Checking Out Is Hard To Do

Warning: This post is not for sissies.

In two months I will turn 81. Despite a few health issues here and there (Does anyone recall my “Too Long Covid” or my “BVS” blogs?), I am in good health for someone my age. My “new” knee is bothering me a bit, but I still get in my 15-20 miles of urban walks every week, albeit at a lot slower pace than they were ten years ago, and I am facing no death sentences that I know of. I have already outlived my life expectancy by several years and counting. Embry is in better shape than I am, and our children, their spouses, and grandchildren are doing fine. As the saying goes, I have been blessed.

 But like practically everyone in their 80s, I have lost my parents. I also have lost good friends, and a younger brother, and I know people who are struggling with very serious health issues. Many of our friends in the apartment house where we now live are widows.  We octogenarians are aware we are mortal. I confess I now read more obituaries than I used to and make a mental note of the age of people when they died. There are a whole bunch of 80 something-year-olds in the obituaries/death notices every day.

So, two questions face us old folks. The first is how we get the most out of the limited time we have left on this wonderful but fragile planet. I will save that for a later post (“Squeezing the Last Drops Out of the Lemon.”) The second is what the checking out process is going to look like for us. This post is about the second question.

I recall my first “death awareness” experience. In 1966 Embry and I were attending a weekend retreat at Wake Forest Seminary in North Carolina. I was a student at Union Seminary in New York City, and we were preparing for a summer-long experience  working in the Civil Rights Movement in southwest Georgia. The conference was conducted by a “radical” Christian organization called the Ecumenical Institute, which described its mission as using the principles of Marxism–and particularly those of Mao Tsung–to convert the entire world to Christianity. Bizarre to say the least, but there Embry and I were, along with a dozen or so apprehensive Union Seminary students, preparing to go to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. There were probably over 100 others from other seminaries all over the country attending, who I presumed were preparing for similar adventures. I supposed the idea of sending us to this conference was to harden us up.

One of the exercises of the conference was to put groups of 25 or 30 people together in a room, lock the door, and forbid them to leave until they had answered “profound religious questions.” The event I attended happened around seven in the morning before anyone had had any breakfast. The subject of my first (and only) closed-door, locked session was death. (Embry was assigned to another room with another subject.) A thin guy in his 30s—”the Inquisitor” — with a crew cut and wearing a gray suit and thin tie, walked around the room and would stop behind someone arbitrarily, jerk the cowering person out of a chair and ask a profound question dealing with death—the person’s own death. The method worked. Some people broke down in tears, trying unsuccessfully to say something profound and avoid humiliation. Others were scolded by the Inquisitor for remaining silent. Everyone there was a seminary student someplace, so there were occasional praises of Jesus, and asking forgiveness to avoid going to hell, but most people just wept, begged for mercy, or kept their mouths shut.

I was terrified. I had no idea what I would say. I was something of a skeptic even during my seminary days (or perhaps because of them); but more important, I was an Episcopalian. Episcopalians do not do or say such things. Ever.

I noticed that he seemed to be picking on every third person. As he got nearer to me as the moaning and weeping continued, I did the arithmetic and figured out that within a minute or two I was in line to be jerked up out of my seat. I could feel my heart pounding. I glanced at the door. I could bolt, but the door was supposed to be locked. Besides I would look like a fool and a wimp.

I looked up and there he was standing over me and frowning with an evil look in his eye. I clinched my fists and held my breath as his hands headed toward my shoulders. But instead of landing on my shoulders, they landed on the guy sitting next to me. The Inquisitor screamed in his ear, “What do you want on your tombstone? What do you want on your tombstone? Tell me now. Now!”

The poor guy, who was about my age, turned his head to the Inquisitor and with a smirk replied in a calm voice but in a stage whisper loud enough for everyone to hear, “You want to know what I want on my tombstone? You want to know that? This is what I want on my tombstone: ‘Bury me upside down so you can kiss my ass, you sonofabitch!’’”

The room exploded with laughter. Everyone got up and headed to the door, which it turned out was not locked afterall, and that was pretty much it for the conference.

“What do I want on my tombstone?” Gosh, I still can’t answer that question, and besides I plan to be cremated anyway.

But the question that I—and I suspect many others my age—do ask is whether I will have to suffer and for how long, and what will my checking out process be like. The experience of the million or so Americans who died from covid, most alone, has meant that almost all these people died without their families or loved ones present. How terrible was this? Nobody would want this! Will this continue as covid persists? Please, no. Not that for me!

And what about people who spend months and even years in nursing homes and who suffer from dementia? This week I visited several such facilities in trying to find a spot for a dear relative. Please, no. Not that for me. Anything but that!

Or people who suffer great pain? Hospice has made a huge difference here, and modern drugs can ease the suffering, but still….

Yet the checking out process is not our call—at least not our call most of the time. California and Oregon and a handful of other states (including the District of Columbia) have what I call “death with dignity” laws—not “physician-assisted suicide”! — but the criteria for using these laws is pretty strict as indeed it should be. For one thing you have to be of sound mind and have a life-threatening disease. However, that leaves out dementia patients and those with severe mental illness and profound depression. These are often the ones who suffer the most.

Several decades ago we had a college student staying with us who had summer jobs working part time in the National Zoo and part time in a neighborhood nursing home. She told us no one would allow an animal in the zoo to suffer the way we allow people to suffer in nursing homes. When I took our aging cat to the vet a couple of years ago, the vet’s comments were very clear: please, please, do not let your cat suffer needlessly. I felt like responding, “You mean, the way we let human beings do?”

There is no easy answer to the death and dying question. To ease the pain and suffering by broadening death with dignity regulations could help but also they could be abused. But there has to be a better way. I do not know what the answer is though certainly hospice has made a huge contribution in easing the checking out process for many. Death is as much a part of the human condition as birth. One could argue that without a beginning and an end life itself would have no meaning.

A number of years ago, Embry’s aunt, who was one day short of her 99th birthday, and had been a widow for decades (married to a Methodist minister and professor of religion), laid out the ground rules for her children regarding her own checking out process. She had been nearly blind for several years, recently diagnosed with a particularly painful type of cancer and was very sharp mentally. She had been living for many years in the independent living section of a very good retirement community in the Bay Area. Following her explicit instructions, all three of her children and their spouses gathered around her bed. She was by no means a serious drinker but had instructed someone to make a pitcher of martinis and to sing a robust version of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes,” make appropriate toasts, and hold hands as she consumed what appeared to be a peanut butter cracker. Smiling, she dozed off to sleep and never woke up.

Does the checking out process get any better than this?












What If? How Our Lives and Our World Might Have Been So Different

Embry and are watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Holocaust and the United States. If you think the problems we face are tough now, they were even more foreboding in the 1930s and 40s. The series is deeply disturbing as you would expect and raises a lot of questions about “man’s inhumanity to man.” You wonder what might have happened had the U.S. not joined the fight against Hitler when we did. Would Germany and the Axis powers have won? What would have happened if Germany (or Japan) had developed the atom bomb (and used it) before we did?

There are so many “what ifs” in life, which I have observed on many occasions is often a matter of inches. An inch here and an inch there, and everything is turned upside down. It is not too much to say that if we had waited much longer to join the fray, we in the U.S. could be speaking German today. We tend to look at historical “facts” as a given and predetermined. What if The South had won the Civil War, which would have led to a separate, apartheid country much like South Africa before Nelson Mandela. What if the Civil Rights Movement had not happened? Jim Crow could still be the “law” of the South.

Which brings us to the times we are in today. What if the mRNA vaccine had not been developed just in the nick of time? What would the covid deaths have been? Would anyone want to leave their house? What about all the other medical breakthroughs and advancements? I for one would be a dead duck. I had a fairly severe case of polio in 1952 resulting in a curved spine that looked like the lettering “C.” Without a new operation at the time (1954) called a “spinal fusion,” I would not have lasted past my teenage years. If my polio had occurred five years earlier, I probably would not have made it. And what about the improvements in hearing aides, without which when my hearing disability began in the late 1990s, I would hardly have  been able to function? Or knee replacements without which I would hardly be able to walk? I suspect many of us have had health scares or challenges and have gotten through them because of great strides in health care and medical technology. A hundred years ago the outcome would have been very different.

And what about the technology we use that now we take for granted. The list is long—television, computers, the internet, jet planes, cell phones—what if they had never been invented? Can you imagine what life would be like without these things?

