Thursday, December 31, 2009

Weary of dodging bullets

How much longer can we dodge bullets? How many bullets can we dodge?

The attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwestern flight to Detroit from Amsterdam is just the latest in a series of near-catastrophes masterminded by al-Qaida or other Islamist groups around the world. Nine years after Sept. 11, 2001, have we learned nothing?

Before the Christmas Day attempt to ignite a sophisticated high-explosive strapped to a Nigerian passenger's leg, there was the Fort Hood shooting, when an Army psychologist with the rank of major opened fire on soldiers. Immediately, political correctness demanded that reporters play down Major Nidal Malik Hasan's Muslim religion and Palestinian ancestry. But it turns out that Hasan was not some run-of-the-mill deranged nut case. He had touted Islamist hatred of the West and advocated allowing Muslim soldiers to claim conscientious objection to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. His violence was motivated by Islamist hatred of America.

These, unfortunately, are not isolated incidents. American Muslims have been charged with plotting an attack on Fort Dix. American Muslims of European ancestry in Wake County, North Carolina, have been charged with plotting attacks. Other "sleeper cells" have been uncovered before they could carry out their plots.

So far, so good, but how long can our good fortune last? In the days immediately following 9/11, America braced for another attack. Thus far, none has succeeded, but it's apparent that this lack of success if not for lack of trying. Blowing up a federal building or a shopping mall or taking down an airliner would strike a blow at American confidence and might cripple the struggling economy. A bigger blast — a small nuclear device or a "dirty bomb" or chemical weapon detonated in a major city — would devastate the country. Terrorists' sophisticated plots, even though they haven't succeeded, indicate that they might well be capable of creating a catastrophe from which America might not recover.

The Obama administration had better get serious about homeland security, airport security and intelligence gathering. We're extending American civil liberties and criminal justice rights to terrorists intent on destroying this entire nation, but we're not taking seriously the threats these terrorists pose for the United States. We're more worried about "profiling" suspected terrorists than we are about protecting American lives. A successful major attack will not only devastate the economic foundation of the country, it could turn America into a police state focused solely on preventing any additional attacks. American freedoms of speech, religion, press and assembly could be lost to the fear of terrorist attacks.

America's future depends on preventing Islamist terrorists' attacks on Americans.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holidays are enlarging events

Christmas is over, but the sweet, fattening remnants remain. Today, gyms and health clubs will be crowded with people trying to work off the extra calories they've consumed and vowing to live up to their new year's resolutions to lose weight. It will be hard to find an empty treadmill, stepper or elliptical trainer for the next month.

I'm no exception to the holiday expansions rule. As I step on the bathroom scales each morning, I've noticed the numbers edge upward. After a full year of increased physical activity and smarter eating, my weight had dipped into a leaner, healthier level, but now I see it creeping up again. Like almost everyone else, I've succumbed to the temptations of the season to consume more food and richer food over the holidays. That veer off the disciplined path takes its toll. But I'm convinced there's more to holiday weight gain than just more and richer food. We've just passed the winter solstice, when daylight dips to about nine hours in these latitudes. Shorter days make it more difficult to keep up with an exercise regimen, and longer nights make overeating more tempting. Something as simple as getting out for a walk after work is harder to do when night has spread its pall over the earth and winter temperatures make the outdoors less inviting. Strenuous yard work is abandoned in the darker seasons, and our entire body rhythms slow down to a hibernation-like level.

Darkness will linger for another three months, making it harder to keep that new year's resolution about exercising more and losing holiday pounds. It's the combination of tempting holiday food and the reduced opportunity (and motivation) for exercise that combines to make these holiday pounds so hard to shed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Remembering the magic of Christmas

This Christmas Eve has been a day of chores, and it will end with, perhaps, a favorite Christmas movie and a candlelight church service. How different this is from the Christmas Eves of my youth, and how different Christmas is from the Christmases of my youth.

The primary missing element is magic. Christmas was the most magical time of the year, a time when even a family like mine, with seven mouths to feed (not counting a cow and a dog), could experience the miracle of Christmas bounty. Fresh citrus fruit that seemed not to exist at any other time on the calendar. Candy bars and chewing gum and whole nuts that, with some self-discipline (but not much), might last the remainder of the week.

And then there were the toys. Christmas provided a trove of toys, not just one or two that might come on your birthday but a whole universe of toys designed to fulfill your most outlandish desire. I never got the pony or horse that I asked for each Christmas for several years and which I imagined would be tied to the front porch columns, but I received so many other things, that disappointment never entered my mind.

And how did this happen? It had to be magic. My hard-working, Depression-weaned parents could not have fulfilled such grand wishes year after year. It had to be magic, and the whole day was wrapped in a magical aura. I never imagined in my naivete that some people worked on Christmas Day. The whole month of December was a waiting time, and we were an audience sitting restlessly in our seats anticipating the opening of the greatest show of the year. "You're slow as Christmas!" I remember one of my cousins telling another cousin. The remark was made in mid-summer, but the meaning was clear. Christmas was the most anticipated day of the year, the day that it seemed would never arrive, the slowest item on any calendar.

By Christmas morning, sitting on the cedar chest, waiting to be admitted to the living room where an aromatic cedar tree, a crackling fire, sweet chocolate candy and boundless toys awaited us, I shivered with excitement, unable to control my shaking. Christmas magic had transformed the living room — the room that was closed off from the rest of the house, that room where children were forbidden entry — into a magic land where wishes do come true and the inexplicable occurs.

Even the night was different. The sky seemed darker, the stars closer as the world awaited Christmas morning, a time when, I thought, the whole world stood still, no one worked and miracles happened.

I will enjoy the remainder of this Christmas Eve and the gathering of loved ones on Christmas Day. I will share the thrill of wide-eyed pre-schoolers as they open presents and marvel at all there is. But I will miss the magic, the naive belief that this day is miraculously different, a day when the whole world pauses and no one works or worries.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Christmas letter, 2009

For several years, my wife and I have enclosed a Christmas letter with our Christmas cards on most (but not all) years. Below is an edited version of this year's letter:

On Thanksgiving weekend, following a delightfully raucous gathering with Ginny’s family (which included our three children, their spouses and all six of our grandchildren), we begin the preparations for the Christmas season and reflect on the year behind us. Advent begins Sunday, and our anticipation this year is not of gifts but of opportunities to gather with family and to share precious moments.

This year has made us even more cognizant of the brevity of life and the transcending importance of sharing our fleeting days with those whose genes, DNA and love we share. “Tempus fugit” reads the clock’s face, and we have reached the age when we feel the backwash as time flies.

This year 2009, the year we would mark out 38th wedding anniversary, began on an uncertain note. Hal had been laid off by the newspaper where he toiled for 29 years, and his severance pay expired in January, adding him to the millions drawing unemployment insurance in this Great Recession. Although moments of despair came, Hal’s idleness proved not to be the financial disaster that we had feared. By curtailing spending, we survived nine months on unemployment without dipping far into our savings, a turn of events that seemed miraculous. Ginny said it best: “It’s like the loaves and fishes.” What we had was enough to go around.

Hal accepted a job in October as manager of the Wilson office of the American Red Cross, a position that reduces our former income but keeps us in our home, and without a long commute. Best of all, it is a job that consists of helping others.

... we received word that surgery on Ginny’s dad had revealed inoperable cancer. The entire family, including her dad, vowed to make the best of whatever time he had remaining. A successful course of treatment has given him improved health and priceless time with loved ones. We spent a week at Topsail Beach (his favorite getaway) in May and gathered in Chapel Hill in September to celebrate his 89th birthday. We look ahead to 2010 hoping for more quality time with him. ...

In March, Hal celebrated his 60th birthday with a lunch in Southern Pines, where everyone could watch the UNC Tar Heels win at basketball on big-screen TVs in the restaurant.

This Christmas season, we have many reasons to be joyful and a greater appreciation of the many joys we are given. May your Christmas also be filled with joyful appreciation of what we have and the recognition that it is sufficient.

