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Last year, Denmark was selected as the happiest country in the world ahead of Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. The United States was in 13th place, the U.K 23rd and Japan 53rd.

What is it that accounts for the Danes happiness? Well, it is not about having things. The Danes have a name for their condition ; it is hygge ( pronounced hue-gah). There is no easy one-word  definition of this term but it can be understood to mean creating an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy and enjoying the good things of life with good people. It also means building sanctuary and community and connecting to others whether they be family, friends the community or the earth itself.  And it stresses small pleasures over the pressure to be perfect.

The first part of the definition ( enjoying the good  things of life with good people) is not new and is not unique to the Danes. People in countries the world over are well aware that happiness does not lie in excessive materialism and that it is the small things in life that are important, particularly when enjoyed with other people. Some such pleasures: family get-togethers, tucking into delicious food in the company of good friends, tea served in fine china, curling up with a good book, and a summer afternoon at the beach. These are some of the things that give value and meaning to our every day lives, make us feel at home, generous and content.

It is the second part of the definition ( about living in a society that stresses the importance of community) that is unusual. Danes like living in a society that provides a solid social framework and emphasizes personal contentment instead of status. Some of the features of  Danish society  are trust, a supportive education system and affordable healthcare. I’m sure Danes grumble about the high taxes they pay but they also know what they get in return and are happy with the compact. It allows them to have a good work-life balance and creates a strong foundation for fulfillment.

I can’t help thinking of the United States and the situation we find ourselves in today. Here, we stress individual freedoms to the point where the feeling of community is being undercut. When I speak to older Americans, they longingly remember the sixties as a time when there was a sense of unity, when most of the country was middle class and there was a sense of optimism about the future. None of these are true today. Last year the U.S was 13th on the list of the happiest countries in the world; next year I fear that we will be lower. All we can do is enjoy to remember hygge … enjoy the little pleasures of life, live completely in the present moment and nurture the relationships that are important to us.

 

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My previous post was about a photographic collection, 100 Photographs that captured important moments in our history. It was a captivating book but many of the photographs were necessarily about tragic events ; few of them were about joyful happenings. When I was going through the book I suddenly recollected The Family of Man, a memorable photographic exhibition from the mid-nineteen fifties.

The Family of Man exhibition was curated by Edward Steichen, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. First exhibited at MOMA in 1955, it was subsequently shown in thirty seven countries over the next eight years and is now permanently displayed at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg. The 503 images in the exhibition were also assembled in a book that sold more than 4 million copies and is still in print. The photographs focused on the ties that bind people the world over and celebrated peace and brotherhood. Some critics felt that they were excessively sentimental  but I myself remember them as being a balanced depiction of the human condition, evoking as they do happiness and joy, horror and sadness in equal measure.

After so many years I remember only a few of those photographs. One that stands out is the image of a drum-major in full regalia, including his shako, practicing his parade moves. Back arched, face upturned to the sky, his front leg out thrust he struts across a yard as, unknown to him, a line of mischievous kids mimics his moves. The photo perfectly captures the moment, the impishness, the naughtiness and the carefree nature of childhood. Looking at it, the viewer cannot but recollect what it was to be a child. Another photo, I seem to remember, showed a Peace Corps worker and a turbaned Punjabi farmer sharing a meal, literally. They are both eating with their hands from the same metal plate, bent over , oblivious to the camera, intent only on the food. To me, that photo encapsulated the brotherhood of mankind, the feeling we are the same under the skin.

One photograph that also occurred in the 100 photographs book was ” Migrant Mother”,Dorothea Lange’s Depression era portrait of a desperate mother and her two children. The family had lost their farm in what had become the Dust Bowl and was journeying from Oklahoma to California. The woman in the photo had just sold the tires of her car to buy food, supplemented with birds killed by the children. Defeated,desperate, worried, resigned to their fate the woman stares past the camera at a future without hope. The photograph brought home to the nation the human cost of the Great Depression and put a face on suffering.

If you wish to see some of these photographs, you can google The Family of Man photos. It will give you some idea of why people like me remember it sixty years later.

 

 

 

 

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, the book 100 Photographs : The Most Influential Images of Our Time is worth more than a hundred thousand. A Time publication, it offers readers a valuable retrospective of our lives and times. Many of the photographs we have seen before; I myself recall seeing at least 80 of them at one time or another and being deeply impressed by them. You too will remember many, if not most, of them.

The format of the book is simple. The photographs are on the right hand pages and opposite each, on the left hand page, is a description of the circumstances in which it was taken, its historical significance and its back story. While the photographs are rivetting, the stories behind them  are no less interesting. This is a book to be read, not merely looked at.

