Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * Ron Angert is getting out of ‘Dodge’

Ron Angert recently had an experience that seems destined to alter the trajectory for the rest of his life. Ron walked the famous pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago in Spain. That five week walk was a profound event for him. “I am moved by spiritual content, and it was a spiritual experience. So my wife Ann and I are planning to move to Spain.

 “I’ve always been focused on loving people. I saw the movie The Way a few years ago. It’s about a man who walked the Camino to deal with the death of his son who had attempted the same walk. Ten minutes into the movie, I knew I needed to do it myself before my 70th birthday. I knew I needed to be retired first as I could never go back to work.”

In the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, is the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great, where his remains are thought to be buried.

“For many who walk, it is a challenge like hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s 500 miles and the physical part affects everybody. Foot pain. Back pain. Leg pain. But you get over that. It’s not as challenging as the AT because at the end of the day, you stay indoors, you may choose to get a nice meal with great wine, and you get a shower and a warm bed. But it’s still hard.

“Then there’s the emotional aspect. For months before I went, I got online and read people’s accounts of their experiences. Some were homesick. Early in the trip, every day at around 11 a.m., I gave up. I decided I couldn’t do it, but I further decided nobody could do it. I thought it was a lie, that it was impossible, to get to the end. Yet 270,000 people do it every year. Pilgrims have been doing this walk for 1000 years!

“The third aspect is spiritual. Not all, but many hikers realize a more profound relationship with creation, that they never understood before.”

I asked about the seed of that spiritual transformation.

Ron said, “I can only speak for myself. I fell in love with hundreds of people, including many with whom I shared no common language. Eventually all the walkers naturally build relationships with others. I called mine my ‘Camino family.’ For example, I met Stephanie, who became my Camino daughter and her aunt Janice who were walking together. We met one day leaving a hostel early in the morning, in the dark. We walked along on a mountain trail while she had told me about two suitors who wanted to marry her, about their pros and cons, and her feelings for them. As the sun rose, she asked for my advice on her decision, to which I responded, ‘I have a wife and a daughter and I’ve never had this intimate a conversation with either of them,’ and at that point I didn’t even know her name.

“I became bonded to this group of people. It was middle-school, gushy, love, inappropriate love. I loved them so much.”

It’s fair to say that everybody who walks the Camino is changed is some ways by the experience. But Ron and Ann are planning to go to the next step. Their home in Newport is on the market and they’re planning to move to the town of Astorga, on the Camino.

“There are many reasons,” Ron said. “I’m devoted to health, and the food is amazing there. We have introduced the concept of ‘Farm to table,’ where food is grown locally. That’s the norm there. Many restaurants have their own gardens producing the vegetables they serve.

“Second, we Americans are hyper-competitive. Fastest! Best! Tallest! Over there, it doesn’t matter. (On the Camino), you walk every day, but at your own pace. Every day is new sights, people, towns, and experiences. It’s very healthy.

“I see lots of hatred in this country, and that really bothers me. We have elevated lots of hateful people. In business. In government. Even in grade school, with the bullying. You don’t have to be ashamed of being hateful it seems. You can brag about it.

“Still, I’m not so much moving away from something but to something. Our friends have expressed that it’s an outlandish thing to do. But for us it makes sense.

“In the community we’re moving, people spend time together at cafes, reading the paper, sipping tea and coffee. They’re not too busy and not competitive. We want that.

“I encourage everyone to live in another culture, either as a volunteer or worker. Getting out of ‘Dodge’ is a really mind expanding thing,” he smiled.



* * Norway is Amazing

The first thing you need to know about Norway is that it is haltingly, startlingly beautiful, with crystalline lakes, enchanting fjords, rugged mountains, and pastoral farms. I’ve always wanted to go and time has been marching on. Finally my wife and I decided to make this old dream come true.

In Norway, there is a new wonder around every bend in the road. The fjords are simply magnificent, indescribable. I’ve heard it said that the whole country is as grand as Yosemite. Our 3000 km loop from Oslo across to the west coast to Stavanger, then Bergen and Alesund, then back through Lillehammer, proved that to be true.

