Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blame warming for the cold? Huh?

Blame the cold weather on global warming? That's the contention of a new meteorological society report as explained in a New York Times opinion piece. If that's not creative science, I don't know what is.

I'm willing to concede that the Earth's climate is changing (and give credit to the scientists who have abandoned the phrase "global warming" for "climate change"), but contending that warming causes cold is more than my liberal-arts mind can grasp. This warming-causes-cold theory seems as shallow as the anti-climate-change crowd's pointing to a one-day low temperature as proof that the Earth isn't warming. There's a difference between weather and climate, the scientists say, and I understand that. A cold snap does not constitute a new ice age, nor does a heat wave (like the ones those same scientists blamed on global warming) constitute proof that Earth is turning into Venus.

Maybe this week's snowstorms and the early snowfalls in several parts of the United States and Europe are nothing more than anomalies. Maybe we'll return to "normal" (whatever that is) next year. For all the publicity their forecasts have received, the climate scientists have not had a particularly good track record in providing "results" of global warming. For the last two years, scientists predicted more and larger hurricanes as a result of global warming, but those forecasts fell flat (thank goodness!). This year, not a single hurricane made landfall in the United States. The predicted rise in sea level has not risen to expectations.

Instead of reading catastrophe into every wrinkle in temperatures or rainfall, we should concentrate on what we all should recognize as true: Industrial development has sharply increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We humans breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. More carbon dioxide in the air is not good for us, so we should do all that we can to limit carbon dioxide emissions. We don't have to prove the verity of global warming or climate change to agree that lowering carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good policy.

That's a lot easier to sell than the theory that warming causes cold.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas delights for every age

People like to say that Christmas is for the children, but I'm not so sure. The breathless excitement and wonder that our grandchildren (ages 1-5) feel this night are not shared by those of us of a more mature age and disposition. We've seen this show before, and so our sense of anticipation is not so keen.

I can remembering shivering, not from cold but from explosive excitement as I waited at the living room door before dawn on Christmas morning, but even that happiness does not match the satisfaction and pure pleasure of seeing that same excitement on the faces of your own children — or grandchildren. When I was growing up, I became convinced that 8 was the perfect age: You were old enough to eat on your own, big enough to play independently with others and too young to have very much expected of you in terms of household chores, academic success and responsibilities. As a young parent, I decided that 3 must be the perfect age — a time past potty training but still delightfully innocent and so full of wonder about every little experience.

Now, with the reflections of six decades, I realize that no age is better than any other. In every age there are wonderful experiences, opportunities and responsibilities. In every age there are disappointments and burdens. All of us face the curse of living in "interesting times." Life, as John Lennon said, is what happens while you're busy doing other things. Seize the day or enjoy the moment.

On this Christmas Eve night, full of uncertainty about whether best-laid plans will be canceled by the often-desired and -envied "white Christmas," we can revel in the memories of Christmases past when we did clutch all of our brood in the warm blanket of our home and intoxicated ourselves on the sweet nectar of family love. If this is to be remembered as the Christmas of altered plans, we will look forward to future opportunities to gather all together, for every age has its delights.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Loss of trees affects entire neighborhood


For all of the 30 years I've lived in Wilson, I have passed by the quiet glade of trees that flanked the site of Farmington Heights Church of God, seldom paying much attention to the mature pines and hardwoods that framed my drive along Raleigh Road Parkway. In the past few weeks, however, those trees have been cut, the entire tract of land scalped of trees and all vegetation, leaving nothing but dirt, mud and silt fences erected by the grading contractors.

The view above is not nearly as pleasant for passing motorists as the trees that had stood there for decades, but the people who are really hurt, and I suspect heartbroken, by this construction are those who live behind the lot on Buxton Drive. Their back yards, once concealed by the thick stand of trees, are now exposed to Raleigh Road traffic. Their privacy has been violated.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to think those trees could stand up to development pressure on the heavily traveled street, but developing a lot or building a house or other structure does not require the destruction of every living tree on the lot. The city of Wilson, which touts its "City of Trees" image and has a tree on its official flag, needs a tree ordinance that prohibits unnecessary destruction of mature trees. Trees or other barriers are required as buffers between different development zones, but regulations need to protect other trees, too. The folks on Buxton Drive know the impact of tree-cutting on adjacent lots — their privacy and their backyard environment are forever changed because the trees that hid and shaded their yards are gone. It will take another 20 years to grow replacements for those mature trees. Developers could leave trees along property lines that give shade and protection to neighboring properties. Property owners could be required to go through a review process before cutting down mature trees that add shade and charm to entire neighborhoods. Wanton cutting of trees affects every property owner in the neighborhood, so protecting trees is a collective, neighborhood interest.

Many years ago, residents of Cavalier Circle objected to the development of commercial properties on Ward Boulevard. The cutting of a small forest there for construction of offices threatened the value of their homes. That development left more trees and more privacy than the site above, however.

City officials, standing behind Wilson's Tree City USA image, have failed to address the protection of trees and, with it, the protection of residents' property values, privacy and neighborhood charm. Either give up the tree imagery or get serious about it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

God bless us every one!

We are in the final daze. The Christmas rush is on. C-minus-four and counting.

Christmas will arrive whether we're ready or not. It might not be perfect — What is ever perfect? — but it will be Christmas, which in itself is cause to celebrate. At Christmas, we cling to memories of the past, which is a good thing, so long as we don't try to force the past upon the present. For 30 years, I followed the family tradition I had grown up with — an extended family gathering at my grandparents' (and later my aunts'). But when that era ended, we found new and wonderful ways to celebrate Christmas, and I realized what I had been missing. Now we have our own extended family, and we are the grandparents. We would like to gather our children and grandchildren around us early on Christmas morning as my own grandparents did. We would like to have a house full of the people we love the most. But even in years when that is not possible, we celebrate Christmas with the ones who can be present or with those who invite us to their homes in a role reversal my grandparents never knew. My parents used to ask, amid the clutter and chaos of predawn Christmas morning, "Did you get what you wanted?"

Every year, I get more than I deserve. As Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us every one!"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chicken plant controversy divides neighbors

The News & Observer has finally weighed in on the controversy over Sanderson Farms' plans to place a chicken processing plant in Nash County near the Wilson County line. The Raleigh paper takes an in-depth look at the Nash vs. Wilson issue in a long Sunday article.

I've found the issue intriguing for several reasons. My father worked for many years in a chicken plant, known in our household and in the community as "the turkey plant." The plant in Marshville was originally locally owned but later went through a series of corporate ownerships. He was a production worker, standing in waterproof boots to shovel ice onto freshly killed chicken carcasses. It was hard work and was seasonal at first as turkey demand peaked before Thanksgiving but declined through much of the year. It was hard, dirty, physical labor for low wages.

In the 1960s, a number of farmers in the area, including some of our neighbors, got into the chicken business. They built the long, straight, shiny-roofed chicken houses and raised tens of thousands of birds at the time. The wood shavings that covered the ground inside the floorless houses became quickly drenched in chicken poop, and the farmers would clean out the old shavings and replace them with fresh shavings after a few generations of chickens had been raised. The excrement-filled shavings would be spread on farm fields as fertilizer, which was apparently pretty effective at boosting crops. The chicken houses also came with a repugnant odor. For a long time, my parents couldn't sit outdoors when the breeze brought the smell from neighbors' chicken houses. About 20 years ago, when I took a ride on a country road in my native county with the top off my car, I nearly gagged on the odor from chicken houses. A friend I met later in the day defended the farmers: "That's the smell of money," she said. People in this area who have dealt with the odor from hog farms know what it's like.

So it should be no surprise that Wilson officials are objecting to the Sanderson Farms plan to spray chicken waste on fields in Wilson's watershed. The plan calls for a pipeline to pump the effluent from Rocky Mount's watershed to Wilson's — a decision particularly galling to Wilson officials, who had supported supplying water to Rocky Mount when the latter city's reservoir ran low during a drought. The city has joined a lawsuit brought by some residents. Some Wilson officials are incensed by the proposal, seeing the plan as a bad economic decision that could harm all of eastern North Carolina and keep this area shackled to factory-scale agriculture and low-wage jobs that could permanently hinder industrial recruitment. Sanderson will need scores of chicken farms to feed its processing plant, and that will mean pungent odors will hamper development and progress in much the same way that the state's hands-off attitude toward hog farms a decade ago left eastern North Carolina freckled with hog waste lagoons.

Some Nash County residents seem just as angry about Wilson's "interference" in the county's effort to provide 1,100 jobs. The acrimony took me by surprise recently when I was in Rocky Mount. Caught in the middle are residents along N.C. 97 and N.C. 58 near the Rocky Mount-Wilson Airport and the Tar River Reservoir. Owners of palatial homes on the reservoir worry about their homes' value and the potential for water pollution and odor. "Stop the chicken plant" signs abound there.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Harbingers of upheaval?

How soon before the Barbarians are at the gate?

