Friday, December 31, 2004

Redemptive Meatloaf

The moral imagination continues to stagger at the devastation in the Indian Ocean. How to respond? Send money, of course, and then send more more money. But tonight, relief efforts are foundering, and thousands of personal losses there will never be redeemed.

Again, what to do? My answer for this evening: make meatloaf for friends. It's a small breakwater against the tide of mortality, a ritual act of sensual pleasure to hold off the darkness.

It's difficult to feel morose while the onions are sizzling, or when you're wrist-deep in a cool, oozy mixture of crushed tomatoes, diced bread, whole milk, oregano, marjoram, parmesan, and five pounds of fresh ground beef. Pat it into loaves, cover with bacon, more crushed tomatoes, parsley.

It's cooking now. Up next: peas, mashed potatoes, and cornbread. Eat hearty, friends. We're glad you're here. Happy new year.

Renovating War Memorial Stadium: What's Important?

I got what I wished for in an earlier post: I'm going to be a member of the group picking the designers who will renovate War Memorial Stadium. The group will be made up of a variety of stakeholders in the stadium's future: people from surrounding neighborhoods, the VFW post, NCA&T, Greensboro College, and city staff.

I'ts already been decided that the main use of the stadium will be amateur baseball. Given that, what do you think are the priorities that should guide the selection of architects? Here are some issues to think about:

Historic preservation. Is it essential to retain all historic features of the stadium, including seating for 5,000+? Are some features more important to preserve than others? Which ones?

Modernization. How important is it that the stadium be a fully up-to-date facility that can attract college and youth baseball tournaments? Is this more or less important that preservation?

Appearance & relation to environment. The stadium currently sits in a sea of asphalt and gravel. How important is improving the landscaping?

Parking. Should the existing parking areas be reduced, since overall attendance at the stadium will go way down? There is a lot of on-street parking in the area. Is this a preferred option?

Please write to me at, or post a comment and let me know what you think. It will be really helpful to me as we go about selecting the right firm, and the right proposal, for this project.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A Pointless Language Rant About Pointless Language Rants

Every so often, columnists seem to feel the need to go on a rant about linguistic pecadilloes: the misuse of "hopefully," "between you and I," etc. So Stephen F. Hayes in the Weekly Standard recently teed of on (what he calls) the misuse of the word literally. He starts by picking on the hapless Naomi Judd, writing,

The singer-actress-philosopher sat down with Larry King recently to promote Naomi's Breakthrough Guide: 20 Choices to Transform Your Life. Not content to mimic the mawkish language of the self-help set, she promised to take the conversation to the "neuroscientist level." Then she declared: "We literally become whatever we think about all day."

Hayes's snarky response: "At some point in the near future I will become a bratwurst."

Hayes doesn't like it that most people often use the word literally "to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense" (Oxford English Dictionary). One wonders why not: the OED traces this use at least as far back as 1863 (though the OED, too, objects to it).

But the meaning that Hayes prefers is itself rather odd. He gives an example of how he'd like us all to use literally:
By the end of the meal I literally had to hold my tongue to keep from saying anything. I got several strange looks. [He was holding his tongue! ha ha!]
Hayes's preferred use of literally indicates "that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense" (OED). But this is an odd use for an adverb: it doesn't modify the verb -- because holding one's tongue has nothing to do with words' senses --; rather, it instructs the reader on how the words had to hold my tongue are to be interpreted. How novel. In fact, how un-literal. It's sort of meta-adverbial. I wonder why Hayes prefers it?

In truth, literally can only be applied, in its oldest and most literal sense, to words or phrases having to do with the understanding of language, e.g. "They interpret literally that which the author intended figuratively."

Aaaand, if we wanted to be really picky about it, we might point out that literally is ultimately derived from the Latin word for "letter" (as in "letter of the alphabet"), so that it should only be applied to written language. And since letters of the alphabet don't have senses, it isn't even reasonable to talk about a literal sense, or about interpreting words literally, right? So let's not be picky.

Hayes's objection to the fact that literally has acquired a new meaning over the last century and a half is about as sensible as me objecting to French because it isn't Latin any more.

So I've had it with columnists' pointless rants about the fact that language changes.

In fact, if I read another one, I'm literally going to throw up.

P.S. BUT – if pointless rants about language change are your thing, NPR has a guy who specializes in them: here's a whole page of his stuff.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Bonds . . . or the Invisible Hand?

