the importance of not being a fool
vol.1 issue 3
Happy April Fool’s Day.
The genesis for this “holiday” is unclear, but I think it has to do with our compulsion to contain things that are chaotic, things that scare us such as Winter handing us wildly over to Spring (all week end we had winds in excess of 20 mph here in the nation’s capital), while we simultaneously complete our national ritual of totting up the taxes we’ll be handing over to our capital D dysfunctional government.
In this edition, which comes to you during International Dark Sky Week, we explore why preserving our national parks and the silence contained within them is as important to us all as we are now discovering the night skies are to our survival and that of other living beings. Maybe it’s time to declare a week dedicated to preserving silence...
And, what do the gay men’s hook-up app Grindr, China, and my life insurance policy have to do with one another? It’s important and has potential implications for your life too.
Plus, thoughts on finding your voice and updates on where you can find me live and in print over the next few months. And as always, if you’re wondering what docu-mental’s ethos is and what it has to do with you, please read the “about page.”
So glad you’re taking the time to map the american states of mind with me. Nothing like a good road trip - so invite your friends, too, and suggest they subscribe.
On My Mind:
(3 minute read)
If you’ve never been to the Canyonlands in Utah, one of several areas designated as national parkland in our country, it’s possible you’ve never experienced utter quiet. Jet flight paths over the canyon are too high to be noticeable, if they even fly over at all. Traffic noise is non-existent. All you will hear is nothing, occasionally punctuated by a crow’s call or, if you’re very still, the skitter of a lizard. You can also hear yourself think. It is a phenomenon you might believe you’ve experienced in a yoga class, in prayer, at church, or at night when you’ve turned out the light and have closed your eyes. Those are quiet times. I am speaking about silence.
The fights we hear about regarding the preservation of our national park lands tend to focus on keeping areas of beauty intact so people have the chance to see them untainted by our hapless penchant for crude commercialism, the one that impels us to shamelessly stamp proof of our existence all over the land. And I agree that, especially in the desert and in the canyons, having golf course-free zones where developers are not allowed to borrow (steal?) water from places where it is needed more is a gesture of sensible land stewardship however small in the scheme of things.
What is often overlooked in these conservation debates, however, is the importance of preserving silence. Not just reducing noise, which science is increasingly finding is detrimental to our health, but keeping a place such as Canyonlands, and other parks lands like it, quiet to begin with. If we do not seek to preserve our quickly dwindling reserves of silence, where on earth will be left the space to encounter silence’s essential regenerative energy?
In the silence, there are things that you do not know exist until you put yourself in their path of not hearing them.
You might not ever find the words to describe the experience, because perhaps there aren’t supposed to be any. Encountering such stillness is not always peaceful: there is the potential to be unnerved by the way not being constantly stimulated hangs you out of space and time. But experiencing it changes your perspective, and reminds you that life is awe-some, vast, and envelopes us. Whitman might have said we contain multitudes, but access to them comes from nature, as we are within its set, not the other way around.
Silence reminds you of the truth: we are tiny beings, capable of much, but tiny regardless. It can be a humbling moment, one that recalibrates us in the knowledge that whatever problems we think we have, there is always something bigger, and always more majestic.
To experience this inspires hope, and no matter how cynical we might be about the concept of hope, without it, we can’t live; there would be no reason to.
As I read one news story after another about attempts to develop or otherwise denigrate various lands in our national parks system, I conclude that being made to remember that we are not omnipotent makes some of us angry, specifically those of us who do not like to be told there are limits. And while Icarian notions are inherently human, that urge to fly too close to the sun is deadly when enough people with enough power are given just enough room to show us how far they will go to prove they are above the law of limitation, which is exactly what the silence reminds us of.
Here is an example of what I mean by this. There has been a recent battle over whether to build a tramway into the depths of the Grand Canyon to “increase tourism”. This is at a time when toursim is at record levels - roughly a 2 million person uptick in the last decade. The plans are replete with development: an RV park, hotel, boardwalk, and there has even been talk of a mall. A mall at the Grand Canyon. Let that sink in and then ask yourself: why place the same stores you can shop in Anytown, USA in the heart of one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders?
The plans were voted down by the Navajo Nation whose permission would be required for the project’s green light since it would cover much land they hold sacred. However, the notion is not dead, the vote was not unanimous, and that it even entered into anyone’s head in the first place is evidence that the urge to profit is limitless.
National Geographic says it succinctly: “The canyon provokes two major reactions: the urge to protect it, and the temptation to make a pile of money from it.”
Already, the silence is wrecked in the most traveled and beautiful areas of the Grand Canyon thanks to the daily, hourly helicopter tours overhead and the incessant back-up beep beeping of trucks, busses, RVs, campers, and anything motorized that can be put in reverse.
You could say my argument is anti-capitalist, woo-woo nonsense, but if so, I challenge you to step aside from your cynicism for a moment; it will be your rationality that leads you back to this conclusion: destroying the silence for all yields one thing, and that is material profit for a few. Now tell me, why that is acceptable?
