Thursday, December 29, 2005

Man of the Year

JohnEJonesFederal Judge John E. Jones III for the Middle District of Pennsylvania is my nominee for Man of the Year.

Providing a lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak year, especially for federal employees and elected officials, Judge Jones ruled December 20th in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District that "Intelligent Design" (ID) is not science and should not be taught as such in public schools. You can read his entire ruling here. Judge Jones receives my nomination less because of stating the obvious than the clear and straightforward language he used in his ruling. Go John E., Go.

Before the ruling, in a confirmation of sorts that ID is a thinly veiled form of creationism, Pat Robertson warned the citizens of Dover, who had already voted out of office the School Board members responsible for the pro-ID policy, that disaster might strike their community because they "voted God out of your city." But Judge Jones was not intimidated.

What made the ruling all the more galling to the right wingnuts was that Judge Jones, a long-time Republican, was appointed by George W. Bush and approved unanimously by the Republican controlled Senate. One might wonder if, as he prepared his ruling, the judge weighed how it might affect his career. Should we then praise him for his courage? Or just acknowledge an honest man.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Season's Greetings - 2005

As I write this it is dark outside. Winter Solstice was two days ago but I still must remind myself that now the sun will be rising sooner and setting later. It is cold for around here, close to 20 (F). But in a few hours it will be pushing 60. It has been that kind of year - a year of extremes, a year of cycles.

2005 was dominated in this household by the health of others. While we have been well - save that broken little toe I managed - others we care for have not. John Donne hit it hard, straight on. I haven't the energy to chronicle the anxiety, pain, and loss; after just finishing the better part of a week with my mother in the hospital - the same building where my step-father died in May - I am spent. And this is neither the place nor time.

This time of the year - Thanksgiving, Winter Solstice, Christmas - reminds us of the larger picture we are all part of, like it some days or not. But each of us has only a short time in that picture to figure it out, make it ours, pass it on. Oddly, if we draw back the lens and take in that picture we really don't get smaller, we grow with it.

So this season is not a time to dwell on just one part of life's cycles and rhythms; it is a time to try to see it whole. It's a Wonderful Life. Really. And these are the good times, even if they don't seem like it.

Season's Greetings.

The illustration was scanned from a drawing I made in 1974 and used for Winter Solstice cards. Thus began and ended my watercolorist career.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Eugene McCarthy

4mccarthThe first person I ever voted for for President of the United States died the 10th of this month, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. He was not on the ballot, but that didn't stop me. Of course, write-ins were not allowed then - as now - and my ballot was voided. Even though the close election brought us Richard Nixon instead of the much more preferable (in retrospect) Hubert Humphrey, I would not trade my memory of how good I felt leaving that polling booth for anything. It was a bipartisan act; I wrote in John Lindsay, Republican mayor of New York, for VP. All this was odd behavior for a country boy from Virginia.

1968 was a dramatic year in our nation's history. We were at war in Vietnam, and with ourselves. American flag decals were pointedly on - or not on - vehicles everywhere. Our cities were literally smoldering through riotous "long, hot summers." There were youth riots in Paris and men with longish hair were making more than a fashion statement. I watched on TV that summer evening as people like me were clubbed and gassed outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I felt guilty not being there, although I am sure I would have been totally lost. Jim Crow was dying a slow death in the south, and taking some of us with him.

Before 1968 was over a President would decide not to stand for re-election, only four years after receiving the highest percentage of the popular vote in modern history. Two major political figures, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, would die assassins deaths. And two guitar gods - Clapton and Page, alums of the Yardbirds - would help harden rock, forming Blind Faith and Led Zeppelin. Drugs were suddenly everywhere; the Magical Mystery Tour was just about over.

I was a senior in college majoring in Political Science, plugged in and observing everything with the full intensity of youth and doing what I could to stretch my college career out another year; the draft board knew where I lived. The previous fall I had traveled the world for four months as a student, absorbing what it meant to be more than a Virginian, more than an American. While I was on the Indian Ocean, midway between Mombasa and Bombay (Mumbai), on November 30th, 1967 a little-known Senator from Minnesota declared that he would challenge the President - a member of his own Democratic Party - in the upcoming New Hampshire primary. McCarthy eventually lost but the political dialogue had been changed. It was not whether, but when we would back out of Vietnam.

In many ways Eugene McCarthy was an odd duck for a political figure. The public and his supporters often found him vexing. Historians - and most recently obit writers - have struggled to take the measure of the man.

He was a very private person who nevertheless seemed to enjoy running for president. He did so five times, always knowing he had little-to-no chance. He was a semi-pro baseball player, public school teacher and college professor. As a young man he lived in a monastery for nine months before thinking better of becoming a monk. He was a poet who recently complained that in the judgment of history his short anti-war campaign would always eclipse his verse. He left his wife of 24 years in 1969, but they never divorced. He was a classic liberal with an independent streak that made other liberals very uneasy. Among other things, he wanted to abolish the two-part system and supported Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative. He had the biting dry wit of a cynic, a frustrated idealist. Yet he once admonished us to "always speak as if a child is listening."

If we only could.

He seemed to enjoy being the outsider, which is exactly where most Americans preferred him to be. I wanted him President. He was 89.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

7 Drinks of Mankind

I have been on the road again, again at my mother's. Visiting with her has become an adventure; what I plan to accomplish seldom gets done, what I get done is almost never what I planned. Now that I am home I have even more reason to smile at the opening lines of a new blog series found at one of my favorites, Locust Street.Six Glasses
As we enter the holiday season, our thoughts turn to drinking.
Inspired by the recent book, A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage, Locust Street is guiding us through some of our favorite beverages in much the same fashion as the Seven Deadly Sins series.

Mr. Standage ventures that human history, for the most part, can be summed up in the history of six types of beverages: Beer, Wine, Spirits, Coffee, Tea, and Coca-Cola. Chris is now halfway through, having dispensed with the alcohol portion of the list. I'll drink to that and suggest you enjoy the musical appreciations of each beverage at Locust Street along with me.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Dorothy Allison

dorothy_allisonOne of the perks of being a faculty spouse is the occasional meeting of campus visitors; last night it was author Dorothy Allison. She spoke about writing to my wife's 2 o'clock class and in the evening offered a public reading from her forthcoming novel. In between a small group of us had dinner with her at a local restaurant. It was a most refreshing - and enriching - experience.

While some authors may be better read than met, Ms. Allison is not one of them. Both through her writing and in sitting across from her eating fried seafood and discussing hushpuppies, she reveals herself as one who is as real as the day is long, and as honest as most of us can generally stand.

