Berlin, 30 Years Later…

The Death Zone

We were euphoric. On October 3, 1990 I walked through the Brandenburg Gate, the barrier dividing West Berlin its other half in the East. It was the official day of German re-unification. A year before, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall had been breached, and within months the Soviet Union imploded, the Cold War ended, and the West declared victory for its values and the institutions of liberal democracy.

In the 1970’s and 80’s I lived and worked in West Berlin. And, occasionally during those years I would make a wrong turn while looking for an unfamiliar address and end up facing The Wall. It was always disarming. I was living an ordinary life – except that I couldn’t walk, bike, or drive out of the city without running the East German gauntlet of checkpoints, blockades, and restricted rest stops. Life seemed normal enough – get the kids to school, go to work, shop at the local supermarket, hang out in trendy bars and cafes, and run in the Grunewaldwith the wild boars. For the most part it seemedlike a normal life. But… there was always The Wall.

For twenty-eight years the Wall divided the city – East from West. It’s been thirty years since then, and I’m remembering those turbulent days – students dancing atop the Wall, chipping away at the concrete with hammers, singing songs and waving flags. And, I’m recalling the speed with which reunification of the two Germanys was accomplished barely a year later. I was there with tears in my eyes walking through the Brandenburg Gate.

November 9, 1989

Today, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of its fall, our euphoria and optimism are tempered by current realities – Germany’s acceptance of more than one-million refugees from failed states in North Africa and the Middle East, the failure of a re-unified Germany to deliver the West German Miracle to all former East German citizens, the re-emergence of Russia as a  political force, the rise of autocratic governments in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, as well as America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear treaty, the Russian nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and President Trump’s disdain for NATO and the European Union layered with his affection for dictators like Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, and Orban in Hungary.

I admire Chancellor Merkel and the German electorate, their willingness to accept displaced refugees and her unflinching leadership in the EU. She grew up on the other side of The Wall. She knows what political repression and the lack of freedom feel like. Despite pressure on her from the right, I have faith in her ability to navigate the challenges of a Europe that no longer can trust America to honor its military and economic commitments as a full partner.

Today, with pressure growing for his impeachment, due to Rudi Giuliani’s abortive shadow diplomacy“ drug deal” in the Ukraine, Trump sent Secretary of State Pompeo to Berlin to represent America at the celebration. Pompeo is walking a tightrope. He’s trying to avoid the press while Trump is digging himself a deeper hole, and my guess is he will bail soon to hide out as a Senate candidate in Kansas next year. 

But, Pompeo’s remarks in Berlin surprised me; he called out Putin as “a former KGB officer stationed in Dresden” and Russia as a country that “invades its neighbors and slays political opponents.” I’m not sure the boss agrees, but the boss has his hands full with the hot breath of the impeachment dragon scorching his neck. 

What happened after The Wall came down was unpredictable. Like so many situations, there was good news and bad news. The good news was Western democracies no longer had a monolithic foe in the East, the former East Berlin became a vibrant artistic and business community, and the the historic buildings of “old Berlin” were integrated with some of the most adventurous and creative new architecture imaginable. The bad news is Russia’s resurgent aggression, the Middle East’s turmoil, and America’s abdication as a reliable partner.

Sony Center, Berlin

M and I spent a month in Berlin last year. We loved it. It is without doubt, the most exciting city in Europe. Today, we join with all Berliners as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Wall’s destruction. Let’s hope our optimism can be renewed and America’s European alliances renewed, restored, and healthy again.

Replacement Parts Needed…

’94 Grand Cherokee

October was a month of good news and bad news – all longevity related.

For the past ten years, the service manager at the Jeep dealership has offered to buy my Jeep Grand Cherokee. I bought it new in 1994. It has 200,000 miles on the odometer and once hit a deer at 70mph in the middle of the Nevada desert. The service manager says he’s never seen a car so well maintained. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, even though I love my Jeep, it’s reached an age where the manufacturer no longer stocks replacement parts. When something goes wrong, it’s not easy to fix it. The onboard computer tells me my windshield washer fluid is low, my rear taillight has failed and my 4WD switch need service. None of these is fatal or true, but the parts are unavailable. My trusty Jeep is living on borrowed time.

