January 28, 2023

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.


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.


So It Goes, Detroit

Detroit An American Autopsy

Charlie LeDuff worked for a little while at the New York Times, until his editor got tired of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s desire to write about the working class. His editor, maybe a Princeton grad, described LeDuff’s story subjects as “losers” and for him to stop it. LeDuff got the message and quit and moved to Hollywood for a little while. The City of Cement and Traffic Jams made him miss his family of addicts back in Detroit. His sister died while working the streets of Detroit as a prostitute, leaving behind a daughter who is now a crack addict and hitting up Charlie for cash. His brother, also struggling with the hard stuff, saves a little money on dentists by using pliers to remove his teeth. It’s the kind of story that fuels inbreeding at the Ivy League. Whatever it takes to avoid Detroit. The Great Migration of Charlie LeDuff finally sent him home to Detroit, where he has used his reportorial skills to write the autopsy of the Motor City. He follows the firemen in Detroit with notebook in hand and sees a group of men digging up a corpse in a Detroit cemetery. The men were moving the corpse to the suburbs. Now the dead are fleeing Detroit.

So it goes.

“Since its founding, Detroit has been a place of perpetual flames,” LeDuff writes, quoting the flag of Detroit- We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes. Detroit has burned three times in race riots that required federal troops. Detroit has thousands of arson cases a year. The firemen quickly fill up LeDuff’s notebooks with graphic material. “A man tapped into the gas main with a garden hose because he’s too poor to warm his children. The hose leaks. The block explodes.” The firemen remove the dead children from the flames and “peel a guy’s guts from the jagged window frame.”

A fireman glares at LeDuff and says, “Children are dying in the city because they’re too fucking poor to keep warm. Put that in your fucking notebook.”

LeDuff writes, “I put it in my fucking notebook.” He does a good job of it. The chapter titled “Fire” is the best. The fireman says, “You know what it’s like working this job in this city? It’s like those old black and white movie reels of Vietnam. Like those soldiers waving at the camera, like, ‘hey, Ma, everything’s cool. Everything’s all right. You know? And there’s a pile of corpses behind him and he’s smoking a joint and playing cards.”

But the pile of corpses adds one more when the fireman gets killed trying to put out another fire.

The dead fireman goes in LeDuff’s fucking notebook. 

There are a lot of “so it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Detroit is catching up in “so it goes” to the firebombing of Dresden. The arsenal of democracy at its peak in World War Two is turning into the city of ashes.

“Look at this shit,” a fireman says to LeDuff. They stare at a crackhead wandering the street in a daze. “Look at that guy. He’s a forgotten person who’s forgotten himself.” Another crazy woman starts a fire and while the firemen put out the blaze, tries to drive off in their firetruck. One of the firemen’s car is stolen while they’re at the memorial. The fire is ruled an arson, which makes it murder.

So it goes.

A lot of “so it goes” books about Detroit have recently been published. None like this. All the other writers had a ticket out. Their home and family weren’t dying with the city. You can understand why the editors at the New York Times got sick of LeDuff. He tracks in a lot of blood and grime from the other side of the tracks. The artsy people are mad at him for not being urban cool. Vonnegut didn’t call time out to the war to focus on opera.

In spiritual matters, Detroit is very southern. The Great Migration to Detroit and Flint after World War Two brought the William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor characters north to produce a life from the machine and the church. Walker Percy once said the uniqueness of southern writers came from experiencing the Great Fall. Detroit’s Great Fall is going to be an epic tale, an American autopsy. LeDuff is arrested, not his first, nor his last. He writes, “People took photos and said shitty things about me that were mostly true, but the annoying thing was they were guessing.”

Apologies to the editors at the New York Times.

While in the slammer, he listens to a woman next to him using a jailhouse phone. She says, “Tell him when I see him again I’m gonna put a knife in his neck. Tell that motherfucker I’ll finish the job, soon’s I get outta here.”

So it goes, Detroit. So it goes.


Writing with the Light On

The lights are still on for this lighthouse built in 1857, north of Port Hope, Michigan at the tip of the thumb, overlooking Lake Huron

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said what is to give light must endure burning. After enduring the horrors of Auschwitz, he wrote with the light on his most famous work “Man’s Search for Meaning” in a mere nine days. Frankl was a follower of Sigmund Freud before rejecting the nihilism of Freud’s theories. He witnessed men suffering in the same environment turn into beasts and saints.   In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl writes, “Sigmund Freud once said, ‘Let us attempt to expose a number of most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one un-stilled urge.’ In the concentration camps, however, the reverse was true. People became more diverse. The beast was unmasked – and so was the saint.” For some prisoners, the lights went out. The depravity was too much to endure. For others, the light came on. Frankl’s experiences and observations in the concentration camps fueled his light. The lights went out on Freud in 1939, just as the beast of World War Two began.

