Friday, April 22, 2011

Stuff, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Devan Malore

I do carpentry and construction for a living, so I think a lot about human shelter.

Sociologists call the complex system of relationships required to keep our modern world spinning along, organic solidarity. In the village, we had a butcher, baker, candle stick maker. That simpler system of work and relationships is referred to as mechanical solidarity.

After lifetimes spent in caves, dark leaky huts and walled-in castles, organic solidarity feels great. It’s a pleasure to live in conformable spaces, paint walls any color, not worry about rain or cold. However, organic solidarity tends to be consumer driven, so lots of us these days find ourselves dealing with too much stuff to pay for and care for.

Today, somewhere in rural China a factory is producing components for a phone that is smarter than last year’s. On better days this seems a good idea, one that promotes innovation, peace and prosperity through commerce. On bad days, it seems like relentless production of an avalanche of un-needed things, all clamoring to be bought and taken home. I mean, who doesn’t get tired just from imagining cleaning the garage, basement, storage sheds.

Consumer choice is an important mantra of our times. Yet why we need fifty kinds of ketchup in the supermarket is hard to understand. Of course, ketchup companies do employ good folks at their factories which are often located in struggling communities, and I do realize that our economy is almost hopelessly complex. Yet, for my own peace-of-mind, I still chose l to live by this alternative to consumerism as it’s practiced today – something from the popular Buddhist Monk, activist and writer, Thich Nhat Hanh, which he calls “Mindfulness trainings,”

It goes something like this. First I become aware of the suffering created by unmindful consumption. This might be debt, stress, poor health or negative environmental impact related to buying and consuming. Next, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental for myself, family, and society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming of all material goods. I’m also asked to consider what news, advertising and media I expose myself to, because I consume lots of information these days that has an effect on how I view life and how I act.

Thich Nhat Hanh

This simple, but not easy, training doesn’t ask me to do the impossible: It doesn’t ask me not to consume. All I’m asked to do is mindfully consider the impact of what I consume on myself the environment and community.

Imagine a culture built on an “economic system” where we place greater value on creation of healthy relationships, good health, peace, love, happiness, consciousness, and intelligence. All those simple not-things that use fewer resources, yet are often difficult to create.

Sure, our sacred stuff would still get made, but hopefully we’d create, use, and pass on that stuff in a more mindful manner.

I, for one, am convinced we’re much more than what we produce and consume. Why shouldn’t each of us consider becoming more, rather than buying more? Surely, mysterious force “the economy” will eventually shift to meet out greater needs.
 -- Devan Malore lives on the Maury River, wondering what stuff will float by in the next flood . . .

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Dark, Lurking Force beneath the Valley's green lawns, a Civic Soapbox essay by Bruce Dorries

I learned a lot about septic tanks during a recent chat with Gary Flory, Department of Environmental Quality, supervisor for 14 Virginia counties, including our area.

Real pro. Nice fella. Poor guy….

I peppered him with questions. You see, my family had just paid two hundred and fifty dollars to have ours cleaned. It had been about six years since the last servicing. My wallet still felt the pain.

It had seemed steep to me, especially after the suction pros joked, "Looked pretty good down there. And no noxious fumes. You must be living right, bud!"

Did this mean the tank could go longer between bills?” The previous owner had never had the tank serviced. Some neighbors operate on the “No smell, no foul, no fee,” septic maintenance program.

So, had I flushed two fifty down the drain? No, no, my new friend, the DEQ guru, told me. You invested two fifty.

And to convince me of the value of my investment, the guru told me
-- horror stories of homeowners finding themselves ankle deep in “failed systems” that took weeks to repair.

-- dark tales of replacement systems that must meet new environmental standards, sometimes costing four times as much as twenty thousand dollars.
-- blood curdling accounts of contaminated well water both near the tank and on neighboring property.
And, most shocking of all for greens such as myself –the cumulatively destructive impact of septic tank waste being flushed downstream is incalculable. Septic system failure contributes significantly to the fact that 62 percent of this region’s rivers and streams are more contaminated than water quality standards allow.
Not to mention augmenting the catastrophe that is the Chesapeake Bay.

My family lives on the Middle River in Augusta County. From a distance, the water around us looks pristine. Up close, you see slime covering the bottom. Don’t eat the fish. Don’t go swimming. It will take decades to clean. That’s a damn pity.

