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 ( 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.