Caste and Class in an Iconic Washington Apartment Building

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

So, what is the problem?

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

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

Exactly. That is the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Thanksgiving Week To Remember

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty of time but not that much time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truck made it with about two inches to spare.

Whew!

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

But what a traumatic time they have been through!

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery and Wonder: Where Science and Religion Intersect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have nothing more to add.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, Joe, Just Say No!

Dear Mr. President,

Mr. President, first, congratulations on the strong mid-term showings. We Dems beat all the odds due in part to your campaigning and championing the cause of democracy. You also get kudos for  the success you have had in getting significant legislation passed in a divided Congress and a divided country—against all the odds. Yes, I know your approval ratings are low because food and gas cost more, rents are up, the stock market is jittery, and some fear a recession,  but you got us through the 2020-2021 covid outbreaks and helped millions of companies and people avoid bankruptcy . You also championed progressive legislation on infrastructure, combating climate change, lowering prescription drug prices, and raising taxes on large corporations. These are huge accomplishments. Unemployment remains at historic lows and wages are up. You have been a world leader in the opposition to Russia in its war on Ukraine. You have restored respect by world leaders for the office of President of the United States.

I know you have a lot on your to-do list to accomplish in the next two years and despite hostile Republican opposition to basically everything you will propose, I am confident that you will continue to move our country forward.

Bottom line, Mr. President, you have been and are a great President. The historians will be kind to you, even if you are not able to get as much done in the next two years. While it is true that you are not the most charismatic President we have ever had, your humility, common decency and ability to relate to the average American are welcomed traits not often found in a President of the United States. Your empathy for those in distress—due in part to the personal losses you have experienced—resonates with others and has helped many who have suffered personal loss. In my book you are a hero.

Now I know that you are contemplating whether you will  run for a second term and have hinted that you are going to announce that you will. Mr. President, with respect , I plead to you: Don’t do it. Just say no!

Here is the reason: You are too old. In a couple of weeks you will turn 80. I can say this because we are almost  the same age. You were born November 30, 1942. I was born the same year on April 1. I am eight months older.

Anyone our age knows that there are issues associated with old age and aging.  When we were born in 1942, our life expectancy was 77. We have outlived more than half the people born that year. I know social class, gender, race and income also affect longevity; and for this reason I note that  about two thirds of of my high school and college classmates also have beaten the odds and are still alive. But that does not mean we are in great health. Many of my friends are dealing with serious health issues—like Parkinson’s, cancer, strokes, heart disease, melanoma, and dementia.

Look, I just got a physical this week and I am grateful to report that I am in good health for an 80-year old. I still get in my 15-17 miles of walking (albeit slowly) every week and with one exception (not life threatening), do not have any serious health issues. However, if I am sitting in a low chair or seat with no arms, it is a challenge to get up. My balance is not what it used to be even in my 70s, and there is no way without risking my life that I can manage to climb or descend stairs without hanging onto a railing. I still have my marbles but forget names occasionally that I should remember. Hey, this is normal aging.  This is what we octogenarians have to deal with. Certainly, you know what I am talking about.  This is the way it works on the planet Earth. We humans—like all animals—have a beginning and an end. For someone in their 80s, the end is getting closer. Sure, you may feel ok now, but things could and often do change in a heartbeat.

The four factors I think that you need to keep in mind as you make your decision to run again are these: energy level, stamina, mental acuity, and judgement. Committing to run again would mean six more years in the hardest and most demanding job on the planet Earth. No former President has been that old or even close to it. If you win the next election and finish out your second term, you will be 86 when it is time to retire. Ask your team of doctors what the chances are that someone who is in pretty good shape for his age at age 80 will sail through until his mid 80s with no changes to overall health and capabilities. I am not a doctor, but I would suggest the answer is zero. Just spend some time at any retirement community and check out how the 70-somethings are doing compared to the 80-somethings. That is the business I  was in. Trust me, there is a big difference.

Mr. President, to put yourself through this and to put the country through this as they wonder, as is natural, whether you are still playing with a full deck, just does not make sense. And what about other world leaders as they monitor every move you make and ask the same questions about the leadership ability  of someone in his early to mid  80s. It is not fair to yourself or to your country. A statesman—which you are—would say thanks but no thanks. It is time to pass the baton to a younger generation.

Now to put this in perspective, I checked out on the web the ages of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 Companies. Their jobs do not begin to compare to yours in terms of stress, stamina, and the need for good judgement. The average age of a Fortune 500 CEO is 57. Only one is older than you are now—Warren Buffet and that does not really count (He is 91.). Only a handful are over 70. Most retire at age 65, as is required by many companies. The reasons for this  I have just spelled out.

