August 15, 2022

My long, hard trip to China…what you should expect

By John Guy LaPlante  

            Here’s what I faced for this big new  journey across the Pacific, the biggest ocean.

            I would be starting from Morro Bay, where my daughter Monique and her hubby David live and which is 200 miles north of Los Angeles, my take-off point. And flying more than 5,000 miles to Shanghai. Then taking a second flight to the big city of Guangzhou. It’s 700 miles farther, in the southeast of China, not far from Hong Kong.

            Next I had to find flight and arrival days—and times!– that would be convenient for me and Monique and David, who would be starting me off, and for my friends Wu and Camil in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

            And of course, affordable. And as easy on my tired old body as modern travel can make it.

            And to plan the reverse when I returned home a month later, with the same constraints and considerations to keep in mind, of course.

            I got started, and as always, online on my computer. My preference was American Airlines, and my reasoning was entirely financial. I have a Visa AAdvantage card—have had it for years. For every dollar I spend with the card, I get one AAdvantage point.  Collect enough points and you can get a “free” AA flight—maybe just a few miles away, maybe all around the world.

            After laborious research, I found my best possible deal on AA, both going and returning. It would cost me 70,000 points, and I had that many points. How about that? But remember, I had to put $70,000 dollars on my card to be entitled to that.

            But it wouldn’t be first-class, or even business class. It would be economy, at the back of the plane. But as I’ve heard my friend Sulekh Jain say—he has done a lot of flying, “John, the back of the plane gets there just as fast as the front!”

            Yes, that’s true. Nevertheless, there are attractive differences between those two classes and the one I chose. Flying up front may cost more than twice as much, but it’s surprising how many folks feel that’s the smart choice.

            Of course, I asked the AA gal, “How much would that round-trip in economy cost me in dollars?”

            “About $1,600,” she told me.  “Depending on day and time and other factors.”

            Also I learned something else.  AAdvantage seats are not available on any flight. just select flights. Finding the right deal can be painstaking.

            Anyway, that’s the ticket I bought. To save time, here I’ll go into just the outward-going details of my journey and not the returning-home ones.

            My flight times going were ideal:  departure at 2:30 p.m. from LAX (the L.A. airport), and of course I’d have to check in at least 90 minutes earlier; and arrival in Shanghai at 7:25 p.m. their time, which wouldn’t be bad for Wu, who is a working man.

            At first I thought of getting an immediate onward flight to Guangzhou.  AA doesn’t fly directly to that big city of 16 million. But I decided against rushing to my next plane for that final leg. For one thing, my flight across the Pacific might get delayed. And I might be too exhausted to walk onto that next flight.

            So, I arranged a separate flight, again after much researching, on Southwest China Airlines. My left-over AA points, and I had just a few, wouldn’t work for that. I had to pay cash for that round trip, again on economy. It was $249.

            On departure day, my daughter Monique woke me at 4:30. David was dressed and ready. We sat down to one of their usual wonderful breakfasts, and David got me settled in his car at 6:15, just as planned.

            With me I had a big suitcase, on wheels, thank goodness. Plus my substantial carry-on bag. Plus my laptop. Plus my essential walking stick. Plus a bag of food.    You see, I had noticed that my AA flight of 14 hours would serve “one meal.”  Yes, just one. Gosh, AA was being awfully skimpy! Monique made sure I wouldn’t go hungry. That big bag included a jar of peanut butter. I consider peanut butter the world’s best survival food for traveling.

            Long ago, I rode a Greyhound bus from New York City to Seattle. That’s a three and a half day ride. The same bus goes all the way.  The drivers change every seven hours or so—which is so reminiscent of the Pony Express riders of yore.

            The Greyhound ticket cost me $89. And I made it all the way to Seattle with a jar of peanut butter, a box of saltine apples, and a big bag of apples.  Plus coffee at every stop. Yes, true!

            That made quite a story for me to write up when I finally staggered off the bus in Seattle.

            I was visiting my son Mark there. He was getting his Ph.D. at the University of Washington.

            This time I’d be riding a bus with wings! That’s what the airliners are, of course, buses.

            David drove me south to Santa Maria. He had arranged a round-trip ride for me on a van shuttle service from there to LAX.  The round-trip fare was $168, I believe.

            It was about 60 miles to Santa Maria. David got me there in 63 minutes–right to the airport, which was the shuttle’s starting point.

            We were the first to arrive.  I was glad to get there early.  For one thing, I wanted to try the bathroom one more time. Getting to a bathroom was a  big consideration throughout this trip. I think it would be for any old man. On my outbound flight soon coming up, I even managed to book an aisle seat way, way back, just a dozen feet from the toilet! On the aisle to make it easier for fellow passengers.

            David gave me a hug and on I went. I was lucky—I got the front seat in the van, right next to Dan, the driver. He had eight of us on board.  It was three and a half hours to LAX.  Dan was a talker, as I am, and that was very good.

            An easy ride at first…traffic was light…but as we got closer…all seven lanes (one way, I mean) were jammed. But Dan knew some short cuts. At certain points, when the traffic seemed impossible, he diverted to secondary roads that were easier. I made notes of every one. He got us to LAX 15 minutes early, right to my terminal entrance, one of many, and off-loaded my luggage for me!

            Getting to Lax always brings back a precious memory of my first visit there in 1960. It was the end of a 4,000 mile camping trip with my wife Pauline and two little kids, Arthur and Monique, who were toddlers. Mark hadn’t come along yet.

            I was a writer for the Worcester Sunday Telegram and had organized this trip, writing articles all along the way and mailing them back to the paper for publication.

            I was at Los Angeles International to write about its director, who had jumped to this big job from our much smaller airport, where he had  been the top man. I can’t recall his name. I believe it started with Mc.  I suppose I’m lucky to remember that much.

            He greeted me warmly, introduced me and showed me around and answered all my questions.  Also I snapped some pictures.

            Meanwhile, Pauline sat and waited in our station wagon, coping our two darlings, of course.  That was a camping trip in a home-made tent trailer (built by me with a friend’s help). We camped out every night of that 11,000 mile ride.

            I typed my article that night and the next morning mailed it back with my roll of exposed film. It got published in due time.

            LA International was much smaller then, but still one of our most important airports. There was no security to go through back then!

            You know what getting through security at an airport is like nowdays, so I’ll skip that. I’ll mention just two things.

       I was told I had one bag too many—the bag with my  food. But I looked so doleful at that news that the counter gal told me, “Go ahead. Take it aboard.” I was so grateful I blew her a kiss. She did smile…a very little smile.

            But! My precious peanut butter got confiscated.  It had never been opened.  Still it was considered a security hazard! Crazy, I think.

            I  had more than a three-hour wait.  I planned to open my computer and get some work done. After much searching, I found a quiet corner and an all-important electric outlet. I didn’t want to drain down my battery.

            But I couldn’t get online, try as I might.  I even got an AA agent to help me, but he failed, too. “It’s just one of those days,” he told me.  One of many disappointments on this trip.

            Right away my walking stick tot an agent’s eye.  She said, “A wheelchair, sir?” 

            “Yes, please!” And I got a ride right down that long, long councourse to my gate. I had checked my bag but I had all my other stuff piled high on me.

            At boarding time, I expected early-boarding as a handiccapped senior. If early-boarding got announced, I never heard it. I was part of the big rushing crowd.

            On board, with all my things banging on every seat, I made it all the way down the narrow aisle right to my seat. But my seat was not an aisle seat, as promised. It was an inside seat in a long row. Darn!

            I spotted an attendant and complained. Quickly she sized up my problem.

            She said, “I’ll try to find you one!” It was a heavily booked flight, but she did find one.  Just 10 rows from the toilets and the galley section! She sat me down next to a young man. There were just two seats and we became seat companions for that entire long journey.

           The first thing I did was adjust my watch to Chinese time, which was eight hours ahead. That would ease my jet lag problem once arrived. Then I said hello to my seatmate.

            His name was Steve Yu. He was 17, a high school junior from near San Diego. He was Chinese, but born in the U.S., so traveling to China on an American passport with a Chinese visa that he had to purchase. as I did. He had an extraordinarily interesting story to tell me about himself, and I’ll share it in a minute.

            First, I must tell you about my Chinese visa. I had to get a new one. I’ve had to get one before, of course, so I remembered what a headache that was—having to go to the Chinese consulate in L.A., waiting endlessly in line, answering all the questions, then having to return four days later to pick up my passport with the visa pasted in it.

            I decided to splurge on a visa service that would go through all that hassle for me.  The visa itself would cost me $149 (if I remember correctly) and the service another $49.  I filled out the paper application meticulously. 

         There were six things I had to be sure to provide. One was to include my passport. Then copies of its first page, plus a copy of my original visa. Plus a new passport photo. Plus copies of my itinerary and hotel reservation. Without all those, no visa. I did all that.

            I felt lucky. The visa service specialized in China visas. Had offices in our major Amrican cities.

            But another of its demands was to ship my application with all the other things to its L.A. office by Fedex overnight. The charge was $27. I did that.

            The next day I got an email back from the service. I had forgotten to include the passport itself. What a dope! I had to send it pronto, again by Fedex overnight for $27.

            Then they sent me another email. The consulate had rejected my photo because it had a slightly yellow background.  (It was taken in front of a yellow pastel wall!) But the picture of me was painfully sharp—you could see my every wrinkle and every missing hair. That seemed to be what was essential. No.  The background had to be pure white.

            I had one taken at a nearby Walmart for $7.35 after a quick online search. CVS and the others were all charging $11 or $12.

            FedEx again. No! This time I rebelled. There was a U.S. Post Office close by. I sent off my photo not for $27, but for less than $7.

             (Remember these things if you’re planning to go abroad and you like to watch your pennies.)

            By the way, a lot of people get confused by passport and visa. What’s the difference?

        The passport establishes you as a citizen of a country. That small booklet is essential to get back into your own country!  If you  lose your  passport abroad, you are in deep trouble.

            The visa is your permission to get into a foreign country. It’s the price to get in to see the movie, so to speak. Visa prices vary. Some countries do not require one.  All this, and much more, is all explained in my Around The World book, by the way.

            My visa story doesn’t end there. The visa service contacted me again. I was a Connecticut resident. I couldn’t apply at the L.A. Chinese consulate!  It had to be to the New York City one—it had jurisdiction for Connecticut.  They would rush my application to New York. They would ding me another $27 for that Fedex service for that.

            You can imagine my surprise. After all, I had obtained my previous visas in L.A. and, yes, as a resident of Connecticut.

            I sent them an email: “My application clearly stated I live in Deep River, CT.  You are the experts. You should have recognized that!”

            They quickly apologized, begged my forgiveness, and ate the $27 charge.  And I calmed down.

            Still I fretted. The service assured me I’d get my visa on April 1.  I was taking off April 3. That seemed awfully tight. 

            And someone had to be home all day to greet the Fedex man on that day.  Not easy, but I arranged that, thanks to Monique and David.

            But the Fedex man never arrived. He showed up with it the next day, April 2. Whew! All is well that ends well, Confucius said (I believe). Sometimes the toll it takes is awfully high.

            Now back to Steve Yu. He was flying to Shanghai for a quick, all-expenses paid visit to New York University’s new Shanghai branch (some 500 students at present).

            Quite a few American colleges and universities are opening branches overseas. It seems to be the latest thing. It widens their market for applicants, increases their profit stream (pardon me…that’s the wrong expression…their revenue stream…but we all know what that really means) and it’s prestigious. Plus fantastic PR. They wanted Steve because he was such a hot prospect.

 He’d be met at Pudong by an NYU rep, shown around, wined and dined, and hopefully signed up. In four days he’d fly home, committed to NYU.

   Incidentally Steve had received other such irresistible come-and-see-us offers from other schools, and was saying yes.

            He attributed his success to two things.  “My Mom and Dad. They do everything possible for my little brother and me. They want the best for us every day.  They are immigrants. It’s been hard for them over here.  My father is a sushi chef. Yes, Japanese sushi!” He chuckled.  “Which I love, by the way. He works very, very hard for us. And the other thing has been AVID at school.”

            AVID, what’s that? I had never heard of it. I was amazed by what he told me.

       AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Retirement. It is a college-readiness program which has had fantastic results in improving the academic and life performance of underserved students.

            It was started in San Diego by a teacher named Mary Catherine Swanson. It has had astonishing results over the years—by measurable standards, mind you. Now retired, she spent years making it grow. AVID now exists in thousands of high schools in nearly every state.

            It’s more than a how-to program. It’s a philosophy, a way of thinking. Students are kept to high standards, are given guidance, feedback, and encouragement. If you’re interested, looked it up on Google.

            “AVID has been fantastic for me,” Steve told me.  “I have a terrific mentor. I will never be able to thank him enough.”

            “Well, Steve, what do you want to major in?”

            “I don’t know. I can’t make up my mind. I have many things that interest me.  For a while, I intend to take general courses that will help me for anything I do in life.”

            A wise answer, I thought. I’ve met kids who plunge into anthropology or oceanography, say, as a major because of a movie or article they have come upon. Not really understanding what they’re getting into. Two years after graduating, they’re a clerk in a bank, say, working in a supermarket. Sad, I think.

            Anyway, he was my seat companion all those many hours.  Kept trying to help me this way and that—fastening my seat belt, maneuvering the monitor in front of me, reaching up for my luggage.

            By the way, we were served meals. Yes, meals, plural. Yes, full meals, plus snacks. I had declared a vegetarian meal, please. That got ignored. One meal was a sandwich with ham and cheese. Still frozen, by the way. You’d break a tooth biting into it. I waited for mine to thaw, ripped off the ham and handed it to Steve, who gobbled it down in five seconds, and satisfied myself with the rest.

   I estimated half of us on board were Asian. The big meal of the flight was served with fork and knife and spoon and chopsticks. Take your pick. Steve used his chopsticks.

   Just about everybody had the movie channel on. Steve was watching something else. By coincidence, so was I. It was our route as we pr0gressed from Los Angeles to Shanghai. I had it on for the entire trip. I had brought things to read and every now and then I’d glance at that tiny little plane moving across the monitor map. Fascinating!

            He was excited when we approached the International Date Line on the Pacific. He watched as the tiny plane got closer and closer to the IDL. Gave me a thumb’s up when we crossed it. I’m sure there were very few of us aboard interested in that.

            I quickly put my usual strategies to good use. There, imprisoned in my seat, now and then I’d move as many of my muscles as I could. My neck, my arms, my legs, my feet. It all helps.

            And as often as I dared, I got up and made it back the few paces to the toilet area and the galley. Even if I didn’t need the toilet. I would stand in a corner, out of the way, and do more gentle exercises. So important. And engage people in talk. Enjoyed several notable encounters.

            Best of all was with Amie, the attendant who got me my aisle seat. (I’ve felt it wise to change her name.) Just a tiny thing. Was certainly a beauty when she started her 27 years with AA. Being young and beautiful was a requirement back then for a stewardess, as we know. Not so much now, thanks to the feminists. That word “stewardess” has been chucked.

