Republicans Respond to Bidens’s Challenge To Say What They Are For

What do you mean, we Republicans are not FOR anything? This is a lie, a damn, bald-faced lie and you know it. WE are the ones that are FOR what the American people want, not you do-nothing Democrat failures.

So you wanna know  what we are for? THIS is what we are for:

We are for getting rid of Covid mask mandates.

We are for getting rid of Covid vaccine mandates. 

We are for gun rights for everyone, anytime, all the time, no exceptions.

We are for making teaching CRT illegal at all schools, colleges, and universities.

We are for making abortion illegal everywhere in the United States.

We are for sending illegal immigrants back to where they came from.

We are for keeping immigrants out of the country.

We are for the oil and gas industries.

We are for stopping the efforts to slow global warming, which is not even happening anyway.

We are for  efforts to stomp out “political correctness” wherever it raises its ugly head.

We are for the brave patriots who tried to rescue our democracy on January 6 by peacefully occupying the Capitol.

We are for keeping the filibuster as long as Republicans are not in the majority in the Senate.

We are for restricting voting in precincts leaning Democratic and where there are a lot of minority voters.

We are for requiring state legislatures in Republican-controlled, battleground states to exercise their Constitutional right to appoint the electors of their choice.

We are for tax cuts for the wealthy.

And Most of all, we are for Donald Trump, our Supreme Leader, who is infallible, and who will lead our country into a new era of Authoritarianism and greatness.

So don’t give me that BS about how we are not FOR anything.

 

 

 

Welcome, Embry Howell Bivigou Pangou!

Against all odds, despite international Covid restrictions, global flight cancellations, and general chaos across the planet, this week a young, Gabonese woman by the name of Embry Howell  Bivigou Pangou arrived in Portland, Maine to live with our daughter and her family and study at the University of Southern Maine. How was this possible? It all comes down to two women named Embry, and, perhaps, nothing short of a miracle.

 If you are wondering how a Gabonese woman could have as a first name “Embry Howell,” it began with the Peace Corps.

Before our son-in-law, Peter Ellis, married our daughter, Jessica, about 20 years ago, he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, a small, West African country and former French colony with a population of fewer than one million people in 2000. Jessica joined him a year later as a Peace Corps stowaway/wannabe.  Jessica’s mother, Embry, a victim of incurable wanderlust, could not resist the temptation to visit them in this remote village, with mud-brick huts with tin or thatched roofs, dirt floors, and a day’s hike through the rain forest to the nearest village. Peter was an agricultural specialist. At least that was his title. Climbing palm trees to assist in the production of palm wine also seemed to be a major activity. Jessica found volunteer work helping with grant writing for a local community organization

When Embry arrived for a three-week visit toward the end of their Peace Corps stay, this community welcomed her with open arms. She immediately became “Mama Embry.” The homes of the villagers were near an abandoned, evangelical Christian compound built by Methodist missionaries decades before. The villagers were convinced Mama Embry had been sent to them by God. Embry silently protested, though in retrospect, perhaps they were right. She bonded with them, especially Simon Pangou, who had several children from teenagers to toddlers.  About a year after Peter and Jessica returned home from Gabon, they received word that the next child of the Pangou family was proudly named “Embry Howell Bivigou Pangou,” born approximately nine months after Mama Embry departed. Embry was delighted to have her first namesake; but as the years passed, she did not give it a whole lot of additional thought.

Peter went on to earn a Master’s in Environmental Studies and eventually became a top carbon scientist at the Nature Conservancy. This job took him occasionally to Gabon where he reconnected with the villagers and with the Pangou family. Embry Howell Bivigou Pangou—now referred to by us as “Little Embry” –caught Peter’s attention even as a very young child; and a few years ago, upon returning to the U.S. from Gabon, he announced to his family and to Embry that we had to figure out some way to get her over here. He described her as incredibly smart, with a personality that would win over anyone, and the voice of an angel. She had finished high school in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, where the family had moved so the children would have better educational opportunities. She really wanted to go to college and come to the United States.

It is only a minor exaggeration to say that within minutes Embry was on it. And it was not too long before a plan was in place, though implementing the plan took years.

Step one: Find a good college here in the U.S., where Little Embry could study, preferably with a scholarship. The challenge was that Gabon is French speaking; and though Little Embry’s English was surprisingly good,  Embry feared it was not good enough to pass the tests required to get into a U.S. college. Solution: Try to find a college that specializes in helping foreign students improve their English and their educational shortcomings to a point where they can qualify for college. Embry not only found such a college, The University of Southern Maine, it just happened to be a short bike ride from Peter and Jessica’s house in Portland. We got Little Embry all the application material, which she filled out and sent in along with an upbeat video where she sat in front of a banner that read “The University of Southern Maine” and, beaming, exclaimed in impressive English that the university was the perfect fit for her and she for it. I saw the video and was immediately captivated. To the surprise of no one who knew her, she was accepted.