Winter Solstice and trips to Charleston

Today marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the turning point toward longer days that lead, ultimately, to spring. This astronomical phenomenon reminds me of the poem my son wrote about his experience on the solstice in 2001, when he left his garage apartment in Greensboro, where he was beginning work toward a master of fine arts degree in poetry. It had fallen to him that day to go early to my childhood home and drive my parents to a family gathering in Charleston, S.C. He was a good trouper and a faithful grandson to drive my parents' car on a trip they no longer could navigate alone while amusingly but lovingly observing their peculiarities.
The poem that grew out of that incident was published in the News & Observer in 2005, when that newspaper devoted a weekly feature to little-known North Carolina writers. The poem reads, in part:

Before sunrise I'm driving south on 220, thinking of light,
how narrow its window today. The high-beams against
the sleeping grass glint back a mangled warp and weft,
galaxies in fast-forward across the winter sky. In their house
on Highway 74, my grandparents are just waking.
They shuffle through the kitchen like wind-up toys
with weakened springs. ...

I am freshly back from that annual trip to Charleston, the eighth year that my parents did not make the trip and the fourth Christmas season since their deaths. All of us, not only my poetic son, carry memories of Mother and Daddy feeling awkward and uncertain in Charleston among luxury and extravagance as unfamiliar to them as the far side of the moon. The charms of Charleston — the food and drink and shopping and architecture — carried little appeal for them. In this intimately walkable city, they contented themselves to permanent seats in the hotel lobby, where they could see the comings and goings of their children and grandchildren. Their enjoyment of this city was not in its tourist attractions but its two dozen or so visitors whose names they knew. They would be happy to know that we're still traveling many hours to gather for a few hours to keep track of their great-grandchildren's progress and of the new arrivals to the party.
We gather each year close to the Winter Solstice, a date when daylight stops its waning; the darkness cannot overtake it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Corruption gives Republicans an opening

Ten days before 2010 begins and 11 months before the off-year elections, which choose members of Congress and members of the state legislature, North Carolina Republicans would seem to be in their most enviable situation since Reconstruction. First-term Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue is struggling with her popularity ratings, voters are troubled by the actions of a dominantly Democratic Congress, and state Democratic leaders keep getting mired in the muck of corruption.
State and federal investigators are looking into allegations of abuse of power by former Gov. Mike Easley, other former Democratic leaders are in prison or have recently completed prison terms, and allegations are being widely reported against long-term Democratic leaders and the bureaucracy they have installed. The allegations against Easley have become too numerous to tally from memory, but his personal use of vehicles on loan from political supporters, the pressuring of supporters and aides to bend the rules to his advantage, his discounted purchase of coastal property, the hiring of his wife at a high salary by N.C. State University, and his use of private aircraft during his gubernatorial terms all stick in the craw of voters struggling in a down economy. The latest installment in this drama has his former legal counsel pleading the Fifth Amendment and then being "no longer employed" by his law firm.
State Sen. Tony Rand has been accused of insider trading involving a law enforcement equipment firm where he is a member of the board. Even if the accusations are false, as Rand insists they are, the state's large purchases from the obscure firm are enough to raise eyebrows.
A News & Observer story today revealed the not-rational pay scales for county ABC executives, which follows on previous stories about the inefficiency of the state system of individual ABC authorities, each acting independently but buying through the state ABC system. Has the Democrat-controlled legislature addressed this issue and brought liquor sales into the 21st century? No. Neither have Democratic legislators addressed the inefficiency in the 70-year-old state sales tax system.
This series of events, especially if Easley gets indicted before voters go to the polls, provides a perfect opportunity for Republicans in North Carolina. Their slogan should be: "Fight corruption; vote Republican." The message can be hammered home as the litany of allegations against Easley and others plays in the background or as the names of jailed Democratic leaders scroll across the screen: Jim Black, Frank Ballance, Meg Scott Phipps.
"Fight corruption; vote Republican" provides a simple, straightforward message that should resonate with voters. It doesn't matter that Republicans may be just as corrupt as Democrats (just not caught yet). What voters have seen is Democratic politicians obfuscating and dissembling at public hearings or going to jail. Their vote is their only way to strike back.
North Carolina Republicans have a golden opportunity in 2010, but the party's track record of internecine warfare in the name of ideological purity offers little assurance that they will take advantage of the gift they are being given. Unless the GOP gets its act together, it will miss out on the opportunity of a political lifetime.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas party grows in importance

As the children have grown up and established their own homes with their own families, Christmas morning has taken a less dominant role in our Christmas traditions. The annual Christmas drop-in we held last night was, in many ways, the highlight of the Christmas season. Though it can never replace or surpass the joys of sharing Christmas day (or some nearby date) with family, our little drop-in has expanded in importance over the years.
Christmas gift-giving and -receiving has diminished as we've grown older. We're at the age when there are few things that we need and few toys that we want. Our grandchildren have no reason to be in want; they will be amply supplied with the toys and garnishments of the season.
A Christmas party is the big gift my wife and I give each other — and a few dozen friends and neighbors. The house overflowing with perhaps 60 or 70 people (we haven't taken a count) last night, I commented that I love to see the house filled with people. Why do all that decorating if you're not going to share it? The house was filled sufficiently to keep us running, greeting newcomers and seeing to the food and drinks. Our regret each year is that we have so little opportunity to visit with guests. Greeting friends, refilling drinks and food trays and introducing guests severely limit our ability to carry on a conversation. This annual party adds a festive interlude to the bleakness of long winter nights and cold, shivering days.
Our first Christmas party was around 35 years ago in a tiny apartment garnished with an artificial tree, a few homemade decorations and the simplest of food; our guest list could be numbered on two hands. This year's party is bigger, the decorations more elaborate and the preparation far more time-consuming, but it is driven by the same simple desire to share Christmas joy.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Two weeks before Christmas, the house glows

Two weeks before Christmas, the house sparkles with lights and cherished Christmas decorations. The Angel Tree is up, covered by angel ornaments collected over the years and gleaming like the Milky Way on a clear night. The "main tree" is up and decorated, too, with the help this year of a grandchild. The Santa figurines are on display. Garland wraps the banister. The Christmas mugs and plates are in use. Christmas cards are on display. A batch of wassail is in the refrigerator.
The only thing missing is the excitement that used to fill the house like an orchestral prelude to Christmas. There are no little children to get giddy at the sound of Christmas carols or the sight of gifts beneath the tree. December is still a workaday world for us adults. The days end in early darkness that envelopes the house even before we arrive home to flip the switch that makes the trees sparkle and the candles glow from each window.
This is no holiday. There is much remaining to be done. Gifts remain to be purchased and wrapped. The house must be cleaned before guests arrived. Food and drink must be prepared for the guests as well. The yard suffers from the neglect of early darkness.
In two weeks, we'll find the excitement. The holiday tasks will be done. The family will gather and bask in the warmth of kindred spirits. In 10 days, the daylight will halt its shrinking and imperceptibly grow once more. The light will overcome the darkness. The window lights and tree lights that had scattered the darkness will be taken down and stored away as we confidently await the lengthening of the day and the warming of spring to come.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

That's not golf he was playing

Whoever thought that Tiger Woods, who seems so focused and serious on the golf course, would be such a party animal? Frankly, I was a little slow catching onto this story. I first heard that Tiger was injured in a wreck when I was watching football on TV. I was concerned about the seriousness of his injuries. When, a few hours later, the reports said he was treated and released, I figured, that was the end of that.
Little did I know.
I haven't read the tabloids' and tabloid TV's accounts of what "really happened," but it seems apparent to everyone I hear talking about it that Tiger must have been engaged in some non-golfing activities with women not his wife. I had also miss-heard the initial reports of when the accident took place. It was 2 in the morning, not 2 p.m.
Tiger is not talking, except to issue statements regretting his "transgressions," but his alleged paramours don't mind talking — or bragging.
It seems regrettable that someone with such a squeaky-clean image would become tabloid fodder and not be able to deny it. This is John Edwards all over again, except Edwards always seemed just a little bit of a cad; not Tiger. He married a beautiful Swedish model and had family portraits taken with the new baby. What more could American Express, Buick, Nike and all the other outfitters eager for his endorsement ask for?
I have no idea what went on between Tiger and Elin early in the morning at their multi-million-dollar gated-community mansion, and I figure it's none of my business. But it is a shame that one of the few truly admirable, incredibly accomplished and respected athletes of modern times should be revealed as so much less than he had seemed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A day with family is never wasted

