Thursday, December 22, 2016

Another year (or more) of HB2?

House Bill 2 lives on, despite promises earlier this week that a deal had been reached to ditch the hastily passed legislation that has cost North Carolina millions of dollars in tourism and new jobs that went elsewhere. The law on bathroom access and civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity is still on the books because Republicans in the General Assembly backed out of what Democrats and the Charlotte City Council thought was a done deal.

Charlotte City Council on Tuesday repealed the portions of a local ordinance passed last February that were rescinded by House Bill 2. When some Republicans raised objections that Charlotte had agreed to kill the whole ordinance and not just the parts addressed by HB2, City Council met in emergency session Wednesday to complete the repeal of its ordinance. The vote also eliminated a deadline for the state to repeal HB2.

But Republican leaders saw that hesitation as a heinous plot to keep local civil rights laws on the books, and legislative opposition grew along with mutual distrust. Charlotte provided the "clean" repeal, but GOP legislators backed away from a "clean" repeal of HB2. A GOP proposal barring local civil rights ordinances for six months in return for HB2 repeal ran into Democratic opposition. Republicans shouted that Charlotte's original rescission vote, which was quickly changed to satisfy critics, had abrogated the whole deal. But the six-month ban on local laws was clearly a violation of the deal to get rid of HB2 if Charlotte got rid of its ordinance. The Charlotte ordinance as repealed, but legislators would not follow through by repealing HB2.

Fingers were pointed in all directions. Even before Wednesday's vote on the repeal died on the Senate floor, Gov.-elect Roy Cooper was being blamed for HB2 remaining on the books through the summer. A Facebook post I saw claimed Cooper had lobbied legislators NOT to repeal HB2 in July because, allegedly, he wanted to use the law in his campaign for governor. Those who posted that false report must have forgotten that it was not the legislature that killed a July deal, it was the Charlotte City Council, which voted down a repeal of its civil rights ordinance that started this whole conflict.

GOP spokesmen were quick to blame Cooper for scuttling this week's deal, but it was the GOP legislators, some motivated by sincerely held "right vs. wrong" beliefs and others only seeking political advantage, that killed the repeal of HB2.

Whatever you think of HB2 or transgender rights, you have to admit that HB2 has been costly to North Carolina in economics and prestige. With this week's inaction, more losses will come.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Reflections on a Winter Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice, the longest night and the shortest day of the year. In the "bleak December," we huddle against the cold and turn on artificial lighting to press back against the darkness. This is the deepest, darkest night of the year, but with it comes a promise. From this day forward, until the Summer Solstice, the days will grow longer, the nights will wane shorter. The shivering cold will give way to balmy breezes and then to oppressive summer heat.

The Earth still revolves on its path around the sun. The Earth still rotates from night to day. Even in the darkest night, we know we only have to wait for the light to return. This, too, shall pass.

On this longest night of the year, let us be grateful for the night, for the darkness, for the chill that shivers within us, and for the promise of the light and the warmth that is coming. Turn on the lights. Step out and see the bright constellations against the velvet winter sky. Remember that the days, weeks, months and years will spin past us. Try to remember them all if you can.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas in Charleston

For 26 years, my family has gathered in Charleston, S.C., for a Christmastime gathering. The event began as an opportunity to see my brother's new home following the devastation of Hurricane Hugo. His 19th century home had recovered from the wind and rain of that storm, but many fine old mansions wore scaffolding and broken pieces. Still, the city's charm shown through, and we made the simple gathering an annual event.

It was not a simple trip. For me, a five-hour drive at least, and it was the same length for my brother in Jacksonville, Fla., and his family. My sister in Charlotte had a shorter drive, and our parents could ride with her family.

Over the years, the little children we first took to Charleston grew up and added their own little children to the mix of guests. Our parents died, leaving empty spaces at the table and in our hearts, but the tradition continued. Then my sister-in-law died, then my brother and, three years ago, my sister. Often over the three-day weekend, I expected to see them turn a corner or call my name, but reality set in.

Nevertheless, we gathered again this year, my daughters and four of our grandchildren, my surviving brother and his children and grandchildren, a cousin and her husband, my brother's sister-in-law and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my deceased brother. Despite this continuity, some members of the family have dropped out, and we couldn't help but wonder how long this tradition would continue. We'd like to think could continue another 25 years, but that seems unlikely. The four siblings who initially gathered are down to two. Our children and grandchildren will never share the same memories and same influences we had.

My childhood Christmases were spent at my maternal grandparents' farmhouse, surrounded by 10 aunts and uncles and eight first cousins. I wanted to share that experience with my children, so I dragged them to that Christmas gathering for more than a dozen years. That farmhouse, and my aunt's mill village home that replaced it, did not have the charm of Charleston. My aunts grew too old to host those Christmases, and the tradition died. Inevitably, our Charleston trips will end, but until then, we will enjoy this beautiful city that has been proclaimed the top tourist city in the country.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Foreign influence in U.S. elections?

Reports that Russian hackers attempted to influence the U.S. presidential election through a series of stolen emails strategically released through Wikileaks are opening an unprecedented new era in U.S. politics. Never before has a foreign power been accused of meddling in U.S presidential elections.

President-elect Donald Trump dismisses the CIA and NSA report that individuals in the Russian government knew about or instigated the cyber attack on American democracy with the intention to help the Republican nominee. "Ridiculous," he says. But national intelligence professionals disagree. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump admires and praises, is attempting to reassert Soviet-era hegemony over all of eastern Europe and former Soviet states in Asia, the intelligence specialists say.

Bipartisan members of Congress are planning to investigate the allegations of election tampering by Russia, but it's difficult to know the intentions of the cyber criminals who hacked into Democratic and Republican party email systems. Even if the break-ins to computer systems can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, finding the motivation and intentions of the perpetrators is probably beyond the ability of congressional investigators. Who put together the tactics and approved the mission may remain a mystery forever.

No matter how diligently Congress digs into this mess, some people will doubt the conclusions, and the Great Electoral Con of 2016 may forever the the subject of conspiracy theorists and doubters.

It will be telling to see what the Trump Justice Department does with the information Congress exposes. Will the new Justice Department be willing to bring charges against international actors? Will the new president recognize the seriousness of any effort to undermine a presidential election? Or will he consider it just a little practical joke among friends?

Monday, December 5, 2016

McCrory finally accepts the facts

Gov. Pat McCrory has accepted the fact that he lost the 2016 governor's race and has conceded to Attorney General Roy Cooper, the next governor of North Carolina.

McCrory's concession has relieved my worry that he and his GOP colleagues might be plotting a slick move of having the General Assembly declare an election deadlock to give McCrory another term, despite what voters did.

McCrory was the big loser on the state's ballot. Fellow Republicans won statewide elections for U.S. Senate and president, but McCrory lagged far behind his 2012 success. A pre-election hurricane gave McCrory an opportunity to be seen carrying out his responsibilities and empathizing with residents, but that wasn't enough to save him from his self-inflicted wounds. 

