What would YOU do?

A Play In One Act

  • Setting: The Oval Office
  • Characters: Joe Biden, Advisor 1, Advisor 2

Biden: Welcome to the Oval Office, gentlemen. I have summoned you here because I need your advice about the War in Ukraine. Though the Ukrainians are making a heroic effort to hold off the Russians—thanks in large part to our weapons–it looks like the war could go on for quite a while with many more casualties. I am not sure what to do. I need your advice.

Advisor 1: Stay the course, Mr. President. With our weapons and the sanctions now falling into place, the Ukrainians will win. Putin made a terrible mistake and he knows it. He has lost thousands of troops, many of his best generals, several thousand tanks and even more heavy artillery. And what has he achieved? Killing thousands of innocent civilians and destroying villages and towns and cities, but not much more. He is a pariah and hated by the free world. David is standing up to Goliath. Putin is being humiliated. I say we can win this war. We can punish Russia, isolate them and put them in their place. Teach Putin a lesson and teach the world a lesson that conquering other countries will no longer be tolerated. This is your chance for greatness, Mr. President. This will be your legacy—standing up to tyranny. No Neville Chamberlin, you. You have drawn a line in the sand, and it is working.

Biden: Thank you very much, Advisor. It is always nice to feel appreciated and to know you are doing the right thing.

Advisor 2: Not so fast, Mr. President, if I may. I am the foremost Russian expert in the U.S. and maybe in the world. I have spent my entire career studying the country and their leaders—especially Putin. I hate Putin as much as anybody, but I have to tell you he will not accept defeat. If he feels cornered, he will react like a threatened animal and lash back. He will not accept humiliation or defeat. And besides staying the course means the war will continue for months, perhaps longer, and many more innocent civilians will die. But it could get even worse and impact a lot more people than the Ukrainians. A lot of countries depend on wheat and grain from Ukraine. The farmers in Ukraine have traded their pitchforks for AK 47s. They are not planting wheat. Every country in North Africa depends on Ukrainian wheat for survival. So do other countries. The world is facing massive starvation if the war continues for much longer. You have got to figure a way out of this. This war needs to stop and stop soon.

Advisor 1: Excuse me, Advisor 2. You certainly could not be suggesting that our President cut and run just when we have the chance to see Putin humiliated and weaken Russia forever. Intellectuals are leaving the country, and there are signs that the Russian people are unhappy with all the sanctions. President Biden would go down as a wimp and a loser if he gives in while ahead.

Biden: Thank you, Advisor. I do not want to be a wimp or a loser.

Advisor 1:  Besides what could Putin do anyway? His army is pathetic. If he can’t take over a  country like Ukraine, how much of a threat could he be to us or NATO countries?

Advisor 2: It is called nuclear weapons. Do you want me to spell that out for you. N-U-C….

Advisor 1. Oh, please. Don’t try to pull the nukes-scare trick. Nobody would dare to do that. It would mean the end of the world as we know it. There is nothing to worry about, Mr. President. No worries. Advisor 2 does not know what he is talking about. MAD, “Mutually Assured Destruction.” He nukes us. We nuke them. No winners. Nuclear war will not happen.

Advisor 2. Putin has said more than once that he will use nuclear weapons if left with no options. I know this man. I know that when he feels he has no other options, he will use nuclear weapons.

Biden: How many nuclear weapons does Russia have?

Advisor 2. Just short of 6,000. 5,977 to  be exact.

Biden: And us?

Advisor 2: Nowhere close. 1,389 active, 2,361 inactive but available, and 1,800 in line to be dismantled.

Biden: So if Putin did decide to use nuclear weapons, that would not be good, right?

Advisor 2: Right, Mr. President.

Biden: And we would have to retaliate, right?

Advisor 2: Correct, Mr. President.

Biden: I think we should put a hold on dismantling the 1,800.

Advisor 1: Scare tactics. Don’t fall for it.

Biden: So what then do you recommend, Advisor 2?

Advisor 2: Cut a deal. Let Putin have eastern Ukraine and declare victory and take his troops home.

Biden: But that is not what the Ukrainians want. We have told them repeatedly that it is their decision to make to end the war, not ours.

Advisor 1: Plus, it shows we are a bunch of wussies. We would  have let Putin get away with murder. He will come back and attack what is left of Ukraine again and then go after Moldova and then the Baltics. He won’t stop until he has expanded Russia to be the size it was under Peter the Great or Stalin. He is the new Hitler. Do you want to be the new Neville Chamberlin?

Biden: What do I tell Zelensky?

Advisor 2: You tell him to cut a deal.

Advisor 1: Traitor.

Advisor 2: Do the arithmetic. No deal—tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dead in Ukraine, mainly civilians. Starvation in North Africa and possibly—I would argue probably—hundreds of millions dead in the U.S., Western Europe, and Russia and the end of the world as we know it. Deal–bruised ego for Zelensky, angered diehard Ukrainian nationalists, but the bombing and killing would stop. Wheat for North Africa. That is the tradeoff.

