The time with the Ancient Mariner

On this humid third day of summer, the air was heavy, the skies threatening, the bugs, bugging. So what better way to spend a day off than to take the tin can out for a shake down splash in the local waters of Ipswich Bay. One problem though, this shaky skipper was nursing a bum shoulder, and wimp that he is, didn’t want to press his luck hitching up, pushing off, and hauling out. So a call was made to the Ancient Mariner.

“Up for a boat ride?”

A thoughtful pause precedes a skeptical query, “Today?”

“Sure, why not. Hot day, flood tide, weekday traffic at the Wharf. I’ll even spring for a sandwich.”

“Beer too.”

“Okay. You gotta help me with the trailer though.”

“Add a cookie. When do we shove off ?”

“Oh nine thirty hours, or thereabouts.”

Now the Ancient Mariner knows a thing or two about boats. We both grew up on the river of course, but unlike this land-based flat foot, the Ancient Mariner earned his bread piloting The Howard Fitzpatrick – the celebrated  Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Boat. He spent years cruising the turbulent waters of Boston Harbor and its environs, dousing pier fires, trawling for former close associates of James Bulger, and escorting political wannabes’ through the choppy seas of Bay State politics. Such experience, to say the least, has provided the Ancient Mariner with an uncanny ability to accurately read the waters and thus avoid the treacherous shoals of life.

To prepare for our journey, I keep my promise and pony up accordingly at Ipswich River Provisions. One TCBLT (no onions please) a six-pack of Lighthouse IPA (the Ancient Mariner has expensive tastes with other people’s money) and a ginger snap safely stored with water and sunscreen. A final scan of the skies as the trailer clanks onto the hitch, and we’re off on the quarter-mile journey to the boat ramp.

We’re greeted by the ever popular Dock-Master Ed Walsh, and my heart swells to see him wearing an Ipswich Police Association ball cap. Ed knows me well enough to mention that it’s always a good idea to install the drain plug and ignition key  before backing down to test depth. But I’m on my game today and managed to do these things independently. The ramp is quiet today, so we will avoid the intense scrutiny of other trailer-backer-uppers. The Ancient Mariner is expert at this and in seconds, the Lund is in the water, it’s forty horse Mercury purring like a kitten.

We cast off and make our way down river, passing the milestones of our shared youth. Carl Nordstrom’s old home, lovingly restored and cared for by Barbara Ostberg and her late husband Dick. The flat rock where we would dive into the multi-colored waters of yesteryear (depending on what industrial material was released upriver from the Sylvania plant) and the final resting place of the Nancy II.Things have changed in the last fifty years, but much remains as before.

I’m distractedly fiddling with the cable to the depth finder when the Ancient Mariner casually suggests a course correction to avoid striking the rocky end of Nabby’s Point. I take his advice and bear to starboard. There’s plenty of water, so who needs a depth finder anyway? With a wave to the Green Homestead high above the riverbank, we clear the no wake zone, steer through the short cut and in no time enter Plum Island Sound.

The light wind and calm surf makes a run to the outside irresistible. A curious seal marks our progress along the beachfront. Cape Ann glimmers through the morning haze against the deep blue of the ocean. Clouds roil above, and turning past the spit, we enter the Essex River.

“Hey, I finally got the depth finder to work,” I exclaim.

“Good. Try not to hit that Boston Whaler in front of us,” chides my elder.

Another seal bobs along the surface, this one with white markings on his head.

“Grey hair, like us,” observes the Ancient Mariner.

We back down for the mooring area and glide slowly through Conomo Point. Passing a small charter boat bearing a half-dozen anglers trolling for strippers, the Ancient Mariner ruefully observes the slackness of their lines.

“Amateurs,” he chuckles between bites of his cookie. “Who else would pay good money to go fishing so close to shore. Just stand on the dock and do it for free, for Crissakes.”

We power up, continuing  toward Essex Harbor. The flood has drawn floats of marsh grass into the river, requiring sophisticated and repeated maneuvering on my part to avoid fouling the prop.

“You got trouble going in a straight line?”

“I’m taking reasonable preoccupations to avoid a catastrophic failure of the engine.”

Noting that the sun was crossing the meridian somewhere, the Ancient Mariner helps himself to an IPA.

“Not bad,” he observes.

Essex Harbor swells with power boats of all description.

“If you fired up all these oversized outboard motors at the same time, the noise would be deafening,” I’m told.

“True. It would likely draw all the water out of the river as well.”

We turn and glide downstream. I relinquish the helm to the Ancient Mariner and try an IPA.

“Agreed, these are pretty good.”

“Why don’t you break out that sandwich,” he suggests.

“A splendid idea.”

As we jointly rave over the culinary talents of Chef Markos, the Ancient Mariner suggests a course correction.

“Let’s go through the creek behind Hog Island.”

“They call it Choate Island now.”

“Who said?”

“I don’t really know for sure. The Trustees, I guess.”

