Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Family and Potatoes by Theresa Curry

Scrubbing potatoes for a holiday meal, I felt the frigid water on my hands and thought of my childhood home.
Long before I ever heard the words “fingerling” or “Yukon gold,” I helped my mother mash potatoes for holidays and Sundays. She believed pan drippings deserved a creamy mound from which to scoop a gravy lake. Part of the fun was eating around the mound without breaching the dam, so all the gravy was saved for the last salty, juicy bite.

But for everyday meals, we usually baked potatoes. Every night we scrubbed eight potatoes from a 50-pound bag, stabbed them a few times and rolled them right onto a hot oven rack. Often, we had guests for dinner, not formal guests, expected and planned for, just whoever was playing in the basement with my brother or doing homework with my sisters.

Somehow, I can’t remember how we expanded the meat and vegetables – perhaps we just ate smaller portions – but I do know that everyone was welcome, and everyone got their own potato. We counted who was in the house an hour or so before dinner, and scrubbed one for each.

Dinner was expected promptly at 6:30. Counting backwards, this meant 5:30 was the very latest we could start baking the potatoes even if we turned the oven to 450 degrees. Sometimes, in those pre-microwave days, we had to speed up the cooking process to meet our deadline.

Our house had been a boarding house during World War II, and there were buzzers from the kitchen to all the floors. If my mother pressed the buzzers repeatedly near dinner time, we knew she needed all four of her daughters in the kitchen right away. As soon as we ran into the kitchen, we turned the burners to high, and the electric stove glowed red before we even figured out what to put in the pots.

I’d start the water boiling in our largest pot, peel the potatoes, and cut them in tiny pieces to simmer quickly. We had other tricks, too: my sister shaved the ground beef with a sharp knife so the tiny pieces would thaw faster. It was kind of a game for us, getting the meal on the table by 6:30. Behind the swinging doors to the dining room, my father and grandfather rattled their newspapers and pointedly checked their watches. Our friends and boyfriends became accustomed to our mad dash to the kitchen at dinner time.

Holiday meals often meant 20 or more people, and when mashed potatoes were on the menu, we put one for each guest into two giant pots. My mother’s mashed potatoes were simple and perfect, just potatoes, butter, salt and pepper.

In the years since, I’ve added roast garlic and olive oil. I’ve left the skins on, folded in goat cheese, turnips and cauliflower. I’ve tested recipes that pile on trendy ingredients until the potato is scarcely recognizable. Still, the beginning is the same: pick a potato, scrub it clean, cut out any dents or dirty spots. As I breathe in the earthy smell from the growing pile of peels, I give thanks, not only for the dazzling feasts of the winter holidays, but also for the everyday generosity of sharing a simple family meal, and my nights in the kitchen with my mother and sisters.

               Theresa Curry is the Food Editor of Flavor Magazine. She lives and writes in Waynesboro.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

How Lucky We Are! by Pranav Chavan

As news coverage gets better, the world gets smaller. We have always been, but now must act as, one large family – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how uneducated, no matter how poor.

Visiting India last summer, I saw what it was like to live in the slums. Children live in houses made out of leaves and mud. They bathe and wash clothes in rivers, cook by roadsides on small fires made from twigs and leaves, study for school under streetlights because they have no electricity at home—if, that is, they are lucky enough to go to school.

I began to think of these people as family. Have you ever thought of how the child in ripped rags felt, longingly watching children in school uniforms returning from school, while he is picking up trash? He has no clue how to read or write and sees his future as no better than the trash he is picking up. He doesn't have the opportunity to go to school because he must spend his day picking up trash to sell so his family will have food to eat: simple food - rice with yellow soup.

How can we live a life full of luxury when children just like us cannot even have a decent meal? We ask our parents to buy us cellphones, video games, the latest toys. The list goes on and on. We want and want. Do we ever consider what we really need, instead of what we want? When will we stop this cycle of greed?

We seem to be very self-centered and selfish, unable to think beyond ourselves. We don’t know how to truly share or give. This is very harsh, but I would say we all are worse off than beggars. Beggars want basic necessities, but our wants know no limits - we keep on wanting. When we focus on materialistic items, we get lost in acquiring them, forgetting our bigger family and our life as God would have us lead it.

At school, we are supposed to be getting a good education. Why? So we can acquire things? An education should teach us to think beyond ourselves: help us to see things through the eyes of another person. An education should not promote just buying more stuff. It should help make us family. Stuff cannot make you happy for long.

Have we become too lazy to make an effort to learn and to help the less fortunate? Have we become so self-absorbed that we are blind the needs of those who don't have anything?

I hope we can all became people who serve others. This world is a big family; it is an extension of you and me. So what if others look different? They are just people like you and me with the same basic needs. We have just been much more fortunate. Isn’t it only fair that we share with those less fortunate? Sharing and caring makes us good human beings. Let us all try to be one!

This holiday season, as you enjoy your own gifts, keep your world family in mind, and spread the holiday cheer.

God bless you!

                            --Pranav Chavan is a 6th grader at St. Anne's Belfield School in Charlottesville.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Guest at the National Book Awards by Marc Conner

Life in Lexington, Virginia can give one a narrow understanding of what it means to be American. While I think our region is more diverse and complex than it might appear, nevertheless it’s a big world out there, and it can be a good thing to journey out and encounter the broader cultures that, perhaps, we cannot so easily see from our valley enclave. When I journeyed to New York City a few weeks ago to attend the National Book Awards Ceremony, I was reminded of the ways in which the America of the 21st century is a complex world of stark contrasts.

The journey from the Shenandoah Valley to New York is always a bit of a surprise. I flew out of Richmond, which means an easy drive to the airport, a short flight, and before you know it you’re in a taxi screaming across the Triboro bridge into the Bronx and then Manhattan. My hotel was in the heart of the theater district, and Times Square has more lights these days than Dominion Power could count. But the culture shock was pleasant, the moreso because I knew I was in this strange land for just a short visit.

The ceremony was a black tie event, and I hadn’t worn a tuxedo since my wedding 19 years ago. Thoreau’s words were whispering into my ear: “beware of any enterprise that requires new clothes.” But, I thought, it’s for a literary cause, so maybe Thoreau would be OK with that.

The award ceremony was most exciting when the winner for the year’s best American novel was announced. The list of past winners is a who’s who of American literature—Hemingway, Faulkner, Warren, Oates, and—my own personal favorite—Ralph Ellison, for Invisible Man in 1952. That novel sounds the very definition of “American-ness” when it declares at its end: “whence all this passion for conformity anyway?--diversity is the word.” The winner this year was Colum McCann, for his novel Let the Great World Spin. McCann was obviously the people’s choice, as shouts and applause greeted the announcement. And his novel is fabulous—rich, inventive, moving, going into many characters’ minds, a terrific New York city novel—as is Invisible Man. And what’s really interesting is that McCann is an Irishman, born in Dublin, and living in New York for the last decade. His novel was published in America, which makes it eligible for the award, but he himself straddles different cultures and nations.

And it strikes me that this is a very appropriate recipient of our National Book Award. In the age of Obama, when national, ethnic, and racial identities are re-inventing themselves and all our boundaries have become more fluid, it is right and fitting that we celebrate a great American novel by a writer whose very American-ness is a new invention. Indeed, McCann is most American in not being American. He joins the ranks of other great writers—one certainly thinks of Ellison—who also wrote Great American Novels about the very challenge of being American. On this night, an Irishman showed the world that being American has become a very intriguing identity, after all—one that encompasses equally the great city of his novel, and the small valley town that I call home.

Marc C. Conner is Professor of English and Director of the Program in African-American Studies at Washington and Lee University.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fixing the Economy by Tip Parker

 It’s easy to complain that the government is spending too much to bail out the economy, piling up too much debt for our children, and getting too involved in our lives. But we need to understand two reasons why this recession is different from anything that most of us have experienced.

The first reason is the record amount of debt that households, businesses, financial institutions, and state and local governments, have piled up. At the end of last year, they owed 46 trillion dollars in round numbers. The federal debt of 6 and a half trillion dollars was big, but it was just an eighth of the country’s combined total. Households owed twice as much as the federal government, mostly with mortgages, credit cards, and automobile loans.

The federal debt can be passed on indefinitely, but much of the rest must be repaid. So instead of buying more things, many people are hunkering down and trying to pay for the things they have already bought. When people pay off their debts instead of buying, other people who would have made and sold the things that people aren’t buying, lose their jobs. This becomes a loop when those who lose their jobs can’t repay their own debts, and the loop has grown too big for people and businesses to break on their own.

In most recessions, the government breaks the loop by spending and by making it easier to borrow. But that is not working very well this time because households, businesses, and financial institutions already owe too much.

Job loss is the second reason why this recession is different. For years, we followed the idea that globalization is good for everybody, and that we could somehow replace the middle class jobs, particularly in manufacturing, that have gone overseas. But it didn’t work that way. The country exported large chunks of the production side of the economy and many exported jobs were never replaced.

The recession is also eliminating many jobs that won’t come back, like making and selling big houses, SUVs, and luxury goods that people can no longer borrow to buy. Businesses won’t invest to create jobs unless they see a path to profits. Today, that path is hard to see. And sadly, my analyses show there is a high risk that many baby boomers will need jobs because their retirement plans won’t provide enough income.

