Of Stones and People
Here we are, on the cusp of Memorial Day, when we honor and remember those who died serving our country.
And, it’s a busy time for guiding here as schools across the country wind up the year with a DC trip. Most include a foray to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.
The Cemetery is my favorite place to visit. If that sounds odd, it’s really not. It can be an exquisite and serene oasis in the city. When quiet there is the rustle of wind in trees and the chorus of birds punctuated, as always, by the clatter of hooves on asphalt and gunfire in the distance as a final honor is bestowed. Few words are needed to tell the story of this place.
The Cemetery is immense, some 630 acres, with tens of thousands of headstones, many of the uniform type, but thousands of others of all sizes and shapes. For me, the stones have blended with the natural setting in a way to become almost one and the same. They are as periods at the end of sentences we will never read.
Two days ago I was with a group of fifth graders for two days when on the evening of the first day one of them asserted that they had seen a “ghost” at Arlington earlier. ”Right”, I answered back, to then be told there was a photo of the encounter which I obviously requested to see.
Out came the smartphone, and there, sure enough, in the center, was what looked to be a faint image of a long-ago soldier quietly attending–present and accounted for on the field of honor.
Alas, this is no ghost story as I doubt both the possibility and the provenance. But it need not be about either if it reminds us instead of lives both lived and given in service.
Still, in this age of ubiquitous “reality” please tell no one that I now wander the fields of Arlington fully enlivened by a fifth grader’s chance gift which now makes it a place of stones and people.
When Going Back to Bed seems like a Good Idea
I am at that point in life where consolidation seems like a good idea: finances, possessions, you name it.
It was for that reason that I decided to make Verizon my single stop for home phone, internet and cell service.
Months ago I made the arrangements and even ordered a new cell phone from Verizon. Like many “good” ideas I never got around to actually porting the number over from Virgin Mobile, until yesterday.
And yesterday was to be ambitious: port the phone, have my taxes done and renew the registration on my vehicle on the last day possible.
So much for that plan.
Having ported the number over the night before, I expected to awake to my new Verizon service. Not only did the old phone not work, the new one advised me that my service had been disconnected for non-payment.
I was able to call Verizon customer service to explain that I showed a $114 payment on March 15 but they could not hear me on the new phone. That advised me to fax in proof of payment and promptly hung up.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a fax machine. I located the proof online and went to print it, only to find that my virtually new Canon printer wouldn’t even turn on.
Coincidentally, renewing my vehicle registration online requires a printer for the temporary permit so that idea was also dead in the water.
So, it was off to the tax man, fairly brimming with confidence that last year’s changes, including the payment of estimated taxes would make this an easy task with perhaps, a rebate to recalibrate my day.
I shuffled out of the tax office at noon, $3600 poorer and I hadn’t even bought my lunch.
At least I wasn’t bothered by any phone calls.
My afternoon recovery plan included a Best Buy expedition for a new printer to jump start the other tasks.
$140 later I was home with a new printer. Having disconnected the “old” one, I decided that nothing would be lost by trying the old “give it a good whack” technique before recycling it. I dropped it about a foot onto a concrete floor, plugged it in and it now works fine.
Now I have two printers and a broken phone.
Maybe I’ll try that with the phone.
Now, That’s a Workout.
I spent part of this past week near Miami, Florida, sailing on Biscayne Bay. The Bay separates the mainland from Miami Beach where the smart set go to trendy clubs.
The Bay is large and full of manatees, dolphins and rays. This time of year the wind is good and the sailing, at least on an 18-foot catamaran, is fast.
The Bay also separates the City from Key Biscayne, a generally wealthy enclave perhaps best known as the southern White House of Richard Nixon where he also vacationed with his longtime friend Bebe Rebozo.
Rebozo was referred to as Nixon’s “bagman” and was thought to have taken payments for Nixon from Howard Hughes and others.
The Causeway leading over the Bay to Key Biscayne is named for Edward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker (1890-1973).
Rickenbacker fought to become a pilot during the first World War with the 94th Aero squadron. He was deemed to be too essential as a gifted engineer/mechanic but finally won his wings.
