Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kathy Vanness Leaving Jefferson Center

Kathy Vanness (formerly Claytor, but divorce changes stuff) tells me she is leaving as director of the Jefferson Center Aug. 10 to take over as director of finance and budget at Roanoke College. Her first day on that job is Sept. 1.

John Levin, a former editorial writer with a local daily who has worked the YMCA and the Jefferson Center, is the interim director. Accounting manager Sue Nave will work closely with Levin.

FRONT was in the Jefferson Center for several months as a tenant and I like Kathy a lot. She was put in a position of having to rent the large space next to our offices to a child care center and screaming babies don't work well as next-door neighbors to businesses like ours, so we've moved down the street to--voila!--the former offices of the Blue Ridge Business Journal on the corner of Campbell Ave. and Second Street (if that sounds like the address of a daily newspaper in Roanoke, it is, but those guys are catty-corner across the street from us so we can keep an eye on them).

Anyhow, I wish Kathy well and I hope Roanoke College doesn't put its nursery next door to her.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Michelle Bennett's New Gig: Coffee Shop in Grandin Village

OK all you fans of the funniest woman in Roanoke: Good things are happening to our buddy Michelle Bennett (mugging above).

Let’s let her tell it, since she knows more about than I know:

“I am going into the coffee business! I will open CUPS Coffee & Tea on September 1 (if all goes well) at 1402 Grandin Rd., right next door and subletting space from Rockfish Restaurant.

"I'm psyched and hope the neighborhood will be too. I spent 12 years cooking in restaurants ranging from the Williamson Road Pancake House, through The Roanoker, Brandon Oaks, a country club, both local civic centers and Alexander's.

"My last food service job was running a temp agency for food service called Short Order Temps. I cooked about everywhere in those days. Other than sending myself out as a cook I mostly provided banquet servers for large parties.

"I will have food but I will not be cooking. There are already 12 places to eat in the Grandin Village, but we've had no coffee shop for years. I'll be serving biscottis and scones made by Vive La Cupcake, sandwiches and salads from the co-op, croissants from Breadcraft and more. All local.

"I plan to have the best coffee and espresso in town and I'm working with a local independent roaster (unbelievably named) Chris Spoon. He talks about coffee the way other people talk about wine. He will help ensure that we have the best coffee and espresso in town.

"I'm hoping to create a fun cosy Grandin Road hangout for families in the nabe, kids from PH, movie-goers and other cool folks.”

Michelle was laid off a couple of months ago by Center in the Square, a great example of institutions have to cut all the way below bone because she was nearly invaluable. She's been looking for a new gig since then.

We will all hope that Michelle soon has open mic nights so she can do stand-up comedy. If you don't know her, go by and introduce yourself. Michelle is worth knowing, especially if you need a little levity in your life. Good luck, Michelle.

DRI-City Agree: Fountains Will Be Turned On


At least partly as the result of Spectrum Design owner John Garland wanting the fountain in front of his business to run during the summer months, the City of Roanoke and Downtown Roanoke Inc. have reached an agreement that will result in the bubbling of the downtown’s fountains again.

The fountains had been turned off as a cost-saving measure by the city and Garland offered to pay to have the fountain in the plaza across from Fire Station No. 1—and in front of Spectrum—uncovered and geared up to run. He was negotiating with the city when DRI got interested and negotiated a deal that will allow four downtown fountains to operate through October.

Spectrum will sponsor the fountain in front of it; the Hotel Roanoke will sponsor the Railwalk fountain and the Gateway Fountain on Williamson Road near I-581 will be at least partially sponsored by Member One, says Sean Luther, director of DRI.

The fountain between the Norfolk Southern Building and the parking garage is already operating, apparently at city expense. The total cost of operating the fountains is $3,144, says Luther and matching money will come from DRI’s RoanokeFoundation, an independent non-profit.

Says Garland, “Communication, cooperation, idea sharing, and shared responsibilities are all concepts that create positive initiatives in our community. The fountains operating are a fine example of how we can all work together to achieve positive results.”

Luther says, “I’m very excited. This benefits quality of life and indicates vibrancy downtown.”

Meanwhile, Newspapers Online Ain't Doing So Hot, either

The argument goes something like this: newspapers are losing subscribers by the boatload, sure, but their online editions are flourishing and growing steadily and they'll be just fine.

That's sooooooo wrong.

The new edition of Advertising Age magazine says that while newspaper Web sites attract a third of Web users, their advertising revenue share doesn't reflect anything like that number: 16.2 percent in 2005; 11.4 percent last year; a project 7.9 percent in 2014. That sounds like circulation figures. Meanwhile, advertising revenue outside newspapers is expected to increase by more than 56 percent in 2014. Even as a comeback mounts, Ad Age says, newspapers will still fall 16.3 percent sort of 2007 levels in 2014. That ain't growth, brothers and sisters.

A significant problem is that newspaper advertising rates online are higher than the industry average, by a lot. Newspapers got fat on 14 to 20 percent profit margins for many years, were unable to adjust when those rates tumbled and apparently are still living in a dream world.

The news gets worse if you write for a living. Ad Age says papers will likely go to "content mills" to get their stories. Content mills are sweat shops, often paying so much less than minimum wage that somebody's bound to go to jail at some point. But these are contract workers whose jobs pay by the piece, not by the hour. I've seen offers of $5 per 1,000-word story on Craig's list. The national magazine industry standard a few years ago was $1 a word. My friend Keith Ferrell, who's been at the top and at the bottom of the pay heap for freelancers (earning as much as $3 a word), says 5 CENTS a word is pretty common now. A quarter a word is closer to standard.

