Thursday, March 9, 2023

Pretty Pictures, Part 2: The Struggle Behind the Smiles

Those of you who followed my blog, The Reluctant Sailor, during our cruising years may appreciate the backstory of last week's sunny adventure in Belize. 
Amid the swimming, snorkeling, island-hopping, and dining, I was struggling. 

I briefly mentioned the reason in one of my otherwise-sunny Facebook posts.

I was on a 6-day cruise with Pope, three friends, and a hired boat captain. By Day 3, I was in agony from a shoulder injury. I don't know how I got hurt. Maybe hauling luggage, carrying heavy bags of boat provisions, or peering beyond my snorkel mask to avoid swimming into a prickly coral. 

The pain was debilitating. I was miserable, unable to get comfortable, rest, or sleep.

We were snorkeling at Glover's Reef, a coral-laced atoll 50 miles east of the mainland. By Day 5, my stoicism had collapsed. I asked our captain to help me arrange a medical evacuation by speedboat, to someplace where I could get a plane or bus to the hospital in Belize City. 

We were discussing it calmly and coolly (just kidding; actually, I was moaning and sobbing) when the whole group agreed to interrupt the cruise and take me to a doctor in our own boat--a huge, inefficient catamaran with diesel engine, four bunks, and four heads (bathrooms).

The nearest doctor (perhaps the only one outside of Belize City...) was in Placencia, where we had boarded the boat. This was a 6-hour round trip at the top speed of our boat (about 6 knots). This cost us less than $100 in extra diesel fuel -- much cheaper than using a medical evacuation company. But it eliminated a full day of swimming and snorkeling for everyone else. 

The other passengers said they wouldn't enjoy themselves knowing I was suffering. Actually, I think they were grateful it wasn't them. Another passenger had serious health concerns; it just as easily could have been him that needed emergency medical attention. In fact, he later went straight to the hospital on the way home from the airport, and is still there.

Our captain raced us to Placencia in our big boat, anchored, and sped me to shore in the dinghy. The doctor's office was outside of town in a primitive-looking, rustic shack with a tin roof that appeared abandoned, in the middle of a bleak field of dirt and weeds. No other buildings, homes, or even cars around. I wish I had a photo. 

To be honest, I was filled with dread, thinking: this can't be a real doctor. Surely I'm in the wrong place! A shot of cortisone in a place like this could be deadly!

However, inside, the office was clean and decent. The doctor is a Cuban who serves the expat community. Lots of Americans, Canadians, and Brits apparently live there or have winter homes. He did some manipulations, diagnosed a pinched nerve. His fee was $45, cash only. He called a taxi and sent me down the road to the pharmacist.

While I taxied to the pharmacy, the captain returned to the boat and motored to Placencia's city harbor.

I returned to the boat there, with $135 worth of painkillers and other medical products, and a case of beer for the captain and passengers. No poisons, though, despite the pharmacist's offerings.

This was all accomplished without any cell phone service! People along the way were happy to help me figure things out.

We spent the night on the boat in Placencia harbor, then motored back to the reef and another tiny isle.

I spent the remaining days laying around, moaning gently. The pills took the edge off but the discomfort continued.

After three flights, we got home by midnight Tuesday. I visited my chiropractor Wednesday and again Thursday, and on Friday got an ultrasound and more accurate diagnosis: torn tendon inside the rotator cuff. 

My trips seem to include a lot of adventures--sometimes unpleasant ones. In fact, that's what my blog was all about when we cruised up and down the coast in our own boat from 2013 to 2020.

I look at the photos of other people's "normal" trips -- a souk in Morocco, the Eiffel Tower, a tour guide with a striped umbrella -- with envy. My trips are rarely "normal." They're soaked in adrenaline! 

The shoulder incident is shaping up to be an extended struggle. However, it came with a big dose of sun and fun and magical isles. So, in between spasms, I'm smiling.

Pretty Pictures, Part 1: The Real Story

My younger friends keep asking me, What’s it like to be retired?” Isn’t it wonderful? I can’t wait.

