Friday, October 29, 2010

Do you know who your real political friends are? by Andy Schmookler

 Martha note: It's Civic Soapbox Friday

I’ve often heard liberals criticize average people who vote Republican because they are voting against their economic interests. They seem to assume it’s folly to vote on the basis of social values –on issues like abortion or gay rights—instead of their pocketbooks.

But that’s bogus criticism. These liberals – generally middle class professionals – also vote against their pocketbooks when they support programs like food stamps and Head Start – programs they and their families will never need but that they have to pay for with their taxes.

The issue is not whether people vote their economic interests. It is, rather, whether they know how their vote relates to their economic interests.

In my radio work in the Shenandoah Valley, I’ve often had conservatives protest when I’ve declared that the Republican Party is, and has historically been, the main party of America’s big moneyed interests.

The historic basis for this proposition is vast, but I’d like to call the attention of my conservative neighbors to some new evidence.

This is the first election cycle since the Supreme Court decided, in the Citizens United case – a decision made, incidentally, by five Republican-appointed justices – to allow groups and individuals to channel unlimited amounts of money into our election campaigns – and to do so anonymously.
The money has been pouring in, and where has this avalanche of funds gone in this first unregulated election in recent times? Into a huge preponderance of ads intended to defeat Democrats and elect Republicans. (Like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pouring money into Virginia's 5th District here to defeat Democratic Congressman Tom Perriello.) The reports indicate that nationally the big anonymous money favors the Republicans by a large ratio.

What does that tell you about what party big money believes will best serve its interests?

Do you think that the billionaires and corporations that are funneling this money into the election are doing so for altruistic reasons?

Isn’t it clear that the people putting up millions to influence the outcome of the election are trying to get a government that will look out for their interests?

Do you imagine that the interests of the very rich and of giant corporations don’t differ in important ways from the interests of you and your family? Do you imagine that the moneyed powers will restrain their pursuit of what they want out of concern for average folk?

In America in recent years, the gap between the very rich and everyone else has grown enormously. It’s now greater than it has ever been in living memory. While the proportion of our national wealth in the hands of the richest one percent has TRIPLED, the median wage for average Americans has actually declined.

This didn’t just happen. This widening gap is specifically an American phenomenon; it’s not the pattern in other advanced societies. Do we really need to put even more power over our government in the hands of those who have already been stacking the deck in their favor?

Sure, you can vote your values. But don’t misjudge who your real friends are.

                     --Andy Schmookler lives in the Shenandoah Valley. His writings can be found on his website.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thoughts triggered by the NPR/Juan Williams messy divorce . . .

I'd bet the farm you are as aware as I am that NPR terminated Juan Williams' contract one week ago last night. And that you've already read a considerable amount of speculation about the increasingly discordant relationship between Mr. Williams and National Public Radio. And so it seems to me there's no need for me to rehash in this blog who said what, when, and to whom vis-a-vis the events leading up to the NPR-Williams divorce.

If you do need a refresher course on what happened, there was an excellent overview compiled by Tobin Harshaw at the end of last week on the New York Times "Opinionator" column -- along with some 25 pages of comments.

Juan Williams-gate took place when WMRA was a day-and-a-half away from wrapping up our Fall Festival of Fundraising. General Manager Tom DuVal was on the phone with listeners pretty constantly for a couple of days after the news broke, explaining something that it seems as though many modern-day news consumers consider a quaint concept: NPR's code of ethics. Basically, this code states, anyone who does any kind of journalistic work for NPR is enjoined to remain publicly neutral on controversial issues.

I posted notice of the termination on the station's Facebook page, and the comments from WMRA Community members were mixed. To give you an idea of what I mean by mixed, one listener claimed Williams' firing was "insane and stupid political correctness run amok." Another commented that "NPR is one of the last remaining vestiges of actual unbiased journalism. To maintain that unbiased aura, Williams needed to go." We had a good, interesting discussion, I think -- which is why WMRA has a Facebook page in the first place.

I've not been in the office for a couple of days, but still out and about in WMRA Land. Everywhere I've gone people have wanted to know what I, personally, thought of the situation. And I think the best way for me to comment is to say that I, personally, am not going to say what I think in public. Not on the air, not giving a talk, not teaching a class, not on this blog. Neither am I going to comment on this, or any other controversy on my personal Facebook page, because that, too, is a public forum. The only comments I make about controversial issues are made in private..

Why? Because I'm bound by the same code of ethics that Juan Williams was. Airing my personal opinion on any controversial issue would automatically make me less effective at what I do.

And what is that, you ask?

My job, as a person who works and writes in the National Public Radio system, is to listen, question, explore, and challenge. And then to present whatever I discover to you in an organized and understandable way. I'm a conveyor and a convener, not a preacher. I want to inform and engage; not entertain and convert.

I believe firmly in leaving the hard work of forming your opinion entirely up to you.

Please, let me know what you think of journalistic ethics. . .

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gone fishing (at least metaphorically) . . .

Martha note: I'm taking a break from blogging through Wednesday, October 26th. See you back here on Thursday with some thoughts about Juan Williams, public radio, and journalism . . .

Friday, October 22, 2010

Downsizing by Val Matthews

It seems as if much of my life has been spent in packing up and moving somewhere – first as the daughter of a field geologist who moved around Southern Africa, then as the wife of a physicist who took me plus an ever increasing brood to Virginia, New York, and Cambridge, England. Later as a widow, I packed up the family and took them back to South Africa and then after some years brought them back to Virginia.

Time passed and offspring grown, I moved with a new husband to an old farmhouse in the county. Now, a widow of advancing years, I am in the process of moving again, this time into a bungalow in the city. This, I tell my offspring, is likely to be my last house and I feel very comfortable saying that.

But now the reorganization has to start – the downsizing, or as a recently moved neighbour said – the streamlining of one’s lifestyle. Another concept came to mind, as well – crystallizing my life.

I started with the hardest task of all -- my books. Studying the bookshelves was like seeing my history, my late husband’s history, and our family history, all laid out on the shelves. Precious books saved from high school in South Africa, books of the history, natural history, architecture and literature of places we have traveled to and lived in. So, although I pruned a little bit, I also had bookshelves built in the bungalow.

Furniture next. My family and friends don’t often sit formally on couches but spend a lot of time at tables, eating, playing games and chatting. We have also squeezed more and more people into the farmhouse at Thanksgiving, everyone bringing food. When one of my dear friends heard about my planned move, she said “But what about Thanksgiving?” And so one of the biggest challenges has been to calculate how to squeeze a lot of people at tables into a bungalow for that very special holiday. Of course my mother-in-law’s beautiful old oak dresser has to come with me as well as the beat-up old dresser I bought for $60 that is the perfect music center. The big old couch that unfolds into a bed is also essential, to cope with extra overnight bodies.

Just Dogs By K F Barker 1933
A question I am often asked though is “What will you do with your dogs?” Well, a fence has already been put up and three scruffy old farm dogs will be moving into a city neighbourhood with me. The neighbours have been forewarned and say they are looking forward to meeting the dogs.

