Monday, October 9, 2017

Nova Scotia Wines: Discovering the Tidal Bays - Dispatches from Canada

Dateline: Grand Pre / Gaspereau River Valley, Nova Scotia

I had no idea Nova Scotia was known for it wines when I first visited the province in 1995. On that trip we happened upon Jost Vineyards located near Malagash, in the rolling hill country not far for the picturesque coastal inlets of the Northumberland shore opposite Prince Edward Island. A pioneer of the Nova Scotia wine industry, Jost Vineyards produces many distinctive wines which have won numerous national and international awards. I recall tasting several of them on that visit years ago. Today it is Nova Scotia’s largest wine producer and has joined the Mercator and Gaspereau vineyards, near Wolfville and Grand Pre and the shores of the Bay of Fundy, to create the province’s Devonian Coast Wineries. My itinerary for this trip did not include a return to the Northumberland Shore, but I was able to purchase two bottles of 2015 Marechal Foch, a fruit driven, medium bodied red, at the Nova Scotia Welcome Center on the Trans Canada Highway. A good start.

This latest trip to the province provided an opportunity to visit the other two Devonian Coast vineyards. Mercator Vineyards, in Wolfville, is devoted to making extraordinary wines in limited edition. Unfortunately the town was jammed with tourists out on a beautiful autumn day and so I did not tarry there. The real prize is Gaspereau Vineyards, in the Gaspereau River Valley, in the heart of the Acadian homeland made famous by Evangeline, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s epic poem. It was here in 1755, at the beginning of the Seven Years War, that the British set in motion the "grand dérangement," the expulsion of over ten thousand French speaking Acadians to Europe and several of its American colonies (although not to Louisiana as many believe). Many returned to this area after the end of that war, in 1763, and it is once again a vibrant Acadian community.

But this is not a history lesson. I’m here to talk to you about wine. Great wine! Normally I am a drinker of reds (hence the purchase of the bottles of Marechal Foch), and only rarely do I give whites their fair due. I have enjoyed many white wines over the years, especially when I was living in Germany, but I have drifted away from them since then. I just find reds more interesting; a personal preference and nothing more. So I was prepared to taste reds when I arrived at the Gaspereau Vineyards which is known for its rich variety of robust reds. Before I got started, however, I inquired about some of the other wines and was rather curious about the "Tidal Bay Flight" which, as it turned out, is an opportunity to sample the Tidal Bay offerings from all three Devonian Coast Wineries . . . a treat since I was unable to visit Jost on this trip and Mercator was hard to reach through all the tourist traffic.

Melody, the very pleasant young lady who was assisting me, was happy sing the praises of Tidal Bay. Officially launched in the summer of 2012, Tidal Bay is the first wine appellation for Nova Scotia. Unlike most other wine regions, where an appellation is defined by a specific geographic region, the Tidal Bay appellation applies to Nova Scotia as a whole and vineyards throughout the province produce their own variations.

Melody described it as a generally crisp and aromatic white wine which is a master of the Nova Scotia terroir with its cool climate and the influence of the sea throughout the province. Melody was quick to point out, however, that not just any white wine can qualify for the Tidal Bay appellation. To obtain this designation, a wine must be produced using specific grape varieties grown in Nova Scotia. Production through bottling must also follow strictly enforced standards approved annually by an independent blind tasting panel consisting of winemakers, sommeliers and wine experts.
So I passed on the reds and sampled the Tidal Bay Flight and was impressed with all three, but favoring the Gaspereau. And why not? It was awarded the Double Gold in the 2017 All Canadian Wine Championships; the Silver Medal at the 2017 National Wine Awards of Canada; and Best in Class for Tidal Bays at the 2017 Atlantic Canadian Wine Awards. I liked it so much so that I purchased two bottles.

Afterwards I drove just a short distance to the Luckett Vineyard where I did tastes their reds, but not before I enjoyed a lovely lunch overlooking the vineyards and the Bay of Fundy in the distance (where I took the above photograph) . . . a tasty seafood bake washed down with a glass of Luckett’s own Tidal Bay which pairs nicely with the local seafood. I added a bottle to the two I purchased at Gaspereau Vineyards.

I would have tasted them all over the valley, but I was traveling alone and I had an hour drive back to Halifax. The upside . . . I have three bottles of Tidal Bay and two Marechal Fochs to enjoy at my leisure. I can live with that.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Canadian Thanksgiving - Dispatches from Canada

Dateline: Halifax/Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Tomorrow is Canada’s Thanksgiving Day, a statutory holiday on the second Monday of October throughout the country (except for the four Atlantic Canada provinces where it is observed, but not officially). That said, most folks here in Nova Scotia seem to be celebrating it today. This is my first Canadian Thanksgiving, and having no specific plans, I spent it exploring more of the North Atlantic coastline near Halifax. I saw lots of people out enjoying an unseasonably warm day and the stunning autumn colors before returning home to a holiday meal this evening.

Other than being in early October, Canada’s Thanksgiving is celebrated much like we do at home in the USA on the fourth Thursday of November. In fact, the holiday was brought north of the border by Americans seeking refuge from the Civil War at home, and it was celebrated in November until 1957 when it was moved to its present date. There are traditional sporting events. There is turkey and stuffing, pumpkins and other seasonal produce, and pies of every description. And like our holiday, Canadians gather with family and friends to celebrate the beginning of autumn and the harvest season before the onset of a long, cold winter. Still, the celebration in Canada is relatively low key. Nothing fancy. No bells and whistles. No Thanksgiving cards. No holiday displays in the stores. None of what we are used to these days in the States.

I’ll be honest. I think I like the Canadian version better because it has remained traditional without all the frills that we have come to expect during our celebration which has become a four-day holiday and the biggest travel weekend of the year. Add to this the fact that Thanksgiving also marks the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the USA even though I have seen Christmas decorations in stores since early July 4! Americans seem more interested in seeking out bargains at the malls than spending a pleasant day with their friends and families. Stores are open and people have to work. What kind of a holiday is that? What are we really giving thanks for anyway?

So it was refreshing to be reminded of the true meaning and significance of Thanksgiving. Here’s wishing my Canadian family and friends a Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Halifax: A Novel Idea - Dispatches from Canada

Dateline: Halifax/Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Back in January 2013 I participated in The Next Big Thing, the blog interview. The format was very simple . . . answer ten questions about a recently completed, or current writing project. I chose the draft manuscript for a novel-in-progress . . . at the time my first. I am presently in Halifax - my third visit in the past six years - to continue my work on that particular novel project. In the meantime, however, I have just completed the first draft of another novel (now my first). Now that I have returned in earnest to that earlier novel project, I decided to revisit those previous questions and I have updated my responses where necessary. So here goes . . . .ten interview questions for "The Next Big Thing":

1. What is your working title of your book (or story)?

A Gentle Whisper. The title is taken from 1 Kings 19:12. "And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper."

