Rusting Infrastructure…

The new Showtime series, American Rust, has two-fold resonance for me. The episodes are released on a weekly basis, so at this point it’s hard to predict its arc, but the empty storefronts, crumbling steel mill, and desperate characters touch me and set up parallels I see and feel.

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Back in October of 1990, I was in Berlin. It was exactly one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. October 3rd was designated German Reunification Day, the day East Germany (DDR) reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany. My wife and I lived in West Berlin during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, so it’s not surprising that we had tears in our eyes as we walked through the Brandenburg Gate where armed guards and barbed wire had, for all those years, kept us from crossing over to the East. That day, the crowd was immense. Total strangers were smiling, hugging, and giving high fives. It was euphoric but the beginning of a tough transition.

The next day we loaded our bikes on the U-Bahn, the WWII era subway that passes under both sides of the city. During the Cold War it still ran, but East Berlin stations were blocked. On October 4th we rode to the end of the line, not far from the Polish border, where we disembarked to begin our ride back.

It was late afternoon when we started. The October light was fading, and the euphoria of the day before had abated. It felt surreal. The landscape was from another time. As we rode, we passed through residential neighborhoods, saw abandoned factories, and as we approached the center of the city, row upon row of featureless Russian-style apartment blocs.

East German Factory

We hadn’t prepared for a night ride, but as dusk approached single yellow streetlights hanging from sagging wires were beginning to come on. I was reminded of The Third Man (1949) Orson Welles’ famous film noir. The dark cobblestone streets were bumpy, uneven, and empty. It was eerie after the excitement of Reunification Day. Eventually, the bright lights of West Berlin appeared on the horizon and we were back in our decade. I will always remember the excitement of Reunification Day, but the picture seared in my mind is how it looked and felt riding through the East the following afternoon.

All of this is coming back as we watch Showtime’s American Rust. The America pictured in the series is not much different from what we saw in East Berlin. Abandoned factories, empty storefronts, dilapidated trailer parks…and people left behind as their jobs and futures disappear. The Pennsylvania steel mill that provided good jobs is a rusting metaphor for their present day poverty and drug problems.

Abandoned Pennsylvania Steel Mill

There is a scene in the first episode where Jeff Daniels, playing sheriff Del Harris, reminds an auctioneer from Pittsburgh, who’s come to town to foreclosure on a property, that “We’re a lot closer to West Virginia than we are to Pittsburgh.” In the background, a group of townies with guns standby, waiting for the auction. Sheriff Harris offers to escort the agent to the city limits and when the agent asks if he’s being run out of town the sheriff says, “No. Just making sure you have safe passage.”

In 2007 Marilynn and I rode our bikes from Copenhagen to Berlin. Entering the city, we rode directly to the same Brandenburg Gate I had walked through on Reunification Day. Directly in front of us was a sign of the change. Starbucks now has pride of place in the heart of what was once the capital of East Germany.

Our ride from the ferry in Rostock to Berlin took us through the Mecklenburg region of what had been East Germany. It’s primarily agricultural land, but prior to reunification included manufacturing sites, now abandoned.

Today, the Baltic coast has a flourishing tourist trade, but the interior of Mecklenburg-Pomerania is depressed. The West German “miracle” it was promised never materialized. In recent years the region has become a center for Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), the right wing, neo-Nazi party. Our 2007 ride happened to coincide with an election cycle, and we were stunned at the presence of its posters. The AfD was unsuccessful in that election, but elected 88 of the Bundestag’s 709 delegates last year. It’s not unlike disenfranchised voters rising up in the depressed areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

American Rust is dark. It’s characters, including Sheriff Harris, are conflicted. Some are good. Some bad. Some caught in between. But their backstories are the abandoned steel mill, loss of jobs, family stresses, and opioid addiction that lead to an absence of hope. They are much the same as the citizens of Mecklenburg-Pomerania the end of the Cold War. Promises of prosperity never materialized after the tattered East German safety net was pulled out from under them. The right-wing AfD filled the void with new promises.

