It’s about that time again. At inconsistent intervals, often randomly experienced out of nowhere, pops up my desire to get another tattoo. At last count, I think I’m up to 13, though none are overly impressive. Back when I could have afforded a large piece, I was apprehensive. Now that I want a nice sleeve or even a half-sleeve, I can’t really do it. Like my hobby of concert attendance, I’ve basically been priced out of the tattoo game. Now a couple of my friends probably make a better living as tattoo artists than I do in my government job. I just never could draw worth a damn.

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My first tattoo, almost 35 years old, of a now sad-looking clover and heart.

Unlike today, when teenagers and their parents get tattoos together, I had to wait until I was 18 to get my first one. My parents wouldn’t let me get one before then, and believe it or not, their stance always seemed perfectly reasonable to me. But I wanted one, and after getting my nerve up actually had to borrow the $35 from my friend to follow through with it. I became the proud owner of a shamrock with some kind of wheat husks and line doodles, permanently etched on my right calf. My first real tattoo. I used to paint food coloring tatts on myself when I was a teenager, because I really wanted people to think I was, as they say now, “inked up.” But now I was in the club. After about a year, I got a red rose on my left shoulder for artistic balance. It was several years before I got my next one, but then they came in quick succession. I can’t remember the exact order in which I got the rest, but all have one thing in common: I wasn’t drunk for any of them. And I can say I thought them all out, at least to some degree.

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One of the most painful spots for me was the inside bicep on this chain.

Did you know tattooing dates back over 5,000 years? That’s ten times longer than some people think the Earth has been around (sometimes I can’t help a poke at Creationists). Anyway, the tattooed body of Otzi the Iceman, who was found in a cave among the Italian Alps, was dated to around 3,250 B.C. But the word tattoo is from the Polynesian tatau, which means “to write.” Still today, many tribes around the world, including Native American Indians, use tattoos to denote rank, importance or geographic origin. There is a darker side to tattoo history as well. Slaves and Roman workers were tattooed to allow identification of runaways. And of course, during World War II many Jews forced into concentrated labor camps were tattooed with a number. Their abusers, SS Nazi officers, often tattooed their arms with a symbol of their allegiance. Years later, many fired bullets into their tattoos to prevent being identified as war criminals.

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Check out the wrist tattoo on Otzi the Iceman, who lived in 3,250 BC.

But it’s not all bad history. In 1870s Britain, royalty took to the ink. After several decades of reputation damaged by sailors and their perceived ilk, the tattoo has made a remarkable comeback. Today, about 15 percent of U.S. adults are tattooed. The latest big thing is tattooed makeup, which I can’t seem to fathom, but okay. What I love, though, is the use of tattooing to cover, or in some cases “celebrate” the survival of patients with mastectomy scars. And mainstream art galleries now host full exhibitions of tattoos and their artists. The tattoo is cooler than it’s ever been. But to anyone out there finally thinking about it: really think it through, because removing a tattoo is more expensive and more painful than getting one.

So, about the pain. Well, some people can’t take it. Others find it nearly meditative. I’m in the middle. The best description I’ve heard is that it feels like a carpet burn. So, depending on the size of your tattoo, a several-minute or several-hour intermittent carpet burn. It’s your call! In my experience, women generally have the higher pain tolerance. Some parts of the body are more sensitive to pain. My most painful spot was the inside of the bicep. Or maybe the chest. My more experienced (so, more tattooed) friends have cited the foot, rib cage, throat, and palm as particularly painful. I don’t like pain that much. Some personal observations: I love the entire sleeve piece, which looks like a cool shirt; and tattoos that wrap around the torso. I personally do not like the look of stand-alone forearm tattoos on anyone, but more so on the fairer sex. The small ones make me think of Auschwitz, and the larger ones usually look like gangrene. Just my silly two cents.

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This is wild! It’s the ornately tattooed upper chest and shoulder of a Siberian princess from 2,500 years ago. At right is a recreation of the design.

My own tattoo history shows where my mind was throughout life, even if it was only for a minute. I’ve often felt like an alien, so a tattoo of such a figure from an album cover by a favorite band seemed right. Another of my pieces, a keyhole looking into outer space and etched on my upper thigh, fits me in ways I don’t even fully understand. And there are two Grateful Dead-related tattoos, since I love the whole GD vibe. My favorites are a killer whale on the upper left arm, and the last piece I got, a old man tree-of-life which spoke to me the second I saw it. Put them all together and it’s a disjointed bunch of small pieces with no cohesion. I’ve vaguely thought of how much better it would all look connected with a timeline or something. But that lack of drawing talent, or even an eye to see a potential design, has delayed my feeling of inked completeness. Like most of life, if I just choose to feel complete, things will work out for the best.