And for those who argue that age should not be a factor, I also checked out the life expectancy on the internet  of a white male, age 80. The answer is seven years. Hey, some would argue that proves there is no risk associated with serving a second term, right? After serving another four years, you will still have a full year to spare. No problem. Why worry?

Please.

There are three other final reasons that you should not run again. The first is that you probably will  not win a second term. Now if Trump  wins the nomination, which I think is now unlikely, you may have a chance, but God help the country if Trump is the Republican nominee. Your opponent would more likely  be DeSantis or  perhaps another Ivy League renegade like Cruz  or a fake moderate like Youngkin. DeSantis, now considered to be the most likely, is young by comparison (44), smart, vigorous, charismatic, and very conservative though not a total  Trump wannabe. DeSantis would likely beat you. So would  Youngkin (55) or someone like him. Mr.President, it all has to do with age, not political positions or qualifications. A vigorous candidate in his or her 40s or 50s is very likely to beat an old guy who is in his early 80s unless the younger candidate is a nutcase, which is certainly possible in the Republican Party, but you can’t count on it.  

The second reason is that second terms are for most presidents more challenging and less successful than their first. Think about your eight years with Obama. The second term was spent mainly trying to preserve the ACA and putting out fires. George W. had the disastrous Iraq insurgency to deal with. Bill Clinton had his Lewinsky affair. Johnson’s experience with Vietnam was so bad he chose not to run again. Reagan had his Iran-Contra scandal. Lesson learned: quit while you are ahead. If the next two  years of  your first term are as good as your first two, there will be a favorable place for you in the history books. Don’t risk a second term.

The third and perhaps most important is that it is not fair to your party. It is time for a younger generation to step up to the plate. There are lots of younger, fabulous leaders in the Democratic Party, with intelligence, compassion, good judgement and fire in the belly. They are dedicated to the same progressive ideals that you are. I think of past Presidents like John Kennedy, Obama, Clinton—they were  all young when they were first elected and all strong and (for the most part) successful presidents. It is that time again now.

In fact, if you did decide to run, it could have a devastating  impact on your party if you were challenged in the primary. Many loyal Democrats feel the same way I do. It could happen.

It is time to pass the baton to a younger generation. It is their turn now. Make it happen, Mr. President. You can do it. I hope and pray you will make the right decision.

If you will indulge my informality, allow me to close with this unsolicited but fundamentally sound advice: Hey, Joe, just say No!

Your admirer,

Joseph T.  Howell

Fellow Octogenarian

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dodging A Bullet

Because Embry was away election night attending a convention, I was so apprehensive that I could not survive the evening alone that I invited three couples here at the Kennedy-Warren to help me through what I thought was likely to be a wake. They all came, armed with liquid medications, prepared for the worst. Their presence made a huge difference for which I am grateful.

Friends, it could have been a disaster. My acquaintance, Swarthmore, had warned me that this might be  the beginning of the end of democracy as we have known it if the outcome was a Red Wave with election deniers and MAGA Republicans winning most of their races. But occasionally life brings pleasant surprises. This was one of those evenings. The election results of the 2022 mid-terms will be written up in the history books and read by future generations.

No, we can’t call the results a total success, and two Senate seats are still up for grabs, but what could have happened did not happen. We dodged a bullet.

What could have happened was that the fanatical Trumpers and election deniers got elected across the board, and we Democrats got thrashed. Afterall, when there is an unpopular president, the mid-term elections historically have been catastrophic for the party in power. Democrats in Obama’s first mid-term election lost several Senate seats and over 60 House seats. Bill Clinton’s experience was not much better. Pundits on Fox News were predicting the greatest thrashing in U.S. history with the “Red Wave” decisively taking over both the Senate and the House with huge gains, setting the stage for a Trump comeback and essentially bringing the Biden Administration to its knees.

What  did happen was this: The Senate is likely to hold as Swarthmore predicted and the Republicans will gain at most only a handful of seats in the House. Even more important very few of the election deniers and avid MAGA Republicans got elected. This is true not only for governors and representatives in Congress but, even more important, for state secretaries of state, and state attorneys general, the people  who are responsible for conducting future elections and doing the vote counting. A majority of the candidates Trump supported did not win. Democracy survived. The fingers in the dike held—at least for now.

The other factor that has not gotten much attention is that none of these Republican losers are calling the election fraudulent and rigged—at least not yet. If this holds, it could be the brightest sign of all that our election process will survive the Trump onslaught. It certainly should dawn on some people as ironic because the same election procedures were in place for the 2022 mid-term elections as for the 2020 presidential election. Will we get past these false claims about the “big steal” and move on? Anyone’s guess, but surely a big deal if the false accusations about election fraud remain dormant.

So what happened?