No, you can't even pay your insurance with income like that. Locally, it's worse with some publications paying nothing--nothing at all--and others paying so late for stories that it feels like they're paying nothing. When I was between retiring from my old gig and starting Valley Business FRONT some months ago, I got an assignment from Bella Magazine in Roanoke to write two stories for its green edition.

I completed the assignments (with photos) far ahead of deadline and they were accepted. A couple of months later, I asked about payment and was told I wouldn't get paid because the stories weren't being used. They'd decided not to do the section. No kill fee, no notification, no nothing. Try treating a plumber like that. Trashy behavior toward people who work for you is unethical, unforgivable and becoming the standard, as non-journalists get into publishing. Bella is owned by a designer.

Groups of these content mills--Associated Content, Demand Media, Seed, Examiner--sell content and Examiner says it has 12,000 contributors ("examiners"), one of which could have been me. I was asked to write a column called "Salem Vegetarian Restaurants" and when I protested that the topic was a little narrow, since I wasn't aware of a vegetarian restaurant in Salem, I was asked what I would suggest. I made some suggestions, "examined" the contract and finally decided that if I wrote for Examiner--and built my own audience on my own time--I'd be doing a disservice to every other freelance writer in the country. So I opted out.

If you're a freelance writer without other income, though, opting out on principal isn't always a choice. You write because you're addicted to it and you write for anybody who asks. More's the tragedy for all of us, including newspapers, who are eventually going to depend on this army of starving writers who'll write anything for anybody for a nickle a word.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Another Stirring Foreign Film at the Grandin

"The Secret in Their Eyes," playing at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke, is the second straight foreign crime film at that theater in recent days that has a simply astonishing story, delivered almost to perfection.

Like "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" from Sweden, Argentina's "Secret" has a foul murder at its center and a love story on its edges. Sparkling secondary characters and direction and acting are sterling. It is a movie with a good pedigree: Best Foreign Language Film of 2010, according to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Juan Jose Campanella adapted the novel by Eduardo Sechari and directed his screenplay. Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil are the reluctant lovers at the head of the cast, but it is a string of marvelous supporting roles that give the movie its breadth and depth, especially the performance of Guillermo Franchella as the drunken sidekick of Darin's crime investigator and the creepy-evil killer Javier Godino.

Because "Secret" is subtitled and complex, it can be difficult to follow, but it is well worth the effort, rolling steadily toward a satisfying, albeit inhumane conclusion.

Playing in the Fields of the Good Life

Maddy and me heading to the park.^

No, Mads, the fox can't go on the walk. We'll see other animals. Maybe live ones.

Like this, Pampa? Is this what you want?^

How about this? Is this better?^

Yes, Pampa, I can put them back on, too, but I can't tie yet. These aren't tie, though.^

Is it deep enough to swim, Pampa? I wanna swim.^

You know what, Pampa? I love you. Hehehehehehehehehehe...

There's a point where you have to wonder whether the hike is more wearing than the grandgirl or the grandgirl's 100-mph chatter for an hour and a half has the edge.

Either way, it's a good tired at the end of the walk and the two of us know a little more about each other. I hear, "Are we there yet," "Are we getting close?" "I'm really tired, Pampa, can you carry me?" "I need a drink of water," "Can I play in the creek?" "There's a park! Can I swing?" and on and on and on and on.

Little girls and the old men who love them. Life is good. Very, very good.

Bent Mountain Wind Power and Eldon Karr's Argument

My friend Eldon Karr (above) called me this morning while I was out hiking with my grandgirl, Madeline, and, fortunately, the God of AT&T Cell Phone Failure was working today and the reception wasn't good enough to interrupt the walk.

I did get in touch with him later, though, knowing this was about those 18 wind turbines that are planned for Bent Mountain and knowing that Eldon was going to go into a rant about them. I like Eldon, respect him and think that probably he has some very good points in his argument against the wind farm (which he calls "industrial," given its size). I do not believe this is simply a NIMBY ploy on his part. Eldon is as strong an environmentalist as I know and his considerations--and his research--are real.

But, frankly, I don't have time for them. I am strongly in favor of alternative sources of power for our country and our world and wind looks pretty good to me. I am also realistic enough to believe that none of these alternatives will work unless there is a strong profit motive in it for the developers. That's the country we live in and the system we have built, so when Eldon castigates the money changers, I sympathize, but I don't see an alternative that is altruistic. Money and profit are never altruistic.

I don't want to get into an argument with Eldon's facts because he's smarter than I am and he's better read on this topic. I will grant that everything he says has more truth in it than the arguments against him I've heard because, frankly, Eldon is more honest than the money people.

Still, though, there's this: if not wind, then what? And if we continue to shoot down alternatives as they come up, where do we get? Eldon's favorite is geo-thermal, but I've heard some strong arguments against it and against solar and water and bio and everything else that sits in opposition to the dangerous and choking and environment-killing fossil fuels.

Take a look at Eldon's Heart of Roanoke Facebook page and see what he's talking about here. Link to him and keep up with it because his research is good. Make up your own mind. Eldon says that all he's asking is that people be educated and make rational decisions. I said, "Good luck with that, Eldon. That would mean a sea change in the American psyche."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Kenley Smith's 'Devil Sedan' Is Superb

With his character-heavy drama "Devil Sedan," playing at Studio Roanoke, Kenley Smith continues to give Roanokers reason to forget there is/was a professional theater in town, one that died and is seeking resurrection.