The moderate mayor of Charlotte joined hands with the harshest conservatives in the legislature and passed an unnecessary bill that infuriated gay rights supporters across the nation. The legislation was passed in unprecedented haste, and McCrory angrily defended the bill and denied, despite all evidence, that the legislation hurt North Carolina's economy, its prestige and its reputation. It appears obvious that House Bill 2 hurt McCrory's re-election bid, bringing out voters who might not have cared otherwise. McCrory and attorney general candidate Buck Newton, a sponsor and defender of HB2, were the only Republicans in prominent statewide races who failed to win.

The voters have unleashed their anger at McCrory, but little will change so long as the General Assembly has a veto-proof Republican minority, most of them ensconced in gerrymandered safe seats that make them immune from Democratic challengers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Castro's dealth sparks memories

News of Fidel Castro's death took me back to October of 1962. My class sat nervously in the school lunchroom wondering whether we might be vaporized by a massive nuclear attack at any moment. We worried about the future as much as 13-year-olds can worry and felt vulnerable in a way we never had before, even as we had lived through more than a decade of warnings about Soviet surprise attacks that left us watching the skies for Russian bombers.

It made perfect sense for the United States to oppose, in every way possible, the Castro regime in Cuba, just 90 miles off Key West (as we were often reminded). We had heard reports about how brutal and uncivilized the Cuban dictator was. We believed the reports that he had trapped pigeons in his swanky New York hotel room and cooked them rather than eat the restaurant food he was sure was poisoned. We believed the reports of his brutality and immorality. He was a "Godless Communist." Enough said. America had to get rid of him. We tried in the Bay of Pigs but failed. We launched secret plots against him. We imposed an embargo against the whole nation of Cuba. The close ties between the United States and Cuba were severed forever. Americans could not travel to Cuba, but Cuban exiles were welcomed in South Florida, which was transformed by the many thousands of Spanish-speaking Cuban expatriates.

Even though the Cuban Missile Crisis passed without nuclear war, even though the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba's economy had to get by without Soviet financial support, even though Castro's regime became an archaic remnant of an impractical socialist dream, the U.S. embargo on Cuba remained in place. The political power of the South Florida Cuban emigres kept America shackled to a failed policy that accepted worse regimes around the world and failed to unseat Castro. Only after Fidel's health forced him to relinquish his total power over politics, economics and diplomacy and Barack Obama re-examined the failed logic behind the embargo were Americans able to travel to Cuba and trade with Cubans.

Fidel Castro latched onto a doomed political and economic system after the Cuban revolution, leading slowly to the sclerotic economy of today's Cuba, but a fair assessment must admit that he improved the lives of most Cubans. His policies provided free education and free medical care for all Cubans, giving Cubans, despite their low standard of living and lack of modern conveniences, good health and good educations. Most Cubans supported Castro and mourn him now because of those policies.

The post-Castro Cuba will likely become more open and accepting of foreign investment and more welcoming to American tourists, but the future will depend largely on how far Fidel's successors will go in opening the Cuban economy and encouraging free-market employment not dependent upon government jobs, as 80% of Cuban employment is now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

McCrory has an unbeatable election strategy

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory's election strategy seems apparent now, two weeks after the election. He is determined to win the election by taking it out of the hands of voters and giving the Republican-dominated state legislature the power to determine the election victor.

Democratic challenger Roy Cooper leads McCrory by more than 6,000 votes — a margin that has grown as county election boards continue to count absentee and provisional ballots. McCrory's campaign has challenged voting in more than half the state's counties. Thus far, each challenge has been rejected by Republican-dominated county boards of election. Still, McCrory and his soldiers persist in claiming the election isn't settled until every complaint is heard and every vote counted a second time. This week, he called for a recount, even though the first count remains incomplete.

The secret weapon of an incumbent governor in danger of losing an election is an obscure provision in the state constitution giving the legislature the final authority to determine an election victor when electoral squabbles drag on and the election results remain contested. If McCrory and his crew can drag out the vote count just a few more weeks, the General Assembly, with veto-proof Republican majorities in both chambers, can declare McCrory the winner, no matter what the vote totals say.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Not my president"? Think about it

"Not my president" has been the rallying cry of protests against the election of Donald Trump. Did any of the protest leaders think this through?

If Trump is not their president (elect), then where does that leave them? Trump IS the president-elect of the United States of America. Like it or not, that is how the election came out. I've voted in every presidential election since 1972, and many times my vote was wasted on a runner-up for the office. Still, I recognized that in a democracy, as in most of life, you don't "always get what you want" (thank you, Rolling Stones), and I grudgingly accepted the fact that a majority of voters (or electors) selected the person I didn't want.

When someone is elected president of the United States, he or she is the president of all the people — those who voted for him/her, those who cannot stand him/her, those who failed to cast a ballot, those who are giddy at the outcome and those who are angry about the outcome. None of these can rightfully claim "not my president."

Unless, of course they want to really do something about it, such as forsaking their American citizenship, moving to another country — presumably with a leader more to their liking — or starting an insurrection. They should be warned that some secessionist in South Carolina tried that option 155 years ago. They declared that Abraham Lincoln would never be their president. It didn't go well for them.

You can spend the next four years opposing Donald Trump and all that he does, but until you give up your citizenship or a new president is elected, you cannot say he is "not my president."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Finding blame for the electoral loss

A week after the election, the blame is being passed around among Democrats. Hillary Clinton announced that it was FBI director James Comey's fault for his ill-timed review of newly discovered emails. Others blame the ignorance or the brainwashing of Trump voters.

The primary reason for Hillary Clinton's loss should be obvious: Clinton and her campaign strategists blew it. The former secretary of state/senator/first lady ran as an anointed heir, the person whose nomination was a foregone conclusion and whose electoral victory should have been predestined. She was a terrible candidate. She could not inspire and rouse an audience the way Trump or Bernie Sanders could. Her speeches meandered between off-putting shouts at meaningless points and foolish attacks on her opponent's supporters. Her "basket of deplorables" will go down in history as one of the most foolish statements a presidential candidate ever made. Even if you believe it's true that Trump supporters are "deplorable," you shouldn't insult voters, some of whom might be swayed by more sympathetic rhetoric.

Clinton's email server consumed political news for much of the campaign, and she never had a satisfying response to the various leaks. She admitted it was an error and apologized, but the original decision to forgo the government email service for her own private server helped confirm the impression that she was secretive, paranoid and above the law. Her response to an antagonistic question in the Benghazi hearings, "What difference does it make?" could have been a Republican sound bite/summary of her indifference. She was responding to a question about the deaths of American diplomats, and the exasperated response seemed to confirm her own indifference to the lives of other Americans.

Clinton's campaign strategy of attacking Trump fell short because she was not offering a more appealing platform. Trump, like it or not, tapped into the frustrations of the working class while Clinton promised more of the same. For Americans who had done well in the past decade and who liked President Obama (a majority now like him), her promises were attractive. But Americans at the bottom — not poor but not well off — were angry and wanted change, not more of the same, and most were willing to accept all of Trump's many negatives in order to strike a blow at the political establishment Clinton proudly represented.

