“Fly the Aircraft”

February 10, 2020

These cold gray days summon memories. Some memories teach lasting lessons.

Not so long ago, my former boss, a senior Navy aviator who following retirement from active duty headed a small division I worked in at the Office of Naval Research, used the sentence above, time-honored in Navy aviation, to describe his expectations for our team’s response to looming disaster. Looking back at some of the fixes we found ourselves in at ONR between 2005 and 2014, disaster seemed to loom every week.

“Fly the aircraft” describes the responsibility of a pilot who experiences an in-flight system failure that threatens his or her aircraft’s ability to stay airborne. It means simply: do your job, maintain control, execute the mission. Pilots understand it. For non-pilots, a hint of its meaning shows up in a slightly different context in the opening scene of the 2016 movie “Sully,” about the emergency landing of a U.S. Airways flight on the Hudson River in January 2009. Pilot Chesley Sullenberger, recognizing his aircraft has lost both engines, assumes full control with the terse words: “My aircraft.”  His co-pilot replies: “Your aircraft.”

So: this past week: Political cowardice, obscene bluster. Coronavirus. Blizzards, tornadoes, floods across the country; multi-trillion-dollar federal debt. Reminds me of my ONR stint: an out-of-control program director, eventually relieved of duty; backstabbing office politicians; egregious violations of federal human research protections law; indifference, even hostility, of Navy commanders and department heads to policies intended to protect research subjects.

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Navy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft

When I think back about it—not often—I remember the lowlights. Sometimes the enemy was shuffling incompetence by mid-grade officers and civilians; often it was gibberish emails and interminable, sleep-inducing staff meetings. “A task transferred (i.e., pitched to someone else) is a task completed” was the operative mindset at HQ. Some of it was sitcom material: Our field “specialists” routinely produced incomprehensible trip reports. A staff attorney recruited the head of the legal department to raid our budget to increase her salary. Then the floodtide of petty stuff: calling Penn State University “U-Penn” and spelling Colombia, the country, the way the name of the Ivy League school in New York is spelled, etc., over and over.

I recall the positives. My boss, brilliant and creative, a Yale Ph.D. and former astronaut, left our team priceless moments, many of which prompted bursts of laughter in the face of bureaucratic insanity. Those walking by our closed-door meetings wondered: Are they seriously disturbed? Good training, he used to say.

“Fly the aircraft”: accomplish the day’s tasks in the face of the BS. Our antidote was carefully thought-out, professionally executed staff work. Often it took hours of rewrites and do-overs. We didn’t lose our cool, send backbiting emails, or lobby outsiders. The default tactic for our team was to take responsibility for the “s—shows” as well as for the winners.

Recognize truth, confront it. Complete the task. When storms threaten, face them sooner, not later. The truth is ground reality, in the dictum, Factum non verbum. What is truth? For a majority of U.S. Senators today, truth is fear of a Trump tweet. Out in the real economy, millions still seek good work, despite the politically jacked-up statistics. The truth is that all work that satisfies an employer who pays for the labor is good work, no work is humble, all work can be a beginning. “Fly the aircraft” applies for those who sit in comfortable corporate offices and those who agonize, alone late at night in front of a laptop, looking for exactly the right word to express truth in honest English, in their job applications or first novels.

I look back now at those nine years as a uniquely bizarre experience, a descent into the Challenger Deep of government management animated by ponderous clichés and governed by policies and procedures routinely ignored. Not to throw stones only one way: I saw the same things on the industry side, where contractors connived to milk the government in ingenious ways, often with amazing success.

This is just my cynicism. Yet that time also offered precious lessons, or one, anyway, in the legacy of a leader who supported good people and knew how to confront crisis. After he retired because of a medical emergency, I pondered the meaning of the aircraft metaphor. I summoned memories of my college-years immersion in Hemingway’s fiction, looking for echoes of common ground. Hemingway pared away adjectives and used three space-bar spaces between words to isolate the meaning of each. He produced spare, austere fiction that won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Many think he pointed to hard truths. Others say he created only delusions.

Eventually Hemingway failed, with a shotgun. But when we think about things that matter, we wonder why we think they matter. We seek truth and joy, but we may instead find doubt, ambiguity, darkness. We hope we respond with integrity. First, faith. Second, good training. Then: “fly the aircraft.”

