Monday, April 30, 2012

Taking shelter from the storms

An Associated Press article this morning about storm shelters brought back memories of the lump in the of dirt in the back yard of the home where I grew up. We called it the "storm pit" — a concrete-walled room set into a pile of dirt on the fringe of the yard. Its front was a stone wall emerging from the red clay with a badly weathered wooden door.

My siblings and I knew the storm pit as a remnant of the house's builder and former owner, a man known to us as "Mr. Privette." We knew little about him. We were told that his wife was frightened of storms, so he built the storm pit as a refuge where they could ride out storms. A steel pipe poked through the dirt at the back of the storm pit, providing a horizontal chimney for a wood stove that was no longer in the small, underground room. The earth on top of the storm pit eroded away over the years, revealing the concrete roof with protruding rebar, but the structure itself wasn't going anywhere. It would easily stand up to the worst weather, although that door might fly away in any major gust.

My family never used the storm pit for its intended purpose. No tornadoes ever roared through that section of North Carolina where the Piedmont turned into the Sandhills. Thunderstorms were common, but we never hid in the concrete safe room from their flashing and booming. The storm pit was a playhouse and a storeroom for us. I could stand atop the mound and look out over the stoney rim and pretend I was on a castle's parapet or the Alamo's roof. Snakes, insects and other critters took over the unused concrete room, discouraging us from entering its dark, musty confines. Some old furniture was stored there because there was no other place for it.

When people across the country began building fallout shelters in the early 1960s, my parents talked about a new use for the storm pit. We might ride out a nuclear attack in that little space. I'm glad we never got to try it out.

Now, the AP reports, storm shelters are all the rage. Mr. Privette was 80 years ahead of his time. Safe rooms are being built into houses, and storm shelters are being dug into back yards. Last year's horrifying, deadly tornadoes make such precautions seem not so eccentric or wasteful. None of us who grew up playing in and around that storm pit have a storm shelter at our current homes. If a storm comes, we'll huddle in a downstairs bathroom or closet and hope for the best.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Someone demanded a recount

Looks like I stand corrected. My last post was not my 700th of this blog. I discovered that I had eight posts that were still in draft form, never published. Most of them were from about three years ago and were likely just rejected starts at a post that never gelled. With a little luck, I should hit a legitimate 700 before mid-May.

700 posts later ... Gingrich!

This is it, my 700th post since beginning this blog in October 2008. Cue the balloons, the confetti, the band, etc., etc. Whoopee!

What to opine about ... how about Newt Gingrich dropping out of the Republican presidential race? Gingrich is reported ready to endorse Mitt Romney, who has the nomination sewn up. The Gingrich campaign has been entertaining, but its most distinctive attribute has been its destructiveness. Recent news reports say Gingrich's ambition to be president has ruined what had been some very lucrative business ventures. Gingrich had made millions in consulting work, lobbying (though he claimed he was merely advising in his role as a historian) and speechmaking. Now all of that appears to be turned to ashes, along with his presidential ambitions.

The question now is whether his campaign's destructiveness will extend to the Republican Party's chances in the fall. Gingrich on occasion (such as the South Carolina primary) gave avid GOP conservatives the red meat of anger and hatred they craved, but his histrionics will not play well with a national audience. If he gets a large role in the Romney campaign, he will do more harm than good to the GOP nominee. If Romney is smart (and he probably is smart enough), he'll keep Gingrich and his volatility off the stage in the general election.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The best job in the world?

James J. Kilpatrick, the late newspaper editor and columnist, once called editing a newspaper the best job in the world. At the time Kilpatrick was editing the Richmond News Leader 50 years ago, that assessment was almost certainly true. Newspapers were money trees, and publishers tended to identify and hire good, responsible editors and give them free rein to do what is best for the newspaper and the city.

Nearly four years removed from the newspaper business, I find Kilpatrick's assessment still has an allure to it. Being an editor now is harder, given the competition from broadcast and online news sources, the collapse of the newspapers' business model and the decline in print readership. But I do miss the excitement of the newsroom, where there is something new every day and new challenges at ever turn. Best of all, there is always some new knowledge, new facts to learn about.

Two weeks before a primary election, I feel ignorant without the close contact I had for 30-plus years with political candidates and issues. For years, I was accustomed to meeting most statewide candidates, interviewing many of them, and getting to know nearly all of the local candidates. Directing fair and complete news coverage of politics was an enjoyable challenge each year and the most important thing any news editor does because unless the electorate is provided information about candidates, democracy fails.