I am giving a lot of stuff away, and I know there will be many trips to Goodwill and Salvation Army. But I’ve also realized that crystallizing my life doesn’t mean I have to change my lifestyle; it just means reducing my lifestyle to its essence.

So, downsizing or streamlining, it is another of life’s adventures and I plan to enjoy it as much as I can.

                           --Val Matthews lives in Charlottesville

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unfinished Business by Gail Napora

Martha note: Gail was a member of the last happy band of folks to take my JMU Lifelong Learning Institute's class on personal essay writing. As we were all of  "a certain age," the  final assignment was to write about the "unfinished business" in our lives.

As all of either have health struggles or love someone who does, I thought you might perchance be moved by Gail's attitude toward her own.

photographs just don't capture the real Gail!

Just before the alarm sounds I roll upright and stretch my feet to the floor.

I am alive to start the day. I am grateful and I am thoughtful.

It takes twelve steps for the bones in my feet to click into the positions that make walking possible, and by then I am ready to find the pills that keep my motor running. Without the pills I slow steadily. Without the pills, my metabolism will eventually become too slow to keep me upright for more than an hour without a matching hour of sleep for recovery.

Though I do not like to compare myself, or my challenges, to others, I am completely aware that every moment I am alive is a gift. I have almost died a few times.

I often think about it and wonder if the repeating of near-death events is because I didn’t get the message the first time. 

Now, -- though I am not confident of having gotten the message, -- I AM grateful to be alive.

I don’t have any grudges or hard feelings to resolve. I make an effort to be available and kind to people who do have grudges or hard feelings, especially if those things are about me.

I don’t have a list of things I want to do. Each time I almost died I didn’t regret what I hadn’t done, or yearn for a trip, activity, or experience. Instead, I affirmed that doing is not what living is about for me.  Being is.

So I bargained with God for time to be with my children, time to be a better person, time to be present to everyone in my circle of living. God has given me time each time I came to the door. 
For that response, I am grateful.

I take my pills to keep moving. I take fifteen minutes afterward, every day, to sit and appreciate the time I have been given, the family I love, the world and its beauty. And then I take another 15 to dream of fun things  -- like living at the ocean, or driving a sports car fast. I imagine doing really big art every day, or playing cards for hours with my children. I think about the charities I admire and how I can do more than give money.

I am thoughtful and I am grateful. That is my business. 

It is not unfinished, but it must be done.
--Gail Napora lives north of the 'burg and spends most of the spring and summer catching butterflies with her camera. The Short- form class introduced a new way of 'seeing' and 'saying' that is sure to influence everything she does.

Martha note# 2: Thanks to Alexis Hart and everyone else at VMI for all the rousing conversations yesterday about writing. And thanks to everyone who listens to WMRA who came to last night's talk.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A timely letter about leadership from General George C. Marshall

George Marshall, VMI Class of 1901
Martha note: As soon as I finish keeping Bob Leweke company during Morning Edition (asking you to call 1-800-677-9672), I am jumping into my car and heading to Lexington to spend the day at VMI talking with various groups about the National Day of Writing. Tonight, I will give a talk (open to the public)  in the Pogue Auditorium, which is part of the George C. Marshall Museum.

About General Marshall:
Referring to then Secretary of State Colin Powell, President George W. Bush said the following to the George C. Marshall ROTC Award Seminar on National Security at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in April 2002:
“Only one other Army general has gone on to serve as Secretary of State, and that was George Marshall himself — VMI's highest-ranking cadet in the Class of 1901. As Army chief of staff, General Marshall became the architect of America's victory in the Second World War. He fought tenaciously against our enemies, and then worked just as hard to secure the peace.”

My beloved mother-in law died last year and so my husband and his family have been slowly clearing out her house so that it can be sold. Charlie recently brought home a box of his father's papers. Carroll Woodroof was a Captain in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Among his papers was a copy of a letter from Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall that accompanied his discharge.
To me, General Marshall's message about leadership is as relevant today as it was back in the mid-Forties. And I thought you'd enjoy reading it.

ON this occasion, in your last formation as members of the Armed Forces, it is fitting that you should receive the following message from the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshal.

“You are being discharged from the Army today – from your Army. It is your Army because your skill and your patriotism, your labor and courage and devotion have been some of the factors which make it great. You have been a member of the finest military team in history. You have accomplished miracles in battle and supply. Your country is proud of you and you have every right to be proud of yourselves.

“You have seen, in the lands where you worked and fought and where many of your comrades died, what happens when the people of a nation lost interest in their government. You have seen what happens when they follow false leaders. You have seen what happens when a nation accepts hate and intolerance.

“We all are determined that what happened in Europe and in Asia must not happen to our country. Back in civilian life you will find that your generation will be called upon to guide our country’s destiny. Opportunity for leadership is yours. The responsibility is yours. The nations which depended on your courage and stamina to protect it from its enemies now expects you as individuals to claim your right of leadership, a right which you earned honorably and which is well deserved.

“Start being a leader as soon as you put on your civilian clothes. If you see intolerance and hate, speak out against them. Make your individual voices heard, not for selfish things, but for honor and decency among men, for the rights of all people.

“Remember, too, that NO American can afford to be disinterested in any part of his government, whether it is county, city, state, or nation.

“Choose your leaders wisely – that is the way to keep ours the country for which you fought. Make sure that those leaders are determined to maintain peace throughout the world. You know what war is. You know that we must not have another. As individuals you can prevent it if you give to the task which lies ahead the same spirit which you displayed in uniform.

“Accept that trust and the challenge which it carries. I know that the people of America are counting on you. I know that you will not let them down.

“Goodbye to each and every one of you and to each and every one of you good luck!”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How does Glenn Beck know what he knows?

Democracy Corps describes itself as "an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to making the government of the United States more responsive to the American people. It was founded in 1999 by James Carville and Stanley Greenberg. Democracy Corps provides free public opinion research and strategic advice to those dedicated to a more responsive Congress and Presidency."

Back in July, Democracy Corps released a truly fascinating analysis of the Tea Party movement that included their well-researched assessment of Tea Partiers' take on Glenn Beck:
Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck is the most highly regarded individual among Tea Party supporters of the people we tested. He scores an extraordinarily high 75 percent warm rating, 57 percent very warm.

This affinity for Beck came through very clearly in the focus groups. The only news source that participants said they could trust was Fox.  Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity were cited as people who “are not afraid to tell it like it is” and support their arguments with solid facts.  Beck was undoubtedly the hero in these groups.  Participants consider him an “educator” (in contrast to the popular Rush Limbaugh who is an “entertainer”) who teaches people history and puts himself at risk because he exposes the truth.  In the words of a woman in Ft. Lauderdale, “I would trust my life in his hands.”
Mr. Beck has started his Beck University to disseminate his political and religious philosophy, along with his own version of American history that is often curiously at odds with most scholars'. So from whose writings does Glenn Beck draw his theories?

W. Cleon Skousen
This week's New Yorker has an article called "Confounding Fathers," in which Princeton historian Sean Wilentz asks and answers this question. Glenn Beck's favorite author, he says, is W. Cleon Skousen.

