Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At the end of another year

The last day of 2013 is overcast and dreary, "a winter's day in a deep and dark December," as Paul Simon once said. It seems a fitting marker for a year that had its low moments. My sister died in July, just a month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Nothing has made me feel my own mortality more than the death of my younger sister. My parents' five children are now diminished to two, and I am, for the first time in 61 years, the youngest again.

A year ago, after we had endured the loss of at least one close relative each year since 2010, my wife offered this New Year's hope: Let's have at least one year when no one gets sick or dies. It was not to be.

At the close of 2013, we put another year tainted by sadness behind us and look ahead with hope for a better year in 2014. It is the year when I will become eligible for Medicare and come closer to my anticipated full retirement age. For at least 10 years, my wife and I have talked longingly about the time when we would not have to go to work every day, when we could nourish the hobbies we have little time for while working, when we can travel to the places of our dreams, when we can better connect with our grandchildren and friends. That day is still years into the future.

This will be a whole new year, one for which we have made few plans yet, except for the plans we had forgone this year and earlier years as impractical. We plan to spend a weekend with all of our children and grandchildren at a date and time to be determined. We will celebrate birthdays and other milestones. We will try again to make those trips that have been just out of reach — down the length of Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway, to Ocracoke, to Kentucky and Tennessee, to Pittsburgh, to the Rockies and California. We will make a new to-do list for repairs and improvements around the house and hope to check off at least one or two items from the list.

Most of all, we will sit in quiet evenings before the living room fire or on the deck in the cool dusk after a hot summer day and breathe in the blessings we have enjoyed. We will breathe out silent thankfulness for this marriage, this house, this family, this (relative) healthfulness, this life. We will try harder than ever to savor every moment, to recognize joy and to be productive in every opportunity we are given.

I have never been one for New Year's resolutions, but I do look forward to a better year and to doing better with the blessings I am given, when even the difficult years are blessed.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve excitement endures

It's another Christmas Eve, and I've seen a few. For much of my life, Christmas Eve was a day filled with eagerness and wonder, first over the amazement of impossible gifts to be found in a chilly living room warmed by an open hearth fire, and then, years later, by the wonder in the eyes of little children as they beheld an assortment of gifts eagerly awaited.

This Christmas Eve is a quieter day marked by a day off from work and a day of toil at home to prepare for visits from younger generations. And there is, as usual, a bit of shopping to do to wrap up the preparations for the morrow. I have reached that certain age when wonder and excitement have been dropped aside. I recall the most troubling Christmas Eve of my life, when my wife and son and I decided to spend Christmas Eve night with my aging parents along with my sister and her family. It would be, we thought, a fun and nostalgic occasion. We would eat and sing carols and recapture the joys of childhood Christmas Eves. But my sister and her family canceled their plans, and my parents seemed to have no energy for celebratiion. The evening, which we thought would be joyous and exciting, was dull and bland. We trundled off to bed with no sense of anticipation or excitement; it was just another evening in an old house in the country.

In the morning, we will arise early enough to sit quietly and enjoy the twinkling lights and the fire in the fireplace. Christmas music will play on the stereo, and the room will fill with happy memories and gratefulness for blessings. Grandchildren will bring their excitement, sparking more memories of what it had been like to be young parents in a house filled with squeals of joy and breathless excitement.

Christmas will have come again, and my wonder now is how many more I will be blessed to experience.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Grandchildren help revive old memories

It was something akin to lopping 30 years off our ages. For the weekend (or at least for part of it), my wife and I watched over two grandchildren. The inventive playing, in which a few chairs and a few blankets can be a fort, the discussions of dinner and snacks, the reading of books at bedtime, the tucking in, the resounding quiet after they fell asleep all carried me back to the time when these two's mother and her two siblings kept our household in high gear.

On Sunday afternoon, we delivered the grandchildren to their home and hung around for a Christmas program at their church. This event carried me back even further, to the time when I was the preschooler on stage for a children's program. In my infantile mind, I was not persuaded that my voice was needed on the songs, so I attempted a child's version of lip-syncing as the other children sang, and my fakery was so inept that I merely opened and closed my mouth, as if taking big bites from the air. I even tried to get the boy next to me to follow my lead. Punishment fed by embarrassment awaited me when I got home.

I'm happy to say my grandchildren were much better behaved than I had been in that memorable church program. Although this day and night of reliving what it means to be parents brought back memories of what our lives were like decades ago, the experience did not revive my energy or wipe the years from my face and scalp. The years pile up without notice until some event registers the toll. You can recapture the memories or make them more vivid, but you cannot recover the years or correct the mistakes.

The grandchildren, who are the bonuses of a long life, help their grandparents keep alive the memories of all the good years of their own childhoods, the joys (and awesome responsibilities) of raising young children, and the satisfaction of seeing your own children mature and build lives of their own. 

As Bob Hope would say, "Thanks for the memories."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rain in winter offers few benefits

The rain is falling again. It rained yesterday. It rained Sunday. It will rain tomorrow.

A winter's rain offers none of the cooling refreshment of a spring or summer rain. There are no green plants, no flowers to soak up the blessed moisture and nourish the vegetation. This rain falls on a dull, brown landscape that doesn't brighten from the new moisture.

A winter's rain is chilling and makes the temperature, no matter what it is, feel 10 degrees colder. If the temperature dropped a few degrees, the rain would turn to snow or sleet. The snow falls softly, the flakes drifting gently to earth and piling up to cover the ground like a perfect, white blanket. Sleet comes down hard, harder than the rain, and hits with a tinkling sound that cries out, "Danger! Beware!" A heavy snow might close roads and schools, but the sleet will make any outdoor movement hazardous. Ten years ago, I slipped on a sleet-covered step outside my back door and crashed my shoulder blade into the edge of the concrete step. The shoulder blade cracked with a pain that made me scream and then pass out.

The steady rain chills me and annoys me after so many wet days. I long for a lovely but short-lived snow to blanket the brown landscape. But I dread the possibility of sleet, and my shoulder still aches when I think of it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

King never got the opportunity to grow old like Mandela

As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, his courage, dedication and persistence are being extolled. Undoubtedly, he was one of the great figures of the 20th century, a man who fought for decades for equality and justice for the native people of Africa against a racist and often-brutal European colonial government. But his greatness will be remembered not just for his dogged determination and his willingness to die for his cause. Mandela might be best remembered for his humility and his willingness to forgive the oppressors of his people.

After being elected president of South Africa in the nation's first multi-racial election, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a panel that heard sworn testimony about the travesties of the apartheid regime. The deal was simple: Confess and be forgiven. Witnesses told horrific stories, but there was no retribution, no revenge, no violent outrage. The panel sought the truth of what had happened in secret in the decades before the cruel apartheid system was dismantled. Only after facing the ugly truth could the nation offer forgiveness for what had gone before.

South Africa is far from a idyllic country. Huge disparities in wealth remain. Millions of poor black citizens have little hope of upward mobility. Crime and violence persist. But South Africa is a multi-racial democracy that has put its apartheid past behind it, and it owes its success largely to Mandela.

Mandela is sometimes compared to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Both men were inspired by Gandhi. Both condemned violence. Both were maligned as communists or worse. Mandela spent 29 years in prison and was admired for his willingness to forgive his oppressors as well as those of his own race who opposed his policies. He was elected president of his nation. King, tragically, was cut down by a sniper's bullet just as his civil rights campaign was achieving success.

On MLK Day each year, speakers extol King's non-violence and proclaim the wisdom and compassion of his "I Have a Dream" speech. Some other speakers will remind audiences that King was more than a quotable preacher of love and equality; he was also an advocate of wealth redistribution and labor union power and a harsh critic of the Vietnam War. Had he lived, some say, he would have grown more radical in his politics and more critical of an American system too skewed in favor of the wealthy and the politically powerful.

But Mandela's example suggests a different perspective for an aging King. As he grew older, Mandela forgave those who oppressed his people and imprisoned him. Mandela became more conciliatory, more forgiving, more willing to work within the political system to achieve his goals. As they grow older, most people mellow. Young firebrands often become more understanding and conciliatory.