So America must create millions of new jobs for unemployed workers, boomers who can’t retire, and young people starting out. The jobs will have to be in this country and hard to export. That will require major new industries like alternative energy, water and energy conservation, upgraded transportation, sustainable buildings and communities, and yes, a more effective health care system.

People in many other countries have similar problems, but they are ahead of us in solving them because they are working with instead of against their governments. For example, El Salvador and Iceland get a quarter of their electricity from geothermal plants, Germany has the most photovoltaic power plants, and China is the leading producer photovoltaic equipment. If we don’t pull together as a team, and use our government to create a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren as our forbearers did, the American middle class will continue to decline.

Tip Parker lives near Harrisonburg.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A "Woman's Right To Choose and the Stupak Amendment" by Eva Robertson

It is interesting that while the overwhelming majority of Americans support health care reform and a "public option," now less than half of this country supports abortion rights. And many people, even pro-choice advocates, believe that the 11th hour Stupak Amendment contained in the most recent house bill on health care -- restricting the right of any person or insurer to use federal subsidies to purchase or offer a health care plan that includes abortion coverage -- is an acceptable compromise in getting health care reform passed.

In a way, I can see the reasoning behind accepting this provision. The bill contains sweeping reforms -- a public option, drastic changes in regulation governing the insurance industry, and increased access to coverage. If lawmakers believed the Stupak Amendment might be enough to satisfy the right wingers and buy their co-operation on the goal of sweeping reform, well -- it's a bitter pill to swallow -- but mightn't it be worth it?

This amendment goes much further than the previous federal legislation banning use of federal money to cover abortions. Under the 1976 Hyde Amendment, private and state insurers could offer health care plans with abortion coverage as long as no federal funding was used to pay for the service. Under the Stupak amendment, however, no insurer – private or government -- may offer a plan that includes abortion coverage if any federal money is used to fund the plan or if any participating member of the plan receives a federal subsidy, and under the bill, approximately 86 % of women would be eligible for a subsidy. In effect, the new legislation would eradicate existing abortion coverage and require women to purchase a "supplemental policy" on the private market, something that is not currently available, and which it is unlikely insurers would see any financial benefit in offering.

I take control over my body for granted. But I am constantly reminded that I live in a society that, by and large, views my right of self-determination as limited. On a purely theoretical level and provided rape is not involved, I can envision having respect for a society and a legal system that, while allowing women the choice of how to deal with a pregnancy, yet also, as a matter of policy, imposed sole responsibility on her for the costs of an elective abortion. As women’s rights proponents, can we legitimately complain that men dominate our bodies in the social, political and private spheres, and then also ask them to support and subsidize elective abortions? Maybe we can, but to the extent a woman’s decision to abort is uniquely personal to her, a requirement that society foot the bill for her choice would seem to undercut her moral independence.

In practical terms, however, there are tens of thousands of unwanted children born every year to impoverished young women who are neither prepared nor willing to care for those children. This is ultimately society's problem and responsibility. The social and economic costs of ignoring this reality are getting ever uglier. The Stupak amendment may not affect abortion access for women of means, but it promises to deepen the class chasm that is at the root of the women’s health care crisis.

Eva Robertson lives in Harrisonburg. She writes the blog Dogwood

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Prudent Use of Medical Screening Tests by Denise Zito

Everyone has probably heard the story of the 1950’s x-ray machines used by stores to measure your shoe size. I wasn’t there but I heard you could stand on these and see your foot bones as well as learn your shoe size. They were especially used to measure children’s feet and were considered technology at its best. Eventually, someone pointed out that maybe it wasn’t healthy to use an x-ray machine to measure your foot-- there were safer ways to figure out what size Striderite your toddler needed.

The latest outcry over healthcare reform involves the revised guidelines for mammography. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, made up of independent experts in primary care and prevention, systematically reviews the evidence of effectiveness and develops recommendations for clinical preventive services. This group is a branch of the Agency for Healthcare Quality, a highly respected advisory group. If you look at their website, you’ll see a long list of recommendations in favor of some screening procedures and recommending against others. For example, the agency recommends against routine chest x-rays to detect lung cancer because there is no evidence that we would save more lives by doing this. However, they do recommend screening for prostate cancer in elderly men.
This Task force has reviewed breast cancer data and is now recommending that women in their 40s not undergo routine mammograms, and instead individually discuss with their doctors whether to have the exams. It recommends that routine mammograms begin at age 50.
Critics are saying that the revision of the guidelines is a form of rationing.
In fact the reason for the change is well-founded in fact and science. Though the task force is emphasizing the number of false positive mammograms, what many people seem to forget is that a mammogram is an x-ray and an x-ray carries its own set of risks and should be used prudently. Every x-ray or mammogram received carries a small risk of inducing cancer. And no one knows which woman is sensitive to the radiation and can actually be damaged by the x-ray, instead of benefiting from it by detecting an early cancer.

The U.S. has for years been encouraging women to begin yearly mammogram screening at age 40, while Europe begins at age 50 and screens every other year. The Task Force has looked at the data and determined that it’s not worth the associated risk and unproductive follow-up procedures, and the unnecessary exposure to radiation for the benefit of a few more early breast cancer detections. And, we’re not certain that early detection of all cancers leads to a better outcome.

If you’re a woman whose cancer was detected by early mammogram, you’ve got a right to be upset by this recommendation. But the rest of us should stop and ask ourselves—‘what if I’m a woman who is sensitive to radiation and might actually be increasing my risk of cancer by having a yearly extra x-ray.’ We worry a lot about the former and forget about the latter situation.

Now I’m not suggesting that a mammogram is as dangerous as the shoe-fitting x-ray machine, I’m only saying that prudence and hard science should dictate health policy and that revising guidelines to give women less radiation exposure over their lifetime, is probably a very good thing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Maggie and the Blue Butterfly by Kathryn Pigg

It was a major hurricane. As it swept inland it broke trees, eroded the land under homes, caused long power outages, and major episodes of cabin fever. I checked in with my friend Maggie to see if she wanted to go for a meal at a restaurant some 30 miles inland, one with power restored. She was eager to go. We had a good visit, catching up on her latest artist projects and on mine.

It wasn’t until her fifties that Maggie had followed her dreams and gifts. Her children grown and out on their own, she’d gotten her art degree and begun finding her way in that competitive world. Her work had sold well. She’d been able to find jobs that were part time and so still allowed her time to paint. These were not jobs with benefits.

Over lunch, that day after the storm we laughed at life and the wind and valued our survival, and we returned to her house with renewed energy. As we drove up behind her car in the driveway, we both abruptly stopped talking. On the back bumper of her aging car, on the bare metal, was a beautiful blue butterfly, very still, although it did not appear to be injured. We wondered out loud why and how it held on to the metal. Then we understood that somehow it had been stunned by the storm like so many of us. Carefully we got out of the car, and one of us gently moved the butterfly to one of Maggie's thriving plants. Slowly rhythmically that blue butterfly began to move its wings and drink from the moisture on the plant. In five minutes or so it flew away.

Maggie flew away too. Looking back now over the years that have passed, I realize that when she was in her early 60s, I began to worry each time I saw her that she seemed to have less energy. I did not say, "have you seen a doctor." I knew she had no access to a doctor. She did not qualify for Medicaid.  

What neither of us knew was that Maggie had developed heart disease. Her daughters became concerned and they were able to find some help they could afford. There was eventually a diagnosis, but what good is a diagnosis if there is no access to adequate medication or hospital intervention One of her daughters still regrets that she did not try harder to find help. Yet, how many of us have the needed resources to care for a desperately ill loved one who is living without medical insurance.

Maggie died at home shortly after seeing a doctor, early one morning, her beloved cat curled up beside her. A cousin who had come for a visit and to check on how she was feeling, discovered her already gone. The autopsy confirmed the doctor's diagnosis.

Some are not blessed by the care Maggie and I gave that day to a blue butterfly stunned by a storm. The destructive storm of our health insurance system took Maggie's life. Too quickly. We miss her.

                                   --Kathryn Pigg is a retired Methodist minister. She lives in Bridgewater.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thoughts on America's Moral Underpinnings and Health Care Reform by Owen Norment

I’m a member and currently co-chair, along with a retired pediatrician, of a Charlottesville-area group called Clergy and Laity United for Justice and Peace. We try to do some things—sponsor occasional events, write some letters, make some public statements in support of public policy initiatives that we take to be vital to the common good. Recently we’ve been much engaged with the issue of health care reform.
Good health is a basic necessity that ought to be sustained by enlightened public policy. Yet availability of adequate health care is badly in disarray in the United States, with millions of our citizens having only minimal access to needed medical treatment. Complex though the details of reform may be—and they are complex, and acknowledging that there are many practical and political hurdles to overcome, it is essential that we consider such reform in the broader context of the foundational values of our society

Just and equal access to health care is an essential human right. We have therefore a moral obligation to correct injustices in our current system. The core values of our society, values that define who we are, underwrite this obligation. Values inherent in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures stand at the headwaters of the American moral tradition. These ancient texts envision values rooted in a good order of creation and in the social bonding of an inclusive community, wherein love for neighbor is a corollary of love for God, and wherein therefore we are mutually obligated to extend human care to the dispossessed and marginalized neighbors among us. Such humane values are broadly shared among other spiritual and moral traditions as well.

