Category Archives: Personal

My granddaughter the scientist

experiments

Yesterday, when my youngest granddaughter and her little brother arrived at our house to spend the day, she got right to work, asking my wife, “What liquids do we have?”

The scientist at 5.

The scientist at 5.

So my wife gathered oil, vinegar, milk and other things together, and my granddaughter started meticulously measuring amounts, calling them out to my wife in milliliters, and mixing the liquids in different concentrations in little plastic cups.

My wife’s job was to write down the amounts and observations. My granddaughter would draw the results next to the notations, when she found them visually interesting.

She kept saying, “I love doing this! I love it!” My wife observed that that was a good thing, since she wants to be a scientist.

She’s five years old, and just finished 4K at the local Chinese-immersion charter school. So she also speaks Mandarin, and hasn’t started regular kindergarten yet.

Our girl’s wicked smart.

Today finally IS ‘a great day in South Carolina,’ as we witness a host of miracles in the State House, of all places

the group

Today, the state of South Carolina leaped out into uncharted territory, launching itself from the 19th century right over the troubled 20th, and into the 21st. And it wasn’t even kicking and screaming.

It is, without a doubt, a miracle that today, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the Confederate flag to come off the State House grounds ASAP.

That is HUGE. That alone would have me walking around the State House (as I was just moments ago) saying, “What state am I in? Really, help me: Where am I?”

Today truly IS “a great day in South Carolina.”

NOTHING like this has ever happened in the 28 years that I’ve covered politics and government in South Carolina. Nothing even close to it. What happened today broke all of the rules of what does and does not happen in South Carolina.

Today, the state’s political leadership got together and said, “Hey, let’s just stop all the usual b.s.” Just like THAT (imagine me snapping my fingers)!

But I didn’t witness just one miracle today beneath the dome, with a storm raging outside and thunder crashing. Really, it’s impossible to count how many I saw. I’ll use a biblical accounting method and say seventy times seven. Or more than the stars in the sky…

Let’s just count a few:

  • Nikki Haley, elected as the darling of the Tea Party, standing there and saying “It’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds,” and saying that if the Legislature doesn’t do it while it’s already here in town (through a proviso, or somehow amending the sine die resolution), she’s going to call them right back to deal with it. And meaning it. Wow. God bless her.
  • Joe Riley, freighted with grief as mayor of a Holy City in mourning, standing there right with her and not having to say a thing because Nikki Haley is saying what needs to be said. So that second march won’t be necessary, Mr. Mayor.
  • Mariangeles Borghini, Emile DeFelice and Tom Hall, the regular folks who pulled together the impromptu, haphazard rally Saturday, standing there witnessing it. Afterwards, I had to go over to Ms. Borghini, a recent immigrant from Argentina, and say, “You know, you don’t normally get what you ask for this fast in South Carolina.” But… maybe you do, now. Who knows? Everything we all knew about SC politics just went out the window. And you know that second rally they’re planning on the flag for July 4th? It just turned into a celebration, instead of another small step on a long, sweaty road.
  • Jim Clyburn standing at her right hand, in total agreement with her on the most divisive issue that I’ve dealt with in my decades in South Carolina.
  • Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, who within the last few days was mouthing the usual stuff about how we had to understand that for some folks it’s about heritage, standing there on her other side. Mark Sanford, who was saying the same stuff a couple of days back, standing behind them.
  • Sen. John Courson, long the Confederate flag’s best friend in the Senate (except when Glenn McConnell was around), standing there with all of them. (Mind you, John has always been the most reasonable voice of that caucus, but he’s still the guy with multiple Confederate flags in his office, and is sort of the embodiment — the sincere embodiment — of the “honor the war dead” argument that has kept the flag up.)
  • South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore and Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison — one white, the other black, sort of like their parties — standing literally shoulder-to-shoulder and grinning without reservation, in complete agreement with each other on the issue that has most surely divided them since we turned into a two-party state, since long, long before either of these young men even knew what Democrats and Republicans were. Moore, who was mouthing the usual “it’s not the time” stuff a couple of days ago, now saying, “We can’t change our past, but we can heal our future.” And Harrison, who can usually be counted on for the usual “if it’s Republican, it’s bad” stuff, telling me “I have nothing but respect for Gov. Haley. She’s doing the right thing, and she’s doing it for the right reasons.”
  • Mind you, Haley and Sanford and Graham and Scott and Courson and Matt Moore all represent the Republican Party that essentially came to power on the issue of keeping the flag up. The GOP took over the House after the 1994 election. The party got an unprecedented turnout in its primary that year in part by, in the national year of the Angry White Male, putting a mock “referendum” question on the primary ballot asking whether the flag should stay up. One of the very first things the party caucus pushed through after assuming control of the House was legislation that put the flying of the flag into law, so that no governor or anyone else but the Legislature could ever take it down. (You might say, why bring that up at such a wonderful moment. Here’s why: To let you know how big a miracle this is.)
  • Democrats and Republicans who have spent the day working sincerely together in multiple meetings today, not to posture and get the other side to vote against something so it can be used in the next election or to raise money, but to solve an issue that cuts right through the heart of South Carolina, and defines the differences between them. I asked House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford whether he has EVER been in such extraordinary meetings as he has been in today, with leaders of both parties determined to reach agreement on such a heavy, politically impossible issue and put it behind us for good. For a second, he almost reverted to the usual, starting to say, not while this governor has been in office… But I said, no, I mean EVER. And he said, no. He has never experienced anything like this on any issue.
  • Drivers going past the flag on Gervais and not just honking their horns in celebration at the flag coming down, but playing monotonal tunes on their horns, a regular symphony of honking. Such giddiness is as unprecedented as all the rest of us. It’s almost like our local version of the Berlin Wall coming down.
  • J.T. McLawhorn, president of the Columbia Urban League, telling me, “Things can change in a moment.” Meaning ANYTHING, no matter how intractable, no matter how long-lived. In South Carolina, the most change-resistant state in the union.
  • The way the sentiment that it was too soon to talk about such a hairy political issue, when we haven’t buried the first victim of the Charleston massacre, had just evaporated. Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, told me that Clem Pinckney “himself would say, ‘Do not lose this moment.'” This was, as the governor had said, the way to “honor the nine blessed souls that are now in heaven.”
  • The way the entire world was there to see it and hear it. And yeah, I’m sure that’s one huge reason we’re seeing this happen so quickly — was best to come out and say this now, while the world was watching, so that everyone would know of the miracle that had happened in South Carolina. But it was still something to see. I estimate this media crowd was about twice the size of the one that witnessed Mark Sanford’s public confession upon his return from Argentina six years ago this month.
  • To hear the booming voices of people spontaneously crying out, “Thank you, governor!” as she left the podium. (Presumably, those were the non-media types, and there were a lot of them on hand.) And no, I don’t think that was planned. It sounded heartfelt to me. Just like the applause that interrupted the governor, and which she had to wait for the end of, after she spoke the fateful words, “It’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds.”
  • The way nobody was hedging, or qualifying, or talking about half-measures. In the state that normally doesn’t change, and when it does it does so in the tiniest, hesitating, gradualistic baby steps, the governor was like, Let’s just go ahead and take it down, and lawmakers of both parties were like, Yeah, let’s, and the rest of us were like Keanu Reeves, going whoaaaa