Mill Mountain who? seems to be the popular refrain in the evening on Campbell Ave. these days.

"Devil Sedan" is another of Kenley's signature pieces: raw Southern characters you've probably known if you grew up here, dressed up in short scenes that cumulatively amount to a powerful statement about our culture and our humanity.

"Devil Sedan" looks at a couple of brothers, one more the daddy, the other a n'er do well drunk who stays in trouble. They're Harleigh and Bobby Pence and this is the first in a trilogy about Bobby Pence (the others will run as "Twelve Stations of the Cross" and "New Testament" in October and February).

"Devil Sedan" centers on an apparent murder of two young fundamentalist Christian girls on a camping trip with their church and the role Bobby and Harleigh either did or didn't play in it. The build-up is subtle, often funny (when Kenley goes after the Christian right, it can be hilarious--unless you're the Christian right) and culturally knowing. Kenley knows us all too well on occasion.

The production is made even stronger by the presence of Lynchburg actor Paul Stober, a powerful presence in a powerful role. Austin Alderman's Bobby Pence is convincing and Caitlin Morgan and Elizabeth Gwen Edwards, as the murdered girls, are superb. Omaha-based director Lorie Obradovich's work is spot-on.

"Devil Sedan" features a big cast and it's long for a Kenley Smith piece, but it doesn't play long and it is satisfying theater. It plays four more times Saturday and Sunday. Tonight's show was sold out, so if you want tickets, you might want to call ahead: 540-343-3054.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

And Now, for My Milford Mudlarks Hat ...

Just as I was ready to commit murder most foul against some--probably innocent--clerk at Verizon for making it nearly impossible to perform the simplest billing change function this morning , a courier showed up with the hat and changed my whole mood.

I had run into Dudley Woody, a lawyer at Woods Rogers, yesterday and he asked about the baseball cap I had on ("You a long-suffering O's fan?" he asks. "Nope," says I, "I'm an Orioles hat fan.") and I explained that I collect hats and the one I was wearing was on top of the pile that morning.

Then he told me about his collection, which included a Milford Mudlarks cap. I was puzzled for a minute. Then it hit me: Gil Thorpe, the long-running newspaper comic strip. When I was with the local daily many years ago in Roanoke, we ran it on the sports pages and it must have run for 40 years. Gil was the coach at Milford High and every former 5-foot-8, 140-pound football player in the US of A followed Gil's adventures.

So this morning, as the babies next door at my office are screaming like nuclear warning sirens and Verizon is trying its very, very corporate best to shorten my life, this guy comes in with a package, I open it and it hits me: the M is for Milford and Dudley Woody is a sweet and considerate man. Thanks, Dudley.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's Still the Sound of the Ice Cream Man

Christina exchanges moolah for mmmmmmmm.^

Christina furnishes evidence every evening just before dusk that some of our childhood sticks close by no matter how old we get. She's facing 50 in August (and now eagerly anticipates her AARP magazine), but when that ice cream truck's god-awful calliope chimes up the block, she bolts out the door, change in hand, ready for her ice cream sandwich.

Of course, I can't eat the 'scream (diabetes), but I can appreciate the sentiment ... if not the music. The truck's loop ranges from funeral dirges to Christmas and Easter music to drawing room baroque. None of it fits, but, hey, it's the children's equivalent of an alarm: "The Ice Cream Man Cometh!" And that never changes. Even when you're pushing 50.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Politicians: A Place Where They Rank First

My profession--for good reason--gets clobbered in these periodic surveys where people are asked who the professional slimebags are. We're almost always in the Top 10, but, truth be told, we haven't hit the very bottom yet.

A new survey from Sandler says there's been a bit of jostling in the past year or so and the title of Least-Trusted Dirtbag has slid (in its own slime) from sales to ... TA DA! ... politicians. This survey was taken before BP put the literal slime back into the competition.

The people surveyed voted overwhelmingly for pols: 68 percent ranking them first. Salespeople had a relatively paltry 9 percent and were second, followed by lawyers (7 percent), journalists (6 percent), bankers (6 percent), and mechanics (5 percent). Sitting 4th is better than lying in first, but I don't know how much better it ever will be for journalists. We made our own bed, though. There's no arguing that.

David Mattson of Sandler is quoted as saying,“This survey reflects the fact that the sales industry has gained respect in its perception with the general public, but there is much more that can be done.” My guess is he's just being nice. Sales people didn't rise to second; politicians fell to first.

(Graphic is a Thomas Nast cartoon of Boss Tweed.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Remembering Dad Through Mom's Pain

Mom and Dad (above) in about 1958, two years before his death; below is Dad at Virginia Tech in 1932 in a photo Mom liked a lot.^

I don't think I was ever mad at my dad and maybe that's not fair. He was an alcoholic who died when I was 14 and left a scared, broke wife, eight kids and not much else except the empty rationalization that he did the best he could.

Mom got all the blame for what happened after he died and for much of what went on before. She was the one at home complaining, crying, being depressed, telling us how worthless her life was. She couldn't make ends meet. She gave us an empty refrigerator, lights that didn't come on, a furnace that didn't heat, a phone that was off more than it was on. She was head of household when we went up on Monday mornings to the front of homeroom in front of our friends and people who weren't our friends and picked up our free lunch tickets, the ones the poor kids got. Mom was there to take us to the thrift store to get clothes. She was the one who told us we couldn't have a bike because we didn't even have enough money for food.

