Monuments, Torches, & Ketchup

Regardless of where you stand on the removal of monuments to Confederate slavery and racism, one thing is clear: the decades-long struggle of non-smokers everywhere goes entirely forgotten, with nary a statue.*

In the 1970s the restaurants my family frequented offered non-smokers three tables at best. We might wait half an hour just to get seated. The hostess at Abdow’s Big Boy would look at us with disdain as we tarried in her crowded lobby awaiting our turn. Guests who arrived after us stuck their noses in the air and marched on ahead of us to fill their bellies with dinner and their lungs with smoke.

And when finally we were called to a booth, we’d be led with contempt to the furthest corner of the restaurant, hard up beside the restrooms. The waiter, annoyed at having to bring our food so far from the kitchen, was seldom to be seen again and you can forget about her bringing the bottle of ketchup, please.

Had she spit in our hamburgers loaded high on the tray? Sneeze in the unsalted fries?

Added to the insult of feeling like outcasts marked by no-smoking signs, we endured second hand smoke all around us. It ruined the taste of our food and followed us home in a thick stench on our clothes.

But as the decades progressed, common sense and science conspired to defeat Big Tobacco. No-smoking sections expanded to the point where they were no longer necessary. Restaurants dedicated themselves entirely to clean air.

And the no-smoking signs disappeared.

Now, inspired by the horrific events in Charlottesville, I propose we bring them back. I propose we hang them re-positioned to distinguish those who favor torch-bearing racism from those who do not. Let the diners who welcome American values like diversity and free speech eat in peace far from those who abuse their First Amendment right by fouling the air with hate speech and racism.

Let the racists tell the world who they are. Let them eat in shamefaced chagrin near the men’s room and the stinking toilet cakes. Let them hope the servers and cooks don’t spit in their food.

Let racism come to an end. Turn it on its side.

*forgive me. i do not make light of the real struggle. parody often requires the absurd

Diplomatic Casualties

The morning of December 6, 2004, five heavily armed terrorists stormed the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

I remember loud pops from the AK-47s and the muffled thud of improvised explosive devices; I remember hours hunkered under a desk and a scramble for protection when the Marine called “Gas!; I remember crouching through our corridor, being locked in a vault, the safe haven filled with hammering and grinding of sensitive material. I remember hours of this.

I remember the phone call, the wailing when we learned of our first casualties.

I remember the debris where bullets pierced our windows, smashed the concrete walls, shattered televisions. I remember the blackened doors, the pockmarked glass. I remember the sweating Marine standing guard at the rear hatch, hours after a heroic dash from his burning barracks to the weapons room inside the Chancery.

I remember: Five consulate employees dead. Ten severely wounded.

The United States was engaged at the time in the War on Terror. Before that, Iran and Beirut, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi (19 years ago this week). Since then Sana’a, Peshawar, Ankara. Benghazi. So many others.

Are these sacrifices forgotten? We serve without arms, promoting America’s interests in dangerous places. We serve, but are poorly served. Our casualties, our sacrifice, our service, all are belittled. All demeaned. All, by some, forgotten.

We knew that we were patriots long before a survey told us so.

Writers & Musicians

I could post the latest literary event on video, or this. Musicians make better company than writers.

Books can wait until tomorrow.

Wines from Hungary

I had a good time interviewing photographer and author Brian Neely some months back. His book, A Wine Filled Year, explores in photos and text the vineyards and wines and wine-making process from across the Hungarian countryside.

The American Foreign Service Association was kind enough to post the exchange.

I confess my opening is stilted (this is what happens when you ask a writer—whose preferred mode is solitude rather than discourse—to play a speaking role) but Brian livens it up with a tour around Hungary’s wine regions and some of his favorite photos in the book. The conversation flows a little more naturally at minute 14:10, where Brian’s book becomes more than a trip through Hungary to serve as a trip through time.

Wine aficionados can connect with Brian here.

