Down Under 1: Getting There

I am looking out  the window of our cabin aboard the brand new “Viking Orion,” a 750 foot, “mini” cruise ship  in port at Auckland, New Zealand, accommodating 900 passengers served by 3,000 eager crew members always at your beck and call. Ok, there are probably not that many eager crew, but it seems like it. The lap of luxury. The life style of royalty. At last, I confess to myself, we’ve earned it. We deserve it.

Well, not exactly. In fact for a life-long, committed Presbyterian, cum-vestry member at All Souls Episcopal Church, (Embry), luxury is a negative rather than a positive term. Not so much, however, for us cradle Episcopalians.

(For those who followed us around the world, you may recall  our only two other ocean  cruises, the first on a Holland America ship from Ft. Lauderdale to Spain, and the second on a Hanjin container ship from Shanghai to Seattle.)

 In any event we are here on this splendid, state of the art vessel because Embry could not resist a half price deal if you signed up in a year in advance, and she took the bait. New Zealand had long  been on our bucket list, and what could be a better way to see this astonishing country–with Australia and Tasmania thrown in as a bonus– than aboard a cruise ship? No need to pack and repack your bags every day, and you get free room and board for over two weeks. Now I realize that room and board are not exactly free, but once you finally clear the arduous boarding procedure, you get a plastic card and that is it. Your ticket to paradise. Cash is not allowed, and at the end of the voyage, you settle up. But, hey, that is two weeks away. It sure feels  free now.

Of course, the challenge with going to New Zealand is that you can’t get there. Well, you can now, thanks to jets that speed along at 500 miles an hour, but it still takes at least 20 hours including layovers and usually involves changing planes. If your goal is to go to the farthest place from Washington, DC (we actually departed from Newark) where there are permanent settlements of homo sapiens, New Zealand is your destination. If you are going to blow a fortune (even at half price) on a cruise ship, you might as well blow the blow the whole shebang and fly business class. So that is what we did, realizing that our chances of surviving 18 hours in steerage would be at best  50-50 .

The two flights (plane change in San Francisco) were fine. The airlines have now really figured out how to do business class with seats that fold down into beds, which allows for the exhausted passenger to get two or three hours of sleep instead of zero. When we stumbled out of the plane in Auckland at 5:00 am, we had crossed six time zones and it was already the day after tomorrow. One day had just disappeared. Poof! I am told we will get it back on the return trip, but it does feel a bit weird watching a live NFL football game on TV on a Monday morning  rather than a Sunday afternoon.

The only glitch at the airport was due to Lynn Johnson. When I grabbed my bag off the luggage conveyor belt, I did the unusual act (for me) of actually checking the name tag, which turned out not to be me but “Lynn Johnson.” No problem, I said, as I strained to lug the suitcase back onto the belt. I will be patient until mine comes around. Twenty minutes later I was still waiting, and there was only one bag left: Linda Johnson’s. Now I will admit that the bags were identical. It could have easily been me who took her bag.  The kind and courteous baggage lady told me that this is called a “bag switch,” and happens on average nine times a day at their airport. Welcome to the club! Two hours later the issue was resolved, and several hours after that  in our hotel,  I received an identical suitcase, this time with my name on it. (The luggage police were able to get Lynn her bag before she left the airport.) I later received a contrite message on hotel voice mail  from Lynn’s husband, Victor, apologizing profusely. If I happen to bump into them on the cruise, I will insist on their buying me a drink, which is not such an outlandish request since all drinks are free.

Paradise, baby.

More to follow on my first impressions of this green jewel, far, far away, down under….



Following Your Nose

I find as I get older at times I reflect back on experiences that at the time did not seem particularly significant but on hindsight appear remarkable. The Angel Story is one of them. Here is another.

In the early spring of 1970 Embry and I were living in the Clay Street neighborhood outside Washington where I was doing “participant observation” work, which a couple of years later resulted in the publication of Hard Living on Clay Street. Part  of the assignment involved belonging to a fishing club. (Yes, the research contract paid for the dues along with the weekly fees for the bowling league we belonged to.) I loved fishing and being part of this club even though at times I  felt that I did not really fit in. This was the big spring trip, and I was really looking forward to it.  The club was going  to the Chester River to fish for perch. I had no idea where the Chester River was, but everyone–usually around 20-25 guys, all part of the “white working class” I was studying — was supposed to meet in the parking lot behind city hall and drive out together caravan style. The departure time was 6:00 am.

An eager beaver with a new fishing rod and all sorts of fancy new equipment, I arrived at the designated spot at 6:01. The lot was empty. They had left me. My immediate reaction was, those bastards, they knew I was coming. They did not wait for me. My next reaction was, I am going to catch up with them.

So here was the challenge. I had only two pieces of information to work with. The first was the name of the river. The second was that I remembered hearing that the drive there would take about an hour and a half. That was it. What would you consider the odds of my finding them before they set off in their fishing boats?

My first task was to locate the Chester River. This was well before GPS days, and people used maps to find their way from point A to point B. I immediately drove to a gas station and purchased road maps of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. (Since I knew of a town called Chester, Pennsylvania, I figured the town could well be on “the Chester River.”) I spread the maps out on the hood of my old Volkswagen bug and poured over them with feverish intensity. Every minute lost was precious time. No luck in Pennsylvania. On to the Virginia map. I first looked at the map showing  the western part of the state with all the mountain streams and rivers. Many rivers but none named Chester. More precious time lost. The last shot was Maryland, but I was not aware of any big rivers or streams in Maryland; and as my eyes scanned the map showing  the western part of the state, my fears were confirmed. Just as I was about to give up, my eyes wandered to the eastern part of the state and the Chesapeake Bay. Resigned to defeat, with a sigh I glanced at the various  tributaries emptying into the bay—the Severn, the South River, West River, Rhode River,  Patuxent, Patapsco , Choptank, Miles, Tred Avon…. So many rivers.