            She told me there were 14 cabin attendants, including 3 Chinese, who also made the PA announcements to the Chinese passengers. And 4 on the flight deck.

            All bid for their flight schedules. This flight was a highly desired itinerary, and she qualified for it most of the time because of her seniority. This was her favorite flight—for its destination, its relative comfort, and reasonable departure times at both ends.

            If she missed this one, she liked the London schedule. “But one reason I like this better is that the Europeans are more demanding of us!”

            On this flight, each attendant would have a two-hour break. There was a cabin with bunks just for them. Same thing with the cockpit crew, “but in first class!”

            On average, she made this trip three times a month and that was it.  Fly to China, go to the nice hotel provided for the crew, rest the next day, then fly home.

            “What do you do in Shanghai?”

            “Shopping with my friends in the crew. We don’t really need anything. But it’s a nice social thing.”

            “Has anything bad ever happened to you on a flight?”

            “No, never. No terrorist thing. Sometimes there’s a death on board. A natural death, I mean. A heart attack or something like that. But not for me. Not yet.” And she knocked on the cabin wall for good luck.

            “What attracted you to the job?”

            “The chance to travel! I was just a kid. We were all kids. All gals, of course. And I thought, ‘What! I can get to do all this travel, and get paid, too!’”

            She offered something else. “I’ve been with American since the start. The airline has had some bad times,  and is going through a merger right now, as you know. But it’s been terrific most of these years. We have the highest pay schedule of any airline! All thanks to our union, of course!”

            Slowly, slowly, we made our way across, one hour after another. I followed our route via the small screen right in front of me, on the back of the seat ahead of me.

            To my eye, we were hugging the land all the way. First, by our Pacific Coast up to Vancouver, then just off the shoreline of Alaska all the way to the end of the Aleutians, then down toward South Korea, and then finally China, and finally Shanghai! As I saw it, we never flew way out across the Pacific.

            Steve and I speculated about that.  Maybe what we were seeing on our screens was deceptive because we were looking at a map in 2D, and the world is really in 3D….

            He offered, “Maybe we’re staying close to land in case of an engine problem or something.  Easier to find an airport!”

            It’s plausible. But I don’t think so.

       At one point we were high in the Arctic! And the outside temperature was shockingly cold, by the way, though I don’t remember exactly. Most of the time were were cruising at 550 miles per hour seven miles up. Amazing, don’t you think? Most of the time, I felt as steady in my seat as in my favorite chair in my living room.

            Finally, finally we were only 15 miles from Pudong Airport in Shanghai. Just minutes from landing. The final announcements were made. The attendants made sure we were buckled in, and our trays and seats up. There was a tenseness in the plane. Your eyes closed, you’d never know there were hundreds of us aboard. Yes, it was that silent.

            We landed. Passengers jammed the aisles, of course, fighting to download their luggage from the overhead bins and get out. Steve and I waited and were the last ones out.

            He helped me get my luggage down.  Helped me carry much of it up that long, narrow aisle to the front. All he had was a backpack and a laptop.

            He insisted on keeping me company all the long way down the the luggage area. Retrieved my big red suitcase for me from the carousel. Kept by my side all the way to Customs and Immigration, and through that hassle.

            Only then did he say goodbye. “Good luck, John! Got to go! Somebody from NYU is waiting for me!”

            I was sad to see him go. He’s another kid that I’ve met that I wish I could buy stock in.

            Now to make it short and sweet. I would be flying on to Guangzhou tomorrow afternoon—less than a three-hour flight. Camil would be there to meet me at the end.

            Now I was so tired I could barely stand. I had not slept a wink for more than 30 hours. I needed ahotel. I saw one right there in the airport. Cheapest room, $149. I decided no.

            By chance, a sharp-eyed hotel salesman approached me. Showed me flyers of this hotel and that one nearby. “All very cheap prices!” he told me. “All very clean! All with free shuttle service back and forth!”

            I chose one. It was a 15-minute ride.  Amazing how beautiful Shanghai was! Its fine highway. Gorgeous buildings. The many bright colored lights. The Chinese love all that.

            The hotel was a small one, Blue Goose in English, I believe.  I signed the register: $45 for one night. Big room with private bathroom. A huge bed. Nice furniture. Big TV. And yes, impeccably clean.

            But I had so many problems getting the lights on, and the heat on, plus a few other problems, that I had to trudge back to the office for help. An attendant–a very old man who didn’t know a word of English–came back with me and got everything going for me.

            I didn’t even know how to say “Thank you.” But I showed it in another way.

            The rest of the trip went as planned. Easy by comparison. And here I am!

            As Confucius also said, “Nothing is perfect.” That’s true here, of course, as it is everywhere.  But I find China so impressive so many ways.

            The last century was our century, America’s century.  We became big and powerful and supreme.  Well, according to my figuring, we have 86 more years in this century. I believe this will be China’s century.

            Buy a broad Chinese mutual fund of common stocks.  I’ve owned one for a few years. It’s been doing fine.

            And finally I can say “Seechay!” That’s “Thank you” in Mandarin. I hope I’m spelling it right! And saying it right!

            Yes, a long and hard day. But paltry considering what our forebears went through years ago in getting to distant places like China, and for folks there to make it to our shores.

       Think of Marco Polo!     Oh, I got to Guangzhou still with tht big bag of food, just a few items eaten.

~ ~ ~

Well, what do you know…I’m back in China!

By John Guy LaPlante

         I’m as surprised as you are. This is my fourth time over. At my age I never thought there would be a fourth time.

         Speaking of age, I’m going to turn 85 during my month over here. But this is the right place to be old.  The Chinese venerate old people.  They tumble over one another to be of service to us. It’s just the opposite of the attitude in too many other countries.

         I love being venerated. I step onto a crowded subway car—bingo, somebody jumps up to offer me a seat.

         I’m in China to visit two friends. Camil in the huge and gorgeous city of Guangzhou. And then Wu Bin in famous and bustling Shanghai. Two weeks more  or less with each.

         I’ll fly back to California May 2 for a reunion with Monique and David, my favorite daughter and favorite son-in-law, in Morro Bay on the central coast.

         (That’s a little joke that I enjoy—I have only one of each! But I am awfully fond of them. Just as I am of my two sons and daughters-in-law.)

         And in mid-May I’ll be home finally in Deep River, CT.  After months away!  God willing, as we say.

         What the heck am I doing here on the other side of  the Pacific? A good question.

         Camil invited me.  He is a Canadian…a Quebecois, so French-speaking.

         I met him at a hostel in Trois-Rivieres up there. Total strangers, we shared a room.  That’s the way it can be in hostels. I love hostels–I could write long and enthusiastically about them.   He had an IPad. He’d lounge in his bunk and give it his rapt attention.

         Curious me, I asked him what movie he was watching.

         “Non! Non! I was a photojournalist here for two big newspapers. My whole career!”

         Yes, we spoke in French. Not a problem for me. In fact, I love having a go in my mother tongue. I consider it all-important to keep it alive in me.

         He continued, “I have thousands of my photos on here.  I just retired. I like to look at them now and then. So many memories!”

         Of course, I mentioned I was a journalist, too—but a word journalist, not photo–with years on a big paper. Often I teamed up with a photojournalist for assignments. So we had “beaucoup” to talk about.

         Then, he surprised me. “I’m going to take a trip around the world.  In stages. Over six or seven years, most likely. And you bet I’ll be taking these along with me!” He indicated his IPad and his camera nearby. “I’ll be putting them to good use.”

         So of course, I mentioned to him I had traveled around the world. Also alone.  In one big swoop of six months—36,000 miles, across the Equator, on some 20 airlines, plus bus, train, and boat. But at 75, not at his age. And had written a book about it. So we talked and talked and talked.  Became friends.

         Then we each went our way–I home to Connecticut, and he to Vancouver to visit one of his sons  before hopping over the Pacific to China, his first destination.

         Well, you don’t really hop over it. It’s a 14-hour flight.

         By the way, going westerly around the world was a tip I gave him. Rather than easterly.

          “Oh?” he said, much interested.

          “Yes, traveling with the sun will be much easier on you. You would find going around the world against the sun awfully difficult. You shouldn’t do it that way.”

         Well, he loves China! And the Chinese!  Has been here for many months. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stayed here a very long time.

         Oh, he’s made side trips to Cambodia and Vietnam and Hong Kong. Always with his camera. Once a photojournalist, always a photojournalist, I guess. He’s passionate about that.

         But he always  returns to China. And he has thousands and thousands of photos to document what he’s seen already.

         He emailed me that he was going to have a big exhibition of some 25 of his four-star photos—an exhibition six weeks long–at the Four Seasons Hotel in Guangzhou. It’s one of China’s top hotels. Just as Guangzhou is one of its top cities.

         And at the show’s  debut,  he would introduce his new book–“Life in China,” yes, by Camil LeSieur–as seen through his artist’s eye. I’ve seen some of his photos and he really is an artist deep down.

         This will be the Chinese edition, with the text in Mandarin, the big language in China. But in this section of southwest China, the big language is Cantonese. In fact, Guangzhou at one time was called Canton. The Mandarin / Cantonese situation is much like the English/Spanish reality in our country.  It makes sense for him to do it Mandarin.

         But there will be an English edition of the book, too, and a French edition.

         He asked me to write  the preface. Also some texts. Quite an honor. I’ve gotten most of that done. He wrote the many photo captions in French, of course.  He asked me to put them into English, which I’ve done, but with some still to do. 

         Translating is a tricky challenge. I wanted to give him not only a very faithful translation, but one that would catch his style and persona as well. And it’s my English version that is being used for translation into Mandarin. So my English version has to be excellent.

         But why me doing the translating? Well, there are many Chinese translators who translate from English but relatively few who do it from French.

         I do plan to keep you abreast of all this as it develops.

         By the way, getting to Guangzhou here wasn’t easy. In fact, it was close to being more than I could handle. I’ll tell you all about that in an upcoming blog.

         From here, I’ll be flying back to Shanghai, where I arrived.          Wu Bin, my other dear friend over here, lives in Shanghai and planned to greet me at huge Pudong Airport there. But everything on that flight over the ocean got so tangled that that became impossible.

         But he was there to greet me on two of my three previous visits to China, and what a delight that was.

         I met Wu some 10 years ago in Nairobi, of all places. That is the huge and bustling and in some ways very modern capital of Kenya, with skyscrapers, mind you. (It also has huge slums, by the way.)

         As with Camil, we met in a hostel.  He was young—young enough to be my grandson—but we hit if off. For one thing, he was eager to practice his English, and I was eager to meet another Wu. 

         In college, one of my pals was a Chinese youth  named Wu.  Yes, from China. Unfortunately, that young friend and I lost track over the years, and we were very close. I hoped my new friend Wu might be related to my young friend Wu (who would now be as old as I, of course). But in China, the name is as common as Smith or Cohen in ours, so to speak.

     But my friendship with my new friend Wu didn’t dry up once back from Nairobi. That often happens even among friends with strong common interests. It thrived, thanks to the Internet and email.

         Wu was a tourist in Nairobi, like me. He had brought over a stock of very advanced pocket cameras, all digital and all Chinese, of course. And he was peddling them around to camera shops. They were amazed by what he had to offer them. He made numerous sales. And that helped him to finance that expensive vacation of his. I was so impressed.

         No surprise to me today that Wu is the marketing director of a high-tech digital company here,  making a range of products. He often flies abroad to bring back orders. Not long ago he was in Germany. Just before I arrived here, he had just returned from Istanbul. I’m positive someday he will be the president.  I wish I could buy stock in him.

          Well, when I completed my world trip and wrote and published my book about that incredible feat–well, to me it was– I got an email from him. He had been receiving frequent blogs from me as I traveled around the globe.

         “John, your book should be published in China,” he told me.

         “What?! In China! Why in China?”

         “Things are getting much better for us here.  Now we can take vacations abroad.  We’re like you Americans—we love to travel, too! And there’s another reason. Nobody in China will believe that a 75-year-old man can travel around the world, and all alone.”

        And what he said next took my breath away. “I will buy the rights to your book.  And I will get it published in China!”

         And that did happen! It was a marvelous, incredible event in my life.

         Remember, please, that he could have bought one copy from, say. Had had it translated and published. And I never would have known a thing about that. But he’s above such shenanigans. He truly paid me for the right.

         I came over for the book’s publication. It was a snazzy event in a fine hotel with lots of publicity. My sister Lucie came along for me, so a very proud moment. I also came over when he got married, and milady Annabelle was with me then. That was a spectacular event, too.

         I have gotten to know his father and mother and other relatives, and a number of his friends.  All very wonderful experiences.

         Of course, this time I alerted him that I was coming to see Camil in Guangzhou.

         Immediately he emailed back. “John, please come to see me. Come for two weeks if possible. I will be at Pudong International Airport to meet you.  I will be holding a big sign, ‘Welcome, John Guy LaPlante!’”

         I was thrilled.  Hey, who wouldn’t be? Remember, I thought that trip to China five years so was my last time to China!

         By the way, I was in Peace Corps in Ukraine then, but Peace Corps gave me permission, and  I flew to Shanghai all the way from Kiev, the capital,  and easterly, not westerly, across Asia to do it. But I made it.

         What was very interesting was that I invited Annabelle to attend the wedding also. She lived in Los Angeles. And she flew west across the Pacific to Pudong. So, I went around in one direction, and she in the opposite direction! And we met there at that vast airport only70 minutes apart. And Wu was there to pick us up!

         So you can understand how I am looking forward to seeing Wu in Shanghai and sharing a bit of his life again.

         I’ll be telling you all about that, too.

         Oh, I got up in the dark to write this.  Now the sun is up very bright and promising now. This is still winter, but it’s as warm and pleasant here as in southern California or Florida.

         So, it’s time for me to shut down my computer and enjoy Guangzhou. And there is so much to enjoy here. I’ve got to make the most of it.

~ ~ ~

After all these years, I meet my first “denturologist”

My final fitting.  Dr. Linden tries my new partial on me. Proud lab technician Lori looks on. Receptionist Jessica captured the moment.

My final fitting. Dr. Linden tries my new partial on me. Proud lab technician Lori looks on. Receptionist Jessica captured the moment.

Orange, CA–Over the years I’ve been treated by a whole assortment of specialists. Far more than I’ve been able to keep track of–medical doctors, dentists, chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists, nurses.

Now I’ve met one who has a unique specialty.  He’s a family dentist who specializes in dental prostheses. Makes just dentures, full and partial. I call him a “denturologist”–it’s a word I just made up.

A bit of background. I’ve had a heck of a lot of dentistry over the years.  With this dentist and that one and then another.

For fillings. Extractions. Root canals. Crowns. Implants. And dentures, but just partials, thank God.

I’d be shocked to see how much $$$ I’ve paid out in total. But it’s been money well spent for the most part.

Oh, I’ve been paying for dental insurance of late, too. That’s been very nice.  But it’s far from free.