What happened in Washington on January 6, 2021 was not fiction. The election of 88 AfD Bundestag delegates was not fiction. The Big Lie is not fiction. I will be hanging on the unfolding fiction of American Rust until its conclusion (Episode 8) on October 31. Congress can mitigate the non-fiction problems of Appalachia and abandoned factories of the South and Midwest by passing the two infrastructure bills now before it. They are not silver bullets, but they will create jobs, repair failing roads and bridges, assist families, and plug holes in the American safety net. I’ve driven over America’s broken roads and bridges. I’ve seen its abandoned factories. I’ve watched Oregon vigilantes take the law in their own hands. I won’t be around when The Decline and Fall of the American Empire is written – but my grandchildren might be. If it is, I hope it’s fiction. My fingers are crossed.

Berlin photo courtesy of Jasche Hoste

Evil Genius…

Justice Samuel Alito’s ruling against an injunction in the Texas anti-abortion case:

WHOLE WOMAN’S HEALTH ET AL. v. AUSTIN REEVE JACKSON, JUDGE, ET AL. ON APPLICATION FOR INJUNCTIVE RELIEF

“The application for injunctive relief or, in the alternative, to vacate stays of the district court proceedings presented to JUSTICE ALITO and by him referred to the Court is denied. To prevail in an application for a stay or an injunction, an applicant must carry the burden of making a “strong showing” that it is “likely to succeed on the merits,” that it will be “irreparably injured absent a stay,” that the balance of the equities favors it, and that a stay is consistent with the public interest. Nken v. Holder, 556 U. S. 418, 434 (2009); Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, 141 S. Ct. 63, 66 (2020) (citing Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U. S. 7, 20 (2008).”

The elements needed for injunctive relief, as stated, are:
·      A strong showing
·      Likely to succeed on the merits
·      The plaintiff(s) will be irreparably injured absent a stay
·      The balance of the equities favors it
·      The stay is consistent with the public interest.

So… what’s missing in the appeal? Justice Alito admits the plaintiffs have “raised serious questions regarding constitutionality of the Texas law,” but denies relief because the law presents “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions.” Really? The Supreme Court denies relief because the issue is complex and novel? Isn’t that its job?

The law is clear. Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and the Texas law is in violation by denying women the right to an abortion. The Supreme Court has said in ruling after ruling that the right exists though it is subject to limitations. 

8 Women and 100+ White Men Celebrating Passage of the Law Ending Abortion in Texas

I loved law school – the issues and the arguments – but not the work at a big Los Angeles firm. I wanted to wrestle with constitutional issues not unlawful detainer actions or 80-page real estate documents. Unfortunately, the daily grind at the firm dealt mostly with the latter, and I quit after nine months.

Nevertheless, my interest in constitutional law stayed with me, and I have continued to follow the issues, justices, decision-making processes, and the ramifications of important cases as well as I can. Two of my law school classmates clerked on the Court. One for Justice Douglas and one for Justice Brennan. I would love to have shadowed them.

Yesterday, the Court gob-smacked me by denying injunctive relief and rejecting the plaintiff’s request to review of the constitutionality of the Texas law. By rejecting the plea, the Court prohibits a woman from aborting a pregnancy after six weeks if an ultrasound detects a “fetal heartbeat.” There is no exception for rape or incest.

The bill was ingeniously crafted to get around the traditional objection to “state action” enforcement of a law. Historically, the state is charged with the enforcement of its laws. The novel sidestep in this case, making it harder to block, is that the state is expressly excluded from enforcement, turning that function over to “any citizen” who believes any party may have been involved in violating the law. The classic example of an innocent participant liable for violating the anti-abortion law is an Uber driver who helps the woman get to the clinic or hospital.

