Am I a Racist?

I can predict the responses when I, a white male, criticize a person of color. “That’s so racist.” “You sound like a closet racist.” “You don’t understand the culture of race.” “You haven’t experienced what he or she has.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color.” “You can’t understand because of your ‘white privilege’. ”

Almost from the beginning of these conversations I’m on the defensive. I say I’m not talking about race. I explain that I’m talking about a person or a behavior. I’m expressing my opinion that the behavior is unacceptable, or that the person is acting like a jerk or simply out of line, but inevitably I have to defend myself against a charge of racism.

Am I a racist? Am I blind to my own prejudice? Maybe. I’m certainly aware it’s a possibility. I’m white. I grew up white. My parents were white and it’s possible I’m simply unaware of my racial bias? I sometimes ask myself if my criticism of someone is well founded or whether it’s because its object is a person of color? I could be wrong, but isn’t that kind of criticism of me just a racist trope, accusing me of racism because I’m criticizing a person of color? Am I supposed to limit my social commentary, especially negative commentary, to white folks like me?

The dictionary defines racism as the belief that a particular race is superior to another, that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and the differences produce the inherent superiority of a particular race.

So where am I coming from? What’s this really about? It shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s about Serena Williams, that never-ending lightning rod for racial controversy.

The greatest woman tennis player of all time? Yes. 23 Grand Slam titles? Yes. Rises from the ghetto in Compton to become a champion? Yes. New mother? Yes. Poor loser? Yes. Bad actor? I think so.

Last weekend, down 2-6, 3-4 in the US Open Women’s Championship match  she lost it – the match and her emotional cool. After being outplayed by 20-year-old Naomi Osaka for almost two hours Serena had a meltdown that cost her (1) a warning for a coaching violation (2) loss of a point for breaking her racquet and (3) loss of a game for verbally attacking the chair umpire. With the score then 3-5, Osaka finished off the match to win the championship. The final score 6-2, 6-3. It’s worth pointing out that in their only other meeting, at the 2018 Miami Open, Osaka beat Serena 6-3, 6-2 to win that championship too, making it two wins to none for Osaka in head to head matches with Serena.

In the interest of full disclosure, despite her unparalleled achievements as a tennis player, I’ve never liked Serena Williams. Never – but it’s not about tennis. I see her as a hypocrite and sore loser. She may be the greatest woman tennis player of all time, but I don’t think she’s an admirable person. I respect her sister, Venus, but think Serena is an insincerely modest winner and a sore loser – blaming anyone but herself when she loses.

Over the years she has had a series of incidents that reveal a pattern of self-destructive meltdowns. At match point, during the 2009 US Open semi-final against Kim Clijsters, an Asian lineswoman called a foot fault, that caused Serena to threaten the woman with, “If I could, I would take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” That outburst cost her a point, after moments earlier being warned (a precursor to the penalty) for throwing her racquet (eerily like last weekend). The penalty point cost Serena the match (again, like last weekend).

And, last week’s dust up is not the first time Serena has taken the shine off an opponent’s US Open victory. In 2011, she lost the championship to Samantha Stosur, but sucked all the air out of the room by throwing a fit mid-match, berating the chair umpire, and refusing to apologize. Like her behavior in the Osaka and Clijsters matches, she was being badly beaten but created a firestorm that took away from her opponent’s well-deserved celebration.

That’s three notable instances of losses at the US Open in which her own churlish, out of line behavior diminished the achievements of another player. After last Saturday’s match the internet was alive with the Serena story, and many of my African-American and Asian friends came down heavily on Serena’s side, something I hadn’t anticipated and which added to my self-questioning. Am I being racist? Or sexist? I don’t think so, but I’m on the inside looking out.

It’s arguable that behavioral rules and penalties are subjectively applied in tennis. Serena argued forcefully that penalties are imposed more often against women than the men, but an article in today’s New York Times shows that to be false.

I’m a huge tennis fan. I play 3-4 times a week and spend hours watching the Grand Slam events. I get up at 2 a.m. to watch the Australian Open, 5 a.m. to watch the French Open and Wimbledon, and have attended all of them. I’ve also been a player for over 60 years.

I don’t think of myself as racist, but I’m obviously bothered by the criticism. I’ve been a civil and voting rights advocate since the ’60s and have a wide circle of friends who are also active, but I’m reminded of the old saw about “Some of my best friends are black (or Jewish).” I don’t think I’m like that, but we all see ourselves through self-serving lenses.