Most of this work got done in the United States.  But I’ve also sat through hours of dentistry in Mexico (Tijuana and Guadalajara), Ukraine (Kiev), and the Philippines (Manila).

Ninety-five percent of all of it has been quite satisfactory, including the work outside the U.S., which may surprise you.

True, I’ve had a couple of excruciating experiences, but that was long ago, when you knew going to the dentist was going to turn very painful.  Pain was a part of it.

I have lived to see astonishing improvements. The wonderful ultra-high-speed drill. Much finer needles. Fluoridation of the public water supply, which some consider controversial, but I think is worth the risk, if there is any.

Also faster and better anesthetics. Simpler X-rays, and much safer, too–and now digital imaging. And most dramatic of all, dental implants. I’ve had three, all at the same time. And how good they are.

And one more great improvement. It’s the better training for dentists. Not only to help patients with their teeth, but to get them through the experience with less tension and anxiety. That’s so important.

Speaking of this, I went to a dentist for a long time who had studied hypnosis and used it, but without tipping off his patients. I knew because we were close friends. I believe it works.

You know, when I was a boy, there was only one kind of M.D.—the general practitioner who visited his patients at home with just his  black doctor’s bag.

It didn’t seem to contain much more than a stethoscope, an arm cuff for blood pressure readings, a thermometer, a few instruments,  and some bandages and ointments and a few dark brown bottles with a few potions he favored. But his care and, most of all, bedside manner, were considered excellent.

Now, if you’re like me, you go to a general practitioner, sure, and undoubtedly he uses the latest hi-tech this and that. But you don’t stop there. You go to a specialist. And there’s such a variety–dermatologists, oncologists, cardiologists, urologists, opthomologists, on and on.…..  All possible, I think, largely because of the arrival of Medicare and private medical insurance and .

Same thing with dentists. We have periodontists, endodontists, orthodontists, and still others.

So dentistry, like medicine, has gotten infinitely better.

The result of all this? There are several, but two big ones.

One: we now keep our teeth much longer and better. It’s not uncommon to live into retirement with all your teeth. That hasn’t been my experience. Far from it.

Which baffles me. I’ve been meticulous in caring for my teeth. For decades I’ve made regular visits to the dentist, including for preventive cleanings. In addition to all the care to this tooth and that one. So why have I been beset with so many problems?! Doesn’t seem fair.

By the way, I remember when I was young, some people, especially women, were eager to have all their teeth extracted and get full dentures. Usually right after their first experience with a dentist.

Getting them all pulled would save them pain and money in the months and years ahead, they would eat better, their smile would be prettier, and losing their teeth was inevitable anyway.

Result Two: we now live in a time when pain in the dental chair is largely past-tense. What a feat! How wonderful!  Pain now is a rare occurrence.

The biggest pain now is paying the bill, even if you have dental insurance.

And now, after all these years, I’ve had a totally new experience. It’s been discovering Dr. Frederick Linden, the denture dentist. Here’s how that happened.

In January I had to have my upper right molar extracted.  It was a key tooth and a great loss. An expensive one, too.  More that one dentist got to work on it over the years. In time, I paid for a root canal for it plus a crown. Then a second crown. So, hundreds of dollars.

As you know, when some people lose a molar, or any tooth, they sometimes say, “Well, I ‘ll just get along without it.” Of course, often doing that might spoil your smile, or make it harder to chew, but it won’t be a tragedy. A lot of people get along with half their teeth gone.

Believe me, that never came into my mind.

I liked the dentist who did the extraction. It was my first time with him. That happened because my molar went bad just when I was leaving Connecticut for California just before Christmas. My big concern was finding a good dentist fast.

I didn’t know any dentists here. A friend recommended him and I felt lucky to come under his care.  When he got finished, I felt he had done a fine job.

I said to him, “Well, doctor, what do you think I should do now?”

He looked at my whole mouth again, and much more carefully. Took more X-rays, including a panoramic one. For you uninformed, the camera circles your whole noggin, and the dentist gets a view of your entire mouth. Quite remarkable. Finally he pronounced himself.

“Already you have an upper partial. It replaces four teeth. You’ve had it a long time. That dentist did a fine job but it’s getting old. And now you need something to replace that molar that I pulled.” He paused a bit.

Then, “What I think would work best for you would be a new partial. It would replace the four missing teeth your present partial covers, but swing behind the six teeth to the left of it, and provide a molar for the one that’s now gone.”

My gosh! That isn’t what I had expected to hear.  I digested his words, then said, “How long would that take?”

“First, we have to let that hole heal–you know, where that molar was. We should allow several weeks for that. It will be a problem if we skip that. And then three weeks or so after that for your new partial.”

“Well, doctor, how much would that cost?”

“I’ll make an analysis of the best way to go. Then my secretary will call you. She’ll do that in two days, if that’s okay. Then you can decide.”

I waited impatiently to get the word from her. I really wanted to get the job done.  I knew the price would be higher now. All prices are higher now, right?  As you see, I’m good at rationalizing.

Then she called.  Explained everything. Then said,
“The price will be $2,600.” Then, as a sort of consolation, “But that should cover everything.”

I whistled when I heard that, well, to myself.  I felt the price was high. And one thing nagged me.  She used the word “should.” I would have liked it better if she had said “would.”

Yet, I had a big thing in my favor.  As I said, I did have dental insurance.  A good plan.  I called its 800 number and was told 45 percent would be covered.  Very nice.  That said, I must tell you that the annual premium is also something to whistle about.

A big complication has been that I’m not just in one place here in Southern California.  I’m on the go–two days here, three days there, one day over there.  Which has been wonderful.  But I kept saying to myself, “I’ve got to do something!  Just can’t put this off!”

Now I must tell you I have loved my three implants.   And that’s because they work so well in every way. I feel they are my own, very sound teeth! All done, by the way, by the same dental implant surgeon, over a period that took more than four months.

So now I considered another one.  My old implant surgeon was no longer around.  I spotted a big newspaper ad that offered one implant with a crown on it for $1,499.  Very tempting.

I went and saw that implant dentist.  He examined me and said, “You have bone loss in your jaw where you lost that molar.  You’ll need a bone graft.  That will cost $300 and will delay my doing the implant. Got to make sure it takes!”

Imagine that–a bone graft. Talk about big improvements in dentistry! Cadaver bone, by the way. Did you know that?

True, the price of implants is coming down. But the process is still long and unpleasant. That implant dentist   will disagree, I’m sure, but that’s my opinion. I’d have to stick around a long time to get it all done.

And, once done, I would still have that old partial denture that should be replaced, I had been told. So, I said no about the implant.

Besides, there was something about that dentist than I didn’t like. It bothered me that he had an M.B.A. as well as his dental degree.

Then, in that same newspaper, I spotted a new ad.  Not a great big one.  A tiny one—really a fancy classified. Here is what it said, to the best of my memory.

“Need a denture? Come to us. We specialize in dentures, full and partial. That’s all we do. Excellent dentures that are affordable! We have our own in-office lab for more control and faster service. General dentists do 2 or 3 dentures a month. We do 25 or 30. We know dentures! We also do relines and repairs, often while you wait”‘ Plus his address and phone number.

I liked it.  Clipped it out and put it in my wallet.  And forgot about it.

Two weeks later, but in a different newspaper, I read the same ad. I did some checking online and liked what I found out about Dr. Frederick Linden.

He has been a dentist  42 years. He grew up in cold and windy Chicago. He got his dentist degree at the University of Indiana, which I checked and saw was excellent.  Joined the Navy and served as the staff dentist at the Navy hospital in Long Beach, California.  I learned all this from his website.

After his service, he was a staff dentist at two hospitals for four years, then opened his own family practice. You know, doing everything for men, women, and children. But what he enjoyed most was making dentures.

“They are a great solution for many patients. And I really enjoy working with my hands! Designing and making fine dentures can be very challenging.”

He got a wild idea–to open a denture practice.  Yes, just dentures, full and partial.  That was a big novelty in itself back then, and still is.

Most general dentists do dentures.  Which means that they make the necessary impressions and design the denture.  And then job out the work of making it to a dental lab. Then they try it on the patient and make any adjustments necessary.

Dr. Linden took his concept a big step further.  He decided to have the lab in his own office—integrate it!  That would give him closer supervision, speed up the process a lot, shave costs, and allow him to drop the price.

I questioned him a lot. He told me that new concept of his has worked out beautifully.  It’s been his specialty for 15 years, and he doesn’t know of any other dentist doing it anywhere close.

He has designed and made dentures for thousands of patients.

I made an appointment.  His office was an hour away. I found it is a small storefront in a shopping center. His big sign says, “Affordable Dentures”. Who wouldn’t feel good about that?

It’s in a Target shopping center, with ample  free parking. I parked right in front of his door.

His office set-up is simplicity itself.  He works with only his receptionist-secretary, Jessica, and his technician, Lisa.

His office seems to have been designed by Henry Ford himself. It’s so simple and efficient. Reception area. Bathroom. His treatment room And somewhere in the back, his office and lab, which are off limits to patients.

Finished with the paperwork for me, Jessica seated me in his dental chair, which was more of a lounge chair.  No drill.  No X-ray camera.  No rinse and spit basin.  No big, powerful overhead light.

He walked in. A hefty man, age 68 he told me. Dressed in an open-necked shirt and chinos, but carefully pressed. Pleasant, but businesslike and given to few words.  He did answer all my questions, and nicely, even though he wasn’t aware I’d be writing this.

He has a long counter nearby with a few instruments and supplies.  The first meeting took thirty minutes.

He scrutinized my mouth, examined my present partial, told me that my gums are okay as are my other teeth, and saw no big problem.

“I can design a metal partial like the one you have now.  Or a plastic partial that would be more flexible.  The same price–$1,100.  That would take three visits. We’d be done in two weeks. It would include adjustments after that if necessary. Most patients don’t require any.”

I thanked him and said I’d think it over. What he had done had taken 25 minutes.

Quickly I decided to go ahead. Jessica had checked. My insurer, Altus Dental Insurance, would pay half, less a $50 deductible. To proceed, I’d pay half of the balance now. I handed her my Visa credit card.  I’d pay the balance at the end.

I was in his chair in 10 minutes. He went right to work—doing much of that at the counter two steps from my chair.

He mixed some gunk and used it, with my partial out, to make an impression of my upper gum. It was obvious he knew what he was doing.

Firmly but so carefully, he removed the fresh impression from my mouth and studied it. “Excellent!” he said. I was out in 30 minutes.

Returned a week later. He had the partial finished and showed it to me. “But these are not the final teeth,” he told me. “They will require adjustments. That’s what I’m going to determine today. Then we’ll go ahead for the final piece.”

My old denture had two clasps, one at each end. This one had three. “It will do a better job. You’ll be happy! But I must check one thing—how much the clasp in the middle will show.”

He snapped it into place on me. I liked the way it really snapped in. Click! He spent a full two minutes studying it in place, trying to move it a little bit this way and that way. Then handed me a mirror.

“Take a look, please.” I did. I liked what I saw. The teeth matched my natural teeth. But I wanted to be sure. “Will this be the final color of them?”

“Yes, they are an excellent match. Now smile, please. A big smile! I want to see how much that center clasp will show.”

I smiled wide. He asked me to smile a second time, really wide. He told me, “It does show but just a little bit. If you want just two clasps, I can remove the center one. But it won’t function quite as well. What do you think?”

I told him I wanted all three. If somebody noticed, well, I felt they’d be nice and wouldn’t let on.

I did have a chance to chat with him as he worked. I found him open and friendly. At the end I told him I planned to write about my experience. That pleased him. It would please any dentist, I think. If he felt he had done a good job.

I had been with him a few minutes short of half an hour. Quickly I was back in my van. Jessica did her job the way he did his. She was efficient and friendly. No dawdling.

In a week I returned for my final visit. It all went smoothly and swiftly. I made my second and final payment. Jessica seated me in Dr. Linden’s chair. A few pleasantries and then he went to work.

It felt strange in my mouth, which was expected. It was bigger, and there were more contact points between my upper and lower teeth. And my upper lip rubbed against that center clasp.

“You’ll get used to it very fast. Before long, it will feel as comfortable as you’re old one.”

To myself I thought, it’s like breaking in a new pair of shoes. Which is a good comparison.

Only one minute adjustment had to be made–he had to file down one of the teeth a hair.

“How long would might it be if a sore spot developed?” I asked him. “I was thinking to start the drive up to my daughter Monique’s up North this afternoon. Would that be okay?”

“Very few patients need a further adjustment. But it’s possible.”

“Well, then, I’ll stay over till tomorrow. Just in case.”

“That’s an excellent idea.”

I was on my way in a jiffy.

The next day, everything seemed fine. No pain. No bad fit of my uppers and lowers at any point. My new partial felt different because it was bigger and had that third clasp. I was sure I’d get used to it fast.

That’s been the case. I’m eating and chewing just fine.

There should be more such “denturologists”! But just as efficient and cost-conscious.

~ ~ ~





Aziz, Mike, and Fred, and what they’ve accomplished

[Read more…]

My take on embattled Ukraine. Finally.

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos

I’ve been getting one e-mail after another: “John, what you think about Ukraine? What’s it all about?  How do you feel about it?”   Why those emails?  Because many of you know that I served my Peace Corps hitch–the full 27 months–in Ukraine. And that was barely four years ago.

I never dreamed this awesome historic event would happen.  That I’d see the Ukrainian protestors —revolutionaries, in fact–storm into Kiev and topple the government. See their hated president abandon his office and take off to Russia to save his life. See the revolutionaries take over their parliament, the Rada. And set the country on a new and so-longed-for course—toward affiliation with the West and the European Union!

But I understand why it did erupt.  One day as I read about the huge developments, I had an amazing thought.  “This is like Bunker Hill!  Like the American Revolution!”

Like these Ukrainian revolutionaries, the American patriots were fighting against the King and the Parliament back in England! They had had it! Didn’t want to take any more!  They were taking things into their own hands.  They wanted change, big time!

Magnificent Independence  Square in Kiev in peaceful times . I was there often. Never imagined it would the scene of the violent showdown that toppled the government,.

Magnificent Independence Square in Kiev in peaceful times. I was there often. Never imagined it would be the scene of the violent showdown that toppled the government,.

They had so much to resent.

I believe that over the years the Soviet world, meaning primarily Russia, took advantage of Ukrainians in the same way that we, the white society in the USA, have taken advantage of the blacks and the Mexicans, among otherses, I got to know a thing or two about Ukraine and its ways. Thank you for your email queries asking for my take on all this. I’ll fill you in the best I can.

I got to all those places that have been part of this crisis—to Kiev (Peace Corps spelled it Kyiv, by the way): to Lviv, where the revolt started; to  Crimea, so red-hot right now;  and to numerous other places, big and small across the land, of both camps– pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian.

First, it’s important that I give you some background about how I wound up in Ukraine, what I did there, why and how I got around as much as I did, and what I learned that’s relevant to all this.

