Under House Arrest…

No ankle bracelets. No vertical bars. No knuckle dragging guards. No orange jumpsuits, but still… it feels like house arrest.

It might just be cabin fever, but for the past week M and I have been cloistered a scant five miles from Kirkland’s Life Care Center – epicenter of the American coronavirus scare – just over there, dead center, across the lake.

We’re making the best of it, but it’s already getting old. Experts predict it will get worse before it gets better and that means we could be prisoners for the long haul. The best information is that we are one step down from the most vulnerable population – older, but “in good health with no underlying conditions such as cardiopulmonary disease, obesity, or diabetes.”

It’s not prison, but these past few days as we slipped out for an afternoon walk we felt like inmates must feel when they get their hour in “the yard.” Next thing you know we’ll be putting scratch marks on the wall to mark our days of incarceration.

It’s not all bad of course; I remember that Joseph Conrad used to have his wife lock him in his study so he couldn’t escape, and in the same vein I’m getting more writing done too. In the last week we’ve seen a dozen documentaries about everything from The Windsors to Jeff Bezos and become experts at how to order home-delivered groceries from Whole Foods.

We might be over-hyping it, but we ARE in the heart-of-the-heart of virus country, so we’ve decided to limit our contact with the wider world. No theaters, restaurants, or shopping malls, no bus to the office and no gym.

We fill our days with a lot of Netflix and Prime Video and we read. I’m working on Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States and Willie Nelson’s It’s a Long Story: My Life while M catches up on our pile of New Yorkers.

My guilty pleasure and relief valve is tennis, which I justify because the facility is large, the number of people small, and good ventilation with plenty of Purrell. Donald Trump may not cancel his upcoming campaign rallies, but you know this virus business is no “hoax” when the Indian Wells PNB Paribas tennis tournament, one of the biggest events on the tennis calendar, is canceled two days before its scheduled first matches. All the players are there. Two weeks worth of tickets sold, and spectators who have traveled from around the world. It’s a big deal.

It’s not as if America has not faced a viral contagion in the past, and many of the same factors are in play today. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic killed more than 20 million worldwide and 675,000 in the US, and President Wilson like Trump was notably silent on the issue and had no strategy to mitigate the damage.

Then there were HIV?AIDS (1979-Present, SARS (2002-2004), MERS (2012-2014), Ebola (2013-Present) plus Asian Flu, Zika, etc. It makes no sense that a country as advanced as the US doesn’t have an emergency plan for ramping up an anti-virus campaign. Granted, the particular pathogen can’t be anticipated, but it seems like gross negligence for FEMA, CDC and NIH not to have had a crisis plan ready to roll out when a new pathogen appears? Isn’t that their job?

As a pilot and lawyer, I’m accustomed to having a checklist to guide me through challenging situations. If the Pentagon has contingency plans for nuclear war, isn’t it reasonable for the federal and state governments to have contingency plans for a Black Swan health event like coronavirus.

On Friday Trump blamed the Obama administration for handcuffing his ability to respond, but his handcuffs were waiting when he fired the entire pandemic response team in 2018 and cut funds to the infectious disease arm of the CDC? He’s looking for a scape goat, but it isn’t Obama. The goat responsible is loose in the White House and it’s orange, two legged, morbidly obese, and walking the halls with a serious comb-over.

Ordinary People…

Salquin (Idlib) Syria – Med’s hometown

In 2017 I wrote about my friend, Mohammed “Med” Malandi, a young Syrian refugee living in Berlin. I told the story of his harrowing escape and journey across Turkey, to Greece, then on to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and finally to Germany. Med is one of the lucky few. In 2018 he was granted asylum and the right to work in Germany. His brother, Hussein, landed in the Netherlands, but their parents stayed in Idlib – one of the few remaining rebel-controlled areas in the northwest corner of Syria.

Then, in October 2019, after an unscheduled phone conversation with President Erdogan of Turkey, Trump withdrew the small US Special Operations contingent near the Turkish border and in so doing gave Turkish troops a green light to attack the Kurdish rebels our US troops were supporting. Without Kurdish resistance, Russia and Syria resumed their assault on the rebels in Idlib. Until then, Med’s parents were relatively safe.

