Monday, January 31, 2011

Is that old journalistic paradigm shifting again?

I don't get to listen to the news much in the morning, because I begin work around 7 a.m., and I'm not someone who can listen to Morning Edition and work productively at the same time. But luckily for me, my husband listens, and lets me know of anything he thinks might be blog-worthy.

Today Charlie came in (thankfully bearing the coffee pot) to let me know that Rupert Murdoch is, again, set to launch his iPad-only "thingy,"  The Daily. The original launch date for Murdoch's revolutionary (?) new news source was January 19th, and in anticipation of this Jeff Bercovici blogged for

Mark your calendars, media nerds.
Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011 is the day it all changes. 

 Maybe, indeed. In anticipation of the current launch date, Ian Paul  wrote on PCWorld :
News Corp.'s much-anticipated iPad-only newspaper The Daily will officially launch Wednesday, February 2, during a press event at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch will be on hand to announce his company's new venture along with Eddie Cue, Apple's vice president of Internet services.
It's not clear how much the tablet-based publication will cost, but it is expected The Daily will be offered at a subscription rate of $1 per week. The press event may also include an announcement about a rumored in-app subscription payment system for iOS devices.
Interesting choice of site for the announcement, don't you think? The old cutting edge in style hosts the new.

From the same PCWorld article:
The Daily will reportedly feature original content by journalists from The New Yorker, AOL, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.   The paper may also include work from News Corp.'s other properties such as Dow Jones, The New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
The Daily will reportedly include short, pithy articles similar to free commuter daily papers such as Metro and AM New York. So the big question is whether people will be willing to buy a . . . newspaper like The Daily when free competitors exist.
. . . But the iPad is not the Web. Users of Apple's tablet computer and other mobile devices have shown their willingness to pay for apps and content. Gartner recently predicted mobile app sales would top $15 billion in 2011, a 190 percent increase over 2010 numbers. But despite that rosy prediction for apps, some reports suggest iPad magazine sales have fallen in recent months by as much as 20 percent, according to WWD.
So it's not clear if The Daily will find an audience large enough among the world's nearly 15 million iPad owners to support News Corp's new venture. Then again at $1 a week, many people may sign up for the paper to give it a try for a limited time. It will then be up to The Daily to keep them coming back for more.

This is the first time in his long career that Rupert Murdoch will have built a news publication from scratch. All his other news sources have been bought in full flower. And interestingly, according to a November 28th article in New York magazine:
 In stark contrast to those of Murdoch’s existing American papers, The Daily’s politics will be centrist and pragmatic—Bloombergian, if you prefer—according to people close to the project. It’s a worldview embodied by its editor, Jesse Angelo, say people close to him. “He’s a freethinker, not locked in a dogma,” one source says. The opinion section will feature a range of both conservative and liberal pundits, and there are plans to wage “campaigns” on issues like immigration, education reform, and climate change.
So why do I think the journalistic paradigm just might be shifting because of this particular publication? It has to do with monetizing information e-delivery. No one's figured out how to do that. At least, no one's figured out how to do it very profitably.

That Rupert Murdoch is willing to build a publication which has no existence outside an iPad means to me that he's figured out something that may turn the old information delivery system we think of  as "the news" into a pretzel.

Your thoughts?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tinfoil Thinking-Cap Time, a Civic Soapbox essay by Chris Edwards

At a family gathering recently, I overheard two bright young guys critique a page in a history.

“‘One giant leap for mankind’ – gimme a break!”

“Everyone  knows the moon landings were a hoax.”


No one seemed to “know” that, in 1969. When most of us had yet to touch a computer. How come we felt free to accept moon landings, when today’s 18 and 19-year olds, holding marvelous technology in their palms, feel free to deny them?

Google “Moon Landing Hoax,” and you get 1.8 million results. More even than “Global Warming Hoax” (1.6 million). So my question is: Is there still such a thing as an agreed-upon reality anymore? Does the Flat Earth Society’s website represent madness? satire? or merely one, among many, postmodernist “realities” – Is it possible that there IS no reality anymore -- just my truth, for me, and yours, for you?

I mean, did Jared Loughner’s online ramblings really predict the Tucson massacre?

If they did, how can we draw a clear line separating his posts from the 1.4 million posts on alien abductions, or 5.7 million supporting a flat earth? Millions of on-line references claim President Bush deliberately carried out the 9-11 attacks... while 27 percent among us think, or suspect, President Obama isn’t American. None of those claims can be remotely grounded in fact.

I’ve heard both leftists and right-wingers, people I’ve known and in the media, screaming that we live under fascism. Have they listened to anyone, such as a Holocaust survivor, describe real fascism?

Of course, next to all the online rants and fantasies, we can pull up countless bytes of solid, useful information. The Internet will certainly make today’s kids better informed than we were...if only they can sort it all out.

There’s a criterion for sorting out an idea’s credibility, called Ockham’s Razor: Given two possible explanations for any event, go with the simpler one. A patter on my roof could be footsteps of little green men from the Andromeda galaxy, but more likely (if less excitingly), it’s rain. Try asking: what would be the motive to fake a moon landing? Cold War Strategies? Perhaps. But think how many parties would have had to be in on the hoax – not only protecting the truth then, from Soviet spies, but each person, without exception, hiding it for more than 40 years! Ask yourself what’s more likely.

