To build a fire

river snowstorm

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains the reasons for tiny Norway’s historical excellence in the Winter Olympics. The country of five million, with a culture of egalitarianism,  has won more than three hundred medals in the Winter Olympics. Kids younger than age 11 must be awarded the same prize. I heard a radio interview last week, while enduring yet another snowstorm, in which the commentator complained the problem with American kids today is that everyone is given a prize, regardless of their performance. His lament was Norway’s most important trait, except for one important difference. Although Norwegian kids were all given the same prize, their training and competitions were never cancelled due to bad weather. These egalitarian kids showed up in the coldest temps, the worst weather, to learn their sport. The Norwegians embrace the beauty and hardship of the outdoors. The pain and cold of the wild trains the body and mind to become resilient. Cross country skiing, especially, demands endurance, years of practice, and high tolerance to pain. Cross country skiing is Norway’s most dominant sport.

This winter began with a major ice storm, knocking out power for a week during Christmas, and about the same time that I had just finished reading Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire. Then the snow came and hasn’t stopped, breaking records across the state. While the New York Times runs stories about global warming and the disappearance of snow, poor Detroit gets buried in the white stuff. Another cold shoulder for the city once known for its mass egalitarianism.

Salon has an interesting article on “the hunt for the Great American Novel.” The schlock of middlebrow culture, meaning the stuff that I like, throws snowballs at the elite writers creating art fiction in the post post-modern world. Realism and traditional narration are not admired in the pink Christmas tree society of the super novelists. The great writers of the past are viewed as boring cross country skiing compared to the daredevils on a snowboard. In defense of Jack London, he didn’t take a class on frostbite, snow blindness, and malnutrition to research his stories. He lived it. Melville and Hemingway didn’t google how to hunt whales and sharks.The Great American Novel is winning the gold medal in cross country skiing.

In Jack London’s To Build a Fire, the protagonist possesses alertness to the “things of life” but fails to understand the significance. London suffered frostbite and scurvy while in the Klondike, writing to a friend that the Artic cold was a “vast white silence, as if all the earth lay still and stark dead in her white shroud waiting judgment day.” Refusing to quit, London writes, “From the hunger of my childhood, cold eyes have looked upon me, or questioned, or snickered and sneered. What above all was that they were some of my friends- not professed but real friends. I have calloused my exterior and receive the strokes as though they were not; as to how they hurt, no one knows but my own soul and me. So be it. The end is not yet. If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself. But for good or ill, it shall be as it has been- alone.” While the flashy wordplay of the super novelist melts with the spring thaw, the significance of a great writer’s words endures through all seasons.

The super technologist can also be like the protagonist in London’s To Build a Fire, always connected, continually alert, but failing to comprehend significance. Take your hands off the steering wheel, allow the engineers in the gated communities of Silicon Valley do the driving, and the thinking, for you. Until the frightened deer runs in front of your car on a snowy night and you must make a decision that the engineers can’t compute. The algorithms of Facebook, with much help from the Like and Click farms, create their own animal farms. The page views of the most popular sites resemble a flock of birds. I listened to another radio interview awhile ago in which an historian, I can’t remember who, discussed his book about Britain between World War One and World War Two, and the false hopes the British had in technology solving their problems. Their optimism in technology turned to disillusionment with the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. The Cold War doesn’t appear to be over anytime soon. One of the best novels that I’ve read recently is Russian writer Mikhail Shisken’s The Light and the Dark. The great ones can work in bad weather.


The dance for all seasons

Dancing in the snow

The Frankenmuth colony didn’t get off to a good start in the 1840s. The ship carrying the German missionaries ran aground. Storms and strong winds sent their ship into icebergs and the ship crashed a second time, into an English trawler on the Atlantic. The steamboat taking them from New York to Michigan somehow collided with a coal train. They finally arrived, sick with smallpox and malaria. Their spirits didn’t improve when they saw the 650 acres along the Cass River purchased for less than two thousand dollars. Their new home was cold, desolate, barren of the human comforts they had been accustomed to in Bavaria. They would require courage to survive and named their new colony Frankenmuth for “Courage of the Franconians.”

