“God”

So, when someone asks you if you are religious or if you believe in God, what do you say? It turns out that we human beings think about this a lot–all over the planet–and have been thinking about it from the very early stages of our species. Given the size and nature of our brains, we Homo sapiens cannot help asking fundamental questions like why are we alive, what is the meaning of our lives, how do we find fulfillment, how should we live our lives, and what happens when we die.

In a previous series of blog posts  (September/ August 2023) I wrote about how the concept of God evolved focusing on the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three religions share belief in the God of Abraham as the true God and central to their faith. These three religions have been very successful and according to survey research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2020 now account for more than 55 percent of the world’s population. (Christianity is the most popular with over 30 percent of the world’s population.) However, there are many other religions in the world today—The Pew Research Center identifies 21 major faiths—most of which have a different view of God. I find it interesting that only about 15 percent of those surveyed describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. What all major religions have in common, however, is a set of beliefs, religious and ethical practices, and rituals. Which one is right and which ones are wrong, and what does this all mean?

I am an Episcopalian, a lifer or “cradle Episcopalian,” as we are called. If truth be told, however, I am Episcopalian mainly because my parents were pillars of the Episcopal church in Nashville where I grew up. I suspect a major factor affecting the religious affiliation of anyone is the religion that they were exposed to at an early age. In 1968 I earned a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which was at the time a nondenominational seminary and now an interfaith religious institution. Union exposed me to the beliefs, worship styles and values of other Protestant denominations. I was never ordained, however, because my bishop and I agreed that I was not called to be an Episcopal priest. If you know me, you can understand why.

What sets the Abrahamic religions apart from other faiths is that God is first and foremost a God of history, who has taken decisive action in the history of the world. The early Jews acknowledged the existence of many gods but believed their God, “YHWH,” was superior to all. Their God created the universe in six days, made humans in His own likeness, identified Israel as His chosen people, helped the Israelites destroy adversaries, gave Moses the Ten Commandments, parted the Red Sea, and caused the flood which would have wiped out all life on Earth were it not for Noah, whom God chose to save life on the planet. The history of Israel for most practicing Jews is the history of God’s actions on Earth.  Abraham is thought to have lived in the early 1,800s BCE and the Ten Commandments given to Moses around 1,300 BCE. Monotheism did not become prevalent until around 700 BCE. Two or three hundred years later–between 450 and 350 BCE–the first five books of the Bible—the Torah– were written.

Then along came Christianity about  half a millennium later. Jesus, of course, was a Jew. He is honored as a Jewish prophet by both Jews and Muslims. He preached a message of a loving and just God, and of helping the poor and the downtrodden. He performed miracles, healed the sick, and became a popular figure and a threat to the Jewish establishment and the Roman Empire, actions for which he was crucified in his early 30s. Had this been the end of the story, no one would have paid much attention to Jesus of Nazareth, and there would be no Christianity. But two things happened. The first is what I call the “resurrection experience.” Something happened that made Jesus’s disciples believe that Jesus had not died but had “risen from the dead.” This was followed some forty days later by the Ascension when Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven and then in ten more days the Pentecost when Jesus appeared again to a large following, speaking in different languages. Had this been the end of the story, it is not clear if a new religion would have been sustained. The stories about the resurrection and what followed were not written down until a over a generation after his death. (Mark, the first gospel was written in the mid 60s CE. The Gospel of John did not happen until near the turn of the first century.)

But something else happened, and that was the conversion of an erudite, Greek speaking rabbi whose name was Saul of Tarsus and who experienced the risen Christ on the road to Damascus  four or five years after the resurrection. Saul changed his name to Paul and began a journey to spread the word of the resurrection, which in Paul’s thinking proved that Jesus was the son of God. Paul became a tireless missionary making five journeys to countries at the eastern end of the Roman empire converting people—mainly gentiles who had been worshipers of Constantine and the sun god—to a new religion 50 years later called Christianity. (Jewish Christians referred to themselves as “The Way” probably coming from Isaiah 40:3, “prepare the way of the LORD”. Other Jews also called them “the Nazarenes.”) Paul was a great communicator, dictated numerous letters to early converts to the faith and developed a Christian theology which is spelled out in the most detail in his last letter, the letter to the Romans. Salvation and “justification by faith” are major themes in Paul’s writings. The rest is history. In 2024 there are estimated to be more than 2.4 billion people who call themselves Christians.

About 600 years later, another new religion emerged called Islam, which acknowledged Jesus as a great prophet but did not buy into the notion of his being God. This religion embraces a radical monotheism and a strict prayer life and strong dietary rules. There are about two billion Muslims in the world.

Then there are the non-Abrahamic religions. What about Hinduism, Buddhism, and the many ethnic and tribal religions? These religions for the most part see God not as a person but as a mystical being or force. Some like Hinduism see God as being itself. Followers of Buddhism don’t acknowledge a supreme god or deity. They instead focus on achieving enlightenment—a state of inner peace and wisdom. When followers reach this spiritual echelon, they are said to have experienced nirvana. The religion’s founder, Buddha, is considered an extraordinary being, but not a god.

So, I will repeat my question. What do you believe? If you are a Christian, the fundamentals of the faith that are often cited are these:

  • That humans are made in the image of God, which would seem to imply that God in some way is like us humans.
  • That God had a son whom he sacrificed for our sake to forgive humans for our sins and create a pathway to heaven.
  • That to believe that Jesus was God’s only son is your ticket to eternal life in heaven. (“Justification by faith,” not good works.)
  • That failing to believe the Gospel–the “good news” –has dire consequences, like being doomed to an eternal life in hell.

Now I call myself a Christian because I believe in the message of God’s love and the commandment to love your neighbor, not because of a literal interpretation of scripture or the wording of the early creeds that some insist you are supposed to believe to be a Christian. Here are some of my questions:

  1. Heaven and eternal life. Given what we know now about the universe, what does eternal life mean? Where might heaven be anyway? The Christian creeds and the theology of Paul speak of resurrection of the body. Really? How does cremation fit into this picture, and can we choose which body we want—maybe a 25 year-old body rather than an 85 year-old body? Mark Twain once said he would take heaven for the climate, but hell for the company. If going to heaven means your only companions will be fundamentalists and evangelicals, does this sound appealing? If there is no heaven or eternal life, does this make a difference about how we live our lives or the meaning of life on the planet Earth? What about all the other good people who are not Christians on the planet? Having 30 percent “market penetration” is pretty good, but what about the other 70 percent? Many are profoundly spiritual people and many live lives of goodness. Will they all end up in hell just because they do not “believe”?
  2. The nature of God. Some Christians believe that God is all powerful and all good. Given the sorry state of the planet, the human condition, and the suffering many experience, why hasn’t God intervened more often? How do you explain hurricanes, droughts, and all other natural disasters? The National Council of Churches was located next to Union Seminary when I was a student, where several friends worked part time, who spoke of all the lawsuits filed every year against the organization by people who had been turned down by insurance companies which had exclusions for “acts of God.” Why do bad things happen to good people? Is God really a he? It seems to me that the religions that describe God as Spirit–and a Divine Mystery which we humans are not able to fully understand–are closer to the truth.
  3. The universe. Most religions see God as the creator of the universe. The founding fathers were mostly deists who visioned God as the great clockmaker, who got everything started but has taken mostly a hands off position ever since. Only in the last couple of decades have we learned that the universe is much, much larger than what we thought and could be part of a multiverse. What is that all about?
  4. The information we have about God. The scriptures and creeds we rely on for information about God are very old and were written centuries before science had provided information about the nature of our world. On many issues where there are scientific explanations, science often trumps religion.