One can never know, but it seems reasonable that King, too, might have aged into a more forgiving, less radical elder statesman role, as Mandela. King, too, might have led a movement to uncover the secret horrors of segregation and to allow forgiveness for all the wrongs committed over the decades. King might have lived to become the universally admired champion of justice and forgiveness in his old age, he might have even won the presidency, had an assassin not killed him before his work was completed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Never fear to negotiate — the Iran deal

Four days after the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I'm still channeling quotes from JFK: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

That sage advice from 52 years ago came to mind after reading about the angry objections to the deal negotiated by the United States and European powers with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. While Secretary of State John Kerry touted the deal's limits on Iran's enrichment of uranium and its openness to increased international inspections, the government of Israel and some members of Congress slammed the deal as an open door to Iranian nuclear arms.

The deal is an interim agreement, not a final treaty. In the interim, Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium beyond the 5% level and to dilute the 20% enriched uranium it already has. Along with open inspections of nuclear facilities, the agreement is intended to prevent Iran from enriching uranium to weapons grade and, thereby, prohibit Iranian nuclear arms. In return, the Western powers agree to an easing of some trade sanctions against Iran, including the release of some Iranian money embargoed in Western banks.

One can easily argue that it's an imperfect deal — Iran might find a way to expand its stockpile of 5% enriched uranium and then back out of a permanent agreement. But what international treaty was ever foolproof? The West retains its right to reimpose the sanctions that forced Iran to agree to negotiations in the first place.

Rather than imposing even harsher sanctions on Iran, as some members of Congress have proposed, the United States should recognize victory when it happens. The sanctions worked. Iran was forced to negotiate an end to any nuclear weaponry ambitions it might have had (something the regime never admitted to). The United States' purpose in imposing these sanctions was to force Iran to give up any nuclear weapon plans. That goal has been achieved, at least for the interim. Further negotiations, along with the threat of renewed sanctions, can bring that goal to full realization. Unless Congress decides that what it really wants is not a peaceful relationship with Iran but war.

If a permanent deal with Iran works, the world will be safe from the possibility of Iranian nuclear bombs, and Iranian oil will return to the world market, further stabilizing the cost of energy, with economic benefits worldwide. The United States might even re-establish a cordial international relationship with Iran, something it has not had for more than 30 years. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty years later, our loss is still felt

It is a Friday again. It is Nov. 22 again. The insulation of half a century — longer than our youthful hero lived — is stripped away as we remember that terrible day of shock, quashed dreams and lost inspiration.

For my generation — the surging youth cadre that the young president inspired and challenged — the memories are clear. We all can recall how we heard the news. For me, it was a public address announcement at the end of a routine high school Friday. The principal passed along the news without emotion or inflection, just the flat, neutral statement of an educator: President Kennedy was killed. I rode the bus home that afternoon trying to put the news into context. It must have happened in Washington, I thought. I had not read anything about a political trip to Texas. Once I got home, I filled the emptiness inside me with news gleaned from non-stop television coverage, which was nearly unprecedented at the time (only manned space launches and political conventions had warranted such coverage), and fat newspapers filled with news of the crime. I ran to the television as I returned from church that Sunday and turned it on in time to watch, in what is now called "real time," the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Fifty years have given us time to reconsider Kennedy, beyond the emotions of 1963, and to learn that he was not angelic or flawless. He was a man with faults, like all of us. He was imperfect after all. He was sickly and kept private secrets. Historians have pushed him lower and lower in the ranking of presidents. His legislative achievements are scant. He was not the negotiator or legislator that his successor was.

But even with the perspective of 50 years, Kennedy stands tall in so many intangible ways. He embodies the term often used to describe him in his day: charisma. He was charming and disarming. His wit was as quick as a stand-up comic's, and he could turn a press conference into a situation comedy as reporters, some admiring, some hostile, tried and failed to get the best of the young president.

What we lost in Dallas that fateful day was inspiration. Watch Kennedy's Berlin speech or his inaugural address. Watch his news conferences or his brilliantly disarming response to Lyndon Johnson's veiled criticism at the 1960 Democratic Convention. The Berlin speech — brief and brilliantly using repetition ("Let them come to Berlin!") — is a lesson in rhetorical technique. His inaugural was a call to Cold War militancy but also a call for national service. Kennedy knew the power of words like few presidents before or since (only Lincoln and Reagan come close). He knew leadership required inspiration, and he inspired a nation, especially young people, in a way that has not been reached since. In his inaugural, he challenged Americans to ask "what you can do for your country." He challenged Congress to put a man on the moon within a ridiculously short time period. He boldly proposed cutting taxes and even more boldly cracked open the door toward peaceful negotiations to end the Cold War.

What would have changed if the FBI and Secret Service had done their jobs and kept a pathetic assassin away from the motorcade route? We might have avoided the tragedy of Vietnam, but that is not a certainty. We might not have achieved an end to legal segregation as soon as we did (JFK did not have the legislative skills of LBJ), but it would have come. We might have avoided the cynicism and the youthful rebellions of the 1970s. Kennedy, who bridged the divide between fiscal conservatism and a liberal world view and human rights, might have reshaped American politics.

On this 50th anniversary, as we are immersed in the verbal and visual reliving of those horrific days, the loss we felt so long ago is still a loss. The youthful confidence, the "great vigor" of a young president, the challenge to serve others and not think only of yourself cannot be recovered.

And now we, the last ones to remember him, are fading into the sunset, our inspiration soured by sarcasm and the next generation unable to understand the depth of our loss.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Not all who served fought

On this Veterans Day, as in all the others, much will be said about those who "fought for their country." But my military service did not involve any fighting, and that is typical of most veterans. We served behind front lines or outside of war zones supporting the massive logistical and record-keeping apparatus of the national defense. We sat behind desks instead of sandbags.

I spent three years in a Washington, D.C., office answering letters from Congress and the public for the Enlisted Personnel Division of the U.S. Coast Guard. I used the skills I learned as a journalism and English major and in newspaper internships to explain the Coast Guard's policies and its need for individual service members to serve where assigned and to follow orders.

It was, in many respects, the easiest job I have ever held. The pace was slow compared to the urgent, anxiety-filled race toward a newsroom deadline, and my biggest challenge was usually getting the approval for my words from all of the commanders, captains and admirals —and even the secretary of transportation, on occasion — who reviewed my prose. I wore a uniform just once a week — a concession to civilian officials who did not want Washington to look like a military camp. My most hazardous duty was navigating D.C. traffic with my car pool each morning and afternoon.

Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from my Coast Guard service, and those few years 40 years ago helped shape my life and still influence it today. I learned to value organizational skills, decisiveness, sacrifice, dedication and all the other traits of military culture. Had my draft number been three digits instead of two, had I managed to dodge the obligation to serve my country, I might have begun my newspaper career earlier, and perhaps followed a different route, but I would not have learned from the outstanding officers who were my mentors, colleagues and friends during those years.

On this Veterans Day, I am thankful for the opportunity I was given to serve and for the experiences and lessons of that service.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Campaigning is not the same as governing

It has been said before — American elections put the emphasis on campaigning skills and not on governing skills. We tend to elect the best campaigners, not the best managers or administrators or legislators.

Barack Obama is making himself a classic example of this flaw in the system. Obama presided over an exceptional 2008 presidential campaign, and he won again in 2012, despite having a lot of odds stacked against him. But his legislative or governing achievements are slim, with the exception of the Affordable Care Act, which seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into trouble.

Obama's instinct for addressing every governmental problem is to hit the campaign trail. He is doing it now to try to beat down the complaints about the problems with the launch of health care exchanges. After the tragic mass shooting in Connecticut a year ago, Obama pushed strengthening gun laws by, once again, hitting the campaign trail. A former neighborhood organizer, Obama seems to see every problem as a call for grassroots organizing and marshaling public opinion against or in favor of a particular issue.