A couple of years ago, the Aycock neighborhood proposed to radically alter the intersection of Summit Avenue and Murrow Boulevard, and to open up the currently-underused acreage there for a mixed-use, new-urbanist development, provisionally dubbed "Aycock Square." The City Council approved of the idea -- in principle -- and adopted a long range plan for the neighborhood that includes provisions to study this proposal. The proposal is to turn this:

into this:

David Hoggard thinks that NC's newly-approved tax-increment financing, aka Amendment One, should be used to make this happen post-haste, and is nice enough to suggest that I might weigh in on the subject. So I'm weighing . . . .

The truth is, I don't know yet whether a bond is the way to go with this proposal. The other candidates for bonds that city staff mentioned in the N&R's article this morning are in pretty dire straits. And Aycock currently has two other irons in the city's fire: the Summit Avenue Corridor Study, and the renovation of War Memorial Stadium, both of which will require infusions of public cash.

But I'd like to float an idea that applies not only to this project, but to center-city infill and redevelopment in general. I'll call it the Targeted Tax Holiday (TTH).

Since there's plenty of underused land in Greensboro's urban center, and since everyone agrees that it is a good idea to develop this land, and since the city's Comprehensive Plan calls for such development, why not offer developers a little incentive to do so at no cost to taxpayers?

Here's how it would work. The city identifies underused/vacant areas that need redevelopment, and insures that they are zoned appropriately for that redevelopment. If the city wants a certain kind of development in the area, they might rezone it. For example, if the city determined that the blighted area at South Elm should be mixed-use like Southside, they could re-zone it with a pedestrian-scale overlay like Southside's.

Then, if a developer develops the area appropriately, the property is taxed only at its pre-development value for a period of, say, 10 years. The city loses only the tax revenue that it probably wouldn't have got anyway without the TTH, and it gains the kind of development it wants, plus increased tax revenue down the road.

I know, it's kind of like some of the incentives we offered to Dell. But the TTH is fairer because it is open to anyone who wants to buy and develop a TTH property -- not just one business. And it's friendly to entrepreneurs and small business people. And it taps into market forces rather than relying on government borrowing.

Of course it does that last thing by skewing the market a bit. But one could make the case that the market is already -- and always -- skewed, and that this is skewing it in a good direction: just giving Adam Smith's Invisible Hand a little nudge.

I wish in retrospect that the city had adopted a TTH for the downtown area rather than increasing taxes via the BID (Business Improvement District). But the city could still conceivably do both.

Anyhow, I think that the blank area on Summit Avenue between Murrow Boulevard and Church Street would be an excellent test area for a TTH. If it worked, the city would have a strong motivation to re-do the silly cloverleaf at Summit and Murrow, and open that area to further TTH incentives and development.

Monday, December 27, 2004

250-Word Review: The Roads to Modernity

Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, is well worth your time if you're curious, as I was, whether Garry Wills was right when he wrote recently that the Enlightenment in America is dead.

Himmelfarb makes a strong case that America's share of the Englightenment came mostly from England and Scotland, via David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith (who was as much of a moral philosopher as an economist) whereas the French philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot, who were (and are) so influential on the Continent, never really caught on here.

The American Englightenment, she argues, led by the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, was crucially interested in the politics of liberty; the English Englishtenment pusured the politics of virtue; and the French worshipped Reason -- at one point converting the cathedral of Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason.

Himmelfarb points out that the American Enlightenment worked in partnership with religion to a degree unimaginable in France, where the Enlightenment was largely motivated by anti-clericalism. I'm personally indebted to this American tradition, having been educated at a Methodist-founded liberal arts college. My wife was similarly educated at a strongly Christian Reformed college. (We are both Catholic now.)

Garry Wills spoke too soon; the traditions of the American Enlightenment are still vigorous, but could certainly be strengthened. Bible-thumping fundamentalists, as well as agnostics/atheists who think that Christians have abandonded their reason, all need to read this book. It would raise the level of our national dialogue considerably.

Tsunami aid links

Daniel Drezner has links to charities that have begun helping tsunami victims, and so does Tim Blair. And here's a link to the American Red Cross (via Instapundit).

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas Day Chiaroscuro

Christmas is all about contrasts: the Star of Bethlehem against a black sky; grubby shepherds and glorious angels; the Infinite God becoming a little baby.

I got to see a little of that contrast for myself, on Christmas day, on my own street.

After early Christmas mass, after the iPods, books, CDs, DVDs, PJs, sweaters, boxer shorts, and socks had been given and received with love, my dad and I decided to take the dogs for a Christmas Day walk.