Dad was dead or off drunk or in the military on the other side of the country or--briefly--at an AA meeting. He was absent when he was present. The minute he walked in from work every day--and dad worked every day but Christmas--he picked up a book, read until dinner, went back to the bedroom and read until "Bonanza" then finished the evening by finishing the book. It was usually Zane Gray. Sometimes on Sunday, he took us to the library with him so he could load up on 15 books for the next two weeks. And sometimes he took us by Dairy Queen on the way home. He was a hero on those days.

Once he hit baseballs to me in the back yard. He had been a college baseball player. One ball got through my glove, hit me between the eyes and knocked me out. I awoke with Mom looking down at me, saying, "Catch it next time, Little Man." Dad never hit to me again. I remember Dad hitting balls to me that one time. I don't much remember Mom fixing scraped knees, whooping cough, dinner, my ripped pants ...

Dad was in the Army during World War II, an officer, but he wasn't driving a tank, flying a plane or trying to take Guadalcanal. He was in Oregon running a munitions depot, getting drunk with the other officers at night. Mom was home with four little kids, all the way on the other side of the country, waiting for his military allotment check which was usually late, watching her astonishing beauty fade.

Dad never spanked me. Mom spanked me about once a day. The spankings from Mom got to be a game and I stopped minding them because they never hurt. Never, even when I had to cut my own switch. Dad once slammed my older brother into a wall for talking back to Mom and I think it scared her more than it did anybody else. "Now George ..." she said. He apologized for losing his temper. My brother never talked back to Mom again.

Dad was smart and educated (Business at Virginia Tech), an athlete (football and baseball in college) and all the other things a kid wants his dad to be. But he had that problem with alcohol--one he passed to me--and it made for a sad situation and an unfair image of a mother who was a good one, but couldn't overcome what dad's disease left all of us.

After Dad died I missed all the things I wanted to know about him and never got to hear from him. I wondered what he thought of me. He never said.

Please Give: A Human, Funny Dramedy

"Please Give," a movie packed with virtuoso acting performances and directed and written by the perceptive indy rising star Nicole Holofcener gives us a sometimes uncomfortable, often very funny look inside the inside of apartment neighbors in New York City.

Oliver Platt and Catherine Keener, a couple of veteran character actors, are simply splendid, but this movie is almost stolen from them by
Ann Morgan Guilbert playing a 91-year-old, near-death neighbor, whose death would benefit the Platt-Keener characters because they'd get the old lady's apartment. Guilbert's squabbling grand-daughters and a 15-year-old Platt-Keener daughter with acute acne round out a cast that glows in every scene.

It's playing at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke and is the kind of movie the Grandin should have many, many more of.

The story gets into a lot of private places with a blunt directness led by Guilbert's old lady, who is as irascible as a jackhammer. One of her granddaughters--the gorgeous one--got her genes directly and is mean, intrusive and, ultimately as vulnerable and wounded as everybody else in this clear and clearly human tragi-comedy.

It is a marvelous movie that you won't see among the top-grossers of the day, but one that should--if the gods cared--make a mark on Awards Day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

It's Just a Good Place To Be Sometimes

That's me and Barney (the "Mayberry Deputy" is what he's called so he won't violate copyright laws) and Barney's bullet.^

To my left are Tommy and Jean Denton and Keith Ferrell.^

You know, I'm not much of a baseball fan and never have been (not much of a player, either), but I thoroughly enjoy going to the games at the beautiful ball park in Salem, where the Red Sox play. Tonight's game against Kinston was just about a perfect example.

The crowd was large, but not overwhelming, the evening cooled with a gentle, but persistent, breeze, the company extraordinary and the baseball pretty good (we watched a no-hitter for nearly six innings, but starter Caleb Clay got pulled after four--as would only happen in the minors). The only bug on this windshield was big-voiced guy behind us--who called himself obnoxious before we could get to it--whose constant pronouncements were problematic. The rest of it was so good, though, that we forgave him.

The Continuing Saga of the Fountains

That downtown Roanoke public fountain story won't go away. It appeared that it'd been at least partially solved Thursday when the big fountain between the parking garage and Norfolk Southern was turned back on.

Seems that was just a test. It's off again.

Meanwhile, the two fountains in front of Spectrum Design--at the end of the plaza across from Fire Station No. 1 (where my son got married)--remain dry. My pal John Garland, who owns Spectrum, has offered to spend the money getting the fountains up to speed, then keep them running, saving Roanoke City the money.

Here's the response from Steven Buschor of the city parks department, upon John's request to do that: "If you wish to sponsor this fountain, by copy of this e-mail, I will request that our Building Maintenance Division schedule the fountain for removal of plywood, cleaning, and preparation for operation. We will issue an invoice for your records in the amount of $390. Just a reminder the City of Roanoke is a tax exempt agency and your donation is quite possibly tax deductible."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Signs We're in the South

Sometimes it's nice to be reminded where we live and from these two photos, it's clear: We're in the South, home of good old boys and beer on every corner.

I ran into the old boy in the truck downtown recently and he had a Stars and Bars dew rag in addition to the real thing hanging out of the pole hole in his truck. Engine sounded like a Harley and smoke came out the back. One of the tires was bald.

The business here, offering a cold beer to its haircut customers, didn't have a lot full of them, but it was early. I consider this brilliant marketing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

One City Market Fountain Back On; One Still Dry

City workers and the fountain they returned to function today. One down, one to go.^

UPDATE, 7 p.m.

As my mama used to frequently remind me, "It never hurts to ask." That has some broad applications which John Garland of Spectrum Design seems to remember better than I do.

