Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fading Memories

The house I grew up in - my parents bought it in 1949 for $8,500
Except in my memory, the infrastructure of my childhood has largely disappeared.

All three schools I attended in Johnson City NY - Theodore Roosevelt elementary, C Fred Johnson junior high, and JCHS on Main Street - long ago ceased to function as educational institutions. In fact, the new high school opened the year after I graduated. TR has been replaced by an apartment building, CFJ is converted to Campus Square (housing for students), and the high school building houses a mishmash of marginal businesses.
The Johnson City High School I attended in the late 60s
The ballfield where I first tried out for Little League has been replaced by a rehab center. Philadelphia Sales, a precursor to WalMart and Dollar Stores, which I used to walk through enroute to junior high and high school, has been torn down and is a parking lot. The hole-in-the-wall cafe which served as the de facto HS cafeteria, where I waited tables for a short time (fired for eating too much one day) and became a prolific pinball player ... now a coin shop.
Training ground for a pinball wizard
High Score bowling lanes, our team's home, houses boutique shops with no apparent customers. The huge community pool, also named for C Fred, is now the site for the local newspaper (which I wrote for in my HS and college days). The Pavilion which staged many dances - now the location of a Visions credit union office (where I was marketing director in the late 70s). My grandfather's neighborhood grocery store - razed. Mr. Yoggi's basement barber shop next door - closed. Johnson Field, home of the minor league baseball Triplets, a Yankee franchise, and our Wildcat football games, was obliterated by a highway.
Loved to sit in the 3rd base bleachers at Johnson Field, glove ready to catch foul balls.
Perhaps the saddest site / sight - the IBM Country Club, where I spent most of my non-school time for several years (swimming, baseball, bowling, basketball, golfing, eating) is a decaying shell.
The sad, sad demise of my beloved IBM Country Club
When Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again," he may have meant that the home you knew growing up has changed while you were gone ... and you've changed too.
The original traffic circle was so large we tried to establish a neighborhood baseball field - but were chased out by the cops
Nonetheless, a few of my personal touchstones are still intact. The house I grew up in. A reduced and re-routed version of the traffic circle nearby. The Floral Avenue grocery store where I perfected my baseball playing cards skills (and trashed an extensive collection before we knew they could be valuable collectors items).  
The Floral Avenue park softball field, where a 300-pound guy once barreled into me at home plate in an attempt to knock the ball loose. He knocked me head over heels into the backstop ... but I held onto the ball.
What we knew as Greenfield, path to Little League glory
The Little League baseball field where I made all-stars, and we nearly made it to the LL World Series in Williamsport. 
Wonderful chocolate cream pies
The Red Robin Diner, our high school hangout. 
Spiedie heaven
Lupo's Char Pit, where I cooked and got hooked on spiedies. The Polar Shot golf driving range, which was Tony Macek's when I was becoming a player.
At least the golf course is still there - this was the original 18th hole
The 18-hole IBM championship golf course is intact, now part of the Traditions resort, but the 9-hole Homestead course where I traipsed the hills for as many as 54 holes in a day was ruined by a flood-control project and is reduced to a "foot golf" novelty.

Driving around to these once-familiar sites while visiting for Thanksgiving, I was struck by how much smaller the village of Johnson City seems compared with when I was a lad. It took only an hour or so to drive to all of these, and some of that was shopper traffic around the mall (which was not there during my childhood). There are also a lot fewer trees; most streets used to be tunnels of foliage. Downtown is a wasteland - with the exception of the UHS hospital complex that continues to expand (but pays no taxes).
Without the UHS hospital complex, nearly a ghost town
Across the river, Vestal is somewhat more prosperous, thanks to Binghamton University. Endicott, down the road, is as well, though the once 10,000-strong IBM workforce has disappeared. The larger city of Binghamton on the east side has struggled as well. 

Johnson City is no longer the idyllic place to raise a family as created by the Johnsons of benevolent Endicott-Johnson shoes (since shifted overseas). The innocence of my youth has been supplanted by a depressing hard edge. 

I'm glad I grew up in the Johnson City of the 50s and 60s. But that Johnson City is long gone.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Verbal Undressing

I was "profiled" today by an American Airlines agent before they would allow me to board a shuttle bus to Heathrow Terminal 3, where I was to catch a flight to Dallas.

I'm thinking it was the beard ... or the wild hair ... or the crazed look in my eyes in trying to make a very tight connection. (I don't think Switzerland or France is on Trump's special vetting list yet.)

These weren't your "Has your luggage been in your possession at all times?" kinds of questions. These were clearly probing to determine if I was shady in some way, whether I hesitated in my responses, or if my "story" didn't hang together.

She started innocently enough: "Where are you coming from?"
Toulouse, France.

"Why were you there?"
We have a place in the south of France.

It got interesting when she asked me, holder of a US passport, if Dallas was my home?
No. 

"So where is your home?"
Geneva, Switzerland

"Where do you spend most of your time?"
(At this point, I was tempted to say Syria or Somalia, but that might have complicated matters.) 
I explained we divide our time between Switzerland and France.

Ms AA shifted to occupation - what do I do for a living?
Journalist. Aviation journalist.

"What is the name of your supervisor?"
(Getting rather personal here, eh?)
I explained that I am editor of ICAO Journal for the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN's aviation agency. I do it as a contract. So freelance, no supervisor. I also mentioned I write for several other publications.

She wanted to know the topic of something I wrote recently.
(In the tone that I needed to convince her that I really am a journalist. How would she know - I  could have said anything related to aviation.)
I replied, Countering Drones, which would be published later this month in Military Simulation & Training magazine, Halldale Media, for a conference I am attending in Orlando.

Can I please get on the bus now, lady?

"So what is the reason for your trip to Dallas?"
To see my grandkids.

"And their name?"
(Sheesh)
Bell.

"Just one grandchild?"
(Double sheesh)
Two, S* and G*

This was really getting annoying. I'm a frickin' US citizen and I'm getting the third degree to enter American airspace? Good thing I didn't tell her about my nephew Osama and niece Tokyo Rose.

