Saturday, January 10, 2009

February 2006: Two Year Anniversary

It is the Second Anniversary of this letter. I really am pleased that I am doing this and it has surpassed my expectation in almost every regard. It has helped clarify my thinking on many topics and it is a most excellent way to keep in touch with people that I care about. The distribution list has grown from 40 or so two years ago to the current 199.

Every letter brings responses from ten to twenty people. Some simply write to say they enjoyed the letter, while others write to correct some misspelling or factoid I did not get quite right. Consider my friend Mark A., he should write his own e-letter. He responds to every letter with his own take on whatever it I was writing about. Mark’s responses are full blown and always interesting, essentially an e-letter on its own standing. I love getting his spin every month.

My cousin Jason O. does send his own e-letter. It is very different from this one, his are a couple of hundred words coming out two or three times a month. He writes a slice of life living in Boston, with a Texas and Georgia slant. I believe we started writing and e-mailing letters about the same time.

Another friend Dale D. is always the first to respond, usually minutes after I send the letter out. Dale has always been amazingly adept and fast at keeping his work and personal e-mail inboxes empty. Ruth S. and Greg P. always send back encouraging e-mails. Ara T. tells me he reads every letter but enjoys the humorous ones more.

“Journaling”: As you may know or recall, this e-letter began with my writing a page a day. It began on June 25, 2002, the day I turned forty-nine. I wanted to document my fiftieth year, change my life, and in the process have a journal/novel/handbook for turning fifty. It was to have been a best seller that would have made me financially independent, the toast of talk shows, and provide a platform where I could spend the rest of my life writing books.

As I often write early in the morning in public venues, the kinds of reactions one gets when writing a full page in public can be quite interesting. Most often people will stop and ask things like, “Whattya doing? Writing a book?” I could be jotting notes and no one would ask a question. I could be sketching and no one would question it. I could have a page full of mathematical or chemical equations and no one would care. I could be jotting down a table of numbers, a handwritten spreadsheet and no one would interrupt to ask, “Whattya doin’ cookin’ the books?” But hand writing, not typing, a full page draws curiosity.

I was sitting in the Wilton Starbucks the Saturday before Christmas. I was, as is my habit, drinking coffee and writing my daily page. A fellow at a nearby table came over and asked if he could ask a question. I said, “Sure, go ahead.” He asked, “May I ask what you are writing?” I gave him the short history of the daily writing and how this e-letter came to be. He then told me, “I have been contemplating getting into journaling.” I gave him some encouraging words and wished him well. Until that moment, I never thought of what I was doing as “journaling.”

I almost engaged what I thought to be a brother in “journaling” myself one day. This happened at another Starbucks, this one on Park and 48th, my morning writing place when I go into Manhattan. I saw a reasonably well dressed man working intently on his well worn notebook. He was drawing and writing. He used a few colored markers and a black pen. He was flipping pages, drawing something here, sketching something there. He had my interest and I got up to go approach him, trying to think of how I was going to rephrase the “Whattya doing? Writing a book?” questions. I never got to ask the question. On approaching the man, I saw that the man was either a lunatic or a genius. I leaned toward the former. He was writing gibberish and drawing random doodles. The one page I saw had layers upon layers of scribbles and doodles in multi-colors. Gladly, I did not ask him the question.

Haikus: I have been writing a Haiku each day. This began on November 1, 2004. My friend Lola K. sent an e-mail to a bunch of her friends in which she informed us that November was National Haiku Month. She went on to say that if we were to write a Haiku a day, we would have thirty at the end of the month. I was the only one to take her advice and I have not stopped since.

Haiku is a traditional Japanese style of poetry dating four or five centuries. Haikus are short seventeen syllable poems in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. The last line is supposed to provide a bit of a twist.

I have only been Japan once. In 1982, I went on a study mission where a group of auto engineers went to study the quality methods employed by companies in the Toyota Group. We stayed in Nagoya where Toyota was founded and still headquartered. Having arrived on a Sunday, I freshened up and walked around on what was a lovely spring day. I wandered to a park in the shadow of a palace high above on a hill. The garden was beautifully flowered and landscaped, as one would expect to find in Japan. I sat down to take it all in and watch the people stroll by. I noticed a seated statue across the path from me. I wondered who the statue was. I wandered over and was delighted that it was a statue of Basho, the nom de plume of Matsuo Menufusa (1644-94), considered the finest Haiku poet. Apparently, he wrote his most famous poem in the spot the statue now occupied.