Such a combination can make unpleasant company - but not in her case. She is a person who writes as if her life depends on it. It probably does. And she believes with a ferocious intensely what she has to say. But she is also comfortable enough within her own skin to put others at ease, all the while focusing their attention on subjects they otherwise might not want to think about. It is a rare combination.BastardOutOfCarolina

Ms. Allison's world is large, too large to visit here today. It is a world I inhabit only at the fringes. But yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to someone saying well many things that needed to heard, especially by young writers, young people. If you know her work, and a little bit about her, you understand. If not, I suggest you explore the world of Dorothy Allison.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Thanksgiving @ the Beach w/Jane

BussStopThanksgiving is our dog Jane's birthday, as close as we can figure. This year we celebrated her third birthday with a trip to the beach, a place she had never been. We rented a wonderful old beach cabin, the Buss Stop. There are not many of its vintage still standing at Surf City, on Topsail Island just north of Wilmington.Buss-Interior

Small by today's standards, it suited us just fine. The aged pine paneling, low ceilings and appropriate beach funky interior - shells, lighthouses and fish images everywhere - were just right.

The owners have made the house pet friendly with a fenced yard. Beach access was across the road. Beach-Lucky

Even when the temperature dropped and the wind blew, it was comfy. The sign hanging in the living room summed it up.

The weather on Thanksgiving day was great; we ate our midday turkey dinner on the porch. It was about 70. TV football and beach reading followed.Surf

Then Friday the wind turned from the north. It might have reached 50, but I doubt it. Still the sun was shining and we took a walk on the pier and watched the fishermen and surfers. Surf City lived up to its name.

Jane@Beach1Jane seemed to enjoy her trip. Her ears stayed up and her nose twitched the entire three days. After a couple of waves surprised her on the beach she showed a healthy respect for the surf. She was well-behaved, especially on the beach where she made new two and four-legged friends. It was fun to enjoy the beach and ocean through her eyes.

It was only a short visit to the coast, but it was great.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Hurricane Season

Hurricane season will officially be over in a week. Most will be happy to put the 2005 season behind them and not think about these storms for another six months. Others can't; still others shouldn't.

katrina Both Nova and Frontline last night were devoted to Katrina. Nova covered the science and Frontline the politics - Nova the natural disaster, Frontline the man-made one. While both were predictably a bit too New Orleans centered, they distilled into two hours what happened and why, and were excellent. If you missed these broadcasts or not, the websites devoted to these programs - where the links above will take you - add even more detail.

I have been meaning to remind my readers that Mike Keller and Josh Norman, two Sun Herald reporters that I blogged about after Katrina are still posting. In many, many ways their blog, Eye of the Storm, is more interesting now than right after the storm. Any fool can sound like a great reporter during a catastrophe; they are reminding us the story is still unfolding and that they are paying attention.

If any good can come from what happened to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast both PBS programs provide as good as direction as any to finding it. If we are able to learn something from Katrina, Mike and Josh will notice.

Big ifs, those.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Many Happy Returns

Birthday Party3Saturday was my mother's 87th birthday. My sister and her husband hosted a party that afternoon at their home in Richmond. Surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and in-laws, mother seemed happy. She said that all she wanted were hugs. She got them. Here she is with her best camera smile.

Birthday Party1A special guest was Aunt Jean, the wife of my father's brother Pickett. She is 92.

After the party my brother-in-law, wife, and I took her home and we visited a while with Pickett, who at 95 did not feel quite up to making the party himself. It was great seeing both of them.

Birthday Party2Here is mother with a small card given to her by my daughter.

After the party my daughter left tailing her cousin Adam in her new ride - a tangerine Honda Element - for the paved part of Virginia. She and her fiancee had tickets to see the Dalai Lama in D.C. Sunday afternoon. She was stoked.

I expect she will blog about her weekend soon.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Harrison Bergeron

Welcome to the Monkey HouseIn 1961 Kurt Vonnegut published a very short story that began, "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal." The story was Harrison Bergeron and, as the paragraph continued,
They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
The story featured the Bergeron family: George, Hazel, and their fourteen-year-old son, Harrison. As we meet them they learn from the TV news that Harrison has just become a fugitive from justice having "...just escaped from jail, where he had been held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government." The TV continued, "He is a genius and an athlete, is under–handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous."

Vonnegut's story struck a nerve or two in the collective consciousness. Over forty years later the term "Handicapper General" and the character of Harrison Bergeron appear from time to time in political discourse. There was even a TV movie in 1995.

But when I read the story in Welcome to the Monkey House I was struck by the device used to insure that Harrison's father George did not stray too far above the mean, the mental handicap radio in his ear. As Vonnegut described it,
He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
A variety of sounds were used. Vonnegut mentions a buzzer, somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer, a twenty-one-gun salute, a siren, the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges, the sound of an automobile collision. Well, you get the picture.

It finally dawned on me the other day that without the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments, or the efforts of a Handicapper General, we now have similar devices in wide circulation. Citizens, especially our young people, are wearing them voluntarily, often listening to sounds not far removed from the government broadcasts of 2081.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Special Place in Hell - Part Four

When my wife moved to our small city several years ago high-speed internet access was not available through our local cable provider, Adelphia. So she opted for a BellSouth DSL line. Soon after I joined her Adelphia began offering internet access with rates - bundled with cable TV service - that beat BellSouth. Since we were very satisfied with cable-based service where we previously lived, we went for it. We are now regretting the decision.

From the beginning our internet service would come and go. The TV picture quality, while never great, remained OK. Sometimes the internet outages were only for a few minutes; other times hours would pass. Finally, after a couple of months and a particularly long outage, I called Adelphia to complain.

Even though the local Adelphia office is just down the road, all service is scheduled at a customer service center somewhere at the end of an 800 number. So I explained our situation and we scheduled an appointment some days hence. Shortly the internet returned. By the time the service person appeared the internet had been working fine for several days. He said that they had been working in the neighborhood recently and that may have caused my disruption. He left, checking nothing, and in the weeks that followed the intermittent problem returned.

Eventually I called the service center again and we scheduled another visit. This time the service person did not appear as scheduled. Since I had been spending large chunks of time this summer on the road, I let it drop and did not complain again until the next long - over the entire damn weekend - outage. The following Monday I appeared at the desk at our local Adelphia office and told them we wanted to receive high-speed internet access. When I was told that they would be happy to sign us up I replied that we were already signed up, our service was lousy and we wanted what we were paying for. The shocked lady said they would be happy to schedule a service call. I told her I had done that but the last time no one had shown up. She disappeared in the back and returned saying a service person would be at my house in two days, in the morning between the hours of eight and noon. I thanked her and returned home to find the internet working fine.

