Friday, April 27, 2012

One Chance

This is a strong and effective campaign ad. Rather than offering up a laundry list of points of contention, it zeroes in on one important contrast. For more on the ad go here.

And, let's hope we see plenty more of Bill Clinton in the months of campaigning ahead. 

In justifying his decision not to order the risky mission, can't you picture Mitt Romney saying something like this: "Too many things could go wrong. Plus, if we end up killing bin Laden in the raid, we'll just have to be on guard against a revenge attack on May 2nd, every year from now on. Why put Americans through more orange alerts? Better to just thoroughly deplore bin Laden from safe distance and ratchet up our spending on defense."

Change is a knife that cuts both ways

Since the mid-1980s, my views on politics have been published regularly. Consequently, over those years I’ve had thousands of conversations with people who have disagreed with my takes on this or that issue. I used to pride myself on being able to have civil, forthright discussions with conservatives; my goal was frequently to find common ground.

Now that’s nearly impossible, even with Republican friends that I used to enjoy trading opinions with, especially over cold beers.

Unlike some political opinion writers, when I put together an OpEd essay on a political issue, I don’t usually look to piss off all the people who disagree with me. No, I’m usually trying to win them over with a well constructed argument. My goal has been to boost them into thinking about it from a different angle.

Preaching to the choir may be a balm for the ego, but I’d rather try to change minds … even just a little bit.

Still, as we all know, fostering change can bring on unexpected consequences. Since Barack Obama was elected under a banner of Change in 2008, it has brought home a change to me I hadn’t anticipated and certainly never wanted. Now those conversations I used to enjoy with my some of my Republican friends who follow politics are mostly a thing of the past.

In the last three years, plus, too many of those friends have lost their moorings and steadily drifted away into a swamp of backward thinking. When I say backward, I mean they seem to want to go back in time. Now some of them aren't so sure they believe in evolution or public education.

Now they are so angry at Obama, they seem to feel it’s yet another damn war. In this war any tactic they employ to injure Obama is fair game, because he is an elitist, or a fascist, or a communist. Or, he's a secret Muslim who was born in some African hellhole and is in league with terrorists.

Many conservatives, all across America, have allowed themselves to be pulled, or perhaps pushed, into a world of delusion in which compromise -- the mother’s milk of democracy -- is viewed as treason. Four or five years ago, such a ridiculous notion would have only inspired laughs from reasonable people on either side of the aisle.

Grover Norquist, Tea Party activists, opportunistic politicians and a few broadcast windbags have been the most visible pushers. These self-serving characters have gained power in the GOP without exhibiting a whit of genuine interest in solving problems. Actually, their goal has been to exacerbate all problems and sling the blame at Obama and his liberal minions.

Modern conservatives enjoy saying/writing the word "minions," have you noticed?

Sadly, it seems the conservatives who have become dedicated to toppling Obama, at ANY price, have lost all reference points. So, most of them seem to have no awareness of how much THEY have changed since President Obama was sworn in.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Derby Day 33

In The Track on Derby Day No. 1
(photo by Ernie Brooks in 1980)

Calling all former Biograph Theatre softball players and those who have been associated with that group.

The 33rd annual Derby Day reunion party will take place between 1 pm. and 6 pm. on Saturday, May 5th. Once again Shelter No. 1 in Bryan Park will be the site, rain or shine. As usual, bring grills, food, full coolers and so forth. The Facebook event page for this party is here.

No softball game will be attempted, but if you want to throw and catch a little with somebody, bring your glove (and a ball). There is a good Frisbee-golf course close by.

Note: We will be raising our glasses to remember two former Biograph team members, friends who died in the past year -- Branch White and Puby Stallard.
At a Derby Day party at Pine Camp the former Biograph staff members are: Bernie Hall, Trent Nicholas, Chuck Wrenn and Mike Jones 
(photo by Ernie Brooks, circa 1995)

Click here to see a map of Bryan Park.

Marijuana and Situational Conservatives

As it’s April 20, I have been reminded of a piece I wrote 11 years ago for In the decade that has passed since, thousands of Americans have suffered unnecessarily because of antiquated anti-marijuana laws.
On May 14, 2001, a 31-year-old federal law – the Controlled Substances Act – trumped California's state laws allowing for the supply of medical marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the federal government and against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative.

