Monday, November 30, 2009

The joys of 983 Reservoir Street!

When I came to WMRA, nigh on to ten years ago (and who knew I'd be anywhere for ten years), we were officed in a hole. A beloved hole, but a hole nonetheless.

Management had windows; the rest of us were encased in cement blocks. I, personally, was housed in the satellite room, along with the equipment that captured our national programming and put it on the air. This equipment also regularly hummed, beeped, spoke (yes, spoke), and needed very cold temperatures. Needless to say, in the battle for temperature control of our shared space, the equipment won. I worked in my coat.

Four years ago we moved to 983 Reservoir Street, and, while already tremendously happy with my job, I became tremendously happy with my office. It is the one with all the clutter, and with a window that looks out on a scrub of woods in which live birds, squirrels, an obese groundhog, and foxes. My window faces north, making it the perfect light for African violets. And, best of all, it lets in natural light, which is so good for the soul.

983 Reservoir Street is a grand place to hang out and make radio. And it's also a very welcoming space, a perfect community center for the WMRA community of listeners. Its arrangement was configured (mostly by our engineer, Bill Fawcett) so that staff offices ring a kind of big square atrium-like central area that contains two on-air studios, a talk-show studio, and a couple of production studios.

This means we also have a big square of wide, white-walled hall.

A couple of years ago, All Things Considered host Terry Ward and artist Mia LaBerge got the brilliant idea to turn that hall into a gallery. They've just hung what I consider to be our most hopeful show, for it consists of the creations of students at Harrisonburg High School and Eastern Mennonite School.




I look at the work of these teenagers and somehow feel that this country will be alright; that our culture will not be engulfed by ignorance, anger, cynicism, and video-game addiction.

The opening is tonight, 5-7; and, yes, there will be food and music. I will be there interviewing students for this blog, and I want to underline what we've been saying on the air: You are most emphatically invited.

Hopeful art, good snacks and live music--what more could one want?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Neighbors

We did some modest traveling to reach our family celebration of Thanksgiving. I enjoyed myself there almost as much as I enjoyed getting home again.

Home to me is marked by a constellation of house, yard, cat and neighbors.

In my opinion, neighbors are underrated these days as an enrichment of our lives. So, in honor of all my neighbors, current, past and future, today I'm posting an essay I wrote about five years ago. It celebrates the first neighbors we got to know when Charlie and I moved to the Valley.



It's called "The Sisters."
The sisters were way up in their eighties if they were a day. During the two years I lived one farm down from them, I passed Marjory and Elizabeth most mornings on my way to work—Marjory, driving the tractor; Elizabeth, riding shotgun—heading out to tend the sheep, or plow a field, or mend a fence.

I’ve always been drawn to happy, unconventional, un-helpless people. A month after becoming their neighbor, I told the sisters I was a journalist and asked if I could record their story. Elizabeth is deaf, so Marjory shouts, and she shouted at me they'd have to think about that.
Six weeks later, there was a fortissimo message on my answering machine: "This is Margery. If Martha still wants to hear our story, tell her to come on."

Margery wasn't a particularly good storyteller—she's not at all interested in the past—perhaps the only eighty-year-old I’ve ever met who isn’t. "The past is over!” she bellowed into my microphone. "Who wants to think about the past?"
But she did play an old recording of her and Elizabeth singing hymns, and she showed me a lot of old photographs—two dark-haired sisters smiling in pretty hats and flowery frocks, Elizabeth drop-dead gorgeous, Margery handsome and obviously nobody's fool.
It struck me that these were the photographs of women who could have gone anywhere, done anything that women were allowed to do in the mid-part of the last century; yet here they were, and here they obviously wanted to be. Even when talking into a microphone, they felt no need to explain or justify their odd course to the rest of us.

"Did you ever think about marrying?” I asked. They were—after all—of a generation of women that usually did.

Margery hooted. "Awe, fellows asked us, but we didn't pay ’em no mind. One came around a couple of years ago crying how his girlfriend had died, and he was all alone and wouldn't one of us marry him. Elizabeth told him to get a dog.”

I’ve moved a lot and had a lot of neighbors. Most of them have come and gone without leaving anything permanently useful inside me. But my life is richer and steadier for having lived for a while one farm over from Marjory and Elizabeth. I simply haven’t met many other women—many people, really—who are living as they truly wish to, without worrying at all about the sideways glances of the rest of us.

The only bumper sticker I’ve ever put on a vehicle is one my daughter, Lizzie, sent me years before I met the sisters. It read “Uppity Women Unite,” and when I slapped it on my truck’s bumper, I thought, “There! That’s who I am!”

After meeting Marjory and Elizabeth, however, I realized I am a mere wannabe in the uppity woman department. That bumper sticker would have really belonged on their tractor.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thoughts on our national day of shopping . . .


Today is Black Friday, the first day of the annual national shopping spree that historically shifts retailers' accounts from red ink to black. As good Americans, I guess we should all hope that this particular bit of history is doomed to repeat itself, since our economy is famously fueled by shopping. Consumer spending drives 70% of America's gross domestic product.

This morning's shopping forecast, however, is not great.

Nouriel Robini, professor of the Stern Business School at New York University and chair of Roubini Global Economics, writes a weekly column for Forbes. He had this rather grim assessment embedded in this week's column titled, "Will the World Go Shopping?"
A measure of weekly retail sales released by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs indicates that same-store sales flattened over the first three weeks of November, though compared to 2008, sales are up by a promising average pace of 2.9%. The National Retail Federation projects retail sales will fall 1% during this holiday season, compared to an average 3.4% annual gain in holiday sales over the past decade. After the sharp slide in 2008, a decline of "only" 1% or even a small positive gain in 2009 holiday sales may seem like a welcome number; however, accounting for the base effects of a dismal 2008 season, the underlying reality for retailers remains grim for this holiday season.
We shall know more tonight, of course. The ever-vigilant Washington Post reporters were out predawn this morning, scouring the malls to report that:
They came, they shopped and then, apparently, they went home to get some sleep.
The long lines of Black Friday shoppers that formed overnight at Washington-area malls, outlets and big-box stores had largely dissipated by daylight, with the savviest -- or craziest? -- bargain hunters temporarily sated, and most regular folks not quite ready to venture out.
Later on in the same article:
A strong showing on Black Friday can help solidify a retailer's image as a shopping destination or merely a drive-by and is seen as crucial to building momentum to last through December. . . The marathon recession has made retailers' performance this holiday season even more significant.. . .Many economists believe that without robust spending by shoppers during the holiday season--kicked off by Black Friday--the country's nascent recovery will peter out.
Remember our just-retired president, George W. Bush, exhorting us to go shopping after 9-11?

Oh dear me . . .

I don't know about you, but this day depresses me. As an old hippie (peace, love, and flower-chains for all!), I do hate to face the fact that out grand nation's economy is mostly powered by the acquisition of stuff. What does that say about us and our values?

I'm no economist and refuse to play one on this blog. Righting the world's fiscal ship is complex beyond measure, and I'm not going to spout any ill-informed suggestions for doing it. Besides, it's not the economics of shopping that bothers me, its the results of shopping. It's what the acquisition of yet more stuff does to our lives, our houses, our souls!

