Things I Learned From Mollie

Every so often as a writer you are given a gift. The first is that you find a subject so compelling you must spill it onto the page. The second, far more precious and so very rare, is that you learn your writing has real meaning to someone else. This piece, originally written in 2008, is a story of both of those gifts. My mother-in-law wrote me last night that Mollie has just moved back to the continent. To Las Vegas. In the move she misplaced the piece I wrote about what a humble, unassuming, but so very strong older woman is capable of teaching a younger, at the time less-than-secure fighter pilot, about to be entrusted with the lives of our country’s youth. She hoped my mother-in-law might find a copy, so she could share it with her sons. It is quite possibly the most affirming thing about my writing I have yet experienced, and it came at the perfect time. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, you can thank Mollie.

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We drove up to the condo complex after missing several turns and having to make two separate phone calls to get us back on track. She was waiting outside the front door three floors up and waving down to us below. I thought we were just picking her up for a nice dinner out, but was informed she wanted us to see her place. During one of the phone interventions we learned most people just park in front of the fire hydrant directly below where she was now standing—parking in Honolulu is usually an adventure, certainly never dull. There are a few traffic laws I clearly despise and rarely follow—I recently paid 250,000 won in speeding tickets because my German car finds it difficult to only go 100 kph on the open road—but I never park in handicap spots, and I never park in front of fire hydrants. As my wife tried in vain to discuss this point from thirty feet down, a perfect space across the street suddenly became available and enabled me to do my civic and social duty all at the same time. We climbed the stairs and I greeted Mollie for the third time in my life.

The first time I met her was at my wedding, now nearly 18 years ago, as I was embarking on my career as a husband and Air Force officer—at the time it was unclear whether it was in that exact order. The second was when we visited Hawaii for a friend’s wedding. Then I was finally embarking on my career as fighter pilot. The third time there was no wedding to celebrate, but I was about to begin a critical job in my career—one that was beginning to weigh on me, and I was in Hawaii to learn a few things designed to make it go a little more smoothly. Mollie is a seventy-something lady who has been a friend of my mother-in-law for some fifty years. They are part of small group they call the Round Robin who have kept in touch with each other throughout their years since college. Mollie is the most far-flung of the bunch having moved off to the islands nearly on a whim and taken up residence in the fiftieth state of the union.

The condo is nestled among many on the southwestern slope of Diamond Head and looks out toward the vast and desolate Pacific Ocean and the dense and well populated Waikiki. It’s a small, one-room suite where first only she called home until her mother moved in to live out the rest of her life. Now one of her three sons also calls it home—the other two live a block away. From the balcony the ocean view that sold the place is now obstructed by then juvenile trees, but she knows the water is still just over there. On the other side the mountains of Oahu’s western range rise majestically into the near constant companion of their misty shroud. It’s raining just a few miles to the north.

The story of how she came to be here and how it eventually cost me $4000 is an interesting one. In the car on the way back to the base, I asked Ann about her husband. Apparently, she grew bored with him and kicked him out when the boys were out and on their own. She had things to do and he apparently wasn’t going to be part of it. For a woman of her generation, that was a bold realization and an even bolder execution. She moved to the island without much of a plan, except that she wanted to be close to the sea and the mountains, and eventually ended up landing a job in an art gallery. Having spent only a few hours with her, I recognize it as the perfect profession. She is one of those rare individuals who finds aesthetics in seemingly everyday things; the old tree groves that now block her view of the ocean, particular orchids hanging as wall decoration in the lobby of a hotel, the comforting return of the trade winds that must have once driven a fantastic migration. These are things that can easily go unnoticed in a world of bustle, manufactured light, and climate control.

On the way to the restaurant she directed a stop at an overlook. Waves crashed against the rocky shore hundreds of feet below. The ocean stretched out before us to the south where the next nearest land lies perhaps 10,000 miles away. We are farther from any large land mass here than anywhere else in the world. It’s at once an ominous and soothing thought. I remark on the row of multi-million dollar homes lining the beach beneath the ancient volcanic slopes. Mollie observes that the beach is free—we could walk right down there and enjoy the same view these people paid more money for than I will ever make. That too is a soothing thought.

We drive through perhaps the richest neighborhood on Oahu on the way to the restaurant, and she points out where various movie stars once made their homes. Jack Lord lived here. Someone else from another era lived there. At the hotel, and after noticing the orchids I would have walked right by, I watch two dark shapes break the surface of the man-made lagoon. Two dolphins glide through twilight waters and remind me the ocean beyond is not such a desolate place. There is a presence even when their silvery-grey backs descend below the surface. In an attached pool, sea turtles slowly ply shallow waters giving us a glimpse of rare creatures seemingly custom-made for their surroundings.

When I met Mollie the second time we were in the Wyland Gallery in Waikiki, and I became enamored with a brass sculpture of a dolphin. I loved it, but it was a hell of lot of money for something that would sit on the mantle. We passed…and I have regretted it ever since. So some eight years later while out to dinner with a friend we stopped in a Wyland Gallery in Las Vegas and dropped nearly two grand on a different dolphin sculpture. The next year we did the same thing on a whim and scored a sculpture featuring sea turtles. She didn’t know any of this when she picked a restaurant in a resort housing live versions of two of my favorite pieces of art. It was full circle and our human—even cosmic—connection seemed so real the instant I recognized the closure.

On the way back to her place to bid her farewell, she wanted to drive by the little shopping mall where she does her shopping—by bus, because she hasn’t owned a car for years. I thought it strange at the time, but now it seems such a completely fitting end to an evening that connected two generations and four distinct families intricately woven together by time and the simple act of living a life. She is a modest and unassuming student of the beauty of the natural world and its creative representation for whom seemingly banal details of one’s own existence are an important window into our collective soul. I thank her for teaching me that simple truth. I suspect it was the lesson I came to Hawaii to learn.