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I took a spur of the moment road trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia during the summer of 2011 at which time I came up with the germ of an idea for a novel. I returned to Halifax in early 2012 when I explored the possibilities further and began to map out in my mind where I wanted the story to go. For the past five years I have been conducting extensive research, outlining chapters and drafting character studies and narrative summaries.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It is a novel - a Bildungsroman - constructed of several sections divided into chapters. I would consider it more literary than popular fiction.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

There are a great many characters in the novel covering a period of time from 1914 through 2001. Much of the narrative is set in the late 1990s in Europe, Canada and New England. I see the main characters from this period being played by Matt Damon, Jennifer Lawrence as Susanna Emerson, Shawna Waldron (she played the daughter in The American President [1995] . . . she’s all grown up), and Anthony Hopkins. There are a series of flashbacks to World War I and the great Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917. These are peopled with a rich variety of characters, and my wife insists that I come up with a few to be played by George Clooney, Harrison Ford, Liam Niessen, and Viggo Mortensen.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The main story line revolves around an American historian attempting to write a book about the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I hope to publish through an established publishing house or small press.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I am currently deep in that process.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising (1941), Robert MacNeil’s The Burden of Desire (1992), and Jennie Marsland’s Shattered (2011). All three of these novels, written by Canadian authors, use the Halifax explosion as a focal point of the narrative although their individual denouements are widely varied. As far as I know, I am the first to construct a novel on the subject from a mostly American perspective.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My visits to Halifax, Nova Scotia over the past six years and my readings on the Halifax explosion and its place in modern Canadian history and culture.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

They might find the balancing of foreshadowing and flashbacks interesting as they both lend verisimilitude to the suffering of the people of Canada, and especially Halifax, during World War I.

Having gone back through these questions today I find that they still ring true. I guess that is a good sign. I did add a couple more names of actors my wife would like to see in the film treatment of the novel (ah, to dream). We did not discuss these additions, but I have known her for 46 years and I am pretty sure I am on safe ground here.

I spent yesterday on the Halifax waterfront doing research, and tomorrow I return to the waterfront and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, as well as spend some time on the harbor ferries to get a feel for the place from the water. All of this will help when I am sitting in my study in Maryland this winter trying to capture the feel of this city 100 years ago.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Free Day: Deeper In Country - Dispatches from Canada

Dateline: Halifax/Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

I spent much of today in the car driving the breath of New Brunswick and a couple more hours into Nova Scotia, from St. Andrews, near the US border, to Halifax which was my ultimate destination.

I was in no big rush to get here and so this morning I took a leisurely drive along the Bay of Fundy coastline as far at Saint John, visiting several more fishing communities along the way. In was early enough in the day that the tide was high and vessels were riding quietly at the moorings. I have been at these same harbors at low tide when the boats were tilted far over on their sides and resting on dry ground. You have to carefully time your comings and goings or you are out of luck until the next high tide. There are only two each day. Such is life on the Bay of Fundy with some of the highest tides on earth

Reaching Saint John, I turned northeast into the beautiful hill country with its farms and forests rich with autumn colors. They are reaching their peak this far north. I eventually joined the Trans Canada Highway near Moncton, the province’s largest city, and from there I continued east into Nova Scotia, passing large wind farms at the head of the Bay of Fundy before crossing the so-called "Cobequid Pass" although there is no official geographic feature by that name in the Cobequid Mountains (more like high hills . . . the highest elevation is ca. 1200 feet). The moniker comes from the a joint private-public Crown corporation that manages the toll section of the highway going through the "pass." Here especially the rock maples and birch are brilliant orange and gold. For a second day in a row I crossed the 45th Parallel, this time at Stewiacke, between Truro and Halifax.

So it was a free day; getting from one place to another without much time to focus on anything but driving. But is was free, too, in that I did not have to pay for any of my meals! I returned to the local Tim Horton’s this morning before I left St. Andrews. I was having a nice chat with a fellow from British Columbia who once worked at the Canadian embassy in Washington. He was kind enough to pay for my donut and coffee. Then I stopped for gas around 1pm at an Irving station at Norton, New Brunswick. I visited what appeared to be a newly remodeled WC and upon exiting I was confronted by an attractive young lady who was taking a survey on public reaction to the new design and decor. I gladly answered her questions and for my time and trouble I received a $5 gift card which paid for the sandwich I planned to buy for lunch. On top of that, the cashier gave me a small rubber ducky for visiting the Irving station. Following my arrival in Halifax this evening I went out for a late dinner. I had to wait what seemed like an inordinately long time to both order and to receive my dinner. When I did, it was cold. They made good, and the second meal was just fine. But they "compted" my entire bill, nevertheless. So it was a free day in every way possible.

I gotta come to Canada more often. They really seem to like me up here.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Looking Into Yesterday - Dispatches from Canada

Dateline: St Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, Canada

Last night at midnight I drove the few blocks from my motel to Joe’s Point, on the banks of Pottery Cove and the St. Croix River. From there I stared across the dark waters to a few scattered lights along the far shore - Robbinston, Maine. The good old USA. I had been looking at the America shoreline ever since I arrived here in St. Andrews, New Brunswick yesterday afternoon. A river dividing two countries. Yet at midnight it took on a new mystique. I was standing on the Canadian shoreline at midnight, in the Atlantic Time zone, and I was staring across to Maine where it was 11pm, in the Eastern Time Zone. I was looking into yesterday. I am reminded of stories I have read about ships operating along the International Date Line, in the Pacific Ocean. Those on the west side of the line looking east were looking toward tomorrow; those on the east side of the line looked west toward yesterday. Standing there I imagined someone standing across the water looking my direction . . . into tomorrow, and I wondered what it would be like to stand on the border with a foot on each side of the line . . . one foot in yesterday, the other in tomorrow. No bending of the space-time continuum, but it was weird to think about this on a cold midnight in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

This morning I awoke to the horrific news of another heinous mass killing in the USA, this time on the Las Vegas Strip. There are 59 confirmed dead as I write this with over 500 injured, many of them critically. I watched the TV reports here in Canada where this kind of thing does not happen because this country has sane gun control laws without usurping its citizens' right to bear arms responsibly. The USA could have them too if our leaders were not in bed with the NRA. Those who arm terrorists, or turn a blind eye to this marketing in arms, are terrorist themselves. There is blood on all their hands this morning. Every morning. I ask myself why I should even go home again. The USA is becoming unrecognizable as is continues to sink into insignificance. I wish I could really look back to yesterday before yet one more insanity was perpetrated on innocent Americans.

Upon my arrival here in St. Andrews yesterday, I settled into my cozy motel room and set off exploring this quaint little town. I was last here in August 1995 when my wife and son and I were returning to Maine from a trip to Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. It is much as I remembered it. I spent the evening walking along Water Street looking in the shop and gallery windows, and stopping in a couple eateries to sample the local salmon washed down with some fine Canadian beers - Alexander Keith’s IPA from Halifax, and Alpine from nearby Saint John. I walked out on the town wharf to get a closer look at the harbor at low tide which twice daily drops almost 30 feet below the high water mark. I topped off the day with a visit to the ancient blockhouse, one of the few left intact in Canada, to watch the sunset. Here British troops stood guard during the war with the United States, 1812-1814. A feared American invasion never materialized yet cannons are still aimed across the water at the USA.

This morning I joined a Canadian ritual . . . donuts and coffee at a local Tim Hortons . . . and I was lucky enough to arrive just before a busload of leaf peepers setting off for a day along the Bay of Fundy coastline. I was headed in the same direction to explore the Fundy islands at the head of Passamaquoddy Bay. I followed the coast to St. George before turning south to Back Bay and L’Etete where I boarded the Abnaki II, a free ferry operated by the provincial government, for the twenty minute trip from the mainland among forested islets to Lords Cove, on the eastern tip of Deer Island.