We're desperately aware of our need for a differently fueled automobile. Might we also--for the greater good of us all--need a differently-fueled economy?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving day professional sappiness . . .

I usually am repelled by anything sappy, but not today. Today I will wallow unashamedly in that which on most other days I would consider bathetic. Today, I am officially, happily, unabashedly sappily thankful for, among many other things, my job.

I think I only became intentionally thankful on Thanksgiving Day in my forties. Before that, I was just too frenzied with cooking. (By the way, if you are so frenzied and need some last-minute help, the NY Times has Sam Sifton on on-line duty until 3 p.m.).

The things in my personal life for which I'm thankful are not appropriate blog fodder--let's just say that I'm a happy camper and leave it at that. But one of my greatest blasts of personal gratitude gets bestowed on my job at WMRA--the big rush and mush of the hectic, absorbing days I get to spend there making radio; the creative freedom I'm allowed; the good company of my very funny and fun colleagues; the chance to meet and get to know people in the WMRA community of listeners; the chance to work directly with NPR editors.

Being pretty sure a lot of my colleagues felt the same, yesterday I sent a note out asking them to let me know what each of them is personally grateful for re WMRA and/or public radio in general. Here's what I got back (you'll note that I'm not the only person who waxes sappy on the subject!).
From Scott Lowe, host, Weekend Edition Sunday:  "I have been very thankful for the enthusiasm and appreciation loyal WMRA listeners express to me whenever they find out I work here. WMRA members are more passionate about their choice than any others I have encountered in a 25-year career."
From Tom Graham, host, Virginia Insight: "I wake up every morning feeling grateful to be part of such a special public radio community. After many years, earlier in my career, of employment in profit-oriented, commercial television and radio news, it is such an honor to work for a non-profit whose overriding mission is public service. And I find myself giving thanks many times a day for the supportive listeners who make this type of dedication possible."
From Bob Leweke, host, Morning Edition, “In a world full of voices, I'm thankful for the unique, and constructive, voice that public radio provides in our democracy.”
From Tina Owens, host, Acoustic Cafe: "I am thankful that WMRA gives me the the opportunity to be a part of the local roots music community.  It is such a treat to spend each weekend presenting - and listening to - such wonderful acoustic music."
From Terry Ward, host, All Things Considered: "On WMRA, I will not be subjected to commercials with cheesy sound effects of Santa's belly laugh, as happens on certain ~other~ broadcast entities with increasing frequency from this date forward, til Xmas. For that, I am grateful."
From Matt Bingay, Program Director: "I am thankful for the fact that I work in an environment that encourages exploration, discovery, discussion and meaning. Before beginning my career in public radio, the world was small and trivial. Today, I see so much, and want to know so much more. Thank you NPR for helping me live outside of myself."
And finally, from Tom DuVal, General Manager: "Hmmm. It's easy to say I'm thankful for the thousands of listeners who support WMRA and WEMC financially. And James Madison University, and dozens of local businesses and organizations. And believe me, I most certainly am!
 "I think, though, at heart I'm most thankful for the many listeners who take the time to contact us with kudos and criticisms. They keep us honest and keep our spirits up.
"And I'm thankful every day for my professional and dedicated colleagues, here and at the national level, who dive into and complete the necessary work of keeping public radio coming out of the speakers all across the region."

Thought I'd leave you with one of my husband's, Charlie, photos (taken late last month) of where we live. For no other reason than to remind  myself and you of how beautiful it is here in WMRA Land.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The emergency back-up post . . .

Okay, I wanted to post about Penrose sausages (for cultural reasons--or at least Woodroof family cultural reasons), but got up this morning and realized my research was incomplete. So, I did what all reporters/bloggers do, trolled the newspapers for another subject.

I rejected last night's state dinner (everyone's talking about that), speculation on President Obama's upcoming announcement about Afghanistan troop levels (who am I to speculate about that?), and this weekend's Virginia/Virginia Tech football game (go Hoos!).

That left turkeys. After all, this is the day before Thanksgiving.




I found the picture posted above in The Los Angeles Times' "Top of the Ticket" blog. The blog contained a link to the Times story cut and pasted below.Yes, turkeys get presidential pardons every year. But this, my fellow WMRA listeners, is the back story of that pardon!

These turkeys won't be gobbled up!
Two Butterball turkeys will be pardoned by President Obama after months of pampering and grooming. And his declaration will get them one step closer to a ride in Disneyland's Thanksgiving Parade

By Jason Horowitz
November 25, 2009
Reporting from Washington

Last month, Walter "Gator" Pelletier, chairman of the National Turkey Federation and an executive at Butterball, approached Wes Pike, his go-to bird handler, with a secret mission: raising two well-mannered birds that wouldn't trash a room at the Willard hotel or go ballistic on President Obama during a pardoning ceremony in the White House Rose Garden today.

Pike, 54, accepted the challenge. From Butterball pens in Goldsboro, N.C., he picked 22 15-week-old toms from a flock of 52,000 poults and moved them to a safe barn across the road. There, the 4-pound birds were hand-fed corn, soybeans and a mix of grains and vitamins. The birds walked on a fresh bed of kiln-dried pine shavings and gobbled and clucked freely with humans, to better prepare them for the members of the first family, administration officials and reporters at the ceremony.

They listened to a constant loop of music provided by Disney ("more new-age Disney rock," Pike said) to acclimate them to the noises the lucky two would encounter as grand marshals riding a Thanksgiving Day float at Disneyland.

The now-40-pound broad-breasted white turkeys will fly first class on a United aircraft and live out their days in Frontierland's Big Thunder Ranch. (With life spans lasting usually a few months, Thanksgiving turkeys are bred for breast meat, not longevity.)

Sherrie Rosenblatt, communications director of the National Turkey Federation, said that Pike looked for the "most regal" birds. "A turkey," she said, "that knows when to strut and when to be calm, to gobble at all the right points."

Pike selected the two standouts about five weeks ago. The 20 others, he said, crossed the road "back into the general population."

Pelletier, Pike and their associates named the White House bird Courage, and its alternate Carolina. The breeders believed Courage paid tribute to the U.S. soldiers fighting overseas, many of whom were trained in North Carolina.

Both birds will be at the ceremony -- and neither will be eaten -- but Courage is to receive the official pardon.

About 9 a.m. Tuesday, Pike loaded his family and turkeys into a van and headed for Washington.

In the garage of the Willard hotel, Pike helped bellhops load the turkeys, white pails of feed and two bags of wood chips onto brass luggage carts. Pike and the rest of the turkeys' entourage escorted the birds to room 326, a deluxe.

After all the excitement of the trip, the turkeys seemed rather languid in their hotel room, and Courage's waddle looked a little pale.

"He'll color up," Pike said. Rosenblatt decided it was time for everyone to leave the birds and their handlers in peace.

"It's time for their nap," she said.

Horowitz writes for the Washington Post.

Thank you, Mr. Horowitz. Thank you Los Angeles Times. Yes, I've completely cribbed a copyrighted story, but only because it was really good. Sometimes a reporter/blogger has to eat humble pie and admit she couldn't have written a story any better herself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How will we know it's really time to get up now?




