Road Trip 2021: First Leg—The “Other America”

With covid on the wane and the country starting to get back to normal, Embry determined it was time for a road trip. It sounded like a good idea to me since like everyone else who has been confined to a minimum security prison for the past 15 months, I was desperate to get out of Dodge. I was somewhat surprised, however, at her destination: Columbus, Ohio. Of all the exotic places we could be going, why would anyone choose Columbus?

“Indian mounds,” she replied. There are lots of Indian mounds near Columbus, plus that is where the Haydaries now live.”

The Haydaries are the immigrant family from Afghanistan that our church had adopted a few years ago and who had left the Washington area for greener pastures and cheaper housing. I sort of got that. But Indian mounds? I had seen Indian mounds in Nashville when I was growing up. No big deal, plus if you have seen one mound, you have seen them all. If you want to see what an Indian mound looks like, I suggested  to Embry that she should go to virtually any golf course and check out the berms around the greens.

Well, if you know Embry, you know that when she gets a bee in her bonnet about something, there is no arguing. She had been studying Indian civilizations online and was eager to see the real thing. She told me she had already booked three nights at a luxury B&B and had identified the location of a bunch of Indian mounds. Plus, we could visit old friends living in the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland on the way over and on the way back home. How could I say no?

We spent the first day driving to Cheat Mountain WVA; and after a great visit with our old friends from graduate school days in Chapel Hill, we headed out the next morning to Columbus. For some bizarre reason our GPS took us as close as it could get to a straight line. We traveled a grand total of six miles on interstate highways, drove very little on national or state highways, and most of the time until we reached the Ohio border drove on West Virginia county “highways” and county “roads.” The difference between a West Virginia county highway and a county road is that the former has two lanes and is paved. The latter has one or one-and-a-half lanes and may be paved, gravel or mud.

The estimated time on the GPS for the 200-mile trip was about four hours. With only one short stop we made it in six-and-a-half. At one point along the way on one of the most isolated stretches on a county “road,” in just over an hour of driving mostly on one-lane, partially paved roads, we gained only five minutes toward our destination.

Ironically, this was the part of America we had missed on our 2016 road trip to California and back. The distances were just too far to spend much time meandering through the hinterlands. We saw some of this backwoods country on our Western trip but not as much as we saw on this single day in West Virginia. It was an eye opener. Amidst backdrop of misty, green mountains, gurgling brooks, and meadows covered with yellow and white wildflowers, around most bends in the bumpy road were mobile homes in disrepair and aging houses that looked like a strong windstorm might do them in. Many had several abandoned cars and pickup trucks in the front yard partially covered by weeds.

In the 1960s Michael Harrington wrote a book called The Other America, which described the prevailing poverty in the United States at the time. There was a chapter on Appalachian poverty, which had a great influence on me. The rural, White, poverty he described is probably greater now than it was in the 1960s given the demise of the coal mining industry.

As we bumped along it was not long before we saw our first Trump sign, followed in a mile or two by a house with a confederate flag, then in another mile a “Trump is MY president” flag, then a large flag with an AK 47 on it. These images were repeated the entire two  hours we inched along on these desolate backroads winding through spectacularly beautiful fields and meadows, tall mountains on all sides and through deep woods.

The drive in Ohio was initially on main roads surrounded by vast farms with nice homes, but the next day when we set out to visit the Indian mounds, after a while we began to see more modest homes though not in as dire shape as we saw in West Virginia and with no sign of any Trump signs. That all changed, however, when we got on the Ohio backroads and into the hill country. When I noted to Embry that I was quite impressed that some homes had both “Trump is MY president” signs and Biden signs, suggesting to me the elusive tolerance and dialogue that seems to be so lacking today is actually happening in rural Ohio, she laughed, “Did you read the Biden signs? They all say, “Fuck Biden!”

So what is wrong with this picture? Here you have people without much money or hope for decent work, who would benefit from what Biden is proposing—increasing the minimum wage, free community college, free preschool, affordable childcare, stronger labor unions, more jobs for people without college educations, affordable housing and more affordable healthcare. Yet the people who would benefit the most from Biden’s legislative agenda see Democrats and Biden as the enemy. The person that they love, admire and will follow to the ends of the Earth was born with a silver spoon in his foul mouth with  a billionaire for a father, who while he was president championed one of the biggest tax cuts for billionaires in the nation’s history. He did nothing for them, nothing.