And what about politics? What if Trump actually had received more electoral votes than Biden in 2020? What if the January 6 Insurrection had succeeded? What if Ukraine had not put up a fight and the West had not supported their resistance, and Putin had been able to claim victory for Russia, his first step in restoring the Russian Empire?

Of course, we will never know the answer to the what ifs that never happened. This is the stuff for novels and short stories. Nor do we know the answer to the what ifs of the future.

What if Trump wins in 2024? Or if the next president is one of his wannabees like DeSantis, Cruz, or Hawley? Or if the militias try to take over the government? What if we drift away from a democracy to a strongman state?

What if Ukraine falls? What if China becomes greater adversary?  What if it attacks Taiwan? What if climate change initiatives are stifled? What if the Greenland ice cap melts? What if covid continues to rage and morphs into a more lethal virus? What if nuclear weapons are actually used (again)? All are possibilities.

What we do know is that we humans—especially we humans of good will– have a big role to play in the outcome. Without heroes and ordinary people in the past who led us away from the Dark Side and ills of slavery, racism, anti Semitism, human suffering, and despair, and who stood up against totalitarianism and bad actors, the outcome would have been different. We humans have been saddled with the responsibility of making a difference. If we are to survive as a livable planet for humans, people of good will who want to do the right thing can’t sit on our hands or give up. The stakes have never been higher.



The Desperate Search For Affordable Housing

Over the past ten years, Embry and I have been active in supporting three Afghan families who have moved to the U.S. In supporting two of the families, we have been part of a larger group consisting of three Episcopal Churches in the area, one of which, All Souls, is where we are members. In each of the initiatives, given my background in affordable housing, I have been the volunteer who has been responsible for locating and securing housing for the refugees. The current family, whom I will call the Zacari family, consists of two youngish, 30-something parents and three children, ages seven, four, and just over one. They spent months in refugee camps in Pakistan, Qatar, and Fort Dix before finally arriving in the Washington area just over a year ago. The husband with considerable effort was able to get a job making $16/hour at a local hospital as a security guard.

An income of $16/hour translates to an annual income of around $32,500. Starting a year ago, I spent several days investigating options in and around Arlington VA, where they preferred to live, and the least expensive three-bedroom unit that I could find rented for close to $2,200/month. The least expensive two-bedroom for around $2,000. The apartment we ended up with was in an older, five-story building with few amenities, in a close-in neighborhood, adjacent to a small park, good public transportation and was in a good school district and an area where many supportive social services were available for the family. The apartment was not perfect—mice and roaches are a problem—but adequate and in a great location.

The Zacari family started off with a three-bedroom unit but downsized to a two-bedroom in order to be near the ground floor. What if the support from the three churches was not available? How does a family afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment for $2,000 plus utilities, when this would require them to spend about 75% of their income for housing? Well, they don’t. Most landlords have a policy of requiring a family’s income to be three times the rent, which in their case would amount to having an income of at least $72,500. But wait, you ask, an income of $16/hour is the income of a whole lot of workers, especially in the services sector. How on earth do they get by? Where do they live? Is there any question about why there is an affordable housing crisis in the greater Washington area and across the nation?

In the case of the Zacari family the three churches had raised almost $50,000 and had committed to paying the rent for at least a year and supporting the family in other ways like buying them a car. But after a year the church money is diminishing, and we can see a time in the next several months when the money will run out. What will happen then? My job as the volunteer in charge of housing, is to figure that out. The original idea, of course, was to provide the support to them to get them started, and then within a year–or so the thinking was– they would be able to afford housing on their own. Wishful thinking.

In the early part of my search for housing, I was able to discover a housing grant program that was somewhat unique to Arlington and offered a pathway for housing affordability for the Zacari family. As some may know the main federal affordable housing assistance today is the “Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program,” administered by local housing authorities, whereby eligible families (incomes below 50% of the area median income) pay 30% of their income for rent and utilities, and the feds pay the difference between that and the contract rent of the unit provided that it does not exceed local market rents. While the program is not perfect, it works pretty well. The only problem is that there is only enough funding to help about a quarter of the families who are eligible, and the waiting lists tend to be very long. This is the case in Arlington. There are also older buildings which provide project-based, “deep subsidy,“ Section 8 assistance to eligible families and seniors, and this was the program which allowed me to get my start in the production of affordable housing. This program, however, had a short-lived life due to the high costs involved—from 1974-1984– and long wait lists are usually associated with these properties. Though few new public housing properties have been built since the mid 1970s, public housing still remains an option though units tend to be in poor condition and in less desirable neighborhoods. Because the wait list for public housing was so long in DC, several years ago the DC Public Housing Authority stopped taking new applicants. The other affordable housing program that provides new units at discounted rates is called the “Low Income Housing Tax Credit program,” which for the last few decades has produced over 100,000 new units a year nation-wide. The big difference is that instead of providing “deep subsidies” like the Section 8 program, it skews rents at income levels to make them affordable by households at 30-60% of area median incomes. The wait lists for these properties are also long. In my initial search for the Zacari family I did not try to rent a unit for them in one of those affordable housing properties since the family had  no place to live when they arrived and were desperate.

This is why I was intrigued by the Arlington County program. It was a local lookalike of the Housing Choice Voucher program except that the initiative required the applicant to have a 40-hour week job paying no less  than the minimum wage. If there were two or more adults, all working-age adults would be required to have full time jobs with the exception of families with small children. In other words, it was a Housing Choice Voucher program for working families. Neat idea, I thought. Arlington has long prided itself as a bastion of progressive thought and action. Good for them! It would be the perfect solution for the Zacari family. The grantor would consider the income of the family and obligate the county to pay the difference between what the landlord required as income (3 times rent or over $72,000/year) and their annual income of about $32,000. In their case it would amount to a subsidy of around $1,000/month. Hurrah! Problem solved.

Except that it wasn’t.

Several months ago, I filled out the application on behalf of the Zacari family and submitted it to Arlington County. In a few weeks the person responsible for processing the application emailed me that the lease had to be in the name of the family, not All Souls Episcopal Church. I immediately contacted the management company of their apartment house. They said they could not change the lease now—which would violate their rental procedures and put at risk their financing– but they would sign a letter saying that once the grant came through, then and only then, would they transfer the lease from the church to the Zarcari family.

 No problem. Sounded reasonable enough to me. The signed letter went to the county, and I prided myself at solving another housing problem.

Then this week the word came back from the county that processing would cease until the name of the applicant was on the lease. No exceptions. Nonnegotiable. I went back to the management company whose response was, “You must be kidding. You expect any landlord to execute a lease with a family whose income is less than half of the underwriting threshold? Surely you jest!”

“But the housing grant…”

“There is no guarantee that they will get the housing grant!”

Back to the county. I called the rep and asked how they expected any tenant to have an executed lease that no landlord would accept in the first place. How could they expect a family making less than $3,000/month to pay over $2,000/month in rent? And if they can’t get the grant, the family will end up on the street, homeless.

She said something to the effect of “their problem, not ours, and do not bother us again until you have a signed lease with the applicant’s name on it. We have to prove that they are not able to afford the rent where they are living before we can make the grant.”

To which I responded, “Catch 22.”

She hung up.

And people wonder why government is often seen as the villain rather than the savior.

However, I have not given up on this challenge and have a few weapons left in my arsenal. Stay tuned for the next episode.

But the question remains: How do hard working people in full time jobs, paying $16/hour (or less or more or in that range) find decent, affordable housing? Where do they live? How do they survive?

Is there anything wrong with this picture?







The Last Hurrah: Cruising the BVIs for the Last Time. Part Two

In the fall of 1995, I got a call from a good friend, Dan Look, who was an avid and experienced sailor and a person I had met and collaborated with in my consulting work in retirement housing. He said he was planning a week-long cruise in the British Virgin Islands and was looking for an experienced first mate. I immediately accepted. Neither of us had sailed in the BVIs before, and it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time. Dan ended up chartering a 50-foot sailboat with eight of his other friends on board, all men, most in our 40s or early 50s and working in the retirement housing field or members of Dan’s rowing club in Atlanta. Including Dan and me, the total aboard numbered 10. I still can’t believe how we got that many people on board or remember where everyone slept (some were in hammocks), but the experience was a blast. It was the first of 11 Dan Look Cruises, one occurring each year except for 1997 and 1998, not petering out until 2008. The second year we added a boat, which I skippered, and then another the following year, and each year expanded the cruising fleet until  one year we had six boats and a total of 25 men cruising. I was on every cruise and often was assigned to be on my boat were two or three of Dan’s friends whom I had never met. One year it was the first time on a sailboat  for all three men on my boat, and every year on my boat there was at least one person with very limited experience. I loved introducing them to the magic of sailing. There was not a person on these cruises that I did not like, and some became long term friends.

