Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Here's One Vote for Ariana's Plan

Ariana Huffington and some of her advisers are attempting to bring in the troops and put the hurt on big, arrogant banks and their leaders and I've been thinking about whether I ought to go along for nearly a day now.

I think I will. To begin with, the big banks don't really have much to do with us on the level where I deal. They would tend to laugh at a guy like me coming in and, say, asking for a few bucks to start a regional magazine. Hahahahahahahahahaha ... Small community banks don't do that.

My experience was that a couple of local banks busted their collective and individual asses trying to find a way to come up with a justification to support my pardner Tom Field and me. Just about all we had was our experience and our reputations. We didn't even darken the door of, say, Wachovia because we weren't in the mood for comedy.

Community banks work for--guess what! Communities. They keep money flowing at home and they support small businesses, homeowners and the dreams of what Abe Lincoln would have called "the common man" (and I'll paraphrase Brother Dave Gardner here, about calling somebody "common" and watching his response). Big banks are big business, dealing in megabucks, big projects, big houses, big people.

Frankly, though, I think the point here isn't just a few banks that are too big for their britches. It's about so many things being so big that nobody has any control left. They are "too big to fail" and that's a level of self-immolation that we can't afford any longer. Local is good on so many levels and we need not so much to weaken the big jerks, but to strengthen institutions of a size that we can understand.

Popeye Would Just Love This Dish

Oh my, we have a little treat for you from Mother Smith's World Famous Kitchen, one I whipped up in my head while exercising (and starving) a while ago. Came home, cooked it and it's just dandy.

It's called Mother Smith's Popeye Surprise and here's what you need:

1 box of frozen chopped spinach
1 can diced tomatoes
2 whole green onions diced
1/2 cup jack cheese
1/4 cup mozzarella
1 boil-in bag of rice (I use brown because of diabetes, but you can use white if you want)
1 pinch basil (Oh, hell, no I don't know what a pinch is; my mother always said "a pinch" and I mean "some")
1 diced clove garlic
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces of hearts of palm slivered (this optional and it's for showing off)

Boil the rice about half the time recommended on the box. It'll need to cook more as part of the whole dish in the oven, which you're pre-heating to 350 degrees. Defrost the spinach (I zapped mine in the microwave). Mix the spinach, rice, drained tomatoes, onions, cheeses, spices and olive oil in a casserole dish. Sprinkle a thin layer of additional mozzarella on top and place pieces of palm heart strategically (to show off; palm hearts are eaten alive with cool).

Put the dish in the oven for about 30 minutes and serve it hot with something good like grilled salmon. This one's really good.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Crumbling of Our Culture: An Observation

My friend Lou Bailes, a funny, intelligent, former television news anchor does not suffer fools well, so when a "readie" shows up from her in my e-mail, I read it. This morning I got one that makes so much sense in a dispiriting way that I thought I'd share it in order to feel like I'd done something.

It is a column by a psychologist named Bruce Levine that ran on AlterNet yesterday and the long version is here. Following are some highlights:

A demoralized U.S. population is suffering from "abuse syndrome" and, like a beaten spouse, the more it is abused, the more demoralized and unlikely to strike back it becomes. The victim feels shame and humiliation, which leads to a weakened condition.

Levine quotes Justice John Paul Stevens following the highly-politicized Bush v. Gore decision in 2000: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law." Yet, says Levine, even this provoked few demonstrations. He concludes we "feel helpless to effect change."

When Bush later told one of his supporters at a fat-cat fund-raiser, "What a crowd tonight: the haves and the haves-more. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base," nobody complained, protested, blew up buildings. Nothing.

A study in 2004 showed that we have become so isolated from each other that "25 percent of Americans did not have a single confidant. The government and big business have worked together to create that isolation in a number of ways (union busting, "suburbanization, commuting, electronic entertainment, time and money pressures and other variables created by governmental-corporate policies").

As a nation, we have been "broken by socializing institutions that alienate us from our basic humanity." For example, students "learn to comply to authorities for whom they often have no respect, and to regurgitate material they often find meaningless. " College degrees have become "badges of compliance for corporate employers -- in exchange for learning to accept bureaucratic domination and enslaving debt.

Big Pharma sees to it that "increasing numbers of people in the U.S. who do not comply with authority are being diagnosed with mental illnesses and medicated with psychiatric drugs." Something called "Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is an increasingly popular diagnosis for children and teenagers. The official symptoms of ODD include, 'often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,' and 'often argues with adults.'" This sounds like a 1950s science fiction movie.

Levin notes that the Soviet Union crumbled in a "passive-aggressive revolution by simply getting depressed, staying drunk, and not doing anything."

Television has an enormous influened because it "(1) occupies people so that they don't know ... what a human being is; (2) separates people from one another; (3) creates sensory deprivation; (4) occupies the mind and fills the brain with prearranged experience and thought; (5) encourages drug use to dampen dissatisfaction ; (6) centralizes knowledge and information; (7) eliminates [comparisons to other cultures]; and (8) redefines happiness and the meaning of life."

And there's this one that we may all recognize from the recent season of material indulgence: "Consumerism breaks people by devaluing human connectedness, socializing self-absorption, obliterating self-reliance, alienating people from normal human emotional reactions, and by selling the idea that purchased products -- not themselves and their community -- are their salvation."

In order to break these chains, he says, stay away from mental health professionals: "The talents required are a fearlessness around image, spontaneity, and definitely anti-authoritarianism. But these are not the traits that medical schools or [that] graduate schools select for or encourage."

Levine suggests a few simple steps toward recovery, and concludes: "the immobilized need a shot of morale."

It's a long piece, well worth your time. If you have enough strength left to care.