Also, there are widely-verified websites that can help sort truth from rumor, such as and

Getting informed won’t change the mind of a fanatic, but may help those of us who are merely confused. For instance, knowing Hawaii is a state (which a sizeable percentage of Americans don’t) may cast doubt not only on the Birther, but the Flat-Earth claim, if you’ve worried about boats plunging over Earth’s edge in those tropic seas.

Of course, I guess you could just claim Hawaii is a hoax.

It seems to me that in this “information"-glutted age, determining reality is, in itself, a challenge.

But without shared reality, how do we know if we’re still sane?

               --Chris Edwards is a writer living in Harrisonburg.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Whatever you think about Michele Bachmann, she does offer the beef . . .

Michele Bachmann, the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, made a speech Tuesday night. Forty-eight hours later, it's hard to tell whether the bigger flurry of post-speech conversation was about the speech, itself, or about the fact that CNN decided to air it live.

Nevertheless, that speech is generating a lot of buzz. So, what did she say?

Representative Bachmann began by stating that, "The Tea Party is a dynamic force for good in our national conversation, and it's an honor for me to speak with you. " 

She went on to talk about what she sees as the evils of the current administration: exploding deficit, job loss, and "Obamacare:" 
Obamacare mandates and penalties may even force many job creators to just stop offering health insurance altogether, unless of course yours is one of the more-than-222 privileged companies or unions that has already received a government waiver under Obamacare. In the end, unless we fully repeal Obamacare, a nation that currently enjoys the world's finest health care might be forced to rely on government-run coverage.
She ended quite stirringly by stating that:
. . . thanks to you, there's reason for all of us to hope that real spending cuts are coming. Because last November you went to the polls and you voted out big-spending politicians and you put in their place great men and women with a commitment to follow our Constitution and cut the size of government.
I believe that we are in the early days of a history-making turn in America. Please know how important your calls, visits, and letters are to the maintenance of our liberties. Because of you, Congress is responding and we are just starting to undo the damage that's been done the last few years. Because we believe in lower taxes. We believe in a limited view of government, and exceptionalism in America. And I believe that America is the indispensable nation of the world. Just the creation of this nation itself was a miracle. Who's to say that we can't see a miracle again?
The perilous battle that was fought during World War II in the Pacific at Iwo Jima was a battle against all odds, and yet this picture immortalizes the victory of young GIs over the incursion against the Japanese. These six young men raising the flag came to symbolize all of America coming together to beat back a totalitarian aggressor.
Our current debt crisis we face today is different, but we still need all of us to pull together. But we can do this. That's our hope. We will push forward. We will proclaim liberty throughout the land. And we will do so because we the people will never give up on this great nation.
Whether or not you, personally, buy that the Tea Party Express is our country's best hope for addressing our current formidable problems, it's pretty obvious that a formidable number of people do. When I checked, the official Republican response to President Obama's speech, given by Congressman Paul Ryan, had drawn 10,825 hits on a randomly chosen YouTube posting; Michele Bachmann's maverick rejoinder had drawn 148,320-- on top of the hits on the speech's well-publicized presentation at the Tea Party Express website.

President Obama's speech probably resonated most strongly with those who think government should work for the common good in areas that aren't profitable enough to attract business investment. And to those who are fortunate enough to have jobs and reasonable mortgages. As Peggy Reskin wrote in San Francisco's

Far from the cynicism of our times, the unproductive irrational criticism of what a man as President can do with the train wreck awarded to him when he took office, this Berkeley resident is very pleased and very proud of the President and our country.  It feels like we're going somewhere we want to go as a society with the "spirit of America" being our guide and our ethos.  God bless America as a verb.
But many less fortunate citizens grumbled that there was nothing specific in the President's speech about job creation. The comments of a man quoted in the Missourian seem pretty typical:
“There aren’t any jobs in Columbia, not for an engineer,” said Tim Bishop, 60, a mechanical engineer for BioMérieux in St. Louis.
Bishop often commutes to work in St. Louis and has to spend most nights there.
“I want Obama to talk about why he is still giving tax breaks to companies who send their business overseas,” he said. 
Michele Bachman is actively testing political waters for a 2012 presidential run.  Her message is easy to grasp and as old as the Reagan administration: The enemy of the little guy is big government. Ms. Bachman offers one solution to many problems.

People who are out of a job and threatened with losing their homes don't want philosophy; they want to work. The Tea Party Express tells them exactly whom to vote for in order to make that happen.

Remember those old Wendy's ads that asked, "Where's the beef?"

Michele Bachman's speech last Tuesday was one long simple-to-grasp answer to that very question: She and the Tea Party Express are just the beef struggling Americans need.

Those who don't like Ms. Bachman's message should perhaps come up with rhetorical beef that's equally appealing and accessible to financially troubled people. Dismissing the Tea Party Express is tantamount to dismissing its followers' very real concerns and worries. Those who don't like the rhetoric of Tea Party Express might still want to follow its lead when picking which questions and concerns to address directly.

Perhaps it's less important to pay attention to what Michelle Bachman is saying, than it is to pay attention  to what she's talking about.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Muuuuuuuuuuuuuuu . . .

One of the things I love about getting older is my own social past has become today's social history. I have personally watched the world's vast and complex system of how people deal with their differences turn and spin and change. 