So, who's W. Cleon Skousen? According to that fine representative of the liberal media, Salon, the late Mr. Skousen was "a right-wing crank whom even conservatives despised." Among many other books, Mr. Skousen published 5,000 Year Leap, which Mr. Beck often waves around at public gatherings.  Salon's Alexander Saitchik has this to say about the book:
"Leap," first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers.
Here's what Mr. Beck, himself, has to say about the book.
The first thing you could do, please, is get the 5,000 Year Leap. Over my book or anything else, get the 5,000 Year Leap. You can probably find it in the book section of, but read that. It is the principle. It is so easy to read. It's the book Ronald Reagan wanted taught in high schools and Ted Kennedy stopped it from happening. That should tell you all you need to know. It is so easy to understand. When you read these principles, your mouth will fall open. You'll read it and you'll be -- the scales will fall off your eyes on who we are. Please, number one thing: Inform yourself about who we are and what the other systems are all about. 5,000 Year Leap is the first part of that. Because it will help you understand American free enterprise. You'll be able to defend it. You'll be able to know what makes it possible for 6% of humanity living under our free economy to produce 1/2 of the Earth's developed wealth every single year....
And here's some of what Dr. Wilenz writes about 5,000 Year Leap in his New Yorker article.
[The book is] a treatise that assembles selective quotations and groundless assertions to claim that the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible, and that the framers believed in minimal central government. Either proposition would have astounded James Madison, often described as the guiding spirit behind the Constitution, who rejected state-established religions and, like Alexander Hamilton, proposed a central government so strong that it could veto state laws. “The 5,000 Year Leap” is not a fervid book. Instead, it is calmly, ingratiatingly misleading. Skousen quotes various eighteenth-century patriots on the evils of what Samuel Adams, in 1768, called “the Utopian schemes of leveling,” which Skousen equates with redistribution of wealth. But he does not mention the Founders’ endorsement of taxing the rich to support the general welfare. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote approvingly in 1811 of having federal taxes (then limited to tariffs) fall solely on the wealthy, which meant that “the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”

Skousen also challenges the separation of church and state, asserting that “the Founders were not indulging in any idle gesture when they adopted the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ ” In reality, the motto that came out of the Constitutional Convention was “E Pluribus Unum”: out of many, one. “In God We Trust” came much later; its use on coins was first permitted in 1864, and only in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, did Congress mandate that it appear on all currency. The following year, President Eisenhower—who Welch [John Birch Society founder Robert Welch] charged was a Communist agent—approved “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
Mr. Skousen, a Mormon who died in 2006, had been largely repudiated by conservatives and Mormons until Beck resurrected his message. Now this message is reaching millions of people a day through Mr. Beck's outreach efforts.

And, speaking of Glenn Beck's information sources, anybody else remember the John Birch Society during its heyday? Back when they were telling us that President Eisenhower was a communist?  Mr. Beck is also quick to say that Robert Welch "makes sense." 

Yesterday, in between bouts of on-air fundraising (1-800-677-9672, call now!), I cruised around on the internet learning a bit about Cleon Skousen's positions and a bit more about Robert Welch's. What intrigues me is the broad play these formerly relatively obscure views of government and history and religion are getting from atop Mr. Beck's New Media and cable (and very bully) pulpits. I'd wager heavily that Mr. Beck reaches many more people than Salon's Alexander Saitchik or the New Yorker's Dr.Wilentz. And that the people listening and reading may not deem it necessary to research Mr. Beck's sources for his revisionist interpretation of our nation's history.

Does the fact that millions of people are hearing Mr. Skousen's and Mr. Welch's theories touted by Mr. Beck lend them more legitimacy in our national conversation than they were afforded their first time around?

And, if so, what does that mean both politically and socially? Has the New Media united the voices of those who used to mutter mostly in isolation?
Martha note:  Terry Gross had Dr. Sean Wilentz as a guest this week on Fresh Air.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Go Ahead -- Make Distinctions by Sarah O'Connor

Martha note: Essayist Sarah O'Connor sent me this fine piece written in response to last week's verbal fracas on The View that I thought you would enjoy reading as well.

When the talk show The View hosted Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly on October 14th, a shouting match broke out over the so-called Ground Zero mosque. O’Reilly said 70 percent of Americans oppose the mosque. Show host Whoopi Goldberg asked why, since 70 Muslims died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. O’Reilly said, “Because Muslims killed us on 9/11, that’s why!” After a heated exchange, Goldberg and host Joy Behar walked out. Barbara Walters told O’Reilly he needed to apologize. “It was extremists,” she said. “You cannot take a whole religion and demean them.” Eventually, O’Reilly did apologize and the show went on, but this exchange highlights the very point of misunderstanding for many Americans.

Equating all Muslims with extremist Muslims is like equating members of the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Harrisonburg, VA, with a fanatical Christian group that is stockpiling explosives in order to blow up government buildings because they are both Christian. Or like equating the Dayton Mennonite Church in Dayton, VA, with the 50-member Dove World Outreach church run by Pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11. A National Geographic Today article titled “Koran a Book of Peace Not War” said, “For most Muslims, the callous and indiscriminate taking of human life violates Allah's wishes. It defies the Koran's central message and undermines the peace that Islam promises to deliver to all people.”

Infants can make distinctions between their mother’s face and the face of a stranger. Two-year-olds can sort objects by one feature, such as big or small. Seven-year-olds can sort unlike objects into logical groups by more than one feature and children by 11 are capable of abstract thought. If this is true, then why can’t we as adults start making distinctions between mainstream religion and extremist religion?

Although it is still a minuscule percentage of the total population, the Muslim population of the Valley has grown steadily over the past 10 years. These are our neighbors, our fellow workers, our children’s friends. Many are now full citizens. The distinctions Bill O’Reilly and other inflammatory media figures seem unable to make are the distinctions that are essential for community to exist.

                      -- Sarah O'Connor teaches Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication at JMU

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thoughts on Immigration by Larry Stopper

When our ancestors arrived on these shores, they often came with little more than the shirts on their backs. While many were escaping prejudice and persecution, the vast majority were economic migrants. They were searching for something better than the generally miserable conditions they were coming from.

Economic migration has been with us since the dawn of mankind. The earliest tribes of hunter gatherers were economic migrants and many was the time they crossed into another tribes territory in search of food, only to be met with great hostility. The American colonists who settled in Texas at the beginning of the 19th century were economic migrants. They didn’t go to Texas for the weather, but in search of cheap land. It’s amazing so few people remember that the American southwest was stolen from Mexico largely to offer greater land access to U.S. economic migrants. What do we think all those folks were doing during the 19th century when they traveled west in great wagon trains?

scene from the Texas territory
The undocumented immigrants at the center of our current debate are generally just what those Texans were: economic migrants in search of a better life. Though attention has mostly been directed at the Hispanic population, I have personally worked on job sites in New York City where everybody else spoke Polish and maybe one or two were in this country legally. One of my business partners swam the Rio Grande 20c years ago with $100.00 dollars in his pocket and a dream. Now he’s a citizen and a partner in a thriving business.

