Saturday, January 31, 2009

Creating a Creative Roanoke Creatively

My pal Stuart Mease at the City of Roanoke has asked me to pass along the call to identify 30 volunteers who will become what's being called "Creative Connectors," people who will help transform the city. The goal is sustainability and livability.

The volunteers will spend several hours a week for the next 12 months as part of the Creative Communities Leadership Program, which was launched by the Creative Class Group, an advisory services firm associated with Richard Florida, he of the clear mind when thinking about urban solutions.

The CCLP will be launched at a two-day seminar for the selected leaders March 30 and 31, where the Creative Class Group will work with the volunteers to build an understanding of the creative economy, the community's 4Ts (Talent, Technology, Tolerance and Territory Assets), identify strategic economic goals and develop a framework of projects to engage the Roanoke community.

Go here to apply.

The Debate Imbalance Continues

A new report at ThinkProgress (as reported by the Huffington Post) reveals that the cable news networks are still at the game of Republicans In Charge of the Debate. By a 2-1 margin last week, the networks had more Republicans arguing against the stimulus package than Democrats talking for it.

During the Bush admin, the cable outlets explained away the imbalance because the Repubs held the White House, Congress and the courts. Now they only have the courts (which aren't elected), but the lop-sided tilt continues. Again, I say: bring back the Fairness Doctrine and force the bastards to be more balanced. (By the way, in a small irony, the fairest of the unfair, was Fox News.)

The Suit and the Sacred Seat(s)

The University of Tennessee's 100,000-seat Neyland Stadium

A few years ago, the Carolina Panthers invented the "seat license," meaning that in order to buy a season ticket for their games, you had to pay a "license" fee. Some called it extortion. They were right. College football has adopted the practice at the more successful programs. License fees can far exceed the season ticket price and if you're looking at a sky box, you're thinking in terms of major corporate expansion.

Now comes word (via the Knoxville News-Sentinel) from the University of Tennessee of a Nashville lawyer--and lifelong UT supporter--who's had enough. His daddy, Big Bill Luck, built the upper deck in 1961 and his pal, legendary Tennessee coach Gen. Robert Neyland (for whom the whole 100,000-seat facility is named), gave Big Bill the two best seats in the house: front row, 50-yard-line, upper deck. I've sat a few rows back of that and I can attest to the view.

Neyland told the university, the state, the population of Tennessee and anybody else who'd listen that he wanted Big Bill to have those seats for life and for his progeny to share the same distinction. That meant that in 2002, when Big Bill died, his eldest male child, Thomas, inherited the pair of seats. All was well until the university decided recently that those seats were a gold mine.

UT wants Thomas to move to the other side of the stadium, pay $6,000 for the right to buy season tickets and pay full face value for the tickets ($360 each for eight games). Thomas says no (actually, "hell, no" would be closer) and has sued. The university says people can't sue the government and UT is the government. Part of it, anyway.

Fact is, this is one UT can't win, even if it gets a favorable ruling in court. College football fans are traditionalists and what is more traditional than a family's seats?

Fall from Grace

Here's the latest twist on Mark Knopfler's "The Bug" lyric ("Sometimes you're the winshield, sometimes you're the bug"):

"One day a peacock. The next day a feather duster." Newly-minted Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who replaced The Blog (and, no, I'm not even going to take a shot at spelling that lovely man's name). This from the NYTimes.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hey, It's Because We're Pro-Life

Virginia newspapers almost certainly have at least one standing head they use on General Assembly stories. It would read something like this:

(Anything good for anybody) "snuffed out in House subcommittee." You fill in the parenthetical part.

The latest: Gov. Tim Kaine's proposed 60 cents a pack cigarette tax, which would pay for some of the $400 million being cut from Medicaid. Virginia is $2.9 billion short of funds overall and needs to make that up somewhere. The cigarette tax wouldn't--by a lot--compensate for all that shortfall (we're only talking $150 million here), but it would certainly help.

What better to tax than something that kills 400,000 Americans a year, blisters business bottom lines, increases insurance costs and rates, fills up hospitals, kills those who breathe smoke second-hand, fills our streets with smokers' gauntlets that we must walk through (covering our faces) and is a nasty, smelly, gross addiction?

Cigarette industry lobbyists (and you can count convenience stores as a new cigarette industry wing) say the tax would create a hardship. A Reynolds Tobacco lobbyist is quoted in today's paper as saying the proposed tax would speed up the reduction in tobacco use. Well, yeah. That's the point, dummkopf.

The current tax is 30 cents, way, way up from a few years ago when it was just 4 cents a pack, second only to Kentucky from the bottom nationally. State taxes today range from 7 cents in South Carolina to $2.57.5 cents in New Jersey. Nine states charge more than $2 a pack and 26 charge $1 or more. Virginia is one of six states that allow counties to levy taxes (between 2 and 15 cents a pack) and you have to wonder where that came from, since Republicans have been blocking cigarette taxes for lo these many years. The federal tax is 39 cents a pack (and the Obama administration wants to dramatically increase that).

So here's the political equation:

Republicans--pro tobacco, pro guns, pro death penalty, pro war and--get this--pro life.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The POD Way of Publishing

Print on Demand (POD) publishing is sweeping the country, says the New York Times this a.m., to the point that soon we could have more people writing and publishing books than reading them. The article predictably wrings its hands about the state of the publishing industry and it makes a strong case for a dying form, but, as with so many new technologies, this represents change and change often means the death of one so we have life for the other.

What POD has meant to me is the publication of my memoir (Burning the Furniture) without the time, energy, humiliation and sheer aggravation of agents and for-profit publishers. I've done that and I didn't like it, so Burning the Furniture took the futuristic route and I've been tickled with it every step of the way. My publisher is Author House and it has been adequate. Some are less than that, others are better. I'm likely going back to Author House in the spring or summer with my new children's book, Homer, more because of familiarity than anything else.

The Times' piece talks of a lawyer from L.A. who, after several rejections by traditional publishers of his political book, took it to iUniverse and got the process going for $99 (Burning the Furniture cost north of $700 to set up). Writers pay that fee up front to get the book ready to print and fees I'm aware of have run up to $3,000 for a full-color children's book. I've read about set-ups and the extras (like marketing, which you should never buy through a POD publisher) costing $10,000. Each book is printed separately. The writer can set the price. Mine is $14.99 on Amazon and, I think, $11.99 at Author House's Web site. I normally sell them for about $15 at signings.