This “Christmas capital of the world” is also home to Michigan’s Military and Space Museum.  The flashy exhibits are elsewhere. These stories are about the African-American prisoner of war in Korea, longest serving prisoners of war in Vietnam, soldiers fighting in two wars (Korea, Vietnam), and the female local soldier killed in a roadside bomb. Owen Hammerberg  was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1941. He was the last to receive the Medal of Honor for non-combat service before Congress changed the rules. He was a Navy diver who went down to rescue his mates trapped under sixty feet of water and mud. The sunken ship caved in on him, pinning him as he worked to rescue the two divers. He died shielding his mates. The historical society for this Christmas capital doesn’t have an exhibit about the history of Santa and Saint Nicholas. Those are at Bronner’s, the largest Christmas store in the world. You must go past the Christmas decorations and tourists flocking the Main Street to discover  an exhibit on “The Hmong Among Us,” the Vietnam War, the CIA’s secret war in Laos, and the refugee camps. One of the local war heroes was the most decorated airman in the Air Force. Duane Hackney was a pararescue jumper and veteran of 200 missions in the Vietnam War. A YouTube video about him includes a comment from a Hmong who had fought in Laos with the CIA’s legendary case officer Jerry “Hog” Daniels. It’s an odd juxtaposition, like the large Nativity Scene here and a beer museum next to it. On one side the sunny disposition of decorations and ornaments and feelings of warmth, a temporary sense of escape from the real world. Farther down are the secret battles, prisoners, and rescuers. The authentic self must learn to dance in all kinds of weather. That’s the meaning of this fountain in Frankenmuth celebrating the courage of the original settlers.

I was caught in a white out near midnight in northern Michigan. I followed the tail lights of the truck in front of me until his tail lights suddenly swerved across the two lane road and went into a ditch. He couldn’t find the way back and drove almost into the trees. I watched him, amazed. I wasn’t sure if I was still on the road but I sure knew he got off on the wrong exit. Suddenly he panicked, swerving back across the road and into another the ditch. The truck lurched back and forth as the driver tried to find his way onto the road. One moment, he’s riding high in his $40,000 truck, secure about his place in the world. Then he’s in a ditch and the snow is coming down hard on him, distorting his vision. Maybe he had on some Christmas songs and Christmas gifts in the back.Or else he was coming home drunk from a Christmas party. The German missionaries began their trip across the Atlantic with a drunk pilot.

There’s a new biography of one of my favorites, Jack London. One of London’s best stories is White Fang, about the Wild trying to conquer life and man: “…Life is an offense to it, for life is movement, and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea…” The land of Jack London is “vast, silent, desolate… so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even sadness…with laughter cold as frost…wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and effort of life…It was the Wild, the savage, frozen hearted Northland Wild.” London’s “wolfish dogs” are defiant of the elements, the cold harsh terrain.

There’s defiance in the Frankenmuth fountain, a refusal to allow the hardship to break the early settlers. It’s also hung on the walls of the Military and Space Museum.  It keeps you warm when going out in the cold, and into the ditch.


Chekhov on Lake Huron

Port Hope lighthouse fall

Alice Munro has been labeled Chekhov on Lake Huron. Jane Smiley described Munro’s writing as quietly powerful, a good comment also for Lake Huron. If there was a Nobel Prize for Lighthouses, this one near Port Hope might have won a 2013 Nobel. Its light shines across Lake Huron, directly toward the familiar settings of Alice Munro’s short stories. Jane Smiley writes in the Washington Post about Chekhov on Lake Huron: “Her voice was practically a whisper, saying: ‘Look around you! Look within! But look closely, carefully. The world is more complex than you realize.’” There were only four comments, compelling one reader of the article to comment that Washington didn’t have any culture, despite its pretensions. Or maybe the world is just too complex for the power brokers to understand.

This lighthouse doesn’t attract a lot of tourists, although a Kickstarter project that concluded in summer will finance a film with the lighthouse as its centerpiece. The motels around here don’t triple the rates for summer tourists like they do for the Lake Michigan side. The clerk near the silently powerful waters of Lake Huron asks what brings you here. On the Lake Michigan side, the motel clerk explains that all rooms are booked, even with triple rates. You’re kidding, I said. Tourists, the clerk explained. Tourists? For what? I said. A young man held a “homeless war vet” sign as the tourists drove past him, saving their money for the inflated motels. A fat kid sticks his head in the car window and shouts at me, “We need a ride.” It’s a familiar shtick. The hustlers never seem to have car problems on the side of a road or highway. The car breaks down or runs out of gas in a perfectly parked high traffic spot just far enough from the front door to escape the looks from security. The kid lacks marketing skills. His eyes are hardened, like he has gotten too used to getting punched no in the face. The other person who makes it a “We need a ride” has stayed out of sight.

