Monday, June 30, 2008

Happily Ever After...

And they lived happily ever after? Are they going to the chapel and going to get married - oops they’re already married. But isn’t unity wonderful? If everything’s so great, where is Bill, the loving spouse? Never mind. Thank God they kissed and made up, now maybe old white women will vote for young black Barack. No more will there be a great rush to support McCain. The Democratic Party will survive and grow strong. Mark Penn and Mandy Grunwald will make their millions. Their children will be able to go to fancy Washington private schools. We will whip those Republicans in the Fall. I seem to be whipping myself into a frenzy, so I’ll take a minute to calm down.

I don’t mean to be mean or cynical. Well, maybe I do. But it’s great that all the Democrats have united around Obama. Do you know if you change just one letter on the word united, it becomes untied. Don’t look for anything sinister in that I just made a typing error and noticed it. Anyway, it’s terrific that for a price (retiring her debt), Hillary is willing to campaign actively for Obama-or at least appear to support his candidacy. I think she indicated in her speech that if her debt were retired she would have more time to campaign for Obama. I guess what bother’s me is not the actual retiring her debt, but the fact that she used terrible judgment in her spending and incurred the debt with a group of apparently talent free consultants, who despite their lack of competence are now rolling in dough. It’s like the “Song That never Ends. It will go on and on my friends.”

Dead is dead as my mother says, so let’s move on to something that bothers me even more - the elimination of political positions in the government. There was an article in the Washington Post last week that addressed the issue of Presidential transition and filling critical political appointments at the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. There are a number of allotted political jobs in the Government. Political appointments are those the President gets to fill. The President doesn’t really do it but the transition team, or White House personnel does. Those jobs are usually given to donors, people who worked on the campaign, people with whom the candidate has a relationship, loyal Party people and maybe even some folks with a expertise in an issue area. In the Bush Administration many jobs were given to people from Texas who unfortunately didn’t have a brain anywhere to be found. Or friends of people from Texas who has similar mental capacity-you remember Katrina and Brownie - “Brownie, You’re doing a heckuva job!”.

The article talked about how there should be Civil Servants trained to fill those jobs until the President’s political appointments are finalized and confirmed by the Senate if required. Sounds sensible doesn’t it? But aye here’s the rub (the pirate inference is intentional) or here’s the reality. Political people can burrow-yes like rabbits. They can secretly convert to civil service status. It takes a little time but it can happen. So, suppose you are a political appointment at Homeland Security and you don’t want to leave your cushy job at the end of the President’s term. You will have had to think of this before (my guess is many have already done so), but you can convert from political to career employee. OK, so now you have a person who has converted, (it’s like being born a Catholic and deciding you want to be a Jew, but you don’t want to give up Christmas), from political to career in a job that was political but you need to fill it with a career appointee until there is a new President. In other words you will have a Bush Republican in a job that should be held by a McCain Republican or an Obama Democrat. The political appointment slot disappears and in it’s place is a career appointee who in their hearts remain loyal to George Bush. Isn’t the American government great!

The problem is, as you can imagine, that the civil service hates political appointments. And why shouldn’t they? Many politico’s, having spent years in the campaign trenches, fighting to get their candidate elected, come into Government thinking they know everything and the Civil Service personnel knows nothing. They treat the civil servants like second class citizens. In return, the civil servants make it as difficult as they can to implement change. The career appointees love change in Administrations because it takes years for a new Presidential team to figure out how to do anything. By the time they figure it out there’s another election and new people - unless political people burrow into slots that were political and become career. I know none of this is easy. It took me years of government jobs at the highest levels to figure it out. So here’s the bottom line. The President gets to run the government with his or her (at some point) own people. Unless their own people have no place to be. Which might very well happen if George Bush’s people get to fill jobs prior to the next Presidential transition. Oh My! We’re just sayin…. Iris

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Toilet Half -- Whatever

Have you ever heard the expression, “glass half full, toilet half empty”. No? I can’t imagine why. In the Burnett household it’s right there on our list of favorites. At least lately. Here’s the genesis of the infamous expression. A number of the water pipes in our 60 year old home have rotted big time. We first noticed it when the ceiling in the bathroom on the first floor was showing signs of water damage. “My, oh my!” we exclaimed with a bit of annoyance.

We called the ‘crack’ plumbing expert who was also a part of the contracting team when we redid our kitchen. Actually he’s a handyman with plumbing expertise. I don’t know if he has a license but he’s available and trustworthy. We asked him to take a look, which he did. When he started shaking his head we knew there were major problems. We hoped for the best but expected the worst. The worst was that the leaking pipes would require construction that would take the floor out of the bathroom on the second floor. This floor is original tile. You’ve seen it a million times. It’s black and white and absolutely cannot be replaced. He was going to try to do the work from the bottom instead of taking my antique floor.

In the meantime, we were sitting in the kitchen when we noticed there were drops of water falling from the ceiling in the dining room. “My, oh my!”, we said again. It turned out that the pipes in my clothing closet that were adjacent to the shower in our bathroom were not tightened properly, so when you showered you basically showered into the dining room. That could be fixed. But wait, the toilet in our bathroom, unbeknown to me, was also having problems; in addition, the top of the toilet seat was broken.

I left town. Dealing with toilets is not my thing and the handyman assured me everything would be done before my return—which was of course scheduled for when all the work was done. He did not tell me the truth.

Upon my return, the pipes were finished (without ruining the floor) but he had decided to repair 3 of the four toilets – without much success I might add, paint the bathroom and refinish the dining room ceiling. Did I mention that I was returning because I was having ten people for dinner as well as a guest from France and another from Southern Virginia? It was not a good time for the house to be in chaos without the bathrooms.

OK, I admit that I lost it. The handyman is a darling sweet person who feels it necessary to explain all the work he is doing. I honestly don’t care about the work as long as when I flush the toilet I am successful. But he wanted me to understand everything he had done and, by the way, he had broken the toilet upstairs – which was also not broken. This wouldn’t have been an issue except that that toilet cost me a fortune because my last plumber found it in an old house (the toilet was new), and it wasn’t one of those little bitty toilets which doubled as a water saving device. OK, I am nuts about toilet issues, but I come by it honestly and genetically.

Moving on. When I lost it, I had been assured everything was working, (I can’t be sure what I said but it was loud), but the handyman and his crew fled. Who would blame them for fleeing from a toilet lunatic shouting about who knows what – I won’t go into detail.
But back to the genesis. I have been making honest and ongoing attempts to see things as glass half full. And I have been very successful. Well, pretty successful. So I decided to look at this in a positive way and just think, glass half full – despite toilet half empty. Yes, I inserted the additional verbage for literary purposes.

In keeping with the glass theme. Hope you noticed there is a glass theme. Yesterday I lost the credit card I don’t use for business—everything I buy for fun. I searched my purse, my room, my car and every store to which I went during the day. Alas and to no avail, (do you like the medieval voice?), I could not find it anywhere. I knew I had to take serious measures. I turned a glass over on the kitchen table. Are you confused? Just think about what I must be. When I was growing up and my mother lost anything (from diamond ring to car keys), she would turn a glass over on the table and within a few hours—like magic—she would find the lost item.

You may doubt this but I tell you, it works. I looked for the credit card for two days. I mean, I tore everything in my possession apart. An hour after the glass was turned, I found the card. Yep, there it was in a place I had searched at least five times.

What does all this glass stuff mean? If someone loses an election can they turn the glass over and find a win—if only that could happen. Or can we look at politics with glass half full eyes—I guess it depends on the outcome of the election. Or can should we just fill a glass, say a prayer, and hope for the best in life, politics, and when we have leaky toilets.
I have no answers but I can share this, never underestimate the power of a glass full empty or filled with great wine. We’re just saying...Iris

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Le Royal

It was for decades known as Le Royal. Seat of the unelected bar-hopping government, the prime members of the fourth Estate (or at the least, those with flair and style), and home of the best wines in town. Then, after the deposing of the King, the royal nomenclature was withdrawn for two generations. It became simply Le Phnom. Not a name that rolls of the tongue, but one which carried a lot of significance. In the heart of the Cambodian Capital, this old colonial relic of a hotel, with a broad elegant swimming pool, and arched window views of the gardens, maintained its dignity even when the Khmer Rouge stole the soul of the Cambodian people. It is difficult to do the math, and realize that it has been 37 years since General Lon Nol swept Prince Sihanouk out of town and out of office, and with American support, tried miserably to win back his country from the rebels. In today’s parlance the Khmer Rouge might just be called ‘insurgents’ or ‘rebels’ but they really were the ‘bad guys’ who were always spoken about in the third person. As in: “watch that road to Takeo.. beaucoup bad guys…” Matt Franjola, who spent years there, told me once that you really had to watch out for the guys with AK-47s whose toes were splayed, maybe a ½” between each toe: a sign they had never known a pair of shoes. Hard core. And only when the Khmer Rouge finally took the country by force, days before Saigon fell to the Vietcong in 1975, did the world see just how bad they really were. Whatever your politics, whatever your view of the “lumpenproletariat” vs the “bourgeousie”, there just cannot be any excuse for killing three million of your own people. It cannot matter that you might have formed your ideas in Zurich at the same lakeside café that Lenin had envisioned the Soviet State two generations before. There was just no excuse.