What is going on?

What came to mind immediately was that we live in a bubble. I know I do. Embry and I have traveled all over the planet, visiting some 75 countries, and yet we found ourselves on these two days driving through the backwoods and farm lands of West Virginia and Ohio in a strange land that could have been in another country or perhaps on another planet. We “Coastal Elites,” as we are sometimes called, do not understand why we are hated by people whom we have not tried to harm and whom in principle we would like to help. Yet they are also people we do not understand. There is  a culture war going on in our country, and it is far from over. Surely there are many factors—race, immigration, perceived downward mobility, perhaps jealousy. Many have suggested it has to do with lack of respect, “feeling dissed by elite snobs who look down their noses on those less fortunate.” Who knows? But surely, what I do know is that while many of us with advanced degrees, good professional jobs and financial security don’t get it, there is something going on here that is important, and we have got to figure it out and do something about it. The future of our country depends on it.

I think back on the experience Embry and I had living on Clay Street in 1970 and the book, Hard Living on Clay Street, that came out of it. We were so fortunate to get to know these people, who became our friends. They were strong, proud people but fighting lots of demons and dealt a hand of cards  that did not provide a whole lot of options. I know that feeling dissed was a factor for many we knew on Clay Street then as it is now for a whole lot of people in the White working class. The main difference is that with Donald Trump, they have a “leader,” who provides a voice for their frustration, anger, and pain, even though in my view  he is a fraud and con artist. I do not think there any easy answers for healing social class divisions in our country and realize that in some ways they are as insidious as racial prejudice. That does not mean we should turn our backs on it and give up. We must do better.

 

Next Installment: Leg two—the Indian mounds, the luxury B&B and the Haydaries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyday Stories: What’s It’s Like To Go Deaf

Thanks to hearing aids, I am able to get by. I have had a fairly serious hearing problem since the mid 1990s and got my first set of hearing aids in 1997 at age 55. My father had similar issues, so I suppose it could be genetic. Over the past several months my hearing had gotten worse and then a few weeks ago much worse.  For most of covid-time, my healthcare provider was taking only emergency cases, and the audiology department was shut down. When a  few weeks ago things began to open up as more people got vaccinated, I called for an appointment, only to learn that due to the covid backlog it would be three weeks before I could get the wax cleaned out of my ears by an ENT doctor, another two weeks before I could see an audiologist for a hearing test, and only then could I  schedule yet a third appointment to get the hearing aids adjusted. That all totaled up to about six weeks.

Well, ok, I thought, my hearing is pretty bad, but I guess I can manage for a little longer with my failing hearing aids, so I booked the first two appointments.

Then my hearing aids went out completely.

Panic!

The next day I attended a noon memorial service for a dear friend followed by a reception. I sort of got the gist of the service; but at the reception, it was hopeless. I spoke briefly to his widow, nodding when she talked, trying to read her lips, grabbed a sandwich and a lemonade and bolted. I had to get out of there. There was no way I could understand what anyone was saying.

So this is what being deaf feels like, I thought. I know that plenty of deaf people survive and in fact thrive and excel, but when not being able to hear a word someone is saying happens to you, it is a not a happy situation.

So what to do? I first emailed the healthcare provider, telling them about my situation and requesting an emergency appointment, only to be informed that this did not constitute an emergency and that I would have to wait patiently in line. No exceptions.

Wrong answer. I will not go into the details, but I immediately went to Plan B, which involved emailing a “Howell Outrage Manifesto” to the healthcare system authorities. I did not exactly threaten that if my hearing predicament was not considered an emergency, I would take action to bring the entire healthcare system to its knees, the executives thrown in jail, and the whole system humiliated when my op ed piece about it appeared in the Washington Post. But I hinted as much. Before the end of the day, I had the necessary emergency appointments lined up. The next morning at 8:00 AM the ENT doctor came in early to clean out my ears, then I was handed over to the audiologists, who gave me a hearing test and fixed the hearing aids. All done in about two hours. Mission accomplished.