This was sent out to NPR stations yesterday.
After 30 years of waking up at 1:05 a.m. to anchor the top of the hour newscast during Morning Edition, Carl Kasell has decided the time has come to sleep in. He will leave his newscast post at the end of this year... but happily for all of us he isn't going far. Carl will continue to be the Official Judge and Scorekeeper for Wait Wait.. Don't Tell Me!, the show that turned him from a newsman into a rock star! Carl will also continue his travels to stations around the country on NPR's behalf.

Carl has raised more than a generation of listeners with his calm and authoritative newscast and has been the first voice many people heard each day. He also has been a teacher and role model for NPR newscasters... not only because of his skill and experience, but also because of his kindness, integrity, and professionalism.

Carl has walked into the newscast booth tens of thousands of times during his tenure. He was there the day that Iranian students took over the American Embassy in 1979... he was there when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and he was there again when two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Towers in 2001. And he’s been there every week since.

Carl first walked through the doors of NPR in 1975 as a part-time newscaster ... and was on the air in November 1979 at the inception of Morning Edition. In 1995, he hosted Early Morning Edition, which eventually led to Morning Edition’s early start time of 5 a.m. eastern. Carl is a proud member of the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame and a recipient of several major broadcast awards, including a Peabody which he shares with Morning Edition and another he shares with Wait Wait.

Please join us in congratulating Carl for his tremendous service. His last newscast will be on Wednesday, December 30th

Carl. Kasell was born on April 2, 1934.  I lifted these further tidbits from Wikipedia.
       A native of  Goldsboro, North Carolina, Kasell was a student of drama in high school, where one of his mentors was Andy Griffith, then a high school drama instructor. Although Griffith urged Kasell to pursue a career in theatre, Kasell took to radio at an early age as well. During his time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill he helped launch local radio station WUNC with fellow student Charles Kuralt.
      He worked as an announcer and DJ at a radio station in Goldsboro before moving to the Washington, DC, area in 1965. He advanced to the position of news director at WAVA in Arlington, Virginia. As news director in Virginia, he hired Katie Couric as an intern one summer.


I've only one personal thing to add: Carl Kasell, only semi-retiring at 75, is my role model!

You go, guy!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thoughts on a couple of rocks. . .

Four days from now all of us will give at least a passing thought to the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. To be welcomed by this land's prior residents. Whom Europeans would shortly (in historical time) displace.


I think one of my ancestors was among those getting off the Mayflower. I say I think because it was not something my family ever made a big deal of. But as I like following the grand story that is history (and just in case my family's down-played myth was true), I once paid a visit to Plymouth, just to see what this famous rock looked like.

Not much, I decided.

I was to dig up bigger rocks putting in gardens on Charlie's and my 11.5 acres of land along Buffalo Ridge in Amherst County. And it's this land I want to write about, on this, the first working day of the short working week in which we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Charlie and I bought those 11.5 acres nigh onto two decades ago. They were down a rutted logging road, surrounded by thousands of acres of logging forest; home to bears, wild turkeys, deer, and very few other people. Having very little money ourselves, we lived on that land for the next six years in a couple of trailers. The first one was an ancient repo bought at a bank auction; the second was so comparatively palatial, we nicknamed it "The Palace."

But enough about Charlie and me. It's something simple that happened the day after we bought that land I want to write about; something that made me personally experience land ownership in a more complicated--and so more accurate--way.

It was around this time of year, actually. Charlie was off from work that day, so he took a lawn chair out to sit for a while on our 11.5 acres. He wanted to get to know it, to decide exactly where we should position our ancient repo. He sat his lawn chair down on a likely spot, idly reached his hand down and picked up the first rock he touched.

It was an arrowhead.

We were, of course, by no means the first to live on those 11.5 acres; just the first in a few decades, which in the context of history is a big fat nothing. That day, when Charlie showed me the arrowhead he'd found, I realized deep in my gut for the first time how people have moved other people--and peoples--around. And that we Americans, for all our national pride, are but a sentence in the larger story of our land.

On this Monday, back when I was in elementary school, we routinely made Pilgrim hats out of construction paper and congratulated ourselves mightily for being Americans. Now I realize that back then I had no idea what "being American" meant.

Even today, as glad as I am to be one, I'm still not quite sure what being American means. Whenever I think of that arrowhead, however, I do hope it means more than being able to push people around.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Posting my own e-mail

Let me make this clear at the top: I'm on e-mail lists created by those across the political spectrum. I don't advocate for either party; what I do advocate for is informed advocacy.

Timothy Jost is a nationally recognized health care expert who's probably familiar to you from his appearances on NPR and on WMRA's Virginia Insight. He is as informed a person on the subject of health care reform as one is likely to come into contact with.

Professor Jost recently wrote a summary of HR 3962, the Affordable Health Care for Americans Act, on the Health Affairs blog. Earlier, he wrote several posts in the same journal on the Senate Bill. If you wish to be an informed contributor to our current reform discussion and haven't read up on what you're talking about, those links are for you!

All that said, at 7:58 this Saturday morning, I got the following e-mail that had been sent from Jost to Lowell Fulk (Chair, Rockingham County Democratic Committee) to Harvey Yoder (of the Family Life Resource Center, who creates "Centerpiece" for WEMC Public Radio). It seems to indicate that those against the current Congressional bills for health care reform are much more active than those who are for them. For what it's worth, and with Professor Jost's permission, I thought I'd pass his e-mail along.
Hi Lowell,
You know how busy I have been all fall on health care reform.  This battle has proven much harder than I ever could have imagined.  With our health care system in shambles, you would think the public would overwhelmingly favor reform.  The bills we have right now are not as good as they could be. But they would cover over 30 million Americans and, I believe, begin to get a handle on costs.  They are facing overwhelming opposition, however.

Ruth [Mr. Jost's wife, Ruth Stoltzfus Jost] called Senator Warner's office today [note from MW: yesterday, by the time I got this e-mail]. The lines to Washington have been busy all day. She finally called Warner's Roanoke office.  When she told them she was in favor of reform, the woman asked her to repeat herself. She said she has gotten hundreds of calls today and they are overwhelmingly against reform. It was so good to hear someone in favor.

We are not doing our job.  This is the signature Democratic issue this year, and it is important. Senators Webb and Warner need to hear from us.  If they don't this will go down, and the Democratic party with it.

Could you please contact local Dems on your email list and ask them to call Webb and Warner?  They desperately need our support.  Thanks for anything you can do,
Tim

Senator Webb, 202-224-4024, 540-772-4236

Senator Warner, 202-224-2023, 540-857-2676


I thought it was an interesting report from the trenches of the health care reform wars. The WMRA listeners with whom I've discussed the issue have been overwhelmingly in support of some kind of reform. My questions for you are:
  1. Have you read a good summary of the bill's in question? 
  2. If so, what's your view on them? 
  3. And have you called your Senators yet to express your views from either side of the debate?
Finally, anyone gotten something from a well-informed opponent of health care reform they'd like me to pass along?

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    Thoughts of a non-scientist in honor of Science Friday . . .


