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.


* * The “Birdman of the Burgs” flies away


Bob Abraham, the “Birdman of the Burgs” flew from this living world on May 28, 2017 on the wings of an osprey, surely seeking the next adventure with the same zest and childlike enthusiasm that characterized his mortal life.

He left his mark on his adopted community of Christiansburg literally, his thumbprint on the top sheet of uncountable printing jobs he produced at the Christiansburg Printing, the company he founded in 1957, and with the magnificent wildlife photos that adorn walls throughout the region today.

He grew up in the suburbs of New York, before his native Long Island was overwhelmed with development and still had truck farms and fishing villages to feed the metropolis. Bob was not good at sports, was an indifferent student, and was mostly solitary. Instead, he developed a passion for nature by watching birds at the nearby beaches, harbors, and swamps.

Reaching adulthood, he struggled to find his footing at colleges in upstate New York and Idaho. But he found a niche at VPI in Blacksburg, where he earned a degree in Forestry, which nurtured his passion for ornithology. He also met his lifelong companion, Doris Sara Tatarsky, who would accompany him for 66 years of marriage and become, as he often insisted, “my better half.”

The US Forest Service sent him to Oregon and Northern California, but when his children began to arrive, he and Doris moved back East, not to Long Island or her native Richmond, but to the New River Valley, where they bought a home they’d occupy for the next 60 years.

The demands of parenting his four kids, David, Michael, Richard, and Karen, fed his playful spirit. He attended every sandlot ballgame, Boy Scout meeting and camp-out, every bar mitzvah, graduation, and wedding, and continued to actively support my siblings and me and later his grandchildren in every endeavor and accomplishment until his fading days. He taught us that life is a blessing, something to be enjoyed.

Bob was an avid fisherman, and in his retirement he took up scuba diving, and in the process lost his zeal to catch them. He was always interested in photography, and with the advent of the new digital tools, it became his greatest passion. His artistic skill was best exercised by simply going out to where nature reigned, taking lots of photos, and keeping the best.

Bob never lost his youthful spirit and everyone he touched knew him to be enthusiastic, carefree, and passionate. His laughter came in massive, volcanic outbursts of unbridled, uninhibited joy. He never lost his childlike exuberance, and even in his retirement years, he’d leave decades-younger people in his wake on his nature walks. Dad and mom did retirement well, traveling the world and living a life of exploration, integrity, and respect for nature and people from all walks of life.

We buried him on a beautiful, hot day at the Memorial Gardens of Blacksburg. I will have many lasting memories from the day he was laid to rest:

• Rabbi Cathy Cohen of Temple Emanuel officiated. Knowing that Bob endured massive suffering the last years of his life, she said he had “87 great years and 2 awful years,” and encouraged us to focus on the former.

• I’d never been part of a police escorted funeral procession before. We drove slowly from the funeral home to the cemetery, and I was surprised not that the cars in our direction and at the intersections yielded to us, but on Blacksburg’s North Main, a busy four-lane road, even the cars in the opposite direction came to a full stop. I don’t think this is a legal requirement, but instead a culturally accepted way of honoring the dignity of the recently departed. I’m going to live in the fantasy that this type of thing doesn’t happen in every town and city across the nation and that maybe it was special this time, that all those drivers subliminally sensed it was Bob.

• Along with the rest of my family, I was surprised and gratified by the large crowd of friends who chose to be with us. I will remember my brother Rick’s words, “How does one measure the value of a life? If it’s by career success, or wealth gained, or accolades earned, Bob’s was unremarkable. But if it’s by living with honesty, and integrity, and respect for people of all origins, Bob will be judged much more kindly. If it’s by being a loving father, a devoted husband, a man who was always there for his family and his community, he will be near the top of the list. And finally, if it’s by being a truly authentic person, a man who lived without an ounce of pretense or guile or rancor, who found great joy in nature and people of all walks of life, Bob was a real champion.” I was so moved to see that when a man lives a life of authenticity and charity, people around him take notice and pay homage with their respect and appreciation.