Chain Your Muse

Matthew Palmer's Enemy of the Good explores 'values complexity' even as it provides the reader with an entertaining page-turner.I heard this gem last week, sound advice to anyone who bleeds ink: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

The man with the chain is Matthew Palmer, novelist and Foreign Service Officer, speaking at the American Foreign Service Association to promote his fourth book, Enemy of the Good.

His remarks at our diplomatic safe haven in Foggy Bottom were brief, funny, and informative. Best of all, they left me reassured that somebody’s out there telling the American people what it is we diplomats do for our country.

While his main objective as an author is to entertain, Palmer’s latest thriller also carries lessons in what he calls ‘values complexity.’ To paraphrase, the American diplomat’s job is more difficult for the fact that we stand for everything, that we must choose between morality and compromise, that the U.S. interest in, say, an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, may compel our diplomats to look past the human rights abuses of the local regime.

This isn’t cynical. It’s the job. We stand for a lot of things that get in the way of the other things we stand for.

Look inside Palmer’s work to see how it plays out. He’s an engaging writer and an entertaining speaker, happy to dole out tips when asked. On how he manages to write convincing female characters, he takes a page from George R.R. Martin: ‘I’ve always thought of women as people.’

Ask him why Enemy of the Good is dedicated to his wife.

Palmer doesn’t write to preach but to entertain. He takes Le Carre’s view that the reader doesn’t want reality but a facsimile of reality. This he gives. He gives the reader a story they care about not because of plot but because they care about the characters.

Writers, travelers, expats, overworked people everywhere who fancy themselves scribblers can sit up straight and get to work wherever they are, even in the last row of a 15-hour flight to Bishkek, toilets running over and two heavies parked beside them: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

Writing isn’t precious. Writing is writing. Chain your muse.

Diplomats and Terrorists

When it comes to terrorism, the enemy can't kill us if our institutions kill us first.

Last month American Diplomacy included my review of Ambassador James R.  Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled. The book recounts a career that began with the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador, and Niger, where he served from 2001-2006 as Country Director for the Peace Corps. Or, as he likes to call it, ‘Hard core Peace Corps.’

Also tucked away in American Diplomacy’s  collection of Foreign Service despatches and reports on U.S. foreign policy was an excerpt from Two Pumps for the Body Man (New Pulp Press 2016).  Set in Saudi Arabia, the satire does for American diplomacy what Catch 22 did for military logic:

The enemy in the War on Terror can’t kill us
if our institutions kill us first.

In the excerpt, lead diplomat Vanna Lavinia contemplates the various threats to her career, including ineptitude, obsequiousness, and direct challenges to her authority. Given these impediments to her sanity, Vanna seems to miss the biggest danger of all as she represents the United States on the front line of the War on Terror.

It’s here, if you’d like to read it and let me know what you think. Review copies of the novel are available through my contact page.

‘Tough Guy’ Rights

Chris Collins might have noted that congressional failure to better legislate sensible measures is part—not all, but part—of the problem he now wants to arm himself against. This failure puts all citizens in jeopardy, not just the seersucker crowd on Capitol Hill.
“I’ll be exercising my Second Amendment right to carry a firearm as I travel my district.”

Representative Chris Collins is acting tough.

“Here’s what’s not up for debate,” the New York Republican wrote in Monday’s Washington Post. “From now on, I’ll be exercising my Second Amendment right to carry a firearm as I travel my district.”

Collins has some right to feel the need for protection. A gunman went ballistic last week in Virginia, shooting at congressmen, U.S. Capitol Police, and staffers as they practiced for a charity baseball game. There’s no denying that it’s his right to carry a gun, within the confines limited by his permit.

But rather than play the victim of intimidation by firearms, Collins might instead have noted that congressional failure to better legislate sensible measures is part—not all, but part—of the problem he now wants to arm himself against. This failure puts all citizens in jeopardy, not just the seersucker crowd on Capitol Hill.

Or would Rootin’ Tootin’ Collins have our six year olds protect themselves from the next school shooting by tucking pistols in their Pokemon lunch boxes?

