A Bright Shining Lie (Modern Library Nonfiction #84)

(This is the seventeenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: West with the Night.)

Young scrappy soldiers came to walk the villages and the jungles and the ricepaddies from all hopeful parts of America, itching to step into boots that matched the size and the bravery of their heroic fathers. They hungered to prove their manhood and their patriotism even as their spirits dwindled and their moral core dissipated as it became common knowledge that Vietnam was an unwinnable war. They came home in dishonor and disgrace, losers who had sacrificed their bodies and minds and souls in the name of failed American exceptionalism, and they were left to rot by their government and sometimes by their fellow citizens.

Much as the shellshocked men in World War I returned to their native soil facing similar indifference to their trauma and their pain, as memorably chronicled in Richard Aldington’s brutally mordant novel Death of a Hero, the men who served in Vietnam learned that the best years of their lives had been little more than a cruel joke, even when they defended napalm-soaking sorties that burned vast horrifying holes into villages and hospitals and fields and homes and schools that happened to be situated near a hopped up Huey often manned by a pilot who was losing his mind. Their collective shellshock was as commonplace as heartbreak and many dozen times more devastating. The Vietnam vets, who were all very brave and worthy of the same valor afforded the Greatest Generation (but never received their due), suffered PTSD and traumatic injuries and severe psychological damage. Every day of their lives after the war was a new battle against painful inner turmoil that spread to their families and their friends and their loved ones, stretching well beyond the poisoned polyester of the flapping American flag itself. It seemed that nobody wanted to hear their stories, much less any news about the one million civilians and Viet Cong soldiers who were slaughtered above the 17th parallel or the estimated 741,000 who died below it or the 312,000 people who died by direct order of various governments or the 273,000 Cambodians and the 62,000 Laotians.

They all died, and none of them needed to, because the conflict had escalated through the foggy hubris of war and the dogged jingoism of three U.S. Presidents and the exacting Pentagon number crunchers who believed they could will their analytical acumen into a guaranteed victory even when the truth was fudged and altered and far too frequently ignored and contemned. For all the Pentagon’s professed understanding, the imperious powers that be could not comprehend that the massive influx of American supplies would be plundered and reused by resourceful Viet Cong soldiers with a very long memory of history who learned how to take out Bell UH-1 helicopters and M-113 armored personnel carriers from the ground. They carried out the strategic hamlet program without providing basic needs to the very villagers who were supposed to be their allies. Most disastrously, the American interventionists severely underestimated the damage that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was doing to South Vietnamese loyalty, culminating in the Buddhist Crisis of 1963, which persecuted religion in a manner shockingly similar to ongoing present-day American indignities against Muslims.

Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people died in the Vietnam War. That’s close to the entire population of Chicago or the total population of Jamaica. It is the entire population of Nebraska. It is the combined population of Wyoming, Vermont, Washington D.C., and Alaska. It is the combined population of Iceland, Fiji, and Cyprus. It is a staggering and heartbreaking sum by any stretch of the imagination that should cause any human being to stop in his tracks and ponder how so much bloodshed could happen. Those who would blithely dismiss the study of all this as a priapic man’s game to keep close tabs on some completely insignificant item of celebrity gossip usually cannot comprehend the full scale of such unfathomable devastation and our duty to closely examine history so that such a bewildering bloodbath never happens again. And yet, even with the strong reception of Ken Burns’s recent documentary, the Vietnam War remains one of those subjects that Americans do not want to talk about, even when it epitomizes the toxic mix of Yankee Doodle Vanity, bureaucratic shortsightedness, savage masculinity, unchecked hypocrisy, credibility gaps, imperialist dishonesty, and cartoonish escalation of resources — all pernicious checkboxes that still mark American policy today.

We wouldn’t know of this American complicity without the invaluable work of reporters like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, who were raw and young and brash and sometimes foolhardy in their dispatches. It was undoubtedly their dogged free-wheeling approach, a fierce pursuit of journalistic truth that is unthinkable to such useless and unfathomably gullible New York Times company men like Richard Fausset and Peter Baker today, which caused Americans to ask questions of the war and that eventually led Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers (which Sheehan himself would later acquire for the New York Times in 1971). The quest for understanding, especially in the conflict’s early years, proved just as intoxicating to these sleep-deprived and overworked journos as it did to the soldiers who kept coming back for further tours of duty. All wondered why common sense had been so rashly and cheaply capitulated.

Sheehan and Halberstam followed in the footsteps of such famous war reporters as Francois Sully, Homer Bigart, Malcolm Browne, and Horst Faas. (William Prochnau’s book Once Upon a Distant War is an excellent and vivacious account of this period, although not without its minor liberties. A 1988 Neil Sheehan profile that Prochnau wrote for The Washington Post, offering some useful carryover material for his book, is also available online.) The two men arrived in Vietnam separately in 1962. They had both attended Harvard, but had arrived at the hallowed university through altogether different routes. Sheehan came from a working-class Irish background and lucked out with a scholarship. By the time Sheehan arrived in Saigon, he was a reformed alcoholic and a tortured man who had learned the fine art of carving extra hours out of any day, a talent he had honed while running a dairy farm as a kid. Sheehan worked for the penny-pinching UPI wire service and, much as a contemporary journalist is expected to write, shoot and cut video, and preserve his crisp telegenic form if he wishes to hold onto his job, he was often responsible for logistics extending well beyond the writing and transmission of copy.

Halberstam was a tall and lanky man from a middle-class Jewish background, but decidedly brasher than Sheehan. His trenchant reporting of civil rights struggles in the South attracted the notice of The New York Times‘s James Reston. Halberstam was a formidable if slipshod workhorse, banging out thousands of words per day that often had to be shoehorned into coherent shape by the exasperated Times team. But Halberstam’s reporting in the Congo was strong and gallant enough to land him in Saigon.

Sheehan and Halberstam would become friends and roommates, working very long days and often falling asleep at their typewriters. They chased any source that led them to demystify the war, but they were both seduced by a man named John Paul Vann, who became the subject of Sheehan’s journalistic masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie. Halberstam would write two books from his Vietnam experience: The Making of a Quagmire, a short and useful 1965 volume that faded into obscurity within a decade, and The Best and the Brightest, a juicy and detailed top-down account of bureaucratic blunder that Stephen Bannon even pushed onto every member of the Trump transition team in February 2017 (as reported by the New York Times‘s Marc Tracy). But Neil Sheehan, who carried on with a quieter and more methodical approach than Halberstam’s gigantic and flagrant “us vs. them” style, rightly decided that more time and considerable rumination and careful reporting was the way in. He wisely believed that John Vann was the key to understanding American involvement and the mentality behind it. The book would consume sixteen years of Sheehan’s life. And for all the anguish that Sheehan suffered through that long and painful period, we are incredibly lucky to have it.