We passed a parked Honda, well-maintained. I saw a woman inside, also well-maintained: nice hair, fur collar. In her left hand was a spoon filled with liquid; in her right hand, a syringe.

I got mad, and borrowed my dad's cell phone to call the police. Get out of my neighborhood! She saw me calling, and drove away.

Then I was sad. Really sad. Try to imagine what her Christmas was like.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Merry Christmas

My parents are about to fly in from Tucson, and I expect I'll be fully absorbed in family and Christmas celebration for the next few days.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

RUCO: Read the Fine Print

Greensboro city government wonks will remember that, about a year ago, the City Council adopted an ordinance that was advertised as a cure for most of Greensboro's substandard housing ills.

It is called RUCO -- the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy ordinance. Briefly stated, the ordinance says that a rental property must meet the minimum housing code before it can receive a Certificate of Occupancy; otherwise, people aren't allowed to live in it, and the owner has to fix it or face some serious fines.

A lot of people worked hard to get this ordinance passed, because it faced stiff oposition from TREBIC -- the Triad area Real Estate and Builders' Coalition. The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress put a big effort into this, of which I was proud to be a part.

We were told that the implementation date of the ordinance was January, 2004, and some of us have been really interested in finding out how well the ordinance would work. Especially those of us who live close to some pretty nasty rental properties.

But guess what? The real implementation date of the ordinance is July 2007. Nobody breathed a word of this during the public hearing, but here's what's in the ordinance:

The owner shall have an initial period of three and one-half (3 1/2) years from the date of implementation of this section, (January 1, 2004), to bring the rental unit into compliance with this chapter. (Read the whole thing -- section 11.40.)
Would I be cynical to detect the hand of TREBIC in this little blob of verbiage, lurking unobtrusively in the middle of the ordinance?

Would I be even more cynical to fear that, after 3 1/2 years, when essentially nothing has changed, because the ordinance has not been enforced, TREBIC will go to the Council and say, "See -- RUCO didn't work. Repeal it!"

Mark your calendars for Spring, 2007, and we'll see what happens. Meanwhile, be prepared to see a lot of cruddy housing not being maintained.

Name That ID Guy

I blogged a bit about the theory of Intelligent Design here, and some people thought it was interesting.

So here's a little Intelligent Design in History game: Name That Intelligent Design Guy.

Rules: no Googling.

Can you guess who wrote this?

The six primary planets are revolved about the sun in circles concentric with the sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. Ten moons are revolved about the earth, Jupiter and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those planets; but it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions, since the comets range over all parts of the heavens in very eccentric orbits; for by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detained the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.
Answer tomorrow.

Update: And the winner is . . . Southern Rants! The author was Isaac Newton; it's from the General Scholium to his Naturalis Philosophiae Principia Mathematica. The sure giveaway that it wasn't Copernicus or Galileo is that he mentions gravity. I think it's also interesting that he talks about the possiblity of other worlds, and hints at what would later be called the anthropic principle.

Goodbye, Garrison

Garrison Keillor's radio program A Prairie Home Companion is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. NPR's Morning Edition did an interview with Keillor this morning; click here and scroll to the bottom to get the audio.

I've been a listener -- at times an avid one -- for most of 25 years. I first heard the program when I worked as a proofreader for the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 1979, helping put the Sunday paper to bed; one of the paste-up guys always had it on in the back room.

I was immediately addicted. I grew up in small Iowa towns (Ottumwa, Davenport, Mr. Vernon), and my family all come from Rockford, Illinois, just south of the Wisconsin border, so Keillor's cast of characters, with their painfully self-deprecating midwestern manners, often mixed with a rather sly, laconic irony, resonated with me.

I always thought that Keillor's strength was his sympathy for the real, existential problems of small-town folk. Keillor's love for them was apparent, even as he satirized their attitudes and faults. The show was topical in the best way, in that he took on everyday dilemmas-- how to deal with a teenage daughter who rejects your most cherished values? what do you do with a choir member who loves to sing, but can't? how can a homely, bookish boy express his love for the impossibly beautiful exchange student?-- that really admit of no solutions.

But in the past several years, Keillor has progressively allowed our world to creep into his fictional Lake Woebegone, and allowed political vitriol to creep into his show. Like a lot of people, he's very angry at George W. Bush and the people who voted for him. A number of sketches on the show around election time were flat-out mean, and I came to believe that Keillor had come to hate those small-town people he once loved, since so many of them voted for Bush. His recent off-show comments seem to back this up.

