Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Man Who Wrote Letters—and did evil deeds

  My third novel, The Man Who Wrote Letters—and did evil deeds, is in its final proof stage and will be coming out in a few weeks. 
  The crime mystery takes place in the fictional town of Harrington, Massachusetts and centers on an unpopular building project.
    We pick up the story when the body of a key figure   is discovered one morning just as construction is about to commence. The ensuing events and  investigation are revealed through the eyes of the young journalist assigned to cover it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

President Trump Throughout History

President Trump enters the Great American Think-off
In December 2015, I began a feature on my blog, entitled, “Trump Throughout History,” where I put him in different settings. Every year, I enter a contest called the “Great American Think-off.” This year, a member from a writer’s group I belong to is one of the four finalist going to Minnesota to debate the question: What shapes our lives more: Success or Failure?

I tried to envision what the president’s entry to a Great American Think-off would look like.

Everyone in the Oval Office was talking about the Great American Think-off, which I have to admit, I didn’t know anything about. Making America Great, I know, but Great America Thinking, I don’t know so much. Anyway, my staff told me this year’s question is:

“Thinking is a good thing, Yes or No.”

At first, I didn’t get it because I think both answers are right. Thinking can be a good thing like when I think I’m on to something, or it can be a bad thing like the time I thought I was on to something only to find out the thing I was on was a merry-go-round, which a lot of people would say is a good thing, but I don’t know—you’re’re there...then you’re back here again.

Some people say a merry-go-round is a good ride, but I like my rides to get me somewhere. That’s what I think. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing...who knows,...we’ll see...or we won’t. I dunno. Think about it.

The more I think about it, the more I think, thinking is a bad thing. Too much thinking, which some people call overthinking can just make things more complicated. I like things simple.

Someone just told me the folks at New York Mills like personal stories, which is lucky for me because I have a million of them. Someone else just told me New York Mills is in Minnesota. Go figure.

Anyway, one time I did overthink something and it didn’t turn out so good, and I swore I would never think about something too much, again...and to the best of my recollection, I never have.

So, I hit a good drive and I’m in the middle of the fairway and I’ve got 180 yards to the hole. I could use a three-wood and reach the green easily, but I might go past it if I get off a clean shot...or I could use a one-iron, which I don’t like to use, but I can use if I have to. It may leave me a little short...and I’m not talking about me, because I happen to be a very tall man...taller than most, and when I say most, I mean, just about everyone.

I don’t want to get off track here. The one iron might leave me short of the green, which is called a lay-up and from there, I might be better off, if I can chip onto the green and get close to the hole.

But, I don’t know. If it comes between coming up short, or going too far...I’m kind of a long-ball guy. I don’t think you can ever go too far. So, I take the three wood out, but decide not to hit it too hard, but just hard enough. Well, you know what happened next...I didn’t think it would happen, but I knew it could happen because anything can happen and usually fact, people tell me things happen all the time.

So, I take a shorter backswing and slow down my front swing. Is that what you call it? I never thought about it before, but if going back is called a backswing, a swing going front must be a front swing. This is the kind of confusion, thinking will get you.

Anyway, because I overthought what club to use, I wound up not hitting the ball cleanly and I came up short, but not just short, but short in a trap, which I hate being in. Anyone who has ever been in a trap will tell you, it is not a good place to be. Believe me, I know.

So, you see, based on this real story, which I didn’t make up on the spot like some people accuse me of doing, I would have to say thinking isn’t a good thing...not if you’ve hit a good drive and want to get on the green in two, which is something I would want to do and I think anyone would want to do.

So, that’s my answer. Thinking is a good thing—No.

I don’t know, though. Some pretty good thinking on my part went into getting to that answer.

Maybe I should think about it some more and see if I come up with a different answer, which I’m sure I will, because I always do.

I just got an idea for next year’s think-off. “Three-wood or one-iron, which is it?” I know what I think.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Can keeping your word be a bad thing? Hell, yes.

I remember when my year-long tour in Vietnam was ending, the army asked me what my preferences were regarding my next duty station. This is generally referred to as a “dream list,” and it usually is.
I think politicians engage in the same sort of deceit on the campaign trail. They tell us all the good things they hope to do. Whether they are conning us or themselves doesn’t matter. Someone’s getting played. Voters are not necessarily innocent bystanders. They get their hopes up, for whatever reasons, knowing that it is all a game.