Wintergreen

February 3, 2020

Sandy and I shoved off about ­­­7:00 AM for Wintergreen, the mountain-ski community in Nelson County, deep in the Blue Ridge. High time we got out of town, we thought, after frantic weeks of writing projects, home and car repairs, and our new hobby, throwing stuff out.

Part of the idea was to find a place for a family trip this summer. The kids agreed on a week in June. They vetoed a beach trip, so we thought—the mountains. We wanted to go anyway. We wanted to breathe the cool air of the Shenandoahs, to feel the silence, and the mystery.

For years we’ve headed toward the mountains on the way to southwest Virginia and Tennessee. It’s a pretty trip for most of the way, down U.S. 29 through rolling farmland and wine country. South of Culpeper you start seeing the long Shenandoah ridge to the west, reminding you you’ve left the northern Virginia suburbs, a happy sensation. Then you hit Charlottesville. The area, built around Monticello and the showcase University of Virginia campus, once was considered attractive. Now you face miles of highway construction and retail sprawl into the city still living with the failure of its police force  to control the “Unite the Right” riots of August 2017, made famous by President Trump.

So this time we chucked the usual route and circled around, I-95 to Fredericksburg, then west on U.S. 3 toward Orange. We passed history: Chancellorsville and The Wilderness, two of the most cataclysmic Civil War engagements, somber under gray skies, the artillery pieces green with age. But the route is serene, taking us south through Piedmont Virginia and its wide pastures and rural places. We drove west on I-64 for 20 miles, the Shenandoahs now looming around us, high rows of dark, jagged peaks showing a topping of snow.

wp-15805922414542595106280375077063.jpgFrom the interstate we turned onto U.S. 250 and 151, then headed up, winding into the mist as snow drifted silently, coating the forest. We arrived after four miles of nervous chugging up the sinuous route to the top with a line of impatient drivers behind us. The air was crisp with a bite to it as we hiked stiffly from the parking lot to the lodge. Skiers in their sleek coveralls were everywhere, clomping in their cleated boots, hauling their gear to the lifts, sipping coffee next to the slope, impervious to the cold. We shivered and hurried indoors to the Starbucks. After thawing out we wandered through the lodge’s chic boutiques, which offer the cutest ski togs. Not for us, now or probably ever.

The mountains always are spectacular, here they create the allure that justifies plopping a massive resort community in the middle of nowhere. The Wintergreen people have been careful to hide the gas station, supermarket, and other enterprises in stone and log buildings. Everything is quite pricey. Wintergreen, like lots of similar places on mountaintops or along picturesque beaches, attracts people because it’s out-of-the-way, expensive, discreet.

We’ve visited a couple of times, three years ago, when the running group rented a house for a weekend, then two summers ago, when Sandy and I got a townhouse for two nights. We hiked the Appalachian Trail, which runs right past the place, and sat outside gawking at the mountains, which in summer fade into that famous Blue Ridge haze. A crackling late-night thunderstorm made the magic more intense as lightening flickered around us, illuminating the peaks for a hundred miles. The forest trails around us were classic Appalachia, jagged white granite, fixed where it had formed eons ago.  We saw few others except in the restaurant. People go to Wintergreen to hike or hide, to find some kind of respite, to catch their breath from modern life.

We gulped some coffee and ventured outside to watch the skiers race down the slopes, covered mostly with fake snow. It was cold, but not New England- or Rocky Mountain-type cold. We heard folks chattering in various languages. Wintergreen has achieved a certain cachet with the ski set, I guess, at least for those who can’t get to Vail or Aspen or Killington. But they were having fun. All that moving around must keep them warm.

After watching for a while we got around to our chore, looking for a place for that June week. The rentals are scattered all over the mountain, some with spectacular, scary views of the valley, others secluded in the forest. We plotted several on a map and drove around trying to find them. It was mostly guesswork; street addresses generally aren’t released.