Biden: What if Putin does not take the deal?

Advisor 2: Offer to end the sanctions and banking restrictions.

Biden: If that does not do it?

Advisor 2: Give him his yachts back.

Biden: And if that does not work?

Advisor: Give the oligarchs their mansions overseas and their boats back.

Biden: What else?

Advisor 2: Tell him you will order McDonalds, Burger King and Starbucks to reopen immediately. The Russian people will love him for that. A deal sealer. He will be more popular than ever.

Advisor 1. Don’t listen to him. This is your chance for greatness, your legacy of  standing up against tyranny, fighting for justice, democracy and American values. You can’t give in to this nonsense and scare tactics. History will not look kindly on you.

Biden: I will give it some thought and get back to you.

 

Question: If you were President Biden, what would you do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reunions

Last week Embry and I attended the reunion for my high school Class of 1960. I attended a private school for boys called Montgomery Bell Academy–“MBA”–located in Nashville, Tennessee. I have fond memories of MBA. Most teachers were good, a few excellent, and I made a half dozen or so great friends that I have remained close to for over 60 years.

When I entered the school as a freshman in 1956, I was coming off a year at home where I was recovering from a spinal fusion to straighten my backbone that looked like the letter “C,” a casualty caused by losing my stomach muscles two years earlier due to polio. I could not play sports and for most of my high school years had a full, upper body cast.  For this reason, I am especially grateful to MBA for the opportunity created for me to become MBA’s first “student trainer.” Being a student trainer was the next best thing to playing a sport.  I taped ankles and wrapped knees and cheered my classmates playing football, basketball, and running track. Our teams then were not great, but they were good, and my classmates played with a lot of heart. Tommy Owen, the head coach, was a legendary coach, who was loved and respected by everyone I knew. Since I spent a lot of time in the trainer’s room next to his office, after practice he and I were often the only two people in the locker room. He became for me a role model and mentor. The summer following my freshman year in college I accepted his invitation to be the head boys’ counselor at a summer camp, which was then (regrettably) called “Camp Easter Seal for Crippled Children,” an experience which made me appreciate how much courage and determination those handicapped kids had. It also made me realize that I had gotten off pretty easy myself as a “crippled child”.

Fast forward 62 years. In the MBA Class of 1960, we are now all 80 or will be soon. We are old codgers, the oldest reunion class to be included in the annual five-year MBA class reunions. It will probably be our last. MBA was small when we were students. There were only about 50 boys in our class. About a third have died including one of my best friends, about a third attended the reunion, and there was not much information about the balance who did not show up. Some live out of town. I suspect many may be struggling with health issues. Others have lost interest. I remember reading somewhere that if you consult mortality and morbidity tables, you will find that the number of survivors in school reunions tracks close to what actuaries and demographers predict. Such is life—and death—on the planet Earth.

Reunions for me have tended to be emotionally exhausting. It is always great to see old friends. Several of my MBA close friends were able to make it. Reconnecting with them is always the best part, and this reunion was no exception. It seems you pick up just where you left off the last time you were together. I remembered and talked with everyone who was there, which is one of the benefits of going to a small school. Wives were present at this reunion as well, and that was also a good thing even though Embry complained that most of the time, she had to introduce herself while I was off reuniting with classmates.

But I do not think that reconnecting is what causes the emotional exhaustion. It is what goes on in your mind thinking about what it all means or, to be more specific, what your own life means. How do you compare with those around you? Have you given your life’s journey your best shot? Have you made a positive contribution? How do your values compare to those of your classmates? Of course, there are no easy answers to these questions.

One friend warned me ahead of time not to talk about diversity or inclusion and that most in our class remained “generally conservative”. Well, that I could understand since I grew up in a conservative family and am a product of Nashville’s social class structure. So, I kept my mouth shut regarding politics; and when asked by one person if I thought, “like everyone in Nashville did,” that Biden is a crook and should be impeached and thrown in jail, I politely said “no” and changed the subject.

Politics, of course, was the elephant in the room. If we had opened this Pandora’s Box, who knows where it would have taken us? I know most of my classmates would probably have different opinions from mine but not how many would be Trump supporters or would have applauded the now infamous Alito draft Supreme Court decision on abortion or be against same sex marriage or for banning “woke” books and those discussing Critical Race Theory. I do not want to know. I want to think that we are all on the same page and share basically the same values. But I also know that our country is deeply divided, probably more so than at any other point in our history except the Civil War. Good people are on both sides. So, for reunions it is best to let those sleeping dogs lie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Gullible’s Travels” Continues

Some of you may recall my blog post series from years earlier entitled “Gullible’s Travels.” Here is another entry:

At 11:46 AM on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, my iMac computer froze up and went haywire with an arrow darting all over the place. Onto the screen came the message: “Urgent! Your computer has been hacked. Call Apple Security immediately. You are at great risk.” A phone number was listed.