You could think of it as a lost day, a day in which I achieved nothing productive. Nothing checked off my to-do list. No weekend tasks completed. Even skipped church.
On the other hand, I spent an entire day, virtually without interruption, with my daughter, her husband and their two children. Although we have decorated the house this year, my wife and I are not expecting any of our children to spend Christmas with us. It is a first in our nearly 38 years of parenthood.
Although we'll have some friends and neighbors drop in, the children and grandchildren were not planning to come here. On Christmas day, we'll travel and be with those children and grandchildren, so it will be a family day as it has always been, and we will be joyful and thankful for the day and the gathering. But the decorating, which has taken weeks and considerable effort, seemed a waste without the people who had shared the festivities with us all these years.
So we were glad to have our four guests here just for the day. My wife had offered to have our grandson help us decorate our Christmas tree, and he was eager to help. She threw in an offer to help him make Christmas cookies as an added incentive. We even managed to have a family meal in the dining room, eating off the Christmas china and enjoying sugar cookies and gingerbread men for dessert.
The culmination of the day was holding my 2-year-old grandson over my head as he placed the angel, handmade by his grandmother, atop the tree in a re-enactment of a ceremonial tree-topping some 30 years ago when I held his mother over my head, and she slipped the angel onto the highest bough. A photograph records that long ago event, as I lifted my younger daughter above my head, and she reached precariously to find the topmost sprout. Now the cycle seems complete as I held her son in the same manner, and he giddily achieved the same lofty goal, unaware of the significance of what we had done.
On this day when tasks and routine were left undone, I feel no regrets, for we have accomplished a better feat, instilling in a new generation a family Christmas tradition. May the circle be unbroken.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Suicide bombers in the newsroom

It's sad to me what is happening to the newspaper business. I'm no longer in the profession, but I spent most of my adult life in it. Journalism was a challenging, rewarding (though not necessarily in the monetary sense) and exciting career. Emphasize "was."
Newspapers across the country are closing or cutting back on staff and pages. Advertisers, despite the lack of hard evidence that Internet advertising is truly effective, are abandoning print ads for the "new media." With the fractionalizing of Internet, magazine and television audiences, newspapers stand out as the last remaining "mass medium," capable of attracting a broad and diverse audience. Even though circulation at most newspapers is falling precipitously, newspaper audiences remain diverse, educated, involved and affluent. They're the perfect target for advertisers.
Newspaper executives don't seem to know what to do. To save costs — and in some cases to preserve high profit margins — they are cutting the heart out of newspapers. If newspapers aren't going to be NEWSpapers, they have little reason to exist. They can't deliver the eyeballs for advertisers unless their news product attracts readers. Otherwise, they're just "shoppers" — the advertising-only fliers that found some temporary success a generation ago.
Too many newspaper executives are not news people. Either they came up on the business side — selling ads or running circulation — or they came from other industries and figured reporting news must be just like making widgets. For them, cutting back on news staff makes perfect sense as a response to a loss of revenues. What worked on the vacuum cleaner assembly line should work at the newspaper, they figure. As a result, newsrooms around the country are being decimated, and readers are being delivered a lesser product — one without the quantity and quality of news that once made the paper a good, even essential, purchase.
The latest episode in this denigration of the news and ignoring of the readers' interests and the principles of journalism comes from the Dallas Morning News. A memo from the guys in the penthouse offices announces that reporters and editors will now be reporting to ad salesmen. Ideas like this one, flavored with consultants' favorite cliches, such as "convergence," "paradigm shift" and "symbiotic," are typical of the idiocy of people who know nothing of journalistic principles and the hazards of betraying public trust. Back in the day when a half-dozen hometown grocery stores took out a full page ad every week, a former colleague commented that if pleasing advertisers was what newspapers did, we'd run a front-page story every week on the latest specials at the Piggly-Wiggly. Supermarkets aren't as dominant now, but it's easy to imagine the Dallas paper doing big stories on the latest model at the Chrysler dealer or the new shoes at Neiman Marcus. Advertisers — and the ad salesmen who gain the commissions on ad sales — will be pleased, but readers will not be fooled. Readers will have one more reason to distrust and abandon the "mainstream media."
The decline of newspapers is profoundly sad to me and potentially tragic for a democracy that depends upon an informed electorate, but this decline is, at least in part, a self-inflicted wound.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Daily regularity is essential to blogs

I once told a newspaper conference, where I was a panelist, that the most important part of blogging was being consistent. I recommended blogging daily on whatever topic so that readers would have fresh posts to read whenever they returned to the site.
I tried to follow that rule when I was blogging for a newspaper, and I followed it pretty consistently while unemployed. The posts might not have been profound or noteworthy, but they were delivered fresh daily. Since rejoining the ranks of the productively employed, however, I've slacked off on blogging. Getting to the office on time has taken precedence over researching a topic for a blog post.
The hit counter I checked today confirmed my suspicions. Visits to this blog slowed down in October, when I returned to work full-time. The drop-off was not precipitous, but it was dramatic enough to be easily noticed.
Although losing a few readers of this blog is disappointing, it does appear to prove my earlier point: The most important element of successful blogging is daily consistency. I should take my own advice.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Holidays are a time to gather families

My apologies. I've become lax at maintaining this blog. But it's not as if people were e-mailing or calling to demand that I post something!
In the week since my last post, Thanksgiving has come and gone, Advent has begun and we are into December. At the family Thanksgiving gathering, in a house filled with 25 people, seven of them 4 or younger, I was struck not by the inevitably chaotic nature of these events but by their importance. All of those gathered share a genetic combination that links each of us to each of the others. For some the link is voluntary in the form of marriage. But even that voluntary link mixes our genes, our interests, our fortunes to each of the others gathered.
Family is what matters. That is why we will travel miles and disrupt schedules and eat unfamiliar foods, just to be with those whose genes we share. These holiday gatherings grow more important as we grow older and realize how few and how rare such gatherings truly are.
My wife and I have been blessed with six grandchildren who are scattered in three cities and who have different schedules, different expectations and different desires. But they share some common genes that manifest themselves in facial expressions, the shape of the chin or the stubborn impatience seen for generations. Seeing them all together fills our hearts in a way nothing else can, for we realize how quickly they will grow and how few precious days we will have to know them.
What is important this holiday season is not the decorations or the gifts or the parties. What matters is the opportunity to spend time with those who are most like you in all the world (whether you admit it or not).

Monday, November 23, 2009

We do disasters, large and small

The night gave meaning to the expression "Oh-Dark-Thirty," a gloomy, cold, rainy night, and I was hurtling through it this morning, following two tail lights a hundred feet ahead. It was so middle-of-the-night that the only radio station I found was playing Christmas music. Other stations had signed off until dawn. "Oh Holy Night" and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" gave a surreal sensation to the night. Ahead, a house had burned down to the floorboards, and lives had been shattered.

This is the job most people never think of when they hear "Red Cross." Oh yeah, the blood drives and the first aid classes. Few people think about disaster services, except for the Big Disasters, the tsunamis and the earthquakes and the Katrinas. But these dark rural roads in the middle of the night is where Red Cross volunteers spend most of their time and energy. A call in the middle of the night from a rural fire chief sets off a response from on-call Red Cross volunteers, who find the location of the small disaster and the survivors, huddling beneath a tree behind the burned-out hulk of a mobile home. They're luck to be alive, but you don't tell them that. They don't look so lucky at the moment.

Don't doubt that this is a disaster of monumental proportions for one family. All is lost — home, furniture, clothing, medications, shoes, identification cards, keys, precious photos and mementos. The Red Cross' role is to get the clients through the initial shock of this devastation. A place to lay your head, a change of clothing, a pair of shoes, some food: It goes a long way toward bridging the gap between Before and Now What? "Comfort kits" provide little things that you might never think of but are as essential as clothing — toothbrush, toothpaste, antiperspirant, etc. In bigger disasters, clients are grouped into shelters, where basic needs can be attended to. But in a typical week, the local chapter attends to at least one single-family fire, a disaster of gargantuan proportions for those directly affected. Each year, Red Cross responds to 70,000 home fires nationwide.

