There’s more than just a little irony the official Small Business Saturday promotion that encourages people to spend their money with small, independently owned businesses on Nov. 26 rather than only with big box retailers. Irony or no irony, though, the message is still relevant — small businesses are the engine of our economy, particularly in areas such as Western North Carolina. Let’s hope consumers remember that truth throughout the entire holiday shopping season, not just on this big kickoff weekend.
Now to the irony. The Small Business Saturday promotion was started by American Express, the huge credit card company that controls almost 25 percent of the credit card market in the U.S. That said, let’s give the company kudos for getting on a bandwagon that many of us have been riding on for years.
Whether it’s this Saturday, Black Friday or anytime between now and Christmas, dedicate a portion of your holiday shopping to local, independently-owned small businesses. These businesses generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years and employ just over half of all private sector employees, according to the Small Business Administration.
When you spend money with these businesses, a higher percentage of those dollars stays in the community. Those business owners and their employees are your friends and neighbors.
During the recent Waynesville election, this issue of local vs. big box was a campaign issue. Some argued that the town’s land-use policies inhibit economic development by making it hard for standard big-boxes or chain stores to build. Alderman Leroy Roberson captured my sentiments exactly when interviewed by our newspaper. Here’s an excerpt from that story from last month:
“Cracker Barrel is not my main concern. We are getting lots of good restaurants without Cracker Barrel,” Roberson said. “I want to create a climate that provides for small business. The big chains can take care of themselves. They have millions of dollars they can invest.”
Roberson said it is appropriate to ask chain stores to respect the towns they come in to.
“They should at least try to become a part of the community, in terms of ‘OK, this is the appearance you have, how can I fit into this?’ Not ‘This is the way we do it everywhere else and if you don’t like, we are not coming,’” Roberson said.
Roberson’s philosophy fits nicely with the argument I feel compelled to make every holiday season. It’s the local businesses — whether art galleries, auto parts stores, restaurants, and local and regional retailers — that make our mountain communities such special places to live. Keep that in mind as you make your spending decisions during the holiday season and throughout the year.
Editor’s note: Dawn Gilchrist-Young teaches English at Swain County High School and was the 2011 winner of the Norman Mailer Writing Award for High School Teachers for her short story “The Tender Branch.” The winner receives a monetary award and a summer 2012 stay at the prestigious Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony in Massachusetts. Gilchrist-Young accepted the award during a banquet Nov. 8 in New York City. These were her remarks.
The distance between Southern Appalachia where I grew up and this Mandarin Hotel ballroom is not so great. Nor is the distance between an afternoon in 1981 reading a high school essay to my parents and, a few weeks ago, receiving a call from Lawrence Schiller telling me I had won the first Norman Mailer Writing Award for High School Teachers.
The distance is not so great because there is a bridge created by words that can cross even the widest divides. In creating this award for teachers, the Norman Mailer Center has allowed teachers passage on that bridge. And in giving this first award to a public school teacher, the Norman Mailer Center is questioning those who would be keepers of the gate, questioning the status quo in our governing bodies that seems bent on impoverishing public schools and preventing their movement from the less advantaged land on one side of that bridge to the proverbial land of opportunity that is always just within sight.
For many of us in this room, there lives in our memories someone whose words encouraged, cajoled, irritated and chided us into fulfilling our potential. For me, it is the words of a teacher at a tiny elementary school telling me he had sent a story I had written to a state competition. It is the words of another teacher at Swain County High School telling me I might have talent if I worked at it. And it is my own words heard in the voice of yet another high school teacher there reading a critical essay I had written to the class. These teachers’ words live in me as I try to say something fresh and true to my own classes of seventeen and eighteen year olds at the same high school. These words live in me when I sit at my desk and write. These words reside in me just as I hope the words I write, the words I speak, will take up residence in those who hear and read them and provide for them a means of bridging economic and societal gaps.
From the rural child living in a singlewide trailer to the urban child living in an apartment in the projects, from the mountain student I teach who has applied to Vanderbilt and Tulane, to the one who hopes for community college and who did without heat or electricity for much of last winter without complaint, what my students want is what we all want: that someone will attend to our words, that someone will show us how to use those words to establish our dignity and uphold the democracy that may move us to a better place.