In the case of the tramway, I reject the idea that it’s about jobs, because the Navajo themselves do not factor that into their argument to preserve the area’s sacred value to their people. Here is what the late desert chronicler Edward Abbey correctly observed:
"Even if he wanted to join the American middle class (and some Indians do wish to join and have done so) the average Navajo suffers from a handicap more severe than skin color, the language barrier or insufficient education: his acquisitive instinct is poorly developed. He lacks the drive to get ahead of his fellows or to figure out ways and means of profiting from other people's labor. Coming from a tradition which honors sharing and mutual aid above private interest, the Navajo thinks it somehow immoral for one man to prosper while his neighbors go without.”
Already we have lost the night. Skies are not dark enough around the globe any longer to promote basic human needs such as sleep. Migrating birds are confused by the constant light and are thrown off course.
We lost the night because it never occurred to us to preserve it.
All we can do now is protect what little dark skies we have left.
Even if our leaders and policy makers never intend to set foot within a national park, it’s important that they not miss the real value to having them, even if how to quantify that value in this moment in time is still more of an art than a science.
Now that night is gone, it’s impossible to get it back. Silence is the same. If it doesn’t occur to us to preserve it, just as science shames us now over the artlessness that lead to our loss of darkness, science will eventually show us what idiots we were to let silence slip away, too.
Also on my mind…
(3 minute read)
Do you know what CFIUS is? If you don’t, you should. That’s because in a world where our data makes us each a valuable unit to investors, foreign and domestic, CFIUS – typically pronounced “See-fee-oos” and more cumbersomely known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States – has a lot of power over us americans. It’s a fairly secretive body, comprised essentially of presidential cabinet members and others who theoretically have been approved by the Senate, but in cases where they are only “acting”, still await vetting even as they wield great power.
Just when I was getting worked up over a recent decision by CFIUS to allow the private Chinese firm China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co. Ltd. to purchase Genworth, the American life insurance company where I have held my policy for decades, CFIUS pulled back the reigns on another private Chinese firm it previously allowed to purchase a small but successful American tech company.
The Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. Ltd.’s ownership of Grindr, a gay men’s dating app the company purchased from a West Hollywood developer in 2016 is now at issue. Former Grindr user Casey Newton, who also happens to be a well-respected Silicon Valley tech observer, cites CFIUS’s concerns. Says Newton, the app works by showing exactly where the user is located so hook-ups can happen asap. In the wrong hands, that might not be the only action that person will see, according to Newton.
“Grindr owns some of the most sensitive data about its users that a social network ever could. The filthiest chats they’ve ever sent; nude photos and videos; and also their real-time location, measured to within yards. That’s all connected to a user’s email address, from which a user’s true identity might be easily learned.”
So what? Well, when “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was operative in the military, then maybe high ranking military officers who might also be users of the app needn’t have worried as much about being blackmailed if their proclivities were known. Now their careers could be ruined.
And don’t forget how last year an innocent little fitness app tracker posted online the movements of troops who were using it, exposing the locations of secret US army bases. From the Guardian:
“Sensitive information about the location and staffing of military bases and spy outposts around the world has been revealed by a fitness tracking company…The details were released by Strava in a data visualization map that shows all the activity tracked by users of its app, which allows people to record their exercise and share it with others.”
Keep in mind that China has one of the world’s strictest authoritarian governments, meaning it does not regulate but actively monitors its population’s use of the Internet 24/7. Such information as what can be found on Grindr could be highly useful for tracking and targeting dissidents.
They’re private companies, you say, so whatever. Well, for me, no. Not whatever. What allegiance to me as an American does a Chinese company have when it owns my personal life insurance data and can sell, hack, or otherwise mess with the trajectory my life might take if it suits their purpose? And don’t think I am paranoid: I was one of the victims of Wells Fargo’s bullshit, and they are an American company who should have had an allegiance to me, but was too big to care, which seems to precede “too big to fail”, and then we’re rocked by the sound of a giant falling and shattering our economy, even as we taxpayers rush in to save it.
Just what “pulling back” means for CFIUS and Kunlun, no one seems to be saying publicly. Whatever happened, Kunlun’s intended IPO of Grinder is a no go, and the dating app is now on the auction block. But last year, a noted Chinese economist reportedly warned private companies like Kunlun and Oceanwide that China’s authoritarian tendencies are not reserved for internet use crackdowns, but are seeping into private industry, too. Maybe after last year’s fitness app fiasco, CIFIUS members are having a re-think of what they’ve already let fly from our shores and into potentially hostile hands.
Meanwhile, CFIUS has already approved the sale of Genworth to Oceanwide, provided that a “third party” would be called in to manage American data. But communicating with the public is not CFIUS’s strong suit, so as a current Genworth client, I have no idea how the committee stipulated that third party bit of their approval would be ensured. Is there even a contingency in place in case the third party vendor itself gets scooped up by a Chinese firm? My money is on that being a big fat “Nope!”