Speaking of roads, the only straight ones are in the many tunnels, and some of them are curvy. Their highway engineers know how to go underground, and it’s a good thing, too, because above ground is marvelously corrugated.

There are many toll roads. There are no toll booths. Every car is required to have a chip on the windshield which is periodically scanned by sensors and an invoice is simply applied to stored credit cards.

Incidentally, speaking of credit cards, in Norway people use them to pay for EVERYTHING, mostly via hand-held readers that print receipts. Your credit card pays for meals, ferries, parking, and groceries. The one place we found pay toilets (in the tourist area of Bergen), no cash or coins were accepted; only credit cards.

Speaking of toilets, most communities of any size have free public toilets. As do the convenience stores, which are all modern and immaculate. Even remote villages had public toilet facilities, and all had running water, electric hand driers, and lights. And they were spotless.

There were pedestrian and bike paths everywhere, and people of all ages used them frequently.

The default intersection was the roundabout, and they worked great, moving significant levels of traffic smoothly and with little problem for anybody. I’m home now, immediately frustrated with the wasted minutes and fuel at every one of the countless signalized intersections we have around here.

Driving in Norway takes a level of skill, attention, and especially cooperation that I doubt most Americans are able or willing to provide. The roads, even the major highways, are almost always two-lane affairs, often 1.6 lanes or narrower. Some country roads lack room for oncoming cars to pass, and each must cooperate to use sporadic wide passing zones. Lorries (tractor trailers) navigate even narrow highways with an astonishing level of aplomb. Most of the cars are new and small, and we never saw one with crash damage. Norway has taken to electric cars in a big way. Driving is a full time job and nobody is on the phone.

As I alluded, above, they use the Metric system, like seemingly everybody else (but us). My rental car, a six-speed manual Ford Escort, used 5.5 liters in 100 kilometers. Can you do that conversion?

Overall, Norway is highly energy efficient and pollution conscious. There is zero roadside trash and no billboards. Did I mention it is astonishingly beautiful?

The federal government plays a huge roll in the welfare of all Norwegians. They pay high taxes. In return, they get government sponsored higher education and universal medical treatment. Minimum wages are high. Waitresses make $22/hr and don’t rely on tips. They love their health care system and are gobsmacked learning ours leaves millions uninsured. They can’t believe Americans are brainwashed to believe theirs is terrible. Get this: when they get sick, they go to the doctor and get treatment AT NO CHARGE.

Speaking of America, they are deeply vexed by what’s happening politically in our land and are far more educated about us than we are about them. One AirBnB host said, “We’ve hosted lots of Americans and not a single one approves of Donald Trump.” They see him as unstable and dangerous.

If there is any poverty, we didn’t see it. Even the most out of the way hamlets seem prosperous. The tourist trade is booming. Did I mention that Norway is beautiful?


Scenic landscapes. Lovely, well-educated, relaxed people. Fascinating history. I don’t think we’ve talked to anybody here who doesn’t love it.

Finally, Norway is a resource rich nation, primarily oil. Norway has invested the money reaped from taxes and exploration fees in their Government Pension (Oil) fund, currently around $1 trillion, an astounding $195,000 worth per citizen. It has holdings in stocks, real estate, and energy reserves throughout the world. America is a resource rich nation, in oil, coal, natural gas, and minerals. The American corporate owned government has channeled most of the wealth generated from those resources to an unfathomably wealthy elite, and America is now approximately $21 trillion in debt, an astounding $65,000 debt per citizen.

Which nation do you think will have a better future?


* * Margie Lee’s Lynch family

My new friend Professor Margie Lee recently attended a gathering at the Avoca Museum in Altavista, Virginia, of descendents, both slaves and slave owners, of the Col. Charles Lynch Jr. family. Her family was mostly slaves.

“Weird,” she said to me about it, over and over. When I pressed her to articulate her feelings, she said, “If you want to understand, we’ll need to go there.” So we did, she driving her classic Thunderbird convertible, wind whipping her curly black-to-grey hair.

