Sunday, May 31, 2015

A routine sunrise's beauty surprises

Before 6 o'clock this Sunday morning, the dog decided it was time for me to get up. I reluctantly rolled out of bed and pulled on shorts and a T-shirt and trudged downstairs, where, it turns out, the dog did not want to go out. He just wanted me out of bed.

On the way down the stairs, though, I was treated to spectacular sight, a light from heaven as the rising sun flashed a bright welcome through the transom windows above my front door and fixed the window's image against the wall. Momentarily startled by a spotlight shining through my windows, I soon realized it was no more than a sunrise, a phenomenon I've experienced more than 24,000 times.

But for nearly all of those 24,000 sunrises, I took little notice. Oh, I got up early to get a picture of the sunrise over the water on beach trips, and I might savor the colors and majesty of a sunrise in the mountains, but here at my own home, where I've lived for more than 4,400 sunrises, I was not often thrilled to see the sun flash its brilliance into my foyer.

I have excuses. Clouds sometimes obscure the dawn. Heavy rain throws a wet blanket on sunrises and sunsets. Some weekends, the dog lets me sleep past sunrise. In winter, the sunrise is late, and I'm already up and drinking coffee, reading the newspaper and preparing for the day. Some weekdays, I am too consumed with getting ready for work that I don't stop to see the sun's rays as they dance through the pine trees and beam through the eastward-facing windows. My life is not focused on enjoying the dawn or seeing the light. It should be. I seriously doubt that I will have another 24,000 chances to see the way the sun shines like a laser through windows early in the morning.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Changing names can't change history

I know little about William Lawrence Saunders, for whom Saunders Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill is named, but I am concerned about the movement to remove his name from a campus building that has borne that name for some 70 years. It is alleged that Saunders was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, but no primary documents confirm that allegation. I can accept that allegation as truthful and still doubt the wisdom of removing his name.

Being a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 2015 is a clearly despicable act, one that is roundly condemned in today's society. But being a member of the KKK was not, in Saunders' time, a reviled act. The KKK is remembered as a violent terror organization, and members unquestionably used terrorist tactics to pursue their interests, but it also represented a political point of view, which aimed to return political power to the white gentry that controlled the state before the Civil War. The struggle for political power pitched the former aristocracy against newly franchised blacks and poor whites. The bitter taste of an occupying army during Reconstruction also fueled resentment against the change in political winds. So to 19th century minds, the relationship between these competing groups might be described by a 21st century term: "It's complicated."

The 19th century context of Saunders' life should caution today's North Carolinians against being too quick to judge. Saunders is credited with performing essential work in collecting and cataloging colonial records of the state. But that's not the main reason for not removing his name from a building.

The main reason is that historical characters should not be judged by contemporary standards. By today's standards, every 19th century American was racist is some ways. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, approved of the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa. Most wealthy men in the South (and many in the North) owned slaves. The notion of racial superiority was widespread, if not universal among Americans and Europeans of the time.

And let's not even get into the rampant sexism of the 19th century.

Charles B. Aycock, once lauded as North Carolina's Education Governor, has been shamed by having his name removed from schools and college buildings because Aycock helped bring about the disenfranchisement of black voters and the return of Democratic (i.e., white) rule. Despite the embarrassment about Aycock's 19th century beliefs, his positive impact on North Carolina's public schools is unquestionable. To make him a historical non-person is shameful.

Where might this sanitizing of history and the triumph of our 21st century sensibilities lead? We should certainly change the names of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Both were slave owners. Also change the name of Washington, D.C., Washington, N.C., and the state of Washington.

Instead, let's stop and take a breath. Historical characters cannot live up to today's standards because those standards did not exist in their day. Let them live in their historical context because they cannot live up to our own. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Herman Wouk's World War II novels, again

On Memorial Day weekend, I began re-reading "Winds of War," Herman Wouk's unsurpassed novel of World War II. Together with its sequel, "War and Remembrance," Wouk offers an engaging and accurate, though fictional, account of World War II as seen through the eyes of the Henry family.

Wouk's protagonist is a career Navy officer, a commander at the novel's outset, eager for sea duty aboard a battleship. Pug Henry and his two sons, daughter and wife see the world's greatest conflict unfold before their eyes. The Henry family travels to pre-war Berlin, to the Soviet Union, the South Pacific, Poland, and other places where the war was fought or planned. Historical characters include Roosevelt, Stalin and others whose decisions molded the war and the post-war world.

For those who dislike reading pure history — I am not one of these as I am fascinated by history, especially when it is well written — Wouk's two novels will tell you more than you'd ever imagine as you breathlessly follow the lives of the Henrys.

