Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Library Rules

Yes, we're back in the midwest, but really just passing through this time. It's a quickie but a goodie that's given us a chance to meet and greet some of our hometown friends, do a few things around the house and enjoy some fall weather. Soon, we'll be heading back to North Carolina, where our son and daughter-in-law's busy schedules have us in high demand as grandson-sitters, dog walkers and taxi drivers. Meanwhile, it's been fun, with a wedding to attend and play music for and an upcoming opportunity to speak at a library conference in Springfield later this week. Now, I'm no expert on libraries or really much of anything else, either, but my background as an advertising/marketing guy and the notoriety I've somehow gained from writing this column were just enough, I guess, for the organizers to send an invitation my way. I'm going to do a presentation on "Selling your library," which is an interesting enough topic given the fact that some people probably think libraries are a thing of the past. After all, the worldwide web has given many, many folks access to oodles of information, entertainment and other material without ever needing to walk into a library building.
I have some serious doubts about that concept, many of which stem from the concerns I have about the rolling mass of unregulated, hit-or-miss content passing itself off as fact on the internet. And besides, most libraries have adopted and adapted the web and other advanced technologies in ways that make their own package of services more useful and attractive than ever.
But for me, the biggest selling point is much simpler.
I love the library.
The affair between me and those buildings full of books started back when I was a kid. Things were different then, at least in my house. My thrifty father wasn’t sure television would really catch on, so it was a while before we bothered to get a set of our own. And even after we did, my book-loving mother felt there were better things for a kid to do when he wasn't playing baseball, mowing the lawn or breaking the garage window for the millionth time. Like go to the library.
So I was a kid who went there early and often.
In those days, the Galva library was run by a strict, iron-willed local legend who ruled the place like Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of hell in Greek mythology.
”Let me see your hands,” she’d bark as I entered her temple. Like as not, she’d send me to the bathroom to scrub and dry my dirty little paws like a pint-sized doctor preparing for brain surgery.
The rules were tough, but simple. No talking. No gum chewing. No talking. No eating or drinking. No talking. Wash your hands. No talking. A three-book limit. And, uh, no talking.
Now you might think her boot camp approach to books would have caused me to abandon "serious" reading for the comic books at my father's drug store, and there is no doubt that I appreciated the adventures of Superman, the Flash and the Fantastic Four. But I was used to a world where adults bossed kids around all the time, and it was well worth it to get my hands on the now-classic fare that filled my reading menu. Authors like John R. Tunis, Charles Spain Verral and Colonel Red Reeder were important figures in my world as I read and re-read every book they wrote, while waiting impatiently for the next in line. A while back, my sister unearthed a copy of Reeder's "West Point Plebe," and I read it yet again with much the same engrossed enthusiasm I had when I was eleven.
I guess I've changed a little since then. I know the library has.
As a grandparent, I'm now just about as likely to be looking for story hour and the children's department, where we hope to share the love of reading with our grandsons.
Meanwhile, people actually talk out loud at the library. And laugh, even.
There's more stuff, too. Like computers and movies and CDs.
And that's kind of what it's all about, because, over time, libraries have grown and changed and evolved right with us, while not moving so fast as to leave anyone behind. So someone like me can still find a book by John R. Tunis while someone like my youngest grandson hears a story by Dr. Seuss while someone like my daughter-in-law searches the internet while someone like the Star Courier's Carol Gerrond, as noted in her column last week, can even learn to use a Kindle.
All that, and more, at the library.
I'll meet you there sometime.
Right after I wash my hands.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Say hello to the Moderate Majority

I've got to admit, I was a little surprised.
When I wrote last week's column about the tenth anniversary of September eleventh, I figured I was sort of hanging it out in the breeze when I confessed that there was a lot about that world crisis and the events that have followed it that I just don't understand. And I figured suggesting that maybe it was time for a little forgiveness would really fall flat.
But I was wrong.
While I'm sure there are some readers out there who don't agree, I received a gratifying number of notes and calls from people who were in tune with at least some of what I had to say.
It made me think.
Because whether the topic is politics or religion or even the weather, it always seem to be the strident, "my way or the highway" voices that get airtime. As a result, it's easy to think that our nation is mostly made up of two entirely polarized camps--one being ultra-conservative and the other ultra-liberal.
