Daniel Flatley is a staff writer at the Watertown Daily Times covering Jefferson County government and local, state and national politics.
Note to readers: this week’s Life in a Northern Town column comes courtesy of the unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge, a money-lender and financial planner recently relocated to the north country.
Greetings and salutations dear readers,
Despite my nearly overwhelming contempt for Mr. Flatley, his egregiously sentimental writing and generally careless way of doing things, I have asked him for the opportunity to write this week’s column as a way of promoting the Watertown office of Scrooge & Marley, LLC, recently opened in the Paddock Arcade. He, of course, being pathetically agreeable and wanting to please everyone he comes across, assented to my suggestion. Lamentable fool.
Assuming you are of sound financial means and rather smart about your choices otherwise, Scrooge & Marley welcomes your business. We are also hiring for the position of clerk. My last employee was quite inflexible in his insistence that he be given a holiday on Christmas.
By way of introduction to my particular world view, which my potential clients will no doubt find helpful as they deliberate on whether to employ me, please allow me to give my opinion on a film I lately had the displeasure of viewing.
In a rare and brief moment of weakness, I decided to indulge in a spot of television this weekend. Using a small table-top box called an Apple TV (NASDAQ: AAPL), which I purchased for $99, and a subscription to Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX), which I obtained for a monthly subscription price of $8, I viewed a supremely saccharine, morally reprehensible and wholly dismissable film titled “Scrooged,” produced in 1988 by Paramount Pictures and starring Bill Murray and Karen Allen.
(Curious title that. From whence the producers derived it, I know not.)
The film promotes a very dangerous idea: that concern for one’s fellow man, no matter how irresponsible, mentally feeble or incompetent he may be, is the chief universal virtue of human life and one to which all other men, particularly the wealthy and powerful, must ascribe.
But let us begin at the beginning.
The film starts out well enough. Bill Murray plays Francis Xavier Cross, a man whose heretofore untrammeled success — he’s the youngest network television executive in history — is threatened by incompetent slackers who do not understand his desire to gain more viewers for his company’s Christmas Eve television special.
They balk at his scintillating promotional spot. One unfortunate fool actually has the temerity to question Mr. Cross about it to his face. This loathsome creature, played by actor Bobcat Goldthwait, is promptly sacked. And good riddance.
Cue the three ghosts, who take Mr. Cross on a rather perfunctory tour of his past, in which he revisits his youth and sees himself making mostly all the right decisions as he puts his work ahead of his family and friends, as one must do if one wants to get ahead in this world.
He also sees the future, which is kind of sad, because he dies. But hey, everyone dies and that’s probably a good thing. After all, and as I’ve said many times before, we do have a surplus population.
At any rate, apparently Mr. Cross, who led us to believe he had more sense than this, has a monumental crack-up and starts spouting off at the mouth about the “true meaning of Christmas” and a whole lot of other nonsense. The movie ends.
As I mentioned, this movie irresponsibly promotes some very dangerous ideas, chief among them the notion that the well-being of humanity can be advanced by mutual shared sacrifice. Also, that living off the charity of others is a suitable livelihood. Are there no prisons? No workhouses?
The lone positive message in the entire film comes from Mr. Cross’s father, who gives his yet-to-be-reformed, still lazy 4-year-old son five pounds of veal for Christmas — a gift that would be valued at well over $100 in today’s marketplace.
The following exchange ensues after the elder Mr. Cross presents his ungrateful son with this generous gift:
“But daddy, I asked Santa for a choo-choo,” the naive boy says.
“Then go out and get a job and buy a choo-choo,” the elder Mr. Cross says. “All day long I listen to people give excuses why they can’t work. ‘My back hurts, my legs ache, I’m only four.’ The sooner he learns that life isn’t given to you on a silver platter, the better.”
Bravo, good sir. A capital (no pun intended) lesson!
Daniel Flatley’s column ‘Life in a Northern Town’ appears Tuesday in the Times. His guest writer this week, Ebenezer Scrooge, originally appeared in Charles Dickens’s novel, ‘A Christmas Carol.’
“I can see my mother in the kitchen/Father on the floor/Watching television/It’s a wonderful life”
— The Killers, “Boots”
After a hiatus of several years, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” has made its way back onto my holiday movie rotation. A list that has included, most recently (and regrettably) “Jingle All the Way,” occasionally “Die Hard,” “Scrooged” and “The Family Stone,” and always “White Christmas” and “The Muppet Christmas Carol.”