"Where will you be staying in Dallas?"
(Triple sheesh)
I won't be staying anywhere; I'll be spending all my time, day and night, on the golf course.

When my wife, not a US citizen, came into the States the past couple of times, there were only three "challenge" questions:
1. Are you a terrorist? Duh
2. Have you ever kidnapped a child? Lemme think a minute
3. Did you help the Nazis in WWII? She was 3 when the war ended, so (even though precocious) unlikely

All these nuisance questions despite my boarding pass being stamped with a bold TSA PRE-CHECK, which presumes that I've already been through a rigorous background security evaluation.

As many of my friends in aviation security have told me, the whole security scan and pat-down routine is just for show -- there's next to zero real security value in most of the measures foisted on the traveling public. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Top 10 Things We Did in Scotland




This is a dueling blog - read D-L's at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2017/10/10-things.html

10. Binge-watched Season 5 of House of Cards.

9. Saw Queen Lizzie’s digs at Holyrood; yet another royal snubs the Baron and Baroness of Sealand.

8. Did NOT tour Edinburgh Castle (another trip), though we did visit Stirling Castle, where Donna-Lane knelt on the site where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned, plus Rosslyn Chapel (the alien portal).

7. Finished 1st at the Old Course, Saint Andrews – by queuing up before midnight and waiting 7 hours for the starter pavilion to open.

6. Met two very special young women, friends of family and family of friends, and shared meals at two superb restaurants, one Thai, one Spanish. Met for the first time a special Facebook friend and his dogs.

5. Viewed a couple of movies in a fabulous little theatre, the Dominion, which must have pioneered comfortable seating. Good popcorn, too.

4. Experienced all four weather seasons – sometimes all in the same day.

3. Enjoyed the company of my stepdaughter for a week, including a train jaunt to Glasgow.

2. Played the oldest golf course in continuous existence using near-ancient hickory-shafted clubs and a gutta percha ball. A unique experience.

1. Discovered Scottish writers, from Sir Walter Scott (huge monument … hyuuge) to Conan Doyle to Ian Rankin – even met the role model for Rankin’s irascible John Rebus character.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Golf in a Hurricane

Hurricane-force winds. Torrential downpours. Okay, so it only rained a little. And that was after we finished. Ophelia got delayed in Ireland, I guess.

I was looking forward to some true Scottish golf weather - wind, rain, biting cold. All the elements I've seen on telecasts of the Open Championship most years ... and they play in July! The first time I played in Scotland, nearly 20 years ago at Royal Troon, it was a balmy 70 degrees with sunshine. This is Scotland? At the Old Course in Saint Andrews a few days ago, I stood in line, shivering from the cold and rain, to secure a booking; as soon as we started, the rain disappeared. Some guys were playing in shorts!

But yesterday at the North Berwick (pronounced bear-ic) Golf Club "West Links" on Scotland's East Coast, I was prepared for the worst - thermal underwear, heavy slacks, rain pants, two pairs of socks, long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, jacket, knit cap. I had so much on I could barely swing the club. (Shed the sweater after a few holes because all that fabric was catching on my elbows.)

The round started out promising; clouds so thick and low you could not see the small islands off the coast. In the middle of round, as we made the turn for the back nine, the wind was so strong we had to lean forward just to stand up. But then, around the 15th, the famous "Redan" design par-3 hole which has been copied the world over, the sun actually came out. (Earlier we had seen the "red sun" shimmering through the clouds that attracted so much attention in the UK.)

I hit the ball really well all day. At No. 12, a long par-4 into the wind with a blind approach, I landed it about 3 feet from the cup for a birdie. Amazingly, never ended up in any of the deep sod-faced bunkers, though there were a few close calls. I did manage to pull one shot into the North Sea. And a couple times I had to extricate the ball from the foot-long rough.

My caddie was a club member, Brian, retired from IT. His green-reading was superb. If you play any of the links courses in Scotland where there are no trees and few visual references to aim at, I strongly advise a caddie. He'll keep you out of trouble, which is everywhere on the course, and save a lot of uncertainty and frustration. Brian was spot-on with distances to the pin as well, which I assumed was local knowledge from playing the course for 40 years ... and then he showed me his GPS watch.


 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Bathroom Books, Bedroom Books, and Bus Books

We love to read, and if we're not talking or walking or watching news on TV, we're usually reading something. Computer screens frequently, either for research or keeping up with family and friends. Occasionally Kindle books.

But there's still no substitute for words on paper, a good book.

In bed, either late evening, trying to keep our eyelids open, or in the morning when we just don't want to get out of the comfort of the mattress and covers, which we have worked all night to perfect, it's usually a novel, often a crime mystery. In Scotland this month, we've both been reading an iconic local author, Ian Rankin, who is quite good, even if he does tend to wrap things up with minor characters who come late to the game with little or no foreshadowing.

On the bus, or more likely the train, it's often a mix of whatever novel we've been reading in bed (or on the couch), a free newspaper, or a magazine that caught our eye for a major article.

In the "reading room," the choices are more eclectic. Right now, in the downstairs loo, we've a choice between Bill Bryson's petulant and often humorous travels through Europe (20 years ago, but not much has really changed), a fiction-oriented magazine I suggested to D-L which turned out to be a collection of very badly written short stories,  and a recent MAD magazine, a juvenile humour favourite of mine as a teenager, which my stepdaughter kindly supplied from across the pond.

Upstairs, another Bryson on travels through the US, though I haven't gotten out of the endless-nothingness of the Midwest section. I like, though, that Bryson has "pauses," essentially sub-dividing a chapter into multiple sections, which is ideal whether your sit is short or long. The "She-Wolves" book on strong queens of England, including Eleanor of Aquataine, is more intriguing.

We've visited a couple of second-hand shoppes and bookstores, and picked up a few very cheap editions, including a copy of Rankin's first novel. A couple we'll manage to read before we fly back to Geneva, so will  leave for our gracious househost. The smaller ones should fit within the EasyJet luggage limits.

