Tuesday, March 31, 2009
"Watch Oprah Ask Polygamist Women To Explain Their Hair: 'It's the Style'"
My wife's observation: "I'd say they're burying the lead."
Elsewhere in la-la land, this story:
"Bushy Eyebrows Make a Comeback"
Finally, from the "Can you imagine Bush doing that?" file, this:
"Obamas Are Personally Paying for White House Renovations."
Bennett replaces Dave Leitao, a man who--in my view--was pulled far too quickly by an athletic director looking hard at the bottom line and the empty seats in UVa's new Taj Mahal of a basketball facility. Bennett, who recruited well at a school in the middle of nowhere (Eastern Washington is not Seattle in any respect) is expected to land some top-notch prospects to Virginia's nationally-respected university, but I'm not so sure about his immediate success in the east. He has spent his career in the midwest (Wisconsin, coaching with his father) and far west and his recruiting contacts there will likely be reluctant to come this far from home to a program that was not successful last year (remember, though, Virginia is two years removed from an ACC title).
Virginia's fans, smarting from a truly awful season (and my fan wife sat through every game on TV and the Xavier blowout in person--to the bitter end), expected their athletic director to go out and bring in a John Calipari (Kentucky gets him) or Rick Petino (he stays at Louisville), but spending $4 million for a basketball coach would not likely sit well with politicians in the Commonwealth--regardless of where the money comes from.
Bennett could well to be a Bruce Pearl-style bargain. Pearl is the colorful, talented Tennessee coach who has caused such a stir in four years. He came from a small program in Wisconsin where he had great success and was hired after half a dozen "name" coaches said "no" or maybe more like "hell, no, I'm not coaching basketball at a school with a 107,000-seat football stadium."
So, Virginia fans, get a grip and hope you hit the lottery. Because that's what it is. Ask Billy Donovan or Billy Gillespie, the Florida coach who had a down year after two straight national championships and the Kentucky coach who dared not make the NCAA tournament.
(Note: This represents my 200th blog post since I began Oct. 18, 2008. Woooooo-hoooooo!)
Monday, March 30, 2009
My wife loves newspapers and each day represents a small portion of the "death by 1,000 cuts" as another paper announces it can't go on any longer as it has. Sunday morning, there was a piece on "CBS Sunday Morning" that took a look at the industry and that set her day off again.
I want to resssure her and am constantly quoting my friend Keith Ferrell that the newspaper isn't important; the newsroom is. But she remains skeptical and worries that we'll lose the franchise before change can be implemented.
Into this moment of change charges Arianna Huffington, the former Republican who is now the leader of the Democratic left, with this announcement today on huffingtonpost.com of the formation of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund:
“This nonprofit Fund will produce a wide-range of investigative journalism created by both staff reporters and freelance writers. As the newspaper industry continues to contract, one of the most commonly voiced fears is that investigative journalism will be among the victims of the scaleback. And, indeed, many newspapers are drastically reducing their investigative teams. Yet, given the multiple crises we are living through, investigative journalism is all the more important. As a result, all who recognize the indispensable role good journalism plays in our democracy are looking for ways to preserve it during this transitional period for the media. For too long, whether it's coverage of the war in Iraq or the economic meltdown, we've had too many autopsies and not enough biopsies. The HuffFund is our attempt to change this.”
This is yet another gathering of journalists--some professional, some freelance, some quite probably amateur--who will keep a watchful eye on that which needs to be monitored. I have no thought that the franchise will die just because the building is crumbling. Journalism is about journalists, not about fat, lazy, incompetent executives who have given journalism its version of Wall Street and big auto. It's going to be just fine, thank you, because, frankly, good journalists don't do it for the money, anyway.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
While watching a movie about an Hispanic chef the other night ("Tortilla Soup") I watched as some truly intriguing dishes were created, one of them grilled cactus. I studied the chef as he scraped the thorns from the cactus and prepared it for the grill, then saw it blister, soften and look appetizing.
I pledged to find some cactus and cook and today I did.
Happy's Flea Market in Roanoke has become something of a Central American gathering place and today I spotted at least three Hispanic vegetable stands, each with a cache of foods I wouldn't know what to do with if you handed them to me in the kitchen. But I knew what to do with cactus. I asked for cooking instructions anyway and the pleasant Mexican woman selling the vegetables suggested I boil it, cut it into strips and serve it with tomatoes, peppers and cilantro ("It tastes like green beans," she said) or simply salt it and lay it on the grill for a few minutes per side.
I chose the latter recipe with a few modifications: garlic, olive oil and light sea salt and a brisk grilling on each side. I put it in a grilling basket with green and white beans, ramps, mushrooms and carrots and served it decorated with a spicy salsa and plenty of cilantro. It was delightful.
The cactus doesn't really taste like green beans (the green beans did, though) and it has a texture close to okra (oh, that luscious slime). Pretty good stuff. My wife loved it and I recommend it.
Friday, March 27, 2009
SustainableBusiness.com reports that a Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have introduced a bill titled the Appalachian Restoration Act that would "effectively ban mountaintop removal mining practices in the U.S.” The act would "prevent the dumping of what is known as ’excess spoil’ from mountaintop mining into streams and rivers.
Mountaintop removal results in the summit of a mountain being removed to allow miners to get at the coal below. The removed rock, dirt and vegetation is most often dumped into the valleys below, creating pollution of waterways and all kinds of environmental degradation. Mining Companies prefer mountaintop removal when possible because it is less expensive than traditional mining.
