Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Special Place in Hell, Part 2

If there is retail in Hell I predict it will look a lot like a Wal-Mart.

I have never been a Wal-Mart basher. While the world’s largest retailer has committed their share of blunders and accumulated a long list of adversaries I concluded they simply had become a lightening rod attracting the wrath of those appalled at the dark underside of modern commerce. They have been very successful at what they have set out to do, whether we - or they - fully appreciate the consequences. And I took a measure of satisfaction that a small outfit from middle-of-nowhere Arkansas could take over the retail world, one small town at a time.

Attracting detractors is also just a cost of doing business these days. Wal-Mart is, for all the attention it is getting, simply the logical result of a commercial endeavor successfully carried out with the age-old internal logic of commerce. Sam Walton’s business model would have been well understood by merchants 200 or 2,000 years ago.

My view began to be challenged after moving back to North Carolina. There is a Super Wal-Mart at the edge of town. (Does anyone hear Springsteen besides me?) Because it is convenient, well stocked and cheap I started shopping there. That was when I started noticing the little things, not quite sulphur burning, but close.

First, I have always found it annoying when sales persons choose to chat among themselves rather than interact with customers. My all-time favorite is when your conversation with an “associate” is interrupted by another “associate” wanting to discuss the break schedule. It is the closest to becoming instantly invisible I have ever managed. While I had experienced this at other stores, my new Wal-Mart quickly established itself as world class. I also would often observe clumps of “associates” in the aisles chatting among themselves with great enthusiasm about topics unrelated to where they were and what they are getting paid to do. Maybe they were on “break” making “associates” out of themselves.

Then I began to notice that while the store had a couple of dozen checkout lanes only two or three ever seemed to be operating at any one time. With dozens of “associates” within view, only a few were interested in taking my money. Many visits found me spending more time waiting in line than it took me to shop. I began to have the urge to page a “Member of Management” myself.

Last April I was moved to send the following email to Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters.
Today, along with my “Low Prices" I was treated to the national anthem playing in the background as I shopped in one of your stores. While our national anthem was playing an announcer was providing me with shopping information.

For our nation’s anthem to be reduced to a shopping soundtrack is, in my mind, poor taste. One might also easily find it disrespectful to our county, although I doubt that is what was intended. I suggest that this is someone's bad idea that should be discontinued.

I found it ironic that while checking out I could not help but be confronted with the headlines in one of the "newspapers" you offer for sale that our US troops had shot down an angel by mistake in Iraq. With that revelation and the sounds of our national anthem again playing in the background I left the store and headed for your web site.

Is it possible for your company to offer low prices, convenient shopping, employment opportunities AND a moderate amount of good taste and respect for our country at the same time?

Regards, Bibb

I did not hear the anthem again when I returned. But the “newspapers” still provide entertainment during those long, long waits in the checkout line.

Finally, a couple weeks back while I was carrying a 40-pound bag of dog food from the store on my shoulder I saw a young “associate” walking towards the parking lot to collect shopping carts. I had the bag on my shoulder, not in a cart, because returning a cart to a corral from where I usually parked had become inconvenient. It was inconvenient because there were no cart corrals near by. All were near the front of the store, the closest usually 30 to 40 yards from my vehicle.

Seizing the moment I approached the young man and asked if I could make a suggestion. When he said “Sure” I mentioned the need for additional cart corrals further from the store. He paused while we both looked at the numerous abandoned carts scattered at the edge of the parking lot. He readily agreed and then said that there used to be corrals out there but the first shift crew had moved them closer to the store so they would not have to walk so far to return carts to the store.

I lost it. “Tell those lazy first shift sons-of-bitches to get up off their arses and put them back,” I said as I walked off. I suppose he wondered why that nice older gentleman carrying that bag of dog food said such a thing in the parking lot. I know I did. Maybe I should have just thanked him for his honesty.

I was back at the Wal-Mart at the Edge of Town yesterday. The cart corrals were as far from my vehicle as ever, carts scattered about as usual. Maybe I’ll send another email to Bentonville.