According to most of the post-election analyses that I have read or listened to, what distinguished the 2022 mid-terms from previous elections was the  large increase in the number of women voting and an even larger increase in voting from younger voters, the  Gen Zs. The reasons for this are due mainly to three things—the Dobbs Decision by the Supreme Court on abortion, the threats to democracy caused by January 6 Insurrection, and the Maga Republicans claims of election fraud. I would add a fourth factor—the fear of accelerated climate change if the Republicans are calling all the shots. Were it not for this increase in the voting block of women and younger people, the election results would likely have been much closer to the Red Wave most Republicans were predicting.

For this I suppose credit goes to the Supreme Court for its outrageous decision on abortion  and to Trump for his continuing  in-your-face lies, outrageous claims and accusations on line, and his stirring up the pot. While his base will probably never abandon him, more Republicans appear to be getting tired of his antics and weary of  the chaos that goes along with it. His base is not enough to get him reelected. Could this mean he will fade? Probably unlikely, but we can always hope. But then there is DeSantis waiting in the wings, but I am not going to let that spoil the stew for now.

So, yes, election night was a good night for us Dems—especially when compared to what it could have been. Are we home free? Hardly. You can count on the Republicans even with a tiny majority in the House to pursue the hearings on Hunter Biden and anyone else they can come up with in hopes of embarrassing the President, the  impeachment of President Biden on the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, and using the debt ceiling issue to coerce the Democrats into submission on issues like fighting climate change and trying to level the playing field when it comes to race and class inequalities. It will be nasty. But it won’t be as bad as it might have been and for that we can be thankful.

 

 

 

Are You Ready For The Midterms?

To the reader: introducing Swarthmore (“Swarth”) Gilligan. Mr.Gilligan is a fictitious resident at the Kennedy-Warren Apartments where Embry and I live, who I recently learned is an agent of the British Intelligence Agency, who is in charge of analyzing countries the Brits consider at risk of losing their democracy. Before coming to the U.S., he was in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. He has spent the last several months interviewing experts and I thought would be a great person to talk to if he would agree, which he kindly did reminding me that our meeting had to be clandestine. What follows is a transcript of the imagined conversation that we had on a park bench in Dupont Circle where the very British Mr. Gilligan was wearing a trench coat, dark glasses, and a Dick Tracy hat.

Me: So, Swarth, thanks for granting the interview, and my first question is  how serious a situation do you think the U.S. is in now right now, and is there a chance that we are on the verge of a civil war as some are warning?

Swarth:  Very serious, and, yes, while I do not believe that a civil war is certain, democracy as you have known it in the United States is certainly in danger. January 6th was just a shot across the bow. You have two political parties that demonize each other. One of these political parties supports an autocrat for “supreme leader” of the country, refuses to accept election results when the opposition party wins, and turns a blind eye when violence is used to achieve their ends. Furthermore, many on that side are fueled with religious fervor and believe they are doing the will of God. I have studied similar situations in other countries, and the ingredients are all in place for a toxic stew leading possibly to the end of democracy in the United States. The other political party is trying to play by the old rules and is being outmaneuvered.

Me: How important will the midterms be in determining what happens next?

Swarth: What happens in the midterm elections will have a huge impact on the future of your country. This election is one of the most important in the history of the United States.

Me: So, what do you think is going to happen?

Swarth: Well, I have spent a lot of time studying the situation, thinking about it, and reporting back to my government, and here is my assessment regarding your midterms and what will follow:

There will be a stalemate, but the seeds leading to disaster will have been planted. The Republicans will take the House by a dozen or so seats, but the Democrats will hang on by the skin of their teeth and keep 50 seats in the Senate. It will be a mess, and nothing which you would call “progressive” will get done for the next two years. Hearings will begin immediately in the House where Hunter Biden will be the first focus of attention in order to humiliate your President. The Republicans in the House will then go after Merrick Garland and a host of others including the President of the United States, whom they will impeach. Tit for tat, you know, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The House will pass all sorts of legislation– making abortion illegal under federal law, cutting taxes on the rich and big corporations, cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and most social programs, rolling back initiatives on climate change, blocking the IRS in its efforts to nail billionaire tax cheats, killing what is left of affirmative action, spending more money on prisons , and trying to kill virtually everything that Biden accomplished in his first two years. But little will come of it because they will not have the votes in the Senate; and even if they do win a majority in the Senate, the filibuster would keep onerous bills from passing. Biden would veto the terrible bills that got through Congress. Because of the filibuster and the presidential veto, nothing too bad will happen on the legislative side.

Me: Well, that makes me feel a little better.

Swarth: Don’t mistake my comments as suggesting that the Republicans can’t cause serious trouble. The hearings and the legislation I just mentioned will hurt—plus, they will find many other ways of making life miserable for Biden and the Democrats. They are already threatening to use the debt ceiling as a way of forcing the Democrats to surrender because if the House does not vote to raise the debt ceiling, the U.S. will be forced to default on paying Treasury obligations putting the entire global financial system in disarray. Believe me, my country is very concerned, but I do not believe it will come to this, which could be called the nuclear option.