I've said it before, that Obama should read Robert Caro's fourth volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, "The Passage of Power." LBJ was the consummate legislator, able to wheel and deal on the Senate floor and willing to manipulate people and issues to achieve his legislative goals. Johnson had his repellent qualities, but he got things done. He got legislation passed — the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, Medicare, etc. — when more skilled campaigners (the adored John F. Kennedy) could not.

President Obama could take a lesson from LBJ, who was vice president when Obama was born, and concentrate on the 100 voters in the Senate and the 435 voters in the House instead of appealing to the millions of voters in 50 states to pass legislation.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Affordable Care Act needs some tinkering.

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act is a month old, and it's winning few friends while attracting a lot of critics. The logjams at the website for choosing an insurance plan, the cancellation of policies that fail to meet the ACA's requirements for minimal coverage, and the realization that the costs may be greater than expected all suggest that the ACA needs some tinkering under the hood to get it running smoothly.

Unfortunately, no one is talking about making adjustments. Republicans, especially those in the House of Representatives, who have voted dozens of times to repeal the ACA, are not in a mood for tinkering; they want nothing short of demolition. Democrats, at least most of them, insist that the law is fine just the way it is. They fear that giving in to demands for changes will open the floodgates that will allow the Republicans to sail through toward demolishing the act. President Obama has said he is willing to consider changes, but at the same time, he has denied that changes are needed.

Since the 1990s, I've thought that a national health care plan made sense. American health care is far more expensive than in any industrialized country in the world. Prices keep rising exponentially, and only the health care conglomerates, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies seem to be happy with the system. The ACA sought to mollify the insurance companies by keeping private insurance as the payer in the system (instead of a single-payer system like Medicare) and to mollify the health care industry by not pushing too hard on pricing. On top of that, the act included provisions to attract voting blocs, particularly women, with free contraceptives (not even a co-pay) and mandatory maternity coverage. Little was done about efficiency and effectiveness.

I still think a national health care plan makes sense, but it's obvious the ACA needs revisions. Unless those revisions are made, the electorate could turn against the entire program, and health care would revert back to where it was, with the pharmaceutical, hospital and insurance giants ruling the country.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Odd-year elections are oddities

It is election day, but in North Carolina, these odd-year elections usually don't count for much. The only items on the ballot are municipal elections. In my case, the City Council election is moot — the incumbent in my district is unopposed.

Some other states have chosen to hold their statewide elections in odd years. Gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia are closely watched today. When I edited a newspaper in Virginia for a couple of years in the 1970s, I had to make the adjustment to following elections every single year. No sooner would the national election for Congress be completed than the state election for state offices would begin. It was like watching a football game with no halftime break, but after every quarter two new teams would take the field.

I found Virginia politics lively and interesting. Chuck Robb, Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, was running for lieutenant governor that year. I later watched Robb, a former Marine officer, preside over the state Senate with the commanding presence and decisive quickness of a drill sergeant. Republicans had been resurgent in Virginia and were on the cusp of taking over the state entirely during the Reagan years. Robb won a gubernatorial race in 1981 and later won a U.S. Senate seat, but he has faded into oblivion.

This year's gubernatorial race sounds like it's as hard-fought as the contests of the 1970s. Terry McAuliffe, a close friend of Bill Clinton, appears poised to win back the governor's mansion for the Democrats. It has been 33 years since I moved out of Virginia. Events there are barely on my radar screen, and I cannot remember the names of the movers and shakers I knew so long ago. Still, I enjoy visiting the commonwealth and its charming and historic capital city, and each odd-year election brings back memories.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Reporting and editing errors happen

In 33 years in the newspaper business, I made plenty of mistakes, but I was never fired over a mistake. I also dealt with a good number of mistakes made by reporters and editors who worked for me, but I never fired anyone solely because of a reporting or editing error.

It is the nature of the news, that "first draft of history," that mistakes are made in the rush to get the news out quickly (and before competitors beat you to it). Most of the errors are inconsequential. Sometimes the errors are substantial, and occasionally (rarely), they are egregious. Once the newspaper is printed and out the door, or the news is broadcast on radio or TV or posted on a website, you can't take it back. You can't "unring the bell." The best you can do is correct the error and apologize. As a newspaper editor, I adopted a practice of trying to make the correction as visible and prominent as the error. A front page error got a front-page correction. An inside error got an inside correction. You adopt a protocol for limiting errors, especially significant errors. Editors need to read carefully and ask questions: Is this address correct? Did you doublecheck that name? Did you give (the accused party) a chance to comment? Do you have this (explosive) quote on tape? How do you know this is factual?

Still, errors happen. It's the nature of the business.

Because errors are so common, it's surprising that a respected Associated Press reporter in Richmond would be fired, along with two editors, because of an error. The error, claiming that a gubernatorial candidate had lied to an investigator, was egregious, but it was quickly corrected, and, in the broad scheme of things, didn't amount to much. It was, perhaps, the equivalent of reports that Lyndon Johnson had also been shot on Nov. 22, 1963, or that Jim Brady had died from a gunshot in the 1981 Reagan assassination attempt. Neither was true.

AP reporter Bob Lewis' mistake could have been avoided by more cautious reporting, fact-checking and editing. His mistake was one of those things that fall through the cracks and can't be readily explained after the fact. Was his mistake and two editors' failure to demand documentation so egregious that all three should be canned? Most Virginia politicians and many AP employees seem to think not. The mistakes were serious enough to be punishable, no doubt. A suspension or a written warning would have been more acceptable and probably sufficient to avoid further missteps.

Because the error was not deliberate and was, in some sense, understandable, a lesser punishment would be more appropriate. The Associated Press, which has maintained high standards of performance and accuracy for generations, is sensitive to the lack of respect journalists hold in the public's mind. An overly severe punishment is unlikely to raise the level of public respect.

Lewis had earned the respect of Virginia politicians (no easy feat for a reporter) of both parties, but his reporting career might be over because of what apparently is his first serious reporting error. Few organizations will be willing to hire him after the publicity this incident has generated. Because of AP's firing, more than his own mistake, Lewis is damaged goods. Lewis' only hope may be an appeal of AP's action and his hope to be reinstated, chastened but still skilled, knowledgeable and respected.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A temporary dodge of long-term issues

The economic crisis might be over. The Senate has voted 81-18 for a compromise plan to get the federal government running again and raise the debt ceiling so that economic chaos doesn't befall the world by the weekend. Assuming the recalcitrant House of Representatives can find a majority in favor of the Senate bill, the crisis will be over.

Popular opinion has it that the Republican Party lost this battle. Speaker of the House John Boehner said as much. The pointless crusade against the Affordable Care Act resulted in the shutdown of the government and a too-close brush with default on the national debt, but the GOP got no concessions on health care. They got a temporary continuation of the funding sequester, but the entire Senate bill is temporary. Funding of the federal government will go on for a couple of months. The debt ceiling will raised enough for the government to pay its debts a little longer. But the long-term problems in Washington have not been addressed.

The Republican delegation had a point that the government cannot continue on its path of borrowing to pay for 30 percent of its expenditures each year. Our deficit spending tops $1 trillion a year, and the federal debt has climbed to about $17 trillion. A bipartisan conference from both houses of Congresses is supposed to meet to resolve this issue in the next few weeks. Such conferences have been tried before. The Bowles-Simpson Commission offered a reasonable but painful route to solvency, but neither the president nor Congress wanted to take the medicine. A super committee two years ago failed to come up with an acceptable budget plan, resulting in the "sequester," which was never supposed to go into effect but only be a frightening consequence no one would allow.

Each year of trillion dollar deficits makes a solution even harder. Compromises must be found in "entitlement" programs such as Social Security, Medicare and programs for the poor. These programs are growing faster than the government's revenue can keep up. Federal money can be found in almost every governmental activity, from municipal housing programs to state highways to farmers' choice of crops. Reducing the federal role in many of these areas could help reduce the deficit. The rate of increase in Social Security and Medicare can be reduced without severe consequences for beneficiaries.

And broader, more sensible taxes should be part of the solution. Fixing this problem will cause pain that should be shared by everyone, and small tax increases can ensure that everyone pays.

