Back in the 90s David Foster Wallace wrote an essay for Harper's about a seven-night cruise he took. Originally it was called "Shippin' Out" and was later repackaged in a book of essays entitled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." Wallace, to say the least, did not care for cruising.
At the risk of having my Gen-X male card taken away, I will admit that I never read that essay. Of course, given that I've written at length about how useless a Gen-X male card is, it's not really something I care about. I did just go on a cruise, however, and I do have feelings about it, and I now intend to share them. Whether I owe any apologies to David Foster Wallace for anything I say here is something he and I will have to take up whenever I join him in Gen-X male writer's Valhalla.
My last travelogue went over pretty well, so I'll use the same form: a series of somewhat disconnected observations. It's a pretty good form when you write about a thing you just did because, contrary to what most essays of recent events would have you believe, a great deal of life just sort of happens and meaning cannot be applied until much later, if ever.
In the meantime, I'm just left with these random thoughts:
1. I had never been a cruise before this. I never really had a desire to go on a cruise before this, in fact. What changed here was that the cruise was themed: The Celiac Cruise. A cruise organized by people with celiac disease for people with celiac disease. Something like 500 of the 3,o00 people on board were part of the Celiac Cruise, and they had access to a dedicated gluten-free dining room, gluten-free buffets, celiac disease panels and speakers and all manner of events catered to their particular needs. One of those people with celiac disease is my wife Allison, who was diagnosed six years ago. I am a celiac disease fellow traveler, both figuratively and, in this case, literally.
2. Traveling with celiac disease, or any significant food allergy or dietary restriction, is a major pain in the ass. Until you do it, you don't realize how much vacations revolve around food and how much the non-food events of a trip are dependent upon when and where you're eating and vice-versa. Wanna go on that group hike? If so, you're not eating the boxed lunch, bunky. Wanna go to the museum in the Old Quarter? Not unless there's someplace nearby with a gluten free menu you're confident about (note: there won't be). Wanna experience a new city like a local? Sorry, 85% of the must-go restaurants are off limits. Oh, and totally forget rural or out of the way locales unless you're able to get a rental with a full kitchen, have access to a grocery store and plan to cook for yourself, because that cute diner or cafe on the high street of Podunkton-Upon-Tyne is almost certainly not safe for you.
3. Allison and I have made traveling with celiac disease work well enough, but it's been hard. Now imagine doing it with little kids who have celiac disease. I can't imagine it. So when we got on that ship the first day and saw the scores of families with the little blue "I have celiac disease" bracelets sitting down for a big meal and not having to worry what they were ordering, it was positively heartwarming. The next morning I saw a little girl with her mother at the breakfast buffet, her eyes wide open and her mouth agape because she had literally never been to a buffet before in her life given how dangerous they are for celiacs. "I can take anything I want, mom? And as much as I want?" I almost cried.
4. Last celiac observation: while we didn't go to any of the celiac disease-related events besides meals, it was still a very good communal experience. Celiac disease is an isolating disease. So much socializing, networking, and basic human interaction is done while breaking bread and that's a big problem when you literally can't break bread. Having so many people in the same place who get what you've gone though is a wonderful thing. People who, like you or someone you love, had to deal with medical providers who, as is so very often the case, didn't take them seriously before they were diagnosed. People who have friends and family members who looked at them askance because they just assumed they were following some dietary fad. People who, for reasons that I will never understand, like to use "gluten free" as a synonym for "liberal" or "millennial" or "snowflake" or "weak" or something. Alternatively, people with friends and family members who, with the best intentions but with a lack of complete understanding, go out of their way to to cook for them without realizing that taking food someone gives you without knowing everything that's in it or how and where it was prepared is like a low stakes version of Russian roulette. Whatever the case, just being around others who know your deal and to whom you don't have to explain everything is pretty damn nice.
5. The first celiac event was a luncheon right after boarding. We were placed at a table with two other couples. Both couples were from Ohio too. You can't go anywhere on Earth without running into Ohioans.
Now, on to the general cruise things.
6. Allison's parents do not have celiac disease, but they do go on a lot of cruises, so they decided to go with us. You're not exactly partying like hell when you're planning vacations with your septuagenarian in-laws, but (a) they're nice, fun people; and (b) they know their way around a cruise ship -- it's a culture unto itself -- so it was a godsend having them along.
7. From listening to my in-laws and some other friends talk about their cruises over the years, I vaguely got that there are differences in cruise lines with some being low-end, some being high-end, some catering to families, some catering to adults, and that there were all kinds of tricks, rules, and strategies involved in planning the whole deal. There is also the "how many nights," "what ports of call," and "what onshore excursions" stuff to sort out. With the celiac thing setting the agenda, that was mostly taken care of. This was on Royal Caribbean (mid-range as far as a I can tell) and it was a three-night cruise out of Port Canaveral, Florida to the Bahamas and back (about as short and simple as a cruise gets). We got an exterior room with a balcony because people say you should do that if you can afford it. Even after going and coming back and paying our bill for it all I'm not sure we could afford it. But given that we weren't sure if we'd ever take a cruise again, we figured why not. It was nice having the balcony.
8. Food is a big deal, of course, and unless you go to one of the higher-end restaurants on board it's included in your price. You can eat in the main dining room -- in our case the celiac-dedicated dining room, which was the same experience regular cruisers got, basically -- for sit-down meals and order five entrees, two appetizers and three deserts if you want to. You can go to the big ass buffet and eat as much as you want early in the morning, late at night and almost any time in between. You can do both. You can just eat cake or pie from a cake and pie buffet or just grab a tray and put 5 glasses of pear juice, two plates of chana masala, 14 hot dogs and a donut on it. You can go to the chocolate fountain -- yep, that's a thing -- and just fill up a bowl and lap it up like a goddamn dog. There's no one to tell you no.
9. My understanding is that this ungodly food parade is a huge part of the appeal of cruising for people who love it and is a huge turnoff for people who end up not enjoying cruising. Personally I was prepared to be turned off by the gluttony but it was a non-factor either way. The dining room experience is a banquet kind of deal. A few set choices but a major operation, feeding hundreds, basically all at the same time. You may or may not like that, but it results in more reasonable, human-sized portions (things have to fit on a plate with those covers on it like the ones you get from room service, see). While the quality of the food is totally fine -- the simpler you go the better it is, I found -- it's not SO amazing that you really wanna order 50 things. The buffet is a different story, but if you're not into that kind of thing no one is forcing you to go there. I went up to it in the morning because it opened up early, the coffee was good and plentiful, I like to eat a banana in the morning before I have a proper breakfast, and it was a good place to hang out for that kind of thing before the celiac breakfast opened up downstairs. If I had kids with me it'd be a godsend. Either way, I can't see how any of it is worth the judgey crap you hear about it from some people. Like what you like. There's plenty to like no matter your taste and you are never under obligation to do things you don't like when you have the choice. Let people enjoy things.
10. Booze is also a major consideration. You're in the Caribbean in January. It's sunny and warm and you're stopping at islands and sitting by pools. If you're the drinking type you're gonna wanna be drinking -- probably fruity rum drinks -- and cruise ships have bars roughly every 11 feet, all of which serve fruity rum drinks in addition to whatever else you might want. I think cruise lines would run the risk of losing money on food if some hardcore buffet professionals infiltrated the ship with a well-vetted game plan, but they more than make up their money on the booze, jack. And they'll get you no matter what your booze game plan happens to be.
11. The two booze game plans: 1. the pre-paid, unlimited booze pass; and 2. pay as you go. We did the math on the unlimited booze plans before we left and even though the idea is appealing -- "drink all ya want, wherever ya want!" -- you need to be a hardcore drinker and then some for it to make sense financially. It works out to like ten drinks a day at the very least, and they do not mix them weak on board which makes keeping up a problem. The only people I can even remotely see it working out for are those dudes on bachelor party cruises who wake up and crack a Coors Light first thing in the morning and then go the rest of the day chain-drinking like the old guys in the alley in "King of the Hill." Even then you're probably coming out behind. Or, like some women on a bachelorette party we saw, you're engaging in some really messy scenes on the pool deck at around 4PM, God love 'em.
12. There are some higher-end cruise lines who include the booze in your price. I'm sure you're still coming out behind with that, but it probably feels less like you're coming out ahead because you don't have a line item on your bill dedicated to the demon drink. If I ever go on another cruise I would consider this just for the fun of it. I'm older and more responsible now than I used to be so I'd probably survive. Probably.
13. We ended up doing pay as you go. It was still expensive as hell, but it was the right call. We also supplemented. Royal Caribbean does not let you bring your own liquor or beer on board -- they search your bags before delivering them to your stateroom -- but they will allow two 750ml bottles or wine or champagne. We did that, but ended up drinking only one of them, splitting a bottle of champagne with Allison's parents on the last night onboard. We also brought two Tipsy Tubes -- borrowed from a friend who cruises a lot -- which are fake sunscreen bottles in which you can smuggle booze. We filled one up with vodka and one up with bourbon. The vodka one went untouched. The bourbon one started to spill a bit in the Orlando motel room we were staying in the night before we embarked, so I drank it that evening. Going forward I'd say that unless you're the sort of degenerate who takes the all-you-can-drink package as a personal challenge as opposed to a bad choice, you probably don't need Tipsy Tubes in your life as a matter of personal safety and general self-care.