Biblical faith is not merely individualistic and otherworldly, but has implications for real-world social justice, here and now, as well. The Hebrew prophets cry out urgently and repeatedly for this. Likewise Jesus speaks often of God’s reigning compassion not just beyond us but already among us.

This basic moral mandate of love for neighbor must be made effective through practical structures of justice. We must not be distracted from the urgency of this deep-rooted mandate by misunderstandings of what is really at stake or by the hard work of ironing out legislative complexity. Therefore I and others in the group I represent endorse the efforts of President Obama and the Congress to enact comprehensive health care reform legislation, including a viable public option.

        --Owen Norment is a retired Presbyterian minister and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College. He now lives in Charlottesville.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pirates, Music Sales and the Recording Industry of America by Ted Ghaffarian

Pirates. That term has been used pejoratively by the Recording Industry of America—the RIAA—for some time. Now if I called someone a pirate, I’d mean they were merciless, scruffy anarchists who plunder and disrupt all notions of decency and peace (either that or Captain Jack Sparrow drinking rum and hitting on my girlfriend).

Many file sharers have a strong distaste for this term. But I actually do think it fits when we extend this metaphor even further to the World Wide Web. If file sharers are pirates, then the internet is a vast sea, teeming with mediocre and irrelevant information. Law abiding consumers are tiny boats, with limited resources to find islands of products. In a digital sea, our consumer senses are limited to viewing images of far off products that are potentially islands away. I can’t go to an online clothing outlet and put on a pair of pants to make sure they fit, or feel the material. There is very little tangibility to consuming online products, which may be why many turn to piracy before purchasing online media.

Since the advent of digital media, the RIAA has assumed that their yearly losses stem primarily from file sharing and duplication. The Guardian, an English newspaper, published a story, based on research done by the   BI Norwegian School of Management, which found that consumers of  legal and illegal digital media between the ages of 15 to 20 are ten times more likely to purchase music. That means pirates the RIAA callously names them —at least for that important demographic of consumers —are a vital source of digital sales for the music industry.
Artists have begun to capitalize on this information already. In 2007, Radiohead, an internationally popular rock band, released their seventh studio album without record label backing and distribution. Instead, they released the album on their own website, claiming that it was up to the consumer to pay whatever he deemed fit in return for downloading the album. That means one could even download the album without paying anything.

As a financially dependent college kid, that was my first choice. However, I listened to the album in its entirely, and donated as much as I could afford to the band's cause, because I thought the album was incredible. Contrary to what many in the recording industry would think, most downloaded the album and then made a possitive financial contribution to the artist. Not only was this a wildly successful experiement, but it made Radiohead a fortune because they didn't have a record label netting all or most of the profit.

If the RIAA cannot see the enormous opportunities that file sharing--the loosing of all those pirates--offers the music business, then it will ultimately end up sinking its own ship.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Career Switcher by Robert Boucheron

When it comes to recessions, architects are the canary in the coal mine. We know, before anyone else, when oxygen is being sucked out of the economy. Construction projects are put on hold or canceled, billing decreases, and the layoffs begin.

I specialize in residential projects, so as early as 2006, with the decline in real estate sales, my practice started to dwindle. My employees left one by one, and I saw that I too would have to leave. I found a job as clerk of the works on the construction site of a new elementary school.

Then I heard about a program called Career Switcher, one of the state-approved programs that provides a fast track to become a public school teacher. I applied and was accepted. Phase One would last sixteen weeks, the fall semester, followed by one year of supervised teaching. If all went well, I could then apply for a regular Virginia state teacher's license. It sounded too good to be true. And in my case it was.

Tuition was 3000-plus dollars. The program was mostly conducted online, through the Virginia community college system. Six Saturdays were scheduled for a long video conference, connecting all students and instructors, at nine sites throughout the state. My site was Blue Ridge Community College.

The first video session, in August. Was rife with technical difficulties. None of the instructors knew how to operate the equipment. The program director dominated what discussion took place. The printed agenda was ignored. In our information packet, the pages were misnumbered, which turned the search for information into a scavenger hunt. The instructors, many of them former middle-school teachers, introduced themselves as "flunkies."

The assigned reading appeared to be a mixture of educational theories, platitudes, pseudo-scientific jargon, federal laws such as No Child Left Behind, and the Virginia Standards of Learning. The essay questions were riddled with poor grammar, and were vague. An example: "What must you know and be able to do to be an effective teacher?"

A favorite text was "Tools for Teaching," self-published by a man named Fred Jones, and illustrated with cartoons. Jones claimed to have devised an infallible technique for classroom management, compete with slogans we had to repeat. No dissent was tolerated. Students disappeared from the roster without comment...

After eight weeks, the halfway point, I received an email saying that my Career Switcher grades were less than 80% which was defined as failure. "How can that be?" I wondered. My bachelor degree is in English, from Harvard, and I have published many articles, short stories, and book reviews. I was told I had made negative comments.

Meanwhile, cutbacks in public school budgets meant that teaching jobs were becoming scarce. The placement rate for the Career Switcher program this year shrank below 50%, and will probably fall next year. Given the quality of the instruction, the message to me was clear: The game is not worth the candle.

My architectural practice may yet revive, or I may find another job. But the larger issue that worries me is that I wanted to be a teacher, and yet the patch my becoming one seemed more like a con than a good teacher-training program.

Robert Boucheron is an architect living in Charlottesville

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Here, Now by Alex Sharp

a diggable era of digits and sound waves; wavelengths, think-tanks and online banks.
An era of innovation, information and instant gratification,
where the artificial and imaginary become Real.

The reality is that nothing is Real.
There is nothing more human than artificiality:
cyberspace, satellites and cell service, DVDs, MP3s and HDTVs;
we are cloaked in Technology.
It is everywhere.
It sits on our nightstands and dressers and desks and wrists and ears,
and in our pockets and in our cars, and in our houses and kitchens and bathrooms.

We are running out of room to roam free.
The only roaming I know is far from free.
We are turned on and tuned in at all times.
Constantly connected. In continuous contact. Calibrated but comfortable.
Confined but content, we cruise the Web for hours on end.
We are Facebookers and Googlers and Youtube-aholics.
We crave wall-posts and friend requests and celebrity breasts.

Give me a plastic guitar with 5 buttons and I’m satisfied.
Give me an iPOD and two earpieces and I’m at Peace.
Give me a cell phone with unlimited texting and watch my fingers fly.

What’s our attraction to distraction?
MTV, VH1, XBOX, Comedy Central, HBO, TiVo, Playstation III, Guitar Hero, Grand Theft Auto,
Halo, Flavor of Love, Tila Tequila, iTunes, MySpace, Instant Messenger.

It’s all around us. It’s inescapable – and I need to escape it all.

Gonna MapQuest Peace and Quiet, hope it’s not too far away.
Gonna get in my car and drive there, even if it takes all day.
Gonna leave an Away Message on my way out the door:

“Gone off to the Mountains. Not sure when I’m coming back. If you need me, send smoke signals.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Appalling Mandate by Margee Greenfield

So I ask you, what career were you considering when you were 12 years old?

I ask because the commonwealth of Virginia has decided to require all seventh graders, to create an academic and career plan—including career goals based on academic and possible employment interests. Students, parents and school officials must sign off on the plan.


Having spent 25 years as an academic and career advisor and as a current middle school teacher, who teaches a career exploration class, I am appalled. Seventh graders are 12 years old! Their career choices are typically based upon the careers of their parents, relatives, or real or fictional heroes – with almost no consideration given to their as-yet-undeveloped skills, interests and values. There are a gazillion careers of which these students have never heard. There are a gazillion more that don’t exist right now but will exist by the time they graduate.

Here’s my own mind at work on this, at 12-years old. I grew up in a city with a famous Shriner’s hospital for children with physical disabilities. Every year, the city held a 24-hour fund-raiser telethon for this hospital. Local celebrities performed, and many of the children that had been helped by the hospital, were brought to the stage by physical therapists, to be interviewed, as the monies poured in. At age 12, I volunteered backstage, helping with the children. I met a physical therapist who was young, perky, and funny and all of the kids from the hospital loved her. I decided, at that moment, that I wanted to be a physical therapist: you get to play with really cute little kids AND you get to be on television.

From then on, when anyone asked about my future, I proudly said that I would be a physical therapist. Then, my freshman year in college, I had a head-on collision with a course called Medical Anatomy and Physiology. And I didn’t want to be a physical therapist any more.

But I’d never considered anything else.

So, please, let’s not ask our 12-year olds to commit, even tentatively, to a career. Instead, let’s include a career EXPLORATION component in courses at a variety of grade levels. Employers today are pretty specific about skills they want to see in hirees: Oral communication, written communication, technology, and team skills. Let’s make sure our students understand and acquire these skills. Let’s make sure they leave high school launched on a career training program or working toward a college major that they will love. Let’s NOT have them make and potentially lock themselves into an immature decision.