How did we get here, and so fast? I don’t think we can explain it in earthly terms. A friend who gave me a ride back to the office after the miracle said she felt like maybe, just maybe, it started when those family members stood in that courtroom the other day, looked at the (alleged) brutal killer of their precious loved ones, and forgave him. I nodded. Maybe so. Maybe that was the beginning of some sort of chain reaction of grace, which led to this.

I don’t know.

Yeah, a lot has to happen before this thing is done. But I think it’s going to happen. I asked James Smith whether he thought, based on his interactions with those involved, the consensus to act was solid. He nodded: “Rock solid,” he said. I believe him.

Elliott Epps on his friend Clementa Pinckney

On Wednesday, the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council had its big annual community luncheon at the convention center. I was there, as a member of the Council, but I had not made a reservation, so I took pot luck in being assigned to a table. I ended up with one at the back that had to be added because we had such a big crowd. I knew a couple of people at the table, but met some new ones as well, including an older (slightly older than I am, that is) black lady named Minnie (sp?).

Elliott Epps

Elliott Epps

Our outgoing chairman, Elliott Epps — former head of City Year, and a classmate of my daughter in law school — opened the event with a gag from the news: He said that yes, he was a Caucasian male, and he was not asking us to believe he was anything else. So people laughed, and I said something to my tablemates to the effect of, “Elliott, we can tell!” Minnie smiled and said something like, “I don’t know; he looks just like some of my cousins.” And true, he does have dark hair, but that’s about it.

At that moment, we could still have a laugh about things in the news, even things in the news that bore on race.

Hours later, that would all change.

This morning, CRC Executive Director Henri Baskins sent out a note to all board members letting them know about the statement I had drafted yesterday. Among the responses was this personal reflection from Elliott, which he has also posted on Facebook. I asked him whether I might share that with y’all and he generously agreed:

I have been numb today. Clementa Pinckney was my best friend from graduate school when we spent two years together getting a Masters in Public Administration at the University of South Carolina. Two months after leaving City Year Boston in 1997 I met him when he was 24 and I was 26 when we both started grad school. He and I worked as office assistants in the office of government and international studies in order to get the tuition reduction. This man at 24 had his own congregation in Jasper County; had his own constiuents in Jasper, Beaufort and Charleston county, was taking a full load of graduate degree classes; but still managed to work 20 hours in office with me making copies and stuffing faculty boxes. The humility. The grace. The strength. He epitomized the servant leader.

Clementa Pinckney

Clementa Pinckney

He and I both entered our dating phases with the women we were to marry. What a fun time! We went to each other’s weddings. He introduced me to a lifetime friend, mentor Steve Skardon which led to get me a job for the Palmetto Project to work on improving race and community relations. He is the only person I have walked door to door for a large part of James Island when he ran for State Senate. Later we had our oldest children a year apart. When my mother got cancer, Clem drove to Aiken and prayed with her and over her, holding her hand weeks before she died. Sadly years later his mother died also of cancer.

Clem probably drove more than anyone in this state that was not a professional truck driver. When I knew him his blue car was seriously over 300,000 miles. His district when he was elected to the SC Senate is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.

As I watched all of the coverage and I heard the President, Congressman Clyburn, his colleagues in the SC Senate and the House, and so many people talk about Clemnta this was not how it was supposed to be. Clementa was always pulled between politics and the church. I always wondered and thought from our discussions about the future and our dreams that he would either be Bishop of the AME church or the successor to Congressman Clyburn to represent SC in Washington. All of those leaders speaking about Clementa was not weird because I always expected because of his gifts that he would be talked about by them and with them. But never in my worst nightmare like this. Not about this. What a terrible, terrible waste.

Someone from the SC Senate said I thought beautifully, “Out of all of us. How can this happen to gentlest? How can this have happened to the best of us?” He called him the “Conscience of the Senate.” The book by Norman Vincent Peele entitled “Why do bad things happen to good people” could in this case be renamed “Why do the worst things happen to the best people?” My thoughts go to Jennifer, Eliana and Malana. We must lift them and the other families affected by this chaos.

It is time to mourn but when we move forward we need to follow Clemnta’s lead and listen to that incredible voice in our heads and our heart when we work together on how to solve this. I miss you Clem!

The Golden Age of Television Overload

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Pope Francis recently disclosed that he hasn’t watched television since 1990. Which means he’s like way behind on “Game of Thrones.” Among other things.

I’m beginning to think His Holiness is onto something. I’m feeling… a bit out of control with my own binge-watching lately. Wouldn’t I be a better person — more productive, more attuned to the needs of those around me — if I stopped watching Netflix, HBO NOW, the downstairs TV, the upstairs TV, the Roku, the Apple TV, the iPad and on very rare occasions, actual broadcast television?