On the human side, technology is going the other direction. The older we get more replacement parts there are – heart valves, hip joints, knees, stents, chips, etc. As I’m writing this, on the 3rdfloor of the Swedish Orthopedic Institute in Seattle, M is down the hall recovering from a hip replacement – her second in two years.

Today, she traded in the hip she was born with for a shiny bright ceramic/titanium replacement. The bad news is the original was worn out. The good news is that a skilled surgeon with a toolbox of high tech replacement parts can swap out the old and slip in the new in about an hour.

Ceramic/Titanium Hip

For the past five years, M has been limited as a walker and cyclist by hips that looked like Belgian lace. They simply couldn’t handle the load. She’s tough, tougher than I am mentally, but when her body broke down tough wasn’t enough. Last year’s replacement was a great improvement and, now, with two state-of-the-art hips, we’re hoping to be on our bikes and back on the road by the spring of ’20.

Sometimes it’s not possible to find symmetry in the aging process, but when we can it’s worth the effort. I’ve been able to ride and hike for the last couple of years while she has not. It’s meant I had to cut back and she felt guilty about a condition she had no control over. We’re never going to be the world traveling bikers we were 10 years ago, but when we can ride together on the amazing bike trails in the western US it gives us great shared pleasure. We’re looking forward to more of that now that she’s bionic.

Still, as we grow older, we are reminded that there is an end – an abrupt end – to life. We all reach a point where the wheels on the bus don’t go round and round. No state of the art replacement parts are available when the life cycle comes to its end.

Last weekend we went to two memorial/celebrations for friends whose lives had reached that ultimate human destination. And, again there is bad news and good news. The bad news is we were left grieving the loss of two friends. The good news is that both were musicians, and their families chose to honor them in musical ways.

Ann Redman Chiller/Steven Demorest

Ann Redman Chiller was a childhood friend of M’s and mine. We were classmates from junior high school through college, and her two sons, Dave and Tom, elected to celebrate their Mom’s passing by hiring a blues/roots band that featured their cousin, Robert, on bass and Mark Riley, winner of 22 “Best Blues Guitarist” awards from the Washington Blues Society. Ann played piano and loved Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, so it was great to be able to celebrate her passing with friends, free flowing wine, and a driving beat.

The other passage was Steven Demorest, the husband of my good friend, Karen Tollenar Demorest, a former colleague at the Alliance for Education. Steve was a full professor of choral music at Northwestern University (formerly at the University of Washington), and though his was a more reserved event because his cancer death at age 60 was so unexpected, but it was celebrated with the music he loved. His former colleagues and students arranged an event at the UW School of Music that featured a movement of Mozart’s Requiem, an a capella version of Dan Fogelberg’s Leader of the Band arranged by his daughter Claire, and a community sing along of How Can I Keep from Singing.

More bad news and good news: M and I often speak about “being in the zone.” That’s the bad news, but the zone is not rigidly defined, and with luck, good replacement parts and the music we love, we could manage to stick around for a while longer. That’s our good news. 

At times like these, I’m reminded of the poet George Herbert’s remark,“Living Well is the Best Revenge.” We’re living well now. That’s enough; we’re not looking for revenge.

La Vita… Not so Dolce

HPB III

I’ve written a number of blogs about friendship and recently read a study showing that social relationships (friendships) are as important as an active lifestyle and good nutrition when it comes to longevity.

My best friend, Harry Bingham, had all those elements in his life but still didn’t make it. Occasionally, personal pain or a faulty gene gets in the way. It happened to Harry. A graduate of St. Paul’s, Harvard, and Tufts Medical School, he committed suicide and denied us a lifetime of shared friendship and adventures. He was 36 years old.