Our modern society forgets just how fragile civilization is. All around us, we are seeing civilization threatened by the uncivilized or falling apart from within because of self-indulgence. Consider a few news items that might be harbingers of something bigger than a one-paragraph news brief:

1. The documents posted by WikiLeaks reportedly contain a listing of the United States' 10 most essential strategic sites, things such as computer servers, natural gas pipelines, air traffic control centers, transportation infrastructure, online banking centers, etc. Regardless of what you think of WikiLeaks, the publication of this document could be an invitation to terrorists or international enemies to pick a strategic spot or spots to plant a bomb or two. Disruption of credit transactions or automated teller networks for a few days could create chaos. It wouldn't be long before desperate people began doing whatever it takes to survive.

2. Drug gangs have taken over some cities in Mexico, killing off local elected officials, running the police out of town and replacing social and governmental networks. Parts of Mexico, the United States' next-door neighbor, are looking more and more like Somalia or some other "failed state," in which government ceases to function and the law of the jungle replaces legislated laws. This violence is already spilling over into the United States.

3. The institution of marriage is slipping among the demographic groups that were once its strongest supporters. A recent poll found "Middle America" losing its respect for marriage and young people seeing no point in marriage. Out-of-wedlock births are approaching 50 percent of all births, and the trend cuts across social, ethnic and economic strata. Children reared without the security of a two-parent household are less likely to succeed in school and careers and are more likely to suffer emotional and criminal problems. This outcome is especially acute among boys raised without a father, who, without the discipline and role modeling of a father, tend to revert to force and violence. More than 40 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was alarmed by the potential harm to society when illegitimate births among one ethnic group was under 25 percent.

4. The decline of civic clubs and civic responsibility has been well documented. Americans have reverted to "cocooning," spending time alone or with a limited cohort of like-minded friends or relatives. Few take seriously collective responsibility for the "greater good." Even Congress seems incapable of seeing collective needs and creates gridlock over individual wants, each person or interest group unwilling to share and compromise for the whole.

5. Riots in France over delayed retirement pensions and in Britain over higher college tuition offer examples of how uncompromising anger and violence can subvert legislative processes and hasten the day when mobs take over from democratically elected officials.

6. Expatriate Muslims in Europe are demanding that they be allowed to plant their society in their adoptive countries, even to the point of ignoring local laws or establishing their own religious laws and courts. The disassembling of national authority leads to the unraveling of the social fabric and even the dissolution of nations. We have seen in the former Yugoslavia and the former Czechoslovakia that long-established nations are not inviolate and can be dismembered from within.

7. The rise of extra-national groups, such as al-Qaida, makes national governments both powerless and irrelevant. The Soviet Union could not subdue the Afghan insurgency, and the United States is having a tough time there, too. Pakistan maintains a hands-off policy toward some of its territory, which is ruled by tribal groups allied with Islamic terrorists. In Somalia and some other Third World countries, warlords have replaced national governments, which have become governments in name only. If this trend spreads, world trade and cooperation could be crippled.

8. American tax policy is increasingly favoring the "haves" over the "have-nots," with potentially dire consequences. The last time American wealth was so concentrated among the few gave rise to the Populist movement. More than a century later, the have-nots might be less willing to pursue political solutions in a system more closed than it was in the 1800s and will revert to violence instead.

The survivalists of a generation ago worried that the world would fall apart, and each man would have to defend himself and his family. The survivalists' stockpiled food and hoarded weapons and ammunition seemed comical, but today, we all have reason to be uneasy. Rome was the unchallenged ruler of the world for centuries, but it gradually collapsed from internal corruption and external attacks, and the great civilizing force of Greco-Roman culture was nearly extinguished.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Progressives need a candidate against Obama

As the Senate begins debate on extending Bush-era tax cuts, many Democrats are still venting their anger over President Obama's deal with Republicans that extend the cuts of the wealthiest Americans in exchange for extending unemployment benefits and other deficit-raising programs. Some Democrats are even talking openly of challenging Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries. This nascent movement was a topic of discussion on NPR Wednesday. The problem is, the angry Democrats have to find a viable candidate to hang their hopes on.

The solution to this problem should be quickly obvious: former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is available. John has received a boost in publicity recently with the death Tuesday of his estranged wife, much-admired suffering spouse and author Elizabeth Anania Edwards. John should fit the mold of the "progressive" Democrats because he spent two presidential campaigns talking about the poor in this country and identifying with the common folk. Edwards' stock speech was all about helping the poor and striking back at the oligarchs and big business. He even ran an anti-poverty think tank, which was intended to keep him occupied between presidential campaigns.

Not only would he fit the mold and have the progressives' sought-after list of priorities, but Edwards would also have the sympathy vote on his side, thanks to his wife's death from cancer. That sympathy would help him with the women's vote — after all, Elizabeth encouraged him to continue his presidential campaign even after she received her cancer diagnosis. His affair with a campaign videographer might add a few votes from the wayward husbands voter bloc, thereby covering all the key electoral constituencies.

Edwards will need a running mate of course, and I hear Al Gore isn't doing much these days. Gore would bolster the "progressive" ticket. In 2000, his speeches always included pedantic rants against big business, big pharma, big insurance, big oil, big coal, big trouble and Big Macs. The campaign theme should be apparent: Against the big boys; for the little guys.

For progressives, it's a dream ticket: Edwards-Gore in 2012.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Marriage loses ground from unexpected angle

That marriage is in trouble is no surprise — a pundit recently commented that only gays appear to be interested in getting married these days — but the fact that marriage is in trouble among traditionally conservative, working-class Americans is a bit of a shock. This "Talk of the Nation" report took me by surprise Monday. A new study indicates that Middle Americans, the majority of the population who have high school degrees but no college diplomas, are falling away from marriage. More and more Americans are not just "living together" out of wedlock but raising children, too, and, essentially, thumbing their noses at what was once a societal mandate — that marriage would come before child-rearing.

And they're perfectly happy with the new arrangement, and society seems, at worst, indifferent to the shift in mores. The callers to "Talk of the Nation" are very much like some of the callers I heard from when I was writing for a newspaper and wrote a column about the decline of marriage. The gist of my callers' argument was: We've seen marriages fall apart, and we want no part of it. It's nobody's business if we have children without being married.

One of the possible reasons "Talk of the Nation" offered for this revolution is the portrayal of marriage in popular media. Today's television series (and I'll have to take their word for this because I don't watch these shows) do not extol marriage. Current situation comedies and "reality shows" portray divorced pairs, stepchildren, unwed moms, unwed dads, unhappy married couples, etc., etc. That's a seismic shift from the way families were portrayed a generation ago on "Father Knows Best," "The Waltons," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Cosby" and other popular shows. Media portrayals do affect culture and ethical standards.

If there is any glimmer of hope in this report, it is the revelation that among college-educated professionals, marriage is more popular and marriages are more stable than was the case a generation ago. If what Karl Marx called the "intelligentsia" are actually opinion leaders, perhaps the Silent Majority of Middle America will come around, led by the better-educated. But I've seen nothing in recent years to make me think the popular majority are following the lead of the better-educated or better-informed. On the contrary, it seems more likely that we will all be dismantled to the lowest common denominator of ethics, compassion, responsibility and restraint.

Monday, December 6, 2010

If you care about ideas, read this

Before you skip quickly to another blog or back to Facebook or Tweet your latest update, please read this. This column published in Sunday's News & Observer analyzes the impact of today's digital communications, which are increasingly demanding shorter, more frequent and more "seamless" contacts. Unfortunately, as author Neal Gabler observes, quick is not conducive to serious, and he worries that "ideas" — the thing that distinguishes civilization, knowledge and intellect — are being left in the dust of the digital world. I addressed this same issue last month.

Gabler cites Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death," one of my favorite books, which warns of the impact of a television-centric society. Television, Postman says, endangers conversation and turns people into zombies, or at least couch potatoes. The medium is particularly hazardous for young children, he warns. Written language is the catalyst to learning and the glue that holds together society. Postman worried that as written communication loses ground to spoken or visual communication, hard-fought civilizing advances will be endangered.

Now, after Postman's death, Gabler sees a new threat to human intelligence — the character-limited and ubiquitous text message in whatever form. Texting or its successors have replaced television in jeopardizing serious conversation, intelligent communication and, yes, ideas. Says Gabler: "To the extent that ideas matter, we are no longer amusing ourselves to death. We are texting ourselves to death."

It's a long column, but it's well worth reading.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Democrats don't have to give in

The speculation is that President Obama will give in to Republican demands to extend tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Although extending the cuts for everyone making $200,000 or less ($250,000 for couples) can pass the House, Republicans in the Senate are adamant that it's their way or no way. Without legislative action, the cuts approved in 2001 and 2003 will expire at the end of the year. Obama and other Democrats are desperate to get the tax cuts for the middle class before the end of the year, and tax planners and employers, as well as taxpayers, want some certainty about 2011 taxes. So Obama is apparently willing to give in rather than see all of the tax cuts expire.

