Thanksgiving: A Country That Is Still Ours

Preparing Mother Smith’s World Famous turkey dressing.

Giving thanks on November 23, 2018–Thanksgiving Day–is more difficult than it has been in the recent past. For a year, we have either had Donald Trump in the Oval Office or were getting ready for him to occupy it and sadness, fear and dread have permeated many of the living rooms of America.

The dressing is ready. Now, the turkey.

Donald Trump has delivered far beyond even the wildest expectations of most of us, becoming the worst president, not only in our history, but the worst most of us can imagine. We thought George Bush had established that bar so low that nobody could surpass him on the low end. We were terribly–perhaps even fatally–wrong.

I won’t belabor the issue because you are living it, too, but I will say that in spite of Donald Trump’s best shot, we have a country and a people worth fighting for. We are not defeated by the dark forces of the worst of us and the good in the American people will prevail ultimately, if not immediately.

Today, I get to see most of my family (my daughter, sadly, won’t be there) and I will take the predictable grandfather’s pride in the Pampettes (Madeline and Oz). We’ll eat too much, laugh too hard, tell a few exaggerated stories and give advice that Maddie and Oz will ignore. That’s the way it works in the America I love.

Donald Trump’s America? Your guess is as good as mine.

Mother Smith’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese (with bacon drippings) is done.

Doug Doughty in Dynamic Hall of Fame Class

That’s a young Doughty (right), Bill Brill and me (mustache) in the center at a Virginia high school all-star game in the 1970s at the Salem Civic Center.

Just saw where my long-time journalism colleague Doug Doughty was named to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in a truly distinguished class that includes Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, Tech baseball coach Chuck Hartman and basketball player/announcer Kara Lawson. They’re all more famous than Doug, but none is more accomplished.

A young Doughty at the Roanoke Civic Center.

Doug and I worked at the Roanoke Times sports department together in the late 1970s, him joining us just out of college at UVa where he was Phi Beta Kappa. I’m a few years older and had been at the RT for several years when he was hired.

From the beginning, Doug was good, intensely interested, ambitious and a guy who never lost his enthusiasm. He approaches junior golf and the Masters with the same interest and attention to detail. He has covered UVa sports for many years, never letting his degree from there interfere with being fair and neutral.

Doug latched on to sports editor Bill Brill (inducted into the Hall in 1999) from Day 1 and learned a great deal from the best newspaper sports writer/editor I ever knew. He still knows how to write to the reader, how to present news first and opinion somewhere down the list. I’ve never seen his ego overwhelm a story, which is rare in sports writing.

Doughty and a couple of drinking buddies.

He married his college sweetie, Beth, after she graduated and she became quite a professional force in the Roanoke Valley pretty quickly after moving here, beginning in advertising/PR and working up to the executive director’s position and in 2016 was named one of North America’s top 50 economic developers by Consultant Connect. She heads the Roanoke Regional Partnership and has been director of the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce. She and Doug have a bunch of kids, who are making names of their own.

Doug has always kept his personal and professional lives separate, but if there were a Roanoke Valley Swimming Hall of Fame, my guess is that he’d be one of its first inductees because of his intense connection with every level of swim competition in the Valley since his kids were, well, kids. He even recruited my grandgirl, Madeline, to the Hunting Hills squad when Maddie couldn’t even swim. It was a real highlight for her and I’m forever grateful to Doug for being so insistent.

Doug deserves the Hall citation every bit as much as Beamer. Know that.

Doughty with wife of 35 years, Beth (right) and daughter Allison.

Fewer Foreign Students: Look to Trump

29 percent of foreign college students are from China.

A story in today’s Washington Post reveals that enrollment of foreign students in U.S. colleges and universities is on the decline, not a complete surprise given the Trump Administration’s ban on foreign visitors.

The data show about a seven percent drop for the current fiscal year, down for the first time in a while, but Trump has been president for less than a year, so its reflection of his policies is more pronounced.

Foreign students by and large pay full retail for their U.S. college experience, something few American students do. A high official at Virginia Tech told me a few years ago that foreign students help compensate for the General Assembly’s parsimonious approach to college funding. “We have to have them,” he said at the time. “It helps us break even.” And it helps explain why your son or daughter didn’t make the cut in the engineering program, which is in high demand internationally.

The University of Florida (whose graduate programs have been affected) provost Joseph Glover is quoted as saying, “If it represents the beginning of a downward trend, that could represent a serious problem for the nation. It’s something that we’re watching with great concern.”