The small miracle here is that if I need one book, I can order it and that book will be printed for me. There are no boxes of books in my basement or anybody's warehouse. I have about 10 copies for my own use and that's pretty much it for stock. I sold a number of them at our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference over the weekend and need to order some more, but I'm in control of that. I pay about $9 for them. When one sells at Amazon or Author House, I get less than $2. I have a royalty check--framed in my office--for $1.84, so you can see that the money in this isn't something you'd want to have to depend upon.

Still, many of us don't write books in order to make a living--or even to break even. We write for a number of reasons, many of which have to do with having something to say. My memoir began as a christmas gift for a new granddaughter, a sort of short family history. Originally, it was to have been no more than 10 pages. A month after I started, it was a full-blown book and I liked what I'd written. Four months after I finished, I was at a book signing. Try that with a traditional plublisher.

The Times says PODs accounted for 2.5 million book sales last year. That's spit in a bucket, but it's a lot of happy writers (and some happy readers; the feedback on Burning has been gratifying).

Whether or not you'll want to go with the POD is, of course, your choice. It takes some research, but information is readily available--starting with The Times story. I recommend it, unless you want to be John Grisham.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The New Roanoke Times Coming Soon

The Roanoke Times in the fading light of day>

The Roanoke Times this week adjusted to its economic bottom dropping like a watermelon out of a fifth-story window by freezing salaries and telling workers they’ll need to take off five unpaid days in the next few months. Now comes word (from inside the building) that a major remake of the Monday-Saturday paper is next. It will debut Feb. 9 and the design is still being worked on.

Highlights include:

* National/international, Virginia, community, business, obituaries and editorial will now be included in one section and stories—except for those on Page 1—will generally be contained on a single page under their headings. Each section will have its own page label and individual story topics will have their labels, as well.

* Each of these sections will contain news in brief, rounding up day's events. Sections will have color labels inside the big section (much as Valley Business FRONT labels its special sections).

* The editorial page will be a single page Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. The lottery report will be in Virginia’s briefs and the weather map moves to Page A-2.

There's also a persistent rumor that The Times is considering not publishing one day a week, probably Monday, when the paper is generally small and, frankly, rarely profitable in the best of times.

Sounds like a heavy slathering of lipstick on this thinning pig.

The Trouble With the Phone Tree

A few minutes ago, I reached a new level (I'm not sure whether to call it a "high" or a "low") in man-machine communications: I pissed off an automated phone tree. Heh, heh, heh.

Backstory: I wasn't here a while ago when UPS tried to deliver a package to my house. I had left a message taped to the front door saying, "Leave the UPS package on the box below the PO box" and the UPS guy wrote on my note "Can't do it. Needs a sig." That would be a signature, I suspect. UPS had called me at 7 a.m. to tell me the package would arrive "between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Some window, huh, for a working guy?

Anyhow, I missed it. So I read this 4 point type on the back (that's very, very, very small type-squared) and found an 800 phone number and got this woman who told me to call 1-800-PICKUPS and when I asked if she could translate that to numbers, she said no, she could not. So I did and called it and found out after navigating the phone tree for the first time that I could pick up the package between 7:30 and 8 p.m. tonight at a spot way across town (and dang near impossible to find, if experience teaches). Big window to deliver, tiny window to pick up.

I'm picking up a 10mm camera lens that I've been waiting for like a kid who's sent in 10 Kellogg's Corn Flakes Box Tops and 10 cents for a magic decoder ring. So I want it now. But between 7:30 and 8 p.m. tonight, I can't go. So I called the 800 number again and this time my choices weren't as easy to make. I finally made them for the first time and when I said I wanted "pickup" the automated dealie thought that meant I wanted UPS to pick up, not me. I said, "Go Back!" like ordering the platoon to rush the machine gun nest. I said it several times in a row and the message started again. I insanely tried the same message (the old AA bromide is "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result") and even went through the same "Go Back!" when I got the same result.

This time, though, the UPS machine--in what I swear to God sounded like exasperation--sent me to a man who wears pants, takes a bath, probably has children and talks. He told me--in this flat, non-involved voice--that the package would be at USP on the far distant side of town for the next several days and that I could pick it up between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which is different from 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and means I'll have to interrupt work--again--to pick it up.

So I'm sitting here steamed thinking that all UPS has to do is perform a small service for its fee and that it has completely failed to do that. It is paid to deliver a package to me, not to some far distant site where I have to drive and pick it up. That's simply infuriating. But, dang it! I want my lens. And I want it now.

(COMMENT: Beth asks, "Why don't you just have packages delivered to your office." Well, the sad truth is that I'm rarely there--and neither is anybody else. I'm chasing stories, shooting pictures and the ad reps are selling ads.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Confusion of Modern Times

If the information we're being funneled these days isn't enough to confuse and frustrate a genius, then my confusion will just have to do. Consider what we've been exposed to the last few days in national news stories:

"60 Minutes" had a story on a grape-peel-based pill that keeps people alive longer by making them less susceptible to a variety of diseases. On the same show, reporters talked to a bunch of people who skinny themselves into long life. The 1,000 calorie a day (that's about two stalks of celery and glass of V8) crowd almost unanimously talked about being hungry all the time. We're once again looking at length of life without examining quality. And, for heaven's sake, where are we going to put all these old people? There's a point of diminishing returns with longevity.

Public Radio did one of its occasional interviews with a British chef whose name I forget, and the chef filled our heads with visions of white flour and sugar, canned and sweetened pears, butter, eggs, cream and--it seemed to me--a complete list of all the things I can't eat. Then she talked about how delicious the result is without mentioning that it would likely send some of us into diabetic shock and the rest of us would just get fat. And then get diabetes. And then go into shock.

Meanwhile, there's a big argument about why birth control funds for the poor are included in funds to correct the economy. OK, let's say this slowly: fewer people means fewer people to feed, fewer people to consume, fewer people to pollute, fewer people to absorb dwindling resources, and so on. It means fewer poor people in need of government services since most of those getting these birth control funds are poor and will not have children they can't take care of. This one's really and truly easy to understand if you're open to it.

It just keeps getting confusinger and confusinger.