Her strategy aimed at a coalition of women and minorities, using wedge issues to bring out the Democratic base. But Trump did relatively well among working class women, and minorities were uninspired by Clinton.

Outside the Beltway, Democrats have to do better, and they have to listen more to people who are losing their struggle to keep afloat economically.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

An election like no other

My greatest fear before the election was that some angry Trump supporters would follow through on their promise to go armed to the White House and take over the government if Trump lost. A Trump victory resolved that fear but didn't eliminate all protests and violence. Small protests with some rioting broke out after Hillary Clinton conceded.

A smooth transition of power has been the greatest attribute of American democracy over the past 240 years. Even when the change was abrupt, as it was after the elections of 1800, 1876, 1912, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000 and 2008, there was no rioting and few, if any, public protests.

The 2016 election has shaken not only the leadership in Washington but also the entire political, polling and commentary industries. The polls had it wrong. Nearly every poll showed a Clinton victory -- usually a close win but a win nevertheless. But Trump was able to win nearly every battleground state, some by wide margins. The polls had it wrong, not because they were pulling for the Democratic nominee but because their data were wrong; data were insufficient or distorted by the difficulty of polling in the 21st century. At a time when a majority of people use cell phones instead of land lines, it's increasingly difficult to find a representative sample of the electorate. Pollsters will be examining their techniques and strategies to try to make polling great again.

The armies of political consultants also took a beating. Clinton had hundreds of data analysts, organizers, managers, publicists, graphic designers and other consultants guiding her campaign. She had the greatest "ground game" in history, we were told. Look where it got her! The political consultants, like the pollsters, missed the working class anger that fueled the Trump bulldozer.

They should have known better. Working class anger has been around for a while. Twenty-five years ago, as NAFTA was signed, workers worried but didn't have the power to stop the free trade stampede. The loss of industry, retailers and just basic prosperity in small towns have left millions feeling crushed by the global economy and the politicians who set the table for it. Trump tapped into that anger without offering a viable solution. The anger and frustration were so great that supporters were willing to overlook his insults, misogyny, narcissism and lack of knowledge. All that mattered was getting back at the political establishment that had done them wrong.

Political pundits, including highly regarded conservative writers, backed away from Trump. They couldn't abide the bombastic posturing and the ignorance of policy details that Trump's supporters willingly overlooked. As a result, many, including George Will, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer, exposed Trump's lack of qualifications and urged his defeat. These writers had relied on what the polls said and failed to get out of Washington into the "flyover states" to see how fiercely upset the working class voters were.

At the state level, N.C. Republicans rode the Trump wave, with the exception of Gov. Pat McCrory, who was apparently undone by the "bathroom bill" he had championed. Unofficial results show Democrat Roy Cooper with a slim victory over McCrory, who lost Charlotte, Raleigh and other urban centers. Voters took revenge on McCrory for the unnecessary law that has cost the state an estimated $600 million in investments.

Unfortunately for those voters who wanted revenge, they could knock off McCrory but not the supermajority of Republicans in the General Assembly. Running from gerrymandered districts, legislators didn't have to contend with an electorate diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, party affiliation and political philosophy that McCrory and other statewide candidates did. GOP dominance in the legislative branch is unabated. So long as the General Assembly remains overwhelmingly in GOP hands, nothing will change.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

As election ends, where did we go wrong?

This much-lamented election year is coming to a finale, and few besides the consultants making fortunes off this quadrennial exercise will mourn its passing. What we should be doing as the votes are being counted and thereafter is address what got us to where we are now -- an election with the two most disdained, least trusted and most detested of any presidential candidates in history. How did we get to this?

There is no one influence to blame or one incident or person. This situation took years to develop. We didn't fall off this cliff without climbing to the summit. This is how we got here:

  •  We have an educational system that is not promoting citizenship and civic pride. We have become so self-conscious about historical actions that are now considered hateful, uncivilized and cruel that we forget that people of history lived in a different world with a different set of standards. And Americans were not alone in being on the "wrong side" of the newly aware standards. Slavery, second-class status for women, child labor, and other offenses were universally tolerated at some time by nearly every culture. Young people today do not know history and cannot learn from it or make realistic judgments. Numerous examples are available of high school- and college-educated young people not knowing what the Civil War was about, not knowing who were the Allies of World War II, not knowing the meaning of "Manifest Destiny" or the American melting pot.

  • Our entertainment culture has become a dangerous substitute for education. Americans cannot name Supreme Court justices, their senators or the three branches of government, but they know the names of movie stars and singers and all their friends.

  • Money has distorted politics and election campaigns, forcing candidates to constantly raise money from big donors and to use that money to attack their opponents. Congress has become so polarized that members barely communicate with members of the other party. Political "experts" on each side lie in wait for a misplaced word or an unfiltered sentence from political opponents, and they build their campaigns and their strategies around these "gaffes," rather than serious dialogue on important policies.

  •  The news media, which is dominated by broadcast and online media, are too much controlled by managers steeped in entertainment instead of pure news. As a result, they focus on unimportant spectacles, such as Hillary Clinton's private email or Donald Trump's hands, instead of important matters, such as North Korea's nuclear arsenal or Putin's vision of a dominant Russia.

  •  Worst of all, poorly educated, entertainment-focused Americans with very brief attention spans refuse to think seriously about the most serious issues of the day. Those issues are out there, hidden behind the salivating coverage of insults, attacks and wayward comments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Election Day: It's one week away

Today is one week from Election Day, and I have not voted. I have never voted before Election Day. Call me Old School, but I like the idea of going to the polls along with 200 million or so other Americans and exercising my right to vote as a collective ritual.

I don't wait until Election Day because I'm undecided. I'm usually off the "undecided" list at least a month before the election. I don't wait to see if there is some "October Surprise" that might change my decision at the last minute. I've seen enough "October Surprises" to recognize that many of them are as contrived as a surprise party and no more consequential.

No, I vote on Election Day because that is how American democracy was originally designed. Since the election of George Washington, a single day has been set aside for the election of president and members of Congress. If a single day for voting was good enough in 1789, it should be good enough today.

I don't resent "early voting." In fact, I recognize that all those people standing in line to vote early weeks before Election Day clears away the line for me on Election Day, when I show up around about sunrise and greet a new day and, perhaps, a new era. I should thank all those early voters for getting out of my way so I don't have to stand in line.

Exercise your right to vote. If you haven't voted early, join me next Tuesday on the day our forefathers set aside for this national ritual of democracy.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Baseball is still there, after 50 years of neglect

For the first time in about 50 years, I have watched a few innings of the World Series this week.

What has gotten into me?

I abandoned Major League Baseball in my 20s. It was just too dull compared to football and basketball. I quit watching games, and I quit following teams. I quit reading the sports section between the end of college basketball season and the beginning of football season. Right now, I would be hard pressed to name even one current Major League ballplayer.

As an adolescent and teenager, I followed baseball. All little boys were required to play baseball, I think. I argued with friends about the comparative worth of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. I watched or listened to World Series games.

What I discovered after turning on the World Series for a couple of hours Tuesday and Wednesday nights was that things have changed since I last paid attention. Changed a lot. The special effects that show the strike zone and where the baseball met that rectangle and the radar gun that tells you the speed of every pitch make the game more interesting.

