Friday, May 21, 2010

The Civic Soapbox essays have moved . . .

They will now proudly be posted every Friday on the WMRA blog, which seems to get much more traffic. It's, hopefully, a way to get these fine listener essays more readers!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Turning into our Mothers by Diane Farineau

“I’m turning into my mother!” my friend exclaimed, a few weeks ago on one of our long Sunday runs. She had just been talking about something she’d said to her son. We laughed and rolled our eyes in unison. Our mothers come up a lot during these run. It seems we are both actively turning into them.

A few mornings later, I was out early watering plants before I left for the day. As I dragged the hose around the garden I was conscious of the silence, the calm, the sense of peace. My children were asleep, and there’s nothing wrong yet. Everything was as it should be. I was at one with my yard, my planet. But then I realized we were not alone, Mother Nature and I. There was another mother present, my own. I remembered her doing this when I was a child, being up, out in the garden and back in again before my brothers, sister and I ever woke.

As I stood in the soft loam and dewy grass, I realized that I have indeed become my mother. It wasn’t just this gardening piece, it was other things….big things like my need for order, my desire to make things right. It was little things, like planning and making lists and even the running, which she too, took up later in life.
What is it about becoming our mothers that makes us roll our eyes? Even though I’ve long since shed my awkward teenage years, when for example, my mother had routinely been right in pointing out that the outfit I’d selected was going to turn out to be inappropriate, she still, to this day, has the power to reduce me to uncertainty with just a look. And she still OFTEN knows what is best for me.

Standing there in my yard, it hit me hard that becoming my mother was actually a blessing. I have been fortunate to have her by my side, even when at a distance, for 45 years. I have incorporated her wisdom, her habits, her quirks, her loves – even her dislikes—into the fabric of my own being. I could suddenly see from this vantage point that my mother’s life has been a trail of trinkets, dropped along the path for me to gather, and if I could, keep.

Someday my mother will be gone, which scares me because I think I will not, possibly, be able to function without her physical presence in my life. And yet, I realized that she cannot ever leave me completely because she is now a part of me. I am becoming my mother and I will never again roll my eyes when that thought comes to me. Because I know now that this what will keep me from coming apart at the seams when she is no longer able to walk through the garden with me.

                              --Diane Farineau is a writer living in Charlottesville

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Springfest vs. Volunteerism by Mike Grundmann

When the Springfest riot broke out in Harrisonburg on April 10, the opposite kind of activity was going on across town, and JMU students were at the center of both. Dozens of students were helping with the annual Blacks Run cleanup, where almost 3 tons of trash were collected.

The nest day 35 members of the JMU swim club helped the city clean up the Springfest garbage the next day.

There have been plenty of shame-on-yous leveled by JMU community members after Springfest: President Rose and a professor both wrote a scalding letters to the student newspaper, The Breeze, and at least two students wrote confessional pieces. Dozens of readers added their comments. The Breeze also probed the riot’s causes in a piece on mob psychology.

The following week, a group of students spontaneously formed to start patching up relations with the city and offer volunteer work. The group members are talking with city leaders so its volunteer efforts can be meaningful.

I’m the Breeze faculty adviser, so pardon me if I cite a few stories just from this semester, which prove the altruism permeating the student body. After the Haitian earthquake, a group struggled desperately to reach its $30,000 fundraising goal. A 25-hour basketball game raised money for orphans in Mozambique as well as the local Boys and Girls Clubs (one organizer played for 18 hours). An airplane-pulling contest raised money for a city mediation center. The women’s lacrosse team served a Sunday meal at the Salvation Army. The annual Relay for Life, a cancer-benefit walk that’s an overnighter, drew about 2,000 people and raised more than $150,000.

Just using examples from my own journalism classes this semester, one student spent spring break helping the homeless in Nashville, and another helped build a shelter for homeless teen girls in Belize.

It’s not just volunteer hours that JMU students contribute. The university is also a lab for the kinds of technology that will save the world. One student in 2008 invented a new type of concrete mixer that will raise the standard of living in a Ugandan village. An electric motorcycle that students built has set a speed record. Students are also designing bicycles that disabled people can ride. Others are experimenting with nanotechnology, which will produce eventual wonders in medicine, manufacturing and space travel. There’s a lab with printers, quote-unquote, that make 3-D objects; the prediction is that we’ll all have such printers at home in 10 years. And, from the president on down, there’s a major push to minimize waste in energy and materials. JMU just won a governor’s award for that

I’m continually impressed by how many of my students list activity or office-holding positions on campus, the vast majority of them service-oriented.

Did some of these same students also attend Springfest? Yes. Did they throw bottles? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

I’m not saying all this because I’m the booster type. I’m a journalist by training, and you know how skeptical we can be. I’m doing this because the Springfest riot really surprised me, and I wanted you to know why I was surprised.

