“It’s like floating on a cloud,” that’s what the man in the booth said about his nifty adjustable hammocks. We took turns trying one out, first my wife — the most frugal among us and therefore the hardest sell — and then the two kids. Finally, I climbed in, skeptical that the hammock, which hangs from one hook and collapses into an unobtrusive bundle of netting when unoccupied, could accommodate my 6’4” 235 pound frame.
It did, and within a few seconds, I was floating on that cloud, as bemused festival goers floated past in small, talkative clumps, now just other clouds drifting by me. I had to have one. Uh, I mean WE had to have one. Minutes later, we were choosing a color and writing a check.
The very next Saturday, I was out on the deck floating in my new hammock, enjoying a cup of coffee and the last few chapters of a good novel. But more than that, I was enjoying the stillness of a perfect Crabtree afternoon.
Tammy had taken the kids into town to brave the “no tax weekend” madness. They’d be a few hours picking out new backpacks and notebooks and pencils and markers for school, not to mention trying on these jeans and that shirt.
The dog was curled up on a cushion next to me, the cat stretched out near the railing of the deck, surveying the yard below. A cardinal pecked at the last few seeds in the birdfeeder, retreated to a nearby branch, and then came back again for another look.
A storm seemed to be moving in…or not. The sky was almost perfectly bifurcated, gray and ominous in the south, but blue with just a few wispy clouds in the northern half. Every few seconds, I could hear the distant rumble of thunder — somebody was getting pounded a ways off — but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and the animals were not disturbed from their respective spots of repose.
I kept floating, kept reading. Like my novel, summer was drawing to a close. I would be going back to work in a few days, the kids back to school in another week. The days, though still scorching, are already perceptibly shorter and will soon be growing even shorter, as we approach the beginning of football season, the arrival of the county and state fairs, the first chill, the turning of the leaves.
I imagined myself in the hammock on a crisp autumn day, drinking cider and reading a book of poems by Robert Frost, or maybe Yeats, trying to fight off the inevitable and ineffable melancholy that seems to find its way into my heart at unexpected moments this time of year.
Autumn is actually my favorite season, the richest and most lustrous of all the seasons. I prefer weather cool enough to require the wearing of flannel or a sweater to the searing, oppressive heat of July and August. I sleep better when it’s cold outside, and I always look forward to the day each year when we can finally replace the chenille bedspread with our goose down comforter and turn off the air conditioning once and for all.
But this isn’t just another fall. The kids are beginning to get older, especially our daughter, who has suddenly stopped clinging to her mother like another layer of skin and has, without warning, entered into a kind of pre-teen, semi-rebellious, mood-fluctuating, completely unpredictable funk. Sometimes, she’s her old self — giggling, ebullient, playing with dolls — while at others, even the task of eating dinner is simply too horrific to contemplate, as if her fork suddenly weighed 80 pounds and the act of lifting it from her plate to her mouth is very nearly an impossibility.
Questions, no matter how innocuous, are met with a theatrical rolling of the eyes and audible sighs. The very idea of asking about her day! Can you comprehend the absurdity of it?
In the meantime, our son is busy perfecting mischief, or discovering new ways to whine about eating squash or creamed corn, the very same foods he ate with relish as a babbling toddler. Now he finds ways to “hide” food by carving it into tiny morsels, and then reconstructing it on his plate, an elaborate project that could almost pass for modern art. Or he stalls, waiting for us to finish so that he can scrape his plate without being noticed while we are preoccupied with some part of the post-dinner routine.
He has become the family’s ace negotiator. Yes, he’ll eat one more bite of chicken IF he can play one more game of Mario Kart before bed. Yes, he’ll brush his teeth IF Charlie can come over this weekend.
The kids are changing fast, just like everybody warned they would when they were born. They’re crashing through childhood like bears through the forest, wild and lumbering and scary. Before we know it, they’ll be out of the woods, enrolling in college, holding up placards at televised games that read, “Send money.”
I do love this new hammock, but I guess I’d better be careful how much time I spend in it, huh?
Art is aesthetic; crafts are practical.
That’s the difference between the two, at least in theory. The distinction between arts and crafts becomes blurred, however, when you attend an event as tremendous as the annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands in Asheville.
I was smart enough to make the trip over to the big city a couple of weekends ago, despite not particularly relishing the prospects of an hour-long drive there and the ensuing battle that always follows for parking. But I set those drawbacks aside and went with a friend, and came away thrilled. I’ve been thinking about the show ever since.