It is one of the Fundy Islands, along with Campobello Island, at the entrance to Passamaquoddy Bay. Along with Lords Cove, there are two other small communities - Fairhaven and Leonardville - each with their own wharves and fishing fleets. The economy is primarily fishing and aquaculture although tourism is important during the summer season. Settled by Loyalists in 1770 the island population is roughly 1000 although I had to look hard to find anybody out and about today. Not much going on around there in the off season. Most of the fishing boats were tied up and lobster traps were stacked on the wharves and floating docks.

Located on its southernmost point is Deer Island Point Park where there is a seasonal campground and picnic area. From here you can look across the short distance of water to Eastport and Lubec, in Maine. They are the easternmost city and town in the continental United States respectively. There is also Campobello Island, and on a clear day such as this one you can see the Roosevelt "cottage" above its northern shoreline near the island village of Welshpool. These waters are the home of Old Sow, the largest tidal whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere. Several gray seals were playing in the swirling waters.

I had hoped to enjoy some local seafood at the 45th Parallel Restaurant (half way between the Equator and the North Pole). Unfortunately it was closed despite all the open signs scattered about. So I made my way back Lords Cove and boarded the ferry Princess II for the trip back to the mainland. I continued over to Blacks Harbour which is the northern terminus for the year-round ferry to Grand Manan Island situated 20 miles to the south. This whole region is the center of a thriving aquaculture industry.

It was a long day and I was happy to return to St. Andrews for more salmon and local brews. I looked into yesterday. Now I am happy to just look forward to tomorrow.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Heading Down East - Dispatches from Canada

Dateline: St Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, Canada

After three months at our lake cottage in Maine, I departed early this morning for points north and east.  My trip today took me through central Maine to Bangor where I crossed the Penobscot River.  From there I traveled across the Airline Highway (State Route 9) to Calais [CAL-us] and the Canadian border.

There are essentially five ways to reach Canada through Maine.  There is the coastal route along US Highway One, and although very scenic in many spots, it is a slow slog through numerous towns clogged with traffic, much of it headed toward Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.  Once past there, however, the traffic dies down but it is still a long, slow trip.  Then there is Interstate 95 up past Houlton, but this would put me far north of where I want to be once I got to Canada.  My favorite is Route 9, and the obe I followed today, is the so-called “Airline Highway.”  Approximately 100 miles from Bangor to Calais, it is the shortest and most direct route to the Canadian border.  And whereas there is relatively less traffic on the Airline Highway than found on the other two main routes, much of what you do encounter is large logging trucks barreling toward their destinations.  The final two routes are State Route 27 from Farmington up through Coburn Gore entering Québec near Lac Mégantic, in the Eastern Townships south of the St. Lawrence River, and US Highway 201 through Skowhegan and Jackman that leads into Québec’s Beauce region and St. Georges, on the Chaudière River south of Québec City.  Neither of these routes would take me anywhere close to where I needed to be today. 
I wanted to get to Canada as quickly as possible . . . especially since I lost an hour   entering the Atlantic Time Zone when I crossed the St. Croix River from Calais, Maine into St. Stephen, New Brunswick.  Once you leave Bangor and begin driving along the southern bank of the Penobscot River, you don’t see much of anything except trees, more trees, and the occasional marshy bogs populated with thick stands of bleached deadwood amongst the living trees. This is the silver lining in taking this route given the fact that the autumn colors . . . the red maples and the golden birch scattered among the spruce and balsam . . . are reaching their zenith in Down East Maine now that October is here.  Who can complain about driving through millions of trees decked out in their fall finery?  This is lonely country where the townships have numerical designations rather than proper names.  Very few people live there.

I arrived in Calais in the early afternoon.  A beautiful, cloudless sunny day with temperatures hovering in the high 50s (the thermometer dipped below the freezing mark for the first time overnight).   After brief and very friendly Canadian border formalities I ran some errands and then continued to my day’s destination.  I am spending the next two nights here in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.  Founded in 1783 by American Loyalists, this shire town of Charlotte County is situated on the southern end of a narrow peninsula separating the boundary waters at the mouth of the St. Croix River and the northern extension of Passamaquoddy Bay.  It has been several years since I was last here and I am looking forward to a casual day exploring the town and the nearby islands situated in Canadian boundary waters. 

It will be another two weeks before I return to the USA.  Frankly, I am in no big hurry to get back.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Final Sunset: Farewell to Another Summer in Maine

Another summer has come and gone and I sit here wondering where the time went. Summer had just begun when we arrived here at Sunset Cottage, on Sabbathday Lake, in New Gloucester, Maine. The trees were a vibrant green, folks were beginning to put their docks and boats in the water, and the lake was coming alive with its summertime traffic. And now we are a week deep into autumn and the docks and boats are coming out and cottages are being shuttered at the end of the season. Each day there is more color in the leaves and some are already beginning to fall as are acorns and pine cones while chipmunks and squirrels skitter about gathering up nuts to stock their larders for the long winter that is not too far off. It was only 39F when I got up this morning, and I have had a fire going in the woodstove much of the day.

Since our arrival we have watched the evening sunsets migrate southward along the far shore of the lake. We are indeed lucky to have a cottage situated where it is, and the decks provide the best show in town when the weather cooperates. No two sunsets are ever alike as the several hundred photographs I have taken over the past thirty years will attest.

It has been both a quiet and a productive summer. We had quite a bit of rain when we first arrived and many days were quite breezy, too much so to enjoy a lot of time outdoors. And the weather has seemed cooler than summers past, and the lake water felt downright cold most of the time which limited time spent drifting about in the cove. So it was hard to believe when the temperatures crept into the low 90s with high humidity over the past week. It certainly helped SallyAnn acclimatize for her trip to Florida. But those hot days are just a memory now.

But this is not the end. Normally, when we leave the lake, we head for our winter home in Maryland where, if we are lucky, we are able to enjoy one more approach of autumn as trees throughout the Mid-Atlantic take on their fall hues. Such is not the case this year, however. SallyAnn left a few days ago for Florida and shortly she and her mother will be heading to St. Louis to begin a paddle boat cruise up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, Minnesota. I am certain she will see her fair share of Midwest autumnal colors along the way.

I, on the other hand, depart tomorrow for Down East Maine where I will cross into Atlantic Canada for several days. I will travel the breath of New Brunswick and into Nova Scotia where I will spend a week in and around Halifax working on a new novel set in that city. After that I will head father north into eastern Québec, traveling down along the St. Lawrence River via Québec City to Montréal. From there I will wander through my beloved Eastern Townships before returning to the USA. I also plan to spend a couple of nights at my favorite lodge, in far northern New Hampshire, before returning here to the lake for a couple nights to close up, packing up for the final trip home to Maryland.

It has been a good summer although it went by far too quickly.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Enough is Enough!

My father fought against the Nazis in WWII. His unit liberated a concentration camp. He won a Bronze Star for his service. I prosecuted Nazis and their collaborators for almost 32 years. I have visited concentation camps. I know a thing or two about Nazis. None of them are nice people. The only ones who think so are other Nazis and their ilk. Lesson over.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Forever Young - The JFK Centennial

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States (1961-1963) was born on this date one hundred years ago.  