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My most recent tattoo. I love his yellow eyes.

Tattoos were not a real factor in my family. One older cousin got an eagle on his arm and, well, that’s the real extent of it. But my love of art, which I inherited from my grandmother, has always kept me in the arena. When I’d get a new tattoo, one person always loved to see it — that same grandmother — and that kept me coming back for more.

Now many of my closest friends are canvasses for some of my other friends who are certified tattoo artists. Some of them sit for eight- or nine-hour appointments that involve more pain and much more cost than I’m willing to experience. And that likely won’t change. I want to travel more as I get older, and $1,000 for an arm sleeve piece may as well be $1 million. And the more I think about it, the less I’m concerned about it.

From time to time, a social media question will pop up asking, “Beatles or Rolling Stones?” Now, I love the Stones, and in fact many of their songs take me to a place that no other music can. But for me, it’s Beatles without a doubt. My childhood was filled with music in the house, and among the strongest memories are being frequently awoken by my dad on weekends with the house-rattling volume of the jet plane that starts “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, the first song on what is widely known as “the White Album.” By the time that plane landed, and the soft guitar of “Dear Prudence” started, I was ready for breakfast…and usually more Beatles.

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My original copy of “A Hard Day’s Night” soundtrack, on United Artists label. Okay, its only mine now because my parents bought it.

I’m lucky to have such good childhood memories, and lucky to still have most of the original Beatles records my parents bought. There’s still nothing like the feeling of holding an album.

Anyway, before talking about the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon of The Beatles, a little about each member:

John Lennon, born in Liverpool, England on October 8, 1940. His father left the family soon after. John’s mother, Julia, left him in the care of his aunt and uncle, though they remained close until Julia was killed by a car when John was 17. As the acerbic intellect of The Beatles, John could get right to the point, such as when he declared The Beatles more popular than Jesus. He was married and had a son during the early Beatle days, but his status was kept quiet for image control. In the late 1960s, Lennon had been divorced when he met Japanese artist Yoko Ono. The two married, and after the Beatles broke up, they became vocal anti-war activists. President Richard Nixon tried for years to have him deported. Lennon retired from music after his second son, Sean, was born on his birthday in 1975. Five years later, Lennon was assassinated by a deranged fan at his apartment building, just two weeks after he and Ono had released the album Double Fantasy.

Paul McCartney, almost two years younger than Lennon. The two met in 1957, when Paul joined Lennon’s band, The Quarrymen. The formidable Lennon-McCartney songwriting team was an umbrella, including some songs written by only one of the two. Paul’s song “Yesterday” has been covered by more than 2,200 artists, the most ever for a copyrighted song. The most versatile musician of the four, McCartney is proficient on bass, guitar, piano, keyboard, and drums. After leaving The Beatles, Paul’s subsequent band, Wings, reached the Top 40 with all 23 singles they released. McCartney has also sold 15 million records as a solo artist. Long an animal rights activist and vegetarian, he continues to tour and record, and has a Broadway musical to his credit.

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Original copy of “The Beatles,” usually called The White Album. Complete with issue number, raised lettering ruined by my pen, and three band member pictures. Paul McCartney was long ago pilfered by my sister!

George Harrison, the youngest Beatle, joined the group at age 14. Usually known as the quiet one, he wrote only one or two songs per album, but for my money, his songs “Here Comes the Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are unsurpassed in the Beatles catalog. His “Something” is the second-most covered of the group’s songs. George deeply explored Eastern philosophy, including Hare Krishna and Transcendental Meditation, and his solo masterpieces “My Sweet Lord” and “What is Life?” explored the fascination. His Concert for Bangladesh was a forerunner of star-studded charity shows. Harrison was critically wounded in 1999 when a man broke into his house and stabbed him. He died of cancer nearly two years later.

Ringo Starr was a sickly child, with tuberculosis that hospitalized him for two years. During his recovery, staff introduced him to percussion as a therapy. Having fell far behind in school, he dropped out at age 15. By 17, he was in one of England’s biggest bands, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. He was invited to join The Beatles when he was 22, replacing fired drummer Pete Best. Ringo’s admirers were legion, rivaling any of the other members’ fan clubs. He sang on a handful of Beatle songs, even writing a few, including “Octopus’s Garden” — which he composed on guitar — and “Don’t Pass Me By.” He played drums on solo records by all three other Beatles, and since 1989, his Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band has been one of music’s most sought-after gigs. The shifting lineup is a Who’s Who of rock stardom, from Bruce Springsteen to John Entwistle, Todd Rundgren, Stevie Nicks, and even his own son, Zack Starkey.