So now you know why I was not ordained and why becoming an Episcopal priest would not have been a good fit. Some have accused me of not being a Christian, to which I respond that that is God’s business, not yours. In one instance after proclaiming what I thought to be a profound understanding of the Christian faith, one person in a church discussion group angrily responded, “Well, if that is what you believe, why not just join the Democratic Party?” I still hang in there, if by a thread, and do believe in goodness, mercy and the Christian message of love and redemption even if I can’t buy into the whole program. At the same time, I acknowledge that Christianity has had profound benefits for millions and millions of people over the years, that a relationship with the Divine is possible, that spirituality is real, that prayer is important and beneficial, and that truly holy people exist on Earth. For many, many people of all faiths, God is not an idea. God is real. I agree though my answer is more nuanced.  I suspect that there are a whole bunch of people not all that different from me, many of whom are hanging on by a thread or leaving the church because they don’t find the message relevant to their faith journey. As I mentioned in my last blog, this is an issue and a challenge for Christian churches today.

 

 

Religion Adherents Percentage
Christianity 2.382 billion 31.0%
Islam 1.907 billion 24.9%
Secular[a]/Nonreligious[b]/Agnostic/Atheist 1.193 billion 15.58%
Hinduism 1.161 billion 15.2%
Buddhism 506 million 6.6%
Chinese traditional religion[c] 394 million 5.6%
Ethnic religions  300 million 3.0%
African traditional religions 100 million[7] 1.2%
Sikhism 26 million 0.30%
Spiritism 15 million 0.19%
Judaism 14.7 million[8] 0.2%
Baháʼí 5.0 million[9] 0.07%
Jainism 4.2 million 0.05%
Shinto 4.0 million 0.05%
Cao Dai 4.0 million 0.05%
Zoroastrianism 2.6 million 0.03%
Tenrikyo 2.0 million 0.02%
Animism 1.9 million 0.02%
Neo-Paganism 1.0 million 0.01%
Unitarian Universalism 0.8 million 0.01%
Rastafari 0.6 million 0.007%
Total 7.79 billion 100%

 

From the Pew Research Center

 

 

To Believe or Not To Believe. That Is the Question.

Strange times, these times. Many conventional Christian churches have been losing members for decades while mega churches are expanding, and many evangelical churches have gone all out for Trump and are part of the Maga movement. Some believe that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. While some in my generation have tended to drift away from conventional Christianity, many have stuck with it although we and most of our friends have children who do not attend church regularly or, for that matter, do not have grandchildren who have even been baptized. When asked by surveys why former church members of mainline Protestant churches have thrown in the towel, often the reason cited is something like “no longer meaningful,” or “not relevant,” or “too busy.”

Embry and I have been attending a small, neighborhood Episcopal Church since the mid 1980s though our church has had it s up and downs over the years as have others. Being part of a small but welcoming and diverse religious community which is more than a social club is important to us, and that is certainly one reason we  have stuck with it. Embry has sung in the choir for more than thirty years, and we have both had held leadership positions in the church. Embry is currently senior warden, the top lay position in the church. Maybe another reason is just inertia. We have been doing this for so many years it is just part of our routine.

However, the decline of traditional religion and religious practice is a concern. Why is this happening? Where are we headed when so much spiritual energy is centered on a neofascist who could take the country into authoritarianism? There are lots of reasons for this, most more sociological than spiritual. The divide in our country along class and educational lines has gotten deeper, and many  traditional mainline churches are viewed by Trump supporters as elitists and examples of the establishment. Many right wing, populist revolutionaries see us “mainliners”—especially Episcopalians—as too snobbish and too woke and believe we look down on them.

That explains part of the challenges to mainline churches but does not fully explain why many former church members say conventional religion is no longer relevant in their lives. Part of the reason for this, I believe, boils down to religious practice and particularly religious language. There is a conflict for many between what we know to be true from science and experience and the religious language used in many churches—especially in the Episcopal Church.

For example, in the Episcopal Church what we say we believe does not sync with what we know to be true based on our education and experience. These are laid out in the two main creeds we Episcopalians say every Sunday, either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed: that humans are created in the image of God, that Jesus was God’s only son, that He died for our sins, rose from the dead on the third day (after spending three days in hell, according to the Apostle’s Creed) and that all (and for some, “only”) those who believe in Jesus as their savior will have everlasting life. Given what we know about the scientific understanding of the world, it is hard for many people to sincerely answer, “Yes, I believe all of these things.”

Afterall, scientists mostly agree that the Big Bang happened over 13.7 billion years ago, that our planet is 4.5 billion years old, and that there have been five mass extinctions wiping out over 85% all animals and plants on the planet each time. We humans are newbies since modern humans–and most world religions–have been around only a few thousand years. We also know the world will perish in about a billion years when our sun starts to become a red giant. We know that natural selection is how we evolved from apes.  We now know that the universe is millions of times greater than what we thought only a few decades ago.

The writers of ancient scripture lived before Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein. They did not have modern tools like the Hubble and Web telescopes, space stations, computers, and now artificial intelligence.  

Knowing what we know now, can we really say we believe that we humans are made in the image of God? Does God have two arms and legs and is a “he”? Really? No, we have it backwards: Humans have made God in our own image. Did Jesus really “descend into hell”? Did he really rise again and now “sits at the right hand of God”? Certainly, there was a resurrection experience, but do we know what really happened? And does this really make a difference in our faith?  

To insist or even imply that we should take the creeds and ancient scripture like the Bible literally makes no sense to some people of faith. It certainly makes no sense to me.

While we should take scripture seriously for what these ancient wise men were telling us about the meaning of life in their age and their time and their experience, we do not have to take their stories literally. If the stories are viewed as myths—sacred stories which convey profound meaning– then yes, there is truth in these scriptures and creeds, which have meaning for our lives today. For the contemporary, mainline church to stop the outflow of people who can’t say yes, I believe every word in the creeds and in the Bible, the message from the pulpit should embrace what the meaning is today of those ancient creeds, stories, and myths. And churches should focus on putting into practice what those stories tell us: “Love your neighbor.” “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

To be fair, many mainline churches are already doing this, and I would suspect that there is a high correlation between these “progressive” churches and robust church attendance.

 Of course, it is a completely different story among evangelical and fundamentalist churches, some of whom see Trump as their savior. Religion and religious practice have always been influenced by culture and politics. Our country has never been so divided since the Civil War, and there are no indications that it is going to get  better any time soon. The culture and political wars we are in now also includes a war of religions, or perhaps more accurately, a war of religious beliefs. How we end up is anyone’s guess. As both evangelicals and progressive church people would say, “Pray for us.”

 

Next installment: “God”

Is the Planet Earth Living on Borrowed Time?