When students feel that they finally have an answer to that eternal question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” the blinders go on. There is no more motivation to continue to explore options. Let’s, instead, teach them to be open to serendipity – to be available to that exciting, unexpected opportunity that might be waiting just around the next corner.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Celebrating Fringes by Devan Malore

Here in Lexington the city ends and the county starts somewhere on Rt. 11 at a bridge crossing the Maury River.  As someone who lives by that river, I don’t live in Lexington, as much as I live on the fringes of Lexington

 I have a blue metal medallion on my travel bag that says in rough letters, “Fringe.” I got it years ago at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in Philadelphia—a celebration of the fringes in art performance that goes on annually around this time. For two weeks, everyone from naked tuba players to young fit dancers in hammocks swinging from ceilings of old industrial buildings come together in unusual performance venues scattered around the city.

Whole tribes of us fringe folks are marginalized by choice, or by some act of nature. We live on society’s edges, often can’t get a mortgage, so deal with the underground economy of borrow, barter and creative salvage—which is itself trendy now.  Sometimes the fringe life seems to come from being born in the wrong place, wrong time, wrong family.

There’s a story in Hindu mythology that says we know times are changing quickly when more people get born into families they don’t feel they fit in. More freaks emerge to challenge those who can’t see what odd challenging times they live in. Darwin might say fringe dwellers are simply adapting well to change and challenge.

     I have affection and curiosity for city fringes and fringe folks.  Really interesting rusting machinery gets abandoned on city fringes. Even cars, parked as if they were sacrifices to the earth. Fringe flea markets and yard sales give out treasures cheaply. And, fringe folks often live in interesting living spaces.

Fringes are, for some, places to visit, but not to live in. Like middle class white guys wandering into jazz clubs during the Harlem Renaissance. You’re fine going there, having fun, seeing how the other half lives, breaking a taboo. But at daylight, you’re glad to go home and dress for work in an office.

Living on the fringe is risky, but nothing new. There’ve always been struggling artists, eccentrics, religious nuts, manic depressives, intellectuals ahead of their time, computer nerds before there were computers. Thoreau in his tiny cabin, Zen Haiku poet monk in his hut, Bill Gates or Nirvana out in the garage. Most sages, artists, eccentrics, I imagine, don’t get acknowledged. No one knows the name of the guy who invented toilet paper either, something we now can’t imagine living without.

It was great finding the Fringe Festival and exploring it. My faith in the creative potential of  human nature was reinvigorated  God bless the fringes and the freaks. May more of us explore the fringes and may freaks become friends. And please, give us odd artists and dreamers some money for our work!

Some day current fringes may be mainstream. Then, you’d able to say to your kids, “I was part of making change when things got a little rigid, boring, too serious.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Clean Coal" Technology by Sue Gier

Currently, power plants that use coal to generate electricity account for more than 30% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The phrase “clean coal technology” fosters hope that scientists will find a way to take harmful elements, especially carbon, out of coal. We would like to believe that with clean coal technology we could provide the nation with much of the energy needed to power our nation into the future—and be environmentally responsible, as well.

The question is: Can coal be clean? Coal is a fossil fuel. All fossil fuels contain carbon which is released as CO2 into the air and adds to the warming of the earth thereby contributing to climate change. Scientists have worked for decades to make coal clean. Scrubbers have been put on electrical power plants, successfully preventing the release of much sulfur. They have also found ways to capture CO2, but not to store or sequester it safely on a large scale. Some coal plants are experimenting with saline aquifers deep in the ocean, and other companies are considering returning it to the mines from which coal has been removed. But, there are unanswered questions about safety including water contamination, harm to aquatic life and long-term stability.

And then there’s the problem of coal ash. Right now, this non-combustible by-product of coal processing is contained in surface ponds. Federally-mandated coal scrubbers have made our air cleaner but they have also led to higher concentrations of pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, lead, mercury, thorium, and uranium, all of which are currently storied in these “wet dumps.” Last December’s coal ash sludge spill in Kingston, TN—when over 1 billion gallons of sludge surged over 400 acres of watershed—illustrates of the danger these surface ponds.

So how long will this research take? The best estimates of time are ten to twenty years. The coal industry wants to build more plants now, betting that all problems will be solved by the time the plants are constructed. But what if they’re not solved? Dominion Power is currently building a coal-fired power plant in Wise County that, according to an article in Time Magazine, “will emit 5.3 million tons of CO2 a year, roughly the equivalent of putting a million more cars on the road.” (Time/11-17-08).

Those of us representing the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, a group of concerned citizens in the Shenandoah Valley, know that coal is not clean. The technology exists to harness wind and solar power but not produce enough alternative energy to meet our society’s needs. We in the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley believe money and resources would be better spent on this type of research, rather than on clean coal research. We are urging Congress to act swiftly to promote renewable energies that are truly clean. Jobs in the coal industry could be replaced by jobs in clean energy. Because we must sustain our planet, we must choose clean energy—and that’s not coal!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Truthful Trillions by Ned Studholme

We all need to be vigilant, recognize intentional deception, and counter unsupported political assertions with reason and logic when the opportunity arises. I would like to confront the wide spread assertion that President Obama’s proposed programs, including health care, will heap debt on our children and grandchildren from which we will never recover.

Without even discussing these programs and the methods by which we might pay for them, critics use the cost side by itself to obfuscate the true nature of debt, and frankly, to scare people. For this they employ the “T-word”, a trillion dollars. One republican senator recently compared a trillion dollars to the number of seconds in 317,000 years. Forget the fact that 317,000 years contain TEN trillion seconds; I will give him the fact that even 31,700 years is a long time.

Yet what, I ask you, do seconds have to do with dollars? What’s really important to understand in any cost-side debate on health care, is how a trillion dollars of debt affects the American worker and future generations? That is the real question we need to answer.

The truth is that one trillion dollars in debt is easily retired by payments of $39 a month by each member of our existing work force over the standard 30-year mortgage term at 5.2 percent interest. To calculate this yourself, simply divide $1 trillion by 146 million workers and then divide by 182, the value that converts present debt into monthly 30 year mortgage payments.

As stunning as this calculation may be, it is even more surprising that it has not been used by advocates, pundits or the media to explain the meaning of large budgetary figures to the people that pay the taxes. It’s almost as if we are all adhering to some unwritten rules about adversarial discourse by avoiding analyses that use little more than logic and 8th grade math. We worry about “the devil in the details”, forgetting that more often than not the devil does even better in the big picture.

Still, we probably can’t blame the lack of detailed discourse and disclosure just on adversaries with a hidden agenda. The truth is that most people listen to and are engaged by information that is meaningful to them. The challenge of making details meaningful I feel rests with the press. When one side of an argument can get away with obfuscation or intimidation by playing on our aversion to facts and detailed analysis, you can bet that there is a little “constrained” journalism involved in the perpetuation of deception. The press and the populace, it would seem, are equally uncomfortable with the notion that economics, finance and the budgetary process can be dissected and made meaningful with simple math and a little courage.

Challenge the pundit or politician that dwells only in the land of “basic” principles and values while shunning the need to clutter our minds up with analytical details. Reject journalism that fails to dissect vague generalities to confront the truth. Risk making someone in authority angry. The one complaining the loudest is likely to be the devil.
note: if you'd like to check the math in this essay here's a link to a mortgage calculator

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Death Panel Interview by Timothy Hulbert

I recently had my “death panel” interview. Never having any prior first hand experience with such an interview, my reaction was that it went well.

I’m a 57-year-old Irish Catholic from Upstate New York, married, four kids. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. Six years ago I was diagnosed with a rare form of Lymphoma and have had a host of treatments. Each treatment – chemotherapy, radiation, stem-cell transplant, immunotherapy, has worked at gaining some remission for some time – three and a half years the longest stretch.

Now, the beast is back. A sizeable tumor in my colon requires aggressive treatments that “manage,” rather than eradicate the disease. While I expect to be in the 50% group that gets a response, and I’m hopeful of treatments beyond that, it’s time to look at the end-game.

So in between my infusion schedule, I took time to see my general practitioner – about what I thought would be my high cholesterol and high blood pressure. But Doctor Joseph Orlick had a different thought. He has been kept current by Doctor Michael Williams and the oncology team at the University of Virginia, so he knows my condition. Dr. Orlick wanted me to look a little further down the road. We spent an hour together, first chatting then to the hard-to-talk-about stuff.

“Have you done any planning Tim?” he asked. Things you might want to do, finances, your wife Bonnie, your children, your work? I told him I was confident in my will and life insurance, some health care coverage issues, how I’m going to mow the lawn if the side-effects get me, for how long I could do my job, what a funeral would look like, etc.

“I’m staying positive Doc and fighting as long as Dr. Williams has bullets left, but when we’re out of bullets, we’re out of bullets,” I said. “When that time comes, I’m for letting nature take its course.” How might we treat you he asked? Treat pneumonia? Mechanical feeding? Like most people, I’ve only paid abstract, distant attention to such topics.

“No,” I said. “To what end? Sometimes it’s time to pass away; keep me comfortable.” (I’m a 60s kid, I appreciate drugs.) As a Catholic, I believe in natural death – no acceleration mind you, but no extraordinary means to delay my meeting my maker.

