Sunday, February 22, 2015

A time for purging books

The day has come at our house to purge the books. There are too many of them, more than we can read during our brief quiet evenings of reading time. There are books we'll never read, or will never re-read, having read them once and judged them not worth a second or third reading. There are books that once seemed important, but their importance has faded in the decades since they appeared on our shelves. There are books that fueled our interests in things like bicycling and running or supplemented our knowledge in matters such as child rearing, breastfeeding or home repairs.

We have books that seemed intriguing but weren't and books that seemed like such a bargain at the yard sale or library book sale but never rose to the top of the stack of books to read next. There are novels that were well-written and suspenseful and that we would recommend to other readers, but they weren't worth a second read and now no longer are worth the space they consume on the bookshelf.

Early in our marriage, I tried to convince my wife that we should not buy novels or other fiction because, well, libraries can supply you with all the novels you'll ever need in a lifetime. Nonfiction is different, I tried to tell her, because they deal in facts. They serve as reference material, a fact-checking resource when questions of science or history arise.

Despite the logic of my argument, we have managed to collect dozens, if not hundreds, of novels. We were lured into Book of the Month Club more than once and accumulated some books in that way. The new novels always sounded so compelling, so worth the read and the price of a book, especially when you found the book at a library book sale or yard sale. Now we are separating the novels that are worth keeping and reading again and again — novels like "Cold Mountain" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "A Farewell to Arms" — from the novels that once were fresh and new but now seem formulaic and ephemeral.

As for the nonfiction books that I once contended would always be useful resources, all of their facts can be found instantly in a Google search, neatly organized, usually with multiple references. Encyclopedia, which once got middle schoolers through their first research papers, are now as obsolete as slide rules. Resource books, from encyclopedia to World Almanacs to dictionaries are now conveniently accessible on the web.

We've decided to keep, at least for now, a few reference books — a few authoritative volumes on grammar and word usage, a print dictionary, and a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations that her mother used in college and that bears her signature. I will keep a book given to my father when he was a boy, a do-it-yourself text for making toys and things from scraps.

We'll get rid of the couple of dozen journalism textbooks, newspaper memoirs and journalistic histories I had collected in three decades of editing newspapers and teaching journalism. That door has closed behind me, and I have no reason to think I'll ever need those books again. I will give them to someone who has use for them.

Getting rid of books is a sad, almost reprehensible act that makes us question our actions. One wall of our living room is covered in built-in bookcases, and I love to sit in that room and read, looking up occasionally at the comforting view of all those books, which together promise years of quiet leisure time and enjoyment. By our bed are stacks of books, one on my nightstand and one on my wife's; another stack covers the trunk at the foot of our bed. The other bedrooms have bookshelves filled with books, and another packed bookcase is on the stair landing. A closet contains children's books that had been our children's and now are reserved for their children when they visit. Boxes in the attic have more books.

Books are the most glorious things, a whole world in your hands, a fresh aroma of paper and ink that every book lover finds invigorating. Electronic books are cheaper, more up-to-date and more compact, but print books feel so good in your hands and look so good on a bookshelf.

My wife and I face the necessity of this purging of the books, but we take no joy in it and feel no certainty at the judgments we make, that one book is worth keeping and another is not. We know that the books will remain when we are no longer here, and it will fall to someone else to purge them. We know what that task is like, and we prefer to make an easier task for someone on that future date.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Coach's mentor would never do that

Coach Dean Smith, whose innovations, creativity and commitment to players as men and family forever changed college basketball, is dead, and the accolades keep pouring in from former players, associates and rival coaches. Meanwhile, his most diligent disciple is finding Smith's old team in a funk and facing its biggest rival tomorrow night in a hostile arena.

Roy Williams professes to pattern his every move after his mentor, but any concerned Tar Heel fan with a long memory can see that ol' Roy is doing some things Smith would never do. I like Roy. I think he's a good coach. He's done a great job at Chapel Hill and did a terrific job at Kansas. But he may be letting his own personal style take away from his shadowing of Coach Smith.