I last saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” many years before I moved to New York, city or state, and never imagined the fictional town of Bedford Falls to be located somewhere in the region.
However, after hearing Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira prominently mentioned in the film, it dawned on me that Bedford Falls could be in upstate New York. But where exactly?
Watertown seemed a likely analogue, what with its historic downtown and proclivity to collect enormous amounts of snow. Old pictures I had seen of Public Square crowded with holiday shoppers only served to support this suspicion.
I briefly contemplated a Christmas Eve sojourn down the main thoroughfare, running of course, and shouting:
Unfortunately for my exuberant holiday exercise plans, it turns out that nearby Seneca Falls, 111 miles southwest of Watertown, has already laid claim to being the inspiration for Bedford Falls, and with good reason.
According to Anwei Law, curator of the Seneca Falls “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum, Mr. Capra stopped in Seneca Falls on his way to visit his aunt in Auburn. He got his hair cut by a local barber with the last name Bellissima, Italian for “beautiful.” Capra, by contrast, means “goat” in the same language. The two men struck up a conversation about their shared experience as immigrants, according to lore.
During his visit, Mr. Capra would presumably have come in contact with the story of Antonio Varacalli, a Seneca Falls resident who jumped into a canal to save a woman who had attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge in town in 1917. Mr. Varacalli saved the woman but drowned as a result of his intervention. A plaque had been affixed to the bridge commemorating his sacrifice.
Again, according to lore, the encounter had an impression on Mr. Capra, who had just begun work on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Later versions of the script for the movie include a scene in which George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, jumps into a river to save Clarence the angel, thus saving him from his suicidal machinations.
The town of Seneca Falls hosts an “It’s a Wonderful Life” celebration every year. This year it was this past Saturday and Sunday. Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey; Carol Coombs, who played Janie Bailey; and Mary Owen, daughter of Donna Reed, who played Mary Bailey, were all in attendance.
The Seneca Falls Visitor Center maintains a website called therealbedfordfalls.com. In 2010, Mrs. Law and her husband Henry opened the Seneca Falls “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a curious film. While cathartic and uplifting on the one hand, it also paints a portrait of a backward, provincial town where even noble men and women are held under the thumb of the nefarious old man Potter, the town’s wealthiest citizen and chief banker.
The story of George Bailey is the story of a good man who puts his family responsibility and the people of the town ahead of his own interests. But George Bailey is also a man whose dreams are thwarted at nearly every turn, often because of his high ideals.
That Mr. Potter is never taken to task for his criminal acts, which include grand larceny, is the least of the film’s problems.
Over the years, critics have pointed out some of the inconsistencies in the film’s message, including this brilliant essay about the merits of Pottertown, published on Salon.com in 2001: http://wdt.me/pottersville.
But for Mrs. Law, a simple and timeless message is at the heart of the film’s appeal: “Each life touches another life.”
And it’s undeniable that the film itself has touched a number of lives.
“People come in here all the time and some start crying,” Mrs. Law said. “They have so many memories associated with watching this film. ... I often say to people, life has a lot of difficulties, people face a lot of situations like George Bailey and Mary Bailey, but in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ we know the ending — and its a good ending — and so we can watch this movie and love this movie because we know the ending. And it kind of gives people hope for lives where you don’t know the ending. So I don’t think it’s too sentimental; I think it’s great.”
“They say I’m crazy but I have a good time”
— Joe Walsh, “Life’s Been Good”
It has come to my attention that I received two write-in votes during this year’s general election.
I can, with full candor and confidence, say that I did not vote for myself. The votes, I believe, came from my beloved friend, the curmudgeonly photography editor, he of the worn corduroy pants, possessed of a curious affinity for goats.
The votes came for the offices of New York state Senate and Assembly, positions that ultimately went to incumbents Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.
Let me take this opportunity to officially concede. It’s difficult to be a challenger in this political environment.
My only consolation is the company I keep. Voters also wrote in the names of Terry Fralick, the Watertown School District Superintendent; John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight; Willie Mays, the baseball Hall of Famer and possibly the best all-around player of all time (say hey!); John Smith, the explorer and devastatingly handsome Disney character; and faux-news host/political firebrand Jon Stewart.
I am honored to be included in such a fine class of candidates.