Me: Not a happy situation, if you ask me.

Swarth: But here is the thing: All eyes will turn immediately to the 2024 election, and the focus will be gearing up for the showdown. Trump will run again and likely so will Biden, but this time it will be different because Trump will win, along with more right-wing extremists and sycophants, who will be running for House and Senate seats, and this time the election will be stolen.  It will be stolen because following the 2022 elections the foxes will be in the chickencoops. Watch the races for governor and secretary of state in the battleground states. These seeds of disaster are just surfacing now at a time when your Democrats can’t do much to stop them. Democrats have been outfoxed. Red state legislatures and some purple states will pass laws giving more power to states and localities to make their own rules regarding voting and vote counting.

Republicans now control two-thirds of all legislatures in the U.S. Most Republican candidates for the offices responsible for running elections are Republican election deniers and avid Trumps supporters, who believe the 2020 election was stolen and probably will fight the results of elections where Democrats win in the midterms. They are already saying that if they win in 2022, they will replace voting machines with paper ballot counting. And whom are they going to choose to count the ballots? Super-partisan Republicans, of course.

Game over! Plus there is already evidence that vigilante efforts are being organized by 2020 election deniers to intimidate voters from the opposing side to stay away from the polls. It is a frightening picture. 

These actions will shake your country at its roots and tear it apart. It will lead to what I call “the Great Reckoning”—the existential moment when your country must deal with these actions and take decisive steps that assure that your democracy survives. If the voting process becomes rigged–which is not the case now but will be in 2024 if the foxes remain in the hen house– democracy in the United States of America is doomed. I have seen this happen in other countries. Look at what just happened in Israel. Look at Turkey and Hungary and even Poland.

Me: Oh, my goodness! But what about civil war, which you hear so much about nowadays?

Swarth: There are three scenarios regarding the 2024 election, each very different with different outcomes that could happen. I have already predicted a Trump victory in 2024, not because he will win fair and square but because the election process will be compromised. If it is not Trump, you can be sure it will be a Trump wannabe– DeSantis, Cruz, or Hawley or worse.

First scenario: Trump wins. This will not cause a civil war because the guys with the guns will be in power. What it will cause is a police state. There will be turmoil with the Left pushing back with lots of demonstrations and some violence. Trump will declare martial law, deputize  militia armies like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and others as his personal “presidential guard”; and since he will have control of both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, he will be able to get pretty much what he wants. What you thought were Constitutional guarantees like free speech and the right to assemble will slowly disappear. The rigged voting process will lock in Republican control for the foreseeable future. Democracy over! Efforts to curb climate change will come to a virtual halt. You can understand  why my country is very concerned about that.

Second scenario: Biden–or some other Democrat–wins. Even though I am not predicting this, it could happen.  But this is when civil war in your country breaks out. It will make your January 6th rebellion look like a church picnic. I know from my intelligence gatherings that this is what the Right Wing militias are preparing for now. They are stockpiling large arsenals and beginning intensive training for an insurgency. Some are reported to be trying to secure nuclear weapons.  Your FBI knows a lot about this as does British Intelligence. The problem is you can’t do much now to stop it, given the lack of gun control laws in most states. How the civil war turns out will depend mainly on what the U.S. military does. Since we know that many in the military are already Trump supporters, it is an open question. If the military and national guards do not bolt to what I would call the Dark Side, then ultimately I believe democracy in your country would survive, but it would be bloody.

Third scenario: America comes to its senses now. You might call this the Liz Cheney scenario. Enough elected Republicans come to realize that their country is on thin ice and that very bad things could happen. The two parties agree to a temporary truce to put in place guardrails that will keep the United States from crashing over a cliff. The guardrails are these:

  • Passing federal legislation requiring all states to follow strict guidelines that prevent voting fraud and prevent limiting voter access for all federal, state, and local elections.
  • Passing federal legislation outlawing false information on all social media relating to all elections and all candidates.
  • Passing federal legislation limiting the amount of money that individuals and “nonprofit” groups and PACs can spend on elections, way too much of which you Americans call “Dark Money.”
  • Taking tough governmental actions now against violent extremist groups that are planning to overthrow the government. I know that this is difficult given your Constitution; but unless you can get on top of this, you won’t have a Constitution.

Also it would not hurt to ditch or at least reform the electoral college process and gerrymandering. You are supposed to live in a democratic republic where individual votes are supposed to make a difference. That is not always the case in your country.  I know that it is a bit of a stretch to think that all these reforms could happen. But some of them must happen–especially the first one, if you want to avert disaster. Long term all of them need to happen.