When the polls open on May 8, I will vote, but I will do so without the confidence and comfort I had as a newspaper editor, when I understood the issues, knew most of the candidates and could talk to many of them at will.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Doris Betts, writer and teacher of writing

Doris Betts arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a year before I did. She came as a lecturer, a fill-in who did not have the academic credentials usually required of faculty members. But she had a couple of well-received novels under her belt, and she impressed her academic colleagues enough to not only win a spot on the faculty but also to become faculty chair and one of the most beloved professors at the university. I arrived with a very limited preparation from a small high school and unrealistic ambitions, thinking I might someday make a living as a writer, and was gone four years later.

I never knew Doris Betts during my time in Chapel Hill, despite taking every creative writing course I could, and never read her books until years later. I was privileged to hear her speak on several occasions and had the opportunity to talk with her on a couple of occasions. I've said many times that she gave the best speech on writing I have ever heard. She was the featured writer at a Barton College Friends of Hackney Library event several years ago. The twice-yearly library dinners attract a variety of authors. Some are more gifted as writers than others. Some are more gifted as speakers. I knew Betts was an exceptional writer, but her speech about why writing is important and how one goes about writing was as good as anyone will ever hear. She said she didn't outline her novels with incidents and turning points. Instead, she said she liked to bring her characters together on a page and see what happens. Her character-driven novels seldom attracted the attention of the suspenseful, who-done-it books, but her novels achieved the ultimate goal of great fiction — an examination of the human condition through characters who are as real as your neighbors and relatives.

With her death Saturday, North Carolina has lost a great writer. More important, it has lost a great teacher of writing, a great friend of writers and a great advocate of good writing. Her novel "Souls Raised from the Dead" is one of the most beguiling books you'll ever read. Betts brings together her distinct characters in trying situations and lets them work through their problems. In doing so, she gives a little explanation of what life is all about.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Back to Washington after 40 years

Driving into Washington, D.C., earlier this week (I was actually the passenger/navigator on this trip), I felt the combination of dread and excitement that had struck me 40 years ago when I lived in the Virginia suburbs and commuted into the city. The impossible rush of traffic, like being jammed into an overstuffed elevator while hurtling along at 70 mph, piqued my anxiety. At the same time, the glimpse of the marble- and granite-clad monuments, memorials and buildings calmed me with a sense of awe and admiration.

On those first few days that I went to work at 400 Seventh St. SW in the summer of 1972, I rode the Metrobus. It seemed like the safer, more sensible, less stressful thing to do. The mish-mash of streets and highways, of cloverleafs and off-ramps, were too complex for me to tackle alone. After a couple of weeks, I joined a car pool and learned the route over to the George Washington Parkway along the Potomac and into the city.

Forty years later, I returned to Washington for job-related training, found the hotel, walked to the training site and managed one side trip, as dusk turned to darkness, down to the National Mall. A couple of colleagues and I walked along the Vietnam War Memorial, the stark black marble darker yet in the evening. The wall brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it, on a family trip 23 years ago. It is just as moving now, but the grief is not so immediate, and the tears were absent. We moved on, avoiding recently erected fences and barricades, to the Korean War Memorial and a memorial to wartime nurses. I stood before the Lincoln Memorial, remembering the scene, captured in a photo I shot, of my eldest child, holding her young mother's hand, ascending the steps toward Lincoln's statue. New construction and topographical changes have altered the view we had that day when we had bicycled into the District to go to museums and memorials, and the beauty of the mall had been lost to fences and construction equipment.

This week's trip gave me the first glimpse of the World War II Memorial, a gaudy barricade set in the middle of the mall. A few critics, including me, had opposed the location, size and design of the memorial. It was a hazardous position to take, to be accused of being against the achievements of the Greatest Generation and the most historic event of the 20th century. But seeing the memorial did not alter my opinion that it was the wrong design in the wrong place. The memorial breaches the continuity of the mall, creating a barricade, and its design is reminiscent of Soviet architecture — grandiose and overdone without any real theme or sense of honor. We critics were outvoted, and the World War II Memorial is there forever, detracting from the natural beauty of the mall itself.

