Partners For Life (and Death)

An article appeared this week in the Washington Post covering two large demonstrations last weekend on the Mall. The first was the “March for Life” and the second, which took place the following day, was the anti vaccine march where Robert F Kennedy Jr. referred to the government’s role in promoting vaccines, masks and covid tests as being worse than anything that happened in Nazi Germany. The article also described demonstrators from one demonstration embracing and hugging demonstrators from the other  (all maskless of course). This inspired the Fauxtoon below:

Republicans Respond to Bidens’s Challenge To Say What They Are For

What do you mean, we Republicans are not FOR anything? This is a lie, a damn, bald-faced lie and you know it. WE are the ones that are FOR what the American people want, not you do-nothing Democrat failures.

So you wanna know  what we are for? THIS is what we are for:

We are for getting rid of Covid mask mandates.

We are for getting rid of Covid vaccine mandates. 

We are for gun rights for everyone, anytime, all the time, no exceptions.

We are for making teaching CRT illegal at all schools, colleges, and universities.

We are for making abortion illegal everywhere in the United States.

We are for sending illegal immigrants back to where they came from.

We are for keeping immigrants out of the country.

We are for the oil and gas industries.

We are for stopping the efforts to slow global warming, which is not even happening anyway.

We are for  efforts to stomp out “political correctness” wherever it raises its ugly head.

We are for the brave patriots who tried to rescue our democracy on January 6 by peacefully occupying the Capitol.

We are for keeping the filibuster as long as Republicans are not in the majority in the Senate.

We are for restricting voting in precincts leaning Democratic and where there are a lot of minority voters.

We are for requiring state legislatures in Republican-controlled, battleground states to exercise their Constitutional right to appoint the electors of their choice.

We are for tax cuts for the wealthy.

And Most of all, we are for Donald Trump, our Supreme Leader, who is infallible, and who will lead our country into a new era of Authoritarianism and greatness.

So don’t give me that BS about how we are not FOR anything.




Welcome, Embry Howell Bivigou Pangou!

Against all odds, despite international Covid restrictions, global flight cancellations, and general chaos across the planet, this week a young, Gabonese woman by the name of Embry Howell  Bivigou Pangou arrived in Portland, Maine to live with our daughter and her family and study at the University of Southern Maine. How was this possible? It all comes down to two women named Embry, and, perhaps, nothing short of a miracle.

 If you are wondering how a Gabonese woman could have as a first name “Embry Howell,” it began with the Peace Corps.

Before our son-in-law, Peter Ellis, married our daughter, Jessica, about 20 years ago, he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, a small, West African country and former French colony with a population of fewer than one million people in 2000. Jessica joined him a year later as a Peace Corps stowaway/wannabe.  Jessica’s mother, Embry, a victim of incurable wanderlust, could not resist the temptation to visit them in this remote village, with mud-brick huts with tin or thatched roofs, dirt floors, and a day’s hike through the rain forest to the nearest village. Peter was an agricultural specialist. At least that was his title. Climbing palm trees to assist in the production of palm wine also seemed to be a major activity. Jessica found volunteer work helping with grant writing for a local community organization

When Embry arrived for a three-week visit toward the end of their Peace Corps stay, this community welcomed her with open arms. She immediately became “Mama Embry.” The homes of the villagers were near an abandoned, evangelical Christian compound built by Methodist missionaries decades before. The villagers were convinced Mama Embry had been sent to them by God. Embry silently protested, though in retrospect, perhaps they were right. She bonded with them, especially Simon Pangou, who had several children from teenagers to toddlers.  About a year after Peter and Jessica returned home from Gabon, they received word that the next child of the Pangou family was proudly named “Embry Howell Bivigou Pangou,” born approximately nine months after Mama Embry departed. Embry was delighted to have her first namesake; but as the years passed, she did not give it a whole lot of additional thought.

Peter went on to earn a Master’s in Environmental Studies and eventually became a top carbon scientist at the Nature Conservancy. This job took him occasionally to Gabon where he reconnected with the villagers and with the Pangou family. Embry Howell Bivigou Pangou—now referred to by us as “Little Embry” –caught Peter’s attention even as a very young child; and a few years ago, upon returning to the U.S. from Gabon, he announced to his family and to Embry that we had to figure out some way to get her over here. He described her as incredibly smart, with a personality that would win over anyone, and the voice of an angel. She had finished high school in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, where the family had moved so the children would have better educational opportunities. She really wanted to go to college and come to the United States.

