Baltic Blog 5: Latvia

So off to Latvia! Within a couple of hours we had breezed past the former passport control area, now peacefully unattended. Why on Earth would anyone—like the UK– want to leave the EU?

My initial reaction to Latvia was that it was just like Lithuania in many ways but   different in others. In terms of similarities, outside the cities the flat, deep green pastures dotted with small villages and farm houses are indistinguishable from those in Lithuania. Looking out a car window, you could be in either country. The languages are also somewhat similar–and the only ones like them in the world– and the words are equally obscure and unpronounceable for Americans. A typical person’s name will have a dozen consonants and maybe two vowels. The origin of  both  countries dates back thousands of years before the Common Area, but their “modern” histories did not begin until the Thirteenth Century. Both have an ample supply of Medieval “old towns.”  The size of the countries are pretty similar with small populations, only one big city, and very low densities, and the food is not all that different—lots of meat and potatoes and very good, local draft lager. Both countries were invaded by Germany at the beginning of World War II, watched their Jewish populations annihilated by the Nazis and suffered under the Soviet rule from 1944-1990. Both countries have been held together by a common bond of language, custom, music, and culture and while being subdued by powerful invaders, have hung together as a people. 

There are also differences, which are subtle but real. Perhaps most important, Latvia never was a formal nation-state before 1918. This was not the case with Lithuania, which was a kingdom as early as the Thirteenth Century and actually dominated Latvia during the period of the Grand Duchy and during its alliance with Poland. During the entire period before the early 20th century, Latvia  was ruled by foreign powers. In the very early period, the Twelfth through the Fifteenth Centuries, Latvia was home to German barons and Russian royalty and used for hunting preserves and summer estates. It was during the Swedish rule in the Seventeenth Century  that the Lutheran Church was introduced, and still today a majority of Latvians are Lutherans while there are almost no Lutherans in Lithuania, which is heavily Catholic.  Then came the domination by the Russians under Peter The Great, which expanded Russian Orthodoxy and lasted all the way until the end of World War I when Latvia finally became a country governed by the Latvian people.  All three Baltic territories  first became Christianized in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries during the Crusades—in other words by the sword not the dove. Lithuania was the last  country in Europe to fight to the bitter end against the Crusaders, not surrendering  into well  into the 1500s. Guidebooks maintain that paganism actually never completely gave up the ghost and still exists today  in Lithuania though only in small, isolated, rural areas.  I find this strangely reassuring since though a devoted Episcopalian, I have for some time also been a closet animist myself and believe God looks kindly on “primitive” people searching in their own way for the Divine.

The other distinction is that the main religion of Lithuania, the Catholic Church, is thriving compared to the experience of most churches of all types throughout most of Europe.  Our guides were quick to point out that unlike in Lithuania the average person in Latvia (and Estonia) is a “Chris’ter” –attending church only on Christmas and Easter, which one guide pointed out have their own dose of “paganism” (winter solstice and the rite of spring).  While most Latvians still do get baptized, the majority are baptized as Lutherans, not Catholics. 

The other big difference is that Latvia is much more diverse demographically with over 25% Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church has more than twice as many members as the Catholic Church in Latvia. The Russian influence goes back many centuries but is most despised for its post war occupation when most churches were shuttered and the clergy exiled to Siberia, most to die there.

Remnants of a robust religious past are everywhere. In all the cities we visited in both countries  the urban landscapes are dotted  with towering church spires—a mix of Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic –and for the most part, these structures  are beautiful, ancient, and  quite large, usually seating upwards of 500 congregants. 

Our first morning in Riga, the capital of Latvia, included a morning two-mile walking tour of the Old Town area, guided by a very enthusiastic, young woman in her thirties. The old towns are the centers of tourism in all the cities we visited, and the Riga Old Town  did not disappoint. At ten  in the morning on Friday, July 5, it was buzzing with outdoor cafes, small shops and tour groups. Unlike Vilnius, Riga also has a lot of city parks, with streams and fountains,  manicured lawns and tree-lined esplanades. Despite being smaller (650,000 versus almost a million), the city seems more prosperous than Vilnius, probably due to its large port and historic niche as the center of trade and culture in the Baltic states. 

That afternoon the choir began rehearsing in earnest for its first concert, which was held the following day to a packed house in a large, Lutheran church near the center of Old Town. Despite the lack of sufficient practice (according to Embry), they sounded great to me and were warmly received by an enthusiastic audience generally getting up there in years–like the choir.

We ended up spending two days in Riga with the choir singing the next day at the Sunday service at the same Lutheran church, which to my surprise was about a quarter full, more than I would have expected given the grim assessment of formal religion by our guides. Two clergy officiated and it seemed to me that we got two sermons from the towering pulpit—one from each minister. Both were read in monotones; and as I daydreamed, it occurred to me that it was probably a blessing  that the entire service was in Latvian rather than English. Of course, that could apply to a lot of church services. The most unusual part of the service was the communion part when the entire congregation marched forward and knelt on the cold marble floor as they  crammed into the chancel area. I stayed put in the pew and was glad I did since there was no way I could have handled that feat without help.

High marks for Latvia though the weather was generally mixed with one fabulous, though cool, sunny day and one with clouds and showers. Now off to Estonia!

Baltic Blog 4: On To Latvia

We spent the better part of two more days in Lithuania. We mercifully decided to cut short the stay in the dungeon by one day, which would allow us to drive about 250 miles across the country to Klaipeda, the country’s third largest city and its only port. The first challenge was to get out of Vilnius, which was preceded by the nearly impossible challenge of finding a vacant parking spot in Old Town. Even if you were lucky enough to find a space, it would cost you 1.5 Euros an hour, which over the course of a day could add up. It is one of those deals where you find a parking card dispensary and pay up front, then put the receipt inside your windshield. We noticed that no car we looked at had one of the receipts on its dashboard, but still, you never know. Anyway no spaces were available. So the next option was to park in a tow away zone. There happened to be such a zone right across from our dungeon with one free space available. Hey, all those cars illegally parked were still there, so what were the chances of our actually getting towed, though admittedly I did not know if they might have had some kind of special permit? So we went for it, squeezing in so tight between two other cars that it would have been impossible for any wrecker to pry us out. Besides how could any wrecker navigate the tiny streets and remove any vehicle? It worked. The car stayed put for two days, no towing and no parking ticket. Score one for the codgers.

