Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scary movies . . .

First of all, happy Halloween. Where I live now, our yards are pretty well tricked out with cobwebs and spooks. Anticipation runs high.

It's also high season for scary movies, new and classic.

Last weekend, Charlie and I happily stumbled upon The Blob on Turner Classic Movies. It was the original Blob, the one in which a 28-year-old Steve McQueen plays Steve Andrews, and Aneta Corsaut plays his main squeeze, Jane Martin. Charlie, who's an expert at identifying obscure actors, immediately announced that she was Andy Griffith's girlfriend on "The Andy Griffith Show." One Google search later, he was proved right. Again.

The Blob did not strike me as scary. These days, it comes across more as a study in Fifties stereotyping. The girls are all buttoned up to the neck in pastel frocks. No matter what the occasion, they wear layers of petticoats under their ballerina-length skirts. They're never wrinkled, never imperfect in the hair department--even when scurrying around town evading the slow moving mound of Jell-O that's mysteriously eating their fellow citizens. They shriek and faint and cannot seem to move or think for themselves. 

The boys, who are also never wrinkled or mussed, are all about hi-jinks. Their fathers appear at the sheriff's office at 3 a.m in coats and ties and Brylcreemed hair.

As for Steve McQueen, he's not yet attained his full Steve McQueen-ness. He appears slight and hesitant and oh, so earnest.  Frank Bullitt, he's not.

As for the Blob, itself.  Well, what can I say?  It was pretty cute, as blobs go.

Yet The Blob was fun to watch. Those were the days of innocence, after all, when we believed adhering to rigid social conventions and sex roles would insulate us from ourselves, from our own urges and ambivalence and fear. And when all it took to scare us was a willingness to be scared.

A creeping, person-eating mound of Jell-O? Bring it on!

One other scary movie reminiscence. The best man at my first wedding, Ron Bozman, went on to co-produce (among many other movies) The Silence of the Lambs.

One night when he was over at our garage apartment,  we watched Hitchcock's The Birds . (That's the movie in which song-birds turn viscous and begin attacking people). Now that, we all agreed, was one scary movie. It left a real Hitchcockian hangover on all our psyches.

Such a hangover in fact, that, right after he'd left, Ron Bozman, future producer of  The Silence of the Lambs, came hurtling back up the stairs to our apartment, scared out of his mind. It turned out that what had scared him was our very small dog.

If you missed Thursday's Talk of the Nation and so a great discussion of scary movies, here's a link

Friday, October 30, 2009

Career Advice?

Yesterday I had the pleasure (and it really was a pleasure) of sitting in on Sarah O'Connor's class on written argumentation at James Madison University. I was there to talk generally as an essayist and the editor of WMRA's Civic Soapbox. I had met Sarah when she, herself, had hopped up on the Soapbox, and I think it's safe to say we share a love of the reach and power of words.

The class and I had 45 minutes together. The students, refreshingly, did not take notes, but simply listened and talked. In effect, the 20 or so of us in the room had a focused conversation about civil discourse, writing essays and working in journalism. It was just the kind of get-together that really floats my journalistic boat.

Interestingly, a half-dozen or so students were seriously interested in writing careers--everything from screen-writing through I-don't-know-what-yet  to sports journalism. Since I have (and this, of course, is just my opinion) one of the best gigs in journalism, naturally they asked me to give them some advice on how to get their careers started.

I've always been happy to give students advice whenever I can--and by this I mean I'm happy to pass on what's worked for me in the past and what's working for me now. But yesterday I realized that my past has little relevance to their futures; that I, myself, am in the process of re-inventing the shape of my own journalistic output; indeed, that all us journalists are making up our careers as we go along.

Why? Because any kind of journalist these days and, mostly likely very soon, any kind of writer must consider the internet as a way to reach her/his audience.

As to what advice I gave . . .

First of all, work hard at getting to be a good writer, but then just to do what I do now, which is network with other journalists and writers to figure out how to crawl out of the box of the printed page (or, indeed, in WMRA's case, of just the airwaves). Future working journalists will be those of us who can communicate across platforms, and who are willing to take the risk of figuring out how to do this in ways that generate income.

Other than that, the future of journalism and so journalist's careers--mine as well as those students'--is even murkier than my own backyard was this July morn.

I, for one, find this a wonderfully creative time to be working in words.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bootsie Daniels

Some days are longer than others. Yesterday was a loooooong day.

Technical difficulties (mostly created by operator error) in the morning meant lunch on the fly, no gym time (!!!!), then hitting the road to Charlottesville to pick up an interview with Virginia Film Festival Director Jody Kielbasa and then meet this week's essayist Bob Boucheron at the Downtown Public Library for a recording session.

My husband, Charlie, rode along to C'ville. Our favorite restaurants are "joints," by which we mean those with little time or money wasted on atmosphere and a real cook in the kitchen, and we were planning to stop at our favorite Charlottesville Greek joint on our way out of town. There's no day so draining that a good gyro won't turn things around, right?

Well, our favorite Greek joint was closed.

Hungry, tired, bordering on grumpy, we finally fetched up at a non-chain restaurant parked beside 81. The food was fine, but this blog isn't about food, it's about Bootsie Daniels.

While we were eating I watched an oldish guy in an Hawaiian shirt setting up a keyboard that would also, if the proper keys were pressed, supply percussion, bass, etc.  It is, in other words, a musical whatever.

Another oldish guy in a snappy looking cap stood talking to him. Once in a while the keyboard guy would play a few bars, just fooling around, competing briefly with the canned music.

We'd seen a small trailer sitting being a pick-up truck in the parking lot on the way in that read "Bootsie Daniels Band" on its side. These two oldish guys and the all-purpose keyboard, evidently, were a band. According to the truck, they played Oldies from the 60's, 70's, 80's, specializing in Motown.

My dancing music, desecrated, in other words.

