Sunday, March 08, 2009

Hard times, come again no more

I’m sitting in my home office with the window open because it is, for once, warm enough to have it open.

The intermittent drum of an unseen woodpecker drifts across the woods in back as if from a construction zone. Finally, I catch sight of a small black, white and red bird moving in a big sweet gum tree. I raise the binoculars I keep on my desk and confirm, as I suspected, it is a downy woodpecker.

He’s an industrious little fellow, and I admire his efforts.

As I fight the morning fog (in my head, not out my window), my thoughts drift until they finally land on another hard worker.

That’s my sister, Debbie. But right now, my sister isn’t working, except in the very real sense of the unemployed scrambling to find a job.

She was a vice president for a group that puts on a world-class sporting event each year, and she bore most of the effort of getting that event off the ground each year. But when that group, the Breeder’s Cup, merged with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association a few years back, the Breeder’s Cup employees began to be cut. My sister was the last of them. Her job was eliminated last year.

She found interim work in Washington, D.C., for six months, but now that that gig is up, and she is lost.

Used to a salary double to triple mine, now she is having to make due on unemployment. Like many others out there, she wonders if she will lose her house. And like so many, she’s already lost much of the money she put aside for her retirement.

There’s an edge in her voice when I talk to her these days.

She is considering dropping her high blood pressure medicine because it is an expensive, name-brand kind. It’s the same one I take, because, for us, the generic ones we’ve tried have had serious side effects and weren’t effective.

In phone calls, I beg her to stay on it. Without it, I think, the pressures she is under could kill her.

I have also quietly let my niece, my sister’s eldest child, know that Debbie isn’t in as good a shape financially as she may be letting on. My sister is a proud woman who will be angry if she finds out what I’ve done, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Being the youngest of the two of us, I’m used to being a thorn in her side. But I also have that younger sister’s love and admiration of my oldest sibling.

I remember when she was young and still married to her ex. There were times when he was laid off from his construction job, and she would work three jobs to make ends meet. One of those jobs was to pay for child care, because her then-husband couldn’t be bothered to watch their two small children.

That’s the kind of worker my sister is.

I share all this with you, even though I’ll never share this column with my sister, because I think it is important to put a face on this economic downturn. Recession. Depression. I’m sure many of you have different faces you could substitute.

That there are people even worse off than my sister, of that I have no doubt. More are slipping into the ranks of the unemployed every day.

At the race tracks in Kentucky where my sister used to set up big events, they often play a popular Stephen Foster song, “My Old Kentucky Home.“

But is another well-known Foster song that has been playing in my head more often, just as it is this morning.

“Hard times, come again no more.”

Friday, January 09, 2009

I'm back!

It's been a long dry spell. Have patience with me, but I'M BACK!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

And now Cecil

My first job was in a small town in the Appalachian coalfields, on the Cumberland Plateau where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virgina jealously elbow each other.

The newspaper didn't pay much and went through journalism school graduates quickly. I expected to be one of them. I was a native Kentuckian, but here I was a stranger in a strange land.

My home was a two-room furnished apartment on a busy street where heavily laden coal trucks rumbled by. The furniture was mostly vinyl and duct tape and every day, no matter how much I wiped, a fresh layer of coal dust would sift under the windows.

My first few months there were like a bad pregnancy. At night, my restless mind would race, and I'd get back out of bed, get dressed and drive until I was tired enough to sleep. Many mornings, I'd wake up with a sour stomach and sometimes get dry heaves before I could get out of the shower.

But slowly, I adjusted.

The hills and the people that once seem to shrug in indifference began to gather protectively around their adopted daughter.

I never had it easy there, but even on a salary barely more than minimum wage, I had it better than many. One of those I had it easier than was Cecil.

I got to know this quiet, rusty-haired man through the cause he'd taken up -- saving Yellow Creek. For Cecil, it was a dual cause. His son had leukemia, as did an unusual number of other children up and down the banks of the creek. Teams of doctors, medical students and environmentalists had linked the cancer to a tannery that for decades released toxic metals into the creek.

When I met Cecil, the tannery was still spewing forth black effluent that was linked to fish kills on a regular basis. He was one of a group of hickory-tough mountain people who decided to take on the world

Their group was called the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens, only they pronounced it "yallah."

Cecil wasn't a leader; he didn't talk much period. But he always showed up for meetings, late night strategy sessions and the moonshine-fueled Bluegrass jam sessions that helped keep everyone together when frustration threatened to unravel the group.

His boy, a paler, mop-headed version of Cecil, often accompanied him to the tamer functions.

I remember once Cecil's family invited me into their home. Even after several years of getting to know the people around there, I was shocked at the poverty of the place. Holes gaped in the walls and floor, but I dared not let my eyes stray. Cecil was as proud as he was poor, and I would not shame him.

I learned a lot from the people of Yellow Creek: how to pick and prepare poke and where to find morels and wild grapes. Later, I learned from them that underdogs really can win.

I like to think of those as simpler times, but I'm not good at lying -- even to myself.

One thing that was simpler, though -- the way we communicated. Only some of us had phones and e-mail and cell phones were unheard of then. We shared the important news of our lives face-to face. often as we were passing in our vehicles.

On paved country roads, we'd just stop in our lanes and talk until another vehicle wanted to pass.

Dirt roads, especially one in particular, were different. Old Cross was scraped out of a ledge and followed one of the prettiest stretches of Yellow Creek. For the adventurous, and I was among them, it was a favorite shortcut between communities. On summer Saturdays, wonderful impromptu parties would spring up in wide spots on the road, usually involving someone who had just picked up a case or two of beer at nearby Cumberland Gap or had recently been to see Kaintnor, the community's preferred moonshiner.