I don't believe it.
Instead, I think there is a majority of citizens who share a more moderate view of things.
People who see both sides of an issue and believe there is room for compromise.
Folks who don't claim to know everything about everything.
A moderate majority, whose political and personal views are based on what's right and fair, instead of what serves special interests or a party line.
Unlike the “silent majority” of the Nixon/Agnew era and the so-called “moral majority” of the 80’s, I think the moderate majority is real and ready to listen to and support some reasonable, progressive, non-partisan thinking.
Is anybody listening out there?
Packing light.
We were on the road earlier this week, heading home for a short visit, a wedding and some business before returning to eastern Carolina for a continuation of our babysitter/beachcomber lifestyle. We do a fair amount of traveling, so you might think we’d be pretty good at a challenge that’s been faced by voyagers from Christopher Columbus to Neal Armstrong.
Packing light.
There are certain items, like the two tubs containing our camping gear and the smaller container that holds essentials like passports and checkbooks, that go with us whenever we set out on a journey of any significance.
But while the inclusion of those items is a no-brainer, it apparently takes a bigger brain than mine to figure out what clothes to pack, especially when traveling from one latitude to another during a change of seasons. I clearly remembered needing to buy long pants last year when an October trip to Vermont found me in shorts and goosebumps, so I was sure to pack extra fall-weather togs that included pants, sweaters and socks to supplement the beachesque shorts, sandals and t-shirts I’ve been sporting since March. I assumed she was dealing with the same situation, so I was a little chagrined when she handed me her luggage to load in the car.
“Here you go,” she said, handing me a smallish bag that made me, with my overstuffed duffel, look like a fashionista heading for a long weekend in Cannes.
“Is that it?’ I asked.
“Yep, except for my carry-in.”
A carry-in, in our terminology, is a small bag containing just enough stuff for an overnight stay, like something to sleep in, a change of clothes for the next day and toiletries. We learned a long time ago that it’s a lot easier than lugging a bulky valise in and out of the car, whether we’re camping or stopping for the night in a hotel.
Sure enough, on my next trip inside, she handed me the backpack she usually uses for overnight stops, leading me to believe she was packed and ready to roll.
Or not.
Soon, another small bag appeared. Then another.
Me: What’s this?
She: Oh, that’s my OTHER carry-in.
Me: But I...
She: And my shoe bag/carry-in.
Dutifully, I loaded and re-loaded the car, piling her litter of carry=in bags on top, while giving mine a hearty shove to make it fit in the now-overloaded space.
As she got in the car, she cast a kind, but inquiring eye over my packing job and my bulging duffle bag. She didn't say a thing, but I swear I could hear what she was thinking.
"Honey, you've just got to learn how to pack light."
More time for turtles
We didn't expect it to be anything too out of the ordinary. Two sea turtle nests near our place had hatched a couple of nights before and it was time to "analyze" what was left. An analysis is the process of digging out the emptied nest to see how many eggs actually hatched and if there were any unfertilized eggs, deceased baby turtles or live babies left behind. We had missed the hatch, but took our grandsons along to watch what came next, thinking both they--and we--might learn something from the whole process.
But there was a surprise in store.
Earlier in the week, my sharp-eyed, turtle-watching spouse had discovered and reported a nest invaded by a marauding fox. A rescue effort discovered several "pipped" eggs, with the young turtles just beginning to emerge. The babies had been taken to a safe place to complete the hatching process until they were ready to release.
The boys were thrilled to see a bucket full of teeny-tiny turtles close up, but that was nothing compared to what came next.
"Do you two boys want to help?" queried the turtle wrangler in charge.
Of course they did, so five-year-old Cyrus and three-year-old John each carefully carried a baby to its new life in the sea.
"It's kind of like they just got the first bell of Christmas," whispered my proud, thrilled spouse.
"Too bad you didn't bring a camera," said a nearby friend.
Yeah, but I don't think it's a picture we're ever going to forget.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ten Years After

I suppose I should talk about September eleventh.
It's not that I have anything new, startling or original, even, to say.