We were all set to leave when we bumped into Mr. Hawaiian Shirt. I'm so not shy, I chat with everyone, so I chatted with him, saying we were sorry they hadn't started their first set before we had to leave. Oh, come one! Stay for just a set, said Mr. Hawaiian Shirt. No, no, I said, it's been a long day. Just a few songs, he said, it'll get you going again.

Well, Charlie wanted to stay; so I stayed. Graciously, I hope, but also grudgingly. I'm so not a fan of keyboard bands doing covers of songs I love dancing to.

We heard four songs, which included--and I kid you not--the best version of "On Broadway" either Charlie or I have ever heard. Bootsie didn't "cover" the song, he inhabited it.  And Mr. Hawaiian Shirt did licks on the keyboard that reminded Charlie of Josef Zawinul. I sat there dancing on my seat, grinning, feeling younger by the minute.

Gifts come in unlikely packages, don't they? The moral of this story - one should never let a looong day stop one from staying for just a few songs.

Plus, there was a reporterly gift given by the experience as well. I think Bootsie just might make a fabulously interesting "One Person's Voice" interview, don't you?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Imagine my surprise . . .

Confession time: When my Newsweek comes on Tuesdays, I tend to give it an initial flip-through back-to-front. So, it only took turning a couple of pages to come upon "Atlas Hugged," an article about Ayn Rand's new biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Ayn Heller.

How cool is that, I thought, yesterday being the release date for the book.

Child of an academic that I am, I looked for the author's name and credentials and found: "Mark Sanford is the governor of South Carolina."

I actually sat and stared at the tag, right there at the bottom of page 55. Was this a weird exploitation of misbegotten celebrity or what? Of course, maybe the man writes and publishes regularly . . .

I found one other article by Mark Sanford. "Obama's Symbolism Here" was an op-ed piece he published in The State, a Columbia newspaper, on January 11, 2008, shortly before the S.C. presidential primary. And he's published one book, The Trust Committed to Me, which appears to be out of print. Sanford has a B.A. in Business from Furman and an M.B.A. from The Darden School at U.Va. Such an academic business background would certainly explain his personal interest in Ayn Rand, the patron saint of free market individualism, but it doesn't immediately make him the most qualified person to write an article attached to a new, scholarly biography of her for a national news magazine.

Of course, I read the article, and I was amused--not so much at the article, as at myself.  It was impossible for me to read what Mark Sanford had written about Ayn Rand, particularly taking Rand gently to task for her theory that man is perfectible, without both gentle amazement and amusement, a feeling that one foot had stepped through the Looking Glass, that reality had tipped gently toward the absurd. It was impossible not to think that this particular man's words were published in this particular magazine, not because of his education or his experience, but because he'd had an extramarital affair with a Brazilian woman, partly paid for by the taxpayers of South Carolina.

Notoriety, it seems, may have become our only essential credential.

But then, I guess if you need to sell magazines, a disgraced governor who is most likely facing impeachment, does make for a natural go-to guy.

FYI: Interesting op-ed piece on Afghanistan's second round of elections in today's New York Times by an extremely qualified contributor.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Experiencing the loss of hope . . .

Warning: This post is about football.

Anyone else try watching the Redskins last night?

I have never not watched the 'Skins. They were the only team in the South back in the Fifties, so they were the team my father and I watched Sunday afternoons in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I grew up. Pop had five sisters and two daughters, and in those more rigid times, this meant he had no go-to sports-viewing partner. I, the younger of those two daughters, was born rebelling against the confinement of "femininity." So I happily filled this hole in Pop's life.

My father taught me two things during those fall Sunday afternoons together. The first was the nuances of the game of football; the second, loyalty to the Redskins. For decades, no matter how personal, professional, national or global life might be going, I've always, always looked forward to NFL kick-off weekend full of hope for my beloved 'Skins.

The team was bought a decade ago by Daniel Snyder, Chairman of the Board of Six Flags, Inc. and owner of the Johnny Rockets restaurant chain. Snyder is a man who knows how to make money through marketing, not how to run a football team.

A decade later the team is in structural shambles;  its legendary fan base is disintegrating. It is also the richest franchise in the league.

Last night, I almost didn't watch. This was not because I knew the team was bad--we long-term Redskins fans have dealt with bad teams many times--it was that my Redskins have somehow been sullied by a decade of decisions driven by money. The team for me was no longer the guys on the field and the coaches on the sidelines, but those problematic (at least football-wise) suits, who sit up in their glassed-in luxury suite and think because they're rich, they can run a football team. The Redskins are a team whose soul has been crushed by the weight of cold, hard cash.

I turned the game off at half-time. I was simply out of hope. And to exercise our ability to hope is, after all, the main reason we watch football.

Okay, so right now I'm grieving the loss of "my" Redskins. So, what's the big deal?

Well, the big deal is that it scared me to experience the loss of hope even in such a limited arena.

It made  me feel as though I'd somehow gone over to the dark side. Hope in hard times is, after all, our main defense against hostile takeover by the evil forces of cynicism, negativism, and general skulduggery. The forces that can be bought.

Thank goodness the Redskins have a bye-week. I've got a week to rest up. A week to hope that hope returns.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Watching the blogging dog . . .

NPR News sent out new social media guidelines about 10 days ago. The gist of them is that if you report for NPR (which this reporter occasionally does) or if you report for an NPR station (which this reporter does regularly), you should keep your reporterly objectivity in place while you blog, twitter, or post on your own Facebook page or anyone else's.

In other words you are to consider social media as public spaces. So going public on them with your personal opinions taints the objectivity of your on-air reporting. You become just another Lou Dobbs, someone who voices personal opinions from behind the bully pulpit of a news desk.

These new social media guidelines mean no rants, raves, or ramblings by NPR reporters (or NPR station reporters) that could jeopardize NPR News' reputation for impartial reporting. 

As a reporter who blogs for her beloved NPR station, I'd already figured out that once you're a reporter, you're never not a reporter. In dealing with opinion, my job is to elicit and report other people's in a compelling way, rather than voice my own.