    -- Mike Grundmann teaches journalism at J.M.U. and advises the Breeze, the student newspaper.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caring for Aging Parents by Karen O'Neil

On the evening my mother died alone in a retirement home in Chicago, I was 1500 miles away in Austin, Texas standing in line with our eight year old grandson waiting for Rick Riordan to autograph the very latest in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

It was one of those perfect May days. I’d stopped to have coffee at an outdoor cafĂ© and treated myself to the Times crossword. Dawdling in the morning was the first course of what felt like the feast of life in Austin, beautiful weather, beautiful grandchildren, enough work to be interesting, but not enough to be stressful. In what still felt like real life, the one from which I had just retired as English teacher and college counselor in Charlottesville, by this hour I would already have taught a class, answered emails, and tried to soothe a handful of worried parents. Here in Austin I was sitting on a sunny patio, gazing at a skate boarder with puffy dreadlocks sailing cheerfully past. No one seemed in a hurry, least of all me.

I’d made a point of calling Mother as I sat there, a daily ritual, one usually performed in the evening, but that I’d somehow neglected the night before. If Mother was disappointed , she didn’t say so. She rarely complained, although everything that had kept her going was now gone– her husband of almost 75 years, the family that now sprawled across the country, her capacity to read and write. At 99 she had become almost totally dependent on others.

Struggling to hear her murmured words, it was easy to forget she’d taught until she was 90, consulted until 95, authored two books, nurtured three generations , and thrived as partner in an exemplary marriage. Often I would find myself almost literally shouting over the phone, trying to make myself heard across a rapidly thickening wall of separation. And often, honestly, I was relieved to hang up.

I hadn’t known that morning that Mother’s and my brief conversation would be our last, that she’d sleep through most of the day, and grow increasingly unresponsive. If I’d called the night before I might have captured her for just a moment by reading from the volume of poetry that I kept by the phone for that purpose, knowing that shared words could almost always draw her back into life. But I hadn’t called, and not for any complicated reason. I was just plain tired. Weary. Weary of monitoring high blood pressure and low, weary of falls and infections, weary of fearing the sound of the phone and keeping a packed suitcase beside the bed. Weary especially of the endless question of whether I was doing it well enough -- fulfilling this unexpected assignment of helping my parents through the ends of their lives.

Oh, I knew then, know now that none of us had cause for complaint. My parents had had long life, good health until the end, ample resources. I wasn’t wrong to revel in a perfect May day, to choose the company of an appreciative eight-year-old, to postpone my next visit just a little longer. Surely the choices I made that sunny Austin day were exactly the ones I hope our own children will make some day. Or so it seems now.

                                 -- Karen O'Neil lives in Charlottesville

Thursday, April 15, 2010

About Virginia's New Slogan . . .

As a social worker, I serve Central Virginia residents who have children with Intellectual disabilities (formerly called Mental Retardation). In this capacity, I sometimes get calls from families who are thinking about moving to Virginia. They want to know what State funded services and support, such as daytime activities, group homes, or respite, might be available for their disabled children. In the past, while I could rarely promise immediate access to such services, I could at least tell them about getting on waiting lists for them and what their wait times might be. This year, I can’t offer even this because in the proposed budget of the General Assembly, the 40 Community Service Boards in Virginia will not be getting any money for people on the waiting list.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we were also informed that the reimbursement rate for services – what Medicaid pays for them– will probably be cut by 5%.This is a huge cut for the agencies providing group home and day support services, and may force some of these centers to close. The bottom line? In Virginia, it may mean an increase in the populations of the training centers (also called institutions) because there will be nowhere else for people to go. I have been in this field for 20 years. I have seen the positive changes that adequate funding can provide: safe places to live, jobs that are meaningful, recreation and leisure supports, transportation, and other opportunities that those of us without disabilities take for granted. I have also seen the devastation to families and individuals when there are no resources because there was no money allocated in the state budget to extend services to more people.

I understand that this year the Virginia Legislature faced a huge budget deficit and cuts had to be made. I am not upset because I haven’t had a raise in 5 years or because I’m expected to do more work. I am upset because there are so many families who desperately need services for their adult children with Intellectual Disability and won’t get them. I am also embarrassed by Virginia’s rating in an annual report that ranks states on the funding provided to people with developmental disabilities – number 41 out of the 50 states. These cuts will, in all likelihood, move Virginia even further down on this scale, to 45 or 46.

How do I tell THE 200 PLUS families in this area alone who are already patiently waiting for state services that the reality is that their child may have to go live in an institution because there is no money to pay for a group home? How do I tell the single mother of a son with Down syndrome that when he graduates from special education, that he will not be going to a daytime activity center, which means she must quit her job because he can’t be left unsupervised during her work hours?

I recently heard that Virginia was changing its slogan from “Virginia is for Lovers” to “Virginia is for Families.” This statement needs to be amended to make it clear that for those with disabled children, Virginia is not for your family.

                           -- Ruth Ewers is a social worker and writer living in Nelson County.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

an unruly comment . . .

Martha, here: I posted a really nice response to Val's essay from the Stuarts Draft postmaster, Kevin Blackford,  on the WMRA blog. 

I couldn't get it to post as a comment, so the WMRA blog was plan B.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Postal Lament by Val Matthews

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That the United States Postal Service would have such a motto, just added to the romance and excitement of emigrating to America.

I grew up in South Africa, and emigrated to the United States when I was a married woman of about thirty-five. All those years in South Africa and I have absolutely no recollection of how our mail was delivered, no recollection of any particular mailmen or postmen as we would have called them, no picture in my mind even of what a South African mailbox looked like.