Baseball has come a long way since the days I remember with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese doing the commentary and everything being black-and-white.

I don't think I will go back to following baseball. It still seems in many ways to a throwback to an earlier age when all boys played backyard baseball, often with balls held together by electrical tape. Those days extended from my father's era (born 1918) through my own baby boomer years. We were all characters in a "Little Rascals" world.

I won't go back to those days, but I am glad to see baseball is still around and has become a little more television viewer-friendly.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Violence has no role in modern politics

The firebombing of the Republican Party headquarters in Hillsborough last week represents a new low in politics in a year of new lows in politics. But the firebombing and graffiti are more than just a new low. They are an attack on the American political/governmental system.

Politics developed as an alternative to the historical way of choosing leaders — armed combat. Democratic elections and campaigning evolved as a means of deciding who will lead a group or nation without bloodshed. Instead of the victor killing his rival, democratic politics allowed potential leaders to present their leadership qualities as more than brute force. Ideas, innovations, inspirational abilities, and resilience became factors in selecting leaders.

There have been occasional lapses into anachronistic brutality a few times in the American democracy, but those lapses have been rare. Political assassinations have been carried out primarily by deluded, mentally disturbed malcontents, not by political parties.

The 2016 campaign frequently has turned nasty, but nasty only in words, not in action. Nasty words from candidates and political advertising have repelled voters, but words have not devolved into violence — until the Hillsborough incident. Given the intensity of the contempt and hatred of this year's political rhetoric (just look at Facebook posts), it should be no surprise that words turned violent. 

Fortunately, both Republican and Democratic leaders condemned the firebombing for what it was, political terrorism and attack on the democratic process itself. Democrats raised money to help rebuild the GOP headquarters. More should be done in a bipartisan fashion to tone down the hateful rhetoric and lift up the mutual respect between the parties and candidates that used to mark American political campaigns. We need to bring back the "honorable representative from ..." and "my friends across the aisle" and "my honorable opponent." Such standards, even if insincere, would elevate the tone of debate.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Smoking is no longer socially acceptable

Over a period of more than two decades, I edited newspapers in two cities whose economies were dependent upon tobacco. As such, I frequently defended tobacco farmers and the tobacco industry against regulatory restrictions, taxation and social stigma. My arguments were not that there's nothing wrong with or unhealthy about smoking; rather, I argued that smoking is a rational choice (even if it's an unhealthy choice — one of many unhealthy choices people make) and that over-taxation threatens to destroy the tax base. If higher taxes discourage people from smoking, tobacco tax revenues will drop, leaving federal, state and local governments with budgetary holes.

In the early years of my newspaper career, smoking was prevalent. All of us put up with the smoke and the ashes and the butts and the fire hazard. We made do by seeking places to eat or to read or do other things away from the smokers and the odor that followed them. When restaurants began offering non-smoking tables, we rejoiced, though some non-smoking sections still exuded the foul odor of ashes. Smoking sections were not sealed off from the non-smoking. When restaurants began banning smoking and when state laws made it illegal to smoke in restaurants and office spaces, we rejoiced.

The smoke and ashes that had not bothered us so much years before suddenly became a major annoyance. When the smoke cleared (literally and figuratively), we recognized the odors left by cigarette smoke. Now, years after smoking was  banned in nearly all indoor public places, I can quickly identify smokers who come into my office or pass me in a hallway. The smoking odor stays with them. It's in their clothes, their hair and their skin, making them immediately identifiable to non-smokers.

In the past three or four decades, smoking has gone from an accepted practice in homes, offices, workplaces, schools and even hospitals and doctor's offices to an anomaly practiced by less than 20 percent of adults in this country. Those smoking adults, unless they are especially discreet, may be shunned by the non-smoking majority. It's not just the smoke and the ashes and the butts and the health risks. It's the offending odor and the obvious bad choice smoking proclaims.

When we were married 45 years ago, one of our wedding gifts was an ash tray, though neither of us smoked. But as congenial hosts, we would be expected to provide an ash tray in our home for our guests. No more. If you see an ash tray in a store these days, it's a strange anachronism.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

In this strangest of election years

Four weeks from the election, and things are going from bad to worse. Donald Trump, miffed at Speaker Paul Ryan's decision not to campaign with him, is calling Ryan names and waging war against the political party that nominated him. In Trump's mind, he is bigger than the Republican Party. He's bigger than anyone, than any organization, than any standards of conduct.

 The video tape of Trump's offensive comments about women, which was released last Friday, has been the most tumultuous event of this presidential election season. It topped his insults toward former presidential nominee John McCain, toward women celebrities and toward other Republican candidates.

What is astounding, but shouldn't be, considering the pattern of this campaign, is that Trump's loyal supporters, including women and highly religious voters, have dismissed his offensive remarks as meaningless. They say they are not offended! Nothing signifies the great divide in the electorate than this: his loyal followers are willing to accept any sort of misbehavior, any sort of petulant tantrum, any sort of offensive speech or action in order to elect Trump, a candidate whose campaign has been built not on understanding of the issues or the offering of detailed solutions but on 144-character quips and retorts.

Some of this myopia owes, no doubt, to his supporters' distrust of Hillary Clinton, whose life has been a swirl of controversy for 25 years. Many, perhaps even a majority, of the people who will vote for Clinton have some degree of discomfort with her honesty, openness, forthrightness and character. But they will swallow their doubts in order to avoid a Trump presidency.

On the state level, Hurricane Matthew may be the best thing that has happened to Gov. Pat McCrory this campaign cycle. The hurricane gave the governor a chance to display leadership and appear frequently in news broadcasts. He took center stage at hurricane updates, and he urged North Carolinians to obey evacuation orders and avoid hazardous situations. Less senior state officials could have handled the briefings, but McCrory, in his uniform-like Public Safety  shirt, took the podium. He's not the first governor to take advantage of a news opportunity (Jim Hunt perfected the procedure), but McCrory, trailing in the polls, needed the spotlight.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

A tragic accident waiting to happen

I was a pedestrian on a neighborhood street (no sidewalks in our neighborhood) shortly before sunset last night when I was approached by a four-wheeled vehicle coming toward me. I moved closer to the curb and got more cautious as I realized the vehicle — like the vehicles used to move equipment or injured players at football games — was being driven by a little girl, about 8 or 10 years old by my quick estimation. An adult was seated next to her, but she was at the wheel. Another child was in the cargo area behind the seats.

Although I was prepared to leap onto someone's lawn if the vehicle veered toward me, it passed by without incident and then came at me again in the next block. All the things that might go wrong in this scenario frightened me. The little driver could misjudge her distance from me or other pedestrians and knock them down; she might accidentally spin the steering wheel and plow into them; she might simply lose control of the gasoline-powered vehicle and do all sorts of property damage.