We’ve pulled off this family vacation plan three times, in different places, the last one was four years ago. Our older grandson then was two, the younger guy hadn’t been born. Their parents, our second daughter and son-in-law, have moved to South Carolina. Our son and daughter-in-law, near Philly, have moved on to bigger jobs. The youngest daughter lives in Colorado, the oldest was living in New Orleans. They all have busy, complicated lives. They’ve started taking their own vacations, building their own traditions.

wp-15805923349898030615402816750557.jpgThe logistics get complicated, time slips away. Projects and chores crowd the days and weeks. Our street, the neighborhood, the everyday places, expand as if they were our entire world.

But the street we’re on has no wilderness silence, no deep forest trails, no silhouettes of ancient peaks stretching to the horizon.

By late afternoon the sky had darkened, we started for home. At some point along the twisting road down the mountain we pulled over and got out and stared at the sharp cliffs and deep valley below, barely visible through the snowy mist. In the chill we asked ourselves whether some elusive truth lay within the unearthly wonder around us. We wondered if the raw beauty of nature in its rugged, mystical, God-given form offers some transformative power, power to overcome indifference, pettiness, human frailty.

After a few minutes we felt the winter wind rising above us, the evergreens whispering and swaying. We got back in the car and left this southern mountaintop—a dark stopping place on a complicated journey.

 

The Victorian

January 27, 2020

The headlines of The Washington Post screamed through the past week of corruption, politicking and political malfeasance, and again, corruption. All that emerged from the start of the impeachment trial. Depending on your political habits, it will be over too soon, or not soon enough.

If you’ve paid attention you’ve heard both sides malign each other, going back months. The impeachment story is ready for syndication even with the proceedings still underway. Both sides understand one thing: Americans knew Trump was corrupt when they elected him. The millions who voted Republican in 2016 sought neither integrity, nor character, nor even success in business in their candidate. They got what they voted for. So here we are. We may feel many things about our public life right now, but we should not feel surprise.

Yet we do admire integrity, devotion to work, a commitment to the collective good—qualities that provide balance to the flaws of every human person. I thought about that when a few days ago I finished James Grant’s eloquent biography of Walter Bagehot (Badge-it), entitled Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian.

Bagehot, not the first but the most revered editor of The Economist, which started publishing in 1843, may not strike a familiar chord with all Americans. Those who pay attention to the science of money know him as the 19th century’s keenest observer of nearly everything to do with business and finance. Grant’s diamond-hard prose documents Bagehot’s mastery of not only the English language but also the nuances of finance and banking theory, which he both reported and, to a large degree, helped create.

As a Unitarian, Bagehot was not welcome at Oxford or Cambridge; he earned his law degrees at University College London, only to abandon the law for banking and then for journalism.

Grant, editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer and himself a trailblazer in financial journalism, appraises Bagehot as both brilliant and curmudgeonly. The amazingly prolific Bagehot opposed giving women important work in business and predicted a Confederate victory in the American Civil War.

At times wrong, he never retreated or apologized. He stood for election to Parliament three times and lost three times. In his The English Constitution, he explained his distrust of commoners; in Physics and Politics he offered suppositions on the evolution of civilized society. He warned bankers who sought recklessly to lend money to Honduras, Peru, Egypt, and other unstable places. His words proved prescient.

The “greatest Victorian” embodied the prudential habits of mind and manner nearly unknown in business and politics today. “Victorian” now seems a quaint pejorative, suggesting dull, puritanical, uncreative. In truth, it alludes to qualities we hope our leaders represent or strive for: industry, discipline, and unassailable honesty. Grant cites the words of G.M. Young, writing of Bagehot in The Spectator in 1937:  “He was in and of his age and who could have been of no other: a man with sympathy to share, and genius to judge, its sentiments and movements.”

In his great work, Lombard Street, published four years before he died in 1877 at 51, Bagehot said he wished to deal with “concrete realities.” Grant reports that he urged the adoption of monetary policies suitable for times of “apprehension.” He defended the gold standard and free trade. He dissected the banking practices that emerged from Britain’s Reform Act of 1867 which, Grant writes, made the new structure of English commerce “democratic.” Bagehot criticized the “new men” who flashed more credit than money in their hurry to get rich. “They rely on cheapness, and rely successfully,” he warned. Shades of our present day.