If we lose a lot of these retail students, something has to give. The government will have to come up with the subsidies these students are paying; colleges will have to trim staff and programs; their building programs will suffer; they will simply be poorer.

Xenophobia comes with a price.

(Photo: U.S. News.)

Sports Writing: Slowly Sinking to the Abyss

There was a time when I thought sports writers were among the best pure writers in American journalism. I looked up and down the structures of news rooms and saw a lot of former sports writers, often the best of the news writers now.

That seems to have suffered a sea change with the internet. Because I am a fan (front-running fan, I’ll admit), I have been closely following the University of Tennessee’s football misfortunes and now its search for a new head football coach. I’ve read a number of stories a day about that specific topic from a variety of print and electronic publications. The writing–almost always by 30-something to middle-aged men in beige golf shirts–has been sophomoric at best and ungrammatical at worst. Most of the reporting is pure speculation, but, worse, there are times when I simply cannot figure out what the writer is trying to say. Maybe that’s because he doesn’t know.

There seems to be the constant need to fill space with a flow of unnecessary backstory up front. That bores the reader and leads people like me to scan, rather than read, to see if there’s anything in there that’s worth the wait. This is the new age, boys, where the story is on-going and updates are history in minutes. Give me what I seek first, then flow away with what happened yesterday or Tuesday or in September if you want. I won’t read it and you’ll get your word count.

I grew up when the biggest sports writing sin was resorting to the cliche. What I’m finding now is writers who misquote the cliche. They have no idea what it means, where it came from, how to use it–or whether to use it. These same writers have vocabularies that seem heavily influenced by their naps in English class. They dream words, then use them.

Quite a few of the sports writers are recent college graduates who followed their teams’ fortunes for student newspapers or on their own blogs. Few of them, I’d bet, have paid any dues, have worked under a mentor, have studied the games they cover with any more depth than they get watching those games in a sports bar. They often sound like they are sitting on a stool at the bar talking to their half-bagged buddies.

The shame here is not so much that sports writing is falling on hard times (let me note a Roanoke exception with Roland Lazenby, Bill Cochran and Doug Doughty in particular who are of national quality), but what happens when sports writers move to the news room and take their lazy writing with them. Misunderstanding sports is a minor flaw. Misunderstanding how our government works because press explanations are inadequate isn’t.

‘A Cold and Broken Hallelujah’

Sometimes these chilly, dank, uncomfortable, melancholy days seep through my pores and the only real relief is the music that is most familiar and most soothing. I look to the previous century generally for Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Procol Harem, Leonard Cohen, Moody Blues, Roy Orbison and even to the more recent recent Frazzy Ford with “One More Cup of Coffee,” the Dylan standard.

The music helps with memory, but it doesn’t bring the family to dinner, the friends to a hike, the missing people to presence. That requires time and circumstance, patience and acceptance. All a work in progress.

But until they’re here, there’s Leonard Cohen pleading “hallelujah” and sometimes that’s good enough. It has to be.

“Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and broken hallelujah.”


Lora Katz Pulls Out of Fishburn Renovation

Fishburn Cottage: To expensive to renovate.

Lora Katz, the Roanoke architect who fought to get the contract on the historic Fishburn Cottage in Fishburn Park–over the objections of the neighborhood association, is pulling out because costs are rising far beyond estimates.

Here’s what she writes about her decision: “OK, so most of you will hear soon, that I have cancelled my work on the caretaker’s cottage in Fishburn Park. I completed drawings and had it priced with 2 contractors only to find that the costs would exceed the value of the home by a large amount of funds. I did not expect to make money on the cottage, but losing money is not in the plan either….sad to make this decision, but I had to. I hope a contractor comes forward to take on this project as it will be tough for a typical homeowner.”

Lunch and Lively Chat at Hollins

From left, me, Mary Ellen and Liz.

One of my favorite diversions is lunch at Hollins University because it is always accompanied by three distinct factors: good food, good company, good atmosphere.

Today  I met with Horizon Program Director Mary Ellen Apgar (just back from her honeymoon) and Roanoke  Regional Writers Conference Director Liz Long. We were joined at the last minute by a conversational French teacher named Leah (from Rouan, where Joan of Arc was held in prison), who had claimed the table we wound up at and graciously shared it with us. She turned out to be an interesting part of the conversation.