In the dark of night, with incongruous Christmas carols playing background music, the work goes on where few notice.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

With parades, marching beats watching

A parade looks different from the inside. I found that out today when I marched in the Wilson Christmas parade, held five days before Thanksgiving! I had not watched a Wilson Christmas parade (or any other variety) in several years and have never been a huge fan of parades. The last time I watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade or the Rose Bowl parade on TV, I was probably too young to vote. When I lived a block from the Wilson parade route, I would usually walk down the street to see what the excitement was all about. One of my children appeared in the parade one year.
This year, I took part in the parade for the first time. Walking with other American Red Cross staff and volunteers, I marched along and waved, as if I were a beauty queen or a politician. The parade went quickly. I scanned the crowd for familiar faces and saw a few, including my 2-year-old grandson sitting on his dad's shoulders.
Being in the parade, I concluded, is more exciting than watching one. I saw more people I know, waved to them and heard my name called once or twice. And walking a mile or so sure beats standing around for hours. I'll be ready to do it again next year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Want news? That'll cost you

If you went to the Wilson Times Web site today, you ran into a blockade. After five or six years of free access to the site, the newspaper has erected a barricade around its news stories. Only the often enigmatic headlines are free to all. The newspaper had tried setting up a pay wall around its content in the past, as news Web sites were just developing their presence. The $6 a month fee for print non-subscribers never generated much revenue and scared off potential readers. With online readership peaking at a couple of hundred or so, the Web site had little or no appeal to advertisers, and the pay wall was taken down several years ago.
Pay Wall II will charge an audacious $9.50 a month for access, the same price as a print subscription. This price, of course, has no relationship to the cost of placing the news on the Web. The newspaper's Web site has no printing costs, no delivery costs, no mechanical infrastructure. It appears to be a price aimed at shoring up print subscriptions — subscribe to the Web edition and get the print edition for no extra cost. Buy one, get one free? Something is needed; I'm told that the newspaper's circulation, which peaked above 18,000 when I was there, has fallen below 15,000.
This aggressive pricing has been advocated by some of the "experts" offering advice to a newspaper industry that is clearly in turmoil. News content is costly to produce; it has value; anyone accessing it, in print or online, should pay for that cost, these experts say.
Others are not so sure that's the right approach. Most state, national and international news probably will remain "free." There's just too much competition and too little consensus about how to charge for this information. Local news might stand a better chance of surviving behind a pay wall, but this news has to have real value sufficient for large numbers of people to want to pay for it. And entry into the information business is so inexpensive these days (no need to buy a printing press, and there are plenty of out-of-work journalists to hire on the cheap) that even highly local content providers have to beware overpricing their content. An upstart competitor could easily overthrow their monopoly.
The fundamental problem is that the newspaper business model has broken down. For generations, newspaper owners got rich by delivering reliable readers to advertisers. Now readers are less likely to read a newspaper because they have so many other options, and advertisers are concentrating on the narrowly targeted cohorts of buyers delivered by Internet search ads and other innovations instead of the shotgun-blast approach of hitting the entire population (or large portions of it) via newspaper ads. Charging for content, which newspapers never really did (subscription prices used to cover only the delivery costs), is one answer to this quandary, but it might not be the best solution.
What is the best solution? If I knew the answer to that, I could be a consultant and make big money instead of giving away my opinions for free. I do know that charging for content that used to be free will only anger the people accustomed to dialing up the newspaper Web site whenever they feel like it, and restrictions will sharply reduce traffic on the Web site, making advertising space there less valuable.
It's a bold but risk-laden strategy, but these are desperate times (no pun intended).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Three quick observations

A few quick observations for the blogosphere:
• While I waited in a checkout line Friday, the young woman behind the register looked at my name and asked, "Are you the guy who writes those editorials on the Internet?" "I write a blog," I said. "Yeah, I thought you looked familiar." When I began writing a blog, I continuously invited people to read it. Few did, I'm sure, but I picked up a handful of followers and occasionally received comments from friends who said they'd read a blog post. But having a stranger tell me she reads my blog was a pleasant surprise. The (invisible) counter on my blog turns up the occasional reader from California or Dubai, but the vast majority of readers are from Wilson or the surrounding area.
• As I was listening to an NPR program earlier this week, the radio host began an interview with a person she identified as "a professional blogger." I was impressed. There are millions of blogs out there. There can't be more than a handful of people making a living at it. I've occasionally considered adding Google ads to this blog, but the return (fractions of cents per click) hardly seems worth the bother.
• Wilson residents frequently complain, with good reason, about our high electric rates. Thanks to a multi-billion debt, NCEMPA, which provides electricity to Wilson and 31 other eastern N.C. cities, has high debt payments, and these member cities charge above-average rates to pay off that debt. When our utility bill arrived this week, I first noticed the somewhat higher-than-expected total. Then I looked at the breakdown. Water and sewer service, it turns out, amounted to more than electric costs. That's a reminder that Wilson has high water rates than many neighboring cities. I caught some flak at the newspaper when I wrote a story noting that Rocky Mount would sell the water it was buying from Wilson cheaper than Wilson sold to its residential customers. Rocky Mount's water rates are lower than Wilson's. But Wilson, thanks to its investment in water infrastructure (primarily Buckhorn Reservoir), had water to spare; Rocky Mount didn't.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Soaking rain gives soil what it needs

This week's drenching rain was just what the soil needed, a long, slow, steady shower that soaked deep into the soil. After a gloriously crisp and dry weekend (the Whirligig Festival thanks you!), the rain began falling Tuesday and is still drizzling today. The rain gauge on my deck measured just over 4.5 inches for the last three days' accumulation.
The rain was, at least in part, the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which ran aground on the Gulf Coast and then stumbled into the Carolinas, leaking water all the way. Hurricanes, which depend on warm ocean waters for their strength, are unusual this late in the season, and Ida turned out to be not such a powerful force. North Carolina has been spared the kind of destruction that hurricanes usually bring to the coast and even, as Wilson residents will remember, far inland. This week's rain led to some coastal flooding and evacuations. N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks was reportedly overwashed, and shelters had to be opened in some areas.
Overall, however, it's been a quiet hurricane season, one that lulls us into indifference or ignorance. Every year will not be so fortunate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Uncomfortable facts about shooting are relevant

On this Veterans Day, America mourns the loss of 13 soldiers in a bizarre incident a Fort Hood, Texas, in which a commissioned officer opened fire on troops preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. The officer, a psychiatrist of the Muslim faith, will be charged under military law, but his faith, and the way the media and the public have perceived its relationship to his actions, is causing additional distress.
Alan Mutter, in his widely read Newsosaur blog, accuses the news media of ethnic profiling in its reporting on the Fort Hood shootings. The painfully politically correct Mutter claims the use of the term "terrorism" and the mention of the shooter's Middle East heritage and Muslim faith were inappropriate provocations that should never have been part of the story about the shooting. Some commenters on the blog take Mutter to task for ignoring not just the obvious but the incisively relevant aspects of this incident.
It's hard to imagine an incident that better captures the term "terrorism" than an unprovoked and well-planned shooting down of unarmed soldiers on an Army post. "Terrorism" does not require multiple participants; it is not the same as "conspiracy." A terrorist can be a lone gunman or suicide bomber and does not have to be a part of a team directed by fanatics from afar.
Although not all the facts behind Maj. Nidal Hasan's motivation are known yet, it is obvious from what is known that he opposed America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and believed Muslims in the U.S. Army should be exempted from fighting against others of their own faith. He had corresponded with a radical Islamic cleric and had made a formal presentation proposing that Muslim soldiers be granted conscientious objector status on the grounds that their religion forbade their fighting against fellow Muslims on behalf of "infidels."
These are relevant facts, not "ethnic profiling."
One can report these facts without engaging in ethnic profiling or cowering behind political correctness. NPR's "All Things Considered" aired an insightful interview Tuesday with a Muslim chaplain who had counseled Maj. Hasan and who rejected the Islamist notion that religion trumps nationality. American soldiers, he said, owe their allegiance to America. Nearly all of the thousands of U.S. soldiers of the Muslim faith know and accept this, and the public should keep this in mind even as we recognize the Fort Hood shooting as apparently motivated by religious zealotry.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tax incentives are better than demolition