Additionally, I would like to point out that Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh and Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., (who visited Watertown in September to stump for Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik) both mounted write-in campaigns at different points in their lives. Mr. Schock, who ran for a school board seat, was successful, Mr. Walsh, who ran for president of the United States, less so.
Finally, I am announcing my retirement from politics. Quit while you’re ahead, I always say. And I very much prefer life on this side of the journalistic divide.
I find it much more comfortable to write than to be written about. To be written in, however, is an exhilarating experience.
So, thank you, my voter. I humbly accept your endorsement.
Dan Flatley’s column ‘Life in a Northern Town’ appears Tuesday in the Times.
Garrett McCarthy, born in Springfield, Mass. in 1961, has paint on his fingers. And his hands. And his sweatshirt. And maybe a little bit on his pants.
But he’s an artist, so he can be forgiven.
“People don’t mess with the painter, either,” Garrett said. “You mess with a painter, you get slammed with paint. No one wants that.”
We’re sitting in Vito’s Gourmet deli in downtown Watertown, a few feet from the work of art that first drew me to Garrett, and we’re talking about the merits of painting houses and murals.
The paintbrush, apparently, is a strong deterrent. It sends a signal: “Here is a man (or woman) at work. Don’t mess with him (or her).”
“Cops should try it,” Garrett said. “Instead of a taser they should use a paint gun, or at least a brush. You get more respect that way.”
Garrett, 53, graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a bachelor of fine arts degree. He started coming to the north country in the mid-1980s, took up residence here more than 20 years ago and is now president of the Henderson Historical Society.
His first job was painting a mural at the Friendly’s restaurant near the Boston Science Museum. He was 17 years old. He cold-called the establishment, which led to a profitable relationship, at least for a while.
He made $2,500 to 3,000 a year, helping to pay his way through college. Then it was on to the Exeter College of Art & Design in England, where he lined up another job painting clouds in a swanky London hotel. And then it was on to ... the life of a starving artist.
Despite a strong work ethic, Garrett said he wasn’t quite prepared for life after art school. He traveled in search of work, cobbling together jobs, and taught elementary art and social studies classes for nine years in three different schools.
He kept painting along the way and his style has apparently evolved. A versatile artist, Garrett can paint everything from murals to faux-frescoes, from landscapes to figures. Most of his jobs seem to entail scaffolding in one way or another. Sometimes he’s on his back like Michelangelo, other times he’s standing — painting galaxies, stars, angels or bat signals.
He’s done work in the Bahamas and in the Thousand Islands and has been involved in the restoration of the Masonic Temple and the Agricultural Insurance Building on Washington Street.
But the painting that caught my eye currently hangs on the wall in Vito’s Gourmet. It’s a depiction of a basketball game in Laguna Beach, Calif., and it reminds me of the movie “White Men Can’t Jump.”
The colors are vibrant, the action frozen in time, the game suspended as the figures are poised to react to a pass. There’s a strong interplay with pop culture but the painting stands on its own. The players and activity seem natural but also heightened.
Garrett said he wanted to paint the game, which he composed from “tons of photos,” because it was one of the main events on the beach. Most of the galleries in the area, however, did not have any paintings like it.
“Nobody was painting what everybody comes down here to see,” Garrett said.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I had a standing date to meet Bob Thomas for strawberry shortcake at Diane’s Coffee Shop in Dexter for the last year.
Whenever I would see Bob, who was a Jefferson County legislator, he would ask me when we were going. I saw him quite often in the course of my duties, and I often had to make excuses as to why I couldn’t meet him. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to; I was busy. With several political races in the north country this year and a wedding and other personal items on my agenda, I just wasn’t able to make it work.
Though serious, the invitation to dessert was as much an inside joke as anything else.
In June 2013, during my first summer in Northern New York, Bob took me to Diane’s Coffee Shop for lunch. I remember he ordered a hot dog and, for dessert, we both asked for an order of strawberry shortcake, which arrived in a pair of oversized bowls. The dessert was good, though I’m not sure Bob finished all of his. I can’t remember now whether I helped him or not. I probably did.
After lunch, Bob took me over to Fish Island, the project of which he was most proud, and he showed off the handicapped-accessible canoe and kayak ramp and the stone dedicated to his nephew David J. Lane, a state trooper who was killed in the line of duty in 2009.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Bob went to join his nephew last Monday. And we never had the chance to get another strawberry shortcake. A tragedy on many levels.