If It's in the Paper, It Must Be Right

Smelly limburger cheese>

From the alternate universe that headline writers occupy on occasion come the following:

"Neo-Nazi Group Joins Adopt-A-Highway" (MSN)

"Terrorists Face PR Challenge" (Roanoke Times)

"France Raises Stink About Bush's War on Cheese" (my wife sent this one to me without a source)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

And An Answer From a Citizen Journalist

'I'm less concerned, after all these words and much thought over the last two days, about the ability to "brand" oneself as a reporter than the ability to make clear that one is honest, brave, tough, etc.'>

For a reference on this post, see the post below on citizen journalism. This answer is from Keith Ferrell, former editor of Omni Magazine (and a speaker at our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference Saturday). As a blogger, Keith is a citizen journalist. This answer is so good, I thought it needed its own post.

Dear Adam (et. al.)

And here I come, attempting to be less ... mercantile than I may have seemed this weekend. My focus—relentless and ultimately, I fear, boring, on the collapse of the commercial underpinnings of journalism and the larger, but related, universe of traditional publishing itself, rested on the number of questions I got about how to "make money" at writing, as well as my own ongoing awareness that writing is indeed how I have earned my living for most of the last three decades. But I fear that my focus on pragmatics distracted from the seriousness of your question, which was and is a fine one.

Citizen journalist, though, to me, needs to be better defined. Certainly journalist is a noble and longstanding profession citizen involvement—from Defoe to Mailer, and always with the example of Orwell and Zola shining for us—but there is a large distance between this sort of journalism, which in addition to in the best of hands becoming literary art of the highest sort, is most often activist, advocacy and polemical in nature, and different from the day-to-day point-by-point reporting which Dan talked about so well yesterday.

That sort of day-to-day—and day-in/day-out—reporting does seem to me to require institutional support, both for obvious pragmatic reasons (reporters have to eat, pay bills, etc.) and, crucially, because the institution of a newspaper, magazine, or news organization provides the absolutely essential "extra eyes" of an editor, editorial board, fact checkers (that one may already be gone: we had three on staff at OMNI and verified everything 3 times, including quotes) and so on.

Without that sort of support—and oversight, frankly—the risk is that the citizen journalist becomes Drudge or Daily Kos or Huffington Post: plenty of opinion, plenty of journalism (much of it lively) but not the sort of hard reporting, verified and confirmed by parties other than the reporter, that is fundamental to the society and the institution of the news.

Again, Adam, this not to diminish in any way the role the citizen journalist, acting essentially alone, fulfills. Just to separate it at least a bit from the traditional, and crucial, role that news organizations and the reporting they underwrite and oversee has filled. That role--here comes "doom and gloom" Keith again--seems to be vanishing. Take a look at is a sad place to visit, a witness to, I think, the death of an industry.

I know, I know, there have been recessions and slumps in publishing before, and if it dies, something new is going to take its place and is already taking its place.

What I was trying to say yesterday, and have been saying in speeches and articles here and there for years, is that this is that this particular recession and this particular transition is the first since the shift of attention almost completely to electronics. And that shift--culturally and, not incidentally, neurophysiologically--is itself something new. Our brains do not respond to words on a screen the way they do to words on paper; the processing works differently, the flicker pattern inherent in screens has its own effect on how we process information, how our attention spans and concentrative abilities function (or fail to).

What I think is dying, really, is reading, serious reading, and in the face of the onslaught of electronics--and I have written at or near the heart of that industry for two decades--the death of reading as a central pastime (or even common cultural coin and ability!)is all but inevitable.

I am wandering farther afield than is usual even for me. As far as the press goes, my concerns are twofold (at least). First is that the institutions of journalism and reporting are under the most severe threat we've ever seen at precisely the time when (second) the public's attention span is disappearing to the point at which many won't notice what's going and won't miss it when it's gone.

As for your good question though, the answer is simple, though the execution is tough (as are most things worth doing). Brave, tough, honest writers are always needed, and now more than ever. I'm less concerned, after all these words and much thought over the last two days, about the ability to "brand" oneself as a reporter than the ability to make clear that one is honest, brave, tough, etc. In this environment I think that is what will attract a following; the trick is doing so without surrendering to the cant and caterwauling that passes for polemic on the Web (and passes for journalism on TV and most editorial pages).

But the following, like the branding and, like the over-focus on word-rates and markets that Doug [Cumming, W&L professor] rightly chided me for is less important, ultimately and perpetually, than the integrity of the voice, the focus and the concerns the focus is trained upon, the work and the work and the work.

Do that--establish that brand for yourself--and the credentials may or may not follow. If they don't, it will be because the issuers of credentials are scared, as they always are and as they should be, of brave individuals with pens (however electronic the pen might be).

How's that?



Who Gets Press Credentials?

Adam Sowder, a young man who worked briefly for me as a freelance writer/intern about two years ago--and did it very well--showed up at our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference yesterday and in the final session of the day, a roundtable discussion of the future of the written word, he asked a question that I think we all misunderstood and in our bloviated pontification, we missed a very good opportunity. Adam is finishing his degree(s) at VCU soon and needs a good answer to his excellent question.

Adam, who did not get the answer he wanted, was frustrated and e-mailed me this a.m. with this: "I attempted to ask everyone, including the professor [Doug Cumming of W&L], if they think independent citizen journalists have the ability to acquire the same interpersonal source material as do syndicated or salaried reporters working for major news corporations. In other words, is it possible to develop credentials without the aid of a corporate brand?

"... I dutifully believe in the concept of apprenticeship ... yet, I have little faith in large hierarchical chains of command, especially growing up with the emergence of this new social media on the Internet."

I copied the e-mail to Doug Cumming, Keith Ferrell, a veteran journalist/author, and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominated reporter Rex Bowman of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Here's my reply to Adam:

The answer, as I know it is, "yes and no." Depends on who you ask for credentials. Most organizations at this point are a bit leery of citizen journalists, even as the blogosphere blossoms. But the day will come when specific credentials are awarded based on the merit of your publishing. Already national-level bloggers are being invited to the White House Press Corps, the conventions and the like, but getting a press pass from the state or the city might prove more problematic. Arts organizations welcome bloggers and even book publishers will provide review copies if your blog is well-read.