I know what they’re thinking: the same thing I used to think. Whenever I picked up a magazine or travel catalog, I’d see pictures of retirees enjoying the good life. 

Beautiful people. A woman in a straw hat, lounging around a pool. Couples with gray hair and white shorts, watching dolphins swim alongside their boat. Cocktails and banquets on a cruise ship.

When I used to see those pictures, I was full of zeal! I couldn’t wait!

I wish I could tell you retirement is like that. But no. Those pictures are a hoax! For the first couple of years after I stopped working, I traveled a bit. I even lived on a sailboat for a while. I set out to live the fantasy of sipping cocktails on the deck, gazing at the sunset.

But it wasn’t like that. It was hard work to maintain a boat. The leaks. The mold. The breakdowns. I certainly never wore white shorts! 

In fact, it turns out that a lot of retirement has been hard work. In particular, I've struggled with three obstacles to enjoying those glamorous activities in the photos.

1) First, the longer I’m retired, the longer the list gets of people I have to go visit regularly. An opportunity to socialize and have fun? No. Here’s the list of people I visit:

-physical therapist





-bill collector

Does that sound like fun? No. But that’s what aging is like!

Most people who are retired will confirm that in the golden years, body building gives way to body deterioratingYeah, I know what you’re thinking: what about Jane Fonda? She looks great at age 84

Well, I think those photos are a hoaxtoo. Or she had a lot of plastic surgery. I sure don’t look like Jane Fonda. I don’t feel like Jane Fonda. 

I feel like more Methuselah. Ready for a long, long nap.

2) Second, the older I get, the older my house gets. Just like me, the plumbing has developed leaks. The floor is sticky. The refrigerator is overdue for replacement. It’s a constant battle to keep up with cleaning and repairs.

This winter, we had contractors replace the mortar on a brick wall. They hammered and drilled for days. Charged us $12,000. And the plumber came by to fixing a leaky pipe. For six hours of work, he charged $1,200! 

That’s where the money goes. Not to Hilton or Marriott or Club Med.

3) Third, now that I’m staying home more, I've been noticing the critters that share the house. Every evening while I’m sitting in the living room, a little mouse, sometimes accompanied by his brother or sister, wanders in, looking for a handout.

Maybe they find my house attractive because I don’t keep it as clean as I used to. I admit I’m too tired to kneel down and mop the floor. And too stiff to get back up.

I spend hours filling holes in the cornersscrubbing kitchen counters, and repackaging food into glass jars. And now, there’s ANOTHER person I see regularly: the exterminator.

This is where the time goes in retirement.

I’m still looking for that glamorous retirement that I expected--the ones my younger friends fantasize about.

I scan the catalogs with the pictures of beautiful people, laughing and smiling, and I wonder, where did I go wrong? Why I am still only fantasizing about lounging around the pool in a straw hat

Then I remember – those pictures are a hoax. Very few people actually get to visit castles on the Rhine on a $10,000 Viking River Cruise.

Most of us are at home, cleaning and repairing, or waiting in line at the doctor’s office.

So when my friends ask me, “What’s it like to be retired?” I’m honest. I tell them, it’s not like those beautiful pictures! Believe me, you can wait!


Saturday, February 11, 2023

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: My Book Projects

When I retired, I could have stopped working. I probably should have stopped working.

But you know me! Despite my complaints about being overwhelmed, I rarely slow down. Finish one thing, start another. 

I just finished editing a fifth book. Yes, five jobs since retiring 10 years ago, from four decades in a writing career. The first three books were for pay; low pay because the authors were friends. The last two, also for friends, were the hardest -- years of consulting throughout the writing process, then months of substantive editing (and grueling negotiation), copyediting, proofreading. 

They were voluntary.

The first editing job was for my dear friend Dan Smith, who died at age 90 just as his book went to the printer. At least he knew it was actually going to be published. What a relief that must have been!

