Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beach read

The fam and I had a week's vacation at the Outer Banks of N.C., where we had a most excellent time. We stayed on Hatteras Island, in a house that's within a 20-minute walk of the ocean, and whose property backs onto Pamlico Sound, with a dock that's ideal for swimming, fishing, kayaking, or just chilling with a beverage and some reading material. We've stayed at this house (owned by a friend) three summers running now. I have a soft spot for the Outer Banks, since one of my favorite family vacations from childhood was there, and I took my wife there on our honeymoon. We've managed in three visits to do all the touristy and nostalgic stuff I had on my list: the Lost Colony outdoor drama at Roanoke Island, the Wright Brothers museum, the giant sand dune at Jockeys Ridge, the ferry to Ocracoke, the climb to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

The property where we stay is four acres, mostly marsh and maritime forest, boasting a great assortment of wildlife. We came home one day to find a deer in the yard, and we're pretty sure we saw an otter on the banks of the sound. The house and yard are ringed with trees, screening out the road and neighboring houses. There isn't a curtain or blind anywhere in the house, being unnecessary for privacy. At the top of the house is the master bedroom suite, with a vaulted ceiling perhaps 15 feet high. On one wall there is a sliding glass door and a sundeck facing inland toward the marsh and the sound, an excellent birdwatching spot. On another wall, the windows taper and stretch almost to the roofline. These soaring windows face in the direction of the ocean, with Buxton village sitting in the foreground, though neither ocean nor village can be seen due to the trees, only the municipal water tower jutting up. Lying in bed and gazing out the window in the dark, I see the water tower with its red light on top, burning steadily, and then at intervals, the beam from Hatteras Lighthouse sweeps over us. It's a lovely thing to look at before drifting off to sleep.

So the location is a blessing, a real stroke of good fortune. Friends are another blessing: the family whom we invited to share the house with us, whose kids and my kids mutually entertained one another, and who brought and shared good stuff to read: magazines they were catching up with, finds from the used book shop, the Sunday New York Times (a rare treat for me). It was a great vacation for reading. The kids played board games or watched DVDs in the evening, while the grown-ups read, or talked about politics or fiction, about what we were reading.

My random book choice: <a href="">Captain Dreyfus: The Story of a Mass Hysteria</a> by Nicholas Halasz, (c) 1955. I can't be sure but I may have bought it at a used book sale in Louisiana, oh, about 22 years ago, and been lugging it to various apartments and houses ever since.

It's a good read. I was on the lookout for parallels b/t the Dreyfus affair and recent U.S. history, and they're there: a country admired worldwide as a center of Enlightenment values losing its collective mind, exalting national security while ignoring civil rights, fleeing from justice and truth if those violated nationalist myths. But France in that period is fascinating in its own right, with priests, generals, royalists, Bonapartists, and "republicans" of many stripes vying for an upper hand, obsessed with the growing power of the Kaiser, and still working out the implications of the French Revolution which at that time was a mere hundred years old.


Do you ever have a day at the office like this? For legitimate work-related reasons, I Googled the name of a woman who is a mental health counselor, trying to get her contact information. To my surprise, I learned that she apparently used to be a DJ on an AOR radio station here in Raleigh in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Which set me off on an online reading tangent. There actually is a Wikipedia entry about WQDR, which I know as a country station but which started life as Raleigh’s first AOR station. It drops the names of various disc jockeys I remember, some of whom can still be heard on local radio, most of whom have moved on to other things. And then I discovered the blog Blade’s World. This is where I have spent half my day.

Bob “The Blade” Robinson inspired me to write this High Hat essay a couple of years ago. A longtime rock DJ in Raleigh, Blade had his station, WRDU, suddenly change formats on him, from classic rock to country. This was a mildly depressing development for me; for the Blade, it was heartbreaking. He was faced with a dilemma. He liked his co-workers, didn’t want to leave Raleigh -– hell, we all need to have a job -- so he tried to keep working under the new country format. He lasted a week. This newspaper account of his abrupt on-air sign-off got me to thinking about the decline of rock music on FM radio, and its effect on me as a music fan. Also the figure of the rock DJ, his passion for music, the intimate bond he could form with listeners, his role in the community. My article ended up being about the rock station I heard as a teenager, but it started about being directly about Bob the Blade.

