America the Beautiful, Donald the Ugly!

I probably wasted a couple of hours yesterday afternoon watching the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted to see how Trump would behave. I wasn’t disappointed. I even posted on Facebook while he was delivering his Inaugural Speech that he sounded like he was still on the campaign trail. It must continue to rankle, being such a narcissus I guess, that he won the election by a landslide loss to Hillary Clinton of almost three million votes.

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I bet he had his fingers secretly crossed . . . 

How depressing the spectacle was, for many reasons (and it seems that despite whatever spin Trump puts on it, his Inauguration was decidedly low-key) I was left at the end with a profound sense of unease, depressed even. It was the same feeling I had (and continue to have) after the EU referendum last June, and the UK voted (by the smallest of margins for such a social, economic, and constitutional—and irrevocable—change) for Brexit.

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Is Barron Trump thinking about all the stick he is going to take when he goes back to school in New York on Monday?

After Trump had taken the oath, the former President and Mrs Obama left Washington, DC on board a helicopter bound for the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, en route to a well-deserved vacation (and period for reflection) in California. The BBC live broadcast captured an image of the helicopter flying northwest over Washington carrying the former president and his wife away.

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And I had this feeling that going with them was their dignity, decency, cordiality, ethical behaviour, and vision. Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s now filled with the mean-spiritedness of the Trump Administration, and the crass ostentation that The Donald personifies.

Welcome to the USA – about to become an extension of Trump, Inc. That’s certainly the impression seeing The Donald surrounded by his family. And the photo of him sitting at his desk in the Oval Office later on in the day, with Vice President Pence beside him (how soon will he fade from the limelight?), and Trump’s son-in-law and now Senior Adviser to the President, Jared Kushner (now there’s a prime case of nepotism).

As for Trump’s tie, I found this apt descriptionRed is an aggressive color that can make us feel passionate, angry, or hungry. The candidates in red ties want you to think they are decisive, bold, assertive, and powerful. Candidates accused of flip-flopping often roll out the red ties. Sound familiar?

We have a personal connection to the USA. Our elder daughter completed much of her education there, in St Paul, Minnesota, where she met her husband Michael, and where she continues to live and work, with children Callum and Zoë. We have visited the USA many times over the past 25 years,and have travelled extensively. Everywhere we went we have been met with warmth, courtesy and cordiality. I don’t recognise that in Trump’s take on America in his Inaugural Speech. No, I don’t deny that there is deprivation in swathes across many states, sites of former heavy industry that has been lost to competition elsewhere, or been overtaken by technology. These folks feel they have been neglected (just as those who voted to Leave the EU last June here in the UK), and Trump tapped into that sense of isolation.

He’s a multiple bankrupt billionaire businessman who is focused on one thing, and one thing only: himself (and his business opportunities of course). It’s unlikely to be America First! Trump First! Just like his branding franchises, will it soon be TRUMP USA?

What interest will he have in the common man and woman. Indeed one of his first Executive Orders, signed just hours after taking the oath of office, was to begin the process of rolling-back the Affordable Care Act. And that will directly affect the very constituency that expect him to perform miracles for them. And then any reference to climate change was removed from the White House website.

Trump has also surrounded himself with like-minded and very rich sycophants in his cabinet (if they are confirmed). Just like Pence, what influence will they actually have? The Tweet is mightier than the sword!

You know, Trump could found his own church (just like a number of fundamentalist preachers in the USA), and become the High Priest. After all, religion is faith, belief. Not fact. His invocation of God several times towards the end of his speech was, by the way, the depth of hypocrisy.

And as a Brit, it sickens me to see all our Conservative politicians wetting themselves over their future relationships with the Trump Administration. Also, deluding themselves that the UK will be ‘at the front of the queue’ when it comes to relations and trade deals with the USA (on American terms, of course). Trump is about to screw us. After all, Trump declared it would be America First! (after him, of course).

Then there’s the spectacle of UKIP former leader and self-proclaimed non-entity Nigel Farage almost orgasmic now that the bust of Winston S Churchill has been restored to its ‘rightful’ place in the Oval Office.

Don’t get me wrong. The UK needs to develop a solid relationship with whatever administration resides in the White House. But Trump has clearly signalled where his priorities lie. And that should give us all pause to consider what the next fours years hold in store, not only for the USA, but for all of us. A scary thought indeed.

 

A sign of the times . . .