14. We were warned before going that the staterooms are small. Pack carefully. Be prepared to not have any personal space. Suck in your gut a lot. This was not a problem whatsoever. The room was way larger than I expected. A queen sized bed, a couch, a closet and plenty of drawers and cabinets for storing clothes, and a perfectly adequately-sized bathroom with a shower. If you've ever Airbnb'd a studio apartment you've stayed in smaller places. If you've ever gotten a hotel room in Manhattan or London you have definitely stayed in smaller places. Maybe my expectations were skewed, but I can't imagine coming away from a cruise and thinking the room was too small unless I was doubling up with people and using the fold-out couch or something.
15. Our particular cruise ship -- The Mariner of the Seas -- had something like 14 decks. It breaks down like this:
16. We got underway at 4pm on Friday afternoon. It was windy and the seas were pretty choppy just off Florida. The ship rocked a lot. The winds were so high that walking on outside decks after dark was almost impossible. I sort of took it all in stride. The only time I'd ever been on ocean-going vessels before that were a couple of charter fishing boat trips and on a family tour off of Norfolk on my brother's Navy cruiser. Both of those tossed you around a good bit, so I just assumed that's kind of what it'd be like on a cruise ship. Everyone else -- including very experienced cruisers -- told me that it was crazy and wild and that they'd never experienced anything like it. I saw a lot of people putting on those little anti-motion sickness patches behind their ears and noticed crew members putting stacks of barf bags near elevators and stuff so they'd be close at hand for passengers. I dunno. I didn't get seasick and I slept like a baby.
The next morning it was much calmer. Allison and I woke up early and watched the sunrise off of our port side balcony.
17. The Saturday stop was Nassau. If we had wanted to we could've done all manner of offshore excursions like hiking and swimming with pigs or dolphins -- yes, those are things -- but we were a little overwhelmed by all of that when it was time to plan it so we didn't bother. Instead we enjoyed a half-empty boat for a couple of hours while hanging by the pool. After lunch we took a little walk off the ship and onto the main drag in Nassau, which seemed to exist solely to extract money from tourists from cruise ships. If you want a $15,000 Rolex, Cuban cigars, painted turtle shells, three touristy t-shirts for $30, or a quickie drug deal that the person making it didn't think we saw, Nassau has you covered. We passed on the Rolexes, the cigars, the turtle shells and the drugs, bought some t-shirts, and took Allison's parents to Señor Frog's. After getting in there we immediately thought better of it and left to find a less intense place to get comically large rum drinks and to people watch.
18. Back on the boat that night we decided to eschew the gluten free dining room and eat at the steak house which, like all of the other restaurants on board, had been briefed by the celiac cruise folks on how to accommodate the celiac people. Steakhouses are usually the safest restaurants for gluten free dining, actually -- meat and potatoes don't contain gluten unless you're unnecessarily complicating things -- but they still went above and beyond, making Allison a special dessert and repeatedly mentioning what things were and were not safe without being asked. It was a really nice touch.
The steak house also made very good Manhattans. And the tiki bar downstairs after dinner made good zombies. And the pub where the guy was playing Steely Dan and Steve Winwood songs on his acoustic guitar poured stiff cocktails. And the club where all the drunk white people danced to a mediocre DJ -- I swear, I was just there as an impartial observer -- didn't skimp either. By the time I stumbled to bed I was re-thinking my math on that unlimited drink package but doing a very poor job of it because math seemed beyond my capabilities at that point for some strange reason. The seas were calmer on Saturday night but I didn't sleep as well for the same strange reason.
19. Sunday was "Perfect Day at Coco Cay." Which is Royal Caribbean's branding for the day spent at the private island they own. It's kind of strange and super artificial but it ended up being a nice way to get rid of my hangover. There are a couple of private beaches on some crystal-clear water. You can rent snorkeling gear or take scuba lessons. There is a big water park with some pretty insane slides and ziplines and things and you can go parasailing if you want to. There are a couple of bars and restaurants, in one of which was a different guy with an acoustic guitar doing a comedy act, asking people where they were from and then saying "DON'T SAY OHIO!" before anyone could answer. Guess he had our number. We ended up just laying on the beach, starting with hangover-curing Red Stripe lagers (me) and Angry Orchard ciders (Allison) before moving on to Coco Locos which -- shockingly -- had rum and fruit and crap. I don't even really like rum, but when in Rome, right? Best part of it all is that we planned well with sunscreen and had chairs with an umbrella, so we managed to lay on the beach and do nothing but read for hours on end and we didn't even get sunburned. Pretty damn sweet.
20. Back on the boat on Sunday evening for dinner and relaxing. Most everyone else on board was watching the NFC championship game, so it wasn't too crazy unless you were near a TV. Yes, they have TV on the boats. The big screens by the pools showed the games. In your room you get, like, two channels. Ours showed old "Doogie Houser M.D." and "Family Ties" reruns which were way better than football. They also have Internet but it's expensive and it sucks. We got it so we could text with Allison's parents if we needed to -- no cell service offshore, obviously -- but it was mostly useless. Which is probably a good thing. I don't need more Internet in my life than I already have.
21. We were back in Port Canaveral by 7am Monday morning. After one more quick gluten free breakfast we were off the boat by 8:30am, on a shuttle bus, and to the Orlando airport for our trip home to Ohio by 10am. Of course our flight wasn't until after 4pm, so we had a long time to kill in the Orlando airport. At one point we were at a bar having lunch when a guy struck up a conversation with us. Wouldn't ya know it, he was from Ohio too. What are the odds?
With that, the cruise was over. Since then, I've been thinking about it. Among my thoughts:
22. While I never considered myself a cruise person -- and even if I still don't know if I am a cruise person -- I'll have to admit, it was enjoyable. I'll also have to admit that certain aspects of it all are good for me. I'm someone who has a hard time relaxing. Even on vacations I tend to over-plan and overthink and I tend to keep going and going when I should be stopping. I spend too much time online. Too much time thinking about this thing and the next thing. There is something to be said for the sort of forced relaxation a cruise provides. I laid by the pool and the beach a lot. I read a book and cleared my brain. You can do that on other sorts of vacations, of course, but I probably need a bit of a nudge to do it. The cruise helped me do that.
23. Service on the cruise was excellent, but I could not help but think about the people doing the serving and wondering what this all meant on an ethical level. Cruise ships are staffed primarily by people from South and Southeast Asia, South America and Africa. The ships are registered outside of the United States and they are thus able to avoid all U.S. labor laws even though they serve an almost exclusively American clientele operating out of American ports. The hours are grueling. The days off virtually non-existent. The pay low, though for some the tips can be substantial.
I talked with a bartender from India who said, quite genuinely, that he loved his job and I've read a number of things about how longtime cruise workers were able to save the kind of money which allowed them and their families to live happy and prosperous lives back home. I also observed a lot of servers and and stateroom attendants whose happiness I had no way of judging but who were unquestionably worked hard and have read a number of things about how the conditions can be so bad for them that cruise ships are called "sweatships" by human rights organizations. Cruise lines and frequent cruise ship passengers are quick to tell you that it's all relative. That while these jobs are hard and low-paid compared to what we're used to, they're great opportunities for people from poor countries. I certainly had mixed feelings about it. It's impossible to escape the fact that exploitation of poor brown people by rich white people has long been the way of the world. And, even if all service came with a smile, it was impossible for me not to think about that whenever someone brought me a meal or a drink or when the clean towels and sheets appeared in my stateroom.
24. Compartmentalizing that for the time being, I can say that I enjoyed the cruise more than I thought I would. I certainly appreciated that it was a trip that Allison could take without fear of getting sick simply from eating. Once again, I cannot thank the people at Celiac Cruise and the Royal Caribbean folks enough for putting it all together.
Where do we go next? Bermuda? The Caymans? Jamaica? Alaska? One of those river cruises in France with all the senior citizens who, frankly, are way more my speed than the drunk people in the club listening to the mediocre DJ? I'm not sure.
But I do know that the supposedly fun thing I had never thought of doing was, in reality, pretty fun. And I'd probably do it again.
In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt proposed a Second Bill of Rights, which guaranteed those things listed above. Winning the war, obviously, was a priority at the time, and FDR died before that ended, preventing him from ever getting to this. Truman attempted some form of this with his "Fair Deal," but with Republicans growing in power throughout the mid-late 40s and into the early 50s, he never had the political strength to carry it through and it was shelved.
It's obviously ambitious, and there have obviously been developments, both technological and societal, which would make so much of this difficult to practically enact. I'm not sitting here saying that it'd be easy or proposing some specific policies to do so. I'm merely pointing out that, at one time, leaders of this country had a vision for such things and had at least some constituency supporting them in this regard. The things listed above remain noble and necessary goals for a civilized and just society, even if achieving them presents challenges.
Until not terribly long ago I was naive enough to believe that most conservatives agreed about these goals in at least the broadest sense, with the disagreement being about how best to achieve them. Liberals believed doing so required a great deal of government intervention while conservatives, wary of large governmental expense and power, instead believed that the private sector would better deliver these things via markets. Those assumptions formed the basic domestic political debate which has animated American politics for the past 80-90 years or so.
It's apparent now that conservatives -- particularly those with some amount of wealth or power -- never actually believed any of that. They do not actually do not want a society that provides decent standards for everyone, and their central fear is that liberal policies will actually deliver them.
(h/t my friend Steve Treder, who voiced this basic sentiment on Facebook yesterday; he's a smart one).