In Lombard Street Bagehot writes: “All people are most credulous when they are most happy; and when much money has just been made … there is a happy opportunity for ingenious mendacity. Almost anything will be believed for a little while, and long before discovery the worst and most adroit deceivers are geographically or legally beyond the reach of punishment.”

Grant tells us that Bagehot wrote the still-accepted prescription for stopping a run on banks: “Faced with a crisis, a central bank should lend freely at a high rate of interest against good banking collateral.” Those words, the author says, are invoked to this day with the part about high interest rates left out. They were cited repeatedly during our banking upheaval of 2008.

wp-15799742286156156412639682241773.jpgBagehot, the peerless giant of financial writing of his day, did not own The Economist. Although he lived among Britain’s political and financial elite, he did not become rich. Aware of his own precarious health, he hired an assistant in 1868. He died at his home in Langport, where he was born. Upon his death, he was eulogized by Irish journalist E.D.J. Wilson:  “… the most illustrious of the statesmen who thus consulted a journalist … would be the first to acknowledge how much they owed to the ‘white light’ of his pure and clear intelligence.”

Mrs. Russell Barrington, Bagehot’s sister-in-law, in 1915 published The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot. In her Preface she cites Bagehot’s letter to her sister Eliza before the couple  married: “I do not think I write well, but I write, as I speak in the way (I think) that is natural to me, and the only chance in literature, as if life, is to be yourself. If you try to be more you will be less. But do not take up any extravagant notions of my abilities or you will be disappointed when you find out your mistake …”

Bagehot’s devotion to probity and prudence in finance would leave him shuddering at the promiscuous fiscal practices of the U.S. today. Grant, in his commentary in Grant’s (Jan. 10) asks, after President Trump, in December, signed into law a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill, “who … has much to say about today’s gross public debt of $23.18 trillion?” He adds, “It had taken 192 years to amass the first trillion dollars of government IOUs. And then it took just five months, from Aug. 1—this past Aug. 1—to tack on the newest trillion.”

Bagehot would have something to say. His life and work offer a path to sound public policy by means of sheer intellectual firepower and a heartfelt devotion to the common good. Instead, in 2020, we have in Washington, D.C.—we know what we have.

 

 

A Mission

January 20, 2020

I dialed Sandy’s cell number. She answered.

“I’m done,” I said. “I got lost.”

“You’re kidding.”

As we stumbled further into winter, I started the week getting turned around—check that, lost—in  the 14-mile-long network of mountain bike trails at Fountainhead Regional Park in Fairfax. I ran out on an old horse trail, one I’ve taken many times. On the return I detoured onto a barely visible stretch of trail into unfamiliar woods. I guessed I was entering the northernmost leg of the network, marked Green, not the lower Black or Blue sections, which extend crooked fingers of trails down to the Occoquan Reservoir.

I followed a trail I’d never set foot on, then turned onto another, then another, under thick cloud cover that promised rain. Two hours passed as I ran, then walked, then ran, enjoying the adventure, until I realized I was totally baffled by my surroundings.

I saw no one. It was a weekday, after all. Along yet another branch, three husky white-tail deer leaped ahead of me and crashed through the underbrush. At one point a large red fox ran by. Otherwise, just bird calls and squirrels. The wildlife and I were deep in nature, their element, not mine. Peaceful, if you look at it that way, which is supposed to be the point of venturing out there. Silence, meaning calm, tranquility, respite, which we seek, and treasure when we find it.

I saw the deep-green reservoir ahead and to my left, meaning east—or maybe south. The reservoir branches in short inlets between peninsulas on all sides, so I could be facing either direction. The trail curled around sharp turns into thick woods then back to clear stretches near the water. Through the trees the reservoir grew wider, on the far side I could see a large house, which enjoys a water view. I noticed red blazes occasionally on the trees, but no escape route.

This was Fairfax, Virginia, not some mountain wilderness. I knew I’d walk out, embarrassed. But time was passing. I had said I’d be gone a couple of hours. It had taken 90 minutes to complete the first part of the course, before I entered the network. I could see no clearing along the horizon, just treetops massed in every direction, winter gray and bare of foliage. The dead leaves of last summer covered the trails.