We met curator Michael Hudson in his office in the upstairs of an outbuilding alongside the courtyard of the Fauntleroy mansion built in 1901 at the home site of Revolutionary Patriot Colonel Charles Lynch. He told us, “This was the second ‘Gathering at Avoca.’ The first in 2013. The original Lynch family came from Galway, Ireland in 1725. Charles’ father, Charles Sr., was a runaway who stowed on ship of indentured Irishmen that brought him to the New World.”

The term, “lynching,” the often indiscriminate hanging of black men, originated from this family. But Hudson was careful to explain that that was a bastardization of Col. Charles Lynch’s actual actions. Instead, Lynch, as a patriot, defied colonial governor Thomas Jefferson’s order to gather but not punish loyalists to the crown, strapped many of them to a tree and struck them with 39 lashes. “He never hanged anybody, much less any Negroes,” Hudson said.

Charles Sr. died and left land to his four sons, William, John, and Christopher who settled along the James in Lynchburg, and Charles Jr. who moved 20 miles south to current Altavista around 1755.

Long story short, Charles Jr. established a plantation and become wealthy and politically active. He joined the patriot movement to have his colony split from England. He amassed many slaves to work his land. Negroes had no identity other than a given name, were not allowed to marry, and were bought and sold like any property. Negro women were repeatedly raped and impregnated by their white owners. Thus, thousands of mulattos, mixed race people, were spawned throughout the South, with pigmentation in a variety of shades.

So part of Margie’s family was illustrious Virginia patriots. Another part was their chattel. While Col. Lynch was helping to create our new nation, his slaves were working the tobacco fields, tending the garden, cooking the food, and caring for the horses.

Margie is head of a department at the Vet School at Virginia Tech. She said, “I have done lots of genealogy research, but I have not been able to determine any definitive presence of the black side of my family until a hundred years later, around 1870. Blacks were essentially invisible.

“I’m assuming that slaves took the surname of their masters. Everybody in my family seems to have taken the name of the people who owned the land where they were enslaved. My family traces back to one of Col. Lynch’s grandsons.”

Lynch, a Quaker, manumitted many of his slaves, meaning he freed them before a government-forced emancipation. All of his slaves were freed by 1796 at his death. However, the state of Virginia passed laws prohibiting freedmen, and the former Lynch slaves were re-enslaved by his son soon thereafter.

Margie indicated that many of her family members, as well as many other local blacks, owned land, due to the generosity of their former owners. The Lynch family sold land to their freed slaves after the Civil War. Most other freed slaves throughout the South weren’t so lucky.

About the gathering, she said, “There were black people, there were white people, and every shade in between. I was conflicted. Others there were conflicted, too. A group of people, related by blood, returned to a place where, ‘My people owned your people and I hope they were nice to you.’ It makes people uncomfortable.

“The history we’ve been talking about was my family history, but not by my family’s choice. Lots of blacks in America today have white blood. I was shocked to learn that my family’s whites were prominent. Attending this event, for the first time I grasped the full range of what that meant.

“I am from the first generation of African Americans in my line to achieve the American dream. I grew up in a house on a dirt road in rural Virginia and became successful. I have two doctorates, a PhD and a DVM. The 1970s was like the second wave of release from the plantations; it was part two in America, the land of opportunity.

“Your people have history. I have almost no knowledge of my family history. We had no documentation. I’ve been holding this at arms length all my life. The whites were living this Leave it to Beaver life and all of a sudden, they were treating us like part of the family. ‘Come on over!’

“I am angry at how my people were held back by government policies. I could make an argument for reparations, and I would never have considered that before. It is absolutely calculable what economic gains my family has been deprived of.

“The first slaves were brought over in 1619. Not until my generation were blacks afforded the American dream. I grew up in that little sliver, that golden period of possibilities that almost defies logic, where we could be successful.”