Maybe Democrats should rethink their strategy. They don't want to be blamed in attack ads and on Fox News of raising taxes on the middle class, but there's another way of spinning that outcome. Obama might say something like this: "Rather than allow millionaires and billionaires to enjoy lower taxes and see the greatest shift in American wealth to continue, we have chosen to begin closing the federal budget deficit. Allowing the tax cuts to expire will reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion — that's TRILLION! — and will go a long way toward the goal of our deficit commission of reducing the long-term federal debt. Allowing the tax cuts to expire for working people will cause some personal pain, and it might temporarily stagnate our economic recovery, but in the long term it will benefit the economy by reducing federal borrowing and will benefit taxpayers by preventing debt from overwhelming our budget options and pushing up interest rates.

"We would have preferred to extend tax cuts for the working people of America, but Republicans refused to allow this without simultaneously extending tax cuts to those who need it and deserve it least. Prevented from passing our preferred option, our second best option is to allow all tax cuts to expire and let the added revenue help solve our deficit problem."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas silently arrives in my home

It's December and all around the house, little decorations are sprouting like mushrooms after a spring rain. Only these are much more colorful than mushrooms. An elf in a red jacket and striped tights sits on the living room bookcase. A pair of angels are roosting on the mantel. Carved Santa statuettes are atop the TV cabinet. A picture of my dad days before his last Christmas, wearing a Santa cap and a red scarf at the nursing home, is on the end table. A spray of mistletoe hangs in the archway. The plain, everyday sofa pillows have been replaced by pillows with bright snow themes, evergreens and reds. A collage frame of photos from Christmases past has replaced the Currier and Ives print on the wall. A collection of Christmas-themed books lies on every table or trunk lid. A spray of greenery tops the bathroom mirror. A sleigh bell hangs from a doorknob. Christmas mugs have replaced the everyday kind as we drink our coffee in the morning. Christmas china sets the table.

The Great Decorating has begun, appearing almost magically as my wife scurries silently through the house, knickknacks in hand, looking for the right spot to plant her trove. Every room has something that says "Christmas." It's a two-week project, accomplished in stolen moments between dinner and bedtime or between awaking and heading to work. And this does not include the big project of erecting and decorating the Fraser fir in its corner spot.

For 11 months, give or take, these mementos have lain hibernating in a half-dozen plastic bins in the attic. The most obvious signs of the transformation of our house are those big bins sitting at the foot of the attic stairs waiting to be emptied or, having been refilled with all the nomenclature of the rest of the year, waiting to go back in the attic until Epiphany, when the undecorating will take place, and Christmas' symbols will go back into the bins and back into the attic.

For the next few weeks, our house will hum with the look of a 1950s department store window — Christmas everywhere you look. Christmas music, both sacred and secular from a collection of hundreds of songs, will waft from the stereo speakers. The smell of wassail and evergreen boughs will warm the house against the winter chill. Lights from windows, trees and railings will fight against the lengthening darkness.

My wife does this not so much for the two of us, the only occupants of this Winter Wonderland, but for the children and grandchildren who will spend little time here, if any at all, and for the neighbors and friends we invite to share our holiday excitement for a few hours on one dark night. It is a tactic for opposing the gloom of darkest winter, the lack of solar warmth and the drabness of a landscape without the bright leaves and flowers that cheer us the rest of the year. If the outdoors have turned dark and colorless, she will make the indoors as bright and colorful as she possibly can.

Christmas has come to my home, and I hope to yours as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Some information need not be public

I spent most of my adult life arguing in favor of the "public's right to know," so it might seem contradictory to find myself appalled and deeply troubled by the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. But there is a fundamental difference between, for example, a city council hiding from constituents its plans to offer a tax incentive to a company to open a toxic waste dump and international diplomats expecting to have their analyses and assessments of actions and individuals kept confidential.

The federal government's transparency of information is governed by the Freedom of Information Act, which makes most government documents public. North Carolina has the Public Records Law, which makes all documents of whatever type, with a few explicit exceptions, available to the public. But neither state nor federal law makes all information held by the government available to the public. Certain information, including diplomatic cables, legal advice, grand jury testimony and emergency contingency plans, remain confidential for the simple reason that release of these details would undermine the government's ability to act, would endanger innocent people or would not serve the public's interest.

The WikiLeaks trove of secret cables reveals some details about the thinking of world leaders and the advice provided by diplomats to Washington, but there seems to be little information that is truly shocking. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says lives could be endangered by these leaks, and that's probably not hyperbole. It is almost certain that diplomats' activities will be curtailed by this release. Foreign Service officers and foreign diplomats are likely to be less candid in their assessments of international situations, and that could make U.S. foreign policy less cogent and successful.

Although WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gets most of the blame for the damage done by the WikiLeaks release, U.S. security policy is also to blame. News reports indicate a low-level military intelligence official (a private!) was able to download the hundreds of thousands of confidential messages and pass them on to Assange. That should never, ever happen. The United States must fix its leaky security system and reassure governments around the world that what they say in confidence will remain confidential. Otherwise, diplomatic negotiations might grind to a halt.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More funerals, and then one final one

I attended another funeral Monday. As we age, we find ourselves more often seated in those somber services, bidding farewell to friends or relatives, people who have brightened and influenced our lives but will now be missing. I've resigned myself to the fact that these services and these losses will be ever more frequent portions of my life.

Each time I go to a funeral, I find myself thinking about my own funeral, an inevitability I can only hope will not take place for many more years. But my growing experience with funerals have persuaded me that certain rules should apply. A funeral should take place in the deceased's church, not in some sterile funeral home chapel (sorry, all you guys who have invested in these auditoriums). The church is where you came into this world of faith, and it is the place from which you should depart.

There should be congregational singing. I've persevered through operatic renditions of "The Lord's Prayer" and other solos, but it seems most appropriate to me that the entire company of believers should join voices to bid farewell to the departed. For me, sing "For All the Saints" and "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," two great hymns of faith. If you're in the mood for a third hymn, make it "Immortal, Invisible" (with the haunting lines, "we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree and wither and perish but naught changeth thee") or "Amazing Grace."

Scripture will be read, of course. When my father died, I asked his pastor to read from Romans 8:38-39: "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." That would do nicely for my departing. Also read from Psalms 127: "Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them." Those words define my legacy, such as it is — children born when I was young, who gave my life purpose.

A eulogy would be offered. If someone wanted to add to what the presiding pastor has to say, that would be fine but not required. Depart not in mourning over loss but in thankfulness for a life full of abundance and joy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hunt biography is an insider's view

The cover of Gary Pearce's new biography of Jim Hunt, appropriately titled "Jim Hunt: A Biography," is a flattering and beguiling photo of the four-term governor. The content of the "authorized" biography is just as flattering.

Hunt, who served as governor 1977-85 and 1993-2001 after a term (1973-77) as lieutenant governor, opened up to Pearce in a series of interviews and urged his friends to talk to Pearce as well. The author, a former newspaper reporter, had signed on as Hunt's press secretary at the beginning of his first run for governor and stayed on as adviser and consultant throughout Hunt's political career. He also advised other Democratic politicians. Pearce says he strived to be objective in this biography, but his book is clearly an insider's version of the Hunt years, and it's admittedly an admirer's version as well.

Pearce's main point, that Hunt, a rural farm boy without significant family political connections, transformed North Carolina and presided over the state during some of its most turbulent times, is accurate. In that, it's an amazing and tantalizing story. Pearce's perspective, unfortunately, is from inside the Hunt administration, and he fails to credit other forces that helped transform North Carolina during those years. If Hunt and his administration made mistakes or headed down the wrong path at times, Pearce fails to see those detours, and he has little patience for politicians who opposed Hunt initiatives.

Pearce accurately portrays Hunt as a man untiringly and relentlessly pushing his state forward with all kinds of new programs and initiatives. Hunt's enthusiasm, however, sometimes overlooked the long-term costs of his dreams, as newly elected Gov. Mike Easley found out in the budget crisis that greeted him in 2001. Pearce also fails to address the allegations of cronyism and political favoritism that followed Hunt through most of his career.

The crucible of Hunt's political career is the 1984 Senate contest against incumbent Jesse Helms. Had Hunt won, Pearce says, he might have been the Democratic nominee for president by 1988 or 1992, and he's probably right. Democrats nationwide would have owed Hunt a major debt for knocking off the conservative icon, and Hunt as a senator would have been just as hard-working, just as determined and just as persistent as he had been as governor. The 1984 election, Hunt's only defeat at the polls, was one he should have won. Pearce hints at the problem in 1984: The Helms people outsmarted and outplayed the divided Hunt contingent. Helms went all out, with biting television spots, veiled accusations and self-righteous contempt that convinced the electorate (or at least 52% of it) that Hunt was wishy-washy, untrustworthy and not genuine. Pearce is convinced that Helms was a racist and that racial appeals swayed the 1984 election. Helms undoubtedly manipulated racial prejudice with his vocal opposition to the Martin Luther King Holiday (which President Reagan supported) and was willing to use subtle racial appeals, but Helms was too complex to be dismissed with one word. He could be extremely gracious and courtly, but he had a mean streak that would lash out at opponents. Race played a role in the 1984 election, but Hunt's loss had more to do with errors made in the Hunt camp than with Helms' willingness to play the race card.