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about Med again, it’s because coronavirus and the US election are choking the American news cycle. News of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria has been missing from the American papers.

While Turkey’s aim was to rid the border of its Kurdish neighbor, it was also opposed to Assad and supported the rebel resistance. Last week, a Russian bomb killed 33 Turkish soldiers in the Idlib area. They were no match for the combined Russian/Syrian air-ground assault on Idlib.

Nearly a million Syrian civilians have been displaced from Idlib, and their escape route to Europe across the Turkish border is blocked by the Greeks. Last week, Erdogan breached a 2016 agreement with the European Union and released thousands of refugees to cross the Greek border. Hoping to find a safe haven, the first stop for many is the Greek island of Lesbos. Med Malandi stopped there in 2015.

From Lesbos the refugees hope to get to Europe, but Lesbos is the bottleneck. The Greeks are holding the migrants in squalid conditions in a camp on the island. This morning I read the following (translated) story by Franziska Grillmeier, a German journalist reporting on the crisis. She reports that the Moria refugee camp built for 2,000 now has more than 10,000 and there are,

“coordinated attacks of right-wing groups are happening hourly on Lesvos at the moment – violence is aimed at refugees, humanitarian helpers and journalists.

The camp residents are completely on their own. Yesterday a group of protesters in Moria were pushed back under heavy tear gas. No one can document what happens to people. Are there any injuries? Who needs acute help? Not to mention people with disabilities, the old and newborns who are left behind every night under acute danger of life.

As part of the Turkish border opening, it’s rumored that there is a ferry going from Moria to Athens, where people can travel to Europe safely. A dangerous fallacy. Once the refugees are on the streets, they run at risk of being attacked by right-wing groups, partially armed with chains, stones & batons.

The people now arriving on the beaches with inflatable boats are on their own. No one is around to provide first aid, give them water and fresh blankets. Most can’t be brought to the camp for registration because right-wing groups are blocking the access road to the camp.

Last night I was attacked in the car along with my colleague Julian Busch by black-dressed men. They blocked our way to the passage on the coastal road, tried to jump on the car, break windows and break doors open – we managed to turn around, they threw stones and sticks at us. We’re fine.

Police are overwhelmed. There’s no support right now. The violence that has built up in recent months implodes inward and is aimed at the most vulnerable. It hasn’t been like this since yesterday. Now lawlessness has peaked.”

Today, after this article was almost complete, the Seattle Times finally published an article about the crisis at the camp and the chaos at the Turkish border. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/thousands-of-migrants-look-for-way-around-shut-greek-border/

Last week, when I asked Med about his family and Idlib, he told me “They are still living there and they are fine until now, but the Russians are stepping up military action and trying to break the Americans and Turks who are defending them.” Our mutual friend tells me that Med has experienced nightmares and panic attacks. He feels bad about living safely in Berlin when his family’s fate is uncertain.

My feelings are complicated. When I think of Med and his family I feel guilty. My life is easy while theirs is under attack. I’m safe in America and they’re displaced somewhere north of Idlib. Med is no different from you and me. His father was a teacher, his mother a housewife, and he was an aspiring artist. The Malandi’s and their neighbors are ordinary people caught up in a terrifying political and military nightmare that has drawn Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States into a geopolitical quagmire that’s left Syria a pile of rubble.

Despite his family’s ordeal, Med is safe in Berlin and our mutual friend, Claudia, is his go-to support system. She’s an old friend from my Pan Am days and a real treasure who’s involved in helping other Afghan and Syrian refugees in addition to Med. Last week, she interrupted our email exchange because Waheed, a young Afghan who hasn’t seen his wife and child in 4 years, was stopping by for some help with government paperwork.

Coronavirus is alive and well in Kirkland, just 5 miles from where we live. So far, it’s claimed nine victims at a local nursing home. It’s scary but compared to what Med and his family have been through it’s a walk in the park. So, when your life seems difficult or threatened by a wayward virus you might want to give thanks that you and your family aren’t being beaten by a bunch of Neo-Nazi thugs in a refugee camp on Lesbos. Like the unforeseen virus, bad things happen to ordinary people in other ways too.

