Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays

Red Front DoorOne of the deficiencies of our new home was the entrance. Made of wood, it had suffered the effects of moisture and its southern exposure. The frame had become rotten and the door ill-fitting. So I installed a new energy efficient fiberglass door about a month ago. My wife wanted a red door, so red it is - just in time for Christmas and a new wreath.

Although the painting is not finished - more coats of red are needed to deepen the color and I am not sure I am happy with the trim color - it still makes a decent Christmas photo.

So, Happy Holidays to our friends and family. The door is always ajar.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter Solstice, 2007

Christmas Card 04Winter solstice occurred for us in the northern hemisphere yesterday at 1:08 AM, EST. Our hours of daylight will now become longer, making another spring an eventuality. Let us welcome the return of the sun.

Every now and then it probably does us good to be reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves, much larger. Humans have been using this date to do so for a long time, in many ways, in many places. We are probably better off for that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Just Right

Woodstock StoveFrom the first moment I set foot in what would become our new home I felt something was missing in the living room. Between two windows on the east outside wall should have been a fireplace. But none was there. Given the difficulty (and expense) of adding a traditional masonry fireplace to a log wall I looked for an alternative, one that would also provide both supplemental and backup heat. The Cottage Franklin Soapstone Gas Stove was our choice.

We ordered it early last spring when it was on sale and finally installed it a few weeks ago. It was one of the few projects around here that went off more or less with no surprises. The stove has performed perfectly, providing backside warming on cold mornings - like today - and a pleasant glow in the living room in the evening. I like to wake up before sunrise, make my coffee, push the button on the remote, and watch the flame and feel the radiant heat as the sun comes up. Given the layout of our house the stove can heat the whole house if called upon. When we complete the soapstone heat shield and mantle behind the stove that space between the two windows will look complete.

Thank you Woodstock Soapstone Company, West Lebanon New Hampshire. It was a pleasure to work with you. Great Stove!

Now all I need is to pull my chair closer to the stove, open a good book, and pour some egg nog. Winter has its rewards.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Edwin Bearss

Bearss.jpgLast weekend my daughter and I traveled to the Gettysburg area for a two-day tour of Civil War battlefields. Leading our tour was the dean of battlefield tour guides, 84 year-old Ed Bearss, shown here last Sunday at the site of the beginning of what is known as Pickett's Charge.

We traveled north for two reasons. First, my great grandfather Edwards was probably wounded during Lee's Pennsylvania campaign and I wanted to visit the locations where that most likely happened: Gettysburg's East Calvary Battlefield, Smithsburg, or Hagerstown, MD. Second was to once again listen to and absorb from Ed.

Aside from a cool wind on Sunday afternoon when we retraced Confederate footsteps on July 3rd 1863, it was perfect. I had toured the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefield sites with Ed in June and was amazed at his knowledge, presentation, and stamina. Not only would he paint a vivid description of battle in great detail off the top of his head, he would walk your butt off. Nothing was different this time at Gettysburg except the temperature. There is nothing like an Ed Bearss tour. He stands alone.

I am not a civil war buff, whatever a "buff" is. I am uncomfortable with those who find war, any war, glorious. Or who profit financially or emotionally from it. With just a little bit of research and empathy most of us who have never participated in battle would find it horrid. Those who have participated already know. Fully informed, sane people would not wish it on themselves, nor moral persons on others. Yet wars continue.

Ed knows war personally, as a US Marine badly wounded in the south Pacific in WW2. Trying to be careful that I do not put words into his mouth - or remove them - I never heard him try to wrap up the clash of armies and the human responses of individuals to its death and destruction in righteous, self-serving metaphors. He just tells it like it was, like Shakespeare who so vividly presented ourselves to ourselves.

Yes, there is evil in our world that occasionally must be violently opposed. Yes, kill-or-be-killed situations can bring out the best within us as well as the worst. But most of war is a muddle, bad ideas poorly executed. SNAFU. Perhaps it is wise for us to remember well the smell of the battlefield, the cries of the wounded, the fog of war. Then we might more carefully choose the time and place the next soldiers, and bystanding civilians, will die.