And that is what I think is so wonderful about this award that I receive tonight. It does not offer the sentimental version of me, the teacher, as unsung hero, perpetuating the damaging stereotype of teachers as martyrs. Nor does it thank me for 10,000 graded essays, nor for teaching thousands of stories, nor for caring about one after another after another of the students who enter and exit my classroom, though never my memory. Instead, it thanks me for saying what I would have said anyway because it has to be said. This award thanks me for the insistent words that will not be quiet or still because they cannot be quiet or still, for the words that teach, but even more, for the words that tell a story, that keep me awake nights, that demand they be allowed to go beyond the walls of school. God gives teachers who write two voices: the one voice with which we shape the words that allow us to teach, and the other with which we shape the stories that we must write. And among the impassioned and dedicated, these words and the voices that give them life become a compulsion because we know they are a passport for anyone who learns to use them.
This award this evening from the Norman Mailer Center is my assurance that someone out there is listening to what I am compelled to say, someone out there believes a teacher, a public school teacher, has words that are worthy of recognition. And as each year in the future allows yet another teacher to stand in this place and feel this moment of grace and gratitude, and as the words grow in number and the voices grow in volume, perhaps those whose legislation so deeply affects us all will notice and believe that those who spend most of our lives in a classroom do, indeed, have words that are worthy of attention, words that can connect the people on one side of a divide to the people on the other.
And so I thank you. Thank you for allowing our world to expand beyond our schools, and for giving our words, for giving my words, an audience that listens, that allows those of us on the far side of the gap to do more than just see the land that is promised, but to actually touch it.
To read the story, go to www.ncte.org/awards/nmwa and click on “The Tender Branch.”
As I have written previously, in my dreams I am a tidy gardener. One of those saints who uses a tool and trots dutifully into the garage, cleans said tool in a bucket of sand and oil, and hangs up this now pristine work implement in an orderly fashion; exactly, of course, where it is supposed to go, and where it will be easily found for use as expected when next required.
But order is boring, chaos exciting.
In real life I am a garden slob. Abandoned buckets strewn about, hoes left forgotten for two or three days at a time until a deluge of rain reminds me of my garden duties. Then, after of course the rain is finished (I wouldn’t want to actually get wet), I trot about retrieving my tools; and if I have time, clean them and hang them where they are supposed to go. And if busy I simply cram them willy-nilly into the garage where they threaten to scratch the car and decapitate passers-by. Or I discover some hitherto never-before used or conceived-of place for garden tools so that nobody, most of all me, could ever find them in the future. I get angry that someone put them there, until I remember that someone was actually yours truly. It’s a good thing I’m also working these days on self-forgiveness. So I let my anger dissolve into nothingness.
I have similar tidy habits in the house.
You should understand that I was an unruly child, at least mentally, and tuned out during those early lessons about how like shapes go with like shapes. Or, the truth is I tuned out of this lesson when it comes to certain objects but not all; but anyway, that’s a different column and probably a different publication.
In a kitchen where I’m residing spoons somehow end up with forks; spatulas in the drawer near the refrigerator where whisks go rather than in the drawer near the stove where spatulas go.
The other night, after mindfully measuring out a cup of rice virtually grain by grain and two cups of water laboriously drop by sonorous drop (I’m working hard on mindfulness these days, in fact I recently attended an entire workshop devoted to nothing but paying reverent attention to the moment), I dropped the rice bag into the pot-lid drawer instead of taking it back to the pantry. This gave me a small start when I later opened the drawer to fish out a lid,and reached down and instead pulled out a bag of rice. A bag of rice, I share now with the world, works poorly as a lid substitute.
But I mustn’t wander.
In theory, I was this past weekend on my way to a goat-themed workshop in northern Virginia. I stopped instead in Winston-Salem, exhausted with the thought of driving another eight hours or so, and spent two very enjoyable days in that city’s art district and in old Salem.
There was a much-ballyhooed exhibit of modern art at Reynolda House, the “bungalow” built by the Reynolds family of tobacco fame (their bungalow is my mansion; their rustic campsite would, I suspect, be a grand estate to me). I enjoyed the exhibit, but frankly lacked the language and framework to enjoy the abstracts as much as I suspect they deserved.
After touring the art exhibit and house, I gravitated to the easily deciphered kitchen gardens. I later toured the kitchen gardens in old Salem, too. I have much in common with Moravians and tobacco barons, I learned. They love tidy gardens.
Unlike me, however, Moravians and tobacco barons achieved them.
I am left in envy. Nary a piece of grass dared cross the edging of the garden beds; every bed was exact in geometric perfection; all were weed- and bug-damage free. Perfect, absolutely perfect.