It is only a minor exaggeration to say that within minutes Embry was on it. And it was not too long before a plan was in place, though implementing the plan took years.

Step one: Find a good college here in the U.S., where Little Embry could study, preferably with a scholarship. The challenge was that Gabon is French speaking; and though Little Embry’s English was surprisingly good,  Embry feared it was not good enough to pass the tests required to get into a U.S. college. Solution: Try to find a college that specializes in helping foreign students improve their English and their educational shortcomings to a point where they can qualify for college. Embry not only found such a college, The University of Southern Maine, it just happened to be a short bike ride from Peter and Jessica’s house in Portland. We got Little Embry all the application material, which she filled out and sent in along with an upbeat video where she sat in front of a banner that read “The University of Southern Maine” and, beaming, exclaimed in impressive English that the university was the perfect fit for her and she for it. I saw the video and was immediately captivated. To the surprise of no one who knew her, she was accepted.

Step Two: Get her over here. American visas for a Gabonese citizen are very hard to get. You must make a case that you are not leaving for good and will return to the country within a relatively short period. During the Trump years, in many poor countries in Africa, visas were not  available. This was the case in Gabon when Trump closed down the U.S. Embassy. It would take three years before Biden would reopen it and appoint an ambassador, when in 2020, obtaining a visa became possible again. Then in summer of 2020 when it became apparent that Covid was here to stay, everything shut down again, then opened in 2021 briefly during the fall, just before the Omicron variant appeared.

During the long delay, Embry persuaded the University of Southern Maine to keep the acceptance open for her African namesake, and they agreed to do this for what would become three years. As 2021 came to a close, however, they told her that this was the last shot. If Embry Howell Pangou was not able to make the spring 2022 term, the acceptance would be withdrawn.

Full court press time.

In order to get a U.S. visa, you have to answer a lot of questions and have a personal interview with embassy officials. It took several tries for the interview to happen, having mainly to do with getting the application in proper form, computer problems, and having embassy personnel show up. But toward the end of 2021, it looked like everything finally was falling into place. The embassy interview got scheduled, and Embry had the airline connections figured out and how Little Embry could  get a covid vaccine. Interviews at the Embassy finally started up again in early December, and Little Embry had her interview just before Christmas. It went well.

The race was on.

Hearing the report of a successful interview, Embry bought an airline ticket for Little Embry from Gabon to the U.S. with a connecting stop in Togo.  Just before Christmas Little Embry was able to book an appointment to have a J&J vaccine (the only one-shot vaccine available in Gabon that the U.S. will accept and given the short time frame, two shots would have taken to long) two weeks before the flight to the U.S., the minimum time required by U.S. law. She still had to receive the visa, and she had to have a test showing negative Covid results 24 hours before leaving. If either of these actions failed, she would not have made it to the U.S.—at least not in time to keep her place at the University of Southern Maine.

Little Embry also had to get to the airport in plenty of time. (She had never flown before.) She had to clear passport control. The plane had to take off close to on time since she had to make her tight connection with the flight going to Newark at a time when thousands of international flights were being cancelled every day.

Just when it looked like all the obstacles had been overcome, when Little Embry arrived at the airport, the Air Afrique representative told her she was not on the list and could not board the airplane. Fortunately, her mother, Mama Clara, was with her, and, as we were told later by Peter, “You don’t mess with Mama Clara.”  After some arguing, it was clear that there had been a clerical error on the “list” (written in pen on paper), because there was also another Pangou on the airplane. Another close call.

Only one hurdle left—making the connecting flight in Togo.

What were the odds that everything would happen as planned?   Embry was pacing the floor of our apartment, starting two days before Little Embry’s scheduled departure. She was checking email and voicemail messages constantly, breathing a sigh after learning another hurdle had been crossed.   Late at night on the second day of anxiety, a selfie appeared on Embry’s mobile phone showing Little Embry on the airplane to Newark, making a “V” sign with her fingers.

