Friday, October 4, 2019

Serenade to the Big Bird*

“I heard an airplane passing overhead. I wished I was on it.”
Charles Bukowski 

The Collings Foundation's Boeing B-17 "Nine-O-Nine" crashed this week in Connecticut, killing seven individuals, including both pilots. It had been built in 1944, purchased in the 80s by Collings and had flown many thousands of hours, on tour as a reminder of the service rendered by air crews during WWII.

Little concrete information is available. A video clip posted on YouTube contains a radio transmission from the aircraft moments after takeoff. The pilots reported engine difficulties and were returning to land. According to an NTSB briefing, the aircraft landed about one thousand feet short of the runway threshold, shearing off a number of approach lights. The aircraft struck a deicing facility and was partially consumed in a post-crash fire.


My family and I, while residing in Syracuse, NY, went with my parents to the then-fledgling aviation museum in Geneseo, south of Rochester. There were half a dozen types, including a work-in-progress B-17. The grounds were open to anyone wanting to visit.

We walked up to the side of their Flying Fortress, painted a dark green. Many of its windows were covered with temporary plastic sheets. It was beautiful.

By and by, we were asked to give the craft a little room. Several men boarded, one of whom opened the left side cockpit window. An exchange of curt comments with ground crew and the propeller of the left-most engine began to turn. The radial engine coughed intermittently, seeming reluctant to stir from a sound sleep. Eventually it assumed the rumble of a magnificently-tuned powerplant, followed in close order by the other three. 

We were, at most, a hundred feet from the airplane. Once the motors were warm, the crew satisfied, she waddled to the end of the grass runway. Pausing for only a moment, the aircraft started forward. She flew directly overhead, the rumble so distinctive that someone who had even a passing interest in vintage aircraft would say - "B-17."

What must it have been like, to be at an airbase in England in the 1940s, watching as hundreds of these airplanes took off for missions on the European continent? They went aloft to uncertain futures, some of them never to return. Each carried ten men... Men. Most of the time, the aircraft commander was the oldest member of the 22 or 23. Many of the guys in back were teenagers. They did what had to be done, suffered and sacrificed together, and came home to their families when the peace they'd help win was restored.

Why do these airplanes continue to fly? To remember. We mourn the loss of life in Connecticut this week, wishing only peace and comfort to the families and friends left behind. The lost will never be forgotten, especially when The Big Bird passes overhead.

*Bert Stiles enlisted in the Army in 1942 while attending Colorado College. He flew thirty-five missions as a B-17 co-pilot, requested a transfer to fighters instead of rotating home and was killed flying a P-51 Mustang. He was 23 years old. He is buried near Liege, Belgium. His mother discovered the manuscript for Serenade to the Big Bird after his death, and had it published. It is commonly regarded as one of the finest accounts of the air war over Germany during World War Two.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Let's Go Cruise Wegman's

"I know it's two AM, but ain't ya still my friend?
It's so hard to get you off my mind.
I just had to hear you one more time."
Bat McGrath, Blue Eagle, From The Blue Eagle (1976)

Noting the passing of singer-songwriter Bat McGrath.

You've probably never heard of him. Maybe you've never heard any of his songs. Maybe you don't know that he was one of Rochester, NY's prodigal sons. That's totally okay.

Back in the 70s it was Chuck Mangione, Don Potter, the Rochester Philharmonic and Bat McGrath. They made a Grammy-nominated record, played to packed houses and crafted a unique, unmistakable sound instantly recognizable across the years.

His songs were catchy, ingenious. Anyone living in Western NY could instantly understand time, place and manner. He's at a red-neck bar called The Blue Eagle, on a pay phone with an ex-girlfriend he can't get off his mind. He's bored - let's go check out the counter girls at Wegman's: they're open all night. Let's go find a beach along the western coast of Florida, because "There ain't no stoned out hippies mauling you."

From The Blue Eagle was released about the time I was preparing to chase a few dreams into Colorado. It didn't go according to plan, initially. I felt alone and abandoned, scraping together a meager living, trying to maintain the most precarious of toe holds, living in a rooming house and delivering pizza in the DU area into the wee hours. Uncertainty a constant companion, I plied my trade in an old Chevy Impala my cousin had nicknamed "The Gold Ghost."