Just finished another Rankin yesterday, so need to browse the shelves again. Any recommendations?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bond Between Scotland, Catalonia and America

As I write this, Spanish police are cracking peoples' heads with batons and shooting them with rubber bullets in the Catalonia region. More than 300 people have already been hurt (now 460 and rising). I fear this is only the beginning of an ongoing sequence of violence in the region. Certainly there will be strikes. Vandalism. Quite likely terrorist-type attacks against the Spanish oppressors. Possible a full-scale revolution / civil war. This in a so-called democracy.

Unlike the Catalans, Scotland was "permitted" to hold a vote on independence. Then the Tory-led UK government broadcast a series of lies and held out a package of promises they never intended to keep, and the Scots sheepishly voted no. But at least they voted, even if they were not adequately informed. Now, post-Brexit, Britain's declaration of quasi-independence from the ineffectual European Union, they may call for another vote.

We recently watched the HBO series on John Adams, which focused on the US Declaration of Independence and the subsequent American Revolution from the viewpoint of my namesake (and likely ancestor, according to my brother's research). King George opted for a heavy hand, much like Spain's PM Rahoy, and it cost Georgie the colonies.

Yet, despite the obvious parallels with America's own experience, President Donald voiced support for preventing the Catalans from their right of self-determination. I suspect he has, or would like to have, business interests in Spain. I also suspect he doesn't even know where Catalonia is on the map.

We can see Catalonia from our house in the south of France. Literally, Sarah. About 10 miles to our south is the ridgeline of the Pyrennees, including the last two remaining frontier watchtowers.

If there is war in Catalonia, we can expect many of the independent-minded Catalans to come across the border seeking safety, as hundreds of thousands of their ancestors did during Spain's previous civil war in the 1930s and the repression by fascist Franco.

If Spanish Catalonia does eventually succeed in gaining independence, I wonder if the French Catalonians, our neighbours, will be inclined to join them in the new nation. Certainly there's a lot of anti-French sentiment currently over the redesignation of the region as "Occatania," which essentially ignores the Catalaness of the far south. In our village, the locals have begun adding street signs with the original Catalan names to trumpet their distinct culture.

For the near term, I think we'll avoid venturing over the border because I'm liable to tell the Spanish authorities exactly what I believe about their jackboot style of governance, and I'm sure they won't be too receptive.

Rahoy - whose administration has been highlighted by austerity measures, tax increases, and corruption - has taken the position that the Catalan referendum for independence is illegal, as ruled by their Supreme Court. But how is the desire for liberty illegal? Of what value is binding people to another country by brute force? It didn't work for George III, and I doubt the spirited Catalans will fade quietly into the night with a "well, we tried" shrug.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Walking in the Spike Marks of the Greats

Gary Player. Arnie. Jack. Seve. Tom Watson. Tiger. Lefty. Champagne Tony. Sir Nick. Sam Snead. Vardon, Taylor and Braid. Old Tom Morris.

I walked the same fairways that the giants of the game have trod for nearly 150 years. The Home of Golf. The Old Course at Saint Andrews.

Mine was a round that had a little of everything. A perfect drive and pure 7-iron over the Valley of Sin to the green on the final hole. A much less-distinguished nervous opening tee shot. From a sidehill uphill lie next to the infamous "Hell's Bunker," I punched a superb half-6-iron right at the white flag on the 4th green; unfortunately, we were playing the red-flagged 14th hole. I had my share of long, long, long putts on some of the largest double greens in the world: one was about 125 feet. On the 12th, after the other players had hit their tee shots to the right into the rough, I hit my second best drive of the day, right down the middle ... and into one of the courses' more than 100 pot bunkers. On the treacherous Road Hole, the 17th, I ended up in the enormous steep sod-faced bunker guarding the middle of the green - blasted out to about 15 feet and made the putt, though this was after my first tee shot (and my provisional) landed on someone's Old Course Hotel balcony ... my caddie, Steve, described my attempted line as "a bit too aggressive" on the blind shot over the famous sheds.

Toward the end of the round, I asked Steve if there was anything I hadn't experienced during the round. He responded, "Well, you haven't listened to your caddie yet."

Headquarters of the Royal & Ancient just before Midnight
 

Being there and finally playing on golf's hallowed ground was almost anti-climactic to the adventure of just getting to the 1st tee. As a single player, I could not reserve a tee time, nor even submit to the lottery the Saint Andrews Links Trust uses to allocate slots. My only option was to queue up at the Pavilion for when they opened in the morning. When we arrived on Sunday and asked around, the consensus advice was to be in the queue by about 3:00 am, maybe even 2:30 or 2:00. But then we learned there were only five spots available for singles on Monday. I wasn't confident that 2 o'clock would be good enough.

So with my exceedingly tolerant wife snuggled in an extremely comfortable bed in James Braid's room at the Old Course Hotel, which I barely got to use for a couple hours, I laid out my clubs and clothes and set the alarm for 11:o5 pm wakeup.

It took me about 20 minutes or so to walk in the cold rain from the hotel to the Pavilion, lighting my way with a flashlight, and I arrived at 10 minutes before Midnight. As I had hoped, I was first in line. The dream was within reach.

I thought I would be alone for a couple hours at least. I had brought a book, some nuts, cookies, water, and of course my clubs and golf shoes in case I snared an early tee time. But at two minutes to 12, Joe from Texas walked up. Not long after, Taylor from Toronto and Casey from Los Angeles arrived. Then Scooter from Austin, Number 5 for the fifth spot. Having confidence we would all almost surely get to play the Old Course, we quickly bonded and talked for the next nearly seven hours until the doors were finally opened. We talked golf and golf courses and golfers and golf equipment and the waffles or Scottish breakfast we would have once we had secured a tee time, the Highlands and haggis. It helped to forget that we were freezing and shivering, despite multiple layers of clothing (thermal undershirt and leggings, pants, rain pants, heavy long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, Johnson City high school hooded sweatshirt, Masters green jacket, scarf, Boston Bruins winter gloves, knit cap, APS - Advanced Performance Systems flight training golf cap, two pairs of socks, hiking boots).