“Why the hell do some people think they have the right to change everything? No one ever asked me what I thought. I’m not sending them any more money. Screw em’.”

You send them money now?”

The silence is deafening.

Observing the effect of the flood tide, the Ancient Mariner notes, “It’s hard to find the channel when you can’t see where the sea grass is.”

Looking over the side into the water below, I mention that I can see the grass very clearly.

“Oh, shit. You’re right. The depth finder says two feet, two inches. Guess we should get out and push us clear.”

“We? You gotta mouse in your pocket? You’re the one who put us here.”

“I thought the channel was to the left of the Osprey nest.”

“I think you are wrong. And I’ve heard that the Osprey kill wayward boaters and feed them to their young.”

“Hope not. There’s one circling above us now. But it looks deeper over there. We’ll just ease it slow,” he says as he trims the motor.

We eventually wind up where we belong, but not without an invasion mutant gnats from hell.

“Jesus. What are these things? You can’t slap them fast enough. Get us in open water and make full steam,” I plead.

Finally, we break out into the Castle Neck River and leave the gnats to the couple struggling on their SUP’s.

Recovering our stoic composure, we find the entrance to Fox Creek and slip under the road Argilla. The Castle looms ahead, the marsh a pastel of emerald greens, the egrets and herons magnificent as they volplane to grassy landings.

Noting the obvious, I say, “Funny, we never strayed too far from Ipswich.”

“Look around. Why would you want to.”

“Your right. For the price of a couple of gallons of gas, a beer and a sandwich, it’s a little bit of heaven.”

“That’s what I just said.”

“Okay. You get the last word.”

 

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Here We Go

Well folks, we are only hours away from the swearing-in of POTUS # 45, Donald J. Trump. Some view this event as the beginning of the end. Others see it as the end of the beginning, envisioning more of the same thrills, chills and spills that had marked his unorthodox campaign and shocking victory. Plenty to love or hate here, depending on what horse you backed. But I wonder what the forty-plus percent of eligible voters who didn’t cast a ballot think of it?

The reaction of many in the Democratic Party, soon to be renamed the Party of Sore Losers, defines the old adage, “It’s all over but the crying.” From safety pins, sit-ins, street demonstrations, bumper stickers, Facebook posts and all variety of “Not My President” protestations, it seems the president-elect is in for a rocky road indeed. At last count, sixty-two members of the shrinking Democratic minority in Congress now plan to skip the Inauguration entirely, poking their collective fingers into the eye of this cherished ceremony long symbolizing our history of peaceful political transition.

The Inauguration promises to be a more toned-down affair than seen in years past. This is due primarily to the left-leaning entertainment industry turning their collective derrieres on any thought of celebration. So, no Beyonce’, Mariah Carey (thank God) The Boss or Madonna. Party-goers at the several Deplorable Balls staged throughout the Capitol will have to settle for entertainment from Tony Orlando (without Dawn) and Kiss cover bands.

But the Big Story is the promised Women’s March on Washington scheduled for Saturday. Liberal ladies and others from across the nation and beyond are planning to descend on the Capitol to occupy, resist, and voice their collective disgust, dismay and distrust of the new man in the White House. The march will be transformative. It will be empowering. It will give men complete license to act foolishly during the NFL playoffs on Sunday. But mostly, it will screw up Washington traffic for hours and create havoc for the poor slobs trying to schlep to their weekend jobs to put bread on the table.

The media coverage of this march will be ubiquitous and predictable. CNN, NPR, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Boston Globe and other progressive media outlets will breathlessly report crowds totaling in the millions, preaching solidarity and sending a message to be heard round the world. Fox, Breibart, the Boston Herald and MAD Magazine will casually mention that a few dozen misguided people wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue seeking a selfie with Ashley Judd. Clearly, big media wins huge with this election.

The passing of the torch to a new President and Republican majority causes my cynical heart to wax nostalgic. I will miss the rants of the Rabid Right claiming Barack Obama a closeted Muslim and jihadist agent-provocateur, plotting to disarm America through the deployment of blue-helmeted United Nations peace keeping forces made up of battalions of third world troops surreptitiously garrisoned in red states with orders to confiscate every last AR-15 and AK-47, even sacrilegiously prying the late, revered Charlton Heston’s treasured flintlock from his dead hands.

But I take solace that this nonsense is being rapidly supplanted by the howls of the Loony Left. Coping with the shock of Hillary Clinton’s uncanny achievement of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, they have emerged from a very brief period of soul-searching and finger-pointing to conclude that she really had won all along. Her victory was merely muted by “non-college educated,” (their pc term for illiterate) white voters from the more backward, reactionary, culturally primitive and rusty parts of the country – roughly within the confines of the Appalachian Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, the Canadian border and the Gulf of Mexico.