The real world always seems to have the last word on its theorists and critics, beasts and saints. Harold Bloom, the famed literary critic and Yale English professor, is a devoted fan of Freud, Shakespeare, and himself. His published book total is getting close to 40 so getting the last word on him will require a long supply line. Decades of teaching, reading, and writing at Yale have filled his mind and imagination with book knowledge equal to a great library. Bloom is said to read 400 pages an hour.

In Bloom’s “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life,” he writes that Shakespeare is his God. In little more than a year (1605), Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Take that, Stephen King. Bloom  called King an “immensely inadequate writer” and producer of “penny dreadfuls” aiding and abetting in the dumbing down of American readers.  Bloom has worse to say about Rowling, writing of the suffering through her books to the point where you pity him more than Frankl’s suffering in Auschwitz. Bloom is most effusive of Frankl’s early mentor, Freud, describing Freud as the most important writer of the 20th century.

Bloom doesn’t use a computer and one wonders if he uses light. He writes in the New York Times on November 12 that “A dark truth of American politics in what is still the era of Reagan and the Bushes is that so many do not vote their own economic interests. Rather than living in reality they yield to what oddly are termed ‘cultural’ considerations: moral and spiritual, or so their leaders urge them to believe. Under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women, they march onward to their own deepening impoverishment.” Well, thank Freud, Shakespeare, and Bloom for all those swing voters in Detroit rescuing the city from its own deepening impoverishment. Bloom fears a theocracy in America, with help from Mormons with their sinister patriotism and control under deep cover of the military, CIA, and FBI. Well, thank Freud, Shakespeare, and Bloom that Americans can feel secure in knowing at least the Yale English Department is safe from the Mormons and Harry Potter.

I love lighthouses and took the picture of this lighthouse near Port Hope, Michigan, at the tip of the Thumb. The lighthouse is still in operation, shining its light across the cold waters of Lake Huron as winter approaches. A big pack of dozens of deer ran around me as I walked around the lighthouse. The only sound was from the waves. The setting was nature, unmasked. The lighthouse provides better light than the ivy tower of haughty English Departments. Ben Franklin said he preferred the lighthouse to the church. A great writer’s light, from the times of Shakespeare to the 21st century, must burn with fuel from the real world.


The End of Something

Ernest Hemingway, Horton Bay, Michigan in 1919

“Idealists lead a rough life in this world Jim? But like hermit crabs they acquire shells that they cover their ideals with. But sometimes something comes along with a heavy enough tread to crush the shell and the ideals and all.”- Ernest Hemingway, writing to a friend in 1919

Ernest Hemingway wrote the letter to his friend, Jim Gamble, inviting his friend to join him in northern Michigan at the end of World War One. They became friends in the war. World War One crushed the shells of many idealists. The War to End All Wars came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. War continues, of course, which is why Veterans Day sounds more realistic, even to the hermit crabs, than Armistice Day. Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Penn State, and Robert Trogdon have just published The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, volume 1, 1907-1922. I didn’t know Hemingway fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s due to excessive masculinity in the opinion of the academics. All of Hemingway’s “hunting and fishing and killing poor defenseless animals” alienated sensitive professors in the English Departments.

This from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“One scholar who’s spent a lot of time on Hemingway is Hilary K. Justice, an associate professor of English studies at Illinois State University. ‘There’s been a huge upsurge in masculinity studies as providing the other bookend to gender studies, which used to be conflated with feminism,’ she says. That means there are more scholars who want to put Hemingway and the stereotypes of masculinity he’s associated with in context.”

Hemingway wrote the short story ‘The End of Something” while in Horton Bay, Michigan in 1919. The story begins with the nostalgic..”In the old days Horton Bay was a lumbering town.”

There’s always an end to something, leading to the “back in the old days…” In this short story, Nick Adams and his girl Marjorie break up, go their own ways. Their relationship has become the ruins of an old lumber town. The fish don’t bite.

“There’s our old ruin, Nick,” Marjorie said.