I'd often pass Cecil on the road, although I don't remember him at any of these parties. He had more serious things on his mind.

I stayed at that newspaper for nearly five years in a place I once saw as godforsaken, but grew to love.

The battle for Yellow Creek still raged after I left. The odds were seriously stacked against those who fought it, but lawyers for the Sierra Club joined them in a lawsuit and won. A huge sum was awarded but never seen, but the tannery was shut down.

The creek runs clearer these days, although residents are well aware of the chromium, lead and other toxins that lie in the sediments.

Cecil's boy grew up to be a man, I'm proud to say, and times got better for the family.

But I got an e-mail this week, and now it is Cecil who has cancer.

This is a battle friends say Cecil is not likely to beat, and if he falls, I will go back there to stand in respect with the hardy people who knew and loved him.

And then, I expect, we'll drive down to Old Cross and stop in a wide spot. Someone may have a bottle, but most of us are older and wiser. It won't be a party.

We'll probably just stand around and talk. Me, I imagine I would do a lot of listening, and not just to the people I have long been separated from.

I'll listen to the creek as it murmurs its tales of triumph and tragedy, knowing that Cecil will weigh in on both.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Resurrecting Abbey

Sometimes I just need a pacifier.

"Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards."

Monday, March 06, 2006

In need of heros?

Below is an excerpt from a story about Times Picayune journalists efforts, but read the whole thing here:

It's worth your time.

"The enthusiasm for the paper is unparalleled. ... I've never felt it in my 26 years running this paper," said Phelps, who wears a watch with a replica of the Spanish coin from which the newspaper got its name. "It's been our lifeline ... and a reaffirmation of the newspaper as a basic information source."

The paper's newfound scrappiness has not gone unnoticed. The staff just won a George Polk Award for metro reporting. Amoss was named Editor of the Year in January by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher . And there is widespread hope for a Pulitzer Prize.

"I don't think there's any member of my staff who wouldn't trade all of it to get our city back," Amoss said.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

No recreation in Arizona this year

Forest Service officials have launched the earliest fire restrictions ever for Arizona's national forests along the Mogollon Rim. (That's pronounced muggy on)

Concerns about wildfire, highlighted by one of Arizona's earliest major fires ever, prompted the restrictions in four national forests. The "February" fire started at an abandoned campfire atop the Rim on Feb. 6, and it burned more than 4,000 acres before it was brought under control 10 days later.

Officials are worried that drought conditions, lack of rain and snow and an abundance of dry fuels could result in the worst fire season in memory.

Banned are campfires, charcoal fires and smoking except in specific developed campgrounds.

The restrictions affect the parts of Arizona's forested high country that receive the earliest and heaviest recreational use. Look for even more restrictions as spring draws near, officials say.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mansions -- and smarter public officials

From USA Today:

"Even Aspen, Colo., is tiring of mega-mansions.

The super-affluent ski resort town, where the average home sold for $3.1 million last year, is moving toward a ban on houses larger than 15,000 square feet.

One of the 17 houses in Pitkin County, Colo., larger than 15,000 square feet is the 55,000-square-foot mansion of Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, former ambassador to the U.S. That's roughly a third of an acre.

'It's a question of growth management,' says Cindy Houben, head of community development for Pitkin County, which includes Aspen. Supersize homes, she says, require supersize staffs - everyone from maids to pool cleaners - and the county has too little affordable housing and too much traffic.

'There's no more land to put the housing on. There's no more road space to put the cars on. ... There has to be some limitation,' she says."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A shot at the Veep

"Whittington 'came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself," Armstrong told the Associated Press in an interview.

'The vice president didn't see him," she continued. "The covey flushed and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And by god, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good.'"

Aren't you supposed to be quiet while hunting? And isn't it the shooter's job to make sure his shot is clear?

A must read

Lost Mountain. Erik Reece. Read it and weep over mountaintop removal.

Reece himself may have found the power to move mountains.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fire on the mountain

Pine is burning. It's a small community near Strawberry in Arizona. Both are rim communities -- on the edge of the Colorado Plateau.

I spent several years living below the rim -- looking up toward Strawberry and Pine.

Fire has been common in Arizona the past six years or so. The area has been going through a drought of epic proportions. I left there, in part, because of the threat -- and because of the drain on resources I figure every person adds.

The pronghorn were what really got to me. Between my community and Prescott, herds were common. But as water sources dried up, the pronghorn began to die in increasing numbers. Part of the problem were fences. Pronghorn don't jump them. They attempt to crawl under them. And modern fences along the highway are constructed so that they are too taught to crawl under.

Bears really suffer, too, especailly 2-year-old males. This is the age mother bears shed all ties with their young, and the males suffer the worst of it. The problem is more mature male bears fight them off their territory -- especailly when food is scarce. It's usually the 2-year-old males that end up around dumps and in towns and gardens. Then they are labeled nuisance bears, and shot. It's a tough lot in life.

The drought itself is one thing. Groundwater pumping is another. It is prolific in Arizona. It is so bad that land sinks as underwater lakes drop dramatically -- leaving big fissures and screwing with foundations and highways. Recently, a new law was passed in Phoenix requiring you to mention any subsidence from groundwater pumping when you sell your home there.

So back to Pine. Why am I bothered by yet another fire in this desperate land?

Because fire season begins in May and it is only February. This is the time of winter rain -- or used to be.

These are hard times in Arizona. Stay tuned.