As Edwin Bearss served his country as a Marine and with the National Park Service he continues to serve us all as a battlefield tour guide. When he speaks of the Civil War I do not hear us or them. I hear we. We would do well to listen to him.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Larson2Writing in a recent issue of The New Yorker, which, by the way, consistently contains the best writing in the English language, historian Jill Lepore reviewed
Edward J. Larson's new book, “A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign” (Free Press; $27). Her review was titled "PARTY TIME - Smear tactics, skulduggery, and the d├ębut of American democracy."

The following caught my eye:
But the most ferocious attacks on Jefferson concerned his views on religion. Jefferson had once offered a Franklinesque statement of his passionate commitment to religious toleration: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” All over the country, clergymen preached that such a view could lead to nothing but unchecked vice. From New York, one minister answered Jefferson, “Let my neighbor once perceive himself that there is no God, and he will soon pick my pocket and break not only my leg but my neck.”
I smiled. Maybe Jefferson would have also, thanking God for his Virginia neighbors rather than than those of the minister.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I Feel Good

In the spring of 1958 the US was launching its first earth satellites, Castro was just starting his revolution in Cuba, and Prince Rogers Nelson was being born in Minneapolis. Elvis had just been drafted, a Coke cost 5 cents, and the Wham-O Company was doing quite well with the Hula Hoop. Their Frisbee and Hacky Sack were still several years away.

And as my family sat down for dinner one spring evening my mother took off her glasses. Trying to be funny I put them on. To my surprise I could see better with them than without them. A few days after my announcement to all assembled Dr. John Van Hoy, our local optometrist, put glasses on me for the first time. There, in one form or another, they have remained, until yesterday.

LASIK is the acronym for Laser Assisted in Situ Keratomileusis, a type of refractive laser eye surgery performed by ophthalmologists for correcting eye defects, including myopia and astigmatism. I suffered from both, until yesterday.

Thanks to an off-hand comment three weeks ago by the side of our local pool, the friendly folks at Laser Eye Center of Carolina in Cary, and some VERY sophisticated computer driven equipment I put aside my glasses (prescribed last year by the same Dr. Van Hoy!) for the first time in 49 years, yesterday.

I will still need glasses to read and sunglasses to look cool. But I am already at 20-20 uncorrected with improvement very likely. I feel better than James Brown.

Now maybe I need a tattoo.

P.S. Daughter Malindi spanked me pretty good recently for not updating my blog. How did I do? :)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Number 24

Wildlife-Lane.jpgI counted up the other day. Since I under-graduated from Tech in '69 this is my 24th residence.

I'll save you doing the math; that is a change of address every 1.5833 years. Even allowing for some clusters associated with trips to graduate school in the 70's and then the 80's, and a couple of short moves, I seem to have been a rolling stone. One might think I planned it that way, but no. The moves all made sense at the time, jobs/careers; looking back I'm not too sure. I left behind some great places, some great friends.

Carole King sang in 1971:
So far away
Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore
It would be so fine to see your face at my door
Doesn't help to know you're just time away
I actually heard her sing that live that year. She opened for James Taylor at Dorton Arena in Raleigh. That was just after the week he was on the cover of Time. Tapestry was just being released. We were listening to what would become one of the largest selling albums of all time, remaining on the charts for six years. Rolling Stone still ranks it #36 of the 500 Greatest of All Time. Restlessly waiting for James, we had no clue. And I had no idea how my life would come to reflect her lament, or that I would be the one moving.

Anyway, # 24 is nice. I really like having a golf course in the backyard. Even though moving is kicking my butt, I am glad to be here. I hope to stay for a while and raise that average.

I thought you all might be interested in what has taken so much of my time and energy lately. The photo was taken in the winter; it looks a bit nicer today with the new landscaping. Other changes to follow; those green doors have got to go.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Brent's Iron Gate

Brent-Iron-GateWhen my mother remarried over twenty years ago Harper Brent, my step-father, retired, sold his house in New Jersey, and moved to Virginia to our family home. Among the things he brought with him was a heavy iron gate he and Jean, his first wife, used for access to their backyard. Its "french" design must have reminded him of her. He found no use for it and it remained stored until recently in an outbuilding, our old chicken house.