None of this displeases his audience, however, who cheerfully applaud his anti-Republican bile. So I've felt more and more like an unwanted visitor in Lake Woebegone, and I don't expect that I'll be coming back anytime soon.

Not that I'll be missed.

Update: Keillor talks about his decision to go political here. If you read it, you'll see that I fall into his "ignorant fascist bastard" category. Commenter Johnny Dakota mentions something about Keillor retiring, but I haven't heard or read anything about that.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Smothers Place turret update

A couple of days ago I voiced some doubts about the roof pitch on the new Smothers Place building in this post.

I've since heard from Greensboro architect Patrick Deaton, who writes,

I just read your item about Smothers Place and the comments from readers. I was the designer for the building and originally, we did have a steeper roof pitch on the turret, similar to the one the train station used to have. The steeper roof pitch made the turret look a bit too much like part of a Disneyworld castle. The lower roof pitch is intended to give the building more of an industrial look as opposed to a Victorian look. The increased cost for a steeper roof would have been minimal since it is such a small part of the project.

I understand the thinking here, and Patrick is much more knowledgeable than I, both about architecture in general, and about the history of Greensboro architecture in particular, since he's the former chair of the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission.

Although my own taste runs in the direction of Victorian whimsey, it's likely that, if the Smothers Place roof pitch were steeper, someone would have accused Patrick of designing an "Elm Street Neuschwanstein."

(Neuschwanstein is the castle pictured here, built by Bavaria's mad King Ludwig II, on which the castle in the famous Disney logo is based.)

I do hope that at some point the old Southern Railroad turret will be restored in its original proportions. In talking to other architects in the past few days, I've learned that other Elm Street buildings had turrets, and it would certainly give Greensboro's downtown a distinctive cachet to have some of them back.

In the meantime, I'm eager to see how the facade of Smothers Place will turn out.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Soaking up that superior Triangle culture

Triangle area blogger Andy Wismar had a few choice words to say about Greensboro yesterday (via Hoggard):

Greensboro [is] often described as "Raleigh without the PhD's" . . . Whenever I'm there and surrounded by locals and not lawyers, I expect a spontaneous NASCAR race to materialize. (Read the whole thing.)

Well, it just so happened that the family and I were headed to the Triangle this very morning, where was I hoping to get away from all these oppressive Greensboro NASCAR fans, and mix it up with some real urban sophisticates.

Our destination was the upscale new Southpoint Mall, which was just packed full of prosperous and urbane Triangle shoppers picking up some last-minute Christmas gifts.

All my cultural expectations were met -- and more! For Southpoint had arranged a performance by one of Chapel Hill's premiere artists for the shoppers' cultural uplift. I refer, of course, to the vocal (and hair) stylings of the great Keith Henderson, performing his inspiring medley, Illusions of 'The King' -- right there in front of the Hudson Belk store!

Now my eyes are opened to what it's like to live in a real city. Never more will I be satisfied with Greensboro's meager cultural offerings.

Luckily for me, Mr. Henderson was kind enough to direct me to his website, so that we can all follow his performances and soak up more of that superior Triangle culture.

Thank you, Andy Wismar, for opening my eyes, and thank you Keith Henderson for opening my heart.

Thank you, thank you very much.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Smothers Place

I've been watching with anticipation as the new Smothers Place building has been rising on Elm Street. I admire Mark and Todd Schwartz for sinking $9 million into downtown Greensboro, and I think it's all but certain that their contribution will help drive more retail business to South Elm. It's really fun to see this happening.

But there's an architectural detail that's bugging me. Saturday morning I was heading to Blumenthal's, next door to Smothers Place, for a jacket and some jeans, and noticed how the turret on the Smothers building is shaping up.

The turret is a great idea, as it reiterates a similar decorative element on the old Southern Railway building just across the railroad tracks. Here's a picture of what that station used to look like:

But there's something slightly amiss with the Smothers Place turret.

The pitch of the roof on the turret seems too shallow -- notice how much shallower it is than the roof on the old Southern Railway station turret (which is now gone). It also seems a bit out of sync with beautifully-pitched roof of the Jefferson Pilot building in the distance, and is not in keeping with the pitch of other turrets in or near downtown Greensboro.

Compare, for example, the turrets on the beautiful Methodist church on Market Street -- and notice how well the architects of the JP building harmonized their proportions with that wonderful building.