Many farmers in these parts have made a good faith start to improve practices that will clean our waters and save the bay. But we homeowners need to do a better job of taking care of our business, too. We can reduce storm water run off, use fertilizers sparingly, and get septic tanks emptied every five years.

The truth is that a dark force lurks beneath backyards throughout the Valley. Treated well, it is benign, even beneficial. If left unattended, these unassuming, often forgotten cement giants can foul our waterways and take massive bite out of a homeowners' bank accounts. Soil and water conservation districts have funds to help offset costs of pumping out the grit in tanks that clogs septic lines. County government can help homeowners make that connection with such funds.

Next week is Earth Week. Here’s hoping we all take it as a reminder to unearth the hatch, clean the tanks, and then reseed the soil. Let’s all join together in keeping the Valley’s backyards as green underneath as they are on the surface.

-- Bruce Dorries is a member of Friends of the Middle River and teaches at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The first intermittent blog post is on the new (?) American Dream . . .

My morning's reading about President Obama's deficit speech included a column in the Washington Post by frequent NPR guest pundit, E. J. Dionne. Mr. Dionne, who's what I call a thinking liberal (as opposed to a reactionary liberal) obviously liked what our president had to say, for he called his column "Obama’s deficit speech: Worthy of a president."

In it, Mr. Dionne writes that there were at least four things to like about the president's speech. The second, third, and fourth of these were:
  • "he was willing to talk plainly about raising taxes."
  • "he was right to focus on the need to cut security spending."
  • "he was eloquent in defending Medicare and Medicaid, and he proposed saving money by building on last year’s health-reform law."
It was E.J. Dione's first likable point about President Obama's speech that set me to thinking about the American Dream this morning. Mr.Dionne writes: 
. . .First, without mentioning Rep. Paul Ryan by name, he called out Ryan’s truly reactionary budget proposal for what it is: an effort to slash government programs, in large part to preserve and expand tax cuts for the wealthy. “That’s not right,” he said, “and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m president.”
Oh, those Bush era tax cuts. I, for one, will be quick to admit that I'm not enough of an economist to talk learnedly about how extending them will help an economy that's been fairly shaky a good part of the time they've been in effect.

What has left me long baffled, however, is listening to people who are not in the least rich defend them. Does this, I wonder, imply some fundamental shift in the good old American Dream? Which I'd always construed as a dream that if one works hard, tries one's best and looks out for others, one will be rewarded with the opportunity for a decent, fulfilling life.

Has that dream become too modest for us non-rich Americans who support continuing tax cuts for the wealthy? Are we, in our heart of hearts, dreaming that someday we, too, will be rich enough to benefit from those tax cuts? Is having enough no longer enough? Furthermore, do we dream that once we get more than enough, we certainly don't want to have to use any of it to fund Medicaid?

To put it simply, has being an American come to mean we're entitled to as much as we can get our hands on without being bothered by pesky taxes?

To me, a country is morally defined by its societal dreams. Has accruing surplus personal wealth really become the great American Dream?

I've got the question. You got an answer?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Everything changes, including Martha's job . . .

Martha here.

This is the 482nd post on the WMRA blog. I'm happy to report that up to 400 different people take a gander at them every day. I have loved managing and writing this on-line conversation.

To quote the Bible or the Byrds (channeling Pete Seeger), however, for everything there is a season, and my season as WMRA's blogger-in-chief  is winding down.


Because I'm cooking up a new WMRA creation that will put me back on air regularly; and much as I hate to come to terms with this, there's only one of me, and I just do not have the time any more to tend to a daily blog.

I will continue to post Civic Soapbox essays on Fridays, and may occasionally still write something myself (about which I'll alert you on Facebook).  Also, the blog remains at the service of any WMRAer with something to say.

All you have to do to submit a post is e-mail it the station, c/o me, Martha Woodroof.

I cannot thank enough those of you who have regularly read and responded to this blog. It has been exactly what I'd hoped it would be: a way to expand the WMRA Community conversation.  And, although I'll miss that conversation, I have to admit I'm tremendously excited about this new project. Hopefully, it will involve lots of us in its production, and make compelling, entertaining and informative radio for all of us!

All my best,   M

Friday, April 8, 2011

In Praise of Public Service, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Reid Wodicka

I am a career public servant.

And as I watch government budgets being slashed, what disturbs me most is the ever-increasing blame being upon public employees. I stand today on WMRA’s civic soapbox to remind you of what public employees do and why it is important that our professions remains respected.