Now not only can I hear again, but I can also hear better than I have for years. It turned out that the real culprit was wax buildup, one of the worst the ENT doctor said she had seen in years. It had been three years since I had had the wax cleaned out of my ears. That is supposed to happen every six months. I stand guilty as charged.

 There is so much we take for granted—like hearing or seeing or simply being able to walk, and yet we often do not appreciate how important these things are until we lose them. Just think of all the “little things” that covid has forced us to give up like eating indoors at restaurants, in person work and school, hugging friends, and actually seeing people’s faces. These activities, which we assumed were just a normal part of life, when taken away became very big things.

My new appreciation of being able to hear again caused me to think back about what it was like having polio, which I came down with at age 10, and how grateful I had been when little by little over the next few years I could start to do the kinds of things other kids could do like go to school, toss a baseball, or just hang out. It often takes an experience like this to make you appreciate how fortunate you are when life returns to normal.

But what does my experience in persuading the healthcare folks to make an exception for me say about what happens to others who do not have an Outrage Act ready in their back pocket for use when needed or do not understand how to get the attention of people who can correct a stupid rule or dumb protocol? How many just get squelched?  Would poor folks or immigrants or people of color or “really old people” or those with limited education be so lucky? Life is not fair nor has it ever been. So much depends on circumstance and the luck of the draw. This incident reminded me of how grateful I am (yet again) for the hand I have been dealt.

 

 

 

Faux News Exclusive: Republicans Deeply Divided Over Key Issue, May Split

Faux News has learned that the Republican Party is more divided than at  in any time in its storied history. The issue has to do with who is responsible for the attacks on the Capitol on January 6.

“I know who is responsible it is Antifa and Black Lives Matter. They did it! They masqueraded as Trump supporters, but they really were the anti Americans that hate our country and our revered leader and want to destroy our way of life. They just had on disguises. I say lock ‘em up, every damn one of them. There is no place in our country for these horrible  people!”

“No, no, no! You don’t understand. They were who they say they were. People who loved Trump. People who were willing to die for him. They are patriots, that’s what they are. People who know the election was stolen from him and who want to overthrow the government so Trump can return to power. They are American heroes just like the ones who took back our country from the Brits, people like George Washington, Paul Revere and er, er, er…..”

 

The only thing that unites these two disparate wings of the party is the belief that there should not be an independent commission established to determine which one of them is right.

Everyday Stories: Credit Cards

We all have everyday stories worth telling. This is the first in a new series featuring my stories along with stories by others when I receive them.

In the “Age of the Credit Card” we hardly use cash for anything anymore. In fact during Covid-times, many establishments do not even accept cash. I have gotten into the habit of using credit cards to pay on line for just about all ongoing expenses—rent, utilities, internet access, monthly parking, memberships, telephone, Amazon Prime, Blue Apron (meal deliveries), my weekly pledge to my church, and just about anything else you can think of.  I might as well throw away my checkbook since I practically never use it anymore.

Using your credit card and paying on line is  convenient  except when you lose your credit card, or worse, if it is stolen. I had my wallet stolen in Madrid when I had my pocket picked when Embry and I were traveling around the world in 2015, and it was a disaster. For some reason if you are out of the U.S. and not calling the credit card company on the phone number they have listed for you on file, the best you can hope for is getting a new card sent to your home address, then finding a friend who will get into your house, find the unmarked envelope with the replacement card, and then FedEx it to you overnight. We managed to accomplish this feat   for the Madrid incident, but it was a nightmare.

Oddly, over the past six months I have lost my credit card twice–the second time just three weeks after the first. Big mystery, but it happened. Probably should chalk it up to old age. The problem is that when you lose your card you have to notify all the places which have your old credit card information on file and give them the new credit card information—in my case probably around a dozen establishments. Having had to do this twice recently, I swore I would never allow this to happen again. That is why I now tape my credit card to my chest and remove the bandages each time I use the card, then rebandage it with the strongest adhesive tape on the market. It takes time, but it is a sure bet that I won’t lose my card or have it stolen.

Okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. I am terrified that I will have to go through another drill of notifying all the people that have my card information on file.

That is why when a message popped up on my iPhone a couple of days ago that there were three suspicious transactions that needed to be verified, I immediately went into a cold sweat. One charge was to a gas station for $23.07 the day before, so I checked “valid” since I remembered filling up our car. One was for $15.36 at our local CVS the previous afternoon. Yes, I remembered that, so I checked valid for that one too. And then there was one for $30.02 for a purchase from Apple at 2:07 AM that very day, which I did not recall, so I checked “not sure.” It was probably one of those recurring charges that come through automatically in the middle of the night, so I thought nothing about it and went about my business.

Until I tried to use my credit card the next day and had it rejected.

I immediately called the number on the back of the card, then waited for 15 minutes before getting a live operator and asked why my card was rejected. She explained that I had checked that I was not sure about one transaction.

“Well, I am pretty sure it is ok since I buy a lot of stuff on line  from Apple,” I said.

She responded that being “pretty sure” was not enough, to which I responded that actually I was “very sure.” The idea of going through the whole ordeal yet again was more that I could bear.

“Exactly how ‘very sure’ are you?” she replied.

What the hell, I thought, so I announced boldly that I was 99.9% sure that the charge was valid.

“Well,” she said, “I am very sorry but we are cancelling your card and in approximately 10 business days you will receive another one in the mail. Being 99.9% certain is not sufficient.”

“No wait! Please! Don’t do this to me, I have thought about it, and I am now 100% sure that the charge was valid.”

“So then, what was it for?”

She had me. I had no idea what the charge was for. There was a short silence.

“Lots of stuff,” I replied.

“So you are now 100% sure you bought ‘lots of stuff’ on line at the Apple Store at 2:07 AM this morning?”

It had to be one of those recurring membership charges, didn’t it? What else could it be? I took a deep breath and said with as much self confidence as I could muster that I was absolutely 100% sure I had bought “lots of stuff” on line at the Apple Store at 2:07 AM this morning.

“Fine,” she said, I am now reactivating your card.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I replied, hung up the phone and breathed a long sigh of relief.

Then I wondered what if somebody nefarious actually had possession of my credit card information….

 

You are invited to submit an everyday story to me at Joehowell476@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Single Issue Party

Geez, I am a life long Republican and believe in free enterprise, small government, self reliance, strong foreign policy, lower taxes, and all the great things the Party has done in the past–the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Is it ok if I run for public office?

Only if you swear that the last election was stolen and our Leader, Trump, was robbed.

Faux News: Republicans Speak Out (Again) About Curbing Gun Violence

We are sick and tired of this gun violence, sick and tired of it, and it has got to stop. There have been over 140 mass killing incidents this year already in the U.S.– three this year in Indianapolis alone. It is just terrible, terrible, terrible, and the Democrats have done nothing, nothing, nothing. They talk about such things as tougher gun laws, but so called gun laws have never worked and never will. That is why we Republicans are introducing legislation today–again, I might add– that will solve the problem once and  for all.

Every American over the age of 12 will be required to carry a loaded weapon at all times. If everyone was armed at the FedX facility in Indianapolis, somebody would have blown that nut case away after his first round. That is the only way we will stop this madness.

The Finish Line

My good friend, Hank Ackerman, classmate at Davidson, and editor of the literary magazine celebrating our 50th reunion of the Class of 1964, sent me the cartoon below. I was the cartoonist for the Davidson College newspaper in those days and drew this for the reunion. Nice fit with the “life as a race” theme of my recent  post. Thanks, Hank!

                       ty 

The Magical Muon

A front page article in the New York Times today (April 8, 2021) was about the discovery of a subatomic particle called a “muon,” which seems to defy the generally accepted laws of physics known as the Standard Model. It is akin to an electron but much heavier and wobbles when it is not supposed to. The result of experiments announced yesterday confirmed similar experiments conducted in 2001 and is said to have only a 1 in 40,000 chance of being a fluke. More experiments will be required before it can change the Standard Model; but if it becomes accepted by science, the Times reports it will usher in a new understanding of the cosmos and transform physics. The Times article states:

It might also lead in time to explanations of cosmic mysteries that have long preoccupied our lonely species. What exactly is dark matter, the unseen stuff that astronomers say make up one-quarter of the universe by mass? Indeed, why is there matter in the universe at all?