There were indeed crafts being shown there that are mainly functional. These included a dizzying array of potters with kitchenware, carvers and their walking sticks, and textile artists who had turned out one-of-a-kind articles of clothing.
I enjoyed all of that very much indeed. The craftsmanship, the attention to detail — it was truly wonderful.
But what set me to ruminating were the craftspeople who transcended their crafts and created what undeniably constituted art. I’m not sure where that line shifts, which leaves me feeling a bit like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, in classifying what constituted obscenity, wrote “I shall not today attempt further to define what kinds of material I understand to be embraced … But I know it when I see it.”
I do remember reading something that impressed me very much when I was younger and that seems pertinent, though I can’t quote it accurately. The sentiment, however, is something like this: work on the basics of your craft, and leave it to others to determine whether it rises to the level of art. Which leads nicely into this perspective, by Pablo Picasso: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”
All that said, I’m still at a loss to define art in comparison to what constitutes craft.
Before returning home that day from Asheville, I plunked down more money than I could comfortably afford for a piece by a ceramic artist who was showing her work at the craft fair. This for a figurine that, once seen, I knew I couldn’t easily live without. It is a piece that I’m totally comfortable describing as an original piece of art, though we all now know that I’m incapable of explaining what, exactly, I mean by that.
Here’s my little personal credo: I believe in living with fine art, great music and literature. I want original paintings on my walls and fine sculptures here and there in my home. I enjoy listening to classical music, I read the classics and I love good food.
(I also hate watermelon, listen to bluegrass, watch and enjoy perfectly wretched true-crime shows on television, and read British mysteries and very bad science-fiction fantasy novels — but that’s a discussion for another day).
This is a tough economy for artists, musicians and writers. There’s not a lot of extra money these days for items that many might think superfluous, such as paintings, sculptures, concerts, plays, books of poems and novels.
Sometimes, frankly, I feel that way, too. Reporters are not among the world’s best-paid people, surprisingly enough, and supporting the arts can be tough on one’s checkbook.
But I have no regrets about supporting the ceramic artist I met at the craft fair in Asheville, and for helping to underwrite her future work by paying a fair exchange for a piece that is truly lovely (in a sort of tortured-artist-kind of lovely way).
Because I smiled when I got the figurine home, unpacked it, and realized that it would stay with me. I find that truly amazing, the fact I can actually live with and enjoy something this great, a piece imagined inside someone’s head and transferred in a wondrous, inexplicable way through their hands.
Sculpture, books, music, paintings and other forms of art — truly, this constitutes the good life as I define it, and is what makes me feel rich.
From the hotel window in Durban, South Africa, I can see the Indian Ocean. Freighters line the horizon like parapets on a castle wall, waiting their turn to berth at the busiest container port in the entire continent of Africa. The ocean breeze makes the water warm enough to swim even as winter here turns to spring, and we did just that today, splashing in the ocean after a run along the sand.
And we weren’t alone. The beach was packed with vacationers and locals, all enjoying a gorgeous Sunday after a rare cold, rainy spell late last week. One of the locals I was talking to said getting the sun back was a welcome occurrence. “Cape Town is supposed to get the rain in winter, we’re not supposed to get rain. Now things are right.”
It’s easy to get lulled into a sort of stupor in a place like this. I am removed from South Africa’s many problems as we work on press releases high atop the Durban Hilton. But even in this tourist district, I move from place to place among a mix of humanity so diverse it is staggering.
I’ve done a bit of traveling, and nowhere is there a mix of humans so colorful in skin color and dress. It’s a human bazaar, and as we strolled along the promenade along the beach I was as wide-eyed as a kid.
Even here, I am reminded of the politicians in Washington and the last few weeks of debate on the debt ceiling and the country’s future. CNN’s worldwide news service is here to remind me. As this is published on Wednesday, Aug. 3, I expect a deal will have been struck to meet a deadline that, if missed, could have sent our country into the first stages of default.
We should all be frustrated at the way this has played out, as politics has trumped the nation’s best interests. “Like spoiled children,” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as I watched and listened and then moaned and groaned. Each day one side or the other sounded more petulant and immature.