The five-hour drive to Klaipeda was a mix of blinding rain and occasional sunny skies as one thunderstorm after another raced in from the west. It also marked the beginning of a dramatic change in weather with highs dropping from the mid to high 70s to the mid to low 60s and lows in the 40s with plenty of rain in the forecast. Welcome to the Baltics!

The entire drive was on a Lithuanian equivalent of a U.S. interstate, somewhat crowed at times, but overall the drivers in Lithuania are courteous, obey the rules, and almost always stop for pedestrians on crosswalks, including one such crosswalk which to my disbelief crossed the superhighway. 

The town we were headed to was not only a port city but also the gateway to the “ Curonian Spit,” a  thin slice of land only a few hundred yards wide with the Baltic Sea on one side and a large bay on the other extending about 100 miles from Lithuania to the tiny part of Russia that is on the Baltic. It is supposed to be the go-to beach  in Lithuania. The Spit is a national park, which is accessible only by ferry and considered a top must-see in the Baltics. In that sense it is a bit like our  Outer Banks in North Carolina but without all the commercialization. Because of high winds and cool temperatures and the short time we had to stay there– we did not make the ferry journey to the Spit, probably a mistake. But by late afternoon the wind was howling at thirty knots, the sky threatening thunderstorms, and temperatures in the low 60s and falling. Not what you would call a beach day. So we passed on it. The town of Klaipeda, while old and attractive, did not show any hint of being the gateway to an internationally renowned beach but rather a sleepy, port town and commercial center with its old town medieval area and not much sign of tourism including a paucity of restaurants. Our hotel (small, plain and simple but quite pleasant and with windows) was about a mile and a half out of the downtown area, from which we walked to the downtown area and back, with some sightseeing around the port and a stop for a light dinner at a local pub. Overall worth the side trip.

The drive the next day, July 4, to Riga, the capital of Latvia, took another six hours, driving through showers and fleeting sunshine on mostly two-lane roads through numerous small villages and gorgeous, flat farmland. Except for getting pulled over and ticketed for going 78 kph (48 mph) in a local 50 kph (35 mph, fine 80 euros) zone, it was uneventful. Dropping off the car at the Riga airport was a minor challenge since at the rental car return area where every American car company was represented along with numerous international ones, no one had ever heard of “Trusty Rental Car.” Several frantic phone calls later, when we learned that the drop-off  spot was at a parking lot outside the airport, we headed there, dropped off the keys and were on our way. We arrived via cab in downtown Riga minutes before the choir was headed out to a local restaurant for a celebratory, welcoming dinner. Our hotel was a Radisson high rise and quite fancy with a spa, health club, and upscale bar and restaurant. Sure beats our dungeon.

So began the choir portion of the tour. There are 42 Americans on the tour, almost all but us members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Arlington, a thriving church with a thousand members. Embry wanted to join the choir tour because our former choir director at All Souls Church, Ben Hutchens, is now there and put the choir tour together. She could not turn down an invitation from him to sign up. They will sing four times—three concerts and one Sunday morning service. They all seem to know each other, are generally about our age, and on the whole are enthusiastic and decent people. After all they are Presbyterians. The only wrinkle is that we are outsiders and do not feel all that much a part of what appears to me to be a pretty close-knit group; but we do know a handful of people who used to attend All Souls when Ben was there. Not knowing a bunch or people is no problem for me since I have tagged along to catch a glimpse of a part of the world I know nothing about. 

About that world, I will learn much more. Lithuania was an eye opener for me—especially with regard to the Jewish Holocaust and our potential inhumanity to our brothers and sisters on this small planet–and also what it is like to live in such an old, beautiful but troubled part of the world.  More about that part of the world will follow as we travel (and sing) through Latvia and Estonia. Stay tuned.

Baltic Blog 3: The Dark Side

We spent our third day in Vilnius sightseeing and spending more time in  Old Town, meandering through the narrow streets, and stopping for ice cream and people watching. There is something special about this place that is hard to put into words. I think it boils down to a kind of authenticity that you rarely find in tourist locations. The mood is low key and relaxed in contrast to high energy places that are on so many bucket lists. Vilnius may be Europe’s best-kept secret. However, I am hesitant to broadcast this because  if it were to become the go-to spot for tourists, all this would change.  But for now consider it a rare gem; just don’t tell too many others so that it will retain its magical character. 

But all is not perfect in paradise. Or rather all has not been perfect. The country has a horrific past that seems almost inconceivable to us today. It was ground zero for the Holocaust of World War II. We spent most of the afternoon of the third day visiting two Holocaust museums where we learned about what happened in 1941 and again in 1945. 

But first some facts about Lithuania. The country is only about half the size of Colorado and has a total population of about 2. 8 million in 2019, almost double what it had in 1941. In terms of population density it comes in 171 out of 200 countries, making it one of the least populated countries in the world. Over 70% of the country live in three cities—the capital, Vilnius, with almost a million people, and two others with around 200, 000 each. Everyone else lives in one of the several hundred tiny villages or in one of the countless farmhouses that dot the landscape. In other words it is tiny; and because of its small size and its location, it is vulnerable and powerless against the whims of the big boys and girls next door, especially Russia and Germany. 

Over the millennia that Lithuania has been a country, the people living here have been ruled at one time or another by Russians, Germans and to a certain extent Poles, in some cases multiple times. Yet despite all this they have hung in there and been able to preserve their identity and national character. Early in its history it was one of the giants itself when in the Thirteenth Century its second or third king expanded the borders (“The Grand Duchy of Lithuania”) to include most of European Russia, Belarus, and Poland, actions which made it the largest country in Europe, but that was long ago. The country also enjoyed a relationship with Poland that allowed the combined alliance to dominate central Europe for several centuries, but that too was long ago. Beginning in the Twentieth Century Lithuaina was open game.

Following the end of World War I, modern Lithuania declared its independence in 1918 and remained independent until the beginning of World War II when the Soviet Union occupied the country after it signed a non aggression pact with Hitler. Russian dominance was short lived. The Nazis broke the treaty and invaded Lithuania, other Baltic states, and Norway beginning in 1941. Following the end of World War II, Lithuania became a part of the Soviet Union, where it remained unhappily until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.  In 1992, it reclaimed its independence.