My regular blog readers have already heard about this book project. Dan hand-wrote hundreds of pages in longhand, on yellow legal pads, later typed by his wife and a hired typist. Dan and I spent hours on the patio of Busboys & Poets in Takoma Park, hashing out content, shaping the format, selecting and discarding stories and photos. He told me dozens of stories that didn't make it into the manuscript.

Then the editing began. Then the exhaustive negotiations with Dan and his "executive" editor--his wife. My own hand-written notes ran to a dozen pages.

Dan was likely the last living child of someone born into slavery during the American Civil War. His 387-page memoir, "Son of a Slave," recounts his hardships and encounters with racism, and is a heartfelt tribute to those he cared about and those who supported him during his trials and tribulations.

The second editing job was for my partner, Pope. Yes, Pope wrote a book! His second, actually. This was a memoir: entertaining stories of a life lived hard and with great risks and hair-raising adventures. His theme? How much fun one man can have without killing himself.

His title? "I Should Have Been More Careful." (I should have stopped working...)

This time, the collaboration began with Pope telling me the stories, over the past 20+ years. His friends have been hearing them for much, much longer. Finally, the stories got onto paper (actually, a computer) and after months of re-hashing and hand-wringing, and checking and re-checking, into 202 printed pages.

And me? Two more friends immediately asked me to edit their books. Although the topics are intriguing -- rock stars and Shakespeare -- alas, I must say no and take a well-deserved break. READ a book. Ride a bike. Resume blogging. Go to Italy for some pasta, prosecco, and parmigiano-reggiano.

Book-length manuscripts are considerably more demanding than the intelligence reports, newsletters, scientific papers, speeches, and other materials I wrote, edited, and produced on a moderate government salary. For a book, I think asking for $$$$ -- a few thousand dollars, perhaps? -- would not be out of line! 

Also, I admit, I've gotten a bit rusty on grammar and style. I frequently had to consult a dictionary, grammar books, and a style manual checked out of the library. This took lots of time.

It was hard work that left me exhausted.

When I retired, I could have stopped working. I probably should have stopped working. When will I ever learn? When will I slow down?

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Sailboat Cruising: A Tale of Days Gone By

Do I miss sailboat cruising? Yes. A little.

This is the photo on our bedroom wall: cruising the Adriatic Sea. The photo was taken in the dinghy off the coast of Trogir, Croatia, or thereabouts.

But the temperature is warming here in Washington, DC, and neither Pope nor I has much energy these days, let alone when the thermometer ticks up to 95. Operating--cleaning--fixing--a boat in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean islands, fending off mold, salt, and biting flies, is the farthest thing from my mind.

We are nine years older than we were in this photo on Echo II, our cruiser from 2013-2020. My, how smooth and healthy our skin and hair looked then! 

In fact, Pope fell down playing pickleball this morning; he is feeling the ravages of time and disease. I am taking it easy, one household or garden chore at a time, with rests in between. I am not as old, but suffer some discomforts associated with age and arthritis. This week, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis.

Yesterday, I began editing Pope's memoirs, over which he diligently labored for nearly a year. He tells tales of hell-raising escapades, close calls, good luck and bad. I find it humorous. His memoir-writing group finds it appalling: Could one person really have done so many reckless, death-defying things?

Naturally, sailing mis-adventures feature prominently. Shipwrecking off the Florida coast, plugging a hole in a boat hull with a potato in the middle of the Atlantic, upending a boat by smashing into a railroad bridge.

One day when I was at the helm of Echo II, our cruiser for six years, I steered too close to a riverbank and bent the top of the mast on a tree. I was quickly forgiven; my transgressions paled in comparison to his. Such as, buying a barely functioning boat; blowing out the water pump by neglecting to maintain the impeller; climbing mountains of waves all night crossing the "Tongue of the Ocean" instead of anchoring safely on the Bahama Bank (as all the other boats did; see the 8:15 pm entry in my blog).

Yes, I miss sailboat cruising. A little. But I am just as content to reminisce over photos, recount the tales--and head out to water my garden.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Son of a Slave: a Black Man's Journey in White America

For me, it was another volunteer project: helping someone write and edit a book. Something I've done a few times since retirement, mostly for friends, to keep my skills sharp. For Dan, it was imperative: to get his remarkable story into the hands of readers before he dies.

