Oh The Places They Go

January 17, 2017

In the days before social media, the sharing of travel stories with those who’d appreciate the absurdity meant sending emails. They were typically filled with the kinds of things you’d expect (and now see all over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram); problem passengers, annoying seat recliners, double-belters, drunks, delays, etc. Every once in a while there would be a celebrity sighting. Over time, the mundane parts of travel were skipped over, in favor of the notables met while on the road. After a while though, another evolution occurred. The focus became celebrities or notables encountered in the bathroom and whether or not they’d washed their hands before leaving. The emails were titled “Today in Celebrity Hand-washing” or something (more) clever.

I was able to contribute a few sightings to the group. I once saw Chris Farley inhale a Big Mac in the time it took me to put my bag in the overhead. I once had then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel a couple of rows ahead of me. I tried to catch him for the sole purpose of having him tell me to “F(*& off,” and flip that chopped off middle finger at me. He was famous for being oh-so willing to do so, and I wanted to join that (non)exclusive club. Alas, he was too fast for me. US-POLITICS-HOYER-DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS

I sat next to U.S. Senator from Colorado Ben Nighthorse Campbell on a flight to Denver. Being a close follower of politics, I knew Senator Campbell had recently switched parties, but I couldn’t remember in which direction. He was traveling without staff and was willing to talk to me, so I structured my questions so that his answers would help reveal whether he was now a Republican or a Democrat without me having to embarrass myself and ask him.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell (L) with another notable Republican.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) with another notable Republican

By the time we landed, I knew something that few others did, that Senator Ben wasn’t going to run for re-election in 2004. Since social media hadn’t been invented yet, spreading that around would have been a challenge, so his secret was safe with me.

There were two incidents I think about often, one very troubling and one inspiring. On a flight into Westchester County, I found that then-Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy was sitting a row in front of me (he in the last row of first class, me in my favorite bulkhead aisle seat).

Somebody sanitize that ball!

Wearing his Nazareth College sweatshirt, he walked off the plane about three people ahead of me and headed directly into the very tiny men’s room just outside the gate area. Though it was crowded, the need to fill in my travel buddies with an installment of “Today in Celebrity Hand-washing” meant that I monitored his use of the sink. From that day to this, every time I see Van Gundy on television shaking hands congratulating another coach or a player, I think of him exiting that bathroom in 2001 without a stop at the sink.

But the money story happened in late 2005/early 2006. I was in New York, trying to fly home on a Friday night through La Guardia. My flight had been cancelled and I was struggling for options. I finally found a seat in first class on a United flight. I don’t usually pay to ride up front, but the extra $100 seemed like a better deal than a Friday night in a Manhattan hotel room and a Saturday flight home.

I boarded late so most everyone else was already onboard and seated. I stowed my gear and settled into my aisle seat. Across the aisle, I saw then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama was sitting there. Having won one of the most interesting and bizarre senate races I’d ever seen, and coming off of his national launching pad with his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, he was well-known to me. There’s was already talk that he was the rising star of the party and might run for President one day.

I’m old-fashioned and think that those in public service deserve not only our respect but our gratitude. When the flight attendant came by to take our drink/meal order and butchered the Senator’s name (not the first time, I’m sure), I made a point of telling him that the name of the United States Senator sitting in row 4 was pronounced “oh-BOMBa.” I don’t talk on airplanes (I’m not proud to say that I’ve feigned deafness to avoid conversation with an over-served elderly woman), so I left the Senator alone. He and I each plowed through our piles of magazines in peace until we arrived at O’Hare and stood up in the aisle. As he put his suit jacket on I noticed that his lapel was upturned in the back. I pounced. “Let me get that for you,” I said. “We can’t have the next President of the United States walking off this plane looking like that.”

“Thanks,” he said. “My wife usually takes care of that for me.”

We chatted a bit as we waited to deplane. While talking, I began dialing my cellphone like a mad man, hoping to get my wife on the line and hand the phone to the Senator so she could speak to him. In retrospect, I should have handed him the phone to leave her a message, but at that point, things were going well and happening quickly, so I wasn’t thinking quite as clearly as I would later when I regretting not giving him the phone. As we walked up the jetway, I wished him well and peeled off to call the office and get my ride home. The next stop for me was the men’s room, where I encountered Senator Obama in the nearly empty room. Keeping appropriate distance from where he was standing, he noticed my presence and re-engaged. We talked for a moment about something I’d seen in the New York Times and he gave an appropriately pithy response as he moved toward the sink and proceeded to thoroughly…wash…his…hands. Whew! Thank goodness. I wouldn’t have been able to get over it if that had gone the other way. I couldn’t imagine an elected official, someone whose job description includes meeting and greeting constituents, most often with a handshake not taking care to wash up.