More modest turrets, like this one on Summit Avenue, just a few blocks from downtown, also show a steeper roof pitch.

The roof on the Smothers Place turret looks a bit squat and awkward to my eye. What do you think? I don't think it would cost a whole lot to change it.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Friday Malinois photo

Just for fun.

Downtown cultural geography

I had a great time Wednesday night meeting other bloggers at the Green Bean. Thanks, Billy Jones, for organizing the meet-up; let's keep doing it.

The Green Bean was packed with people, because not only were us geeks doing some real-time face-blogging (i.e., talking) in the back, but UNCG MFA and BFA students (and other literature lovers) were crowded into the front for readings of short fiction.

Wow. In Greensboro? On a Wednesday night?

South Elm Street has become a focal point for creative people who have a whiff of the counter culture about them; not only writers and tech geeks, but also artists and entrepreneurs. There are lots of small, funky businesses on South Elm; that's where ArtsAlive and the Greensboro Center City Marketing Alliance emanate from.

A few blocks north, however, you run into Much, The N Club, the Red Room -- all those bars that advertise by publishing photos of the pretty girls who go there, along with their often suprisingly pudgy, balding, sweaty boyfriends. In these places, you'll find a very different cultural constituency: I think it's all about dancing, drinking, and . . . well, I was going to say dating, but I guess people don't do that any more. Hooking up? Whatever. But I've never been inside those places; I don't think a 47-year-old married father of three would really fit in.

If you go even further north, you'll eventually pass the new Center City Park and, finally, First Horizon Park on Eugene Street, both of which are monuments to the committment of Greensboro's upper-crust, foundation elite to downtown revival.

It's a very Greensboro gradation of cultures, and it's good.

Update: Southern Rants, who was at the blogger meet-up too, also has some downtown observations, along with some interesting comments.

Pomp, circumstance, and woooo-wooooo

I spent 3+ hours attending UNCG's December graduation ceremonies feeling alternately celebratory, bemused, bored, and sore (my, those folding chairs are hard). And bored.

My bemusement came from the shouting, whooping, and general celebration among the audience as the graduates crossed the stage. At first I was offended, since I'm a pretty intensely traditional person. I actually like Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, and wish they would play it at graduation ceremonies, even though it's now utterly corny to do so. I'm a "joyful solemnity" kind of guy.

The black families generally shouted the loudest and longest for their graduates, but they had stiff competition in the wooo-wooo department from what I'm tempted to call NASCAR families. I thought, how gauche -- especially when some of the shouting drowned out the names of the next graduates in line. That was rude.


I don't think that there's actually much real tradition in American graduation ceremonies. The standards for academic regalia apparently weren't adopted until the late 19th century. And, hey, Pomp and Circumstance wasn't written until 1901. All this faux solemnity seems to have been an attempt by America's aspiring class to aquire some ersatz cachet from Oxford and Cambridge.

But Americans have always been louder and more boistrous than Brits and Europeans. And contrary to what you might have heard lately, Americans have never been all that popular across the Atlantic. So what, precisely, is the point of trying to be like them?

Furthermore, the people in the audience had a lot to celebrate. I got the impression that many of the families were cheering for their first college graduate -- ever. The joy on those families' faces was contagious. How can you not celebrate something like that?

So there was a whole lot of cultural assimilation going on yesterday. It was a weird mixture of American 19th-century medieval-university costme revival, modern American university requirements and customs, black Baptist revival-meeting sensibility, Scotch-Irish good-ole-boy hootin' and hollerin', and quite a few restrained Anglo-types like me. Throw in all those M.S. graduates with Hindi, Chinese, Korean, and African names, and what you have is a real melting pot.


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

ACLU vs. Antony Flew

The AP posted two (providentially?) related stories about the theory of intelligent design in the last couple of days. This morning I read this in the Greensboro News and Record:

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) --Two civil liberties groups . . . sued the Dover [Pennsylvania] Area School district seeking to block its introduction next month of "intelligent design" in the science curriculum. . . . The intelligent design theory, first advanced in the late 1980s, holds that the universe is so complex that a supernatural force must be at work. . . .The American Civil Liberties Union contends intelligent design is a more secular form of creationism - a biblical-based view that credits the origin of species to God - and may violate the constitutional separation of church and state. (Read the AP story.)
But when I searched the AP site for "intelligent design," I got this story, too:

Famous Atheist Now Believes in God

NEW YORK (AP) -- A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind . . . . At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England. . . . [B]iologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved," Flew says
. (Read the whole thing.)
The article noted that Flew has not converted to Christianity, but rather is just an old-fashioned deist like Thomas Jefferson.

