Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas 2015

The four-day weekend of Christmas is past, and I head back to work, to an office I left late Wednesday. There will be the inevitable catching up and the wrenching adjustment to get back into the work mode after four days away. This four-day week (Friday is a holiday) is the last week of 2015, and the chores of transitioning to a new calendar year and the end of a financial month and quarter await me.

At home, Christmas lives on. The tree is still fresh, its trunk sitting in water. The decorations are still in plain view. My morning coffee came from a Christmas mug. Lights still sparkle in every window in the front of the house. Although stores proclaim "after-Christmas" sales, the ecclesiastical calendar says it's still Christmas, so I will continue to spread a Christmas spirit, and I will look forward to the unknowns of 2016 while giving thanks for the precious moments of 2015.

This year's four-day Christmas weekend blessed us with opportunities to gather our scattered family not once but four times. We spent the weekend before Christmas in Charleston, where the generations begotten by my parents had gathered yearly since 1990. On Christmas Eve, we drove to Greenville and ate breakfast with our younger daughter and her family. That night, our other daughter and her family arrived, had dinner with us and attended the Christmas Eve service. The next morning, we celebrated quietly first with just my wife and me, then with the visiting family members. That afternoon, my wife's sister and her husband arrived to celebrate the day with us. On Saturday, alone again in the house we've almost paid off, my wife and I relaxed and enjoyed the day. On Sunday, we drove to Greensboro for dinner with our son and his family. The gathering included our three children, their spouses (minus one, who had to work) and all of our grandchildren.

To have all of my children together as they had been at every Christmas 30-plus years ago, fills my heart, and the addition of their spouses and the grandchildren expands my heart more than I could ever have imagined. As Christmas continues until Epiphany, Jan. 6, I will treasure these Christmas moments and anticipate more to come in 2016.

Monday, December 21, 2015

8 years old — the perfect age?

When I was 10 or 12, I arrived at the conclusion that 8 was the ideal age. It was the best of times, and I was already past it. My conclusion was drawn from the increased responsibilities that came after age 8. I had more chores at home, things like feeding the dog and weeding the garden, which left me less time to play and lie around. School was also harder. I discovered long division and didn't like it. When I was 8, my math tasks were limited to simple addition and subtraction and maybe some "times tables." Long division made life a lot tougher.

Now I realize that three of my grandsons are age 8. The three of them were born within four months of each other in 2007, prompting me to jokingly refer to them as "the 2007 crop." Now my grandsons are at the age that I thought the perfect age, a mix of limited responsibilities and necessary capabilities. I could count money, read, do simple arithmetic and amuse myself all day long with my active imagination.

Beyond the irony of seeing grandsons living the life that I had thought to be the very best of times (although times have certainly changed), I wonder if I should tell my 8-year-old grandsons that they are living the best year of their lives. Should they know that it will never get any better than this?

I probably shouldn't tell them. I wouldn't want them to think they were in for a lifetime of disappointment and a longing for the good old days when they were 8 and carefree.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How much longer can we do this?

    Ginny was halfway up the pull-down ladder to the attic, struggling with two large plastic bins I was handing up to her when I had a question for her: “How long are we going to be able to keep doing this?”
    By “doing this,” I meant hauling a dozen or so large plastic bins down from the attic and swapping out their contents for decorations throughout the house, an annual ritual that begins after Thanksgiving and ends after Epiphany each year. The movement of the bins from the attic to the living spaces and back again and then reversing the process eight weeks later takes a little time, some strength and good balance on those shaky steps with the narrow rungs. How long would we have the strength and balance to move several rooms full of decorations up and down those steps? How long could I lift a heavy plastic bin over my head and into the opening to the attic? How long could Ginny keep her balance going up and down those steps, pushing up or handing down those big, heavy bins?
    The question behind my question was this: How long can we continue to decorate for Christmas in the manner to which we’ve been accustomed? That to which we’ve become accustomed has been a total transformation of the house: pictures, pillows, photographs, linens, dinnerware, rugs and books are replaced by accessories with a Christmas theme. The transformation has continued through two homes, the early excitement of our children and now our grandchildren, through at least two dozen Christmas parties and well into our “senior” years.
    But my question, like the decorating itself, endures: How long can we keep doing this?
    An earlier holiday provides an answer. At a Thanksgiving gathering that included most of our children and grandchildren, plus others, everyone was asked what they were thankful for. My answer:
    I am thankful for more than 60 years of family gatherings as locations and characters changed over the years; for several hundred pounds of turkey, ham, dressing, veggies and pies and cakes consumed; for seeing me and my cousins in my children and grandchildren and their cousins; for the wisdom that comes with age and that youthful stupidity was not fatal. I am thankful that a woman I could never deserve chose to love me. I am thankful that my children grew to maturity, graduated, succeeded, married and are independent and loving parents themselves. I am thankful for life.
    On reflection, I would add one more bit of thankfulness: I am thankful for my wife’s parents who welcomed me, a near stranger, into their family, who never doubted my love for their daughter or questioned my ability to support her.
    For this Christmas season, we will haul the decorations from the attic and place them throughout the house, even though we can’t find the time for a Christmas party and cannot lure all the children and grandchildren to our home for a celebration, we can be thankful for lives so full of blessings and so defining of grace — unearned favor. With an attitude of gratitude, our Christmas will be full again this year and every year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Obama's unnecessary speech and the reaction

President Obama gave one of the most unusual Oval Office addresses in my memory Sunday night, but the reaction to his lectern-side chat was both predictable and overdone.

As I watched a bit of the president's address, I kept asking, "Why?" He didn't seem to have anything of any great import to say. He mostly reiterated his past policy statements about terrorism, religion and immigration. So why would he shoot a hole in prime-time programming for a rehash of past statements? He didn't even seem to understand the medium he was using. Most Oval Office addresses were delivered by a president (Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nixon during Watergate, Carter during the energy crisis, Johnson on Vietnam, Reagan during the Cold War) seated at the presidential desk. For some inexplicable reason, Obama chose to stand at a lectern in front of the presidential desk. He was playing ice hockey when the venue called for baseball.

Republicans, especially those running for president, lambasted the speech as a weak and pusillanimous whine about tolerance and love instead of the take-no-prisoners tone they said was needed. Donald Trump chose to make sure his criticism topped the news feeds. He issued a statement the next day urging that the United States ban travel by Muslims (even those who are American citizens and residents) into the U.S. His discriminatory, unconstitutional proposal was greeted with loud applause at some Trump campaign rallies. The rank-and-file loved it, apparently.

Some saner voices spoke up at their own peril. A President Trump would issue an executive order barring Muslims from entering U.S. territory. That is a clear and flagrant violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. Every court in the land would shoot it down.

More worrisome is the reaction of Trump's supporters, who, according to polls, constitute a substantial plurality of Republican primary voters. While they cheered Trump's proposal to ban Muslims on the basis of their religious faith, none of these less-government Republicans seemed to consider that a president with the power to discriminate on the basis of religion (First Amendment be damned) could discriminate on the basis of any religious belief. A presidential order could bar Anglicans, Jews, Catholics, or Free Will Baptists from residing here or from voting or from owning property. Can they not see where Trump's knee-jerk, unfiltered, unexamined reaction could lead?

That's the frightening thing.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Another mass killing

Another day, another mass killing. Yesterday's senseless rampage in San Bernadino, California, elicited cries of "not again," and "what, another one?"