As a rookie Volunteer, I flew right into Kiev, the capital, with my fellow rookies. Officially we were called Trainees.

Kiev was so impressive–such a fine and beautiful and peaceful, yes, peaceful city.  Now it has become a huge volcano exploding with hatred and anger and violence and bloodshed. As you know.

Our Peace Corps headquarters were in Kiev.  Arriving, we spent three days there—orientation!  Then went off for three months of training– three different groups of us in three different locales across the country.

Then, our training completed, we were the guests of honor at a proud and beautiful ceremony in Kiev and took the Peace Corps oath. That made us Volunteers officially.

Please notice, by the way: “Volunteers” is spelled with a capital V, not a small v, per Peace Corps.

Then we dispersed to our assignments throughout the country.  Sadly we hardly got to see one another again.

All of us got to go back to Kiev now and then on Peace Corps business, most often individually.  For those of us hundreds of miles away—16 or 18 hours by train, for instance—it was a rare and eagerly awaited trip.

But my city, Chernihiv, was only two hours away by road.  I went countless times to Kiev on business.  It turned out I had more business reasons to go than most of my colleagues.

In addition to our decreed assignments–I would be a university teacher–all of us were expected to find another serious project to get involved in.  Well, I developed three—and all related to Kiev in some way.

Impossible to tell you about all that now. It’s all in my Peace Corps book, which has more than 500 pages, by the way.

Every time I went to Kiev, I would make it a point to get to see a bit more than just our headquarters and its neighborhood.  Often I had to stay overnight.  That would give me the chance to extend myself farther in seeing the marvelous city.

So I got to see magnificent Independence Square—where all the protesting and fighting got focused—and much of the city’s heart.

Ukraine is big--second biggest in Europe. Notice Crimea, the peninsula at the bottom. Notice Kiev, the capita. And Chernihiv, my city, right above it.l

Ukraine is big–second biggest in Europe. Notice Crimea, the peninsula at the bottom–this very moment’s red-hot problem. Notice Kiev, the capital. And Chenihiv, my city, right above it. l got to travel widely in the country, more than I expected.

There were numerous Americans in the city.  For one thing, all the Americans who were part of our Embassy, the USAID delegation, and Peace Corps.

The Embassy and USAID were big! I couldn’t believe how big. And we had elaborate institutions like this in countries all over the world! We have no idea.

USAID, by the way, has the mission of distributing millions of $$$ in economic stimulus to various Ukraine programs and projects as stimuli.

And Peace Corps was a hefty operation, too.

In addition, Kiev harbored many American businessmen and professionals of various kinds.

There was even a Rotary Club there.  I was a Rotarian back home in Deep River.  I tried to join the Kiev Club. It didn’t work out.

Plus the city counted plenty of American expats there for one reason or another. Some for the beautiful Ukrainian gals. I’m serious.  And I became friends with several.

Mostly I went to Kiev to get to headquarters. But I also got to our Embassy and USAID in connection with my Peace Corps projects. Quite unusual for a Volunteer.

What an eye-opening experience all that exposure was for me.

A big thing I learned is that these three American efforts employed hundreds of Ukrainians in support jobs. Yes, many hundreds.

Consider Peace Corps. We were about 300 Volunteers—the largest group of the 78 deployed around he world, it turned out.

But what a large staff it took to run our Ukrainian Peace Corps effort! A couple of hundred, I recall.

And only the top three were Americans. All the others were Ukrainians, including experts in different fields, most in Kiev but others scattered throughout the country. They kept Peace Corps functioning smoothly.

It’s good to keep that in mind.  It shows how many Ukrainians got connected to us in what, by the way, were considered plum jobs over there.

And think of the multiplier effect of all that—to their families, friends, and so on.

Remember, too, that we Volunteers were serving in Ukraine because Ukraine had asked us to come.  It’s not Peace Corps in Washington that says to a country, “May we come and give you a hand?”

It works the other way.  The interested country does the asking. Well, that’s what we were told. Maybe there’s some fudging about that.

One important thing to tell you. While I was in service there, Vice-President Biden flew in for a friendly visit with the president of Ukraine.  That shows how close the two countries were back then.

And all of us in those three American programs, along with invited Ukrainian VIPs, got invited to meet Biden in a special meeting  just with us. It was a big deal!

Would you believe? I got to have a few words with him. Most people  never got beyond the crimson cordon that separated him from us. I wasted little time telling my family about that.  Wouldn’t you?

The next day I got photos of that from four people! Everybody at that reception had a camera and was using it.

Oh, most Volunteers were very young–in their 20s.  About 40 of us were “senior” Volunteers–50 or older.  We had a group. It was a club really.  I was elected the president.

We held meetings two or three times a year in different cities across the country. That made it easier for our members to attend.  Also it was fairer.  So I got to see cities and towns all over the country.

Plus on vacation time–we got two days a month/ 24 days a year–I traveled and I chose broadly. In Europe but a lot inside Ukraine,  too.

All Volunteers traveled. But for sure I got to do more of it in part because of my various projects, and got to see more and maybe absorb more.

I went three times to Crimea—to Sevastopol, Yalta, and other cities.  In largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, which abuts Russia and has heavy ethnic Russian populations, I got to Harkiv and Donets and Odessa and Poltava and other big centers. So, yes, I took in a lot.

I not only trained in Chernihiv, which is a big and attractive city in the north central part. I got assigned there. Most of my fellow Volunteers got sent off  to much smaller places, Some to opposite ends of the country.

When you join Peace Corps, you agree to go wherever it decides to send you and do what they tell you to do. You hope they’ll use some common sense. At first, I had some doubts.

It was months later that I found out why I, and other older ones also, got sent to Ukraine. It had better medical facilities, and Peace Corps liked that for older Volunteers.

Our training was intense, six days a week of classes plus hours of homework. About the country … its government … some history … but mostly language, language, language study.

In my case it was Russian.  I considered that strange because I knew that Ukraine’s only official language is Ukrainian.  But some sections of the country have a heavy Russian population, as you have been learning.

Chernihiv was not in eastern Ukraine or the Crimea. It was in north central Ukraine, nearly north of Kiev. Quite close to Russia. I didn’t go to Russia because I had been before and I didn’t want the hassle of procuring the necessary visa.

Chernihiv was bad news for me for special reasons. It was just a long hour or so from Chernobyl, site of the biggest nuclear melt-down in history. Radiation! Countless had died of radiation! Countless more were in sad condition as a result of that exposure. I saw such people time and again in Chernihiv.

No problem the radiation, Peace Corps assured us. “The wind was blowing the other way!” Maybe so, but I kept clear of Chernobyl though I had opportunities to go.

When my Chinese friend Wu Bin in Shanghai heard about my assignment to Chernihiv, he quickly e-mailed me. “John, drink lots of tea! Lots of tea!” I became a more serious tea drinker! Maybe he had inside knowledge.

You know, I was shocked when I got orders to Ukraine.  I expected to go to a country where France had been important.  Why? Because I can think, speak, and write  in French. There are numerous such countries.

When I got that news I’d go to Ukraine, many questions popped up in my mind.  Where was Ukraine exactly? Why was I being sent there? How many universities there? Please remember, I’d be teaching at one. Six or seven maybe? What was the climate like?

Surprise, Ukraine had many  universities, plus dozens of specialized and professional schools and institutes.

I found out Ukraine was not in the boondocks. Anything but. It has a history of more than one thousand years.  It is highly civilized—its literacy rate is as high as ours.

In fact, it was the most important republic in the USSR after Russia itself. One reason was its highly developed agriculture and manufacturing, And there were other reasons.

It boasted great numbers of eminent and famous people in many fields. Here are just a few.

Igor Sikorsky, the great aviation pioneer in both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters—for one thing, he invented the helicopter–was a Ukrainian, born in Kiev. Emigrating to the USA, he founded Sikorsky Helicopters, the world’s leader.

Also Ukrainian was Yuri Gagarin, the great Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man to fly in space.  His name is on boulevards and avenues all over that part of the world now, the way the names of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King are in our country.

In fact, I took the trolley up and down Yuri Gagarin Avenue when I was with my first family.

The mighty Nikita Khrushchev—you know, the shoe-thumping Russian leader who faced us in that scary showdown over Cuba—was partly Ukrainian. At one point, he served as governor of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s climate? Its winters were harsher than ours in Connecticut.  That was awful news for me.  For 15 years I had been escaping from the cold and ice and snow of Connecticut!

Some of us had to study Ukrainian.  We were in Ukraine. So what could be more natural?

But some of us had to study Russian. So many use that as their main language. In fact, just recently there was a strong move to make Russian the second official language. It failed.

By the way, that reminded me of English and Spanish in our country.  We have remarkable language differences across the USA. For instance, Connecticut has just a few Spanish-speaking residents, although growing.  But our Southwest has millions of them, also growing

Why is it surprising to us that Mexicans among us think it’s okay for them to sneak into the USA? Well, they say to themselves, “Hey! This used to be part of Mexico! We were here long before the Gringos!”

I can understand their point of view. They are right—a big part of present California was called Alta California on their maps—“Upper California.”  Just as their territory south of San Diego in Mexico—from Tijuana on down—is now known to everybody as Baja California—“Lower California.”

It’s the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 between us and Mexico that changed everything.  That’s when California and its surrounding southwest states–a quarter of our country today–became part of us.

The history of Crimea is quite similar. It was long  considered a part of Russia and then of the USSR. But now it’s part of Ukraine officially.

So why wouldn’t  the present ethnic Russians there think, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to be a real part of our motherland again!?” In that situation, wouldn’t you think that way?

But now, more about my getting to know Kiev. I mentioned I went every month or so, mostly on Peace Corps business. Sometimes for medical or dental reasons. Or on our Seniors Club business.  Or because it was such a vibrant and interesting place.

It boasted all kinds of cultural and entertainment possibilities, from the opera and symphonies to museums and ever the circus. The circus wasn’t in a tent. It had its own big, impressive building.  By the way, in that part of the world, circus performers are considered  true artists!

It’s a gorgeous city on the great and magnificent Dnipro River. At times, I felt in some neighborhoods I was back in Paris.

When milady Annabelle visited me half way through my service, I took her there.

And when she returned for three weeks at the end of my service (some nice au revoir festivities were planned for me in Chernihiv) –we went to Kiev for three days as a big treat. We stayed at the fine old Hotel Saint Petersburg as our base. And did the city justice.

I also visited other sections of the country. Covered it far and wide.  It’s big.  It’s the second largest country in Europe after Russia. Well, I managed to make it to many corners and many big cities,  including in Crimea — more details in a minute–and in other sectors, such as the cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Poltava.

I also went all the way west to Lyiv, close to the Polish border. So much in the news right now. Lyiv is the big and intensely proud cultural capital of Ukraine.  Its language is Ukrainian.

Lyiv considers itself European, meaning emotionally linked to France and Germany and Italy and so on. In other words, the European Union. Just the opposite of the ethnic Russians in the west, close to Russia.

We had Volunteers working in Lyiv, of course.

I went to Lyiv four or five times. I found it that interesting and stimulating.  I also took Annabelle there on both her visits. She fell in love with it, too.

It is in Lyiv that the current uproar originated … that its leaders emerged … and that it gained monumental momentum.

We’ve been reading how the swelling contingent of rag-tag protesters and revolutionaries finally made it to Kiev to protest and hopefully negotiate.

And when that failed, how they began to do battle tooth and nail. And made the top news in newspapers and TV around the globe. Even bigger news when they suffered their first fatalities—more than a hundred or so—and horribly mounting casualties. (True, too, of the police force battling them.)

I have also become familiar with the main characters.

Yulia Timoshenko is one.  You know her by now—the Yulia with the long,\ signature braids of blond hair. She has been a power in Ukraine politics a long time.  She was the prime minister in my time.

She was a success in business before she entered politics, and she rose fast in politics.

I see her as a wily, determined, charismatic, and incredibly courageous woman.

She was from the western side, so she was Ukrainian rather than Russian in background and thinking.  She had a strong leaning toward the Europe of France, Spain, Italy, and so on.

She felt that being part of the European community would be terrific for Ukraine as it struggled to grow as a democracy and a capitalist economy.  So, she was eager to get the country into the European Community and she came very close.

She ran for president against Viktor Yanukovich. He won.  He considered her his arch enemy and his most threatening potential rival, and he hated her guts.

He framed her with what are widely believed to be trumped-up charges of corruption. And got her convicted to seven harsh years in prison. Had her put on ice, so to speak. Imagine that!  We’ve had spirited campaigns in the USA, too, but nothing like that!

The truth is that enormous corruption exists in Ukraine, at every level, right down to the cop checking traffic on the highway. It seems ingrained and even cultural, which is a terrible thing to say.

Even Yulia Timoshenko has been tainted, it is said. I’m not surprised. Overall, I believe that she is a true patriot, is well motivated in wanting to do a good job, and that if she took money for a “political favor,” it was minor compared to how many of the other politicos were on the take.

Hey, it’s a common belief that a seat in the Rada, their parliament, can be bought.  I went bonkers when I heard that. It seems so, so impossible.  Now I believe it.

But where, oh where, is there a national government in this world without corruption? Think of the exposés of some of our leaders at our national and state levels. Certainly we have had corrupt Senators and Congressmen. But Ukraine stinks with it.

All of us trainees  were given a subscription to the Kiev Post, published in English by true professional journalists.  Its circulation seems minor,  only 11,000—remember, but it’s in English. Nevertheless it’s very influential.

I continued to read it during my entire hitch. It’s a brave paper, exposing one scandal and misdeed after another. You’ve got to be crazy to agree to write  political news for it. You risk bad things.  I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to buy a life insurance policy.

And the Post has been continuing to cover this crisis with the same audacity and objectivity.

If interested, take a look at You’ll be impressed.  Do notice, by the way, that its title spells the city as Kyiv, not Kiev.

Anyway, imagine when the battling protesters in Kiev triumphed and within hours got Timoshenko sprung from prison! You probably saw that.

They rushed her to Independence Square to face the victorious crowd assembled there. She’s not old, but she had to be wheeled onto the stage.  She could not stand.  Looked haggard and weak. Everyone could see the ordeal she had been put through.

But she still had her famous braids. And she hadn’t lost any of her fire. She was still the exciting speaker of old. Again she spoke about getting Ukraine finally into the European Union. She congratulated them. The crowd cheered her.

And already she is taking steps—and being spoken of–as the president following the next general election.

The current president, Yanukovich, now cooling it out in Russia, has a public record that smells so bad that it’s hard to believe he ever got elected.

He has been known as the puppet of the country’s “oligarchs”—the super-rich businessmen of Russian sympathy in the eastern bloc.  He is widely considered as a corrupt man who would sell his soul to the highest bidder.

Yet he has supporters and followers, obviously.  The best explanation is that he got to the presidency because he could deliver the goods to those oligarchs and their buddies better than anybody else around.

We’ve read about the unbelievably lavish presidential residence that he had been luxuriating in. There were rumors of it, but no hard evidence.