Dan Smith at 88 in 2020; photo taken by The Washington Post

The significance of Dan's story is in the working title of his book: "Son of a Slave: A Black Man's Journey in White America." Yes, you read that correctly! The Civil War ended 156 years ago. Yet Dan is the son of Abram Smith, who was born into bondage on a Virginia plantation in 1863. Dan may very well be the last surviving offspring of an American slave, following the death of his 96-year-old brother in 2021. A number of other children of slaves have died in recent years at ages in the 90s and 100s, as written up in the news

Dan is 89. His health is tenuous. His life as a Black man (he insists on the capital B) is illustrative of the many indignities that a Black person can endure in this country. Even a well-educated, professional Black man like Dan, who served in the armed forces, met U.S. presidents, and headed a national health program. 

Dan Smith as a young soldier headed for Korea. Photo from Dan Smith.

Dan Smith was both witness to and participant in nearly a century of struggle--as victim of Jim Crow laws, civil rights activist, and government leader battered by discrimination. His autobiography is a first-hand account of events, tactics, and people that prevent the United States from realizing the promise that "all men are created equal."

Dan is determined to share his experiences with the world, to demonstrate that the white supremacy that accompanied our nation's founding is still with us two and a half centuries later. The lifetimes of Dan and his father span more than half of our most deplorable history, from slavery and the Civil War to the suppression of civil rights to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.

It took Dan 10 years to complete the research, writing, and assembly of materials for his book. He had to dig out of the recesses of his memory the words of his mother when white police officers knocked on the door, the terror of marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., the snarl of a white boss at the National Institutes of Health. From boxes in the corners of his attic he retrieved the photo with John Lewis, the letter from John F. Kennedy, the printed testimony from a federal grievance hearing--records carefully stored for just such an eventuality as writing a book.

Dan met and collaborated with such prominent dignitaries as John Lewis and Desmond Tutu. Photo from Dan Smith.

While Dan labored over his memories, we met, discussed, debated, pondered, reviewed, revised. The master copy grew, gradually morphing from pages and pages--and pages--of handwriting to typed, stapled manuscript to thick white notebook, complete with scanned photos.

A sampling of my notes while I read the unfinished manuscript. Photo by Amber Jones.

After the coronavirus invaded Washington, Dan and I met on the outdoor patio of Busboys & Poets, papers blowing in the wind and thick manila envelopes spread before us. We debated by telephone. Dan doesn't use computers; he wrote his entire 300-page book in longhand and hired a typist. He does use email to some extent--thank goodness. In a pandemic, face-to-face contact is difficult.

Toward the end of his toil, I wore him down with a hundred tough questions I thought a publisher would ask, and prodded him for decisions on voice, tone, style, spellings, consistency, photographs, format. Dan's wife of 30 years, Loretta--busy with her own, uniquely Washington activities, including politics and historic preservation--carved out time to help edit, revise, and interpret stories. (Dan and Loretta married in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, where he served as a volunteer usher, mingling with presidents--just another of his inspiring tales.) After the final copyedit, I rested, leaving Dan and Loretta to search frantically for an agent and publisher. Time is short, probably.

Meanwhile, Dan's history, including personal anecdotes about discrimination and the Ku Klux Klan, were discovered by the press. In 2020 and 2021 he has been interviewed by The Washington Post, NPR, and the BBC. There is interest in a movie. Most recently, The Economist came calling. I have copied that column below. But just wait until you read all his other chapters!

I am awed by Dan's persistence and proud of his progress. I hope you will read the column below, buy the book when it's published, be awed, learn something. And, most important, consider joining Dan in his higher calling: fighting for equality--not just in law, but in practice--for Blacks and all other citizens of our nation.