I wouldn’t even say I’m a fan of Bob the Blade, I just felt like I knew him. I've heard his voice on a pretty regular basis for 20 years now, often just him and me in my car. I admired his quitting due to "artistic differences" back in '06. He's back on the air in Raleigh now, but I don't tune him in every day; I'm more of an NPR guy now. Anyway, his blog sucked me right in. He’s a slacker in many ways, exhibits the taste for parties and girls and odd hours that originally helped attract him to the radio business. But now he’s a middle aged slacker, eying his own mortality, examining his relationships present and past, snarking about the industry he's spent his life in. There’s an intriguing self-awareness and honesty at work in that blog.

Here are the surprising things I learned about the Blade. He has a brother who has a disabling mental illness, whom Bob helps care for. Under the man’s-man exterior, Bob is a decent, patient, caring guy. (Actually, family and pets represent a lot of the blog’s content.) Also, he’s a pretty good writer. I say that a little grudgingly – I enjoyed his blog more deeply than I expected to. Frankly I don't always share Blade’s musical taste, I have to say I figure I’m "smarter" than him (I spent more years in school, certainly), but he’s a better writer than I am. He just has a good way with a story. Also a pretty good way with a camera.

Monday, July 13, 2009



This NY Times profile is notable for its no-holds-barred interview with Sarah Palin's hairdresser. Nice get.

Also, I hate it when somebody writes on my kid with a Sharpie. That shit will take weeks to rub off.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A two-way street

Pastor Dan, from yesterday:

It's reasonable for a scientist to expect that scientific discussions be conducted under the guiding framework of science. What is not reasonable is for that same scientist to take umbrage at the religious framework for the mere fault of existence, or to expect that a "rational" worldview should necessarily dominate moral discourse.

If the faithful are required to engage the scientific paradigm, the scientists should be prepared to do the same for the religious paradigm where appropriate. You don't have to endorse it, you don't have to consider it an equal either way, but you should be prepared to listen and seek understanding without hostility or contempt. Otherwise, you're just as narrow-minded as the intolerant people you decry.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Framing and Shaking

My comment, reposted from the Faith and Leadership site:


This may be beside the point of why the link was posted, but I object to the way the AIG bonus problem is being characterized. The Columbia professor takes a significant ethical failure and treats it as a PR challenge.

Part of the problem is that Wall Street has a different understanding of the word “bonus” than normal people do. (By “normal people” I mean honest taxpayers. In fact Wall Street categorizes a portion of salary as “bonus” to help them weasel out of paying their full share of income taxes.) The public outcry is due to the perception that AIG managers are being rewarded for massive failure, a failure for which “normal people” are picking up the tab.

The argument that we have to pay AIG employees handsomely so they’ll stick around to undo the mess they made, the mess that only they can straighten out – well, now it feels like they’re not simply cheating me, they’re shaking me down.

Business schools’ reputation has taken a beating this year, and I don’t believe this essay does anything to improve that.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey died the other day. He was an occasional companion who insinuated himself into my affections when I was a kid; I think of his voice coming out of a car radio, me in the back seat riding with my parents. An obituary (which I can’t seem to find right now) quoted a radio industry personage marveling at Harvey’s gift for and mastery of the medium, which sounds right, come to think of it. His “and now you know... the REST of the story” audio essays were miniature classics of a kind, corny and unfashionable but hard to resist, the spoken-word equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting or an Irving Berlin song.

The obituary also included the eye-popping statement that Harvey received a contract extension for 10 years and $100 million at the ripe age of 82.

The news of Harvey’s death put me in mind of the Bose Wave Radio, for years a faithful sponsor of Harvey’s show. My brother, a musician and audiophile, has a well-rehearsed screed about the Bose radio: about what a fraud has been perpetrated on the American public by Madison Avenue to entice any of us to spend $700 or whatever on a slightly souped-up clock radio. Our father, normally a parsimonious fellow, succumbed and bought a Bose several years ago, and goosed his younger son’s blood pressure about 20 points. The solid-state amp and hand-built speakers that we heard growing up are still in fine shape, gathering dust in Dad’s rec room. He mostly listens to that little white plastic box, the Bose Wave Radio.