The senators say a million Appalachia acres have been mined in this manner and that 1,200 miles of headwater streams have been buried under mining waste. Something north of 500 mountains have been mined like this. About 5 percent of the coal mined in the U.S. is mined in this way.
SustainableBusiness.com quoted Cardin as saying, "My goal is to put a stop to one of the most destructive mining practices that has already destroyed some of America's most beautiful and ecologically significant regions. This legislation will put a stop to the smothering of our nation's streams and water systems and will restore the Clean Water Act to its original intent."
Alexander spake thusly: "Coal is an essential part of our energy future, but it is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal. Millions of tourists spend tens of millions of dollars in Tennessee every year to enjoy the natural beauty of our mountains--a beauty that, for me, and I believe for most Tennesseans, makes us proud to live here."
The numbers are impressive: 39 companies laying off workers (including The Roanoke Times), 2,570 workers without jobs, 54 locations. The companies range from The Taubman Art Museum (6) to Volvo Trucks North America (650), but the one fact you can't get from the bare figures is the pain these families are enduring at this moment.
As of this afternoon, you can add more than 70 more layoffs at automotive plants in Dublin and Botetourt County and at least one at ITT, my good friend Marianne, a highly-respected professional in HR. It's all painful stuff and it has touched most of us.
The Times list, by the way, is an example of the kind of excellent information a daily newspaper can provide and one reason it is valuable.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
I'd love to hear the explanation on this one. To my knowledge, there isn't any gas up there. (By the way, Goodlatte's colleague and often his ally--especially in technology legislation--Rick Boucher voted in favor of the bill.)
One of the complaints against Kiffin came from a University of South Carolina recruit who said the coach told him that if he signed to play at USC, he'd "wind up like so many South Carolina players: pumping gas." That was presented to Kiffin recently in an ESPN interview and Kiffin, looking stone faced, replied, "I would never have said anything like that. There are almost no full-service gas stations any more."
The Business Insider is quoting an investment guy who has selected 10 newspapers in the U.S. that he believes will weather the storm and will remain viable businesses in the coming years. Among them is the Roanoke Times in our backyard.
This analyst says--as I have insisted--that newspapers are fat, lazy and spoiled from years of having to do virtually nothing for their 15-30 percent annual profit margins. They haven't reacted rapidly to the changing communications climate and it is too late or most of them--and maybe for the genre as a whole. But a few have potential, he argues (though I'd argue with him about our local daily, which I think he overestimates significantly). He does not volunteer to invest in or buy any of them (and they're nearly all for sale).
Here's what the Insider says the analyst likes about The Times: "Our guy likes almost all of Landmark Communications papers in Virginia. They're in isolated, steady markets without a lot of overlap. The Roanoke Times is a 'good product,' a 'community type paper.' Roanake is the kind of place where if the car dealers start selling cars again, they'll start taking out ads in the local paper again."
His hypothesis about the car dealers, who change advertising strategies more often than I change shoes, is empty. This vital section is in love with TV these days and I'm not seeing any shift away from that in the near future. Fact is, though, that the future of car sales is on the Internet, not in the newspaper. It's the next Craig's List. The Times is often stale and unimaginative, late to catch trends and very often just silly. It has a solid group of local reporters and therein lies its strength. It also has an admired (though not by me) Web site, one I find slow, confusing and jumbled--but one that gets a lot of hits.
You can find the entire rundown here.
My wife and I stumbled upon a great moment in music history a few minutes ago as part of a conversation about something completely apart from our conversation. It sent both of us to the archives (after acting out the song; she was funny, typing and punctuating with "ding"). The topic was "the typewriter song" and most of you've heard it: fast-playing violins punctuated with the bell of the old typewriter carriage return. It's a marvelous piece of music (by classicist Leroy Anderson) and an even better slice of 1950s culture. I love it and here's your link. (The song's title, by the way, is "Typewriter.")
(*OK, the story on this one is that when I started in the newspaper business in 1964, I was the kid in the newsroom and the kid got the oldest typewriter. These babies were built like tiny tanks and they didn't break, so they stayed around a while. Mine was a 1907 Underwood, much like the one pictured here, and it was the oldest item in the building. It served me well. Today, I have a 1910 Underwood in my entrance hall at home as a reminder that we used to have to work at this business. My old friend Keith Ferrell still uses a typewriter because, he says, it makes him think about what he's writing before sending it off to the publishers.)
My friend Warner Dalhouse, a retired banker and uber civic activist, sent a clipping (yes, a real clipping, by postal carrier) yesterday from the NYTimes about a little newspaper in Austin, the Chronicle, that is thriving in the current atmosphere of failure. The reason: it is involved, it is local, it cares. I glommed on to that like gum on the underside of the student desk because our own Valley Business FRONT magazine has basically the same philosophy. And we're not at all shy about stating it publicly as we poke a finger in the eye of the anal retentive newspaper business.
Here's my note back to Warner:
I had been referred to the Austin Chronicle piece by about four people before it arrived by traditional carrier from you and now I see why. I really appreciate you taking time to put this together and ship it over.
At the center of the article was this: "... and a willingness to lead, as opposed to simply criticize in artistic matters" and "The Chronicle is knit into the civic and cultural life in Austin to a degree that may make other newspapers nervous." That's our goal, simply and directly stated: to be a part, not just an observer; to be a leader and not a follower.