After getting back home, I glanced into my kitchen garden and wished I hadn’t. Weeds, bug damage, beds with lines drawn as if by a drunken snake, a hoe carelessly left out and five or six repurposed Ingles icing buckets serving as fine decorative elements.
Begin anew, I reminded myself. Everything changes, I muttered insightfully. Tomorrow dawns as a new day, a start to my future immaculate kitchen garden; one in which tools are never strewn carelessly about, weeds dare not grow and bugs don’t bite unsightly holes in the vegetables.
I don’t know Duke Energy CEO James Rogers and don’t have anything against him. But it’s not very hard not to imagine he and the giant utility he runs as the symbolic poster children for much of the discontent brewing in this country right now.
In a recent series of public hearings across North Carolina (including one in Franklin and one in Marion) about Duke Energy’s request for a rate hike, the company’s profits and the pay to its top executives have been mentioned by working-class folks who don’t want to see a 17 percent hike in their power bill. Duke has asked the state Utilities Commission to approve the increase, which would take effect in February 2012 if approved.
According to corporate filings and several news stories, Rogers earned $8.8 million in salary last year and received stock work about $1.35 million. Several other top Duke executives made millions. Also shown by recent corporate filings was a profit rate of 12.5 percent of earnings. Duke had an operating margin of 19.1 percent, which is a pretty good lick in this era. Most of those small businesses who will feel this rate hike would be ecstatic about those profits and that operating margin.
Rogers’ salary and compensation are at a level that puts him in elite company. His compensation is 200 times the salary of someone who makes $50,000 a year. The disparity is jaw dropping.
In addition to Rogers’ huge salary, Duke spent $1.73 million lobbying the federal government in the second quarter of this year. Multiply that out and one would guess that Duke spends somewhere close to $7 million a year trying to influence the votes of the men and woman who are going to make decisions about pollution controls, nuclear energy safeguards, etc.
According to Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group, 115 of the 170 state legislators elected in 2010 got a donation from either Duke or Progress Energy. The PACs of Progress Energy and Duke Energy gave $540,000 to General Assembly candidates in the 2010 election alone. That was more than any other PAC. The two companies are on their way toward a merger that will likely be approved.
And here’s a kicker that might raise some hackles. According to Democracy NC, “The companies are also lobbying the N.C. legislature for an unusual law that would allow them to raise rates automatically to recover the millions spent on developing and building new nuclear or other power plants, even if the construction project is ultimately abandoned. The proposal would make ratepayers, rather than investors, bear the financial risk of expansion operations.”
This is not meant as an anti Duke diatribe. Duke Energy is a popular corporate citizen that gives some of its profits back to the communities it serves. Its executives and employees take part in hundreds of community service organization throughout North Carolina.
But the timing of this request is what is so galling. Duke is reaping huge profits, pays its executives exorbitant salaries, and spend millions lobbying lawmakers who make the rules it has to follow, while at the same it wants the poor, the elderly, the unemployed and struggling small businesses to pay more for power.
The reports about of income disparity and poverty are raining down on us like a tropical storm: largest income disparity in U.S. history between top 1 percent and everyone else; elderly rate of poverty highest it has ever been; income gap between young adults and their parents at highest level ever; student debt at record levels; and more and more.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is lobbying the state Utilities Commission to deny the request. The N.C. Public Staff, which represents the public in these rate hike requests, wants the proposed increase cut by almost two-thirds. Obviously, the opinion of the state’s citizens has been overwhelmingly against the rate hike.
Duke wants more than just the rate increase and the ability to let ratepayers take the risk for its expansion. It also wants the Utilities Commission to up its allowable profit margin to 11.5 percent, up from the 10.7 it is now allowed. The Public Staff recommended a return of 9.25 percent. Most U.S. utilities have been allowed returns of 10 to 10.5 percent in the past five years, according to the industry trade group Edison Electric Institute.
Taken as a package, this sounds like a big corporation trying to stick it to its customers during an economic recession. Duke’s political clout, however, means it will in all likelihood get at least part of the increase. That’s my bet. Any takers?
One of the drawbacks perks of my job is the amazing number of meetings I’m forced fortunate enough to attend.
For instance, earlier today (a Sunday) I spent several hours in Franklin at a Tourism Development Authority retreat. The nice people on that board fed me Bojangle’s fried chicken and politely put up with my drilling down for details on their various tourism projects, funding and so on. The retreat lasted for more than three hours.