American leaders declaring last night as "an act of war," without acknowledging that it came in response to our own, initial act of war perfectly echo America's history of decrying Iran's actions since 1979 without reference to our direct role there in the 26 years proceeding it. Or, for that matter, the 40+ years following it.
We overthrew their democratically-elected government and installed and propped up a tyrannical king who oppressed them for decades. We supported their mortal enemy in a war that devastated their country and killed half a million people. We entered into a treaty with them, reneged, and then placed crippling sanctions on them. We just assassinated their second most powerful leader who was beloved domestically.
While none of this erases or excuses the bad or destructive acts of Iran or its surrogates in the past several decades, there is no escaping the fact that those acts have largely come in response to our aggression and interference in a country and a region that is not ours.
Make no mistake: we are the aggressors here. We are the bad guys. If you chose to ignore that, you are doing so out of blind allegiance to the Trump Administration and willful blindness to history.
When I was young the older men I knew were World War II veterans. My grandfather. My great uncle Harry. Larry Alvord across the street. They wouldn't talk much about their experiences unless you asked them. When they did talk about it they were very matter-of-fact. War was scary and often ugly. They were often confused. Sometimes they were bored. But mostly they were just happy they came home alive.
They didn't have to justify it because it was a manifestly necessary war against a manifestly evil foe. They didn't have to glorify it because there was, by the time I was around, several decades of books and movies and TV shows and documentaries and lore that did it in their place, often by people who themselves were not involved in the war. Actual World War II veterans who produced such things tended to be a bit more ambivalent about it all.
All of that aside, when I was little, war as I understood it was a pretty straightforward concept: it was bad, but sometimes necessary, and eventually it ended.
There were younger men I knew who were also veterans. My uncle would never talk about his experience in Vietnam. He once got in a car and drove away for hours on the Fourth of July so he didn't have to be near the firecrackers my cousins and I were setting off.
I also had a teacher who, while not yet 40, had a limp and snowy white hair and who, some parents said, was not always well because, "you know, Vietnam." He always seemed fine to me, but I always remembered what my friends' parents said and wondered if he was unwell in some way.
Unlike my grandfather or Larry Alvord across the street, I'd never dare ask my uncle or my teacher about their experiences. It seemed too scary. I began to understand it, though, through books and movies and TV shows and the like. That war was different, I learned.
As the 1980s went on, people began to talk about that war more and more. They began to talk about its mistakes and how its soldiers had been mistreated. But rather than make up for that mistreatment in any substantive way, they began to talk more about how, if we had done things differently, that war could've gone differently. People who, again, had nothing to do with that war, began to play-act alternative outcomes to it as a means of trying to make everyone feel better about it all. I've always regretted not asking my uncle or my teacher how they felt about all of that.
As all this was going on, our country did a couple of little practice wars. Even as a kid I felt like we did them more to make ourselves feel better than anything else. To make up for losing in Vietnam by putting a quick couple of Ws on the board.
My brother joined the Navy in 1989. In late 1990 his ship was sent to the Red Sea as our country prepared for another war. It's hard to remember it now since history has declared it such a walkover, but during the run-up to the Gulf War there were predictions that, while U.S. victory was all but certain, the conflict could be protracted and Iraq would nonetheless inflict massive casualties until it was defeated. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski forecast 20,000 casualties. Pat Buchanan predicted 30,000. Ted Kennedy estimated that there would be 3,000 U.S. casualties per week. It was not out of the question that a random ship could be sunk by an Iraqi missile.
Not that most people thought too hard about it. For most people, the prelude to the Gulf War played out like the week before the Super Bowl. Cable news assumed the stance of a pregame show. The coming war even had a theme song, by the same guy who did the Monday Night Football theme song. Jingoism ran amok.
I was a senior in high school and I had been awarded an ROTC scholarship. I wasn't sure I was going to take it, but I visited a couple of college ROTC programs to see how that all worked. On January 16, 1991 my dad and I drove from West Virginia to Columbus. We had an appointment to meet the Ohio State University ROTC commandant the next morning. That night, after we got to our hotel room, the fighting in Kuwait started. Dad and I ate pizza as we watched it unfold in real time. Sometimes CNN would cut to video of a ship firing a missile. We wondered if it was my brother's ship. We were both worried.
The next morning at the ROTC building we passed a student lounge with a television tuned into the war coverage surrounded by a dozen or so uniformed cadets. Cheers and high fives erupted with each bomb blast and Tomahawk missile strike. The cadets’ glee at the outbreak of war was unnerving.
We went on to meet the Commandant. He was a nice enough fellow but he couldn’t go three sentences without making excited reference to the previous night's carnage. Since everyone else in the country had suddenly assumed a quasi-military vocabulary and deified military officers as if they were intermediaries carrying forth the world of God, I think he thought all that war chatter would help him sell me on the scholarship and coming up to Ohio State to join his program. I got sick to my stomach as the conversation went on. By the time it was over only he and my dad were talking By the time we left late that morning I knew that I wasn’t going to be taking the ROTC scholarship.
Subsequent history has made the first Gulf War seem almost quaint, not unlike those practice wars in Grenada and Panama. And, sure, I suppose those who predicted thousands of American casualties were way off. How people still manage to gloss over the rank carnage the conflict inflicted, though, still astonishes me all these years later.
Twelve years later our country geared up for war again. Or, I should say, since we had already been fighting in Afghanistan for over a year at that point, our country geared up for a second war. It was in Iraq again. There seemed to be no justification for it at all this time apart from the people in charge of our country simply being hellbent on going to war in Iraq again. They made one up though, inventing the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and were prepared to use them on us. Or something like that.
The war began just before I took off on a month-long road trip. On May 1, 2003 my trip took me to White Sands, New Mexico. At the White Sands Missile Range Museum there's a boneyard of old missiles, rockets, and bombs. A friend who had joined me for that leg of the trip and I got out and climbed on disarmed weaponry. Just days before the army had finished subduing a foreign country because it allegedly dared to acquire some of their own. That turned out to be a lie. The all-but-empty museum we were visiting had more weapons of mass destruction than all of Iraq did.
That night my friend and I camped just outside of Alamogordo. We listened to a news report on the radio which described how President Bush had, that very day, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, declared that the mission in Iraq had been accomplished. Not long after that guerrilla warfare broke out and an insurgency ramped up. The vast majority of casualties of the Iraq war, both military and civilian, occurred after the mission had, allegedly, been accomplished.
I found out I was going to be a father for the first time when I was in the middle of the road trip I was on at the time the Iraq War kicked off. Today I drove my son -- my second child, who was born more than two years after the "Mission Accomplished" banner flew -- to a job interview.
On the way there he, aware of the United States' assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, made some nihilistic "World War III" jokes, the sorts you probably saw floating around on social media today. I told him it wasn't a laughing matter. Chastened, he then more soberly wondered whether any of the kids he goes to high school with will be fighting in Iran or Iraq in a couple of years. It was a good question.
We've been at war, continuously, since before my kids were born. My kids who are now interviewing for jobs and thinking about what colleges they'll apply to. War that no one in power ever seems to seriously question. War that has killed millions and has cost trillions. War, a thirst for which those in power remain insatiable to this day.
War that, unlike the war of my grandfather and Larry Alvord across the street, no one seems to acknowledge is bad, no one ever asks if it was necessary, and one which will apparently never end.
A war we have all tacitly agreed that we will never seriously question because, somehow, we have convinced ourselves that to do so would be to once again mistreat my uncle and my teacher who went to Vietnam 50 years ago.
War based on the same arguments and lies and disingenuous prognostications which have been repeated and which have been proven wrong for two decades but about which no one learns anything.
I sometimes feel like I'm the only one aware of how ridiculous and absurd and tragic obscene all of this is. I'm not, of course. People see it and know it and feel it and have felt pain from it. Millions of them. Pain that almost no one in this country will ever feel and will never acknowledge.
Certainly no one in power will ever feel it. No one with the power to stop it. Those people are immune from the consequences of our forever war and are immune from learning a damn thing. It's a game to them and their surrogates and their cheerleaders. A domestic political problem at best, but one far easier to deal with than almost any other political problem because war is the only topic, it seems, on which both parties can find common ground. Everyone, to some degree or another, is for it. They dare not be.
I'm not for it. I'm tired of it. I'm disgusted by it. I'm disillusioned by it. It's impossibly sad and stupid. It's a ride I want off of. It's a nightmare from which I desperately wish I could wake. A nightmare that has now lasted most of my lifetime. And I am not a particularly young man.
I was bored and started doing a dumb thing over on Twitter: ranking each year of my life based on how, as I sit here right now, I think they went for me in the grand scheme. How I feel about them, mostly on a visceral level. I just ranked them on Twitter, but I have time to kill and more space here so I'll add some brief, oblique, and sometimes stream-of-consciousness commentary.
Note 1: I couldn't rank all 46 years of my life together as my 40s and my teens, for example, are apples and oranges. So I grouped them by decades 2010s, then the aughts, the 90s, etc.
Note 2: The rankings are strictly personal and relate to what was going on in my life and how I felt about it. Some pop culture may bleed into it as that affected me, particularly when I was younger, but don't read in any political crap, current events, news, or whatever into 'em. 2001 was pretty bitchin' for me overall. That I have it ranked high does not mean I was a big fan of 9/11. Get me?
