Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Ballad of Jeremiah Curley

Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” starts off with a preacher before a battle asking that “an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory --”

Then a spoilsport stranger comes in and rephrases the plea. “Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded,; help us to lay waste their humble homes; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst.”

I’m reminded of that when I read about a school child being given bread and milk because the cafeteria account wasn’t up to date, or a home in Tennessee burning down because the fire department tariff wasn’t paid. It’s the answer to the prayers of a particular group of people. They’ve prayed for a government that teaches individual responsibility, and doesn’t tax its citizens, and protects taxpayers from lowlife chiselers. In the county that’s by any measure one of the most conservative in the state, a kid was pushed out of the food line because he or she hadn’t paid. The local outrage is not surprising. Many rural conservatives will give you the shirt off their backs but won’t support a subsidized thrift store. Because they want to choose who they help. When they vote against high taxes, and against food stamp fraud, and against welfare, they think they’re taking something away from black kids in Philadelphia or brown kids in Houston, if they think about it at all, but they’re surprised when it happens in Rockingham, and they want to take up a collection to help this one specific family.

So do I. The collection is called taxes. The help is called social services. It’s how you help your neighbors. And you don’t slam the door when it’s time to help your neighbor.

I’m reminded of a morning when I was in high school and my sister stuck her head in to tell me that there was a huge black man in the bathroom bleeding and talking crazy. And I was famously hard to wake up in the morning, so I thought it was some sort of ploy. But I got up anyway, and Jeremiah Curley was just as big as anybody could be in that nine-foot square room, with blood spurting everywhere and people we didn’t know coming in and out of the room where we showered and put our underwear in a clothes basket. He had missed a curve near the house, and flipped his pickup, and banged his head. And head wounds will bleed. Oh boy will they ever bleed.

A local insurance guy who was driving by about the time my mother was taking Mr. Curley into the house to try and stop the bleeding. He asked Mr. Curley his name, and of course his name was Jeremiah because someone who shows up at seven o’clock in the morning bleeding in your house is just not going to be named Dave. I don’t know why. Stories make themselves. And the insurance guy asked him what day it was, which was supposed to tell us something while we waited for the rescue squad, and somebody called Mrs. Curley, and somebody kept Jeremiah up to date. And it seemed like the blood flow got worse every time he raised his head and demanded to know, “Is this Tuesday? Did I call my wife?” Repeatedly. For years it was family code when somebody was obviously confused. If you said, “Is this Tuesday? Did I call my wife?” everybody knew it didn’t have a thing to do with matrimony or the day of the week. My baby brother would have used those lines if he had ever, as I suggested, written a song called, “The Ballad of Jeremiah Curley,” but he never did.

Everybody showed up at once, and the room filled up, and Mr. Curley eventually got a ticket and some stitches. I went to the general store for new toothbrushes. But first I saw Mrs. Curley in our bathroom. She picked up a tissue and wiped a part of the sink. I can still picture her face when she looked around at the blood on the sink, the bathtub, the toilet, the floor, and the towels, and realized she couldn’t clean up that ocean with a teaspoon. I’ll never forget the look of helplessness, and because she looked like a decent woman, I’ll assume that she eventually dealt with it by doing something good for somebody else.

I can also picture, without too much effort, the look on my mother’s face if someone had ever told her to deny food to a child for any reason imaginable. The same look she would have given anybody who suggested she should have left the huge incoherent bleeding black man on the porch while she called somebody. The possibility of ever facing that look will keep me from ever whining about the amount of taxes I might pay to put out fires or feed deadbeat kindergarteners.

The Tea Party is often lionized as a citizen protest against an unfair government. But most taxes went down in 2009, and a group of people who apparently can’t count declared that their taxes were going up too much. And if the circle of those who were bad at math intersected with those who thought Hawaii was in Kenya, or Trinity was a Muslim church, then that’s just the cost of doing business, so to speak, for the nodding, winking politicians who’ve ridden the wave. There is a fundamental untruth at the basis of the anti-tax politics. The victimhood of people who are paying a token amount is appalling. And so is their conviction that they’re being hoodwinked by lazy, poor people. Anybody can find an example of someone abusing welfare, or of freeloaders on the system. But that’s the chance you take. There are going to be people who take advantage of any good works. But if a hundred parents in a county of eighty thousand people are taking advantage of a system that gives away a thousand free meals, I like those odds.