We had informal races from anchorage to anchorage, plenty of time ashore and for snorkeling , and meals at great restaurants overlooking anchorages. On the first day of every cruise Dan would hand out  customized golf shirts he had ordered for everyone with a special logo and the date of the cruise. I still have many of them.

The highlight of these cruises for me was the evening meal. Every afternoon after a day of sailing and sometimes informal racing, everyone would pile into dinghies and head to Dan’s boat where he would be preparing a feast. Dan had his own company which provided dietary services to retirement communities, loved to cook, and was an extraordinary chef, often assisted on board by others in the food service business. For several years he was assisted by a guy who owned a chain of high-end steak houses in Atlanta. I was the self-appointed bar tender and prepared huge pitchers of pain killers for the thirsty sailors and came to be known by many as simply “Dr. Pain Killer.” It is hard to conceive how 20 or more men could fit on a 50-foot yacht for pain killers and a gourmet feast. Every inch below and above deck was occupied, and there was always lots of laughter, storytelling, bragging, and joke telling. These Dan Look Cruises will always be etched in my mind as one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences of my life.

For some reason after about 10 years, enthusiasm started to wane, and 2008 marked the end of the  cruises. By that time, however, I was hooked and became a boat owner of my own BVI Sunsail yacht, which I named “Second Wind” (a sale/lease back deal, which allowed me three weeks a year of “free sailing” at any of their 90 locations around the world). Second Wind was a 39-foot sloop, perfect for a crew of four or five, and enabled me to continue cruising in the Caribbean, usually twice a year, once in the fall with Embry and one or two other couples, and once in the early spring with three or four of my close friends, many from high school, college or graduate school days. After five years when the sale/leaseback deal was over, because I was unable to sell the boat down there, I had it moved to the Chesapeake where Embry and I enjoyed cruising and (for me) racing for another eight or nine years before selling Second Wind in 2021, marking the end of my official sailing career.

Why was it so important for me to have one final BVI cruise with my family? Over the years the experience had become for me almost spiritual. Often, I would arrive with a bad cold or respiratory virus and in days would be cured. I have put in my will that I want a third of my ashes tossed into the Caribbean Sea in the BVIs. The main reason for a Last Hurrah Cruise was to share this experience with my family (children and spouses had been done there with us before) and especially with my grandchildren.

Many consider the BVIs to be the finest sailing waters in the world. The place is magic, with its reliable trade winds from the Northeast and East, usually around 12-18 knots, perfect speeds for exciting but not scary sailing. The BVI Islands, all but one volcanic, are close together and accessible, the waters deep blue, light green, and crystal clear, with coral reefs and excellent snorkeling. The towering mountains and hills are gorgeous as are the white, sandy beaches.   And the entire country is set up to accommodate sailors. Moorings are available at most anchorages, where you will also find small stores selling water, beer, ice, tee shirts, memorabilia, and items you might run out of. You will also find one or two local restaurants at all the major anchorages and at many of the smaller ones. The locals are friendly, and you do not have to worry about being robbed or harassed. If you are chartering and have a mechanical or sailing problem, help from the charter company can usually reach you in under an hour. In a word, it is a sailor’s paradise.

This is what I wanted my grandchildren to see and experience, and this is why two years ago I planned the Last Hurrah Cruise for the entire Howell clan. And now it was finally happening!

And here we were—at last! —in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. We passed through the tiny customs house in less than five minutes, ordered a cab, and in five minutes were at the marina in Spanish Town, the only other real “town” (population around 2,000) in the BVIs (population around 27,000) besides Road Town (population around 9,000). Within minutes we were reunited with the rest of our crew, Andrew’s and Jessica’s families, who had managed to sail the boat (“Odin II”) upwind in strong winds, rain, and squalls and dock her in the often-crowded Spanish Town marina. I was very impressed but not surprised. Afterall, Andrew and I had sailed up to New England and back in the early 90s, and Jessica had done a lot of small boat sailing.

We admired the large sloop, climbed on (with some help for me), and donned the sailing hats they had brought along, one labeled “Captain,” another “First Mate” and the others “Crew.” Embry had brought along 10 tie-died, multicolored tee shirts, and the “Howell crew” also had brought 10 “Last Hurrah” tee shirts which had been made for the earlier 2021 cruise that never happened. Embry also during the entire ordeal of getting to the BVIs  had been carrying in a separate plastic case a small, plastic Christmas tree fully, if not tastefully, decorated. The tree immediately found its dominate place in the cockpit and  remained a steadfast, silent member of the crew until we arrived back at the base when Embry gave it away to one of the workers, who seemed thrilled to receive it.

The five days that we spent cruising with the family were all that I had hoped for and more. It was indeed the cruise of a lifetime, a true “Last Hurrah.” The squalls of the first day on the second day were replaced by clear skies and “Christmas Winds,” which typically arrive around this time of year and are the strongest winds of year at speeds in the range of 15-25 knots instead of 12-18 knots. However, our 51-foot sloop with a double-reefed main could handle the higher winds easily. When we departed Spanish Town around two and headed north, upwind to the famous Virgin Gorda Sound, I took the helm and was astonished that crew assignments were in place. Our two grandsons—Jasper and Parker—were trained and ready, hoisting and lowering the main, trimming the sheets, reefing the main, tasks they performed with expertise, enthusiasm, and vigor. Maximum boat speed for our boat is about 10 knots, and with the Christmas Winds, the boat reached nine knots at times and on the longer beam reaches averaged around eight knots. Very impressive for any cruising sailboat!

Our two granddaughters—Jo and Sadie– also performed their assigned duty of keeping the cockpit sparkling clean, a job they performed cheerfully and gracefully. Our son, Andrew, helped out on the helm as did his son, Parker, who has had two sailing camp experiences and whom I had appointed Second Mate because of his experience. Peter, Jessica’s husband, was the official navigator and got us where we wanted to go and kept us from running aground. Embry, Karen, Andrew’s wife, and  our daughter, Jessica, quietly kept the boat in good order, and took the lead (with some help from their husbands) in being sure the entire crew was hydrated with a variety of beverages and well fed.

Perhaps more important than what happened is what did not happen. No one fussed or complained. No one got seasick. No one got covid. No one was injured. And—at least from my observations—everyone had a great time. We were all captured by the charm of the BVIs.

The cruise began with spending one full day and two evenings in Virgin Gorda Sound, considered by many as one of the most beautiful natural anchorages in the world. We then sailed about 20 miles on a beam reach in 20-25 knot winds to Annagada, the only atoll among the dozen or so volcanic, larger islands and the most remote of all the islands. We spent two evenings there and one full day relaxing on the pristine, white beach on Loblolly Bay. Then we sailed about 30 miles on a broad reach in the same fresh winds to Little Harbor on Jost van Dyke where we moored for the evening, and the last day  sailed upwind about 20 miles in more gentle winds back to Tortola and the Sunsail base via Pelican Island in the Sir Francis Drake Channel where we went snorkeling at the famous “Indians” coral reef. At every anchorage both the kayak and the paddle board got good use. We ate out only once, at the restaurant on Saba Rock in  Virgin Gorda Sound, where the food was excellent.

It had been almost eight years since I had been down to the BVIs. Since I had Second Wind moved from there to the Chesapeake in 2014, we had not chartered. A lot had happened during that time, however, since the islands were hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, a Category 5 Hurricane with wind speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. The islands were devasted and have still not completely recovered though if you had never been there before you probably would not notice. The world-renowned resort on Virgin Gorda, the Bitter End, was rebuilt as only a shadow of its former self. The hotel cottages are gone and all that remains is a small restaurant. The famous Foxxy’s is back, however, and business overall is now reported to be good.