On our way home, she asked rhetorically, “Why were my cousins and I doing so well, advancing in the American dream when the generations before us were incapable? All of us who went to college not only did well; we did really well. Affirmative Action opened some doors, but we had to do the performance part ourselves.

“They didn’t hire me at Virginia Tech because I’m black.”


* * Emily’s resist

The first thing you think when you sit down with Emily Satterwhite, the woman who chained herself onto a piece of pipeline construction equipment for 14 hours on the Mountain Valley Pipeline corridor last month, is that she doesn’t fit the look, the stereotype, of an eco-warrior. She’s a tall, thin, light-complected woman with a gentle demeanor, comfortable in business/professional attire, an associate professor at Virginia Tech for 13 years. But her apparent equanimity belies a steely resolve.

We sat to chat on an outdoor bench in downtown Blacksburg, safely in the shade, as she said, “I got enough sun in those 14 hours to last all summer!

“Citizens from around the area went through all the regulatory and legal processes to protest this project,” she said, “and we failed. The system has failed us. The MVP is being built and nobody wants it or needs it other than investors.”

It passes through four Virginia counties – Giles, Montgomery, Roanoke, and Franklin – and all their boards of supervisors, plus the town of Blacksburg, passed resolutions against it. To deaf ears.

“I had participated in rallies, protests and marches before,” she admitted, “but had never deliberately undertaken illegal direct action as a means of exercising my First Amendment rights. What led to my decision was my alarm that the fight against it, and the numerous filings of violations of water quality violations, had generated no response from the state DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality). The state Water Control Board didn’t even seem to know there had been 20 citizen-documented violations of the permit they approved.”

I said the whole process seemed surreal to me. Meeting after meeting presented sentiments and votes against construction, and then if by magic it got approved and moved forward anyway.

She and her family have not been directly affected, like Peter Montgomery whose story I wrote about a few weeks ago here. But, “The pipeline route is about 5 miles from downtown Blacksburg, and if it blew up, it would be devastating.”

The possibility isn’t remote. A newly constructed 36” pipeline blew up in northern West Virginia last January. The MVP is 36% larger by volume. Luckily, nobody was killed, but, she said, “Even the company admits that a swath as wide as three football fields would be incinerated. It may be as much as 2 or 2.5 miles in the incineration zone.

“We understand that there is an 80% chance that it will blow rather than merely leak when it fails. And newer pipelines have been more likely to fail.”

Residents and neighbors along its path face the immediate nightmare of construction noise, pollution, and lifestyle disruption. Ongoing is diminished property values, diminished stream and drinking water quality, soil erosion and sedimentation, and then there’s the constant real fear of being incinerated in an explosion or resulting forest fire, either through shoddy workmanship, earthquake, or terrorism. Remediating drinking water quality and enhancing emergency services falls to us taxpayers while the investors reap the benefits.

“The DEQ, the State Water Control Board, and Governor Northam have the power to stop the pipeline and should stop the pipeline because that is what is in the best interest of Virginians.”

Emily decided to take direct action. She climbed upon an earthmover and chained herself to it.

“I have been an advocate for Appalachia for decades now. I have watched as mountaintop removal mining has blasted the (coal) region to smithereens. It’s been not only the mountains and water and lives, but the corruption of democracy that has been devastating. While I was earning my PhD and raising my daughter, it was frustrating not to be on the front lines. Now was the time not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. I needed to show how strongly I believe that this is wrong on every level. So I chained myself to an earthmover.

“I’m in trouble. I face two misdemeanor charges, each with a potential for $2500 fine and a year in jail. If I spend much time in jail and can’t do my job, I could risk (losing) tenure and be fired. I’m generally a rule follower. But I’m at a point where I think we can’t continue to go ‘business as usual’ and keep our heads down. Otherwise all is lost.

“Friends through all walks of life and co-workers in many disciplines at Tech have been mostly supportive. I hope it inspires more people to show up. I would like to see other people at the construction route saying, ‘This is wrong; it is not okay with me.’ It’s a travesty in our own back yards and it deserves attention and action.”

