The New York Times published a story about how fathers in a New Jersey suburb actually had to take care of their children on Saturday as their wives went to Washington for the Women's March:
If this had been a weekday, the absence of women would most visibly have affected the commuter trains, workplaces and schools. On a Saturday, however, there were other matters to navigate: children’s birthday parties, dance performances, swimming lessons, and lacrosse and indoor soccer practices. Growling stomachs required filling on a regular basis.
In other news, the author of this story is Filip Bondy, who used to be a sports writer for the New York Daily News. He once wrote a column angrily criticizing Yankees manager Joe Girardi for not using Jorge Posada to catch the ninth inning in the game where Mariano Rivera broke the record for career saves.
Posada had already been used in the sixth inning of that game to pinch hit and was unavailable, but that didn't stop Bondy. He's THAT dedicated to the journalism that matters.
Today is the seventh anniversary of my being a full-time baseball writer. When NBC hired me I had been practicing law for 11 years, always in downtown offices. Since November 30, 2009, however, I have worked from home. If you’re curious, I wrote about how that all happened a few years ago.
As far as jobs go it’s wonderful. NBC has been nothing but fantastic to me over the years and the notion that I get paid to watch and talk about baseball all day has not lost its obvious appeal. Most old sayings are bunk, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to live the one about how, if you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.
But it is still a job. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, but it is. And, if anything, the fact that baseball writing is comprised of my favorite pastimes (i.e. baseball and writing) presents no small amount of danger. How do you keep a work-life balance when your work consists of your favorite activities?
On November 18, 1991, I was a little over two months into my freshman year of college and I wasn’t having a great time of it. School itself was going OK, but I was not fitting in at all with my obnoxious roommates. I missed my girlfriend, who was back home. I was also, generally speaking, feeling down and blue and gloomy. I didn’t realize it at the time and wouldn’t for years, but I was going through a depressive episode, the likes of which I’ve experienced on and off since I was 16. It was just a bad time all around.
An album helped lift my spirits.
My son’s sixth grade social studies class is doing a thing in which kids come up with their own unique culture. Or a pretend nation or something. The idea is for them to create their own customs and folkways and stuff like that. As a bit of extra credit, the kids can bring in an “indigenous” food dish unique to their land. My son decided that in his country – the nation of Big Top, which is an island in the North Atlantic where citizens’ lives revolve around circuses an roller coasters – the local specialty is macaroni and cheese. So he asked me to make macaroni and cheese.
I baked it last night. It was the Martha Stewart mac and cheese, by the way, because the Elders of Big Top don’t friggin’ play. This afternoon I heated it back up in the casserole dish in the oven and then spooned it into little foil cups in muffin tins so each of the 28 kids in the class could have their own portion. I kept that warm until it was time to take them to school.
When I got to the school the two women in the office audibly gasped. “Oh, my, you baked?!” one said in genuine surprise. “We had a dad bake something and bring it in last spring,” the other said, recalling it as one can only recall something truly notable. “That wasn’t you, was it? I think maybe it was you?” It wasn’t me, but I smiled and then took the mac and cheese to my son’s classroom when they buzzed me through.
The mac and cheese was a hit. Every kid in the class had some. It was gone in seconds. As they finished it, several of the kids said how much they liked it, telling Carlo things like “your dad is a good cook!” That obviously made me happy. Several others, however, added words describing how shocking and surprising it was that a dad, and not a mom, did the cooking and brought stuff in to school like that.
It’s amazing how low the bar is for dads. It’s so low that office staff who probably see a few dozen parents a day are legitimately tickled pink that a dad cooked something for a school project. Yet, despite it being so low, so few dads jump over it, apparently, as their shock and the shock of the children in my son’s class make plain.
I realize that working from home gives me an advantage a lot of dads don’t have. I can take some time out of my day and swing by the kids’ school for stuff like that. And, as a divorced dad, I obviously do the cooking at my house. But I would nonetheless hope that a few more dads did stuff like this so as to render it at least a tad less shocking. Especially in an affluent ‘burb like New Albany, where most dads aren’t punching a clock or holding down multiple jobs.
Step it up, guys, will ya?
I sort of owe my career to Andrew Sullivan. Not in any direct way. He doesn’t know who I am and never did anything to help me get a job. But he and other web-based political writers who flourished in the early 2000s provided a model for me.
The model was basically:
I wrote a web column covering national topics in 2002 and 2003 and didn’t think of it as a blog, but looking back at those old bits, they were basically blog posts. After a hiatus I began again in 2007. While there were several baseball bloggers around then, they were mostly team-specific or didn’t post as frequently as I did. While I respected their work and still do, I didn’t really emulate any of them. No, by 2007 I was consciously aping the political blogging style, only about baseball.
I modeled myself particularly closely on Andrew Sullivan. While I did and still do disagree with him politically on a whole host of issues, there was a lot about his style that appealed to me. He wrote in the first person a lot and did not hide the fact that he was a human being with his own interests. While he was and still is accused of completely reversing course on various topics, he didn’t really care, noting that changing one’s mind upon encountering new information or simply reconsidering old topics was a sign of intellectual strength, not weakness. He was, with some rather notable exceptions, more self-aware than a lot of his peers and knew that some of his readers wouldn’t care about whatever hobby horse he was riding at any given moment yet still kept riding them anyway.
A lot can be written about some of the awful arguments and positions Sullivan has taken over the years, but his approach as a blogger always appealed to me. Emulating it in a baseball context set me apart from my peers. I wrote more, wrote more quickly, more frequently and covered a wider array of topics than most people in the baseball blogosphere. To the extent I was able to leverage two years of independent blogging into a larger platform at The Hardball Times and then, later, at NBC, it wasn’t because I had a ton of friends in the industry or because I networked. It was based almost exclusively on being that weird lawyer baseball dude who updates constantly and talks about everything. It was because I was the baseball Andrew Sullivan. I owe a lot to him, even if he doesn’t know it.
Though I stopped reading Sullivan on a regular basis several years ago, I was sad to see that he quit blogging in 2015. And I am sadder still to see what he wrote today in New York Magazine:
I Used to Be a Human Being
In the article, Sullivan talks about how he burnt out on blogging and all of the online reading, reacting, arguing and writing it requires. About how posting every 20 minutes and obsessing over every twist and turn in a news story, often before anyone even knew what the story was, caused him to crash. His personal health was a factor as well – he suffered from multiple respiratory infections – but his “living-in-the-web” lifestyle, to use Sullivan’s term, was his real problem. He says it took a massive toll on his health, his personal relationships, his intellectual capacity, his writing skills and style and maybe even his sanity. This is, quite obviously, not ideal, and I’m glad that the internet detox on which he has embarked and the meditation regime and sabbaticals and everything else he has done has been good for him. Real life matters far more than four paragraphs of thoughts hastily posted to WordPress.
Of course, it would not be an Andrew Sullivan article if it didn’t include some broad overstatement, generalization and projection of his own feeling and experience onto the rest of us (an occupational hazard of all bloggers, but one which dogged Sullivan more than many). And here it is: too much technology and time online was not just something that harmed him, he says. It’s the scourge of the entirety of 21st century civilization:
Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes … this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.
