Sunday, June 25, 2017

A book about life from a dying woman

In the past month, I have recommended Nina Riggs' book, "The Bright Hour," to a dozen or more people. Each time, I told the story of this brilliantly talented woman, a close friend of my son and his wife, who had breast cancer and chronicled her bout with the "one small spot" that turned into a metastatic aggressor in her blog, an article in The New York Times' "Modern Love" section and, finally, in this book.

The topic is not one that most people care to read about. It's sad, and it strikes too close to home for most of us. But Nina achieves something with this book that transcends her personal experiences and the sadness of a young woman with two young boys facing her mortality before the age of 40. Her NYT article, "When a Couch is More Than a Couch," opened the door for the book. Literary agents and book publishers saw the finely tuned article about Nina's quest to buy the perfect couch — one that her husband and her sons could enjoy after she's gone — and wanted her to write an entire book.

In his review of the book, which was released this month, Drew Perry, a novelist and close friend of Nina, said he had a habit of turning down the corner of pages with especially good quotes or lovingly tuned sentences. With Nina's book, he said, he was turning down almost every page. Her prose is poetic and immensely insightful and quotable.

The book is full of quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, an ancestor of Nina's, and the French philosopher Montaigne. She relies on the wisdom of others to try to make sense of her own life, and she brings her own wisdom.

Nina pulls readers into her world of hope, despair, sickness from chemo and radiation, optimism and depression, how to tell young boys that their mother has terminal cancer, how a loving husband tries to sustain his wife through the worst of times. As Nina is fighting her own illness, her mother is dealing with another cancer, myeloma. A close friend with breast cancer carries on a profane and sarcastic comic dialog with Nina, whose mother doesn't live to see her daughter's book published or her grandsons grown up.

In this worst of times, Nina finds goodness and brightness and love and laughter. She finds that "When you fall in love with your kids, you fall in love forever," a realization taken from a song from her childhood, "When I Fall in Love." Seeing Benny riding his bicycle without assistance for the first time is a thing of sublime beauty, even as Nina's back has just broken because cancer has attacked her vertebrae.

From her time studying in Italy, she recalls "memento mori" — "Remember, you will die." Nina faces her own death and all that she will miss with her husband and her sons. She sees the beauty of the days we have for as long as we have them: "We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other."

Two bits of irony struck me about this book. The "About the Author" page says Nina "lived with her husband and sons and dogs in Greensboro." She died weeks before publication, requiring the startling past tense, a book about life about a woman who has died. The other irony comes from Nina's book of poetry, published in 2009. It's title: "Lucky, Lucky."

Friday, June 23, 2017

Campaign promises get in the way of legislating

When you stake your entire political being on the repeal of one legislative act, and you keep banging that drum for six or seven years, you paint yourself into a corner. 

The Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, have come to this: With control of the White House and majorities in both the House and the Senate, Republicans can do what they have tried to do dozens of times since 2010 — repeal the Affordable Care Act. Doing so, the GOP leaders remind their colleagues persistently, carries out a long-standing campaign promise repeated during four congressional elections. Failure to keep their promise about repeal would reveal them as ineffective, or as Spiro Agnew might have said it, "effete snobs."

The problem, which the GOP leadership ignored for seven years, is that American voters care more about their health care than they do about campaign promises. And many Americans, despite Republican attempts to persuade them otherwise, liked the ACA. It made it possible for them to have health insurance for the first time in years. The percentage of covered Americans topped 90%.

So the GOP leadership backed off a little. Instead of just repealing Obamacare, they shifted their rhetoric to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. Replacing the expansive law was not so easy. As President Trump confessed, "who knew" health insurance could be so complicated?

Republicans now have two Obamacare replacement bills, one in the House and one in the Senate. Both would sharply curtail the ACA promise to make it possible to get insurance coverage if you have a pre-existing condition. Both would knock down the fiscal underpinning of the ACA, the taxes on medical devices, insurers and others, and both would sharply cut Medicaid, which millions of Americans depend upon.

Republicans may have the votes in the Senate to pass their replacement legislation, but they don't have the magical ability to persuade Americans struggling to find medical coverage that they are better off with the Republican solutions to that campaign promise the GOP had kept making over and over like a mantra. Because of those promises, the GOP could not do the sensible thing, which would be to make adjustments to Obamacare so that it is more fiscally stable and practical.