So returning for 24 hours to Phnom Penh (like many of the amazing and interesting places I have visited in the 80 countries I have worked.. I just haven’t returned… Yet) this weekend was a mix of anticipation and wonder.

Wonder, to see what has transpired in the 36 years since my last visit. Anticipation and hope that things might have improved for the long suffering Cambodian people. I flew in from Bangkok last night, and arrived at Le Royal (now the Royal Raffles, having been rejuvenated by the Raffles chain in Singapore, and to a tea, I might add) just as dark was arriving.

So all the things you see in daylight were obscured in the sweeping shadows of trees, bushes, and overhanging roof. Yet, the pool was stil in the same place; it was the structures which had moved. Or more precisely, been added to. In 1971 the lawn around the pool was vast and inviting, studded with umbrella protected lawn chairs, and signs of ‘citron-pressés’ in various stages of sip. Journalists in particular loved the place, because it was not only close to the PTT Telegraph office, to send dispatches, but it was really close to the bar and the pool. If you didn’t have a beer or gin-tonic next to your Olivetti typewriter, you clearly weren’t meant to be covering the Cambodian conflict. Robin Mannock, a stocky yet highly mobile Brit, who was for years the AP correspondent, had a small suite of rooms which gave directly onto the grassy side of the pool. There was really no differentiation between “bureau” and “bar,” and he loved that everyone loved it that way.

Compared to the war across the border in Vietnam, the fighting in Cambodia was much more difficult and dangerous to cover. In Vietnam, it was easy to join up with a unit, feel a certain protection from being with them (yes, I suppose it was an “embed”, but thankfully that awful term hadn’t been invented yet). In Cambodia, the government forces were woefully underskilled compared to the Khmer Rouge, and often the not so capable troops could be seen trucking to the next battle station, with their families in tow, to cook and provide the comforts of home. It may have had a certain 18th century quaintness, but it was quite the recipe for disaster. This left the journos more or less on their on, then, to try and cover a bloody rural conflict with very few set lines of demarcation. It was dangerous in the extreme, carloads of writers and photogs, heading out to the front in old Chevy’s or sometimes on motorbike, in search of bang bang. Too often, as was the case in April of 1970, they got way more than they bargained for. Some thirty writers, correspondents and photographers disappeared on those roads in just a couple of months, among them Gilles Caron, the wonderful young Frenchman who had been one of the co-founders of Gamma. I came to work for Gamma in 1973, and Gilles’ legend as a “be everywhere, and be there well” kind of guy had long since been established. Sadly, his body of work became frozen in time when he disappeared on a drive out of Phnom Penh in search of the story. (Gilles’ work is still distributed by Contact, and the longer time puts between those pictures and today, the stronger they seem.)

In my two brief trips to Cambodia, I came to dread those country rides. I don’t know why we somehow felt immune, that it wouldn’t be ‘our turn’ to be taken by the Khmer Rouge, but still we piled into those old cars and headed into the countryside. A mostly rural country to begin with, Cambodia was dotted with hundreds of small villages. Riding through them you would often see young children waving, screaming at the passing presence of a big car. It could be very animated. Yet, and almost without warning, you could find yourself passing a lush field of green which had fallen suddenly into total silence. Those were the moments abject fear and terror. As if even the birds and small animals knew something sinister was nearby. It was as unpredictable as it was jolting. I had the good fortune never to see a bunch of armed men leap onto the road and stop the car. Yet, you could almost feel the presence of evil nearby, even if it remained unseen. The great irony, perhaps, of Cambodia was that the people were inclined to be incredibly gentle and hospitable. They could be terrors once angered, but it took some doing to get there. They made, generally speaking, for very bad combatants. And so when the country descended into chaos and genocide in 1975, it seemed so absolutely unjust.

I realize that more and more I find myself playing the role of the “old fart”.. the guy who actually was IN a place when news was being made, a dozen, twenty, thirty or more years ago. I don’t feel like an old fart, for to me those moments where journalism and life intersected mostly seem like they could have happened last week. In Bangkok this week, one is reminded constantly of the revered presence of the Thai King Bhumibol. He was crowned in 1946, the year I was born. Yet, almost as if it were yesterday I remember my very first time carrying a camera to the White House, under the tutelage of TIME’s Wally Bennett. He had taken me under his wing for the summer of 1967 when I, as a summer intern, was sent to DC to learn the ways of Washington. Wally stood on no ceremony: he took me to the Hill, got me accredited at the Senate Gallery, showed me around, and in July of that summer, took me as his “second man” to cover Lyndon Johnson hosting the Thai King in a south lawn State Arrival. I remember how helpless I felt (and still do) watching Johnson escort the King from the podium past the military band to “troup the line.” I watched, and shot frame after frame of badly composed, out of focus images. Happily it wasn’t the Report Card by which my stay in DC 41 summers ago was judged, and even though my pictures were iffy, my memory of that day is quite clear. So, in an almost volunteer way, you become the old fart. You are the one link amongst the youthful colleagues, with the past. You actually SAW Lyndon Johnson. You actually went to the refugee camps for the Killing Fields in Thailand. You were present on that road near Trang Bang where Kim Phuc and her brothers were burned by the napalm strike. Of course we have footage and pictures of these things and maybe they give a more dispassionate view of those snippets of history. But it’s difficult for me to keep my mouth shut when such strong memories of my own come surging back. In January of 1971, during one of those quick trips to Phnom Penh, I was having a citron pressé at the Royal Pool. Silvana Foa, a newly dispatched UPI correspondent, who stayed on for years in Cambodia, was recounting a battle we’d heard about that morning, where the Cambodian army had fared rather badly. I remember her utterance, “The poor bastards… they didn’t really have a chance,” as if it happened this morning. There was a glum quality of acceptance to what was happening in her tone. It was almost like we knew something terrible would be the consequence, yet we were powerless to do anything about it.

Walking into Le Royal Raffles this week took me back to that place in ’71 where we were trying to make sense of a country in the middle of a crummy war. And for those caught in the middle it wasn’t a crummy little war, it was their lives. Yet the sparkle of the hotel, and the vivacious spirit of street life in Phnom Penh today made me feel that perhaps the circle does close sometimes.

A pair of young women on motorbike
Cambodia remains a poor country, plagued by many of the economic problems which slowly developing countries face, especially in the era of $135 oil. But the spark in the eyes of the Cambodians I met, and the kids in particular, gives me hope to think that maybe even the years of the Killing Fields can be put away.

Security at Phnom Penh airport
The Royal itself is like a little souvenir.

The manicured pool and lawns (Robin Mannock’s room is still there, but no teletypes rattle there anymore), the haunting green lamp of a writing desk, the Writer’s Bar,

dedicated to those who wrote about Indochina over the years, they are all part of a heritage of what was. What it will be, we only hope for.

The hallway of # 291
And for me, there is simply sadness that Gilles and the others who disappeared that spring can’t be here to see the joyful smile in the face of one Cambodian child. We’re just sayin’… David

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How Do We Measure Life

And For Something a Little Different
June 24th, 2008

How do you measure a life? The musical “Rent” asks, How do you measure, measure a year? “In daylight, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, In inches, in miles in laughter in strife.” But that’s only a year. T.S. Elliot says in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Proofrock that “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. This is one of my favorite beautifully depressing poems about aging, how one spends their life, and the consequences of a lifetime of disappointment. I’m not sure either of these examples work in real life.

We are selling the house my mother lived in for 55 years. It was where, as children and teens, we gathered to smoke cigarettes, get together for parties, and just to hang out. It was about three blocks from school so it was where we had lunch and recovered from romantic trauma. It was a very important part of shaping the person I was because it was also the place my Dad could always be found. Mom is living in Seattle and not strong enough to come back to the east so keeping and maintaining this memory filled historic site, doesn’t make much sense.