They reason these poor dupes were grossly manipulated by a cynical billionaire with a smart phone employing tactical support provided by Russian intelligence and the F.B.I. Throw in the obsolete, inherently racist, democracy confounding Electoral College, and you have a trifecta casting long odds.

To counter this, the L.L. supports massive increases of Planned Parenthood funding in the red states, professes a new-found affection for their long time enemy the C.I.A., and demands the elimination of the Electoral College – or at least the merger of it with Harvard University.

The election has brought about a climate change in the rarefied air of the Washington political environment. The Democrats have suddenly discovered their latent Federalist tendencies. Suddenly, the succor and support offered by local and state government as a backstop against the bullying Federal behemoth seems like a very good thing indeed. Separation of Powers is hailed by Progressive Federalists with a zeal not seen since the time of John Breckenridge and Jefferson Davis. They have also become New-Age Cold Warriors, expressing antagonism and hostility toward anything generally Russian and specifically Putinistic. (I invented a new word here) They have convinced themselves that Donald Trump is merely a martinet, jerked to and fro by the puppet-master and former KGB strongman.

Rumors abound that Russian intelligence agents not only had the dirt on Hillary Clinton’s machinations against the late Bernie Sanders campaign, but more shockingly, unconfirmed reports hinted they have POTUS # 45 on tape in flagrante delicto in Moscow with someone not Melania. Mr. Trump immediately mounted a vigorous defense of his fidelity to wife number three, claiming to be both a germophobe and someone far too wary of surveillance to fall for that old honey-trap. But oh, how far we have fallen. Note this as we say goodbye to a president embodying class and replace him with someone known for crass.

The Republicans, now in control of the whole shooting match, do what power-drunk politicians always do. The shocking thing is the speed in which they managed to stick both feet in their gaping mouths when caught attempting to de-fang an “ethics” watchdog committee on the first day of their congressional majority.

“Whoops, what were we thinking,” they said after the rest of the world cried fowl. Even the President-Elect chided them for acting so hastily.

Indeed, with approval ratings in the thirty percentile, it would appear that President Trump has nowhere to go but up. I hope that he does show up for the swearing-in on Friday and doesn’t just tweet “I Do” from his Manhattan fortress. We are entering a new political reality on January 20th,  with a President who really doesn’t give a hoot about his adopted political party and threatens to act independently….or so he says.

This maliciously moderate, cynical centrist has only two words for you:

Stand by.

 

 

A Cup of Kindness

Well folks, another year bites the dust. So goes 2016; fading from view, receding in the mirror, evaporating in the mist of time and space. Probably many are cheering good riddance and bring on a new and better year. The passage of time; straight, chronological and sequential, disposes us to linear thinking. A leads to B, followed by C, etc, etc. But do our lives truly unfold this way? Or are they more circular, buffeted constantly by the winds of change and unpredictable events?

All of us experienced some form of change this past year. Much of it good; perhaps a new job, a home, a grandchild or some other positive experience. Many have tasted the bitter sadness of life brought about through the loss of loved ones, friends, health or security. But the undeniable truth is that we all lived this year as it came to us. And if you are able to read this you have lived to see the dawning of a new one. So give yourself a gold star, you are a survivor.

To be alive is to be challenged. Life is designed to be hard and people similarly created to cope with it, engage with it and remain awake and involved, not timid and passive. I don’t mean to imply that one must be a raging, extroverted, hard-driving dynamo. We have plenty of these in the world and they’re doing just fine, thank you. But for the rest of us, rather than just breathing the air, or marking the days off the calendar as they slip from our grasp, we are better rewarded by engaging in life at the level we were meant to. Taste the joys, feel the sublime pleasures, share a laugh, give a hug, watch the sky, bring the hope.

You may be saddened by the loss of someone who meant so much to you. This person may have been your spouse, brother or sister, child or best friend. Remember that as much as they meant to you, life is a two-way street, and you meant that much to them and more. You shared the gift that mattered most, the gift of yourself.

Many years ago, a very wise friend told me that on every New Years Day he would make a list consisting of three things he hoped for, three things he feared and three things for which he was grateful. He found that by doing so, he could lay out some hope for the future, give a name to the things that troubled him, and express gratitude for his present and his past.  He then would seal the list in an envelope to be opened on the following New Years Eve.

I do the same now and when reviewing my list, am often amused that the things I feared the most rarely came to pass. Some hopes were realized, others will be renewed for the coming year. Gratitude, at this place in life where more years belong to yesterday than tomorrow, is a daily thing. Blessings untold; the pleasures afforded me by the people in my life, the opportunity of expression, the quiet joy of solitude, the mystery of existence.

Let me close by wishing you all every blessing and hope in the next year. This past one was a doozy, but we’re still here, just as we are supposed to be. The passage of time will illuminate the good things and dim the glow of the more forgettable ones. And for a quiet, contemplative farewell to 2016, the opening verses of “Years End” by poet Richard Wilbur seem appropriate.