On Saturday, February 17, 2024, an article in the New York Times online edition by David Sanger and Julian Barnes reported that the United States has evidence that a new satellite designed by the Russians when launched may contain a nuclear weapon. Their assessment was based on top secret information now being shared with high-level Chinese and Indian officials, who have closer ties to Putin and the Russian government, presumably to convince the Russians to stop the launch. The primary purpose of the weapon would be to destroy the satellites of its adversaries, primarily the United States. Should this happen, virtually all communications we routinely rely on would be destroyed such as cell phones, the internet, radio, and television, and many other things which rely on satellites. While this act would be a violation of international law and the nuclear arms agreement we have with Russia, there is little question that Russia has the technology to do this as does the United States and many other advanced countries. If Russia goes through with this, how long will it be before we launch our own nuclear-armed satellite or that China or North Korea or India will follow? Welcome to Star Wars!

Does this situation remind you of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Here we go again. One more horrible thing to think about. Don’t we have enough on our plate already with climate change and global warming, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the massive migrations to our southern border by persons seeking a better life, the rise of authoritarianism,  all the threats that A.I. is likely to bring, and the thought of another Trump Presidency?

At what point does all of this become too much for our small planet to handle? The match that ignites the haystack may not even be intentional. Some mistake by a technician somewhere punching the wrong button which signals a message of Armageddon to his country’s adversaries, which must respond in kind. Or maybe the villain is A.I. Remember Hal in “2001 Space Odyssey”?

I can hear some readers objecting, “Will you stop all this negative, doomsday thinking and relax? There is nothing we can do about it, so why bother? Just enjoy the life you have now and the beautiful planet you live on. There is so much to be thankful for. And surely at your advanced age it will not affect you.”

Well, you have a point. But I can’t help thinking that at some point, the weight the planet is bearing will simply be too much. Something very bad will happen. Not in my lifetime and hopefully not in the lifetime of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, but sometime. Unless we humans can change our nature, conflict will continue to be part of our existence, and so far just about every weapon we humans have created has been used.

In previous posts I have been obsessed with how old our planet is and how short the time we humans have been on center stage. Our sun and solar system are over four billion years old. We human-like creatures have been around only a few million years and we Homo sapiens only a few hundred thousand. Modern humans only a few thousand. Afterall, written language was developed only about 7,000 years ago, and the size of the human population remained steady in the low millions for many thousands of years until a few centuries ago. The human population explosion began in the Industrial Revolution and has now reached over eight billion.

While I do not want to be a doomsday fanatic, I can’t see the path we are on continuing for a whole lot longer without serious calamity. Afterall, if you have been reading my blog you know that our planet has already had five mass extensions where over 80% of all planet and animal was wiped out. These have occurred on average every 130 to 150 million years. It has been about 130 million years since the last mass extension, and scientists say that we are now entering the Sixth Mass Extension due to loss of animal habitats—due mainly to us humans.  What are the chances that we Homo sapiens will we be part of the Sixth Mass Extension?

Unsettling questions to be sure but as they say in Washington, “above our pay grade” to answer. Better just to forget about the possible disasters and get on with our lives.

But there are people who do keep track of such things. Have you heard of the “Doomsday Clock”? A group of nuclear scientists came up with the idea in 1947 as a warning to the world as to the dangers of nuclear war. The group publishes “The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,” which has updated the time left before “midnight” every January since its inception when the atomic scientists voted to set the clock at seven minutes to midnight. When the minute and second hand hit midnight, it essentially signals the end of the world—at least the end of the world as we have known it. In the early years, the major fear was nuclear catastrophe, but the threats have been expanded to include climate change and, recently, artificial intelligence. Note that the clock has fluctuated over the years  with the most optimistic estimate of 17 minutes before midnight in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was updated in 2023 to show 90 seconds, with no change in 2024, the closest to doomsday that it has ever been. Of course, this is only a metaphor of where the world stands regarding existential threats, and the scientists do not say exactly how long a “second” is—a year, a decade, a century?

But still. Is there any doubt that the fragile planet we inhabit is in danger? It is one thing to cry “the sky is falling” like Chicken Little without doing anything to avert the looming catastrophe and another to take decisive action now to move the hands on the clock back. This is the existential challenge of our era. The stakes have never been higher.

Now About This Age Thing

Suddenly after lurking just under the surface, Joe Biden’s age has surfaced to become a major issue in the campaign for the President of the United States in 2024. This is thanks to the damning-with-faint-praise report by the Special Counsel, Robert Hur, which let Biden off the hook from being indicted for mishandling classified documents primarily because of Biden’s age. Hur (who not coincidently, happens to be a Republican) implies Biden is too old, too frail, and too confused to stand trial before a jury. Many Democrats are starting to panic. The talk is all about Biden, however, not his presumed opponent, Donald Trump, who is only four years younger. Both are old codgers. When Biden was a senior in college, Trump was a freshman. Should we be concerned about the age of these two old men?

Yes we should!

But first full disclosure. I have been a loyal Democrat all my adult life. I like Joe Biden. I will vote for him in 2024 despite what I write in this essay, since there are no better alternatives. In my view Joe Biden has not only been a good president, he has been a great president, given the hand he was dealt. There is no medical diagnosis that he has dementia, and he has always been subject to gaffes. The Hur report was a hit job, unfair, and a punch below the belt. Shame on him!

But still.

I am nine months older than Joe Biden. I and most of the people I know who are my age have health issues. The “organ recitals” (hips, knees, joints, livers, hearts, lungs, and, sadly, brains) are a common subject of conversation. Health issues for people in their 80s are just a fact of life. We slog through our remaining years  knowing  that slowing down is better than the alternative. We all know we can’t do what we could do years earlier. 

But it is not all gloom and doom.  If we don’t currently have a life threatening disease, we 80-something men have a life expectancy of about eight years–even longer for women. Hey, you can argue, Biden will serve for only four more years, so what is the problem? Well,  another way to look at the eight year life expectancy is that in 2032 half of us in our cohort will be dead by then and half still alive. Glass half full, glass half empty.

The problem is that the chance of having a disability increases significantly with every passing year, including suffering from dementia. For having a disability of some sort, the chances increase from 46 percent of people over age 75 to almost 85 percent for people over age 80, for one chronic condition, 60 percent for two chronic conditions at age 80 and older. Only just five percent of people age 70-79 have dementia. For people over 80, it is 24 percent, almost one in four. Biden appears to be fit for his age even though he occasionally shuffles his feet and slurs his speech. Should we be worried? 

Come on, people! First, the age issue should not be only about Joe Biden.  It is about  Joe Biden and Donald Trump. They are both old. It is basically about everyone over age 75. And one could argue that Trump is much worse off than Biden regarding mental acuity. Confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, saying he beat Obama in 2016, accusing Biden of starting World War II, constantly confusing the names of world leaders? Please. This dude is not playing with a full deck.

Compare this to the private sector, where except for Warren Buffett, heads of Fortune 500 Companies–and most publicly traded companies, prestigious law firms, and high powered consulting companies–are well below age 75. The median age is around 56; and while mandatory retirement is no longer legal, most companies have figured out ways to nudge their CEO out at age 65 or 70. There is a reason for this. The demands on these people are enormous. These jobs require people to be at the top of their game mentally and have energy, vigor, and staying power. And it is not just CEOs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only 5.3 percent of all  people in the U.S. age 80 or above have full time jobs or are actively seeking work. What does this tell you?

I was hardly the CEO of a big company, but for almost 20 years I was the CEO of Howell Associates, a consulting company which had between 15-25 employees. In my mid fifties I realized that I did not have the energy or fire in the belly to keep it going. By a miracle–which I often describe as defacto proof of a benign deity–I was able to sell the company when I was 57. I kept an oar in the water in the retirement housing consulting world, but not as CEO of a small company. It would have been too hard.