With all due respect to the man on whom I’ve modeled my career: this is fucking bonkers.
I will grant that the manner and to degree to which technology has changed our lives in a very short period of time is, frankly, staggering. I’ll grant that all of us could use more time unplugged and offline and away from screens than we spend.
I’ll likewise grant that people in Sullivan’s line of work are particularly susceptible to being crushed in the manner which he describes. I never was nor have I ever been quite as immersed in the “living-in-the-web” lifestyle as Sullivan was, but doing what I do for a living, as obsessively as I do it, from home, usually alone, I am likely on the far right portion of the, ahem, Bell Curve, when it comes to full Internet immersion. I have over indulged at times. I have had loved ones tell me, hey, you need to unplug, get off of Twitter and close the laptop for a bit. It happens to most of us, especially if we work online.
But Sullivan’s article reads like a harangue from a recently sober alcoholic, convinced that everyone else is destined to fall victim to demon drink simply because he did. It’s calm and measured tone just barely hides what’s really being revealed here: a man with poor work-life balance skills blaming technology for what befell him as opposed to his own inability to unplug and pace himself
Sullivan talks about how he posted seven days a week, every twenty minutes. I remember when he did it and it was insane. I used to do something close to it. It was five days a week for me and it was every thirty minutes – with my blogging partners chiming in once or twice an hour to give us close to the same frequency of Sullivan’s blog – but it was pretty similar. It was also entirely unsustainable, both in terms of content – there really isn’t enough good stuff to write about 40 times a day – but more importantly in terms of the writer’s stamina.
Eventually, I ratcheted back a bit. Instead of writing 20 things a day I wrote 12-15. Many days now I don’t write even that much. Partially because blogging has changed a bit over the years and partially because I have people who work for me whom I trust to handle nights and weekends and those times when I have life to live and errands to run. Mostly, though, because I realized a few years ago that there was no way I could continue that pace into my 40s while still being a sharp thinker, a present father and an all around healthy person. I still write more than most people in my field, but I write way less than I did a few years back. Both I and my writing are better for it and my readers have not complained about it.
I’ll grant that baseball is not as important as politics, but Andrew Sullivan’s blog was not defending us from invading hordes or keeping Democracy alive single-handedly. No matter how important the underlying subject matter, no one was ever going to save the world with a blog post. At the very least the world would have survived for a few short hours if Sullivan had taken his husband out to a nice diner during the Green Revolution or if he had unplugged one night and read a good book in 2008 rather than writing yet another post about Sarah Palin’s baby.
Ultimately, reading and writing about crap on the internet is a job. It can be an extraordinarily immersive job. One that, if you’re not careful, can cause you to lose yourself. But still a job. If Sullivan wasn’t killing himself with this job, I strongly suspect he would’ve been killing himself with another one. I suspect he’s just wired that way.
One final point: Sullivan’s article is illustrated with famous paintings, photoshopped to show their subjects using cell phones, such as Edward Hopper’s “Hotel Room,” at the top of this post. It’s cute, and you can see what he and his editors are getting at with the little joke. But it also proves too much.
Most of Hopper’s best works portrayed subjects who were isolated and lonely and detached. Amazingly, something besides the Internet was to blame.
My dad, born in 1943, is supposedly a member of the “Silent Generation,” which means that he liked Bob Dylan, but only as long as he played protest songs and liked protests only as long as the protesters had short hair and got a damn job.
My mom, born in 1948 is a Baby Boomer and pretty much fits the stereotypical bill. She wore stuff with shoulder pads in it in the 80s and watched “M*A*S*H.” Not all Baby Boomers were at Woodstock, you know.
I date to 1973, which means I spent most of my 20s and 30s overly-preoccupied with “authenticity” without ever bothering to ask why, setting back my emotional development a good ten years. I also have strong feelings for Winona Ryder and never felt older than when she showed up as the half-crazy mom of a high school kid in “Stranger Things.”
My fiancee was born in 1980 and, according to most sources, that makes her a Millennial, but she bristles at that label. I can see both sides. In some ways she has more Gen-X qualities, separate and apart from liking a tired old Gen-X guy like me, than Millennial qualities. On the other hand, she is constantly explaining to me how technology works and unironically likes things simply because they bring her joy and that’s TOTALLY not a Gen-X thing.
In other news, generations are somewhat amorphous and difficult to peg.
I’m doing some research in old Detroit newspapers. This ad from April 1911 shows you that the Tigers used to have WAY better sponsors.
Bruce Springsteen has an autobiography coming out. In a recent interview, he talked about how he reconciles his blue collar, Jersey shore past and the hundreds of songs he has written about all of that with the privileged life those songs and his wealth have allowed him to live for half of his life:
“Whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you. I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”
That’s a pretty amazing and profound insight. A simple one, simply put, that somehow eludes almost all of us when it comes to considering who we are as people compared to who we used to be, in fear of who we may become.
That Springsteen may yet make something of himself. He’s a pretty good writer.
At the prompting of a couple of friends, I recently read J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
It was a major mistake. Don't believe Vance's hype and don't believe for a second that you need to read this book to gain some deeper understanding of "real Americans." It's a simultaneous exercise in (a) shaming the working class as shiftless and lazy; (b) ignoring why their plight today is what it is; while (c) ignoring why, exactly, they resent so-called "cultural elites."
There’s a hashtag thing going around Twitter now – #fav7films – via which people list their favorite seven movies. Here’s my brief list. I’d say three of the slots are subject to change at given time, but this is the list now:
1. The Conversation: It’s held at number one for a long time now. It’s a nearly perfect slow burn/psychological thriller on its merits, but as someone who often catches himself observing the world more than actually living in it, it resonates with me a bit more than most movies do.
2. Zero Effect: I like it for some of the same reasons I like “The Conversation,” though it’s obviously goofier. But it’s nowhere near as goofy as it seems on first look. There are some deceptively deep psychological waters being explored here and Bill Pullman, Kim Dickens and Ben Stiller all hit the perfect notes as they explore theirs.
3. Casablanca: It’s not all psychological crap for me. Sometimes you just gotta be entertained by some perfect old Hollywood romance, drama and humor. This may be the most perfect blending of all three in cinematic history.
4. Miller’s Crossing: It may not be the “best” Coen Brothers movie – “Fargo” is probably a better movie all things considered – but I’m a sucker for their more affected works for some reason and this one, while crazily affected, is just a joy to watch and quote over and over again. I like to think of Tom Regan as The Big Lebowski’s grandfather.
5. Chinatown: As a general rule, I like my heroes to only have half a handle of what’s going on until the very end, even while fighting like crazy to come out on top. And even once they get a handle on it and the plot resolves itself, I like them to still be perplexed by everything that happened and unsure what will happen next. Life is sort of like that. Forget the less-than-memorable sequel. I prefer to think that Jake Gittes was a profoundly changed man after what went down in this movie. It’s one of the rare pieces of hard boiled detective fiction where the detective takes the journey and doesn’t keep his cool detachment, even if it’s subtle here.