The news was cheered by characters who had long extolled the virtue of minimizing federal interference in the affairs of the 50 states. But since these rather less-than-compassionate conservatives have consistently seemed happy to defer to Uncle Sam on certain issues – especially on personal and medical matters – perhaps it would it be more appropriate to call these squirrelly states-rights advocates "situational conservatives."

It seems many who are still opposed to medical marijuana only see another battle line in their perpetual cultural warfare against anything they connect to the "permissiveness" of the '60s. Rather than noting the heartbreaking need of a cancer patient, these partisans are only concerned with what message recognizing the legitimacy of medical marijuana could send. They see it as a slippery slope toward legalization.

Of course, the news from the highest court was not applauded in all circles. The unlucky folks who were more likely to be denied access to relief from their chemotherapy-related nausea probably weren't cheering the Supreme Court's so-called wisdom.

More than 20 years ago, I witnessed a scene that comes into my mind every time this topic comes up. The unusual transaction took place in an old friend's carriage house art studio.

As planned, I showed up at about 5 p.m. to give my teammate a ride to a softball game scheduled to start at 6 p.m. As it turned out, we had to wait for his brother to stop by to score some pot.

Although he was a regular consumer, my friend was not ordinarily a dealer in such commodities. On top of that, the artist's older brother was a buttoned-down lawyer who had never smoked pot in his life. So, on the face of it, the situation seemed odd.

The artist explained that his brother had asked him to buy the pot for a senior partner at his law firm. The partner wanted it for a client of his who had an advanced form of cancer. Apparently the patient, a retired judge, had been told by his doctor that smoking marijuana might help. The doctor indicated he wasn't in a position to help with actually obtaining the contraband. As the story went, the judge asked his friend and personal attorney for some discreet help with the matter.

Moments later, the blue-suited lawyer arrived. As he accepted the parcel – a brown paper bag containing a plastic bag filled with two ounces of primo weed – the lawyer laughed nervously and said toward me, "I suppose he told you what's going on?"

Indicating I was aware of the circumstances, I asked about something that had just occurred to me: Would this old judge know what to do with the stuff in order to smoke it? Did he know to remove the seeds and stems? Did he have a pipe, or know how to roll a joint?

The lawyer was stumped. But he admitted it was likely the judge would not know how to handle it. He chuckled and said this particular man was about as old-fashioned and straight-laced as they come.

"Good point," said the artist, pulling out a tablet of drawing paper.

Then he started to create a set of written instructions, with simple pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate each step. As the guide was put together – it probably made us late for the softball game – the three of us polished off half a six pack of cold beer and talked about the bizarre situation.

Finishing his mission of mercy, the artist had a few words for his always-cautious brother. In essence, my friend said – "Here's this old judge, who would have been happy to throw any of us in jail yesterday for possession of this same bag. Now the judge is in a jam. His doctor can't help him. Neither can his preacher. No, in his darkest hour of need, the judge has to turn to the only Good Samaritan available, an unrepentant hippie willing to break the law out of kindness for a stranger in need."

Then my friend threw a pack of rolling papers into the bag, so the novice pot-smoker would have what he needed to get started.

Since the Controlled Substances Act does not allow for an exception for "medical necessity," the Supreme Court basically threw up its hands and said it could find no way to protect California's suppliers of medical marijuana from federal prosecution.

Hey, if the patient says it helps and his doctor says it helps, why isn't that good enough?
For humanitarian reasons, the argument of whether to allow for obtaining marijuana for doctor-authorized treatment simply must be separated from strategies for, or against, legalizing marijuana across the board.

Congress needs to sweep away the cobwebs and take a hard look at amending its Controlled Substances Act. Much has been learned about these matters since 1970. Naive as it might sound, I'd still like to believe there's a difference between being conservative and being cruel.
How anyone can continue to advocate denying medical marijuana to those in need beats the hell out of me. In economic tough times, how states can afford to have laws still on the books that aim to stamp out the use of marijuana is mystifying. Yet, the taxpayers' money still being spent to arrest and imprison unlucky people over marijuana.

Going to the dogs

Q: Holy Seamus! Is your pet dog safe? 

A: PoilitiFact says.

Q: Why in the world would Romney’s supporters kick up a fuss about what Obama ate when he was a child living in Indonesia?

A: Well, on the face of it, one might assume it’s to blunt the effect of Romney’s weird dog-on-the-car-roof story. Might quarterback Michael Vick tell us it's better to torture a dog than eat it?

