Flying on September 11

NEW ORLEANS–I marked Sept. 11 this year by getting on a plane. That wasn’t my first such observance.

Sept. 11 landing at EWRThis year’s flight brought me here for the Online News Association’s conference. In prior years, I’ve flown on 9/11 for TechCrunch Disrupt and CTIA’s conferences… looking through my calendar, I thought I’d done this more often. Some of those years, it turns out, I flew on the 10th or the 12th of September.

Is it weird that I wish I’d flown more often on Sept. 11?

I have paid my respects at all the 9/11 sites: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanskville, Penn. Those were intensely meaningful visits, and every American who is able should see least one of those memorials.

But another way you can honor this day is to spend time above the clouds.

Today was a good day to do that. I was glad to connect through Newark, so I could see Manhattan’s reborn skyline from the air, then take a moment to appreciate the memorial United employees set up near gate C120 for the crews of UA 93 and UA 175.

A friend has called flying on this day her act of defiance. I’m not sure I’d give myself that much credit. But going to an airport, boarding a plane, and showing a little solidarity with the people of commercial aviation does seem like a decent thing to do.

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Berlin Brandenburg Airport is still not open

BERLIN–My introduction to this city seven years ago was supposed to feature a new, world-class airport. I continue to wait on that.

When I booked my flights for the IFA trade show in 2012, Berlin Brandenburg Airport was set to open in early June as a unified airport for the unified city, replacing both Tegel in the western half and Schönefeld in the east.

But fire-safety concerns forced a postponement of Berlin Brandenburg’s opening to the next spring. And by “fire-safety concerns,” I mean the belated realization that expecting to vent smoke by having fans blow it down from ceilings to vents in the basement would be very much not up to code. So I flew into Tegel instead and have since gotten to know that airport rather well.

Brandenburg empty gatesTXL is no prize, with a weird layout that puts passport and security at each gate. It’s also one of the few major attractions in Berlin that’s not walking distance from a U-Bahn or S-Bahn stop, instead requiring a bus connection. But Tegel does have the advantage of being open and operational.

BER, meanwhile, has seen its opening pushed back year after year while it’s sunk from being a subject of local civic concern to the internationally recognized spot where German efficiency went to die. As a BBC feature from late June recaps,  the saga involves epic levels of engineering, financial and political malfeasance. It will probably be taught as a cautionary tale in project-management classes for the next hundred years.

But although I have yet to step on or off a plane at Brandenburg, I have been inside the place. During my 2015 IFA (then, as now, the show’s organizers covered most of my travel costs), I took an afternoon off to take the BER airport tour.

Seeing this zombie airport from up close was a remarkable and spooky experience, even if I could only catch the occasional word or phrase in the German tour narration. In any language, it’s bizarre to stand on an airport ramp and not smell any jet fuel.

I took a bunch of photos and told myself I’d sell a story about that visit somewhere. And then I spent months failing to close the deal anywhere before eventually giving up. One might say that this drawn-out inability to execute was my Berlin Brandenburg Airport of freelance pitching.

Those airport tours are still available–and are something I will have to do anew before trying to revive this story idea–but now they require booking a reservation online three months in advance. So like BER itself, returning to this story will have to wait until next year. When, per the latest estimates, Berlin Brandenburg will finally open–not that you should bet too many euros on that happening by the new deadline of October 2020.

In the meantime, you might as well enjoy some of the pictures I took four years ago; if you’d rather not click through to my Flickr page (speaking of things from an earlier time), there’s a slideshow after the jump.

(Edited 9/6/2019 to explain the initial delay better and move one link.)

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Three decades of D.C., or how I learned to stop worrying and love the District

This Wednesday, classes began again at Georgetown University–which was my reminder that 30 years prior, I arrived in D.C. for my own new-student-orientation exercise. And somehow, I never got around to leaving.

I think that the awkward kid from New Jersey with the bad haircut has improved with age, but I know the city on the Potomac and the Anacostia has.

We overcame Marion Barry’s mayoral mismanagement and the city’s subsequent fiscal ruin (although municipal corruption lives on). The District’s population has topped 700,000, a level last seen in the 1970s, while the Washington area now ranks as the country’s sixth-most populous. Downtown is no longer pockmarked with parking lots, and neighborhoods teem with new development–some at the expense of residents who lived through the bad times. We have a baseball team that may yet advance past a division series in the postseason. The rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are cleaner. It’s vastly easier to get around without a car.