For far too long newspapers and other local publications have abdicated a responsibility that goes with publishing to be at the center of their communities; helping to create a more livable locality; being involved on boards and commissions, Little League teams and Little Theater, Moose and Kiwanis, Earth Day and St. Patrick's Day. At The Times, we were discouraged and even prohibited from taking active parts in activities like the Raleigh Court Civic League or the Virginia Museum of Transportation (Pulitzer winner Mary Bishop was once prohibited from having one of her stories published in a book I put together for the benefit of the transportation museum because "you might have to cover them some day").
If we aren't part of the community, we have no authority to report on it. I believe that strongly and without reservation. I am, of course, altered by participation, no doubt about it. I develop loyalties to people I know and understand and my reporting is not always detached. I would have had a difficult time, for example, reporting on Alfred Dowe, a guy I liked and respected--and still do. (He made a mistake that was far, far cleaner than some I've made.)
Anyhow, thank you for the opportunity to reflect on this. Our little publication is a look into the future whether the newspaper business is ready for it or not. And I like what I see.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I was so frustrated after reading the piece that I shot its author the following note:
Dear Mr. Ward:
These Q&A interviews with young athletes seem to me to play to the lowest common denominator. You have a rare opportunity to ask these kids questions that might be meaningful to them (things they haven't considered) and to those who follow. How about:
1. Have you considered how you will study and participate in football at the same time?
2. What kind of academic counseling have you had as you prepare for your workload?
3. Have you spent any time with teachers at your new college (and we're not counting coaches) and have you talked to students who are not part of the athletic program?
4. What do you think of living apart from the student body in athletic dorms? Would there be any advantages in living in the student body? What would be the disadvantages?
5. Do athletes at a school the size of your college, where football is of utmost importance, get a distorted view of their own value? Explain.
6. What will you do to be grounded, to resist the temptation to believe that you are entitled, to believe that you can do anything you want with impunity? (This question is important because so many football players at big schools get into trouble with the law.)
7. Will you avoid drugs and underage alcohol consumption? Have you done anything to assure that you will avoid those temptations?
8. What kinds of people will you want to spend your time with once you get on campus? What will you do in your spare time, or do you think you will have any of that?
9. Have you thought about permanent injury and is it a concern?
10. If you become a top-rank football player, one with professional potential, do you plan to get financial coaching, since more than 60 percent of all professional athletes (football, baseball, basketball) are broke within five years of the end of their careers?
11. Have you thought about how homesick you will be six weeks after you arrive in [the college town]?
12. Have you planned a budget for your limited money and your limited time?
These would be a good interview for a youngster getting ready to take the step into college football. Far, far more interesting than those cliche football questions. You might try some and see what the kid comes up with. He might thank you for asking them.
Popular programs like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," both news programs (and, for my money, the best daily news in broadcast), reached record numbers of people, 20.1 million a week. NPR is based in Washington and feeds network shows to local affiliates like WVTF in Roanoke. What makes this increase all the more impressive (given that last year was a presidential election year) is that the trend goes back to 2000, when audience figures for NPR news were at 14.1 million a week.
By way of comparison, consider this from the Post: "More than half of NPR's daily audience comes from its two 'core' news shows, 'Morning Edition' and the evening 'All Things Considered.' 'Morning Edition's' average daily audience, 7.6 million, is now about 60 percent larger than the audience for 'Good Morning America' on ABC and about one-third larger than the audience for the 'Today' show on NBC."
Great news, that, but the budget is a different story. NPR is looking at an $8 million deficit in a $160 million budget and had to cut seven percent of its staffers and two shows recently ("Day to Day" and "News & Notes," the former of which aired in this market). Money from corporate underwriters and charitable foundations is down both at NPR and at many of the local stations, where cuts have also been implemented (including at WVTF, where that was the mantra in the recent fund drive). NPR says about two percent of its funding comes from the government. That tiny funding accounts for an out-of-proportion amount of criticism of the network, as well.
There's a seminar in that.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Cigarette makers made the strong and vital case that convenience store jobs would be threatened. Seems 30 percent of the total volume of convenience stores is cigarettes. I'd say beer is a likely second. Great industry, convenience stores.
The Centers for Disease Control says that smokers cost Virginia $2.2 billion a year, but our legislators are reluctant to charge that back because ... well, I don't know why, except for all those convenience store jobs.
A piece in the NYTimes this a.m. tells us that even Mississippi--last in everything, but first in the heart of rednecks everywhere Mississippi--is considering upping the ante on cigs. We'll not call it a tax increase, though. Gov. Haley Barbour (former head of the national GOP) wouldn't stand for that. He says it's a public health thingy ... but not a tax.
Seems that from 2003 to 2007 there were 57 state-level cigarette tax increases, enough for one in every state and a few leftover for the territories. But, alas, there is one disturbing possibility on the horizon: seems the Obama stimulus package is so generous to states that at least one, Georgia, is shelving a proposed $1 increase per pack (to $1.37) until it determines how far the federal money will go.
Those convenience store jobs are safe. At least for now.
Friday, March 20, 2009
My good friend Debbie Sinex, a former horticulturalist, once told me that "the absolute worst thing you can do to a tree is to top it." Not only does it uglify one of nature's most perfect creations, but it weakens the tree and makes it susceptible to disease.
When I drove past Virginia Heights Baptist Church a little while ago, I was simply appalled to see that not only were its lovely Bradford Pear trees being savaged by a tree crew, but it was happening during the height of the blooming season. This church's own holy book instructs adherants to be good stewards of the earth and this is anything but good stewardship. Shame on Virginia Heights Baptist Church!