Ideally, government does that which can be accomplished better or more efficiently collectively than individually. A few of the public service professionals who keep life civilized are garbage collectors, teachers, firefighters, police officers, sewage treatment professionals, drinking water operators, highways workers, school cafeteria workers, janitors, maintenance workers, and on and on. Can you imagine life if no one were here to pick up the trash? Sure, you’d save a few dollars, but at what cost to your environment and health?

And heaven forbid your house catches fire, if no one’s around to put out the flames? What if your neighbor’s house also caught fire as well, and the whole block burned down? How about if no one treated sewage? I’ll let you imagine that one on your own.

Now about those government regulations and the people you pay to enforce them – who are perhaps the most unpopular public-sector professionals. It’s true the cost of sewage treatment is driven higher by state and federal regulations, duly enforced by regulators. Naturally, it would be much less expensive for towns, cities, and manufacturing facilities to let sewage flow into a river or a lake. And seriously, if now one were watching businesses, what do you think the possibility is that some of them might try to save money by using this less expensive method of treatment? So what if you live in the next town down river and your drinking water comes from that river? Yes, it’s a gross, but it’s also just the kind of situation regulations prevent. Regulation is not about making it more difficult to do business as some would have you believe.

As a career public servant, however, I also say to my fellow public employees: We must never forget that we serve the people. We can expect to be valued only to the extent that we do our jobs well. Just as with any profession, a career in public service requires continual improvement. Also, we public servants should accept that constant organizational change is our way of life. It takes a dynamic culture to provide quality public service.

As we move further into recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression, I call on you to stop for a moment to imagine a world in which there are no public servants; no one to pick up trash, to fight fires, to teach children history and calculus. I would argue that without me and my fellow public servants, our quality of life would tumble drastically.

Public service is my calling and in one capacity or another, I will spend my life working towards a higher quality of life for all people. I also hope that public policymakers will stop blanket vilification of those of us who’ve chosen careers in public service, and instead to value our dedication to building an even stronger social fabric.
--- Reid Wodicka lives in Harrisonburg and is the Town Manager of Elkton. He will receive a Master of Public Administration degree from James Madison University in May.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Na-Na-Na Factor . . .

I'm starting today with Congress, although I could just as easily start with Glenn Beck. Because both
  1. talk a lot; and 
  2. taunt a lot, while they're talking. 
About Congress . . .

shockingly humorous study came to light yesterday in the waning hours of funded Federal government. As members of Congress postured and squabbled over a tiny fraction of the federal budget, Harvard Professor Gary King announced he's discovered that these people use 27% of their written communications to taunt colleagues. Members with so-called "safe" seats are the worst (best?) taunters.

From the Washington Post:
Prof. Gary King
“It’s jarring and surprising,” said Prof. Gary King, an expert in using computers to find patterns in large amounts of data. And, King said, probably counterproductive if we want Congress’s members to trust one another enough to make deals. 
“The entire government may go bankrupt, I guess. This week, right?” King said in a telephone interview. “We probably want our representatives to be listening to each other rather than calling each other names.”
There's really no need for me to comment on this. I'm sure you can come up with plenty of pithy observations of your own. And maybe, heaven forbid, a few taunts, as well!

On to Glenn Beck, arguably the Grand Master of Taunting ...

As David Folkenflik reported last night on All Things Considered and writes on
At long last, we have an answer to the enduring question: Is it possible for someone to be too incendiary, even for the Fox News Channel? 
And the answer is yes. 
Glenn Beck's daily spot on the nation's leading cable news station is coming to a close little more than two years after his start on Fox News. While his contract runs through December, his show is not expected to last that long. . . .
Photo credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP
It was about ratings and revenue, rather than about ethics or anything to do with ignoring that pesky journalistic mandate for confirming the truth of one's assertions. The LA Times writes:
... Less than three years after joining Fox News from CNN's Headline News amid a burst of publicity, Beck is being booted off the air. His sinking ratings certainly didn't help — they fell 32% for the first three months of this year, to 1.9 million total viewers, according to the Nielsen Co. 
And after months of reported friction between the host and Fox News as well as an aggressive advertiser boycott after Beck dubbed President Obama a racist, analysts professed little surprise. ... 
"The ratings drop was significant and couldn't be ignored," McCall continued. "The advertiser boycott didn't hurt the program or FNC as much in terms of dollars as it did in terms of bad publicity. Beck was no longer just a personality with a show on FNC. He became an easy target for Fox News critics to characterize him as representative of the entire channel."
Calling President Obama a racist certainly qualifies as taunting, don't you think? Does this mean that Glenn Beck, in effect, taunted himself off the Fox News air?