6. Dark City: I could make separate top-7 lists for detective movies, psychological thrillers and sci-fi. But all three of them landing in one movie like this makes this a great proxy for it.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: This is an odd one, I realize, and on purely cinematic terms it’s no masterpiece. It’s a very personal choice for me, however, and I have it here out of respect for what it means for me more than for what it is. I’ve written about it before, but this movie hit me at a perfectly imperfect time in my life when the decision between trying to deal with bad experiences vs. trying to utterly deny and obliterate them from one’s memory was more than just a theoretical one for me. It’s still something I struggle with.
Anyway, sorry to anyone who was expecting to see “The Godfather,” “Citizen Kane” and “Goodfellas.” They’re all good too, though.
Some people take vacations to see the sights. This week my fiancee Allison and I saw some sights during our four-day trip to New York but the most important part was the food.
Allison was diagnosed with Celiac disease a couple of years ago. Living gluten free is doable but it certainly limits one’s options when dining out. And even the places that do have options – and there are more and more each day, thankfully – tend to ghettoize them in tiny, specialized menus which are often stashed away someplace in the host’s stand. “They’re in here someplace,” they’ll say, as they rifle through the children’s menus, the happy hour inserts, the cab vouchers and all of the other items most restaurants are happy to provide but which aren’t used quite as often and, unfortunately, aren’t always afforded the same level of respect.
That can be a little annoying, but at least they’re trying and, increasingly, succeeding in accommodating those with Celiac. Lots of people, unfortunately, including even some people in the bar and restaurant business, continue to be downright hostile to folks with Celiac, acting as if they chose their disease out of a desire to be trendy as opposed to suffering from an autoimmune disorder.
In light of all of that, our time dining in New York was fantastic. It’s a city with an embarrassment of culinary riches as it is, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to gluten free dining our options were abundant, the experience was inclusive and welcoming, the food was delicious and, at times, bordered on the transcendent.
Thanks, New York for having so many options. Thanks Don Antonio, Colors, Senza Gluten, Egg Shop, By The Way Bakery, Taquetoria, Friedman’s and Le Bernardin for having such fantastic food. And thanks to all of the other places we couldn’t make it to but will the next time.
It’s fun when the police call you at 2:46 AM because they drove by, saw your garage door was left open and your lights on and knocked on the door to make sure everything was ok and no one answered the door.
In other news; I left my garage door open, my son left his bedroom light on and I can sleep through the doorbell better than I can sleep through the phone ringing. Oh, and the police somehow know my cell number.
The weirdest thing about traveling as a single dad with kids is that people want to pin medals on you for simply being a parent.
“Is it just you?” a woman asked me while eating dinner at Yosemite the other night, wondering if it’s possible that I’m on a vacation with kids without their mother around.
“Yep,” I said.
“Oh, my, well isn’t that wonderful!” she beamed. As if it was some sort of major accomplishment that I left my home with my kids.
And that’s before you realize how easy my kids are to travel with. They’re 12 and almost 11, and are basically self-sufficient beings, requiring little if any work to mind. Once you can say “you two hang here, I’ll be back in 15 minutes,” the hard part is over. In the past week – and for basically the last year or so – I’ve said that at swimming pools, hotel rooms, baggage carousels, restaurants and national parks with zero anxiety attaching. They’re mature and responsible and they’re at a pretty manageable age. Yet, to some, I’m Father of the Year for daring to leave the house without their mom or a nanny or a grandparent to help me. God, what a curve dads are graded on!
It’s somewhat embarrassing, actually. It always has been, both when traveling or when simply doing other dad things like shopping or taking them to the movies or going to school functions or what have you. It’s especially embarrassing in light of what I saw yesterday.
We were on the shuttle bus from Badger Pass to Glacier Point in Yosemite. On the bus was a woman with six kids, ranging in age from 11 down to maybe 18 months. They weren’t the best behaved kids I’ve ever seen. Some of them were kind of wild and crazy and hard to deal with. The woman was pretty zen about it all, though, neither leaning too far into letting them be free range monsters nor going too far into some frazzled “I MUST rein in my kids!” mode. She did what she could and rode out what she couldn’t control. The bus ride would end. The day would end. No sense in freaking out too much.
I ended up talking to her for a while. She’s from Modesto and came up to Yosemite on a day trip. Her husband had to work and this seemed like a good way to pass a long hot day with the kids, especially once she realized that her one-year pass for the national parks expired this weekend. She home schools them too, and she figured she could shoehorn in some science lessons for the older ones out of this somehow. If some wildness on the bus was the price to pay for it, so be it.
No one thought to give her pats on the back for simply being a mom the way people give me pats on the back for simply being a dad. Indeed, I’m guessing more people were judging her harshly for the behavior of some of her kids rather than marveling at how much energy and patience it takes for a woman to bring six kids with her on a long ride to a national park by herself. I didn’t go out of my way to pat her on the back either – it would’ve been condescending to do that, I felt – but I did talk to her for a while about kids and travel and the views from Glacier Point and stuff. She probably gets a lot of “Six kids?! Oh, my!” talk from people. Based on my own experience, just talking to another grownup about grownup stuff is better than any sort of praise you get for dealing with your kids. Which is your goddamn job, thank you very much.
Later in the evening Anna, Carlo and I were sitting at a picnic table at Half Dome Village eating our dinner. The table could hold five or six and it was crowded, and eventually a woman came up to our table and asked if there were three spots available for her, her husband and daughter. “Sure,” I said. “Oh, thank you,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if you were holding this for your wife.” I told her that it was just us and that they were welcome to sit down. We made some small talk about where we were from, what we had done on our trips and things like that.
Then, a few minutes later, she made a point to tell me how great a dad I was for traveling with my kids without a woman to help me.
It’s 3-2 in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. I have no idea how the runs scored. I’m supposed to be paying attention to this but instead I’m watching myself watch the game from about two feet to the left of myself and a foot or so back. The man on the couch becomes less me than some other person I don’t know, but I’m fascinated with him. I’m wondering how this man starring glassy-eyed at the screen is going to write about this game given that his head is clearly someplace else. I decide I have to try to help him so I try to jump into his head and shake him out of this funk. I jump. Everything goes black.
The world has been going to hell in a hand basket, a generation at a time, since the beginning of time. It’s amazing it hasn’t gotten there yet, but surely it will soon. At least that’s what you’d think if you listened to and believed your elders.
The impulse for one generation to think less of the generation which follows is unfortunate, but it’s understandable. Not to be overly dramatic about things, but I think it’s wrapped up in feelings of mortality and efforts to maintain a claim on youth and relevance just as one begins to feel like they no longer have either. Whether it’s at work or in sports or in culture or life in general, It can be sobering and maybe even scary when you see your “replacement” come online. Someone doing what you once did and on which you once prided yourself but don’t or can’t do anymore. It can be anything. Playing sports. Partying. Being part of the generation which gets more attention and praise at work or which sets the trends in music, fashion and culture.