I feel better now.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


Yesterday I finally cleaned out the mini-storage unit we had been renting since my move here last Christmas. I remember laughing the first time I saw one of those commercial blights on the landscape. “People shouldn’t buy more than they know what to do with,” I probably thought. I was not into possessions then. I also used to say, “You don’t own stuff; it owns you.” I sounded a bit like Otto Mann, bus driver on the Simpsons. Well consider my arse well-owned.

Since my wife moved here first most of what was stored was mine. And we moved into a much smaller house. To further subtract space, we neither have the full basement nor attic of our previous residence. The garage is smaller too. It also leaked. Renting extra space seemed a good idea at the time.

This naturally prompted a discussion about the difference between valuable keepsakes, precious mementos, useful items, and junk. Most of my stuff seemed to fall into that latter category, at least according to her. She further reminded me that I had moved much of that “junk” many times already. I was not sure where she was going with that line of reasoning so I stopped listening.

OK. Sure. I have moved - multiple times - books I bought in the 70’s that I still have not read. They are books for God’s sake. I bought them for a reason. And why throw away perfectly good pants that are only 4 inches too small in the waist? I might get back to 32. The old sailboat mast, sail and rigging are still good. All we need is a boat. All that old hi-fi equipment might be useful again, one day. My LP’s are still good, at least if we can find my turntable and had a place to hook it up. Those three old Mac computers still work; they might be valuable someday. I am sure there is some good paint in those old cans. And my collection of nuts and bolts that goes back to 1970? Don’t even think about it. Why the other day I used one of those bolts to repair...something. I don’t remember. My videotapes? Too valuable. Have you seen what they are asking these days for the complete Upstairs, Downstairs or I, Claudius? That’s PBS we’re talking about here.

Maybe if I just consolidate some of these boxes we won’t need so much space. There must be some extra space in one of these boxes, somewhere.

eBay! That’s right. I’ll sell the stuff I really don’t need on eBay. I am sure there are plenty of people out there who would just jump at the chance to………….

Why are you laughing?

OK, maybe I need to throw away some stuff. Maybe if I think like an accountant and adopt an amortization schedule I can throw things away and not feel so bad.

Would anyone like some old National Geographic’s?

Friday, November 19, 2004

What I Learned @ the VHS

Last week I finally got a chance to spend a day at the Virginia Historical Society. My sister and I are doing research on our family and associated Virginia history for a project we have been working on for years. She joined me there. We looked through many books, documents and rolls of microfilm, uncovered some interesting stuff.

But that was not what made the day so memorable. By chance Rhys Isaac was speaking at the VHS at noon that day. I had read his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740 –1790, years ago. Although a native South African currently living in Australia, Professor Isaac is considered one of the most eminent historians of early Virginia. So I slipped downstairs to listen.

After I had taken a seat a woman walked by and asked if the seat next to me was taken. As it was not, I invited her to join me. We chatted a bit and then Prof. Isaac was introduced. His topic was “Colonial Dissenters and the Evolution of Freedom of Religion.” He also plugged his new Landon Carter book. He was very thoughtful, entertaining, and the subject matter most topical because of our recent election. The lady beside me and I traded whispered comments about what he was saying from time to time. After he retired to the museum shop to sign books the lady and I chatted further.

I commented that he managed not to mention any women in his entire talk. She thought a bit, agreed, but looked at me somewhat puzzled. I further stated that having grown up in small town Virginia I had learned early on that not much happened in our churches not approved in advance by the churchwomen. They were the power behind the pulpit. This would have been especially likely in early “dissenter” churches, I opined. I further expounded that this was just another example of the written record historians work from often under representing the role of women. I very self-consciously mentioned this because of the influence of Linda Sturtz, my friend and history professor at Beloit College, where my wife recently worked. Linda’s book, Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia, actually takes Professor Isaac somewhat to task in this regard.

I thought it appropriate to mention my southern roots and go into some detail about southern churches because I noticed she had a British accent and probably did not have the good fortune to be born a Virginian. But she nonetheless did seem to have more than a passing knowledge of Virginia history. Since I had mentioned I was doing research upstairs and that Prof. Isaac speaking this day was a happy coincidence she asked about the nature of my research. I then told her a bit about Pamunkey Neck, what became King William County, and my family.