Note 3: In case you need to orient yourself here, I was born in 1973.
It didn't matter. I was too young. For me it was mostly a big blur of Toughskins pants, my bedroom, very large Buicks, TV shows and movies with lots of car chases, the vaguest appreciation that times were tough economically speaking even if I didn't know what that meant, memories of my elementary school and my preschool which seemed gigantic and full of cinderblock and flecked linoleum and whatever else you probably imagine the 1970s looked like.
As an adult who thinks a lot about the direction of our country and society, I look back on the 70s now as a great lost opportunity. A time when Jimmy Carter told us that, maybe, it'd be a good idea to turn the thermostat down a tad and maybe wear a sweater to save some money and, in response, our entire nation threw a 40-year-long-and-counting temper tantrum in which it decided, screw that, we'd rather first bankrupt and then destroy the planet rather than sacrifice a single thing. But like I said, this is a personal list, so let's move on.
1985: Playing outside all day. Living in a neighborhood that felt like living in a city in the 1940s, where I could walk to shops and school and the library and everything. I think there was even a damn news stand. Obsessing on sports in a way I hadn't come close to doing before. Basically the perfect year for a kid. Assuming you, like me, often wished you lived in the 1940s.
1989: Driver's license, first job, first real girlfriend who I could, like, go pick up and go make out with and stuff. All the freedom all those things suggest. Life totally changed, as it tends to do, when you turn 16. I did, however, experience what I know now to have been my first real depressive episode that fall. I didn't know what to make of it at the time. It'd take therapy when I was in my 40s to actually process it. I wish I had been aware of it then. It might've made it easier to deal with the ones that would come later.
1984: Decades are artificial constructs. You don't have to count 0-10. Culturally, this is when it felt like the 70s actually ended and the 80s began. Maybe it was in 1983, but 1984 is definitely when my memories switch from black and white to color and everything seemed to leap into what was then a new, modern era for me.
1987: Started the 9th grade. Crushes on girls began to transform into something more serious. Not that I dated anyone. Maybe I was just a proto-emo kid. Definitely the year I began to listen to sad love songs and imagine that EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS ABOUT ME AND WHAT I WAS FEEEEEELING, MAN. Not gonna lie, though, that's not the worst feeling when you're wired like I am.
1988: MTV all day, every day. Learned to deal with the emo stuff better. Maybe because I discovered beer. Got in a monster car wreck but didn't get a scratch and assumed that meant I was invincible. Moved to Beckley, West Virginia and hated the idea until I actually got there and then I loved it.
1986: Played football for several years surrounding this one, but this was the one I felt the most like, yeah, I might play football for a long time. Was wrong about wanting that. Was probably just thinking that because I was awkward-looking, getting fat and kind of hated myself and didn't know what else a fat kid who was kind of good at football might do.
1980-83: Kind of a blur, not unlike the 70s. I remember the TV shows a bit more clearly, though.
1991: Started dating the girl I'd end up marrying and having kids with which, even if that didn't last, was good for a long while. Graduated high school. Went away to college. Turned 18. I do adult pretty well and this is where it started.
1990: Dated multiple girls and passed a -- er, um -- personal milestone in the process, but let's keep this clean. Smoked weed for the first time and, since it was pretty neat and I never developed a drug problem of any kind, I can look back at it as an unambiguously good thing that I'm glad I did. Got into a lot of punk and alternative music that set the course for my tastes in that regard for the rest of my life. Started DJ-ing at a top 40 radio station and got a bunch of leads in school plays, both of which caused me to became fairly popular which was quite a trick for a kid who, on paper, did not have any right to be popular. Damn, maybe this should be ahead of 1991?
1993: Shook off a bad fall of 1992 (see below), found myself in a very happy place, and hit my stride academically in college. Took all kinds of classes I loved and which helped form the person I am today, all while getting great grades. Stayed up on campus over the summer rather than go home and, as it would turn out, would never live at my parents' home again. Got my first apartment.
1994: Just college. Less fun than 1993 because I actually had to start deciding what I wanted to do with my life when, actually, I just sorta wanted to stay in college forever. For that reason I thought hard about grad school but then I realized I'd have to pick something specific to study and since I'm a dilettante at heart that seemed like a drag. Started thinking about law school which also seemed like a drag but a faster, better-paying one in the long run. Broke my collarbone in a bike wreck that summer. Went to a lot of rock shows.
1997: Summer clerkship at a law firm between my 2L and 3L law school years, spent in a sublet studio apartment. A great, pretty relaxed and drunken summer at, probably, the last age and the last time in my life when that would be socially acceptable. On either side of that I was getting used to life in D.C. and rather enjoying it. Probably because none of my friends had anything to do with my law school. Went to California for the first time to visit my brother and other friends. We're on 23 years and counting of me being convinced that I should live in California and not the places I've actually lived. Maybe one day.
1995: Graduated college, got married, moved to Washington for law school, started law school. Busy, eventful year. Maybe if that marriage had lasted and maybe if I still practiced law I'd rank these milestones higher.
1992: Spent the summer after freshman year back home and didn't really know what to do with that. Had a rough patch with my girlfriend, who had joined me up at college that fall, that was hard on us both and that I still think about sometimes. Experienced my second depressive episode for sure. That entire fall was steely gray and the sky felt heavy.
1998: Graduated law school, moved back to Ohio, passed the bar exam and started practicing law. There was enough that was new and exciting and kinda scary that I think it distracted me from noticing how unpleasant a world I was entering.
1999: The unpleasantness started to dawn on me. I distracted myself by doing things like buying a house and getting into expensive wine and crap like that. I mark 1999 as the beginning of a bout of sleepwalking from which I did not emerge until I managed to actually leave the practice of law in late 2009. I'm 46, but I often feel ten years younger. I think that's because I was basically in a coma for a decade.
1996: Law school and a summer clerkship at the DOJ. Both were drags. I wasn't used to D.C. humidity and felt like I spent most of the year sweating. Kinda like 1999 except I was poor all the time.
2009: Got my dream job and came out of my coma. I once wrote 8,000 words about that. I put my law license on inactive status where, frankly, I hope it stays until I'm buried in the ground. But before that came a month and a half of shockingly clarifying unemployment during which I got to pretend to be a stay-at-home dad and rather loved it. Played with the kids and read to them all the time and read a bunch of graphic novels after they went to bed. Kind of a law firm detox. Then I got a job with the State of Ohio -- we had to eat -- and that kicked off an eight-month stint in public service which did a hell of a lot to restore my faith in the legal profession and made me realize that I did not fail as a lawyer. Rather, the private practice of law failed me and served as a poor use of my skills and my temperament. If the dream job had never happened I would've been OK. All that adds up to 2009 being a truly transformative year for me that continues to be -- and likely always will be -- one of the most important times in my life.
2003: I became a father. No, I am not ranking the experience of becoming a father below getting my dream job. Being a dad -- the now 16+ years of actually being a dad, not one single moment or one single year -- is the greatest part of my life. I'm just ranking years here, and since my daughter wasn't born until December it's not like I was a father for most of that year. I did take a fantastic road trip, though, during which I'd find out I was going to become a father and that was all pretty cosmic and life-changing. I also got a job at the last law firm I'd work for which, even though that'd end poorly, was pretty good for a while and definitely seemed pretty good in 2003.
2005: Became a dad for the second time. My son being born props up what was a really damn hard year otherwise, though. My father-in-law, who I loved dearly, died. The dark side of my law firm -- and the dark side of my personality, which for a brief period my law firm brought out of me and which I did not fight -- really began to show itself that year. Anxiety, fear, and having too much disposable income caused us to move to the suburbs which, nearly 15 years later, I'm still stuck in even if I wish I wasn't. Seriously, Carlo: you being born REALLY saved 2005 for me. It'd be near the bottom otherwise.
2001: Went to Europe for the first time. That was cool. I think I've blocked out everything else that happened that year, personally speaking, even if I think of it as being kind of pleasant most of the way through. I really got into yard work. One of the lamer non-tragedies of my life is that I have always very much enjoyed mowing lawns yet, since that move to the suburbs, I live on one of those new-urbanist communities with houses on small lots and, what little grass exists, is maintained by the HOA. I haven't mowed a lawn since the summer of 2004. It's basically Greek tragedy.
2007: Started Shysterball, my little Blogspot baseball blog that would, over the next two years, turn into my new career. At the moment all I wanted was an outet where I could think about and write about things that were not unpleasant. With that I began the process of mentally checking out of the law, even if I didn't quite realize it at the time.
2000: A total blur. I remember going to see "The Road to Perdition" at the theater one night with some friends who were visiting from out of town. Otherwise I was just in my office or home mowing the lawn or reading books. I think I leased a car that year. I have no idea why I leased a car. I have no idea what in the hell I did with myself beyond that. Like, I'm sitting here drawing a total blank.
2002: Basically an identical year to 2000 except I saw different movies and read different books. I went to Las Vegas at some point. I dunno. I was neither young nor old. I was not yet a father but I was not living a particularly free-wheeling life. I worked too much at a time when other people my age were still figuring out their life and that figuring-out-their-life thing seemed kinda cool from where I was sitting. I imagine they thought me having it seemingly figured out and owning a home before 30 seemed kinda cool. I wasn't much for self-reflection at this point in my life. If I had been happy with my work instead of increasingly disillusioned by it, this is probably the time when I'd begin a 30-40-year stretch of just being some guy whose life could be summed up in a montage full of Midwestern professional class cliches. Like I said: kind of a coma.