I really did not write any Haiku until triggered to do so by Lola's e-mail. I like writing them because they are concise and easy to incorporate into my daily writing ritual. After penning my page of prose, I compose a Haiku in the top margin of the paper. I really don't like many of these little poems when I write them, but when they have aged a few months and I read them again, I find them amusing and am fonder of them. I include a Basho Haiku and one I wrote on August 11, 2005 in kind of a similar vein. I just read Basho’s poem while on the internet trying to get his dates of birth and death. Basho's, no big surprise, is more subtle, more Haiku-i, and just better.

Whore and monk, we sleep
Under one roof together
Moon in a field of clover

How similar are
The bad priest and the good pimp,
Which is more honest?
Other Letters/Hobbies: I have a colleague at work, Marc S. Marc is about my age. Our paths cross every once in a while in some Latin American country. We have a chance to chat over dinner and catch up. About a month or so ago, Marc sent me an e-mail sharing a passion and hobby of his. Marc, as it turns out, has a wine letter that he sends out twice a year. I guess he sent it to me because when we do get together in one of those Latin American countries, it also involves a glass of wine or two. His letter includes a spreadsheet in which he keeps track of all the wine he has rated by country, region, grape, label, vintage, price, and a ten point rating scale. It is interesting reading and I will definitely use his spreadsheet as a guide when I next buy some wine. I was tickled to get Marc’s letter and immediately put him on distribution of this letter.

My friend and colleague Alan K has just retired from Colgate at the end of February. We have always been close but recently have not sustained the level of communication we both would have liked. This year we talked much more as his departure from the company is looming. He should have been on distribution of this e-letter from the beginning and for some reason was not. He is on it now. Alan shared a new hobby and passion of his. Alan has really gotten into video and video editing on his Apple PC. He gave me some examples of his work. As his daughter recently wed, Alan had taken photos of her and her husband growing up and put together a video montage with music of them growing up, separately, eventually meeting and their time together to date. He did an incredible job. The editing was very good as was his choice of music. I was glad he shared his passion and hobby with me.

Just as I am about to hit the enter key each month to send off the e-letter, I stop and think of Aram Kevorkian whose monthly letters inspired me to create my own. Recently his daughters, Corinne, living in New York, and Anoush, living in Paris, sent me a compilation of his letters in a book entitled, Confessions of a Francophile. I just read his May 1981 letter, Volume III, #3, on the passing of William Saroyan. It is a very well written piece, as are all of Aram Kevorkian’s. I never met Aram nor did I ever meet Saroyan. But, I am smiling as I am Armenian writing about another Armenian writing about an Armenian writer.

Burns School Revisited: The June 2005 letter reminiscing on my Burns Elementary School had a great side benefit. I was able to get in touch with my former science teacher: Alice André.
After writing the letter, I found the e-mail address for Charlene Harper, the current Principal at Burns and sent her a copy of the letter. She responded and asked if Alice had been my teacher. Certainly, I knew Miss André, I would have written about her and her colleague Miss Fletcher but ran out of both time and space.

As it turns out, Miss André taught at Burns her entire career, retiring in the early 1990s. I was both surprised and delighted to hear this. Charlene gave me Miss André’s address and I sent her a note and the e-letter. She called me and we had a long chat. Miss André, having kept in touch with her colleagues over the years, filled me in on every teacher I had at Burns. Sadly, but not surprisingly, most of them have passed on. Miss André really became the heart and soul Burns for me.

Misses André and Fletcher were the science teachers at Burns. Their rooms were adjacent. Miss Fletcher taught the younger students and Miss André took over for grades five through seven.

Miss Fletcher was wonderful. She ran a tight ship, not so much from being a disciplinarian but more so in engaging us in the marvels of the solar system, plant life, and insects. She could clearly and easily explain things so anyone could understand. Because of her, I took a great interest in Science. I remember great conversations with Miss Fletcher but always about Science.

Miss André was the younger, “cooler”, member of this Science teaching tandem. When I first walked into her room, I remember her pointing at me, a pudgy kid with a buzz cut, and exclaiming, “Terry Sawchuck! You look just like Terry Sawchuck.” Terry Sawchuck? The goalie for the Detroit Red Wings? Golly, I was not sure about that but I was sure I liked this teacher.