Pearce has often been asked what Hunt is "really" like, the implication being that his goody-two-shoes earnestness and drive for improvement cannot be real. But, he says, it is. What you see is what you get. Although I was a skeptic when I first met Hunt about 35 years ago, I now have to agree that Pearce is right — Hunt really is the simple farm boy with a burning desire to improve his state and to help the people who cannot help themselves. He really is deeply committed to education and is willing to try almost any strategy to improve public education. He is earnestly and sincerely doing all he can, even in his 70s and 10 years out of office, to improve his native state.

Pearce's biography will be valuable because Hunt opened up to Pearce, revealing some inner thoughts and motivations, and so did some of his colleagues. But this short (297 pages) book is not the ultimate biography of Jim Hunt. It is not a historian's biography on the level of William Manchester's biography of Douglas MacArthur or Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. This book, and the transcripts of interviews behind it, will be a valuable resource to some future biographer who will take a wider view of the Hunt years. Until that lengthier biography is written, Pearce's book gives an insider's view of some of the most progressive and important years in North Carolina's history.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Easley gets by on one conviction

Former Gov. Mike Easley's attorney said the case against his client ended with a whimper, and that's basically true. Easley entered an Alford plea — admitting there was sufficient evidence to convict him but not admitting guilt — to one felony charge Tuesday.

Left floating in the ether are dozens of allegations against Easley and his administration — unreported free airplane flights, the free use of vehicles by his family, the securing of a plum job for his wife at N.C. State University followed by an extraordinary pay raise for her, the special discount on a waterfront lot, the repairs to his Raleigh residence paid for by his campaign and camouflaged as payment for air fare, and all the rest. Easley was not convicted on any of these cases, but ample documentation exists to show that the incidents took place and that Easley benefited from them. I had blogged about the Easley allegations before.

As a result of his plea, Easley will pay a $1,000 and might lose his law license. His legal bills will far, far exceed his criminal fine. And, as his attorney pointed out, his reputation has been besmirched. Attorney Joe Cheshire V attempted to lay the blame on the news media, particularly the News & Observer, which broke the news on the many questionable activities of the Easleys. Cheshire has a deserved reputation as a great criminal defense attorney, but he's wrong about who's to blame. Easley, as likable a politician as you'll ever meet, has no one to blame but himself. There was no reason for him to not report the airplane flights he took. There was no reason to finagle a contrived university job for his wife, who was already employed at N.C. Central's law school. There was no reason for him to accept a free vehicle for his son to drive; he could easily afford to pay like anyone else. There was every reason for alarm bells to ring when he was offered a sweetheart deal on a valuable coastal lot. But Easley, the former crusading district attorney, became blinded by the high office he had obtained, and his moral judgment failed him.

Easley will pay a relatively small price for his activities — one felony conviction with no jail time and a manageable fine. The larger price will be extracted from his reputation and his legacy as a two-term governor and two-term attorney general. His image is permanently tarnished. Like post-Watergate Richard Nixon, he may try to restore his reputation, but it will not be easy. The only path to that goal is through genuine contrition, rightful living and selfless public service.

Attacking the news media for accurately reporting his actions, as Easley's attorney tried to do Tuesday, will not restore Easley's good name.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Senate should stop stalling on treaty

Could there be any reason, other than wanting the Obama administration to fail, in Republican opposition to the new nuclear weapons treaty that President Obama is urging the Senate to ratify? Work on this treaty spans at least two presidential administrations, and one can contend that it really dates back to the Kennedy administration, which negotiated the earliest of the nuclear weapons treaties with the Soviet Union. President Reagan, although never a "dove," also was a believer in nuclear arms treaties. Another Republican, Richard Nixon, put a great deal of effort into nuclear arms treaties.

So what is the Republicans' objection? The treaty would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in Russia and the United States and would provide for verification procedures for both sides. Neither of the former Cold War superpowers now sees the other as an imminent threat, but a negotiated reduction in weaponry is beneficial to both sides.

The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to ratify any treaty, which means Obama needs several Republicans to achieve the 67-senator approval margin. Some Republican leaders apparently believe that failing to gain ratification will make Obama look bad, but the opposite may be true: Opposing a treaty that is in the national interest will make Republican senators look like partisan snipers who are willing to sacrifice the national interest for their own partisan gain.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Look at the way we were in 1964


Go to iTunes, search for Beatles and click on the Beatles concert video (not the YouTube video above). It's a 40-minute video of the Beatles' February 1964 concert at the Washington Coliseum. For those of us who remember the early days of Beatlemania, this concert video is a reminder of the unprecedented excitement that surrounded the band from Liverpool. It's also a look at the relative innocence of the day, with only a handful of police protecting the stage, but the audience, some of them screaming hysterically in the throes of Beatlemania, keep their seats and breathlessly await the next note, the next word, the next shake of their idols' hair.

Most impressive, however, is the simplicity of that concert. The four young men, all of them under 25, stride onto the stage, plug in their guitars, do a bit of tuning and launch into their repertoire, which seems largely unplanned, off the cuff. Their amplifiers and speakers are tiny compared to today's array of boulder-size speakers with stage monitors and huge soundboards to control everything. John, Paul and George tweak the sound a bit by twisting the dials themselves. Their equipment looks like something a middle school garage band might have, but they are the hottest musical act in the world at the height of their popularity.

Their concert was merely music and lyrics with a bit of chatter between songs. No one brought them freshly tuned guitars; they didn't switch instruments with each song as so many guitarists do now. They were only slightly removed from the amateur performers at The Cavern in Liverpool, where they had honed their sound. It's an amazing thing to see them as they were 46 years ago and to remember how we were and how much their music touched us and gave us happiness after that tragic November of '63, just three months before. And it's strange to remember their 45 rpm records and monaural LPs and the records that would sound scratchy and skip, but we didn't mind so much because their sound was so fresh and so original and was so exactly what we wanted to hear.

That 1964 concert had no special effects, no light towers, no smoke machines, no supporting musicians or vocalists — none of the things that make modern-day concerts more events or experiences at which the music seems to play second fiddle. Just four guys, three guitars, one set of drums, a couple of microphones to share and minimal amplification.

In the concert video posted free on iTunes, it's easy to see how much the four young men loved their music. John is gone now, the 30th anniversary of his murder fast approaching, and George is also gone. Ringo seems far removed from his drummer's throne; only Paul seems interested in music and performance, but it's only a hobby for him now; he doesn't really need it. But 46 years ago these four were something special, so special that it will never again be repeated.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The next big thing drags down communication

I can hear it now: "He's so old-school, why, he's still blogging!"

That was what occurred to me as I read that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook were coming out with a new form of digital communication, which Zuckerberg and others said would make email obsolete. I'll admit that I'm an email junkie. I'd much rather email someone than call them on the phone. Half the time you don't get the person you're calling, so you leave a message and hope they call you back — you hope at a time when you can answer your own phone, or they'll have to leave a message. Email is simpler. Your message goes in their inbox; they read it; they reply. What could be simpler or more efficient?

Now they're saying email is passe, obsolete, so yesterday! As I understand it, what Facebook is offering is some sort of combination of email, instant messaging and text messaging. I've done all of those, including video chat, but I still find email the most efficient and effective means of communicating. I use group emails to convey information about upcoming meetings, to make announcements, and to keep colleagues or relatives informed. It's a lot simpler than individually calling people or sending separate postcards.

Of course, there are those who haven't quite gotten the hang of email yet. I still encounter people who have email at home but only check their inboxes once a week or so. I can only roll my eyes. "Didn't you get my email?" "Oh, I haven't checked my email in a couple of weeks?" Do these people not check their postal mailboxes but once a week? I can't imagine that Facebook's shorter, more instantaneous sort of messaging would be appealing to them.

Although I've sent and received text messages, I don't find them very efficient or even rational. You're sitting there with a phone in your hand, but instead of making a call, you type a short message on those teeny-tiny keys. There must be some thrill to it that I'm missing. So what is it that Facebook is going to do to make this email/texting hybrid communication the latest rage? It arranges your messages and allows you to block anyone who isn't your Facebook friend. OK. Any good email program can filter your email to achieve that goal. Just what is new here?

Perhaps a greater concern should be the way that email, texting and whatever is next is pushing out thoughtful communication — the kind that people used to exchange in long, handwritten letters, which would show up years later in "The Collected Letters of ..." That's not going to happen with emails. The cell phone calls that begin with "where you at?" and the Facebook status updates that say "At home. Eating baloney sandwich" do not constitute a conversation. Any "new thing" that encourages still briefer, less thoughtful exchanges of meaningless (and misspelled) words is a detriment to culture, courtesy and understanding.

So here's hoping that Mark Zuckerberg's big new thing doesn't catch on. It's not like he needs the money.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Deficit reduction plan takes heavy fire

That didn't take long.

President Obama's deficit reduction panel, chaired by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, released an outline of its recommendations Thursday, and it immediately took heavy fire from left and right. Nobel economics winner Paul Krugman condemned the proposal and the co-chairmen in a New York Times column. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared the proposed fix unworkable.