Promises, promises.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Retirement beckons and also lurks

My imminent retirement has been in the newspaper. It's official. Some people congratulate me. Some warn me — "You better find something to do."

"After we retire ..." is how numerous conversations over the last 10 years began. My wife and I had things we wanted to do but little time to do them. We looked forward to trips longer than one week. We looked forward to events that ended after 9 p.m. on a weeknight. As long as we were working 50 weeks of the year and arising at 5:30 a.m. to get to work, those trips and those events were out of reach. After we retire ... we might be able to do those things.

Although I have maybe another month or six weeks of earning a paycheck, I have no firm plans for just what I'll do once retired. I will volunteer, I've told people who asked, though my commitment is not final. I will write, though I don't know what my first project will be. There are ideas I've had and unsuccessful fiction I can rework and improve. In a 30-year-old house and a half-acre yard, there are always things to do. Books I haven't read or want to reread line bookshelves upstairs and down. I don't think I'll run out of things to do.

My wife will work another year. That puts me in charge of all the housework she usually does. I long ago took grocery shopping and most of the cooking off of her agenda. I'll add dusting, vacuuming, laundry, window-washing and cleaning to my to-do list.

We'll set aside a few minutes before dinner as "grateful hour" — grateful for a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator, a yard to care for, our wonderful children and grandchildren, the opportunity to sit quietly and reflect on where we've been, where we are and where we might go; grateful for each other.

Our adjustment to retirement will, no doubt, have some bumps in the road. I worry about having enough money to keep us "in the matter to which we've become accustomed." Being together all day every day will not be the same as setting aside an hour in the early evening to talk about our days in separate jobs with different problems. In 46 years we've never run out of things to talk about, but we've also never tired of simply sitting quietly together and enjoying the silence.

In another year, we will put one phrase to rest: "when we retire ..." Then what?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Reader wants news, not what he or she said

A recent post on a current events/politics website prompted an angry reply from someone who blamed the news media for the current difficulties with public discourse. This person was tired of reading news stories that contained the terms "he said" or "she said." The commenter, apparently, wanted reporters to own up to their own news stories instead of dodging responsibility by referencing someone else.

That commenter has never spent any time in a newsroom or a journalism class and never gave any serious thought to how news stories are generated or written. In 33 years as a newspaper editor and as an occasional college-level journalism teacher, I consistently emphasized to reporters that they are not news sources; they have no authoritative knowledge; they should have no opinion on a subject, even when they might have some personal opinion on the subject, as reporters, they have no opinion and no real knowledge. Their job is to interview those who do have knowledge, whether it is a witness to a traffic accident, a scientist involved in research that is of public interest, or a legislator pushing a bill through legislature. Their job is to accurately report what that source knows. This process should be done at least twice in every news story because almost every story has two sides; interview people on both sides of controversial issues and report what both sides have said, with as fairly equal treatment as practicable.

Facts or opinions that are not attributed to the source are like information in an academic paper that is not footnoted. The reader should ask, "where's the reference?" As a newspaper editor, I often asked, "where's your source?" Occasionally, I'd be told, "I saw it myself," and I'd tell the reporter, only a little facetiously, "you need a better source! Who else saw this? Interview them."

So the person who wanted to do away with "he said" and "she said" in news stories wanted something other than journalism. He/she wanted unsourced opinion, a personal perspective, not news. I suspect the angry commenter suspected reporters of dishonesty, of collusion with unseen puppet masters of journalism, of nefarious, insidious conspiracies against the public weal.

Some people seem to believe that American journalism is monolithic and all-powerful and that news reported in newspapers or in broadcast media has been prescribed and pre-written by a vast hierarchy of news dictators. Any rational examination of the U.S. news media reveals the silly impossibility of this conspiracy theory. There are many hundreds of newspapers across the country and thousands of news outlets, including television, cable, radio and websites. It would be impossible to control or dictate to those many thousands, serving constituencies from small towns to large cities to professional associations. In the heyday of newspapers, when most respectable cities had at least two newspapers, those newspapers often represented different perspectives — liberal and conservative or Democrat and Republican. The demise of daily newspapers has left most cities with only one newspaper, and it might present just one editorial viewpoint and endorse only one party's nominees. But the essential need to sell newspapers to a broader population means most newspapers now take a more nonpartisan editorial stance.