I admire creativity but not when it results in the denial of civil, human, or adjudicated rights. The evil genius who drafted this bill was not concerned with equity, fairness, or a woman’s right to privacy. This is a diabolical, mysogynistic, end-run to advance a political/religious objective. A recent NPR/PBS poll showed that three-quarters of Americans say they want to keep Roe v. Wade but favor limitations on the right.

In that 1973 case the Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment provides a “right to privacy” that protects a pregnant woman’s right to choose whether or not to have and abortion. Roe has been tested repeatedly and limitations imposed, but it has withstood challenges to the basic holding.

When the constitutionality of a law is challenged, courts test the law by applying one of three levels of judicial scrutiny – strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, or rational basis review. (findlaw.com). Strict scrutiny is applied when the legislation or government action discriminates or violates a constitutionally protected class or a fundamental right is threatened. In these cases, the state must show a “compelling state interest” and that the law is “narrowly tailored” to achieve its result.

In the Texas case, the court abdicated its responsibility. These essential elements were present and a fundamental right, the well-established right to an abortion, was threatened. The “decision,” although there was no decision, was 5-4 with Clarence Thomas and the three Trump appointed justices (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett) joining Alito in denying relief in an unsigned opinion. We shouldn’t be surprised that two conservative Catholics (Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett) on the record as opposing Roe v. Wade allowed the anti-abortion law to remain in force. Nor should we be surprised they were joined by Clarence Thomas whose decisions have, since his confirmation in 1991, been grievance-driven to punish those who challenged his fitness to serve on the court. But, why didn’t the court agree to hear oral arguments on the merits and settle the constitutional issue?

In my opinion, there is only one answer… they wanted to uphold the law without having to expressly take a stand in opposition to Roe. Cases like this one are dealt with summarily and are referred to as being on the “shadow docket,” where an unsigned summary ruling is rendered on an important issue without a formal hearing, oral argument, or filed briefs. Supreme Court law is being made in the shadows.

I’m outraged that the women of Texas are now without reproductive health care because 100+ white men, 8 white women, plus four anti-abortion justices and Clarence Thomas felt entitled to impose their beliefs on an already embattled segment of their fellow Americans. Shame on them. More cowardice. Not unlike the Republicans in Congress who voted against a non-partisan commission to investigate the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

The U.S. Constitution is a document without parallel. It was drafted by men (yes, only men) who saw the dangers of tyranny by the majority. They created a bi-cameral legislature to equalize representation and a judicial system with layers of review. They did not foresee partisan gerrymandering that would deny the majority its voice or a produce court driven by partisan political ideology. The Founders counted on representatives and judges who would govern in good faith for the greater good, even if they supported different ideologies. I believe they would be outraged by the mean-spirited partisanship in evidence today.

Martin Luther King believed “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I no longer believe that. The evil geniuses who drafted the Texas law won’t prevail in the end. The court will hear the case on the merits eventually and most scholars believe it will be overturned. In the meantime, Texas women will suffer.

In 1976 two women, Jennifer Wear and King Holmes, from the University of Washington, wrote a book called How to Have Intercourse Without Getting Screwed. The title gets your attention but the book’s purpose was to assist women navigating reproductive healthcare systems in various states. The fight is not over. Until it is the women of Texas will need an updated version of Wear/Holmes book. Like healthcare writ large, abortion is primarily governed by state not federal law, but it is important to protect and defend those hard won basic rights.

My Obituary…

My wife is adamant, no funeral, no obituary, no nothing. Maybe a few friends over for drinks and stories. The only thing she wants is a bench on the Burke-Gilman Trail where bikers and walkers can stop and catch their breath. Where she ran, rode, and walked for more than 40 years.

So, how about you, she asks? Well, I say, I haven’t given it much thought. Well, she says, you need to, because if you go first, I need to know. She may be a career woman, but at heart she’s a planner, a garden designer and household manager. Always organizing something or someone.

For the most part, we think alike about things like life and death. The exception is obituaries. On Sunday, we get two newspapers, my New York Times and her Seattle Times, but before she gets up I steal the Opinion section of her paper because it includes the obits. It may be morbid, but I need to know who’s making a final appearance.