More pressing now is, how am I to know if my data were to be held by a Chinese company that was private at the time it purchased my data points, but is subsequently taken over by Chiense authorities, or is otherwise made to share what it knows about me and millions of other Americans?
Canada to the rescue: they currently are blocking the deal to protect the data of their own citizens. Now Oceanwide and Genworth have until April 30 to either prove they aren’t going to endanger Canadians’ personal data security, ask for another extension (there have been nine so far since the deal was first announced in 2016), or start over.
Even though I am glad to see CFIUS pay a little bit more attention to the obvious by stepping in on Kunlun’s sale of Grindr, and even though Canada might find reason to keep the block in place, obviously, it’s time for me to switch to another insurance company.
This March came in for me like a lion, with a writer’s retreat on the sleepy-lovely Chesapeake Bay, led by Jacki Lyden whose first memoir about a mother with bipolar disorder, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, is among my favorites for its evocative prose and compassionate humor. Jacki’s notion is that any written work, memoir or otherwise, must begin with the author finding her voice, and everything else flows from there.
To witness other writers clarify how they sound in their own head by hearing them read aloud was fascinating, especially since nearly all of us there had already found success as authors, writers, or broadcast media producers. It was proof to me that no matter how much we might think we know who we are, where we are going, and what we have to say, the act of pushing in the clutch and listening intently to the space in that moment before the gears re-engage so that we know what the machinery is really doing is a powerful tool for maintaining forward momentum.
(Photo of not-really-but-it-sure-looks-like-it-grumpy Whitney, far left, and others by Bill O’Leary)
While at the retreat, where no boys were supposed to be allowed, one of the highlights was sitting with Jacki and her husband, Bill O’Leary, a staff photographer at the Washington Post who’d come for just a couple hours to take our photos. He is funny and not only tells great stories in pictures, but in spoken words, too.
As Bill was regaling us with his tales of photographing the wackiness that is Washington, it occurred to me that I am lucky enough to have access to a treasure trove of great stories just by virtue of where I live. Soon, the idea for adding a podcast to this newsletter came to me, and soon it will come to you, too. I already have my first guests lined up for “Washington Remembers: the Podcast”, including a Reagan biographer who promises to dish on the back story between Nancy and Barbara…
Also this month, I was named desk editor for DC Metro Theater Arts’ opera and classical music section. The online publication serves 25,000 DC theater and music lovers monthly. If you’re not already one of them, I hope you will be soon! You can read my reviews here.
If March came in like a lion, it left that way, too. This month, I am up to my uxters (Gaelic for arm pits) in stories and projects in works with editors across various media, all of them somehow infused with the five main principals of docu-mental, including a piece that I hope will bring well-deserved attention to a thread of African-American Civil War history that is as yet relatively unknown. Plus, a story featuring a West Coast-based psychiatrist who suggests ways we can reframe anxiety if we’re to really make a dent in our opioid and suicide crises.
Meanwhile, the book I collaborated on in 2018 with former upstate New York politician Dr. Paul Van Buskirk, Big Mike, Uncle Dan, and Me: How I Beat 20th Century New York State’s Most Corrupt Political Machine, is forthcoming. More on that as I have it to share…
On May 18, please join me at the 10th annual Gaithersburg Book Festival where I will be in conversation with three very different authors:
Jonathan Eig is the NYT bestselling author of Ali: A Life, which won the PEN/ESPN Award for best sports book of 2018 and is the basis for an upcoming Ken Burns documentary about Muhammad Ali.
Anne Hillerman, daughter of the late NYT bestselling mystery novelist Tony Hillerman whose works are set in the Four Corners region of the country, will discuss her own NYT bestselling work that carries on in her father’s tradition. The Tale Teller is the newest book in her series, and sets a murder mystery against the back drop of the Navajos’ Long Walk and the treaty that established their nation within a nation.
Vivian Shaw will discuss her urban fantasy trilogy starring Dr. Greta Helsing, physician to the undead. It’s a mash up of classic macabre/horror literature and modern day medical mystery.
I am so excited to have been asked to participate as an interviewer at this top notch book fair where so many of my women writer compatriots here in the Washington area will be reading. I hope to see many of you there!
This photo is used with permission and is courtesy of L.A.-based toy photographer, Mitchel Wu. If you’d like to learn how he makes his toys look real, he has a delightful short video series that explains his techniques. Start with the one about owning your vision.
That’s all for this edition. Next up we’ll have a look at the Saudis’ secret campaign to purchase water in drought-stricken California, the ethics of noncompete clauses, and if all goes according to plan, the first episode of Washington Remembers: the Podcast.
Also, we’re going bi-monthly. Look for us at the beginning and in the middle of each month, although we will be unveiling a new website inbetween issues in April. It will be a bridge to a new and dynamic docu-mental to be unveiled this fall.
Be nice. Work hard. And the wild may meet the modern. (That’s what a Buddha told me once, and I have no reason to doubt him.)