Sure, on the surface, that's part of it, but I have to say that’s probably not most of it.

No, it’s mostly an oblique way to remind people of Obama’s unusual background. By talking about Obama eating strange foods as a boy living an exotic life, in a faraway land, it’s a backdoor way of stirring up the crackpot birthers and other haters who relentlessly bellow that Obama is an Un-American, secret Muslim ... without actually having to throw in with them.

Q: Other than people who already detest Obama and would never vote for him, who cares about whether Obama tasted dog meat as a child?

A: No one, but Vick might still be a little bit curious about how it tastes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Search of Brer Rabbit

Below the reader will see a feature article about Daryl Cumber Dance that I wrote in 2003. It was published by a Richmond magazine called FiftyPlus. Dance is an English professor at the University of Richmond, who has written extensively about African American folklore.


Unbeknownst to the slave traders transporting their kidnapped human cargo from Africa to the New World, there was a stowaway on-board. Folklore scholars tell us that Brer Rabbit made his way across the Atlantic Ocean, hidden in the minds of shackled men and women on their way to a life that might as well have been on another planet.

Impish Brer Rabbit is just one of the fascinating characters from African American folklore who appeal to University of Richmond English professor Daryl Cumber Dance.

In Dance’s newest book, "From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore," she has fashioned an eclectic collection of African American folklore, music lyrics, art, toasts, proverbs, riddles, and superstitions.

“What I’m doing is capturing a certain tradition, in print,” she said of her 736-page anthology, published last year by W. W. Norton.

That “certain tradition” was a subculture that in its time relied entirely on the spoken word of storytellers, or griots (pronounced gree-oh). After all, it was illegal during extended parts of America’s slavery era to even teach Negroes how to read and write.

In "From My People," next to her collection of yarns featuring mythical characters, such as Brer Rabbit, the Signifying Monkey, and Stagolee, Dance includes thought-provoking samples of the words of well-known black figures, including Ralph Ellison, Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Then, too, there’s a chapter on Soul Food, with plenty of useful recipes.

While Brer Rabbit made it to America’s shores in the memories of slaves, Dance pointed out, it was Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), author of the Uncle Remus stories, who brought Brer Rabbit to the reading public.

Slaves told him those stories, featuring animals blessed or cursed with human-like traits, when he was a boy. Uncle Remus, the kindly yarn-spinner, was Harris’s invention. Significantly, the stories were written in a style he asserted was the dialect spoken by slaves in his youth. Harris also underlined the universal nature of stories concerning subjugated underdogs and their struggle for survival with dignity intact.

Dance happily subscribes to the basic idea expressed by mythology guru Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), when he held forth, in his authoritative writings on storytelling in ancient civilizations, that fables about heroes and their transforming quests are more similar than not.

Now, well after the days of Harris’ Uncle Remus, the study of folklore has become quite important to historians and anthropologists. Then, too, folklore can also be seen as the forerunner to today’s popular culture of magazines, movies, popular music and broadcasting.

The word “toast” is among the interesting terms Dance examines in From My People. As she explains, toasts were artful rants presented from the point of view of a powerful black man. They began to be a popular form of expression/entertainment in urban neighborhoods around the turn of the century. They were always bawdy.

“A clean version of a toast is not a toast,” said Dance, eyebrows raised.

She struggled with how to include such material in From My People. Nonetheless, Chapter Nine contains some traditional toasts, including Stagolee.

If that title has a familiar ring to it, that’s because there is a raft of songs out there about a gun-toting Stagolee, or Stagger Lee. New Orleans singer/songwriter Professor Longhair did his take on it, “Stag O Lee,” in 1974. There was also Lloyd Price’s big hit, “Stagger Lee,” in 1959. Still, Mississippi John Hurt’s version of the song, “Stack O'Lee Blues,” in 1928, is considered the definitive version.

Deciding the book needed some examples of traditional toasts in it, while also wanting to make it accessible to young readers, Dance compromised her long-held belief in absolute authenticity, to do with wording. She crafted a few substitute terms, here and there, hoping to retain the original toast’s meaning and verve.

As a toast, Stagolee probably originated in turn-of-the-century Memphis. It may well have been based on a real murder. Eventually the songs came, with all the variations on the same theme. Today, it’s easy to imagine the bloody saga of Stagolee and Billy presented with a hip hop treatment.