When I was a small boy, more than 60 years ago, I never saw any police officer on the streets carrying any sort of weapon, other than a sturdy truncheon. Regular use of firearms was unheard of in British policing, although I’m sure the police always had access to firearms if needed, provided the appropriate authorisation was given.

Sadly, it’s not uncommon now to see many police officers carrying side-arms, automatic weapons even. The increased threat of terrorist attack means that many public buildings, airports or railway stations are now patrolled by armed officers. And of course many police officers also carry a Taser to incapacitate dangerous suspects.

Of course it’s very different on the other side of the Atlantic. Firearms are regularly used by police and there has been a spate of incidents recently when police in several cities have shot African Americans following, it seems, minimal or no provocation. And, several mass shootings. Access to guns and the US Second Amendment has become a big issue in the presidential campaign. Did Donald Trump actually hint that Second Amendment supporters shoot his rival Hillary Clinton? Unbelievable!

Easy access to guns is something we are not just used to here in the UK. So, imagine my surprise recently during our mini-break in northern Minnesota, and stopped for coffee in the small town of Walker. Steph and I had gone into a coffee shop, and as we enjoyed our beverages, I leafed through several magazines and advertising brochures that were sitting on the table beside me.

Here were a couple of flyers advertising a million dollar gun sale at a local store, Reeds, that happened to be across the street from the coffee shop. Every type of weapon you can imagine was up for sale, and many other bizarre and obnoxious accessories as well. I couldn’t help myself. I just had to take a photo or two on my mobile.

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We receive flyers and other advertising as inserts in free newspapers in the town where we live in England. But there are for furniture sales, new savings deals at one of the local supermarket, and the like. No guns!

Now northern Minnesota is hunting and fishing territory. But who needs an automatic rifle or worse for hunting? Who needs to go hunting in the first place, anyway?

So with my spirits rather dampened, we went for a walk up and down the street, and found a shop that specialised in beads and beading accessories – a major hobby of Steph’s. As she looked through all that was on display before choosing a range of beads, I had a look around the premises at all the tourist souvenirs. I couldn’t help taking photos of these two signs, and left the shop with a smile on my face.

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Photographing the Summit-Selby neighbourhood of St Paul

20160916-003-minnesotaOver the years we have got to know our way around St Paul, Minnesota, quite well. Minneapolis (the other half of the Twin Cities) less so. The grid system of tree-lined avenues and streets makes it quite easy to navigate around the city, with a significant number of avenues running west to east from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Cathedral Hill district.

Two avenues, Summit and Shelby, actually converge at Cathedral Hill (map), and from the steps of the magnificent Catholic Cathedral of St Paul, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the downtown area of St Paul, from the Minnesota Capitol (currently being renovated) to the northeast and the Mississippi to the southeast.

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Looking east on Selby Ave towards the Cathedral of St Paul.

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The downtown St Paul skyline, with the state capitol to the left, and the business district to the right. The Mississippi lies just beyond the business district.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Steph and I decided to drive over there, to take a walk round, and for me to do some photography. It has been six years since we last wandered round there. Our eldest grandchild, Callum, had been born just a month earlier in mid-August 2010, and while Hannah (our elder daughter, his mother) had a hair appointment, we pushed Callum around in his pram. Respite for the new mum, first grand-parenting responsibilities for Steph and me.

16 September past was a bright but overcast day, perfect for photography because there were no harsh shadows to complicate matters.

For the past seven years I have been using a Nikon D5000 DSLR. I bought it in the Philippines a few months before I retired, and I’ve been very happy with it. It had an 18-55 mm lens fitted when I bought the camera, and around 2012 I acquired a 200 mm lens. Now, while I liked that telephoto, it wasn’t very convenient having to constantly change lenses for just ‘that’ shot. Often, I just didn’t bother.

However, a few days before we flew to Minnesota for our latest visit at the beginning of September, I treated myself to an all-in-one lens, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200 mm 1:3.5-5.6 GII ED lens – an early combined birthday and Christmas present. So our Summit-Selby wander was a good opportunity to test some of its capabilities.

I decided that some shots of the cathedral, both wide angle and telephoto from the same location would be quite interesting, and here are some of the results.

The Summit-Shelby neighbourhood is rather lovely, but expensive. Along Summit are some of the grandest houses that I have ever seen; and some more modest ones too. It’s also a neighbourhood famous for the great and good of St Paul who settled there over the past century or more. Authors F Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion) both lived in the neighbourhood at one time or another.