I’m in Durban with Ken Howle, a friend who works at Lake Junaluska who asked me if I’d accompany him to the World Methodist Conference to help with media. Ken was asked by the WMC General Secretary George Freeman to handle all the communications at the conference, and so here we are with a couple of thousand Methodists from all over the world. Ken and I are trying to mix fun and work, taking in the local flavor — including the great beach, a brutal rugby match, and some of the local seafood — while we also prepare for the work of communicating what happens here to Methodists around the world.
I was talking to a woman here from the U.S., one who has traveled the world extensively with her husband, and the debt ceiling debate came up. She seemed frustrated, and reminded us: “Yes, they say when we hiccup, the rest of the world gets a cold; when we get the flu, the rest of the world dies.”
The South African paper today (Sunday, July 31), bemoaned the potential fallout to this troubled country if the U.S. does not get its act together. This is a place that suffers from 25 percent official unemployment, where young and old alike beg on the streets to gather enough money to feed themselves and family members.
Ken spoke with a woman waiting in line with us at a restaurant. She had just returned from America, nine months as a CNA at a Mississippi rest home. She told him she would have never come back but her visa expired. Bongie, a local newspaper editor who’s helping us, said the problems in her native Zimbabwe are much worse than here, and that she came to South Africa to find opportunity.
While our own country and the rest of the world suffers, we can’t find leaders who really care. The problem with America isn’t that we’re prosperous. We should be proud of our successes, developing an economy and a standard of living much of the world still envies.
The problem is that we seem to have forgotten how to lead, how to use our great wealth to fix problems in our country or anywhere else.
In her teachings, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron often relates a story about a great spiritual teacher, Atisha, who planned a trip from India to Tibet. Atisha was told the people of Tibet were good-natured, pleasant and wonderful to be with. This worried Atisha, who feared he’d have no one to provoke him and show him where he needed to train. So Atisha brought along with him a mean-tempered, unpleasant Bengali tea boy.
Chodron says the Tibetans like to finish out the story by joking that when Atisha actually arrived in Tibet, he found plenty of irritating people to show him his faults — he needn’t have brought the Bengali tea boy at all.
The Bengali tea boy has become my mental symbol for those times I’m dealing with an irritating person. I’m not advanced enough in spiritual ways to embrace the concept that we should, as Chodron goes on to urge, “be grateful to everyone.” But I do feel confident that she is correct in maintaining that we create — and re-create — identical situations involving different people throughout our life until we learn to break our habitual patterns.
In that way, I can understand that we should all give thanks to the jerks in our life. They help us, you see, to find out where we are stuck. And hopefully, to make meaningful changes that increase our own happiness.
Though, honestly, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I might just be someone else’s Bengali tea boy.
Hands down, giving up cigarette smoking was the most difficult personal change I’ve ever undertaken. I loved smoking, so of course it became outsized in my life, in the way that I overdo anything and everything that I like. And things I dislike, for that matter. I tend to avoid uncomfortable situations with equal vigor.
I didn’t just smoke a little, I smoked a couple packs a day — a cigarette in every orifice, one friend joked as he saw me inhale and exhale my way through smoke after smoke.
A drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other; I sure was a cool chick in my 20s. When I hit my mid-30s, however, I realized that I couldn’t run 100 feet without wheezing and gasping, and I didn’t feel so cool anymore. In fact, I generally felt bad and unhealthy and as if I might not live anywhere near a ripe old age.
So I quit. And I haven’t smoked a cigarette since, because I seriously doubt I could muster up the necessary willpower to go through quitting again. So I don’t play games by taking “just a puff” or anything like that — sometimes it pays to recognize just how weak-willed you are.
So I was covering something for the newspaper this past week when I got into the oddest talk with someone. And that person surprised me with their sudden gentleness and support, because we were discussing drinking and I mentioned I’d quit that, too, and they immediately offered unreserved, unhesitating support (this is not as inappropriate a subject to have gotten into talking about as it sounds — you’ll have to trust me when I say that it fit into that particular conversation at that particular moment).
For much of my life I’ve been skeptical of people’s basic goodness. It’s nice to find myself so continually wrong.
Scientists now believe the brain is amazingly fluid; that it keeps changing no matter our age. They call this neuroplasticity. The brain can remake itself structurally and functionally if only given new information. Findings about neuroplasticity defy earlier beliefs about human development. Until relatively recently, scientists and those concerned with behavior and the human mind believed our brains pretty much quit developing after early childhood.