So, in desperation I immediately called the Apple computer number and was connected first to an operator and then to Harry Martin, who said that he was with Apple Security and would be pleased to help me with all computer security matters. He had what seemed to me like a Slavic, or perhaps Russian, accent, which also seemed to be from an older man. This caught my attention since all the other Apple Help people I have dealt with—and I have dealt with a bunch– have had American accents and were probably in their 20s. Odd, I thought, but I was desperate.

Mr. Martin said that I needed to have my security upgraded, which he would be glad do for me; but for that to happen, I needed to give him control of my computer, which, of course, I did. It took about two hours for him to install the necessary software on the computer, but to see if any financial data had been compromised, he also needed to check my online bank accounts. “If you have been hacked,” he said, “chances are they have gone after your bank accounts. That is what these hackers are usually after. We must check those first.”

I told him my bank was PNC. With his software in place on my computer, he was able to log into my PNC account, which I enabled him to do. He asked me to tell him my pass my password “to make it easier for me.” I refused to give it to him and typed it in myself. Presto! My PNC account appeared on the screen, which he had access to and could see exactly how much money I had in my accounts. There did not seem to be any unusual transactions posted in the account. I was relieved. But as a courtesy, he linked me in phone conversation to a top security expert at PNC Bank. The familiar voice of the PNC Bank operator came on first and then linked me to a PNC “security expert,” whose name was Sam Williams. Mr. Williams also spoke with a similar Slavic accent. I was beginning to get suspicious, but I was curious as to how this was going to play out.

Mr. Williams introduced himself as a top security executive at PNC Bank and assured me that the bank had my account as their number one concern and would do all they could to help me. It took about 15 minutes or so for him to check all the accounts, including recent transactions and said that it appeared that in fact according to their records, three suspicious transfers from my account had been recorded a few minutes earlier and were due to happen in the next hour. All payments from my account were to accounts in Mexico and totaled about $15,000. I confirmed that the transactions were fraudulent and requested that the bank stop the transfer. He said he would do that, but that due to “international banking regulations and commitments by PNC,” there was only a 20–30-minute window that PNC had to keep the transfers from happening and that I had to act fast.

He linked me into conversation  with another PNC employee whose name was Justin Lee, who said he was head of the “PNC Encryption Department” and would immediately stop the funds from going to Mexico. He was understanding and sympathetic. But given the short time frame, the only way that the transfer could be stopped would be for me to take all the money out of my checking and savings accounts using the ATM at my local PNC branch. In addition, the money must be exclusively in $20 bills. I should notify him when I had the money in hand, and then would give me further instructions.

If you are concluding that I am an idiot, you are not that far off base. My only excuse is that while I now was convinced that this was likely a fraud, I was curious as to how it would play out.

But when he directed me to go to the ATM immediately and take out all my money in $20 bills, that was the last straw. I had had enough.

When I objected to taking the money out of the ATM, he jumped in saying the situation was dire and that once the transfer of funds happened, I would have no chance of recovering the money. But he had a solution: He would instruct me how to convert the funds to bitcoins and deposit them into a safe account in another financial institution, where I could retrieve the funds at my convenience. By this time, he was pleading with me.

He cautioned me to say nothing to the bank about this because several employees of the branch where my money was deposited were under investigation by the bank for possible fraud. If I said anything to the suspects about this “incident,” they might be able to avoid arrest.

Game over. I burst out laughing. “Good try, fellas,” I chuckled, then with  a touch of outrage,” I am reporting you to the police!” I hung up. How could anyone be so stupid to fall for such a scam? Yet, I had to give them credit for a well-orchestrated con. It must work sometimes, or they would not be doing this, right?

It took about an hour to straighten things out with PNC Bank. No fraudulent activities had been observed and nothing was unusual. They assured me that this happens more often than you would  think and that  the account was secure. However, they suggested I change my bank and computer password, which, of course, I did. And then it took another hour or so to get Apple to clean up my computer and put on new security.

 I tried calling back the “Apple Security” and “PNC Bank” numbers that initiated the scam. No one answered the calls.

And today, April 11, at 8:07 A.M., a new warning came across my computer screen and my iPhone screen from “Apple Security” warning me that all my passwords had been stolen and that I had to act quickly. Then the message disappeared and has not shown up again.

 Rest assured. I am not taking the bait this time.

