Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Getting older reaches its reward

This is retirement day for my older brother, who becomes the first of us to fully retire. My other brother took a buyout from a former employer but was back at work in a new career the next day. His retirement is on semi-permanent hold. And I, of course, have been involuntarily "retired" for about six months now (and am eager to be fully employed and productive once again).
Having two older brothers, I realized the other day, is what made me so eager, from a very early age, long to be older. When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be older — bigger — like my brothers to play football and baseball with them and their friends. When they became teenagers in the 1950s and emulated the rebellious, independent, impudent, disrespectful attitudes of James Dean and Elvis Presley, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be "cool," to use a slang term of the era. Singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, in her "Only a Dream" poignantly tells of the bond between younger and older siblings.
Later, as they embarked on careers and marriages, I envied their income and their escape from what seemed to me to be the mundane existence we had shared as children. As I struggled with small children and the expenses of maintaining a household, I envied the relative freedom of older children and maturing careers.
I finally put aside my eagerness to be older when the infirmities of age began taking a toll on my brothers and the realities of rearing teenagers made having small children seem comparatively tame. Crossing a threshold around age 30, I found my metabolism slowing down, my stamina diminishing, my weight increasing, my skin beginning to sag and my joints aching. Suddenly, being older didn't seem so enticing.
In recent years, I've envied some peers who have completed careers in law enforcement, teaching or other vocations that provide early retirement. "When we retire ... " became a catch-phrase for our household conversations. We would travel, learn to play music, do crosswords, read all those books we had set aside, visit the grandchildren, volunteer more and ... you name it. But these past six months, while I've been a statistic among the millions of recently laid off American workers, I've done relatively few of the things I had envisioned for when I had the time. As in most "grass is greener" scenarios, the reality doesn't measure up to the dream. And the anxieties of job-hunting in this market have deflated whatever enjoyment I could muster.
Congratulations are in order this retirement day, but not envy. I'm not eager, at long last, to be as old as my brothers as we've reached the point when age is better measured in generations than in years and time is no longer on our side.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Powerful enough to replace GM's president

The most powerful man in the world just got more powerful. Now he can fire the president of General Motors.
President Obama, who holds the world's most powerful office, announced today that General Motors and Chrysler have not done enough to earn more government support. Rick Wagoner, GM's CEO, had already resigned under pressure from the Obama administration. The president held out the threat of bankruptcy if the corporations don't come up with plans the administration approves. Obama wants Chrysler to merge with Fiat, the Italian automaker (apparently on the theory that it will work out so much better than Chrysler's merger with Daimler Benz), and he wants GM to do ... something different.
Wall Street was so thrilled with the president's business expertise that the Dow dropped more than 300 points within a couple of hours. GM and Chrysler have made some dumb, short-sighted decisions in the past 40 years (back when the U.S. Justice Department was threatening to sue GM for anti-trust violations because it controlled over half the U.S. new-car market), but I'm not convinced that the president and his advisers know more about car manufacturing and marketing than the folks who've spent their adult lives working on cars.
Taxpayers have poured a ton of money into the automakers already, but it seems to be the height of hubris for administration officials, with all of two months on the job, to think they know more than GM and Chrysler officials. And if the president can tell GM to replace its CEO, what's to stop him from replacing the CEO of Bank of America or Microsoft? It looks like we're gathering speed on a slippery slope.

Annoyances of March Madness drive me insane

The things that college basketball fans endure! My television, which sits idle, dark and silent through much of the year, gets a workout during basketball season. So does my schedule. CBS, which owns the rights to broadcast the NCAA men's basketball tournament, exerts its authority by forcing East Coast fans to stay up past midnight to watch games on Thursday and Friday nights.
As if that were not enough, fans also must endure rebroadcasts of the same inane commercials over and over again. As much as the advertisers are undoubtedly paying for their 30 seconds of product pitches, couldn't they at least spend enough money to create two or three different commercials so we wouldn't have to watch the same ones over and over and over again? A news story over the weekend dealt with how some fans are sick of a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial in which a bartender, at the request of fans, signals a photographer to stop a breakaway lay-up and extend a game into overtime. The premise is contrary  to reality: No fan wants a game to go into overtime if it means his team might lose (which, of course, it does).
Other commercials are just as annoying. GEICO has a series of lame commercials featuring a stack of money with eyeballs on it. The ads are just as annoying as the GEICO "cave man" commercials. And Budweiser's "drinkability" ads are insipid. Touting a beer as "drinkable" is not exactly the highest of praise.
Even more annoying than the commercials is the constant promotion by the game announcers of upcoming network programs. The game could be down to a crucial free throw or in-bounds play, but the announcers are ignoring what's happening on the court so they can announce the next episode of "CSI" or next year's Super Bowl. Instead of telling you which player was called for a foul, or even whether a foul was called, they're telling you about who's on "60 Minutes." Stick to the game — please!
For all UNC fans, here's a commercial-free, promotion-free YouTube video that can get you psyched up for next weekend:

Friday, March 27, 2009

One last chance for the ACC

At the gym yesterday, I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt that said, "I only pull for two teams: Carolina and anybody playing Duke." She must have been happy with last night's late game as Duke was embarrassed by Villanova, 77-54, but I was not.
I had been pulling for all seven teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference and was embarrassed when four of the seven lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Then Maryland lost in the second round, leaving only UNC and Duke to defend the conference's reputation in the regional semi-finals. Carolina goes up against Gonzaga tonight as the sole ACC survivor.
I still contend that the ACC had some great teams — Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College, Maryland (which grew stronger as the season progressed), Florida State. All of these teams under-achieved in the NCAA tournament, losing to teams they could have and should have beaten. I'm no college basketball expert. I didn't fill out a tournament bracket and never have. I watch very few games not involving my alma mater, but I do follow the ACC and cheer loudly and lustily for my team. I want the conference to do well (although I still think the ACC's expansion was a mistake; give me the original eight-team conference of UNC, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, South Carolina, Clemson and Maryland and let them play each other twice).
Now only one ACC team is left to defend the conference's honor, and judging from Duke's Thursday night embarrassment, Carolina might be in trouble, too. A tournament is the best way to pick a national champion (football coaches and officials, take note), but it does not guarantee that the best overall team will win. "On any given night ..." the saying goes, any team can beat any other team. It's a rare night when Duke shoots 26 percent from the floor, just as it was rare two years ago when Carolina squandered a second-half lead or last year when the Heels forgot to show up for the first part of the game in the NCAA tournament. Wake, Clemson and Maryland had awful off-nights in this year's tournament and lost games they were capable of winning.
I'll be pulling for Carolina until the end and will hope fans of other ACC schools will cheer on the Heels as they try to redeem the ACC's reputation.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Recalling John Hope Franklin at Barton

