Columbian Newspaper

Passport delays stifle travel plans
Author: Lauryn Azu, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — As a pandemic newlywed, all Estella Valdez wants to do is join her new husband, family and friends for the Aruba honeymoon they rescheduled for August.

But Valdez, 46, can’t relax poolside at a luxury resort, let alone cross a tarmac, until the passport she sent for renewal in April comes back. Of the 12 people traveling, Valdez is the only one stuck without a passport — and is one of the millions nationwide whose new passport applications or renewals are caught in limbo by increasingly lengthy processing delays.

Travelers trying to get their first passports or renew the ones they have should plan on wait times of up to six months, the U.S. Department of State announced. Before the pandemic, the State Department could process nonexpedited passport renewals by mail in just six to eight weeks.

Even after paying the expedited fee, some travelers are reporting longer wait times. And those seeking both expedited and nonexpedited passports say they are getting no information about the status of their applications.

“It’s still saying the same thing, processing, and they haven’t even cashed my original check,” Valdez said. All she knows is that her passport is processing in the New Hampshire passport office, and she can’t get through to speak to anyone at the office after being left on hold for hours.

State senators and local representatives can sometimes help expedite passport applications, but with the current backlogs, even their capacity to help is stretched thin.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Naperville issued a statement urging the Bureau of Consular Affairs to take immediate action on passport processing delays. She reports that more than 120 constituents have reached out to her office for help with passports since May, “with more cases coming in every week.”

U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García of Chicago also released a statement to the Tribune, advising travelers to secure passports before booking airline tickets.

Ramping up staff

Last week, the State Department temporarily suspended an online booking system used for urgent appointments because of falsified appointment bookings. Now thousands of desperate people with international flights are turning to social media to seek support and answers.

Adding to the confusion is the lack of standardization among the 26 State Department passport agencies. Most seem to be strictly by appointment right now. A few are accepting walk-in appointments, and desperate travelers are waiting in line for hours at those agencies in hopes of getting passports.

Urgent international travel appointments now must be scheduled two weeks in advance for a date up to three days before travel, and applicants must be prepared to show proof of travel to passport office staff.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs said it is ramping up the return of staff to its offices in 17 cities in an effort to speed the processing of passport applications.

“It takes four to five times longer to assist a customer at a counter than in the back room looking at the documentation, so what we’re doing to ensure that we get through all of the applications as quickly as possible is to continue to focus on those that are pending that people have applied for in the past several months,” Rachel Arndt, the deputy assistant secretary for passport services, said in a special briefing on July 14.

Karen Kimmey, Valdez’s travel agent, says she has never seen delays like this in her career. Kimmey estimates that 2 percent of her clientele who travel internationally are struggling with passport issues.

“How many times do they have to keep postponing their honeymoon?” Kimmey said. “They did because of the pandemic, now they have to do it because the government won’t give them their passport. … It’s sad, just sad.”

Kimmey said the passport delays only add to the burden on travel agents, who are already busy helping clients get refunds or credits for vacations canceled because of the pandemic.

Auburn Gresham resident Shermee Randolph, 25, sent her passport in for renewal in March and received it in June, well within the expected wait times for passports at that point.

But “it just kind of felt like I didn’t get as much update or information about my passport, compared to my previous experience,” Randolph said.

She ended up canceling a trip to Mexico with friends partly because of her fear that her passport wouldn’t come in time.

Both Valdez and Randolph say they now recognize the importance of travel insurance. Valdez and her husband may be out $3,700 if her passport doesn’t come in time and she can’t make the trip.

5 cool new albums being released in August
Author: Jim Harrington, The Mercury News

Here are five albums that should be on your radar in August.

  • “Solar Power,” Lorde

The New Zealand singer-songwriter has been responsible for some of the best music of the past 10 years, which listeners can find on 2013’s “Pure Heroine” and 2017’s “Melodrama.” Expect the trend to continue with the release of her third studio album, “Solar Power,” on Aug. 20.