 

 

 

My 80th Birthday: Four Surprises

Milestone birthdays in the Howell family have typically been the occasions for surprises. On my 40th Embry and I climbed Old Rag Mountain in western Virginia followed by dinner at the Graves Mountain Lodge with my parents and Embry’s mother and our two children, ages 12 and eight. On that occasion we were also joined by about a  half dozen close friends who showed up to my complete surprise. On my 50th our daughter, Jessica, invited me to a quiet dinner with her where we would be joined later by Embry. Our son, Andrew, was away in college. The restaurant was located in the heart of artsy Takoma Park in DC with lots of art galleries. We passed by one gallery, which was crowded with people viewing framed, black and white photographs on the walls. I took a second look through the large gallery window from the street and recognized a lot of friends, which for a moment puzzled me. Then I realized that the exhibit was showing my photographs!  Andrew was dressed up in a white, tux shirt and black bowtie and serving drinks. Jessica, who responsible for this surprise, was sheepishly giggling. Everyone applauded when we entered the gallery followed by a boisterous singing of “Happy Birthday.” On the 60th we were in the BVIs sailing with Jessica, her husband, Peter, Andrew, and his girlfriend at the time, so there were no surprises though we had a fabulous cruise for the week. And on the 70th we were in London visiting Andrew, who was working there at the time, his wife Karen and their daughter, Sadie, where we were joined on my birthday by several surprise guests–dear friends, Roger and Geraldine, who lived near Liverpool, Sam, my college roommate, and his wife, Diane, then Jessica and Peter, and their two children. I think there were also a couple of others. I can’t remember all the details or how they all were able to show up in London. But it was quite a party and quite a weekend.

So, with that kind of history, you would expect another surprise on a milestone 80th birthday, right? Well, not me. Everyone is still recovering  as covid-time is winding down. Large gatherings are still discouraged, and besides we had just seen our children and grandchildren the weekend before. This time there would be no surprises. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. The plan was to have a quiet dinner with Embry at the Capital Grill, an upscale steakhouse not far from the Capitol, and be done with it.

The morning of my birthday, April Fool’s Day, I checked my email to see a message from “Kudoboard,” a sender I was not familiar with. I clicked on it. For the better part of an hour, I read the birthday comments and viewed photographs from dear friends from all over the country and the world—over fifty people—and was overwhelmed. Surprise Number One. Embry had an early morning commitment and was not around when I viewed the birthday wishes, reminisces, and photos  on my iPhone. When she returned, I viewed them all again with her, this time using the desktop computer. We both were in tears. Many of you who are reading this, I suspect, contributed. I am profoundly grateful and humbled. The mastermind behind all this was Andrew and I remain in awe that he could pull this off.

The rest of the day was quiet until dinner at the Capital Grill. When we were escorted to our table, there were Andrew and Jessica! What were they doing here? Andrew had come down from Maplewood, NJ on Amtrack, and Jessica had flown down from Portland, Maine. Well beyond the call of duty though I was very touched that they made the effort. Surprise Number Two.

Following a terrific meal, we returned to our apartment where both children would spend the night. Before we all turned in, Andrew beckoned me to turn on my computer where he typed in “Joseph Toy Howell III” and up popped  a Wikipedia page featuring meSurprise Number Three. Now this may not seem like a big deal to you, but for me it was huge. I do not recall saying anything to my kids about this, but for a long time my heart’s desire had been to be listed in Wikipedia. In fact, I once even had a dream that I typed my name in, and there I was. If you make it onto Wikipedia, then you must be famous or at least notable, right? As Embry will tell you, I have always wanted to be famous or notable. Of course, the challenge was that I was—and am—neither, but somehow my son cobbled together enough “accomplishments” that Joseph Toy Howell III passed the Wikipedia test. Apparently, there are still “citations” that they require, which might mean the page will fade away into the ether, but for one shining moment, there I was on Wikipedia. Me. Joseph Toy Howell III. My life is now complete.

But I must tell you that making it onto a Wikipedia page is one thing. Having your son think you are worthy enough to be there and figuring out how to make that happen is something else. That is the real story here and what I am most proud of and grateful for.

I went to bed the evening of April 1 feeling appreciated and affirmed and grateful for the 80 years I have spent on this fragile planet.

But there was one more surprise to come and that occurred the following morning when Jessica insisted that we walk up to the Washington National Cathedral where one of her close friends, a singer and artist and also a friend of ours, was performing with some group she is in. Any normal person would think there was something fishy about a performance in the Bishop’s Garden adjacent to the cathedral at ten in the morning, but not me. Andrew and I, followed by Embry, walked up to the cathedral from our apartment (about a mile and a half) arriving just after 10 where there was no evidence of any performance but a lot of evidence of Surprise Number Four—dear friends, mainly from the neighborhood, and dear relatives–packed into the gazebo in the Bishop’s Garden with yet another round of “Happy Birthday,” coffee, bagels and, of course, a birthday cake. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the mid 60s, no wind, a Carolina blue sky and the garden in its spring splendor with cherry blossoms bursting out everywhere. This event was planned and executed by Jessica Ellis, the very same Jessica, who 30 years before pulled off perhaps the biggest of all surprise birthday events at the Takoma Park art gallery.

Folks, I have been blessed. There is nothing more to add.

 

 

 

Reflections of a Codger Approaching Eighty

In less than two weeks, I will turn 80. That is old. If anyone who is 80 or older tells you something different, they are lying. Those of us at this age all know the truth. We know how we have had to slow down, endure aches and pains, and are not able to do many of the things we used to do. We know our remaining time on this dear but challenged planet is limited. And we know that over the course of our long lives we have had to deal with a lot. The first is loss. Everyone my age whom I know is an orphan. Our parents have all died, years ago in most cases. Many of us along the way have also lost close friends, spouses, and loved ones. I lost my only brother, five years my junior, over a decade ago. Embry and I lost our first child, just before what would have been her first birthday.