After the Fab Five, people continued to come. Because we were the only ones in the front of the building near the door, many of the latercomers were surprised to learn that the queue extended around the building. One young woman came prepared with a duvet (which she had considerable difficulty stuffing back into her suitcase). At 6:30, moving lights started to appear - greens mowers. By 6:55, when we were finally allowed in, there were at least 25-30 people. Most probably did not get to play that day. Mr. Tanaka from Tokyo, whom I chatted with during the queue and saw later in the morning in the hotel shop, did not.

I could have taken the 7:15 am tee time, but I wanted to go back to the hotel and have breakfast with Donna-Lane, then to the practice range to loosen up. I took the 12:20 opening (after showing my proof of handicap). Joe got 12:40. Taylor grabbed the early spot. Not sure about Casey and Scooter because by then I was in the WC, not having had opportunity all night while guarding my No. 1 position.

I have to admit that the Old Course itself did not seem that difficult, certainly with only a light wind, and it's certainly not aesthetic (which is true of most Scottish links courses). Most of the par-four holes are not overly long. The fairways, supported by a deep underlayer of packed sand, were the firmest I have ever played, not like the soft, fluffy turf on most US courses; after a few holes, I learned to move the ball back in my stance to catch it more on the downswing. One challenge is in the hidden bunkers, at least hidden from sight from the tee boxes. I never consulted the course layout book I had purchased; Steve would tell me some bush or cloud to aim at, and I tried to hit it in that direction ... total trust, with no idea what might be in the landing area. Without a caddie, I would probably have been calculating the best distances to go over certain bunkers and short of others. The major challenge is the greens, some with severe slopes and many with double- and triple-breaking putts.

Pre-round, I had some hope of posting a good score. Now that I'm playing regularly again, my game has been improving, almost to the point of considering competitions in France. But score was really irrelevant to just being on the Old Course, perhaps the last item on my golf bucket list. Queuing up at Midnight and being first in line ... that made it as good as a Claret Jug.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just Leave Me at a Bookstore

One of the experiences I am looking forward to by being in Edinburgh, Scotland for a month is exploring the bookstores. https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/edinburgh-has-the-best-bookshops?utm_term=.ai6JkY2GN#.mnXGPvbR1.

In our small village in the south of France, there are no English-language bookstores (though the neighborhood bistro has a leave one / take one shelf where other anglophones offload a few titles, and there's a similar irregular setup on the nearby street started by one of our neighbors). The formal second-hand English bookshop with hundreds of titles disappeared a couple years ago with the passing of our dear friend, Barbara.

In Geneva, there's Payot, which has a good selection mostly of fiction, but it's down in the city, expensive, and we don't get there perhaps once every 3-4 months. Another option is the English Library, of which we are members; their annual used book sale is fantastic - if we happen to be in town at the time.

My daughter mentioned to me she had been in Barnes & Noble in Frisco, Texas, recently, a place I would spend hours perusing the shelves - the new titles, the magazines, history, fiction. It also helped there was a Starbucks inside ... or my favorite place, the easy chairs downstairs by the technology and sports sections.

I also loved Half-Price Books with its musty paper smell and titles that you could no longer find elsewhere.

Yes, I know, we're in the age of Amazon and Kindle, and I do download books there from time to time. But those are mostly "backup" books, something to read when I don't have a worth-reading paperback on hand. I love holding a real book, turning the pages, breaking the spine so the pages will lie more flat, bending the corner of a page to mark my place.

There are few pleasures that exceed lying in bed or sitting on the couch late at night with a well-written whodunit.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tunnels of Life

On the drive from Geneva through Lausanne, Bern, and Basel to Colmar, France, then back via Biel/Bienne and Neuchatel, we must have passed through about 50 tunnels.

The Swiss love tunnels. There are 1,329 of them in the country, according to the Swiss Tunnel Database (https://www.swisstunnel.ch/en/tunnelling-switzerland/tunnel-database/). The longest, of course, at 57 km (35 miles), also the longest and deepest in the world, is the new Gothard Base Tunnel, a rail trail from Erstfield to Bodio. It took 17 years to build the 153,500 metres (503,608 feet) of tunnels, shafts and passages.

The tunnels we went through were long, short, curved, and sloped up and down. Kind of like the tunnels in life.

The problem when we enter a tunnel in life, a dark period, is that we don't know how long it will last, nor what we will find when we get to the end. If we get to the end. 

At times on our trip, we would exit one tunnel only to immediately enter another. And sometimes another. At one point there were five in succession in less than 2 km.

The Swiss tunnels are generally well lit, so are not as intimidating as some of the dark, dank tunnels we've been in elsewhere. They are even well marked, showing the direction to the nearest (pedestrian) emergency exit.

Quite often, as we emerged from a tunnel, we were greeted with some spectacular oooh-ahhh scenery. (A lot of that in Switzerland.)

In my life, there have been multiple tunnels - job losses, for example. Times when I didn't know when the next job might come, what it might pay, even where it might require me to be. Not knowing in the meantime whether we could keep the house, the car, or even have something decent to eat. Through most of my life, I had confidence that the jobless tunnel would end, that I would surely find the next decent position, and it often turned out the new role was ultimately better than the one I'd left. But as I got older, recognizing the age discrimination of many companies, I became less sure of the future.

Others have gone, or are going through, longer and darker tunnels than have I - the prolonged illness and eventual loss of loved ones is perhaps the worst. I've done the prolonged illness part but thankfully not the loss. I can only imagine the pain that someone suffers; it must seem like tunnel after tunnel with rare glimpses of light.