If my planner, garden designer, household manager goes first, I’m going to disobey and write her obit anyway. It’ll piss her off, but what’s she going to do? Her many friends will need to know. If I go first, she’s told me I have to write my own.

I’m fascinated by the genre. I often read a NY Times obit even when it’s someone I’ve never heard of. It’s an art form. But I’m definitely against the paid version submitted by the family. They’re usually cloying hagiography – either nominations for sainthood or lists of every school, organization, and occupation the deceased came in contact with. I’m old school. I think its purpose is to summarize for identity purposes and notify friends… to prevent them from doing something stupid like calling up and asking how is so and so? 

So… here goes.

I’ve lived a long time and loved most of it. I’ve had three children, three wives, and five careers. I’ve loved Marilynn, my children, Abby, Carolyn, writing, flying, my guitar, my books, burgers, bike touring, skiing, tennis, Duncan the Gordon Setter, and cookie dough in that order. My favorite food was pasta—preferably my own. My favorite drinks were Mac and Jack’s African Amber, Rangpur Tanqueray martinis, and long shots of Jose Cuervo’s La Familia Anejo Tequila.

My favorite jobs were father, husband, and grandfather. My favorite occupations were writer, pasta maker/restauranter, Marine fighter pilot, Pan Am pilot, Saigon NGO manager, Seattle Public Schools fundraiser. My least favorite was being a lawyer.

The Sunday Review in this week’s New York Times (August 29, 2021) includes an Op-Ed by Kate Bowler an Associate Professor at the Duke Divinity School entitled “One Thing I Don’t Plan to Do Before I Dies Is Make a Bucket List.” It turns out Ms. Bowler, who hitherto described herself as an “incurable optimist,” was recently diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer with “a slim chance of survival.”

My chances of survival are about the same as hers, but for different reasons. I’m 83 and she’s 38 (curious reversal of numbers). Regardless, I’m sending her all the good juju I can muster. We need more incurable optimists.

We agree on bucket lists. The idea is meant to be aspirational, a list of experiences a person hopes to accomplish in his or her lifetime, but there is something inherently sad behind it. I like to think of my bucket as something I add to and can look-back on with satisfaction, not an unfulfilled need. I have no regrets about things undone. There is always room in my bucket for a novel or book of essays, but whatever goes in is not because it’s missing something and needs pumping up.

When I look into my bucket, I see so many good things. Three healthy, accomplished children. Eleven healthy grandchildren. A worldwide network of friends. A solid education. Charity work. Aircraft carrier landings. Supersonic dogfights. A business that fed people. Work in bookstores that fed them in other ways. Arthur Ashe winning the US Open. Barack Obama becoming President of the United States. Life in five countries on three continents. Marriage to a woman who loved me unconditionally, overlooked my flaws, and rode across a live artillery range on the Salisbury Plain and up to all those hill towns in Italy with only a minimum of complaint. Better than I deserved.

Cut and Run?

My son was a student at the University of Colorado when he joined the National Guard. He’d used up the four years worth of college tuition his mother and I promised and needed more to keep going. His focus was on paying for school, but his sport was biathlon (skiing and shooting), and the National Guard was the sport’s biggest financial sponsor.  It was a good option.

He didn’t think he was going to go to war when he signed up. Neither did I when I joined the Marine Corps. It was a remote possibility in both cases but given the circumstances we saw opportunities to learn essential skills that could save us in case it did happen. I became a fighter pilot. He became a Special Forces soldier.

I was luckier. I finished my 8-year commitment before Vietnam got big, but in the wake of 9/11 he and his Special Forces team were among the first US troops deployed to Afghanistan. Their mission was to track down Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora.

