AIR TRAVEL AS CATTLE DRIVE

With one word, one of my fellow passengers perfectly described the experience of modern air travel.

I was recently waiting to board a 737 in yet another cookie-cutter terminal located somewhere in the USA. The flight had already been delayed three times, so when it was finally announced we’d be departing shortly, all 150 of us rushed expectantly toward the boarding area.

We stood there for another 20 minutes in an angry, sweltering mob with no explanation for the additional delay from the harried gate attendant. I locked eyes with the guy next to me who smiled wanly and said, “Moo.” That pretty much sums it all up.

Ten years ago, airlines sold 73% of their seats. Today, thanks to algorithms, they’re filling 84%. This increase has led to higher profits, but at the price of customer sanity. More passengers mean overcrowded boarding areas, slower boarding times, less room in overhead bins, stressed-out flight attendants, and a general, dehumanizing feeling of being herded.

My recent flight delay caused me to miss the last late-night connecting flight to Corpus Christi. As I stepped off the plane at DFW, an airline employee hurried by and handed me a boarding pass for a flight at 9 the next morning. “What am I supposed to do for the next 10 hours?” I asked as she rushed away. She shouted over her shoulder that she’d try to find me a hotel, and then promptly disappeared for a half-hour.

When she finally came back, she said the only nearby hotel with a vacancy was located in another terminal inside the airport. I told her that sounded great and asked for directions.

The hotel was hard to spot because it was just a retail storefront among many others in the terminal. As I approached the front desk, the pretty, perky clerk gave me a big smile and asked,”Are you planning to take a shower?”

After a hard day on the road, I figured I probably didn’t smell great, but still the question struck me as odd. “Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s $20 more to take a shower.”

“How would you know if I took a shower in my bathroom?”

“There’s no bathroom in your room. There’s only one shower, and it’s located down the hall.”

“What if I need to use the restroom in the middle of the night?”

“There’s a men’s room in the terminal.”

There’s a men’s room in the terminal?

She gave me another big smile, and said, “We’re not really a hotel. We’re more like a place to take a nap.”

Suffice it to say I spent a sleepless night in a tiny, frigid room curled up on a five-foot-long plastic upholstered couch shivering under the kind of blanket they give you for free if you subscribe to Sports Illustrated. The long night was interrupted only by my middle of the night, sleepwalking, sleep-haired trek through the terminal to get to the men’s room, which greatly amused everyone in the vicinity, except me.

The next morning, I was sitting bleary-eyed in my tiny window seat on a tiny jet to Corpus Christi watching as a very nice, very huge man was shimmying his hips like Shakira to try to fit between the armrests of the tiny seat next to me. It soon became apparent that this was impossible, so the stewardess reached over and raised the armrest between us. As he crashed into his seat, I was smashed up against the bulkhead like a swatted fly. For the next hour and sixteen minutes, our bodies were in constant, intimate, sweaty contact. As I finally deplaned, I thought the least the airline could have done was offered me a cigarette.

Believe me, I appreciate the speed of air travel and its relative affordability. And I also understand that narrow seats and full planes help keep ticket prices low. I’m just suggesting that the airline industry keep in mind that the cold, hard numbers in their algorithms represent human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

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ARNAUD BELTRAME, TIMELESS HERO

Think about the beautiful things in your life. The unshakable love of your parents for you. What it felt like to fall in love with the love of your life. Your first baby’s first smile. All the shared experiences that forged unbreakable bonds between you and your siblings. Memories of crazy-fun times spent with friends. When winter turns to spring and summer to fall. A mountain sunset or a beach-side sunrise. Think about all of it, and then ask yourself if, under any circumstances, you’d ever sacrifice it all for a perfect stranger?

Now imagine you’re Arnaud Beltrame, a police officer dispatched to the scene of the hostage situation that occurred in Trebes, France last week. A terrorist has stormed into a supermarket and taken fifty hostages. On the way to the store, he carjacked a vehicle, killing one person in the car and wounding the other. He then fired six shots at a group of police officers, wounding one in the shoulder. He entered the supermarket guns blazing, murdering two and wounding more than a dozen others. The terrorist, now claiming to be a soldier of the Islamic State, is demanding, in exchange for his hostages’ lives, the release of a fellow Islamic State soldier who participated in the November 2015 Paris attacks which left 130 people dead and about 350 wounded. During the ensuing hostage negotiations, all but one of the hostages, a young mother, are freed.