The internet connection remained OK and on schedule the service person arrived. He checked the signal strength at the cable modem in the house and said it was good. However, I had noticed some rather funky cabling around and under the house, so I asked him to check out a cable that ran from the "head in" box around the corner of our deck and disappeared under the house through a vent grate. Two cables had been joined by a typical coax connector that was hanging in space, exposed to the elements. I thought that odd. He took apart the connection and said that water had gotten into the cable. He replaced the connectors and said that had probably been the problem all along. I felt a bit silly; I could and should have fixed that problem myself. I thanked him and he left.

The intermittent outages returned. Two weekends ago the outages became longer and more frequent. I took apart and cleaned the suspect connector; still the flashing light on the cable modem. I replaced the connector; it was no better. Monday I called the 800 number again. Trying to be helpful I also mentioned that along with the internet problems that the signal quality on my TV became worse on the higher channels, but that it improved markedly from channels 100 up. With that the internet service rep said the TV problem needed to be checked out first and I needed to be transferred to another department. She further stated that only after the TV service call could a visit from the internet service person be scheduled. Then I was transferred. I told my story again and was told it would be over a week until a TV service visit could be scheduled. I told this service person by that time I could have a DSL and Direct TV installed - and just might. Now with a slight edge to her voice - she must have noticed mine - she told me again they would be happy to schedule a visit, Tuesday next. She said they had no openings until then. I said fine.Coax Cable

By this time I was pissed off. With no internet and over a week until an initial service call, I had to try something. I decided to replace the cable from the "head in" box entirely. I found a replacement cable after going through my coax collection in the garage. I then opened the "head in" box, disconnected the cable and worked the downstream cable away from the crack between the decking and the house siding. That was when I saw the duct tape. The cable had been damaged, torn through to the core, wrapped with now-weathered silver duct tape, and jammed into the vertical corner of the aluminum siding. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

My wife then told me that after she had adopted two pound puppies a couple years ago they had chewed the cable causing the TV to go out. She called the Adelphia service people, they came to the house, and she left them on the deck while she went to work. Since the TV worked after she returned she had thought no more about it.

So what I was holding was an Adelphia service repair, carefully placed out of sight in a crack in the siding. I replaced the section of cable, the internet service returned, and I began to look forward to seeing the service person in eight days. I wanted his side of the story.

Last Tuesday morning I received an automated recording from Adelphia reminding us that a service call had been scheduled between the hours of 8 AM and noon on Wednesday. Not what I was told but OK, I could wait another day. Wednesday came and went, no service person. None Thursday; none Friday. None this week. No calls explaining why they were not here. The internet has worked fine since I replace that cable.

So I have decided to post this rant. Of course it does no good. The back story is that Adelphia has been in chapter 11 bankruptcy since 2002. The founders of Adelphia, the Rigas family, seem to have used the company as their private piggy bank, diverting money for their own purposes that could have been used to insure good service for their customers. In case you missed it, the Securities and Exchange Commission described it as, " of the most extensive financial frauds ever to take place at a public company." Some family members are facing major jail time for fraud and tax evasion. Most of Adelphia's cable assets have been sold to Time-Warner, which takes over next spring.

It is hard to pin any specific act of local incompetence on corporate malfeasance. But I suspect a connection between that duct tape and the billions looted from Adelphia by the Rigas family. When we read of corporate criminality - WorldCom, Enron, Tyco for examples - the fallout from these acts affect us all, not just stock holders. This criminality will continue until we elect public officials who will pass and enforce laws that finally discourage these breaches of public trust. Unfortunately the bunch calling the shots in Washington now seems more interested in promoting the interests of big business than regulating their behavior. Until that changes expect more duct tape solutions to your problems.

So I would like to reserve a Special Place in Hell for those criminals at Adelphia and at least a glimpse of the fiery furnaces to the guy with the duct tape.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Roses Are Red, Sometimes

Roses I have never been a roses person, too many unpleasant experiences with thorns as a child I suppose. But my wife likes roses so last spring I planted these for her in our front yard.

They are miniatures, Sweet Melody. I bought them at the NC Farmer's Market in Raleigh. It is November and the photo does not do them justice. Soon they will need a trellis.

I could change my mind about roses.

Friday, November 04, 2005



Last July I posted about The Economist, the news magazine. I mentioned,
"Of special note are the illustrations which frequently express an often bizarre British sense of humor that counterbalances the relatively dry, businesslike prose."
This was the cover of the issue I had waiting for me when I returned last Sunday. I really liked it. I am all about sharing...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Odds & Ends

As has been my modus operandi for the past months, I have been on the road. I returned to base last Sunday night and have been debriefing, decompressing, and decomposing (not writing) ever since. As usual, I went to Virginia with multiple items on the agenda.

Thursday, I submitted my step-father's estate inventory at the county seat. Even though his will and estate are relatively straightforward, administering any estate requires care. So far, so good.

Next was a trip to my mother's safe deposit box to retrieve some stock certificates. Now these assets of hers are safely being held by her brokerage. After that it was on to Richmond and my sister's - with mother riding shotgun.nnmap

I had planned to use last Friday as an opportunity for a day trip to the Northern Neck and another courthouse. I felt like I needed to learn more about some land my mother has an interest in and to determine what building restrictions apply to her waterfront property. To my surprise mother said she wanted to go with me. We had talked about taking a road trip to her family home grounds for several months, but she had resisted every date I suggested. Since my step-father died last spring she has gone through spells when she just wanted to do little more than curl up on her favorite couch in the sun room. Not good. So when she said she wanted to go with me and spend a few days in Richmond with my sister, I was very pleased.

So after spending Thursday night at my sister's we headed up highway 360. The weather was great. After the usual wonderful lunch at Lowery's we hit the courthouse about 1:30. Mother had been very chatty, point out places of interest and the falling price of unleaded regular. I think my favorite moment was when she said, "There was a girl I used to know who lived over there. She married some boy - I forget his name - but he died." Moments like that and I fear I know why my daughter calls me Captain Tangent.

Mother stayed in the car - sleeping mostly - while I provided friday afternoon entertainment at several county offices. I was a bit surprised, but in a little over an hour I had all the information I needed. We then drove to what is left of her family farm - it is a subdivision now - then scouted the other track of land she owns with her brother. We trespassed down a farm road looking for her old family graveyard. Never found it. Mother then decided she wanted to visit a few local communities. This little side trip added a couple of hours to our drive but she enjoyed seeing places again and remarking on what had changed and being pleased at what had not. It was after dark by the time we returned to Richmond, dinner, and a good night's sleep.