And, didn't I see a familiar poster in a record store window one night, an album cover - back when they were an art form - of Bat McGrath. "Yeah, it's me. I'm at The Blue Eagle." Man, I knew the feeling.

He  wanted to write music and live on a farm, his wife commented. He got to do both. I wanted to make a life in Colorado, have some kids and find a calling. Check.

Didn't we both get what we came for, after all.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Not Goodbye, but Fare Well

“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

On September 25th, University College at the University of Denver bid farewell to Academic Director Dr. Pat Greer. A number of her friends and colleagues spoke at the event.

She was a mentor, a scholar, a leader. She was a teacher, a learner, a coach. She took a cold call and turned it into "Leadership and Lagers with Dr. Pat." She allowed life-long dreams to be fulfilled. She was a friend.

I could not be more proud to share in this amazing journey.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Workplace to Embrace

“I always arrive late at the office, but I make up for it by leaving early.”
Charles Lamb


One of the challenges of being a small business owner - that's me - is office space. Do I rent a small office to call "Work" and ply the solitary pursuit of writing?

I visited the "WeWork" site, to do some preliminary research and - Bam! It's 2019, my friends. I get twenty little reminders on Facebook every day that there is more than one company offering small, medium and large office accommodations.

With amenities!

One, a company in Boulder, had an admittedly nice picture of a person looking wistfully out a window, down on a sedate and bucolic neighborhood... At least as sedate and bucolic as Boulder can be. Among the things provided by the complex (all for $699/month, for a private desk) was "local craft beer."

Oh, yeah?

But, does the place come equipped with tiki torches, margaritas and a Portie named Jed?

I didn't think so. This is my new office.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Who Would Have Thought, It Figures

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the road less traveled by and they CANCELLED MY FRIKKIN' SHOW. I totally shoulda took the road that had all those people on it. Damn.”
Joss Whedon

Practicing for retirement. 

I am what a friend calls, somewhat dismissively, "Three digits short." That is, I am more than one hundred days shy of leaving full-time career employment. However, there is no time like the present to take on the burden of "nothing much to do," as John Prine expressed ("Hello in There" 1971).

My wife and I had selected restoratives appropriate for the occasion - her a lovely sparkling wine (with cheese and crackers - she'd learned the art of this afternoon repast in Greece) and I a home-built margarita, as an antidote to bee sting. I worked at finishing Kevin D. Williamson's The Smallest Minority - Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics. We'd fired up the tikis, unfurled the umbrella. If this is the boring lifestyle of the retired, then I'm all for it.

Williamson is something of an acquired taste. His rhetorical style is often peppered with slights of one form or another. Not unvarnished name calling, he just writes dismissively about a number of subjects. On those occasions when he disrespects something with which I am passionate (he isn't much of a fan of law enforcement as he suggests it is currently practiced) I express - sometimes directly at him - my displeasure. He, as he writes in his book, ignores me and others as beneath his dignity. 

He writes really well. Williamson's work stands as an example of something from which I can, sometimes grudgingly, learn a thing or two. His series on poverty in Appalachia is especially heartbreaking, and informative.

Among the topics Williamson addresses in Minority is censorship. He notes, in passing, that the American government is not in the censorship business, strictly speaking. Most of the time, a person's right to freely express themselves is infringed by "the mob." As opposed, I assume, by "The Mob," which lent a certain finality to its efforts at censorship (the cornfield scene in Casino comes immediately to mind). In Williamson's view, the mob takes on many forms. One, in which I apparently ran afoul in an unsuccessful attempt to post a review of The Smallest Minority, are "standards" imposed on many social media venues.

Swearing - I'm sorry...profanity - is not permitted on Amazon. I suggest that it might be one of the only places it is not permitted (ride the Light Rail lately?) but then Amazon has not called me lately asking for advice on their standards. I post, herewith, my review in its entirety:

    I read a review of a book written by Nassim Taleb to the effect that he is an asshole, but one often right. The same applies to this author. He's often a jerk, but is totally worth reading. This is a really good book.

My authority on profanity is the late commentary titan Dr. Charles Krauthammer. In an essay appropriately titled "The Deuce," he describes an encounter between two politicians whose disdain for one another was epic. Apparently, their conversation deteriorated to the point where one of them, then Vice President of the United States, chose "the deuce." It became something of a scandal.