Nick and Marjorie are fishing for rainbow trout. The trout in this story aren’t striking at Nick’s hook. It’s over for Nick and Marjorie, their past in ruins like Europe at the end of the Great War. An estimated 165-188 million died in military conflicts during the 20th century. Only 5% of the dead were civilians in World War One. The average is up to 75% for wars in the 21st century, perhaps requiring another change in name from Veterans Day to Non-Combatant Day.

Much of the violence is blamed on ethnic, tribal conflicts. The masculine traits of an Ernest Hemingway should be safe to read at work, even in a modern day English Department.

Hemingway found a lot of Marjories in his life who had long memories of what he wrote, with this from the New York Times:

”’Hemingway as a person was not much liked around Horton Bay,” wrote William H. Ohle in the town’s definitive history. ”Usually he drew on his lively imagination to deprecate local gentry.’…Paris and Spain, not Michigan, come to mind when one thinks of Hemingway. But Michigan is the setting of much of his early work, which is increasingly appreciated by fans…Miriam B. Mandel, an English professor at Tel Aviv University who traveled to Michigan after presenting a paper at the Oak Park conference on Hemingway’s first bullfight, said that in other places where the author lived, locals were more protective. Three years ago at a conference she attended in Idaho, where Hemingway killed himself in 1961, ‘they bristled if anybody said anything negative,” she recalled. ”But none of them appeared in his fiction.'”

Gossiping about the locals didn’t do much for Hemingway’s masculine side. He was ready to break out, writing this also in the letter to his war time friend, Jim:

“I’m all up in the air about what to do next fall. Wish a war would come along and solve my problems. Now that I don’t have to go to work I can’t decide what the devil to do. The family are trying to get me to go to college but I want to go back to Italy and I want to go to Japan and I want to live a year in Paris and I want to do so damned many things now that I don’t know what the deuce I will do. Maybe we can go over and fight the Yugos. It was very simple while the war was on. Then there was only one thing for a man to do.”

Hemingway preferred the battlefield to a college campus. Words can be more dangerous than bullets, fueling the ethnic, tribal wars. Hemingway also knew if the fish don’t bite, it’s time to move on.


Michigan Writers and Northern Noir

A picture of Sleeping Bear Dunes from award-winning photographer Stacy Niedzwiecki's YouTube video

Northern Michigan was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place in the world. Sleeping Bear Dunes, voted the most beautiful place in America, has much competition for the most beautiful place in northern Michigan. Edgar winner Steve Hamilton, born in Detroit and a Michigan grad, uses Lake Superior again as the location for his latest novel, Misery Bay. The orange traffic barrels even look better in God’s country. Hunting season is a bigger deal than football season. Michael Moore now makes his home in Traverse City. Up north, liberal politics wears like a dollar store sweater in July. Leave the politics in the closet for some other time. Crickets and fireflies dominate the nighttime, not cable show commentators. Foxes, coyotes, and some wolves roam without concern of violating a mayor’s curfew. Black bears chase away the bears of Wall Street. Economists are illegal immigrants north of Midland.

I left Traverse City one morning in mid-December trying to beat the blizzard home. The snowstorm beat me to my car, dropping more than a foot of snow and turning a typical three hour drive into more than six hours. I listened to Christmas carols, not the worry wart weather reports, as I drove through the winter wonderland. I noticed that the school buses were out on the roads. Schools were all closed in the southern part of the state, even though the northern area received much more snow. It’s reason number 15000 or so why so many warriors in the military come from the rural areas. Crossing the Mackinac Bridge in the winter requires respect. If the snow and wind don’t halt you, crossing into the U.P. takes you into Steve Hamilton’s literary territory for northern noir.

Crossing into the U.P. in wintertime

Steve Hamilton is asked by the Detroit Free Press to define northern noir:

Q: You’re considered a pioneer of a subgenre called northern noir. How would you define it?

A: “Noir” is French for “black.” Northern noir is dark fiction with a decidedly northern — i.e., cold — slant to it. Classic noir is Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles. … Evil under the sun — that’s classic noir. Northern noir is evil with a lot of snow.

Going back to 1997 when “A Cold Day in Paradise” came out, there wasn’t a lot of crime fiction set in the far north. (“Paradise”) and “Iron Lake” by William Kent Krueger came out the same year. Both those books did very well. … There’s been a lot more books set up north since then. If we had some part in influencing that, that would be nice to think.

John J. Miller interviews Hamilton for The National Review’s “Between the Covers” and has this about Misery Bay:

I saw this sign for Misery Bay — and it’s got a great name, first of all. Talk about being a lonely place: this place, I think, makes Paradise [Michigan] look like a metropolis. It is the single loneliest, most forgotten place I’ve probably ever been to in the state of Michigan,” says Steve Hamilton, author of Misery Bay: An Alex McKnight Novel.