February 28, 1994 cover of Time Magazine 

As a white, southern teenager (and a passionate advocate of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s peaceful brand of activism),  I didn't know what to make of the Nation of Islam. Which, I suppose, was exactly their point: I, as a white girl, did not have a clue about what black men were dealing with in mid-Twentieth Century America.

I remember studying pictures of packs of strong, angry-looking men in dark suits and strange hats, walking in formation around Malcolm X or Louis Farrakhan, all of them obviously in a hurry to get somewhere I wasn't invited.

I was particularly perplexed by (awed by? afraid of?) Louis Farrakhan, "The Minister of Rage,"  who spoke with such venom even against his own, slightly less radical cohort Malcolm X. In 1964, I was dimly aware when their final rift was triggered somehow by Elijah Muhammad's impregnation of a couple of his teen-age secretaries. Farrakhan and Malcolm X were by then intense competitors within the Black Islamic movement. Farrakan called Malcolm out in the NOI newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, writing:
"Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm. The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil, foolish talk about his benefactor; such a man is worthy of death and would have been met with death if it had not been for Muhammad's confidence in Allah for victory over his enemies." 
Malcolm X was shot dead ten weeks later. Farrakhan denied involvement in the assassination. Yet he did say in a 1994 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace and Malcolm X's widow, Shirley Shabaz, "I may have been complicit in words that I spoke leading up to February 21 [1965]. I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being." 

Anyway, to me, Louis Farrakhan had always seemed militantly uninterested in any kind of social change that would unite his race with my race.

Let's move backwards to a couple of years  after Malcolm X's assassination.

I moved to Charlottesville in 1968 where I lived, off-and-on, for the next 22 years. When I got there, Mr. Jefferson's town was still pretty socially conservative.  I remember the native whites as not troubling much to hide their inherited racism. It was exactly the kind of place Louis Farrakhan might have been talking about when he said, as late as 2000: "White people are potential humans - they haven't evolved yet."  

Or maybe we have. At least, that's what I see as I keep hanging out, keep watching the world turn, and its events unfold.  I'll leave it to others to write about our first black President's second State of the Union Address, and what that says about the wheeling and turning of social history in the last 50 years.

What I want to write about now is last Saturday's 72-64 trouncing of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets by the Virginia Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena. crowed: 
Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan scored a game-high 23 points. . .The 23 points are Farrakhan’s career high in an ACC game and he tied his overall career high with five assists.  
Mustapha Farrakhan slam dunks
I listened to the game (you can take a girl out of Charlottesville, but you can't take the Hoo out of an old Cavalier sports reporter) and noticed that every time Mustapha Farrakhan,  Louis Farrakhan's grandson, touched the ball, the crowd exploded with a loud chorus of  Muuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

I'm not an historical sentimentalist. I don't know Mustapha Farrakhan's politics, nor whether there were still old-timers in the JPJ arena who were made uncomfortable by his presence. But that doesn't negate the fact the grandson of as militant a black militant as I'm personally aware of, chose to go to the University of Virginia and has been embraced by its legion of basketball fans.

I love getting older. You live long enough and times change. And sometimes they almost seem to change for the better.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Second Battle of the Wilderness will be litigated in Judge Daniel Bouton's court . . .

image from Walmart Watch

It's not Confederate vs. Union, but historical preservationists vs. the worlds largest retailer. The question to be decided: Was the process granting Walmart permission to build a Supercenter at the intersection of Routes 3 and 20 in Orange County strictly on the legal up-and-up?

And why should I write a vivid, scene-setting opener for this post, when I can just cut and paste the opening of AP reporter Steve Szokotak's piece in Sunday's Westport (Connecticut) News?

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Nearly 150 years after Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant fought in northern Virginia, a conflict over the battlefield is taking shape in a courtroom.
The dispute involves whether a Walmart should be built near the Civil War site, and the case pits preservationists and some residents of a rural northern Virginia town against the world's largest retailer and local officials who approved the Walmart Supercenter.
Both sides are scheduled to make arguments before a judge Tuesday.
The proposed Walmart is located near the site of the Battle of the Wilderness, which is viewed by historians as a critical turning point in the war. An estimated 185,000 Union and Confederate troops fought over three days in 1864, and 30,000 were killed, injured or went missing. The war ended 11 months later.
The 143,000-square-foot space planned by the Bentonville, Ark., retailer would be outside the limits of the protected national park where the core battlefield is located. The company has stressed the store would be within an area already dotted with retail locations, and in an area zoned for commercial use.

So what, exactly, is being addressed this week in Judge Bouton's courtroom? According to the The Orange County Review: "In a suit that could dictate the county's economic development for decades,"
  ... Judge Daniel Bouton will determine whether the Orange County Board of Supervisors was right to approve a special use permit for a Walmart Supercenter at the intersection of Routes 3 and 20. The Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield and six local individuals claim the board did not properly weigh the historical significance of the land, which sits near the Wilderness Battlefield, when approving the Walmart. 
Dan Holmes of the Piedmont Environmental Council (who've joined the group opposing the Supercenter's construction), pointed out to me yesterday during a long phone conversation that there's also some question about the probity of the decision-making process used in granting the special use permit needed for such a Big Box of a store. For example, according to the PEC website, on Thursday, August 20, 2009:
 The [Orange County] Planning Commission held a Public Hearing on Wilderness Walmart at 7pm in the Orange County High School Auditorium. The Planning Commission voted 4-4 at this meeting [which was then formally adjourned].The Planning Commission convened a special meeting on Friday evening to deal with unresolved issues -- and to our dismay, they held a surprise vote on Wilderness Walmart. Only 6 out of 10 planning commissioners were able to attend this special meeting, and the vote to approve was 5-1
Pulitzer Prize Winning Historian James McPherson expressed his aesthetic opposition to the "Wilderness Wal-Mart"  in a  May 3, 2009 Washington Post Op-Ed