If so, does this mean that Americans, across the board, are finally tired of people constantly and unproductively na-na-na-ing away at each other?

Perhaps it would behoove our elected representatives to use Glenn Beck as a role model for how not to keep a job -- no matter how "safe" it is considered.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Keeping the faith and growing potatoes . . .

Rep. Ryan and his optimistically named budget proposal
I started my day about 7 a.m.trying to come to terms with Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis., House Budget Committee Chair) "Path to Prosperity" Budget Plan. I quickly moved on to wishing that I trusted people in power to really, truly mean what they say  when they claim to have the interest of the poor, sick, or the elderly -- or even the middle class -- at heart.

Most politicians look so glossy. It's hard to imagine them having much concept of the struggles and troubles of the less-glossy.

I moved on to take a look Tom Graham's morning e-mail (a.k.a. the Graham News Service). This led me to open a link to Anita Kumar's "On Politics " post, which begins:
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) told reporters at a Tuesday news conference that he opposes proposed regulations developed by his Democratic predecessor that would for the first time allow gay couples to adopt children in Virginia.
Oh dear! As a parent (and a lifelong sucker for anything small and helpless), I had to wonder if our governor was letting the political ramifications of supporting gay anything in Virginia trump consideration of the welfare of the legions of parentless children around the world. How did we let adoption get tangled up in politics in the first place? Shouldn't it be about giving abandoned kids a better life? What is wrong with us?

To stop thinking about parentless children, I started thinking about Japan off-loading radioactive water into the ocean, Terry Jones' firebug proclivities, all those federal government employees facing what appears to be mainly politically-motivated temporary job loss, all the bombs people are dropping on other people. 

And then I just ground to a blogging halt. 

To paraphrase Lena Lamont (Jean Hagan, Singin' in the Rain), I couldn't stan' it. I could not stand spending this particular April morning blogging about things that tempt me to wallow in cynicism and hopelessness. Once I give in to those two temptations, I've resigned my larger humanity for the day for the ranks of the glossy self-interested; the what's-in-it-for-me crowd. 

Snarkiness has always been easier than optimism. Pessimism has long been the chief characteristic of all former humans who still have beating hearts.

Well, phooey on that! Today, in open defiance of the depressing news of the day, I'm going to write about something that isn't news at all. I'm going to write about Dan Easley's garden. 

Dan, the Man
Dan Easley is a 21st Century Geek Supreme, as well as a former and much-missed WMRAer. He speaks computer as fluently as I speak English. Dan's expertise is in technology, but he's ambivalent, at best, about fully embracing the pace and apparent values of 21st Century America. And, he's refreshingly unafraid of living that ambivalence; i.e. he has mixed feelings about spending 40 hours a week at a conventional job and is willing to live with the financial consequences. Dan does not need to acquire stuff -- except for musical instruments. Charlie, my husband, steals from the late George Carlin by referring to Dan as the High Tech Low Life.

What I'm saying is that Mr. Easley's heart and energy (outside of his personal relationships) appear to be firmly invested in his music and his garden. About the latter, he e-mailed me last week that 
as the weather gets warmer i get more and more cranky sitting at a computer. at least i got my yellow potatoes in the ground yesterday, and a heckuva lot of certified organic seeds ordered. and 2 1/2 pounds of seed potatoes of the All Blue variety. delicious! 
I'm going to use Dan and his garden this morning as an antidote to my temporary attack of the World View Blues, for it takes true optimism for Dan to plant his garden. He has to have faith down to his toes that, despite humanity's energetic efforts to self-destruct, the sun will keep shining, the rain will keep falling, the world will keep spinning. Also, as a garden is a lot of work, planting one isn't about feeling hopeful; it's about being hopeful. It's about actively keeping the faith that we flawed human beings -- including those glossy politicians -- will somehow find our way forward together.

Holy seed potato, Batman! Surely I can follow Dan's example today: Surely, I can find something hopeful, embrace it, and get to work making it happen.

You with us?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Arms and the college student . . .