Friday, December 25, 2009

And a Nice Christmas It Was

This is my son, Evan, and me with Little Red Riding Madeline at tonight's Christmas celebration at the Hacienda de la Belleville. Maddy's grandma, Judy Dickerson, made the riding hood, which was impressive.

Maddy was in Christmas full-impact, modified Christmas mode, which, if it could be packaged, could power a city the size of Des Moines for three weeks. Jeeeeeeze! I'm glad I'm past having little kids around and not being able to send them home. Nice to see them all, though. Tomorrow we're taking in "Invictus." Can't wait. Also can't talk anybody into seeing "Avatar."

'Up in the Air' the Best of 2009 (So Far)

So, I'll just go ahead and say it: "Up in the Air" is the best movie I've seen this year. It's a cynical coming-of-age story about a middle-aged man who has different values from almost all of the rest of us and it is so marvelously crafted that it will become a classic and will likely pick up Oscars all over the board.

The movie stars George Clooney as a man whose job takes him all over the country to fire employees from companies having to drop significant numbers of people because of the little economic gift George Bush left us upon his departure from Washington. He handles the terminations with a degree of sensitivity, mixed with detachment and he loves the part that puts him on airplanes more than 250 days a year.

His home is a barren apartment that he only visits. He has no real relationships, including with his family and his sister, asking him to do something for his other sister, who's getting married, prefaces her request with, "I know you don't like doing things for people, but ..." Not much to recommend him.

Still another flying veteran finds him attractive enough to start a non-attached affair with him, pretty much based on their flying experience, and the movie takes off from there with its lessons in life.

Our hero not only starts his absorbing and affecting fling, but is faced with some new technology--prepared by a kid just out of college--that would take him and the rest of his company's representatives who go to job sites out of the air and put them on a video screen. Firing by Internet. No personal touch at all. Lots of money saved.

Vera Farmiga is simply perfect as the love interest (a woman guys my age will drool over) and the young, hard-exterior/soft-interior Anna Kendrick is believeable and occasionally disconcerting as the kid who thinks technology has all the answers.

This movie belongs to director-screenwriter-producer Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking," "Juno), son of "Second City's" Ivan Reitman and a young fellow who is mightily impressive.

Simply a marvelous movie with its intelligence, its extraordinary wit and its total satisfaction on the faces of those leaving the theater.

Here's a Lovely Christmas Soup for You

Here's a little Christmas goodie for all of you, adapted from a recipe from Cook's magazine, the second-best magazine in creation (behind FRONT ... heh, heh, heh ...). It's for potato-feta soup and from the taste I just had, it's righteous: rich, creamy, full of flavor and made to kill you almost instantly. This is not health soup. It is in keeping with the over-indulgence of the season.

Here goes, beginning with what you need:

4 big potatoes
3 carrots chopped finely
1 cup of soup stock (any kind you want; I used vegetable)
4 tablespoons of butter (butter, baby, not margerine)
8 cups of milk
2 cups light cream
8 ounces feta (or some of that wonderful Bulgarian sheep's milk cheese, which you can buy at the little Mediterranean shop across the street from Mick or Mack in Grandin Village. This is far better than feta)
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 tablespoon of salt (if you dare)
Pinch (what the hell's a "pinch"?) rosemary, sage and marjoram
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

Don't peel the 'taters. Dice them and put them into the single cup of soup stock to cook for about seven minutes, medium heat, covered. Reduce the heat to low--still covered--and cook for about 30 minutes, until the 'taters are soft, not mushy. Melt the butter in a big pan or Dutch oven and cover it with the onions, cooking them until they're tender. Add milk, cream, seasonings, crumbled feta and carrots to the onions and heat them until very hot. Don't boil it. Boiled milk burns and leaves this god-awful smell. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes. You can serve it topped with chopped parsley or a pat of butter or some crumbled feta. It's all good. Enjoy it, but don't blame me for the hospital trip.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Strange Sightings on Christmas Eve

This snowman is on Apperson Drive about 200 yards from the intersection of Grandin Road and Brandon Ave. It is real. There are no camera tricks involved here. This is a true statement. That is a snow shovel leaning up against him to the left. This big ol' boy ate the house as I was leaving.

The line around the Christmas tree, leading to a momentary beg-a-thon on Santa's lap, was still all the way around the fence at 3 p.m. today at Valley View Mall. Greed leads people to do strange things. If Santa is late to your house, it is because he got held up here. And by the time the kids were through, all the goodies were spoken for, so don't expect much more than broccoli in your stocking.

Mr. December Poses for You

Hmmmmmmm ... Who is this handsome older gentleman? Could it be ...

Yes, it is Mr. December, star of the 2010 Roanoke City calendar, available at your local place where you get city calendars and here. It's free and you get to look at me through all of December next year. What a treat.

'The Christmas Bomb': A Story

This is our hero (moi) at the time of the Christmas tree caper and, no, our tree didn't look like the one above, but it was pretty to us.>

The following story is from my memoir Burning the Furniture, which you can find here. It is my way of wishing you the very best of the season.

If you want to hear it as it was played on Public Radio (complete with soundtrack) it's here. It's the Dec. 17, 2009 show and you can listen by clicking on the link just below the synopsis. Go about halfway into the show to catch the story.

I hope you will join me in asking whomever or whatever you pray to to ask for guidance for our leaders and our people during this holiday season when so very much is so very wrong and awaiting some kind of remedy that requires wisdom. Here's the story:

The Christmas Bomb

It was nearing noon, seven days before Christmas, 1954, and our South Carolina elementary school would let out for the holiday in minutes. My brothers and I had a plan and it was on the edge of being implemented.

Christmas inevitably meant resourcefulness for all of us in the Smith family. Dad had to carefully manage the small salary he earned as a cook and Mom had to shop for bargains, beginning at 50 percent off, if there was going to be any Christmas at all.