Bob had a unique relationship with reporters. He was capable of speaking frankly about a given situation without appearing unduly critical, he gave great quotes and he was often willing to volunteer information, tips that were not always flattering to local government.
Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee said in a 1991 interview that the presidents who had the best relationships with the press were those who liked and tried to understand the press.
Bob was one who liked the press, though not in a self-serving way. I think Bob liked people and he liked stories and he found a little bit of both in the reporters with whom he came in contact.
Two of my predecessors — Jude Seymour and Drew Mangione — had much deeper relationships with Bob and accompanied him on some of his trips to Buffalo, where he received treatment for the pancreatic cancer he battled for 13 years. I spoke to both of them the day of Bob’s death and they were both upset by his passing, though they were happy to share their memories of the man they both called “dad.”
Bob was a rare individual, a throwback to an earlier time who refused to be sidelined by his age or his illness. Up to the last time I saw him, he was as contemporary and lucid as anyone. And funny, too.
When I told him I was coming to hospice to interview him, he said, “Come on up. I’m not going anywhere. No one’s offered me a job all day.”
The day he died, I drove out to Fish Island. I was looking for a little color to add to the story and I thought if I went back to that place that meant so much to him, I might find it.
I did. And after spending a few minutes on the island, watching the sunset, I went into Diane’s Coffee Shop.
I asked if they had any pie on offer. They did not. Strawberry shortcake had been served that day.
I ordered a cinnamon bun, which was then placed on the grill for a few minutes. It was the best cinnamon bun I’ve ever had in my life.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday was the 239th birthday of the United States Marine Corps and today is Veterans Day — two occasions that I typically take pains to commemorate, the former with a drink and some cake (the Marines have a long-standing cake-cutting tradition) and the latter with some reflection.
This year, however, is different.
Many months ago I had planned to write a column about the accomplishments of my generation of veterans and had even gone so far as to identify a few I wanted to interview for the story — men and women I greatly admire.
But as the roller-coaster of my mother’s illness has rapidly and then haltingly unfolded over the past weeks, I’ve found myself less and less able to concentrate on anything else.
Since first writing about the tumor doctors discovered in her brain more than three weeks ago, I have received many gracious notes of encouragement from readers and colleagues alike.
The situation, unfortunately, has grown more complex, further complicated by the slow trickle of partial information that oscillates between encouraging and devastating news.
The doctors called with a CT scan report two weeks ago that showed additional lesions on my mom’s liver, lungs and kidneys — lesions that doctors thought indicated cancer.
After two rounds of liver biopsies, cancer in the liver seems to have been effectively ruled out, so the doctors are now refocusing on the brain. Surgery to remove the tumor they found there had to be postponed while they checked out the other sites of suspected cancer.
At 8 a.m. Monday, my mom was back at the Cleveland Clinic for a brain biopsy — a procedure I am told is minimally invasive, though my mom, in her typical understated fashion, has voiced her concerns about the operation.
“Don’t like anyone ‘going into my head,’” she texted Sunday.
What I am more nervous about are the results. Following a conversation with my dad the other day, we have been cautioned to expect everything from the best to the worst. The worst being a cancer that attacks the lining of the brain and the cerebrospinal fluid. The best, a benign tumor that can be treated with targeted radiation.
The waiting, as Tom Petty once said, is the hardest part.
I went swimming last week at the Watertown Family Y and I was reminded of something I haven’t thought about in years.
When I was no more than 9 or 10 years old, my mom, who had just been certified as a SCUBA diver, somehow managed to commandeer one-half of the YMCA pool in our hometown and let me don her equipment and swim around underwater uninterrupted for 15 minutes. Those were some of the most memorable minutes of my life — the feeling of weightlessness, the wonder of the compressed air and breathing apparatus, the chance to finally explore the depths of the pool, where I imagined strange creatures dwelled, unfettered by the need to surface.
I don’t know why my mom let me do that or how she pulled it off, as I was years away from being certified a SCUBA diver myself. As I mentioned in my previous column, she spends a lot of time swimming at the YMCA. Perhaps she simply talked the lifeguard into looking the other way for a few minutes.
My mom also became a certified lifeguard when I was younger, for no real reason other than maybe the challenge and learning experience it provided.
When I was going through water survival training during basic training at Parris Island, a few of my fellow recruits and I advanced to the final stages of “Swim Qual 1,” which required us, in a rare twist, to rescue some of our drill instructors.