I got a message from a friend who attended. She wrote, “It was a very inspiring service. I came home wanting to live life more intentionally. I need a t-shirt that says “Be like Bob”.”

I need one, too. 


* * So Kiley got married. In Scotland.


Last November, I wrote about my friend Kiley Thompson who met a man from Glasgow, Scotland and got engaged. Their marriage was set for April, so when I met with her again recently, she was a newlywed. I asked to be brought up to date.

“We got married in St. Andrews. It’s a beach town and a college town, a bit like a combination of Blacksburg and Myrtle Beach. Except it’s on the North Sea. Nobody goes in the ocean; it’s too cold. It’s like ice water. It’s gorgeous and beautiful, but it’s not the type of beach we’re used to. It’s Scotland!”

She described at length the planning process, arranging the wedding, getting an entourage of seven friends and family members there, and all the various logistical challenges of getting married in another country. She brought her dress, which she’d ordered from a tailor in Latvia, as carry-on luggage on the plane. The ceremony was in a university building at St. Andrews College, built in the 1700s.

Just getting the license was a major challenge. She said, “If you go to the courthouse here (in the states), they ask if you’re both alive, both over 18 and unmarried, and they give you a license. My marriage application in Scotland was 43 pages. I had to submit my divorce papers, my birth certificate, my parents’ names, my pay stubs. They’re concerned about scam marriages, people marrying for health care. Health care is free there.”

Finally, they tied the knot. The bride wore her new Latvian made wedding dress. The groom wore a kilt. It was a beautiful, perfect event, the happy couple surrounded by friends and family. They broadcast it live on the Internet for distant friends and the world to see.

Kiley got her family back on airplanes to the States. She and Mark stayed a few more days in Scotland to rest and sightsee. Then they flew to Florida for their honeymoon.

“Scotland, the whole country is smaller than Virginia. So I’d gotten to see most of it. But for Mark, the USA was a huge place to discover. I wanted to honeymoon in some place warm after days of being cold in Scotland. We loved learning about the cultural differences. 

“We went to Cocoa Beach and the Kennedy Space Center, as he’s always been enthralled with the space program and the space shuttle. He was geeking out. We got married in a beach town in Scotland, but we were honeymooning on a beach town in Florida. It was 85-degrees. He’s a red-head, one big freckle. He’s fish-belly white, blue-white, like a boiled chicken. He’s Scottish! There are places on him that have never seen the sun.

“I grew up swimming the ocean. I bounced over the waves. He said, like ‘Nope! We don’t swim like that.’ He learned to swim in pools; he’d never swum in the ocean. He thought the waves were gigantic. They weren’t gigantic. He said, ‘I’m not ready for this.’ So he watched while I swam. He paced the sand watching me. He had to buy shorts. He didn’t own any. I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because I’m over the age of eight.’ He has kilts but not shorts!

“There was a heat wave in Orlando, around 95-degrees. We put sunscreen on him every three hours. It was as far south in the world as he’d ever been.”

So now Kiley and Mark are married, settling into blissful married life. Except he lives in Glasgow and she lives in Blacksburg. And likely she’ll remain in Blacksburg for six years until her youngest child finishes high school. It’s an odd situation, but they’re determined to make it work. “This is our normal. We’ve been married before. We’re trying to figure out how to be married when not living together. We’re lucky that we make nice money and can afford to travel. I can work remotely. So he’ll come here and I’ll go there.”

I asked what she knew now about him that surprised her. She said, “We talk constantly, being apart. We communicate at a different level than most married couples. He’s more romantic and emotional than I am. He’s more demonstrative than American men. I think it’s cultural. He talks about how he feels, at all levels. Fears. Hopes. Dreams. Scots are passionate people. They’re zero or 100. He’s very binary and I’m shades of grey. American women are taught not to expect that kind of openness.