I am paid to attend these meetings. I assume the two Town of Franklin employees who sat in were reimbursed for spending their Sunday afternoons there, too. It’s part of our jobs; I worked a Sunday instead of a Friday, no big deal. They probably did something similar.
But not the seven board members — they are volunteers, and attended the retreat after putting in full workweeks of their own at their respective businesses. Hence, I suppose, the very odd day of the week chosen for this gathering.
Frequent readers of this column probably know I’m not given much to general cheerleading. And I’ve certainly never been accused of being a Pollyanna. Though I’m not prepared to render a verdict on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this particular board (this being my first opportunity to watch them in action), what did strike me as I endured enjoyed the retreat is just how fortunate we are to have volunteers such as these.
“We” being those who live in these mountain communities. And who subsequently benefit from this wealth of time and resources given by our neighbors. Countless groups, countless volunteers, countless volunteer hours — what would we do, what would we have in the form of communities, without them?
Matt Bateman is a new member to Franklin’s TDA. This was, I think, his second meeting. Matt admitted to missing the opportunity to watch NFL football on this Sunday afternoon, but said that he had decided to serve on the TDA for a simple reason: “I wanted to know, ‘How is Franklin being positioned as far as tourism goes?’” In other words, instead of standing apart and criticizing the board’s action, Matt asked that he be placed on the TDA board as a member.
I counted, and Matt asked the other board members exactly one-million-and-one questions. He would have made a dandy journalist. And in a sense, that’s something of what Matt’s doing within the vast capabilities of new media. He’s the developer of “playandstayinthesmokies.com,” a website-based business headquartered in Macon County.
Ron Winecoff is also a member of the TDA.
“I’m interested in the future of Franklin – I try to be progressive. But, sometimes Franklin won’t let me,” Ron said when I quizzed him on his volunteering bent. I’ve known Ron, in passing, for decades. He’s served on a variety of boards that I, in turn, have covered for a variety of newspapers.
I wasn’t sure if Ron was joking or not about being hindered in his progressive agenda. But I knew he wasn’t joking when he talked about young professionals such as Matt, at 30, as representing “the hope” of the community.
Winecoff described himself and the other, older-than-Matt volunteers as “pay phone people in a smart phone world” — we need these younger folks to take a seat at the table, he said. I agree. Fifteen years older than Matt, and I, too, feel like a “pay phone” person in a smart phone world. (Though I do have a smart phone of my own — I’m convinced that it is, indeed, considerably smarter than me.)
Beverly Mason is another perennial volunteer in Macon County. The acronyms for the groups she’s served on roll off her tongue like an odd poetry: TDA, TDC, EDC. Plus, the county planning board, the board of realtors, a bank board, two terms on the chamber of commerce board.
“The community is good to me. I love the community, I love these mountains,” said Beverly, a Buchanan by birth from Sylva.
Like Ron, Beverly is thrilled to see a younger generation in Macon County, the next wave, coming to take their places at gatherings such as the one Sunday. The volunteering, do-good spirit that has sustained this community, that has built and given meaning to all of our communities, lives on. And that, my friends, is a very good thing indeed.
During the five years that I spent at Western Carolina University (1954-58 and 1965), I had the good fortune to attend classes under some extremely gifted but eccentric instructors. There were two Rhodes scholars that passed through the university like a summer cyclone, leaving a modest amount of wreckage in their wake.
One of them would sometimes appear on campus at midnight wearing a Scottish kilt. He sang Robert Burns songs and did a raucous little dance down the sidewalk between Hoey auditorium and Stillwell (some witnesses claimed that he did not wear underwear). Another, sporting a magnificent beard and speaking in a deep baritone, told us raunchy stories and taught us to write our names in Greek.
Since this was a “beardless era” at the university, he was told to shave. According to the campus gossip, he told the administration that he had a rare disease and that if he shaved, he would die. Some were skeptical, but they left him alone. There are numerous stories about this venerable scholar who managed to both offend and delight numerous teachers and administrators.
However, the most interesting personality in this motley crew was Dr. George Herring. Unlike his colorful associates, George survived ... or at least, he chose to stay. As a consequence, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of his former students scattered across the United States that remember him with affection and admiration. Certainly, there has never been another like him in my experience.