I first read these novels more than 35 years ago. More precisely, I devoured them. When I had to stop reading one novel midway through because I was moving to another city and had to return the library book, I immediately went to the library in my new home and checked out the book I had dropped off. I could not wait to continue reading.

Wouk has written a number of other fine novels, including "The Caine Mutiny" and "Marjorie Morningstar," but "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" are his masterpieces. They were turned into a TV mini-series decades ago, but that video presentation inevitably fell short of the power of the novel.

My wife, spurred by her father's WWII memoirs, reread the Wouk novels not long ago, and we recently purchased one of the novels to complete our collection. Now it's my turn. The two thick tomes will take me a while to plow through, but I will enjoy every word.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A call for help

A man called me to ask for help, not for himself but for his daughter. She was going to have a baby in September, he said, and she needed a decent place to live. The father of the baby had gone to Florida and had no intention of returning. He wanted nothing to do with the woman he'd left behind, nor with the child he had produced.

The man's daughter was living in a mobile home where the floor was falling in. She had no place else to go. She had been working, but she'd experienced some spotting and was prescribed bed rest and had to quit her job. I asked whether she would receive child support. It wouldn't be easy to get child support from an absconded ex-boyfriend in another state. The man said he was disabled and unable to help his daughter, who faces a lifetime of anxiety, poverty and regrets.

I was not able to provide the immediate help the man sought, but I referred him to agencies that might be able to help and suggested that his daughter see an attorney who could begin proceedings to gain child support and government benefits.

I doubt that I will hear from the man again. I hope he finds some help for his daughter, but he and I both know that, even if she is successful in obtaining the charity and benefits she needs, she and her child face a lifetime of difficulties. She may find that her love for this new child will overwhelm the regrets and the burdens of her situation, but her situation will be unchanged — young, poor and lacking the support and love of her child's father, she will feel betrayed and angry. Hers is a situation that can be ameliorated by some assistance, determination and luck, but it cannot be undone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Iraq and the 2016 campaign

While the government of Iraq is proving itself militarily incompetent, American presidential candidates are dancing around the 2003 decision to invade Iraq, which sent Iraq spiraling into its current pitiful state of corrupt incompetence. Candidates ponder how to assert American leadership in the Middle East.

Jeb Bush, whose brother decided to go ahead with the invasion that has been called the worst foreign policy blunder in American history, at first said he would have done what big brother did, then said, no, the invasion was a mistake. Hillary Clinton, as a first-term senator biding her time to run for president, voted to authorize the invasion but now says that was wrong. The other dozen or more presidential candidates (18 months before the election) mostly say invading Iraq was a mistake (Duh!) but do not always demonstrate that they have learned from the mistakes of 2003.

Sen. Rand Paul, who seems determined to be the most independent-minded presidential candidate in a generation, opposes virtually any use of military might on foreign shores. Sen. Bernie Sanders might give Paul some competition for the title of most off-the-chart policy platform. Mike Huckabee wants the United States to be a "Christian nation" even as polls show that it is growing less and less Christian and more secular every year. Sen. Lindsey Graham pushes a more assertive foreign/military policy.

Iraq policy was a major issue in 2004, when George W. Bush won a second term, despite the disastrous consequences of 2003, and in 2008, when Hillary Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq invasion hung like an albatross around her neck. The Middle East might be a significant issue next year, as it has been for most of the past half-century, but it likely will not be the deciding issue for many voters, who worry more about economics, income disparities, tax policy and other domestic matters.

But if the Islamic State militants succeed in consolidating their territorial gains in Syria and Iraq and then recruits domestic terrorists in the United States and Europe, Middle East policy will again leap to the top of the agenda. A major terrorist attack on American soil will make U.S. foreign policy, military policy and security worries the dominant debate in next year's campaign.

Invading Iraq 12 years ago on the basis of faulty or falsified intelligence looks worse with every passing year. Toppling Saddam Hussein has unleashed the demons of sectarian violence and pent-up anger against Western civilization in the Arab world. The next president, no doubt, will still be dealing with the consequences of Bush's decisiveness toward Iraq.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Amtrak tragedies in Philadelphia and Washington

Days after a tragic crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia, the U.S. House voted to cut Amtrak funding by 20 percent. The cut was a knee-jerk reaction, not to the fatal derailment but to the notion that passenger rail service should pay for itself from passenger ticket sales.

But no transportation service pays for itself. The wondrous high-speed rail trains in Europe and Asia are not financed entirely by ticket sales. Those governments recognize that services that are a public good require some taxpayer subsidies to be feasible.