To be certain, the proposal from the committee involves some painful medicine. To be certain, to do nothing about the $1 trillion-plus federal deficit and rapidly growing national debt means chronic economic illness and eventual collapse of the American economy. Bowles and Simpson attempted to address the problem by wounding everyone's sacred cows. They propose raising the Social Security retirement age and reducing Social Security cost-of-living increases; eliminating the mortgage interest deduction; reducing the costs of Medicare and Medicaid by updating the health care systems for the elderly and poor; raising taxes to increase revenue; and other solutions.

None of these proposals are inviting, but here's the rub: The alternative — doing nothing — is unsustainable. America cannot continue to run huge deficits and pile on debt that will cripple the prospects of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Sooner or later, we have to reduce our expectations of government (and the cost of government) and pay for the government services we receive while we receive them. It can be done. Barely a dozen years ago, the federal government was running a surplus and projected budget surpluses well into the future. Since that time, we have reduced taxes and sharply increased spending.

We can't continue on the present course. Congress has to take action. If the Bowles-Simpson plan can't be passed, come up with a better idea; but eliminate the deficit.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Keep your political slant out of the news

I suffered no withdrawal pangs when MSNBC suspended host Keith Olbermann over his contributions to political candidates. I have watched MSNBC (usually while flipping channels on election nights) just enough to know who he is. I also don't watch his counterpoints on the right — Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and that crowd on Fox News. A pox on all their houses, as far as I'm concerned.

But the issue of political involvement among journalists is one that I gave a lot of thought over a three-decade newspaper career. My journalistic training came during the 1960s and '70s, when the industry standard was an absolute ban on any and all forms of gifts, memberships and affiliations — anything that might affect one's objectivity. The restrictions could reach the ridiculous level. I was told a story about the young female reporter at a metro N.C. newspaper who had returned from an interview with an elderly man for a story about his gardening hobby. He had given her a rosebud from his garden, which she placed in a Coke bottle on her desk. An older colleague advised her to get rid of it immediately; accepting such a gift from a news sources is a firing offense! I worried about the ethics of accepting a one-mile ride from a county commissioner who was going my way. Some ethics policies were very specific. Columnist Art Buchwald told of being given a case of champagne when he was a correspondent in Paris. His newspaper's policy was that you could only accept gifts that can be consumed in one sitting (i.e., you could accept a free meal but not a stack of money). He rationalized that, if he had to, he could consume all that champagne in one sitting, so he accepted it. Membership in civic clubs or involvement in charities were forbidden by some ethics policies. Some journalism ethicists even questioned whether reporters and editors should belong to a church.

I drew a sharper line on political involvement. Access to politicians and political events are dependent upon a reputation for fairness, so a reporter doesn't want to show up for a Democratic rally with a GOP bumper sticker on his car. Nor do you want your name to appear on a list of partisan donors or have a political sign in your front yard. Therefore, I understand MSNBC's standard that led to Olbermann's suspension. You can claim that this policy restricts his free speech rights, but it is a sacrifice one makes for the job. Military officers sacrifice their right to criticize the president; judges sacrifice their right to practice law; professional athletes sacrifice their right to engage in foolishly dangerous activities that could jeopardize their ability to play their sport (and earn millions of dollars).

Here's a standard: What would Walter Cronkite do?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chill, damp can't halt Whirligig Festival


The Wilson Whirligig Festival had a couple of firsts this year. For the first time in the event's history, it rained. But it didn't rain much, and nearly all of that occurred Saturday morning. The bigger issue was cold — it was the coldest Whirligig Festival yet. When the rain ended Saturday morning, the wind picked up, giving whirligigs a little rotation.

Every previous Whirligig Festival, if my memory serves me, was greeted by bright blue skies and cool but comfortable temperatures, just right for strolling down Nash Street and enjoying the exhibits. The cool temperatures had to hurt sales of ice cream and cool drinks, but the hot cider from the Wilson Woman's Club really hit the spot. The festival attracted the usual array of crafts and food vendors, many of them back from previous years. Nonprofits offered information from a number of booths, and the Wilson County Public Library bookmobile sold used books at a brisk pace. Strolling troubadours added to the festive atmosphere. Because the festival fell four days after the election, political parties were absent this year.

Despite the chill that dampened attendance a bit, the Whirligig Festival showed once again that Wilson is onto something with this gig. Most any town can hold a barbecue festival, spring festival, tobacco festival, bird festival, dogwood festival or collard festival, but few have a connection with and an international audience for whirligigs, the whimsical creations of internationally acclaimed folk artist Vollis Simpson. Vollis had a booth at the festival, and Downtown Development was promoting the Whirligig Park, which will collect, restore and erect the whirligigs now on Simpson's farm, saving them for future generations to enjoy.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

GOP earthquake shakes legislature

It's a historic moment: Republicans will control the N.C. General Assembly for the first time since the 19th century. The only comparable state political earthquake was the 1972 election of Gov. Jim Holshouser, the first Republican governor of the 20th century. Holshouser's victory was more of a singular achievement, and, unable to succeed himself, his triumph was relatively short-lived. Holshouser's success did, however, encourage up-and-coming Republicans to continue to strive in North Carolina.

But taking over the entire legislative building, both House and Senate, is a remarkable achievement. Republicans had held a majority in the House for a few years but could accomplish little of their agenda against a well-established and disciplined Democratic majority in the Senate. Democrats had fought off Republican efforts by directing party money to key races where threats arose. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight raised tons of money, despite having a secure seat, and was able to spread those donations around to other Senate districts where Democratic incumbents were endangered. The retirement of several Senate leaders and the GOP wave on Tuesday will cost Basnight the post he has held for record years. And perhaps voters at last paid attention to the number of Democrats convicted of political crimes and the ongoing investigations of former Gov. Mike Easley and others.

What's more important this year is the timing: Controlling the General Assembly will put Republicans in control of the redistricting process. Like party leaders across the country, N.C. Democrats have used the redistricting process to protect their incumbents. Now Republicans will have that advantage, unless they choose to assign the task to a nonpartisan panel, as many people have urged for years. Republicans are not likely to forgo their chance to get their share of the redistricting spoils.

The new Republican leader in the Senate, Phil Berger, and other Republican legislative leaders have said they will work with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. Berger set a generally moderate and conciliatory tone in his Wednesday remarks. Republicans need to do well and to be transparent and public in tackling the state's budget deficit, estimated at more than $3 billion. Instead of complaining of Democrats' tax hikes and fiscal disguises, Republicans will get their chance to actually balance the budget. A lot rides on their success. With 2008 gubernatorial nominee Pat McCrory already campaigning for a 2012 rematch, Republicans will have a solid chance at the governor's mansion if they can show themselves as competent fiscal managers and legislative achievers.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The votes are in; now what?

Tuesday's election went about as predicted with Republicans taking over the U.S. House of Representatives and narrowing the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. America once again will have a divided government. The question before the newly elected representatives and before the American people is whether America will have a more effective government.

Voter anger, which led to many of the Republican victories, was aimed, according to exit polls, at both parties. Voters recognized that both parties were at fault for the partisan attitudes in Washington, the nasty campaign advertising and the lack of cooperation in the public interest. Some of last night's victors set a conciliatory and humble tone. New Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in particular, offered an impressive victory speech, recalling the struggles of his Cuban parents to create a better life for their children in this, "the greatest nation in human history." Likely Speaker of the House John Boehner chose conciliation over gloating in his remarks, reminding followers that there an be little call for celebration when unemployment is so high and the national debt so mountainous.

All elections present opportunities, and this one is no exception. President Obama should try again to reach out to Republicans, as he did at the beginning of his presidency when he was rebuffed. The Tea Party candidates who have vowed to "repeal" the president's health care legislation should take a gulp of reality: With the Senate still in Democratic hands and Obama wielding veto power, that cannot be done. Don't waste America's time. There should be opportunities, however, to address the budget deficit, tax policy, infrastructure needs, climate change, perhaps even the looming insolvency of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats must be willing to put aside some of their pet projects, and Republicans must be willing to consider recovering some lost tax revenue.

After so deep a debacle — losing more House seats than in 1994 — Democrats should take a fresh look at their leadership. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, was a lightning rod for GOP criticism. Electing her minority leader would show America that the Democrats haven't learned much from the public's outcry. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should resign his leadership post for the good of the party. Reid was so unpopular in his home state of Nevada that few analysts thought he could win. A combination of an ill-qualified opponent and a solid grassroots organization with strong union support allowed Reid to eke out a win. Keeping him as the party's Senate leader, however, would extend Democrats' negative public image.

