Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Remembering last summer's hot air about baseball

Going into the July 4th weekend baseball is on my mind. My favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, is in first place in the National League East. And, they are on television tonight, only because they’re playing the Washington Nats. Braves fans know nearly all of Atlanta’s games used to be available locally. Now they are hardly ever on.

So, it’s a nice treat. And, the Braves are better this year than they have been over the last three or four years. That this is longtime manager Bobby Cox’s last season in the dugout, with the team playing like a contender, puts icing on the treat.

Maybe I’ll take in a Flying Squirrels game in the next few days. Which brings me to the reason for this post -- have you noticed what a difference one year can make?

Last season there was no professional baseball at the Diamond. When the season started, instead of an umpire calling out, “Play ball!” we heard the din of the squabble over where to build a new stadium.

On April 22, 2009 a presentation was made at Albert H. Hill (middle school), by Paul Kreckman of Highwoods Properties and Bryan Bostic of Richmond Baseball Club. It was part of a series of such appearances in public auditoriums. The two explained to an audience of about 70 people why a new baseball stadium ought to be built in Shockoe Bottom. Nearly everyone in the audience who spoke during the questioning period seemed unconvinced it was a good idea.

Until that presentation most of the people I had talked with seemed against the concept of building a stadium in The Bottom. But then they said they expected it to happen. That perception was in the air, for a while. Then, as the weather warmed up and more public opinion seeped into the process, the perception began to melt away.

On May 12th, at the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Public Square Forum, the presentation by Kreckman and Bostic went over like a lead balloon. An audience of some 200 saw in that room what became more and more obvious in the days to come -- public sentiment was overwhelmingly against the taxpayer-backed three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar development being touted by Highwoods and RBC.

Before the month of June had passed the whole deal just evaporated.

The irony was that the pitchmen, Kreckman and Bostic, were so bad at selling their plans. Of course, I thought the plan itself was bad. But those salesmen were amazingly inadequate at selling.

To wallow more in this flashback, below is a list of links to stories I wrote about this business last year. In some cases the comments under the posts are somewhat funny and rather revealing.

Note: My strategy then was to draw the online boosters of the project (many of whom had cloaked identities) out and make them talk. My thinking was that the more the public saw of the people behind the push, the less they would like and trust them and the pushy developers, themselves. I believe it worked.
Now the Richmond Flying Squirrels are drawing good attendance numbers at the Diamond and Richmond avoided what had the look and smell of a boondoggle.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Byrd's ignored plea (3/19/03)

Sen. Robert Byrd, 1917-2010, will be remembered for many things. Among them, he was the longest serving senator (1959-2010).

Seven years ago, on the eve of a war, Byrd's words of warning were dismissed by many, especially those in the Bush administration who were practicing their "cake-walking" steps. Byrd was cast by war mongers as an old goat, who was just out of touch with the times.

Byrd’s brief, passionate speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 19, 2003 makes for a particularly interesting read now, in light of all we've learned since that time. Today it's appropriate to remember those words:
I believe in this beautiful country. I have studied its roots and gloried in the wisdom of its magnificent Constitution. I have marveled at the wisdom of its founders and framers. Generation after generation of Americans has understood the lofty ideals that underlie our great Republic. I have been inspired by the story of their sacrifice and their strength.

But, today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.

Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein, we seem to have isolated ourselves. We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption which is understood by few and feared by many. We say that the United States has the right to turn its firepower on any corner of the globe which might be suspect in the war on terrorism. We assert that right without the sanction of any international body. As a result, the world has become a much more dangerous place.

We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat UN Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet. Valuable alliances are split.

After war has ended, the United States will have to rebuild much more than the country of Iraq. We will have to rebuild America's image around the globe.

The case this Administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice.

There is no credible information to connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11. The twin towers fell because a world-wide terrorist group, Al Qaeda, with cells in over 60 nations, struck at our wealth and our influence by turning our own planes into missiles, one of which would likely have slammed into the dome of this beautiful Capitol except for the brave sacrifice of the passengers on board.