Yesterday I spent the day meeting with people who wanted to buy or sell the contents of the house. I am not sure what I expected. There are so many valuable, or at least treasured items. There are the family pictures and momento’s. I knew the dealers wouldn’t want those, so when they said it was not of interest to them, I was not suurpirsed. But there are at least 5 bedroom sets, 7 sets of dishes-and I mean complete sets. Some are white with gold trim, some are white with silver trim. Those cannot be used in the microwave because the trim is really metal. Then there are special service for corn, and of course, the English china with the turkey pattern for Thanksgiving-does that make any sense? There are the everyday dishes from the apartment in Florida, the house in Boonton, and Aunt Sophie’s apartment before she married Mac. There are the kosher dishes for when Aunt Peppy visited and the old glass Passover plates. There are dozens of sets of pots and pans and don’t even ask about the glassware. On the list you should include 6 mattresses, lot’s of clothes, at least 50 tablecloths, hundreds of towels and sheets. Just FYI, I have already given away at least 15 large black garbage bags full of clothing and shoes. Oye! and the chatcka’s-don’t get me started.

The question is, should we sell everything to an antique dealer who will clean out the house for $500, or leave the house a mess and let him take what he wants for $1000. Or should we have a house sale and pay a woman $800 to tag, mark and sell what she can and what she can’t sell we donate to I don’t know who - but I assume someone who needs it. It is difficult to make the decision, not because we are going to make a ton of money, but because we are not. Basically, the money will be the same, about $700 to $1000, depending on the economy and how receptive people are to yard sales/auctions.

After the meetings I started to think about all the things I have accumulated over the years. The first thing I thought was, I would never leave my kids with this kind of clean-up, but my second thought was, after so much life how could all her worldly possession have a price tag of about $600. And I don’t think it’s any different for any of us. We spend our lives collecting extraneous objects and when we are in the twighlight of our years, the value of all those things diminishes considerably. My mom doesn’t really care about things anymore, (although she was a real fashion plate and her clothes remain remarkable even by today’s standards.) She’s very comfortable in her studio apartment with warm duds, the attention of my brother, sister-in-law, and niece, a few wonderful aides and three meals a day which she enjoys. Based on her situation, I guess we do not measure a lifetime by the things we collect.

Artists like David can measure how they spent their lives by the work they produced. Public servants can measure if they affected change or had an impact that made other people’s lives better. Some people measure their lives by the children to whom they gave birth and their accomplishments. Coffee spoons are out but I think I would like to measure my life like “Rent” in daylights, sunsets, rainstorms, and additionally, bike rides, books on tapes listened to, books, essays, or blobs/blogs written, mentoring young people, my kids, laughter brought to others and friendships made and retained. It’s just something to think about the next time you say, “I have to own that”. We're Just Sayin...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Water Buffalo Town? Maybe

So, while I sit in my wonderful room at the Oriental, in Bangkok, the hotel I wanted to stay in for years decades ago, but could never afford, I look around at how lovely it is, and think.. hmmm was it like this in the days before it became part of a big international chain? Fine silk everywhere. Rattan plates. Pretty dark wooden desk with fax machine hiding underneath. It’s a bit over the top, really…. I mean I love the greetings, hands together, gentle bow…. but if you don’t do it yourself, you feel a bit Awkward. You could never keep up. I mean, it’s like if a bunch of American diamond merchants were dealing with Japanese dealers, you would have all this bowing on one side, and the other guys would be trying to figure out when to bow, and to shake your head, when to just sit there and pretend you don’t want the diamonds so badly that you’ll overpay. At least that’s commerce. Here, it’s just getting into the hotel room.

But the place is quite sumptuous, and welcoming, even in the 90+ degree muggy heat. Bangkok remains one of those towns in which (unlike Washington) they can have a march on the State House (which they did Friday), get past the police barricades (which they did Friday), demand the Prime Minister sack his government (which they tried Friday but he didn’t sack anyone yet, except yell at the cops for letting them get so close), and still go out Friday night and have a beer and feel OK about things (which about 10 million Thais did Friday). Well, on Sunday, as if to remind everyone that it IS Sunday, they do a gigantic market, rather like our favorite place in the East Coast, Cowtown, New Jersey.
And like Cowtown, it has damn near anything you could want, if what you want is a bunch of cheap knock-offs, great food (street type food), and the occasional smell of fried garlic, doing its magic next to the place where they sell Hello Kitty stuff.

Cowtown, of course has our favorite mid Atlantic stand… the famous steak/cheese sandwich place at which Andy rules.. (I forgot the name of the place but Andy does run it). Here, it’s a Thai flair to it but much the same. The Thais are snackers. Juices. Mushed up fruit over ice. Fresh fruit.

Ice Cream (coconut!) Grilled fish and meats and lots of shoots. They never stop fressing. Some of the stuff is what you would have to call “Unapproved OSHA” .. like the puppies, and birds in cages. But there are some great little numbers you don’t have even in Cowtown: the mask booth.. they have em all:
Saddam, Bush, Osama… the list goes on. You could pretty much have a meeting of the Security Council with those masks. Not that you could pass a resolution. No way, but you might just get Osama and Bush to share a bowl of Ice Cream. That might be just the trick to getting everyone to chill a little bit.

One thing they have added since my last trip to BKK is a pay-to-use Super Express way. It loops, almost beltway like, around the city, and if you re willing to pony up 40 baht, (a buck and a half) you can miss about 90% of the traffic.
It almost seems like the Congestion Pricing they were trying to adopt in New York City (pay $8 a car to go below 66 th street) which I felt was rather elitist (hey, what in New York ISN’T elitist?) but here, when you wanna get somewhere, it sure can make a difference. Until another 10000 People decide they too wanna spend the money. Then you’re back where you started.
Speaking of which. I have to go grab a cab to the airport, which will lead me to Cambodia for a day or so. More as we keep moving along on this mini caravan. Meanwhile, who ordered the Pad Thai with Iced Coffee?
Don’t be shy… We’re just sayin’… David

Friday, June 20, 2008

Please Hit Reply

Please forgive the absence of the Burnett blobbers, we are both traveling in different time zones and are too old to keep track of the days. We'll try harder to be more regularly amusing. On with the show!

“But what about my perpetual tumor?” My mother was very concerned about something we did not quite understand. We were on our way to the eye doctor. “What are you talking about?” Both my brother Jeff, and I had no idea where she was going with this question. “The tumor in my brain. You know the tumor.” She used almost an accusatory tone. I wanted to say, “We haven’t been formally introduced to any tumor.” But I didn’t because she was clearly upset. “Do you mean the pituitary tumor?” Jeff asked.? “Yes, that’s the one.”

Mom has had a small pituitary tumor for 50 years. It is not something that needed attention for a long time and now it appears to have grown a little. There is nothing that we can do about given her age (88), and it is so slow growing that it will never impact on her health, however she only hears every one out of every ten words and the words she chose to hear were brain and tumor.

“It’s nothing to worry about.” Jeff tried to reassure her. “Sure”, she said absolutely not believing him. When we arrived at the doctor’s office we decided that we should tell the doctor that mom was a bit of an hysteric and no matter what he saw when he examined her eyes, he should absolutely not say anything about a tumor. He seemed to agree. So, imagine our surprise when he walked into the examination room and announced that despite the TUMOR, she seemed to be in fine condition. We looked at one another in shock. Surely he couldn’t be that stupid! Her reaction was predictable. She looked like one of those Looney Tunes cartoons where their eyes widen and roll around in the sockets, while their ears grow and there are exclamation marks in the air above their heads. It took us a long time to calm and convince her she was OK. We were not sure why he did this but it probably had something to do with those ridiculous privacy laws. What happened to the days when people did not have to have all the information.

Speaking of all the information, my niece is on her way from Bainbridge Island, in Washington State to Israel (The one in the Middle East). She and Jordan were supposed to have a conversation a few months ago so we could arrange for her to spend a few days with us in New York before she returns home. “Supposed to” is the key here. It is not going to happen because the girls never connected. Here’s what I don’t get. There are telephones, e-mail, computers, and face book. There a billion ways to communicate and yet they never talked.

They both said, “I tried calling her about fifteen times and she didn’t answer. I sent her a text, she didn’t reply. I left a message on face book but never got a response.”

This makes no sense to me because I seem to be able to reach both of them by picking up a land line and pressing a 10 buttons. Of course, as a consequence of caller id, they have to want to be reached. But let’s assume they do. They love one another and they love spending time together so what’s the reason for the lack of a connect? I watch Jordan talking to 12 people at a time when she’s on line. I truly don’t know how she keeps track, She obviously prefers to text or IM so if I text her I usually get a message back. (Usually is the operative phrase here.) And she is not alone. We have moved away from face to face communication, first to verbal communication (phones) and now visual communication (texting/web sites). All of the above does not bode well for the future of getting people to vote. It seems that convenience far outweighs personal contact. If they (this is the greater ‘they’) are online they might answer an e-mail. If they have their phones and are not distracted by something else, they might call you back. If they can vote absentee or it’s not raining, they might actually go to the polls. I hope I am not being to harsh but we saw this in 2004. Kids were motivated and registered in droves. But they just never made it back to vote in the general election. And the results - George Bush.