In the end, none of this matters.

Government and politics being what they are, more often than not, the unexpected rules the day and the promises go into the “Save for future” bin. A president fortunate enough to be able to fulfill a promise will discover his victory comes at a price. Half the country will love him and half will hate him and the final product likely won’t be recognized by anyone.

Just as with the army’s “dream list,” you never know. “Be careful what you wish for,” has been valuable advice since the days of Aesop’s Fables for good reason.

The election of 2016 was a little different than most. Okay, it was a lot different. It was more vulgar, for sure. It was the first one in which both the FBI and Russia played significant roles. It was the first one in which the two major parties were represented by a woman and a reality T.V. star. It goes without saying that it was the most expensive election ever, but that will only last until the next one, which I guess makes it the same as every previous one.

There was also one other major difference. 2016 was the first year that a candidate did not promise to do things, but rather promised to undo things—and when I say things, I mean everything.

These are the Trump promises of election year 2016:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Trust Us - Con jobs big and small

Con jobs come in all sizes and with varying degrees of intent to deceive.

A small, well-meaning con job was once directed at me when I was a letter carrier walking my route in Virginia Beach. An older man walking his dog approached me.

The dog wasn’t that big, but it was dragging its owner along like a lion pulling a dead wildebeest across the arid African savanna.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got him under control,” the outmatched man said with a straight face.

He wasn’t intentionally trying to con me and certainly meant me no harm. He may have even thought he was in charge, but he had to have known the dog was running the show.

This was the most innocent of con jobs, but I wasn’t fooled and never took my eyes off the dog as it dragged its owner past me.

Then there was a con of a different sort—intentional, but not meant to harm—much—but certainly meant to deceive.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Which is it? Deal-maker or you're fired?

President Trump ran on two slogans: “Build the Wall” and “Make American Great Again.” The second could mean different things to different people and can’t be measured qualitatively, which made it the perfect campaign slogan.

Building a wall will either happen or it won’t. We’ll know when we see it.

Both, however, are primarily slogans meant to grab one’s attention.

The actual persona that Trump presented to voters, the personality that he hoped would endear him to his supporters were summed up in another phrase, “You’re Fired!” The man who utters these words as easily and frequently as cowboys used to say “Howdy” was going to turn Washington on its heels, make bureaucrats tremble in their comfy sofas. In short, to use another slogan that can’t be qualitatively measured, he was going to drain the swamp—and it would be a good thing.

You’re-fired-Trump also claimed to be deal-maker-Trump who was going to get deals done, by hook or by crook—and if that phrase wasn’t invented by him, it should have been. The point is, if you weren’t working with him, you would be gone.

He’s fired Yates and Bharara from Justice, Flynn and McMasters from NSA, Comey and McCabe from FBI, Spicer, Priebus, Scaramucci and Bannon from his staff, Shulkin from Veterans, and Tillerson from State, not to mention a host of lower administrators. He’s threatened to fire others and many have left before they could be fired. Others have left before their reputations were tattered. Nevertheless, he hasn’t let his supporters down—except for the ones, he’s fired, of course.

Just as big-time department stores are biting the bullet and probably vanishing forever, Trump is re-acquainting a younger generation with the term, revolving door. You’re-fired-Trump is every bit the man that was advertised. Deal-maker-Trump is another story—or maybe it was just a story to begin with.

Making a deal when you have all the money isn’t that great a challenge. It comes down to, “Do it my way, or I’ll find someone else.” Essentially, “You’re fired.”

The challenge to making deals comes when you don’t hold all the cards. Finding solutions to tough or even unsolvable problems, enticing people to do what they don’t want to do, instead of simply finding someone else to do it.

Deal-maker-Trump the must have stayed in New York because we’ve yet to see deal-maker-Trump in Washington. His deals are almost non-existent.

There’s the judge, of course, but that’s more McConnell’s dirty work than Trump. All the heavy lifting was done while the 2016 campaign was still taking place. Had the nation elected a chimpanzee who could sign his name, the result would have been the same.