What made Lithuania different from the other European countries were the large number of Jews living there–more than 200,000– accounting for roughly a quarter of the entire population, the highest percentage of Jews in any country in the world. This made it an ideal target for a madman whose mission was to eliminate all Jews from the face of the Earth. In Lithuania this is what happened.

The reason that so many Jews were living in Lithuania is that for centuries it had a reputation for accepting the Jewish population. If not welcoming Jews, at least the country “tolerated” them better than most other countries. Jews were restricted to living in ghettos, and most spoke only Hebrew or Yiddish, maintained  their own culture with their own schools, synagogues, and institutions, and were rarely assimilated into the larger community. However, there were no pogroms and relatively little open, anti-Semitism. This attracted Jews from all over Europe, many of whom became wealthy businessmen, professionals, teachers, university professors, artists and intellectuals—creating a large, upper class Jewish population.

In 1941 this all changed almost in a blink of an eye.

Life for Jews in Lithuania had not been so great under the brief Soviet rule. The Soviets shut down all Jewish schools, closed synagogues and Jewish newspapers, and made life miserable for the average Jew living there. When the Nazis moved in, many Jews were relieved, thinking life could not get any worse. That was in June 1941. In early December 1941, official reports we read in the Holocaust Museum stated that the mission in Lithuania had been completed successfully: all Jews except those necessary for the Nazi war effort had been “ liquated.” The official number at that time was over 137,000 Jews killed. This amounted to killing Jews at a rate of almost 1,000 persons a day during the five month period starting in June 1941. In a highly organized and efficient effort , Jews were systematically identified, rounded up, taken to the closest wooded areas, and shot—men, women and children. The Nazi report complained of the hard work involved in digging so many mass graves  in such a short time but boasted of their “accomplishment.” Many non Jewish Lithuanians were enlisted to assist in this effort as were some Jews, who were not given a choice.  In the end almost all the Jews who survived the 1941 Holocaust, perished in the concentration camps in 1945. No one knows for sure what the final tab was, but most historians estimate that less than 10% of the entire Jewish Lithuanian population survived, most by escaping.

Sure, you may think, everyone knows about the Holocaust. There is nothing new here. But let me tell you: When you are standing in the place where it all happened, it is very different. It becomes real in a way that reading the facts in a history book do not. You can only  remain speechless, contemplating  the horror  that we humans are capable of inflicting  on one another . Will anything like this ever happen again? It has come close in Rwanda, Cambodia and more recently in Myanmar.

And just yesterday I read (again) about the migrant children in detention centers in Texas where young Central American children including some infants and toddlers were forcefully taken from their parents and made to sleep on cement floors with no blankets and were not given enough food. Our president has called their parents rapists and murderers, “low lifes,” and animals. This is the same president who has repeatedly threatened to arrest and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and to take action against a “fake press.”

But this talk is all bluster, isn’t it? Nothing like the Holocaust could happen in the U.S., could it? We should not worry too much about Trump or what he says, should we?

Are those are the same kinds of questions, I wonder, that were whispered in Jewish communities in Vilnius and throughout Lithuania in May 1941, days before the invasion by the Nazis?

Baltic Blog 2: Lithuanian Surprises

So how much do you know about Lithuania? Probably not much if you are like me—just another one of those small, obscure, European countries that were part of the Soviet Union and a forgotten land trying  to struggle along on its own. Over the course of the next three days, I was reminded once again how  wrong we Americans are to discount  many countries as  inferior without much to offer,  only because we don’t know much about them or care to know.  Embry and I have visited over 50 counties over the course of our marriage and with few exceptions have come away with appreciation of what each country has to offer—along, of course, with awareness of the dark sides of their experience. I am continually reminded of how small and fragile our lonely, blue planet is and how much there is to celebrate and protect but also how easy it is for life to turn from good to bad. In that category Lithuania is Exhibit A, but more on that later.

On day two, after strolling the winding, narrow cobblestoned streets of Old Town  bustling with activity–coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and fancy shops– we decided we would make use of our rental car and head out into the countryside. Various guidebooks identified a large national park (Aukstaitija) near the southeastern border with Belarus  as a must-see place if you are in Vilnius though it is almost 120 miles away. Using our Google Maps app, we made our way out of the city and very soon found ourselves on a mostly deserted, two-lane road winding through towering pine forests and occasional small farms with modest farm houses amidst fields of wheat and grain. Lithuania is a poor country compared to most other European countries and certainly to the U.S., but nowhere have we seen anything close to abject poverty or seen any panhandlers.

We had put the name of the park in the Google app on my iPhone and followed instructions. After a couple of hours on the road, Google told us to take a sharp right onto a narrow, paved road. That road took us through several scenic villages with modest but well kept homes surrounded by fields of green. Nowhere was there any sign that suggested we were in a national park. Nor did we pass a single vehicle over the course of the several miles we were on the road. Then as we passed though one of the more quaint villages, with a dozen or so houses, the paved road abruptly ended and turned into a one lane, dirt road with no signs of any kind—certainly no indications that we were in a park. We forged ahead hoping we would not encounter another vehicle headed in the opposite direction, which would require one of the vehicles to back up for what would seem like miles. The farther and deeper we inched our way into the primeval forest, the more it resembled a path, leaving open the questions where were we headed and how were we ever going to get out of there.  

After about a half hour, Google Maps lit up with the announcement, “You have arrived at your destination!” We looked around. Towering pines lined the dirt  road with lakes barely visible behind them on both sides. There was no other sign of human life anywhere or for that matter that humans had ever been here. The closest experience I could think was our adventure in Siberia in 1992 when we visited our son, Andrew, who was living in Moscow, and who had arranged our own private tour with friends to explore the Taiga Forest. Both spots were totally unspoiled and beautiful and absent any hint of human activity except for the deserted, one lane road we were on.

“So we are here!” Embry exclaimed, “Hooray for Google Maps.”

The device had indeed led us to the exact center of a desolate but extraordinarily beautiful, national park covering over 150 square miles.  All I could do was marvel at what kind of algorithm could figure all this out and know where this “road” was and whether it could also lead us out of this wilderness. 

