A dozen Methodists from Bentonville, Arkansas, disembarked al fresco at the Cartagena, Colombia airport one sunny Saturday afternoon last month. Leaving the narrow confines of a stretched Delta 737 inbound from Atlanta, I was the first in the group to descend the open staircase and to feel the airiness and warmth of historic New World seashores.

The truth in all this: If these advertisers charged the viewer a dime to listen to their spiel, they might realize nobody wants to pay for their shtick. And even more true…nobody wants to get it free either. The only thing good about the whole situation is that we have much more time than ever to get a snack or check out the “loo.” Which rather defeats the purpose of the commercial.

In 2018, provisions of the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act went into effect. The act simplified some aspects of the federal tax code and restructured tax rates with the purported goal of enhancing economic growth. In particular, the act reduced the U.S. corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. For U.S. companies, which have historically faced some of the highest levies of any developed nation, the reduction strengthened competitiveness in global markets. The hope was the act would also encourage additional capital investment.

While much of the nation marvels at the government train wreck over President Trump’s border wall funding, some pesky details dotting all the immigration rhetoric might seem distracting, perhaps even politically inconvenient, but they remain relevant nonetheless. Hard Fact No. 1: Asylum seekers, guest workers and cross-border smugglers underline this raging debate. Each presents a different problem. Each demands a different, common-sense solution.

After the stormy tenure of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the likely return of William Barr to the job — which he held with distinction under President George H.W. Bush — has been greeted with sighs of relief at the Justice Department. The reason is not hard to divine: Bill Barr is an accomplished lawyer with a deep respect for the law and for the integrity and independence of the department — something I know from having served under him. After his solid performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, he seems almost certain to be approved by the full Senate.

It’s a new year. Or so our Gregorian calendar tells us. Should we believe it? Are we really in 2019 or is it fake news? After all, the calendar we use in much of the modern world isn’t all that modern and it’s not tied to actual events of the solar system, the ultimate timekeeper. Perhaps we should start a new year at the winter solstice like the Persians whose calendar is accurate to one second per year. Or follow the Mayans’ version, twice as accurate as our drug-store calendars.

I recently spent several days on the Texas borderland in McAllen and surrounding communities. For those readers who have not visited the Rio Grande Valley, I encourage you to do so. Hundreds of thousands of Americans — “snowbirds” or “winter Texans” — migrate to the southernmost border of Texas every year to winter there. They escape the ice of the North to enjoy the temperate climate, South Texas culture, migrating birds, Mexican food and great outdoor opportunities along the winding Rio Grande. They also enjoy the ability to cross into Mexico to receive inexpensive medical services such as dentistry.

The day will come when a chief justice again administers the oath of office to a president. Maybe Donald Trump for his second term, or Mike Pence. It may be a Democrat with a familiar name — Sen. Kamala Harris or former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, for example. Or maybe the oath will be taken by someone we have not yet heard of, or on a date sooner than we imagine. Whenever and to whomever, we have some suggestions: laws to be passed now for the next term of office.

Trade talks between the United States and China have started up again, the first major movement toward reconciliation since the December decision to delay further tariff increases till March. As I am writing, representatives from both nations were reportedly narrowing some but not all of the differences. While negotiations are moving forward and hopefully something can be achieved before the artificial deadline, it is likely that talks will continue for some time. Meanwhile, the costs of the higher tariffs on the U.S. economy are escalating.

As 2019 begins, the federal government remains partially shut down. Proposals are still surfacing and meetings are still being arranged, but as I write this it looks like it could go on for a while. One of the central points of disagreement is funding for the border wall, which is a highly controversial sticking point. It will be difficult to reach an agreement, and the longer the shutdown goes on, the more the economic costs will mount.

Recent television news reports and written commentary have shed light on the amazing benefits of being grateful and sharing appreciation, though I admit my earlier life experiences gave me a far narrower view of expressing thanks. Like so many baby boomers, I was reared in a wonderful environment created by my parents, an environment of always expressing thanks, in handwritten notes, for a person’s kindness and philanthropy. I always had to write a thank-you note, to be reviewed by Mom or Dad, before I could deposit the check or play with a new toy. That requirement, detested initially by an immature child, has only now made incredibly brilliant sense.