2004: Was trying a lot of my own cases in court at this time but a great many of them were out of town. Had one in January in Great Falls, Montana. When I landed it was -22 degrees before windchill was taken into account. Had a month-old daughter at home I missed terribly. Had another in Portsmouth, Ohio, which required me to stay in a hotel in Portsmouth because my client insisted I do so rather than drive down. Between all that and adjusting to life as a father it was a hard year. One day in the fall I came home from work. It had been a rough day and I was grumpy. The baby had been crying all day and cried for an hour solid as I held her. The dishwasher had broken and leaked water everywhere. My wife suggested we order a carryout pizza. I called it in. When I got off the phone she said "I'm pregnant again." I looked at her blankly, kind of in shock and unable to really process it. I said, flatly, "Um, I'll go pick up the pizza." She said, with genuine fear, "Are you coming back?!" It was that kind of year.
2006: The depths of my private legal practice which, ironically, coincided with my greatest success in legal practice. I made pretty great money -- and I bought a BMW with it because, dammit, that's what I was supposed to be doing, I thought -- I was told I was on partnership track, and I was handling important cases and all of that. But it was dark. My wife had quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom, and that didn't really suit her, which made things tense. My coworkers and I were at bars most nights after work which obviously didn't help. I never did anything truly irresponsible. I didn't drink to the excesses that some of them did, I didn't cheat on my wife or behave in ways that made people think I wanted to like some of them did, and I didn't neglect my kids like some of them did, but I felt like I had to act, basically, like they acted if I wanted to put the ball over the goal line, career-wise. I wasn't ultimately willing to do that, but it took me some time to get my mind around that idea. In the meantime I felt like I was being asked to choose between being a good husband, father, and person on the one hand, and, on the other hand, being a successful lawyer. It was tearing me apart.
2008: In 2007, after making the decision that I didn't want to be a part of that ugliness -- a decision I made via my actions, not consciously, by checking out mentally, spending more time at home with my family, and diving into more positive things -- I was basically marginalized at the office for the next year and a half. I didn't really realize it until September of 2008, though. That's when the financial markets started crashing, tens of thousands of people were getting laid off each week, and the partner in charge of my firm took the unusual step of accompanying me on a trip to Kansas City to visit one of my clients. It became clear to me that he did so in order to get up to speed on my case because the firm was about to fire me. Which they did in October. That was bad. How certain people in my life reacted to it was worse, but we'll leave that for another time.
I don't talk much about work in this decade's entries. It was the same job the whole decade. And, since I love it, it doesn't cause the sort of agita that the old gigs did such that it might impact my year. For the most part career stress has been absent. And when it has suggested itself, it's been in the form of high-class problems like "I wish I was more famous" or "why won't someone give me a book deal." As Joe Walsh said, I can't complain but sometimes I still do.
Also: there's not a ton about the kids here. Mostly because they're smart and great and I'm constantly proud of them and that's the sort of consistency which does not lead to annual variance. They were, and continue to be, the best things in my life.
Back to the years:
2013: It occurs to me that if you are reading this and do not otherwise know the general narrative of my life that you might not know that my wife and I split up in 2011 -- I often think the seeds for that were planted in 2008 -- and we finalized our divorce in early 2012. In between those two events I met a woman named Allison who would become my girlfriend and, eventually, my wife. Well, that did happen, so now I hope the fact that the worst but most explanatory years of the decade are at the bottom of the list won't be as confusing. Anyway: Allison moved up to Ohio to live with me just before Christmas in 2012 and 2013 was a wonderful year in which we built a life together and with my kids that, after a few bumps here and there, we're still enjoying.
I also got in pretty damn good shape that year. I had ballooned up to like 210 pounds in the mid-aughts but lost 25 pounds in 2011 -- some stress-induced weight loss, but also a lot of time on my treadmill -- and by 2013, the year I turned 40, I found myself lighter than I was in high school. That shouldn't be as big a deal as I'm making it in this rundown, but I'm not gonna lie: there is a very strong connection in my mind between my physical health -- with an unfortunately large emphasis on my weight -- and my mental health. That's probably also something else left for a better time, perhaps with my therapist.
2017: The year Allison and I got married. It was cool. I also began writing on this site a whole lot, particularly about political stuff, social issues and the like. It sucked that I was inspired to do that by Trump -- definitely not worth it -- but the process of writing more, and about different things, was and continues to be good mental stimulus for me, whatever the inspiration. Indeed, part of the reason I'm writing this now is that I was bored and feeling some mild ennui this afternoon but these days I now know that writing -- writing anything -- will almost always pull me out of it.
2012: Allison and I maintained a long distance relationship -- her in San Antonio, me in Ohio -- and we spent a lot of time in airports and hotels in the process. At the end of the year I flew down and the two of us drove her car back up here as she moved. They're all good memories. This year is below 2013, of course, because being with her is far superior to being 1,300 miles from her, even if the travel was fun.
2010: My first year in the new job, during which I adjusted to being a full-time writer and working from home. I also transitioned nicely -- and enjoyably -- into being, for all practical purposes, a stay-at-home dad. I still dig it even if the kids don't need me now the way they did when they were six and four years-old. People at the grocery store know me. For a long time I'd get put on every volunteer list at school and would be the only dad there among the moms. There are some folks -- some teachers, some moms, and, like, ballet instructors and stuff -- who don't know how to deal with a dad doing these things. For a while it made life a bit awkward and I felt marginalized by the stay-at-home mom industrial complex at times, but I eventually got over it eventually and realized it was their problem, not mine. Anyway, a pretty fantastic year, probably the best I had had since I had been in college. Hindsight tarnishes it, though, knocking it down this list a bit, as I know now that it would be the last year in which my marriage was healthy -- if it even was; I still don't know -- and I know now what was right around the corner for me.
2016: It started poorly. The worst depressive episode of my life began the previous summer (see 2015 below) and I got to a point where I couldn't handle anything or deal with anything and I foolishly decided that that included my relationship, so I broke up with Allison. It was a terrible decision, caused by brain patterns which convinced me that if I eliminated anything even remotely difficult in my life, nothing could cause me worry.
Have you ever read an account by someone who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge but survived? Almost every one of those people express some variation on the idea of "I realized as I was going over the railing that I could, actually, solve every problem in my life . . . except this one." That's kind of how that all went. I spent a month trying not to think about it at all but then two months realizing I had made a big mistake and trying to fix it.
But something else happened too: after a couple of abortive attempts at therapy in the previous few years I found a therapist who I connected with and who helped me understand what the fuck I was doing with my life, why I was doing it, and who taught me how to deal with it. I wish it didn't take me descending into depression and screwing up my relationship to get that breakthrough, but dammit, it did. Yet, pushing four years later, it's a breakthrough which still teaches me and pays me mental and emotional dividends. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, etc.
Anyway: Allison and I got back together. Then we got engaged. Then she moved back in. The rest of the year was a wonderful time for me. I've not felt lost like I did early that year since. I feel like I have the tools and the strength -- and the support from Allison -- to handle whatever bad comes my way.
2018: We went to England and followed James around on tour. Best vacation ever.
2019: It's been a mixed bag. I had to put a cat down way before her time. I had a book deal in place that fell through for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the book nor the willingness of the publisher, and we'll just leave it at that for now. There have been some financial challenges and pressures that I wish weren't there, but as 2006 demonstrates, being in a financially secure position is absolutely no guarantee of happiness for me, so we just roll with the punches, right?
2014: Some growing pains with Allison. We didn't break up but I asked her to get her own apartment because, after a honeymoon-like 2013, I was having a hard time of trying to balance dad life and boyfriend life and was worried that I was being a worse dad and a worse boyfriend than I needed to be. Even if we still spent a lot of time together we'd not live together for the next two years. We somehow made it work. Mostly because Allison has way more patience with me than anyone else would, God love her. This year ranks below 2016 because the bad stuff was not balanced out by any breakthrough or any enlightenment. I was just sort of flailing and wasn't yet aware of the less-than-productive ways in which I deal with psychological stress.
2015: Depression hit me hard. Maybe it was coming on its own. My therapist thought it was because, even four years out, she said I was still not fully over my divorce, even if I truly thought I was. That wasn't consciously on my mind at the time, but she was probably right. In the event the bad stuff hit after a series of little setbacks and disappointments, none of them particularly bad, but all of which just built and built until I got to a place where I caused myself not to care about anything or hope for anything. It was just a dull, flat, feeling that was so out of character for someone like me. I never want to feel it again. In any other decade it would've been the worst year of my life. But . . .
2011: My marriage imploded. And hell, it didn't really start imploding until the spring and the imploding was done by October, so it was all packed into a shitty six or seven months, which somehow makes it worse. I'm past it now but I still don't like to think too much about it. It was the most dreadful and traumatic experience of my life. The only things making it even tolerable to think about: (a) I ended up meeting Allison after everything went to hell, and she's a hell of a woman; and (b) The next decade won't have an entry this crappy. At least I hope.
Happy New Year!
The Toronto Star has a story today in which a reporter went undercover as an Amazon delivery driver. You won't be surprised that, like a lot of other similar stories, it casts Amazon in a bad light.
For my part, I'm far less interested in the details of the job than I am interested in the notion that a person can become an Amazon delivery driver so easily that it's in any way practical for a reporter to do it as an undercover operation. Because that is not at all a normal thing in that industry.
