Fox News: A Loud, But Small Voice

Those of you wringing your hands (and I’m one) about the consistent distortions and flat lies that are Fox News can calm down now. Here are the most recent AdWeek ratings for TV network news:

• Total Viewers:  9,251,000 8,973,000 6,600,000
• A25-54:  1,980,000 2,033,000  1,434,000



You’ll note some very large numbers among the three major networks, none of which is Fox News, which has about three million viewers in prime time, half that of CBS and a third of ABC’s. A survey by the Pew organization found several years ago that  “significant portions of the Fox News and MSNBC audiences spend time watching both channels.”

BJ’s: Where Are the Bargains?

I will not make a joke about the store’s name.*

OK, so I’m a good shopper. Maybe bordering on great, if you ask my favorite ex-wife who used to call me “Mr. Shopping Man.” I know where the buys are and often purchase stuff because it’s a bargain, not because I need it. It is a distinct character failure of mine because I wind up with a lot of waste, negating the bargain nature of the buy. I mean, who else–other than a hoarder of some sort–has four lawn mowers, seven cameras, two internet security contracts, four computers?

So, imagine my chagrin when I joined BJ’s on faith (and a suggestion from a friend), only to find that this Sam’s Club/Costco knockoff isn’t what I expected: a bargain basement. BJ’s opened recently about a mile from my house in Northwest Roanoke (and less than a mile from Sam’s Club) and I resisted the temptation to immediately join because of its $110 annual membership fee. I don’t like the idea of paying a fee to go into a store and buy stuff. It just doesn’t fit my perception of shopping, in a fair sense.

The BJ’s deal–I was to understand–was this: buy a year’s membership for $35 and get a $20 gift certificate for anything in the store. The deal turned out to be this: buy a year’s membership for $55 and get a $19.99 gift certificate for Tide laundry detergent. At the end of the year, BJ’s would hit my credit card for the full price to renew. I went for it, anyway, thinking, “Hell’s bells, this place looks full of bargains.”

I didn’t have time to do a recon at the moment (I was headed for a hike), so I went back the next day to inspect the store. I walked the entirety of the the huge building with an oversized rolling basket and found nothing to buy. Not a damn thing. No bargains. There was nothing that I saw I couldn’t get elsewhere less expensively or of better quality. I bought the Tide, but discovered it cost a little more than $25 for 200 ounces, so I was out $5 instead of nothing. $25 for Tide is about triple what I normally pay for the same amount of detergent of nearly equal quality (Xtra is 250 ounces for about $9 at Big Lots, a mile and a half away).

Groceries looked pretty good, but the prices were often higher than Kroger, Walmart or Aldi’s (all within a mile of BJ’s, and Aldi’s just feet away), and rarely lower. For nearly everything else, there are also good alternatives within a mile’s drive, and, of course, there is the internet.

I’ve paid my money and I’ll accept the defeat, but I won’t go quietly.

(* No I won’t joke about it because I used to edit the respected Blue Ridge Business Journal, which we affectionately called ‘The BJ.’)


A Peaceful Post-Thanksgiving Hike to North Mt.

This shot has “McAfee’s Knob” written all over it, but it’s North Mountain.

Me shooting, Eileen posing.

My new hiking bud Eileen Rowan and I trooped up to North Mountain in Rockbridge County yesterday, not quite knowing what to expect with the weather and the usually spectacular views. We got an eyeful, though not an earful, which Eileen, a birder, would have liked.

We didn’t hear a single bird on the entire trip. And, though I saw a small bird, Eileen didn’t see any. Still, the trip was a North Mountain treat with views on each side of the ridge line of a gorgeous valley and spectacular mountains.

Here’s some of the serenity that’s yours for the hiking.

My favorite hiking position.

The valley still holds some color.

Eileen soaks up the view.

Here’s a great hiking hat

Much of the day was misty below.


Pampa’s Day: Spreading Photographer Seeds

Irony: I took this shot of Madeline and her new Leica with my cheap cell phone.

One of my great joys in life is helping a young pup learn a new skill, one that will serve well for years. Thanksgiving Day was a day for me to sow a few photographer seeds.

I presented my grandgirl, Maddie, with a Leica 35mm  SLR, and asked her to go shoot. She was thrilled–which I didn’t know she would be because 13-year-olds heavily depend on their iPhones for photography–and almost everything else. She has a good eye, one I’ve seen on a number of occasions with her phone photos, so I thought it was time.