This lighthouse facing out across Lake Huron to Alice Munro doesn’t promise a free ride. There’s pain in this lighthouse. But its home base is named Port Hope. The lighthouse beams its own version of look around you! So I keep pad and pen in the car and write down descriptions of the fat kid’s dark rings around his eyes and dirty brown shirt and the black woman sitting slumped over on the parking lot across from the homeless vet. The two of them are competing for dollars and mercy. She could be the kid’s mother. Maybe I was wrong about it being a shtick.

Reading literature like Alice Munro is supposed to be good for the brain. The human brain prefers systems analysis and cheats to make it easier on the thinker. The culture is constantly priming us to think a certain way with its “cultural reminders.” Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow explains the impact of the priming effect, the individual’s conflict with life that causes ego depletion. Graham Greene said it more harshly in his novel Ministry of Fear: “Idealism had ended up with a bullet in the stomach at the foot of the stairs.” Greene’s novel was written during World War Two, a conflict with life resulting in the death of millions of egos.

Great literature must be in conflict with the world to compel the reader to think. Alice Munro’s short stories grow on you. The “mystery and authority” of her Lake Huron are present to the end. There’s a nagging feeling in many of the popular nonfiction books that something is missing. The narrative is too clean and tidy. Everything is primed to perfection in the author’s thesis and world view. The collapse of the family, a shipwreck on the Great Lakes, a late inning grand slam, Hitler’s rise to power, the bullet in the stomach at the foot of the stairs, don’t compute.

It’s almost a six hour drive from the fat homeless kid in the parking lot to the lighthouse near Port Hope. I pass the Amish farms and dozens of Amish are working on the farms and stacking massive wood piles. All the Amish look thin as a rake and resemble a lost tribe. The Amish are three hours and a couple centuries from metro Detroit. Some of them cheat and shop at Walmart. They have a stoic look and always keep to themselves. A group of Chinese visitors come in and stare at everything. The Amish ignore them. The fat kid should have gotten a ride with the Amish. The world is too complex for the rest of us.


There’s a bear in my box

Soo Locks

Marc Levinson’s The Box was published seven years ago. The book’s a classic about how the shipping container changed the world. The container revolution began in the 1950s during the Eisenhower era. Marc Levinson, an economist, puts a precise date on the first shot in this revolution. On April 26, 1956, a crane in New Jersey lifted 58 container boxers onto a ship to Houston and container traffic surged with new orders. The post World War Two era fitted perfectly, and more importantly, economically, into a container box. The Defense Department, led by business whiz and the very brightest of The Best and Brightest Robert McNamara,  used containerization as a revolutionary logistical tactic to beat back the Communists in Vietnam. That was the plan. McNamara’s logistical engineers created new supply lines to the other side of the world with containers, allowing the Vietnam War to continue for several more years, which wasn’t part of the plan. Not everything fits in a box. Read Seth Godin’s Poke the Box.

The Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is in the running for an 8th Wonder of the World contest sponsored by Virtual Tourist. Sleeping Bear Dunes is the other Michigan entry. The 11,000 ships that pass through the Soo Locks must navigate the 21 foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The ship in the picture is 1,000 feet and transports mostly iron. The Locks are a remarkable engineering accomplishment but Sleeping Bear Dunes gets my vote for what the glaciers did in shaping this part of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Shaped by nature is preferred to containment.

Seth Godin writes a lot about the death of the Industrial Age. Michigan’s industrial decay is in such contrast with its natural beauty. The auto industry relies on the container box like McNamara’s logistical engineers. On the way to the Soo, I went into a grocery store near an abandoned auto plant. An elderly man approached me and asked if I could help him. His wife had died recently and he didn’t know how to do laundry. He wanted to know what laundry detergent to buy and how to measure it. He said he had worked at General Motors. Everything about his old way of life was gone. He had to start over, and do it alone.

The post Industrial Age has left Michigan with a lot of prisons and casinos. The highway signs seem to either promote a casino or warn of a prison nearby. I saw the signs for Sleeping Bear Dunes on the way home and though it was getting late, decided to make a climb up the dunes. I noticed the wind always likes to be in your face on the way up the hills you must climb, and seduce you to turn around and go down with the wind at your back. The rain was a bonus. The signs warned to stay on the trails. What trails? I was alone at the late hour, and in a hurry to get back home. I didn’t see any trails and didn’t have much time to look for one. I looked straight up the dunes and thought what the hell, if you want to go up, you have to go up. The dunes changed from hills to mountains halfway up and into a canyon at the first hill when I realized that I had gone the wrong way and the spot where I should have gone was way the hell over there. I didn’t have quite the reaction of Lewis and Clark when they stumbled on the Grand Canyon blocking their path, but I wondered if I should quit and turn back or just die on the side of a dune and let the sand bury me as in the Legend of Sleeping Bear. I had climbed too far to quit, but was too tired to go much farther, and unsure how far to go. It was also getting dark and rain clouds were gathering off Lake Michigan to torment this idiot climbing up Sleeping Bear Dunes alone.