There are probably more things that could be done—like addressing the root causes of your national discontent– but if your country does not put in place tough laws and rules now that assure free and fair elections going forward, you are on the path to losing your democracy, and the whole world will suffer. My country is surely concerned as are many others.

Me: So what are the odds that we will come to our senses and do something about this?

Swarth: Sorry, got to go. See you at the Kennedy-Warren bar sometime soon?

 

 

 

 

 

Enough, Enough Already!

If you have been following this blog, you know that I am an unapologetic, bleeding-heart Democrat. I have never voted for a Republican as best as I can remember and have been accused in the past of falling into the “Yellow Dawg” category, voting for a Democrat who happened to be a yellow dog. I have also been inclined to support Democrats financially who are in tight races in swing states. Since the 2022 Mid Terms are probably the most important midterm elections in our time, I have spread around my modest contributions to a lot of candidates.

For this I have paid a price. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

Since I started sending money to progressive Democratic candidates via the internet last spring, I have gotten lots of text messages and emails and phone calls, but the harassment has grown exponentially over the past several weeks as election day nears. Even though I have gone through the “Unsubscribe” exercises and “Stop” exercises a couple times, somehow the candidates keep finding a way around this and keep badgering me. Plus, the list of email senders keeps expanding. All it takes I conclude is to give money to one candidate and your name and contact information become viral again and passed around to any candidate looking for a soft touch.

Here are the average daily statistics for last week:

  • Around 20 calls a day to our land line, where the “DNC” name often comes up or the message “unnamed caller.” I hardly ever answer these calls, but the few that I have answered have been from political campaigns. No one ever leaves a message.
  • About 15 text messages a day from desperate candidates, almost all of which are doom and gloom, “no way I can win without more help from you” kind of thing.
  • About 30 email messages a day. Ah, the emails. They are the worst. A typical email starts off with something like, “Joe, I am weeping, literally weeping, there is no hope, send money now…” or “Joe, are you still a Democrat? What has happened?” or “Joe, who do like more, Trump, or Biden? Please take the survey, which will only be counted if you send more money.…” or “Joe, could you chip in $3 to help me avoid defeat by a terrible opponent who is stomping me?” And then when you go to the donation part, there is no place for a $3 contribution, the lowest amount being $25. Well, that is not so bad, but why then ask for only three bucks? Bait and switch.

As is evident, I am on the verge of election fatigue/mental breakdown. I get about five emails a day from Fetterman, even more from Tim Ryan, some only minutes apart. Stacy Abrams and Raphael Warnock are not far behind. Then there is Cheri Beasley (NC), Mandela Barnes (Wisconsin), Maggie Hassan (NH), Charlie Crist (Florida), Mark Kelly (Arizona) and of course the multiple emails from Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, James Carville, Move On, the Lincoln Project, and the National Democratic Party, the Democratic Senate group, the Democratic House group and from countless other organizations and candidates, some that I have never even heard of. The winner of this disparate group was a guy wanting $5 for his campaign to be a dog catcher in a small town in Oregon. Well, ok, not really, but you get the point.

I do not know who is responsible for all of this, but I think at some point it must become counter productive and borders on being outrageous. Perhaps research shows that pleas of desperation and doom and gloom get better results than upbeat positive messages like, “Joe, thanks so much for your support in the past and because of you and others like you our campaign is going great, and we are within striking distance of a win. Could you help get us across the finish line?” Not a single message that I can remember is even close to this. In fact, I do not believe I have received one “thank you” from any candidate that I have given money to. They know I have contributed and have this information. It is true that my contributions are not large, but still.

Shame on you, Democrats! I will not abandon you, but I have to say that if this is the best you can do, no wonder we are in deep trouble, likely to lose the House, and the Senate is still a toss up.

 

 

 

 

Oh, For Those Good Old, Cleveland Park Dinner Parties

This week Embry and I attended what I would call an old fashioned, Cleveland Park dinner party. Cleveland Park is the Washington neighborhood we lived in for over 40 years before moving to the apartment house we live in now only a couple of blocks away.

This was only the third time in the last three years of Covid quarantine that we have been invited out to someone’s house or apartment for dinner. It reminded me of the dinner parties of old when we were young and just beginning to make our way in Washington. The hostess, a former neighbor in Cleveland Park, who now lives in a stunning apartment in a fabulous, iconic apartment house not far from our old neighborhood, prepared a splendid feast and invited one couple who are our close friends and another couple we had never met. Conversation was lively and interesting, and it turned out the guests we did not know were classmates of Embry’s brother at Yale Law School in the late 1960s. Due to Covid, old age, and the vagaries of life, these types of evenings rarely happen anymore. I could not help thinking back 40 plus years when they used to occur once or twice a month, and, alas, how much I loved them then, and still miss them now.

