Wednesday, December 31, 2008

More upheaval at the local newspaper

You didn't read it in the newspaper, but there have been more changes at The Wilson Daily Times. I was told on Monday that Wayne Johnson, sales and marketing director (otherwise known as advertising director), was sent packing. Those who informed me of this unannounced change did not know the circumstances or the reasons for Wayne's departure, whether it was another layoff or something else. I'm told that Wayne's successor has already been hired. It will be interesting to see whether the paper announces this new hire (an experienced and probably expensive N.C. newspaper executive) and, if so, whether the announcement mentions whom she is replacing.
Over the nearly three months since I was laid off along with at least four others, I have repeatedly had to tell people that, no, I have not retired; I did not want to leave gainful employment. I'm convinced that the newspaper encouraged the misconception that I had retired early. The only mention of my departure was in one sentence at the end of a long and rambling "editor's note" without a headline or any real point. Obviously, few people even saw that article or read to the end of it. No mention at all was made of the departure of Adrienne Gaskins-Smith, the city editor, or others who were let go at the same time. Adrienne had spent more than a decade at the newspaper in increasingly responsible positions. Four days from today would have marked my 29th anniversary at the paper.
Certainly, I had expected my departure from half a lifetime's work in a very public position to be more noted, if not celebrated. To be found expendable after so long a period of loyalty and dedication is demoralizing, but I realize that I am not the only person in this situation as America endures its economic nausea. I've been gratified by the many people, some of them strangers, who have expressed their disappointment and even anger at my departure from the newspaper. But what's done is done. I'm moving on.
Although I have almost no information about or insight into the machinations at the Daily Times — excuse me, the Wilson Times — I would not be surprised if readers saw more upheaval. The paper gets thinner and thinner as advertisers abandon ship. Vacant news positions (including my old one) are not being filled, and writing or editing errors provide daily chuckles or shrieks.
And even more than the uncertainties of being unemployed with few prospects in sight, the demise of good journalism in my adopted hometown, to whose betterment and illumination I had dedicated my career, depresses me.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Goodbye, Old Friend

Several hundred of us gathered to celebrate the life of Punky Morton today. He was my high school classmate and closest friend in my teen years. A dozen or so high school classmates were among the hundreds who attended the service in the community college meeting room that had been a basement room of a textile plant in Wadesboro. Three speakers extolled Punky's creative genius, his musical talent, his entrepreneurial skills, his generosity, his sense of adventure and his ability to make friends and be a friend. After a life that at times seemed to be on stimulants, allowing him to accomplish more things in a shorter time than anyone I've ever known, Punky succumbed on Christmas Eve to a malignant brain tumor.
After the service was over, several of my classmates and I gathered around to talk about our class, our lives and our loss. Punky had helped put together all of the reunions we'd had over the years. And we talked about something that he and I had talked about when I saw him two months ago in a final visit: the regret we feel for having allowed good friendships to go dormant, nearly forgotten as we scattered from the places where we had grown up. Like most members of my high school class, I left the comfortable confines of that little community as quickly as I could. I made new friends in new places. I built a new life with a new family — a wife who had not been part of my teen years, and children. I put aside thoughts of people I knew I might never see again.
But when Punky was diagnosed with brain cancer, his old friends passed the word, and scores of people contacted him, encouraged him and reminisced with him. I was one of them. It made him think of all that he had lost by not retaining those friendships, not picking up the phone to call an old friend, not keeping current addresses and phone numbers, not stopping to visit at every opportunity. Those friendships are part of life, and when you lose them, you lose a part of your life. I will always regret not keeping my best friend from high school a continuing part of my life's later big moments.
As we grieved for Punky, we also thanked him for bringing us together again, even if it is in mourning, and we vowed to have reunions more frequently and to keep alive the ties that had bound us so many years ago. Punky taught us many things, most recently that life is short.

A car without a radio sparks memories

My parents once bought a new car without a radio. It was 1963, and I was 14. This would be the car I would use to learn to drive. It would be the car in which I would take my driver's test. It would also be the car I would drive on my first dates.
Although it didn't have a radio, they would keep the car for more than three years and would have kept it longer, but I wrecked it one night on an empty, curvy country road. Trying to see my watch (the car also didn't have a dashboard clock), I ran off the road on the right, pulled back onto the road and went off on the left, scattering some cows where I punched through the fence. Rumors that I did it deliberately to get rid of the car with no radio are entirely false. But the replacement car did have a radio and a clock.
I was reminded of that car this morning when I headed out on a long trip in a car without a working radio. My car does have a radio. It just wasn't in a working mood this morning. It has been in a not-working mood a lot lately, seemingly more frequently. Cold weather seemed especially hard on it. The radio either failed to come on when the ignition was switched on, or it came on and cut off in rapid cycles. Although I took apart a portion of my car's interior looking for a broken wire or short circuit, I never found one, so I resigned myself to a trip without a radio.
Driving without a radio or recorded music is something I never do. The steady drone of the engine hypnotizes me and tempts me to sleep. But I drove all the way to Raleigh this morning with only occasional, intermittent sound from the car's audio system. Once past Cary and for the entire return trip of nearly 200 miles, I enjoyed a couple of CDs I had brought along and the area NPR stations. The radio worked perfectly on that final leg. And I've developed a new theory about the radio in my car. It must be moisture that is affecting it, short-circuiting its on-off switch or making it rapidly cycle. If that's the case, I might get by without paying for an expensive repair or having a car without a radio.
But my trip today gave me time to think about my parents, who never cared much for music that was sung outside of a church, and their car without a radio. They drove that car (before I got to drive it) all the way to Florida and back with no radio. It didn't seem like torture at the time.
Oh, and the car had no air conditioning either. Years later, I was discussing cars and air conditioning with a friend, who declared that, to him, air conditioning in a car was more important than tires. I kind of see his point. It's probably more important than a radio.

Gaza presents yet another problem

As if he didn't need another crisis, Israel's bombing of Gaza creates another worry for President-elect Barack Obama. President Bush, who belatedly came to realize the advantages of an activist role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will not be able to fix the damage in the less than a month he has remaining. But Obama will have other priorities as he takes office, and a war in Gaza will only make other matters worse.
It's hard to fault Israel for reacting to the daily bombardment of its southern villages by terrorists in Hamas-ruled Gaza. Israeli bombing has killed around 300 people, and troops are massed along the border for a likely ground invasion aimed at wiping out the missile factories that are openly tolerated in Gaza. Hamas is fighting a proxy war against Israel, allowing the clandestine rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel, and pretending it cannot do anything about the people's righteous anger against the Jewish Entity.
But since Hamas took over Gaza from the more moderate Palestinian Fatah party in 2007, it has proven itself to be little more than a military force parading as a sovereign state. Embargoes by Israel and Egypt along Gaza's border have not been effective in keeping military supplies out of Gaza and preventing the missile attacks that have so angered Israelis. The current Israeli attacks, no matter how successful and deadly they might be, are unlikely to put a stop to the missile attacks. At best, Israel can hope to slow down the attacks or achieve a brief hiatus.
Hamas' intransigence also signals a new complication to Middle East peace talks. Israel has been able to achieve a working relationship with Fatah on the West Bank even though Palestinian policy insists that the West Bank (captured by Israel in the 1967 war) and Gaza (also taken in 1967) are unitary. Talk of a Palestinian state involves both the West Bank and Gaza. But what happens if Fatah reaches a peace agreement with Israel while Gaza continues its military assaults? Instead of a two-state solution, which has been the basis for U.S.-led negotiations, there would be a three-state solution — or a three-state stalemate.
Fatah enjoys the support of Iran and Syria. So long as those nations continue to support Fatah, it can prevent a peaceful settlement with Israel. Gaza is the monkey wrench in the gears of Middle East negotiations and will be so long as Iran and Syria support the militant group ruling Gaza.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