Maintaining objectivity is something I regularly worry about when posting on this blog. I need to be present here -- what fun would it to e-converse with someone whose personality remains completely opaque -- without expressing my own personal point of view. This blog's purpose is to jump-start informed conversation, not fuel argument or outrage.

Confession time: I do have personal opinions, quite passionate opinions, about politics, religion, the environment, education -- in fact, about almost everything!  But if they ever show up blatantly in this blog, I hope you will, as our president said of those who oppose programs with untruths, call me out on it!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Today, I be being . . .

I picked up the phrase "be being" from Magic Johnson, during his short-lived career as a TV color analyst for the National Basketball Association. "Karl Malone, he be being down at the other end of the court," Magic would say. It always brought to my mind visions of a kind of uncomplicated occupation of space by someone, a complete dismissal of any and all worry about what else needs to be done, a blessed remission from the curse of ambivalence.

My husband, Charlie, took this picture. He found this caterpillar munching away on some strawberry plants in one of our side gardens, busily eating its way toward becoming a Black Swallowtail Butterfly.

It's a challenge for my over-busy brain to look at this photograph and simply enjoy the sight of this snazzy black, white, and yellow tube of a creature chomping away on those bright green leaves. I begin immediately  to work out what it all could be made to mean in a larger sense. I  feel  driven to turn the caterpillar into a metaphor; to think about the cosmic implications of its eating those leaves!  I feel obligated to reinvent some tired caterpillar/strawberry plant metaphor that other over-busy brains have previously invented many, many times.

Then common sense rears its blessed, cheerful head and tells me to take a break, to give it a rest, to take a day off from taking everything so seriously. To forget about trying to turn that caterpillar into a metaphor and turn it into a role model, instead! To just, today, be being.

Hmmmm. What's for lunch?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Making room for tolerance . . .

Move over Dan Brown, Sarah Palin's soon-to-be published book, Going Rogue: An American Life, has vaulted over The Lost Symbol on the Amazon bestsellers list. To be fair, it's also a lot cheaper, for it's among the pre-release books Amazon is selling for $9.00. (See Wednesday's post, if you haven't heard of this). Going Rogue stands at #2, behind only Stephen King's Under the Dome, also offered at a pre-release 9 bucks.

Ms. Palin is a famously uninhibited opinion-ista. There's debate about whether or not she knows what she's talking about, but what the pre-publication popularity of her books says to me is that an astonishing number of people in this country do like listening to her talk. I'm unclear about whether this means an astonishing number of people also like what she has to say or whether they hate it. (I have very liberal friends who listen to Rush Limbaugh, evidently for the pleasure of becoming outraged). What I am clear about is that having lots of opinions about lots of things sells books. We really do seem to like argument in this country.

Personally, I find people who argue pretty boring. I'm drawn to folks who voice considered opinions formed  from information (not just from books, either, but from reflective living), thoughtfulness, and tolerance.

Ah tolerance! The willingness to, as Atticus Finch phrased it, walk around in another person's shoes. To try on another's point of view.

Years ago I did a story for NPR on rock-climbing, which involved going to Seneca Rocks in West Virginia and climbing those rocks myself. The story ended up being a story of cultural accommodation, of life-long holler residents suffering invasion by spandex clad city-folks. Most of the locals seemed to like the money the spandex-ers spent locally, but to also think they were crazy.

I met an old farmer, though, who'd been scratching a living for eighty-some years on a few acres at the base of the rocks. He'd never been anywhere or done anything of note. His plan was just to go on living until he died. He viewed the rocks with adversarial respect that bordered on possessiveness.

The first afternoon we met, I stood with him on his front porch and watched a man in leopard-skin tights free-climbing a vertical face. I asked him what he thought about such antics.

Everyone, he replied, needs their delight. If that's his delight, then I'll just leave him be.

I certainly believe Ms. Palin is welcome to her say. However, I do hope we don't lose the ability to search out, listen to, and learn from the less strident voices in our cultural conversation.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Let's give her something to blog about . . .

And yes, I mean that as a twist of Bonnie Raitt lyrics. . .

I was trying to come up with a serious subject related to public radio or the news or the state of the world. And you know what, I just cannot wrap my tiny mind around anything beyond the fact that we made our challenge this morning--and by "we" I do not mean Bob Leweke and myself who were on the air, but the entire WMRA community.

This involved raising about 5,000 bucks in 20 minutes. And yea for us all, we did it!

Go team!!!!! 

Tomorrow, I shall be suitably focused again. 
Today, I'm going to celebrate. And take a nap. 

I'll be late . . .

It's 6:18 a.m, and I'm on the air in 12 minutes to pitch Morning Edition. So, post will be late today.

"Call now! 1-800-677-9672, or give online at!"  Just practicing . . .

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book wars

Yesterday on All Things Considered, if you were listening on WMRA which is in high-fundraising mode, you missed a piece by Lynn Neary which I think would be of great interest to you if you are a book lover/buyer, "Nation's Retailers Engage In Online Book Pricing War."
 The gist of the story is that WalMart, Amazon, and Target have now cut the pre-order price on certain mega-sellers to $9.00. 

I checked WalMart's website and yes, it's true --10 as-yet-to-be-published, hardcover, sure-fire best sellers have had their prices slashed.  Sarah Palin's Going Rogue tops the list, which includes the next books from John Grisham, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, Michael Crichton (published posthumously) and James Patterson.

So what does this mean to Stephen King? In an e-mail to The New York Times he first said he was "gobsmacked" by the price-slashing melee. He then went on to write this.

“My first job out of college was pumping gas, and we were involved in a price war then.We sold at 25 cents a gallon … then 24 … and when the guy across the street went to 22 cents a gallon, the Interstate 95 Gas where I worked went to 22 per gallon.”
“This went on for two weeks,” he continued, “and then it was over, just as mysteriously as it began. Does that story really have anything to do with the current price war over books, and the ramifications into the e-book business, which may have been the actual igniting factor? I don’t know, but it was fun telling the story.”