In this country, airlines and personal-vehicle travel are not paid for entirely by individual users. The cars we drive travel on taxpayer-funded roads and highways, and are subsidized by local and federal planning, engineering and bridge projects. Airlines are subsidized by government-paid construction of airports and the use of federal employees in air traffic control plus the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The dominance of air and personal-vehicle travel in this country did not just happen. It was a deliberate governmental decision to prefer airlines and cars over railways. Other governments have leaned toward advanced railways vs. cars. The interstate highway system that makes longer-distance travel via personal vehicles convenient, fairly comfortable and relatively safe (though not as safe as rail travel) was established by the Eisenhower administration as a military strategy because movement of heavy military equipment across a continent was not efficient on two-lane roads.

The idea that rail travel should be self-supporting ignores the economic realities of all forms of travel, and the cuts imposed in the House budget ignore the not just the convenience of rail passengers but also their safety.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Rainy seasons and droughts

Digging a post hole for a birdhouse Saturday, I found proof of what a wet spring it has been. I dug down through the moist topsoil to a sandy layer beneath that. About two feet down, I ran into clay — moist, muddy clay. The deeper I got, the wetter it was. I concluded that the water table must have risen to new heights, wetting the clay just a couple of feet beneath the surface.

As if to affirm my observations, the afternoon ended with a heavy rain, further moistening the topsoil and lower layers. The rain continued Sunday, heavy at times, though it did not disrupt a 5 kilometer run for my wife, her sisters and their daughters. The forecast calls for continuing rain this week. The weekend rain was the result of an early tropical storm just off the coastline. Does such an early storm portend a more active hurricane season? I doubt it. I've quit paying attention to long-range hurricane forecasts, which are almost always off the mark.

Has there been a wetter spring in memory? Seasons come and go. You forget how hot it was the previous August or how cold it was last January. Wet spells are not so memorable, just disruptive of any outdoor activity. Droughts have a deeper impact and are more memorable. We still see the ramifications of a severe drought a few years back, when the lawn turned brown and shrubs and trees withered. With this month's rain, we shouldn't need to worry about moisture for a while.

While we deal with the muddy, spongy yard, the West Coast is in the midst of a years-long drought that shows little indication of subsiding. The climate might be changing, some say. California might be returning to a more natural state of arid near-desert conditions. That state is already nourished by waters drawn from distant rivers diverted into water pipelines for California's burgeoning population, and now the diverted water isn't sufficient.

I only see the moisture in my yard and neighborhood or the signs of drought in the same place. But in only a few years, I've seen the bounty and the dearth of rainfall enough to understand how dependent we are on water.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Film cameras are gone, but photography continues

Yesterday,  I handed over a large shopping bag filled with cameras, flash attachments, lenses, and other photography accessories to someone who will use the cameras to teach college students about photography. None of the cameras had been used for close to 10 years, and the oldest camera was first put to use about 50 years ago. All were film cameras, anachronisms in the age of digital photography.

The oldest camera, an Argus 35mm viewfinder model, was bought with my meager earnings as a teenager. The cost, as best I remember, was around $60, a small fortune for a high school student in 1966. I used the camera to shoot pictures for my high school yearbook and newspaper. I experimented with photography, taking walks through the yard and in the woods looking for views that caught my eye and became studies of light and dark. (Color film was too expensive.) I experimented with f-stops and shutter speeds and became confident at estimating exposures without a light meter. I continued to use the camera in my first real newspaper job, a 1968 internship at a weekly newspaper in Wadesboro. I learned to wind 35 mm film onto a reel to develop the film and then print the pictures.

The bag of cameras also included a couple of Minolta single-lens reflex cameras. Graduating to an SLR widened my photographic world, and the through-the-lens metering system helped make sure the exposure was right. These cameras got me through four decades of family pictures — babies, toddlers, first-day-of school pictures, graduations, weddings, reunions, vacations. Many of the products of those cameras hang on the walls of my house or hide in photo albums stashed in a closet. I took about 1,000 slide picture and wore out my first slide projector watching the results of my work. Only at the advent of digital photography did I finally get around to buying a quality Kodak slide projector, which now hides in a closet, unused for years.

When digital photography first arrived, few professionals envisioned it replacing film photography, and I could not imagine the day when digital would be as good as film. But that day came rapidly. The first bulky, heavy digital SLRs were slow and not as high-resolution as professional photography demanded. But the technology leaped ahead, and now the cell phone on my belt takes pictures that rival the quality of my old film cameras. Film photography has collapsed to the point that photo film is very difficult to find.

The point-and-shoot advances that opened photography to the masses who did not care to learn how to set f-stops and shutter speeds or consider exposure values were adapted to the digital platform, and film was doomed. At some point nearly 10 years ago, I quit buying film and switched fully to digital with a new digital SLR, which I still use, though it is a few generations behind the latest DSLRs.