So in our house north of NY city we were very excited by our mailbox and the fact that we could put letters into the box and raise the little flag and the mailman would pick up our letters and deposit our new mail. We came to know and love our mailman -- he was with us for the eleven years we lived in that house. I remember him coming to the front door once with a letter one of my children had written, and telling me that the post office wouldn’t mail it. The stamp had been licked so thoroughly that the glue had all gone, and cellotape fixed the stamp to the envelope. He waited while I put on a fresh stamp.

After some years back in South Africa we moved to downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. Once again a friendly and obliging mailman was our friend for six years and when we moved out into the county, he passed the word to the mailman he knew would be serving us at our new address.

We were now living on a large bit of land and knew none of our neighbours – in fact they did not know that the farm had changed hands. So guess who passed the word? Our new mailman. Without him I wonder how long it would have taken for us to meet our neighbours. I called him a community builder – he admitted that perhaps he became too involved in matters of the community, but his heart was in the right place.
Now, sadly, the postal service is struggling and has to cut back. So much mail and parcel delivery is now being done through Fedex or UPS, so many bills are paid on line. I still receive bills in my mailbox and make payment in the old way, but most of my mail is junk and goes straight into recycling. Fewer and fewer people send actual letters or Christmas cards –email is easier.

Saddest of all, many of the older career mail delivery people have been ‘encouraged’ to take early retirement, so our mailman has gone. I no longer know who puts the mail in my mailbox and certainly they never bring a parcel to the door, perhaps just as an excuse to have a quick chat. Or bring some note or present that has been dropped in my box just to check and see that it’s not something weird. Or to suggest that leaving mail overnight in my box is not a wise idea.

It does seem rather sad that as society advances, and becomes more efficient and cost saving, so the little personal civil contacts and services that make life pleasanter, tend to disappear.

                                                                   --Val Matthews lives in Albemarle County

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Truth and Politics in the Shenandoah Valley by Andy Schmookler

For eighteen years, I’ve conducted conversations –on the biggest AM radio station in the Shenandoah Valley—about issues that divide Americans. With regret, in recent years I’ve had to change my posture in these conversations.

For the first decade, I saw these public discussions as a means to help heal the increasing polarization of our nation. Both sides had a piece of the truth so I felt we Americans should seek together a higher wisdom that integrates the partial truths of both conservative and liberal viewpoints.

“We should talk with each other in a spirit of mutual respect,” I’d say in my shows. “As if we might actually learn from each other.”

But since then, something’s happened on the “conservative” side of the divide to prevent that kind of conversation.

I still see my interlocutors as fine people, operating in good faith on the basis of their understanding. But that understanding has been twisted by propagandists who are not operating in good faith.

Political forces that have taken over the right have created a system of misinformation in which anything can be said to gain political advantage –no matter how false, or how much fear or hatred it provokes.

Politics is always less than fully honest, but never before in American history has the effort to deceive been so pervasive at our political center stage. These lies poison the “marketplace of ideas” on which our democracy depends.

At the local level, this Culture of the Lie has made me reconsider how to do constructive work in my modest role conversing across the widening split in our body politic.

I can’t talk “as if we might learn from each other” when the other side of the conversation starts with “facts” like that our president was born in Africa and so cannot legitimately hold that office. Or the Democratic Party’s proposal for health care reform contains “death panels.” Or Obama’s coming after our guns, or the Stimulus did nothing for jobs.

The list of such falsehoods grows virtually daily, each one a barrier to meaningful discussion of the real issues that confront us.

I still believe in the need in America for a better integration of the genuine insights of right and left. But so long as good people on the right have their minds poisoned by fear-mongering lies from the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and today’s unprincipled Republican Party, those collaborative explorations must wait.

So in my radio conversations, because I believe in the basic goodness of the Valley’s conservatives, my goal is less that they understand that no one wants to “pull the plug on Granny” than that they realize that those who tell them these kinds of lies should not be trusted. PERIOD.

That realization might break open the right’s closed system to those more honest sources of information their followers have been taught to suspect and reject—sources such as genuine journalism, scholarship, science, and what our Founders called “the decent opinion of mankind.”

Once the reign of the lie is broken —once we achieve the normal degree of shared reality on which good public discourse depends—I will be so glad to resume that sweeter and more congenial kind of conversation I used to seek with the Valley’s conservatives.

                                        --Andrew Bard Schmookler blogs at

Friday, March 26, 2010

Where's the Food Co-op?

My husband and I moved to Chapel Hill from the Northeast for two reasons. One, to get away from the expenses of living in Skillman, NJ and the other, to establish residency so that my husband could pay in-state grad school tuition.

Chapel Hill was vastly different from where we’d been living and we were a little culture shocked. The pace was slower and the people were friendlier. I was called Ma’am for the first time ever! Chapel Hill, as a university town, has three calm and quiet summer months. Then, almost overnight, the city grows exponentially.

What my husband and I really enjoyed about Chapel Hill, however, and what we really missed when we moved to Harrisonburg 3 years ago, was Chapel Hill’s food co-op. Going there was a regular occurrence for us. We by no means did all our weekly shopping at the coop, but it was great for getting locally grown foods and organic foods that we couldn’t find at the regular supermarket. Food at the coop was always fresh, made that day or, if you were getting a sandwich, even while you waited. Cheeses, fruits, vegetables, milk eggs all from the farm went to our table. We still miss them.