After-Christmas quiet seeps into life

On this Sunday after Christmas, the house is quieter. The guests are gone. The chaos of small children and all their accouterments is gone. Toys that had been strewn across three rooms are gathered into baskets and boxes for storage until the next visit. Food that had been prepared for party guests and visitors has been mostly consumed with enough leftovers to serve two people quite well for a couple of days.
This is the aftermath of America's busiest holiday. Retailers are taking account of how they did. Their after-Christmas sales are clearing out merchandise that had not been sufficiently appealing or low-priced enough. They'll soon be making space for spring merchandise. Businesses are looking at bottom lines, estimating tax costs and making plans for the new year.
We are closing out the old year and getting ready for the new year, a new president, new governor, new U.S. senator. 2009 promises to be difficult, at least in its opening months. The financial crisis that rocked the nation in the fall will not go away easily. More pain seems likely.
As for me, I am weary of the aimlessness, loneliness and frustration of joblessness. I am hoping for a new job, one that will make it safe to consider spending money again, enjoying life again, feeling a purpose again and avoiding the lurking bitterness in which I had sworn I would not wallow, justifiably or not.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The worst of news on Christmas Day

The news I had been dreading for six months came on Christmas Day. A phone call from my sister told me that Punky Morton, my closest friend from high school, had died. Two months ago, I had written of that friendship and of the cruel fate that put a tumor atop Punky's brain stem. Although he had a great attitude — determined and optimistic at first, resigned and reflective nearer the end — he was not able to defeat the cancer. The news startled me, although it shouldn't have, and turned a happy holiday suddenly bleak.
I recently read Chicago columnist Bob Greene's memoir of his best friend's death from cancer, "You Know You Should Be Glad." Greene wrote of the great effort he and other close friends made to be sure that their friend's final days were all that they could be. Like Greene's friend, Punky was surrounded by friends he'd made over 59 years. They called. They visited. They posted encouragement on a Web site. They prayed. When I visited him, he was most grateful for all the many kindnesses, all the friendships renewed, all the long-lost friends who called, wrote or visited. His church held a special, 24-hour prayer vigil. In the end, the miracle that was needed did not materialize.
In spite of it all, in spite of knowing that his productive life was being cut short, that the inventions he might have created, the products he might have developed would never be, Punky told me with a tear in his eye, "I've had a wonderful life." I could only nod in agreement. He was a wonderful guy who made friends wherever he went.

Christmas Day recalls magic and wonder of childhood

This Christmas afternoon is passing languidly without the excitement, noise and stimulation usually associated with the holiday when children are involved. Children are absent from this household, so the opening of a few gifts "late" (i.e., after dawn) on Christmas morning was a quiet affair. Later this afternoon, we expect to see grandchildren who will likely be still hyper-kinetic from the "magic" of Christmas and the stimulation of too much candy.
As a young father, I discovered that Christmas can be as wonderful for a parent as it is for a child. I watched my children's excitement, their wonder, their joy and found it infectious. I found a form of Christmas joy exceeding a child's impatient enthusiasm.
But some aspects of Christmas cannot be replicated in a mature mind, bereft of wonder at the unknown and credulous of everything irrational and impossible connected with Christmas. At an 11 p.m. church service last night, I recalled my childhood eagerness to go to bed soon after sunset, allowing Santa plenty of time to visit. As a child, I would never have been up so late, thereby risking a "passover" by Santa, and my children followed the same rule. Last night I looked into the night sky, not searching for tell-tale trails from a magical sleigh and flying reindeer, but seeing evidence of today's weather. Christmas Eve was like any other night — a concept that would have drawn my strongest argument as a child.
In losing our belief in things magical and mystical, in losing our credulousness for any exciting tale told by adults, we have matured into an existence missing the essence of wonder. Children enjoy their myths, and so do adults. The creation stories of every culture are far more interesting than the dry cosmology of a Big Bang theory or the formation of galaxies. We need these stories to fill the hollows of our soul, just as a child needs his wonder at Christmas and other times to develop his mind.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reflections on a different Christmas Eve

This Christmas Eve morning, I am relieved of the urgency, anxiety and excitement that has marked Christmas Eves for most of my adult life. As a newspaper editor, I knew that Christmas was usually a slow news period, but it was also a busy time as the staff worked extra hard to find newsworthy stories and to lay out additional pages mandated by extra holiday advertising. Like all holidays, Christmas at a newspaper required doing extra work in advance so that holiday editions and post-holiday editions could be filled.
For the first time in 33 years, I am out that madness, and I am both relieved and disappointed. The adrenaline rush was part of my holidays, and the satisfaction of pulling together as a team to accomplish what often seemed impossible was rewarding, once it was over.
This week I realized that I had achieved a remarkable record for someone in a business that almost never rests: I never missed a Christmas morning with my children while they were growing up. I never missed a Christmas with my mother's extended family while my children were young. For most of my career, I saved a vacation day to take the day after Christmas, allowing me to travel Christmas morning, spend the night, exhausted but satisfied, at my parents' home and return home on the 26th. I gratefully realize how fortunate I am to have that record.
This year promises to be different, and not just because I am not employed. Our children, who have "come home" to Wilson for at least a part of Christmas Day each year, will not all be able to spend the day here this year. My wife and I will be alone Christmas Eve night — unusual in itself — and Christmas morning. The night and morning will be something akin to being married without children — a status we have not known for 37 years. If only we were still young ...
This Christmas will be different, but many things will be the same, as is always the case at Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Curtailing Christmas

