Monday, December 27, 2010

Back on January 3rd . . .

Martha note: I'm resting my brain until Monday, January 3rd, so no blog posts this week.

Happy New Year to us, every one! All good wishes for much joy and peace in the coming year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Surfing and Christmas, a Civic Soapbox essay by Martha Woodroof

Even though I was raised a heathen, I was raised with holiday traditions. 

My family went into a kind of rigid, 24-hour dance on Christmas Eve that went something like this: Oyster Stew at 5 pm, caroling at 7, home to listen to a scratchy recording of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales;” everyone to their previously staked-out corners of the house for final present preparation; the burning of the note to Santa Claus in the fireplace (this, even after my sister and I were both at schools a thousand miles from home), the hanging of the stockings (my sister’s had more jingle bells because she was older, and I’m still mad about it): and then, to bed. Christmas morning: the emptying of the stockings; breakfast of stollen and bacon; parade to the tree (I got to go first because was the younger); the opening of presents, and then, the walk.

Christmas Day in North Carolina was almost always grey. My sister and I would step out briskly into the neighborhood. There would be an occasional child about. wobbling along on a new bicycle or pulling a sled around a snowless front lawn, but mainly, it would just be quiet. Two cars in every driveway; smoke rising from every chimney.

From the time I was old enough to consider such things, I realized that this day was as close as my world was probably going to come to feeling secure. And that I was not the only person experiencing this, because for 24-hours, huge chunks of civilization worked hard at keeping bad behavior to a minimum.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe more and more in the devil, a slathering creature that yaps at my heels and tempts me to indulge in fear – the great limiting, dark side of experience. The feelings associated with December 25th remain the best defense I have against that Dark Beast of Fear, for Christmas day still bids me to find the Light in this world and walk toward it.

There’s a line in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” which claims  that the “the holy tide of Christmas doth bring redeeming grace.” Growing up, I stacked my Beach Boy records right alongside old Dylan Thomas, and perhaps this slight physical association of Christmas with surfing is why, when I sing about the Holy Tide of Christmas, I have this  vision:
We are all out there together, on the vast Ocean of Life, sitting on our surfboards, most likely worried out of our minds about something – which is, I do think, the general human condition. Then, someone yells, “Surf’s up!” We turn toward the horizon and there it is: the holy tide of Christmas. 
Suddenly, we’re scrambling into position on our boards; and, full of joy, thinking of nothing but catching that giant wave.
Martha note: Wishing you the merry-ist of winter holidays from all of us who have the good fortune to work at WMRA.

Is this what consensus politics looks like?

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives in Hawaii for his holiday vacation.(Lum/Pool

The New York Daily News began the article accompanying the above picture by saying,
President Obama didn't have much to be thankful for last month, but it looks like he'll have a Merry Christmas after all.
The Commander in Chief can bask in the glow of big legislative wins as he spends the holidays in Hawaii, and a new poll shows 56% of the country approves of the job the President has done this month working with the lame-duck Congress.
Only 41% disapproved of how Obama worked with Congress, according to the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll published Wednesday.
This, just a month after his administration's self-styled thumping.

Jonathan Capehart began a "PostPartisan" column today in The Washington Post this way:
"I am persistent," President Obama said in his "How ya like me now?!" press conference. "If I believe in something strongly, I stay with it." And he has enough legislative victories in this lame-duck session to prove it. The deal on tax cuts and the extension of unemployment benefits. The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." A new START treaty with the Russians. The passage of the first changes in food safety laws in more than 70 years. And a law to provide for the health care of those who put duty first in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
 Today's New York Times lead editorial proclaiming that "The Senate Surmounts Politics," begins by saying,
Wednesday was not a good day for Senator Mitch McConnell’s single-minded project to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Over the minority leader’s objections, 13 Republicans joined every Democratic senator to ratify the New Start nuclear arms treaty with Russia, reducing the size of the countries’ nuclear stockpiles and making the world a safer place. The 71-to-26 vote was the capstone to what now shapes up to be a remarkably successful legislative agenda for President Obama’s first two years.
I have always loved Gloria Steinem's retort to the reporter who, 30 years ago now, on the occasion of her 40th birthday told her that she didn't look forty. Ms. Steinem famously (and accurately) replied, “This is what 40 looks like -- we’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” 

Haven't we for years been clamoring for our elected officials to forget politics and actually accomplish something for the public good?  So, is this what's finally happened in the last month?

Or has government been dysfunctionally political for so long, who would know?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A true story from a Harrisonburg listener that involves a man with white beard . . .

Martha note: This is a story that Lorie Merrow, who's married to WMRA General Manager Tom DuVal, was given at an AAUW meeting last weekend. Tom gave it to me, I contacted the story-teller and asked if it would be alright to use it as today's blog post.
Permission came with the picture shown below, although the story-teller did wish to remain anonymous. Hope you read and find life as mysteriously festive as I did when you finish.

Although he has been gone nearly twenty-five years – as he might say, “to the great Duck Blind in the sky” – my memories of the conversation I had with my father about the origin of the combination sleigh/decoy box, displayed each Christmas season on the front porch of our home, is as clear today as it was some four decades ago …

As great migrating flocks of ducks and geese left their summer home in the wetlands of northern Saskatchewan each fall, winging their way across the plains of the Dakotas and then the sandhills of western Nebraska, they would eventually pause in eastern Colorado. As regularly as a metronome, season after season and year after year, they came to visit – usually only a brief pause – before continuing their long journey south to their wintering grounds.