The brutality seen on September 11th and in other terrorist attacks we have witnessed around the globe are the violent and desperate efforts by extremists to stop the daily encroachment of western values upon their cultures. That is what we fight. It is a force not confined to borders. It is a shadowy entity with many faces, many names, and many addresses.

But, this Administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the twin towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But, he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war. If we attack Saddam Hussein, we will probably drive him from power. But, the zeal of our friends to assist our global war on terrorism may have already taken flight.

The general unease surrounding this war is not just due to "orange alert." There is a pervasive sense of rush and risk and too many questions unanswered. How long will we be in Iraq? What will be the cost? What is the ultimate mission? How great is the danger at home?

A pall has fallen over the Senate Chamber. We avoid our solemn duty to debate the one topic on the minds of all Americans, even while scores of thousands of our sons and daughters faithfully do their duty in Iraq.

What is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomatic efforts when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy?

Why can this President not seem to see that America's true power lies not in its will to intimidate, but in its ability to inspire?

War appears inevitable. But, I continue to hope that the cloud will lift. Perhaps Saddam will yet turn tail and run. Perhaps reason will somehow still prevail. I along with millions of Americans will pray for the safety of our troops, for the innocent civilians in Iraq, and for the security of our homeland. May God continue to bless the United States of America in the troubled days ahead, and may we somehow recapture the vision which for the present eludes us.
Update: It should come as no surprise that some folks will use the occasion of his death -- the very day he dies -- to talk more trash about Sen. Robert Byrd, to underline whatever warmed-over talking points they assume will upset Byrd's admirers the most. So, it will be easy to read/listen to such pettiness today.

That's the spirit in today's political landscape. And, it is especially the spirit that animates too much of what passes for commentary in the political blogosphere, where poseur sociopaths fancy themselves to be pundits.

Moreover, “blog” is a word that has been stretched into so many weird shapes -- David Weigel a blogger? -- that I hardly know what it means now.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Freedom of speech and hate

My latest OpEd piece is up at Richmond.com. It's called "How Free Are We to Express Hate?" Once again, Virginia's new attorney general is in the picture.
Cuccinelli’s apparently agrees with the 4th Circuit’s decision, his office cited a concern about curtailing “valid exercises of free speech,” as its reason for choosing to make Virginia just one of two states not to file a supporting amicus brief.

Westboro grabbed the national spotlight in 1998 when some of its members appeared at the Wyoming funeral of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old man who had been brutally murdered. The Phelps contingent brandished signs announcing that because he was gay Shepard was burning in hell.
To read the entire story click here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Freelancer's Worth

Fiction By F.T. Rea


Jan. 24, 1991: Bright sunlight lit up the thin coating of freezing rain that had painted the city the evening before. In the crisp air, Roscoe Swift, a slender middle-aged man, a freelance artist/writer, walked at a careful but purposeful pace on the tricky sidewalk. The ice-clad trees along the street were dazzling, as seen through his trusty Ray-Bans.

The woolly winter jacket his girlfriend, Sally, had given him for Christmas felt good.

Since the freelancer couldn’t concentrate on his reading of the morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, he left half a mug of black coffee and a dozing cat on his desk to walk to the post office. He hoped the overdue check from a magazine publisher was waiting in his post office box.

Anxiously, Swift opened the box with his key. It was empty. He shrugged. An empty box had its upside, too -- there were no cut-off notices in it. With his last 20 bucks in his pocket, the freelancer hummed a favorite Fats Domino tune, “Ain’t That a Shame,” as he headed home.

By the end of the workday Roscoe's task was to finish an 800-word OpEd piece, with an accompanying illustration, and drop it all off on an editor’s desk in Scott's Addition. With the drum beat for war in the air he wanted to focus on the inevitable unintended consequences of any war. Yet, with the clock ticking on his deadline he was still at a loss for an angle.