A five mile drive at night across the largest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

Ernest Hemingway’s short story the Big Two-Hearted River is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Northern Michigan was the only place that really provided Hemingway true peace. In Big Two-Hearted River, Nick Adams has returned from World War One. He goes to the U.P. to fish and recuperate. His wounds are deep. The war has traumatized him physically and emotionally, as it did Hemingway in real life. The man on man hunt of war traumatizes the bravest and strongest. The fish make their homes in the swampy area of the river, as protection from intruders. Northern Michigan served as Hemingway’s swamp, his protection from man’s evil side.

The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.

It was all back of him. Explains everything about the appeal of northern Michigan.

Misery Bay in Michigan’s U.P.


No Facebook Friends for Eddie Coyle

No Facebook Friends for Eddie Coyle

Eddie Coyle must not have any Facebook friends. Last year NPR took a poll of their listeners for the top one hundred “killer thrillers.” The Friends of Eddie Coyle didn’t make the list. George Higgins’s classic crime novel did make it on Elmore Leonard’s list of one as the best crime novel ever written, “making The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew.” When George Higgins gave his agent The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the agent read it and dropped Higgins as a client, calling the story “unsaleable.”

Jackie Brown stopped at the table and said: “If I was telling you I was looking for a guy that was in the Marines with my brother once, you think you’d be able to help me?”

The kid’s eyes filled with emotion. “I was getting worried,” he said. “You were going to be here at seven-thirty. I had three plates of eggs so far.”

“You should lay off the eggs,” Jackie Brown said. “They make you fart worse than beer.”

“I like eggs,” the kid said. “Especially, what I mean is, all we get’re them powdered ones, that’re always scrambled. Every time I get liberty, I go out and have myself some eggs.”

“You get your cookies too?” Jackie Brown said.

“Huh?” the kid said.

“Never mind,” Jackie Brown said. “I didn’t come fucking down here to talk about fucking eggs. I came down here to do something. Let’s do it. Where do we go?”

Most people who read George Higgins the first time said, “Huh?” As Elmore Leonard wrote, “you have to give publishers time to catch up and catch on.”

“Is there any end to this shit? Does anything ever change in this racket?

“Hey Foss,” the prosecutor said, taking Clark by the arm, “of course it changes. Don’t take it so hard. Some of us die, the rest of us get older, new guys come along, old guys disappear. It changes every day.”

“It’s hard to notice, though,” Clark said.

“It is,” the prosecutor said, “it certainly is.”

Contemporary thriller writers dominate the NPR list. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is number one. Many classics from the past are on the list. Some great ones were overlooked. Eric Ambler’s books didn’t make the top one hundred. He’s only the best spy novelist of all time. James Dickey’s Deliverance should be on every top ten list for thriller type novels. Deliverance also didn’t make the cut for the top one hundred. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice didn’t make the list.

“Arthur’s a good man,” the stocky man said.

“Arthur’s as tight as a popcorn fart when he’s on a job,” the second man said, “but you sit him away some place where he’s got too much time to think and he’s dangerous. He’d fuck a dog with scarlet fever to get parole.”

“Well, you know him better’n I do,” the stocky man said. “I always liked him.”

Elmore Leonard recognized in The Friends of Eddie Coyle that the winning formula is authenticity. Dialogue tight as a popcorn fart might help NPR’s ratings against Rush Limbaugh.

Eddie Coyle is on Facebook- with friends, and all! I plead mercy for my knuckles. Don’t crack ’em in the desk drawer for the oversight. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is also coming to theater.


Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken

Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book, Unbroken, is the kind of story that should be read on the 4th of July as fireworks are going off. The story is about Louis Zamperini, a track star from Torrance, California who ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then became a lieutenant in the Army Air Force. His bomber was shot down over the Pacific. At that point, the 5,000 meter Olympic runner was forced to become an endurance contestant. The finish line drifted with his life raft for two thousand miles amid hundreds of hungry sharks, a harsh and unrelenting sun, starvation, dehydration, and typhoon. When he and his last surviving crewman couldn’t take anymore, the worst of all befell them as Japanese prisoners of war.