I was glad to see an article in the Wilson Times about a proposal to provide property tax credits in exchange for renovations on downtown buildings. I had made the argument before that tax incentives could solve some of the city's more persistent problems while improving the overall tax base in the long run.
Now Lindsey deGuehery, a Wilson physician who has invested in some downtown property, is proposing that the city rebate some property taxes on the renovated properties' increased value. Those rebates would offset the costs of renovations and encourage rehabilitation of vacant or abandoned structures. If successful, the rebates could spark a renaissance in the downtown area.
Some years ago, I had argued in newspaper editorials that the city would be wiser to spend its money on a tax incentive program that would reward rehabilitation efforts than to spend taxpayer money demolishing vacant properties. A number of N.C. cities have successfully adopted this approach. At the time, Wilson's policy was to demolish properties that had been vacant for a certain period of time. A city ordinance required that vacant property had to be boarded up to discourage vagrants and criminal activity. The boarding-up made the property less appealing to potential buyers or renters and had the metastasizing effect of infecting nearby properties. The city persisted in appropriating large sums for razing boarded-up property and in issuing "repair or demolish" orders.
By investing in rehabilitation, in the form of tax credits or incentives, instead of demolition, the city could end up with renovated, occupied houses instead of snaggle-tooth blocks of declining structures punctuated by nearly valueless vacant lots where houses once stood. The tax incentives could take many forms, such as a five-year moratorium on increases in tax value (the property tax would be calculated on the previous, pre-renovation value), or as a rebate of the higher taxes so long as the renovated structure remains occupied.
The proposal from deGuehery and the Wilson Downtown Development Corp. is a hopeful development, but it depends on City Council's willingness to see its potential. Will council embrace a productive and effective new idea or stick with its love of the wrecking ball?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Election's meanings are pretty clear

The political analysts are puzzling over the deeper meanings of Tuesday's elections like soothsayers examining the entrails of a goat. The meanings shouldn't be too hard to discern, in part because there are few new lessons to learn.
In Virginia, a key swing state, where I spent five years in the 1970s, Republicans are resurgent again, winning all three major statewide offices. Virginia Republicans led the wave of Southern states swinging to the right before the Reagan Revolution took hold, and the Republican Party has been strong for decades, fueled by the natural conservatism of rural Virginia and the pro-business inclinations of traditional suburban Republicanism. Virginia's unusual odd-year elections put the state in the spotlight every four years. This year, Virginia Republicans nominated a solidly conservative gubernatorial candidate who talked local issues, not national ideology, and Bob McDonnell won handily in the Old Dominion.
In New Jersey, Gov. John Corzine couldn't hang onto his office, despite impassioned appeals from President Obama. He lost to a centrist Republican who withstood personal attacks and snide references to his weight problem to gain control of the Democratic-leaning state. This GOP victory, because it is in New Jersey and because Obama campaigned so vigorously there, might be more important than the Virginia contest.
In contrast, Upstate New York Republicans shot themselves in the foot (or somewhere) by first nominating a candidate who held more traditionally Democratic views on social issues and then abandoning her in favor of a Conservative candidate who didn't know the territory or the issues in New York's 23rd District. Just before the election, the incumbent-but-never-elected Republican withdrew and cast her support to the Democrat, who defeated the divided Republican/Conservatives in a district that had been Republicans for generations. Republicans will get another chance to regain the seat next year, but they'll have to do it against an incumbent Democrat. It's their own fault.
The lesson of Election 2009 is simple: Centrist, moderate candidates do better than either ideological conservatives or far-left liberals. The electorate is generally moderate overall with some pockets leaning one way or the other. The predictive ability of these few contests is limited, but it's safe to say that voters are uneasy and are distrustful of too much change too fast in either direction.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

City voters go for more of the same

Wilson voters opted for the status quo, for the most part, in Tuesday's City Council voting. Donald Evans and Bill Blackman kept their seats, and Logan Liles, who had been endorsed by departing incumbent Bob Thaxton, won in hotly contested District 6. Sam Lanier, about half Evans' age, conducted an energetic and highly visible campaign, decorating whole neighborhoods with his bright red yard signs. But voters went for Evans by a good margin.
District 7 voters returned Bill Pitt to the council dais, just four years after turning him out. Doris Jones, who had defeated Pitt the last time around, finished second this time in a four-way race.
Once again, computer problems delayed results until long after the polls had closed, leaving many to wonder why county election officials can't count votes more efficiently. But credit the county for having a nice display on the county Web site once the results were in. The county Web site had the results this morning while the newspaper's Web site was still blank.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thirty years ago, a fateful decision

Thirty years ago on the evening of Nov. 2, I made a fateful decision: I would stand beside a reporter who had uncovered a politician's corrupt ways only to find the publisher would refuse to run the story. He quit. I did the same. We would stand on the principle that the public must know the truth. We could not abide the fact that voters would go to the polls in a few weeks not knowing the truth behind the leading candidate, the incumbent, a near-shoo-in for the office. I could not continue to work for the newspaper that had made me its editor and then surreptitiously work to reveal the facts its owner had decided to keep hidden.
By the time our shift ended at midnight, the reporter and I had both submitted our resignations. We would not go along with concealing essential facts about a candidate for political office. Oddly enough, I've forgotten the politician's name, but I remember the malfeasance a dogged reporter had documented: He was running a sideline business on city time and using his city contacts for private gain. The lawyers reviewed the story and OK'd it, but the publisher — a woman rarely seen at the newspaper — said no.
Brian O'Neill, who is now a successful columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, recently reminded me that this significant anniversary was coming up, and we exchanged a few e-mails. He reminded me that he was young and single and could go home to mom and dad when he quit. "My editor had a wife and three little kids, and he stood behind me all the way," he says he's told people many times. That's true, as foolish as it sounds, but I cannot remember once doubting my decision. My wife recalled that she was never worried. I was the sole breadwinner in this paycheck-to-paycheck family, but my confidence that I had done the right thing never wavered. To make ends meet (I had resigned voluntarily and was not eligible for unemployment), I took some temporary jobs at newspapers in North and South Carolina while I looked for a new job. I finally landed one as managing editor in Wilson, a town I had never visited before December 1979. I stayed at that paper for 29 years before being laid off last year.
In an e-mail, I told Brian that my snap decision that November night 30 years ago was "the most honorable decision I've made in my career." We stood up for truth, honor and integrity. Our vindication was not the surprise loss of the incumbent politician (area TV stations and word of mouth spread the story the newspaper would not print). "Our vindication was not subsequent success, though we both had some," I told Brian recently, "for truth is its own vindication and integrity is its own reward."
I would have preferred to celebrate this night with a toast in the town where we parted ways 30 years ago, but we are hundreds of miles apart tonight. Before calling it a night, I will raise a glass to Brian and wish him continued success. He's a superb columnist and has recently published a fine book, a series of loving essays about his adopted hometown, "Paris of Appalachia." See more here.
Thirty years later, my snap decision seems more crazy than bold. Brian once reminded me that when we told our 7-year-old daughter that I was quitting my job, she responded, "It's your life." So it is. And it's still the right decision.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Easley consequences: criminal and political

The state Board of Elections found plenty of wrongdoing in the Easley for Governor campaign and voted Friday to turn the matter over to state prosecutors. The board also imposed a fine on the Easley campaign committee, which is reportedly dormant and might never have to pay the fine. In a week of hearings, board members heard about unreported airline flights, donations routed through the state Democratic Party to avoid contribution limits and reporting requirements, freebies for the governor and work done to private property paid for by campaign donations. They also heard the two-term former governor assert his innocence and rebut the sworn testimony of a close associate.
The Easley matter is far from over. The board appears to have uncovered enough evidence to justify felony charges. Federal prosecutors are also reportedly looking into Easley's activities, including his wife's hiring and extraordinary pay raise at N.C. State University. Two questions remain:
1. Is there enough evidence to convict Easley or others in state or federal court?
2. What will be the political fallout from this mess?
In 2008, Democrats got a pass on the shenanigans of party leaders and elected officials. Although former Speaker of the House Jim Black was in federal prison for trading illegal campaign contributions for legislative action and lesser officials were imprisoned or fined, voters elected another Democrat as governor and gave Democrats an unstoppable majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. The turnout for Barack Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Jimmy Carter did it in 1976, helped ensure the Democrats' success, but Obama will not be on the ballot next year.
If Republicans can produce viable candidates who will offer an alternative to the usual insider favoritism and flouting of laws and regulations that has been exposed by the Board of Elections hearings, Republicans can make substantial gains in 2010. Gov. Bev Perdue has seen her approval ratings plummet, and Democrats won't have Obama to lead the ticket next year. Republicans will have a real chance next year, but the party has a record of blowing opportunities. Internal fighting and demands for ideological purity have crippled Republicans in the past. Let's see if they can take advantage of the golden opportunity Easley and other Democrats have provided them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hello, Paycheck, it's been a long time!