    On Talk of the Nation Science Friday, Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan and his flock of generalist guests and guest hosts make way for host Ira Flatow and his scientific flock. I am always surprised by how interesting Mr. Flatow makes topics I've always thought wouldn't interest me at all.

    So it was in honor of Science Friday that I expanded my scientific exposure to include an article in the new essay-format Newsweek this week; an article that asks if that little safety-razor thingamabob pictured above contains something that in the not-all-that-distant future could power the world.

    That little thingamabob, it seems, is at the heart of controlled nuclear fusion. 

    "At its heart is a tiny pellet that will hold a few milligrams of deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen that can be extracted from water. If you blast the pellet with a powerful laser," the theory goes (according to Newsweek, from which this description is lifted), "you can create a reaction like the one that takes place at the center of the sun."

    Edward Moses of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory thinks it can. He's spent billions researching and building the necessary laser at his lab, the National  Ignition Facility (NIF).

    Another high-powered power person, Thomas Cochran, senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, who has been tracking Moses' project since it began in 1997, pretty much seems to thinks Moses' work is poppycock.

    Science Friday host Ira Flatow took note of controlled nuclear fusion on NPR's now-defunct Day to Day back in 2005. All I know about controlled nuclear fusion is what I read in Newsweek and in the transcript of that one NPR story. I am in no way qualified to have an opinion on whether or not it may one day be able to satiate our world's seemingly insatiable appetite for energy. I do know that the research going into this solution has already cost billions and will certainly cost billions more.

    I'm not a physicist, but I do have a sister who's one. And I remember well her spending months and months of time in Washington working out of the late Senator Ted Kennedy's office, part of a team putting together a funding proposal for National Institute of Science. I remember her passionate advocacy for funding pure scientific research, because, she'd say, it's when you give scientists enough time, space, equipment and materials that they make the discoveries--sometimes purposely, sometimes as collateral  breakthroughs--that advance humankind's knowledge and so humankind's general well-being.

    I may just be my sister's sister, but to me, it seems the pinnacle of wisdom to invest heavily in scientists' hunger to question, to poke around, to discover.

    As to funding Edward Moses' thingamabob in particular? We don't yet know the efficacy of controlled nuclear fusion. The NIF's miniature safety razor might one day power the world, or it might not. All we can be sure of is that we won't know, if we don't fund. And we also won't have the collateral advancements in optics, laser design, and material science that researching controlled nuclear fusion brings with it.

    We as a nation fund so much these days that depresses me. I, personally, find it so very pleasant to think that a small chunk of our nation's change is going toward finding out if controlled nuclear fusion works.

    Here's to scientists! May you stay curious; may we as a nation keep funneling you a few of our spare billions.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    The brave new e-world . . .

    The longer I noodle around in the e-world, the more I see it as a place to, as Trekkies might put it, boldly go where we could never go before. Once we lose our out-dated conception of what's possible, the web opens up to us heretofore unimagined opportunities. Our professional horizons have much less to do with our physical reach these days.

    Take me, for example. When I work nationally, I work digitally, turning sound into computer files that can be instantaneously beamed up to Washington and edited. So, I get to live in the Valley and have the professional challenge of being NPR's emergency back-up reporter on books and publishing.


    And take Kathleen Temple and her designer clothing.

    I met Kathleen Temple in late 2001, just after the U.S. had begun bombing Afghanistan. I was doing a story for NPR on the Anabaptist reaction to our country's newest war. I stood with a group of anti-war protesters (Kathleen among them) on Harrisonburg's Court Square, recording both them and the reaction to them. I later went to Kathleen's house and talked to her for quite a while about what it means to be an activist peacenik in a time of war.

    I liked her immediately. Kathleen struck me as a person of intelligence and initiative and well-founded opinion. Plus, the woman had style--that wonderfully rare quality that turns what we wear into an expression of who we are.

    In the years that followed, whenever I'd bump into Kathleen, she'd be wearing these wonderfully, subtly distinctive garments. As I, myself, am a retired clothes-horse, I'd always ask where she shopped. No where, she'd say. I design and make these myself.

    So here Kathleen's been, living in the 'Burg, designing, sewing fabulous garments for herself and people she knows, itching to turn her clothing into a business, not being able to figure out how. Harrisonburg, she knew, was just too small to support a shop opened by a designer of one-of-a-kind garments.

    Then she met up with recent college graduate and earring designer Morgan Kraybill, and the e-commerce light bulb went on. Together, I'm happy to announce, they've launched a virtual boutique, KathleenMeetsMorgan. It's her long-imagined shop, Kathleen says, opened for business out in the e-world, meaning that friends, relatives--customers--from all over the world can see her creations and buy them.

    To me, this is a great example of how the rules of opportunity have been turned on their head by the internet. Our talents and ambitions can range much farther than they could even a decade ago; our world is now the world.

    The challenge we have is to do what Kathleen did--identify what, exactly, it is that we really want to do. And then to not let any outdated sense of the possible make us believe that we can't pull it off.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Fueling constructive pesky-ness. . .


    Bob Bersson and Mohammed Hijjah both ate lunch at Harrisonburg's Clementine Cafe last Monday. In the basement lounge. In the company of about 25 people.

    Mr. Bersson is Jewish and has lived in a Kibbutz in Israel. Mr. Hijjah, who was born in Palestine, was severely beaten by Israeli soldiers who were part of the force that occupied his home in 1967. In a conversation hosted by Harvey Yoder, each man said he was pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. Each man said the two-state solution was the only viable solution.

    Bob Bersson attended the controversial inaugural JStreet Conference, held last month in Washington. He said that what has going on in Clementine's lounge was what had gone on there: a group of people had come together to take a stand that being pro-Israel doesn't mean being con-Palestine and vice versa. And then to start figuring out what that means in practical terms. Mr. Hijjah agreed.

    Ruth Stoltzfus Jost brought up the House of Representatives' condemnation of the U.N. commissioned Goldstone Report, which found evidence of war crimes by both sides of the Gaza conflict. This was, she suggested, hard evidence of the power over our government of a conservative and entrenched pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

    Sandra Rose then pointed out that grass roots forces (among them, those eating lunch with her in Clementine's basement) operate independently of any forces leaning on our lawmakers. "If we want [the two-state solution and peace in Gaza] to become real," Ms. Rose said, "we must make absolute pests of ourselves to our government."

    The situation in Gaza, whatever one's politics, needs to heal, for it is generating well-documented crimes against humanity. The government hasn't seen fit to do much; so doesn't that leave it up to the pests?

    Over the course of my life, I've taken part in lots of grass-roots pesky-ness; groups of citizens working on changing destructive situations into constructive ones. I started early, taking part in the Woolworth sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, when I was twelve. Nothing in my own personal experience has made me feel a force for constructive change in Gaza could not be legitimately energized over lunch in Clementine's lounge.

    As long, of course, as that energy fuels some practical pesky-ness.