Did the same thing a few years ago when I noted my daughter’s natural skill at capturing the photographic moment, one in which she had developed a distinctive style–with her phone. I mean, what could she do with a nice Nikon? (Better, I discovered.)

I picked up the Leica a couple of years ago, not because I needed another camera (I definitely didn’t), but because it was a Leica, the legendary camera artists and journalists have preferred for many, many years. The camera has been out of my price range for all those years, but I found this little baby within my range and scooped it up. I have used it very little, except as something to look at and dream over. It is a good camera, though, one that will serve Madeline well.

This looks like something I would have taken in 1880, using a Nikon F1 and Tri-X film. I shot it yesterday with my phone.

Here’s a little background on digital photography:

InfoTrends says people took 1.2 trillion (that’s trillion) photos in 2017, 10.3 percent of them with a traditional camera, 4.7 percent with a tablet, and 85 percent with a smartphone. My friend Anne Sampson and I took most of the 10.3 percent, I suspect. One survey I found says that 90 percent of all people in the world who have taken photos have only used phones for them. Now, I won’t back the veracity of that survey, but it sounds pretty close to me, judging from the eye test.

The first commercial digital camera was available in 1990 (as  Dycam Model 1 and Logitech Fotoman, same camera, different name). Nikon had invented the digital camera in 1986. By 2000, the digital technology had made its way into phones, so phone photography is only 18 years old and my guess is that there have been more photos taken in the last 18 years than ever before, cumulatively. I think that’s a safe bet.

The website lists these reasons you should give a real camera a shot (so to speak): it has a real zoom feature (unless you use fixed lenses and almost nobody–except moi–does any longer); it is far better in low light and it shoots great at night; the iPhone is less adaptable and the battery life is relatively short; the difference in image quality–alone–is enough for me.

I’m old, so I’ll stick with the SLR camera. Maddie’s young. I hope she does, too.




It’s Christmas, Sharpen Your Teeth

OK, boys and girls, Christmas season begins tomorrow and Pampa is all set. It begins with Thanksgiving din-din with my family (my son’s posse is coming in from Memphis) and continues Friday with a hike up North Mountain. Then, we descend into an orgy of shopping (mostly local, I hope).

So, sharpen your teeth (you’ll note I already sharpened mine–above) and get ready for the sleigh to take off.

My Pal’s New Book: First Signed Copy!

The lunch at Roanoke College was–as always–dazzling. (Mary’s signing as I selfie–to create a verb.)

This is Mary’s first signed copy and it’s for my grandgirl. Yay!

Just had lunch with Mary Crockett Hill, one of my favorite people and a new member of the exclusive Roanoke First-Line Authors Club with her new book How She Died, How I Lived.

This is Mary’s second novel (the first co-written) and it’s a far more serious effort than the first. She says it’s for the older end of the Young Adult reading public.

The exclusive club (which I just created) includes Roanoke Valley writers–born here or live here–like Sharyn McCrumb, Roland Lazenby, Liza Mundy, Beth Macy, CeCe Bell, Rod Belcher, David Baldacci, Mary Bishop and probably a couple I’m leaving out, especially when you consider the size of the Roanoke Valley. This is categorized as a “rural” area. I’m glad to see Mary break into it.

She’s a fine writer (poetry and young adult fiction) who is teaching college kids at Roanoke College to write.

This, I think, is a breakout book for Mary, and I got her to sign a copy for my grandgirl, Madeline, for Christmas (the first copy Mary has signed, she said).

Incidentally, Mary’s poetry–which is adult–is written under her full married name, Mary Crockett Hill, while her YA signature is Mary Crockett. She says the adult stuff might be a bit risque for kids, so she differentiates.

Lunch at Roanoke College was–as always–superb. One of the best college lunch rooms on the planet. In fact our region has several of the best college lunch rooms in existence: Hollins, Virginia Tech, Roanoke College and James Madison are all famous for their food.

Work Can Sometimes Be Entertaining.

Fascinating day of work today. I got to sit in–as a fly on the wall–a meeting where a major international company was negotiating with an international supplier. The back and forth was riveting.

Before that meeting, I had lunch at a craft beer maker (I don’t drink, so my lunch was not liquid; it was a nice salad) with a CEO, a Volkswagen buyer and an engineer. They were–in order–Italian, Mexican and Turkish. The young Mexican talked briefly about never having seen–nor driven in–snow and shared his concern, since it is forecast. The Turk with a completely unpronounceable name is an engineer who handles the quality control for company with the factory here. She is from a city of 4 million people, so our little town is pretty much a village to her. The CEO is a fascinating man who was doing a lot of first-person negotiating, very skillfully.

