Billy Joel Was Right

December 21, 2017

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it

In 1989, Billy Joel released the album Storm Front that included the No. 1 hit single, We Didn’t Start the Fire. In it, Joel recounts, in rapid-fire lyrics, 119 significant historical events that took place during his life as a reminder to us that history continues, regardless what we remember or how we remember it. Everything that we live through, and that we live with today has many, many historical precedents.

The thing about history is that knowing it and living it are two very different things. Those who lived it didn’t know the end of the story, they were busy making the end of the story. The further we get from the actual events, the more we forget that and discount the importance to them of what was happening.

Here is an example: the 1940 London blitz of WWII. Admittedly an extreme example. Bombs were dropping daily, the city being systematically flattened and in ruins, fires raged uncontrolled, thousands died, children were taken from their homes and families and evacuated to the country. Londoners did not know when or how or even if it all might end. It happened again the next day, and the one after that, with no respite. Their future looked bleak and gloomy, and despair must have been the predominant emotion. For them, democracy dying in darkness was not just a possibility, it was a probability.

In the end, of course, the Brits and their allies prevailed, and Nazism failed, at least overtly. On the other side of the conflict, the Germans later suffered as much or even more destruction, but they also prevailed. Just look at the German leadership in the world today. They lost the war, but they didn’t lose history.

History, as it is happening, is the most important thing ever to those who are living it.

There are so many more examples in modern American history alone of historical precedent to our times. Japanese internment camps vs. Muslim bans; the civil rights movement vs. the LBGTQ movement; AIDS vs opioids; McCarthy and Communism vs. ISIS and sharia law; feminism vs. #metoo; Viet Nam vs. Afghanistan/Iraq/Syria; Watergate vs. Russian interference; Trump vs. Nixon; and so on. All of them have a precedent. And the precedents have precedents. That is how history works. And, at the time, no one knew how these chapters would turn out, and they were, therefore, the most important thing ever.

Today we are experiencing dramatic and possibly apocalyptic events. Evils that we thought were tamed have resurfaced; friendships and alliances are evolving, or trying to evolve, in ways that frighten us; threats to our very planet and survival seem imminent. But remember, quoting the words David Koepp put in Jeff Goldblum’s mouth in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

Life won’t be the same after the turmoil of today. We progress through learning, and we learn through experience. And the things we experience today – misogyny, racism, intolerance, greed, corruption, and all the rest – are being dragged into the light of day where we can see them clearly and where they command our attention. We can’t just continue to ignore them and leave them to percolate below the surface. They will get fixed, some before others. But eventually, all of them.


John Henry Wins in Alabama

December 15, 2017

John_Henry“John Henry was a steel-driven’ man.”

When I was young, there was a song about an African-American folk hero who worked as a steel-driver, hammering six-foot-long steel rods into solid stone so explosives could be placed, obstacles blown away, and the railroad built through mountains. Songs have been written about him, and that is where I first heard the story – probably the Woodie Guthrie or Pete Seeger version. As the story goes, challenged by a steam-driven hammer, John Henry won against all odds.

Back in May when he announced his run for the Senate in Alabama, who would have thought of Doug Jones as a modern-day John Henry?

First, a word about hammers, big hammers. I learned a lesson about hammers early in my career. My first job was on a traveling crew that decontaminated and decommissioned nuclear facilities – power plants, laboratories, industrial plants, anywhere that radioactive materials were used and managed to escape their containment. It was our job to travel to these “hot spots” and clean up other people’s mistakes. Working in the field like that, under hazardous conditions, you learn quickly how to best use your time and resources to get the job done.

One job involved cleaning up a WWII vintage hot lab, basically a row of 12 by 12 concrete rooms with two-foot thick walls where the radioactive materials were handled remotely. The walls were coated to prevent radioactive contamination from leaching into the porous concrete, and of course, this never worked perfectly. We used hand-held power chippers to remove the coating, and when we found radiation in the concrete, we would move up to a more powerful one with a spade tip to chip away the contaminated concrete. If that didn’t work, then a bigger one, and so on. In this one spot, the project manager was excessively cautious as we encountered contamination at progressively deeper levels, and we worked our way incrementally up through about five grades of tool until we got to 90-pound jackhammers and just broke the whole wall into rubble. This step-wise process took too long, it was too expensive, and in the end, no one was happy except the tool rental company.