  • “Release Me 2,” Barbra Streisand

Babs is back with a new compilation of rare and previously unreleased songs. Highlights include a duet with Willie Nelson on “I’d Want It to Be You” and, for sure, the rendition of “Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog. Due out Friday.

  • “Jesus People,” Danny Gokey

The singer who placed third on “American Idol’s” eighth season in 2009, behind eventual champ Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert, has turned out a steady stream of hits over the years, including “Hope in Front of Me,” “Rise” and “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again.” His latest album, which follows 2019’s popular “Haven’t Seen It Yet,” reaches stores on Aug. 20.

  • “Perfect Union,” Kool and the Gang

The all-time great funk-disco-R&B troupe — known for such hits as “Get Down on It,” “Too Hot,” “Ladies Night” and, of course, “Celebration” (the tune that has long served as the Oakland A’s victory anthem at home games) returns with a new album on Aug. 20. The first single from the collection is “Pursuit of Happiness.”

  • “The Body Remembers,” Debbie Gibson

The terrific singer-songwriter, who sold millions of albums and singles in the late ’80s, is back with her 10th studio outing. “The Body Remembers” features a new version of the wonderful 1989 hit “Lost in Your Eyes,” recorded this time around as a duet with New Kids on the Block’s Joey McIntyre. Due out Aug. 20.

Tony Bennett still in tune at 95
Author: Christie D’Zurilla, Los Angeles Times

It’s Tony Bennett’s 95th birthday, and he’s celebrating with Lady Gaga’s announcement of their second album of duets.

“The day we released ‘Cheek To Cheek’ in 2014, @itstonybennett called me and asked me if I wanted to record another album with him, this time celebrating the songs of Cole Porter. I’m always honored to sing with my friend Tony, so of course I accepted the invitation,” Gaga tweeted Tuesday.

“Today, I am so excited to announce that our new album ‘Love For Sale’ will be released October 1,” she continued in a second tweet, which included an audio clip. “You can pre-order the album and listen to our first single ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ everywhere now!”

“Love for Sale” was recorded by Bennett and Gaga over the course of two years. The release is being billed as Bennett’s last after the revelation earlier this year that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

In February, AARP the Magazine reported that unlike some Alzheimer’s patients, Bennett could still recognize friends and family members, did not wander from home and had not demonstrated signs of terror, rage or depression often prompted by the debilitating disease.

He struggled to identify everyday objects, however, and when recording his upcoming album with Lady Gaga from 2018 to 2020, he had lost his vigor and awareness in the studio.

“There’s a lot about him that I miss,” his wife, Susan Benedetto — that’s Bennett’s legal last name, by the way — said in the AARP article. “Because he’s not the old Tony anymore. … But when he sings, he’s the old Tony.”

Bennett and his protege will perform together Tuesday and Thursday at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The nearly sold-out shows are titled “One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga.” He also has a couple of solo shows planned for September and October.

Bennett’s Twitter account rounded up birthday wishes Tuesday from a number of celebrity fans.

Bob Seger ‘Live Bullet’ available again on vinyl
Author: Jim Harrington, The Mercury News

Bob Seger’s brilliant “‘Live’ Bullet” — one of the greatest concert recordings in rock ‘n’ roll history — is finally available again on vinyl.

Sure, you could’ve found it on CD, or streamed it online, very easily in recent years. But this multiplatinum offering from 1976, recorded live one year earlier at Cobo Hall in Seger’s hometown of Detroit, deserves to be heard on vinyl — which is the format that most long-time fans probably experienced it in the first place. (Although, some went the 8-track tape route instead.)

Just drop the needle on track one — “Nutbush City Limits” — and let it ride through all those terrific early Seger cuts, taking the time, of course, to flip/exchange records when necessary. (Interestingly, the 2-LP set was originally cut to be played on a stacked turntable spindle, meaning that after Side 1 ends, the second LP would drop — technically making that Side 2 of the set.)