It was challenging, especially when the drill instructor I was rescuing complained, in a way only drill instructors can, about me squeezing his nipple while dragging him to safety at the other side of the pool.
I had to repeat the exercise a few times and thought about giving up before I remembered that my mom had gone through similar training during her lifeguard course. If she could do it, I thought, so can I.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting my parents in West Virginia. Across the street from their house, someone had set up a very elaborate display of Halloween decorations, including a faux-graveyard comprising several wooden tombstones emblazoned with the letters R.I.P.
The tombstones began at the top of a small hill, where an inflatable hearse presumably dropped off the latest deposits. At the bottom of the hill were two lawn signs of the political persuasion, advertising the names of candidates running for the West Virginia legislature, including a guy who used to be the captain of my high school soccer team.
Although Halloween has now passed us by, the metaphor is still apt. On election day, some campaigns will rise to the occasion (pun only incidentally intended), others will stumble along like the living dead until absentee votes are counted and others will be dead-on-arrival.
Whether the homeowner realized it or not, the placement of the lawn signs in the graveyard came across as an inspired choice.
So, here we have arrived at the place in the column where I would typically turn to lead you to the overarching point. In this case, as you may have inferred from the tone I employed above, my inclination is to make some cynical remarks about politicians and the political process being like Halloween, i.e. people parading about in masks entreating strangers for candy.
But I’m not going to do that today.
Instead, I’m going to do something that a few short years ago, when I was a young punk, would have induced me to cringe. I’m going to encourage you to get out and vote.
As a rule, it’s virtually impossible to make the exhortation to vote sound cool, although plenty of people have tried. To wit, the group HeadCount.org is hosting a social media campaign on election day, partnering with “hundreds of entertainers” to urge fans to #govote.
It’s a worthy mission, to be sure, but I have to admit that seeing celebrities promote this kind of thing always makes me wonder if their public relations person just roped them into something about which they would feel like a heel if they didn’t do.
Voting is kind of a chore. But here’s the thing: it’s a really easy chore.
Every once in awhile, the debate over whether journalists should vote crops up in the media.
It’s a subject that’s really only important to other journalists, and therefore isn’t really that interesting. But I take it up here for a specific reason.
Some reporters avoid voting because it creates the perception, real or not, that they are approaching their coverage of a given race with some kind of bias.
As others have pointed out, the existence of absolute objectivity in journalism is up for debate, but I do believe that I can check my opinions at the keyboard (unless, of course, I’m writing a column).
At any rate, I enjoy voting because it is a chore, but one that is easily executed, not like washing the dishes or dusting, which are interminable activities that bedevil me on a regular basis. It’s a quick and easy way to feel a sense of accomplishment. And I’m all about achieving maximum reward for minimum effort.
So, go vote. It feels good.
My mom gets up every morning before dawn to run. She swims, she lifts weights, she has a black belt in karate and a nose ring. She teaches yoga and is one of the fittest people I know. And now she has a brain tumor.
Here is a question that is impossible to answer: how did this happen?
Here’s what we do know.
On Wednesday I was leaving the office when I noticed I had a missed call from my mom. When I called her back, she was slurring her words and having trouble speaking. My sister was working in Pittsburgh and my dad was out of town on business. We dispatched a family friend, a nurse, to the house. My mom has known this person for years but did not recognize her. Eventually the paramedics and the police had to be called to get her to go to the hospital where a CT scan revealed a 1 1/2-inch tumor in the left hemisphere of her brain, where speech functions are located on right-handed individuals (my mom is right-handed).
The tumor was identified as a “glioma.” A quick search on Google (a high thrill ride if you have a loved one with a brain tumor) reveals that glioma is a general term used to describe any tumor that arises from the supportive, or “gluey,” tissue of the brain.
We’ve also heard the term glioblastoma thrown around, which is a rare and aggressive form of cancer and a glioma.
We won’t really know what kind of tumor it is until after the doctors operate on her and are able to perform a biopsy.
(All I keep thinking about when I hear that word is the time I took an Italian class with my mom and we learned that the word for “the” in Italian is “gli.” Gli spaghetti. Glioma. Glioblastoma. Mamma mia!)
For a while, especially on Thursday, my mom refused to believe her diagnosis. She was adamant that she be allowed to leave the hospital and return for care at a later date. It took four or five of us to restrain her, to keep her from ripping the IV from her arm and walking out of the hospital.