George’s attire and physical appearance was memorable. He sometimes sported a ragged tweed jacket, but weather permitting, he usually wore colorful (striped) T-shirts, wrinkled pants and sneakers (not tennis shoes) and no socks. He always seemed to be in need of a shave and his hair was always in such disarray I used to imagine that the last thing he did each morning before he came to his first class was to massage his head until his hair was a total mess.
In the classroom, he was filled with a kind of spastic energy, charging aimlessly about the room and talking excitedly. A student may have signed for a course in medieval literature, but George would be delivering a brilliant lecture on astrology or Chinese dictionaries. Somehow, his students never felt cheated because somewhere in all of that constant flood of arcane knowledge, he would learn a great deal about medieval literature.
What rendered his students rapt was George’s feverish excitement. He loved what he was doing, and as he raced back and forth between the students and the blackboard, he laughed, wrote significant quotes on the blackboard, stopping occasionally to rake his disheveled hair into even greater disorder. Sometimes, there would be sudden bursts of anger, directed at some disputable idea or person (Erskine Caldwell, predestination, etc.), but it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, leaving us, his enthralled audience and George, an amiable elf. This fellow was wonderful!
Over the years, I had heard people talk about George’s “Everyman” lecture which was part of his course on Medieval Drama. The lecture had acquired a kind of “folklore” status at the university and each year, as the day approached for the Everyman Lecture, people who were not enrolled in the class began to call. I had the good fortune to hear this presentation twice and I can attest to the fact that there were attentive listeners standing in the room ... some from other universities.
Due to the fact that I was a theater major, I tended to perceive George as “theatrical.” When we were all in our seats, staring at the door in anticipation, George entered wearing his ragged tweed jacket and carrying a little attache case ... an item that I perceived as a “prop.” George began by telling us that he had attended Northwestern University and that each year, the university staged an outdoor version of the old play, “Everyman.”
As he recalled it, the stage was built at a point where two rivers converged and the banks of the rivers had a sound system, consisting of numerous loudspeakers. The play began as the sun was setting. In the opening scene, a character named Everyman” was in a tavern with a bar maid in his lap drinking and singing. Then, suddenly the summons came. “EVERYMAN!” and that word echoed down those two rivers: “Everyman! Everyman! Everyman ....” Then, Everyman stands, a bit frightened and says, “Who Calls?” The answer, loud and echoing is “Death calls, Everyman.”
At this point, Dr. George Herring goes into full performance mode. He tells us the story of how Everyman begs for time, pleading that he does not want to go to his final judgement alone. Could he have time to seek out companions to go with him? Death agrees, but notes that Everyman must return promptly within an hour. In a series of frantic visits, Everyman goes to his companions who have names like Money, Beauty, Power, Love, Family, Strength, etc.
Regretfully, they all decline, stating that on this last journey they cannot accompany their friend. “You must go alone,” they say. As Everyman prepares to leave, a small frail figure named Good Deeds appears and agrees to accompany Everyman. He apologizes for the fact that he is so weak, noting that Everyman has neglected him all of his life, but finally, the two figures climb a nearby hill where Death waits by an open grave with a ladder. As total darkness comes, gravediggers with lanterns surround the open grave as Everyman descends.
Now, here is the thing. We had all read the play, “Everyman” in the textbook. Although we may have found it a bit grim, I am quite sure that none of us found the experience “riveting.” Ah, but Dr. George Herring’s version left us limp and speechless. As George read the lines, as he pled with his friends to come with him, we were transfixed by his words. As Herring finished his lecture, he picked up his notes, dropped them in the little attache case, stepped to the door and opened it. He then flipped the light switch, leaving us in darkness and closed the door. For a single moment, we sat silent and motionless .... and then the bell rang for the end of the class.
I have often wondered about that final moment. Did Dr. Herring have his lecture timed to interface with the flip of a switch and the closing of a door?
I do remember that no one moved for a while.
George is gone. The halls that he once walked and the classrooms that he once made vibrant with ideas an images are now filled with a different breed of scholars. There are no memorials outside of a few personal tributes by former students over the years.
However, I do believe that golden moment when George Herring closed the door and flipped that light switch is the most fitting tribute a teacher can have. Ave, George.
I missed a golden opportunity to see my name emblazoned on a book spine by not writing about Western North Carolina’s very own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph. Many people suggested I turn my experiences into a nonfiction account. I certainly had the material and the background.