The death Tuesday of historian John Hope Franklin was certainly an obituary worthy of the front page. Franklin was an extraordinary historian who blazed the trail for historians of African-American history and essentially created black history with his own hands and mind. His 1947 book, "From Slavery to Freedom," remains the gold standard in black history. He is rightly credited for making black history American history.
Franklin spoke at Barton College a few years ago. (Unfortunately, a search of the Wilson Times Web site did not turn up the article from his appearance at Barton, so I can't report the date when he spoke, but I think it was about five years ago.) In person, he was as I had expected him to be, the epitome of the gracious, dignified gentleman — lean, upright, knowledgeable, courtly and quiet-spoken. He could smile disarmingly or stare with piercing eyes, and he sprinkled his brief lecture to the Friends of Hackney Library with subtle and often poignant humor.
During his question-and-answer, I asked Franklin what he thought of the Depression-era slave narratives — the interviews conducted by writers working for the Works Progress Administration with aging former slaves. I had read a few books collecting these narratives and found them moving and astounding for their lack anger and bitterness. ("My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery" is one collection of narratives from North Carolina residents who had endured slavery.) Several former slaves described the affection they felt for their former masters and mistresses and said that affection was fully returned. They described attending funerals of their former owners and of former owners attending former slaves' funerals.
Franklin said he didn't put much credence in these slave narratives, pointing out that the interviews were done with people who were quite old and were asked to recall events from 70 years before. The interviews were also conducted by white writers, he said, and Jim Crow-era blacks would likely have wanted to ingratiate themselves to their white interviewers with rosier memories of what slavery was like.
I certainly have to defer to Dr. Franklin's knowledge of African-American history and his judgment of the validity of these slave narratives, but I still find these memories from the 1930s touching and compelling stories.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Residents envision Wilson in 2030

More than 50 people who gathered last night at the City Operations Center for what the city Planning Department called the 2030 Comprehensive Plan Neighborhoods, Gateways and Corridors Design Charrette. The residents representing various neighborhoods and interest groups in the city divided into groups and brainstormed about what they thought the city's gateways, neighborhoods (Old Wilson and Five Points) and corridors (U.S. 301) should look like 20 years from now.
The proposals for U.S. 301, which the city has been wrestling with for years, were the most elaborate and expensive. The busy corridor with its mix of small, aged housing and old eyesores of industrial and commercial properties is a particularly vexing problem. Solutions will be expensive, and changes will disrupt businesses and residents (mostly renters along 301 itself, but many established homeowners in the neighborhoods nearby). Like other pods, my group suggested  major changes in terms of landscaping, trees, parks, sidewalks and/or bike trails and demolition of the most outdated structures. We suggested new commercial properties along the four-lane with a buffer between those properties and existing housing beyond them. All the groups wanted to revamp and rehabilitate Fikewood Shopping Center, which has deteriorated badly since its opening in the 1980s. Major private investment will be needed to bring this area a solid retail center, and that might be the most difficult step in all these proposals.
Gateway improvements garnered perhaps the most creative thinking of the evening. One thing all the participants learned is that Wilson has many gateways. It's not just U.S. 264 from Raleigh, but also U.S. 301 North and South, N.C. 42 East and West, N.C. 58 East and West, Downing Street, etc. Well-landscaped, welcoming markers with greenery and flowers were universally proposed at as many as a dozen locations. My group suggested public art, such as Vollis Simpson whirligigs, at each entrance. Another group proposed a stone marker as a gateway motif. Another suggested a small wall or pillar of Silas Lucas brick. All suggested an identifying marker that would announce one's entrance into Wilson.
These proposals will be merged and presented to the public Thursday night at 7 at the Del Mastro Auditorium at Wilson Community College. It will provide a peek at what Wilson could look like in another 20 years if city officials take the comprehensive plan, which is still another year in the making, and run with it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

By all means, hold parents responsible

The Wilson Police Department wants to start holding parents responsible for the behaviors of their children. What a revolutionary thought! The Wilson Daily Times gave prominent play to comments by Officer Reggie Smith that police would find the parents of children roaming the streets in the wee hours and hold the parents responsible.
Unfortunately, we've heard these kinds of promises before, and the problem never seems to get any better. Former Police Chief Willie Williams made "community policing," police visibility and enforcement of minor offenses key parts of his success in reducing crime statistics. Like Officer Smith, Williams had been appalled by the sight of small children wandering the streets at night. Most Wilson residents, it seems, have seen this phenomenon, either in their own neighborhoods or along major thoroughfares. Children as young a preschool can be seen late at night wandering around without any adult in sight. Police Chief Harry Tyson made a public appeal last year for parental assistance in caring for and disciplining children.
Smith says parents will be held responsible. Good! They should be held responsible. But Smith was vague in his speech, according the the Daily Times, about just what the police would do. Let me suggest this: Don't take the children home and talk to the parents; charge the parents with child neglect. If letting a 7-year-old wander the streets at midnight isn't child neglect, I don't know what is.
The problem with holding parents responsible is that parents who let their children wander at night are, by definition, irresponsible. In fact, they may be unfit to be parents, and they are unlikely to respect the police department or social workers who are looking out for the best interests of their children. Many of these parents are single mothers who began birthing babies before they could drive. Many have chips on their shoulders and negative attitudes toward law enforcement, courts, schools and society in general. These are the parents who terrorize teachers who dare to discipline their misbehaving children and who beg judges not to send their babies to prison.
By all means, hold parents responsible for their children. Hold them responsible for setting these children off on their one-way path from neglect to gangs to prison.
Parents are the key to a civilized society, and we are, sadly, paying the price for policies and attitudes that make parenting nothing more than a biological act.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Subscriber tax credit could save newspapers

