Tuesday, May 27, 2014

We're aging out of weekend tasks

After spending nearly all of a three-day weekend doing long-postponed jobs around the house and in the yard, my wife and I sat on the deck in the twilight to relax and unwind. The time is coming, she said, when we won't be able to do all the things we've done this weekend. All of the pruning, weeding, mowing, carpentry, maintaining the deck — we just won't have the physical stamina to continue.

She's right, of course. Over our 43 years together, we have maintained our homes and yards on our own. I fixed plumbing and changed electrical connections. No lawn service or gardener or cleaning service made life easier for us. Instead, we thought of these jobs as exercise to help us maintain our physical vigor and maintain a healthy weight.

But already, we have reached our limits on some things. Several years ago, it was time for me to repaint the dormers on the house we then owned. I put the ladder in place, hauled the paint can and brush and scraper to the top of the ladder and stretched out my arms to reach the far side of the dormer. And then I cautiously went back down the ladder with the paint can, the brush and the scraper and told my wife, "I'm just too old for this." The stretching and balancing and hanging onto the ladder was just too much for me. It scared me.

Other epiphanies like this one are, no doubt, in my future.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Down the road

Down the road

The route is the same,
hurtling five miles over the speed limit
southbound on U.S. 1.
I have spent years on this highway,
its asphalt unrolling before me
predictably, familiar and haunting.
I saw the predawn Christmas darkness evaporating,

the sun rising in the rearview mirror,
as we raced to reach Wadesboro before breakfast ended.
The excitement on children’s faces in the back seat
overwhelmed their lack of sleep as
Christmas music blared from the cassette player.
We made our annual journey
in a dreamlike fog to see relatives my children barely knew
and I rarely saw.
How many cars have I steered along this path
knowing every turn and every landmark,
every mile marker and town limits sign?
Some stretches of the route have been widened
with new lanes of asphalt, the tree line bulldozed back.
New stores and parking lots and homes
have supplanted the woodlots and the fields.
In these later years, I drive this same route
with different emotions. Anxiety and grief replace anticipation.
I drive to find my parents, immobile and uncommunicative
in the nursing home antonymous to home.
Now the steering wheel points toward funeral homes
and cemeteries at the end of the road.
I ask as the miles trip over on the glowing odometer:
Will this be the last time?
The last venture down this familiar road?
Will there be at last nothing to lure me here where I began?
To spend three more hours on the road?
Will this be the end of my road?


Friday, May 23, 2014

'Arab Spring' is going the way of 'Prague Spring'

The use of the term "Arab Spring" is becoming as archaic as "Prague Spring," which some readers might recall was the hopeful transformation in the Czechoslovakian capital in 1968, before Soviet-allied troops quashed the liberalization. Like that earlier spring, the "Arab Spring" appears headed for a cold winter.

The latest news from Libya looks a bit like the news from the 1960s, when Colonel Qaddafi took control of the nation. Since Qaddafi's overthrow by a popular rebellion in 2011, the country has been a chaotic morass of competing armed militia and a weak or non-existent central government. Into the morass steps Khalifa Heftar, a retired general who has accumulated enough firepower to take on at least some of the Islamist militias that control segments of the country. Heftar sees himself as the country's salvation, but so did Qaddafi.

As for the "Arab Spring," high winds have blown away that welcome breeze, and it seems unlikely ever to return.

The United States has been largely on the sidelines of what is happening in North Africa and the Arab world. President Obama and Congress, reluctant to engage in another ground war in the Middle East, were extremely cautious in lending support to the anti-Qaddafi rebels three years ago. Some air support was provided, but American lives were not put at risk. A year later, Islamist terrorists killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi.

While Washington seems fixated on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya has slipped further and further into the quagmire of ungovernable militias and sectarian violence.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Youthful confidence, reconsidered

In an editorial writing class 40+ years ago, I wrote an ode to our generation, the best educated, most activist, most affluent generation in history. We were going to end war, change the world and live happily ever after. A classmate pointed out that it all had been said before. Self-congratulation and self-esteem were hallmarks of us baby-boomers.

Decades later, the wisdom of aging has convinced me of how little I knew as a 21-year-old and how much like every new generation our generation was. When you're 18 or 20, you think you know it all, have experienced it all, and are ready for whatever life might throw at you. From the perspective of a wrinkled face and diminishing acumen, you realize just how ephemeral, how insignificant the transcending issues of the day really were. All the great events that seemed earth-shaking at the time — Woodstock nation, the Oct. 15 Moratorium, the Equal Rights Amendment, women in men's dorms, the draft lottery, Nixon's War on Cancer — have all faded into the fog of hazy memories, their impact on the world no more than a trivia quiz answer.

Every generation of teenagers thinks they can do better than their parents and grandparents have done in solving the world's problems. If, as John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're busy doing other things," saving the world is what gets kicked down the priority list while you're busy providing for your family, raising children, planning for retirement and grieving inevitable losses of loved ones.

