Monday, April 28, 2014

The mountains are calling, still

In Wilkesboro, at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, this weekend, I came across a John Muir quote I had seen before: "The mountains are calling, and I must go."

Driving downhill Sunday afternoon toward the Coastal Plain, hundreds of feet below the place where I had spent two days and three nights, I thought about the Muir quote and felt the tug on my heart for the places I had been, where the horizon rises up, reaching for the sky. The mountains are a different place, not just a different topography but a different environment and a different culture.

The hardwood trees are leafing out now, giving an opaque green cloak to the hills and mountains. In the fall, they will wear different colors and in winter will shed their clothes and stand like starkly naked skeletons against the sky. We walked along a gravel road and crossed a burbling mountain stream, falling over rocks to make a soft song of comfort and ease. We sat on the screened porch and listened to the creek's lullaby.

Trees crowd the steep hills all around us, their roots giving aid to the granite stones to keep the hills in place. Here and there, a pasture interrupts the forest or a house peeks through the trees, but mostly the landscape is covered in trees, unlike farther east, where housing developments and huge farm fields erase nature from view. The sight of mountain trees beckons me and reminds me how long it has been since I visited.

Anyone who has spent any time among the hills knows mountain culture is different — simpler, earthier, less formal, some would say less refined — than a few hundred miles to the east. I am a part of that Coastal Plain culture and relish it, but still the mountains call. And when I go, I know I've been away too long. The arduous hike to the peak to look all around at hills and knobs and prominences is worth the effort. You can hear the mountains calling and feel the tug on your heart.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The old Kodak came out every Easter

My wife and I did not pose for photographs on Easter Sunday. We arose early, went to the sunrise service, stayed for breakfast and then caught a fast nap at home before the 11 a.m. communion service.

Dressed in our Easter finery (actually outfits we found in the closet, all worn before but cheerily bright with spring colors), we did not even take a "selfie" with either of our phones.

Sixty years ago, my mother would have lined up her five children for pictures taken with her Kodak folding camera. Its 120 film captured only light and shadows, no colors. Seeing the pictures now, you have to imagine the colors on the dresses she sewed for my sisters, the ties my brothers and I wore, the Easter baskets with dyed eggs and the grass and trees in the photo. I still have the old Kodak she used for decades. It sits unfolded on a bookshelf beside one of the group pictures she shot of us, the camera's black and chrome parts perfectly matching the blacks and whites of the photograph.

When I developed an interest in photography as a teenager, I discovered that Mother's old camera had f-stops and shutter speeds, even a "B" and a "T" setting. I realized I could use the "T" (Timer) setting to take four-hour pictures of star trails in the northern sky from the front porch. The "B" (Bulb) setting was probably never used. If the camera was ever used for an indoor picture, I never saw it. After my experimentation with her old camera, Mother complained that I had changed the settings, which she had kept the same for decades once she found a setting that suited bright sunlight, the only lighting allowed for her pictures. She'd never be able to find the right settings again. So she never took another picture with that camera, which was replaced by an Instamatic and a Polaroid and other gift cameras. Years later, when she was throwing out old possessions, she gave me the old Kodak, and I've displayed and treasured it for years.

In almost all of our family pictures, one person was almost always missing. Someone had to snap the picture in those years before selfies and self-timers. The one photo of the entire family was taken by our cousin, who came over from next door specifically to snap the shutter. The picture shows the entire family — Mother, Daddy and the five children. For our parents' 50th wedding anniversary in 1987, we had the picture painted and gave them a large framed copy.

I don't remember whether the occasion was Easter, but it probably was.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Atheists want to eliminate religious expression

The world has always had atheists. But through most of history they remained quiet about their disbelief. Twenty-first century atheists are no longer quiet. In fact, they are seeking out religious observances they see as inappropriate and trying to get rid of them.

The latest battle involves the Clemson University football program. Most fans only care whether the Tigers win their games. But the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is not known to be a fan of Clemson football, cares about the fact that the Clemson coach, Dabo Swinney, is an outspoken Christian. FFRF complains that Swinney oversteps his bounds when he encourages players to attend religious services and makes religion-tinted remarks. Surely, Swinney and Clemson are not the only targets on FFRF's radar. A number of coaches and athletes are openly religious. Likewise, some university professors, high school principals, physicians and politicians are ardently religious. To the folks at FFRF, that's a problem.