How at the last minute he tried there to destroy all the  incriminating evidence of his huge and corrupt deals—in panic ditching hundreds of papers in the Dnipro flowing by his backyard.

How the protestors somehow discovered the soggy records, hundreds of them, and set them out to dry in the sunshine.  Already they are being studied, and it is said that what they show is as sordid as so many thought.

I know very little about the newly elected interim leader in the government, Arseny Yatsenyuk. The big fact is that he was a key leader of the protestors and as such looks forward to a Russian-free Ukraine aligned to us in the West. The fact that he got to be the new leader says something about his leadership and strategizing skills.

The big problem is that Ukraine has long been so vulnerable to Russia. Russia has so much muscle and uses it in numerous ways.

That’s what got Yanukovich into so much trouble just a few weeks ago. He had agreed reluctantly with the protestors to pursue a link with the West. Then Vladimir Putin up and offered him $15 billion of help for Ukraine.  The country had been in financial throes for a long time. He abandoned his agreement to join the West and jumped for the money.

That inflamed the revolutionaries. And we all know the startling result.

For years, Russia has been selling Ukraine most of the natural gas that is essential to it. Russia has plenty. Ukraine has little.  Gazprom has been the big Russian supplier. Controlled by Moscow, it’s a monopoly. So Ukraine had/has little choice.

Gazprom has been delivering the gas to Ukraine at a discount–to court it, remind it that it should be super nice to Russia, and keep it in its embrace. The gas goes to Ukraine through an all-important pipeline.

I saw how Russia used its muscle through Gazprom to get its way.

In Chernihiv, in fact all the cities of Ukraine, most people live in huge apartment blocks. They are all based on the same plain, spartan architectural plan in order to make the building easy and fast to build. They were erected quickly after World War II because millions needed decent housing overnight.

In fact, you can find them in all the countries that used to be in the USSR. Still habitable after decades of use.

The massive buildings come five stories high, nine stories, and fourteen.  I never found out why not five, ten, and fifteen, which would seem to make more sense.

I lived in two of them, with my second and third families. The apartments were very small and very basic but comfortable.

All those huge blocks in Chernhiv—hundreds of them—were connected to the same municipal gas supply, which came from Russia of course.  The gas fueled the people’s cook stoves, kept their water hot, and heated their small apartments.

To heat the apartments, the city turned on the gas on in all those blocks on a certain day in mid-October and then off in late March. In the whole city, mind you.

And that was the situation in the whole country.

Well, while I was there, Ukraine faced a heart-palpitating crisis.  Russia, though Gazprom,  announced a huge price jump.  It was politically related, of course. The gas was going to be turned off if Ukraine didn’t cough up. Yes, in the whole country. Imagine!

Ukraine is a very cold place come winter. I remember vividly how people were scared.  How would they get by without the gas? Hey, I worried, too.  I didn’t want to be cold! . wanted  hot meals. I wanted a hot shower.

Finally, after some wild bargaining and badly frayed nerves, a deal got worked out. Whew! But mostly in Russia’s favor, as usual.

It showed the power of Russia. And the hardball games it could play.

And in just the last few days, Russia has pulled that same stunt again. Gazprom stunned the country by announcing it can’t continue to send it gas unless it pays the nearly $2 billion it owes.

I haven’t heard whether it’s been settled. For sure Ukraine will get the short end of the deal.

Now Washington is discussing loosening its export limits for natural gas.  We could supply Ukraine some gas….

Now how about Vladimir Putin?  He follows in the tradition of the tough, single-minded, all-powerful  leaders of the USSR since its founding. With the notable exception of Mikhail Gorbachev.

It’s Gorbachev who stunned the world by announcing the Communist system wasn’t working and had to be abandoned.  And—unbelievable–that the republics of the Soviet Union should be allowed to break away and chart their own future. Well, they did go independent and that was the end of the USSR.

That historic year was 1991. Ukraine was one of the first to opt out. And, what was dramatic, it announced it aimed to be a genuine democratic country and to switch to a capitalist economy. Others took that same road. Others stuck to the old system.

By the way, Gorbachev was of Ukrainian-Russian lineage.

Not long afterward, Ukraine invited Peace Corps to come in.

After that fateful 1991, Russia itself took a huge fall–in its economy and influence and prestige at home and in the world at large. Slowly it is managing a comeback with Putin in the pilot’s seat.

Putin was thick in the old Soviet hierarchy. He was an operative in the hated and feared KBG. That was his springboard to the higher things that he attained.

It is clear that he dreams of a great Russia again, with as many of those now separated republics back in its fold. And considers himself the master architect and strongman to accomplish that. Believes he can pull it off.

He’s playing his cards with that in mind.  He decided that taking the Crimea would be a powerful start.

Well, we all know how he ordered his troops into the Crimea and how they staked out the most important elements of it. Though he denied he was doing that.

We all know how the new, struggling, untested government of the revolutionaries in Kiev panicked and pleaded with the free world for help.

How the European Union offered $15 billion in support.  How we expressed our sympathy and resolved to help.  How Obama tried to reason with Putin and still is, being careful not to start another war, thank God. We know how angry words flew back in forth.

We know how stock markets, which in the USA where heading toward an all-time high, took a beating. So did stock markets around the world.

How Secretary of State Kerry dropped everything and rushed to Kiev for talks with the new leaders. And tried to calm the populace with assurance that we would be a strong partner.

He told them we would provide emotional and, better still, financial support big time.  Nearly instantly we offered  $1 billion.

After Putin invaded Crimea and the huge outcry that followed, he angrily asserted that Russia did that for one reason– ethnic Russians in Crimea and even other parts of Ukraine felt threatened by the blood-thirsty revolutionaries.

We pooh-poohed that, calling it nonsense.  We insisted he was using that as an excuse.

I don’t quite agree. If I were one of those ethnic Russians, I’d certainly be fingering my prayer beads double-time.

Well, Putin seemed to blink. Though he kept up his swaggering bravado, he de-intensified the invasion. Yet he continued to surround Ukrainian military posts and TV stations and other important things in Crimea.

He’s not stopping to foment trouble. He just had an old Soviet warship sunk to block Ukrainian warships from getting out of their harbor.

It’s clear Russia is desperate to annex Crimea. It’s clear many Crimeans want to join Russia.

In fact, the Crimean regional government will hold a plebiscite in just a very few days about seceding and joining Russia.

And Russians in huge numbers in Moscow and throughout the country are inviting Crimea to switch allegiance.

They’re screaming, “Come back! Come home! We welcome You!” Which is heartening to the ethnic Russians and awfully dismaying to the Ukrainians now in power and to and the European Union.

But such things have been going on around the world for centuries, including our own country.

When I read about the revolutionaries risking their lives by fighting the armed might of the establishment in Kiev, I thought that was exactly what we had done at Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord.

About Crimea seceding, isn’t that what we did when we broke off from England and launched the American Revolution?

Hey, Washington and Jefferson and Ben Franklin and the other signers of our Declaration of Independence knew they’d be hanged if our revolution failed. Yet they signed.

When we all  that incredibly vast real estate from France in the Louisiana Purchase, did we give much thought to the French and Spanish living down there? Heck, no.

Wasn’t it secession when the South broke off from the North and set up its Confederacy and launched the Civil War?

Think of how we annexed Texas. Which is what Russia is planning for Crimea.

How we muscled Mexico into that deal that got us the whole huge Southwest through that treaty of 1848.

Isn’t that what French Québec attempted just a few years ago—twice? To break away from Canada but failed narrowly.  Is still attempting. In fact, has a plebiscite of its own coming up in just a few weeks about that huge issue.

Isn’t Scotland planning to secede from Great Britain in two years?

Many are yelling that the successful revolution in Ukraine has been illegal…contrary to the Constitution…and therefore immoral and dishonest.

Time and again I have seen how any group of 51 percent or more can turn over any applecart.  Even when doing that is branded as unconstitutional and illegal.

The moves and countermoves between Russia and Ukraine and the European Union pop up every day.

Now the new Ukraine leaders in Kiev are flying to Washington to confer with Obama.

Now flights out of Sevastopol are allowed only to Russia. It’s hard to keep up with the developments.

I have no idea how this will play out. I doubt that it’s going to calm down.

I delayed publishing this because I hoped for resolution of the problem. Well, for sure the problem will go on a long time. Even if Crimea goes independent.

My sympathy is with the Ukrainian protesters.  I’m cheering for an independent, Russia-disconnected, European-allied Ukraine. Even if Crimea checks out. But I’m taking nothing for granted.

Now! I hope you don’t think I’ve lost my mind, but I think it wouldn’t be tragic if Ukraine lost Crimea.

Ukraine would then be a more Ukrainian country in genes, culture, and temperament.

It would still be one of the largest in Europe.  And linked finally to Western Europe.

And look around. Many countries much smaller than Ukraine are doing just fine—Sweden, the Netherlands, on and on, and probably best of all, Switzerland.  Smaller can be better.

By the way, our Peace Corps operation there got shut down during the crisis. All the Volunteers were evacuated out.  Not home to the USA. To some other country, but I’m not sure which, though I’ve tried to find out. No idea when it will go back. Surely it will quickly be invited back.

Time and again through this, I’ve thought of all the Ukrainians working at our headquarters, and with Volunteers throughout the country, including the troubled parts. What about them? I assume our Embassy and USAID are functioning.

And all the institutions across the country, of various kinds, which had important, ongoing programs with Peace Corps. Imagine the lurch they’re in.

Of course I thought of all the students that I worked with personally. And the members of the English Club that I started and ditto with my French Club. And of the three families I lived with and the neighbors I met, and the folks at the big Chernihiv Public Library and in other projects I got deep into.

So many of those folks thought of the USA as Paradise, though I made sure to tell them we were very good but not that good.

What about them in all this?

I have little idea.  My hunch is they’re distressed.  Alas!.

Some dreamed and struggled to get into our land of the free and the brave.  I saw that for myself.  Counseled more than one.  Very few succeeded. It’s so difficult.

And—I just thought of this after reviewing what I’ve written–if one or two of you have read all the way down to this final sentence, I’ll say, “Are you kidding me?”

Gosh, the  word count has stopped just short of 6,000!


If you want still more background about Peace Corps in general and its mission in Ukraine–and some things about Peace Corps that troubled me– look up my Peace Corps book.

It is available as a print book and e-book at  It’s a fine book. I’m proud of it.  Check out its reviews at Amazon. That would be a good start at learning a few things.

~ ~ ~







To me, A.C. is our patron saint of libraries


Would Carnegie weep to see what had happened to this great gift of his? Or would he grin and chalk it up to progress?

Would Andrew Carnegie weep to see what has happened to this great gift of his to the people of Oxnard? Or would he grin and chalk it up to progress?

By John Guy LaPlante

Oxnard, California — I just visited the nice small art museum here. It’s called the Carnegie Art Museum.  It’s a gorgeous building with beautiful Greek columns…Corinthian, I believe.

Right away I guessed it used to be the Carnegie Public Library, and I was right.

Carnegie became a titan of industry but didn't stop there. His greatest achievement was still to come.

Carnegie became a titan of industry but didn’t stop there. His greatest achievement was still to come.

Oxnard has a new and bigger library nearby but it is not called the Carnegie. What a shame!  I feel sad about it. It was named for Andrew Carnegie because he provided the money for it. It’s that library which many years later made the city’s bigger one possible. And he did that same wonderful in communities big and small across the country.

But how many remember Andrew Carnegie? He was famous back in his day and the following few decades. Not many any more.  I do. And you probably do if you’re an older person and enjoy libraries.. But very few in the younger generation do…unless they’re history buffs. Very unfortunate. Because Carnegie did so, so much for public libraries.

Thinking about Andrew Carnegie today, I am reminded of Bill Gates–the Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, of course.

For two reasons.  Both were preeminent industrialists who started from scratch and made history two ways. First, for what they accomplished as businessmen. Andrew Carnegie in developing the steel industry and Gates in ushering in the computer age.

Second, for the good they did later in life for society as a whole–meaning lots and lots of people.  A lot of people who become very wealthy use their wealth to live it up–you know, retire to a life of luxury and loafing. That’s okay.

Carnegie used a huge portion of his enormous fortune to do good by making life better for countless people. And Gates is doing the same thing through his foundation.  It makes me wonder whether he got the idea from Carnegie.

Carnegie not only provided the cash. He worked hard to make his philanthropy successful—as hard as he did to make the money. And the same is true of Gates, it seems to me.

But it’s not on Bill Gates that I’m dwelling today.  Just about every person who enjoys reading, or watches TV news,  knows about him. We are familiar with the spectacular work he is doing as a philanthropist.

It’s Andrew Carnegie that I want to talk about.  If you do know about him, stick with me nevertheless, please. You may learn some interesting new things that will flesh him out.

His business was making steel, and he made tons and tons of it. He became the world’s champion steel maker. He did that by building and operating steel plants in numerous cities, but especially in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He turned it into one of our mightiest cities–in fact, the steel capital of the USA.

And he made what some say was the biggest fortune of any man up to that time.  But it’s because of how he spent a lot of that money that history remembers him, and with deeper reason.

He got a new idea.  A big idea. He grew up in a family that loved books. And he became a great reader himself.

His idea was to build libraries–public libraries open to anybody and everybody! That would be free!

Today we expect public libraries to be free. In fact, we take that for granted. But do you realize what a stupendous and extraordinary concept that was back then?

Sure, there were libraries, but they were private libraries–clubs, sort of, that were supported by members who paid dues for the pleasure of having access to lots of good books. Which meant that you had to be fairly well off to belong. Ben Franklin started one in Philadelphia, our country’s first. Wealthy Bostonians did the same thing with their Athenaeum. So did wealthy people in other cities.

Well, Carnegie built one library, then another, then dozens and dozens.  And he kept at it for nearly 30 years. Between 1891 and 1920 he handed out the cash to build some 2,400 libraries. The exact number is not clear.

And remember, the USA back then was not our great big USA of 50 states today.

Oxnard’s library, built in 1907 with those magnificent Grecian columns, was one of them.  Can you imagine how proud and happy that must have made the book-loving citizens of Oxnard back then? And how it must have encouraged many others who never thought of reading books to develop a passion for that?

He put up $12.000 for that library. That covered the cost of building it. It would be staggeringly more if he did it today.

And it was his typical deal. It would be up to local businessmen to come up with the money to furnish the library and stock it with books. A lot of communities jumped at the chance. “Count us in!” said one community after another. And that’s how he funded 144 libraries in California alone.

And this idea of his gave work to many architects and contractors and suppliers, plus countless workmen, all while greatly expanding the market for books–superb news for authors and publishers and printers, of course.

Today our leaders in Washington speak of stimulus programs to boost our economy.  Well, Carnegie’s program must have been the biggest stimulus program our country ever had up to that time, and a private one it was, mind you.

Yes, he read a lot, but he also wrote. Late in life he published an article entailed “Wealth.”  In it he argued that wealthy people should invest hefty amounts of their wealth in projects whose primary purpose would be to help society. That was a novel idle then. it got attention. Nowadays we recognize that by giving people an IRS write-off for charitable and philanthropic donations.