The tunnel metaphor appears frequently in literature, music, film. Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt's short story "The Tunnel," depicts a student who boards his usual train to the university, except the small tunnel doesn't end ... 10 minutes, 15, 20. The other passengers are blissfully calm, but the conductor is evasive, and the student learns there is no engineer in the locomotive. The story ends with the word, "Nothing," a possible commentary on the ignorance of society in the face of imminent disaster. (It was written 65 years ago.)

Or perhaps you prefer to think of movie scenes in which a train enters a tunnel just as a couple burrow beneath the sheets. We are left to our own imagination what happens in the tunnel (at least in older films). Hitch's ending in "North By Northwest" is one of the better ones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPt-4Nwght0.

Tunnels are inevitable in life. Let's hope yours are mostly like the Noirvaux in Neuchatel (15 metres, or about 50 feet - built in 1843), and that the scenery on the other side lifts your spirits for the rest of your journey.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Nocturnalism


I am often up not only late at night but into the wee hours of the morning. It seems that's the time I write best. I can immerse myself fully in the material without phone calls or email interruptions.

During the cadence of the writing process, I occasionally take a mental break and check Facebook or the Drudge Report for news on the latest terrorist attack or political scandal.

The diversions I enjoy most, though, are messaging exchanges with my daughter or friends in the States or Canada. They're six or seven hours behind me in Europe, so when it's 2 am for me it is only 7 pm for them in Texas. I might be sitting at my desk in Geneva or Argèles sur Mer, wearing headphones as I transcribe an interview, and I'll hear a telltale 'ping' that a social media message has come in. I usually pause at the next logical stopping point, read the message, and respond. (It's my nature that if I don't respond immediately, I will get absorbed in something else and possibly completely forget about the message.)

The middle of the night exchanges reminded me of a syndicated program that used to be on the radio station where I worked in the early 70s - http://www.nightsoundsradio.org/. Bill Pearce had the most mellow voice I've ever heard, something of a white Barry White, and the program's theme song - Claude Debussy's "Beau Soir" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mkl4kR40D8) - would almost put you to sleep, as Pearce played it for a full minute before speaking a word. Nightsounds came on very late (I checked the radio station website, and they still play it at 1030pm), and I was usually alone in the station on top of a mountain outside Syracuse NY. It was also the time of night when I, as DJ, was supposed to be playing music that had a deliberately slower pace ... though once in a while I'd slip in something upbeat (usually prompting an irate call from the chief engineer).

The sonorous Pearce died several years ago, but lives on of course in syndication. He was also an accomplished trombonist, beginning at age 10 mimicking Sousa marches and Tommy Dorsey, later playing in Marine Corp bands. ("You Needed Me" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZd9ghZV1LU). He had to give that up in the mid-90s with the onset of Parkinson's disease.

Whatever you think of Pearce's religious views, he could certainly play and he certainly had the voice of a confidant of we who are confirmed nocturnalists.

Un conseil d'être heureux semble sortir des choses.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

I Would Be Rejected By Donald Trump's Immigration Criteria

I'm not a Nobel Prize winner.

I'm not an Olympic medal winner.

I'm over 50, and I do not plan to invest at least $1.8 million (in foreign currency) in the U.S.

So Donald Trump doesn't want me in his America.

Under current White House occupant Trump's proposed RAISE Act "merit-based" immigration system, I can't muster the minimum 30 points needed to even begin the application to move to the States. Not even close. I only get 20 points - 12 points for English fluency (well, it is my native language) and 8 points for a Master's degree from a U.S. university. Oops, just noticed, the degree has to be in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. That drops me back to only 12 points total.

Some of the criteria are ludicrous.

For example, a Nobel Prize is not quite good enough by itself - only 25 points. Barack Obama gets to apply, though: 25 for the NP and 12 for English fluency.

And 15 points if you've won an Olympic medal in the past eight years? What, for the gold content of the medallion? Or so Trump can have his photo taken with you? What does winning an Olympic sports event possibly have to do with the merits of immigration and responsible citizenship?

The "meritocracy" also perpetuates the myth that a U.S. university education is inherently better than a degree from a foreign university - an extra point for the American bachelor's and master's and three bonus points for a doctorate. (Note: only three of the top 10 engineering universities in the world are in the U.S. - the others are in the UK, Switzerland, Singapore and China - https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings-articles/university-subject-rankings/top-engineering-schools-2017.)

At 50-plus years of age, I get zero points toward the minimum, even though Trump himself is five years older than me at 71. (Maybe he shouldn't be allowed in the country. After all, his ability in English is sadly lacking - maybe not even a "moderate" rating of six points.)

Donnie, since I don't live in the US, and I clearly don't qualify to ever be admitted (even if I came up with that $1.8M), can you please stop requiring me to pay taxes?

If you want to see if you qualify to apply to be allowed into Donald Trump's America, take the quick quiz here:
http://time.com/4887574/trump-raise-act-immigration/

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dress Codes

This is a dueling blog. Donna-Lane's version can be found at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/05/preplanning.html.

Years ago, I read the popular book, Dress For Success, by John Molloy. I see he now has a companion book for women, as well as a blog - http://www.thedressforsuccesscolumn.com/.

I don't read any of them. Don't need to. I'm pretty much out of that corpo-rat race, except when I speak at or attend a conference. For such occasions I still keep a suit in Geneva, another in Argèles sur Mer, a blazer and slacks at each, a couple of dress shirts, and a few ties, most of which have some sentimental value. The biggest decision I have to make for such events is whether to trim my hair ... a little ... so as to not be mistaken for homeless. (I prefer Bohemian.)

The one piece of advice I remember from Molloy's book was to not wear a green suit, so I never have.

Green pants, yes, on the golf course. Green shirts, too, with Masters logos. Though not at the same time. I'd look like the spokescartoon for Green Giant veggies.

Donna-Lane will tell you she plans her wardrobe well in advance. That she doesn't get out of bed without knowing what she's going to wear - including underwear and earrings.

My approach, once I'm out of bed, is to grab some clothes to throw on the couch just before I take my shower. That's about as advance planning as I get. Sometimes I wait until after the shower to choose.