In fact Keillor once owned a bookshop underneath Nina’s Coffee Cafe on the corner of Selby and Western Ave N, a well-known and popular meeting place in that neighbourhood (he has now moved to another venue on Snelling Ave near Macalester College).

These are just a few of the properties that caught my attention as we walked around.

And on the corner of Summit Ave and Western Ave N, there is a delightful small park, Cochran Park, with an elegant fountain with abronze statue of a running Native American with his dog at his feet.

All-in-all, an excellent morning’s exercise, coffee break, and photography. I look forward to many more opportunities.

 

Can’t see the wood for the trees . . .

During our visit to Minnesota in September 2015, we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (owned by the University of Minnesota) with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë. Being a year younger than today, we had to get back home so they could have a post-lunch nap. So we really only had time to see the various gardens closest to the Oswald Visitor Center (click here for condensed visitor guide and map)

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Steph and I returned to the Arboretum almost a month ago, and this year we took the Three Mile Drive around the site. There is so much to see, and the various plantings are laid out splendidly. The crab apple collection particularly caught my attention.

So rather than try to wax lyrical about the Arboretum, I’ll let you follow the links I’ve made here to the various websites, and let my photos speak for themselves.

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A bridge too four . . .

There’s water everywhere, notwithstanding all the lakes that characterise Minnesota. It’s not for nothing that Minnesota is known as ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes’.

The Minneapolis-St Paul metro area (the Twin Cities) is surrounded (almost) by water. I’m talking about rivers. Large rivers.

The mighty Mississippi River bisects the cities. The Minnesota River is a southern boundary to Minneapolis. And the St Croix River is the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin just east of St Paul, and its confluence with the Mississippi is just south of St Paul.

The Twin Cities (and surrounding areas) have their fair share of bridges – road and rail – that cross all of these rivers. There are twenty six highway bridges across the Mississippi, eight across the Minnesota River, and five across the St Croix (and another being constructed to relieve Stillwater of its congestion at the Lift Bridge.

Closest to where our daughter and her family live in the Highland Park neighbourhood of St Paul is the Mississippi River Bridge. Or should that be the Intercity Bridge, the Ford Parkway Bridge, or even the 46th Street Bridge? Its official name is ‘Intercity Bridge’, but at both ends there is a plate stating that the name is ‘Mississippi River Bridge’.

The Intercity Bridge, looking north from the Lock and Dam 1. Photo downloaded from the Minnesota Department of Transportation website.

Work began on this beautiful bridge in 1925, and it was completed two years later. It connected Minneapolis with the Ford Motor plant on the St Paul side of the river, now closed and demolished.

The following five photos were taken from an information booth above the old hydroelectric plant.

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The Ford Motor plant is on the eastern side of the Intercity Bridge. Below the bridge is the hydroelectric plant that provided power for Ford.

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Now that the trees have matured along the banks of the Mississippi, there are few clear views of the bridge from the banks, even from the viewpoints.

The next bridge upstream is the Marshall Avenue bridge, and can just be seen from the Intercity Bridge. Our daughter Hannah now lives just beyond the river bank treeline on the right of these photos, on Mississippi River Boulevard.

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This is the view today of the hydroelectric power station, the dam and lock below the bridge.

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About a mile further down river is Hidden Falls Regional Park. The road drops steeply down the bluff to the water’s edge. And there you get a real appreciation of the majesty and power of the flow of the Mississippi, even though it’s over 1200 miles to the ocean at the Gulf of Mexico.

Just over the Intercity Bridge on the Minneapolis side is Minnehaha Regional Park, and the beautiful Minnehaha Falls. On a visit to St Paul at Christmas 2007 we saw these Falls under very different circumstances: completely frozen. But not yesterday.

 

It’s amazing what a difference an extra four inches can make . . .

Size does make a difference after all. Well, at least when it comes to airline seats. Not that the actual dimensions of Delta Comfort+ and regular Economy seats are different. It’s just that there are an extra four inches or so between the rows in Delta Comfort+ section of the cabin.

And what a difference those four inches actually make, as I commented last year. So, even though the cost of the Comfort+ upgrade had increased by £100, we felt that the added space and comfort (really the ability to move around in one’s seat, and not have the seat in front in your face) was worth the extra expense.