Now compare these private sector jobs with the job of President of the United States. Good heavens! There is no comparison. The President of the United States is arguably the most difficult and demanding job on the Planet Earth. And the stakes in 2024 have never been higher as the war in Gaza continues to rage on, Ukraine appears to be faltering, Iran is on the cusp of creating a nuclear weapon, our country is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, and authoritarianism is increasing all around the world.

The solution? For this election, there does not appear to an obvious solution. Hold your breath and pray that The Donald does not get elected. This would be the end of democracy as we have known it in our country. Work like hell for Biden, vote for him, and pray that Biden’s health, stamina, and mental acuity does not falter. Yes, Biden is too old, but that is the situation we are in, and there is no obvious alternative at this point. We should have never allowed ourselves to get into this mess in the first place.

The lesson going forward, however, is to amend the Constitution setting a maximum age limit regarding at what age a presidential candidate cannot run for office or seek re-election. We already have a minimum age of 35. Why not a maximum? The maximum age should not exceed 75, maybe even 70. No brainer, people! After Roosevelt we passed an amendment limiting the presidency to two terms and for good reason. The Battle of the Codgers in 2024 is a good enough reason that we should never, never, allow this to happen again.

 

 

 

Follow up to the AI post: Persistence Pays Off, Goodness Prevails.

I am happy to report that this week my Afghan friend and I both received emails from the apartment house he had applied to. He has been approved as renter and I as guarantor. The family will move into a much better building only a few blocks away—hopefully mouse free. Humans one, AI zero.  Happy ending!

I talked to three different leasing agents, wrote numerous, desperate emails, and finally wrote one of my outrage memos to management, with a few tongue-in-cheek sentences thrown in to get a chuckle or two. This strategy often works if you are talking to a human rather than a machine.

This happy ending raises the question: Are we humans basically good or basically bad? Another example of goodness is that this week someone dropped off my driver’s license at the front desk of the Kennedy-Warren, the apartment house where Embry and I live. We had attended a concert the previous evening at the Austrian Embassy where I had to show identification to get in and must have dropped it. Good heavens, how often does this happen?

The answer is probably a lot. I think about the almost 82 years I have been on this planet and conclude that the experience for me has been that good people far outnumber the bad, and that goodness prevails over evil much of the time.

Embry and I have traveled a lot over the years, visiting over 70 countries, and we have both spent several months living in a foreign country—France and Tanzania for Embry, Japan and Mexico for me. While our extensive travel and living abroad has had its challenges, at the end of each trip I have found myself coming down on the optimistic side: In every country you will find good people.

Not so fast, you might say. You and Embry are the lucky ones. You were born into loving families. Your parents were financially secure. You had opportunities to attend great schools, have great friends, and have lived in nice homes in nice neighborhoods. You were able to get good jobs and establish careers and never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from. You have a great family and enjoy good health. Face up to it: You got dealt a strong hand. Not that you deserved it, but that is not the case for a lot of people.

And you would be right. Lots of people get dealt weak hands. Poverty and inequality persist. Some families are dysfunctional. Suffering is also a fact of life for many. Racism is still with us. Poor health, depression, and conflicts with others affect many.

Plus, this fragile planet is in bad shape. We live in a time when it feels like the entire world may be up for grabs and could go up in flames. Nuclear weapons are now abundant and in the wrong hands. One mistake or miscalculation could set off a catastrophe beyond description. We are trashing the planet and paying the price for it as temperatures rise. Wildfires, floods, and rising sea levels are increasing every year. Scientists tell us we have only a decade or so to make necessary, difficult choices to avoid the worst outcomes of global warming. And think of the wars happening now—Russia versus Ukraine, Israel versus Gaza–where there is no end in sight. Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world and could even happen here.

The truth is we humans are both good and bad. And this is not only true for our species but for each of us as individuals. No one is perfect. We all have good days and bad. We all do foolish things and make mistakes. Most at one time or another face major personal challenges and disappointments. This is the human condition. Welcome to Planet Earth.

But still. The small victory for our Afghan friend is worth a shout, along with the return of my driver’s license, small victories, I suppose, compared to the many blessings I have received over the years. For this I give thanks to the mysterious force in the universe that we humans on Earth call “God.”

A Haunting Memory

In 1965 I was a first year, graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Part of my training as a seminary student was  fieldwork which required being assigned to a church. My assignment was an historic Episcopal church, Saint Mark’s in the Bowery, in New York’s Lower East Side.   I taught Sunday School and was an assistant to the coach of the church’s basketball team.

I was also assigned to a family who attended the church—the Martinez family (not their real name). Hector, who coached the team, and Mary Martinez lived in one of the massive public housing projects in New York’s Lower East Side. They represented a kind of fairy tale for me. In her mid 30s, Mary was the white daughter of a banker and was a college graduate. She had grown up in a middle class neighborhood in a New Jersey suburb. Hector was born in Puerto Rico, came to the city as a child, was part of a street gang as a teenager, and was a high school dropout.  The two met when she was  a social worker in the Lower East Side. They fell in love, married, and were raising their four stairstep kids ranging from age four to twelve. I had dinner with them in their apartment once a week and became an adopted member of their family. They represented for me the hope that our country could bridge the race, cultural, and class barriers that seem so difficult to overcome. The family seemed happy, optimistic, and upbeat, and I thoroughly enjoyed the weekly conversations over delicious dinners prepared by Mary.

Mary was a stay at home mom, and Hector worked in the garment district as a “runner,” someone who pushed large carts of clothing from one building to another. I shadowed him on several occasions and could not believe how hard he worked and, I assumed, for very low pay. But they were managing and surviving thanks in part to affordable housing, at a time when public housing in New York City was clean, safe, and well managed. And, I surmised, thanks to being part of a loving congregation at St. Mark’s Church. This was the reason, I told myself, that I wanted to become an Episcopal priest—to work with people at the margins and to make a positive difference in their lives.  

The experience for me had its challenges. The rector of the church was young, arrogant, ambitious, and a self-described radical, who because of my Southern accent disliked me from day one, accusing me of adolescent enthusiasm and being immature and naïve. I recall one of his sermons he preached after he had marched in Selma in the spring of 1965, when he said that he hated all white Southerners— paused for a moment, looked directly at me, sitting in pew in the first row, and finished his remark with “no exceptions.” So, life was not perfect. I had uncomfortable weekly meetings with him as he tried to make me aware of how difficult the priesthood was, how hard it was for churches to succeed, and how great a job he was doing. I endured, however, relishing my time with Hector and Mary and their kids. They were for me Exhibit A that his grim assessment of the world—and his high assessment of himself—were misguided. Miracles can and do happen.

As the year went on, my naivety was put to the test. The team Hector coached consisted of six or seven tall, Black teenagers, who came from the projects, were members of the same gang, and were very good basketball players. Most of them could easily do slam dunks. I do not know how Hector recruited them; but as far as I could tell, they did not have anything to do with St. Mark’s Church. They all seemed fond and respectful of Hector but very wary of a young, white guy with a Southern accent. And it is true I did no real coaching. I just sat beside Hector at the Saturday morning games as his “assistant,” providing moral support.