Little Embry had done it!

The flight arrived on time in Newark where our son, Andrew, met her and took her to his home in Maplewood NJ, for an overnight stay and then back to the airport to board a flight to Portland the next day where she was met by Peter.

Little Embry is now happily settled in the guest bedroom in the Ellis home, which will be her home for the next year. Classes start this week.

Was this a miracle?  Well, it is fair to say that none of this would or could have happened without “Mama Embry’s” perseverance. But there were others—Jessica’s husband, Peter, whose idea it was to bring Little Embry to the U.S. and who did a lot to keep the effort alive. Kudos to Andrew and his family, who greeted her at Newark airport, and hosted her in their home. Then there is our daughter, Jessica Ellis, whose home is often a haven for those seeking shelter and solace, along with two cats, five chickens, a Pit Bull, their two teenage children, and a visiting high school student from Mexico. They each played a role in this success. But Little Embry is the true hero of this story. She never lost hope or faith in the power of God to enact miracles.

And it does feel miraculous. So many things could have gone wrong. So many hurdles to jump. Who said we humans aren’t active agents in miracles anyway?

And now Little Embry, known to everyone except us, as just “Embry,” is on U.S. soil, ready to start a new adventure, which will surely change the course of her life. In so many ways, I think this is a typical immigrant story which shows the courage, strength, and determination that is required to overcome enormous obstacles.

So, I say, thanks for miracles. And, finally, I say special thanks for my wife, Embry, who, hangs on like a junkyard dog and does not let up until the job is done—as, I am told by Peter, “just like the Pangous.”

And for Embry Howell  Bivigou Pangou, the real work of establishing a new life in a new country has just begun.


What Would Jesus Do?

It takes about 10 minutes to walk from our apartment on Connecticut Ave past all the neighborhood retail stores near us. This afternoon the wind was howling at 25-30 miles per hour, ushering in a cold front that will bring temperatures down to the teens followed by what is now described as a major snow event on Sunday. The wind chill must have been in the low 30s.

I passed by eight panhandlers, squatting on the sidewalk, spread out among the various stores,—seven men and one woman, all shivering, all African Americans. Hands extended, holding  paper cups, they all looked up at me as I passed by, saying the same thing, “Could you help, got any change? Please, please, mister.”

I passed by every one of them and did not look them in the eye or reach for my wallet. To make matters even worse, I had just stopped by the liquor store and was carrying in a bag a bottle of scotch.

Panhandling is not unusual in Washington. When I used to walk to work downtown, I occasionally would count the number of people I would pass who were begging, which usually was in the double digits, occasionally in the twenties. Passing by and not making eye contact is nothing new for me, but for some reason, this time it got to me. Maybe it was the bitter cold or the fact that on this day there were so many in our neighborhood. Sometimes I have given them money, most of the time I haven’t.

As I passed the last panhandler, I had the image of me standing in front of a bearded Saint Peter at the Pearly Gate, asking me, “Ok, Mr. Howell, what did you do on that windy, cold day in Washington, when you passed eight desperate people pleading for a little change?”

So what are we bleeding hearts supposed to do anyway? How can we pass by a desperate stranger and turn a cold shoulder? But we do. I do it all the time. But to fork out money every time is crazy. That is all I would be doing, giving out money every day. Nobody does that.

“But, Saint Peter, you have got to understand,” I envisioned my reply. “There are so many of these people. Sure, I could afford a dollar here and a dollar there, but it all seems so hopeless. And besides I do all kind of volunteer work in affordable housing and supporting nonprofit organizations that help the poor. Embry and I have given a lot of money to all kinds of charities. I have tried in my own way to support structural change in our society to level the playing field. We are even church goers. Hey, I am a loyal Democrat, does that count? How much more is expected of me?”

“Just do what Jesus would have done,” he replied.

Doomed, I concluded.

Surely, Jesus would have helped every one of these poor people. But, I wondered, what would helping them mean? Just giving a quarter here and a dollar there is certainly not the answer. I could hear myself shouting at the Old Guy, “What is wrong with this world? Why is there so much poverty in a land where there is so much wealth? Why do we humans treat each other so badly? Why is there hate and greed? Why is there racism? Isn’t this the human condition? Isn’t this the world we live in? And whose fault is that? Who created this mess in the first place?”