One hopeful sign in this election is that some political moderates survived strong challenges. North Carolina Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre are examples. A coalition of moderates willing to consider compromises and cooperation with the "loyal opposition" could bring real progress on major issues confronting this nation. It is doubtful, however, that any action taken by Congress or the president will bring about a quick economic recovery. Global economics plays by rules not set on Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

What I'm expecting from Tuesday's vote

Two days before the mid-term elections, here are my predictions ... or expectations, based on gut feelings and some casual observations.
1. Republicans will make big gains both in North Carolina and on Capitol Hill. The U.S. House could go Republican, but the Senate is a slightly longer shot (still possible). Part of this shift is that the roiling electorate wants things to change, and there are more Democrats to aim their anger at.
2. Republican gains might not be as wide or as deep as some predictions claim. Younger and minority voters are harder to poll than the general population, and those groups went strongly Democratic in 2008. They will turn out in enough numbers to blunt the Republicans' celebration, at least a little.
3. North Carolina could see the General Assembly change hands. Republicans could control the Senate for the first time in a century. Given the scandals surrounding Democrats Perdue, Easley, Black, Ballance, Scott-Phipps and others, voters would be justified in showing the door to more N.C. Democrats, but they probably won't. Expect a nearly evenly divided legislature.
4. If Republicans win control of the legislature, they will have a tough time making the budget balance without tax increases. They'll put the state on a lean diet, and voters can see how they like it.
5. If Republicans regain control of Congress, they'll have two choices: They can try to embarrass, harass and defeat as many Democrats as possible (especially President Obama), or they can embrace an opportunity for compromises that will make Washington functional again. For the sake of the country, let's hope they (and the Democrats) choose the latter.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Do NPR executives get nervous, too?

Regarding NPR's firing of Juan Williams, I have one thought: It would be interesting to hook the NPR execs up to a polygraph machine and ask them, "If you're on an airplane and several men board wearing obviously Islamic-style attire, would that make you nervous?" Williams' ouster was reportedly based on his comment on a Fox News program that he got nervous when he was on an airplane and men in Islamic (or Arabic) dress board. After 9-11, what Americans or Europeans wouldn't get nervous?

The fallacy in this reaction is that the 9-11 hijackers were not wearing Islamic attire. They were dressed in Western-style clothes as they took control of four airliners and attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and were stopped from attacking the White House or Capitol. But radical Islamist doctrine was behind the attacks; we have it on the authority of Osama Bin Laden himself.

Williams, whom I enjoyed listening to on NPR, was admitting a personal but nearly universal reaction, a fear of Islamic radicals. Later in the program that got him fired, Williams pointed out that most Muslims are peaceful followers of mainstream Islam, not terrorists. Nevertheless, a handful of radicals can taint an entire group in the same way that a rape victim might experience panic attacks when alone with men. If Williams was fired solely for one comment on Fox News, then he was fired for being honest about something that some other Americans — apparently including NPR executives — are in denial about. Ask them to submit to a lie detector and see.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Photography has gone digital

One of my 200-plus photos taken last weekend

On a two-day trip to Colonial Williamsburg last weekend, I took more than 200 photographs. My wife, using another camera, took another 200-plus photographs. Even in a place like Williamsburg, where everyplace you turn is pretty as a picture, that's a lot of pictures. It's the equivalent, I quickly calculated, of about a dozen 20-exposure rolls of film each. Needless to say, I have never shot a dozen rolls of film in a weekend, or even in a week, in the nearly 50 years that I've been taking pictures with some degree of seriousness. The most pictures I ever shot during a one-week vacation was probably two rolls — 40 pictures — which seemed like an extravagance at the time.

Our experience testifies to the revolution in photography wrought by digital cameras. Shooting a dozen rolls of film would have cost me about $40 to $50 in film alone. Add processing and printing at about $5 to $10 a roll, and our photography alone would have exceeded our lodging and food costs for the weekend. Only the wealthiest photographers could afford such extravagance. But with digital photography, a single image is essentially "free," once you've paid for the camera and the memory card. If you want prints from your photographs, that will cost you 20 or 30 cents each, but, like most digital photographers, we rarely make prints from our images. If we want to view our pictures, we simply queue them up on the computer, which stores several thousand images (backed up on an external hard drive and on CDs). Furthermore, the programmed exposure and autofocus capabilities built into digital cameras allow even unskilled photographers to match the best efforts of professional photographers working with manual exposure and focus.

This revolution has taken place exceedingly fast. In the mid- to late-1990s, I did a story for the newspaper about digital photography (I searched for this article before I left the paper but never found it in the flawed filing system). At the time, the Associated Press was touting its new $25,000 digital cameras in the hands of a handful of photographers. These pioneering cameras, based on a Nikon F, weighed about 20 pounds and had lower resolution than today's cheap pocket digitals. The photographers and camera sales people I talked to at the time all agreed that digital photography would grow but never displace film, which had far better resolution and archival capabilities. Within five years, my newspaper had bought its first digital camera at a cost of about $5,000. You can buy a better version of that camera now for 10 percent of that price, and the paper soon after switched from point-and-shoot film cameras to cheap digitals that cost less than $200 each (now even cheaper).

It's no wonder, then, that digital photography became a tsunami that swamped film photography. A friend recently told me that she had several rolls of exposed but undeveloped film in her home. I advised her to get the film developed as soon as possible. Kodak has already quit making Kodachrome film — the staple of color photography for 75 years — and it seems likely that developing chemicals will soon be withdrawn from the market. The film processing kiosks and in-store desks that made film processing so convenient and cheaper cannot last much longer. In another generation, people will be unable to understand why my generation and our parents' generation took so few pictures to chronicle our daily lives. After all, it's nothing to shoot a few hundred pictures in one weekend.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A new pledge for America

A new pledge for the 21st century:

I pledge subservience to the debt*
of the United States of America
and to our grandchildren
who will still be paying on it long after we're gone,
one nation, incapable, and unable
to balance spending with taxation,
so we get misery and indebtedness for all.


*$13 trillion, $611 billion, $281 million and counting, or $43,834 per resident, according to the National Debt Clock (www.usdebtclock.org) as of Oct. 19, 2010

Political ads get crazier

Two weeks from the mid-term elections, and the empty rhetoric keeps getting more vacuous. Being out of the newspaper and editorial-writing business for two years now, I've found that I'm just not as on-top of politics as I was for 30-some years. Still, I'm aware enough to find a few amusing hyperboles among the political advertising:

• While in Virginia last weekend, I twice encountered an ad for a congressional candidate named Krystal Ball (honest to God!). Among other things, the candidate promised to "cut the politicians' pay." That might be popular sentiment among angry voters mired in a recession, but it's about as empty a promise as one can imagine. As one of 435 members of the House, just how would she come up with the votes to cut politicians' pay? She can introduce a bill to reduce congressional pay, but she can't pass it, and she certainly can't fulfill her promise by personal edict. Congressional pay is "on automatic," scheduled to add a cost-of-living raise each year unless Congress specifically overrides the provision by majority vote. It ain't going to happen, no matter what Ms. Ball promises!

• State Sen. A.B. Swindell has shifted his mailing to voters from an attack on his opponent over 20-year-old drug charges, which documents show the prosecutor blamed on a mistake and dismissed, to an irrelevancy. The latest flier Swindell (and the Democratic Party) sent to my mailbox says Swindell is "protecting our borders." Hunh? Since border enforcement is a federal matter, I can only wonder what it is Swindell is protecting us from. Is he personally keeping South Carolina tomatoes or Virginia antiques or Tennessee music out of North Carolina? The picture on the flier shows A.B. standing beside a uniformed officer and a sheriff's patrol car, so he must mean business. Surely there are actual state issues that a candidate for state Senate could address in his campaign, even if they're not as volatile as border protection.

After being away from the newspaper and editorial-writing business, I've found that I'm not nearly as cognizant of all the political issues and candidates as I had been. But after seeing this year's political ads, I'm thinking that might not be such a bad thing.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Murder most foul at Barton

"Macbeth" has always been my favorite Shakespearean play. Say what you will about the profoundly inscrutable emotions of "Hamlet" or swoon over the romance of "Romeo and Juliet," it is "Macbeth" with its horribly flawed characters and its portrayal of evil "lurking at the door" (as the Bible says) that makes me stare in awe and wonder.

Theatre at Barton tackled the tragedy of Macbeth last night with a production that sparkled with surprising performances but occasionally veered off track a bit. Guest artist David McClutchy as Macbeth was as good as one would expect of the professional performers Theatre at Baron director Adam Twiss has lured to the campus. His Macbeth seared with ambition, anguish and guilt. McClutchy also gets credit as "fight choreographer." Michael Murray, another guest artist, gets to spend half the play as a gruesomely bloody and glowering ghost.

More surprising were the bravura performances of Barton students Jess Jones as Lady Macbeth and Wesley Pridgen as Macduff. Jones combines the amoral, evil, ambitious greed of one of literature's creepiest temptresses with a seductive beauty and grace. Her monologues evoke the appropriate chills down the spine. Pridgen screams with palpable anguish over the news of his family's murder and burns for righteous vengeance in a performance that matched the more experienced members of the cast.

Barton contributes both students and staff to this production with Professor Joe Jones looking comfortable in the role of the likable but ill-fated King Duncan and library director Rodney Lippard acquitting himself well in a significant role as Ross. Tony Tilley, director of campus food services, delights students in the audience with his portrayal of the bawdy, drunken porter, lending this dark tragedy a rare bit of levity.