 

“Now winter downs the dying of the year,

And night is all a settlement of snow;

From the soft street the rooms of houses show

A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,

Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin

And still allows some stirring down within.”

          Happy New Year

Interesting Time To Be Alive

We are fortunate to be living through interesting times. Life seems to have an intense urgency to it now, an edgy feeling of uncertainty and doubt. Having undergone a year of blistering, enervating and sometimes tragically comical presidential political campaigning, we emerged in November with an unexpected result. Some are happy, some sad, many, like me, wearily skeptical of what comes next. No one seems energized in a particularly positive way; but this is a qualified observation, living as I do in eastern Massachusetts, an epicenter of progressive political orthodoxy.

People much wiser than I saw this all coming. They’ve pointed out the huge disparity in turnout at the various political campaign rallies; legions waiting hours to hear Donald Trump, somewhat less for Bernie Sanders and far fewer for Hillary Clinton. And where Hillary Clinton’s staid, scripted, politically correct and carefully crafted campaign speeches did little to fire up the faithful or persuade the undecided, her one “Deplorable” slip during a weak moment only magnified the suspicion of many as to her true feelings toward those who opposed her.

Contrast this to Donald Trump’s endless barrage of insults, innuendos and off the wall pronouncements; statements if said in another time by another person would have been fatal to a political campaign, but for him apparently attracted as many as were repelled. The pundits missed this and his support has been attributed to “non-college educated whites,” as if being one or the other or both is a sort of disease. Even the term “Rust Belt” has been adopted as a put-down by some of Trump’s detractors.

I know many good people, from all ages, walks of life and levels of education. Some voted one way, some the other. Each believed in a valid reason to do so. None of them are stupid, radical, racist, anti-American, misogynistic or any of the other labels and judgments heaped upon them from the opposite side. None of them wish bad things for America, but instead yearn for a way forward in their lives. Recounts, recriminations, and continued droning on about the results seem to me both counter-productive and draining. It’s all over but the crying. This should end too.

What has not been widely discussed however is the issue of voter turnout, or lack thereof. In 2016, over 231 million Americans were eligible to vote. But fewer than 136 million chose to do so – about 58% of all eligible voters. This in spite of early and absentee voting created to increase turnout. Why is it that nearly 96 million people didn’t bother to vote? When you consider that the popular vote winner received almost 31 million fewer votes than the number of people who didn’t bother to cast a ballot, it suggests such dissatisfaction with politics, on the national level at least, that both major parties should hang their heads in shame.

In terms of selecting our President, I believe that our nation is simply too large and too diverse to prosper with such high levels of voter disgust and disengagement. But such widespread alienation from the political process seems to have had little effect on how the two major parties go about doing business. Their structure, rules of engagement and win at all cost philosophy ignores the desire of the millions of Americans in search of national unity, common purpose and a shared vision.

It’s been said that in a democracy, politics is the stage where our personal differences are played out.The parties are intended to advance our differing points of view in ways that seek solutions through compromise and consensus building. But rather than seek consensus and support compromise, the two major parties do all that they can to exacerbate these differences in a cynical manner to gain or maintain power. Rallying around opposite poles, the parties remain afraid to drop their labels, cross the aisle and cooperate to the degree that actually solves problems.

Where will be in another four years? Perhaps only Donald Trump’s hairdresser knows for sure, but this is doubtful. Will we be a freer people, more prosperous, more civil toward each other? Or will we be tilting away from democracy and toward a new fascism, once defined by Mussolini as the perfect marriage of corporation and state? Like I said, we are living through interesting times.

Continuing Education

Many people are intelligent, plenty are dumb and few are wise. The well-educated and seemingly knowledgeable may fall into any of these categories. So too can those who have gained most of their education attending the university of hard knocks. As a general rule in a world where general rules are suspect, I think that we can truly know only what we have either experienced, had done to us, or have done to others. All the rest is simply guess-work and speculation.

While speaking on the phone with my eighty-three year old Aunt recently, she lamented that the more television news she watches, the more she is convinced that the world has gone insane. I suggested that the news is always bad, especially the television variety, and that the motive for this is often profit-driven, ratings based, sensationalism.  I added that she may prefer to limit her exposure to all this dramatic doom and gloom and reminded her that she had survived many personal tragedies, heart breaks and other calamities that make for a life in this world. She thanked me for pointing out her resilience and ended our conversation with the observation that the only good thing left on television today was re-runs of Barney Miller. So there.

Like my older brothers, my parents sent me to St. Stanislaus Parochial School rather than the local Ipswich Public Schools. They apparently believed that the discipline proffered by the good Sisters of Saint Chrétien was just what I needed. I did nine years of hard time there, nine years of French (can’t speak a word except eh’) got sidetracked by the “new math,” and spent most of my days gazing out the window as the canaries flew around my head. But I think that the Sisters did a pretty good job of driving a strong sense of right vs. wrong through my dense skull. They also instilled the belief that everyone counts and that no one is special.