In 1972 Embry and I moved to Washington from Chapel Hill where we had both been graduate students.  Our son, Andrew, was about two at the time and Jessica was not born yet. We packed our old Toyota station wagon to the brim.  Minette, our beloved cat, a combination Siamese and Russian Blue, sat in the backseat next to Andrew. This was a time when a young couple with two entry level jobs could afford to live in a close-in, DC neighborhood.  We bought a single family, fixer-upper next to the Cleveland Park Public Library and within a mile of the National Cathedral, even closer to the National Zoo, and not far from several highly regarded schools. It was then and remains now an ideal urban neighborhood with large, single-family homes under towering shade trees, stately apartment buildings, and only a short walk to the Metro and neighborhood shopping and restaurants. The only difference is that today, a young couple with entry level jobs can’t afford to live there. We paid $40,000 for our house in 1972, a rounding error of what it would be worth today. We lived in that house for over 40 years and never regretted it for a moment.

But as attractive as the neighborhood was then and continues to be, what I remember most are the neighbors and friends we had while living there. We moved in before the neighborhood had the cachet it has now and at a time when a lot of people our age were moving in. The time was magical: All these 30-somethings moving to Washington—many ending up in our neighborhood. They were from all over the country, mostly Type-As, some with degrees from elite colleges and universities, and most with graduate or professional degrees. And most of us had the same goal—to make a difference, to leave a mark, to be in the fray, and to be where the action is. Making money and social status may have been a factor for some but never mentioned. Almost everyone we knew  was a Democrat, liberal, smart, energetic, and focused on careers. Most were couples with young children. Women were just as educated, focused and ambitious as men. They had their law or advanced degree, and they landed the same types of career-track jobs as their husbands. Of course, there were exceptions though few were stay-at-home moms or housewives, and the women that did not have career-track jobs were usually neighborhood activists and community leaders.

It was fabulous! How often do you get a chance to live in a neighborhood where so many people are  interesting and smart, have similar values, and are on a pathway to try to leave a mark? Naturally, there were a whole lot of lawyers, some with degrees from famous law schools and many involved in the political arena, but there were also a whole lot of others just as interesting and just as smart—architects, engineers, artists, teachers, college professors, policy wonks, civil servants, journalists, writers, activists, legislative aids, nonprofit workers, and researchers. There were few businessmen or women (except for realtors) and only a couple of doctors. Of course, there were older people who had been living in Cleveland Park for some time who did have traditional business jobs and  careers but few of those types  were moving in at the time we arrived or  became part of our social network. I did not know anyone who belonged to a country club or had any desire to join one.  I knew only a handful of Republicans.

However, Cleveland Park was not entirely  the Never-never land I am suggesting. Every neighborhood has its kooks and eccentrics, and Cleveland Park had its share. I am especially  sad to confess that almost all our friends were white, many from privileged backgrounds, and that still applies to the neighborhood today. Lingering de facto segregation continues and remains a thorn in our national flesh. There is some truth, I suppose, in the complaints by Trump supporters and others that we “progressives” in Washington are a bunch of coastal elites born with silver spoons in our mouths and insensitive to “ordinary people.” Despite these criticisms, Embry and I loved the people and the place. I make no apologies.

And this is where the dinner parties come in. That is how you met some of these interesting and engaging people, who might live up the street or around the block. We would get a call from a friend to come over for a casual dinner on a Saturday where a few other friends of the host would also be  gathered. Eight to ten people would be a typical number. We would know about half the guests and make new friends with the guests we did not already know. The who-do-you-know exchanges would often happen in the early hours, and almost always there were mutual friends identified  regardless of where people grew up or attended college. The mood and ambience were casual and the food delicious—sometimes potluck– with lots of talk about great issues and great challenges and interesting things that happened this week on Capitol Hill or at City Hall or that think tank or that government agency. Empty bottles of wine started to pile up early. Sitting around the table the conversation was both chit chat and group dialogue. What came home to me almost every time was how interesting and smart these people were and how engaged with the world.  The parties would go on until after 10 or even later before people started to head home—sometimes staggering.

Then it would be our turn. I guess that Embry and I hosted these dinner party gatherings of friends (many, but not all just with Cleveland Park neighbors) at least quarterly and sometimes more often. And like other hosts we tried to mix it up with about half the guests not already friends but who we thought would be compatible, and we were almost always right. This is how  social networks grow and how people expand friendships. It was hard work pulling off a  dinner party but always fun and always worth it. I loved it. Embry is less enthusiastic, remembering how much work was involved in hosting but also looks back on that time of youthful energy with fondness.

I can’t remember the time the dinner parties started to peter out but think it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s when everyone’s kids were then mostly in college, when work was most demanding since most of us were about as far along in our careers as we were going to get, had lots of responsibilities, and, frankly,  no longer had  the energy to pull off a dinner party. The ones that did happen were fewer and smaller, and eating out with friends at a restaurant became the preferred option.