John's not a guy who sees things he doesn't like and quietly passes without response. Roanoke recently finished putting the skin back on its downtown parking garage (the absurdity and expense of which we won't get into here), but hadn't turned on the historic fountain that sits on a plaza beside it. Merchants wanted to know why. "The budget," they were told. That's something of a catch-all phrase these days:
  • "Why hasn't the garbage been picked up?" The budget.
  • "Why can't I get a dog catcher to shut up that barking mutt two doors down?" The budget.
  • "Why can't you boys get a building inspector down here in a timely fashion?" The budget.
  • "Why did my son flunk English?" The budget.
Overdone, yes, but what a great fallback.

John doesn't buy that. He sure didn't buy it in the case of the fountains in Century Plaza (in front of his office) and so he wrote a letter to Steven Buschor, director of parks and recreation (and, from what my wife--who works with him--tells me, a good guy). Here's some of the letter:

"I understand that not operating the downtown fountains is one of the City's cost savings measures. I know you probably have limited control over such decisions, but it would seem to be a rather minor expense as compared to the loss; particularly when compared to activities that continue unaltered.

"The vitality of downtown, and thus the economic development of downtown is enhanced with amenities such as the fountains. Between local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, DRI, Center in the Square and the City I would think that we could come up with a plan to run the fountains.

"The electricity and water costs would have to be very minor. The only remaining items are keeping them clean and the City crew is down in the park beside our office a couple of times a week. I run two fountains at a City Apartment Building that I own and the benefit this has in keeping good quality tenants far outweighs the cost of keeping up with the fountains.

"I would be happy to remove the plywood, clean the fountains and even get them started if I had the key to the control area and I could probably get donors for the power and water. What do you think?"

This was yesterday. I walked by the Market Square fountain at lunch today and it was on. The workmen who had just turned it on said City Manager Chris Morrill had passed a few minutes earlier and said he liked what he saw."

The fountain in Century remains quiet, though. We'll see if John's letter gets the reception it should.

Steven Bushcor gave these figures on the cost of running the city's fountains:

"Allow me to share with everyone what I have found regarding the numerous fountains within our city and their operational costs (July - Labor Day). Sister City Fountain: water cost $978.66, electric cost $600 = $1,578.66 (three months); Century Plaza Fountain: water cost $195, electric cost $195 = $390 (three months); Railwalk Fountain: No billing use history found for water or electricity Entranceway Fountain: water cost $6,274, electricity cost $1,400= $7,674 (four months)."

To which John responds: "The only way that water could cost $1,000 shown for Sister City Fountain (assuming it is the one by my office) is if there is a continuous leak. Evaporation would not account for that much water use. Using the costs for Century Plaza (assuming that is the one at my office) of $390 would be easily fundable by local enterprises."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

More Evidence of the End of the Relevance of Newspapers

In a Politics Daily column (here), Walter Shapiro makes a good case that local newspapers, suffering the ravages of plunging revenues, readership and gone reporters are failing us at a new level.

He brings up the coverage of two interesting nationally-prominent political primaries, one in Kentucky (Rand Paul) and the other in South Carolina (Nikki Haley). The races were covered by national outlets, not so much for substance, but because of sex and goofiness appeal. The people of those states were left to wonder what the hell was going on. Their local papers and even the bigger regional papers in their states didn't have anybody on the campaign trails examining these illogical, but so far successful candidates, both Tea Partiers. Haley is a virtual shoo-in for governor, due primarily to the fact that the Democratic Party imploded in a state where it hardly matters anyway. Why? Don't ask the Columbia State or the Charleston Post and Courier. They weren't there to find out or predict.

Paul, who has shown us much more than he intended--mostly on TV--since he won the primary, has pulled back into a PR-controlled shell in the last little while after we suddenly found out a bit about him. After his victory.

Shapiro points out that newspaper newsrooms nationally are a fourth smaller than they were just nine years ago, and, frankly, they weren't exactly fat then. One daily in Roanoke is losing circulation at a dizzying speed: 10 percent in the past year, with weekday circulation below 80,000 for the first time since god knows when.

It is sad to have to root around on a variety of blogs--many with people who aren't journalists and know little about reporting--to find out what's going on. Some of the citizen reporters--Valerie Gardner comes to mind--do a good job of covering important, semi-important and interesting events, meetings and gatherings the local daily can't or won't cover. It's often astonishing what goes uncovered for days at a time, some of it eventually winding up on the pages of the paper or, less frequently, on television.

The coverage of the nationally-targeted 5th District congressional race, which drops right into our living rooms in Roanoke, since it borders us, is thoroughly inconsistent in the traditional news resources, but when I catch a word or a sentence here or there, I can run it down online. Sometimes I end up at a newspaper's site (usually the Lynchburg News Advance or the Richmond paper's site), but most often on somebody's blog or even the candidate's site.

I'm seeing a lot more coverage of politics via press release, and that's sad. Newspapers aren't going to improve, since they're leaving us one subscriber at a time, but I'm wondering if the fallback system will be in place before the papers have blown away. We'll just have to see.

(Graphic from

Scout Builds Two Bridges on Greenway

John Peake (green shirt) with his mother, Nancy, and one of his pals work on one of the bridges. (This photo was shot with a damp cell phone, so the special effects are unintentional, but pretty.)

This is the first bridge, just over the creek and up the path from Fishburn Park.^

The second bridge is larger and further along.^

John Peake, a Patrick Henry High School cross country-running senior, got a couple of goals accomplished with one project Saturday.