From the perspective of mature years, I see how short-sighted my confident, 21-year-old self was and how delusional my generation, the one with all the answers, was. Forty years later, the world is a better place, in many ways; in other ways, it is no better and perhaps worse than the world we decried. This world has a whole new set of problems — Islamic extremism, an exploding world population, climate change, environmental toxins, an epidemic of obesity, and so on. From the perspective of having been around the block a few times already, my not-as-confident generation can recognize these issues as important but not easily solvable. Our world will accommodate itself to most of these issues and will solve some of them.

But this world will continue. Few will ever hold the power or wield the determination to actually change much. The human struggle will continue, a Sisyphean labor that ends in the way every life always ends.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Projection sees Republican-controlled Senate with N.C. Democrat winning

This is an interesting projection. It shows the Republicans regaining control of the U.S. Senate, with all the ramifications that will bring. But it also gives North Carolina's Kay Hagan a 73 percent chance of winning re-election in what has been termed a very vulnerable seat for the first-term Democrat. Even though the Republican leadership got the candidate they wanted from the party primary — Speaker of the House Thom Tillis — the Post's analysis has Hagan hanging onto her seat.

The Washington Post graphic also give readers an opportunity to look at House races around the country. These projections should be flavored with the recognition that it is still nearly six months until the election, and a lot can happen in six months.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A lifetime of work remembered

A brief encounter with an acquaintance who asked what I had been doing lately led me to recount in my mind what I had been doing since I graduated college and was truly on my own 43 years ago this month. Here's the recounting I came up with:
    • Four years waiting to join or being on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard;
    • 33 years as a newspaper editor at three newspapers (not counting summer jobs and brief assignments or consultations with other newspapers);
    • One year unemployed after being laid off from a newspaper job I'd held for 29 years;
    • Almost three years with the American Red Cross;
    • Almost two years with Habitat for Humanity.

The total comes to 43 years of my working life. You can add to that two summers as an intern at two newspapers, a year as a college resident adviser, four years (plus one summer session) as a full-time student; half a summer as a part-time college laboratory aide; half a summer as a concrete plant laborer; a summer as a textile mill laborer/go-fer; a summer as an automobile parts warehouse supply clerk; department store sales clerk for several months; more part-time work as a department store sales clerk; less than a year as a 17-year-old school bus driver.

Add it all up, and you come up with the tally that the Social Security Administration provides, listing my total earnings for each year since 1964. Some of those total annual earnings are embarrassingly small; some are so large that I have trouble remembering that I made that much (part of it in an annual bonus). In the end, this recounting amounts to nothing, for I am not the sum total of my labor. I have worked to live (and to provide for my family); I have not lived to work.

This recounting reminds me of the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes:

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Putin borrows Stalin's reference to 'the Motherland'

Followers of the turmoil in Ukraine should make a note of one word used by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to newly annexed Crimea on Thursday, May 8, one of the most sacred days on the Russian calendar. The word Putin chose, in referring to Russia, was "Motherland."

The word conjures memories of Josef Stalin, who used the word to rally the Soviet people against German troops in the darkest days of World War II. Stalin urged Russians (and other ethnic groups in the vast Soviet empire) to defend the Motherland against the invading Nazis. The invocation of "Motherland" was a desperate attempt to rebuild national pride where it had been destroyed by Stalin's own ruthless tactics of forced collectivization, rigged trials, mass starvation, executions and imprisonments for anyone who dared to cross Stalin or oppose his policies.

The tactic worked. Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Latvians and all the others rallied to fight the Germans, whom some had welcomed as liberators from Stalin's deadly regime. Defending the Motherland, Russians pushed the unstoppable Germans back from the Eastern Front, back through Poland, all the way to the German Fatherland, to the gates of Berlin. The Allied victory proclaimed May 8, 1945, was in large measure a Soviet success that had hinged on Stalin invoking the defense of the Motherland just as German troops dug in on the outskirts of Stalingrad and Leningrad.

Putin's borrowing of Stalin's phrase has ominous implications for Russia, Ukraine and the entire world. If Putin is following Stalin's world view and not just his choice of words, America can stop celebrating its victory in the Cold War and prepare for a new world order that is too much like the world of 1950.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

'Tantamount to election' is still an operative phrase

"Tantamount to election." That used to be the phrase used to explain the importance of the Democratic primary in the old, one-party South, back in the day, not so long ago, when the Republican Party could not hope to win a general election in solidly Democratic southern states. So winning the Democratic primary was "tantamount to election." It's all over, folks; you can go home now.

The South has not been a one-party region since the 1960s, and there were many Democratic primaries, even into the early 1980s, that were "tantamount to election" because the Republicans either didn't have a candidate or didn't have the money and organization to put forth a competitive campaign in a particular jurisdiction.