John Vann was a wildly energetic colonel from Norfolk, Virginia who could survive on four hours of sleep and sometimes none at all. He had built a military career on the “Vann luck.” He would willfully fly aircraft through a suicidal fusillade of fire and drive down dangerous roads that were known to be mined and patrolled by the Viet Cong. He would miraculously survive. Like Robert McNamara, he was very certain of how to win the war. But unlike McNamara, Vann did not rely on problematic data, but rather the know-how of knowing people and the pragmatic logistics that he picked up from his experience in the battlefield, often talking with and distributing candy to the South Vietnamese citizens suffering under the Diem regime. It was through such gestures that Vann avoided a few attempts on his life. Vann was savvy enough to court the trust and admiration of reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam pining for a few dependable truth bombs, to the point where the reporters pooled in their resources to buy him an engraved cigarette box when Vann left Vietnam the first time. But Vann would find a way back a few years later as an Agency for International Development official. He portrayed himself as a scrappy underdog whose candid bluster had prevented him from advancing to general, whose near twenty years of service and bravery and experience had simply not been heeded. But the truth of his checkered life, carefully concealed from many who knew him, told the real story.

Sheehan is both sensitive and meticulous in telling Vann’s take. We cannot help but admire Vann’s dogged work ethic and charisma in the book’s first section, as we see Vann attempting to bring the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army known to recklessly attack insurgents under Diem) together with the then comparatively diminutive American presence in an attempt to win the war. Vann hoped to train the ARVN to better fight against the guerillas, but faced indifference from Huỳnh Văn Cao, an AVRN colonel to whom Vann was appointed an adviser. Cao often liked to don the bluster of a general. We see Vann being kind to the common soldiers, whether peasants or seasoned regulars, but we also see Vann as an egomaniac willing to overstep his rank to get results. One of Vann’s guides to negotiating the tricky turmoil of Vietnam was a 1958 novel called The Ugly American, which depicted American diplomats in a fictitious nation named Sarkhan that proved incredibly arrogant towards the culture, customs, and language of the people. The book would inspire Kennedy so much that he had sent copies of the book to every American Senator. (The Peace Corps would later become a Kennedy campaign talking point turned into a reality.) Vann would take an altogether different lesson from the book in attempting to turn Cao to his side by appealing to his ego and by flattering him. But in practice, Vann’s benign puppeteering as military command could result in disaster, such as a July 20, 1962 battle in the lower delta, in which Cao resisted Vann’s efforts to load helicopters with a second reserve to prevent Viet Cong soldiers from escaping by flatly declining the request. Such stalling allowed the Viet Cong more opportunities to pluck American ordnance, transforming .50 caliber machine guns into antiaircraft weapons through tireless ingenuity.

This communicative combativeness between the Americans and the ARVN would reach its nadir with the Battle of Ab Pac, which is one of the most gripping sections of Sheehan’s book. Vann would watch helplessly from a L-19 Bird Dog surveiling the battlefield as the AVRN delayed sending troops, not knowing that the Viet Cong had intercepted radio transmissions using stolen American equipment. This allowed the Viet Cong to strike hard and accurately against task forces that were effectively separated and caught adrift, leaving them open to attack. The American Hueys disregarded Vann’s orders and were hit by the Viet Cong. Vann, whose domineering tone could be off-putting, was unable to send M-113 carriers across the canals to save the remaining soldiers and reinforce the territory. Vann, increasingly desperate and flustered by the ARVN’s recalcitrance in advancing, approached Captain Ly Tong Ba, the ARVN man holding up support who said that he refused to take Americans, and ordered Robert Bays to “shoot that rotten, cowardly son of a bitch right now and move out.” The battle became the Viet Cong’s first major victory.

By presenting the facts in this manner, Sheehan leaves us with many lingering questions. Was Vann a somewhat more informed version of American interventionist arrogance? Was American might, in Vann’s obdurate form, needed to atone for serious deficiencies from Diem and the ARVN? Even if the ARVN had permitted the Americans to have more of a commanding hand, would not the Viet Cong have eventually secured a victory comparable to Ab Pac? Even at this stage in the book, Vann remains strangely heroic and we can sympathize with his frustration. But in allowing us to vicaroiusly identify with Vann, Sheehan slyly implicates the reader in the desire to win by any means necessary.

And then Sheehan does something rather amazing in his portrait of Vann. In a section entitled “Taking on the System,” he broadens the scope to the soldiers and the command contending with Vann’s aggressiveness (while likewise exposing the hubris of civilian leadership under McNamara, along with the bomb-happy pacification strategy of Victor Krulak and the foolhardy optimism of MACV commander Paul Harkins). And we begin to see that the Vietnam quagmire, like any intense battle for victory and power, was absolutely influenced by strong and truculent personalities, which young reporters like Halberstam and Sheehan were rightfully challenging. Unable to get the top dogs to understand through meetings and communiques, Vann began to weaponize the press against Harkin’s reality distortion field — this as the Diem regime’s increasing persecution of the Buddhists revealed the vast fissures cracking into South Vietnamese unity. Sheehan begins to insert both Halberstam and himself more into the narrative. With Vann now retired from the Army, we are rightly left to wonder if he was indeed as indispensable as many believed him to be.

But then Sheehan backtracks to Vann’s past. And we begin to see that he had been living a lie. He pulled himself from an impoverished Virginian upbringing, where he was an illegitimate child raised by a wanton alcoholic mother, and married a respectable woman named Mary Jane. But while stationed as an Army officer, he cultivated a taste for underage girls and hushed up both his numerous affairs and the allegations, even persuading Mary Jane to lie for him during a court-martial for statutory rape and adultery while also training himself to pass a lie detector test. While stationed in Vietnam the second time, Vann could not control his sexual appetite. He carried on numerous affairs, devoting his attentions quite ardently with two mistresses who were half his age, one of whom had his child, and keeping the two women largely in the dark about each other for a sustained period. His predatory behavior presents itself as a bigger lie more unsettling than the Harkin-style prevarications that resulted in needless deaths.

In the end, the “Vann luck” could not hold out. His death in 1972, at least as portrayed by Sheehan, is almost anticlimactic: the result of a helicopter crashing into a series of trees. As Vietnam changed and the American presence grew with unmitigated enormity, Vann’s apparent know-how could not penetrate as an AID commander, even though Sheehan depicts Vann having many adventures.