There are few things in life more affirming than the first paycheck from a new job, especially after a year of job hunting. Payday is always everyone's favorite day of the week or month, but it's a joy that you get used to and that loses its luster in repetition. Go for several months without that repetition, and notice how much more lustrous a payday seems, even though the size of the paycheck might not be the same as the one you once earned.
Two weeks into a new job, I'm still trying to find the day-to-day routine. After spending more than 30 years hurtling headlong toward a daily deadline, I find the less hurried, less anxious pace an extraordinary change. After I was laid off, I adjusted to a largely self-determined routine with the luxury of time to write. This blog received up to an hour of attention each morning, then I could turn to spinning fictional tales, which were personally rewarding, even if not marketable.
I miss the time I had for writing, the characters and the plots, but getting a paycheck is rewarding in its own profoundly affirming way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lobbying is all about the wrong issue

Today's News & Observer story about Blue Cross/Blue Shield's lobbying against a public option in health care reform legislation should not surprise anyone. I received an automated telephone call asking me to look for an item in the mail that would include a post card to send to Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) urging her to support health care reform that strengthens Americans' right to traditional health care, or something slyly misleading to that effect. I threw the mailing in the trash.
Health insurers have been sending a lot of mailings this year urging support for Hagan's decision to let Americans keep their health insurance, yada, yada, yada. None of the mailings clearly stated that the true purpose was to oppose a publicly run health insurance option. I can't imagine how many millions of dollars have gone into this lobbying campaign. As angry insurance clients in today's N&O story have angrily realized, these are your health insurance premiums at work.
As the health care debate drags on in Congress, I am increasingly concerned that the debate is not about health care but only about health insurance. Reforming health insurance gives us an improved health insurance program, but it will be a system still plagued by the unintended incentives and consequences of the current system. In an earlier post, I recommended a David Goldhill article from The Atlantic, which advocated more radical reform of the health care system. If only health insurance is reformed, people with health insurance can still be bankrupted if the cost of treating a chronic illness exceeds their insurance company's lifetime cap.
While Blue Cross/Blue Shield and 100 members of the Senate nibble around the edges of a problem, they are ignoring the big picture. We need a national consensus that health care might not be a "right" (it's not mentioned in the Constitution), but it is a "public good," the same as education or parks. Health insurance is a huge industry, but it is standing in the way of essential reform that will make health care accessible for all.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New career begins with one week

Yes, after 54 weeks without a job, I have completed one whole week back in the working world. Such transitions are not easy. I keep reminding myself that the chores I've been performing around the house now have to wait until the weekend (unless, of course, the weekend is spoken for). Having whole weekdays to do such work can be habit-forming.
One week is hardly enough time to develop a routine, but I've spent the week looking through files, reading manuals, meeting people and generally trying to figure out how best to do this job. It's a process not that different from other transitions to new jobs, except that I haven't done this type of job before, and it's been almost 30 years since the last time I went to work for a new employer.
My first week on the job, I've met a few of the volunteers, who are the strength of the organization. I've read the employee manual. I've driven the company van to Kinston and parked it without running into anything. I've hung a few personal pictures and plaques on the office walls. I've tried to get used to the computer system and the phone system, and I've made plans to relocate the computer so that I can use it without twisting my spine or bumping my knees. I've scheduled at least one meeting and greeted lots of people.
And I've fielded numerous e-mails, notes, voice mails, visits and phone calls from people wishing me well in my new career. That response has been especially gratifying after a year of unemployment, when it's easy to lose focus and confidence. I'm glad to be working again, and I am especially appreciative of those who have expressed delightful joy at the news.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Obama's vote-buying at the senior center

If a politician proposes to give an extra, unearned $250 to each member of America's highest-voting age group, is it vote-buying or just pandering? President Obama's call for a $250 federal check to be written to every person on Social Security is a disappointment to followers who thought he was not the politics-as-usual type. It may also be a disappointment to a cohort who will not get a vote for a long time — our grandchildren, who will be required to pay for this $13 billion in additional federal borrowing.
Obama says his one-time payment is meant to make up for the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment in this year's Social Security checks. Since 1975, a COLA has automatically been added to Social Security checks each year, based on the rate of inflation for the preceding year. This year, inflation was essentially flat; therefore, no COLA attained.
But, oh, the outrage! The federal government could not allow senior citizens to go a year without a pay raise! The government could, however, allow senior citizens to receive a 5.8 percent pay raise (as it did last year) while other Americans were seeing no raises, pay cuts or job losses. Since Social Security recipients received that generous adjustment, prices for most products have actually fallen. By making the COLA automatic for Social Security and congressional pay, Congress has avoided embarrassing annual battles over pay raises. It's the easy way out, but if the COLA is fairly calculated and if it is allowed to go down as well as up, it's fair.
Politicians and senior advocates like to talk about people who are living on a "fixed income," but since 1975 Social Security has not been "fixed." COLA increases have come every year, like clockwork, a benefit few workers in private industry have enjoyed. Some pensions and investments retirees depend on for income are "fixed," but Social Security is not in that category. Its benefits increase with the cost of living.
Obama's transparent appeal to elderly voters will have the primary effect of pushing the already-soaring federal deficit to a higher level. The president calculates that the consequences of spending more than you have (higher inflation, a weaker dollar, higher taxes in the future, perhaps even a lowering of the federal government's credit rating) are worth it in order to keep older voters happy. And the people who'll have to pay for this generosity aren't eligible to vote yet.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Getting sick is never any fun

It wasn't enough that my wife would have to suffer from the loss of her full-time houseboy and yard man when I got a job after a year of unemployment, but she came down with a nasty case of the flu on Friday, the day before her older brother was getting married. As a result, she'd be the only immediate family member to miss the wedding.
That might have been the worst thing about her sickness, but the fatigue, fever, congestion and general yucky feeling was a close second. She initially discounted the headache and congestion as just another change-of-season cold, but it quickly became apparent this was something else. And it came at a particularly busy time on her job, which made matters even worse.
The exact nature of the illness remains unclear: Was it plain old seasonal flu or the new and scarier swine flu? When I was in for a checkup last month, my physician said authorities weren't doing tests any more in most cases. You treat both kinds of flu the same way, so why bother? My wife didn't go to the doctor because there's not much an M.D. can do for a routine case of the flu. Bed rest, plenty of liquids, fever reducers — no need for a prescription for that regimen.
I haven't come down with any symptoms yet, and I certainly hope I don't. When I was at the doctor's last month, I got a flu shot — the regular kind — so maybe I'll avoid getting sick if what my wife had was seasonal flu. If I get sick, it might mean that it was swine flu, or H1N1. But there have been some suggestions that people of a certain age — born before 1950 — might have immunity from H1N1. I fit that cohort. So it may be that, if I don't get sick, it won't prove a thing.
I hope I avoid whatever that nasty bug is and, even more, I hope my wife recovers quickly.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

This blog has served its purpose

I began this blog Oct. 7, 2008, a few days after being unceremoniously laid off by the newspaper for which I had worked for 29 years. There was little comfort in knowing I was not the only one being shown the door, nor was there any comfort later when more former colleagues were also dismissed. As the "about me" section says, I started this blog to fill my need to write and to express opinions. Although I'm still waiting to be recognized as a "blog of note" by Blogger or to reach triple digits of "followers," I have filled my need to write. Posting to this blog has shaped the start of my day as I checked headlines, thought about life and pondered what it means to be an unemployment statistic. I have attracted a few readers. The (invisible) counter I use says about 2,000 unique visitors per month look at this blog. That's not an impressive statistic, but it's something.
One of the important aspects of blogging is simply showing up. You need to blog daily, or more often, to give your audience a reason to keep coming back. With more than 350 posts in just over a year, I've been here almost every day, and I've enjoyed it. As I told students when I was teaching English many years ago, writing helps you to think. Organizing your thoughts and putting them down on paper (or the computer screen) forces you to think about your assertions and defend them. That process, day after day, has been an outlet and a learning process for me.
I'm happy to report that my 382 days of joblessness end Monday. I begin a new job, a new career, a new schedule, a new focus, a new commitment and new responsibilities. Although I have no intention of abandoning this blog, it will have to take a lower priority. I might not be posting early each morning. I might not be posting every day. If that weakens its impact and reduces its audience, it can't be helped.
I started this blog to help me keep in the practice of writing every day while I searched for a new job. Having found a job, I have less need for this blog. Several people have told me they read this blog regularly. I hope they will continue to do so — and to understand if my posts are less frequent. I've enjoyed blogging and plan to continue doing it as much as I can.

