Tom Wolfe Had The Right Stuff

I was deeply saddened to see that Tom Wolfe, one of the greatest writers in recent American history, died on Monday after being admitted to a New York hospital with an infection.  Wolfe was 88.

tom-wolfe-died-rolling-stone-writer-died-c0167ef2-8238-4428-a97e-eb7634d56326Tom Wolfe was an acclaimed novelist, but I will always remember him as one of the pillars of “New Journalism” in the ’60s and ’70s.  It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Tom Wolfe and the other colossal journalistic figure, Hunter S. Thompson, had on aspiring journalists in the Watergate and post-Watergate era.  Although their styles were very different, their writing had such flair and power.  Wolfe, in particular, showed enormous skill in picking and presenting topics that allowed him to skewer conventional wisdom and conventional norms and highlight some of the phoniness in modern society.  Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, published in 1970, is a classic of the “New Journalism” genre.

And then came The Right Stuff, published in 1979 just as my tenure at the Ohio State University School of Journalism was ending.  A new non-fiction book by Tom Wolfe was eagerly anticipated, so I bought the book as soon as it came out, began reading it, and just couldn’t put it down.  It’s awesome from cover to cover, and includes everything that made Wolfe great — brilliant descriptive passages, a kind of novelistic pacing, bright, laugh out loud humor, his ability to ferret out small details that communicate a lot, and the unmatched ability to step back from something, view it from a new perspective, and then present it in a way that left you nodding your head and wondering why everybody didn’t recognize that perspective in the first place.

Wolfe’s treatment of the test pilot community, the ziggurat of achievement where a pilot could wash out at any step, and then how the American obsession with the “space race” and the Mercury astronaut program upended the order and added a new, top step to the ziggurat is just fantastic.  The book shows a writer at the absolute pinnacle of his powers; in effect, Wolfe had climbed to the peak of the ziggurat of journalism and non-fiction.  I’ve read the book countless times, and it never fails to grip me even though I know exactly what is coming.  I consider The Right Stuff to be one of the great books of the 20th century, and definitely in my top 5 list.  If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to get it from the library and give yourself a treat.

Because Wolfe’s non-fiction books read like novels, thanks to his incredible creativity and skill, it was natural that he would pivot to fiction and write a series of best sellers that also captured the silly side of modern society.  His novels were good, but I always thought The Right Stuff was his greatest triumph.  In honor of the passing of this enormous talent, it’s time for me to read it again.

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The Melting Pot

One of the more interesting things about our brief visit to Las Vegas was how diverse the place seems to be.

web1_tourism_101116bh_497_7281632In my walks navigating through the throngs of people up and down the Strip — which is a pretty good place for both walking and people watching — I saw people of all colors, shapes, and sizes (and, frequently, degrees of inebriation) taking in the sights.  The shirts people wear tell you that the place is a magnet for bachelorette parties, family reunions, conventions, and other small-scale get-togethers for people from all over, and you’ll hear lots of people speaking other languages as you walk by.  Las Vegas is like a microcosm of the American “melting pot” idea, reduced to city size.

Which raises the question:  why are so many different people drawn to a place like Las Vegas?  I’m sure that a lot of people just like the prospect of gambling, drinking, and otherwise cutting loose in a place that is legendary for its consequence-free, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mentality.  More broadly, though, I think many people are seeking a little spectacle and energy to break the routine and spice up their lives.  Las Vegas — with its neon, and fantastic buildings, and “anything goes” ‘tude — supplies it.

Dawn Over The Strip

I can confirm that the sun does in fact set on Las Vegas — and it rises the next morning, too. When I looked out my hotel window this morning I saw dawn’s first rays striking the garish gold Trump hotel across the street, and learned from one of the huge neon signs for the neighboring Wynn hotel that Paul Anka, of all people, is one of their featured acts. Paul Anka!

Gold buildings, neon, still-performing figures from the ’60s, dusty desert mountains in the distance . . . I’ve definitely arrived in Las Vegas.

Obscenity In The Air

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and I’ve been struck by how common it is to hear adults using obscenities in public places these days.  I’m not talking about  occasional “hells” or “damns,” either — I’m talking about people speaking loudly into cell phones at airport gates and repeatedly using the queen mother of curses, or audibly muttering to themselves in angry, f-bomb-laden tirades in the cabins of airplanes.

o-curse-words-facebookIt’s a weird phenomenon, too.  The people who are cursing their brains out for all to hear seem totally oblivious to the fact that they are in public places, where people within earshot might find their profanity bothersome or unsettling to their sense of personal security.   In every case that I’ve experienced recently, there were small children in the area who also were exposed to the cusser’s lack of self-control; I’m sure their parents appreciated their child’s unexpected and unwanted exposure to the coarsest of language.  And apparently the speakers either didn’t understand, or didn’t care, that people might be troubled by loud vulgarity in a crowded public setting where standard social niceties require you to sit down, stay quiet, and keep your four-letter words to yourself.

I’m not a prude — at least, I don’t think I am — but the increasing prevalence of casual obscenity in our everyday lives really bugs me.  I think it’s unfair to people who would still like to believe that there is a little decorum left in the world, and that strangers we encounter every day will obey basic social rules.