A Bright Shining Lie isn’t just an epic history of Vietnam. It also reveals the type of conflicted and deeply flawed American personality that has traditionally been allowed to rise to the top, influencing key American decisions, for better or worse. I read the book twice in the last year and, particularly in relation to Vann’s obstinacy and his abuse of women, I could not help but see Donald Trump as a more cartoonish version of Vann’s gruff and adamantine bluster. But the present landscape, as I write these words near the end of 2017, a year that has carried on with an endless concatenation of prominent names revealed as creeps and abusers of power, is now shifting to one where a masculine, wanton, and ultimatum-oriented approach to command is no longer being tolerated. And yet, even after war has devastated a nation through such a temperament, it is possible for those who are ravaged by violence to be forgiving. In 1989, Sheehan returned to Vietnam for two profiles published in The New Yorker (these are collected in the volume After the War Was Over). In his trip to North Vietnam, Sheehan is baffled by the farmers and the villagers showing no bad blood to Americans:

I encountered this lack of animosity everywhere we went in the North and kept asking for an explanation. The first offered was that the Vietnamese had never regarded the entire American people as their enemy. The American government — “the imperialists” — had been the enemy; other Americans, particularly the antiwar protesters, had been on the Vietnamese side. This did not seem explanation enough for people like the farmer on the road to Lang Son. He had suffered dearly at the hands of Americans who had not been an abstract “imperialist” entity. One afternoon in a village near Haiphong, when Susan and I were with Tran Le Tien, our other guide-interpreter, we were received with kindness by a family who lost a son in the South. On the way back home onto Hanoi I said to Tien that thee had to be more to this attitude than good Americans versus bad Americans. “It’s the wars with China,” Tien said. I decided he was right.

In other words, the enemy in war is the one that has most recently caused the greatest devastation. While the North Vietnamese’s forgiving character is quite remarkable in light of the casualties, perhaps it’s also incumbent upon all nations to be on the lookout for the character flaws in failed men who lead us into failed wars so that nothing like this ever has to happen again. Men do not have all the answers they often claim to possess, even when they look great on paper.

Next Up: Lawrence Gowing’s Vermeer!

79 Great and Essential Podcasts I Listen To Regularly (And That You Should Be Listening to Too), Part One

(This is the first of a year-end three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the second part, go here. To read the third part, go here.)

Because I walk a great deal and produce radio, I listen to a fairly hefty number of podcasts. The only person I know who rivals my heavy listening is the incomparable Fred Kiesche, a remarkably generous friend to radio who once confessed to me that he listened to 105 podcasts. (That the good Mr. Kiesche still finds time to be a dutiful family man and a hard worker is a tribute to his phenomenal character and his inspiring energies.)

Podcasting is not only an intimate and deeply meaningful medium that somehow always manages to refuel the soul, but it’s become an essential part of my efforts to understand numerous perspectives and other points of view. There are so many tremendously talented producers out there spending many hours of their precious time investigating human truths and unpacking existential quandries that I have felt incumbent to single out particularly outstanding examples from time to time on Twitter. But these efforts do not seem to be enough. Friends, who know of my fervent dedication, have often pressed me for the full list of titles. But because the number is quite large and there is something a bit gauche about consulting my phone and reading out a list of titles, I generally tend to hand-pick titles that I believe my friends will enjoy based on what I know of them and the time they have at their disposal. But this tactic, while honoring both producer and listener, is not altogether fair to all the podcasters I feel indebted to single out, for I am deeply loyal to and passionate about all of them.

So I’ve decided to reveal my full hand. This is the first of a three part article that will be released over the next week. Every podcast that I have listed below, covering variegated viewpoints and a motley array of topics, is doing incredible work in exploring the human condition and is worthy of your earbuds. Rather than break down the podcasts by subject, I am listing them in alphabetical order, with a few notes on why these shows are worth listening to.

podcasts199% Invisible: Roman Mars has become something of a rightful legend for establishing a formidable independent podcasting network, but he’s also a fantastically passionate producer, exploring the impact of architecture, design, and many other sensory realities we take for granted (such as wayfinding) without ever coming across as a know-it-all. Mars’s voice is warm and sincerely gushing, almost demanding that the listener bolt to the library to learn more. This program is a generous and well-researched resource for information junkies, getting into the history of military food and how it affected our kitchens and overturning, in Snopes-like fashion, the true history of milk carton kids, which was not as prominent in American culture as one might think. That Mars manages to pack so much into twenty minutes on a regular basis is a tribute to his concision, his very smart sensibilities, and his deeply meaningful impact upon podcasting. (Link)

podcast2A Life Well Wasted: Robert Ashley has produced only seven installments of his tremendously intelligent exploration of video games in in the past six years, but a newly released episode of A Life Well Wasted is always an event. The show, which started with a nonpareil oral history of Electronic Gaming Monthly‘s closing that brought heart and sophistication about how bonds are formed at a magazine, is driven by empathy and listening. Ashley does all the atmospheric sound and music on his own. The great composer Ennio Morricone recently defined a real composer as “someone who does the composition, orchestration and arrangement.” If such a definition can be shifted over to the podcasting world, then Robert Ashley is one of the most real podcasters we are very fortunate to have. (Link)

podcast4Anxious Machine: To what degree are we changed or possibly tormented by technology? Rob McGinley Myers is very much on the case, whether its tapping into his brother’s hatred for the Internet or an incredibly touching story about a woman who refused to believe that she was losing her hearing and how her life changed when she received hearing aids. What I love so much about Anxious Machine is how it is about technology without never seeming to be about it. It has this amazing way of emphasizing the human in all of its segments, almost mimicking the obliviousness of the profiled subjects in the way that a tool has changed them. (Link)

podcast5ARRVLS: There is a podcaster who I won’t name, someone who I mistook for a friend, who believes that he’s so good and so certain about people but who blew a very big chance he had at a major radio program and who only really cares about how he can use people. I know this because I’ve heard from a few others who were bamboozled by him. Which is a great shame. Because this podcaster’s failure to be a kind and understanding person, his tremendous solipsism and immaturity, is what is causing his work to suffer and preventing him, irrespective of my personal feelings for him (for good work is good work, regardless of whether the artist is a jerk), from being on this list. For this podcaster does not possess the rigor, the empathy, much less the robust commitment to truly connect with people. He only makes radio because he has nothing else going on in his life and, because he really hates himself and seems to despise the people who so generously tell him their stories, his work is little more than desperate conceptual lunges that never pan out. So when I discovered the confident, cogent, deeply meaningful, compassionate, and wondrous show known as ARRVLS, I knew I was listening to something that represented what this other podcaster lacks the inner courage and the humility to reach. What distinguishes ARRVLS is the way in which Jonathan I. Hirsch’s great work lets its subjects present their ideas (such as this remarkable view of the body as a map). Hirsch never strangles the listener into a prerigged conceptual thesis that is predicated on ridicule over reality. His mixing springs from the cadences of the people he listens to. He wants to not only enhance other people’s stories, but to allow you to feel them in the nuanced manner that he dramatizes the stories through his sound design. Hirsch is an extraordinary talent and I’m baffled as to why his work isn’t championed more. (Link)

podcast6Audio Drama Production Podcast: If you haven’t been paying attention to the podcasting landscape, we are presently in the midst of a great radio drama renaissance! Producers all across the planet are telling exciting new stories in this ever evolving medium. Where in the sam hill does one even begin to get the lay of the land? Leave it to Matthew and Robert, the fine enthusiastic Scotsmen behind Yap Audio Production, to offer not only an endless cataract of tips and tricks for unwashed and experienced producers, but who are vigorously tracking any and all known developments and creating a vital and inclusive community in the process. Whether it’s a detailed breakdown of binaural drama or the two gents riffing in their car on A to Z terminology, Matthew and Robert’s excellent program remains a must listen for anyone who is even remotely interested in audio drama narrative. (Link)