Seeing those younger than you come to the fore makes you start to realize that the world will continue to function just fine without you occupying a prominent position in it. It makes you start to realize that, eventually, the world will continue to function without you in the world at all.
So what do most of us do? We make an extra effort to assert our relevance. If we can’t do it directly by continuing to occupy our old position of prominence, we do the next best thing: we tell a story about how things aren’t as good now as they were when we did occupy that position. We blast the younger generation as inferior or entitled and less worthy of their station than we were. Taken to extremes it leads us to not just disparage the younger generation but to blame them for everything we can think of that is wrong.
We don’t have to do this. The art of aging gracefully is not in defying the process but in living one’s life so that obsolescence is irrelevant. To always live the life we have to the best of our ability and to not try to live the life we used to have. And to realize that just because someone else is now living the life we used to have – the life of the trendsetter, the vibrant, the vanguard – doesn’t mean we never lived it.
I’m most familiar with this dynamic in baseball. There it means that a former player, rather than disparaging those who are up and coming, should be able to simply remember his own career fondly. To find his self worth in being the best manager or coach or broadcaster or retired guy doing something completely different that he can be instead of defining his self-worth by what he did between the ages of 18 and 37 or whatever and to blast the younger generation as a means of doing so. This applies to all of us, of course, in whatever walk of life we happen to find ourselves.
It’s insanely hard to do. Our culture venerates youth and collectively fears aging so much that the concept of living one’s life in the present instead of as some eternally young person is not something we talk about much let alone work on. Our addiction to nostalgia makes it even harder. So too do the aches and pains and health problems we experience as we get older. There are so many forces at work — good memories, bad impulses and physical things with which we can’t negotiate — telling us that all that matters was what happened when we were young. Getting past that is very, very hard. Most people don’t manage it well, I think.
But we should try to. We should try to live our lives in the present and to look to the future, not dwell on the past. We don’t get much time here as it is. Why limit our conscious appreciation of life to only the first 30-40 years of it?
I was born in Flint, Michigan. I lived there until I was 11, when we moved to Parkersburg, West Virginia. I lived there for three years and then moved to Beckley, West Virginia where I graduated high school and got married. When people ask me where I’m from I usually say Beckley, but I’m a Flint native and consider Flint, Parkersburg and Beckley to all be my home. They all took their turns and played their part in forming me and making me the person I would eventually become.
I had a good childhood. A happy childhood. I was lucky in that my parents always had stable jobs and a stable income. Such things were not necessarily the norm in Flint or West Virginia. Our society is so socially and racially segregated and we rarely see or acknowledge people in different classes than our own, but it was always a bit easier to see it in places like Flint and West Virginia. Those places were smaller and are poorer than most places with fewer school districts and neighborhoods and clubs and restaurants which allow people to keep their distance from those who are different and poorer than they are. I had a good and happy childhood but I grew up with and was friends with people who didn’t. I saw people who worked their asses off, had almost nothing to show for it and had no one listening to them when they were faced with hard times or injustice.
In Flint, factories closed and no one cared. In fact, people mocked those who were put out of work and blamed them for their own misfortune. In West Virginia people were lucky if all the coal mines did was close. If they stayed open a long time, way worse things could happen. Over time people in Flint and West Virginia would come to accept this as normal. An implicit social contract was torn up by one party to it without the other party knowing, but eventually it was just accepted that factories and mines closed and hard work took its toll because that’s just how things go. Hell, if it wasn’t part of the deal, wouldn’t someone be held accountable for it? No one was ever held accountable, so it must simply be the way things are.
But putting people out of work or putting them at risk in jobs everyone knows, on some level, to be dangerous is one thing. Actively poisoning them and killing them has to be something else though, right?
* * * * * * * * * * *
In 2000 I worked at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio with a sophisticated environmental practice. I didn’t do that stuff, but the woman in the office next to me did. I heard her mention Parkersburg one day and asked her about it. It seems the firm represented DuPont and they had some issues down at their Washington Works facility just south of the place I lived from the 6th to the 9th grade. A toxic chemical known as C8 had poisoned the water supply – Lubeck water, which is the water which came to my house – and people were getting sick and dying. Babies were deformed. DuPont had known about it since the 60s. The water had been known to be contaminated since 1984, the year I moved there. It was “under control,” the woman in the office next to mine told me. I took that to mean legally under control, not environmentally, because that’s what “under control” means to a lawyer.
I thought of all of the times I drank that water out of the tap of my South Parkersburg home or out of the drinking fountains at Blennerhassett Junior High. I thought back to my Little League team which played at DuPont field, smack right dab in between the DuPont Washington Works plant and the Borg Warner chemical plant right next door. Like the Pittsburgh skyline is to the outfield of PNC Park where the Pirates play the smoke stacks and cooling towers of those chemical plants were to my Little League field. And there was a smell to the place. Not necessarily an unpleasant smell. Nothing that would drive people away. But certainly a unique smell. An unnatural one which to this day I can immediately bring to mind. Thank goodness, I thought in 2000, that all of that was “under control.”
I moved down to Beckley in 1988. My ex-wife and all of her family is from down there and it was down there where I truly grew up and where I truly began to understand and appreciate how hard some people worked and how hard some people’s lives were. My wife’s grandfather had black lung from years in the mines. My father in-law was a construction worker who inhaled crystalline silica for years and whose death from respiratory failure can likely be traced back to that. On April 5, 2010, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, not far from Beckley, blew up. Twenty-nine out of thirty-one miners at the site were killed. One of the 29 miners killed was the father of one of my other in-laws.
On January 9, 2014 something called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol was released from a facility run by a company called “Freedom Industries” straight into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia. It contaminated the water of nine nearby counties, all now home to people I knew and loved back then or, at the very least, home to people like the ones I knew and loved. 300,000 people in a state with a population of only 1.85 million people were told to avoid using their water for cooking, drinking, or bathing for an extended period. Schools and businesses were closed. Hospitals activated emergency measures.
In 2014, in a cost-savings move, Flint’s water supply was changed from the long-used, long-reliable Detroit water system to a new system drawing water directly from the Flint River. After the change Flint’s water was suddenly riddled with lead contamination. Between 6,000 and 12,000 residents were found to have severely high levels of lead in the blood, leading to serious health problems. It’s also suspected that the water change is the culprit behind an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 10 people and affected another 77. As I write this the politicians involved are shifting and denying blame. No one seems to have a plan about how to deliver non-toxic water to the people of Flint.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Things were under control down in Parkersburg, but only for a while. In 2015 DuPont’s release of C8 into the Lubeck water supply finally came to be known by a great number of people and only then did DuPont start facing some modicum of legal judgment for it. Not much of one – their settlements and the jury awards so far have been dwarfed by even a partial year’s worth of revenue from DuPont – but, for the first time in 50 years of knowingly poisoning their own workers, their families and their neighbors, something was being done about it, however small.