Having acknowledged my concern, I can say honestly that my all-time idol, regardless of race, is Arthur Ashe–not just in tennis but in every way. He was a trailblazer in America and challenged apartheid in South Africa. He died of AIDS but faced it with courage and dignity. His autobiography,“Days of Grace” is my favorite of the genre. He happened to be black and a tennis player, but those are not the attributes that made him admirable. It was his humanity and courage in the face of real adversity that made him great. I see a similar quiet dignity in Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old mixed race (Haitian/Japanese) woman who defeated Serena last weekend, and I look forward to seeing a lot more of her in the future.

I realize that my criticism of Serena is a no-win situation. Last year I wrote an article called “We’ll Never Get Over Slavery. I sincerely believe that to be true, but I try every day to live as if it isn’t and to emulate Arthur Ashe. I wish Serena would too.


“So It Goes”

On September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, there were huge victory celebrations across the country (Seattle above).

It was the end of WWII, and Americans saw it as the triumph of democracy over fascism and good over evil. The nation was ready to party on one of the most important of days in American history. My parents were excited and wanted me, their 7-year-old son, to see and feel its importance too, so late that afternoon we hopped a bus to join the melee in downtown Seattle. My blurred memory of the scene is chaotic. The streets were a teeming, noisy, confetti-filled sea of humanity, and I remember watching it all from under the awning in front of Byrnie Utz Hats, Seattle’s iconic purveyor of men’s hats.

In the years since that night, I’ve changed a lot, but Byrnie Utz Hats managed to stay pretty much the same. The steel-gray art-deco storefront looks exactly as it did then–familiar but not flashy – and it still occupies the same space at 310 Union Street with its original Borsalino/Stetson signage and tiger-oak interior furnishings. Byrnie Utz Hats was only 4 years older than I was on that night in 1945.

Two weeks ago, after 84 years, Byrnie Utz closed its door for the last time. I didn’t know Byrnie or his successor, Paul Ferry, so it’s reasonable to ask why I’m upset or think the closing of a men’s hat store in downtown Seattle is worth noting.  I don’t wear hats, and until two weeks ago I had never been in the store, but after 84 years I think Byrnie Utz Hats deserves a proper eulogy.

When I returned to Seattle after years away, I was surprised to see Byrnie’s right where it was when I left – rare in these days of retail turnover. But, I was saddened when I recently heard it was closing, marking the end of an 84-year cycle and the imminent demolition of a Seattle landmark building. Byrnie’s demise is a melancholy reminder of times past, overlapping eras, our changing city, and my own mortality.

Yes, times have changed, and it was widely noted that men stopped wearing hats when President Kennedy appeared hatless at his January 1961 inauguration. I’d argue that they didn’t stop but styles did change after the hatless inauguration; gone was the felt fedora my father wore, and in its place came the ever present baseball cap of my sons and grandsons.

In 1964 the Seattle Times noted in a headline that “Hatter Holds on During Bare-Head Trend.” That article was written 54 years ago, and yet 54 years later Byrnie (and Paul) were still in business at 310 Union Street, maintaining their thriving business in hats until an out of town real estate developer, not a lack of customers, brought about their closing.

Byrnie Utz Hats never compromised its belief that hats make an important statement about a man’s style. Byrnie did not adapt to changing fashion by selling baseball caps. Instead, he doubled down and stocked the store with handmade Panamas, wool berets, porkpies, and ten-gallon Texas-style cowboys.

During its last week in business, when I went in to check it out there were dozens of customers still willing to pay $200 for a handmade straw or felt porkpie. Yes, there is still a market for a well-made, handcrafted gentleman’s hat. Byrnie’s closing was not a fire sale, but it was the end of an era, and Mr. Ferry presided over it with dignity and good spirits.

In his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut used “So it goes” as a marquee phrase to mark a death or noir invocation and show us how tragedy has been normalized, trivialized, or randomized after sad or horrific events. It seems appropriate to mark the closing of Byrnie Utz Hats with a nod to Vonnegut.

“So it goes.”

My dad always wore a hat. It was part of his “kit.” He didn’t feel dressed without it. In Marine Corps parlance, his uniform was incomplete unless he was “covered.” Marilynn regularly comments on my need for a hat since I’ve had a number of serious skin cancers. My father had none, so she has a point. I do need to protect what skin is left on my crusty, leathery, freckled, shaved head.

With the closing of Byrnie Utz, it’s clear I’ll have to go elsewhere to get “covered,” but I like to think, had he stayed in business, I would have found the perfect Panama-straw there – when I felt it was really time to man-up.