When we moved here it was in the summer and we quickly discovered the Harrisonburg farmers’ market. Oh yes, we were happy. We knew that Virginia was famous for its farms and we figured that we would soon find a store or co-op just like what we had in Chapel Hill.

We were shocked then, and are still saddened now, that no food co-op store exists in Harrisonburg. I mean there’s the farmers market—which is great and there are CSA’s, also great, but no store? No place to go the other 5 days a week that the Farmer’s market is not going on or the other 9 months of the year that you are not a part of a CSA? No store that has fresh from the farm fruits, vegetables, cheeses and eggs? No store where you can go and get something for dinner that you know was picked that morning? No co-op?

Then after maybe a year here we discovered that Harrisonburg was planning on a food co-op store. There weren’t enough members yet to open it, but plans were seriously under way. We joined immediately. Two years later, we’re still waiting for that co-op store to open.
Buying fresh, buying local is healthy for the local economy, healthy for you. Buying fresh, buying local is easy. Buying fresh, buying local is not expensive. In Harrisonburg, I know the Buy Fresh/By local movement can be as vigorous as it was in Chapel Hill. We have it all here —the farms, the co-op starting up, the CSA’s. We just need now to put it all together. We need to spread the word and get that co-op open so we can have fresh food year round!

                                          --Lara Sokoloff lives in Harrisonburg

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Dream of the Dream Act

I love teaching students to write. To be more exact, I’m passionate about helping students from all backgrounds develop writing skills so they can experience the power of words and learn the joy of finding their voice.

While I hope my students learn from me, they teach me as well. Through their writing I have discovered what they love: family, food, friends, music, looking at stars from a rooftop. And what they dream about: going to college, teaching children, buying a first car, owning their own home—to name a few.

I have also learned what some of my students, those who are in this country without valid immigration status, fear—being taken from their family, from the community they have called home since childhood. Some students write of desperate situations in their country of origin and of equally desperate efforts to reunite their family in the states after a parent came here to find work and send support back home.

These students without valid immigration status, like their native born and documented immigrant peers, work hard in school, all the while adjusting to a new language and culture. They participate in sports and clubs and volunteer in our community. Teachers recognize their potential and talk to them about college. They begin to dream of opportunities they never thought possible—opportunities their parents never had, but sacrificed to give them. Then the reality of their situation—a student without documents—beings to settle in. The spark flickers. The dream begins to die.

I know what can happen when young people lose hope. That is one of the many reasons I support the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, better known as the DREAM Act. As an educator whose goal for thirty years has simply been to love both my students and the subjects I taught, I am an unlikely and uncomfortable activist. However, this pending federal legislation, which has attracted bi-partisan support, offers my students a chance to hope again.

As the DREAM Act is currently drafted, students must meet each of the following requirements to qualify:

• They must have entered the U. S. before the age of 16,
• They must have earned a U. S. high school diploma or GED,
• They must have lived in the U. S. for at least 5 years before the date the legislation is enacted, and
• They must display good moral character.

Students who meet these requirements would be issued temporary residency for a period of six years in which they must either earn a two-year degree or serve for two years in the U.S. Military in order to earn permanent residency.

I support the DREAM Act, and I am sharing information with my neighbors to encourage them to support this legislation. I personally know young people in our community who would benefit from the DREAM Act. They are my students. I know their character. I know their dreams. Their families are my neighbors. They are my friends. Without the passage of the DREAM Act, we will lose the contribution these students can make to our wonderful community of Harrisonburg, Virginia, a community, which has already invested so much in them and the place these students call home. My students have helped me understand that there are times I must leave the comfort of my classroom and work for justice to meet compassion.

                -- Sandy Mercer lives in Harrisonburg

Friday, March 12, 2010

An argument that the humanities are not a luxury . . .

My father couldn’t sing. A cruel fate, because he loved songs. He grew up when the walls of the city shook with the new rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll. Still, what his ear and brain could capture with fidelity, his voice simply couldn’t reproduce.

That’s OK. He has plenty of other talents, avid gardener, armchair Civil War historian. No area of study really seemed to elude him. Renaissance man? More like Renaissance Fair man—living at a boundary with the past and present few curiosities could maintain.

As my father began to battle brain lymphoma at age 67, it was hard to watch this everyday brilliance of his falter. The neurons couldn’t carry messages they once did. Short-term memory was non-existent. Sometimes, even simple categories stumped him. A man who for most of his life could have given the regiments and troop movements of Gettysburg, couldn’t name three presidents.

I work at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. A constant challenge of the public humanities is showing how studies in history, literature, music, and philosophy improve our understanding of the present.
My father’s son, this kind of work seems almost hereditary. But in the light of his newer and harsher neurological realities, were the humanities really a necessity or a luxury?

Well, in the humanities, I had heard for patients with short-term memory problems, music could be a way back into their misplaced narratives, to the deeper or wider channels of the brain.

On Christmas Eve, I was around his hospital bed watching White Christmas, the Bing Crosby classic, repeated all day.
“When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.”
There, amid the glow of his TV-lit room, brain addled by cancer, my father began to sing along with Der Bingel. In tune we knew would have been too much to ask, but he sang in time.

I told him I’d never heard him sing it before. It was quite popular, he said, a radio hit in its day.