Step Two: Get her over here. American visas for a Gabonese citizen are very hard to get. You must make a case that you are not leaving for good and will return to the country within a relatively short period. During the Trump years, in many poor countries in Africa, visas were not  available. This was the case in Gabon when Trump closed down the U.S. Embassy. It would take three years before Biden would reopen it and appoint an ambassador, when in 2020, obtaining a visa became possible again. Then in summer of 2020 when it became apparent that Covid was here to stay, everything shut down again, then opened in 2021 briefly during the fall, just before the Omicron variant appeared.

During the long delay, Embry persuaded the University of Southern Maine to keep the acceptance open for her African namesake, and they agreed to do this for what would become three years. As 2021 came to a close, however, they told her that this was the last shot. If Embry Howell Pangou was not able to make the spring 2022 term, the acceptance would be withdrawn.

Full court press time.

In order to get a U.S. visa, you have to answer a lot of questions and have a personal interview with embassy officials. It took several tries for the interview to happen, having mainly to do with getting the application in proper form, computer problems, and having embassy personnel show up. But toward the end of 2021, it looked like everything finally was falling into place. The embassy interview got scheduled, and Embry had the airline connections figured out and how Little Embry could  get a covid vaccine. Interviews at the Embassy finally started up again in early December, and Little Embry had her interview just before Christmas. It went well.

The race was on.

Hearing the report of a successful interview, Embry bought an airline ticket for Little Embry from Gabon to the U.S. with a connecting stop in Togo.  Just before Christmas Little Embry was able to book an appointment to have a J&J vaccine (the only one-shot vaccine available in Gabon that the U.S. will accept and given the short time frame, two shots would have taken to long) two weeks before the flight to the U.S., the minimum time required by U.S. law. She still had to receive the visa, and she had to have a test showing negative Covid results 24 hours before leaving. If either of these actions failed, she would not have made it to the U.S.—at least not in time to keep her place at the University of Southern Maine.

Little Embry also had to get to the airport in plenty of time. (She had never flown before.) She had to clear passport control. The plane had to take off close to on time since she had to make her tight connection with the flight going to Newark at a time when thousands of international flights were being cancelled every day.

Just when it looked like all the obstacles had been overcome, when Little Embry arrived at the airport, the Air Afrique representative told her she was not on the list and could not board the airplane. Fortunately, her mother, Mama Clara, was with her, and, as we were told later by Peter, “You don’t mess with Mama Clara.”  After some arguing, it was clear that there had been a clerical error on the “list” (written in pen on paper), because there was also another Pangou on the airplane. Another close call.

Only one hurdle left—making the connecting flight in Togo.

What were the odds that everything would happen as planned?   Embry was pacing the floor of our apartment, starting two days before Little Embry’s scheduled departure. She was checking email and voicemail messages constantly, breathing a sigh after learning another hurdle had been crossed.   Late at night on the second day of anxiety, a selfie appeared on Embry’s mobile phone showing Little Embry on the airplane to Newark, making a “V” sign with her fingers.

Little Embry had done it!

The flight arrived on time in Newark where our son, Andrew, met her and took her to his home in Maplewood NJ, for an overnight stay and then back to the airport to board a flight to Portland the next day where she was met by Peter.

Little Embry is now happily settled in the guest bedroom in the Ellis home, which will be her home for the next year. Classes start this week.

Was this a miracle?  Well, it is fair to say that none of this would or could have happened without “Mama Embry’s” perseverance. But there were others—Jessica’s husband, Peter, whose idea it was to bring Little Embry to the U.S. and who did a lot to keep the effort alive. Kudos to Andrew and his family, who greeted her at Newark airport, and hosted her in their home. Then there is our daughter, Jessica Ellis, whose home is often a haven for those seeking shelter and solace, along with two cats, five chickens, a Pit Bull, their two teenage children, and a visiting high school student from Mexico. They each played a role in this success. But Little Embry is the true hero of this story. She never lost hope or faith in the power of God to enact miracles.

And it does feel miraculous. So many things could have gone wrong. So many hurdles to jump. Who said we humans aren’t active agents in miracles anyway?