My decision tree starts with ... is it warm enough for a tee-shirt? If so, what tee-shirt is on the top of the stack? Is it big enough to hide my belly? If not, go to the 2nd shirt in the stack. If it's too cool for a tee, segue to the golf shirts or something warmer. If it's really warm, shorts instead of jeans and sandals instead of sneakers. As a bonus, I can wear the same tee-shirt to bed that night. Or nothing.

I have started to build a small collection of French language tee-shirts so I'm less anglo when walking around France and Switzerland. But I'm never giving up the now-threadbare WHWK "The Hawk" radio station shirt I've had since the 80s.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Kool Aid and Bubbles

Years ago I read an article that talked about the "circles" people lived in -- the circle of the immediate family, the circle of co-workers, the circle of social friends, and so forth -- and how these circles intersected where there were common interests.

It doesn't seem that people's circles intersect much anymore.

With the increasing incivility brought about by political differences, the widening inequality gap, religious wars, and other polarizing influences, most people now live in isolated bubbles, echo chambers, talking only with those with whom they agree, drinking the ideological kool-aid and not bothering to listen to anyone with a contrary viewpoint.

Inside the bubbles, the pontifications of anonymous bloggers or blowhard pundits are eagerly embraced, even though they may not offer a shred of hard evidence or attribution to a source willing to be named.

Democrats and other liberals are so desperate to understand the astonishing collapse of Clinton, for example, they are willing to embrace and cling to the phantasm that Putin must have done it. Surely there can be no other explanation, and no tenuous alleged link to alleged link to Russians shall be discounted. If it wasn't the Russians, they'd have to face the reality that Hillary was a terrible candidate who ran a pathetic "it's my turn" campaign.

Every day as there is a new outrage from the White House, they sign petitions, and boycott, and march. And get ever more frustrated to the point of spontaneous combustion.

In the other bubble, the Trumpsters seem willing to ignore the vileness, the obvious ignorance and incoherence, and the unsubtle schema to further enrich the wealthy, the Donald first among them, by manipulating the government to their own ends.

For those of us who occasionally attempt to referee by playing devil's advocate, requesting hard facts and credible sources, we are readily assumed to favor the other bubble. When in fact we favor neither.

Having been involved in political campaigns and having recently met with several people in office and their minions, I have no illusions. There are no civil servants, at least not among elected officials, who are interested one whit in the lives of regular people. They are all out to "win," ie get re-elected time and again, and that requires sucking up to those who fund their campaigns. They "win" by destroying the opposition, and oftentimes the opposition blithely provides the ammunition for their own demise.

I have zero faith in Crooked Trump or Crooked McConnell or Crooked Ryan. Nor in Crooked Hillary, Crooked Schumer, or Crooked Pelosi. Or for that matter, in Crooked Macron or Crooked May or Crooked Merkel.

Yeah, I / we have taken on the government in selective battles. Key word, selective. I only have so much energy. I prefer to focus it where I think it can do the most good for those I care about. Not going to waste time on rants about things I have little or no power to change. That approach eats at the soul.

Pardon me, though, if I attempt to burst your bubble from time to time. Il n'est pire sourde que celui qui ne vent pas entendre.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Yes, With My Eyes Closed

I can tell which city I am in with my eyes closed. Not from the aromas (because my sniffer doesn't work so well). Not from the sounds (because my hearing ain't too good). I can tell from the water pressure in the shower.

Just stepped out of what I would rate Shower of the Year - Boston. L has one of those adjustable shower heads, and the pulse setting provides an amazing massage. Could have stayed in there until my toes wrinkled. Especially after two weeks on a near dead run from France to Washington DC to Boston to Orlando to Boston ... and back to France tonight.  (You might check out my three blogs, Madame Nelson Goes to Washington, about D-L's testimony before Congress on tax reform - http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.com/2017/04/madame-nelson-goes-to-washington-i.html.)

The water pressure in the very upscale hotel in Orlando was on the disappointing side. And no option for adjustment. Did the job, just. And helped steam the wrinkles out of my dress shirts.

The previous best pressure, at least in our world, is in Geneva. J's shower is a torrent, so make sure the sliding glass doors, which meet at the corner, are snugly closed, or you're mopping the floor after. And don't forget to squeegee the glass when you're done.

The pressure in our apartment in Collonge-Bellerive is about as strong. Even better, there's a sauna lamp to heat up the bathroom so when you step out you're not immediately chilled.

In our Argèles sur Mer flat, and in D-L's "Nest" studio, the water pressure varies from barely adequate to trickle, the latter when 100,000 vacationers invade the village in summer. The shower is on the cramped side, requiring me to turn the shower head to soap up then turn it back to rinse. The best feature in ASM is our wall-mounted towel warmer. I love the feeling of putting on a warm terry-cloth robe, then burying my face in a soft, oversized towel that's been toasting for an hour.

Weak water is about the only drawback to living in Argèles, so we can deal with it. Everything else about the village is wonderful. (Okay, not the cell phone reception, but that's another blog sometime.)

Friday, April 28, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington - III

We got a brief glimpse of how Washington works (or doesn't) this week when Donna-Lane testified before a Congressional hearing, met with Congressmen or their legislative aides beforehand, and participated in a press conference after.

Here's a link to the hearing as posted on the Isaac Brock Society website. Donna-Lane's video testimony begins at the 27:45 mark: http://isaacbrocksociety.ca/2017/04/27/reviewing-the-unintended-consequences-of-the-foreign-account-tax-compliance-act-video-and-summary-of-hearing/

Here's a link to the post-hearing press conference. Donna-Lane's Q&A starts around the 6-minute mark (the announcers call her a "spitfire": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZoLSfyyjvI

The formal hearing itself could have been purely "political theatre" in that the witnesses' testimonies were already provided to the committee in advance. The real news came from the question-and-answer exchange, particularly for the manner in which the flustered designated Democrat, Elise Bean, first tried to deflect pointed questions with evasive responses (including the suggestion that she'd perjured herself because one of her statements of "fact" was contradicted by attorney Jim Bopp) and then blurted out some things she may regret having said on the public record -- that ALL Americans, including those living in the States, should be subjected to "extreme vetting" reports of their personal financial information. Though the Democrats have long been defenders of personal liberty and privacy rights, Ms Bean's recommendation to triple-down on FATCA by extending it to everyone with any connection to the US (inside and outside the borders) was right out of the FBI-CIA-NSA playbook of warrantless search.
The Committee room, prior to the hearing
Somewhat of a surprise was how few of the committee members attended the hearing -- two Republicans, including the chair, and three Democrats. There were perhaps a dozen aides either seated behind their Congressperson or standing in the wings.