These shocking events have become commonplace. Some news outlets are reporting that this year's tally of mass murders has topped one per day. Some of these events are deliberate, terrorist attacks carried out by fanatics following some wild political or religious ideology. Others seem to have no rational explanation.

America may be the land of free, but it is also the land of the frightened. These killings are not limited to "bad neighborhoods" or big cities. They come to small towns, rural areas and "safe" places. No one is safe.

The National Rifle Association insists upon an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment (the "right to bear arms"), which has led to peaceful gunmen terrifying bystanders by carrying assault rifles and other firearms openly into stores, theaters and other gathering places. The NRA also insists that the "right to bear arms" cannot be limited to only the sane, mentally healthy, rational and non-violent citizens. NRA wants no background checks, no waiting periods, no limits on magazine or clip capacity, and no restrictions of any kind on firearms.

A timid Congress and a complacent judiciary has made the NRA's interpretations the law of the land, so now we count the bodies after each mass killing and resign ourselves to the gasp that nothing can be done.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On this day of gratitude, I will not complain

This Thanksgiving week I'm not going to complain that friends, already retired, are taking a whole week to relax in a mountain cottage. I will be grateful for a couple of days away from the office.

I'm not going to complain about the cold weather that swept in suddenly after the mildest early November in several years. I will be grateful for moments in front of the living room fireplace and for the brisk snap in the dry, chilled air. I'm grateful to be able to run for three miles without being drenched in sweat.

I won't complain about the fallen leaves I must rake (raking on Thanksgiving Day is a family tradition). I will be grateful for the shade those leaves provided and for the mulch they now provide in the expanded natural area where they rest and decay.

I won't complain about the family members who won't be with the rest of the family this year. I will be grateful that they have shared this holiday with us before, and they will have other chances to join us in the future.

I won't complain about the football games on television, no matter who is playing, and I won't disrupt others' enjoyment by fixating on the game or shouting at the teams on TV. I will be grateful for people willing to give up their holidays with family so that they can serve, protect or, yes, entertain others.

I won't complain about the stores that are already decorated for Christmas, as if Thanksgiving, the purest, least commercialized of holidays, didn't exist. I will be grateful for the Thanksgiving in family homes with crowds gathered and kitchens crowded with cooks and helpers, for heartfelt joy at being together, for multiple generations gathered around one table (or two or three).

I won't complain that our gathering will be absent those family members who shaped my memories of Thanksgiving but are now departed. I will be grateful instead for the many Thanksgivings we shared and for the many lessons we learned at their tables and for the nurturing that filled us with more than food and prepared us for this day of gratitude.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

If Islamic State is a sovereign nation ...

The proclaiming of Islamic State as a sovereign nation, a caliphate, gives Western nations an opportunity to address I.S. terrorism as acts of war with all the consequences of that term. The West has reacted in shock and anger to the heinous murders in Paris last Friday, but Islamic State's thumbing its nose at the international community goes back much further.

Leaders of the terrorist group captured vast expanses of Syria and Iraq long ago, defeating government troops in Iraq and other insurgencies in Syria to lay claim to towns and cities. Sketchy reports (Islamic State territories are not safe for news reporters) indicate that ISIS has set up governmental services and is behaving as a legitimate, sovereign nation.

If ISIS is to be a sovereign nation, it must live by the rules of the international community, among which is you don't attack other countries without suffering the consequences. The United States, Russia, Britain and France, however, have not responded in the way that they would to a military threat from a more traditional enemy. All have provided degrees of support for those opposing ISIS, but they have not declared war; they have not deployed their armed forces against the self-declared caliphate; they have not acted to protect themselves and their allies.

After Friday's attacks in Paris, why was the NATO treaty not invoked? NATO was built on the idea that an attack by an outside power on any member nation is an attack on all NATO nations and must be opposed in the same way. The ISIS attacks in Paris were surely an attack on France by an enemy that claims to be a sovereign country. If all of NATO's military assets were deployed against ISIS, the caliphate could be ground into the desert sands in a matter of weeks or days. Russia also has been a target of ISIS terror and appears ready to join with NATO to obliterate this threat against Western Civilization.

ISIS has made it clear that it is not satisfied to control territory in the deserts and villages of Iraq and Syria. It wants to bring down Western culture; it wants to kill all infidels and apostates throughout the world. This ambition will not be abandoned; it must be obliterated and replaced by more moderate countries and organizations willing to live at peace among the community of nations.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

International borders have a purpose

When I was in high school, a teacher assigned a paper on how to prevent war. One student shared with me her paper that proposed the elimination of borders and nationhood. I didn't think her solution viable at the time, and this new century has proven that eliminating borders has consequences.

The European Union tore down the inconvenience and costs of international borders, allowing free movement of goods and people among all EU countries. That had its benefits as tariffs disappeared, passports became unnecessary and tourism expanded. But this removal of international barriers also has its consequences, as Europe is discovering in the hordes of refugees streaming into EU countries. The refugees come to escape wars and poverty in their native countries. They come for the opportunities available in wealthier EU countries, particularly Germany and Great Britain.

And there seems to be no end to the numbers of people who want to escape the horrors and deprivations of life in Syria, Sudan, Iraq and other nations. While some refugees are being welcomed, Europeans are beginning to realize that there are limits to the numbers of foreigners they can safely and economically accommodate. These foreigners are not French, German, Italian or whatever. They do not share the language, the customs, the history, the principles, the religion or the politics of their hosts. Large numbers of such immigrants will forever change the traditional standards of these host countries.

On the topic of U.S. immigration, someone has offered this: "Immigration without assimilation is invasion."

The drawing of international boundaries has sometimes been arbitrary, as it was after World War I and World War II, and immigration and invasion have transformed borders throughout history. But in a world of rapid international travel, international stability is needed. Immigration such as we are seeing across the Mediterranean from Asia and Africa to Europe is destabilizing, particularly when mixed with the sort of religious terrorism that results in the slaughter of innocents in Paris Friday.

Free access across international borders threatens to destabilize Europe and end the idealistic experiment in common borders and economies. We can talk about the "family of man," but in reality people are raised in very different traditions and have different standards and goals. If immigrants are not willing to abandon their old traditions and adopt the traditions and principles of their new country, they are not assimilating and will not be successful. In fact, they will bring with them some of the pathologies that made their native countries untenable.

International borders serve a purpose, as France has painfully discovered, and other countries will inevitably share that realization. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

That other debate Tuesday night

I watched most of the understudy Republican debate last night and was so tired of politics by the end that I skipped the main debate.

A four-person debate is in many ways much better than a 10-person debate. I had no favorite in this pre-debate debate, but I was surprised to see Chris Christie do so well. He was less combative and less annoying than in other debates, and he wisely focused on the likely Democratic nominee, repeatedly reminding the audience that Hillary Clinton is a lot less conservative than any GOP candidate.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was assertive to the point of being repulsive, repeatedly claiming that he alone had cut the size of government in the states. Gov. Christie and former Gov. Mike Huckabee disputed Jindal, claiming they had, too, cut the size of government in their states, but Jindal kept hammering away. Is cutting government the only measure of statesmanship?

Huckabee, who has a very smooth delivery, which you would expect from a former preacher and Fox News commentator, had his moments and won some points.

Rick Santorum, who has had lots of practice in being a presidential candidate, also made sense at times, but he still looked like a dark horse — a very dark one.

