Mike Musgrove

This hasn’t been a good month for the extended Washington Post family. Last week, we lost Bill Walsh, and Wednesday inflicted the news that my onetime henchman Mike Musgrove died Monday.

Mike and I both started at the Post as copy aides, which meant we both had to ask ourselves at some point “did I spend four years at college to sort mail and answer phones?” Not long after I stumbled into my escape from mailboxes and then somehow got anointed as an editor (it remains unclear what exactly possessed management to do that), I realized I’d need an assistant.

Mike had been kicking in reviews for months, and this St. John’s College graduate wrote a marvelously un-self-conscious cover letter that name-checked C.S. Lewis and “Baywatch” and ended with “Give me the job.” His references checked out and the other applicants couldn’t string words together like him, so I gave him the job.

Mike wrote with a sly wit, an awareness of the fundamental goofiness of much of the tech industry, and an interest in life outside of gadgets. He had the idea of reviewing the tech-support soundtracks of computer vendors, he had a sideline testing recipes for the Food section, and he reviewed concerts (including Vanilla Ice) for Style.

His insight on the e-book experience, the product of reading Monica Lewinsky’s 1990s testimony on a Rocket eBook, still resonates today:

If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books—books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don’t particularly want taking up space in your bookcase—books like Monica’s Story, in other words.

He introduced Post readers to the Diamond Rio, the first mass-market MP3 player, and later gave them their first look at Gmail–a piece that I was delighted to see resurfaced on the tenth anniversary of Google’s e-mail service.

Along the way, Mike graduated from moving words to moving the freight, ensuring that reviews would still run when I was out of town. That led to him playing an unwanted role on the worst day of my life.

As in, Mike learned that my dad had died before I did. In that innocent time, I had flown to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding without a cell phone (because 1999). My mom called my desk line and then Mike, and he left an urgent voicemail to me that I happened to phone in to hear (because 1999). I called Mike, and he suggested that I not get the news of the day from him. “Call your mom,” he said.

Mike’s last role at the Post was a coal-mine canary. He hit the ejection seat a year before me, burned out by too many demands for inconsequential stories and hit with a cruel review that led him to think his odds looked better away from 15th and L.

He had enjoyed some years as a full-time dad, interspersed with writing the occasional book review for the Post. Then he took some classes in Web development (so, unlike me, he could code his way out of a wet paper bag) and picked up work that way.

I knew he had split up with his wife, and I knew he was looking for work after a contract had run out. But I had no idea that Mike saw himself in such a bleak place that he felt compelled to shoot himself. My understanding is that he didn’t leave a note, so I may never know what led my friend to ensure that he would never again hug the daughter he loved.

Not for the first time, I’m left with a Springsteen lyric: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world “

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Bill Walsh would have made this post better

The English language is in rougher shape and the world looks a little meaner and shallower today, because we lost Bill Walsh yesterday. The longtime Washington Post copy editor died of complications of cancer at only 55, which is way too goddamn early.

I got the news on the bus from Dulles to Metro late in the afternoon, and it reduced me to a sobbing lump, slumped against the window. I’d known this news might come since Bill’s Facebook post last summer announcing the news (in which he joked about a possible upside by commenting, “I’ll never be a doddering old man!”). But I didn’t think it would hurt that bad to learn that my friend and former colleague was gone.

Bill was literally a gentleman and a scholar. He wrote with zest and clarity–see, for instance, this 2015 story explaining why the Post would switch from “mike” to mic” and allow the singular “their.” He was unflappable in the newsroom even as buyout after buyout inflated his workload. And Bill influenced my own writing: I don’t use an exclamation point with “Yahoo” or write non-abbreviation corporate or brand names in all caps, because he called those out as tricks to steal a reader’s attention.

Bill was also a cyclist, a gourmet, a photographer and a gambler. He loved tennis and travel. He and his wife Jacqueline Dupree (if you’ve ever looked for details about buildings and food near Nationals Park, you’ve probably been enlightened by her neighborhood-news site JDLand.com) were my favorite Post couple. It is vile of cancer to deprive us and her of Bill’s company.

I can’t close this without saying two other things.

One is about the murderer in this case. Cancer took my friend Anthony’s dad, robbed  journalism of Steve Wildstrom and Steve Buttry, damn near killed my friend Kate’s husband Brad, and menaced my neighbors David and Christine’s son Jason (how do you tell a four-year-old to kick cancer’s ass?) before the doctors at Inova Fairfax beat it into complete remission. There is no disease I hate more than cancer. Fuck cancer.