“Enough from you, Mr. Howell. I told you once and I will say it again: Do what Jesus would have done.”

And so we humans stumble through life doing, in our view, the best we can, realizing that it is not enough, not nearly enough. But that does not mean we should stop trying. And who knows, when the Old Guy at the Pearly Gate looks at the ledger, maybe the pluses will outweigh the minuses, as we have tried feebly to make our way in this glorious but troubled world.




January 6: One Year Later

So how are you taking the anniversary of January 6? Are you comfortable that it is behind us and that we are now moving forward? Are you uneasy that lingering hate and unrest are still around and have not been addressed? Or are you scared out of your mind that January 6, 2021 was merely a warning shot across the bow and that what happens next could be even worse?

In my case, what I fear most are not more violent assaults by outraged mobs or domestic terrorists—though these could happen—but rather a slow eroding of the guardrails that have kept our democracy safe. Those guardrails appear to  be weakening. When over half of the Republicans believe that the election was stolen, when Tump’s support remains solid, when  few Democrat and Republican senators and congressmen are  on speaking terms, and when Trump-appointed judges and justices are capable of throwing monkey wrenches, there is less comfort that the center will hold.   Even more frightening is that Republicans have figured out the weak underbelly of our system, and are on it big time.

Here is how they plan to take back control of the country:

 Biden beat Trump by over seven million votes  in the 2020 election—a trouncing. But if just a few votes in key states had changed Trump’s way, he would have won. It was much closer and much scarier than you might have thought. According to a great op ed piece in the New York Times today (by Jedediah Britton-Purdy, Columbia Law School professor), if just 43,000 votes had switched from Biden to Trump in three critical battleground states, Trump would have had the Electoral College votes he needed to win.

Bullet dodged.

For now.

Republicans have figured this out and have a new strategy–forget the popular vote. Go for the battleground states and change the rules so Republicans will lock in the states that make a difference regardless of what the popular vote is. They are doing this by getting Republican-leaning, battleground states to change state laws which determine how votes are counted, placing the final responsibility for declaring a winner on people who have a dog in the fight. In other words, if these actions are successful in enough battleground states and are allowed to stand, game over. While a Democrat candidate might have more votes, the Republican controlled legislature could do anything it wanted and surely could find enough “election fraud” to declare the Republican candidate the winner over an opponent with more votes.

But this is only part of their strategy. They are also working hard at replacing all the election officials in these states who in 2020 refused to declare the election process illegal or “stolen” and replacing them with hard core, Trump loyalists. And, of course, they are working hard to make the voting process more difficult. Gerrymandering voting districts in many states is continuing. If Republicans are successful in these efforts, which under current law are all legal, the scales will be tilted so much in favor of a Republican presidential candidate, that it would be extremely difficult for any Democrat to win the presidency.

I think of the line from one of T.S. Elliot’s poems. “The world won’t end with a bang but a whimper.”

The Times op ed piece concludes that our current system of electing presidents is fundamentally flawed and needs to be reformed so that the popular vote is what counts, not the way it does now in the Electoral College with an all-or-nothing, win-or-lose vote count on a state-by-state basis. To dump the Electoral College, however, would likely require an amendment to the Constitution, and that is a heavy lift.

So, yes, I am concerned, and you should be too. It appears that the system for governance that has been in place for close to 250 years and has served us well may not be able to get us through the divisiveness that we are experiencing now. The opinion of many experts and historians is that our democracy is facing the biggest crisis since the Civil War. You could argue that such talk may be an exaggeration. After all, we have been through two world wars, the Great Depression, the era of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Revolution. We are a country with much talent, good will, and resiliency. We have been the envy of so many on this planet, some who have risked their lives to get here and become citizens. We are the oldest democracy in the world.

 Yes, we are a great country. But somehow the situation we are in now seems different. We are divided by culture, race, and class as perhaps never before and need to figure out a pathway through this. And there is an authoritarian waiting in the wings, revving up his base, chomping at the bit, believing that his vindication will come. This time he will be playing marbles for keeps.