Directors and producers seem intent on modernizing "Macbeth," and Twiss is no exception. This week's production hints at medieval Scotland only through a few tartans worn like bandannas or scarves and wooden dowels substituting for swords. The play's memorable witches in this production are dressed like gypsies or hippies and are thereby less sinister than Shakespeare imagined them. The use of an echo effect when the witches speak, meant to produce an eerie effect, just garbles their lines.

Far more effective is the rumbling thunder in the background that gave scenes their aura of insidious evil. This aural effect is matched by the lighting that conveyed the darkness of the characters and even the fire of the witches' cauldron. Twiss takes full advantage of the "black box" format of the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre as actors enter and exit through aisles among the audience and run along the catwalk above the audience.

"Macbeth" holds its enduring appeal and haunting caution against tangible evil in this production, in which Barton proves its ability to do serious drama at a high level. The introduction of serious new student talent is a great bonus. The play continues through this weekend.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Winning the game while losing your integrity

The permanent suspension of three UNC football players is not the climax of this embarrassing and depressing episode for my alma mater. Three of the most skilled players on the team are permanently barred from college football after the NCAA found they had taken illegal gifts from sports agents. Two of the players also lied to investigators, the NCAA said. Another 10 or so UNC players remain in limbo, either suspended for a defined number of games or still awaiting the consequences of investigations by the NCAA and the student honor court. More shock waves are no doubt in store for Tar Heel fans when the NCAA and honor court reach their conclusions about what went on within the football program and how severe the punishment will be.

It's a sordid sort of mess one would expect from the nation's football factories, but not from a respected state university with a history of stringent ethical standards, at least since the basketball point-shaving scandal of 1961, which hit colleges across the country. Losing your integrity is a lot worse than losing a ball game.

As someone who can remember what Kenan Stadium looked liked before the upper deck was added, I have not been a fan of the tree-destroying, field house-razing and charm-eliminating expansion of the venerable stadium in a hell-bent effort to duplicate the style of the football factories. "Bigger, hungrier, richer" is not an appropriate slogan for a college athletic program.

Colleges and universities have ignored the 20-year-old recommendations of the Knight Commission, which sought to put a bridle on runaway college sports. Now, with the addition of sports agents eager to cash in on the multi-million-dollar contracts a first-year professional football, basketball or baseball player can earn, the entire college sports establishment may have been hijacked by the professionals, agents, television and shoe companies. It seems doubtful that the universities, which have acquiesced to every demand of coaches, players, shoe suppliers and television, can retrieve the powerful stallion they have unleashed.

Years ago, I scoffed at the notion that college athletes should be paid for their services. They bring millions of dollars to their universities and get only a few thousand dollars' worth of scholarships and other services in return. With college sports behaving more and more like a private enterprise with only nominal ties to their academic namesakes, which exercise little real control over their sports programs, I'm rethinking my opposition to paying college players what they're worth. Until colleges once again field teams composed of students who occasionally play sports instead of athletes who occasionally attend classes, perhaps we should strip away the charade, admit that college players really are pros and pay them accordingly. Forget the NCAA rules, forget academic progress, forget graduation rates; just let 'em play and be the pros they are.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Retreat means getting (far) away


A retreat should be that — a getting away from the familiar world to concentrate on important things. Camp Agape (not agape; it's pronounced A-gah-pay, meaning Christian love) fits that bill. You go to Fuquay-Varina and turn right. Then you get lost. Because I was going there after dark Friday night, I got very lost but finally found the humble little church camp that I had visited about 20 years ago. The 624-acre site is about as far away as you can get from the hustle and bustle of modern life and still be in the greater Triangle area. The Cape Fear River flows through the property, which is on rolling hills covered in thick forests with a few meadows interspersed.

At the direction of our retreat leader, Nancy, we methodically worked our way through the ecclesiastical year and, at the same time, looked within ourselves. We served each other communion. We nailed our sin to a cross, and then we buried the sin in a bucket of dirt. We sang hymns. We listed our gifts. We wrote secret notes to each other.

In the free time we had left, we ate two meals together, hiked around the small lake behind the lodge, and told stories. Some of us tried out the camp's trails. The Cape Fear River was only a short walk away from the lodge. One of the camp's programs is environmental education. Food scraps are composted by the resident earthworms, and camp facilities blend easily with the natural landscape. Although eager to join my wife at a family gathering more than an hour's drive away, I found myself wishing I could linger a while and explore the trails.

A retreat should bring renewal. This one did.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Author is best the third time around

Poet/novelist/historian Robert Morgan spoke at Barton College tonight. I had heard Morgan talk twice earlier, each time at the N.C. Literary Festival in Chapel Hill last year and several years before. The first time, his blockbuster novel "Gap Creek" (an Oprah Book Club designation) had only recently been published to rave reviews. It told a wonderful love story in simple, 19th-century cadences, leaving us reader to marvel at the tribulations of our ancestors, who survived on little more than faith and love. Morgan, in a large auditorium, seemed a little above his audience.
The second time I head him, he was reading from his award-winning poetry with his mentor, Fred Chappell, and one of Morgan's students. It was an entertaining time as each read from some recent verse.
At Barton tonight, before a relatively small crowd, Morgan was entertaining and charming as he talked about Daniel Boone and read from his "Boone: A Biography." Before his talk, Morgan was friendly and conversational, finding people to talk to when the line for book signing dwindled. He seemed like the avuncular neighbor you'd enjoy having for dinner.
My wife and I had read "Gap Creek" but could not find our copy of it (did we ever own it?) or of his "Truest Pleasure" (had we read that one?). We bought his "Boone" biography and his historical novel "Brave Enemies." We're looking forward to curling up with each one.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Street festival gives hint about sheriff's race

The crowd, if you can call it that, at Black Creek Heritage Day Saturday was too small to be representative, but it still gave an impression of how the Wilson County sheriff's election might come out. Independent candidate John Farmer was out early with a tent and a popcorn maker. Farmer, recently retired as a sheriff's major, was there with a small entourage and lots of stickers and signs. Democratic nominee Calvin Woodard, who upset 28-year incumbent Wayne Gay in the primary, arrived later with a group of supporters towing a couple of pig cookers, in which they would roast ears of corn to pass out.

Farmer and Woodard exchanged friendly waves.

Neither candidate seemed to win a lot of points while I was at the street festival, but both engaged passers-by in conversation. Anyone who thought Woodard's appeal was limited to black voters was proven wrong by the white people helping hand out literature, put up his tent and work his cookers. If the small sample at Black Creek is any indication, Woodard should have no trouble winning next month.

Farmer, whom I've known for years and who has been very helpful to me in the past, is in a difficult position. Independents rarely upset party-supported candidates. To win, Farmer will need nearly all of the Republican voters (there is no Republican candidate in the race) plus a substantial share of unaffiliated and Democratic voters. Seen another way, many Democrats will have to abandon the party nominee, and unaffiliated voters will have to swing overwhelmingly toward the independent candidate. It could happen, but it's not likely.

The welcome that Woodard received from the mostly white, mostly conservative and mostly rural people walking the street at Black Creek Saturday indicated to me that he has the advantage in this contest.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fifty years ago, racism ruled America

I was in a meeting earlier this week with a group of about a dozen people I didn't know. The group leader was decrying the consequences of the Great Recession, which has caused a big increase in requests for help from nonprofits, increased stress on families and an uptick in the homeless population. Along with everyone else, I could only nod my head in agreement. Then she said something that floored me: "I think racism is worse today than it has ever been!"

I started to raise my hand and ask, "Where are you from?" The woman leading the group appeared to be about my age, maybe a little older. Surely, she should be able to remember what it was like 50 years ago, when black North Carolinians could not eat in a restaurant where whites ate, could not sleep in a motel where whites slept, could not attend schools white children attended, could not live in a neighborhood where whites lived, often could not vote in elections, could not drink from water fountains or use the bathrooms used by whites, and would not even be considered for decent jobs. Fifty years ago, none of the eight or 10 African-American women gathered in that room could have held the executive and managerial positions they hold today. The meeting they were attending, in which whites and blacks discussed issues on an equal footing, could not have happened then. If you think racism is worse today than it was 50 years ago, you have a serious memory problem.

That's not to say that racism has been eradicated. Like other forms of evil, it keeps poking its ugly head out of its manure pile only to be beaten back again. Racial prejudice is probably as old as that prehistoric time when humans first differentiated themselves by skin color and other distinguishing features. Racism will continue to plague the human condition from time to time, but its days of ordering society and building senseless barriers are over, at least in this country.

Fifty years after a federal law made it possible for African-Americans to vote unimpeded in this nation, we elected an African-American president. That is an extraordinary achievement! Like other presidents, this one is assailed by critics, and a few of those critics may be motivated, at least in part, by racism, but it is political doctrine, not race, that is the primary divisive force today.

Anyone who remembers the 1960s and before can testify to the lunacy of claims that racism is worse today than ever before. America should proudly proclaim its victory over the evil forces of entrenched racism and never forget how bad, how ridiculous, society was before the civil rights era.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Taxpayers foot bill for campaign 'reform'

In more than three decades in the newspaper business, I made it a point to keep out of politics — no yard signs, no bumper stickers, no precinct offices. And I expected those who worked for me to follow the same rules. Because politics is such an important part of news coverage and carries such volatility, I knew that any degree of partisanship could jeopardize our position as a neutral observer of the political scene.