The other is the last e-mail I got from Bill, which was also the first message I’d received from him in months. He asked if I’d learned of any systematic glitchiness in the Galaxy S7 Edge. A week later, I sent a perfunctory, tech-focused response while at Mobile World Congress when I should have taken another minute to taunt him over my access to delicious ham sandwiches or add some other personal note to convey this idea: “I’m thinking of you, friend.” The next time somebody you care about writes for the first time in a while, please don’t make my mistake.

I miss skiing

This has been an oddball winter in Washington, on account of the nearly complete absence of snow. But it has been too typical in another respect: Once again, I’m doing a horrible job of propping up the skiing industry.

View looking uphill from Ski Liberty's chairliftBack in the pre-parenthood era, I had the opposite problem. Between day trips to the handful of places sufficiently nearby (one of D.C.’s less-obvious virtues is having the closest hill, Ski Liberty, less than an hour and a half away), long weekends in West Virginia and at least one trip a year to Colorado, Utah or some other faraway place with Real Mountains, I was spending serious money. Even without having to rent equipment.

Having a baby put a stop to most of that. Instead of expecting to rack up 10 ski days a year, I was lucky to get in one or two–and none out of town.

In prior winters, I could at least count on the occasional blizzard giving me a chance to cross-country ski around the neighborhood. This year? Forget it.

Meanwhile, my ability to give myself an occasional day off to make that drive to one of the local hills has atrophied. It turns out that while freelancing from one’s home does let you dodge your responsibilities long enough to stage an efficient Costco run on a weekday morning, blowing off work for an entire day is no easier than in any other full-time job.

So it’s now been almost two years since my boots, skis and poles got any use. And it’s been almost a year since I last grabbed the cross-country skis for a tour of the neighborhood.

This is lame, and I’m not happy about it–especially not after reading this fine overview of nearby skiing options from my fellow Nats fan/victim William Yurasko. But as I type this, it’s 50 degrees outside with a high of 63 forecast tomorrow, and besides we already have a bunch of things on our schedule. Maybe next weekend?

2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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Seeing my country upended from afar, trying to process it at home

Being on the other side of the Atlantic for a presidential election so I could attend and speak at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon seemed like a swell idea. With my absentee ballot long ago cast, at best I could sing the Star-Spangled Banner with other Americans in some bar as Hillary Clinton claimed an early victory over Donald Trump (though if you’ve heard me sing, you might struggle to find the upside of that scenario); worst case, I could tweet “appreciate the congrats” sometime Wednesday.

us-passport-on-lisbon-streetThat didn’t work out. Reality punched me in the gut at 8 a.m. local time Wednesday, when I opened my laptop after four hours of nightmare-grade sleep and saw the Washington Post’s “Trump Triumphs” headline above a map of red and blue states I struggled to recognize.

Before the first talk Wednesday morning, organizer Paddy Cosgrave asked those of us in the audience to introduce ourselves to strangers nearby and say where we’d come from. On another day, I might have said “I’m from the U.S., peace be with you,” as if I were in church, but I had to go with “I’m from the United States, so I’m having a really shitty morning.” The Europeans near me could only offer versions of “I’m sorry,” as if my country had suffered a death in the family.

That day did not get much less bleak for all the people I knew in our globalist-elite bubble. In retrospect, I could have picked a better day to moderate three different panels.

“President Donald Trump” might have been a harmless comedy line in my childhood. Trump seemed a good guy when he put his own cash into an overdue renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, but that sort of public-spiritedness became increasingly scarce in the decades since. And now Trump is set to become the nation’s CEO after a campaign marked by an embrace of fear, a flight from facts and a refusal of basic transparency. Humor has fled the situation.

On one level, this is like 2004, when American voters picked the wrong guy, and we paid a steep price. But George W. Bush looks like a seasoned statesman compared to Trump. And 12 years ago, we didn’t have a deluge of data points suggesting the Dems had the GOP on the run.

Seeing that running an effective campaign organization when the other side shows little sign of having any doesn’t matter, that a candidate can speak more and worse falsehoods than the other without consequence, that getting caught on tape joking about sexual assault need not hold a guy back, and that so many state poll numbers mean nothing (although Clinton’s popular-vote victory looks to be not far from nationwide polling data)… it’s taken a hammer to my belief in a rational universe. And it forces me to wonder what stories about voters’ concerns I should have read but did not.

I can’t ignore the media’s role in wasting our mental bandwidth with horse-race coverage and breathless and context-starved “reporting” about Hillary Clinton’s unwise but not illegal use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. I myself contributed two posts to that genre, one in March of 2015 and another in July; I wrote far more about tech-policy issues in this campaign, but I suspect those other posts drew far less attention.

faded-american-flag-close-upI would now like to think that Trump will grow in office and that he’ll quietly dump the worst of his campaign promises. I certainly wouldn’t mind him delivering on his plans to renew America’s crumbling infrastructure, the subject that led off his gracious victory speech. (The United flight attendant I chatted with during my flight home Friday was also upset about the election, but we agreed that a building binge that replaced the C/D concourse at Dulles would get our support.) I will allow for the possibility of pleasant surprises.