Liz, Mary Ellen and I met to talk about the writing competition we sponsor each year as we determine who gets our writers conference scholarships. Liz is taking over my old position as founding director this year and I remain in a lesser capacity. The competitors write 500-word essays having something important to do with communication. Most of the students we ask to write are majors in some kind of communication, since the RRWC is about writers.

I mentioned to Leah as I sat down with my three plates of food (entree, salad, fruit) that, “I come out to Hollins two or three times a year to participate in the sin of gluttony.” She had a puzzled look. I patted my belly and said, “gluttony.” She chuckled knowingly.


Bob Goodlatte Gets the Message: Retiring 2018; A Rasoul Opening?

Bob Goodlatte, finally retiring.

Virginia’s overwhelming Democratic success in Tuesday’s elections has had dramatic effects all over, but here’s one nobody would have predicted: After nearly 25 years in the U.S. House, 6th District (Roanoke) Congressman Bob Goodlatte says he will not seek re-election in 2018, the next election cycle.

That opens the door for Democrats, who have some good candidates in line, including Roanoke’s Virginia House rep Sam Rasoul, probably this area’s most popular politician, though he is Muslim. After looking at Tuesday’s results, that seems to matter much less than it might have in the past.

“With my time as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee ending in December 2018, this is a natural stepping-off point and an opportunity to begin a new chapter of my career and spend more time with my family, particularly my granddaughters,” Goodlatte said.

Goodlatte has been virtually untouchable in his heavily gerrymandered district, which includes parts of Roanoke, Lynchburg and up the Shenandoah Valley. His only serious opposition has come in primaries, emerging from the far right and moving him rightward. Goodlatte initially won the seat (over Steve Musselwhite) by proposing strict term limits, which he immediately dropped when he faced them.

The most important immediate effect would be that Goodlatte is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which would be the venue to bring impeachment charges against Donald Trump, should it come to that. With Goodlatte in place, it appears Trump is safe from that.

Dems: Don’t Become Smug; There’s Work To Be Done

OK, so I can’t shut up about the election, one of the most interesting in many years, given all the sub-plots, but I will take a minute to caution that we should not overestimate its value.

The NYTimes is reporting that even with the Democrats’ victories, the group of white voters who are so solid for Trump–mostly middle income or lower, and less educated–was hardly penetrated. That was once a dependable Democratic group of voters, now replaced by minorities (racial, sexual, economic, etc.), women (not white married women, though), legal immigrants and first-generation Americans, young people and the poor. That’s a lot of people and in an election like this one, where emotion is running high, it’s enough to win. But will it be enough in 2018 when many of those voters believe the war has been won?

It has not. Democrats, at this moment, are still a minority in the House and the Virginia Senate, same as they have been for 18 years, pending recounts. Even if they tie or gain a lead in the House, they need to work with Republicans to form legislation. “There is potential to create coalitions,” Democrat David Toscano, House Minority Leader was quoted in the Washington Post.

Voter turnout (48 percent) was the highest since 1993 (61 percent) when Republican George Allen won. For several reasons, the electorate was smaller 24 years ago. Turnout will need to continue to grow and Dems will need to make inroads–as they did Tuesday–in areas that are solidly Republican, like Southwest Virginia, where Republicans hold majorities, but where their elected officials have done absolutely nothing to benefit the region.

This will need to be accomplished–for the moment–with severe gerrymandering in place, though I don’t know that gerrymandering is nearly the factor in far Southwest that it is in the Roanoke Valley, in Blacksburg and up the Shenandoah Valley. Southwest is solidly conservative with small pockets (mostly college towns) of liberalism and moderation. Coal mining is a primary employer and miners fear its loss, which is coming, regardless of what Republicans say. Dems would re-educate and re-train miners. Republicans do not offer that alternative.

Medicaid was a factor Tuesday. “All the folks who fought me on Medicaid expansion, they got blown out,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe noted. I believe Republicans are far too willing to believe their own propaganda about ACA, which is far more popular among Americans than they will admit.

Democrats fielded good candidates and the party supported them. That happened notably when Tom Perriello was elected by a slim majority to the House a few years ago with a lot of support from the national party. The party abandoned him when he ran as an incumbent and lost the seat. Dems are facing millions–maybe billions–of dollars in funding from a tiny majority of billionaires willing to spend whatever it takes to get their way. That means extraordinary effort with every election–like we just saw.