I began to reflect on the work I do with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, where anthropology, folklife, music, and history are like strains of a song that need each other to sound right. Song itself is a way to reflect on, enhance, and expand the time we have.

My father couldn’t sing, but he has a song. It bespeaks connections to history, literature, religion, ethics, the arts, and philosophy. In short, the humanities.

Would my father want to see the news that humanities funding is on the state chopping block, once again? No. But if I go to work every day on behalf of these seeming abstractions, it’s because I know that they are the things that shape who we really are, even when so much else is stripped away. They make our private and communal lives richer. They are what we’ll consider when we grapple with what it has meant to be alive.

“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul” Plato said; I was grateful to find secret places my dad and I have yet to talk about. Don’t believe it’s a luxury. We all need the passage into each others’ lives that a song, a story, a study—the humanities—can provide.
---Poet Kevin McFadden is Chief Operating Officer for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities in Charlottesville

Thursday, March 4, 2010

History's Lessons by Matthew Poteat

Our current political and economic situation compels us to look at history’s example for useful lessons. Some people look to the Sons of Liberty in the 1770s; others, to the reforms of Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930s. Personally, I like to look back to ancient Rome—to the collapse of the republic in 44 BC—as a marker of things to come.

Like Americans, the Romans rid themselves of a monarchy and created a republican government. In 509 BC, the Roman people threw off the yoke of tyrannical King Tarquin and created a balanced constitution with power vested in the people. The Roman Senate and two executive consuls governed Rome with the cooperation of popular assemblies. These citizen assemblies appointed magistrates and administered justice. Individual qualities of civic virtue, honor, duty, and dignitas or prestige were celebrated. Our own Federal Constitution and the idealized qualities of our founders are modeled on the Roman example.

Then, from 264 to 146 BC, Rome battled its arch-rival Carthage for national supremacy during the Punic Wars. Rome defeated the fierce Carthaginians and found itself with new territories and peoples to govern. Wealth poured into Rome. New money and “new men” or novus homo soon corrupted the republic’s earthy virtues of simplicity and civic duty. The middle class declined economically and politically. Unemployment rose. Corruption was rampant. Elections were openly bought and sold. Politicians were beholden to wealthy interest groups. The Senate was unable to solve the most trivial of problems. Good government ground to a halt. They even had a terrorist problem with Mediterranean pirates.

Two factions rose up to address these issues: the Populares and the Opitmates. The Optimates were the traditional conservatives who wanted to limit the power of the assemblies and extend the power of the Senate. The democratic Populares wanted more power vested in the assemblies. The Populares addressed the problems of the poor and wanted to extend benefits to the peoples of the newly acquired territories. The conservative Optimates sought to restore the old ways of their forefathers. The more progressive Populares looked to the novus homo to take Rome into a new age of economic prosperity and order.

The inability of these two factions to find a political solution to Rome’s problems eventually led to a destructive civil war and the institution of a dictatorship in 27 BC under Octavian Augustus. Augustus scrapped the republic in favor of rule by an all-powerful imperator or emperor who governed at the head of an emasculated Senate and popular assembly.

Yes, history does indeed give us plenty to think about, and the lessons we take from it can have profound implications in our own day. The Roman example teaches us that extreme partisanship and extreme social inequalities are detrimental to a republic. Indeed, consequences await a people who govern by rigid principles and not principled compromise. It’s unlikely that Americans will plunge themselves into another civil war as the Romans did, but should we continue to ignore the lessons of history and fail to adequately address the problems we face today, who knows what the future might bring.

        --Author Matthew Poteat teaches European and American history in the Virginia Community 
            College System

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Tea Party -- and I by Denise Zito

Let’s talk about those Tea Partiers. When I see their boisterous antics, I’m reminded of my younger days when some of my friends were causing the older generation heartburn by their rowdy and disruptive protesting. During the Vietnam War, these protesters used a variety of outrageous stunts to get peoples’ attention and focus it on what the protesters saw as issues vital to the country. The Tea Party is doing the same in shouting at our representatives during the Health Debate Town Hall meetings and mounting other lively protests against the bank bailouts.

Today the Tea Party views itself the way the Sixties Protesters did way back when---they’re angry and they want us and our representatives to know it. They are generating a lot of press and making plenty of people nervous.

I’d say this is democracy in action.

The question will be whether the Tea Party can sustain their protests over healthcare, taxes and bailouts and gather enough members to force a change in the political climate. The Vietnam protesters had a clear goal—stop the war. For now, it’s not clear exactly what the Tea Party wants in terms of healthcare reform, or at least they haven’t yet articulated what they are in favor of when it comes to fixing our system.

The Sixties Protestors wanted the War stopped and the troops brought home. They found the argument that we were saving ourselves and the rest of the planet from a communist takeover via a bunch of falling dominoes to be, well, just not true. Ultimately, the country agreed and turned against the war. And in retrospect, nearly every thoughtful observer from both political parties, has said that the protesters were correct.

But right now, every major economist, liberal and conservative, says that as distasteful as the bank bailout was, the alternative would most likely have been 25% unemployment and a general economic collapse rather than the 10% unemployment and slow recovery we have now.

