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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Carl Sandburg got it wrong. It’s not the fog that comes on little cat feet; it’s old age. We’re so focused on barreling through our daily lives that we don’t really notice age creeping up on us. But every now and then something happens that reminds us the clock is ticking.
On a recent trip to the chain barber shop I’ve been going to for years, I was assigned a pretty, perky, twenty-something cosmetologist. I was happily chatting her up when — for the first time ever—she asked if I wanted my eyebrows and ears trimmed. My brain skipped like a 45rpm and visions of Andy Rooney loomed in my head. “I guess so,” I squeaked. I spent the rest of my time in the chair sullenly counting the few grains of pepper left in my salt-and-pepper hair as they wafted onto my lap.
I was beginning to feel a little less shocky as we walked to the cash register. That is until, without asking me if I qualified, she gave me — for the first time ever — the 65-and-over discount. This forced me to shakily explain to her, and everyone else in the shop, that, though I clearly look at least 65, I’m actually 57. For my trouble, she charged me another 3 dollars.
I was relieved to get home until I noticed that—for the first time ever—the barber had left one clump of hair much longer than all the others. Mystified, I asked my wife about it. She gleefully explained that it was for a Trumpian comb over and asked if I’d considered getting an orange dye job?
Sensitized to my senior status by this encounter, I began to notice other sure signs of aging:
- At a car dealership, instead of looking for as much styling, performance, and handling as I could afford, my only real consideration was the amount of lumbar support.
- Every time I stand, I emit a little, involuntary grunt of dissatisfaction.
- Every time I sit, I emit a little, involuntary grunt of satisfaction.
- I can comb my hair with a towel.
- When I look in the mirror, my father stares back.
Time is relentless, but is there a way to stave off its icy grip? Based on what I’ve seen in my own family, the best way to resist aging is to stay active. So, for the last several years, to keep creakiness and crankiness at bay, I’ve been running 3 times a week.
But running is a solo sport, so if you skip a workout, the only one you let down is yourself. And, because my bed never feels comfier or cooler than on those soupy Corpus Christi summer mornings, I used to wimp out a lot. But that changed when I joined a Beach to Bay team, because now I’m letting down my teammates if I spank the alarm clock and roll over.
And there’s one teammate in particular I can’t let down: Herman Vacca. He’s a perpetually sunny, 79-year-old triple bypass and cancer survivor who’s run nearly every B2B since the race began. He remembers the first one as a few hardy souls running down wide open streets without police protection. There were no finisher medals, T-shirts, or post-race activities. He doesn’t remember the first time there were post-race beers, but he does remember there was no limit.
At our pre-race party last year, I told Herman I hoped I’d still be running when I was his age. He gave me a big smile and said he hoped he’d still be running right alongside me.
This year, health issues will prevent Herman from running, but he’ll be walking the first leg as fast as he can. That puts him in the conversation for toughest runner in the race, so, if you see him out there, give him a high five.
In the summer of ’76, I was 16 and got my first job working at a pizza restaurant. Orville (not his real name) was our manager. Only 20, he was laid-back, bright, and interested in everything except the pizza business. And he was the coolest guy I’d ever met.
My first morning, he handed me my new, red, plastic derby, with “PIZZA” and “FUN” printed on the hatband, and a jaunty, red and white striped vest. Then he hurriedly showed me how to run a large block of raw pizza dough back and forth through the roller press machine until it was flattened into a 20-foot-long sheet, only an eighth of an inch thick. He then pressed a steel cutting ring into the sheet and whipped a knife around its outside edge. He deftly repeated the process until he had three tall stacks each of small, medium, and large pizza “skins”.
The next morning I made the skins on my own. But Orv had neglected to tell me that before using the cutting rings, I should make sure the sheet of dough was not stretched tight. Because if it were, the skins slowly shape-shifted from round to oval.
After making the skins, I raced over to the food prep area to slice pepperoni and fill the tubs with toppings and sauce. But when I went to retrieve the skins to begin making pizzas, I was stunned to see that they had transformed themselves into stacks of small, medium, and large footballs.
I took one to Orv’s office in the back of the restaurant, fully expecting him to tell me to hand in my derby, but he just laughed.
“We’ll tell people it’s a football promotion,” he said.
“But Orv, it’s June.”
“Hey, it’s always football season in Texas.”
It worked. After an initial quizzical stare, few cared that their football-shaped pizzas were hanging over the edge of the pan or had to be crammed into a takeout box. And if they did ask, Orv would give them a fist pump and shout, “Go Oilers!”
One time, though, Orv carried being cool a little too far. One Tuesday morning the owner didn’t show up to count the receipts, like he usually did. I was busy with food prep, when I noticed that Orv was working frantically on the 6’x 6’ gas-fired pizza oven. I went over to ask what was up, and he said he’d stuck a match in every orifice he could find, but he couldn’t figure out how the owner lit the oven. By then it was 11:15, and we both knew it took an hour for the oven to heat up.
Soon, customers started to pour in for the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. Orv took their money and pointed them all toward the salad bar. When they asked where the pizza was, he told them we were working on it. It didn’t take long for the normal conversational buzz of the 40 or so customers to be replaced by a menacing silence.
I asked Orv what we should do, and he said, “Let’s go to my office, close the door, and hide.” Which is exactly what we did.
Things went well for a while in Orv’s office. We were sitting around joking about the Astros and had pretty much forgotten about the oven issue when suddenly there was a loud pounding on the door. Apparently, the customers had elected a representative to find out what the heck was going on.
When Orv told him, he turned and bellowed to the other customers, “THERE’S NO PIZZA!” They all shot to their feet and rushed toward us like the pitchfork brandishing villagers at the end of Frankenstein. Orv started to explain that to request a refund, they must write a letter to corporate headquarters, but quickly realized that enforcing company policy was not worth his life.
Later that afternoon the owner walked in and asked how lunch went. Orv, as cool as the other side of the pillow, answered, “Not bad.”