Alice André was a great science teacher building off of the base created by Miss Fletcher. But beyond being an excellent teacher, she was a most avid hockey fan. She even kept an assortment of hockey magazines in her room and freely lent them to any interested student. I loved both hockey and science in those days, so it was natural that Miss André became one of my favorite teachers.

I had won a science award in high school by virtue of taking every science course offered there by the end of my junior year. I attribute that solely to the tutelage of Misses Fletcher and André.

We moved from Detroit in 1969. The “White Flight” was in full force especially in our neighborhood. We left and Alice André stayed another twenty-five years or so. Somehow, I admire this about her more than anything else. I imagine she spent that entire time making as many kids walking into her classroom feel good about themselves as well as nurturing a love for science.

February 23, 2006: Last year in the anniversary letter, I included an example of a daily page. I am doing the same this year. I chose a hockey related theme to add a bit of continuity.

Yesterday,’s e-mail, This Day in History, informed me that it was twenty-six years ago that the US Hockey Team defeated the Russian team at the Winter Olympics taking place in Lake Placide, NY. It was a dark time in our history, back in 1980, with the Iranian hostage crisis, a recession, and the Soviets seeming more formidable and resolute than the US. The US Olympic Hockey Team assembled and coached, even over coached, by Herb Brooks became a symbol for much more. They became an elixir of hope for a country feeling inferior and down in the dumps. They were a group of truly amateur players, most recently graduated from college with minimal professional, NHL, prospects.

Brooks molded them into a team, a team that could skate with the Europeans, specifically the Soviets. The Soviet team was a powerhouse. Some considered them the best team in the world. They had not lost an Olympic Hockey Game since 1968 and had been gold medal winners in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. Three days before the Lake Placid Games began; the Soviets humiliated the US team 10-3 in Madison Square Garden.

There was a lot of hype for the game. There a lot of hope with this team. Those Winter Games in Lake Placid were incredibly exciting because of this team. They came from behind in every game they won. If they beat the Russians they would play again for Gold or Silver. If they lost, they would have played the next game for Bronze or fourth place.

I remember going to Buddy’s Pizza in Southfield, MI to watch the game. Judy and I went with our good friends Tim and Ellen. We ate pizza, drank beer and watched the game on the various “regular” sized TVs around the restaurant. When the US took the lead in the third period, I remember popping out of my chair and chanting, yelling and screaming actually, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” I still don’t know what possessed me to do that other than pride, excitement and adrenalin. Immediately, everyone else in the bar was on their feet changing U-S-A, U-S-A! It was a magical moment.

In 2004 Disney made a movie of the story, entitled Miracle, starry Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks. I watch the movie in whole or part every time it is on TV and it is on quite often. The accomplishment of that team was remarkable and something I never tire of reflecting on it.
Today, I read that that the 2006 US Team, comprised mostly of NHL players, lost yesterday to Finland 4-3. The Finns are 6-0 and go on to play for Gold or Silver. The US Team? Their record was 1-4-1 and they are going home empty handed. They just never gelled as a team. They had neither the time nor the coaching.

End Page: Because of writing a page a day for over three and a half years, I am more interested in short pieces by professional writers from light heartened reflections to serious essays. Stanly Bing writes a very clever page on the last page of each Fortune Magazine deliciously lampooning the business world. Many of these great pages tend to be on the last page e.g. the last page of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Times Magazine. I really enjoy Op-ed pieces by Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristoff, Thomas Friedman, Robert Fisk, and Christopher Hitchens to name a few. Craig Wilson’s column, “Final Word”, every Wednesday in the USA Today is also very good.

There are two pieces of writing that really stick out in my memory. First, was by John Updike from the August 2, 1999 New Yorker. It was the lead article simply entitled “Comment.” In the article, Mr. Updike reflected on the then recent passing of John F. Kennedy Jr. Beyond being a brilliantly written piece, Mr. Updike wove his way through the hype and media over exposure of such an event to encapsulate his thoughts into a piece that resonated powerfully with the thoughts that were floating about in my head and not yet gelled.

Another brilliantly written piece was from the back page of the January 15, 2005 New York Times Magazine. Nicholas Gage wrote a most touching piece entitled “Lives; House of Light and Shadow.” I will not even summarize it here but let you look it up yourselves… but if anyone wants, I can e-mail it to them.

Thanks to all of you for your tolerance, encouragement and feedback in the first two years of this e-letter. This has been a most fun and rewarding project due in large part to all of you.

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