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The Beatles were only a group for about ten years, but there’s nothing to compare to the craze of their arrival on the global music scene.  They have sold more than 600 million albums, the most of any band in history, but like most success stories, theirs started with a lot of hard work. Along the way, there was unbridled joy, unimaginable stardom, ego clashes, tragedy, and friendships strong enough to survive all of it. Soon after 16-year-old John Lennon and 15-year-old Paul McCartney met, 14-year-old George Harrison was invited to join, and a drummer named Pete Best rounded out the group eventually named The Beatles.

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The soundtrack from the film, “Help,” on the band’s own label, Apple Records.

For most of three years, the band played grueling residencies in Germany and England. The group played several hours of shows a day, seven days a week, for those three years and emerged with polished precision, hardened living survival skills and a recording contract.  The “British invasion” of music throughout the world was starting, and The Beatles took it to such a level that a phenomenon was named for them: Beatlemania. Near the end of the group’s residencies, they replaced Best with Starr, already an English celebrity with his band. And no one could have imagined the brightness of their star.

The most fateful year for The Beatles was 1962, when in the span of a few months they became friendly with Brian Epstein, who changed their image, vaulted them to superstardom and served as their manager until his death; they met producer George Martin, a classically-trained musician whose arrangement expertise got him the nickname “The Fifth Beatle”; and they brought Ringo into the band. They began to make records, and in 1964 alone released ten albums with at least some new material. That year also featured the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” a semi-biographical musical comedy. Within days of arriving in America that year, the group played on The Ed Sullivan Show on television, where they were watched by 73 million people, or 34 percent of Americans. I think The Beatles were at their creative peak in 1965-66, before their infrastructure fractured and members started to appear on songs alone. The albums Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver are my holy trinity of signature tight vocal harmonies sprinkled with Harrison’s exploration of far Eastern music. Certainly no small part was played by the band’s delving beyond the stimulant drugs from their early days. Bob Dylan had introduced them to marijuana in 1964, and during a party in 1965, a dentist friend slipped LSD into their coffee.

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Though my “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” copy is not in great shape, the insert cardboard cut-outs are in near-mind condition.

Their music began to include such diverse ingredients as sitar, orchestral strings (always arranged and often partly played by the brilliant George Martin) and tape loops. Songs from this period are among the band’s classics: “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life”, “Ticket to Ride”, “Eleanor Rigby,,” “Yellow Submarine,” “For No One.” (Try this sometime: listen to “If I Fell” on headphones, and switch focus between the harmony vocals of John and Paul, which are wildly varying and yet together make the air vibrate around you.) Anyway, The Beatles played their last concert August 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. In the year that followed, manager Epstein died of a drug overdose, and the band as a cohesive unit cracked. But still, their attempt to compete with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds record led to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, often cited as their masterpiece. It was the first “concept album” and its influence is indisputable,  paving the way for both psychedelic and progressive rock. But Harrison was the lone Beatle on his song “Within You, Without You,” and no Beatles played instruments on “She’s Leaving Home.”The follow-up, Magical Mystery Tour, accompanied by a psychedelic film and made with now almost-daily use of LSD, was their trippiest record, with the catchy, colorful songs “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Penny Lane,” and the anthem “All You Need is Love.”

The final four albums, The Beatles (called the White Album), Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let it Be all featured multiple songs with less than the full band. Yet, the brilliance never stopped. Some think the medley on side two of Abbey Road is an unparalleled suite in popular music. But by the time Let It Be was released in 1970, the band was done. Lennon and Ono were staging peace demonstrations and releasing avant garde records. McCartney immediately met solo success. Harrison deepened his commitment to spirituality. Starr began an acting career and later got sober.

Their link was tenuous for years, as anger and hurt over the group’s breakup ran deep. But their divergent paths always led back to each other, and they worked together in various combinations on solo records and benefit shows. Starr and McCartney are friendly today. Both remained close to Harrison until the end. Two weeks before Harrison died — at McCartney’s house, where he was invited to stay — Starr visited him on the way to see his daughter, who was undergoing emergency surgery. In the Martin Scorsese documentary on Harrison, “Living in The Material World, Starr recalls the response from Harrison, who was bedridden. “He said, ‘Do you want me to come too?'” Starr revealed before being reduced to tears at the memory.

Many of my friends understand that I generally like animals more than I like people. While people can entertain, enlighten and elate me, they can also anger, disappoint and horrify me. Animals, at least the semi-domesticated ones, seem to only ask us to allow their whole unconditional love into our lives.

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This is Ginger, a longtime resident of my childhood home.