 Soon after the announcement that we had arrived at our destination, we parked our car at a opening next to a lake where there was one picnic table and then followed a tiny path along the lake that eventually took us back to the dirt road we had been on. We decided to follow that road, walking in the opposite direction from our car, and after a half mile or so met two actual human beings, 30-something hikers, a man and a woman—with two small dogs—hiking towards us. As we greeted each other, I wondered what the chances were that they could speak English. The answer: close to 100%. Almost everyone in Lithuania seems to speak at least some English since that has become the de facto universal language on the planet and since there are fewer than three million people in Lithuania who speak that  language. If you want to get by, English is now your best bet for a backup language. Of course, this was not the case even a few decades ago, and we Americans tend to forget how lucky we are to be able to get by speaking our own language.

When we answered the guy’s question as to where we were from, he threw his head back and laughed in disbelief, exclaiming in perfect English, “How on Earth did you end up here?”

We responded that we had no idea.

He told us that if we kept walking in six or seven kilometers we would come to another village and that as long as we stayed on the dirt road we would be ok and eventually come out of the park. After walking for another 30 minutes, we decided to turn around and head back to the car. When we got back, we turned on the Google app and following its instructions slowly made our way out of the park. Google took us through the wilderness, alongside lakes, sparkling in the afternoon sun, and through several small settlements, some with pretty fancy homes that we concluded must be vacation homes. In a couple of hours we were back on a paved road, headed back to Vilnius and thinking about how beautiful and wild this extraordinary country is.

We spent the next day walking the streets of Vilnius and visiting several museums, two dealing with the Holocaust in Lithuania, which will be the subject of the next blog—a horrific happening and a reminder that life on the planet Earth is a two-sided coin. More on this to follow.

Baltic Log 1: Half The Fun Is Getting There

Last fall Embry signed up for a choir tour in several Baltic countries organized by her former choir director at All Souls Church. I volunteered to go along as a groupie. We are supposed to meet up with the choir in about a week in Riga, Latvia, but we are starting with time on our own, which we are using to visit Lithuania. I am writing this first installment sitting in a graffiti enriched, deteriorating , ancient courtyard in the Old Town section of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We have been sitting here all day waiting for our bags, which we have been without for two days, and there is no assurance when we will get them. 

The reason we are sitting outside in the courtyard rather than in our basement, Airbnb apartment, the “best value” Embry could find in Vilnius at $45/night, is that when and if the Finn Air driver ever shows, he won’t have a chance in actually finding the door to get into the vestibule leading to the treacherous stairs down to our subterranean unit. It took Embry three phone calls to the owner and more than an hour for us to figure it out ourselves.

The reason that we do not have the bags is that our Finn Air flight from JFK to Helsinki (business class, thank heavens, so I can’t complain) was delayed by six hours, though to be accurate it was not actually delayed, we just had failed to note the change in departure time. In any event this put us into Helsinki with less than an hour to make our 11:00 AM departure to Vilnius, so we were placed on standby for an overbooked flight leaving at 4:30 PM. The nice lady at Finn Air, taking pity on a straggling septuagenarian couple, bribed a couple of passengers to take another flight and squeezed us in. But the bags never made it. 

The last two days we have spent over 12 hours in airports and 12 hours in airplanes—longer overall than it took us to get to New Zealand! So here we are, exhausted, jet lagged and wondering when or if we will get our toothbrushes, razor, and other essential stuff. Fortunately I had the good sense to put my meds in my backpack. 

But  life could be a lot worse. The weather is drop dead gorgeous with temperatures in the mid 70s, Carolina blue sky, and a gentle breeze. When we were informed that the bags would probably not be delivered until the afternoon, we got a chance to stroll along the narrow cobblestone streets in Old Town, buzzing with activity, catch a bite to eat at an outdoor café, and stick our head in the largest (Catholic) cathedral, which, being Sunday, was jammed packed with worshippers. I guess no one has told them that God is supposed to be dead in Europe. And our first impression of the city is that while old and decaying in some neighborhoods, it is charming and provides a glimpse of one of the rare medieval, European towns that survived World War II bombings.

The most unique aspect of our journey so far at this early stage is our Airbnb  “apartment.” When we finally got all the  lock combinations right and found the right door in the courtyard, we made our way down a rickety, narrow stairway which led to a spacious room with 20-foot ceilings and four-foot stone walls. The information that Embry consulted on the internet described the room as being the basement of a castle, a bit of an overstatement since there was no castle anywhere near. I thought to myself that “dungeon” would have been more accurate. However, the owner had gone to some lengths to brighten up the place—terra cotta floor tiles, good lighting, a six foot, modern  stone statue of a nude woman and a large baroque painting of a bare-breasted woman holding a scull  and several other unframed, impressionist landscapes, which I presume had to  be painted by the owner since I could not conceive of anyone actually paying money for them. The room felt musty and damp and at first glance did not appear to have any windows. Upon closer inspection I spotted at the corner just below the ceiling one tiny window, which measured about two feet wide and two feet tall, but was covered so that only a tiny ray of light entered the room. Small relief for a claustrophobic like me, but, hey, you take what you can get.  

At 8:30 PM just about when we were about to give up and turn our jetlagged selves in for the evening, Embry got a call on her cellphone that the driver was five minutes away. We waited outside as a very large van edged its way up the narrow street and stopped to unload. I noticed that there were at least a dozen other bags waiting to be delivered and could not help asking the young driver how many bags he had already delivered.

“Oh not all that many today,” he replied, smiling, “About 150 bags and 100 stops, almost finished for the day.” 

If you ever travel Finn Air, do not forget to take your essentials in a carry-on.

We inched our way down the steep stairs with the bags, holding onto the railing for our life, relieved, and wondering what surprises Lithuania would have for us.