The photographs themselves are divided into three broad categories _ Icons, Evidence and Innovation. Under Icons, there are such memorable images as ” Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”. It shows 11 construction workers casually eating lunch or reading newspapers while perched on the narrow beam of a skyscraper under construction, their legs dangling over 800 feet of air. Just looking at the photo gives me vertigo. Other photos in this category include Winston Churchill’s portrait by Karsh of Ottawa, Betty Grable’s saucy pinup pose which gladdened the hearts of GIs during WWII, Flag Raising on Iwo Jima and Babe Ruth’s farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium. Under Evidence, we have searing images such as Burning Monk ( the self immolation of a Buddhist Monk protesting the Vietnam war), Jewish Boy surrenders in Warsaw, Saigon Execution and A Man on the Moon. Some of these in Somalia, Biafra, Iran, Vietnam and Iraq are so disturbing that I had to quickly turn the page. In the last category, Innovation, there are pictures of Salvador Dali’s hijinks, an X-Ray of the Hand of Mrs. William Rontgen, the First Cell Phone picture and the Oscars selfie. While I understand the iconic nature of the photographs in this section, I found them less compelling than the others.

All hundred photos though are ” important”, chronicling as they do important moments in the human experience. The photographers who took them constitute a virtual Who’s Who of photography. They include Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Karsh of Ottawa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Edward Steichen.

The book is notable not only for the photographs but for their back stories and the feelings and emotions that they evoke. For instance, ” Country Doctor” shows Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, CO walking home through a weed strewn lot after a hard day of home visits.  Looking at the stark photograph, you can see how bone-tired the doctor is, sense his dedication and innate goodness. You know that no matter how exhausted he is, he will be making his rounds again tomorrow. This is a man who loves what he does; he is not in it for the money.” VJ Day in Times Square” shows a sailor who has grabbed a nurse, bending her back and planting a passionate kiss on her lips. The moment captures perfectly the sense of exuberance and relief that the war was at long last over.

Sometimes the descriptions correct long held impressions. ” Saigon Execution” shows the South Vietnamese chief of police firing a bullet through the head of a bound prisoner. The photo symbolized the brutality of war and galvanized American public opinion against the Vietnam war. What I did not know, and what the book reveals, was that the prisoner was the leader of a terrorist squad that that had just killed the family of one of the police chief’s friends. This is not to excuse the chief’s action but it provides the context for it.

Sometimes, my feelings were at variance with widely held views. One such photograph is ” Muhammed Ali vs. Sonny Liston” It shows the 23-year old Ali towering over Liston whom he has just kayoed and taunting him ” Get up and fight, sucker”. As the write-up explains, the ” perfectly composed image captures Ali radiating the strength and poetic brashness that made him the nation’s most beloved and reviled athlete”. True enough, but what I also remember is that there have been persistent rumors that the fight was fixed, that Liston played dead after a phantom blow to the chin. To my mind, the photo also captures Ali’s arrogance and the cruelty he displayed particularly in a later fight with Ernie Terrell.

This book will evoke myriad emotions in its readers… nostalgia, exhilaration, pity, fear, awe, anger, loathing  and disgust. But above all, it will arouse  a feeling of wonder at the vagaries of human behavior.

You can see the entire project at http://www.TIME.com/100photos.

 

 

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When I saw the book” Bamberger’s : New Jersey’s Greatest Store” by Michael J. Lisicky, I knew I had to read it. When my wife and I started married life in Edison, N.J in 1973, Bamberger’s at the nearby Menlo Park Mall was where we shopped. Bamberger’s and Alexander’s were the two bookends of that mall and we spent many hours there. Alexander’s was low-end, Bamberger’s the more classy.

Lisicky who has made a name for himself as a “department store historian”, perhaps the only one in the U.S, has written a fascinating book about a fast vanishing piece of Americana. His book details the history of Bamberger’s from the 1893 opening of its first store at the corner of Market St. and Liberty Street in Newark, through it’s early struggles, the dynamic enlightened leadership of Louis Bamberger, its 1929 sale to R.H. Macy’s, its subsequent spread all over the Garden State and its absorption into Macy’s. Along the way, the reader picks up some interesting tidbits such as the fact that New Jersey’s first escalator was installed in Bamberger’s Newark store way back in 1901. And that the radio station WOR first went on air in 1922 from that same Bamberger’s store.