Then I saw it, “The Chester River.” Bingo! There it was, a massive estuary on the eastern shore of the bay, with a width of a mile or two where it emptied into the bay just north of the Bay  Bridge. My eyes  followed the river on the map to its source about 30 or 40 miles  to the north, originating somewhere near the Delaware border. I now knew where they were: somewhere along the banks of a river at least 30 miles long. And they could be on either side.

I glanced at my watch. It was  6:30. I also estimated the distance to the closest part of the Chester River to the Washington area. It was about 60 miles or about an hour’s drive. What to do?

Here was my plan: I would drive as fast as I could toward the Chester River. Route 50, a major highway, was only minutes away from where I was parked and lead directly toward the Chesapeake Bay, passing by Annapolis  and then over the Bay Bridge. Since I remembered the entire drive was supposed to take an hour and a half, I would drive for approximately one hour and 15 minutes and then take the first road intersecting with the major highway and that lead in the direction of the Chester River. Bound and determined, I revved up the motor and screeched out of the parking lot.

At exactly 7:45 –one hour and 15 minutes of frantically driving like a mad man –I started looking for roads on the left side of the highway and at 7:50 spotted one, an unpretentious, narrow, dirt road with a name I could not even read because the sign was so rusted. Could this be it? My heart started to pound as I turned off. The old VW lurched along, dodging big puddles and huge mud bumps in the road. The bumpy ride seemed to take hours, but the actual time was probably more like 15 or 20 minutes. The road got narrower and narrower, but there was one sign of hope. Ruts were in the mud, and they looked fresh. Could this really be it? My heart was racing even faster. Something inside me said yes, you got it, and you are going to catch them.Suddenly the mud-splattered car reached a small meadow, then I drove down a steep decline leading to a stream.

And there they were!  Yes, yes! I did it! There were about six or seven boats with outboard motors with three men to a boat, and the boats had just cast off, motoring down a small creek. One boat was left, tied up at the small dock, and in it was the owner/guide of the fishing camp. “Come on. Hop in. I am just casting off. I was about to give up on you.” I had made it with less than a minute to spare.

 I waved at the guys in the other boats, and  a couple of them waved back. I gave them a big smile and mumbled under my breath, you bastards.

We fished for several hours; and since I was with the owner, a real pro, the two of us caught more perch than any of the other boats —around 25 for him and 15 or so for me.

When everyone returned to the dock for the traditional beer together, I beamed when several guys came over and marveled at how many fish I had caught. One guy even wanted to shake my hand. It was pretty clear that the reason for my success was my being with the guide, but the guys seemed impressed anyway. One person pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, asking how with no directions I found this god-forsaken location in the first place. I told him I had no idea.

“Well, next time,” he said, “You should try to get to the rendezvous spot at least 15 minutes early. Club tradition. We always leave on time. No exceptions.”

I ended up giving most of my fish away, saving only a few for the dinner meal with Embry when I returned home. Several of the guys had caught only a few, and one who came away empty handed was especially grateful.

“You know,” he said, “If I had come home with no fish to fry tonight, my wife would have killed me. Got laid off a couple of weeks ago, and you know, you gotta eat.”

The departure home was very different from the dismal start of the day. A couple of people said they hoped I would make it on the next big trip, which would be to fish for flounder off the barrier islands in Virginia. This day had been my fourth trip with the fishing club, and for the first time I felt like I was beginning to fit in. It felt a little like a rite of passage.

The drive back was uneventful, and I recall smiling the whole time.

And as I think back on it now, I can’t help asking, what were the odds. How could I have found this place? How could I have found it with less than one minute to spare? You hear the term “following your nose” every now and then. Do we humans have some of the instincts that birds have as they migrate thousands of miles from Alaska to South America or as turtles or salmon have who return hundreds or even thousands of miles to the area where they were born?  Our first cat was lost on the streets of New York for over a week and somehow found her way back to our apartment. The most amazing thing is that deep down as I sped along the highway and then crept along the dirt road,  I felt I was on the right track, like a dog following a scent.

This particular event was trivial and by most standards insignificant. But then again on another level it was not. As important as science and reason and technology are, occasionally we are reminded of the mystery of life and that there still remains so much that is unexplained.

 Someone once observed that “Luck and coincidence are God’s way of remaining anonymous.” I think that pretty much sums it up.

Post Script: I did make it to the Virginia barrier islands where the club participated in an annual flounder fishing derby with several hundred serious anglers. On the second day I landed a 12-pound flounder, which missed winning the first place trophy by only 3 ounces. One of the great thrills of my life. But by this time my work on Clay Street was winding down, and the flounder trip turned out to be my last event with the guys.



The Angel

I remember an experience I had in the fall of 1960 some 58 years ago. Yet it is as fresh in my mind now as it was then. I remember where I was sitting when it happened and what the people around me looked like.