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Awaking Happy in Africa – Dispatches from South Africa

Ernest Hemingway was onto something when he confessed that he never knew a morning in Africa when he awoke and was not happy. Before arriving here I would have questioned if such a thing were possible. I’ll stand by it now.

I have arisen happy each day since our arrival. From our first morning in country, when we set off for a drive through central Johannesburg to teeming Soweto, the black township situated on the southwestern edge of the city; to the mornings in Brits, in the shadows of the Magaliesberg in northern Gauteng province near the national capital of Pretoria in the Cradle of Humankind, when we set off to spend time with elephants and monkeys; to the chilly mornings near Dullstroom, high up on the western fringes of the Drakensberg Escarpment in Mpumalanga province, where we explored the Blythe River Canyon with its beautiful waterfalls and dramatic mountain scenery and where I had a chance to do some fly-fishing for native trout; to the early morning treks into the bushveld of the Kapama game preserve in Limpopo province, in South Africa’s far northeastern corner, where I watched the African wildlife come alive. Isak Deneson, writing in Out of Africa (1937), said: "You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions." I did not how true this is until I saw them with my own eyes in the natural habitat they share with elephants, Cape buffalo, white rhinos, and large herds of antelope and a variety of birds I had never seen before. I was happy right through to the evenings when we trekked out into the bush to watch how these animals end their day.

And now I arise happy on these mornings here in Cape Town and the West Cape, in the country’s most southwestern corner. I awake and watch the sun’s early light bathe the imposing face of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head while smelling the briny perfume of the South Atlantic as it laps the rocky shores of Mouille Point on Table Bay just outside our front door. It is autumn here in the southern hemisphere yet the weather is gorgeous . . . bright sunny days with low humidity and comfortable sea breezes blowing over the cold South Atlantic waters.

How could one not wake each morning in Africa with a smile on one’s face. The people I have met are so friendly and courteous and always willing to share a broad smile. To quote Ms Dinesen again: "Here I am, where I ought to be."

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Looking Toward the Antarctic - Dispatches from South Africa

Sally Ann and I arrived in South Africa eleven days ago. Since then we have spent time in and around Johannesburg, the country's largest city with 8+ million inhabitants. We toured the historic Soweto township on the city's outskirts, visiting the Nelson Mandela house and also seeing the current homes of Winnie Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. A single street in Soweto was home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates!

After a couple days in Gauteng province which is home to both Johannesburg and the capital city of Pretoria, where we visited an elephant and monkey sanctuary, as well as the Cradle of Humankind, we headed to the northeastern provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, visiting a fly fishing resort near Dullstroom where I caught a beautiful rainbow trout which the chef prepared for me for dinner one evening. And then on to the private Kapama game preserve near the Kruger National park for several days of game trekking in the lowveld bush country where our ranger and Shongaan tracker put us on several herds of impala, kudu, blesbok and other varieties of African antelope, not to mention four of the "Big Five" - elephants, Cape buffalo, white rhinos, and lions. Only the leopard proved elusive although we had a chance to have an up close and personal encounter with a pair at a game park near Johannesburg, including their feisty newborn cubs.

After an intense safari experience in the northeastern quadrant of South Africa (I'll be posting more about that so stay tuned) we returned to Johannesburg early yesterday morning to catch a two hour flight to the southwestern corner of the country . . . Cape Town and the West Cape. It is like being in a whole different country. We have rented a lovely little flat directly on the water on Green Point with a splendid view of Table Mountain and Lion's Head. This will be our home for the rest of the month until it comes time to head back to the States and our regular routine.

Last night, after settling into our flat, we took a short walk along the seaside promenade (see photo) and enjoyed our first Cape Town sunset. And then again this morning to the Green Point Light House (also pictured). The promenade is lined with palm trees and palmettos. From here - just a few miles north of the Cape of Good Hope - I can stare out into the South Atlantic knowing that the next land mass in Antarctica! The sunshine is intense and the air is warm - it is autumn here in the southern hemisphere, after all. But the water is remarkably cold.

Cape Town is a beautiful city. I could very easily get used to this lifestyle.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

More Notes from the Panic Hole

The following is the text of a guest blog posted today at Coös Networks, – – a community website serving the far northern precincts of New Hampshire.  Coös Networks has become an important meeting place for the exchanging ideas, sharing information, while "deepening relationships across disciplines and geography, and building regional vitality."  I thank Coös Networks for giving me an opportunity to contribute this guest blog.
“I have never seen a grander or more beautiful sight than the northern woods in winter.” With these words a young Theodore Roosevelt described his regular sojourns to a wilderness camp in northern Maine’s Aroostook County.  I could not agree with him more.  For the past several years I have been making regular trips to northern New Hampshire during the height of winter.  Trekking the ridges and hollows of the Great North Woods, hard on the Québec border has proven a palliative for whatever ails me at the time, and it has helped me put my life into perspective on more than one occasion.

Regardless of the season, this region has become my “panic hole” which, as defined by Gerald Vizenor, is a physical or mental place offering respite from the real or imagined pressures and stresses of daily life and the responsibilities that go with it.  Who could not use one of these?  Seven years ago, on one such winter trip, I trekked into the snowy back country above the Connecticut Lakes to consider retirement after a 32 year career with the Department of Justice, in Washington, DC.  What would the rest of my life hold for me?  The mind cleansed itself with each inhalation of the crisp, cold mountain air.  When asked why he liked the Middle Eastern deserts, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) supposedly replied: “Because it’s clean.”  The same can be said for the Great North Woods of New Hampshire in winter.  Trek into the snowy woods and you will not find anything so pristine . . . so clean . . . so quiet.  

Living as I do on the southern flank of the heavily urbanized megalopolis stretching from Washington, DC north to Boston, an occasional escape into the woods of rural New England helps lower the daily stress levels at home.   These trips always begin with a quick trip up to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the hour-long flight to Manchester.  As I wing north I watch the landscape below gradually turn white announcing the winterscape I am in search of.  Leaving Manchester I continue north through the White Mountains and “above the notches” into the Great North Woods to the roof top of New Hampshire.  I can feel the stress ratchet down the farther north I travel.  When folks back home ask me how far I go, I tell them “Until the road signs are in French.”

My most recent visit occurred this past January when I arrived the day after New Year’s Day.  What better way to celebrate the advent of a new year than a trip to the Great North Woods?  There is one constant here in late winter . . . the days are short.  Very short.  The sun does not inch above Mount Magalloway and the eastern ridge lines until around 7:30am, and from there it makes a slow arc across the southern skies, setting around 4:30pm below the western height of land that marks the US-Canadian frontier. The sun had already set when I arrived at Tall Timber Lodge, along the shoreline of Back Lake, in Pittsburg.  I settled into my regular room upstairs, unpacked, and quickly returned downstairs to unwind with a couple adult beverages in the tavern before enjoying a long anticipated dinner in the Rainbow Grille.  I have been staying at this lodge for many years, and everyone knows my name and treats me like one of the family.  After dinner I step outside into the gripping cold and breathe in the fresh air and appreciate how lucky I am to be back again.  I have a nightcap in the tavern.  How can I not sleep well every night I am in the Great North Woods?   No reason to panic here.   