As we walked together toward the museum shop I gestured toward the shortening line of patrons getting their books signed and said that I probably should hurry to buy the Landon Carter book before Prof. Isaac left. She said that she was sure he would like that. Getting an odd feeling - about an hour too late - I asked if she had read the book. She said yes, and it was quite good. In closing I introduced myself and she did the same. Of course I had been talking with Mrs. Isaac.

Recovering a bit I told her that "Transformation" was one of the first books I had read when I started research of my family's history and that her husband was one of my heroes. I also mentioned that I had visited South Africa once and hoped to see Australia one day. We parted. I bought the book and joined the line. Prof. Isaac and I chatted pleasantly and very briefly as he signed my copy; I had no intention of getting in any further over my head.

So what I learned last Thursday had less to do with family or history than common sense. Introductions should be managed at the beginning of a conversation, not at the end.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Thoughts While Nursing a Bruised Finger

The other day while doing some carpentry work on the garage I hit my index finger on my left hand with the hammer. It puffed up a bit and turned red. The self-imposed injury was completely unnecessary, just a lack of clear thinking on my part. I got what I deserved.

Sort of reminded me of the election...

The Internet Archive

While listening one afternoon last spring in my car to my local NPR station I heard of a website named The Internet Archive. As explained very briefly on their home page,

"The Internet Archive is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public."

The person interviewed said that the site collected books, films, music and web pages. While all this sounded interesting what really caught my ear was the offhand statement that the site held hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts.

Being one of the original Dead Heads I wasted no time when I got back home going to the site. And yes, there were almost two thousand GD shows in various formats, including mp3. I quickly started downloading shows I had attended over the years. Over the next few months hundreds of recordings were added; currently there are 2,594. Anyway, I now can now listen again to every show I ever attended, including my first at the Fillmore East, NYC, January 2, 1971. Life is Good.

But wait, as they say on the TV ads, there is more. The archive also has plenty of current music by "trade friendly" bands. For example just a few days after attending Floyd Fest - see my November 4th post - I downloaded two performances I heard there by Donna The Buffalo and Railroad Earth. Both were excellent quality and quite legal.

No, you won't find downloads for most of your "major" performers. And the recordings are of live performances, with all the difficulties you might expect. But you might be amazed at the wonderful music being made today by people not backed by big record company money, MTV or Clear Channel, bands that sell their CD's after the concert in the back of the room, musicians who don't travel by private jet. And with the today's digital recording equipment in the hands of a motivated music geek, the sound quality usually rivals commercial releases. Life, as I said before, is Good.

And, as you will see when you travel to their website, music is far from the only thing they do. I recommend the Internet Archive.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

A Special Place in Hell, Part 1

Blogs seem incomplete without a rant or two. Many are nothing but. While ranting is not Virginian, we are occasionally mildly annoyed. Thus begins, in the interest of completeness, what will undoubtedly become a series of posts that will explore particularly annoying behavior in other people. I will call these “A Special Place in Hell, Part #.” Here goes.

There should be a “Special Place in Hell” for those who insist on adding layers upon layers of paint inside door jams or on the inside edges of doors. Sooner than later these doors will stick and finally not close at all. Then someone - like me - must choose between acceptance or taking the doors down, removing the multiple layers of paint, adding one new layer of paint, and rehanging the door. In a house where many doors have been so defiled, that can be a hell of a lot of work - much more than mindlessly slathering paint where it does not belong.

So, for all of you out there with that paint brush in your hand and the notion in your little head of doing a “little touch up" before putting your house on the market, slowly step away from that door!

It should be noted that adjacent to these residents will be housed - for all eternity - those who paint windows shut. They have a lot to talk about.

I feel better now.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Old Folks @ Home

I am back from a road trip to my family home. Mother’s birthday was last Friday and I wanted to spend it with her. She turned 86. My stepfather is a year younger. Neither is fully independent anymore. They have wonderful helpers - preparing meals, cleaning house, running errands, and making sure meds are taken on time. But even when they are having “good” days visits back home are increasingly stressful for me.