It was during this struggle that I realized how strong my mom is. I was able to restrain her with my bulk but her limbs and core are clearly sinewy and developed. I guess I’m just lucky she didn’t use her combat skills.
We finally managed to get her to the Cleveland Clinic, where a team of doctors confirmed the diagnosis and scheduled her for surgery, which then had to be postponed a week because my mom had been taking baby aspirin for her heart, which can thin the blood.
We were then faced with an unexpected dilemma: how to keep an extremely active and strong-willed woman on ice for a week. She’s not supposed to drive. She wanted to drive. She’s supposed to take her medication. She didn’t want to take her medication.
When I left home on Sunday, she had finally agreed, albeit reluctantly, to follow the rules — no driving, take four pills twice a day — but she was determined to teach the yoga and fitness classes she had scheduled for that week.
The program director at the place where she teaches apparently got wind of the situation and cancelled her Monday morning class. My mom, according to my sister, promptly called her back and told her the class was still on. “Let everyone know,” she reportedly said.
If my mom knew I were writing this, she would be upset. She’s not one to broadcast her troubles. But to not write about it would feel like a betrayal of reality. I’m just not up to the task of pretending everything is normal right now.
I realize that ours is not the only nightmare. All across the world, there are terrible and trying situations unfolding. In fact, one of my fellow reporters is dealing with her father’s illness at the moment and I feel for her. Until you’ve experienced something like this — and for most of my life my family was mercifully spared from these kind of tragedies — you don’t fully grasp the devastation.
Of course, we’re optimistic. Much will be revealed in the coming weeks and we hope it will be brighter news.
In the meantime, as I asked my colleagues this morning: if you’re religious, add us to your prayers. If you like to think, keep us in your thoughts. If you like the Beach Boys, send us good vibrations.
We hold out hope. We will get through this.
“At eighty-one years of age he had enough lucidity to realize that he was attached to this world by a few slender threads that could break painlessly with a simple change of position while he slept...”
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera”
It’s been a week since I returned from Bogota and yet I understand less about my trip now than before it began. I thought time would illuminate my impressions, draw them out, but it has erased them the way dawn erases a dream.
Before I left, there were concrete details on which I could focus my attention: an itinerary, the need to pack light, the address of the apartment where I would be staying with my friends. And upon returning, there were those little tremors that reintroduce reality — I lost a small bag of souvenirs I bought at the airport, I couldn’t find the place to get my passport stamped, I saw actor Luis Guzman at Customs in Orlando.
But I went so far (2,721 miles) in such a short period of time (five days) that it’s hard to believe I went anywhere. I went for a wedding, one of three I attended this year, including my own (don’t worry, fearless readers, this is the last one for awhile) and stayed with friends from college, whose lives have since gone in a million different directions.
The visit came 10 years after I studied Spanish at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and five years after I met the bridegroom at the International House in New York City. The friendship has lasted; the Spanish, mas o menos.
Now I am left with that peculiar neuroses of the privileged traveler — how to describe a place I know nothing about.
Like many Americans, my understanding of Colombia was skewed by its portrayal in popular culture.
As evidence of this, the first book I found myself reaching for upon my return was “Killing Pablo” by Mark Bowden — a recounting, in lurid detail, of the manhunt for cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar.
It was only later that I sought out the works of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died this year at 87 years of age.
“Killing Pablo” and “Love in the Time of Cholera” now occupy coveted space at the top of a cluttered pile of books on my bedside table.
The city I found during my travels was altogether different from what I might have expected — a beautiful, cosmopolitan city with weather, at times, like London (or so I’m told) and the clear, cool air of the Andean highlands — air that gives you perspective, yet robs you of oxygen.
On the dance floor at the wedding we sucked wind while jumping up and down shouting the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z, a pack of sweaty gringos regarded with bemused alarm by the native speakers at the Country Club de Bogota.
New York ... concrete ... jungle ... where ... dreams ... are ... made ... of. (Places hands on knees and gasps).
But operating at elevation under a slight language barrier was a small price to pay to experience La Candeleria, the paintings of Fernando Botero and the view from Monserrate.
The wedding was beautiful, of course, as only my friends could do it. I lost count of how many choirs and string quartets and bands and dancers were involved in the ceremony and reception, but I know there were quite a few. (I also lost track of how many glasses of whiskey I drank. Again, there were quite a few).
