Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Putting a good spin on 2009

2009 was a disappointing year for me. Even more disappointing than the Bush years. With Bush you knew what you were getting—a pro-big business, pro-war, pro-rich, pro-crony looting of the public coffers and pillaging of the Constitution. He was liar, a thief and a charlatan. No surprises. No disappointments.

I had higher expectations for the Obama administration. The President came into office on an antiwar, anti-fat cat, pro-middle-class platform with his party in control of both the House and the Senate. Since taking over the helm from Bush’s band of pirates, the Obama Administration has expanded the war, catered to fat cats and given the middle class nothing. No real healthcare reform. No real banking reform. No Gitmo closing. No Iraq pullout. No investigation of the Bush crime wave.

I know we can’t blame it all on the White House. The fat cats still have their claws deeply dug into Congress. I just wanted to see the President act like he promised in the campaign.

As the New Year approaches, I’m trying to put a good spin on 2009. Maybe it was the transition year that the Obama team needed to ramp up for change we can believe in. Nah!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Painted Pine Man

Paul Evans calls himself “The Painted Pine Man", and it’s a name that fits just right. In a small one-man Vermont shop, Paul builds reproductions of painted antique country pine furniture.

Paul handcrafts each piece using tools and techniques from the past. He hand-planes the lumber and moldings. He uses square-head cut nails and hand-forged hinges. But it’s the painted finishes that give Paul’s cupboards an authentic aged look that few furniture makers can match; and if you ask him how he gets that look, he politely changes the subject.

Hanging Corner Cupboard

Paul and his wife, Jean, have a lovely little shop on their picturesque 19th Century farm that will delight anyone with a passion for country decor. It sits on a narrow country lane called Still Run after the whiskey stills that were once located there.

The tiny building, formerly part of a sash and blind mill, was moved to the farm in the 1930s. Jean has great eye for decorating, and the shop is a perfect setting for Paul’s work. His furniture is complimented by a charming array of decorative accessories—also for sale.

The shop is located in Peacham, one of the prettiest towns in what I think is the prettiest part of Vermont—The Northeast Kingdom. Peacham is about four hours from Boston, so it’s not quite a Sunday afternoon excursion; but if you plan to be in the area, it’s well worth a visit.

Paul and Jean are friendly country folks who love visitors. The shop is open weekends Memorial Day thru October from 10:00 to 5:00 or by appointment. You can take a virtual tour on their website at www.paintedpineman.com.

Stepback Open-Shelf Cupboard

If you see something you like, give Paul a call at 802-592-3219. He can sell you something from the website or custom-build a piece of furniture to fit a particular spot in your home in a color to match your décor.

Tombstone Corner Cupboard

Sunday, December 20, 2009

War Birds

George Bush and his kettle of hawks must be feeling pretty smug about now. They were taking the rap for having gotten us into a no-win quagmire. Their ill-conceived invasion of the Middle East had turned into a monstrous albatross. The Chicken Hawk-in-Chief was stuck with terrible legacy.

Then along comes President Obama with this terrific speech on Afghanistan. He was eloquent, thoughtful and thorough. His speechwriters really strutted their stuff. And with that speech, he took that dead rotting bird and hung it around his own neck.

General McChrystal and his cohorts were able to sell the President on their testosterone-fueled fantasies about taming Afghanistan. Our Middle East foreign policy was hijacked by the military/industrial vultures and national security theorists who play war games with other people's lives and money.

Their foolhardy attempt to conquer Afghanistan has nothing to do with enhancing our national security. It’s an American intrusion into a civil war they don’t understand and can’t use military force to control.

This new troop deployment and its huge cost will have no impact on the insignificant number of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It won’t keep the Taliban influence from growing. And unless we’re prepared to dump billions more into the illegitimate Afghan government, it won’t make any significant contribution to rebuilding Afghanistan.

Most independent analysts believe it will take at least 10 years to turn Afghanistan's illiterate and corrupt security forces into anything resembling competency. And cost us three to four billion dollars a year to do it.

The President’s contention that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" is false. This is a war of his choosing.

I had hoped we elected a leader who would reject the same old interventionist mindset of those who profit from permanent war. But his Afghan policy shows he’s not that leader. He's a hawk in dove's feathers.

Holiday Doors 09

On the way home from shopping up in St. Johnsbury, I took pictures of some of the town's wonderful doorways decorated for the holidays. Click on the image for a closer look. Best wishes for a peaceful holiday season.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Faded Hope

If you read the very first entry in this journal, you know I was very excited about the election of Barack Obama. I had high hopes that he would restore the integrity of the United States Presidency and the American people.

I’ve been through enough election cycles to know that Presidential candidates say whatever they need to say to get elected. I’m not so naïve to think Barack Obama was any different. I did, however, hope that he might lead the country in a new direction

1. I hoped he would close Guantanamo as he said he would. Maintaining this illegal facility and our other “black site” prisons makes us no better that any of the repressive regimes we claim to oppose. There is not one valid reason why these prisoners should not be given due process. We were able to bring Timothy McViegh and a whole host of other terrorists to justice using our legal system and prisons. We’re a country of blind justice, not selective justice.

2. I hoped that he would give the American people a thorough investigation of the Bush Administration’s bailout of the financial industry. We know it involved extensive corruption, mismanagement and cronyism, but there has still not been a full accounting of the $700 billion TARP spending or the $2 trillion+ in loan guarantees by the Federal Reserve.

3. I knew that Obama opposed the military invasion of Iraq and supported the invasion of Afghanistan, but I hoped he would stand up to the hawks who think military action is the solution to all international political problems. I hoped he would have the insight to see that continued military action in Afghanistan is causing more harm than good.

4. I hoped that he would get us out of Iraq. Thousands of US troops permanently remain in Iraq to protect our business and political interests. By recommitting the United States to the imperialistic nation-building policies of the Bush Administration, President Obama is continuing the legacy of saying our country is doing one thing when it’s in fact doing another.

5. I hoped he would use the bully pulpit of his office to lead the country toward meaningful healthcare and financial reform. He came into office backed by a populist mandate and a Democratic-controlled Congress, yet he has done little to discourage the upward flow of our nation’s wealth into the hands of a decreasing number of people at the top of the income scale.

What attracted me to Barack Obama was that he seemed like a political outsider who possessed the idealism and commitment to bring about change. I may have projected more of my progressive goals onto him than was realistic; but I thought he would stand up to Wall Street, the healthcare/pharma industry and the military on behalf of middle-class America.

He has turned out to be a disappointing centrist focused on pleasing the same special interests as the last four administrations. President Obama seems more dedicated to maintaining the status quo than change we can believe in. He's not leading. He is placating.

I still have hope, but it’s fading fast. My biggest hope is that I’m wrong about him.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A matter of priorities

According to a recent study by the American Friends Service Committee, the United States spends $720 million dollars per day on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s $30,000,000 per hour - 24/7.

These wars have cost us more than a trillion dollars to date.

The Federal government today announced it will cost one million dollars per year per soldier to send troops to Afghanistan, and President Obama is sending an additional 30,000 soldiers to that country.

Don’t these numbers tell us something?

Our healthcare system is failing. Our childrens’ education is suffering. The polar ice caps are melting. And we’re spending $30,000,000 per hour to do what?

Round up a few thousand insurgents? Stabilize a country that has been unstable for centuries? Prove that our military doesn’t lose wars?

The President is fiddling while Rome burns.