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast downstairs, I was off on my morning trek.  Driving up Moose Alley – US Route 3 above Happy Corner – passing Lake Francis and First and Second Connecticut Lakes, I parked at the Deer Mountain Campground where I strap on my snowshoes and set off along the Coös Trail through the Moose Falls Flowage and among the frozen outlet waters of the Third Connecticut Lake.  I have fished this area for brook trout in other seasons and so it was interesting to experience this familiar topography cloaked in deep snow.  It is not all downhill skiing or snowmobiling up here where speed seems to be the common denominator during the winter months. 

I prefer snow-trekking, the slow and often painstaking movement across deep snow and ice.  Slow is good.  You can see what there is to see in the winter landscape while enjoying a silence interrupted only by the sound of wind blowing through bare, creaking branches.  I first snowshoed on my grandparent’s Michigan farm when I was a kid.  Back then it was the old wooden frames and webbing made of deer hide.  Now snowshoes are constructed of tempered steel, aluminum, and heavy-duty plastics and are much easier to navigate through deep snow.  My wife and I first tried these new-stye snowshoes a few years ago in western Montana and I was sold.    

As I wandered up through the Flowage along the Coös Trail I kept my eyes peeled for animal tracks, hoping I might be lucky enough to come across a shed, a moose or deer antler no longer required by its former proprietor.  No sheds; more than likely they are buried under the deep snow.  I did, however, chance upon several bevy of whitetail deer along the trail.  Approaching these from upwind I managed to get fairly close.  We stood there motionless for a few moments watching each other before they sprang quickly and quietly into the snowy puckerbrush, their white tails flashing in the morning light as they disappeared from sight.  The snow was over two feet deep, drifting even deeper in some places, so there was no clear path of escape.   For the deer or myself.  A trek through deep snow can be arduous.  Even with snowshoes.  

Eventually arriving at the northwestern shoreline of Third Connecticut Lake situated less than a mile below the Canadian frontier and the tiny Fourth Connecticut Lake (more of a bog than a lake) which is the headwater of the might Connecticut River, I braved the wind-abraded, snow-encrusted ice to visit a lone ice fisherman at his shanty where he was tending his tip-ups a short distance off shore.  We stepped inside briefly seeking shelter from two dervishing snow devils as they passed incredibly close by.   This reminded me again of my more youthful days when I joined my grandfather as  he fished the frozen ponds of southwestern Michigan.  One is truly alone with one’s thoughts sitting in an ice shanty on lonely lake.

The day was wearing on as the sun sank lower is the southern sky beyond Deer Mountain.  I continued up the trail to the US-Canadian border above the lake and from there I was able to catch a ride back to my car parked at the campground.  Good thing, too, as it began to snow quite hard.   It would have been a long walk back.   A full day and I was happy to make my way down to the lodge to change into warm, dry clothes before heading back to the tavern for a beer and the anticipation of another fine dinner in the Rainbow Grille.

I did not have anything as momentous as possible retirement to ponder on this visit to my panic hole, which is also one of my favorite places on God’s green (white?) earth.  It was just another pleasant opportunity to be far away from another human soul and alone with my thoughts as the vast expanses of snowy forests and lake ice stretched out before me.  Teddy was right.  It doesn’t get much grander than this!

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Pondering the Future

Has it really been seven years already? This photo was taken on this date in 2010 at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, Florida writer Randy Wayne White’s restaurant on Sanibel Island, Florida. I had retired from the US Department of Justice just three weeks earlier after a 32 year career in Washington, and SallyAnn and I were in the midst of an extended road trip around Florida so that I might clear my head and decide just what it was I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

We decided it would be nice to inter alia wander the sea shell beset beaches of Florida’s Gulf Coast with no set agenda or time table. Where would each new day take us? One day we happened to end up at Doc Ford’s after a windy day wandering the sands of Sanibel Island and neighboring Captiva. I treated myself to some very fresh Gulf of Mexico oysters served chilled with lemon and cocktail sauce along with a pile of steamed Yucatan shrimp dressed in butter, garlic, Colombian chilies, fresh cilantro, and Key lime juice. A memorable repast to be sure. By the time this photo was taken I was washing it all down with another cold beer trying to decide where to go and what to do next. There would be plenty of time for long range planning and soul searching. I still had places to go and things to see.

While I was scribbling into my pocket notebook the gal behind the bar asked me if I was related to Hemingway. This was not the first time this comparison had been made, and when it is offered I have mixed feelings. I certainly respect the writing, if not the man (he was quite a prick from all reports). My only reply to her was from Hemingway himself. "An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools." I left her to sort out the meaning of this . . . and I was off to the Everglades.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Circling the Drain?

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by
reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength
labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
-- Psalm 90:10

Hmmmm. That does not sound good at all. Not if one finds himself turning three score and six today. But how can this be, when I feel so young at heart? I have no plans to fly off any time soon. That said, this getting older is for the birds. I don’t like it yet I know there is nothing I can do about it. Consider Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), writing in Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, (1658): "The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying." And yet dying is something we will all do at some yet undertermined point in time. "If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death, our life is a sad composition; we live with death, and die not in a moment." We all do it. Some more graceful than others, perhaps, but when you get right down to it, we shall all eventually shed this vale of tears. But I’ll be honest with you. I’m not ready. I’m not near ready. And I can only hope it will be a very long time before I hear the beck and call from the far side of the Stygian shore, before I find myself "circling the drain," that rather macabre slang referring to an unfortunate soul that clings to life while future prospects seem dim at best.

So what got me on this grim subject besides the fact that today I am another year older? And each years seems to pass by faster the previous one? This morning I finished reading A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life, the just published book of essays by Jim Harrison, the late poet, novelist and essayist, who passed away a year ago on March 26, at the age of 78. I have been a devoted reader of Harrison for over forty years – a fellow Midwesterner whose often skewed and oblique views on life, writing, and yes, even food and drink, have fueled my own hopes and desires for what I wanted to accomplish in my own lifetime. He was a gourmand extra ordinaire and a connoisseur of fine wines who also taught me that, as a writer, one must "mix your essential gluttony and writing carefully." I have learned how true this is. "Despite your complaints you have lots of time to do so," Harrison confesses. "Good food is so much more important than the mediocre writing that pervades the earth" ("Real Old Food" published in the Canadian journal Brick, in 2015). I strive for something above and beyond the mediocre, but I understand that writing is not everything. One must enjoy that which satisfies the body as well as the mind. Jim did not mince words and did not suffer fools. He and I are simpatico on that score.

Yet the thought that no more words will be unleashed from his pen (he refused to use a typewriter or a computer) saddens me deeply. I never met Harrison, yet my life and my own writing (and the search for good food and drink) have orbited his efforts since the early 1970s, when I first became aware of his unique perspective on human foibles and our interaction with the natural world as a palliative for what ails us. His death has left me be bereft and still I am both saddened and raised up as I read these latter day reflections knowing Harrison was running with the dark horse of night (Marlowe) and his time on earth was coming to its inevitable end.

Now well into my seventh decade (and proud of it . . . hey, I earned it, right?) I still believe I have several good years in these old bones (decades, had I my druthers). No, I don’t feel like I am circling the drain yet, nor do I hear any loud cries to come hither from beyond the River Styx. There is the old adage that you are only as old as you feel, and for the most part I feel just fine. I no longer float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, and maybe I never did. And there are the aches and pains I have to get used to along with the occasional "senior moment" when I forget a name or where I put something. But I can live with this occasional nemesis as long as I am able to accomplish what I set out to do with the advent of each new day . . . or in this case . . . the beginning of another year.