The story of Sleeping Bear Dunes is that a mother bear and her cubs were forced into Lake Michigan to avoid a terrible forest fire. They swam for hours and mother bear finally made it to shore. Her cubs were too exhausted and drowned as she watched from shore.  The Great Spirit Manitou shaped the dunes and the two islands in a symbol of faithfulness. Determined to climb to the top, I continued in the wind and rain. Finally making it to the top, I wanted to do a Rocky celebratory dance. Then I heard noise coming from over the dune. A father was playing with his little boy. A guy was taking pictures of his girlfriend. Two girls were giggling and walking down the trail. I stared and realized I was alone only because I had taken the idiotic way up.

Whatever it takes.


Q. How to live? A. Shut up, he explained



I began to really hate my reliance on Google Maps after getting lost for the umpteenth time. It might work great where there’s actually a reason to have traffic, but in northern Michigan Google Maps had so many errors, I felt as if this area of civilization was still in beta and the true modern explorer was a Walmart truck, not Silicon Valley.

In the overnight bag was a paperback of Sarah Bakewell’s National Book Critics award winner How to Live or A Life of Montaigne. The subject of “imperturbability” and “freedom from anxiety” were dealt with in Chapter Six, Q. How to Live? A. Use little tricks. Montaigne apparently was jealous of lunatics living in the world of their imagination, allowing escape from the pain and drudgery of the real world. Montaigne’s favorite story was about Lycas who went about the dull routines of his daily life with the belief that everything was theater. When the doctor cured Lycas of his delusion, he sued the doctor for taking away his source of pleasure. I ran out of tricks when cut off by the Walmart truck and the slow driver in front of me. Montaigne also valued being slow, forgetful, and other values undermining Dean Wormer’s lecture to Flounder in the movie Animal House that fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life. I thought for certain the girl in front of me was going to bring upon me severe whiplash and paralysis from the Walmart truck fast approaching in the rearview mirror if she didn’t get off the damn cell phone and hit the gas. She was slouched over, and not in a Montaigne life is cooler in the slow lane way, and I thought aha, she’s yapping away on her cell phone. I swerved to avoid the truck and blasted the car horn and she looked over at me, crying with an I’m doing the best I can look because look you blind bastard I’m in a big cast for my broken body.

Which leads to Chapter 19 Q. How to Live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect. Now this I can do. I read the self help books with ten point plans and a more positive attitude for climbing mountains, running with the bulls, knocking ‘em dead on Broadway, the boardroom, and in combat with the bad guys. Brand Me, like a washing machine, or cattle. One good list with clear goals for the day, week, month, quarterly, yearly, and Brand Me gets the upgrade. According to the algorithms,  people similar to me on Twitter have been Abdul from Malaysia “who tweets a lot,” a girl with a heavily painted face specializing in urban paranormal which I have no clue what that means, and a guy who claims to be the coolest dork you’ll ever meet.

Montaigne says, don’t suffer from Facebook depression. Be ordinary and embrace your inner Abdul from Malaysia. So what if none of the VIPs follow you back, and instead you must suffer through 150,000 tweets from a writer of self published romance novels to get beyond the Unabomber stage of social media.

Montaigne’s death came in 1592 at the age of 59. The cause of death was an infected kidney stone and slow suffocation. His demise was painful, and ordinary. He reportedly suffered through the last act of his theater with stoicism. His body was moved during the French Revolution as a precautionary measure against the mob.  A few years later, they discovered that the wrong body was moved. Montaigne’s burial survived the French Revolution but a fire destroyed the church and his tomb had fallen apart. Chapter One, Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death. Montaigne didn’t.

Google Maps does a better job with the towns in the southern part of the state. Niles, Michigan is a small town full of ordinary life. Niles is where one of my favorite writers, Ring Lardner, was born. Q. How to live? A. Shut up, Ring Lardner would undoubtedly explain.


When Smart Money Hits the Canvas

Tall Ships Ceremony

At the Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City, some parents were talking about their son, the cage fighter. I was wondering if he was the smart money or dumb money but was too polite to ask. I don’t believe there’s a great deal of smart money fighting inside cages. The cannon boom from the ship ended the conversation about cage fighting, and among other topics (I have snoopy ears), the promise of stress free living for some condo associations. I thought stress free meant you were dead.