Med Malandi’s Self-Portrait

Lord of the Flies Redux…

I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the spring and summer of 2012. M and I were living and working in Saigon, far away from the bickering and embarrassment of the Sarah Palin/Tina Fey show. Obama looked like a shoo-in, though it was likely his second term would be handcuffed by Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate. The campaign was in full swing, but we were on the sidelines an ocean away. If we wanted to know what was happening, we bought the International Edition of the New York Times. But even that was rare. 

Now we’re back and times have changed. The bickering and posturing of 2012 seems quaint by comparison and nostalgia is a totally inappropriate response. The 2020 campaign is in full swing, and we, the American people, are in a mano a mano for our democracy. For historical perspective, the 2020 presidential election may be as consequential as the election of Lincoln in 1860.

At the moment, the Democratic hopefuls are mud-wrestling for the nomination. Bernie is ascendant, but no one has demonstrated star qualities. No matter who the eventual nominee is, he or she will be carrying the future of the country on his or her shoulders. Those of us who are passionate about denying Trump another four years need to focus. It is inconceivable that the America we grew up in is now under the thumb of a president whose sole governing principle is the consolidation of personal power.

In 1776, the founding fathers had no template for a new nation-state, but all of them – Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay – had ideas about what they did and did not want their government to embody – ideas generated by extensive reading in the philosophy and literature of the social contract. They knew Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau. 

When independence was declared, the organizing principles were still being debated. England had the Magna Carta but it was an unwritten constitution and the seceding Americans felt the need for a founding hard copy document. In 1781 Articles of Confederation were ratified, but by 1783 it was obvious that something more comprehensive and cohesive was needed to hold the new nation together.

How it all came together is complicated, devious, serendipitous, mysterious and inspiring–just like the end product. Madison did the basic homework (study) and drafting. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison argued their theories and competing points of view in The Federalist Papers. Franklin and Jefferson weighed in with their diplomatic experience as French and English ambassadors. State legislatures added their input and on June 21, 1788 New Hampshire became the 9th of the 13 states to ratify and make it the governing document. By 1790 all 13 of the original states had ratified and it was unanimous.

Two hundred and thirty years later as we look back we might imagine it was a seamless process, but the truth is those early days were just as chaotic and divisive as the ones we are living through now. Democracy is messy. The rosy pictures in our high school history texts hid that truth.

Once again, we are perilously close to either a Nietzschean Will to Power totalitarian moment or a Lord of the Flies unraveling where we lose our way and begin eating each other. If you need something visual, just watch a Trump rally on the same night as a Democratic candidate debate. Trump is a Mussolini-like caricature who can’t get enough of the carefully choreographed adulation while the Democratic hopefuls interrupt and demean each other about Utopian healthcare and the politics of the 70s.

In Lord of the Flies William Golding asks us to consider just how thin the veneer of civilization really is? Left alone on the island without a leader, the boys in the story revert to a primitive survival-of-the-fittest state. Is that us in 2020? At the beginning of the current campaign there was consensus among Democrats – defeat Trump – but the situation has changed. Today the goal remains, but there is no consensus on the who or how. Are we morphing into the same rudderless selfish state as the boys in Lord of the Flies?

In the wake of his impeachment, loyalty to the Bully-in-Chief has become the White House litmus test. His truth is the truth of Narcissus. He lies at every juncture. He’s made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The homeless are everywhere. The country is in deep debt. Mean-spirits dictate policy and the Attorney General sees no limits to executive power. We have abandoned our friends and alliances in favor of an isolated nationalism where inequality is exaggerated and opportunity denied those who need it most.

It feels odd to be so overtly political. I was always happy to enjoy the ride as a privileged American. I paid attention but didn’t wade in the deep waters. It even seems odd to frame these remarks as political. I love American history and this seems more like an historical moment than a political one. The 2020 election will be a turning point. Will we recommit to the framers’ democratic ideal or let tribal rivalries dictate our future? Either way, it’s a reminder that democracy is messy. There are no Jeffersons or Adams on the debate stages today, but the principles they argued for are the same principles I hope will define America’s future – fairness, honesty, good intentions, and the welfare of All our citizens.