Emily has obtained legal representation and has a court date in August. My guess is that we’ve not seen the end of her activism.



* * The creeping insidiousness of stuff

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it – George Carlin


There’s a cartoon floating around the internet these days that shows two men, standing abreast in front of an open double garage door, with stuff piled to the rafters. The older man, leaning on his walker, says to the younger man, “Son, someday this will all be yours.”

Two events in my life have spurred introspection on the creeping insidiousness of stuff.

First, my father died a year ago and my mother recently relocated to Maryland to be closer to my younger brother who is fighting cancer and my younger sister. The house in which she and dad lived since the mid-1950s and in which I was raised needed to be vacated. A lifetime of stuff needed attention.

Second, we’re remodeling our kitchen, and everything that was once in it is now stored elsewhere within our small house.

I’m not going to be critical of my parents, because they were/are wonderful people with an abundance of fine, admirable qualities. But I will say that the house was far more crowded with the two of them in it than 50 years ago when six of us occupied it in the 1960s.

And I won’t be critical because most Americans, even poorer ones, are overwhelmed with stuff.

And I won’t be critical because I’m seeing the same thing at my own place.

Can we categorize this stuff?

  • ·       First, there are heirlooms, which fall broadly into three sub-categories: Stuff we’ve made ourselves, such as my stained glass panels and lampshades, and grandfather clocks, and my wife’s artwork and knitted clothing. Then there are family heritage items, like grandmother’s fine china and silverware. Then there are family history items, like school annuals, photo albums, and scrapbooks. There are framed photos on my wall of ancestors who died before I was born. I don’t even know their names. Wait; maybe they were my wife’s ancestors.
  • ·       Second, there are daily items, housewares, beds and bedding, clothing, shoes, appliances, cookware and dinnerware, couches, chairs, and so much more.
  • ·       Third are entertainment and enrichment devices, things like televisions, stereo systems, books, computers and the like.
  • ·       And then there’re

What this stuff seems to have in common is that it’s excruciatingly difficult to get rid of.

As the years go by, moderation tends to get annihilated. For example, at my house, we have 14 pairs of scissors. I recently threw in the garbage over 100 coat hangers. We have hundreds of ink pens, some operable and some not, and enough scratch pads to last my lifetime. I wear out three or four pairs of walking shoes annually, and the old ones are painfully difficult to throw away. I have T-shirts that date back to my decade in Seattle (I moved from there 27 years ago.). With the addition of two I recently inherited, I now have five staple guns. Two dozen screwdrivers. Five hammers. Twenty retired toothbrushes. Outdated technologies like film cameras and cassette players. My wife and I have 2 smart phones, 3 tablets, 3 laptop computers, and 2 desktop computers, and I have another in my office.

I sense that I’m not alone in this. Donald Trump’s second wife Ivana, said “I go to Bloomingdale’s, to the fourth floor, and I buy 2,000 of the black bras, 2,000 of the beige, 2,000 of the white. And I ship them around between the homes and the boat and that’s the end of it for maybe half a year when I have to do it all over again.” Lessee, 6000 bras over 180 days, that’s 33 per day, 1.5 per waking hour, worn only once. Tough life.

Put a million psychologists in a room and they’ll tell you that material wealth does not create happiness (Nor, now that I think of it, would being Donald Trump’s second wife.). But that hasn’t stopped most of us.

The options for ridding oneself of this stuff include: throwing it into the landfill, giving it away (so it becomes someone else’s burden), recycling it, or selling it. Craigslist and eBay are active sites indeed. All take effort.

I hope to have at least a couple more decades on this blue planet, and I can’t know when my final days approach. But I’m determined not to burden my only child with my stuff, as she’s already got more stuff than she can fit into her own current living arrangement.

My kitchen remodel will be completed soon (please, please!), and those mixers, blenders, spatulas, saucepans, spices, plates, soup bowls, and will find new homes. A group yard sale is coming soon and I’m determined to sell more than I buy.

What’s the stuff situation at your house?