We met in Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class at Quantico, Virginia, and twelve weeks later we were commissioned 2nd Lieutenants. I was the public-school kid from the West Coast. He was an Eastern aristocrat. In the barracks at Quantico, he had the upper bunk and I had the lower. On our first day, as we were sitting on our bunks sorting our newly issued 782 gear and he dropped a steel helmet on my head. It’s how our friendship began.

We were very different, Harry and I. Not just East Coast versus West. Not just private school versus public. We had different temperaments as well. I was confident and cool. He was geeky and unsure of himself. It was a new environment and unfamiliar, but for some reason it was easier for me. I could tell what the drill sergeant wanted, kept my head low and did what was expected. Harry couldn’t figure it out, and that set him up as an object for bullying and punishment. Everyone in the platoon liked him and together we got him through.

Despite our differences, there was something each of us admired in the other. That was our bond. It’s hard to know exactly what it was, but it started at Quantico, and our friendship flourished until he killed himself 13 years later.

When he died his mother sent me his skis – a pair of original Head 360’s. She knew how much we enjoyed the sport and wanted to share something of his with me. I kept them for years, occasionally taking them out for a remembrance run. I even took them along on a helicopter ski trip to Canada and made one delicious powder run on them.

Harry’s father was an aristocrat. He inherited money and houses in Vermont and Hobe Sound as well as an apartment on Park Avenue in NYC. His grandfather traveled to France annually because “Vouvray and Nouveau Beaujolais don’t travel well.” And, then there’s the room in the Metropolitan Museum… his grandfather’s name carved in marble above the door and his Rubens painting of Adonis and Venus hanging inside.

Apollo and Venus

His parents were divorced, and his mother split her time between Owl’s Head, Maine, and a full floor apartment on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 66th Street in Manhattan. I envied his advantages, but was glad they weren’t my parents. As a middle-class kid from the Northwest, I was awed by the wealth but learned quickly that all that money, the best schools, and a listing in Who’s Who in America don’t always lead to a stable and healthy adulthood.

I’ve heard all the arguments for nature versus nurture. I don’t know the details of Harry’s childhood, but I do know his father’s emotional distance and high expectations nagged at him. In spite of his accomplishments at St. Paul’s, Harvard, the Marine Corps, and medical school it was never enough. He was never able to please his father. Was this what drove him to suicide, or was it a bad gene and predisposition to depression?

It’s been 46 years since he committed suicide. Except for a couple of years in and around Laguna Beach in California, we never lived in the same place at the same time, although we managed to see a lot of each other during the 13 years of our friendship. We beached it in California and skied together in Aspen and Squaw Valley. I once flew a Marine A4 from Alameda to Boston to spend Thanksgiving with him and his wife Diana, and he met my wife and me in Paris and shared our VW camper on the way to join a group of his friends at a lovely villa near on the west coast of Italy. The last time we were together was at our house in Mill Valley. He was visiting just before he swallowed a bucket of pills. He was saying goodbye to us.

Despite the differences in our backgrounds, Harry and I did have things in common. We liked gin, poetry, skiing, the Beach Boys, and the Marine Corps. We both married and divorced young. He married a family friend, his sister’s sister-in-law. Very New England incestuous. When he divorced, I couldn’t figure it out. I knew they loved each other deeply, but one summer while she was traveling with a family member in Europe and he was in his surgery residency in New York he had an affair with a friend of a friend. More New England incest? A Catholic convert, he was tortured and couldn’t forgive himself.

The following summer he joined Abby and me in Europe – and brought the woman with whom he had been unfaithful. We disliked her instantly and thought she was an arrogant unattractive bitch. When she discovered we were camping in a VW van on our way to Italy she nearly left us. I recently discovered that she was Faddle, one of the pair of White House interns known as Fiddle and Faddle, infamous for skinny dipping and boffing JFK in the White House swimming pool during their internships.