When I was thirteen, the world I lived in crashed when my father died at only fifty-six years of age. My mother was devastated, not only by the death of the man she loved, but by the sudden and dramatic threat to our economic security. She found a job and we received Social Security survivor benefits as long as I remained in school. Life went on.

During high school, I was more or less out to lunch. This was Essex Aggie in the late 60’s and early 70’s. A former teacher there once described the place as the last stop kids made before dropping out of school. The legal drinking age in Massachusetts then had been lowered to eighteen, the illegal drinking age even lower. I took full advantage of both. The Aggie campus was loosey-goosey; and more than once we would jump into a friend’s car and spend our lunch money down at The Green Barrel, a nearby bar that served us no questions asked. When recess was over, we would return to school for the rest of the day – or not. Sometimes, we were just too tired.

When I finally graduated, the future was clouded by the fact that I had forgotten to apply to college. That’s only partly true; I really just didn’t want to go. I figured a job or the Army would be alternately more fun or give me some sense of direction in life. I was open to either.  However, different opinions prevailed – especially the one expressed by my mother equating those survivor benefits to a roof over our heads. So I kept busy digging graves and mowing lawns for the local Cemetery Department. I also got into North Shore Community College Division of Continuing Education – night school, to study Law Enforcement.

North Shore’s main campus was the old, retro-fitted Beverly High School building on Essex Street. There were other rented spaces above pizza parlors and scattered locations in Gloucester and Lynn.  I took five classes a week while working full-time during the day. The day job paid for the night school with a few nickels left over for some beers with Roger from Rockport at the old Barney’s on Cabot Street. I was one of the few young people in classes populated mostly by older cops studying to earn their Quinn Bill benefits. I got to know city cops, town cops and state troopers – all of them in search of a fifteen percent raise, and of course, enlightenment and knowledge.

I give full credit to North Shore for igniting the spark which eventually led me to read something more challenging than a comic book. There was a math teacher who was able to convey geometry in a way I could almost comprehend, lawyers who understood the Constitution and English instructors who encouraged writing. There was also a cute little Italian girl from Beverly with big brown eyes who was my lab partner in Zoology. We dissected a fetal pig together on Friday nights and decided we liked each other. This deserves a story of its own and perhaps I’ll tell it sometime…….. But there was something about her.

Hanging around all of those cops filled with tales of interesting experiences fueled a desire within toward a career in policing. So I asked them how I could get one. They told me to take the entrance exams. All of them. Everywhere. They also told me to turn twenty-one. This second part was a problem as I was only eighteen. So, more school and a different day job. Enter Suffolk University; formerly of Beacon Hill, now occupying all of downtown Boston. Also enter Essex County Mosquito Control. Suffolk accepted almost all of my credits from North Shore. I was able to schedule five classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and work for Mosquito Control on Tuesday and Thursday plus a side job on Saturday’s landscaping with Billy Poole in Hamilton. The extra money was important as Suffolk’s tuition was steeper than North Shores.

In those days, Suffolk was a small, commuter school drawing most of its working class student body from Metro-Boston and the ‘burbs along the Boston and Maine Commuter line. Suffolk had no dormitories, no fitness centers or gourmet chow halls. I took a lot of meals at Conda’s, a greasy spoon located behind the State House. They served shells and meat sauce with a roll for $1.95.

Suffolk had first-rate instructors and lots of tenured professors; true academicians in the full sense of the word. I majored in criminology, wrote lots of papers and read text books. I managed to graduate without any debt. It’s worth noting that in the mid-1970s, a young person could still put themselves through four years of college for $10,000. Just a fraction of the cost of a single semester today.

In my last year at Suffolk I turned twenty-one and started taking those entrance exams for police jobs. I followed the old cop’s advice and took the exam for whatever was open; State Police jobs in all the New England, New York and Pennsylvania. Federal exams, local exams, you name it, I took it. Sometimes I scored high enough to get an interview, but most of the “opportunities” ended there.

At that time, Massachusetts Civil Service was stalled by consent decrees, legal challenges, court decisions and counter-decisions. It was an atmosphere of judicial and bureaucratic constipation, with no laxative within reach. So I just kept working at Mosquito Control and taking exams and hoping for something. My erstwhile lab partner became a nurse and after years of courtship, rolled the dice and blessed me with her hand in marriage.

My name came up twice for the local constabulary and in 1980 Chief Brouillette offered me a job with the Ipswich P.D. The last place I ever thought I would land was in my own back yard. I felt like a man on a roll and couldn’t have been happier. We put a hard-earned down payment on a little house and I then left my pregnant wife to go off to the State Police Academy for fourteen weeks of basic training.