To prevent future crises brought about by members of Congress who have carefully drawn safe voting districts, Congress should require that congressional redistricting follow municipal and county boundaries wherever possible, that voting blocs not be packed deliberately to achieve sure victories for one side or the other and that truly bipartisan independent commissions, not state legislatures, draw the congressional districts. With a little more camaraderie and a little less electoral certainty, members of Congress might discover that compromise is better than stalemates.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Four-wheel objects of desire

When I first heard that the N.C. Museum of Art was hosting a Porsche exhibit, I knew I wanted to go. I had to lusted after Porsches for years, admired them from afar, dreamed of what it would be like to drive one, but never got my hands on one.

Now I've been to the exhibit and have seen the remarkable collection of beautiful automobiles from the 1930s to today. Of course, I still haven't gotten my hands on one — touching the exhibits is not allowed at museums. And I haven't satiated my desire for a Porsche. If anything, it the desire has grown.
 Racers like this one dominate the exhibit.

Ferdinand Porsche designed beautiful cars with advanced aerodynamic styling and compact engines with exceptional power. The Museum of Art exhibit makes all that clear, and the show is a great attraction well worth the time to walk through the array of vehicles. If I had a disappointment about the show, it was that the exhibit concentrated on race cars rather than production cars that you or I could (theoretically, at least) buy and drive. There are "famous" cars, like Steve McQueen's 356 Speedster, and the original Porsche design, which had to be hand-made. There was also the 2014 Porsche Carrera that the museum is raffling off — just $100 per ticket. Since I couldn't afford the taxes if I won, I didn't bother.

                                    That is Steve McQueen's 356 Speedster (below).

 The 914 gets no respect in the museum show.

I was also a bit surprised that there was no mention in the exhibit of the Porsche 914, a model that I once thought I might be able to afford. It was the "baby Porsche" with a small engine and cheaper production from the 1970s that attempted to make the Porsche name affordable. I suspect that the omission was deliberate in an exhibit titled "Porsche By Design," the boxy 914 didn't quite fit in with the swooping aerodynamic designs of the 356, 911, 904 and others. Ultimately, this was an art exhibit, a design exhibit, not a car show.

This Carrera is being raffled off.
It's still worth your time. Go here for details.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dear Readers (if you're out there),

This blog has a new feature. Instead of finding the web address to see a new post, you can subscribe by email. Just click on the link at the top left of the page, enter your email address, click "submit," and you'll receive every new post by email. If you'd prefer, you can still look on the website, and you can go to the website to read that backlog of 800+ blog posts written in the past five years, if you should want to do such a thing.


The Erstwhile Editor

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Our dystopian future

Dateline: The not-too-distant future:

It was a stalemate in Congress that initiated the collapse of governing authority, but the basic reasons for the incident goes back further than the unending bickering across party lines in the House and the Senate. Political scientists had already pointed to the computer-based gerrymandering that established uncontested House districts packed reliable voters of one party or the other all across the country. Their safe seats made it easier for these incumbents of either party to push further to the right or left, confident that they couldn't be challenged by an opposition candidate.

And then there was the money in politics and all of the tax-exempt organizations pushing their agendas. It was the nature of these platforms that they grew more and more extreme in an effort to attract attention and followers. They demanded ideological purity and were not afraid to attack their own leaders, should they veer from the extreme policies the organization demanded. As one side ramped up its criticisms, the other side followed suit. These criticisms escalated as the opposing factions' words devolved into personal attacks against their antagonists. Soon, neither side would even consider compromise because compromise came to be viewed as weakness, or even betrayal. Compromise had become a slanderous term.

The sharply divided Congress could not pass a budget, or even a continuing resolution to keep the government afloat, so a partial shutdown led to a broader shutdown with layoffs of thousands of federal workers. The economy began to crumble without the hundreds of billions of dollars of federal salaries and contracts. Restless laid-off federal workers turned bitter and angry. Soon, some of them turned violent. Acts of sabotage against government agencies began. Peaceful protests against the shutdown turned violent, and bank robberies, as well as other forms of thievery, rose suddenly. Understaffed police could not stop or even investigate these crimes, which multiplied exponentially.

Then the debt ceiling impasse forced the United States into default, and the American crisis spread around the world. International trade collapsed because sellers were afraid to accept suddenly suspect American dollars. Banks shuttered their doors, and government deposit insurance in several countries could not meet its obligations. Individuals lost their life savings. Pension funds stopped paying benefits, and Social Security's inflated dollars were not enough to buy food for retirees.

The Constitutional Convention called for by a bipartisan group of senators seemed to be a sensible remedy, but it, too, collapsed into bickering. The group proposing the Constitutional Convention saw it as a way to get the decision-making process away from Congress, which was no longer functioning. The bipartisans proposed just two changes to the 225-plus-year-old Constitution: A clarification that the First Amendment's free speech rights applied to individuals, not to corporations; and a new amendment requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent bipartisan panels without consideration of incumbents. The thought was that these two changes would eliminate the dominance of political debate by corporations, unions and political action committees, and nonpartisan redistricting would make the U.S. House competitive again, forcing compromises.

It didn't work. The Constitutional Convention was taken over by a secretive group that wrote a new convention eliminating all federal departments except Defense and State and eliminating all of the Bill of Rights except the Second Amendment. The convention also struck the 14th Amendment but retained the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and the 15th and 19th Amendments granting the right to vote to non-whites and women. It also eliminated the Supreme Court and made federal judgeships elective offices with two-year terms. In the end, the new constitution failed to win ratification by three-fourths of the states, several of whom no longer had a functioning legislature.

By then, much of North America and Europe had become ungoverned with well-armed survivalists ruling small areas and subsistence farmers desperately trying to hold onto the food they had grown for their families against bands of urban marauders roaming rural areas for food and supplies.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Long needles coat the yard

Overnight, the landscape had changed. The green grass, sprinkled with broad-leafed weeds, had taken on a new coating.

The longleaf pine needles had fallen with the timing of a theater curtain. All leaped to their deaths together, a mass suicide of the pine needles. The shrubs and the lawn all wore a new coat of brown needles that gave the yard the look it takes on after an unexpected snowfall, but with brown needles instead of white flakes. The needles clung to the juniper and the azaleas. They coated the lawn and formed a brown carpet over the asphalt. No Winter Wonderland, this was an Fall Fling, a takeover by the needles that usually hide in plain sight high up in the longleaf pines. It was a coating as thorough as any early snowfall.

"Here's to the land of the longleaf pine," goes the state toast, and in the eastern half of that state, the longleaf pines still thrive, though not in the masses that once covered the Coastal Plain right down to the shoreline. The tall, thin trees are worrisome to some residents, who know they can snap in hurricane winds and fly like a javelin through a bedroom wall. These trees need a forest where they can cling together against the wind. A yard tree all alone cannot hide from the hurricanes. Chain saws eliminate the possibility, no matter how remote.

I've paid men with chain saws and trucks to take out diseased trees whose needles had all fallen, and limbs and bark, too. But I've nurtured the other trees, and this Monday, after a weekend away, I find my yard turned brown, coated like a cake with too much brown frosting, dripping and uneven over the shrubs.

With a rake, I coax the needles into piles, from which they will mulch flower beds and herb gardens. I find the green still there beneath the needles, and the driveway's black beneath its brown cloak. The needles will find their place, though my labor. Here's to the land of the longleaf pine. Grab a rake.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Five years after

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the end of my newspaper career. Early in the afternoon, the publisher walked into my office and told me he was laying me off. He gave me two choices: I could leave immediately and receive two months' severance pay or I could work through the end of the year and not get severance pay. Pretty easy choice. I worked through the end of that day, came in and worked all of the next day and carried my pictures, personal papers and mementos to the car and left.

The newspaper business was falling apart in 2008. I was not the first layoff that fall, and I would not be the last. One colleague got her walking papers the same day I did. Others would follow, particularly older, more experienced, higher-paid, loyal workers.