My guess that none of these "undercard" participants will break through to be a leading contender for the Republican nomination. That role belongs to Donald Trump or Ben Carson, or perhaps a mid-level candidate should the front-runners stumble.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks more inevitable than ever. Her name and her face fire up GOP voters, who will likely turn out if they can settle on a candidate that has some cross-party appeal. But the election is still a year away.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Four decades later, couple shares another booth

After the football game Saturday, my wife and I decided to walk across the campus to a place where we could get a light snack while the traffic thinned out before we went back to our car and headed home. We dodged puddles of water and people half our age and twice as slow at walking, checking in at a popular spot that was so overcrowded that I suggested they call the mob not "standing room only" but "standing on someone else's toes room only." We kept walking, rejecting another spot with a line out the door and settling at an "Ale House" with a 20- to 30-minute wait.

We tried walking around the place, but it was too crowded for movement and chose to sit on a bench in the vestibule and wait for my name to be called. We watched the people coming and going, mostly college-age or a bit older, all appearing carefree and joyful.

When my name was called, the waitress seated us in a booth where the cacophony of the crowd was muted enough that we could carry on a conversation. While we waited for our order, we reached across the table and linked our fingers as we talked. We were happy for a football victory and for being back in Chapel Hill, where we had met almost 45 years before.

Immediately, it occurred to both of us that we had sat this way, on our first lunch date, seated in a booth holding hands across the table, oblivious to all around us. That old booth at the Rathskeller is probably gone forever, the Rat having closed years ago with little hope of revival. But this booth in this new place, a few blocks west of where we had begun, served nicely as a re-creation of that old booth of dark wood and carved initials. And we would contend that we are now what we were then, two young people discovering themselves to be happily in love. Only our lost hair, wrinkles and sagging skin belie our illusion.

Decades ago — it must have been our seventh or eighth wedding anniversary — we drove more than an hour to eat a celebratory meal in the Rathskeller's subterranean maze of tables and booths. As we talked that night, I watched with envy two couples at a nearby booth. They were a few years older than we and were there for a night out together. For them, it was obvious, a trip to the Rat for dinner was a frequent event, no special occasion necessary, while our rare moment had to be carefully planned and arranged around work, babysitting and a tight budget.

Now we find ourselves not in the Rat, which is no more, but in a neater, updated and above-ground place, still holding hands across the table, still thinking about a future together, still overjoyed to be in each other's company.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pay comparisons should work for teachers, too

Today's News & Observer includes an article about complaints by University of North Carolina faculty over the double-digit pay raises university chancellors received while the faculty received no pay raises. The professors' argument was that they were the ones who were on the front lines, creating the quality of instruction and research that bolstered the system's national reputation.

The Board of Governors cited market comparisons to justify the chancellors' raises. Compared to other state universities' chancellors or presidents, the UNC chancellors were below market rate, the BOG reasoned.

If the BOG compares chancellors' salaries to peers in other states, why can't the BOG compare faculty salaries to other universities'? BOG members seem more interested in settling political scores and deciding when, how and how often faculty will teach.

Better yet, why can't the General Assembly use this comparison tool to determine whether public school teachers should get a pay raise? North Carolina teacher salaries have plummeted from a roughly median of national teacher salaries to dead last in state comparisons. The Board of Governors worried that other universities would steal away UNC's talented leaders by offering higher salaries. Have legislators noticed that teachers are fleeing North Carolina for better-paying jobs in other states? Where do they think that leaves North Carolina?

Instead, legislators are focused on ways to increase the number of charter schools and shift state education appropriations to private schools.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Goodbye to late-afternoon sunshine

Today is the last day that we will be able to do anything outside after work. At 5 o'clock this afternoon, there will be plenty of light for yard work, neighborhood walks, running or just sitting on the deck to watch the sun go down. On Monday when we leave work at 5 o'clock, the sun will have set, and the darkness will be spreading through the neighborhood like a fresh coffee stain on carpet.

The darkness will inhibit walking or running without a reflective vest or a light to catch the attention of vehicular traffic. Darkness will make leisurely walks less appealing and runs more hazardous. We will lose more than an hour of light as we "fall back" Sunday morning, we will lose the opportunity to do things — chores such as grass mowing or leaf raking, leisurely things such as pleasant walks, outdoor concerts, a game of catch or hoops, or simply sitting and taking in the view.

And then there is the cold. It's not here yet, but you know it's coming. Shorter days bring less of the sun's radiation and less warmth. Autumn's cool breezes are welcome after August's heat, but those breezes will soon turn angry and frigid, and we will huddle indoors in the artificial light. What sunlight there is will be low and harsh.

Daylight Savings Time ends this weekend. The artificial extra hour in the evening will be gone, and our clocks will more closely follow the sun's path. The "spring forward" of six months ago gave us an unrealistic concept of time, and we will be forced back into reality Sunday morning. Goodbye to late afternoon outdoor activities, until the day when we "spring forward" to capture an artificial extra hour of sunlight.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Presidential selection process can be done openly

I'm withholding judgment on Margaret Spellings, named last week to be the new president of the University of North Carolina system. After all, Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education, will not take office until next March.

But while I withhold judgment on Spellings, who has been praised as a visionary leader and consensus builder and derided as a GOP political hack, I can form an opinion of the selection process the UNC Board of Governors chose. The search for a new president to replace the popular and respected Tom Ross was carried out almost entirely in secrecy and without input from UNC faculty, administrators, or the public. According to press reports, only one candidate for the position was interviewed by the board before the vote to select Spellings, making the decision to hire Spellings an coronation, not a deliberative group decision.

The contrast between the UNC selection process and the one used just months earlier when Barton College chose a new president is startling. Barton, a small private college affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), selected Doug Searcy after a nationwide search that identified four finalists. Each of the finalists visited the campus in Wilson and met with faculty and students. The Barton Board of Trustees even invited selected members of the Wilson community to meet the candidates, question them and offer their impressions of the candidates. (I was one of the dozen or more community representatives.) Barton had followed the same exemplary process 12 years ago when it hired Norval Kneten for his successful and transforming presidency of the college.

It is sad that a small private college should set such a transparent and expansive example for inclusive decision-making while the state's public university (supported by taxpayer dollars) gives a lesson in exclusion, secretiveness, insular thinking, and arbitrariness.

The UNC system (and all of higher education in America) faces difficult times ahead, but the Board of Governors' decision to make the presidential selection process an enigma wrapped in political thinking and exclusion will not help the university's ability to face its challenges and retain the public's support.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

New political strategy: Arm the pre-born

From: Pre-Birth Liberation League
Subject: Synthesis of Personhood and Gun Rights

Conservative America's two most popular issues are opposition to abortion, including the declaration (thank you, Mike Huckabee) that the Second and 14th Amendments extend to pre-birth Americans from the moment of conception, and the God-given right of all Americans to carry firearms of all calibers and firing frequency whenever and wherever they choose.

The time has come to meld these two liberties into one highly effective and irrefutable right: It is time extend concealed carry rights to pre-born infants. It is time to arm fetuses!

No murderous abortion doctor will dare to crush the skull of an armed pre-born infant. No abortion doctor will dare to go into battle carrying a curette against a 9mm Glock! Forty-two years of abortion protests have shown that God-fearing protesters alone cannot stop the Murder of the Innocents. It's time to allow the pre-born to defend themselves.

We should support legislation requiring every mother to insert a firearm of no less than .25 caliber into the uterus at the moment that pregnancy is detected for the purpose of fetal self-defense. This legislation would have the immediate support of the National Rifle Association, which contends that there are never enough guns to go around, and the gun manufacturers, who will see a whole new market for their products. This will bring together to Right to Life Movement and the Bound to Die Movement, forming an insurmountable political force.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Stars and planets put on an early morning show

Venus, the moon, and Jupiter have been putting on a spectacular show each morning before dawn. On these clear, chilly nights, as I walk eastward to pick up the newspaper in the driveway, I see the bright jewels in the sky, hovering over the treeline. Each morning is a little different. The moon slides away beneath the horizon, and the planets adjust their relationships.