Citizen journalism has always been here, but not as it exists--because of the Internet--today. Ever heard of the pamphlet? The town crier? The telephone? Today, however, the citizen journalist, as you well know, has the capability of mass audiences and with that, the responsibility to be a bit better than, say, Matt Drudge, a rumor monger and egomaniac.

The upside of citizen journalism is that it opens us to new voices. The down side: most of those voices are shrill, untrained and full of shit. They also have few followers (except in the case of a Drudge, and that's right-wing politics, which is a different category).

My suggestion in getting your credentials in order is to start at a place where you know you can get credentials and use that credential as a link to the next. When you have several easy-to-get credentials, go to Virginia Tech's press office and get on its mailing list for press releases, then ask for a press credential. Next, go to the local police force and show them you're legit, while asking for a cop shop pass. Then use that one to go to the state police to pick up a press pass there. That press pass will be your entre to other, more significant passes. It takes time, you can do it.

(FEEDBACK--This answer for Adam comes from Doug Cumming:

(Speaking historically and legally, a journalist and a citizen are essentially the same--that is, there are [almost] no special rights that a journalist has … and a citizen has the same rights (of free speech, access to public meetings and records, etc.) that a "journalist" has.

(… Other than access to places that don't excite my news sense very much, like the White House press room and Congressional galleries, we don't need credentials. Credibility is the thing. A newspaper's name behind you helps a lot. But if you work hard to build your own credibility (and audience), more power to you. That comes from good hard reporting (yes, I know that takes a lot of time and money, and I know papers have a lot less of that now), and clear writing. Any citizen can do this, if [the citizen is] willing to apply [himself], and live on the passion of that calling.

(In the last few years, "citizen journalist" has come to mean something more narrow. Problem is, it means a lot of different more-narrow things….

(As for hierarchy and journalism, the two things are entirely different, in my view. I learned journalism not in college, [but] in an informal apprenticeship system [at several newspapers]. When I landed at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in the 1990s, I ran into some hierarchical bureaucracy, and it sucked all the joy and personal responsibility out of journalism, for me.)

The Death of the Book Page As We've Known It

So now we know. The Roanoke Times announced a few weeks ago that Mary Ann Johnson had "retired" from its book page (funny how many people are "retiring" there these days) and that the pages would be revamped (funny how many sections are being "revamped" these days). It insisted the pages would be much better and far more user friendly and that at a time when other publications were eliminating the pages, it was re-dedicating itself to them.

During my fading days at the Blue Ridge Business Journal (owned by The Times), we were told to eliminate the books page because "business people don't read books, except maybe business books." (We didn't recommend business books because they are uniformally awful.) When I tell that to business people that tale they look at me puzzled and say, "They really don't get it about business, do they?"

Mary Ann Johnson had been paid to put together the book page with reviews by local people for nearly two decades and it was a lively, informative weekly page that I could identify with because I actually knew some of the reviewers. It was a big job. Mary Ann had to secure the books, match them with reviewers, mail them out, get the reviews back in, edit them and put them on a page in a relevant manner.

What we have now is two Times employees (the competent Nona Nelson and Heather Froeschl, who does "Names and Changes" in a manner that it is frustrating and virtually meaningless) having the book page added to their already extensive list of duties. They aren't doing it as Mary Ann did. They're relying on smoke, mirrors, wire copy and an occasional local reviewer (this a.m. James Robertson of Virginia, the Civil War expert and default Civil War book reviewer; he once told me that a book a day about the war had been written since it ended and I asked if he wasn't understating a bit). The review of the biography of John Lennon was written by a guy at the LA Times. Why wasn't it written by Chris Gladden or Emily Paine Carter, a couple of local Lennon experts? Too much trouble to get them the book, I suspect. A staff writer wrote a short recommendation of a cookbook.

Mary Ann's salary has been eliminated and the paper seems to be using the wire copy that it had ignored before. The bulk of this book page is readily available on the Internet and the uniqueness of the former page is now history.

I grieve for our industry and its tight-fisted, short-sightedness.

(Note: When longtime marketing manager Nan Mahone recently decided to leave the paper ["to have more time to devote to these interests and explore new opportunities"], Publisher Debbie Meade cheerfully related to the staff that the loss "allows us to rethink the way we provide marketing and promotions services, particularly in this challenging economy. As you know, one of the ways we are coping with the recession and strengthening our business is by consolidating or centralizing more key functions in a leaner organizational structure." It also allows The Times to cut expenditures, as it has recently with the losses of columnist Shanna Flowers and veteran reporter Rob Johnson on top of the growing pile of lost institutional memory.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mac 'n' Cheese to Die For

When Cassandra Vanhooser, the former editor at Southern Living Magazine, agreed to do the keynote talk at this weekend's Roanoke Regional Writers Conference she had one stipulation. My friend Catherine Mosley, who recruited Cassandra for us, had mentioned that I make "world class mac 'n' cheese" (the quotes are mine because I would not have been so faint with the praise.

I agreed and here's the result, a personal iron-skillet-sized (6-inches) portion just for Cassandra.

The key ingredient? A quarter cup of bacon grease. Mmmmmmmmmm. Southern Cooooooooking.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

OK, Do It Like This

Our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference kicks off its two-day run tomorrow night at Hollins University and it's looking like the crowd will be both big and lively. The almost electric levels generated last year appear to have made their way into 2009. It's almost like a football big-game atmosphere. I'll be looking for tailgaters in the parking lot.

Nothing this big, however, can escape a bit of a bitch session. We're dealing with very smart people at this conference, people who have chosen writing as a profession or a serious avocation. They're people who know things of value that they want to tell the rest of us.

So why can't they find and follow directions? It's not that hard.

I can't tell you how many of them wrote me to ask where the the conference will be, who's speaking, how to get there and a myriad of other questions whose answers are readily available on the Internet (and on radio, TV and print). A map? Simply type in "Hollins map" (above). Pops right up. Where to go? How about the Web site, which is presented on all our materials? A schedule? See the previous answer.