No police car happened by while I was within sight of the vehicle, but I began counting up all the violations a cop might issue to the young driver and the adult beside her:

° Driving an unregistered (no tag) vehicle on a public street;
° Driving without a license;
° Allowing an underage, unlicensed driver to operate a motor vehicle;
° Seat belt violations — at least the kid in the back was not belted; I couldn't tell whether the adult and child in the front were wearing seat belts or if the vehicle even had seat belts;
° Transporting an underage child in the open bed of a truck.

It must have been great fun for the two kids and for the man with them, but that fun flirts with disaster and tragedy. If you must let children drive a vehicle like this one, find a vacant parking lot where no one else is jeopardized, then hope nothing happens to injure those in the vehicle.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Charlotte like I'd never seen before

I grew up about 40 miles east of Charlotte, which was the "big city" we would go to for serious shopping at Sears & Roebuck, Belk's and Ivey's. I learned to drive in heavy traffic in that city, and I lived in Charlotte for two summers in my early 20s.

When I go to Charlotte now, where my daughter and a few other relatives live, I don't recognize much of anything. I can travel streets I knew 50 years ago, but they are no longer familiar. New construction has changed the streetscapes and the skyline, and the roads themselves have been transformed.

What I recognize least about Charlotte this week are the scenes of mass rioting (there is no kinder word for the chaos two nights this week). Charlotte was always a place our parents would warn us to be careful about; big cities were not like the friendly small towns we knew. But I never saw any crime or felt endangered in all the nights we drove or walked Charlotte streets.

Video and still photos of gangs blocking Interstate 85 and looting big trucks, then setting fire to their loot in the middle of an interstate highway appalled me. It's amazing that more people weren't injured, that many of the pedestrians running onto the interstate lanes weren't run down by speeding vehicles (I've driven I-85 enough to worry about being inside a car on that highway), that so many people were focused on destruction, not protest; that police were not rounding up suspects by the dozen and charging them with blocking traffic and destruction of property; that simple, civilized decency seemed to have been abandoned. 

I know this began as a protest over the police shooting of a black man. Police say he was armed and posed an imminent danger. Investigators have recovered a firearm. Others say he was unarmed and harmless.

Regardless of how this investigation and inevitable court cases are resolved, a fatal shooting does not justify looting, burning and blocking interstate highways. None of the people on the highway the night after the shooting had anything to do with what transpired Tuesday afternoon. The scenes of the riots were reminiscent of the violence in Baltimore when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Ultimately, prosecutors could not get a single conviction against any of the officers (both white and black) who had been charged in Gray's death. Property owners who had nothing to do with Gray's death or with police procedure sustained losses because they happened to be within reach of mobs intent on stealing and destroying.

What do the protests leading to riots accomplish? Even if someone is charged with first-degree murder, the verdict won't come in minutes after the shooting. Do the rioters expect to have the shooter handed over to the mob in a new twist on lynchings? Vigilante justice is never just. The United States has a court system that is the envy of the world, but it takes time to reach decisions.

We can recognize the need for better police training and for accountability when law enforcement officers shoot a suspect, but stopping traffic, looting a Walmart and rioting does not bring about accountability, only destruction.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Counting the damage from HB2

It was bad enough when Pay Pal and other big companies revoked plans to invest in and bring high-paying jobs to North Carolina because of House Bill 2, which limited protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people and forbade cities from passing anti-discrimination laws of their own. HB2 also established a requirement that everyone use bathrooms and locker rooms conforming to the gender on their birth certificates, a law aimed at transgender people.

The national reaction against the law was overwhelming. Bruce Springsteen refused to play a concert in a state where HB2 rules. Other individuals, organizations and corporations followed suit. Gov. Pat McCrory and his Republican colleagues in the legislature complained that North Carolina was being singled out while other states with similar laws were not boycotted. McCrory's complaint had some validity, but North Carolina's HB2 went further than other states' rules, and GOP leaders in the state dug in their heels rather than seeking a compromise.

Now the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference have weighed in on the HB2 debate by pulling all NCAA and ACC championship events from the state. This is more than legal maneuvering or political correctness. This is basketball and football. This is a slap in the face of the state that birthed and reared the Atlantic Coast Conference. The conference's headquarters is in Greensboro, which is also the traditional site of many of its premier events. The cost to the state will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The NCAA contracts with venues for "March Madness" games years in advance. The loss of this year's games will affect tournament sites for years to come. More millions of dollars will go to other states.

McCrory's strong streak of self-righteousness has kept him from admitting that the hastily passed law he supported and signed might be wrong. He and other Republican leaders have "doubled down" on their insistence that HB2 is a privacy protection law.

As an aging male who remembers what it was like to be a15-year-old boy and as a father of two daughters, I have a certain empathy for parents who recoil at the thought of boys sharing the shower room with their middle-school or high school daughters after phys ed class. A narrowly structured law could address this concern without the ban on anti-discrimination laws and other portions of HB2. Likewise, the bathroom issue can be resolved by admitting that transgender people — a minuscule subset of the population — have been using the bathrooms of their choice for years.

Some Republicans now appear willing to reconsider HB2, but the damage to North Carolina's economy and pride has been done. Pay Pal isn't going to reverse course. Springsteen won't give a "make-up" concert. The NCAA is accepting invitations from other states to play post-season events there. North Carolina, the home of the ACC, will likely be on the outside looking in for years to come. You might even have to worry about the ACC headquarters. If ACC teams can't play tournaments in North Carolina, can the conference keep its headquarters in Greensboro without being accused of hypocrisy?

Even people who support HB2's provisions have to admit that the law has hurt the state in economic, cultural and prestige measures. The Republican General Assembly will have to undo this error as soon as possible, like it or not.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Politicians get sick, and some make mistakes

Politicians get sick. Just like people do.

Hillary Clinton got sick. Her physician told her last Friday that it was pneumonia, told her to take some time off and rest. She didn't. She had a presidency to win. She couldn't let up. So that's what led to the eerie Sunday incident when the Democratic presidential nominee left the New York City 9/11 memorial service.

What made it weird was her clandestine departure. No announcement, no apology, no news reporters. She was simply whisked away. Hours later her campaign announced that she had gotten overheated at the ceremony and had to go to her daughter's apartment. Later still, the campaign announced the three-day-old diagnosis of pneumonia. Was she ashamed of getting pneumonia, as if it were a sexually transmitted disease?

It's not as if campaign trail illnesses were unheard of. Richard Nixon famously had been ill just before the 1960 presidential debates. Being sick didn't help his performance or his appearance, but he got through it. Lyndon Johnson showed off the incision from his gall bladder surgery. George H.W. Bush vomited at a state dinner in Japan. Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack before his 1956 re-election bid. Jack Kennedy had a persistent, chronic illness most of his life, in addition to the back injury he sustained in World War II. FDR was deathly ill when he won re-election to a fourth term in 1944, only to die a few months later.

Illness is not a disqualifying factor in presidential politics. Clinton's stumble and near collapse getting into a waiting van should not be a factor in her presidential chances. But her penchant for secretiveness might hurt her electability. A smarter, less secretive, less controlling politician would have issued a statement last Friday. "I have pneumonia. The doctor says I have to take a few days off. See you next week." She didn't do that, prompting David Axlerod, who ran Barack Obama's campaigns, to tweet: "Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What's the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?"