When we arrived at the Italian villa, we met Fiddle, who was, by then, married to Harry’s lifelong friend, A. Whitney Ellsworth, the founder and publisher of the New York Review of Books. All very East Coast incestuous. Fiddle and Faddle. Whitney and Harry. Jack and Abby along with assorted cousins and wannabes.

We were there because Whitney had traded his Upper East Side apartment for a Roman architect’s hillside villa near Porto Ercole, and the trade included a guest membership at the nearby private beach club where deeply tanned, unselfconscious, slightly overweight women in tiny bikinis sipped Campari and lounged around on striped mats under beach umbrellas. All very La Dolce Vita.

Il Pellicano Beach Club

The “assorted cousins” in the entourage were two delightful college girls related to Fiddle, and every night, after a day at the beach, we flopped on overstuffed couches to listen to the girls’ newest discovery, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album. We were all smitten, and the cousins breathlessly gave us the history and provenance of James and the Taylor family – the father a professor, siblings James, Kate, and Livingston all singer songwriters, their discovery by the Beatles label in London, and later drug problems. We were in the prime of our lives and drunk on La Dolce Vita. 

All that took place years ago, but I’m reminded of Harry almost every day. My middle son is named Douglas Payne Bernard – my middle name and Harry’s – and my daughter Diana is named for his wife. Last summer, M and I spent a week with the older Diana and her extended family at their small compound in Little Compton, Rhode Island, where I first visited them 52 years ago. We were welcomed warmly. We are all family now. I’m so sorry Harry didn’t stick around to enjoy it with us. I’m still mad at him.

The Absolute Best Beach Town…

I love beaches… all kinds of beaches, but one section of the Florida Gulf Coast has had a pull on me for more than 50 years. That stretch is the 200 miles of pristine white sand and coastal island stretching from Pensacola Beach in the west to Apalachicola in the east. It’s all about the deep blue sky, the sand so bright it hurts your eyes. and clear green water that makes it look like a photo shopped travel poster.

Grayton Beach

There’s been noticeable change since I lived there in a one-story cinderblock house 100’ from the water’s edge at Pensacola Beach. A few years before my stay, a hurricane flattened the island and when reconstruction began it was felt that one-story, metal roof houses were the prudent choice. 

In those days, very few of the homes on Pensacola Beach were occupied year-round, so the beach was mine for 8 months of the year. From my kitchen window I watchd bottle-nosed dolphins swim by just offshore and I could walk on the beach for an hour and never see another soul. 

When I returned 30 years later, 504 Ariola Drive was a three-story wooden house in a row of three-story vacation homes, and there were no dolphins in the three days we walked the same stretch of beach.

But, the pull has remained strong and last month M and I rented an “old Florida” beach house – screened porch, outdoor shower, plywood and lathe construction with a metal roof – in Grayton Beach an hour east of Pensacola. We didn’t know anything about Grayton, but two friends who live nearby recommended it and put us in touch with a couple who own a “cabin” there. It’s not directly on the beach but just a short walk from it. It was perfect… and so is the town of Grayton Beach.

Smith Cabin

Grayton is one of the oldest townships on the Florida Panhandle and its future was ensured and character preserved, in 1964, when the Florida Board of Parks and Historical Memorials acquired 356 acres of beach, dune and wetland property to establish Grayton Beach State Park. Further land acquisitions were added and today the park borders the township on three sides with the Gulf of Mexico completing the fourth. Grayton was saved from the development frenzy descending on the Panhandle coast. 

Today, Grayton Beach is an oasis on Florida Highway 30A, the road that parallels the beach from Destin to Panama City. In the last 30 years, developers have built a number of planned communities, large and small, along 30A. Seaside, just west of Grayton Beach, was the first, and is known for its New Urbanist design. This small community of pastel colored houses with screened porches and white picket fences was the setting for the Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show and a suitable metaphor for the fakeness of such a town.