So, what does this have to do with us humans? Why should we care?

Ever since my next door neighbor in Nashville witnessed in the middle of the night a flying saucer land in his backyard and then take off before dawn, I have been fascinated with the cosmos and with extraterrestrials.  I was about eight or nine at the time and saw with my own eyes the large, charred area in his backyard, seared by the spaceship. One could argue that it resembled the remnants of leaf burning, which did happen frequently in the fall in Nashville backyards in those days, but no, this happened. My neighbor was three or four years older than me, and I looked up to him and trusted him completely. This was the real thing.

And why shouldn’t it be true? To argue there is no intelligent life out there somewhere? Please.

On a clear night away from ambient light you can see the twinkling of thousands of stars. So far with our powerful new telescopes, astronomers have not found a star without at least one planet circling around it. Experts estimate the maximum number of stars that you can see without a telescope to be about 5,000. This is just a tiny fraction of the 300 billion stars that are estimated to be in our galaxy, which we call the Milky Way. With a small telescope some of the tiny twinkling lights that you can see are actually other galaxies. Of course, no one knows how many galaxies there are, but the latest estimates are that there are around two trillion. Some scientists now believe that our universe may only be one of an infinite number of universes in what they describe as a “multiverse.”

And today we learn in the New York Times that there is a new subatomic particle with strange behavior that if verified by additional experiments could change the whole way we understand the cosmos.

Here is where science and religion intersect. The muon discovery and the vastness and complexity of our universe are beyond the comprehension of us humans on this small, lonely planet. How can we “touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, human merely beings” (in the words of ee cummings) figure this out and what it all means?   The world is so complex and the universe so vast, we will never truly understand its ultimate meaning. This leads many to the belief in God. Certainly, there must be a reason for all this, we conclude. Certainly, there must be a meaning. Science deals with facts, not meaning. Religion deals with meaning.

But as one who has lived over 79 years on this planet and who has paid his dues by graduating from seminary, who came perilously close to becoming an Episcopal priest, and who is a regular churchgoer, I am the first to admit that the vastness of the universe and the complexity of all that is in it is not explained by any religion, nor do I believe is intended to be. Certainly, faith is important to how we live our lives and gives us clues (if we are lucky) to deeper understanding, to spiritual connections, and to hope. But the discovery of the “magical muon” underscores that there is so much more that we still do not understand and will never understand about the universe and our place in it. The only words that I can think of that capture our predicament are “wonder” and “awe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inching Closer to The Finish Line

Today I celebrate my 79th birthday and begin my 80th year–or ninth decade–on the Planet Earth. What that means for anyone my age or older, is that the finish line is coming into sight though still hazy and (hopefully) some years away.  I choose that image carefully. Life for us humans—and perhaps for all creatures—is a race. There is a start and a finish for every life. Before the start we do not know how long the race will last or what obstacles will stand in our way or what shape we will be in when we finish.

Will the course be long, or will it be short? Will it be flat and smooth or rocky and hilly? Will we fight monsters along the way? Will we dust ourselves off and keep going when we stumble? Will we break an ankle or a leg? Will we help fellow racers who fall?  When we cross the finish line, will we feel victorious or sad or just relieved that the race is over?

For many years I was a serious runner. I was never all that fast but loved long distance running and participated in a whole bunch of 10-milers, a couple of half marathons and one full marathon (the 1984 Marine Corps Marathon, which I did not finish but made my goal of 20 miles—for me a major achievement). I remember the feeling when I would cross the finish line, having given the effort all I had. Since I always was toward the back of the pack, I was not competing against anyone, just trying to do my best. But what a feeling of relief and pride when I crossed the finish line even though the leaders in the race had long before departed for home.

The questions as we stumble across the finish line of life’s race are these: So how well did you run the race? Did you give it your best effort? Did you help others along the way? Did you make a difference?

How you answer these questions in your heart of hearts will determine whether you finish with pride or regret or just relief that at last the race is over.