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.