The biggest difference to me is how catamarans have replaced mono hulls, a sad development in my view. I am not a fan of those hulky, bulky crafts, which now account for about 90 percent of the charter fleet boats. It was the opposite when Second Wind was in the charter fleet. I was also surprised how few boats were sailing in what is usually the busiest week of the year. Early in the week moorings were around a third occupied when in almost every other cruise I had been on, if you arrived after four at an anchorage, you would be hard pressed to find an open mooring. I attribute this mainly to the flight cancellations.

There was one incident, however. The last day when we were in Little Harbor on Jost van Dyke the motor would not start. The battery that started the motor was completely dead. It is not possible to get into or out of a crowded anchorage without a motor. A heavy, 51-foot sailboat is not able to maneuver in small spaces without power. Not having a working motor is a big deal. We immediately called the Sunsail base, but were not able to get any definitive diagnosis or plan of action other than the Sunsail employee would try to find a mechanic. While Andrew and Peter were on the phone with Sunsail, two British young men, brothers, who were tanned and athletic, motored up in their dinghy and asked if we were leaving so that they could take over our mooring after we departed. Jessica said we were trying to leave, but the motor would not start. They asked if they could hop on and take a look, which they did, examined the battery that started the motor concluding that it was improperly wired to the generator. They replaced the starter battery with an auxiliary battery, and wired it properly to the generator. It started up immediately. The whole effort took less than a half hour. It turned out that the older brother’s job was a marine mechanic. Now how lucky was that? Embry’s guardian angel was on duty again. I recalled again the adage “that a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

If there was a weak link in the crew aboard Odin II, it was me, the 80-year old captain, who needed help getting on and off the boat and into a dinghy. Old knees. Old age. When I originally set the date for the rescheduled Last Hurrah Cruise two years ago, I was well aware that my ability to do what I used to be able to do was fading. This is the way it is with us homo sapiens, as it is with all living creatures. I knew the time was getting closer when it would be beyond my capacity to do a week of cruising in the BVIs. Well, after two aborted efforts, I made it to 2023, stumbling across the finish line, as they say. And what a cruise it was and what a joy to be able to share my love of sailing with my four grandchildren and to watch them have such a great time. It does not get much better than this; and for this experience, for Embry, and for Andrew and Karen and for Jessica and Peter and for Jasper, Jo, Sadie, and Parker, I am profoundly grateful. This was for me a true “Last Hurrah Cruise,” one that I will cherish as long as I live. Of the hundreds of cruises that Embry and I have made, literally all over the planet, because of the fabulous Howell/Ellis crew of 2022, this ranks right up there at the top.  Thank you!









The Last Hurrah: Cruising the BVIs for the Last Time

Part One: Getting There

For those who know me, I suspect that most know that for most of my adult life I have been an avid sailor. Embry and I have owned five sailboats starting in 1974 with a beat up, 16-foot racing boat that sank in the Potomac River on the Fourth of July that year with Embry, me, and our friend, Naomi, aboard. In the fall of 2021, we sold our last boat, a 39-foot cruising sailboat, “Second Wind.” We have enjoyed racing (I more than Embry) and cruising—mainly in the Chesapeake—and have chartered sailboats in the British Virgin Islands many times and in other faraway waters like the Bahamas, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the San Juan Islands, and Tahiti. I estimate that I have raced in over 600 races starting in the early 70s, and Embry and I have cruised on the Chesapeake, anchoring in over 80 different places. It has been, as they say, a great run.

Two years ago, when it was becoming evident that as I approached 80, I did not have a lot of sailing days left, I decided it would be a great idea to charter a boat for a week of sailing in my favorite cruising grounds, the British Virgin Islands. I billed this as our “Last Hurrah” cruise with both of our children, their spouses, and our four grandchildren, ages 11-15 at the time. When we booked the cruise in the summer of 2020 for Christmas week, we had no idea that the hideous covid virus would still be with us but forged ahead anyway. Sure enough, days before our scheduled departure, our son-in-law, Peter, came down with a bad covid case, which he then passed on to others in his family. We cancelled, dodged that bullet, and immediately rescheduled for the next year. However, in 2021 covid was still a grave concern. We cancelled again. I was distraught. Embry encouraged me to try one more time, which I did for Christmas week 2022, our third and final try. By this time, I had already celebrated my eightieth birthday, and our grandchildren were all teenagers. A fourth try was not in the cards.

You can imagine my excitement as the Christmas holidays got closer. I was feverishly checking on all the arrangements—taxis to pick us up at the airport on Beef Island in the BVIs and take us to the marina in Road Town, a food, beverages, and supplies order for 10 hungry sailors for eight days, and a kayak and a paddle board for exploring anchorages and to facilitate on shore adventures. Our son, Andrew, and his wife, Karen, would be flying from Newark with their two children, Sadie (14) and Parker(13), and our daughter, Jessica, and her husband, Peter, would be driving down from their home in Maine to New Jersey with their two children, Jasper(17), and Jo(15), and then flying with the Andrew’s family to San Juan followed by a connecting short flight to the BVIs. Our flight was from Dulles arriving in San Juan about the same time where we also had reservations on a connecting puddle jumper. We would take a taxi together, board the boat around five and go out for a celebratory dinner at the Sunsail base restaurant. We would get everything put away the next morning on the 51-foot sloop I had reserved and would set sail around lunch time for a fabulous week of family camaraderie, fresh breezes, sunny skies, and drop-dead natural beauty. I had done this trip well over a dozen times without a hitch. I could not believe that finally, finally this was going to happen.

We were set to depart from Dulles Airport at nine in the morning on Christmas Eve, which would put us in the BVIs around five in the afternoon on a short connecting flight from San Juan. Two days before Christmas all the news was about the huge snowstorm with record low temperatures pounding the Midwest and headed toward the East. Then came the news about thousands of flight cancellations, which I did not pay much attention to because the storm was going to miss us, and I surmised that our United flight was a kind of daily shuttle between San Juan and Washington. That is why I was stunned to see the “flight cancelled” warning pop up on the screen when we were getting our boarding passes. What? This had to be a mistake! Yes, the vast departure lobby was in a state of chaos, but surely these unfortunate fliers were headed north or west, not to the south. This could not be accurate. Seeing my distress, an attendant appeared, assured me that it actually was accurate and whisked us along with several dozen other distressed passengers to the United international desk where we were the fifth or sixth in a line that was growing by the minute. I felt my heart sink. Embry, always the stalwart, cheerfully assured me that we could get down there on another flight, and we had a 3-hour layover in San Juan, plenty of time to make the connecting flight to the BVIs.

The next hour we spent talking with the agent, a somewhat rattled woman with a strong foreign accent, who I assumed would rebook us on another flight. Every option she checked was either full or cancelled. She checked United flights to Puerto Rico from Denver, Chicago, and Houston. She looked at flights on other airlines—American, Delta and others. Nothing. She then said that the best that we could hope for was a late flight on the 28th allowing us to get to the BVIs on the 29th. Following my vigorous protests, she said something to the effect of “Mr. Howell, what is it that you do not understand about the fact that there is no way you can get to the BVIs until later in the week?” She then cancelled the reservations—including the return flights—and asked us to leave so she could help others, apologizing for the “inconvenience.”

We were doomed. The Last Hurrah would not happen. I retreated to a chair, sat down, and glumly called Andrew with the bad news. Embry suddenly disappeared.

Andrew reported that their flight was on schedule to take off soon and that he would look for other options for us. Both Andrew and Jessica had some sailing experience, and I thought probably could handle the cruise without Embry and me, but it could be a bit of a challenge and surely would not be the same.

And where was Embry during this dark night of the soul? She suddenly reappeared announcing that she had just booked a United flight to Boston, leaving in about 45 minutes, and the next morning a Jet Blue flight to San Juan and a new connecting flight to the BVIs, getting us there at six in the evening. She had also booked a room at the Logan Airport Hilton. No worries. We would only be a day late.

Eureka! The Last Hurrah was on again. Except we only had 45 minutes to get to the United flight to Boston. We raced to the security area and charged to the gate barely making it before the doors closed. Embry then mentioned that we got the two remaining seats on the plane and also the last two seats on the Jet Blue flight the next day and on the connecting flight to the BVIs.

Good heavens!

It was a long trudge to the Hilton, but it turned out to be a pleasant evening. Except for distressed passengers the place was like a tomb, but there were plenty of distressed passengers waiting in line to get into the bar/restaurant. Most seemed to be trying to make the best of their ruined holiday. We opted to forget the restaurant and go straight to the bar where we could also order food, which turned out to be surprisingly good. That evening I was finally able to feel relaxed and optimistic about our prospects.