And now Little Embry, known to everyone except us, as just “Embry,” is on U.S. soil, ready to start a new adventure, which will surely change the course of her life. In so many ways, I think this is a typical immigrant story which shows the courage, strength, and determination that is required to overcome enormous obstacles.

So, I say, thanks for miracles. And, finally, I say special thanks for my wife, Embry, who, hangs on like a junkyard dog and does not let up until the job is done—as, I am told by Peter, “just like the Pangous.”

And for Embry Howell  Bivigou Pangou, the real work of establishing a new life in a new country has just begun.

 

What Would Jesus Do?

It takes about 10 minutes to walk from our apartment on Connecticut Ave past all the neighborhood retail stores near us. This afternoon the wind was howling at 25-30 miles per hour, ushering in a cold front that will bring temperatures down to the teens followed by what is now described as a major snow event on Sunday. The wind chill must have been in the low 30s.

I passed by eight panhandlers, squatting on the sidewalk, spread out among the various stores,—seven men and one woman, all shivering, all African Americans. Hands extended, holding  paper cups, they all looked up at me as I passed by, saying the same thing, “Could you help, got any change? Please, please, mister.”

I passed by every one of them and did not look them in the eye or reach for my wallet. To make matters even worse, I had just stopped by the liquor store and was carrying in a bag a bottle of scotch.

Panhandling is not unusual in Washington. When I used to walk to work downtown, I occasionally would count the number of people I would pass who were begging, which usually was in the double digits, occasionally in the twenties. Passing by and not making eye contact is nothing new for me, but for some reason, this time it got to me. Maybe it was the bitter cold or the fact that on this day there were so many in our neighborhood. Sometimes I have given them money, most of the time I haven’t.

As I passed the last panhandler, I had the image of me standing in front of a bearded Saint Peter at the Pearly Gate, asking me, “Ok, Mr. Howell, what did you do on that windy, cold day in Washington, when you passed eight desperate people pleading for a little change?”

So what are we bleeding hearts supposed to do anyway? How can we pass by a desperate stranger and turn a cold shoulder? But we do. I do it all the time. But to fork out money every time is crazy. That is all I would be doing, giving out money every day. Nobody does that.

“But, Saint Peter, you have got to understand,” I envisioned my reply. “There are so many of these people. Sure, I could afford a dollar here and a dollar there, but it all seems so hopeless. And besides I do all kind of volunteer work in affordable housing and supporting nonprofit organizations that help the poor. Embry and I have given a lot of money to all kinds of charities. I have tried in my own way to support structural change in our society to level the playing field. We are even church goers. Hey, I am a loyal Democrat, does that count? How much more is expected of me?”

“Just do what Jesus would have done,” he replied.

Doomed, I concluded.

Surely, Jesus would have helped every one of these poor people. But, I wondered, what would helping them mean? Just giving a quarter here and a dollar there is certainly not the answer. I could hear myself shouting at the Old Guy, “What is wrong with this world? Why is there so much poverty in a land where there is so much wealth? Why do we humans treat each other so badly? Why is there hate and greed? Why is there racism? Isn’t this the human condition? Isn’t this the world we live in? And whose fault is that? Who created this mess in the first place?”

“Enough from you, Mr. Howell. I told you once and I will say it again: Do what Jesus would have done.”

And so we humans stumble through life doing, in our view, the best we can, realizing that it is not enough, not nearly enough. But that does not mean we should stop trying. And who knows, when the Old Guy at the Pearly Gate looks at the ledger, maybe the pluses will outweigh the minuses, as we have tried feebly to make our way in this glorious but troubled world.

 

 

 

January 6: One Year Later

So how are you taking the anniversary of January 6? Are you comfortable that it is behind us and that we are now moving forward? Are you uneasy that lingering hate and unrest are still around and have not been addressed? Or are you scared out of your mind that January 6, 2021 was merely a warning shot across the bow and that what happens next could be even worse?

In my case, what I fear most are not more violent assaults by outraged mobs or domestic terrorists—though these could happen—but rather a slow eroding of the guardrails that have kept our democracy safe. Those guardrails appear to  be weakening. When over half of the Republicans believe that the election was stolen, when Tump’s support remains solid, when  few Democrat and Republican senators and congressmen are  on speaking terms, and when Trump-appointed judges and justices are capable of throwing monkey wrenches, there is less comfort that the center will hold.   Even more frightening is that Republicans have figured out the weak underbelly of our system, and are on it big time.

Here is how they plan to take back control of the country:

 Biden beat Trump by over seven million votes  in the 2020 election—a trouncing. But if just a few votes in key states had changed Trump’s way, he would have won. It was much closer and much scarier than you might have thought. According to a great op ed piece in the New York Times today (by Jedediah Britton-Purdy, Columbia Law School professor), if just 43,000 votes had switched from Biden to Trump in three critical battleground states, Trump would have had the Electoral College votes he needed to win.