I turn back toward the house and see Sirius, the Dog Star, and ahead of it, mighty Orion, the hunter with his belt jeweled with stars and brilliant Betelgeuse at his shoulder.

For a moment — just a moment — I see the night sky as our forebears must have seen it — a spectacular light show, ever changing but ever familiar, the constellations like old friends who come to visit at their appointed time throughout the year. Ambient light from houses and streetlights dim the stars to us modern observers, but the brightest ones still mark their spots against the black sky.

I cannot stay and marvel; I have appointments to keep. I walk back into the bright daylight of our home, sit at the kitchen table, drink coffee and read the paper.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Friendships come and go through the years

We were in our twenties then, young parents of our first child. We lived in an apartment complex outside Washington, D.C., where many residents were military families or federal employees. My wife became friends with another young military wife with a child about the age our daughter. The kids had play dates, and we socialized a bit with the family. 

The day came when our friends were moving away. When my wife was saying goodbye and how much we'd miss them, she asked for our friends' new address. Her friend made it clear that she saw no point in keeping in touch. We would not be seeing them again, so we may as well make a clean break of it. My wife was startled and a little hurt by the attitude,

Forty years later, we still remember that episode of our lives, but I recall it now with a bit more empathy for the young mother who saw no need in prolonging a friendship that was doomed by separation. In those 40 years, I've met and made friends with scores of people, probably hundreds, and though I felt close to many of them, we have separated and have not spoken in years, decades in some cases. In many cases, I recall a face or a comment but cannot recall the name that goes with the face. In a few cases, I have had to confess that I just couldn't recall someone who says he knew me or worked for me. Memory fades.

Not every friendship can be like the one forged and tempered by my father-in-law and his friend he called "Z." Their friendship began when they were preschoolers and lasted more than 80 years. Over those years, one man fought around the world in World War II while the other, ineligible for service because of a disability, took a stateside defense job. Both graduated college, pursued successful careers, raised families, were widowed and remarried. They lived more than 200 miles apart but got together as often as the could. At any given moment, one might telephone the other, and their friendship would brighten as if it never had dimmed.

Such friendships are the exception, not the rule. I have kept up with a handful of people I've known over the decades and have regretted not keeping up with others who drifted away and died too early. There are long gaps in all these friendships and sad lapses with regrets over failures to make the effort to nourish relationships that had burned brightly for a while but eventually flickered and went cold.

A favorite uncle, long deceased now, told me when I was a young father, "All we've really got in this old world is family." Though friends move away or develop new interests, family ties are forever. "Blood is thicker than water," my mother would say. Yet even these relationships need nourishing with letters, visits and phone calls. One of my great regrets is the number of funerals I've missed because the funeral was too far away or I was too busy or I had a conflict on my calendar.

A few years ago my wife insisted that we attend the wedding of the son of her first cousin, whom she had not seen in years. The trip would involve an airplane flight and a couple of nights in a hotel. When I cast doubt on the necessity of our being there, she made it clear, "this is family." She was right.

We cannot keep every tie that once bound us to others knotted, but we can choose to keep some ties as close as possible for as long as possible.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Is it time for a new political party?

American politics hold few truly shocking moments. One came Thursday when Rep. Kevin McCarthy withdrew from the race for speaker of the House — a contest in which he was the presumptive winner.

Although the details behind McCarthy's shocking reversal remain unclear, it appears that he dropped out because of opposition from the right wing of the Republican Party. The 40 members of the Tea Party Patriots opposed McCarthy's moderate tone and threatened to sabotage his election, even if it meant throwing the race to a Democrat in the vote in the full House. The Tea Party crowd was willing to vote with the minority Democrats, presumably electing Nancy Pelosi speaker of the House, rather than allowing a moderate Republican (the folks they call RINOs — Republicans in Name Only) to become speaker.

In their convoluted thinking, it was better to have a liberal Democrat as speaker than to have a moderate Republican. They had to believe that a Speaker Pelosi would be better for conservative aims than a Speaker McCarthy.

The result is that the House of Representatives is in turmoil. Without an elected speaker, the House cannot effectively function (although you can argue that the House is not effectively functioning with John Boehner as speaker because he can't count on the votes of his own party, which holds a substantial majority). The Tea Party crowd forced Boehner's retirement as speaker. He just couldn't take it any more. Finding a Republican nominee for speaker may take weeks or longer. Who would satisfy the demands of the right wing and also have the capability of working with mainstream Republicans and even some Democrats to pass legislation and keep the federal government viable?

Perhaps it can't be done. Perhaps the Republicans have become so divided that they can no longer function as a single party. This could be a historic turning point in national politics. Perhaps the Tea Party Patriots should split from the GOP and form their own party.

It has happened before. The Republican Party itself was an offshoot of the Whig Party. There is no rule that only two major parties are allowed. That system has simply evolved. So long as the two parties would put national interest above partisan interests, the system worked, but lately all that has mattered in Washington has been the next election. Remember Mitch McConnell's proclamation that the primary goal of his Republican Senate was to deny Barak Obama a second term.

Congress has not passed a budget. A debt crisis that could cripple the economy lurks. A highway bill is needed to sustain road construction. Many other issues abound, but Congress is barricaded in an intra-party bloodbath.

Political parties have come and gone. There was the Federalist Party, the Anti-Masonic Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Know-Nothing Party. The Tea Party crowd could even think of bringing back that last name.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Another job checked off the to-do list

Owning a house is a commitment to never-ending maintenance and repairs. Any homeowners knows there is always something that needs to be done to a house, from the weekly chores such as grass mowing and leaf raking to larger projects — painting, repairing (balky locks or worn flooring), replacing (appliances, carpet, rotted wood trim).

I have, with some expert help, finished a renovation that had been on my to-do lists for a dozen years — since we moved into this house. The house came with an expansive deck and, above it, a small balcony, off the master bathroom. We thought it odd that the balcony had, instead of a railing, a board fence composed of 1x4 boards nailed on both sides of 2x4 rails and capped by a 2x6 top plate. The result was a balcony with limited views and no breeze. Sitting there became stifling hot whenever the sun moved into view.

After years of good intentions, I finally tore off the fence with a plan to replace the old wood with a vinyl railing that would use the existing 4x4 posts. I also began in earnest looking for a means of waterproofing the floor of the balcony, which consisted of 2x6 decking boards that allowed water to flow through to a sitting area underneath the balcony. I found a roofer who guarantees the rubber membrane he cut to fit the balcony floor.

It took hours of work and some expert assistance to cut the vinyl rails and sleeves for the 4x4 posts and tie them all together with vinyl pickets that fit into the rails. Now that the work is done, we are hopeful of finding a reasonably priced bistro set that will allow us to sit comfortably on our lofty perch, drink a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and enjoy the breeze. Finding outdoor furniture is the next item on my to-do list.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A writer of commercial fiction knows his craft

As author talks go, Jeffery Deaver's speech last night at Barton College was exceptional. He unapologetically described himself as a writer of commercial fiction with no pretense of literary greatness. Yet, he is one of America's most prolific writers with 36 books and many awards and medals in his list of accomplishments, and he offered cogent insight and advice about writing, whether literary or commercial.