The April 6 issue of The Nation contains an unapologetic proposal to create governmental subsidies to save newspapers. Robert McChesney and John Nichols propose a simple solution to the plight of staggering newspapers: A federal tax credit for the first $200 anyone spends on newspapers subscriptions. McChesney and Nichols propose restrictions that would eliminate many small dailies (a 24-page minimum for each edition and a 50 percent-plus news hole), but their basic idea is sound.
Their fundamental argument is that a free press is a public utility that is essential to democracy. They quote Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black saying "a free press is a condition of a free society," and they point out that the United States has a long history, going back to Jefferson and Madison, of providing support for an independent press through generously favorable postal rates and public notice advertising. The Nation article does not ignore media corporations' fault for the current crisis in the newspaper business. The big media corporations have ignored their public trust to provide relevant, essential information about politics and government, stooping instead to fill their pages and readers' brains with the mush of celebrity gossip. But the rapid decline of newspapers threatens to leave major American cities with no newspaper, and that means no watchdog over local governments, institutions and businesses.
A tax credit for newspaper subscriptions would be a modest subsidy for an indispensable and irreplaceable watchdog. The tax credit would go to subscribers, not the papers, and would thereby prevent any governmental influence over newspaper content. The credit could save struggling existing newspapers and might even encourage new newspapers to compete. Readers could choose their local daily or pick The Washington Post or New York Times instead. My daily newspaper subscription runs far less than $200 a year, but I would guess that most newspapers would quickly raise their subscription rates to ensure subscribers got the maximum tax credit.
Of all the proposals for saving newspapers — charging fees for access to online news, barring news aggregators from linking to newspapers' work, raising subscription rates far above current levels, turning newspapers into nonprofits that beg for funding from readers (the NPR model), seeking subsidies from foundations, etc. — the subscription tax credit seems most sensible and workable.
The Nation's article is long and thorough, but it's worth the time it takes to read it.

Wilson is ahead of Raleigh once again

Once again, the city of Wilson is ahead of Raleigh. Last year, The Independent Weekly ran a laudatory article about Wilson's high-speed Internet service, trademarked as GreenLight. The Raleigh News & Observer is reporting today that Raleigh's plans for a 50-block downtown Wi-Fi service faces some opposition. Some critics are complaining that the $180,000 construction plus $15,000 in annual maintenance the Raleigh network would cost could be better spent.
Wilson has offered free downtown Wi-Fi for a couple of years. Amtrak passengers have been able to check their e-mail and conduct Internet business while waiting for their connections. A number of restaurants and other businesses offer free Wi-Fi within their buildings. I'm using my own home Wi-Fi connection to write this column, and my computer shows four other Wi-Fi networks (my neighbors') within range of my home.
Wilson's low-key and low-cost Wi-Fi network sailed through with little criticism. Many of the local critics confused the Wi-Fi network with the city's fiber-optic network (GreenLight), whose $28 million cost is expected to be paid by Internet, phone and cable TV customers. If the fiber system works according to the business plan, it will be turning a profit in just a few years. The Wi-Fi network, meanwhile, provides a simple but much-appreciated enhancement for downtown workers and visitors at relatively little cost for the city.
Its up-and-running Wi-Fi network puts Wilson ahead of Raleigh and on pace with more progressive (and costly) cities such as Chapel Hill.

An updated photo for Erstwhile Editor

It's Monday, a new week for the Erstwhile Editor, and I've posted a new photo on my blog. The previous photo was taken several years ago on a trip to the mountains. It showed me sitting on the porch of a mountain cabin, wearing glasses that are a bit out of date. Despite its age, the photo provided a good enough representation of my appearance, I thought. Because I'm the family photographer, there are few pictures in our files of me.
The new photo is a couple of weeks old, taken this month (March 2009) on a trip to Williamsburg, Va. My wife took the picture as I sat in a cozy leather wing chair in our hotel room. I fell in love with the chair with its deep wings and comfortable seat and wanted a picture of me in the chair. The classy chair could only improve my appearance.
My glasses are missing in this photo, not because my eyesight has improved or because I've begun wearing contacts. My near-sighted vision is not so bad, unless I'm trying to read distant signs in poor light. I read and work at the computer without my glasses, so I wasn't wearing my glasses when this photo was taken.
I'll leave it to others to decide how much aging the new photo shows compared to the old picture from about a dozen years ago. Good or bad, the new picture represents truth in packaging.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Perdue performs mathematical miracle

Gov. Beverly Perdue had spent much of her first month in office talking about how tough the state budget is going to be, but when the governor announced her budget proposal, something miraculous happened: The $3.4 billion budget hole had been cured by budget cuts of less than $400 million. Perdue's education background obviously goes all the way back to the New Math of the 1970s.
The state's current budget of $21.4 billion would shrink all the way down to $21 billion under Perdue's proposal. What pain! What austerity! The new budget spends more than the state budgeted just two years ago.
Perdue achieves this mathematical miracle in part by using federal stimulus money to pay for continuing state expenses. By doing so, she is laying a trap for next year's budget. The federal stimulus package is (presumably) a one-time appropriation. Using the stimulus for ongoing expenses, including schools, merely postpones the reckoning.
Despite the magnitude of the budget deficit, Perdue could not present a budget without an increase in education funding. She wants the state to spend more money on schools, increasing per-pupil state spending by $135, even though the money simply isn't there. Even though the governor is boosting education spending, local school boards are preparing for possible layoffs because they're not sure the numbers add up.
Perdue would raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to raise around $500 million. Hitting smokers and drinkers is more palatable than other forms of tax increases, but it's still a tax hike, which increases the state's taking of the public's income. Governors and legislative leaders have unabashedly touted the rapid annual increases in state spending over the past decade. In the four previous budget years, state spending increased 8.6 percent annually. After eagerly spending previous budget surpluses with new spending programs, North Carolina was facing an inevitable reckoning, but Perdue seems to be denying or postponing that reckoning.
North Carolina should have sufficient funds to educate its children, maintain its highways and enforce its laws without continual excessive increases in state spending, and it should be able to set spending priorities, eliminating, when necessary, ineffective and inefficient spending.

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's sunny in downtown Wilson again

I spent this morning in downtown Wilson, enjoying coffee and conversation about how to market and enhance downtown Wilson. From a window seat on Tarboro Street, I watched a steady stream of pedestrians, some of them downtown workers walking for exercise and some of them business people headed for appointments. The vitality of the street was reassuring, reminding me of the days when my former employer was downtown behind the courthouse and across the street from City Hall. It seemed like a perfect spot for a newspaper. Reporters on the county, city, courthouse, sheriff's and police beats could walk just a few steps to their sources.
Much has changed since The Wilson Daily Times moved to Downing Street in 1983 (and I had to drive to work instead of walking, as I had done most days back then). But downtown Wilson is reviving, as could be seen in the coffee shop where I sat this morning. A couple of new restaurants have opened, and other signs of life are evident. The strong, bold coffee and the welcoming, continental atmosphere of La Doux provided a relaxed, comforting feel, and the passing walkers added a sense of vitality. These signs of revival are encouraging but not pervasive. Too many storefronts remain vacant, and this economy will make new business ventures (downtown or elsewhere) more difficult. Still, there's much activity downtown. The Wilson Arts Center, Imagination Station, the Edna Boykin Cultural Center, the city's renovations under way at the landmark First Union originally occupied, BB&T's continuing strength, the vibrant county library, restaurants, law offices and all the rest give a vivacity to downtown.
The key, as I've asserted many times, is to bring downtown-area housing back. Too many of the historic bungalows, cottages and other homes have been split into apartments or turned into rental properties. Owner-occupancy and restoration can make this area vibrant again, the heart of the city and a contributor to downtown business ventures. Downtown Development Corp., Preservation of Wilson, some city officials and some persevering homeowners are working to relieve the angina in the heart of Wilson.
A pleasant visit in a downtown shop on a sunny Friday morning makes it all seem possible.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Farewell to the fat phone book