Those early years were forever challenging. Working the upside-down life of the midnight shift, being young and very naïve, trying to figure out what being a husband and father and cop was all about. The party was definitely over. I was just a kid wearing grown-up pants. I’d respond to domestic disputes involving people twice my age with the expectation that I should solve the intractable problems they had been living with for twenty years. On one such call, after ten minutes or so of my feeble attempts at intervention, the husband looked to my older, wiser partner and said, “Next time, bring someone with you who knows what he’s talking about.” Flushed with embarrassment, I silently agreed with him.

Time moved on. We joyfully welcomed another child, sadly bade goodbye to Josie’s father and my mother when cancer took them within a year of each other, and tried to live a life of respectable adulthood. The kids grew up, left home, began their own lives and hopefully forgave the mistakes I made as their father. My beloved has forgiven me much as well. We still kiss each other first thing every morning and the last thing every night.

In the course of nearly thirty years in the police world, I had many of those unique experiences the old cops at North Shore talked about. Like so many other police officers that I worked with, I made a lot of arrests, mostly for misdemeanors like drunk-driving and disorderly conduct. More importantly, I learned how arbitrary life and death can be and witnessed the worst moments in many lives; often involving the death of someone by accident, suicide or otherwise. I tried in vain to save some with CPR in the back of an ambulance. I held a beautiful young girl as her life slipped away inside a crushed automobile. I’ve stood on doorsteps looking into the eyes of parents or spouses who knew before I had even spoken a word to them that their lives were about to change forever. I developed great respect for the survivors of these moments and wondered how they managed to move forward. I think of them still and hope that they have found some peace.

I spent a lot of time bored and isolated, too. Police work is, more often than not, simply a matter of driving alone through the darkness waiting for something to happen. Cops talk to themselves, talk to other cops, listen to talk radio, and stiffen themselves for the next encounter. The longer I stayed on the job, the more it became who I was. Opportunities to get outside of myself for a good look inward were rare and if they did happen by, I usually ignored them.

I did the many things ambitious cops do for higher wages and greater security. I attended a diploma mill for a graduate degree in Criminal Justice, but learned little if anything useful. I studied diligently for the promotional examinations and passed them, getting kicked up to sergeant and then many years later, chief. I got better at the job as time passed and my perspective changed some. But by and large, I adhered to the instincts and ethos inherent to the trade and in many ways, still do.

Spinning my wheels in mid-life and seeing the end of my time as a cop on the horizon, I decided to go back to school again. I didn’t want to kill myself with work, but I definitely wanted to learn something useful. So after twenty-four years of working nights, evenings and split shifts, I got enough seniority to bid straight days and enrolled at Cambridge College – night school again. I studied Counseling Psychology, figuring it would be good for what I did for work then and what I might do later. In fact, it was very good for both.

I met all sorts of people at Cambridge, both young, like my kids, and old, like me. The professors and instructors worked in the real world by day and taught at night. The students all had full-time jobs and were mostly looking to get ahead in their lives. One man I remember distinctly was a dignified and erudite refugee from Haiti. He was currently employed as a driver for a group home and was perusing a graduate degree in school counseling. We’d get to chatting at night and he once told me that in Haiti, he had been a lawyer, professor of law and a judge. When the terror came, he was targeted to be killed by the government and barely escaped with his life and his family. He was grateful to be in the U.S. and working hard to rebuild his life. He was a survivor and I was astonished by his strength and resilience. Some things you just can’t learn from a book.

After I retired from the police service, I got a job at a non-profit doing investigations and interventions in elder protection. It’s considered brief work; you get a report of something wrong, investigate the circumstances, make recommendations and referrals and then get out. I thought that after so many years in policing, even in a small town, I had probably seen most of the bad that was out there and that little would surprise me. But you live and you learn.

Much of what I see now is loneliness, isolation and resignation. I never knew that there were elderly people living in homeless shelters or that others exist on no more than $680.00 in Social Security a month with zero in the bank. And I couldn’t comprehend what would motivate a son to leave his demented mother sitting alone in a filthy kitchen day after day, her oxygen line disconnected, her diaper soaked in urine, the doors locked to keep her inside while he slept in the next room. I sympathized with the cop who responded and wanted to punch out the little creep after the ambulance had taken her to a hospice so she could die with some shred of dignity.

On the plus side I get to work with a group of dedicated nurses and social workers – women mostly, who knock themselves out each day trying to make someone else’s life a little easier, their health a little better, or their inevitable landing a little softer. I’ve also been blessed in meeting elderly couples who have stayed together for decades, caring for and loving each other no matter what; their only fear being left alone or how their survivor will manage without them.

My uneducated guess on all of this is that most of us get to make some choices in this world, no matter how small, and that these choices give us the illusion that we exercise dominion over our lives. Then real life comes along disguised as fate, disease, an accident or unexpected event. Our bubble bursts and we are finally left with the only choice we truly have – how we will deal with it all. All of our moments here add up to a life. I hope that when my time comes I have some of the stuff I’ve seen others display. For they are the true grow-ups.