podcast3A Way with Words: Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, based out of San Diego, are probably the most earnest and enthusiastic radio hosts on language working today. This is a call-in show, one that takes in queries about idioms, etymology, and odd lexical developments from listeners all across the country. So there is a certain populism involved, something that I have passionately defended in response to a few literary snobs who regrettably insist on sneering down on the rabble. But understanding language doesn’t have to be the province of the privileged few. As A Way with Words‘s weekly callers regularly remind us, words are something that affects all our lives. Barnette and Barrett are always unfailingly kind and patient and inclusive with the callers, reminding us that is our duty as thinking and feeling humans to do everything in our power to bring out infectious wonder and curiosity in all around us and not skimp out on the understanding. (Link)

podcast7BackStory: One of these days, some pedantic cultural journalist will identify the mysterious “Anonymous Donor” who helps keep this thoughtful program afloat. Whoever the donor may be, the generous help has allowed three endearingly effusive historians — each specializing in a different century — to produce one of the most low-key, relaxed, and far from humorless history programs on the radio. This great trio understands that looking back at the United States’s long relationship with Islam is vital to understanding what it is to be a Muslim in an age of Trump. But they’re not above delving into the history of shopping, a very useful overview of populism, and even America’s relationship with meat. The results, much like The Bowery Boys (see below), show that history need not be a turgid subject, but something so alive that it beckons an audience to seek the connecting threads to the present. (Link)

podcast8Belabored by Dissent Magazine: When the great Steven Greenhouse had to take a buyout from the New York Times in December 2014, America lost the only dedicated labor reporter working for a major newspaper. But Belabored, hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen, has been valiantly filling in the gaps, examining the ongoing “fight for $15” and helpfully filling in its audience on many of the important developments going on with organized labor. Interspersing Democracy Now!-style news summaries with author interviews, the show has become an invaluable resource for a topic that affects all of our lives, but that few media outlets seem to care about anymore. (Link)

podcast9Black Girls Talking: This perspicacious quartet of ladies are valiantly on top of pop culture, serving as a cheerful referendum on the privileged hubris that drives NPR’s obnoxious Pop Culture Happy Hour, whether it be interviewing Dear Kate founder Julie Sygiel or breaking down respectability politics with Janet Mock. This is pop culture talk that’s actually about something. The podcast somehow finds the energy to tackle racial representations in just about every major TV show and often gets into some lively and impassioned talk that seems to escape most self-appointed pundits. I was able to save myself a ticket for Magic Mike XXL (well, not that I ever really had the desire to see it), thanks in part to an episode that summed up everything I needed to know. And the regular crushes espoused by the ladies have had me wondering on occasion if it would be in my best interest to woo Mos Def. (Link)

podcast10The Black Tapes Podcast: Only a few months ago, this wonderfully creepy radio drama emerged on the Internet and has deservedly racked up a following. The show follows a radio reporter who sifts through a series of enigmatic tapes containing unresolved paranormal mysteries. From that simple setup, the show established a rather labyrinthine plot behind the tapes, something that goes deeper than a mere Serial meets The X-Files production. And that mystery has reached a point where the show’s devoted fans have transcribed all the episodes, hoping to find a way to uncover it all. When a podcast has that kind of well-deserved hold, you really see the power of radio. (Link)

podcast11Bookworm: Michael Silverblatt, one of the most generous and open-hearted readers in America, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his thoughtful conversations with today’s leading authors. Silverblatt often finds strange connections in an author’s work and his lengthy questions possess a dreamy and otherworldly quality that takes on a force beyond the book and the author. But Silverblatt is a deeply compassionate and very well-read literary enthusiast, gallantly vacillating between dependable stalwarts like Mary Karr and Joy Williams and hot talent like Paul Murray and Louisa Hall to urge his listeners to feel just as prodigiously as he does. The only real downside of this show is the rather corny theme song, but it’s a small sacrifice for the always capable and ever gentle questioning. (Link)

podcast12The Bowery Boys: For anyone fascinated by New York history, the sheer passion that shines through in this fairly regular podcast is well worth your time. Hosts Thomas Meyers and Gregory Young always manage to sound giddy, even when they are discussing such sinister topics as Typhoid Mary or the murder of Stanford White. A few recent shows have seen this ebullient tag team go out to the many locations they expound about and I hope future programs continue these peregrinations, as the Boys clearly need more than a loyal online audience to push their winning enthusiasm on. (Link)

podcast13Cephalopodcast: Depending upon your temperament, this podcast from the perspective of a toast-loving giant squid will either annoy you or delight you. For me, it’s an enjoyable and wonderfully bizarre recontextualization of the modern world. What crazed mind would conjure up a strange scenario in which a giant squid teaches his audience how to play a game of Monopoly while unpacking some of its sinister capitalist lessons? Wizard rock pioneers Paul and Joe DeGeorge, of course. But don’t think about that. It’s the squid’s overly excitable musings that matter most here. (Link)

podcast14Comedy of the Week: This is one of several BBC feeds I subscribe to. Results are mixed, for the comedy can range from deeply compelling one-man shows off the Fringe circuit to pedestrian episodes of sketch comedy series. But it’s always good to give this feed a shot. If I had not subscribed to the feed, I never would have found out about the remarkable quiz show, Just a Minute, or realized that several performers I enjoyed in guest roles on British comedies had sizable theater careers. (Link)

podcast15Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Dan Carlin is one of the few podcasters who can keep you completely spellbound for four hours just through the power of his voice. That’s right, four hours. Every few months, Carlin drops a very long, deeply passionate, and well-researched consideration of some historical event. And when that happens, you have to find the time to listen to it. He’s that good, using little to no sound effects for his ruminations. I’m not especially keen on military history, but Carlin’s six-part series, “Blueprint for Armageddon,” made me completely fascinated about World War I dynamics for many months, particularly its game-changing effect upon how people viewed combat and the remarkably brutal battles. Dan Carlin is a national podcasting treasure for a reason. (Link)

podcast16Death, Sex & Money: Anna Sale is one of the best interviewers on radio today. She has this tremendous power of getting just about anyone to talk and tell her dark secrets, even as she reminds us that everyone, whether it be celebrities like Jane Fonda or a “homeless valedictorian” who made headlines has an inner story that is considerably more different than what we see on the surface. This show always feels beautifully intimate and low-key, almost as if you’re encroaching upon the world’s most private conversation. But it is always very human. (Link)