My second decision was almost as easy as the first. I would not leave Wilson, where we had lived for nearly 30 years, raised our children and settled into a home we loved. My first reaction to the publisher's news was, "I'll lose my house." I spent a month or more catching up on household maintenance that had been ignored as I worked long hours, and I turned to thoughts of what I'd do next. I wanted a new career, not just a job. I made a couple of stabs at self-employment, starting an editing, writing and public relations agency, or starting a free newspaper or news website. Neither came about, and at the end of my severance, I went on unemployment, which proved sufficient to pay the mortgage while I diligently applied for jobs within commuting distance of Wilson. I turned down an offer to edit a daily newspaper, because it would have demanded moving to the city where the paper was located. A newspaper editor has to live in the place he's covering. As my wife, whose job was supporting both of us, pointed out, "There's no point in both of us starting over."

There were hard times, times when I doubted my worth, regretted my 33 years in the newspaper business (29 years at one newspaper), and wondered whether my family and friends would be better off without me. When I finally got a job, a year after the layoff, I put all of that behind me and tried to learn new ways to be useful and make a difference in the community.

Five years later, I am especially grateful to the many former colleagues and old friends who contacted me to express their shock at my fate and to reassure me that I deserved better. Those kind words got me through the worst moments of that year when I fell into despair.

People have asked me whether I miss the newspaper business, and I tell them honestly, yes. It was an exciting, stressful, time-consuming, and often fun time, getting to follow closely the events in the community, getting to know some interesting people, and trying to make sense of the world for readers.

But that world no longer exists, and I am content with where I am, grateful for the past but eager for the future.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

You call that shutting down the government?

Congress can't do anything right. If they're going to shut down the government, then, by golly, shut the whole thing down. Don't piddle around with little barriers around the World War II Memorial and locking the Smithsonian museums. Let's really shut it down.

If the government is out of business or, as the House Administration Committee put it, suffering a "lapse in appropriations," then stop piddling around and really shut it down. For starters:

• Shut down Amtrak and put puncture barriers on every federally funded highway while you're at it.
• Send air traffic controllers home on furlough and shut down every airport in the country.
• Freeze all government grants, no matter how admirable.
• Stop Social Security checks. That's government, too, you know.
• Halt Medicare and Medicaid payments; if patients want treatment, they'll have to beg the doctors.
• Close all military bases, bring all ships in to port and tie them up at the dock, and put every military aircraft in hangars to await orders.
• End inspections at meat processing plants, which would soon shut down every supermarket and grocery store in the country.
• Renege on all federal education grants and loans; let the institutions of higher learning, both for-profit and nonprofit, figure a way to stay afloat.
• Turn off signals from every weather satellite in the sky. See how well the TV weatherman can forecast now.
• Turn off all GPS satellites in orbit. No navigation systems in your car, no locator on your phone, no way to find your way around. See if you can find an old map somewhere.
• Tell farmers across the country they're on their own — no price supports, no land set-asides, no agricultural agents, no crop insurance, no disaster aid. See how long the food lasts.
• Shut down FEMA and see what happens the next time a hurricane, tornado or earthquake hits.
• Stop enforcing regulations involving credit cards, mortgages, safe working conditions, and pay. Tell the people, "You're on your own, folks!"
• Close the Food and Drug Administration and see if people are willing to eat uninspected food or take untested drugs.

If the Republicans in the House of Representatives are willing to shut down the government because they oppose a law that was passed by Congress, signed by the president and approved by the Supreme Court, then, by golly, they should shut the whole thing down. Many of the Tea Party upstarts are simply opposed to government in all its forms and worship the private sector. So if government is so bad, put it out of its misery and see how that works out.

And one last thing: They should halt pay to all members of Congress and all employees of Congress, and they should turn off the electricity to the Capitol and congressional office buildings. Let them negotiate in the dark until they see the light of day.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The light tells the changing of the seasons.

A week after the autumnal equinox, I'm beginning to feel the fall in the air. It's not just the cool temperatures (in the 50s overnight) or the color in the leaves that are spiraling to the ground and begging to be raked. I can feel it in the deep blue of the sky and in the cool breeze.

The days are shorter. The darkness lingers later into the morning, and it snatches away the evening light. Tonight, we sat on the deck as the gloaming light cast an eerie brightness around us — soft and diffused, not direct sunlight but light reflected and refracted by the clouds and the air, a perfect light that illumines without harshness. In that light, I could see the autumn with its brisk walks and leaves to rake and joyful celebrations to come. I could feel the early sunsets coming and the shivering cold that will inevitably follow. I could picture the yard, now green and sprinkled with bright colors, as it lost it tints and turned a listless gray-brown, and how it would look under a blanket of snow, a white, still ocean surface without movement or sound. The T-shirts and shorts will disappear, and heavy coats will come out, and we will bundle against the cold and carry lights in our hands to hold back the darkness.

The changing of the seasons no longer surprise me. I am experienced. I expect them now. But each year, year after year, they bring me excitement to know that the familiar will be transposed, the heat will turn to chill and the light will turn to dark. The sun will hang low, and comfort will mean heat, not cooling. And then everything will turn over, and we will greet the spring as enthusiastically as this week we greet the fall. The earth spins in its 584 million mile orbit, and we experience the movement not as speed, not as soaring through the vastness of space, but as changes in the light.

Friday, September 27, 2013

More stars than the eye can count

At 6 o'clock this fifth morning of autumn, I looked up from my task of taking the dog out and saw the brightly shining "Dog Star," Sirius, of the constellation Canis Major twinkling against a blue-black velvet sky. Lifting my eyes farther, I found Orion, its signature stars Betelgeuse and Rigal, along with the three perfectly aligned stars comprising the hunter's belt and the fainter straight-in-line stars of his sword. Orion has hunted across the heavens for eons, battling Taurus, the wild bull to the northwest, followed by his two hunting dogs, one of which holds the brightest star in the heavens.

The moon, just a quarter full, shone high above Sirius, showing that fourth magnitude star what real brightness is. From my back yard surrounded by tall trees and hindered by city lights, I could not make out the Pleiades, though I knew they were there, just to the right of Taurus' brighter fixtures.

Orion, Taurus and Canis Major are winter constellations. In a month or two, they will be gone from the predawn darkness and will rise after sunset, giving brightness to the long winter nights. When I was a child fascinated with astronomy in an era boldly called The Space Age, I lived in a rural area with "good sky" — low horizons framed by distant trees and a lack of light pollution from the few houses and no streetlights within eyesight. I could stand on a little hillock in the back yard and feel the expansiveness of the universe lit by distant stars. Orion marked my winters, the Big Dipper and Polaris marked true north, and on clear summer nights, the Milky Way spiraled across the sky in uncountable pinpricks of light against the darkness.

How far we have come since that night 3,000 or so years ago, when God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. No doubt, Abraham stood in the lightless night gazing up into the heavens sparkling with light from the low horizon to zenith. Those stars, like a brightly colored scarf, cascaded above him. That was a promise beyond measure attested by a sky filled with more stars than all of humanity could count.

Were that promise made today, God and Abraham would have to find a different comparison. Look up into the sky tonight, and you might see half a dozen stars or a dozen — not so many progeny to become a great people; not so many stars to fill the sky. All the millions of faint stars will have faded into the darkness of artificial light. Fortunate are those who can see the sky as Abraham saw it, full of stars and of promise.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Contemplating a new car — the last one

My wife and I have been contemplating buying a new car. Not since 1971, when we were newlyweds, had we shopped for a new car. We made a couple of side trips into car leasing in the 1990s, when lease deals were especially enticing, but the only "new" car we've ever owned was a 1971 Toyota Corona two-door. In that car, we brought our first-born home from the hospital. Fifteen or 16 years later, the little baby we brought home got behind the wheel and drove the car that had taken her from the hospital.

We are interested in a new car not because there is anything wrong with our old car, except that it's old. My wife has been driving a 2002 Honda Accord for 10 years. We bought it with 8,000 miles on it after the original owner, a minister, traded it in, and it has 110,000 miles now. But we're looking ahead to the day we retire (hoping to live that long) and think it would be wise to have a paid-for vehicle of recent vintage when we do retire. So the new car we contemplate buying might have to last longer than the 10 years or so we typically keep a car. This one might have to last 20 years.