My family always had more dogs than cats around, mostly because our wonderful Siamese cat, Daisy, lived 18 years. As far back as I can remember, we had a dog, sometimes two. And we followed a pattern of black Labrador retrievers, since we so loved the first one, Missy. I went out to feed her one night when I was seven and found her dead. We think the neighbor poisoned her. Maybe I started to hate people before I realized it. Anyway, we had two Labs after that. The first, Tammy, was part of the Seeing Eye program. We were to train her for a year, then return her to work as a service dog. But she failed the physical. The good news: she was offered back to us, where she lived out a great life until my dad and I had to put her down and cried in each other’s arms.

Here’s where I say I’ve been party to euthanasia more times than I can count. It’s a weird divide among dog owners: those who choose to help end suffering (some say play God), and those who never willingly let go. I’ve seen too many animals in obvious agony, blind, crippled, still being dragged around. It’s an ethical discussion not meant for this forum. As usual, it’s unlikely anyone’s thinking will change based on what I or anyone else says. In any event, after Missy, we’ve never had a pet die at home, and that last visit to the veterinarian will never get easier. It’s just the feeling that our pets trust us to know when they’re saying they’ve had enough.

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Chocko, the Labrador/pit bull/ possibly horse mix, our largest and maybe most gentle of dogs. My grandmother, who feared him at first, eventually loved a daily routine of cutting up an apple and feeding it to him by hand.

In between Labs, there was Ginger, a wonderful little brown terrier mix; Belle, a sweet beagle; and Chocko, a monstrous retriever and quite possibly horse mix, who was so gentle that my grandmother would cut up an apple and feed the pieces to him. Well into adulthood, I adopted a black Lab named Roxy from the county shelter and had a faithful companion for over a decade. Her kidneys failed, and on her last day she followed me around the house as I gathered her bowls and toys to donate to the shelter. And during her final car ride, instead of her usual fully-engaged self with head sticking out the window, she just lay down. Remember what I said about knowing when enough is enough? She told me. The saddest part of pet ownership is that we are supposed to outlive them.

After that, I went without a dog for almost ten years. Life took me in other directions, including marriage to a fellow animal lover. So it seemed only a matter of time, but I didn’t want to rush it. My wife has vast cat experience (we have four right now) but only had one dog briefly in childhood. I wasn’t sure she wanted one; she thought I couldn’t live happily without one. We found that our truths lie somewhere between. So, net result: in July we welcomed to our family a mid-sized, retriever-German shepherd mix who was named Millie when we met her at the shelter. With a nod to members of my wife’s German family, we re-named her Ingeborg Cornelia (yes, we give our pets first and middle names), or Inge for everyday use. It’s pronounced sort of like In-geh. Her new mommy, who it turns out feels no greater sheer joy than playing with a dog she wasn’t sure she wanted, sometimes calls her Inge Binga Boo or Inge Bear.

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This is Roxy, who helped me through a most difficult decade in life.

All we know is that she is from Virginia and her previous owner surrendered her. It’s easy to create a backstory, since I’ve seen people from the southern U.S. generally treat their dogs much worse than around here. When they buy a hunting dog who doesn’t hunt well enough, they just leave it tied up outside or drop it off in the woods somewhere. But Inge seemed reasonably well cared for and knew some basic obedience, so maybe her owner died or became too ill to keep her. But even during the joyful day we brought her home, I found myself filled with anxiety. Is my wife just doing this for me? What if I really don’t know what I’m doing? How will this change our lives? In the interest of true honesty, many times that first week or two, I felt something like regret. What have I done? I didn’t think this through! I can’t do this.

But all that worry was just me trying to buy problems we didn’t even have. While my wife had said she’d be fine just owning cats, she loves that dog with her whole heart. She was the one shopping for chew toys, bedding, and ID tag that matches her collar; enrolling us in dog school; and gleefully taking us for longer walks than I’d sometimes like. As far as the “not knowing what I’m doing” part, well, I had to admit I really don’t know. You don’t realize that when you’re young, parents are responsible for the pets. Now that I’m the adult, I realize it’s not easy. Four cats are far easier to care for than one dog. You can leave a cat alone with some food and litter box for days, but a dog needs to go out a few times a day. And we had to (reluctantly) board her for our recent vacation. Oh, about that dog school: the idea was more fun than the real thing. Inge gets too jazzed up in the car, always trying to get into the front seat. We got a harness, but it just barely helped. The winding, 45-minute ride to the city wasn’t ideal. Having to learn stuff while five other dogs raise hell was difficult at best. And failing as a trainer while class leader Audrey was like some pied piper, softly directing every move the dog made, was humbling.