I can’t help but think, too, that there is macho element to the public use of curse words.  I’ve occasionally heard women using profanity in public places, but this is predominantly a male problem, involving self-important guys who have no sense of personal space boundaries and apparently think that their use of locker room language makes them seem cool, cutting edge, and unconstrained by convention.

They apparently don’t realize that, instead, everyone within earshot of their expletives thinks that they are stupid jerks who lack any semblance of self-control and who are unnecessarily making the world a little bit more unpleasant for the rest of us.

Training Session

Today I took the train from Newark’s Penn Station to Trenton for meetings, then back again this afternoon. We boarded an Amtrak regional train, which meant that we stopped at pretty much every station along the way. (One of the stops, aptly named “MetroPark,” appears to be a giant web of parking garages and surface lots and is one of the busiest stops of all.)

The train is a bit more expensive than traveling by car, but for the Uptight Traveler — that’s me — it’s a lot less stressful. You don’t need to hassle with New Jersey traffic and risk missing your meeting because of gridlock, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and you can work while you ride. Add in a short walk from the Trenton Station to my ultimate destination, to provide a little fresh air and exercise, and you’ve got a decent business travel experience.

We don’t have any rail service in Columbus, so any train trip is a bit of an adventure. I liked my small taste of commuting, East Coast style.

Public/Private

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had been a vocal proponent of the “Me too” movement and had been investigating the activities of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, resigned on Monday, hours after he was accused of physically assaulting four women.

7-schneiderman-w710-h473Two of the women who spoke on the record said Schneiderman hit them without their consent and that they had had to seek medical treatment for being slapped and choked.  One woman, who was born in Sri Lanka, said Schneiderman called her his “brown slave,” choked her, beat her, and spat at her.

In response to the allegations, Schneiderman said that “[i]n the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.”  Schneiderman’s resignation statement, given several hours after the story broke, said:  “While these allegations are unrelated to my professional conduct or the operations of the office, they will effectively prevent me from leading the office’s work at this critical time.”  New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who had called for Schneiderman’s resignation, stated:  “Given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve.”  Schneiderman is now being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Schneiderman’s resignation statement raises an increasingly common question about where to draw the line between public and private when you are talking about public officials.  He claims that the allegations are “unrelated” to his “professional conduct” or the operations of the New York Attorney General’s office — but if the allegations of the four women are determined by investigators to be true and Schneiderman is prosecuted for the physical assaults, that’s obviously not accurate.  As a baseline, the “professional conduct” of an Attorney General should include not engaging in criminal activity.

But what if Schneiderman’s depiction of the circumstances are credited, and his violent interaction with the women was part of “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity”?  If, hypothetically, two consenting adults choose to engage in such conduct, and one of them is a high-ranking public official, does the public have a right to know about it?  It’s an exercise in line-drawing, and part of the evaluation has to consider whether public officials have a right to enjoy some kind of privacy in their personal lives — and, more broadly, whether imposing a rule that says every aspect of an individual’s personal and family life is fair game will discourage people from seeking office in the first place.

These are tough questions, but in my view there are some lines that can be drawn.  If a public official is engaging in conduct that indicates that they have an interest in acting out violent and demeaning fantasies, I want to know about it and factor it into my decision-making on whether they should be serving the public trust.

Today’s Travel Tribulations

The travel day started uneventfully.  I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight to Newark.  The plane loaded and left on time, and actually landed in Newark about 20 minutes early.

Then, it all went horribly wrong.

5644ef75112314303e8b4807-750-563Because we were early, and because the airlines never want to leave a gate unoccupied, of course there was a departing plane at our gate.  So we waited for the plane to leave.  Then the captain announced that there were a bunch of other planes looking to use the same runway, so we would have to wait for the runway to clear.  Then — and this was the unbelievable part — the captain came on the intercom again and let us know that the captain of a plane in front of us had pulled into our gate by mistake, and the ground crew would have to back that plane out and reposition it before we could be towed into our gate area.  All told, we sat on the ground at the Newark airport for almost an hour.

It wouldn’t have been so bad but for the guy sitting next to me.  He was one of those guys who answers his cell phone using his hands-free option, so everyone around him can hear his incredibly important calls.  He was upset to begin with, because we all got to hear that there was some kind of billing snafu at his business, and as the delays mounted he got increasingly agitated — first muttering, then loudly complaining, and finally throwing around f-bombs that didn’t exactly have a calming influence on the other passengers.  We all were inconvenienced by what had happened, but this ticking time bomb had to act like it was all about him.

Then my fellow passengers acted like jerks in the scrum to get the gate-checked bags, milling around rather than lining up and not caring if they blocked everybody behind.  And when I got to the taxi stand, a loud altercation between the cabdrivers broke out because one driver was accused of cutting in line.  As I settled into my cab, with a driver who’d just been engaged in a red-faced, gesturing shouting match featuring an unknown foreign language, I wondered what might happen next:  volcanic eruption?  earthquake?  Cats and dogs living together?  Mass hysteria?

I’m going to have to ask the Jersey Girl whether flying into Newark is always like this.