The Pope has enough on his plate keeping up with matters relating to this world and the next, much less Westeros and all those other fictional universes out there.

Today, the front of the Arena section of The Wall Street Journal raises the question, “How Many TV Series Can Your Brain Take?” An excerpt:

“Game of Thrones,” which will leave multiple story lines dangling for a year with Sunday’s season finale, is notorious for befuddling even ardent fans with its many clans, lands and simmering subplots. But it’s just one of many shows taxing the memories of audiences who have been flooded with complex story lines and crowded character ensembles.

“Orange Is the New Black,” which returns Friday for a third season on Netflix, uses more than 20 characters to populate a fictional women’s prison with inmates and staff. On “Orphan Black,” finishing its third season on BBC America this month, lead actress Tatiana Maslany plays six different characters, all clones, in a sci-fi conspiracy story. New viewers have to absorb dense mythologies if they hope to jump aboard returning shows such as CBS’s summer series “Under the Dome,” which, in its coming third season, might finally explain why a bubble is encasing the town of Chester’s Mill.

The deluge of compelling shows means fans have to be good at time management to keep up with the best offerings. But they also are grappling with the limits of memory. How many shows (and knotty plots and twisting character arcs within) can we keep track of at once? In a binge-watching world, where we aren’t limited to weekly installments of network TV shows, is there a limit to the number of narratives we can keep straight?

Actually, I don’t think that frames the question correctly. Binge-watching doesn’t cause the problem of having trouble keeping up. What I find is that failing to binge-watch makes it harder to know what’s going on.

Dramatic series are written for binge-watchers, not for people who watch an episode, walk away and lead real lives, then come back in a week or more to try to pick up the thread again. That is part of what makes the new breed of shows so absorbing — they pull you into a complicated world, and if you can’t stay there until the season (at least) is over, you’re likely to be disoriented when you return.

For instance — when the third season of “House of Cards” came out several months back, I did what I had with the first two seasons. I started watching to see what everybody was talking about, then got fed up with it and quit, and then, when curiosity built up enough, came back and pushed through the rest of it.

SPOILER ALERT! Consequently, when I saw the season finale the other night, I was somewhat at a loss: Why was Claire leaving Frank? Yeah, they had been slightly weirder together the last few episodes — which means five percent more than their usual standard, which is creepy as all get-out. But what precipitated this blow-up? Surely nothing that had happened recently had showed her anything she didn’t know about her husband. Not to mention that she’s no bargain herself on the decent-person scale.

If I’d watched it all straight through, I think I might have a good feel for it. But as things stand, I don’t.

Not that it matters, right?

Last year, David Carr wrote in The New York Times about the problem of “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” I could really identify:

The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment.

I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy….

And what a feast. Right now, I am on the second episode of Season 2 of “House of Cards” (Netflix), have caught up on “Girls” (HBO) and am reveling in every episode of “Justified” (FX). I may be a little behind on “The Walking Dead” (AMC) and “Nashville” (ABC) and have just started “The Americans” (FX), but I am pretty much in step with comedies like “Modern Family” (ABC) and “Archer” (FX) and like everyone one else I know, dying to see how “True Detective” (HBO) ends. Oh, and the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” (HBO) starts next month.

Whew. Never mind being able to hold all these serials simultaneously in my head, how can there possibly be room for anything else? So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media….

I think back to a time before all this. Say, the ’80s. In that whole decade, I can remember watching only one dramatic series on television that in any way compares to the shows I’m juggling now: “Hill Street Blues.” There was that, and maybe “Cheers” — both on the same network on the same night. I was very, very busy with a demanding job in the daytime and a family full of young children at night, and entertainment wasn’t high on my list — which made the lack of high-quality options a good match for my lifestyle. And “Hill Street” was written for people who only visited that world weekly. There were continuing story lines, but everything was episodic. One episode held you for a week.

Lately, I’m juggling, off and on:

  • Blue Bloods” — My only current show written in that old fashioned episodic form, and the only one coming from commercial broadcast television. But I’m watching it the new way. I had never seen it before a couple of months ago, when I started the first season on Netflix. It’s the perfect length for a workout on the elliptical. I’m not quite as obsessed with it as I was with “The West Wing” last year, but I do like it.
  • Foyle’s War” — Watching this on two temporal streams. We just finished the current season of new ones on PBS last night. Meanwhile, we’re almost done with the previous seasons on Netflix.
  • Game of Thrones” — ALMOST caught up. I’ve got one more episode to watch (last week’s) before this Sunday’s season finale. And I’ll be glad to be done with it for awhile. I wanted to be up on the cultural phenomenon, and now I almost am. I don’t find it very satisfying.
  • The Wire” — The best of the lot right now. I’m trying not to spend it all at once. I’m past the halfway mark in the second season.
  • Orange is the New Black” — We were really into this, but my wife and I sort of lost interest during the second season, and didn’t get more than a few episodes into it. With the new season out today, will we get back into it? I don’t know.
  • Daredevil” — Probably the best adaptation of a Marvel franchise ever to appear on television. I’ve only got one episode left in the Netflix season, still waiting to see him in the red superhero costume. The series is taking the origins thing at a stately pace.
  • True Detective” — Got started on this and got sidetracked. Want to finish the season before the new one comes out.
  • Mad Men” — Lost interest a couple of seasons back. There’s just so much moral vacancy one can take. But my wife and daughter say the last season was as good as the early ones, so I’m going to take it back up soon.
  • The Walking Dead” — Haven’t watched it in months, but I do want to get back to it and catch up. I just want to know one thing before I do: Daryl doesn’t die, does he?
  • Justified” — It’s as good as some of my friends here say, but since the only way I can see it is on DVDs from Netflix, I only get back to it periodically. I’m only up to the second or third episode in the second season.
  • Better Call Saul” — Since we don’t get AMC (the only station I miss from cutting back on cable), I bought the season on iTunes when it first came out. So since I paid for it, I really must get back to it and watch the rest of the season at some point. It’s good, but it’s not as compelling as “Breaking Bad.” I’ve just got this investment in it.