You have already read some fine contributions from some other Star Courier columnists. But every time I start to write my way down another path this week, my mind returns to what happened ten years ago.
I'm one of the people who thinks it feels like a long time ago when our safe, secure world went topsy-turvy. Like most of you, I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news about what was going on. I remember driving from an early morning appointment in Galesburg and mulling over the fact that the Knox College football team's orthopedist had just recommended a second surgery on my son's knee.
At some point, I must have flipped on the radio.
"Oh, it must be the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing," I thought as my subconscious began to process the information it was hearing.
Soon, I realized I wasn't listening to a documentary, but a realtime tragedy.
I wondered if I should continue into work in Peoria or just go home.
I decided to head to work. No one was home, and I needed people.
When I got there, the folks in my division were jammed into the conference room, watching TV.
Some were crying. Some were angry. Some were simply stunned.
Some worried about family members and friends in New York and other big cities.
In the background, our boss worried we weren't getting enough work done.
I wasn't sure if he really understood what was going on that day. Looking back, I still wonder. But everyone pretty much ignored him anyway; watching, talking quietly and watching some more until it was time to go home.
Several weeks later, I needed to go to New York City. Some new job responsibilities were going to require me to spend significant time in the northeastern United States every month. I had already traveled to Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. This would be my first time in Manhattan, except for a couple of visits years before as a tourist.
I remember arguing with my cabbie about whether my hotel was actually open for business. I knew it was, because I had just talked to them. He wasn't so sure.
"It's pretty close, you know. Pretty close."
He didn't have to say what it was my hotel was pretty close to.
The Holiday Inn Soho is, in fact, almost exactly one mile away from Ground Zero.
Now, I'm no voyeur.
I'm no rubbernecker.
I try really hard to look away from life's most awful moments.
But I had to look at this one, feeling I'd never really understand what had happened unless I saw it for myself. It was a cool, crisp, sunny morning. The kind of beautiful day that makes you think that, yes, you could live in a big city and just walk and walk and walk from home to work and from place to place.
Nothing could have made me understand the sheer immensity of the place where those two buildings stood. No one could have prepared me for the sights, sounds and smells that still lingered.
The fires were out by then, but the search for the bodies of the victims continued.
It seemed endless.
In a way, it has been.
Those deaths became the reason behind two wars and a major change in attitude towards civil liberties and human rights in America and around the world. Faux-patriotic chest-thumping has become the norm for some politicians, while genuine soul-searching still remains a challenge for most.
I remember asking myself, "Why did this happen?"
I didn't know then.
I don't know now.
I do know that I, for one, have grown weary of the crazy cry for vengeance. Partly because it serves no real purpose. And partly because I'm not sure we really know who we're mad at.
We have, in fact, demonized millions of peaceful Muslims without any real regard for who they are and what they believe in. We have put thousands of young American lives in harm's way as we have chased the shadows of terrorism without really knowing exactly who we're chasing or why we have been their targets.
And I just don't understand.
Ten years after, on Sunday, September eleventh, we went to church. I kind of expected a little flag waving, as the Infant of Prague parish serves over 40,000 U.S. Marines and their families. As always, we prayed for those young warriors and the ones they love. But the theme of the day was not one of vengeance or war or victory or retribution.
It was forgiveness.
It's not easy. And they say it's truly divine.
But I pray it's something we can all learn to understand.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The 60s and the South

We've been married 39 years as of a week ago last Saturday.
We had planned to attend an outdoor concert to celebrate, but it was canceled, so we didn't have any big ideas, though we thought maybe we'd have dinner and see a movie. But as it turned out, we had a trio of unexpected guests. Two were welcome, because they are our grandsons. But the third, not so much.
Her name was Irene.
With our son and daughter-in-law riding out the hurricane with friends, we asked to take the grandsons with us, thinking a brick hotel building might offer both a little more room and a lot more safety as the storm roared through. And for the most part, we enjoyed our 30-hour anniversary celebration with Cyrus and John, though I couldn't help thinking that someone like Norma Blewitt, who once edited a society page for the Star Courier, would have written it this way.