My read is that it is the aides who truly drive much of the agenda in Washington. In our individual meetings in the offices of Representatives on the committee, most of the meetings were with aides, rather than the Congressman himself. Of the two elected officials we met, one seemed rather disinterested at the beginning of the meeting, then distracted by an issue with his car. The other Representative was much more engaging and asked some probing questions to learn more about the issue.

In the meetings with aides, two of them seemed to be well prepared. They understood the issues around FATCA, and one had read the witness testimonies already posted online. There were some discussions of requesting hard information from the IRS about the costs of FATCA implementation against the revenue generated (to hopefully counter some of the wildly inflated revenue claims that FATCA-natics have been floating). We walked away thinking this might be more than constituent-courtesy lip service.

A couple of the aides, frankly, were not up to speed and did not inspire confidence. Nuff said.

The aide for committee chair Rep. Meadows, Graham Haile, seemed very sharp and a key factor in getting the FATCA Repeal legislation into the Congressional docket. I could see him holding elected office someday.

Most of the Representatives' office suites seemed cramped. In addition to the Congressman's office, there were usually several staffers in adjacent offices and cubicles. And our group of 10 filled every available chair, with some of us standing. The walls and shelves were stuffed, too, with memorabilia reflecting the district represented and books reflecting the Congressman's political philosophy. And most offices had some common decor that seemed out of an official Capitol Hill catalog, like a set of emblems for the five military services.

We ate in the same dining room as the politicians and their staffs, but had no opportunity to accost the Representatives in the rest room as they have their own personal bathrooms in their office.

I would suspect that many full-time lobbyists must be in very good shape because we got our exercise over the two days, walking back and forth between the Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon House office buildings, which are set on a slope. A lot of walking in the corridors, too, as these are large buildings (all the government buildings in Washington seem large - a lot of people working to sustain their bureaucracies). We even did some extra walking for the 4-5 times our group leaders got confused which direction to go to the next meeting.

After our visit to the legislative sausage factory, we caught our breath at a hole-in-the-wall German restaurant, serenaded by live accordion music. The long, wearying, hopeful day was over. But based on what we learned, it seems the battle is just beginning.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington - II

Proud, proud, proud of my wife and best friend, Donna-Lane Nelson, for her stellar performance Tuesday and Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Despite no longer being American, she helped carry the fight to Congress on behalf of 9 million US citizens living overseas, as well as Accidental Americans, whose lives have been devastated by an Obama Administration 2010 law that has made it nearly impossible to have basic banking services in the countries where they live.

At our own expense (and we are not wealthy), we flew from Europe to the States to participate in several meetings with Congressmen and their legislative aides (the people who really drive the agenda in Washington) and to testify before a House committee reviewing the "unintended consequences" of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA. The office meetings have their own fascinating nuance, which I will try to relate in the next post.

In my previous blog, I provided links to D-L's video testimony during the committee hearing, her written testimony, and the testimony of the other witnesses. (http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.com/2017/04/madame-nelson-goes-to-washington-i.html)

The shock of the committee hearing was not that the Democrat Representatives on the Committee were attempting to salvage core elements of FATCA, but that they opted to attack Donna-Lane and their fellow US citizens (including Danny Kuettel, who had served in the US Army) who are suffering irreparable harm from this law:

1. The designated Democrat "expert" witness, Elise Bean, essentially called Donna-Lane a liar, suggesting that the FATCA law was not a valid reason for D-L's citizenship renunciation.

2. Ms Bean was dismissive of those former Americans who have renounced their citizenship (about 6,000 last year alone), comparing their outmigration with the hundreds of thousands of migrants coming into the States. Go ahead and leave; there are plenty more to "replace" you.

2. Ms Bean tried to get away with the falsehood that FATCA reporting by overseas banks was no different than US banks providing the IRS with a 1099 form. Under questioning from the committee chair, Rep. Meadows, she "amended" her deceit with the disingenuous comment, "1099 is a form, and the FATCA report is a form." Jim Bopp, the attorney for a lawsuit against FATCA, pointed out that in addition to the taxable interest earned, which is the only item reported on a 1099, the FATCA reporting by overseas banks adds highest balance, deposits and withdrawals, and other data -- information which has nothing to do with taxable income and would require a court subpoena to obtain in the US -- a clear violation of the US Constitution against invasion of citizens' privacy.

3. Then, during questioning, Ms. Bean put on her Police State hat and said she would like to see the more extensive and intrusive FATCA information reported ... on all US citizens by all banks in the United States! Without a warrant! I gasped involuntarily when she threw this zinger out.

Through the week's meetings with mostly Republicans, Donna-Lane (a lifelong Democrat who has always been very active politically) had refrained from commenting on non-FATCA issues with which she strongly disagrees with their views and votes. (I teased that she had a hidden "hold your tongue" button that she kept pushing when her blood pressure would rise.) 

She/we were in Washington for one purpose -- to help get FATCA repealed on behalf of all those being wronged by it. It would be counter-productive to engage in arguments on other topics which might undermine the FATCA effort.

One Republican Congressman (whom we won't name to protect his reputation), hugged Donna-Lane and called her his "favorite Democrat."