Here’s the lesson. There are two types of problems – those you attack inch-by-inch, and those you crush with the biggest hammer you can find. Delicate surgery, like the careful removal of something damaging to a patient, is an inch-by-inch problem. Roy Moore and Donald Trump are biggest hammer problems.

I say that because there is a substantial opinion that a Roy Moore win would have been as good, or even better, because it would have saddled the GOP with an albatross of monumental proportions going into upcoming legislative considerations and the 2018 elections. In other words, an inch-by-inch problem for the GOP. That might have been true, and I emphasize might, but the immediate payoff of the total Trump failure to get a lapdog elected in a crimson state, twice, along with the other immediate benefit of a balance-of-power swing away from the Republicans, can only help in the near-term priorities of taxes, child care, health care, voting rights, etc.

I simply don’t trust any politician to persist in doing the right thing over an extended period, and the Roy Moore disqualification procedure would have left too much room for the GOP and Trump to slither out from under while Congress dithers with ethics investigations, hopeless expulsion hearings, etc. Dragging this out has just as much potential for a backfire as it does for success.

When dealing with liars, crooks, and thieves, grab the biggest hammer you can find. In this case, Doug Jones and his team.


The Gift You Cannot Buy

November 28, 2016

I turned 70 this year. That’s a milestone. It was also a birthday problem for my son, Josh. It really shouldn’t have been – after all, he’s done it maybe 65 times already. But that is exactly why it had to be difficult for him.

We have a tendency to think of presents in material terms, and materially I have, or have had, pretty much everything I ever wanted or needed, with a couple of totally improbable exceptions. But there is one thing you can never have enough of, and that is wonderful memories. And he used an old one of mine to make a new one for me.

I was as close to my own father as was possible given my parent’s divorce when I was 9 or so, and a separation of about 1,400 miles. One of the things that I inherited from him was a love of Porsches. He came back from WWII with a respect for German engineering and a love of European sports cars, so he bought a 1955 Porsche Speedster.


That’s me standing next to my father’s Porsche.

When my birthday came around, Josh suggested we get together and do something for the day, our consorts included. No big deal, he seemed to say, and that was fine with me. When Claire had asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I said “stay in bed.”

So Claire and I drove down to Great Falls, VA, and Josh and Christina drove up from Reston. We met at an informal car get-together that happens every Saturday and started checking out the cars. There are always several hundred, ranging from new supercars like Lamborghinis to classics like a 1928 leather-bodied Bentley, and walking around looking them over is a lot of fun.

So it was we came upon a mid-50’s Porsche. Of course I stopped and commented that it was just like my father’s, and Josh said “I know. Maybe you should take it for a drive.” And he handed me a key and an envelope.

14102520_10154582472474789_7716651603133027698_nClaire and I with the car and the instructions for what would be the most memorable birthday of my life.

Of course my reaction was, “Yeah, sure,” but he insisted the key would work in the Porsche. Leery of America’s Funniest Home Video cameras at work somewhere, or police ready to jump out and arrest me for classic car theft (much worse than regular old car theft) I made Josh do it. He could survive prison better than me.

And the car started. To say I was stunned would be an understatement on the level of saying that Donald Trump likes himself. I opened the envelope and here is what I found – instructions for a Porsche Speedster-enabled scavenger hunt. Including a map.

scavenger-huntThe instructions specified five steps I had to take and complete by 2:30. They also list me as Agent 070. Thank you, Christina.

scavenger-hunt-instructionsA very cryptic map. Note the address legend at the top because he knew we’d get lost.