I myself was the beneficiary of Carnegie’s vision and generosity. I was only 12 or 13, as I remember it, when my Maman took me on a trolley car to downtown Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  Then she walked me up the stone steps and through the beautiful doors of our  public library and got me my very first library card.

That’s how I fell in love with libraries. I didn’t even know what a library was.  I’ve never been without a library card since then. And I’ve enjoyed hundreds of libraries. I am not exaggerating.  Many of them Carnegie libraries. I  consider the public library–as he conceived it — the most important building in any community. After the food supermarket, to be sure. We do have to satisfy our stomach before we can our mind.

Without Andrew Carnegie, I’m not sure I would ever have discovered the joy of books and reading.

Well,  if today you, too, consider yourself rich in having a public library card in your wallet, thank Andrew Carnegie. To me he is the patron saint of American libraries.  I suspect that he was a patron saint of libraries all around the world–by his inspiration, I mean.

More than a century has passed since he did all that.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a Centennial Celebration in his honor? A first step would be to publish a Centennial Stamp with his image. To be followed with commemorative ceremonies in our thousands of public libraries.  And then winding up with a huge fête in Washington, DC.

The idea has to be developed, of course, but that could be done by soliciting suggestions from anybody with a public library card.

Of course, it would be encouraging to have some cash to get this Centennial Celebration up and going.

Do you think we could get Bill Gates involved? I think he would be a natural!

~ ~ ~



The latest about little old Marjorie and her little old beloved Alabaster

By John Guy LaPlante

Hello, my Friends,,

Your feedback tells me strongly that my sad tale of a few days ago about  Marjorie’s  ongoing heartache  interested many of you.

The wrenching dilemma she faces!  Put Alabaster out of his obviously failing health?  Or spend some of her severely limited funds for veterinary care that might not do much for him? Except assuage her  conscience maybe?  What’s best for Alabaster? What’s best for her?

Well, here’s the latest. From my point of view, not good.

On another morning walk down to Spencer’s Market, I did see her again.  I lit up with a big smile–was so happy to see her approaching. She was on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, coming toward me, a long block away. Again cradling poor old Alabaster in her arms.

As she drew closer, I gave her a great big wave.  But no response, which was strange. Of course, she was  carrying Alabaster, and surely that explained it.  But a  minute later, she took a sharp right turn into her supported-living  complex—a right turn that was not her usual  direction. Away from me!  And quickened her steps.  I was surprised.  And  so disappointed.

“Hi, Marjorie!” I yelled to her.  It had to be a yell.  She kept right on. Then hesitated. Then turned toward me and  gave me a tiny wave…the tiniest wave possible….then turned away and hurried toward wherever she was going,. This was  not the way back to her tiny apartment. I couldn’t believe it. Really couldn’t.

So, friends, what should I make of that? Did she feel  deep down that I had butted in? And resented it?  I myself felt I had been quite helpful.  Was proud to have given her a bit of emotional comfort. What do you think? Have I blundered?

Whatever the explanation, there’s not much I can do about it now.  I have left Monique and David’s after a wonderful visit and I’m on the road in my van again.  I’m heading south toward Los Angeles, approaching beautiful and deservedly famous Santa Barbara.  It will be months before I see Marjorie again, if ever.

I realize Marjorie’s heart has been aching non-stop. What’s best for Alabaster? What’s best for her? What to do? Yes,what to do?   So much on her mind. But now my heart is aching, too..

~ ~ ~

Marjorie is walking into the New Year with her heart aching.


By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — Walking down the hill from my daughter Monique’s on this bright sunny morning, I ran into  little old Marjorie

I wanted to enter the New Year with a new new chin whiskers! To complement my long-time mustache! I think I grew it as an act of adolescent senility, plain and simple...and I'm not sure I'll keep it all 12 months. But what do you think?

I wanted to enter the New Year with a new look…my new chin whiskers! To complement my long-time mustache! I think I grew it as an act of adolescent senility, plain and simple…and I’m not sure I’ll keep it all 12 months. But what do you think?

again.  I was heading down the few blocks to Spencer’s Market for the exercise and a cup of coffee.

Marjorie is a little wisp of a lady, old like me.   Again she was walking up and down the sidewalk outside her subsidized apartment. This was the third time I was running into her.  And again she was cuddling her cute little dog in her arms…holding it right up against her bosom.

“Hi,” she said to me  warmly as I came close.  “Your name is John, right?”

“Yes! And you are Marjorie! And he,” I said pointing to her little dog, “is Alabaster! And you told me that you called him Alabaster because he’s very light in color like alabaster.”

“Perfect!”  And she smiled.  But quickly her smile faded.  Her happiness of a moment ago just went poof.  She looked down at Alabaster.  Tenderly she brushed his head.  Brushed it again. And again.

“Marjorie, it looks like Alabaster is not doing very well this morning.”

“Yes,” she sighed.  “Yes, that’s true.  Oh, this is so, so hard….”  And stopped talking right there.

“I’ll bet you  spend a lot of time with Alabaster in your arms.”

She nodded. “Yes. Sometimes in the night, too.”

The last time we met, Marjorie had told me a thing or two about Alabaster.  He was 16–which, as dogs go, made him very old like Marjorie and me. She had taken him in 14 years ago and he had become her whole family now. Well, here in Morro Bay anyway.  It happens so often for old people who find themselves living alone. Their bet becomes everything to them.

She had been married, and for many years.  She had told me about it.  “Oh, he was a good man. But he started drinking, and much too much.  He became a bum. Yep!  Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  I had a brother here, so I moved here.  And he”–she clutched Alabaster even tighter–“entered my life.”  She smiled again, but just a bit.

Yes, Alabaster was very old.  That was clear to me.  And he was obviously contented in Marjorie’s loving arms. In a way, Alabaster was so, so fortunate.

“I can see you are troubled this morning, Marjorie.”

Slowly she nodded.  Was silent.  Then spoke. “Alabaster is sick.  I’m so worried. And I have to renew his license.  And can you imagine–a license costs $25 now!” A heavy sigh.  “And I can’t keep him with me  in my apartment if he is not licensed!” She paused.

“And I should take him to the vet.  Really should. He needs the doctor’s help. And…  and maybe… maybe…” now her words came hard, ” I should have him put down….”  She clasped Alabaster even closer to her heart. Stared down at him.  I could see how she was aching.

“I know, Marjorie.  I understand.  Yes, I do. You love Alabaster.  And I can see Alabaster loves you. That’s for sure.  And I see how he is such a wonderful, wonderful pet…and such a huge blessing in your life.”

She nodded.  She held him. Rocked him a little.  I kept mum.  Put my hand on his head and brushed his soft fur a little.  I remained quiet.  She was quiet.  We both understood the sad situation.

“You know,” she said, “I tell my children, When my time comes, all I want is to be kept comfortable.  Take care of my pain if at all possible, of course.  And stay close to me if you can, please. Stay right by my side. But let me go.  Just let me go.”

“Gosh, Marjorie. I think that way, too.  And know what?  Maybe that’s how Alabaster feels.  Who knows?  It’s possible.  I’m sure he loves you the way you love him.  For sure you are the most important person in his life, too.  Maybe he just wants you to let him go. To just let him go….”

“Maybe so… maybe so….” She looked up at me.  Gave me a little smile.  It was weak, but she smiled.

I smiled back.  Patted Alabaster again. Gave Marjorie a pat on the shoulder. Looked into her eyes and smiled.  And resumed  my walk down to Spencer’s Market.

Well, I haven’t been able to do that little walk of mine for a couple of days now.  But I hope I’ll run into Marjorie again my next time down.  I wonder whether she’ll still be cradling Alabaster if I do.


I changed my friend’s name.  Her dog’s, too. Changed another little thing or two.  I’m sure you understand. I thought of taking a picture of her and her pet for this. But that would give them away, of course.


10 years ago, around the world I went, alone. I am still amazed!

Startling, incredible Shanghai, city of extreme contrasts--only one of the great cities I got to see.

Startling, incredible Shanghai, city of extreme contrasts–only one of the great cities I got to see.


By John Guy LaPlante

How many miles is it around?

Well, at its maximum circumference, the world is 26,000 miles around. I traveled 36,750. I zigzagged so much, as always. You can circle it in far less. If you circle it at the latitude of my state of Connecticut, say, it will be thousands of miles less. Some make the circle without going below the Equator.

I went way down below, and stayed down for quite a while, which meant visiting South Africa and South  America, too.  Then came up and kept on The basic idea was not to go to places I knew. Not to Europe. I had been there 10 or 12 times. Not to Mexico nor Canada. I had crisscrossed them both. It was to see new places.

I was gone five months. I had many wonderful encounters and experiences, as hoped for. And two or three bad ones, which is to be expected, I suppose. I got back in one piece, thank God, and wonderfully satisfied with my adventure despite a surprising and nearly devastating start. I talk about that below.

I did it for only $83 per day. Everybody tells me that was fantastically cheap. True!

Up to then, that trip was my greatest adventure. But then I did have another great one. That was my full hitch of 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. That, however, was great in a dramatically different way.

On the trip I sent back many newspaper reports. But the minute I got home, I wrote it up in detail. And that became my book. “Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit!” — 354 pages of 10-point type with many photos. It was published as both a print book and an e-book. True of all my books.

Many people dream of a big trip…a great big once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Well, for them l crammed in as much practical info as I could. I wanted to encourage them, show them how to travel safer, save them money and make it go further, and squeeze the max out of their trip, in what they learn and the pleasure they reap. So, it’s a thrill for me to hear from people who tell me they got their money’s worth out of my book. All my books, for that matter.

Know what? It’s just a few days ago that it came to me that this is my 10th anniversary of that  trip. How should I mark this anniversary, I wondered. Well, a good way was to share that experience with you now, 10 years later. So below is my final chapter from that book. It gives you a good wrap-up of my trip, I believe.

In it I mention a special 53-page section I made sure to include at the back of the book. It’s called “My Backpack.”You know how we squeeze everything possible into a backpack. I called it Backpack because I squeezed in everything I could to help you to plan and enjoy any big trip. Not only around the world.

I believe it’s important to have adventures.  They teach us so much and add so much spice to our life.  I’ll be starting another very soon. Lucky me! I urge you to try one or two. They don’t have to be humongous, by the way.

I have made a few modifications, but only for clarity. The photos are from the book, so that’s why they’re black and white and not color.

I’d love any comments, of course. Just email them to me at Now here is that final chapter.

Chapter 33   Amen!

Now home, I add up all those miles, all the security checks, all the strange beds. Was it worth it?

 In my many stops around the world, I always thought of home, of course, and found myself making endless comparisons between home and wherever I was. I liked some things; I didn’t like others. I preferred some ways here; but some back home were definitely better. A normal process.

          But now back under the Stars and Stripes, I was tempted to get on my knees and kiss our good, old American terra firma. I did not do that, but yes, for a moment I thought I should. I recognized that the U.S. is like every other country I had seen – imperfect. But less imperfect. No wonder people everywhere dream of coming here. Finally I opened my suitcase for the last time. I had been on the road 147 days. Had visited 29 major cities in 18 countries – in Asia, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and Central America.

          I had skipped Europe and other parts because I had been there a lot.I flew close to 40,00 miles by the time I got back home to Connecticut, on 21 airlines, with another 3,000 miles by bus and train. And yes, of all those airlines, as I’ve already mentioned, only two were American – in fact, they were American Airlines and Southwest.

Others were well known, such as Japan Airlines, Indian Airlines, British Airways, Varig, and Malaysia Airlines. But others were unknown to me: Dragonair, Garuda, Silkair, Bangkok Airlines, Jet Airways, Gulf Air, Egyptair, Kenya Airways, Pluna, Tam Mercosur, Lan Chile, Aero Continente, and Copa Airlines.

 At each stop, I wondered: what is the next airline going to be like? They all turned out to be satisfactory, and on none was the service bad. Some had wild color jobs – I wish I had a picture of every plane! Regardless of the airline name painted on the side, most of the planes were American made – Boeings and one McDonald-Douglas. I rode Airbuses several times. Very nice. And two Fokkers. And one ATR Turboprop.

They all got me there, effortlessly. I never felt unsafe – in fact, I thought I would like to learn to fly some day.

 It seemed the big foreign airlines always had their own native captain and first officer in the cockpit – or flight deck, as they say nowadays. But the smaller airlines seemed to favor American pilots. It would be interesting to interview some of these pilots and find out why they fly for these foreign outfits – probably money, interest in that country, adventure, a problem back home. But flight attendants were always local.

 Most impressive for quality certainly was my first airline, Japan Airlines. Outstanding. Others were excellent – Malaysia, Indian Airlines, and British Airways.

          Announcements on all planes were always made in the local language, then in English – English is the official airline language around the world. In some cases, the English announcements were difficult to understand because so strangely accented.How do people who can’t understand English make out? It has to be a major accomplishment for someone to fly around the world who has grown up in Morocco or Romania.

People are people. The airline uniform the attendants happened to be wearing was insignificant. I think the nicest attendants I met were two black ladies on Kenya Airways. Thoughtful service plus lots of fun. In fact, I still get occasional e-mails from one.

        I had written more than 65,000 words and taken 1,500 photographs. This was an ongoing, every-day effort. I kept a detailed journal which I wrote out every evening before bedtime – on some evenings it was hard. I was so tired. I had to force myself.I wrote 32 articles, each with thousands of words,  and all churned out in spurts – whenever I could get to a computer, although I scribbled sections here and there on a big pad as free time came up. The work was difficult beyond description, not because of the writing, but the computer difficulties.

I worked on all kinds of computers, renting them by the hour in computer shops here, there, and everywhere,, and many were borderline junk.

In some places, the machines were crammed together – just no place to put down a notebook or open a reference book. My elbows would nearly smash with those of the people to my left and right. Sometimes it took a lot of searching to find a decent shop. I am sure I used more than 200 computers along the way. On some days I worked at two or three.

 If this aspect of my trip interests you, take a look at the Backback section of the book I wrote about it. That was the section where I crammed in all kinds of travel tips I picked up and impressions that I felt I should share.

 And several times, despite my best efforts and determined back-ups, I lost complete articles through technical glitches. In all modesty, I consider my 32 articles a major accomplishment from the physical point of view – the blood, sweat, and tears that work took out of me. There is something to be said for old age and maturity. I am positive that if some of these difficulties had assailed me when I was 25, say, I would have quit. Yes, would have given up.

 I am sure some of you are thinking, “John, why didn’t you take a laptop with you?” I considered doing that. It would have been a big, big mistake. Many reasons. Again,  go look at my Backpack.

 My most satisfying writing occurred on the long flight across the South Atlantic on Malaysia Airlines–  nine hours from Cape Town at the bottom of South Africa to Buenos Aires, the must-see capital of Argentina. I had decided to write a final article tentatively entitled, “Around the World at 75 – A Survivor’s Report.”