 . . . Preservationists are not opposed to Wal-Mart opening a superstore in the region. A coalition of national and local conservation groups has merely asked Wal-Mart to choose a different location. Together with more than 250 other historians, I signed a letter to the company in support of that idea. We wrote that "the Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved. Surely Wal-Mart can identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield."
"Wilderness Wal-Mart" supporters argue that because the proposed store site lies just beyond the park, it lacks historic significance, a profound misunderstanding of the nature of history. In the heat of battle, no unseen hand kept soldiers inside what would one day be a national park. Such boundaries are artificial, modern constructions shaped by external factors, and they have little bearing on what is or is not historic. To assume the park boundary at the Wilderness encompasses every acre of significant ground is to believe that the landscape beyond the borders of Yosemite National Park instantly ceases to be majestic.
With Civil War battlefields we have a true tool for determining historic value: the findings of the congressionally appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission. I was privileged to serve on this distinguished panel of historians and lawmakers, and I stand by our decision to include the area Wal-Mart is considering within the battlefield's historic boundary. . . .
part of projected Supercenter site(?)
County residents have mixed feelings about having that store in that particular location. Supporters site jobs, economic development, increased tax revenue, and a landowner's right to develop his land as he sees fit. Barbara Banner,  Executive Director of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, frankly doesn't see what the fuss is about. She e-mailed me yesterday:
It’s sad that so much focus has been placed on a piece of property that no one was interested in for years – including the preservation organizations - and now it has attracted national attention. There is a great misunderstanding of this location in regards to the Wilderness Battlefield. Yes, it is part of a “greater” gateway but the real gateway is after you have turned up Rt. 20 & begin to approach the battlefield area. The area in question is already commercialized and will continue to be regardless of whether Wal-Mart builds here. Zoning has been in place for over 20 years with this as a designated commercial growth area. ”
Ms. Banner added, "this is really a simple matter of property rights that has been blown all out of proportion and; made to be very complex! It will be really interesting to see what happens this week."

Amen to that!

Today several applications will be made for summary judgment for the plaintiffs. If those fail, the Second Battle of the Wilderness will commence in earnest.

Got any opinion about whether or not the "Wilderness Walmart" Supercenter should be built?

Monday, January 24, 2011

The View from Richmond . . .

Martha note: Even though those of you who live in Virginia's 5th District may have already read Delegate David Toscano's e-account of his doings during the first week of the Virginia General Assembly's 2011 Short Session, I'm using it as today's blog post for two reasons.
  • The first is somewhat WMRA-centric. Today's Virginia Insight will discuss what's going on in the Virginia General Assembly. And tomorrow night at 7, Virginia Insight host Tom Graham will be in Richmond to host the "General Assembly Conversation," a statewide production of Virginia Public Radio. I thought Mr. Toscano's letter would give you some in-depth background information for both those shows.
  • The second is that quite a few of us in WMRA Land are state employees, and the following provides an excellent, non-partisan explanation of exactly what is going on with the Virginia Retirement System. 

January 21, 2011
We convened the 2011 session of the General Assembly on Wednesday, January 12. The first few days are generally reserved for reorganization and few bills are actually heard. Nonetheless, there is considerable controversy already brewing in the Capitol. In Gov. McDonnell's amended budget, he has proposed several million dollars in school funding cuts for Albemarle and Charlottesville, he has yet another proposal to privatize the Alcoholic Beverage Control and, in perhaps the most controversial proposal of all, he has suggested that state employees be forced to contribute a portion of their salary to the state retirement system.

I have signed onto legislation that will restore the school funding cuts to Albemarle and Charlottesville. I have also expressed serious concerns about the governor's plan to force employees, most of whom have not received a raise in several years, to contribute to the retirement system.

This year, we are confronting a major problem with the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) and its $17.6 billion "unfunded liability," which is approximately the amount of money appropriated from the General Fund in a year. The term "unfunded liability" describes the ability of a retirement plan to pay the future benefits due to employees if they retired immediately. Since all employees will not retire immediately, sound financial planning does not require that a fund be 100% funded. In fact, economists believe that if a plan is 80% funded, and so long as contributions are continuing to be made into the fund and investments perform adequately, a retirement fund is fine.

The problem with the VRS is that we have consistently underfunded our system while the stock market, where this money is invested, has not brought the returns to which we have become accustomed. In addition, over the last twenty years, the General Assembly has actually met the required actuarial funding request in only three years. If we had made those contributions, our assets would be $5.4 billion more than we have at present, thereby putting less stress on the system. The problem has been exacerbated by the $620 million the General Assembly "borrowed" from the retirement plan to balance the budget last year. I did not support this and voted against the budget, partially due to this provision. We would be in a much better position today had we not taken that money from VRS.

Some economists believe that the problem is even more serious because the actuarial assumptions underpinning the unfunded liability figures are perceived to be too liberal. If that is the case, the fund could experience problems even greater than are now being projected.