Back to the future. Last week I had a conversation with a college student who wants to major in journalism. When I said I thought the newspaper business and news in general was a dying business, she laughed. She doesn’t want to write for a newspaper or magazine-that’s yesterday’s journalism. She wants to get involved with new technologies like blogs, online broadcasting, writing news that can be accessed on an iphone and internet websites. “There are so many possibilities” she said. I reluctantly agreed. Not ‘reluctantly’ because I don’t like the look of the future, but I do mourn the loss of personal contact - the necessity for actually speaking to or seeing someone to discuss something. This kind of communication was not only effective, it was fun. When you worked for a candidate and had to talk to a gas station employee on one day, and the Chairman of the State Party the next, it tested your ability to be fluent on a variety of issues. It also tested your social skills. Could you be equally articulate and convincing about the same issue with people who might disagree with one another, or the candidate’s position. My fear is that with all the massive amount of controlled impersonal communication channels, and the shrinking access to the actual candidate, we might elect people who are terrific– if the news is overwhelming and remote, but they are serious duds in their ability to be leaders.

There is a fine line between the reality, convenience, and consequences, of today’s technologies. It would be great if candidates had to meet every voter in America-which hopefully would be more than 40% — then follow up with enormous amounts of additional stuff. To some degree that happens in primaries, and in debates. The one on one is healthy, likely to be more accurate and important. And it is equally important not to be distracted by unsubstantiated information we receive through a third party technology that is used to fill in the blanks. People will vote if they have a vested interest. If the vest becomes unbuttoned, they will simply stay home and not even bother to hit reply. We're Just Sayin...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Beaucoup Yankees!

Sometimes things just lay themselves before in ways you cannot imagine ahead of time. Sunday, Fathers’ Day, I spent some time at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. Well, as it happened, I hopped on a plane Monday morning, sat back for twenty six (yes, 26!) hours, and arrived Tuesday evening (you lose a day over the In’tl Date Line) in Saigon at Tan Son Nhat (don’t ask my why, the old “Nhut” is now “Nhat”) airport. Same part of town, same runways, but oh my, what a new facility. The Japanese (who provided me with my first taste of sushi in Saigon in 1970) have built a state-of-the art airport, the envy of any in Charlotte, Minneapolis, or Portland. In deplaning, you don’t even get hit by the wall of humidity until you are well into the ALL PASSPORT Immigration area. Lines snaked through the glass portals, where almost smiling officers stamped passports and pretended not to give a damn you were there (gee, maybe that part of the Advisory team, 1964-1975 really took hold!) Of course, when you see the folks in green uniforms with red stars all over, reminescent of those first color pictures Marc Riboud shot in the early 70s…you’re tempted to want to imitate Dave Kennerly.. as he did when arriving in Hanoi in the first prisoner exchanges of 1973: stepping off the plane at the Hanoi airport, he looked around and chimed in “beacoup VC!!”, the always present panic phrase elicited when the shit hit the fan in a battle somewhere. Well, there may be Beaucoup VC here, but the place is morphing into something even the Politburo probably could never imagine. Within this governmental structure (and let’s face it, all people in all countries, everywhere—and I m sure the new Mars probe will confirm this – hate the people who govern them), there are still amazing bits of individual “free marketeering” going on every direction you look.

In the cab to town, at 11:30 (I was about the last person to get my baggage in the spanking new facility.. oh me of little faith…), the darkness enveloped the city in a way which made it look its most romantic. The former “Off Limits” road which was lined with Massage Parlours, across from the main gate, is now a big series of office buildings. You could possibly get a massage there, but more likely you could arrange a contract with a Vietnamese business man to make 15,000 golf shirts at prices competitive with Bangladesh or China. It’s “time to move on” at its most emphatic.

The Vietnamese, having faced (as we were always reminded in the 70s) the Chinese for a thousand years, the French for a hundred years, and the Americans for ten years (here, it was called the American War- they were already IN Vietnam…) have decided as a people to move ahead and forward in a way that would be incredibly helpful for those of us at home who still feel some kind of need to keep fighting the 'last' war. Our warriors of this “last war” are all in their 50s, 60s, and some in their 70s, and I guess it is beyond hope to wish that each and every one of them could make the pilgrimage back here to see what has happened to this amazing place. After the difficult days of ’75 and beyond, the ignominy of our badly handled departure (remember Hugh Van Es’ picture of the crowds on the apartment roof trying to make that last chopper?) has resonated for the past two generations, and clearly has an impact on thinking about Iraq, and what is happening there now.

But were you to talk to Vietnamese, I suspect you would find they are well beyond the question of which system of government should try and rule. Not rule, but “try” and rule. They realized, especially the younger generation, that the world is in front of them, and they had the choice to either watch it pass or grab on for the ride. And boy, did they grab on. It’s amazing to see how the place has changed. The names of roads and streets have changed, but looking out my window at the Continental Palace, I see a façade I easily recognize. No cross dressing hustlers on the terrace, propositioning young off duty sailors for that singular ‘good time.’ Otherwise, quite the same place. Attitudes can change, and even watching the folks in the line next to me, I saw my own change. A Vietnamese family, mom, dad, four kids (13, 12, twins 8?) were handing the passports over to the agent, all deep blue U S A Passports. They are the new Americans. Probably here to see family, acquaint the kids with what in my family would have been Minsk or Bialystok. I certainly wish there had been a chance when I was 13 to visit Poland and Belarus, and see the old village where Grandpa Nathan and the Burnetts all came from. These kids do it while playing on their Game-boys.

Outside baggage claim (yes I WAS the last one of 400 to get my bag), I was reminded how Airport Greeting is still one of the grand past times in countries who are at the same time, catching up, and excelling at the new technology. Still, a family member coming from the US, is a big deal. They are greeted, invited into the 8 passenger van, and driven back to Phan Rang (a town up the coat a hundred miles or so). I was only there once, to see some F-4 Phantoms.. our fastest attack plane of the 70s. To me Phan Rang didn’t mean Uncle Tai or Auntie Nga: it meant only a place where Yanks from Vermont and Illinois kept jet fighters loaded with ordnance to be dropped on the near by hills. Ill bet those guys from Vermont would love to grab a bowl of noodles in Phan Rang today, if only we could get them here.

My cabbie was younger than 30 I surmised: a part of the post war generation. He is a member of the Vietnamese Baby Boomer generation. He may have heard stories from family about the ‘war.’ But he is hustling for taxi fares, hoping for a nice tip. And though his English is about as good as my Vietnamese, we connect, boomer to boomer. In the Caravelle Hotel (now a Sheraton) on the square just a few meters from where I lived for a year, and in whose then less august chambers I first met Larry Burrows, October 14, 1970, the day I arrived here. In his slightly more cramped (as I remember it) room, there was the utilitarian array of bed, chair, and drinking water. No electric tea maker, no cable tv, no international direct dial phones, no internet, and no Rubber Duckies.

This morning after a brief crash/nap I awoke to move into the new world, with the TV on CNN, hot tea from my modern auto-kettle, checking email, and rubber duckies in my bath tub. It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to catch up. It’s never too late to be part of the new world. We’re just sayin’…. David

Beware the Quietude

I spent last Thursday and Friday traveling on the campaign trail (a kind of abbreviated trail it was… Boston, New York, and New Jersey) with Senator McCain. We have entered the period which in World War II was known as the Phony War. War may have been declared, and sides were drawn, but there wasn’t the kind of battle which would later come to typify what WW2 was about. There were a few German planes dropping a few hundred bombs on England, but for the most part, each side was marshalling its troops and materiel, and trying to figure out what the easiest, swiftest way to “Check Mate” might be. Here, after a year long brawl which has finally left two candidates standing, things are also taking a little breather. Given the ups and downs of the last 6 months, it began to seem like we were in a permanent world of Primary. That the whole of our existence, no matter what happened elsewhere on the globe, was to be metered by the cackling metronome of state Primary elections. Hillary and Barack trading quips, blows, and name calling became like the air we breathe. Something that surrounds you at all times, passes in and out of your lungs when you inhale, and which will never go away.