Friday, October 16, 2009

We've become a nation of voyeurs

I guess I missed it, or most of it, anyway. I was not sitting in front of the television Thursday eagerly devouring every tidbit of the drama as authorities in Colorado chased a homemade helium balloon that was thought to harbor a 6-year-old boy. But apparently thousands, maybe millions, of viewers were anxiously absorbing the drama. And scores, perhaps hundreds, of journalists were feeding the insatiable 24-hour news cycle with the latest exaggerated drama.
I heard reports on the radio (NPR) as I traveled Thursday afternoon, wondering at the strangeness of this tale and the inflated importance of this incident.
Cable news and other "new media" outlets were supposed to expand our choices of news sources and make us better-informed. Instead, they have turned us into a nation of voyeurs. In the process, we have lost all concept of the dimensions of importance and newsworthiness.
Assuming — and this is not beyond doubt — that this balloon trip was not a melodrama scripted by publicity-hungry parents, that the family really did believe the 6-year-old really was trapped in the high-flying balloon (he was later found hiding in the attic), this was a localized incident. It was important to the parents, other family members, relatives, neighbors and friends. For a handful of people, it was life-or-death suspense. For the rest of the nation, its only significance was curiosity — or voyeuristic delight.
This voyeurism is not new. American newspapers turned the Lindbergh kidnapping into a national soap opera, but at least that involved someone who had achieved something, a true national hero. Today's news channel soap operas more often involve people who are "famous for being famous" or cast members of an unrealistic "reality show."
Yes, a child's life was at stake. But how many children across the nation died Thursday? Some died in tragic accidents that did not involve a backyard helium balloon. Some died from illness. Seventy-six U.S. children, according to the last count I saw, have died of swine flu. Each death was a tragedy from which their families will never fully recover. The average news consumer had no more stake in the fate of Falcon Heene than in the fates of thousands of other children in jeopardy across the country. The news trucks with their big antennae and tearfully sincere reporters cannot be at the scene of every tragedy, so they magnify one dramatic moment into a national crisis.
Meanwhile, four American soldiers died in Afghanistan, two U.S. warplanes collided during training, Congress is moving toward passage of a health care bill American consumers know little about, millions of Americans are out of work, nuclear-armed Pakistan might be at the edge of civil war, Iraq is growing more violent as Americans withdraw, many thousands of Americans are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure, and Iran continues its effort to gain nuclear capability.
But, oh wait! Falcon Heene is safe and sound; he'd been hiding in the attic all along. Aren't we glad?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

55 years ago, Hazel came to visit

Who remembers 55 years ago today? That was the day Hurricane Hazel tore through the North Carolina and South Carolina coastline and mauled its way across the state. Almost every house on some stretches of beach was blown into a new location or turned into scrap wood. I once stayed in a house that, the owner swore, Hazel's winds had moved about a mile up the coast at Cherry Grove, S.C., without disturbing a dinner plate hung on the wall.
Hazel's eye passed directly over Wilson. Folks who lived here then (I didn't) still tell stories. Among the stories are the tales of destruction. Nash Street, called one of America's most beautiful streets, was never the same, I'm told. The tall trees that had canopied the street were uprooted, and those big willow oaks remaining are a pale remnant of what had been there before.
When I went to work for The Wilson Daily Times 29 years ago, some staff members still recalled the effort to get a paper out that fateful Oct. 15, 1954. Electricity was out all over town, but the county fair — or what was left and not blown away — was in town, and publisher Elizabeth Swindell commandeered generators from the fair carnies to run her printing press. An Oct. 15, 1954, edition got out, but it was not printed until the wee hours of Oct. 16, and some of the references to "today" and "yesterday" were confused. When we published a Centennial Edition of the paper in 1996, we managed to find an original copy of that paper, although its front page had a hole torn in it. That Centennial Edition (which, unfortunately, is not available online) contained the full story of the heroic effort to get out a paper, despite all of Hazel's efforts to the contrary.
That hurricane was the "storm of a lifetime" for Carolinians until Hugo in 1989, Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999 set new standards for damage, destruction and flooding.
On this anniversary of Hazel, let's be thankful that this year we haven't had to batten down the hatches even once because of a threatening hurricane. Hallelujah!

Waking up to the cold, hard facts

I broke down and switched on the heat this morning after sleeping under a comforter last night. The chilly drizzle that was falling Wednesday afternoon made a quick trip a shivering experience, and the house offered little warmth on my return. Still, I chose to forgo flipping the switch on the thermostat, willing to abide a little discomfort in return for lower utility bills. But after picking up the paper from the water-covered driveway this morning, I found the indoor temperature at 67 just a little too cool for comfort.
After all, it is Oct. 15. It might not be winter yet (officially), but it is well into fall, and this week's cold rain is a reminder that winter is approaching with all of its discomforts. Reports of a colder winter ahead might thrill my daughter, who thinks she'd be happier in Canada or Norway, and my dog, who is shedding summer fur faster than she can grow a winter coat, but I'd be satisfied with the mid-60s sunshine we enjoyed last week. The global warming folks, who are a little embarrassed by the last decade of stabilized temperatures, also might not appreciate a colder winter.
I do look forward to winter, at least until it gets here, because it's a change, and change makes life more interesting. A climate, whether arctic or tropical, that never changes would be dull. By January or February, especially if we have a really cold snap or a week of gray skies and sleet, I'll be ready for spring.
At least this winter should be a little more accommodating of family budgets. Natural gas prices are down sharply, even in Wilson with its notoriously high city-owned utilities. When those winter heating bills do come, they shouldn't be as bad as last winter, even if the weather is colder than normal.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Weight gain is not inevitable or uncontrollable

An op-ed column in today's News & Observer complains that the state health insurance plan's higher premiums for obese clients is unfair. It is, says the writer, "tantamount to charging employees for having a heart attack or needing chemotherapy." The writer assumes that people are powerless to control their weight, in the same way they might be powerless against a genetic anomaly that causes heart disease or a cancerous tumor.
It just ain't so. Although some people may be congenitally susceptible to putting on weight, they are not helpless against this predisposition. People who are naturally shy can overcome that tendency, and people who tend to gain weight can curtail their eating. Even if your body tends to convert calories into fat, it cannot do that unless those calories are consumed. People with weight-gaining tendencies can also counter this predisposition by burning calories through physical labor or exercise. As one ages, metabolism slows down. If you're eating as much at 40 as you did at 20, and haven't increased your exercise, you're going to gain lots of weight.
Among the hazards of unemployment, I was told recently, was weight gain. Jobless people tend to ease their frustrations and depression by snacking a lot. After a year of joblessness, I have had the opposite experience. I've actually lost about 10 pounds while unemployed — and not because I've quit eating.
What I have done is reduce consumption of prepared foods. When we both worked, my wife and I tended to eat instant meals more often — microwave dinners, fast food, hot dogs, etc. Since I have the time to cook, we've prepared more meals from scratch (or nearly scratch), and we've eaten healthier. We've also paid attention to portion size. I've also exercised more, by doing yard work, walking the dog and actually going to the gym (gym membership is one luxury I did not give up as we reduced our living expenses). As a result, I'm leaner and healthier and feel better (in part because job stress is gone).
Controlling weight is not easy. Fad diets won't do it. Intermittent starvation won't do it. A commitment to eat healthily, exercise regularly and avoid snacking as part of an overall lifestyle change will prevent the common pound or two or four a year weight gain over 30 years that most people experience as they age.
My challenge, when I get a job, will be to maintain my eating habits while working in sufficient exercise in a desk-job environment. It's not easy, but it's not impossible.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Entertainers exempted from moral code