Black lung settlements come and go in West Virginia. Some families count on them as part of their basic economic plan and many miners affected by it simply pass on the money to their children and grandchildren in order to help them put food on the table and to keep them out of the mines themselves. As for Upper Big Branch, it was eventually ruled that the explosion was entirely preventable but the unlawful policies and practices of Massey Energy made it inevitable. Practices which were deemed to be intentional and knowingly dangerous and were designed to save money. The government issued 369 citations. Millions in fines were leveled and millions in settlements were paid. One superintendent was convicted of a crime. Fraud. The fines and settlements were small compared to Massey’s revenue, however, and are generally considered a cost of doing business Massey willingly accepted. The criminal sanction was nearly nothing in the face of 29 deaths which were eminently preventable.
My ex-in-law whose dad died in the blast got a sizable settlement. It’s all gone now. I’ve lost touch with him, but from what I hear he’s leading a aimless and sad existence. Massey Energy can put a cost on human life and budget around it, but the son of a dead coal miner can’t do that as easily. As for my father in law: I miss him every day and wish my children got a chance to know their grandfather. Especially my son, his namesake, who was born five months after he died.
Up in Charleston, due to 30-some years of a certain sort of person and a certain sort of politician demonizing government regulation, the chemical spill into the Elk River was deemed to not legally be “hazardous,” thereby preventing all manner of EPA measures designed to be triggered by hazardous situations. Days afterward “Freedom Industries” declared bankruptcy to avoid any liability. A new company working with the same chemicals and with the same phone numbers and addresses registered to do business there soon after. It still operates today and similar, albeit smaller spills of the same chemical happen from time to time. No one was ever held accountable for the big spill.
Up in Flint? Well, that’s still going on, but so far it looks like much the same thing will go down. The politicians currently shifting blame are mostly hiding behind their curious and rare immunity from Freedom of Information Act responsibilities and so who knew what and when about the deadly poison sent through the taps of the people of Flint may never be known. If I were a betting man I’d not lay much on anyone truly responsible for this disaster to have their political or business careers ended and even less on anyone going to jail over it. Meanwhile, I expect many more people will die in Flint because the water they need to drink to survive is toxic. Lead has a way of lingering.
* * * * * * * * * * *
I don’t pay close attention to what has gone on in Flint and in West Virginia because I’m an environmental activist or a good person or some committed social justice warrior. I’ve only paid close attention to it because, at some point, the names of the places where these crimes have occurred are familiar to me and caught my attention when they hit the news. Such things happen all over the place all the time and they’re lost on me or at least quickly forgotten, just as what’s going on in Flint and what has happened in West Virginia may be lost on you either now or eventually. It’s human nature, I suppose. Our lives are busy and full and the world is a big place filled with all manner of injustice. We only have the capacity to see so much of it or, even if we do see it, we only have so much capacity to care.
But this stuff happens every day. It happens in marginal places which are, invariably, home to poor people. People who don’t fund political campaigns or sit on boards of directors or play golf with those who do down at the club. For most of us, these people are abstractions or stereotypes. Poor blacks who, to some, are a demographic category more than they are actual people. Or dumb rednecks who are easily written off unless or until some regulation-hating politician needs them to bring their guns and trucks and bibles to a campaign stop so he can show just how much he loves freedom and the common man. They’re used at best but usually ignored and are always, always the victims of these atrocities.
I’d wish that we can do better. But after all of this time, I doubt we can. And I doubt most people care. They don’t care about Flint. They don’t care about Parkersburg. They don’t care about Beckley or Charleston or the Elk River. And thus such things will happen again and again and again.
These days colleges make a big effort to match incoming freshman with compatible roommates. They use computer programs, algorithms, detailed questionnaires and personal interviews to do their best to ensure that kids sharing a dorm room hit it off in a healthy and mutually productive cohabitation.
In 1991 at Ohio State they allowed blind sociopaths to pull names out of hats.
Halloran House is a post-war institutional low rise thing tucked away on Ohio State’s North Campus. More luxurious new builds in the area have rendered it obsolete and it’ll likely be phased out soon, but it was fairly desirable 25 years ago. It housed four-person suites, each with a bedroom containing two bunk beds, a separate study area with four desks, some lounge chairs and a private bathroom. This was a pretty solid setup compared to the standard two-person bed/desk rooms with one bathroom per floor down on South Campus, as you could sleep in the dark and relative quiet while your roommates did other things.
My roommates seemed OK at first. Brad and Mike were fairly standard-issue Midwestern bros who reeked of Claiborne for Men and were hellbent on joining a fraternity. The third roommate, Kevin, was a quiet, somewhat artsy kid from small town Ohio who you figured caught a lot of hell back home for wearing black all the time and liking The Cure. Our first few days together were fine as we did the sorts of things kids new to college always do: lied incessantly about our experience with women, the things we knew and the books we’ve read.
A couple of weeks into Fall Quarter Brad and Mike started pledging Sigma Alpha Mu. This was not all that bad a thing for me, actually. For one thing it meant that they were gone a lot, giving Kevin and me a defacto two-person suite. Also, some of the hazing they endured worked to our benefit. One of the milder forms of hazing was “Wing Duty.” On Tuesday nights, BW3 – then a local restaurant, now the national chain Buffalo Wild Wings – offered 20 cent wings. For Wing Duty the frat brothers would go find pledges, give them a long, complicated wing order for everyone in the house and force the pledges to pick it all up and deliver it. One time, when Brad and Mike got rousted for Wing Duty, the frat guy looked at Kevin and me.
“You two: you want wings?”
“Um, sure” we said. The frat brother turned to Brad and Mike.
“Get them what they want too. And if you fuck it up, IT’S YOUR. ASS.”
But for as nice as that was, there were many other bad things, mostly due to the frightening amount of alcohol fraternity pledges drink.
One night Mike stumbled back to the room while Kevin and I were there. He was glassy-eyed and slurring, carrying a bottle of Cisco, which is a fortified wine which newspapers referred to as “liquid crack.” Mike went into the bathroom and we heard the shower turn on. Twenty minutes later it was still running and we hadn’t heard a sound from Mike. We went in to find him on the floor of the shower, soaking wet, fully-clothed, half-conscious and breathing shallowly. We called 911 and Mike was taken to the hospital. He came back the following evening, hospital bracelet still on, drinking a beer and bragging about how his future frat brothers were now calling him “The Cisco Kid.” Which, for as horrible as all of that had been, was pretty clever and, perhaps, the entire point of the previous evening.
Then there was the time Brad came back to the dorm at 3AM with no shirt on because he had wrapped his profusely-bleeding hand in it. I asked him what happened and he said he fell down and cut himself on some broken glass. Given the amount of blood soaking the t-shirt I didn’t buy it. When I pressed him he told me that on a dare from a frat brother he punched a bar mirror. Jack Daniels he thought, but wasn’t certain. When the shirt was completely soaked and the bleeding showed no sign of stopping I convinced him to go to the ER. He came back a few hours later with dozens of stitches, a thoroughly bandaged hand and prescription for Vicodin which really excited Mike. Over the next few days I’d come back to our room to find Brad and Mike laying around, listening to some of the more depressing music from Kevin’s CD collection and asking each other “you feelin’ anything yet?”
