Monday, May 26, 2008

On Memorial Day

Over three days in a small town in Pennsylvania nearly 8000 Americans died. They gave their 'full measure of devotion' during the battle of Gettysburg. There are no estimates of the total number whose injuries caused their later deaths, but a number of somewhere around 16,000 is likely given the rampant infection and unsophisticated medical practices of the day.

In a few hours on an otherwise beautiful stretch of beach in France more than 2400 Americans died in the face of withering German resistance. Between 1941 and 1945 more than 400,000 Americans were killed. These Americans gave their lives in a fight for the freedom of others around the world. Many of them are buried in cemeteries in the countries where they died.

In the five years since the beginning of the Iraq war just over 4000 have died. 400 of these young people were from Southern California. They went to Iraq in answer to duty's call. Many of them died protecting members of their squads or units. Many died at the hands of an unseen enemy.

Whether they died in the 'War Between the States,' WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan or Iraq, these people all deserve our heartfelt gratitude and thanks.

Memorial Day is a day just for them. It is not a day to celebrate or remember others. It is not a day just for Barbecues and family gathering, though doing these things honors the sacrifice of so many. It is not a day to debate the worthwhileness or politics of Iraq.

Knowing the total number of war dead from each war tends to dehumanize the individuals. Though it is painful, we must remember that each of these soldiers came from a family and a home. They had hopes and dreams. There were things they loved and things they didn't like at all. There were people who loved them who were left behind to remember the people they were and to mourn the people they could have been.

One thing is sadly certain. Next memorial day there will be more war dead. In fact, two died this morning on a road in Iraq. In the end, their sacrifice is not heroic or political, it is personal. No matter the circumstances, their sacrifice is final. They know it. They are there anyway. That's why we honor them.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why Not Hope?

Pessimism is so easy. We live in an age where we are so conditioned to criticism that we fail to understand that the inner voices we hear are not our own. They are the voices of others, embedded in our minds and souls. We are gifted with a heart of compassion and a heart of hope. That's actually how we're made. The rest of it is what is put on by the world. It's our choice to keep it on, and it makes a great shield and a lot of the time that's not a bad thing . . . But every once in a while, just every once in a while, you have to remind yourself that you can take it off.

What causes us to take it off is different for each of us. For some it is a great book, a great wine or a perfectly prepared dish, gracefully served in a great restaurant. For others it's an ice cold beer, a slice of pizza and a loved one's touch. For others it's a beautiful place at a beautiful time, where the din of friendly conversation is drowned only by occasional high spirits, laughter and mirth.

For me, it's art. It's those moments when somebody is doing something that is as close to a natural expression of perfection as they can muster. They are moments when their souls seem to creep a little closer to their skin - when the border between their expression of an ideal and the ideal itself is blurred.

That's not actually possible. We can try all we want, but we can't actually reach the ideal. It's when someone let's go - when they decide that for whatever reason they're going to abandon their personal borders and almost turn inside out, letting the perfect expression of the art form come through, unfettered, with little regard for anything but its expression and the gift it gives back. It's the trying, the true, heartfelt pursuit of something unattainable that we can see if we let ourselves - and in those moments my pessimism fades.

Whatever that takes for you. Give yourself to the moments that let it happen more often. Abandon the easy walls of a jaded world. Let yourself enjoy the moments of beauty. It takes a conscious effort and perhaps actual work but I think if we let it happen we experience beauty in a way that approximates what we were meant to know, in a garden, in a long forgotten, perfect world.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Who to vote for?

To be honest, I can’t really say who I’m going to vote for in November. Like most Americans, I find myself tired of the Bush administration. To tired, I can add disappointed as I voted for the guy. But I agree that it’s time for a change. The question is, to what?

I got curious about Barack Obama. So I read some of his book (I actually couldn’t read it all as I got a little tired of it –but that’s not his fault, he just hasn’t really done enough yet in his life to really fill a book). Some of the stuff I like. As a republican I guess I’m not supposed to like things like a call for the government to stop meddling in people’s lives. Gay marriage and abortion are hot button issues and abortion is always a tragedy – or at a minimum the result of a tragedy. My rather distorted right wing view may see gay marriage as a sin. But there are other sins, some far worse, that people are getting away with every day.

In principle, I think universal healthcare is a good idea. Everyone should have health insurance. What gives me heartburn is that I can’t really think of a single government program that actually works. Healthcare is a big, complex thing. Do I think the government can actually do a better job? Well, no. Not that I think John McCain has a great idea either. I’m a little worried – but not drastically – that we may be out of great ideas. I haven’t heard one for a while.