It is hard to accept what is now passing for normal around the house. I so wish mother’s hearing would improve, her balance was steady and that she would feel comfortable again in any room with an air temperature less than 80 degrees. My stepfather has memory problems, takes two hours to eat a simple meal, and is long past being able to dress himself. Both have become uncharacteristically short tempered. Even the home where I grew up has changed. Instead of being familiar and benign it now seems cluttered with things to trip over, fire hazards, and dangerous stairs coming and going. It is hard to look forward to visiting, even knowing how much it means to them. They have lived long and well. But it is not hard to see the direction things are drifting.

I did not grow up in a household with old folks. Seeing my grandparents and great aunts and uncles always took a road trip and was a pleasant event, soon over. Then they disappeared, one by one. I know they must have gone through similar processes I am seeing now. But I was not there to watch it. Maybe previous generations had an advantage by growing up in households with both the very young and very old. But what they may have learned about life and how to deal with and accept the natural course of things is not normal for me. I don’t want the folks back home fading away. I want things back to how they were. I want to fix stuff, make things better, and turn back that damn calendar. I want to save the day just like when I was eight playing in the backyard.

Then I return to my senses. Plans must be drawn, accommodations agreed upon, and decisions made. It may be a long bumpy ride. I need to get some pillows.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


I chose Blogger because it was free, owned by Google, and easy to use. Blogger templates also seemed to encourage clean and readable pages, unlike many blogs I have seen. And I was reasonably happy with my canned page layout until early this morning when I decided it needed a Links section. So I did a bit of research using the Blogger Help section, looked at the HTML on pages with Links, and proceeded to add some code to my template. That was easy, and it worked! Except...

The more I looked at what I had done the more I wanted a divider line between the Links and the Blogger button. An hour later I was still trying to made a divider appear in the right place. Several times I asked myself whether I should just be happy with what I had done and go do something else. But, for those of you who have worked with me, that's not Bibb. So I dug in. I had almost decided that I might have to actually learn basic HTML when, zap, I figured it out and a divider appeared exactly where I wanted it.

I am not writing this to illustrate my coding skills or persistence in the face of reality. Both are problematic. No. I want to share with you that at the instant I saw that divider appear I had a reaction, a blissful physical sensation that would probably be banned in our Red states. I did not have that reaction when the Links first appeared. That had been too easy. It was only after I decided to go for perfection, felt the frustration that usually accompanies that choice, and entertained doubts that I had made a good choice was that moment physically rewarded from somewhere deep inside me.

I wonder if there is a lesson in all that. Or was it the coffee...

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Railroad Earth

Last August with some friends and family I attended the 3rd annual Floyd Fest, an outdoor musical weekend just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in southern Floyd County Virginia. It is a gathering of the tribe. Having driven some distance and expended some energy setting up camp I was already a bit tired when the music started Friday night. And it had turned cold enough so I quickly wished I had brought long pants and heavier shirts. Anita and I called it a night about ten, returned to the tent, and I quickly fell asleep. Sometime after midnight I awoke. As I tried to fall back asleep I could hear music coming from one of the stages. While it was at least a quarter mile away, behind a grove of trees, I could hear a band just cookin’. Even though the high frequencies and vocals were very faint I could hear some interesting chord changes, drum rhythms, and bass lines. I wondered just who were those guys, listened for a while, and drifted back asleep.

The next morning, even before my constitutional or coffee, I looked in the program for who has been playing. Railroad Earth; never heard of them. Sitting around the breakfast table I mentioned that I had heard an interesting band from my tent in the early morning hours. My niece-in-law Virginia volunteered that she had been at the stage and, yes, they were good, very good. She had not heard of them before either. Looking again at the program I found that they would be playing again that evening in the Dance tent. Plans were made.

That evening as the band set up I noticed that these guys looked like veterans, grownups who had come to play. And play they did! After about the fourth song I ducked out of the tent and bought two RRE CD’s. I didn’t want to chance not taking any of this music home with me. I returned to the dance tent and smiled, swayed, and bounced around until the end of the set.

