year, 2019, we are closing out the second decade of this century. I really wasn’t paying much attention to this until I started reading a few retrospectives of which more are sure to follow in the next week.
     The past few years, I have lost two close friends. RK Jones passed in 2015 and Angel de la Puente at the end of 2018. Flat out, I miss these fellows. They were great friends who influenced my thinking and world view. I assumed it would last forever. Of course, the sentiment, love, and friendship never goes away. But the seeing and talking to them did come to an abrupt halt. I miss the latter. I miss them both but feel blessed to have known them and they are forever on my mind as are my sister Laura, my dad, my father in-law, our grandparents, uncles, and aunts.
     The beauty of life is while we lose family and friends, we meet and embrace new friends and family. First and foremost, in this case, are my grandchildren: Aris, Vaughn, Lara, Sasoun, and Haig. As they live in DC and LA, we do not see them nearly enough but thank FaceTime and WhatsApp for being to see and speak with them as often as we like. They are a joy that is immeasurable.
     Also, for some reason, Chirstmas time and the New Year make me reflect on
Service Award at North Park with
President Surridge and my North Park
mentor Leona Mirza
my work colleagues more than I might normally. I see them often appreciate them regularly at least in thought. This letter always seems like the time and place to do so more formally. I used to write a Christmas morning email to my colleagues in Latin America when I was at Colgate-Palmolive. Today, I am thinking of and valuing my friends and colleagues at North Park University and the wonderful folks I have performed music with this past year in the University of Chicago Middle Eastern Music Ensemble and the various Armenian groups I play with. Making new acquaintances at North Park with both students and colleagues has been a true blessing. The students keep me young, well, young at heart at least. And my musician colleagues? There is no description for nailing a performance with good and valued friends. Along with family, you all enrich my life.
     The closing to this letter has become standard. I see no reason to change it this year.

I know I will not see most of you this year. I am not sure if this is an Armenian or American tradition, but consider this my making the rounds, knocking on your door, wishing you the best of the season, and you inviting me in to meet you and yours over a cup of Christmas cheer. If I could do that in Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, San Jose, New York, Wilton, Caracas, Mexico City, Yerevan, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Guatemala City, Panama City, or Ocala, that would be something. Heck, it would be something if I could do that with everyone I know in Chicagoland!

I close this letter the same way I did last several years. The sentiment is exactly the same with only the year updated. I am delighted to reach out this very quiet moment to friends and family all over the United States and all over the world to convey our warm Christmas wishes to you and yours. Even more so, I hope that 2020 is a year of health, happiness, and prosperity for you and yours.

Thursday, December 19, 2019


     As I noted in my previous posting, The Problem with Mental Notes, there are plenty of topics around me to write about. All that is required is to pay attention, be alert, and write down the topic idea when they bubble to the surface.  Shortly after I posted that, a topic just fell in my lap.
     I learned about a consequence of our overpopulation and throwaway society: The Fatberg.
     What the heck is a fatberg?
At their core, fatbergs are the accumulation of oil and grease that's been poured down the drain, congealing around flushed nonbiological waste like tampons, condoms and—the biggest fatberg component of all—baby wipes. When fat sticks to the side of sewage pipes, the wipes and other detritus get stuck, accumulating layer upon layer of gunk in a sort of slimy snowball effect. Newsweek 3-14-19
     These things, these fatbergs, when they accumulate can weigh tons (or tonnes if the occur in the UK). They cause sewer backups and are costly to dislodge.
Fatbergs are placing an increasing financial burden in cities throughout the world. Clearing "grease backups" costs New York City more than $4.65 million a year. The U.K. spends about $130 million annually clearing roughly 300,000 fatbergs from city sewers. Even a smaller city like Fort Wayne, Indiana, shells out $500,000 annually to get grease deposits out of sewers. And the cost is usually passed along to customers through their water bills. Newsweek 3-14-19
     The pressure makes these fatbergs dense as stones. They emit all kinds of noxious gases when removing and are laden with bacteria that includes listeria and e-coli. Workers need to be in the sewers in hazmat suits to work on them.
     London, with an old and overwhelmed sewer system, is the most susceptible to this modern phenomenon. The largest fatberg recorded there was in 2017, it got its own name, Fatty McFatberg, and weighed an incredible 130 tons. In this country, Baltimore had one the size of a city block while Detroit had one six feet in height and a hundred feet long.
     There is a bit of bright side. Fatbergs can be converted to biodiesel. It is not clear how cost effective this is but it seems to be a relatively clean way to dispose of these disgusting masses. Researchers are looking at developing bacteria that prevent these fatbergs from forming. It is not clear when or if there will be a solution in this regard. One of the promising methods was reported in 2018:
[University of British Columbia]… scientists heated their experimental fatbergs to between 194 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit before adding peroxide to force the organic matter to break up. Bacteria then turned the fatberg remnants into methane. The process is less costly than the alternative—excavating the sludge before converting it to fuel. Newsweek 8-23-18
     The best solution is for restaurants to stop disposing of grease down the drain and for people to stop flushing wipes away. This will require a massive marketing and advertising campaign to influence behavior. Such campaigns have started in the UK but I have not seen any evidence of such in the US. Furthermore, we have to get away from our disposable habits. Disposing gets trash and biowastes out of sight and out of mind quickly and easily. But, where does these massive amounts of trash and wastes go and how do we deal with them. It is apparent that our growing population have overwhelmed our sewers, waterways, landfills, air, and planet. 
     The question is do we have the governmental and individual wherewithal to make effect such changes. A related question is if we really have a choice?