And the tree—that was me and my brothers’ responsibility. Ever since I was in first grade, two years before, my brothers and I had waited in the woods behind the school for the teachers to toss out each classroom’s tree as we broke for the holiday. Some of the trees, most often small pines, came fully decorated. Those were aggressively sought by our competitors, one group of whom didn’t want a tree so much as it wanted us not to have one.

Ralph, Earl and Tinker made up the gang we wanted to avoid. They were sixth graders and a lot bigger than my brothers Sandy and David and 8-year-old me. Sandy was 10, David 9. (Mom had her 8 kids in sets, a year apart.) Sandy was the athletic one. David, whom everybody called “slow” because he was, was the sweet kid. I was the brains of the outfit, and those brains often tended toward devious resourcefulness.

Our three adversaries didn’t much like us, didn’t much like anybody. They knew Christmas tree procurement was our job and it was important to us. The sport for them was to impede us, to prevent us from taking home a big decorated evergreen.

Their challenge meant that we’d have to plan, scheme, connive to win. We were too little to simply beat them up; we’d have to outsmart them and I knew, even then, that there was a lot more satisfaction in humiliation of a bully by being smarter than he was than in being bigger and nastier. (It was a lesson that would come in handy much, much later.)

Sandy, David and I had talked well into the night preceding our adventure. We settled on a plan that was delicious in its simple intricacy, its deviousness and its timing. One small slip-up and we’d fail. That would mean no Christmas tree for the first time in our young lives. David was the lynchpin of the plan and I suppose that in other circumstances there might have been some concern, since he had been identified as “retarded” by the school system. We knew David better than those anal-retentive, bun-wearing, old maid school teachers and administrators and we were betting on him.

The lunchroom of our elementary school, built in the late 1920s or early ’30s, was on the third floor of the brick monstrosity of a building. At the back of the lunchroom was an old-style fire escape, a big, metal tube about four feet in diameter that we jumped in and slid down to safety. At the end of the slide we hit the ground behind the school and at the edge of the woods. The fire escape had become a kind of theme park ride for us on weekends. Because the school was locked (and because the administration would have killed us if it caught us), we had to climb up the escape from the bottom, usually in bare feet because shoes and socks were too slippery. When we reached the top, which was just under the massive terra-cotta roof, we sat on waxed paper and slid lickety-split down. It was a 75-foot rush.

My classroom was on the third floor; Sandy’s was on the second floor; and David’s was at ground level in his “special class,” the one where these educational Neanderthals herded people who were “different.” The bathrooms were on the first and third floors. The bathroom on my level was accessible through the lunchroom.

At 11:55, my hand shot up and I said, “Miss Anderson, may I go to the restroom, please?”

“Can’t you want five minutes?” she said, in something of a huff.

“No, ma’am,” I said, squirming with as much urgency as I could generate. “I really gotta go.” Both hands were in my lap.

“OK,” she said. “That’ll be your Christmas present from me.”

Thanks a lot, Miss Generous Spirit of Christmas, I thought, as I scrambled out of my seat and hurried down the hall. Sandy met me at the door of the lunchroom and we scrambled toward the back left corner. Miz Washington, probably the first Black person I ever knew and our school’s chief cook, was just leaving. We hadn’t figured on her being there at all, since lunch wasn’t scheduled that day, but she had been at the school for 30 years, and the faculty was going to have a combination Christmas-anniversary party for her after the students left for the day, in just a few minutes.

We stopped short and looked at her. “Merry Christmas, boys,” she said cheerfully as she passed us. We looked at each other, mentally wiping the sweat from our brows, and charged through the door toward the boys’ bathroom. We stopped briefly on the other side, waited about 10 seconds and re-entered the lunchroom a few steps from the fire escape’s small, white wooden swinging doors. Sandy went in first and I followed quickly. Then we waited on the small landing at the top of the fire escape.

After a long two minutes, the bell rang and we heard the young celebrants screaming and running from the school, full of freedom and anticipation. We knew our teachers wouldn’t miss us or even suspect anything amid the confusion of school closing for the holidays. Sandy and I sat patiently for about 15 minutes. It was quiet on the third floor, but we knew we had a good two hours to go before we could slide out and pick up our tree.

After a while, as we fidgeted and shifted, we heard a rustling at the bottom of the fire escape. Teachers were bringing out their trees and tossing them into a pile. We had scouted each classroom and we knew the tree we wanted: it was from Miss Crutchfield’s second grade class, a seven-foot beauty, the only spruce in the school and a blue spruce at that. All the poor kids would covet that one. Ralph, Earl and Tinker would consider themselves appointed by God to keep us away from it.

Sandy and I continued our restless wait, patience growing short. He punched my shoulder and said, “Get over to your side. You don’t own this fire escape.” I backed up as much as I could and tried to be still.

Another hour went by. Except for occasional brief, noisy skirmishes at the bottom of the fire escape when our adversaries leapt from cover to pummel and chase some of the neighborhood kids away from the trees, it was tomb quiet and the dark of the tubular fire escape intensified the eerie feel.

Finally, we heard what we were waiting for. Boom! Boom-boom-boom! It sounded like cannons going off. Then again, another series: Boom! Boom-boom-boom! It was louder this time and we heard Earl yell, “What the hell is that?” His partners, using forbidden language that the bad guys always used in those days, said, “Crap! Let’s go see.” Reeling from a double-barreled blast of cuss words, we listened to the telling sounds as they scrambled down from their tree perches at the edge of the woods and ran toward the front of the school building.

Sandy didn’t hesitate. He pulled his waxed paper from the back pocket of his blue jeans, unfolded it, put it between his butt and the floor of the escape tube and sailed down. I was a few feet behind him. Sandy hit the ground running—a practiced technique we’d both developed through many hours of sliding these tubes—and I was less than a second in the rear.