Of course, life changes over time. Most of us living in Cleveland Park in the 1970s and 1980s are now in our 80s or close to it. Some of our friends have moved out of the neighborhood. Some marriages have failed. Some have died. Some now live in long term care or retirement communities. But over the long haul many friendships have continued.

In those early, heady days of the 70s  and 80s when there was so much youthful drive, energy,  determination, and optimism, how many of us over the years were able to live out our ambitions and to achieve our goals? Did any of us live up to our potential,  make a dent, or make the world a better place, even if ever so slightly?

I think we who moved into Cleveland Park in the 1970s are less sanguine now about how to answer those questions. The world is surely in worse shape now than it was in those days, and this has happened on our watch. You know the litany: climate change, continuing race and class divisions, greater disparity in incomes between the ultra rich and everyone  else, Trumpism,  and the threats to our democracy. The Russia-Ukraine War continues with no end in sight, and Putin is threatening a nuclear “solution.” China has now become an enemy. There are probably more dictators in the world now than there were then, in those early days. So perhaps the more apt question is not whether we achieved our dreams but whether we ran the race as best as we could. I suspect many of us would answer yes to that question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in the Saddle (So to Speak)

Several people have reached out to me to ask if I am still alive, since I have gone a month without a blog post. The answer is yes, but I am the first to admit that 2022 has not been one of my best years.

The major culprit, of course, is Covid. Hammered on a cruise ship in Iceland, I recovered just in time in early July to test negative and upon leaving the ship, did not have to be transferred to a “Covid Hotel” in Copenhagen. What I did not know then was that Covid was not finished with me. I have self-diagnosed as having Long Covid because the original Covid symptoms have now returned three times, all seemingly triggered by my overdoing it—after I had attempted to resume my regular activities of getting out and about, routine walking 2-3 miles a day, and doing volunteer activities associated with work on various nonprofit boards. Being hospitalized in Portland ME for another bout of BVS did not help much either (see previous blog posts about the incidents when I ended up in the emergency room at Washington Hospital Center and recently in Portland, ME, “ER Adventures 2022”). These recurrences have tended to last two to three weeks before I feel like I am able to get back to normal and declare myself free from this horrid disease. Then for a few days I am fine only to be hammered again with total fatigue and exhaustion, coughing, body aches and malaise. As I write this post, I feel fine, and have felt almost normal for three or four days. Tomorrow I could be hammered again by my unwelcomed nemesis.

So that is the story. But some have suggested that I do not have Long Covid, only a pesky respiratory virus with no name. It really does not make a difference what you call it, it is what it is, and as the saying goes, “sucks.”

Now one reason that there has not been a formal diagnosis is that the healthcare plan that I have has recently been changed so that there is a long wait period before you are able to see your primary care physician. You now must go online to get a “phone appointment” lasting 15-30 minutes. I signed up for the first open phone appointment about six weeks ago and will at last talk to my primary care doctor (whom I like) this Friday for the first time since coming down with Covid in late June.

I understand that Covid has changed the way we live and work on the Planet Earth and especially in the U.S. where hospitals have been overwhelmed. Health care workers are burned out and scarce, and hospital and medical systems are trying to cope. I have been tempted to switch Medicare insurance providers during this “open season,” but have resisted because I have about a half dozen doctors that I depend on in this system and am pleased with all of them. To try to start over is just too hard, and few of the people whom I have talked to who are in different systems are enthusiastic about the doctors or Medicare plans they have.  The nurses and doctors are not the problem for me.  

So, what is wrong with the health system I belong to? The post Covid protocol is first to refer anyone who has a health issue to the nearest emergency room. But how do you know if your health issue warrants an emergency room visit? And who wants to go to an emergency room unless you absolutely have to? During my two days in the Washington Hospital Center emergency room, I was confined to a dark corner separated by a thin curtain from the hustle and bustle of stretchers moving in and out carrying victims of gunshot and knife wounds, drug overdoses, car wrecks and heart attacks. This would be my last choice.

The second option is to go to an urgent care center. I have been to the urgent care center in my system three times, each involving a wait of several hours and then not getting a definitive diagnosis. If I was not very sick before the visit, I was after I departed. Not a very appealing option for me.

The third and final option is to call an “advice nurse,” who will hear your story and determine if you should talk to a doctor. This was the option that I selected; and after hearing my sad story, the nurse said I would receive a call from a physician who was at a hospital about 20 miles away. The doctor did call within a few minutes, listened to my story, was caring and supportive, and prescribed antibiotics for a sinus infection. She did ask me if I had had Covid and had all my vaccinations and boosters, but there was no mention of Long Covid.