Weather and Creativity…

This is the bus I take from home to my downtown “office” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Marilynn comes with me every Thursday. She hates the bus but loves me, so she bites the bullet and rides along. I love both her and the bus… in that order.

Over the years I’ve made a number of friends on my bus commute – all women. I got to know two of them well enough to have an occasional lunch with them. One, Mary Lou, lost her husband Bob unexpectedly and her confusion and grief were palpable. Not long after Bob’s death she moved away and we no longer share the bus ride. I often wonder how she’s doing? The younger one, Linda, has two children in Middle School. She’s married to Mark, a former airline pilot. He flew for Aloha and commuted to Honolulu. It was the job he’d always dreamed of but after two furloughs he gave it up. Now he drives a bus for King County Metro just like the one I ride to work. It pays well and he has a stable life with Linda and their kids. No more white scarf and leather flight jacket glamor but a healthy family life.

I find the bus commute endlessly interesting. Sometimes I listen to an Audible book. Last week it was James Taylor’s autobiography “Break Shot” about his first 21 years. Fascinating. If you read this blog often you know how much I like James and his songs. On other days, I check out the riders or hunker down as the rain splatters the windows. Usually I count the number of passengers who are staring at their phones and calculate the percentage of phone addicts. Today, of the 11 passengers I could see, 9 were staring at their phones. There was a time…

I finished Break Shot over the weekend, so this morning I started a new novel by Jenny Offill. Weather is short and oddly aphoristic. Vignettes. Musings. Jump cuts. I don’t really have time to read another novel; I’m in the middle of two other books but Weather was very seductive. Two weeks ago it was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and again in the New York Times Magazine. I’d never seen that much positive attention devoted to a new novel by a mostly unknown writer. Granted, American Dirt, the story of a Mexican immigrant family by a half-Puerto Rican woman novelist, has been sucking all the politically correct air out of the book reviewing business, but Weather is not in the news because it’s controversial. It’s just good creative literature.

I’m not quite halfway through but I’m awestruck by how simple and complicated it is at the same time. The paragraphs are short little chunks of a bigger story about Lizzie, a grad school dropout, her son, Eli, and her grad school professor/mentor, Sylvia. In less than 200 pages the author takes us on a sweeping journey from Eli’s preschool to global climate change, alt-Right and leftwing politics, a peek inside Lizzie’s head, and back to the Help Desk at the university library where she works.

Good writing is always about the story. It might be told monumentally, as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or in short curt passages like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It might be a graphic novel about mental health like Marbles or a children’s book like Goodnight Moon. A good story is a good story, but as a writer I especially admire those who bring something new to the craft.

I was married to a visual artist who maintained she could teach anyone to draw. I disagreed but wasn’t willing to test her belief. On the other hand, I understood her point; a skilled draftsman is not necessarily a creative artist. Visit any art fair and you will see drawings and paintings that catch your eye for their realistic depiction of a scene, but the creative process is something more. Whether it’s a painting or a novel, the creative artist delivers his or her material in a different consciousness raising way.

We live in perilous times. Science tells us we are destroying the planet and may soon pass the point of no return. Both sides of the political spectrum are weighing in – and testing extreme positions while those of us in the middle struggle to find a reasonable way to address the Doomsday scenario. Weather addresses these issues in fiction. Many of us have little Eli’s in our family and wonder what the planet will look like when they are our age.  Here are two of mine in the Paris catacombs.

We can’t let them down. We have to act; to affirm the science, combat atmospheric emissions, keep the busses running, cultivate friendships, keep writers writing, painters painting, and work to assure our kids’ futures. Thank Jenny Offill for reminding us.

Q: What is the philosophy of late capitalism?

A: Two hikers see a hungry bear on the trail ahead of them. One of them takes out his running shoes and puts them on. You can’t outrun a bear, the other whispers. I just have to outrun you, he says. (Weather, p.44)

The Legacy of Icons…

It’s easy in the later stages of life to look back at memorable events, performances, and personalities encountered on our journey and lament the loss of those who still seem very much alive because of the way they and their art affected us.