A Real Fighter Pilot…

“We just love our pilots.” Marine Sgt. Major TC Crouson (VMF-323 Reunion)

History’s most famous fighter pilot, the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, offered the following description of how a fighter pilot approaches his job:

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

Since the death of Senator John McCain last weekend, a number of journalists have seized on his days as a fighter pilot to describe his personality and character. The conventional wisdom is that fighter pilots are aggressive, competitive, work-oriented, cocky, conscientious, extroverted, risk takers. Looking back it’s clear that the life and career of John McCain was faithful to both the Red Baron’s and conventional wisdom’s summary of attributes.

The fighter pilot Senator from Arizona lived his life and prepared for his death in the best traditions of both fighter pilot and senator. I like to think John and I would have been friends had we known each other. Not that I, in any way, am comparing myself to this national hero, but I’m proud to have shared some friendships, airplanes, and history going back to our days in Pensacola and beyond.

McCain graduated from Annapolis in June of 1958 and went straight to pre-flight training in Pensacola. I graduated from the University of Washington in December of the same year and went to Marine Officer Candidate Class in Quantico, Virginia, before going to Pensacola in May of 1959. Our paths didn’t cross there, except possibly at an aspiring aviators’ bar on South Palafox called Trader John’s or on a Friday night at the Mustin Beach Officers Club where young working girls from town came to meet pilots-in-training. I’m sure we were in those rooms together more than once.

Among Naval aviators there’s always six-degrees-of-separation. John and I shared a couple of friendships I know about, maybe more, including my friend and Marine squadron-mate, Carl Vogt, who went through flight training with John and later knew him in Washington DC as the senior partner at the law firm of Fulbright and Jaworski. In 1992 George H.W. Bush appointed Carl Chairman of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and Senator John McCain presided at his installation ceremony

This is the official photo of Carl Vogt the lawyer, not CarlVogt the fighter pilot (although, if you look closely, those are Navy wings in his lapel).

Carl and I joined VMF-323, an F8 Crusader squadron at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, after getting our wings. Then, following our active duty service, we started law school together at UC Berkeley. If you met Carl today you’d be impressed by his courtly, dignified manner, but beneath that smooth surface is the fighter pilot who once ejected from a Crusader and who, during a break from our law school studies, saved my sorry ass by taking out a guy at George and Iris’ Bar on San Pablo Avenue when he thought I was getting too familiar with his girlfriend. One punch. Fighter pilot friendship. That’s another story John McCain would have smiled about.

So it goes with fighter pilots… but back to John McCain. In addition to the mutual friendship with Carl, McCain and I flew some of the same airplanes, F9s, F11s, and our last airplane, the A4 Skyhawk, the airplane he was flying when he was shot down over Hanoi’s West Lake.

The version below, in Marine colors, carries markings that designate it as part of the USS Forrestal contingent, coincidentally the carrier McCain was stationed aboard when his A4 caught fire on the flight deck during the tragic accident that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.

John’s post-Vietnam history is well documented, but a new story caught my attention this week. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, his Chief of Staff talked about a visit the senator made to the Yukon. As a congressman, he actively supported measures to combat climate change, and on this trip to the Yukon to observe its effects he met the mayor of Whitehorse. Upon meeting McCain, the mayor mentioned that Whitehorse was the home of the poet Robert W. Service, whereupon McCain, to everyone’s surprise, began reciting Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.

It seems that during his days in the Hanoi Hilton, the prisoner in the cell next to his was a Canadian, and as they were unable to speak to each other they developed a code they tapped out on the common wall between their cells. During their long stay as POWs, the Canadian taught McCain the Service poem which he never forgot. In fact, as he was reciting the poem to the mayor of Whitehorse he began tapping it out in code, and soon after that they left the delegation behind, and in his unique and unconventional way, went to visit Robert Service’s home.

I didn’t share John McCain’s political views for the most part. I’m a Berkeley-educated liberal and the son of an insurance salesman. He was an Academy-educated conservative, the son and grandson of Navy admirals. He made mistakes (so have I). He wasn’t afraid to admit them (neither am I). And, he did his best to correct them (I hope I have too). While we didn’t share the same politics, I have the utmost respect for him and I’m proud to have served as a fighter pilot and shared those experiences with him.

I admired McCain for his independence, self-deprecating sense of humor, and highly tuned bullshit detector – the one that set off alarms when Donald Trump emerged as the Republican’s nominee in 2016. McCain knew immediately that he was a fraud and needed to be stopped.

This week’s ceremonies honoring McCain’s life has brought about a national period of mourning and highlighted the differences between a man of courage, integrity, and character with those of a pathological liar and draft dodger who famously had the audacity to question McCain’s status as a war hero.