He went on to score 26 aerial victories, the most of any WWI pilot and eventually received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is pictured here in his Spad XIII.
As my sailing day came to a close, I began my walk south, over the fairly steep causeway back towards downtown Miami. Coming toward me, just exiting the causeway, was what appeared to be an elderly gentleman struggling to jog on what was a hot, sunny, 80 degree Florida afternoon. I admired his persistence.
As we closed the distance between us I could see that I was wrong, that my elderly man was instead a shaved-head fellow no older than his early forties but still having a pretty tough time.
We nodded as we passed and it was only then that I noticed that he had a harness around his mid-section connected to a rope. At the other end of the twenty foot rope was a good size truck tire that he was dragging, apparently up and over the causeway. It was cross-fit on steroids and tough enough to make even Eddie Rickenbacker proud.
I kept walking, momentarily elated that I had crossed paths with someone who makes even me seem normal. God bless him.
Half the Fun is Getting There?
I am on the way to the Himalayas for a month to trek and spend time in Kathmandu, if I ever get there.
This is my fourth trip to Nepal but it’s been sometime and I guess I forgot that it is not around the corner, by a long shot.
Some will recall that it is a fairly small country, 57,000 square miles and it is squished, literally, between India and Tibet. The southern part of the country mirrors the climate and topography of India while the same is true on the Tibetan side. It is there that eight of the ten tallest mountains in the world spring up from the grinding together of opposing tectonic plates.
In search of the cheapest business class fare, I flew from Baltimore to Chicago where I caught an Air India flight, non-stop, to Delhi, where I sit, waiting on the final leg up to Kathmandu. That’s 14 1/2 hours from Chicago on a B-777-300 ER with additional four hour layovers here and there. I remain amazed that any airplane can fly that far non-stop but it is even more amazing that on arrival at Delhi it would be serviced in a few hours and on the way back to Chicago. That’s the ticket, day-after-day.
As an American, the cabin service seems funny–it’s chaos in the kitchen and you just eat what they bring till you can’t anymore. But always with the opening question, “Veg or non-veg?” After ordering non-veg, they came around with a cart and I dutifully ate the fish and chicken they offered only to later discover that it was simply an appetizer. Dinner looked good, even if I didn’t eat it when it arrived because I was stuffed.
Delhi is as I remembered it, at least from the air, is sprawling and very polluted with the sun setting in one of those orange hazes where it is a burning ball, viewed through noxious gases. One of my enduring memories of the city is a pedestrian fatality laying in the middle of a busy street, surrounded by traffic cones, as people went there merry way, careening. Life (and death) has a different price here.
Well, it’s time to head to the gate. Catch up soon.
The Incredible Shrinking Weenie
Any list of the least credible information sources would undoubtedly include Italian researchers and, of course, our own Rush. In fact, that may be the only match-up where Italians come out first.
It seems that the Italians have been researching the size of the male sexual organ, hard work if you can get it, and have determined that it has shrunk in size 10% over the last 50 years. (Though it’s not clear, I assume they mean newly arriving penises are smaller rather than losing what I already have, though I am sure there is a medication for that, too.)
According to Rush, they cite air pollution as the reason though he is inclined to blame it on “feminazis”, presumably women who exhibit ability outside the kitchen or the bedroom.
At long last, a reason to be over 50.
The end of the “regular” DC guiding season is (thankfully) upon us as students complete the school year and head out for their summer adventures.
I spent this final week with fifty Midwestern 8th-graders who were smart and well mannered which is a nice though somewhat rare combination.
Tuesday evening we walked some of the memorials on the west mall, including WWII and Lincoln. While the Memorials are by choice both staid and dignified, there is always a feeling of excitement and awe at the point where you first glimpse the distant granduer of the Lincoln Memorial from the 17th street aspect of WWII.
It is one of those sights that is forever amazing, epic even.
Later in the week we were at Mount Vernon and as we toured I asked one of the students what had impressed him the most about Washington, D.C. “The Museum of American History”, he replied. I followed up by asking him what he liked the most there. “The huge trains in the basement.”