Grumpy Old Man Laments at Large

At fifteen months and counting, our long national nightmare may soon be over. With the POTUS electoral season finally and mercifully grinding to a close, can normal people (you are out there, I know it) hope to soon breathe a weary sigh of relief? Now I promise to avoid cheering on a particular candidate or excoriating the opponent and his / her supporters as flakes, bigots, bleeding hearts, racists, troglodytes or effete elitists. (Well, maybe the elites will get knocked around some.) I respect your intelligence here and am pretty sure that at this stage, most folks have made up their minds to vote for this one, that one, the other one, or no one. Like good soldiers facing Armageddon, we choose our ground in anticipation of the final onslaught.

But what I do wonder at and heartily criticize is how the Democrat and Republican parties have devolved to such a regrettable state to have belched up the only two candidates in America who could possibly loose to the other one. Surely, this very same thought has crossed your mind at some point?

The party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Regan has become the party of bigotry, fear and war mongering. Not to be outdone, the party of FDR, Harry Truman and LBJ, long ago abandoned its tradition of standing up for the working people and the middle class and now answers to the whims of well-educated, elitist snobs and narrow special interests. It has its hawks as well; with our current President bringing the war on terror into its second decade, continuing our efforts to demonstrate to those who disagree with us our resolve and moral superiority as we bomb them in hopes they stop hating us.

Both parties are polluted by money; big money, bad money and grubby money. Republicans have always been seen as the party of the wealthy, but if you have been paying attention, you can’t help but see that the Democratic Party can match them buck for buck and then some. As of October 19, the Clinton campaign has raised $753 million to the Trump campaign total of a mere $372 million. The Boston Globe reported that campaign donations to Hillary Clinton from Wall Street interests approach sixty million dollars with another twenty-eight million thrown in from lobbyists and lawyers. God only knows how much the Donald has hustled from this crowd, but one would think that lawyers, lobbyists and Wall Street fixers would have to be tapped out by now. In either case, these donations surely aren’t made to represent the interests of the average American like you and me.

How did this come to pass? In our America, corporations have long been afforded the rights of people, but more disturbing is the reality that money has now been judicially affirmed as a form of free speech by the Supreme Court. This has allowed Political Action Committees of the super variety to line the pockets and pocketbooks of candidates with cash raised from those looking for power and influence in the service of their particular interest. It’s a story as old as the hills; money goes to money, and those with it not only want to keep it, but crave more of it. Those without it remain so. Period.

In the good old days, the captains of industry who ran the world had at least a tacit understanding that it wasn’t always the best idea to keep all profits for themselves, and that sharing some of it with those who actually did the work to create it was a wise concept. There were also strong labor unions to remind them of this and labor laws to compel a more level playing field. Then along came The Gipper in the 1980’s who took on and destroyed the Air Traffic Controllers union, deregulated the airline industry and tipped the precarious slope of the labor – management relationship. This was welcomed by those who saw organized labor as a problem, as often it was. However, unions existed as the pesky necessity giving those holding onto messy end of the stick a lift toward a better, more secure life with things like pensions and health insurance.

But if The Great Communicator fired the starter’s pistol in the race toward the bottom, it was The New Democrat from Hope who unleashed The Furies that brought the average Joe to his knees. When Bill Clinton was President, he worked doubly hard to see that the Bush – generated North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement met with congressional approval. Seeking the grand bargain with a skeptical congress, Clinton sold the idea as good for the American consumer and maybe the American worker too. Fueled by the explosion of internet technology,  it was mostly good for a new generation of robber barons who saw it as an opportunity to increase profits by moving manufacturing and labor costs overseas at will. But hey, we got to import more items of cheap, plastic junk made by exploited and underpaid, third-world workers. What was not to like?

Bill didn’t stop there, though. If NAFTA and trade deregulation was such a good thing, then why not try some on the banks?  With support and encouragement from anyone looking to profit from looser banking rules, or no rules at all, he succeeded in allowing banks free rein to create their own rules of engagement, commence on a binge of mergers and acquisitions and create such exciting financial products as derivative investments and sub-prime mortgages. The banks were encouraged to lend, lend, and lend some more. Nearly anyone who wanted a mortgage could get one, as home ownership was part of the American Dream. The inability to pay the mortgage back was deemed irrelevant. Property values would always increase beyond the mortgage obligation and their rise to ridiculous levels was seen as a good and permanent state of affairs. And if things suddenly turned sour, Uncle Sam (read average American taxpayer) would always be there to bail out the banks anyway.

Companies dumped pension programs – long the holy grail of the working class, and forced employees to instead enroll in 401K retirement plans. These monies were invested in the stock market with the encouragement of commissioned “investment advisors,” who promised never-ending double digit returns. If the stock market burped once in a while, not to worry, it was only a temporary adjustment that would right itself in the long run.