And each fall a similar migration, of sorts, took place involving my father. As the hunting season was about to open, he would load his rig with enough groceries and hard liquor to last both himself and his lifelong hunting partner for several months at their 100-year old, somewhat dilapidated, but dearly loved, old homestead cabin they’d converted into their hunting camp. Once the rig was loaded, my father’s “migration” began. As the ducks moved north-to-south as winter approached, my dad drove west-to-east as the ducks approached – to intersect their path at a huge reservoir just a stone’s throw from the Kansas border, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of cornfields – the perfect “rest stop” on a long journey.

The late December snowstorm was far worse than anyone predicted. Thankfully the wind wasn’t blowing, but the half-dollar sized snowflakes fell heavily and visibility was reduced to a hundred feet or less. My father and his hunting partner, together with two friends, had ended another successful season and were standing bunched together beside two vehicles they had just finished loading with all of their hunting dogs, decoys and other equipment. It was time to close-out the season, take down the duck blind, and close up their hunting camp. This storm signaled it was time. After all, Christmas was next week.

The four men were tired. They had lugged all their gear from the location of their duck blind, nearly a half-mile away, through dense cattails and heavy snow to reach their vehicles. Somewhat out of breath, they quietly leaned against the side of one vehicle and took in the scenery – granted, there wasn’t much to see, but the snowflakes seemed to be falling perfectly vertically. The lack of wind, the heavy snowfall, and the difficulty in seeing much more than a hundred feet in any direction, made them feel as though they were enclosed inside one of those glass domes you vigorously shook as a child, with plastic scenery and tiny plastic snowflakes. No one spoke.

They all saw him at the same time. An elderly man, white hair and beard, emerged from the falling snow traveling toward them along the same pathway they’d just taken. He was pulling along a child’s sled with a hinged wooden box fixed to its top. They were so stunned by his sudden appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, they said nothing. He walked up to my father, handed him the lanyard connected to the sleigh and said: “It’s my last hunt. I would like you to have these.” And quietly walked away. Moments later, he had disappeared into the thickly falling snowflakes and was gone.

Inside the box were seven hand-carved, old-school wooden decoys. No one knew who he was. No one had ever seen him before. Although they searched in the direction he’d just gone to thank him, they found no tracks and – even stranger – they found no signs of another vehicle and the nearest farmhouse was miles away.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some borrowed (with permission) thoughts on Governor McDonald's call to de-fund public broadcasting . . .

Monday, December 20, 2010

Do we really, really, REALLY believe in redemption?

Celebrity creates today's morality plays -- dramas which present larger issues of good and evil couched in entertainment narrative. Celebrity romances can become our romances; celebrity sins, our sins. We, safely buffered by anonymity, can sit back and dissect and, oh yes, judge -- which, in my opinion, just might be our favorite societal pastime.

So, this post is really not about football, just because an NFL quarterback is starring in this particular modern amorality play -- one that asks us to decide whether or not a person can really change. Do we, or don't we, believe in the possibility of redemption?

Our "hero" in this particular morality play is Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.  In case you just woke up from a four-year nap, you'll need to be reminded that Vick served nineteen months in prison for torturing and killing dogs. He came out in 2009, into the cautiously waiting arms of  Tony Dungy (mentor) and Andy Reed (coach of the Philadelphia Eagles). Last year, Vick played both sporadically and spottily for the Eagles, showing precious little of the speed and mobility we Virginians first came to know when he played for Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech.

This year, after long-time Eagles starter Donovan McNabb's trade to the hapless Redskins and Kevin Kolb's injury and failure to perform, Michael Vick was named Philadelphia starter back in late September. And over the past three months, he has proceeded to outperform both his former self and, arguably, every other NFL player.

There is no argument that Michael Vick is a joy to watch on the football field. Yet the question I think a lot of us are still asking ourselves, whether we give a hoot about the sport of football or not, is:  Are we witnessing chump change or real redemption? What are we fair-minded, law-abiding, relatively compassionate, no-nonsense, essentially ethical people to make of this guy? Is it okay for us to wish him well and enjoy watching him play football?

Michael Vick's former behavior was brutal, inexcusably and unjustifiably immoral and cruel. Sure, he served his time. Sure, he goes around to schools and makes speeches.  But, so what? Does he, we ask ourselves, deserve our forgiveness? Does anyone who's done something really, really bad, ever deserve our forgiveness?


Celebrities as characters in morality plays. We, the audience, as judge and jury. What a pinched, mean-spirited part we ask ourselves to play in these dramas, don't we? I think the real question we should be asking ourselves is what are we doing to ourselves by accepting it?

This means that the important moral question for me asked by the Michael Vick Morality Play is not whether "our hero" is better off if I accept the possibility of his redemption, but whether or not I'm better off if I accept that redemption is generally possible. And here's perhaps the greatest challenge -- that Michael Vick's personal business is none of mine.