Faux News: Walmart Announces Winner In New, Management Selection Process

Editor’s Comments: Now do not get me wrong. I have always sort of thought of myself as a populist. You know, let’s hear it for the little guy, level the playing field, give everyone a chance—that sort of thing. Then along comes Trump who masquerades as a populist and tells the “little guy” what he wants to hear—that the elite suck and he is their friend. And they—or at least some of the white working class, who used to vote Democrat– buy it even though his only real “accomplishment” has been a tax cut for the rich. Then along come the Democratic aspirants for president with over 20 contenders mostly casting themselves as champions of the little guy. I applaud them for this though it is uncertain as to how these policies will be implemented. It occurred to me that one aspect of populism appears to me to be telling people what they want to hear even when it  seems  pretty obvious that it ain’t gonna happen. That led me to wonder what it would be like if private companies tried to act like government and adopted a populist approach to governance. Here is my Faux News story:

Walmart, the world’s largest company at over $500 billion in annual revenues, announced today the selection of its new CEO, Tyrone Shackluster, who was previously a stockroom maintenance assistant in the Walmart store in suburban Beloxi, Mississippi. Mr. Shackluster had been with the company for only eight months and won the position due to his rigorous and effective campaign as an outsider and a reformer and a person “who will lift up the common men and women who are the backbone of the company but have been ripped off and screwed by the elitist one percent who run the place.” 

Before today it would have been unthinkable for someone without a high  school degree to take over the reigns of the world’s largest company though the new management selection process put in place several months ago made this possible and according to former top managers in Walmart, inevitable. Inspired by the presidential primary election process now firmly in place by both major political parties  in the United States, Walmart announced in January that  anyone who had worked for the company for six months or longer could compete for the position of CEO of the company, which now would be determined by a truly democratic voting process in which every Walmart employee would be able to cast a vote.  The role of the board of directors would be limited to assuring a fair election and to encouraging every Walmart employee to vote.

The decision to change the process which had been the responsibility of the board of directors to one based on a democratic voting process was controversial from the day it was announced. Some including many who characterize themselves as reformers applauded the announcement citing how  changing the nominating and election process would have  a positive impact on the company just like it is having on the country.  One strategist who asked to remain anonymous due to the controversy surrounding the process, commented, “In the old days, candidates for president of the United States would be vetted and chosen by party elites and involved cloak room deals. Nowadays anyone can become a candidate for president, and it is wide open. The people decide. The same thing should apply to companies. Hey, if it works for the feds, it should work for companies.” 

Others warned of catastrophe.

When Walmart first announced its decision, several hundred candidates entered the Walmart primaries. The process involved town hall type meetings and “debates” in every major city where there was a Walmart, often two or three  events a week. Gradually the field was  whittled down as candidates ran out of money. Mr. Shackluster was financed by donations of 25 cents each from tens of thousands Walmart employees and from major donations  from Target, Macy’s, JC Penny’s, Sears, and other retail companies. His platform, “Make Walmart great again” included the immediate dismissal of all senior Walmart executives, universal equal pay for all employees, six months paid vacation, free  lunch and health care, free employee ice cream socials every Thursday at 3:00 PM, and the development of a company militia. He received over 90% of the final vote count. His only competitor at the end was the former Executive Vice President of the company, who has now immigrated to China.

 In his acceptance speech Shackluster proclaimed, “This is a great day for Walmart and for the country. Make Walmart great again! The company has spoken! Populism now rules the world! Long live populism!”

A spokesmen for the company praised the new executive as the perfect selection despite his lack of experience and education and raved about the egalitarian selection process, which he said now mirrored the current political selection process which has produced great leaders like Donald Trump and would certainly produce a great candidate from among the 20+ candidates who are actively campaigning for the Democratic nomination.  He said allowing the people to decide who is the CEO of a company should be a model for all companies to follow regardless of size and is really the only way to run any organization or business. 

How Mr. Shackluster will actually deliver the goods and how the company will fare under the new leadership is uncertain. What is certain is that the Walmart stock price fell almost 90% when the election result was announced.

Davidson College 55th Reunion Remarks

A few weeks ago I received a letter from Carol Quillen, the president of Davidson College, informing me that I had been selected to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award. This came as quite a pleasant surprise and a great honor, especially given the achievements of so many in the fabulous class of 1964. When I told Embry about it, she exclaimed, “You got the Disruptive Alumni Award? Fabulous! Long overdue.”

The letter and the award certificate cited my work in social justice and civil rights, in developing affordable and seniors housing and my writing, teaching, and volunteer involvement. My Davidson roommate for three years and best friend, Sam Glasgow, gave the award. 

Here are my remarks:

Thanks, Sam, for your kind words. I do not know how I could add anything but I will give it a try. First of all, thanks, Davidson. This is an extraordinary honor for me. Now I have not gotten a whole lot of awards in my lifetime; but even if I had, I would put this one at the top of the list. I know how much many in this room have achieved and accomplished and am aware that this award could have gone to a whole lot of people in our class. 

Davidson is a great school and had a great impact on my life. I am truly grateful and want to say thanks. Here are the things I am thankful for in order of importance.

First of all, thank you, Davidson, for blind dates. Or more specifically one blind date in particular. This blind date occurred at the Spring Frolics weekend during  our senior year. My good friend and our classmate, Reese Coppage, who sadly is no longer with us, arranged it. The date was  with a former townie and a student at Randolph Macon Women’s College, one Susan Embry Martin, known then by all as “Mimy” Martin and the daughter of Louise and Grier Martin, the president of the college. 

Now I was a bit apprehensive since I was already something of a persona non grata on  campus due to my civil rights involvement, but also I knew President Martin to be a kind and gentle person, who I believed would not hold grudges. That blind date resulted in our marriage in December 1965 and some 54 years of life together– and counting. Mimy, now known by most as “Embry,” has had quite a distinguished career—a PhD in public policy and a noted researcher in the health policy research field. She is an ardent feminist and advocate for the disadvantaged. She is also a world traveler. We have visited or worked in some 45 countries and in 2015 traveled around the world without flying. It has been quite a ride. Thank you, Davidson, for blind dates.

My next thank you is for best friends. I had several best friends in Davidson and they—almost all of them—are here, some with their wives. Sam Glasgow and his wife, Diane; John and Jane Spratt, Hank and Mel Ackerman, and my roommate senior year, Bud Fry. Jim Killebrew was supposed to be here but flaked out at the last minute. These friendships have been very important to me, and I think it is pretty unusual that I have kept up strong ties with all of them for some 55 years and counting. Thank you, Davidson, for best friends!

My next thanks is for the professors that we had. Now these guys were not all great teachers, but they  were on the whole great men and great human beings. They were men  of integrity and decency and whom we got to know as people and mentors, not just as teachers. 