But I’m also 45, and I’ve seen too many elected officials disappoint me to expect that this one’s conduct in office will depart radically from his behavior as candidate. Why do we put up with two years of a presidential campaign if not to take the measure of the people in it?

In the meantime, we have the additional problem that the worst among Trump’s fans now feel more entitled to vomit their bigotry on people who don’t look or sound like me. Not having an ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or primary language on the enemies lists of “white nationalists” does not make me feel any less offended by the hatreds those cretins preach, or the president-elect’s silence about them.

What am I going to do? Work. The chance to call out abuse of power and control-freakery gets me up in the morning. If Trump’s administration puts forth policies that fall into those categories, you’ll read about them from me. If Democrats endorse them or respond with their own tech-policy control-freakery, the same applies. And if President Trump proposes laws or regulations that thwart abuse of power by the government or corporations, I won’t turn them down.

One aspect of my coverage that may very well change: I somehow doubt I’ll get invited to many White House celebrations of science and technology. Trump spent little time during the campaign talking about science and in some cases, like climate change, outright denied it. Also, this post and most of my political tweets this year may leave me in poor standing with his press people. So be it.

 

August lawns are the worst

April is when moderate temperatures and regular rain conspire to make me dare to dream of a perfected lawn. And then every August, weeks of inadequate rain and blast-furnace heat leave that dream withered.

August lawnIt doesn’t even bug me much that most of the yard has turned a shade of greenish-brown. That should come back to life by late September, and in the meantime my lawn looks no worse than most of the rest on the block.

(The neighbors who had sprinkler systems installed, something we are too cheap to do, live farther down the street or around the corner.)

But I could do without seeing cracks spread across large expanses of the yard. Since these signs of drought happen in the same place, they represent my annual reminder that I didn’t do enough to cultivate a thicker lawn when I had the chance in the fall or spring.

The “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the street appears even worse, with more than half of it overrun by weeds anxious to demonstrate why yard grass should be selected out by this climate. (At least the heat and dryness seem to have taken some of the fight out of the Tree of Hell seedlings that invade the front lawn every July.) I should dig out the entirety of that strip and either re-seed it from scratch or put in some abuse-tolerant ground cover.

But as I type this, the thermometer on the front porch is showing about 94 degrees, and I just can’t be bothered. It’s August. All of this can wait.

 

 

 

A hell of a way to follow up on America’s birthday

On Monday, the United States of America celebrated its 240th birthday. Things have gone pretty much downhill for us since.

American flag over Mississippi RiverTuesday, police officers in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling outside a convenience store as bystanders Abdullah Muflahi and Arthur Reed recorded it on video.

On Wednesday, St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in the car also occupied by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and his four-year-old daughter. Reynolds live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live.

I knew I couldn’t unsee those videos but watched them anyway. They can’t tell the whole story, but they all looked way too much like extrajudicial executions of fellow Americans who happened to be of African descent. I have grown to accept that African-Americans have sound reasons to be nervous about getting stopped by police, even as I have never worried about anything more than getting points on my car insurance.

That’s unsettling. So is the thought that the excessive use of force by a minority of police officers vastly predates the existence of technology to publicize it, the efforts of news organizations like the Washington Post to track it, and the rise of protests by people trying to make a point that shouldn’t be that debatable: Black lives matter.

Thursday night, another person decided the answer was to take an AR-15 rifle to the scene of a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas and murder as many cops as possible. This African-American–I refuse to use his name–killed officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa and injured seven others along with two civilians before the Dallas Police Department sent in a robot with a bomb (welcome to the future?) to kill him.

How could we as a country top the killings of two people almost live on camera? That was how.

None of those stories represent the nation I want to live in. Cops keep us safe–I sleep well knowing I’m not even a mile from Arlington’s police headquarters–but the rule of law is a good idea for them too. Don’t like how they do their jobs? Vote, every damn time, for leaders who will change that. Picking up a rock, a knife or a gun against people who volunteered to protect us makes you an enemy of civilization.

At least this rotten week brought two other things that do embody the United States I know. One was the sight of our daughter happily playing with day-camp classmates whose complexions cover most of the colors on the American quilt. The other came Friday, when the fifth anniversary of the final space shuttle launch reminded me that, as Anil Dash wrote, “We can do amazing things! I know because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Yes, we still can.