It’s a glorious early spring day in southern France. Officer Beltrame has a loving mother and brother. He’s in the midst of a brilliant career as a police officer. He and his fiance, Marielle, are busy finishing the marriage preparation course required by the Catholic Church and planning their June wedding.

But, Officer Beltrame, with every beautiful thing in life to live for, lays down his gun and walks into the store to take the place of the last hostage. Inevitably, two hours after entering the store, he is shot and stabbed and later dies of his wounds, but not before marrying Marielle in a deathbed ceremony conducted by the local parish priest

His mother said, “I am not surprised that it was him. He has always been like this.” She described her son as someone whose reason for being was to defend others’ lives. His brother said,” He was very aware of what he was doing; he didn’t hesitate for a second.” French President, Emmanuel Macron, said, “In giving his life to end the deadly plan of a jihadist terrorist, he fell as a hero.”

Watching the news every day, it’s easy to believe that the West has lost its soul. It seems perfectly clear that materialism and hedonism have killed off our cultural conscience in favor of the guilt-free pursuit of our own selfish goals. But, Arnaud Beltrame’s story recalls the sacrifice of another innocent person who, two millennia ago, willingly surrendered himself to the brutality of insensate evil for the sake of others .

If the West can still produce selfless heroes like Officer Beltrame, there’s reason for hope.

Have a Happy Easter.

THE 15:17 TO PARIS

Clint Eastwood’s latest project, The15:17 to Paris, is the story of the 2015 terrorist attack on a French train that was thwarted by three young Americans. It only got a 21% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I went anyway because there’s only so much to do on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon.

I managed to endure the 30 or 40 stultifying previews, each featuring snide heroes with fully automatic weapons chopping up sundry monsters, robots, and aliens. Proving that if you want to save yourself a trip to the movies these days, fill a blender with tomato juice, leave the lid off, and hit frappe.
Finally, the show started, and I beheld something I haven’t seen at the movies in a long, long time: Real life. Hollywood can’t seem to paint in this color anymore: The houses are always too nice, the cars too new, the bodies too perfect, and the dreams all come true.
But, here were people just like us grinding through ordinary lives. The film’s three protagonists grew up in modest houses; they were trouble in school and their stressed out single moms struggled to control their rebelliousness; as young men, they worked in fast-food joints and strove to realize their dreams only to fall short through no fault of their own; and, even though they prayed earnestly for guidance, there were never any easy answers. And, none of it is lit particularly well, the direction is minimalistic, and the acting is halting and amateurish. You know, like real life.
The acting is amateurish principally because Eastwood cast the men who actually overpowered the terrorist in the three leading roles. Why would the director of Unforgiven and American Sniper choose to work with amateurs? The answer gobsmacks you during the riveting attack sequence.
We, understandably, try to keep a psychological distance from the reality of terrorist attacks. That’s why our most vivid memories of them are often the pathetic, kabuki-like ritual of lighting candles and leaving messages at the scene of the carnage. The cold reality that’s lost in all this deflection is that on the ground, in real time, they’re savage, bloody attacks on individual, innocent, terrified people. That blunt fact has been lost on popular culture – until now.
In 15:17 to Paris, when the terrorist starts shooting, we identify so strongly with three of the people he’s trying to murder that the movie transports us into the center of a ferocious life or death struggle. And Eastwood’s camera spares his audience not one gruesome detail of that struggle, forcing us to stare into the pitiless evil that is a terrorist attack.
But, it’s when the shooter enters the Americans’ train car that the film really comes into its own. Watching the three everymen who actually risked their lives to repel the attacker reenact their transformation into heroes is cinema magic.
At 87, and after almost 60 years working in movies, Clint Eastwood knows that slick Hollywood productions can’t convey the grittiness of real life. Casting amateurs was a brilliant directorial choice because there are no actors skilled enough to portray the empathetic ordinariness a true telling of the story demanded.
The critics are wrong. The audience applauded as the credits rolled. This is powerful stuff. Check it out.