It’s time to rethink our priorities. We need get out of Afghanistan. We must reduce our spending on war and instead focus on functioning schools, healthy communities, good jobs and stopping global warming. Instead of robbing from our grandchildren’s economic well-being, we must invest in it.

Let's spend that $300,000,000 per hour on things that will solve problems instead of creating them.

Even a small shift in our priorities would have a huge impact on our children's future.

Shop and Drop

In December of 1966, I was a recent college graduate with a good job in an industrial publishing department. I had a pretty young wife, an eighteen month-old son and a two month–old daughter. This was the first Christmas that our son, Brian would be old enough to really appreciate the holidays; and since it was the first Christmas following several years of college-induced poverty, it was the first year we had any money to spend on gifts.

We went shopping at the brand new Natick Mall in nearby Natick, Massachusetts. It was the first enclosed shopping mall in the area and situated near the very first New England shopping mall, Shoppers’ World.

I was feeling proud as we walked along the crowded mall toward the exit. After four years of going without, I was dressed nicely and my arms were full of gifts. No more worn out clothes and tennis shoes. No more apologies for paltry gifts.

The style in men’s clothing at the time was slim and trim. I wore a fitted button-front shirt with a narrow necktie, black tapered-leg chinos with no belt and black pointed-toe shoes. The look was made for a skinny guy like me.

Chris walked beside me carrying Kelly Anne while Brian toddled ahead, exploring the indoor plants and benches.

When we reached the doorway, I switched the packages to my left arm and squatted down to scoop up Brian in my right arm and carry him out to the car. As I stood up, I heard a ripping sound. The seam down the back of my pants had split open, and they began to slide down my hips.

I stepped out into the frigid winter weather walking bowlegged to keep the pants from falling to my knees. The throng of shoppers entering the mall stared as I struggled toward the parking lot. I turned to my wife for help, but she was enjoying my predicament.

The pants slid down to my knees after ten or twelve steps, prompting peals of laughter from Chris. I switched from walking bowlegged to walking with my feet apart, hoping to keep the pants from falling any further. It was no use. After a few more steps the pants dropped to my ankles. With both arms full, I hobbled the rest of the way to the car.

When I reached our Volvo Duett wagon, I opened the back doors and set Brian and the packages inside. Chris caught up with us, laughing hysterically. I pulled up my pants and lifted Brian into the rear seat.

We didn’t talk much on the ride home. I was nursing my wounded pride, and Chris was giggling the whole way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Your wallet can talk

I decided to break down and buy a new mattress and box spring today. After looking around on-line to learn what to buy and where, I decided to buy a memory-foam mattress from an outfit in Poughkeepsie, New York. Their product compared favorably with the more expensive Swedish mattress, and they were offering free shipping for the next two days.

I called twice to place an order—once this morning, once this evening. Both times I was forced to navigate a voice prompt after which I was treated to several replays of a pre-recorded announcement telling me all their mattress specialists were busy helping other customers but the company valued my business. I was then sent to voice mail where I was promised a call back if I left a message. I never got a call back.

If I couldn't reach a sales person to order their product, what would happen if there was a problem with my order? I decided that I'm just not comfortable dealing with a company that can't or chooses not to hire enough sales people. I went elsewhere.

If you ever hope to get businesses to give you good service, take matters into your own hands.

The next time a business keeps you waiting on hold, sticks you with a rude or incompetent salesperson or treats you poorly, go somewhere else. I know. It’s easier to stay or wait or say nothing. You’ve got enough things on your plate without another hassle.

But by putting up with it, you’re saying it’s acceptable behavior. You’re giving them your permission to continue. Don’t do it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Humans need regulation

It’s not that we’re all evil. It’s just that we all think about our own welfare first. It’s probably instinct imprinted in our DNA.

But it’s why we have laws, social rules and governments. Why religions evolved. Why we need regulation.

So when free-marketers proclaim that businesses, corporations and investors should be completely unregulated, they’re ignoring human nature. They’re disregarding thousands of years of history. They’re either kidding themselves or lying to us.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Godfather Speaks

The Godfather of one of America’s most ruthless organized crime families, George H. W. Bush, called his son's critics names on morning TV.

He singled out MSNBC personalities Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow calling them "sick puppies."

"The way they treat my son and anyone who's opposed to their point of view is just horrible," he said. "When our son was president they just hammered him mercilessly and I think obscenely a lot of the time and now it's moved to a new president."

All I could think of is Don Corleon complaining how the newspapers treated Michael Corleon badly.

People tend to say harsh things about a man who let a city full of people drown, started an illegal and unprovoked war, condoned torturing his enemies and established secret prisons… who confined his critics to fenced off enclosures out of view and then illegally tapped their phones… and who incited fear among Americans to seize absolute power.

Does the Godfather expect that we’re going applaud his son’s illegal tactics?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Healthcare Hijack

The healthcare insurance industry has a lucrative racket, and they don’t want anything messing it up. So, they’re doing everything they can to scuttle the idea of a public option.

Their lobbyists and propagandists have been working overtime to protect their interests. Make no mistake about it; they’re playing to win.

Their paid PR mules are spreading lies, calling names and making up facts -- in short using every tool in the propagandist’s tool box to thwart any government involvement in healthcare. Even though the most successful social programs like Social Security, Medicare and the Veterans Administration are government run. And even though other countries have successful government-run healthcare.

As a diversionary measure, they’ve gotten their Congressional patsy, Max Baucus, to present a self-serving counter-proposal. The Baucus Plan was carefully structured by the insurance industry to guarantee them a multi-billion dollar windfall.

Here’s how it works. The government passes a law that the 40 million uninsured Americans must purchase health insurance. The law is added to the Internal Revenue Tax Code and calls for a $1900 “excise tax” if you don’t buy insurance. In other words, the IRS comes after you if you don’t pay, and it can attach your assets and put you in jail.

Under the pretense of solving the healthcare problem, The Baucus Plan uses the IRS to blackmail 40 million Americans into buying his benefactors’ insurance. It’s no different than any other organized crime protection racket.

Who will pay the price? The working poor who can least afford it.

Unless enough Americans see through this con and raise some hell with their Senators and Representatives, this legalized extortion could become part of the US Tax Code.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Soldiers will be Soldiers

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, recently said the situation there is serious and growing worse and the United States risks failure unless we send in more troops.

"Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall effort is deteriorating. We run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage. The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves," he wrote.

His statement precisely illustrates why a soldier should not be making foreign policy decisions. It’s all about the military.

From what I’ve read, McChrystal is an excellent soldier. He wants to win the war. That’s his mission, and that’s the problem.

From their first day of basic training, soldiers are trained to win wars. And our soldiers are certainly among the best in the world. If you want to win a war, you want the best.

But is winning a war in Afghanistan really in our best interests?

I don’t remember that we went into Afghanistan to win a war. We went into Afghanistan to capture al-Qaeda terrorists. Now we’ve stumbled into the same quagmire of tribal warlords and religious factions that sucked the life out of the Soviet military in the 1980s.

The solution in Afghanistan is not military. We must not let a military leader decide our course of action. That decision belongs in the hands of civilian foreign policy experts -- not warriors.

Monday, September 28, 2009

La Grange Rond

Photographing barns has been my passion for years. At last count I had close to 10,000 photographs of barns throughout the northeastern United States, plus some in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, California, Arizona and the Province of Quebec

Quebec has hundreds of lovely little villages, each with a well-maintained church and many with colorfully painted barns. For my first photographic expedition across the border, I planned to photograph round and multi-sided barns. I studied old books, magazines and tourist guides. I found eight near the border and made notes of their location.