Yesterday, in response to the calamitous pullout of US troops and affiliated civilians, he wrote the following:

“Watching the news is hard the last couple of days. I hear my friends asking, “Did we make a difference?” These are my brothers and sisters, who have stood shoulder to shoulder with me in some of the hardest times and with whom I would stand back-to-back with against any odds. Quiet professionals who committed to doing the best job they could no matter what the obstacles in their way were.
 
I remember watching my teammates interact with the locals in Jalalabad, kicking a soccer ball or throwing a frisbee, seeing the laughter in the children and their parents.
 
I remember searching the mountains and meeting with people to find the tools of war that could have brought down a plane of innocents and taking them to be destroyed.
 
I remember meeting an old man who just thought that firing his anti-aircraft weapon was fun and telling him that might not be a great idea.
 
I remember our medics helping people to have clean water so that their children could be healthy.
I remember one man who turned his fighters around to come and save my friends when everyone ran.
 
Maybe the big picture is hard to see right now. I hold by what Admiral William McRaven has said much more eloquently than I can. “One person can change the world by giving people hope.” If I or my teammates have affected one person, if we have given one person hope, the effect cannot be denied and is exponential. Would I do it again? Yes. Absolutely. If I have given one person hope through my actions, then every sacrifice and all the effort to get me to that moment was worth it.”

I’m proud of his service and agree with his statement. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, America has fumbled the ball repeatedly. Since the end of WWII, our leaders haven’t shown they don’t know how to set goals, execute a plan, achieve it, and get out. Korea. Vietnam. Bosnia. Afghanistan. Iraq. All failures.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, America’s stated goal was to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and decimate his organization. My son’s team chased him through Tora Bora but were called off so the Afghan army could get credit for doing the job. We know how that worked out. Then George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle co-opted the 9/11 opportunity to “liberate” Iraq, something they had been aching to do since George H.W. stopped at the border in the Gulf War. The rest is history. Osama vanished and Afghanistan morphed into an endless tribal conflict and second-tier nation building exercise.

Girl Scout cookies from home 2002

Shortly after this picture was taken, a clueless new “Big Army” General was all over my son’s SF team for uniform violations. They were under pressure to shave their beards, take off the keffiyeh scarves, and wear traditional Army field uniforms – the functional equivalent of turning them into targets. Fortunately, they survived and completed their tour because they got the job done. They returned to the US unharmed. He retired two years ago after 20 years in Special Operations and a dozen overseas deployments.

In the 20 years since the war in Afghanistan began the US has spent roughly 1 trillion dollars. There have been 3500 coalition deaths, 21,000 US soldiers injured, 64,000 Afghan security and national police killed, and according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), nearly 111,000 civilians killed or injured since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009. (BBC.com)

I’m profoundly upset and angry that Joe Biden, a man whose judgment I respected until now, couldn’t order and execute an organized and peaceful withdrawal of American troops and vulnerable Afghan partners.

Shameful…and so is the BS defense he’s throwing up since Kabul fell on Saturday. Today, the Taliban controls the streets and access to the airport. The tarmac at Kabul International Airport is a mosh pit for thousands of desperate Afghans. A failure of colossal proportions. 

Own it, Mr. President! Saying, “The buck stops here” then retiring to the isolation of Camp David doesn’t cut it. When mistakes are made the Commander-in-Chief needs to step up and fix it even if it means taking”friendly fire” from friends and foes. We owe it to the troops and our Afghan partners to provide a safe exit and safe havens before we cut and run.

Get your ass back to the White House and manage this crisis.

Flying and Writing…

I love the huge adrenaline rush of Top Gun’s opening flight deck sequence. With Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone pounding in the background, I can smell the JP-4, notice my heart rate accelerate, feel the engines spool up, and scrunch back in my seat waiting for the kick of the catapult. I get sucked in by the air-to-air training exercises, the oiled-up volleyball porn, “the need for speed nonsense and Maverick and Goose singing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. It’s the real McCoy, even if Tom Cruise is an imposter and the majority of the film is a Navy puff-piece.