Saturday was the event that had prompted my trip north in the first place, the reunion of three classes at the high school where I worked in the mid 70's. Before checking into the hotel mother, my sister, and I visited the new home of my nephew and his bride. They have been renovating a row house in an increasingly trendy section of Richmond. They have done a great job, have clever plans for more work, and it was wonderful to visit with them.

The reunion was great. I saw loads of folks I had not seen in ~25 years. Everyone seemed to have a great time with the socializing starting at three in the afternoon and lasting well past when I went to bed around one. Unfortunately I was was the only faculty member there. I would have liked to have seen some of my old colleagues.

As expected most of us had more weight and less hair. I remember those classes fondly as a very special group of young people. It seems as adults they have retained that character. Several people I expected and wanted to see were not there, but I had several wonderful extended conversations with folks I had not thought of in years. Two of my favorite students who I had not lost touch with were there as expected. Just the time spent with them that evening - and breakfast the next morning - made the trip for me. The rest was a happy bonus.

About noon I returned to my sister's house and mother and I headed south. After getting her situated back home I treked south and home. Even learning that my fantasy football team had again lost - rant coming soon - could not take the luster off a great trip.

Now I plan to take advantage of a spell of dry warm weather to do some outside work around the house - roofing work mostly - and catch up on my blogging and correspondence.

Save the Bay.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Middle of the Road

dillo2Several months back I listened to an NPR interview by Terry Gross of Ari Fleischer, our President's first press secretary. Mr. Fleischer was pleasant enough to listen to and after fifteen minutes or so I found myself thinking he probably was a bit too smooth, but maybe not a such bad chap.

But as the interview continued I began to develop a strange disquiet that lasted through the end. I began to notice that Mr. Fleischer kept referring to the Left and the Right, Liberal and Conservative, when discussing political issues. I started to listen for any reference to the Middle. But it was as if the Middle did not exist. I began to wonder what ever happened to our citizens in the Middle. We used to have a Moderates in this country. Really.

There was a time in our recent past when it was OK to be a Moderate, center-of-the-road. Both political parties had Left and Right wings, nuts they were often called. Moderates from both parties listened to the more extreme views of their brethren - the ideologically torqued up - and then supported programs and policies that found common ground. They usually carried the day and we muddled through.

Those who looked for their thrills close to either edge were very often bright, committed and attractive. But they were understood as being quite dangerous if allowed to take center stage. Both Hitler and Stalin and the Weathermen and J. Edgar Hoover had more in common than they would care to admit. They serve as a caution to us all.

But things have changed. With a stridency seen but very occasionally in our short history, Americans are now being pulled - or pushed - to one side or another. Everyone seems to have talking point, not ideas. We are citizens of Red States or Blue States, like it or not. Our fourth estate, the eyes and ears of democracy, are now mainly seen as shills for one side or another - as if every issues just has two sides! Politics is now a blood sport, with the line between political dialogue and entertainment fading fast. Liberals v. Lions at 4:30. Conservatives v. Lions at 5. We now have a whole generation who have seen nothing else. They think this is normal. We may debate as to how we got this way, or whether is it a good or bad thing, but here we are.

hightower1Jim Hightower, the self-proclaimed America's #1 populist, has scorned those seeking the middle of the road. He wants us to commit to one side of the other, believing of course that most will join him. He reminds us that the most dangerous place to be now is in the middle of the road, the new ragged edge of American politics.

Push come to shove I know which side of the barricade I would join. That part is easy for me. But for the time being I would rather get my thrills searching for that center again. It wasn't so bad.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Yesterday the 3 PM temperature at the local airport was 81 degrees (F). This morning at 7 AM it was 43 (F), a 38 degree drop in sixteen hours.

I think autumn just knocked on the door.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

More Railroad Earth

RREpromo Last Saturday evening was the fourth and last of our string of live music week-ends. For the third time we were in Charlotte at the Neighborhood Theatre, this time spending an evening with Railroad Earth. My daughter, her fiancee Michael and her old friend Chuck joined us, first for a wonderful dinner at Boudreaux's and then for the music. The evening was just about perfect. But the best part for me was after the show, in the parking lot.

Railroad Earth filled the main stage of the theatre nicely and opened at about a quarter to nine. Our seats were about four rows back, center. The sound was perfect as was the sightline to the stage. The dancers in front of the stage did not obscure our view. As there was no opening band, RRE played two sets. After the first my wife and I staked out a position at the foot of the stage with the dancers where we spend the remainder of the evening.

The guys came back after the break and just smoked. As it was their eighth show in nine days, I was amazed at their energy level. I was stationed underneath John Skehan, the mandolin player. From this position I was able to hear the music partially through his stage monitor - all the better to marvel at his contribution to the band's sound. I don't think I have ever heard the band any better. I sure hope a copy of the show appears on

After the show - three encores - we said our good-byes and headed for the parking lot behind the theatre. As we turned the corner into the lot we saw a small crowd at the back of a van. Moments later we heard music and saw some guys playing away. Curious, we walked over and saw Skehan playing with folks we did not recognize. They were in a tight circle - banjo, guitar, bass, hand-held drum, and John. They were watching each other like hawks, occasionally calling out chord changes.

So here was John, after already playing for three hours, jamming after midnight in a parking lot, just for the love of making music. That, folks, is what it is all about.

After a couple of tunes we headed to our car and drove away, smiling.

On the Earthboard later I found that John was playing with the Lost Ridge Band from Boone. Tim and Andy joined in the parking lot set after we left.

Damn, what a night.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Harriet Miers, Best Justice Ever?

You may have been surprised over the past few months as the chickens have been coming home to roost around the White House that I have had little to say. With his approval levels dropping below 40%, his associates under multiple investigations, his war in Iraq not going particularly well, his blatant cronyism under the spotlight, his handling of the economy faltering, his international standing about as low as an American president has ever been, and his second term agenda in deep trouble, it has been a long time since G.W. Bush has had much to feel good about. Maybe he should go to the movies; or maybe not. But I have been content to just let history play out the rope with which he is entangling himself with little comment.Harriet_Miers

But I was just blown away by his choice of Harriet Miers as the next Supreme Court justice. I really don't know whether to laugh or cry. With one announcement he has managed to confound his friends and foes alike, and expose at the worst possible time his consistent lack of sound judgment and personal integrity. I almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

More than for him I feel for Ms. Miers. Minimally qualified, except through her devotion to a man who became President, it must be very painful to have to endure the hostile scrutiny of practically everyone with her main defenders all working at one address. With friends like the President's "conservative" supporters, she does not need enemies. She may well be a great person, smarter and more hard working than most. But she has fallen in with thieves. It is getting personally ugly, and may get more so.