Brad and Mike’s crimes weren’t always victimless. One morning I sat down at my desk to do homework and my keyboard wouldn’t work. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. Eventually I picked it up and shook it, only to have water pour out of it. Then, looking closely, I noticed there were tiny chunks of … something between some of the keys. I kind of freaked out for a minute. Then, when I gained my composure, I wrote “WHAT THE FUCK?!” on a piece of paper, taped it to the keyboard, left it in the middle of the room and went to the computer lab. When I came back a few hours later, Brad and Mike were sitting there with worried faces. Brad spoke up before I could say anything.
“Ok, so … first, um … we’re not sure which of us puked on your keyboard. But one of us puked on your keyboard. We just sort of looked up and, like, puke. It was just … on there. Anyway, we’re TOTALLY sorry about that, for real. We thought it was OK after we cleaned it off.”
And maybe it would’ve been OK, actually, if they hadn’t cleaned it off by running it under the shower. Which they sincerely believed would work. To their credit they paid for a new one immediately. Which was a big deal, as keyboards weren’t cheap in 1991.
For as bad as all of this was, there were some lighter moments.
Brad took an Italian class Fall Quarter, taught by a graduate teaching assistant. Brad was the most white bread Midwestern kid you’ve ever met, but his last name was very Italian. And, though it was initially meant as some dumb hazing, the frat brothers started calling him “Giovanni.” He had started to like it. He told me that his T.A. liked it too and that she started calling him “Giovanni” in class. One day I got home and saw the light flashing on our shared answering machine.
“Giovanni,” a nearly breathless voice said, “it’s Susan. I just wanted to tell you that I had a wonderful time last night.” She then went on to speak for quite a while in Italian in a tone which made it clear that they didn’t spend the previous night studying. When Brad heard it he attempted to act like it wasn’t a big deal, and did so in a way that made it clear that he really wanted us to think it was a very big deal. There was some strutting around involved.
We rolled our eyes at him and acted unimpressed. I maintained that unimpressed stance until the day I came home from class to find Susan in our room, lounging in a chair, drinking wine, wearing nothing but underwear, making no effort to cover herself and asking if I could go someplace else for a while as she was “waiting for Giovanni.” I didn’t linger and look too long, but I lingered and looked long enough to realize that Susan was a really nice catch for an 18-year-old kid who barfed on computers and drunkenly punched mirrors.
Brad and Mike were moneymakers for me too. Pledging a fraternity takes a lot of time and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for schoolwork. By October I was getting $50-100 a pop writing term papers for them. It was easy, really, as they were taking mostly basic and in some cases remedial classes. The biggest challenge was making the papers sound appropriately basic and remedial. By November they were even recommending me to some girls from upstairs who were pledging their frat’s sister sorority. By my sophomore year I had gotten so used to writing other people’s papers for money that I took on work from an Ohio State football player who needed to get a B in English in order to maintain his eligibility. He maintained it and, eventually, had a brief NFL career for which I have chosen to take a small amount of personal credit.
Meanwhile, Kevin and I were getting along pretty well. We both came from small towns and, while I was never into the black clothes and The Cure thing like he was, a lot of my friends in high school were so he was a welcome reminder of home. Also, he was kind. I got the flu in mid November and Kevin more or less took care of me, helping me do my laundry, putting fresh sheets on my bed and making me tea. In light of that, To this day I’m still shocked it was Kevin, and not Brad and Mike, who was the reason I ended up transferring from that dorm room.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and I had just gotten back to campus from the long weekend. I heard yelling from the room all the way down the hall. I opened the door just in time to see Kevin swinging a hammer at Mike’s head. Mike saw it coming and ducked out of the way. The blow hit a wooden closet door, splintering it badly and with great violence. Mike and I rushed Kevin, tackled him to the floor and wrestled the hammer away.
When it became clear that Kevin’s violent outburst was just a momentary one we let him up. He looked at us and ran out of the room. Later, in a meeting between Mike, me, Kevin, the Resident Advisor and a campus police officer, it became apparent that Kevin was less dangerous than he was simply not well. Being away from home, the nonsense from Brad and Mike and the normal adjustment issues every college Freshman faces were more than he could handle and he had lashed out at the nearest target. Rather than get arrested, it was determined that it’d be better for him to simply go home. His dad picked him up that evening and he didn’t return for the final couple of weeks before winter break.
Those last two weeks were quiet. Brad and Mike were almost never there so I largely had the room alone to myself. I probably talked to Susan more than anyone, as she called for Brad constantly and he was ducking her by early December. At first I made excuses for him but I eventually stopped bothering. Susan seemed to realize, in the end, that Brad was probably not worth the trouble. To this day I wonder what grade he got in his Italian class. I can’t imagine that exam was graded objectively, either one way or the other.
I was lonely. I missed Kevin and worried about him. I missed my high school senior girlfriend back home. Mostly I felt out of place in this little room in Halloran House.
Brad and Mike were obnoxious, but they were not malign. They also made me laugh. I always had a sense, even at the time, that in some weird way I would be lucky to have had them as my roommates, if for no other reason than the stories I would one day tell about them. But the business with Kevin changed things. I’ve since wondered whether he was suffering from depression or mental illness, but at the time I didn’t think about that. At the time I just wondered: if he could be driven to violence in four months, would I be able to survive nine?
Just before finals were over I put in a request to transfer dorms, figuring that I had gotten enough of a taste of “Animal House”-style silliness and needed to live with some guys who were more my speed. Aside from a couple of brief nods and smiles as we passed each other on The Oval over the next year or so, I never saw Brad or Mike again. And I never saw Kevin again after the night of the hammer attack.
I moved to Morrill Tower in January and found some guys who were more my speed. I also tripled the size of my CD collection thanks to the intervention of Satan Himself, but that’s another story. Maybe I’ll share that soon.
Everyone used to bowl. Blue collar Michigan in the 1970s was the most bowlingest time and place in the history of the world. More kids were on bowling leagues than baseball leagues. Everyone’s parents and grandparents bowled. Everyone knew how to keep score (10 x 12 = 300).
Whether it was Southland or Galaxy or Town and Country, everyone had their lanes and where you bowled said something about you. The rich kids from Grand Blanc bowled at Galaxy with their fancy computerized scoring machines. Tough kids from Flint bowled at Town and Country and scored with pencils on paper. The Flint Township kids like us bowled at Southland – 76 lanes! – scoring with grease pencils on the transparent sheets projected overhead. But no matter where you bowled, everyone had their Saturday morning leagues – ”the Alley Cats” when you were young, the “Junior Strikers” when you were older – their towels, their rosin bags, their wrist braces and, eventually, their own ball.
I started bowling on leagues when I was five. As I got older fewer and fewer kept it up. Girls or football or some other things would distract them eventually. But I didn’t stop until I graduated high school, even though there were girls and and football and other things for me too. I just made time because I liked it and I was pretty good at it so I always wanted to do it. Once I moved to West Virginia it was even better because down there nowhere near as many people bowled and it was way easier to be a big fish in that small pond. Not gonna lie: my 170s-ish average and I were a pretty big deal around Emerson Lanes in Parkersburg and, later, Leisure Lanes and Acculanes in Beckley.