As a runner, John noted that there were a couple of bad spots on the PH cross country circuit. They needed bridges.

As an Eagle Scout, looking for a project that he could organize and finish with help from his friends, the bridges kept jumping out at him.

He enlisted a couple of pals from school, his mother, Nancy and his father, Walt, along with a truly inspired selection: E.J. Miller Construction Company owner Joe Miller (who posed for this month's Valley Business FRONT cover in a haz-mat suit). Joe had the expertise.

The bridge is not only welcome for John's cross country team, but I can name at least one old guy whose knees will thank John personally the next time they cross these bridges and see him. Thanks, John. Nicely done, young fella.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Punishment for Being a Bad Boy

This burger--which is not the one I ate--is from It looks so much like the Sonic Burger I just choked down that I thought I'd run the photo.^

There was a time when breaking the rules was what I did. It was as natural to me as waking up to a warm beer, a deep cough and a bitingly bitter cigarette.

'Course all that's changed because I'm so damn old and have had to give up just about everything I once held dear--most of which held me at gunpoint.

So today, I'm out doing some work and can't make it back into town in time to wander down to Roanoke City Market for a healthy lunch. I got this long-forgotten craving for one of those things I'm not supposed to do: eat really awful food. It came just as I passed a Sonic and here I fond my steering wheel pulling into the parking lot and there was nothing I could do about it except order the worst possible meal on the menu: A burger with chili, mustard, pickle and onion and a bucket of fries.

We won't even get into how wrong that is for a diabetic with high blood pressure and cholesterol issues who hadn't even done his minimum 10,000-step walk today.

What we will discuss, instead, is the sad, sad state of the fast food industry. When I was breaking in on fast food burgers, I could get a Whopper on a real bun that tasted like heaven. I ate four of them at a sitting when I was about 20 after a bunch of us had been playing basketball all day. I chased the Whoppers with four large orders of fries and three large Cokes. Then I went home and ate supper.

Times have changed, boys and girls, and not always for the better.

The burger I got today showed up in a foil bag and when I pulled it out, the dang thing looked like somebody had sat on it. At first, I thought they'd put it on flatbread. The bun was chewy, as if it hadn't been fully cooked. The burger had about a teaspoon of chili on it (for which I was charged an extra 50 cents; there was no discount for the fact that I gave back the lettuce, tomato and mayo). The kid who put this thing together, slapped cheese on it. Uh, let's not insult cheese. He put something yellow on it that I didn't order. Kind of sticky and it tasted like fiberboard.

The burger was almost tasteless, except for the fiberboard, which I don't lean to much. Even the chili was chili in name only. Tasteless. How the hell can chili be tasteless? One of life's little food miracles.

So I wind up paying $3 for a burger that I can't eat, $1.50 for fries I shouldn't eat and 20 cents for water, which is good for me. I drank all the water. I'll tell my doctor that. May she won't kill me.

Splitting the Republican Vote in the 5th District

Tea Party member Jeff Clark, a businessman in Danville, is making good on his promise to run as an independent against incumbent Tom Perriello (right) in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, according to WSLS TV in Roanoke.

lost the Republican nomination to Robert Hurt and is quoted as saying, “I think [Republican Party officials] think that me being in the race will split the vote and give Tom Perriello the win, but this is not about Congressman Perriello. This is about the system.”

has become one of those little-known, truculent Tea Partiers who questions the purity of mainstream Repubs. (He is so little-known, in fact, that I couldn't find a photo of him.) An article in the Lynchburg News and Advance recently quoted him as saying he is “fundamentally opposed to [Virginia State] Sen. Robert Hurt. I feel that he is an establishment Republican. I would describe him as a situational conservative.”

Further, Clark says, Hurt “doesn’t suit the mood of the country and doesn’t lead to substantial change. Returning power to the Republicans, after they have contributed to messing everything up in the first place, is ludicrous.”

Tea Party candidates (and Clark says he is not a TPC, only a member) across the country have stressed that they are the true conservatives in the race and that mainstream Repubs have sold out to The Man. Political types have predicted a tight race with Hurt and believe Clark’s entry plays well for Perriello, a guy who has never been considered a tight fit for the ultra-conservative, rambling, gerrymandered district that runs from liberal, highly-educated Charlottesville to ultra-conservative and blue collar Southside.

Hurt pissed off the "no tax" segment of the party in 2004 when he joined a small group of moderate Repubs in the Virginia General Assembly to support then Gov. Mark Warner's tax increase that helped balance a budget that was being held captive by the far right. Hurt was the only one of seven primary candidates Clark said he would run against, should he get the nomination.

The Washington post quoted one anonymous Repub strategist as saying of Clark, "Bottom line is, he has no name ID, no money and no capability to get money. He will get the standard two percent protest vote, and that's it." The "standard two percent" in a very tight race, though, could make a difference. Remember that Perriello won the seat initially by a few hundred votes, running, in effect, against the disaster of the Bush years.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lane Kiffin: Some Would Call It Justice

Lane Kiffin (right) explaining why he left Tennessee. Wonder what he'd say today?^

When I said to my wife tonight, during the network news, "Southern Cal just got Tennessee-d," she looked at me like I'd just grown a tail where my nose sits. "What does that mean?" she asked as I commented on the news.

"OK," I said, "you remember Lane Kiffin, right?" Sure, she said: the guy everybody in the Tennessee would love to crucify upside down in a pot of boiling oil that had just been lit by a tactical nuclear device, right?