Christmas this year is different, all the news outlets say. People are cutting back on gift-giving or on the cost of gifts. Fewer cards are being sent. Retailers are deeply discounting merchandise in a near-futile effort to lure shoppers. Some people are more worried about paying the mortgage than they are excited about Christmas. Millions of Americans are unexpectedly unemployed this Christmas.
Scaling back Christmas is not a bad thing. My family, both immediate and extended, have been doing that for years. Last year, my wife and I gave each other one joint gift — an after-Christmas trip to a favorite and charming destination. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable gifts we'd ever received, one that lives on in the dozens of pictures we took on our weekend away. My siblings and my wife's siblings long ago decided to forgo individual gifts to each other. We give a token — a framed old photo, a book or homemade cookies — but no more. For several years, we've made year-end charitable contributions in their names. Reducing the need for shopping eased the stress of the holidays, giving more time to enjoy the season. 
This year, our children insisted that we limit our gifts to them and to their children, who already have more toys than they can ever use. As a result, this Christmas of unemployment looks, on the surface, little different from recent Christmases. Beneath the surface there is some anxiety over what the next few months will hold and there is renewed urgency to find a job, now that my severance is running out. But if Christmas is the worst of times to be jobless, it is also among the worst of times to be job-hunting, especially for jobs in government, much of which goes into hibernation during the holidays.
For many Americans, especially those in the banking, real estate and automotive industries, this is the toughest Christmas they've ever known. But in the longer view, compared to the Christmases their parents and grandparents knew, this Christmas seems bountiful. Earlier generations recall Christmas excitement when Santa Claus brought not a Nintendo or a ride-in, electric-powered car but a rare orange or tangerine and a candy cane too sweet to believe. But they cherished those simple, cheap gifts like Citizen Kane cherished his "Rosebud." We'll hope someday to regale our grandchildren with stories of the Christmas of 2008 when we had to cut back on our extravagance.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gasoline prices hit unexpected low in Wilson

Last weekend, I drove about 600 miles round-trip and had an opportunity to observe gasoline prices in North and South Carolina. The day I left (Thursday), I filled up my car in Wilson for the lowest price I'd seen in about four years — $1.439 a gallon. At least two stations I saw in Wilson offered that price for regular gas. I was pleased to spend a lot less than I had just a few months ago and to nearly get by with a single-digit fill-up. It ended up being $11.50.
What surprised me was that nowhere on my travels did I see gas as cheap as I had bought it in Wilson. Even in South Carolina, whose gasoline tax is 13.4 cents a gallon less, all of the gas stations were charging over $1.50. I paid $1.569 a gallon near Florence. On the return trip, I filled up again outside Smithfield for $1.599, not quite able to make it back to Wilson for some cheaper gas.
This experience reaffirms for me the fallacy of the complaint that gasoline in Wilson is inordinately high. This claim was recently given credence by a too-narrowly focused and credulous article in The Wilson Daily Times. The article compared prices in only a few places rather than taking a broader, overall look. Gasoline prices are volatile and can be influenced by competitive whims or circumstance. Gasoline prices just east of Wilson seem to trend a few cents lower for some reason, perhaps having to do with the supply chain, but statewide prices track close to Wilson's prices.
Because my three children live elsewhere in North Carolina, I do a lot of traveling to Laurinburg, Charlotte and Greensboro. I generally find prices along my routes comparable to Wilson's prices, sometimes a few cents lower, sometimes a few cents higher but almost always within two or three cents a gallon of prices in Wilson. The prices I saw last week surprised me. I assumed that I'd see plentiful gasoline for under $1.50 a gallon, in keeping with my experience over the past several years of gasoline prices aligning with what Wilson stations charge. But even in South Carolina, with its much lower gasoline tax, gasoline cost more — around 10 percent more — than it did in Wilson.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A weekend trip can take a toll

My feeling of disconnected grogginess is the result of spending 10 hours in the last three days, including nearly five hours today, driving a car in holiday traffic. Although the travel entailed no accidents or terrifying close calls, I'm convinced that travel of this sort wears you down. You get out of the car tired, nearly exhausted, but it is not the good exhaustion of physical labor or exercise. This is an exhaustion of the mind caused by an onslaught of unfamiliar images and the concentration that is required to drive a vehicle at 70 mph within a few feet of other vehicles at the same speed. I know that's nothing compared to what NASCAR drivers do, but it's enough to leave me weary and at the same time restless.
The annual family gathering in Charleston, S.C., a tradition that has prevailed uninterrupted for more than 15 years, is eagerly anticipated for most of the year. Charleston, the "Holy City" (for its many magnificent old churches), is festive and vibrant in December, and the shoppers along King Street look as if they haven't heard about any economic downturn. It's a fun place for a family gathering, one the small children can enjoy as much as the elders of my generation. No one wants to miss it, both for the chance to renew acquaintance with widely scattered relatives we rarely see more than once a year and for the chance to be in a place so clearly enthralled with the Christmas season, from the magnificent and beautifully decorated houses along the Battery to the little gift shops on Market Street.
No matter how much it is enjoyed, the annual trip leaves me feeling slightly drugged, in a state of sensory deprivation or sensory overload. There is something in the human psyche, or at least in mine, that does not seem to be designed to deal with traveling hundreds of miles in only a few hours, and of swapping the familiar for the unfamiliar and then quickly back again.
More than 20 years ago, I drove 15 hours in one stretch on the final day of a long family vacation. That marathon leg left me feeling groggy and out-of-synch for a couple of days. Today's trek on two interstates has not been nearly so disconcerting, and a good night's sleep in my own bed should cure my mental numbness. Then I'll be ready to travel again to places that are worth the trip.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

How do you turn down Caroline Kennedy?

The news today that Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg is interested in New York's Senate seat being vacated by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton strikes people of my generation with nostalgia and surprise. We remember Caroline as the White House pixie, the cute little blonde who rode her pony, Macaroni, on the South Lawn. After her father's assassination, Caroline disappeared behind her protective mother's curtain of privacy. She remained secluded even as she matured, married and had children. Although she is a lawyer, author, philanthropist, fund-raiser and New York socialite, her private life has remained largely hidden from the public.
But now she says she is willing to jeopardize her privacy, become a fully public figure and expose her personal life as a politician campaigning for a seat in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. Kennedy (who seems to have dropped her husband's name, which has no political resonance) is not running for a Senate seat, but she is actively seeking the appointment from the governor. If appointed, she would have to actually campaign in 2010 for the remaining two years of the term. And if she were so inclined, she would have to campaign again in 2012 for a full, six-year term.
Kennedy seems too much like her mother and too little like her father to enjoy the rough-and-tumble exposure and grueling hours of the campaign trail. I was reminded of this when I happened across a rebroadcast recently of Jackie Kennedy's 1962 tour of the White House. Jackie, who was fabulously popular and influential as first lady, comes across in the black-and-white film as painfully soft-spoken as well as smart, sophisticated and superbly graceful. But it's hard to imagine her going through what Hillary Clinton did over the past two years. It's also difficult to imagine her daughter doing it.
But the Kennedy name still has magic, even as Teddy, the last of the four Kennedy brothers, battles brain cancer as he clings to his own Senate seat. The New York seat Caroline Kennedy covets was once held by her martyred uncle, Bobby. It will be difficult to tell Caroline Kennedy, America's dream girl, that she can't have what she wants. Caroline wants the seat; she may be as qualified by education and experiences as any other candidate (though many candidates exceed her actual legislative or governing experience, which amount to zero).
It's an interesting dilemma for New York, assuming Clinton is confirmed. How can anyone turn down Caroline Kennedy for a job she might be suited to hold but might not be suited to fight for and retain?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Old notes foretell emergence of blogs, new media