And that’s how we travelled to Minnesota just a couple of days ago, for our annual visit to St Paul to stay with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë.

We arrived to Birmingham airport (BHX) around 09:10 for our 11:25 flight (operated by KLM Cityhopper) to Amsterdam Schipol (AMS, that takes around 55 minutes), only to discover that the check-in desks did not open until 09:25. Not the best situation for me these days, standing around on my weakened right leg. Anyway, once we had checked in our bags, we went through security quite quickly, although Steph was given a random check for explosives, and the hand gel that I was carrying was given special scrutiny.

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Sitting in the departure lounge at BHX waiting for our flight DL9415 (operated by KLM Cityhopper) to Amsterdam Schipol (AMS).

Our flight (an Embraer 190 aircraft) was boarded quickly, and the captain advised us that, at 11:10, we were ready to depart early. Only to come back on the blower just a couple of minutes or so later to tell us that two passengers had decided not to fly after all, and their bags would have to be found and removed from the aircraft. After all this we actually departed about 10 minutes late!

Being a Cityhopper flight, we arrived to a ‘bus gate’ at Schipol. This was actually rather convenient, since the entrance into the D pier was close to Gate D1 that Delta uses exclusively to process all its passengers but does not actually board any flight from there. And even better, our Minneapolis-St Paul flight DL165 was scheduled to depart at 15:35 from Gate D3. No long walks for me in Schipol last Tuesday, which was quite a relief.

I asked for priority boarding, and Steph and I were the first passengers on board the Delta A330-300, and quickly settled into our seats.

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Around 15:30 (after we’d been on board for about 40 minutes) the captain said we were ready to depart, but then advised us that engineers were working on a fault with the water and vacuum system for the toilets (now that was an issue I’d experienced recently on my flight from Lima to Cali, Colombia), and there would be a slight delay. Ultimately we departed about 25 minutes late (and arrived into MSP delayed by about the same time).

Once we were on the move, we had a very smooth takeoff from runway 24, and climb out of the gloom over Amsterdam.

Initially, our flight headed towards London, and didn’t turn northwest until we had passed Bristol. That’s quite unusual based on previous flights, when we headed out from AMS towards Scotland. Anyway, we crossed Ireland, passed south of Iceland and Greenland, and heading in over North America on the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, over Hudson Bay and Ontario in Canada, before the long descent into MSP once we had crossed the US-Canada border north of Duluth.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see until we crossed the coast of Newfoundland, and then there was a spectacular view of the rugged coastline, with inlets bordered by precipitous cliffs.

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The spectacular coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mostly it was cloudy, with odd view of an island or two as we crossed the southern part of Hudson Bay.

But for once, it was an incredibly smooth flight almost the whole way. In fact I can say that we experienced no turbulence at all, apart from the occasional little bump. And even though stormy weather had been predicted for our arrival around 18:00 in MSP, and the captain advised us during the descent that the approach could be rather bumpy, we had no bumps at all.

Nevertheless, a nine hour flight is a long time. Having made the same flight before in a regular Economy seat, and knowing how uncomfortable I was, the upgrades to Comfort+ have been worth every penny.

Also, the odd Bombay Sapphire or three during the flight certainly helps. I read something today that drinking gin is good for you. I don’t need any excuse. I enjoy it for itself, and also for the fact that it relaxes me during flights such as Tuesday’s.

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Delta serves a limited menu in Economy Class: chicken and . . . Having previously opted for the hot dish (and invariably regretted having done so), I decided to try the cold chicken salad, and surprisingly quite satisfied with my choice. About four hours afterwards the cabin crew came around with a snack – quit bizarre, but nice nevertheless. It comprised crackers and a red bell pepper spread, and a sachet of about a dozen green pitted olives. Never had anything like that on any flight before. Then just 90 minutes out from MSP we were served a hot cheese and chicken sandwich, and some ice cream.

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On arrival at MSP we were off the plane quickly and among the first passengers through Immigration. Our bags arrived quickly and before we knew it we were out and meeting Michael and the grandchildren.

Yesterday was still quite stormy and wet in St Paul, and we didn’t manage a short walk until quite late in the afternoon. Hannah and Michael moved house a few months back, just a few blocks from where they had been living. But it’s a larger house, and along the Mississippi River Gorge. These next photos were taken just a couple of minutes away from their house.