This was one the most enriching meetings, which I’ve had on this long strange trip. Like many cancer patients I have found that cancer gives as much as it takes away – love, appreciation of life, a savoring of time, serenity, determination, a different sense of humor.

Leaving the office I said to Dr. Orlick, “so this is my death panel interview? We agreed could not understand why anyone – in Washington or in some zooie town hall meeting – would want to stand in the way of such a comforting session.

Whether these new treatments and drugs work, and I expect them to work their magic, my death panel interview was well worth the price of admission. Amen!

© Timothy Hulbert, September, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Leaving Town for College: A Reminiscence by Grace Ivory Zisk

In 1948, I went from Brooklyn, NY, to an “out-of-town” college, Syracuse University.

I had chosen Syracuse because of its journalism school, and had never actually visited the campus. Nor did my parents drive me up when the school year started; they had no car. I said goodbye to Mom and Dad at home and was on my own with the moving-in process.

Luckily, as it turned out, I was not completely alone—my roommate was to be one of my best friends, Bernice. She and I made the 7-hour trip up to school on the New York Central, each of us with a trunkful of clothes in the baggage car, and more clothes in carry-on suitcases. We took a taxi from the railroad station.

Having grown up in a rather small, railroad-flat type of city apartment, I was really looking forward to my freshman dorm, University I, which the college literature called a “cottage.” The very word “cottage” brought to my mind the mandatory adjective “cozy,” along with an image of red brick, bright shutters, geranium-filled window boxes, and sparkling white ruffled curtains. Sightseeing out the taxicab window, I remember thinking: “This must be the slum part of town,” when the driver stopped and said, “This is it for University I!” This was it?! This was our “cottage?!” The reality was a grimy, mustard-colored three-story clapboard residence that was long past its prime.

Greeting us at the door to help us with our luggage was a smiling Junior Guide. We briefly glimpsed the dark, boxy living room with its threadbare carpet and seedy, mismatched furniture, and then she led us up (and up!) the stairs to our third-floor attic room, all the while “orienting” us to the university. We were so stunned by the shabbiness of the dorm that not a word registered, and our room was a further shock. The one closet for both of us was about two feet wide and four feet deep, with just a curtain for a door. About three feet out from the right-hand wall was a four-inch floor-to-ceiling pipe that connected to the bathroom, which was downstairs on the second floor. On the twin beds were rolled-up mattresses that definitely had seen better days. The windows, of course, were bare.

As our guide chatted on, Bernice and I nodded without hearing or saying a word. My disappointment was so intense, I felt like crying, and I would have if I had been alone. Instead, when our guide finally left the room, Bernice and I burst out laughing. We unrolled the mattresses, fell onto the beds, and laughed until I thought we would burst.

Our laughter proved to be prophetic: we had many good times in that dorm, which housed about 20 freshman girls and turned out to be pretty cozy after all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Scare Tactics and Health Care Reform by Denise Zito

Perhaps one of the saddest facets of the healthcare debate has been its distortion of the provision regarding end of life issues. This compassionate piece of the proposed legislation was employed so successfully as a scare tactic, that it has been removed from the pending legislation.

Let’s look at what was actually proposed and why. Hospitals are financially stressed and under-funded. They can rarely afford the luxury of doing anything for a patient, unless they can charge for it and be reimbursed. This is why the President proposed reimbursing hospitals who offered counseling to patients about end of life issues—the range of options available to them in Intensive Care, Supportive Care, Pain treatment, hospital, home care, nursing home care, and Hospice Care.

Anyone who has been admitted to any hospital in the US in the past five years has been asked if they’d be interested in completing an Advanced Directive. This form lays out a patient’s options for handling their last days and hours. As of now, however, there is no financial support for counseling patients and their families about those options. There is no money in the system to help dying people through the process of deciding exactly how they want to die.

My family was lucky. My sister and I had both worked in hospitals for over twenty years. We knew how to negotiate the system; we knew what was available.
My father had been very clear that he did not want to be kept alive artificially for an extended length of time if there was no hope of recovery. He had completed an Advanced Directive before he was admitted to the hospital for shortness of breath. When he ended up on a respirator in Intensive Care, we were able to show the hospital that this was not what my father wanted. The staff at Martha Jefferson honored my father’s wishes. After his breathing tube was removed, he woke up for an hour and was able to talk with us. Then he died quietly with his family around him.

Shortly after my father died, my mother became ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Within three months she could not speak, eat or drink, but she neither wanted to die in the hospital, nor be put on artificial life support. She chose Hospice Care, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful and moving experiences any of us had ever had. Mom played cards (and won!) the day before she began losing the ability to swallow and breath. Hospice care eased her pain and panic, and she died quietly, at home, with her children around her.

Supporting hospitals in their efforts to explain end-of-life choices to patients who are not well-informed about their available options is one of the most humane things we can do for each other. Those who so vocally criticized that part of the president’s proposal for health-care reform were either misinformed or were deliberately trying to confuse the debate with unfounded fear.

Let’s have real debate on all healthcare reform options. Let’s not employ any more scare tactics.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Health Care Reform and Pre-existing Conditions by Lara Sokoloff

I was listening to one of President Barack Obama's town hall meetings about health care reform on the radio the other day.

This topic is near and dear to my heart. My son is almost three and has multiple developmental delays. He doesn't crawl, walk, talk or chew very well. My son, with his special needs, has to see a lot of specialists We currently have a specially designed stroller that luckily our insurance paid for. Eventually, we will probably need to get him a wheelchair.

My family and I are fortunate because we currently have good coverage, but we live in constant fear of either being dropped because of our son’s pre-existing condition, or losing our insurance entirely (because of job loss), and then being unable to obtain other coverage because of his pre-existing condition.

At this point I, personally, do not really need to worry about health care. For all our financial misfortunes over the years, as a family we have been fortunate enough to have good coverage. Not a so-called "Cadillac" plan, but good enough--maybe more of a "Dodge" plan. We have had a majority of our health care bills taken care of and we have been able to stay out of debt. God willing we will be able to keep this up. However, should my husband lose his job or one of us (god forbid) have a lengthy stay in the hospital then we are done--bankrupt and severely in debt. I suspect that is the truth for many Americans.

. I cannot see into the future. The President’s plan “would require insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions so all Americans, regardless of their health status or history, can get comprehensive benefits at fair and stable premiums." I am all for any reform that allows for health care to cover these pre-existing conditions, for without this kind of
Government-mandated coverage for pre-existing conditions, I worry that if my husband or I were to get another job someday with different health insurance benefits, they would look at our son with his underlying health problems and deny him coverage. What would we do then?

I am very concerned that whatever health care "reform" bill makes it through Congress will not include mandated coverage for him. Right now there are several thousand lobbyists working hard to get their own interests and ideas into the various bills under consideration. Come fall, or whenever the congressional staff goes back to work, the bill that may or may not be passed will be so watered down that maybe if we are lucky, some families will have some benefit from it—and who knows whether one of those families will be mine. I worry most of all that, no matter how hard my husband and I work, we will not be able to afford to give our son the health care he needs.

I know that no country has perfect health care, including this one. We may think we do but we don't. How can we when there are literally millions of families and children without any health coverage? How can we when hardworking families can go into debt just by getting sick? In a perfect health care system, this wouldn't happen. Based on my own experience, I believe we need true reform. Call the President’s plan socialism if you want to, but I would just label it as fair.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Word Games by Janet Miller

I wasn't addicted to playing Scrabble on the computer. Thinking it over, the song by Fiona Apple, comes to mind. “It’s not a habit, it’s cool.”

Here are the facts: I played more than 800 games of Scrabble on my computer and won most of them. I didn't play to win, but to put words together, all 86 delicious tiles worth of them. Then I hit the “Play Again” button and started over.

While thinking about Scrabble, I remembered I had another word game icon on my computer. I check my past scores for Bookworm and realize that my non-addiction to Scrabble was preceded by a non-addiction to Bookworm. In this game, the more points I earned and the more books appear on a bookshelf. There were also burning red tiles that popped up at random. If the evil red tiles were not put into words, they caused the entire game board to burn. While I caused a lot of conflagration, I also racked up some pretty high scores.

Yet surely my intense involvement with those word games was nothing to worry about. It wasn't as though I spent all my time or money consuming cigarettes or alcohol, or buying things on eBay.

Then I remember some of the things going on in my life at the time I began seriously playing word games. A relationship that had lasted more than a decade had recently ended. My mother’s breast cancer had returned. I'd discovered that my mother was drinking again and that I had to assume responsibility for keeping her finances and her life in order. I had felt my own world was disintegrating around me. I would manage to do the things that had to be done, but then I'd escaped to my computer and put letter tiles together. Did that mean I was addicted?

I had no real concept of addiction or substance abuse before I became involved with word games. I think I still believed what my father had believed: If you wanted to stop smoking, you just had to make up your mind. He never understood why my mother continued to smoke, and he certainly had no understanding or tolerance for her alcoholism. Neither did I. Yet as the hours spent playing Scrabble and Bookworm mounted, I what it meant to be truly addicted.

So, I find myself with a life lesson. The truth is I spent a lot of time playing games instead of sleeping, and instead of eating real meals. The truth is I used those games to cope with the overwhelming stress I was experiencing at the time. But I am a lucky one. I have close friends who refused to leave me to my own devices. I met someone who helped me realize how fortunate I was to escape an unhealthy long-year relationship that held nothing for me.

