Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Visit with History

Anyone who's read any of the stuff in my blogs knows that I am a sap for history, for anyone in the service, active or otherwise, and particularly for those situations where the two come together.

The other day I had an opportunity to visit the WW2 memorial in Washington DC. The memorial is significant and long over due. Considering that more than 5 million Americans served in World War 2 and more than 400,000 died, fighting for freedom overseas, the 50 years it took to build the memorial is cause for embarrassment. But that's not the subject ...

In my mind, World War 2, was the last easy to understand war. In World War 2 the enemy was a stated and practiced oppressor. There was ample evidence that the axis powers were in the war to one end - world domination. They believed they were better than anyone else and they were out to rule the world, killing off whomever they didn't like and taking whatever they wanted with reckless and ruthless abandon. When they thought they were strong enough and when they thought it was time, they attacked us and when this had occurred we responded.

It's really the "we" that this is about. As Americans, there is a great deal of pride in what happened in WW2. We established ourselves as a 20th century super power. We saved Europe from Germany and at the same time on the other side of the world we saved Asia from Japan. Other nations were involved and other sacrifices occurred, but in a very real way, had we not entered the war - had we chosen to remain isolated - the outcome would have been much, much different. But that's not about the "we."

The "we" is about the veterans themselves. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Flags of our Fathers, and series like Band of Brothers give us a window into the realness of the valor of the American civilian soldier. Visiting the World War 2 memorial gives us a chance to honor them.

On the day that I was there there was a veterans flight organization there with about 100 WW2 vets. They were being escorted around the memorial by active service personnel in their combat fatigues. Some of the vets wore their uniforms. Most wore blue T-shirts with the flag and their state and the name of the organization on them. Seeing them in this place in this way, seeing them talking with the active service members, most of them crouched down in front of their counterparts' wheelchairs, was a poignant reminder of the nature of their courageous gift to the US and to the world.

Their tears, the way they listened and thanked the countless strangers who approached them and thanked them for their service, the stories they tell and the memories they share, both horrific and heroic, author a meaningful memory in an all too trite world.

This is not about whether or not wars are right. They're not, although I'm a firm believe that sometimes they are necessary. It's not about Iraq, or Obama or McCain. It's just about these guys and this place and what a special thing it is that though too long delayed, they have this place as their place and we can visit them there and thank them for the meaningful and courageous thing they did. We should.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Better Way to Fly

Be Afraid American Airlines, Be very Afraid

In the last seven years I’ve flown over a million miles on American Airlines and before that I spent about five years racking up more than 500,000 on United, so I know a thing or two about the American air carriers. I’ve been an all-star flyer on both, as comfortable as they can make me on the five hour flights that make my living possible on one coast with my life on the other. I’ve booked seats in coach and ridden in first so often that I’m a little stunned when the upgrades don’t go through.

I know every meal plan, a lot of the flight attendants, and even the scratches on the windows on most of the planes on the routes I fly. (These are almost always single aisle coast to coast configurations on A320s, 737s and 757s). On the routes I fly most, I’ve probably flown my last miles on the American carriers – frequent flier status be damned.

It’s not that I suddenly found a job on the west coast. That would be a dream come true, but a near term second dream was always that I would find a more comfortable way to fly. Someplace where flying was like I’d read about it when I was growing up. It was glamorous. The planes were beautiful, the people were happy, even the flight attendants seemed to like their jobs (and you didn’t hear announcements like, ‘the flight attendants are here for your safety” which seems to be an excuse for their sour faces and even more sour attitudes).

I should stop right here and say that I don’t blame the flight attendants. It’s actually the stock market’s fault that the planes are over filled and under staffed, that there is no pillow, no food and no fun of any kind on any of these flights. The flight attendants are making the best of a bad situation, so I’m not blaming them…. But back to how my dream came true.

By accident, I found Virgin America airlines, Branson’s latest US endeavor. I booked a seat on their website – which works better for a first time flier than American’s does after eight years of trying. I booked First Class – because it was cheaper than an American Coach ticket on the last minute itinerary I was buying and I went to the airport and got on the plane and my whole concept of flying changed in an instant. The flight attendant smiled and welcomed me aboard. The plane is clean and cool – like W hotel cool - with blue lighting and white seats and individually controlled TV/Movie/Music systems at every seat. There is an actual first class with enough room to open my laptop (unlike American or United), and real plugs at the seats so I can just plug straight in. (Was that really that hard to figure out?) I am flying along watching the US OPEN playoff LIVE on my fold up screen and typing away on my fully powered laptop. Heck, even the safety announcement is cool – I’ll let you find out why.