So, what does the NYTimes want to know about this? How about whether Obama will give the money away? What a stupid, presumptious, pious, ignorant question. Why the hell would he give the money away? He will work long and hard for it. He will earn it.
He has spent much of his adult life on the edge of solvency and now he and his family have put away some money because of hard, smart work. And we want to know what he's giving away before we ask about how he'll structure the book? The NYT is not talking about how good the book is, only that it made a lot of money and that it sold a lot more after Obama became famous than it sold beforehand. Yeah, not many people buy memoirs by little known state politicians.
Nobody's asking the Wall Street gang if they will make charitable donations of their bonuses (though most of us would like to see charitable donations made of their fat asses). I would suggest that there is still an ethic in our country that maintains --to a reasonable point--that people can earn enough money to secure their families before they are pressured into giving it to the Save the Whales Foundation. And I might also suggest that charity becomes something else when it is not voluntary.
If this sounds like a right-wing screed in its genesis, it could be, but dang it! there are so many issues of importance hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles these days that a mid-level book contract and what is to be done with the profits is awfully small potatoes.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I've listened to two pretty smart people rant about the perceived lack of coverage and respect for the Cave Spring High team that won the state title in its division while The Times gave--again, what they perceive to be--more prominent coverage to a city high school, William Fleming, which finished second. This a.m., there was joint coverage of the schools' accomplishments and, sure enough, Fleming's photos dominated. I can hear the howling now.
I covered high sports many years ago and I know just how wrought people can become when they think their little darlings are getting the short end of the column inch (I have--honest to God--been threatened with death over coverage). Frankly, I believe all these high school sports are overcovered, overemphasized and catered to in a most unwise manner. This is recreation for kids and it is not worthy of the kind of drooling prose it gets day after day. I don't think it's good for the kids, the coaches, the fans or the schools--whose job is education. But, hey, that's off point.
The point is that a storm's a-brewin'.
Monday, March 16, 2009
The PI is simply changing its format, dropping some prohibitive expense and environmentally destructive activity (printing), and going online--which is where we will all eventually be. And it will be creating its own "content," not stealing it, as the bloggers (like moi) do so often.
I look at our local daily--The Roanoke Times--in a metro area of about 250,000 or so and see a newspaper that is fat by online standards, though it incessantly screams of being "lean" in an employment sense. It has far more employees than would be necessary if it weren't printed each day on paper. And if it got down to the essence of its importance, my guess is that it could trim more than two thirds of its entire staff and probably three quarters of the newsroom.
It doesn't need a features department, for example. That type of news is handled far better by other types organizations. Ditto national news. It could eliminate the design staff, save for those who do online work. I suspect it could cut most of its sports staff (save for a two-person local staff that would wrangle freelancers) and all of its sports design staff. Reporters could be given digital cameras (both still and video) and a little training (20 to 30 minutes is about right) and a good bit of the photo department could be dropped. A hard news staff of 6-10 reporters would be a good core, supplemented with an unlimited number of professional freelancers and some "citizen journalists." One to two editors should suffice.
The advertising sales staff would not need to be as large and the executive staff could be mostly eliminated. Back office functions could be jobbed out to a business support company, saving a great deal of money. You could sell the $36 million press (whose very existence, I imagine, will ensure that none of what I'm outlining will take place in the near future) if anybody would buy it or simply get rid of it for junk, cutting losses.
OK, guys, there's your plan. Get to it.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Brings to mind the wonderful Jerry Garcia quote: "Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us."
A little more than a month into Tom Perriello's tenure as the 5th District of Virginia's Congressman, vanquished five-term Republican Virgil Goode is up to no goode (sorry, couldn't resist). As one might have expected from a guy so entrenched that he was still practicing Congressional gift-giving even after Perriello took office, he's filed candidacy papers for the 2010 election.
Goode handed out federal checks to organizations in the district in February that emerged from legislation passed during the transition, his priviledge, certainly, but hardly an appropriate response from a guy who would never have been accused of being appropriate on a regular basis in any case.
The national Repubs have been running harsh, last-minute campaign-style ads against Perriello over the congressional bailout of late (which may be unprecedented for a guy who'd been in office less than a month), setting up the possibility that they really want that seat back. Whether Goode is the guy who can take it is the question.
Goode had a reputation for laziness that Perriello can't even spell. He didn't take Perriello seriously as an opponent until the last minute, then lost by less than 1,000 votes, which likely would not have happened if he'd campaigned a bit more aggressively, smarter and not been such a parsimonious spender (he still has $166,000 in his campaign chest). He squandered the advantages of incumbancy, I'd say, something I don't expect the much, much smarter Perriello to do.
There's another, more important dynamic here: people in districts like the 5th--mostly conservative, blue collar or poor people--tend to vote against their interest in the South and Goode has been a prime example of that with his right-wing bloviating and minimal activity on behalf of his constituents. Perriello is a man who is much more interested (personally, almost emotionally) in the well-being of this population. He is a liberal and constituents' health and welfare goes to his very core. He has worked most of his adult life with the poor and the oppressed, has fought for justice and freedom and now is attacking American rural poverty (his work had been in Africa and in urban U.S. areas before). Goode doesn't even seem to recognize poverty's existence and certainly wouldn't understand it if he tripped on it.