The publishing industry is over in Germany this week, for the Frankfurt Book Fair, its premier annual gathering dating back five centuries. The word is (duh!) that industry executives are worried . . .

As to that grand experiment , the WMRA 3 & 3 Fundraiser, when I left the studios yesterday at 7 PM,  we were at about 30-grand raised. If we can keep this up, the WMRA community should remain in fine financial fettle. But we do have to keep this up. . .

Go team! 
That number again, 1-800-677-9672 (800-NPR-WMRA) or you can support on-line at

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cooling of a hot-button issue in the classroom. . .

Jay Labov, of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Foundation, said much more interesting stuff about teaching evolution in the public schools than I could cram into today's story on Morning Edition. But then, too much interesting stuff to talk about is exactly why I started this blog.

First of all, Dr. Labov stressed that evolution should not be taught as an isolated part of biology, but as an integral part. He says that teaching evolution as a one or two week unit at the end of the semester
undermine[s] the notion that evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. Evolution involves so many different aspects of biology that biologists continually rely upon it. It’s also. . . helped shape our thinking about new kinds of research. For example genomics, the whole science of genomics and the Human Genome Project; a lot of the thinking that went into that and our whole understanding of the data is based on an evolutionary perspective.
So I think by not including evolution [throughout our science courses], what we’re doing is essentially depriving students of understanding how modern science is actually working.... Particularly in biological science, but also in many other areas. Geological sciences. Biochemistry. Physics. Theory of Evolution and science of evolution is based upon data from all those different areas.
Then, there was Dr. Labov's careful distinction between scientific theory (which is highly explanatory of data we have, as well as predictive of phenomena not yet observed), and what laypeople term as a theory (creative speculation). To illustrated the "predictability" of the Theory of Evolution, Dr, Labov offered this interesting Darwinian antidote.
Darwin. . .noticed some huge flowers, and there was no explanation for how they could possibly be pollinated. [So Darwin predicted, based] on the Theory of Evolution, that we would find a pollinator -- a moth that has a proboscis equal to the length of flower itself so it could be pollinated. These pollinators were not found for years and years after these flowers were discovered in tropics, but low and behold a moth with exactly right length proboscis was found observed to be the species that fertilizes those flowers.
And finally, in regards to the anxiety that teaching the Theory of Evolution causes in conservative religious circles, he said a lot of the anxiety would go away once we help people understand what science can explain and what it's not able to explain.
If we can help people understand that science is incapable . . .of investigating whether a deity is present or not. . . .What it attempts to do is explain the natural world.
By the way, Dr. Jay Labov will be speaking at James Madison University, tomorrow (Wednesday, October 21st) at 7 p.m. at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Building (East Campus), room 1302. The title of his lecture: Teaching and Communicating Controversial Topics in Science: Ongoing Challenges & Opportunities.

If I weren't fundraising, I'd be there. 

To change the subject completely, there's a good health care update in today's Washington Post. And this interesting assessment of the cost of government healthcare programs in today's Wall Street Journal.

And finally, since I have no shame during fundraisers, if you haven't supported WMRA yet, the number to call is 1-800-677-9672 (1-800-NPR-WMRA), or you can support on our website.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quick jottings. . .

The day before an on-air fundraiser kicks off is busy, just because it's the day before an on-air fundraiser kicks off. For your information, those of us who are to be talking on the air  have been in warm-up drills for days, practicing what, exactly, we are going to say. We drill in pairs, working the people with whom we will work on-air, in the studio, talking into microphones, using shows that have already aired. It's a full-fledged simulation, just like NASA.

What we talkers have to get the hang of, again, is not to talk too long. The trick is to "pass-off" quickly, say what you have to say, and then shut up, not go on a harangue that, to us, may sound convincing and brilliant, but to everyone else sounds confused and boring. I can be terribly guilty of this. Feel free to let me know how I'm doing!

One quick question: What do you read for fun? I got curious about this because what I read for work is so often fun. I've just gone  from A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book (an NPR assignment) to Stieg Larsson's The Girl who Played with Fire (the second in a trilogy I reported on for NPR about a year ago). Both have been a pleasure in different ways. The Byatt was hard, engrossing reading; the Larsson is a less-exacting page-turner.

I have my next book, a novel by Paul Auster, sitting ready beside my side of the bed. The truth is I get nervous if I don't know where my next book is coming from, in much the same way I used to get nervous (many, many years ago) when I was about to run out of cigarettes.

I'm an omni-reader--fiction, non-fiction, good trash--I like it all! And I depend upon other readers for recommendations, so I guess I'm using this blog today as a personal plea. What are you reading? What have you just finished? What are you going to read next? If you have a minute, and the energy as well, please post or e-mail me and I'll post. I'm sure I'm not the only one of us who's always looking for the next book!

This cartoon is completely irrelevant to anything I've said. I just thought it was fun. It's from Salon.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Is this a battle yet?

The insurance industry had been making nice noise since it became clear that the Obama administration was taking a hard look at its practices. Had been making nice noise. And then, early this week, the industry returned to form by releasing a  PricewaterhouseCoopers report (which it had commissioned) claiming that Americans can't afford to reform our current health care system.

I think in images, and the image that arose when I read about this report was of a very big battleship bristling with guns abruptly running down fake friendly colors, running up a Jolly Roger, and then, with no warning, firing a broadside at President Obama and Congress. Reading reaction to the PwC report in a wide variety of sources has lead me to believe that a number of people might be having the same image. For example, Jordan DiPietro of Motley Fool, writing for msnbc.

Today, President Obama shot back in his weekly radio/internet address, "Taking the Insurance Companies on Down the Stretch."  Quite far along in the 6-minute speech was something The New York Times considered worth a front page article, "Obama Threatens Insurers' Anti-Trust Exemption," which said that Obama's
. . . signal of support for reviewing the industry’s anti-trust exemption put him in league with Democratic leaders in Congress pushing for repeal or revision of the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which was passed in 1945 to keep regulation of insurers in the hands of the states. Legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate to partially or completely overturn the law.
If that isn't a return broadside aimed at the insurance industry, then I don't know what a broadside is. So, it seems to me (if you'll forgive a cliche or two) the gloves are off, the battle has been joined.