We are here in St Paul for the next three weeks. Although we don’t yet have any firm plans to travel, we are contemplating a short break in the north of the state, at the headwaters of the Mississippi and Itasca State Park. Some of the trees here in St Paul are already beginning to show the first signs of autumn colour. Perhaps we will see a more spectacular display in northern Minnesota.

Watch this space!

 

On political campaigns . . .

ballotbox copyI’m a bit of a news junkie, so I’ve been avidly following presidential election campaigns in three countries in online newspapers and on social media.

News from the US presidential election is never absent from the daily headlines, mainly because the two principal contenders on the Republican side, billionaire Donald Trump (or is that Donald Drumpf)¹ and evangelical Senator Ted Cruz, battling it out to win the nomination, increasingly descend to ever lower levels of political debate. Political debate? Their exchanges are not worthy of that epithet. Trump is hardly running an election campaign. I think it would be better to describe it as an election ego-trip.

You would hardly know there’s also an interesting contest on the Democrat side between former First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. At least they seem to be having a sensible debate.

The other campaigns that interest me are taking place in Peru in April, and in the Philippines in May. Why? Because I have lived and worked in both those countries.

Reading about the three campaigns, two quotations come to mind:

  • Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every nation gets the government it deserves) — attributed to Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821)
  • Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least — Robert Byrne

Goodness knows what sort of campaign there will be in the US after the party conventions if Trump really does become the Republican candidate. He’s both scary and a worry. What will happen if he is ‘denied’ the nomination, and how will his supporters react. The violence we have seen so far directed by these folks against anti-Trump protesters does not bode well for the future.

But there are scary things going on in the Cruz camp as well. He is a right-wing evangelical Christian. And I’ve recently seen footage of him sharing the stage with a fundamentalist Christian preacher who, through his language was inciting Christians to violence, death even, against homosexuals. Because it says so in the Bible.

On the Democrat side, I’m actually surprised how well Bernie Sanders is doing, although I can’t believe he can win the nomination. Nor can I see a 74 year old candidate moving on to be a successful president.

In Peru and the Philippines, some of the candidates are as old as Sanders, but the political situation there is very different from the USA.

The polls in Peru seem to be dominated by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced and gaoled former President Alberto Fujimori (who I met in the Philippines during his visit to IRRI). But Fujimori – daughter is also a controversial politician, believed to have benefited personally from her father’s corrupt government. Nevertheless, she is predicted to win the first round of voting. Another discredited candidate is the APRA former president Alan García who served two terms already (1985-1990, 2006-2011).

In the Philippines, which has a party system even weaker than that in Peru, the lists of candidates for both president and vice-president are filled with controversial characters. The posts of President and Vice-President are voted for separately (not as a single ticket in the USA), and it’s often the case that elected candidates come from different political persuasions and diametrically-opposed political platforms.

The current Vice-President Jejomar Binay heads yet another political dynasty, and has been accused of overwhelming corruption. The Mayor of Davao City (in Mindanao) Rodrigo Duterte has served his city for more than two decades, successfully apparently, and regarded as a political ‘hard man’. How a Duterte Administration would pan out nationally is anyone’s guess. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is an outspoken – and (formerly) popular – international lawyer who, once she had declared her candidacy (despite being near death’s door from Stage 4 lung cancer only a short time before), was thought to be well placed to win the presidency. Until, that is, she chose Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (aka ‘Bongbong’) as her running mate for vice-president. Son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (ousted in a popular uprising in 1986), Bongbong is widely regarded as corrupt and implicated in many of the worst human rights excesses of his father’s regime. Another, Senator Grace Poe, has had her candidacy questioned because of her nationality, having taken US citizenship at one time, which she has now renounced. Which leaves us with the ‘administration’ candidate and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, Mar Roxas (a scion of yet another political dynasty). Is his wife Korina Sanchez a political liability??

So, in all three countries, the electorates are faced with choosing Presidents or Vice-Presidents from lists of some unsavory candidates, several of whom do not qualify (in my opinion) on ethical or moral grounds to ask for anyone’s vote, never mind political acumen or leadership potential, not even for the most humble elected post.

There will be bumpy political times and roads ahead in all three countries, whatever the election outcomes. Although not a General Election, we face an uncertain political (and economic) future here in the UK with the referendum on continuing membership of the European Union being held on 23 June. Political campaigning and false arguments have not brought out the best on either side of the referendum debate.

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¹ See the full 22 minute video here.