My wife and I set off from our summer camp in northern Vermont early one summer morning. An hour later, we crossed the border at Derby Line and stopped at the visitor center for a map. A pleasant guide apologized that she had run out of provincial maps, but she was kind enough to give us a photocopy.

Using my notes, I located the towns that had round barns on the map and plotted a route that would take us to all eight.


The first five took about six hours, including a picnic lunch overlooking beautiful Lake Massawippi. The farmers were gracious about letting me tramp around their barnyards snapping photos from various angles. I speak very little French; but most of the people in southern Quebec are bilingual and very friendly, so communication was not a problem.

The sixth barn took nearly two hours to find, but it was well worth the trip. It was part of a beautiful hilltop farm with a spectacular view. I got some great shots, but it was almost five o’clock in the afternoon by the time I was done.

West Brome

Back in the car, I looked at the map and then at my wife. “The next one is in St. Jacques la Majeur de Wolfston,” I announced in my best French accent. “It doesn’t look that far. Should we try one more before supper?”

“If you think we can make it.”

“It can’t be more than an hour and a half. Maybe two hours at the most.” I pointed to the location on the map. “It’s right here. And there’s plenty of daylight left.”

Two and a half hours later, I began to realize just how much the photocopied map had been reduced. Chris studied it closely.

“This scale of miles is pretty tiny. I think it might be farther than you think,” she said with an unmistakable hint of sarcasm.

We followed a winding secondary road. The scenery was gorgeous—miles and miles of forested wilderness, small mountains and spectacular views.

Ayers Cliff

When we finally reached St. Jacques, it was after eight o’clock and the sun was close to dropping behind the mountains. I had no idea where the barn was. There was nothing in the town but a tiny church and three houses. One of them had a small store in the front room.

I pulled up in front of the store and went inside. The two teenage girls behind the counter smiled.

“Bonjour. Could you tell me where I could find the round barn in town?”

The two girls stared at me blankly. After a long silence, I realized they couldn’t understand me.

“Parlez-vous anglais?”

They giggled and shook their heads no. Another long silence.

I couldn’t think of the word for barn. I remembered farm was ferme and round was rond.

“Rond ferme?,” I asked.

The girls looked puzzled.

"Rond ferme,” I repeated, this time slower and louder and accompanied by drawing circles in the air with my hands.

They looked at each other. It was obvious they had no idea what I was talking about. They weren’t deaf. They just didn’t understand.

I had no more than twenty or twenty-five minutes before the sun went down, and I had come too far to go home empty handed. So, I ran out to the car to get a tourist booklet with a picture of a round barn. I took it inside and showed it to the girls.

They took the booklet and walked into the back part of the house. I could hear people talking in French. There was much laughter.

The girls reappeared. The one carrying the booklet walked out onto the porch beckoning me to follow. Once outside, she pointed across the valley.

“Over there,” she said, mimicking my slow and loud delivery.

There on a hillside about a half-mile away was the barn.

She pointed to a dirt road across from the church and handed me the booklet.

“Bonjour. Merci.” I said awkwardly.

Within a few minutes, I was pulling into the driveway of the neat little farm. Luck was with me. Situated on a western slope, the barn was still in bright sunlight. It was not round but six-sided.

St. Jacques le Majeur

I knocked on the door, camera in hand. A woman appeared behind the screen door.

“Bonjour. Would you mind if I photographed your barn?”

The woman stared at me with the same blank expression. Another long silence.

I was running out of time. I pointed to my camera and then to the barn.


She nodded her head yes.

I walked out by the barn, set up my tripod and snapped a picture. I looked back at the house to find the woman and a child standing on the lawn watching me. I worked my way around the barn, taking pictures from different angles. Each time I glanced back at the house, there were more people. My wife was doing her best to be invisible as she sat in the car reading.

A pickup truck pulled into the driveway. A man and woman got out and joined the group. By the time I was halfway around the barn, a group of several adults and children were watching and chattering in French.

I finished the roll of film and walked back to the car. My audience was gone, but the woman was standing in the door watching me.

“Merci,” I said with a smile as I put my camera on the back seat and climbed into the car.

An hour and a half later, we were driving down the main drag in Sherbrooke, tired and hungry and looking for some place to eat. I wonder how many families in St. Jacques le Majeur were talking about the odd American photographer.

Understanding the Financial Crisis

If you want to understand just how the current financial crisis happened, listen to this broadcast of This American Life. Planet Money's Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson explain it in a way that is simple, entertaining and infuriating. These two guys are very good.

You owe it to yourself to listen to this one-hour program.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ruddy Duck Designs

In the mid 1980's, Pat Harrington tried her hand at painting a wooden bowl. She has never stopped.

After retiring from teaching in 1997, Pat moved to Vermont to live and work. A self-taught artist, she combines painting with her love of wood and nature. Each of her hand-painted, decorative, wooden bowls is a one-of-a-kind creation. They come in a variety of designs and in sizes from 8 to 14 inches in diameter.

Pat purchases unfinished bowls in several different hardwoods from a bowl mill. She uses acrylic paint, stains and fine-tipped pens to decorate them and then finishes them with a water-based polyurethane finish. The grain of the wood including natural imperfections like holes and knots are frequently incorporated into her designs.

Pat’s bowls are intended for decorative use only, and they come with a stand for easy display. She refers to them as concave canvases.

Pat lives and paints in Rochester, Vermont. She displays her work at shows around Vermont throughout the year. You can see her bowls at the Vermont Handcrafters Fine Craft & Art Show in Burlington on November 19-22. The show is well worth the trip.

You can also see Pat’s work on her website at www.ruddyduckdesigns.com. Call her at 802-767-4589 or contact her by e-mail at pchrdd@gmail.com to purchase one of her beautiful bowls. You won’t be disappointed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Passive Political Voice

Most writers avoid the passive voice. It makes our work sound weak and wishy-washy.

So it’s hard to understand why political speechwriters insist on using the passive voice for their clients’ speeches. It’s as if they want their clients to sound like impotent wimps. Or maybe their real goal is to relieve their clients of any responsibility for their actions.

We all know who made the reckless decision to invade Iraq, but all we have ever heard from George Bush is that decisions were made.

The Department of Homeland Security made catastrophic mistakes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but all we ever heard was that mistakes were made.

The CIA and the military committed heinous war crimes in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but all we ever hear is that crimes were committed.

Our paid para-military goons in Iraq raped and shot civilians, stole supplies and sold them to anyone who had the money, but all we hear is that illegal activities took place.

Investment bankers ripped off the citizens of the United States for billions of dollars, but all we ever hear is that fraud was committed.

It’s time we insist on the active voice from our government.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Mugging of the Common Good

I was working on an article about how the financial, insurance and healthcare industries are manipulating our democracy for their own gain, when I came across this article by Robert Borosage. I can't say it any better.
Please take a minute and read it.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Bad Timing

Driving home from work on Route 119 in Littleton MA one warm March afternoon, I passed a slow moving car in a legitimate passing zone. I stepped hard on the gas to complete the pass before the broken line turned solid. As I pulled back into my lane, I met a police cruiser traveling in the opposite direction. I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw his brake lights come on, so I made sure I stayed under the speed limit.

A short way down the road, the cop passed the same car and came flying up behind me with his blue lights flashing. I pulled off the road, took out my license and registration and rolled down the window. I watched in the mirror as the officer carefully donned his Stetson when he exited his vehicle.