Almost as informative and amusing has been the roiling about of the more reactionary elements of our political establishment, almost as entertaining as watching a dog chew on its own leg. Sometimes the best you can hope for is that these folks get the opportunity to really say what is on their minds, and that someone is listening.Tucker tie.vsmall

The recent "interview" of Robert Bork by our bow-tied Tucker Carlson was a joy to behold. Besides the uneasy image I had reading the transcript of two dogs smelling each other, I found it amazing that Bork was willing to say, in effect, that his main objection to Ms. Miers appointment was that she may carry with her to the court a somewhat open mind. Interpret for yourself:
TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC HOST: Are you impressed by the president's choice of Harriet Miers?

JUDGE ROBERT BORK, FORMER SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: Not a bit. I think it's a disaster on every level.

CARLSON: Why? Explain the levels on which it's a disaster.

BORK: Well, the first one is, that this is a woman who's undoubtedly as wonderful a person as they say she is, but so far as anyone can tell she has no experience with constitutional law whatever. Now it's a little late to develop a constitutional philosophy or begin to work it out when you're on the court already. So that - I'm afraid she's likely to be influenced by factors, such as personal sympathies and so forth, that she shouldn't be influenced by. I don't expect that she can be, as the president says, a great justice.

But the other level is more worrisome, in a way: it's kind of a slap in the face to the conservatives who've been building up a conservative legal movement for the last 20 years. There's all kinds of people, now, on the federal bench and some in the law schools who have worked out consistent philosophies of sticking with the original principles of the Constitution. And all of those people have been overlooked.Bork
So for Mr. Bork - shown here in a bow-tie of his own and thankfully still a private citizen - it is necessary to have developed a "constitutional philosophy" before considering the facts and context of a case brought before the court. And not just any constitutional philosophy will do. It should be one he agrees with. Lord help us if Harriet Miers ever gets a chance to vote based on something she might learn after taking a seat on the bench.

The interview also had a wonderful little moment provided by Mr. Carlson.
BORK: ... It's odd that Justice Roberts, who is now the chief justice, and who will probably be an excellent choice in many ways, also had no track record that was easy to follow.


BORK: Now this woman, who has even less of a track record.

CARLSON: None at all, it seems like. But her defenders' flaks from the White House, some of whom we've had on the show.

BORK: Flaks, eh?

CARLSON: Flaks, you know, professional spinners.

BORK: I know the word, I just was interested in this. Go ahead.

CARLSON: Yeah, that's essentially what they are some decent people, but repeating a line that's been devised by the PR office of the White House - claim that she is a great pick because she brings diversity of experience. Not only is she a woman, and that supposedly - for reasons I don't quite understand - is very important, but beyond that, she has followed a different path than most Supreme Court nominees. She hasn't been a judge, et cetera.
First he calls White House defenders - not supporters - of Miers "flacs." Then he damns them with faint praise by describing them as "decent people." Finally he does not quite understand why diversity of experience or her gender might be important on the Supreme Court.

Listen up Tucker. If you were not white and male - like most of our Supreme Court justices have been and are - you just might find it easier to understand.

These guys can't be as thick as they appear. Or can they?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Shakori Hills

shakorifall2005Last weekend was another adventure in music and camping as we attended the Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, better known by the site name, Shakori Hills Farm. The music and rain were outstanding.
Note to self: When pitching a tent on an incline in the rain, do not extend the plastic ground cover six inches outside the tent on the uphill side.
The festival program describes the event as a "music lovers paradise," listing rootsrock, country, zydeco, latin, african, bluegrass, oldtime, gospel, blues and reggae as the music to be heard. They did not exaggerate; all were there. There was even a swing band in the dance tent Saturday night.

Only in its third year, the festival is smaller and more intimate than LEAF or Floydfest. ChildrensParadeYet it was smoothly organized, at least to this observer. There were no alcohol sales on site which probably contributed to the mellowness. And, like the others, the event is very child friendly, which again contributed to the sense of family and community. The photo above is of the beginning of the children's parade on Sunday.

The food vendors were outstanding. And located in the middle of Chatham County near the North Carolina Triangle, the festival is convenient for daytrippers.

Several of my favorite performers who I had seen recently were there: Donna the Buffalo, Railroad Earth, The Duhks, and Kellin Watson. But the best part of any weekend like this is stumbling across people I had never heard of playing great music. I spent most of the time with a smile on my face, just drifting from stage to stage when something caught my ear. Best-Camper2

Once again Miss Rachel won the outstanding camper award.

Students1But the competition was close as Tobias and Michael, students from Sweden and Taiwan, who are spending a year at my wife's university, adapted smoothly to the many new sights and sounds - as well as a soggy tent Friday night.

In short, it was a great weekend. And the rain? No Problem!

Friday, October 07, 2005

The World Book

WorldBookI can still remember that morning when I was nine. Mr. Richards, our local World Book Encyclopedia salesman, sat on our front porch and sold my mother this 1955 edition. I remember the smell of the samples, the colors of the different bindings, the salesman's pitch about the positive influence on my education, and mother signing on the dotted line for the installment plan. It was the summer before I was to start the fourth grade, and the beginning of the end of my childhood.

Mother told daddy after the fact that evening. I remember him being mildly annoyed about not being consulted. But if he had any real objections they did not keep the boxed volumes from arriving a few weeks later. I was so excited. I remember helping open the boxes, putting them in order, and carefully looking through each one.

I had always been a reader. In my school library in the Childhood of Famous Americans series published by Bobbs-Merrill with the orange - and sometimes blue - covers were my favorites. But this was different. This was grown up stuff.

It didn't happen all at once - the World Book initially was a bit over my head - but within a couple of years I would often pick up a volume and keep turning pages until something caught my fancy. I would read until satisfied and repeat the process. By this time my father had built an addition to our house which included the bookcase where they still reside and the window seat below where I would read for hours on end. Mother complained that I would rather read than eat.

Initially it would have been hard to credit my academic success to the World Book, for I had little. I was an indifferent student by the time I reached high school, a worse one by the time I finished. I was bright enough, my teachers said. But I did not apply myself. True. The classroom seem small to me by then; my attention was easily diverted. I was more interested in sports, cars, and that rock and roll on the AM radio. And I did not know it then, but the 60's were coming to get me.

But I had developed on that window seat with those red World Book's a love of reading, the printed word, and learning. Those loves would later form the foundation of my better-late-than-never attempts to educate myself, with - or in spite of - the assistance of institutions of higher learning.