If you've ever read Taleb (Black Swan, Anti-Fragile) you would immediately understand my meaning. Taleb is openly contemptuous of anyone with the temerity to disagree with him, noting on one occasion that if you are reading his book, it doesn't really matter if you are enjoying the experience. He has already gotten about as much mileage out of you as he expected, going in.

Williamson believes something of the same, at one point suggesting that most human beings are foul, disgusting and stupid. Be that as it may (a friend once commented, as we dealt with yet another workplace shit show, "Have you ever wondered how human beings became the dominant species on this planet?") I'd at least assume for the moment the reader was smart enough to tuck into his book.

But, Minority is an extraordinary book for its era. As someone who spends a lot of time on social media (for a variety of reasons, not the least of them that I'd like to have gotten you this far) his observations are spot on, if lacking compassion, wisdom or humility. He notes that individuals and organizations have often fallen victim to torrents of criticism merely because they expressed (or, were thought - erroneously in many cases - to have expressed) opinions that do not follow the mob's. 

He notes several examples of individuals adversely affected by the social media mob. One of them, well thought of at an important organization, got on a plane for vacation, made an innocuous remark on Twitter (and then shut off her various devices) and then, oblivious to the Twitter firestorm that had ensued, gotten off the plane at her destination unemployed, and unemployable. He maps the effects of greed, envy and outcastism. At one point, using many more words than one of my grandsons, he describes inter-tribalistic disagreements as... Well, my grandson, upon witnessing demonstrators and counter demonstrator in DC, said he thought he understood the dynamic. "One side says 'You suck' and the other side says 'No, you suck.'"

And so, to appease the mob (and sometimes foreign governments) organizations like Amazon impose "standards," so as not to offend. Offend whom, Williamson knows not. But, there you are. It's ironic, don't you think?

This is my blog, a place for adults to read, to be entertained. If you don't like it here... Well, Dr. K has some advice for you.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Heartache in My Mind's Eye

Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas over the weekend, and kicked their ass. We will drink our Bahama Mamas, give to an array of relief funds and pray for the men and women who have watched their entire lives washed out to sea. We have an intimate relationship with the Bahamas, you see. Once, we arrived on a sailing ship...

I posted this on TripAdvisor. I republish it because I cannot bear to think of the wonderful people we met in the Eleutheras, the gentle way they had. I hope they are all safe.

Our Bahama sail aboard the Liberty Clipper defies easy description. It was unlike any vacation we have experienced.

We are veteran “big boat” cruisers, used to the kinds of amenities major lines offer. Options – lots of options, lots of glitz, everything done by crisply-dressed crew members who bring game faces to every encounter. Schedules of events slipped under the door very very AM and adhered to with nautical precision. Port calls done with military efficiency, ashore at zero whatever and don’t be late getting back. The Captain is a voice on the intercom.

Our first impression of Liberty Clipper was of a vessel who spends her days primarily at sea. There was rust. Many of the fittings showed wear and repair – probably multiple times. So many feet, both shod and bare, have walked the deck that the wood is nobly worn in all the right ways, including those imperfections that would be immediately cured on a mega-vessel. The crew had made this a comfortable home, without pretense or affect. If a towel was useful as a shade in a porthole, well that’s what they used.

The week started with a meet and greet, where we were introduced to both crew and guests. Again, zero pretense. Do you want a beer? Let me show you to the ice chest. Snacks? Laid out for the gala, but once underway there are bags of chips and granola bars in a basket. Make yourself a mixed drink in the salon.

The safety briefing was delivered in person by the Captain. No frills, but also no nonsense. This schooner was built to be sailed, not to be ridden. Everything had a purpose, nothing was illusion or sham. Substantial booms moved with heft, thick lines were under tremendous tension. The “ladders” were just that – and we were reminded that “toes grip, heels slip.” We were shown to our cabin by the steward.

We had paid for an upgraded cabin, with our own shower, sink and toilet. Helpful amenities, to be sure, but the quarters were cramped. We found it impossible for two of us to maneuver through dressing – we did it in shifts. Bunk beds, the top narrow and not easy to get to. Experimentation finally led to a solution that could be accomplished in the dark (not using the ladder, on which we hung clothes). When the company says, “pack a sea bag,” you should believe that. There are no closets or dresser drawers. There is no AC. Small fans and an overhead hatch provide ventilation.