Deaver writes thrillers, and he's darned good at it. I've read only one of his novels (so far), but it kept me up turning the pages and cringing at one of the vilest villains I've ever encountered in fiction. He makes no bones about how he writes: He spends eight months outlining the plot, which invariably includes a number of surprises and plot twists. To keep all this in order, he has to write an outline that extends to 150 or more pages. Having read one of his thrillers, I was not surprised that his technique involved so much planning.

I felt some affinity to Deaver. We are about the same age, and we were both journalism majors. After earning his undergraduate degree, his goal was to be hired by the New York Times, he told me. To improve his chances, he went to law school with no intention of ever practicing law. But he ended up as a Wall Street lawyer and began writing fiction. The discipline of law school and the logical thinking of legal practice has helped him in his fiction writing, he said. All of that organizing and outlining are legal skills.

Although he is not a Tolstoy or a Faulkner and will never win the Nobel Prize for literature, Deaver has a deep appreciation of the written word and is a great advocate for writers, readers and libraries. Like other best-selling authors of his genre, he is a commercial success at a level few "literary" authors can claim. He entertains his readers. He gives them reasons to read and reasons to turn the next page. He respects their intelligence and their level of knowledge. He works hard at his craft and has earned his success.

Talks like his at Barton College last night are nourishment and inspiration for those of us who love books and authors and cannot get enough of the written word.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Take another tack on mass shootings

Another mass shooting. Another nine people dead. Another nine families grieving. It is beginning to become routine.

And America, despite its billions of dollars spent on law enforcement and mental health services and dispute mediation, not to mention the ever-vigilant National Security Agency, seems unable to do anything about it.

Columbine, Newtown, the Washington Navy Yard, Aurora, Gabby Giffords, Umpqua. The names have become routine. The shock has worn off. When the "breaking news" alert sounds, we are no longer surprised when it's about a gunman. More Americans die of gun violence than residents of any other country in the world. What's worse, nearly all of these firearm murders are senseless. A loner who has trouble fitting in and lives in a fantasy world decides he'll make his mark by killing children in kindergarten or high school students or community college students. Any grouping of defenseless people will do.

Efforts to bring about sensible limits on the gun culture that facilitates the homicidal rage of mentally ill or simply angry young men with an arsenal of weapons have been torpedoed by the National Rifle Association, which grows rich on its fearmongering over imagined government plots to "take away our guns."

Let us resign ourselves to the fact that limits on the Second Amendment are not going to pass a Congress that is largely in the pocket of the NRA. So we can either give up on feeling safe in public places, such as elementary schools, or we can attack this problem from another angle.

It's not just guns that are feeding these murderous rages. The deranged murderers are also products of a culture of violence that is unabated and largely ignored by politicians and mental health professionals. College and professional football games (a violent sport in and of itself) are interrupted by commercials for video games that feature mass killings, rapacious creatures, weapons of all kinds, all of them used to kill anything that stands in the way of the player. An entire genre of music extols a culture of drugs, sex, violence and death.

Is it any wonder that young men raised in this culture take out their frustrations and their grudges in the same way they destroy the computer-generated enemies on the screen? The "Me Generation" distills an ethic that makes anything that benefits "myself" moral and acceptable. Digital cameras are not pointed at the wonders of the world or at the needs of society but at "self." Public schools were encouraged to concentrate on youngsters' self-esteem, regardless of their discipline or educational achievement.

Reared without moral standards and unwilling to be disciplined, this generation finds it only a short step into making your "self" really important by killing a dozen people whom you didn't know anyway and wouldn't have cared about if you had. No, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" would not be seen as ancient wisdom by this generation but as antiquated foolishness. After all, it's all about me.

Changing the way America raises its children and entertains them will be a monumental task, but it might be easier than breaking the gun lobby's lock on Washington. Until we change, the shootings will continue.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Another vacation spent hiking mountain trails

For the second year in a row, my wife and I chose to take our vacation the third week in September and to spend that time thousands of feet above our usual location down here in the Coastal Plain. Last year, we began in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and worked our way down Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Mount Pisgah, southwest of Asheville. This year, we headed straight to Mount Pisgah and made only short drives from our base as we sought out different hiking trails and landmarks.

Both years, we spent most of our days on hiking trails, working our way up steep slopes and through dense forests. Our rewards for these treks (nine miles or 22,000 steps in one day on three different trails) were majestic views of the mountain-ridge-rumpled horizon or waterfalls or simply the enjoyment of walking deliberately along rock-strewn paths.

This year, cloud and fogs rolled into the southern Appalachian mountains and obscured some of the sights we had wanted to see. The fog, sometimes so thick that I could not see 20 feet in front of me, even made it difficult to get to our destination, the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once there, the clouds obscured our view of the great vistas the inn's location provided. But the fog did not linger all day, and the sight of the sun peeking through the clouds and shining spotlights on small segments of the landscape made the views even more appealing.

During our resting moments, I managed to read two novels. But even in the mountains, with spotty cellular service and very limited Internet access, I responded to several business emails and one business phone call (taken while I was halfway up a mountain trail). Being able to keep in touch with the world is a great advantage over just a few years ago, but it has its negatives as well.

Already, we are thinking of where we should go next ... back to Shenandoah or Mount Pisgah or perhaps to some trails we've never seen at Acadia National Park or Rocky Mountain National Park, or even Yosemite. As John Muir said, "The mountains are calling, and I must go."

Friday, September 18, 2015

Migrations change the world

The European Union's dream of a nearly borderless region spanning most of Europe and dissolving national sovereignties, is tumbling before the surge of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Africa and other places outside the EU.

One can hardly blame the refugees for seeking a better life — heck, just a halfway decent life — away from the war and destruction in Syria or the lawlessness and poverty of North Africa. One can hardly blame the European nations' concerns that their fragile economies will be unable to sustain their native citizens and the hordes of refugees desperately trekking across international borders.

We may be witnessing a fundamental migration on a near-global scale. History has seen this before. Early in the 20th century, southern and eastern Europeans left their poorer, undemocratic countries for the United States. In the 17th and 18th century, Europeans fled crowded conditions and lack of opportunity for the New World. In those same centuries, Africans were coerced into migrating to America as unpaid labor in the vast agricultural economy. Centuries before had witnessed migrations across Asia, Europe, Australia and the Pacific islands, stretching back to the original migration when mankind's predecessors migrated out of Africa to populate the world.

Each of these migrations altered the places they left and the places they settled. This current migration will change the EU. For decades, Europe has been shifting toward a less Christian, more secular, more religiously diverse culture. This 21st century migration will make that shift more abrupt, and it might wipe away the high-minded open-borders philosophy of the European Union.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Democracy is defeated in Raleigh negotiations

Is democracy a failure?

If you look at how the North Carolina state budget has been conceived and presented, you'd have to conclude that democracy doesn't work. If democracy worked, the General Assembly would have a rational, transparent procedure for bringing together the interests of all 170 members of the legislature who would all serve the interests of their constituents who elected them to office.

But it hasn't worked quite that way. When the House and Senate passed conflicting versions of the state budget, the differences should have been resolved by a committee representing both chambers whose members would compromise on the differences in the two versions.

That's not exactly what happened. A handful of senators and representatives met behind closed doors and hashed out a compromise of sorts, but they also radically changed many provisions of law that were not, strictly speaking, part of the budget and had not been part of either chamber's budget bill. The provisions fundamentally changed state policies (including shuffling departments of state government) and even arbitrarily killed a long-planned light rail service without any public debate on the provision.