The theory of intelligent design is actually only a refinement of a very old argument, and it doesn't have any necessary connection to Christianity or to religion, though most of its modern proponents are Christians. You can find early versions of it in Greek pre-Socratic philosophers like Anaxagoras and Heraclitus, and it's much more fully developed by Aristotle and the Stoic philosophers Zeno and Cleanthes. It was also commonly held among French and American deists in the 18th century, like Franklin and Jefferson. Then in the 19th century . . . OK, I'm boring you.

Does intelligent design have a place in the science curriculum? Opponents say that intelligent design theory is pseudoscience. But the same charge is also laid at the door of theories of global warming, which is regularly taught in school science curricula. Ah, but you say most scientists believe in global warming and reject intelligent design. But that is a thoroughly medieval ipsi dixerunt argument from authority -- the antithesis of the scientific method.

In truth, school is precisely the place where students should be introduced to rough-and-tumble debates like these. I know from experience that they are intensely interested in these questions.

But does the ACLU want this debate to happen in school? Probably not any more than Jerry Falwell does. Fundamentalists don't like debate; they don't even like learning. They like indoctrination. And the ACLU are the fundamentalists of secularism.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

An atheist I love

Christopher Hitchens did a brief plug for his new book on the Tavis Smiley Show tonight.

He said a lot of stuff that should have outraged me: that he hates religion; that Mother Theresa was a fraud, a fundamentalist, and an enemy of the poor; that there's more morality in Shakespeare and George Eliot than in any book of the Bible, or all the books of the Bible put together.

Why do I like him so much? I felt waves of affection for him as he talked. Well, for one thing, he's a great talker, and I don't mean that in a trivial sense. He has a beautifully modulated, chocolatey British accent, and cadenced prose just rolls out of him. Every sentence betrays deep intelligence, learning, and passion. I sat in my Subaru in the parking lot of Friendly Center and just let it flow over me.

For another thing, he loves literature; he loves it so much that he thinks it should replace religion (as did Wallace Stevens: I disagree with both on this point). His love is such that he can overlook the politics of the authors he loves, and that is an essential gift for anyone serious about literature, since so many great writers had such bad politics (as do many today -- Jane Smiley comes to mind).

Listening to Hitchens talk about his love of Borges, Shakespeare, and Eliot was an antidote to hearing the miserable Donald Lazere on On Point a few days ago. For Lazere, literature and the humanities are entirely reduced to mere politics, and only leftist politics at that. He sees academia as a sort of armed camp from which professors of literature lob missiles at the wicked capitalists outside, and I think would drive people like me out of it if he could.

I doubt he would give Hitchens a professorship, either.

final exam nightmares

You know that final exam nightmare you have, even well into your post-school life -- the one where you're late for a big exam, but it's in a course you've never attended, in some impossibly abstruse subject, taught by a professor who speaks a language you do not understand?

Well, after staying up til 12:30 last night grading Mythology final exam essays, I came to realize that, for a fair number of students, I am their nightmare.

And they are mine.

It can be a horrifying experience to take that first blue book off the top of the stack, and find in it only mangled and twisted parts of ideas and a few disfigured facts -- as if your lectures had been recovered from some ghastly car wreck. Could I really have said that? Essays like those make you wonder whether you've got early-onset Alzheimer's and have just been babbling incoherently every MWF from 9-9:50 a.m.

But a few blue books later you find that most of them got it, and some even have smart, interesting, and funny things to say. Whew.

Back to the blue book mines . . .

Update: My wife remindes me that my student's nightmare description is incomplete: "you forgot the part where you realize you’re nekkid." Hmmm. A lot of my students are showing up for morning classes in pajamas (really!). Maybe it's only a matter of time . . . depending on what they were doing the night before.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Greensboro is cooler than Charlotte

. . . according to Rusty Sheridan:

Greensboro is way cooler. There's so much more character and leisure to be found here. There's Tate street. The Weatherspoon art gallery. The old Carolina Theater. College radio stations like WUAG and Guilford college's station. Guilford Courthouse military park. The walking trails that weave in and out of the Lake Brandt area. Old college campuses like UNCG, Guilford College, and Greensboro College. A quaint downtown. Traffic that doesn't suck your will to live like Charlotte's does. (Read the whole thing.)
People like Rusty are who I think of when I hear the term "creative class:" he makes movies. Do you think he's what the Action Greensboro folks have in mind, too? Hmmm.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

advisory committee for War Memorial Stadium

In a December 9 memo to the Greensboro City Council, city manager Ed Kitchen wrote,