The next morning we boarded the Jet Blue flight, which was on time and would get us to San Juan with two hours to spare for making the connecting flight. I breathed a sigh of relief.

 At last, I was certain we would make it. I had a window seat right behind the wing and noticed a large stack of luggage sitting at the base of the machine that loads the bags into the plane. When the plane did not move from the gate after 15 or 20 minutes, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced that we would take off shortly once all the bags were loaded and wished everyone a happy holiday. I suddenly remembered it was Christmas Day.

I then glanced out the window to observe that the bags had not moved, and no human was to be seen. Oh well, I thought, nothing to worry about. We have two hours to make the connecting flight, plenty of time. Fifteen minutes later I glanced out the window again. No progress. I then began the exercise of looking out the window every five minutes or so. Some guy showed up, lit a cigarette and then left. I looked at my watch. An hour had passed. Still time to make the connection, but now I was starting to get nervous and could feel anxiety coming on. It was not until almost two hours had passed that the bags got loaded and the plane took off. Doomed again! Embry was sitting near the front of the plane and I near the back, so we could not confer.

When we landed and I finally stumbled out of the plane into the boarding area, Embry was not there. I figured she would show up eventually and sat down in a state of despair. In about twenty minutes, my cell phone rang. It was Embry, who reported that she was at the gate of the connecting flight demanding that they hold the flight for us, but they refused and had just closed the doors. Good for her, I thought, the lady never gives up, but what to do next?

What we did next was go to a hotel near the airport for the night and try to figure this out. Except for no sheets on the bed, the room was not so bad. When Embry complained to the lady at the front desk, she gave us another room, which was so much smaller and less desirable that Embry took the sheets off the beds in that room, and we put them on our beds.

The challenge now was how to get to the airport serving Tortola, the largest and most populated island in the BVIs and where the charter fleets were all located. Embry was at it again trying to book a connecting flight, only to find that all connecting flights for the rest of the week were full. I was ready to call it quits. Good idea, nice try, but getting to the BVIs was just not in the cards. No Last Hurrah for us.

I called Andrew to give him the bad news. The Howell family crew had landed on time, boarded the charter boat, and was heading out for dinner. He said not to give up and that he would figure something out. Fat chance, I thought.

Then my cellphone rang again. Andrew confirmed that there was no way for us to get to Tortola this week, but there was a way to get to the BVIs. We could fly to the airport on Virgin Gorda, the other large island, about 10 miles from the marina. They could sail and meet us there. Two remaining seats were available on a connecting flight leaving around eleven in the morning, which would get us there around noon, about the time that they should arrive. I told him to book it. He called back to report he had succeeded. Last Hurrah on again!

Then I thought, Virgin Gorda has an airport?

We boarded the small plane on time the next day, along with the pilot and six other passengers. We were all asked about our weight and seated so that the weight would be evenly distributed. Embry and I were seated on the front row, right behind the pilot, a late 40-something  guy, who seemed to be all business. The flight would take about 45 minutes. Off we went. At last, this cruise of a lifetime would happen after all.

On the way over, clouds began to gather and showers were evident though showers in the BVIs are always short-lived, and you almost always can see blue sky. I could not help wondering how you could build an airport on a volcanic island where there were few flat spots. As we got closer the clouds thickened and the plane began to jump around. At points the visibility approached zero. I scanned the instruments on the panel and could not see anything resembling a GPS or radar. The pilot would be flying blind if the clouds continued. As we got closer, an opening in the clouds briefly appeared, and I looked down to see what I presumed was the runway—a narrow dirt road of maybe 200 yards situated between the ocean and a steep mountain. There were no shoulders and no room for error. Only a single, one-story structure was adjacent to the runway, and it did not look anything like a control tower. The pilot had to nail the landing, or it would be curtains. I was wondering how much experience this guy had as he looked left and then right trying to figure out where the airport was.

Then suddenly the clouds parted. The pilot spotted the airport, turned the plane and headed down. He had to clear one large hill, then swoop down, steady the plane and land. Two or three yards off center would mean crashing into a mountain or ending up in the Caribbean Sea. I held my breath and crossed my fingers.

The plane steadied and hit the runway perfectly. I let out my breath and was ready to clap when he gunned the motor and took off again. Good heavens, I thought, what is going on?

He turned to me and said, “Airport closed.”

This was the point I considered changing the name of the cruise from “Last Hurrah” to “Last Gasp.” 

What? How can you close an airport when there really is no airport? Who said the airport was closed anyway? Just then a big gust hit, and visibility was zero again.

He turned his head toward the passengers and said he had about 45 minutes to land before running out of fuel and that he would keep trying until that became an issue. In all he made five more efforts to land the plane, taking at least a half hour and getting dangerously close to the fuel desperation point. Three of those were abandoned early in the descent due to cloud cover. On one approach, the clouds parted, and he cleared the hill and touched down perfectly as he had done the first time, then screamed “Oh my God, shit!” powered up and took off again. After we were clear of everything, he turned to me and said, “Three dogs on the runway, I will call and see if somebody can run them off.”

 I had noticed that a large truck with “Emergency Rescue” painted on the side was at the end of the runway with staff waiting.

Nail biting time.

But he did land the plane on the final try. Everyone on the plane applauded, and I patted him on the back. Had we not been able to land, I am not sure what he would have done, probably try to land at the big airport serving Tortola.

We had finally arrived in the BVIs, three days late, emotional wrecks, exhausted, and ready for the Last Hurrah to begin.










Russia’s Atrocities in Ukraine: What Does This Tell Us About Human Nature?

This week Embry and I watched the PBS Frontline program on war crimes committed by Russia against the Ukrainian people. The show focused on actions committed around Kyiv in the spring of this year. The documentary uncovered almost 1,000 war crimes against unarmed civilians, which it pointed out were only a small portion of the more than 20,000 war crimes alleged by Ukrainian authorities at the time– and that was over six months ago! The number of war crimes now is closer to 40,000 according to Ukraine. No action has of yet been taken by the United Nations or the International Criminal Court.

The PBS documentary showed evidence of targeted bombing of schools, hospitals, kindergartens, and countless apartment houses. Entire residential neighborhoods have been totally destroyed. Surveillance cameras picked up images of civilians being lined up, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs and then shot in the head. Dead bodies were scattered in streets or thrown into pits. Ukrainian survivors interviewed talked about their young children being killed, women being raped, and horrors almost beyond belief. The program showed soldiers receiving medals, pinned on their uniforms by commanding officers who praised them for “killing Nazis.”

In the last several months the situation has worsened as Russia has targeted the infrastructure across the country leaving huge numbers of Ukrainian civilians without electricity or heat. No end to this madness is in sight.

Why is this happening? What is it about our human nature that permits this to go on? This time the villain is Putin. The same sort of senseless killing happened under Stalin. It happened in China under Mao, in Germany under Hitler, in Japan during World War II and by American soldiers in Vietnam (My Lai) and Iraq (Abu Ghraib), albeit on a smaller scale, and in Syria and Yemen. The list is very long. It happened in the South during the period of Jim Crow with mobs of white people cheering as a black body hung from a tree.

I cannot help asking why. The people doing the killing captured on the surveillance cameras appeared to be mainly young soldiers, many of whom had probably been drafted and did not want to be in Ukraine in the first place. Back in Russia they were not murderers or criminally insane. Most were probably just ordinary people, following orders, very afraid, and doing “what they had to do.” Our son, Andrew, spent almost six years in Russia during the Gorbachev years helping privatize the economy, and loved the Russian people. We have visited Russia twice for several weeks each visit and were welcomed by Andrew’s friends and others with opened arms. There is nothing wrong with the Russian people. The same could be said about the German people, who following World War II, are living in one of the more progressive countries in Europe and have tried to own up to their horrific war crimes. In 1962—only 14 years after World War II– I spent a summer working in Japan with Japanese and other American college students on an “experimental” dairy farm in the mountains and at the end of the summer spent a week at my Japanese best friend’s family’s apartment in Tokyo. His father had been a general in the Japanese Army. They could not have been nicer people. Yet the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Manchuria and other places were horrendous.

You get the picture: All is fair in love and war.