For those very reasons--and Perriello's personal charm--I don't think Goode has much of a chance of beating Perriello in two years, regardless of the Obama Administration's popularity, which could, frankly, wane in rural areas where skin color still matters. At least for the moment.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
A guy named Douglas A. McIntyre created the list for the Wall Street Journal in February and it included the following: Philadelphia Daily News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Miami Herald, Detroit News, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. McIntyre's arguments look unassailable, but they're assailed in Alan Mutter's blog. Mutter makes strong arguments, but ultimately, both men are speculating about an industry that is in decline and about organizations whose lives are likely coming to an end as we know them. The question here is likely not so much whether as when.
And if they die, does anybody care? Pew Research Center says yes ... sort of. That would be 33 percent would really care a whole bunch. About 42 percent would care "not much" or "not at all." In an odd little twist to this, 74 percent say that the closing of the paper would hurt civic life at least some. But, hey, what's to care? I got problems o' my own.
Today's Huffington Post screams:
"WASHINGTON POST ELIMINATES BUSINESS SECTION"
which caught my attention, since our publication is a business pub and I would naturally be drawn to a headline like that, much as I would have something like "BUSH RESIGNS" a few months ago. Only problem: it's totally false. The WaPo has eliminated the stand-alone business section on weekdays, folding it into the A section. That's a cosmetic change, not a shutdown.
Just under that misleading head comes this:
"TMZ EXPANDS FINANCIAL COVERAGE"
linking to a NYTimes story that says nothing of the kind. TMZ, a fluffy celebrity coverage site, is simply covering financial scoundrels with the same kind of breathless prose it uses for Octomom and a variety of well-known, entertainers known more for their time in bars than in libraries. The tribulations of Bernie Madoff, whom it calls "the most hated man in America," is an example of "financial coverage."
The Roanoke Times' lead headline in the Saturday automobile section was this little tragedy:
"A voice of it's own"
My question: is "it's" a contraction or a possessive? Surely, the headline writer and the succession of proofreaders following that didn't mean "A voice of its own".
Friday, March 13, 2009
Yesterday, I'm doing lunchtime laps at Tanglewood Mall trying to get in my required hour of exercise, when I pass this nail store lap after lap. I read the sign and determine that a manicure is $10. I've never had a manicure and I'm thinking, "Why not?" Last time I was walking a mall and had one of these thoughts, I was passing an earring kiosk that offered free piercing. I went home with an earring.
So, I finish my walk, enter the parlor (I guess that's what you call it) and talk to this spike-haired Cambodian guy who directs me to this pleasant, chubby woman who speaks fractured English, pulls out her tools and directs me to stick my hands into hot water.
She's smiling the whole time, talking a streak in a language that sounds like it might have it might have some English in there somewhere ("You from around here?") and snipping away at various pieces of my fingers, cutting three of them and drawing blood. She applies some kind of liquid on the cuts and doesn't even slow down on the hand job (sorry, couldn't resist that).
I notice that her tools, the floor, the mirrors, nearly everything at the shop has defied the cleaning lady. I'm slightly put off by the dirty clippers, but I don't say anything after announcing to her, "This is my first time, be gentle." She has no idea what I'm talking about.
About halfway through this process of soaking, probing, snipping, applying liquids from various bottles, she asks me, "You want color [she prounouces it culu]?" and grins widely. "My wife might be suspicious of that," I say, grinning back at her. "Oh," she says, "you have wife [pronounce that wi as in Wi-fi)?" leaving the impression that she figured a guy who'd get a manicure couldn't have a wife.
After about 15 minutes--and an application of some kind of clear nail polish--I'm directed to a light table so the polish can dry. "You pay me when dry," she reminds and I did. Even tipped her 20 percent, even though what I thought was going to be a makeover was my hands as they were with a little less cuticle, a little more blood and a nice sheen from the polish. I was underwhelmed by the experience, but, hey, anything new's good for a while.
(Update: A friend from Lynchburg added the following, citing the experience of her daughter, an entertainer: "Since beautiful [and healthy] hands and feet are part of her stage make-up, she has all her nails attended to on a regular basis in a salon. "BUT," she continued, "I NEVER let them use any of their implements. I always bring my own set of beauty tools for them to use only on me. I take care of the cleaning and sterilizing of them myself ... at home." The friend also wonders who regulates the cleanliness in these salons and directs me to find out. Right now. I will.)
Thursday, March 12, 2009
All that preliminary jabbering goes to set up an essay about Friday the 13th, the second this year and we're only in our third month. Obviously, the only time you can have two of these spooky dates in consecutive months is when the first appears in February.
Here's the essay as it was read on Public Radio, including this italicized explanation:
This was to have been delivered Friday, June 13 of last year, but in one of those spooky turns of events that gives credence to rumors that build over the years, my buddy Jim Davis, who is as competent with a tape recorder as any man in Roanoke, erased his copy just before showtime and you got to hear why I hate baseball instead.
Anyhow, we're going to try it again, and serve it with a special sprinkling of relevance. Here goes:
Friday the13th is a good day to remember -- if only briefly -- the late William C. Stephenson of Roanoke, who had a fondness for it.
Stephenson was born and died on the 13th of the month, his house number was originally 13, his auto license began as 13, then became 1313. His son's was 131313. Three of his four children were married on the 13th. The other didn't marry.
But Wm. C. Stephenson as he preferred to sign his name because that worked out to 13 letters, is something of an aberration in Western culture. Most people become wary around the number and the date.
To our good fortune, May 13 was the only Friday 13th of 1998 -- and it was certainly enough for this essay. Of the possible 14 calendar years, half have one Friday 13th, three have three occurrences and four have two. In 1998, there are three Fridays 13.