So none of these things trouble me. There is something that troubles me though. I don’t think it’s a great idea to let everyone out of Guantanamo. Now, Barrack doesn’t suggest that we would just open the gates and let everyone go home. He wants to bring them all here and put them on trial. The problem is that we’ve actually already done that a couple of times. One guy’s doing pretty well – repatriated to Afghanistan and happy. Another guy walked into a nightclub or a school or a bus or something like that and blew himself up along with a bunch of other folks who were just trying to live their lives. They’d be alive if he was still in Guantanamo. Do I think all of those guys belong there? Probably not. There’s no easy answer. That’s how things are sometimes. So I’m not so sure about that.

I actually like the idea of talking to people. I think we should talk to Ahmadinejad. The trick is, he can’t do anything. Contrary to what most Americans understand, he doesn’t have anything to do with actually running Iran. That’s the Ayatollah’s job. The army reports to him. No one, including Ahmadinejad, does anything without asking him first. Iran’s not as bad as most American’s think it is either. It’s just also not that great. But talking can’t hurt. So I think that’s a good idea. Let’s talk to the Ayatollah too.

I also like the way he talks about America. I think America is great. I think it’s just been told so much that it’s not that it’s decided that maybe it’s not. It is though. America is a great country. The first in the history of the world that has used its military might to try to help people. We’ve made some mistakes along the way, but give us a break. There is no precedent for chasing the bad guys out of a country and not just taking over ourselves. It worked in WWII, but that might have been a fluke. Who knows. I think we should keep it up though. Saddam Hussein sucked and if the Iraqi people can figure out a way to get to peace – even if it takes 10 years – that might give another country, a Myanmar, a Somalia, or some other rotten place, hope. I’m not sure that’s his plan – to let it take the time it needs, but I’m not sure it’s not either. So that one’s a draw.

No president can fix the economy. That’s not actually the president’s job. Congress could help there but they won’t until after the election. The fact is they don’t really know what to do. That’s ok though, because America is a very big country and it has a lot of ways to deal with what we’re facing. So I’m not going to pick a president based on what they can do about the economy.

Like I said, I don’t know who I’m going to vote for. Both boxes will be there. I need to figure out some stuff about that McCain guy. When I do I’ll write it down here too. The good and the bad. Just like this. Unless I decide he’s actually great. My hopes aren’t real high on that. So we’ll see.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Travel Notes

Sometimes I feel like for the rest of my life two weeks every month I'll be flying somewhere, driving a rental car, staying in a hotel, picking up breakfast every morning (ok a cup of coffee) at Starbucks and eating dinner every night in the bar in a restaurant that is not bad and that is not far from my hotel.

When I was a lot younger, a lot of this was fun. Now that I'm older and a lot of it has lost its sheen I guess I've come to think there are just a few things that actually matter when you have to travel. Here's my short list - I'd be curious to know about yours ...

1). Check in before you go to the airport. There will only be a line when you don't.

2). The security folks are just trying to do their job. Be nice to them and they'll smile.

3). There is no excuse for not knowing why the plane is leaving late. (I don't know why the airlines still don't get this, but they don't. Pick up the microphone and tell me what's happening).

4). No decent hotel as an air conditioner hanging out of the wall under the window.

5). If you say you're going to do something, do it. A curious thing happens to me every time I go to pick my car up in DC, my name isn't on the board. I have to go inside and stand in line. If Hertz cared, there would be some way for me to contact them and let them know this happens. There isn't. They don't.

6). Coach sucks - and it's only going to get worse.

7). Bartenders are almost always the only people you will just chat with on the road. A really good bartender can make the lonely road a little easier.

8). Holding the door for someone won't mean you miss your plane. You feel better when you do it and always feels bad when you don't.

9). Always ... always ... always... wear shoes to the airplane bathroom.

10). Speaking of the airplane bathroom. The reason it takes so long for people to do their business is that they're not. They're done. Between home and your hotel room the only truly private place you'll be is in the airplane bathroom. People recharge in them. They're charging stations.

11). The food you can buy in the back is better than the food you get for thousands of dollars in the front, but desserts are better in the front. Hint - Fly American dinner flights in first. You get a Sundae. That feels a little like home!

12). Your company's travel policies are actually designed to get you to spend more money than they will while you travel. The best way to avoid this is not to travel.