So there you have it. This is the way health care now works in the United States—at least in some large health care systems. There are probably good reasons for some of this, but the idea of keeping patients away from their primary care physicians is idiocy. They are the ones who know you and have your medical history and are supposed to be your advocate. That used to be the case in the system I am in, but no longer. Your options are now emergency rooms, urgent care centers, and doctors who have never met you and never will, and interface with you briefly via phone or video. Does this make any sense? Not for patients like me, who may never know if I suffer from Long Covid but frankly do not care if someone, anyone, can keep these meltdowns with Covid-like symptoms from happening.

 

 

 

 

Embry’s Last Stan Post

This is my last missive from my trip to the Stans. This evening we flew from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where we had a short but wonderful time in that land of nomads. We saw a sporting event yesterday whereby very skilled horsemen, divided into two teams, rode around the field trying to pick up a dead sheep, galloped down the field, and threw it into a big receptacle while the other team of horsemen tried to prevent them. It’s like a cross between American football and polo, but much rougher. 

The city of Bishkek is surrounded by spectacular, high snowcapped mountains, the Tian Sian range, some 20,000 feet tall. However, the mountains are shrouded most of the time by clouds and smog. When they come into view periodically, it is breathtaking. 

One of the things we learned about in Kyrgyzstan in more detail was  the devastating consequences of the breakup of the former Soviet Union on that small country. Apparently three countries–Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine–got together and decided to break up the Soviet Union. The Central Asian countries (“the Stans”) were not consulted, but just handed the decision as a fait accompli.  The factories closed almost immediately (due to diminished demand), and the economy plummeted almost overnight. A large proportion of the Russians who had held prominent positions in the government and society left and returned to Russia. Both Russia and Belorussia invited them back, and some who remained feared discrimination and even retribution. Many skilled Kyrgyz people also left to find jobs elsewhere, mostly to Russia. There was hyperinflation combined with high unemployment. The poor suffered the most as is almost always the case. 

Privatization of real estate happened quickly. If you had inhabited an apartment or house for a certain amount of time, it became yours if you filed the paperwork properly. Around Bishkek, which is in general a lovely city, you see many dilapidated apartment houses, which seem out of place in the rapidly developing city with some attractive  new buildings. These older buildings are apparently the buildings where people got free apartments. Now there is little money or good cooperative governance in place to fix up the buildings, which have been slowly deteriorating over the past 30 years. I haven’t got a handle on how the collective farms were privatized, but the government ownership of land also was ended in rural areas.

While there were negative consequences, and apparently many older people are nostalgic about former Soviet times, the youthful population is happier about the changes; and there is overall an optimistic spirit. Still, many youth have to go abroad, usually to Russia, to earn a living so it’s a mixed bag.

I think the Russians have the right idea about immigration. While the circumstances and economies are different, Russia and the US both have a shortage of unskilled labor. Yet they encourage Central Asians to migrate to Russia for work and give them work permits easily along with a path to citizenship. They are allowed to go back and forth to their home countries as they like.  We, on the other hand, force hardworking immigrants to come illegally to do the jobs that Americans don’t want for low pay and keep them in the shadows so that they have no legal status and cannot return home to see their families. It is an unnecessary and cruel system (or non-system).

But as challenging as life is here in the Stans, many people remain hopeful and most have greeted us with warmth and hospitality. Here is how I have communicated with the wonderful people I have met along the way. To greet anyone, I just say “A-salamu Aleicum” which is “Peace be with you” in Arabic, but works in any Muslim country as a polite greeting.  For “thank you” I learned “Rachman” (I have no idea if I am spelling it correctly), but “Spaciba” which is Russian (perhaps also misspelled) also always works. To emphasize respect or thanks, they have a lovely gesture, which is to hold your right hand over your heart. With these, and a good translator at close hand, I have had no problems.

I will close my missives with this story: Yesterday we took a trip to the countryside and stopped by a farm for lunch and to see how they make their beautiful felt rugs. Each rug involves many hours of tedious work. The rugs originally were used to decorate their yurts (no longer used much).  I had been working on a piece of needlepoint as we rode along, and our guide encouraged me to show my needlework to the ladies of the farm. This caused a big excitement. I showed them how I did the stitching, and one of them immediately began to work on it! (I am sorry I didn’t take along some needlepoint to give them.)

That’s it for my missives from the Stans. Now back to the U.S. This is a fascinating part of the world with a rich history dating back thousands of years, yet rarely visited by Americans. It seems to get lost, nestled as it is between two giants, Russia and China, and still suffering from many years of Czarist and Soviet domination, lack of natural resources, population loss, regional instability (Afghanistan and Iran), and environmental degradation. However, a strong spirit of determination and regional pride remain, and the gems of stunning landscapes, charming ancient buildings, beautiful crafts and artwork are worth a visit by any adventuresome tourist. However, it is not for the faint of heart. I told  Joe he made the right call to miss this one.