“Rap is an outgrowth of the toast,” said Dance. “Things find ways of going on.”

That apt observation sheds light on such acts as the legendary Last Poets. Their first performances in New York City in 1968, of what many popular culture aficionados see now as seminal rap music, could also be seen as bringing the long-established tradition of the toast forth for a new generation.

Born in Richmond in 1938, Daryl Cumber grew up on land in nearby Charles City County that her free black ancestors of the Brown family owned in the time of legalized slavery in Virginia. Of course, if any of those pre-Civil War ancestors traveled, they were well advised to carry their precious free papers with them, to be able to prove their status. The regional tradition that kept most folks close to home had its roots in reason.

Dance’s father was a jointer at the shipyard in Newport News. He also built and owned a beer garden called the Shanty Inn. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox where the black men and women who lived in the county gathered to wet their whistles and socialize. At first he kept his day job, but eventually he began working full-time at his own business, once it began to thrive.

The Shanty Inn wasn’t a wild roadhouse or whiskey-serving speakeasy, Dance said. Still, young Daryl wasn’t permitted to go inside during business hours. She was nine years old when her father died of a heart attack, at the age of 36.

As a girl, Dance expected to become a teacher. “I always wrote,” she said with a laugh and a sigh. “I had the nerve to send a play to a radio show [called] ‘Dr. Christian’.”

Although she may have thought about becoming a lawyer, as her grandfather was, in her bucolic 1950s world women didn’t study law.

“In my family, women taught,” said Dance, who attended Ruthville High School, which had been named for a great-great aunt, Ruth Brown. Daryl Cumber went on to Virginia State College, where she majored in English, and in 1956 she began her teaching career at Armstrong High School in Richmond.

Two years later she married Warren C. Dance, a teacher who is now retired from Richmond Public Schools; he also served on the adjunct faculties of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and Virginia Union University. The union of life-long teachers has produced three children (two sons and a daughter), who, in turn, have produced two grandchildren, so far.

Speaking of family, From My People is dedicated to “my son Allen Cumber Dance, a bright, handsome, generous, and supportive individual who would make any mother proud, but an inveterate Trickster, who almost always makes me worry a little but laugh a lot.”

Dance returned to Virginia State to get an M.A., which was followed by a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. She has received a couple of Ford Foundation Fellowships, three Southern Fellowships Fund grants, two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a Fulbright research grant, a grant from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and other honors too numerous to list in this space.

Ten years ago, after teaching at Virginia State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Virginia Commonwealth University, she became a member of the English Department faculty at the University of Richmond.

Dance now has eight books to her credit. Her first, Shuckin' and Jivin': Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans (1978), established her as an emerging figure in the folklore field. Subsequent books have dealt with a variety of subjects, including Caribbean folkore and African American women’s humor.

Long Gone: The Mecklenburg Six and the Theme of Escape in Black Folklore, published in 1987, buffed her reputation not only as a dauntless researcher, but also as a scholar who was willing to weigh in on controversial matters and deal with them evenhandedly.

With an unflinching directness, Dance sought to demonstrate how the audacious 1984 escape from a maximum-security prison’s death row by the two infamous Briley brothers (and four accomplices) fell into a well-established template of tales about the authorities searching for black men on the lam.

The crimes of Linwood and James Briley (both were eventually executed) were not the book’s issue. Their much-storied last gasp of freedom was. The mainstream media’s high-profile accounts of the escape and subsequent sightings of the escapees - many of which were more hysterical than they were accurate - stoked the myth-making machine, spawning songs, stories, and all sorts of curious Briley brothers’ memorabilia. However, their crimes, carried out in Richmond, were so gruesome that some in the area couldn’t countenance the notion that such wretched men should be written about in any way, other than to condemn them.

Dance was surprised at how many people, officials and private citizens alike, attempted to frustrate her project. Nonetheless, the scholar pressed on. In the book she mentions that a good number of people also went out of their way to help her overcome contrived obstacles.

Tall and graceful in manner, Daryl Cumber Dance brings a rare combination of tools to her work. Her curiosity and integrity don’t stumble over one another. She intuitively blends her researcher’s need to seek the authentic, with her chosen role of editor/translator of an arcane language from another age. In the doing, Dance uses those colorful expressions to paint an American history with what amounts to an impressionistic style.

Yet, her very Southern-seeming modesty makes her laugh softly and shrug off the suggestion that she should be called a “historian,” a “folklorist,” or even, a “writer.”