I have often wondered what would have happened to me if my mother had not signed on those dotted lines that summer morning.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

the subdudes

subdudes-bw-pub-smOver the weekend my wife and I were back in Charlotte at the Neighborhood Theatre to hear the subdudes. It was my first time hearing them live after owning all of their albums since they formed in 1987. Maybe it was the Low Country Shrimp and Grits at Boudreaux's Louisiana Kitchen next door before the concert - or the beer - but I would rank their performance last Saturday night in my personal all-time top 10. And I have heard a lot of live music over the years. Damn, they were good.

I know this is beginning to sound like a broken record. (does anyone reading this have any idea what a broken record might sound like?) Like most of my favorites, the subdudes don't sound like anyone else. With a core instrumentation of guitar, accordion and tambourine, years of living and playing in the New Orleans area, and a sitting on the front porch Sunday afternoon sensibility - subdued - their music defies a clear label. All I know is I love it.

It sounds like an old story. A group of veteran musicians gets together for a one-night jam almost on a whim. Something clicks; they like it. They play some more, take a name and build a following. They tour, make CDs and tour some more. But critical praise and a small but loyal fan base barely pays the bills. And the road weary band plays a farewell gig ten years later where they started. The place? The legendary Tipitina's in N.O. The band? Our subdudes.

But wait, there is more. The musicians continue to work. Five years later two ex-subdudes invite another ex-subdude up on stage for a song or two. The crowd goes wild. Discussions are held, bands merge. The 'dudes (three of four) are back - older, wiser, and with more musical ideas to share. Life is good.

That was 2001. Fast forward to August 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits southeastern Louisiana, hard. The homes of the guitar and bass player are severely damaged. They and their families evacuate before the storm and are safe, but now live with family and friends. Several gigs are cancelled or rescheduled but they come to Charlotte October first and just play their asses off. The photo below from the show does not begin to capture the energy.dudesCharlotte

Very few musicians live well. Even the very best, the most dedicated at their craft and to the enjoyment of their audiences, frequently have trouble making ends meet. Sometimes they are their own worst enemy. Other times the guys with the suits rob them blind. In any case it does not take much sometimes to tip them over the financial edge. For many musicians Katrina was sufficient.

Along with the usual messages in the forum section of the subdudes' website recently was a post from the band's management forthrightly acknowledging that the band and its members and families are hurting financially. They are now considering playing at private parties as part of their touring. For musicians of this quality to be willing to play in living rooms says a great deal to me about their dedication and their need. They have gone so far as to establish a relief fund so their fans have a way to help out. And they are far from alone. A quick look at the Tipitina's Foundation website paints the larger picture.reliefregister

So if you have the opportunity and connections, inquire about bringing the subdudes to a venue near you. Contribute what you can in relief of all the musicians who bring so much happiness to the world. Support live music, as I will be doing this weekend.

And check out the subdudes. What the Neighborhood Theatre wrote on its poster might be true, quite possibly the best band, ever.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


BarryInfluenza2Last year John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide, published his latest, The Great Influenza - The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. I just finished it. According to the White House it was one of three books G.W. Bush took with him to read on his hurricane shortened August vacation. I wonder if he did.

While scientists are now arguing in public about just how many people may die in the next pandemic coming to a neighborhood near you, I found the book fascinating for two reasons unrelated to the influenza virus itself and the untold millions (50? 100?) who died.

First was his opening description of the abysmal state of American medical education and practice in the mid and late 1800's and those who, by the time the pandemic occurred, made the best of American medical practice the equal of any in the world.

The second was the governmental and institutional response to the rapid spread of the disease and deaths. Given that the cause was unknown (most thought it was a bacteria) and no cure was available (there still isn't), maybe we should cut the elected officials, medical establishment, print media, government officials some slack. However the repeated poor coordination among governmental agencies, failure to heed professional warnings, and willingness to lie to the public during a time of crisis cost many citizens their lives. Does this sound familiar? There was a war on then too.

Turns out historian John Barry lives in New Orleans (Tulane & Xavier Universities). Seems like instead of having to research trouble, this time trouble came looking for him. You can read more about and by Mr. Barry at the excellent History News Network web site.

That individuals act badly in times of crisis should not surprise us. Fear and ignorance are not pretty, a bad combination. And since mankind is constantly turning over we can't count on individual experience for much. But institutions are different. They were created to express the best of our collective knowledge and wisdom. They were created to pass knowledge across the generations. That the institutions we depend on can so easily fail, repeating the mistakes of the past - in 1918, 1927, as illustrated by Barry, and before our eyes in August 2005 - should be sobering for all of us.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Karen Hughes

HughesRice Last March 14th, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, announced that Karen Hughes, a former key Bush advisor, was to serve as Under Secretary of State, Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs - a position with the rank of Ambassador. She was nominated in June, confirmed by the Senate a month later, and sworn in three weeks ago.

Described by David Boaz of the Cato Institute in 2001 as "the Power Behind the Curtain," Mrs. Hughes had left Washington in 2002 to spend more time with her family in Texas. Now that her son has started Stanford, Mrs. Hughes is willing to spend more time away from home. She is currently in the Middle East, representing you and me, to the Muslim world. You see, her mission is to change the perception of foreigners - especially Muslims - about the United States. According to Ms. Rice, foreigners have been subjected to "hateful propaganda" and "dangerous myths" about our country. It will be Mrs. Hughes' job to counteract these myths and propaganda and "get out the truth." As the Washington Post put it, she is "to reinvigorate the campaign for hearts and minds overseas." I wish her lots of luck.

The selection of Mrs Hughes is remarkable less by the six months it took her to get on the job than by her almost complete lack of qualifications. Her offical State Department biography reads:
Ambassador Karen Hughes was nominated by President George W. Bush on June 29, 2005 to serve as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on July 29, 2005 and sworn in on Sept. 9, 2005. As Under Secretary, Ms. Hughes leads efforts to improve America’s dialogue with the world. She participates in policy development and oversees three bureaus at the Department of State: Educational and Cultural Affairs, Public Affairs, and International Information Programs.

Ambassador Hughes previously served as an advisor to President Bush for more than 10 years. As Counselor to the President for his first 18 months in the White House, she was involved in major domestic and foreign policy issues, led the communications effort in the first year of the war against terror, and managed the White House Offices of Communications, Media Affairs, Speechwriting and Press Secretary.

She served as Director of Communications during the President’s 6 years as Governor of Texas, and was the communications director for his successful 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial campaigns and his 2000 presidential campaign.

Ambassador Hughes returned to Texas in 2002 but continued to serve as an informal advisor to the President and was a communications consultant for his 2004 re-election campaign. She is the author of Ten Minutes from Normal, the story of her experiences working for President Bush, and she helped write the President’s autobiography, A Charge to Keep.