McCain always laughed when he acknowledged his fifth from the bottom finish at Annapolis while Trump never tires of puffing himself up to tell us he graduated at the top of his class at Wharton – The truth, of course, is that he transferred to Penn to take classes in the Wharton undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham. Character is destiny. We’ll see whose legacy lives longer.

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

RIP John McCain

Preserve and Protect…

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” — President Theodore Roosevelt

The timing is coincidental but today is the 102nd anniversary of the National Park Service, the federal agency founded by Theodore Roosevelt to manage the national parks, monuments and other natural properties designated for conservation and preservation.

As Americans, we are the beneficiaries of a legacy that kept North America from becoming a patchwork of British, French, Spanish, and Native American colonies. The founders of our country battled – literally – to bequeath us this rich chunk of the planet bordered by oceans east and west, mountains on the north, and sub-tropical deserts to the south.

It’s impossible to overstate the beauty of the American landscape or the importance of preserving and protecting its rich resources.

I was lucky. As a child my parents took me to several national parks, introduced me to park rangers, and helped me understand that these lands were owned by the American people and open for all to enjoy.

When I was younger I loved to adventure in them – rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon, floating for 18 days through the Grand Canyon, tent camping at Cinnamon Bay in the Virgin Islands, sleeping sauvage behind the Awahnee Lodge in Yosemite, scrambling up the Grand Teton with Dick Dorworth, climbing the Camp Muir snowfield on Mt Rainier to meet Doug, riding mountain bikes on the White Rim, Slickrock, and Gemini Bridges in Moab, and camping by the Road to the Sun in Glacier Park.

In recent years, M and I have spent time exploring some of the cultural treasures included in America’s national park system – the Washington Mall monuments and museums, Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam, John Adams House in Quincy, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial along with the Arlington National Cemetery – solemn reminders that our freedom came at a cost.

The National Park Service is an agency in the Department of the Interior (often referred to as the Department of Everything Else), and while it may not be in the news every day, it, could well be the most important agency in terms of long-term impact on the country? It’s not the biggest or the smallest of the cabinet level departments, but it oversees 75% of the land owned by the federal government (Department of Agriculture controls the remainder) and regulates the activities on all that land. Its management responsibility includes the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement. It manages oil and mineral resources and grants permits for offshore drilling.

Even before I was aware of the NPS anniversary, I planned to write about our responsibility to the land, to its parks, managed lands, and natural resources, because the current Secretary of the Interior and a covey of grifters and political hacks have taken over the agency and are moving to cheat us of our inheritance by opening these lands and waters to exploitation by extractive industries.

I find grandstanders repugnant, so it’s impossible to hide my disdain for the current Secretary of the Interior riding a Park Service horse to work his first day on the job. I know he’s from Montana (so am I), but when I see a fool on a horse in downtown DC I’m reminded of a friend’s comment about the stockbrokers and real estate developers who showed up in Sun Valley watering holes in the ’80s and ’90s sporting cowboy boots and Stetsons saying, “Yup, I’ve always worn ‘em.”

What was he thinking, this ex-Navy Seal, now Secretary of the Interior, on a Park Service nag in downtown DC? I think I can hear him now, “Yup, I’ve always ridden a horse to work.” You should also check out the Native American beadwork on those gloves – recently purchased, no doubt, at the Flathead Indian Reservation store in Polson, just south of his “homestead” in Whitefish. “Yup, I’ve always worn ‘em.”

I would still laugh at him, but I wouldn’t be so critical if I thought he was protecting America’s natural resources, but Zinke is a Trump-style raider unlike his predecessor, Sally Jewell, the former CEO of REI (Recreational Equipment Inc), who was an avid hiker and mountaineer as well as a zealous guardian of our national parks and natural resources.

Since taking office Zinke has granted Red-State Florida an exemption from offshore oil drilling while denying Blue-State California the same exception. But, perhaps his most egregious act was reversing the Obama administration’s protection of 1,000,000 acres of pristine red-rock canyons in Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument––to allow uranium and oil interests to drill and extract minerals.

As with all government agencies, budget cuts are pinching the NPS, stretching manpower resources, and mandating increased fees. M and I have Golden Age Passports (now called the America the Beautiful – Senior Pass), lifetime passes that cover entrance and amenity fees to over 2000 federal recreational sites and available to anyone over 62. It’s a bargain by any standard but upsetting that Zinke raised the cost of the pass by 700% last year, making it much more expensive for Americans to enjoy and explore the parks and wild places they own.

On this 102nd anniversary of the National Park Service, my thoughts go back to Theodore Roosevelt who never lost his reverence for the land but lived to see the effects of overgrazing, the exhaustion of specific natural resources, and the need to preserve and protect what remains.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

TR preserved them for you. You own them now. When was the last time you visited a national park, monument, or museum? You owe it to yourself…and TR. Do it.