Three score and six?? Why not? I say "Bring it on!"

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Spreading the Good Word

I have been posting on this blogspot since late 2008 and I appreciate everyone – whether you are a longtime reader or a first time visitor – who has tuned in to read what I have had to say about this and that. If this is your first time, I invite you to check out the 400+ postings that have appeared here. There is not much that I don’t have an opinion on one way or the other. Most of what you will find here are recollections of past adventures and descriptions of those more recent. Occasionally I will rant about an injustice or some reckless folly (in my humble opinion), but I have tried to keep these to a minimum. That has been very hard to do in recent months, but I try.

I guess people out there are paying attention. I have just been invited to be a guest blogger . . . and a paid one at that . . . for Coos Networks, a community website serving the far northern precincts of New Hampshire which have figured into some if my postings here. Coos Networks has recently become an important meeting place for the exchanging ideas, sharing information, while "deepening relationships across disciplines and geography, and building regional vitality."

Over the past two decades this region has become my "panic hole," a physical or mental locus offering respite from the real or imagined pressures and stresses of daily life and the responsibilities that go with it. And so I have decided to talk about this in my guest blog - "More Notes from the Panic Hole" - which will be posted on the Coos Networks website on March 27 and which I will share here shortly thereafter.

I am very excited about this opportunity to spread the word beyond my regular audience. Perhaps this is the harbinger of bigger and better things. Let’s see where it leads. Can I have an amen to that?


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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Sphinter Control???

It appears that the sphincter muscle has been removed from American political discourse (and its foreign policy, for that matter).  This has resulted in an uninterrupted discharge of feculent pronouncements and policy statements.  DJT and his dark minions may think they are draining the swamp in DC, but the manure heaps out back of the White House and the Capitol are quickly piling up and expanding outward.  I thought you should know.

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Monday, March 6, 2017

The Deconstruction of American Foreign Policy

Navigating through the shambles that is the United States’ current foreign policy initiatives is like wandering hopelessly lost in a vast desert.  I just finished reading “Trump’s Many Shades of Contempt,” Roger Cohen’s very disturbing March 3 op-ed piece in The New York Times concerning the sad and dangerous state of affairs inside our foreign policy establishment.  Cohen knows whereof he speaks.  He has been a columnist for The New York Times and the International New York Times, as well as for many years a respected foreign correspondent who has gained important insights into the US State Department and US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and Afghanistan. 

Cohen’s column addresses the president’s complete and utter contempt for US foreign policy as exemplified by the fact that he has now called for a 37% reduction in the State Department’s budget.  Add to this the massive exodus of career foreign service officials since the election in November, a flight that has increased since the inauguration and Secretary Rex Tillerson’s ascendency at the State Department.  I am not talking about political appointments from the previous administration; I am referring to the departure of career foreign service officers and diplomats who staff the Department of State bureaucracy in Washington, as well as our embassies and consulates around the globe.  A case in point . . . Daniel Fried, who resigned after forty years of experience dealing with many of the most important foreign policy issues of the day, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.  Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil, who has no governmental or foreign policy experience, was nevertheless confirmed by the Senate as the new Secretary of State and has yet to take the reins of his department.

Cohen reports that Tillerson “is a near phantom” at the State Department.  And there
is no second in command since his boss, the president, vetoed Tillerson’s choice as deputy.  One of Tillerson's first directives to senior staff - what little senior staff that still remains in place -  was an order that his briefing materials not exceed two pages. How is it possible to explain complex international issues in the space of two pages?  Previous Secretaries of State regularly dealt with briefing books dedicated to a single, complex issue.  He has been extremely press shy since taking office a month ago.  According to Cohen, there has not been a single press briefing by Tillerson or his staff since DJT took office five weeks ago.  His only public statements were brief and came during foreign visits to Mexico and  Germany.  Since the 1950s such press briefings have been an almost daily occurrence, something one would expect, considering the myriad challenges and conflicts facing this country and the world at large.  Is Tillerson avoiding public appearances thinking this will cushion him from the increasing blowback against the new regime in Washington?  “The State Department has taken on a ghostly air,” according to Cohen.

Throughout his Senate confirmation hearings Tillerson appeared personable and informed, qualities that seemed to assuage to some degree the opposition to his appointment.  Since his confirmation, however, he has done very little to suggest that he is calling the shots at Foggy Bottom, deferring instead to his boss in the White House.  Mr. Tillerson asked Elliott Abrams, a high-level State Department veteran during the Reagan regime, to bring his experience back to State as the new deputy.  Granted, his experience would have been useful to some extent although we should not forget that Abrams was convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal during which he withheld information from Congress during the investigation of the affair.  Although Abrams was ultimately pardoned by George H. W. Bush, this alone should have been reason to remove Abrams from consideration.  Instead, the president overruled Tillerson’s choice because of Abram’s outspoken criticism of DJT during the campaign and election.

What is perhaps more discomforting than this is the fact that Steve Bannon, a white supremacist and nativist who as the president’s chief political strategist has called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” has been elevated to a position on the National Security Council.  This after the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was unceremoniously uninvited from regular attendance at meetings of the NSC.  On top of this DJT’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, another top advisor operating beyond the aegis of either the State Department or the NSC, is regularly usurping Tillerson’s role at meetings with world leaders and diplomats, particularly on the issue of the peace process in the Middle East and this country’s troubling relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Under normal circumstances it is the Secretary of State who serves as the mouthpiece for an administration’s foreign policy prerogatives.  It is the Secretary who discusses these with foreign leaders and diplomats.  With a few exceptions this has  not happened since January.  To date Tillerson has been absent or far in the background when the new president met with the prime ministers of Canada and Israel at the White House.  It is difficult for the State Department to conduct foreign policy through proper diplomatic channels and following accepted diplomatic decorum when it has to face challenges from parties within the White House who do not feel bound by proper procedure not to mention the president’s often ill-advised and off-the-cuff tweet blitzes. 

Tillerson’s foreign visit to Mexico, a country we have threatened to seal off with a wall, was chaotic, awkward, and received only a lukewarm welcome from the host government.   This comes on the heels of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto canceling his trip to Washington, the first scheduled visit by a head of state to the new US president.  It is clear to the Mexican government that it is the president who is calling the shots when it comes to bilateral relations with our neighbor to the south.  There was really nothing of substance to discuss with Tillerson, a man so clearly out of the loop.   

Tillerson’s meetings with his G-20 counterparts in Germany, at which he signaled America’s now lackluster support for important trans-Atlantic alliances such as NATO, were troubling in that there was little support for rebuilding trust and confidence with our valued long-term allies.  While in Bonn, Tillerson’s staffers tried to arrange a meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who has himself just began his five-year term on January 1.  Instead, the Secretary of State deferred to the new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.  Tillerson was also a no-show at a high-level meeting in Bonn attended by Mr. Guterres who to date has not even been able to arrange a phone call with the Secretary.   Tillerson also refused to meet or speak with Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  It might be interesting to note that she is Mexican.