Bullet dodged.

For now.

Republicans have figured this out and have a new strategy–forget the popular vote. Go for the battleground states and change the rules so Republicans will lock in the states that make a difference regardless of what the popular vote is. They are doing this by getting Republican-leaning, battleground states to change state laws which determine how votes are counted, placing the final responsibility for declaring a winner on people who have a dog in the fight. In other words, if these actions are successful in enough battleground states and are allowed to stand, game over. While a Democrat candidate might have more votes, the Republican controlled legislature could do anything it wanted and surely could find enough “election fraud” to declare the Republican candidate the winner over an opponent with more votes.

But this is only part of their strategy. They are also working hard at replacing all the election officials in these states who in 2020 refused to declare the election process illegal or “stolen” and replacing them with hard core, Trump loyalists. And, of course, they are working hard to make the voting process more difficult. Gerrymandering voting districts in many states is continuing. If Republicans are successful in these efforts, which under current law are all legal, the scales will be tilted so much in favor of a Republican presidential candidate, that it would be extremely difficult for any Democrat to win the presidency.

I think of the line from one of T.S. Elliot’s poems. “The world won’t end with a bang but a whimper.”

The Times op ed piece concludes that our current system of electing presidents is fundamentally flawed and needs to be reformed so that the popular vote is what counts, not the way it does now in the Electoral College with an all-or-nothing, win-or-lose vote count on a state-by-state basis. To dump the Electoral College, however, would likely require an amendment to the Constitution, and that is a heavy lift.

So, yes, I am concerned, and you should be too. It appears that the system for governance that has been in place for close to 250 years and has served us well may not be able to get us through the divisiveness that we are experiencing now. The opinion of many experts and historians is that our democracy is facing the biggest crisis since the Civil War. You could argue that such talk may be an exaggeration. After all, we have been through two world wars, the Great Depression, the era of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Revolution. We are a country with much talent, good will, and resiliency. We have been the envy of so many on this planet, some who have risked their lives to get here and become citizens. We are the oldest democracy in the world.

 Yes, we are a great country. But somehow the situation we are in now seems different. We are divided by culture, race, and class as perhaps never before and need to figure out a pathway through this. And there is an authoritarian waiting in the wings, revving up his base, chomping at the bit, believing that his vindication will come. This time he will be playing marbles for keeps.

 

 

 

Covid Christmas 2021

The holiday season, 2021, will go down in history as  stressful and disappointing for millions of people on the planet Earth. Actually “disastrous” is not an exaggeration for some.  Only weeks ago, it seemed that the Delta variant was showing signs of waning, and then out of South Africa comes Omicron. The Howell/Ellis clan were among millions of Americans whose lives were touched by this hideous virus. Here is our story:

To say that I had been looking forward to Christmas 2021 is an understatement. It was two years in the making. In 2020 I had reserved a 51-foot sloop in the Sunsail charter fleet in the British Virgin Islands for a week-long cruise for Embry, me, our two children and their spouses and our four grandchildren —10 of us in all. In the first year of Covid, when vaccinations were not yet available, we were forced to postpone for a year, to Christmas week, 2021. In early December of this year, we were all fully vaccinated, boosted and set for what was billed to be “The Last Hurrah BVI Cruise.”

My sailing days are nearing their end. I will turn 80 in three months, and this fall sold “Second Wind,” the last of the six sailboats Embry and I have owned beginning in 1968. This weeklong cruise starting on Christmas Day was not just another BVI cruise—and there have been many—but the end of an era and celebration of a lifetime of serious sailing and cruising. What could be better than to have all the family together in what many describe as the most ideal sailing waters on the entire planet? The BVIs are legendary for consistent trade winds of 12-18 knots, azure waters, and Carolina blue skies with welcoming, protected anchorages. And the grandchildren, now all teenagers or close to it, are now old enough to enjoy the experience of sailing – a pastime which has meant so much to me, starting when I was a teenager myself.

A week ago, following months of preparations, we were all set. I had planned out the cruising itinerary, reserved a kayak and a paddleboard to go with the boat, and Embry had purchased over $1,200 of food to be delivered to the boat and sent out a list showing who was responsible for cooking which meal. I had purchased all the ingredients for the legendary, tropical rum beverages of the BVIs—”Pain Killers” and “Dark-and-Stormies”.  Though it was becoming apparent that the new variant could be a problem, at the beginning of the week we were all feeling well and eager to go.

