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.




Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Rocks and Hard Places

           These rocks were a short walk from the King's Cross District in Sydney. Fighting the
            strong undertow to get back to them was a real "rock/hard place" dilemma.
We’re all familiar with that place between a rock and a hard place. We’ve all been there or thought we’ve been there, only to discover the rock wasn’t that big nor the place that hard.

Matters turned out to be not that serious. Stakes were found to be not that high. Consequences we realized were not that consequential.

This got me to thinking about a real “between a rock and a hard place” moment. One that might be experienced by God, the ultimate judge, as individuals stand before Him awaiting judgement.

In the case of most people, He can probably perform this task with His eyes closed, conceding for the moment that He can probably perform every task with His eyes closed, or might not even have any eyes. Nevertheless, it is His job to put everyone somewhere and it can’t always be easy.

Ordinarily, you’d think He’d take this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision in stride. The Bible is dog-gone specific in terms of what we can and cannot do. After all, He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-just and as far as we know, up all night. So nothing is getting past him.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Learning New Math in the Desert

The trip had started in Rochester NY, when I answered the ad of a girl looking for someone to ride with her to the west coast. My final destination was Long Beach.

This particular day had started in Cheyenne and my thumbing had begun in Little America, the biggest truck stop in the country after she’d dropped me off to head further north.

And this particular leg of the journey had begun on the dirty, slushy streets in the south side of Salt Lake City.

The pickup stopped and the driver said he was headed south on Rt. 15. My four or five previous rides, dragged out over a four-hour period, couldn’t have taken me fifty miles all told. At last I had a ride that was going somewhere. 

The first thing I observed getting into the truck was the case of oil on the floor. The second thing was a bottle of whiskey on the seat.

If you want to make a living driving the interstates you have to have a routine. If you just eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired you’ll never survive the long haul. This man had a routine.

 About every thirty miles he would pull over, throw the hood up and pour a quart of oil into the smoking engine.  Then he would get back in and throw a swig of whiskey down his throat and we’d be back on the road again.

In between fill-ups, I learned that he worked for the power company and was heading back to his home in Arizona. At least that’s what he said. I never knew the real story about the drivers who picked me up just like the drivers never knew the true story about me.  Hitch hiking is a good time to try out lies to see which ones fly.

He said he worked for the power company and that was fine with me. All I cared about was that Rt. 15 would take me right into LA and had already decided to leave him whenever he left Rt. 15.

But there was a problem. All those rides in the morning that didn’t go anywhere had used up a lot of time and it was now getting late, and worse, it was getting dark; and I hadn’t really seen a city since we left Salt Lake. I really didn’t have a plan other then jumping from the car if he ever got so drunk that he drove off the road and flipped over.

That’s when he told me his plan—or part of his plan. As he pulled off of Rt. 15 onto a smaller road and I was just to ask him to let me out, he spoke up.

“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck getting a ride on Rt. 15 tonight,” he said. “Not from here but I have a better idea for you.”

He told me he was going to get me to a place where I would have no trouble getting a ride. The only problem I had with that plan was that the road he turned onto seemed to be going deeper into the mountains. It was beginning to get dark and it seemed that our’s was the only car on the highway. In the distance I could see the lights of a house or two scattered here or there but they were few and far between. If this weren’t enough to cause me to worry the engine was smoking more and he was getting on a pretty good buzz.

I thought I was in for trouble but I didn’t know what kind of trouble and how much trouble. It was around this time, as my worries were mounting, that he began talking about politics and education and Russia and Russian education. I didn’t know whom I was dealing with and was barely paying attention to him as I tried to pick out anything in the passing landscape that might come in handy down the road.

We were definitely in the middle of nowhere, and by nowhere I mean total and absolute blackness—with just a truly breathtaking number of stars shining down from above and the light from his headlights that seemed to reach out all of twenty feet ahead of us. This is when the thought occurred to me that except for his truck and the dinky light illuminating from it, this is the sight I would have seen a hundred million years ago, traveling along the same landscape.

I was trying to plan ahead on how I would grab the whiskey bottle if I had to and whether I would be able to hit him hard enough to knock him out—and could I get control of the wheel when he informed me that actually the best thing to do would be to stay with him in his trailer overnight and get a early start the next morning.  This trailer, he explained, was about half way between his home in Arizona and Salt Lake City. 

Now I was really kicking myself for not getting out when I had the chance but kicking myself was pretty much all I could.

We drove for a couple more hours leaving one road after another for smaller, bumpier, more isolated ones until finally at last we arrived at his trailer and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

We were in Salina, a small town on the edge of Fishlake National Forest.  He pulled his truck next to a trailer parked in a small court just off the road.  He put some stuff in the trailer and then we walked to a little bar down the road that could have come right out of “Gunsmoke.” 

There were no chairs or stools at the bar, yet that is where he chose to eat.  We ordered up some chow, ate it standing up, had a few drinks and talked to the locals who all seemed to know him.  He really was a lineman for the county and I was beginning to feel better about the whole situation. 

It was here that he reintroduced the subject of Russian education—particularly math.  It seems their way of adding and multiplying was better than our way but he could only vaguely remember how their way went.  We worked on it at the bar and then went back to his trailer to work on it some more.  Through a process of trial and error we finally figured out how they did it. 

Seems instead of going from right to left and carrying a lot of numbers back and forth, they start at the left and just kind of kept a running number in their head.

I’ve read several articles explaining the system since then but this was the first time I had ever heard of it.  By the time we went to sleep that night we were both pretty drunk and doing any math by any system would have been hard.  Still, considering what I thought I was getting into just a few hours earlier, everything worked out pretty well.

He had a bed over his that had a clearance all of a foot and a half but I had no trouble falling asleep.  He told me not to wake him up in the morning.  He said all I had to do was get on the road outside the trailer and I would have no trouble getting a ride. 

He was right.  The first car arrived about five minutes after I did and the driver said he was going to LA.  We made one stop in Las Vegas so he could place one bet and by nightfall, I was back in LA.