Dean Smith was famous for never taking credit for the 879 wins in his career and never letting the players take the blame for a loss. After a win, Smith always praised his players, often starting with the obscure bench warmers who came in and gave a few respectable minutes of basketball. After a loss, Smith always took the blame. "I did a poor job of coaching," he'd say. He always deferred any criticism of the players, even when there were bonehead plays or obvious goofs.

Williams' style contrasts with Smith's example. The past couple of years have been frustrating ones for Williams, and his frustrations sometimes spill over in public. He has publicly chastised the team for lack of effort or for lack of concentration. I don't know that this shift of blame has anything to do with this year's Tar Heels' sometimes poor performance, but I do know that criticism of his players is something Smith would never do.

While Smith could occasionally vent his anger at the referees or something, his demeanor on the bench was almost always calm, even relaxed. In the past couple of weeks, some former players have mentioned that when Smith called a timeout, he was always the calmest person in the huddle, calmly telling them exactly what to do and what the opponent would try to do. He once reminded players during a tense timeout that there were a billion people in China who didn't even know this game was happening. Williams, in contrast, can be seen yelling at players in the huddle instead of calmly explaining the situation to them.

There's another habit — call it a tactic, if you want — that Smith did and that other coaches picked up. That habit has faded among coaches since Smith's retirement. In comments before a big game, or even a minor one, Smith always praised the opposing team. He would compliment the way they pass or the way they run the fast break or the way they play defense. Even against a clearly mismatched and woebegone team, Smith would make it sound as if the game was a toss-up at best. Maybe it was Smith's way of never underestimating an opponent or maybe it was a ploy to make the opponent overconfident and keep his own team on its toes. Whatever the reasons, the result was that Smith never played a team that was, in his description, anything less than a powerhouse.

When other coaches adopted this tactic, the result was laughable — two coaches each claiming the other team was far superior than his own.

Williams has not underestimated opponents, I don't think, but he has not been as effusive in praising opponents as Smith was. I doubt that this has anything to do with the Heels' struggles this year, and the other ways that Williams has deviated from Smith's example might have no impact on his success, either. No one is a perfect copy of a mentor, and Williams is no exception.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Questionable spending takes down union leader

The Raleigh News & Observer probably has another journalism award in its pocket for its expose of the financial shenanigans of Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. Cope resigned yesterday, just days after the N&O on Sunday thoroughly examined the questionable spending of SEANC money: bogus invoices, dubious no-bid contracts with a company that had done work for Cope personally, senseless union payments for Cope's flying lessons and so on. The Wake County district attorney has asked the SBI to look into the mess.

Cope took no questions at his news conference, though he did admit that "I have blurred the line between my personal life and my professional life.” From the N&O's account, there seemed to be no line at all between SEANC finances and Cope's.

But there is more to this story than one man's lofty ambitions and his confusion over the extent of his power. Sunday's article detailed how Cope had gotten rid of two executive board members who had questioned his spending. He had the power to do that. He also had the power to spend SEANC money however he saw fit. His actions were above questioning. He could do pretty much whatever he wanted, including picking fights with powerful state legislators, to the detriment of the SEANC and its members.

Cope is gone, but SEANC has much housecleaning to do. It must start with replacing the board of directors who were led astray by Cope and who obediently followed his bidding. Secondly, the new board must redefine the post of executive director. The union exec should follow the directions of the Board of Directors, not vice versa. The board should set policy and require the executive to carry it out. The executive should not be allowed to spend any money without the permission of the board, either in the form of a budgeted line item or a vote of the board for exceptional expenses. All contracts should be subject to competitive bidding. Credit card purchases should be audited and justified.

It's easy to blame Cope for his alleged excesses, but the real fault lies with the Board of Directors and union members themselves. They failed to rein in their employee and allowed him to conflate union interests with personal interests.

After cleaning up its finances, SEANC must work to restore the respect and trust of legislators, relationships strained if not broken by Cope's aggressive and abrasive style.

Read more here:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Every Tar Heel has memories of Dean Smith

Every UNC alumnus or fan has his or her special memories of Dean Smith as the accolades and adoration for the greatest (OK, arguably) college basketball coach in history sweeps over us since his death Saturday.

Let me share three of my memories. I had become a Tar Heel fan and Dean Smith worshiper as a teenager. By the time I arrived at UNC as a student, I knew a lot about Smith and his coaching techniques, but my awe at his abilities to shape great teams from individuals players grew over the years.