“A woman’s sense of romance dies after awhile. I’m practical. Single mom. Paying the bills. There’s not a lot of time for a dream romance. And now I have that again. I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t looking for it. I’m still trying to process it. It’s amazing; it’s nice.”


* * Rick and I go for a ride

Rick and I went for a drive. More accurately, I took my younger brother Rick for a motorcycle ride. His idea.

Rick lives in Northern Virginia but is in town because our dad, Bob, is in the final chapter of his life, lying in his bed immobile in a morphine-induced coma from which he will not recover. He likely will have passed by the time you read this.

I hand Rick protective riding gear to don. You can’t be too careful on a motorcycle. Appropriate gear makes a huge difference when (Notice I say “when” and not “if.”) you fall.

I own a modern wireless communicator that allows driver and rider to conduct full conversations. Some of my best, most memorable conversations are with my passengers. It’s an amazing world we live in, with technologies like this.

He hops aboard, carefully following my instructions, reminders he may have forgotten since our prior ride years earlier. Recent medical issues have kept him from riding. I’ve been riding since I was 14, but he’s never owned a motorcycle, so I always drive. Nice that he trusts his safety to me. I purposefully drive slower and more cautiously than usual.

Rick’s a bright guy, with a business degree and an MBA. Our topics of conversation are of mutual interest, on this occasion much about our national political state and the challenges humankind faces in the future.

We swoop through Merrimac with its curvy road, getting accustomed to the lean of the bike. On Prices Fork Road, I comment on the stiff wind that challenges me to keep the bike in our lane.

He’s been reading about the acceleration of change, how the rapid advance of technology is already affecting millions of lives, and how that will only increase in the future. He tells me that humans seem limited in our ability to process change and that artificial intelligence is a threat to human survival. “How?” I ask. He opines that once computers are able to think and reason for themselves, they will realize that there are too many people for the good of the planet and ultimately themselves, and begin plotting to eliminate this human pestilence. He says computer scientists are now examining ways to instill into the “genetic code” of artificial intelligence the value of humanity and compassion in the hope they might spare us.

We take Peppers Ferry Road westbound into Fairlawn and then Dublin where we go north on SR-100 over dramatic Cloyd’s Mountain into Giles County. The wind remains brisk, especially on top of the mountain, but the temperature is mild and we’re comfortable. Several days of rain leave the road wet in places, but it’s not slick.

We talk about how minds work, about the theory of confirmation bias, the “backfire effect,” the tendency to find, favor, and remember information that fits our preexisting beliefs. Ever hear someone say something that is demonstrably false, and when you provide them with contradictory facts, instead of accepting their error, they become even more entrenched? That’s the backfire effect, and it’s why we’ll have increasing difficulty as a species adapting to the massive changes underway.

For example, robots and computers are already destroying jobs at unfathomable rates. By some estimates, within a generation almost half the jobs today currently done by people might be done by machines. Self-driving vehicles are already on the road, and several million Americans now make their living behind the wheel. What will become of these displaced workers? Where will they receive the income needed to procure life’s essentials? Where will they gain the emotional satisfaction from contributing to society through work?

These are massive, game-changing issues, which will require our best and brightest thinkers to prepare us. We agree that instead, we’ve selected mainly imbeciles to govern us.

I turn the Honda onto Eggleston Road and enjoy the sweeping curves, noting that we have the road entirely to ourselves. Zero traffic. He comments that NoVA is never like that.

Over the bridge crossing the New River, I slow to take in the dramatic view. Dad’s soul has already departed, and we know how much he loved this river. Our family had a decades-long good run at life until that was shattered by Rick’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer two years ago. Somehow, he beat it! “Luck” is not part of our family lexicon; we reason he survived a disease that kills over 90% of its victims by a combination of fabulous doctors, aggressive treatment, a knowledgeable and supportive wife, good friends and family, and otherwise good health. But we now take not a moment for granted.