But beyond just liking it, there was a psychological and emotional element to bowling that I valued and, at times, even needed. I didn’t realize it then, but I see it now. When I started bowling I wasn’t that good. Certainly not as good as my brother and his friends were, all of whom were older and more naturally athletic than me. When I was five or six I’d bowl badly and I cry and whine and sometimes it would get so bad that my mom, who would be keeping score, would take me aside and tell me that if I was going to get so upset about it that I shouldn’t be bowling in the first place.
Even if I was upset I liked bowling so I eventually figured out that no matter how much the game frustrated me it wasn’t worth losing my shit over it because to do so would defeat the purpose. I figured out pretty quickly how to keep the setbacks in perspective or at least suppress my anger and sadness at them. I figured out that being derailed by unproductive emotion was nothing I wanted any part of because it’d keep me from doing what I wanted to do and accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.
And so I bowled. I bowled quite happily, in fact, until I graduated from high school and found better and more important things to do.
I’ve not been doing particularly well lately. I’ve had some personal and professional setbacks that have sent me into something of a depression. It’s not unprecedented. A lot has happened in my life over the past four years. I’ve been in and out of therapy and on and off medication and I have grappled with a lot of things I used to just bulldoze over when I was younger and cockier and richer and more confident. I don’t want to be the man I used to be – he was awful and oblivious about so many things so much of the time and I like myself a lot better now than I liked that man – but I do wish I could slough off the things like he used to be able to do. I wish things didn’t linger and prey on me and keep me up at night like they do now.
But they do and, because they do, I’ve learned that sometimes I need help to deal with things. So after a long time off I went to a therapist this morning to talk through it.
I don’t know what I think of this guy. I had seen him before so it’s not like we had to introduce ourselves to one another, but I really don’t know if he’s the right guy for me. Maybe the biggest problem is that he’s a sports fan and he had a vague idea of who I was when I first came into his office, having heard me doing segments on the local sports talk radio station he has constantly pumping through his office. Both times I’ve seen him I’ve spent 40 minutes spilling my guts and the last five telling him that the Reds are gonna be OK eventually and that at least some of these young arms they keep running out there might pan out. I assume it’s possible he knows I’m lying about that. The Reds are a mess. Either way, the baseball conversation sort of undermines everything we talk about before that because it forces me to be confident in ways I don’t necessarily feel. And makes him think that I’m feeling better than I do.
As today’s visit was premised on me being fairly close to losing my shit altogether, the baseball talk was at a minimum and he sent me off with a bunch of worksheets and listicles for arresting depression and desperation:
So I went bowling.
Since I quit bowling regularly at age 18 I’ve only been back on the lanes, six or seven times. I think the last time I bowled was six or seven years ago. Why I decided to go tonight I’m not sure but I had an impulse to do it just as I was getting ready to knock of work. I went out to the garage and found my bag and opened it up. Inside:
Jesus Christ, what did I used to be?
I got to the alley a bit after 8pm. The Wednesday night leagues were still going on a few lanes down but I had some nice space to myself. I also had the exact soundtrack I remembered from back when I bowled on the regular pumping over the loudspeakers: “Too Young to Fall in Love” by Motley Crue, “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top and all manner of late period Whitesnake and Heart. I looked to my left down the lanes and saw the same sorts of people I remember from Southland and Emerson and Leisure and Acculanes going about their business. The only difference between then and now is that tonight they had to step outside to smoke and tonight I was old enough to have a beer or two while I rolled.
I did OK. My wrist hurt more than it did when I was 17, but the results were more or less the same. A 171 to kick things off. A 165 in Game 2. A not-so-great 153 in Game 3 as a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbons and 25 years on the odometer took their toll.
That aside, it was all the same. I still get more strikes from the Brooklyn side than I should. I still struggle with picking up the six and ten pins on spares, having all manner of trouble shooting to my right. I still find myself overthrowing in the middle frames. I still get that weird little blood blister on the tip of my right thumb like I used to every Saturday as a result of popping and snapping the Yellow Dot out of my grip and onto the lanes over and over again.
As I type this I’m looking at that blood blister and it’s reminding me of the thousands of frames I laid down back when Ronald Reagan ruled the world, everything in my life seemed much more simple and straightforward and bowling was just a thing I did instead of some therapy cum nostalgia trip I impulsively took this evening.
Did it work? I dunno. I’ve learned to stop making pronouncements about my mental health because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring and your life and your psyche can go sideways at any moment. I do know, however, that I feel better this evening than I did when I woke up this morning and that’s better than nothing.
I also know that I got two PBR tallboys, a cheeseburger and three games worth of something approaching catharsis for less than $25 bucks, and that’s not too fuckin’ bad.
Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, is going to announce his presidential candidacy tomorrow. So I would like to take this opportunity to tell the story of how some friends of mine and I sort of freaked him out one time.
For real: I suspect we were on a watch list of some sort for most of the 1990s.
In early 1993, my friend Ethan and I signed up to take part in the Mershon Conference on Global Affairs, which was put on by what is now called the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. The upshot: teams of four undergraduate honors students would work together to present a position paper on a given matter then relevant to the international community. It was to be judged by leading international relations and security experts of the day. Among them: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, Joe Kruzel, and then-Congressmen John Kasich.
The topic, inspired by unrest in various former Eastern Bloc counties, was “Should we support or oppose nationalism in Eastern Europe?” Ethan and I were teamed up with two guys named Prabal and Marty and had a few weeks to come up with our presentation.
While we were honors students, we were also three college sophomores and a freshman, so obviously we knew what the topic of the conference should be far better than the assembled scholars and diplomats who created the thing at the Mershon Center did. In our minds the real question wasn’t nationalism in Eastern Europe – how boringly vague! – but rather the Bosnian War, which was less than a year old at the time. Specifically, we decided that we would come up with a proposal on how to stop it. Or win it. Or whatever one does in a war in which one is not involved. We weren’t sure what that was, but dammit, we were college sophomores from the United States of America, and we’d solve it and let the world sort out the semantics.
We set to work in the way that highly-motivated, high-achieving social science sophomores did in January 1993: we read some secondary sources on microfilm, found some editorials from The Economist and kind of mashed them all together. That was rather boring, though, because all of those sources explained how fraught with difficulty the Bosnia thing was, how there were no good solutions to be had, how the international community was paralyzed and how there seemed to be no end in sight to the mounting violence and unrest.
So, to spice things up we took advantage of some declassified DOD maps in the map room at the Ohio State Library. Some of them, likely from the Detente-era of the Cold War, featured oil, natural gas and hydroelectric assets in Yugoslavia. We really liked that one because it gave us targets. And targets were important at this point because by then we had decided that the bulk of our presentation would be how we, the United States of America (and whichever weak sisters of NATO had the balls to join us) would bomb most of the former Yugoslavia into submission unless hostilities ceased.