Their claim is that tax dollars may be going to spread religion, but big-time college football is not likely to be good place to look for misplaced tax dollars. Clemson football, like most major-college football programs, makes money. Without football's and men's basketball's revenues, other collegiate sports would likely have to be abandoned because those two money-making programs support other collegiate sports. So Dabo Swinney may technically be a state employee, but he's a state employee who earns more for the university than he takes in tax money.

If this case goes to trial, a fundamental issue could revolve around the plaintiff's name — the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The first clause of the First Amendment decrees that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... ." The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Although some atheist plaintiffs have convinced the court that required religious observances infringe on their freedom, the courts have never found voluntary group or individual religious observances to violate the Constitution. There have been no complaints from the Clemson players about Swinney's public displays of religiosity, so you have to wonder whether the FFRF has any standing in the case. The plaintiff has to be injured, if only emotionally, by the defendant's actions in order to bring a case.

The court and the public should ask what harm has been done by a coach encouraging spiritual values or a player thanking God for his success. FFRF, it seems clear, will not stop until all religious expressions are eliminated from American life. Not only would tax breaks for church property and church donations be endangered, but zoning laws that favor churches or religion-oriented advertising could also be banned.

Atheists are no longer quietly passive, content to let others practice their beliefs. They are aggressively seeking to deny freedom of religion, of speech and of thought. They ridicule religious beliefs as unscientific, never understanding that religion and science are separate disciplines or that one can be both scientific and religious. Ask Albert Einstein, among others.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Remember the Cold War

If you thought we had put the Cold War behind us, you may have to think again. The actions and the rhetoric between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine are eerily familiar for those of us who lived through and survived, against the odds, it seemed, the Cold War of the 1950 and '60s.

If Vladimir Putin is another Khrushchev, should Barack Obama be another Truman, and should Ukraine be another Korea? Russia has reclaimed Crimea from Ukraine, but it hardly seems like a felony in international terms. Crimea had been part of Russia until Khrushchev gave the historic peninsula to Ukraine for reasons that are now obscure at best. Crimea plays a giant role in Russian history and was the focus of a major war, the Crimean War, that still lives in Russian legend and folklore.

Russia reclaiming Crimea does not seem to be such a big deal, really. But if Putin also wants to take over all or part of the rest of Ukraine, that's another matter. Putin is said to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy that he hopes to correct by re-establishing the Russian Empire. If this assessment is true, Ukraine is not the only endangered sovereign state. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria should also be nervous.

The United States and Western Europe should oppose Putin's attempt to reverse history and should confront Russia's expansionist maneuvers. But confront how? Economic sanctions and other diplomatic efforts can isolate and hurt Russia's economy and prestige. Confrontations should fall short of military confrontation, as they did throughout nearly all of the Cold War. Do Americans want to go to war, even nuclear war, over Ukraine, a nation that most Americans can't find on a globe? Surely not. Ukraine is not a NATO member, and the United States has no obligation to defend it against aggression. But the destabilizing of the post-World War II world should worry all nations. Putin, like Hitler before him, has shrewdly taken territory and maneuvered other nations to do his will. Hitler's mistake was that he didn't stop with Austria and Sudetenland.

The question is where Putin will stop, or is he willing to risk hot war to achieve his grand ambitions.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A college president leaves vision, achievements

Here's one job I wouldn't want — following Norval Kneten as president of Barton College. Whatever you do is not likely to compare to Kneten's transformation of Barton in 11 short years.

Kneten announced his retirement, effective a year from now, yesterday. He came here with strong credentials but nothing to predict his impact upon Barton. He came with a vision and a determination to lift Barton in many ways — academically, aesthetically, financially and competitively. He hit the ground running, making key contacts throughout the community, building relationships with public and business officials, faculty and alumni. He made sure Barton was woven into the fabric of the community, that its financial, academic, intellectual and artistic influence on Wilson was recognized and expanded. He built partnerships with the city, and he raised money. Being a college president these days means being a fundraiser, and he has been extraordinary in that regard.

Under his guidance, Barton has improved its physical presence with a new theater, athletic facilities, signature bell tower and a dormitory, all aimed at making the college more visible and distinctive. His latest project, a new landscaped entry into the campus, is nearing completion.

Under his guidance, Barton has raised academic standards and focused on making students prepared for and successful in life. Barton's marketing varies from letters and electronic communications with alumni and donors to billboards on I-40 and full-page ads in magazines. Community involvement in the library, art gallery, athletics and symphony has brought the public into Barton's fold.