podcast17Do or DIY with People Like Us: Vicki Bennett is a long-time WFMU staple who flits in and out of rotation, but her sound collages are always a marvel of association and discovery, especially if you enjoy music. She has this incredible knack for finding the craziest riffs on pop music, weird yodeling anthems, campy songs about camping, and serves as a droll triangulator. This makes her somewhat close to Dr. Demento, yet Bennett’s thrust is cheerfully iconoclastic, urging us to break down some of the sacred cows and find the joys in destroying them. Bennett was one of my inspirations when I began creating a few DJ mixes earlier in the year that can be found in the old Segundo feed. Being on the other end of what Bennett does, I now know just how much work and happy accidents it requires to find the right transitions. That Bennett has produced as much as she has is a tribute to her indomitable energies and unique talent. (Link)

podcast18Documentaries BBC World Service: Anyone who truly believes that NPR is a hardcore news organization should have a listen to Assignment, which offers regular nail-biting segments from many far off corners of the world, whether it be the effect that the Syrian crisis has had on former football players to drug mules in Peru. You listen to these BBC radio documentaries knowing that the equipment now exists for anyone to go into the field and do this kind of reporting and you wonder why America can’t establish something that reveals global perspectives on this level. (Link)

podcast19Drama of the Week: Another BBC feed that, like Comedy of the Week, can be a mixed bag. But very often, the shows are well put together. Because the BBC has this annoying one month limit on its downloadable content, it’s always good to siphon off whatever gets sent out into the world for later listening. I once downloaded a radio drama of The Sea, The Sea starring Jeremy Irons by accident because of this strategy. (What sensible mind wouldn’t want that?) (Link)

podcast20Earbud Theater: This popping compendium of genre radio drama (largely horror and science fiction) has good production quality, gripping stories, and a few big names (Stephen Toblowsky, source text from Neil Gaiman, et al.). I’m especially fond of “Super Bad Day,” in which four people are united only by the common experience of having the worst day imaginable and must contend with the guilt and absurdity of surviving a bad day. It’s a fine and lively riff, with a hell of a kicker ending, on the human dilemma of comparing other people’s miseries to cope and living with sacrifice. (Link)

podcast21Everything is Stories: We often do not know how our actions touch people, much less the way in which someone we think we know has touched someone in the past. Everything is Stories is a wonderful show that is all about exploring the amazing achievements that lurk underneath our personal core and that are sometimes muddled by pain and needless hangups. A recent program followed forensic artist Lois Gibson, the sharp mind who successfully identified the sailor kissing the nurse in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous V-J Day in Times Square photo. But the story that led her to this achievement is surprising and touching, especially as we come to learn the real reasons why she became so good at identifying faces. Everything is Stories reminds us that history is often composed of small tilting moments and it is always a gripping listen. (Link)

podcast22First Day Back: There comes a point in all of our lives in which we need to take a hard look at our lives, finding the strength inside us to rebuild and reassess our priorities. And filmmaker Tally Abecassis is doing just that in real time, documenting her return to filmmaking after six years of being a full-time mother. This program is a magnificent soul-searching confessional on balancing work and life, the difficulties of living with decisions, and often has Tally backtracking to the people who shaped her (such as this episode in which Tally seeks out a teacher who made a huge impact on her). Personal narrative podcasts are often tricky negotiations, but there are some fine questions about gender roles, personal stakes, and the bravery of making another attempt contained in this compelling program. (Link)

podcast23Frank Delaney’s Re: Joyce: Frank Delaney may be one of the most cheerfully determined men in the podcasting world. He is in his seventies, but that’s not stopping him from unpacking James Joyce’s Ulysses in bite-sized installments. (He’s done the first six chapters so far and there are, as of this writing, just under 300 installments.) One hopes that Delaney will live long enough, much as Will & Ariel Durant managed to finish their Story of Civilization in their nineties) to complete his project. Thankfully, with generous donors, he has recently escalated his pace. Re: Joyce is a tremendously useful service for anyone who cares about Joyce and literature, one that has led me down some strange rabbit holes involving Irish history, Catholicism, and cheesy limericks. (Link)

Next: Proceed to Part 2!

An Elegy for Robin Williams and a Plea for Compassion

When you feel the earnest desire to kill yourself — as I did for about five minutes during the evening of June 26, 2014 — you truly believe that, no matter how kind and sharp and talented you are, there just isn’t a place for you on this planet. That none of the solicitude or the careful work or the unique qualities you offer the world can ever atone for the concatenation of persuasively exaggerated sins buttressed by a dark and singular and unforgiving demon who wants to pull you down, one smashing away at the beatific inner town that you’ve spent decades carefully constructing.

Who knows how many beasts and wraiths Robin Williams confronted? One was too many. This was a terrible and needless loss that, irrespective of Williams’s talent and stature, demands that we take several steps back. We know that Williams was trying to sell off his Napa Valley estate, that he had suffered an unsuccessful return to television (The Crazy Ones was canceled after only one season), and that, sometime in July, when he was trying to seek help for his pain in Minnesota, a picture of Williams at Dairy Queen made the rounds on on the Internet. He’s standing with his hands crossed, the obliging professional trying so hard to sustain a dutiful grimace when there were bigger stakes. All Williams wanted was an ice cream cone, one small step back into the hearts of those he entertained for decades.

There’s a moment at the end of World’s Greatest Dad, a highly underrated film by Bobcat Goldthwait containing one of Williams’s last great performances, in which Williams played an aspiring writer named Lance Clayton who covers up the embarrassing death of his son Kyle. Nobody cares about Kyle’s suicide until his note, penned by his father, is discovered and published in the school newspaper. Lance pushes the lie further by writing a phony journal, which attracts the attention of the prospective publishers that he had been coveting for years. It’s the devilish fatalism that happens far too often in America: the fifteen minute fluke propped up instead of someone who works eighty hour weeks and pays his dues, the middle-aged man pushed aside for the young life unlived, an act of unpardonable deceit promulgated for a notch up the ladder after years of honest labor.

In the film’s final scene, Lance confesses the truth to the school, saying via voiceover, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” What makes Goldthwait’s film and Williams’s performance so meaningful is how this declaration forces the audience to sympathize with the disgraced outcast nobody wants to deal with. Philip Seymour Hoffman, another formidable talent who killed himself, was also good at playing these pariahs, whether Allen in Happiness or Truman Capote. There are also resonances with David Foster Wallace, who also killed himself. One is reminded of the story, “The Depressed Person,” in which Wallace’s titular character sees her group of supportive friends vanish as the depression continues to corrode her core. There was something essential that these three mighty artists hid behind their humor, the understanding that America’s alleged desire for misfits inevitably collides against a hard and self-protective barrier. That all three suicides are as cruelly permanent as the emotional impact of their best work says something, I think, about what we now demand of artists and people in America.

Suicide doesn’t allow for heroes. Nor do the less tragic cousins: the attempt or the ideation. The person wishing to help, even when she likes the person, can often feel a begrudging duty or guilt that she does not care enough. The person who comes close to killing himself, which is a feeling not unlike being swallowed by a buckling whale with other concerns on his mind diving without mercy into a chilly deep sea, accumulates endless emotional debt that he can never repay, even as he seeks help and works very hard to stay positive and understand his illness, often with the callous stigma that he is permanently damaged. All parties come to know these terrible contradictions.