However, during an unexpected recess in the committee hearing so the Representatives could respond to a roll call vote, Donna-Lane confronted Ms Bean and let the so-called FATCA 'architect' know exactly what she thought of her and her law. "You don't know what you're talking about. You should live overseas for a year. And you are responsible for ruining thousands of lives." Later, during a press conference, in response to a reporter's question, D-L said she would like to slap her, which probably wouldn't have been suitable for the decorum of the committee room.

I don't know if Donna-Lane's comments had an unsettling effect on Ms Bean in the questioning when the hearing resumed, or if it was Rep Meadows' holding her feet to the fire to answer the questions he asked, or if she was merely unprepared that her veracity might be challenged. I was seated in the row immediately behind Ms Bean (D-L was now observing from the back of the room, no doubt still seething), and the Democrats' hired-gun witness was clearly out of ammunition. She was extremely evasive in her answers, or offered irrelevant non sequiturs which only served to demonstrate lack of compassion. In short, she was trying to defend a bad law which she had written and which had been very badly implemented.

After the committee hearing adjourned, as people stood around chatting in small groups, I engaged with a representative of American Citizens Abroad (ACA), which is pushing the Democrats' faux FATCA fix of the so-called Same Country Exception (SCE). 

SCE is no solution, as it would leave in place the core unConstitutional aspects of FATCA. Moreover, the overseas banks who have chosen to purge themselves of American accounts are highly unlikely to change course and accept some American accounts (bona fide residents) and not others -- with a Damocles sword penalty of 30% poised over them, a few expat accounts are certainly not worth the bother.

Ms. Bean was standing with the ACA rep, and surprisingly, when I said the real problem was citizen-based taxation (CBT) ... or as I prefer, taxation-based citizenship ... and that we need to abandon CBT and adopt RBT -- Residency-Based Taxation -- which is the way every other civilized country in the world administers taxes, SHE AGREED! That's right, Ms Bean, oppressor of expats, said she is for RBT instead of CBT. Now, she may recant later, or say I misheard her, but then again maybe she did absorb some of the pain she and her compadres have inflicted on innocents.

I won't get into the obvious errors of fact from the Democrat chair, such as his statement that most other countries practice CBT (sorry, sir, Eritrea is the only other country to tax its citizens on their worldwide income), or his suggestion that there are plenty of banks around the world who will accept American accounts (plenty of data otherwise). Or the bizarre linkage of FATCA which implied that the IRS needs Americans' overseas bank info because there are terrorist, sex trafficking, and drug cartel financiers hiding among our group.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating three days. Three months ago, when we thought this hearing was supposed to take place, Donna-Lane could not have done this. She was extremely fatigued from what we finally learned was an overactive though tiny thyroid. She's doing much better now, thanks. It was only a year ago that she was coming out of the final chemo and radiation treatments of her second successful battle with breast cancer.

Knowing her, even if she was feeling underwonderful, she would have made the trip. She would not have missed the opportunity to fight for a just cause. She has always been someone who does whatever she can to help others. Because someone needs to do it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington -I

The normally neutral Swiss invaded Washington this week, occupying Capitol Hill on behalf of 9 million Americans who live overseas.

D-L Nelson and I, together with Daniel Kuettel, his wife, daughter, and young son, all Swiss citizens or residents, flew to Washington DC at our own expense to urge Congress to repeal the draconian FATCA law (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). We were joined by US citizens who live in Albania, the Czech Republic, and Albania, together with leaders of Republicans Overseas (one of whom left Communist China to become American) to lobby Congressmen and their legislative staffs prior to an official hearing Wednesday.
Here's the essence of FATCA:
1. The Democratic Obama Congress snuck the FATCA legislation into the HIRE Act in 2010.
2. The legislation requires overseas banks to report the accounts of all Americans to the IRS.
3. If the banks miss reporting any American accounts, the IRS will impose severe penalties on the foreign banks, possibly putting them out of business.
4. The easiest option for the banks is to close the accounts of Americans. No Americans, no IRS penalties.
5. Many Americans, therefore, cannot have even basic savings and checking accounts, no debit card, no online banking, no credit card, no car loan, no home mortgage, no investments. It's rather difficult to live your daily life without a bank account, eh?

FATCA is unconstitutional (invasion of privacy, illegal search and seizure) as well. 

You can read more about FATCA on the Republicans Overseas website: https://republicansoverseas.com/.

Donna-Lane had to give up their US citizenship in order to keep her bank accounts. She renounced in 2011, and it was a wrenching decision, something she equates with the death of her parents. Last year, nearly 6,000 people gave up their American citizenship, and the numbers are growing each year.

She, Danny, and the other expats are also part of a lawsuit against the Treasury Department and the IRS which has now been going on a couple of years and may end up in the Supreme Court.

When she/we started this battle, many folks, including expats, said why bother, it's a hopeless, Quixiotic quest. You'll never succeed against the power of the IRS and the US government. Our response: someone has to try to right this wrong.

Today we had meetings in five Congressional offices - key Congressmen who are on the committee which will hear testimony on FATCA repeal tomorrow. There is proposed legislation in both the House and Senate to repeal FATCA.

Who would have ever thought we'd get this far? Who would have thought that D-L would become the leading female crusader on behalf of 9 million Americans (more people than live in the whole of Switzerland and more than live in 37 of the US states) to strike down a law that has cost banks billions of dollars in paperwork just to try to root out damn Yankees?

At the hearing tomorrow, they will play a video of Donna-Lane's testimony. Since you've read this far, here's a link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/px66c6pvr8yejpj/Donna-Lane_NELSON_FATCA_FINAL.mp4?dl=0

And her written testimony: http://republicansoverseas.com/wp-content/uploads/Donna-Lane-Nelson-Testimony.pdf

And testimonies of her fellow plaintiffs: https://republicansoverseas.com/ro-publishes-testimonies-fatca-hearings/

The Congressional hearing will be live-streamed beginning at 2 pm Eastern time Wednesday. You can connect to it here on the IRSMedic youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9ZqWYUiFOw.

The battle is far from over, but we are making tremendous progress and victory is in sight!