As we suspected, Miss Crutchfield had thrown her Best in Show tree on the top of the pile. The faculty’s party for Jesus and Miz Washington had been in the second grade room and Miss Crutchfield had left the tree up until the songs and toasts were over. It was fully decorated with popcorn strings, foil tinsel and icicles, crape paper balls hung by paper clips, cotton pulled flat and placed on branches as snow. It was topped by a pretty angel Mary Anne Thompson had made for her favorite former teacher. She’d shown it to me on the way to school one day and I told her how pretty it was. Mary Anne moved away in the spring, but she stayed long enough to give me my first kiss.

Sandy instinctively went to the front of the tree, stuck his hand inside the limbs and grabbed the trunk. I went to the base and picked up the heavy part. We worked in perfect unison, lifting the tree without dropping a single decoration, and running with it as fast as we could toward 110 Forest Avenue. A smiling Mom waited at the back screen door, the one that squealed so loud we’d often hear it open before we heard her voice yelling for us.

David, the boy everybody underestimated, sat smugly on the sofa as we entered the living room. He grinned. “Got a couple of them left,” he said, pulling the cherry bombs from his pocket. “Good thing we didn’t use all of them July 4.

“You should have seen those three bums trying to figure out what was making all the noise. I put the cherry bombs in that big metal trash can out front and turned it on its side, pointing toward the back of the school. I hung around to watch them, and, boy, did they look confused.”

“I’d bet they were more than confused when they went back to guard the trees,” I laughed. “When we pulled this one off, the pile looked a lot smaller.”

We laughed and slid the tree into its stand. Mom went to the basement to get those wondrous, multi-colored, used car lot lights we always strung on the tree. It was Christmas again and our wait for Santa would be much easier with the big blue spruce sparkling in the corner.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

OK, Steph, Now Show Us Happy

Hmmmmm. Looks like Virginia Teacher of the Year Stephanie Doyle didn't get the memo. The one that said, "Steph, when the photographer from the local daily shows up, look excited. It's important." Looks like the headline writer didn't get a look at the photo before writing the head, either.

The Breckinridge Middle School history teacher wasn't exuding much enthusiasm when Sam Dean snapped this photo, giving the top story in today's paper something of a comical look.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Colorful Snow in Downtown Ro

Roanoke's main library downtown is an art deco treasure, especially in the right light.^

Align CenterThe trees beside the library shield the Patrick Henry Hotel and stand like sentinels.^

View from the hill above Elmwood Park, looking toward Roanoke City Market.^

This gorgeous hill is not in Montana; it's smack in the middle of downtown Roanoke (get perspective below).^

Here's the rocks framed with the Anthem Building.^

This is the Norfolk Southern building framed by a couple of big oaks.^

These birch trees rest elegantly at the back of the library, giving the impression of a New England winter.^

The late afternoon light on the snow in downtown Roanoke presents some unexpected beauty as this week's 17-inch (or so, depending on where you are) snow hangs around. This light is intensified with Photoshop, but not by much. Pretty, pretty stuff.

Want a Bus to Lynchburg To Catch a Train?

Jeremy Holmes at Roanoke's innovative RIDE Solutions is working with the city's bus company, Valley Metro, and Senator Edwards to try to determine of a connection between Roanoke and Lynchburg's passenger rail station is something people want.

The bus would take train riders to Kemper St. Station until money is available to extend the rail line to Roanoke. This is a popular boarding point for trains to the northeast corridor of the U.S. I'm told the run to New York is a hoot. Below is a link to a Survey Monkey survey you can take.

You can take the survey here.

Virginia's in the Middle of the Happiness Quotient

A new study from the United Kingdom's University of Warwick and America's Hamilton College has organized the U.S.'s states into happiness groups and, frankly, there isn't much of a surprise here, save for the fact that Louisiana, which still hasn't recovered from Katrina, is first.

As you might expect, the heavily populated, congested and cranky states are at the bottom with New York ranking 51st among the states and Washington D.C. Just look at the bottom 11 states--Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, California, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York--and you'll note the last three are New York City and its suburbs. The others include Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and the rest of California and Boston. Big, bigger, biggest.

On the other end of the scale, you have the rural south, southwest and midwest (with, of course, Hawaii, which doesn't fit anywhere because it isn't really part of us. Neither is Alaska, but there they sit with Palinland at a surprisingly pleasant No. 11).

You can look here and see how the study was conducted.

Virginia rests at an undistinguished 28 and I blame that on the existence of Northern Virginia and Tidewater, which have more to do with the big congested areas than they do with what we know here in the western end of the state. My guess is if we were polled separately, our status would improve dramatically.

Professor Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, one of the leads in the study, wasn't especially surprised at the results. He said, “We have been asked a lot whether we expected that states like New York and California would do so badly in the happiness ranking. Having visited and lived in various parts of the U.S., I am only a little surprised. Many people think these states would be marvellous places to live in. The problem is that if too many individuals think that way, they move into those states, and the resulting congestion and house prices make it a non-fulfilling prophecy. In a way, it is like the stock market. If everyone thinks it would be great to buy stock X, that stock is generally already overvalued. Bargains in life are usually found outside the spotlight. It seems that exactly the same is true of the best places to live."