My volunteer writing and editing projects always leave me tired, yet proud--that I can contribute to a cause larger than my own narrow interests. In this case, I agree that it's imperative to get the story out.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Column in the Economist, December 3, 2021

A racial-history lesson from the son of a slave

Daniel Smith may be the last direct link to slavery

Most Americans don’t know much about slavery. In a recent survey, only half could name it as the main cause of the civil war. Yet for Daniel Smith, the “whipping and crying post”, the hanging tree and other horrors of the antebellum South are not ill-taught, dusty history, but vivid family stories.

The 89-year-old retired bureaucrat heard them from his father Abram, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1863, two years before the war ended. “On Saturday evenings after dinner he and my elder siblings would gather and he would tell them what his parents had told him about slavery,” recalls Mr Smith, an only slightly stooped octogenarian, at his house in Washington, dc. “I used to sneak out of bed and sit listening on the floor. I remember hearing about two slaves who were chained together at the wrist and tried to run away. They were found by some vicious dogs hiding under a tree, and hanged from it. I also remember a story about an enslaved man who was accused of lying to his owner. He was made to step out into the snow with his family and put his tongue on an icy wagon wheel until it stuck. When he tried to remove it, half his tongue came off. My father cried as he told us these things.”

It is chilling to hear him—a direct link to the history America is in many ways still struggling to escape. Sana Butler, who wrote a book on the children of slaves, identified only around 40 still alive in 1999, all of whom have since died. She did not track down Mr Smith, who was known in Washington as a well-connected civil-rights activist but rarely mentioned his family history. “It was something under the surface that we were not proud of,” he says. As his father’s only surviving child, after the death of his brother Abe earlier this year, he may well be the last living offspring of an American slave.

His memories underline how recent many of the rawest and most formative events of the American story are, especially for those on the receiving end of them. Slavery and the last Native American land-grabs are only two lifetimes away; no wonder the politics surrounding them, on all sides, are so intense. And the effect is particularly powerful in Mr Smith’s case because of how many momentous events in black history he has witnessed. Lexington got in touch to discuss his father, only to learn that Mr Smith had marched with Martin Luther King in Washington and Selma, feuded with the Black Panthers, been chased by Ku Klux Klan-inspired night riders through rural Alabama, been asked by the cia to spy on the anc in South Africa—and was in the crowd, tears pouring down his cheeks, to witness the inauguration of a black president. “A friend of mine calls me the black Forrest Gump,” he deadpans.

In fact his brushes with history chiefly reflect his talents and drive, which are characteristic of his black American generation. His father, a janitor aged 70 at the time of Mr Smith’s birth, was killed by a hit-and-run driver when Daniel was six. Abram’s death left his wife and six children almost destitute. Yet he had bred in them a fierce determination to rise. “We always said in our family, if you want to beat white people you’ve got to outwork them, you’ve got to outsmart them, you’ve got to stay up longer at night.”

Mr Smith graduated from high school in the mainly white town of Winsted, Connecticut, while working long mornings and evenings in a veterinary surgery to earn money. After a stint with the army in Korea, he went to college under the gi Bill, became a social worker, then enrolled in veterinary school in Alabama. Three of his five siblings also went to college. “The success of the generation raised by former slaves changed my whole perspective on this country’s history,” says Ms Butler. “Considering what they faced, and what they achieved, they are America’s greatest generation.”

In New England Mr Smith’s race was an everyday hurdle, but ultimately not a deal-breaker. He knew he could never make the first move on a white girl: “I don’t want to have to cut you down from that tree,” his mother would tell him. Yet he could rise: “America has always given me the right to work.” Alabama, where he arrived at the tail end of Jim Crow, was a different story. Southern blacks marvelled at his car and confidence among whites, including white women. It irritates him still; “Women are women, black, white, Indian or Chinese,” he says.

He was drawn into the civil-rights struggle, then roiling the state, and run-ins with Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic Panther who wanted to put money Mr Smith collected for anti-poverty programmes to more radical use. He preferred King’s moderation. But he has more time for Malcolm X’s radicalism now: “We needed both, King and the Panthers, the pull and the push,” he says.