Laura Hillenbrand fills every page with stunning detail, making Unbroken a great followup to her first book Seabiscuit. Zamperini has the lead role in Unbroken but when Hillenbrand takes the focus off him and writes of the other American soldiers, her story doesn’t waver in the slightest. Her tale also doesn’t end with the end of the war. I am writing this as loud fireworks sound in the streets. Kids are screaming. Hillenbrand writes poignantly of the post traumatic stress of the Pacific POW’s and Zamperini’s struggles, including a description of a dinner reunion of Zamperini and his POW pals that has a normal festive air until the waiter serves a plate of white rice. Sounds such as 4th of July fireworks going off would have sent many of these former POW’s into a post traumatic hell zone.

As Hillenbrand researched and wrote Seabiscuit, she learned of Zamperini’s story. She writes eloquently of the ordeal suffered by the Pacific POW’s. “For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history.” The media put Zamperini on a celebratory pedestal while he fought his post war demons in private, even at one point almost strangling his wife in bed because he dreamed she was the Bird, his demented tormentor in the prison camp. While the media put the spotlight on the Olympic runner, his comrade on the life boat drifted away from the media glare. There were two crew members surviving the harrowing ordeal. The pilot returned to Indiana and led a quiet life as a school teacher, his heroics all but neglected until his death in old age. Another POW in the same camp as Zamperini survived an insane amount of brutality and then kissed his family goodbye and fought and disappeared in the Korean War. Hillenbrand puts Zamperini in context of the incredible suffering inflicted on all the Pacific POW’s.

“Life was cheap” was how one of the pilots described the war. Reading Unbroken is probably a surreal experience for many who have little sense of history and identify Japan with smart phones and cars. Unbroken demonstrates the importance of learning history. A friend who had two tours in Vietnam talked of the painful adjustments back to civilian life for combat soldiers that continues today. Few if any historians, journalists, or sports writers could name the most decorated Vietnam veteran, also a star athlete who had been recruited to play quarterback at Michigan. After earning two Silver Stars, seven Purple Hearts, a Bronze star, Randy McConnell thought he could do what Rocky Bleier did with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But like Zamperini, he also suffered from flashbacks, trading in dreams of the NFL for the water department in Flint, Michigan. In Unbroken, Hillenbrand describes Zamperini’s athleticism late in life, still on the skis into his nineties. I have a neighbor who was in the middle of Halsey’s Typhoon in World War Two. He was on the ski patrol into his late eighties and still on the golf course into his nineties.

The 4th of July, as with Unbroken, is a story of survival, resilience, and redemption. Hang the flag in honor. These heroes could be your next door neighbor.


Linchpins versus Crash Test Dummies

But I wanted to be a linchpin when I grew up

Most of us want to be linchpins, if we actually knew what it meant. Being a linchpin, as explained by Seth Godin, means possessing an indispensable value, the ability to make things happen. That’s something everyone should aspire to. But along the way we  became lost and got in line for the crash test dummies. We passed the obedience test and the reward was in the other room, with all the other Dilberts and the crash test dummies on the GM testing ground. The whiz kids and bean counters calculated to the tenth decimal point the cost of everything involved in running a business, labeled much of the company and the customer base as crash test dummy, and wrecked the business. The spreadsheet has become the company product, boasting in full color of supreme command and control of the company until the day the wall collapses as if built by a low rent fly by night contractor.

Dilberts of the world unite

Bob Lutz, one of the auto industry’s great linchpins, criticizes the bean counters for draining the life out of products in his new book. He speaks for everyone, not just those in the auto business. It’s the price paid in the race to the bottom. Quality is hardly ever mentioned these days, except ironically, Detroit and the automotive industry. Quality experts used to be all the rage but in the wrong way. Lutz tells of the need to toughen up, but in the right way. The best leaders operate like the Hall of Fame football or baseball coach and the worst use their spreadsheets to explain the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Bean counters across all industries are draining customer value out faster than what is being saved in cost cutting. I played golf with a friend who is a vice president of an automotive business. He was admiring his Nike ripoff golf clubs he had bought in China for almost nothing. I thought the clubs were okay for the cheap price. But the Nike ripoffs were cheap. No one who is any good would want to play with them. If he wanted to be good at golf, he would have to pay for the good equipment.

Don’t you want to be good? I asked him.

It’s a question everyone should ask.


Steven Pressfield’s The Profession

A Can't Do Without Thriller


School guidance counselors didn’t have to ask James Salter the color of his parachute. Blood red had to be the only choice. The Marine general in Steven Pressfield’s new novel The Profession is in charge of Force Insertion, the General Electric of military contractors.  Combine Douglas MacArthur with Jack Welch or Blackwater founder Erik Prince and you get a new thriller from Pressfield that’s set in the future year 2032 but feels like what’s coming next year.