Like many countries, the BVI has established Covid testing protocols for visitors that are not entirely straightforward. To be allowed to enter, you have to have a Covid test showing negative results within five days of entry and show the results to the airline before you can board. Then once you arrive there you have to take another test; and if that is also negative, you are home free and allowed to enjoy nature’s sailing paradise. If the second test is positive, however, you have got a problem. You are not allowed to enter without a 14-day quarantine. Also, at the end of your wonderful vacation, to get back into the U.S. you have to have to show another test with negative results within 24-hours of reentering the U.S. This posed a bit of a challenge, but I thought I had it figured  out and made reservations for testing at the local hospital for  tests on our day of departure. Anyone testing positive would not be leaving the BVis for two more weeks, the details of which were not exactly clear.  I agree that thinking about what could happen was a bit unnerving, but, hey, early in the week we were all well, eager and chomping at the bit.

The warning shot across the bow happened on Monday, December 20, five days from the start of the charter. Andrew called us that evening with a worried tone. Andrew’s wife, Karen, had tested positive for Covid. What to do? Call the whole thing off? Go without Karen? In her typical, calm way, Embry suggested Karen should get another test. False positives were happening all over the place. That was the plan as we let the Ellises, our daughter Jessica’s family, know. We all grimly buckled down for the next two days awaiting the results. This event triggered an existential moment for me. I suddenly felt my stomach churning, triggering the fears that I had been struggling to suppress. For the last week or so when the headlines were all about Omicron, I had a premonition that we would not be able to pull this off.

Nail biting time.

Two days later on Wednesday, December 22, Andrew called back and joyfully announced the second test had come back, and it was negative. Trip on again! I could almost feel a collective sigh of relief from the entire family.

At the same time, tempering my enthusiasm was the false positive of Karen’s first test.   That raised some what-if questions. What if someone else’s test came back positive or false positive? The Ellis family had not gotten their tests yet. Neither had Embry or I. What if trying to get into the BVIs the negative test in the U.S. was followed by a positive test at the airport in the BVIs? What if someone tested positive on the BVI exit tests before coming back to the U.S.?

Then I thought about the last few days when I had had the sniffles, a sure sign of “mild Covid” for someone with two vaccines and a booster. I was convinced that I would be the one with the positive test. On Thursday, December 23, Embry and I got our rapid PCR tests at CVS; and with fear and trembling, I waited in agony for the email to come in posting the results. I held my breath and clicked the email: “Test Negative.” Eureka! Embry got the same results. We were going to go after all!  All we needed now were the results from the Ellis family, who lived a pretty secluded life in Portland, Maine, and took extraordinary precautions. Jasper, our oldest grandchild at 16, was rumored to double mask in his sleep.

Jessica called us around noon on the 23rd.  Jasper had gotten his booster shot that day and was feeling terrible, but not to worry. It was probably just a reaction to the shot. She would let us know about his test results later in the day. Time was running short, however.  On Christmas Eve morning,  they were to drive from Portland, Maine, to Maplewood, New Jersey, where they would spend Christmas Eve night with Andrew’s family, get rapid tests for the rest of their family, get up at 3:00 AM to head to Newark Airport where both families would board a 6:00 AM flight to San Juan, and then would  take a puddle jumper to the BVIs. It seemed to me to be cutting it a little close, but that was not unusual for the Ellis family. Uncharacteristically, I remained optimistic and assumed that everything would fall into place.

Until the second call came that evening: Jasper had tested positive for Covid.

What to do? The Ellis family was now out.  Jasper was sick and all others in their family exposed—probably to the highly infectious Omicron variant. Should we cancel the whole trip? After reviewing the pros and cons—actually mainly cons:  getting a positive test at the BVI airport, coming down with Covid on the boat, not being able to get out of the BVIs after the cruise, and mainly just not being the same without the whole family—the decision was starting to become obvious. All of the signs were bad, but to cancel what had been billed as the “Last Hurrah BVI Cruise” and probably my last shot at sailing the blue waters and fair winds of this magical place? Not an easy call. We agreed to think about it and talk early Christmas Eve morning.

There was one other complicating factor. We had gone to great lengths to get someone to cat sit for our aging cat, Queen. The person who finally volunteered was a cat lover and planned to bring along her mother and sister, who were visiting from out of town for the holidays and had  no other place to stay. It was one of those rare win/win situations, which made it very difficult for us to say sorry, the situation has changed, you are not needed, and now are on your own.  This was a non-starter. Starting Christmas Day our apartment would be occupied for five days by strangers. We would be homeless unless we could come up with an alternative.

