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.