Seger and his Silver Bullet Band are at the top of their game as they steamroll through such rockers as “Get Out Of Denver,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and the glorius “Travelin’ Man”/”Beautiful Loser” jam — which might just be the most exhilarating 8 minutes and 53 seconds of live music ever laid to wax. Then, of course, there is the stunning version of “Turn the Page,” featuring such amazing saxophone work from Alto Reed.

Silver Bullet Band member Drew Abbott shines throughout the album, underscoring why those-in-the-know consider him to be one of true unsung guitar heroes in rock history. In particular, his work on the bridge between “Travelin’ Man” and “Beautiful Loser” will leave you breathless.

The newly remastered, long-out-print 2-LP “‘Live’ Bullet” is available in two versions — 150-gram black vinyl ($29.98) and translucent orange and red swirl vinyl ($42.98).


"They Killed Us from the Inside": U.N. Inquiry Demanded into Officials' Culpability in Beirut Blast
Author: (Democracy Now!)

One year after the Beirut port explosion, a new Human Rights Watch report implicates senior Lebanese officials in the disaster that killed 218 people, wounded 7,000 others and destroyed vast swaths of the city. The blast on August 4, 2020, was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. It resulted from the detonation of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been sitting in a hangar at the port for years while multiple government officials who knew about the highly explosive chemicals did nothing. “We didn’t find any Lebanese official who took any responsibility for securing the port and removing the ammonium nitrate,” says Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub. “The levels of corruption and negligence that we found through this documentation was really just shocking.” We also speak with Nisreen Salti, economics professor at the American University of Beirut, who says the port explosion is part of a decades-long pattern of “negligence and corruption and collapse” in Lebanon. “What the port explosion has done, instead of being a turning point or a moment of reckoning, has just pushed us further into the abyss of total economic freefall.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar Backs Ballot Initiative to Abolish Minneapolis Police & Create New Public Safety Department
Author: (Democracy Now!)

Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, whose district includes Minneapolis, says she supports a ballot initiative to abolish the city’s police department and replace it with a new “Department of Public Safety.” Local activists have already gathered tens of thousands of signatures for the move. “We’ve had a very incompetent and brutal police department for a really long time,” says Omar, who adds that while much of the world associates the city’s cops with the murder of George Floyd, local residents have witnessed the department’s violence for much longer.

"This Is What America Looks Like": Ilhan Omar on Her Refugee Journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis
Author: (Democracy Now!)

We speak with Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar about her memoir “This Is What America Looks Like,” the Biden administration’s recent airstrikes in her birth country of Somalia and why the U.S. must remain a country of refuge for people fleeing war and poverty like she did. Omar adds that the Biden administration must stop enforcing Trump-era immigration rules that allow for expedited deportations of asylum seekers. “These policy choices have consequences. We have a moral imperative in this country to get our immigration policy right and make it a more humane system,” she says.

Rep. Ilhan Omar: We Need to Cancel the Rent, Not Just Postpone Evictions
Author: (Democracy Now!)

Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar was among the progressive Democrats who camped outside the U.S. Capitol to pressure the Biden administration into passing a new eviction moratorium after the previous moratorium lapsed July 31. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new two-month moratorium earlier in the week that covers areas of the country where there is “substantial” or “high” spread of the coronavirus. “As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect those that sent us to legislate on their behalf,” says Omar, adding that she has personal familiarity with housing precarity. “I certainly have experienced severe aspects of that as someone who not only slept on the side of roads, on beaches … but also spent a lot of time in a refugee camp.”

Headlines for August 5, 2021
Author: (Democracy Now!)

NYT Politics

Russia Bans Bard College
Author: Stephanie Saul
Was it because of George Soros? Or geopolitical tension? Either way, the future of academic exchange could be in danger.