After reading an article on the Great American Novels (Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Godfather, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), the thought struck me, almost like a cannon ball, that the difference between nonfiction and fiction is that the great works of fiction focus on the story of when the smart money hits the canvas.  “When smart money hits the canvas” comes from Ellison’s Invisible Man. An Eudora Welty quote explains it in the New Yorker: “The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what’s told alive…great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean.”

I refused to watch anything on television that had to do with the Trayvon Martin- George Zimmerman case and ignored most of the commentary elsewhere. The media is selling the dead kid like he’s shampoo on an endcap at Walmart. When they’re done with him and ratings dip, they’ll put him on the clearance rack and find some other sad story to sell like soap. The polemicists on all sides consider themselves the smart money. For what it’s worth, and it’s not worth a bottle of shampoo, probably ninety percent of the people who think they need a gun for protection are too paranoid to have a gun for protection. Unless you’re working at a liquor store in Detroit, with cops that take an hour to respond, and solve less than ten percent of the criminal cases, you have many options to defend yourself before pulling the trigger. I don’t mean the martial arts nonsense, which is dumb money. But was Zimmerman’s fear more excessive than the response to the Boston Marathon bombing?  Shutting down a major city, SWAT teams with body armor, three hundred shots fired, and so on. The Wall Street Journal has a story about the “Rise of the Warrior Cop.” There weren’t any SWAT teams until the late 1960s. Now there are thousands of SWAT teams conducting thousands of raids, all dressed up in body armor and locked and loaded for combat. So who is afraid of who? 

The city of Detroit used to be the smart money and now Detroit is officially bankrupt, like Tommy Hearns, the great fighter from Kronk, and also Billy Durant, the founder of General Motors. So much for all those union contracts promising a stress free life in retirement at a condo in Florida, protected with armed neighborhood patrols on watch for the black man loose in the neighborhood. I have too much of the Detroit Rules in me, meaning that there are no rules in a street fight, to defend Martin’s right to attack someone who offended him. The prisons and cemeteries are full of young people who went into a street fight believing they were the smart money. When I was young,  I used to run through a very nice neighborhood in Flint, one that Michael Moore actually confused in “Roger & Me” with GM CEO Roger Smith’s neighborhood in a posh Detroit suburb. In those days, Flint and Detroit had some posh neighborhoods. The neighborhood watch patrols would follow me around as I ran late at night. It was kind of irritating, and would have been extremely unacceptable if they also had weapons. But I wouldn’t think of attacking them. It’s unhealthy and unwise to lead with your chin. One day, like the Boston Marathon bomber, you might get hit in the face with an SUV, or shot by a fat guy fearful for his life. The smaller guy you think is easy meat pulls out the gun, or knife, or has a group of buddies coming behind you. Detroit reporter Charlie LeDuff just tweeted his favorite story of a robbery in Detroit where the smart money in this case, the young robber, failed to notice his victim’s cousin coming at him full speed in a car. Those Detroit Rules…Or What They Don’t Teach in Martial Arts Class.

Ralph Ellison writes, “Once I saw a prize fighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific…He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and shocked science, speed, and footwork as cold as a well digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas.”

I would include An American Tragedy, Lonesome Dove, and The Call of the Wild on my list of five Great American Novels, along with Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn. The Great Gatsby just misses, coming in sixth.  In The Call of the Wild, Buck thought he was the smart money, living the spoiled stress free life with his wealthy master, until the man with the club kidnaps Buck:

“He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect and, while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.”

Buck got up from the canvas. He got the hell out of the cage.

When going through the factory towns, the abandoned buildings and litter on the streets numb the soul. A century of scientific management, the smart money, led to this. While in China, they can’t tolerate the pollution.  The other night, I was running in farmland and a dog came out of the fields and ran alongside me for five miles in the heat while I tried to chase it back home, if it had one. The dog didn’t have a license or identification. The dog wouldn’t quit following me, and I began to think of it as Buck out in the wild. As we got near the suburbs, I turned and chased it one more time back into the farmland. I watched him disappear in the dark. His true master was in nature, not the suburbs.