The first step seemed easy enough. I could translate it to “Go to Josh’s house.” (The dogs are Jorja and Jerzy. Sounds like states even if they can’t spell.) And there were little clue icons on the map – the car silhouette was where we were, the dog bone was Josh’s house, and the meaning of the others (coffee cup, farm, phone booth, red truck) would become clear as we progressed.

While it did seem easy enough, I didn’t want to do it. More accurately, I was afraid to drive the Porsche. This was someone’s vintage, beautifully restored treasure, and I didn’t trust myself to drive it. I solved the problem in a very fatherly way – I made Josh do it. Not that he objected.

josh-driving-the-porscheJosh fitting very well in a classic Porsche.

Riding while he drove turned out to be a good idea. I was free from paying attention to the road and could really enjoy this particular experience for the first time in 60 years. And, just as importantly, acclimate myself to memories I hadn’t realized I’d forgotten until that moment. Driving would have been a distraction.

When we got to Josh’s neighborhood, he made a lap around all the residential streets, probably making sure all his neighbors would notice. At least one did as he came over in his pajamas to find out if Josh had hit the lottery.

And then it was my turn. Claire and I decided to take a lap ourselves just to be sure I could remember what a clutch does. After fumbling to find reverse, we were off. The rear-engine design of the Porsche always meant that the gear selection was a little “loose” and takes some getting used to. I was slightly surprised that I remembered this and was able to shift without Claire even noticing how tentative I was.

Driving the Porsche was a little like initial intimacy – you really want to do it and do it right, but at the same time you’re afraid you’ll somehow screw it up. Add the public vs private nature of the act and the fact that a premature end probably means I’ve broken someone’s treasure and it gets even more anxious. So fumbling (in both cases) can be understood.

Josh and Christina lead the way, saving untold arguments with my navigator and probably the day. All we had to do was enjoy a gorgeous day in Virginia with the top down in an enviable car and be entertained at the planned stops. And they were entertaining.

claire-john-in-reverseFinding reverse after a bit of fumbling.

joshs-houseStop 1 – Josh’s House, Address withheld at the request of the authorities.

I don’t remember the reason for going to Josh’s first, other than the aforementioned showing off. The challenge was to “find two crazy canines named after states” and this was not difficult as they are very friendly and actually try to be found. A little like an interactive “X-marks-the-spot.” Treasure hunters should be so lucky.

the-secret-garden-entranceStop 2 – Shoe’s Cup & Cork, Leesburg, VA

Shoe’s is a lovely restaurant where we went for a light breakfast. In addition to the main area, they have an outdoor garden and bocce court. We ate in the garden. I didn’t take any food pictures, but in case you’re interested (and who wouldn’t be?), I had a chai latte and a white chocolate raspberry scone. And, while on the way there, a young woman on a bicycle yelled, “Nice car.” I pretended I owned it and smiled.

stone-tower-wineryStop 3 – Stone Tower Winery, Leesburg, VA

There are a few recognized exceptions to the rule that the sun has to be below the yardarm before you can start drinking. One is the “what the hell is a yardarm” rule. Another is the 70th birthday exception. We chose the latter and were tasting wine while the clock still registered AM.

hunters-headStop 4 – Hunter’s Head Tavern, Upperville, VA

The next stop was the Hunter’s Head Tavern for lunch. Inexplicably, the old and quaint tavern has a red Tardis out front. In any event, after my staff (Josh and Christina) finished cleaning the dust off the Porsche, we had a very nice lunch. Mine was a pimento cheese and tomato melt. I didn’t notice what my entourage ate.

red-truck-bakeryStop 5 – Red Truck Rural Bakery, Marshall, VA

We followed Josh and Christina into the small town of Marshall, looking for a red truck as directed in the instructions. When we turned into an empty parking lot behind some buildings, I thought they had made a wrong turn. But no, we were there. There was no red truck, just an awning with the name Red Truck Rural Bakery on it. I claim foul and should not have any points deducted for not finding this landmark.