 

SEARCHING FOR SANTA

When you’re a kid, Santa is easy to spot: He’s the guy in the red suit who gives you presents. When you’re a grownup, nobody gives you anything and Christmastime is basically a month-long reminder of just how little disposable income you have.  So, Mr. Claus can be hard to find.

But the thing about Santa Claus is, you never can tell who he’ll be or where or when he’ll show up. For instance, the last time I saw him was on a frigid state highway.

It was the morning of The Big Snow and rush hour traffic was stopped heading up an overpass on SPID. Unfortunately, I was in my classic, 2002, 4-banger pickup that’s lighter in the rear end than a vegetarian’s dog.

When traffic finally started moving, I shifted into first and eased off the clutch. My truck bucked and then started slewing wildly from side to side as the rear tires spun out in the slushy ice. My heart rate quintupled as I desperately tried several more times, hoping to get over toward the guardrail where I thought some fresh snow might provide traction, but I couldn’t move an inch. Palms sweating, honking traffic backing up behind me, I gave up and realized I was helpless.

Just then there was a tapping on my window. I rolled it down and beheld a smiling, recruiting-poster-of-a-guy with a UNITED STATES NAVY sweatshirt on.

“A little slick out here, huh?” he asked.

I nodded.

“You mind if I give you a push?”

“That would be great!”

He walked around to the back of my truck, dropped his shoulder against it, and hit it like a linebacker punishing a blocking sled. I jammed it into first, popped the clutch, and shot toward the traction of the fresh snow which grabbed my tires and slung me on my way.

As he drove by in his Jeep, I waved at Santa and mouthed, “Thank you”. He smiled and waved back. For a long time afterward, the tattered remnants of my heart glowed with a peace and Christmas spirit I hadn’t known in a long time.

Two thoughts occurred to me. The first was how lucky we are to be a military town. Thanks to NASCCAD, some of the finest people to ever walk the planet live among us. They are truly America’s best, and we’re blessed to have them in our midst.

I also realized that at a time when you can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper without reading about how bitterly divided Americans are, he helped me not caring about the color of my skin, or if I was a Democrat or Republican, pro or anti-Tax Reform, a Trumper or a Never Trumper, for or against Repeal and Replace, or The Wall or any of the rest of the flotsam and jetsam that push us apart from each other. He helped me for the same reason the Cajun Navy and J.J. Watt helped the people of Houston: Because I was a fellow human being in trouble. That’s what Santa Claus does.

While we’re sailing along leading our daily lives, it’s easy to forget how vulnerable all of us are. That our differences, as profound as they are, don’t separate us from each other at the level of our humanity. And that at any moment, we might need help from someone – or be able to help someone – regardless of their race, sex, politics, religion, or any of the rest of it. That’s the place to look for Santa Claus.

When angels announced to the shepherds the birth of our last hope, they proclaimed, “…and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Our fallen world seems no more disposed toward peace than it was 2000 years ago. But, if world peace is ultimately manifested by good will toward men, then that means we, as individuals, can help it along. We can help it along by resisting the Jerry Springerization of our society and treating each other as we would want to be treated. So, stop searching for Santa Claus; you are Santa Claus.

Have a Merry Christmas.