The Metadata Belongs to Us

private no entry

In the good ole days of the wild west ’60s and ’70s, a passenger could board a plane with his sawed off shotgun, a dozen or so sticks of dynamite, maybe a M1 and a couple hundred rounds of ammo, or the favorite weapon and steel can full of gasoline. The little kid, caught between the end of little league season and the start of a new school year, could take a ballerina hostage and ask the pilot of a DC-9 to go on a joyride across the Atlantic. If the kid chose the wrong kind of plane for going across an ocean, like the DC-9, not a problem. The airlines would switch planes and crews. Those little kids are now mature adults probably working in the Department of Homeland Security, writing blog posts that celebrate pride for a diverse workforce and admonishing their point of the spear comrades frisking old ladies and kids to carefully inspect shampoo bottles, razors, and snow globes for infractions. The snow globe has more carry on restrictions than the sawed off in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us is a Pulp Fiction goes airborne history of the hijacking craze that began in the early 1960s and peaked a decade later. Without metal detectors at airports, anyone with a grievance and a gun could get on a plane and demand a flight to Cuba. Hijackings became so popular, one plane was hijacked by two different groups during the same flight. If a pilot didn’t feel like drinking margaritas in Cuba, waiting for a new plane to go home (Fidel kept the planes, thank you), he could pack some heat of his own and blow away the hijacker, which one pilot did, shooting a teenager who wanted a free ride in the skies and wasn’t bright enough to take a ballerina hostage. No grievance seemed too petty and minor disputes with the IRS could cause a hijacker wannabe to grab his gun and find a plane with the ultimatum “I exist and I demand to be noticed.”

Almost a trillion photographs are now uploaded yearly to social media sites, making it harder than ever to actually get noticed. Getting a security clearance from the feds seems easier than being verified by social media. All this metadata belongs to the feds and is held in a secure location which means it’s being read daily by the Syrian Electronic Army, known to his parents and classmates as fourteen year old Nabil from Dearborn.

In the good ole days when the fourteen year old kids took ballerinas hostage with pa’s shotgun, metadata was referred to as gossip. You could discern the difference between a signal and the noise by the blushing red cheeks and the fist or a rock coming in your direction. My first and only bowling league was as that fourteen year old and after hazing another kid for his juvenile delinquent metadata, he took off his combat boots and threw them across the bowling alley at me. Our inner city bowling league would have made Chris Schenkel take hostages.

Before metadata, you actually had to go somewhere to find out what was going on. If there was a sign on the property warning to keep off, you just waved it off unless the owner had come out to greet you with his shotgun. Good luck examining the metadata of the most catty nation on earth. The feds didn’t even know about their own Secret Service agents partying with hookers in Colombia. Nate Silver admits in The Signal and the Noise that he had to go to the ballpark to learn the reason behind the numbers. The data failed to reveal the whole story.

The Skies Belong to Us is the kind of story that’ll make you want to minimize the social media accounts and tell the metadata to get a life.


Fire inside the gates

House fire

New Yorker journalist George Packer’s new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is the latest to explore the industrial collapse. Journalist Gordon Young has written a book about his hometown of Flint, Teardown: A Memoir of a Vanishing City. Packer wrote Assassin’s Gate about America’s war in Iraq and this one’s getting excellent reviews as well. The New York Times calls it a masterpiece. The most amazing fact about Flint is that the number of elementary students in Flint schools has declined nearly eighty percent since the late 1960s and early 70s. I was one of the elementary students from that era, as was Gordon Young. My two elementary schools and junior high have closed. The high school, at one time among the largest in the state, will close next year.

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy is the one published in the last couple of years that I like the most, although no one will ever consider the book a masterpiece. His book is about fire, the epidemic of fires in Detroit raging through the abandonment. It began with fire and will end in fire.

My head felt like it was in an oven when I got too close to this fire burning through the abandonment on Flint’s north side, near the truly vanished Buick City Complex. I saw the flames and black smoke from miles away on the expressway and like a storm chaser, followed the funnel cloud of destruction to its epicenter. The most odd sensation, watching the flames explode higher and threatened to burn the entire neighborhood and come my way, was the absolute silence. There weren’t any cries of anguish or shock. A lone fire truck was on the street and the fatalistic firemen worked to contain the fire as a small group watched with stoicism. A small folding table was set up outside a grimy liquor store and a few men were watching the fire and drinking. More liquor stores were across the street and most of the residential houses were abandoned, probably like this one. An ambulance was parked nearby and a couple of homeless asked another man if it was a controlled fire. After he said it wasn’t, they noticed a man and woman packing food into crates across the parking lot. One of them exclaimed, ‘Food bank!” Then he repeated himself, again, and again. Free food was a bigger deal than the inferno. The two of them wandered over to the food bank with a “cool, man” jaunt. Surrounded on all sides with decay and fire, life was good to these two guys for at least the afternoon.