He walked up beside my car and asked the usual questions. “May I see your license and registration please?” followed by “Do you know why I stopped you, Mr. Johnson?”

He had just finished the second question when a large truck roared by a few feet behind him. “Oh, shit,” he cursed under his breath as the immaculate Stetson blew off his head and tumbled into a mud puddle.

Have you ever experienced one of those times in life when you know you shouldn’t laugh at something but you can’t help yourself? Seeing this big burly cop chasing his hat into a very large puddle was too much for me. I couldn’t stifle a chuckle.

Unfortunately, he heard me.

My insolence was rewarded with a citation for speeding and passing on a solid line handed to me without a word. Since I wasn’t speeding and didn’t pass on the line, I decided right then to file an appeal.

Four weeks later, I went to the Ayer District Courthouse at the appointed time. The officer and I were called into the Clerk’s office for a hearing. I brought along a diagram of where I was when I passed and snapshots of the road.

I must have been convincing because the Clerk found in my favor. The law allowed the police officer to have the case reheard by a judge, and he requested it. As we walked out of the clerk’s office, the bailiff stepped up close.

“Just repeat what you said to the judge. This guy has a reputation as a hothead,” he whispered.

I walked down the hallway a short distance behind the officer, feeling pretty confident about the hearing. With my hands behind my back, I strolled toward the door to look outside. Suddenly, a security guard dashed over, grabbed me by the arm and yanked me away from the door.

“Where do you think you’re goi . . . oh, I thought you were cuffed,” he exclaimed.

“I’m only here for speeding,” I replied. We both saw the humor in the situation and exchanged smiles.

Fifteen minutes later, the police officer and I were standing in front of the judge, The cop went first and described what sounded almost like a high speed chase. I followed with my explanation of the road and my diagram and photos. The judge found in my favor, and the case was dismissed.

I was a very cautious driver in Littleton, Massachusetts for many months afterward.

Democrat or Republican—it doesn’t matter

A narrow group of interests control our government by virtue of their financial support of both political parties. The reason that Barak Obama and the Democrats will not champion real financial or healthcare reform is because they need the financial support of Wall Street and the insurance, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries to get re-elected. Like the Republicans, they know where the money comes from.

Universal healthcare and re-regulation of the financial industry may be in the best interest of the public, but they’re not in the best interests of corporate America. These modern-day robber barons depend on the obscene profits generated by the current system. They will withdraw their financial support from any politician who champions real reform; and they’re the ones that fund political campaigns, not the public.

So, from the President on down, can we really expect any of them to champion real reform? Of course not. They'll talk a good fight and then cut deals that keep their campaign war chests full of cash for the next election. It's silly naiveté to think otherwise.

The Democrats used the progressive left to get elected in 2008 just like the Republicans used the religious right in 2000. Ideology is not important. Political control is what counts.

The only hope for any real change is for the public to stand up and demand it. Unfortunately, we’re all too busy trying to make ends meet. And they're counting on that.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

New England Covered Bridges

Covered wooden bridges were not invented in New England. They had been used in central Europe for several hundred years before they were built here. The ingenuity of six New Englanders, however, launched a whole new era in bridge construction.

In the late 1700s, America was growing. Rivers were a major obstacle to communication and land transportation. Bridges were needed for commerce and military protection, but deep water and spring flooding made low, piling-supported bridges impractical.

Haverhill MA (click on photo for larger view)

About this time, Timothy Palmer of Newburyport, Massachusetts and Theodore Burr of Torringford, Connecticut adapted European designs and became the first, successful builders of large wooden truss bridges in America. Both of these men were self-taught craftsmen who built numerous covered bridges all over the northeast. Old growth forests provided them with an abundant supply of large timbers.

Once the viability of large wooden bridges was proven, towns, toll-bridge companies and the infant railroad industry began building them in great numbers. By the early 1800’s, contractors were competing for a boom in building contracts.

Ithiel Town of New Haven, Stephen Long of Hopkinton, New Hampshire and William Howe of Spencer, Massachusetts came up with new truss designs that were easier to build than Palmer’s or Burr’s designs. All three patented and then licensed their designs to builders who used them all over America.

Taftsville VT

The unpatented Paddleford Truss was designed by Peter Paddleford of Monroe NH. About 1846, he remodeled the Long truss by replacing the counterbraces with a stiffening member fastened to the inside of the posts at points near the top and bottom chords. This resulted in an unusually strong and rigid structure.

Even with proven designs, bridge building was as much art as science. Bridge builders were ingenious and skilled craftsmen with little formal education. They relied on their training under a skilled master craftsman and their own experience. They knew the characteristics of the materials they worked with — not only how to cut and shape the timbers, but what the load bearing strength was. If there is such as thing as folk engineering, this was it.

Narragansett RI

For me, the most fascinating aspect of New England covered bridges is the superb craftsmanship. Because a wooden truss bridge’s strength comes from being under constant compression, every timber and joint in the timber frame must precisely fit to evenly distribute the load. And a typical 100-foot lattice type bridge could have almost a thousand hand-cut, hand-pegged joints.

There have been numerous stories about why these bridges were covered, but the real answer is simple. They were covered to protect the trusses from the weather. If water was allowed to settle into the joints and rot the wood, the life of the bridge would be short.

The fact that wooden covered bridges built nearly two hundred years ago are still in service is a testimonial to their design and the craftsmanship with which they were built. With good supervision and maintenance many of these will last for years to come.

W. Stewartstown NH

Townshend VT

New Sharon ME

Friday, August 28, 2009

Grim predictions come true

President Dwight Eisenhower understood war and the military industrial complex as only an experienced warrior can. In his last speech as President in 1961, he warned us about the United States in which we now live.

1. He warned us that our country’s prestige could be lost:
“We yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

2. He warned that an overly powerful military industrial complex could lead the country into unwarranted wars:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

3. He warned about an imbalance between private and public interests:
“But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs -- balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage -- balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.”

4. He warned about plundering the earth’s resources:
“As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

5. He warned about getting caught up in fear and hatred:
“Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

Very insightful for a President mostly remembered for his golf game. Maybe that's why we didn't listen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy

I never met Ted Kennedy. I voted for him in my first election after moving to Massachusetts and every election after that until I moved out of the state forty years later.

As my senator, I was always proud of his stand on the issues. I was less proud of his private life when he was younger, but I saw him grow and mature into a person I could admire and respect in all ways.

He was a champion of the common man even though he had no reason to be and a hard worker though he had no need to be. He was the surviving son in a wealthy family who could have easily spent his life dabbling in business, playing polo and sailing on the family yacht.

I never understood the hatred that many conservatives had for him. It was like he stood for everything that was wrong with the federal government, politicians and America in general.

I still remember a bumper sticker I saw on an Arizona pickup truck in 1989: “The only good Kennedy is a dead Kennedy”. The driver didn’t look like he was into punk rock bands.

We would all be more fortunate if there were more politicians on both sides of the aisle in the Senate who were as committed to American democracy as Ted Kennedy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Julie Y. Baker Albright --Still Life Painter

Julie Y. Baker Albright is a 6th generation Vermonter. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Vermont, Julie started in the arts as a potter. From clay, she moved on to watercolor and then to oil painting.

Julie paints in north light from life in the classical style. Her strong drawing skills were developed through years of drawing figure studies and her children.