I have diplomatically answered every question and soothed every fear, I hope (one woman even wanted to know where to stay; I went to, typed in "Roanoke" and found her a nice room for $69 a night). But I think that next year we're going to have a class titled "Grabbing Your Ass With Both Hands" or something similar. I'll teach it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jumping Into the Void

A patron talks under the pulled shades at the Mill Mountain Theater box office today. He wanted to buy tickets to "Driving Miss Daisy"^

In the wake of the closing of Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, I got a pretty comprehensive e-mail from Hollins University theater professor Todd Ristau today. Todd is jumping in to fill the theatrical void that will be left with his and Kennard Smith's new Studio Roanoke theater downtown.

Todd has been deeply involved with MMT for several years, introducing the innovative No Shame Theater to Roanoke. It's a short-form of theater with the immediacy of having written on the spot--or a little earlier--and performed by people who show up. It can be marvelously entertaining.

Todd says, "I want to say plainly, whatever financial debts Mill Mountain Theatre may have accumulated are not equal to the cultural debts our community owes this marvelous theater." And he's right, of course.

Todd assures that No Shame will move to Studio Roanoke and that a number of alliances with other theaters in the region will keep theater students busy. He recognizes the mission for Studio Roanoke is far different from that of MMT, but he also knows that keeping a high theatrical profile going is vital to the future of theater in the Roanoke Valley.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mill Mountain Theatre 'Taking an Intermission'

Roanoke's professional theater, Mill Mountain Theatre, will cease operations in order "to focus on reorganization of the theater's productions and business operations" Jan. 21. The board of directors announced the decision because of "sharply declining income, reduced state funding, lower than expected donations, changes in consumer entertainment choices and the effects of today's challenging economy." The board has not decided whether to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection an official said.

The theater has considerable existing debt and its income has been much lower than projected for recent productions. It has been an especially difficult economy for theaters nationally and a number the size of MMT have closed in recent months. They include theaters in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota and Boston, according to an MMT release. In the Roanoke area, funds have been especially scarce with the recent opening of the Taubman Museum of Art, a facility which has already absorbed more than $50 million, and will have an operating projected at more than $3 million a year.

The loss of Mill Mountain Theatre, even for a year, would be yet another strain on Center in the Square, which houses the theater and a number of other arts organizations. Center has struggled in recent months.

In a joint statement, the board released this: "Our traditional business model no longer works. We want to be responsible stewards of our community's long-standing financial support, so we are taking a break from business-as-usual to reinvent Mill Mountain Theater. We are taking an intermission and plan to re-emerge stronger and better than ever."

The board and staff will work with local officials and contributors to create a new model and an "aggressive fund-raising campaign, based on a new business plan, will begin upon the announcement of the plan's details."

The release says that "Mill Mountain Theatre is doing the responsible thing and securing its future by reinventing and reinvigorating how we do business." The first production of the revamped season can be expected during the 2009 holiday season, officials say. Season ticket holders will receive vouchers for the canceled plays. They will be good for next season's plays.

The theater will present "Driving Miss Daisy" Jan. 21-Feb. 8 as scheduled.

COMMENT: If you didn't see this coming, you weren't looking. The combination of stale plays, dipping morale, weak leadership, a bad economy, the sucking sound from the Taubman's money machine and a business model that was as old as the theater knocked out Mill Mountain Theatre. The relatively recent firing of a popular leader of MMT's children's programs (Pat Wilhelms, who formed her own school at the Taubman) and a flap with one of MMT's most popular local actor/personalities was a body blow.

MMT has some good board members--Cynthia Lawrence and Nancy Agee to name two who could turn this thing around--but it will need to be bold, innovative and take a few directions from Ernie Zulia, who used to work at the theater, but is now at Hollins. Ernie has created a theater at a small, elite woman's college that rivals anything MMT has done in recent years and he has done it without spending gobs of money, disheartening supporters and employees and running plays that nobody would attend save for the old and infirm.

A Scholarship for an African Princess

April accepts her scholarship>

"Oh My God!!!! ... I have had a rough weekend, and to hear news like this is overwhelming. Me and the kids have had to stay in a hotel because our oil ran out and our pipe had frozen and burst, spilling water all over the kitchen, down into the basement. Yet still, I knew I had to scrounge up money from somewhere, but I took what I had and gave it to a good cause, because I knew this someone needed it. Only to get a message from Celia to check my e-mail, which I have not done in a while.

"... I don't have the words to say how I feel, but my tears say it all."

April Drummond is the winner of the scholarship we're giving from the money we've taken in for this weekend's Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. She and her older girls will be at the reception Friday evening to be introduced to a group of writers who will have considerable appreciation for April's struggles.

She's a a tall, thin, sharp-featured, African princess-looking, single mother of seven, a widow who has known little but struggle. Still, her dream has been to be in theater, preferably as a writer. She acts and sings, too. She has written plays for her church for years. She sings locally. About two years ago, I judged a playwriting contest that April won. Her work was rough, but powerful, obviously written by a woman with an innate understanding of people and a manner of expression that is fresh, alive and strong.

I discovered her circumstances and found that she had no computer. She was working on public library equipment, so I asked around and found a used computer and printer for her. Then we went over to Hollins and talked to Celia McCormick, head of the Horizon program (older students going back to school in programs tailored for them) and Celia found April a scholarship.

From the minute she arrived on campus, April made a mark. She has consistently been on the dean's list and she knows just about everybody in this small community. She has been in a marvelous college play ("Carolina or Change," with her two oldest daughters also taking part) and is, in my mind, the very face of the Horizon program.

April won our scholarship because she deserves it. She's a marvelous example of a woman who gets a chance and inflates it into an opportunity and the opportunity into a success. It's simply marvelous to watch the system work the way it should.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Right Man

I was around in 1960 when John Kennedy was inaugurated and it was nothing like this. Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush 2, no contest.

The closest parallel to intensity of national mood that I've seen in my 62 years came during the height of the Vietnam war. What is marked by good will today was explosive outrage during that war period (we probably should have replicated that stormy anger during the Bush II misfortune, but didn't because, I suspect, we don't have the draft). This feeling has obviously been pent up through a series of presidents who were second choices, second to "other" (for whom we are not allowed to vote).

Obama is a first pick, a man who was identified by many years ago when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. That night, my wife was among those recognizing what we hope is greatness. "I would vote for him," she said. "I hope to God I get to."

She held to that, much as I held to my vote for John Kerry when I saw him testify before a congressional committee during the Vietnam war as a veteran who was in courageous and outspoken opposition. "He'll run for president someday," I predicted. Little did I know that he'd run against Karl Rove and his anti-American, anti-democracy tactics.