But the only truly common bond that all parties can have is compassion.

There has been a goodhearted clarion of calls on Twitter after Williams’s suicide, entreaties to anyone on the edge to call a hotline and know that they are loved. But suicide and depression aren’t nearly so pat, especially in a hungry and vituperative digital world that awaits some flawed figure to expose some chink in the armor (an appearance at Dairy Queen or, in my case, two deleted tweets reflecting a great deal of pain that I have spent much of the past six weeks sobbing out of me).

Williams will have the comedy. He will always be remembered for seizing the day, whether in the only Saul Bellow film adaptation ever made or as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. But I’ll remember him for the indelible, self-loathing characters he played so well in Cadillac Man, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo, and World’s Greatest Dad. There was a dark and tormented man inside those performances that wanted to reveal the contradictions of our nation and that demanded a grander compassion, one more vital to our humanity than shouting some feel-good catchphrase while standing at the top of a desk.

Wayne Shannon: A Video Tribute

A few days ago, I reported the death of Wayne Shannon, whose legacy as a broadcasting innovator and precursor to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and and Michael Moore had been needlessly overlooked in recent years. Wayne was also a friend. And last night, the cause of Wayne’s death was revealed to be a suicide. Wayne’s body had been found by two hunters in Northern Idaho. His body had been there for many months.

As of Friday morning, the San Francisco TV station (KRON) where Wayne worked for many years, has not acknowledged Wayne Shannon’s death in any way. Last night, I contacted KRON by telephone. I spoke with Bonnie Hitch, who was kind and who offered me a few minutes of her time. Ms. Hitch told me that KRON still hadn’t decided on whether or not it would recognize Wayne Shannon, but that they had learned of his death. KRON had not been aware of Wayne’s suicide.

I also asked Ms. Hitch about how well the KRON news archives were preserved. What was the state of Wayne’s numerous commentaries? His segments in the field? His body of work? She informed me that there wasn’t even an archivist employed at KRON these days. “It’s a very different news station,” said Ms. Hitch. KRON culture had changed. Ms. Hitch wasn’t even sure that the airchecks had been preserved. She told me that she would put me in touch with the person in charge of the news archives, and it is my hope to contact someone at KRON who is even remotely interested in preserving KRON’s long legacy as a major news station.

In his final years, Wayne had assembled a disc containing a small handful of his work. Was this all he had? Unfortunately it was. This disc was all that remained of his considerable work. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne had written to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Shortly after talking with Ms. Hitch, I went through my files and located Wayne’s disc. It contained this note:

Yo Ed:

A few weeks before Noel Coward died he held an intimate soiree at his home during which, by all accounts, he performed for the very last time.

Those in attendance, if memory serves, were Lunt and Fontanne, Oliver and Leigh, Oscar Wilde, Jascha Heifitz, the Raymond Masseys and the Rex Harrisons, the latter naming their first born son after Noel.

We are assured that it was an exquisitely memorable night of much wine and laughter and tears born of same, along with a game that developed whereby participants challenged their memories by trying to match some of the more obscure lines of dialogue from his plays — with the titles of his many Broadway and Piccadilly triumphs.

This was followed by a medley on the piano of Coward’s many hit songs, accompanied by Heifitz, which naturally concluded with his immortal, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”

I am, of course, no Noel Coward and, unfortunately, have more years to live than I doubtless deserve. However, I wanted you to know that to me…you are not only to be numbered among the “luminaries” he had about him that evening those many, many decades ago…but, had I been able to do so…you would have been invited to such a gathering — though you may very well have had the good sense not to attend or, perhaps, admit to it later.

However, if you had done so, you too would have seen my final performance — from virtually my first words ever on American TV — to undeniably my last, “Yahoo!”

I cannot accept Wayne’s work falling into obscurity. I cannot accept his self-deprecatory nature refusing to understand, even in this note, that people loved and respected what he did. And I cannot accept his work not getting its proper due.

So I have uploaded nearly all of the video I have so that people can see how Wayne was ahead of his time. The twenty-one segment salute below reveals that Wayne, who won six Emmys for his work, was a wily reporter, a witty commentator, a skilled performer, a gleeful satirist, and a man who was very good at talking with people.

Star Wars: This is one of Wayne’s earliest television appearances, in which he talks with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. He even asks Carrie for a kiss, a move that would be unthinkable in today’s junket climate.

Rocks (1980): This is a great example of the muckraking multipart series Wayne was known for during his days in Detroit. (Indeed, as I learned in a 2008 radio interview I conducted with Wayne, many of Wayne’s pioneering concepts during these days would be stolen by Michael Moore and used in Roger & Me.) Wayne fearlessly took on many of the auto manufacturers and was run out of Detroit for this (despite the fact that his segments greatly improved the evening news ratings). And the “All by Myself” montage where Wayne abandons his “rock” on the freeway and rollerskates away is an unusual break from the hard journalism that local television news was then known for.

Lemons: In Philadelphia, Shannon was known as the “TV 2 Troubleshooter.” His coverage, as we learn here, could be hilariously epic (in this case, the segment above is “part three of his ten part series on lemons,” as Robbie Timmons introduces) — almost as if he was working on one giant documentary film split into neat segments for the evening news. Wayne’s ability to combine consumer advocacy with comedy is in great form here, especially with the concluding Rocky homage.

Hedgehogs: This “TV 2 Troubleshooter” segment sees Wayne fleshing out his satirical journalism. There’s the opening sound gag, along with some folksy banter with a stamp collector (“Ever been took?”).

The Box Top Rebellion: In this segment on coupon clippers (which contains some eerie parallels to post-2008 economic life), we see that Wayne was very keen on highly theatrical introduction sequences. But he was also very good about learning how a system worked, as seen from the fascinating clips inside a coupon clearing house (“where old coupons go for that big redemption in the sky”).

Magic Nails: Not only do we get a quick glimpse of a young Maury Povich, but we see Wayne taking on “Magic Nails” — a dangerous toy manufactured at a Burger King restaurant. Wayne’s journalistic rigor is on display. He talks with pediatrician Alan Freedman and updates the story with some shoe leather reporting.

The Vent People: I don’t know if the success of Wayne’s consumer advocacy had Channel 3 assigning Wayne to more hard reporting. Perhaps they didn’t quite know what to do with him. But this segment also shows that Wayne was a good journalist. He reveals efforts to uncover how the homeless sleep on the steam vents at night, along with the reasons why others aren’t allowed to help the vent people.

Wayne-Bo and Tom: The first part of this clip is rather baffling. It features “Wayne-Bo” entertaining kids and talking with Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. Was this a bona-fide children’s show hosted by Wayne which aired in Philadelphia? The second part features a clip of Tom Snyder extolling Wayne at the end for an episode of The Tomorrow Show, which Wayne made an appearance on. (Note to self: A trip to Paley is in order.)