Over the years, to my knowledge, Bose has had two main advertising venues: Parade magazine and the Paul Harvey show. I never give either of these much thought, yet they’re as ubiquitous in America as high-fructose corn syrup. For years, both have been welcome if unobtrusive presences in the homes and hearts of white middle America. Both have a distinctly conservative political bent, but sweetened so the audience hardly notices. But white middle America is a declining demographic. Paul Harvey and his show are gone (he was sui generis; the franchise definitely dies with him), and I imagine Parade is endangered, since its fate is tied to that of print newspapers. Both were commercial powerhouses in their day. That day is ending.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Springsteen at the Super Bowl

I really enjoyed Bruce and the E Street Band's performance at the Super Bowl Sunday evening. I thought I'd make a note since it's rare for something on TV to bring tears to my eyes, and for reasons I don't entirely understand, Bruce made me tear up.

Frankly, I haven't listened to a new Springsteen record beginning-to-end in 20 years. High school and college were my Springsteen years, high school in New Jersey when feeling kinship with Bruce was maybe the only fringe benefit of Garden State residency I could see. Then college years, when "Born in the USA" came out, Springsteen hit his peak of stardom, and he mounted the worldwide tour when I saw him live the one and only time so far, Charlotte, NC, 1985.

We lost the thread in the 90s, both Bruce and I, but he has snuck up on me recently. I saw him on the campaign trail for Obama in the fall, saw him appear with Pete Seeger during Inauguration Week. I read the Rolling Stone profile of Bruce just last week, which pointedly celebrates the E Street Band, which Bruce dissolved but later reconciled with, the band aging and hobbled and depleted by death (RIP Danny Federici) but still on a mission. I also read a brief item in the newspaper just days before the game, when Bruce related that the Super Bowl gig has been pitched to him repeatedly over the years, and he warmed to the idea only gradually. The biggest stage, the brightest spotlight in the music world, for better or worse.

Of course, Bruce admits, there is a new album the band wants to promote. He had a lot of bases to touch in 12 minutes' time in Tampa. A cut from the new record, a couple of his greatest hits ("Born to Run" almost certainly), and a little of the between-songs monologuing that his fans expect. I thought he pulled it off in terrific style, touching every base with panache. Mugging with Miami Steve and the Big Man, trading glances with Patti. Doing the commercially smart thing, giving the audience the thing it wants from him, and Bruce being at peace with it and having fun doing it. It was frenetic, sloppy, cornball. Plainly he's past his prime. So am I. He looked and sounded happy, and it made me happy.

I chatted with a friend online today, a guy about my age but not an old friend, who had the exact opposite take, that Springsteen's set was phony as hell.

My teenager was watching and listening with me, and when Springsteen did his spoken-word intro ("back away from the guacamole dip... put the chicken fingers down...") she asked, incredulously, "Is he trying to be funny?" She's never taken a liking to Bruce's records, never been exposed to his stage shtick. It's not what rock frontmen are to do nowadays, I take it; nothing within a mile of stand-up comic patter. That gives a little credence to my friend's dismissive verdict.

My daughter did laugh, however, when Bruce slid across the stage floor and crashed slam-bang into the TV camera.

I've been on a personal nostalgia trip lately. Facebook has put me in touch with some friends from the carefree days of youth, from my early-80s Springsteen period especially. Plus, God knows why, but I have been recalling the NFL collectors' stamp set that was marketed by Sunoco in 1972. I was only in the 4th grade, but that was the year I became a football fan, driven by my mania for completing my stamp set. I must have driven my dad insane, making him fill up the Buick Skylark at Sunoco every blessed time so I could get stamps. My mother or I eventually chucked that stamp album in the trash, probably in the great purge when the family moved from northern Virginia to New Jersey in '78, and I never gave it a thought again until the last couple of weeks.