The News & Observer has offered a lousy "Point-Counterpoint" of columnists dueling over the issue of David Letterman's sexual affairs with female subordinates. This is not the only ethical/moral incident that should be beyond debate, and the fact that many Americans consider this a debatable issue or are willing to give the late-night comic a free pass makes a statement about our principles, or lack thereof.
The other prominent moral indecisiveness has to do with movie director Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to the rape of a drugged, underage girl in 1977. He had been in exile in France since fleeing the United States until he was arrested recently on a fugitive warrant in Switzerland. Since that arrest, many of Polanski's colleagues in the film industry have expressed outrage that this talented man should be subjected to punishment for molesting a child 32 years ago. This moral dilemma has even been lampooned in the liberal-leaning comic strip Doonesbury.
First, Letterman: The comedian's sex life would not have come to light, apparently, had it not been for an ill-conceived extortion attempt by a CBS news producer, who allegedly demanded $2 million or he would produce a play or a book or something revealing Letterman's habit of bedding his subordinates. Letterman refused the extortion demand, had the alleged blackmailer arrested and admitted a vague outline of his offenses on his late-night show.
Since then, many Letterman defenders have said that his sexual habits are nobody's business. He's not a politician, he wasn't jeopardizing national security, and nobody "got hurt," except maybe his wife, whom he wed recently after a long-term relationship. In most corporations, however, what Letterman allegedly did would be severely punished. Since the 1970s, and particularly since the 1991 sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, most corporations have established written policies forbidding sexual relationships between superiors and subordinates. Some would contend that any such relationship is, by definition, coercive. After all, the subordinate's livelihood is dependent upon the superior's good favor. Many lawsuits have been filed alleging that sexual favors were demanded or expected or that raises and promotions hinged on sexual submission.
Author Michael Crichton, in his novel "Disclosure," turned the tables on the sexual harassment debate by having a fictional female superior demand sex from a male subordinate and then file a false sexual harassment claim against him. The novel was turned into a movie featuring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas.
After claiming for years that all superior/subordinate relationships are toxic, many people are willing to give Letterman a pass because ... well, he's a comedian, and he even makes mea culpas funny, and creative types are different, and nobody's complaining ... are they? My guess is that if Letterman were the manager of a 7-11 and these affairs with subordinates came to light, he'd be fired on the spot.
As for Polanski, his defenders cite the length of time since the incident with a 14-year-old and his generally law-abiding life since then. The victim is reportedly no longer interested in testifying against Polanski; she'd rather forget about that episode. But the court record shows what can only be termed inexcusably reprehensible conduct on Polanski's part — drugging and raping a girl well below the age of consent. Obscure men who have committed similar offenses are wearing the indelible, lifetime label of "sexual predator."
I don't know that David Letterman should be fired and banished from late-night television or that Roman Polanski should spend the rest of his life in prison, but I do think society has lost its moral compass when it allows celebrities a different set of moral and ethical standards than the rest of us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Family reunions cling to memories

Each year we gather, descendants of a couple married on the cusp of the 20th century. He had never known his grandfather, a Confederate infantryman killed in battle. A small woman of proud Scot-Irish descent, she would bear 10 children. He had been among the great migration in the emerging South of landless farmers who had surrendered to what they called "public work" in the cotton mills in the late-19th and early 20th century. His eldest daughter told me once that "Poppa always thought the grass was greener just over the hill," and he moved the family often in search of better soil before he surrendered to working for wages. Most of their children would follow that migration into the mills, where the work was hard and hazardous and conditions were harsh. Hard times made them harder workers appreciative of any job that came with a regular paycheck. For them, "smart" meant diligence and industriousness, not intellectual talent.
Their whole generation is gone now, and the annual telling of stories about mill village shenanigans and about their parents, which had been the entertainment at family reunions, has been silenced. Still, we gather, widely dispersed first cousins trying to kindle the spark of memory of those 10 siblings and their parents. We strain to reconnect juvenile relationships that are as foggy as a dream, to connect faces to decades-old memories. We recount the recent events of our lives — deaths, illnesses, weddings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A few of the next generation — the great-grandchildren of my grandparents — and the next generation after that wander through the crowd like visitors to a foreign land, unfamiliar with the history, the language and the culture. With few exceptions, we will not see each other for another year when this gathering occurs again.
Still, we gather, stirring the embers of shared memory and genetics. For a few hours, the embers flicker to life, dance into flame and give off heat. We warm our cool and modern selves in that glow of century-old kindredness, a connection of blood and shared memory kept faintly aglow in the simple effort of an annual family reunion until that day comes when this generation, too, shall pass into memory.

Friday, October 9, 2009

President Obama is surprise winner of Peace Prize

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama is stunning. Only two sitting presidents had ever before won the prestigious award, and Obama was nominated within weeks after assuming the presidency. Today's announcement comes less than nine months into his presidency and before any of his lofty proposals and initiatives have proven themselves.
This award, however, should strengthen Obama's standing at home and America's reputation in the world. The Nobel committee cited two of Obama's initiatives, his reaching out to Muslims in a speech in Cairo earlier this year and his recent proposal to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide. Despite the president's olive branch extended to Muslims, Islamic terrorists have not laid down their arms or halted their suicide bombing campaigns. Nor have nations joined in singing "Kumbaya" as they beat their nuclear arsenals into plowshares. This award, like some previous Peace Prizes, is based more on intentions than on results.
The Nobel committee recognizes, even if some of his countrymen do not, that Obama has changed the tone of American diplomacy. The Obama administration has set a conciliatory, cooperative, multi-national agenda in international relations, a sharp contrast from the Bush administration's go-it-alone, might-makes-right attitude. But other than greater acceptance from other nations, the results of this attitudinal change are not yet tangible. America — and the world — still has problems to solve in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Lebanon, Haiti, Guatemala, and other hot spots.
The Nobel Peace Prize will give Obama greater prestige (and perhaps more respect), but it will not make the intractable international problems any easier to solve.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Incentives can't keep Dell online

The futility of a city, state or region trying to buy its way to prosperity is persuasively demonstrated by Dell Computer's latest announcement. Dell is closing down its $150 million, 750,000-square-foot plant in Forsyth County, just four years after North Carolina and local governments lured the computer maker to the state with promises of incentives topping $300 million. At the time, the $280 million in state incentives was the biggest industrial package the state ever offered.
Now it's down the tubes, along with the 950 jobs that will be lost. Dell says, unconvincingly, that the Forsyth plant can't be converted to produce the laptop computers customers are now buying. The incentives were based on creation of jobs, so the state and local governments might be able to recover incentives already awarded or refuse to pay promised incentives. The should demand the return of every nickel.
State courts have found the state's generous incentives for businesses moving into the state are constitutional, and federal courts have allowed states to compete one against the other for industries willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Although some of these incentive deals have worked out, enough have gone awry to leave a sour taste in the mouths of taxpayers. Competing businesses, paying state taxes, maintaining hefty payrolls and providing long-term jobs, have special reason to be miffed by the state's myopic pursuit of fickle industries.
Like a woman on the make, states can seduce industries into moving in with them, but a wayward industry, like a wayward husband, tends to repeat its bad behavior. There's always a better offer out there somewhere. Current U.S. trade and tax policies encourage more alluring deals from foreign countries, where workers are eager for jobs at wages less than a tenth of the U.S. minimum wage.
States need to wise up and stop mortgaging their future on the luring of some new industry that will go anywhere for the right offer, and North Carolina needs to re-examine its industrial recruitment policy. How many more industries might the state attract if its investments in individual-industry incentives were converted to lower corporate tax rates for all? A wiser policy might make it more likely that homegrown industries will flourish and create the hundreds of jobs that industries like Dell are willing to give and then take away.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Supreme Court justices seem to agree

An interesting thing happened at the Supreme Court Tuesday: Justices from both ends of the political spectrum expressed their skepticism about legal restrictions on videos. These were not just any home movies; they were videos of dog fighting, and the videos had been found in conflict with a federal law against videos depicting animal cruelty. A federal appeals court had overturned the conviction of the videographer, and the High Court seemed inclined to agree with the appellate court.
Maybe the court has rediscovered the First Amendment. Courts have long held that free speech entails a lot more than linguistic vocalization. It includes various forms of protest and artistic expression. It might even include videos of detestable, offensive behavior. From Antonin Scalia to John Paul Stevens, the justices seemed unanimously skeptical that the videos could be exempted from the First Amendment, no matter how gruesome or inhumane the scenes might be. The law was also so vague about just what is "animal cruelty," that any number of activities, from Spanish bullfights to slaughterhouse activities could not be filmed. Hunting videos would be banned, most justices agreed. At one point, an attorney tried to suggest that "killing" would be considered animal cruelty. That would be a surprise to millions of meat-eating Americans.
Justices suggested that rather than attempting to ban the filming of cruel acts — and thus run afoul of the First Amendment — Congress could specifically ban the cruel acts themselves. Dog fighting already is covered by state laws.
When the Supreme Court hands down this decision, it will likely be condemned by defenders of helpless animals, but such protests miss the mark. This case is not about animal cruelty; it is about the First Amendment right to record factually accurate depictions of daily life. When an act is not a federal crime, filming it or writing about it cannot be a federal crime, either. It's one of the few things the often-divided High Court seems able to agree on