 I was far from the end of the trip, but already I had much material. I planned to hand-write the first draft on this flight. And I did. I wrote and wrote hour after hour. Yes, in good old handwriting. I got off in Buenos Aires elated. That’s the right word. Now back home, that’s what became my Backpack.

 es, I had a fabulous trip. I saw some of the greatest wonders of our world, man-made and natural. I saw the Great Wall of China, the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the Temple of Venus in Lebanon, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the magnificent temples of India, ancient and long-forgotten Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Panama Canal! Those are just a few.

 I saw the deserts of North Africa, the incredible landscapes of Africa all the way south to Cape Town, the pampas of Argentina, the Andes Mountains, Iguassu Falls, the lakes of south-central Chile and nearby Argentina, the jungles of Central America. Again, that’s a short list.

 I saw the great cities. Tokyo. Beijing. Hong Kong. Singapore. Bangkok. Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay and Madras in India (remember, those two have new names now, Mumbai and Cernai. I got to see Beirut, Cairo, Nairobi, Cape Town. Sao Paulo, Rio di Janeiro, and Santiago in South America. Plus others. Wow!

 I had a thousand wonderful experiences and just two close calls. A car drove over my right foot in India, and I came close to breaking a leg on a stairway in Bangkok. Yes, I was very lucky.

 I lost a wallet in Panama City, and I foiled a pickpocket in Montevideo. At one hostel, somebody stole my essential anti-malaria pills, but I managed to replenish them. Taking that pill was my most unpleasant moment each day. Thirty minutes later, I felt so nauseous. I was not ill once otherwise. No diarrhea. No food poisoning. Not once did I consider aborting the trip, except for that moment when Keith told me he was quitting.

Everything considered, I was very lucky.

 I was lucky to have good friends here and there, and I have mentioned them at the front of the book. What a joy and solace they were.

Truth is, I started out with a pal. How could I possibly go on a trip like this all alone? Impossible. His name was Keith, about my age. We had traveled together before. It had been fine. “Sign me on, John” he told me. We agreed we’d stick together the whole way. It was going to be “all for one, and one for all.”
It was a lot harder than we expected. In Hong Kong, our third city, less than three weeks into the trip, Keith wasn’t doing well. For one thing, he had a painful toe. But something else was bothering him, too. He never explained. He announced, “John, I am going home!” My first word out was, “Dammit!” For sure this meant the end of the trip for me, too.

But then I resolved to try going on. It would have been so embarrassing to face people. And I had agreed to send back newspaper articles. The trip was so important to me. We had spent months getting ready.

Soon I found out I could do it. In fact, I was better off.No more discussions about whether to eat in this restaurant or that one, or go to a museum or a ball game.  We had spent every minute together. Now alone, I was reaching out to other people and meeting them. I enjoyed that.

So that’s why I wrote “Alone, Dammit!” on the cover of my book. Now what I say to myself is, “Alone, Hallelujah!”

 I spent about $12,500 for everything. And I mean everything. Visas, medical shots, all travel of whatever kind, and food and admissions and amusements, plus lodging.

My purpose was to see those places and countries and their people as they really are. So I kept clear of most places that attract Americans. So, no fancy hotels or restaurants. Besides, that would have made the trip unaffordable, of course. I used hostels as first choice, and if not available, then small local hotels. I never felt a bedbug, by the way. And I had such a good time in doing it that way.  

 I think that $12,500 was cheap. I could have spent more money, well, up to a point, and made the trip a lot easier. But I didn’t want it to be too easy, and I wanted it to be rich in everyday human encounters and experiences, and so it was.

 It broke down to about $83 a day. I’m not bad at rationalizing.  When I came up with that total, I thought for a minute and concluded that many people spend that much in the depreciation of a new car in just a year or two. Isn’t that so? I considered it money well spent. Furthermore, as you know by now, I looked at it as an investment rather than an expense. 

 Good investments pay off.  This was a good one.

 My whole purpose was to see the world as it is. I wanted to travel as an ordinary person, relying more on serendipity and a friendly and adventurous spirit than a fat wallet.

 I learned a lot about the world and its people. And about myself, too. Which was very, very good. Already  I notice differences in how I think and feel about some things and places

 I admit I was very scared a couple of times. All in alI, I had a grand time. That’s the plain, honest truth. I wouldn’t change much if I did it again.

What did I miss? I promised I would tell you. Having more changes of clothing. Having more time to relax. It was always go, go, go. Having a good reading light next to my bed – excuse me, it was a bunk and not a bed most of the time. Small things.

 But the computer work was exhausting and discouraging. I am repeating myself, I know. It shows how tough it was. I am glad I did it, however.

 I encourage you to travel around the world. Travel is getting easier and cheaper, yet a trip around the world for fun is still a grand adventure. And we say the world is getting smaller. Well, we think that. But it is still a mighty big place. You don’t realize how big until you start out.

 It’s definitely not that difficult to do it my way. There’s a simple test that I recommend for you. Board a bus to your nearest big city with an airport, then make your way to that airport by public transit—by bus or trolley or subway. Not by taxi. Doing it by public transit like that is important. Then find a place to sleep. Then buy a ticket and fly to another big city in the U.S. Then get downtown again by public transit, then find a place to sleep. Do that returning home, too.

 To experience foreign travel, do the same by going to Montreal in Quebec, say, or Guadalajara in Mexico. They’re nearby. So interesting. Won’t take too long. Will cost you far less than crossing an ocean. Again the same way.

 That will give you the additional experience of entering another country and dealing with a different culture and language, different food, different money. If you can handle a trip like that, wonderful!

 Then you can make it around the world. Going around the world just entails completing that cycle a number of times.

 Of course, be realistic. Don’t be surprised when some little things go wrong. Maybe something big will go wrong. That’s life. Something big can go wrong at home as well, of course. If you have the spirit to undertake such an adventure, you have the spirit to confront whatever comes up.

 Beware of the worst terrorist of all. It’s the mosquito! And remember that all hotel rooms look the same after the light goes out. That’s a joke, but it’s an illuminating joke.

 Each of us has one or the other of the following two basic viewpoints as we go about our life: the bottle is half full, or half empty. I know how I look at the bottle, and I hope you look at it the same way.

 And when we set out to travel, we find we react in one of two ways as we encounter strangers. We can view a stranger – any stranger, regardless of his passport, complexion, clothes, or language, whether he eats with a fork or his fingers, or uses toilet paper or finds some other way, or travels by public transit or hitchhikes – either as a potential enemy or a potential friend. I’ll let you decide which way you lean on those choices.

 I hope it’s the first way. The worst disease of all for a grand adventure like this is a mental one. It’s xenophobia– the unreasonable fear of strangers.

 Let me again just pass on advice that my father gave me when I was a boy. He told me, “Jean-Guy (that’s my French name) if you smile, everybody will smile right back.” It’s true. It works. It makes a big difference.

 I certainly want my grandchildren to make a trip like mine. I believe in higher education to the ultimate, but I believe that such a trip would be the best part of their education. I hope that they won’t wait as long as I did. Again, such a trip shouldn’t be viewed as an expense. It should be viewed as an investment.

 I am happy to say I was able to carry my own luggage all the way. And I think I have enough breath left to blow out those 75 candles on my birthday cake very soon. That’s a lot of candles. (Remember, I wrote this 10 years ago. My breath is still pretty good.)

 I made many friends. (Some that I am still in touch with.) And I hope no enemies, of any race, color, creed, or political belief.

 “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”  That’s one of Mark Twain’s terrific insights. I have found it true. International travel is important for numerous reasons. This is one of the prime ones. We lose some of our prejudices.

 I hope you will circle the globe, in one loop or in stages – after all, that’s the way some people hike the Appalachian Mountain Trail from Georgia to northern Maine. The whole thing or by sections over a period of time, even years.

 Yes, I was late in achieving this long-nurtured ambition of circling the globe, which some people considered crazy. Well, better late than never! That’s how I feel. And when all is said and done, not “Alone, Dammit!”  It turned out to be “Alone, Hallelujah!”

Bon voyage to you.  Don’t let your dreams slip out of your fingers.

 (I ended each chapter with an aphorism, one that I thought up myself. Below is the one that I closed this Chapter 33 with.)

 We make a lot of our own luck in life, good and bad.  Sometimes when we set out, we leave bad luck behind and find good luck ahead. Hopefully not vice versa.










A new tale of David versus Goliath–2013 version!

That controversial plant insults Morro Rock.

That plant on that spot insults Morro Rock and Bay. That is one of the most beautiful bays in California.  The plant has been destructive to sea life.

By John Guy LaPlante     With 2 photos.

A couple named Monique and David Nelson and their fellow volunteers out there in central-coast California have been fighting that power plant for years. I’ve been watching this fight all along, and for a special reason. And  I just got an exciting email about it.  Right out of the blue.

It was from  Monique:

“News Alert: Morro Bay Power Plant To Close in 2014!
       “Dear friends —  It’s true!  Yesterday, Dynegy notified Governor Brown of its plan to close the Morro Bay Power Plant in 2014!  We don’t know exactly how it will shake out — there are lots of questions to be answered and details to be worked out. 

      “But let’s take a moment and savor this victory for the estuary!  At the same time, CAPE wants to thank you for all your support over the past 14+ years.  There’s more to do, but we’re getting close….  Monique, Jack, David, Betty, Barbara, Linda & Ahmed (CAPE board of directors)

Finally Monique and David have triumphed!  “Bravo!” I thought. “Terrific!”

Monique and David never gave up fighting the big plant.

Monique and David never gave up the big fight.

So why is this like David versus Goliath? Because it’s about a tiny group of volunteer activists with tiny resources. For years they’ve been battling a huge corporation with deep pockets, Dynergy, which owns the plant. And its previous owners.

I am interested because I happen to know Monique.  And her husband, David.

I’ve been going to  lovely Morro Bay for twenty years.  It’s perched on one of the most beautiful bays and harbors on our Pacific coast.  It’s  surprising how few harbors we have on that coast–far fewer than on this side.  It’s one of the smallest over there but it’s a gem. So it’s precious.

Morro Bay is famous also for Morro Rock. A huge dome rising right up at the entrance to the harbor.  Known to many as the Rock of Gibraltar, the biggest and most remarkable on the whole long Pacific Coast as far north and south as you can go. That rock is really something to behold. Still a sacred place for the native people.

On my first visit  I was shocked by the huge power plant right there on the gorgeous waterfront of Morro Bay. The plant is close by the foot of the the small city’s main street.  There’s an interesting strip there of  restaurants, stores, boutiques, and shops,and amusements. Commercial fishing boats and many pleasure craft add a lot of flavor.

That power plant is so out of place, I thought. It’s a monster down there.

It has three towering smokestacks. They reach way up.You can see them from far away. They belch a vapor or gas of some kind.The plant says it’s harmless, but still it’s disturbing. And the plant detracts so much from the Rock.

To me, its location there was absolutely sacrilegious. So crazy. Sure, the plant was important–it  generated the electricity for the whole area. But  why didn’t they build it farther back, less visible, less offensive? Well, there is an explanation.

The plant was built there on the water’s edge because it needed that water. It sucked it up hour after hour, day after day. It needed it as a coolant for its operations.

Then it pumped that water, which still had a lot of heat in it, back into the harbor.  But in doing so, it was killing zillions of creatures of many kinds.  Tiny ones and big ones, too, but all critical  for the preservation and health of that whole important ecosystem.

Now, here is how Monique and David  got involved.  They hated the power plant, too. Like me, because of its location. At first that was my only concern. But there was more to it than that, they told me. That’s when I heard of the terrible impact the plant had on the one-time abundant sea life and on the harbor and bay.

Monique and David wondered what could be done about it. They met others who felt the same way. That was the start of CAPE.  It stands for the Coastal Alliance on Cape Expansion. Monique and David were on the Board of Directors from the first day, even before CAPE got incorporated.

They had good ideas and the beginning of a strategy and lots of energy and they were determined. But no money to speak of. But they plunged right in.

They were doing this on the side, of course.  After work. They had plenty of personal  responsibilities, such as earning a living. Still they committed themselves to the fight. They quickly became leaders in CAPE.  Monique has been president for five years and David has been the treasurer.

An interesting thing about CAPE is that it’s only the seven directors who are members. Talk about tiny! But they’ve developed strong supporters though never more  than two or three hundred.  So, they’re not a huge  army.

Now here are a few words about that couple.  They are not native Californians.  David grew up in Pennsylvania and after serving in the Navy moved to California to escape from ice and snow.  He got interested in antiques and objects d’art, and particularly antique silver, and it has become a passion.

Monique grew up in Massachusetts and went to college and law school there.  She passed the Massachusetts bar on the first try–quite a few do not.

She met David when he came on a visit and before long she flew to California to join him.  She took the California bar examination and passed it, also on the first try.They married soon afterward. It’s obvious they’re still  in love. She has been part of a local practice most of these years.

All this time they and their associates in CAPE have been battling the mighty power plant.   Dynergy is just the latest owner. It owns a number of plants.

They have fought the plant in many ways on several levels. Holding information sessions for the public. Publicizing the great damage the plant is wreaking. Speaking in protest at city council meetings and state agency hearings at the state capitol in Sacramento.  Writing letters. Finding scientists and other experts and, despite CAPE’s lean treasury, enticing them to help them by conducting studies to measure the  damage being caused, and advising them on what to do about it.

It has been one long battle all this time. Some directors dropped out, of course.  It’s understandable.  Others came on board.  Monique and David and two or three others have been steadfast in keeping up the fight all these years.

They have had their  moments of discouragement.  Monique thought of quitting three years ago but then had a change of heart.  David had the same thought, but only briefly. Now and then both were sustained by bits of good news.  They felt they were making progress but still had a long way to go. Imagine their surprise and elation when Dynergy just up and announced it was shutting the plant. Mine, too. In fact, I was astonished.

Monique told me, “The news was stunning! I found out in a routine call to a state official in Sacramento.  I rushed to call David and he jumped with joy, too.

“But you know, our work is not  over.  It’s marvelous that the damage to the bay will end. We believe aquatic life will thrive again. But there is still a lot to be decided.  One big question is, sure, the plant is going out of business, but what’s going to happen to that ugly building and the smokestacks? That can’t be allowed to stay there.”

To me, this fight and this victory have had the makings of a great movie or a great book.  It is doubtful that will happen. Unimportant to them.

I have found all this so impressive because it has been been a heroic story. One of determination and stamina and smart planning and unrelenting effort.  Not to make headlines or for personal gain.  Entirely for the public good. And with all the odds stacked against its success. Like David’s slaying of great big Goliath!

And I’ve had a special reason to be interested.  Monique is my daughter and David is my son-in-law.


The shockingly unthinkable has happened!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 3 photos.

It’s like going to the moon. Unthinkable when I was a boy.  But it happened! Now something else totally unthinkable to me has happened. A brand-new library has been

For years like many others, I've loved poling through the stacks of public libraries. Will my grandkids have this pleasure? I doubt it.