I was really quite the mawkish sentimental American fool Sunday evening. I embraced our vulgar national football feast. Never was heard a cynical word. I wowed over James Harrison, Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, and Santonio Holmes. I was happy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, their owners and fans in triumph. I was happy for the Cardinals, that they could hold their heads high in defeat. I even chuckled at some of the commercials. I actually looked forward to the halftime show and it actually did not disappoint.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Parental Grade Grubbing

The public schools in Fairfax County, Virginia have succumbed to a concerted lobbying effort by parents to relax the grading scale. In the future, a 90 will earn a kid an A; from 1981 until now, a score of 94 was required.

This is a cancerous way of thinking. It's a straight line from this piece of news to the recent news that Merrill Lynch paid its managers million-dollar bonuses, drawn from taxpayer bailout funds, for wrecking the company. This is rewarding class status, not achievement. Parents in a top tax bracket who can afford to own a house in Fairfax County are trying to guarantee their children's entry into the same tax bracket. They are not improving their children's education, only their paper credentials.

A depressing story. Check the paragraph about community leaders worrying that real estate values will fall if the reputation of Fairfax schools suffers. Inflating the public school bubble to support the housing bubble.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Two ways of looking at Obama: the sportswriter and the sociologist

Here it is, my obligatory collector's edition Obama Inauguration post. First, tedious though it may be, I must mention a couple of varieties of post that I can't make.

I’ve enjoyed the posts at Talking Points Memo the past several days where readers have shared the heartfelt personal meanings they sense in Obama’s inauguration. I cannot make such a post. In this year’s election I was focused on my desire to have the Democrats defeat the Republicans, and the reality-based community defeat the forces of truthiness. The identity of the candidate took a backseat. The symbolic weight of Obama’s victory, of his race and his life story, didn’t especially move me. I take no pride in this admission. On Election Night, as the returns rolled in, the reactions of the network talking heads and of the crowd at Grant Park actually, implausibly, took me a little by surprise. "Oh, yeah, that's right! We never elected a non-white President before, did we! And [smack] I coulda had a V-8!"

I can't make a post nitpicking any of Obama's transition moves looking for signs of betraying progressivism. For instance, I mostly stayed out of the discussion of Rick Warren giving the invocation yesterday. I just wasn’t outraged about Warren ’s inclusion. And I suppose I was a little perturbed by GLBT activists' second-guessing Obama before he even took office. Again, no brag. I’m insensitive, no doubt, about Warren ’s role in the passage of Prop 8 in California .

As an aside, speaking after the fact, I think a non-outraged response to Warren was justified. For one thing, Warren is taking a beating from some of his evangelical cohort merely for taking part in the Obama festivities; I think it remains to be seen who has co-opted whom here. Also, is there any doubt that Joseph Lowery outshone Rick Warren?

I rather suspect that Barack Obama knew Lowery would trump Warren. That's the kind of political skill and diligent preparation I expect from Obama. I admire him. I trust him. In the Rick Warren matter and other matters of political optics and balancing opposed constituencies, I simply have a lot of faith that Obama knows what he’s doing, sees all the angles, certainly much better than I do and better than 99.44% of journalists and bloggers. He's secure, he takes a long view, he has integrity, and he recognizes those qualities when he encounters them in other people. I cut him miles and miles of slack for his vision and judgment.

I don't go in for the hype that Obama is a post-politician or anti-politician, but it's undeniable that he's a refreshing new breed of politician. Obviously he's not above forging partnerships with pols like Joe Biden, but he breaks free of the well-mannered, constipated, Ron Burgundy style that Biden represents.

One way to sum it up is that I’m so delighted that Obama doesn’t play golf.

Oh, golf is fine in itself, gets you outdoors and rewards patience and teaches humility and all that. But golf is also suffused in the trappings of privilege and technology. It's classist as all hell, of course. It's an affront to environmentalism and land use planning. When the revolution comes, golfers will be the first up against the wall. Don't talk to me about mountain biking or brush-clearing -- George W. Bush is the quintessential golfer. I can see both sides in the intra-liberal argument about the merits of Bill Clinton, but I will say that everything wrong about Clinton is crystallized in the fact that he loves golf.

Instead of golf, at the relatively advanced age of 47, Barack Obama plays basketball.

Alexander Wolff makes the case in Sports Illustrated that basketball is the reason Barack Obama is sitting where he’s sitting today.