He asks me to drive him up Mountain Lake, where we breeze up the steep curves on the “backside” road, then circle the hotel so he can see what’s left of the lake, and then down the main road, with its fabulous views. The scene looks abiding, but we both know better. Because change swirls around us every day. 


* * That money never trickles down


Chances are good there’s a road near you that needs to repaving. Our governments never seem to have the money to maintain our infrastructure. Hold that thought for a moment.

I recently published my eighth book, Chasing the Powhatan Arrow. The subtitle is, A Travelogue in Economic Geography, and I wrote about the communities along the former route of that iconic passenger train, focusing on how they’ve fared in the 50 years since the last running. And I’ve reached some conclusions on why some places are more economically successful than others.

I’ll illustrate by the example of two states, and how their divergent paths have produced divergent results. Let’s go to Kansas and California. But first, let’s back up a couple of generations.

Ronald Reagan was elected president largely on his economic principle that he called “Trickle-down economics,” and economists call “Supply side economics.” The theory was that by cutting taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, they’ll have more money and it will trickle down to the rest of us. His candidate rival, later his Vice President, George H. W. Bush called it “Voodoo economics,” and he was correct; it has never proven to work. In my estimation, it is the cruelest myth perpetrated on the American people in my lifetime. Yet due to Reagan’s popularity, it is still accepted by millions of politicians and citizens.

No state has embraced the idea to a greater degree than Kansas. Their conservative Republican dominated legislature and Governor, Sam Brownback, have spent the last several years slashing taxes. When Brownback outlined his plan 5 years ago, he said the tax cuts would benefit everybody and would be a “shot of adrenaline to the heart,” of Kansas’ economy. That never happened. Rather than providing the economic stimulus those legislators sought, the cuts have devastated the state budget, having predictable, tragic results on all the institutions that rely on state government spending, especially public schools. In March, the state supreme court decreed that the state was underfunding schools by hundreds of millions annually. Class sizes are up, teacher pay is down, and retiring or quitting teachers are not replaced. Art and music classes are eliminated. Sports programs are curtailed. Schools are scraping by, rather than envisioning and planning for the future.

But there’s more: Kansas’ job growth is among the worst in the nation. In 2014, Brownback pledged his tax plan would produce 100,000 new jobs, yet fewer than 13,000 have occurred.

Meanwhile, everything conservatives have fought to do, California has done the opposite. California is one-eighth of the nation’s population and one-seventh of its overall economy. California alone is the number 6 economy in the world, encroaching on number 5 United Kingdom.

It provided a high-tax, high-regulation, high-minimum-wage model, promoting clean energy, government accountability, and protection for immigrants and minorities. No state has more actively discouraged fossil fuels and carbon emissions. And its economy is booming, creating jobs faster than any state in the nation! Democratic governor Jerry Brown considers immigrants to be a major reason for the state’s success.

California’s economy is being driven by a who’s who of America’s most innovative and dynamic companies: Apple, Tesla, HP, Cicso, Google, Facebook. Oracle. Intel. These companies benefit from the education provided at California’s outstanding secondary and collegiate school system. And their high gas taxes and vehicle registration fees are providing money to improve infrastructure. California is successful because of its high taxes and strict regulations, not in spite of them.

When companies look to expand, would they choose a state where their kids receive substandard education, the drinking water is polluted, and the roads are crumbling? No. High taxes are ultimately good for business and the economy overall because the money spent to teach the kids and repave the roads is more readily circulated throughout the economy.

I’ve heard people argue, “I’ve never been hired for a job by a poor person.” This is a spurious argument, lacking in reality. Sure, initially when rich people fund a start-up business, they hire people. But they will soon fail if they don’t have customers, consumers with money to spend. Public spending puts money in motion.

Let’s face it: everybody hates taxes. But the fact is that local, state, and federal government taxation and investment in roads, water systems, police, fire protection, and schools pay off by building supportive ecosystems and circulating money throughout the economy.