It’s over now, but for a few weeks there, we were really into “Wolf Hall” — which we’d watch on Apple TV the night after each episode’s release, because I didn’t want to stay up past 11 on Sunday night. (One good thing about this — it forced me to go ahead and finish reading Bring Up the Bodies in order to stay ahead of the show — which I shoved aside The Guns of August in order to push through.)

Meanwhile, it seems that Netflix releases a new series daily, and some of them are bound to be good. It’s just ridiculous.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to read The Guns of August, a really compelling history book, for months. But if I read a chapter in a sitting, it’s unusual. And it was interrupted first by the trip to Thailand, and then by Bring Up the Bodies. Mostly, it’s a couple of pages over dinner. And talk about losing track of characters and story lines — of course, books are supposed to be that absorbing and complex. TV never was before.

Yeah, it’s true, and it’s appalling: I’ve only finished on new book so far this year.

The Pope has the right idea. I just need to summon the self-discipline…

"Daredevil:" Matt Murdock still hasn't fully donned his superhero persona.

“Daredevil:” Matt Murdock still hasn’t fully donned his superhero persona.

Signs, signs, everywhere the signs…

No hand-holding! This, however, is allowed...

No hand-holding! This, however, is allowed…

While y’all have been wondering, “Where’s Brad?,” I’ve been at the beach with my two youngest grandchildren.

And the youngest, my 3-year-old grandson, is quite the playground lawyer.

Yesterday, my wife and I walked him and his big sister down the street to a little municipal park there at Surfside Beach so they could play on the playground equipment.

As we arrived there, he announced, “No holding hands,” and pulled his away from me. Since we were there, I let him go, but I had to ask: “Where does it say no holding hands?”

Without missing a beat, he said in an offhand manner: “That sign over there,” and resumed climbing up on the equipment.

He had indicated one of those signs you find at municipal parks that indeed say such things as, “No bare feet,” and “Children must be accompanied by adult.”

I was impressed. I knew we had used these signs in the past as justification for telling him to do things we wanted. You know, like, “Don’t go up the slide backwards. Don’t look at me; that’s what the sign says.”

Since it worked on him, he figured it would work on us. He doesn’t grok the concept of reading, so it doesn’t occur to him that he can’t con us with that. He doesn’t know that he’s the only person in the group who can’t read the sign.

I thought it was a very legalistic gambit, for a guy who just turned 3 last month…

I’m overweight again (for me), need to go back to paleo

beachb-20150602052829419

I saw this ad, being blasted on both sides of the Atlantic for its body-shaming message, and it reminded me: I weighed myself over the weekend, and it’s time to go back to the full paleo diet.

It’s not that I looked at this ad and decided I need to do something because I don’t look like the person in the picture. If I DID look like the person in the picture, I’d have a whole other set of problems — such as standing in front of a mirror looking at myself all day, which would hurt my productivity.

No, I was concerned about this before the picture. This just reminds me.

I’d been feeling like the waistbands of all my pants had shrunk for a couple of weeks now. After gorging myself on ribs Saturday night, I tried the scale at my parent’s house (we don’t have one at home), and it was as I suspected: 181.6 pounds.

That doesn’t sound like much for a guy who’s a fraction under six feet, does it? But it is, particularly if you’ve always had a skinny frame. A guy with a skinny frame doesn’t look good with a gut. And a guy with a skinny frame who weighs more than 180 has a gut.

I looked it up. This chart says that if I have a “light” frame, I should weigh 146-157. If I have a “medium” frame, it’s 154-166. I don’t know what’s perfect for me, but the last time I had really been working out heavily for awhile and felt in super-good shape, I was somewhere in the 160s. You know, in the range for wrestling Shute.

A year ago, I was around 170, maybe a trifle under if I took off my shoes. I was working out every morning, a hard 40 minutes on the elliptical (“The West Wing” on Netflix was helping with that”). I was eating strictly paleo — no grains of any kind, no potatoes, no legumes, just meat, fruit and non-legume vegetables. It’s not the most in-shape I’ve ever been, but it felt good.

I need to get back there.

I don’t know why I’m telling all of y’all this, except that if I say it out loud and have witnesses, maybe I’ll actually do it.

I used to work in a place that… ‘doesn’t even exist anymore’

Pancho's

In a comment way back the middle of last month, Bryan linked to one of my favorite bits in “The Right Stuff” (which is saying something, since I love all of that film). It’s the scene in which The Media (portrayed throughout the film as an overexcited colonial animal constantly emitting motor-drive sounds like the ever-present background noise of crickets in the night) ask Dennis Quaid’s Gordon Cooper, “Who was the best pilot you ever saw?”

Cooper beams, and the viewer smiles with him, because we know the character loves to pose that question rhetorically, and answer it himself with, “You’re lookin’ at him.”

But then he gets serious, and says thoughtfully, hesitantly, in a low voice:

Who is the best pilot I ever saw? I’ll tell you. I’ve seen a lot of them, and most of them were pictures on a wall… back at some place that… doesn’t even exist anymore….

That’s a reference to Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club, a run-down, low-rent bar and grill (as portrayed in the film, anyway) in the desert outside Edwards Air Force Base, where test pilots who had been killed in the line of duty were honored by having their pictures nailed up behind the bar. Pancho’s had burned down a number of years before Cooper became an astronaut.

Well, I just had a moment of wistful remembrance like that of Cooper’s.

I was on my way to an appointment on Market Street, which runs between Bluff Road and Key Road just south of Williams-Brice Stadium. And as I turned off George Rogers onto Key, I was shocked to see that the building housing The State‘s (and The Columbia Record‘s) former offices, there in the shadow of the stadium, was just gone, and something else was being built in its place. Even the little parking lot in front had been dug up.