She finds beauty in man-made objects and often includes pieces made by fellow artists in her still-life paintings. Julie also uses organic objects from her garden and from the fields near her studio. While the objects she chooses to paint are often common, she captures an uncommon beauty from the cool north light and the warmth of the shadows. She masterfully uses her paint to create the 3-dimensional illusion.

Landscape paintings have become an increasing part of Julie’s work in recent years. She travels the state’s back roads looking for small family farms and says Vermont offers all the inspiration she needs.

Julie’s paintings are available from her studio as well as from galleries in Boston, Vermont and Pensylvania. Her work has been exhibited in over 40 juried exhibitions across the country. She’s a member of the Oil Painters of America, The Copley Society of Boston, Academic Artists Association and the Hudson Valley Art Association.

Julie lives and works in Essex VT with her family. You can see more of her beautiful work at her website: www.julieybakeralbright.com. You can reach her by phone at 802-878-0644 or by email at jyba@comcast.net


The recent 40th anniversary of Woodstock brought back memories.

I bought our tickets in advance. On Thursday evening, I dropped the kids off with my mother for the weekend; and on Friday morning, my wife and I left from our apartment in Lincoln MA.

We were in central MA on Route 117 in our trusty Volkswagen Beetle when some kids ambushed the car with green apples. I stopped the car, but the boys ran into the orchard. I knew it was pointless to chase them.

One apple had shattered the windshield, making a golf ball-sized hole and leaving it so concave that the windshield wipers wouldn't make contact. We continued on, determined to get to the festival.

It started to rain. I couldn't see the road. Rain poured in the hole in the windshield. The radio said that the NY Thruway was already closed.

We turned back.

I’ve often wondered if my life would have been in any way different but for that one green apple.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Killing the geese

The subprime mortgage scam was the tipping point that brought on the Wall Street meltdown that created our current economic crisis. Or so goes the official explanation.

But this crisis might not have been a crisis, if the middle class was economically stronger.

For the last thirty years, the oligarchs who run our country as a for-profit enterprise have passed legislation that slowly moved the nation’s wealth upward. They stripped the middle class of its economic power until our bank accounts and cookie jars are finally empty.

Now we’re forced to help them jump-start their cash machines by mortgaging our grandchildrens’ earnings. Other than some minor tax law tinkering, little has been done to change the economic injustices that got us into this pickle.

A strong democracy depends on an economically robust middle class. We are the geese that lay the golden eggs that the rich so covet.

American Atrocities

We Americans have a short memory about atrocity. Over the last 350 years, we’ve perpetrated numerous atrocities, yet they’re first rationalized and then forgotten. And pretending they never happened is what allows them to reoccur.

For the first three hundred years after we invaded and colonized what became the United States, we committed just about every imaginable atrocity against the Native Americans who lived here.

We exploited their naiveté by swindling them out of their lands and signing dozens of treaties we had no intention of keeping. We massacred them in their sleep, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. We hunted them down like animals and then force-marched them to concentration camps where we starved them to death. We used germ warfare against them by deliberately infecting them with fatal diseases. We rounded them up and then staged mass executions. We took their children away from them for reprogramming into Christianity.

For more than 200 years, we used Africans as farm animals and personal servants even though we knew they had been kidnapped against their will. We chained and mistreated them. We bought and sold them as chattel. We branded them and raped them. We hunted them down like animals. We took their children away from them to be sold as livestock.

During the Civil War, both the North and the South put fellow American soldiers into concentration camps where they were starved to death, mistreated and forced to live in unimaginable squalor.

In World War II, we dropped thousands of tons of conventional bombs on German and Japanese cities with no regard to the civilians who were living there. We put American citizens of Japanese descent into concentrations camps. We dropped thermonuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima when the war was all but over, killing 250,000 people and injuring countless more.

In Vietnam, we killed between two and three million Vietnamese with our "carpet bombing" and committed uncounted massacres where innocent civilians were wantonly executed. Other than William Calley, few were even reprimanded.

As part of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, we have killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians and 20,00 Afghani civilians. We have routinely kidnapped, held without charge, mistreated, sexually assaulted, sodomized and raped prisoners who may or may not even be guilty of anything. We have systematically tortured captives in violation of the Geneva Conventions. We have allowed military contractors to beat, rape and kill civilians with virtually no accountability.

The facts of these atrocities are not disputed by anyone. They are recorded in newspapers and history books. They are supported by documentation, witnesses and photographs. Yet, we still deny them. These atrocities are the dirty laundry that we refuse to wash.

Until we own up and accept the blame for these atrocities, we will keep committing them.

Faith-based Education

It takes a leap of faith to believe
that how well students do
on standardized tests
has anything to do with
the quality of their education.

It’s like trying to use a wooden ruler
to measure the volume of a balloon.


My granddaughter, Annabelle, needed a replacement wheel for her car after hitting a curb. I volunteered to pick up a used one at a local junkyard. Because I spend so many hours a week banging on this keyboard, I jump on a good reason to get outside for a couple of hours.

I called the closest junkyard still in operation, a small family-owned business in the next town. A pleasant-sounding man told me they had a wheel. I hit the sleep key on my computer and headed out the door.

When I got there, the place seemed deserted. I went into the small but neat office where I found a man busily packaging auto parts. There was already a sizeable pile of boxes by the door.

‘Hello, there. I’m the one who called about the wheel,” I announced.

“99 Pontiac Grand Am. Right?”


He picked up a walkie-talkie from the counter.

“Hey, Dennis. You out in the yard?”

“Yeah. What do you need?”

“Can you put your hands on a 14-inch Grand Am wheel--steel not alloy?”

“I’ll have to take one off.”

The pleasant-sounding man looked over at me. “You mind waiting?”


“Dennis, pull one off and bring it down.”

He looked back at me again. “He’ll only be a few minutes.”

Then he went back to his work. After each part was packaged, he went to the computer and printed out a packing slip and label for the next one.

“Where are all these packages going,” I asked.

“All over. Mostly Mexico, South America and Africa.”

“That far?”

“Hell, there’s no money in local business any more. People trade in their cars before they break and a lot of those go overseas where there are no parts to fix ‘em. We do most of our business online these days. Everything’s paid by credit card and shipped UPS.”

I looked at the pile by the door and counted eighteen packages ready to go.

“You ship this many every day?”

“Pretty much.”

The phone rang. It was a nice day so I stepped outside. When Dennis appeared, I went back in and paid the pleasant-sounding man twenty dollars. On the ride home, I remembered a story that I had written more than twenty years ago.

I had to copy it from a 3.5-inch floppy disk and make a few corrections, but here it is:

To get back and forth to college, my son drives an old Volvo station wagon that doesn’t have the good sense to die gracefully. It has clocked more than a quarter million miles but is still fairly dependable.

The starter died the other day, and he couldn’t afford a new one. So we called around the local junkyards until we found a used one, then drove over to pick it up.

I hadn’t been to a junkyard for years, and things had certainly changed. The place we went wasn’t really a junkyard. It was more like a used auto parts store. We parked outside a ten-foot high chain link fence with barbed wire along the top and iridescent red, attack-dog warning signs every thirty feet.

The office was bustling with computer terminals, ringing phones, several casually dressed counter men and a good Saturday morning turnout. The room was Spartan but clean with several vending machines off to one side. The wall behind the long counter was covered with auto parts manufacturer posters.

We stood at the end of the line. At least the customers hadn’t changed much. They were still the same mix of shade-tree mechanics.