The scene was the Annual Freshman Cake Race at Davidson College. This was a tradition at the school where during Freshman Orientation all freshman were required to participate in a cross country race of about 2.5 miles.  The tradition supposedly was started at the request of one of the early cross county coaches to allow him to identify prospects since cross country running was not a sport in most of the high schools that freshman boys had attended at the time. (Davidson was all male then.) The first fifty finishers out of a total 250 freshmen got to choose cakes made mainly by faculty wives (no female teachers at the time either), and Embry’s mother (wife of the college president) always took great pride in making a special cake. Rumor had it that one of the major status symbols among the Davidson village women  was making the cake that was  chosen by the winner.

The event had special meaning for me. I had been a polio victim in the mid 50s, having had to miss two years of school and never being allowed to participate in athletics. Now as a freshman and away from Nashville, except for my classmates from Nashville, no one knew that I had had polio, and I wanted to keep it that way. My doctor said I could try to do athletics “in moderation” and “within reason.” This was my opportunity to turnover a new leaf and reinvent myself. The paralysis that I had was mainly in my right hand, arm, and stomach, not so much in my legs. I had the fantasy that maybe I might have innate talent as a runner. The night before the race I dreamed that  I charged ahead at the front of the pack and came in first in a moment of spectacular glory.

The  challenge was that I had never run a long distance before. In fact I doubt if I had ever run more that 200 yards at one time. But still, you never know. You would think that at least I would have given it a practice try beforehand and perhaps even train for the event. My excuse was the timing. The Freshman Cake Race occurred on something like day two or three of orientation. In any event, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Maybe this would be my moment.

As we lined up at the start of the race I was impressed with how many upper classmen were present to watch the race. This was a pretty big deal.  I stood on the starting line with my heart beating at twice its normal rate anticipating the sound of the gun. Boom! Off off we charged! I was one of the first across the starting line. The first 100 yards or so were across a practice field before the racers reached an opening leading to a path that would wind through pine woods with their fallen needles providing a cushion  for another two miles. I knew that if I stood any chance of doing well, I had to be near the head of the pack before we entered the woods. My start had been perfect.

As one who at age 30 began a lifelong passion of long distance running, I look back on that moment now in disbelief that I could have been so naïve. What exactly could I have been thinking?

Whatever it was, by the time the pack reached the opening to the trail, my lungs were killing me. My legs felt like jelly, and I had already paused twice to catch my breath. I felt sick to my stomach.  It got worse from that point on. Before I reached the mile one marker, I had dropped back, way back. This was the moment when I modified my expectations of a strong finish and committed myself to a new goal of simply finishing. The hell with everyone else, I said to myself. Dammit, I am going to finish this race, and I am not going to come in last.

About a half hour later, I was edging closer to the finish line. By this time I had run as hard as I could, then walked, then tried running again. Most of the time I was out of breath and painfully aware that others were passing me by, even the stragglers. Keep going, just keep going, I told myself.

Finally, I emerged out of the woods, limping along trying to make as strong a finish as I could. I saw many upper classmen lined along the final 100 yards cheering,  but from where I was  I could see no runners ahead of  me. What had happened to everyone? I had no idea of what they were cheering about. As I approached the finish line,  stumbling, I saw  about a dozen or so guys laughing, guffawing, and pointing at me. Then in a singsong they started yelling, “Dead last, dead last, dead last!” Others chimed in, “Wimp, wussie, war baby…” I looked over my shoulder briefly. No one was behind me. As I staggered across the finish line, the race officials were beginning to remove chairs and barricades, and the top finishers were choosing the last cakes.

At that point I collapsed. I did not hit the ground but fell into an empty bleacher seat, placing my head in my hands and staring down at the dirt. The cat calls continued for a couple of minutes, and then the group dwindled to about six and then dispersed, laughing and pointing their fingers at me, giving each other high fives. I wanted to crawl into a hole.

I just sat there, staring at the ground, totally exhausted and completely alone since the few remaining spectators had moved over to the awards ceremony.

Then I felt someone squeeze my shoulder and gently pat me on the back.
“Nice going, fella, you gave it everything you had.” His voice was soft and gentle. “Way to go!”

I was too embarrassed and astonished to say or do anything, but I managed a weak smile and turned my head to say thanks to this kind and gentle person.

But there was no one there. Not a soul. It could not have been more than a few seconds before I managed the courage to turn and look him in the eye, but where could he have gone? Poof! How could he have disappeared so fast? I thought about it for a moment and realized what I wanted to tell him was that he had transformed one of the worst nightmares in my life to a strange kind of a glory, not unlike what I had imagined in my dream. I wanted to thank him for this act of kindness. I wanted to thank him for making a difference. But where was he?


When I told this story to a friend many years later, I noted that what I was sad about was that I never had a chance to let this mysterious person know how much this kind gesture meant to me.

“Are you absolutely sure he appeared out of nowhere?” my friend asked.

“Well, more or less. I certainly thought everyone had left for the awards ceremony.”

“And that when you turned around, there was no one to be seen anywhere near you?”

“That is correct.”

“Oh, well then, he was an angel.” He seemed dead serious.

I protested, “No, You don’t understand. He was absolutely real. I know he was real. This really happened. I did not imagine this in my mind!”

“Of course not,” he replied, “ He was real alright. Angels are like that.”







Advent 2018

In the secular world we inhabit in  the U.S. in 2018 it is easy to forget that the season which ushers in “The Holidays” is called Advent, and it is the first season in the Christian calendar. Traditionally this has been a time of reflection and anticipation in preparation for the Christmas season, which actually starts on Christmas day, not at the ending of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I plead guilty to being a secularist myself despite my loyal, active participation in our neighborhood Episcopal Church. Being both a secularist and a “churchman,” however, I often find myself asking the question this time of year: what is going on here.