I find this research on the plasticity of the brain good news indeed, and it probably goes a long way toward explaining how I was able to successfully quit smoking and drinking. Here’s my undoubtedly overly simplistic version of neuroplasticity: new habits create new brain pathways if you just hang in there long enough. This plasticity of the brain, or so I’m fervently hoping, also applies to our relationships — refrain from responding in a habitual fashion, and eventually we create entirely new ways of relating and being. In this way, you see, we all can be somewhat thankful, at least, to our Bengali tea boys — they give us practice in remaking our brains each time they do something irritating and we respond differently than we have before.
I believe it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean I embrace abusive relationships, or endorse passivity — far from it. The truth, however, is that I could afford to be a little more passive and less aggressive in my dealings with those people who push my buttons.
I’m finding it very helpful to believe the jerks in my life are, perhaps, actually there for a reason; and that I can use their jerkiness, as it were, to further my own happiness.
I remember both my grandfathers very well. Both served in the military during WWI, and their grandfathers fought in the American Civil War. With that perspective, one can readily comprehend how quickly time moves along.
Nowadays, at age 59, I see things at flea markets that are touted as antiques, yet I may have used some of those things early in life. And all the nostalgic stories of yesteryear are easily sliced to ribbons by memories of having been there. I mention it here in regard to my mother, who died on July 15.
Jean Muirhead was elected to serve in the Mississippi Legislature in 1968, having only recently been also admitted to the state bar. At the time there were only seven women in the Magnolia state who were licensed to practice law. But it was the 60’s, and things were changing fast.
One of her first legislative attention-getters was to break with tradition in regard to the school-age kids who served as assistants in the House and the Senate. They were, they are still, called pages. But in the halcyon days of Deep South thinking, before “the nigras” began howling to be recognized as people, before Yankee television reporters could invade at any moment and send live, color images of the truth back to their anchors’ desks in New York City, life in my home state was vastly different than it is today.
It was a time of male domination. There were only seven female lawyers? Today there are hundreds! And although it never really felt like it to me at the time, as a kid growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s, repression was everywhere. (I’m not about to attempt to explain life through the eyes of a black Mississippian. I am white; but I’ve got my own stories.)
I well remember as a teenager the nagging sensation of living inside an inescapable falseness. Things were not as they seemed. On Sunday mornings I would attend Sunday school and “big church” with my family. And before “big church” began, outside the sanctuary the deacons smoked cigarettes at the front door. Sometimes the preacher would walk through the crowd and cloud of blue smoke, nodding with tight lips at his coterie of ordained sinners. He would never smoke; nor would he condemn those who did, at least not one on one. He would wait until he stood in sanctuary of his pulpit, there to harangue the entire congregation on the evils of tobacco. The deacons on the front row would then clear their throats, cough, and nod in agreement.
Women were seen only in the pews or the choir loft. They had no place on the dais. God’s word was men’s word, and females were not considered astute enough to preach and teach on the complexities of Western religion. Their place was in the home, cooking pot roast, rearing the children, pleasing their husbands.
In those days, drug stores had entrances around back labeled “Colored.” The few public restrooms available were similarly identified. If you are under the age of 30 and are reading this, you probably find it difficult to understand. But repression and segregation were the orders of the day. The world was controlled by white men, no matter how ignorant and brutish they happened to be. Boys wore flat-top haircuts, and girls wore skirts, not pants. Individualism was an arcane and unholy route, and those who took it faced universal condemnation.
In the movie “Patton,” G.C. Scott portrays the mercurial WWII general, George S. Patton. In one scene enemy airplanes begin strafing his headquarters in N. Africa. The planes make a couple of passes over the village until finally a direct hit is made on the building wherein Patton is watching the action from a window. Suddenly plaster and debris is raining down on his head. Grabbing at his revolver in its holster Patton growls, “All right now, by God, THAT’S ENOUGH!” He jumps through an open window onto the top of a truck, and then down to the ground where he stands in the street and fires relentlessly at the planes with his handheld revolver, cursing with every shot.
Well, I doubt my mother did much cursing on the Senate floor, but one day she did realize, “by God, THAT’S ENOUGH!” In glaring, shocking revolt, she appointed a female page to serve her, even though it was not girl’s week. Boys could serve as pages throughout the legislative session; but girls got the opportunity during only one of those weeks, until, that is, Jean Muirhead came to town.
