Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Early warning signs I don't want to see

Jane Brody's New York Times article about cognitive impairment as a sign of impending dementia hit me like a water balloon dropped from a high-rise. If you're having a problem remembering things, such as simple, familiar words, or names of people you know, you might have only a few more years of functional living before Alzheimer's disease takes over your life.

What scares me is that I have had these cognitive impairments for some time. I've always had difficulty remembering names, even in my twenties. Something in my cognitive makeup doesn't latch onto names, so for years I've run into people whose faces I know but whose name I cannot produce. Words also escape me from time to time. The name of a flower I see by the walk just escapes me, as does the common noun that I know perfectly well but my brain just won't produce. I've learned to live with these frustrating and sometimes embarrassing impairments. If it gets no worse than this, I can take frustration and occasional embarrassment, but if these lapses are indicative of looming dementia, I don't want to face it.

In their declining years, my parents both exhibited mild to moderate dementia and confusion, which they tried to hide. Dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are diseases that have a genetic element, and that gives me more cause for concern. When my parents were spending their final years in a nursing home, I told my wife that if she suspected I was losing my mental faculties, she should sign me up for skydiving lessons. "If I can't remember to pull the ripcord, I don't want to live, anyway," I said.

I stand by that sentiment. It seems cruel to see someone who is intellectually sharp trapped in a body ravaged by MS or ALS, but it seems even worse to me to occupy a relatively healthy body but lose memories, reasoning and personality, leaving nothing but a shell. For the present, I'm hoping that Brody's early warning signs are, in my case, simply a case of brain overload, having retained more facts and memories than my brain can efficiently store and reproduce.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Penalize Congress for failure to pass budget

Ah-h-h-h! We've avoided another government shutdown. At least that's the hope — who knows for sure, these days? Even if the government doesn't shut down, Congress' track record on fiscal responsibility is abysmal. The dodging of a shutdown is being achieved via a stopgap funding bill, a continuing resolution that allows the government to operate even though no budget for fiscal year 2012 has been passed. FY2012 begins Saturday!

This is nothing new. Congress routinely fails to pass a budget before the new fiscal year begins. So year after year, no matter which party controls Capitol Hill or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the federal government survives through special measures forced upon Congress because it has failed to pass a budget. Federal fiscal years used to begin on July 1, but Congress said it needed just a little more time, so Congress changed the start of the fiscal year to Oct. 1. (I was a federal employee in Washington, D.C., at the time of that 15-month transitional fiscal year in the early 1970s.) It has done no good. Congress is no better at passing the budget by Oct. 1 than it was at passing a budget by July 1. When you consider that passing a budget is, arguably, the single most important task of Congress every year, that's a sorry track record.

My suggestion is this: Pass a law that cuts off the salary and expense accounts of all members of Congress when a comprehensive budget is not passed by the beginning of the fiscal year. Continuing resolutions or stopgap funding won't count; it has to be a full budget — the main job constituents sent them to Washington to do. Otherwise, their pay is cut to zero until the day both houses of Congress pass the entire budget for the fiscal year and the president signs it.

I think this proposal might give members of Congress some incentive to get their jobs done.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Where will we have these discussions?

Roaming the aisles of a closing bookstore for a few minutes earlier today, I ran into an acquaintance who wanted to talk books. Always a good topic, especially surrounded by so many of the topic.

She asked if I had read a couple of authors and was looking for a good book to buy at 20% off on this day before the store closed for good. She asked about John Irving, and I told her he and I share a birth date. I told her I thought "World According to Garp" was a great book. She said she'd read the synopsis on the book's cover and didn't think she'd like it. I told her it was not at all the kind of book I had expected from comments from some friends when I read it 30 years ago. I found it intriguing and affirming about relationships. She said she'd read "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and liked it. I recommended "A Widow for One Year," but she'd tried it and didn't like it. We both agreed "Hotel New Hampshire" was too weird.