I miss playing basketball. It’s just a great game, basketball, rivaling jazz music as a great American invention and gift to the world. Two of my kids are playing YMCA basketball this winter, and I watch them from the bleachers with my legs twitching and my palms tingling. I want to lace up some high tops, cinch some baggy shorts, and run full-court. The squeak of sneakers and the pounding of the ball on a hardwood floor: these sounds get my blood moving.

Like Obama, I didn't have much luck on organized basketball teams. (Self-aggrandizing comparison of the day!) In my prime, I was a competent pick-up player. And as Woolf explains, pick-up basketball is its own special animal.: "basketball's speakeasies, not its licensed establishments." You call your own fouls, you check the ball between possessions -- there's an implied social contract that the game relies on. You really learn about people in a special way by playing pick-up ball with them.

You reveal yourself as well. A pick-up game tests you, physically and socially. I have several warm and satisfying memories of pick-up games where I held my own, ball-wise and also in terms of getting along with a group of guys unlike myself: one time in a rough urban neighborhood in Houston, Texas; another time with a group of Naval officers in Pensacola, Florida. The main satisfaction of these games wasn't that my team won or that I made great plays; it was that I fit in. I worked at belonging. The game wasn't mine, it preceded me and it lived on after I departed, but I could hang with it for an hour or two, and I didn't drag the game down. (This is, in part, the pathos of a guy who yearned to play for his high school but was cut from the team. Alex Wolff sees this pathos in Obama as well.)

I really recommend Woolf's article; it's Sports Illustrated at its finest, and it expands beautifully on my poor wheezings about playground ball. One guy who has played hoops with him pays Obama the compliment that he is able to score, but willing to pass; the ideal pick-up player, animated with enlightened self-interest, wanting all individuals to thrive for the sake of the social whole.

This bit sheds light on the distinction between hoopsters and golfers, as well as that between Obama and Bill Clinton:

Pickup ballplayers don't talk as much as golfers during a round, but they more quickly reach judgments about temperament and collaborative aptitude. And there's the emotional containment that ballers learn to bring to the court, even if only to ensure that no one can sneak up behind you to see emotions... you didn't want them to see. Asked the boxers-versus-briefs question, Obama gave the pitch-perfect pickup baller's reply: "I don't answer those humiliating questions, but whichever one it is, I look good in 'em."
Fewer words, but better chosen. Another highlight:

Basketball's appeal, Obama told HBO's Bryant Gumbel last year, lies in an "improvisation within a discipline that I find very powerful." With its serial returns to equilibrium -- cut backdoor against an overplay; shoot when the defense sags -- the game represents Obama's intellectual nature come alive.

"Improvisation within a discipline" is a lovely paradigm. It operates in jazz, in religion, in teaching -- in a lot of cool places. I also like "serial returns to equilibrium" as a way of characterizing Dr. Naismith's game.

As a postscript, the past few weeks have seen a myriad of brief reflections on the Web about Obama from (mostly white) writers saying what they love about the man, the moment when they knew he was special, the time they met him in 2002 before he was famous, ad nauseum. Most are easily forgettable, but a good one, and one that deserves a plug, came from Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah:

For a long time after November 4, I found it hard to believe that Barack Obama
had actually been elected President of the United States . Even as his
inauguration approaches I still find it a remarkable moment in our history… What
is most remarkable about him as a person is that he is a grown-up. Growing
up is a task for everyone in every society and most of us don’t do a very good
job of it. Even highly gifted people, in the arts and sciences as well as
politics, are often not very grown up, or have obvious personal flaws, even when
we admire them. I’m not saying that Obama is perfect—no one is. But
he shows the quality of maturity that the great classical philosophies,
Confucian or Stoic for example, tried to inculcate in their followers.
Extraordinary intelligence helps but we know many brilliant people who are not
very grown up. Extraordinary ethical sensitivity is closer to the core of
what it means to be grown up. My amazement and near disbelief in Obama’s
victory is that I never again expected an American president to be so grown
up. In my lifetime some have come close to the mark, but for me the
clearest previous example is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom I, as a very young
person, heard and admired.
Bellah goes on to discuss Obama’s victory as America’s return from its default attitude of individualism, to one of its periodic moments of awareness of the collective good. There it is again: Obama as point guard.