When we finally reached the counter, the man said they didn’t have a starter off the car.

“You can take it off yourself if you have your own tools or pay five dollars to have it removed.”

We didn’t have the tools so we had to pay the extra five bucks. He filled out a Part Removal Authorization form and handed it to us with brief but polite instructions.

“Up the center drive, seventeenth row on the right. Find what you want and give the pink copy to Skip. He’ll be in the yellow pickup.”

We found the part and Skip. He made short work of getting the starter off a battered, white four-door sedan with only 170,000 miles on the odometer. He put the pink copy on his clipboard and an initialed tag on the part. Everything neat and business-like.

As we walked back to the office, I explained to my son how junkyards had changed.

The junkyard I went to as a teenager was different. The only dogs were scruffy but friendly mutts. The only fences were stonewalls with sagging wooden gates.

Bob Wilson’s house stood on a neatly mowed knoll under an immense elm tree--an island in a sea of decaying automobilia. There were red geraniums planted in white-painted tires and a sandbox filled with Tonka trucks.

Everything outside of the yard was as overgrown as the yard was neat. Behind the house were a large cinder block garage, several sheds, a chicken coop, a couple of old school busses and truck bodies. Bob used the garage to dismantle cars. The rest provided storage for parts that were worth keeping out of the weather.

The cars sat in rows somewhat sorted by make and model. If you looked around, you could find cars you knew. Cars you had ridden in. Some were grim reminders of accidents involving people you knew. Others of awkward, adolescent experiments in love.

Each time I went, I checked to see whether the weathered old 1946 Pontiac that my mother drove when I was in grade school had eluded Bob’s torches. Or the worn-out 1949 Mercury that my cousin Phillip gave me when he graduated from law school. Sooner or later, the picked clean carcasses were dragged down back and burned. Then they were cut up for scrap.

Everything sat in waist deep hay with roadways worn down to the dirt between the rows of cars. In the summer, daisies and black-eyed susans bloomed between the cars.

Most of the cars lay with their bellies in the dirt, but a few lay helplessly on their roofs like overturned turtles.

Bob’s mobile tool bench was an ancient red panel truck with no doors, fenders or hood. In faded lettering on each side were the words “Coffee Time” surrounded by musical notes. The back end sagged under its burden of acetylene and oxygen bottles and overflowing toolboxes.

A huge vice was mounted on the homemade diamond-plate steel back bumper. At each corner was an outlandishly oversized tire. Because it never left the junkyard, it had no need for lights, horn or muffler. This was a vehicle that made no pretenses or excuses. What it lacked in finesse, it made up for in utility.

During the week, Bob worked hard in all weather dismantling and cutting up cars, loading the pieces on his big flatbed truck and delivering them to scrap metal dealers. On Saturdays, however, you could find Bob in the small office attached to the garage.

The office was furnished with two school bus seats and an oil-stained oak desk. Fancy hubcaps decorated the walls. A wood stove sat in front of one of the windows with a stove pipe running out through a piece of asbestos that replaced one of the window panes. A tool company calendar picturing a busty blonde whose bathing suit was printed on an acetate overlay hung on the inside door to the garage.

Bob sat in an old office chair with his feet up on the desk swapping stories with his customers. A car radio perched on the windowsill next to the desk. It was connected to a car battery on the floor below and an antenna wire hanging out the window. The baseball game was usually crackling out of the speaker lying next to the radio.

In this world, Bob was philosopher and sage. He passed out information with Yankee directness and frugality, generously peppered with four-letter words. A big man in soiled green coveralls, he was a walking compendium of cross-referenced parts from one make or model to another. And he seemed to know every car in his yard including which parts were still intact and most likely to work.

He ran an honest business and appreciated an honest customer. In fact everything pretty much worked on the honor system. Bob could tell you where you would most likely find the parts you needed. Then you could drive right in so you wouldn’t have to carry tools and parts back and forth. You stopped by the office on the way out to talk price. If the part was no good when you put it on, he’d give you another—no questions asked.

About this time, my son and I reached the office with the Volvo starter in hand. The cashier examined the tag and printed out a sales slip. We paid thirty dollars plus five for removal.

In the car on the way home, I was continuing my reminiscence when my son’s favorite band came on the radio. He turned up the volume and the conversation turned to getting the car going in time for his evening date.

Sheep Shear Cuttings

I recently discovered an artist that lives just over the Connecticut River in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Carolyn Guest practices a form of paper cutting called wycinanki (vee-chee-non-kee).

This art form originated in the early 19th Century when Polish sheepherders cut designs out of tree bark and leather with sheep shears. The designs were often used to decorate their homes or given as gifts.

Apple Picnic

The techniques were passed down from generation to generation. As the years passed, the paper cuttings became more detailed and intricate. Town and village competitions evolved, producing beautiful multi-colored and multi-layered wycinanki. Traditional subject matter included peacocks, roosters and other birds, circular or star-shaped medallions, flowers and decorative scenes depicting holidays.

Carolyn became intrigued with this traditional Polish folk art after working in Poland as an International 4-H Youth Exchange delegate. She began cutting with the traditional Polish sheep shears and continues to cut with her first pair of 13-inch shears using techniques she learned from Polish paper cutters.

Morning Call

Carolyn grew up on a farm in Lyndon, Vermont and was an active 4-H Club member. Folk art and crafts were always a big part of her life. Paper cutting has become a way for her express her creativity and portray her rural Vermont heritage. She has traveled to Poland and several other countries to study with paper cutters.

Carolyn continues to challenge herself by cutting ever more elaborate designs using her sheep shears. She was one of ten Vermont artists featured in a traveling exhibit “Ten Artists View of Vermont Agriculture” sponsored by the Vermont Council of the Arts and Vermont Department of Agriculture in 2002. She was also one of five Vermont artists who made ornaments for the 2002 White House Christmas Tree.

4-H Barn

You can find Carolyn’s work on her website at www.sheepshearcuttings.com, and you can contact her at carolyn@sheepshearcuttings.com

The healthcare controversy

The healthcare controversy boils down to this:
Are we willing to allow corporate insurance,
pharmaceutical and healthcare profiteers
get rich because people get ill?

Corporate vs. Public Interests

The issue isn't that large corporations are evil. It's that they must be profitable. They have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for their shareholders, even when that goal is not in the best interests of the general public.

We like corporations because they stimulate innovation, create jobs and provide necessary goods and services. The legal benefits and protections that help young corporations grow and prosper are the same ones that allow them to run amok when they become behemoths.

The idea behind corporate law is to allow people to form corporations so their businesses will thrive and then benefit society. We give corporations lower tax rates and special deductions. We allow them to establish credit and to raise money by selling shares to investors. We give them life that goes beyond that of the original owners. Then we give the owners protection from nearly all personal liability.

These protections are precisely the ones that allow large corporations to produce shoddy, dangerous products with little accountability, to make outrageous profits while paying little or no taxes, to pay executives obscene salaries, to artificially inflate or deflate stock prices as needed, and to put themselves into bankruptcy or sell out to another corporation for liquidation if necessary.

The real trouble comes when corporations become so big a part of our economy that we can’t control them. Then we’re facing extremely powerful opponents with interests that run contrary to public interests. They have the resources to flood Washington with lobbyists to influence Congress, to run national propaganda campaigns and to support political candidates who are loyal to them.

These juggernauts have dismantled government regulations that were put in place to protect us from them after the last great economic meltdown.