    NOTE: here's what Andrea Seabrook had to say about Going Rogue, Sarah Palin's just-out book:
    Going Rogue starts off flowery, with slow descriptions of Alaska's frozen, crystal beauty. The story of her family and childhood is a standard American romance — hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people who raise their children and help their neighbors. But the book very quickly bares its true soul and purpose: It's full of anger as Palin lashes out at everything from the Alaska GOP to John McCain's campaign staff. In the end, Going Rogue comes off as a long (400+ pages), pent-up and resentful tirade from a politician who's angry with the spotlight that (she seems to believe) was forced upon her. — Andrea Seabrook, NPR Congressional Correspondent

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    The book and the book's buzz . . .

    Sarah Palin's book arrives today, an event in either political or pop culture history (depending upon your  assessment of Ms. Palin ). Scanning my morning's worth of newspapers, it appears Op-Ed columnist Eugene Robinson is correct when he says in today's Washington Post: "It's futile to try to ignore Palin . . ."



    It looks to me as though Ms. Palin's book tour is what has really gotten the media's attention. The tour began yesterday on Oprah's couch. It was such a big deal that, The Washington Post blogged about it live. . . 

    What I really want to know is how the legendary New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who reviewed Going Rogue in Saturday's paper, got hold of a copy before today's release date. When I talked to NPR yesterday, digital arts editor Joe Matazzoni asked if I'd be willing to read the book today and write a paragraph for NPR.org. I, of course, said "you betcha!" But then so did Andrea Seabrook, so naturally she got the assignment. In NPR-speak, it's called being Bigfooted and it's an accepted fact of a freelancer's life. I'll post what she says tomorrow.

    If I'd gotten the assignment, it would have meant going out this morning and buying my own copy of Going Rogue, closing the door to my office, immersing myself in Sarah Palin. There were no advance copies floating around anywhere, Joe said, and NPR is usually flooded with advance copies of books. Heck, I'm usually flooded with advance copies.

    But the rules that apply to ordinary mortals, even network NPR mortals, evidently don't apply to Ms. Kakutani. After all, her clout in the publishing world is so hefty that NPR actually did a piece on how authors refer to having been Kakutanied if she gives them a bad review. Probably all Ms.Kakutani needed to do to get an advance copy of Going Rogue was to ask for one. Or maybe she didn't even have to ask--one simply arrived by messenger. Gift-wrapped.

    I'm curious if any of you who are not on assignment plan to buy and read the book. If it is as big a cultural event as all the coverage indicates, don't we ignore the indications of that bigness at our own peril?

    NOTE: Speaking of NPR.org, I blogged about a month ago about being assigned a profile of novelist A.S. Byatt. It went up yesterday. In case you're interested, here's a link.

    Monday, November 16, 2009

    Matt did it!!!!!!




    Matt Bingay is WMRA's Program /Operations/News Director. He's also a father, husband, soccer player, lusty (appropriately so) beer drinker, and Mr. Fix-it around the house. In other words, Matt Bingay is a busy guy.

    He's also, as of Saturday, a bona fide Marathon Man, because he ran in, and successfully finished, the Sun Trust Marathon in Richmond. Here he is in the standings for men, ages 40-41, finishing pretty close to the middle of the pack.
    • 290. Frederick Davenport---------------4:40:12
    • 291. Matthew Bingay-------------------------4:40:49
    • 292. Steven Berman-------------------------4:41:02
    • 293. Jarett Tighe-------------------------4:41:08
    I've worked alongside Matt for almost a decade now. He is as nice as people get; pleasant, open-minded, helpful, patient. He's often dogged in pursuit of a project, particularly when there's technology involved, but I had never thought of him as having the kind of bull-headed super-ego that it takes to run 26 miles, 365 yards--which we all know is technically physically impossible for human beings. You  run that far on grit, not energy.

    Matt decided to run a marathon when an old buddy from out of town called and asked him to. That's a very Matt-like reason to do something; the man keeps his friends, because he's willing to keep on having adventures with them.

    There have been months of training, months of stories of training. Matt's Marathon has been a favorite topic of hall conversation. We all enjoyed thinking Matt might run a marathon. But I'm not sure any of us thought our own resident Mr. Nice Guy would actually push through the pain, both physical and mental, that comes with actually finishing one.

    Hmmmm. Mr. Matt, you are a person of parts unimagined. My most profound congratulations! There are achievements and Achievements in this life. And finishing a marathon, in my opinion, is one of the latter.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009

    Hot tip for chocolate-loving penny-pinchers . . .


    Okay, so Saturday is the day WMRA airs "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" Which I always think of as the one hour of the week I can laugh at the news I take so seriously the rest of the time. I even look forward to the show's promos, which come to WMRA on Thursdays, because I find them delightfully irreverent; at their best, 30 seconds of radio that make me gasp and laugh at the same time.

    So this Saturday, in this blog, I'm going to honor the spirit of WWDTM and not be at all serious. At least about the news. I guess if you are a chocolate lover who's on the road a lot (both of which describes me) then the subject of this blog post is about as serious as it gets.

    Last night at the Wayne Theatre Alliance's Murder Night dinner (see yesterday's post, if you're curious), I sat between John and Theresa Curry. This, as always, was a great pleasure. John is a retired judge who's now with the Virginia Mediation Network. Theresa is a beautiful writer--and I do mean beautiful--who often chooses food as her subject. If Theresa Curry starts talking about anything to do with what one eats, I take notes.

    When dinner was served, Theresa didn't eat much.

    Well, as Chaucer puts it so well in "The Nun's Priest's Tale": Mordre wol out that se we day by day. Although not quite up there in the sin list with murder, Ms. Curry confessed she wasn't eating her healthy dinner because she'd indulged in three chocolate chip cookies that afternoon.

    NEWSFLASH!!! WWDTM style! Ms. Elegant Food Writer's chocolate chip cookie indulgence had been at McDonald's. Three-for-a-dollar, she said, quite gleefully. And they're good! I mean really good.

    Have a lovely weekend, WMRAers.  If you're out and about and just have to have chocolate, I hope you now have another supply source. We serious reporters are all about discovering sources.

    Friday, November 13, 2009

    Murder in a good cause . . .


    The Wayne Theatre Alliance is working to save and reopen Waynesboro's last remaining building in its historic district. The Wayne Theatre was built in 1926 as a vaudeville/movie house. Its style is  Neo-Colonial. The Wayne Theatre Project has a budget of $5.4 million that will go toward restoring the building, and rebuilding its interior to provide stage, wings and fly tower, orchestra pit, 340-400 seat auditorium, expanded lobby, new lounge, and backstage and support areas.

    The Alliance was created by the City of Waynesboro with three mandates to: 1) save the building, 2) create a performing arts facility and 3) be a catalyst for a revitalized downtown. Hard goals to denigrate, don't you think?

    I'm a reformed actress, theater rat, junkie, ham, applause hog--whatever term conjures the image of someone who spent 20 years working in theater in Houston, Texas and around Virginia. As such, I have an almost visceral attachment to old theater spaces. 

    I remember dancing my toes off back in the late 1980's at after-hours parties in Charlottesville's then-shabby and endangered Paramount Theater--and willing that somehow the building would be saved and restored. (In the small world department, Jeff Bushman, who I think might have also been at a couple of those after-hours parties long ago in the Paramount, is now the Bushman of Bushman&Dreyfus architects--the local architects for the Paramount restoration and the firm that's designing the Wayne Theatre's restoration.)