What Clinton and her campaign staff should be worrying about is not her bout with pneumonia but her insensitive and incendiary comment about Donald Trump's supporters. She said half of Trump's supporters were "a basket of deplorables," then went on to describe them — racist, sexist, anti-gay, etc. She had to apologize for generalizing so badly. Trump wasted little time in telling supporters that "she thinks you're deplorable. I think you're hard-working." She gave him what might be his best line of the entire campaign. Few people disagree that Trump supporters include some racists (some of them proudly racist), sexists, anti-gays, misogynists and so forth, but that's no reason to insult "half" the Trump supporters.

Her remark is reminiscent of Trump's comments early in the campaign about Mexican immigrants being rapists, murderers, etc. Trump is shrewd enough to use her remarks to his advantage, and her words might turn away the more moderate of Trump's followers.

Clinton's secretiveness and her insulting categorization of blocs of voters have delivered two self-inflicted wounds to her campaign.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Presidential election system is broken

It's no longer news that something like 60% of the nation's voters have negative views of both major party presidential nominees. Never before have two presidential candidates gone into an election disliked by so many voters.

We have to ask: Is the American presidential nomination process all wrong? Reforms over the last 50 years have given individual voters more influence in the nomination process. Nominees are selected now primarily by voters in the party primaries. Primary votes are translated into delegates, and delegates affirm the primary results at the party conventions. Before these reforms, party nominees were elected primarily by political power brokers in each party and by delegates to local, state and national party conventions. Reforms have shifted power from the "party bosses" to the broader electorate.

See how well that's worked out?

The primary selection system looks good on paper, but there are some flaws. State primaries that stretch across six months or more are influenced by "momentum" — candidates who do well in the early voting gain an advantage in publicity and in fundraising. Those who falter early usually drop out. But the earliest primaries are held in smaller, less diverse states, such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. States that are more representative of the nation's demographics as a whole — California, Texas and others — hold primaries later, oftentimes after the nomination has been settled. A single nationwide primary or a series of closely scheduled regional primaries might give truly national candidates a better chance.

Obscene amounts of money are poured into the primaries, to the point that the contests are often more about fundraising ability than about issues or governance. Reducing the influence and mandate of fundraising would make the primaries more about issues and governing ability than about money. Curtailing money's primacy might take a constitutional amendment, or maybe just a limit on presidential campaigning before a certain date, say May 31 of an election year. I'm reminded that John F. Kennedy did not announce his candidacy until January 1960. Today's presidential candidates are announcing at least a year earlier.

The news media and the modern 24-7 news cycle are partly to blame for the mess we've made of the most important decisions in American politics. Entertainment-based political coverage ignores difficult issues and focuses instead on the sensational, the personal and the provocative. This year's presidential season has focused on hand size, marital fidelity, emails and name-calling, all abetted by news media that blare the irrelevant while ignoring the important. Broadcast media, which are licensed by the government to use the public airwaves, should lose their licenses for failure to make political coverage about issues rather than sensationalism. Print media should use its First Amendment protections to deliver information that is truly important, not just spectacular. Broadcast licenses and the First Amendment are public trusts, which carry an obligation to deliver important information to the public.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the voters to reject the hype and the focus on things that don't matter and demand more coverage of what does matter. But like the high schoolers who can name all the winners of the Grammy awards but cannot name their state's governor or senators, too many voters don't have the knowledge to discern what is important.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Million Dollar Quartet" entertains

"Million Dollar Quartet" packs as much fun and rock-and-roll music into 90 uninterrupted minutes as you'll likely ever see on a stage. A special preview performance Wednesday night at Barton College's Kennedy Theater had the audience tapping feet, clapping hands and cheering the music of a magical episode in 1950s Memphis.

The quartet comprises Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The play dramatizes a brief meeting of the four rising stars at Sun Records, owned by rock music midwife Sam Phillips. The four legends had their starts at Sun Records but drifted away from Phillips, who had molded their musical styles.

With narrative from Phillips, played ably by David McClutchey, the play describes the beginnings of rock-and-roll, when a young, post-war generation hungered for music faster, sassier, more raucous than their parents' mellow Big Band sound. Phillips recognized that hunger and found musicians to fill the void.

That story is familiar to rock historians and to aging baby boomers, but the cast of "Million Dollar Quartet" put flesh and sound to the bare bones of the story. Each of the quartet legends took his turn at songs that are modern classics, and, to the cast's credit, they captured the sounds, the gestures and the excitement of the characters.

Joe Boover as Elvis copied "The King's" swaying hips and insouciant look. Ted Bushman as Johnny Cash swung his guitar like a pendulum in the Cash style and found Cash's deep voice on "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues." Ian Fairlee as Jerry Lee Lewis pounded the piano like the original "Killer" and exuded his character's wild sexuality.

It was Michael Kennedy's guitar playing, more than his imitation of Carl Perkins, that set him apart and carried the musical numbers. It's hard to imagine the play being a success without his electric guitar playing lead. His lines remind the audience that, except for an unfortunate accident, he might have ridden the crest of popularity that carried Elvis to superstardom, partly on the strength of Perkins' song, "Blue Suede Shoes."

Taylor Kraft as Dyanne, girlfriend of Elvis, takes a turn at the microphone and belts out a memorable "Fever," then provides a sensual background by swaying and swinging as others sang.

Much credit has to go to Jon Rossi's work as drummer and musical director. The drumbeat leads the way in many of the songs, and Rossi makes sure the drums are heard. Jason William Steffen, as Carl Perkins' brother, keeps the beat on the upright bass and also dances with and climbs on the big bass as the music inspires him.

This entire play is an ode to the early days of rock and roll, and if you lived through it, or if you've tapped your feet to the music, you'll love this play. It's 90 minutes of history set to music. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Goodbye August; hello September

Today, we say goodbye to August. Tomorrow, we are in September. Oh, the promise of September! The month brings its cooler nights, its refreshing days, its cooling breezes. Already, we are seeing the gloaming light after sunset as the sun's angle grows more acute and shines its eerie glow into the sky from beneath the horizon.

I love September. When I worked in Washington, Augusts were intolerable. Not only were the roads clogged with tourists, but smog hung over the city so thick that I could not see the Potomac River from my seventh-floor office barely a mile away. In September, the crowds thinned, and the air cleared, at least a little, and I appreciated the beauty of the nation's capital.

As August swings into September, opportunities to do yard work after leaving the office grow shorter. Mowing grass will have to wait until weekends. Walks or runs in the early mornings or late afternoons are imperiled by darkness. Even the stroll down the driveway to retrieve the morning paper is done in darkness now as I try to discern the rolled-up newspaper from among the streetlight's shadows.

Those shorter days of September have their detriments, but the benefits of cooler days make up for the longer darkness.

Monday, August 29, 2016

How close we were to disaster

It scares me even now, some 40 years later. I was a young father working at entry-level jobs at the beginning of a career in journalism, a field widely known as being low-paying. We survived through intense frugality, cautious family finance, and a willingness to endure whatever came so long as we could be together.