Here's the rundown:

1 Louisiana
2 Hawaii
3 Florida
4 Tennessee
5 Arizona
6 Mississippi
7 Montana
8 South Carolina
9 Alabama
10 Maine
11 Alaska
12 North Carolina
13 Wyoming
14 Idaho
15 South Dakota
16 Texas
17 Arkansas
18 Vermont
19 Georgia
20 Oklahoma
21 Colorado
22 Delaware
23 Utah
24 New Mexico
25 North Dakota
26 Minnesota
27 New Hampshire
28 Virginia
29 Wisconsin
30 Oregon
31 Iowa
32 Kansas
33 Nebraska
34 West Virginia
35 Kentucky
36 Washington
37 District of Columbia
38 Missouri
39 Nevada
40 Maryland
41 Pennsylvania
42 Rhode Island
43 Massachusetts
44 Ohio
45 Illinois
46 California
47 Indiana
48 Michigan
49 New Jersey
50 Connecticut
51 New York

Monday, December 21, 2009

Guess Who's Headin' for the Hall of Fame?

Your favorite editor has before him at this moment a letter from the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame informing him that, by a unanimous vote, he has been selected for induction into the class of 2010. Third time's the charm with this one, since I'd been nominated twice before. And I'm tickled &#%@-less. Heh, heh, heh ...

This is quite a deal because among the 112 members (through 2008) are Douglas Southall Freeman, Roger Mudd, Tom Wolfe, Ann Compton, James J. Kilpatrick, Russell Baker (NYTimes columnist), Paul Duke (AP), Earl Hamner, Willard Scott, Max Robinson (ABC), Lloyd Dobbins (NBC) and David Baldacci.

I absolutely don't deserve to be in that company, but I'll take it and I'll celebrate it on April 1 (how appropriate) when I get to put on a tux and pick up the hardware in Richmond. Virginia Commonwealth University has been the sponsor of the designation, which began in 1986.

Four other Roanokers (Frosty Landon and Buster Carrico of a local daily, radio broadcaster Herm Reavis and TV heavyweight John Harkrader) are members. You might also want to count Ann Compton, since she went to Hollins University in Roanoke and worked for WDBJ-TV.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yes, Ma'am, That WAS Audrey Tautou

Audrey Tautou from "Train de Nuit" holding a gorgeous Leica M8^

OK, so here's the latest in movie product placement:

Audrey Tautou, who played Coco Chanel in the recent "Coco Before Chanel" (a dang good movie) stars in a brief movie-like commercial for Chanel No. 5 called "Train de Nuit" ("Night Train"), complete with a soundtrack by Billie Holliday ("I'm a Fool To Want You").

We just saw the commercial and my wife and I were stopped by it, Christina saying with some elevation, "Is THAT Audrey Tautou!?!" and me replying, "I'd say so, since she played Coco Chanel." Christina had forgotten. I hadn't. I'd watch Audrey Tautou read the phone book, so this little piece of marketing came with a level of pleasure few others do for me.

The Proper Remedy for a Big Snow

A lot of snow. A lot of vegetable soup from Mother Smith's World Famous Recipe. A lot of contentment.

Christmas in Grandin Village, 2009

The Village coming back to life about 3 p.m. today after nearly 20 inches of snow.^

Young fellow takes off from the top of the hill at Memorial Bridge.^

The hills were alive with sledders and snowball fighters at Memorial Bridge.^

Here's life in the Village, the way it has been, the way it is, the way it should be.^

Benches wait for some butts to warm them. Butts in the Village are always warm.^

Roanoke's largest snowfall in a lot of years--nearly 20 inches in spots, generally around 16, though--brought out the best of us (recreation) and the worst (driving, parking, digging out).

This one was an almost debilitating snow for about 18 hours until warmer temperatures started to melt some of the snow, but we're looking for that to freeze tonight and give us the devil of a time getting to work tomorrow.

This was an especially beautiful and cruel snow, taking the life of my friend Ann Masters (read below) and putting a heavy black cloth over the Christmas of a number of people. Still, a snow like this is undeniably beautiful and in this region, it most often is gone before we tire of it.

In Grandin Village, where I live, this snow and this season are almost Rockwell-esque. And I like it like that.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Digging Out: The Tentative First Steps

Here's the progress ... and it wasn't as easy as it looks. The dang show is heavy.^

That's the big bird house in the back yard. If there's a bird in there, he's staying.^

This is the showdrift outside my bedroom window. Don't remember ever having one of those before.^

And here's the snow drift at the door of the back porch. Don't remember having one of those, either.^

The front steps offered a challenge right off the bat. Thank God they're rock.^

This little froggie survived the storm in our herb garden ...^

And this little froggie didn't (or at least he appears to be sinking fast.^

The triumphant snow warrior poses with his flags.^

A Local Writer Looks at Ann Masters' Life

Ann Masters with long-time companion Tom Cain^

Roanoke Valley writer Tracy Garland profiled Ann Masters for a local publication recently. Following is an excerpt from that profile that Tracy gave permission to run here. It's a nice look at who Ann was and what was important to her. The whole story is here.

By Tracy Garland

Ann Masters says her passion for the environment began early in life. She often spent her summer vacations on her grandfather’s farm in Huddleston picking fruit, harvesting potatoes, and caring for horses. She remembers with fondness the quaint yet effective method of brushing her teeth with Sassafras twigs and how they could clean the whole house spotless with simple cleaners like baking soda and rubbing alcohol.

Through the many and varied lessons on the farm, Ann learned about living close to the earth. Today’s kids, she quips, “think farm animals are exotics.” Ann has two grown daughters and five (“bright and beautiful”) grandchildren (or “grands” as she calls them). She suggests that parents engage their children in nature by having them help tend a backyard “kitchen garden” or pitch in to harvest berries or fruit. Her experience has been that children will more readily eat vegetables that they have pulled from the ground with their own two hands. Masters has spent her life in the Roanoke Valley , where she has enjoyed what she terms a “checkered career.”

After teaching kindergarten class at Raleigh Court United Methodist Church for five years, Ann settled into what became a 16-year career at the Art Museum of Western Virginia(then known as the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts.) Ann oversaw the design of the galleries and installation of the artwork collection when the museum was moved to the Center in the Square in 1983.