Santa and Thermatron: The Santa bit is from a bizarre 1981 program that Wayne did called Santa and Son. I have no idea if it even aired anywhere. Then there’s a “Thinking Out Loud” segment on the Thermatron, a precursor to the commentaries that Wayne would be known for during his KRON days.

KRON Clips: Wayne, now at Channel 4, talks with Jonathan Winters. There are three additional segments: (1) a Wayne commentary on how laser beams are being used to cut through clogged arteries (and how Wayne has sought “a revisionist nutritionist”), (2) a closing credits monologue of Wayne on the road, and (3) a Wayne commentary on how to celebrate California adventure (with some inside dirt about then Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood).

The Merv Griffin Show: Merv Griffin, who lived in Monterey, was a Wayne Shannon fan and invited Wayne to appear on his program. Wayne reveals the trouble he got into for suggesting that dumping atomic waste into the ocean might be a possible solution. “I guess you don’t hear that viewpoint that often.” “Why would you advocate that?” asks Merv. “Well,” replies Wayne, “because everybody else isn’t.”

Claim to Fame Promo: Wayne appeared on another locally produced KRON show called Claim to Fame, in which an assembled panel tried to guess who the person was based on their vocation. Wayne was one of the regulars, along with Ann Jones, Charlie Haas, and Sylvia Brown (later with an E). This promo for the show features Wayne prominently. There is also a ten second clip from the show attached.

Claim to Fame: Here’s a longer part of Claim to Fame, which features a more spartan set than the one with the FAME lights. (Budget cuts at KRON?)

Bay Area Minute: This short KRON segment features Wayne rhapsodizing about the Bay Bridge.

Three KRON Commentaries: In these collected clips, Wayne offers a commentary on Tanzanian chimpanzees getting high on leaves, another commentary on pesticides, and a third commentary on Fleet Week.

CNBC: In these clips from his CNBC days (featuring some charmingly retro graphics), Wayne provides a commentary on Norplant, sits patiently at the ACE Awards (for which he is nominated), co-anchors a Real Estate Report, and interviews Ken Hakuta, the inventor of the Wacky Wall Walker (and self-styled “Dr. Fad”), with absurd results.

TV 25 Vancouver: In this TV 25 Vancouver segment, Wayne investigates a post office branch in Vancouver, Washington, discovering how postal workers toil and the impact of a holiday package influx.

TV 49 Portland: In the first clip from Wayne’s TV 49 Portland days, Wayne probes Nick’s Famous Coney Island, talks with owner Frank Nudo, and contends with hot dogs. The second clip features Wayne’s movie reviews of Mad Love, Judge Dredd, and Crimson Tide>

TV 6 Portland: In this clip from TV 6 Portland, Wayne goes out in search of white deer in Redland.

Ask the Weather Guru: This interview with Wayne Shannon (just after his television days) has Wayne coming out as the “Ask the Weather Guru” man at Yahoo. He attempts to explain what an occluded front is. But I can’t help but focus on just how small his apartment is at this time.

The Memorial Wall: Wayne’s last appearance on television, from August 2011. He was in Idaho, visiting the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall and wanting to know if three people from his hometown of Moses Lake, Washington had been killed during the war. He didn’t see their names. Months later, he would walk into the woods and never come out.

Remembering Wayne Shannon (1948-2012)

In September 2006, I wrote an essay about a local television commentator by the name of Wayne Shannon. Shannon appeared frequently on KRON 4 Evening News, in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, in the 1980s. I was to learn later that Shannon had an illustrious career, with stints in Philadelphia and Detroit. I wondered why there was no online record of a man who had touched millions, a man who was a little ahead of his time with his acerbic television commentaries. Two decades later, there had been something about Shannon’s approach that had caked its way into my noggin. Was it his common sense arguments? His acid barbs? I remember that he had been so funny that even the guys behind the camera couldn’t suppress their laughter. Yet nobody had thought to memorialize him or write about him or upload video clips so that future people could see what he was all about.

I was able to piece together some information, learning that Shannon had left KRON in 1988 when news director Herb Dudnick became tired of his commentaries and after Wayne had tried to negotiate a new deal unsuccessfully with the appropriate brass. I learned that he had a stint on CNBC. But there was no real luck with the San Francisco Chronicle archives. Richard Grayson was kind enough to check LexisNexis, but that only went back to 1990. Shannon had been supremely popular in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he represented someone who had needlessly slipped through the cracks — the victim of being professionally active during an era that, from the vantage point of the last five years, allows some of its more localized and esoteric figures to slip.

So I put up my post and discovered that I wasn’t the only one searching for Wayne Shannon. There were a few emails and comments. And then Wayne Shannon himself showed up, leaving a comment (partially quoted below):

Hi Edward:

Wayne Shannon here. About once a year I get on the web and type in my name and see what I do/do not get.

And there you were. Thanks for remembering me at all, web failure or not.

My privacy continues to be paramount in my life, so, unfortunately, the email address above no longer exists. Sorry about that, but I’m not inclined to divulge the one I use these days.

An entry that had started from a single question turned into a veritable Wayne Shannon party. Other people named Wayne Shannon showed up, including an Atlanta-based arborist who wrote, “I am still around. You didn’t search hard enough.” But soon more people from Wayne’s life appeared, all of them remembering Wayne fondly. Wayne showed up intermittently. And I opened up another thread for Wayne to talk with his fans.

Wayne and I began corresponding. He graciously offered to send me a DVD featuring some of his clips (or as he called it “hatest grits”), and I said, yes, absolutely, send it my way. I’d love to see it.

My partner and I watched all the clips in one sitting. We couldn’t stop. It was absolutely clear that Wayne Shannon was a television talent, somewhere between consumer crusader and comedian, who was decades ahead of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He took on auto manufacturers over epic ten part segments (and I would later learn that Michael Moore would pilfer some of Shannon’s comedic approach with Roger & Me). He would assemble homages and parodies to popular movies on the local evening news during a time in which such experimentation was unthinkable. (But in an age in which The Daily Show pours out a steady stream of satirical graphics, this is now commonplace.)

What happened to Wayne Shannon? The biggest question I had was why this man had stopped.

My partner and I did some additional research and made sure that Wayne got a Wikipedia page. We made sure some of the clips found their way onto YouTube.

I asked Wayne if he would appear on The Bat Segundo Show. He agreed. You can listen to our conversation here.

He threw himself into his work, recording commentaries at a flurrious rate to keep what remained of his family together.

He had been through a brutal, an especially brutal divorce.

His kids had been taken away from him. His soon-to-be ex-wife demonstrated no quarter.

He suffered from low self-esteem for most of his life.

I learned all this from the interview. Listening to the conversation now, after hours of wrapping my head around a world without Wayne Shannon, I’m not only condemning myself for my journalistic detachment. I’m wondering if I should have done more. Wayne was crying at the end of the interview because I had dredged up terrible personal revelations. And I quickly put an end to our talk. Who the hell was I to push further? What good was this nostalgia? My efforts to tell the world about Wayne Shannon? Wasn’t the man in enough pain?