Later she would disrupt the ol’ boys club even more. A bill had come to the floor that had to do with state court procedures. My mother scribbled out an amendment to the bill and took it forward to the secretary of the senate. For other reasons the bill was apparently important to the entrenched powers, the men who wanted the bill passed right then. The secretary read the amendment, which struck the word “male” from the text. If you have never been present when our lawmakers are working, you may not grasp how chaotic it sometimes is. Half the time it appears no one is paying any attention. (The other half they are not.)
So, amid the usual confusion, when the secretary called for the vote, the bill passed. It then was moved directly to the House, where, owing to the momentum of the thing, it passed there too. The Ol’ Boys realized they’d been snookered, but to resist would have been embarrassing, and probably futile. There was a chink in the armor, and because of the passage of that bill, women could at last serve on state court juries. It may seem a trifle today, but at the time it was yet another indication that in the homeland of Confederate President Jefferson Finis Davis, a new day was dawning.
EDISTO, S.C. — If you’re going to roast in a record-breaking heat wave anyway, you might as well do it at the beach. Here, at least, we have the ocean breezes, a swimming pool at the resort, merciful air conditioning in the cottage we’re renting, and putt putt. No, strike that last item. Putt putt provides no respite at all from the withering heat except for the questionable shade afforded by the Spanish moss and a few scraggly Palmetto trees. It’s just that I have played so much putt putt this week, I cannot seem to form a list of any kind without including it.
Today is our last day at Edisto, so I just completed the last of 712 rounds I have played this week. If I had been forced to play one more hole, I would feed my purple golf ball to the snapping turtles and impale the model lighthouse on the fourth hole with my green putter. I would have thought my son’s obsession with putt putt, which began early last year would have waned by now, but, like a hurricane, it has only gathered strength, picking up in the gulf stream the added obsessions of ping pong and actual golf, the latter of which is almost compensation for the former. I would play golf at least five days a week if I had the money, time, and easy access to a good course, but since I don’t, I usually play once or twice per year, so it is a nice bonus when I get to come here and play the Plantation course with my son and my old buddy, Bill, who lives in Charleston and drives over for a round when we’re here.
This is our third year at Edisto, and we love its quiet, slightly goofy, almost surrealistic charm. In the offseason, there are barely enough people here for a decent game of touch football, and even in the high season, it is easy to get around, find parking places anywhere you go, and do whatever you want without enduring excruciating long lines and obnoxious, frequently intoxicated tourists. As long as you understand that you must leave your frenzied pace at the county line when you arrive and that you are not going to be dining every night in a five-star restaurant, you would probably love Edisto, unless you’re an obnoxious, frequently intoxicated tourist, in which case you’re probably not going to love anything anyway.
As an indication of the slower pace, the first adjustment you have to make at Edisto is that as long as you are there, you will be driving about as fast as the average golf cart or 12-year-old-on-a-bicycle goes, since you will be spending most of your time behind one or the other or both. There are almost as many golf carts and bicycles on the roads as there are cars, but if you come to think of your vehicle as a REALLY FANCY golf cart — with air conditioning and a radio! — and let go of the habit of racing to get everywhere you go, you’ll be fine. As the locals say, “It’s Ed-I-SLOW.” Learn it, know it, live it.
Every year, my wife grabs the real estate listings out of one of the racks in front of the Piggly Wiggly and regales me with various ads, as if it would be the most natural and obvious thing in the world for us to get into one of these places. I remind her that I am a teacher working in the state of North Carolina, which means that any second home we might be able to afford would have to be made of fabric or cardboard.
“Oh well, a girl can dream, can’t she?”
My favorite thing to do at Edisto is to walk out along the bay to watch the sun set and to see the dolphins playing about 50 yards or so off shore. I have yet to visit the bay and not see them there, and, of course, the sunsets are simply gorgeous. The kids like the dolphins, too, though they enjoy chasing the fiddler crabs after dark even more. By the time we leave, we have to use the flashlight to find our way back to the access, and both kids are coated in a film of sand and sea spray — there is no crevice, no nook, no cranny that the sand will not find, and no matter how thoroughly we shower and clean, there is always some residue. For weeks afterward, sand from the beach will spill out of shoes, hats, toys, and clothes, little souvenirs of our vacation.
If we can’t yet afford that place on Edisto, at least we can take a little of it back with us.
The basic issue is safety. That’s it, plain and simple.