That was where I worked for the first year I was at The State. We moved to the new building in 1988, and SC ETV bought the building. I knew that ETV had stopped using it, and had seen it looking rather derelict lately.

And most of my memories of The State were down the road in the new building. And I was pretty stressed that one year in the old building, trying to get acclimated to a new paper after my years in Tennessee and Kansas. I didn’t really settle in and start to enjoy myself until after we moved.

Still, it was a bit of a shock.

So I guess I’ll recover the way Gordo did when the journalists were too thick to follow his humble, honest effort to answer the question.

I’ll just give a cocky grin and say, “Who’s the best editor you ever saw? You’re lookin’ at him!”

My piece for the Brookings Institution

When I returned from Thailand, I had an email from Elaine Kamarck at the Brookings Institution:

1477344_10152268988702708_889340808_nI’m reaching out to invite you to contribute a short essay for our FixGov blog at the Brookings Institution. FixGov focuses on new ideas to make government work and identifies and aims to solve the nation’s most pressing political and governance challenges with sensible and realistic solutions.

A major thematic focus area of the blog and our work here at Brookings is improving media capacity.  Given your expertise, I welcome you to author a blog post for an upcoming series that will explain the current state of media in America and propose solutions for reinvigorating the industry, improving local and national news coverage and bolstering media oversight. The series will begin in mid- to late-Spring…

I sort of wondered how they got my name. I learned that, as I had suspected, E.J. Dionne had mentioned me. Which I appreciate.

Anyway, I proposed a topic to them and sat down and wrote it a couple of weekends back, and today it was published.

My topic was the decline of mid-sized newspapers, and why it matters — in terms of not being able to perform (as well) their watchdog role on the state and local level. After mentioning the ironic juxtaposition of the Charleston paper getting a Pulitzer on the same day more staff reductions were announced at The State (which happened after I chose my topic, but gave me a timely peg), I elaborated:

That matters because midsized papers have been the watchdog on the levels of government that most affect our lives. We drown in political news, commentary, gossip and minutiae out of Washington, but there’s no such informational vitality at the state and local level. When there are less than a third as many of you as there used to be, and you’ve added the 24/7 churn of web publishing, it gets hard to do anything more than feed the beast. Enterprise suffers….

And then I got to this point:

So, with newspapers shrinking and blogs unlikely to replace them, who is going to watch our state legislatures and city halls across the country? Increasingly, no one. Or worse, the wrong people…

That’s when I got into the fact that it was great that the S.C. Policy Council stayed on the Bobby Harrell story until action was taken. But I found it disturbing that an ideological group that doesn’t want to tell us where its money comes from was playing a role once played by broad-interest newspapers supported transparently by the ads you saw every day.

But you know what? Just go read the whole thing. Then, if you like, come back and we can discuss it further.

Burl’s lifelong passion started at the usual age

11179947_10204481079370687_3938525610165909438_n

Y’all know that my high school classmate Burl Burlingame gets to build model airplanes and rebuild real airplanes — cool ones — for a living. Doug and I have both been to his museum, and seen his handiwork.

So where did it all begin?

As with most of us, Burl started building models as a kid. And today, he posted photographic evidence, with this explanation:

Clearly, the pop-culture image of the model-airplane enthusiast as a callow dweeb is completely self-inflicted, and completely at odds with our self-image as the only cool kids in school:

I’m wondering — is that behind your house in Foster Village? I ask because the background looks a lot like the view from my backyard when we lived in that subdivision. We had this unbelievable view of both Pearl Harbor and the Waianae range in the background. (The lots were terraced so that our backyard lawn was higher than the roof of the house behind us, making for an amazing panorama of southwestern Oahu.)

In fact, I’m flashing on a memory here. Unlike Burl, I wasn’t a master builder of models. I didn’t paint the pilot or other small details. I’d put on the decals, of course, but beyond that my finishing touches didn’t extend beyond maybe heating the point of a pin and using it to melt machine-gun holes in the wings and fuselage.

I definitely didn’t bother with details on the little model of a V1 buzz bomb that I test-flew in that backyard in Foster Village. I built it around a firecracker, wedged into the fuselage tightly by wrapping toilet paper around it, and threaded the fuse out through a hole before final gluing. (The V1, a fairly featureless rocket, was way too boring to look at, and there were no more than five or six pieces in the kit — the only thing that made it worth building was to blow it up.)

Then I took it out there, lit the fuse, and threw it. It worked — green plastic blasted everywhere. But it was over so quick, it didn’t seem worth the time it took to build the model, even as simple as it was. So that’s the last time I did that…

By the way, that’s a SPAD XIII. Burl had to tell me that, after I wildly guessed that it was a Sopwith Camel…

Counterculture heroes, or, Back when radical was chic

Ginsberg

I think Ginsberg was sitting among us in the amphitheater waiting to be introduced here.

 

Several years ago, my wife gave me a scanner with an attachment for scanning negatives and slides. I had wanted this in order to start digitizing my vast stash of 35mm film from several decades of personal and professional photography.

I’ve never really undertaken the task systematically. The idea of trying to match up separate strips of film in glassine envelopes even to the point of getting them together in their actual rolls, much less trying to assign dates to each roll to get them in chronological order, is just too Herculean. Especially since scanning a single exposure at sufficient resolution to ensure good enlargements takes a couple of minutes.

But I do leaf through my negatives randomly from time to time and blow up a forgotten image from long ago. I was doing so over the weekend, and ran across these images from about 1973 or ’74.

Here you see two counterculture heroes of that generation, both of whom were participants in a speaker series at Southwestern at Memphis, now known as Rhodes College. We have Allen Ginsberg of “Howl” fame, and Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers. This was when my wife and I were students at neighboring Memphis State University, now known as University of Memphis. (What is it about Memphis and constantly changing the names of colleges?)

At least this shot of Ellsberg was in focus.

At least this shot of Ellsberg was in focus.