Let’s stop electing people who don’t understand this.

And maybe we can get our roads repaved.


* * Self-driving cars will change everything

I sit seething, waiting impatiently at the insanely busy Christiansburg intersection of N. Franklin and Cambria Streets. Is there anything most of us face on a daily basis more soul-sapping than sitting in traffic? And yet we collectively waste uncountable hours and gallons of fuel each year waiting for the light to turn green. For better or worse, I think the future of traffic, of driving, and even of how we develop our communities, is destined to change radically in the next few years. 

We’re staring into the headlights of an era of self-driving vehicles. There will be several more years of testing and refinement, then gradual introduction into the market, and then significant and perhaps eventual total penetration. These will be phased in as technologies evolve, but I’m more convinced every day these innovations will become widespread realities at dizzying rates, providing unfathomable disruption and opportunities. I’m guessing the ramifications of a complete change-over to self-driving cars will radically transform virtually every aspect of our lives, from our cities, our schools, offices, stores, homes, and even the roads themselves.

Automobile utilization in America is now only 5 to 7 percent, meaning that most cars are only doing anything useful for just over an hour each day. It is likely that millions of Americans will decide they don’t need a car at all, as one belonging to a fleet service can merely be summoned to take them where they want to go. These folks won’t have the costs or maintenance responsibilities of ownership. Ride-sharing companies like Uber – what we currently call “taxis” – will multiply to capture that emerging market. Consider that most of what you pay to ride a taxi goes to the driver, and that if the car doesn’t have one, the cost will plummet. People justify the vast expense of a personal vehicle because of the instant access and mobility. But if rides in self-driven cars are cheap and readily available, why have your own?

All those industries that cater to private car ownership will diminish or be eliminated. Cars will be sold in fleets to the ride-sharing companies, so we won’t have the need for nearly as many car salespeople or dealerships. There will be no rental car companies and fewer mechanics, car washes, valets, insurance companies, and loan companies.

Driverless cars will also reduce the need for massive parking lots and garages at shopping centers, schools, and workplaces, because the car will simply drop you off and go to the next customer. As these fleets of cars owned by the car-sharing services return to “home bases” after busy daylight hours, massive parking lots will emerge at those places rather than at individual destinations. That will revolutionize how we use immeasurable amounts of land currently paved for temporary storage of cars.

Because cars are in more constant use, overall utilization will increase, further reducing fuel consumption and pollution. It is possible that fleets of self-driving cars will be on the road servicing clients at 25 percent or even 50 percent utilization. This would be utterly transformational for the entire auto industry. The dealerships will become superfluous because manufacturers will sell to the services rather than everyday consumers. Sales overall will drop because fewer cars, traveling more miles, will be needed. Today’s $20 trillion worldwide asset capitalization in conventional cars, with only a miniscule utilization rate, makes little sense to continue if this alternative exists. Young people may never bother to learn to drive, get a license, or own a car. Already some developed countries have reached their zenith in per-capita car ownership.

And cars that drive themselves will dramatically increase the mobility of children, elderly, and disabled.

Self-driving vehicles will self-select routes for maximum efficiency based upon regional traffic, as they’ll all be communicating with each other, monitoring possible congestion and other problems. And they’ll communicate and cooperate with other transportation options such as trains, airplanes, and even hyper-local solutions such as scooters and e-bikes to get travelers that last mile or two.

Once self-driving cars become commonplace, will ordinary human-driven cars be banned? Will I still be allowed to ride my motorcycle?

“I’ll never give up my car,” you might be screaming, before I ask you the last time you bought camera film or a typewriter ribbon.

The light turns green, I press the accelerator pedal, and my car rolls forward, continuing my journey. We don’t know how this will all play out. Like other massive changes in the way we do things, we simply cannot predict whether we’ll see rosy or dark outcomes. Nobody can predict the future, but the people, companies, and communities that get this right will have a huge advantage. I’m looking forward to it.