Fountainhead Running Map

The red blazes pulled me around another peninsula, where I quit the trail, grinding my teeth. I skied through the mud down a steep embankment to the water, then hiked overland along the reservoir. The Fountainhead crew dock was visible in the distance, but across another impassable bay. I reclimbed the embankment and reentered the trail, which led to another bypass. In another half-mile I found the spur that would take me to the parking lot.

I had run in circles in the center of a regional forest park, in a maze of trails engineered to be easily navigable, through uniform deciduous woods, with only the meandering reservoir as a vector. I could have been out there even longer. Number one lesson: know where you’re going. I was lucky, the weather was mild, the rain held off.

So this minor-league crisis ended. I wasted time wondering why it happened, where I went wrong, etc., etc. Careless sums it up.

As a counterweight to my self-absorption, Sandy drove the next day with two friends out I-66 and I-81 to Mount Jackson in rural western Virginia to visit a fourth friend, a woman married just a year, now bedridden with a debilitating illness. The friend’s face lit up when she saw them coming, Sandy said.

The three friends knew the woman from their local church choir. At some point she and her fiancé moved the nearly 150 miles out to Mount Jackson, a pretty but remote place just west of the Massanutten Mountains and about halfway between Front Royal and Harrisonburg. We attended their wedding there, in a small Methodist church. A dozen folks from the choir made the trip and sang at the service.

Sandy has visited her a few times since the wedding, usually when I was running trails in the mountains. She’d drop me off at the event start, pick me up in the evening. But since I’ve been laid off that for a while, she has missed those trips.

A small rural community is a hard place for complicated health problems. No specialists practice in Mount Jackson, seeing one means long drives to Front Royal or Harrisonburg. My impression of the place, on one visit: isolation. But what I think doesn’t matter. Sandy’s mission was one of friendship, and hope.

She calls the woman regularly to ask about her health, but more than that, her feelings about her life. She knows how to be a friend.

That evening we drove to Springfield. Bishop Michael Burbidge came to a parish there to make his annual pitch for his Bishop’s Lenten Appeal. A year ago, at the same event (this blog, Feb. 4, 2019) he said a quick prayer for success of my chemo-rad treatment. He was then getting through prostate cancer therapy. We’re both apparently okay now. Sandy mentioned she’s doing well after her stroke last July, taking her meds. The Lord must have heard all those prayers.

The bishop then spoke with passion, as he does, about people in his diocese afflicted by poverty and hopelessness Those folks are hidden, some in the mountain hamlets along I-81, but also in the affluent suburbs around D.C. Drive past wooded lots along the main thoroughfares in Prince William County and look out the window. Through the trees you will see their tents.

Sandy notices them. She’s at ease in our short conversation with the Bishop, and he listens. His BLA does much good, but we know it’s not likely the food donations reach the tent people. The work is huge and enduring. It calls for good people to “go out” of themselves, to recognize the mission. I want to say I keep learning, or at least trying to learn. Between Sandy and me—who had a good day, and a good week–I finished third.

Next Step

January 13, 2020

The New Year arrived with cold and darkness but, for us, also with new ideas about getting out of town permanently. Leaving appears as the Next Step, perhaps the final one.

For some folks, regardless of age, the dream of a life of order and peace, a life that is settled and hopeful, blends with thoughts of moving someplace else. Younger people relocate, some for better jobs, others to change scenery in hope that the new scenery leaves out old problems.

Many older people look forward to moving, usually to a warm place. It may be because their current home or hometown doesn’t hold them in some emotional or spiritual way. Changing addresses may promise some form of peace or truth now lacking. Or they may simply want to be closer to grandchildren.

Some are weary of the world. They may hope to escape the human comedy around them, from lying politicians to nosy neighbors to robocalls. But Shangri-la doesn’t exist.

It’s been no different for us. The idea of moving has been in the air since I quit working, and especially since our kids scattered across the country.  So our eldest daughter, Laura, who’s staying with us for a while, convened a meeting of the three of us in the living room to talk pros and cons about our future dream home, and where we’ll find it.

We’ve been through this before. Readers of this blog also have been put through it. It’s the play that’s always in Act I.