    Also decades ago, I and some old Act I friends (any Charlottesvillians remember Act I?) stood on the stage of the Jefferson Theater and realized the old vaudeville house's perfect acoustics were wasted on movies. Revitalized, redone, it reopens this month as a performance venue. 

    You can take the old girl out of the theater, but you really can't kill her love for old theaters. In my opinion, the Wayne Theatrer Project rocks! And to put my dignity where my heart is, tonight, I'm going to make a fool of my public radio self by taking part in a Murder Night to help raise a small chunk of that 5.4 million. 

    My persona is Biker Babe. My assignment is to cut loose and have fun. 

    As to whether or not I'm the murderer, I plead the Fifth . . .

    Thursday, November 12, 2009

    Farmville-generated thoughts about WMRA's Civic Soapbox . . .


    I went to Longwood University to sit in on five sections of an upper-level gen-ed class taught by two truly remarkable women, Lara Golden and Heather Lettner-Rust (who are also really fun dinner companions). I can't for the life of me remember the name of the class, but its aim is to teach students how to tailor written arguments for specific audiences. Its larger purpose was to prepare students to be better and more effectively involved citizens.

    I was invited because these two creative professors had included the WMRA listeners as one of their designated audiences, and assigned their students the  task of writing a Civic Soapbox essay. My job was to talk about what I think works from atop the Soapbox.

    We had many interesting and lively discussions over the course of the two days I was there, but one student said something that worried me. We were taking a look at another student's opening paragraph in which she talked about watching her little brother play sports, and this guy questioned whether NPR listeners would be interested in hearing anything from a person who was obviously so young, since NPR listeners were all really old.

    Of course, I immediately disabused him of the notion that NPR listeners are really old--although if I remember myself correctly as a twenty-year-old, twenty-five seemed really old. And, helpfully for me in making my point,  it turned out that there was actually a sprinkling of WMRAers among his class-mates.

    Beyond demographics, however, I realized I couldn't speak for the generic NPR "listener," I could only speak for myself. And so, speaking for myself, I said I greatly value hearing the thoughts, the experiences, the hopes, the fears, the stories of college students. Of course, college students are less experienced than I am, but what experience they've had is quite different from mine in many, many important ways--both personally and generationally. This leads them to question life, institutions, traditions, relationships, their world, themselves in ways I've never even considered. And to me, finding new questions to ask is what keeps life such a grand adventure.


    Oh golly, I know most of the essays we run from atop the Soapbox are written by people who are, shall we say, not under 25 as, I think, all my temporary Longwood University students were. But I certainly hope nothing about the community effort that is WMRA seems unwelcoming to anyone's voice, anyone's opinion, anyone's story.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Connecting in various ways

    Oh boy! Martha’s away and I’m the kid in the candy shop. So many things I could tell you about. Like the NPR Ombudsman column, written by a woman, but that’s what they call it. Alicia Shepard takes listeners’ challenges to the NPR news folks for some ‘splaining. No matter what she says--supporting or criticizing NPR--readers take her to task. You can learn a lot about journalism and NPR.

    Or your chance to vote on your favorite Acoustic CafĂ© songs for a Top 50 countdown we’ll be doing during the special Saturday-only fundraiser on December 5.

    And did you know that you can sign up for several NPR blogs? Planet Money, Political Junkie, All Tech Considered, All Songs Considered, Weekend Edition Soapbox, Blog of the Nation, "Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me."

    Oh, yes, and I wanted to tell you about ways you can support WMRA while going about your normal business. If you enter Amazon.com via WMRA, we get a cut on everything you buy. You’ll also find a link to Amazon right next to every piece of music in our program playlists. Quick and easy: www.wmra.org and mouse over (but don’t click directly on) “Programs.”

    When you book travel, use the Public Media Travel portal, and WMRA gets a commission. We work through Travelocity and other “safe” vendors.

    Or donate an old vehicle through the Car Talk Vehicle Donation Program, clean up your driveway and get a tax deduction.

    But these aren’t what Martha wanted me to blog about, I suspect. She wanted something of substance. Something to show the value(s) of public radio.


    So how about this. Pianist Andre Watts has a reputation for being one of the nicest people in the universe. Now we have proof. This story tells of how he gave a very private musical gift to a severely disabled young woman and her family. But he did it in the midst of a multitude in a very public concert, without anyone but the family knowing. So gracious…and so sensitive to the privacy of the family. Hanky advisory!

    WMRA’s Program Director, Matt Bingay, emailed this back to me when I sent the story to our staff:

                    Wow - not only is this story inspiring - it reminds me of 
                    what I feel is at the heart of public radio... sharing 
                    personal stories and connecting emotionally in ways 
                   that go beyond day-to-day courtesies.

    Do you have a story that illuminates how public radio, the arts, or anything else connects in ways that go beyond the ordinary? Please share.

    Meanwhile, Martha will be back tomorrow after a rousing two days of inspiring young writers at Longwood University. We appreciate opportunities such as this to engage in the community.

    -Tom DuVal

    Road trip!!!!

    There are rare moments in my life when I've felt purely happy.

    One that I remember was back in the late 80's when I'd just begun to freelance for NPR. I was living in Winchester at the time, editing my reel-to-reel tape at WINC radio, patching a living together making radio any way I could, with a little television on the side to help pay the rent.


    It was early, early on a summer morning. I was in my Ford Ranger pick-up with the camper top, heading north up 81, on my way to Limerock Raceway in Connecticut to do a story on actor Paul Newman's second career as a race-car driver.  I had a large, black coffee in one hand, the steering wheel in the other, and Emmylou Harris on the tape deck. I remember the moment the sun came up that morning, because at that moment everything felt new, everything felt possible, and I was nothing but happy.

    Why am I blogging about this? Because right now, I'm all set to pile into my car pre-dawn yet again and head east to Farmville. There, today and tomorrow, I'm to sit in on five classes at Longwood University and talk to students about writing personal essays. Maybe I'm older and slower, but that really does seem just as exciting to me as hanging out at a racetrack. I love words, I love working with students, I love road trips out into the WMRA community!

    Happy trails to me; happy trails to you. May your day bring you as much joy as I'm expecting mine to. We'll talk when I get back. WMRA's Tom DuVal will be writing tomorrow's entry.

    Monday, November 9, 2009

    Searching for some bad guys . . .



    Twenty years ago the Berlin wall tumbled. And I'd like to suggest left a sizable number of us discombobulated. Not openly discombobulated, of course. Just discombobulated in our heart of hearts. Who were the bad guys now? Or more importantly, what group allowed us to define ourselves as the good guys?

    Before that day, we Boomers who like our politics black-and-white had never not had a clear-cut bad guy. You want bad? Look no further than the Communists. Any and all of them!

    How well I remember a report I did in the sixth grade on Russia. In this report, I pointed out that the Communists had actually improved living conditions there for the average citizen--not hard to do when you're working with  a feudal system last updated in the Middle Ages.