But what does this tell us about human nature? What is wrong with us homo sapiens? Why do these horrific actions happen?

If I were able to consult with my imaginary, wise guru who used to live in the apartment house Embry and I live in, I think he would say something like this:

Joe, what you have got to understand is that there is capacity for both good and evil in all of us. Every human being, no exceptions. Now I know that you will argue that this does not apply to Jesus who you Christians believe was God incarnate. And while I am not a Christian myself, I will grant you that there is something profound about this. What stands out to me is the essence of Jesus being about love and a profound spirituality that goes beyond human understanding and provides a pathway for us humans to try to keep our dark side at bay. A clue as it were as to how to become our better selves.

But the fact is we humans are not God. We are capable of doing very bad things, and the atrocities in Ukraine are just the most recent exhibit. There will be more.

I have thought about this a good bit. We humans are basically herd animals. I have concluded that this characteristic  is built into our survival instincts and has to do first and foremost with how we evolved as a species and moved up the food chain from being a delicious lunch for some wild beast to our roasting that animal over the coals. Our place in the evolutionary chain was not secured until we learned how to make weapons and, even more important, came together as clans and a little later as tribes. By definition, clans and tribes need a leader. No tribe can exist without one. A country is really nothing more than a very large tribe (of course, also consisting of smaller tribes), but the leader makes an enormous difference in what we humans do and how we behave. A leader that has gone to the dark side and allowed the evil part of his nature to dominate is a very serious threat to others who by instinct follow that person. Not everyone, of course, but enough that serious damage can be done. This explains why some of those young Russian soldiers who shot unarmed civilians in the head–and did not even want to be fighting in this hideous war–did what they did.

So blame Putin. He is the quintessential war criminal, as was Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, and many other terrible leaders who have encouraged horrific acts. This is where the flawed human nature part comes in. The cause of failure is our tendency to follow the leader regardless how bad that leader is. Of course, at the same time you have got to admire Zelensky and the courage of the Ukrainian  Army and the Ukraine people. They have stood up to Evil, fought back with vengeance and taken the fight to Putin. They are paying a huge price for this and in my book are heroes, but who knows when or how this will all end? It is all very sad.

I would thank the guru for his wise insight and admit that I continue to remain perplexed that we humans are the way we are. I would tell him that if we can’t as a species learn to do better in keeping our darker selves at bay—and stand up against the evil leaders as the Ukrainians are doing– that it is only a matter of time that our flawed nature will catch up with us. I would remind the guru that we humans are continuing to destroy our fragile environment at an alarming rate and that a lot of countries now have enough nuclear weapons to ruin your day and transform the Planet Earth to our idea of what hell must look like.

I would also say to the guru that there is hope. For Christians, Christmas is a time  to give thanks for a guiding light that for over two millennia has provided hope and a pathway for calming the evil spirits within us and connecting us to a mystery beyond our limited ability to fully understand or explain. But as to the specifics of how Putin’s war on Ukraine ultimately ends, I have to admit am just as lost for an answer as he is and just as sad.






Hard Work

Last week Embry and I volunteered to work at the Capital Area Food Bank, along with several other volunteers from our neighborhood church. We had no idea as to what we were getting ourselves into but showed up on time at the designated spot—a huge warehouse in Northeast DC in a remote, small industrial park, next to a railroad track. A couple of dozen others, mainly younger people (30-somethings), were there as well to help on our three-hour afternoon shift.

Our job was to join an assembly line of about 30 people standing around a conveyor belt, which carried empty boxes at a fairly fast clip, into which you dropped  nonperishable food items. When a box came to me, my job was to carefully place a carton of almond milk in the box, which by the time it got to me was about a third full. Embry had the identical task; and when a box had completed the entire loop, probably taking less than 10 minutes, the box was filled and ready to be sealed  with enough items to feed a single person (all seniors) for a week. (Larger boxes were available for families.) A spokesperson for the Food Bank said that the current population receiving food from the Food Bank in the District and three surrounding counties numbered more than a half million people.

I had never worked in a factory before or on an assembly line. But let me tell you: This was hard work! We did have a short break in the middle of the shift but were standing for almost three hours trying not to miss a box coming by on the conveyor belt that I swear was moving faster and faster as the afternoon passed. Several times when a box passed by me before I could place my container of almond milk in the box, I had to throw the container at the box before it reached the next worker. It was a near miracle that I got them all in. Others had similar experiences. Talk about stress: If you failed, the belt kept moving. If my throw had not made it into the box that went past me, some poor, old person would be missing a container of almond milk.

I wondered for a moment, could I have done this sort of thing for my entire life, day in and day out?

My first takeaway was how many people living in one of the most affluent metro areas in the nation cannot afford to purchase food. Another indictment of our wealthy but unequal nation. And the food was all in cans, containers, and boxes, nothing fresh, and nothing especially appealing to someone like me, who prepares “Blue Apron” three days a week. The second was just how hard the work is on an assembly line. There is no time for a break until the whistle blows and no room for mistakes. After a while, once you get the hang of it, I can see how it could become boring. Imagine standing up for eight hours a day doing the same small task (but an important task and no room for mistakes) over and over and over again. How could anyone stand this? Yet this is what goes on in factories.

This experience caused to me to think about what we call “blue collar” work in general. This is the work that is essential for human settlements to survive and flourish. Somebody has to grow and harvest food, and somebody has to transport it to stores, where someone will bag your groceries and charge your credit card. Somebody has to build the streets, roads, highways and rail lines that will allow this to happen, and the cars, trucks and trains that will transport it, and the buildings where people live and where people work. Somebody has to take care of sick people and old people. Somebody has to make things that we humans want and need to survive and to enjoy life. Somebody has to fix things that break. Somebody has to enforce the law, put out fires, collect the garbage and protect the country. These jobs are very important. Without them no country could  function. These blue collar jobs are what keep our country going. Without them we would be doomed.

So, the question is this: If these blue collar jobs are so important, how come they pay so little?  It seems that we pay the most to the people who if their job disappeared, no one would know the difference. I am Exhibit A, a former consultant. When I sold my company in 1998, did the seniors housing industry notice? Hardly. And what about lawyers? Good heavens, especially the Washington lawyer/lobbyist! Sure, these professional and white collar workers do have impact and are important. But essential? Doubtful in most cases. And the heavy lifting is done by people who do the work that no one else wants to do because it is too hard and often does not  pay enough to keep body and soul together—yet it is the sine qua non, without which we could not survive. Unions have helped in the past and seem to be trying to come back, but still, the challenge for equity in the work place is staggering.

No wonder there is unrest among the white working class. Why they see Trump as their leader and savior, however, remains a mystery.

“What is wrong with this picture?” of course, is not a question unique to the U.S. It is true in every country. It is the human condition on the planet Earth. Communism was supposed to be the alternative but turned out to be much worse than the capitalism we struggle with today.

My   experience of doing “factory work” a few weeks ago, however, gave me pause to reflect upon how hard this kind of work is and how easy so many of us professionals have had it, making a whole lot more money than we would  if we were doing the hard, essential work.

Life is not fair. It never has been.


Blogger’s footnote: While I never had the opportunity to work in a job that required a lot more energy than typing on a keyboard hooked up to a computer, as part of a research project, Embry and I had the experience of living in a blue collar neighborhood in 1970-1971 when I “hung out” with blue collar workers for a year. We both joined a bowling league, and I joined a fishing club. We spent hours every day on front porches, living rooms, and back yards talking with neighbors. Through this experience we gained great respect for people struggling to get by in a tough and unforgiving world. Some readers may have read “Hard Living on Clay Street,” a book I wrote, published by Doubleday in 1973, which is still in print, and in 2023 will mark its 50th anniversary.






Caste and Class in an Iconic Washington Apartment Building

Embry and I moved into an apartment house just over seven years ago. We love the place. It is only a block from where we lived for over 40 years; and when it was constructed during the 1930s, it instantly became one of DC’s finest buildings. It still is. There is a wide range of unit sizes and rent levels, and the building has large units, many with balconies, fireplaces, and fabulous views of  Rock Creek Park and Connecticut Ave. It also has all the amenities you would expect plus great service, an elegant  main entry  and terrific fitness center. It is a large building for DC—around 450 units—and while it has a good mix of ages, including a few young families, there are a lot of people our age, which makes it a NORC (“naturally occurring retirement community”). We could not ask for anything better.

So, what is the problem?