Obama is not just the right man for the moment. The expectation is that he is a man for the age, though I'm not sure we can anticipate that. It is more about the hope than the fact and at this very moment, as we exit eight of the most difficult, destructive years in our history, his promise is all we need to start healing. If he delivers, that will simply be a bonus.

We are a good, resilient, positive and upbeat people, one whom even a George Bush cannot defeat. I have to believe that as I look back at what Bush and his cronies attempted to do: destroy my country.

Now we can start rebuilding. With the right man in place.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Turn That Damn Thing Off ... Please

My pal Ralph Berrier Jr., a columnist for The Roanoke Times, hit a nerve with a short piece in this a.m.'s paper about cellular telephones and theaters. His point, basically, was "turn it off" and I agree that is good advice.

Advice, though, is not what these self-absorbed numbskulls need. They need what my mama would have called "a good whipping. Cut me a switch!" You have to wonder where the limits of the world are for those who simply would not understand that the bright light emitted from a cell phone might well be a distraction to somebody outside that little corner of our environment. It's like a flashlight in a closet: you can't see anything else.

I have frequently had to walk over to those whose attention is riveted to the phone--bent down so as not to block anybody's view--and say simply and forcefully, "Would you please turn off your cell phone? It is a distraction." I have yet to have an angry boyfriend, set off by the old man who would dare correct his light-headed girlfriend whose attention is not his anyway, jump up and deck me. But it's coming. This is a thoroughly unpredictable society full of people whose rage level is about to pour over the side and correcting their manners is not a way to ingratiate myself to them.

But I'll keep taking that chance (I love the standing ovations from the rest of the people in the theater) because somebody truly needs to do it. I do not suffer under the illusion that the young idiot who has the cell phone's light blaring has learned anything at all, but at least I get to watch the movie. And, frankly, so does Miss/Mr. Cell Phone Addict.

This is not a small problem and it is not a new problem. The National Association of Theater Owners, in 2006, considered asking for legislation that would allow jamming of cell phones in theaters. Jamming equipment is available online (mostly from Europe), but is illegal here for the casual user. One theater owner recommended that we carry a watergun and use it, then when the offender turns to see who shot him, we all turn to look to the back of the theater. Heh, heh, heh.

Of course, the cell industry is saying "don't jam" because of the possibility of an emergency call being blocked. Bullshirt! How many of these dim-bulb, addicted teenagers and young "adults" have emergency calls coming in? Like, none. There is, I understand, a paint that blocks all but emergency signals (no, I have no idea how it determines the difference) and its patent was pending a while back. Don't know whatever happened to it, but it certainly sounds promising.

For me, I guess I'll just have to keep trudging over and making new friends by complaining.

(By the way, I do understand that the cell phone light can be useful. This was in the Orlando Sentinel the other day: "The light from a cell-phone screen helped rescuers located a missing boater in the St. Johns River late Tuesday." But that's a one-in-a-million shot. We're talking about an every movie occurrence with the lit theater.)

UPDATE JAN. 18: OK, so this is how bad this thing has become. We're sitting through the "pre-feature content" last night, waiting for Defiance (heck of a movie, Brownie) to start and what do I see on the screen, but a a commercial for a contest that you can take part in by whipping out your cell phone and calling a number, RIGHT NOW! So the cell people have a partner in the movie theaters. It's just surreal.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hey, It Was Routine, Man

The efforts of Flight 1549 pilot“Sully” Sullenberger in saving all the passengers after a crash into the Hudson River today brings to mind an interview I did with my old pal Leo Lacoste a few years ago. I was talking to Leo as part of a book project. He had been the pilot of three different B17 bombers that were shot down during World War II and I was trying to pull out of this old pro what it was like to go down.

Leo spent a long career after the war as an airline pilot, so he could talk the talk--the flat, unemotional, just-the-facts-ma'am talk.

He was going through this monotone account--"hot oil splattered on my face and the window had been shot out, so there was quite a bit of wind; my co-pilot was dead, and I was working to control the plane as the port wing dipped"--and I simply wasn't believing that he had no emotional reaction.

"Tell me how it felt," I pleaded time after time, almost yelling. He finally said, "Dan, it was a routine plane crash."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Reading Takes An Upward Turn

There's something heartening in the NYTimes headline this a.m., "Fiction Reading Increases for Adults," but the truth of the story is another story, indeed.

Yep, reading fiction is up numerically, according to the story, but what's being read isn't quantified. As the story points out, one poem read last year has the same weight as the complete works of Shakespeare, and one Nora Roberts novel is equivalent to "the complete works of Proust or Dickens."

Still, there's hope: “There has been a measurable cultural change in society’s commitment to literary reading,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable.” Hear, hear! What's on your reading list today? Let me suggest The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. It's a dandy.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reason No. 2,357: Making Do

Here's yet another reason why I just love the way Janis Jaquith thinks and writes. Oh, that we were all so wise. Here it is:

What, Exactly, Does the Word Mean?

NPR Commentator Judy Miller has written an intriguing piece on language evolution for the Huffington Post that caught many of us off guard. She's talking about the use of the word "thug" as racist. It ia a term that has been appropriated by hip-hop artists, among others, to describe their lifestyles and any mention of people engaging in traditional forms of thuggery is apparently off limits for all but those who don't mind being called "racist."

This type of word appropriation is hardly new and, in fact, there are some quarters where the "evolution of the language" is heartily applauded.

The gay community, for example, saw the word "homosexual" used as a pejorative for years before it adopted a more cheerful noun. Our African-American brethren have run through a litany of descriptives: colord, Negro, black, of color and more that I'm not so sure are even appropriate to recall. None of those, of course, included the racist terms some white people preferred.

What is a native American these days? Some like "Indian," others not so much. Some even talk about "indigenous peoples," which is nice, but wrong, "indigenous" meaning "origniating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment." The Cherokees, Iroquois, Seminoles, Arapaho, Apache and the line didn't start here; they were born of Asia and are, thus no more indigenous to this country than my shiny white ass is.