Ambassador Hughes is a former Executive Director of the Republican Party of Texas and a former television news reporter for KXAS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth. Ms. Hughes is a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate of Southern Methodist University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Journalism. She is an elder and long-time Sunday school teacher in the Presbyterian church.
While Mrs. Hughes may be a smart as the come, a trusted presidential advisor, and as good a person as a sunday school teacher can be, one is struck by her complete lack of training or experience dealing with foreign governments, institutions or individuals. I have more experience in foreign countries and with foreigners than she does.

Further, however talented at communications and public relations - spin, if you will - Mrs. Hughes will find that foreigners watch our country very closely, and have for a long time. They know much more about us than we them. They don't think they have a perception problem. They think they have a reality problem. And they are right.

Indeed her elevation to this post seems to shout that the Bush administration sees our problems overseas as more the resulting from the ignorance, gullibility or malevolence of foreigners than of anything we may have done to squander the almost universal support we had from the rest of the world after 9/11/01. I have a box of rocks in my garage - pea gravel actually - that is smarter than that. That attitude is just not going to win friends or influence people.

While irony seems to be everywhere these days, it seems almost beyond belief that in presenting Mrs. Hughes to the world as our "P.R. Ambassador" this administration can no better illustrates its belief that reality matters less than perception. Lincoln had a saying about that. And Ron Suskind the telling quote in his New York Times Magazine article, Without a Doubt, last October:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
If there is any silver lining in Mrs Hughes' efforts on our behalf it may be that she has the capability to learn despite the blinders and filters of neocom ideology. Confronting reality often enough abroad she just may return to the President's ear with the message that only changes in American policy, not changes in U.S. propaganda, will boost our image abroad. In other words, reality matters.

I am not holding my breath.

Monday, September 26, 2005


PicklesI don't remember when my mother started making 14-day pickles. There seems to have always been jars in the basement waiting to ride back with me after every visit home.

Earlier this summer I noticed only a few remaining. I asked if she was going to make pickles again this year. She told me no; she said she was getting too old for all the time and work involved. I suppose at 86 she is old enough to decide such things, but I was a little taken back.

Upon returning home I discovered a copy of her pickle recipe she had typed for me many years ago. So I decided to rescue one of her crocks and make some of my own.

We'll see if these are as-good-as-mother-used-to-make, but I doubt it.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Duhks


Last night, as Rita annoyed the Gulf Coast, my wife and I traveled to Charlotte and the Neighborhood Theatre to hear the Duhks (pronounced Ducks, not Dukes), a band of 20 somethings from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I had heard them briefly - and at a distance - at Merlefest and thought they would be great in a small venue. I was right.

Those of you who know me realize that I am often most taken by music that is difficult to categorize, hard to stick a label on. The Duhks are right down my alley. In fact, when they were featured on NPR's All Things Considered last February the piece was titled: The Duhks, a Tough Band to Pigeonhole. As the "Live at NPR" piece began:
The Duhks defy easy categorization. Fans and acquaintances have used phrases like "Blue Rodeo meets Celtic rock," "progressive soulgrass" and "Destiny's Child meets the Chieftains" to describe the Canadian band.
Duhks2After a couple of songs I leaned over and asked my wife - who has heard just about as much music as me - if she had ever heard anybody like them. "No," she said slowly, "I don't believe I have." Then she smiled. I guess we are both Duhklings now.

Here is a press kit photo from their web site. While it does do justice to their youth, it does not give a clue to their mature musicianship - or their new tattoos.

KellinWatsonOpening the evening was the Kellin Watson Band from Asheville, one of my favorite places in the Universe. In fact Kellin must have attended UNCA about the same time as my daughter. Unlike my daughter, Kellin told our crowd that she did not graduate, preferring to seek her fortune as a musician. She may have made a good decision.

To my ear she sounds like a wonderful cross between Rickie Lee Jones and Joan Osborne. She writes much of her own material and her guitar is definitely not a singers prop. Like her friends the Duhks, Kellin is musically mature beyond her years.

Sitting in the darkened theatre I was once again reminded of the magic of live music. And I thought of all the great music being played at that moment at small clubs and converted movie houses like the Neighborhood - great music you don't hear on the radio and is often hard to find in stores.

And I also thought that not long ago it would have surprised - and maybe bothered - me that I would enjoy so much music played by "kids" half my age. Not anymore. As I was reminded again last night, it's the music that matters.

Next week it's the subdudes. Red beans and rice anyone?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Out of the Woods

SailboatAs you may have surmised, I have been on the road again. After a quick visit to the Northern Neck on family business - and an overnighter at my mother's - I recovered my sailboat from the woods behind my wife's parents home near Blacksburg.

After sitting unprotected for about eight years, the 13-foot Lone Star is in better shape than she has any right to be. Two new tires and repacking wheel bearings and the rig was ready for the six-hour trip to its new quarters in our backyard.

I purchased the Eyleen about twenty years ago from an estate. The previous owner had sailed her in his retirement on a small lake near Asheville. Of course it had more damage than I realized at the time and she spent many rehab hours in my basement atop Mineral Springs Mountain.

I had been sailing only once before buying a sailboat of my own. That afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay was life altering. I had never been so relaxed and alert at the same time as the small craft responded to both wind and wave. Because I had been in and around small boats as far back as I could remember I was sure that my almost total lack of sailing experience was not going to be a problem.

Our peaceful maiden solo voyage ended abruptly on a #!@*!! sand bar in what appeared to be the middle of the channel near Morehead City in 1987. Damage to my "new and improved" centerboard assembly was considerable. After awkwardly tacking back to shore she has remained on her trailer ever since. Not wanting to take her with us immediately when we moved to Wisconsin, I parked her in the Virginia mountains in 1997 - out of sight, out of mind, at least until recently.

Will she sail again? Don't count the Eyleen out quite yet. Stranger things have happened.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Duck 9-15 7amThis is the beach and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Field research pier at Duck, North Carolina this morning. The wind at that time was only about 25 knots (~29 mph) with 8 foot waves.

My mother has a timeshare condo about a quarter mile to your right. I have walked that beach many times over the years.

Several years ago using this same website I saw the end of the pier underwater as another hurricane approached.

Ophelia was still about 100 miles south.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Slow Dancing with Ophelia

If Ophelia spends anywhere near as much time over land as she has off our coast, we've got problems.

I think the color balance - the greens, the blues - between the last satellite image and the colors of this blog are a much better match than today's. Don't you agree Kevin?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Dancing With Ophelia

opheliaIt looks like we in the Carolina's have a hurricane to call our own. Although not nearly as powerful as Katrina - or Hugo (see 9/2/05 post) - she could still do some damage.