Norval and his wife, Susan, have used the president's residence, the Barton-Graves House, into a social, marketing and development dynamo, hosting events for donors, friends of the college and influential neighbors. The Knetens have made their lives integral to the college's fortunes.

When I met Norval 11 years ago, I was quite impressed with him and excited about his energy and his vision for the college, but I never imagined just how far his vision would take the college in so short a time. Barton cannot clone him and will have difficulty finding someone to match his vision and vigor, but, with Norval's imprint in place, it will try. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

A life of lists.

I find lists everywhere. I keep a to-do list on my desk at work and add to it or check off completed tasks daily. Grocery lists keep me focused in the supermarket. Repair lists guide my weekends and spare time. Reading lists hold names of books I intend to read, once I've completed these other lists. I write down lists more frequently now because I've found myself to be more forgetful.

And we have these other lists — things to do before it's too late. My wife wants to experience Merle Fest and see the Grand Canyon. I want to see Yosemite, the Canadian Rockies and New England. That's not counting all the places in Europe we've never been.

For decades, I've kept lists of repairs that need to be done around the house — painting, adding an electrical receptacle, building bookshelves, refinishing the floors, repairing the driveway, removing dead trees, replacing the old, rotting pump house. The bigger the job, the farther down the list it goes until it gets transferred over to the new list.

Many of these list items have been consigned to "when we retire," but in a few years, that will no longer be an excuse. Retirement will be busy if we do more than just keep lists and actually begin checking off the "done" items.

Years ago, I had another list, never written down but always on my mind. It was more important than those written lists. My goal was to see all three of my children educated, on their own and married. The final mental check went beside the last of these goals 10 years ago.

With these goals achieved, the others don't matter so much.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Budget solution: Place a sales tax on members of Congress

Rep. Paul Ryan has a new budget outline, which the House has approved, despite no hope that the Senate will even consider it. This semblance of progress on balancing the federal budget gave me an idea:

Let's place a sales tax on members of Congress. Disabuse yourself of the notion that our representatives are not really beholden to the people who give them thousands or millions of dollars every day. Congress is for sale, and members are not even coy about it. The selling has become brazen. Despite what the Constitution might imply, Congress' real job is not to pass legislation, it is to raise money for the next election. And most members do it very well.

My proposal would force the nation to recognize the reality of the Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions that make the selling of Congress the nation's most productive business. Instead of fighting this tidal wave, let's tax it.

Every dollar given to a member of Congress or candidate for Congress, his/her election campaign treasury, or any "third party" organization, including political parties, political action committees, so-called "voter education" groups or any other entity seeking to influence a congressional election shall be taxed at the rate of, let's say, 10%. This taxation would go into the U.S. treasury and would be counted as revenues in the federal budget. Once this influx of money balances the budget and pays off the federal debt, the taxation rate can be adjusted downward. We don't want to be greedy about this.

The advantages go far beyond the balancing of the budget. This tax would make nominally honest men and women of members of Congress. We had known all along they were for sale to the highest bidder; now they will have to admit it. Their admission of this fact would bolster federal revenues. It would also make moot the differences between personal income, campaign income and special-interest groups' income. All of them would be taxed equally because they are equivalently responsible for the selling of Congress. So what if the Supreme Court says corporations can poor millions of dollars into buying congressmen? At least we'll get tax revenue out of the transaction.

No doubt, soon after passage of the sales tax on Congress, members will be bragging about how much revenue their campaigns have contributed to the treasury.

Monday, April 7, 2014

North Carolina's Literary Festival

The North Carolina Literary Festival was too tempting to pass up, despite the beckoning of long-postponed chores in the house and yard and the beauty of the bright day of new spring. Who wants to sit inside a crowded library when there is a glorious spring day outside?

Well, we do. My wife and I shunned our household obligations and hit the road for Raleigh, to experience the N.C. Literary Festival again and to see the new Hunt Library at N.C. State University for the first time. Despite some misleading directions, we managed to find State's Centennial Campus and the Hunt Library.

A word about the library: I was told that the ultra-modern structure is worth the drive from Wilson, and it's true. I watched in awe as the "book bot" located and retrieved requested books from the new-age stacks — near-infinite rows of metal trays filled with books, which are retrievable by the automated device that paces along the rows and reaches up several stories to find the right bin for the requested book and transports it to the circulation desk. Amazing! The rest of the library is just as modern — no imposing Doric or Corinthian columns, no frieze above the entrance, no brass chandeliers. Instead, there are banks of computers, quiet rooms for reading/study and a coffee and ice cream bar. The library gives the feeling of more of a public space than most university or college libraries do.