Ben Tillet (1860-1943), British socialist, trade union leader and politician, once said that "capitalism is capitalism as a tiger is a tiger and both are savage and pitiless toward the weak"

Somehow Mr. Tillet's words came to mind this week whenever I read or thought about anyone's effort to reform health care. What we have in America is the tiger of capitalism caged by representative government.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Margee and BVD; thoughts on the WMRA community . . .

As we are all WMRA listeners, we're all aware that WMRA will be in full-bore fundraising mode for three days and three hours next week, beginning with Tuesday's Morning Edition. We're all aware, as well, that this year's 3 & 3  Fall Drive is a grand experiment in squished fund-raising, as fall fundraisers usually last for 10 days.

I do confess I have close, personal friends who greet the biannual (or, sometimes, triannual) news that a fundraiser is about to start by hugging their own middles and moaning "Oh no! Not again!" I, however, am filled with glee. Even though in this particular fund-raising format, I'll be on the air live for 4 or 5 hours a day, establishing a personal-best for the number of times in one day I say "1-800-NPR-WMRA; that's 1-800-677-9672."

So why am I gleeful? Because I love what I do. It's the first time in my life I've felt squarely at home in a community, the WMRA community, which includes everyone attached by ear or deed to WMRA. And at no time does our community come together as vigorously as we do doing on-air fundraisers. Together, we face and meet the challenge of keeping this public radio station part of our community conversation! Go us!

And then there's the fact that during the fundraiser, I know I'll get to see Margee Greenfield, who, for as long as I've been at WMRA (which is about to be a decade, by far the longest I've been anywhere), has been coming in to answer the phones during Morning Edition. And not just one Morning Edition, per fundraiser, but many per fundraiser.

Margee Greenfield's not the only regular phone answerer (blessings on you all!), but I'm blogging about her today because Margee also participates in the on-air WMRA community conversation. She's been a teacher/administrator in the public schools for 25 years, and today, from atop the WMRA Civic Soapbox, she lets us know what she thinks about the latest "appalling" mandate from the Virginia Department of Eduction. Here's a transcript, if you'd rather read than listen. Thanks to Margee, I've been made aware of something I didn't know about. And that, to me, is what the WMRA community is all about.

And then there's B.V.D. . .

Bill Van Doren is an artist and writer. I met him  years ago when he hired me to write a column for Albemarle Magazine. If you haven't discovered Bill's blog, Daily Sun Times, I suggest that you do so. On it, he posts a painting a day. And today, he writes about WMRA, because he listens to WMRA.

Ah yes! We really are a community, you know. Of talkers, listeners, painters, thinkers, doers. And, in my opinion, collectively we rock!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Mark Warner's been up to . . .

We hear a lot these days about Virginia Senator Jim Webb. His high-profile trip to Myanmar secured the release of John Yettaw, the man who swam a lake to sneak into the house of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He always seems to be being quoted in reports of foreign policy debates. Mr. Webb was recently recognized as one of The Atlantic magazine's Brave Thinkers.

It seems to this reporter, however, that Jim Webb was elected in large part because then-governor Mark Warner campaigned hard at his side. I remember going to one of these events, pushing through the crowd to get a word with Mr. Warner, then catching up with Mr. Webb (who was striding along alone) and asking him how it felt to campaign with a rock star. He smiled that delightfully shy smile of his and said it felt just fine.

Two years later Mark Warner, himself, ran for Senator, was elected, and then (again in this reporter's opinion) kind of disappeared from public view. So, it was with great interest and pleasure that I opened today's online Washington Post to spot this article on its front page: "Banking Reform's Dynamic Duo."  It tells of the partnership formed by Mark Warner and Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. Both men are experienced businessmen; both men interested in bypassing partisan bickering. Says the article:
          Already, Warner and Corker have crafted legislation that would give the FDIC wider authority to wind down failing financial firms, a step toward ridding the country of "too big to fail" institutions. They also have sponsored a bill aiming to liquidate the government's stake in such bailed-out companies as General Motors, Citigroup and American International Group. The proposal would also require that independent trustees be named to manage the public stake in any company that is more than 20 percent owned by the government.
 So, that's what Mark Warner's been up to.

On a personal/professional note: I'm  talking with A.S. Byatt this morning for my first piece for (see yesterday's post, if you're interested in what this is about.) I'm excited. Dame Byatt knows so much and writes so beautifully. I love knowing her cell phone number. It makes me feel that I, too, get to travel with a rock star.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The shifting nature of NPR book and publishing coverage . . .

It was around nine years ago that I first began freelancing, again, for the NPR Arts Desk. My first assignment (and the beginning of my modest evolution into the emergency back-up Lynn Neary, the national reporter on books and publishing) was to do a piece on A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman.

Dame Byatt is a dense, detailed writer who makes her readers work. I love reading her, loved talking to her, loved producing the piece in collaboration with then-NPR-book editor, Loretta Williams. I looked for the piece in the NPR archives, so you could hear it if you wished, but it has disappeared.

Dame Byatt has just come out with The Children's Book, a sprawling story of family-life in Victorian/Edwardian England. Of course, I wanted to do a story on it--I'm forced into reading books with maniacal attention when I report on them, and I knew anything by A.S. Byatt would, personally, reward a lot of work.

A lot's changed in NPR book and publishing coverage in the last nine years. First of all, the Arts Desk was rolled into the National Desk, in an effort to make arts coverage more a part of news coverage. Then, the last dedicated books and publishing editor, the glorious Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, was regretfully let go in the Great NPR Purge occasioned by the economic downturn. (Jeffrey, by the way, has happily fetched up as multi-media producer at WDAV in Davidson, North Carolina). This left just a couple of desk editors to work with reporters assigned to all arts stories.