The irony is that if Advent is supposed to be a time of contemplation and slowing down, for many it is the exact opposite. Office holiday parties, holiday get-togethers, open houses, Christmas shopping, meal preparations—all this adds up to a lot of stress. On the other hand, for many the holiday season often reinforces and reminds people of their loneliness and isolation.  It turns out that this is a pretty stressful and difficult time for many.

So what am I going to do about it?  Here are my Advent resolutions:

One: Try to think less about Trump and avoid watching Morning Joe. Put Faux News on hold.

Two: Try to think more about family, friends and loved ones.

Three: Appreciate the many blessings in my life.

Four: Try to be kind and considerate of others—especially those less fortunate.

Five: Try to remember what this season is really all about in the first place: It is about hope. It is assurance that days will start to get longer again and the world will not end in darkness. It is a reminder that there is a higher purpose in this life and that life on the planet Earth has profound meaning. Christmas is ultimately about God’s love for us humans. While I confess to being a universalist theologically (“one destination, many pathways”), that does not mean that God was not present in the person of Jesus or that the birth of Jesus is not a special and holy event to be honored and celebrated.

Now whether I succeed in my resolutions is another matter. Putting aside the sordid stories about “Individual-1” will be particularly challenging. If matters get really dicey, I may sneak in a Faux News Special. But I will try not to.

Best wishes and many thanks to you, my loyal blog followers. I do not know who you all are but do know a bunch of you and am deeply grateful. May your “Holiday Season” be contemplative and without excess stress and may the mystery of its meaning not be lost.






My Close Encounter With George H. W. Bush

There are few times in life when one gets the chance for a close encounter with a high level official. For me this occurred in 1983 with the then Vice President of the United States, George H.W. Bush. I was not a big fan of the vice president at the time, finding him too patrician, noblesse oblige, and out of touch with the common man. Plus he was an old school, conservative Republican.

 On this day my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to humble the man and put him in his rightful place was staring me in the face.  It happened on a dreary, cold, fall day in early November on the running track at St. Albans School. Bush lived in the vice president’s mansion only a few blocks from the school and was known to run around the track at Saint Alban’s along with his secret service bodyguards. I had seen him running myself a couple of times before and did not think much about it, but this time as I came running down the hill from the National Cathedral, there he was, chugging along at a pretty slow pace. I, on the other hand, was at the top of my running game. I was routinely logging in 20-25 miles a week, had clocked a 10-miler at 72 minutes and was riding high. I was signed up to run in the Marine Corps Marathon in a couple of weeks.

The idea popped into my head seconds before I reached the gate leading into the playing field: I am going to dust the guy. “Dusting” is a runner’s term which refers to an action when a faster runner approaches a slower runner from behind, then slows up to run along side him for a brief moment, followed by a stunning acceleration, leaving him “in the dust.” It is an act of bold superiority designed to humiliate the slower runner, to show him who is boss. What more could I ask for? This was my moment.

Instead of passing by the track as I usually did, I turned into the gate and charged onto the track about 25 yards behind the Bush team. He was  guarded by three secret service companions, one in front and two jogging behind him. Two additional guards were at the gate to the track, and I heard one of the guard’s hand held radio sputter out, “Watch the guy in the red jacket.”

I was wearing a red jacket.

It did not take me long to catch up. I could feel my heart throbbing not from running too fast  but from anxiety.  I was about to pull off a stunning victory. The guards were far enough behind that I could swing in toward the vice president, just for a second, run near him, and then turn on the afterburner, streaking ahead in a moment of glory.

It all worked perfectly. Until I started my acceleration. Down I went with a thud, stumbling into a mud puddle, landing face down in a pool of wet cinders. Ooops!

The whole world seem to stop. The guards surrounded  and frisked me, probably wondering what kind of idiot I might be. It is a miracle that I wasn’t shot.

Then an outstretched hand met mine and pulled me up.

 “Are you, ok?” someone asked.

“Er, yes, Mr. Vice President.”

“Well, be careful, especially when the track is wet.” And off they chugged as if nothing had happened.

I stood alone on the track for a couple of minutes, dejected, wondering how on earth this disaster could have  happened. I had never stumbled or fallen when running before.  I then turned around and started to jog home. As I looked over my shoulder, I saw the team coming around the track and a smiling vice president waving goodbye. Grinning sheepishly, I returned the wave and could not help muttering, “Serves me right, serves me right.”

So from that day on, while I never agreed with his politics or voted for him, I became a closet fan. Maybe he was a patrician, but he also was the real deal. And from the perspective of where we are today, oh my goodness!  May he rest in peace.





Faux News: Breaking News–Martial Law Under Consideration

Faux News has learned that President Trump is considering an Executive Order imposing martial law that would take effect immediately following his declaration, which is expected within the next two to three days. He has explained to close associates that the reason martial law is necessary is the hostile invasion of the country at the border with Mexico. He said he has seen on Fox News mobs attacking our country, armed with rocks and soiled diapers. He declared that if drastic action is not taken immediately, the invading mob will overtake the entire country. No U.S. citizen, he believes, is safe from what he  described as the “angry horde  from the South.” One associate who was at the high level meeting but has requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation, quoted the President as saying, “Hey, these thugs and criminals have trudged 2,700 miles on foot with babies on their backs. If they can do that and run through tear gas, if they get into the U.S., there is no telling how much damage they can do. I have heard they won’t stop until they take over the government.”