While one Jackson County commissioner has questioned the need for R-5000, a new access road for Southwestern Community College’s Jackson Campus, the board of trustees and I contend that not only is there a driving need, it accelerates daily.
From a single building in 1964, the Jackson Campus has expanded to six buildings, plus the new Early College facility built last summer. The same road that served a few dozen students back in 1964 now serves a soaring enrollment of 3,668 college students, plus faculty and staff. Add to that the 155 high-schoolers at the Early College.
With only one way in and out for the entire campus, a new road is needed not just to alleviate congestion, but to mainly ensure safety. During an emergency or the need for quick evacuation, a single road is a handicap.
Back in 1994, 30 years after the campus opened, the need for a new road was included in the SCC Master Plan. Developed by Moore and Associates of Asheville, the plan suggested the college consider other points of access to campus since there is only one way in and out. A possible area, they suggested, was from N.C. 107, with the proper right-of-way into the back property at its most southeast point.
That’s 17 years ago. Our board realized then, even before 9/11 or incidences like Virginia Tech, that we needed to protect the safety of our students.
In the 1990s the college began looking at alternatives. On July 28, 1998, then-President Cecil Groves presented aerial photos of the SCC campus to the board and discussed the development of a potential direct access road to N.C. 107. Since the college is built on a hillside, college officials decided the best alternative would be a loop road around campus with direct access to NC 107. In addition to providing safety for campus, it would help eliminate congestion at the N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 intersection.
On Feb. 12, 1999, the SCC Board of Trustees approved a plan of property acquisition, as outlined within the revised college master plan. Maps and aerial shots of a proposed route at the back of campus linking to N.C. 107 were included in that 1999 revised master plan. On Oct, 15, 1999, the State Board of Community Colleges approved SCC’s property acquisition plan, including the N.C. 107 access plan for a second means of access to the campus.
Following the state board approval, in 2000 we contacted various agencies outlining the college’s property acquisition plans and the N.C. 107 access road. Among these were David Gourley, real property agent, State Property Office; Wayne McDevitt, secretary, N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources; Ron Watson, division engineer, N.C. Department of Transportation; and Jay Denton, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
It has taken the college 10 years to acquire the three parcels of property necessary to build the road. During those 10 years the agencies involved were kept informed of our plans and progress. Also during those 10 years the college secured legislative action and funding to relocate the N.C. Division of Forestry offices. A planning grant was received in fiscal year 2007-08, with a construction allocation awarded fiscal year 2008-09.
I have been involved with this project since day one and I can tell you it’s been a slow, methodical process, certainly not fast-tracked at all.
Dr. Groves, now president emeritus, said it well in this brief statement, “What we had was an overwhelming need, but with 10 years of tireless planning we developed a workable solution, along with the funding to fix the problem.”
Just down the road Smoky Mountain High School, situated on a hillside with a single road in and out, faced a similar situation. DOT funds were secured to build a second road for the high school. The high school students on our campus, as well as our college students, deserve the same safety factor. We have tried not to burden our commissioners and local taxpayers, and that’s why we worked diligently to secure DOT funding for SCC’s new road.
(George Stanley is the SCC Project Manager for this project.)
Out running early this morning, I was struck by the colors of summer found in the fields along Fairview Road in Sylva. Purple clover, the unique blue of chicory, Queen Anne’s lace providing intermittent touches of white — the fields are lovelier than the most carefully designed perennial garden.
British gardener Mirabel Osler, in her book of essays A Gentle Plea for Chaos, calls on us to intentionally seek wildness in our own gardens. Osler appeals for “controlled disorder,” a pairing of words I like very much indeed.
But controlled disorder can be harder to achieve than one might think.
That’s because it involves risk. And it requires creative ability, and ways of seeing that not all of us have been equally blessed with. All of us, however, can aspire to add touches of wildness to our creations, or let others do so even when we cannot.
It is through failures that much fun comes; or at least, that’s what I’ve experienced in various life roles as gardener, musician and writer. And the occasional, seemingly out-of-the-blue flashes of success can be heady indeed. Those moments provide incentive to keep trying to reach new heights, when the words actually say what you meant, or the music sounds like you hoped it would, or the garden looks like you thought it would look — but better somehow, because there now exists something uncontrived and original. It is your own creation.
The greatest pieces of music, the finest paintings, the pieces of literature most of us consider works of genius — all are stamped with individuality and wildness.