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The current dog of the house: Inge, who was rescued from somewhere deep in Virginia.

But really, Inge’s doing better every day. She still pulls on the leash too much during some walks, but other times she strolls along nicely. She still growls when meeting some other dogs, (ok, pretty much all other dogs) but I think it’s just sometimes fear and sometimes playfulness. Our big trial by fire was taking her to Woofstock, a huge annual event with acres of booths manned by all manner of pet-related people, from trainers to designer dog collar makers, pet stores and area shelter and rescue organizations. And hundreds of dogs. I was so worried while walking into the setting that later I was smiling with relief when Inge earned a top grade for the day. She was wonderful! She wasn’t interested in eating anyone’s treats or even drinking the water liberally set out, and she spent much of her time, as usual, sniffing the ground. But she was so good during frequent interaction with other dogs. And that was our biggest concern.

Now we laugh as her personality comes out over time. Her favorite thing in the world is to chase squirrels and rabbits while out for a walk. She is so excited that it seems roughly the equivalent of me randomly seeing darting pies around the neighborhood. Inge’s the only dog I’ve ever had that is not motivated by food. She is indifferent to meal time. She may tentatively sniff her food and take a bite, or she may not move from the couch. The exceptions seem to be whipped cream and all forms of cheese, even something the supermarket labels “cheese ends.” Maybe she’d like Beef Wellington every night, but she’ll have to subsist on kibble mixed with either pumpkin or cottage cheese. This dietary experimentation has made her coat softer than the coziest winter pajamas. Which reminds me: right now nothing seems like a better idea than curling up in front of the pleasantly lingering Christmas tree with the warmth and pure love of a good pooch.

Before this year’s presidential race, I’ve never given any election more than an afterthought. I voted sometimes, and not others. But my life has never been noticeably changed by a presidential election, since most power lies with the Senate and Congress. That said, I’ve never been so relieved for the end of a presidential campaign. I felt like the female Olympic marathoner immortalized on film, crawling and pulling her body to the finish line after her legs turned to rubber.

There’s no template for this experience. First, we know both candidates well. Donald Trump was one of the world’s most visible private citizens, and Hillary Clinton was a First Lady and secretary of state. I mean, had most of us ever heard of Barack Obama before he ran? Bill Clinton? Mitt Romney? Jimmy Carter? It’s given rise to a new phenomenon called election anxiety, with news coverage to back it up. I’m no longer obligated to be a responsible journalist, so I will not cite sources here because half of you would say “that’s a liberal mouthpiece,” and the other half would call the same source a “conservative rag.” I’ve learned that most of us just parrot everything we hear. My case in point: an election post I made on social media mentioned CNN. One comment included calling it the Clinton News Network. The very next comment called it Communist News Network. So, save your media labeling for somewhere else.

Both camps couldn’t conceive why the other would vote for someone who, depending on your candidate, made fun of handicapped people and immigrants; let people die in an American embassy; bragged about groping the opposite sex; failed to protect secret email documents; and used foundations with their names to fund any number of personal undertakings. Who did which of the above was clear to anyone with access to television, phone or internet. Well, the last discretion was attributed to both candidates. While Clinton was accused of everything from lying to facilitating murder, Trump’s miscues were often committed in plain view. Perhaps it was precisely those flaws which drew supporters to him. Certainly Trump’s comments that were perceived — even by some supporters — as racist, homophobic, and misogynistic further angered Clinton fans. Many thought: half the people I know are bigots and hate gays and women! How can my friends — even my sacred (haha) Facebook friends, who I only see online but somehow feel a renewed (but superficial) kinship with — support this horrible man? Others wondered: how can my friends vote for this evil, lying woman who calls people deplorable? She may have had dozens of people killed! It’s a horrible feeling to sense your deep separation from so many people.

What we are really seeing is a last gasp of white, male rule in this country. However, if Trump screws over the working-class white men who carried him to the Oval Office, he could be drummed out after one term. What we are really seeing is NOT half our friends exposing dark human qualities. It’s many of them chastising those behaviors but being presented a package that addresses many of their other concerns. And what we are really seeing is people, on a large scale, not ready for a female leader. Even if no one dares to mention that.

In the end, Trump may be like most things: not as great or as horrible as people think he will be. Some of his detractors may be surprisingly pleased by some of his action, even if that action is merely restraint. And his supporters, many of whom seized upon his message to fear immigrants and Muslims, may have missed the rest of what he said and be disappointed by some of what he does. Or what he said he would do but has no intention, or ability, to do.

