Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Who Holds Whom Hostage?

For decades North Korea has crafted a delicate balance, building a nuclear capability while promoting nationalism to perpetuate the Kim Jong-un regime. American Presidents during those years were willing to accept the status quo which was preferable to a military confrontation.  Even with conventional weapons, , on a first strike North Korea could kill up to a million people in Seoul, only a few dozen miles from the DMZ.  That potential has held the world hostage all these years.

Pressure on North Korea’s trading partners, particularly China, to enact stiff sanctions on North Korea has, until recently, been futile.  Here China holds the U.S. hostage, owning a portion of our debt and more significantly knowing the American public’s insatiable demand for cheap imported goods would prevail over any economic retaliation against China.  China was content to have North Korea as a buffer zone until it, too, has been startled by NK’s nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, a delicate balance, and then Trump’s opening day message at the United Nations, where he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.”   We all know what that is code for – the use of nuclear weapons.  An American President has said he would use this country’s nuclear force as a first strike.

Unthinkable.  There were so many other ways to signal our resolve, to further pressure North Korea to the negotiating table.  He went on to call Kim Jong-un ‘Rocket Man,’ --in front of the United Nations, schoolyard name-calling.  Then, further undermining the dignity of the Office of the Presidency, he continued those threats and name-calling in Tweets.

Surprise.  Tensions have ratcheted up, Kim Jong-un responding with new threats, including testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.  Unlikely, but to even utter that is giving as good as one gets.

There has been much criticism levied at Trump for worsening an already incendiary environment between the two countries, so what does he do?  -- he turns on the NFL.  He has a reptilian instinct for survival.  In so doing, he wrapped himself in the flag, the one that belongs to us all.  “Fire the sons of bitches” referring to NFL players who went to one knee during the playing of the National Anthem.

I come from a generation which would never do that, but I would defend another person’s right to protest that way over such weighty issues as “Black Lives Matter.”  Of course all lives matter in this country and to be born black should not be an impediment, but look where Trump brought President Obama – to the point of producing his birth certificate to prove his legitimacy as the President.  If Obama was white, no such argument would have been made. 

Now, if anyone is an illegitimate President, it is Trump.  And he knows it -- how he got to be President, by his actions and Russia’s and astonishingly by those of the head of the FBI.  Even his ignorance of American history, and his divisiveness seemed to work in his favor.   He did not win by popular vote and although some of his marginal supporters say they would not vote for him now, he still has a solid 30 -35% base enamored by his strong-arm tactics, convinced he can do no wrong.  And it is HE who is holding the rest of America hostage.

He knows his tenure as President is precarious, with the possibility of impeachment or the invocation of the 25th amendment, which provides for the removal of the President if “disabled” and unable to perform the duties of the office.  One could argue that we are already there, but it is a high bar to achieve and it has to be set in motion by the Vice President and ultimately have the backing of 2/3 of Congress if the President objects. 

With his pathetic response to the Charlottesville show of power by white supremacist groups and his attack on NFL players, mostly black (although he disavows that as being an issue), he dog whistles to his hard-core followers, many probably NRA diehards, and thereby creates a hostage situation.  I can see clearly, now, the “strategy:” “remove me as your President and suffer the consequences of a new Civil War. “  He has his army, he has the means of communication, he exhibits sociopathic thinking, and his politics of divisiveness have created such an environment.  He would even risk nuclear war.

So, North Korea holds the world hostage, China holds us hostage, and Trump holds the majority of the American people hostage.  Never has there been such a President who disrespects the very ideals which makes the American flag so sacred.  He has done more than take a metaphoric knee to fortify his fragile ego.

Monday, September 18, 2017


Good riddance and farewell Irma, especially in the destructive wake of Harvey.

Now as I write this Jose is threatening our boat in Connecticut with Maria on its heels likely to impact the same islands devastated by Irma (adding Puerto Rico as a direct Category 4 hit).

We’ll pay for a “Wall” to alienate good neighbors such as Mexico but refuse to take global warming seriously.  Why not treat THAT as an urgent matter, especially for future generations?  No, global warming didn’t “cause” Harvey or Irma, but the severity of storms will only increase in the future without shrinking the carbon footprint of our seriously overpopulated planet.  There is more than three times the number of people on this planet than when I was born!  Malthus was right about the geometric growth of population, but food shortage will not be the only offset.  There are solutions, if only we had the wisdom to listen to our scientists.  But I digress.  Back to the storm itself.

The day before the hurricane would begin to affect Florida we were due to fly out of the White Plains airport via Jet Blue, returning to home after spending a month on our boat in Connecticut.  Man makes plans and fate laughs.