    When I finished I realized that my teacher was tight-lipped, terse-worded mad! At me! At a sixth grader, whose source was the World Book Encyclopedia, for daring to suggest that the Communists had done any good, anywhere. McCarthy was dead, but the clarity of his viewpoint persisted in 1959 among certain of the citizens of Greensboro, North Carolina.

    When the Berlin wall tumbled, the stature of the current bad guys tumbled with it. Suddenly the Commies looked like pretty puny bad guys, which--in our rare moments of introspection--we realized made us look comparatively puny as good guys.

    Ever since, those of us who need bad guys to make us feel like good guys have not really been able to settle. I won't bother to list the groups we've auditioned as  bad guys; just think of any group over the past twenty years stereotyped by shrill, mindless opposition. Omigod! the number is legion.

    When I woke up this morning and realized that today was the 20th anniversary of the Wall's fall, I immediately thought of the current health care "debate" in this country. It has often seemed spectacularly shrill, uninformed and mendacious--all at the same time.

    I'd  followed with interest Saturday's deliberations in the House of Representatives that ended with a late-evening vote to move health care reform forward. Dana Milbank's column on the day's often undignified activities (as well the undignified comments left by some of his readers from both sides of the political spectrum) made me wonder if  health care reformers haven't become a target for the bad-guy needers.

    If that's what's happened, the really sad part of this is I don't know of anyone who's informed on health care who defends the status quo. But then, why would they? This, from a 2007 editorial in the New York Times.
    Seven years ago, the World Health Organization made the first major effort to rank the health systems of 191 nations. France and Italy took the top two spots; the United States was a dismal 37th.
    Our health care system obviously could use a little tweaking. And so surely uninformed, gratuitous, shrill opposition to the efforts of health care reformers from either side of the political aisle is about as wise as a fish eating its own tail. It may feel good at the moment, but it really does blight the future.

    Personally, when I need to indulge in a little shrill, mindless opposition, I turn to sports!

    Saturday, November 7, 2009

    Should we bring the duel back?

    I've been out of work four days this week with some kind of imitation flu. The downside of this has been missing my colleagues, the internal buzz I get from doing my job, my daily sacred gym time. The upside was that I had a lot of time to read for pleasure.


    It was with great pleasure that I began reading The Southern Press, W&L professor Doug Cumming's just-out book on just what its title suggests--journalism in the South from Poe well into the last century.

    The book is not history; it's more an exploration of a style of journalism that grew up without tightly-packed urban areas and without an indigenous publishing industry. I learned a lot, but I also had fun. Particularly from the bottom of page 62 to the top of page 63. As part of my self-assigned blog mission is to promote fun, I'm now going to transcribe the rather long, relevant passage. (I've bolded and italicized the juicy and most telling part, which is at the end.)
         John Moncure Daniel of the Richmond Examiner, who spiced his attacks on political enemies with such terms as jackass, hyena, sleek fat pony, and curly-headed poodle, is credited with fighting nine duels. He bequeathed his dueling pistols to his successor at the Examiner, H. Rives Pollard. A column Daniel wrote in 1847 somehow insulted the then famous [Edgar Allen] Poe, who happened to be back in Richmond and drinking again. When Poe barged into Daniel's office to challenge him to a duel, the Examiner editor managed to silence his friend by pointing to a set of large pistols waiting on the table.
         The aristocratic notion of honor was like a "reputation" in a libel suit, except that damages to honor could never be compensated with money or settled in court. That is why so many cities and town[s] in the South had a dueling ground as well as a courthouse, from the Oaks at the north end of Esplanade Street in New Orleans to Bloody Island in the former North River beside Lexington, Virginia. Duelists could even buy instruction manuals such as one published in 1838 by a former governor of South Carolina. Keeping in practice was always a good idea, especially for newspaper editors, "who are most of them very good shots," noted a British traveler in the 1830s. Like libel law, the code of the duel was said to be a force of restraint on a boisterous press. If only the North would adopt dueling, the novelist Simms wrote to an editor in Boston in 1841, "it would soon but a stop to the blackguardism of the press, the insolence of petty knaves, and the slanderous personalities of their writings."
    I do wonder how an Opinion-ater -- my name for today's working "journalist" who, like those northern journalists referred to by novelist Simms, appear to think it his/her mission to inflame strong feelings in us rather than to impart accurate information -- would react if everyone who felt offended showed up with a couple of dueling pistols and started going on about "honor" and "reputation."

    Would it serve to reign in the use of blatant untruth in argument? Sadly, nothing else seems to.

    Note: The next time you're really, really annoyed at someone, I d-double-dare you to call that person a curly-headed poodle.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

    Friday, November 6, 2009

    "The madness at rush hour . . ."


    The title is lifted from Metro columnist Robert McCartney's 867-word challenge to Governor-elect Bob McDonnell published in yesterday's Washington Post. He's speaking, McCartney says, for the voters of Northern Virginia, who surprisingly (at least to me) went solidly Republican in Tuesday's election.

    The challenge Mr. McCartney laid down to Mr. McDonnell is pretty basic: Do what you promised, and what you promised is that you will improve our roads without damaging our schools. And, after claiming you've moderated the extreme social views you espoused 20 years ago in your master's thesis for Regent University, don't "go Sarah Palin on us."
    "McDonnell charted a model strategy for Republican success in the Obama era by focusing his campaign on pocketbook issues such as jobs and transportation rather than 'culture war' crusades over abortion and same-sex marriage. He did so despite his own roots in the Christian conservative movement. It's crucial for Northern Virginians, who are generally moderate to liberal on social issues, that McDonnell stick to that approach."
    I'm sure Governor-elect McDonnell is well aware that Northern Virginians have all that time they're stuck in traffic to monitor his performance. If that isn't enough to make him jump on the traffic problem first thing, I don't know what is.

    There was also an interesting poll out yesterday from Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, suggesting voters thought Creigh Deeds spent too much time focused on McDonnell's 20-year-old thesis and not enough time communicating his own detailed and positive solutions to our state's impressive list of problems.

    The shifting colors of the political map is ever fascinating, isn't it? To me, the James Carville phrase that helped Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush still rings true: It's the economy stupid. Our state's economy is a mess; and the easiest, most obvious way to attack a mess is to just clean house.

    We did it in our last Presidential election; we did it again last Tuesday.

    Which made me think of my husband Charlie's last big home project, which was to clean up the mess that was his home office. It took him a few hours of furious activity to empty the room--pull everything off shelves, out of drawers, and create lovely towering stacks of stuff in the hall. Then it took him days and days and days to sort, shift, weed-out and restart the office as a functional space.

    I was struck with how emotionally cleansing it was for Charlie to empty out the room; and how much patience, creative problem-solving and simple hard work went into remaking it into a usable space.

    In our last two elections, we Virginia voters have proved ourselves fans of the emotionally cleansing gesture. But could we have elected two more disparately visioned and minded men?

    Which one's vision and mind, I wonder, will we be willing to stick with as we face the hard work of realistically facing the future?

    Thursday, November 5, 2009

    An invitation to think . . .

    Charlottesville listener Marva Barnett sent me this reaction to Nina Totenberg's summation of Wednesday's oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the case POTTAWATTAMIE COUNTY V. MCGHEE.