You can call these changes dictatorial or arbitrary or oligarchical or contemptuous, but you can't really call it democracy. What went on behind closed doors in Raleigh these past couple of weeks had little to do with democracy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The perils of online bargain-hunting.

Online shopping has given us previously unimagined options and convenience, but it has also given us frustrations by the ton.

When I needed a case of copy paper and a couple of small items for my job, I went online and found the prices, but since the vendor had a local store, I decided I would go there, pay and bring the supplies back with me. But at the brick-and-mortar store, the prices were considerably higher. An item that was $4.50 online was $6.50 in the store — the identical item. I'm no fool, so I went back to the office and placed an online order. The two small items could be picked up at the store in just a couple of hours. I picked them up with no problems. The case of paper, however, was a delivery-only item, but it was $25 cheaper than the case in the store. I was promised delivery the next day (Thursday).

I waited all morning for the delivery, but it never came. I tracked the delivery online, and it said the package was received at some vague location and would be delivered Thursday. Then I received an email saying it had been delayed and would be delivered Friday. I waited all morning on Friday to no avail. Back online for an online chat, I was told the delivery would be by local courier, not UPS. I could not be told the name of the courier service. The paper would be delivered by 5 p.m., I was told. It wasn't. Then I was told it would be delivered Monday. Back to online chat. The package would be delivered between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. I couldn't wait all day in my one-person office. I was told to leave a note on the door for the courier asking him to leave it in another office. I did. It did no good. 

Late in the day, I received an email offering to allow me to cancel the order because it would not be delivered on Monday. I canceled.

On Tuesday morning, I still don't have any paper, and I will have to go out after all and pay more to bring home the paper.

Progress isn't always so much fun.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A date from the past recalls a college dormitory

September Ninth remains stuck in my mind like an old song that won't go away. "The Ninth" was my response 48 years ago when I was asked when I was leaving for college. Sept. 9, 1967, was the day I left the only home I had ever known for a college dormitory. I would return frequently to that home over the next 40+ years, but I was henceforth a visitor, never at home in the old house my parents had bought in 1940. They would reside there until 2002 when EMTs would remove them, unconscious, never to return.

I was excited and eager. My brother, six years older, had made the move six years earlier and had graduated from the university I was about to attend just two years before. My other brother and my father accompanied me and helped me move my "stuff" into the dorm. We arranged my books and typewriter and clock radio in the room and met my roommate. My brother, an Air Force veteran, made my bed for me, tight enough to pass a drill sergeant's inspection.

I don't remember what else I did that day. I must have met a lot of people. The dormitory held nearly as many people as the entire town where I grew up. There must have been meetings and a meal or two at the cafeteria. I began several days of "Orientation."

What I do remember most vividly was that night, as I lay in my tautly made bed in the darkness and listened as the cacophony of a college dormitory slowed and quieted. My excitement dwindled, and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Could I really be ready to live independently? Could I tolerate the closeness with so many young men I had never met before today? Had my small rural high school really prepared me for what lay ahead?

And though I was purposefully, adamantly independent and determinedly a Modern Man, I found myself sorry to be so far away from my parents and my sister, the only sibling remaining at home. I fell asleep, my first night at college, with those unwelcome thoughts on my mind.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Revered editor would be aghast at today's newspaper

While reading a book about the 1960s civil rights movement, I came across the name of Claude Sitton, who earned his reputation as an unsurpassed reporter while covering civil rights in the South during that era and went on to be the legendary editor of the Raleigh News & Observer. The mention made me wonder what Sitton would think of the current N&O.

Sitton, whom I met but can't say I knew, had a reputation as a very serious, unstoppable pursuer of truth in the form of news. (Sitton died earlier this year.) His N&O scoured state government for scandal and wrongdoing, and his front pages were deadly serious. There were few examples of feel-good, touchy-feely, cute-kittens kinds of stories in the N&O of those days, and there was minimal coverage of routine crime of the sort many television newscasts emphasized — "if it bleeds, it leads." He was a champion of a free press, and his leadership showed why a free press was both a necessity and a rationale for constitutional protections for the news media.

Unfortunately, the N&O has veered from Sitton's example since he retired 25 years ago. The newspaper business has changed. The entire business model that served newspapers for two centuries — selling print advertising to support news reporting — has collapsed. Thousands of newspaper employees have been laid off. Just as damaging as the revenue loss has been a change in focus for many newspapers, including the N&O. Facing an inability to compete with broadcast and online news for immediacy and urgency, newspapers have shifted their focus to "softer" news — heart-tugging or whimsical stories that are not "big" news, but they're local, and they're not all over the Internet before they can get into print. A legion of newspaper consultants has insisted that soft, hyper-local news is the print newspaper's only hope for survival.

The N&O's latest redesign, which emphasizes color, subheads, and large, smiling pictures of the reporters, is an extension of this trend.

Sitton, I'm convinced, would have none of it. He wouldn't bury the infighting over the state budget or the refugee tragedy in eastern Europe deep inside the paper. He wouldn't make a cute story about a cemetery tour or a store covered in coffee mugs the dominant story on 1A. Call him a curmudgeon, but he knew why the Founding Fathers wanted to protect press freedom. It wasn't to make America safe for cute cat videos.

Like any newspaper editor, Sitton defended the First Amendment, which is under assault from the left (the influence of money in politics) and right (alleged liberal bias of the "mainstream media"). If all today's newspapers are going to do with their precious press freedom is to publish cute, hyper-local stories while ignoring their "watchdog" role in keeping local, state and federal government, as well as other powerful entities, such as corporations, universities, unions and the military honest, why have a First Amendment at all?

If repeal of the First Amendment were to come before Congress (and the states), would today's newspapers be able to defend freedom of the press by citing what a free press is doing to protect democracy and inform voters? I cringe at the thought.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September has arrived.

This is September First. The college football season begins Thursday. The darkness at 6 a.m. and the chill in the air tells me autumn is nearly upon us.

Soon, the outdoors will beckon with crisp blue skies and colorful leaves. Fallen leaves will cover the ground, hiding the grass that didn't get mowed. Indoors, the television will bring the excitement of college football stadiums, the rivalries, the traditions, the cheers, the pure emotion of collegiate football. We will hear the mountains' siren song, and we will answer and find a lookout that stretches for miles of reds and golds beneath a blue sky. Thoughts will turn to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the planning will begin.

It is September. Summer is gone, though the autumnal equinox is not yet upon us. We know it's coming because we've seen it in the darkness and the chilled air and the turning leaves.

Enjoy it before the refreshing chill becomes a bitter cold and the blue sky turns gray.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Legislators are picking on the unemployed

The News & Observer's Rob Christiansen took state legislators to task today over their dismantling of state unemployment benefits. Christiansen's column recounts the General Assembly's deep cuts in unemployment benefits following the Great Recession, leaving laid-off workers little cushion when they unexpectedly and through no fault of their own lose their jobs. The state had built up a big debt to the federal government for the benefits paid out when the state's unemployment rate soared after the 2008-09 financial collapse. The feds had to be repaid, but legislators put all the burden of that repayment on defenseless laid-off workers. Legislators cut the size of benefits designed to let workers put food on the table and keep their homes when the economy collapses beneath them. They also cut the length of time the unemployed can receive benefits, from 26 weeks to between 12 and 20 weeks. And then they made it harder for our laid off neighbors to remain eligible for benefits. Instead of documenting two job-seeking efforts per week, the new rules require five job applications per week.