While cleaning out a notebook, I found notes I had taken at a N.C. Press Association meeting about four years ago. The topic was new media, such as blogs. At the time, I was not writing a blog, but the topic fascinated me. Bloggers, aggregators and other pioneers in the new media were changing the way people got their information.
I returned to the office and typed up my notes and began bugging my boss and the IT director about adding more user options to our newspaper Web site. A key part of the seminar I had attended dealt with RSS (Really Simple Syndication), and one of the speakers showed how people could use RSS to, essentially, create their own online newspaper devoted only to news that interested them. I asked if our newspaper Web site had RSS capability. No one knew. They would look into it. When I brought it up again later, I was told, "Now tell me again what that is." I don't know to this day whether RSS feeds are offered on the newspaper's Web site.
I learned that blogging, even in that early day of blogs, Flicker, Facebook and all the rest, was threatening to change the entire news environment. Government agencies, for example, could use blogs to promulgate news without having to go through the filtering by professional media. There are millions of blogs out there, but most (like this one) are not widely read. Collectively, they provide a gargantuan amount of information or opinion, so much so that a term has been coined to describe the information overload that any online user faces. "Data smog" describes the fact that there is so much information out there that our brains are incapable of processing it all.
Just as upper-class and even middle-class people once had servants to provide their basic needs (such as cooking and laundry), readers once had traditional media (also derisively called the mainstream media) to filter through the volumes of information and select the most important and most interesting items for dissemination to the general public. Now traditional media are becoming anachronistic, just as household servants are quaint relics of the past. But the work of filtering through the avalanche of information has not disappeared; it has become more difficult as speedier communications increased the volume. The work done by household servants hasn't disappeared; someone still has to do it. Someone — everyone who takes the matters seriously — has to filter through the "data smog" to find those things that are credible, important and interesting.
When I taught journalism classes, I spent a class or two defining news. The textbook would provide a simple, straightforward list of factors that create news: magnitude, proximity, rarity, public importance, human interest, impact, etc. Those criteria have guided the editors and reporters at mainstream media for decades, and I doubt that media critics or bloggers could present a persuasive argument that these traditional criteria are wrong. The new media put bloggers, readers, RSS recipients and others in the position of selecting the information that is important, that is news. But for most people, this is not a full-time job. They don't have 40 hours a week to spend perusing news reports and selecting the best, as traditional editors do, or did. This new media, if traditional media continue to decline, puts great pressure on readers, who must be both reader and editor, with little time for either.
Another problem is that selective news consuming, whether by RSS feeds, blogs or simple Web searches, eliminates the serendipitous effects of reading a newspaper. You might turn a page and find a story on a topic that you knew nothing about — one that you'd never select for an RSS feed or a Google search — but that you find interesting, even fascinating. Such pleasant surprises can happen every day for a newspaper reader, but rarely, if ever, for new media consumers.

Aging NFL quarterbacks give us hope

Does anyone (besides me) remember Dieter Brock? Twenty-three years ago, Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson announced Brock, who had been playing in the Canadian Football League, as the Rams' starting quarterback. What set Brock apart (other than his lack of experience in the NFL) was his age. He was 34, and that was old for a quarterback, especially a rookie. It was also very close to my own age, so I identified with Brock after reading a magazine article about him.
Unfortunately, my hope that Brock would prove that we old guys still had a little life left in us didn't pan out. Brock set some rookie records with the Rams but didn't return the next year, and the Rams left Los Angeles a few years later.
NFL coaches since then have focused on tall, strong college quarterbacks who can be trained and polished to get ready for the big leagues. But something odd has happened recently. Some of the league's best quarterbacks are hanging around and proving that good athletes who are even older than Dieter Brock was 23 years ago can still win. Brett Favre, who retired after all-pro years at Green Bay, is out of retirement and performing like a 25-year-old with the New York Jets. Favre is 39.
Or look at Jeff Garcia, who has played for more NFL teams than I've cheered for, is going strong at Tampa Bay at age 38. Or look at Kurt Warner, who won the Super Bowl MVP award in 2000 with the St. Louis Rams (formerly of Los Angeles). He's 37 and doing well with the Arizona Cardinals this year.
Not so long ago, a quarterback who could survive the beating and grinding of the NFL into his 30s was doing phenomenally well. The NFL is tougher than ever. The defensive linemen and linebackers and bigger and stronger than ever. But the quarterbacks seem to this not-too-fanatical fan to be getting older and older. And for us older fans, that's not a bad thing. Although we're even older than the league's aging quarterbacks, and our fantasies have long ago dissolved, it's still encouraging that guys in their late 30s can survive the pounding of the  NFL. Maybe that means we can still walk, lift weights or even play a little backyard ball with the grandchildren into our 60s.
Right now, I'm pulling for Brett Favre to be a starting quarterback in his 40s.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Stimulus package an opportunity for N.C.

Some state officials are excited at the prospects of an infusion of federal money to jump-start state and local projects, particularly construction, repair and maintenance of highways, bridges and public transportation. President-elect Obama has indicated he wants to see a stimulus package that would provide money to the states to create 250 million jobs. That has state officials salivating. North Carolina, which had fared fairly well with its budgets for the past few years and had increased state spending, is now facing a money shortage. As the News & Observer states, the state has more "wants" than it can afford.
There are plenty of projects that could use a boost from the federal stimulus package. Recurrent proposals to turn Interstate 95 into a toll road should be shelved, and repair and upgrade of the vital north-south corridor should get top priority from federal money. I-95's sad state (just drive through Johnston County; I dare you) is the result of years of negligence as money went to more populous areas and to pet projects of powerful politicians.
Likewise, the Interstate 540 loop around Raleigh is being held up with plans on the table to make the southern portion of that loop a toll road. Raleigh residents, naturally, are not happy about the prospect. If the federal money comes through, North Carolina would have a good reason to drop the entire N.C. Turnpike Authority, which is pushing a number of toll roads across the state.
North Carolina once had a proud tradition of excellent roads and highways. No more. North Carolina's roads are visibly and tangibly inferior to roads in many neighboring states. A federal stimulus package for improvement of highways could give North Carolina the opportunity to regain its title as The Good Roads State. That will happen only if Congress finds the money to create the package with a minimum of specified projects and if state officials don't divert the federal money to wasteful pet projects.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Computer lists outlive the entries