“Probably no commander since Philip of Macedon has so skillfully employed bribery, intimidation and cooptation to achieve his military and political ends. If they gave Ph.D.s in Taking Over Foreign Countries, Salter would be running his own school at Harvard.”

Salter has bigger ambitions than running his own school at Harvard. First the oil fields in the Middle East, and then onto the Middle East’s best customer, an America thrown into chaos by a 2019 dirty bomb attack on Long Beach and a nuclear counterstrike against Iran. Massive demonstrations and radioactive material crippled the conventional military and weakened public support. Into the contaminated dust went the new dogs of war.

“The mercs didn’t care if their nutsacks glowed in the dark; they lined up by the hundreds for the bonuses and incentive pay.”

The success of the mercenary forces turned these dogs of war into the Big Dawg on the block. And none are bigger than General Salter.

The boots on the ground, eyeballs on the target narrator of The Profession is Salter’s right hand man, former Marine colonel Gent who has all of Steven Pressfield’s military knowledge and insight, and his wit.

Gent is sent to recruit “a gentleman named Abu Hassan el-Masri,” and to recruit him CDW- “Can’t Do Without.” The “gentleman” was also a Salter confident, interpreter, and bagman. Gent and el-Masri have this exchange:

“By the way,” he asks me, “you’re not here to kill me, are you?”

No immediate response from Gent and he asks again, “Seriously, are you here to assassinate me?”

“I tell el-Masri I’m not sure his status merits the term ‘assassinate.’”

“I would not hold it against you…”

“I repeat my denial.”

“…in fact, I would respect Salter more if I knew he was operating with such prudence.”

If Gent’s the post-modern operator with the earthy humor and perspective, Salter’s the warrior of ancient times, his words and actions providing the warrior-statesman arc of the novel, his poetic language asking the central question-“Who would be a warrior for hire?”

Salter answers his own question:

“Only a fool or a madman. That’s what I am- and that’s what you are too, brothers, or you wouldn’t be here with me. But there is wisdom to our lunacy- and cunning inside our folly. For war, we have learned, is the crucible within which all that is base and unworthy is purged from our impure and polluted hearts. The god of strife sees to that. I worship him. He is my teacher.”

The questions Salter won’t answer are the ones asked by A.D., the journalist and estranged wife of Gent.  She wrote that Salter’s earned a school at Harvard for taking over foreign countries and compared him to Philip of Macedon. She eventually joins the Salter camp as Gent loses trust in nearly everyone but el-Masri.

The Profession doesn’t read like a novel set that far into the future. Events in the Middle East are rewinding The Profession into the current timeslot as shown on “Trump/CNN,” the network of the future, the future being probably tomorrow.  Wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan are now fought with a combination of high tech military weaponry and private contractors.  The House of Saud is going to be recruiting some Salter’s and Gent’s long before the year 2032.

Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm Blackwater, has set up a new firm in the United Arab Emirates named Reflex Responses, or R2. Prince, who is called the “Kingfish” over there, uses American Special Forces trainers to train Colombians and other recruits to defend the United Arab Emirates against Iranian threats. It could have come straight from the pages of The Profession. CIA contract employee Raymond Davis made headlines a few months ago when he was arrested in Pakistan for killing two Pakistanis tailing him with the supposed intent to rob him. Davis was actually a Blackwater/Xe hire as were the other CIA contract employees who came to his rescue. Many of the drone attacks in Pakistan are reportedly carried out by private military contractors from Blackwater/Xe.

I had thought Tom Clancy lost it when he wrote a plot about a 747 airliner crashing into the U.S. Capitol building in Debt of Honor. I read all his novels and marveled at his knowledge. But an airliner crashing into the U.S. Capitol building? What kind of plot is that? Then 9/11 happened. That mistake won’t be made with The Profession. Salter’s government in waiting isn’t just a fictional device. Who can say how people will react to a nuclear event , a dirty bomb going off, and the military and political repercussions.  Someone asked a Detroit congressman who gave the Obama administration the authority to fire the CEO of General Motors and seize control of the auto industry. The congressman simply smiled and said he admired the power move.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and into it steps the power men, whether in the Middle East, Russia, or maybe someday America.

Steven Pressfield is known for his great historical novels. He openly admits how he struggled to write a novel set in the future. I’m glad he stuck with it. He’s a master storyteller and The Profession should sail high on the winds of current events, a Can’t Do Without thriller.


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