Because when you crack down on those freeloaders the wrong way, you crack down on the innocent. If you’re going to make policy based on single incidents, you have consider the individual incidents on the other side as well. A Tennessee fire department lets a home burn down because the owner hasn’t paid a fee. A Rockingham County cafeteria puts a kid on rations because an account is in arrears. Those are the real and tangible outcomes when people claim government should be run like a business. Pay for services. Pay to play. Just like Rod Blagojevich outlined it. Chicago politics in the lunch line. The kid didn’t pay. Jeremiah Curley can go bleed somewhere else.

And maybe the fire department isn’t in the business of putting out fires. Maybe they’re just serving their customers. Maybe the cafeteria isn’t in the business of feeding children. Maybe they’re just serving their constituency. But that family who’ve seen their family photos, their parents’ furniture, their groceries, the beds they sleep on, their toothbrushes, go up in smoke because it’s policy – they’re not going to be participants in a civilized society. They have no reason to believe one exists. And that kid who’s been humiliated in the lunch line because a bill wasn’t paid may grow up to understand that you have to delay the gratification of a slice of toast until you can afford it - or he might join a gang that promises him respect and dignity. It’s a tossup, and it’s the price you pay when you decide to apply business principles to helping people.

When you do that, you’re not helping them. You’re charging them. Which I suppose is OK if that’s what you’re praying for and voting for and you know it.

And that’s why the congregants in Twain’s War Prayer reached the conclusion that they did. “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

They want us to pay for "White Rabbit" again?

If you had a good memory, and some ear for music, you might know just the right note to hit the button to switch tracks on an 8-track. The tune was just about over and you wanted to hear the first notes of the other one, and you’d learned just when to shift. If you were really good, you might know that hitting the track button twice would take you from the end of “Heart of Gold” to the beginning of “Old Man.”

On a cassette player, you learned when to hit reverse. On Patti Smith’s “Easter” I knew when to reverse it to hit the opening of “Because the Night.” I may never have heard that tape in the order it was recorded. I may never had heard the end of one side or the beginning of the other.

But it was never clear whether the 8-track or the cassette gave the user more control. It depended on the tape. It might be that when you reversed direction or switched the track at the end of “White Rabbit” you’d end up in the middle of some self-indulgent instrumental fueled by too much LSD and the fact that the guitar player really wanted to be playing blues. Or you might get a tune you liked.

And of course both gave you the freedom to listen to the entire tape at once, in order, without getting up to turn the record over. Just as the album had allowed the listener – this was before we were users or consumers – to hear six tracks in a row, maybe seven, a particular convenience if your 45 changer would only hold four at a time. But then the 45 had the convenience that if you left the arm up it would play the same record over and over, “Crimson and Clover” or otherwise, whereas with a 33 you had to get up and move the needle by hand, always creating a hazard of scratching the groove. To this day I expect “Magic Carpet Ride” to begin with “I like to dream-uh … dream-uh … dream-uh.” You could set a quarter on the tone arm to prevent that if the scratch wasn’t too deep.

Then came CDs and even the cheapest player – I owned it – would let you program the order of the songs. Or repeat one endlessly. Or put in more than one CD, in the upscale ones I didn’t own.

Through this all you had the contradictions. One singer used his fame and success to urge people to buy one copy of a book or a magazine and pass it around to all your friends to save paper, while his record company was trying to put a tax on cassette tapes to keep anybody from copying his albums, made from chemicals that filled up our senses a lot more than paper pulp, thank you very much.

And never mind the sound contradictions. Yes, albums sounded better, if for no other reason than the fact that 8-tracks were played mostly in the cabs of pickups.