In early-1991 the nation was mired in an economic recession. The national debt was skyrocketing. War with Iraq was looming, it seemed all but inevitable. Pondering what demons might be spawned by an all-out war in Iraq -- only to be discovered down the road -- he detoured a couple of blocks, to pick up a Washington Post and a fresh cup of coffee.

Approaching the 7-Eleven store Roscoe noticed a lone panhandler standing off to the left of the front doors. The tall man was thin and frail. He wore a lightweight denim jacket with a hooded sweatshirt underneath. Snot was frozen in his mustache. The whites of his heavy-lidded eyes were an unhealthy shade of red.

When Roscoe had run the Fan City Cinema, in the '70s, he had determined his policy should be to never in any way encourage panhandlers to hang around on the sidewalk in the neighborhood surrounding the theater. The rigid policy had lingered well after the comfortable job had faded into the mists.

On this cold day it wasn’t easy for Roscoe to avert his eye from the poor soul’s trembling outstretched hand. Not hearing the desperate man’s hoarse plea for food money was impossible. When there are always so many lives to be saved in our midst, Roscoe wondered -- why do we have to go to the Middle East to save lives?

Inside the busy store Roscoe poured a large coffee. Fretting profusely, he snapped the cup’s lid in place. It was one of those times when the little Roscoe with horns was standing on one of his shoulders, while his opposite -- the one with the halo -- was on the other, both offering counsel.

Roscoe's policy caved in seconds later. Still, he decided to give the panhandler food, rather than hand over cash to perhaps finance a bottle of sweet wine. What the hell? it might change my luck, he thought as he smiled.

Trying to max out the bang-for-the-buck aspect of his gesture, Roscoe settled on a king-sized hot dog, with plenty of free stuff on it -- mustard, chopped onions, relish, jalapeno peppers, chili and some gooey cheese-like product. Not wanting to push it too far, he passed on the ketchup and mayonnaise.

Outside the store, Roscoe found the starving panhandler had vanished. So, the crestfallen philanthropist took the meal-on-a-bun with him as he walked, softly singing a Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” With his strides matching the beat, he kept to the sunny street to avoid the slick sidewalk in the shade.

There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look, what's going down.

A line from that song’s last verse -- “paranoia strikes deep” -- suddenly snapped an idea for the OpEd into place, which launched an instant mini-mania. A block closer to home an image for the illustration occurred to him. The freelancer picked up his pace and began whistling a jazzy version of “For What It’s Worth.”

Back in his office/studio space, rather than waste money, he tore into the feast he had prepared for a beggar. The food scared, or perhaps offended the cat, who fled. Between sloppy bites the artist wiped his hands off and sketched furiously to rough out a cartoon of Saddam Hussein as the provocative Tar Baby of the Uncle Remus story, inviting America into a war.

About an hour later the heartburn started. Eventually, it got brutal. Roscoe pressed on. He wrote about the way propaganda always works to sell war -- every war -- as glorious and essential to the everyday people, who risk their lives. That while the wealthy, who rarely take a genuine risk on anything, urge the patriots on and count their profits.

Thinking of the war that thinned his generation out in Vietnam, he wrote:

After the war the veterans were largely ignored, even scorned.

Roscoe lamented the popular culture having gone wrong, so there was no longer a place for anti-war protest songs. He wrote:

Where are today’s non-conformists? Today's questioners of authority?

The freelancer turned in his work at 4:50 p.m.

An hour later his sour and noisy stomach began to calm down during his second happy hour beer at the Bamboo Cafe.

When he recounted the tale of the stuffed frankfurter, the inspiration of the Buffalo Springfield song and the belly ache, Roscoe made it seem funny enough to those gathered around the elbow of the marble bar. Since the bar's owner had agreed to hold his tab for a day or two, Swift bought a round of beers and joked about his empty mailbox.

Smiling Sally showed up in the middle of his story; she joined the audience of familiar faces who laughed and groaned when Roscoe finished off with, “Deadlines mean paychecks. And, there's but a thin line between heartburn and inspiration ... for what it’s worth.”