 Hank Williams, one of my favorite moralists, puts it this way:
Minding other people's business seems  to be high-toned. 
But I've got all that I can do just minding my own.
A compulsion to judge others is such a heavy load to tote, don't you think?

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Charlottesville's Recycling Possibilities," an essay by Mary Buford Hitz

Martha note: It's Civic Soapbox Friday.

Come next spring, Charlottesville will be facing a decision on curbside recycling. If you are as confused as I was about what we are doing now and what our options are, keep listening.

Earlier this year we were told that the city had signed a contract with Pete van der Linde, who runs a state-of-the-art recycling center nearby at Zion’s Cross Roads, so I assumed that this contract was for C’ville’s curbside recycling. It is not, because the city already had a recycling contract with Allied Waste Services. The van der Linde contract is for city trash.

The city’s recyclables, placed in the bins at curbside, include glass, tin, aluminum, paper and plastics. We are still being asked to separate out only plastics 1 and 2 for recycling. This is a major pain in the neck, as it is often difficult to read the number, and some grocery stores cover the number with a label.

The city turned out to be my best source for information about recyclable materials – where they go and how they are dealt with – as getting information from Allied is like pouring blackstrap molasses in December.

Particularly if you say you’re trying to gather information for a media article, you’re handled like an unexploded land mine. Repeated calls to the Allied office in Charlottesville went unreturned. Finally I was told the man I was trying to reach, David Outing, “Doesn’t handle calls like this. They have to go through corporate.”

The parent corporation turns out to be Republic Services in Phoenix. Their automated phone system did not have an operator available. I was urged to leave yet another message.

Just the opposite is true when you contact Pete van der Linde. An avalanche of reasons to use his facility to handle ALL of Charlottesville’s trash and recycling needs pours forth. “We want it and we want it all,” he said, “just get it to us.”

In my phone conversation with him, van der Linde explained that he has installed new technology that is capable of separating trash from recyclables, including all plastics. This allows the comingling of waste, even food and dirty diapers, with recyclables in a dumpster. Van der Linde then sells the processed recyclables to various manufacturers.

Finally, Steve Lawson, Director of the Public Service Works Administration for the City, is able to shed light on what happens with the curbside recycling that Allied picks up. Ironically, it also goes to Zion’s Cross Roads, to a facility near van der Linde’s, where genuine recyclable material is separated and then sent on to Tidewater Fiber, in Chester, Virginia.

On the subject of only 1 and 2 plastics, Lawson says, “Allied’s hands are tied because they can only recycle what Tidewater Fiber can use. It is possible, though, that Allied may be able to change that.” Lawson went on to say that the city has not decided which way to go when the Allied contract comes up for renewal in April.

When the moment of decision comes whether or not to send both trash and recycling to van der Linde or to keep doing business with two separate companies, it seems to me it should depend on which company can deal with the largest number of recyclables at the lowest cost to the city. Since Charlottesville citizens are paying their bill, it would be nice if Allied were as forthcoming with information about cost and available services as van der Linde is.
-- Mary Buford Hitz is a writer living in Charlottesville

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thinking is soooooo last century . . .

Descartes is not just literally dead in the 21st Century, he's philosophically dead, as well. His "I think, therefore I am" just doesn't cut it anymore. No one expects to get their sense of self from their inner life anymore, do they?  I mean, when was the last time you saw a person sitting around unplugged, who looked aware that they were a living, breathing, sentient human being? In my experience, if people are not plugged in, they're either jittery or asleep.

I recently had an opportunity to observe how outré thinking has become among a cultural cross-section of Americans. Day-before-yesterday, I took the Metro into Washington. As it wasn't rush hour, I wasn't smushed up against my fellow passengers and could actually study them. I did not see one person just sitting there exploring the contents of her/his own head. I did see one guy my age reading a newspaper, another studying a notebook. Everyone else was, like, totally plugged in; reality encased in a tiny screen and managed by speeding thumbs.

So here's my suggestion of a 21st Century update to Descartes famous statement: There's obviously too much information coming at me to think; ergo, I react, therefore I am.

I took the Metro into Washington to have lunch with an editor at The Washington Post, for whom I've been doing some work. As people who work in journalism are wont to do, we talked quite a bit about what the heck we're supposed to be producing these days in the way of content.

One thing we're not supposed to be doing, we decided, is offering long, thought-provoking pieces that slow down readers' minds with anything approaching complexity. People today, we decided, want to get information, react to it, possibly respond to it, and then get another hit of information. Processing information is about speed rather than, well, actually processing it, integrating it, understanding how this one bit might fit in with another.

I quietly had an epiphany, sitting there munching away on my veggie burger: Information is, in practice, the 21st Century's buzz of choice.

This editor and I went from discussing this to discussing politics;  trying to figure out why people buy the obvious lies, half-truths, and over-simplifications being flogged by today's politicians. Could it be, we asked ourselves, because the truth usually takes more time to embrace? Along with some actual study and thought?  And most worrisomely of all, while we're engaged in some outdated, time-consuming struggle to understand some complexity, might not we lose our information buzz?

I'm here to tell you that, once you're used to a buzz, losing it is not fun!

For better or for worse, I have definitively established just over the last couple of days that I, myself, have gone from thinker to reactor.