But we lined up and switched media, because music is about keeping up, even if the best stuff was recorded before the Ford presidency, although I’m sure it’s not his fault. I have a tune from a Brewer and Shipley album that I bought from iTunes. I once bought the 8-track. I have the album in the attic, although it’s probably my sister’s. Three times that tune has been bought. And that’s Brewer and Shipley, ferchrissakes. If you follow the Beatles from mono single to stereo album to 8-track to cassette to CD to remastered CD to iTunes, you’re talking about millions of tunes paid for multiple times.

And that’s a trend that content providers want to keep alive as the Stones and U2 re-release remastered collections and somehow convince Rolling Stone they were good the first time. We’re supposed to buy them. Again. So Bono and Jagger won’t miss any meals.

And if you lifted the arm to hear a tune again, or memorized the track order on an 8-track, or programmed the order on a CD, not to mention if you’ve bought and rented movies on laserdisc, Beta, VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, you may be tired of buying the media and the players again and again, and you may have a hard time understanding why the companies that bought up the record labels you grew up with need something called SOPA. That’s not a street name for Quaalude, mind you. You’re thinking about sopor, which was phased out because it made you stupid, but now the generation that remembers 45s, fondly or not, is eating Ambien like candy, but that’s another issue.

SOPA isn’t supposed to put you to sleep. It’s supposed to slip in while you are asleep, or so entranced by Casey Anthony and Lindsay Lohan that you might as well be. It will keep you from getting those funny youtube videos because the wrong song is playing in the background, and it will keep you from seeing cops pepper-spraying people because that website was shut down, and it may keep you from reading Jane Austen for free, because certainly nobody’s going to pay you to, and it’s not even designed to do those things. It’s designed to keep record company profits alive so they can pay royalties to Jagger and a living wage to some little guy in PR whose job is to design ads on cable stations that tell you it’s not about Jagger, it’s about the little guy, because the last thing they want is for the consumer to think he’s the little guy. You’re important, and the record companies are willing to pay all this money to keep your media safe. From you. Because you haven’t paid for it enough times.

Google SOPA. Watch a youtube about it while you still can. These people are serious, and they’ve always gotten away with it before.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Absence of Motion, a story that's not about Paul Newman

One of the best movies ever made about American newspaper journalism was a potboiler called “Absence of Malice.” And it had one major thing in common with “All the President’s Men.” It had somebody running up to a car. In the one movie, Paul Newman’s character ran up beside a car to find out who was following him. In the other, Dustin Hoffman ran to the corner where Robert Redford had stopped to pick him up. Neither scene had much to do with the plot of the movie, but both showed up in the movie trailers. In each case, the scene was used because somebody moved.

And there should be a law, and it should have a name, and it should be named after somebody who edits movie trailers for a living. It would say that in order to suggest or promise that somebody will actually move in a film about a profession where people talk on the phone and type, you’re going to have to pull something out of context.

Which is an expression newspaper reporters hate. Sometimes when a source says something was taken out of context, it means he wishes he hadn’t said it. But more often than most writers are willing to admit, it means the reporter didn’t get the full quote, or didn't get the meaning, or just didn't get it. And they’re going to fall back on the tape. “We’re gonna have to raise taxes.” Major lede. Pull quote. Political implications. Right there on the tape.

The source is pissed. But the editor sees the notes, knows the source wishes he hadn’t said it, plans to listen to the tape later if he has to, but it looks like the reporter has it right. Back the reporter and keep an eye on him or her. And destroy or file the tape, whatever the policy is, because unless there’s a suit, and there won’t be over a quote like this, nobody will ever have to listen to it again. The editor knows a dispute like this could always go either way, unless he or she just started yesterday, or works for the DNR.

Because reporters don’t just make things up. “If we go ahead with this project, we’re gonna have to raise taxes, and you know we can’t do that.” Reporter’s got his quote, and he didn’t want to be here anyway, because this meeting isn’t on his beat. He knows the gist of the story, of the project being discussed by the board or council or commission, because he’s read the clips, and they’re never wrong. Nut grafs don’t live and breathe and take root unless there’s something to them. And now you’ve got this guy wanting to raise taxes, and the TV’s there, damnit, so somebody will have to tell folks what really happened, so it’s time to start thinking about deadline because this one can’t sit and cook for a day. And just when you’re stuck in a meeting you don’t really want to cover you’ve got to deal with the problem of being distracted by a TV person. They are usually small, or at least thin, and they carry a huge amount of equipment, and even if they’re not attractive, although most are, you’re going to spend some time looking at them wondering how someone that small carries that much equipment. You are now anyway.