Let’s face it. Most of us were as were lulled into a belief that the world was a more peaceful place and prosperity would never end. The Cold War had thawed, the Berlin Wall had tumbled down and the Soviet Union was swept into The Gipper’s “Dustbin of History.” The peace dividend would carry us all into a new prosperity. We had reached “The End of History,” with a best-selling book by that title to prove it.

We ignored a serious warning when the Dot-Com bubble burst sending the economy into recession. But lots happened during those times and the following decades to distract our attention. Clinton’s Impeachment for fibbing about a Saturday session with Monica, the “Hanging Chad” election of G.W. Bush, the terrible and endless tragedy of 9-11 and the War on Terror. Add in the fights over gay rights, gun rights, immigration, etc, etc. Warnings by some that the banks were a mess and about to implode were ignored by the political class. Then in 2008 came the financial crisis followed by The Great Recession, which was only great if you were a bank deemed “To large to fail.”

If you owned a home mortgaged above its suddenly deflated value, you weren’t too large to fail. If you had lost your job as a result of the economic times and could no longer make the payments, or if all of the hard-earned money in your 401K lost half or more of it’s value just as you were going to retire,too bad for you. Thousands of Americans suffered foreclosures, bankruptcies, lost savings and destroyed credit. The term “Toxic Assets” entered the American  lexicon as the finger of blame was rightly pointed toward super-sized banks, insurance companies and the pigs of Wall Street. Much harrumphing was heard from politicians and a new President, Barack Obama was elected on the hope of straightening out the mess and holding accountable those responsible.

I eagerly anticipated watching a parade of the thieves and hustlers who had placed the economy in the toilet being led up to the scaffold to dangle from the gibbet of the people’s justice. I’m still waiting. Rather then appoint honest reformers and tough-minded realists, Obama filled his original cabinet with charter members of the financial class, associates of the very people who had robbed the economy. Naturally, they were reluctant to see their friends hang and instead preached a tone of moderation. The Justice Department commenced a grand total of just one prosecution of a Wall Street huckster, with that guy getting thirty months in the Fed.

The growing income inequality in America has been reported and talked about ad- nauseam, but to what end? It seems that people have adjusted to lowered expectations, higher debt, less secure jobs and fewer benefits. How many working people are now “exempt, at-will” employees or required to sign non-compete or confidentiality agreements, or any other variation? In America today, a mere 11% are members of some type of labor union. Workers simply have no clout in today’s economy, and aren’t likely to regain much soon.

Always fearful of labor and scornful of unions, Republican politicians and their ditto-head spokespeople decry the sad state of the recovery and offer only the same old tired bromides that tax cuts for the rich and corporations will cure the malaise and raise all boats. Traditionally impressed by the power of property over the power of people, their instinct leads them to side with the former. Although they tout the advantages of a capitalistic economy based on freedom and competition, they prefer deregulation and the elimination of rules which might adversely impact the established wealthy.

Ironically, they have been perversely eclipsed in these beliefs by the rise of the new Democratic true-believers. This knowledge class of well-educated technocrats, professionals, bankers, investors etc., have benefited tremendously in their selected fields from deregulation and the reluctance of the government to even attempt to employ existing anti-trust laws. They have created monopolistic systems of financing, insurance, health care, delivery of consumer goods, energy and communication. They are not interested in the idea of a level playing field and competition, but know that the key to success in the new American economy is the re-establishment of monopolistic control of their enterprises. Labor leaders are not counted among their friends.

Socially liberal, they voice support for issues of civil rights and progressive idealism, provided that it doesn’t impact their ever-increasing wealth and influence. They know instinctively that they are right, and insist that you understand this too. They speak mostly to themselves and bask in the reflections of their righteousness. They swoon in the presence of Democratic leaders like the Clinton’s and Obama’s, but turn an eventual cold shoulder toward someone like Bernie Sanders who might challenge the hypocrisy of their self-proclaimed virtue in the face of their wealth and the influence that it brings.

Because of this troubling reality, the middle class, at least those traditionally seen as “working people” and not necessarily college educated, have nowhere to go now, no party to call home. They wind up disaffected and lost, or seeking some type of voice in things like the hollow promise of the Tea Party or the shrill accusations of a Sarah Palin. All of this leads to a growing segment of our population who are economically stagnated and increasingly powerless to change their circumstances. At more that 324 million people, the United States is far too large to long endure such wide swaths of economically depressed people.

I still believe that on the whole, the economic system of capitalism, when properly restrained by a system of checks and balances, remains the best and fairest system of creating and distributing wealth. When those checks and balances are undermined or outright eliminated, the natural tendency of the rich and powerful toward greed and ceaseless accumulation take hold and accelerate.A new breed of hyper-capitalists are at large, people who show more interest in their wealth and power than to their country or the citizens who make our nation whole. This is what challenges democracy and the future of the United States. I wish I could offer an answer to this, but I fear that we must first go through the fire of the next big downturn or another disaster that leads to some sort of reawakening. Sadly, I conclude that our challenges will not be cured in any way by this election.