Where slavery was, liberty can be

That reconsideration seems to reflect his downbeat view of race relations since the 1960s. Socially, he acknowledges, there has been huge progress. Many of his nieces and nephews are married to whites; his second wife is white (though it was a while before he would dare hold her hand in public, she notes). But institutionally he looks back on a history of failed promises.

He believes racist policing puts black children in greater peril today than he ever faced. He also notes that the “shining light” of Barack Obama’s election provoked a militant white reaction, in the form of Donald Trump, which is not weakening. The insurrection that the former president provoked and his party has refused to investigate, during which a Confederate flag was paraded through the Capitol, “was so revolting for our constitution”, he says. “There’s a big question about where we go from now.” And then Mr Smith, though visibly troubled, pulls himself up.

“Incidentally, we could never talk negatively about America in front of my father,” he says, speaking of a poor man, born a slave, who wore a well-brushed suit and fob watch to church on Sunday and drove his children to succeed. “He did not have much but he really, really loved America. Isn’t that funny?” 


James Astill

Washington bureau chief & Lexington columnist

The Economist

Friday, August 14, 2020

Gloom, despair, and disappearing mailboxes

Spoiler alert: I am going to reveal some of my vulnerabilities and shortcomings below, thereby potentially burnishing my golden reputation for strength and stability. So if you don’t want to be disabused of your glowing perception of my perfectionism, cease and desist!

“Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep, dark depression, excessive misery.” It’s an old song, recognizable to my generation. It cycles through my mind.

It’s easy to get depressed during a pandemic. I try to keep up with friends who live alone, to make sure they know they are cherished by at least one person despite the distance. I understand how lonely and discouraging it can get.

I am not invulnerable, despite having a dinner companion and someone to watch my back. For example, today I got bad news: a possible plumbing leak at my rental condo (in the converted church). I know that Pope will try to support me through the ordeal, and stay nearby if tears flow. But the responsibility is mine.

Tears have been flowing easily. Not from loneliness per se, though it feels like I am alone in my troubles. Sound familiar?

Mostly, it’s despair at the shanghaied election process, the vile behavior of anti-maskers, the endless stream of problems that cannot be solved easily because of pandemic closures, reduced services, and reluctance to allow service personnel into my safe space. Equally depressing: we do not receive mail for long blocks of time, then a stack arrives all at once. The longest period was 7 days. We are getting other people's mail. The dismantling of postal service is real -- even 8 blocks from the US Capitol.

I know that not all readers of my blog share my political views. I forgive you, and hope that we can remain civil and respectful. I have handwritten, addressed, and stamped 800 election reminders to voters, hoping they will choose my favored candidates. Now, I have no confidence they will reach their intended recipients, because of corruption and malicious intent by the opposition. You may disagree with my politics, but my feelings are real. Tears of anger.


I have a friend who moved to Virginia last week and wants to vote. But DMV appointments to change an address and get a Real ID are not available until late October, and the deadline for voter registration changes is mid-October. I tried to help solve this problem. Tears of frustration.

Returning to the previous address to vote is not feasible. Voting by mail is ridiculous: the slim chance of a ballot application using the old address arriving at a short-staffed office, a ballot being forwarded from the old address to the new address by an unreliable USPS, and a completed ballot getting returned to election officials in time, by the same handcuffed USPS -- all around the same time frame that the DMV official address change is taking effect -- well, let’s just leave it at “ridiculous.”

There probably are workarounds. But why should someone have to work so hard to vote? Because some people want to prevent other people from voting. The first set of people are more powerful than the second set of people. It’s a recipe for anxiety, anger, despair. Tears on behalf of the friend, myself, and all citizens affected by comparable dilemmas due to the sorry mess our country is in.

Finally, a source of tears and fears that I bet is not at all unusual: I wake up coughing every few days. I get hot flashes, chills, nausea, and lightheadedness. My head aches.

These might be attributable to allergies, hormone imbalances, hot weather, fluctuations in blood pressure, dehydration, stress. Who knows. In a time of pandemic, however, my mind flashes like lightning to the perfect storm: coronavirus.

 Gloom, despair, and at least a little depression. Can anyone relate?