Andrew called around eight Christmas Eve morning. He had a new idea. Forget the BVIs. Too much risk and not feasible. Without his sister’s family it would not be the same anyway. But since all our flights went through San Juan, why not just spend the week in Puerto Rico? He had done some research and found a terrific deal, renting a three-bedroom apartment overlooking a marina and only a five minute walk to a gorgeous beach.

Sounded like a great plan. We would miss Jessica’s family, but it would salvage a pretty woeful situation. Spending nights on the street for seven days was not all that appealing though I am sure we could have figured something out. I immediately perked up. “Never let the perfect be the enemy of  the good,” I told myself as I envisioned sitting on a secluded beach sipping a Pain Killer and feeling the warm breezes, maybe even renting a sailboat for a day from the marina. I told him to book it and breathed a sigh of relief.

I returned home from running some errands around four when Embry asked me if I had heard the latest news. The Puerto Rico trip was off. Andrew could not get the flights rebooked, and the apartment rental turned out to be double-booked.

 Back to square one.

Now I must say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. As a last ditch alternative to becoming homeless on the cold, dark streets of Washington, we decided to drive to New Jersey to spend Christmas week with Andrew’s family in Maplewood. This change of plans would allow us to take Embry’s older brother, Mike, up to Princeton where he would spend Christmas with his daughter, son-in-law, and his two teenage granddaughters. Mike is 85, a poet and artist, now living in a HUD seniors’ building in Washington and not able to travel easily on his own. This reunion had been planned but cancelled a few days earlier because of Covid risks associated with Mike’s riding the train. His daughter, Eva, was delighted when Embry asked her on Christmas morning if the new plan would work. Eva—whom we are very close to, along with her brother, Alex –had suggested that maybe we could stay for a “bite of lunch” before going to Maplewood. When I told her that we could only stop for a few minutes because we were expected for a full Christmas dinner with Andrew’s family around five, she held her ground. “No worries,” she said, “I just called them and they are coming too.”

The “bite of lunch” turned out to be a full Christmas feast, all delicious, vegetarian and vegan dishes, which began around three and lasted a couple of hours, followed by an evening walk through the village of Princeton and the university campus. The big question was how in the world did she pull this off. How did she prepare a meal intended for her family of four, which turned out be a delicious, gourmet feast for 11 people with ample leftovers? Maybe she went out and bought a lot of ingredients the moment she heard we were bringing Mike, but the grocery stores were all closed; and there was never any offer ahead of time for a full-fledged Christmas feast or any expectation on our part that we would have any more than a short visit and maybe a cup of tea. I found myself saying, “loaves and fishes, loaves and fishes.”

The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways. I remember reading somewhere that “A coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

And what about the other what-ifs? What if our cruise had started on December 23 instead of on the 25th? Jasper’s test would probably have come out negative the day before, on December 22, but the next day, first day on the cruise, he would have become very sick and would have exposed everyone. Had we had started a day or two earlier, we could have had everyone on the boat Covid-infected and no idea  how we would quarantine or when or how we would ever make it back home. We had dodged a bullet.

And as it turned out, our granddaughter, Josie, did come down with Covid on December 26 and her father, Peter, experienced the usual Covid symptoms—high fever, body aches, fatigue–on the 28th. Everyone thankfully is recovering, but still. Can you imagine what it would have been like on a sailboat in the BVIs with the entire crew sick? Karen also reported that the Jet Blue flight to San Juan that they were supposed to take appeared to be one of the ones that had been cancelled. I recall someone at one point saying, “Thank you, Jasper.”

The four days we spent in Maplewood with Andrew’s family were not the same as we would have had in the BVIs, but we still enjoyed our Pain Killers and Dark-and-Stormies. We drove to see Christmas lights in Newark, enjoyed sitting around the fire in their living room, told stories, played games, ate delicious food, and took walks—more or less a typical Howell Christmas, though sadly without the Ellises. We even made it to New York City to see the famous Christmas lights at the Bronx Zoo.

Our Covid Christmas story, it turns out, had a happy ending, but what about all the other people suffering through the Covid crisis, all the holiday get-togethers with family and close friends that did not happen , the family reunions that were postponed and, even worse, the Covid outbreaks that are already happening with surely many more on the horizon?  Life on this planet is indeed mysterious. Times of sorrow and despair mixed with times of happiness and gratitude.