Now that mother and Harper have both passed away my sister and I have responsibility for their stuff, including iron gates. We tried to give it away to Harper's sister or one of her daughters. No takers. I suggested my sister take it. She just gave me that familiar look as if I was out-of-my-mind and declined.

With our new backyard needing a fence and fences needing gates, yesterday I gave it a new home.

If there is a heaven they surely have internet by now, high-speed I am sure. So just in case: johnharperbrent1919@heaven.org. We finally put that gate to use. I hope you and Jean don't mind where it ended up. We will brush off the rust and paint it soon. Promise.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Nike FinishLineBack about 24 years ago when I was a grad student at Tech I saw a poster at a running store that seemed to capture grad school life. I talked them out of it.

I still have it, foamcore mounted, plastic wrapped, corners damaged, but in generally good shape. Today seems to capture my last few months. No finish line, but all is well.

As I was looking for a copy of the poster to use in this blog I learned the photo was taken by John Terence Turner, an acclaimed commercial photographer. The poster is now consider iconic.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virginia Tech

imagesI first saw Blacksburg, and what was then V.P.I., almost fifty years ago, the summer of 1960. A member of my high school's chapter of the Future Farmers of America, I was attending the FFA's Virginia state convention - a wide-eyed rising 9th grader. About 5 foot six, I weighed little more than a large sack of chicken feed. I was a member of our school's second-string crop judging team; we did surprisingly well.

Blacksburg was the "sleepy little college town" in the mountains then, home to a small agricultural and mechanical/military school and little else. You could count the traffic lights and have fingers left over. V.P.I. was essentially all-male and all-white; being a member of the corps of cadets was the norm. Foreign students and women on campus were not. The student body generally came from rural and small-town Virginia, where it was highly regarded. A turkey was the school mascot. It was so not UVA, William and Mary, or Hollins. It was not even V.M.I.

Things change and stuff happens. By the time I graduated from high school V.P.I. was beginning its remarkable transformation into a major university. My lackluster high school record and vague aspirations did not make me highly sought after college material. But V.P.I. took a chance and accepted me. They had probably seen worse. After purgatory at their Danville Branch I finally arrived in Blacksburg in the fall of 1966.

Evidence of the major commitment to transform Tech was everywhere: new buildings, overflowing dorms, expanding academic programs, a much larger and more diverse student body (though still not enough girls), and a major emphasis on athletics, mainly football. We even managed a traffic jam on some Saturday afternoons in the fall. Off-campus housing grew, a fine off-campus book store opened, along with a decent restaurant or two. Long hair and an underground newspaper appeared. The 60's arrived at Tech and Blacksburg sometime in the 70's, but it arrived.

I should have been happy at Tech and Blacksburg, but I was not. Blacksburg seemed like the end of the earth. I called it Bleaksburg, a reference to more than its weather three seasons of the year. Driving into town one Sunday I nearly ran off the road laughing at a road sign where someone had written "armpit of the nation" under the word Blacksburg.

The school's administrators - many holdover's from its days as a military school - seemed to be truly hostile to students. Their martial vision of what college life should be was not my vision. It was a conservative campus and I was, without much self consciousness, becoming quite liberal, at least by Virginia standards. I began to enjoy walking on their grass.

My first fall on campus saw the football team invited to what I believe was its first bowl game, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. We were to play the University of Miami. I remember walking across campus one cold, cold night headed downtown for some food (I hated the food at Shanks) and seeing a student-made sign hanging in the wind. "Beat Miami" it said. Blacksburg, Miami. Blacksburg, Miami. Hunkered into the wind I had a hard time wrapping my mind around any idea that contained those words together. Yes, true to my school, I did drive what seemed like halfway across America in my Corvair to attend that game. But I wanted out.

That would not be easy. I had just changed majors, from engineering to political science. PoliSci allowed the most electives at Tech and this would give me the chance to pretend I was at a liberal arts college where, by that time, I discovered I wanted to be. My academic record at that point was not much better than my high school record, making a transfer problematic. And there was a war on and a military draft, not something to be taken lightly. I needed that 2-s deferment. And I doubt I could have convinced my parents that it was a good idea to transfer. After all they were paying for my little adventure in academia.