My e-mail, you see, hasn't been working properly. I can send stuff out, but no one can get back to me. It's been horrible.  My brain hasn't known what to do with itself.

I did try hard to think about something yesterday, but, cut off from any reaction to what I'd come up with, I didn't know how to assess whether what I was thinking was worth, well, the time it took to think it. Am I allowed to react to myself?

You do understand what I'm talking about?

Don't you?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Natural, Light, and Sinking," creative non-fiction from Devan Malore

Martha note: Writer Devan Malore lives in Lexington, right beside the Maury River. His essays are heard regularly from atop the WMRA Civic Soapbox. 

The locals, I’ve heard, have a mixed reaction to students returning to the college after Summer break.

     “Spoiled rich kids,” some say, driving by off campus rental Cedar Houses the morning after a party.

    “Work hard, party hard”, others laugh, driving by quickly going to work.

Morning after party night, lines of parked SUVs, plastic cups and cans litter neatly mowed lawns along the same river I live on too.

But the college, services and jobs associated with education is also a major source of income in this community. In these hard times the city struggles like many. It’s a fine line between loving, welcoming and trying to discipline mostly out of state students.

I lowered a kayak down the steep slippery river bank trying not to be seen by new student renters. A three party night, I thought, floating by first the Lake House, renovated Cottage, then middle Cedar House. Smoke rose from the grill on the deck as loud students almost touched shoulders.

Leaves still Summer green drifted across the calm water signaling an inevitable coming of Fall and more parties. I looked up searching for early bats, hawks, the elusive Blue Heron often perched in a tree. After five minute paddling party tunes could not be heard on the river.

I hugged the shore studying reflections of sycamore branches on river and mirror image of light blue almost pink sky turning to night. Eyes searched among the leaves for the familiar glow returning with students. I fixed on the object and paddled straight for it. The boat hit the metal pushed it aside, my paddle pounding the water trying to pull it in. Reached into the warm water I grabbed the can and emptied water back into the river. Natural, Lite read the familiar blue and silver can. Sound of a compressed can echoed on the river as it was stuffed behind the boat seat with a collection of cans and bottles.
 Ahead to the right another can bobbed among leaves and I headed for it. Missing the can be a foot I reached out with the paddle furiously trying to pull it in. The can bobbed and moved as if it were a fish not easily caught. After a sharp turn, more beating of the water, the can turned on it’s side, made a gurgling sound and began to sink. I reached down to grab it but the can sank quickly, disappearing into murky depths. Over head, bats were beginning to feed on night insects.

A three party night. How many beer cans and water bottles will sink to the bottom, I wondered? Then the river rises, a great journey begins, carrying everything back to the sea. Some cans and bottles hopefully never make it. Maybe a child looking for shells or an old fisherman will feel something that calls out a reminder of things not belonging in a river. Maybe a woman will show her lover the find and ask he carry it back, helping clean up, “our spot.”

I leaned right, turning the kayak, headed down river toward the music of a three party night.

Natural. Lite. And sinking. Will we buy anything colorful, cheap, labeled Natural and Lite? Is it better to let things sink to the depths where we cannot see, don’t have to deal with what remains after getting what we want?

Bats flew wildly overhead and disappearing light made it easier to spot the cans and bottles of a three party night on the river. Some of us have unusual jobs in unusual places during these unusual times, I remembered.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thoughts on the Emperor of Play . . .

Thirty years ago (after I was quite grown up), while tumbling around in those big North Carolina waves, I got body surfing. And re-acquainted myself with the value of play; how important it is for me to have fun.

Play is the best antidote I've found for the kind of dreary maturity to which adults tend to condemn ourselves. No one can be quietly desperate, and body surf or fly a kite or play Frisbee football at the same time.

I was planning to take today off from blogging as I have to hit the road early for Washington. And yes, I know several important things went on last night: Richard Holbrooke died; Paul McCartney played the Apollo at last; the tax-cut package cleared a significant hurdle in the Senate.

But then, sports fan that I am, last night as I settled down to watch the Minnesota Vikings play the New York Giants, I saw Viking Quarterback Brett Favre, dressed in civvies, standing on the sideline and knew I'd be getting up extra early this morning to blog. Why? Because I just have to say thanks to Mr. Favre, whose phenomenal streak of 297 straight, regular season starts at quarterback (mostly for the Green Bay Packers) came to an end last night.

Brett Favre is one of the very few professional football players I've ever watched who actually seemed to be playing a game out there. He was flat-out fun to watch; his joy became my joy. When Brett Favre scored I'd throw my arms up and pump the air and then run down the field with him -- two kids together, jointly high on play.

The consensus this morning is that Brett Favre has started his last football game. Maybe even played in his last one. So, I just wanted to pause long enough in my headlong rush out the door to acknowledge how much I enjoyed all those years of playing with him. Whether or not you like football, you have to tip your hat to anyone who does what he does with such obvious joy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Back to the future of Federalism?

Martha note: Just got word that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has agreed to participate in a portion of Thursday's Virginia Insight. 
Tune in, call in, Thursday at 3.

I think Tom Graham reads more newspapers than anyone I've ever known except my grandfather-- and Gramps was retired. Anyway, Mr. Graham regularly sends out links he comes across that he thinks might be of interest/use to the rest of us.