One of the great advantages of the digital life is that your portable calendar and address book can go with you anywhere. All of your contacts are in your cell phone or in your computer. There is no need to copy contact information from one year's calendar to the next, as I did for many, many years. It was a tedious annual task. Digital calendars are perpetual, and so are contact lists. Once you've entered the information, except in the case of a catastrophic failure, the data are always there.
But there is one disadvantage: The data might well outlive the people referred to.
I have just cleared the address book on my home computer of several entries who are no longer living. I stumbled across the entries when checking on some addresses of other people in the list. It can be disconcerting to scroll down a list of relatives and friends and realize, "they're dead" or "she's dead." Should they live on in the computer, the addresses and phone numbers that now belong to someone else, just in case you ever need to know a long-ago address?
The directory in my cell phone has the same problem. When I scroll through the list looking for the person I intend to call, I pass by people whom I'll never call again. And because I'm usually in a hurry whenever I'm using my cell phone, I never bother to delete those entries.
One of the most poignant and painful stories in American literature is from Norman Mailer's first novel, "The Naked and the Dead." He tells of an American soldier on a Pacific island during World War II who receives the tragic news that his wife has died in childbirth. He grieves. He mourns. He is devastated. But then, because it takes weeks for mail to arrive in the combat zone, he receives a letter from his now-deceased wife. Then he receives another. And another. He manages to convince himself that she's not really dead. She's as alive as her letters. But then the letters stop.
Like that soldier's letters from home, some entries in my digital address book give me momentary pause before I remember.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Homes tour shows Wilson's overlooked potential

Saturday's Christmas Tour of Old & Historic Homes displayed a few of Wilson's fine older homes in various degrees of renovation. The quality of the houses was  an affirmation of preservation advocates' long-frustrated confidence in Wilson's stock of historic and architecturally significant homes.
A number of homes on the tour were owned by people who moved here from out of state after finding the homes available at reasonable prices and with excellent "bones" that made preservation and renovation possible. Wilson residents might not appreciate the valuable landmarks all around them, but fresh eyes from elsewhere instantly recognize them. Two homes on Goldsboro Street near the railroad tracks are especially notable. The George Stanton House at 400 Goldsboro Street is still in the early stages of rehabilitation, but new owners Roy Mapstone and Rick Womack have already brought about an amazing transformation in the former rental property. Unfortunately, much of the distinguishing features of the house had been removed by the time the new owners bought it. Mantels, doors and stained glass that once made this house a showplace are missing. Nevertheless, the 12-foot ceilings, the grand staircase and the spacious entertaining rooms hint at the extravagance this house once knew.
Across the street, the David Woodard House that had served as offices for Eastern Carolina Legal Services is being restored by John Newsom and Corrie Dengler. Their ambitious plans are to remove the law office walls, lighting and other changes and restore the house to its Victorian elegance. They appear to be well on their way.
Other houses on the tour showed the variety available in Wilson's historic homes. The Barnes-Bell House at 1501 W. Nash St. has been beautifully restored to its 1922 richness. It is one of a number of Wilson homes built in the 1920s when tobacco and general prosperity created the wealth sufficient to justify magnificent homes.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Golden East Apartments in the former Coon School and the Greenwood/Cobb-Winstead-Tatum House at 208 Hill Street. Thee latter is an 1896 cottage that, like so many of Wilson's older homes, had been turned into rental units. Now restored as a single-family home, the old cottage retains its original charm. Restored by investor Penny Womble, it is now the home of retired teacher Jane Emerson.
Between the magnificence of the Barnes-Bell House and Emerson's modest little cottage are a range of bungalows, Dutch colonials and other fine homes scattered throughout Wilson's older neighborhoods. Saturday's tour showed the potential. Perhaps it opened some eyes.

A new photo but the same old profile

When I started this blog, I searched through the thousands of pictures on our home computer to find a recent photo of me alone to use as my profile picture. The only one I found was a shot taken Christmas morning a couple of years ago. When you're the photographer of the family, there aren't many pictures of you, and I had taken most of the family pictures for more than 30 years. The subjects were mostly our children and, later, our grandchildren. I showed up in a few group shots but few others. So the photo on my profile was not exactly a portrait.
When I recently saw a picture my wife had in her office, one that she had taken of me sitting in the porch swing of a cabin we had rented for a weekend getaway to the N.C. mountains, I decided to look for that picture among our thousands of prints in a closet at home and make it my profile picture. Thanks to my wife's organizational skills, it was not too difficult to find the picture among the dozens of photo albums, all arranged by date.
So that's my "new" profile photo, although it is, admittedly, a few years older than my previous profile shot. Don't assume that I chose an older photo out of vanity or to deny my age. I still wear the shirt and jeans I'm wearing in that photo, and my hair still follows approximately the same receding outline you see in this photo.
Over the years, I don't think I've ever had a professional "portrait" picture made, except for newspaper mugshots meant to run with a column logo or an announcement of some sort. I have no access to those long-forgotten pictures, so I've had to rummage through the family pictures to find a suitable picture for this blog. And when you've been behind the family camera for most of your life, it's hard to find a picture of yourself.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bailout falls flat, and Wall Street shrugs

A funny thing happened Friday. After the U.S. Senate killed a bailout for the Big Three automakers, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose. Advocates of a bailout had made the consequences of letting Chrysler and/or GM go bankrupt sound calamitous. Investors on Friday didn't seem to think so.
You can't read too much into the wacky stock market these days, but you would think if investors really thought the bailout was the absolute necessity it was being sold as, they would have scurried for the bomb shelters. Now, maybe automotive stocks are so low that they can't really go much lower, and that's what kept the Dow rising Friday, but Wall Street must not have been too freaked out by the Senate's decision.
Among those urging the Senate to approve a bailout was UAW president Ron Gettilfinger. The UAW is worried about retaining American jobs, but the union balked at Republican senators' insistence that the union accept date-certain sharp cuts in pay and benefits. The proposed bailout is a floatation device for the industrial giants, but it's also aimed at keeping the UAW afloat. The UAW turned down a requirement to have the union accept $14 an hour reductions in pay and benefits, from about $62 an hour ($30 of that in wages) the Big Three pay to $48 an hour paid by non-union foreign auto manufacturers in this country. The UAW will take its chances with the new Congress, which will have many more Democrats who owe favors to the unions.
Now the White House says things are so desperate that the administration will try to scrape together enough money to tide the automakers over until the new Congress arrives. But skepticism about the Detroit bailout seems to be growing. The companies got themselves into this sorry state through mismanagement.
Here's a telling point: Detroit has spent millions of dollars paying celebrities to pitch their vehicles. Tiger Woods recently released GM from a multi-million dollar deal that had him endorsing Buicks. Country singer Toby Keith pitched Ford trucks. Paris Hilton did a Chrysler commercial. Rock singer Bob Seger sold his lyrics and voice to Chevrolet. Years ago, crooner Jack Jones sang about the Chrysler New Yorker. Altogether, Detroit spent untold millions on celebrity endorsements. Ever seen a celebrity endorsement for a Toyota, Honda or Nissan? These manufacturers realize they're selling vehicles, not vanity.
Letting an automaker or two slide into bankruptcy would be painful. But plenty of people in this country are in financial pain already, and they aren't begin bailed out.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Layoff brings an exchange of roles