“Repeal and Replace” was dying a painful death when it was finally taken off of life support, but there was never anything there to begin with.

The only other accomplishment coming out of Trump’s first year was the “Tax Cut, Cut, Cut” bill, as he described it. It rewarded billionaires and the companies that made them billionaires and added another trillion to the deficit. Deal-maker-Trump knew it stunk and even as he signed it into law, swore he would not sign another bill like this again. So much for closing ceremonies.

As for the other challenges facing this administration, all the ones that were there when he took over are still there, and he bears much of the responsibility for that.

DACA, the easiest to solve, keeps dying because Trump can’t leave well enough, alone, or as Senator Schumer says, “He can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

Infrastructure just needs a shove in the right direction, but Trump can’t seem to find his bearings.

About the best we can say about North Korea is that it is always there when the president needs it, but the problem isn’t going anywhere.

His plan for Syria is to lob a missile at them to show he means business and then get the hell out of there before the bills come due.

When it comes to wheeling and dealing, the best he has done is weaseling out of the deals our nation has already made or was about to make.

Paris Climate Accords—“We’ll see. Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll let you know.”

TPP—“No way.”

NAFTA—“Don’t like it. Never have.”

Iran Nuclear Treaty—“A very bad deal. I’m prepared to throw it away, but don’t tell North Korea least not yet.

He’s decided to impose tariffs on the bad guys, but those didn’t require much discussion—certainly none that he had with his own advisors.

He’s turned back the clock on a lot of regulations, a lot of policy, driven away a lot of allies—the people we’ve always made deals with. He continues to hold out hope that relations with Russia can improve, but he has almost singlehandedly sabotaged that effort by his own insecurities or miss-dealing.

“The Art of the Deal” was supposedly ghost-written. Given his reputation for reading and his inability to write anything longer than 144 characters, I believe this. What may also be true is that deal-maker-Trump is also a ghost, and all we have sitting in the Oval Office is “You’re fired-Trump” 


Sunday, March 18, 2018

One Cold River


       The summer trip from our home in Rochester, New York to my mother’s childhood home in Lowell, Massachusetts was an annual event. But the way we went about it was almost never the same.      

       In the early years, we took the train and experienced almost all of the emotions that could be experienced. The joy of continually exhausting the supply of those conical water-cooler Dixie cups that couldn’t provide enough water to keep a gnat alive. The thrill of running up and down the cars, and up and down between the cars virtually—if you believe the stories passed down—turning the train into our own personal playground.

       We’d manage to get sick numerous times in the course of the thirteen hour trip. The conductors were so frustrated by our antics that they’d warn mom the railroad would not be responsible for any injury we sustained. Mom had to be plum tired at journey’s end of both entertaining us and simultaneously trying to keep us from hurting ourselves or anyone else.

       So in time uncle Jack began driving out to Rochester to pick us up, bringing us to Lowell, then returning us home and finally returning home himself.  In 1957, we got our first car, a Ford Fairlane, and a whole new world opened up—and didn’t; because in spite of our new freedom many things stayed the same.

   For one thing, the trip still took about thirteen hours driving—only now it was spread over two days.  We still managed to get sick at some point, and often at many points.  Even though the New York State Thruway opened up in the same year, mom always preferred to take the old roads—routes 20 in New York and 2 in Massachusetts.  These two roads were the reason we could never make up any time on the train.

       There was never any question but that the 400-mile trip would take two days with a stopover usually in eastern New York—more likely than not at the Auriesville shrine in Fultonville, New York. This was the home of North America’s first martyrs, French Jesuits killed by the Mohawk Indians in the 1640’s and the birthplace 10 years later of Kateri Tekakwitha as these same Mohawks had a change of heart. 

       We always enjoyed this stopover but the next day it would be on the road again and an endless succession of small town after small town and a journey that seemed to never end.  There was one other bright spot though.

       Outside of Williamsport in the northwest part of Massachusetts, we’d make our annual stop at what we all believed to be the coldest river in the world—keeping in mind that our world at that time consisted of the states of New York and Massachusetts.  Still the river was cold and we would always stop there and take off our shoes and socks and jump from one slippery rock to another.