She coordinated various museum events, handled publicity and even assisted with disaster recovery after the flood of ’85 sent the Roanoke River winding through the museum's galleries.

Ann has served in her current capacity as Executive Director of the Clean Valley Council (CVC) since 1994. …

Masters is a Renaissance woman of community service. The many volunteer positions she has held include Executive Committee member of the Virginia Council of Litter Prevention and Recycling for over a decade, Festival in the Park Board of Directors for 12 years, and active membership with the Junior League for nearly 12 years. She says that every position she’s held has been a “different piece of fabric in the tapestry of my life.”

The common thread woven deeply in the cloth is a “passion for conservation and preservation.” Litter is one of Master’s biggest pet peeves (and don’t get her started about those wayward cigarette butts). She says, “I used to lean out of the car [at litterbugs] and yell ‘Hey - you dropped something!’” However, after a few unpleasant run-ins with some particularly hostile trash-mongers, she chose to abandon the confrontational approach.

One of her professional inspirations is local architect Tom Cain, [a close companion during the past few years]. Tom has devoted a great portion of his life studying and communicating about ways to make the Roanoke Valley a safer, cleaner and more sustainable place to live and work. She feels that his ideas are visionary and that the Valley would benefit from more civic leaders like Cain. Masters particularly enjoys her office in the fabulously rehabilitated Jefferson Center. “I walked these halls in my penny loafers” in its heyday as Jefferson High School and she has even been discovered by old classmates passing through to visit the building. The vista outside of her window consists of a beautiful centenarian tree and a long view of Tinker mountain.

“I have had a good life with marvelous family, friends and fun,” she concludes. And while her position as Executive Director of the Clean Valley Council is “the best job I’ve ever had,” Ann’s true goal in life is to work herself out of a job. “I would love to close the doors on the CVC, because that would mean that Roanoke is clean, pristine and healthy and that it’s going to stay that way.”

She reflects, “I hope my work has made a difference in the environment. I know the work has made a change in me.”

Ann Masters in Her Own Words

This photo of Ann was taken at the most recent Clean Valley Council awards ceremony back in the fall. One of the awards I'm most proud of is the CVC Education Award she gave us several years ago. It was a Twist & Turns chair and it still sits in my office.^

On the Clean Valley Council’s Web site, you can get a pretty good idea of who Ann Masters was with her writings. She talks about her influences, her accomplishments, her goals and her joys in her introduction letter, written, I think, three years ago.

Ann’s contributions to the Roanoke Valley environmental movement were massive in the area of environmental education, but my favorite contribution, I think, is that she collected and listed places in the region that accept—and sometimes even pay for—recyclables, those things we don’t want to send to the landfill, but have thought we didn’t have a choice. That list is here.

Some of Ann’s words follow. They soothe on a snowy day.

“I have a VRA tote bag that says, ‘It is so easy to make a difference’ and it reminds me every day I can make a difference, and so can each of you, with small effortless habits.

“I used to speak of the [8] Rs: Reduce, Respect, Recycle, Reuse, Run-off (storm water), Replenish, Replant, Rethink . . .just some words I can think of to ‘re.’ I use these words to provoke your thoughts. Why do we do this thing, we environmentalists, for the planet? Or at least our own small part of the planet. …

“I believe part of my personal journey began on my grandfather’s farm in my childhood summers. I met the earth head on with animal care, picking from the kitchen garden and riding the plow horse to the creek for water at the end the day. My grandfather taught me to listen to find bee swarms. I’m sure I could still find the fox grapes.

“I believe we have little to do with our journey. Our life tapestry weaves itself as we work and play. If we listen this journey happens.

“Clean Valley offers classroom outreach for the broad diversity of the greater Roanoke Valley.

“Here in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, our currency is the student community. CVC’s talented educators through the years have inspired encouraged and demonstrated responsible waste management.

“Clean Valley initiated the first Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day with the Junior League of Roanoke Valley. We collected 30,000 used books for Kenya in the Books for Africa project with Cycle Systems and had Critters Don’t Need Litter come to the valley for the schools. Our office wrote three statewide grant proposals that provided the products for our peers across the commonwealth to take into the classrooms for students.

"One of the things we are most proud is the Earth Summit … it is a congress for junior and senior high representatives from all the high schools in the Valley.

“An unknown source once wrote, Measure your wealth not by the things you have, but by the things you have for which you would not take money.”

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Eternal Ann Masters: A Passing

The photo above, taken by my wife, Christina, was Ann's favorite.^

I suppose that losing Ann Masters, as we did today, shouldn't come as a huge surprise to those of us who knew the health challenges she faced during the past few years, but, as my wife said, "Ann just seemed eternal."

Yes, eternal. Sitting here, holding forth, her court around her--as she did at a seasonal party last week at the home of Hollins President Nancy Gray. I didn't go across the room and hug Ann as I almost always have done because we work in the same building now and I could do that any time. Except that I can't now. She can't drop in on me, either, and and announce, "Smith, you're not working. You're just typing. That's not work." And she'd laugh out loud.

Ann, who spent the last number of years as the inspirational and visionary head of the Clean Valley Council, moving it from an almost ceremonial role in "beautification" to a very real environmental force, had this infectiousness about everything she believed. She believed in the environment and in the people who had the power and the resolve to improve it. She was ever pointing out this or that unlikely hero, some business that sounds filthy, but which was making herculean efforts not to be.