The critic Harold Bloom described this better than I can. He wrote about “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. … When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectation.”
Even in news writing there can be wildness, though we are seeing increasingly diminished willingness among journalists to take risks — failure these days can mean getting booted out of the field altogether, because there aren’t a lot of newspaper jobs out there anymore.
Several people recently have asked me whether I like writing for The Smoky Mountain News better than I liked writing for the Asheville Citizen-Times, where I spent 10 years as a regional reporter, investigative reporter and editor/manager.
The answer is complicated, but it’s directly connected to what I’m trying to write about in this column — there is more freedom with The Smoky Mountain News to experiment, and I love that. I can put a bit of controlled disorder into my writing, take risks and venture beyond my own skill level, even get a little wild. Sometimes I fail; in fact, often I fail — but I believe that failure has value. It is real, you see.
For instance, I never, ever used four-letter words in the Citizen-Times. I quoted someone using the “f” word repeatedly, however, in a recent article for The Smoky Mountain News, and I did so without feeling the least bit apologetic or ashamed. The story was shocking and the word belonged, and I was pleased everyone at the paper seemed to understand that was so.
I never used first person when writing a news article for the Citizen-Times. I don’t a lot even here, but I do if it seems right — playing the omniscient narrator sometimes grows old. Who exactly do we think we are fooling, anyway? Obviously real people write news articles, and sometimes it feels comfortable to acknowledge that truth.
I never was sarcastic, or ironic, in my news stories for the Citizen-Times. Sometimes I’m too sarcastic in articles for The Smoky Mountain News, and there have been occasions when I realize (oops, too late, it’s already been printed) that I went too far.
I’m taking risks because I told myself that this time around, I’d do things differently. It’s not about my having fun at someone’s expense, I promise you that. I decided, the moment I came back to newspapering after a three-year hiatus, that I’d write what really takes place or I’d leave the field again, and for good and forever this time.
What does that mean? Well, it means that if Commissioner Joe Blow says something stupid, I don’t cover for him anymore — he gets to look stupid in the newspaper, too. Or, if people are clearly trying to undermine or sandbag something they’ve agreed to do, I try now to spell that out, and not pretend everything made sense and everyone is getting along when, in fact, it didn’t and they aren’t.
All that said, there is much I do miss about working for a larger organization. And probably what I miss most dearly is the opportunity to work with a variety of different writers and editors, all bringing their individual creative abilities to the task at hand. I learned a lot rubbing shoulders with people who saw things differently, or had been trained in doing things another way than I had been trained.
We are a much smaller staff at The Smoky Mountain News, meaning there isn’t a lot of opportunity for being exposed to different methods of presenting, reporting or editing. By now, we all are pretty much familiar with each writer’s gee-whiz writing tricks, personal idiosyncrasies and general ways of doing things.
But there is great opportunity at this small, independently owned newspaper for an individual writer to take risks, to enjoy controlled disorder and even to be a bit strange — and for that, I’m very grateful indeed.
If you read the information Duke Energy is spreading throughout the news media in its vast public relations campaign, you’d be led to believe the request for a 15 percent rate increase (17 percent for residential ratepayers) is a result of meeting new environmental regulations, especially in building the new “state-of-the-art” coal unit at Cliffside.
This is a distortion of reality that should be understood by all public officials, news outlets and members of the rate-paying public. I commend the Macon County Commissioners and the Franklin Board of Alderman for being the first public officials to take a stand against this round of rate hikes. Hopefully others will follow in short order.
This is the second of three rate hikes Duke Energy will be requesting for its expansion at Cliffside. For those who have not followed this issue closely, the energy from this plant is not intended to meet the energy needs of North Carolinians, where demand has been steadily declining due to efficiency and conservation measures in the past decade.
Rather, the Cliffside project is part of Duke Energy’s plan for expansion into new competing territories in other states. For example, in 2009 Duke expanded by signing a contract with five electric cooperatives in South Carolina to provide up to 1,500 megawatts of new capacity. That’s more than twice the capacity of the new unit at Cliffside, indicating an already existing large surplus of generating capacity for Duke Energy.
In addition, the new Cliffside hardly represents “state-of-the-art” coal technology, not even by the industry’s own standards. So-called “clean coal” technology was previously defined by the industry as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology in which clean-burning methane gas is the ultimate fuel extracted from the coal prior to burning. IGCC units would in addition, supposedly, allow for the capture and sequestration of CO2 or greenhouse gases.