Anyone elected president deserves a chance at bat. Of course, “chance” can’t really be quantified here. The Dalai Lama could be made president, and after his first one-cent tax on horseshoes, millions of people would call for his head. President-bashing is so ludicrous I can’t even stand it. I support my president. Yes, this one may be personally difficult to support, but for now we need to trust that he wants what’s best for our country.

Can you tell where I stand by reading to this point? Maybe, maybe not. I’m sure half of you think I’m a commie, the other half think I’m a bleeding heart. I’ve never met Donald Trump. But I think he’s one of the most horrible people of my lifetime. He barely qualifies as a human being. I have more warm feelings for the dog turd that was on my shoe last week. I think he has a black heart, with no love for anyone but himself. Well, maybe his daughter, whom he basically calls a hot piece of ass. I can hardly stand to think about someone so low on the mankind chain representing my sex, let alone my country. His own father didn’t even like him. He ran several businesses into the ground, filed bankruptcy several times. He has made clear his dislike of minorities, immigrants, gays, and women. Some have likened him to Hitler, but thankfully it’s unlikely Trump could carve a similar path even if he wanted to. Our democratic society has too many safeguards in place to allow such a dictatorship.

Once again, the internet lied to me. When I searched online for things to know about our trip to visit family in Germany, some things came up pretty consistently, so I thought they were reliable. Most Germans speak English. Not true! In our experience, few people outside the service industry spoke English. Germans are serious all the time. Not true! They were some of the most good-humored people around. Germans will stare at you. We didn’t notice any more than usual. But now I’m the one taking to the internet to report that we love everything about Germany and can’t wait to go back! It seemed to rain more than not, but it didn’t really even register to our brains, and a small umbrella worked just fine for both of us. I had even brought a nice rain jacket but for some reason never wore it.

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Renata with cousins Patricia (left) and Conny the bride on her wedding day. Nearly all women wore a dirndl, a traditional German dress, and most of the men wore lederhosen.

Our 7.5-hour flight on Lufthansa (8.5 coming home into the wind) was the best experience one can have while cramped into a metal tube. We got fancy meals and snacks, hot towels, and individual television with dozens of shows and movies (finally saw Creed and The Hateful Eight, among others). After a marathon walk through the monstrous Frankfurt airport, where it is strangely pleasing to hear Middle Eastern, Asian, and black people speaking German, we picked up our key item for the week, the German Rail Pass. For any five days, we could ride the trains unlimited. Even though dogs are allowed on trains (and in restaurants, by the way), German trains are clean and quiet, and you push a cool button to electronically open the doors. Even the beggars were better. In the U.S., people just ask you for money, but our German counterpart placed a new packet of tissues on each seat, with an index card explaining that he was out of work. As quickly as he had put them down, he collected remaining packages and any change with a soft danke (thank you) and was off at the next stop. You can risk trying to ride the trains for free, because conductors only do spot checks for tickets. But get caught and you are fined 60 euros (currently around $70). When the conductor announced nachster halt (next stop) at so-and-so, he’d politely add bitte links ausstieg (please exit train on the left) or bitte rechts ausstieg (the right.)

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Every church we visited had a pipe organ at least this size. For scale, I am at lower left!

After a train change at the fabulous Munich hauptbahnhof (central train station), our first destination was Maisach, where Renata’s cousin Conny lives. After five minutes, I saw that everything – everything – is different there. Everyone has terra cotta roofs, nice gardens, and unsecured bicycles, eats meals outside, and smokes. I was so enraptured that even the smoking never bothered me. They’ve been doing something right: Maisach is over 1,200 years old. We were in town for Conny’s wedding, to a wonderfully warm widower named Stefan. Before his wife died, she told Stefan to marry their friend and neighbor. I will always carry with me the rich laugh of Stefan, palpably filled with joy and sprinkled with a touch of sadness, like he gets the most out of each laugh just in case he never gets another chance. The wedding was fabulous, starting with the two riding a tractor to city hall for the small ceremony, where the officiant sounded as if she were telling a children’s story. Then, it was down the block to the brauerei (brewery) where many social functions are held. Just like American weddings, it went longer than most wanted it to, and there was plenty of drinking. I concentrated on the food. To make it clear right now, the food in Germany is fabulous. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s in a style that’s been perfected over thousands of years. They know it’s good and they’re not changing it.

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Atop a fortress in Salzburg, Austria, situated among the Alps.