The United States has been a beacon to the worlds poor at least since the Irish started coming over during the great potato famine of the 1840’s. We have been the world’s economic engine for the past hundred years precisely because we were so liberal in letting folks into our country. Yet prejudice and xenophobia have always accompanied the influx of foreign born people into the U.S. It strikes me as painfully ironic that our Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, is leading the attack on undocumented immigrants in Virginia. How long has it been since Mr. Cuccinelli’s family came here in search of a better life.

Now, right here in Virginia, based on Attorney General Cuccinelli’s legal opinion, all of us will be required to carry papers proving we are in the U. S. legally. This opinion, in my opinion, is directed squarely at the Hispanic community. “Where are your papers” is a line from a bad World War Two movie, not something a Virginia state trooper should be asking anyone when they make a traffic stop.

Finding a solution to the immigration question is a difficult task that will require compromise on all sides. We can’t round up twelve million people, and who knows what the effect on our economy and country would be if all those hard working folks just up and left. We have to dig deep and find compromises we can live with. Blaming our current troubles on the latest group of people to reach our shores looking for a better life is a losing proposition and destined to hurt us without solving the question.

      -- Larry Stopper lives in Afton. He is a third-generation American and a proud, first-generation Virginian
* calls to Mr. Cuccinelli's political office and the office of the Attorney General asking for this information were not returned.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

For What It’s Worth by Rosemary Wallinger

Martha note: Rosemary wrote this while taking a JMU Lifelong Learning Institute class on essay writing that I taught. I loved it and thought you might as well.
I stood in the late October chill, scissors gripped in one hand, four and a half feet of pissed off rat snake tangled up in nylon netting swinging from the other.

There was a time when the sight of a snake made me gasp like a grounded trout and run for high ground. One suddenly noticed at close range can still make me jump.

Living surrounded by forest and field in a farmhouse with stone foundations, means living with the knowledge that there’s no such thing as “snake proof.”

There’s no such thing as “mouse proof” either.

Google “house mouse and the diseases it carries” and what comes up reads like The Pied Piper of Hamelin set to the soundtrack from Jaws. They can have between 4-16 in a litter, 7-8 litters per year, and the young reach sexual maturity at 8-12 weeks. They are known to carry Salmonella, Hantavirus and Lyme disease.

I flinch just doing the math.

Google “rat snake and the diseases it carries” and what comes up is mostly treatises on why rat snakes are so beneficial, followed by instructions on how to safely deter or relocate them from purple martin and bluebird houses. Since I Googled “rat snake” right after “house mouse”, that they eat mice, rats and voles seemed fair enough. That there’s evidence they deter poisonous snakes - which could account for why in 38 years we’ve never seen one –strikes me as downright superfluous.

In short, my rat snakes would be justified in negotiating for pay. Unsettling as they sometimes are, I value their role in my safety. Perhaps, after today, at least one of them values mine.

I spied the netting on my way to the barn with tools I’d collected for winter storage. It was laying where I’d stashed and then forgotten it, tangled up with weeds, dried leaves and when I lifted it, one of my larger rat snakes.

My husband thinks nothing of looping a snake around his neck as he hauls it to our meadow chock full of mice and moles. Handling one scares me silly.

I hadn’t any options. As I grabbed my gloves and the only scissors I keep in my garden bucket, I laughed out loud. I doubt the folks at Hello Kitty, who designed these hot pink children’s scissors with their kitten logo, had this task in mind. Because they aren’t pointed they were perfect.

With my heart pounding against my ribcage, I gripped the snake just behind his head, then lifted. In places, strands were so tight I had trouble getting the scissors beneath to clip. He must have been caught up for days, if not weeks. Once freed from the netting, I stroked along the length of him to restore circulation, then carried him to a patch of sunlit grass, stretched him out, jumped back and waited.

And waited.

Slowly, he raised his head and sidled his way toward the barn. Then picking up speed he turned, and turned again, heading down toward my house and basement where he and I have both agreed the mice are free for the taking.

Martha reminder: The number to call to support WMRA during our Festive Fall On-air Fundraiser is 1-800-677-9672. Or, you can support on-line, as well.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In praise of the pleasant in general, and a pleasant book in particular ...

Martha note: I firmly hold with the notion that WMRA sits at the heart of our community conversation.  As today is the first day of WMRA's Festive Fall Fundraiser, I will begin with the phone number, 1-800-677-9672. And since you're obviously sitting at your computer as you read this, here's a link to support WMRA on-line.

Martha note #2: My own schedule is all ahoo (anyone else like Patrick O'Brian's use of that term as much as I do?) over the course of the F.F.F.  I'll try to keep blog postings as regular as I can, but they may be a bit spotty . . .
This picture was taken from Aventures de Robert-Robert by L. Desnoyers, ninth edition, illustrated by F. de Courcy, Paris, circa 1860

Introduction to today's post: "In Praise of the Pleasant"
My best friend as a teenager was a guy named Allen Troxler, who was arguably the most flamboyantly talented person I have ever known. Allen moved effortlessly among the arts; creating music, theater, and visual art. Sadly for some, he never quite got around to producing the masterpieces everyone expected of him by the time he was thirty. This, however, made no difference to me. I was happy to tag along and watch and wonder at Allen's beautiful doings.

One mid-60s afternoon, as rock-n-roll bloomed and the counter-culture flexed its muscles, Allen made a startling speech to me in praise of the pleasant. Pleasant people, he said, are often undervalued, along with pleasant experiences, pleasant trips, pleasant afternoons spent sitting under a tree in the back yard doing nothing.

As a dedicated rebel, I had no idea what Allen was talking about until I turned 40. Then, exhausted and enervated from pursuing the dramatic, the challenging and the intriguing, I got it: Allen had been right. It's the pleasant interludes in life that provide real food for the soul.

About that pleasant book . . .

Late last week, our General Manager Tom DuVal came back from a meeting with WMRA's supervising dean, David Jeffrey, and handed me a book. David, who is an English professor as well as an administrator, reads voraciously for pleasure, and -- hallelujah! -- has taken to loaning me books he's enjoyed and thinks I might enjoy, as well. The book he sent over last week was Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, a novel by Helen Simonson.

I started keeping company with the Major, his yuppie son Roger, and the other people who live in Edgecombe St. Mary on Thursday evening. Over the weekend, I spent huge chunks of time lying in a hammock, reading away, fully immersed in this quiet, funny, compelling story of ordinary people trying to do their best in the midst of life's confusions.

It was, I have to say, one of those rare reading experiences that was as restful as a vacation. I cared about these people, and loved spending time with them. I think this was because the author, Helen Simonson, cares about them, as well. I love what she says on her website.
While it was often a struggle to write this first novel, it was never hard to spend time in the company of Major Pettigrew. From the first time he opened the door to his home, Rose Lodge, he has always seemed to live and be real - and my biggest challenge has been not to let him down by failing to tell his story. I hope you enjoy meeting him too.
Ms. Simonson need not worry: She has done handsomely by her Major. His story could easily have strayed into the swamp of parody or sentimentalism, but she keeps everyone and everything that happens delightfully and engagingly real. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, as literary fiction, in my opinion, stands a cut above Maeve Binchy and a cut below Jane Austen. It reads rather like a literary British cozy -- think Miss Marple, where the action is centered on village life. But Ms. Simonson's novel is much more than story, it is about well-meaning people struggling to practice tolerance and compassion; to understand what it means to love and to be part of a  family, to find a balance between tradition and change. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one of those lovely novels that really makes me want to live as a kinder, gentler person.