Looking through the stacks of books, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini caught my eye. I handed the paperback to her and urged her to read it. "It's about Afghanistan, isn't it?" she said skeptically. Yes, I said, but it's a wonderful story and it teaches so much about Afghanistan. "Is it depressing?" Well, part of it is set in the Taliban era, so yes, but it's well worth the trouble. Hosseni's "A Thousand Splendid Suns" was lying on the next shelf. I recommended it also. She finally agreed to buy "The Kite Runner" but threatened to throw it at me if it wasn't good. I told her I had no worries.

I spent the next few minutes trying to remember the author and title of a book I've recommended dozens of times. Senior moment. By the time I remembered it, I was out of the store and halfway across the parking lot. I walked back to where she was sitting in her car and told her: "Magic Time" by Doug Marlette. She wanted to know the time period of the book. Marlette weaves together three time periods with the same characters — the civil rights era of the 1960s, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and present day (2008 or 2009). I've told other people that I thought it was the truest, most accurate fictionalization of race relations in the South during the early 1960s. "The Help," another book I enjoyed but didn't remember to recommend today, has more recently tackled the same era from a much different vantage point and with a less complicated plot. I'm saddened every time I recommend "Magic Time" that Marlette, the editorial cartoonist who created the comic strip "Kudzu," died in a car crash not long after "Magic Time" was published. A literary tragedy!

With Books-A-Million closing, where will people in Wilson have conversations like this?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When a town's bookstore closes

Wilson's Books-A-Million, the only bookstore in a town of nearly 50,000, is closing, the victim of a lingering economic downturn and a changed business environment for booksellers. First, it was the big-box bookstores that ran the little independents out of business. Now, it's the online retailers (Amazon, etc.) and the switch to e-readers (e.g., Kindle) that is forcing the big-box bookstores out of business.

Economic changes aside, can a small city claim any intellectual ranking without a bookstore? A bookstore is not just a place to buy books; it's a place to discover books, to talk to fellow readers and to luxuriate in the aroma and feel of freshly printed books. Bookstores are places where I can spend hours without realizing any time has elapsed.

When we moved to Wilson 31 years ago, a B. Dalton bookstore lured us out of Parkwood Mall's wide corridor into its cramped aisles. Now the store (part of a chain but with some helpful local clerks) is gone, and the mall is pretty much kaput, too. We mourned the demise of B. Dalton but were encouraged by BAM's opening. We could, at last, shop through thousands of books along wide aisles and refresh ourselves at the coffee bar without leaving town. Every Christmas season, we would hunt through the selections for books for young nieces and nephews because we knew there's no better gift than a good book, and we wanted to have a role in sparking these children's love of reading. Other gift-giving occasions for older relatives or friends also would bring us to the bookstore. On other occasions, we would simply drop by the bookstore to spend a half hour or so just looking to see what's new and to treat ourselves to a cup of coffee.

Now, we won't be able to do any of those things without going out of town. We can order books online, but it's not the same, especially when it comes to children's books. Without a bookstore, Wilson will be a lesser place.

BAM's closing will be an opportunity for an enterprising bibliophile to open an independent bookstore, perhaps combining used books with a few new printings. The business plan will depend on one's ability to get a business loan in this economic climate — and on local shoppers' willingness to support that increasingly rarity, an independent bookstore.

Monday, September 19, 2011

ACC gets bigger, not better

Size matters. That's certainly true on the offensive line in football and in the three-second lane in basketball. It also applies to collegiate athletic conferences, at least as far as the league executives are concerned. For the fans, I'm not so sure.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has announced an expansion of the 58-year-old conference to 14 teams, adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the 12-team roster. Two factors are behind this move: (1) Major conferences are falling apart or expanding — the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10 (I have trouble keeping up with the numbers) are adding or shedding teams and (2) enlarging the conference and adding major television markets increases the conference's revenue from TV contracts.

If you haven't noticed, television controls intercollegiate athletics. That's why you have Thursday night and Friday night football games. That's why you have 9 p.m. start times for basketball games. Everything is geared toward maximizing TV audiences, even if the schedule is bad for the fans and the student athletes.