Sandy throws herself into it. For her it’s a newer house with two or three bedrooms, one level, i.e., no stairs; hardwood floors, gas heat, a wraparound porch. Also: a walkable neighborhood, close to stores, parks, a church. Finally, no more than 90 minutes to an airport. I guess that’s an airport served by major airlines, as opposed to a dirt strip.

I have a little fun with it. I say that except for the one level and the wraparound porch, we hit all those markers by staying here in Woodbridge, Va. But that’s not in the program. She points out that some people call this place “Hoodbridge.” As I listen, I can’t help thinking of those retirement trade shows we’ve attended, and the endless do-loop of sales pitches for sunny beaches, walking trails, and golf (this blog, March 4, 2019).

On the “con” side, she ruled out Upper Midwest, New England, “tornado alley,” wall heat, a big yard, a homeowners association, cold, and scorpions. I’m sure that’s still an incomplete list.

In what they suspect is a diversion, I point out that first we have to sort through the junk we’ve stockpiled here over the years, which we didn’t consider junk when we acquired it. That includes piles of the kids’ stuff, tucked away in closets and crawl spaces.

So we go through this drill. As with anyone else, our preferences are based on personal experience and prejudices. I grew up in New Jersey. Who wants to move there? People are fleeing the Garden State, New York, and Connecticut before they’re taxed to death. My younger brother moved from Jersey to Delaware, a tax haven. Delaware just doesn’t grab me.

Pennsylvania, where our son and daughter-in-law live, is a fascinating state, full of smart people, rich history, and beautiful places. I finished my one 100-mile ultra-run in Titusville, way up near Erie a few years back. Great trip. But winters, and even autumns, are pretty darn cold there.

Our youngest daughter lives in Colorado ski country. We’ve been to Montana, which is spectacular, but only in summer. Rocky Mountain winter weather is a big negative. I’d like to explore the Southwest. But a Maryland friend with family in New Mexico said that state taxes make New Mexico more expensive than Maryland. I want to see more of Texas, but it’s had its share of violent weather lately.  California and the Pacific Northwest are gorgeous, but too expensive, too remote.

Our second daughter Marie and her family are in the Greenville, S.C., area. So the inclination for the moment is a mid-size city in the Southeast, but not too Southeast. We’d steer clear of the rural Deep South, ruling out Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Northern Georgia, with its rugged mountains, could be OK, I wouldn’t go near Atlanta or the mint-julip South. We have friends and family in Florida. I like the warm weather, don’t like the flatness and the bugs.

wp-15788568598754573194469241337945.jpgI keep reminding myself, as Thomas Wolfe wrote in his lyrical way, “you can’t go home again.” Years ago we assumed we’d go back to Nashville, which was a friendly, comfortable place when we left in the mid-eighties. It’s now congested and expensive. Still, the great storyteller Peter Taylor’s In the Tennessee Country makes me think about the Volunteer State. Sandy has family near Chattanooga. Her hometown is in Franklin County, below the beautiful Cumberland Plateau and near the respected University of the South. But we’d quickly run out of things to do there.

The list probably is endless. Last week Marie called and said someone told her that Floyd, Va., southeast of Roanoke, is a nice place. So is Canton, N.C., west of Ashville, which I toured by looking it up on the internet. Not mid-size cities. But local boosters say they offer interesting history, modest home prices, mountain vistas, and Fourth of July celebrations.

We come back to the same place. We have a bunch of fix-up projects to take care of here. Other things get in the way and the time melts away.

Among the things that get in the way: the comfortable sameness of the place we’ve lived in for so long. Moving, even to some paradise on earth, means saying goodbye to the same old neighborhood with the same old neighbors, some of them eccentric, not all of them friendly—the same church, the same parks, the same weather—none of that fabulous, but familiar. And the house we’ve slept in all these years, and the memories that haunt it, of kids growing up—the swim meets, soccer games, science projects, Brownie and Cub Scout meetings, grandma visits—all those things that cling to this place.

So the chore is to convince ourselves that the next stop on the way to meet our Maker has got more to offer than here, in the way of all those frills we talk about endlessly. Once we do that, we’ll move on, to become strangers again in a strange place. With no tornadoes or scorpions.