One advantage of this policy was that I had a perfect excuse when I was approached for a campaign donation. Those donations are a public record, which could be used to question the fairness of an editorial endorsement or news coverage.

Now I'm out of that business and have been approached by an old friend who is running for N.C. Court of Appeals, I'm out of excuses. I met Harry Payne 40 years ago when his twin brother lived on my hall in college, and I had followed his political career with some interest — state legislator, commissioner of labor, and Employment Security Commission director. He emailed earlier this month to say he's running for Court of Appeals.

With taxpayer financing of judicial races, that should be an easy race for someone with Harry's credentials. After all, he has won statewide races before, when he had to raise all the campaign money himself. In this year's race, if he raises $26,000 from 225 or more voters contributing $10 to $500, the state will match his campaign fund on a two-to-one basis. Raising that much money in such small amounts is not easy, he says.

I'm willing to help Harry with a small donation, but the concept of taxpayer-financed elections has always bothered me. Although proponents like to call this system "voter-owned elections," the fact is that government will be collecting and disbursing money for the benefit of politicians. Your tax money will go to support candidates you might like, or you might abhor. Forcing someone to support, through taxation, the political career of someone with whom you disagree seems contrary to American values.

There's no doubt that the present system of endless fund-raising by politicians and the appearance that a wealthy few "own" politicians and call the shots in Raleigh and Washington is disgusting. But there must be a better way to reform the system than by forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for political ads that turn their stomachs. The McCain-Feingold campaign reform law chips away at the First Amendment by limiting political speech. A reform should reduce the influence of the wealthy few, including corporations and labor unions, without prohibiting vigorous political debate.

The low response rate for state and national campaign fund checkoffs on tax forms show how unpopular taxpayer financing of campaigns is. American taxpayers don't want to see their taxes go into political advertising. N.C. politicians have inserted this experiment into low-profile races for judgeships and Council of State races, but widening this plan will only be popular with the politicians who benefit from it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

You go to your church, and I'll find my own

Here's a spiritual experience: Body piercing. This previously unknown Stairway to Heaven has become better known recently since a Johnston County student claimed a religious exemption for her nose stud. The school system said no way. Oh yeah, she said. I'm a member of The Church of Body Modification, which believes that sticking holes in your body where there were none is a spiritual experience.

The News & Observer, ever vigilant for important new trends in religious studies, has done an article about an official minister of The Church of Body Modification. Richard Ivey of Raleigh is a minister who practices what he preaches. He has ear jewelry the size of hockey pucks, the N&O noted, and he has tattoos on nearly all of the exposed skin in the newspaper photo, plus a few more pierces in what can only be called "unnatural" places. He says he gets a new tattoo every month or two, so the clerical pay in this denomination must be all right. And, oh yeah, one of the rituals of the church is to be strung up on fish hooks dug into your flesh. Ivey says just hanging around like that gives him peace.

Although I was, frankly, turned off by the Rev's unusual appearance, the article got me to thinking. Ivey got his ordination by applying online, and church doctrine, which confesses no god and has relatively few restrictions, can't be too tough to master. If you can have a Church of Body Modification, what other spiritual frontiers might be out there, just waiting to be explored?

It didn't take me long to think of a few:

• The Wholly Nekkid Fellowship. Nudists get a bad rap, running around butt-naked all the time, but if being naked is a spiritual experience, well more folks might join in. And all that money you would spend on clothes can be given to the church, says church founder Seymour Butz, who wears a clerical collar but nothing else.

• The Church of Video Games. This church meets only in basements, and its hymns consist of the ping-ping-blip of video game sound effects. "Yea, though I run through the Valley of Death, I fear no annihilation, for I can always hit the reset button," is the church's creed. Church members seek to achieve an ecstatic state of rapture by earning more game points than anyone else.

• The Tea Party Communion. This church worships the glossed-over image of a former Alaska governor as its chief goddess. Its sacraments include drinking tea from demitasse cups and screaming at non-believers.

• The Mother Earth Temple of Truth and Revelation. This religion eschews any god or goddess but considers the Earth in its original state, before homo sapiens, to be the personification of perfection. Church members study ways to rid the world of humans and bring back the dinosaurs.

• The Janis Joplin Experience Hosannah Movement. This sect worships the life of Janis Joplin, who died of a drug overdose in 1970. Sacraments include attempting to drink as much booze as Janis did onstage while also popping pills. Church Hymnody consists entirely of Janis Joplin recordings, which can throw true believers into a catatonic state.

• The Oh Joy for O.J. Worship Center. This church contends that O.J. Simpson was the perfect human specimen who had to be sacrificed on the altar of Hollywood so that less-talented celebrities could have their own paparazzi. Believers await the day when O.J. is released from prison and melts his Heisman Trophy into a Golden Calf.

• The Hedonism in Heaven Fellowship. This church contends that mankind was born to have sex as often as possible. Marriage is condemned as an obstacle to more frequent and more varied sexual encounters. The H in H Fellowship is in negotiations with radical Islamists about the 21 virgins awaiting jihadist martyrs. H in H believers are trying to work out the same deal, for all church members.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Senate campaign mailing sets off furor

If A.B. Swindell, the incumbent in the 10th N.C. Senate District race, wanted to liven up an otherwise dull contest, he has succeeded. His mailing this week portraying his Republican opponent, Buck Newton, as a drug-dealing felon certainly was an attention grabber. The slick mailing with ominously dark background, what appears to be cocaine and a police officer and flashing lights, gets this message across: "Buck Newton. 8 felony drug counts, including selling cocaine. Is that who you want to be your senator?" Inside the flier, the Swindell camp says court records show Newton "was arrested on 8 felony drug counts."

A printout of court records show Newton was charged, but it also shows in each case the charge was "dismissed by DA." That should tell you something, and it should also have warned the Swindell camp to be cautious about this. Moreover, Newton has been practicing law in Wilson for years. If he were a convicted felon, he couldn't be admitted to the bar. Something doesn't click here, despite the N.C. Democratic Party's shocking mailing.

Newton has produced a letter from the district attorney and an affidavit stating that the charges were a case of mistaken identity and that the undercover officer responsible for the charges was dismissed from the police force. All of this happened 20 years ago when Newton was a student at Appalachian State University.

The justifiably outraged Republican candidate has said he is filing a defamation lawsuit against Swindell and the Democratic Party. He says the assertion that he was arrested is patently false, that he was never arrested on these charges and that they were quickly dropped when the mistaken identity became apparent. A friend sent me an audio file of Newton's appearance on the "DP in the Morning" show on the Jammin' 99 radio station. Newton rants for most of the 17 minutes of the file, barely allowing any questions or comments as he expresses his righteous indignation and scathingly critiques Swindell, whom he calls "Alvin," as "a liar."

Newton may be outraged, angry and disgusted, but he probably also knows that he has little chance of winning a defamation suit against Swindell and the Democratic Party. It's hard to win a libel suit — as it should be — and courts tend to give campaigning politicians a lot of leeway. Will a judge or jury make a distinction between being "charged" and being "arrested"? Or will the court find that to a lot of people, there's not a lot of difference? No matter what the outcome, this lawsuit will drag on long after the last vote is counted.

The question is why Swindell, a 10-year incumbent and a player in Senate President Marc Basnight's power structure, would stoop to this incendiary and misleading flier. Swindell has not been seriously challenged before, so he must think it is necessary to bring out the heavy artillery against Newton.

The second question is what will be the consequences. This mailing could well backfire against Swindell if enough voters see it as a desperate attempt at character assassination. For North Carolina legislative races, this is about as low as campaigning gets.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Announcing the autumnal equinox

Last night's bright, almost full moon in a cloudless sky seemed designed to announce today's autumnal equinox. Tonight, the sun crosses the equator, heading south, and today's daylight and night will be evenly divided.

The early morning chill, which we welcome into our homes with open windows, hints that fall is upon us, despite daytime temperatures approaching or into the 90s. The midday heat may be more like August than late-September, but the evenings and early mornings are refreshingly cool. Already, the oaks around our home are shedding their leaves, and soon I'll be up to my knees in leaves as Saturdays turn into raking days.

The lack of rain has turned yards and flower beds into desert-like dust bins, and a rake stirs up little sandstorms of dry debris. Without a change in the clouds, this fall will be tinder-dry, and the threat of forest fires and grass fires will loom over each day, like a torch poking at a kerosene spill.

As the daylight grows shorter and the night grows longer, the unseasonable temperatures will abate, the cool evening gradually conquering the day's heat. Soon, the night will arrive early, helped along by the change to standard time, and the darkness will envelope our off-work hours. Winter's chill will follow in time. Don't be surprised if this winter brings temperatures low enough to balance the summer's harsh heat. And we would welcome some rain or snow to dampen the thirsty dust.

On this day of equality between daylight and dark, we will enjoy the daylight that remains, knowing that it is slipping away silently into dark winter nights.