I don’t know if I learned anything, but I was certainly entertained.

Our Region Loses a Writer of Note

Donald McCaig: Gone at 78.

Over the weekend, our region and our country suddenly and unexpectedly lost one of its very good writers.

Donald McCaig, who lived on a sheep farm in Highland County (about 90 miles north of Roanoke), wrote what the NYTimes once called “the best dog book … since White Fang” by Jack London. He was born in January, 1940.

Donald was a novelist of note, also turning out Jacob’s Ladder  and Canan, which won awards, as well as Nop’s Hope. He wrote Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men and a number of other works, including the most recent Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, about the eponymous literary character.

He loved writing about sheep dogs, which he raised, and the Civil War and he was a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered.

I met him a few years ago when I put together the book From Here to There for the benefit of the Virginia Museum of Transportion (I was on the board), a collection of stories from 40 Virginia writers with a theme or a mention of transportation in the essay or brief work of fiction. Donald wrote about his prized Dodge Powerwagon, a pickup truck that really and truly looks and acts like a pickup truck.

About a month ago, I had occasion to ask him for a favor: sign a couple of his books for my daughter’s birthday. She is a lover of dogs and I thought his Nop books would make her happy. He did and she was. He was most gracious in that.

I did not know Donald well, but my friend Anne Adams, publisher of the Recorder in Monterey, did and she adored him. But know him or not, I think many of us will miss him. We don’t have a lot of writers of his quality to spare.

The Weather Finally Wins This One

The leaves sprinkle the ground beneath my fig tree.

I’ve been nursing my much beleaguered fig tree for the best part of a year, hoping it would reach the levels of two years ago in its production and it looked like I had won. Until yesterday, when the temperatures in Roanoke fell to 28 degrees and did the poor guy in.

Figs are not native to our region (preferring Southern Europe and Northern Africa), so it’s a bit much to expect, but this tree is about five years old and though it appeared dead twice before, it has always come back strong. In fact, I’ve cut it off at the ground twice, thinking it dead, but it’s a hardy soul.

Now, though, the early winter and weird summer have been too much. I’m really sorry, too, because Margie and my friend Susan just love its figs.

As the Cubs used to say, “Wait ’til next year!”

Inside Mary Crockett Hill’s New Book

Author Mary Crockett (Hill)

My friend Mary Crockett Hill (writing as Mary Crockett) has her second entry in the Young Adult novel market and this one could well make a significant mark.

It’s How She Died, How I Lived and it is an important statement, especially in today’s world. It will be available for purchase Nov. 13 and my guess is Mary will be signing copies for the next couple of months.

The launch is scheduled Saturday, Nov. 24, 2 p.m. at Book No Further in downtown Roanoke, which has become Ground Zero for this region’s authors.

The story is set in our own corner of the world and Mary says it relates the experience “of a young woman who was targeted for murder by a casual acquaintance. While the narrator escapes that fate, another classmate is brutally raped and killed. Set in southwestern Virginia, the story centers on the cascading effects of an act of unthinkable violence in a small community, as well as the pervasive threat of violence that young women must navigate daily.”

Publisher Little Brown says Mary is “one of the most promising new voices in young adult literature” and I’ll enthusiastically second that. She is a fine writer, a mother of many, a professor of English at Roanoke College and a woman who understands the difficulties of growing up in a violent, divided country where kids get confused and depressed.

Mary explains How She Died, How I Lived thusly: “I was following the story of a young woman from my community who had been reported missing. When she was found dead, I felt… I think the closest word is gutted.

“I know it’s a story that plays out over and over again in our headlines–a young woman raped and murdered, left for trash beside the road. But somehow I felt all the outrage, all the grief for those countless acts of violence, in this one young woman’s death.

“I don’t know why it hit me so hard. I think the word ‘friend’ might have been used to describe the killer. He was her ‘friend,’ whatever that could possibly mean. She was kind to him, and he had used her kindness against her–to lure her into an isolated spot where he murdered her.

“How She Died, How I Lived is a story sparked to life by grief and rage. It’s also a story continually seeking the solace of healing.

“I had so many questions that I needed to write–about the far-reaching effects of violence in a community; about friendship; about how young women can face the world knowing with certainty that someone out there, given the chance, would kill them.

“This books doesn’t really answer those questions–but to my mind, it at least puts them out there. Which is about the best I can do.”