Way, way back in my early college days I worked for UPS. I worked there a grand total of two hours because it was simply not the job for me. Between those two hours and a day's worth of orientation I was there long enough, however, to learn a few things about it:
Which is to say: becoming a UPS driver was not only a long process which required trust in you on the part of the company and a demonstration of your responsibility, but it was a very desirable goal toward which people who stayed with the company worked.
My experience was nearly 30 years ago, but I spoke with someone this morning who is more familiar. He tells me that getting in at UPS is still a good job with good pay and good benefits. This comes in contrast to gig economy jobs like driving for Amazon, where you are not trained, not invested, and where, in most cases, the drivers have low pay, no benefits and, in fact, the cars are insured by the drivers themselves, not the company.
I'm not out here waving the banner for UPS necessarily. I'm sure there are things they do with which I would not agree and I'm sure employees have their complaints. Every company could be described that way. But it's sure as hell got to be better than what happens at Amazon.
There's a story in this morning's Columbus Dispatch about how the addition of a "smart lane" on Interstate 670 eastbound out of downtown has cut what was once a pretty annoying commute in half for most drivers.
It's a clever enough system: cameras monitor traffic flow and, when things start to get a bit slow in the middle of the afternoon, what was once the left shoulder turns into an additional lane, speeding everything up. A lot of cities have this sort of thing but it's pretty neat for Columbus.
But at the end of the story a caveat appears:
Removing the traffic congestion on I-670 might have pushed problems farther north, though, according to some drivers. Rackley said traffic backs up on I-270 near the exits for Route 161 and Easton now.
For now the much-improved I-670 portion of things will make everyone feel better about the commute between downtown and the northeast suburbs, with the "everyone" including developers, no doubt, who will now have a somewhat easier time convincing people to build, buy or rent in that part of town. Eventually, though, the congestion that is getting kicked further up the road will get worse and, like vehicular acid reflux, traffic will gurgle back west on 670 and we'll be right back where we started.
This is a prime example of "induced demand."
Induced demand” describes the phenomenon in which increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive -- and, in turn, for more development to occur along and at the terminus of the route -- thus failing to improve congestion. It's a phenomenon which has been studied extensively for the past 50 years or so, but one which most federal, state, and local departments of transportation fail or refuse to take into account as a part of their long-term planning. All that seems to be seen is the perceived need for more roads and more lanes with little thought to how they'll all work together to fix, or more often, to exacerbate, traffic problems.
Not that it'll ever become a Los Angeles or Atlanta-level nightmare or anything. Columbus traffic is not all that terrible for a city its size. And it's not like this affects me all that greatly, as I work from home and can easily plan trips downtown or around town around rush hours.
But I think about Columbus traffic and, specifically, think about I-670 for two reasons: (1) back when I did work downtown, 670 was my commute; and (2) I-670's very existence is a monument to all the mistakes Columbus -- and almost every other city in the country -- made as it grew.
That was Columbus' Union Station. You're looking at the main entrance of it, as it sat on the east side of High Street, until it was demolished in 1979. When it was built, High Street in front of the station was elevated like an overpass. When you entered Union Station you walked downstairs from street level to the platforms.
After the demolition of the station, this portion of High Street looked like any other highway overpass. It just happened to be on overpass that was built before the highway. But that would come soon enough:
That's I-670, running along the path the tracks used to go. It was, for the most part, completed in the 1990s. That structure over the top of it wasn't done until 2003, however. Compare this next photo with the old photo of Union Station above. They were taken from roughly the same spot:
Yep, they built this restaurant/retail cap over the former tracks/current freeway in an effort to recall the railway station. It makes walking along High Street from the bustling Short North into downtown much more pleasant -- you pass by shops and cafes on a nice sidewalk instead of walking next to concrete and a chain link fence over a freeway -- but it's not exactly grand like Union Station was.
When Union Station was torn down a great building was lost (though the main arch still exists, and has been relocated), but so too was even a shred of commitment Columbus had to a means of transportation that was not the automobile. Columbus has had no passenger railway service for 40 years and now stands, after Phoenix, as the second-largest city in the country that can make that dubious claim. Even the near-ghost town of Thurmond, West Virginia -- population 5 -- has regular passenger railways service. It's rather messed up.
Columbus has a decent bus system, but like most urban bus systems, it is limited in reach, is under-utilized outside of a few major corridors, and is almost wholly ignored by suburban business commuters or those affected by the broader shift occasioned by the increasing suburbanization of poverty.
As is the case with intercity passenger rail service, Columbus has made no commitment to commuter rail, subway, light rail or streetcar service in any way. It's a city that grew later than most cities -- well after the automobile age had kicked into high gear -- and was built on a very large, automobile-friendly footprint. There was never a thought to NOT do everything at car, as opposed to human scale, the notion of building mass transit of any kind was at a historical nadir, and we continue to pay the price to this day.
One way we pay the price comes in the form of all of those traffic jams and the need for smart lanes. Another way is aesthetically. Columbus has made some decent efforts at re-urbanization in recent years, with as of yet, still relatively minimal gentrification issues compared to other cities of its size. But it's still a sprawling city which is much more friendly for malls and big box development than it is for pedestrians. Suburban development shows no signs of abating and even the most meticulously-planned suburbs -- including the one I live in -- continue to expand out into once rural areas.
There's also an economic cost. Right next to that story about I-670 in today's paper is a story about how Columbus' downtown -- about a decade in to dramatically attempting to increase its residential population after years and years of it becoming abandoned at 5pm each day and deader than vaudeville on the weekends -- cannot attract ground floor retail and restaurants. Sure, they've built apartments and condos like crazy, but the very, very wide blocks and three-and-four-lane one-way streets discourage pedestrian traffic and thus there simply isn't enough walkup business. As business owners wait for more residents, perspective residents wait for more shops and restaurants, all of which delays the development of downtown.
I don't know that anything can be done about any of this, really. The street grid is the street grid and the massive footprint of this city -- a city that continues to grow rapidly -- is not going to shrink. The notion that the city could build some rail-based mass transit -- The Columbus Subway -- is almost nonsensical, even if there was the will and the funds to do so. But I've dreamt about it often in the 28 years since I first moved here.
A few years ago a graphic designer and Columbus native named Michael Tyznik, who apparently shared my dreams, created an imaginary transit map for the city -- combining rail and rapid bus service -- that's so beautiful and thought-provoking that it almost makes me wanna cry. A glimpse:
You can see the whole thing -- as well as several earlier iterations from the past decade -- here. If you're at all familiar with Columbus you'll likely stare at it for hours, imagining what your life would be like if this thing actually existed.
I know this is an impossibility. I know that the ship sailed on Columbus having good transit eons ago when they decided that a gigantic footprint for a medium-sized city was a good idea. But driving on I-670 always makes me wonder what it would've been like if it was the main NE/SW artery of a commuter rail system. And seeing maps like this makes me wonder what things would've been like if the people who built this city had one-tenth of the vision and imagination of a guy like Michael Tyznik.
Public impeachment hearings began yesterday and the first two witnesses confirmed that the President of the United States of America used his foreign policy powers to extort personal political favors. What's more, they testified to a previously unknown phone call in which the president personally attempted to direct the extortion scheme.
That's corrupt. It's an abuse of power. It, alongside President Nixon's attempts to manipulate law enforcement and the intelligence community to perpetrate and cover up a break-in, constitutes the most egregious abuse of presidential power in living memory and, perhaps, American history.
The press is less than impressed, however, because there were no fireworks and no "pizzazz":
This sort of media framing -- that something needs pizzazz or fireworks to be interesting -- influences public perception and gives people license to not care about what is, in fact, a critically important chapter in American history. It's horribly irresponsible. It's an utter abdication by journalists who should damn well know better.
I am resigned to the fact that, given our current political reality, Trump, at the absolute most, will be impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate even if it is unequivocally and undeniably shown that he abused his office and committed high crimes and misdemeanors. I strongly believe it is necessary to do this despite that near-certain outcome, however, because it is important that those in power be required to either stand against or stand in complicity with Trump's corruption and illegality.
But as a journalist, I am deeply, deeply saddened by how irresponsibly the press has been and, apparently, will continue to be in covering all of this. They are failing in their jobs. They are failing democracy. They are failing the American people.
On July 1, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs asphyxiated while under the influence of fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol in his Texas hotel room.
Today, over at NBC Sports, I spoke with former players and front office employees who are concerned that baseball has a bigger opioid problem than most people think.
In the space of one news conference today, the president (a) announced he'd be using the power of his presidency to enrich him personally by holding the G7 summit at his own hotel; and (b) his Chief of Staff explicitly admitted that the president used his powers as Commander in Chief to extort a foreign country into interfering in an American election.
Both of these justify the president's impeachment and removal from office.
In the past two and a half years the President has repeatedly argued that he is not subject to legal process. That he is not required to make public information which is historically made public by presidents. That he is not constrained in any real way by either the enumerated, implied, or customary powers of his office. He has acted, in all practical ways, as a monarch.
Now, pursuant to a letter his lawyer sent to Congress yesterday -- a letter devoid of any actual substantive legal objection or defense to current proceedings by Congress -- the president has asserted a legally baseless, blanket assertion that neither he nor anyone who works under him will comply with Congress' constitutionally-authorized and constitutionally-mandated powers of oversight of the Executive Branch. He has made it clear that he believes he is not subject to impeachment or oversight of any kind, full stop.