The week before Christmas was pretty messy in and around the White House. President Trump seemed to first avert, then embrace a government shutdown. The political landscape trembled at the subterranean drilling for information by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Incoming Democrats who will control the House of Representatives talked to all forms of media about the subpoenas they anticipate sending to the Trump administration. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was ousted, and the president decided, to broad resistance, that he was pulling American troops out of Syria. Reporters trying to get home for the holidays were stuck at work as breaking news reports stacked up on top of one another.

With uproar consuming the White House and Capitol Hill over everything from the departure of Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis to President Trump’s decision to retreat from the Syrian battlefield to his decision to shut down part of the government over border wall funding, the surprise move by Qatar to quit OPEC next month might seem a minor flap, even though Qatar has been a member of the oil cartel since 1961. Indeed, its oil minister, Saad al-Kaabi, says the decision is not linked to the ongoing economic boycott imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

Growing up in mid-century, small-town life where that obscure boot toe of southeast Louisiana meets the notch of Mississippi dipping into the Gulf of Mexico, I had a surprisingly broad education. Though the family business was a feed and seed store, my mother was the local Baptist church organist and our living room held a Steinway upright piano, a Hammond spinet organ and two trumpet cases.

President Dwight Eisenhower openly subscribed to the domino theory of historical disaster. Or, alternatively, the slippery slope argument as it’s termed for unethical decision-making. In this theory, one decision, perhaps seemingly inconsequential at the moment, leads to another and then another and then another, all in a discouraging direction.

Voter turnout for the 2018 midterm elections across the nation was the highest for a midterm in more than 50 years. Eligible voter turnout in McLennan County was 54.22 percent compared to 35.11 percent in the 2014 midterms. That’s a significant improvement but still means about half of eligible voters in our county did not vote. And Texas consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation in voter turnout. How come? Multiple reasons likely exist but I want to focus on one.

There was a time that four issues largely defined the agendas of many prominent Republicans: A concern about national debt, a belief in a strong American presence on the world stage, the value of “free markets and free people” and a certain moralism built on personal accountability. In the Trump era, all four have been abandoned by the Republican Party. Any challenger, Republican or Democrat, who picks up these four gold coins will do well with a broad swath of those moderate voters who so often decide elections. They will also make our country a better place.

In 2015, when Pope Francis issued his Laudato Si’, an encyclical on the environment, he instantly became the world’s religious leader on anthropogenic climate change. On the opposite end of the spectrum, many evangelical Christian pastors expressed skepticism or denial of climate change. But given the plethora of religious traditions in the world, it is important to consider what other faiths teach on this crucial issue.

Our nation paused this past week to bid an emotional farewell to its last president drawn from the Greatest Generation, a generation that, by God’s grace and undaunted courage, helped save Western Civilization. Tributes cascaded from the pulpits of both the National Cathedral in Washington and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. That generation’s enduring virtues of guts and sacrifice were celebrated by renowned statesmen such as his closest friend, former Secretary of State James Baker; insightful chroniclers such as Bush’s biographer, Jon Meacham; and by family members likewise drawn to public service — a son, President George W. Bush 43, and a grandson, George P. Bush.

Three years ago I attended my 60th high school reunion. At the Friday night banquet I surveyed the crowd: We had almost 600 in our graduating class, so even 60-plus years later we had a good group. But as I looked around, I wondered: Who are these old people? Answer: They were the people I grew up with, spent a remarkable period of my life with. Many of them I remembered all the way back to elementary school.

Judaism has a tradition that those who mourn should not listen to any music for one month. On Tuesday, exactly one month after 11 worshippers were shot at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, violinist Itzhak Perlman will hold a concert in honor of those who died. On Oct. 27, my beloved hometown of Pittsburgh experienced the worst anti-Semitic attack on American soil.

We aren’t among those who assume our president and first lady are such snowflakes that they can’t take the sort of good-natured ribbing to which our Republican friends subjected earlier presidents and first ladies (i.e., Obamas, Clintons). We thus politely decline the suggestion (tied to a brick that came through the front window) to “LEAVE THE TRUMPS ALONE.”

In the United States, we have long held that universal, free (that is, tax-supported) public education for youth is a fundamental responsibility of society and serves as a basic community resource, providing a pathway to understand democracy, exercise responsible citizenship, explore the world’s accumulated knowledge, appreciate American culture and prepare for a world of work in which we ultimately attain economic security. However, extending from the first taxpayer-supported school in 1639, attaining free public education for all children has been a bumpy evolution, fraught with issues of both race and religion.