The instructions here also included a script for what I was to say when we went inside. I was to tell the cashier that I had “traded in my Porsche and all I got was this kid.” There’s a story there.

Remember that I wrote several pages ago that I also have a love for Porsches? In 1967, when I was a senior in college, $5,000 dropped out of the sky and landed in my bank account. I immediately bought a used 1966 Porsche 911, one of the first in the country as it had been brought from Germany by a returning soldier. I still had it and loved it when I got married, and when Josh was born, and through the first months of his life. As it turned out, I couldn’t afford both Josh and the Porsche. After much soul-searching, I sold the Porsche when I found that it got me more than selling him.

The picture below was taken at my sister’s house while I was trying to re-connect the throttle linkage that Anne, my late wife and Josh’s mother, had thoughtfully disconnected while doing her typically thorough cleaning job.

img496Me fixing my Porsche

There are no words to describe how much this birthday gift means to me. You cannot buy this. You can only raise your child from birth, hope you didn’t screw it up too badly, and be ever so proud of how he turned out. I can only hope that my father was as proud of me as I am of Josh.

 Thank you, Josh and Christina.



History lessons

November 25, 2016

historySince the nomination of Donald Trump, I have railed against him on social media and in other forums. I am happy to continue to do so. But I find myself irritated by many others who are promoting the same agenda that I am in a way that I find counter-productive, and even offensive. So, I’m going to tell you why.

Now this will take about 1,000 words, maybe five minutes to read. Please do, and share it if you like it because my audience is very limited.

Knowing that few people take the time to read more than four sentences, I will get some points across up front so you can decide whether to invest those minutes or not.

  • America in 2016 is not Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when Hitler came to power.
  • America in 2016 is not Russia in 1999 when Putin became Prime Minister.
  • Trump is not Hitler – not even close.
  • Trump is not Putin – not even close.
  • Trump is President-elect of the United States, and after inauguration he will have significant power, mostly confined to Executive Orders, a bully pulpit, influence over what Congress does, and the conduct of foreign affairs.
  • Trump cannot change the Constitution. He cannot pass laws or invalidate existing ones. He cannot control the media. He cannot ignore or suppress the voters of this country UNLESS WE LET HIM.

The very things that we fear will come about because of Trump have already happened many times over, and will happen many times again after he is gone. We will survive and even become better for the experience.

For those of you making the comparisons to Hitler and Putin and Nazis and Russia, you really need to study your history. And you don’t need to go back past my own lifetime, or even consider history outside the US. Most of the things that you are hysterical about possibly happening, and worse, have already happened here, and in my lifetime. We survived and grew stronger and better because of them.

  • Senator McCarthy lied and made wanton false accusations that ruined thousands, even tens of thousands, of people’s lives, and promoted some of the most evil social and cultural acts we can do to each other. All the while his fellow politicians, even knowing his duplicity, cooperated and supported the effort for their own selfish, parochial benefit. These were corruption and ethics violations that I doubt Trump could duplicate today.
  • Women have, unfortunately, always been the target of abuse, assault, suppression, etc., by men. Not just here and in my lifetime, but everywhere and throughout time. Trump has not invented this, he has not enabled this, he has not normalized this, he has not promoted this. He has brought it out in the open where it can be addressed and, to some degree, ameliorated. We can no longer disregard it, or deny it, or minimize it. We have to deal with it, and women will eventually be better off for it.
  • Police-state tactics have often been used against our own citizens resulting in hundreds of deaths and untold misery. Black and white civil rights advocates murdered, beaten, thrown in jail, attacked by dogs, lynched, often by the same law enforcement and political establishment charged with protecting them. Vietnam protestors attacked by police, and even killed on the campus of Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. And so on.
  • Radical citizen groups fomenting terror, riots, killings, fear, threats, etc. also have a long history here. These range from Black Panthers and others bombing, robbing, and killing (and themselves being bombed and killed), to white skinheads and neo-Nazis and lynch mobs doing the same, to local militias organizing and practicing to do even worse, and many other examples.
  • Again in my lifetime, we have invaded and savaged foreign countries for reasons noble and base. Nicaragua, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Cuba, Lebanon, Laos, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and many, many more.
  • Political corruption and ethics violations are a way of life, from your local County government to the highest levels of elected and appointed office. Examples are too numerous to name, so just look around, read the news, open your mind, and use critical thinking and you’ll find plenty. The antidote: stop following candidates who are playing on your fears with phony issues and accusations and undeliverable promises; consider more than one issue when selecting who to support; vote for inherently good people, not ignorant or evil ones who happen to agree with you on some topic.
  • Attempts to suppress minorities are a standard practice here, and always have been. We fought a Civil War that was to a great degree caused by this. (That wasn’t in my lifetime, by the way, so stop smirking.) It has never worked past a period of tumult and change that is still going on today and will be going on long after I am dead.
  • Political/corporate greed and advantage is an issue almost too pervasive to identify. Rather, can you name any politician at any level of government who doesn’t benefit personally (beyond a reasonable salary) from his position? Does Congress have the same health, retirement, and social benefits that you do? Does their salary continue up while the minimum wage is too little to survive on?