The “problem” is that the residents are almost all white people, financially secure, if not outright rich, and the staff are almost all people of color. We call them by their first names. They all call us Mister or Ms.

Well, you might say, what is wrong that? Isn’t that pretty much the way it is everywhere?

Exactly. That is the problem.

Having spent most of my adult life as a bleeding heart, progressive, with a consulting career involved in trying to help clients build affordable and seniors housing, I now find myself enjoying “the good life” in a segregated environment that when you get down to it is not all that different from the Jim Crow era I grew up in in an elite neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. Ok, I confess that I exaggerate. Our country is different in many ways from what it was when I was growing up, and we have made progress. We have had an African American president. People of color now run major corporations, go to elite colleges and universities, work for prestigious law firms, and have good jobs. So, sure, as a nation we are more diverse and more accepting of diversity than we used to be– but still not nearly enough. The income and wealth gap between the races doggedly continues.

But my question is why is this apartment house still a mostly segregated building and the surrounding neighborhoods still mostly white. Embry and I moved from North Carolina to DC in 1972 and have lived in the same neighborhood for over 50 years. That is a long time—almost two generations—plenty of time for changes to have happened. Yet in terms of racial diversity in our neighborhood, not much has changed. Most of our friends are white; and were it not for the various nonprofit housing boards I serve on and our neighborhood church, I doubt that I would have strong friendships with any people of color.

One argument regarding the reason for this defacto racial segregation has been that people of color can’t afford to live in these “desirable neighborhoods” or in  pricey apartments. That may have been true 50 years ago, but now there are lots of black and brown people that have management positions in private companies, have high level government jobs, work in professions like law and medicine, and have high incomes. Where are they living? Why aren’t they living here?

The invisible barrier of caste persists. Why is it so hard to overcome?

What makes this especially poignant is that most of my friends living here and in the surrounding neighborhood are, like me, bleeding heart liberals. We believe in racial integration. We believe that Black Lives Matter. We believe the United States can and should be a kinder and gentler nation. We are progressive Democrats, who have championed progressive causes most of our adult lives. Some of us were involved in our younger days in the civil rights movement. Yet here we are in a defacto segregated building as we edge toward the finish line, living in this comfortable environment of mainly white professionals. I can’t avoid wondering if we are not part of the problem. Are we the hypocrites that the Trump supporters say we are?

Sadly, the caste system is alive and well in Washington’s most desirable neighborhoods and apartment buildings, and I am part of it.

And  the class system is also alive and well. If there are working class, white people working here, I have not seen them. And certainly, none live here. The main barrier, of course, is financial. They can’t afford the rents. But even if they could, I suspect lifestyle and values would be a barrier to overcome. There may be Trump supporters in this building or in the greater neighborhood, but I have not met one.

We liberals in DC are labeled by many working class, white people as “coastal elites” — snotty, privileged, spoiled brats, who think we are successful because we are better than others when the truth is we had the luck of the draw to be born into families that could afford to send us to  private schools and summer camp. Of course, there are many exceptions of people who have pulled themselves out of the working class by their own bootstraps, but a lot more that have not been so fortunate. Many have been dealt tough hands, born into unstable families struggling to get by. They understand the  deck is stacked against them. The playing field is not level. And when they see us “elites” champion the cause of the minority population at the expense of themselves, who still struggle to get by, no wonder they are angry. They have benefitted from the caste system by having people to look down on. Now that this is changing, they are mad. If I were in their shoes, I suppose I would be too. That is why so many have flocked to Trump, who is a symptom, not the champion of the Great Discontent of the white working class.

I turned 80 this year and will not see the day when at a resident’s event, I will witness a room full of people of all shades of color or when the caste system will be a thing of the past.  My hope is that someday this will happen, that the invisible walls of caste and class will diminish. I am hopeful that at some point the vast gap between the privileged and the underprivileged will narrow to only a small opening. I doubt that this will happen in my children’s lifetime or even my grandchildren’s, but the fate of our country and our world will depend on it.







A Thanksgiving Week To Remember

The week of Thanksgiving 2022 did not get off to a terrific start. I woke up at 5:15 A.M. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to arrive in Gaithersburg by 7:00 A.M. Plenty of time for a 45-minute drive to the outer suburbs. I had an appointment for a MRI procedure at Kaiser Permanente, my health care provider. The reason I got up so early was that it had taken almost two months to get this procedure scheduled, which was critical because I had an appointment next week with the doctor, who needed the results. I recalled talking to someone at Kaiser a while back who told me that if you are late to a procedure with a long wait list, you will have to reschedule, no exceptions. Apparently they now had a new, get-tough policy on flakes who never get anywhere on time, which, by the way, is not ME. I was determined not to be late.

I took the elevator to the basement garage where our car was parked and hit the start button. Nothing. Tried again several times. Still no luck. What to do?  Hey, no problem, I told myself. Just a dead battery, and I will get a jump start later. I will call Uber. That is what Uber is for, right? So, I rushed upstairs to the main lobby where I feverishly tapped in my cellphone all the information for an Uber ride and was relieved that a driver was not far away; but instead of seeing “approval” pop up on the screen, Uber denied payment. (My card had been stolen and I remembered that I had failed to provide the information on the  new  one.). By this time, I was starting to become a tad worried. I typed in another credit card.  Denied. Then two more. Both denied. Now my hands were starting to shake. I concluded I must  be blacklisted from ever using Uber.

Just then –around 6:15 AM– a resident of the apartment house where Embry and I live—and a good friend from our neighborhood Episcopal Church–was walking out of the lobby headed for work. He noticed I was in distress and immediately offered to help. Now how lucky was that?

“No problem,” he said, “I’ll just call a cab,” which he did on his mobile phone. Still plenty of time, he assured me. Then his smile faded into a frown.

“Yellow cab said they could send a cab,” he said, “but it would be an hour or more before one of their cabs could get here.”  

Plenty of time but not that much time.

My friend assured me everything would be ok and then called an Uber on his mobile phone, which worked: Driver in the area. Problem solved. Except Uber cancelled the 5-minute pickup and changed drivers to an 11-minute pickup time and then back to an 8-minute with yet another driver. At 6:40, finally an Uber driver arrived.  I hopped in the cab, thanked my guardian angel friend, and told the Uber driver to step on it since we only had 20 minutes to make what Map Quest said was usually a 45-minute ride. The driver obliged by going over 80 in light traffic on I-270 and passing two cop cars, as I held my breath. We made good time, but it was still 7:20 when we pulled into the Kaiser driveway.

Doomed, I thought. I would surely be turned away.

But no, after hearing my sad story, the receptionist took pity and put me in the queue. The only glitch was that before the nurse could put me into the MRI torture machine, my blood pressure had to be at a certain level. “Oh, my God!” the RN exclaimed, “I think we should rush you to the ER. I have never seen blood pressure this high.”

When I explained the stress involved in getting to the appointment, she understood and was patient. Twenty minutes later my blood pressure had gone down to the normal range, and in I went into the dreaded MRI tube. And it turned out that the MRI experience was not so bad after all, though it did make a bunch of very weird noises.

After the hour-long procedure in the machine that looks like a prop from  a Star Wars movie, the nurse said it was ok to leave, wished me a happy Thanksgiving, and called a cab for me, which I took to the nearest Metro stop where I took the subway back to my neighborhood—a $15 total charge compared to the $45 it cost for Uber to get out there.

The next challenge was to get the car motor/electrical system fixed. I thought it was a battery issue and just needed a jump start since this issue had happened a couple of times before, although this time all sorts of emergency warnings were flashing on the instrument panel. I even had received an email from Subaru about the warnings. (Somehow Subaru mysteriously monitors real time information about the car over the internet.)

I decided I would deal with that the next day, Wednesday.

We keep our car in a large parking garage under our apartment building. I called the manager of the garage for help. He is very savvy with cars and assured me that there was no car he could not jump start. He opened the hood and hooked up the starter device on the battery. No luck. Then several more times, still no luck. He then hopped in the driver’s seat and tried to see if he could start the car. Nothing worked.

No choice: I would have to get the car towed. But how could a tow truck get into a garage with  low ceilings?