Once again, I was all set to blog about some entirely different subject before I read my e-mail. Always risky. . .
Sure enough, there was a note from Liz Nutt who runs the website (which mainly gives information about online college education, about which I know nothing). Ms. Nutt sent me a link to a post she'd done on "10 Colleges That Allow Guns on Campus," and wrote, "Considering this overlap in subject matter with your blog; I thought perhaps you would be interested in sharing the article with your readers?" 
States where guns are allowed on some college campuses
Which is exactly what I'm doing by posting it below. To me, Liz's list, (although incomplete as 25 colleges allow guns on campus according to, provides enough information for a reality check: Guns are allowed on campus in this country; it is possible to go to class and sit next to someone who's packing. 
And there's nothing like a good reality check to make us face some really hard questions. Here, my friends, is Liz's list:

10 Colleges That Allow Guns on Campuss

Unfortunately, shootings at high schools and on college campuses punctuate recent American history. But while some students and teachers feel vulnerable if they’re unarmed and unable to strike back should another tragedy occur, others believe that the more guns that are on campus, the higher the risk for accidents and shootings. The debate is going strong in state legislatures, on Facebook, and at school, and if you’re a prospective college student, you should know the existing gun laws at the schools you want to attend. Besides the schools listed below, even more colleges do allow guns — these are some of the biggest, well-known schools and ones that represent different states and regions.
  1. Colorado State University: Colorado schools have the option to allow or prohibit guns on campus, and the large CSU in Fort Collins has granted students permission to carry guns since 2003.
  2. Dixie State College of Utah: This four-year university in St. George, Utah, allows of-age concealed handgun permit holders — they must be 21 — to carry guns on campus.
  3. University of Utah: Located in Salt Lake City, the U of U has a total enrollment of over 29,000, and approved permit holders can carry concealed guns on campus.
  4. Utah State University: Another large state school, Utah State is the number one public university in the West — and one that allows students to carry guns.
  5. Weber State University: Located in Ogden, UT, Weber State is an attractive choice for nontraditional and traditional students alike, but students can carry guns on its 500-acre Ogden campus.
  6. Michigan State University: As more states debate allowing guns on campus, Michigan’s largest state school — one of the largest universities in the country — does allow guns on campus. The ruling isn’t statewide yet, though.
  7. Southern Utah University: Cedar City’s SUU offers technical through graduate programs, allowing approved students to carry guns.
  8. Blue Ridge Community College: Virginia’s Blue Ridge Community College, a Shenandoah Valley-area school, is a rare East Coast school that allows students to have guns. [more on this later from Martha]
  9. Utah Valley University: Utah Valley is the second largest institution in the Utah System of Higher Education, and it, too, allows guns on campus.
  10. Community College of Denver: Denver’s community college has also chosen to allow guns on campus. The school actually has four campuses scattered throughout the city.
Liz's list represents , if you will, the piecemeal approach to allowing guns on campus. Texas, however, is poised to pass a bill that would allow guns on the campuses of all state schools. Utah already has such a measure -- as you might surmise from the number  of Utah state schools on Liz Nutt's list.

Virginia law already prohibits students or visitors from carrying guns onto the grounds of public and private K-12 schools. The state also prohibits concealed weapons in courthouses, places of worship during a service, jails and on any private property where the owner has posted a "no guns" notice. State employees are barred from possessing guns while at work unless needed for their job. 
But Virginia code is silent on guns and public colleges. And two bills seeking to give college governing boards the authority to regulate firearms on campus died in committee during this year's General Assembly session.
About guns and Blue Ridge Community College (that lone eastern college on Liz's list). Guns are there because of David Briggman, who lives in Keezletown (Rockingham County), Virginia. Mr. Briggman appears to take arming Virginia's college students as his personal mission.
David Briggman
Briggman, who is a former police officer, said he forced Blue Ridge Community College to allow him to carry a gun onto campus while a student. And he sued James Madison University over its ban on concealed weapons even among permit holders. While JMU's policy still stands, Briggman said he has been told by campus police officials that they will not arrest visitors who carry a gun legally. 
"It's extremely easy to challenge university policy by looking at ... whether they are given the statutory authority to regulate firearms on campus, and of course, they're not," Briggman said. ...
Virginia Tech survivor Collin Goddard, who was shot 4 times on April 16, 2007, appears to have a different mission: Keeping guns out of college. Goddard testified before the General Assembly against allowing students to carry on campus, a message he willingly carries across the country.

Collin Goddard's argument: "The fear is in the wrong place, the fear needs to be at the point of sale when people are getting these guns, because we do a horrible job of keeping them from dangerous people."