SO LONG, NFL

Maybe I first realized it while watching Jerry and the Cowboys strutting arm-in-arm like the Rockettes. Or it could have been when I noticed that all the late-night comics had morphed into policy wonks. Perhaps it was when I noticed every showbiz awards show had devolved into a political meeting with nearly all the subtlety and nuance of a nominating convention. Or it might have been when I heard that NFL teams were holding pre-game meetings to determine how they were going to conduct themselves as they faced the flag that draped my father’s coffin. Or maybe it was while listening to one tsunami of sanctimony after another from ESPN’s sages as they strained to talk about something other than Xs and Os.
I guess I don’t know exactly when it was, but I recently realized that I’m being driven away from contemporary American culture.
And the farther I get from it, the more I notice a peculiar thing: It’s not much of a culture. Name a great, active American novelist, composer, playwright, poet, or artist who can move the cultural needle? Let me save you the trouble; there aren’t any. It’s even been a long time since there’s been an American movie touched by timeless greatness. Why is the culture in such a crummy state? Maybe it’s because unquestioned groupthink and a rigid orthodoxy do not make for great art; they make for inane entertainment and oppressive propaganda. And that’s pretty much what we’ve got.
My estrangement from the culture has not been easy; I really miss the NFL. I grew up watching it every Sunday afternoon with my father. Until the day he died, it was the one thing we could talk about when we couldn’t talk about anything else. In his heartbreaking last years, whenever I wanted to cheer him up, I’d reminisce about the heroics of the Houston Oilers, especially Earl Campbell. Even as Alzheimer’s tightened its pitiless grip on him, he’d still smile every time I mentioned The Tyler Rose.
Because I stopped watching the NFL several weeks ago, I was forced to look around for another kind of light entertainment to wile away lazy Sunday afternoons. While channel surfing, I saw a stadium full of British soccer hooligans serenading their team with a sappy Broadway show tune: You’ll Never Walk Alone. It was the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League. Intrigued, I studied up on them and found that they’ve been around since 1892 and were just the right combination of success and futility for me. I started recording their games and watching them on Sunday afternoons.
I don’t know much about soccer yet, but I like it. There are no huddles, so the action is continuous and spontaneous. I could do without the players collapsing like they’ve been poleaxed whenever an opponent breathes on them. And the action is sometimes hard to follow and often seems to descend into pointless chaos. But then suddenly, like a clap of thunder on a cloudless day, there’s a flash of unimaginable collaborative brilliance and out of the chaos the ball somehow lasers just past the goalie and into the onion bag. And then I find myself cheering and fist pumping just like I used to when Dak and Dez would connect for a TD.
But best of all, at the end of the game, many of the players and coaches walk to the center of the field and applaud their home fans in sincere appreciation for supporting them in good times and in bad and from one generation to the next. Try to imagine NFL players and coaches showing that kind of appreciation and respect for their generations of loyal fans. Don’t bother; it’s never gonna happen.
Maybe that says it all.

MISS YOU, MOM

How many great people have you met?

When we’re asked that question, we reflexively start cataloguing our brushes with famous celebrities, performers, and ballplayers. But they’re not great; they’re lucky. And despite their insane good fortune, any supermarket checkout aisle reveals the long trail of broken families, hearts, and promises most of them leave behind as they ego-crash through others’ lives.

My mom, who died last month at 90, was a great person. And the odds are, you know someone who’s great in the same way that she was.

She was an aspiring model in New York City until the night she met my father. He told her that night that he was going to marry her, and, not long after, he did. Five kids followed in quick succession.

One horrible day, she walked into my brother Johnny’s room to discover that the worst thing had happened: her infant son had died. It nearly broke her, but eventually she was able to pull herself together and persevere for the four of us.

My parents always had more kids than money, but mom insisted on sending us to the best schools. She yearned to finish college, but our education always came first. So, she worked every hour she could spare to pay our tuition. She dreamed of seeing the world, but our needs always came first. So, she contented herself by experiencing the world between the covers of hundreds of books.

And then one sunny day, she found the four of us had all flown away: She was free.

She continued to work, but sold her suburban home in Houston and moved downtown. She became a regular at cultural events and bought season tickets to the opera. Mom began a fiery correspondence with David Gockley, the general director of the Houston Grand Opera, about the more salacious aspects of his productions. Most of her letters began, “How dare you!” To his credit, Mr. Gockley always fired back a thoughtful response.

She suddenly started throwing together shoestring trips to Europe and the Far East with old friends from high school. We’d get postcards from the other side of the world when we had absolutely no idea she was even out of town.

Mom was always very grateful that when her brothers came home from World War II, they had pooled their money and sent her off to one year of college in Virginia. When she talked to us about it years later, her voice sounded different and you could see in her eyes how joyful she was at the memory of it.