Which means that we are now in a fully-blown constitutional crisis.
That term -- "constitutional crisis" -- gets thrown around from time to time, often irresponsibly. Usually it's invoked at a time of political gridlock or, perhaps, scandal. Rarely in our history has it actually been deployed accurately and specifically because rarely in our history have we come to a point where the very future of our country and its form of government has been thrown into question. Never has a sitting president rejected any and all constraints on the power of his office and acted as if he and he alone gets to decide how he should proceed. We have now, however, come to that point.
President Trump's declaration that he will not cooperate with a legitimate Congressional investigation will no doubt cause Congress to attempt to exercise formal legal process to compel the production of witnesses and documents. Trump will, apparently, fight those efforts by any means necessary, legal or otherwise. In the end, Trump will either be compelled by a court to comply with the Congressional investigation or he will not be.
The very act of getting to that point, however, risks destroying our system forever.
If the courts side with Trump's abject refusal to comply with Congress in the course of a legitimate investigation -- or if Congress loses its nerve and backs down in the face of Trump's intransigence -- the very concept of Congressional oversight of the Executive will be a dead letter and the notion that we have three co-equal branches of government will be definitively cast aside. Our Republic will, in such case, be transformed, for all practical purposes, into an Executive dictatorship.
If, on the other hand, the courts side with Congress, the president will no doubt intensify his defiant acts and rhetoric, casting Congress, the judiciary and the media as treasonous enemies of the state that have singled him out for persecution. He will no doubt be aided in this by a massively influential conservative media apparatus and, in all likelihood, virtually the entire Republican Party. The end product of this will be that a significant chunk of the population will agree with him that his power has been illegitimately usurped. That a coup has been perpetrated. In that case our Republic, though legally saved, will stand mortally wounded, perhaps for generations.
There are only two ways either of these disastrous constitutional outcomes can be avoided. One is an absolute impossibility and the other is a near-certain impossibility, at least based on everything we have seen:
1. President Trump, at some point, accepts that he must submit himself and his office to Congressional oversight and let that process play out however it plays out; or
2. Influential Republicans -- senators, party leaders, former office holders and those in the media -- call out President Trump's unlawful and irresponsible rhetoric and behavior, assert, unequivocally, that the current Congressional investigation is, in fact, legitimate, and demand for it to proceed accordingly, again, however it may play out.
Short of either of those things occurring, it's hard for me to see how our Constitution emerges from all of this without being mortally wounded and our country thrown into a state of autocracy.
Yesterday the Washington Post told the story of Maria Farmer, an artist who was commissioned by the disgraced and deceased sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein to do some paintings in the mid-1990s. In reality, Farmer alleges, Epstein and his partner Ghislaine Maxwell used the opportunity to sexually assault her while she was held virtual prisoner in a secluded, remote estate in New Albany, Ohio. An estate that, as the crow flies, stands less than half a mile from my house, and from which all power that matters in both New Albany and in the city of Columbus practically flows.
Epstein's crimes are well-documented. Less documented is the role, if any, that Ohio estate and its owner, billionaire retail magnate Leslie Wexner, played in it all. Wexner was, for over a decade, Epstein's only client and his primary financial benefactor. Epstein was gifted his Upper East Side mansion by Wexner and was given a guest home in New Albany as well. He was likewise given power of attorney by Wexner to handle all of his personal financial and real estate matters. Billionaires have no shortage of advisors and employees managing their concerns, but Epstein was, apparently, given far more power than anyone in Wexner's immediate circle.
Wexner, his lawyers, and his associates say he had no idea about Epstein's crimes and that he was deceived by Epstein just as everyone else was. And, to be sure, there have been no allegations that Wexner knew of Epstein's wrongdoing. Wexner claims he cut all ties with Epstein in 2007, soon after Epstein was first arrested on criminal sexual assault charges and, what's more, that he was financially defrauded by Epstein. There is no known reason not to believe Wexner's account of that.
The Post story, however, paints a frightening portrait of the circumstances Farmer faced when, in the summer of 1996, she took up residence on Wexner's estate to do those paintings for Jeffrey Epstein.
Farmer tells the Post that she was placed in a privately-gated guest house adjacent to Wexner's 300-acre estate and patrolled by Wexner's security staff which included both contracted sheriff's deputies and by guard dogs. She says that her movements were monitored and that she was not permitted to leave without permission. The night she was assaulted by Epstein, she claims, she attempted to call the Sheriff's Department but was told "we work for Wexner." She claims she was told by Wexner's security staff that she could not leave -- a guard told her "you're not going anywhere," she says -- and, indeed, it took her father driving to the estate in person to get her before she was permitted to leave. A former security guard for Wexner tells the Post that, while he has no recollection of the incident, he doubts that something like that could have happened.
I have no idea what Wexner's security guards did or did not say or do, but based on geography and based on the character of Wexner's estate, I don't think it would even require such acts by the security team for Farmer to feel like a prisoner on that night.
Even today, Wexner's property -- which is nothing short of a fortified compound -- is pretty remote. New Albany is growing, yes, but it's a very well-planned and restrained growth, little if any of which has reached the 300 pastoral acres Wexner calls home. In 1996 Wexner's house may as well have been in the middle of nowhere. At that point New Albany's metamorphosis from farm town to anglophilic upscale paradise was already underway, but it had not yet reached critical mass and his home was far removed from anyplace a young woman recently relocated from New York City would've considered civilization.
Wexner's personal property -- on which sat the guest house owned by Epstein -- is bounded by four roads, which were then and now no more than country lanes:
It's about two miles from Dublin-Granville Road -- the east-west road at the top -- and the east-west road at the bottom, Morse Road, just below where it reads "Balfour Green" (neither it, nor Albany Farms, high-end, gated properties carved out of Wexner's land existed in 1996). Wexner's main house is in the middle there, next to the stand of trees. It's unclear where the Epstein guest house was, but I suspect it is where New Albany Farms is now. Either way, Farmer says it was a half mile from the main house.
Today, if you were on that property and wanted or needed to leave, it'd be a a good mile and possibly two mile walk, depending on which of the estate's gate you exited, down a dark country road to the nearest business of any kind -- a gas station, to the northwest of the property -- depending on what gate you used.
Except you would be unlikely to simply be able to walk out of the estate's gates, especially at night:
That's the north side boundary of Wexner's property along Dublin-Granville Road. I took that photo on a walk a year ago. That fence and those signs surround the entire 300 acres and have for many years. The Post story notes that the land was patrolled by dogs back in 1996 as well.
And it's not just dogs, either. Wexner has 24-hour security that patrols the property and closely monitors the public roads adjacent to it. Indeed, everyone who has lived in New Albany for any amount of time knows of someone who, while lost, pulled to the shoulder of Kitzmiller or New Albany-Reynoldsburg Road or attempted to turn around in what looked to be an innocuous little driveway, only to have dark SUVs descend upon them and ask them what their business was.
Which is to say that if you were on Les Wexner's property and felt threatened in any way, I am certain you would feel extremely isolated and unable to leave. You would, for all practical purposes, feel like a prisoner, regardless of what was explicitly said to you by security guards.
Does any of that make Les Wexner responsible for what Jeffrey Epstein did to Maria Farmer? No. But it's certainly the case that Epstein's residence at the Wexner compound certainly made it easier for him to prey on her.
Here it is in black and white: the Whistleblower Complaint is out and not only does it claim, as I noted yesterday, that President Trump abused his power for personal gain, but, in a nod the master, Richard Nixon, he attempted to cover it up is well.
The whistleblower says that Trump pressured a foreign country to investigate his political rivals in order to give him an advantage in the 2020 election and subsequently dispatched his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and the U.S. Attorney General, William Barr, to carry out his plan. All of this in circumvention of U.S. foreign policy, in a manner which the whistleblower characterizes as a "serious or flagrant problem, abuse or violation of law or Executive Order," and in a manner which "pose[s] risks to U.S. national security and undermine[s] the U.S. government's efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections."
What's more, White House officials moved to cover it up.
In the wake of the July 25th call, a summary memorandum of which was produced yesterday, the president's men realized how serious of a transgression Trump had committed. Their response:
Even those who work for Trump knew full well that he had abused his power and intended to continue to do so.
To the extent anyone doubts these allegations or who claims that the complaint is mere hearsay, know that there are multiple people mentioned in the complaint who are said to have supplied consistent, corroborated reports of that which is asserted therein. Reports which can be easily confirmed via the testimony of the people who relayed that which they witnessed to the whistleblower. Which is to say that a few simple hearings will transform this from a mere complaint to documented, admissible evidence that the President of the United States, his Attorney General, his personal lawyer and other senior White House officials violated the law and mounted a coverup.
President Nixon was forced to resign under threat of impeachment for orchestrating a domestic break-in to get dirt on his political rivals and orchestrating a coverup. Trump now stands credibly accused of abusing the power of his office to coerce a foreign government into digging up dirt on his political rivals and orchestrating a coverup.
The facts of the matter could not be more clear. Nor could their implications or the logical conclusion to this affair: President Trump must be impeached. Those who oppose such an effort are endorsing a blatant violation of the Constitution.
UPDATE: Trump seems to be taking this well:
Earlier today President Trump released a summary memorandum of his July 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Its contents are damning. They justify Trump's impeachment, without question.