At some point during the Saturday morning games, the feel good moment of being with the family changed when I noticed the smell of alcohol on Hector’s breath. Maybe their lives were not so fairytale after all. One morning Hector showed up so drunk he could hardly walk, departed before the game was over, and asked me to take over. When Hector stumbled out of the gym, we were ahead by 10 points. We lost by five. Not a single player would speak to me. Before the game ended, it had become painfully obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.

As was the custom, after each Saturday morning game, Hector would take the players out to a corner grocery and pay for cokes and junk food—win or lose. So that day with Hector gone, this was my job. I realized that I had barely enough money in my pocket to take a subway back to the seminary and had to tell the team that they were on their own for buying snacks. I watched in horror as the team members roamed through the small store stuffing candy and donuts into their mouths and their pockets, guzzling cokes, and angrily knocking items on the floor. A balding, older white guy behind the checkout counter shared my look of horror and consoled me, “It will be ok. Let them have what they want. It will be ok. I don’t want trouble.” It is funny how the mind works. I can still remember what the old guy looked like and where I was standing as I watched the team rip the candy off the shelves and trash his store without paying a dime.

As the year went on, I continued my weekly Friday evening dinners, but Hector was often not present. When I asked Mary where he was, she answered unconvincingly “at a meeting” or “helping someone” and eventually “not sure.” In the late spring when my first year at Union was nearing an end, I showed up for what was supposed to be my last dinner with them. I arrived early, around 4 PM, and noticed that Mary was not working on dinner as she usually was when I arrived, and no kids were present. She had her back turned to me when she opened the door, and then when she turned to face me, I was stunned. She had black eyes, swollen lips, what looked like a broken jaw, scars on her face, and bruises on her arms. Flabbergasted, I asked what had happened.

“Oh, I am fine,” she said, “I just slipped in the shower a couple of days ago. I’ll be fine.”

She apologized for how she looked and tearfully said there would be no dinner that evening. We chatted for a few minutes and then I headed back to the seminary. I knew something had gone terribly wrong but was at loss as to what to do.

The next week when I had my session with the rector, I mentioned that I was concerned about the family. He replied that Mary had disappeared with all the children, even the oldest, who was Hector’s child by a previous marriage, and that no one knew where she had gone. He looked at me with a self-satisfied grin, “Not exactly the fairytale story you thought it was, is it? Welcome to the real world!”

I never heard where Mary took the kids or what happened to Hector or if there was ever an attempt at reconciliation. My field work assignment at the church was mercifully coming to an end, and I was not offered a position there for the next year. When visiting New York many years later I did return to visit the church and was surprised to see that it had been repurposed as a theater and performing arts center.

But I am still haunted by the story and can remember the faces of all the Martinez family members even now, some 59 years later. I wonder what happened to them and what their lives have been like. Are the children still alive? Did any go to college? Have careers? Marry and have their own kids? How did Mary manage and what about Hector?

Approaching age 82 in a few weeks, I have failed to rid myself completely of adolescent enthusiasm though I have accumulated battle scars of my own as all of us humans do over the years. But as for the kind of suffering the Martinez family must have experienced and the obstacles that they faced, my life has been easy sledding. Their story is sadly not that unusual. I suppose that suffering is part of the human condition. The haunting images of the Martinez family –and especially of Mary on my last visit–will be etched into my brain for as long as I live and is a reminder to me of how tough life can be for far too many.

 

 

 

Welcome to the Nightmare of AI

If you think that artificial intelligence is a threat you will have to face in the future, think again. It is already here, and it is a nightmare.

Under the category of “No good deed goes unpunished,” a couple of weeks ago I volunteered to guarantee the lease of an Afghan refugee family whom our church has been supporting for over a year. The father is hard working but only earns $16/hour as a security guard. Our group of three Episcopal churches helped them find housing, guaranteed the rent, and secured a housing grant from the local jurisdiction to make the rent more affordable. Now they are moving to another apartment due to rodent infestation where they live.

Most landlords require a minimum income of three times the rent to qualify for an apartment. There are five in the family, and most landlords also require a family of this size to rent a 3-bedroom unit. His annual income amounts to $32,500, which means he must find an apartment renting for no more than $812 including utilities. How many apartments are there in the Washington metro area where you can rent a 3-bedroom unit for that amount and that are in safe neighborhoods? Zero. Ditto for 2-bedroom units. Washington is one of the highest cost areas in the country–especially for housing. We were able to get them started only because our church guaranteed the rent and because we were able to secure for them a housing grant.

After an exhaustive search for a better apartment, they finally found a landlord who would rent them a 2-bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood, allowing the family’s two oldest children to remain in the same school. The problem: The cheapest 2-bedroom apartment was $2,200/month, compared to the rent of around $2,000 they were currently paying. Because the housing grant reduced the effective rent to around $1,300/month, they were able to get by, but it was still above of the $812 maximum “affordable rent” based on standard underwriting policies. The only way the family could rent the new apartment was to have a financially qualified guarantor, who would cosign the lease. Our church had guaranteed the rent for their first apartment, but the church funds had been exhausted. Someone had to step forward.

Hey, no problem. This was not my first experience providing financial support for immigrant families; and of the several families I had helped, not once had I been disappointed or been taken advantage of. I considered it a risk worth taking.

I was directed to go online to the website of the apartment complex, which was owned and managed by one of Washington’s largest real estate companies. The rental application required a prospective guarantor to submit the last three pay stubs by scanning or “dragging” them into the company’s website. I haven’t worked for 20 years and have no pay stubs. The management reported back that those were the rules: no pay stubs, no guarantor. When I adamantly protested and argued that using my federal income tax returns should suffice, they reluctantly agreed. I took a photo of a recent tax return and emailed it to them.

Rejected again. First, the material had to be submitted through their website, not by email, and second, the company’s website did not accept photos. I hopped in the car and drove to the complex. A pleasant leasing attendant helped me fill out the proper forms on their website, converted the photo of my tax return to a PDF, and entered that for me on their website. Done.

At last, a solution!

Nope. Rejected again. Just because the information was on my federal tax return did not mean that it was true. They had to have absolute proof from the financial institutions where Embry and I kept our money. Company policy required independent verification by some outside company, which would be allowed to enter the financial institution’s website where our investments were and copy and verify the information from our accounts. For this to happen all I would have to do was provide my social security number, username, account number, birthday, and password.

What? I was required to allow a company, which I know nothing about, to view and have access to all the funds in all our accounts?  They had to be kidding.  I recently posted a blog about how hackers got into my bank account at PNC Bank and came within a hair’s breadth or stealing every penny I had.

No, they argued, this was completely legit and is now a common practice. I reluctantly provided them full access—password, username, account number, birthday, and social security number—but only for one company, Fidelity Investments, and gritted my teeth. Only an idiot would agree to such a requirement. But at least the Afghan family would not be out in the street.

Two days passed. Rejected again. Fidelity refused to give them the information. I say, “Fidelity refused,” but what I now understand is that the Fidelity’s computer refused. In any event, good for Fidelity.

During this ordeal, which is now well into its third week, I have not been allowed to talk to a single human being who has the authority to review the material and make an independent, informed judgement. It is now all done by computers. All information must be scanned or “dragged” into a special website. The answer from the computer is the only answer that counts. Email is not allowed nor is any communication with any human being who could review the material and make an informed decision.

 I volunteered to bring to their office hard copies of all the investment and bank account information that they required. I would permit them to make copies and scan them into their website.  Not allowed. Only electronic copies from now on.