The first on my list is Bill Goodykoontz. Now it is true as Sam pointed out that English Professor Goodykoontz was a bit of a loose cannon, and it is true that he did call President Martin a “female fish monger” at one point, but he was also inspirational and had a huge impact on many people. He left Davidson—he probably was fired—our junior year and moved on to Chapel Hill where he lasted a couple of years before he was fired or quit and ended up in New York City writing for the Weekly Reader. Embry and I were in New York at the time where I was studying at Union Seminary, and we saw him and his partner Chuck Wry, also a friend of ours, on a regular basis. The most amazing thing was that this overweight, disheveled intellectual became a serious runner and completed the New York City marathon in the late 1960s. He died in Chapel Hill in the late 1980s when he was in his early 70s and was buried in the outfit he wore when he completed the New York Marathon. Thank you, Davidson, for Bill Goodykoontz.

And there were many others. Think for a minute about these extraordinary people: Dan Rhodes, Max Polly, Charlie Lloyd, Henry Lilly, Frontis Johnson, Phil Secor, Ernie Patterson, Olin Puckett, Malcolm Lester, Bill McGavock, Jim Martin (erstwhile Chemistry professor to become US Congressman and two-term Governor of North Carolina), Earl McCormack and philosophy professor, Dr. Abernathy. (Does anyone know if Dr. Abernathy had a first name?). These men—and other professors at Davidson–were great human beings. They embodied integrity and decency, and were student-focused and accessible. They instilled in us the Davidson values that have guided a lot of us through life. Thanks, Davidson, for the professors that we had at Davidson.

And then there was Grier Martin, my father-in-law to be, though I surely did not know that at the time. He was a kind and gentle person with extraordinary integrity and vision. What you saw is what you got.  My favorite Grier Martin story was when the spring of our senior year I was called by his assistant to tell me that the president wanted to see me at his home that very evening. This came two days before the planned “March In Charlotte” in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I had been expecting this call but was still apprehensive when I knocked on the door of the president’s house and was met by his gracious wife, Louise, who directed me to the parlor on the first floor. Dr. Martin offered me a seat and then got right to the point. The chairman of the Davidson College Board of Trustees and the Mayor of Charlotte had both contacted him and directed him to direct me to call off the march. They both pointed out to him that Charlotte had a pretty good track record on race relations and a march would give the town and the college a bad name. It was not fair and would cause more harm than good.

He went on to list other reasons that I should consider, such as our own safety, and then looked me right in the eye and said, “Joe, I am directing you as is my duty to call off the march, but you should know that I do not have the authority to keep you from doing this.”  I noted a slight smile and twinkle in his eye. I knew a wink and a nod when I saw one, and this was surely it. I smiled right back and replied, “Thank you, Dr. Martin. I fully understand.”

What I did not know was that Grier Martin had been working for years behind the scenes first to bring Africans to campus as students, which happened our sophomore year, and then to open up Davidson to African American students, which happened just after we graduated. He was a great president of Davidson and a great man. We lost him way too early. Thanks, Davidson, for Grier Martin.

The final thing that I will mention that I am thankful for is what I would call strong Presbyterian values: hard work, perseverance, determination, steadfastness, humility and modesty. 

Now I can talk about Presbyterian values from the perspective of an outsider. I am not a Presbyterian but rather what is called a “cradle Episcopalian.” We Episcopalians share some of the same values but not the last two—modesty and humility. In fact the minute I get back to Washington I am going to post a photo of this award and post it on Facebook! Thank you, Davidson, for strong Presbyterian values.

As some of you know, Embry and I have lived in Washington DC since the early 1970s. The neighborhood where we live in Washington seems to be a magnate for people who come to Washington to make a difference and to change the world for the better. They do not come to make a lot of money so much as to make a name for themselves. A lot come from Ivy League schools, and several of my best friends went to Yale, Harvard or Princeton. At reunion time we often share stories and compare notes. These Ivy League graduates when talking about their 25thor 50thor 55threunions casually mention some of the panels of graduates—a panel of Nobel laureates, another of Pulitzer prize winners, another of CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies and so on. I listen patiently and then reply that we Davidsonians have our high profile stars. Our class has Congressman John Spratt, basketball coach Terry Holland and humanities star Bill Ferris. We can match our guys  with their guys. But I tell them that the high profile stuff is not what Davidson is all about. I say to them, “You Ivy League guys, you are like the landed gentry. We Davidson guys, we are the yeoman farmers. We are the unsung heroes, who work tirelessly in our home towns and communities to make them better places, and this in my view is really what counts and makes America great. “

We are leaders in our various professional organizations. We are cub scout and boy scout leaders. We are PTA presidents and Sunday school teachers. We tutor disadvantaged, inner city kids.  We work in soup kitchens. We raise money for the United Way and other charities. We serve on planning boards, zoning boards, city and county councils, civic associations and the most thankless of all, neighborhood and condo association boards. We are church elders, session members, vestry members and serve in various other leadership capacities in our churches and non profit organizations.

 We Davidson grads do the heavy lifting that makes a difference in people’s lives on the local and grassroots level where it really counts. We learned at Davidson the importance of service to others and to our community, and for this I am especially proud. I am proud of you guys, my classmates of the Fabulous Class of 1964. We have made a difference. I am honored to be part of the Class of 1964 for doing our part. And thank you, Davidson, for this honor of recognition, which I will cherish always.

Belief

There have been two very moving stories this week on religion and death. The first was an op ed piece this past Sunday in the Washington Post or New York Times by a woman who was brought up as an evangelical fundamentalist— a Seventh Day Adventist—but had lost her faith; and the second was about a young woman in her thirties who died of cancer and who was also a lapsed believer. She was a spiritual pilgrim and the author of several best selling books and a website dealing with questions of belief and doubt that had a following of thousands of people. I could identity with both women. 

The theme of the first essay was about the author’s effort to deal with the death of her first child without a firm belief in an afterlife. She compared the experience of losing her infant son to her experience when she was still an ardent believer when her father died. Since she and her family believed that her father was going straight to heaven and would be seated next to Jesus at a heavenly banquet, it was not such a sad time. Surely they would miss him, but her loss was far less painful than it would have been for someone without faith. Her gentle and honest conclusion about the death of her child was that she had to accept reality for what it was and is. She could not return to her old faith in an all-powerful, human-like god. It did not mean that life was not worth living. It did not mean that God does not exist but rather that the Devine is a mystery beyond human understanding. 