I still miss my old film cameras whose f-stops and shutter speeds I could manipulate to get the exposure I wanted. Now, I try to interpret the "programs" embedded in the camera to fit different light, speed and depth-of-field situations. I have yet to be fully satisfied with the results of most of those programs.

Nevertheless, I will never go back to film photography — as if I could, of if anyone could. Kodak has "taken my Kodachrome away," and Fuji has taken away its Fujicolor, too. Digital provides instant gratification and occasional second chances to fix the first exposure attempt.

Photography still provides a means for jogging memories and for treasuring moments. Now, I keep my pictures, not in photo albums or slide trays but in computer hard drives, CDs and portable hard drives, backing up these files multiple times to guard against loss.

What I work so hard to save is still priceless — memories of moments that fill a lifetime.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Strong credentials don't make good candidates

The announcement yesterday of two candidacies for president present an interesting question: Do smart, successful people make good presidential candidates, or good presidents?

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and Carly Fiorina announced Monday that they were running for the Republican presidential nomination. Carson had an illustrious career as a neurosurgeon, but anyone who is able to endure the challenges and rigors of medical school is, by definition, an intelligent and competent person. Fiorina had a successful career in the technology industry, rising to the top of the corporate ladder. In the dog-eat-dog competition of corporate rivalries and back-stabbing, that's quite an accomplishment.

But do either of these successful and admired individuals have what it takes to win the presidency? Unlike the worlds of medicine or technology, a presidential contest is a test of endurance, self-control and dogged determination. It requires what one potential candidate called the "fire in the belly." You have to want the presidency the way Jimmy Carter did. You have to be willing to sacrifice two years or more of your life, doing little else but raising money and appealing to voters, many of whom know little about governing or politics and only want you to commit to their own personal causes.

And if you are successful in committing yourself to winning your party's nomination and then the presidency, can you turn on a dime and govern the administration, working with a usually contentious Congress, to carry out the program that was your political platform. Some good candidates — Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter come to mind — were far better at running a campaign than they were at supervising the sprawling Executive Branch and contending with Congress. The two ventures require different skill sets, and it is rare to find someone capable to being good at both.

All of this leads to the question many Americans ask themselves: What kind of person would want to do what it takes to be president?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Businesses bail out of low-income neighborhoods

Advocates for the poor complain about the lack of businesses, banks, parks and restaurants in low-income neighborhoods, and they have a reasonable argument. Shopping, cashing checks, routine banking, obtaining food are difficult when the closest facilities are miles away.

But business decisions are made on a rational basis. Businesses locate stores where they can earn a profit. Lower-income neighborhoods are risky because low-income families have less spending power; sales in poorer-neighborhood stores are likely to be lower. Smart management and targeted merchandise can make these stores profitable, however, if other detriments are not present.

Low-income neighborhoods are often also high-crime neighborhoods, and the threat of theft or even arson and looting (of the type seen in Baltimore this week) make some neighborhoods a no-man's land for businesses. A recent Facebook post showed a photo of store shelves with every detergent bottle tagged with a security alarm to prevent shoplifting. On detergent bottles? Yes, even on $5 detergent bottles that are difficult to conceal and not very costly. The tag on the photo was "how to tell if you live in the ghetto."

Shopping in a Charlotte chain drugstore a few years ago, I was shocked to see every shelf locked down with clear plastic flaps. You had to call a clerk to come unlock the shelf in order to get a bottle of aspirin or a tube of toothpaste. Obviously, the store had a serious shoplifting problem.

In Baltimore this week, rioters (not protesters) looted and burned down a CVS pharmacy, which reportedly had been sited in the neighborhood in order to provide the convenience, reasonable pricing and inventory that neighborhood activists had demanded. Also torched was a senior housing facility, another amenity that would make the neighborhood safer and more livable.

Crime, whether the every-day style of shoplifting or the occasional riot, looting and arson turn businesses and jobs away. It may be asking too much to expect under-educated, low-income residents to understand the macro-economic impacts of hopeless loss curtailment and crime prevention, but residents should be able to understand the need to respect other people's property, investments and jobs.

When a neighborhood gets a reputation of being crime-ridden, no one wants to live there. Residents move away. Some move ahead of the curve while others wait too long and are stuck in "upside down" mortgages as property values plummet. Abandoned, boarded-up houses, which attract even more crime, are the result.

It works the same way with businesses. If shoplifting losses exceed sales, the business will close, no matter how badly residents need its services. If insurance costs are untenable because arson is a lingering threat, the business will go elsewhere.

Neighborhood revitalization takes more than rehabbing or building new houses and inducing needed businesses to locate in low-income areas. It requires positive attitudes among the population and respect for property and the rights of others.