We're looking at a small SUV because we've often found that the four-door sedan is not good at hauling big boxes or 8-foot lengths of lumber home from the store. And there have been times when we've taken off for a week of vacation with the trunk jammed full and a lot of overflow in the back seat. So we're hoping to meet our occasional needs for a bit more cargo space without going all-out on a big SUV or van.

In 42 years of marriage, my wife and I have owned (or leased) 12 vehicles, not counting the five used vehicles our three children bought while still technically under our roof (but away at school). I have felt nostalgic about a few of these four-wheeled expenses, and I have felt victimized by others, such as the one that had a nasty habit of breaking down each time we drove it out of town.

Vehicles are a necessary evil in a society built around the automobile. You can't get from Point A to Point B without a vehicle, and the costs of purchase, financing, insurance, maintenance and gasoline is overwhelming once you add it all up.

Nevertheless, here we are, about to plunge into the new car market for the first time in 42 years to buy what might be our last car, the one we'll bequeath to our heirs. Except: I'll want to replace my own 11-year-old car sometime before I turn myself out to pasture. Maybe a used car next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sailing — really sailing — again

My time "afloat" during my stint in the Coast Guard consisted of one weekend training cruise on the USCGC Cuyahoga, a relic of the Coast Guard's battles against rum runners during the 1920s. The 125-foot (dubbed a "buck and a quarter") Cuyahoga had been converted to a training vessel stationed at the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center in Yorktown, Va. My cruise with a crew of officer candidates and a small number of regular crew members took me from the mouth of the York River up the Chesapeake Bay beneath the traffic-clogged Bay Bridge to Curtis Bay outside Baltimore. Bright and early the next morning, we began the trip back to Yorktown.

So when my wife and I were invited to sail — really sail — out of New Bern Sunday, it didn't take me long to accept the invitation. My time with a sailing vessel had been limited to a hot half hour or so in a homemade sailboat on Lake Norman, where the wind died and left us stranded.

Our friends welcomed us aboard their 36-foot sloop, and we motored out of the marina into open waters of the wide Neuse River. The guests got the sailing experience by hauling lines, cranking a winch, helping to rig the jib and the spinnaker and enjoying the quiet of travel powered by a light wind. The experience emphasized the work involved in catching the wind with the just-right combination of sail and rudder, the intricacies of rigging a sailboat and the confusing array of sailcloth and lines. Making motion from a light breeze is no easy task, even with modern instruments and equipment.

The enjoyable afternoon disabused me of any latent youthful fantasy about owning a sailboat. As enjoyable a hobby as sailing is, it's also a lot of work, and I have enough work to do as it is.

One footnote: Several years after my cruise on the Cuyahoga, a similar training cruise ended in tragedy when the Cuyahoga, with an officer candidate at the helm, veered in front of a cargo vessel, which plowed the smaller ship beneath it. Several office candidates died.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A shooting in an almost-familiar place

Most of Monday, after I heard about the mysterious shooting at the Navy Yard, I kept thinking that the shooting had occurred in the place I used to go with colleagues for lunch at the Officer's Club. I was working at Coast Guard Headquarters at 400 Seventh Street SW, only a mile or two from the O Club. I went there a few times with fellow officers for a sandwich before heading back to the office. I also went there for farewell dinners or lunches a couple of times when colleagues retired or were reassigned to other duty stations.

It was not until late in the afternoon that I realized that the shooting had occurred at the Navy Yard on the D.C. side of the Anacostia River. The Officer's Club and Post Exchange I had visited several times was in the Navy Yard Annex, across the river from the Navy Yard. We had to drive across a bridge that took us straight into the Annex. So that was why the photos of the crime scene looked vaguely unfamiliar. That, and the fact that my memories were of a time now 40 years ago when I was a young Coast Guard officer assigned to the Enlisted Personnel Division as a letter writer to answer correspondence about Coast Guard personnel. Other than the PX and the O Club, I don't know what was at the Navy Annex. I never had reason to visit anyplace other than those familiar haunts.

Still, a shooting at a secure Navy base, wherever it might be, is unsettling. Security at the Annex was not tight, as best I can remember. A guard would wave us in upon seeing the military sticker on the car's windshield or bumper. I don't recall any armed guards in the complex itself. But that was long ago, and security has to be tighter now, just as it is in military and government campuses everywhere after 9-11. As the president said, military personnel expect to put their lives on the line in combat assignments, but not while they're eating lunch in a quiet, secure corner of the District of Columbia.

I hope investigators can unravel the mystery of this morning, but some actions are so irrational they are inexplicable. Maybe this one will fall into that category.

Friday, September 13, 2013

'Arab Spring' is a chilling winter for Christians

In this "Arab Spring" (a misnomer if ever there was one), one aspect of the changes in Middle East governance has largely been overlooked. In all three countries where the United States has favored the overthrow of long-ruling dictators, the Christian minorities in those countries have suffered.

In Iraq, where the United States overthrew the cruel, despotic Saddam Hussein, Christians have fled the country as Shiite and Sunni Muslims have fought their civil war and both Islamic factions have attacked Christians. Hussein, for all his cruelty, had kept the insurgent Shiite majority in check and had protected Christians from abuse.

In Egypt, still in turmoil since the overthrow of, first, Hosni Mubarak, and, later, the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi, Coptic Christians, with a 2,000-year history in Egypt, have become targets of the Islamist insurgents. Churches have been bombed, and Christians have been murdered.

Syrian Christians have also become targets of the insurgency, which includes Islamist factions, including al-Qaida. Christian communities in the majority-Sunni nation trace their churches and traditions back to New Testament missionaries. Saint Paul was headed to Damascus, the Syrian capital, when he experienced his conversion. Those Christian communities are under attack by the Muslim rebels. Bashar Assad and his father had protected the Christian minority perhaps in part because Assad's family belonged to the Alawite sect, a Muslim minority.

In each case, these revolutions gave power to Islamist elements, some of whom consider it their duty to kill "infidels" or expel them from their Islamic territory. To these zealots, a Christian church is an affront to Allah and must be destroyed; Christian worship is likewise detestable; and Christian witness is a capital offense. Religious freedom is blasphemy to them.

Certainly, U.S. foreign policy did not deliberately aim to disrupt or destroy Christian minorities in these Islamic countries, but by supporting, to one degree or another, the overthrow of powerful despots who had protected the religious freedom of Christian minorities, the United States has made life more difficult for Christians throughout the Middle East.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

First-time visitor to World Trade Center site

On my first visit to New York City, the site of the World Trade Center was not on the top of my list for things to see. The horribly disturbing television and newspaper images from 12 years ago are still too haunting. But I was with a group that wanted to see the memorial taking shape there, so I went along, and I'm glad I did.

It's difficult to grasp the enormity of the site where two monster buildings once stood, dominating the Manhattan skyline. Just getting to the site takes some doing. You weave through a maze of security checks and converge on a place of quiet and awe, but it's a place not terribly different from the rest of lower Manhattan, with small trees, walkways and tall buildings looming overhead.

Two fountains mark the footprints of the buildings that stood there before the greatest terrorist attack in history. Standing at the edge of the fountains, watching the water flow downward into a catch basin, flowing like unending tears, it's hard to envision the towers that stood there or the lives that ended there. Perhaps if I had been there while the towers still soared into the sky or later, when the ruins  still smoldered and people raked through debris for human remains, I could more readily picture what was lost. Names of the victims of the attack are carved into the bronze border of the fountains. All around the site are additional memorials to the innocent victims and to the firefighters and others who perished trying to save others. Sellers hawk picture books about the attack on street corners nearby. It's a gloomy, mournful place.