Who represents the public?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

War is Betrayal

War is always betrayal.
Betrayal of the young by the old,
betrayal of idealists by cynics,
and betrayal of soldiers by politicians.

This betrayal has burned the souls
of America's Iraq War veterans
and produced a wave of walking wounded
not seen since the Vietnam War.

It has also provided an opportunity
for those of us who stayed at home
to learn about the hideous reality of war
and understand our complicity in the betrayal.

Tug of War

We don’t often see bears in Northern New Hampshire.

So when my son, my wife and I spotted a good-sized black bear lumbering down an old bypassed section of Route 302 in Twin Mountain at dusk, we drove to the other end hoping to get a better look.

When we got there, we found a bicycle tourist setting up a small tent on a grassy area next to the bypassed road. We pulled up to warn him about the bear. As soon as we rolled down the car window, the bear came out of the woods behind the man and started pulling his bicycle into the bushes to get at the food in the saddlebags.

We were safe inside the car, but the man began a tug of war with the bear. We told him to let go of the bicycle and get in the car, but he yelled back at us, "That bike cost me twelve-hundred bucks and it's got all my special food." We again advised him to get in the car, and again he refused. When the bear roared and lunged at him, the man finally let go of the bicycle.

The bear pulled the bike into the bushes and began tearing at the saddlebags. The cyclist started yelling and making threatening gestures at the bear. We warned him that wasn't a smart thing to do since he was only eight or ten feet away from a full-grown bear, but he wouldn't listen.

Suddenly the bear roared and charged at him. The man ran behind our car, and the bear fortunately turned back to the bike.

We called the police. While we waited for them to come, the cyclist stood next to the car ranting about his bike and his special food. The bear was busy shredding the saddlebags and their contents.

When the police arrived, the officer told us the game warden was on his way with a tranquilizer gun and asked us to leave. We drove away wondering what would have happened had we not come along.

Just plane sculptures

I make these airplane sculptures. I saw something similar a couple of years ago in an antique shop and thought “I could do better than that.”

I start with an old carpenter’s plane. The size and shape of the plane determine what kind of an airplane it will be.

The other parts come from architectural salvage shops. I look for recycled odds and ends — old hide stretchers or barrel staves for the wings, faucet handles for propellers, old furniture casters for landing gear and architectural details for decoration.

Then I assemble the pieces and add some decorative painting. I try not to make them too realistic. They’re caricatures.

I’m not sure what to do with them. They fall a little outside of the traditional folk art realm, so I hang them on the front porch in the good weather.

Send me an email if you'd like to buy one.

WW II Bomber

Fokker Biplane

French Hunter

Sopwith Camel

U.S. Pursuit Plane

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Another quagmire

The Obama Administration's assumption that we can somehow impose our will on Afghanistan is as flawed now as it was in Iraq or Vietnam. Russia learned this lesson the hard way after nine long bloody years in Afghanistan. Have we learned nothing from history?

We need a serious national debate on US military intervention in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration admits that the region's problems can't be solved by military means, yet they're increasing our military presence in Afghanistan.

This has the very real potential to be another endless quagmire. We have already squandered too many American lives and too much of our financial resources in the Middle East.

Where is the voice of reason that we employ all other means before committing us to another endless military campaign?

Can we look before we leap this time?

Second Grade Secret

I had a crush on my second grade teacher.

Miss Contagogo was young and slender with dark hair and eyes. I wanted her to like me in return.

I was a daydreamer in school. I still am. My teachers were constantly reminding me to pay attention and stop looking out the window.

One day, Miss Contagogo caught me looking out the window.

“Pay attention, Karl. You’re acting like a first-grader. If you don’t stop looking out the window, I’ll send you back to first grade,” she scolded.

I don’t remember what attracted my attention out the window a few minutes later; but when I turned to look, she caught me again.

“That’s it, Karl. I’m sending you to first grade so you can learn to pay attention.”

I was devastated. The love of my life humiliated me in front of the whole class. Worse still, she was sending me to the first grade. My cheeks burned. I fought to hold back the tears.

Miss Contagogo wrote a note and handed it to me.

“You walk down to the Town Hall and give this to the first grade teacher,” she directed in a stern voice. I walked out of the room, my head bowed in shame.

Photo by Lynne Monroe

The Town of Hollis was growing in 1950, and the old school building would no longer accommodate all twelve grades. So the first-grade class was moved to the lower floor of the town hall, which sat several hundred yards away on the town common.

Outside the school, I burst into tears. I descended the concrete steps and went down the long front walk, convinced my classmates were watching me and laughing. I crossed the street and walked down the hill past the ball field, library and church, clutching the terrible note.

I was still sobbing as I approached the town hall. I didn’t want to face the first grade teacher or her students. They would know I was kicked out of class. They would all see I had been crying.

Photo by Howard Bigelow

I stopped in front of the heavy wooden doors. I couldn’t go through with it.

I turned and ran behind the Town Hall and hid beneath the wooden fire escape. I sat in the cool shade and cried myself to sleep, only to be awakened by the chiming of the tower clock striking the hour.

I spent the next few hours hiding from imaginary foes, stacking a pile of discarded bricks into a wall around my hiding place and drawing pictures with a stick in an area of the dirt that I smoothed out with one of the bricks.

The only person I saw was a woman driving out the road from the house behind the Town Hall. I ducked down as she drove by, so she wouldn’t see me.

I was hungry and scared, but I devised a plan.

I knew school ended at two o’clock. I’d wait until the clock struck two and then walk back to school. The rest of the class would be gone by then, so I wouldn’t have to face them.

I buried the note in the dirt beneath the wooden stairs. If Miss Contagogo asked, I’d tell her everything went fine.

The hours dragged by. I remember counting twelve rings, then one and finally two.

I brushed off my clothes and left my hiding place. As I walked back up to the school, I tried to remember things we did the previous year in case Miss Contagogo asked. I was terrified she would find out.

I saw the school buses coming down the driveway as I walked up the hill toward the Red & White store. I was too ashamed to look up as my bus passed by.

I crossed the street and walked up the long front walk. A group of high school girls sitting on the lawn giggled as I passed by. I was sure they were laughing at me.

When I walked into the classroom, Miss Contagogo was sitting at her desk working. She looked up.

“I hope you learned your lesson,” she said sternly. “You go to your seat. I’ll call your mother to pick you up.”

I sat down at my desk. I had never heard the school so quiet.

Miss Contagogo walked out of the room. I listened to her footsteps as she climbed the wooden front stairs and walked back to the office on the second floor. A few minutes later, I heard her coming back down.

“Your mother will be here soon,” she told me.

I reached into my desk and took out my favorite coloring book and crayons. I began coloring a picture of a cowboy sitting on his horse and waving to the engineer of an old-fashioned train.

Miss Contagogo finished her work and left. When my mother arrived, I didn’t tell her what happened.

For the rest of the year, I waited for my secret to be exposed; but it never was.

Miss Contagogo got married a few weeks later. I remember her writing her new name on the chalkboard for us. She didn’t return the next fall.

I told my mother my secret not long before she died. She never knew.

The Real Problem with Newspapers

The Internet has presented a problem for traditional newspapers. They’re all wailing about losing money, and many journalistic icons are struggling to keep their headlines above water.

But the real problem facing newspapers is their self-inflicted lack of credibility. Somewhere in the middle of the Clinton era, even the most respected newspapers began peddling stories that were more about sensationalism than substance. Maybe it was O.J.’s gloves or Monica’s blue dress, but the media seemed to become more obsessed with lurid details than real journalism.

