Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Horatio Alger, Redux" by Ed Dooley

The spirit of Horatio Alger is alive and well and living in Scotland. Its persona, this time, is female, and it has a name: Susan Boyle.

There may be some people who have not heard of Boyle, but that is becoming increasingly hard to imagine. She is the 47 year old rather frumpy, obscure woman from a Scottish village who on Saturday the 11th of April astonished the judges and audience of the television program Britain’s Got Talent with her singing. Her performance on Internet site YouTube has been watched more than 100 million times, nearing an all-time record.

Is this phenomenon, as so many have suggested, merely an emotional response to the hard times the world is going through? Is she a symbol of the good and the true triumphing over insurmountable odds? Do we like her because she makes us “feel good” about ourselves? Based on the thousands of warm responses to her performance, the answer to these questions is “yes.”

But I think much more is going on here, something that touches on a theme deep in our culture. The hugely popular early nineteenth century American author Horatio Alger filled his books with stories of humble people who, by hard work, virtue, and strength of character rose to prominence and success. Like Alger, Victorian writers in Britain praised good work, honestly done, and strength of character. Although these authors are not much read these days, the dream of “rags to riches” continues to ring true to us and is reflected in Susan Boyle’s own story: wholesomeness, morality, strength in the face of adversity, determination, perseverance, and an unflagging pursuit of a dream. It surely can be no accident that Boyle chose to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical “Les Miserables” at her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.

On another level, Susan Boyle’s story is a modern fairy tale, a version of an age-old tradition in poetry, literature, and ballad: an unprepossessing individual who blossoms into someone very special. Homer, we are told, was ugly and blind but became the great epic poet of Greece. Cinderella was translated from kitchen maid to beautiful princess. “The Ugly Duckling,” a character made part of our literature in 1843 by the Danish poet Hans Christian Andersen, was shunned by other animals because of his ungainly form but matured into a beautiful swan. Boyle’s story is that of “the ugly duckling.” Her plain appearance led judges and the audience to expect nothing much from her. On stage, her hairdo was forlorn and her dress unbecoming. She modestly said that she “had never been kissed.” But as soon as she began her song, the “ugly duckling” became a beautiful singing bird.

Susan Boyle comes along at just the right time when, in the Western world especially, there is a graying of the population. At a relatively late age, she is living out her dream and achieving widespread popularity. She has become an inspiration to legions of older individuals who feared that “it might be too late in life” for them.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon has taken us by storm. Her fame may be temporary, but it touches on themes found deep in our psyche and has been there for hundreds of years, in good times and bad.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Emotional Little Essay on Words that Begin with the Letter “E” by Val Matthews

I have recently been reading a few books on Evolution and this has lead me to consider human Existence on our tiny planet Earth with it¹s fragile Environment.. I am worried about our Expanding population and the increasing need for sources of Energy. It seems Elementary to me that we should try and use Energy more Efficiently because Expansionist policies of controlling Energy sources so often lead to conflict.

One of the Earliest words I taught my children was Escalation, as in “He hit me first, so then I hit him back, so he hit me harder.” And so on and so on. Hopefully that word still lurks in the back of their minds. In the adult world of nations that does not seem to be a familiar word -- attack follows attack, wars lead on to other wars, and so on and so on, without apparent End.

Then there is the murky question of Ethics. Even in war time it does not seem Ethical to me to drop a huge bomb on a city and kill thousands of innocent people. It is certainly not Ethical in peacetime to attack a building and kill thousands of innocent people. I struggle with the Ethics of the very personal act of killing by a suicide bomber and the seemingly impersonal act of killing by an unmanned drone operated from a faraway country..

There is an Elite club of countries who are apparently responsible enough to possess nuclear weapons. There are Enough of those weapons around to Exterminate our species many times over., not to mention Every other species as well. I wonder whether humans will Ever become Enlightened Enough, Ever be able to Educate themselves Enough to Eliminate war and its causes or are we heading inexorably to our End.?

What is good, what is Evil? Do I dare to Envision a time when that question will be set aside, because world leaders are Energized in an international Effort to plan for coexistence instead of Extinction?

I'm Val Matthews and I am an Elderly resident of Albemarle County.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Rehab for Humanity" by Harvey Yoder

Here’s an idea for challenging economic times I’ve been mulling around for some time. In a time when the building industry is in a slump and construction workers are hungry for work, why not launch a community wide effort we might call “Rehab for Humanity - A Community Energy-Saving Initiative”?

The goal of this movement would be to promote the renovation of as many area homes and other buildings as possible to make them more energy efficient, and to help people accomplish this as cost effectively as possible.

A part of a strategy to accomplish this might involve urging local banks to provide special rehab loans at affordable rates for approved individuals, with repayment plans based in part on resulting energy savings.

It would also involve forming an advisory and oversight group to determine eligibility criteria for low-cost loans and grants, including the availability of some of the billion dollars that will supposedly be available as a part of the new stimulus package. This group would also enlist home inspectors trained to do energy audits and cost estimates for interested home owners, help homeowners connect with reputable local bankers and builders for competitive bids, and advise individual persons on tax and other available benefits in doing their home improvement projects.

