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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.

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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.

afl-3

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.

 

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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.

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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.

lottery-ticket

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Television

April 8, 2009

I stopped watching television over two years ago. I didn’t set out to stop, there was no intellectual imperative to raise my consciousness or make me somehow better than everyone else. I wasn’t worried about my brain turning to yogurt like in the Hulu ads. (By the way – Alec Baldwin being an alien explains a lot. I wonder if Kim Basinger knew it all along?)

Did Kim know?

Did Kim know?

It was much simpler than that – life took my TV away. (Another by the way – did you notice that right at the beginning of my no TV rant, I reference a TV ad? Paradoxical, huh?)

What would you do if everything you saw on TV was absolutely real to you? Was happening at that moment, live, in your home? The war footage on the news – would you duck and run for cover? The medical dilemma – would you cry for the patient? The comedy sketch – would you think it funny, or cringe?

That’s what happened to my wife, Anne. A rare neurological disease took away her ability to differentiate real from pretend. The disease was progressive, and so was my weaning from TV. At first, we just had to avoid violence. And then any drama. We eventually reached the food channel and QVC as the only available channels. We lost the food channel to reality competitions – the losers broke her heart. I thought QVC would go on forever. Who isn’t happy there? But then one day the host asked the buyer if the purchase was for her husband, and she said, “No. Henry passed away last year,” and Anne went into profound mourning. Henry might as well have been her father.

So the TV went off, and Enya CD’s in constant rotation became our background noise.

And here’s what I learned – my life is better without TV. Not that TV in any way harmed me, or diminished me intellectually or psychologically or emotionally. Note that I said my life, not yours. TV may fit your life very well, and you are welcome to it without any judgment from me.

TV doesn’t fit my life any more. Here’s why – for me TV is the road to becoming the Unabomber.

I live alone, now. I am naturally something of a loner. TV is a sedative to me, the pill that would let me sit inside and never interact with real people and real places and real events again. And sooner or later, I would start planting bombs. Maybe not literal ones, but explosions aren’t the only way to destroy things.

So, how do I know the Hulu ads? Because I do interact with people, and those people do watch TV, and I am not so presumptuous as to force my will on them. TV is only dangerous when I’m alone.

Those occasions where I do watch it only reinforces my decision not to. A rerun of Scrubs or Two and a Half Men I can enjoy. Even an episode of House, as long as I take him in small doses. But Rock the Love Bus? Parental Control? These and others of that genre are designed to humiliate people for entertainment. I don’t enjoy that.

Walter Cronkite 2009?

Walter Cronkite 2009?

One last thought – The Daily Show. I used to think it sad that many young people got their news from a comedian. Then my son sent me a link to the episode of the debate between Jon Stewart and whoever that CNN financial lunatic is, and now I’d rather watch Stewart than O’Reilly or Blitzer.

But I’d really rather watch no TV at all. All the news I need now I can get by looking out my window or picking up my phone.

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My Friends

March 31, 2009

Nicki Schall04232018I am an avid reader. Surprise. I added it all up once and estimate I’ve read maybe 5,000 books in my life, going all the way back to The Little Train That Could. Now that was a well-crafted book. A good story, strongly plotted, with a very sympathetic character living a clear story arc.

Anyway, I love history, and that means I love biography because history is simply the aggregation of lots of biographies, with an occasional natural disaster thrown in. But the only biographies you can buy are all about famous people. Is fame a prerequisite for leading an interesting life? For contributing your piece to the aggregation that is history?

No.

I have this non-fiction book outlined, and I plan to write it right after my third novel. I figure by then I’ll have either totally failed, or I’ll have the leverage to get something different published. Yeah, I know, I’m an optimist.

The Book is called My Friends, and it consists of six short biographies, maybe 100 pages each. Biographies of the six of my best friends at various stages of my life. Their lives are unique and amazing, and I had the good fortune of being part of them, if only for a while. Here they are.

Pat Fogarty.

Growing up in Hillcrest, NY, just outside Binghamton, Pat was my best friend. Pat was a smart as anyone I’ve ever known. Top of his class starting in the 1st Grade and keeping it up all the way through Harvard. He was also a major-league geek, complete with big black glasses and a plastic pocket liner. And one of the co-founders of the radical anti-war Weatherman movement. After Harvard, Pat joined the Peace Corps and died in a truck accident in some nasty part of Africa.

Lee Willis.