I remember my fifth grade lessons on the Depression—you can’t let the banks fail. I’d like to hear from the Tea Party how they think that alternative—bank failure-- would be useful. Maybe it would have taught those disgraceful bankers a lesson, but it would have brought the rest of the economy down with them. I believe that it was the repeal of banking regulation that led to this fiasco and that the better course is to put those banking regulations back in force, so that this doesn’t happen again.

But back to the Tea Party. I doubt that shear anger, without proposing viable alternatives will turn their movement into a substantial political force, but I’m always glad to see people who have never participated in government, get out there and do so.

                  --Denise Zito lives in Free Union.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Locked Up on Liberty Street by Harvey Yoder

In our land of the free an astonishing 2.3 million of our citizens are behind bars, more than in any other country in the world, including China.

Our local Harrisonbug jail houses a crowded 300 men and women inmates, and is efficiently managed by a dedicated and overworked staff. But should we be asking why, and whether, we should have four times as many Virginians in prison today than just 25 years ago?

As a teacher of parenting classes I stress the importance of time outs as a good consequence for misbehaving children. Incarceration could be thought of as a humane kind of “time out” for misbehaving adults, certainly preferable to public stocks, floggings and other past forms of torture and humiliation.

But as with any good consequences, a first word to keep in mind is Reasonable. The most effective punishment is not necessarily the longest or harshest. For example, if a three month sentence is good for a given offender, a year in the same steel cage is not likely to be four times better. The law of diminishing returns sets in at a point where the resentment an offender feels outweighs the learning value of the consequence.

I am not in favor of pampering prisoners, but one might also question the reasonableness of charging local inmates $1 an ounce for coffee, 75¢ for a styrofoam coffee cup, and 10¢ for a plastic stirring spoon. Maybe offenders should be glad for any coffee, period, no matter how expensive. But it’s usually innocent family members who have to pick up the tab. Our jail is among the few in the state that charges $1 a day for room and board fee as permitted by Virginia law. Until that is paid, inmates can’t purchase a single canteen item, not even a pricey 11¢ packet of ketchup for a hamburger. The result is families either having to pay a $365 annual levy, plus cash for the steeply priced canteen items, or having their inmates doing without things as basic as deodorant. Is that reasonable?

A second word associated with good consequences is Respectful. To humiliate either a disobedient child or a lawbreaking adult is not a good way to get positive results. At our local jail, simple respect might mean inmates not having to be in handcuffs and wearing blaze orange prison suits when brought into the visitor booth--one with no escape exit and where inmates and guests are separated by a wall of solid concrete, steel and glass. Even state penitentiaries don’t impose this kind of indignity.

A third R of good consequences is Restorative. A Department of Corrections should seek to rehabilitate and correct rather than simply punish, and should see to it that offenders make full restitution for their wrongs. This means more nonviolent prisoners being under house arrest, in jail work-release programs, or on well supervised parole or probation, and regularly undergoing drug testing while being required to work  to support themselves and their families and otherwise pay off their debt to society.

At noon this Monday, February 22, a panel consisting of a retired judge, the local sheriff, our commonwealth’s attorney, a defense attorney and an authority on restorative justice will discuss the topic, “Better Strategies Against Crime” at Clementine Cafe in Harrisonburg. We invite you to come and contribute your ideas on how to make our system of correction more reasonable, respectful and restorative, plus saving us taxpayers a bundle in the process.

                    - Harvey Yoder is  a licensed counselor and  member of the Harrisonburg chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Covered in snow . . .

So sorry, no new Civic Soapbox this week. Too much snow between essayist and editor. MW

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mardi Gras by Brad Lovelace

When I returned from Mardi Gras I proudly showed off my 20+ lbs of multi-colored beads, my Zulu coconut and my Orpheus doubloon heroically snatched from mid-air, as if they were treasures from the Orient; Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. I was met with blank stares, or I could see people thought I was a mad man. And yet that box of cheap beads means a lot to me.

I never made it to Mardi Gras as a youth and as a supposedly responsible parent it had no appeal. So it was with some trepidation that my wife and I informed some friends and coworkers that we were taking our children to Mardi Gras on the spur of the moment. We left Saturday and drove all night. I waited on the street for the Sunday night parade as my family rested in our hotel room.

The first float came into view. The actor Val Kilmer as King Bacchus was waving to the adoring crowd. Behind that float was another band, then another float. This was the Bacchus Parade: 31 floats, over 1200 Krewe members and 31 bands. I stood on Canal Street, where the parade route makes a turn, and looked down St. Charles Ave. A float with a huge head of Bacchus on its front came down the streets. Illuminated by the streetlights, a constant stream of beads flew from its sides into the upraised arms of the screaming crowd. The Bacchus head made the turn onto Canal Street. Along its side dozens of Krewe members threw beads.

The enthusiasm was infectious. I raised my arms. I shouted for beads.

Thus began days of riotous fun and the pure pleasure of participating in a gifting ritual with ancient roots going far back into the primordial consciousness.

They say the origins of Carnival are with the Roman festival of Lupercalis. Lupercalis was so ancient though, that not even the Romans were sure of its origin. Beads also have an ancient significance. We find them in religions, from the Catholic Rosary to the Hindu Mala. They have been found in archeological sites dating back over 30,000 years. Even the Neanderthals made and wore beads. So the delighting in and wearing of beads is perhaps one of the oldest human luxuries.