We don’t need to make America great again – she has always been great. We need to continue to make her greater, and that initiative has lapsed in recent years.

And we’re not going to accomplish anything by raising the specter of Hitler and Putin to scare ourselves and others, and to reinforce our own beliefs and try to frighten others into agreeing with us.

Trump’s election is not the end of America as we know it. In fact, it is a validation of America. We have as a President-elect a man who lost the popular vote, who lied, bullied, cheated, and acted in the most vulgar way possible to get elected, and who is by all current, available measures, manifestly unfit for the office.

And yet he was peacefully elected. And he will serve his term after a peaceful transition of power. And he will function within the limits of our form of government and culture. He will do bad things, but not as many as you imagine. He will do good things, whether by accident or intent. He will be replaced, hopefully in four years, by someone else who will continue the traditions of America.


Smacked to Activism

November 6, 2013

march for truthThe sub-title of my much-neglected blog is, “I have some things to say before I die.” I seem to have found new inspiration to write from an unlikely source – the U.S. government. No, they are not paying me. I am not, after all, involved in defense products or eavesdropping. I am not related to any elected official as far as I know, and I bring no cash nor constituency to gain their interest. I have been inspired by the incredible devaluation of honesty, integrity, and common sense exhibited by our government, and by the U.S. Congress in particular.

Before I go much further, let me share my credentials. They are simple – until recently I didn’t give a damn about the Congress or government in general as long as they just deducted my taxes from each paycheck and left me alone. So I am the prototypical American voter, and I have decided to speak out for all of us.

This wasn’t always the case. In college in the late 60’s, I was involved in the anti-war movement, civil rights, and the rest of the turmoil of the times. But then I got a job and got married and had a son and embarked on a very good life that did not include protest. Until recently, I was content to continue that life, but several things have happened to push me over the tipping point. I’ll try to discuss those in detail in future posts, but for now it is sufficient to lump all the reasons under governmental irresponsibility. So, as I wrote to my Congressman in a recent e-mail, they have turned me into an activist when I was perfectly comfortable in apathy.

This is not going to be a political diatribe. I am policy-neutral. I don’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican, a Libertarian or a Communist. I do not intend to take a stand on a single political issue. I only ask one thing, and if you can convince me of that I’ll vote for you no matter what your stand on abortion or Obamacare or the War on Terror is. I ask that you represent your constituents, the citizens and residents of this country, with honesty, integrity, knowledge, diligence, selflessness, and transparency. That should not be hard to do, but not one of you seems to be able to achieve it.

There are a lot of theories why this is so, and I am likely to spout a few myself before I’m done. But I’m less concerned with why we are where we are than I am about how to get to where we should be, must be, if we are going to continue to lead the world by our example. As I see it, there is only one reason for our situation, one problem for which I will propose two solutions and explain and defend them if anyone cares to read my opinion and respond.