The repeal amendment, as your probably know, reads,  
“Any provision of law or regulation of the United States may be repealed by the several states, and such repeal shall be effective when the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states approve resolutions for this purpose that particularly describe the same provision or provisions of law or regulation to be repealed.”

This tidbit came in Saturday. It's from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and since it's short and interesting I thought I'd just cut and paste it into this morning's blog post:
Cuccinelli defends repeal amendment
By: Olympia Meola

Published: December 10, 2010 2:17 PM

Visit for breaking newsworld news, and news about the economy
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli went toe-to-toe with Chris Matthews last night over the repeal amendment, U.S. commerce clause, nullification and the state’s health care lawsuit. 
Cuccinelli disputed Matthews’ theory that a repeal amendment would open the door to the country’s less populated states joining together to overturn federal action, saying it would require bipartisan support. The constitutional amendment would allow two-thirds of the states to collectively repeal a federal law or regulation. 
“What it’s intended to do is bring back a sense of balance,” Cuccinelli said.  
Matthews likened it to a “whiskey rebellion” on paper, “a way to take on the federal government.”  He said the effort was playing to the “nullification crowd,” which Cuccinelli emphatically denied, waving his finger and shaking his head.
“That is not what’s going on here,” Cuccinelli said, “this is being done in the process the constitution provides for.”
Georgetown Law Professor Randy E. Barrett* came up with the idea for such an amendment, and he and Virginia Speaker of the House William J Howell presented it in a September OpEd piece in the Wall Street Journal, in which they argued,
At present, the only way for states to contest a federal law or regulation is to bring a constitutional challenge in federal court or seek an amendment to the Constitution. A state repeal power provides a targeted way to reverse particular congressional acts and administrative regulations without relying on federal judges or permanently amending the text of the Constitution to correct a specific abuse.
The Repeal Amendment should not be confused with the power to "nullify" unconstitutional laws possessed by federal courts. Unlike nullification, a repeal power allows two-thirds of the states to reject a federal law for policy reasons that are irrelevant to constitutional concerns. In this sense, a state repeal power is more like the president's veto power.
Mr. Barrett's idea for such an amendment initially stumbled around like the Redskins' offense and then abruptly, according to, gained political traction.
Now, just two months after the proposal was a twinkle in a Virginia legislator's eye, the leadership of nine states is showing interest, and the popularity of the amendment's Web site (they have them nowadays) has "mushroomed." And this week, completing the proposal's rapid march from the margins to the mainstream, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah introduced the amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives, pledging to put "an arrow in the quiver of states." The soon-to-be House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, said this week that "the Repeal Amendment would provide a check on the ever-expanding federal government, protect against Congressional overreach, and get the government working for the people again, not the other way around." 

There's no question that such an amendment would decentralize the power structure of this country's government,  and so would be a significant re-embracing of Federalism.

Federalism, as organized in the Articles of the Confederation, was this country's initial unionizing principle, but it was ditched back in 1783 because the United States of America was on the brink of dissolution. The United States Constitution was then conceived as a compromise that would strengthen the power of the Federal Government in a way that could still garner approval from states accustomed to acting mostly in their own interests.

So back to that repeal amendment.  Do we want the politicians of our particular state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, to have more power over us and the Federal Government less?

I'd really like to know what you think.

But let's leave the Founding Fathers out of the discussion, okay? Personally, I find it so odd when people presume to speak with authority about how those guys would want this country to work in 2010 based on what worked in 1783. From what I've read about the Founding Fathers, that bunch of politicians completely understood that if a government doesn't adapt to the pressing needs of its day, there will pretty quickly be no country left to govern.
*Mr. Barnett is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and author of  Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty" (Princeton 2005).

Friday, December 10, 2010

What Does It Mean to be Educated? an essay by Katrien Vance

Martha note:  It's Civic Soapbox Friday . . .

When a former student of mine was in her first year of college, a professor said: “What does it mean to be educated? Most of you probably know the significance of the date 1492. Some of you can explain the importance of 1776. But only the truly educated among you will know the significance of the date 1066.”

My student smiled, for in her middle school years, among other historical adventures she’d had in my classroom, she helped create a 1066 news broadcast about the Battle of Hastings (when, in case you’ve forgotten, William of Normandy--afterwards known as William the Conqueror--defeated Harold and became King of England). The students researched the battle from an insider’s point of view, preparing themselves to present both sides, living the glory of victory and the agony of defeat for the couple of weeks that it took us to prepare, film, edit, and watch the video together.

So, at least according to that one college professor, my former student is educated, because she can identify 1066’s important event. And yet on the 2007 Standards of Learning Test for World History, given by all public high schools, there is not one question about 1066 or the Battle of Hastings. This means any teacher who goes by that test’s definition of “educated” would probably skip the battle of Hastings altogether. Who is right: the UVA professor or the SOLs?

For me, it’s neither knowing nor not knowing about the Battle of Hastings that makes one educated. To be educated is, instead, to know how much you do not know, and to have the skills to set about finding out what you want to know.

Every single day in my classroom, I say, without shame or hesitation, “I don’t know. But I can look it up.” And I can—because I know how to ask good questions, how to analyze what I read and read the answers critically, how to synthesize those ideas, how to draw my own conclusion, and then how to present that conclusion to another person in a way that adds to their store of knowledge.