Like our Covid Christmas story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Republicans Roll Out Approach To Omicron

“Omicron is a fake disease and  is all Biden’s fault. All of it. His totalitarianism on forcing vaccines on innocent people and promoting useless masks and now unnecessary testing is unacceptable. If it weren’t for him, everything would be fine. As we have said all along, you don’t need vaccines. You don’t need masks and you sure don’t need tests.”

Our message is working. Omicron is a blessing. Just look at all the people who are dying, all because of Biden.  Brilliant, if I do say so myself. The more who die, the more it hurts Joe.  

Yeah, but the antivacciners are mainly Republicans.

 

Storm Clouds Gathering

Today I watched on line one of the “conversations” sponsored by The Atlantic Magazine. The featured guests were two of their best writers, Anne Applebaum and Barton Gellman, discussing the threats to democracy in the world and especially in the United States. Gellman was the guy who pretty much predicted in the fall of last year the January 6 Insurrection. His latest feature article appeared this month which followed up on where we are now compared to then.

Gellman believes that matters are worse, actually much worse, now than they were a year ago. Numerous recent polls show that over 67% of all Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen and that Republicans have a right and an obligation to do something about it. Even more frightening is that well over a majority of those who feel this way also  believe  that violence is justified and necessary to change the results.  He argues that January 6 will not turn out to be an isolated event but the first of a series of events which will threaten the United States unlike anything we have experienced since the Civil War. Applebaum is not quite as pessimistic but expressed the same fear that we may be close to losing democracy in the United States, just as this is now happening in countries all over the world.

Sound scary? 

And what is perhaps even more appalling is that except for Liz Chaney and a handful of other Republican elected officials (all of whom are likely to be “primaried out” in 2022), no one in the Republican establishment is calling them out. Where is Romney or Susan Collins? The reverse is true: many are trying to out-Trump Trump.

The scenario which Gellman believes is most likely to happen is that the Republican effort will be successful  to get laws changed in the most competitive states to require that the state legislatures controlled by Republicans determine who the presidential electors are as is specified in Article II of the U.S. Constitution. This effort is underway in earnest already with scores of Trump lawyers and lobbyists  feverishly  working in the dozen or so battleground states. Gellman believes this will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court where he says there is high certainty that four votes are pretty certain to allow it. It could come down to Roberts. The other thing that is happening is that “neutral” election officials in these states are quietly being replaced with Republican operatives and Trump fanatics. Should the 2022, or more likely, the 2024 election,  actually be stolen, it will set off a counter insurrection, this time by the Left, and everything will be up for grabs.

What can we Democrats and well-intentioned Independents do to stop the real steal? Most important, they say, is to get involved, speak out, give money to groups like The Lincoln Project and Move On and organize to keep keep this threat in front of the American people. Some 80% of all Republicans answer on surveys that election fraud is a major concern compared to fewer than 30% of Democrats. Many of us are aware of that bad things may be going on but like me can’t fathom that anything like a real steal  could actually happen. We are naive.

Time to wake up. Storm clouds are on the horizon.

 

 

 

 

Cosmos Questions

Have you been following the recent discoveries regarding the Universe? I call to your attention the recent series on PBS, “The Universe” and the recent “Scientific American” feature article on the inevitable, future destruction of the Milky Way Galaxy. Here is my take as a rank amateur but one who has been obsessed with space and the Universe ever since I was about eight when my 10-year-old neighbor witnessed a flying saucer land in his back yard, with seared dirt and burnt leaves to prove it.

 

We are living in a golden age for astronomy. Only in the last couple of decades or so have instruments been available to allow us to see for the first time much more of the vast expanse of space than was previously thought possible. These are some of the highlights:

  • The Big Bang started it all “only” about 13.8 billion years ago spewing out cosmic dust that due to the force of gravity resulted in the formation of stars and planets. This is not  news and now enjoys almost universal consensus among scientists.
  • Our star, the Sun, was formed out of the cosmic dust about 4.6 billion years ago along with eight or nine planets (if you count Pluto) circling around it.
  • The Sun is a middle-sized star and part of the Milky Way Galaxy, a run-of-the-mill galaxy. On a clear night with no ambient lights, we can see with the naked eye about 2,500 stars. Scientists now believe that there are between two and four billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. They also believe that there are between two and three trillion galaxies.
  • The small, blue planet we call Earth is about halfway through its life expectancy. In about five billion years the Sun will start to expand into a white giant, expanding beyond the orbit of the planet Earth and evaporating our planet, before it runs out of fuel and becomes a red dwarf, destroying all the other planets in our solar system with it.
  • Powerful satellite telescopes like the Hubble and other super telescopes on the ground now enable scientists to be able to discern whether other stars also have planets and solar systems. So far—and they are just getting started on this—they have not found a star without a planet. The number is now something like 3,800 discovered planets or “exoplanets.”  More exoplanet discoveries are being added all the time. While we know so much more now than we did only a few decades ago, there is so much more we do not know or understand. Scientists have observed black holes at the center of galaxies, which provide the gravitation to keep the stars circling around them, but there is so much more to learn about black holes. And the biggest challenge is to understand how and why the Universe is expanding at accelerating speeds when one would think that the gravity of black holes and the gravity caused by the mass of stars would be pulling the celestial bodies in the Universe closer together.  Scientists have postulated the existence of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which are believed to be  mysterious forces in the Universe. Dark energy, they believe, accounts for the accelerating speed of the expanding Universe. They think these strange, invisible, and unmeasurable forces must be present somehow, but so far, they remain a mystery.
  • It is common for galaxies to collide and for a larger galaxy to take over a smaller one resulting in a cataclysmic cosmic event. Our much larger, sister galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, will swallow up the Milky Way in about five billion years. But that is ok since our Sun will have become a red dwarf by then, and the Earth will have been long gone.
  • Scientists also postulate that at some point the Universe will come to end. This will happen in about a trillion years when all the helium and hydrogen, the fuel of the stars, will have run out. Some also have postulated, however, that what we call our Universe is simply one of an infinite number of universes in a Multiverse.
  • And finally, the distances between stars and galaxies are so great that we humans on Earth will never be able to know or experience being on these celestial bodies (beyond perhaps some in our solar system) unless we can somehow figure out how to travel at or near the speed of light or even many times greater. How likely is that?

So, what do you make of all this and how does all this affect your understanding of the world? Why should you even care? There is surely enough to worry about right here on Earth.

And what about your religious beliefs? Where does God fit into the picture? What is your understanding of what the word “God” means anyway? Where in the Universe is heaven? Could it be hidden in dark matter? And if there is nothing important going on anywhere else in the vast Universe, what was the point of creating all this “stuff” in the first place—the trillions upon trillions of stars and planets?

Also, science tells us that if a planet has the basic elements in place—hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen—and if it is rocky, and if it is large enough so that gravity can hold its atmosphere in place, and if it is located in the goldilocks zone—not too hot and not too cold—and if water appears, then there is a pretty good chance that nature will do its thing, and given time—a few billion years here and a few billion there– life of some sort will appear and evolve. Maybe not life that looks like us but certainly life. Afterall, we now know that there is virtually no place on Earth where life does not exist. There are large sea worms living miles deep under the ocean where no light appears, and there is life in the pits of active volcanoes. Life can form anywhere if the conditions are right.

And what are the chances that there are planets in the Universe that might meet the threshold for life to exist and where life—possibly advanced life—does exist?

I would put my money on one hundred percent.

The point is, of course, that we don’t know  definitive answers to these questions, and we never will. This is where the questions asked by science and those asked by religion converge.

Some people are bothered by these questions and by the (sometimes partial) answers that science has provided, some of which would appear to be at odds with religious belief. Some people fear that even asking these questions risks falling into despair. Without God how could any of this have happened? Certainly, God must be behind all of this, they argue. The alternative surely would be atheism and resignation that the universe is purposeless and without meaning.

My own response is that it is time for a little humility on the part of us humans. I recall the great Carly Simon song, “You’re So Vain.” We homo sapiens on the planet Earth think we are so important and so smart that we must know all the answers. Please. We are a flawed species that has slogged our way to the top of the food chain and yet are now poised to destroy the very thing that has sustained us.

We need to accept that we will never know or understand the complete picture. We need to accept that this is ok. This should not pose a threat to a fundamental faith that meaning and purpose in life are real and attainable. We humans are by design  hard-wired to ask the question of why and hard-wired to seek meaning on a deeper level that we call spiritual. Some of us are a lot better at this than others. Organized religions have existed for centuries to provide structure for encouraging and facilitating our connections with the spiritual dimension of human life. They provide pathways. As I have said many times: One destination many pathways. Christianity, my religious tradition, points to a pathway of love of neighbor, forgiveness, reconciliation and, I believe, justice and peace on our small planet. This is enough for me; and who knows, just like the scientists who have postulated that dark energy must exist because without it, the universe would not be expanding at accelerating speeds, could one not also argue, that the spiritual dimension of human existence must be real because without it, we would not be fully human?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justice in America

Hey, boss, how come you just shot those two  guys? They didn’t say or  do anything to you did they?

Hell no. But they looked intimidating and  might have if I hadn’t shot ’em first. No worries though. I’ll just claim self defense.