Character, Quality, and Office

A few members of Congress have decided not to attend the presidential inauguration this week. They have all stated cogent reasons. Despite their impassioned rationale, skipping out is a mistake for two very important reasons. The first is a conflation of personal feeling and public responsibility. The second is that the office of the presidency should never be about the man or woman who holds it.

I can understand the deep personal distaste these well-meaning representatives must feel about watching the single-most unqualified, intellectually outmatched, and morally rudderless man ever to rise to such prominence accept the oath of office to the highest post in the land. One of them, who has dedicated his life to the concept at the heart of the Founding and who has quite literally changed his nation and the world through his undying action, is fending off remarks disparaging both his record and the vibrant Georgia 5th District which he represents. Democrats and Republicans have come to Rep. Lewis’ defense and to the defense of the great city of Atlanta and the citizens of his district. They are doing so because of what he represents…not because of who he is. That is instructive.

Public officials do not have the luxury of making “personal decisions” when those decisions play out in the public sphere. As much as Rep. Lewis has the right to be personally offended by the uninformed and immature actions of the president-elect, as much as he may personally object to the president-elect’s proclivity to alienate and insult the Americans he will soon be charged to lead, the representative still has a public duty to perform. His public duty will soon include opposing many of the things the president-elect promised during the campaign. But Rep. Lewis’ current public duty is to rise above the cult of personality and to highlight a foundational concept of our republic by attending the inauguration of the next president of the United States.

The office of the presidency is not now nor has it ever been about the person who occupies it. Washington, with a deft sense of his place in history, painstakingly taught us what so many now forget—the man (and eventual woman) holding the title is but a servant to the people and to the concept of three-branch republican governance. Those wishing to take a pass on the inauguration because of some personal aversion to the man entering the office only play to the president-elect’s incessant need to be at the center of every story. The rancor toward Rep. Lewis was unleashed in an unfortunate but now common Twitter storm in the wee hours. That Mr. Lewis questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s win was not helpful. Ironically, it will only be compounded by not attending the inauguration, thereby playing to the Tweeter-in-Chief’s outsized and meritless ego. It will cement the idea that all things are about the narcissist voters somehow chose over the most qualified candidate in four decades. Not attending puts the emphasis on Trump the Man instead of where it rightly belongs. That is a disservice to what the office ought to represent.

This is a trying time in our country. We elected and are about to seat one who lacks any sense of civility and attacks our basic humanity. We are about to seat someone who campaigned—to cheers from thousands—on anti-Constitutional and authoritarian actions not at all in keeping with long-standing American values. We are about to seat a president whose unflinching praise for a brutal dictator currently involved in attempts to undermine the national fabric is surpassed in audacity only by his stated intention to throttle the freedom of the press, one of the hallmarks of democratic societies. It is incumbent on all elected representatives to unequivocally state that we will not stand by and allow anyone to tear down what took two hundred and forty years to build. It starts with them attending the peaceful transfer of power in the office of the presidency. By doing so they will tacitly say they have more respect for the office than does the man who will ascend to it. By doing so they will demonstrate not only that their office is more important than their person, but also that they are men and women of character and quality who deserve their post. In contrast, the difference will be striking.

Something of Consequence

One of the largest support organizations for U.S. military personnel is hosting a drive on the world’s largest social media network to allow you to send an e-card thanking a service man or woman. Here is how I responded and what I hope you might do instead.

How perfectly consequence-free. How fitting. I spent a quarter of a century in service to this great nation. I don’t care if you ever say thank you and I certainly don’t care if you sign some internet card. I wore the uniform because I believe in our country’s foundational concepts born of the Enlightenment…that ALL deserve liberty and an equal opportunity to achieve greatness. Everyone. Even when they don’t look like you, or pray like you, or love like you. Even if they are willing to do the work you may not be willing to do or came here sometime after they were born, some of them fleeing lives that would kill the average coddled citizen. Don’t waste your time and that of our service men and women sending some pre-fab, do-gooder cyber card. It is without consequence for you or your intended recipient, and if we need anything right now it is to do things of great consequence. Do this instead.

Register your neighbors to vote. Make sure they get to the polls. Vote next time and every time thereafter, and be thankful you don’t have to split your family up so you aren’t all killed if insurgents decide to blow up polling places. Thank a teacher every single time you see one for what they do for the future of our country every day of their lives. Join the effort to see them paid better and to reduce attrition for new teachers. Don’t ever excuse bullying or discrimination in any form. Write actual letters to your elected officials. When you first meet or call someone, address them as Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. or their appropriate title. Put down your phone and really listen to someone. Don’t ever let racism find purchase in your day-to-day dealings with others. Talk to someone on the street you have never met. Smile at someone. Ask the name of your gardener or brick-layer or cable repairman or limo driver. Get one or two subscriptions to real newspapers. Read novels and see plays. Ponder a painting then buy it on impulse. Don’t ever watch cable “news” again. Make sure your school board is solid on teaching science and critical thinking and writing. Block most of your “friends” on social media. Listen to NPR; the first few days are on me. Take a music lesson or tell a story or read to kids at the library. Don’t ever say, or excuse anyone who does, that God decided some sporting event when children are dying in the name of religion around the globe. Then…walk up to a vet and, suppressing that nearly uncontrollable urge to thank them for their service, just ask them where they’ve been, how they are doing, what they’re most proud of, who they miss, or what they want in life…Do that instead. Please. Do something of consequence. You’ll be defending those things that make this the most unique experiment in governance in the history of the world. Then we can thank each other for securing our own self-determination—that natural state of humankind that seems so fragile and fleeting. Do that…instead.