"Activities for the anniversary celebration included a number of unnecessary baths for the fun of playing in the tub, and several trips up and down the four-story stairway to burn up excess energy. At the lavish anniversary meal, guests were served Chef Boyardee ABC's & 123's and toasted cheese sandwiches, while the happy couple shared a frozen microwavable pasta dish obtained from the hotel convenience store that was of unknown origin and age. The evening concluded with the screening of a dramatic children's movie borrowed from the hotel's video library that caused the grandsons to shout in alarm at all the scary parts, the grandmother to cry at all the sad parts, and the grandfather to doze intermittently through all the parts."
I figured I still owed her one after that, so I offered to take her to the movie of her choice after we returned home to the beach. I knew in advance what we'd be seeing, as the book that preceded the film was one she enjoyed and shared with several of her friends.
"The Help" is a book about a book, telling the story of a young southern white woman who wants to be a writer. She decides to tell the "inside" story of black housemaids in early-1960's Mississippi, a process that would put both her and the ladies who helped her at great risk at times. According to my spouse, the film follows the book pretty closely, which would, I guess, make it a movie about a book about a book. I was expecting sort of a chick flick, but quickly found myself engrossed in the tale of the unlikely friendship that develops between the writer and the women she interviews. The film has some truly funny moments. But it was the description of the insidious kinds of prejudice that existed at the time, along with the horrifying outbursts of violence that marked that period in American history, that hit me right between the eyes. It was a disturbing, unwelcome memory of a time when segregation still ruled in the south and murder was a not-uncommon means to a cruel end.
We were, I know, both rather stunned by the memories and didn't have a lot to say as we walked out of the darkened theater.
As we started to leave the building, my wife discovered she had a voicemail message on her phone, so she stepped to a quiet corner to listen to it and return the call. Knowing it would be a few minutes, I took a seat on a bench near the exit and settled in to wait. Seated on the same bench was an African-American man about my age and a young boy of 10 or 12 or so, who looked to be his grandson. It soon became obvious they had just seen the same movie as me, as the grandson began asking questions.
"Who was Medgar Evers?" he asked, referring to the activist leader whose 1963 murder occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting for the movie and a part of the storyline.
The grandfather and I exchanged the first of several glances that seemed both knowing and a bit uncomfortable.
I imagine it's like that sometimes in the south.
There's a lot of history.
Not all of it is something to be proud of.
While son Patrick notes that the high school kids he teaches and coaches nowadays seem quite unconscious of race, it was not long ago that skin color was the absolute defining factor in the lives people led and the opportunities they received. Surely, that grandfather lived through a time when Jim Crow ruled the south, and schools, restaurants, and other so-called public places were separate and far from equal.
I listened as the grandfather began to recall some of the horrific events surrounding the civil rights movement of the early 60s. Part of me wanted to join in; to tell the man and boy that It wasn't my family or friends who held slaves and made rules and laws that kept a whole race of people subjugated for generations.
"No, It wasn't me," I wanted to say. "Not me."
But I didn't say anything.
It wasn't my conversation.
They weren't my memories.
Finally, the boy asked the essential question.
"How could people do that?" he asked. "Why did they act like that?"
The grandfather glanced my way again.
"There was just a lot of hate back then," he answered.
Again, I wanted to speak up. But I didn't know what to say, so I just nodded, mostly to myself. It wasn't until we were in the car and on our way home that I remembered the best thing about his conversation with his grandson telling about the prejudice and hate there was back then.
At least he said "was."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Just another day in paradise

When it comes to hurricanes, there's both good news and bad news.
The good news is that, unlike some unfortunate forces of nature--like tornadoes and earthquakes--you get plenty of warning when one is headed your way, with what seems like ample time to prepare.
The bad news? You've got plenty of time to worry about it, too, with absolutely no guarantee that any of those preparations will do any good.
In last week's column, I wrote about the beginnings of the worrisome wait that started when the local weather guys got wind of the tropical cyclone named Irene. Now, while I'm probably about as well versed as any midwestern weather-watcher when it comes to tornadoes, thunderstorms, blizzards and ice storms, I was a total tyro when it came to the water-based biggies called hurricanes. We anxiously accepted advice and information from virtually everyone we met. With our stretch of island just five feet above sea level, the danger of flooding was paramount, not to mention the havoc that might be wreaked by 100+ mph winds and double-digit rainfall.