Left nearly unscathed were the businesses that pay the unemployment tax. North Carolina's unemployment tax was among the lowest in the nation, which was one reason the state ran out of money when tens of thousands lost their jobs. The low tax rate was raised just a pinch so as not to burden businesses or their owners.

Legislators' actions suggest that they consider unemployed North Carolinians shiftless shirkers who are enjoying the time off from work while the state provides for them. Anyone who has been unemployed or who have been close to workers who've lost their jobs know that isn't the case. People who are fired for cause cannot receive unemployment. Only those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own are eligible. In a volatile economy, things happen. Downturns make it impractical to keep the number of employees a business once needed. Whole sectors of the economy disappear. Think about the video store business or newspaper business or the local hardware store when a Walmart moves next door.

Hard-working North Carolinians need an opportunity to make a transition to another job, maybe even another line of work. It takes time, especially in a deep recession, to find a job. Workers who cannot afford to move to a distant job have an even harder time. You can only commute so far.

I know the feeling. I was unemployed for a year after the newspaper I worked for laid off close to half its staff. Without unemployment benefits, I might have lost my home. I was fortunate that I had a working spouse and savings for emergencies such as a layoff. But I didn't lay around. I searched for jobs. I pursued jobs that were outside my field of knowledge and comfort level, but I made the effort. I wanted to work. I continued to get up at 5:30 each morning and stayed busy. I caught up on home repair tasks. I volunteered. I did a lot of writing. I tried to develop a home business but didn't get very far. I investigated getting certified as a lateral-entry public school teacher. I did all that I could to find work but was still off payrolls for a year before I landed a job paying about half my previous salary. Unemployment benefits got me through.

I also experienced the despair and depression common among the unemployed — the feeling of worthlessness, of being unable to support myself and my family, of failure. Unemployment hits you emotionally as well as financially.

Legislators who want to punish North Carolinians because they've lost a job just don't understand what it means to lose a job. They want to hit good men and women when they're down and helpless.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

I'm giving up the manual transmission

For the first time in nearly 20 years, I am not driving a stick-shift transmission in my main ride. Over those 20 years, I drove a 1994 Honda Del Sol and a 2003 Honda Accord V6 Coupe. The Del Sol had a five-speed, and the Accord had a six-speed. I enjoyed the shifting of the gears and the greater sense of control the stick-shift gave me. It was also nice being a little different from most everyone else. Stick-shifts are in sharp decline in the United States. A friend who was in the car business in Tennessee for many years said when the started, the dealership's inventory was about 25% manual transmissions (Hondas and Volvos), but more recently (five years ago), the breakdown was under 5% manual. Being different, however, my family at one time had three vehicles with stick shifts — my Del Sol, my wife's Altima (Nissan was offering a phenomenal deal on leases with manual transmissions) and my son's old Subaru wagon. When I fell and broke my shoulder blade in 2003, leaving my right arm immobile, I had to switch cars with my wife (who by then had an automatic) so that I could reach with my left arm across my body to shift the car into "D" for about a month until I got the use of my right arm back.

But now I've succumbed to modernity and aging, and my new ride has an automatic transmission. It's not that I was tired of shifting gears. The decision was a rational one, recognizing my advancing age and the likelihood that if I keep my next car ten years or more (as I usually do), my left leg might not be nimble enough to operate a clutch. So my new car is an automatic, but it has a "clutchless automatic" option — you can switch from "D" to "M" and shift the gears without use of your left leg, at least up to a point. The automated manual does not allow you to shift into fourth gear until you've reached a certain speed, and your downshifts are also limited. Still, the option is there if ever I want to use it.

This, I've told myself, is my retirement car. It's the car I will drive in retirement, taking long-postponed trips to places on our bucket lists, so I opted for the top trim line with all the bells and whistles for comfort and entertainment. It's a car I hope will last me for 20 or 25 years. And I hope I'll last that long, too, and still be able to drive.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The tomato sandwich's new twist

I grew up eating tomato sandwiches every summer. They were made from tomatoes plucked from the long rows in our garden, growing from tomato plants we planted as seedlings, or from tomatoes given by neighbors and relatives who had more tomatoes than they could consume.

The tomato sandwiches in those days were made with Duke's mayonnaise on soft, white bread. At picnics, the sandwiches tended to be like mush wrapped in wax paper, as the tomato's juices leached into the white bread and made a bit of a mess. I ate them anyway.

This year, I have discovered a new twist on the tomato sandwich: the BTM sandwich — that's basil tomato and mozzarella sandwich, and now it's on wheat bread slathered with Hellman's mayonnaise. I love the combination of tomato and basil, and the mozzarella adds a bit of protein and interest to the sandwich. With a basil plant on the deck and a stash of mozzarella in the refrigerator, I am all set!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A house of dreams

My walk to the end of the driveway to pick up the newspaper is in an easterly direction. I get a first look at the dawn through the neighborhood trees and above the roofs of houses across the street. When I turn around and head back to the side porch door, at this time of year, the first light of sunbeams poking through the clouds and trees hit the front of the house, and I suddenly feel that I'm lost.

I've lived in this house for 12 years now, striving to pay off a 15-year mortgage in 12 or 13 years, but still I look at it in the sun's spotlight, the white siding and black shutters, the two stacks of windows, one row across each floor, and the high-pitched roof hiding a spacious attic, and I cannot believe I live here.

I grew up in a house of perhaps 1100 square feet, with three bedrooms and no central heat. My parents slept in the bedroom with the oil heater, which was turned down to "pilot" each night so as not to burn too much kerosene. We five siblings snuggled beneath piles of warm quilts, leaving only our ears and noses cold. In the summer, we threw open the windows to catch a breeze, if there was one, and often lay awake in dampened sheets on hot, still nights.

Early in our marriage, we lived in apartments and duplexes. We heard the neighbors as they talked or yelled. We heard their stereos and their televisions. We turned up our own volume.

The first house I bought was a spacious 1906 one-story with a tall roof. It was in need of more renovations than I could afford. A naive real estate agent was so confident he could sell the house for our puny asking price that he promised to buy it if it didn't sell. It didn't, and he kept his word.

We next bought a condo with a tiny balcony and neighbors on four sides. When I changed jobs, we managed to sell it for exactly what we'd paid two years earlier. Our next house was a solid brick home with plaster walls and a welcoming arrangement of rooms — three bedrooms and one bath. The central heat was iffy, and the heating oil that fired the furnace was too expensive for our budget, so we used our tax refund to buy a wood stove and heated with wood for seven years before scraping together enough money in a refinance to put in gas heat and central air. We even added a second bath to better accommodate our three children, one already a teenager. We stayed there for 23 years and left only when mortgage rates fell so low we could afford a much better house, and the neighborhood had grown tougher.

When we moved our 30-plus years of accumulated "things," I swore that on my next move I would leave this house horizontally.

The HGTV stars would not be impressed by this vinyl-clad house with its repair marks and repairs not-yet-done, but walking back up the driveway, I have to pinch myself. This is our house. I sit in the living room as the morning light pours through the tall windows and gleams off the antique flooring and the white woodwork and built-in bookshelves, and the disbelief comes over me again. I'm not just visiting; I live here.

My greatest regret about this house is that my parents never saw it, though they had visited every apartment and home we had lived in. When we moved in, they had been in a nursing homes 200 miles away for months. We showed them pictures, which didn't seem to register. Sometimes, it doesn't register with me, either. 