 I could not help recalling the loss of Katherine, our first child, who died of heart failure following what we thought was a routine operation to address a valve defect. She was just shy of her first birthday. We were assigned an evangelical, fundamentalist Baptist chaplain in the hospital whose job  was to get Embry and me through the experience. I knew the job of a chaplain since I had been one myself during the summer of 1965 at Boston City Hospital. This was part of my “clinical training” education at Union Seminary in New York. But having a degree in divinity does not mean that you believe in the literal interpretation of the bible or that you do not have doubts yourself. The question in my mind was probably not all that different from what the young woman must have been asking: why do these things happen to us humans on the planet Earth. 

Following the chaplain’s introduction of himself, I angrily responded, “Do not give me any of this bullshit about how this was God’s will…”  After recovering from the initial shock, to his credit he got the message and provided the kind of gentle support we needed without preaching about an all-powerful, all-merciful God or suggesting that maybe that this was our punishment for not being more committed Christians. In fact I do not recall any effort on his part to try to explain the tragedy in religious terms. His being there with us, however, was very important and made a difference.

I have not read any of the books by the second person but from the article got the impression that she tried to deal honestly with spiritual questions, accepting the fact that there are no absolute and final answers. She had a large following because of her honesty and openness and because she did not provide pat answers to the universal questions of the meaning of life and death. 

My own thinking regarding the decline of the Christian religion today in the U.S. and most of the developed world is that the main problem with the Christian Church is not that the gospel is not being preached with sufficient vigor but rather the opposite: the failure of the Christian church to deal honestly with the human condition. Now I realize that there are all kinds of Christian churches and that I am probably talking more about mainstream Christianity, not evangelical or fundamentalist Christian churches, which appeal to people who need absolute answers even if not true. 

But pat answers do not ring true to a lot of people asking questions like these: How can God be both all powerful and all good? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people get dealt such bad hands? Why is justice elusive? Why is human suffering so pervasive? What is going on in the rest of the universe that you created and what is the purpose of all that? And how could there be a heaven where our bodies that have been cremated or have rotted in graves suddenly become reconstituted into a totally different kind of existence? There are no easy answers to these questions. In fact I am not sure there are any answers. But asking these questions is what makes us human. Rather than trying to save souls and provide definitive but unconvincing answers, the (mainstream) Christian Church would be far better off doing the best it can to nurture and support people asking these questions and through study and prayer to try to find clues to the answers. 

If you have been following my blog, you know that Embry and I, despite our questioning minds, are loyal members of our neighborhood Episcopal church. You also probably know that of all the irritants associated with church, the repetition of the Nicene Creed is at the top of my list. Well, I have good news: I can say that at last I have found a creed that I can say honestly and without crossing my fingers. Actually Embry found it. Two days ago she attended the graduation ceremony of our Afghan refugee family’s three-year-old child at the nursery school at St. Mathews Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland. Here is the creed that the children recited in the surprisingly religious graduation ceremony:

I believe in God above. / I believe in Jesus’ love. / I believe His Spirit, too, / comes to tell me what to do. / I believe that I can be / kind and gentle, / Lord, like Thee. Amen.

Faux News Special: Trump Declares War on Climate Change Scientists

President Trump today issued an executive order that any scientist in the United States of America using the term “client change” will be jailed. Speaking in the Rose Garden and flanked by energy billionaires Carl Ichan, Harold Hamm and Robert Mercer on one side and a smiling Lindsay Graham, Mike Pence and retired Princeton physicist, William Happer, on the other, the president lashed out at what he called “fake science.” 

“The whole thing is a hoax, a total hoax, perpetrated by the low IQ fool, Sleepy Joe Biden, and the Deep State gangsters of the Obama Administration. It must be stopped, and I am stopping all so called climate change initiatives right now. I am sick of them. Sick, sick, sick. Just like my good friend here with me, Bill Happer, says, those who are attacking carbon are just like Hitler attacking Jews. Now Bill is a real scientist, not a fake one. He taught at Princeton and knows more than anyone on this subject. 

“So called climate change initiatives are killing American industry. Trying to kill the oil business is terrible. Even worse for coal. It is hurting the economy, as my friends Carl, Harold and Bob, up here with me, know all too well. It is costing us real jobs.  Besides jailing any scientist using this fake term, my executive order will put a 50% nuisance tax on any company in the United States manufacturing solar panels or wind turbines or promoting un-American ideas like mass transit. We are putting a stake through their hearts right now, and if this does not work, we will jail them too, all of them. This is a great day for America and the world. Ending all so called, fake and treasonous research that tries to keep America from staying on the top of the heap  as the number one carbon producer, using as much carbon as we want, when we want and where we want, and keeping us from cutting down all the trees we want is what will make America great  again. And it will end the so called climate change debate forever.”

The president’s brief address was met with cheers from the several hundred invited guests, most wearing MAGA hats and carrying Trump 2020 placards. Except for  Faux News no reporters were admitted to the event.

Democrats quickly responded by pointing out that the president does not have the authority to take these actions without legislation or Congressional approval. Nancy Pelosi stated that the actions would immediately be challenged in court. A spokesperson for the president responded to an inquiry by  Faux News, “Well, good luck, Democrats. It is now 5-4 on the Supreme Court in our favor. Game over, baby. End of story.”

It is not clear what the response will be from the American public or the scientific community engaged in climate change and global warming research. Many scientists have pointed out that the climate issue is without question the most important issue of our time and that the time to act decisively is now. If significant steps right now are not taken to reduce carbon emissions and protect forests, there will come a time when devastating global warming will be inevitable and catastrophic, resulting in rising sea levels of 30 feet or more and massive human displacement.

 The response of the Republican Party and supporters of the president has been a collective “ho hum” with few dissenters to the president’s rhetoric or actions. While Democrats are supportive of initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment, only one of the 60 declared candidates for president, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, has made climate change the centerpiece of his campaign. Yet  his campaign has not  gained traction, and his polling is near the bottom of the list of candidates.