The Unwinding is thick with profiles, descriptions, and life stories. Data collection is a bigger deal these days than a compelling narrative. Do your research like NSA, collect every little piece of information and cram it into the story. The Unwinding was pretty disappointing, considering the reviews. George Packer is a much better writer than LeDuff. He does better research. Everything about Packer is probably better than LeDuff, like Manhattan is better than Detroit in every way but the coney dog. But something was missing. The autopsy report wasn’t signed, not by Shakespeare or a Kipling.

An elderly blind man was walking through one of the dangerous neighborhoods near the fire. He wore an orange safety jacket, helmet, and waved the cane back and forth in front of his feet. He walked with his head up and a smile on his face past the cracked asphalt, weeds, boarded up houses. I felt like jumping out of the car to ask him what he saw with his imagination that he couldn’t see with his eyes. Was he creating his own reality or stuck in someone else’s?

Close your eyes after reading LeDuff’s autopsy and you’ll see a tired hardened fireman whirling back at LeDuff in a neighborhood that’s one big fire trap, swearing at LeDuff to put the dead kid in his fucking notebook. You’ll see in your imagination that fat homicide detective sinking his teeth into a coney dog and talking murder and the Great Hunts, like Kipling’s Great Game, taking place in the squalor and refuse and enjoying this kind of hunt for the prize at the end. A certificate from Shakespeare or a Kipling for participating inside the gates. Close your eyes after reading George Packer and you’ll see his quality writing from the perimeter. He doesn’t go inside the gates.

I wanted very much for Gordon Young to write it like LeDuff and he almost pulls it off. Flint burns like Detroit. There were more than fifty suspected arson cases in the two weeks after Flint firemen are laid off and Young, an accomplished journalist and college instructor in Silicon Valley, writes of the impossibility of catching arsonists with so little staff. A fireman describes the arsonists as “a spider spinning a web of fires.” They’re sexual predators and suffering serious financial problems, according to the FBI profile. But these fires are not set by arsonists. The fires are set by professionals. Firemen burned down these houses. The fireman explains the difference between the pro and the amateur. The amateur stays on the perimeter, setting fire on a porch or window, always making sure there is an easy escape. The amateur arsonist never puts himself in danger to set a better fire.

The pro, the fireman explains, isn’t afraid of the fire and danger. The pro goes inside and set the house ablaze at its foundation, making the fire burn longer and do more damage before the alarm is sounded. The pro can take the heat.


History is Everywhere

Vicki Keith

Canadian Vicki Keith is the greatest marathon swimmer of all time. Among her achievements were swims across the five Great Lakes. She began the 48 mile swim in Lake Huron at Harbor Beach. In 2005, she swam for more than 63 hours in Lake Ontario. At one point, she swam four hours without gaining any distance. The waves were that strong.

One day, while working as a swim coach, a handicapped nine year old girl, her arms and legs amputated, came to her with the desire to swim across a lake. The little girl collapsed from exhaustion halfway across the pool. Swimming across Lake Erie was preposterous. She continued to practice and finally, as a teenager, felt ready for the attempt across Lake Erie. Only three people showed up to watch. Their friends were too embarrassed for the girl who was missing arms and legs. Doctors criticized her mother for even keeping her alive.

Vicki Keith believes nothing is impossible. When she was a little girl, the ballet teacher ridiculed her for walking like a horse. She went home and found a book on swimming, staying up all night memorizing the records. She kept telling her friends, “One day.. One day..” She put up slogans around the house and created her own reality. She just kept telling herself over and over that one day…she was going to be a record breaking marathon swimmer. The experts scoffed at her, just as with the girl with the amputated arms and legs.

Halfway across Lake Erie, the critics and naysayers began to notice. Helicopters suddenly appeared and hovered over the handicapped girl as Vicki Keith went alongside her in a kayak. Hundreds of people began to arrive at the distant shore. Only two miles from shore, the girl cried out that she wanted to quit. Vicki Keith didn’t know what to do. They had come this far, were so close. Then she noticed the girl kept stroking after crying for help. All she had to do was touch the kayak and that was it. Her swim was over and they’d pull her out. She’d be instantly disqualified if she touched the kayak. But she never did. She kept swimming and then the shore was in sight. She had done it. Nothing was impossible. Vicki Keith’s TED talk has less than 2,000 views, which is unbelievable. It’s one of the best TED talks that I’ve seen.

Two years ago a Cessna pilot, Michael Trapp, crashed his plane into Lake Huron at Harbor Beach. He came down nearly on the starting point for Vicki Keith’s record swim. She became the first person to swim across Lake Huron. His survival in Lake Huron was a miracle. From CBS:

“All alone and without a life vest, he spotted a smoke stack and set his sights on getting there. He alternated between swimming, treading water, and floating on his back and stomach. He prayed for a rescue.