And my 13-year-old students can, too—so that, yes, they can tell you about the Battle of Hastings, but more importantly, they can tell you about the lessons one could learn from England and France’s long contentious relationship and about how they might use those lessons to make a difference in today’s world.

My former student, who can both identify the significance of the year 1066 and speak thoughtfully about cause and effect in history, is a UVa political theory major now. Given the chance as a young person to think for herself, pushed to analyze rather than memorize, asked to draw her own conclusions rather than recite others’ achievements, she is now poised to go out into the world and affect it in a real way. She could easily do this without knowing the importance of 1066. But she could not do this without the skills to analyze the world as it is and theorize how to create a better one

Piaget said it, and I agree: the goal of education should be to create people “capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done.” In my opinion, having the ability to ask good questions, analyze the answers critically, and apply that information newly is what it means to be educated.

-- Katrien Vance teaches seventh and eighth graders at North Branch School

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why politicians behave like, well, politicians . . .

Today, I'd like to start with one question for you and one question for me:
  • For you . . . What is it with these politicians? Are we ever going to get a batch that really, really takes their own campaign rhetoric seriously?
  • For me . . .Why do I start reading newspapers before I've had enough coffee, knowing there's insufficient caffeine in my system to deflect direct hits to my outrage button?
Maybe I should ease into the news with a quick scan of People, but compulsive worker bee that I am, I usually look first at The Washington Post's (on-line) comprehensive coverage of Washington. There's a series of stories that blinks through at the top of the front page. And this morning's initial blinking story declared that, "New Republican lawmakers are hiring lobbyists, despite campaign rhetoric."

The story opened with this, to my mind, rather distressing example of political flip-flopping.
During his campaign to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate, GOP nominee Ron Johnson accused Democratic incumbent Russell Feingold (D) of being "on the side of special interests and lobbyists."
Ron Johnson, campaigning
"After promising voters that he would reform the culture of lobbying in Washington, instead Senator Feingold embraced lobbyists and declared himself to be on their side," a Johnson spokeswoman said at the time.
But after defeating Feingold, Johnson himself has turned to K Street for help - hiring homeland security lobbyist Donald H. Kent Jr. as his chief of staff. 
Johnson is not alone: Many incoming GOP lawmakers have hired registered lobbyists as senior aides. Several of the candidates won with strong support from the anti-establishment tea party movement. 
A bystander runs out and shakes hands with Ben Lujan, running for Congress, during the Wagon Day Bean Day Parade in Wagon Mound, New Mexico.
Politicians do seem to feel very free to say they'll do things they have no intention of actually doing once they're elected, don't you think?

Just as part of what passes for fun in my mornings spent as WMRA's Blogger-in-Chief, I decided to Google "personality traits of politicians." Up popped reportage of a study by fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, Jim Kouri,* comparing the personalities of psychopaths and politicians. The study describes psychopaths (he's mainly, but not exclusively, talking about serial killers) this way:
Interpersonal traits include glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others. The affective traits include a lack of remorse and/or guilt, shallow affect, a lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility. The lifestyle behaviors include stimulation-seeking behavior, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic orientation, and a lack of realistic life goals.
Richard Nixon visualized by Alex Hughes
Mr. Kouri soon goes on to point out . . .
. . . that some of the character traits exhibited by serial killers or criminals may be observed in many within the political arena. While not exhibiting physical violence, many political leaders display varying degrees of anger, feigned outrage and other behaviors. They also lack what most consider a "shame" mechanism. Quite simply, most serial killers and many professional politicians must mimic what they believe are appropriate responses to situations they face such as sadness, empathy, sympathy, and other human responses to outside stimuli.  
. . . While many political leaders will deny the assessment regarding their similarities with serial killers and other career criminals, it is part of a psychopathic profile that may be used in assessing the behaviors of many officials and lawmakers at all levels of government

 The LATimes,  reporting this 2009 study, says,
We don't know Kouri that well. He may be trying to manipulate all of us with his glib provocative pronouncements. On the other hand ...
On the other hand, indeed.

Any thoughts?
*Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for several major organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country.
Jim writes for many police and crime magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer, Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and others. He's appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at,, and can be ordered at local bookstores.
Jim holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he's a board certified protection professional. (Bio from

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Brujeria: A remembrance of witchcraft from pre-Castro Cuba by Freddy Fuentes

Martha note: I e-met Freddy Fuentes when he submitted a short, short story to the WMRA Short, Short Story contest. His story didn't win, but I thought it rich and quite wonderful. Freddy, whose father fled the Castro Revolution in Cuba, recently sent me the piece below, which I read with interest and enjoyment and thought you might, as well.

The Dark Women

witches brewing a storm (from a Brujeria website)

Brujeria (witchcraft) followed my father from Cuba. There, he grew up in the family farm, a large farm, about 2,000 acres. According to my father, you entered the property on a driveway that was about ¾ of a mile long and was flanked by sugarcane fields on either side all the way to the house, the house where my father and his eight siblings lived with my grandparents. It was a large home with a rust red terracotta roof; well maintained but not fancy. The furniture, the woodwork, the house itself was built to last; good quality wood and workmanship, but, unlike many more image conscious families, the wood they used, as well as the terracotta on the roof and the tiles on the floor, was indigenous to Cuba. The craftsmanship was also Cuban.