Nearly a year has passed since his death, but on Dec. 2, 2017, we buried another World War II hero. I know that you didn’t hear about it. It didn’t make much news, but this man, my Uncle Alphons Urbanovsky, 95, was a member of the Greatest Generation. He did what he had to do and didn’t ask for a handout or sympathy. He proudly served his country and worked to provide for himself, his family and his community.

Official election returns start coming in within a few hours. Whatever happens, I have learned some things about the power and potential of American democracy by investing three to four hours daily for three weeks in being part of a phone bank for the Beto O’Rourke Senate campaign — the first time I have done this for anyone.

“How do you have patience for people who claim they love America but clearly can’t stand Americans?” These words are spoken by a political lobbyist in the 1995 movie, “The American President.” In it, a lobbyist is having a romantic relationship with President Shepherd, a widower. No party affiliation is referenced, but the president’s primary re-election opponent is politically rabid Sen. Bob Runsom.

I am somewhat conflicted about news regarding the 14th Amendment to our Constitution. It was ratified on July 28, 1868, and was obviously enacted to provide for the citizenship of slaves and their children. Since then it has somehow evolved into a “magic wand” for citizenship for thousands, if not millions, of the children of illegal immigrants. That issue is approaching a boiling point due to “caravans” headed toward our borders.

At the Baylor Homecoming two years ago, the 1976 Track and Field Team — of which I was a member as a pole vaulter — was recognized at halftime of the football game for winning the SWC Indoor Conference Track and Field Championship 40 years earlier. Most members of that team were in attendance for the weekend’s festivities which in addition to the football game included a dinner and the homecoming parade.

Some of you might be thinking right about now, “Isn’t this the same guy who also hates Valentine’s Day?” The answer to your question is “Yes,” but only because I can never pick a good gift or place to eat on Valentine’s Day. I hate Halloween for a whole different set of reasons. The main reason is that I get tired of hearing people say they like my scary, grumpy old man mask. This is especially frustrating because when they ask, I’m never wearing a mask.

The other evening as I scanned Facebook while watching a cable news segment on an attempt by the North Dakota state legislature to suppress the Native American vote in this year’s mid-term elections, several Facebook posts from Waco friends caught my eye: They contained a photo of a page from the most recently published Waco City Limits newsletter. In it: an announcement that the date of the upcoming mid-term election was “November 16, 2018.”

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s press release last month contending that 95,000 non-U.S. citizens with driver’s licenses or ID cards also had voter registration records in Texas — and that some 58,000 had voted in at least one election — has by now proven one of the most botched debuts of any state official in recent memory. To compound matters, in last week’s Senate confirmation hearing, the interim secretary displayed stunning ignorance about matters he should have definitively nailed down, given the certainty of state senators’ questions.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Thursday that President Trump would declare a national emergency as a pretext for building The Border Wall™ — Sponsored by Mexico (disclaimer: wall will not be sponsored by Mexico). It’s a broken campaign promise that’s right up there with classics like “Read my lips, no new taxes” (George H.W. Bush) and “If you like the plan you have, you can keep it” (Barack Obama).

Flashback

What were we talking about one year ago? Take a look back.

The March 6 primary election is right around the corner with early voting beginning Tuesday. One issue fellow McLennan County voters will do well to examine carefully is fundamental honesty and integrity in government. At the most basic level, we don’t want our elected leaders putting their fingers into the public treasury — outright corruption. That goes without saying. But we should demand even more. We should want — and expect — the execution of all functions of our elected government to be consistent with the rules of the road. Citizens are expected to obey the law; so must our public officials. They should set shining examples of scrupulous adherence to the law and principles of integrity.

A December 2017 Newsweek/Wall Street Journal poll asserted that more than 40 percent of Americans believe grounds exist to hold impeachment hearings for President Trump. Four resolutions have been introduced in the U.S. House calling for impeachment, while a criminal probe is underway of possible ties between his 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government. It all makes for a good time to pause and consider what impeachment actually involves.

Kudos to SpaceX again for Tuesday’s successful maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket. It was launched successfully about 2:45 p.m. Central time, followed by landings of the two side boosters back at Cape Canaveral and successful injection by the second stage of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s beloved red Tesla Roadster into solar orbit, one now reportedly extending beyond Mars. The center core booster apparently crashed into the sea near the recovery barge — the only flaw in the mission so far.