Every once in a while, I'd call over to her office and ask what she had in the way of good stories of businesses who were coming around to the environmental movement and she'd laugh. "You've come to the right place again," she'd say and then she'd tell me about this cement manufacturer who'd cleaned up a process, or a quarry operator who was being a little kinder to the environment or some other unlikely hero. Then I'd say the obligatory, "Ann, you're a genius. I bet you had something to do with" whatever the success was. "Sure, I did, Smith," she'd bellow, "and don't you forget it." And she'd laugh that big laugh.

Ann, who was 74 but lived and looked much younger, didn't judge the polluters; she simply worked her magic on converting them. I saw it too many times to think it was anything but her smile, her encouragement, the mother in her bringing out the best in even the worst of us. Ann was a woman of impact. She was important and she lived a life that mattered.

It's going to take a little while for me to feel really awful about the news of her death because, as Christina says, she's not somebody who'd be dying. Eternal. That's Ann. Yes. That's Ann.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Social Media Happy Holidays!

About 25 members of the weekly "meet-up" social media group that gathers in Roanoke had a bouncing holiday lunch today at Carrabbas. Heavy social media talk from a bunch of very bright people with extraordinarily diverse backgrounds and interests.

Among the group was three of the FRONT's four social media gurus (guru-ettes, somebody suggested before being shouted down) pictured here. Patsy Stewart was otherwise engaged while we were shooting. They are (from left Jill Elswick, who wrote our December cover story; Janeson Keeley our new Internet columnist; and Bonnie Cranmer, who has a social media comment in our January issue). Talented women who write very well and make us all look good.

SML Movie Plans Progressing; October Is Goal

My pal Sara Elizabeth Timmins (above), who plans to shoot the movie “Lake Effects” at Smith Mountain Lake during the fourth quarter of next year, sent an update that I’ll pass along to those of you who are interested.

Sara Elizabeth will be one of our teachers at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins next month. She has credits for about a dozen movies in her portfolio and has been furiously putting together financing and all the details for the movie since she announced during the summer that she would not be able to shoot it in 2009, as originally planned.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

The money is on the verge of being there and looks like it should be by early next year. She has been in touch with a dozen Hollywood distributors and TV networks. The tentative schedule calls for shooting to begin in October.

Sara Elizabeth says that “several actors, including Academy Award winning talent, have read the script and … most distributors and networks that we spoke with were willing to say if we come to them with all the money they would also help us attach recognizable talent.”

Two actors already committed are John Diehl (“Stripes,” “Miami Vice”) and actor/acting coach “Barry Papick” (acting coach on “Finding Forrester,” “The Express,” “Labor Pains”) in supporting roles.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Rant: And You Say the NY Times Is Losing Circulation?

I've been steamed about a column by a journalistic moron named George Vecsey of the New York Times (pictured) critiqued in a blog out of Knoxville called View from the Cumberlands that, in effect, calls this lazy, uninformed, arrogant bigot out.

Many of you know about the recent accusation of a recruiting violation at the University of Tennessee that involves some of what everyone is terming "hostesses," visiting football players at a high school game in South Carolina. That would be a violation of NCAA rules if the UT ladies were sent by the coaching staff to the game to recruit two players (who had already committed to Tennessee, making that act unnecessary; one has since changed his commitment, blaming it on this negative publicity). At worst, this is what the NCAA calls a "secondary violation," not in the same league, say, as LSU paying a player to come to school, which has been alleged and which has not been covered by NYTimes columnist George Vecsey.

Vecsey is all over the UT "scandal," as he terms it, primarily because it sounds promisingly salacious. Any columnist worth his ink in NYCity would fall all over his keyboard getting at this thing: hot young honeys; younger, supple athletes who are black; potential race mixing in the South; a prep coach in Memphis telling the NYTimes that the girls rubbed their boobs on him and some of his players visiting UT (but refusing to testify to that effect to the NCAA); big-time football; Southern accents and all those hayseeds speaking with those same accents. A Yankee newspaperman too lazy to do his homework and too steeped in redneck, inbred stereotypes could have a blast with this one. He seems to have done that.

Problem with Vecsey's column is that it's mostly wrong, mostly bigoted, mostly shows his uninformed ass to the rest of the world and tells us by example that the newspaper business has lost far, far too many good reporters and that the end is a lot closer than we originally thought for said newspaper business. When the Gray Lady becomes a Red Madam, it's time to close the curtains.

What galls me more than anything else about Vecsey's column is that this boob is writing it in what has been a respected publication. It's like Rush Limbaugh and his ilk having air time when what they say is stupid, harmful and represents the base impulses of the worst of us. It oozes with a level of bigotry, propoganda and arrogance that is nauseating. We in this region continue to be stereotypes to people like Vecsey and I damn well don't like it a bit. We've cut jerks like him slack long enough. It's time now to do the very worst thing we can do to him: stop reading his crap.

Here's the Cumberlands piece (because its writer is witty, informed and as mad as I am), but I'm not linking to the NYTimes jerk. He doesn't deserve it.

Hey, Grandpa, What's for Supper (in Morocco)?

Sometimes doing this vegetarian diet deal is easier than it is at other times. Today it was not only easy, it was simply glorious and that's because the chef at the Shenandoah Club in Roanoke gave me an idea that worked.

I ate lunch there with my wife and my birthday-girl mother-in-law and during the course of the meal, I bit into something buried under a piece of grilled snapper and nearly fainted from the sheer pleasure of the taste. I hustled the bright young waitress over and asked her what these things were (I honestly didn't know they were lentils because they didn't taste like any I'd ever had before) and when she told me, I asked her if she could get the chef to tell me what was in them. She did and he did and I'll tell you in a minute.

Lentils, of course, are the small seeds of a Eurasian bean and you're familiar with them mostly in soups. What I had was a much drier side dish with a nice kick to it. The waitress told me that the chef passed along the ingredients--green lentils (which are black), shallots, vinegar, olive oil and chili sauce. She didn't give any measurements, but I guessed. How wrong can you go with ingredients like that? Not very.

