Monday, November 23, 2015

Von Ryan's Express and Undying Hope

Von Ryan's Express: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen Von Ryan's Express since it was released in 1965, and you don't want the ending spoiled for you, stop reading right now.

Saturday evening I was watching, AGAIN, Von Ryan's Express starring Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard. I've seen it "a few" times now.

Sinatra is the top ranking Allied officer in a prisoner of war camp in Italy. He is attempting to take the prisoners to freedom over the Italian Alps by rail and runs into a number of troubles along the way.

Towards the end, the Luftwaffe has destroyed a section of track. It's now necessary to delay the German's follow on train while the prisoners repair the track so they can move on.

They take a piece of rail from behind their train. This also makes it impossible for the German's to follow them by rail.

The German troops de-train and attack the prisoners as they put the final touches on the rail repair. Their numbers greatly outnumber the prisoners' firepower.

There's Colonel Frank, leading the delaying action so the train can move forward. All of the surviving prisoners have made it onto the train, except Frank. And as it moves on, Frank is running.

The prisoners reach out to Frank from the rear of the train so he can grab their hands and be pulled to safety. Frank grasps; the prisoners grasp.

But alas, the Germans shoot Frank down dead and he ends up lying prone between the tracks as the prisoners stare dejectedly from the rear of the train. The Germans stare dejectedly at the rear of the receding train.

Every time I watch this, I yell out to Frank, "Run! Run a little faster". I think, "maybe this time he'll make it. Maybe this time he'll defy all logic and outrun those bullets coming at his back".

But nope, it never works. Frank doesn't run faster. Frank gasps in fatigue with arms outstretched as the bullets tear into him from behind. Frank ends up dead on the tracks.

Isn't it a great movie that you can watch over and over again and still enjoy it? Isn't it a great movie that provides such drama, that even though you know how it ends, you hope against hope that maybe this time, it just might end a little differently?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

OneDayU: Back to College for a Day

Last Sunday I went back to college. I attended Columbia University, Amherst College, American University, and Yale University. And I did it all by traveling to the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C. How did I do that you ask? I went to a session of OneDayU.

OneDayU is college for life-long learners all neatly packaged into a one-day event. It is held throughout the year in 23 cities across the U.S., with slightly different programs held in each city. There are 191 professors who have taken part in various OneDayU sessions.

Diverse topics range from The Genius of Michaelangelo to a session on The Middle East, Freedom of Speech, and Criminal Justice, to a lecture on Are We Alone: The Search for Other Life in the Universe.

Instruction is by esteemed professors such as Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, Tina Rivers Ryan of Columbia University, and Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas.

Each lecture lasts an hour and ten minutes, which includes time for questions. Professors are used to teaching to overworked, weary (sometimes hungover) teens, so are extremely motivated and energized by the active-listening audiences attending OneDayU. The lectures are packed full, and provide many keys for students to do follow on research of their own.

And guess what? Unlike your days in college, there are no quizzes, no exams, and no grades. You pass your courses by being an attentive audience member and absorbing a wide range of interesting and useful information.

In Washington, D.C. there were four lectures: The Genius of Michaelangelo by Professor Tina Rivers Ryan of Columbia University, 4 Trials That Changed the World by Professor Austin Sarat of Amherst College, Men, Women, And Politics (A World of Difference) by Professor Jennifer Lawless of American University, and What is Emotional Intelligence? by Professor Marc Brackett of Yale University.

What did I learn? I learned that (to paraphrase Hamlet…and Shakespeare), there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Or to put it another way, knowledge gained through these lectures is expansive, provocative, and motivating.

In The Genius of Michaelangelo, I learned that Michaelangelo was a jerk who wore dog skin boots that he wore so long, when he did take them off, a layer of skin would sometimes come off with them. Also, he happened to be a great artist. One of his first creations was, arguably one of his most memorable, The Pieta, commissioned by a French Cardinal.

In Men, Women, And Politics (A World of Difference), Professor Lawless reviewed her 15 year study of why so many more men are in political positions, from local races all the way to the U.S. Senate. The primary driver is that women are more conservative in judging the skills that would make them viable candidates, while men usually believe they can do a better job than the bozo already in the role. When women do run, they succeed at every level as often as men.