I am reminded of televised boxing, which had its heyday around the time the Atlantic Coast Conference was formed. "Friday Night Fights" was a staple of televised sports in the 1950s when college basketball and football got relatively little attention. Boxing fell from favor and disappeared as a regularly scheduled broadcast within a few years. One of the explanations for boxing's fall was that television demanded matches that were not good for the boxers or for the sport. (The brutality of the sport and some in-ring tragedies also contributed to its demise.) Feeding television's insatiable demand was not good for boxing. Collegiate football and basketball have not reached that tipping point yet, but concerns over television's influence are rising.

I am one fan who would prefer the early days of the ACC, when eight teams competed within a relatively compact geographic area, and almost every game was a rivalry. Each team played every conference opponent in football each season, and in basketball, each team played twice, one game at home and one game away. This made for wonderfully heated rivalries and great excitement among fans and alumni. The conference comprised North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Clemson. Stricter academic standards for athletes and other factors led South Carolina to (foolishly, it turned out) leave the conference in 1971. Georgia Tech was recruited to replace South Carolina, adding the Atlanta TV market. Since then, Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College have enlisted, bringing their own TV markets and fan following. The home-and-away basketball games had to be dropped, and the football season was divided into two divisions. Rivalries waned.

The bottom line is nearly $2 billion worth of television contract. Forget about the fans; forget about the rivalries. Television rules.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gathering stirs newspaper memories

The memorial service Saturday in Maplewood Cemetery for Margaret Dickerman was cool and damp, but warmed by the renewal of relationships with former co-workers and others who had been part of Mrs. Dickerman's universe. She was remembered for her caring and concern, for her kindnesses, for her membership in "The Greatest Generation," for her faith and for her civic-minded philanthropy.

I was there to pay my respects to a woman who had been wonderfully considerate and kind to my family when we moved to Wilson 31 years ago. She took the time to find a house we could rent until we decided on a permanent home. She recommended doctors and a dentist, insurance agents and other resources for us, strangers in a new town. She drove my wife and small children around town, pointing out landmarks and neighborhoods. One day she brought a pot of hot soup for our lunch. She personified the graciousness of eastern North Carolina, and we were eternally grateful to her for making our difficult transition a little easier.

In my early years at the newspaper her grandfather had founded, her presence was obvious. She wanted everything decorous and proper, which wasn't always possible in a messy news environment. She knew the employees and cared about them. Frequent pot-luck lunches and a grand Christmas party created a genuine sense of unity and cohesiveness. We joked that you might not get rich working there, but you wouldn't starve.

Over the years, the newspaper business changed, that newspaper changed, and Mrs. Dickerman's influence faded as she aged and became less involved. Few recent hires knew her or even knew of her. Gathered beneath that funeral tent Saturday, the old-timers paid their respects and remembered the good times.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Obama is counting on North Carolina

President Obama was back in North Carolina Wednesday, an indication that he thinks he might be able to repeat his win in the state. His 2008 taking of North Carolina, the first Democratic presidential win here since Jimmy Carter in 1976, seemed miraculous and impressive at the time. Repeating that win might truly be miraculous.

North Carolina not so long ago enjoyed its success as a job-creating economic engine. Manufacturing and high-tech companies came here for the state's low taxes and low unionization rates. But since the recession began in 2008, North Carolina has trailed the nation as a whole in jobs and economic stability. The state's downward economic spiral seems likely to continue with Bank of America, headquartered in Charlotte, announcing 30,000 job cuts earlier this week.

Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly), the president and his party get blamed for economic misery, so Obama's effort to keep North Carolina in his camp will be especially difficult unless the economy turns around. An economic boost seems unlikely in the next year. Forecasts are for weak growth, at best. The unemployment rate seems likely to remain stubbornly high, and that rate is worse than in recent past recessions because so many of the unemployed are mid-career or older breadwinners. The housing crisis, which sparked this recession, will not be solved soon because so many mortgages are delinquent or in foreclosure.

To win in North Carolina and nationwide, Obama will have to hope for mistakes on the other side. If Republican primary voters nominate a Tea Party favorite who appears to threaten the existence of Social Security and Medicare or who suggests continuing war in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, Obama's task will seem more manageable, though still an uphill slog.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Toppled trees should be replaced

You would think that, after the devastating hurricanes of 1996 and 1999, Wilson would have few trees left for high winds to topple. But everywhere I go now, I see trees down and damage to homes that stood in the falling trees' paths.

