Denmark, Dinesen, and Serendipity…

Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the Word of the Lord is to the soul.

Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen

 

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the mystery of personal connections. Six degrees of separation is just the tip of the iceberg. I never met Karen Blixen, but I knew a friend of hers, and the way we met and its consequences remain one of those enduring mysteries.  

In the winter of 1965, I was four months into a solo tour of Europe. I had traveled around southern Europe and the Middle East but wanted to see Germany and Scandinavia as well. It wasn’t the best time of year to visit, but I thought it might be my only opportunity. I flew from Istanbul to Frankfurt, took the train to Berlin, and after a few days there, opted to take the train to Copenhagen. That meant riding an East German train to the Danish ferry at Warnemunde. I thought it would be an adventure for an ex-US Marine to ride through the “evil empire.” But first I had to get from West Berlin to the station in East Berlin and transfer to the East German train.

I was alone and unsure of how to transfer when my West German train arrived at the Bahnhof in East Berlin. I climbed on the wrong train but the platform conductor noticed my mistake and helped me find the right one and get settled in a compartment. The only other passenger in the compartment was an older woman, and just before departure the conductor came back to whisper something to her. Later, she told me his words were, “Look after him. He’s an American.”

I’m not good at judging ages. I was 27 at the time and guessed her age as somewhere over 70. Maggie Andersen was returning to Copenhagen after visiting a dying friend in Berlin. I think the conductor’s concern gave her a reprieve from the sadness she was feeling. At first, I was just grateful for her company and conversation, but later it became became a genuine friendship. When the train arrived at Warnemunde to be loaded on the ferry, she invited me to join her in the ship’s dining room for a Danish smorgasbord buffet. Later, on the way to Copenhagen, she invited me to stay at her apartment.

I never really knew my grandmothers, but from that moment on I thought of her as my Danish grandmother. We stayed in touch and remained friends for more than 20 years. I visited her several times, had a brief affair with her “granddaughter” Jane,”spent time at her seaside cottage, introduced her to my wife and kids when they came along, and on my last visit, shortly before she died, played the guitar, drank shots of Akvavit, and talked with her late into the night.

Today I found Jane’s Facebook page with a profile picture in her SAS ground hostess uniform. I might not have recognized her, except that the picture was taken around the time I knew her – 55 years ago. This is a positive example of Facebook’s ability bring friends back together. 

I’ve always related better to women than men. This is just one instance, but I know the story has legs. Time blurs memory. I know Maggie had an unhappy marriage to a Danish admiral, and had no children of her own. What I don’t know is why Helle, Jane’s mother, left town and let Maggie raise her. These relationships are a mystery, but without this weird setup I would never have met Jane.

As my friendship with Maggie grew, she introduced me to Karen Blixen’s writing, told me of their friendship, and showed me her house at Rungstedlund. I began to read her work, especially Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa and was mesmerized by her personal style. Lately, while reading about Beryl Markham, the first person to fly east to west across the Atlantic, I discovered that she and Karen were friends in Africa, and that they were involved in a love triangle with Denys Finch-Hatton, the safari guide/pilot who gave Markham her first flying lessons. 

When Maggie learned of my interest in literature, she gave me her soft leather-bound copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a book she had given her father in 1922 but got back when he died. Today, I learned that Finch-Hatton gave the same book to Karen Blixen. Another mysterious coincidence. Sadly, I’ve let the soft leather deteriorate but memories of Maggie and Denmark have me looking for a book binder to restore it. 

Jane and I are catching up on the long break in our friendship thanks to Facebook. Six degrees of separation doesn’t begin to unravel these mysterious, complicated, serendipitous, encounters.

Karen Blixen had it right, but it isn’t only the women of Denmark who think coffee is “what the Word of the Lord is to the soul.” My friend,Todd Rippo, owner of Java on Fourth in Ketchum, Idaho serves a special coffee called a “bowl of soul.” I think of him often as I’m brewing my morning latte. 

Maggie’s Thatch-roofed Cottage on Zealand

Chasing Dottie’s Dust…

Dorothy Parker. Does anyone born after 1970 even know the name? Maybe not, but at 4’11” she was larger than life. Writer, screenwriter, wit, poet, founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, and gin lover extraordinaire. She continues to haunt us. If Molly Ivins’ quick wit makes you smile or you cringe at Maureen Dowd’s acid putdowns, Dorothy Parker is in your wheelhouse. The Portable Dorothy Parker, originally published in 1944, is one of three in the Portable Series, along with volumes devoted to the Bible and Shakespeare that has remained in continuous print since first published.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is The-Portable-DP.jpg

Dorothy’s precocious wit was in evidence early in her childhood. The daughter of a Jewish father and Scottish Protestant mother, she attended the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side until asked to leave for characterizing the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”

Her quick witted take on people and events continued up until her death. When asked about an epitaph, she suggested “Excuse my dust,” and in the end (no pun intended) her dust had an interesting “life” of its own.

Four years after the overdose death of Alan Campbell, the husband she married twice, she died of a heart attack thought to have been brought on by her devotion to gin. When the Parker estate was probated, the surprise beneficiary was Dr. Martin Luther King. Ms Parker, who had no children, was an admirer of Dr. King’s and when he was murdered less than a year after her death the estate passed to the NAACP.

Her ashes were a different matter. They remained unclaimed at the crematorium for three years then were given to her New York lawyer who kept them in a filing cabinet for 17 more. Eventually, they were sent to NAACP headquarters in Baltimore and a small garden memorial erected in her memory.

But… as with so many things in her life (and death) that was not the end of the story. In 2020, the NAACP moved its headquarters to Washington, and the question of her ashes was raised again. Eventually, relatives asked that they be returned to the family. On her birthday last year (August 22, 2020) she was buried in the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

And yet… she continues to hold our attention. My friend, Delia Cabe wrote a short history of the Algonquin Round Table in her fabulous book Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink (Countrymen Press, 2017), complete with the recipe for the Algonquin’s Blue Bar tribute drink,

The Dorothy Parker.
2-3 ounces of gin
½ ounce St. Germain
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Honey to taste
Fresh basil leaves

Allen Katz, general manager of the New York Distilling Company and creator of The Dorothy Parker recipe, added an interesting postscript to Ms. Parker’s burial at Woodlawn. In 2011, Mr. Katz, a longtime fan of Ms. Parker’s, named the distillery’s gin after her, and when Parker relatives were raising money for the headstone, he added a limited-edition Dorothy Parker Gin with all sales donated to the project. It sold out in less than a day.

The burial at Woodlawn was completed on her birthday in 2020, but the unveiling of her headstone, intended for her birthday this year, was postponed one day because of Hurricane Henri. Not surprisingly, she was born during a hurricane too.

The final event was attended by a cadre of Parker aficionados who sipped gin and recited verses of her poetry. The headstone, in addition to her dates, included the last verse of her poem “Epitaph for a Darling Lady.”

Leave for her a red young rose,
Go your way and save your pity;
She is happy, for she knows
That her dust is very pretty

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.

__________

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. It’s where she ran, rode, and walked for more than 40 years.

So, how about you, she asks? Do you want an obituary? How about a funeral? 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’s a career woman, but at heart she’s a family 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 family 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 gonna 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.