* * *

All rights reserved by the author. The Freelancer's Worth, with its accompanying illustration, are part of a series of stories called Detached. Two remaining stories, set in the '70s, will be inserted, eventually. Links to the six others which have been finished are below:

The Fan District's Goddess of Democracy


Built by art students, on May 30, 1989, the Goddess of Democracy was erected in Tiananmen Square as a symbol of their call for democratic reforms in China. The gathering protest in Tiananmen Square had begun in mid-April; tension was mounting.

Subsequently, on June 4, 1989, following orders, the People’s Liberation Army put an end to the demonstration. Mayhem ensued.

Although reports varied widely, hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. Made of chicken wire and plaster the Goddess was destroyed during the brutal routing of the protesters that had remained to the end, in defiance. As the drama played out on television, via satellite, the events shocked the world.

As their art student counterparts in China had been murdered in the shadow of their 33-foot-tall sculpture, in Richmond a group of VCU-affiliated artists heard the call of inspiration to stand with those who had fallen. They knew they had to build a replica of the lost Goddess.

The impromptu team of the willing and able worked around the clock for the next couple of days to give form to their tribute to the courage of those who had perished for freedom of expression. While the project was not sponsored by the school, wisely, VCU did nothing to discourage the gesture.

Richmond’s Goddess of Democracy (pictured above and below) stood the same height and was made of the same basic materials as the one in China had been.

Twenty years ago, facing Main Street, it stood as a memorial for about a month in front of the student center. CNN had a report on it, as did many other news agencies. Its image was on front pages of newspapers all over the world.

Art-wise, it was one of the coolest things ever to happen in the Fan District. And, nobody made a penny out of it. It was constructed and maintained entirely by volunteers.

It was also a wonderful illustration of how traditional right and left, liberal and conservative, characterizations of all things political don’t always do justice to the truth of a situation. Was the stubborn and heavy-handed Chinese government standing to the right, or to the left, of the students calling for reform?


It was the most dignified and successful piece of guerilla art this scribbler can remember.

-- Words and photos by F.T. Rea

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Sound

Originally published by STYLE Weekly in 2000


The handbill in this story

In the spring of 1984, I ran for public office. In case the Rea for City Council campaign doesn’t ring a bell, it was a spontaneous and totally independent undertaking. No doubt, it showed. Predictably, I lost, but I’ve never regretted the snap decision to run, because the education was well worth the price.

In truth, I had been mired in a blue funk for some time prior to my letting a couple of friends, Bill Kitchen and Rocko Yates, talk me into running, as we played a foozball game in Rockitz, Kitchen's nightclub. Although I knew winning such an election was out of my reach, I relished the opportunity to have some fun mocking the system. Besides, at the time, I needed an adventure.

So it began. Walking door to door through Richmond’s 5th District, collecting signatures to qualify to be on the ballot, I talked with hundreds of people. During that process my attitude about the endeavor began to expand. People were patting me on the back and saying they admired my pluck. Of course, what I was not considering was how many people will encourage a fool to do almost anything that breaks the monotony.

By the time I announced my candidacy at a press conference on the steps of the city library, I was thoroughly enjoying my new role. My confidence and enthusiasm were compounding daily.

On a warm April afternoon I was in Gilpin Court stapling handbills, featuring my smiling face, onto utility poles. Prior to the campaign, I had never been in Gilpin Court. I had known it only as “the projects.”

Several small children took to tagging along. Perhaps it was their first view of a semi-manic white guy — working their turf alone — wearing a loosened tie, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and khaki pants.

After their giggling was done, a few of them offered to help out. So, I gave them fliers and they ran off to dish out my propaganda with a spirit only children have.

Later I stopped to watch some older boys playing basketball at the playground. As I was then an unapologetic hoops junkie, it wasn’t long before I felt the urge to join them. I played for about 10 minutes, and amazingly, I held my own.

After hitting four or five jumpers, I banked in a left-handed runner. It was bliss, I was in the zone. But I knew enough to quit fast, before the odds evened out.