The benefits, from my perspective, are obvious. We would be promoting improvements that can eventually pay for themselves, help provide a grassroots-based stimulus to our local economy and the larger US economy, and contribute to good outcomes like a cleaner environment and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and to our becoming a more energy sustainable, energy conserving, and energy conscious community.

In addition, industries that manufacture replacement windows and storm door, insulation and related materials would benefit, and a spin-off might be increased investments in more energy efficient lighting, appliances and heating and cooling equipment.

Most folks I’ve talked to seem to agree that it’s a good idea, if we can just get enough good leadership and a community-wide effort to get it going.

If we’re really interested in a green and clean future, and are serious about wanting to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, it would be shame to have even one construction worker idle or underemployed while there is even one building in the area that is wasting energy into thin air.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"A Challenge" from Mary Anna Dunn

I am sorry. I really don’t understand. I always thought this was what we were supposed to be doing.

Pay as we go. Put something away for retirement. Don’t buy what we don’t need and when we do buy: reduce, reuse, recycle. Now they tell me our family’s irresponsible habits are destroying the economy.

A recent article in The Washington Post lamented—lamented!—the reduction of waste entering a northern landfill. This was taken as a sign of our failing economy— evidence that consumers no longer replace things that still work. Apparently our anguished economy simply cannot support this kind of unbridled self-restraint.
We’ve got to borrow more money so we can spend more money. We need to buy wider, flatter televisions; cell phones that file our taxes for us, fold our laundry, and put our children to bed at night; houses big enough to host shipbuilders’ conventions.

If we don’t borrow more, if we don’t spend more, people will lose their jobs. I don’t want people to lose their jobs. I cringe at the factory layoffs in Detroit and around the world. Hey, we put 180,000 miles on our last car. What have I done to our economy?

Won’t someone please tell me that it’s good news when American’s put 5% of their earnings in savings, keep useable electronic equipment out of landfills, and most days pack a lunch before leaving for work in the morning.

Is unrestrained consumerism the only model for a strong economy? Can’t we somehow develop and maintain economic habits of self-restraint and personal responsibility and still gainfully employ enough people to support and nurture a world population approaching 7 billion people. Can we, in the end, support and nurture 7 billion people if we don’t evolve a post-consumerist economy?

We have to find some other way. A way that navigates between parsimony and opulence, employs without destroying, saves without hording. Can you tell me what this is? I need your help, because I really don’t know. But I do know that this economic down turn can offer us a time for reflection and redirection, or it can just represent one more iteration of the last century’s cycles of consumerism and recession.

I want to believe we can re-emerge from this recession with a cleaner and more mature mechanism for economic growth. Help me with this, please. Today I am issuing a challenge essay. Tell us what you think. Start the dialogue. Write to Civic Soap box with your ideas for a new, sustainable and responsible economy.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Friday, April 4th, 2009

All in a Day's Work by Ellen Adams

Farming has its rewards. A predictable day is not one of them. Summer chores are in full swing--a hundred bales of hay need to be moved just as the next farm’s promiscuous bull and his harem come to call. The fence between our two properties can’t keep two black angus bulls apart once they decide to butt heads and vie for male dominance. My husband, Buddy, strides out the door, clearly annoyed. Our neighbor never hurries to retrieve his happy wanderers.

On this hot summer day, our own cattle would have contentedly hung out in the shaded backwoods, well away from Buddy’s hay moving operation. Now that company has arrived, however, they’re eager to socialize. All those cows milling around will mean countless opening and shutting of gates for Buddy.

The phone rings. My mother-in-law is offering to share a pail of freshly picked cherries. Up at the old farmhouse, I find her giving Granddaddy an earful, while he leans on his cane. It seems he has a plan to keep the home team separate from the trespassers. All he needs to do is move our cattle into the orchard and close the gate. “See?” he says, “They’re standing right there.”

Granddaddy heads off toward the orchard on his 94-year-old legs. Grandma says he won’t be satisfied until he takes a fall and hurts himself. Then what will they do?

Hours later, a rusty pick-up truck parks in the shade of a walnut tree. Our neighbor and his helpers have finally come over to begin the roundup. Men and cattle commence running every which way. From a nearby field, Buddy leans against the tractor’s open door, taking in the show. He knows those wily animals have no intention of walking back the way they came.

Remembering Granddaddy’s plan, I glance out the window. Sure enough, the orchard gate is now closed. But do I see large red ear tags mingling with small orange ones? I believe so. Apparently the cattle Granddaddy corralled in there weren’t all ours.

In the end, Buddy and our neighbor give up on separating the two herds in the open. Sorting must be done in the barnyard - one by one. This is going to be a long evening.

My husband and I can expect other days such as this one, where things won’t go as planned, where hay won’t be hauled, dinner will be late, and catching a little of the US Open Golf Tournament on that fancy flat screen TV will have to wait. Over the years, Buddy and I have been tempted to pack our bags, to move away, to take life a little easier. But like the generations of family before us who have called this place home for more than two centuries, we’ve discovered our roots sink deep into the soil beneath our feet. We want to preserve and protect our piece of family history. We know that nothing lasts forever. We can feel the winds of change. Buddy and I may very well be the last generation to live here on the farm. But, at least in our lifetime, we will say with satisfaction, "We choose to stay.”


About Me

I write for lots of different venues, so this blog provides links to those places. Plus, occasionally, stuff that appears no where else . . .