There were many moments worth remembering and recording but, more than anything, my time in Bogota has made me want to return, to learn and read more about Colombia and its people and to challenge my perspective on the world.
That being said, one of my favorite moments of the trip came during a taxi ride back to the center of town from Monserrate, the mountain that overlooks Bogota. The driver was listening to an American station on the radio and hit after hit kept coming as the city grew dark — Matchbox 20, Usher, Lisa Loeb.
“So I turned the radio on, I turned the radio up/And this woman was singing my song...”
Typically, the most stimulating discussion I have during lunch is whether to get the whole or half sub at Home Deli on West Main Street (which is, by the way, an inestimably fine eating establishment), but after some gentle prodding from a devoted reader, I decided to invest some of my precious meal time to contemplating the mystery of politics, particularly as it relates to social media.
That was how I found myself in front of a classroom of bright young twenty-somethings (of whose peer group I am rapidly aging out) talking about a recent study, undertaken by the Pew Research Center, titled “Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence.’”
What we discovered, or at least what I discovered, is that “social media” — that cringe-worthy blanket term — are ever-changing and relentlessly complicated beasts. We spoke of the pros and cons of anonymity, the stifling effect of digital peer pressure, the relative value of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers and the pressures of keeping up with standards set by your own avatar.
According to the Pew Research study, which attempted to measure the effect social media had on the tendency to clam up about religion and politics around polite company, people were paradoxically less willing to discuss controversial subjects on social media platforms, despite the hopes of their well-intentioned creators that these sites would foster a broadening public discourse.
The Pew Research Center focused on the Edward Snowden revelations about the widespread NSA surveillance of the phone and email records of U.S. citizens and asked 1,801 adults if they were willing to discuss the issue on social media.
The results showed that people were actually less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story on social media than they were in person, and that social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those unwilling to discuss the story in person. The study also showed that people were more willing to share their views, both online or in person, if they felt they had an audience that would agree with them.
A note to readers: I told these students that they could provide either their first names or their first and last names so as not to restrict the free-flowing nature of our discourse — anonymity, as I discovered while speaking with one young man, being perhaps our newest, most valuable currency.
All four students agreed with the study’s finding and said they often felt uncomfortable sharing their opinions on social media.
Alyssa, a 26-year old student, said she was reticent about posting something recently about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but lamented the fact that the reluctance she and many other people felt was stifling the conversation that could be happening online.
Andrea, 19, said she also felt unsure about posting her opinion about the Defense of Marriage Act on social media because she didn’t know how her friends would react.
For Mark Belda Jr., 20, anonymity was key. New sites, such as Ello, which allows users to remain anonymous, go much farther toward allowing people to express their true opinions and feelings.
“Anonymous is the power. That’s where the real truth comes out,” Mark said.
But Alyssa said that anonymity is a double-edged sword because it makes it harder for people to be held accountable for what they say and might encourage a much less civil discourse.
Online, the students said people tend to post more opinion than fact or stories that align with the way they view the world.
Stories shared on social media tend to be national or international stories, perhaps, in part, because people would be more hesitant to criticize or take a position on a local story involving someone in the community they knew, the students said.
(I also asked questions about candidates running for Congress in the 21st Congressional District without revealing their names).
Regarding the number of Facebook likes accumulated by candidates in the race, the students were undecided as to how that metric would translate to votes.
“It depends, I guess,” said Zach Perkins, 22. “It’s a lot easier to click a button.”
Mark said the number of social media followers a candidate enjoys might be skewed toward Democratic candidates, who have younger and presumably more liberal supporters.
That would seem to make sense, according to conventional wisdom, until you take into account the fact that Elise Stefanik, the Republican, Conservative and Independence Party candidate, has the most Facebook likes out of all three candidates in the race.
At 30, Ms. Stefanik is also the youngest candidate.
The idea of posting every vote to Facebook and Twitter, as Ms. Stefanik has said she will do, also won some points.
“It empowers the voter and empowers the person who’s civically engaged. It really does,” said Alyssa.
But, in a strange paradox, the platforms that are supposed to make us less inhibited are actually having the opposite effect. It’s not just the politicians who have to watch what the say anymore.
“It’s almost like we’re all politicians. When you post something, you’re not just having a conversation, you’re making a statement,” Zach said.