I covered that madman and the ensuing years-long manhunt in exhaustive blow-by-blow for the Asheville Citizen-Times, whose motto should have been “no detail too small to print.” (Today, by contrast, the newspaper might well consider using “nothing west of Asheville.”)
But, back to that rascally Rudolph and all his endearing reindeer games. Such as adding nails and tacks to bombs to ensure living victims were torn into as many bits as possible.
I wrote about Rudolph and how he ordered a deluxe Bible at the Christian bookstore in Murphy just before he blew up that policeman and nurse at an Alabama abortion clinic. I interviewed the bookstore owner in-depth and wrote the article in my best breathless, cliché-ridden Brenda Starr-reporter style.
I wrote about a threat Rudolph did not send (though we did not know at the time that someone else was seeking attention) to one of Murphy’s weekly newspapers. It was suggestively signed “the Army of God.” CNN and other national media outlets picked up what proved a non-story, and we at the newspaper were quite proud because this seemed proof of “owning the story” and of setting a torrid pace for everyone else to follow in panting envy.
I wrote about caves Rudolph did not hole up in when he did not hide in the Nantahala Gorge, complete with interviews with geologists who had never heard of Rudolph and extensive timelines and helpful maps about the region’s history of mining, hence the existence of the many caves not used by Rudolph.
I even wrote a piece, which I most fervently hope never again sees the light of day, for the newspaper’s parent company’s newsletter about how other Gannett newspapers around the country could cover big stories in an equally riveting style as mine.
I was, as you can imagine, suffering a full-blown case of Rudolph burnout when he was finally nabbed in 2003 Dumpster diving in Murphy. A book was out of the question.
By then, my interest in the Rudolph story rivaled my current level of passion for covering Macon County’s apparent insatiable appetite for initiating land-planning studies and fighting over them. The first time I wrote on that subject? Try 1992.
Even then, as a rank green cub reporter at The Franklin Press with a big dose of bravado and few skills to back the attitude, I suspected covering planning studies in Macon County might simply prove an exercise in burning newspaper space. Two decades later and I’m suspicious of precisely the same thing.
Hell, even most of the people I’m covering are the same people, often saying exactly the same things I quoted them saying three newspapers and two decades ago.
We — and this would be folks on either side of the issue, I don’t have a particular dog in that fight — often hug hello at meetings before getting down to business. It’s a familiarity that feels perfectly appropriate after our long, strange journey together. Like greeting extended family you never see except at the occasional funeral of some great aunt or great uncle, or hugging hello when everyone gathers to bury a cousin so far removed on your mother’s side that the exact connection isn’t fathomable even by the most ardent family genealogist.
A book about the various planning scrums in Macon County, however, would bore even those involved in the issues — not to mention me, the poor writer.
This leaves me to contemplate a one-year book. There is a sudden proliferation of taking on inspiring goals for one year and then writing best-selling books about these experiences.
One year of living biblically, one year of “test driving” the wisdom of the ages to discover the secret of happiness, one year of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
With this publishing explosion comes one-year improvement plans, too, such as one year of not buying anything new, one year of not eating processed foods, one year spent reading the “Five-foot Shelf” of Harvard Classics.
I understand what these authors are about, what they are “up to,” if you will. The one-year format provides ready-made topics and structures. That is very appealing for would-be writers who are short on good, original ideas.
Perhaps I could spend one year making various potpies, then write about eating potpies. I adore potpies, so that would be very enjoyable — but I shudder to think what I’d pack on in weight eating a potpie a week for a year.
I’m a voracious reader, so perhaps I could do something along that line … One year spent in bed reading whatever I wanted to, probably mainly British mysteries, with my food catered to me. I would, of course, condescend to get up to go to the bathroom as needed. That, in fact, could serve as chapter breaks.
The trouble with this outstanding idea is that my every-two-week bank deposit from The Smoky Mountain News might not continue in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed. But I’d be happy to dedicate the book “to my friends at The SMN, with many thanks for the literal support” if the newspaper’s owners would subsidize my yearlong break.
Plus, please, pay for an extra few months so that I could actually write what would — as inevitably as night follows day and local television reporters freely and without guilt lift stories from newspapers that are, in their books, too-small-to-count — be a runaway bestseller.
I followed the Janet Moore controversy from the beginning to its conclusion, which was all of three days. The former vice president of marketing for Mission Hospital made a mistake — a mistake that became very public — and paid a high price by losing a job she had held since 1991.