“I haven’t written novels,” said the English professor in her Ryland Hall office.

What about the seeming contradiction of an expert on the folk culture established by generations of slaves, and their descendants, on tweedy Richmond’s West End campus?

“Richmond is beginning to be a different school than what people think,” replied Dance.

Throughout her enlightening examination of an American history that has been largely ignored by traditional historians, Dance uses the words Negro, Colored, Black, and African-American with equal ease. She explains that she chooses the term that was appropriate in the era to which she is referring.

In fact, Dance seems completely at ease with all sorts of words that ruffle feathers. And, she seems just as at ease in her own mahogany-colored skin. That has to be part of her success as a researcher. It’s easy to imagine that strangers would be disarmed by her gentle curiosity and trust her with their stories.

While Brer Rabbit was shanghaied, once he returned to land he was far too slippery to be held down for long. He freely hopped from one generation to the next. Trials and tribulations came and went, but Brer’s dignity was crushproof.

“The story of our history, as African Americans,” said Daryl Cumber Dance, “is just beginning to be told.”

-- 30 --

Monday, April 16, 2012

Tomorrow's collectibles

Avant-Garde, a late-60s magazine that I admired in those days, used to run features that offered the reader a collection of short answers to a question, all from a group of well-known people. Usually the group of know-it-alls ran heavy on artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and so forth. The editors once asked 25 “noted Americans” to say who they thought was the most hated man in America.

The answers, taken as a group, were quite interesting.

Another time the magazine's editors asked a panel to name the machine they hate the most, and why. Then another panel was asked to predict what ordinary things, in their time, would be transformed into classics, 20 years into the future. That one was fun. I remember someone said something like -- Converse's (Chuck Taylor) canvas basketball shoes will be rediscovered, to be seen as cool by a whole new generation.

That one sure turned out to be a bulls-eye.

Today, I doubt many of the gizmos, to do with communication, will matter much 20 years from now. So, what ordinary things in 2012 do you think will be seen as classic, or perhaps much-collected kitsch, in 2032?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Grace St. Game

A page of comix I did in the late summer of 1983, which was soon after I had quit my job as manager of the Biograph Theatre. At this time, I felt I had sort of overdosed on Grace Street. 

(Click on the image to enlarge)

Choice Addicts

Obsessions, compulsions and addictions have always been in play. Now we see a somewhat new twist in driven behavior. Patriotism in the form of consumerism has spawned millions who are  addicted to the act of choosing between this and that. This group has developed what amounts to a jones for choosing from a smorgasbord of options. They get high on making choices.

Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance.

Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of shopping and making choices in order to cope with their habit. This is beyond consuming, it's just about choosing.

Of course Madison Avenue, great facilitator in this shop-’til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss. Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time.

To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is absolutely entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a person having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society’s collective will.

Of course, those calling for “choice” in this case see the individual’s right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, has been called “choice” by its advocates.

While this argument appears to be resting on a convenient logic, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word “choice” has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.”

Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another. Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. But his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us is still as valuable as ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PĂ©rigord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered, “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: “Speech was given to man to prevent thought.”

OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. My point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

Some folks put a lot of store in choosing the perfect mate. They shop, and they shop, to be sure. But from what I’ve seen, what couples actually do, after their choice/commitment, has a lot more to do with the success of the relationship than anything else. Of course, some married people just keep shopping, vows or not. They can’t stop shopping and choosing.

Can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program?

Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. But no matter what the nervous viewers do they will inevitably be exposed to plenty of commercials prompting them to make more choices.

Choice addicts are schlemiels, because every time they accept that their options are limited to what’s on a menu put together by someone else, they are surrendering control to the list-maker.

-- 30 --

James River Film Festival

The 19th annual James River Film Festival is already underway. Lots of good films (April 12-18) will be presented at various venues. Click here to view the schedule.

Click here to visit the James River Film Society's web site.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Aroused Republicans rise to defend motherhood

Most Republicans know perfectly well that an artless comment about Ann Romney‘s work history, made by an obscure cable television pundit, was not representative of policies or attitudes at the White House. Hilary Rosen's words were not an indication of a wave of national sentiment on the part of Democrats.

Rosen wasn’t speaking on CNN for anyone other than herself. She is just one of a legion of talking heads who are paid to opine off the cuff on cable television. And, she's one of the lesser known yappers, at that.