The word "feminist" is one I recently used to describe myself in defending an image we're planning to use on the cover of our magazine, Valley Business FRONT. The image was being criticized because it involved a woman and a bathrobe and, therefore, had to be sexist (because, I think, our art director and I are men). "Feminist has to be so thoroughly demonized by the right that its meaning has been all but lost. How many women have you heard say, "I'm no feminist, but ..." then explain how all the feminist ideals are theirs?

I once asked a new acquaintance (who has since become a friend) if she was a Jew. She said the very word was offensive. She is, she says, "Jewish." I took that one to my surrogate mother, who is "Jewish" and she said, "We are Jews and that is a perfectly acceptable word." Here, here.

Republicans have changed the name of the Democratic Party to "Democrat Party" as much to annoy as to inform. "Liberal" has morphed into "progressive" to the degree that the other day I had to inform a young man that "progressives are weenies without the balls to call themselves liberals. No wonder they're so discredited."

We've not even addressed words like "poor," "retarded," "autistic," "crippled," "problem" and the like, words that we've shielded and barred with euphemisms, which are protective, but hardly descriptive ("special needs," "economically challenged," "intellectually gifted," etc.)

So, yes, it's all about perception, about use, about evolution. And it won't stop soon. So crank up your growler and get ready to complain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

How Was It You Pronounced That Island's Name?

How the New York Times went through its travel story this a.m. without an explanation of how to pronounce the name of the described destination is beyond me. The Gray Lady was gray indeed, as it extolled the virtues thusly:

It is in "the Andaman Sea at Khao Lak, in Thailand’s southwest. A paradise of mangroves, tropical islands and emerald coves set in electric-blue waters, the Andaman Coast is one of the world’s best-known beach destinations. It includes the island province of Phuket ... "

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Hide the Art, Ethel, It's Raining!

Oh, my, who'da thunk it? The new Taubman Art Museum, that funky (or whatever adjective you choose, but you can't say it without an adjective) downtown Roanoke building that is almost all roof, has a ... how shall I put this? It has a hole in it. The City of Roanoke issued a press release a little while ago to that effect, saying streets will be closed Monday while the leak is fixed.

Art museums fear two things most of all: fire and water. And maybe the occasional thief.

As the Kingston Trio sang many, many years ago:

Uh-oh. Oh no. Don't let the rain come down.
My roof's got a hole in it and I might drown.

Along with my art.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thank God for Ann Coulter!

Ann Coulter at the grave of her hero, Joe McCarthy>

Oh, man, just when I thought we were two weeks away from having nobody left to hate, Ann Coulter slithers out of her hole and comes screaming back to television, telling us that Tom Delay and Joe McCarthy were victims and that Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are "at greater risk" of assassination than our first African-American president.

Whew! Thank goodness for that. I thought sanity had completely returned and was wondering what was going to happen to all that time we've spent complaining about the Bushies for the past eight years.

TV host Harry Smith got the fight started yesterday by calling our spindly blonde "sophomoric," which she immediately translated as "New York Times-speak for 'funny,'" which it may well be, though she isn't. Clever, she is. Quick, she is. Vulgar, she often is. Outrageous, yes. Crude, yep. Stupid, no. Wrong, yes. Funny, not in her wildest, wettest dream.

As if the return of this right-wing prototype wasn't enough to brighten my day, I read this a.m. that Nancy Grace--the highly-regarded professional that gives new definition to "oily lawyer"--has just scored such a significant ratings success that we're assured of having more programs like hers.

I love this country. Honey, where'd you put my book?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Public Prayer: The Bible's Clear on This One

Roanoke (Virginia) City Council has stirred up a religious hornet's nest of late by directing its prayers to Jesus. First, Councilman Sherman Lea, a minister of sorts, made his prayer to "the son" and now a city minister has prayed "in Jesus' name." The first prayer brought a letter of protest and the second got an opinion from the ACLU.

So now let's see what the Bible says about this: "And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." Matthew 6:5-6.

That's pretty clear to me: pray all you want, but keep your prayers to yourself.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Get Rid of Morgan Griffith!

That smarmy, sneering, snarling jerk of a state delegate from Salem, Morgan Griffith, whom the Repubs in Virginia think so much of that they named him Majority Leader, was at his knuckle-dragging worst today. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is expected to be named chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Griffith just can't restrain himself from taking the low road.

Instead of wishing Kaine well and taking into consideration the fact that having him as head of the party in control could be good for Virginia (the classy thing to do), Griffith whines that Kaine'll be desperately needed in Richmond to help pass a new budget. If memory serves, Griffith is the primary impediment to a budget of any kind. He has held up the process and used every device available to him to disrupt any kind of compromise that would make sense.

It's not just what drunk driving lawyer Griffith* says that's annoying, either. It's his snearing manner, his gutter politics demeanor. We all deserve better than Griffith, but my suspicion is that because he's from Salem and accurately represents his constituency, we will not be without him until he chooses to leave the House of Delegates.

About the only thing sensible people in Virginia can do to counter Salem's intransigence is to vote Democrats back into the majority so they can neuter Griffith in much the same way as he rendered the Democrats representing the Roanoke Valley irrelevant the minute he could after the Repubs won a majority. He used committee assignments (or lack of them) and gerrymandering to gut this region's excellent leadership in the General Assembly and that representation has been weak and ineffective since. Which suits Griffith just fine, since he's anti-government, in any case.

This embarrassing nuisance really, truly needs to find a life outside government.

* Blogger Waldo Jaquith (son of my friend Janis Jaquith, the NPR essayist) wrote this recently when Charlottesville law firm Albo & Oblon announced it would bring on Griffith as its Roanoke-area representative: The "hire isn’t unusual, in terms of qualifications: Albo’s is an upstate law firm specializes in getting rich guys off of DUI charges, while Griffith's law firm specializes (well, specalized) in the same thing in Salem."

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bread for the Gods (And I Can Eat It)

Arnold's Sandwich Thins>

There's this Entenmann's bakery outlet about a mile or so from my house that I have to studiously avoid because I'm a weight-conscious diabetic and the outlet is the equivalent of a neighborhood bar to my alcoholic tendencies. For years, I'd stop in for a quick rush of coffeecake (the best in God's creation) and the minute it was in my mouth, the guilt would start.