Ground Zero (a moniker I never quite cared for) brings to mind another memorial — the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I've visited that site just a handful of times, but each time it left me choking back tears for all of the nearly 60,000 names carved there in black marble. I touched the names of my contemporaries, names that could have been mine. As awe-inspiring as the World Trade Center Memorial is, or will be, it cannot top, for me, the emotion I felt standing beside that slash of black marble with so many names of so many lives lost too early.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Use of chemical weapons is not unique

President Obama announced Saturday that he would put the bombing of Syria over its use of chemical weapons before Congress, although he reserved the right to go forward with military action even if Congress objected. The British House of Commons had already shot down Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to authorize military action against Syria, leaving the United States alone in its plan to bomb Syria.

A majority of the U.S. public and many members of Congress have reservations about getting involved in the Syrian civil war for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the acknowledgement that the administration doesn't know what the outcome of its action might be. Will it strengthen the rebels or will it strengthen the resolve of President Assad? Will it push the Assad regime to negotiate or will it lead to deadly attacks from Iran, Hezbollah or other groups against the United States, Western Europe and Israel? No one knows.

But lost in the debate thus far is the fact that Syria's use of chemical weapons is not unique. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988, and chemical weapons were used in the Iran-Iraq war earlier. Chemical weapons were used extensively in World War I, but Adolf Hitler declined to use his available chemical weapons in World War II out of fear of deadly retaliation. This article from The Atlantic covers some of that history and explains how chemical weapons affects people.

The United States has its own history of chemical weapons. U.S. military units have trained for at least 40 years (I remember the drills) for what was called "NBC Warfare" — Nuclear, Biological and Chemical. In 1968, an accident at a secret U.S. military laboratory killed off 3,000 sheep in Utah. That accident was reported to be one of several at the secret chemical weapons lab. U.S. officials could defend chemical weapons by the Cold War excuse that it was necessary to counter Soviet capabilities. When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, they were equipped and prepared for chemical warfare.

Chemical weapons are banned by international treaty, and their use has been limited in part because every possessor of chemical weapons fears retaliation in kind. Chemical weapons lead to horrible deaths, but other weapons, conventional, nuclear or otherwise, also lead to deaths. In World War II, millions of civilians died, nearly all of them from "conventional" weapons. They would be no more dead if chemical weapons had been used.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have argued for an attack on Syria as if Syria were the only country to use chemical weapons ever. That simply isn't the case. Treaties have banned chemical weapons since the 19th century, but those international agreements that chemical weapons are bad have not stopped the production or use of chemical weapons.

Does the U.S. still have chemical weapons? I hope someone will ask that question as Congress debates an attack on Syria.

What Syria has done to its own people is horrible, but it has been done before, and the United States did not feel a need to teach the perpetrators a lesson. In fact, in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States took Iraq's side.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A no-winner war in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry has declared it "undeniable" that Syria used chemical weapons against the anti-government rebels in a suburb near Damascus. So now the world awaits the reaction from the United States and other Western powers who have declared the use of chemical weapons a tripwire for their intervention in the Syrian civil war.

No one defends the use of chemical weapons, but we shouldn't pretend that they have been off limits since World War I, when chemical weapons killed thousands and left thousands more wishing they were dead. Survivors suffered horrible problems, including disfigurement and scorched lungs that robbed victims of oxygen.

The World War I experience prompted nations to ban chemical weapons, and the ban has been largely effective, with chemical bombs used only in a few conflicts since 1918. But Syria has a huge stockpile of chemical weapons that can be used against rebels, or, perhaps worse, can fall into the hands of the Islamist fighters eager to find new ways to terrify their enemies and kill more "infidels."

What can the United States and its allies do? If they intervene in Syria's civil war with direct combat against the Assad regime, they will sink their fortunes into Syria's cesspool of hatred and intrigue from which there is no easy escape. The United States badly misjudged the cost in time, money and lives of its intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, so claims of an easy and simple intervention in Syria is not reassuring. 

Western sentiments are with the populist Syrian rebels, despite the fact that al-Qaida fighters are a large segment of the rebel forces, and against the despotic and brutal Assad regime. Regardless of which side ultimately prevails, there is no positive outcome from the West's perspective. If the rebels win, a fractured, sectarian regime allied with Islamist terrorists is likely to emerge through years of violent infighting. If Assad prevails, he will rule over a country shattered by years of war and economic catastrophe, and he will have even more reason to oppose Western principles.

The United States cannot win in Syria, no matter who prevails.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When bloggers stop blogging or take a recess

My Blogger home page, from which I write this blog, includes a list of blogs I'm following. Nearly all of them are by people I know or have known, and the latest posts from each of these blogs pops up on the page so I can keep current on them.

Last night, out of curiosity, I clicked on the blog names to see whether I had missed anything. I found that the bloggers I've been following have become a quiet bunch. The latest posts were dated "8 months ago," "two months ago," "two years ago," "three years ago," etc. No wonder I've been reading fewer blogs lately.

I look at this two ways: (1) I've persevered and outlasted most of the bloggers I've known. I'm up to 823 posts, according to my Blogger home page, and I have 65 followers (although, admittedly, at least two of my followers have died — probably not as a result of reading my blog). I began writing a blog when I was a newspaper editor, and blogs were all the rage in the newspaper business. I never really thought I'd take the blogging world by storm, but I had hoped to generate some discussion and provoke some thoughts, either in agreement or in dissent. Alas, I've never made money off of blogging and have frequently wondered why I'm still doing it, nearly five years after leaving the newspaper business. I do it because it's a form of writing, and I enjoy writing, even if I know no one is reading it, except perhaps for 65 people (minus two or more).

My second look at this (#2) is that blogging has become passe. Now it's not blogging that is cutting edge. It's Twitter or Instagram or some other condensed brevity that I might not even be aware of. I see tweets quoted in news articles more often than I see blogs quoted. So while a few people are making some money off of their blogs, the public's attention seems to be directed more toward the 144 characters of a tweet. Celebrities do it. Politicians do it. "Even educated fleas do it ... Let's do a tweet!"

Bloggers: An endangered species?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Summer is hardly felt before autumn cools the air

It's late August, and the sky looks like November — all gray and wet. When was summer? This has been a year when summer did not come to North Carolina, at least not for an extended stay. Spring was cool and wet and lingered well into July. There have been a few hot days, but there has not been an extended period of days with temperatures in the mid- to higher-90s, a pattern that usually comes every summer, often for more than one episode. No complaints this year from farmers about drought; they complain instead that fields are "too wet to plow."

Already, we've had mornings with the temperature in the 60s with low humidity and a deep blue sky, mornings that speak of autumn days and brisk nights. It's only August, and we know summer often lingers into October at these latitudes; still, these mornings give us hope that autumn will come early and stay late, a mild, refreshing tonic to offset the earlier evening darkness and the morning dark.

The first Monday after a week's vacation, Aug. 5, I immediately noticed it was much darker at 6 a.m. when I walked to the end of the driveway to pick up the newspaper. In just one week's time, the angle of sunlight had tilted, delaying dawn for significant minutes. The seasons' shifting is subtle day by day, but when a week's change confronts us, the change seems as swift as the darkness in a room when the lamp is extinguished.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Two decision could result in crime increase

Two changes in criminal justice made the news this week, changes that were greeted primarily with cheers from liberal commentators. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, impatient over Congress' consideration of changes to mandatory sentencing laws, ordered federal prosecutors to downgrade charges against non-violent drug offenders, thereby eliminating the possibility of long sentences. These mandatory sentences had been widely criticized and had been blamed for exponential increases in prison populations.

The second change came from a New York judge's ruling that New York City's "stop and frisk" procedures were racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others have credited the stop-and-frisk laws with removing thousands of illegal firearms from the streets and with reducing violent crime in the city. New York, once one of the most dangerous cities in the country, is now considered among the safest.

Little mention has been made about the potential impact of these changes, but it's not far-fetched to think that reducing sentences and eliminating the random questioning of suspicious pedestrians could result in higher crime rates. Police will tell you that getting just one habitual offender off the street can dramatically reduce the crime rate. One busy burglar, for example, can account for 10 percent or more of the break-ins in a small city. Identify him, charge him, sentence him to a long prison term, and the crime rate goes down significantly, and people's homes are noticeably safer.

