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.