    "What is just? What is legal?  They are all too often not the same thing.  Nina Totenberg’s recounting of the current Supreme Court case about prosecutorial immunity shines a spotlight on what Victor Hugo called “the quarrel between rights and law.”  Not until that quarrel is resolved, he wrote (in the preface to his collection of socially-conscious speeches), will society reach true civilization.
                In this case, attorneys for the Council Bluffs, Iowa, prosecutors argue explicitly, bluntly, that Americans have no constitutional right not to be framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee were imprisoned in 1977 for a murder they had no hand in.  Tenaciously stating his innocence, Mr. Harrington was finally released in 2003 after a case review in which eyewitnesses recanted their testimony.  Under Iowa law neither man has legal recourse to receive compensation for the 25 years lost because of fabricated evidence.  Their suit against the Council Bluffs police and prosecutor for violating of constitutional rights has reached the Supreme Court.  An objective case summary shows that the police and prosecutor ignored evidence pointing to another, well-connected suspect and accepted testimony against Mr. Harrington from a man with a criminal record who erred in his story about the murder location and weapon involved.
                Still, attorneys for the prosecutors, while hypothetically admitting that Mr. Harrington might have been framed, contend that such framing is legal, though perhaps not just.  Victor Hugo must be raging in his Paris Pantheon tomb!  Were he able to put pen to paper, he would this morning be dashing off a public letter.  Justice is divine, he would write, far above the laws that people create.  When everyone can see where justice lies in a cause, should we not choose what is just over what is legal?  Why are laws not written to promote justice?  Human rights come from God, and laws cannot morally overcome them.  Jean Valjean, after 19 years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, learned this from a man of God.  The author of Les MisĂ©rables would be making the case for Mr. Harrington, human rights, and justice."
    Marva Barnett, author of Victor Hugo on Things That Matter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)
    Marva Barnett's piece is not, of course, a discussion of the legal intricacies of procedure and precedence that will weigh heavily in the Supreme Court's decision. Instead it addressed the question--as WMRA's Tom DuVal, with whom I love to talk over these kinds of knotty questions, pointed out--"should anyone be allowed to get away with unjust acts just because a law says it's okay?"

    If you've got a few moments to devote to thinking about the distinctions between what is legal and what is moral, I'd suggest taking a look at Ms. Totenberg's summation and then re-read Marva Barnett's challenging reaction. I did both yesterday, and I'm still pondering the issues involved.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    An opinion post . . .

    Listener Katrien Vance took me to task as the editor of WMRA's Civic Soapbox for airing Bob Boucheron's essay last week recounting his experience with Career Switcher, a government-sponsored program for already-educated adults who want to become public school teachers.

    In case you missed it, here's a link to the text of that essay. And here's what Ms. Vance, who's a teacher herself, had to say.
    "I enjoy Civic Soap Box and think it's a great opportunity for people to speak about issues that concern or delight them.  I was disappointed, though, with a recent program in which a Charlottesville architect used the Soap Box to denigrate the Career Switchers program at Blue Ridge Community College.  I am not associated with that program in any way; I have a colleague that is enrolled in it, but I know very little about it and have no vested interest in it.  As a teacher at a private school, I have taken no education courses myself, and I tend to look at them with suspicion if not my own snobbery.  But Mr. Boucheron's public complaining seemed an inappropriate use of the Soap Box. I agree that aspects of his program sounded frustrating.  But why was he given three minutes to publicly complain about a program he attended?  Will the Career Switchers program have equal time to respond?  Actually, I doubt they have time--they are teachers!

    "I could go on to list things Mr. Boucheron said that seemed arrogant, snobbish, and completely closed-minded to the experience of learning to be a teacher, but it isn't really with him I have the argument.  My argument is with your choice to give him air time.  I didn't hear that he had any larger point to make except that he tried this program and it was bad. How does that serve the community?  Why didn't he air his grievances with the program itself, privately?

    "I have no problem with your airing essays on things that are controversial or might spark arguments.  But if someone is going to publicly criticize and denigrate a school, a program, or a person--with no attempt to make something good come of it-- I hope you will think twice about having your Soap Box be his or her forum.

    "Since I am someone who believes that you shouldn't complain unless you have a solution, I promise you that I am working on a Soap Box essay of my own.  Maybe it's harder than I think it is!"
    I think Ms. Vance makes interesting point, one that's well worth discussing by the WMRA community. Which is exactly what this blog is for.

    So, you got anything to say about either Mr. Boucheron's essay or Ms. Vance's reaction to it?  If so, I (and probably everyone who participates in this blog) would certainly like to hear it.

    Lay on, Macduffs. . .

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009

    Even cowgirls get the flu. . .

    Of course, maybe what I have isn't The Flu, but, among other annoyances, I seem to have lost my voice. So I shall not be visiting polling places today as we had planned. It's bad enough to be sick, but for a reporter to be sick on election day is down-right humiliating.

    I also don't seem to have much of a brain, today. At least not enough of a one to put together a proper post. So I'll say be sure to vote, and leave it at that.

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Escaping escapism by Streetcar

    Oh dear. This morning's  lead story in The New York Times (on-line) is: "Karzai Declared Re-elected in Afghanistan," but only because of the withdrawal from the race of his last challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. The Times goes on to opine that this leaves the U.S. in a real mess.

    Next, we learn that Ford, the auto giant that didn't get bailed out, has managed to post a 1-billion dollar profit, and that Obama's strategy on health care legislation appears to be paying off. Go figure on both accounts.

    It's all a bit much to grasp on a Monday morning, at least for this reporter, so, instead, I'll go back to thinking about this.



    Yes, Cate Blanchett is Blanche DuBois, right now at the Kennedy Center.  "Blanchett fires 'Streetcar's eternal combustion engine" heads a story I want to read. Even on a Monday.


    "If Cate Blanchett's nerve-shattering turn as Blanche DuBois doesn't knock the wind out of you," writes Peter Marks in The Washington Post, "then there is nothing on a stage that can blow you away. What Blanchett achieves in the Sydney Theatre Company's revelatory revival of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' amounts to a truly great portrayal -- certainly the most heartbreaking Blanche I've ever experienced."

    We've all seen a production of Streetcar, haven't we? Tennessee Williams' nailing of a stubborn, alcoholic, fragile woman to the cross of her own pretensions and denial. On stage, we watched Blanche DuBois, a frail reminder of former beauty and charm, dying of her own inability to get real--real about who she is, where she came from, where she is.

    If what you remember of your production of Streetcar is the set or even Stanley Kowolski, then please go to another one. A production of this play that cooks, in my opinion, belongs to Blanche, because she's one of those great theater creations that reaches something universal in each of us that we'd rather not face--our own ability to self-destruct by clinging to what we wish was real rather than what is real.

    It's a good thing to think about on a Monday morning when world-wide reality seems particularly hard to come to terms with. Thinking about a great Blanche DuBois reminds us that the alternative to facing reality, is not facing it. And that that, eventually, makes everything much worse.

    Too bad we can't organize a bus trip to go see Ms. Blanchett. Her Streetcar, it seems, is completely sold out.