Colin Goddard 21, lays in his hospital room at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Christiansburg, VA, a few miles from Virginia Tech.  Sean Dougherty, USA TODAY 
So now, with the reality check duly absorbed, it's on to the hard questions:
  1. What to do about guns in this country? What does our Constitution allow us to do? Nothing? Something? If so, what? 
  2. Are college campuses different legal animals when it comes to gun control? 
  3. If arming students on campus is about personal safety, does this mean the campus police are incompetent? 
  4. Whenever we consider college students, like it or not we have to consider college students out of control on alcohol and drugs. Is it possible to allow guns on campus and keep them in the hands of rational people only?
You got any answers?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Negro League baseball and Virginia's redistricting

As far as I can tell, WMRA's Tom Graham gets up at an indecently early hour (for anyone who doesn't have to milk cows) just to read newspapers. Then every morning  about 7:30, he sends out  links to Virginia news stories. I always look forward to getting Tom's morning e-mail, and regularly poke through as many stories as time permits. So, first let me start with a public thanks to Tom for the Graham  News Service.

A lot of this weekend's and mornings stories from the GNS concerned Virginia's struggles to redistrict itself. This morning's Staunton News Leader ran an AP story about redistricting reflecting the population growth in Northern Virginia. UVA's Larry Sabato is quoted as saying, "Southside, southwestern Virginia, the Valley, they're all going to lose seats, and that's the bottom line. After this, the rural legislators are the outsiders looking in."

Okay, that sounds reasonable, don't you think? Aren't we supposed to parcel out Virginia's political districts so as to best represent Virginia's people?

The GNS, however, also sent out a link to an article written by the Washington Post's Anita Kumar (Tom's frequent guest on Virginia Insight) that begins:
RICHMOND — A decade ago, the last time Virginia embarked on redrawing boundaries for its legislative districts, lawmakers created maps that protected incumbents and punished challengers, leading observers to complain that the process lacked outside input. 
George Barker
This year, despite the appointment of a bipartisan commission to advise legislators, the lines were largely drawn by two men: Sen. George L. Barker (D), a health-care planner from Prince William County, and Rep. S. Chris Jones (R), a pharmacist from Suffolk. 
Chris Jones
The pair was part of a small cadre of legislators who worked quietly to draw the maps with input primarily from the majority party in each house. Fewer than 10 of the state’s 140 legislators were privy to the lines before they were made public last week, according to lawmakers and aides. 
The General Assembly, which returns to the Capitol on Monday for a special session on redistricting, expects to approve the proposed maps with few alterations and within days. 
The Republican-led House of Delegates and the Democratic-controlled Senate have already agreed to vote for their own plans, and then each other’s, as part of a deal between the chamber’s leaders. 
The result? Lines that protect incumbents and punish challengers, observers say.
Is it just me, or does this imply that Virginia's politicians have made the redistricting process more about themselves than our well-being? Doesn't this represent yet another sad example of self-interest trumping what's right?

I was thinking about powerful people and self-interest and the blight it has visited on our country yesterday, as I stood in a church yard in Buena, Virginia, watching the new Pete Hill historical marker being unveiled.

If you've just asked who's Pete Hill, then you've just helped me make my point du jour. And for what it's worth, I helped make it as well. I didn't have a clue who Pete Hill was until I got an e-mail from Randy Jones of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources telling me about him. It was so interesting that I immediately asked to do a story on both him and his marker for Virginia Public Radio.

As to who Pete Hill was, he was arguably one of the greatest baseball players ever. You and I have never heard of him because he was also black and ignored. Pete Hill spent his long and staggeringly brilliant career playing in American Negro, Cuban, and Mexican leagues; his prowess unacknowledged by the white and the powerful. Those who decreed what was baseball and what wasn't simply chose not to notice the inconvenient reality that there were black players who could take on any group of white players in the land, and on any given day, beat the tar out of them.