You may have noticed that all the stories above are a bit dated. You may wonder why I’ve taken so much of your time tonight reliving these stories. Aside from the Administration I correctly foresaw two years ahead of time is now only days away from ending, the flashbacks were driven by something very tangible today. The item nearby crossed my Twitter feed earlier today.

Excerpt from "The Art of the Deal" by Donald J. Trump

Excerpt from “The Art of the Deal” by Donald J. Trump

In it, the man less than 100 hours away from becoming the 45th President of the United States brings forth his inner 9-year old, by sharing that he trolls his marks by not washing his hands. How nice. How, as he would say, “classy.”

But as the other nearby picture would show, there seems to be a bit of a problem. It looks like those dirty hands are occasionally used for purposes other than shaking the hands of people over whom Don wants to assert his dominance.

Oh dear God.

Oh dear God.

And now all I’ll think about when I see him put his left hand on the bible and raise his right hand to God as he takes this nation’s most sacred oath is that he’s likely not washed his hands. Congratulations, Mr. President-elect. We are off to a great start.

On Lacking Grace

September 15, 2009
The Mt. Rushmore of Gracelessness

The Mt. Rushmore of Gracelessness

Many people have linked the recent behaviors of Rep. Joe Wilson, Kanye West and Serena Williams to a coarsening of our society and an underlying rudeness.  The correlation is obvious; people who didn’t get their way pitched a fit that would make a three-year old proud. If you haven’t seen these by now, the chances of you being a reader of this post are virtually zero.

But there was also a fourth event that I think is in some small way related and shows similar characteristics.  Michael Jordan’s induction speech into the Basketball Hall of Fame was a great demonstration of the self-centeredness of athletes and celebrities and the gracelessness that often follows.  It was all about him, his way, and all the scores he had to settle.  Dating way back to his high school days, Jordan took every slight real and perceived as motivation for revenge and proving people wrong.  He took a whack at everybody from the poor kid (that was 6’9” while Jordan wasn’t) in high school and got picked ahead of him for the varsity, to Jeff Van Gundy (a notable non-handwasher*), to Jerry Krause.  He was ungracious.  His attempts at humor ended up sounding like more cuts and jabs and were inappropriate for the setting.  He needed not only an editor but a PR lackey.

He even told his kids, “I’d hate to be you guys.” He left the rest of that sentence unspoken:  “because there’s no possible way for you to measure up to my greatness”.  While it may be true at least as far as basketball stardom is concerned, did he think his kids don’t realize it already?  Ask his college-basketball playing son whose limited playing time seemed to coincide only with dad’s trips to Urbana-Champaign.  Do you think they need to be told that their lives will pale in comparison to their dad’s in front of a national television audience?  If one of his kids becomes a noted scientist or author, don’t you get the feeling that Thanksgiving dinner would still be all about Mike?  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this since Jordan is the one person honest enough to say that he unretired to spend less time with his family and more time on his legacy.  It was not a speech that will get him into the Parenting Hall of Fame for sure.

And for those of you counting the number of references Jordan made to his involvement with the Washington Wizards:  zero.  No comments on the larger lessons he learned through failure about his limitations or how it made him better or stronger in other ways.  Nary was heard an enlightening or self-reflective word.

Rep. Wilson wanted an open microphone to settle his score with the President.

Serena Williams didn’t care that there were open microphones around when she confronted, attempted to intimidate and outright threatened a lines woman.

Kanye West stole an open microphone to express his displeasure with an award outcome (later to have his outrage shown to have been comically premature as his favorite won an even bigger award for the same video).

Jordan used is his time at the microphone not to be humble and gracious and accept the honor of joining other greats in the Hall of Fame.  He used it to get even and to show us his shallowness.

All four of them showed an awesome lack of class and lack of grace.

I understand that single-mindedness and self-centeredness are often critical elements of success in competitive events whether they are in sports or business, from basketball to bond trading.  I think that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time and I understand that the attitude he articulated certainly helped drive him to be as successful as he was on the court.  I’ve used what he said about this topic in the past as an example to my talented but undermotivated son about what it takes to be a champion.

But timing is everything.  There are times and places for those things to be discussed.  Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, Joint Sessions of Congress, award ceremonies—even for stupid, made-up awards, and Grand Slam semi-finals aren’t any of them.  All four of them lacked class and lacked grace.

If you disagree, ask yourself this question:  What would Tiger have done in the same situation?

*  I was on a flight from O’Hare to White Plains in 2002.  Jeff Van Gundy sat in the last row of first class, while I was in the first row of coach.  He deplaned immediately ahead of me and went directly into the men’s room adjacent to the gate, as did I.  Coach Van Gundy exited the men’s room without visiting the sink.  I was not the only person to notice it; New Yorkers aren’t shy.  Perhaps my describing this event also lacks class and grace, but I view it as a public service for those who meet JVG and are tempted to shake his hand.

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