Regardless of the leaning of the editorial page, however, respectable news sources mandate that news coverage be transparent, fair and non-partisan. Even the appearance of political bias could harm the public's perception of a newspaper's fairness. I had to threaten to fire a reporter who wanted to keep an outdated campaign bumper sticker on his car. I pointed out that his coverage of any political news would be seen as prejudiced as long as he had that sticker on his car. For that reason, I have never put a political sticker on my car or sign in my yard.

Concerns about citing news sources ("he said") is something new. In years past, concern within and outside the news business had to do with anonymous sources, which are less trustworthy than named, clearly identified sources. Some newspapers tried to ban anonymous sources altogether, but that proved to be extremely difficult. Most anonymous sources are people who have clear, even unique, knowledge of a matter but cannot afford to be named because they would lose their jobs. This is especially common in the federal government, where clandestine plots are kept secret for fear of alerting opponents.

Most news organizations adopted a policy of requiring a second or even a third source for information from an anonymous source. The initial bombshell had to be verified by someone else with direct knowledge and with no direct ties to the original source. In hyper-partisan Washington, anonymous sources appear more frequently than ever.

A rogue reporter would have a hard time getting false or distorted news into a traditional publication exactly because of the "he said," "she said" news style. A false report would have to get past one or more skeptical editors (and anyone who has spent much time in a newsroom is a skeptic). Then it would have to withstand the barrage of criticism from the sources themselves. No one likes to be misquoted, and most will demand a retraction, correction or the keys to the company as a defamation judgment.

At one time, bad reporting would not be tolerated. A news company had a reputational and financial interest in ensuring news is reported accurately. Bad reporters would be fired, or never hired. Editors and publishers kept close watch on news coverage. Facts had to be referenced and provable, thus the "he said," "she said" requirement and editors asking, "How do you know this?" The proliferation of news sites made possible by the Internet gives readers access to more viewpoints and more sources for unvetted, unsourced, misleading news. The sad thing is that too many news consumers discern no difference between the reliability of the 150-year-old New York Times or Associated Press and the upstart Alt-Right or Democrats United.

On a Facebook feed, they all look about the same, so they must have the same reliability, right?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

45 years later, Coast Guard still shapes me

June 9th was the 45th anniversary of my graduation from Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. In dress whites, I sat in the hot sun with about 100 fellow OC's, soon to be commissioned as ensigns, and waited for our names to be called so we could walk across the stage.

My journey to that point was not a straight line. The Vietnam War and the military draft shaped politics and the thinking of every young American male during those years. They certainly shaped mine. When my birthday came up as number 29 in the 1969 draft lottery, I knew I would either serve in the military or try to find a way to dodge the draft. I talked to peers who opted to join the National Guard or the Reserves, thinking weekend soldiering and summer camps would be better than dodging bullets on the other side of the world. I talked to a friend who had served a tour in Vietnam. I became convinced that the Vietnam War was a horrible and tragic foreign policy mistake, a mistake that young men like me would have to pay for. I participated in some anti-war demonstrations and wrote a letter to my congressman after the invasion of Laos. But the draft number still hung over my head.

I was called for my draft physical and passed, despite my complaints about knee pain and a heart murmur the doctor detected. They were considered NCD, "Not Considered Disqualifying." As I walked across campus the day after passing my physical, I stopped at a table set up by a Coast Guard officer recruiting for OCS. I submitted the application and was selected for interviews and another physical, this one in Norfolk, Va. I passed again and was told I'd be called for the next OCS class in the fall. Meanwhile, Congress had let the draft law expire and couldn't get together on the wording for a new draft law. That kept the draft board off my back long enough for me to complete the Coast Guard application. On the day that I drove to Greensboro to be sworn in to the Coast Guard Reserves, pending admission to OCS, Congress passed a new draft law.

I found OCS uncomfortable and oppressive with officers barking orders and laying traps for little errors that could wash you out. But I gave up my stubborn independent streak and submitted to the reshaping of discipline, teamwork and order. By the end of the four-month school, I had a new set of habits: Everything in its proper place, jobs done right the first time, serious attention to detail, promptness, respect for authority, teamwork and discipline, always discipline. 