So word games did not take over my life forever--just for quite a long-time. Long enough to give an idea of what it means to be completely dependent on something in order to get through the day.

Hello, my name is Janet and I’m not an addict – but I came really close.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Thoughts on Health Care Reform by Larry Stopper

Every day on NPR we hear stories on the questions surrounding health care. Politicians debate it and health policy experts try to decipher for us what the politicians are doing in their committees. I must admit to being painfully frustrated by much of what I hear on the radio and see in ads on TV. It’s time for citizens to raise their voices in the health care debate.

How many times have you heard in the last few weeks about the problem of putting a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor? I get so angry at this supposed problem that my wife has to ask me to stop shouting. Right now every one of us who pays for our own insurance knows full well that we have an insurance bureaucrat between us and our doctor, and their sole purpose is to help make a profit for their company, not keep us healthy.

When my wife left her state job we were forced to purchase our own health insurance. We shopped around and chose a policy with a high deductible, and a reasonably modest monthly premium. One year later, with no claims against our insurance that reached beyond the deductible, our monthly premium was raised by 37%. With no explanation from our insurance company as to why our premium was being raised, we were left to surmise that our sin, in their eyes, was that we were growing older.

Would I be willing to pay the money I send my insurance company to the government as increased taxes to get a health care system where my well being was the primary concern – no question, yes. I would happily join a government run program where the bottom line was health and not the size of the CEO’s bonus. I don’t really care about his boat payment.

How about the other big threat out there – health care rationing. What baloney. We have that right now and everyone who pays for their own insurance knows it. When my insurance company denied my doctors request for an MRI on my injured shoulder what recourse did I have? I could have appealed or even sued – but who has the time or money for that? And if I won and forced the insurance company to pay, we all know that at the next renewal, they would have dropped me like a hot potato. I would have been off searching for another insurance company to take me, and they would not have covered my shoulder because it was a pre-existing condition.

I try to watch the senators on the Sunday morning programs debate health care, but it’s beyond frustrating. Every one of them has a gold plated insurance plan and has nothing to worry about. The drug and insurance companies make huge campaign contributions to make sure that senators like our own Webb and Warner defend the current for profit system and maintain the status quo.

Government run health care is not a panacea, but it works. Look at Medicaid. It’s a huge, government run health system and it does a fine job. Is it perfect – no. Could it be better – of course. But is it a better system for so many of us who don’t have employer based health care – you bet. What we need is a health system that puts health and prevention before profits, and cares about people and not the insurance company’s bottom line.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Unconstitutional Religious Tests for Political Office by Brian Kaylor

One of the few references about religion in the U.S. Constitution is the declaration that that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Yet, not far from where the primary author of the Constitution lived, such a simple statement is now being ignored.

Augusta County Supervisor Tracy Pyles has attacked the religiosity of fellow Democrat Erik Curren, who is running for the 20th district delegate seat. According to Pyles, Curren is not an acceptable candidate because he follows some Buddhist practices in addition to worshipping in a Christian church. Yet, such issues should be irrelevant when deciding between candidates. What voters should instead consider is who has the better policy proposals and vision to bring about what citizens of the Valley and other parts of Virginia need.

Applying such religious tests for office creates a new class of civic lepers that—as in biblical times—must be avoided at all costs. This exclusionary rhetoric therefore undermines basic American democratic values of equality and freedom. To politically excommunicate a candidate just because we disagree with their religious beliefs is to ignore the wisdom of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Sadly, this current controversy is not the first attempt to find political salvation by urging voters to treat elections as catechism tests. A few years ago, Virginia U.S. Representative Virgil Goode attacked a Minnesota congressman because the man is a practicing Muslim, and Barack Obama faced questions and attacks about his religion throughout the 2008 presidential election. Hopefully, voters in Virginia’s 20th district will stand up against the misuse of religion as a political weapon. After all, such politicization of religion not only undermines democratic principles but also cheapens faith. As a committed Christian and former pastor, I am appalled that someone would treat what I find holy as if it was just another dirty political trick.

Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy faced religious bigotry on the campaign trail. He argued that the questions about his religion took attention away from more important issues. He said he really wanted to focus on “the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms—an America with too many slums, with too few schools.” Virginia voters should focus on similar critical concerns facing us today, rather than the religious practices of candidates. My prayer is that voters would adopt the wisdom of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who suggested he would even support a Muslim leader when he said, “I would rather be governed by a competent Turk than by an incompetent Christian.”

Thursday, July 9, 2009

One Summer's Soul-mate by Martha Woodroof

I spent a summer cooking supper at an artist colony in the Virginia countryside. Robert Johnson was assigned to “train me.” Five minutes after we met, Robert sent me into the pantry after a pot. As I crossed the floor, I heard his voice sing out behind me, “Whoo-wee! She’s got that Chicago walk!”

Robert was the colony factotum. He did anything as long as there was money in it. He cooked, cleaned, transported, mowed grass, posed for visual artists, barbecued. He fleeced the fellows at poker. Then he’d gamble away both his winnings and his earnings down at the local convenience store. “Ooo, do I feel lucky to-night!” he’d say as he left to put in his numbers and lose more money. The colony’s fellows were in awe of him. Robert was the real deal – a wild man, a free spirit, an outlaw – something most of the artists aspired to be, someday, when they could afford it.

A lot of the fellows came from big cities. To Robert, these artists were alien beings, creatures who dressed funny and were disturbed by normal, everyday things like cows and black snakes and tall grass and silence. He found them skittish; euphoric one moment, gloomy the next. “When these peoples gets in a bad mood, I just leave ‘em alone,” he said to me, “or pretty soon we’d have two peoples in a bad mood.”

Since he was a fellow cook, I asked Robert once what he liked to eat. “Tuna fish,” he said. “And corn flakes.”

“What about your vitamins?”

“What’s vitamins?”

For years, I’ve been getting up every morning and writing for a couple of hours – working away on novels no one wants to publish . . . yet. The combination of intense creativity and unforgiving intellectual discipline involved in getting an imagined world exactly right satisfies me as much or more as anything in the real one.

Once that summer, I printed out a draft of a novel and laid the formidable stack of pages on a table in the dining room. Robert stood looking down at them.

“You type all these pages?”


“What you do with them now?”

“I’ll send them to my agent in New York.”

“And that agent, he send you money, right?”

“No. He’ll try to sell the book to someone else.”

Robert shook his head. “Whoo-wee! If I typed all those pages, and I sent them to some man in New York and he kept them but didn’t send me no money, I believe I’d be on the bus!”

This, from a man who regularly lost serious amounts of money on the numbers.

An un-air-conditioned kitchen during the southern summer is a pretty live-and-let-live place. I wrote; Robert gambled. I took my rejections; he took his losses. We both managed to pay the rent and have a pretty good time.

God bless the children that’ve got their own . . .

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Reflections on Omaha Beach…a Pilgrimage by Sam Heatwole

Date of trip to Omaha Beach 6/13/09...65 years and one week after the Allied forces landed there, 6/6/44

When I was a kid, Mom and Dad used to talk about my twin uncles Cloyd and Lloyd. They admired them and said they’d been in WWII. They’d landed at Omaha Beach. As a kid all that meant very little to me except for the fact that they had been REAL soldiers. Kids, boy kids anyway, like to play war, at least they did when I was a kid. I was inquisitive about what it was like to really be a soldier, and who better to ask what it was like than my uncles. So I would ask them about it from time to time, but as I recall it, they said little if anything about it. They would change the subject or give a short answer like… “It was a bad time” or “It was rough…” or something like that.

I remember coming back from a fishing trip with Uncle Cloyd, Cloyd Jr. and Dad, all of us packed in the front of one of the old aqua-colored Harrisonburg Refrigeration Service trucks. I guess I must have been 8 or 9. Dad was driving, I sat next to him, then Cloyd Jr. and Uncle Cloyd at the other window. I said, “Uncle Cloyd, how many Germans did you kill in the war?” My dad put an elbow right through my rib cage!!! I thought I’d never get my breath back. You see, killing and dying in a war for me was sneaking around in my front yard, pretending to see an enemy, shouting “Pow, Pow, kapow, kapow!!!” then jumping up, pretending to get hit, rolling dramatically down the big hill our house sat on and holding my breath, pretending to be dead. I had no idea then…and I still don’t, of the horror, the awful reality of war. Uncle Cloyd didn’t respond to my question. He just looked out of the window and pretended that he didn’t hear me. I never asked him or Uncle Lloyd any thing about the war again…and I think that something of the horror of war was passed along to me that day. I understood that the war experiences of my uncles was a heavy burden…a burden they carried inside…not something to be shared lightly or irreverently. It was not for all to hear. It was theirs to know and to carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Since my childhood, I have only gained more respect for my uncles and the entire generation they represent. There was a moral fiber and grit in them that makes one want to put them under a microscope and analyze how they came to be the kind of people they were, and how they functioned so bravely through a debilitating economic depression and a mechanized war of fearful proportions.