So here we are in 2024 entering the world of AI where in this instance no human being is allowed to make  a decision or judgement based on the facts. The determination will now be made by computers. Their decision will be final. No exceptions even if it means that a struggling Afghan family will become homeless and out on the street.

Anything wrong with this picture?

So welcome to the world of artificial intelligence. And it is just the beginning. How long will it be before  everywhere no humans will be involved in making decisions, just computers?

Nightmare.

More to follow about what finally happened to the Afghan family…

 

Yikes, the Moths Are Attacking! Double Yikes, the Ants Are Taking Over!

We have lived in our apartment (which we love) overlooking the National Zoo for almost nine years in a bug free environment. Then a few months ago when I took out my sweaters to brace for colder fall weather, five out of six sweaters were riddled with what looked like bullet holes. Good heavens! Where did all the holes come from? It looked like the sweaters had been worn by a Mafia informant who got snuffed out by the mob. So what, I concluded, I love those sweaters and I am going to keep wearing them anyway, even if I look to others like an aging panhandler. Besides they are a good conversation starter or maybe even a new fashion setter. You know how rich kids wear jeans with holes in the knees? This could be a new fashion statement for old folks.

 Embry immediately looked at her sweaters and, like mine, most were ruined. Her favorite wool pullover hat had a gaping hole, but like me and my sweaters, she is still wearing it. We make a stunning couple who someone who did not know us might conclude we came from a homeless shelter.

We assumed the culprits were moths but had not seen any flying around. What to do? The damage had been done.  I immediately bought something like 50 moth traps and put them everywhere I could.

Then the following week we happened to notice a strange, black patch of particles on the oriental rug in our living room after we had moved an easy chair, which was covering up a portion of the rug. We immediately looked under the rug and to our horror saw tiny worms crawling all over the place. Baby worms turn into moths at some point. Why hadn’t we noticed? The large living room rug was partially destroyed and the slightly smaller dining room rug not far behind. We called the apartment management who sent up an exterminator, who upon seeing the damage on the rug, shook his head and shrugged.

We were under attack!

We ended up taking both rugs to an oriental rug specialist, who washed and repaired them by cutting out the damaged parts and reducing their size (for an exorbitant price), and the rugs are resting back in place, bug free for now. In the meantime, I regularly check the moth traps I had hung in every closet and at other places moths might hide. That was several weeks ago. So far, I have found only one moth captured in the traps. What? We know they are here. Where are they? Stealth creatures. How smart could these moths be  to avoid the multiple traps I had set out in every closet and nook and cranny?  After several more days passed moth free,  I concluded that miraculously we somehow had solved the moth problem. Then a couple of days ago one flew out when I put on my favorite wool hat.

Help!

But moths are not the main problem anymore. Having never seen a crawling insect in our apartment for the entire time we have lived here, our apartment is now also infested with tiny ants. They are mainly in the utility closet next to the kitchen, which contains a washer/dryer and is where we feed out beloved feline, Oreo. Embry discovered the ants by chance, thinking she was sweeping up tiny dirt particles until the particles started to wiggle and move around. These creatures are infinitesimally small; and without a magnifying glass you can’t even be sure what the kind of insect they are, but with a close look using a microscope, they are ants alright. I glanced at Oreo’s water dish. Two of the hideous tiny invaders were swimming laps, gracefully I might add.

I recall the story in the Book of Genesis about God sending ten plagues to convince the Egyptians to free the Israelites. Could this be a sign?

Thus began our heroic campaign to kill the ants. Of course, the obvious thing to do would be to call the exterminator back, but I had little confidence in him, and besides, the ant problem took on the aura of a Fight to the Finish. Humans versus insects. Man versus nature. Who is the superior, we humans or a tiny creature with a brain that could not be larger than a grain of salt? We would show them!

This all started over two weeks ago. We have now gone through one large spray can of “Raid Roach and Ant Killer.” The protocol for us has been unrelenting diligence and determination—spraying with Raid the infested area and sweeping up the creatures several times a day followed by a body count. We would show them who’s boss. The first week the body count for each of the three or four daily sweeping routines was something like 60-70 ants, most still crawling though probably in agony. We would dump them into the sink, turn on the water and flush them down the drain. Four or five hours later, we would sweep again, followed by a body count, then another sweep before we went to bed. The body count did not change much during the first week though an increasing number of ants were dead, outnumbering those who were still trying to crawl. We moved our cat’s food and water dish into the guest bathroom so that the poison would not kill him, a noble action which resulted in the spread of the tiny beasts into that area of the apartment as well.

At the end of the first week—with a total body count of several hundred ants—we noticed something even more sinister. Along with the ants, there were even tinier, slim, white creatures that looked like worms. Worms? Where did they come from?  They must be the ant offspring and were evidence that the ant army was producing reinforcements at a rate that would surely overcome us. The stakes had suddenly gotten higher. We were killing them, but not fast enough since they kept producing new recruits.

Where were they coming from? We checked the floor behind a large utility shelf in the closet where Embry thought she could detect a small crack in the baseboard. That is where they must be coming from—at least that is what we thought. Humans outsmarted by ants? No way! We immediately covered the tiny crack with an epoxy sealer. That would show them. The army would be trapped in the wall and perish. Humans 1, ants 0.

Except today, almost three weeks after we had sealed off their clandestine opening for reinforcements, the awesome creatures are still managing to creep out from someplace. But from where? Not as many ants before. But the war continues.

Does any of this ring a bell? Ukraine and Russia? Israel and Gaza? Vietnam?

Embry and I continue to remain hopeful that we can prove that we are smarter than these tiny ants. But it also raises questions as to how smart our species really   is and how good our survival skills are. According to Wikipedia “modern ants” have been around on the planet Earth for 168 million years. Moths and butterflies have been around for over 200 million years. Human-like creatures? Only a few million at most, and Homo sapiens only about 200,000 years. We “modern humans”? Only a few thousand.

Despite the evidence concerning our failure so far, I still argue that the ants are not anywhere near as smart as we are. So what, if they have been around for hundreds of millions of years? Look at what we Homo sapiens have accomplished compared to these little guys in a very short period. High definition, giant screen TV. Electric cars. Smart phones. They don’t have any of this stuff.

However, I can imagine one of the ants responding, “Yeah, you are right, we do not have this stuff, but you humans also have huge arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, which could and probably will blow all of you up some day. Plus, you have trashed our beautiful planet and are responsible for climate warming, and that is even affecting us ants. And now you have AI to deal with. And unlike our species where except for our queen, we are all equal, you humans are anything but.  There are some of you that have a lot of money but many more with very little. Odds are that another 100 million years from now we will still be going strong. You humans will have long since disappeared.”

I had to admit that had he been able to talk the  ant would have made a point. What are the chances that we humans will outlast the ants?

I would not bet on it.

 

 

Passing Through Security

Reader alert: This true story contains some profanity and an adult situation.