One overlooked portion of the governor's proposal which could have considerable impact on state employees in our area, including faculty at the University of Virginia, is his plan to decrease the amount of state contributions to what is called the "Optional Retirement Plan." Under this plan, members of ORP will have their state contributions reduced from 10.4% of their salaries to 8.5% of their salaries, and, unlike VRS employees, who will receive a 3% raise to partially offset the change, ORP employees will receive nothing. It is estimated that approximately 25,000 employees around the state are enrolled in this plan, including faculty at the University, VCU, Virginia Tech, George Mason, William and Mary, ODU, and Longwood. At UVA, 3,156 employees are enrolled in ORP compared to 6,210 at VRS, so the stakes are high.

Given the numbers of people involved and the fact that we will not solve this problem overnight, it is important to move deliberately, getting as much information as we can and as much input as possible, before developing a long term strategy to solve the VRS problem. Moving too quickly will be a disservice to employees and interject levels of inequity that are unfair and could create unintended consequences for the future. If you have any suggestions on what we should do to address this problem, I would appreciate hearing from you.

Friday, January 21, 2011

TELEVISION, a poetic essay by Soren Mitchell

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






















               -- Soren Mitchell lives in the Rockfish River Valley 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"O" my . . . a Presidential who wrote it?

I've been reporting on books and publishing for over a decade now, first as sort of an emergency, back-up Lynn Neary (NPR's dedicated books and publishing reporter), and then, when NPR did away with a dedicated book editor, writing about books for 

So anyway, I'm fully qualified to recognize and enjoy a publisher's promotional hijinks when I see them. Especially when they are a recycling of another publisher's promotional hijinks.

Remember Primary Colors, the Clinton Era "novel of politics" written by Anonymous, who -- after 6 months of speculation-fueled best-seller status (ka-ching, goes the cash register) -- turned out to be Joe Klein?

Well, Anonymous is back with a new novel. This one's called O: A Presidential Novel. It goes on sale* January 25th.

The "product description" on Amazon tells us that O: A Presidential Novel, set during the 2012 Presidential campaign, contains,
The truth only fiction can tell.
This is a novel about aspiration and delusion, set during the presidential election of 2012 and written by an anonymous author who has spent years observing politics and the fraught relationship between public image and self-regard.
The novel includes revealing and insightful portraits of many prominent figures in the political world—some invented and some real.
I  think the cover of is spot-on, as apparently does Jill Lawrence, Senior Correspondent for Politics Daily. Ms. Lawrence notes that,  
You don't have to be a close observer to get the cover art: an O with a large ear attached to each side. "What's going on between those ears?" asks the first line of the Simon &  Schuster press release on the book, officially due out Jan. 25.
Obama campaigning in 2008 ( Darron Cummings/AP
Back to publicity hijinks . . . 

The Mail is a British tabloid similar to America's National Enquirer, its front page littered with reports of violence and  pot-smoking toddlers . Earlier this month this article appeared:
A Presidential whodunnit: Mystery of who wrote new Obama novel.
Washington is awash with rumours over the identity of the anonymous author of a new novel written by an Obama insider.. . . It is described as a 368-page roman a clef inspired by Barack Obama and his inner circle. The author is said to have ‘vast personal experience’ of the President. . . . But so far the writer is keeping his or her identity under wraps.
Indeed he/she is. And Jonathan Karp, executive vice president and publisher at Simon &  Schuster stands guard over those wraps, frantically fueling the flames of speculation with missives such as an e-mail sent January 18th to politicos, and any Big Media Cheeses who deal with politics and/or books. I didn't rate one (what an oversight!), but Steven Levingston, who writes The Washington Post blog, "Political Bookworm," kindly published his copy.
On January 25, we'll be publishing a secret novel simply titled O, about President Obama's campaign for re-election in 2012. The author of the novel wishes to remain anonymous. You may be asked to comment on whether or not you are the author. If so, it would be great if you refrained from commenting, in solidarity with the principle that a book should be judged on its content and not on the perceived ideology of its author. The author, an individual with integrity and talent, is someone who has been in the room with Barack Obama and knows the political world intimately. In fact, you may know this person, or know of this person -- if you are not in fact the author yourself. Thanks in advance for your consideration. I apologize for the impersonality of this blind group email, but this seems like the best way to protect the author's identity. I hope you enjoy the book. It's terrific.
Only maybe, it's not so terrific.
Susan Page begins her review ("'O: A Presidential Novel' is primarily an uncolorful tell-al.l,") in USA Today this way:
WASHINGTON — The mesmerizing power of Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics when it was published in 1996 was its roiling, pitch-perfect, three-dimensional portrait of President Bill Clinton, even if his name in the loosely fictionalized account of his first presidential campaign was Gov. Jack Stanton.
The disappointing thing about O: A Presidential Novel, which goes on sale Jan. 25, is the failure of this speculative account of his 2012 re-election campaign to offer any similar insights into President Barack Obama, known throughout only by his initial.
Ron Charles, writing in The Washington Post was equally unenthusiastic, pointing out that,
Dramatically, "O" suffers from its concentration on a pair of candidates determined to be civil and restrained. That would be nice for our country, but it's damning for a novel. 
As to who wrote it, who knows? Ed Pilkington writes in the Guardian:
Rampant speculation has name-checked Rahm Emanuel (though he's a little busy running for mayor of Chicago), David Plouffe (has enough on his plate as Obama's new senior adviser) and the TV comedian Stephen Colbert (the book is not funny enough to have been by him). Ben Smith, a blogger at the Politico website, has diligently obtained denials from many potential culprits, which is in itself suspicious. So is he the author? "No. I'd be happy to take credit for it though – it's a fun read," Smith told the Guardian
Says Ben, anyway.