For most of the first 10 or 11 years of our marriage, I got up each morning and headed off to work, leaving my wife at home. While I toiled at the office, she stayed home, filling her day with household chores, child care, home projects, and, occasionally, hobbies and reading.
Now our roles are reversed. After about 25 years of our jointly going off to work each day, leaving behind a vacant house, it is now I who is left behind at the house. As my new reality moves into its third month, the novelty has worn off, and it is becoming more difficult to sustain a positive attitude. Misery loves company, it is said, and all of us who have been laid off in this economy have plenty of company.
When my wife was out of the job market, her days were consumed primarily by the care of a child, then two, then three. Any realistic person will admit that child care is a full-time job. She has often described those days as the most rewarding work she has ever done — and the most societally important.
When I despaired of my inability to provide for all of our family's needs, we would run the numbers and realize that my measly salary might not be much, but it was better than two paychecks minus child care costs. Once our children were in school and my wife began working, first part-time, then full-time, then full-time plus college courses, we had more money and felt more comfortable when we paid bills or faced unanticipated expenses.
But a two-paycheck household has its disadvantages, too. When she was at home, I relied on my wife to run errands or do things I couldn't do while working. Sometimes it was as simple as looking up a reference in those days before Google put such information at my fingertips.
In my stay-at-home life, I am not as valuable as my wife was. I am not nurturing children. I am not sewing clothes or baking bread. I'm doing some housework, but I'm not so good at it. I'm walking the dog, but that hardly compares with keeping children happy. I'm doing some writing, such as this. And I'm sending out job applications, thus far without success.
It's no wonder that the unemployed often get depressed. You miss the friendships and camaraderie of co-workers with whom you've spent 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week for years and years. The hard part, for people who have been sole breadwinners or who have held important responsibilities in a job, is to face the feeling of impotence, uselessness and dependency. With half a million workers added to the unemployment ranks in just the last month, there's a lot of despair out there, and a lot of anger. Take a look here at the anger of one laid off journalist.
Being positive in this economic climate might be harder than finding that elusive new career.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

City says farewell with the right fanfare

The city of Wilson and her co-workers gave Alice Freeman, assistant city manager, a grand send-off Thursday. A reception at the City Operations Center gave everyone a chance to say goodbye to Alice, who started her city career in 1978. It also featured a fat book full of accolades for Alice from co-workers, public officials (including Gov. Mike Easley and former Gov. Jim Hunt). A video presentation featured photographs of Alice's city career and her earlier years.
Alice is one of the most upbeat, cheerful and welcoming people I've ever met. She wasn't above cracking a joke or calling to tease me about something going on at the Daily Times when I was managing editor, editor or opinion editor there. She also let me know when she disliked something I had done or that the newspaper had done. And on occasion she would call out of the blue to ask for my advice on finding the right word or punctuating a sentence in the right way. With Alice, it was always a pleasant conversation, regardless of whether she called to praise, to joke or to complain.
She served the city well over a lot of years, and the city said goodbye to her Thursday in a way befitting her dedication and her impact.
It's unfortunate that many other loyal, dedicated employees, especially in this awful economic downturn, are not being given the farewell their work and their years warrant.

Citizens pay for incompetence in probation

The News & Observer has been running a series on the sorry and dangerous state of the state's probation and parole system. The series is an indictment of an essential state department that is obviously inefficient, ill-managed and downright incompetent. As a result, the N&O series contends, hundreds of North Carolinians have been murdered or assaulted by criminals lost in the entrails of the probation system.
The series spotlights a department that has simply rolled along beneath the radar of public scrutiny, managed by political appointees who offer nothing but ignorance and excuses for the crimes committed as a direct result of the department's incompetence. What sets this department apart from other state departments is that incompetence and political appointments in this department result in tragedies. In other departments, the same levels of politics, deal-making and incompetence only result in wasted taxpayer dollars. I'm still waiting for a governor to blow the lid off the Department of Transportation and stop wasting billions in taxpayer money while the state's roads deteriorate. I'm not expecting it to happen under Gov.-elect Bev Perdue's watch.
For all the damning details in the N&O series, I found it bloated, repetitive and over-written. In at least a thousand fewer words, I suspect the N&O could have laid out its indictment against Probation and Parole with a point-by-point recitation of all the abuses and incompetence its reporters had uncovered and all the tragedies that had resulted. If this were a summation by a prosecutor, I'm afraid a few jury members might have fallen asleep.
And that's a shame. It's a critical issue for the state, and a good piece of reporting by one of the few remaining papers doing serious investigative work. But tighter writing and stronger editing could have given the series even greater impact.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

North Carolina looks a lot like Illinois

The indictment and arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff reads more like a court filing against organized crime in the Tony Soprano/John Gotti/Vito Corleone tradition than anything in American politics. Federal prosecutors charge that Blagojevich attempted to sell the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois (being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama) to the highest bidder. He also seeks paybacks for state contracts and wants plush jobs for himself and his wife, according to the indictment.
Political corruption is nothing new, but the audacity and openness of Blagojevich's efforts made headlines nationwide. Illinois has a history of political corruption. Blagojevich's predecessor is in prison. But these alleged activities are so blatant that they are unbelievable, even by Chicago standards.
North Carolina can't be self-righteous about political corruption. We have seen  a former congressman, a former agriculture commissioner, a former speaker of the state House, a former legislator, a former lobbyist, another former legislator and former state employees sent to prison in the past decade. What many of them were convicted of doing differs from the Illinois standard only in degree of magnitude.
And North Carolina still leaves the door open for more deal-making, favor-swapping, paybacks and corruption. The state Board of Transportation is an open invitation to corrupt practices. Its members are appointed based on their ability to raise money for political candidates. Once on the board, they have the authority to steer road projects to benefit themselves, their friends and their political sponsors. Gov.-elect Bev Perdue has not endorsed any significant reform of the board's powers, in part, no doubt, because she has benefited from board members' fund-raising.
The Blagojevich investigation also implicates the Service Employees International Union, with which the State Employees Association of North Carolina has recently allied. Does anyone see a connection here?
Despite widespread corruption, inefficiency and incompetence in state government, North Carolina voters returned the same old power brokers to their positions of power in Raleigh last month. Not even the imprisonment of high state officials was enough to bring fundamental reform to Raleigh. It reminds me of Illinois, where the imprisonment of one governor was not enough to stifle the greed and malfeasance of another governor. Who will be the next N.C. elected official to go to prison? And will the voters care this time?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tribune's bankruptcy could be a harbinger

The Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Cubs, has filed for bankruptcy. Although this is sign of the distress in the newspaper business, the Tribune situation relates more to its heavily leveraged purchase a few years ago. The company has a mountain of debt and had little choice but to file for bankruptcy.
The Tribune's debt is dragging down some great American newspapers. The LA Times, the Sun and the Tribune are legendary and once fabulously profitable properties. These papers are not suffering alone. The McClatchy company, which bought foundering Knight-Ridder (another once-great newspaper company), owns the Miami Herald, Raleigh News & Observer, Charlotte Observer and other great papers. It, too, has a huge debt incurred in the Knight-Ridder purchase and has had to restructure that debt and lay off hundreds of employees. Cox Newspapers, out of Atlanta, has all of its North Carolina papers up for sale, leaving the Greenville Daily Reflector, Rocky Mount Telegram and others in limbo. There apparently are no eager buyers for newspapers, and the credit crisis has made it much harder to put together multi-million-dollar deals.
Could the Tribune bankruptcy be a harbinger for the entire industry? While Detroit automakers go hat-in-hand to Washington for a bailout, the newspaper industry suffers from some of the same problems that plague Detroit. Americans are not buying the traditional newspaper tossed in the driveway. More and more Americans are getting their news off the Internet or television (which is also suffering from revenue declines). Advertising revenues are down. Classified ads have been decimated by Internet options such as eBay and Craigslist. Sunday classified sections that once went on for dozens and dozens of pages are pitiful now. And daily classified sections are so thin they are no longer their own section or are so filled with "house ads" (newspaper promotions) that they are laughable. And newspaper management has not responded well to the challenges it faces.
But Americans still want to read the news. They want information, and they want it from a reliable source. Independent newspapers still provide that news, although layoffs in the newsroom and the redefining of news in futile efforts to win back readers have taken a toll on serious journalism. Investigative reporting, in-depth analysis and solid governmental reporting are getting more and more rare.
Newspapers are rushing headlong into the Internet with more and more sophisticated Web pages with photo galleries and video the print paper can't provide. But they haven't figured out a way to make the Internet pay as well as print ads did for more than a century. Until Internet ad rates rise sharply (which seems unlikely) or advertisers recognize that print ads are still valuable and worth the expense, newspapers will struggle, reporters and editors will be laid off, and readers (voters, citizens, decision makers) will be less well-informed.
An uninformed electorate is a danger to democracy. In terms of societal worth, newspapers are more important than automakers.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Obama's transition approach raises confidence

Maybe this is a belated exercise, but I've been reading Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope." So far, I've found nothing alarming or surprising in it. Obama comes across as a pragmatic idealist, someone who has strong principles but recognizes that others may conscientiously disagree, and knows compromise is the way to get things done in a pluralistic, democratic society.
Obama's swift action on naming members of his new administration and his choice of obviously competent, knowledgeable people also give me encouragement about the new administration that will take office in America's toughest economy of my lifetime. Obama has demonstrated a careful, deliberative and active approach to the problems facing America. He has been careful, most of the time, not to interfere in the actions of the current administration, reminding reporters that there is only one president at a time. Still, he is eager to get moving on his own plans to bolster the flagging economy, and his selections for secretary of the Treasury and other key financial posts seem to ensure confidence in the new administration and relieve the fears of his critics.
The transition to a new administration is almost always a time of hope and anticipation. The naming of fresh new faces in the Cabinet almost always engenders confidence. Voters who selected a new president like to see a new administration, so the appointments a new president makes usually are greeted respectfully, if not warmly.
The last time this happened, George W. Bush's new appointees looked hopeful. The Texas governor, unschooled in foreign affairs and other matters, turned to experienced Washington hands, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who knew their way around the Pentagon and the halls of Congress. He boosted his own stature by naming Colin Powell, a respected general who had served Republican and Democratic presidents faithfully, to be secretary of state. It all looked promising.
But early impressions don't always last. Cheney and Rumsfeld turned out to be disastrous on the key issues of Iraq and terrorism, and Powell quit in disgrace after he had been used by the Cheney-Rumsfeld neoconservatives to lend credibility to the administration's false claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
America will learn soon enough whether the positive impression made by Obama's economic team will be validated. Economic changes develop slowly, however, and any government actions might not bear fruit for months, even years. Jimmy Carter, who lost the 1980 election in part because of a dreary economy with high unemployment and high inflation, named Paul Volcker (now an Obama adviser) chairman of the Federal Reserve. It was Volcker's tough love approach of high interest rates that finally quelled inflation, but by the time the cure finally took hold, Ronald Reagan was in office.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas decorations go up, await bigger event

The cold has driven me inside. I didn't even take the dog for a walk Friday it was so chilly (and I was beaten down by a head cold), and she was not happy about it.
But on this bright, cheery Saturday, the dome of the blue sky looks appealing, and the outdoors beckons, despite temperatures in the 30s, if that. It's a brisk day, not a biting cold, windy day, so my Southern blood can stand it, perhaps even do some outside work. With the trees shed of their leaves, outdoor chores are fewer now. The lawn and the driveway are nearly bare of leaves, and I can live with the few wayward leaves that speckle the ground.
Today, we are continuing the transformation of our home into a temple to Christmas, both religious and secular. I'll have to install the Christmas flags and the Santa wind sock. I've placed candles in the appropriate windows. The other decorations, ranging from photographs of Christmases Past to whimsical Santas and elves, will find their proper places. The tree — the primary tree with fresh green needles, sticky sap and the aroma of Christmas — will have to wait until the other decorations are in place. Then it will be another all-day job, or nearly so, to decorate that tree with all the ornaments collected over nearly 40 years.
It's a shame to go to all this work for only two people. For decades, we've opened our home to friends, neighbors and colleagues in an open house that was, inevitably, a whirlwind of greetings, conviviality, food and drink, and good cheer — an event that made all the decorating worthwhile. This year, alas, that festive evening is being overtaken by a more significant event. The imminent arrival of grandson number five has put our schedule on hold and has prevented our planning any events of our own or accepting any invitations, except tentatively. Fewer people will be exposed to the garlands, candles, foods, wassail and good cheer at our home this year, but we could not, like the Kranks of John Grisham's  novel, "skip" Christmas this year. Or any year.
But in this Christmas season, it seems entirely appropriate that a newborn baby should take priority over whatever else clutters our lives.