Other planned communities with names like Watercolor, Alys, and Rosemary Beach followed, each with its own flavor. Watercolor is rich and flashy with valet parking as the only alternative at many of the stops. M and I had a Happy Hour drink at FOOW (Fish Out of Water), an elegant hotel, where our company was a group of noisy women with tans as dark as walnut stain and aftermarket breasts so big they could hardly be contained by a bikini top. Donald Trump might like the place but we found it distracting and unattractive.

Alys is the next town on 30A going south. Also a manufactured town, its stark white architecture is modeled on either Greek Island churches or Bermuda hideaways – maybe both – but nothing about it seemed real.

Alys

Last in the lineup of the planned communities on Highway 30A is Rosemary Beach. The town’s website describes it as:

One of South Walton’s planned New Urbanist communities, Rosemary Beach is an architectural treasure trove, boasting influences from the West Indies, New Orleans, Charleston and St. Augustine, among others.”

At least it’s a mixture of styles, and unlike Dallas Alys there are some trees to hide the pretentious brand-newness of it all.

No… tourists and wannabes may like the fakery of Watercolor, Seaside, Alys, and Rosemary Beach, but we’re in love with Grayton Beach, a real place where real people live and play. The friends that put us on to it, Tom and Linda, introduced us to several of their friends while we were there, including a husband and wife who are both ex-Navy pilots. Today, she’s a 787 Captain for United and he’s recently retired from Delta. They’ve lived in Grayton Beach for years as have the couple we rented the “cabin” from. They, Kelly and Billy, are both lawyers and have lived in Grayton most of their lives, but, make no mistake, Billy is no small-town ambulance chaser. He’s a big-time serious lawyer, having worked on big cases like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill case and now he’s “of counsel” to the State of Florida’s in its lawsuit against opioid pharmaceutical manufacturers.

We loved our week in Kelly and Billy’s “cabin” – morning lattes at Black Bear Bakery, afternoon wine on the screened in porch, and dinner at Borago, an upscale Italian bistro just around the corner. Hard to beat. 

Grayton Beach is special and though I still love California’s Laguna Beach, there are no beaches in the world like the white sand beaches of the Florida Panhandle. We’re already talking about going back next year.

Speed Dining in NOLA…

There are so many great things to do in New Orleans. It was the last stop on our odyssey through the South, but with temperatures in the mid-90’s and only 48 hours in town, M and I opted to pass on the sites and do some serious speed eating. We were there four years ago and tried several of the better-known restaurants – Emeril’s, Central Grocery, Café du Monde, Johnny’s Po’ Boys, Superior Seafood – and I had eaten at Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace in years past. This time we were looking for a more local experience. Two friends, a public defender in NOLA and another friend who went to school at Tulane, gave us their top picks. So, we culled the list of referrals and came up with four – dinner at Upperline, lunch and dinner the next day at Pêche and Jewel of the South, and lunch at Le Petite Grocery before heading to the airport. 

Speed-dining is like speed-dating with most of the mystery removed. There’s no problem finding reliable restaurant reviews. I doubt the same thing is true for speed dating. So glad we’re not in that scrum these days.

Our hotel, the St. Charles Inn, on St. Charles Avenue was perfect. We could take the funky aging streetcar, avoid parking problems, and not worry about drinking and driving. Location is everything, especially with a little local color thrown in.

St. Charles Streetcar

Our due diligence told us that Upperline, a local favorite, was run by JoAnn Cleavenger, the sometimes querulous, eccentric art collector who is the creator, matriarch, and gatekeeper at this perennial James Beard award winning restaurant. It was a good choice for our first meal. JoAnn is about our age and treats her customers in the old New Orleans house as if they are guests in her home. She talked to us at length about how she started the restaurant on a shoestring in 1983. She ran the front of the house. Her son was in the kitchen, and the waiters got by on tips.