13). When you're flying west it takes longer. It doesn't just feel that way. It does. You're crazy, but this is not why.

14). You have to decide in the first minute if you want to talk with the person next to you for the rest of the flight.

15). For a business traveler a good book is the best travel aid.

16). Calling home doesn't make you feel better.

17). The best part of any trip is pulling back into your own driveway and seeing the lights on, no matter what time of night it is ...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Americana, Shmamericana

The last thing we needed in Glendale was another Mall. We already have the Galleria. We have the Marketplace and we have the … uh … oh yeah – the Exchange. Another mall was just going to create more traffic problems downtown. It wasn’t going to promote world peace. It wasn’t going to improve the standard of living for the average Glendalian. So, along came Americana and I was sure downtown was going to hell in a hand basket. That’d be it. Gridlock city USA. We’d have a few more stores and some more restaurants – most of which we could get to with a short drive to Pasadena. Aside from that, a new mall just means more traffic. We don’t need more traffic.

The boys needed to go to Barnes and Noble. Yes – in my house, “I’m out of books” qualifies as a need. Enough of a need that even after a long day of cleaning out the Garage, (which is a long day indeed) I happily let the boys jump in the truck and we were off. Our deal at Barnes & Noble is pretty simple. They get 30 minutes to choose two books. This is because one of the boys could take forever choosing one book and the other, given more than five minutes will come back with a wagonload.

Now I know Glendale. It was five PM. Gridlock city waited, but I outsmarted the traffic patterns and took Harvard straight in to Americana. (That’d Harvard street – a Harvard grad would have taken Brand … but that’s a subject for another day). The boys and I drove straight into the parking lot, (I steered – they coached) – saw a sign that said there were 90 spaces on the third floor (none on the second and the first is evidently for people who are more important than me) – went to the third floor and found a space and parked. Wow – ok – so we’re at Americana. So far it’s a clean parking garage with big spaces – which I have to say is great. But it’s still just another mall.

We went to the elevator and got on and a guy in a suit was there to push the button for us. This actually saved a fight. In my house Matthew (11) loves to push the button and Mitch (14) loves to torture him by getting to the button first. Matthew could get there first because he’s generally faster, but he doesn’t because he tends to stop and smell the roses … but I digress. Anyway, they burst into the elevator and immediately recoil against the windows as there is a man in a strange – Disneyish outfit standing there to push the button for us. Hm .. maybe the Galleria has these too, but if they do I don’t remember.

We jump off the elevator on the bottom floor onto the carpet(?) and head out into the mall. I have to admit that here, at least for a moment, I was a little lost. I felt a little like I’d just walked under the train station into Disneyland. Josh Grobin and Celine Dion were singing a duet on an invisible sound system, the Jewel City diner was busy and there were people everywhere. Here another weird thing happened. They looked happy and they were all looking at me. What is this, an Old Navy commercial? No, wait, they weren’t looking at me (thank God). They were looking at the fountain. By the way – I mean everybody. Cheesecake Factory waiters and waitresses, shoppers, strollers, gawkers, all were transfixed watching the fountain, um … ok – Dance, to the music.

“Don’t get distracted boys, you’re on the clock.” We all proceed to Barnes and Noble. Ah .. familiar ground. We ride the escalators to the third floor and .. holy cow … the place is huge. Feeling doomed to beatings later because we can’t choose only two books or get out in less than ½ hour I head off to cook books while the boys head to their respective sections. Not more than 15 minutes later, they’re back. Happy. The books they wanted are here. Reading can ensue at home. The world is spinning on its axis. We’ll be ok.

We headed back to the car, riding the escalators up and admiring the…wait…. Ok – yes …. the chandelier, in the parking garage. Not just any chandelier, a kind of a cool, deco number that must be at least 15 feet tall.

I drove out of the parking lot thinking, God Bless America. Not God Bless Americana mind you. Just, God Bless America. In America, if somebody has a vision and the energy and wherewithal to make something happen, they can make it happen. Sometimes it can take longer than it should, because those of us with less vision may want to slow things down to make sure we will not be pained, but in the end a good thing can be done. That’s what Americana is … a good thing. As we drove back out of the parking lot and off toward home I had a little time to think about what it was that had given me this sense that the world must actually be ok. After some reflection I decided that it was simply that the Americana is just basically, right. There is beautiful space, some great things to watch when the people are a bore, cool stores and restaurants and a quality of construction that transports a person to another world. What a lovely surprise.