Conny and Stefan gave us their bedroom for the five days we stayed there. We felt bad but were told the gesture was from the heart and they wouldn’t have considered anything else. I know Renata felt a deep kinship with many of her German family, some of whom she’d never met and some she hadn’t seen in decades. She learned much about them, though the communication gap left some tantalizing haziness! It warmed my heart to see how happy she was at the wedding, or just sipping coffee with them in the kitchen. It was a wonderful home base, and we made the best of it. We were only a block from the train, and one of our side trips was to the English Garden, which sits in the middle of Munich (real name Munchen) and easily rivals Central Park. Don’t believe me? Find a copy of National Geographic from April. It’s featured in a story about urban parks. Hundreds of acres include ponds, streams, endless paths, beer gardens, and people sunbathing in the nude when it’s warm enough (alas, not this day!) Another day, Conny took us to Alter Botanischer Garten, easily the German equal of Longwood Gardens. At one display, a two-foot long prehistoric-looking fish raised itself a foot out of the water to snap at our camera!

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The view from the other side of the fortress in Salzburg.

Our third side trip took us nearly three hours by train to Salzburg, Austria, birthplace of Mozart. I can’t imagine loving a city more than this one. When we left the train, walked a block and saw a street leading to the Alps, we giggled at each other with giddiness. Salzburg Cathedral, which dates to 774 and has stacked the tombs of archbishops in its catacombs, can hardly be explained in pictures and words. We got a panoramic view of the city from the Hohensalzburg fortress, 200 meters above the city. I’d go back for that alone. The train ride home, as always, provided as much beauty as anything. Scattered through the countryside are kleingartens (little gardens), or shacks the size of one typical American room. Few Germans own their homes, and many live in cities, so there are communities of kleingartens where people can tend a plot to grow what they wish. They even congregate at a central building to socialize. In between these are any number of beautiful small towns, often with more than one breathtaking cathedral among rolling hills. In fact, I wanted to links ausstieg at Traunstein, Oppenheim, and several other stops.

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View of the great cathedral from the window of our hotel room in Mainz.

After a heartbreaking and tearful goodbye to Conny, as glass separated us for several minutes before the train moved, we were off to our last stop: Mainz, a suburb of Frankfurt where Renata’s late mother, Helene, was born in 1926. She lived through the war there. The town, which sits on the Rhine River, dates back more than 2,000 years and has Roman ruins to prove it.Our lodging, the 11-room Hotel Schwan, next to the Gutenberg (he of the first printed Bible) Museum dates from 1557 and overlooks a city square and the Mainz Cathedral. Our first walk, in the drizzling twilight, looked and felt like a German fairy tale. The next day started with a visit to Renata’s only surviving uncle, Hugo, who understood zero English nor any German we tried on him. But he was still glad to see us, sad to see us go, and showed some family pictures Renata hadn’t seen before. To get back to town, we walked a couple miles over the Mainz bridge, decorated with hundreds of engraved padlocks. Supposedly, a couple declares their love and throws the key into the river.

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Taking a breather by the Rhine on our last night in Mainz, we listened to Jann sing his heart out. The young lady watched him intently, and we last saw them deep in conversation on his cigarette break.

Then it was a goldmine of sightseeing, where every street corner, every edge of a building, featured a centuries-old sculpture, statue, or carving. Our jaws dropped in quiet reverence inside Mainz Cathedral. I could take a million pictures of it and still not capture the spirit, the utter holiness of it all. We got purposely lost among the narrow, winding, sometimes cobblestone streets. The stained glass windows at St. Stephan’s Cathedral were one of the last commissions of none other than Marc Chagall. We were tired but didn’t want the day to end. But our cozy hotel charmed us too, as owner Klaus saw to our every need. His restaurant — with a lone server and PR expert, the lovely Monika — couldn’t have been better.

And just like that, though sometimes our week there felt like a month, the trip came to a close. A taxi to the Mainz train station, the short ride to Frankfurt Airport with a quick stop at duty free for family gifts, and it was back on the plane. Well, after turning down a half-dozen hallways and getting on a bus which drove us to the plane on the runway, that is. So we are already planning our return trip, to see the billion things we couldn’t. We both agree that we’d move to Germany in a heartbeat. And we joke that the outcome of our presidential election might make it more than just a fantasy.

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Walk into a random church in Germany that from the outside blends in with other buildings, and you’re likely to find a scene similar to this.

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Though the Germans eat tons of butter and drink lots of beer, they’re all skinny because they walk or bicycle everywhere. This is at the Salzburg train station.

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Those people who’ve only met me in the last 30 years or so might not know — and likely don’t suspect — that I’ve got some hoops game. Yes, basketball has taken a back seat to other activities, even other sports, as I’ve aged, but it seems any time I pick up the ball (and inflate it because it’s always flat) I can still dribble behind my back, between my legs, switch hands, and even, in true showman fashion, spin the ball on my finger.