Lying in my driveway yesterday was an inch-thick "Talking Phone Book." It wasn't talking when I went out and picked it up. I dropped it on the table before addressing the question of whether we needed yet another telephone book in the house. We already have two.
How times have changed since the break-up of Ma Bell, which required monopoly telephone companies to not only allow competitors to use telephone lines and to sell telephones but also to release their list of customer names and phone numbers that constitute a telephone directory. Competitors, including the Talking Phone Book folks, have jumped into the market, and it's been a cash cow, just as it was for the Bell companies. The money comes from the yellow pages, which consist of paid advertising, which can be billed as part of your monthly telephone bill or by other means. For decades, the yellow pages, with their categorical listing of business numbers, have been an essential aid to consumers. Need a mechanic? Look under "auto repair." Got a toothache? Look under "dentists." It's no wonder so many competitors have jumped into the market and no wonder so many businesses spend tons of money on yellow pages ads. The massive tome in my driveway contained about a dozen full-page ads for attorneys (business must be good), and my heating/air conditioning contractor had a full-page ad, too. Even churches had ads.
But I think the halcyon days of yellow page ads and cash-cow phone directories may be coming to an end. Just as with news, phone directories are migrating to the Web. Do a Google search for phone numbers, and you'll get 71 million hits. Dozens of sites provide directories of residential and business numbers. Mapping and tourism sites also provide phone numbers. Many high-end cell phones now have links to phone directories and can search for nearby businesses by category. No need to lug around a big, fat phone directory, and no need to stack two or three phone directories in your kitchen drawer.
There's another factor: Consumers are shifting away from traditional land-line phones, whose numbers go into the phone directories. About 18 percent of U.S. households have no switched from land lines to cell phones-only. Other households are getting phone service via their computer or cable provider, making the traditional phone directory less comprehensive and less worthwhile. A phone directory isn't much good if a fifth or more of your neighbors aren't included.
Just as with advertising on news Web sites, I suspect that Web directory ads will not be nearly as profitable as print advertising. Directory publishers, ranging from the local phone company to newspaper publishers to directory specialists, will see their revenues plummet over time, and many will be forced out of the business. The companies running Web-based directories will benefit, but the billions being spent on yellow pages ads will not shift in their entirety to the Web. Lower costs for Web ads might free up some company revenues for other expenses, or for other forms of advertising.
It likely will be a slow and gradual process, but the fat phone book plunked down in your driveway or hung on your doorknob is almost certainly a dying breed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Poetry and more at Barton College

Monday night's audience at Barton College's Ragan Writing Center was not large — less than 50 (but I didn't take a head count). But it was a rainy night, and the topic was poetry, a spectacle not likely to fill a stadium.
The Emerging Writers Series, sponsored by Wilson residents Dr. and Mrs. William Batchelor, brought in Catherine Carter and Dan Albergotti, two "emerging" poets with North Carolina ties. Carter teaches at Western Carolina, and Albergotti earned one of his degrees at UNC-Greensboro. The two presented a contrast in poetic styles, Carter more whimsical and humorous, Albergotti more serious and provocative. My wife and I were there primarily to see Albergotti, who was in UNC-G's MFA program with my son and daughter-in-law. They had given me an autographed copy of Albergotti's book "The Boatloads" as a Father's Day gift (or was it birthday?) last year. As a college freshman, I marveled at the concept I had discovered in the college catalog, that writing poetry could be taught. I had assumed that poetry had to be inspired purely by a muse. I ended up taking that course on poetry writing, as well as a couple on fiction writing, but never managed to produce marketable works of poetry or fiction. I did manage to make a living as a writer for 35 years. When Fred Chappell, former state poet laureate and director of the creative writing program at UNC-G, spoke at Barton a few years ago, he joked about the poverty and humility that attends to being a poet.
I've retained an interest in poetry all these years, even as I edited thousands of clearly un-poetic newspaper articles. When my son was learning creative writing, he introduced me to a fine volume of poetry by Ron Rash, "Eureka Mill," with painfully evocative poems set in an old textile mill much like the mill village where my parents grew up, and to writers such as Michael McFee, who also spoke at Barton a few years ago.
Poetry won't fill a stadium, but it clearly has its fans, as Barton's Emerging Writers Series has shown. Poets regularly fill the room in the college's Writing Center. Monday's event emphasizes the inherent value of a liberal arts college. A college raises the threshold of art and culture in the community. Wilson would be a lesser city without Barton's highly educated faculty; its attraction of artists and writers who speak, exhibit and inspire; its lecture series such as the Sprinkle Lectures on religion or the Emerging Writers Series; its symphony orchestra and its theatrical performances, such as last week's "Violet," a musical based on the Doris Betts short story, "The Ugliest Pilgrim"; and even its athletic teams. Barton deserves the support of all Wilsonians who care about the quality of life in this community.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More bad news about newspapers