But the guy running up to the car is not the best thing about “Absence of Malice.” The best thing is when the Melinda Dillon character sits on her porch waiting for the newspaper to arrive, and she looks at it, and then she begins running from house to house in her neighborhood picking up all the newspapers so people can’t read what it says about her. Any reporter who can see that scene and can really get it is going to be a better reporter. Because what they have to get is that those few words they write about somebody might be the only words the vast majority of the people in her town ever read about her. And if the story’s not really about her, but she’s just a point that explains something else in the story, then there’s going to be even less there to add some body and nuance and character and context to the only thing most people will ever know about her. The only thing. That’s it. End of story. 30.

That’s something I’d often sum up by telling a reporter, “You’re going to write eight stories this week, but that person will only be in the newspaper once (in their life) (this year) (this month).” Too often the reporter heard how many stories he or she was going to write and stopped listening. There are 40 or so cars dropping kids off at the elementary school in the morning, and the people in each one know each other to talk to, and all the others know about one of them is caught up in those 300 words in the newspaper last week. The sanctuary of the church holds 800 people, and all that most of them know about the guy sitting over there with his family is what was in the newspaper. Dozens of people cross the parking lot every morning, and one day one of them notices another and knows it’s that woman who was in the newspaper.

And the source knows that. And maybe they’re proud of what was in there, or maybe they’re not. Maybe what was written could have stood another sentence of explanation, or maybe the source is relieved that the reporter didn’t ask just one more question. Maybe the source was the main course in the story, or a side dish, or maybe just a condiment whose moment of local fame comes from the editor asking for some more color in the story.

Morning finds the reporter, like Frost’s breeze in “Wind and Winter Flower,” already one hundred miles away. The source may feel as cool as Paul Newman. He or she may feel just brushed by the breeze. Or they might be running from lawn to lawn picking up the newspaper and wondering who you see about taking something back.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Julie and the Mayor

There is a woman working in the Charlottesville Old Navy who would look just like Jodie Foster if her hair were not black. I noticed her and knew I could do a couple of things. I could stalk her around the store until I figured out who she looked like, or I could ask her if she’d ever been told she looked like someone famous. She reacted with the appropriate embarrassment and said, yes, that actress in “Silence of the Lambs.” I saw it then, and would have figured it out except for the hair.

It made me think of Julie, who did look like Jodie Foster, light hair and all, or at least she did when she had the hair cut to just past chin length, except nobody ever noticed it. Maybe it was because she wore her hair longer when she was at the newspaper, or maybe it was because she was so self-possessed that she could mirror Elvis’s claim, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Or look, in her case.

Julie was technically beautiful, but it was rarely an issue on the job. She tended not to let it be. There was never a hint of acknowledgement in anything she did. If it was an issue – a problem – it was someone else’s.

That someone else, as it turned out, was the mayor of one of the small towns that speckle Rockingham County. Julie had gone to cover the town council meeting and as she entered the council chambers, the mayor greeted her by walking by her and swatting her on the ass. Not to put too pretty a face on it, he sexually and physically assaulted her in a way that said he thought he could get away with it or he was too old and ignorant to know there was anything wrong with it.

Julie came back from the meeting either stunned or amazed or shaken, and maybe a little of all three. As she told me about it, I realized that there was something missing from her tale, something that I still expected then, in the early 1990s, something I would almost certainly have seen ten years before. There was absolutely no sense on her part of having done anything wrong. Her attitude, blessedly, was that it was her ass, and he had touched it, without permission, while she was working.

Ken, the managing editor, was going out of town the next day, so I wrote up a memo for his boss, the general manager, Dick. My best memory is that I just ran through the options, from helping Julie push a criminal case, to what I saw as the very least, a story on the front page of the paper.