The Biggest Art Heist…

Everyone loves the story of a daring art robbery with keystone cops, priceless paintings, a colorful cast of characters, a famous museum, an eccentric collector, and an unresolved ending–as mysterious as an M.C. Escher print.

In literature there are many examples of stories that deliver that mixture of art, crime and mystery – The Art Thief, The Raphael Affair, The Art Forger, and The Faustian Bargain. On the screen, it’s difficult to top Steve McQueen as the art collector and Faye Dunaway as the insurance investigator in Version I of The Thomas Crown Affair, or better yet Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the updated Version II. Check ‘em out. They’re still cliff hangers.

But, nothing beats the real deal… and perhaps the most surprising real deal heist took place on August 21, 1911, when three employees lifted a little-known painting off the wall of the Louvre, hid all night in a closet, and walked out the door in the morning with the painting hidden under a worker’s smock. Two years later, the ringleader tried to shop it to an art dealer who blew their cover, called the police, and returned the Mona Lisa to the Louvre. Today, La Gioconda is widely regarded as the world’s most famous painting and its theft would land the thief in jail for life. In 1911, it was just a missing painting and the feckless Louvre employee went to jail for seven months.

There have been a number of famous art thefts in addition to the Mona Lisa, including the Ghent Altarpiece (several times), several Van Gogh, Picasso, and Gaugin paintings taken from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester later discovered in an abandoned lavatory (waggishly called The Loo-vre) and the highly publicized 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Madonna from the Munch Museum in Oslo.

It’s difficult to handle stolen art. It can’t be sold on the open market and has to remain hidden from the public. Nevertheless, it’s a temptation that keeps criminals scheming and insurance companies raising rates. The one that has them all baffled took place in Boston in 1990 and to this day remains unsolved

The Heist, as it is commonly known, is the biggest art theft in history and took place on 18 March 1990 in the 81 minutes beginning at 1:24 a.m. when two men dressed as Boston police officers “responding to a disturbance” gained entrance to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tied up the two night guards, and systematically looted the museum.

It’s remarkable that the thieves have never been caught and none of the 13 works of art, including a Vermeer (below), two Rembrandts, a Manet, and five Degas drawings have never been found. In 1990 the value of the stolen art was pegged at $500,000,000. In today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation the figure is $977,494,052.34. Almost one billion dollars…

In January, the museum renewed its offer of a $10,000,000 reward for information leading to recovery of the art. In 2013 the FBI asserted that they knew the perps but that they were both dead. The statute of limitations ran out in 1995, and it remains a black hole mystery.

Despite its notoriety as the biggest property theft in US history and the fact that there is a full length documentary and book about it as well as an active FBI web page devoted to it, the museum’s staff is not allowed to discuss the heist with visitors except to note that empty frames on the walls of the museum stand in place to remind the visitor of the missing art that once hung there.

Here, M stands next to the frame that held Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only known seascape (shown as it was, on the right).

The heist might be the only thing people know about the Gardner, but it’s no more noteworthy than the museum itself. Isabella Stewart Gardner was an eccentric woman of the Gilded Age, part of the Boston circle that included John Singer Sargent, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. She traveled extensively in Europe, was widowed at 58, and for the remainder of her life devoted herself to building one of the great American art collections housed in the Venetian-style palazzo she designed and lived in on the Fens in Boston.

Mrs. Gardner’s home/museum is an eclectic mix of ancient artifacts, personal letters, Flemish tapestries, and Renaissance master’s paintings guided and curated by Bernard Berenson. When she died she instructed her heirs to maintain the collections as she had arranged them in the palazzo. The result is a delicious, crowded, poorly lit, treasure hunt, difficult to navigate but worth every minute. In 2012 a modern addition was added, not to house the art but to provide administrative, conservation, retail, and restaurant space. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

What could possibly have happened that night in 1990 at the Gardner? Where is the missing art? Twenty-eight years later there are many theories about who could have masterminded the robbery–from employees and police accessories, to Whitey Bulger, Mafia goons, Euro-thieves, a Vatican operative, IRA terrorists, greedy billionaires and oil rich Middle Eastern emirs.

Like the DB Cooper mystery, the Gardner heist has achieved mythic stature. The difference is that DB Cooper disappeared with a suitcase full of cash not 13 priceless one-of-a-kind art treasures. Consensus is that the thieves are dead, but like others I keep hoping the paintings will be recovered and back in their respective places on the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. One can only hope.