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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