A couple of days ago, I was trapped in a waiting room while I had my car's oil changed, less than a block from the Entenmann's outlet, and I determined I needed some fresh air. My steps led straight to the front door, like a magnet was pulling me. It felt like a relapse until I got inside, turned right--where the coffeecake used to be kept--and found a whole raft of HEALTHY FOOD! This was off the charts healthy: whole grains, low sugar, no fat, high fiber, the kind of bread my family physician would have said, "Oh, sure, eat that" and meant it.

The most curious of these attractive selections was Arnold's Multi-Grain Sandwich Thins, small, round, flat-bread-like portions that looked like they'd been left in the dryer too long. They are 100 calories and serve the function of a bun. And they are good. Embarrassingly good. I promptly ate two tuna salad (homemade olive oil mayo) sandwiches on this base. Mmmmmmmmmmm, tuuuuuuuna sammmmiches ....

Turns out Thomas' (whole wheat muffins and Health Nut whole wheat bread--both mighty good) and Arnold's are in the same group of bakeries as Entenmann's under the umbrella of George Weston Bakeries, which features seven brands (you might know Boboli pizza crusts).

As one of those people who has to search out food I can eat (and don't get me started on those numbskulls who run restaurants and don't pay any attention to the dietary needs of the largest generation in the world's history, the Baby Boomers), this was ... well, if not the Holy Grail, then certainly dinner.

On the Occasion of My 100th Post

This is my 100th blog post, so I'm celebrating it my not saying anything of import, execpt that this is 10 score, the century mark, the Big One Oh Oh and blah, blah.

I began this little adventure Oct. 18 with a post about a numbskull journalist talking about how quaint our Southern accents sounded to him. We've covered a lot of ground since then (100 posts in 88 days) and 2009 will present ample opportuniy to cover more.

This is fun. I recommend it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Poor Virginia Tech Can't Get No Respect

Virginia Tech won the Orange Bowl last night, but you'd think it committed a crime if you read the New York Times game report today. Frankly, who's to argue? Tech, which lost four games in a weak league, didn't belong in a BCS bowl any more than its opponent, wannabe Cincinnati, did. Here are some quotes from the NYTimes story:

  • "... in a forgettable Orange Bowl."
  • "That scene summed up the main theme for this game — apathy."
  • "A flush secondary ticket market left seats going for as low as 99 cents."
  • "Virginia Tech sold only 4,000 of its allotment of 17,500 seats."
  • "In a game lacking star power ..."
  • "In a battle of conference champions — irrelevant conferences for a majority of this season ..."
  • "The Orange Bowl lived up to its billing as the least attractive of the five B.C.S. games."
  • "They played a sloppy game filled with turnovers (five), punts (nine) and few marquee players."
  • "The actual attendance was 57,851, well below the paid attendance of 73,602."
  • "... the Orange Bowl forced local fans wanting to attend next week’s national title game here to buy Orange Bowl tickets along with their title game tickets." (Bigtime football has long held a reputation for what my wife points out is extortion in ticket sales, but this is ridiculous.)
The ACC finished with a 4-6 bowl record, probably a bit better than many expected, and Tech now has a 2-9 Bowl Championship Series record.

All this left two larger questions: What in the hell is the ACC doing with 10 bowl teams and how does Tech rate a BCS bowl in years when it's not good enough to win the game, which is usually?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Oh, My! He Did THAT!?!

Republican Party Chairman
Sam Walls in drag. Want more? Read on>

Now I'm not one to stir up trouble, but this Web site from Armchair Subversive is just too much to even try to resist, especially with the tectonic shift in Washington. It is simply delicious in its simplicity, in its records-keeping obsessiveness, in its sheer volume of dirt dug up (some of the holes aren't very deep) on Republicans.

If you're a Republican, go read somewhere else. If you're leaning a little left and you're a whole lot sick and tired of moralistic bullshit from people who'd far rather preach than abide by their own professed philosophies, then read this delightful litany of pedophilia, among other real and perceived crimes. It's a morally superior way to begin the new year, one full of hope and, we will pre-suppose, maybe just a little getting even.

The High Cost of Imprisonment

A few years ago, a young friend of mine was sent to prison for a year because she tended a few marijuana plants at the home of a couple for whom she babysat. She was an accessory, said the county prosecutor.

This young woman--let's call her Sybill--had a baby and was struggling to make a living while going to school. She smoked a little grass on occasion (I thought she smoked too much, too often, but that's just me), but Sybill never hurt anybody, never stole anything, never even said a bad word about anything. She went to prison without a whimper and served every minute of the excessive sentence without complaint.

When she came out, she went to work and today she owns her own successful business. Prison didn't damage her outwardly (who knows what it did inside?), but it delayed her entry into the contributing portion of our society and it cost each of us a lot of money--and some humanity--to do that to her. If Sybill weren't so tough, so optimistic, so thoroughly courageous, she could have easily given up. Many do and it's a crime against humanity that we warehouse people who break minor rules with draconian jail sentences and don't even try to teach them anything while they are shunted away.

Virginia Sen. Jim Web wants to do something about that. He's taken up the cause of prison reform, the New York Times reports, because he sees the damage our current system has done and continues to do:
  • We have five percent of the world's population and a fourth of its prisoners.
  • According to the Washington Post, Virginia spends 60 percent as much on prisons as on education (thank you former Gov. George Allen).
  • Nationally, it costs more than $30,000 a year to house a federal prisoner for a year.
  • The average cost of a private college in 2008-2009, according to the College Board, is $25,143 a year; a public education costs $6,585 (that's more than four prisoners).
  • States spend $50 billion a year, the feds $5 billion more.
Basically, the simple math tells us something important: it's cheaper to educate people than to imprison them. Much cheaper. Educated people contribute. Imprisoned people soak up resources and result in higher taxes for the rest of us. All those prisons George Allen overbuilt when he was governor would have been far better had they been community college expansions, trade schools, specialty high schools for those who don't do well in traditional institutions. But most prisons don't even bother with educational components, save for making license plates, and how much demand is there for that skill on the outside?

Webb is a Southern conservative Democrat who has gained quite a bit of respect in his brief time in Congress (replacing George Allen, it might be noted) and my suspicion is that only a conservative can help turn around this disastrous public policy. The whole bogus notion of being "tough on crime" by sending more people to lockup has been disproved as an effective weapon time after time, but politicians are terrified to do anything but play to negative emotion. It's time they started working toward the bottom line on this one: an educated population doesn't commit all those crimes, minor or major.