We all have battle scars. Some of us have dealt with serious illnesses and survived. Others have experienced broken or failed relationships. Everyone our age has experienced hardships and disappointments at one time or another. We have made our share of mistakes. But we also have had victories and accomplishments. Some may measure success by money. Others by power or fame. Acknowledgement and appreciation are also measures. I would add kindness and respect for others. I would also add trying to level the playing field and standing up for what is just and right. But when it comes down to it, I think the greatest measure is looking yourself in the mirror and being able to say you played the cards you were dealt as best as you could.

If you have reached the ripe old age of 80, you are first and foremost a survivor. When I was born in 1942, my life expectancy was 71. Well over half the people who were born in the U.S. that year are no longer with us. Given the advantages of a being born into the White middle/upper middle class, making lifestyle choices like not smoking, and having access to good medical care, most of my immediate cohort of friends are still alive and have beaten the odds. Still, my estimate is that about a third of my high school and college classmates are gone. Such is life–and death–on the planet Earth.

And just think about the changes we have witnessed as we 80-year-olds have progressed up the age scale. When I was born in 1942, growing up in Nashville, I did not know anyone who had a television set until I was almost 10. I have a distinct memory of seeing the first jet plane in the air when I was eight or nine, playing in my friend’s front yard. Telephones were around, but in Nashville everyone I knew had a party line, shared with two or more homes. And, of course, there was no such thing as an atomic bomb. The idea of sending a man to the moon was the stuff of science fiction. The computer revolution really did not start until after I graduated from college. Embry’s first job in New York in 1968 was a computer programmer, which in those days was just emerging as a cutting-edge job opportunity. Then came the 80s and 90s and beyond with countless satellites in the sky, personal computers, cell phones, high definition, flat screen televisions, the internet, GPS, and all the rest. Who would have believed in our short life span we would witness the Technology Revolution, following in the footsteps of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions? And to cap it all off, we are finishing our lives in the worst pandemic in over 100 years.

And we old folks have been around long enough to understand that life is a lot easier for some than for others. We have lived through the Cold War and others—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine—and watched as people suffered tragedy in these and other war-torn countries and suffered through revolutions and natural disasters. The Vietnam War was the defining war for us 80-year-olds. A universal draft was in effect for all young men, which during this controversial war was resisted by many and helped spawn the Peace Movement. Many of my friends where I attended Union Seminary burned their draft cards. A lot of us marched in support of them and against the war.

We have witnessed man’s inhumanity to man both in the U.S. and around the world. During my entire childhood and adolescence growing up in Nashville, Jim Crow laws governed everything. Schools were racially segregated as were eating establishments, bathrooms, parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, and neighborhoods. But in the 1960s that all began to change with the Civil Rights Movement. One of the experiences that I proudly remember is the summer Embry and I spent in Southwest Georgia working in “The Movement” with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966.

Despite the successes and failures, victories and defeats, and the hardships and challenges every human experiences during a lifetime, many people I know who have survived to age 80 realize that we White people in the U.S. were dealt a pretty good hand compared to others in this world who have experienced poverty, wars, discrimination, poor education, and lack of opportunity. Some would argue that my generation has had it easy. Our parents experienced the Great Depression and World War II. By comparison, we got what could almost be described as a free ride. And even worse: we are passing along to the next generation a planet which is threatened by global warming. Weapons of mass destruction remain ready to be used at a moment’s notice.

My emotional reaction to all this is mixed– sadness for the state of the world I have lived in for the last 80 years, and for the challenges my generation is leaving in our wake for our children and grandchildren to tackle. But at the same time, I am deeply grateful. I have beaten the odds by living this long and am still going. Note that I omit the adverb “strong.” But I am still getting in my steps, walking my 15- 20 miles a week, albeit at a pretty slow pace.

Some will call beating the odds luck. I am not sure what “luck” is, but I know it when I see it, and I know that I have had more than my share—a strong marriage, children (and grandchildren!) who have made us proud, a career that I loved, many dear friends along the way, passionate pursuits and hobbies like sailing, writing, photography, serious running, and now walking—and thanks to Embry, traveling the world. I dodged a major bullet in 1954 when I had back surgery to straighten out a spinal cord shaped like the letter “C,” caused by polio, which I experienced in 1952.  The operation at the time was relatively new and would not have been available to me if had been born 10 years earlier. The prognosis then would have been eight more years before my organs, displaced by the shape of my spine, would have given out. I would not have made it much past my twentieth birthday. I am indeed “the lucky one.”

I read somewhere that “a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Maybe the same could be said for luck.