Just as it was when we lived in the area, Washington is an exciting place to visit, and a very scary place to drive. Someday, I'd like to take a few days to visit the places I had known as a young husband and father (an officer and a gentleman) and to visit the places we never got around to in the three years we lived there.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Change in AP rule is not hopeful or helpful

Two days in Washington (for job-related training, not for fun) gave me the rare opportunity to read the Washington Post in its wonderful, complete, ink-on-paper entirety. But this article from Wednesday's edition left me a bit in shock: The Associated Press (along with some dictionaries) is allowing "hopefully" to be used as meaning "it is hoped." Generations of careful writers (and copy editors) contended that such use of "hopefully" (which really means "with a hopeful attitude") was dead wrong. It was a blasphemy against good writing! H.W. Fowler's "Modern English Usage" (1944), Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style," John Bremner's "Words on Words" and other excellent guides to correct word usage all agreed: "hopefully" means "with hopefulness," not "I hope" or "it is hoped." The "Harbrace College Handbook," a bible for freshman composition classes" considered this usage "still questionable."

But now the Associated Press has thrown in the towel. Preserving the true meaning of this word is no longer worth the fight, it seems, and a losing fight it has been. I cannot tell you how many "hopefullys" I have deleted from news copy over the 30+ years I was a newspaper editor. What concerns me is what's next? Will AP also give up the fight for the distinction between "lay" and "lie"? That usage error is as common as the abuse of "hopefully," but it's a simple and clear distinction that no one seems to care about any more. And what about "its" and "it's," another very common usage error?

The question is whether dictionaries and stylebooks should be prescriptive or descriptive. A prescriptive guide tells how words and language should be used. A descriptive guide describes how words are commonly used. If we give up the fight for rules of usage and of grammar, language becomes muddled and meanings become unclear. When that happens, communication suffers. Those of us in the communications business — and all of us are in that business — should care about clarity and preciseness of meaning.

Friday, April 13, 2012

All kinds of women's work are honorable

Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen's comment disqualifying Ann Romney from any political or economic commentary because "she never worked a day in her life" has set off an angry reaction, an apology from Rosen and a corrective comment from President Obama. Rosen's comment reflects an implication by many feminists that only a career outside the home is worthy and fulfilling for today's woman. Nothing could be further from the the facts.

I was reared by a woman who was the family's primary breadwinner and a frugal budget master, but she would have preferred to remain at home. I am married to a woman whose job has become our primary source of income, but she insists that the best and most fulfilling job she ever had was staying home to raise our children and manage our home.

No job, as I am sure Obama will admit, is more important that raising children well, and I suspect most parents would agree that no one can do a better job of raising children than the parents who love them more than anyone else ever could. It is out of economic necessity, in most cases, that women drop their children at day care and join the daily struggles of the business world. Those women who are able to stay at home with their children or who choose to sacrifice some of the pleasures of life that a second income can buy should not be looked down upon for their choice.

Feminists are certainly right that women who choose to work, whether out of desire or necessity, should be celebrated and supported in their decisions. But women who make another choice — to put their children's welfare ahead of their own ambitions or needs — should be respected just as much for that decision.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Compromises necessary to cut deficit, debt

We're seven months from the election, and already both parties have drawn their lines in the sand that will doom the country if there is no compromise. Instead of seeking compromise and finding a middle ground that will save the country from financial ruin, both Democrats and Republicans are gambling the nation's solvency on a double-down bet on the next election.

Both parties are digging in their heels over taxes and spending, each playing to its own core constituency without any apparent willingness to do what is best for the nation as a whole. Since 2000, when the federal budget was balanced (at least in part, if you don't count Social Security obligations) in the final years of the Clinton administration, the federal deficit and federal debt have soared. We are now spending a trillion dollars more than we take in each year! There are many reasons for this: huge tax cuts pushed by President George Bush, two costly wars that were financed "off-budget," increased national security spending in the wake of 9/11, and a staggering recession that reduced tax revenues. And also this: an unwillingness on the part of Congress to address the difficult problem of balancing taxes and spending.

President Obama, who rejected the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee that he appointed, has attacked Rep. Paul Ryan's GOP budget plan as destructive. The Ryan plan calls for elimination of unspecified tax breaks while further reducing the tax rate for the wealthiest taxpayers. Obama wants to increase taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year, and he says Ryan's plan for turning Medicare into a grant program for health insurance premiums would mean the elimination of Medicare.