We look back on those days nostalgically now, but what scares me is this: I had a grand total of $10,000 in life insurance. My wife was not employed; she stayed home with three small children and made home and life better for all of us. It surely occurred to me, but I put it out of my mind. I had only $10,000 in life insurance. If anything happened to me — if my car skidded on an icy highway, if a drunk driver failed to see me jogging or biking along the shoulder of the road, if I suddenly developed a cancer or some other fatal illness — my wife and children would not have enough money to last them three months.

Somehow, I must have convinced myself, my still young and beautiful wife would find another husband, one who made enough money to support her and the children better than I had. I was deluding myself — no single man wants a wife laden with three children.

The truth is, had I died with only $10,000 in life insurance, it would have been catastrophic for my family. They would be impoverished, dependent upon government assistance and the generosity of relatives to survive. Even now, it makes me shudder to think of it.

These nightmares are irrelevant now. My little children are grown; they are self-supporting and successful; they have children of their own. My wife has completed her college degree and has a successful career. Each of us has enough life insurance to see us through the fiscal trauma of the loss of a spouse.

Still, I shudder thinking about how close we were to disaster, and I count my blessings that I not only had all that I had then and have now; I was blessed that my family never had to face life without me and without better life insurance.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The cable monopolies won't give up

The cable companies that every subscriber detests will not give up. They won't go away. Federal agencies designed to protect consumers can't stop them. They use their revenues from over-charged subscribers to appeal the Federal Communications Commission's decisions to federal courts. In the national view, they are the 800-pound gorillas in the room. States, cities and individual consumers are nothing more than annoying insects.

The big cable companies, which fought hard in the North Carolina General Assembly to outlaw competition from local governments and thereby protect their monopolistic practices, won a gift from a federal appeals court. The court ruled recently that the FCC cannot regulate cable services that provide internet access and cable television signals. The ruling leaves in place the state legislature's monopoly-endorsing law that makes it next to impossible for local governments to provide internet, phone and TV signals.

The city of Wilson, which had already put its Greenlight service into use before the law passed, was exempted from the barricade. But the ruling stamps out Wilson's intentions to expand its popular cable service.

Sen. Thom Tillis, who was leader of the Republican majority that passed the protectionist legislation, added insult to the injury with this statement: “Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hardworking taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market.” How is forcing "hardworking taxpayers" to buy their cable services at higher costs protecting consumers? Tillis should get the Double-Talk of the Year award for that piece of self-serving and false rhetoric.

Local governments that want to provide internet services to their communities, in places where the big monopolies don't want to go, with services the monopolies don't want to provide and at prices the monopolies think are too low, will have to appeal this decision to a higher court. If they can afford it. The cable monopolies will use their over-priced services to finance appeal after appeal — anything to protect their monopoly and the state legislation they bought from cheap politicians.

Read more here:

Monday, August 22, 2016

What we might learn from Nixon

I've recently watched PBS' "Presidents" series on John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Oh, the memories of the sixties and seventies! The JFK program affirmed my admiration for the man whose presidency and influence were cut tragically short. The LBJ series made me want to go back and re-read all four volumes of Robert Caro's extraordinary biography of Johnson, one of the most influential and tragic of presidents. I had commented in the past about what President Obama could learn from LBJ, who knew how to cajole members of Congress to pass his tectonic civil rights legislation.

The segment on Nixon brought back so many memories of the early 1970s, when I was working in Washington, Nixon was in the White House and the "plumbers" were in the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. I've always thought that Nixon's problems as president were the result of his own paranoia, his distrust of everyone and his resentment of people born wealthier and luckier than he. The PBS segment bolsters that impression but also gives credit to Nixon's visionary foreign policy. Under Nixon there was a global strategy for building peace through alliances with other nations. His opening to China, his Middle East negotiations, and his arms accord with the Soviet Union were portions of an overall strategy to balance global interests and power for peaceful progress. Even his Vietnam strategy, although never successfully implemented, sought a peaceful, political exit from a military stalemate.

In an election year, it would be comforting to think that our presidential candidates have a grand strategy for balancing trade, military power and national interest. I'm not hearing that from either national candidate this year, so we might well stumble into another war or a disastrous series of protective tariffs that cripple world trade and the global economy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Family gatherings, a generation apart

We are back from a three-day weekend at Beech Mountain with our three children, their spouses and our six grandchildren. It was a wonderful, relaxing time as we talked into the night with the adults and watched the children play together excitedly.

The experience made me think back to my own childhood when I was the age of those grandchildren, and my mother's five siblings and their children would gather every Sunday afternoon at my maternal grandparents' rural home. They were close, literally and figuratively. All but one of the siblings lived within 10 miles of the textile mill village where they all grew up and some still worked. The one distant sister was only 50 miles away. It's harder now for us to gather our children from more distant locales.

The comforting joy I felt at seeing all my children and grandchildren together made me wonder: When was the last time my parents had all their children together at once?

It must have been in 1961, when my oldest brother arrived by interstate bus from the Air Force base where he'd been posted and spent several days at home. A year later, our sister died at 17 in a car crash, and our parents would never see all of their five children together again. We survivors grew families of our own and gathered periodically at family reunions, when all could make the trip from our widely dispersed locations, or at Christmas, when, a few times, our parents packed three families into their modest farmhouse. They crammed 10 or 12 or 13 people into a house of no more than 1,200 square feet, some sleeping on the floor, because Christmas was when our parents wanted everyone to be together.

That family never gathered at resort locations — never at the beach or the mountains — but at the little house where we'd all grown up or at some church fellowship hall with ties to a family member. In the big reunions, where all my mother's or my father's siblings and their families would gather, there were no opportunities to gather quietly over morning coffee or an evening nightcap and talk and talk.

All the things my parents missed out on saddens me, knowing they loved their children and grandchildren as much as we love ours. But theirs was a different era, and their lives were broken by tragedies and great burdens. Still, I know they would have loved to have spent a long weekend surrounded by five children and 11 grandchildren (plus any my older sister might have added, had she lived longer).

I smile for my parents the smile they would have smiled if they had only experienced the joy we experienced last weekend, far from home and surrounded by generations who share our genes.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Brotherly verses

I have two brothers, both older than I, and lately I have found myself thinking of them and even dreaming about them. Writing is my way of examining my life, so two poems emerged from my memories. With your indulgence, two brotherly poems:

Batter up

I watched you in the yard
by the gravel driveway
swinging that thirty-five inches of oak flooring.
You’d toss a small white rock from the driveway
and swat it out of sight.
You could stand there for hours.
“Batting rocks,” you called it.
Your “bat” was chewed on one end by all those rocks
that you sent soaring beyond our sight
and smoothed by strong hands and sweat
on the other end.
Did you see the hayloft of the old barn
as Fenway Park’s left field wall?
The barn’s tin roof as Yankee Stadium’s parapets?
Or were you only thinking
of the limits life gave you
the smallness of the town
the lack of opportunities.
No talent scouts or position coaches
were there to bring out your potential.
In the evening twilight you’d stand out there
swinging, swinging,
the crack of rock against wood the only sound.
It could not have been for conditioning
that you smacked at rocks with a puny stick.
If not daydreams of baseball greatness
what kept you there in that side yard by the gravel drive?
Were you planning your escape or striking back
at smooth igneous rocks that could blast your frustrations
over that old barn and far beyond?
The rocks are gone, covered by asphalt.
The house where we shared a room is also gone.
But when I hear the crack of a bat, I still see you
tossing white rocks and batting them over the barn.