On Christmas morning 2023 our dear friend, Naomi, drove Embry and me to BWI airport arriving at 7:45 for a flight to San Juan where we would meet our son, Andrew, and his wife, Karen, and our two grandchildren, Sadie and Parker, for a short holiday gathering. We were in plenty of time to make a 9:15 AM flight on Frontier Airlines, the cheapest airline Embry could find. The flight was listed to take off at 9:35, but for some reason Frontier made a big deal of completing all boarding by 9:15– “Absolutely no exceptions. If you are not on the plane by 9:15, you aren’t flying on Frontier.” Hey, no problem. Lines would not be all that long at eight in the morning on Christmas. Although the Frontier line was not short, it went fast, and we reached the Frontier baggage check counter at 8:05, checked one bag for the two of us for an exorbitant price, and headed to the security lines, which were also mercifully short. For some reason, the Frontier guy did not give us a boarding pass, commenting that “We do not do that anymore.”

On the way to the security checkpoint a nice young woman airport employee asked me if I would like a wheelchair. Oh, my goodness, I thought, do I really look that old? I thanked her for her thoughtfulness and refrained from saying, hey, I walk 15-20 miles a week, okay at a slow pace, but still decent for an 81-year-old, and yes, I have bad knees and balance issues, but I DO NOT NEED A WHEELCHAIR, thank you! Then in my mind I conceded: In three months I will turn 82. I am old.

We reached the security gate at 8:30, a full 45 minutes before the 9:15 boarding ultimatum, plenty of time. The security officer appeared young and inexperienced, but cordial. Under the new system at the International Terminal at BWI, all you need to do is look into a device that checks your eyes and you are in. You do not even need a boarding pass, only a ticket. How clever, I thought, sure speeds things up—until the security guard proclaimed that I would not be allowed to fly. Embry was already approved and headed toward the luggage check conveyor belt.

“Pardon me?” I replied.

“You are not flying,” he responded. “You did not pass security.”

This took about five minutes as he peered into his computer screen and fumbled around pressing keys. When I asked why I didn’t pass the eye scan security, he said he didn’t know, but I would have to return to the Frontier Airline desk and see if I “could work something out.” He said the problem was at their end. By this time Embry had returned realizing I was having trouble. I looked at my watch. It was now 8:45. We turned around and Embry charged back to the Frontier desk, where fortunately the line was now short. When I arrived slowly shuffling along behind her, the attendant had already given her boarding passes for both of us and assured her that this would get us through security.

We headed back. Embry was running. Where was the nice lady who could get me a wheelchair? However, since we still had over 25 minutes to make it, I was not panicking. I followed behind and calmly handed the guard the new boarding pass, looked into the eye checking device again, and started toward the bag screening area.

“Stop,” another security guard ordered, “You are not leaving security!”

I demanded to see his supervisor, a plump guy with white hair who turned his back and walked away, muttering, “I am his supervisor, and you are not leaving security.” Embry immediately charged back to Frontier; and by the time I arrived, the attendant was printing out yet another boarding pass for each of us, assuring us that this would definitely solve the problem. Back we went, this time avoiding the line and entering through the exit area as two cleaning ladies cheered us on. The clock was ticking. Only 15 minutes to go but still enough time to make it. Embry had already expressed her dismay and disbelief, asking, “Are you people nuts, do we look like terrorists?” I had been relatively quiet, cursing under my breath and scowling. I told Embry to head for the gate once she had her backpack and then try to block the entrance to the plane door until I arrived. At least one of us would make it to Puerto Rico. She had about eight minutes to make it.

By this time, I had become an issue. About a half dozen guards were gathered in a huddle, trying to figure out what to do with me. I demanded to know why I was not allowed through security. One of the guards informed me that I was a security risk because “I was not who I said I was.” When I asked the reason, he replied, “That is what the eye machine says.”

“Well, then who am I?”

“We don’t know and that’s the problem, but if the eye machine says you are a security risk because you aren’t who you say you are, then you aren’t flying. That is final. We have no choice.”

I pointed out that I had not one but two boarding passes.

“That does not mean anything anymore. The eye machine calls the shots.”

This is when I lost it and shouted, “Well then get a new fucking eye machine!”

“You are verbally assaulting a U.S. security officer and that is a federal crime, subject to fines and prison!” he replied sternly.

I glanced at my watch. It was 9:10. I had five minutes to make it.

I then charged toward the conveyor belt and placed my backpack on it. What did I have to lose? Miraculously, no one stopped me. The group of security personnel was still huddling and apparently someone with authority and common sense had showed up and decided to let me through. But time was now the issue. If the gate was not too far away, I could make it, plus I was sure Embry would press them to delay closing the door. That should work, at least for a few minutes.

I anxiously waited for the backpack to come through. Someone had pulled it off the conveyor belt and placed it on a table. Several employees were milling around and chatting, but no one was touching my backpack. After a couple of minutes passed, then another, I screamed out, “Will someone please look at my backpack? I am going to miss my plane!”

 No one came to my rescue. I hollered out again, and someone who looked like he could be a supervisor walked over and explained that it was a shift change and everyone was on a five-minute break.

I lost it again. “What? Do you realize I have only a minute or two to make my flight and everyone is just standing around? I have flown hundreds of times and this is the most outrageous behavior I have ever seen.”

He sighed and directed one of the employees to examine the contents of the backpack. She walked slowly over to the table where the bag was and in slow motion opened the backpack and proceeded to throw a can of shaving cream and a can of sunscreen into the garbage. She then handed me the backpack, glaring, turned her back, and continued her break time conversation.

Finally,” I sighed, grabbed my backpack, and started to shuffle as fast as I could toward the gate. If only I had accepted the nice lady’s wheelchair offer.  A security guard grabbed me. “You can’t leave security until you go through the scanner.”

“What? I have already been through the scanner!”

“But you had your shoes on.”

 “I am 81 years old, for God’s sake!”

“Yes, but the eye machine has determined you are a high security risk. You are not who you say you are. And you must go to the back of the line. And this time you must take your shoes off.”

I tugged at my shoes and broke into the line. I was so nervous at this point that it took several tries to get the correct scanner image. Finally, the guard waved me through. I looked at my watch. It was 9:20. Embry could block the door from closing, but only for only a few minutes.

I was doomed.

Finally good luck! It turned out that Gate Five was the first gate and only a few steps away; and as I arrived panting, there was Embry along with a bunch of other passengers waiting to board. The 9:15 boarding mandate was not enforced after all. The plane took off at 9:35 as scheduled, we arrived in San Juan on time, and had a great time staying in an Airbnb in the rain forest with the family. Happy ending. But still the mystery of why I am not who I say I am remains unsolved.

Four days later we said our goodbyes and arrived at the airport well in advance of our flight back to BWI—over two hours to clear a very long security line and make it to the gate. The only glitch was that since the machines at Frontier were not working, we did not have a paper ticket or a paper boarding pass. There might be a problem getting through security. Also, the Frontier Airline attendant said because our checked bag was six pounds over the limit, we would have to pay another $75. Embry grabbed the large suitcase and began dumping out items on the floor and stuffing them into our backpacks. When the clerk looked puzzled, I replied, “She is Scotch-Irish. She can’t help it.” After about five minutes we had managed to reduce the weight by ten pounds and were on our way.

As expected, because we did not have a paper ticket and the tickets on Embry’s cellphone were too small for the computer to read, there was another delay. This time the security officer was nice and accommodating though it took about 10 minutes for us to clear, leaving a line of at least 50 agitated people, whom we had blocked behind us. I thanked the guard enthusiastically and told him how great it was to be dealing with a real person rather than an eye machine.

“The eye machines suck,” he said, “they are a disaster.”