That there finally was a “winner” was almost a jolt. The near revery of the Primary circuit was interrupted only by the rumble of consession. Hillary had seemed to be the likely standard-bearer a year ago, yet, once the cracks first appeared on the ice bed of inevitability, her chance of skating to victory just seemed to melt away. So, now we have two. And in its own way, the tenor of the day to day has become like the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan. Never one to exert himself too much, or too quickly, Reagan was scheduled, on good days, to do a morning event, maybe an afternoon or evening event, and plenty of rest in between. Both candidates now have slipped into that Reagan-esque mode, quite happy to spend a few events dealing with core issues, and leaving enough time for a proper breath of air, review VP choices, and a chance to raise some money. I can confirm that those long days – which we will see again in September and October, as the days to Voting draw near, take a real toll. Photographers, like many in the digital age, have seen their entire M.O. change radically. Once, in a world almost too far gone to remember (that is, 2000, and before) we would shoot film during the campaign day, making envelopes to be dropped off with couriers, or left for pick up at hotels, so that the film could be sent to New York, where it would unceremoniously be developed, made into contact sheets (or slides into slide mounts), captioned, then sent to picture editors, who would scan the images for something which could be used in that week’s magazine to illustrate some salient or subtle point. Now, for essentially the same money (or because of inflation, demonstrably less) we take the pictures, act as the lab rat (process on our laptops), the courier (upload the choices on internet lines to the office), and the editor (we are the ones who choose what to send). OK, you could make a point that we have the chance to limit what goes into the magazine as only the images we like, true, but what then do the editors do who used to pore over our work? It certainly is a different method, and has taken some adjustment. It means that on the road, you have to try and upload your pictures onto the laptop at each bus ride or flight, so you can get a head start on all the captioning, and choosing, a very time consuming process, required to get pictures down to a feasible & transmittable number. And if, God forbid, you have a few minutes, well you better go back and look at last night’s work, or what you shot earlier today, because there might be a picture you missed. It’s unending, really. And it means there is no time for, dare I say it, reflection. No time to really ponder what it all means. Everything becomes a race about time. The “why” and “wherefore” are left in the dust. And still, it’s possible, no, probable, to find that you are up till 2 or 3 in the morning of an already long 18 or 20 hour day, just to get your editing finished, and hard drives organized with all the image files.

So, when I describe a McCain trip as Reaganesque, it’s not really a slam. I mean, there is a certain charm in just covering two events a day, as long as you get SOMETHING which gives you a feeling of a picture out of the ordinary. On a Reagan-Day, you have enough time to get your pictures organized, edited, and sent to the office, and avoid staying up till after Conan O’Brien has long since left the building. It’s almost like feeling you are a photographer of Leisure. Except, that news and information, rather like the air around us, abhors a vacuum. And so it was on Friday, having just boarded the Straight Talk Jetblue in Philadelphia, bound for DC, that I found a slot in row 24 of the perfectly sized little jet (25 rows of 2x2). I sat down and unbuckled my Thinktank pouch belt for the last time. The Thinktank belt system, secure and embracing, always keeps the gear near by without it flopping on your hips, and the decision to unclip that buckle is a genuine statement of “I am done shooting for a little while.” I had just settled into my seat, grabbing a couple of zucchini sticks with ranch dressing (you never stop eating on the campaign) to fight that nervous hunger which always accompanies a take-off. In the row in front of me, an NBC cameraman turned to look at his colleague – in row 23 - with a wincing look on his face. He had just put down his cell phone and looked pained. In a soft voice he said “Russert had a heart attack at the bureau this morning, and died.” The words were almost too simple, too straightforward to deliver the message they conveyed. It was a quiet Friday afternoon, the world had dodged another bullet that week on the road to calamity, so what he was saying couldn’t really be, could it? We both asked at the same time, “Are you sure?”

“I just got off the phone with someone in the bureau.” That seemed to have secured a finality to the truth, but none of us really wanted to believe it. We all started to click through the Jetblue InSeat Video channels,… CNBC, CNN, Fox News.. there was nothing, and for a second I probably told myself… “It can’t be true… it hasn’t been on TV yet.” But when you are close to an event, or in this case, even if by cell phone, close to someone who is, you are ahead of the reporting curve. Yes, at NBC offices they knew, but they were still trying to figure out how to deal on-air with it. Then, as we began to taxi out to the runway, Tom Brokaw came on camera – a sadness draped over his being -- and delivered the official report. Russert, 58, had passed away immediately after collapsing at the NBC Washington bureau. I guess I could have imagined this happening, like most people, if he had been a little older, a little more frail, a little less full of that boundless Buffalo energy which he always seemed to display. Hell, he’s younger than I am. This just isn’t supposed to happen. And that, perhaps is what haunts all of us when we hear of the sadly early death of a colleague. We know that the bell tolls not just for thee, but for me, and that none of us is immune from the forces of nature which govern our bodies. We all live on the cusp of mortality at any minute, at every second. We abide in the excitement and energy of youth, yet must remain aware of the delicacy which is life itself. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. So to act like we are is a waste of whatever talent, whatever gifts of enrichment we may hold. Our chances – and they are just that, chances – in this world are governed by the balance of our own power, discipline, energies, and the co-equal forces of nature which surround every pore of our beings. It is a sad moment like this, when a colleague passes too quickly, too young, that we need to remind ourselves, that whatever it is we value -- our lives, our loves, our dedication and passion to the things we do – cannot even for a day be put on Hold. Tim was about a dozen years older than Obama, and a dozen years younger than McCain. And probably two dozen years younger than the should have died.

Yesterday, Father’s Day (or as it is known by my sweet daughter as Poppy Doodle Day), Iris and I went to the Vietnam Memorial to meet a life long pal of hers, Frank Scozzafava. Scozzi, who Iris still introduces as “the boy who walked me home in the 2nd grade”, was spending the weekend with a half dozen of his buddies from Vietnam. They had gone through advanced training together, and traveled as a group by ship to Vietnam in 1966, where they spent a year firing artillery in support of Australian troops on the southeastern Vietnam coast. One of their group had found their Sergeant on the internet, and this weekend they all gathered at his place in Winchester, VA for a reunion. They hadn’t seen him in 41 years, but within minutes, the old camaraderie had resumed, and again, they were that tight group of friends that nothing could disrupt. At the “Wall,” given that it was Father’s Day, hundreds and hundreds of single long stem roses, with hand written notes of remembrance lined the memorial, and as we walked the length of the black marble, it was impossible not to read a few of the inscriptions. These 5 guys, all in reasonable health at 61 or 62, walked in that tremulous fashion that overtakes you at the Wall. There is no rushing, no running, no swift movements. We all moved liked Muggsy, the big guy in the group, who walks with a titanium knee. I stopped a few times to read a note. There is something about the script which was a part of our folks’ generation. They learned how to write properly. Long meaningful, graceful strokes, lines which seemed inspired by the fender of a 1931 Cadillac. There is no mistaking their handwriting for a younger generation’s. And so, I picked up one card, and read it.

Bubby, born two years before me, had been killed at 21. He, like many of the cards on the wall that day, had never had the chance to be a Dad. Had never had the chance to see a kid grow up and in ways you cannot explain, mimic the best of your habits. Had never had a chance to see a kid graduate from college, and carry a whole bagful of personal dreams. I wept, not just at the fact that he had died so young, but that the pals from his unit still, after all these years, send Bubby’s 91 year old mom flowers on Mother’s day. When we are gone, will we have been the kind of people who remain in someone’s heart like that? Memory is, still, Life. We’re just sayin’… David

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Don't Put Off Today.....

If there is something you would like to do, don’t put it off. Do it right away. Don’t wake up one morning and say, “Why didn’t I do that when I thought about it?” Last week I wrote about my pal Stewart Mott. He was a great friend who helped me through some very tough times. Yesterday I saw in the New York Times that he had passed away. Just in case you missed it I’d like to share some of the parts I think he would have liked the best. Some of it is quoted directly and with some I took a little liberty.

(Stewart was) a philanthropist whose gifts to progressive and somewhat offbeat causes were often upstaged by his eccentricities... Irreverent, good-looking and effusive, Mr. Mott seemed tailor made for the 60’s and 70’s... Mr. Mott seemed to relish poking his finger I the eye of GM, a company that is father helped to shape (and was later the largest stockholder.) Mr. Mott officially told the election commission that his job was “maverick”. He listed himself as “philanthropist” in the Manhattan phone book – he preferred ‘avant-garde philanthropist’ but space was limited... In 1971 he told the New Yorker that his “philanthropy is hearty, robust and full-bodied but it still needs a few years of aging before it will develop fully”... When the Washington Post reported that he had slept with 40 women over an eight month period, he issued a correction saying it was only 20.