Duke Energy chose not to build an IGCC plant at Cliffside (perhaps because the practicality did not live up to the industry hype), but instead is constructing an old-fashioned, dirty, pulverized coal-burning power plant that will release into our air sulfur-dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, hydrogen chloride, cadmium, barium, dioxins and dozens of other hazardous and toxic chemicals. While it’s true that the new plant will reduce the output of most of these pollutants from what older plants produced without emission controls, the poisons of Cliffside’s operation will continue to add to the buildup of toxins already permeating our environment, including and especially mercury. The new unit at Cliffside will do nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and in fact will double its previous output of greenhouse gases to approximately 6 million tons per year, or as much as would be produced by a million automobiles.
The continued use of coal derived from mountaintop removal mining is devastating a huge geographical region in Appalachia, its people, its history and its water supply. And the toxic coal ash pile from Cliffside’s operation will build as a catastrophe in waiting.
There is nothing responsible about the Cliffside project and ratepayers in North Carolina should not finance this project through outrageously high rate increases. The state should instead be pursuing policies that will result in further reductions in energy consumption and the transformation to clean, safe, less expensive renewable technologies as quickly as possible.
I’ve been volunteering with the Folkmoot USA International Dance Festival for about 15 years. It’s one of the most culturally rich, unique events in these mountains. It was going on before the Iron Curtain was raised, bringing dancers from those former communist countries to the U.S. for some eye-opening adventures.
Today, as terrorists lurk in shadowy places around the world and political divisions remain firmly entrenched, the message of this festival remains as strong as ever: people are more alike than they are different, and overcoming political and religious differences isn’t all that difficult when you focus on sharing instead of dividing. For the 28 years that Folkmoot has been in existence, politics has never won out over the sharing of traditions.
During the planning for many of the festivals in past years, some of us on the Folkmoot Board had nagging worries in the back of our minds that some countries would simply not get along. But it never happens, at least not for any kind of geopolitical reasons.
No, the worst we’ve had in 28 years are disagreements over who should do the finale, complaints about beds not being comfortable or rooms being too hot. Some of these are problems that have to be dealt with — and thank goodness for the Folkmoot staff — but these aren’t game-changers.
Folkmoot is an opportunity to forget politics and put xenophobic notions aside, and I would encourage everyone reading this to do just that and enjoy one of the performances happening in your community over the next week or so (July 22-31). You won’t be disappointed.
I wrote a story for this year’s Folkmoot Guidebook about the history of the festival. While doing the research, I learned about an early attempt to bring Folkmoot under the tent of Bele Chere, Asheville’s huge street festival.
Charles Starnes, a former Tuscola High School principal and Folkmoot volunteer, was a close friend of Dr. Clint Border, who founded the festival. After Folkmoot’s first festival in 1984, it became very popular very quickly. Asheville’s own Bele Chere started in 1979, and was a small event compared to what it has become today.
Starnes told me — and Brenda O’Keefe of Joey’s Pancakes confirmed — that early on Bele Chere organizers contacted Folkmoot about bringing the festival to Asheville and running it in conjunction with Bele Chere. The idea was that the two festivals together could turn into something really big.
According to both Starnes and O’Keefe, Dr. Border was absolutely adamant that moving the festival to Asheville was not even open to discussion. Folkmoot, he said, would always be based in Haywood County. Twenty-eight years later, it is still here and is very successful.
As for Bele Chere, well, it did not need Folkmoot to thrive. It has become Asheville’s signature event and one of the largest street festivals in the country.
And now for a little politics.
The current debate about debt and spending in the U.S. has highlighted a fundamental flaw of democracy: can people vote against their self-interest in the name of shared sacrifice?
As democracies across Europe — Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and now Italy — teeter on the verge of insolvency, governments are struggling to find a middle ground. Those on opposing sides of the political divides are whipping up their constituents, just like here in the U.S.
Many people have seen this coming and been writing about it for years. We have created social welfare programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — that have become very expensive. The senior citizens who get those benefits aren’t about to support cuts. Military spending here is huge, but those states and communities who depend on military bases don’t want them downsized or closed. The wealthy don’t want to pay more taxes, but they are the ones who can afford it. And on and on.
To fix these problems, I have to vote for leaders who will vote against my self-interest. So do you. The big question is whether any democracy can take this step, where the majority votes against what will benefit them in the short run.