I’m often asked why I don’t write about flying, since it’s taken up a large part of my life. It’s probably because it doesn’t seem relevant to who I am now. I wasn’t a kid who loved airplanes. I didn’t hang around airports hoping for a ride and yearning to get my license. I was going to get drafted and thought flying jets would be better than chipping paint on a Navy destroyer or crawling through the mud in Carolina swamp. Flying was an adventure choice not a career path, and when it was over it was over. 

My friend Laura wants me to write about those white scarf and Ray Ban days, and she may have a point. One of the cardinal rules for writers is “Write what you know,” and flying is part of what I know. I can’t quite explain my reticence. Military flying is fueled by adrenaline but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will make a good story. There are so few writers who’ve done it well. Many have tried but only a handful have spun literary gold out of the experience. There are the romantic “slip the surly bonds of earth” writers and the macho “nuke ‘em back to the stone age” writers but only a few who have integrated flying in a story with literary value.

Beryl Markham is not a name most people recognize today, but Ernest Hemingway told his editor Maxwell Perkins that “she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.” I agree. She is one of three or four writers I know who managed to blend aviation credentials with serious literary intention. What I admire most about her memoir West with the Night is the simple, cogent, articulate prose – all in service to her story.

But Beryl Markham brought a world of experience to her writing. Raised on a farm in Kenya, she spent years as a bush pilot and racehorse trainer before setting her sights on a westbound Atlantic crossing. She accomplished it nine years after Lindbergh’s eastbound flight (more favorable winds). In her 294-page memoir, she doesn’t get to that most memorable accomplishment until page 277. She followed the memoir with The Splendid Outcast, a book of short stories and later, Paula McClain, author of The Paris Wife, wrote a fictional account of her remarkable life in the novel Circling the Sun.

Markham was a true aviation pioneer as was Antoine de Saint-Exupery, one of her lovers and another of the aviation writers I admire. Saint-Ex, as he was known, pioneered airmail routes in South America, flew for France in two world wars (his plane disappeared near Marseille in 1944) and wrote several novels (Night Flight and Wind Sand and Stars) in addition to the best-selling not-quite-a-children’s book The Little Prince. The novels are beautifully written – especially Night Flight – describing aviation’s early years in fine detailToday’s pilots would be ill equipped to confront the situations Saint-Ex encountered and wrote about so well.

Recently, Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways Captain developed a reputation and cracked the bestseller lists as an aviation author. His Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot created a stir when it was published in 2015, but it reads more like a romantic travelogue to me than a literary effort. I admire the way he gives the reader a cockpit-view of the world, but I don’t want a 30,000 foot high guidebook. I want fresh insights into people and places. Yes, flying is the environment, but good lit is about more than just its setting.

The contemporary aviator/writer I admire most is James Salter, a Korean War F-86 pilot with 100 combat missions under his belt. The Hunters is a novel about that experience. It’s authentic from a fighter pilot’s perspective but is more than just a vehicle for the author to discuss aerial combat and give the reader sweaty palms. He wrote what he knew about the air war but also about the psychological tensions and stresses of squadron life in wartime. Yet, Salter wasn’t a one-trick pony. He went on to write about expatriate romance (A Sport and a Pastime), rock climbing (Solo Faces), skiing (the film Downhill Racer), marriage dysfunction (Light Years), end of life issues (All That Is), as well as a couple of fighter pilot memoirs and Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days with his wife Kay. 

When asked if he’d learned anything from flying that helped him in his writing, he answered, “The time flying, that didn’t count… You deduct that from our literary career. That isn’t my life. I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”

I feel the same. I loved my yank and bank days in the F8 Crusader, and I’m proud of my Marine Corps fighter pilot days, but that’s not who I am today. That person is someone I don’t know. That may be why I find it hard to write about it.

Salter died in 2015 and the New Yorker obituary described him as “a man’s man first and a writer’s writer later.” After “Me too” I’m not sure “man’s man” still works. I hope mine will say “a good man first, an admirer of good prose second, and eventually a good writer.”