The food in first class is fresh, light and even creatively served, with mint & watermelon, grape & cheese and Meuslix appetizers served in nifty little clear square shaped cups, and fresh herbs around a nice balanced frittata with roasted tomatoes and an artichoke heart. Did I mention I’m on a plane?

What’s really astonishing is that all of these things are comparatively simple. There is really no magic in any of it. It’s just well thought out and the mission is clear. Travel should be fun and if it can’t be fun it should at least be comfortable and convenient. I still have my million mile badge on my carryon. But that’s more a reminder of what I left behind than a badge of honor. I’m hoping my next million miles are on Virgin. It’s a better way to fly.

The US Open

I should start by saying that I really didn’t want to go to the US Open. Or, I really didn’t want to go that much. Three days of traipsing around a golf course in crowds of over 140,000 watching guys walk by and periodically stop to hit or putt a ball isn’t really my idea of a good time. It was however a dream of my wife’s to go and so partly out of a sense of duty, and partly because I genuinely love to watch her have fun, I went.

We found out before we got there that we wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near the course. In fact, we had to park 13 miles away at Qualcomm Stadium. I wanted to go less. The first indication that I might be wrong was that the parking was free and comparatively well organized. Then, when we had walked all the way around the stadium to where the busses were waiting we found out that we couldn’t take cell phones. There were metal detectors, so it wasn’t a question of just hiding them. We just couldn’t take them. We would be completely out of touch for all of three days. Things were looking up even more. (Never mind that I had to take the phones back to the car and therefore had actually walked about 17 miles before we even left for the golf course).

Boarding the busses further confirmed that this wasn’t going to be like most things in America. I had thought that the person who had the idea to transport 140,000 people from a parking lot around a football field 13 miles to the golf course should be shot, but when we arrived at the busses, the boarding process was astonishingly simple, the route well planned, and the drop off point at the golf course allowed unfettered access for the teaming hoards … and hoards there were.

The good news is that for the most part, golf hoards aren’t like most kinds of hoards. They’re relatively well behaved and quiet when they should be. They encouraged the golfers – both stars and ingĂ©nues alike – in good times and bad, and – oh – my – god – there were some bad moments for these guys. With rough so deep that it was actually hard to walk through it – let alone swing a club and make contact and greens so fast they resembled wavy nonstick frying pans, the players struggled on most holes to find ways to just make par. Hey – wait a minute – that’s what I do! Maybe that’s why the US Golf Association (USGA for the acronym aware) makes the course so hard. It’s so these guys have to struggle for the same scores we do. Never mind that I’ve never shot below 80 and probably never will.

Golf is a beautiful sport. It really is. There’s something about the undulation of the fairways, the sandy bottomed bunkers, the trees, the water and the vistas that is truly regenerating. For me – more so on this day because I didn’t actually have to try and hit a ball well in front of all those people. But the players are beautiful too. There is a grace in the arch of the swing and the rise of the ball that is peaceful to watch. Better golfers even make the less graceful moments work, like when Geoff Ogilvie hit a perfect lob from not five feet in front of me straight up in the air and landed it perfectly on the edge of the green, watching it roll to within about a foot and a half of the cup. Nothing should have been easy about that shot. The grass was too long. The ball hopelessly tethered. The green falling away with less than 20 feet from edge to edge along the roll and the greased lightning fast surface - these things should all have conspired to carry the ball into the deep fringe on the other side of the hole, but will, practice and grace stopped it short and par made, Ogilvie smiled at us as he walked off the green to admiring applause and touched his hat as if to say, ‘yeah, that was pretty cool, wasn’t it?’

I’ll leave Tiger for another day … he deserves his own. But if you ever get a chance to go to a US Open, a Superbowl, a truly great concert, or anywhere else where you might get a chance to experience the magnificent, go – and please drag me along with you. I’ll bitch and scream, but I’ll pay my way and in the end we’ll smile and know we did something special.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Power's Out

Sitting in my office in Virginia this morning. The power’s out. Yesterday afternoon several powerful thunderstorms rattled through spawning tornadoes, falling trees and generally making a mess. My computer will work until the battery dies. Sadly, this machine can work for most of the day on its battery so I have no excuse to not at least look busy.

Sitting in the office in the dark though, does make one wonder what things were like before we had all of the things we have now. On the one hand we would miss many of the conveniences we have. We would miss the entertainment, distraction of the internet, and the instant access to seemingly important information. We would absolutely miss the convenience of our cell phones. (Mine is dead by the way, battery died while it was trying in vain to find a local cell site). Basic conveniences like light and heat would be hard to live without.