My salvation came from an unlikely series of events. That January a friend at UVA invited me to Charlottesville for a week-end. He said he would get us some dates from Mary Washington College and we would have a great time; might get lucky. I was all for a great time and good luck, so plans were made. That Friday came and with it a snow storm. I said what-the-hell and made for Charlottesville. The weather worsened and I was lucky to make it to campus. The train from Fredericksburg was canceled, as were the events of the week-end. What to do? He had a friend who had just returned from a semester aboard a ship that had sailed around the world. We went to see him. Still very much overwhelmed by the experience, he told stories for hours. When we left he gave us literature about the college program and said we should apply as soon as possible. Sounded good to me.

Fast forward and I returned from that Semester at Sea with a larger view of myself, my world, and Blacksburg. Virginia Tech would continue to annoy me from time to time as it seemed slow closing the gap between what I wanted of it and what it could deliver. But I finally had matured enough to begin to take advantage of what it did offer, and to appreciate that wonderful place in the Virginia mountains, Blacksburg.

I now have two degrees from Tech, having returned in the '80s for a Master's in Urban and Regional Planning. My wife also has two degrees from Tech. She grew up just outside Blacksburg. Her sister in-law works in Norris Hall, second floor. I have wonderful friends in Blacksburg who worked for Tech for many years. Even though I also have a degree from UVA and have great respect for the University, I am a Hokie. I have marveled at Tech's growth, been amazed at the transformation of Blacksburg into a world-class small city. So watching the news over the past few days has been hard.

The violent death and injury of so many students and faculty at the hands of a psychopath renders words inadequate to convey the horror. One cannot look into the faces of horrified students and anxious or grieving parents without becoming one of them. Trying to make sense of it all seems overwhelming. And yet that is what each of us will try to do, needs to do. The young man with two handguns shot at us all.

As tragic as the events of last Monday morning were we have the ability to make them worse. And we will. I could feel it as I was watching the first reports on CNN. Even as the news was happening I could feel the ramp up to what was coming: the second guessing, criticizing, the self-righteous placing of blame, the spin in service to political agenda. Even before we had time to learn the fate of friends and family, grieve, or learn the name or fate of the gunman, the process was well underway.

Our TV hosts struggled to learn just where Blacksburg was and fumbled about trying to describe a university they knew little about. Tech was both a major university with 26,000 students and "insular" according to Brian Williams, who also placed it in the Smoky Mountains. While we were all trying to reconcile the image of a peaceful, semi-rural college environment with violence we usually associate with our urban areas or foreign theaters of war, the talking heads moved from conveying what little they knew about the horror unfolding on campus to asking leading questions and poking around trying to find an angle. They think they are reporters.

It bled and it led for hours on end. After asking students what they saw or heard Wolf Blitzer and the other CNN reporters (I use the term loosely) made a point of asking if they still felt safe, if they blamed the University and if the were planning to transfer. It took a while before they stopped seeming surprised when the students usually said they loved their school, the community, and had not considered leaving. I thought generally the students interviewed sounded much more thoughtful than their hosts. And without the "like, you know what I'm saying." I was proud of them.

Once it appeared that the gunman was dead and there was a two hour gap in the shootings the focus shifted to finding a way to question the University's handling of the situation. Well before any of the details were to fill out the timeline our TV hosts were pouncing, safely behind the camera miles away from danger or responsibility past filling commercial-safe airtime. Without possibly having the facts with which to assess situation they began to invite questions of competency of local law enforcement and the judgment of school administrators. When will we come to understand that when someone prefaces a statement, "I don't understand why ___", they really don't. You are being set up.

Soon "experts" with little or no knowledge of the specifics began to appear and try to shape our view of the tragedy. Dr. Phil appeared early. We eventually heard from Ted Nugent (FOX?) who said this would not have happened if students were allowed to legally carry guns on campus. He did not mention bows and arrows. Can they work in Springer next? If we were not dealing with a real human tragedy, real suffering and loss, this would almost be funny. It is not funny.