Calling Rosen's silly comment an "attack" on Mitt Romney's wife fools no one. Mrs. Romney wasn't called a "slut." Moreover, no one attacked motherhood.

But because Republican propagandists, both amateur and professional, know that the recent actions of rightwing Governors and state lawmakers all over the country have exacerbated an already serious problem with women voters, we get another angry avalanche of howling false equivalencies.

Who really believes this contrived flap will cause any of the women who demonstrated their disapproval of legislation, to do with abortion in Virginia a few weeks ago -- some were arrested -- to change their minds about voting against Republicans in November?

So, once again, all the sound and fury coming from rightwingers on their high horses amounts to preaching to the choir and little more. It will not make the gathering notion of a GOP-directed War on Women in 2012 go away.

Stating false equivalencies, even about politics, is still just another form of lying.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Goosing Lady Justice

Since we can't get a do-over, we'll never know if the Sanford Shooter would have been charged with second degree murder today, or tomorrow, without the public outcry for justice that erupted over the last month.

Hey, I'm not rushing to judge the 28-year-old George Zimmermann guilty, or not, but I am talking about an outcry that appeared to put the brakes on a process that was well on its way to sweeping “something” under an official rug ... a fraying, lumpy rug that already has too many darkly sad stories under it.

Now there’s a fair chance we’ll find out what that “something” was.

Look, I’m usually the first one to bemoan how the 24-hour news networks love to exaggerate the importance of purple stories about murder and justice. Once the feeding frenzy starts I usually ignore them as best I can.

However, in this case, it looks like righteous calls for justice were given amplification by the media in a way that pressured authorities in Florida to listen to their own better angels. This time, it seems goosing Lady Justice with some focused advocacy journalism played a positive role.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Fan District Softball League (1975-94)

J.W. Rayle 1976 team

Referred to as the “hippie league” by softball players who played in the polyester-clad softball world governed by recreation and parks departments, the Fan District Softball League had its own style, which leaned toward cotton, silk-screened T-shirts. Its games were played on “open fields,” rather than in softball complexes with fences. Among other things that meant the Fan League featured a style that put more emphasis on defensive play, rather than simply a home-run derby, with big-bellied Bubbas trotting around the bases.

It also meant the league’s activities received less scrutiny by authorities outside of itself, which was viewed then as a good thing.

The somewhat unorthodox Fan League bubbled up out of the pop culture ooze of the summer of 1973, which was the heyday of WGOE, the daytime AM radio station that dominated the Fan District. Its sound could be heard in the shops and on the sidewalks of the bohemian commercial strip of West Grace Street, adjacent to Virginia Commonwealth University. WGOE inadvertently set what became the league in motion when its promotional softball team of deejays and a few ringers, the ‘Nads, played a few games against impromptu squads representing a few regular advertisers on the station, mostly bars.

By the next summer teams began to jell, but there was no formal schedule and fields were still being commandeered, rather than secured by arrangement with any proper authority.

By 1975 the name Fan District Softball League had come into use and the organization had its first commissioner — Van “Hook” Shepherd. Cassell’s Upholstery beat the Bamboo Cafe in a one-game playoff for the season’s championship finale. The four other teams in the league that inaugural season were the Back Door, Sea Dream Leather, Uptop Sub Shop and WGOE.

In 1976, in addition to the regular season the league staged two tournaments. Teams representing the Biograph Theatre, Hababas, J.W. Rayle, deTreville, the Pinheads (the VCU sculpture department and friends) and the Rainbow Inn were formed in 1976.

As the years wore on more bars and whatnot came and went. During the first decade of the league’s existence, next to the music and nightlife scene, softball-related activities were at the heart of the Baby Boomer-driven culture in the Fan District.

Unlike most softball leagues in those days, the FDSL usually had lots of fans at its games. Of course, the kegs of beer that were around — which meant free beer — had something to do with that. In that time the freewheeling FDSL was the only organized-yet-independent softball league in the Richmond area.

Thus, the Fan League governed itself, made its own schedule, cut its own deal with the umpires, etc. It remained so through its last season in 1994. The Fan District Softball League had lasted 20 years, which was a wonder in itself.

WGOE disc jockey Jim Letizia (left) with two Back Door stalwarts, Richard Broughton and Ray Throckmorten in 1977

The FDSL established its Hall of Fame in 1986. The first class was elected by the then-12-team outfit’s designated franchise representatives prior to the annual All-Star game/picnic. To be eligible then one had to have retired from play and considered to be among the founders. Ten names were selected as the first Hall-of-Famers.