The expected nature of yesterday's news out of McClatchy Newspapers made it no less morbid. Struggling to maintain debt payments in a plummeting economy, McClatchy had announced it would cut more jobs from its newspapers and make other cuts to keep the Sacramento-based company in the good graces of its lenders.
Around here, that means more cutbacks at the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer. The N&O became a McClatchy property several years ago when the Daniels family, which had owned the paper since the 19th century, sold out to the California chain, which had a positive reputation in the industry. But when McClatchy bought the much larger Knight-Ridder chain, which had been seeking a buyer for some time, it saddled itself with $4 billion in debt. Some of the largest papers in the Knight-Ridder purchase were in cities such as Miami, Philadelphia and Akron where falling home prices and other economic ills preceded and exceeded the global recession. The papers in the Carolinas — Raleigh, Charlotte, Columbia, Myrtle Beach — were relatively secure. But McClatchy's debt load has forced cost cutting at all of its papers, and the cuts have been deep enough for readers to notice.
Having spent 33 years in the newspaper business, I know some of the journalists whose jobs are in jeopardy in this latest round (no names have been released yet). I'm concerned about all of them. They will lose their jobs through no fault of their own but as a result of changing habits among news consumers and some bad decisions by management. The N&O's downturn in ad revenue could probably be absorbed relatively painlessly if it were not having to contribute to paying off McClatchy's ill-conceived debt.
I'm also concerned on a personal basis for a couple of reasons: (1) Laying off dozens more journalists will make the competition for the few jobs hiring writers/editors that much tougher. Six months of job hunting has gotten me nowhere, and now there's even more competition. (2) I can't imagine my morning without the newspaper I've been reading every morning for 29 years, but cutbacks could easily extend to circulation areas. One of a newspaper's biggest costs is distribution. Metro papers have been shrinking their home delivery areas for many years, and it's conceivable that the N&O number crunchers will decide home delivery in Wilson is not profitable. Yes, I know I can get most of the news on my computer, but it isn't the same and never will be the same.
What's happening to American newspapers is a tragedy for an honorable profession. Newspapers, which used to be watchdogs, arbiters and sounding boards for local communities, have become commodities to be traded on stock exchanges, subject to the whims and predictions of the people who gave us mortgage derivatives.
My wife and I were wondering whether the N&O would be in the trouble it's in now if the Daniels family had not sold it. Our guess is not. Newspapers lose when their owners are ensconced in a corporate office hundreds or thousands of miles away, when their editors are merely pausing here on their way up the corporate ladder, when reporters are corporate pawns to be shifted here and there among the corporate properties. When I was hiring reporters, I gave preference to local applicants. They knew the city, they knew the culture, they had contacts, they understood the history, and they were less likely to move on elsewhere, reducing turnover. In newspapers' heyday, there was less mobility among journalists and greater connection with readers. Newspapers' critics frequently complain that reporters and editors are "out of touch" with the community. When each community is merely a rung on the corporate ladder, that's not surprising.
The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism also released its State of the Media report Monday. It's a sobering report that harbors little optimism for the print media and for the essential service that news organizations provide. A free and active press is essential to the working of democracy. Although critics of the "mainstream media" claim citizen journalists, bloggers and the wonders of the Internet will replace the "MSM," I see no one who will be able to do the hard, time-consuming work of professional reporters — attending long and boring meetings, questioning public officials, spending hours searching through public records (not all of which are on the Internet), checking on arrest warrants, court filings or grand jury indictments, and doing all the other time-consuming tasks that only paid journalists have the time and dedication to do. Unless a way is found to save newspaper journalism, unless Americans wake up to what they are about to lose, we will have a less-informed populace less capable of making wise voting decisions, especially on the local level. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

AIG bonuses stir hornet's nest

Perhaps the worst news for the Obama administration has been the story about AIG's annual bonuses for its bailed-out executives. The Washington Post broke the story that AIG, which has received $170 billion in government funding since last fall, plans to honor a commitment to pay multi-million-dollar bonuses to the very executives that drove the company into the ground. It seems that before the federal bailouts began last September AIG promised $400 million in bonuses to its employees. Under pressure from embarrassed administration officials, AIG has talked the insurance company's 43 top executives into taking only half of their bonuses — $9.6 million — right away. The other half of these bonuses will be delayed until things quiet down a bit. Administration officials and more than a few taxpayers are outraged, and for good reason. AIG says the bonuses are a legal obligation. A contract is a contract, they say. Others might retort, a bankruptcy is a bankruptcy.
The AIG bonuses are not isolated phenomena. They reflect the whole topsy-turvy nature of compensation in this country. While millions of responsible, hard-working people are out of work in this economy, the people who precipitated the mess are being inconvenienced by the delay in their multi-million-dollar bonuses. Executive compensation has been out of kilter for decades. While wages stagnated or declined in inflation-adjusted terms, executive compensation soared.
And it's not just Wall Street bigwigs. Pay in the entertainment industry and in professional sports (maybe I'm being redundant) is outrageous. A single actor or actress commands millions of dollars for making one movie? An NFL quarterback can demand $10 million a year or more, and get it? Meanwhile, the people who do essential work that benefits society and makes life better for everyone — teachers, clergy, health-care workers, journalists, care-givers — can barely scrape by, or are laid off.
The AIG bonus scandal won't change this imbalance, but it might raise consumers' doubts about how compensation is calculated.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Don't let rain dampen the weekend

When I was in college, I had an LP called "Stormy Weekend" by the Mystic Moods Orchestra. I still have the album, although I haven't played it in years and probably would have to do some repair to my old Gerard turntable if I did want to play it. The album consisted of the sounds of rain and thunder played against a background of orchestral music. The album could put you in a mood for snuggling under a warm quilt.
I thought about that album today as I drove down Interstate 95, headed home from a weekend getaway. The rain had fallen incessantly most of the weekend, but it didn't dampen our mood. My wife and I were cashing in a Christmas gift from our children: A gift card good for one weekend at a destination of our choice (within reason and driving distance). We chose Williamsburg, Va., where we have spent more than a dozen weekends and of which we never tire.
A special discount rate this month made our gift even more valuable, so we made reservations and hopefully watched the weather. Despite the forecast for incessant rain, we headed off and hoped for the best. The rain dampened some of our activities, but we found plenty to do indoors. We've been to Williamsburg so many times that you would think there could be nothing new, but each trip delights us with some new tidbit or insight. Interpreters at the George Wythe House and the Capitol this time were especially good and delightful. We spent additional time in the museums. The food and the atmosphere at the Colonial Williamsburg tavern always make the trip worthwhile, regardless of the weather.
My wife fondly remembers the trip she took with her parents and siblings to Williamsburg while she was still in high school. It rained, she says, every minute they were there. Nevertheless, they had a glorious time soaking up the atmosphere of Colonial America. This weekend was just as wet, and just as enjoyable.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Long live the Everly Brothers

For some time, I've been thinking about adding a YouTube video to my blog. After reading the instructions, I'm ready to give it a try. And I thought, what better video to add than an oldie from the Everly Brothers. I came across this one while searching through old music videos from the 50s and 60s — Ricky Nelson, Shelly Fabares, the Everly Brothers, etc. Even after 50-odd years, it's hard to beat Don and Phil.