Once we learned the gunman was a student and was born in South Korea the press was perplexed. Even though he had lived in the US most of his life - since he was 8 years old - he was Korean. Since South Korea is an ally of the United States it has been difficult for the press to figure out how significant that was or how to play it. Now if he had been from the Middle East...

Few bothered to remark that the killer was a young man and that young men are have almost exclusive ownership of this type of serial murder. You assumed the killer was male, didn't you? I did. I didn't expect the male-dominated media to go there and they didn't.

We now know he was recognized as a loner and "troubled," and had come to the attention of the school as such. He had received at least some attention from mental health and law enforcement professionals. The NYTimes gave us this morning, "Officials Knew Troubled State of Killer in ’05." Well he was not a killer in '05. He was just a student with problems, probably not that unlike any number of other students on campuses from coast to coast. The headline whispers that the "officials" are now partially responsible for the crime. I am sure that these professionals wish now they could have seen into the future and done something. But I doubt even Cho Seung-hui could have done that in '05.

Being "troubled" and dead brings us to the possibility that the tragedy includes Mr. Cho. While I am sure many would recoil at this so soon, the compassion and forgiveness that my Christian countrymen so often trot out as a model for others, might not be misplaced for this very mentally ill young man and provoke wonder how he became so bitter and twisted. No, it is much easier and entertaining to now find fault with the living, those doing their very best to ensure safety of others when that still, unfortunately, was not sufficient.

Yes, I am sure campus police and other university officials wish they had done some things differently Monday morning. Given the contents of the package Mr. Cho sent to NBC that morning between shootings it is certainly possible only the location, names and number of future victims would have changed. What is likely however is that the number Mr. Cho's victims will continue to grow as some try to use the tragedy for their own ends.

Regarding making sense of it all, once again our dim-bulb President got it wrong. He said on campus trying to mean well,
It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering. Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone - and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.
Well, George, making sense of things is what what people at Universities try to do, and with some success. The question is what sense we will make of it. Don't try to suggest impossibilities at a place based on possibilities. And they were not in the "wrong place at the wrong time." A convenient cliche, but again off the mark. They were in the right place, Blacksburg, Virginia Tech.

Go Hokies.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Pollen Teaser

OK. After that overwhelming show of support for this blog - but before I start unloading in a major way - I will share what Mother Nature shares with all of us around here for a week or 10 days each spring, pollen.Pollen

I have never lived in a place where the pollen accumulates so. This year it seemed especially bountiful; it was everywhere. I am so glad I do not have an allergy to this stuff.

Neither photo really captures the messiness of it all. Local youth groups make a killing on Saturday car washes; washes like my car didn't get.Pollen2

Plant sex going on all around us. I'm surprised someone in the legislature of this Red state has not introduced a bill to shield us from this filth, especially the youth at those car washes.

I will explain the location of the second photo - pollen pooling after a rain - in my next blog. Just after I finish moving in.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I'm Back!

SpringWell, probably. We'll see.

It has been six months since my mother died. Since then I have blogged only twice, once a tribute to her and a few weeks later about my discovery of a photo confirming a long held but questioned memory. Since then I just have not felt like it.

It would be convenient to say that I have been busy, too busy to do this blog justice. True. I have been VERY, VERY busy. It would also be logical to assume that mother's death affected me, launched me into one or another of those stages of grief one reads about in self-help books. And that would be true also. But that is not the entire story.

Mother lived a long and blessed life. She died at home, as she wished, well looked after. She was in no pain and suffered about as little discomfort as is possible for an 87 year-old in declining health. She was frequently visited by her family; she knew she was loved. She was the last of her generation in my family. Her death was sad, not bad. I was determined to remember that.

But her funeral was for me the latest of about a dozen I had attended over the past three years. I had taken to keeping funeral clothes in the trunk of my car. The cumulative weight of these occasions finally just wore me down. So I have been becalmed with my thoughts turned inward, reluctant to share my thoughts about darkness and light. My generation are now the grown ups. The elders have gone; long live the elders.

We elders have responsibilities. Among those is reminding those around us - friends, family, and the odd stranger stumbling across a blog - how wonderful life truly is. And as Warren Zevon once advised, we should "enjoy every sandwich." It is spring tomorrow and it is time for me to take up those responsibilities.

Watch out!