A few down sides. For some reason, a noxious odor often accompanied running the engines. It dissipated soon enough, but for a while our cabin was unpleasant. Even with a reduced passenger load it was generally difficult to find privacy, as we shared the common areas with off-duty crew. The bilge/sea toilet system was temperamental, needing tinkering to keep things from backing up. Finally, if long, hot, luxuriant showers are necessary to keep a person in good spirits… Look up “Navy shower.”

On our last night aboard, the Captain thanked us for helping to keep the idea of life under sail alive. Truly, it brought tears to my eyes. The whole boat – THE WHOLE BOAT – was about celebrating an intimate relationship with the sea that no mega-monster-floating hotel can replicate. We went places because the wind and the tides were right. We visited stunning beaches on uninhabited islands. We tucked into coves and sheltered anchorages at night surrounded by miles of ocean under a billion stars. We ate meals together, created by crewmembers (primarily “Mom” and “Dad”) with world class culinary skills. On our anniversary - a pan brownie personalized just for us.

The crew… Dreads, tattoos, bare feet and character. Early in the cruise one of the deck hands engaged the captain (an amazingly experienced, capable and approachable man) in a philosophical math discussion with overtones of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Another answered an innocuous question with such deep thought and conviction I will use his insights to be better at my own job. “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start now” became a rallying call. Beach coconut bocce. An hour discussing Eastern Europe with a crewman who doubled as “Pig Bar” proprietor, with him using the word tautology to describe some of his ink.

We parted at the end as unceremoniously as we’d arrived. But, we were different people than when we first came aboard. This may not be an every vacation. It certainly isn’t for everyone. I have to tell you…

My wife was invited to take the helm under the superb guidance of The Boss. We were “sailing reach before a following sea” in the words of CSN, 4-5 foot waves having a little fun with us. She observed to her mentor that keeping a steady course resembled the firm but soft hands required on horseback. For the next half hour she and our captain discussed that as the ship sailed onward toward Nassau, my wife in total synch with the wind and waters.

Mere money cannot purchase moments like that.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Clock on My Desk

.. retiring from your primary career is not merely an act of ending, but, more opportunistically and relevant, an act of commencement and of the promise of a meaningful future.
Alan Spector, After the Cheering Stops

I'm not obsessed with retirement.

Okay, I said it. But, as I write these words a small clock stares back - one hundred thirty nine days, ten hours and change.

We've done the money prep, the social prep and had a meeting with someone who, with all of her dignity intact, calls herself a "shrink." My employer knows, my coworkers are getting the word... Now all that has to happen is for the date to arrive.

The common question to answer, both for myself and others, is - "What are you going to do?"


I get up early every morning as a matter of course, so sleeping in would only feel weird. There are a million things to do around the house, but the place was built in 1970 - there is always something to do around the house. We're in the pipeline for seeing the grandkids already.

So, with my humility in full swing (and knowing this is mostly for me) here is a list of things, in no particular order:

1. Writing. In addition to finishing the novel I'm still working on, I've never really gotten the chance to market what I've already written. That not only entails bugging people I know to buy something, it means a broader appeal, to find others who do not know that I write novels. I have a web site that has been dormant, a blog I haven't been especially attentive to and if I can get more diligent, it might turn into,

2. A part-time job. I'd love to write for a living, but that is entirely up to you! Amazon seems always to be hiring part time (shift work - yuck), which would be spent more likely than not on travel. I've been a teacher in the past, so a classroom assignment would be possible, since I'm a hideous on line teacher. As for law work - part time law work is 40 hours a week. Working to pay for,

3. Travel. Yup. We won't do anything crazy, since the dogs miss us whenever we are away. Yes, that reference is done intentionally. There are a lot of places we want to go, things we want to see (Lords cricket grounds in London, eg.). Travel is definitely on our list, but then,

4. Cycling. Nearly five years of a largely sedentary assignment has made me long to ride, ride, ride. Riding partners, are you listening?

A new phase, new purpose. One hundred thirty nine days, nine hours...