What Collins has told us is, when it comes to curbing the plague of gun violence in America, “I give up.” He isn’t bravely facing a fight; he is in cowardly fashion disturbing the peace, yelling ‘FIRE’ in a movie theater and standing smugly back with a matchstick in his hand.

Continue reading ‘Tough Guy’ Rights

Expeditionary Diplomacy

The otherwise respectable American Diplomacy, which publishes ‘Foreign Service Despatches and Periodic Reports on U.S. Foreign Policy,’ included my review  of of Ambassador James R. Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled, in the latest lineup.

The memoir recounts a career that started in expeditionary diplomacy for the State Department during the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and some of the fiercest early battles of that war, and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador.

‘…The trim black passport issued to American diplomats has a hefty corollary in James Bullington’s big black memoir. The passport confers access and status on the bearer in a foreign land. The memoir demonstrates why such access and status are vital to promoting U.S. values and interests. More important, the narrative reveals such access and status to be privileges earned rather than rights granted.’

As a corollary to this, I’m including a lightly annotated excerpt of Ambassador Bullington’s oral history for the American Diplomatic Studies and Training oral history project. The excerpt focuses on Bullington’s service as Peace Corps Country Director in Niger (2000-2006) and some trouble he had during the 80’s getting diplomatic pouches into Burundi thanks to—shall we call them large?—seed packages requested by the Peace Corps. Read here.

American Diplomacy is published in cooperation with the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences and its Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense and with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

Witch Hunt

"If the turd floats, it isn't a witch."

Let’s not kid ourselves. Among the many mistakes in Arthur Miller’s talented life (he divorced Marilyn Monroe after just 5 yrs) was his choice of title for The SINGLE GREATEST Story About American History’s Salem Witch Trials.

The Crucible. The Crucible? What’s this, Chemistry class? Are we grinding elements here to torch them with a Bunsen Burner? No wonder High School English was such a drag! We were stuck reading “The Crucible” when we could have been reading:

The Single Greatest WITCH HUNT in American Political History

How our young minds would have tuned to the salacious proceedings! We may not have had Smart phones and Twitter feeds back then, but we sure had our share of demagogues in the corridors of power. How much more quickly would Joe McCarthy have been taken down if only Arthur Miller hadn’t been such a pansy about his title!

I’ll leave you with a bit of wisdom overheard in my high school’s 3-corridor lav, a place where renegades and truants filled their lungs with smoke during the long years of forced reading. They seemed to have retained something of those lectures about Salem, about Washington, and about the natural state of man. None other than high school bully D. Whalon said, staring into the abyss of the toilet in the stall next to mine:

“If the turd floats, it isn’t a witch.”

Washington’s mighty Potomac, already a cesspool of toxic runoff and waste, might just be the place to test this theory in our modern day WITCH HUNT. And I wonder, if he were to be dunked unto its waters, would the hunted Don John himself sink? Or would the turd float?

We, the People from U.N.C.L.E.

Enough! The past eight days has brought just too much to keep up with. How do you address and condemn one awful imposition on our sanity without condoning all the others by omission? And how can you possibly write up all that condemnation?!

This quandary has me in a state of total paralysis.

  • Let me count the ways:
    • Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum in Contempt of Congress
    • Congressional Contempt for the FBI
    • The Elmer Fudd Congressional Sessions
    • Hosannahs in the Highest: A Cabinet Full of Praise
    • The PR Excuse Puppet—“The President Is New At This”
    • Bend Over, America, While We Step Behind the GOP’s Curtain
    • May We Also Tweak Your Finances?
    • Prez to House: Your Bill Is Mean. Thanks for Passing It.
    • Congressional Baseball Shootout.
    • Obstruction. Of. Justice.

More, More, More!

Surely I’ve left something out. Please add your concerns below. I’ll be sure to pass them along to U.N.C.L.E.—United Now to Counter Legislative (and other) Evil!