You know, I thought some about claiming to have written O: A Presidential Novel myself, just for the fun of it. But then the reviews came out . . .

* I link to Amazon on this blog because if you buy this book (or anything) through this link, WMRA gets money!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cooking with Sargent Shriver . . .

First things first. I was sitting at my computer preparing to start writing today's blog post, when my e-mail dinged announcing that a message from WMRA community member Stanley Abbot had arrived. 
Sorry, Stanley wrote, as I listened to the news [about Chinese President Hu's upcoming state dinner] this morning, it came to me . . .
Knock Knock
     Who's There?
Why yes ... President ...
     President who?
Yes ... Is dinner ready?
And I (with Stanley's permission) am passing it on to you, on the theory that anyone can always use another knock-knock joke.
Now onto what I was going to write about before I got dinged. . .

Maria Shriver produced a 2008 documentary about her father she called American Idealist. And for once, it seems to me, everything was in a name, for Sargent Shriver seems to have been just that --an American idealist; able to visualize the best this country could be. Plus, he had the will, the clout, the energy, and the connections to make at least some of that best happen.

I sort of cooked dinner with Sargent Shriver once.

For a year back in the late 70's, Sargent Shriver's eldest son, Bobby,  and his nephew, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., ate dinner regularly at a small, Elliewood Avenue, restaurant I co-owned in Charlottesville. When Bobby (Shriver) got ready to turn 25, he asked if I'd be willing to host a family birthday celebration. Nothing special, food-wise, he said.. Just what I always cooked. It was just that he liked my restaurant and thought his family would like it as well.

The Kennedy Clan blew in on the night of the birthday party like a power surge; a flock of handsome, energized people obviously looking to enjoy themselves. I was back in the kitchen cooking, when here comes Sargent Shriver, chatting away, sticking his nose into pots, asking if there was anything he could do to help. Right behind him came his son, anxious that his father not get in my way; saying, apologetically, that his dad could be a bit much sometimes.

It was a fine, festive evening, as I remember it. And I thought of it yesterday when the news came of his death.  Sargent Shriver had finally stopped being a bit much at the age of 95.

R. Sargent Shriver, left, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver greeted the crowd during a swearing-in ceremony for Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Maureen Orth posted an appreciation of Sargent Shriver today on Vanity Fair. In it, she writes,

There wasn’t a tough job that Sarge did not do well. When John F. Kennedy asked him to run the Peace Corps, he joked that J.F.K. had no choice but to give the job to a brother-in-law due to its enormous potential for failure. A few years later, Jacqueline Kennedy asked Sarge to arrange her husband’s funeral, and he did so flawlessly. After heading the Chicago school board and becoming a leading civil-rights advocate, he was frequently mentioned as both an Illinois gubernatorial and senate candidate. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson very much wanted Sarge to be his running mate, but the Kennedys said absolutely not—it was Bobby’s turn first. Then it was Teddy’s turn.
Sarge loved running the very popular Peace Corps, but he reluctantly quit when L.B.J. twisted his arm to head the War on Poverty. Democrat George McGovern turned to Sarge to run with him as vice president, in 1972, after Tom Eagleton dropped out when it was revealed that he had undergone psychiatric treatment, but they lost big-time. Sarge also served as ambassador to France, and in the last decades of his life he and Eunice founded the Special Olympics and made it a worldwide force for the intellectually disabled. He was the kind of husband who seriously thought his wife should be canonized by the Catholic Church; Sarge himself was so devout that even as he was ravaged by Alzheimer’s in his later years, the two things he never forgot were his prayers and his manners. “You’re a good looking kid,” he said to my son a few years ago as he stuck out his hand in greeting. “Are you my son?”
R. Sargent Shriver, with wife Eunice, campaigning for vice president in 1972. (United Press International/ File)
There's not much else for me to say, is there?

I just hope, as the noisy news of the day pelts us, we'll still remember to take a moment to honor and respect the late Sargent Shriver's contribution to our country.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The story of a 5-Star Harrisonburg food joint ... so what's a food joint? ... read on ...

The Substation and Mexican Grill: A 5-Star Harrisonburg joint (photo:Reed)
My husband, Charlie, and I like to eat out.

Our favorite kind of restaurant is what we call a good joint. These are small, unpretentious places, where the food is actually cooked from scratch in the kitchen and the decor doesn't look as though it's done by a professional decorator. Eating out, to Charlie and me, is about good chow eaten in non-cookie cutter places, where we can wear our jeans.

The first restaurant Charlie and I tried in Harrisonburg was a small, colorful taquería.  There it was, bright yellow and beckoning, drawing us in like a couple of ants to chocolate cake. Charlie ordered goat meat tacos, settled back in his mismatched chair and announced, "I think I'm going to like this town!"

We went back to that taqueria often enough to get to know some of the folks who worked there. Manuel we learned was José's brother; Lourdes was José's wife. We also learned that the place was owned by an absentee landlord who didn't pay very much, demanded astonishingly long hours, and kept tips that had not been placed directly in the hand of an employee. This meant that gratuity put on a credit card, left on the table, or put in the tip jar went directly to that never-seen owner!