Forecasts varied during the week, and for awhile, it looked like the storm might miss us to the seaward side. But as Irene moved closer, she took a westward jog that, once again, put us right in her path. A mandatory evacuation beginning Friday morning was announced, and we hustled around, doing a bevy of pre-storm chores that included sticking giant X-shaped swaths of duct tape on each and every window to eliminate--as much as possible--shattering glass when the winds hit. We taped cabinets and drawers shut, too, and packed and secured in closets those valuables that we couldn't take with us. We took pictures off the wall, items off shelves and counters, and moved the deck furniture and our gas grill indoors. In preparation for the expected tsunami-like storm surge, I packed, hung and tied down every item in our ground-level garage to prevent them from being swept away by the raging torrent that neighbors told me might sweep through that space.
Assuming a power failure was imminent, we emptied our refrigerator and freezer, pulled the main electrical breaker and turned off the water supply to the house, as well.
Then, finally, we skedaddled, just as one of the first heavy bands of rain and wind began sweeping across our coast.
I felt kind of empty--even guilty--inside, feeling like we were deserting a home that we've come to love in the few short months we've been coming here. But there was nothing we could do.
Unlike the many evacuees who were forced to take shelter in high school gyms and church halls, we were lucky enough, with the help of my hotel-executive niece, to have secured a hotel room in Greenville, North Carolina, just over 100 miles away. That seemed like plenty to me. After all, when you're 100 miles away from a tornado or a snowstorm, you're just as likely to experience a sunny day with no bad weather in sight. I figured it might still be kind of windy and rainy, but not nearly enough to prevent us from visiting friends in the area, and maybe seeing a movie or going out for dinner.
A major hurricane like Irene casts a broad shadow that stretches far beyond its main path. While Greenville is miles inland, it was still buffeted by hours and hours of incredibly heavy, unrelenting rain and swirling, dangerous winds that uprooted trees and damaged homes in every direction. We spent most of Friday night and Saturday monitoring television and online reports, hoping for some word as to the conditions on North Topsail Beach. But no one knew, as the island was deserted all through that stormy night and day.
30 hours later, the sun came out.
A news release from the government of North Topsail Beach said, "The Town is reporting minimal structural damage from the storm."
In a happy bit of circumstance, Irene's power diminished just a little before reaching our shores. Instead of the super-destructive, maelstrom she could easily have been, Irene had fizzled just enough to limit damage to shingles, siding, decks and other relatively minor occurrences.
A friend called Patrick. He had been on the island. Our house was still there. It looked OK.
And really, it was. One window had been pushed outward in its frame by an odd, powerful combination of wind and suction. The entire railing of our top-floor deck tore free, and we sustained some ceiling damage from leaking roof seams. The garage shows signs of a bit of a flood, with traces of sand and other flotsam indicating where a stream of mixed sea and rain water made its way through the front door and out the back.
But there's nothing that can't be fixed, and we are already anxious for things to be back to normal.
We discovered, too, that duct tape residue on window glass is one of the most stubborn materials known to man, resisting all efforts to remove it until someone clued us into the judicious use of the wonder-substance known as WD-40. It will probably take some time before we remember just where we stowed and stored all of our possessions in our haste to protect them in the hours before the storm hit. In fact, one such last-minute storage solution could have produced the weekend's most memorable story.
We had errands to run and friends to see, so Patrick and Susan beat us back to the beach by a few hours on Sunday. He called, shared a preliminary damage report, and noted that he had been to the supermarket to partially replenish our larder, and was planning on fixing some dinner.
A few minutes passed.
She: Quick, call him back.
Me: Whaaa?
She: Tell him not to turn on the oven until he looks inside!
Oh yeah.
One of the last things I did before leaving the house was to disconnect the wireless router that provides our home WiFi. With all of the drawers and cabinets already taped shut, there was just one secure place left.
The oven.
I suppose I could have a returned a piece of parbroiled electronics to our internet provider with some sort of plausible explanation.
But I'm glad I didn't have to.