No, I don’t think Southwestern had a rule that your name had to end in “sberg” for you to speak there. But both were very much counterculture heroes at the time — Ginsberg as a writer and (more importantly) as the biggest surviving light of the Beat Generation, Ellsberg as the antiwar activist and forerunner of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

Not that they were heroes to me, mind you. But I was a student journalist, and they were big newsmakers. So I showed up, with my camera. (Also, my wife reminds me, the young woman who was our maid of honor in our wedding had been involved in bringing Ginsberg to the campus. I don’t know whether she was involved with Ellsberg.)

Also, the Beats loomed large in the legend of my wife and I getting together. We met at a party (at Southwestern, actually) that my wife and the future maid of honor were having for mutual friends who were getting married. During the party, J and I discovered that she was reading a Jack Kerouac biography even as I was reading On the Road for the first time. And the rest is history. (I had had that copy of On the Road for a couple of years, but had waited until that moment to read it.)

By this time, Kerouac and Cassady had been dead for years, so Ginsberg was the best we could do.

Anyway… I got to thinking about these photos this morning when I was reading this interesting review of a book, Days of Rage, about the violent fringes of American radicalism during that period. If you can get past the WSJ’s pay wall, you might want to check it out.

No, there’s no one-to-one comparison here. Compared to the likes of Bill Ayers (the Obama buddy!), Bernardine Dohrn and Terry Robbins, Ellsberg and Ginsberg were relatively tame. I mean, they didn’t want to blow anybody up or anything. What we had on that Memphis campus was more like “Days of Mild, Trendy Disaffection” than “Rage.”

But it still reminded me of these pictures, so I thought I’d share…

When I shot this, I thought I had an awesome picture -- I had caught Ellsberg looking RIGHT AT ME in the wings. Only later did I see that he was out of focus. Ah, the limitations of real film and manual-focus SLRs...

When I shot this, I thought I had an awesome picture — I had caught Ellsberg looking RIGHT AT ME in the wings. Only later did I see that he was out of focus. Ah, the limitations of real film and manual-focus SLRs…

 

Touring Ford Island with our own Burl Burlingame

On Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor, with Burl Burlingame.

On Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor, with Burl Burlingame.

There are so many things I’d like to share with y’all from our trip to Thailand, but I don’t know where to start. My thoughts of how to approach it have ranged from trying to write a day-by-day account, in installments, or just throw in a travelogue piece now and then as the opportunity occurs.

Those of you who followed me on social media during the trip already have a rough idea of where we went and what we saw, but I need to get something down in greater depth before I forget. If only days on vacation could be 48 hours long — 24 to experience it, and 24 to write about it.

Anyway, today I thought I’d share something from near the end, since it involves a regular on this blog — Burl Burlingame, my high school classmate. He and I graduated from Radford High School in 1971. I was only there for a year, but cherish fond memories of the time.

You may or may not know that Burl, who was a real Renaissance Man in high school (writer, photographer, musician, cartoonist, actor and all-around wag), also spent a lengthy career in newspapers. Except Burl stayed in Hawaii to pursue his craft, while I returned to the Mainland. Another big difference — on the side, Burl earned a reputation over the years as an authority on military history.

So instead of his newspaper career ending with his being laid off, Burl left under his own power — to become curator, and later historian, at the Pacific Aviation Museum, which is located on historic Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor.

It’s now physically easier to get to Ford Island. In my day you had to go onto the Navy base and catch a ferry. Now, there’s a causeway so you can drive out there — but you still have to get past the Marines on sentry duty, and these days they’re dressed and armed for combat, rather than wearing the blue dress “C” uniforms that I remember. (The causeway is featured frequently on the reboot of “Hawaii Five-O” — in the pilot, you can see the main characters driving out to Ford for no particular reason beyond the fact that the scenery is awesome.)

So to save us security hassles, Burl met us at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and drove us out in his car. Then he gave us the VIP tour, introducing me around as a big-time blogger from the mainland. Then he used us as guinea pigs. He’s thinking of adding a tour of the whole island as one of the museum’s features, so he took us on the route he’s been thinking of, let us stop and get out whenever we wanted, and timed it to see how long it would take (about an hour, as it happened with us).

Then he took us to dinner at a place overlooking Pearl, and finally we went downtown to meet his wife, Mary, who is still an editor at the paper and had Saturday night duty.

Below are some images, with cutlines, from what we saw.

I can’t give blood for a year, because Kanchanaburi is on a list

Bridge

Well, I went to give platelets at the Red Cross yesterday, and I answered “yes” to the question about whether I’d been out of the country in the past three years, and that led to a long discussion about just where I had been.

Turns out, it wasn’t a problem that I was in Thailand per se. The Red Cross breaks it down much more locally than that, and the problem was that one of the many places we visited in Thailand was listed as posing a risk of malaria.

That was Kanchanaburi. Those of you who were following me on social media may have already seen the above picture of me taken in that town. I’m standing in front of “the” Bridge On the River Kwai, which while it’s not the one from the movie (the movie was fictional, based on a novel inspired by the real-life Death Railway), actually is where the still-active rail line first laid by slave labor (Allied POWs and civilians) under the Japanese crosses the Kwai.

As you can see, I’m looking pretty grubby. If the Red Cross knew everything I’d done that day, they really would have worried. I had spent most of the day with elephants — feeding them by hand, bathing them in the river, and riding them. Taking a midday break from elephant care, we had floated down the Kwai, way out in the country, for 40 minutes, without a boat. Just life vests. Very refreshing.

(We were at this really neat place a few miles out of town that rescues elephants from the logging industry and from begging in the streets, and enlists tourists to help in their daily care. This was the thing my daughter had most wanted to do while we were with her in Thailand, and it did not disappoint.)

Then, on the way back to the resort in Kanchanaburi, I realized we were passing close to the Bridge, which I had only seen in the dark, the night before. So I asked someone to rap on the back of the cab of the songthaew we were riding in, and hopped off alone to go check out the bridge.

I ran into three American veterans from Bangkok who were painting the base of a memorial to the Americans who had died building the railway. The wife of one of them took the above picture.