But Wayne and I still emailed. Wayne thanked me for “what will likely be my last interview.” He insisted that Wayne-Bo, the personality he had created for his commentaries, was dead.

I sent Wayne information on how to pitch NPR. I tried to persuade him to get on Twitter. I insisted that he needed to write. It was not the time for goodbye, but a time for revival. Surely there were other tapes of Wayne’s segments. We could get the entire video collection up somewhere.

No, Wayne reported back to me. The disc I had was all that remained. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne wrote back to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Wayne was needlessly self-deprecatory to the end.

What I didn’t count on was that Wayne’s children would discover him on the Web — thanks to my page. He was able to send all of the information that chronicled and collected his life to his kids, including the “surprisingly accurate bio” on Wikipedia that my partner and I had assembled.

For a long time, he wondered if his children had been figments of his imagination.

For a while, I thought Wayne had been a figment of my imagination.

This was not the case.

* * *

The last time we contacted each other was a few years ago. His health was going. He said he was in pain. But he was cracking jokes to the end. He said that he was packing up his computer. That he was going offline for good. Well, wait just a goddam minute.

The last words he wrote: “Write like you’ve got less time than you think you have. It worked for me.”

I tried emailing Wayne back. The email bounced. I tried the phone number I had. It was disconnected.

I never heard from him again.

And then on May 1, 2012, I learned from his son that he had passed away.

* * *

It started with a question. Basic curiosity. Is there some marginalized figure who isn’t getting his due? Someone who Google can’t pick up?

Sometimes the difference between remembering and forgetting someone is what gives that person a new reason to live.

I miss Wayne Shannon.

[5/3/12 UPDATE: More information here. Wayne appears to have taken his own life. I’m utterly gutted about this.]

[5/4/12 UPDATE: For this unfamiliar with Wayne’s work, I have assembled a video tribute, featuring 21 videos from throughout Shannon’s career.]

[5/6/12 UPDATE: A new Tumblr, Wayne Shannon: What’s It All Mean?, has been started, featuring Shannon’s many commentaries.]

Delta Flight 253: We Love to Freak and It Shows

The thwarted Flight 253 attack (followed soon after by a man thwarted from relieving himself) has led to sustained outrage from numerous individuals. Some sensible souls have observed that secure cockpits and the wisdom of passengers have proven more reliable than draconian TSA measures and that, irrespective of any security measures in place, the more determined terrorists will go out of their way to affix explosive tools to their scrotums. (Funny how none of the authoritarians seem to remember United Airlines Flight 93, in which passengers prevented the plane from hitting its intended target. Did not Paul Greengrass’s Oscar-nominated agitprop beat this American know-how into our “never forget” ethos? Three years later, apparently not.) Other presumed experts, welcoming new opportunities for angry veins to pop out of their reactionary necks, have suggested that these Motor City airport shakedowns confirm American naïveté. And we are reminded, with the new threat of TSA officials questioning anybody who appears suspicious, that sacrificing our civil liberties without protest, in a manner more befitting of a passive demoiselle tied to the railroad tracks, is what present travel and “good” citizenship is all about.

Fortunately, Nate Silver has run some numbers that are too frequently overlooked when discussing American sacrifice, computing that one terrorist incident occurs for every 16,553,385 commercial airline departures. During the past decade, Silver concludes, your chances of being on a departure subjected to a terrorist incident has been 1 in 10,408,947.

But why stop there? Let’s put this present hysteria into additional perspective.

Chances that you will be struck by lightning in any given year: 1 in 750,000. (National Weather Service)

Chances that you will be killed by an asteroid: 1 in 700,000. (From astronomer Alan Harris, as reported at Discover)

Chances that you will be killed by excessive heat or cold of manmade origin: 1 in 639,989 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed by the ignition or melting of nightwear: 1 in 767,987 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed by contact with a venomous spider: 1 in 959,984 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed in a legal execution (e.g., the injection of thiopental after a hearty last meal): 1 in 79,999 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed in a fireworks discharge: 1 in 479,992 (National Safety Council)

In other words, you have a better chance of killing yourself by intentional self-harm (1 in 115, even if you don’t possess suicidal tendencies) or drowning in a water transport accident (1 in 10,940, even if you have no intention of ever stepping aboard a boat) than having your guts congeal into a fiery mess on a domestic flight. You are more likely to be killed by an asteroid or struck down by lightning than to get placed in a scenario in which you must take down an incompetent terrorist with a faulty detonator.

It seems that the Federal Aviation Association didn’t just abandon Common Strategy, the hijacking protocol devoted to preserving lives during skyjacking incidents. With the collusion of incompetent governmental bodies and politicians, it abandoned common sense.

Fearmongers like Rep. Peter King were happy to sample this limitless supply of Spanish fly only yesterday: “It’s important for the president or the secretary to be more out there and reminding people just how real this threat was and how deadly it is. For the first three months of this administration, they refused to use the word terrorism.”

One can only presume that the President was too busy fending off the grave national threat of death by venomous spider.

Let’s not permit any of the actual stats to deter us from ripping blankets from those pesky passengers who “claim to be sick” (shall we have designated sky doctors on flights debunking any and all future claims?) or from violating armpits to locate explosives that have a 1 in 16 million chance of existing. (The waning powers of underarm deodorant are another matter. I shall let more dutiful experts examine whether the TSA’s overeager armpit probing will bear some impact on the odds of dying from intentional self-harm. But I think it’s safe to say, without bothering to dip into the probability larder, that the chances of a passenger killing herself after being humiliated by a thoughtless goon are more likely than being killed in an MD-11 conflagration.)

We cannot, of course, return to the Time Before. Zero tolerance policies make us feel safer, even when such policies involve trying to expel a teenager from carrying a birth control pill or strip-searching a 13-year-old girl for having the temerity to carry ibuprofen. Passengers, however, can be trusted to be enforcers in ways that have eluded the TSA. Passengers proved especially creative in using seatbelts and medical kits to stop Richard Reid in 2002. But we still take off our shoes in airports to accommodate TSA guards on the ground. It’s the only way to be sure.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is presently being impugned by conservatives for declaring that “the system worked” on CNN. But these understandably angry reactions ignore the more troubling aspect contained within Napolitano’s remarks: Everybody reacted as they should. Fliers, both frequent and occasional, are now being asked to react to uncommon threats through an unclear TSA playbook designed around “predictable” human response. The DHS isn’t considering the possibility that improvised human reaction to a mostly improbable threat may present better results than any ineffectual security policy on the ground. What if all the wasteful pork devoted to these “Heck of a job” shenanigans were devoted instead to keeping passengers calm and dignified? If passengers were encouraged to look out after their fellow travelers, instead of clinging to their armrests alone and in fear, perhaps they would be encouraged to take creative risks when contending with future perps. Passengers can be just as creative as the bad guys. It’s rather amazing that we forget this. So why not devote resources to encourage these impulses?

Well, the possibilities of that happening are less likely than being killed by excessive heat or cold of manmade origin.