We had made it! Embry breezed through the scanner, and I was next. The first glitch was that because I was required to take off my belt, I had to hold onto my pants to keep them from falling down. When directed by the security guard to raise my hands, down they went. The two teenage girls waiting behind me giggled. With great effort I managed to pull my pants up and keep them from falling long enough to get through the scanner. Off to the gate. Plenty of time.

“Not so fast,” said the security guard. He then picked up his cell phone and called for a backup. I am hard of hearing, but I managed to hear him say in an anxious voice, “Security risk here! Got a guy with a gun in his jockstrap.”

He then turned to me and said that there was a problem. The scanner had identified an object in my groin area and labeled it a high security risk. He had to check it out. He then asked if I had ever had a urology exam. When I said yes, he said this would  be similar but not as bad and that I would not be required to take off my pants.

“Excuse me,” I said in disbelief. “In order to board an airplane, I have to have a urology test right here in the airport? Are you serious?”

“I am dead serious, but it is not a urology exam. It is like a urology exam,” he replied in a cordial tone and a sheepish grin and then went back to the scanner. He returned with a large photo showing my body, hands held high, and a bright six inch, red square in the area starting just below my belt. “That red square is the way the scanner signals high security risk. I am required to check this out. It could be a weapon.”

“Not at my age, for God’s sake.”

 By this time security backup had arrived with a pistol, which he had not taken out of the holster, though he kept his fingers on the handle.  All this effort took several minutes, which meant more delays for the same people who had been standing in line when we were trying to enter security. Many were anxious to get to their gate before the doors closed and were not happy campers. I heard someone angrily groan and  pointed to me, “It’s him again!”

I will not describe in detail the procedure to determine if anyone has a weapon hidden in his or her underwear. The entire procedure took less than five minutes. When someone showed up to take the guard’s place on the scanner, the people in line behind me started to filter in. But instead of running to their gate, however, most hung around to watch the “genital  probe” procedure and to see if I was a terrorist or got arrested. The guard remained on his knees the entire time. I was standing.  I tried to look up to the sky and not at any of the crowd but could not help hearing children ask, “Daddy, what are they doing to that old man?”

The most embarrassing moment came when the guard tightly wrapped his arms around me just below my waist and put his ear next to my zipper, I suppose listening to determine if there was a ticking bomb in my underwear. I glanced at what had become a rather large crowd of security personnel and passengers, most of whom by this time were gaping in disbelief. Some people smiled in puzzled amusement, but others, especially older women, turned their heads away. One person, Embry Howell, was laughing uncontrollably.

The security guard smiled apologetically and declared, “No weapons. You pass. Have a good flight.” Unlike the guards at BWI, he was polite and nonconfrontational the entire time. He was just doing his job.

While I was waiting for the guard to complete his inspection, I said to myself, “I gave up serious distance running over twenty years ago. The same for tennis. I gave up power walking five years ago. I gave up sailing one year ago. I think it is  time to give up traveling that involves airplanes.” I have no explanation as to why I was declared to be someone I was not at BWI or why the scanner in San Juan showed that I was hiding a gun in my underwear. These mysteries will remain unsolved. But what will not remain unsolved is that today airport security has reached the point of absurdity. That is why Embry was laughing uncontrollably and why I joined her in the best belly laugh I have had in years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Could Cost Biden a Second Term

There is still a lot of water that will flow under the bridge before November 5, 2024. The presidential race could change, but right now it is starting to look bad for Joe Biden. I am a Biden supporter and will remain so. I think that overall, he has been a great president, given the hand he was dealt. But he finds himself between a rock and a hard place, which could make him a one term president, and it is not the MAGAs and Trump fanatics that will hammer the nail in the coffin. It will be the progressives and the younger voters, who normally vote for a Democrat. The two issues that put him at risk are Israel’s War on Hamas in Gaza and immigration.

First, the situation in Gaza. It is nearly impossible for a sensitive person to watch the evening news night after night without flinching when seeing  young children crying out for parents whom they will never see again, when hearing women crying and screaming in despair, when watching the total destruction of apartment buildings and hospitals, and the long lines of people marching to the south, which was supposed to be a safe haven, but now is in the line of fire and unrelenting bombing. “Only” about twenty thousand Palestinians have been declared dead so far, eighty percent being women and children. Netanyahu so far has refused to allow sufficient aid, supplies, food, and medicine to get into Gaza to avert a looming humanitarian crisis of Biblical proportions. He is adamantly opposed to a lengthy ceasefire, truce, or negotiations to end the war. For this to happen Hamas must be “completely destroyed.” But the cost of killing every Hamas fighter and supporter could mean killing every Palestinian living in Gaza.

U.N. healthcare workers warn that time is running out. Unless there is a ceasefire and the needed medical and nutritional assistance are allowed to get to those in dire need, in addition to the deaths by bombs and ammunition, we can expect cholera, dysentery and other deadly diseases along with mass starvation.

It may also mean the end of Joe Biden’s hope to be a second term president. As much as most Democrats despise Trump and all he stands for, many on the progressive side will stay home and so will a lot of younger Democratic voters who tend to favor the Palestinian cause over the Israel’s. Biden needs those votes to win. Many will not be able to pull the lever in the voting booth for someone on whose watch this catastrophe happened. They will not be able to vote for someone whose country cast the single veto for a ceasefire in the U.N. Security Council. They will not be able to vote for someone whose government continues to send billions of dollars every year to support  Israel’s war effort.

Make no mistake: Joe Biden is not a bad person. He is not “evil” or responsible for this war. He is stuck between taking a stand on one of two alternative, irreconcilable choices. Were he to take a hard line against Israel’s excessive overreaction, he would lose many of the votes of Democrats who support Israel over the Palestinians; and there a lot of them—almost the same percentage as support Palestine. But if he is unable to get Netanyahu to back off, he loses many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. There is no question that he is trying to walk a middle ground and trying to get Israel to come to the negotiating table but so far with very little to show for it. If the war is not over and if massive aid does not flow into Gaza well in advance of the election, Biden will be in real trouble.

The other issue is immigration. The Republicans are using border security and deportation of illegal immigrants to get concessions to allow other critical laws to pass Congress. Today on the news I learned that Biden has hinted he may be willing to make concessions regarding asylum as a reason to allow people to enter the country and in sending back illegal immigrants. I do not know how this will end up, but if it means significant rounding up of immigrants and “dreamers,” it will mean another slap in the face of many progressives. Biden cannot make too many concessions to hard line, right wingers without alienating his base. Many will stay home.

Poor guy. He is caught in the middle of the Great Alienation that our country is experiencing. We progressives and MAGAs rarely speak to each other. We do not understand one another. We do not see the other side. Yet the stakes in 2024 have never been higher. The Times published a lead article today, December 19, showing Trump continues a two-point lead over Biden overall. The number of all voters who disapprove of the way Biden is handling the Gaza War is an astonishing 57% compared to only 33% who approve. Some 46% say Trump would do a better job handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to 38% for Biden. Almost half (47%) of all  voters favor Israel in the conflict compared to only 20% for the Palestinians.  (Democrats are split—31% for Israel, 34% for Palestine.) However, the numbers are reversed with younger (under 30) voters—only 20% for Israel compared to 46% for Palestine.

The thought of another Trump presidency is a nightmare. And if Trump does win, the United States may end up as another casualty of the Israel Palestine War in Gaza.