For years like many others, I’ve loved poking through the stacks of public libraries. Will my grandkids have this pleasure? I doubt it.

built but with zero printed books!  It’s filled with digital books– only e-books! Can you believe it?

This isn’t a science-fiction fantasy. That e-library is a reality, here on this planet and now. with its doors open to the public as I write.

It’s in Texas, in San Antonio, which is in Bexar County. It was designed and built just for this radically new purpose, so it’s futuristic looking, of course.  Take a good look at the photo I’ve included.

This amazing library is called the BiblioTech. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? A marriage of books and technology! But as I mull  over the name, I see it is wonderfully  appropriate.

Bibliotech opened  September 14. It’s been getting enormous attention, and some brave souls  are calling it the library of the future. Which to me suggests the demise of libraries as we know them. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

To get the Bibliotech ready, by the way, $178,966 worth of  iPads, iMacs and MacBooks was purchased from Apple, Inc..  It will be like being in an Apple store, I would think. It seems the BiblioTech designers  even  gave it the look and feel of an Apple store. The Microsoft people must be weeping.

Of course, it’s common now for libraries all over the civilized world to have a digital area, or a digital room, with computers and printers and scanners and all the associated stuff. But who ever would have thought of a dedicated e-book library?

It’s not surprising that this first of its kind is located in Texas. Texans are known for their big hats, big boots, big ideas.

This is the Bibliotech! Right out of "Buck Rogers," if you remember that wonderful comic strip. The future has arrived! if you remember him.

The BiblioTech seems right out of “Buck Rogers”!  Do you remember that great comic strip?  Well, that future has arrived!  I hope to get to visit BiblioTech.

But now let’s look at BiblioTech’s details, which are fascinating. Here is what BiblioTech says about itself. I’ve put in italics.

BiblioTech is the first public digital library of its kind. Membership is
free to all Bexar County residents. Patron services include:

Access to BiblioTech’s digital collection including e-books, audiobooks.
Wireless internet access.
Computer classes.
Laptop, desktop and tablet access.
E-readers (available for circulation).
Programs for children and adults.
Study/meeting space.

Through BiblioTech, residents of Bexar County will be able to access over
10,000 current titles through e-readers that they can check out to take
home or read on the premises.  Residents will also be able to use their
own e-readers or tablets to access the collection.

BiblioTech currently has 600 e-readers, 200 pre-loaded enhanced e-readers
for children, 48 computer stations, 10 laptops and 40 tablets to use on-site.
Additional e-reading accommodations will be made for the visually impaired.

Its Mission:
To provide all Bexar County residents the opportunity to access technology and its applications for the purposes of enhancing education and literacy, promoting reading as recreation and equipping residents of our community with necessary tools to thrive as citizens of the 21st Century.

About Bexar County:
It includes the city of San Antonio), is located in South Texas and covers approximately 1,247 square miles.  Based on the 2012 Census Estimate, the overall population is 1,714,773 individuals.  The city of San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the United States having surpassed Dallas, Texas and San Diego, California.  Bexar County is currently the 4th most populated county in Texas (out of 254 counties) and the 19th most populated county in the country.

Gosh, isn’t it all mind-boggling?

Ashley Eklof,Bibliotech's head librarian. A true pioneer!

Ashley Eklof,,BiblioTech’s  librarian. A true pioneer!

Who’s in charge. BiblioTech’s librarian is Susan Eklof. She’s beautiful.  From her photo, looks like a 22-year-old geek right out of an Apple store.  Nothing like the unfair stereotype that we’re all familiar with–the classic old-maid librarian with  books in one hand and a feather duster in the other hand. Anything but.
Actually, Ms. Eklof was trained at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee. In computer science and library science, I presume.  Later she worked in a public school system up there, at that kind of work, I would think. Well, she is walking into history as a true pioneer. For sure she will be famous in the annals of library science–or information technology–as some in the field now call it.

The County Manager is David Smith. He said, “One of her passions is increasing access to technology and information,” So no surprise she was chosen.

Said another high official to her. “You’re about to embark on an adventure that’s not been done anywhere in the United States, probably anywhere in the world. You’ve got a good team. We’re going to build something for the kids of the South Side of San Antonio that will enhance their learning like no other place in the country.”

Truth is, I kind of saw this coming. But never, never in my lifetime did I expect to see an  e-library like the BiblioTech.  But a year or so ago I read something startling. As you know,, among other things, is our biggest retailer of books. Bigger than Barnes & Noble even. But last year it sold more e-books than print books! Wow! And at that time, a report by the Pew Foundation said that 19 percent of adults in the U.S. had read an e-book. I was amazed the percentage was so high. And the trend showed no signs of slowing.

What does this portend? Not good news. Certainly not from my point of view as a library lover. It portends that public libraries as I know them and you do, too, are imperiled. Doomed. Will disappear. I say this although I’m aware public libraries have more users than ever, which is encouraging. But this is only because libraries are morphing into something far more than the our narrowly focused libraries of even ten or fifteen years ago.

People go to public libraries take out books, of course, and read newspapers and magazines, but also take out movies and music disks, listen to talks, take the numerous mini courses more and more libraries now offer, and relax in the coffee shops some libraries now run, and be among people–it’s  surprising how many folks live alone, particularly older ones.

And to use free computers! That’s Number 1 for most users.  In fact, I believe that this is the most popular service provided by any public library in the United States today.

I have often said that I consider the public library the most important institution in any community–second only to the food supermarket, of course. Nearly everything I need to know  about any city or town I can find out just by taking a ride up and down its main street and then checking out its library.  That will tell me plenty.

I myself have a stake in this new e-technology. How so? Well, my three books were published as printed books but they have also been published as e-books–this is so essential nowadays.

For years I wrote articles and columns and essays and PR releases for newspapers–print newspapers, that is.  Now what I write appears in e-newspapers mostly. In fact, you will be reading this  initially in my blog. Later in an e-paper or two. And this all because of  the great advances of computer science–a science which never existed back in my school days.

Computers are an essential part of my life. I own three. Plus all the peripherals. I use them daily for work and research and entertainment. It’s a real emergency for me when wi-fi fails or some other weird thing happens. Also digital camera and cell phone. And I own two e-book readers, a Kindle and an iRiver Story HD–it accesses many things my Kindle doesn’t. I’ve downloaded books onto them. But know what? I hardly use my e-readers. I’m just too old-fashioned, I guess. And I’m experimenting with a tablet. So some would say I’m quite computer savvy though I often feel I’m a klutz.

Still. and I know I’m repeating, I am totally amazed that a library like the BiblioTech can exist.  But if I were 20 or 30 years old and lived in Bexar County, for sure I would be a regular at the BiblioTech. Certainly many more like it will appear. City after city will jump on the bandwagon.

The BiblioTech people call their e-library progress, of course, and deep in my heart I believe that it is.  I wish it well.  Progress is a steamroller and there is no stopping it.  But I’m not ready for this particular variety of it.

As you know I have had a passion for books since I was a boy. I’ve had a public library card since I was ten or eleven, I believe. I got it back in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
My Maman walked me right up the granite  steps and through the bronze doors of the Slater Public Library and got me signed up. That was very soon after she had taken me to the Pawtucket Boys Club to get me started in swimming lessons.

Yes, my mother, a young French-speaking immigrant from Québec who never got to learn to speak English well because she spent all day at home taking care of my Papa and us! But she, too, loved to read, not only in French but in English, and got so good at reading in English English and did so well that she subscribed us to the Saturday Evening Post and the Reader’s Digest. When they arrived, she’d stop everything, curl up in her favorite chair, and escape into them for half an hour.

I inherited my love of books from her. I have books in every room. Plus two sets of encyclopedias. Plus a variety of reference books. Much of their content is now easily accessed by computer, of course. But it’s a comfort to feel them around me. And I own them. Not true of e-books. And e-books do zero for the ambiance I like. I feel about books the way some feel about paintings (I do own paintings as well). I owe so much to all the authors who have entered and enhanced my life through their books.

My Papa had the same background as Maman but he learned to speak English on the streets and through serious practice and in time became a successful businessman. Even moved us into a nice colonial-style home with an in-ground pool, quite unusual back then. But we always spoke French at home, right to their final breath.

Well, I have never been without a library card ever since Maman got me that first one.  And I hope I never will be.  It’s a rare night that I go to sleep without a book in my hands. Often a library book. That card is one of the most precious things I own. For symbolic reasons, too.  That in itself is remarkable. Wonder of wonders, that library card will be honored at any public library in the state! No questions asked. That in itself is remarkable.

It doesn’t seem likely that I will ever become a card-carrying member of a BiblioTech-like library. But who knows? Right now I have only one more comment to make. If you have read all this, you, too, are definitely a reader!  How lucky you are! Whether you are reading printed books or e-books or both.Reading is the key to so much.
So, how do you feel about this amazing development of the BiblioTech? I’d be pleased to get your comments.

Oops, a new thought. Will users of  the BiblioTech be allowed to bring in pads and pencils and pens and printed books? Probably not. Who needs that old-fashioned stuff? Well, I do.


Jim Schneider the super school traffic cop


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By John Guy LaPlante

Old Saybrook, CT- It’s a  nice, sunny afternoon. I stand on the corner in amazement. Jim Schneider is the traffic cop here.The school day is over and the loaded school buses are filing out from the Goodwin School, one after another. Also parents who have picked up their kids. Soon teachers and staff will be driving out. It will be a hectic 40 minutes or so.

I say in amazement because Officer Jim is doing his thing.   Right out there in the middle of the intersection, mind you. And nobody does it better. He’s 72 but as agile as an Old Saybrook High varsity tennis player. And just as determined and energetic.

I’m one of his fans. I stop by the town library on many afternoons. It’s just up the street. I like to stroll over at 3:15 now and then to watch him. He is really something to behold.

As always, he’s impeccably dressed for the role. His black uniform seems freshly pressed every day, I swear. His proud hat gets brushed every evening, I think. The brilliant yellow reflective vest looks brand-new. His matching yellow gloves also. When the rain and the cold come, he’ll wear more, of course, but for sure everything will match to perfection. I’ll bet he’s the most dapper officer on the force.

But no handcuffs. No gun. No Billy club. None of that.

He’s in total control of the traffic situation here. From the north and the south and the east. Those are the three possibilities.  Telling this bus to turn right. Telling that car to hold it. Telling another car, come on, move forward!  Waving to another to hurry up. He smiles at one car going by. Permits the car behind it to turn left. Smiles to the next car approaching. Suddenly he stops traffic in all directions to let three kids ride their bikes across.Then swings back into action.

All through this he’s pivoting like a quarterback to face this direction and that one. Making one quick decision after another.  Does it all  with the instantaneous reactions and grace of a…. yes, I have to say it,  a ballet dancer.

And this is his final gig of the day. He does three. From  7  to 8 and then 2 to 3 over at at the Middle School on Sheffield Street.   And every afternoon from 3 to 4 here at the Goodwin School. Another officer covers here in the morning.  In between Jim switches to his other role—keeping the police station spiffed up He’s had a lot of experience at this other work, as you’ll see in a minute. This has been his schedule for seven years since he got started here.

I brought my camera. I snap pictures of him as quickly as I can. I want you to see Jim at work! See what he puts into the job. If I were his promoter, I’d charge folks for the pleasure of standing and watching him.  And if I knew of an annual Traffic Cop of the Year Contest somewhere, I’d nominate him in a minute.

Well, now the last bus and the last car have left. The school and the street are quiet again. I say to him, “Well, Jim, what now?”

We’re standing by his police car. He’s pulling off his gloves. He’s  relaxed. That was quite a workout out there. He’s not pooped at all.

“Home!” he says. “I live not far away. A nice warm shower. A little rest.  Barbara will have supper just about ready. We’ve been married 24 years. I eat light in the evening. A little cheese. A few crackers. A small glass of wine. An apple. That’s it. She makes my big meal at noon. Fish or chicken. I don’t eat red meat any more. Potatoes. Vegetables. Very nice.”

“That’s all? You need 5,000 calories a day to do what you do!”

He laughs. “No, no!”   He pats his stomach.  It’s flat. I’m sure he can’t pinch any fat anywhere. He’s proud of that. He’s still 145 pounds at five-ten. Hasn’t put on any pounds in years. He chuckles. “I must be doing something right!”

Well, here’s his story. Before this he was a cop for 16 years in much bigger Stamford. Started as a beat patrolman. Did it all. Responding to emergency calls. Arresting people. Testifying in court. Writing out reports. And directing traffic.This is what he liked best.

“Stamford has an intersection with traffic from five directions!” he tells me. “That’s where I got my start. A madhouse at rush hours. I loved it! It’s all about communication, you know. Drivers want to know what to do. Well, I tell them.  In fact, I tell them emphatically. Then they understand. And then do what I want them to do. So it becomes a nice, steady, controlled flow. No accidents, and accidents can happen in a tight situation, believe me. I feel really good doing it.”

Back then he also ran a sideline business.  A cleaning service–banks, offices, homes. Very good, he says. He had a whole crew on the payroll. Twenty years. In fact, he resigned from the Stamford police department to give all his time to the business. Sold it when retirement age approached and they settled on Old Saybrook for their new life.

“We checked out a lot of towns. Really did. It didn’t take us long to decide Old Saybrook would be it. And before long I was a police officer again. Right here. But part time. Doing school traffic—my first love. And custodian work at the police station, too.”

He’s  silent for a minute, then smiles and tells me, “You know, now and then the Chief comes over and takes a look. He yells to me. ‘Jim, stand back! Get out of the middle of the street! Stand back!’”

“No way! That’s where I’ve got to stand to do it right.”

“Ever have a real problem of any kind? Maybe a driver getting very mad at you?”

He smiles. Shakes his head. “No. Never. Lots of people wave to me. Very friendly.”

“What’s your big plan?”

“You mean about retirement finally?” I nod. “I don’t think about it much. I like what I’m doing. Truth is, I love it.”

I chuckle.“No kidding? I really couldn’t tell!”

He laughs, too.

By now I’m sure of a few things about him. It would take a brave driver not to snap to an order from Jim.  And watching Jim has to be inspiring to anybody looking on. Kids especially, I like to think. It’s got to be good for them to see a man who really and truly likes the work he’s doing. If all of us did our jobs with as much pride and gusto, wow!

Later I spoke to a couple of key people who know him well.

Said Goodwin Principal Sheila Brown, “All of us love to see Officer Schneider on the job. We just can’t help but smile and wave back, you know. Staff, pupils, parents, everybody! He does such a terrific job. It’s obvious he’s got his whole heart in this. We really appreciate him.” She smiled. “And he knows it!”

Police Chief Michael Spera said to me, “He’s fabulous. A really great asset for 0ur department. You know, he thinks he’s 29 years old out there, and I don’t want him to think any different.” He laughed. “There’s just one thing I don’t like. When all of us get introduced to everybody in the school at the beginning of the year, Jim gets more applause than I do!” A big, hearty  laugh.



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