So, here's what I came up with: a pound of lentils, six ounces of chili sauce, four ounces of apple vinegar (which is something of a miracle food in itself; I have four books on apple vinegar, if you can believe that), four ounces of a light extra virgin olive oil and two big shallots, diced. There's not a lot of big-deal science involved here: you just cook the lentils for about 15 minutes and pour in the rest of the stuff, then let them simmer for about 10 minutes.

Pictured here is dinner: roast red pepper hummus that I made this evening (while I was waiting on the lentils to cook), tabouli (or tabouleh if you wanna go all Mid-East on me) with a full complement of salad veggies in it put together last night, a cut up pita pocket and the lentils--sitting where the meat would be if I was eating meat. This is simply a wonderful meal for diabetics like me and healthy people like you who want to stay that way.

And it's just so dang good! Mmmmmmmm ...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writers: Put Social Media To Work, a Workshop

My pal Jill Elswick, who has about as much to do with any social media literacy I have as anybody on earth, is the teacher tomorrow for our special Writers Workshops Series on writers and social media. Jill's calling it "Finding Your Social Media Muse" and I've watched this big-headed baby birthing for several weeks now. Jill is one of the most thorough and intensely detailed people I know. This will be a very good session and it will be practical.

It runs 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17 at Center in the Square, second floor. Call Rhonda Hale at the Arts Council to register at 540-224-1205 (or you can just show up; Rhonda will kill me for saying that, but you can).

Jill's been all but addicted to social media for months and she knows how to make it work for writers. She also communicates clearly, so bring your laptops and a keen interest and get ready to either go social if you're not there or improve the skills you have. It's free for members of the sponsoring Arts Council of the Blue Ridge and non-members pay $5 (still quite a bargain, if you consider what doors are opening here--they did for me).

Jill functions as a freelance business writer (one of our best at Valley Business FRONT) and a conference planner. She has been a senior editor with Employee Benefit News and has been interim editor with Virginia Tech Magazine. She's a graduate of James Madsion Unviersity and has a master's degree from N.C. State.

(Photo courtesy Maryanne Marx.)

'An Education' Is Just That, and Delightfully So

Those of you looking for a quiet break from the holiday scuffle (and, no, I don't mean "shuffle"), might want to try the marvelous coming of age movie "An Education" at the Grandin Theatre. It's a small movie written by novelist Nick Hornby and starring fresh-faced Carey Mulligan and always-solid Peter Sarsgaard.

The story centers around Jenny (Mulligan), a 16-year-old high school student, who has been tightly guarded both at home and at her gray-clad girls school. The idea--at least according to Jenny's father, marvelously rendered by one of my favorites, Alfred Molina, is obsessed with sending her to Oxford and she is compliant until she meets a wealthy older man whose primary goal in life is to have fun. Sarsgaard is the suave, smooth-talking older man who has a way not only with Jenny, but also with her parents.

The movie has a certain predictability to it, but the journey--often very funny, at times touching and trying at the same instant--is a delight.

This one's showing at the Grandin Theatre and is probably in its last week. It has the added benefit of being shown in the intimate screening room, if you have a date (and your spouse is considered a date).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who Owns the E-Book Rights? Writer or Publisher?

The New York Times has a relevant, timely and fascinating look at who owns the electronic publishing rights to older books, those published before the Internet was prominent in the lives of most of us. It is here and if you have a book, you might want to spend a few minutes with it.

Seasonal Charm: Hotel Roanoke's Festival of Trees

Christmas in downtown Roanoke is a real treat for those of us who remain kids this time of the year. Among the draws are the charming Dickens of a Christmas, which continues throughout the season, and the festival of Christmas trees at the Hotel Roanoke.

The tree festival has been held for many, many years, originating, I believe, at the old Miller & Rhoads department store. It made its way around to other buildings, including the City Market Building and, as I recall, the Heironimus department store for a while, after M&R closed and has finally settled comfortably at the hotel, where it adds a special touch of seasonal cheer.

The photo above is my favorite among some wonderful displays where the Christmas tree is simply part of a larger theme, this one 1950s kitchen, complete with ironing. The show on the TV--a real one--is the black and white "Mickey Mouse Club." It was on a loop with "Dick VanDyke" (more like 1960s) and "I Love Lucy."

Go see all these trees on two floors and for goodness sake, take the kids. Watch the light in their eyes.

A Day at the Patrick Henry Hotel Sale

Here's the mob scene at the Patrick Henry Hotel antiques sale today^

Same mob, different part of the building; my new pal Betsy in the center working the crowd^

Women look over the room keys, going for $15 and $25 (which was more than the gorgeous art deco lamps)^

Some of the plates were simply gorgeous ... and pricey^

Customers were carting off entire crates of water and wine glasses^

Denise Stewart is reflected in the mirror she claimed^

Roger Lenhart of Davidson, N.C., looks at a small chandelier. He was in town on business and heard about the sale on TV^

Rob Ledger and Jim Bohm claimed a painting that I had my eye on. They're waiting here to buy it^

The sale of Patrick Henry Hotel fixtures, many of them lovely antiques, attracted a packed house at the new Goodwill facility in Roanoke today. Bargain hunters found furniture, fixtures, artwork and miscellaneous items and many delighted in their purchases--including your correspondent who holds a room key he bought for his wife (right, photographed by my bud Stephanie Koehler).

I told Christina I couldn't find the key she wanted, but it will mysteriously make its way into her Christmas stocking as a surprise. Heh, heh, heh ...

This sale was just a taste of what's to come. Many, many more items will be on sale in January. The hotel has more than 100 rooms and is being renovated by developer Ed Walker.