As the storm was ramping up, with more and more dire warnings of a potentially Category 5 storm threatening Florida, we, too, became obsessed with the Weather Channel, watching every twist and turn of the spaghetti models.  Ka-ching, ka-ching for the Weather Channel, with, ultimately, their reporters waist-deep in water, leaning into the wind with their microphones for the enjoyment of their audience.  This is what reporting has become in the age of reality TV.

Early on it seemed to have a path that Floyd followed in 1999 and Mathew last year.  If so, it would track close off shore up the east coast of Florida and we thought to ourselves best be home before as that Saturday flight would be cancelled and flights would be more difficult to obtain later.  I had a monthly car rental from Avis to return to the White Plains airport, one of those special monthly deals for which they wanted to charge me a fortune on a per diem basis if I kept it more than the appointed time.  Funny the things you consider in the light of an impending weather event that could change your life.  Avis is truly Ka-ching oriented with subpar customer service and dirty automobiles.  Never again, Avis. 

So on the day after we changed our reservations to return on Thursday, the models shifted to a direct track over the east coast of Florida.  Looking at the maps it appeared to have a bulls-eye on our house!  Did we want to be in the house during a Category 4 or 5 storm?  If we were younger, perhaps I would have said, bring it on.  Not so anymore.  This is especially the case given the images of Houston’s bout with Hurricane Harvey.  Such devastation and heartbreaking scenes.

As we were making a donation to the Red Cross for Harvey, we contacted Jet Blue again (knowing it was hurricane season, I had presciently bought their Jet Blue Flex tickets, which enabled me to change without penalty).  As we were to fly out of a small airport (HPN) to PBI, there were a limited number of seats available for their Tues., Weds. or Thurs. flights.  I figured the hurricane would be gone by Tues, but thinking of the logistics of rearranging planes and flight crews, selected Weds. which, as it turned out, was the first day they did indeed resume flights to PBI.  Just dumb luck.

Now we just had to wait it out on our boat, hoping still the storm would pass out to sea, not wishing it on the west coast of Florida, but with every update, that’s where it seemed to be moving.  When we decided to move to Florida 18 years ago, we of course knew of the hurricane dangers (but most of the damage I witnessed during my life was from storms that visited Connecticut or Long Island, such as Carol, Gloria, and Sandy).  We had been in our house in Florida for Hurricanes Jean and Wilma, the latter being the worse although damage was limited.

Most of the really life threatening effects of hurricanes is from storm surge and not wind, and yet we live on the water.  But the water has never gone over our seawall.  We purposely bought on the east coast of Florida because the continental shelf drops off into deep water near the shore and storm surge is less of a threat than on the west coast as the Gulf of Mexico is shallow. 

Several years ago, with our mortgage paid off, we had the option of dropping the otherwise mandatory portion of our insurance covering windstorm damage from a hurricane.  By then, there was only one state sponsored insurance company that would cover homes near the water, Citizens, and their rates became usurious, with enormous deductibles.  We could pay all those premiums for years and years and probably not need it so instead we set aside those premiums for retrofitting our home for “the really big one. “

Irma seemed to be it.  The first significant investment after banking those premiums was a new roof using top of the line underlayment in combination with the 3M Polyset roofing tile attachment system which is guaranteed for 20 years.  Roofs which were peeled off during Hurricane Charlie using conventional nails, screws, and mortar (as was our previous roof), were unscathed using the 3M system, so we went for the best.  At the same time we replaced the east facing corrugated steel window panels with clear Lexan panels so there could be some light during a hurricane if we should be in the house (we were in the complete dark during Wilma).  

Next year we replaced all north and south facing windows with heavy duty hurricane impact windows and installed a generator to run the essentials (not a whole house gen as we rarely lose power and not for a long time).  This has its own circuit breaker box and I just plug in a 30 amp line, exactly the same kind as we use on the boat in Connecticut.

Then the next year, the big expense, installing electric roll down shutters across the length of our water-facing porch and therefore not needing those heavy panels on the four sliding glass doors that open to the porch.  That also tied down the roof to the cement foundation with the supports for the roll downs.

Last year we completed the retrofit by replacing the two sets of French double doors that open out to our pool patio with the heaviest impact doors made.  Each of the four doors must weigh hundreds of pounds each.  It took four men to carry one and all day to install.

At the same time I fabricated and had installed a brace for our garage door, although the door itself is hurricane rated.  The brace was to be used only for the most extreme storm as it is tied into the cement floor with anchors and attaches to the rafters of the attic which provides additional strength to both the roof and garage door.  Given the dire forecasts, we asked our house minder to put up that brace.

And, so, we waited out the storm, fairly confident about our house, but we worried about our community and friends who had sheltered in place.