Naturally this dimmed our enthusiasm for the place. We feel strongly that hard work deserves fair wages!

Lourdes Minero (photo by Judy Dilts)
Skip forward several years. . . Charlie and I bump into Manuel in the tool section of Big Lots and learn that José and Lourdes are about to open their own restaurant in the former Waffle House (exit 243 on I-81). It will also be a taquería, but will have dishes that are their own creations as well as sub sandwiches.

We went, we ate, we loved the food! 

José cooks it, Lourdes serves it to us. They are working, she says, 14-hour days, and, yes, she is tired. But they are working for themselves, and that makes all the difference. Their young daughter hangs out in the back. Manuel, who works construction in Northern Virginia, comes in on the weekends to help out. And other family members and friends pitch in as well. 

The old Waffle House has been transformed into a bright, cheerful, colorful, welcoming place.

As a former professional cook, I can only give the food at The Substation and Mexican Grill two enthusiastic thumbs up. Everything on the menu is made from scratch. If you order chips, that's when they go back and cook the chips. The  guacamole is fresh with what looks like a whiff of pico de gallo mixed in to lighten it a bit. My current favorite entrée is a Tilapia BLT -- two flour tortillas, filled with grilled chunks of fish, bacon, and grilled vegetables. Served with sour cream and salsa. 

Dalila (a friend of Lourdes), Andres (Manuel's son), Georgina (Lourdes and Jose's daughter) , Lourdes, and Jose (photo by Judy Dilts)
The family who owns the Substation and Mexican Grill came to America a little over a decade ago. I'm not sure I've ever known people who worked as hard, as cheerfully. Eating among them makes me feel good about life, about food, even about my country. If I ever allowed myself to get sappy, I'd get sappy about what this 5-Star food joint says about the American dream being alive and cooking in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

I makes me feel encouraged just to hang out at the Substation and  Mexican Grill, eat, and have a chat with whomever's working.

Anyone want to join me there for lunch one day?

Monday, January 17, 2011

There's something about Sarah . . .thoughts on you and I and Ms. Palin . . .

drawing by Dori Hartley

Sally Quinn's blog  in yesterday's Washington Post was called, "To Sarah Palin: It's not all about you."  Ms. Quinn's point is that Ms. Palin perhaps has a tendency . . .how shall I put this? . . .to see herself as a central character in whatever happens, including the Arizona shootings. To look at all national events as opportunities for self-promotion.

One commenter did challenge Ms.Quinn to stop writing about the erstwhile candidate for vice-president if she found her so reprehensible. Which might possibly be good for the national discourse, but is still, in my opinion, completely impractical. I mean, if I, as a blogger, stopped mentioning Sarah Palin, I'd be seriously blog-fodder challenged, right? So it makes perfect sense for me to keep writing about the former governor, right????

Oh dear. . .

Does this mean that maybe, in reality, I think it's all about me? Could I possibly be Sarah Palin's soul sister disguised as a public radio blogger?

This muddle brings me back to something Ms. Quinn wrote half-way through her post:
I believe that what brings out so many hostile feelings toward Sarah Palin is that many people look at her and see the dark side of themselves. The psychiatrist will tell you that often what you hate in others is the thing you are most afraid of in yourself.

For whatever reason, I've been thinking quite a bit about Sarah Palin over the last week -- all the while  wondering why I bother to think about her at all. Is there really some "there, there" behind those trademark glasses? Certainly, the former governor of Alaska appears to be a person of great sass, who breaks through the staid conventions of political rhetoric. She bodaciously disrespects anyone who attempts to call her  to task.  She disparages unapologetically, apparantly has a great time snapping out instructions on her Facebook page to “never retreat, instead RELOAD!” And she so unabashedly grabs for the spotlight, even after last  week's horrendous Arizona massacre. I find her chutzpah fascinating; and am also, I must admit, a bit in awe of it.

We Americans, whether we love her or hate her, do find her fascinating.. The CNN Political Ticker, for example, cannot leave her be. Ms. Palin doesn't have to utter a word to make the column; it's considered worth reporting when someone talks about her.

Today, however, we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the man with the great, enduring dream of what this country could become. Sometime this week, Congress will most likely begin re-debating health care reform. We've promised each other to be more civil and respectful of each other's views in this debate; pledged that both our personal and political rhetoric in discussing health care (and everything else) will be more like Martin Luther King's, less like Sarah Palin's.

Will we do it? Can we do it? Or is Sally Quinn right to suspect that we have met the enemy of civility and it is, at least partially, us. Has Sarah Palin helped loose a rhetorical beast in you, in me, in American society, that cannot be re-caged?

What do you think?

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Wonders of Bacteria and Viruses, a Civic Soapbox essay by Denise Zito

Martha note: It's Civic Soapbox Friday. 
Though I’ve spent much of my career in medical laboratories and related industry, I was knocked flat last month at a scientific meeting when reminded that the human body is composed of ten percent human cells and ninety percent bacterial cells. Ninety percent! Remember, we’re not talking weight or volume, but simply numbers.
I was listening to a lecture about how the intestinal bacteria, or as the medical community calls them -- gut flora -- may play a role in diabetes, a condition affecting more and more Americans and citizens world-wide. It seems that the particular mix of bacteria in the intestine may be linked somehow to developing diabetes.