But here's the key fact about both Ryan's and Obama's plans: Neither would eliminate the federal deficit in the foreseeable future. Ryan's plan reduces the deficit primarily through cuts to Medicare and other social programs and the elimination of tax breaks to be named later. Obama has not proposed a plan that would significantly cut the deficit, and his commitment to not raise taxes on those making less than $250,000 effectively eliminates any hope of raising the large amounts of revenue needed to cut the deficit.

Both parties need to turn back the rhetoric and erase those lines in the sand. Democrats will have to stop portraying themselves as the saviors of Medicare and Social Security and recognize the fact that neither program is sustainable in its present form. Revisions will be necessary to keep the programs solvent. Small adjustments in eligibility age, co-payments, service delivery and payroll taxes could repair these programs with minimal pain. Moreover, every federal program or federal grant to the states, is not effective or efficient. Cutting ineffective programs is just good management. But every program has constituents, and constituents have lobbyists, and Congress does not like to say no to lobbyists.

For their part, Republicans will have to give up their doctrine that tax cuts are the cure for every ill that faces the country. If you're willing to vote for spending programs (and I'm not talking about the debt limit), you have to be willing to vote for the taxes to pay for them. The nation will not be able to cut its way out of this budget deficit simply because Congress will not cut defense spending or Social Security to any significant degree, and it cannot cut interest on debt, which is an increasingly large portion of the total budget.

Instead of lobbing pot shots at each other, the parties need to come together under the principle of shared sacrifice. For Republicans, that means the "job creators" (otherwise known as the wealthy) will have to pay higher taxes. For Democrats, that means the working class or middle class — people making less than $250,000 will see their taxes rise as part of the shared sacrifice. The only way we can cut the deficit is by doing it together. These are sacrifices for the good of the country. Unless compromises can be won, we will all share in the economic despair that is inevitable for a society that cannot stop living beyond its means and whose leaders refuse to compromise.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ernest Hemingway's Paris is not all 'true'

Ernest Hemingway has haunted me of late. I read a Slate article recently about his later years and suicide 50 years ago, saw Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" with its caricature of Hemingway in his 20s, and read "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain, whose novel gives a voice to Hadley Richardson Hemingway.

When I was in college and Hemingway was not long dead, I fell in love with his stark, simple prose and read "A Moveable Feast," Hemingway's memoir of Paris in the '20s when he and Hadley were newlyweds and he was beginning his career as a writer. His descriptions of Paris and its international menagerie of characters, artists and writers were enthralling. Rereading the memoir as a young husband and father, I imagined myself where Hemingway had been, not in Paris, but in love with my wife and my child and working hard at writing one true sentence, and then another. I joked to my wife about calling our daughter "Bumby," the Hemingways' nickname for their son. We transplanted the romance of Paris to Washington, D.C., and then back to North Carolina, but my life was filled not with art galleries and cafes but with long hours working to support my young and expanding family. There seemed to be no time or inspiration for writing after long hours of work and no quiet cafe where I could sit like Hemingway with a pocketknife-sharpened pencil and a blank sheet of paper.

Years later, I reread "A Moveable Feast" for the third time and found it disappointingly self-indulgent, the nostalgic false memories of a writer in decline. The book had not changed, only my perception of it.

In "The Paris Wife," McLain fills in the truths behind Hadley's first husband's nostalgia. Yes, Paris in the 20s was a time and place like no other with expatriate writers and artists seemingly around every corner, with museums and galleries and quiet cafes and a monetary exchange rate that allowed Americans to live cheaply. But Hemingway was not yet an iconic literary figure, and he was, even then, plagued by emotional instability and depression that would eventually cost him his life. He drank heavily, worked at a manic pace at times, and caroused wildly. He went away without his wife often and cheated on her, subduing her considerable talent in music and literature to enhance his ego. In "A Moveable Feast," Hemingway claimed to be aiming for "true" words, and Woody Allen turned those simple sentences into buffoonish dialogue in his movie, but McLain's well-researched novel shows Hemingway's quest to be self-deluding. It is McLain who finds the "true" words to describe a crumbling marriage in Paris in the 1920s.

I still find Hemingway's simple, straightforward, stark prose beautifully sculpted, but I have a clearer, truer image of the man who wrote those words.