The summary -- which it should be remembered, was crafted by Trump and his aides in order to put Trump's words and conduct in the best possible light -- clearly shows Trump using his powers as Commander-in-Chief and Head of State to pressure a foreign actor into doing his domestic political bidding.
The critical context: Ukraine faces an existential threat from Russia, with which it has been in a virtual -- and sometimes active -- state of war for some time. Russia has annexed a portion of Ukraine and represents a constant military threat. In light of that, Ukraine desperately depends on foreign military aid, particularly from the United States.
In the call, Zelensky butters up Trump to no end, both personally and about how grateful he is for our help. He also plays into Trump's need to feel superior to other leaders and leans hard into how little help, comparatively, Ukraine receives from Germany and France, mentioning its leaders by name, as Trump is wont to do. Trump laps that up and then leans back into Zelensky, agreeing how important our military aid is to Ukraine's security.
It is against that backdrop that Zelensky makes his ask for FGM-148 Javelin missiles, which are essential for Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion:
Trump's immediate response:
"I would like you to us a favor though."
Words mean things and the "though" is the smoking gun.
In this passage, Trump is putting an express condition on United States military aid to Ukraine: sure, we'll help you, but you need to help me in combatting my domestic political enemies.
The reference to investigating the “whole situation in Ukraine” and Crowdstrike, refers to the company hired to investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. Trump went on to mention the “other thing." What other thing?
Here Trump is, plainly, asking Zelensky to look into unsubstantiated allegations against Hunter Biden, the son of the potential Democratic nominee.
Trump is asking for political dirt. He is doing so by using Zelensky's obvious desire for military aid as a lever. It could not be any more clear.
It's a shakedown, in which Trump is using his defense and foreign policy powers to aid his political prospects. And, again, it should be noted that this is via Trump's own, self-interested summary memorandum of the conversation. The surrounding context, other conversations, acts in furtherance of this initial exchange, and whatever else exists illuminating all of this likely casts it in a worse light.
President Trump has abused his power. His doing so is an impeachable offense. It could not be any more clear.
UPDATE: The Whistleblower Complaint has been released and it is damning.
It's about as straightforward as a thing can be: the President of the United States has used his powers as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of state to coerce another country -- one which relies on us for protection against a stronger, threatening neighbor -- to dig up dirt on his domestic political opponents. That's the textbook definition of abuse of power. One could not invent an example of an abuse of power more on-the-nose than this.
If Congress does not impeach the president for such an act, he is completely and utterly above the law.
It does not matter that the Senate will almost certainly not remove him from office. Doing noting establishes the most dangerous of precedents. Not only with respect to this particular abuse of power but with respect to the fundamental ability of Congress to exercise oversight of a president. If Congress does not impeach here, it is empowering future presidents to abuse their power in similarly brazen and destructive ways.
Force the president to at least to begin to answer for his illegal acts. Force his political allies to stop their ridiculous equivocating and vote, on the record, in support of this. History will look terribly upon this president regardless, but it will look even more terribly upon those who stood by, watched what he did, knew that he abused the power of his office, and let it pass without making even the slightest effort to hold him to account.
The Columbus Dispatch reports today that between 2016-17 the State of Ohio took drugs purchased by and intended for the state's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and gave them to the prison system to be used in executions. This despite warnings from drug manufacturers not to do so under threat of having drugs millions of people depend on, some to simply live, cut off.
Put more simply: the state thought it was so important to execute people that it was worth putting the lives and health of the sick and those in need at risk to make it happen. This -- along with empowering police to commit violence with impunity -- is one of the logical, violent end-points of the "tough-on-crime" political ideology. The place one reaches when one elevates vengeance above all other purposes of the criminal justice system.
And yes, there are purposes of the criminal justice system other than vengeance.
Rehabilitating criminals and making them productive or, at the every least, non-harmful members of society was once thought of as a laudable goal, but now it is considered too soft. Supporting such a thing makes one vulnerable to political attack ads, so no politician dares to publicly say they are for it. This is why parole is harder to come by, draconian mandatory minimum sentences exist, and capricious "three-strikes" laws are passed.
Simply incapacitating criminals and keeping them from committing more crimes is another purpose of the system. This one is seen as less wimpy by the tough-on-crime crowd, but it's difficult and expensive to house the convicted and doesn't satisfy that eye-for-an-eye bloodlust that seems so important.
So we're left with vengeance.
The problem, though, is that those who adhere to a code of vengeance do so out of the belief that it is mandated by God or some higher, moral power. As such, there is no end seen as more righteous and thus there is no price too high to pay to achieve it. Even if it means harming the sick and needy to see that vengeance is done.
But it's morally abhorrent. Vengeance is not ours. I'm ashamed to live in a state that believes it is. I'm ashamed to live in a state that values state-sanctioned killing above helping those in need.
Over the weekend a report emerged detailing how Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process was aided by a fast-tracked FBI investigation which failed to follow up with dozens of witnesses with potentially damaging information on the nominee. It also includes new allegations from a witness who says he saw Kavanaugh push his penis into the hand of a female student at Yale. It was an allegation the witness told the FBI about last year but which they failed to investigate.
The new report has led to calls for Kavanaugh's impeachment. Such calls will likely go nowhere given current political reality. I will reiterate, however, that no matter what comes of the current news cycle, Kavanaugh is unfit to be a mere lawyer, let alone a Supreme Court Justice. He should not only not have been confirmed last year but he should probably be disbarred.
Most people are viewing all of this, both last year and now, with reference to the standard of what one can get away with in politics. On that score, sure, Kavanaugh is probably fine in today's graceless and shameless political age. He had and still has sufficient support (i.e. the Republican-controlled Senate). In politics, especially these days, that's all that matters.
Kavanugh, however, is not merely beholden to political processes. As I wrote last year, as a lawyer and a judge, he's beholden to the standards of legal and judicial ethics, which presents a far higher bar.
It is manifestly clear -- and was clear a year ago -- that Kavanaugh lied under oath during his confirmation hearing. Partisans contend that they were lies about minor details on relatively unimportant matters. They contend that they fall short of the sorts of lies which would typically bring forth a perjury charge. All of that may be true. All of it is irrelevant, however, because the standard of candor before a tribunal for an attorney and a judge is far, far higher than "that which is legally actionable for perjury" and no exceptions are made for "lies regarding unimportant matters."
As I wrote last year, a person can be denied a law license for lying about something that happened in college or even high school. A lawyer who even hints at misleading behavior during the course of trying a case or who even shades the truth under oath is subject to disciplinary action. The penalties for lack of candor before a tribunal are severe, and include disbarment.
Which is to say: Brett Kavanaugh would be unfit for office even if this past weekend's report never emerged. He'd be unfit to merely practice law, in fact. That, despite all of this, he is now ensconced in the highest and most powerful position in the entire judiciary for the rest of his life is a stain on the legal profession and on the nation.
I'm often told by opponents of Medicare for All that we can't have a single payer health care system because people love their private insurance.
In other news: Whole Foods is eliminating health insurance benefits for 2,000 workers. Because it can.
Wouldn't life be way better if your health insurance was not controlled by your employer?
Joe Biden leads the polls primarily, I assume, because of name recognition and the fact that Democratic voters liked Obama and associate Biden with him. That's fine. There are a lot of reasons people like candidates, especially if they're not hyper-connected with the day-to-day of the campaign like obsessives can be. Biden, on the whole, has been likable for most of his career and everyone knows who he is. It'd be surprising if he wasn't leading.
In recent weeks he's been increasingly attacked by those pursuing him, however. It was especially noticeable in last night's debate, when the other candidates went after him with gusto. Which is also fine. It's part of the deal when you're the frontrunner.
Biden is not handling the attacks well. His responses to anything but the most basic questions have been rambling and at times nonsensical. He gets lost in his own answers. He's simply not performing well under even the slightest bit of pressure. It's not a good sign.
Biden, however, has a lot of friends in the media, and today we see the sorts of dividends that pays via a New York Times op-ed framed thusly:
This is complete bullshit.
Bernie Sanders is older than Biden. Elizabeth Warren is 70. They have their detractors, obviously, but hardly anyone is attacking them for their age in and of itself. The reason for that is because, unlike Biden, they are coherent, rhetorically nimble and are championing policies that are forward-looking while he stammers, talks in circles, references "record players" and literally dropped his dentures when trying to mount an argument.
Biden is being criticized because his brain doesn't seem to be working. Because he cannot articulate compelling arguments and cannot defend himself in anything approaching a competent manner when attacked. The problem with Joe Biden is not that he's old. It's that he's totally overwhelmed, out of his depth and, worst of all, almost wholly disinterested in advancing policies beyond "I want to be president because it's my turn." It'd be just as disqualifying if a 45-year-old did this.
Biden's inability to argue and defend himself with even a modicum of energy will allow Trump to carve him up when they go toe-to-toe. His unwillingness to advance a forward-looking agenda will sap the enthusiasm of the energetic base of the Democratic party. Both of those things risk making an election that should be an easy win against an unpopular incumbent anything but.
It's why I can't support Biden in the Democratic party, even if I'd support him in the general.
When Joe Biden or whoever talks about "reaching across the aisle" to work with Republicans, someone needs to smack them in the head with a printed-out copy of this editorial, reminding them that Republicans have zero interest in such things because they are ideologically at war with democracy.