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After Roger Federer’s victory over Stan Wawrinka  in the BNP -Paribas final at Indian Wells yesterday, John Isner tweeted ” Is Roger Federer really from Planet Earth ?” A good question because at age 35, Federer seems to have regained his youth and is playing better than ever. At a time when his arch-rival Rafael Nadal seems to have lost a step, at a time when Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, currently # 1 and # 2 in the rankings, seem to have lost their mojo and are nursing injuries, Federer looks once again like the player he was in his vintage years. At the later stages in their careers, most players slow down physically, their court coverage suffers and they gradually, imperceptibly adopt a defensive mindset. At Indian Wells yesterday and at the Australian Open earlier in the year, Federer moved as well as he ever has and he was very aggressive throughout. He was  going for shots, hitting the sidelines, and advancing to the net at every opportunity. Once again, we fans were treated to a master-class in tennis… fluid, graceful, seemingly effortless, and yet lethal. Poor Stan Wawrinka. He played as well as he could , as well as he was allowed to, but he always looked like he was fighting an uphill battle. A great player in his own right, a late bloomer who has always been in Roger’s shadow, it is good to see Stan come into his own. Against anyone else but Roger, I root for him.

Federer’s victory yesterday has understandably delighted his legion of fans, of whom I am one. It was painful to watch him struggle last year and we are all euphoric to see him re-born. However, let us be realistic. It is wishful thinking to think that he will win at the French Open and at Wimbledon and get his 19th and 20th Grand slams. Roger’s game plan now is to keep the rallies short and conserve his energy.; he is , after all, thirty-five. (Actually, he is closer to 36). Even he cannot afford to play long five setters and still play at his peak over the two weeks of a Grand Slam. I know he did it in the semi-final and final at Melbourne but that was a very fast surface and he had a favorable draw that enabled him to get more rest than Nadal before their epic final. Indian wells too was a fast surface and it was a best of three format. I know that Federer will be playing at Miami where the absence of Murray and Djokovic should help him improve his ranking and get into the top 8 and a favorable seeding in the upcoming Grand Slams but I would be very surprised if he plays the French Open.  Skipping it would let conserve his energy and get ready for the grass courts of Wimbledon where he is a real threat. But that is still a couple of months away. In the meantime, let’s see what happens with him at Miami. Win or lose, he is a delight to watch .

 

 

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I was really looking forward to the quarter final clash between Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios at the BNP- Paribas Masters tournament in Indian Wells. Roger Federer is my favorite player, now mounting a fairytale comeback at age 35, and Nick Kyrgios, the enfant terrible of tennis, is playing at the top of his game. Kyrgios upset Novak Djokovic in his previous match ( his second win over the Serbian in the last two weeks) while unleashing serves of up to 141 mph. I mentioned my hopes to a fellow sports fan when I called him in Las Vegas on Thursday. ” Don’t get your hopes up” he said, ” anything is possible with Kyrgios. You never know which Kyrgios will show up.” Prophetic words indeed, but even my friend never envisioned that Kyrgios would not show up at all; he pulled out just before the match, citing food poisoning and saying he did not want to play a great champion like Federer  when he was at less than his best. I suppose his explanation could be true but his bratty behavior in the past makes his every action suspect.

Whatever be the reasons for Kyrgios’ withdrawal, it is a pity that he forfeited the match. Both players were playing extra-ordinary tennis and it would have been great to watch them go at each other. In addition to everything else, this was a stark contrast in characters: the ultimate good guy- bad guy confrontation. A morality play of sorts. Federer is unquestionably the most  loved player of all time and Nick Kyrgios the most despised one in a long time. His atrocious on-court behavior which culminated in his tanking a match has earned him repeated fines and suspensions. Boasting a 6′-4″ physique and equipped with all the shots, he has beaten all the top players at one time or another. He has also followed  notable victories with an inexplicable loss while appearing to play as if he didn’t care. Tennis commentator and tennis great John McEnroe  has even called him a disgrace and called on him to quit tennis. McEnroe himself was no saint in his playing days but he managed to keep his emotions ( somewhat) in check and went on to have a great career. It remains to be seen whether Kyrgios can do the same; the clock is ticking.

BTW, after the Australian Open Federer, Grigor Dmitrovic  and Tommy Haas accompanied by David Foster on the piano, made a video of an off-key rendition of ” Hard to say I’m sorry”, the 80’s hit by the rock group Chicago. The trio styling themselves The ( one-handed) Backhand Boys must have been practicing because they’ve just reprised their effort and they are now pretty good. Check it out.

P.S As I was writing, Federer and Wawrinka won their semi-final matches  handily in straight sets and will face each other in Sunday’s final. Should be a good match and I’ll be watching.

 

 

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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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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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When well meaning friends call us from the West Coast in winter, they often ask how we are managing, how we are holding on. Accustomed to balmy weather year round, they are perturbed when they see temperatures in New Jersey hovering in the teens and twenties. Actually, it is not at all bad and there are pleasures to be had here which people in warmer climes never experience.