I spent the day that Hurricane Irene struck and several days thereafter in Rocky Mount and did not get to see much of Wilson's damage. In terms of damage to the electrical grid, Rocky Mount clearly had it worse. There were still hundreds of Rocky Mount customers without power days after Wilson Energy announced its lines were fully restored. But that doesn't mean that there weren't many, many trees down on Wilson houses or across Wilson streets. Stately old willow oaks were twisted and wrenched from their trunks in many Wilson yards. Or big trees were ripped from the ground, their monstrous root ball exposed to the air. Some pines were snapped off high above the ground. In my yard, we had limbs and branches down, but the trees somehow managed to withstand the wind. We are worried about one sassafras, however. Its roots were lifted and partly exposed, and we could not pull the tree back to a fully upright position. I used an electric chain saw to trim back the tree and bring it more upright. We're hoping it will survive.

We want these trees to survive because they provide shade and charm to a neighborhood. That's why older neighborhoods, with stately trees and canopied streets look so much more appealing than stark new streets without a tree in sight. But there are dangers. Trees have a life span, and they incur diseases that leave them hollow and brittle. Add a little wind, and you can have a 70-foot obstruction in the street or a cleaver that chops off a roof gable. Still, if you look at Wilson from the seventh-floor board room of the BB&T Towers, you see green trees stretching to the horizon with a steeple or roofline here and there. The carpet of treetops seems as impenetrable as a shield. Those trees of our urban forest are our best antidote to the pollution created by our cars, trucks, power plants and furnaces. Without them, our streets would be barren, our yards inhospitably hotter and our air dirtier.

That's why I hope all of the trees lost to Hurricane Irene, as well as those toppled by Floyd and Fran, will be replaced with healthy, long-living and beautiful trees so that our landscape will always be charming and inviting.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The (Sunday school) lessons of 9/11

Today's 10th anniversary commemorations of the 9/11 attacks are more interesting than the NFL games on this first weekend of the season. The anniversary and the 10-year-old event were the topics of an adult Sunday school discussion this morning. Blame me for that. Asked to teach the class and given the freedom to choose whatever material I wanted, I settled on the anniversary as a discussion starter. I downloaded some material from several religious websites, including some National Council of Churches material.

Ten years later, some of the shock and anger have abated, but the grief and the determination remain. A statement signed by thousands of religious leaders issued days after the attacks condemned the terrorists' strategy of using any grievance as an excuse for violence and mass murder. But it also called for a response of love and understanding instead of more violence. Ten years later, our primary response is still violence against violence.

And where has it gotten us? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars in U.S. wealth. Our troops are still trying to pacify cities in Afghanistan, and our scheduled departure from Iraq could result in civil war in that former dictatorship. Osama bin Laden, who planned and gloated over the 9/11 attacks, is dead, shot by a Navy Seal in a daring nighttime raid. But American troops remain bogged down in his former sanctuary.

In a CNN interview today, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to concede that the Iraq war was a foolish and costly mistake, but the question clearly made him uncomfortable as he hedged his answers. The invasion that led to the aptly named book "Fiasco" was sold as a means of stopping the spread of "weapons of mass destruction," but it turned out Iraq didn't have any. Instead, it had hundreds of thousands of mines and artillery shells that were easily converted into "improvised explosive devices" that proved perfect for killing and maiming American troops.

The attacks of 10 years ago will be judged in history as an act of infamy at least as brazen as Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attacks. But America's response to the latter attacks were clearly not as effective as the response of December 1941 and following. World War II lasted less than four years from the date of America's entry. The response to 9/11, dubbed a "war on terror," has lasted 10 years — and counting, in time, lives and treasure.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Fixed income" complaint lacks firepower

You used to hear it all the time: "I'm on a fixed income and ... ." The complaint came almost exclusively from retirees commenting on some new tax increase or price hike.

That complaint is less common now because most people can claim to be on a "fixed income." Over the past five years, annual pay increases have disappeared for large numbers of workers. Even some government workers, who once could rely on a 3 to 5 percent pay "cost of living" increase or a "merit" raise, are now facing flat wages or even reduced take-home pay as cities, counties and states begin charging employees for part of the cost of health care or retirement reserves. Many private industries have imposed a wage freeze as a means of reducing costs while avoiding layoffs. Other industries have resorted to layoffs to cut costs, and some unionized companies (look at the auto industry) have actually reduced pay rates.