       I remember asking mom the name of the river and her replying that it was the Cold River. I have always believed that calling it, the Cold River was quite a coincidence or suspiciously—something she had just made that up because she could get away with it.

       Except that there was more.  Back in the car and on the road again, as I left the river I saw this sign.  Now that’s as good as it gets. Sorry mom for ever doubting you.
 I was in that area recently and stopped at the river, and took off my shoes and socks, and again, for old time’s sake hopped from one slippery rock to the next and thoroughly enjoyed myself and thought to myself that this was as good as it gets.
Except that there was more.  Back in the car and on the road again, as I left the river I saw this sign.  Now that’s as good as it gets. Sorry mom forever doubting you.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Pictures Aren’t the Only Things that Gets Old

      When you’re young, you never think about getting older. Nothing earth shaking there.  
 When I was 20 and in my second year of college, this is how I assessed the previous two decades. I was currently in college and before that, I was in high school, which didn’t go by too quickly. Prior to that, I was in Catholic school for two years, which seemed like forever and in public elementary school for seven years and before that I was doing nothing for about five years and it all just seemed like a very long time. I figured I had at least three more of that time frames ahead of me and if they all went as slowly as the first 20-year span, I would be around for what would at least seem, like forever. If I got a bonus 20 years or some part thereof, which I fully expected, then all the better.
When I turned 25 I refigured the numbers to conclude I had two more repeats of that time frame plus a good chunk of a third one, if I played my cards right. I was in the army at the time and time was passing like parade rest. Again, I was satisfied with the way the numbers were panning out.
Around this time, an acquaintance asked a favor of me. Rene, a barmaid at The Tiki Girls and a bit of a vagabond, asked a favor.
“Could you hold on to this picture for me? It’s the only picture I have of my two daughters and I don’t want to lose it.”
I took the picture and put it away in a safe place. A year or so later, she moved to San Luis Obispo and I heard she got married. A short time after this, I was discharged from the army and had to return to Rochester, New York on short notice. The Sergeant Major I worked for stored my stuff in his garage. When I did return to California the following year, it was to Long Beach, not San Pedro.
I knew a few people still in San Pedro and would go back every now and then to see if anyone had heard from Rene. No one had.
I met a California girl in Long Beach and we were married in 1976. I was 30 years old and a lot of stuff had happened in those 30 years and I figured I had a good shot at not one but at least two more 30-year repeats of what, again, seemed like a slow moving stretch.
We moved to the Outer Banks and then to Virginia Beach. By 1986, we had three children, ages 6, 4, and 2. I was 40 and believe me, a lot had happened in those forty years. It seemed like a very long time and if I could somehow finagle doubling that and stealing a few extra years I thought that would be very good, very good indeed. Our family had a professional picture taken one time and it reminded me very much of the picture of Rene’s two girls that were stored away in a footlocker. 
Surely, she could never have forgotten the picture. And it wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t find me and it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t find her but somehow it doesn’t seem right that that picture is sitting in a footlocker in my attic.
This year I will turn 66 and I’m thinking in fractions now and not multiples. I think Rene might be in her 70’s if she is still alive. She wasn’t taking good care of herself when I knew her, but maybe her second marriage brought a little normalcy to her life. The picture in my footlocker is over 40 years old which means the two girls are almost twice as old as I was when Rene gave them to me for safe-keeping.
I tell myself that there are probably other portraits of the girls. Still, the one in my attic is the only first one.
How the hell does time get away from us? So many things are repeated over and over, vacations after vacations after vacations; soccer games and softball games and track meets; elementary school graduations, middle school graduations, high school, junior college, regular college, more college; moves—my God, I must have moved or helped someone else move at least fifty times in my life.
Yet her one singular request that required but one responding action to close the deal goes unfulfilled for 40 years. 
I could—and probably should—bring the picture to the thrift store. I see pictures in antique stores all the time that are homeless and probably shouldn’t be and I bet they all have a story to tell but I can’t do that?
I know what else I can’t do. I can’t throw it away. She asked me to hold it for her and that is what I will do. I’m keeping up my end of the bargain but something about that doesn’t feel so good.
I also know something else. I know I probably won’t be holding on to this portrait for another 40 years. I’ll never be this young again.