In the front as you approached the house there was a big courtyard followed by an outdoor terrace where locally made rocking chairs were lined up. The house was surrounded by trees that produced the family’s favorite fruits: avocado, mango, orange, guava, lime, papaya, banana, plantain and other fruits less known in the U.S. like guanabana.

Beyond the house and the stables was a sea of tobacco, perhaps 700 to 1,000 acres of tobacco and a couple of smoke houses for drying tobacco, one of which had an attached cigar rolling stable. There, cigars were made by him and his siblings, as well as by the old, Afro-Cuban farm manager who taught them the craft. According to my father those cigars were better than any cigar he’s had since.

There were also a couple of hundred acres of sugarcane, including the cane flanking the driveway in the front. The rest of the land was part grazing land for the animals and part everything you could imagine: rice, beans, onions, peppers, yucca, yams, potatoes, squash, malanga, coffee, a multitude of herbs and other things…. The family/farm was completely self-sufficient – the only thing they bought at the bodega was salt.

Behind this placid beauty, however, a darkness brewed. There were generally accepted practices in what we call Santeria – this was basically a fusion of Catholic beliefs and those brought to the islands by African slaves. Many Cubans, not just Afro-Cubans, practice Santeria, and it’s mostly focused on creating good fortune for oneself and protecting oneself from curses.

On some nights in the farm there were despojos (closest translation would be cleansings) performed by some of the staff, out near the smokehouses. These were sometimes headed by Doña Julia, (She was the wife of the fore-mentioned Afro-Cuban farm manager and cigar maker. (They had six children of their own, had their own house on the property and they were like family.)

These despojos were sometimes attended by my father and his brother. His sisters (my aunts) never attended. Although older than my father, they were honorable young ladies – they were not allowed to leave the house. At the despojo the santeros always dressed in white and wore beads necklaces that showed their rank within Santeria. Drums were played and, among other things, the Babalao, the head priest(ess), would, in tribute to the saints, smoke cigars and drink rum (which he/she would sometimes spray out) in quantities that would render most unconscious. A trance-like state was entered by many in the ceremony, the drums reached crescendos, a chicken would be sacrificed, its blood would mix with rum and sweat, the whole thing reached its climax, at the end the saints are content, and everyone goes home protected.

For harvesting season, seasonal workers came in to help some from Jamaica, many from Haiti. These were the people who introduced my father to brujeria, he witnessed some of their rituals and their ways of cursing those who deserved being cursed. He worried that the curses would be directed at him and his family. There, I believe, were planted the seeds of his paranoia about what an American might call voodoo. He, however, knew that Doña Julia was powerful, and she protected his family.

Thirty-five years later, now in Santo Domingo, my father has 5 kids of his own, we have the “dark” women living in our house. They were our domestic staff. They, like the harvest workers in Cuba 35-years earlier, were also of Haitian descent, and, as we would later find out, were (at least one of them) brujas. My father after a series of suspicious occurrences, decided to bring someone in to sweep the house, and he found the typical curse objects. Among them were dried fish heads wrapped in cloth belonging to my mother, hidden at the top of a linen closet; bloody razorblades with little pieces of paper with our names on them tied to them, in the storage room at the back of the house.

Now, however, we had no Doña Julia to protect us.

Freddy Fuentes celebrating his 2002  Columbia University graduation with his father and mother.
Martha note #2: Freddy Fuentes described himself to me in an e-mail this way:
I’m young[ish] my father is Cuban, my mother was Dominican. My aunt and seven cousins live in Mexico, my sister, niece and nephews live in Spain. My wife is Irish, Scottish, German American. 
My daughters call me papi, they love Cuban black beans and rice as well as Dominican red beans and rice, chimichangas and mac&cheese. We visit friends in Buenos Aires as well as London, dance salsa, listen to NPR, vote, speak English, Spanish and French. 
I dig Jay-Z; I also dig Orquesta Aragon, Mariachi music, and Chopin. Born in the Barrio: 110th and Amsterdam Ave– NYC . . .Returned to the Barrio: Columbia University. I’m the first to get a college degree in my family.
I now live in Lexington, VA with my wife and two daughters and I, along with a partner in NYC, own and run (website is a work in progress)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What's it all about, American people?

President Obama announcing tax-cut deal
Does the Man look tired, or what, in this picture released last night by the White House?

Yes, President Obama and Congressional Republicans reached tentative agreement last night that, among a few other less important items, extends all tax cuts, extends unemployment benefits, and slightly boosts tax cuts for workers. It also renews (and at a lower rate) that bête noire of the Bush II era, the estate tax. So the rich will get richer, the unemployed will keep getting benefits, and the rest of us will get a slightly bigger paycheck courtesy of the Federal government.
"I am not willing to let working families across this country become collateral damage for political warfare here in Washington," our President said last night. "The American people didn't send us here to wage symbolic battles or win symbolic victories."
Or did they? That's my real question.

It's 8 o'clock in the morning, and already there are 863 comments made about the Washington Post front-page article reporting the tentative compromise between the White House and Republicans.