Meanwhile, life goes on.  I had to return that monthly rental car to Avis, and picked up a less expensive weekly rental, which by the time we were half way back to the boat from the airport I finally noticed a light flashing “check tire pressure.”  Cars have gone electronic and usually this means the pressure is a little off so I made a mental note to get air at a filling station.  By the time we got back to the marina, I looked at the tires.  All seemed to be fully inflated, until we saw the mother of all nails in the right rear.  It was situated in such a way that it looked like it was there for a long time, a perfect plug, but did I want to take a chance it would hold?  No.  So I called Avis and tried to do a local swap at one of their nearby offices, but no, I had to drive all the way back to the airport.  “Ka-ching!” Avis cried out again.

So all the way back to the airport and then had to deal with a surly, clearly unmotivated check in person in the lot before having to go back to the desk.  They gave me another car which was low on windshield fluid and was just unclean, but by that time I was in the lot, and needed the car for only a few days, so we drove back to the marina, not happy campers.

I had had it with driving, the anxiety of the encroaching hurricane, the uncertainty of whether it would be a direct hit, and that night we were to celebrate our son’s birthday with he and his fiancĂ©e, Tracie. They kindly offered to drive us to the restaurant which was not exactly around the corner, in Cannondale, CT, a special place called “The Schoolhouse” – actually an old school house.  But the best part is Jonathan drove and used all the back roads of verdant Connecticut, winding hills up and down, past places I hadn’t seen in years and years, arriving at the restaurant as if there was not a care in the world.  We were all together, Jon, Tracie, Ann, and myself, as the requisite selfie shows. 

The menu was even printed just for us, welcoming the “Hales” which is our restaurant reservation name, much easier to give the name “Hale” than my real surname.

The Schoolhouse is a “farm to table” restaurant and a relaxing, enjoyable experience.  What a break from all the anxiety.

Back to the boat for the next few days, to prepare for our trip home, wondering whether the storm will leave the community intact.  With every hour, its track moved further and further west, seemingly to put the west coast of Florida in the cross hairs of a potential massive tidal surge, which would have been the worst of all possible outcomes.

Meanwhile, knowing there was nothing more I could do for our own house, I tried to read Richard Russo’s short story / novella collection, Trajectory.  Hard to give it the attention it so richly deserves, while tracking a storm on my phone on and off, and wondering whether there would be a flight on Weds. as we had scheduled.  Russo, along with Anne Tyler, are our best mature storytellers, sharing so much in common, our very own modern day Jane Austens, their idiosyncratic characters crying out for love, fearing their social awkwardness, dealing with money and health problems, but mostly with their fractured relationships.

In fact the story “Voice,” concerns a retired Jane Austen scholar, Nate, who is inveigled by his older brother, Julian, to go on a group tour to Italy.  Their relationship reverts to one of their childhood, meanwhile competing for the same woman.  In general, the collection is infused with Russo’s gift of humor.  Perhaps the funniest novel I ever read is his Straight Man.  The latter is laugh out loud, but one can get a sense of his more subtle gift of humor and characterization from this paragraph from “Voice.”  A modern day Jane Austen would be proud of him:

At any rate, as the two women approach, weaving through the crowd, Nate knows he's on his own. The plain one arrives first, thrusting her hand out, much as a man would, and announcing that her name is Evelyn, or, if he prefers, Eve. Nate, wondering why on earth he should have a preference, takes the proffered and pretends delight to be met. Eve's hair is cut sensibly short for a woman her age – early 60s, Nate figures, though he's never been much good I guessing women's ages – and she's wearing something like a tracksuit, except nicer and maybe even expensive. The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how much she presented herself to men but woke up one morning, said fuck it and was immediately happier. She is also, Nate fears, one of those women who is confident she knows what's in the best interest of others. Seeing someone who obviously prefers to be left alone, she's all the more determined to include him in whatever awful group activities she's contemplating. The word she probably uses to describe whatever she has in mind is fun. It won't be, of that Nate's certain.

Russo deals with my own concern with Group travel:   Nate studies the daily travel schedule, trying to square it with the people he met.  A few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen. Both humpbacked Bernard and the orange-haired, chain-smoking women who stop to catch her breath…are genuine heart-attack candidates. Then there’s the extremely elderly couple who, when at rest, lean into each other should to shoulder, forming the letter A; if either were to move quickly, a broken hip would be the likely result for the other.

Russo’s humor camouflages the flip side, aging, illness, death and even his own writing skills.  In the story “Intervention” Ray, a middle aged real estate agent is facing a crisis, having a cancerous tumor.  He thinks about his father’s death:  But he must also have been proud of his father, or why would he be emulating him now it hadn't been a conscious decision – I'll do this the way my father did it – when he was informed about his own tumor. He simply concluded, as his father must've done, that he wasn't special, that there was no reason such a thing shouldn't happen to him. Like his father, he hadn't protested that he was too young, or that he had been cheated, or that life is unfair, or that he deserved an exemption.