As you recall, we are moving forward with plans for future repairs and potential renovations to War Memorial Stadium. We have solicited bids for services from architectural firms and will soon select a firm to assist with this effort. I am appointing a committee of stakeholders to help select the firm and advise throughout the process. Others may be added, but the committee will include representatives of the Aycock neighborhood, Bluford neighborhood, NCA&T, Greensboro College, the P&R Commission, Preservation Greensboro, and the VFW Post. As soon as we have acceptances from the individuals, I will provide you a list of the names.
Earlier this year I worked with a similar group of stakeholders to recommend future uses for the stadium. David Hoggard was on that ad hoc committee, too.

I'm eager to find out who Mr. Kitchen will extend invitations to, because I'd like to get one. I enjoyed working with this group, and want to keep doing it. I've already started getting calls from interested parties offering advice on the subject.

There was some other good news for northeast Greensboro in that memo:

In response to Council and community concerns about panhandling and other problems impacting the business and residential community in the Bessemer/Summit area, our Police Department conducted a targeted enforcement program in that area this summer. Attached is a report on the successful results of that effort. If you have questions, please contact Chief Wray or Assistant Chief Bellamy.
I didn't get a copy of the report Kitchen mentions, but I'd like to see it. As a pretty frequent shopper at both the Northeast Shopping Center and the Summit Shopping Center -- both at the intersection of Summit and Bessemer -- I'd agree that the police program was quite successful. I just hope that the panhandlers won't return now that the targeted enforcement program is finished.

One last odd little thing about the memo: it was cc'd to the news media (newspapers, TV), to the Chamber of Commerce, and to TREBIC (the Triad Real Estate and Builders Coalition).

That means that established business and real estate interests get the direct line on the city manager's weekly updates to Council -- but not, for example, the Greensboro Housing Coalition, the Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, or the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress. Why the special treatment of the Chamber and TREBIC? That bugs me.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

deo vindice

Classics professors are asked to translate Latin words or phrases all the time. Most people assume that we'll do it for free, since we'll be delighted that anyone has showed some interest in what we do. And they're right.

For example, I happen to know that most of the Latin that appears in the movie Gladiator is the result of harried phone calls from movie production assistants to the Latin teaching assistants at UCLA. The producers got what they paid for: most of the Latin in that movie is just goofy -- nothing that an ancient Roman would have written or said. (Maybe the Latin T.A.s were having a bit of fun with the Hollywood types.)

Anyway, I got one of those requests a couple of days ago. How to translate the phrase deo vindice? It came through a student, whose brother-in-law was having it engraved on a reproduction of the Confederate Seal. The student said that her relative, who is a "Southern Heritage" aficionado, told her he thought it meant "God will vindicate."

Most of these people do think it means God will vindicate, according to Google. But it actually means something a little different.

Vindex (vindice is a form of this word) often means "protector" or "champion," and I'm sure that's what the Confederate Seal maker was thinking; the intended meaning was "with God as our champion."

But there are plenty instances in classical Latin when vindex means "punisher." And that put me in mind of my favorite southern writer, Walker Percy. His love of the South was closely bound up with his hatred of racism; the race issue bothered him his whole life.

In Percy's novel Love in the Ruins, the main character, Dr. Thomas More, offers this musing about God's judgment on Americans:

God [was] saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you're the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me . . . . so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child's play for you .... One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That's all. One little test: you flunk!

In this light, deo vindice becomes tragically ironic: "with God as our punisher" seems a good epigram for our national failure of that "little test."

So let the sons of the Confederacy engrave deo vindice on their seal, and let the Latin mean what it will.

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Advent photoblogging

On the second weekend of Advent we always drive up to Laurel Springs, NC to cut our Christmas tree.

Yesterday's drive up was beautiful, except for a 45-minute delay in the hell that is Wilkesboro, NC -- if you happen to be driving through that charming town on the afternoon of their annual Christmas parade. Which we did for the second year in a row.

Two years ago, the tree farm turned us away because all the trees were covered with ice and couldn't safely be cut and bundled. There was ice at home too, that year, and no power. We took the trip just to stay warm in the car.

This year the weather was almost balmy. I think it will be our last trip to this farm, because, as you can see, there are very few trees left of a size to be cut.