But I digress. The point is, I can’t give for a year. So some of y’all will have to take up the slack…

Here I'd feeding bananas to a rather elderly elephant named Wasana. She's about 65 years old and a fairly slow eater for an elephant -- so it took a little patience.

Here I’m feeding bananas to a rather elderly elephant named Wasana. She’s about 65 years old and a fairly slow eater for an elephant — so it took a little patience.

All that overwhelming beauty

windward

I’m not just jet-lagged today. I’m experiencing a sort of sensory trough after being overwhelmed by stimuli that unfairly increased what my brain expects to be fed.

After the many gorgeous sights — and tastes, and smells, and sounds — of Thailand, there were those ridiculous couple of days in Hawaii. I had been there before, of course — it was where I had graduated from high school. But I was reminded of why I had trouble, back in my college years, adjusting to the mainland scenery.

This was underlined by my wife’s reaction, during the tour our friend Burl Burlingame gave us of Ford Island, and on a drive the next day around Diamond Head, and on up the Windward coast as far as Kailua — then back across the mountains with a stop at Pali Lookout. She had never been there before, and every place we stopped, she got out and started shooting video with her iPad, turning and exclaiming over the water, the mountains, the colors, the light, that incredible Hawaii air…

A most satisfying experience. I’d be like, “I think you’ll like this next thing,” and she’d be all like, “Wow!” I was never disappointed in her reaction.

My eyes have been filled these last days. Now, back on the diet…

Disney is going to make a sequel to “Frozen”

This is Olaf. He’s kind of a big deal around my house.

This is big news for anyone with children under 12.

“Frozen” made nearly $1.3 billion at the box office and inspired masses of toys, clothing and other merchandise as well as a devoted following of young girls.

Even boys are kind of into Frozen. My son is three, and he really likes singing the songs. Mostly he likes the snowman, Olaf.

To paraphrase some litigators enjoy who ending their letters with a certain line: If you have young children, govern yourselves accordingly.

I was SUCH a good boy this morning

sausages

I resisted temptation, but I DID take a picture. So does this qualify as food porn?

 

So here it is the second Friday in Lent, and this morning, for the first time in a couple of weeks, the breakfast buffet at the club had those lovely, juicy, fat sausages that I like so much.

But… I… did… not… indulge!

So I expect you all to be terribly impressed at my virtue and self-discipline…

And here I am as a tyro journalist, at about the same time

baby journalist

I ran across this picture during the same search that produced the one of Dylan and The Band.

Evidently, I did not take this. I don’t remember who did.

Anyway, that’s me front and center looking at the camera, with the Groucho mustache, the circa 1965 Beatles hair, the octagonal wire-rims, the distinctly big-collared 1970s sport shirt, and the white Keds. This was in the newsroom of The Helmsman, the student paper at Memphis State University, probably around the same time as the Dylan/Band picture. So somewhere in the 1973-75 range.

This was during my stint as either editorial page editor or news editor of the paper. I say this because I’m turned away from the manual typewriter and evidently pencil-editing someone else’s copy instead of writing. I’m sitting in the slot position of the copy desk, the standard U-shaped desk that an editor I worked with after graduation called “the elephant’s commode.”

Dan Henderson, our fearless leader.

Dan Henderson, our fearless leader.

But we didn’t really have a formal copy desk and slot man. There were four or five kids, of whom I was one, who were the core of the paper and made everything happen, with other contributors coming and going. Another of the inner group is in the background at far right, his finger in his near ear as he tries to hear someone on the phone. His name was Oran; I forget his last name.

I don’t know what the long-haired guy standing in the doorway of the supply closet is looking at; he seems to be just grooving on a spot in the ceiling.

Note the detritus of a paper-based publishing system. Aside from the typewriters, there’s a pencil sharpener, a tape dispenser, a stapler, and several pots of rubber cement. The rubber cement was for gluing all the pages, or takes, of a story together into one long, continuous strip of paper. The piece was sent to a commercial print shop several miles away where the paper was put together, and which we had to visit to proof and let the pages go.

The newsroom was small. Whoever shot this is standing in the middle of it.

Dan pretends to point to something on a piece of copy I'm pretending to edit. This was for the yearbook. Notice we didn't make the slightest effort to groom for the occasion.

Dan pretends to point to something on a piece of copy I’m pretending to edit. This was for the yearbook. Notice we didn’t make the slightest effort to groom for the occasion…

The closed door behind me is the Inner Sanctum of whoever was our chief editor at the time — probably the late Dan Henderson, who was later an assistant managing editor at The Commercial Appeal. Oran was to work for them later, too, in a rural bureau in West Tennessee. Those bureau people weren’t in the Guild, and were treated like dirt by the people in Memphis. One night, Oran called in his story, and the editor took it, and asked all the questions he had while editing it, and then said, “By the way, we won’t be needing your services any more.” Yeah, he was fired. He had moved out of Memphis and set up residence in some dinky town for the sake of the paper, and that’s how they let him go. Sayonara, pal.

Some would say that’s a good argument for unionizing reporters, since it was the fact that Oran was not in the Guild that let him be treated this way. For my part, I think there’s something about Guild papers (The Commercial Appeal was the only one I ever worked at) that created an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between journalists and management, so the powers that be took out their hostility on the ones they could take it out on. But that’s just my theory…

My grainy picture of Bob Dylan and The Band, 1974

Dylan and The Band 1974

Yesterday, I was plowing through a box of old prints looking for something else, and ran across the image above. The little red crop marks in the margins tell me that this ran in The Helmsman, the student newspaper at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis), possibly with a review by me.