But as we codgers look back on our lives and are thankful for reaching our ninth decade, I can’t help asking the question, what does all this mean? Why are we here? What is the meaning of our lives? What happens next? These are the questions that from time immemorial religion has tried to address. Some of us 80-year-olds may tell you they have all the answers based on their religious beliefs. Others—I suspect most of us—will say that even though human life has a spiritual dimension, that there is a mystery about life that cannot be explained by science, and that there is a role for religious belief and practice, we have no choice but to live –and ultimately die –with some uncertainty. As for me, all I can say is that deep down, I do believe there is a purpose in  life, that the spiritual dimension is real, and that for having almost made it to 80 and (hopefully) beyond, I am profoundly grateful. What more is there to say?

“Making Russia Great Again”: A Speech by Vladimir Putin

My fellow patriots, I am happy to report that my special operation in the Ukraine is going very well, all according to plan. It is a huge success. Our brave soldiers are welcomed with cheers and opened arms by the Ukrainian citizens, as we liberate the Ukraine and bring it back into Mother Russia where it rightfully belongs.  This is only my first step in restoring Russia to its former greatness.

In fact, my mission is to “Make Russia Great Again!”

So, what does “making Russia great again” mean?

It means freedom! You will be freed from all the terrible things that have happened to our beloved fatherland over the last 30 odd years when we have been taken advantage of by the United States, their NATO allies and others. They have cheated and robbed us of our land and our souls, and I am going to take our fatherland back.

This is what you are being freed from even as I speak:

You are being freed from retail malls with plenty of merchandize from all over the world. Ikea, H&M, Adidas—they are all history, along with many other foreign stores. You are being freed from short lines at markets and plenty of food on the shelves. You are being freed from restaurants and establishments you can’t stand like McDonalds, Burger King, Little Caesars, and Starbucks, and from eating the terrible food that comes from France or Italy or any other Western country at so called “fine restaurants.” The sushi bars from Japan are being closed along with practically every other store that is not Russian—or Chinese. And forget about drinking a Coke or Pepsi or an American or German beer. It will be all-Russian from now on. And American movies, American TV shows, Disney and  Netflix—all now cancelled. Forget about them. Forget about the decadent Western culture.

You are being freed from buying German or American or Japanese cars. They are gone. And no more Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Or pumping gas from Shell, Exxon, or BP stations. It will be Russian all the way. Or from using FedEx and UPS to get packages. They are disappearing.

And you will have the freedom from having to carry around wallets or using credit cards. Rubles will no longer have value, and Visa, Mastercard and American Express are all being cancelled. You will have the freedom to tear up your checkbooks. Checks also will be worthless since few banks will  be operating. Good riddance! Now this is what I call real freedom. Long live our fatherland!

And of course, you will now have the freedom to read only official government publications and to watch television programs, only the ones approved by me. No news media will be allowed to operate other than what I approve.

But that is not all. You will have freedom from social media. Facebook, Twitter, SNAP, Instagram—all history along with YouTube, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and anything on the internet that is not Russian or having to do with computers that are not Russian—or Chinese.

And forget about flying out of Russia. No more foreign airlines to clutter the skies and no more airplanes to be used made outside of Russia—or China. In fact, forget about leaving our fatherland, period. You will have the freedom to stay here, the greatest country in the world, soon to be even greater and larger—much larger.

Now along with all the new freedom comes responsibility. As Russians every citizen will be responsible for helping make Russia great again. Anyone saying or writing or broadcasting or emailing anything negative about me or my Russian government will be arrested and sentenced to 15 years in jail or longer. There will be stiffer sentences for anyone demonstrating or protesting. I fully expect you to turn in anyone you think is guilty of not making Russia great again.

It is your responsibility to support all the new freedom that I am giving you and to celebrate Russian’s return to greatness.

It is a great day and a new era. Let’s all come together to make Russia great again!

 

 

 

 

So How Scared Should We Be?

On Sunday, February 27, Putin announced to the world that he had put the 6,000 Russian nuclear weapon arsenal on “high alert.” This came after he made the statement a day or two earlier that any country that did anything to hinder his “special operations” in Ukraine “would face consequences you have never encountered in your history.”

So how scared should we be? Would Putin initiate a nuclear war that would result in tens of millions of deaths in Europe, the US, and in Russia and make parts of the planet uninhabitable?

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, I was obsessed with the thought of a major confrontation between Russia and the West. (See the one act play, “Armageddon,” in my previous blog post.) Today–Day 5 of the invasion–I was glued to the morning news shows as various experts were interviewed. The consensus at this point appears to be that Putin is simply saber rattling and intends to intimidate the West, not to destroy the planet, including his own country. But what if the experts are wrong? What if Putin has made a fatal miscalculation about how far the U.S. and our allies are prepared to go to support Ukraine? What if he feels backed into a corner?

From the news shows this morning, my conclusion is that Putin has already made many miscalculations. He thought the Ukrainian army would not fight fiercely.  He thought many in Ukraine would welcome the Russians as liberators. He thought the leader of the country would be a pushover. He thought the Russian people would support his actions, and he believed that whatever sanctions the West imposed would be manageable, and the rest of the world would not really care since they would not have a dog in the fight.