Racist attitudes and deliveries

Hooray for Lowe's Home Improvement Stores! The North Carolina-based chain fired three managers after they acquiesced to a customer's request that only white delivery personnel should deliver her purchase to her home. A veteran African-American delivery man was pulled from the delivery route to satisfy the racist customer. When this narrative exploded beyond the store's walls, Lowe's supervisors took immediate action, firing the managers who allowed a customer to veto a black employee and who, by their actions, endorsed racism.

Prompt action by higher ups in the organization prevented the extension of racial prejudice in the appliance delivery business and saved the reputation of Lowe's. Kudos also to Alex Brooks, the white partner on the delivery team with Marcus Bradley, who had been pulled from his delivery job because his skin was too dark. Brooks, hearing of the injustice, refused to deliver to the racist customer without his black teammate.

All of this took place in Danville, Va., a city where I lived and worked for more than two years in the late 1970s. There was racism there almost 40 years ago, as there was in just about anyplace you name, but I never saw such flagrant exercise of racial prejudice as happened this week. Danville claims to be the "Last Capital of the Confederacy" because Jefferson Davis fled to Danville after Richmond fell to federal troops in 1865. He didn't stay long. The Confederate president was eventually captured by federal troops in Georgia.

I never thought that brief moment as home to what was left of the Confederate government made Danville any more racist than other areas of the South. Even 40 years ago, I would have been shocked by a customer saying she would not accept a delivery by a black man. That attitude should not be tolerated.

Given that demand, the delivery manager should have said, "Ma'am, our black delivery driver will deliver your refrigerator, and if you don't like his presence, he will bring the refrigerator back to the store, and we'll sell it to someone else, but you're still going to be charged for it. And, by the way, we're not going to deliver the white refrigerator you picked out. You'll get a black one instead. Just as a reminder."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Repeated protests begin to look like anarchy

A year after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a protest rally turned violent with a drive-by shooting and police exchanging gunfire with a man at the protest.

The initial protests of Brown's shooting by a police officer a year ago had dissolved into violent confrontations and massive arson and looting. A year later, protests are back in Ferguson, long after a state grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department found no grounds for bringing charges against the police officer who killed Brown.

This week's protests show a lack of confidence in democratic institutions — duly elected or appointed law enforcement and judicial officers — and an unwillingness to accept the conclusions of legally structured agencies. Protesters cling to unreliable and rejected narratives of the shooting of Brown, and they insist on ... something different.

What is it that the protesters hope to achieve? State and federal law enforcement officials have investigated and reached their conclusions. The case is closed. No amount of marching in the street, punctuated by gunfire and violence, will change the Justice Department's carefully reached decision or the grand jury's decision against an indictment.

The insistence upon street protests rather than acceptance of legally reached conclusions begins to look like anarchy. It is the anarchists' credo that government structures cannot be trusted and that no government is better than a government they oppose. Anarchy, however, is chaotic and dangerous. If everyone's opinion is as good as or better than the collective wisdom of democratically elected and appointed government officials, there can be no acceptance of governmental authority.

The rallying cry of "No justice, no peace" is true in this context: In anarchy, there is no peace.

Friday, August 7, 2015

GOP candidates have their say

I stuck around for only the first half of the 10-candidate debate last night but still came away with some impressions.

Start with Donald Trump: Although he was still the bombastic, egotistical narcissist he's always been, Trump did not do as badly as he might have — meaning, he didn't punch any of his fellow candidates or the Fox News questioners (who didn't toss any softballs to him or the others). He didn't sound presidential, but most of the time he didn't sound like a lunatic. He even made an occasional valid point, and didn't deny that he often insults people (whom he considers to be beneath him).

Jeb Bush: Of all the candidates, he looked the most presidential. It helps if you're the tallest candidate in the room. He seemed reasonable and knowledgeable but didn't run away with the debate. Jeb took the "political dynasty" question and did as well as anyone could with it, i.e., "I am my own man. I am running on my own record." Etc.

Marco Rubio: His comment that "this election is about the future" might have been the best comment of the night, a comment that could resonate with younger voters (Rubio is 44). The comment averts questions about past GOP positions and policies, and it opens a clean slate. Rubio has an eloquence and a forceful delivery that gives a Kennedy-esque aura.

Ted Cruz: The Texas senator seems determined to come across as the meanest SOB on the stage. His facial expression seems fixed in a pugilistic mode, and he seems ready to take a punch at somebody, anybody, at any moment. He is the master of the sanctimonious put-down and the vague but forceful catch-phrase.

Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor and TV personality is clearly older than four years ago, but his delivery and speech have been honed by his time on talk-TV. His assertion that "personhood" begins at conception, and the newly fertilized ovum is protected by the Fifth and 14th Amendments is astounding. No court decision has asserted such a sweeping conception (excuse the pun), but he wants to argue that a newly formed zygote has a DNA and therefore is protected by the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

Rand Paul: Paul came across as feisty and a bit courageous in his willingness to challenge Trump. I wondered if the two might come to blows. While he fared well in defending his position on foreign aid, ISIS and domestic spying, his combativeness didn't seem presidential but rather Trump-ish. Paul's line about being tired of seeing ISIS troops riding around in a billion dollars worth of U.S. Humvees was memorable.

Chris Christie: Speaking of feisty. Christie couldn't seem to decide whether he should be belligerent or warm and fuzzy. He claimed that only he had the ability to challenge terrorists because he had prosecuted terror cases as a federal attorney. Paul got under his skin by reminding everyone of his hug of President Obama (after Superstorm Sandy), which Christie defended by veering off on his hugs to terrorist victim families. Non sequitur, Governor?


Monday, August 3, 2015

Vanishing American churches

The statistics from the National Council of Churches seem pretty clear: Americans are leaving churches at an alarming rate. Here are the losses by denomination from 2000 to 2013, as reported in The Lutheran magazine:
     ° Presbyterian Church USA: -30.3%
     ° United Church of Christ: -28.9%
     ° Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: -24.8%
      ° Episcopal Church: -17.5% 
     ° United Methodist Church: -11.4%
     ° Southern Baptist Convention: - 1.4%

In the ELCA, churches with an average worship attendance of 50 or fewer increased 66% since 1990. Churches are getting smaller with fewer donations to support their work and their very existence. We are witnessing the secularization of America, a nation in which attending church on a regular basis is no longer a normative practice.

More is at stake here than the fiscal health of congregations or the number of bodies in the pews on a Sunday. Churches have been guiding organizations throughout this nation's history. Look at the number of colleges and universities, going back to Harvard, the first college in the American colonies, founded by religious organizations and, originally at least, dedicated to the education of clergy. Other social institutions — the abolitionist movement, for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the YMCA — were based in Christian principles and came to influence all of American society.

Some may welcome the decline of church influence. Sunday "blue laws," which kept retailers' doors closed on Sunday, were such an inconvenience to shoppers. Churches and church-influenced organizations have found themselves in the minority on a number of "moral issues" of the past century, including alcoholic beverages, gambling (state lotteries and casinos), and gay marriage.

Churches are beginning to be seen as irrelevant to a growing majority of Americans, for whom Sunday is a day for golf or for sleeping in or even just another day of work. If religious faith is on the wane, as it appears, that bodes ill for society as a whole. Religion has provided the moral guidance and ethical principles for society, churched or unchurched. It is religion that dictates that people are responsible for other people, that caring for those in need is a virtue, and that good character is built on kindness, sympathy, generosity, truthfulness and honor.

Without those standards, American society becomes a very different culture, one that is less caring, less respectful of others, less generous and honorable and more self-centered and unkind. It's a change that even those who never "darken the church doors" might notice.