Hamlet was grief-stricken, and so are we

Grief and mourning suddenly seem all around me, from relatives with incurable illnesses to friends losing elderly parents. Fortuitously, this morning I came across a column by Meghan O'Rourke, which explains Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in terms of grief. It's an insightful column, full of verities about grief and intriguing in its credible explanation about what was troubling young Hamlet. How could I (and the teachers and professors who led me through Hamlet years ago) have missed something so obvious?
Grief is a universal emotion that is as individual as each person who experiences it. I tend to face my grief stoically, the way my mother taught me and how she modeled correct grieving herself. When she died, and my wife and I scurried away on separate long drives to join my siblings and make funeral arrangements, I became irrationally concerned about our dog. I was adamantly, almost hysterically, determined that we would not leave our dog locked up in the kennel, but there was no place to put her if we took her with us. We finally made arrangements to take her with us and place her, for part of our trip, in a kennel there, and that seemed to relieve my concerns. Only later did I realize that my worries about the dog were merely a transferral of my grief for my mother, who spent her last years in a nursing home that seemed at times not unlike a veterinarian's kennel.
When we grieve, we look for comfort and sometimes are able to find it in the sincere words of compassion and concern at funerals and wakes. These words do not relieve the grief, but they often do provide some degree of comfort. Now this practice has been digitized with Internet message boards linked to funeral homes, newspaper obituaries and hospice facilities. The messages left are often triumphant assurances that the dearly departed has "gone to be with Jesus," is "wrapped in the Savior's arms" or is now with loved ones who died earlier. Although I have taken comfort in the Bible's assurances of eternal life and eternal love, I am less credulous about the rejoicing over death that these platitudes imply. The implication is that if we're not overjoyed that Mom has gone to heaven and is now "with Jesus" and her departed parents and siblings, then we're just being selfish and faithless. That does nothing to assuage our grief.
And although the survival of our souls and personalities into an afterlife is reassuring, the Christian Bible is not very specific about what that realm will be or even when it will be. The faithful will be called to heaven on Judgment Day at the end of time, according to most accounts, but Jesus assured one sinner that "today you will be with me in Paradise." The promise of just when the dead will reach heaven seems conflicted. And whether we will be reunited with loved ones also is unclear. Jesus told the Sadducees, who did not believe in an afterlife, that (Mark 12:25) "when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." This seems to suggest that we will not be reunited as family or recognize earthly loved ones. That passage is not popular at funerals, for if we cannot maintain the loving relationships that we enjoyed on earth, what joy can there be in the hereafter?
I don't suggest that religion is not an adequate comfort for our grief. It's the only comfort we have, and life has little meaning without religion. But neither life nor religion is simple, and the simple platitudes that are cast before the grieving like funeral bouquets are, ultimately, neither satisfying nor enlightening. Like Hamlet, we must be allowed to express our grief, not hold it inside, in sometimes irrational and inappropriate ways.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Odds of finding a job grow longer and longer

This has not been a good week for people searching for jobs, including me. North Carolina's unemployment rate leaped to 9.7 percent in January, creating more and more competitors for the few job openings that exist here. The rate is surely going well into double digits. It's not as if there were a lot of jobs out there in the first place. I scour online job listings several times a week. USA Today has reported that the FBI received 227,000 applications for 3,000 positions. The competition is intense and getting tougher.
Last week, I filled out an application and sent my resume to a Fortune 500 company that was advertising a "communications specialist" opening in Raleigh. I do not look forward to commuting 90 miles a day, but I'm willing to do that if I must. A few days later, I received an e-mail notice that the opening had been rescinded. Like everyone else, this company is tightening its belt.
Later, I filled out an application for a federal government job, also in Raleigh. Again, I was willing to make a long commute, extending my workday by two hours, if necessary. But as I filled out the form, it became increasingly apparent that I would not be considered qualified for that job, which required specific training and experience. After spending 33 years in one business, honing one set of skills, my qualifications for a job were limited to jobs requiring those same skills or something close to it.
Even government jobs, the last refuge in a recession, are being eliminated. Wake County Schools has posted a notice on its Web site that it has imposed a hiring freeze. Nash County has done the same.
It's frustrating to say the least. I fill out applications hoping to gain an interview. On the few occasions I've been granted an interview (I can count those occasions on one hand), nothing more comes of it. Although I am in good health, it's clear from my resume that I am no youngster, and, despite federal laws outlawing age discrimination, it's hard for anyone in my age cohort to find a job, especially one paying the salary to which we had grown accustomed and on which household budgets and mortgage payments had been calculated.
Rather than wasting my time poring over job sites and filling out pointless applications, I've wondered whether I might be wiser to simply invest my weekly unemployment benefits (which are less than half of my former salary) in lottery tickets. The odds of winning Powerball are one in 1.95 million. Those are long odds, greater than your chances of getting struck by lightning. But maybe no worse than landing a job at my age.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More money won't buy better education

Gov. Bev Perdue's call for more spending on education at a time when the state budget looks like a $3 billion hole in the ground is either inspired or crazy. I'm guessing crazy.
Perdue, like Jim Hunt and Mike Easley before her, wants to be the "education governor." She at least came up through education and has a degree in the subject, unlike her predecessors. But that background might be more of a handicap than an asset. Perdue is viewing educational improvement as synonymous with more spending on education. To improve education, to her thinking, means spending more for education.
Unfortunately, that strategy isn't always a solution. If lavish per-student spending were all that was needed for educational quality, District of Columbia schools would be the best in the country. Instead, they're arguably the worst. Just ask the Obamas, who are sending their girls to private school, just like the Bushes and the Clintons before them. If more money solved education problems, charter schools would all be failing. They operate on less money than public schools. Some fail, but some do quite well, and many have won the enthusiastic support of parents.
Spending more on public schools will not guarantee improvements in North Carolina's embarrassing dropout rates and test scores. Reducing spending on education by the same or a similar amount as other state departments won't necessarily make dropout rates and test scores worse. Perdue knows this, even if she won't admit it. She is promoting appearances, not substance, in proclaiming education spending will increase even in tough times.
The new governor has won generally favorable reviews on her performance thus far, and she deserves credit for saying North Carolina puts too much emphasis on school testing. But promising to raise school spending when there's no money to spend is wasted rhetoric. Legislative leaders are likely to, at best, keep education funding stable and, perhaps, curtail some ineffective spending on education.
Whatever they do, they should correct the misrepresentation that higher spending means better education. It doesn't.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Supreme Court's ruling will have broad impact

Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a North Carolina voting rights case could have a profound impact on the state's redistricting and voting process, and on Wilson County's elections. A five-member majority of the court found that the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as amended in 1982, did not require the creation of electoral districts that gave minority voters a substantial share of registered voters. Only when districts could be formed with a majority of minority voters, so-called majority-minority districts, would special consideration for minority voting rights be necessary, the court ruled. The case came out of Pender County, which was divided in order to create a district with 39 percent minority registration, even though the state constitution requires that counties not be divided in creating legislative districts.
This ruling will not affect majority-minority districts, such as the 12th or 1st congressional districts, but it will likely prohibit districts with a near-majority of minority voters when maps are redrawn after the 2010 census. (The much-litigated 12th District has a plurality of minority voters but not a majority.) The ruling could affect electoral districts drawn by cities and counties, including Wilson and Wilson County. The court's ruling might even hint at the court's willingness to reconsider the efficacy an applicability of one of the Voting Rights Act's key provisions, which requires federal approval of any change to voting laws or practices in areas that had few black voters nearly 50 years ago.
Both Democrats and Republicans have made accommodations to the Voting Rights Act. Democrats have used the law to establish safe minority districts that are also safely Democratic. Republicans have abetted the shepherding of Democratic-leaning minority voters out of other districts, leaving substantially safe Republican districts adjacent to the majority-minority districts.
The court's ruling might even give some impetus to changing the city of Wilson's voting districts. The city's population is roughly divided between white and black residents. Three City Council districts are majority white. Three are safely in minority hands. The seventh is roughly evenly divided. Ever since this arrangement was implemented, with the blessings of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, some Wilson voters have complained about being able to vote for only one council member. But few City Council members are willing to risk the political upheaval that a change would entail.
Wilson County, which has a larger percentage of whites, has divided the County Commission with three majority-minority districts and four majority-white districts. The Wilson County Board of Education uses the county's electoral districts.
In a nation that has just elected an African-American president, this concentration on the race of voters seems archaic. The court's majority admitted Monday that racial discrimination is not just a historical fact, but three of the five justices were unwilling to go too far in setting aside legislative seats for minorities. Justices Thomas and Scalia opposed all race-based considerations in redistricting.

Monday, March 9, 2009

More than we need or have room for

I've spent parts of two weekends helping my daughter and her husband move out of their home into temporary quarters in a smaller rental house across town. We've packed, taped up and carried away dozens of boxes of books, kitchen paraphernalia and other items. Many of these boxes went straight to the attic of the rental house, marked with a notation that the box would not be opened until after the next move into a more permanent home. Dozens more items, including small appliances, equipment and serving dishes were simply marked for donation to a local charity.
This move affirmed our realization that all of us have too much "stuff." When my wife and I moved six years ago out of a home we had occupied for 23 years, we began by tossing out dozens of boxes of "priceless" items from attic storage. We opened boxes and asked ourselves why we had ever kept the enclosed items in the first place. My daughter had the same experience, though she had been in her home only a few years.
Most Americans face the same realization, either when they move or when they clean out deceased parents' homes. Items that seemed so nostalgically important turn worthless with age. Even as average homes have become larger and larger, self-storage facilities have multiplied. Americans have collected and kept more and more "stuff" they didn't really need.
As the current economic crisis has grown more and more severe, sales of personal possessions have risen in tandem with foreclosures. Houses that are too big to be affordable are stuffed wall-to-wall with possessions the owners don't really need. And the rent on self- storage units can be better spent meeting mortgage payments. If any good comes of this, it might be that Americans will discover how few "things" they really need.
But if Americans lose their addiction to shopping, the economy, which is dependent upon consumer spending, could decline even further.

Nature provides its own stimulus package

The weekend teased us with two events — an unseasonably warm couple of days and an early return to daylight saving time — just days after a March snowstorm reminded us that winter is not over.
I spent part of Friday afternoon sitting on the deck at my in-laws' house in Statesville, where clumps of snow still hid in the shadows, chatting with members of my wife's family and watching the tall poplars expose their soft buds to the warm sun. The buds were most prevalent at the tops of the trees, where the buds reached up out of the low-lying shadows toward the sunlight at higher elevations. Other early-budding trees are catching the sun's warmth, and daffodils have already spread their green-and-yellow carpet in the natural areas at the edge of our lawn in Wilson. The warm days have coaxed the forsythia's yellow flowers into braving the cooler nights and the likelihood of more cold weather.
With the sun setting after 7 as daylight time has taken effect, it will be possible to sit on the deck in the evenings after work and watch the sun set beyond the bare tree limbs now budding with new green life. Spring officially returns in less than two weeks, but already we're being teased with these warm, sunny days that prompt us to throw open windows and smell the fresh scent of revived grass and moist soil.
Perhaps the advent of spring will catalyze a new optimism about the economy, which has given us nothing but dreary darkness and shivering cold since before autumn began last year. There is something in the renewal of spring, the warmth of the sun on a cool day, the colors budding forth from a gray landscape, that gives us hope for the future.
It's a hope we all can use more of these days.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Painting project consumes available time

Earlier this week, I decided I'd paint our bedroom door, which was scratched by our dog and the previous owner's cat and had flaking paint. As with most home repair projects, this one took longer than I'd anticipated. Sanding down the peeling paint and smoothing out the claw marks turned into sandpapering the entire door, and the paint flakes and dust made a terrible mess, which had to be cleaned up.
Then I had to find the can of white interior enamel in my stash of half-empty paint cans. I finally found it, stirred it and began applying new paint to the door. Then I realized it would need a second coat.
As long as I had the paint can open, I thought, I might as well paint the bathroom door, which was nearly as much in need of fresh paint as the bedroom door had been. The adjacent window also looked bad and needed painting. And the closet door and vanity beside the window would look better with a consistent color of paint.
Before I was through, I had spent most of two mornings putting two coats of paint on woodwork that, 24 hours earlier, I had no intention of bothering with.
I relate this story to point out that laid-off workers need to feel needed; they need to find worthwhile projects to occupy their excess of time. There are few things worse than a wasted day. After scouring job listings, filling out applications and brainstorming income-producing ideas, you still have time on your hands. And you need to feel productive, even in activities that are neither job-finding nor essential. I've volunteered on some charitable projects that would fill my days, or at least a few hours, on something that is productive and worthwhile.
In my five idle months, I quickly completed the dozen or so household maintenance projects that I had postponed for want of time. The exterior painting, the minor repairs and improvements were all completed before cold weather set in. I then turned to the quotidian tasks of house cleaning, grocery shopping and meal preparation, with my wife offering a gentle "told you so" about how time-consuming and unrewarding such daily household chores can be. These tasks, far more than walking the dog or reading the books I had set aside for future leisure time, have consumed my days.
But the need to feel productive lingers unquenched. I had the good fortune of a career that provided a daily fulfillment. Each day's newspaper was an affirmation that I had accomplished something — perhaps not always the best that I had hoped for but nevertheless a tangible accomplishment, something more than a spreadsheet that balances or a design for something that might be completed at some future date. The need for completed accomplishments finds me painting doors, if only to stand back and declare to myself, "good job" and "now what?"