So the complaint that "I'm on a fixed income" no longer generates the sympathy it once did. The "fixed income" assertion was often not accurate anyway. Since the 1970s, Social Security has incorporated an automatic cost-of-living increase that, in most years, increased monthly benefits. Only when inflation was very low were Social Security benefits "fixed" from year to year. Some pension plans and annuities are truly "fixed" — they pay the same monthly rate year after year, but Social Security has been annually adjusted to match the rate of inflation and eliminate loss of "real" income.

The "fixed income" complaint has lost steam largely because there are millions of unemployed workers who would love to be on a "fixed income" or any other kind of income. Millions of others have taken lower-paying jobs in order to escape unemployment. As one of the latter category, I would love to have had my income "fixed" at what it was five years ago, when it was capped by a company wage freeze.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Travel is exhausting but worth it

Here are a few observations from our quickie weekend trip to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the wedding of nephew Mark:

• Airport security is pretty ridiculous. You have to be at the airport two hours before the flight. Even on Labor Day weekend Friday at RDU, a very busy airport, we ended up with more than an hour to kill after getting through security. On our return flight on Sunday, the airport was nearly deserted. The Transportation Security Agency agents outnumbered passengers by about eight-to-one. Apparently just to amuse themselves, an agent announced that he needed to open my bag and look inside. He opened the bag, took out a container of talcum powder and announced he'd have to test the powder. He shook some powder out of the original manufacturer's container, releasing enough powder to kill everyone in the airport if it had been anthrax, and carefully dropped two liquids onto the powder he had captured on a little square of paper. "Looks good," he said, then took a plastic probe and ran it through my suitcase before sending the bag back through the X-ray machine again. The whole process must have relieved their Sunday morning boredom.

• We tend to think of where we live or where we were reared as the best place to be, but I found myself intrigued with the Grand Rapids area. Major roads have no development — commercial or residential — abutting the roadway. It's all set back behind trees and other greenery. A wide sidewalk paralleled the road, even rural roads, giving people a place to walk or bicycle. What a great idea! Michigan seems designed for outdoor activities — kayaking, canoeing, biking, running, etc. And the topography is beautiful — forested rolling hills similar to what you might find in the Morganton or Mount Airy area. Of course, we were there in September, not February. I suspect the winters are brutal.

• When first invited to the wedding in Grand Rapids, my first thought was "home of the Gerald Ford Presidential Library." We didn't make it to the presidential library, nor did we make it to the famed gardens my wife wanted to visit. A two-day whirlwind trip left almost no time for personal activities.

• For the first time in more than 15 years, I rented a car. The agency gave us a "free upgrade" to a larger sedan instead of the compact we had reserved. I got to drive a Hyundai Sonata, which was roomy and drove beautifully. From my couple of days' experience, I'd say the Sonata is a rational alternative to an Accord or a Camry.

• Trips are exhausting and discombobulating. The rush to get to places on time, the unfamiliar surroundings, the anxieties, the scheduled activities all combine to tire you out. Being one place one minute and a thousand miles away three hours later plays tricks on your brain and your body. I'm convinced that humans were not meant to travel like that. Even a weekend car trip of a couple of hundred miles wears me out.

• There are occasions when it's important to "be there." Saturday's wedding was one of those occasions. Although I gulped at the distance and expense when I first learned of these wedding plans, there was never any question that we would go. Weddings are joyous occasions for bride and groom, and it is essential for them to be launched into their new life by those who have played important roles in their original, separate lives. You need to be there to see them off and to keep them close for the rest of all of your lives. Some of my greatest regrets in my life have to do with the funerals I missed. They were too far away; I had too many other things to do; the timing didn't fit my schedule. I missed final goodbyes to beloved aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandfather. At the same time, I missed helping support and feeling the love of grieving family members. It has been said that distant family members too often only see each other at weddings and funerals. Don't miss any opportunities.