Separately, Friday and 13 are considered evil by much of the world. Pagans, of course, take a different view, considering them both wonderful, but that seminar is for another day.
Traditionally, it is a bad day to shave, to get a haircut, or to trim your nails; to go courting or dibbling potatoes; to change your bed sheets, to begin a sea voyage, to visit the sick, or to go on trial.
Though the Irish consider it a good day to die, its reputation is less than sterling in many cultures, especially the Western ones and most especially those infused with Christianity. Early Christians considered 13 a sign of impending disaster, and for good reason: It is the day on which Christ died, Eve is said to have given the Forbidden Fruit to Adam, Noah loaded up the ark and the Tower of Babel fell. There were 13 people at the Last Supper and a witches' coven consists of 13 people, one of whom -- on a Witches' Sabbath -- is Beelzebub. That's enough to make a good Christian nervous.
Norse mythology tells of a banquet at Valhalla to which 12 gods were invited. But Loki, the spirit of general disruption and sorriness, crashed the party and Balder, one of more popular gods in this particular circle, was killed.
Since the Middle Ages, executions have traditionally been held on Friday and the composition of courts in a number of cultures has counted 13: 12 on the jury and one judge. There are 13 steps to the gallows, 13 knots in a hangman's noose and the guillotine blade falls 13 feet after the queen screams "Off with his head!" The 13th card in a Tarot deck is the Grim Reaper.
Fear of the number 13 has its own official designation: trisk-ai-dek-a-phobia.
And a lot of people apparently have it.
Consider the number of tall buildings with no 13th floor. That's not necessarily because the builder is trisk-ai-dek-a-phobic, but the company considering renting the floor might have a 13-shy CEO.
As with most phenomena, there's a flip side.
Woodrow Wilson, that conservative Christian egghead of a president of ours, was quite fond of 13, since he was the 13th president of Princeton University, had 13 letters in his name -- as did his mom and dad -- was inaugurated Friday, March 13, 1913, after California's 13 electoral votes secured his victory. His opponent, Charles Evans Hughes voted on Ballot No. 13, but there is no record of what Hughes thought of the number.
Moses B. Cosworth, a New York Congressman in the early 1920s wanted a calendar year with 13 months, each month would have 28 days and each a Friday 13th. People thought him a few fries short of a Big Mac.
In any case, superstition or just good sense aside, I doubt if anybody would notice if you put off dibbling your potatoes or delivering your timely essays until a safer time.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The breakfast was one of those small gatherings of business people that Roanoke City Manager Darlene Burcham puts on every month or so ("One of my favorite things about my job," she says) and it gives people in business a chance to meet each other, to express their concerns and hopes and--on a bad day--to grumble at the city for real or imagined slights.
This day was pretty upbeat until it came Glenn Hall's turn to give us an accounting of his company. "We've just filed bankruptcy," he said, "so I hate to throw a wet blanket over this meeting. Not much I can say." What he finally said, though, was revealing. Ritz is in a business that--like mine, publishing--is changing dramatically and rapidly. Technology is affecting both my business and his, mine because of the Internet and his because of the digital camera--and the Internet.
I mentioned that several years ago, before the advent of the digital camera, a small publication like the one I worked for at the time, spent several thousand dollars a year at Ritz for camera equipment, film and processing. When I bought my first digital camera, our bill at the Blue Ridge Business Journal dropped to $0 immediately. Not only did I buy the camera online (the Internet strikes again!) because it was roughly half the price, but I didn't need to process anything any longer.
My photography was better, quicker and cheaper instantly. An old colleague of mine, Danny Rudder who had a photo processing business in Roanoke for years, once said that in photo prints there were three elements: speed, quality or price. You could have two. With digitals, you get three. And I become a better photographer relying on my own editing skills instead of having to depend on a pimply-faced, 19-year-old lab technician who'd just had a fight with his girlfriend and then went into the darkroom to process my pictures.
Ritz simply never adjusted. It had the double problem of being in the luxury boat business, which tanked with the economy. But it was the photo story that fascinated me. I asked Glenn if he thought old-style processing--especially some of the very good black and white work--was a thing of the past. "Probably," he said in a voice that said he'd miss the character of that kind of photography.
We're changing and there's not much to do about it except adjust. Every day.
It is a stretch of slightly more than three weeks when you can find a basketball game on television at just about any minute of the day, often more than one in a split-screen going into the final 30 seconds tied.
There are conference tournaments--every one of the Division I finals is televised somewhere nationally--the NCAA tournament leading to a national championship, NCAA tournaments for the smaller schools and even the NIT for teams with decent records, but not the resume for the top echelon. In its laudable democracy, the NCAA invites all Division I conference champions (the conference determines whether that automatic bid goes to the regular season champion or its tournament champion) and then fills its 65-team field with "at-large" teams deemed worthy. Of course, the selection of these teams results in the first controversy and one of the enduring cliches: the "bubble" team, of which there are many. (The closest thing I have to an alma-mater, UNC Asheville, is the only Big South team to win an NCAA Tournament game. It won the 64 vs. 65 play-in a few years ago. Yippie! Radford is the representative this year.)
The marginal, or "bubble" teams, don't necessarily get into the tournament because they have the best records. They have to play strong schedules, win on the road and prove worthy. That's their RPI rating and a team like Tennessee, which does not have 20 wins, will make the tournament because it has played the second-most difficult schedule in the nation and has acquitted itself admirably with 19 wins. It is the only one of the top 37 teams in the U.S. without 20 wins, but it has beaten a number of other highly-rated teams.