The Pantry

January 6, 2020

The Holy Family parish food pantry, where I pulled many shifts until 18 or 19 months ago, looked much like it did last week as when I left. The canned stuff—vegetables, soups, fruit, tuna, and oddball meat products like spam—are on the same shelves. Same with the breakfast cereals, the Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, and so on.  The pasta, Mac ‘n Cheese, Hamburger Helper, and instant potatoes are where I remember them.

The rickety old computer still spits out the roster of clients with phone numbers and addresses, hundreds of them. The list of items included in the food packages—two cans of soup, three canned vegetables, one box of pasta, one sleeve of crackers, a bag or box of rice, and the rest—hasn’t changed.

Several of the volunteers I became friends with still work there, others have left, a few new people have signed on. The pantry has a new director, a volunteer like the workers. He stepped up after the previous director, Ana, an employee who had been there nine years, was let go by the new pastor to cut costs.

Ana put her soul into running the place. She kept the books, stacked shelves, greeted clients, made appointments, counseled desperate people, inspired the staff with her golden heart. She worked like an executive but lived the message of Christ. She was paid an hourly wage with no benefits. First her hours were cut. Then, just before I left, her job was eliminated. The social ministry director, Maddie, who made a vocation of reaching out to support troubled persons and families, also lost her job.

When they left the word was that the pastor planned to shut the place down for security reasons because it’s next to the church school, although inaccessible from the school. I wrote a letter, signed by most of the volunteers, pointing out that the pantry served the county’s poorest people and the food is all donated—that is, free. He backed off on the shutdown, but insisted that clients couldn’t come during school hours, meaning volunteers would have to stay into the evening and work Saturdays.

It was my time to leave, as doctors’ appointments were stacking up. Last Monday I went back. I was happy to see Pat and Marge and Debbie, who had stuck with the place through a hard year. They still were answering calls and making appointments, stacking the donated food, greeting the clients warmly. They wait for latecomers and walk-ins, and smile at those who rifle through the food packages, and those who demand more.

The pantry is besieged with calls, often in Spanish. In this national boomtime for business and 3.5 percent unemployment, the need never relents. People still call every church and social service agency in the county seeking assistance. They are of every race and ethnic group: young couples with small children, middle-aged folks, and seniors, many worn down by hard lives. Some are in the U.S. illegally. They’re out of work or work low-paying, backbreaking jobs. They’re being evicted and have no rent money. They’re overdue on utility bills, the power or water is being shut off. They have to see a doctor because of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease—the illnesses of the chronically unhealthy—but have no insurance. Their children are sick.

That afternoon, my first day back, we had five appointments. We sorted through the produce, throwing away the spoiled fruit and vegetables. This Christmas, a company donated dozens of frozen turkeys. Someone else donated gift cards. A local organic grocery sent their usual shipment of “natural” yogurts and beverages.

After 4 PM the clients started showing up. The first two are couples with young kids. They’ve been here before, they know the routine: show an ID, fill out a form that requires a local address, take a chit that shows the next date they’re eligible to return—they can come once per month.

They’re smiling and grateful, happy to get the frozen turkey.

There’s an informal system—one volunteer greets the clients and checks their name on the computer against the name on the completed form. Someone else hauls out the grocery package from the dozen already assembled. We pack loaves of bread, the fresh veggies and fruit we can spare, meat products if available. Parents with young kids get milk if we have it. First-timers get a few extra items. I load the half-dozen sacks in a shopping cart and walk with them to their car, which typically is beat-up and strewn with the flotsam of hectic, disorganized lives. I load the stuff while they buckle up the kids.

We get a woman who says her whole family is on strict diets and doesn’t need bread or cereal, but will take extra beef and chicken. I unload the unwanted items from her package.

wp-15781648739114367685385102802468.jpgI put together a couple of new packages. The doorbell rings and we go through the routine again. This time it’s an eccentric older guy who wants no meat, just lots of bread, cookies, cakes, even those “Little Debbie” snacks that kids eat. He hangs around when we’re finished loading the shopping cart, hinting he’d like more. We nod and say see you next time.