‘I saw six boats after I crashed,” said Trapp. “Before nightfall came, a big freighter came within 50 feet of me, but never saw me and all the other boats were just too far away to hear me yelling.’

By nightfall, he was exhausted, but refused to close his eyes.

‘If you fall asleep that’s your death calling. So I made sure not fall asleep. I kept my eyes open the whole night, watch the stars.’”

Port Hope and the lighthouse are a few miles up the coast of Lake Huron. On Memorial Day, the old vets held their annual memorial at the cross and flags in front of the lighthouse where Lt. Michael Young crashed his plane  and was swept away in November of 1991. The Great Lakes don’t forgive anything when it turns cold. I’m sure those old vets have some great stories of their own. I listened in on a conversation between an old World War Two vet and a mother with her young son up here awhile ago. History is everywhere.

There’s a remarkable story nearly everywhere and in everyone, if you’re curious enough to look.


Seeking the Great Forgotten

USS Edson

The destroyer USS Edson 946 is named for Merritt Austin Edson, known as “Red Mike” to his Marines. “Red Mike” Edson earned the Medal of Honor for defending Guadalcanal’s Bloody Ridge, and showing Washington that Guadalcanal could be saved. General MacArthur had been informed that the United States Navy could “no longer support the Marines on Guadalcanal.” Historian William Manchester, one of Red Mike’s Raiders, writes of Colonel Edson in Goodbye Darkness, his World War Two memoir of fighting in the Pacific. Red Mike told the Raiders, in his typical understated manner, that they had come to a “quiet spot.” When the battle begins, a corporal shouts, “Some goddamn rest area! Some goddamn rest area!” Red Mike would become Major General, leading his Marines through some the most brutal fighting of World War Two. In 1955, General Edson committed suicide in the garage of his D.C. home.

Edson’s sergeants screamed, “Raiders, rally to me! Raiders, Raiders, rally to me!” The barrels of their machine guns became warped as the Japanese attacked in waves, jumping in the Marine foxholes with bayonets, forcing the Raiders to defend the last point on the Ridge. Edson pushed stunned Marines back at the enemy, shouting, “The only thing they’ve got that you haven’t is guts.”

Edson’s widow launched the Top Gun ship in 1958 with a bottle of champagne. Six years later, the Edson was at the Gulf of Tonkin, the infamous start to the Vietnam War. In 1967, enemy fire shot off the ship’s flag and wounded the Commodore’s pillow with some shrapnel. Radio Hanoi declared the Edson had been sunk with no survivors. In 1975 and still above water, the Edson helped evacuate Saigon.

The Edson’s found a quiet spot to rest its memories. Bay City, “some goddamn rest area,” is home for the Edson. I knew the Edson was nearby and saw it as I came over the bridge. This old destroyer was parked near downtown. The gates were unlocked and open.

When William Manchester returned to Guadalcanal in 1978, he found a marker buried in the weeds for Edson’s heroics. Some weeds, mud, and brown water are the setting for the destroyer Edson in Bay City. Romance and glamour of war are not here. But they’re working on restoring the Edson as a floating museum. Volunteers from Dow Chemical, the company with flags of the world ringing its headquarter perimeter, have committed several thousand dollars and their time to fixing up the area around the Edson. The highways were jammed for the holiday time up north. Most people probably drive past the Edson without giving much thought for the name on it. There’s an Edson Association reunion in the summer and a wedding scheduled on the Edson in September. In Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness he quotes Thomas Wolfe and the consuming desire to “seek the great forgotten…Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost,come back again.”

The Great Forgotten leaves its trail in the weeds and rust. It must be a grieving wind that swings the gates open to strangers passing by. They’re always looking for someone on these forums, asking about a buddy, a ghost to come back again. A few years ago I was with a friend from Vietnam at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It was barns and cows and about one block of commercial activity, including a small restaurant. Even Walmart hadn’t discovered this place yet. The waitress, Vietnamese or Cambodian, stared in amazement and came over and traced her finger around my friend’s face as if she was seeing a ghost from the past. Neither one spoke, just thinking Where? When? O lost…

William Manchester’s nightmares from World War Two finally sent him back to the Pacific in 1978. His first kill made him sob and shit his pants. His Marine buddy burst through the door, looked at the dead Japanese soldier, then at Manchester, and said, “Slim, you stink.” Manchester writes, “I remember wondering dumbly: Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?’” His war dreams end with tears.

The Great Forgotten is a ghost with guts.