The problem is, of course, money.

The solutions are, one –  a way to deprive any donor of political advantage for donating his or her money. And two, a simple way to hold those who sell the political advantage accountable.

On a recent Facebook post, I responded to a very valid statement my son made on the insanity of the government shutdown. In it, I reminded him of my solutions, rants he’s heard from a very young age. Here they are in brief, and I will expand on these in future posts.

None Of The Above.

Every ballot for an elected official, from the lowest local position to the President of the United States, shall have a selection labeled “None of the above” and the votes cast for that category will be counted and reported alongside the votes for each individual candidate.

The Campaign Finance Laundry.

Anybody, anywhere can donate as much money as they please to the candidate of their choice for any elected office. The check will be made out to the non-partisan, independent, Campaign Finance Council, earmarked for the specified candidate, added to the account of that candidate, and paid out without attribution to any specific donor along with all other donations so earmarked.

It’s all very simple. Make candidates accountable by some means other than withholding your vote, and take away the political rewards given to those who would buy influence rather than earn it.



May 1, 2009
A full life

A full life

After my wife died, I spent a brief time on an Internet dating site. It worked out for me, but not before a couple of things worth noting.

The first is sick/funny. The very first woman who noticed me (I was kind of passive, letting others take the lead) sent a “flirt”. I responded nicely, mentioning my status as a widower, and she replied in more detail. Here, for your horror and enjoyment is the first sentence of her note:

“At least the person you loved is dead.”

Word for word; I’m not lying. She went on to rant about her husband of 27 years who was now running around making a fool of himself with a younger woman.

The other thing is related – baggage. Either people had none or they wanted none. “I come without baggage” and “No baggage, please” are constant refrains in profiles. Why? When did empty-handed become an asset?

Here is my belief – we are our baggage. No baggage means you’ve led a pretty empty life and probably don’t bring a lot to the party. If you show up without baggage, I have to provide everything.

I’m full of baggage. Successes and failures; joys and regrets; fun and woe; health and illness; happy and sad. Without it, I’m really not much except an eating machine.

Baggage is the source of our memories, and as I once wrote, there comes a time in your life when remembering the past becomes more rewarding than imagining the future. When that happens, I hope your baggage is full.


I Love the Lottery

April 11, 2009
Pick the winner and serve it with dinner

Pick the winner and serve it with dinner

Everyone knows the odds of winning a mega-millions lottery jackpot – virtually non-existent. If you take a 56,000 acre cornfield, one stalk gets the prize. I took the time to research that and figure it out.

People buy the tickets anyway. The most common rationale is, “someone has to win.”

The most common reason is hope.

The lottery is fueled primarily by the people who are least able to afford the gamble. They are the same people most in need of lotteries primary service – giving hope.

Hope doesn’t have a unit of measure. I can’t say I have three pounds of hope today. So one lottery ticket gives me all the hope I need; two tickets aren’t really necessary.

There was a time in the life of my family when hope was even more important than normal. Troubles abounded, living in a cardboard box kinds of troubles, and there seemed to be no way out. During this time, I would buy one lottery ticket every week. It didn’t matter if the jackpot was $1 million or $100 million, it gave me some hope.

I could already be ...

I could already be ...

I wouldn’t check the number after the drawing. I am an analytical man, and I knew I hadn’t won. But as long as I didn’t check, the possibility existed, and hope survived. I could wake each morning and think the Publisher’s Clearing House motto, “you may already be a millionaire,” sustaining that hope until I learned from the news that a winner had come forward. By that time I had another ticket or two in my wallet, and could wake each morning with that same thought.

The actual odds didn’t matter. Winning didn’t even matter. It mattered that I got up each day and worked hard and persisted, eventually succeeding by the old-fashioned way – by earning it.

What mattered was my family, and it was my responsibility to see to their well-being. And the thing that got me vertical on many mornings, that got me to work and helped me to persevere, was the thought, “you might already be a millionaire.”

I love the lottery.