Republican Congressional leaders who attended the high level, secret meeting were said to have voiced their full approval. Mitch McConnell was quoted as saying that if we do not stop them now, we might as well surrender to Honduras and El Salvador.” Paul Ryan said he fully agreed with the President’s decision, and Lindsay Graham was quoted as saying he wanted to go to the border right now so he could be the first one to fire a shot. No Democrats were reported to have attended the meeting.

There is no clear understanding of exactly what martial law would entail, but those close to the President believe that his first action would most likely direct all available military personnel to construct the Wall that he has been requesting and also shut down major news outlets which he has accused of spreading fake news, such as the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, PBS, MSNBC, and the Weekly Reader, and jailing all reporters who are associated with those organizations or others like them. The second action would most likely be suspension of the Mueller probe and destruction of all evidence collected in the investigation, which the President has described as “fake evidence.”  The third would be the arrest and imprisonment of all who are considered to be allies of the invading forces from the South. Aides say that those who top his list include Robert Mueller, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Barack and Michelle Obama, and LeBron James. Elections would be suspended, and the midterm elections of 2018 would be considered void for the U.S. House of Representatives due to massive voter fraud, which the President has stated is “fully documented.” Aides also report that all military personnel in Europe would be reassigned and immediately relocated to the United States and would take over and direct all law enforcement efforts throughout the country, reporting directly to the President.

It is not clear if Congress or the Supreme Court would be required to ratify the President’s declaration of martial law. One of his aides told Faux News that since the President now controls all three branches of government, Trump believes getting their approval would not be a problem. However, just to be sure that he will not run into resistance, he has told aides that he will also suspend the Constitution. Another aide pointed out that the President said the action to impose martial law must happen now before the Congress of 2019 is sworn in in early January.

When asked by our Faux News reporter how long martial law might be imposed, one aide who attended the meeting reported that the President said that martial law would be in place “as long as it takes to restore order at the border and throughout the country,” which he added, “could take years, perhaps decades.”

Several participants who were observers at the meeting were reported to be heading with their families to Reagan National Airport the day following the meeting to board planes to Canada.

More information will be reported as it becomes available.







Faux News Returns After a Thanksgiving Break: The Trump Press Conference, November 26, 2018

Note to readers: Allie Ritzenberg, subject of the “Allie’s 100th” blog post, died peacefully at his home surrounded by family on Thanksgiving Day, just 11 days after the 100th birthday party.

Now the press conference.

President Trump:  I will start off by saying how thankful I am for myself. This was the blessing that I gave at Thanksgiving and I will give it again today: “Thank you, God, for me and the gift of me to the USA and the world. Amen.” Now first question.

Reporter 1: Sir, what about the report issued by the federal government just after Thanksgiving that states that climate change is real and will be catastrophic to the United States and the world if we do not take action?

Trump: Yeah, yeah. Fake news. I’m not going to waste  my time reading it. Trash. Obama trash.

Reporter 1: But the report was  authorized by Congress and put out by a group representing 14 government agencies. Over 300 respected scientists contributed to it.

Trump: Not gonna waste my time. Fake News. Climate change is a hoax, and most people know that.

Reporter 1: But, sir, how could you not even read it when wild fires are destroying California, hurricanes are wiping out coastal cities and islands, and temperatures are rising? This is a report by the federal government. You are the head of the federal government.

Trump: Coal is king and will continue to be king as long as I am king, I mean, President. Officers, remove this reporter and take his credentials. Next question?

Reporter 2: What about the California fires and global warming?

Trump: Take this woman’s credentials too and remove her from the room.

Reporter 3: What about the Saudi crown prince and the murder of the Post reporter?

Trump: What murder? No one has found a body. No body, no murder. Simple as that. Besides Mohammed bin Salman—I just call him Ben—is a good guy and Jared’s best friend. If he says there was no murder, then there was no murder.

Reporter 3: But he admits there was a murder but says he did not authorize it.

Trump: Same difference. Whatever. Officers, remove this reporter. Next?

Reporter 4: What about all the tear gas used against those in the caravan and closing the border with Mexico?

Trump: These people are thugs and thieves, and I am issuing orders to shoot to kill on sight. We will teach them a lesson once and for all. No caravans of criminals and terrorists allowed in the US anymore. Period.

Reporter 4: But women and children will be killed. Most are asylum seekers.

Trump: Officers, take this reporter’s credentials and escort him out. Next?

Reporter 5: Sir, it looks like the Democrats will gain 40  Congressional seats and will control the House. How do you interpret the results of the mid term election and what will it mean for your presidency?

Trump: For one thing the election was a huge success for me. First, the Party of Trump–I mean the Republicans–gained seats in the Senate, and that has never happened before in a mid term election for a President’s party, and that is all due to me. They got elected because of me and only because of me. And as for the House, every Republican who lost lost because he or she did not support me strong enough. If they had, I–I mean they--would have won every seat. And believe me, The Party of Trump—I mean the Republicans–now fear me more than ever. They can’t win without me. As for the House Democrats, I say so what. They won’t get any law they pass through the Senate where I call all the shots, and just wait ‘till these lawsuits they are filing reach the Supreme Court where I control five votes. It is over for the Democrats, and they know it. Besides, we really don’t need any laws anymore since I will rule by Executive Order from now on. I am not going to waste any time with these Democrat scoundrels and malcontents.