While she makes up her mind about exactly where to go I think I'll consider about what to do if she visits here.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Dancing With Katrina

Media coverage has seemed fixated on the flooding of New Orleans and the poor governmental planning and disaster response. But east of the Big Easy is where the real death and distruction from the "natural" portion of this disaster took place.JoshNorman

Before the storm hit the Gulf Coast two young newspaper reporters, Josh Norman (right) and Mike Keller of the Sun-Herald, started a rather light-hearted blog, first called Dancing with Katrina, but now named Eye of the Storm. I stumbled across their blog early on Tuesday, August 30th, when the magnitude of what they had lived through was just beginning to sink in.PassChristian

They have continued to post, both from the perspective of journalists and survivors. Reading forward from their first posts on that Sunday evening and carefully looking at their photos - like the one from Pass Christian above - is as close to being there as I would care.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Maynard G. Krebs

MaynardGKrebsYou may remember Gilligan; I remember Maynard, my first TV role model.
I was thirteen when Maynard introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. While the other seventh graders identified with Dobie, Thalia, Zelda, or Milton Armitage, my main man was always Maynard.
"You rang?"
Maynard was TV's first acknowledgment that things might be getting strange among the youth in the safe-as-milk 1950's. When The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis first aired in 1959 Maynard, as the stereotypical beatnik, was just a goofy oddball, a foil. Ten years later - think Woodstock - there were millions of us, Maynard's spiritual descendents.
"Like, I'm getting all misty."
I am sure somewhere in a closet at my mother's home are my bongos. Really.

R.I.P. Bob Denver. And thanks.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Rising Tide

Like you I have been watching with horror the second landfall and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.Hurricanhugo The pictures of the devastation of the Gulf coast reminded me of that early morning of September 22nd, 1989 when another category 4 hurricane, Hugo, plowed inland toward my home in the mountains of North Carolina, snapping trees, closing roads and causing considerable damage to life and property. I was lucky; the worst for me was losing power for six days. As I traveled around North Carolina in the days and weeks following I saw first hand how much damage a major hurricane can do, even hundreds of miles from the ocean.

However, the damage along the Gulf Coast this week is much worse than I went through, and much more than a natural disaster; it is a very human one. I am not referring to the horror, misery and heartbreak of the victims. I am writing of the human decisions to build inappropriate structures in inappropriate places. I am writing of inadequate preparation and poor execution of emergency plans. I am writing about the private wealth and public poverty that turns unavoidable acts of nature into avoidable tragedies. I am writing about New Orleans.

As heart rending are the stories of Mobile, Slidell and Gulfport, the breaching of the levees around New Orleans and the slow covering of the city with floodwaters after the hurricane had passed has become the focus of our attention. Maybe it should. Few other cities provide a better example of poor city planning, with science and solid engineering taking a back seat to ignorance, greed, and the worst of U.S. politics.

Rising TideIn order to understand what is going on in the Big Easy now one must understand a little history, a history of the river and those who would "tame" it. I would recommend as a starter John M. Barry's 1997 book, Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.

New Orleans itself was spared damage from the flood of 1927, caused not by a sudden hurricane but months of rainfall in the upper midwest. But nearby, down river St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were deliberately flooded by a levee breach carried out by the leading power brokers of New Orleans. As Mr. Barry tells the story in an interview found on the PBS web site:
You know, the 1927 Flood was two stories. It was man against nature, but it was also man against man. And part of the story in man against man involved the city of New Orleans, which in 1927 was a much more vibrant and vital city than it is today. It was, by far, the leading city in the South, economically dwarfed, literally double and triple Miami, Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Louisville, any of its rivals. And one of the things that the people in New Orleans who ran the city were concerned about was fear of their investors, who were mostly in New York and Boston, of what the Mississippi River might do to New Orleans in a big flood. So here, you had this tremendous flood coming down the river and, oddly enough, it didn't threaten New Orleans. And the reason it didn't threaten New Orleans was because there was no possible way that that water was ever going to make it to New Orleans. The levees upriver had to break. They had to, as, in fact, they did. For example, the river spread out 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, Louisiana. But before that happened, while people in New York were worrying about whether or not they should put more money into New Orleans and invest in the port and so forth, the city fathers decided to demonstrate that they would never, under any circumstances, allow the river to threaten the city. So what they did was decide to dynamite the levee about 13 miles below the city and flood out their neighbors. Race had nothing to do with this. They were almost all poor whites who were flooded out.

INT: Describe what happens when levees break upriver.

JB: When the levees upriver break, it lets water out of the river. So, therefore, the level in the river gets lower. In fact, in every flood there's concerns about sabotage, 'cause if the levee on one side of the river breaks, that side floods, but the people on the other side of the river are safe. And, in fact, there were at least a dozen people killed in separate gun battles in 1927 over attempts to sabotage the levee. And, in fact, in Vicksburg, the record on the Vicksburg gauge is not 1927. The reason is the water had spread out to Monroe, Louisiana, 70 miles away. So, obviously, that's going to lower the water level.

INT: Tell me Jadwin's response and Hoover's response when they were asked to weigh in on the levy.

JB: Well, before the City of New Orleans could do this, they needed permission. And they needed it from both the governor and the federal government. Hoover was then Secretary of Commerce. He and Jadwin (Corps of Engineers) were actually coming down the river on an inspection boat and one of the New Orleans elite took a motorboat up the river to meet on board. And Hoover and Jadwin greeted this New Orleans delegation warmly and as soon as the people from New Orleans started to explain what they wanted, Hoover stood up and walked out. He wanted no part of it. He was already running for President and this was too dirty for him. He simply said, “That's General Jadwin's business,” ‘cause Jadwin had the legal authority. And Jadwin finally went along only if New Orleans promised to, among other things, fully compensate the victims of the dynamiting, which they freely promised. And, in fact, 54 leading men of New Orleans, the president of every major business, the president of every trade association, the city council, the mayor, and so forth, they all signed a pledge that they would, in fact, compensate the victims fully. A couple years later when the claims came in, they'd paid off pennies on the dollar and there were roughly 10,000 who were flooded out of their homes. When the water went through, there was absolutely nothing left. And their homes were gone, their means of making a living disappeared, and they got an average of $80 a person, something like that.
There is much more to the 1927 flood, and Rising Tide, than this incident. After reading the book one understands much better just how New Orleans became ringed with levees and one gets a feeling what needs to be done to keep such a disaster from happening again.

I could not help but remember the crime of those city fathers against their neighbors as I watched the waters rise this week on Canal Street. Maybe what is playing out today on the streets of New Orleans is a crude cosmic payback to the city, albeit a bit late. Sadly, once again, the poor are paying a disproportional costs of folly.