JoAnn Clevenger at the hostess station

I won’t bore you with everything we ate over the 48 hours but will try to give you a “taste” of what was special at each one. At Upperline, we opted for the three-course tasting menu but the first course of fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade would have made the meal memorable all by itself. After our delicious entrees, we finished with “Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée” sprinkled with candied pralines and staggered out into the steamy NOLA night.

The food fest continued on Monday at Pêche in the Central District near the World War II Museum (an absolute must for NOLA visitors). The energetic lunch crowd was a mix of business people and out of towners. It’s a good sized, wood-lined, open room but divided nicely into a couple of discrete spaces and a bar so that it doesn’t feel like a warehouse. I started with a half-dozen small juicy oysters on ice and followed with a crab jalapeño angel hair pasta washed down with local brown ale. It was perfect after our binge at Upperline the night before.

Lunch at Peche

Two good strategies for speed-dining are small portions and an afternoon nap, so following lunch at Pêche we took a long break before heading to our evening meal at Jewel of the SouthJewel is the latest effort of two James Beard award winners and listed on Eater.com as one of the hottest new restaurants in town. Located in an old house on the edge of the French Quarter, Jewel is more bar than traditional restaurant. Its specialty is craft cocktails, like this Crusta Alcala, an artsy concoction of mezcal, tequila, yellow Chartreuse, Crème de Cacao, and chocolate bitters in a glass rimmed with caramelized sugar and black pepper. 

A Crusta Alcala

Jewel’s food offerings, also artsy, are small plates listed on a chalk board, but the simple menu is deceptively upscale. We shared a burrata over chard pesto with toasted pecans served in a simple shallow dish. It was to die for and after licking the bowl we split the best key lime pie of the many we sampled during our three weeks on the road. 

M is very outgoing, and our restaurant experiences are always enhanced when she makes her newest best friends. I’m not at all garrulous, but she is adept at opening conversations with strangers. At Upperline, we talked with a young economics professor from the University of Chicago but at Jewel of the South we got into a much more animated and extended conversation with Adam and Stacy, a graphic designer and his art teacher girlfriend. I always enjoy these offhand, spur of the moment conversations, especially with locals, and find that they often add significantly to our appreciation of these new places. Years ago, I traveled alone in Europe for five months and hardly met anyone. Now, I meet people every time we go out to dinner (or to the market). Without M I wouldn’t know how to start a conversation, but with her help I’m almost a bon vivant.

Jewel is an odd contradiction of funky and upscale, and the house has a lovely courtyard for evenings when it’s more temperate than what we experienced. Jewel was a different dining experience, but without question I’d go back.

Jewel of the South Courtyard

Our final meal in New Orleans was lunch at La Petite Grocery. I knew nothing about it other than several friends had given it rave reviews. I thought it might be like Central Grocery, the Decatur Street mecca for muffuletta sandwich lovers. Instead, it turned out to be an elegant, period-style dining room on Magazine Street. The owner-executive chef, Justin Devillier, won the James Beard award for Best Chef: South after being a finalist in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. 

It sounds like sacrilege to say I had the cheeseburger when the place serves sensational French cuisine, but, on the recommendation of a friend, that’s what I had. M had an eye-popping pumpkin curry soup with slivered almonds and chives, and for dessert we split the strange sounding lemon-basil ice cream. Everything, and I mean everything, was delicious. The ice cream suffered a little from its lack of artistic presentation – two scoops in a bowl that was a little too large – but the flavors made up for it.

In the end, it was an intense, food packed 48 hours. NOLA is a special place for foodies, an amalgam of French, Cajun, Creole, and international cuisines. We think of Seattle as a foodie destination, but New Orleans is over the top in that regard. There is no way to sample all of the good spots – even for a resident. It must be said that given the hot climate and abundance of good food it’s no wonder that there is a noticeable weight problem among its citizens. After just 48 hours we’re committed to lean cuisine until those five pounds are gone.

Bon Appetite!