Reporter 6: Are you still planning to shut down the government if you do not get money in the budget to build your border wall?

Trump: Yeah, but they will cave and give me the money. They always do. Next?

Reporter 7: What about the big deficit that was created by the tax law? What do you plan to do about that?

Trump: Well, as every member of the Party of Trump knows—I mean, as every Republican knows—deficits mean nothing, and the tax cuts have already paid for themselves. The deficit is due entirely to government giveaways and handouts, which I am ordering to stop immediately. Just ask Paul Ryan. He worships me. They all do.

Reporter 8: And do you believe anything will come out of the Mueller investigation?

Trump: Of course not! No collusion! No meddling! All fake news, but that is going to stop when by my Executive Order, any reporter responsible for fake news will go to jail and stay there, and the worthless, failing newspapers they work for, like the New York Times, and Washington Post, will crumble when they are convicted of libel. Fake news has ruined our country and will be stopped, and you can count on the Supreme Court to put an end to that once and for all. First Amendment nonsense! You know I now have five justices in my pocket. As I said, it is a new ballgame. I already am the greatest President in history and will stay that way for very, very long time. Thank you, God, for me, thank you, for me.

Now off to a golf game. Press conference over.

Reporter for Fox News: Amen! Hail to the Chief!

Fighting Injustice

It was my second real job when my boss made the comment in his good-bye remarks when I was moving on to take a new job, “Joe Howell has the greatest sense of moral outrage and self righteous indignation of anyone I have ever known.”

That may be true, but my defense is that you have to fight injustice at all times and in all places, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. Of course, there are different levels to fight these battles, and the ones I have been most successful with have been on the personal level. If you get dissed or screwed by the more powerful, you fight back. This is especially important when you are dealing with the government or major corporations. Most innocent victims surrender, concluding that they don’t stand a chance. This actually is not the case. You just need to know how to take on the bureaucracy.

I learned my first lesson when Embry and I were living in New York, and the street-wise, Episcopal priest whose inner city church we were attending announced that his wife had figured out how to get any problem solved involving the government of New York City. “All you have to do,” he said. “Is to ask a couple of questions, first, what is your employment ID number and, second, what is the name and telephone number of your immediate supervisor. It rarely fails. You immediately get what you want or are transferred up the chain of command. More often than you would think, you end up speaking eventually to the head of the whole department.” Rumors in those days were that if you were persistent, you could end up speaking to the Mayor himself.

I have found this approach to be work in almost every situation.

The second tool at your disposal is “The letter.” A good letter can go a long way. The ones that have worked best for me are slightly tongue-in-cheek, with a touch of hyperbole. For example, years ago when Federal Express failed to deliver my handouts to a major conference, I was left stranded with no PowerPoint slides and nothing to hand out. When I complained using all the outrage tools at my disposal,  I was told over the phone by the supervisor of a supervisor of a supervisor, tough luck, that there was nothing the company could do given the timing and furthermore that only a handful of the several million FedEx packages delivered each day get lost. It was too bad that mine was one of them. So get over it.

I managed to get through my presentation ok , but still. This injustice had to be addressed.

I immediately sent a registered mail, overnight (NOT by Federal Express) personal letter to the president and CEO of Federal Express, describing in great detail the ordeal and my extreme suffering and announcing I was suing the company for the following amounts: $38.25 for typing and reproduction, $45.75 for the FedEx fee, and $27 million for irreparable pain and suffering. The next day I received a FedEx package with two dozen red roses, a fruit and cheese basket, and a hand written note from the president (actually probably from his assistant) apologizing and begging for my forgiveness. Score one for the underdog.

I had an even worse experience with JPMorgan/Chase after my wallet and credit cards were stolen in Madrid during our trip around the world. Chase never sent me a new credit card, continued to charge me annual fees, and then despite my protests had my credit score lowered for not paying the annual fee and the interest on the fee.

I seemed to have met my match at Chase. I explained to one supervisor after another as I worked my way up the food chain that my credit had been ruined, and that I was never supplied a new credit card after mine was stolen. They explained to me that they could not give me a new card because my old card was “on hold,” but it could not be released until I paid all the fees and penalties. Plus because my credit score was now so low, they could not offer me a new card even if I paid up. I used every argument I had to no avail. I even told the last person I talked to that I was despondent and contemplating suicide. (Actually I realized I had gone too far when she immediately gave me the suicide crisis number and hung up. She gave it to me so quickly I figured she must get several suicide threats a day.) No one would give me any contact information on Jamie Dimon, the Chase CEO. Most just laughed and hung up. This went on for months. I mean, these guys (actually all women) were tough. I was ready to admit defeat.

Then my luck changed. At a cocktail party I was holding forth about this hideous ordeal and how Chase was destroying my life and how my proven methods weren’t working when a stranger came up to me saying that she had overheard my ranting and that she had a friend who actually knew Jamie Dimon, and she would get me his personal, home address. Two days later, bingo, there it was in an email! My  special delivery, outrage letter followed, describing permanent psychological damage and hinting at lawsuits totaling hundreds of millions that would surely bring the company to its knees. Two days after that I received  a new card, all past fees and interest forgiven, and future annual fees waived. No personal apologies from the Big Guy, but, hey, a victory nonetheless.

This year I have continued my quest for personal justice at all times and at all places. The first was my knee replacement. Kaiser Permanente, my health care provider, typically does not like to do any procedure that costs them money since it is  an HMO, and any operation is on their nickel. If somebody at Kaiser ever tells you that you need an operation, head for the operating room immediately. Believe me, you need it. For several years I had suffered from a worn-out knee but was quietly ignored by the orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee replacements. “Yes,” he would say, “the cartilage is gone, but other people are in worse shape than you are. Give it another year or so.”