As a venue for the Literary Festival, the library offered the advantage of having all the events in one location. It also had that advantage as a disadvantage. Moving from place to place, as we had done when the festival was at UNC-Chapel Hill, has its own advantages, especially on a bright spring day. Finding the session you wanted to attend wasn't always easy in the Hunt Library. The session we especially wanted to attend wasn't where it was supposed to be. But the festival provided a number of clearly old-school human guides who graciously pointed us in the right direction and even escorted us, too.

Any time you can get hundreds of people together — some of them legendary North Carolina authors — to discuss literature, it's a good day. The first session we attended featured Wilton Barnhardt and Jill McCorkle, who bandied about their handling of redeemable and unredeemable characters. The session could have focused on humor in N.C. literature because they provided the audience with frequent laughs as they read from their novels and commented on writing, characters and books.

We slipped out early for a session featuring Drew Perry, another novelist whose writing is as full of humor as a Johnny Carson monologue. Perry, a Greensboro resident, humorously discussed his own and his characters' angst over life's big decisions, such as marrying and having a child.

We then skipped the first novel session, which was about to be played before a packed room of wannabe novelists, opting instead for the display of books for sale downstairs. My wife bought a couple of books; I decided against buying the bourbon cookbook. Then, examining our options, we went home after a quick visit to Trader Joe's.

The state Literary Festival has been a hit-and-miss affair since the first one a dozen years ago. Intended to rotate among UNC, State and Duke, the festival hasn't always happened. We've attended two at UNC and found both events in Chapel Hill marvelously packed with great authors and interesting sessions. This year's event included fewer writers we knew and therefore was less than an all-day event for us.

In an age when it seems the written word, or at least ink-on-paper, is dying, a literary festival is a particularly ambitious undertaking. Readers love their books, which offer a satisfaction that neither live performance nor film can provide. To see and talk to the authors of good books is a thrill for every serious reader. That thrill lured us from work that needed to be done to an enjoyable interlude in Raleigh, an afternoon surrounded by books and book lovers. It is a feeling as beautiful as a spring day. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

President Carter takes on 'epidemic of rape'

I heard parts of an interview with Jimmy Carter, a man I greatly admire, on the radio yesterday. I listened as Carter touted his new book, "A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power." The former president was especially eager to condemn what he says is an epidemic of rape on college campuses, citing Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill in particular (he was in Raleigh to hype his book).

I was glad to see a Newsday columnist, reprinted in the News and Observer this morning, take Carter to task for his equating of income disparity, job discrimination and date rape in America with the atrocities against women in other countries. These atrocities include killing of female babies, unpunished murder of wives by their husbands, genital mutilation and other violence that is accepted in these countries. Carter should know better.

As the father of two daughters, I am naturally protective of women's rights and safety, but I find the condemnation of the alleged epidemic of rape on college campuses one-sided. Carter bolstered his assertions by citing statistics about the percentage of female students who are raped on college campuses and urged colleges to get tough on the rapists, especially the "serial rapists," each of whom are reported to be hunting down and abusing dozens of women. He said colleges should dismiss these men; kick them out.

Wait a minute. If these men are guilty of rape, as Carter claims they are, should they not be charged in criminal courts? Shouldn't they face not just dismissal from school but years and years in prison? If they are, indeed, rapists, they should be punished with imprisonment, not disenrollment.

They should also be entitled to trial by jury and the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. But Carter and others who are condemning the "epidemic of rape on campus" are not willing to allow the criminal justice system to do its work. They seem to want the men involved to be punished for their deeds without an opportunity to defend themselves.

Any sensible person wants women to be safe from predatory men and other dangers, but college women, who should be, by definition, intelligent enough to know better than to put themselves in compromising positions, have a responsibility in this matter. Excessive drinking can lead to behavior you may later regret, whether male or female.

College and sexual relations have changed greatly since I was a student. Gone are the "women's dorms" with their curfews, parlors and house mothers. Today's female students brag about their sexual conquests the way some men did in my day, and at least one Duke student has proclaimed her happiness and self-esteem as she works her way through college in the porn industry.

Women who find themselves uncertain "what happened last night" or regretting their previous evening's behavior have a responsibility, now that they have escaped from the "in loco parentis" rules of the 1960s, to protect themselves from vulnerable situations. Where rape happens, it should be prosecuted by the criminal courts, and it should not be diluted to the equivalence of bad behavior on campus.