On the other hand, there is an enforced slowness in an unpowered world. My office is near the entrance and I have windows, so several of the guys I work with stopped in and just sat and talked this morning. Some of the talk was about work, some wasn’t. The fact that the power was out meant there was no sense of urgency. The conversations we had about work were better. We were able to get more into depth than we would have been otherwise. The other conversations wouldn’t have happened at all.

I think at some point, in some future company, I will enforce one morning a month where all of the computers stay off. Where people are free to roam the halls and look in on one another and just say hello. I like the feeling of the place when there are no beeps, when there is not much going on. Things just feel better. People can go to lunch and when they come back the emails will still be there, and we can get back to work.

Who to Vote For - Part 2

It's going to be an interesting campaign.

A few weeks ago I wrote down some thoughts about Barack Obama and I said then that when I got around to it I would do the same for John McCain. The waterfall of comments on my musings around Obama– which contained some mildly radical views – suggests that many are waiting with great anticipation for what’s coming here. (there were no comments).

John McCain is old. His speech is clipped. He is not eloquent or inspiring. His current wife is at least his second, and may be his third. I don’t know which. I’m not sure that matters all that much. John McCain is a Republican. For some reason, in this day and age, apparently that’s a bad thing. I’m not sure it is, but it seems like a lot of pretty influential people – namely everyone who runs a TV station or a newspaper – has decided that it is. Fox is the exception, but their “Fair and Balanced” view is embarrassing in the other direction, so they don’t count either. But I digress.

One very interesting thing about these two candidates is that they are very much archetypes of the core values of their parties. In a nutshell, that means that Obama thinks the best ways to solve the country’s problems is to concentrate program and policy in Washington. So we're seeing him pitching a national healthcare program, a national energy program and spending a lot of time and energy talking about the government’s responsibility to protect the working class from the ravages and greed of big business. Conversely, you will hear McCain talking about cutting the federal budget, cutting taxes, and redistributing power to the state, local and family level, as these are the core tenants of what used to be the Republican Party.

It is refreshing that we won’t be hearing about abortion, gay rights and lots of other things. Neither candidate seems interested in allowing the campaign to devolve to this level. Rather, they seem focused on the big problems of the country and on highlighting their very different views on solutions.

It is important to point out that McCain’s perspective on a lot of things is pretty centrist. This is a dangerous road because he runs the risk of alienating the “right wing” of the party. Without their votes and enthusiastic support, it is thought that he can’t win. But if you page back through his 21 year career in the senate you will find that he has often gone against the more extreme sides of the party. McCain/Feingold, his campaign finance reform bill was co-sponsored with a democrat and the conservative pundits said it would be the end of McCain’s career. Joe Liebermann has always been one of his best friends in the senate. They have fought for the various causes they both felt were good for America, yes – including the Iraq war and the surge, and have at times rattled their respective parties. (Liebermann actually lost the democratic nomination in his own state in a reelection campaign in which the democratic party aggressively backed another candidate. He ran as an independent and won reelection in a landslide). Much has been made of McCain’s time in a POW camp. Much should be made of it. There is merit in the statements he makes about the military and about war simply because he has been there and he’s been through the worst of it.

Obama says that McCain is running for Bush’s third term. Well, let’s take a look at that. Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Bush administration during the Katrina relief debacle was John McCain. He called the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis “disgraceful” and his voice was heard very early. He opposes many of the Bush administration’s war policies, chief among them the use of torture techniques such as water boarding and has been an outspoken critic of the secrecy surrounding conditions at Guantanamo Bay. He stops short of saying that it should be closed though … It is true that he supported going to Iraq. At the time everybody else did too. Obama was in the Illinois state legislature. What he thought at the time doesn't matter. He didn't have the same context as the majority of the senate and house who voted to go to war. If he had, he may have had a different view. Both men want to bring the troops home. They disagree on the practical time table.

On balance, it is clear that John McCain is an honorable, stable, experienced and conscientious man whose focus is to try to do what is right for America. His body of experience is massive. His views are his own. He is not the puppet of the Republican Party or the Bush administration.
Is that enough to make him president today? I’m not sure. I think we need a president who inspires us. I think we need a president who can build a bridge with younger people around the world, so we can start rebuilding the country’s stature in the international theater. I think we need a president who can look at the problems we face and who will try to sponsor new solutions. I haven’t yet seen enough of what John McCain wants to do to know if he can accomplish any of these things.

Like I said, it’s going to be an interesting election.