Although the one-party South no longer exists, in Tuesday's primaries, there were a number of races in North Carolina where the outcome of the party primary was "tantamount to election." G.K. Butterfield Jr. has no serious Republican competition in the 1st Congressional District, where Democratic registration is in the 80 percent range. Likewise, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers in the 2nd Congressional District need not worry about the final outcome of the Democratic primary there, which is still in limbo as Clay Aiken and Keith Crisco are fighting for the chance to lose to Republican Ellmers. That district is designed to elect a Republican, and you can almost bet it will — again.

Although former Wilson resident Taylor Griffin put up a good fight to take the Republican nomination away from Walter Jones Jr. in the 3rd Congressional District, he fell short, and Jones' primary victory is "tantamount to election" in the heavily Republican district.

Statewide general elections for governor or senator may still be competitive, but scores of smaller primary contests are still "tantamount to election" in North Carolina. So long as political parties determine how electoral districts are drawn, one party will get to pick the general election winner and the other party won't stand a chance.

The only way to correct this situation is to turn redistricting over to a nonpartisan, independent commission that will be forbidden to employ political calculus in drawing congressional or legislative boundaries. This is a nationwide problem, and it needs congressional leadership to require state legislatures to turn their redistricting machinery over to independent bodies.

The one problem with this solution is that a majority of members of the U.S. House were elected from non-competitive districts, districts where winning their party primary was "tantamount to election." They like it that way.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rancher fails to live up to the hype

The news media make heroes — don't doubt it. The media have made heroes since Homer extolled bravery of Achilles and Hector. But rarely have the media made a more unlikely hero than Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

This is a man who has been grazing his cattle on federal lands for decades and has refused to pay grazing fees. The accumulated fees and fines he owes the government for use of federal lands exceeds $1 million. Thousands of other ranchers using federal lands for grazing their cattle have paid their fees, but Bundy asserts that he doesn't owe the U.S. government any grazing fees. In fact, he claims that he doesn't even recognize the U.S. government.

Despite not "recognizing" the federal government, Bundy has paraded around on horseback waving an American flag. He also called in a "militia" of armed men who brandished firearms and threatened to shoot federal officials sent to round up Bundy's illegally grazing cattle and serve papers on Bundy himself. Fox News, in particular, has touted Bundy's "courageous" stand against federal oppression. A U.S. senator called him "a patriot." Since when has failing to pay your bills been patriotic?

Bundy's undoing was not the result of some sudden realization that this guy is a publicity-seeking paranoid egotist. It was, instead, the result of his openly expressed racist views in an interview. Bundy, it seems, is not only angry at the federal government; he's also angry at African-Americans, the poor and a federal bureaucracy that provides aid to the poor. What we have is not a hero or a patriot but a tragic figure undone by his own hubris.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Even free speech has consequences

No doubt, the sports and entertainment world is a better place without the execrable rantings of Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who is now banned for life by the National Basketball Association.

When a secretly recorded audio of Sterling's disparaging and repugnant remarks about African-Americans became public, the reaction seemed universal: He should be shunned and silenced. Racist remarks will quickly clear a room or ruin a conversation, but the mega-attention and instantaneous transmission of today's information makes those revolting remarks of a man most of us had never heard of the Big News of the Day. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver swiftly issued a lifetime ban on Sterling and fined him the maximum amount within his authority, and he strongly suggested that Sterling should be forced to sell his team.

I have heard no dissenting voices in reaction to these events, and I should not be surprised. Speaking up for a racist is no less respectable than speaking up for a child molester, and I can't think of any words that would defend Sterling's bigotry and hatred. Nevertheless, is taking away a person's right to express his opinion in a private conversation any worse than disrespecting others because of their color or race?

As repugnant as Sterling's opinions are, if the purloined audiotape is credible, he has not expressed support for racist policies or violence. The tapes show only that he objected to his girlfriend's choice of friends, based on their race. That's an attitude America has shunned and forbidden as we have purposely steered away from the racial attitudes of past generations.

This is a country, it should be remembered, that allowed neo-Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood (that included some Holocaust survivors), demonstrating a hatred far more severe and violent than anything Sterling expressed. Does freedom of expression allow stupid people to say offensive things? Does freedom of thought allow people to hold opinions that are repugnant to the vast majority of Americans?

I would answer yes to those two questions, but I would also assert that words have consequences, and even protected speech might be costly to the speaker. Politicians get into trouble by using the wrong words in unrehearsed remarks and then face costly repercussions even though they might not have meant how the words were taken. They have the freedom to say those things, but they suffer the consequences.

Donald Sterling is facing the consequences of his unedited, private speech. Americans can rejoice in his punishment but should not celebrate too much. When free speech and free thought expressed in private conversations are penalized, we all are vulnerable.