The Long Drive

Those days and miles must have been long

in the days when interstates were not on the maps.

The two-lane roads stretched to the tree-lined horizon

and trudged through towns more squalid than quaint

with their stoplights and speed traps.

You found your way through turns left and right

mandated by numbers and arrows and the occasional word.

At first just the two of you and your simmering impatience,

then the children, added 1, 2, 3, 4 in rapid succession,

requiring larger cars to haul the family over all those miles.

And return home with a trunk full of Cheerwine.

You must have left early to arrive by mid-afternoon

at the house where you grew up,

its residents running outside to greet you

as you stiffly emerged from the car after eight or nine hours.

We made that trip at least once before I could drive

speeding through the night with packed food and drinks,

the static on the radio the only thing keeping us awake

as we traveled those same two lanes in the other direction.

In rural darkness I searched for stars and the Milky Way.

It would have been easy for you to stay close to home,

to vacation with your children at a nearby beach or park.

Instead, you showed them whence you came,

a little house flanked by fields and woods

that you knew by sight and sound and smell and feel

in a world held together by parents we all had left behind.

Your road trips showed those children your fiery impatience

and also your loyalty, compassion and love.

July 25, 2016

A hint of autumn is in the air

The chill in the air this morning was faint but refreshing. After a fortnight of scorching heat and suffocating humidity, the contrast was obvious. Feathery clouds sprinkled the sky like a dusting of talcum powder on a blue silk scarf. A breeze ruffled the trees and tickled the skin. The air we inhaled felt different, cleaner, sweeter, lighter, sharper, altogether better than the heavy, moisture-laden air of recent days. I wanted to stand there and breathe it in, fill my lungs until they sing out.

August lingers on, but autumn — glorious, hearty, lovely, colorful autumn — is hiding just ahead, tossing out little hints of what's to come. Like this morning.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

An apropriate quote from 63 years ago

Donald Trump's latest exercise in egocentricity could be the moment that at last sinks his unprecedented campaign for the presidency. He was responding to the most moving and emotional moment of last week's Democratic National Convention, when a grieving father recalled the heroism of his slain son, an Army officer in Iraq taking the lead to approach a suspicious vehicle, which detonated as he was merely feet away.

The father, Khizr Khan, challenged Trump, telling him that he didn't know what sacrifice was, that he had never sacrificed anything while he and thousands of other fathers had sacrificed their sons for this country.

Trump, who could have safely no-commented or merely expressed sympathy and gratefulness for the Khan family's loss, chose to attack Khan and his wife while at the same time comparing their sacrifice with what he viewed as his own sacrifices. He worked hard, he said; he created jobs, he built companies. Yes, he insisted, those are sacrifices, implicitly, just like the Khans' sacrifice of their son.

One longs for a voice from the past, shouting indignantly, as in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, "Sir, have you no sense of decency?"

Contrast Trump's insensitive and senseless provocation with Abraham Lincoln's heartfelt, handwritten letter to the mother of five sons killed in battle. He offered his sympathy and praised her martyred sons as soldiers who "have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom." Trump can only imply, "Well, I have suffered, too!" Lincoln was humble and presidential, two adjectives that do not apply to Trump.

The attack on grieving parents and the conflating of his "sacrifices" to theirs could become the defining moment of this campaign. It might finally shock the electorate to abandon Trump once and for all. Or maybe not.

Will the Trump faithful overlook or dismiss yet another offense by the Republican presidential nominee? After all, his faithful have forgiven Trump other insulting, condescending, narcissistic comments in the past:

° He insisted that Sen. John McCain, who spent four years in a North Vietnamese prison and was permanently disabled by torture, was not a hero.
° In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and no documentary support, he insisted that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya.
° He implied that Sen. Ted Cruz's father conspired with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
° He accepted the support of a Ku Klux Klan leader.
° He proclaims himself a Christian but shows little familiarity with the Christian Bible or what most Christians would consider a Christian lifestyle.
° He praises Vladimir Putin, who has returned Russia to dictatorial rule and dangerously provocative diplomatic and military steps.
° He ignores the seriousness of the "Brexit" vote to break up the European Union because he thinks it will be good for his golf courses in Britain.
° He has suggested that he could strengthen the U.S. economy by having the Treasury default on its debts.
° He has refused to release his income tax returns, which has been an unspoken rule for the past 40 years. Will American voters never find out what those returns would reveal?
° He has suggested that maybe the United States, under his reign, would not honor its 67-year commitment to NATO. 

If Trump supporters are willing to follow their leader regardless of what he does or says, perhaps that question from 1954 should be asked of them on election day: "Have you no sense of decency?"

Thursday, July 28, 2016

What's wrong with Washington and how to fix it

My wife purchased and I read (she is immersed in a novel and has not gotten around to it yet) the book by two former Senate majority leaders, Tom Daschle (D) and Trent Lott (R), "Crisis Point." I had heard about the book on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show" and in published reviews. 

Lott and Daschle lay out what's wrong with Washington, and there's plenty wrong. There is also plenty of blame to go around. Both parties over years of increasingly partisan politics have contributed to an atmosphere of obstruction, persecution, non-stop campaigning and other ills that have led to an inability to get anything substantive accomplished. Even passing a federal budget has become undoable.

Lott and Daschle, who got along well for being two antagonists in highly volatile times, point to the explosion of money in political campaigns and politicians' need to constantly raise money or lose to a better-funded candidate. But there is more. In the 1990s, spurred by House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, the House developed a calendar that is essentially a three-day work week, from Tuesday to Thursday. Gingrich claimed that would keep representatives closer to their constituents because they could "go home" every weekend. What they did on those weekends, however, was more about raising campaign funds than talking to constituents. It had another impact: Representatives were not in Washington with their colleagues. The collegial atmosphere of Congress was lost. The Washington social scene, which kept congressmen and their families together and built cross-party friendships, was no more.

Another factor was redistricting, which is required by the Constitution every 10 years. But the increased capabilities of computerized redistricting made it possible to create congressional districts that sliced voter populations down to a single Democrat or Republican. That created all kinds of mischief. Democrats and Republicans created districts that made their incumbents virtually challenge-proof. In the past few years, most members of Congress had to worry more about a party primary challenger than about the general election opponent because one party's voters dominated more and more electoral districts.

Lott and Daschle offer some recommendations for improving Congress and the election process, which could at least improve productivity on Capitol Hill.

This election year, with a candidate promising to overturn all that's wrong with Washington with the stroke of a pen or a dictatorial edict, the Daschle-Lott book may seem to complicated for the electorate, but it's worth a read. The authors are guys who have been inside the machinery of government. They know how it works, and they have some good suggestions for fixing things without resorting to one-man rule.