I think Allen Troxler would like this novel very much, for Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is, first and foremost, his kind of pleasant. It very satisfyingly fed my soul.

Okay, Dean Jeffrey, anything else you'd care to lend a word-loving woman?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tyler Clementi, Wheel of Fortune and social transformation. . .

After Tyler Clementi's suicide last month, I found myself wondering why it is so difficult for us to take each other as we come. I recognize some people have religious reasons for not condoning homosexuality, but whose God really expects them to harass sensitive 18-year-olds to death?

All this made me remember a memorable half-hour I spent last January watching Wheel of Fortune. 

I like Wheel of Fortune. As a journalist, my days are full of deadlines, malfunctioning equipment, complicated logistics, etc. At the end of a particularly savage day, I like to relax amid the pleasantness emanating from Pat Sajack, Vanna White, and the disembodied voice of their buddy in the booth. I have never, in twenty years of occasional viewing, heard or seen Mr. Sajack, Ms. White or the Voice say or do anything mean or snide or ungenerous—either to each other or to a contestant. I find their company as relaxing as I used to find double Manhattans, of which, sadly, I drank up my lifetime allotment years ago.

So what profound social transformation am I talking about?

That night on Wheel there were as usual three contestants lined up behind their counter like chickens at a feed trough. The two end ones said, as is customary for married contestants, that they were married to wonderful persons, and the middle one — Robert — announced he was engaged to a wonderful person.

Well, engaged Robert turned out to be a whiz at Wheel. He spun lustily, clapped prodigiously, and in due course won a trip for himself and his fiancée, quite a bit of money, and the chance to play for the ever-invoked “big money” in the bonus round — coming up right after some words from the show’s sponsors.

It has always seemed to me that the Wheel of Fortune ads say a lot about Wheel of Fortune demographics (the socio/economic norm of people who watch the show). Wheel ads are invariably for such things as dentures, depression medication, and pills for men in need of sexual enhancement — in other words they’re for things that appeal to regular Americans, leading regular lives. This show must be beloved by millions of people who, like me, find real life chaotic and turn to Wheel of Fortune for a dose of unchanging and unchallenging entertainment.

So, after a long set of such ads, we reconvened on the Wheel set to watch Robert do his best in the bonus round—during which he would have ten seconds to figure out a word or a phrase filled in with just the letters RSTLNE, plus 3 consonants and a vowel of his choice. I had my fingers crossed for Robert. Anyone who succeeds in the bonus round wins something extra grand.

It’s traditional for persons playing the bonus round to introduce the friends or family members who have come with them. So the camera parked itself on a smiling young man, Pat Sajak asked Robert who he was, and Robert said that the young man was his fiancée, Chuck. The audience and Vanna White clapped an enthusiastic welcome, Robert went on to nail the bonus round and win 40-thousand dollars. Chuck came running over and the two of them hugged, while the camera panned the audience who were all smiling like newly crowned Miss Americas.

I sat up straight up in my chair and and  looked at my husband. “Charlie,” I said, “this is truly a memorable month to be alive and American! First we inaugurate a black President; now we welcome an engaged, same-sex couple onto Wheel of Fortune.”

I remember so clearly being stirred to my counter-culture, anti-war demonstrating toes while listening to Bob Dylan sing that “The Times They are a Changing.” I watched Robert and Chuck celebrating their good fortune on Wheel of Fortune and asked myself if it could possibly be, after all these years, that the times have finally, really changed.

If so, I guess, that change has yet to trickle down from Wheel of Fortune into college dorms. Let's just hope we haven't degenerated as a culture to the point that people find the kind of cruelty visited upon Tyler Clementi entertaining.

Monday, October 11, 2010

WMRA's Humor Czar. . .

It's Monday. I fired up my computer, perused a few news sites, and felt the weekend's smooth mood receding before an onslaught of shouting headlines concerning privacy invasion, gay bashing, the staggering world economy, the house arrest of the wife of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo....

The horror! The horror! Where's Terry Ward when I need him?????  You see, I long ago designated Terry as WMRA's (and my own) official humor-finder, even on the baddest of bad news days.

My own Theory of Terry is that reality holds an extra dimension for him; that Mr. Ward can see the absurd lurking around even the most serious of the serious. And it's not that he's laughing at anyone or anything. Terry's just completely plugged in to humanity's ongoing romance with sound and fury and all it doesn't signify.

For example, years ago when Martha Stewart was having her little legal difficulties, Terry ripped the words "Martha's Mess" off a Newsweek cover, and taped it over the door of my office -- a space that, shall we say, is not neat. I was so amused by this, I had that partial cover laminated and still use it as my desk plate; thus putting the humorous aspects of both Marthas' disparate frailties on display for others.

So, anyway, back to my morning and all those distressing headlines. . .  No, I told myself, you cannot in good conscience blog about the Redskins' overtime victory over the Green Bay Packers. That is not news. You should delve into some serious and anxiety-provoking topic for today's post.

I don't know about you, but when I need to tread professional water for a few minutes, I check my e-mail.  And lo-and-behold, there was a message from Terry!

The e-mail was slugged "blog fodder." Hope flickered. Might Terry once again be plunking his magic humor twanger over the news?

I opened the e-mail to find an Onion link.  I clicked, I read, I laughed, I kept laughing. And then I thought, what the hell? Why can't the WMRA Blog hang out in Terry Reality just for today?

So here's The Onion story Terry sent me.

I think it says a lot about Terry, about us, about Washington

Seriously . . .

American People Hire High-Powered Lobbyist To Push Interests In Congress

October 6, 2010 | ISSUE 46•40
American People lobbyist Jack Weldon
WASHINGTON—Citing a desire to gain influence in Washington, the American people confirmed Friday that they have hired high-powered D.C. lobbyist Jack Weldon of the firm Patton Boggs to help advance their agenda in Congress.
Known among Beltway insiders for his ability to sway public policy on behalf of massive corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Monsanto, and AT&T, Weldon, 53, is expected to use his vast network of political connections to give his new client a voice in the legislative process.
Weldon is reportedly charging the American people $795 an hour.
"Unlike R.J. Reynolds, Pfizer, or Bank of America, the U.S. populace lacks the access to public officials required to further its legislative goals," a statement from the nation read in part. "Jack Weldon gives us that access."
"His daily presence in the Capitol will ensure the American people finally get a seat at the table," the statement continued. "And it will allow him to advance our message that everyone, including Americans, deserves to be represented in Washington."