Despite the relationship to GM when Stewart drove, it was usually a Volkswagen. Additionally, he gave me a Volkswagen as a gift in 1977. I had just been appointed as the Director of the International Visitors Program at the State Department. Because I was a new Carter appointee and one of the youngest people in such a high level job, I had a parking space in the building. (This was a real perk). I was new to Washington ways and the job, and naïve doesn’t begin to describe my expectations. Anyway, The Washington Post, which actually did good gossip in those days, wrote a piece about the car/gift. I was mortified, maybe horrified when Stewart called me to say he had seen the piece and thought it wonderful that I had become the “talk of the town” at such an early stage in my international career. He convinced me not only to laugh about it but to understand that this was the kind of thing that gave you access to a Washington that could actually be fun.

Stewart had been battling cancer for years. I knew he was sick and I thought about him quite frequently. I wanted to talk to him, but time passed and I was lazy about locating him. We reconnected a few weeks ago. He wasn’t strong enough to come to the phone the first time I called so I left a message. Within minutes he called me back. He shared that he might have to beg off but he did want to catch up. We had a number of phone calls where we talked about old times, parties at the Trust, Bermuda trips, vacations, the kids, what was going on in our lives and, of course, the election. He did ask my indulgence on a number of calls when he felt too weak to go on, but his spirit was never weak—just his body.

The last time we talked he asked if I could come and see him. I had only one or two days left before I had to go to Boston, DC, and Seattle. I very much wanted to see him and I promised him I would call and come up as soon as I got back in the middle of June. He said I could take the train, and since neither of us had our Volkswagens anymore, he would send someone to pick me up at the station. The calls were loving and affectionate, and I was looking forward to my return so we could finally get together. But he didn’t live long enough for me to take the Metro North to what I think was the Mott estate in Westchester.

What a dope I was. I should have gotten on the train and gone when I had a few hours. After all those years of absence and finally reconnecting, I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dear friend.

I always used to say that I didn’t want to die on a plane where someone more famous than myself was killed because the reports would be “Mr/Ms famous was killed today) and there would be a long glorious obit at the end of which would be, “also dead...”
So I don’t mean to slight him in anyway, but Tim Russert also died yesterday. I knew Tim for many years but we weren’t friends. He was a great guy who made the transition from political staff to reporter without having told insider secrets and without having to throw anyone he worked for under a bus. He was smart, articulate, full of humor and insightful about life and the world. There are hundreds of people who are much more qualified to talk about Tim than I. Although they were certainly very different, Tim and Stewart did share a love of politics, justice and this country. The world lost two great souls yesterday. May they both rest in peace (Stewart always wanted peace).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Who Is Me?!

There are those people who believe that women and people of color are not capable of leading this country. (They have been proven wrong many times as exampled by leaders of other nations). But these are the same people who think that the earth is flat and the world was created in seven days. It seems a bit shortsighted, even silly, but there are those people.

A few days ago I was on a TV show with a Republican analyst named Bruce Blakeman. (Not one of those seven day 'poof', people and I’d like to fix him up with my cousin). He has been involved in lots of NY politics, but I didn’t know who he was until the producer said his ex wife is dating Paul McCartney. Bruce is smart and handsome and wants to be the Mayor of NY. (Which could happen because he knows the world is round.) What was most interesting was that he talks directly from the Republican script. 'John McCain is bi-partisan, John McCain is courageous, Barack is the most liberal Senator in the universe.' Liberal, is not a dirty word to me, so the argument was moot or mute, but you can see exactly what they are going to do and say in the fall. They are starting to position McCain as the only logical choice. Like a comfortable shoe (when my shoes get comfortable it’s because they are falling apart). I mentioned that despite his support of bipartisan legislation, McCain was not a moderate. He was very Conservative. When you try to make an argument where you disagree, they talk right over you or say your name repeatedly, like “well Iris…” So you just have to say things like “that’s not true” or “you are so wrong”. There is no comeback for a declarative statement. (I didn’t take him on about the economy because we only had five minutes and that’s a two week discussion). My point is that people like Bruce are not easily dismissed because they are likeable and appear to be reasonable. (Wait, I have to hit save again).

Speaking of reasonable, (I know we weren’t but it’s a nice transition), yesterday I had a conversation with some African American friends. One told me that she was riding in a cab the other day and her Black cab driver, (without actually asking him) offered some thoughts about the election. “That Obama, he ain’t got any Negro blood. His momma was white and his father was an African. He ain’t got any Negro blood-like me. I’ll vote for him, but he ain’t me." My other friend, who immigrated from Trinidad said something along the same line. “I wanted Hillary. She knows about my problems. She’s a woman and she knows about how hard we have to work. Obama doesn’t understand what we go through every day. He’s black, but he’s not me.”

This morning I listened to the talking heads talking about the campaign and still wondering what happened in the meeting between Clinton and Obama. All I could think was, does it matter what they said exactly? We know they talked about the campaign debt and her role at Convention. I doubt they talked about the VP’s job because he has to make the decision based on what will give him the biggest boost for the election, and anyway, I don’t think it’s a job she wants. I could be wrong but Hillary is an activist and the Vice President’s role is certainly not that. They also talked about why she lost the primaries. These people get paid a lot of money to say nothing - I wish it were me. It’s not brain surgery. The Clinton’s ran a foolish, arrogant campaign. You cannot be in a Presidential contest assuming you are the likely choice, or in this case, the anointed nominee. You actually have to plan to be in the race until the primaries are over-which happens in June not February. Additionally, you cannot write off the caucus states. For someone who claimed to want every vote counted, this was not the Clinton attitude until they were loosing. Here’s the irony, the campaign was bad when it counted, but she found a great many people (Democrats and Republicans) who thought “Hillary is me”. Barack ran a great campaign when it counted, but working people (across color lines — the people Obama needs to win in the General) are now thinking “he’s not me”. So, what can he do?

The answer is not to put Hillary on the ticket. The answer is… not to underestimate the amount of work he has to do. And the first step is to think about the kind of person, not just candidate he needs to be. He’s not Bobby Kennedy. Bobby touched people-physically as well as emotionally. Obama is only halfway there. He’s not Ronald Reagan, who connected with what middle class people were feeling. He certainly doesn’t want to be Michael Dukakis, John Kerry or the now beloved Al Gore. All fine politicians who, it was obvious, never understood what working class people were suffering. (Bush unfortunately fooled people into believing he did). Obama has to get comfortable connecting with blue collar working folks and the women who supported Hillary. In order to win in November he needs to get to the place where people will actually think, “he is me”.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Little Oil and Feathering

Don’t you just hate it when you write two pages of anything and then you sit back and, for seemingly no reason, it disappears off your computer screen. The first thing you do is hit ‘paste’, because you think you might have inadvertently hit ‘cut’. Sure enough, it pastes but not what you had lost. Then you think, I should have saved while I was writing—what a dope I am. But it’s too late for regrets. The imagined poetry that flowed from your mind to your lips to your fingers is just a memory. (Excuse me while I hit ‘save’).

It would be much too difficult to reassemble, but the piece started out by saying that I would no longer be able to just get on a plane to see my mother. The costs were too high, and the flights too limited. And I added that my mother was going to be seriously pissed at whomever was responsible for this catastrophic situation. Who is responsible? David says it’s not the oil companies it’s the oil commodity traders. I’m not sure I believe that given the mega profits the oil companies have accumulated, but if it’s the commodity traders I say let’s put them on trial for treasonous greed. And then let’s not even bother with a trial—let’s oil and feather them and drop them in a refinery in a foreign oil gouging country—where they don’t speak the language.

But that’s not what I wrote either. I was trying desperately to remember something about my mother when I got some incredibly sad news. When we were little kids, my mom hired a woman to clean the house and make sure none of us (my brother, cousins, and often friends), didn’t get into any trouble. What started out as a simple set of tasks for Helen Costello, became much more complicated over the years--for many reasons. She was a loving protective soul who hated it when my mother tried to discipline me. (I was never easy). Whenever my mother yelled or tried to give me a whack, Helen would race over, pick me up and run away – sometimes to another room, sometimes out into the yard. If I was crying, she would cry. Eventually we would calm ourselves and laugh and she would send me off to school or to play. She would return to her responsibilities. I’m not sure what happened between Helen and mom when she went back into the house but it never resulted in anything bad.

After my dad was diagnosed with MS, Helen stepped in to help supplement our care. I would go to her with questions, problems, confessions, and for a big hug. This continued well into high school when, much to the chagrin of the principal, my friends and I would take off at lunchtime and go to my house to watch soap operas. Helen was always there to support our actions, provide a tuna sandwich and some comment on what life should be. Helen was an enormous part of my life. Although often in my thoughts, I hadn’t seen her for many years until she came to visit my mother in rehab last April. She walked with a cane and could hardly see, but was obviously spry and her spirit remained untouched. Helen was younger than mom but we always thought she was older – maybe because she was not spoiled, more mature. And as close as they were, even after years and years of being together, Helen never called my mother anything but Mrs. Groman. I asked her why and she said, “It is a matter of respect”.