I called my son at the hotel. He was ready to go. I went back to get him. We shouted and caught beads and throws for hours. I think the parade lasted three. This went on for days. The Krewes of Proteus, Orpheus, Comus, Zulu and Rex. All unique parades with different themes.

It all culminates in the truck parade, a seemingly endless line of tractor trailers loaded with informals Krewes and recycled throws from previous years. This parade was an absolute deluge of stuffed animals and beads. We stood there for 100 trucks, arms up, shouting and catching with thousands of other people shouting and catching as the horns blared.

As I tell my story to people, they become more interested in my treasures. I have become a kind of Mardi Gras Missionary. There’s something healing in shouting for beads and wearing beads. The ancients were wiser than we know. The Neanderthals were wiser than we know. The people of New Orleans are wiser than we know.

Make one’s life revolve around festivals, not festivals around one’s life. One has to experience it to really understand it. Plan on going. You won’t regret the experience.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Supreme Court's Unprecedented Precedent Buster by Larry Stopper

The decision by the Supreme Court to allow corporations and unions to directly advertise for or against specific candidates in political races anywhere and at any time is the most dangerous blow to American democracy since Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War. It not only overturns more than one hundred years of Supreme Court precedent, but makes a mockery of the concept that each of us has a voice in our government.

As I and many other commentators see it, no longer will corporations have to hire lobbyists and press for earmarks in behind the scenes negotiations. Now they can just buy senators or representatives. Can anyone imagine a member of Congress from West Virginia opposing mountain top removal mining techniques? Will we now have senator Cargill from Iowa or senator Boeing from Washington State? Corporations are now free to spend as much as they choose on political campaigns and spend they will. It’s just an outrage.

It’s also completely disingenuous to compare labor unions with giant multi-national corporations in terms of resources. Does anyone believe that the airline mechanics union has the same resources as the airline industry? With this decision I’m willing to wager heavily, there simply will never be another law passed granting workers greater rights or protections.

There are many other areas of law today that stand a good chance of being gutted by this decision. Will we see increases to the minimum wage if the senators purchased by the fast food industry and the big box stores say no? Will environmental laws protecting against dangerous chemical contaminants be even possible if the senators from the energy, mining and chemical companies stand against them?

How is it that corporations have come to be viewed as human? I’m currently a partner in two different corporations. These are business entities. They don’t breath, speak, vote or participate in public life. Congress, the peoples representatives, has spent the better part of the last century regulating corporate financial participation in election campaigns. Now five justices of the Supreme Court have blown off a century of their own legal presidents and Federal law and declared corporations free to operate with almost no restrictions?

And where are the fake populists we’ve become so used to seeing on our TV screens. The ones who’ve spent the last year fighting to keep government off the backs of the people in the health care debate. How come there’s no outcry from them? This is not a liberal or conservative issue – this a democracy issue. Most of the corporations I fear are multi-national. I have no reason to assume they feel any loyalty to the United States.

Some of the world’s largest and wealthiest banks were at the center of the recent global financial crisis. These banks will now be free to spend billions, yes billions if they choose ,to help elect congressional representatives willing to prevent any strong regulation. Which means we are in danger of leaving these banks to go right back to conducting business as was usual before we plunged into the great recession.

In my opinion, this decision by the Supreme Court is the worst since the Dred Scott decision, and it poses a grave danger to what we have come to understand as democracy in the US.

                          Larry Stopper is a partner in two corporations in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thinking of Haiti by Chris Edwards

I don’t know what to do as we sit numbly in front of MSNBC, watching bloodied people. Fields of corpses.

I’ve only seen Haiti once, last winter from a cruise ship near sunset, when the island appeared on the horizon like a big, misty, odd-shaped blue and white cloud mass.

Field-hospital doctors ask a mother’s permission to save her young daughter’s life by amputating her gangrenous leg. The woman wails. She does not think her child, as an amputee in poverty, could have much of a life.

It’s never clear why, once the planes land, it takes so long for the food, water and supplies to reach people.
Aid workers say they are used to the so-called “hurry up and wait mechanism,” but a woman posts on Facebook that she doesn’t trust any organization enough to donate.

I feel bad whenever we waste water.

Of course there’s looting, and controversy about coverage of looting. If homeowners in the nicest, gated community one day found themselves without access to food or water, do we think they’d be too civilized to break into a store?

Would they share? I hear on NPR about a ragged quake survivor who had just lost everything; getting on a rickety bus; how other passengers, who didn’t have much more, quickly gave him a fresh shirt, a little money, and food.

Communication system failures don’t prevent Haitians hearing a certain preacher in Virginia say they made a pact with the Devil. A priest reassures newly homeless people, “God didn’t cause this.”

None of the mainstream media says much about Haiti’s history except when Keith Olbermann, reacting to the devil-channeling preacher, tells how the Haitians, after freeing themselves from slavery, had to spend nearly 150 years compensating the French for that so-called “lost property”—themselves. On Wikipedia, I skim through the stories of the gruesome tortures and massacres of slaves; long successions of dictators, coups and schemes; and controversial roles of American government and business in Haiti’s history.

In Newsweek, former commerce undersecretary David Rothkopf lists disasters that have hit poor people in coastal areas hardest. He says they could be forecast and alleviated by seawalls, building codes, response plans, etc. – at less cost than our wars or bank bailouts.

This could happen.