When I was in school, I went to dinner at the Zoom-Zoom with two or three friends. Seated nearby was Dean Smith with his wife and daughters, enjoying a quiet, anonymous dinner out. We were all tempted to walk over and say, "Hey, Coach, great year," and so on. But we wisely respected his privacy and allowed him to be just a husband and dad out with his family.

In 1974, I was living in northern Virginia and watching Carolina play Duke on our new 15-inch color TV. The game was not going well. I yelled and stomped to no avail, and when a timeout was called with 17 seconds left and UNC down by 8 points, I gave up and went to the basketball court across the street in our apartment complex to work out my frustrations in a pickup game. I just couldn't bear to see the Heels lose to Duke.

A half hour later, my wife walked over with our daughter. With a big smile on her face, she said to me during a lull in our pickup game, "We won!" I thought she was kidding. "That's not funny," I said, or something like that. I couldn't believe her until I read it in the newspaper the next day (there was no ESPN in those days).

I actually met Dean Smith much later with an assist from former Gov. Jim Hunt. I had received an invitation to an event in Chapel Hill recognizing the first class or two of teachers who had earned National Board certification, a recognition that Hunt led. Smith, who said he had always thought of himself as a teacher, just as his parents were, was there as a special guest. Hunt, seeing my wife and me by ourselves, graciously came over and asked if we had talked to Coach Smith. We hadn't, I said. "Just too shy," I should have added. Hunt walked us over to Smith and his wife and introduced us. I said something about being a 1971 alumnus and never missing a game, ever — the sort of thing he probably heard a dozen times a week. Smith was gracious and pleasant, and our moment together lasted perhaps 60 seconds. I cherish that memory as much as I do the memory of those final 17 seconds when I lacked the faith in Smith's coaching miracles.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rest in peace, mayor

Ralph El-Ramey was in his first term as mayor when I moved to Wilson in 1980. For the next decade, through mayoral elections, electoral changes, big challenges and major initiatives, he remained both presiding mayor and affable good ol' boy. Ralph died Sunday.

It was easy to see how he was elected mayor. He never met a stranger and knew everyone in Wilson, it seemed. He was a friend and a persuader, a story teller and a joker. He always seemed to be having fun, even in the most serious moments.

He managed all of this, despite the fact he was not one of the eastern North Carolina elite, the heirs of plantation owners and industrial titans. He was the son of Lebanese immigrants who never forgot his roots. He had worked as a theater manager in Wilson and other eastern North Carolina towns — an essential, popular but not prestigious job. He told me of his experiences running a theater in Wadesboro, near where I grew up, and he could still recall the names of the major families there. By the time he entered local politics, he was selling insurance, a job with flexible hours that were ideal for a city office holder.

His Middle Eastern name presented some problems. Many constituents thought he was "Ralph L. Ramey" and referred to him as "Mayor Ramey." I jokingly called him "Ralphael Ramey." He never allowed name mistakes to bother him. 

Into his second decade in the mayor's chair, Ralph ran afoul of a determined group of progressive civic activists who viewed the mayor as someone too simple to appreciate the finer things in life. He had opposed the city's purchase of an old downtown theater whose showing of X-rated fare had become a civic embarrassment. The sale went through over his objections and at a price he thought too high, and the old theater eventually became the Edna Boykin Cultural Center. He also didn't like a plan to turn the city-owned former BB&T headquarters into the Wilson Arts Center.

The folks who didn't like Ralph's lack of appreciation of the arts (as they saw it), backed a candidate to unseat him, a genial, well-educated man who appreciated the arts. Ralph survived the challenge and kept his seat, but the animosity remained. Privately, the mayor would disparage the artsy crowd as much as they disparaged him.

Ralph finally lost his seat in the early 1990s, and the loss clearly pained him, but it didn't take him long to put that behind him and return to his jovial, optimistic views of life. I saw him less frequently in recent years, but he was always friendly and outwardly happy. 

Regardless of how anyone felt about his support of the arts or any other city issue, Ralph El-Ramey was a good guy, a friend to all, a testament to immigrant ambition and success, and a character like no other.