Friday, December 5, 2008

America needs to be into manufacturing

Executives from the Big Three Detroit automakers, plus the head of the United Autoworkers, were back before Congress Thursday to ask for billions of dollars in taxpayer money. They say that without billions in taxpayer funding, they will go belly up, with residual effects that will be felt throughout the economy.
No doubt, bankruptcy by Ford, GM or Chrysler would do further harm to the staggering economy. The question before Congress is what would be worse — pouring taxpayers' hard-earned dollars into a poorly managed, uncompetitive industry or allowing bankruptcy to take its toll, whatever the damage.
Congress should look at more than just the auto industry. Almost all manufacturing in the United States has suffered in the global economy. The steel industry, the textile industry, the furniture industry — all have dwindled to nearly nothing because of global competition and detrimental federal policies. Rather than just bail out Detroit, Congress should consider how the United States can restore its manufacturing base.
Some have worried about the impact of losing the automakers on national security. In World War II, all the automakers churned out jeeps, tanks, trucks and so forth for the war effort. Could the United States face a similar threat without the heavy industry that dominated U.S. jobs in the 1930s, 40s and 50s? America has given up on manufacturing and has tried to gain prosperity through creative financing, which is what sparked the current economic crisis. To be truly successful, the United States needs to make things, not just finance them. Perhaps the United States can't compete in highly labor-intensive industries, but it should be able to compete in manufacturing things that utilize robotics and other labor-saving devices. The Obama administration should create policies, including tax policies, that reward domestic manufacturing of a wide variety of goods.
Cars can be manufactured successfully in this country. Just ask Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Hyundai.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

City planners focus on conserving neighborhoods

Wednesday night's public symposium on the city of Wilson's comprehensive plan brought out a large and diverse crowd to Wilson Community College. That should bode well for the plan that is now in its initial stages.
Perhaps the most interesting insight from a panel of four "experts" dealt with neighborhood conservation, a concept that has been used in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and other cities. It's obvious that Wilson is behind the curve on this concept. Why conserve a neighborhood when you can simply create a whole new one out of outlying farmland? That's been the deal the city has made with developers and home builders in years past. But the use of neighborhood conservation overlay districts in other cities has shown that saving neighborhoods is good for the residents, property owners and the city itself.
Too often in Wilson, neighborhoods have been considered expendable. Once-grand neighborhoods have been transformed into unattractive, low-income, dilapidated streetscapes. Enforcing historic preservation and neighborhood conservation appearance standards can forestall neighborhood deterioration. Limiting the extension of city services, including water and sewer lines, roads and electrical power to outlying undeveloped land would restrict the overbuilding of housing stock, which reduces the value of existing (i.e. older) homes. Creative ways of encouraging home ownership, such as property tax reductions for owners willing to restore dilapidated or abandoned housing, would further boost existing neighborhoods and clean up some of the city's residential eyesores.
Wilson's comprehensive plan will be a long time in the making, but a focus on neighborhoods looks like a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A funeral done the right way

Eight hours on the road yesterday were worth it for the opportunity to say goodbye to a good man, my wife's Uncle Ben, her father's older brother, who died Saturday at age 92. One of my greatest regrets in life is that I have not always attended the funerals of people who were meaningful in my life. Just last week, I missed the funeral of a dear friend of my parents, a woman whose selfless dedication to her church helped shape my life. She also was in her 90s. Because of distance and responsibilities at home or at work, I have missed the funerals of several aunts, uncles and cousins. My presence probably was not missed, but I recognize that I missed something by my absence that I cannot regain.
The funeral for Ben Witherington Jr., a native of Goldsboro and long-time resident of Charlotte, was held in the magnificent sanctuary of Myers Park Methodist Church, a veritable cathedral in one of Charlotte's most-distinguished neighborhoods. Befitting Ben's dedication to the church, the service was a model of Christian hope and values. The soaring ceiling, embroidered banners, dark woodwork and stone walls and pillars gave an air of solemnity and magnificence to the service. The congregation sang three hymns, accompanied by the huge pipes of the church's organ: "For All the Saints," "Great is Thy Faithfulness" and "Here I Am Lord." The hymns were sung to an upbeat tempo, not as dirges, and they were voiced by the full company of friends and relatives, not by some soloist. Funerals should be participatory services, and this one was. Let us express our sorrow — and our faith and hope — in song.
The church's pastor provided a homily, but then he was followed by the deceased's son, Ben Witherington III, my wife's first cousin and her same age. Ben III, a prolific author on theological topics and church history, delivered a heartfelt eulogy that was touching and, as befitting his father, sometimes amusing and whimsical. As the mourners left the sanctuary, I had to grin: The organist played "Hark the Sound," the University of North Carolina alma mater, on the carillon, a touch Uncle Ben, who was a cheerleader in his student days and an obsessive Carolina fan all his life, would have loved.
It was as fitting a memorial as I shall ever know. We all should strive for such a funeral, and for such a well-lived life.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Christmas ties, a personal decoration

Mixed in the Christmas decorations dragged down from the attic last weekend were a stash of Christmas ties, which had been purchased over the years in after-Christmas sales, some for as little as a dollar. Beginning around the first of December, I would wear a Christmas tie to work every day as my little personal celebration of the Christmas season. As the years passed and my tie collection grew, I was able to wear a different tie almost every day of the week.
Now those ties site in my closet, awaiting an opportunity to be worn. This is one of the unexpected consequences of being laid off: Far fewer opportunities to wear a Christmas tie. Instead of the coat and tie that was my uniform of the day through most of the past thirty-some years, I now usually pull on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt to do the things I've done the past couple of months — odd jobs around the house,  job hunting on the computer, job applications, and writing (such as this).
There are many things I miss about the working world — the camaraderie of the office, the conversations and relationships with co-workers (who become your friends) with whom you spend the bulk of your waking hours, the sense of purpose and accomplishment, the satisfaction of achievement. I also find that I miss getting dressed for work, putting on the uniform of a white-collar worker and carrying out that function in society.
I look forward to the day, perhaps a year from now, when I'll have the opportunity (and a reason) to wear Christmas ties again daily.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Re-reading James Dickey's "Deliverance"

With so many books and so little time, why would anyone re-read a novel? Simple: Some novels are worth a second, or even a third, reading.
I recently finished re-reading "Deliverance" by James Dickey. I had initially read the 1970 first novel by the acclaimed poet in 1971, after buying (for $1.25) a paperback copy. That paperback had followed me all the way through about 10 moves, always finding its way to a treasured spot on a bookshelf. It was always a book I'd read again. Someday.
Having re-read the novel (and having caught a brief glimpse of the movie starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight on television recently), I found my initial opinion of Dickey's novel confirmed. It's a great book, and, perhaps more important, a frightening book. It's been described as a Boy Scout outing turned into a nightmare. Four aging buddies decide to put aside their comfortable suburban existence and take a canoe trip down a wild river that soon will be dammed and no longer wild. Confronted along the riverbank by evil men, the suburbanites become killers, their animal instincts for survival overwhelming their veneer of civilized behavior. Dickey's message seems to be, scratch a civilized, modern man, and you'll find a ruthless beast just beneath the skin. It's a story about what we're capable of, and the answer to that is scary.
The book is so disturbing that my wife, upon initially reading it more than 30 years ago, found herself unable to read passages while in a room alone. She needed the comfort and reassurance of other people, of loved ones, in the room with her. That feeling of being there is a testimony to Dickey's imagery and description. His collection of "Poems, 1957-1967" is one of my favorite volumes, and I've re-read some of the poems, such as "Kudzu" and "The Bee" again and again.
"Deliverance" proves to me that good books are worth the investment. They are more than bookshelf decorations that add warmth and comfort to a room. They are lasting resources that can thrill and reassure and enlighten us years and years after purchase.