One or two more, then we’re done. Everyone says thank you and God bless, happy new year. I watch them putter off in their unreliable-looking vehicles, wondering what kind of a year they’ll have. But they’ll have a few good meals, thanks to the folks who keep us stocked. The food is okay. Some of it, the non-perishables, are high in sodium. We have to watch the expiration dates. But it all goes. And the clients will be back. Always.

New Year

December 30, 2019

We arrived home from our South Carolina week numbed by the impact on our brains of all that interstate-staring. Like nearly everyone else, we now stare at the start of 2020, unprepared.

We’re still looking back. We listened to the usual, and always helpful, family suggestions about decluttering and then relocating. We talk about it all the time, wrestle with it, but so far haven’t done anything, even while friends a decade younger plan their moves. Maybe that’s because the past still is with us, not just our Year of Sickness, but the years long gone, when the kids were growing up, when our parents still were with us. Memories draw us back into the past, where our kids think we live comfortably.

It’s true, the coming year is a blank but for a few ideas, some hopeful, others whimsical, and our preemptive strategy for not thinking about the election that everyone already is thinking about and already angry about.

We, or anyone, can try to avoid the anger by dreaming. One thought is a family summer trip to the Shenandoahs. We’d rent a house, the kids would come for a week or a few days. Alternatively, the same type of thing at the beach. We haven’t sold either idea, they wonder what the mountains offer besides hiking. Meanwhile we’ve resurrected our old plan to drive to Florida to see friends and cousins. Then, or before then, I want to get back to New England, maybe Long Island again. Sandy wants to visit our youngest daughter, Kathleen, in Colorado, and see what we should see out there.

We indulge ourselves like this. Medical stuff may get in the way. Short story: everything depends on other things.

wp-15776428649353933121051813291256.jpgThe real world rushes back. The country is in a hard place, consumed with hard feelings. In recent days the Post reported the sad story of a farm family in upstate New York made desperate by the drop in milk prices caused by Trump trade-war tariffs. The parents scramble, embarrassed, for groceries at food pantries, apply for food stamps, and ration meals for their young children, while repeating the Trump mantra: “It’s gonna hurt for a while.” Meanwhile, neighboring farms already have been sold or abandoned.

You find plenty of sources for what’s going on in America, one being the Labor Department’s employment statistics: 266,000 new non-farm jobs in November. A December rally puts stock equities indexes close to a two-decade high. CNBC reports that “36 percent of millionaires support Trump, up from 32 percent in May.” (It then adds, though, that head-to-head he would lose millionaires to Biden.)

The report about the millionaires is strange, but probably true.

Then you can drive through small towns nearly anywhere, southern Virginia or East Tennessee being good places to start, and pass boarded-up stores, abandoned factories, mines, and gas stations; shut-down hospitals, clinics, nursing homes. In these places people drive for hours to line up for free medical care; survive on public assistance; maybe work part-time in retail and fast food.

Sure, these anecdotes are cherry-picked. But the folks working shifts at the 7-11s and Walmarts probably aren’t impressed by the December rally.

The anger isn’t only about bank accounts.  It allows no compromises, it is raw and deep and lacerates the souls of men and women, whether affluent or in poverty, who see no answers in the nation’s political life.

The antidote, if we seek one, is truth, learned through reason, and faith.

That is to say: truth is what exists around us, a lesson taught by Aristotle in those long-ago B.C. years. He explains that we recognize the truth of the physical world, its fundamental nature, through reason, a razor-sharp weapon that demolishes the pernicious notion that we can, all of us, have our own personal truth.

Aristotle’s triumph, handed down by wise men through the centuries, became the bedrock for hard-won traditions and values, personal and political. Over time and even today, those traditions and values have been distorted and manipulated by totalitarians, candidates for public office, and their helpers.

The pontificating above, in the bared teeth of national anger fed by Fox and MSNBC, won’t help much. But to dive deep beyond the power of reason, to again paraphrase Aristotle—we discover another, more sublime truth, revealed by faith. If we accept it, faith leads us to recognize a higher form of existence beyond the world we see, which we can call God. That simple assent helps us know good and evil, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, the moral life and its opposite. We then are equipped to confront the seedy domain of politics in peace, free of anger and resentment, prepared to change the country, and change the world.