I won the assignment I had asked for, as a correspondent for the Enlisted Personnel Division at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The job was simple and easy. I took over responsibility for answering letters from members of Congress and the public about Coast Guard enlisted assignments, often from mothers who wanted their sons posted closer to home. As a journalism and English major, I could knock out stacks of letters every day, tasks that had been torture for crusty sailors in the office.

In our three years in D.C., we grew accustomed to the traffic and visited the museums, monuments, parks and highlights of the capital. I considered requesting that I be "integrated" into the regular Coast Guard but decided I wanted to get back to small towns, to journalism and to more certainty for my small family.

I look back now on my Coast Guard days with some nostalgia. We had some very good times and got to know some good people and at least one truly outstanding officer whose skills and abilities still shape my thinking about management and leadership.

In the beginning the Coast Guard was my way of avoiding the jungles of Vietnam. In the end, it became a major shaper of my world view, my self discipline and my respect for those who defend our nation.

It was one of the most fortuitous segments of my life. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Parallels with hearings from 45 years ago

From 1972-75, I worked in Washington, D.C., subscribed to the Washington Post, and watched the Watergate hearings on television as much as I could. Like much of America, I was mesmerized by the hearings.

Watching, reading about or listening to the testimony before congressional committees this year takes me back to the Watergate era. So much is the same — the setting in ornate hearing rooms before scores of staff members, media representatives and other officials are interchangeable between 1973 and 2017.

As I listened to testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey, I was transported back to the testimony of John Dean, the White House counsel before the Watergate Committee. Both witnesses spoke in carefully, cautiously measured phrases. Both demonstrated uncanny recall of events. Both men's testimony had the ring of truth.

Tuesday's testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions recalled another similarity to Watergate: partisan attacks against the witness were unbecoming and contrary to the Senate's courteous traditions. That is true about both political parties. Democrats tried to interrogate Sessions and force him to admit to wrongdoing. Chairman Richard Burr had to remind one senator to allow the witness to answer her question. Republicans sought to defend the president by shifting the focus of the inquiry or adroitly denying generally accepted facts.

Sessions tried to be the courtly southern gentleman, but it was difficult when he was interrupted by aggressive questioners before he could complete his answer in his slow drawl. Sessions, the administration's "top lawyer," however, refused to answer some questions on the basis of executive privilege even while admitting that he could not invoke executive privilege. Only the president can do that, and President Trump had not invoked executive privilege over his conversations with Sessions. Thus, Sessions said he was reserving the president's right to invoke executive privilege at some time in the future. That strikes many people as stretching a constitutional privilege complete out of shape. By his standard, every conversation with the president would be privileged until the president declares it is not covered by executive privilege. That leaves no room for balance of power and the authority of Congress to examine the executive branch's performance.

As the hearings continue and the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections continue, parallels with Watergate will keep popping up. What is unlikely to pop up is a presidential resignation. While President Nixon was a paranoid egotist who could not admit to being wrong, he at least had the interests of the country foremost in his mind. What is foremost in Trump's mind is Trump himself.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A box of memories, dusty and badly faded

A friend alerted me to the finding of a box of my newspaper clippings. There being no reason for the newspaper where I had worked to keep them, she invited me to come by and pick them up. Even after picking up the box, noting my handwriting on the file folders and reading a few of the clips, I have no memory of how that box ended up in the now-vacated newspaper office. The clippings were divided by year and by type (editorials, columns or general articles).

A few of the clippings I've read so far brought back memories of plays I had reviewed, experiences I had shared with readers and my defending of the newspaper's policies and decision making. One lengthy column was devoted to a phone call from an upset reader that turned into an explanation of the federal system of government and the education of the reader who didn't know that states have constitutions and legislatures and their own laws — all news to her.

My wife asked me what I planned to do with that dusty old cardboard box and its yellowed newsprint clippings. I told her, optimistically, that I might read through the clippings and set aside the better pieces. I could publish a book of those selected writings, a little book that might someday mean something to my children or grandchildren. Online publishing makes that possible today. It might even be a reminder of nearly 30 years of N.C., U.S. and Wilson County history, at least as seen by one journalist.

Finding the time and the motivation to tackle that project and wipe away all the dust — literal and metaphoric — will be a challenge.