Helen died yesterday. She still lived alone and her daughter thought that she had probably fallen and hit her head. I am saddened by the loss of my wonderful friend— more really, my other mother. And, in reflection, I am saddened by the end of the ‘Helen’ era. A time when respect for another person was valued. A time when kids could run freely and play by themselves – even on the street. A time when people were not consumed by wanting what they didn’t have and were happy just to have something – a job, a family, a reliable car, a small house, no astronomical debt.

This country will never be the place it was when Helen was an everyday part of my life. It will be forever changed by the economic crisis we face. Nothing will be simple or without consequences. The war, the cost of living, the choice people make everyday between food and energy-- we are in serious trouble. Maybe an Obama will lead us to a better place. But I’m not ready to discount a good oil and feathering for those people who clearly never had a Helen Costello in their lives. We’re Just sayin... Iris

Friday, June 06, 2008

Look, Up in the Air!!!

Who doesn’t remember that famous quatrain off the 50s?
“Look, up in the air!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a Plane!”
“It’s Superman!”
… that strange visitor from another planet.. yada yada yada.
Well, I actually had one of those moments this afternoon. I’d left the Contact office on West 38th street, headed by foot to the E train on 40th st. Just after crossing onto 39th st., there was a small crowd gathered, heads all cranked up, with perhaps ½ of them pointing up to the sky. In a city where airplanes have been known to fall from the sky, that kind of intense attitude is full of foreboding when you don’t really know the source. After a minute or so, and having started to pick up the voice-over commentary (no one offers unsolicited commentary like a New Yorker!) we realized it wasn’t really anything to worry about so much as to enjoy. A young (presumably.. since the best ones are) French climber, had started to climb up the side panels of the brand spanking new metallic wonder on 41st street, the New York Times’ brand new headquarters building. Once you had your focus you could see a small figure 30+ stories up, doing a calculated and methodical hand over hand climb. Apparently earlier in the day another French guy had done the same thing, in an effort to bring attention to Global Warming. Per the usual drill, the guy reached the top, was arrested for Trespassing (the morning version unfurled a banner, the PM one did not) and taken off by police. The astonishing thing was that the whole of 8th Avenue was closed due to the huge influx of cops and firemen. Lots of guys, mostly looking clueless, running around with walkie talkies. A few people with Megaphones imploring the gathered multitudes to leave a path on the sidewalk so people can get to their bus.. (one passerby muttered “.. .and yes, some of us don’t give a fuck…”) It was a real New York happening. One of the interesting things was that there was clearly zero threat to anyone, unless you were standing right UNDER the guy, and he fell on you from 40 stories. But otherwise, it was all spectacle, no worries, and yet as usual the cops felt a need to be in ‘control’, emptying the street in front of the building (at 6pm Rush Hour!) of all vehicles and people.

Not that I wanted to see five thousand folks start to chant “Jump!, Jump!, Jump!” It wasn’t really that kind of crowd. They were interested, and everyone was either ON the (cell) phone, or taking pictures & movies with one. I mean, it was like a Finish Line scrum at the Olympic Track and Field meets.

Heads cranked high, mostly graced with smiles, that kind of “geez, what a frickin’ nut, but I sure DO love New York” smile. The kind that reminds you that a lot of the stuff that happens here, not only stays here, it just flat out won’t exist anywhere else.

But after about twenty minutes, when success was in sight, the crowd burst into laudatory applause. It was quite moving. In the city of 8000000 stories, here was one we all shared, we all wanted him to make it, and stand triumphantly at the pinnacle. Well yes, of course he made it, but the triumph was shortlived as he was immediately taken into custody. I’m sure, however, that I wasn’t the only one who was ready to put his little camera (mine: a wonderful Ricoh R8, 10 megapx, keepOnYourBeltAtAllTimes jewel of a camera) on “Video” mode in case he had taken a misstep. It was no less exciting that he actually made it in one piece to the top. These are the kind of little New York moments that remind you why you dig this place. So the next time you hear someone yell “Look, up in the sky…” be sure to look because even when you think you know what your day is going to be like, it could just that fast turn into another New York moment. We’re just sayin…David
This shot of Steve Dupont, who just arrived yesterday from Sydney and wandered over to the TIMES with me, is one which proves again the amazing quality of my little Ricoh R8 (10megapxl, $350, and wow, what results.. usually they 're even Sharp!)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


The other day I got a fairly disturbing phone call from a friend. It seems after 30 years of marital bliss her husband confessed to having an affair. The only reason he confessed was that God smote him with a sexually transmitted disease. She was devastated, heartbroken, angry and sad. He told her it had nothing to do with her—he was having a midlife crisis. But then, as men often do—he felt like he needed to tell her more. TMI! He told her that the woman was younger and he wanted to have fun. Something he obviously couldn’t do with her—or at least that’s what he thought. TMI! She called to find out what she should do. My first impulse was to tell her to plunge a knife through his heart – not far enough to kill him but certainly far enough to make him feel the same kind of pain she was feeling. Then I thought about this despicable woman who had changed their lives forever. Not because she had unprotected sex with the dope, but because she didn’t have the courtesy, the honesty, the integrity, to tell him she had herpes. Who would do something like that? What kind of a self centered, immoral, perfidious, slut would do that? But I guess I just answered my own question—a self centered, immoral, perfidious slut. (And I mean that in the nicest possible way.) I responded to my pal, “I don’t think I know what to say right now?” In these situations any advice you give is dangerous. Keeping quiet may be the only route to take. But you’re a friend, what should you do?

This was not the first time I had heard a story this tragic. And tragic is a good word because seemingly connected people, disconnect briefly, and may never recover. It’s horrible to think about the number of women with whom I have had this conversation. It’s equally horrible to think it could happen to any of us. Sometimes we delude ourselves about this, especially when things are going particularly well or particularly terrible. We know too well that good times eventually go away and bad times usually get better. Anyway, I know she wouldn’t have been happy to hear, “these things happen, things will get better, don’t worry”. No one needs platitudes when they are distraught. (Platitudes are seriously annoying in the best of times—they border on criminal when things are bad). People think they have a solid marriage and they trust their spouse unconditionally and then bam, without any warning something slaps you upside the head and you are down for the count. (Wow, I’m using a sports analogy). There is someone younger or perkier and why not opt for that instead of the boring reality of thirty years of together. The story is unfortunately always the same. The ‘husband’ tells you he loves you but...TMI! It's not about you, it's about their midlife crisis or looking for fun. But not with you. TMI! It seems they've had enough fun with you. They might rather share the laughs past and to come with someone who thinks everything they say is funny or witty, or important. TMI! They have more in common with this other person. It's too much work with you and really, it's too tiring. You make demands. The newer person makes love. TMI! How can you compete. You can't. (She wouldn’t want to hear this either).

The kids are grown, the house is dirty, the parents almost dead, the life is ordinary. Oh no, the life isn't ordinary, but it's old and so are you. TMI! Time to move on. You don't have a choice. You can't get young or cuter or better. You can't... Oh my. The future will bring some happiness but some sadness as well. Doesn’t he want to share the bad times as well as the good anymore? Not if he has an options. Who would? He wants to look elsewhere for the good times. TMI! You can be there for the difficult, but it's likely you will suffer them by yourself. You make it look too easy-- you can do anything. You will likely do it alone. He will look elsewhere for the fun. What can you do. You would like to think something but he says again, it's not about you. You can't get young, you probably can't get better, you can't ... How sad, and frightening, and lonely. And you can't ... (More stuff not to say to a good friend).

When my first marriage ended it was devastating -- even though it was clear our lives were moving in different directions. That end was painful, but wasn’t unexpected. I didn’t want to stay married and live a life that no longer made sense to either of us. And although it was complicated; I was afraid of change, afraid of what would happen to my child, afraid of being on my own, and afraid that I was not going to be able to make any other life. I had only been married a few years. Imagine what it must be like to disengage after 20, 30, or 40 years. (I didn’t want to share that either).

Living in my car and using the Hyatt on Capital Hill as the place where I cleaned up every morning, was dangerous, but even that wasn’t as disconcerting as the idea of doing my own taxes and having to take my car to be inspected. Isn’t that stupid. It was the simple things that amplified the sense of loss. I was a kid and kids are stupid—but they bounce back far more easily than women of a certain age. I thought my marriage back then, good or bad, I thought for a long time that it was not going anywhere. I was wrong. But how do you say to a friend, “You know that marriage you thought was forever, well nothing is forever”. You don’t. The only thing that makes any sense in the realm of what to say, can only be said to yourself, and it is... “there but for God go I.” We're Just Sayin...