Last week M and I spent an evening with Sam Shepard at the Seattle Rep and he was very much alive during a performance of True West, his rollicking roller coaster ride of a play where the audience is pulled into the action as two very different brothers trash each other and their mother’s home on the stage in front of them.

My first memory of Sam Shepard is Shepard the actor and his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). I only knew him as a playwright then, but he nailed Yeager and soon after that he was everywhere. Over the years I watched him play a series of laconic film heroes and saw several of his 44 plays, including Fool for Love, True West and the Pulitzer-winning Buried Child.

I always admired Sam Shepard the movie-star hero and even more the creative director, screenwriter and award-winning playwright who was sharing a life with the equally private and talented Jessica Lange on a small ranch somewhere between Mill Valley and the ocean in Marin County.

Shepard died, as he lived, very privately at his Kentucky home on August 1, 2017. The cause of death was complications from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a diagnosis he kept from all but his closest friends and family, but in a passage from The One Inside, a novel written before his condition was known, his character explains his condition,

“Something in his body refuses to get up. The appendages don’t seem connected to the motor — whatever that is — driving this thing. They won’t take direction — won’t be dictated to — the arms, legs, feet, hands. Nothing moves. Nothing even wants to. The brain isn’t sending signals.”

My good friend, Hugh, was diagnosed with ALS in 2018. He might describe his own condition exactly that way. When M and I visited him recently, he told her that every morning he’s a little weaker but looks forward to every day. Shepard continued to work daily despite his illness, and, with Patti Smith’s help, published Spy of the First Person posthumously.

Getting old is cruel enough without the humiliation of a neurological breakdown. So far, M and I are doing OK. Parts are wearing out but not entirely giving up. Last year the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator estimated that I had 8 years and 7 months left. Today it told me I have 7 years and 6 months. Time flies but I’m still right on schedule. We all like to imagine ourselves unbound by the laws of nature, but, as we approach the end, normal starts to look like a good deal.

When I started working for Pan Am I was hungry to see and do everything, and on every layover I looked for something special to see or do. In the late 60s I had a trip to Amsterdam and Jacqueline Du Pre, the prodigiously talented young cellist, was performing that night with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I don’t remember what she played but I was swept away and fell hard for her and her cello.

Then sadly, by 1973 as fast as it had begun, her career was over and in 1987 at the age of 42 she was dead, a victim of MS (multiple sclerosis). I don’t have her recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, but I think of her whenever I listen to the Yo Yo Ma version. She made it famous and Iike to think I’m listening to her when I hear it.

Both Shepard and Du Pre will live on in the artistic record they left behind. We’ll be able to see the Shepard plays and movies and listen to the Du Pre recordings, but this morning I heard that Cathy Marston is bringing Du Pre back to life in The Cellist, a new mainstage commission for London’s Royal Ballet. 

In Marston’s imaginative retelling of the Du Pre story, she is played by a ballerina while a male dancer performs the role of her cello. The audience is transfixed as the two lean into each other as the music merges with their movements.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the talent of an artist than the creation of new work based on his or her legacy. We can see a Shepard revival or hear a Du Pre recording but there is something special about a new work. Kudos to Cathy Marston and the Royal Ballet. I have my fingers crossed that Pacific Northwest Ballet will bring her celebration of Ms. Du Pre to Seattle.

There is something particularly poignant about vital, energetic artists like Sam Shepard and Jacqueline Du Pre being brought down by nasty debilitating diseases. My heart goes out to my relatives and friends who are dealing with MS and ALS, all of whom maintain positive attitudes and gratitude for the lives they’ve lived and are living.

Memory is tricky… We tend to remember the highlights. I remember seeing the strings of Issac Stern’s bow flying wildly during the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and hearing Janis Joplin’s Southern Comfort laced voice with Big Brother and the Holding Company at a bar in Huntington Beach. I love movies, but there is nothing like a live performance – music and/or theater. Great art and artists live beyond their work, and we remember them through it. Today, I’m grateful for my time with Sam Shepard and Jacqueline Du Pre in the past but look forward to my next encounter with greatness in a live setting. I feel lucky to be alive and able to experience the legacy of iconic artists – living and dead.