This is also the season when those of us who write for a living (and some of us who used to write sports for a living) stuff cotton in our ears. Sportscasters are nothing if not language lazy, language tone deaf. What value is a good line ("He's as cool as the other side of the pillow") if you can't use it a dozen times a week? What good is a label ("the three-point shot") if you can't affix a new one with each occurrence: the "trey," the "three ball," the "triple," the "trifecta."
Once tall players are now "long" or "players with length" and young players with considerable talent are "diaper dandys" or "one and done" freshmen whose next step is the NBA. The list of these small linguistic horrors has its own length, but the one that seems more enduring than the rest cumulatively is "the big dance."
Conference tournaments most often allow bubble teams with a lot of length, the ability to shoot the three-ball and blessed with a one and done to punch their tickets to the big dance. Once there, they can play the game while we turn off the sound on the TV.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The paper, which has a circulation of about 340,000, has been losing money for eight years, including $50 million last year, according to a story in its pages today. The guild issued this statement, which looks like it could have been written by management: "The terms reached late Monday include expanded management ability to lay off employees without regard to seniority. All employees who are discharged in a layoff or who accept voluntary buyouts are guaranteed two weeks' pay per year of service up to a maximum of one year, plus company-paid health care for the severance term, even in the event of a shutdown."
That's not all the give-back, though. According to the story, "Other concessions include reductions in vacation time, sick leave and maternity/paternity leave; expansion of the work week from 37.5 hours to 40; and the right for the company to subcontract any work."
Tough times these. The end of one inudstry looms. Let's just hope that what replaces it is at least as valuable.
Talk about a great two-fer. Here we have the sitting leader of the (admittedly diminished) Republic Party and the diva of same. Oh, their duets would be a full concert to CPAC. The Golden Couple of the pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-gun, pro-industrial pollution, pro-tobacco, pro-war, pro-inherited wealth, pro-white men party. That's a lot to be for.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
I saw her coming maybe 150 yards away and couldn't figure out the gait. It was jerky, bouncy and the feet seemed to splay to the side on occasion. As she drew closer, the woman running behind her combined with her outline and created something of an optical illusion, splitting, combining, running, bouncing, moving all over the place.
Finally, I figured out that the lead woman was skipping and that another, younger woman, was behind her, running and occasionally skipping, as well. I don't think they were together because they didn't speak even as the younger woman ran past the skipper, having tried to skip, but realizing that it was a bit more than she wanted to chew.
Skipping, frankly, is a bit more than many of us can do for more than a few steps. It's an almost full-body exercise that this Web site will tell you all about. I mention it because in an early-spring day of delight and surprise, watching this woman smile and skip by me on the greenway was a real highlight. "That's impressive!" I exclaimed as she passed me and her smile widened.
And, hey, just for the hell of it, go to this Web site and listen to the little song as people skip.
Virginia has new smoking rules for restaurants--enabling those of us who don't like to breathe other people's addictions to have more choices on where to eat (we'll address healthy food choices another time--and lost in all this are two heroes of the battle: former Sen. Brandon Bell of and former Sen. Elliot Schewel of Lynchburg, my friend and one of my heroes.
Brandon, who represented the 22nd District (Roanoke, Botetourt, etc.), bravely proposed and stood by several tobacco-related bills and generally saw them killed in House committees (where, as we've mentioned, the lives of Virginia citizens are far less important than those of political contributors). He was defeated in the most recent Republican primary in his district by Ralph Smith, one of the lightest of intellectual lightweights in all of Virginia. Elliot fought the tobacco fight for years before finally retiring. His efforts never had a chance because of the heft of the tobacco lobby. Brandon saw a light in that tunnel and headed for it.
(Let me mention as an aside that Brandon, an effective moderate, is generally thought to have lost his seat to the Christian Right's Smith because he pissed off Salem's Morgan Griffith, the majority leader in the House, by not opposing everything any Democrat proposed. Word is that Griffith saw to it that the tobacco bill was killed in order to make Brandon look bad. Politics before public health; that's the cry.)
Both Elliot and Brandon have my respect and admiration.
It appears that the four candidates for governor (three Democrats and the presumed Republican nominee Bob McDonald) have not expressed any interest in intensifying the anti-tobacco legislation (including raising the tax from 30 cents to 60 cents a pack) and so it looks like we have to accept what we have for a while. I suspect, however, that some ambitious young hotshot will take up the mantle of smoking in the presence of children soon--since children seem to be a lightning rod for legislation--and propose that the act become a felony. Fact is, we might get a court ruling first: child abuse is a felony, smoking around children is child abuse. That was easy.
The NYTimes' Weekend Opinionator has the following amid a long analysis in the continuing Rush Limbaugh drama from former George Bush speechwriter and neo-con role model David Frum:
“Rush knows what he is doing. The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.
“But do the rest of us understand what we are doing to ourselves by accepting this leadership? Rush is to the Republicanism of the 2000s what Jesse Jackson was to the Democratic party in the 1980s"
“… We are gradually shrinking from our former ambition—to govern—and taking our pleasure instead in alienation and complaint. Those journalists who cover the conservative world are surprised by how relieved and happy conservatives seem to be about having lost the 2008 election. No more irritating compromises, no more boring policy debates! We can recline into the pure assertion of conservative dogma, a job nobody does better than Rush Limbaugh himself.”