The same rule held true in 1987, when six new names were put on the plaque. However, by 1988 a few of those who had been inducted into the Hall had unretired. So, in 1988 eligibility was opened up to anyone who seemed deserving. Those already in the Hall got to vote, as well; nine new members were selected. The meetings to select new inductees were always quite lively, the voting process was probably no more twisted than any hall of fame’s way of choosing new names.

For 1989 six additional names were added. The class of ‘90 included seven names, and in ‘92 the last five names were tacked on. In all, 41 players and two umpires were tapped. The list leans heavily toward those who made significant contributions to FDSL lore in the early years of its existence.

Those men who were inducted into the FDSL’s Hall are as follows: Ricardo Adams, Herbie Atkinson, Howard Awad, Boogie Bailey, Yogi Bair, Jay Barrows, Otto Brauer, Ernie Brooks, Hank Brown, Bobby Cassell, Jack Colan, Willie Collins, Dickie deTreville, Jack deTreville, Henry Ford, Danny Gammon, Donald Greshham, James Jackson, Dennis Johnson, Mike Kittle, Leo Koury, Jim Letizia, Junie Loving, Tony Martin, Kenny Meyer, Cliff Mowells, Buddy Noble, Randy Noble, Henry Pollard, Artie Probst, Terry Rea, John Richardson, Jerry Robinson, Larry Rohr, Billy Snead, Jim Story, Hook Shepherd, Pudy Stallard, Durwood Usry, Jumpy White, Barry Winn, Chuck Wrenn.

By my count, seven guys one the list above have died, with Pudy Stallard being the most recent to pass away.    

Biograph Naturals team 1980

-- Photos: J.W. Rayle by Artie Probst; Back Door guys by Danny Brisbane; Naturals by Phil Trumbo.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Taking a Walk, Making a Stand

There's nothing that will fuel a controversy in Richmond, Virginia, like the propriety of art in public spaces. On the evening of April 3, 2012, Richmonders poured onto the grassy median strips of Monument Avenue in the Fan District to look at children's art and discuss the controversy that has swirled around it.

Click here for background.

Along Richmond's most famous street on Tuesday evening, a crowd formed and mingled and thought about the role of art, prompted in great part by posts on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Richmond, where stifling art in public places is still routine

Flags and banners are apparently OK along Richmond's most famous street -- the one with the looming statues of Confederate heroes. It seems spectacular arrangements of Christmas lights are fine, at least in season. Of course, traffic signs are permitted; placards to do with real estate don't cause a problem. But we just can't have children's art displayed on the grassy median strip on Monument Avenue?

Not when you call the art a "sign." Then it's a problem.

When and how does art become a sign, rather than a painting, or a sculpture, or a mixed media collage? Moreover, since it's a children's art project -- staged by a nonprofit, Art 180 -- why would they bother to stretch the definition of a sign?

Sorry, I don't know. Somebody in City Hall will have to help you with that.

Meanwhile, Richmond's decades-long discomfort with art displayed in the public way, and its campaign to stifle show biz -- especially in the Fan District -- were both well documented in this article, which was printed in the Richmond News Leader on Nov. 6, 1982:

Art or litter? Judge rules handbills not in ‘public way’
by Frank Donnelly

One man’s art may be another man’s litter, but the real question was whether it blocks the “public way.”

Terry Rea, manager of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, was charged in June with obstructing a city sidewalk when he posted handbills on utility poles in the Fan District.

Rea’s attorneys, eliciting testimony on mass media and art from several professors at Virginia Commonwealth University, argued yesterday that the city law limited their client’s freedom of speech.

However, Richmond General District Judge Jose R. Davila, Jr., said the issue came down to whether the posters obstructed the public way, and he ruled that the commonwealth’s attorney’s office failed to prove they did.

Davila dismissed the charge against the manager of the theater but stopped short of finding the city law unconstitutional, which also had been requested by Rea’s attorney’s.

The city now must decide whether to find a better legal argument to defend the city law or to revise it, officials said. The law is used by the police to combat excessive advertising in the public way, which is defined as any place open to the public, such as a street or sidewalk.

“The poles were perfectly clean this morning,” Capt. Robert T. Millikin, Jr., said about the possible impact of the decision. “Between you and me, I don’t know what they’ll [sic] going to look like between now and tonight.”