"Yeh, him. Anyhow, when he left Tennessee for his dream job at Southern Cal--which opened because Pete Carroll saw an NCAA vigilance committee with tiki torches, hoods and pitch forks heading for the front lawn and left for the rain in Seattle--a lot of people thought it was, indeed, a dream job for Kiffin and his traveling circus (which includes his dad, the legendary defensive genius). Lane's a Southern California boy with a gorgeous, yellow-haired Southern California wife and yellow-haired Southern California kids. He recruited there. He played in college there. It's home. Knoxville was ... well ... Rocky Top. Moonshine, rednecks, Bible belts, the impossible Southeastern Conference and Republicans. Not the best place for him.

I like Kiffin and I thought he brought a lot of energy, enthusiasm and hope to a moribund program in Knoxville, but you had to know he was leavin' on a jet plane the minute he could. Pete Carroll ensured that Lane could because Pete wasn't hanging around for what was coming. He knew; Lane Kiffin didn't.

Today the NCAA hit Southern Cal with a penalty just short of death: 30 lost scholarships over three years, no bowl games for the next two years. That'll cost some of those highly-rated recruits who have just constituted a Top 5 class and I would look for transfers by kids already there. You don't go to Southern Cal to watch TV when you should be playing in a bowl game that pro scouts will be visiting in large numbers.

This punishment is given to the current Southern Cal team, but the crimes occurred in 2004, when most of today's football players were in junior high. Kiffin and his top recruiter Ed Orgeron were part of the So Cal staff then. Big recruiters. Young hotshot coaches.

Kiffin left Tennessee football in a sad state. When he joined the Vols a lot of mad players quit because they didn't like him. When he left, a lot of mad players quit because they didn't like his successor. Others got thrown off the team (and out of school and into jail). Tennessee wound up with--guess what?--75 football players, 20 below the scholarship limit (and that limit can't be filled out in less than about three years because of the rules) and a team that's not likely to go to a bowl anytime soon. One would surmise Lane saw that coming.

But he didn't see today coming. And the people in Tennessee finally have something to cheer about when they think about Lane and his pretty wife in their Southern California home.

(Orange County Register photo.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kendig Awards Presented at Roanoke College

Crowd gathers around the second floor railing to munch and chat at Roanoke College.^

Two-time Kendig winner me (left) with this year's literary award winner Roland Lazenby. Roland flew in from L.A., where he was covering the NBA finals, for the ceremony.^

Kendig art winner Betty Branch has created a lot of beauty, including her daughters Polly (left) and Sally.^

Emily Paine Brady Carter (etc.) with her buddy Beth Kendig (right).^

Some of the food was so pretty nobody wanted to eat it.^

Bill Kendig flanked by his wife Pam (left) and sister Beth.^

An impressive gathering of representatives of Roanoke's arts community was on hand at Roanoke College's Wortmann Ballroom tonight to honor 10 individuals and institutions with prestigious Perry F. Kendig Awards from the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge.

Recipients of the awards included Betty Branch, Roland Lazenby, Steven White, George Cartledge Jr. and III, Robert Bennett of Grand Home Furnishings, Jacksonville Center, the late Ann Masters, Sarah Tune Doherty and Reynolds Homestead. (Here is who they are and what they did to deserve the Kendigs.)

The Kendigs are annual awards given for artists, performers, writers and people who support those disciplines. It is named for former Roanoke College president Perry F. Kendig, a strong patron of the arts and a writer of some note.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Few Minutes of Festival in the Park Art; Winners Announced

Parvin Pejman, whose work I thought was the best in the show, talks to my wife, Christina.^

Nan Mahone Wellborn (right) talks with a fan about her work.^

A line of artists and their groupies find some shade against the heat.^

Artist Dan Chitwood entertains himself with his banjo.^

Patrons cruise the art midway.^

Roanoke's best-known and most popular artist, Eric Fitzpatrick, talks to a young fan.^

Your favorite editor and one of his very favorite people, Jennifer Wise, pause to chat about his bucket of iced tea.^

Roanoke's 41st Festival in the Park packed them in today, despite temperatures bouncing off the Salem Ave. asphalt that must have driven the air into the 100-degree range, but it was a happy group.

My pal Anne Stinnett, who was showing some of her photographs, said there was a wave of people around noon and she expected another about 4 p.m. When my wife and I were there, around 3 p.m., the crowd was moderate, but it looked like a buying group, judging from the bags people carried.

The art show and festival runs noon-4 p.m. Sunday before ending for this year.

Here are the winners: Best in Show, Gray Dodson of Arrington. (Second was Kurt Kindermann of Bedford and third was John Wilson of Roanoke. Excellence in Design, Jamie Nervo of Boones Mill. Blair Wiley Fishwick Memorial Award, John Wilson, Roanoke. Paul Ostaseski Memorial Award, Vera Dickerson, Troutville. Allen Ingles Palmer Memorial Watercolor Award, Robert Flowers, Summerfield, N.C. Merit Awards, Drawing/Original Printmaking Gina Louthian-Stanley, Roanoke. Fine Craft Award, Brian Sykes, Charlotte, N.C. Mixed Media Award, David Eakin, Lynchburg. Painting Award, Nancy Stark, Roanoke. Photography Award, Susan Bidwell, Roanoke. Sculpture Award, Robin and Daniel Cater, Sparta, N.C. Watercolor Award, Vonnie Whitworth, Virginia Beach.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Local Artists Get Grants from Arts Council

Nan Mahone Wellborn painting of Buffalo Creek (above); Tim Thornton (below left) and Jeanne Larsen (below right).^

Three of my buddies are among the recipients of the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge's 10 $1,000 grants to regional artists for their professional development. Jeanne Larsen, a wonderful writer and professor at Hollins, and Tim Thornton, a former award-winning daily newspaper reporter who has been working for WVTF Public Radio of late, and Nan Mahone, who left The Roanoke Times a year ago as marketing director and has blossomed as an artist, are among the winners.