In “Milton and Marcus,” Ryan, a writer in desperate need of a job is invited to try screen writing again.  He has his doubts about rejoining the Hollywood game and even more so about his skills:
Over the years we kind of stayed in touch, and when I had a new book out, Wendy always called to congratulate me. I think he must've known that my work had lost a good deal of its vitality by then. Each book sold fewer copies than the one before, and while the critics remained mostly respectful many reviews seem to agree that my earlier works had felt far more urgent than the later ones. The sad truth is that some writers have less fuel in the tank then others, and when the vehicle begins to shudder, you do well to pull over to the side of the road and look for alternative transportation which is what I did.

But if I had to pick but one phrase as central to this collection, it is:
The thing about confidences – the unsolicited opening of the heart – is that they invite reciprocity, even when it’s not a good idea….Russo offers “the unsolicited opening of the heart” in Trajectory.  

And so with the completion of the novel came the passing of Irma, the devastation on the west coast of Florida, but thankfully less than they thought it would be, although the Florida Keys was not so spared. So, upon our scheduled return to our home, we wondered what we would find.  Except for some minor landscaping damage, one could hardly tell our home had been hit by the storm.  We were among the lucky ones.

But we also returned to the sad news that Ann’s cousin Saul had died.  He had had a massive stroke two weeks before the storm, and his three “kids” were determined to form a vigil by his bedside with his wife of 55 years, Lynda.  They moved him to hospice when he was declared brain dead.  And there they sat through the storm, Saul fighting death for days and days without food or water.  The family was finally able to hold his funeral in Boca which naturally we attended.  This is a very close family, children and grandchildren, and they stood with their mother at the Mausoleum where the service was held and then the interment.

The Mausoleum itself is on two floors with multiple crypt levels for bodies.  Ann and I have never been to one.  It is a massive marble structure which we have never seen, as well as the procession, the casket being raised on an elevated platform after being wrapped in a clear plastic tarp, and then inserted in a cubicle for two, an instrument being used to push the casket all the way in the back of the cubicle, leaving room for his wife when she ultimately passes.  We all sadly watched this.

It is otherworldly and I could not help but think of homeless victims of Harvey and Irma, or people who lost their lives, who could have been protected in shelters such as this fortress.  And believe me; this building will outlast any structure in Florida.  It is not my place to pass judgment on the need for placing our remains in such edifices.  If it gives families comfort, so be it, but when one thinks of the resources being used to protect the dead while the living need so much, it gives me pause.  For us there will be cremation and the scattering of our ashes to the rising waters.
Shorefront Park, Norwalk CT

Saturday, September 2, 2017


A return to our Connecticut roots would not be complete without attending a play produced by the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve gone over the summers for some forty years.  The playhouse retains its essential “country” character although the old wooden bench seats are gone (thankfully) and air conditioning has been introduced (in fact too air conditioned), but the essential mission of presenting the highest caliber theatre has been retained.  The play we saw – Appropriate -- just closed, so writing a full-blown review is not my intent.  For that, there is always the reliable New York Times – a review of the play when it opened Off Broadway in 2014.

Without having seen that performance I imagine the Westport Country Playhouse’s production is every bit as successful,

The play was, as the author admits, “appropriated”  in some way from a number of the finest American family dramas of our times.  In particular there is attribution to Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County”.  And to say the play is derivative of such works, to me, is not a criticism but a compliment.  Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ dialogue is really a new voice in American theatre and even though every family may be unhappy in its own way, eventually it all boils down to dreams deferred or unrealized and the blame that hangs heavily in rare family reunions.  When that reunion is over the death of a patriarch, and there is a dark secret that explodes on the family, as it does on the adult children, Toni, Bo, and Franz, the stage is literally set for conflict.  And when you take your seat, the chaos of the gloomy stage foreshadows of what will unfold.

I was amazed at Jenkins’ ability to draw such well defined characters and to write such potent dialogue.  There is even a “fight director” for the play as verbal accusations, not only become loud, but physical as well.  And the three siblings are not the only ones caught in the fray; there is an aggrieved spouse, a new age girlfriend, and children of the spouses.  The dysfunction is multi-generational. No one escapes the tragedy, which is eerily heightened by a decaying ancestral Arkansas family home (think Tennessee Williams), the increasing intensity of the sound of cicadas, and the suggestion of ghosts haunting the property.  And of course, the secret,  the inexplicable discovery of a photo album containing pictures of lynching’s among their father’s property (in addition to the home being on the border of a white graveyard with stones, and unmarked graves of blacks on the other side):  the original American sin and their father’s potential complicity confounds and divides the family further.

The Westport Country Playhouse has spared no expense in scenic design, lighting, and sound.  They recognize Jacobs-Jenkins as an astute dramatist who is at the beginning of an important, noteworthy playwriting career.  We were fortunate to catch this production.  This is what great theatre is all about and we will be watching for future works by this talented and gifted writer.