It is a misconception to think that winter temperatures in New Jersey are low all the time. As I write, it is 59 deg. F ; tomorrow it will be 74 deg F. Last week we had six inches of snow and the temperature hovered around freezing ( 32 degrees F) for several days . Back in January, it even went as low as 8 degrees F. That was an anomaly and I think the average winter temperature is probably in the high thirties or low forties. The other saving grace is that the sun is out much of the time, unlike Northern Europe where it disappears for weeks on end and the winter skies are gray most of the time.

No matter how cold it is outside, the house is well insulated and, if we dress sensibly, winter is no hardship. This is particularly true for retirees like us who do not have to go out unless they want to. The snow removal crews in our Active Adult community are very efficient and the snow gets removed promptly.

” What are these winter pleasures?” you ask. Well here are some of them…

Winter foods: In winter, we cook differently, the emphasis being on piping hot soups and hearty stews and casseroles. The slow cooker comes into its own now and it is wonderful to pop the ingredients in, cook them long and slow overnight and wake up next morning with lunch already done. There is a certain ” rightness” to sitting down to a meal of Slow Baked Macaroni and Cheese or Corned Beef , Cabbage and Carrots or Pork and Celery Stew. These dishes taste especially good when it is cold and snowing outside; they just don’t taste as good in hot weather.

The fireplace: Unlike the fireplace in our old house which required real or faux wood, our new fireplace is gas fired. So what if it isn’t authentic; it heats up quickly and disseminates the warmth efficiently. Every now and then, I love to get up from the recliner and toast myself on both sides by standing close to it. What bliss !

Snug as a bug in a rug: describes how I feel at night under the down comforter. In winter, I am comfortable all night and drop off to a dreamless sleep in minutes. Not at all like  summer when, in spite of the A/C, it feels stuffy in the middle of the night and I wake up. This usually happens at around 3 am, too early to get out of bed and, yet, difficult to get back to sleep.

Watching it snow: It’s so wonderful to sit at the window and watch the snow come down knowing that one doesn’t have to go out. There is a magic in watching the snowflakes fall, accumulate slowly on the grass, the road and the roofs of the houses opposite. With fewer people up and about, everything is shrouded in a silence that makes you feel as if you are in a cocoon, warm, comfortable and relaxed. With hardly anyone about, it feels like a still life, pristine and serene in its snow white purity.

Reading: I always love to read but, in winter, there is a special charm in curling up with a good book. With few other options, there is much more time to read and that’s all good.

This is not to say that I like everything about winter. Among the things I don’t like:

Black ice: When a thin film of ice forms on the road surface or driveway, it makes for treacherous footing and can result in falls. Extended periods when the sun is hidden from view: Luckily this happens seldom, perhaps three times in a winter. Early sunsets: which means that it gets dark as early as 4 pm in late December. Luckily, the days lengthen pretty quickly and by late January it is light until past 5.

Karen, a friend of ours, says that winter is her favorite season. When it snows she loves to put on her snow boots and go for a walk. I don’t love winter that much but I do like it and wouldn’t want to miss out on it. There is a certain rhythm to the changing of the seasons; it would be boring if it was ” perfect” all the time.

 

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Going All In

( As poker players know, ” Going all in” means betting everything you have on a single pot. In the larger sense, it means giving it all you have and not holding anything back, of risking everything and not keeping anything in reserve).

A couple of Sundays ago, my wife and I went to the Villagers Theater in the Franklin Park Municipal complex to watch ” Altar Boyz”. It is an off-Broadway musical that ran for over 2,000 performances ending in 2010 and is now playing the small town circuit. It’s about a touring Catholic boy-band that is out to save the lost souls in the audience, one soul at a time, and has catchy music and spectacular dancing. We enjoyed it thoroughly.

But this post is not about the musical itself. It’s about the five dancer-actors who play the members of the band ( Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham). They are all young guys in their twenties or early thirties and it is apparent that acting is their life. While on stage, they show such verve and enthusiasm and are so fully in their roles that it is beautiful to watch. I looked at their bio-data and it was impressive. All of them have spent years honing their craft, singing, dancing and acting in a number of plays  at community theaters, Knights of Columbus Halls, YMCAs and other small town venues. Typically, such productions pay performers very little and , out of curiosity, I tried to figure out how much they could possibly be earning.

The Villagers Theater is larger than it appears from the outside. It seats about 240. For Sunday’s performance it was almost full. Say 220 viewers. The performance was to benefit charity, so tickets were only $ 15. Normally they are $ 22 apiece ( $ 20 for seniors).  At $ 15 per ticket, the total gate comes to about $ 3,300. In addition to the five actors, there were five musicians and three production staff… a total of 13 people to be paid. After deducting expenses, it is doubtful that each performer got much more than $ 150. Considering that these productions are limited engagements, I don’t think the actors could be earning more than $25,000 a year each. Even if they make it all the way to Broadway later in their careers ( very inlikely), they will never strike it rich. Yet, in spite of the meager pay, the  poor prospects, they persist in their craft, giving it everything they have.

I mentioned this to my wife as we were driving back and she had a different perspective. She felt that the actors were doing what they wanted to do, enjoying every moment they spent on the stage or even in rehearsals. She went on to say that they were living their lives fully, in a way that the rest of us cannot even imagine.

She has a point but I also know that I could not do what they are doing, even had I the talent. Most of us are like that, conditioned to think of  steady employment,  a good career, security. I am too but I respect those young men and I admire them. I admire them deeply.

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