The Grants for Artists Program (GAP) is funded by anonymous donors within the community. This year’s Grants for Artists Program recipients are:
  • Rita Cammarano, Roanoke, literary artist;
  • Christine Carr, Roanoke, visual artist (installation art);
  • Gail Greer, Roanoke, visual artist (3D, sculpture);
  • Paige Hodges, Fincastle, performing arts (musician);
  • Suzun Hughes, Roanoke, visual artist (2D, painting);
  • Jan Knipe, Radford, visual artist (drawing);
  • Jeanne Larson, Roanoke, literary artist;
  • Nan Mahone Wellborn, Roanoke, visual (open air painting);
  • Tim Thornton, Shawsville, literary artist;
  • and John Wilson, Roanoke, visual artist (3D, large sculptures).
Knipe will use grant funds to create a series of large scale drawings for inclusion in an upcoming exhibit and catalog publication at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University, while Thornton will conduct field work to create a radio documentary during the second annual New River Expedition. Fincastle performing artist Paige Hodges will use grant funds to record a full length record for her band the Sad Cobras.

All Grants for Artists Recipients will be recognized at this year’s Perry F. Kendig Awards on Wednesday, June 9 at Roanoke College.

Lamenting the Decline of Cantos

It is rare when a business owner is as harshly, readily and publicly criticized as Catherine Propocio has been and now that she has closed Cantos Booksellers on Roanoke City Market (her plans unknown), I sense more relief than anything else.

Cantos was a beloved fixture for years when it was owned by the gentle and kindly intellectual Rob Clark and his sparkling, artistic wife Jennie Nolen. Rob had a knack for dealing with the public and he was one of these bookstore owners who gave the independent bookstore its reputation as a place to go that would welcome you, entertain you, educate you and where you'd feel at home. Catherine Propocio did not maintain that ambiance when she bought the store a few years ago. She was Rob's opposite, in fact.

You can go here and see what a lot of people thought of her and the way she ran the store, but this is not to castigate a woman who was obviously miscast in the first place as a bookstore owner and who suffered significantly because Rob was so good at it. It is more another statement that when your business is customer service, you might want to have some interest in it.

Perhaps the most evenhanded response to the former owner comes from customer Mike Kennedy, who wrote on Facebook, "I have found the owner both infuriating and charming, depending upon her mood, or mine. Yes, I have taken the vow of avoidance after what I considered shoddy treatment. At other times, we have engaged in long, interesting chats about books."

My primary experience with her came a few years ago when I had agreed to do a signing for my memoir Burning the Furniture, a book that is self-published. Bookstore owners don't like self-published books because selling them does not follow the rules that they're most comfortable with. Rob never had a problem with self-published works if they were by locals, however, and he made those writers feel welcome.

Ms. Propocio did not make me feel welcome. She did not make the signing easy--and, frankly, a book signing requires a table, chair, some books and a little change. It's good if the writer has a pen, but beyond that, there's not much to it. She made it seem a huge inconvenience and a chore of the first order, even before I showed up. She made sure I understood this was extra work for her and that she would not make much money on it. Selling books, she stressed, is not a good way to make money.

She grumbled for almost the entire two hours I was in the store selling my books. She gave me the distinct impression that not only did she not like writers, but she didn't especially care for books, either.

I had done a signing of another book at Cantos a couple of years earlier when Rob owned it and it was a delightful experience, full of bright conversation and good cheer. We sold some books; we made some friends; it was a good day.

I left Cantos after the Propocio experience thinking, "I'll never do that again." Apparently, too many people over the years left the shop feeling the same way.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Stolen Solonovich Paintings Returned

This painting of Martin Luther King was among those stolen and returned.^

The person who took three paintings by artist George Solonevich, which have been missing since April, has apparently finished with him. They were found outside the president’s house at Roanoke College this morning, according to an RC release.

No one saw the person or persons who left the paintings near the back door of the home on Market Street. Roanoke College Campus Safety was called to the home and secured the paintings.

The investigation into the disappearance will continue. At least two frames were slightly damaged and the glass on one was scratched but the paintings themselves did not appear to be damaged.

The three paintings found today feature President John F. Kennedy, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Adolph Hitler. “We are delighted the Solonevich paintings have been returned to the college in undamaged condition,” Roanoke College President Michael Maxey said. “This artwork is valuable and unusual and of great importance to us in terms of the political and cultural statements the paintings make. It’s great to have them back. We look forward to having the entire collection together soon.”

The reward previously offered by Roanoke College for the safe return of the paintings has been cancelled. The paintings were noticed to be missing in the early morning hours of April 9 in West Hall, where a collection of Solonevich paintings was displayed.

The Solonevich collection has now been removed from West Hall until security can be reviewed. George Solonevich, son of an anti-communist political writer, was born in Russia at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and as a dissident, escaped political persecution in four countries before coming to the United States. After moving to the United States, he settled in Roanoke County.

The “Movers and Shakers” collection express the feelings and emotions of Solonevich, who lived, as well as observed, some of the most tumultuous times in our century.