America does not want to return to the frightening era of the crack epidemic, when drive-by shootings became commonplace, homes were burglarized by pitiful characters desperate for money to buy their next hit, and armed robberies were on the rise. New York doesn't want to return to the days when subway trains and platforms were frightening gambles with petty gangsters threatening riders with actual or implied violence.

We can hope for the best, that reducing prison populations will make America more productive and reduce the costs of incarceration and that New York City's streets will remain safe while minorities feel respected instead of suspected. But we really don't know how these changes will play out. If the crime rate soars again and innocent residents live in constant fear, we will look back at this week's decisions with regret.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Newspapers' efforts have set them free

This morning's News & Observer leads with the news that the state will pay $12 million to two men who were wrongly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The article highlights the previously reported stories of Floyd Brown and Greg Taylor, both railroaded by unethical acts by local and state investigators. Between them, the two men served a total of 31 years behind bars.

Today's news also highlights the earlier history of Alan Gell, who was convicted of a murder he didn't commit — couldn't have committed because he was in jail at the time of the murder — who had previously received a $3.9 million settlement from the state for the nine years he spent in prison.

These cases are shocking on several levels: $12 million is a lot of money, enough to raise eyebrows in a state that tosses around billions in budget talks; but no amount of money will regain for these men the years they spent in prison, separated from loved ones, missing family events and being treated as guilty criminals even though they were innocent; the state of North Carolina should be ashamed, not just over the embarrassing publicity about monetary compensation and stolen years but also over the disgrace that public employees effectively framed these men so that the state could claim a higher conviction rate and clear these crimes from its books.

One major takeaway from these shameful events is this: Newspaper investigations led to each of the sentences being overturned. Without a free, vigorous and financially healthy press, it is unlikely these travesties would have been uncovered. At a time when newspapers are losing their value faster than a McMansion in a bursting housing bubble and newsrooms across the country are being decimated by budget-slashing publishers, newspapers are as important as they ever were in comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, watching over the public interest and protecting democratic processes.

Don't expect the bloggers, the nonprofit online experiments, the online media sites compiling other people's work, or the radio and television stations more intent on trailing celebrities and sensationalizing the crime du jour to do the work that dedicated, persistent newspaper reporters have done for generations. America still needs newspapers.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Washington Post changes hands

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon guy, has bought the Washington Post. I'll admit it: I never thought I'd see the day when the venerable Washington Post, the newspaper that cracked Watergate and published the Pentagon Papers, would be sold by the Graham family and be owned by a dot-com billionaire.

I feel a personal attachment to the Post. I was a subscriber for three years, when I lived in the Washington suburbs and worked in downtown D.C. The paper was in its heyday in the early 1970s. The weekday paper would land on my stoop with a thud like the dropping of a 100-pound feed sack. It was jammed with advertising, page after page, and filled with news. The classified section alone would be thicker than the daily papers I had read growing up in North Carolina. The Sunday paper would be an all-day read. I would get through a section or two before church and return in the afternoon for a dessert of section upon section, all well-written, fascinating and as satisfying as cheesecake after a fine meal.

When I moved back to North Carolina, I considered taking a mail subscription to the post, but a six-month subscription was as much as my weekly pay; I couldn't do it.

Like all print newspapers, the Post has struggled to remain profitable as advertisers and readers have migrated to Internet sites. The Graham family, which has pulled the Post out of bankruptcy and into the highest echelon of global newspapers, seemed wise enough to bring the newspaper into the 21st century. But the struggle must have been too great and the prospects too grave.

Bezos has promised to keep management in place, but he will almost certainly seek innovations that will return the Post to profitability. What that course will be, I don't know — and neither does anyone else in the newspaper business who has tried to find that key. But the news reporting of the Post must be sustained because without it, without the investigative persistence and the news analysis explained for a mass audience, government corruption might go unfettered and unpunished, and democracy itself could be in jeopardy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A good vacation in a special place

As vacations go, this one was good. I managed to relax a lot on the porch looking out over the lake — a place where I have spent thousands of hours watching the ceaseless movements of the lake. A storm blew in one evening just before dusk and turned the lake into a boiling cauldron of upheaval, and the lightning flashed and the rain poured so fast that the roads around the lake flooded, but the lake just absorbed it all. The lake calmly endures whatever nature sends, and it encourages us to do the same.

I did some minor repairs to the house, which is feeling its age, and read a book, a good piece of fiction that gripped me with its plot and characters and would not let me put it down.

I also managed to go out to eat twice for wonderfully enjoyable meals, sitting outside both times, once by the edge of the lake and once by a downtown street. Both places felt vibrant and interesting. I walked briskly with my wife for long treks of four or five miles, and we tried our hands at paddling kayaks out into the lake and into nearby coves, examining the lakefront houses and enjoying the gentle rocking of the waves.

A good vacation: Some meaningful work, some relaxation, some family time and the quiet, entrancing enjoyment of a good book. Over the past 40-plus years, I've spent dozens of vacation weeks and scores of weekend getaways at this house by the lake, a place known universally in this family as "The Lake" or "The Lakehouse." There were times of great joy and some times of sadness, too. There were many times of excitement and the most relaxing moments of my life. My wife and I have lived in 11 homes in 42 years, and each stop filled quickly with memories, but this house by the lake is the one axis point that has connected us and drawn us back, year after year. The picture of my little daughters in their nightgowns feeding ducks is as clear as the images of my grandchildren flinging themselves off the end of the dock into the lake's inviting waters. Three generations have thrilled to the sight of the mist rising off the lake's surface in the fall and soft ripples of the lake at early morning and near dusk in the summer.

Whether future generations will know the house and its mile-long view of the peaceful water as we have known it remains an open question. The builders have died and have left the house, much in need of repairs and maintenance, in the hands of another generation that loves this place dearly but might not have the financial resources to keep it in the family. How many more of our vacations might be spent looking out from that second-story porch is in doubt. My wife and her sister are determined to keep the house their parents built in the 1960s, not because it's a great house or it's nearby or it's a museum of their lives but because this location, this view looking out over the lake, forms not just their memories but their lives.

Friday, July 26, 2013

New voting laws discourage turnout

The North Carolina General Assembly has passed a new set of voting laws that will require a photo ID and will eliminate a number of "convenience" opportunities to vote. As I have stated before, I don't have a big problem with voter ID as long as the law is applied fairly and those voters without a driver's license have ample and cost-free opportunity to get an ID. I'll give the Republican legislators who are pushing the voter ID bill a free ride on this one, despite critics' claims that the bill amounts to voter suppression and is racist. The law applies equally to white, black, male, female, Democrat and Republican.

But the curtailing of early voting and the elimination of same-day registration, straight-ticket voting and other conveniences for voters is clearly intended to shrink the electorate and shrink it in a way that will benefit Republicans and reduce Democratic turnout. As the Obama organization has proven twice, turnout is everything.

Early voting applies equally to voters of both parties, but it seems clear that Democrats have taken advantage of the reduced barriers to voting. Democrats have done a better job of getting voters to the polls early and boosting their turnout. Rather than work harder to match their opponents' early turnout, the GOP legislators will simply make it harder to vote early. As for straight-ticket voting, this convenience for voters has been a thorn in the side of both parties. When they ruled the legislature, Democrats separated presidential voting from the straight ticket in an effort to blunt the popularity of Republican presidential candidates, who had won North Carolina for the previous 32 years until 2008. The separation required an extra click for voters, but it was seen as worth it to state Democrats who didn't want to be lumped with unpopular Democratic presidential candidates (Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, etc.).

I have no personal interest in this matter. I have never voted early, and I have never voted a straight ticket. I've always enjoyed going to the polls on Election Day, and I never wanted to give one party absolute control, nor did I think one party had a monopoly on talent and integrity.

The new voting laws will be challenged, but it may be hard to prove that making it less convenient to vote is an infringement on the right to vote. (Who said voting had to be convenient?) It is, nevertheless, a blatant attempt by Republicans to eliminate the votes of many citizens who lean toward the Democratic Party. If this suppression of voting prevails, Republicans could enjoy an advantage for decades. Or they could so anger Democratic voters that their turnout actually rises.