Then there's the fact that fiction has, for a long time, received less and less air-time nationally. Nine years ago there was a kind of unwritten rule that novels would get fully produced pieces by reporters, while non-fiction would be covered with host two-ways (meaning either Morning Edition or ATC hosts themselves would just chat with the authors about their books.) This has long been abandoned. Fiction coverage is declining; non-fiction coverage dominates.

The biggest change in NPR coverage of books and publishing, however has to do with the change that has taken (and, most definitely, is still taking) place within the publishing industry itself. NPR, these days, has to cover not just books and magazines, but also the ever-changing ways books and magazines are produced, marketed and distributed. Americans don't just read now (I've learned from reporting); we gather information--a lot of which reaches us digitally. The way the messenger brings us our messages has become a large part of the story of publishing.

Whenever a local reporter works nationally, she (in my case) first pitches a story idea to her NPR editor. If the editor likes it, then she (my usual editor now is Laura Bertran) checks with Morning Edition and All Things Considered to see if they're interested. As each show controls its own content, this prevents editor and reporter from wasting their time producing a piece that never makes it to the air. (Yes, it's rather a clunky system, but it does work well, once you've gotten used to it.) If a show bites, then Laura and I go to work.

So, back to A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. I pitched it to Laura, she took it to the shows. No show wanted it, so she sent it to, where a staff of about 100 hard-working websters labor mightily to produce NPR always on.

Last Thursday, as I was walking back into my office after sacred daily gym time, my phone was wringing. It was Joe Mazzoni, arts editor for "Would you do a piece for us on A.S. Byatt's book?" he asked.

You bet, I said. Very happily. Both for the chance to cover that particular book, and for the door that had just opened for me to go on covering books that on-air NPR no longer has air-time for.

So here's the deal, as I see it, re books and publishing: We are in the middle of a real true information revolution. As the editor of Orion Magazine, Chip Blake, put it it an interview: The Gutenberg paradigm is dead.

This isn't bad, it's change. I, for one, find it daunting, a bit sad, and terrifically challenging and exciting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Insurance costs and John Grisham

I was all set to blog about Edwardian puppet shows (for good, journalistic reasons), when the insurance industry released its study saying that health care reform would lead to in impressive increases in insurance premiums. And there went the puppet show idea. (At least for today. If you're curious about what I have to say, there's always tomorrow. These blogs are ravenous beasts, you know, always, always, always needing to be fed!).

Back to health care reform, I went searching for some semi-predigested assessment of the accuracy of the report and found it--no surprise--in Time, the inventor of the semi-predigested assessment. The article "How Valid is the Insurers' Attack on Health Reform" is an excellent overview, from a conservative enough, pro-business enough source to make it reasonably reliable on this issue.

As a personal and literary aside to this latest health care reform flap. . .

I read what I term "good trash" for 30-40 minutes, five days a week, while going nowhere on an elliptical. Currently, my "good trash" book is John Grisham's The Appeal. It's another of his stories about decent people doing battle against evil Big Business, in this case a large chemical firm that killed people with its cost-cutting habit of dumping lethal chemicals into pits.

Mr. Grisham likes to pit little people in the right against rich, greedy people who want more. The Appeal takes on Big Money's corruption of state politics (a state Supreme Court race), corruption of decent people through their religious beliefs, manipulation of homophobia for political gains. I'm about 4/5th through the book, and it looks as though this time, depressingly, Big Money is going to win.

Mr. Grisham has already taken on the insurance industry directly in 1997's The Rainmaker--and in that book, the little guys on the side of right happily beat up on the greedy big guys. I do admire this author's frequent use of his own bully pulpit to keep his readers mindful of the fact that greed is a capitalistic society's most frequent failing. John Grisham, through master story-telling, keeps us worried that a lot of skulduggery may be going on behind Big Money's curtain of public relations and late-blooming "reports."

Reading this man's books always makes me feel a bit paranoid about what all those Big Business people are up to. But then, perhaps, that's not a bad way to feel in the face of the current debate over health care reform.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Is it a question of culture?

In my usual morning perusal of newspapers online, I came across this tiny article in the L.A. Times that interested me as both a blogger and a sports-fan. It seems that now that he's expressed an interested in buying the Saint Louis Rams, Rush Limbaugh's oft-voiced racist comments are rankling big-time with some African American players in the NFL.

Hmmm. This set me to thinking, not so much about Limbaugh himself, as  about what the existence of a Limbaugh means. What does it say about us that we, as a culture, give print and airwaves room to someone who makes a living out of being nasty and argumentative and, well, lying. A few people actually believe what he says, I suppose; but many more people claim to find Rush Limbaugh's verbal spewings entertaining.

Abuse and mendacity as entertainment? Now that I find flat-out depressing.

We get what we wish for, as individuals and as a culture. And what we, as Americans, seem most comfortable with is a culture of incivility. We like big verbal sticks--extreme, argumentative opinions that are designed to polarize us, not to make us think. In Sunday's Washington Post, staff writer Ann Gerhart mused about this at length in her fine article "In Today's Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tongue."

I had hoped our romance with polarization had ended on election day, but it appears that it hasn't--if, that is, Rush Limbaugh's ratings are any way to take the national pulse. And I don't mean to pick on Limbaugh. He's just such a clear-cut example of the kind of figurehead ranters we Americans spend our time listening to.

We elected President Obama in what appears to have been a brief flirtation with the concept of consensus and civility. Yet how impatient we have become with his efforts at consensus-building, his incessant information-gathering, his unfailing politeness in response to rudeness.

Is consensus-building just too much work for us as a culture? Is arguing and fighting about getting what we want, when we want it, too ingrained in us  to allow serious consideration of reasonable compromise? Could it be that we are actually more comfortable, as a culture, wading through the wake of polarization left by The Decider et al? Can we change our political conversation to one of consensus-building without being willing to change our own conversational tastes?

Please, either comment below or, if that's not your thing, send me an e-mail and I'll post your comment for you.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The story that wasn't . . .