After a couple of these encounters, I wrote the following email to the surgeon:

“Please tell me if you agree or disagree with the following two statements: one, I need a knee replacement. Two, Kaiser will not give me one.”

About 10 minutes later I got a return email from the doctor saying. “Come in tomorrow morning and get your knee replaced.”

The operation actually occurred about a month later, and I am happy to report was successful. I am back to walking three or four miles several times a week. Score another victory.

My latest personal injustice ordeal involved a refund on small, propane, outboard motor which I purchased from Best Marine (not its real name) in August. The motor exploded when I was trying to screw in the propane tank and fuel spewed out of the motor. It was not a huge explosion, but someone could have been hurt. The brand new motor never even touched the water. I returned the motor to Best Marine the day after Labor Day and demanded that they fix it immediately since I had several cruises scheduled for the fall and needed the motor for the dinghy. I had even paid a premium to Best Marine, a massive company with a nation-wide presence, to provide for them to coordinate all motor repairs in an “expeditious manner.” When two months later the motor was still not repaired, I told them I wanted my money back. I had no use for a motor that explodes and that takes months to repair. I was told by the store manager that it was not possible under any circumstances to return a motor. The reason he gave had to do with some contract technicality between Best Marine and the motor manufacturer.

We talked a couple of times after that leading to no resolution. He stated apologetically but firmly, “Mr. Howell, there is no way we can give you a refund. I have talked to my supervisors and it simply can’t happen because of legal reasons. This decision is final.” I gave my outrage act a second shot (“This is unbelievable,how could you…”) with no success.

On the next call, I went to Plan B, my backup approach, which went something like this: “Randy (not his real name), you seem like a nice person and want to do the right thing, so here is the way that it is going to work going forward. Right now we are at level one and level one is not going in the right direction, so we are moving to level two. In order to facilitate level two, you will provide me with all contact information for your supervisor and his or her supervisor and the CEO of the company, including his or her home address and telephone number. I do not believe you want to know what level three involves, but I will refer to it simply as the nuclear option. I will give you one week to report back as to progress.”

He reported back this past Wednesday that I would receive a full refund.

Works every time. Well, almost.

So, my friends, when a personal injustice occurs, you do not have to surrender. Hold your ground and do not fear using your best outrage act, but always do it with a smile and a twinkle in your eye and hold no personal grudges. But you have to be prepared to go to the nuclear option if you have to, but really, you don’t want to know what that is.


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Editor-in-Chief, Faux News

Allie’s 100th

Allie Ritzenberg was born on November 11, 1918, the day marking the end of what at the time was called “the Great War.”  His 100th birthday was celebrated on Armistice Day this year in his home nestled atop a bluff in the Maryland suburbs of Washington with breathtaking views of the Potomac River. He has lived there for decades but for  the past several years has lived alone, following the death of his wife, Peggy, who died in her mid nineties. Until last year he was still driving, playing tennis, collecting tennis memorabilia, and preparing his own gourmet, vegetarian meals.

His house was jam-packed with family, friends and admirers that included his four middle-aged children and spouses and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren along with many of Washington’s elite, whom Allie had gotten to know during his 60 plus years as the tennis coach of Saint Alban’s School and tennis pro at the Saint Alban’s Tennis Club. The Washington Post commentator, David Ignatius, was there as was Don Graham, the former owner and publisher of the Post, and probably a whole lot of other famous people I did not recognize.

I was a member of the club and played there once or twice a week, often during the middle of the day when most of the courts were free and Allie was looking for someone to chat with. That led to a friendship and later a request to help him with writing his memoir, which he had been working on for a number of years. I agreed with some trepidation but surprisingly found the experience to be relatively stress free with no pushback from him whatsoever. I think he was desperate, having given up on two or three previous helpers.

My pay for helping him pull his story together was one free lesson for every chapter completed. This was probably the best business deal of my erstwhile writing career.

The book, Capital Tennis, was published by the Francis Press in 2004. It is a good read: a kid from a working class, Jewish family somehow ends up in the halls of Washington’s elite, WASP society. One of the themes that runs through the book is the nagging question of whether he was ever truly accepted by that society as an equal member. (I believe the answer would be a resounding yes.) Another is how far he would have gone competitively if the U.S. Open and other championship tournaments had been open to professionals when he was playing his best tennis. (My guess is that he would have gone a long way.)

But Allie also describes in his book how he was just as committed to helping Washington’s inner city kids as he was to giving lessons to Washington’s best and brightest. He started an organization that reached out to these kids and did more than anyone to introduce them to the game he loves.

Allie is an icon in Washington. He was playing tennis with Robert McNamara when he got the word about the Cuban Missile Crisis and with George McGovern when he learned about his running mate’s previous mental problems. He was Jackie Kennedy’s personal tennis coach. During the Kennedy and Johnson years, any serious tennis player in those Democratic administrations would have belonged to the Saint Alban’s Tennis Club. Most would have taken lessons from Allie. The wait list to get in was measured in years. As long as he was running the club, that trend continued. He has been ranked number one in the “over 80” category for many of the last twenty years and was playing competitively in tournaments around the world well into his nineties.