How does OneDayU work? OneDayU seeks a newspaper partner in the city where it wants to run an event. The paper advertises the event and offers a discount code to use when applying. For this event, the Washington Post was the sponsor, and admission was discounted from $169 down to $129. The hotel offered discounted valet parking and box lunches for purchase for those who didn’t want to run out to one of the local restaurants.

Included in the handouts at this event was an application to enroll for the April 10, 2016 event to be held at the Sheraton Pentagon City in Arlington, VA. People signing up last Sunday received discounted admission from $179 down to $99.

The Topics in April will be The Art of Aging, Rhapsody in Blue: Gershwin’s Remarkable Masterpiece, The Rise and Decline of the American Presidency, and German Resistance in WWII: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then. It promises to be an interesting and fulfilling day.

If you want to see if there’s a OneDayU event coming near you, check out their website at If you go, I think you’ll find that it was an event worthy of your time.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman

Reed Farrel Coleman wrote Where It Hurts for me. No, you won’t see my name on the Dedication Page, not in the Acknowledgement section either. Nope, nary a footnote exists in Where It Hurts to identify how Coleman wrote this book for me. In fact, I would venture a guess that my name didn’t fire a single synapse in his fertile brain as Coleman was writing Where It Hurts.

Where It Hurts is, to a great extent, about dealing with grief and when Coleman was writing this, I hadn’t experienced the loss that would have such a profound effect on me. But still, it was written for me, and also for many others who have experienced the death of someone so close to them that that passing felt as if a piece of their heart was wrenched from their being. Cue Janis Joplin.

One of Coleman’s literary talents is the ability to put you in the mind, and heart, of his characters with such clarity and intensity that you become one of those characters. In Where It Hurts, that character is John Augustus Murphy, or Gus, as he likes to be called.

Gus is the guy that we want a Coleman protagonist to be. He has the toughness and street smarts learned as a former Suffolk County policeman. He understands human nature. He knows that people can sometimes be brilliant, and that sometimes they can be just plain stupid. And the Family Feud number one answer that Gus has in spades, is heart.

Gus’s heart is broken. His son, John, broke it when he died as a young man with his whole life ahead of him, and for two years Gus has suffered with that while the rest of his family disintegrated. Gus’s wife, Annie, drove a final stake into it by an infidelity with one of Gus’s former coworkers, and Gus’s daughter, Kristen, descended into a life battling drugs and alcohol.

Gus, himself, lives and works at The Paragon Hotel, a second rate hotel near MacArthur Airport on Long Island. It is a paragon of only of what shape Gus’s life is in, a perfect mess.

Told in first person point of view, Coleman gives the reader a ring-side seat for Gus’s dealing with his grief, his ruminations on death and what comes next, and how he’s trying to move past it to a new life, one that will probably never be quite as good as the one he had.

Into this new life walks Tommy Delcamino, a small-time hood that Gus had dealings with when he was a police officer. Tommy is dealing with grief too. His son, TJ, was tortured and murdered months earlier. Now he wants Gus to help him find out why. The police seem disinterested, even when Tommy gave them plenty of leads to go on.

Gus is reluctant.  But when a Suffolk County Police contact warns him to stay away from the case and then Tommy Delcamino is murdered, Gus’s curiosity is piqued, and his heart works on his mind. Gus figures even small time hoods deserve justice, even if they’re dead.

Gus finds himself in a battle with drug runners, organized crime figures, and maybe even corrupt cops. But he doesn’t fight his battle alone. Slava, a coworker at The Paragon Hotel, with a murky Russian past, Father Bill, a former priest of questionable faith, who helps Gus manage his moral compass, and Dr. Rosen, a psychiatrist, who attempts to help Gus solve the answer to the magic show that is self-deceit, all help Gus to navigate through dangerous waters.

What readers of Coleman’s novels have come to expect are rich characterizations, solid plotting, realistic dialog, an occasional thrill, and an emotional core that examines the human side of every story. Where It Hurts succeeds in every facet.

So when Coleman writes his next book for me, or not, I trust Gus will be in good hands. He is a fascinating new character that I hope is around for many adventures to come. If you haven’t read Reed Farrel Coleman before, reading Where It Hurts and meeting Gus Murphy is a good place to start.

Where It Hurts will be available January 12, 2016.