I'm not one who wants to get into a self-destructive peeing contest with a man who's chewing through the Seven Deadly Sins at an astonishing rate, but Limbaugh and people like him on both the right and the left are largely responsible for the state of discourse in America. One of the primary reasons I so strongly support a reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine in our media is that people like Limbaugh fail when the debate is joined by those with some sense and these opponents are not demonized without recourse, sitting quietly in the corner while being verbally whipped with a cat o' nine tails with no access to a microphone.
Our country likes to think of itself as being, first, fair. This odd abberation has never been fair, never will be and should be eliminated. Right now. We don't need to castigate Rush Limbaugh for doing what he does any more than we need to castigate a wild animal for viciously killing other wild animals. But we needn't allow them into our neighborhoods, either.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
There was something undeniably right about the auction. Maybe it was the Mennonite bidders in the second row, looking for an old fashioned bargain. Perhaps it was the quiet, unassuming couple from Natural Bridge far back in the corner of the 100-year-old building who eventually forked over $551,000 for it—generally considered a good bit more than Agnew Seed Stores was worth. Could have been the overalls, the palpable excitement, the mother and baby on the front row, the press of media, the presence of auction superstar Ken Farmer.
Probably, though, it was the simple authenticity of a genuine American antique, one that still has a good bit of life in it, despite the buckets sitting on the floor of the second story, collecting rain water.
The store was built a little more than 100 years ago in the middle of Roanoke City Market before it had earned the historic designation and it had never been anything but a seed store, never wanted to be anything else. Now it might become a boutique or a restaurant or a living space or something else entirely, but it won’t likely be what it was ever again. Kirk Miller said he didn’t know what he would do with it. Tina, his wife, nodded.
The store’s first life is over, but let’s not spend time mourning. Agnew is entirely too graceful, too rural-realistic, too practical for that.
Everything ends and Agnew had a good run. I always liked the musty smell, one that never changed, never diminished, was never especially pleasant. This was unusual and distinctive, old and never to be confused with the K-Mart Garden shop.
The stoneware jars in the corner and the iron skillets on the shelves, the large-brimmed straw gardening hats and bins of top-rank seeds were bought by people who used them, wore them out and came back 50 years later asking why they didn’t last forever.
The customers were a mixture of tourists, curiosity-seekers, practical gardeners, religious fundamentalists who don’t like electricity and backyard gardeners who covet the feel of solid things like shovels that last and wheel barrows that are heavy. The owners were Garrison Keillor people, salt of the earth. One had a deep, dark secret and last year he killed himself, leading to the sale most of us never thought would come. In our lifetime anyway.
But there it was. The auctioneer warned that the clock would start, signalling the eminent end of the sale, any second now. He pleaded for more money, exorted, threatened, scolded bidders to come up with $5,000 more, $10,000 more. Don’t insult the old store. It’s got a lot of life, it needs love. Pay more for it. But $551,000 was enough and when the clock ran out, Tina and Kirk Miller didn’t even smile. They just looked at each other, a little anxiously, I thought. And Ken Farmer took his antiques road show and left them to their thoughts for a few seconds until the reporters swarmed them.
Kirk and Tina Miller, who own Walkabout Outfitters and Ladles and Linens on Roanoke City Market and two other stores in Lexington, are the new owners of the oldest continuously-operating seed store in Virginia, Agnew Seed Stores. The Millers, whose Roanoke stores are in the same block as Agnew, bid $525,000 ($551,000 with fees) on the property, assessed at $308,000 by the city.
Kirk Miller, who lives in Natural Bridge, said, "I don't know yet what we're going to do with it," but the building needs a good bit of rehabilitation. The Millers bought only the property and not the contents. Contents were sold in an auction following the building's sale.
The building, 4,750 square feet on two floors (with an office mezzanine office, as was common at the turn of the century), was constructed in 1904 and has been a mainstay of the City Market from Day 1. A death in the family of Agnew's owner, Kent Agnew, led to the closing by his widow Pat and the eventual sale. Bidding, conducted by Woltz Associates of Roanoke, quickly reached the sale price, surprising many in the crowd. Ken Farmer Associates of Radford conducted the sale of the building's contents. You might know Farmer from "Antiques Road Show."
There was an overflow crowd for the historic sale, but few in the crowd bid. John Garland, who president of Spectrum in Roanoke and a man who has bought several old buildings, says he believes the bid was too high, "unless you're going to live upstairs and not develop it."
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
For the second time in recent weeks, I wound up in the basement rooms of the Roanoke Civic Center this morning, photographing a job fair where so many people showed up that the city's staff was almost overwhelmed. We're in an economy that is demanding creative measures, job fairs, networking and anything else that might lead to getting a job.
The city's fair last month was intended for young people, but when anybody reads "job" these days, he shows up, hoping against hope and thinking "I'll take anything," which is not the best answer in a brief interview, but desperation rules.
CNN this a.m. has a graphic showing how much of the Obama Administration's billions of dollars are going to which states to create how many jobs (93,000 in Virginia) and the NYTimes has a county-by-county breakdown of unemployment in the country.
One of the most interesting and creative networking ideas recently is the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce's inexpensive meal plan, Connect4, wherein four business people are invited to eat together by the Chamber (for about $18 a month for four lunches, which is better than I do on my own). This is a get-to-know lunch and it's just perfect for somebody like me who's cruising for good business stories, but it is inspired for anybody who wants to meet new people and exchange ideas, recipes, football tickets or business information. Some might even get a better job.
The opportunities to connect seem to be out there. Now, if we had some jobs ...