After returning home Sunday night, tired but very pleased with the weekend, I googled the band, found their web site and learned more. A couple of the band member’s names sounded vaguely familiar. I then remembered a band my wife has never stopped talking about for twenty years. Blue Sparks From Hell played in Blacksburg frequently in the 80’s and Anita must have attached herself to the band in a big way. A few more web searches and I found references to the now disbanded Sparks. Sure enough two members were the same, Tim and Andy. So I walked into the next room and told her that she should have told me she knew two members of RRE. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Blue Sparks, Tim and Andy” I said. After a short pause Anita came as close to levitation as I care to see. “No!” she said. A trip to the computer screen and she was convinced. We had been standing to the side and slightly behind the band. She did not get a good look at them. And it had been almost twenty years.

We saw them again a few weeks later in Charlotte in a small theatre. Anita had a chance to talk briefly with Tim and the show was even better than before. We are now RRE fans and will see them again whenever we can. The Blue Sparks reunite from time-to-time in New Jersey. I expect we will catch them before too long.

So, you ask, what kind of music do they play? Well, the best sort of music, where labels fail. My guess is that they could play just about anything you would like to hear. They are often called a bluegrass jam band. Maybe that is because they feature a mandolin, violin, upright bass, acoustic guitar and frequently a banjo or dobro. But that is not what I hear. I hear an American band. I hear the best of all our musical traditions. And you can dance all you want. I have been listening to music seriously for fifty years now. Believe me, these guys are good enough to transcend labels. They are Railroad Earth.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Red State Blues

I do not pretend to be at my best today. Lack of sleep and the realization that we are probably worse off as a nation today than 24 hours ago will do that to a person.

This morning brought back memories of 1972 and what seemed at the time as missing that last exit on the highway to hell. But G. W. Bush is no R. M. Nixon. Tricky Dick seems like Lincoln to me now. There have always been those like our once and future President. Except the electorate had the good sense not to intrust the most important job on the planet to them.

I would love to find a silver lining in the events of yesterday. Maybe the only significant one is that we have nowhere to go from here but up. It just may take longer than I had hoped. But I have survived Nixon, Reagan, and Bush One. I will survive Bush Two.

The next elections are only two years away...

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election 2004

Today the world turns its attention towards our country and ponders the implications of our election results. I hope we give them reason to be proud of us, for a change.

I have already voted. North Carolina has started providing for early voting, no absentee excuses needed. This has proved very popular and may make today’s polling results less prone to question. I also used electronic touch-screen machines for the first time. It was fast and easy. If the security concerns can be addressed this method may see quick adoption.

I have been interested in politics ever since my father explained to me why he was an anti-Byrd Machine Democrat. My interest, and undergraduate degree in Political Science, coincided with the Viet-Nam War. I remember well the slow-to-dissipate bitterness, anger, and divisiveness of those days. Flag decals v. peace signs. But I also remember the idealism, hope and faith in our nation that ran through my generation. The civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and environmental movements were proof to us that our system was open, that the benefits of living in a free society could be available to all. Wise decisions could be made if we just engaged in civil dialogue. After a pause and a counterattack from the Right, the bitterness, anger and divisiveness are back. But we seem to have lost that hope that our political system can provide the mechanism to curb our society's most unpleasant tendencies. Instead of civil dialogue we have “Crossfire.”

There is something almost medieval in the air, something pre-enlightenment. We seem not to have put to rest old demons. We are not living in the future many of us worked for, thought inevitable. This is my generation’s watch, and I am appalled. Maybe the children must lead us, again.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Three-Legged Dragon

Harry Yeatts and Catherine Wingfield-Yeatts are two of my oldest friends. They were undergraduates with me at Virginia Tech in the late 60's. They then had the good sense to stick around Blacksburg. Both worked at Tech, Harry in Publications, Cathy at Newman Library. Together they raised Tabatha who provided my benchmark for what the offspring of my generation should be. Now retired these good friends are now my good friends, The Artists. Harry expresses himself through photography while Catherine is a painter. She also works in mixed-media. I really like what they do. You can view - and if you like purchase - some of their recent work at http://www.threeleggeddragon.com.

They are having a collaberative exhibition running through December 31st at the Fine Arts Center of the New River Valley, 21 West Main Street, Pulaski, Virginia. Here are two of their featured works:

Red Sky
Red Sky

Tatto Love
Tatoo Love