Weldon says he hopes to spin the American public, above, as a group worth Congress' time.
The 310-million-member group said it will rely on Weldon's considerable clout to ensure its concerns are taken into account when Congress addresses issues such as education, immigration, national security, health care, transportation, the economy, affordable college tuition, infrastructure, jobs, equal rights, taxes, Social Security, the environment, housing, the national debt, agriculture, energy, alternative energy, nutrition, imports, exports, foreign relations, the arts, and crime.
Sources confirmed that Weldon is already scheduled to have drinks Monday with several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to discuss saving the middle class.
"If you have a problem, say, with America's atrocious treatment of its veterans, you can't just pick up a phone and call your local congressman," Weldon told reporters from his office on K Street Monday. "You need someone on the inside who understands how democracy works; someone who knows how to grease the wheels a little."
Weldon said that after successfully advocating on behalf of Goldman Sachs and BP, he is relishing the opportunity to lobby for the American people, calling it the "challenge of a lifetime." The veteran D.C. power player admitted that his new client is at a disadvantage because it lacks the money and power of other groups.
"The goal is to make it seem politically advantageous for legislators to keep the American people in mind when making laws," Weldon said. "Lawmakers are going to ask me, 'Why should I care about the American people? What's in it for me?' And it will be up to me and my team to find some reason why they should consider putting poverty and medical care for children on the legislative docket."
"To be honest," Weldon added, "the American people have always been perceived as a little naïve when it comes to their representative government. But having me on their side sends a clear message that they're finally serious and want to play ball."
According to Washington heavyweights, hiring Weldon is an immediate game changer and should force politicians to take citizens' concerns seriously for the first time in decades. Moreover, sources said, Weldon will be able to help lawmakers see the American people as more than just a low-priority fringe group.
"Jack is very good at what he does," said Joseph Pearlman, a headhunter for the McCormick Group who specializes in placing lobbyists. "He can take an issue that is nowhere on the congressional radar, like the pursuit of happiness, for example, and make it politically relevant. The next time Congress passes a bill dealing with civil rights or taxes, I wouldn't be surprised if the U.S. populace is mentioned somewhere in the final language."
Though Weldon has only been on the job for three days, legislators have already seemed to take notice.
"Before today, I'd actually never heard of this group," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters.
"But if Jack says they're worth my time, I'll take a look and see if maybe there are some areas where our interests overlap."
"But I'm not making any promises," he added. "I'm a very busy man."

So, did you find this as funny as I did?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Do we Need to Correct our Thinking About Corrections?

Martha note: Below is a Saturday morning, WMRA blog extra from Harvey Yoder.
As a a long time advocate of criminal justice reform, I was heartened by something our new governor Bob McDonnell included in his January 10 Inaugural Address to the Joint Houses:

“Tough sentences are only half of the equation in making Virginia safer. We must provide real opportunities to prisoners to turn their lives around, and to become responsible and contributing members of society when their sentences have concluded. A failure to do so only leads to more crime, and more victims. I will work with faith-based and community organizations to create an effective prisoner re-entry program to keep people out of jails and prisons. It’s smart government, and will save money.”

These are bold words from a governor of a state with the 8th highest per capita incarceration rate in the US, the nation with the distinction of holding more prisoners than any other country in the world, including China.

In 1982 Virginia had just under 10,000 inmates in its prison system. Today we have nearly four times as many behind bars, just under 40,000. To accommodate this increase, the commonwealth has had to invest over a billion dollars in more prison space in the past 25 years, and the Virginia Department of Corrections now requires over a billion dollars a year of the state’s stretched budget to operate.

In its 2009 session, the General Assembly, with Governor Tim Kaine’s endorsement, approved the appointment of a special Task Force to develop recommendations for alternative punishments for nonviolent, lower risk offenders. Governor McDonnell, to his credit, is continuing to support its work.

There will be a free public forum at the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg on Monday, October 11, from noon to 1:30 to discuss some of the preliminary findings of the Task Force. Leading the conversation will be Mr. Sherman Lea of Roanoke, the Regional Director for Community Corrections, Western Region, Ms. Tessie Lam, 39th District Chief Probation and Parole Officer, and Mr. Peter Van Acker, Superintendent of the Harrisonburg Diversion Center.

Among the initial proposals to be discussed are more flexible sentencing guidelines that could result in shorter jail stays for many nonviolent offenders, alternative sanctions for technical probation violations, more work release programs and in-home incarcerations, and an expanded number of Day Reporting Centers to provide accountability, counseling, and drug treatment for substance abuse offenders. Changes like these would result in lower costs and having more offenders holding down jobs to support their families and to pay off their debts to society.

In these times of tough budget realities, all of these alternatives need to be considered. And one day we may begin to realize it doesn’t make good sense to keep thousands of nonviolent offenders in concrete warehouses for ever-longer sentences, just as in the 60’s and 70’s we began downsizing our huge institutions for the mentally ill, returning as many of them as possible to their communities, where they were offered the kind of individual care, supervision and treatment they needed. We learned that this was not only more effective--and more humane--but also less costly.

This is a kind of common sense approach I believe can result in reforms that progressives and conservatives alike can support.
 -- Harvey Yoder is licensed professional counselor and a member of the board of Gemeinschaft Home, a re-entry and drug rehab facility for ex-offenders in Harrisonburg.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Disappearing Views of my Culpeper Childhood by Raymond Mills, Jr.

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

View from Stony Man Mountain
 I recently visited Shenandoah National Park to explore the history of the park for a research paper. I found the park’s views and trails to be incredibly beautiful. The view from Stony Man Mountain was the most stunning I have ever seen in Virginia. The park’s beauty even captured the attention of my fourteen year old little cousin who forgot about his cell phone and iPod during his visit to the park. He happily hiked a number of trails with me, eager to explore what was around every bend. I have been to the park many times, but on this occasion something was different. I felt proud to live in a country that protects it most important landscapes.

Culpepper  area farmland
Americans live in society that focuses more and more on wealth and material objects. We are spending much more time on our computers or in front of our flat screen televisions and much less time exploring and experiencing our country. Instead of taking in the United State’s breathtaking landscapes, many of us are choosing to update our Facebook pages or surf the internet. More personally alarming to me, is the continued disappearance of America’s small farms and landscapes.

I grew up a small cattle farm in Culpeper, Virginia. I enjoyed living on this farm throughout my youth, but today things in Culpeper have changed. The county has developed from a small rural community into one of the fasting growing places in the United States. As a child I remember passing wooded areas and pasture land on my way to school. Now the trees have been replaced with row after row of houses and the pastures filled with asphalt.

For many years I thought my small community would avoid development. Surely my neighbors would preserve what I loved. Unfortunately, even the farm next to ours has recently been sold and subsequently subdivided. I watched the bulldozers cleared the landscape that I had enjoyed so much. Soon the cattle that once grazed there will be replaced with homes. I guess I will have to learn to enjoy what modern America has to offer, but some how I do not think that will compare to the sight of cattle in an open pasture on a sunny day.

Recently my family sold most of our cattle operation and in hopes of relocating the farm to a rural community in Southern Virginia. We kept a small number of cattle in hopes of rebuilding our herd. In addition, my family is running a small swine operation. Although we still have some animals my siblings and I miss our cattle herds and look forward to farming in the future. It is likely that my family’s small piece of land in Culpeper will be sold and developed. Hopefully the properties new owners will enjoy the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains that I enjoyed during my childhood. I only hope that development does not destroy these views and that future generations will have the opportunity to appreciate them.