When I found out a few months ago that my wife Deborah and I would be traveling to France again, I knew where I had to go...Omaha Beach. This would be a pilgrimage for me. I prepared for it: I read, I researched, and I bought a new camera. The purpose of a pilgrimage is to pay reverent respect, and that is what I tried to do.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Profession and Identity by Marta Szuba

Who you are and what you do are not mutually exclusive. As a kid my parents told me to choose what you do carefully, it will be your calling card.

It’s taken me a little longer than most to finally figure out what I wanted to do with my life. There have been two marriages, four children, two grandchildren, numerous cats and two dogs. But if you were to ask me to define myself, I don’t believe I’d start with any of those things. I see them as givens, what most people do. They are not what makes me who I am.

If you asked me to define myself, I think I would start with my twenty years as a volunteer and employee in the nonprofit sector. I think of myself as a community educator, someone who seeks to give other people information they can use to make our community a better place to live. Working for non-profits is an iffy sector at best. I expect my salary to be small, but I get great satisfaction from the work. Positions come and go, dependent on the good will of the community and government grants. My jobs have never lasted more than two or three years. There have been lay-offs and pregnancies. My last position ended over a year ago when the funding for my position at the Community Alliance for Drug Resistance Education came to an end. I have not been employed full time in my chosen vocation since then.

It has been difficult loosing that job. Of course there are money issues and thankfully they have not been devastating. Much more complicated and deeply felt has been a sense of personal worthlessness that is difficult to explain. It’s as though my identity as a community educator, an activist--someone who works to improve the place they live— has been somehow damaged by the loss of that position. I don’t easily find words to explain my feelings of loss, self doubt, and hopelessness. But they are pervasive—they creep into my day to day activities. At times, I believe I will never again have a job that allows me to believe I make a difference. It is as though I am a victim of identity theft, but there is no one to whom I can report, and or from whom I can get back what I have lost.

This is not to say that I don’t still carry on working in my community. I continue to volunteer. I have two part time jobs that are somewhat related to what I’ve always done, but there is still something missing to my identity. In the past, I have been in charge shaping the focus of what and where an organization is going. Now that’s over, and I feel adrift, waiting for the wind to blow me in the next direction.

The truth as I have come to see it is that I essentially define myself by what I do and who I associate with. It is a concept that my parents taught me well—maybe too well. I crave that moment when I can once again say what I do. Until then I wait for opportunities and hope that who I am will not slip away. Identity is a precious thing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Raising City Chickens by Brian Martin Burkholder

We chose to live in the city of Harrisonburg to be close to work, for the ethnic diversity and the quality of the schools. But our hearts were in the country. We dreamed of a small place with a few goats, some chickens, a dog or two— maybe, someday, a horse. We also wanted to grow as much of our own food as possible.

On our city lot, we have a small vegetable garden, a few fruit trees and enough yard space for an active dog, but the dream of having egg laying hens would not go away. It suited our desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle. The portable chicken tractor was the key to keeping a few hens in our backyard without causing concern for our neighbors. Soon it was occupied by our new pet hens – Buzz, Woody and Rosie.

Before long, we heard that others who had chickens in the city were receiving letters telling them that they must remove their birds within 30 days or be fined. It surprised all of us. We had searched the city ordinances on-line and had not seen any clear code directly addressing chickens. City officials said it was against zoning regulations to start agricultural practices within city limits. Does this mean we also need to get rid of our garden and fruit trees?

So many people received chicken eviction letters that a group, the Harrisonburg Backyard Chicken Project, formed to convince the city to change the code to allow us to keep small flocks of egg laying hens in portable coops or chicken tractors that can be easily moved about in our yards. We’ve heard concerns about smell, noise, public health related to bird flu, and the fear of property values falling if chickens are in the neighborhood. Most of these concerns are blown out of proportion. Maybe some education based on practice will help?

Those of us who have raised chickens in portable chicken tractors have found that smell is not a problem mainly because we move the coop every day. The droppings dry quickly and help to fertilize the lawn or the garden. Likewise, noise is not of great concern with hens. They don’t not crow like roosters, and they only cackle when joyfully announcing “Look what I did!” after laying their daily egg.

As for public health concerns. Proponents of a pro-chicken ordinance, like me, are concerned about controlling their personal food sources and opponents are concerned about the possibility of a rampant outbreak of bird flu. But because of the way bird flu is transmitted, hens in backyard flocks would have to invite other hens over for birthday parties and sleepovers in order to pass on any virus. They simply are not in close contact with other birds if a chicken tractor is their home.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about property values but I don’t think chickens are more offensive than a loud barking dog next door. During the months we had backyard chickens, three of the houses with lots joining our backyard sold at or higher than market value.

I say, let’s give the chickens a chance. They just might make great neighbors!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Pros and Cons of Air-Conditioning by Theresa Curry

Every year I ponder this question: should I turn on the air conditioning?
It’s easy to do without it at first, when the smell of lilacs and the sound of mockingbirds drift in through open windows. It’s harder later, when writing paper sticks to sweaty hands and mold blossoms in the seams of the shower curtains.
In the city where I grew up, the burning pavement kept the long nights hot. After dinner, my mother headed the five of us towards cold water: the neighborhood pool, a sprinkler, or the lopsided pool in the backyard. On the worst nights, we went to bed still wet, with towels beneath us and noisy fans aimed right at us. My mother spent her early summers in Vermont and she thought heat was more dangerous than a summer cold.
In our large family, with cousins and grandparents often in residence, my 80-year-old grandfather had a rickety window unit because of his age. His closed room seemed clammy to me, smelling of Vicks cough drops and bourbon.
Before my youngest sister left home, my parents installed central air. On visits, I missed the slamming screen door, the nights watching fireflies, the sweaty badminton games. Once there’s cool dry air inside, it seems nobody goes outside.
As a young wife in Southside Virginia, I watched daytime temperatures hit highs that would have alarmed my mother. But at night, the country air always cooled, and I put my own babies to bed much as she had – an evening dip in a wading pool or a tepid bath, and fresh, cool sheets for the cribs. During the day, I adjusted a system of fans and open windows as the sun moved in the sky.
It wasn’t all good, of course. Flies buzzed in through the screens and settled in milk dripped from the children’s cereal. Dogs dragged smelly bits of long-dead animals under the house, desperate for cool dirt. When I hugged my toddlers, I breathed in a smell like vinegar from their sweaty hair.
By the time my children were in school, we moved to a bluff in Virginia’s piedmont, where summer nights cooled off quickly . But there were always a nights when we’d sit in the shallow pool at Rock Mills and let the icy water run over us.
Do the nightingales and the nights in the river balance the flies and the moldy shower curtains? I can’t answer that question. The best answer is: sometimes, sometimes not.
I’m older now, fitful and restless and unduly affected by days that are too cold or too hot. I don’t believe discomfort always has a point, but I do remember the nights when my children were teenagers, and I didn’t sleep well, and what I learned from that.

As I waited for them to come home, dodging deer on twisting mountain roads, I felt smothered by the muggy Virginia night. I was sweaty and anxious, but there was always an end, at least to the heat: midnight, 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM, even 5. Because I woke often, I learned to recognize the wonderful moment every night when the air completely changes, and the breeze blowing across your wet skin is fresh and cool, and as hopeful as the sunrise that follows.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Neither Interrogation, Nor Enhanced: A Media Failure" by Larry Yates

NPR – and all other media – have a responsibility to stop using the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe waterboarding, slamming prisoners into walls, and the like.

Did we accept the term “patriotic defense against spies” for Stalin’s show trials? Should we have adopted “defending states’ rights” as the standard term to describe resistance to integration of schools and public facilities? By allowing one side to define the terms of these historic controversies to their benefit, we would have ceded the debate before the debate began.

Waterboarding is not the enhanced version of interrogation, the “bad cop” end of the spectrum of interrogation. It’s not an interrogation technique at all. It has been rejected as such not only in international law, but by the United States Armed Forces. The U.S. military’s rejection of waterboarding was not due to tender feelings. This is a body that’s prepared to use nuclear weapons, after all. The U.S. military simply determined waterboarding did not accomplish the purpose of military interrogation - gaining information that can be reliably used to guide military actions.

Torture’s historic practitioners, mostly the kings and priests of despotic regimes, used it to demonstrate their power over their subjects. They were seeking submission –not just from those they actually tortured, but from the many more that knew they could be tortured. free societies reject such a goal

Of course, some uninformed people may actually believe they will gain valuable information from torture. This may well have been the case with some officials under the previous administration, who had neither military nor law enforcement experience. That administration was, after 9/11, in a national security situation far beyond its competence, as indicated by their apparent belief that starting an unrelated war was a good move. Turning to a military survival school and using worst-case enemy practices as a model does seem to be a sign that decision-makers were both desperate and clueless.

The sincerity of the torturers, however, is not the issue. Many of those who conducted the Stalinist show trials were sincere Soviet patriots. Many white southerners genuinely believed that Western Civilization was at risk if the local McDonalds was integrated. In neither case were journalists, or the rest of us, required to accept their versions of the facts, or to adopt their self-justifying language.