What seems obvious is that Moore was a casualty in a war that involves politics and medical market share, and that the war is far from over. She got caught in the crossfire.
This controversy, however, is also about cultural understanding and the words we use and knowing that what is acceptable in one conversation may be totally out of line in another place at another time. Moore crossed a line, and it cost her a career. In many instances, however, that line is not so clearly marked.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a short version. An audio recording of Moore speaking at a medical marketing conference earlier this year became fodder in the raging debate among healthcare institutions in Western North Carolina about Mission’s operating agreement with the state.
An excerpt from her comments at that conference was played at a public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 20. She countered that her comments about Mission’s market share were taken out of context. So Park Ridge Hospital officials, who released the earlier, edited version, put her entire conference presentation up on a website. She resigned on Friday, Oct. 21. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported the story on Saturday, Oct. 22.
Here’s what led to Moore’s resignation. At that conference, she told an anecdote about visiting a woman way up in a holler in Haywood County. Here’s how an article by Jon Ostendorff and John Boyle of the Asheville Citizen-Times on Oct. 22 described what she told that audience:
In the recording from the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing Development conference in September, Moore told an anecdote about taking her elderly parents to a remote part of Haywood County.
Moore said they encountered a woman at her trailer “that had in front of it some used appliances and old cars, which is not an unusual sight in our part of the country.”
Moore’s father wanted to know what some pens were in the backyard. At this point, Moore mimicked the woman living there with her “best Haywood County accent,” saying the pens held fighting roosters and curly horned sheep.
“My father said, ‘Lady, what do you do with these things?’ And she said, ‘I sell them on the Internet,’” Moore said. “True story. So here you have this woman in a holler in Haywood County — clearly not investing in dental care, I can tell you — and she is doing e-business. With illegal animals, I might add.”
In the audio recording (which can be found at www.wncchoice.com/, go down to picture of Janet Moore and then click on “full presentation” button, and then go about 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the audio to get to the controversial part), Moore’s portrayal of the Haywood County’s accent and her reference to “not investing in dental” care are in poor taste. The ACT story quoted both the chairman of the Haywood County commissioners and the head of the Tourism Development Authority criticizing Moore’s use of stereotypes to describe county residents.
Moore made a mistake. In the audio, she follows up her negative comments by saying that you can’t stereotype rural mountain people, that these folks way back up in the woods are Internet savvy.
Unfortunately, in this case it became clear very quickly that the end did not justify the means.
But what about the comments? Anyone completely outraged about the description? Where do we draw the line when talking about groups of people?
First, of course, is the fact that Moore was in a position where she is paid to say the right things. If you’re a spokesperson or marketing person, a slip of the tongue can be expensive for the company you represent.
In my private life, seldom does a day go by that I don’t hear similar derogatory comments — jokes, by another name — about Yankees and Floridians, or the “left-coasters” in California. As a Southerner who has done a bit of traveling, I’m used to snide or trying-to-be-funny insults coming my way (still happens everyday in television and in movies) about being from the South and living in the Appalachians.
Is it OK for someone here to talk about rude, sarcastic New Yorkers with Yankee accents but not hillbillies with bad teeth and a mountain twang? I guess it’s all about context and timing. Moore’s remarks became a firebomb in the political battle about Mission’s market share. At a different meeting in a less contentious situation, they might have been shrugged off as just being in poor taste.
The exquisite, fleeting beauty of autumn is with us now. Cold nights signal changes to come. Soon there will be a killing frost; winter will be upon us then.
“Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all.”
Autumn, this brief window between the heat of summer and the gray skies and frigid mornings of winter, is my favorite time of year. There is a bittersweet quality to the season that I’ve never quite been able to capture in words. I think it’s in autumn, or in my desire to write autumn, that I most wish I had been given the gift of poetry. Only poets, it seems, can come near capturing the … the what?
I lack the words, the skill needed to describe this perfect day in a perfect autumn. Blue skies, the sun, the chill, the leaves in yellows and reds; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground; to become trees with leaves that are first green, then yellow and red; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground — a cyclical pattern writ perfectly, but one written here imperfectly.
John Keats wrote to a friend in September 1819: “How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”
Keats’ composition was “To Autumn.” It begins: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run/To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,/And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core …”
As with Shakespeare in the first quote, we find “ripeness” repeated here in Keats. That tickles my thoughts, and the Buddhist phrase, “like licking honey from the razor’s edge,” resonates in my mind. The simultaneous gain of pain and pleasure is one possible interpretation of that saying. Or, the insistence on gaining pleasure, knowing that doing so brings with it the inevitability of pain — that would be another interpretation, perhaps.