Wrong on all counts. As of this writing, after five days of fighting, the Ukrainian army is still holding its own. The Ukraine population is overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion as ordinary citizens take up arms and make Molotov cocktails.  Zelensky has become an inspiring, national hero. Hundreds of demonstrations opposing the Russian invasion, many large, have already occurred in Russian cities, and there are hints that even some of the oligarchs are questioning Putin’s actions. And the sanctions are already working causing the Russian stock market to crash, the value of the ruble to plummet, and banks to be shut off from international finance. Also, it is not just NATO that is unified in opposing the invasion, it is virtually all of Western Europe and the European Union, and many other countries throughout the world. Even Switzerland has stated that it will freeze bank accounts of wealthy Russians, the first time this action has been taken against anyone. While China remains silent as does India, no major country at the moment is actively supporting Russia. Belarus is Putin’s only friend. Putin is seen by the world as a pariah, and Russia is becoming shut off, isolated, and close to alone. China could aggressively come to Putin’s aid at some point, but this carries huge risks for China and has not happened yet. I do not see any scenario which would be the happy ending Putin is expecting.

So how will this movie end?

The happiest ending for the world is that Putin will come to his senses within weeks. Powerful oligarchs will realize that what Putin is doing is devasting to them and put pressure on Putin to find a way out of this mess. Others will also put pressure on Putin like some of the generals, who must realize that the price the army is paying is not worth it. Ordinary citizens will continue to protest, and more and more ordinary Russians, hurt by the failing economy, will voice their opposition. The fledging peace process, which began today, will become more serious and ultimately end up in a compromise of sorts. Ukraine could promise never to join NATO but maintain its status as an independent nation. Russia could declare victory over “Nazi elements” in Ukraine and keeping Ukraine out of NATO. Russia would cease military operations following an agreement, and casualties would be kept to a minimum. Sanctions would cease,  and the world would breathe a deep sigh of relief. Life would continue on the planet Earth as we have known it.

The odds of the happiest ending happening are considered low.

What appears to be the consensus for the most likely scenario is that Putin will ultimately fail but only after a prolonged and bloody conflict. He will up the ante by using devasting bombs which kill tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens, perhaps many more. Zelensky is unlikely to survive in this scenario, but Russia is not able to declare a legitimate victory due to a robust insurgency like what happened in Iraq. But ultimately Putin will grow weary of the ordeal, his inner circle of oligarchs will rebel, his support from the Russian people will diminish, and Putin will have to give in, though calling the effort a victory by defeating “Nazis and druggies.” Sanctions will be lifted eventually, but considerable damage will have been done to the Russian economy, banking system and the quality of life for ordinary Russians. The world will recover but never be quite the same again.

The third scenario would be “retaliation lite.” Putin will fight back at the US and NATO using cyberwarfare and clandestine operations. Few have made much of this scenario, though to me it seems like a logical next step for Putin. We know the Russians are among the best in the world in cyberwarfare and that much of our digital infrastructure is vulnerable. Our power grid is perhaps the Russian’s easiest target. It is not too much of a leap to assume that Russia would try to make us pay for our opposition to the invasion in clandestine ways that could not easily be tied to Russia. Lights would go out routinely in cities or sections of cities. Large computer networks would be hacked. Transportation systems would be disrupted. Availability of food and gas would be unpredictable. Everyone would suspect it was Russia, but there would be insufficient evidence to pin these actions on them. Making the West and the U.S. uncomfortable would bring a certain satisfaction to Putin but would not tilt the playing field in Ukraine. The war would still go on as in scenario 2 and peter out eventually leaving a wake of suffering behind it.

The fourth scenario is the doomsday scenario or “Armageddon,” as I labeled it in my previous blog. Surprisingly, Putin put the nuclear option on the table a couple of days ago, at the beginning of the invasion, not after it had become evident that he could not win. Would he really use nuclear weapons? MAD or “Mutually Assured Destruction” has been the guiding principle keeping nuclear options at bay. Could the unthinkable happen now?

This depends in large part on what is going on in Putin’s mind. Could he deal with defeat with the satisfaction that if he fails, he will bring down the world with him? Is he playing with a full deck? Has the man gone nuts? When it appears that he ultimately is facing humiliation, what options are left for him besides the doomsday scenario if he wants to settle the score with NATO and the U.S.?

So, should we be scared? You are damn right that we should be scared. There is no happy ending for Russia under any of these scenarios. With the world ganged up against him and no allies that he can truly count on, he has few options. One option is to pull the nuclear trigger. If that happens, it is indeed a doomsday scenario. No one wins in a nuclear war. No one. God help us.

 

Armageddon: A One Act Play on the Eve of the Probable Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Setting: Putin’s office. Meeting in progress.