                 --Raymond Mills Jr. is a Senior at Longwood University

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Do I hear Bonnie Raitt singing lustily,
 Let's give them something to talk about. A little mystery to figure out. . .????

I love this stuff. Love it! Love it! Love it!

All these sage talking heads talking solemnly about whether or not President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are planning the uber corporate shake-up: a 2012 job switcheroo for Mr. Biden and Ms. Clinton.

To me, it conjures up an image of the two of them, blind-folded, playing Pin the Tail on the Job.

Bob Woodward, arguably the doyen of talking heads, brought such a possibility up during a Tuesday interview with CNN's John King.
"President Obama needs some of the women, Latinos, retirees that she did so well with during the [2008] primaries and, so they switch jobs, not out of the question, and the other interesting question is, Hillary Clinton could run in her own right in 2016 and be younger than Ronald Reagan when he was elected president."
But wait! No stranger a source than George W. Bush's former Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, had speculated about such a high-level job switcheroo on CNN way back on October 1st. 
"[It] wouldn't surprise me if she became the vice presidential nominee. And the vice president [Biden] became the Secretary of State," Card said on CNN's American Morning. "That would shake things up."
But wait, again! From an aside in an article yesterday in The Wall Street Journal (an interview with former Clinton campaigner Howard Wolfson), I gather this talk has been simmering  for a while now. . . perhaps just waiting for a slow news couple of days to come to a boil?
Don’t ask New York City Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, whether she would be a good vice president. He’s just not going there.

Following a breakfast forum in midtown Manhattan Wednesday, Wolfson deflected a flurry of questions about the possibility of President Barack Obama replacing Vice President Joe Biden with Clinton on the 2012 ticket, a possibility that’s been the subject of speculation among political observers recently. The talk seemed to have died down lately (my boldface), but on Tuesday night Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward reignited the chatter by suggesting the White House is talking of a possible switch.

There's been enough chatter on this subject to draw a White House denial and a Clinton dismissal. Jenna McGregor took note of the switcheroo rumors yesterday in her Washington Post blog PostLeadership, and had this (among other things) to say:
I have nothing to further the speculation, but I can ask this question: why not? Rotating executives between top jobs happens all the time in business, and is seen as good management and corporate governance. It's a natural way for leaders to challenge themselves, develop their skills and stretch different management muscles for a few years.
To which actual, source-based speculation, I ask, does Ms. McGregor have nothing to add? Where did this rumor come from? And why is it being bandied about now?

I found the most interesting speculation on the reason for the current eruption of switcheroo speculation embedded in The New York Times political blog, The Caucus. Michael Shear writes mid-way through yesterday's 2:32 PM post:
Just as the buzz from his latest blockbuster book had started to fade, Bob Woodward, The Washington Post journalist and author, found another way to set off the cable news chatter.

In an almost off-hand comment in an interview on CNN on Tuesday night, Mr. Woodward asserted that the White House was considering swapping Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. on the 2012 ticket.
Is that what all this is about? Mr. Woodward's desire to sell more books? Bob Woodward does appear to admit this in an e-mail to The Caucus, in which he writes that “the issue [the Clinton-Biden job switcheroo] is outlined in the book [that's his new book, Obama's Wars]. . ..”

That sounds to me  like a book tease. Does it sound like a book tease to you?

If so, I ask you , Mr. Woodward, where's your dignity? Surely we Americans still want our news kept separate from reality TV, where the dramas are admittedly created whole cloth for corporate profits..

Don't we?

So what was Mr. Biden's reaction to all this windy, journalistic speculation that the president might ask him to switch jobs with Mrs. Clinton? According to The Caucus,
An official close to Mr. Biden says the vice president could “care less” about the chatter, and that he chuckled when told of the report.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Blog extra: The promised link to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's recent civil subpoena. . .

Here's a link to the latest salvo fired by Ken Cuccinelli in his ongoing legal dispute with the University of Virginia over documents relating to a climate scientist's research. . . Any thoughts on this contentious issue?

Our tri-annual Oz-ness. . .

The air has a tang; the leaves have a tinge; the heart has a tingle. It's fall, my friends; high season for festivals.

Now as we public radio people are nothing if not festive, WMRA is launching its own annual Fall Festival of Fundraising toward the end of next week. And as with all festivals, WMRA's F.F. of F. represents hours and hours and hours of preparation and planning.

Our development people (Diane Halke, Debbie Reed, Ivette Churney and Susan Lamb) started weeks ago lining up both phone volunteers and the food to feed them. Debbie sent out her "matching gift" letters, asking you for money to support the Member Matching Fund (please, don't ignore her request; having a big pot of Member Matching Fund money really makes those phones ring during the on-air part of the WMRA F.F. of F.)

There's also physical and technical preparation. Next week, we'll turn our conference room into the WMRA F.F. of F. phone center. Jen Fuller of the JMU telecom office will spend a morning getting the kinks out of the system. (And, yes, there are always kinks. In fact, Jen has ridden in on her white horse many times during the fundraiser to subdue an errant kink or two.)

Diane and Debbie have spent hours wrangling with our fundraising software -- an area of fundraising I am never allowed near, because I would break it.

As for those of us who are slated to go on the air during the WMRA F.F. of F. . .

Our Program Director is Matt Bingay. He's shown left running a marathon, which is not all that far removed from what he does the month before an on-air fundraiser. Matt has been urging us for weeks to spend some time actually thinking about what we're going to say on the air during the fundraiser. Not only thinking about it, but making notes, writing out new, fresh phrases that come to mind.

For me, this involves spending time thinking about what I value about the station; why I support it; why I feel it is an absolutely essential part of my own life of the mind and spirit. My theory is that, when it comes to supporting public radio, I can best get you to pick up the phone and call by transmitting my own passionate love for WMRA. It's the same theory I use editing the WMRA Civic Soapbox; we communicate best when we communicate something of ourselves.

But, of course, there's a lot more than thought involved. Yesterday, for example, during our bi-monthly, on-air staff meeting, we actually listened to past fundraising each of us had done and critiqued ourselves;  rediscovering that we all have a tendency to go on, that we need to aim for having a conversation, not making speeches. Matt also played some new MemberCard spots -- (the MemberCard is that magic piece of plastic giving you 2-for1 dining at area restaurants). These spots feature interviews with restaurant owners and managers who participate in the program. These, along with all the "My Source" spots that Bob Leweke produces, put your voices on-the-air, which is a real goal of those of us who work at WMRA. This is, after all, your station.

Today we begin rehearsals. Yes, even though we've all been doing this for years, we still need to rehearse; go into the studio with a producer and a recording of whatever show we'll be fundraising during, talk into the microphone, and practice making the case that you benefit by supporting WMRA. I find these rehearsals absolutely essential. On-air fundraising requires a deep well of psychic energy, and, for me, these rehearsals prime my personal psychic energy  pump.