“Here be dragons,” one of the world’s oldest maps, the Lenox Globe, warned would-be travelers nearing the east coast of Asia; another way, I think, of saying something of the same thing … explore at your own peril, living on the working edge, licking honey from the razor’s edge, ripeness is all, autumn changes to winter.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven/A time to be born, and a time to die/a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted/A time to kill, and a time to heal/ a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh/A time to mourn, and a time to dance/A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together/A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing/A time to get, and a time to lose/ a time to keep, and a time to cast away/A time to rend, and a time to sew/ a time to keep silence, and a time to speak/A time to love, and a time to hate/ a time of war, and a time of peace.”
When autumn comes and my thoughts spin into unanswerable questions such as these, about beginnings and endings and the passing of the seasons; when I pick up the Bible and read Ecclesiastes, or search the Norton Anthology of English Literature for Keats; and when I find myself staring for too long into the glass front showcasing the wood fire at night, I like to ground myself by thinking about the ending of a particular book by the fine Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering. He spent time in Japan studying Zen. Van de Wetering, who also wrote a fantastic series of detective novels, recounted his youthful experiences searching for life’s meaning in “The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery.” This quest involved long hours of meditation and endless efforts to solve koans, those puzzle-like questions designed to help one obtain enlightenment.
Ultimately, at the book’s end, van de Wetering leaves the monastery and goes to a bar and has a beer.
That, too, is ripeness of a sort, I suppose. Having already imbibed my life’s allotment of beers, I think I’ll go have a glass of tea.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is leaderless, somewhat vague and lacking vision. Still, people are joining in growing numbers around the world in spite of the fact that the movement is flawed in so many very fundamental ways.
And I love it. I’m a sucker for rebels, malcontents, subversives and nonconformists. Always have been and always will be. Makes for challenging parenting. It’s a delicate proposition to encourage one’s children to break the rules and challenge authority while also encouraging them to follow most of the rules and respect teachers, coaches and other adults.
I found my first literary hero in middle school. It was Henry David Thoreau and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which argues that one’s conscience is the moral compass one should follow, not the rules imposed by a state or national government (or, for me during those teen years, silly school rules that wouldn’t let me forego classes on a beautiful late summer day to hang out at the lake with the other malcontents).
It’s a collective moral compass that’s driving this growing movement, telling people that something is fundamentally wrong. In one sense it is a very simple reaction to the country’s problems, such as the fact that the disparity between CEO compensation and average worker pay has doubled in the last decade. Or that political leaders and parties vote against issues they once supported and that might help the country simply because that vote might benefit the opponent or the opposition party.
This all sounds simple, but as one writer has said of the protestors, sometimes simplicity can be very complicated.
Reacting against Wall Street greed, in general, is very easy. Then it gets complicated when we are forced to admit that Wall Street only does what government allows it to do (most of the time). The crash followed years of de-regulation and laissez-faire enforcement from both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Then there are the Occupy Wall Street attacks on capitalism. Capitalism can be very, well, dog-eat-dog, rewarding the most successful with untold riches. But it has helped us create a very large, very important social safety net. It also encourages entrepreneurship and individualism and invention, which have become synonymous with the American identity and has been the catalyst for making us the leader of the free world.
What these protests lack in intensity and message they make up for in inclusion. All are welcome, whether it’s aging hippies or college students, union supporters and anti-war pacifists, the unemployed and the stay-at-home dad. The shared values are frustration, anger, helplessness and — optimism. The belief that knitting together people from varied backgrounds and beliefs can make a difference in government and in the economy is refreshing. This a big-net, wild-eyed kind of optimism.
And while it shares the belief in the power of democracy that is touted by the Tea Party, it is radically different. Tea Partiers talk about taking America back, but it’s not quite clear who we would be taking it back from; they talk about stopping “them” from spending our money or taking our jobs, but again, it’s not quite clear who “them” is.
A colleague of mine said the Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street supporters — both with their passion and their belief that people can wield influence in a democracy — may end up eventually backing into each other and finding common ground.
Perhaps. That would be called compromise, and I think these new protestors and their open-armed inclusion are symbolic of the kind of compromise we need to solve some very big problems. This movement may very well fizzle, but its fundamental philosophy is admirable.