It’s hard for me to say that they didn’t do anything. Partly because then I have to admit I didn’t resign, and partly because they did do something. They wrote me up, slipped a letter of reprimand into my file, for two things. One was going over the managing editor’s head to the general manager. The other was for what they saw as exaggerated and inflammatory wording in the memo to Dick. Because they didn’t think it was an assault.

But I didn’t resign, partly because I had a family, partly because they hadn’t met my standards. I had decided a couple of years before, when we were still actively covering up a series of sexual assaults on delivery boys, that I had to be better prepared, to decide in advance how much I could stand. In this case, I had decided I was going to resign if either Ken or Dick asked what she was wearing. And they at least didn’t meet that standard. Eventually they would fire me, for complaining about Julie’s assault and a number of other issues they saw as equally annoying and showing equally faulty judgment. I should have left by then, because I kept coming up with the standards. I started too many days telling myself if they stop short of such and such a level of idiocy on this issue, I won’t quit. I can keep working. Because I loved the job when those two were out of the building.

Ken went on to be the oldest man ever to play college basketball, without ever realizing it was a stunt. He was serious about it. Dick left his profession in disgrace after being caught selling news stories. I don’t know if he was still teaching his class in business ethics at the time.

The class apparently didn’t include assaults. At least not in this case. Because that’s not what they thought it was. Mink called me into his office to show me the letter of reprimand, and to explain to me what I was obviously too dumb to understand. “Dick said it wasn’t an assault,” Ken explained, condescendingly. “The mayor was just trying to cop a feel.”

I remember laughing, and I remember that Ken had no idea why I was. He didn’t get angry, or seem offended, and actually smiled with me. He had opened up a door, and stepped through a time warp from a 1950s sitcom, and didn’t know he was standing in 1993. He had no idea where he was, or what the world was like, only that in the insulated comfort of the Daily News-Record newsroom, he could say something like that and be safe from any hint that the world had changed for the better and that ten years later, in that same newsroom, someone would be fired for sexually harassing a fellow employee. But in 1993, the mayor was just trying to cop a feel.

We didn’t agree that I would be the one to speak to Julie. It never came up. Ken and Dick didn’t think there was any need to tell her anything. The issue was settled, and there was no need to do anything else. But I will always be grateful for one thing about Julie’s angry response. “You mean they’re not going to do anything?” she asked, and I felt a sense of relief that she had said “they.” Not that the story was all about me, but by then, to the bosses, it was. I was the one in trouble.

Julie wasn’t in trouble. They figured she was young, and just didn’t know any better.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Eating the bait

Look here for a description of the original golf course vote, and some of the background. If you're a city voter, contact me and I'll give you a copy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

City Council and Job Creation

A DNR reporter left a phone message on Labor Day asking about job creation as an issue in the City Council election. The answer goes beyond a sound bite.

The City Council’s ability to create jobs is negligible, particularly during a long economic downturn. The tax policies and workforce to attract new jobs already exist here, but the city, in attempting to draw new jobs, is in the same buyer’s market as the roughly one in six Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. The city’s policies looking forward should be aimed at protecting what we have, particularly in two areas. The first is maintaining the current level of services without raising tax rates or, as the city has done three times in the past twenty years, creating new taxes. The second is in adopting a housing policy that puts the needs of the city as a whole ahead of the needs of specific developers, especially regarding new student housing. The city should instead adopt a moratorium on new student housing complexes, and begin looking for new ways to get tax revenues from students.

Campaign initiatives based on job creation or budget issues should be taken with a grain of salt. Cities in Virginia have limited budget options to begin with, and those options shrink during a downturn. The city’s most important choices will be on development, and candidates who have a record in that area should be judged on that record.

It is odd that the DNR would do a story focusing on jobs and the Council considering its own past failings in that regard. In 2003 the DNR did a news story that fantasized a faux feud between two members after one of those members put forth a project he claimed would create jobs. The DNR has consistently declined to follow up on that story. But lest I create or continue a story-line, I should point out that the DNR declining to follow up was not based on its coziness with the city’s establishment, but on the laziness of the reporter involved.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We can't go back

Development in Harrisonburg for a long time followed a straightforward model. A person owned land, and tried to find a use for it, balancing what they wanted to see there with what would reward them the most financially.