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Legislators push restaurant smoking ban

North Carolina is a step closer to abolishing the "smoking or non-smoking?" question. The N.C. House Committee on Health on Tuesday approved a bill that would prohibit smoking in restaurants and bars, as well as in other workplaces. The bill now goes to another House committee for consideration. A companion bill in the Senate is dormant at the moment.
Although this legislation still has a long way to go, Tuesday's passage is a staggering development. Twenty years ago, few people could have imagined that North Carolina would ban smoking in any place. Tobacco was king, both on the farm and in the legislature. Since then, the health risks of smoking (and of second-hand smoke) have become more widely recognized, and social mores have changed to the point that smoking is no longer acceptable in social situations. Remember when Johnny Carson, Garry Moore and other television hosts would puff away during talk or quiz shows? Viewers would be aghast at such behavior now.
A recent Elon College poll found widespread support in the state for a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. With less than a quarter of adults smoking and the vast majority of North Carolinians tired of smoke odor tainting their enjoyment of an expensive restaurant meal, it's no wonder that smoking bans have boosted some restaurants' popularity. Although restaurants divide their sections into smoking and non-smoking areas, smoke doesn't abide by those boundaries. Patrons at non-smoking tables are often treated to uninvited whiffs of smoke.
A statutory ban on smoking in restaurants and other places still has a long way to go. Tobacco is still a $550 million crop in this state, which leads the nation in tobacco production, and tobacco interests can hire good lobbyists and persuade legislators. But if the "Act to Prevent Smoking in Public Places and Places of Employment" were put to a statewide referendum, I have little doubt that it would pass by a wide margin.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Icy morning emphasizes print's shortcoming

This morning, which dawned with bright sunshine and clear blue skies looking down on a landscape painted white by soft snowfall overnight, offered a reminder of the shortcomings of a printed newspaper. When I walked out in the brightening dawn to pick up my morning paper, my newspaper was not at the end of the driveway. As I do in this situation, I stood and surveyed the area, checking the shrubs by the street and the curb on either side of the driveway cut. No newspaper. I walked back to the house, quickening my step to get out of the 17-degree chill and into the warmth of the kitchen.
At the kitchen table, I sipped my coffee but felt unfulfilled. I needed to be reading, concentrating on something more complex than raising the mug to my lips and sipping the dark, hot liquid. Our household computer sits on a desk near the kitchen table, and I didn't have far to move to call up the News & Observer's Web page. I loaded the page and skimmed through the headlines, finding nothing surprising or unexpected but decided not to sit and read through the stories online.
Normally, I'd spend more 45 minutes or more reading through the print edition, sometimes leaving a section or two to read later in the day. But the online news doesn't hold my attention nearly so long. What some online advocates don't seem to understand (or choose to ignore) is that not every article in the print edition is online. And the print ads, which are often interesting and informative in themselves, are not online either.
So give me the print edition. Even on a day like today, when treacherous roads in Raleigh make my morning paper a mid-morning or later edition. The sun is up; Wilson roads are mostly clear and safe, but there's still no newspaper at the end of my driveway. I think I'll stroll out into the cold and check once more.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Another snowy birthday after so many years

I'm looking out  the window watching the snow fall softly and gently in Wilson and thinking back to another March 2 when it snowed like this. It was 49 years ago, and I remember it well because it was my 11th birthday.
Now, unless you're a victim of The New Math or simply have forgotten how to do simple addition, you can figure out that today is my 60th birthday. To the best of my memory, it has not snowed on March 2 at any place I have been living at the time since 1960.
That day 49 years ago stands out because I was looking forward to a great day. My parents would not allow their five children to have birthday parties every year, but, if we were moderately civilized in the weeks beforehand, we might be allowed to invite a friend or two or three over for the afternoon, and our friends would get to eat the homemade cake my mother would always bake. But birthday presents were discouraged.
In 1960, I had invited two or three friends to come over after school. When it began snowing, we saw no reason to change plans. My friends boarded the school bus with me when school let out early. Oh boy! We'd have even longer to play, and the snow would be great fun. It never occurred to any of us, so far as I can remember, that there was a connection between getting out of school early and treacherous road conditions. My friends lived a mile or two away and didn't ride my school bus. When the bus reached my driveway, one of the parents of my guests was waiting, more than mildly upset at having to brave slippery roads to retrieve a child who couldn't quite understand what was the big deal. I spent my birthday afternoon playing with my siblings in the several inches of snow that fell.
That March 2 was also significant because it marked the first of the Wednesdays that month that it snowed. All month long, the snow would begin to melt, then it would snow again. My memory is that it snowed every Wednesday in March, but because there were five Wednesdays that March, perhaps it snowed only the first four. The first snow, on my birthday, was deep, close to a foot, as I recall. Then it sleeted on top of the snow, and I was able to walk on top of the frozen snow. Even when school resumed, only to be canceled the next Wednesday, icy spots remained for sledding and skidding.
Chances are, this is not the beginning of a repeat of the snowy March of 1960, but I have reached the age when I'm allowed to say, a little too loudly, "You whippersnappers don't know nothin' about snow. Why, I remember the Blizzard of 1960, when it snowed every Wednesday in March, and a fella couldn't even have a decent birthday celebration."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sunday lunch at a country buffet

I ate Sunday lunch at a genuine, honest-to-God country restaurant today. How do you know you're in a genuine, honest-to-God country restaurant? The fried fatback on the buffet is a dead giveaway.

As I dug into my second helpings of sweet white corn and pork-seasoned field peas, I told my wife it was appropriate that we'd be enjoying these delicacies on Carolyn Carter's birthday. Carolyn was my mother's younger sister. After my grandparents died, Carolyn and another aunt volunteered to host the family Christmas breakfast and dinner each year. Their small houses, next door to each other, were jammed with people every Christmas from sunrise to mid-afternoon for around 30 years. As new generations, including my own children, were added, my aunts steadfastly continued the family tradition that had begun with my grandparents before I was born.

The cuisine on those wondrous Christmas days were distinctively country. Breakfast included country ham, sausage, eggs, grits and homemade biscuits. Dinner would include turkey and ham with pork-flavored green beans, dressing, rice and gravy and more desserts than a glutton could ever consume at once.

Today's lunch took me back to those meals that would leave me feeling about to burst but still eager for one more morsel of food so delectable that its flavor is still distinct on my tongue so many years later.