Monday, June 02, 2008

It's a Puzzle

George Stephanopolis wrote a ‘tell all’ book about the Clinton White House. He didn’t really tell much, but he made a lot of money and positioned himself for a media career. My friends at ABC, who initially were against his hiring, are now most supportive of his work—and how hard he works. I’m not quite there yet but who knows.

Scott McClellan wrote a book that not only tells all, it tells about lies and duplicity and ignorance—much of it his. Talk about an idiot – I hesitate to give this idiot any time, but there are things that need to be said – by me and anyone else who cares to say them.

The Bush Administration prides itself on ‘loyalty’. I’m not sure what that means except given their incredible ability to deceive millions of people, I guess it means that in order to be loyal you have to support any lie told by the White House and additionally, you need to read from the script of the day. Let’s talk about the script first—it’s easier than loyalty. The script from the White House, with regard to Scott was “it just doesn’t sound like the Scott I know.” And “It is puzzling”. Without exception everyone who has spoken for the Bush Administration has said those two things. So my question is; what is puzzling about a guy deciding after he defended a policy, and now wants to be a media personality, that he would have to find a way to make amends for the fact that he lied or he was not important enough to be in the loop. Additionally, who was the Scott that all these people knew? Quite clearly, they neither knew him, nor did they take the time to figure what his motives would be to write this piece of ‘mea culpa” trash. They all knew he was writing something. They thought it would be favorable. They were horribly wrong. I don’t feel the least bit sorry for them.

What’s going to happen to ‘oh poor Scott’. Clearly there is a media backlash. I haven’t heard one talking head talking about how Scott was right to either write this ‘tell all’ (like none of us knew the Administration was lying) nor have they talked about the fact that his confessions were honorably motivated. Nope the guy is a sleeze – maybe that is the Scott they needed to know.

Before the Clinton Administration, loyalty was an important even prized asset in politics, because loyalty is really about trust. When you worked in a Presidential campaign or an Administration you were judged not only by competence but by the fact that you could be trusted with information which, had you not been a part of the team, you would never have known. While people like Diane Sawyer became media professionals, she did not write a book or prostitute (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), to get her job. She worked very hard and despite the fact that she came out of an Administration with real problems, (Nixon), she did not denounce the President nor did she make up stories about how she really wasn’t a part of it. She just worked hard and proved that she could be a success. During the Clinton Administration many people learned that you had to be loyal to the President but neither of the Clinton’s needed to be loyal to anyone—except generous donors. No one knew it until they started to throw their friends, awaiting government appointments, under that proverbial bus. But that is not the point. There is no need to pretend ignorance in order to circumvent responsibility. There is something much more endearing about confessing that you were a dope rather than you knew things were amiss but you had no power to do anything about it. Oh Please!

When you are privileged enough to serve the President of the United States, with it comes some sense of responsibility and decency that no one should need to explain. You are put in a position that requires you to swear allegiance to the United States. But you serve at the “pleasure of the President.” That means you defend decisions the President makes or you tell the appropriate person that you can’t abide by the decision and you resign. It’s just that simple. You do not stand in front of the media and lie to the public and then, in retrospect, decide you made a mistake. If you realize you made an honest mistake it better not have cost 4000 young lives and it better not be about your desire to change your career path.

While I have made it a career goal to have a sense of humor about everything, I’m having a hard time with this. So let’s try a not funny but workable poem.

Roses are Red
Violets are yellow
Scott McClellan
You are a despicable fellow.

We're Just Sayin...

Visit Your Mother!

I’m just back from a quick trip to California. It’s further proof, that good things can come in small packages. I decided to go on Tuesday, found a mileage ticket on United (mercifully a pair of non stop flights instead of the cheapie layover-in-Minneapolis variety), and left on Wednesday for San Francisco. Mom lives in Palo Alto, at the Hyatt senior independent living facility (it’s really a Luxury Hotel) located on the edge of the Stanford campus. My sister Lisa, also a Stanford grad, married and has never left the area. When mom decided to give up her place in Salt Lake, and live near one of her kids, Lis’ / Palo Alto made the most sense for several reasons, lack of snow being perhaps 3rd or 4th on the list, and familiarity with a nice location being first. It’s a charming place, the “peninsula,” and easy enough to see why people want to live there. And the advantage of living virtually on the Stanford campus, is that you have all kinds of cool school-related activities. Additionally, a number of former professors and professional people from the school have moved into the Hyatt, and when they have a seminar on current events, for example, the “in-house” speakers are folks like Bill Perry (the former Secretary of Defense.) I will say, the most educational moment of the trip was at the very beginning: on the “People Mover” out to the United Terminal,

I noticed a 7 year old boy who had, presumably to keep himself from slipping through a hole in the bus and falling all the way to China, zipped his coat up around the “hold on to” pole.
What a great idea. Never again feel like a sudden stop might throw you into someone’s lap. Just zip your coat around the pole, and you are guaranteed to arrive in one piece. This kid will eventually solve the last sticky problem on the Mars manned mission in 30 years, I’m sure of it. But, back to terra firma.

Mom is an inveterate bridge player, and has found a number of co-conspirators: she plays probably three or four times a week. Additionally, there is a little Koffee Klatch which gathers every morning about 9a.m.
Each morning between a half dozen and twenty men and women gather, in what is the high-end retirement pad version of the small town café. Years of working in Iowa leading up to the Presidential caucuses has exposed me to the charm of those small cafes: farmers gathering at the crack of dawn to talk about corn and hog prices was always a way to find out what the elusive Iowa voter thought about the current crop of candidates. Koffee mornings at the Hyatt, I attended two of them, were a good start to the morning, though I will confess I usually brought my own coffee with me. Let’s face it, even Hyatt coffee is just ‘hotel’ coffee.

I spent just three days in Palo Alto, including a quick trip up to Muir Woods in Marin, north of the Golden Gate, to see the amazing redwoods.
Staying with Lis’ and her family (and her numerous cats) was also refreshing. When you live this far away, it’s tough to be able to really stay in touch: but a few dinners, and a trip to the equestrian ring, and you feel like you’re back in touch. Seeing mom, across the country, isn’t always that easy to work into my other, working trips. For some reason I don’t get to California much these days. Hell, I don’t get to Utah or Michigan either. But that’s another blob.

Three weeks ago, on Mother’s Day, Tom Friedman wrote a wonderful column entitled “Call Your Mother.” In it, he talks about how this is his first Mother’s Day since his mom passed away last fall and how much he misses her. His point, if you CAN call your mom, do not waste the chance to do so. And I would add, if you CAN visit your mom for a couple of days, do not miss the chance to do so.

One of the things I confess to enjoying when I arrive, is going through the big boxes of old family pictures. In moves through two houses and two apartments, that box has gently shrunk over the years, but mom has been pretty good at keeping the fun, amusing, signpost pictures handy. Like a good book, each time I go through that box I find something I hadn’t seen before. This trip, buried down at the bottom, was a slightly yellowing newspaper clip from a 1966 copy of the Rocky Mountain Review, a weekly paper owned by my cousins Steven and Norman, where I was the staff photographer (at least over the summer.) The article was about the upcoming Horse Show at the Cottonwood Club, and surprize, surprize, the pictures both included Lisa Burnett (age 14), with her horse Gyser. It was the time in my career when I had great power, but little sway: I could put my sister’s picture in the paper, but get virtually no thanks for it. (And worse, it’s true, I actually remember telling her I would SELL her a print! What a Jerk I was… but I learned my lesson.) Amazingly, on the back of that article was the Classified page. Not exactly the New York Times, it included everything from real estate to used refrigerators. In the middle was an ad that caught my eye, as it was a notice to sell some camera gear. I read through it quickly, and then realized that I was the one who had placed the ad. Yes, 42 years ago, I had bought a new Nikon camera, and was selling my two cheap, trashy Pentax telephotos. Yet the ad would make you think that you, the consumer, was about to score something special. I don’t frankly remember how much I got for that glass, but if it was fifty bucks that would have been a lot.

And the ad just above mine: I almost wish I could buy that little runabout with the Mercury outboard. What a little time trip it was just to find it. Seeing myself at age 17 (does pencil-neck geek ring a bell) was oddly fulfilling: I haven't had a jacket fit that good for years.

When people see that a fire threatens their home, the first thing they try and save are the pictures. No one else has Your pictures. No store, no other home, no school. Your home and family pictures, like your DNA, are just about You. Each family has a little treasure of pictures like this, some more elaborate than others. Iris has been very good about putting the 4x6 pictures in albums the last couple of years, and for once, there is a modicum of organization to the mass of images. So make sure your pictures are in a safe place. Put them in albums. Pictures are memory. Memory is life. We’re just sayin’…. David