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).