Now, to be sure, we were young men of peace. No one wanted war and we did not take our (fake) responsibility lightly. But having big fat targets in front of four kids weaned on sanitized comic-book cum video game productions like “Top Gun,” “Iron Eagle” and “The First Gulf War” it was inevitable that, at some point, we’d get carried away.
Marty: “Give me another target we can put in the bullet points.”
Prabal: “Hmm, we seem to be out of energy assets. Maybe a port city?”
Ethan: [scanning map]: “Ummm … how about Trieste.”
Me: “Sounds good. Write down Trieste.”
Marty [looking up at the map] “Guys, Trieste is in Italy.”
It didn’t matter, though. We we sure that what we lacked in precision we would make up in enthusiasm. Besides, Prabal had sweet-talked the librarian into letting us take the map with us for our presentation. This thing was gonna be KILLER.
On the day of the conference, Congressman Kasich gave the opening remarks to the assembled honors students, Mershon scholars and diplomats. The topic: his concern that the newly-inaugurated Bill Clinton and his Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, had no plan for the post Cold War world. That it did not know how to be the planet’s lone superpower and that, unless some set of overarching principles were defined, the administration would likely lurch from crisis to crisis. This excited the four of us, for our presentation would show that we had overarching principles in spades. Or at least power. Fear would keep the local systems in line. Fear of this democratically-elected arsenal.
The presentations soon began. We scoffed as the other teams, boringly and predictably, outlined how fraught with difficulty Eastern Europe was, how there were no good solutions to be had, how the international community was paralyzed and how there seemed to be no end in sight to the mounting violence and unrest. Most ended with a listing of the pros and cons of supporting nationalism as a means of promoting stability. We grew increasingly smug as each balanced, measured but ultimately waffling presentation was given. Then it was our turn.
“We declare the war in the former Yugoslavia over,” Prabal, our first speaker stated in simple terms. “And the failure of hostilities will result in serious consequences for all who choose war instead of peace.”
Our judges, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, Joe Kruzel, and Congressman John Kasich, were somewhat surprised by our presentation. And by surprised I mean that Kruzel was literally slack-jawed and Kasich had a pursed-lipped smile and a slightly-raised eyebrow in what I have come to learn over the past couple of decades is the universal “these motherfuckers CANNOT be serious” expression.
Their expressions didn’t change all that much as we listed off, one-by-one, the way in which we would end the war in Bosnia: a no-fly zone. Armed troops landed and deployed to protect urban centers. Strategic air strikes to cripple the war-making capacity of the aggressors (which we considered to mostly be Serbia, but which we left undefined because the microfilm and the Economist editorials were somewhat confusing on all of that). All of this was accompanied by meaningful, pointed gestures to the DOD map we taped to the front of the conference table. I can’t remember how we finished, but I’m certain that it fell somewhere between a wish for healing of this war-torn region and the declaration of a Pax Americana.
Kruzel and Kasich were silent for a moment. And then Kruzel haltingly thanked us. We were convinced that we would win.
Indeed, we almost started to think that winning was beside the point because we had clearly impressed Congressman Kasich. During the reception before the awards ceremony we got a couple of moments with him and asked him what he thought. His words were measured and diplomatic, but we knew he was just being polite in case other honors students overheard him. We knew what he was really saying “Boys, we need bright young men like you in Washington!”
Our euphoria was so great that we weren’t even that disappointed when another team was announced as the winner of the conference. True geniuses aren’t appreciated in their own time and certainly not by their peers. Let these other teams be popular tastes like the Eagles or Boston. We would be the Clash.
Back in the sophomore dorms, we polished and repackaged our presentation into a position paper and sprung for the laser printing and clear-covered binder at Kinkos to make sure it looked professional. With a cover letter on top we sent it to Congressman Kasich’s office. At the end of the letter we listed our names and phone numbers and expressed our willingness to “work with the Congressman” on this or other policy matters of the day. We thought maybe we’d get staffer jobs out of it. But in our heart of hearts we assumed Kasich would want us to serve as a secret policy strike team whom he’d call if and when he needed some real outside-the-box thinking. I only think part of that made it into the cover letter, but what did likely leaned heavy on the strike team angle.
A few weeks later, my dorm room phone rang. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as an aide to Congressman Kasich. He acknowledged the receipt of our package. I waited for him to launch into ecstatic praise or, perhaps, a job offer, but he didn’t. There was an awkward silence.
Aide: “Um, why exactly did you send the Congressman this?”
Me: “Well, it’s our proposal.”
Aide: “I see that. And … you want … “
Me: “We’d like the Congressmen to feel free to use it. In policies or, um, legislation. Or in meetings.”
Me: [realizing I’m not getting through]: “And we have lots of ideas on other things too. The Middle East! NAFTA! South Africa!”
After some more awkward silences the aide thanked me and said they may be in touch. It’s been over 22 years. I’m starting to doubt they’re going to call us back.
Not long after that telephone conversation, stepped-up enforcement of a mostly toothless no-fly zone was imposed over the former Yugoslavia by NATO’s Operation Deny Flight. A little over two years later NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force, which was a sustained air campaign to undermine the military capability of the Bosnian Serb army and to provide close air support of the Bosnian national army and Croatian forces. While it took some time, and while there were still tremendous casualties and atrocities to come – as well as the death of Joe Kruzel, the man who stared at four mini-neocons in slack-jawed horror as we outlined our audacious plan – the NATO campaign has generally been credited with pressuring what remained of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to take part in the negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Peace Agreement, ending the war.
In hindsight, the military and foreign policy call cooked up by four profoundly ambitious, arrogant and naive war hawks turned out to be the right call. It has proven to be the only time such a call has been anyplace close to right by anyone fitting that description in this country in the past 25 years. Even if men fitting that description keep on trying to make it.
While we lost track of Marty, Ethan, Prabal and I have remained close friends to this day. To this day, when any two of us get together, we talk about this little episode in our lives. It’s almost always kicked off by someone uttering our catch phrase from those days: “SURRENDER, OR WE’LL BOMB TRIESTE!” It never fails to make us laugh, mostly because as each year goes by, those profoundly naive college sophomores seem less and less like the men we eventually became.
Ethan and Prabal are easily the smartest, most accomplished people I know. Ethan has spent the past 20 years in Silicon Valley, building businesses, creating cool products and making the future sound more amazing than scary. Prabal is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, inventing untold number of little miracles and showing up on lists in major magazines with names like “The Brilliant Ten of 2014.”
More so than that, they’re both thoughtful men with families, liberal sensibilities and, as far as I can tell, a complete and total abhorrence of war. And for what it’s worth, if you’ve read my stuff here for a while you know where I stand when it comes to politics, violence and the idea that anyone can really know anything for certain, let alone know things so certainly that they have standing to send others into harm’s way. It’s not exactly the stuff that a would-be 2016 Republican nominee would be all that interested in.
Still, if you’re reading this Governor Kasich: reach out. None of us belong to your political party and I, as the lone remaining Ohioan of the bunch, haven’t voted for you once. But we still have lots of great ideas. And we have access to much cooler maps these days.