Yes, we have issues. Housing costs too much–but at least we don’t have San Francisco or New York’s insane real-estate markets. The summer weather is usually outright hideous. I wish there were more places to get a good bagel or a cannoli. Every place has its tradeoffs, and these are ours.

My appreciation of the upsides of here has advanced immensely too. For the first two years at Georgetown, I scarcely ventured farther from campus than Dupont Circle and spent my summers away. But I didn’t leave for the summer after my junior year, instead working an unpaid internship (thanks, Mom and Dad!) in the West End. That’s also when friends started bringing their own vehicles to off-campus group houses, allowing me to get to know much more of the District and its surroundings. (You haven’t fully lived K Street traffic until you’ve driven it in a 1977 Toyota Corolla with a four-speed stick shift.) An expanding Metro system further opened up the area to me, eventually leading me across the Potomac to Arlington.

It took me another three years to began discovering the bike-accessible parts of the D.C. area and realize one more great thing about living here: You don’t have to ride far to find yourself in the middle of a forest or overlooking a gorge, with only the sound of airplanes to remind you that not that many miles from a major city’s downtown.

Three decades in, I continue to find new parts of this place to celebrate and discover, as D.C. license plates used to say. And I’ve collected enough Washingtoniana memories to bore younger people with my curmodgeonly recollections: the reek of the old 9:30 Club, National Airport’s Interim Terminal, the evil and stupid taxi-zone map, seeing Fugazi play at Fort Reno shows. I look forward to gathering many more.

D.C. may be the city that politicians love to hate when they sneer about “Washington” (before deciding to stay here after they lose an election or retire), but it’s become the center of my world. My choice to go college someplace not at all like rural New Jersey seems to have worked out pretty well so far.

iTunes (2001-2019-ish)

With Monday’s news that Apple is finally retiring the Mac version of iTunes, there’s been a lot of “good riddance” chatter about the impending demise of this music/video/download-store/backup/kitchen-sink app.

I get it. For years, iTunes has been a glaring example of Apple forgetting one of Steve Jobs’ rules about the importance of saying no to things. But I also have a long history with this program–I’ve been using it continuously for as long as I have any app, maybe longer. And it hasn’t been all bad.

It’s easy to forget today how bad the music-player landscape was before iTunes, full of apps deliberately limited in features and larded with upsells. If you wanted something decent, you had to pay for it upfront–the app that became iTunes, Casady & Greene’s SoundJamp MP, was a $40 download.

And even after iTunes arrived, competitors didn’t take the hint. Typical headline, from a 2006 review of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 11: “Nice Features, But It’s No iTunes.” So when I finally set aside time to rip every CD I owned, iTunes did the job. And it was through iTunes that I bought the vast majority of my music downloads–and then paid $25 for iTunes Match to get legit copies of the MP3s I’d downloaded off Usenet newsgroups and file-sharing apps in the days before paying $1 a song was an option.

Most of two decades since my introduction to this app, I no longer use one of its original flagship features, easy music sync. I don’t own an iPhone, and since Apple has held fast to ignoring other mobile devices in this app, I copy the songs I want to store on my Android phone via the Finder.

The new Music app that will replace iTunes may be just as good at the core tasks of music organization and playback, but I won’t know for a while. The iMac on which I’m typing this–kept in service largely because I replaced its sluggish hard drive with a solid-state drive last year–can’t even run the current Mojave edition, much less the upcoming Catalina.

And iTunes for Windows will remain–but that app looks like such a stranger in Windows 10, I can’t deal with it. Instead, it looks like I’m stuck with two other choices with their own issues: Microsoft’s Groove Music, effectively retired after a series of feature removals, and the privacy-hostile Spotify. It looks like Apple isn’t the only large tech company that needs to reboot its desktop music-player strategy.

Front-page news worth keeping

When my wife’s alma mater ended March Madness Monday night by defeating Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime to claim the University of Virginia’s first national men’s college basketball championship, I knew I had a chore the next day: stashing away part of the newspaper for safekeeping.

Old newspaper front pagesI’ve been keeping newspaper front pages and section fronts for more than 25 years now. It’s my grandparents’ fault; every time I visited Nona and Papa, I loved to flip through their collection of Plain Dealer editions, especially their copy of the paper reporting that Ohio’s Neil Armstrong had walked on the Moon.