Baseball was my main sport as a child, but my dad suggested I try basketball to keep in shape during the off-season. In true dad fashion, he built a hoop for me out front with wood backboard, metal pole, and railroad ties to keep it from going anywhere. It was regulation height, ten feet, with the curb factored in. For many years, that court was a hub for games with my friends and assorted other older kids, and even fathers. Jimmy the mailman would always stop his route for a few minutes to take some shots or even fill out a team. I wonder where some of the those people are. I hope Jimmy is still enjoying retirement. He was one of us, and a really nice man who deserved to live his dream of daily Florida golf.

For a number of years I played in our town’s athletic league. Since I stopped growing at age eight, each year more kids would be taller than I was, but I still managed to be chosen for a few traveling teams. We felt like pros going to the next county, in strange gyms with cheering crowds. When my eighth-grade teacher Mr. Grapka (he’s still around, improving education on a national scale), had us write book reports, I was knee-deep into basketball. So I chose a book called Heaven Is A Playground by Rick Telander, who went on to become a star author and Sports Illustrated columnist. For this book, he immersed himself in the Brooklyn basketball culture, and I flew through the pages. I later wrote to Telander, enclosing an NBA basketball card of Fly Williams, one of the people in his book. I still have his response, because he told me it was the only Williams card he had ever seen, and he commented that I “write awfully well for a 12-year-old.” It was a thrill.

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The Harlem Globetrotters can be summed up in one photo: a player teaching Pope Francis to spin the ball on his finger.

Another thrill was seeing the Harlem Globetrotters right around then. They had legends like Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal, but the team in any era, with any roster, is one of the most amazing acts in the history of entertainment. Strangely, there’s not much available on Youtube from those days, but I will tell you that a basketball court is 94 feet long, and Meadowlark Lemon used to stand about three-quarters of that length away from the basket and throw up a hook shot. He made it the night I was there, and he made it every time I saw him on television. There were antics like throwing buckets of confetti at the crowd but buckets of water at the referee, hiding the ball in the back of an opponent’s jersey, stuff like that. It sounds corny, but truly there’s no better fit for the term “goodwill ambassadors.”

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Among my friends, respect levels for players were basely partly on afro size.

At that time there were two pro leagues, so I took to both the NBA and the American Basketball Association (ABA), which is long defunct but gave us teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers. They also had such short-lived teams as the Memphis Tams, Kentucky Colonels, and San Diego Conquistadors. Our own Philadelphia 76ers legends Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Moses Malone started out in the ABA. I had my own ABA ball, which was red, white and blue. I did not have the big hair of such stars as Artis Gilmore and Darnell Hillman.

During my freshman year of high school, I decided to try out for the team and was one of the last guys to make the cut. We still talk about the experience with a mixture of laughter and amazement. Our coach, Mr. Lucarini, was a young teacher who was an absolute madman on the court, and a wild man off it. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. After the first few practices, some guys vomited. I used to get home and just collapse in the snow in front of my house because I was that sweaty and tired. Our coach, nicknamed “Luke,” worked us until until we didn’t even have to think about what to do. We were far from the most talented high school team, but we developed a full-court press defense that just ravaged teams. We lost maybe three games all season.

When he wasn’t screaming at referees during a game, Luke would sometimes run Saturday morning practices wearing his suit and tie from the previous night’s adventures. If the PA system were still in the gym, he’d turn it on and sing Sinatra while his assistant ran drills. I can tell you all of this because Lucarini is a good sport, and because he is still teaching but also making a huge difference by developing large-scale, student-run benefits for any number of good causes.

That season ended my official career, but I kept playing during the summers, and we joined the local CYO and would get into pickup games with Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies players who hung out there. How I miss that place; where else can you swim, lift weights, play basketball and ping pong under one roof? But alas, it’s long torn down.

Also torn down was my schedule to play basketball, as well as my friends’ interest in making up teams for a game. We’re really just too old to “run hoops.” Basketball players are, by far, in the best physical condition of any athletes. I guess we could throw something together, if the miracle of common free time ever presented itself. Probably not.

Few things so fully relax the mind like shooting baskets. When you’re alone, you can think about life or think about nothing. With a friend, the experience has a Zen element, and conversation flows with ease since you don’t make much eye contact. There’s nothing like it. Creativity and repetition take turns in a most fluid fashion. In fact, sometimes I wish for the days when I didn’t have to plan any more into the future than getting home and grabbing the basketball. I still ridiculously keep it in my trunk, so it will just be a matter of pumping the air back into both the ball and a long-ago passion.

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Here are some signature moves of the Globetrotters, spliced in the 1970s glory of the Donny and Marie Osmond variety show.