There. Enough. That's by no means all the preparation that goes into the WMRA F.F. of F., but you get the idea. Perhaps when you get up next Wednesday and hear Bob Leweke (and special WMRA F.F.of F. sidekick, Matt Bingay) asking you to call 1-800-NPR-WMRA and support the station (or go to and do the same), you'll smile and think "Oz," knowing there's been a lot going on behind the curtain!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Can we be bought?

What hath the Supreme Court wrought by gutting campaign finance reform?

 Virginia Insight yesterday was about teaching public service, but if you listened you also heard guest Bob Gibson mention the startling (and, to this listener, appalling) amount being spent on midterm elections.

Also, thanks to the Supreme Court, it's really unclear who's writing a lot of those big checks. As Washington Post staff writers T.W. Farnam and Dan Eggen put it in a recent article on midterm spending. . .
Interest groups are spending five times as much on the 2010 congressional elections as they did on the last midterms, and they are more secretive than ever about where that money is coming from.
The $80 million spent so far by groups outside the Democratic and Republican parties dwarfs the $16 million spent at this point for the 2006 midterms. In that election, the vast majority of money - more than 90 percent - was disclosed along with donors' identities. This year, that figure has fallen to less than half of the total, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post.
The trends amount to a spending frenzy conducted largely in the shadows.
There's an interesting interactive graphic in this morning's Washington Post that breaks down this dollar-spewing frenzy a bit. Note that among the spenders are both old campaign war horses (The US Chamber of Commerce  and the National Association of Realtors) and some very fresh fillies (The American Future Fund. and American Crossroads)

Who are those guys?

(Remember that line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when our two anti-heroes are being pursued by some very dogged guys, and Butch and Sundance kept asking each other, "Who are those guys?"  So, again, I ask you . . . Who are those guys?)

Yesterday the redoubtable Christian Science Monitor ran a worried  editorial about the midterm election spending frenzy.
Whether money flows to Democrats or Republicans (and the interest groups heavily favor conservatives this time), record spending undermines American democracy. At a minimum it reinforces the appearance that money influences votes.
Just as harmful is when voters can’t see who is behind the money that is behind political ads. “Transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages,” the US Supreme Court found in a landmark campaign finance ruling in January, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Even as eight of the nine justices upheld the idea of disclosure, the court’s 5-to-4 majority did open the floodgates to election spending by corporations, unions and other special interest groups.
It ruled that these entities can spend unlimited amounts directly on political messages as long as there’s no coordination with campaigns. The decision was based on the court defining nonperson entities like corporations as having free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Okay, so the Supreme Court decided that big-money entities have the same rights to free speech as individuals. There's nothing we, as voters, can do about that. And it does seem pretty obvious that corporations and unions are spending freely in the belief that their loud, money-backed free speech will drown out the free speech of individual American citizens.

Most of the ads corporations and other big-spending groups are offering in this election seem to this observer skewed, inaccurate, and inflammatory. But I would like to remind us all that corporations still can't vote.

I remain hopeful that American voters will prove to be intelligent life forms rather than gullible lemmings. I'm optimistic that we will search out our own sources of accurate information and considered opinion and vote accordingly. I really do believe that our votes cannot be bought.

Monday, October 4, 2010

In praise of baking with buttermilk . . .

I tasted buttermilk once. In elementary school. Out of curiosity.


Because there it sat like a dare, nestled among the other milk at the end of the lunch line.

 I bought. I tasted. I gagged. And that was the end of my interest in buttermilk until, a couple of decades later, my then-partner and I opened a restaurant, needed a muffin recipe at the last moment, and I decided to try one that called for -- yuck! -- buttermilk.

Wow! I cannot begin to fathom how many thousands of buttermilk, whole-wheat muffins I baked over the five years I co-owned that restaurant. And I never for one minute failed to think that buttermilk is what made  Martha's muffins, Martha's muffins.

This was the beginning of my ongoing romance with buttermilk baking. And this Monday morning, since the weather's once again cool enough to turn on the oven, I thought I'd pass along two related -- and buttermilk-tinged -- baking staples; one of my own invention, and one borrowed from a downtown Charlottesville breakfast institution.

Two caveats:
  1. I'm not much of a measurer. So, my suggestions will not contain exact amounts of any ingredients. But I'm sure that if you are a measurer, you can figure out exactly how much of what to use by tinkering around with your own recipes.
  2. As I wouldn't dream of drinking buttermilk and usually bake only on weekends, I often use powdered buttermilk, mixing it in with the dry ingredients and then using water as the moistener. 

Baking staple #1: Buttermilk, whole wheat pie crust.
I invented this (at least it was new to me) back during my restaurant days, when I had to come up with a daily special. Quiche (it was the Age of Quiche) was already on the menu, but I did occasionally invent some kind of hearty, main-dish pie to serve as the special du jour. One day, on a whim,  I decided to use half whole-wheat flour in the crust, cut in half shortening/half butter, toss lightly with ice water.

The crust came out disappointingly tough. So, as buttermilk tenderizes, the next time I decided to toss the whole wheat flour/white flour/butter/shortening crumbles with that. The resulting pastry was in my opinion as perfect as Baby Bear's porridge. Tender, with just a hint of tartness and crunch.

I've used  buttermilk crust for apple pies and for breakfast pies (quiche variations). I give buttermilk, whole wheat pie crust all the stars I'm entitled to give as a pastry cook.

Baking staple #2: Buttermilk, whole-wheat biscuits, Bluegrass Grill & Bakery style.
I was in Charlottesville last week to have lunch with a new friend, and, as she works just off the Downtown Mall, we took ourselves to the Bluegrass Grill and Bakery.

It is, as I'm sure a lot of you know, a great place. Non-demanding decor, scratch-cooking, nothing nouvelle in sight, plenty of butter. And the Bluegrass Grill and Bakery turns out to be partially owned by J. Lalah Simcoe. And I'd done a story about Womenfolk, a 60's folk group -- of whom Lalah used to be a member.

I cannot resist biscuits and ordered one with my omelet. It came looking more like an enormous, square, soft dinner roll, than the round, crusty biscuits I make. And it was light brown through and through, obviously not made with all white flour.

Now I am a prideful and accomplished biscuit maker, having baked them professionally when I (in that other restauranting life) co-owned Charlottesville's Blue Moon Diner for a while. Before last week, I'd  modestly thought no one could ever touch me as a biscuit maker. But that huge, brown Bluegrass biscuit was the best I've ever tasted.  

What is this thing? I asked Lalah (pictured right).

Nothing special, she said. Just half-whole wheat flour in a standard buttermilk biscuit recipe.

I thought about those biscuits most of the weekend and concluded that Lalah's description might be a bit over-simplified. First of all, Bluegrass biscuits are both buttery and tender, so I suspect that the shortening used was half-butter. I also suspect that their fine texture came from the shortening being cut into dry ingredients extra quickly and extra finely so as to leave the shortening granulated but still hard. The biscuits were then rolled and cut twice normal biscuit size and baked closely enough together to give them their square shape and soft edges.

Buttermilk (often accompanied with a pinch of baking soda) also gives tartness to all-things chocolate.Don't ignore it in the kitchen just because it tastes soooooooooooo buttermilky. . .