Picking up my staple gun and campaign literature, I felt like a Kennedyesque messiah, out in the mean streets with the poor kids. Running for office was a gas; hit a string of jump shots and the world’s bloody grudges and bad luck will simply melt into the hot asphalt.

A half-hour later the glamour of politics had worn thin for my troop of volunteers. Finally, it was down to one boy of about 12 who told me he carried the newspaper on that street. As he passed the fliers out, I continued attaching them to poles.

The two of us went on like that for a good while. As we worked from block to block he had very little to say. It wasn’t that he was sullen; he was purposeful and stoic. As we finished the last section to cover, I asked him a question that had gone over well with children in other parts of town.

“What’s the best thing and the worst thing about your neighborhood?” I said with faux curiosity.

He stopped. He stared right through me. Although I felt uncomfortable about it, I repeated the question.

When he replied, his tone revealed absolutely no emotion. “Ain’t no best thing … the worst thing is the sound.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, already feeling a chill starting between my shoulder blades.

“The sound at night, outside my window. The fights, the gunshots, the screams. I hate it. I try not to listen,” he said, putting his hands over his ears to show me what he meant.

Stunned, I looked away to gather my ricocheting thoughts. Hoping for a clue that would steady me, I asked, “Why are you helping me today?”

He pointed up at one of my handbills on a pole and replied in his monotone. “I never met anybody important before. Maybe if you win, you could change it.”

Words failed me. Yet I was desperate to say anything that might validate his hope. Instead, we both stared silently into the afternoon’s long shadows. Finally, I thanked him for his help. He took extra handbills and rode off on his bike.

As I drove across the bridge over the highway that sequesters his stark neighborhood from through traffic, my eyes burned and my chin quivered like my grandfather’s used to when he watched a sad movie.

Remembering being 12 years old and trying to hide my fear behind a hard-rock expression, I wanted to go back and tell the kid, “Hey, don’t believe in guys passing out handbills. Don’t fall for anybody’s slogans. Watch your back and get out of the ghetto as fast as you can.”

But then I wanted to say, “You’re right! Work hard, be tough, you can change your neighborhood. You can change the world. Never give up!” During the ride home to the Fan District, I swore to myself to do my absolute best to win the election.

A few weeks later, at what was billed as my victory party, I, too, tried to be stoic as the telling election results tumbled in. The incumbent carried six of the district’s seven precincts. I carried one. The total vote wasn’t even close. Although I felt like I’d been in a car wreck, I did my best to act nonchalant.

In the course of my travels these days, I sometimes hear Happy Hour wags laughing off Richmond’s routine murder statistics. They scoff when I suggest that maybe there are just too many guns about; I’m told that as long as “we” stay out of “their” neighborhood, there is little to fear.

But remembering that brave Gilpin Court newspaper boy, I know that to him the sound of a drug dealer dying in the street was just as terrifying as the sound of any other human being giving up the ghost.

That same boy would be in his mid-30s now, as I was when I met him ... if he’s still alive. The ordeal he endured in his childhood was not unlike what children growing up in any number of the world’s bloody war zones are going through today. Plenty of them must cover their ears at night, too.

For the reader who can’t figure out how this story could eventually come to bear on their own life, then just wait … keep listening.

-- 30 --

Political blogging on the wane?

While I'm no expert on blogging/the blogosphere, I started SLANTblog in 2003 and at one time I was quite engaged with the political blogging scene in Virginia. Now, I don't pay it all that much attention. And, my posts aimed at that audience don't come anywhere near as often as they did three or four years ago.

So, I'm wondering how much the energy has drained out of what was quite a lively Virginia political blogging scene, say between 2006 and 2008. Or, is that perception wrong, and what's out there now is just as happening as it was then?

And, I wonder how much Facebook and Twitter have stolen what was blogging's thunder?

Has the partisan-driven product that Fox News and MSNBC are putting out, these days, trumped what the blogoshere has to offer readers on the lookout for current talking points and raw meat?

In other words, are other political bloggers now the only readers most of today's political bloggers in Virginia can expect to reach?