The real question is, do we have the will for it?

We have one friend who’s Haitian. In Vermont, she and her husband learned after days on the phone that her relatives are ok but some friends are lost.

He emails us a photo of her cousin’s demolished store.

“Be glad you are alive. . .” he writes.

                                                                   -- Chris Edwards is a writer living in Harrisonburg

Friday, January 15, 2010

Growing Up Female by Laura Sobik-Kavanagh

I was on internship finishing my doctoral degree in clinical psychology. During one of my many breaks from writing, I wandered into the bathroom to obsess about my hair and to ask myself a couple of what seemed at the moment to be really important “big” questions - do I need highlights? Should I go red again? How about a cute little haircut? I looked closely. I turned away and looked again. My stomach actually turned as I realized...I had found a gray hair. And it was not even totally gray - only the inch closest to my scalp was gray, as if my body had just decided to start the aging process.

I went through a bevy of reactions all at once. I felt betrayed - as if somehow I’d thought I would get to skip the aging process? I felt excited – was I finally a woman, for real this time? The truth is, I was not sure that I really “graduated” to womanhood when I thought I should – when I graduated from college, or I when lived alone in my own apartment or when I paid off my car, or when I finished my Ph.D. or even when I got married - no, no this was really it. As I stood there, I experienced a crazy sense of acceptance within the context of a childish foot-stomping tantrum.

As a feminist, I fight like crazy against our ageist, sexist society that tells us that pretty young girls have all of the fun and power. I am a woman who doesn't believe in god but apparently has an existential crisis every time I am faced with a physical sign of my own mortality. I am a young professional who’s still looking for a mentor, yet I am already in the position of mentoring others.

As a therapist, my job is to be part of peoples’ journeys – I see every facet of life reflected in what my clients tell me. On a daily basis, I work with people to explore, heal, and accept insecurities, fears, losses – sometimes immense, unthinkable losses. I watch growth, healing, and the endurance of pain that gives me immeasurable hope about humanity and meaning. So shouldn’t I be able to handle having a gray hair a bit more gracefully?

Standing there, looking at my beginning-to-age self in that bathroom mirror, I realize that I’m facing yet another transition, yet another personal change. I both question the person I am growing into and feel empowered by becoming her. Maybe womanhood isn’t about finishing with change; it’s about embracing it.

So, I am now a woman who has gray hair – or at least a gray hair. I have officially started to look the part of a person who knows something about the world. About life. About confidence. About womanhood. And you know, once I stop, take a deep breath, and think for a moment, maybe the truth is, I’m starting to be one as well.

                       --Laura Sobik-Kavanagh is a clinical psychologist at James Madison University

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cowboys by Ellen R. Ivy

One evening, watching my mother at her vanity, I confided my thoughts about cowboys. “I like the Lone Ranger, but the rest of the cowboys are kind of sissy. Dale Evans is okay, but she smiles too much. I don’t think cowgirls should smile. And when are the shows s’posed to take place?”

My mother pursed her lips and smiled at herself in the three-paneled mirror. “I am sure I don’t care. And this cowboy thing of yours is getting out of hand, Little Bit. You’re old enough to know the difference between television and the real thing.” She picked up a hand mirror and aimed it behind her head. Four reflections looked back at her. The real thing sat amidst the reflections, deflecting my questions.

“I know they’re stories. But when are the stories happening?” I persisted. “The Lone Ranger rides on Silver. That’s it. Roy and Dale ride to get supplies in a jeep, but then chase the bad guys on horses. Next thing you know they’re all smiling nice and clean and singing. And, back to the Lone Ranger, why does he wear a mask all the time? I really like the Lone Ranger, but I don’t understand.”

My mother laid down her mirror, and looked straight down at me. “Isn’t that just like you, all excited over nothing. Asking questions about things that don’t matter. Look at you. You wear dungarees all the time. Why don’t you let me fix your hair for you? In a few years you’ll be wearing makeup yourself—and high heels.” Her voice had taken on a kind of cooing. I felt like a baby bird in a nest looking up at its mother getting ready to stick something down its gullet.

“Gee whiz, Mother,” I stuck my arms down straight by my sides, splinting my skinny self up against the thought of bobby-pinned hair and a painted face. “ I’m trying to understand what I care about now. How am I going to, if you won’t answer me?”

“I am answering. You are not listening.” I could almost see her words marching out from between her Coty-red lips. “You need to learn about what will be your real life—like standing up straight, combing your hair, wearing dresses.”
I began to wish I’d never gotten into this. Gadzooks. Who wants to wear shoes you can’t run in, or worry about eyelashes and face powder? Who wants to look like somebody else?

I said, “Never mind, Mother. I just wondered, that’s all.”

Her eyes flashed. “Well wonder this! Why it is you like men who wear masks and not the wholesome, married, real ones?” She picked up the hand mirror once again, checking her drawn-on eyebrows. “Really, Little Bit. Men with masks?“

I wandered out of mother’s room, thinking about the Lone Ranger. His mask really did bother me. A lot. You couldn’t really tell who he was with it on.

As I bolted outdoors for my favorite mimosa tree, it occurred to me that in a few years I really could be wearing makeup. Gee whiz. Seemed to me that then no one would know who I really was anymore, either. Just like the Lone Ranger—and my mother.


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 . . .