Tillerson is not in control of his department.  While he was in Europe, over two dozen of his senior staff members were abruptly reassigned.  What role he played, if any, in the reassignment is not clear.  To date, less than ten of the over 100 State Department positions requiring Senate confirmation have been filled, including our ambassadors to foreign states.  Bruce Bartlett, a former advisor to Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has suggested that this seemingly intentional decimation of the State Department is a means of forestalling diplomatic solutions to an array of international problems in favor of military solutions.  Let us not forget the president has called for almost $60 billion increase in military spending while gutting the State Department’s budget.  Diplomatic solutions are lightbulbs waiting to be turned on. Military solutions are hammers looking for a nail.

Just this past week Tillerson broke with tradition by choosing not to attend the public release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights.  This is normally a very high profile public event at which the Secretary of State uses the prestige of his or her office to underscore the importance of human rights as a keystone to American foreign policy.  Such was not the case last week.  There was no public event.  No Secretary of State.  Instead, reporters were briefed by telephone by an anonymous State Department official.  This is very troubling to human rights advocates around the world coming as it does after Tillerson repeatedly vowed to promote human rights during his confirmation hearing just a few weeks ago. “Should I be confirmed as secretary of state, I would be charged with promoting American values on the world stage, and that means standing for universal human rights and fighting for the dignity of every person.”  So why did he refuse to do just that?

I think the reason is pretty clear by now.  Mr. Tillerson is Secretary of State in name only.   And I think we also have a good picture of who is dictating American foreign policy.  It is men and women with agendas whispering in the ear of DJT, a man who has no real grasp of the complexities of international diplomacy.  You might recall during the campaign that DJT was asked about foreign policy.  Where was he getting his information and advice?  It seems to me a logical question.  “I’m speaking with myself, number one,” he replied.  “Because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”  Does that make you feel better?  I hardly think so.

So how is any of this acceptable?  The simple answer is that it is not acceptable.  It will never be acceptable on any level or under any circumstance.   Unfortunately I see the situation getting much worse before there is any improvement.  The important question remains.   What happens to this country’s foreign policy during an extremely dangerous time when our long-held and cherished values are being challenged at every turn . . . including by many in the White House at the exclusion of experts at the State Department?  I shutter to think.

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Basic Lesson in Civility

This is what makes America great!!! Former President George W. Bush sharing an affectionate moment with former First Lady Michelle Obama. Despite coming from vastly different social and racial backgrounds, and from two widely divergent political and ideological beliefs, two Americans find common ground in the exercise of basic civility. "When I saw her, it was a genuine expression of affection." Mr. Bush credits the former First Lady's appreciation for his sense of humor as the main reason for their affection. "She kind of likes my sense of humor. Anybody who likes my sense of humor, I immediately like." I suspect it is much more than just this. They are both Americans. What more reason does one need to justify civil discourse in our country? We are all Americans.

This photograph speaks volumes about what this country is all about. Despite our differences . . . and the most recent election has underscored these in spades . . . we are still all Americans whether we were born here or came here to seek a better life by becoming naturalized American citizens. And there are those who came here and have yet to become citizens regardless of the reason. They are still protected by the Constitution and the laws of the land. We are a land of immigrants . . . we have always been one . . . and yet one whose current leadership has found it necessary to declare war on immigrants . . . and on the very process of immigration itself. We as Americans have, for the most part, been instilled with many of the same basic values. And as such, we need to work together to insure they remain values by which we chose to live. Despite our many differences and disagreements we need to find common ground. It’s out there. We just need to make the effort to find and exploit it. We must put aside these differences and disagreements when it comes to dealing with those issues that affect us all. Issues that will determine the ultimate survival of this country.

Don't get me wrong. I have never been a big fan of George W. Bush. In fact, I disagree with almost ever thing he did as President of the United States. That said, however, he came to the office with skills and a realization that true governing is dictated by compromise and an informed bipartisanship. He did not always practice this, but he understood the concept. He is thick skinned and handled criticism of himself and his policies . . . and there was plenty of it and rightfully so . . . with grace. If you can't do that, you have no legitimate claim to the highest office in the land. It takes a thick skin. The president should be a leader . . . not some insecure and narcissistic bully who degrades and insults rather than leads. Despite my faults with Mr. Bush, the current president can’t hold a candle to him on the best of days. A jellyfish has thicker skin than the current president whose enemy list . . . which includes millions of Americans, indeed the very American way of life . . . is long and distinguished and getting longer by the day. That my friends is what scares the shit out of me!

So take a good look at this photograph. We don’t need walls and immigration bans to make this country great again. Despite our faults and shortcomings we were great long before DJT arrived on the scene. And we will remain so when he is footnote (and hopefully a short one) in the history of this great country. All we really need to do is to practice some basic, common civility. Look at the photograph! This is what it looks like. It works if given half a chance. So DJT . . . get with it or get the hell out of the way! We Americans . . . all of us whether we were born here or came here from a distant land and a different culture . . . have serious work to do and we must learn to do it together. It’s the only way it will work.

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Another Big Chill Weekend

“In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.” 
    – The Big Chill

Last November, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, a group of our oldest and dearest friends gathered for a “Big Chill Weekend” at a rustic cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park, near Davis, West Virginia.  In years past we would gather regularly at one of the state parks in West Virginia, but as we have grown older, with mounting family and professional responsibilities, these have become less frequent.  We have missed them and decided it was time to gather around the fires more often.

This past weekend we convened once again, this time at Cacapon State Park near Berkeley Springs, in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.  It was a beautiful, late winter weekend with the temperatures creeping through the 60s into the low 70s, both at home in the environs of Washington, DC, and along the eastern Allegheny ridge lines at the northern terminus of the Shenandoah Valley.  Having endured the first surreal month of the new regime in Washington (I find it difficult to call it an administration or government since no perceptible administering or governing has taken place), all of us were more than happy to find an excuse to get the hell out of Dodge for the long Presidents Day holiday weekend.  The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake. 

Over the years we have escaped to the rural hinterlands within a reasonable day’s drive from our homes.  Sometimes it was just an escape for a long weekend.  Other times the gatherings, although happy and festive on the surface, have been tinged with anger and disappointment.  Once we gathered in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware - a Blue State - to escape DC during Dubya’s second inauguration, in January 2005.  Our gathering in West Virginia - a Red State - last November came just days after the conclusion of the most vicious national election in my memory, marked by the electoral “victory” for DJT and his minions despite the fact he lost the popular election by a few million votes (a fact which he still denies without reason or support).  We all said we would not talk about the election, yet but how was this possible?  We had all just observed a fundamental shift in the political, if not the cultural, fabric of our nation, not to mention its quick slippage into corporate fascism at the highest levels of government.   How could we ignore the fact that the President-Elect was endorsed and applauded by the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi National Policy Institute, along with other white supremacist and nativist cliques.  This alone was sobering, if not frightening in the extreme.  So we enjoyed our fires, our hikes, our books and puzzles, and our communal food and drink, as best we could.  Still, it was hard to ignore an enervating penumbra settling upon the American grain not to mention our own personal lives.

I hate to report that what we feared last November has been visited on us multi-fold since that most outlandish inaugural event just a month ago.  I won’t even begin to tick off the litany of bizarre statements and events that have been the benchmark of the last four, long weeks.  So once again we set off to distance ourselves from the craziness that is Washington these days.  What better time for another “Big Chill Weekend?”   