But the kids found a good one and tagged it.

Laurette warned us that it was too big, but we ignored her. Once it was bundled and on the car, we made our way to Blowing Rock, NC, which we call "Christmas Town" at this time of year, for obvious reasons.

(Talk about your pedestrian-friendly environments!)

We have regular habits: go to Celeste's for specialty soaps, which are hand-cut from "loaves" and have amusing shapes floating in clear glycerin; then to Kilwn's Chocolates for slabs of fudge; to Kojay's for hot, foamy Chai lattes or cold cream sodas; to the Bob Timberlake store just to sit on the leather couches and daydream about living in such a kitschy, cabin-y heaven; then dinner and home.

It took three of us to get the tree off the car. A quick measurement showed that Laurette was right -- it was too big. Eight inches off the bottom with the electric chainsaw, another six off the top with the Felco pruning shears, and we had it down to 10'4" -- perfect. Laurette took some satisfaction in being right.

We wrestled it into the living room and into the tree stand, with a good bit of grunting, a little shouting, a lot of sticky tree sap, and the absolutely sublime smell of a freshly-cut Frazier Fir in our nostrils.

There's an ironclad law of Christmas tree decorating: no matter how many strings of lights you have, you always need two more. 800 lights were required.

I went for the extra lights this morning, and ran into a friend at Target who was just getting ready for an ASPCA fundraiser at Petsmart next door.

I own two Belgian Malinois shepherd dogs. I am a sucker for the ASPCA. Hence:

Trajan was afraid of Santa. Afraid! If you look carefully, you can see his tail between his legs. I have never seen him do that before. (But don't get any ideas, burglars. Even if you do show up in a Santa suit and scare Trajan, Hero will eat you.)

The rest of today was spent putting lights on the house. Then a lovely, contemplative mass at Our Lady of Grace.

Happy Advent.

Friday, December 3, 2004

bigger, better preservation tax credits on the way?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation reports that a new bill introduced in the U.S. House (H. R. 5378) could make federal tax credits for rehabilitation more friendly for small businesses.

This could be good news for entrepreneurs looking to get a foothold in some of Downtown Greensboro's historic buildings.

Here's what the National Trust says the bill would do:

  • Reduce the requirement that lowers tax benefits dollar-for-dollar according to the amount of credit taken when using the historic rehab credit.
  • Deepen the historic rehab credit in the most difficult to develop and disinvested areas.
  • Make the ten percent portion of the credit available for housing and changing the definition of "older building" from "built before 1936" to any property "fifty years old or older."
  • Enrich the historic rehab credit from 20 to 40 percent in projects that are $2 million or less to target those "main street" type developments in which rehab credit costs are currently too prohibitive.
  • Ease the rules governing non-profit deals so that more community-oriented projects move forward.
I can think of a few potential projects on Summit Avenue that might benefit, too (see previous post).

Read the National Trust's article.

Hat tip to Mike Cowhig for the info.

Summit Avenue is happening

World War Memorial Stadium gets all the press.

And there's no way I can complain about that, since over the past couple of years I've written two guest op-ed pieces about it in the News and Record, one of which Ed Cone didn't like much, and I've probably been interviewed about it on TV five or six times. (So how come Hoggard is still the famous "Aycock David"?)

But the biggest change at the north end of downtown Greensboro in the next few years will be the transformation of Summit Avenue.

The City of Greensboro will soon be receiving proposals from six highly-qualified firms to study how best to improve the streescape, pedestrian environment, zoning, and traffic patterns of this once-beautiful avenue as it passes through the Aycock Historic District into the downtown's cultural district.

A team composed of City staff from various departments, along with neighborhood residents, has been working quietly on this project for months. Once the proposals come in, there are going to be a lot more opportunities for public input.

When the planning is done sometime next year, the next question will be, "who will build it"?

Shamefully, not one Greensboro developer stepped up to the plate after the planning stages of Southside, and a Charlotte firm came in and executed the vision that won Greensboro a national smart growth award.

I have even heard through the grapevine that some local developers badmouthed the Southside concept to council members while it was in the works, and that some council members voted for it only because they thought it would never get built. Luckily for us all, everyone now gets to bask in the glory.

Will we see a similarly un-visionary response from Greensboro's development community on Summit Avenue?

Update: Hoggard was interviewed by WFMY about the Summit Ave. project today; the story will run on the 6 p.m. news. Just curious: I first posted this item early this morning. Did WFMY get the story idea from here?