What could replace the easy phrase, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” for journalists? The most honest approach would be simply to name the methods, such as waterboarding and beating prisoners. When the precise activities are not known, they could simply be described as “previously forbidden practices.” Or we could simply bite the bullet and call torture, torture. That’s what the United States did when it hanged Japanese soldiers who practiced waterboarding on U.S. prisoners of war.

Our press is doing us no good, nor is it practicing fairness, by persisting in using the factually incorrect phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Instead, reporters and editors are adopting the rhetoric of one of the parties in a vital national debate. If, in the future, torture becomes the new global standard, increasingly used against U.S. troops and U.S. citizens, as well as more overtly and commonly by our own forces, it will be in part because our media helped to cheat us of the honest and fact-based debate we badly need to have today.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

True Stories of Life in a Foster Family by Ralph Berry

This story aired on WMRA's Civic Soapbox.

"There was once a little girl who was sexually abused by someone in her family. Child Protective Services removed the little girl from her home and placed her with a foster family. The wise foster mom knew she had to help the little girl feel safe so that she could win her trust and help her to heal. The little girl was afraid of taking a bath in the bathtub (this is where the sexual abuse had taken place) so the foster mom said she could take a sponge bath in her bedroom instead. Every night for months the foster mom would spread a towel on the little girl’s bedroom floor and help her take a bath.

One day the foster mom asked the little girl what would make her feel safe taking a bath in the bathtub. The little girl replied that she didn’t want any lights on in the bathroom and that she wanted her foster mom to stay with her and to lock the door once they were inside. The foster mom asked if she could at least put a candle in the corner of the bathtub so that they wouldn’t fall over something and the little girl agreed. Every night for months the foster mom would go into the bathroom with the little girl and lock the door behind them, while the little girl took her bath.

One day, while the little girl was taking a bath, she said she had something to tell her foster mom but she wanted her to turn around and look the other way first. So the foster mom sat down facing away from the little girl and the little girl told about the abuse she had suffered. She asked her foster mom not to tell anyone. The foster mom explained that she had to tell the little girl’s Children’s Services worker but would not tell anyone else. Every night at bath time the little girl told her foster mom the same story about the abuse, for this is one way children heal from their hurts. The little girl’s therapist and Children’s Services worker realized that the little girl might never tell anyone else about the abuse so they trained the foster mom what to do to help the little girl heal. Whenever the little girl would tell about the abuse her foster mom would put her story into words and feelings. “That would have scared me,” “That would have made me angry, how did that make you feel?” the foster mom would ask the little girl.

One evening, a year later, as they were preparing for the little girl’s bath the little girl told her foster mom that she didn’t have to come into the bathroom with her when she took her bath anymore. The little girl turned the light on in the bathroom, went in alone and closed the door.

The little girl’s parental rights were eventually terminated and the foster family was able to adopt her. The “little girl” has since grown up and graduated from high school last spring. She was accepted by four different universities!!!!"

This story is a bonus one for the WMRA website from Mr. Berry.

"As we concluded our training to be foster parents the Children’s Services worker started indicating to us that they thought they had a child who would fit well in our home. This little boy was eight years old and had been back and forth between birth parents and foster families--but they were really hoping for a "forever" home for him. We got very excited and were hoping this would be the right match. How do you ever really know about these things except to trust and pray? Well, after a difficult several weeks waiting for my finger prints to clear we finally got the "thumbs up" to take this little boy. Now, as is true for many foster kids, his stuff came to us in garbage bags. We had a few hours to get his stuff unpacked before he arrived with the Children’s Services worker. As we were unpacking his stuff we found a number of stuffed dinosaurs. As we set these around his room I came upon one that stood out. It was a teal colored stegosaurus made of chintz fabric. As I tossed it onto the bed I commented to my husband that it looked like one our birth daughter had had many years ago. Once the room was put together I sat down on the bed to think about the changes that were about to happen in our life. After being empty nesters for almost 8 years we were opening our home to a hyperactive 8 year old boy. Once again, I wondered, how do you know if it's the right match? I picked up the teal dinosaur and held it as I thought more about this. At that moment I noticed the tag on the teal dinosaur--written in sharpie were the initials A and B. Well, I had my answer--this WAS the dinosaur that had belonged to our daughter years ago--those were her initials. It had migrated to a thrift shop when she cleaned out her room to set up her first apartment and now it had found its way back to us in the few things owned by this little boy. Over the years we faced some hurdles, but the joy he has brought us has far outweighed these challenges. We are glad to say he found his 'forever home.'"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Medical Perfection by Dr. Ben Brown

At the end of last year, then president-elect Barack Obama’s health care transition team asked citizens to organize Health Care Community Discussions. Their purpose? To gather ideas from Americans across all walks of life about how our health care system could be reformed. Having been a rural family doctor for over 25 years I think such discussion is urgently needed. Each day I see my patients struggle to pay medical bills. I also see the losses they suffer when they cannot.

Eighteen people with a variety of experiences and interests came together in our community health care center in Nelson County, VA. to work through the Obama transition team’s agenda.

We first focused on the need for elimination of the greed motive in medicine. It seemed fair to us, that the profit motive should be limited when applied to the relief of human suffering. We recognized universal health care coverage as a right, much as education is considered a right. We also saw a public health campaign to improve diet, physical activity and living attitudes as key to reducing health care costs. I was surprised and pleased to hear broad support for a single payer system.

As I left the meeting, I felt there was still a difficult issue which we had not touched: the question of overuse in health care. There is an unrecognized trend in modern medicine which occurs at the nexus of media, doctors, courts and patients and leads to a significant and growing waste of health care dollars.
Of course, doctors want to give the best possible care, and also worry about being sued for neglecting to run more tests and procedures, many of which are expensive and make little difference. Patients want to believe they are getting the latest in health care, and are heavily influenced by the popular media. The media feels it is doing a public service by reporting about medical advancements and the newest drugs.

We, as patients, now expect a lab or radiology study in order to make medical decisions once made on the basis of clinical judgment. Whereas once we relied on a primary care doctor to reassure us, we now want a specialist to answer the questions raised by friends or from what we read online. And finally, malpractice juries understand one person's loss more easily than the statistics of evidenced-based medicine.

This all leads to patients receiving excessive, inappropriate and overly expensive medical care.

When do we reach the point of diminishing returns? What about treatment plans that lead to very little improvement in health care despite their excessive cost? Could those extra health care dollars, save and improve more lives if used differently?
In the real world, dollars spent on one person's quest for medical perfection cannot be spent on another's basic needs, and dollars spent in extending the last few days of life cannot be spent on helping others have healthier and more productive lives. These trade-offs matter.

Yes, let’s take care of the greed motive, simplify our system and give everyone a basic health care plan. But there is a component that the media, the malpractice system, the doctors and the people as patients have to face up to as well: When we demand too much for our single self, it means less for others.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Serial Churchgoer" by Carolyn O'Neal

I am a serial churchgoer. A pious, non-threatening version of the serial killer. Like my dastardly counterpart, I have a specific pattern: I stalk my victims, plan my attack, collect mementoes and then move on to my next target, leaving confusion in my wake.

I began my life of serial churchgoing when I moved from the San Francisco Bay area. Church in California is different from church in Charlottesville. In California, I considered myself an oppressed minority. I didn’t go to one of the hundreds of Catholic Churches in the Bay area. Nor did I belong to any of the innumerable cults, sects or whatevers. In California, I was a Protestant. The Episcopal Church I belonged to campaigned for gay rights because we knew what it felt like to be outsiders.

Then I moved to Virginia and began attending a local Episcopal Church. It was packed. I was greeted with smiles and welcomes and please come backs. The church was beautiful. Actually, everyone was beautiful. Lovely and trim with perfect hair and teeth. Except me. In the pew was a little card for visitors. I dutifully filled it out and about a week later received a post card from the church. It was beautiful.

I next tried one of the big Baptist Churches downtown. It was packed. Again, smiles, welcomes and please come backs. I dutifully filled out the visitors’ card. A few hours later, I received a phone call, then a personal visit in my home from two nice smelling gentlemen with full heads of hair. They gave me literature and asked if I had questions. I told them I thought Jesus was wrong when he condemned both divorce and washing your hands before you eat and that I believed in legalizing gay marriage. They never came back.

Seeking anonymity, I decided next time I would not fill out the visitor’s card. I stalked another large downtown church. Its parking lot was full of BMW’s and giant range rovers. Oh my. I’d have to buy a new wardrobe. I’d have to park blocks away from the church. This was a real problem. How could I park blocks away and still wear high heels?

I had to find either a laid back popular church in which I could wear my Nike’s or an unpopular church where I could park close to the front door and wear high heels. I drove around searching for my next victim. Oops, I mean my next visit.

I finally found one--a quiet church with few cars parked in the lot on Sunday morning. It wasn’t packed. I was greeted with smiles and welcomes and please come backs by elderly ladies with blue hair. I looked around. Everyone was twenty years or more older than me, and since I’m over fifty, that’s saying a lot.

My search continues.

What have I learned from this experience? Protestant Christianity in the south is too easy. There are too many churches and if you don’t like one because of the preacher or the parking or the people, you can drift away and find another a block down the road. Maybe if there were only one or two Protestant Churches in all of Albemarle County, I could settle down. Maybe then I’d be happy because I’d be oppressed minority again.

Maybe I should become Catholic.


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