That interesting idea lead me to reflect about the way our own human genetic makeup and our vast microbial partners are intimately related, just the way a sprig of mistletoe depends on the tree, and the way the mushroom depends on the stump.

Contemporary America has declared war on bacteria. Everywhere you look there are anti-bacterial soaps and wipes. I’m fairly certain that most people just aren’t aware of how dependent we are on this wonderful life-form. Yes, most realize that cheese and beer and wine and sauerkraut are all made by the actions of bacteria. But does everyone also know that our immune system, through protective skin bacteria and the digestion of our food, are intimately dependent upon useful bacteria?

We’re also part and parcel of viruses. In order to live, a virus must insert itself into a living cell (often this is us), and even if our immune system clears the bug and we recover, the virus leaves behind a snippet of itself in our cells.

Thinking about this made me ponder exactly what it means to be human. We are woven with viral particles and living permanently with a swarm of helpful bacterial neighbors. Talk about an ecological moment! It’s wondrous really.

When antibiotics were developed and came into widespread use, they were a real lifesaver and improved health by eliminating many diseases and preventing a lot of suffering. More recently we’ve become perhaps overly dependent on these drugs and have them prescribed for every sore throat and ear infection, though most don’t benefit because the drugs don’t work against viruses. There are a lot of people who become impatient with their doctors and demand these drugs even when they aren’t indicated.

We’ve been warned that the over use of antibiotics leads to resistant strains, meaning bacteria that aren’t killed by our current drugs and have morphed into super-bugs that require more expensive and stronger drugs to control them. And those drugs are also killing many of our useful bacteria.

So today, I invite you to turn your thoughts to the fact that we humans are complex organisms and live in an intimate neighborhood with important bacterial partners. It’s a delicate balance of mostly peaceful coexistence with billions of fellow beings. It’s an amazing reality.
 --Denise Zito lives in community with bacteria on her small farm in Free Union.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jared Loughner and me . . .

I just read a long, front page piece in The Washington Post, about Jared Loughner, who'd evidently been quite desperately ill for some time. And please note that I say he was "ill," not "mentally ill," because to me part of the responsibility for the Arizona shootings comes from society's (meaning yours and mine) habit of differentiating between mental and physical illness. We've already established that separation did not lead to equality in schooling. Nor, I would submit does it lead to equality in our treatment of the sick.

Isn't it time we recognize that, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, an illness is an illness? That behavior is as legitimate a symptom of a need for medical intervention as a temperature or a seizure? That those of us who would reach out to anyone who faints, should reach out anyone who acts as Jared Lougher has for years?

Photo of Loughner playing the saxophone as a teenager in a jazz program.
Photo courtesy of Robert Blanco Photography
The Washington Post article about Mr. Loughner paints a portrait of a musically gifted kid who had some kind of a break in high school, for which he was never treated, and from which he never recovered. Instead his illness got worse, as untreated illnesses do, and we all know what happened.

Two thirds of the way through The Washington Post article, researched and written by three Post staff writers, was this:
In the past year or so, the crumbling of what was once Loughner was clear to anyone who bothered to look. Teachers, fellow students, even the anonymous e-buddies who substituted for the real friends he had lost - many suspected mental illness and said so, to one another, to Loughner, even to people who might have taken action. But no one did.
Later on in the article comes ...
By last summer, evidence of Loughner's increasingly deteriorating mental state was littered across the electronic worlds he inhabited.
On one site, Above Top Secret, Loughner left dozens of posts with bizarre theories about U.S. currency, the Constitution and grammar. Finally, another regular on the site wrote back that "I think you're frankly schizophrenic, and no that's not an amateur opinion and not intended as an uninformed or insulting remark. I really do care. Seek help before you hurt yourself or others or start taking your medications again, please."
Loughner, known on the site as "erad3," responded, "Thank you for the concern." 
There's already been a lot written about how inadequately we, as a  society, deal with mental health. Here's an excerpt from George Kubin's OpEd in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune.
... As a nation, we fail over and over to address the problem of mental illness and then wonder where these people come from when there is a mass murder. These people do not see the world like most rational people. Applying a rational form of justice on an irrational individual does nothing to address the core problem. Rather than viewing these events as isolated incidents, we as a society need to do a better job of educating people about what options there are to get people with mental illness the help they need.
Sure. Sure. I agree with Mr. Kubin completely. But, to me, the language of this piece still somehow separates the mentally ill from the physically ill, as though "these people" were somehow something other than "people."

This issue is personal with me, as I am chronically ill with both the disease of addiction and the disease of depression. Both -- hallelujah -- are in deep remission through treatment, but I am still ill. If I hadn't gotten treatment, who knows what I'd be doing this fine bright morning instead of blogging away for WMRA!

Treating the mentally ill begins with accepting -- and I mean accepting -- that "mental" illness is no more of a stigma per se than any other illness; say, for example, diabetes. Both are conditions that threaten a person's ability to lead a healthy life as a fully functioning member of society. Both need medical intervention. We've got to stop separating how we, as individuals and as a society, view the two.

This post is a plea to examine your own attitude toward the "mentally" ill. If you think of  Jared Loughner as "an other," then think of me as "an other" as well. Conceivably, the difference in what we did with our lives could be attributed, at least partially, to the difference in the help we got.