Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Jeff Katz, Culture Wanderer

I've been thinking a lot lately of the Jeff Katz of May 1984, just out of college and beginning to work on Wall Street. Maybe it's because I've recently gotten back in touch with a few friends from SUNY-Binghamton, maybe it's because I think about myself too much. When I graduated after four years of taking almost nothing but history, political science and literature courses, I knew enough to know how little I knew. College put me on the right path to have an open mind about books and music. I wouldn't say I had much of an open mind before then.

One of the life-changing courses I took was Russian lit with Rima Salys, a name that is awfully hard to forget. (There's one other professor I had, Otto Ulc, who had been a judge in Communist Czechoslovakia and had crazy stories about the KGB and mainland China. I'll write about that some day). Salys also taught Russian language, which I took for a semester before it became too hard.

Russian lit hit me hard. That depressing outlook couldn't have been more in line with my world view. Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Gogol - wow! I can recall taking the Staten Island Ferry to work, letting all the tourists get a good view of the Statue of Liberty, as I sat on an outside bench thinking how I would never be able to read all of these books. Dostoevsky's novels were so huge, I could never get through them all.

Commuting for the next 20 years allowed me to read voraciously, nearly one book per week. I look back at how much I've read. Yes, I've gone through almost all the Russian novels I wanted to read at 21 years old, all of Dostoevsky. Not Tolstoy though, I hate that bore. And I think of the 20 or so Graham Greene books I've gone through, and my lengthy Jame Joyce phase, when I read Ulysses twice and Finnegans Wake once. In fact, after reading Ulysses and a companion criticism entitled The Argument of Ulysses (by Stanley Sultan). I contacted the author of the latter for guidance on approaching Wake. He gave me some handy tips and later told his class that Joyce had relevance to the real world using me as the example. All I could think was a lecture hall full of teenagers thinking, "What kind of dork reads Ulysses when he doesn't have too?" That'd be me.

Having run the campus record store, Slipped Disc, for two years, I was immersed in music, but just starting to get into jazz. I had a decent record collection and hopes of steady growth even though I now had to pay for my platters. It's ridiculous the changes in music possession in the last 25 years and between CDs, free CDs at the library to burn on iTunes, huge record collections that were dumped on my doorstep by people who no longer had any use for them and the joy of eBay, where my LP and CD lot buying binges can be satisfied, I now have thousands and thousands of pieces at my fingertips. I look at it as another learning experience, like books only shorter. In researching my other blog, Maybe Baby or, You Know That It Would Be Untrue), I hit on bands that I may have not known of (like The Pretty Things) or have little of (like The Small Faces). Determined and patient searching of eBay brought me a pile of CDs of each and, voila, instant coverage of groups I had no experience with.

Movies were also a passion but, as I tell my kids to their utter disbelief, there was a time when a movie came out and, if you missed it, you were shit out of luck. Maybe it would hit the second run dollar theater, or end up on TV a few years later. Maybe not. Videos were beginning and it was becoming easier to see older titles.

In the mid-'90's I found a Pennsylvania video dealer, Home Film Festival, that had a vast catalog of silent, foreign and art films. Pretty expensive, about $7 a movie to rent by mail, but it was a prehistoric Netflix that allowed me to dive headfirst into the oeuvre of Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa and others. I can't believe that I've seen nearly every film directed by those giants. To be honest, I would never have considered a full time move from the Chicago suburbs to Cooperstown if Netflix didn't exist to satiate my movie jones, or if Amazon and eBay weren't there for me to buy all my books and music.

Last week I was at the Village library and saw a recent high school graduate. This kid is great - smart, curious, hungry to learn. We've talked before about movies (he would bring up DeSica) and I've always been impressed by his knowledge at his age. I went on the Senior Trip to DC and caught a glimpse of him reading Raymond Carver. Very nice.

We were talking in general about the relative merits of video games; I was pro, he was con. Then he vented his frustration at how little time there is to read all the things he wanted to, see all the movies he wanted to. It brought me back to that guy on the Staten Island Ferry, contemplating the futility of ever getting through all the great works he wanted to. 25 years later, the 21 year old me is 46 and progressing just fine. So, don't worry kid, it'll happen.

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