Subaru has an emergency service so that when you get into trouble all you have to do is press a button on the ceiling of the car, and someone comes on the line immediately and offers to assist you. I was very impressed with the help they provided, which resulted in scheduling a tow truck, which arrived on the scene a couple of hours later. The big question was whether the truck could make it into the parking garage. When the Subaru operator first asked me how high the ceiling was, I replied that I didn’t know but thought it was at least 10-12 feet, to which she replied, “Really? Well, that won’t be a problem.”

Then after she had hung up, I got out of the car and realized that by standing on my toes I could almost touch the ceiling. Oops. I immediately called her back and told her the clearance was well under 10 feet. She replied that she had doubts herself about the 10-12 feet and had told the towing company that the truck had to clear eight feet. Any clearance below that was problematical.

I spent the next two hours worrying about how high the ceiling was.

When the driver finally arrived at the front of the building–an affable Latino guy with a beard, broad smile, and strong accent– I hopped in front seat of the tow truck, still wondering how much clearance the truck would need, and guided him down the steep driveway to the garage entrance.

The driver edged the truck cautiously toward the entrance. I held my breath.

The truck made it with about two inches to spare.


But the next challenge was how to get the car on the trailer that the truck was pulling and how to maneuver the two or three sharp turns, pulling a disabled car. I could not see anyway this could be possible and was curious as to how he could pull it off.

But I never got a chance. He immediately hopped in the driver’s seat of the car, hit the start button, and the car started up immediately. I stared at him in disbelief. After a brief pause, we both looked at each other again and burst out laughing. How could this be? I thanked him profusely, gave him a tip with all the cash I had in my pocket (not a lot), and drove the car myself to the dealership where it will remain until repaired.

Would the tow truck driver have been able to get the car out of the garage? I suppose the answer is yes, but for the life of me  I can’t figure out how. Before he left the driver confessed that he was worried about it. In any event, I will never know and I surely hope that I never have the opportunity again to find out.

Guardian angels, miracles, weird happenings—is there an explanation for this? As I think I mentioned in a previous blog post, I read somewhere that a coincidence—and “good luck” and unexplained mysteries– is simply God’s way of remaining anonymous.


Thanksgiving followed the next day in our apartment where we hosted the refugee family from Afghanistan that our church, along with two other Episcopal churches, has been sponsoring for almost a year: A young mother and father and three kids ages seven, four and almost two. They have been in the U.S. almost a year, and the three churches have been providing them financial and social support for over ten months. The father and his brothers worked for their dad whose company was a major contractor to the U.S. military. They got out of the country by the skin of their teeth when the collapse happened, crossing the border into Pakistan in a caravan of several cars when there was no hope for getting on the airlift. Two of the families eventually made it to the U.S. The rest are still in Pakistan.

Our Afghan family is doing remarkably well. The father now has a full time, $16/hour job, the mother is getting much better with her English, and oldest kids are in one of the excellent Arlington schools and are now almost fluent in English. They have a decent apartment in a good neighborhood in Arlington. We have applied for long term housing assistance to help with the rent when the church funding runs out in a few months.

But what a traumatic time they have been through!

This is the third Afghan family we have been involved with. The first two are now homeowners and well established. Both men have well-paying jobs. The family we were most concerned about now lives in Houston where the father, a long haul truck driver, now owns an 18-wheeler and is the owner of his  company, “Shiny Transportation.” I have no doubt that this family will experience the same success as the two others. The courage and resilience of immigrants is extraordinary.

The dinner was a great success—their first Thanksgiving meal in our country. Despite the extreme hardships they have had, they are upbeat, optimistic, and hopeful—and very grateful for the help they have received from the coalition of churches.

Happy ending to a Thanksgiving week I will remember for a long time.














Mystery and Wonder: Where Science and Religion Intersect

Last week I had the privilege of leading a discussion about religion with a men’s group I belong to (about 25 of us, mainly old codgers, smart—eight with PhDs– and interfaith, though for the most part, secular. In fact, toward the end of what was a vibrant discussion, I asked anyone who believed in life after death to raise his hand. There were no takers.) This post is inspired by that discussion dealing with the big questions which we humans try to understand in our feeble effort to make sense out of our experience living on this fragile planet.

How do we humans make sense of our lives and the world around us? Science and religion have been the methods used in the past but often have seemed at odds. I believe we find ourselves now where the approaches may be coming closer together. The common denominators are mystery and wonder.

Here is what we have learned from science: The universe began with the “Big Bang” about 13.8 billion years ago. The planet we live on came into being about 4.5 billion years ago, at tad later than our sun and about the same time as the rest of the planets in our solar system. The first humanlike creatures on our planet appeared about two million years ago. Homo sapiens, our species, only 200,000 years ago. And “modern writing” only about four to five thousand years ago.  And for the “modern era” as we call it, just a few centuries ago. All the stuff we are learning in the first part of the 21st Century amounts to less than a second if human time on this planet is perceived as a 24-hour day. But goodness gracious!  Think about all we are learning in the digital age. Who knows what is store for us next?

For many thousands of years, the human population of the planet Earth remained steady at around 300-400 million. During most of this period, we humans were in the middle of the food chain, an easy meal for large predators. Then someone discovered fire. Somebody else figured out how to make weapons using rocks and how to make spears from trees; and when others discovered the benefits of human families and relatives sticking together as “tribes,” that was the end of the dominance by lions, tigers, and big elephants. We grew and multiplied. This past week the planet’s human population just passed eight billion.

We also have learned from science that Earth is not the only planet and that we are not at the center of the universe. From time immemorial we humans have looked up at the night sky and have been enthralled by the flickering lights we call stars. It was not until Copernicus and Galileo in the 1500s proved that celestial objects—including our sun–did not circle the Earth, but rather it was the other way around.

We now are on the cusp of even more extraordinary discoveries regarding those flickering objects in the night sky. This we do know: The planet Earth is a run-of-the-mill planet (though special for us) that circles an average star in what we call the Milky Way Galaxy. While no one really knows for sure, the consensus among astronomers is that there are at least two billion stars in our galaxy. Many believe there are at least twice as many.

Can you comprehend that? Now that the new telescopes can identify planets circling other stars, estimates are that there are at least 350,000 rocky planets in the Milky Way Galaxy about the same distance as from their star as we are from the sun. We are a tiny, almost invisible grain of sand in a vast desert, a mere drop in a magnificent sea. What is going on out there where trillions of stars and planets make their home? Will we humans ever know?

In 1924 Edwin Hubble, using what was at the time the world’s largest telescope, identified a fuzzy light in the night sky that did not behave like a normal star and was thought to be a cosmic cloud of gas– a “nebula.” With more examination it turned out that this nebula—the Andromeda Nebula–was a vast cluster of stars circling around a dark center and was actually another galaxy!   And how many other galaxies are out there? Well, thanks to the space telescope named after him and now the James Webb telescope, it turns out there are a whole bunch—like two billion. Maybe more. Some astronomers have put the number as high as a trillion. Of course, no one knows. I read somewhere that almost half the astrophysicists involved in space discovery today speculate that our “universe” may actually be only one of perhaps an infinite number of universes that are part of a “multiverse.”

Can anyone get their minds around this? I can’t.

And I would argue that neither can scientists or anyone else living on the planet Earth. We humans may be smart, but we are not that smart. Humans do not have a definitive answer to why the Big Bang happened or why there are trillions of stars and planets out there or why our lives come to an end or if there is life after death. These questions fall into the realm of religion, which from the cave paintings thousands of years ago we know has been part of human experience for a very long time. It seems we are hard wired to seek answers to the big questions involving why.  Religion, of course, involves faith in what we humans believe is real but can’t be proven—the spiritual dimension of human existence. It also embraces the ultimate mystery and wonder of life.

And given what we are learning about the vastness of the universe, I believe science must now surely embrace this awareness of the mystery and the wonder of what it all means. It seems the more we know, the more we realize how much we do not know.

The best part of the discussion in the men’s group was a statement made by my best friend in the group, who is also my partner on weekly walks around the neighborhood. He is a scientist and a retired professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Maryland, an active member in his synagogue, and a cantor on High Holy Days in another. He said this:

“Spirituality involves an awareness and appreciation of our connection to a larger world, to the Divine and all of creation, to all humanity, an awareness of the mystery of life.  It involves letting go, not always trying to be in control of ourselves and the world, being open to unexpected experiences.  It involves being open to being touched and being changed by these experiences, not distancing ourselves from them.  It means responding to the mystery simply and directly.”

I have nothing more to add.