Fueled by the attack on the World Trade Center and encouraged by the Bush Administration’s army of propagandists, newspapers gave up any pretense of legitimate journalism and began peddling government Newspeak. They allowed themselves to be manipulated by spin doctors. They became mouthpieces for the military invasion and occupation of Iraq. They switched from investigative journalism to reprinting government and corporate press releases.

Newspapers aren’t selling because they no longer offer anything of value. When faced with an army of new media rivals, they gave up on the first part of their name—NEWS.

Newspapers were successful because the public could count on them to provide up-to-date, well-written, well-researched news in an inexpensive, convenient format. The era of the traditional, oversized newsprint format may be ending, but the need for real journalism is greater than ever.

If newspapers are to survive, they must find their niche. They need to provide readers with something they can’t get elsewhere. Honest journalism. Quality writing. Convenience. And yes, advertising. It remains to be seen whether they can figure that out.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

It’s impossible to place a value on a human life
that has been sacrificed on the field of war.
Throughout our country’s history,
courageous men and women have died
defending lives and freedom.
The measure of their life’s worth
is what their death accomplished.

The tragedy of this Memorial Day is
that the beautiful and gallant young Americans
who sacrificed their lives in the invasion of Iraq
died for no good reason.
Their deaths achieved nothing.
Their mutilated limbs and minds were wasted.
The suffering of their families was for naught.
All because they were recklessly committed
to an ill-conceived and illegal war
that has no justification.

The best way for us to give value to the sacrifices
made by these brave soldiers is to not let
their children and grandchildren suffer the same fate.
We must make these heroes' deaths and injuries
count for something by ending
this 21st Century Holy War.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ginny Joyner

Ginny Joyner is an artist, illustrator, decorative painter and educator. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in illustration but has gone on to be far more than an illustrator.

Ginny has done illustration work for Harper Collins Publishers, Sleeping Bear Press, W.S. Badger, The Baltimore Sun Eating Well Magazine Gardener’s Supply, Vermont Teddy Bear and many other clients. She also teaches classes at St. Michaels College and gives presentations in Vermont schools to encourage art in children of all ages.

She illustrated the book M is for Maple Syrup, which was written by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds. The book is a window into Vermont history, culture and lore for children 3-12.

Ginny works in several mediums including watercolor, acrylics, pen and ink and scratchboard. Her delicate watercolors of orchids, butterflies and antique china are exquisite.

Ginny lives in Colchester, Vermont. You can buy her work in shops and galleries in Shelburne, Stowe, Burlington, Manchester and Middlebury, Vermont as well as Nantucket MA. She also exhibits every November at the prestigious Vermont Hand Crafters Fine Art & Craft Show in Burlington, Vermont.

You can see more of Ginny’s fabulous work at www.ginnyjoyner.com

Volvo Duett

I own a 1967 Volvo 210 Duett. I’ve had it for thirty-eight years. Maybe it now owns me.

If you don’t know what a Volvo Duett looks like, picture a small 1940s panel truck with windows. The name Duett came from Volvo’s intent that it was a dual-purpose car. It could be used for daily transportation and for weekend excursions.

I don’t have a recent photo of my car, because it’s stored in a friend’s barn; but I did find one like it in the Volvo museum.

My love affair with these cars began in 1959 when I was fifteen. My mother bought a shiny new red-and-gray 445 Duett. It was the car I drove when I first got my driver’s license -- a funny-looking little Swedish car with a twin-carbureted sports-car engine and a blatting exhaust.

The car combined funky good looks, practical utility and excellent performance. It had better acceleration and fuel economy than many contemporary American models. It was also the car I was driving when some guy from the next town ran a stop sign and hit me nearly head on.

There were seven of us in the car. Thanks to its rugged construction, none of us were killed; but the car was destroyed. My mother wanted to buy another, but she couldn’t find one. Volvo only produced a few thousand a year, and they were never regularly imported to the U.S.

I found a Duett when I graduated from college -- a rusted, worn-out 1958 model that got me back and forth to my first post-college job. It consumed a quart of motor oil for each tank full of gas and had almost no brakes, a serious deficiency for commuting in and out of Boston every day—particularly when Route 2 west of Boston was under reconstruction. Slow moving construction vehicles often brought rush hour traffic to a sudden halt. On several occasions, I had to execute some heart-stopping evasive maneuvers.

While driving in the car with my wife one weekend, I spotted another one in good condition and flagged down the owner. We swapped stories; and I asked him to let me know if he was ever interested in selling. I got a call a few weeks later and bought the car for $600.

I parked the old one in the woods behind my mother’s house to save for parts. It eventually went to the junkyard.

I now had a reliable, shiny dark blue and gray 1958 445 Duett. It looked great and attracted a lot of interest. Everywhere I went in the car, people commented on it. And the very few times I met another one was an occasion to stop and talk.

I drove the car for three years. I loaned it to my boss one day, and he smashed it into a phone pole. I was devastated. It was repairable but would never be the same again. I sold it to a friend who patched it together and drove it several more years before parking it in a field behind his Vermont farmhouse. It was still there last I knew.

On my way home from work three years later, I passed a shiny dark blue 210 Duett. I turned around, followed the driver home and pulled into his driveway behind him. When I asked if he was interested in selling the car, he admitted that his wife was after him to get a more conventional car. A few days and $1100 later, it was mine.

The car was in good physical condition, but had already traveled more than 150,000 stop-and-go miles as a newspaper delivery vehicle. I installed a highly modified engine, beefed-up suspension, oversized tires on wide orange wheels, Italian driving lamps, garishly flowered window curtains and an eight-track stereo system (Remember, this was 1971).

It was great sport to out-accelerate the hot imports of the day at stoplight encounters. My hopped-up Duett left many a surprised BMW 2002 and Datsun 240 in the dust.

The car was my pride and joy. It was fun, fast and attracted lots of attention. I never let anyone else drive it for fear of having this one wrecked too.

I drove that car for six years, logging more than 150,000 additional miles. With our three young children, my wife and I traveled, camped and enjoyed many memorable family adventures in that car. It was part of the family. When it finally began to show its age at more than 300,000 miles, I bought another car and stored the Duett in my garage to be restored.

Years later, I was visiting with my good friends, Malcolm and Kathy Lee, when the subject of my 210 Duett came up. I described the car to Kathy, since I didn’t know her when I was driving the car.

Her face lit up. “I know that car. My sister and I drove it for several days.”

“You must be thinking of a different car," I told her. "I never let anyone drive that car.”

“I did. It had bright orange wheels, wild flowered curtains in the back windows and a little plastic Cookie Monster glued to the dash. A body shop in Acton loaned it to me while they painted my car.”

The Cookie Monster clinched it. I had my car repainted at the same body shop. They loaned it out without ever telling me.

Thirty years later, it still isn’t complete. But I haven’t given up.

The Duett has gained a cult following for its individuality, utility and rarity. And it was one of the Volvos that helped the company earn its reputation for durability.

Every so often, I do a Google images search for Volvo Duett and save photos I find. Here are a few of my favorites:

If Volvo were ever to produce a retro Duett, I have some ideas about what it might look like.

A disclaimer: I lost most of the photos that I took of my Volvos over the years. With the exception of the 445 in the Vermont field and the two black and white photos, I used photos of similar cars that I found online to illustrate this entry. I hope the owners of these photos don’t object to my including them here.