My own collection includes the following Washington Post A sections:

The front page I wish I had is one covering the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but I didn’t think to keep a copy then. The one you’re probably wondering why I don’t have is the Post’s coverage of Trump’s election–but I was on the other side of the Atlantic that Wednesday, and by the time I got home I’d decided that I did not want that reminder.

My other Father’s Day

Twenty years ago today, my dad died. It was a long day, and at times like this I feel like I’m still living it.

March 26, 1999 started in the Bay Area, where I’d flown out for a friend’s wedding. I woke up early that Friday, thought to call into my work voicemail (I didn’t have a cell phone in those innocent days), and heard a vague and ominous message from my colleague Mike Musgrove. “This is really important,” he said.

I punched in his number. We had a delicate conversation light on questions that ended with him saying “call your mom.” I did and then I knew: Dad had keeled over from a heart attack that morning after walking out to get the paper.

Mom didn’t know how to reach me, so she’d phoned my office.

The rest of the day blurred endlessly. Calling to rebook my flight, trying to keep it together on 101 before ditching my rented car at SFO, staring blankly into the clouds, pacing aimlessly around ORD during my connection, and finally touching down at PHL after 11 p.m. before emptying my wallet on a taxi to reunite with what was left of my family.

I’d always thought I’d have more time. But don’t we all?

Rudy Pegoraro lived a remarkable life, growing up on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and then some of the scruffier suburbs of Cleveland before going to Columbia University to get a chemical-engineering degree. (He loved to write and wrote well, but nobody told him he should try to make a living out of that). He did fine with his degree, landing a sequence of jobs after graduation that eventually took him about as far as anyone can get from the UP or Northeast Ohio.

The stamps on his passports from the ’60s and ’70s across Europe and Asia–including extended assignments in Pakistan and, in 1975, China to help construct new plants–make me look like a stay-at-home type.

But while Dad might have gone far, he was never distant. (The opening line of the eulogy I wrote on paper after three drafts: “My dad was one of my first and best teachers.”) His coming home always meant a big hug for everybody and then his turn in the kitchen. And at the end of the 1980s, we all got to come along as he landed a job in the Paris office of his employer at the time.

Work was not so kind to Dad in the years after that magical sojourn, but as I paid more attention I also realized how much nonsense he’d earlier tolerated at work for us. And as I learned my own hard lessons about occupational setbacks, I understood how much comfort I took from talking things over with my first and best counselor.

What I didn’t know until too late: A car-centric lifestyle and years spent struggling to quit smoking don’t help your health. Neither is having a heart condition go neglected.

I’ve now spent two decades without Dad’s help. Among other developments in that time: the most important first date of my life; buying a home; witnessing September 11; marriage; the birth of our child years after we thought that would happen; seeing my job grow miserable and then vanish; learning that I could transcend that loss; crossing “run a marathon” and “see a space launch” off my bucket list; appreciating how working from home is my opportunity to handle the chores Dad couldn’t; putting in my own time on airplanes and knowing how great it feels to come home; and watching our baby grow into an endlessly curious reader and writer who likes to hear me talk about Grandpa Rudy.

I would have liked to have Dad’s advice about all of those things. But there hasn’t been a day since March 26, 1999 when I haven’t wished that I could talk to him about whatever I’ve seen or heard.

The old financial records that I do keep

It’s now two months until tax day, which means that it’s time for some financial paperwork. By that I don’t mean starting my 2018 return–I haven’t even gotten all my 1099s yet–but discarding records from prior years that no longer retain any legal relevance.

This tidying up has sent a raft of old statements and forms into the recycling (with every instance of a Social Security Number torn out for subsequent shredding), and now the file cabinet is no longer packed so tight.

But there are some tax and financial records that I’m keeping even though I no longer have to: the 1040s, W-2s, and checkbooks of my college and post-college years.

Those documents tell a story of a simpler and more painful financial time–an annual income in the low twenties, paychecks with only three figures to the left of the decimal point, ATM withdrawals that rarely exceeded $30, and a checking-account balance that I struggled to keep above $2,000.

(Fortunately, rents around D.C. were a lot cheaper then.)

Being reminded of the cramped state of my finances back then helps me feel better about them today, even after all the lousy things that have happened to the journalism business lately.

But the more important part of this exercise is not cultivating nostalgia but renewing empathy–for anybody who’s living paycheck to paycheck, or who’s just a slow month or a government shutdown away from having their bank balance erode enough to show only three digits to the left of the decimal point.