Friday afternoon I went to an event sponsored by Partners for Peace, an organization that, since 1989, "has sought to educate the American public about key issues in the effort to secure peace and justice among Palestinians and Israelis."

Two women who have lived the realities of the Palestinian conflict for much of their lives have come thousands of miles to invite us safe and secure Americans into their unsafe and insecure lives. Yesterday, at James Madison University's Memorial Hall, we heard from a Christian, Jala Basil Andoni (left) and a Jew, Ruth El-Raz (above, right). A Muslim woman, Hekmat Besisso was supposed to be traveling with them, but was inexplicably denied a visa.

Ms. Andoni and Ms. El-Raz did not talk about policy or history or religious differences. Instead they talked about the simple realities of Palestinian life inside the Green Line, of life behind a wall, often without adequate water or sewage and always--and this brought a laugh from their audience--without asparagus. It is just the kind of reality check we Americans, who love nothing better than debating foreign policy over our own out-of-season asparagus, need. It reminds us that ordinary people, like us, must suffer the consequences of distant others' decisions.

So why will you not hear about this on WMRA? Because there were technical difficulties with the event's sound system. Such bumps don't happen often, but when they do happen, there goes the story. So, I'm using this post first to say that I'm sorry I can't bring you this story on the radio. And then to ask you not to ignore the message these women bring with them, just because the messenger fails to deliver it to you in sound.

Friday, October 9, 2009


I went to the computer this morning all set to post about books and NPR. Then I took a look at The Washington Post, read that President Obama had won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Reading the article, I learned that the Nobel committee had said this about Mr. Obama: "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

Mikhail Gorbachev, a previous Nobel Peace laureate had this to say: "I am happy. What Obama did during his presidency is a big signal, he gave hope. In these hard times people who are capable of taking responsibility, who have a vision, commitment and political will should be supported."

Suddenly blogging about anything else seemed ridiculous.

I, personally, live in the Shenandoah Valley, one of the most peaceful places in the world. People here are rarely rude, let alone war-like. Yet I am still perceived by the rest of the world as an American, and so judged by the attitude and actions and manners of my president. And I guess I had not realized how profoundly the rest of the world welcomes the change in American tone and attitude that Mr. Obama has wrought.

As Rob Gifford is saying on Morning Edition as I type, the last administration was perceived as bullying its way around the world, "throwing its weight around," its approach "unilateral." Seen in that context, the awarding of this prize to Mr. Obama begins to seem like a huge, international sigh of relief; the international community welcoming its prodigal power back to the table.

I recognize that actually posting a response on a blog does not come naturally to a lot of you who read this blog. But I am really, really, really interested to know your reaction to this news. So please, pluck up your e-courage and post a response. Or, if your prefer, e-mail me, and I'll do the posting for you.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Nothing more American than. . ."

Last night on All Things Considered, Melissa Block interviewed attorney Norm Kent, who represented 12-year-old Jennifer Valdivia in her lawsuit against the Philadelphia Phillies. He sued, Mr. Kent said, to get Miss Valdivia back the Ryan Howard home run ball she'd caught and then given back to the Phillies in exchange for another ball and some cotton candy.  It  had been Mr. Howard's 200th homer, making him the youngest man ever to hit that many.  The lawsuit would have been for "in excess of $15,000."

If you want to know more about the story itself, here's an article about it from  the Philadelphia Inquirer. But right now, I want to get back to Melissa Block's interview.  When asked why Ryan Howard should not get the ball back, attorney Norm Kent replied that "...historically, there's nothing more American than a fan who captures a baseball in the stands keeping it."

I was immediately outraged. How dare he! I thought. How dare anyone ever use the phrase "nothing more American than . . ."

And then I was immediately curious about why I'd become so outraged

It took a while and a movie to figure it out. The movie was Motorcycle Diaries, the fine film about Che Guevara's 1951 trip traversing South America on a motorcycle with friend Alberto Granado. It was this journey that opened the eyes of a young, privileged medical student to the crushing poverty of most South Americans. To me, it was the story of someone learning that he can never learn enough about the complexities of his own people.

What had angered  me about Mr. Kent's presuming to judge what's more or less "American" was that he'd deliberately oversimplified the true wealth of this country which, in my opinion, is its diversity. Each of us carries in our heart an attachment to America that is based on our unique history, heritage and experiences, and no one's basis of attachment is more valid than another's.

Real Americans, schmeel Americans, say I!

All too often we hear politicians speaking for what "real Americans" want, or believe, or need. That, dear reader, to this reporter, is jargon, speak, bottom-feeding and pandering of the lowest order. Beware the politician who claims to speak for those of us who are more American than others.

By the time I went to bed last night I wanted to suggest to Mr. Kent that he spend a year on a motorcycle riding the blue highways of his country. Then see if he was still comfortable sitting in judgment of what's American and what's not!
FYI: the health care debate. As an educational  resource, I'd highly recommend this in today's N.Y. Times

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Audio blogging on health care

I'm posting Wednesday's blog post on Tuesday night, because I have to be on the road tomorrow morning by 6:45 AM in order to drive to Lexington in time to teach a 9:00 class on writing personal essays at Washington & Lee. And I just don't have the willpower to yank myself out of bed in time to post before I leave.

This will also be my first audio post. Please do let me know what you think about audio posts in general, or this one in particular.

So here's the post. . .

Speaking of Washington and Lee, Law School professor and health care expert, Timothy Jost, was on Virginia Insight this Monday. In one 3:10 segment, he first called the media to task and summarized all pending health care bills. In my opinion, listening to those three minutes is as profitable a 3-minute investment  of time as one could make in one's current events education. 

If you have an hour to invest, and missed Monday's show, here's a link to Virginia Insight so you can listen now.

Where was Peter Kohn when I needed him in high school trigonometry class?

I saw Peter Kohn at the gym yesterday. Peter is a J.M.U. math professor and a funny guy.