Pete Hill was finally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, 55 years after his death at the age of 69. Here is Pete Hill's Hall of Fame bio:

A standout center fielder with a rifle arm, Pete Hill was one of the greatest line-drive hitters of his era. From the turn of the century to the early 1920s, Hill was a giant among Giants, starring with legendary clubs such as the Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants. Playing alongside baseball greats Rube Foster, Pop Lloyd and Bruce Petway, Hill captained the legendary Leland Giants of 1910, credited with a record of 123 wins and just six losses. For eight seasons with the Chicago American Giants, Hill tormented opposing moundsmen with his knack of fouling off pitch after pitch. Hill wound down his stellar career as player-manager for the Detroit Stars during their early days in the newly formed Negro National League.
The historical marker unveiled yesterday corrects an historical mistake: Pete Hill's name and place of birth were wrong on his original Hall of Fame plague. The great outfielder was not Joseph Preston Hill, born in Pittsburg; he was John Preston Hill born in Buena, a tiny dot on the map in Culpeper County. This information was uncovered by a group of people, led by the redoubtable Zann Nelson. The Hall of Fame ceremonially hung a corrected plaque honoring Pete Hill last September.

Researcher Zann Nelson (front, center) poses with Pete Hill's family members in front of his new recast plaque at the Hall of Fame. (Milo Stewart Jr.)
Yesterday's ceremony in Buena was a homecoming.

I'll be reporting about Pete Hill and his homecoming in full in a later radio story, but today I just want to make the point (particularly to those incumbents in the Virginia General Assembly) that we play games with what's right and honest at our own cost. I've always loved baseball history, but today I wonder if all those white-only baseball stats from the Ruth and Gehrig era mean anything.

Yesterday in Buena, I met two retired Negro League players who are old now. They claim to be at peace with their race-related obscurity, and I hope they are. It would be a shame to be denied your rightful place in sports history and also be stuck toting buckets of anger around for a lifetime.

I also listened to white politicians and bureaucrats voice regret for past mistakes and then talk about how well we all get along these days, regardless of the color of our skins. Hmmmmmm, I thought.

Then this morning, I read about how Virginia politicians have taken it upon themselves to re-district our state, not based on fairness, but to protect their power. Why, I have to ask, do we let politicians get away with such shenanigans? But then, why did early generations let baseball historians get away with ignoring Pete Hill?

It took close to a century for us to partially undo the neglect of Pete Hill. How long will it take us to do the same for those challenging voices in state politics about to be effectively silenced by redistricting?

Any thoughts?

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Physiology of Love, a Civic Soapbox essay by Christian Early

I am a philosopher by trade and a romantic by disposition. I currently teach a course called "Love and Evolution," in which I argue the best way to tell the story of the story of the as a love story.

image from Scientific American
On Valentines Day, Scientific American published a picture of a brain on love. Researchers discovered two things about Cupid's Arrow. The first is that it is a particularly potent and addictive cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin. And the second is that it only takes a fraction of a second to hit its target. It may take a whole life and then some to figure out what just happened, but we really do fall in love in a moment in time.

Antonia Damasio
That picture and the research behind it is part of what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls the Emotion Revolution. Damasio argues that all living things that move about, from the amoeba to the human, do so using emotion to navigate their world. For human beings the brain systems required by reason are enmeshed in those needed by emotion and interwoven with the systems which regulate the body. In short, we are always "emotional" and if our systems become dis-integrated, when they can't make contact or communicate, we lose our ability to navigate our natural and social environment successfully.

Humans, then, are on a continuum of all creatures and living things. We are not so different after all. Flies get angry, snails get scared, and dogs get happy. They don't have consciousness awareness, but they do have emotions. This may seem like fanciful projection, but I suspect that metaphors we inherited from the industrial revolution have veiled how freaky cool, as a friend of mine likes to say, life really is.

Mary Gordon
Recently I learned of Mary Gordon and her the Roots of Empathy program in which expecting mothers visit a classroom over the course of a year. The program is producing a wealth of data showing a direct correlation between empathic maturity, or emotional intelligence, and critical thinking. Summing up the findings, Gordon says "Love grows brains." Humans are rational not because brains are calculators, but because brains are emotional.

Staying alive while moving about is primarily, though not only, a matter of sorting for safety and danger. When we fall in love, our whole being tells us that this person is safe, but it very rarely stays that way. When we have a bodied sense of danger, when our internal alarm bell goes off, we engage in all sorts of behavior ranging from seeking and clinging to cutting off and attacking. There is a disorienting shadow side to love: broken hearts, betrayal, loss, and loneliness. We suffer in part because we are creatures who care.

We are just now beginning to put love under the microscope, and some might want to reduce love to mere chemicals, but I think it is not only fair, but also true, to say that the lived experience of love leaves us with a wonderful though often tragic mystery.
--Christian Early is a Danish immigrant who teaches philosophy at Eastern Mennonite University.