For the last year, Fan District residents have complained to police about the the unsightliness caused by posters on trees and utility poles, Millikin said. The police asked businesses in June to stop posting the handbills and most businesses did so, he said.

Rea said he always has relied on handbills as an inexpensive but effective way to advertise movies at the theater, which specializes in the showing of avant-garde movies. Two weeks later, he was charged with a misdemeanor after posting advertisements for the anti-nuclear power movie, “The Atomic Cafe.”

The manager was charged under a law that states: “It shall be unlawful for any persons to obstruct or use a public way for advertising, promotional or solicitation purposes or for any purpose connected therewith ... by placing attacking [sic] or maintaining a sign on or to a fixture (such as a utility pole) ...”

Rea’s attorneys, Stuart R. Kaplan and John G. Colan, contended in court that the posters did not obstruct the public way, and the arresting officer agreed with them.

“It was nothing anyone would trip over,” Patrolman James P. Gilliam said about the posters.

The attorneys also argued that the city law abridged Rea’s freedom of speech by denying him one possible way to advertise.

David M. White, a former VCU professor of mass communication and author of 20 books on the media, said handbills are a unique form of communication. The theater could advertise in newspapers but the cost was prohibitive, he said.

Jerry Donato, an associate VCU professor of fine arts, said that posters in the Fan District contained both art and messages. “The Atomic Cafe” posters, which contained the slogan, “A hot spot in a Cold War,” criticized the use of nuclear power, he said.

Asked by assistant commonwealth’s attorney William B. Bray whether a bunch of soup cans on the ground is art, Donato replied, “It depends on who arranged them.”

The courtroom, which held about 30 artists and supporters of the theater, erupted into laughter.

Bray said purpose of the statute was to prevent littering but agreed that another reason was to prevent obstruction of the public way. The posting of handbills could block the public way by falling off of a utility pole and causing pedestrians to slip, he said. The posting of the advertisements caused a hardship for the police, which sometimes had to take down the posters, Millikin said.

“This ties my men up,” he said. “We have more important things to do, God knows.”

Rea and his attorneys said they were happy with the decision although they wished Davila had gone farther and ruled the city law unconstitutional.

“I’m glad there are no criminal charges against me,” said Rea, who will continue to post the handbills. “But I wish the judge had gone further and ordered the statute to be unconstitutional. I don’t whether I’m safe.”

Before the trial, Rea had argued, “The handbill posted in the public way is a unique and vital form of communication. Production and distribution is direct, swift and cheap.”

That message was printed on a handbill.

Monday, April 02, 2012

About THAT art show on Monument Ave.

Regarding the children’s art display on Monument Ave. that has been in the local news, this statement was released on Monday morning from Charles Samuels, who represents the 2nd District on City Council:
I've had discussions with representatives from Art180 and Venture Richmond and it is my understanding that those two groups have worked together and we have resolution for the murals during Easter on Parade on Monument Avenue. It appears the murals may have to be temporarily moved but the parties are working together to ensure they are still visible.

I appreciate the calls and emails from citizens voicing their position on this matter. It is my belief that the City will honor its commitments and I am sure the Administration is working towards a decision on the issue of permits for this public art display.
Samuels' official email address is:

Meanwhile, wasn’t the City of Richmond saying the art display must come down by Friday, because its presence would conflict with the Easter Parade festivities on Sunday? In this scenario, isn't a mistake at City Hall to blame for this scheduling problem? It doesn't seem Art180 did anything wrong.

If that’s the case, if need be, couldn't some of the art be moved, temporarily, and all of it go back in place on Monday? Or, does the biggest problem with the Art180 children’s art show actually stem from a handful of complaints about the alleged inappropriateness of the art show, itself?

As long as it seems to pit the City of Richmond against children, this unflattering story about Richmond's trouble with art in the public way is only going to get bigger.


"City Says Avenue Art Must Go" from STYLE Weekly here.

"Art display must come down by Monday" from the Richmond Times Dispatch here.

Art180's Facebook page is here.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Pranks for the Memories

Pranks are a special kind of fun, especially when they work like a charm. The biggest prank I was ever in on took place in 1974. It's hard to think of how the caper could have gone over any better than it did. And, it just so happens I wrote about it for the James River Film Journal.

Go here to read "The Devils & the Details."