This birthday celebration, however, was different from his 99thwhen Allie was in true form, holding forth about the state of the country and the world, always with a twinkle in his eye and often a devilish grin. This year he was solemnly seated in a wheel chair connected up to an oxygen tube. His son said that about four months ago he started a decline and now has 24/7 nursing assistance. He made a brief appearance and shook hands but retired well before the event was over. Though there was still a sparkle in his eyes, he was not his old self. Somehow I think we all had assumed that Allie was immortal, that once he turned 100 he would be ranked number one in the over age 100 category forever and that one day, if he did die, it would be from a heart attack on the court after thrashing a much younger opponent 6-0. But, alas, that is not to be. One can only hope that the checking out process for Allie will not involve suffering or be too prolonged. And isn’t that what we all hope for—to be able to live a rich and full life and to keep on going strong for as long as we can, squeezing the last few drops out of the lemon?

 If only we all could be so fortunate.


Faux News Breaking News: US Congress Set To Curtail Gun Violence. Again.

Following the most recent mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, on November 7 where 12 people, mainly college students, were gunned down in a nightclub, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell vowed to move on gun legislation immediately. Ryan told Faux News, “ These mass shootings seem to be happening almost on a weekly basis. We can’t wait any longer. We must act now or never. That is why we will get historic legislation passed by the lame duck Congress.”

McConnell agreed with Ryan at a hastily called press conference where he described the highlights of the bill, which he said was a slight variation of the last three Republican legislative initiatives on gun violence. “The most important thing is that once this popular bill becomes law, every bona fide American twelve years old and older will be required to carry a loaded weapon at all times. Also every person will be required to undergo target practice, and anyone failing the test will not be allowed to attend school if they are under age 18; and if they are over age 18,they will be denied a driver’s license or have their license revoked until they can shoot straight.

 “Can you imagine what would have happened in that night club if everyone there was carrying heat? Sure, the killer might have knocked off one or two people, but someone would have nailed him after he had fired a few shots. This is a terrific bill and hugely popular among Republicans who, I would like to point out, still control Congress until January 3, 2019. The only controversial aspects of the bill are whether the required age should be 12 or an older age, like 18, and what the shooting skill levels need to be to stay in school or get a driver’s license. There are also some questions as to whether 80-year olds should be required to carry loaded weapons. Note also that an important part of the bill excludes all illegal aliens and persons born to illegals. In fact they will be prevented from purchasing weapons, which should make the gun-takeaway advocates happy.

“But, mind you, this bill will pass. We are even tossing in some goodies to placate our namby-pamby friends across the aisle by providing subsidies to poor people, who can’t afford to buy weapons. The subsidies will be modeled after those in the Affordable Care Act, and state exchanges will be set up for this purpose. We are even exploring whether we can expand Medicaid to cover the cost of weapons. How could any self respecting Democrat oppose this? Plus anyone purchasing a weapon will receive a tax credit for the full cost; and if the weapon is an assault weapon, you will get double benefits. The tax paying public will love this. Also subsidies will be provided to all public schools to cover the cost of shooting ranges, which are required by the legislation. ”

The first question asked by reporters was why after every mass shooting, Republicans have promised to pass a universal, mandatory, gun-carry bill, but so far none have become law. McConnell blamed the Congressional stalemate on the Democrats whom he accused of being weak-kneed when it comes to firearms. “That is exactly why,” McConnell said, “we have to get this passed now during the lame duck Congress. Once Democrats take over the House in 2019, our chances are gone for responsibly curbing mass shootings and gun violence in this country. It is now or never.”

Asked by a reporter why with a population of almost 130 million people and with strong gun control laws, Japan had only nine gun deaths in 2017, McConnell responded that the Japanese don’t count since they are Asians. Besides they prefer knives, he said, and there are no statistics on that. 

A second question related to the United Kingdom, a country of over 55 million, which had fewer than 25 gun deaths last year while the US had over 33,000. The reporter pointed out that the gun murder rate in the US is over 160 times that of the UK, a country which has strict gun laws. Several other questions referred to other countries with strong gun laws and murder rates a mere fraction of those in the U.S., countries like Germany, China and South Korea. The two officials shrugged off the questions as irrelevant citing the much higher gun death rates in El Salvador.

The proposed legislation, while opposed by the majority of the U.S. population, is expected to pass if it is voted on by the lame duck Congress since both houses are still controlled by Republicans. President Trump strongly supports the legislation calling it the first responsible gun law ever proposed and at 3:25 AM this morning tweeted, “Pass the gun-carry bill now. Founding Fathers would love it.”

Democrats vow to revisit legislation in 2019 once the new Congress is in session. They remain committed to curbing gun violence by passing stronger anti-gun laws and revoking any gun-carry law that passes. Any legislation limiting the Constitutional right to bear arms, however, is considered dead on arrival by most observers. Trump tweeted at 4:07 AM, “Try to knock down gun required-carry laws and be jailed. You are against the Constitution. Un American. Would stand no chance in my Supreme Court.”

In a related news item, Donald Trump Jr. announced this morning the opening of a new chain of retail outlets with the name,  “Son’s Guns,” which he said by the end of 2019 will have over 1,000 outlets “located in every city, town and hamlet in the United States.”  Following the press conference stock prices of every major gun manufacturer had risen by over 25%  and were still rising at the time of publishing of this article.

Ryan concluded the press conference by thanking the reporters who attended and stated, “This is a great day for America. It will be my legacy along with the deficit reducing, tax breaks we Republicans passed. Praise to our beloved President! He is truly making America great again. Promises made, promises kept.”