And then her life’s dream came true. At the age of 72, and while still working full- time, mom somehow finagled a scholarship to the University of St. Thomas, and — proclaiming that it was her dream to die a junior — began pursuing, part-time, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

She sat in the front of every class, because she had perfectly prepared herself and was eagerly anticipating any question the professor might ask. The professors loved her because her enthusiasm was contagious. Her fellow students were intrigued by her because she brought to the classroom the perspective of seven decades of struggle and sacrifice. For a time, most of her friends were a third her age. Somehow, her story got out, and Houston’s PBS station produced a short documentary about her life.

At 80, failing health forced her to quit school, a junior and an honor student.

One of the last times I spoke to her, I asked how she was doing. She replied, “I’m just waiting for angels to take me. And if they’re not angels, I’m not going!”

I told her that she would have been great if she’d concentrated on a business career instead of the four of us. She snapped at me and said she’d done exactly what she wanted to do: raise four great kids.

Mom knew the great secret of life: If you sacrifice for those you love, there is no sacrifice, there’s only love.

If you have someone in your life who has sacrificed for you, give them a hug and thank them for their greatness, before angels take them.

JULIUS TRUMP

Shakespeare in the Park was on my bucket list, so I was determined to check it out while visiting NYC early this month.
On the plane, I reread Julius Caesar and scoured the internet for the best way to get tickets. I didn’t read any reviews, because I was going to go regardless and wanted to be surprised. Well, I was.
The night of the show was cold and a misting rain angled in through the bright stage lights of the outdoor Delacorte Theater. In the near background stood Central Park’s illuminated medieval castle topped by an American flag whipping in the wind. Before the play started, I remember thinking “This beautiful setting is perfect for a Shakespearean tragedy, and I’m lucky to be here.” I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the audience who didn’t know what was coming next.
When Caesar made his entrance, it was instantly apparent that he was cast and costumed to look just like Donald Trump. The blustery manner, crazy hair, and too-long tie were dead giveaways. Still, my mind wouldn’t accept the fact that an American icon like the Public Theater would stoop to such a tasteless and, frankly, embarrassingly sophomoric ploy. But, when Caesar’s knockout wife spoke with a thick Slovenian accent, the jig was up. How, I wondered, would they handle the assassination scene with an actor simulating the sitting President of the United States?
Well, they handled it just like Shakespeare wrote it. Several of Rome’s greatest citizens surrounded and savagely stabbed him 33 times. They then knelt around his bleeding corpse and washed their arms in his crimson blood up to their elbows: that’s entertainment.
I stayed to see if they’d alter the ending to suit their political purposes, but they didn’t; the play ended as the tragedy it was meant to be.
During the assassination scene, I surveyed my fellow theatregoers to gauge their reactions, and was surprised to find them impassively taking it all in. I left thinking that only provincial rubes, like me, were jarred by it. So, it was actually heartening when a week or so later it became a national scandal.
I get that Republicans and Democrats hate each other now and both think the other side is crazy and probably evil. I get that the national media, cultural institutions like the Public Theater, and every flop-sweating, late-night comic are doing their best to whip up national division. But, Americans still have in common that this is the country, whose ideals, institutions, and founding documents we love and respect. Most all our families have at one time or another, in one way or another, sacrificed to protect it.
As Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
How do we reconnect with the better angels of our nature? By reasoning together.
The lifeblood of American democracy is our tradition of robust debate, which tests diverse opinions and ultimately arrives at a consensus we can all live with. Maybe the Supreme Court has decided too many hot button issues for us, maybe the internet insulates us from divergent opinions, or maybe we’re no longer taught the importance of debate, but, whatever the cause, our ability and desire to reason with each other — both in Congress and on the street— has degenerated.
And as diverse as we are, if we won’t reason together, we can’t live together.
For what it’s worth, it might help if instead of the puerile pap they dish out every night, one of the networks broadcast an occasional series of free and open debates on controversial national issues. That might reintroduce Americans to the process of respectfully considering opposing arguments, honestly assessing weaknesses in their own, and working toward common ground. And, it just might help us find our way back to those better angels.