Lee and I were best friends in high school and after. We went to Europe together and toured for three months on motorcycles, living in a tiny two-man tent. We went off to different colleges, and while I studied beer and girls, Lee dropped out, joined the Marines and volunteered for Viet Nam. In retrospect, a gallant thing to do. Lee commanded an armored personnel carrier. He was the guy you see from the waist up out the top of some hatch. In Lee’s case, he got shot while doing that. A bullet slipped inside his Kevlar and tracked across his back, leaving the biggest scar I’ve ever seen. Medevac saved his physical life in Viet Nam, and Debbie finished the job emotionally when he got back. They’re still together today, I am very happy to report.

Nicki Schall

Nicki was the first girl I loved. That’s her (with me in uniform) in the picture when she was crowned Queen of our Winter Carnival weekend. We started dating senior year of high school (she attended a Catholic girl’s school called The Convent, and I was at a boy’s military prep school – we were a pair) and continued to for the rest of her life. She was the daughter of an Army Lieutenant-Colonel who considered me just this side of bacteria. Nicki went to Skidmore College, and freshman year I called her at school to go there for the weekend. I learned from her roommate that she was in the hospital back home in Syracuse. I went there and, seated away from the hostile glare of her father, I overheard her doctor tell her parents she had Hodgkin’s Disease, and there was no cure. Against my better judgment, they swore me to secrecy and never told her she was dying. She learned about it when she worked a summer job for GE and saw a doctor’s report in her file. When she found out I knew and didn’t tell her, she didn’t speak to me for two years. We got together briefly junior year, but she died the following January.

Rick Marsi & Michael Barclay

Rick and Michael were my best friends at Colgate. I’ve intertwined them here for brevity, but each of their lives bears illuminating.

Michael bought my Gibson acoustic guitar from me freshman year and despite our relentless abuse, taught himself to play and has been a professional musician all his life (The Michael Barclay Blues Band, (http://sonic.net/~michaelb/). Making a living playing the blues is a challenge, and Michael’s solution was to get his PhD in Psychology and work with children in the California Penal System.

Rick joined the Peace Corps out of college and went to India. After he returned, he went to Penn and got his Master’s in Indian Studies and became an accomplished sitarist, although he plays the drums and sings lead in the world’s oldest garage band. (The band isn’t the oldest – it’s members are.) Rick became a naturalist (http://www.rickmarsi.com/) and adventure tour guide to some of the most interesting places on earth, including the Andes in Peru and rural Russia. He has written a number of books, and his study of the city of Borovichi is a wondrous read.

John Ritchie

John Ritchie became my best adult friend when we worked together. An Okie made good, John was one of the first formally-trained radiation safety professionals and went on to co-found several companies. When that wasn’t challenging enough, he took his old Corvette and emigrated to Europe for 16 years, where he met and married a lovely Swedish woman. He’s lived in a historic cottage in England, a spectacular old farm in Normandy, condos in Sweden and Finland, a house on stilts in the Florida Keys, and now a beautiful home in Tucson. And soon a condo-in-the-sky in Panama. There are stories to match each location.

The point here is that celebrity doesn’t make you interesting. And obscurity doesn’t mean you’re not a good story.

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Poetry

March 27, 2009

 

ogden nash

“I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me, they were delicious; so sweet and so cold.”

Two sentences that could have come from some generic romance novel or a post-it note on the refrigerator. And yet when a famous author/poet fragments them, seemingly at random, they become, arguably, one of the most famous modern short poems.

 

This Is Just to Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

You can get different meanings out of this, ones that you believe are important or insightful because there were none put in. There are no guidelines, no clues, no limitations. You’re just making up the meaning.

You can see where this originated. He ate the damn plums and felt guilty about it and wrote an apology. It is our expectations that there is more to this, some deeper truth, that make it meaningful, not the author’s content.

He was greedy, guilty, and then contrite.

My own opinion, in absolute seriousness, is that this Ogden Nash (pictured) ditty is, in fact, the most important short poem.

Candy is dandy
but liquor is quicker.

Think about that for a few moments. In just seven words, two rhymes, he exposes and examines one of the most important human conditions – the relationship of men and women.

“Candy is dandy”. Yes, it is. A thoughtful gift, obtained with effort and offered with affection, a token of feelings, and the result is hoped to be intimacy.

“But liquor is quicker”. Why bother? Get the bitch drunk and have your way. And then you’re outta there.

William Carlos could learn from this.