Reading the book also made me aware of how many of our department stores have vanished. Some of them have been absorbed by others ( notably  by Macy’s) but most have closed their doors for ever. Nationally, the number of these vanished stores is in the hundreds, if not thousands. In New Jersey alone, the list is long  and makes for sad reading. Some of those that I have shopped in, and are now gone, are Alexander’s, S.Klein on the Square, Sterns, McGrory’s Two Guys, Ohrbach’s and Woolworths. Others that are still around but are hanging on by  a thread include Sears, KMart and JCPenney. How long before they too are gone?

In the past year, I think I have gone only twice to a department store, Macy’s, and it was a dispiriting experience each time. Where once the aisles were full with bustling crowds there were only a few desultory shoppers. Or were they merely lookers? Except during the Christmas shopping season, I can’t imagine that the picture changes much.

I suppose that with the rise of big-box stores such as Costco and BJ’s, of discount giants like Walmart and the increasing popularity of Amazon and on-line shopping, the demise of the department store is inevitable. It is so much easier to purchase things online and have them delivered at no extra cost ( thanks to Amazon Prime) than to brave the traffic and actually go to a brick-and- mortar department store.

I was never one to go a store unless I needed to buy something. I was never one for whom ” Shopping” was a hobby. Nor was I one for mall-walking, a popular pastime of retirees, particularly in winter. I also admit that it is much much easier to buy things from Amazon on-line. Still, I will be sorry when the last department store is no more. As it disappears forever, it will also take away a part of my past.

 

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I have been reading  “A Very Pukka Murder”, a mystery set in British India , circa 1909. On page 143 of the book I came across this passage describing the victim, Major Russell:  “There was a clinical condition that described men like that – Manie sans deliere – or ‘ Mania without delirium’, a scientific term propagated by Phillipe Pinel. It described a sort of unnatural moral insanity demonstrated by egocentric individuals who lacked both conscience and a sense of morality and believed themselves to be above the rules that applied to normal humans.”

Does it sound familiar?

Recognize him?

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( Some months ago I read a memoir by a woman who wrote obituaries for a small town newspaper in Alaska. In it , she described how she went beyond the cold hard facts —  born/ married/ career highlights/died/survived by — and tried to find the little things which truly defined the deceased. There was one life in particular that she wrote about which created a deep impression on me. It is the subject of this post. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of either the author’s name or the title of the book and have been unable to find it again at the library. What follows is from memory and ,thus, a little skimpy in detail but it doesn’t really matter.)

Her name was Hannah. I don’t know her last name but it’s unimportant. As a young girl, Hannah emigrated from Sweden sometime in the years before World War II. She was not much educated and didn’t know anyone in America but she was young and willing to work hard. She found work in the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C.as a cook and general purpose worker. She worked there for several years, built a good reputation and ,somewhere along the way, she married a partially disabled man named Carl. She was well liked at the embassy and , in the aftermath of the war, she was told of an opportunity in Alaska where an abandoned military  property was on sale, cheap. Scraping together her savings, and with the help of friends, she bought the property with the idea of converting it into a hotel. She, and Carl, then moved to Alaska.

Those first few years were hard as Hannah and Carl toiled from dawn to dusk to keep their heads above water. Money was scarce and they had to do everything themselves. They  fixed things, they painted, they cooked , they cleaned without stop. There was never any spare time but Hannah somehow found the time to plant a vegetable garden which supplied them with many of their needs. She also planted beds of flowers which transformed the building and gave it a welcoming look. Hannah had always been a good cook and the simple but abundant fare that she laid out began to attract the attention of travelers. Tourists began to  stop over, at first for the food but then for overnight stays. At times, as many as sixty  famished  guests would turn up for breakfast and Hannah would serve them all with the help of only one girl who worked part time.

Things got better but Hannah and Carl continued their frugal, hard working ways. In order to rent out every last room, they themselves slept on cots in a cramped cubbyhole just off the kitchen. Work consumed their days; there was no time for much else. They never took vacations or went on cruises. They never had time for hobbies but  Hannah had fun when she could. She had been a good skier during her childhood in Sweden and, whenever the hotel ran short of supplies, she would strap on her skis and ski over the frozen roads to the grocery store in town.

Hannah and Carl had only one indulgence. Occasionally, business was slow and rooms were vacant, they would commandeer the best room in the hotel and make the beds  with fresh linens. Then , after long hot showers, they would collapse onto the soft beds, so different from their usual cots, and sleep the deep, dreamless sleep of the weary. This one detail vividly paints a picture of them, makes them come alive in ways nothing else could.