You may recall Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill starting Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, and Mary Kay Place.  Gary Susman, writing in 2013 to mark the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, claimed that it “touched a huge raw nerve in the culture and became an enormous mainstream hit as a result”.  They cast is a group of seven former college friends, now in their 30s, who attended the University of Michigan during the heyday of the radical student protests against the Vietnam War.  Some have become pillars of the establishment they once railed against.  They have gathered at the vacation home of one of their number in the South Carolina’s Low Country to attend the funeral of another who had committed suicide.  Add to their ranks Meg Tilly, the young girlfriend of their deceased friend played by Kevin Costner . . . cut from the film and uncredited; we see only his sutured wrists as the undertaker dresses him for burial.  “Amazing tradition,” the Jeff Goldblum character offers.  “They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come.”

Since their days as young student revolutionaries, some have married and grown into responsible adulthood.  Others have not.  They are a unmarried real estate lawyer who desperately wants a baby; a physician married to a wealthy business man and former classmate; a sex obsessed novelist writing for People magazine; a Hollywood television actor who cannot deal with celebrity; a maimed and bitter Vietnam veteran turned drug dealer; and an unfulfilled housewife and mother who has designs on the actor, an old college crush.  Their dead friend was a scientific prodigy and progressive firebrand who abandoned academe for social work and manual labor. . . and eventually suicide.  They talk about their former lives and their current disillusionment at what they have become, pointing out how each has sold out their old convictions and values for what seems a steady, mainstream life In Ronald Reagan’s America  . . . except for their dead friend.  “I feel I was at my best when I was with you people,” the physician played by Glenn Close admits.  They eat, drink, smoke dope, and listen to the great rock and R&B music that served as a readily recognizable benchmark of their heady student days.  There is lots of finger pointing and censuring, yet they rediscover their common bond and they all manage to kiss and hug when the weekend visit ends.  They return to their separate lives promising not to wait until the next funeral to renew their friendships.  It is a story of old friends searching for something they have lost only to discover that all they needed was each other.  “Wise up folks,” say the William Hurt character.  “We are all alone out there.

Much like the gathering in The Big Chill, almost all of us in our group came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.  We remember Vietnam although none of us were called to serve.   We were all in Washington on September 11; some of us watching the smoke rise from the Pentagon.  We understand the world in which we live.  We are a lawyer, a computer specialist, a historian and research consultant, an artist, two archivists, and a librarian.  All of us have lived and worked in the Washington milieu for decades.  Some of us have grown children; some have never been parents.  Some of us are now retired and some still get up and trudge into the crowded and traffic-choked city each morning to earn coins of the realm.  So an escape, even for just a couple days, is worth the effort.  Thankfully our weekend gatherings have never centered on a funeral or some other sad or tragic occasion although we have certainly gathered at these, as well.  And one of these days the end of one of us may bring us together much like the cast in the film.  Yet, for the most part, our gathering have been mostly happy occasions when we have managed to escape the Washington humdrum for a long weekend in the woods.  We have lounged in front of cabin fire places and outside fire rings.  We have hiked, shot trap, worked on puzzles, read, listen to and played music, and shared kitchen duties as we prepared communal meals accompanied with good drink.

The film comes with an admonition: “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.”  We realize we are going to have to rely on each other more and more in the days, months and years ahead.   There will certainly be a need for more of these Big Chill escapes . . . opportunities to reset our compasses in search of a way out of this dark storm.  Hopefully this recent election, despite its insane and fearful aftermath, will result in a self-correction of this bizarre anomaly that has beset our nation.

We must remain confident that we will awaken from this bad dream.  In the film the former college radicals grew silent as they matured into comfortable live.  Rocking the Ship of State was no longer necessary, even desirable.  We should take a lesson in this.  Perhaps it is time for all of us, comfortable in our lives up until now, to stand up and start to rock the boat anew.   It worked before.  It can work again.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Executive Order Does Not a King Make - A Return to the Imperial Presidency?

                        Your king is SUPPOSED to explode?  What
                        kind of government system is that?”

                                 – Jefferson Smith, Strange Places (2014)

We have been hearing and reading quite a bit lately about the freshet of executive orders issued by DJT since January 20 (“a date that will live in infamy”).   He seems to think that all he has to do is express his will, show everyone his signature on each order he signs, and it suddenly becomes the law of the land.  Not so fast buddy! 

David Schulz, a professor of political science at Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minnesota, who is a noted authority on public policy and administration and the author of American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research (2013), tells us that there is a Constitutional foundation coupled with legal precedents governing the issuance of executive orders.  Article II, Section I, Clause 1, of the Constitution vests executive power in the president, while Article II, Section 3, requires that the chief executive insure that all laws “be faithfully executed.”  An executive directive – now known as an executive order – is issued by the president to an executive branch department or governmental agency and has the full force of law, just as if it had been passed by the Congress of the United States.  However, an executive order has the force of law ONLY when it comports with the responsibilities and duties of the president granted to him or her by the Constitution of the United States, by federal statute, or by the US Congress.  Add to this the important fact that each executive order can be revoked or stayed by the Supreme Court or a lower federal court, if it violates the Constitution, federally mandated statutes, or any other discretionary powers granted by Congress to the Chief Executive.   There does not appear to be much wiggle room when it comes to the constitutionality of an executive order.

These orders date back to the beginning of our republic.  George Washington issued the first one in 1789 to clarify the duties of the executive branch.  Thomas Jefferson ordered the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, and James Knox Polk ordered the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845.  Perhaps the most famous executive directive, as it was known at the time, is Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Issued on January 1, 1863 under the war powers act, it changed the legal status of slaves in the confederated states in rebellion against the United States since 1860.  Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order in 1917 in order to prepare this country for entry into World War I.  FDR issued numerous executive orders during World War II.  During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-1969), these two presidents issued executive orders to facilitate racial integration and to end segregation throughout the South, and to enforce civil rights across the country.   

These executive orders were designed to give the president the ability to deal with domestic or international emergencies, to clarify stated policies, to streamline existing law, or to address inadequacies in governmental operations.  Unfortunately, there are those, including DJT and many in his administration, who view these orders as a means of circumventing the legislative branch and the strict interpretation of the separation of powers.  And oddly enough, Congress does not seem to have a problem with this.  Well, the federal courts do.  The American people do.  And it’s high time DJT and his minions and Congressional cronies understand this.    

The intended purpose of executive orders, however, is not to unilaterally gut or dismantle programs and policies of a previous administrations.  That is not governing.  That is partisan retribution with no consideration as to how these changes impact the people being governed.  We have seen quite a bit of this over the past three weeks.  It makes one hark back to the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon (someone every president hopes ro emulate?) who used executive orders in his attempt to defund or dismantle federal agencies.  Thankfully the federal courts stymied these attempts. 

Since the inauguration of DJT almost a month ago I am certainly not the first to remind him that he is a president and not a king.  And as president-elect, he stood in front of the Capitol with his hand placed upon two Bibles and took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.   He seem to be somewhat confused as to what that actually means.  The dozens of executive orders DJT has signed to date appear, in almost all instances, to address matters and issues he does not fully comprehend; perhaps because he was not paying attention during all those important transition briefings, most of which he either ditched or apparently doodled and Twittered his way through.  He needs to show some due diligence before he acts and speaks.  So far this has not been the case.

Plain and simple . . . DJT does not have inherent power to issue executive orders to satisfy his personal foibles and caprice.  Their authority must come from the Constitution or laws, subject to their limitations.  I hate to rain on his parade, but hell, let it pour.

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