I don’t remember writing such a review, but I do remember the concert — one of the best ever. I wish I could have gotten a better picture. But with Tri-X film and my old Yashica SLR, this was about as good as I was going to get, with the detail in Bob Dylan’s face sort of blowing out because of the spotlight. I seem to recall developing and printing it myself, and not being able to get it better than this. (In those days you couldn’t just click “sharpen” in PhotoShop; you had to have skills, but eventually physical limitations were physical limitations — you had what you had on the negative, and could only do so much with the print.) I suspect we ran the image fairly small in the paper so you couldn’t see how bad it was. It would have been even better to run the whole image, instead of cropping it down to Dylan (leaving out Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and the top of Garth Hudson’s large head). Don’t know who made that decision…

I shot this at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis on the night of January 23, 1974. The show was everything a fan could wish for — lots of Band material, plenty of Dylan. Dylan even did an acoustic set with guitar and harmonica, in a sort of bluish spotlight, and I remember having this weird disconnect looking at him: He looked so much like the cover of the greatest hits album that I couldn’t quite convince myself that this was real, and I was here. It was odd.

Anyway, I was referring to this show when I wrote this comment several months ago:

When I think of the way a band ought to look, this is the image in my mind. Almost this EXACT image, as I saw The Band and Dylan together on this same tour, in Memphis in 1974.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve contemplated the absurd extremes of costume donned by performers — from Bowie in his Ziggy phase to KISS to Devo to Lady Gaga, or for that matter going back to the way Brian Epstein dressed up the Beatles — I’ve pictured this, and thought, this is the way a band should look. Nothing should distract from the music.

It’s an ultimately cool, casual, timeless look. They could be graduate assistants, or guys sitting on a bench outside a saloon in the Old West. I had cultivated much this same look since my high school days. I bought myself a Navy blue tweed jacket with muted reddish pinstripes running through it that to me looked EXACTLY like what the guys in the Band — or for that matter, Butch Cassidy or Sundance — might wear. I wore it with a U.S. Navy dungaree work shirt that my Dad had given me, and jeans, and scruffy suede desert boots (like the ones Art Garfunkel is wearing in this picture).

Come to think of it, I’ve never really abandoned that look. Today, I’m wearing a vaguely green corduroy jacket with a charcoal-gray sweater vest over an unstarched sport shirt, with olive green chinos that are fraying at the cuffs.

It’s what I think is cool. And comfortable…

So when I ran across the picture, I thought I’d share it.

The social media talk went well, I think (ask Bryan; he was there)

B9lPyTPIAAACK2jWell, I survived my lecture on social media at the Capital City Club today. It was a nice-sized group for that sort of thing — about 15 people — and those who gave me feedback seemed to have gotten something out of it. I hope so.

And hey — Bryan Caskey was there! He took the picture above, of me being all professorial. Don’t I look like I’m expounding upon the Great Questions of the Age, instead of just telling people how not to look stupid on Twitter?

Below is a slide from my PowerPoint. Yes, I did it myself — what’s your point?…

slide

 

Join me for a conversation about social media

Just thought I’d let you know about this event tomorrow at the Capital City Club, in case you’d like to attend:

Distinguished Speaker Series Presents: 
Brad Warthen and “A Conversation About Social Media”
Brad Warthen — former old-media editor, now a consultant in the brave new world of multidirectional communications — will share what he has learned about social media, both good and bad. A blogger since 2005, and a Twitter fiend since 2009, he still feels greatly honored that “Free Times” dubbed him one of the “Twitterati” of the Midlands awhile back. He’ll also share observations about Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+ — the whole gamut. He’s counting on questions, and wants to hear about YOUR experiences with social media, because he doesn’t plan on doing all the talking.
Tomorrow, February 11 at Noon | $25++ for members and guests
Lunch Club can be applied

Now that it’s looming, I guess I’d better get serious and put that Powerpoint together. No, don’t let that scare you off. There won’t be too many words, just a way of creating a semblance of order and keeping me from rambling too much.

By the way, I think I’ll be focusing mostly on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, since the time is limited — and since I’m hoping my audience will have stuff to share, so that maybe I’ll learn something.

Preview for our trip to Thailand

My daughter in the Peace Corps has posted this video chronicling some of her experiences during the month of January, as apology for not blogging as often as she should:

Please accept this video in exchange for my lack of blog posts/ updates recently. I figure if a picture says a thousand words then a video says a million and that about makes up for my many months of silence.

For my wife and me, this video acts as a sort of trailer, previewing what we are likely to see and hear when we visit Thailand next month.

Yes, we’ve decided to take the plunge and go, both because we haven’t seen our youngest (in person, not counting Skype) in a year, and because, you know, when will we ever get the chance again?

So for the last few months, whatever free time we can find has increasingly been tied up in preparations. First, we had to get new passports. Then, we started the incredibly challenging process of deciding what to take with us.

Why is this so challenging? Because someone involved in this expedition, not yours truly, decided that we should take only what we can take in a single carry-on bag, to avoid the possibility of having to chase checked luggage all over Asia.

This is fine for members of the gender that washes their smallclothes out in hotel room sinks and hangs them on the shower curtain (perhaps some of you gentlemen have noted behavior of this sort). But that’s not my style of travel.

My style of travel was in vogue during the Gilded Age, and involved steamer trunks and servants to carry them and hiring entire floors of the best hotels, and people such as Henry James and E.M. Forster writing books about one’s experiences.

We traveled in a modified form of this fashion to England awhile back. It was the dead of winter, so I packed everything conceivable, most of it into a wheeled suitcase that was almost, but not quite, as large as a steamer trunk. Plus a backpack-style laptop case, into which I crammed said laptop, accessories, drugs and toiletries and a change of clothes in case the big bag should be lost.

Not so this time. Everything must go into a backpack only slightly larger than the laptop bag. It arrived yesterday — an Osprey Farpoint 40, guaranteed to meet the carryon regulations. I’ll keep you posted on efforts to pack it with all I’ll need for 17 days.

If I sound discontented over this challenge, I am not. I see it as an opportunity to strip down to essentials, like Nick Adams in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” If you’ll recall, the war-rattled Nick has to justify the decision to indulge himself with a jar of apple butter by rationalizing that if he’s willing to carry it, it’s OK.

I’ve already decided not to take any apple butter — so you see, I’m making great progress…