The attitude that created that situation was sensible. Townhouses made good starter homes for the Valley’s sons and daughters. And student housing had multiple advantages. It kept college kids, who were away from home for the first time, out of neighborhoods. It kept students apartments on the tax rolls, instead of in state-owned dorms. And it allowed the rapid growth of JMU, which even the most ardent foes of the university admit has brought financial and other benefits for our community.

But what was a good idea in 1985 may not be a good idea today. By the time we decided to build a new high school almost ten years ago, there was talk that we were running out of land. In reality there was plenty of land, but it cost too much because it could earn more if it were sold for housing.

We need to start consistently looking at development decisions as binding and permanent choices about what kind of community we’ll be. We’ve run out of room for mistakes, and every zoning and building decision has to look at the city as a whole. Nothing can be built any more that’s not next to something, and what it’s close to has to be a part of the choice.

We still are the community we were 25 years ago, but we can’t go back to the city we were back then. When we were a smaller city, we could make development decisions based on who asked for them, because everybody still knew each other. But as we grow, we need to acknowledge that you rezone the land, not the builder, and our choices will linger for people not yet born.

We can’t go back, but we have to remember who we are and what kind of city we want to be as we move forward. The community is still there; but we have to manage the change, before the city we were 25 years ago disappears.

Tax Student Cars?

A lot of people wonder if there’s a way to make college students register their cars here so they’ll have to pay personal property taxes. The best way might be to ask them.

Granted, students already pay taxes to the city, directly and indirectly. The apartments they live in pay real estate taxes. They eat in restaurants more, and pay the meals tax. They pay sales taxes at Harrisonburg’s businesses.

And if they have cars, their parents pay the car tax on those vehicles in Virginia Beach, Chesterfield County, Norfolk and Fairfax County. Even though Harrisonburg’s tax rate is lower.

We should be encouraging the parents of our college students to register their cars here and pay their taxes here. They pay less, but the city makes more. And if those other localities think that’s unfair, they can always lower their tax rates to match ours.

There might be a legal reason we can’t do this. It’s often the case that the best ideas haven’t been tried because the state or the feds won’t let us. That might mean we can’t do those things. But it doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about them.

Heritage Oaks' Future

Ten years after a divided city council approved the Heritage Oaks golf course, the city has more options about how to make the project pay for itself.

A lot of people may think I’m not the one to be making those choices. They still ask me about the campaign promise to shut down the golf course. The short answer is: there wasn’t one. But the long answer requires a look at the city’s recent history.

Emotions ran high in 1999 and 2000 about the proposed golf course. The people of Harrisonburg didn’t want it, and the city council did. Those emotions were hard to gauge in the 2000 city council campaign. It became apparent well before the election that those of us who’d been opposed to the golf course would win. But what wasn’t clear was what people expected us to do. Did they think we could shut down the project, or were they just expressing their anger about it?

Neither option was available to the City Council. A flawed bond issue had tied us to the course for at least ten years. Stopping it then would have hurt the city’s credit rating in ways we’d still be paying for. Three lawyers, including Virginia’s attorney general, told us we were stuck with it.

And I tried to tell people that during the campaign. But, as I said, emotions were running high.

Ten years later, the city has choices to make. Should we sell beer? Should we out-source the marketing? Should we hire an outside manager? Should we try to attract a restaurant to the property?

Those are all ideas worth looking into. But in 2000, we didn’t have a lot of options. The city had signed a contract. The trees had been cut. The money had been borrowed. Closing down the project was just not possible. If we’d shut it down, we wouldn’t have opened three new schools.

The commission we appointed told us the questions wasn’t whether we should have built a golf course, but whether we had to continue the project.

That’s similar to the question we face now. I hope people can get past the emotions of ten years ago. I’d like to be on City Council again, to use my experience and knowledge about this and other continuing issues. You may not always agree with me, but you know I’m willing to make tough decisions.