His answer inspired me to wax eloquent (rather smartly, I thought) for two or three minutes, as we walked, about the importance of steam power in the growth and development of the US.
He listened patiently and then said, with that deadpan look of complete disinterest that only an 8th-grader can summon up:
“I was just trying to figure out how they gott’em in there.”
Yesterday I made the weekly pilgrimage to Whole Foods (a.k.a. Whole Paycheck) in order to make just about my only purchase there: fresh fruit.
It’s embarrassingly expensive but also very good. I wandered the produce aisles worth a late model Mercedes, made my selections and headed up to the checkout area reminiscent of food lines in Leningrad during the siege.
When my number was called I went to check out and began to unload the basket. As the checker took the second item, she looked at it, then at me, and asked, “What are these?”
Though I had chosen them and placed them in a bag, I had no idea. I fumbled for a second and then asked her to come back to them.
What was the proper protocol? Do you have to return it if you want to buy it but fail to identify it? Do other nearby checkers come to our assistance?
The pressure was on as I racked my brain. The basket was nearly empty. We would be back to the Unidentified Fruit Objects in a second.
In desperation I blurted out, “Apricots.” She looked at them again and said, “I think you’re right.”
Relieved, I thanked her and apologized for not knowing what I was buying.
“Honey”, she said, “It happens all the time.”
No Gettysburgh Tweet
I always thought that slaves in America were confined to a never-ending existence of unrelieved dawn-to-dusk forced labor. Turns out I was mistaken, at least in part. Many 18th century slaves in the south worked in a task-based system. When they finished their task, usually hoeing a quarter-acre plot, they were done for the day. These slaves then proceeded to work their own fields, growing produce for sale or barter. Even slaves escaped the hoe. Not so, we.
The 21st century hoe comes in the form of the now ubiquitous and eminently portable communication devices that through their very portability keep us tied to the drudgery and ultimate curse of never-ending contact defined as “work” or “keeping in touch.”
I live and work in an urban environment where people walk everywhere and the number of people totally absorbed in a tiny screen as they literally stumble through life is astonishing. I assume, with good reason, that millions of others are similarly absorbed while driving. A good portion of those not reading or texting are yammering away sharing their most intimate thoughts with whichever complete stranger has the misfortune to be within hearing distance.
By the way, this is not a post about the physical dangers of walking/driving/talking/texting or the boorish behavior of those who do, but rather a brief musing on the loss of free time for the mind.
Anyone age 30 or older can conjure up a memory of a time when working and keeping in touch were voluntary activities requiring some effort and where the expectation to do either was tempered by the realities and constraints of time and space. Either the form of the work did not lend itself to seamless activity or contact and connection had to wait until one arrived at a place. Ah, for the good old days.
That distant past was filled with enforced periods of work-free silence and non-contact where our minds were free to wander and take in the random scenes of life around us. We observed, mused, recoiled, engaged and wondered at the complexity of the world we passed through. Those days are long gone. We are now incessantly and obsessively absorbed and engaged in an electronic and virtual world where the real one passes by unnoticed as we sneak glances for the incoming message or blurt out, “I have to take this call.”
If there is a mystery to life found only in the unengaged and “in-between” moments, most of us will never see or feel the power of it as we have blindly forfeited that opportunity in order to remain connected to an equally absorbed society. Imagine the horror of “waking up” in your sixties to the realization that you knowingly strolled through life in a trance of your own devising.
This all makes me think of times past and how the world might be different had our forbearers been similarly plagued with our “connectedness.” I imagine Abraham Lincoln on that long and late autumn train ride up to Gettysburg in November of 1863. He realizes that this is the moment to redefine the purpose of the titanic conflict and he struggles for the exact phrases to give meaning to the war. A few words are typed on his iPad but he is constantly bedeviled by incoming texts from Secretary of War Staunton and cell calls from Nicolay and Hay about the waiting crowd at Gettysburg.
Aware that a great moment is in the offing and that the golden trees gliding by will silently offer their inspiration and meaning, he turns both cell and iPad off, takes a scrap of paper from his up-turned hat and settles down to work.