Among them this one from someone who tags himself StevenK3:
I voted for Mr. Obama
I respect and admire his intelligence and his compassion for others.
But he has brought a pop-gun to a knife fight one too many times now.
Too many times now he has cost this country dearly because he is a lousy negotiator.
And last night he gets up and has the nerve to say, well, I had to compromise, because the other guys wouldn't.

The New York Times begins its editorial disapproving of the compromise by saying,
President Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend all the Bush-era income tax cuts is a win for the Republicans and their strategy of obstructionism and a disappointing retreat by the White House.

The Wall Street Journal reports, "U.S. stock futures rose sharply on a deal to temporarily extend tax cuts to all Americans. But the deal sent Treasury prices lower, pushing the benchmark 10-year yield back above 3%. Gold prices hovered around record levels, and oil prices tested 26-month highs." So investors (who are largely construed to vote Republican?) are evidently pretty happy.

As is conservative LA Times blogger/columnist Andrew Malcolm who writes today that, "Cave-in or compromise, Obama's tax cut deal with Republicans could win him much, cost him little."

Okay, gang, let's cut to the chase . . .

It's no secret that Republicans took control of the House by claiming to hate the growing deficit while, at the same moment, clamoring for the Bush II tax cuts to continue for everyone. And that, my friend, whether you like it or not, is the fiscal mindset that will control the House for the next two years. Enough of us voted our confidence in it to make that control happen.

Now think back for a moment, please, to 2008. We knew President Obama was a pragmatist when we elected him, didn't we? And pragmatists do believe in compromise, don't they?

Again, Mr. Obama said of last night's tentative compromise, "The American people didn't send us here to wage symbolic battles or win symbolic victories."

So, my question for you is, has Mr. Obama got that right or not? It does sometimes seem to me that we rail against the Federal government for failing to negotiate compromises...until they do.

In your opinion, was our President right to negotiate this particular compromise? Is it principle or policy that guides your opinion?

Monday, December 6, 2010

My, what big earmarks you have . . .

"Earmark," in its Congressional sense, didn't get respectable as a term until 2009. That was the year it made the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as "A provision in congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program or organization."

Given the recent attempt in the Senate to ban earmarks entirely, I think it's safe to say they are a controversial practice. I mean, who doesn't remember the furor over Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, famously supported in 2008  by then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the same time her running mate, John McCain, was vigorously lambasting the practice?

Over the weekend, Tom Graham sent me a link to an editorial from, whose title is "Earmark system has its benefits."  (FYI, Virginia Senator Jim Webb voted against the ban; Virginia Senator Mark Warner, for it.)

The editorial makes some good points.

While bad earmarks get a lot of attention . . .is there such a thing as a good earmark?
It doesn't seem to be quite so black-and-white.
After all, even as members of Congress use earmarks to send money home, the projects the money pays for are often beneficial, creating jobs or infrastructure or protecting the environment.
For example, one of the earmarks Webb supported was for VRE trains and other equipment. Others were for mental health and substance-abuse programs, improvements to Interstate 95 and other roads, and to address water issues in Southwest Virginia. Webb and Warner both supported earmarks for the Dulles rail project, while both of the senators and several state congressmen all have supported earmarks for military and defense projects in Virginia.
Senator Webb makes the point (according to the editorial) that earmarks give elected officials a say in spending that would otherwise be controlled by non-elected officials.

So, is it earmarks that raise voters' ire, or simply their implied sneakiness, the lack of transparency in how they are created?

Well, if it's the seemingly opaque quality of the practice, more than the practice itself, that bugs you, Jock Friedly (pictured right) is your new best friend. He's the guy who (in 2006) launched LegiStorm , a website "dedicated to providing a variety of important information about the US Congress."

According to a 2009 article in The Washington Post about Friedly, LegiStorm . . .
 . . .offers a trove to keep the snoopiest snoop occupied for hours -- bank accounts, investment portfolios, trust funds, even information about spouses. Wondering why so-and-so cruises to work in a Beemer? Aha, that's why: His wife's a big-shot partner at a law firm. It's all there in the reports.
And LegiStorm also offers an extremely searchable database of all earmarks inserted into legislation by all members of Congress. 

It seems to me the choice re earmarks is clearer now: We can go ahead and take an uninformed stand for/against the practice of Congressional earmarks. Or we can spend some time poking around LegiStorm and see whose pockets in our state are being filled by whose earmarks.

Are the earmarks promoted by our own elected officials creating jobs? Addressing transportation problems? Or are they building expensive bridges we don't need just to make some rich bridge-building campaign contributors even richer?

And while we're at this, we can poke around other parts of LegiStorm and easily learn a whole bunch of other financial facts certain Senators and Representatives would just as soon we not know.

Thanks to the internet, and sites such as LegiStorm (and WikiLeaks?), the dirty laundry of our government doing its business is more and more visible for our personal viewing pleasure. It seems to me the ball is now squarely in the voter's court: If we don't know what's going on, it's probably because we haven't taken the time to look. If we do know what's going on, and we don't like it, what's stopping us from arming ourselves with all this available information and throwing the bums out of office?

Information is power. And there's a lot of both sitting right there in our computers!