Thus, they passed their days. Carl passed away when he was in his early seventies. Hannah sold the hotel shortly thereafter and retired, living into her late eighties. And that is their story. I did tell you Hannah was an ordinary woman. Alone in a new country, without much education, she made the most of the limited opportunities she had. As the adage goes, when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade. Her accomplishments may not seem like much, but how much more admirable is her life than those of the celebrities or the sports heroes we read about. Celebrities become famous for being notorious ( think Kim Kardashian) and sports greats are very often duds off the sports field. Hannah, on the other hand, lived an exemplary life worth emulating by all of us. Honest, genuine, industrious, simple, she achieved the modest goals she set herself.

Yes, Hannah was an ordinary woman but she lived an extra-ordinary life.

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When it comes to cooking, our friend V is a perfectionist. When she makes a dish, she uses exact amounts of the ingredients and follows directions religiously. When she likes an unfamiliar dish and wants to add it to her repertoire, she does her homework meticulously. She watches the dish being prepared ( more than once if necessary), taking copious notes all the while. Then she tries it out as many times as necessary until she gets it just right. Only then does the recipe become part of her collection of dishes to cook.

Needless to say, V is a very good cook. Every thing she cooks is consistently good and it is a pleasure to watch her in the kitchen. Her every movement is as if choreographed, sure-handed and economical. When she rolls out dough, it comes out a perfect circle – every time. If one were to use a protractor or a stencil, the circle could not be more perfect.

Most people cook quite differently. Whether they are good cooks or not, they almost never follow the recipe exactly or even attempt to do so. My wife and I know our way around the kitchen and , for us, a recipe is merely a guide, a rough guide. We do not –  cannot- always rely 100% on the recipe as written. Some cookbook writers  list an ingredient but omit it from the cooking directions. Other times, the quantities of some ingredients appear wrong and we use our judgment to alter  them as we think fit. It doesn’t matter how experienced or well- known  cookbook authors are; they can still make  mistakes. Recently , we were trying out a recipe from a cookbook by a woman who has written 40+ cookbooks. The photograph of the dish showed a dry curry but when we tried to replicate the dish it came out more like a soupy stew!

Both V ‘s method and ours have their advantages and disadvantages. V’s repertoire of dishes is, understandably, somewhat limited. She will not try out a new dish unless she is absolutely sure about it. Thus,  though the dishes she makes are perfect,she makes the same dishes over and over again. In the case of more adventurous cooks , like us, we are always ready to try something new. Thus, our dishes taste different each time. They may not turn out great but we know enough about cooking that it is rarely a disaster. Having to change the recipe on the fly ( either because we don’t have an ingredient or because recipe directions are iffy) is not a problem. And, I like to think, such flexibility makes us better cooks and cooking more interesting.

Recently, I was thinking about this subject and about how it applies to other aspects of daily life. There can be little doubt that, in matters other than cooking, a less rigid approach is far better. This is true both for our thoughts and our actions. As Aldous Huxley said  “ Consistency is contrary to nature, to life. The only completely consistent people are dead“. Conditions change and it behooves us to keep an open mind and change our thinking, our positions as necessary. I’m not in sympathy with those who expect a politician to be absolutely consistent over the course of an entire career. To unload on someone because what he says today is different from what he said ten or twenty years ago is ridiculous. As long as his position on an issue is not a complete flip-flop  and as long as it is dictated by a changing reality, I think such changes are perfectly OK.

When it comes to what we plan to do, a ( little) adventurousness is similarly a good thing. Otherwise, we will never try anything new, always do the same things again and again. Trying something new, whether it be a new dish at a restaurant or a new activity, can be beneficial. It makes life more interesting and , sometimes, can expand our consciousness even as it gives us pleasure. A case in point: Recently, I sang karaoke  for the first time. It came as a huge surprise, not only to my friends but to me, because I had never done such a thing. Never even tried it. My wife sings well and, for many years , we had been attending these karaoke sessions without my ever uttering a peep. I just knew I couldn’t sing and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to try–after all, I couldn’t do worse than some of the others. So, I chose a song I loved, one I thought might be doable, and practiced for about a week. Then, I made my maiden attempt at singing last weekend. Surprisingly, for all my previous trepidation, I wasn’t very nervous as I took the mike.  I am not going to say that it was an unqualified success but , for a first attempt, it wasn’t half bad. I did not make an ass of myself and the experience was actually fun. If I had not put aside my fears, I would never have gotten over them.

To get back to the point I was trying to make: sometimes it is good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Structure is good but, occasionally, it’s important to take a chance. If you prepare well, you will not do badly,. And, in the unlikely event that you do, who cares?

June 25th is our next karaoke session and, yes, I plan to sing.

 

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