I made some lame mention of the Nobel Prize for Mathematics, forgetting--I hope for just the moment--that there isn't one. Peter pointed this out and then passed on a great piece of historical gossip: Alfred Nobel didn't fund a mathematics prize because a mathematician had run off with his wife and thus left him mad at all mathematicians in perpetuity. Peter said this probably wasn't a true (it appears he is right), but it was, nevertheless, a good story.

Peter was responsible for a great leap in my own personal understanding. My husband, Charlie, and I recently got sucked in by a PBS program on fractals. We were mesmerized  by Benoit Mandelbrot's 1975 identification (discovery?) of these "rough or fragmented geometric shapes[s] that can be split into part[s], each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole."

Beautiful, yes. Pleasing, certainly. But why should we care? What is the point? Charlie and I spent much time over the next few evenings puzzling over fractals. And then we asked Peter to lunch.

Over lunch, Peter first explained fractals so clearly and simply that we (I think) really got them. But I still didn't get the point of fractals. Like the lilies of the field, they didn't seem to reap or sow. They just sat there--whether in visual or in mathematical form.

The point, Peter said, is that they are fun. Mathematicians have fun with numbers in the same way you have fun with words.

Peter's statement was a real ah-ha moment for me. Why hadn't someone said that in my high school trigonometry class, when I was constantly worrying about the deeper meaning, the practical ramifications of all those numbers and squiggles? What was I missing? What was I failing to grasp?

It seems to me that if my teacher had given me permission to have fun with numbers, I could have just relaxed and gotten on with things.

There's a great deal to be said for talking with people who know different things than you do. We never, ever outgrow the joy of ah-ha moments, do we?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Supremes, back at it . . .

The front page of today's The New York Times sports an article slugged, "New Court Term Hints at Views on Regulating Business." In it, Michael W. McConnell, a former federal appeals court judge who is now director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, is quoted as saying,
“Every time in American history when you see a consequential administration,you see a heightened tension between it and the court.”
The article goes on to point out that by the time the court goes on its summer break, 25 or the 45 cases they will have heard will concern business issues. Last year 16 of 42 revolved around business.

What's at stake in these cases is government's ability to rein in the Reagan-esque deregulation of business practices that's played out over the last three decades. Since the deregulated ways of Big Business are now largely credited with bringing on our current Great Recession, the basic question the Court has to consider is what can the Federal Government do in the way of re-instituting oversight.

If you breathed a sigh of relief when the helicopter bearing the just-retired George W. Bush lifted off from Washington last January 20th, perhaps it's time to un-sigh, for his administration will remain a potent force in this country as long as we have the conservative Roberts Court.

If you are in despair over our current administration's and Democratic Congress' attempts to "meddle" in free enterprise, the thought of the Roberts Court should make you take heart.

Does Big Business know what's best for the rest of us? Think what you will, it's all up to how those 9 people in black robes think the Constitution answers that question. Back to Mr. McConnell's remark, the tension between the Judicial Branch and the rest of the Federal Government is likely to run pretty durn high. Nina Totenberg get ready!

Any thoughts about all of this?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Unrelated Saturday snippets . . .

  1.  ATC  Host Terry Ward's sneakers have gone national on NPR. They are number 11 in the NPR Sneaker Slide Show. And, in my opinion, by far the coolest!
  2. Gettysburg lasted 3 days. Thank you, Poli-Sci professor Steve Bragaw, an old friend from my Sweet Briar College days, for contributing that nugget of information to the WMRA Fall Fundraising Effort (see yesterday's blog post, if this mystifies.) And if anyone else comes up with any personal, historical, scientific, mythical, athletic, etc. three-day event that wrought major change, please post it to this blog or else e-mail me directly.
  3. On a completely personal  note, I do love my office mates, for a variety of reasons. We generally work very hard, we're generally helpful and supportive of each other's efforts, and we're generally tolerant of each other's quirks and shortcomings. We also find each other funny--which is life-saving, sometimes, when the stress level rises. I mean, just because we work in public radio doesn't mean we're serious all the time. For example, General Manager Tom DuVal and I were firing one-liner e-mails back and forth at each other about something ridiculous on Friday afternoon. When he stopped by my office on an unrelated issue, Tom pointed out we should be Twittering. Using up e-mail space to deliver one-liners, he said, was overload, like going after a pigeon with a cannon. It had been a long, productive week. I was feeling really tired and brain dead, and then this guy made me laugh out loud over nothing. What more could one want from one's Big Boss Man.
  4. Finally, Morning Edition Host Bob Leweke and Tracey Brown are marrying today. Here's their picture (dark, but still so romantic). May blasts of good will and good wishes come their way from all of us.

Friday, October 2, 2009

We really do get by with a little help from our friends. . . .

It is our theory here at WMRA that, among our community of listeners, everything is known. So, wise ones, here's what we need to know:
What great changes have occurred in three days--in history, in your own life, in the laboratory, in legends; in fact, in anything?

The WMRA staff of Giant Brains has come up with five, one of them pictured above. So obviously we need more. Please.

As to why we're doing this--we're looking for ways to have fun talking about our Fall Fundraiser (please note that all WMRA Fundraisers will warrant capital letters in this blog). The F.F. begins Tuesday, October 20th during Morning Edition and will end, Friday, October 23th, after Morning Edition, lasting 3 days and 3 hours; hence, it's name, "The 3 & 3 Fall Fundraiser!" And we figure that the more different and varied ways we have to point out that really, really great things can be accomplished in only 3 days, the more entertaining and successful our joint 3-day fund-raising effort will be.

Okay, WMRA Fundraisers are something we go through together so as to keep public radio a part of our community conversation (gee, haven't I said that at least 823 times on the air during Fundraisers? But, you know, saying something over and over and over makes it no less true--we are in this public radio bid'ness together.) Still, there's no law that says the experience has to be dreary or boring. I, for one, view Fundraisers as a kind of community barn-raising-ish event, where we all get together to a) accomplish something and b) enjoy ourselves doing it.

So, please help! Support WMRA with your knowledge of 3 days that made a difference! You can either post your ideas or e-mail them to me directly.