Some pessimists argue that it is already too late and that the actions by the president will essentially “seal the deal,” only accelerating what they say is already a trajectory to disaster. Others argue that technology and changes in human behavior can make a huge difference. They say that we have the ability to wean the planet of excessive carbon generation by switching to electric cars, extensive use of wind, hydro, solar and nuclear power, smart forestation practices, phasing out all use of coal, greatly reducing the use of oil and using new technologies that have not yet been invented. They point out, for example, that if the technology behind “Impossible Burger” that makes food that tastes like meat but has no meat proves to be successful and universally accepted, that it could have a profound impact, reducing destruction of forests to make way for pastures and reducing the amount of methane, a powerful global warmer.

Based on the  Faux News interviews with numerous scientists and policy makers, the consensus  appears to be that Trump’s actions, if implemented, would be significant. One observer noted, “Perhaps in the history of all humankind we as humans have never faced such an ensuing crisis. If we do act now decisively to reduce carbon emissions, maybe there is a chance of the survival of the planet as we know it. If we don’t, God help us. If there is anyone left to write history a century or two from now, the actions we take now will go down big time in the history books for better or for worse.”

Note to readers: If you think this story is outlandish, read the front page NY Times story, Tuesday, May 28, 2019: “In Climate Fight, Trump Will Put Science on Trial” by Coral Davenport and Mark Landler.

Faux News Special: New Plans for Iran

Our  Faux News secret reporter, disguised as delivery boy, was present when the following confidential conversation occurred today in the Oval Office between President Trump and his National Security Adviser, John Bolton.

Bolton: You summoned me, Your Highness, I mean, Mr. President?

Trump: Yes, I have a potential problem, John. Biden is looking like he could be a real threat, and the farmers in the Midwest are balking at the China tariffs. Plus the Mueller stuff just won’t quit. I am wondering if you have any ideas as to what I need to do to protect my flank. My base loves me as you know, but I am worried about some of the moderates.

Bolton: Easy answer, Mr. President. Start a war.

Trump: I thought you would say that, but with who [sic]? I have thought about maybe the UK or France, but in the past they have been friends. But we would have the support of Turkey, Egypt, Poland and Hungary for sure as well as Russia and North Korea. I think we could win it pretty easily.

Bolton: With all due respect, Your Excellency, I mean, Mr. President. That might create some pushback from Congress. But you are right: You need a war. Americans  love a good war, especially one we can win. You would be sure to go up in the polls.

Trump: But start a war with who [sic]?

Bolton: Iran, of course.

Trump: Why didn’t I think of that? After all, they broke the dumb, Obama, nuclear arms treaty that was in place and are just itching to get nuked. In fact since they have no nuclear weapons, would you recommend just wiping out the entire country? It would get it over with fast, and they couldn’t do a damn thing about it. It would serve them right for breaking the dumb, Obama treaty.

Bolton: Great idea, Mr. President. It would serve them right for breaking the treaty though there are Democrats in the Senate who would argue that actually we were the ones who pulled out of the treaty, but do not let that bother you.

Trump: How many bombs would that take.?

Bolton: Let’s see. There are 82 million people living in Iran. To take care of all of them, you are probably talking about 50 or 60 nukes depending on which kind we use, but you have got to admit, it would get everyone’s attention. And no Americans would be killed. Your base will love you for it, especially some of the Evangelicals since the 82 million Iranians are mostly Muslims, infidels. 

Trump: Any downsides?

Bolton: Yes, Russia would probably have to respond and that could possibly trigger a thermo nuclear war with us, which could lead pretty much to the destruction of the entire planet.

Trump: Hmmm. Well, I would go down as a great president, right? It would be something people would remember.

Bolton: Yes, except there probably would not be anyone left to remember. But still it is a bold idea that should be considered. 

Trump: Well, let’s put that on the shelf for now. What else might we do?

Bolton: Okay, if we do not decide to use the nuclear weapons that we have spent so much money on and which have not been used since World War II, there are other options. My recommendation would be to invade Iran just like we did with Iraq. That was an extraordinary victory for the U.S., getting rid of Saddam and all of that. We could do it again with Iran. Get rid of those awful Ayatollahs. 

Trump: How many American lives might be lost if we invaded them? 

Bolton: Not all that many. Only about 4,000 American soldiers lost their lives during the second Iraq War, and another 30,000 were wounded. That compares to several hundred thousand Iraqis, and the country is still in turmoil with roadside bombs exploding, suicide bombings and temples getting bombed all the time. It was a great victory for us. We showed them and the world who is boss. Shock and awe. And we can do it again with Iran. Your base will love you for it. 

Trump: Great idea. So how do we get this started?

Bolton: Well, first of all you get everyone out of the US Embassy. Start with non essential personnel and then everyone else. And then you start sending in American troops. Start with, say, 150,000 and then escalate up to 500,000 if you have to. Tell the American people you are doing this because of “threats,” but don’t tell them any more, just that the threats are very, very serious. Tell the generals to take over the cities and the whole country. You will go down as a great president for standing up for America and showing what happens to treaty breakers. You will get the respect you want and deserve from everyone. You will beat Biden or whomever the Democrats come up with and will rule America and really the world for another six years or even more.

Trump: Any downsides?

Bolton: Well your buddy, Putin, will be in a bit of a bind, and I am  not sure what he will do. They are allies with Iran, you know. But since you both love each other, he will probably just sit on his hands and do nothing. But if he does do something, it could lead to a world-wide conflict, possibly resulting in thermo nuclear holocaust which could lead to destroying all life on this planet. But look on the bright side: It would also create a nuclear winter and end all this nonsense about global warming.

Trump: Sounds great to me. Anything to squelch all the talk about global warming. This will make America great again. It will show the world who is boss and my friend, Vladdy, would never come after me. I don’t think he really cares all that much about Iran anyway. Plus I already have his word that a new Trump Hotel will go up in Moscow as soon as I get reelected. 

Bolton: I will start the engine running. But be sure to be tightlipped with Congress and  the American people. Probably should keep your Cabinet in the dark too. We need to keep the plans secret until it is too late for anyone to do anything about it. This will show the world what happens when you break a treaty. Your base will love you even more.

Trump: Go for it!

Bolton: I am on it! Thank you, Mr. President.