Cast:

Vladimir Putin

Advisor 1: High level General in the Russian Army

Advisor 2: High level Domestic Advisor

Advisor 3: High level Nuclear Scientist

 

Putin: Ok, time to stop dilly dallying. The purpose of this meeting is to decide when to invade Ukraine.

Advisor 1: The sooner the better, Boss. I say this evening. We are all set—200,000 troops, new weapons, nuclear capability. We have it all. Chomping at the bit, sir.

Advisor 2: Boss, I am not questioning your judgement. You are infallible. We all know that, but have you considered all the options and repercussions? If you invade, then Biden has said he will impose sanctions.

Advisor 1: Sanctions. So what? The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Iran for years, and the Iranians are doing fine. Slap on the wrist, if you ask me.

Putin: So then, what is the problem?

Advisor 2: I won’t go into all the details, but the U.S. could keep us from using the dollar as currency, meaning it would impact trade and make it harder for Russians to do business.  They could also limit exports from the U.S. affecting lots of our industries. They could keep banks and others from buying our bonds or lending us money. These actions might even force us into a recession, but it would also hurt a lot of NATO counties whom we trade with, especially Germany. In fact, if they try to keep our oil from flowing to Germany, Germany would probably bolt from NATO. We pretty much have them by the short hairs on the pipeline. And, of course, they could go after your buddies, the oligarchs, like freezing their bank accounts including, I might add, Alina Kabaeva, your sweetie. Bottom line: they could do a lot.

Putin: Alina? Alina? I say hit Ukraine tomorrow. I’ll take my chances.

Advisor 2: But wait, Boss! Biden could do more. The U.S. and their NATO allies could cut us out of the SWIFT banking system, which would paralyze our entire financial system and within days force us into a barter system. It would be the equivalent of a nuclear option. Our economy would be in shreds. People could starve. When we rightfully reclaimed the Crimea in 2014, they threatened us with the SWIFT option, and we told them this would be tantamount to a full-scale declaration of war.

Advisor 1. Yeah, and they chickened out. They never used the SWIFT threat, never pulled the trigger. Besides Biden is a wimp. He would never risk full scale war.

Advisor 2. But what if the U.S. and their NATO allies did go for the SWIFT option? How would we respond?

Advisor 1. Well, first we would go after their power grid, right Boss? 0ur intelligence tells me we have the capacity to turn the lights out in New York, Washington, LA and Chicago in a heartbeat. Plus, we would unleash all the cyberwarfare in our arsenal and mess them up big time. They would be screwed, and without electricity millions would be out of food and water within a couple of weeks. Do you think that Biden would risk something like that? He would never get re-elected.  Not a shot fired, and we would own Ukraine, which is rightfully ours anyway.

Advisor 2. But are we sure Biden would not act?

Putin.  My buddy, Trump, told me not to take him seriously.

Advisor 2: But doesn’t the U.S. also have cyberwarfare capability? Couldn’t they do the same thing to us?

Advisor 1. In theory, yes. But our intelligence says we are stronger.

Putin: How many nuclear weapons do we have versus what they have?

Advisor 3: We have close to the same number. It is way down from what it used to be, thanks to all the disarmament BS but enough to ruin your day. Good news though—we have more than they do. They have 5,550 nuclear warheads, and we have 6,655–all armed and ready to be launched on a moment’s notice. And we will know it when they launch, and they will know it when we do, so each country will have a few minutes warning to enable them to go after the other country before the bombs hit. Remember, that was the whole purpose of MAD, “mutually assured destruction.” You both lose. Both countries would be destroyed. No sane ruler would want that to happen, right? So, everyone is safe. Nuclear war will never happen. Neat idea, huh?

Putin. So, Joe would be sitting in the White House with his major cities dark and his government and industry paralyzed and communications worthless. He would just sit there staring at the wall.  There is no other viable retaliation for him at that point except nuclear war. And he would never do that, right? Looks like we’ve got him. But I’ve got to say, I’m not so sure I believe that.

Advisor 1. But Boss,  we know he is a wimp and would never be the first to pull the nuclear trigger. That would give us an advantage, so if we really wanted to end this mess and unleased everything we have first, they would suffer a whole lot more than we would. So, it is something we might want to take another look at.

Advisor 3: And if it did happen, Boss, we could argue that we would be doing all we can to stop global warming. A nuclear winter lasting years or perhaps decades would follow. Your legacy would be that of an environmental hero.

Advisor 2: Boss, you know you could avert this danger by not invading Ukraine, right? You do not have to do this. You do not have to put us and the rest of the planet at risk. Just call it off for now and try to negotiate something.

Putin: But that would make me look weak. I have worked so hard to get respect, to get the world to take me seriously. And I have been successful. I am now respected and feared. How could I back down without showing weakness?

Advisor 1:  You are right, Boss. Don’t listen to him. He is a traitor. Put him in jail. You are not weak. You are the greatest! You are the strongest. Never, never back down.

Putin: Tell you what, guys. I will sleep on it and let you know something tomorrow…