Once a Reporter, Always a Reporter

Once I was a straight reporter. Then my husband became a politician. That made me a political spouse with bad habits, some of which are exposed here. Others are located at www.VIKIVOLK.com

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Location: St. George Island, Maryland

Visit www.VIKIVOLK.com for all you could ever want to know about me.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why Burn Qurans?

In my callow youth yelling fire in a theater universally denoted the limits of the First Amendment. Watching other lines of our First Right waver was the evening news of my Baby Boomer life. But I never heard tell of that original principle being abandoned.

But this past media week makes me think such limits have been lifted. So when did it become legal to incite violence? Before or after 9/11? It wasn't that way when I was coming along. Back then you could arrest non-violent protesters for inciting violence. Now it seems more illegal to conspire to commit treason than incite violence. How did that happen?

Another thing I don't get, what does it mean to burn someone's religious book? Is it like burning a flag? Which, by the way, is really confusing in America where burning the flag is both the correct and incorrect way to get rid of one. So that means, in America, with flags, it’s the intent that determines the criminality – or not – of the act. So maybe with flags it's sort of like conspiring. It's the part in your mind that is illegal.

The "will-I-won't-I" Quran burning is more like inciting than conspiring, the proverbial lighting of the match. Is holy-book-burning then an extravagant spit in the face? Could we counter it with a bigger spit? Facing off with a couple dozen Gideon's?

No. It could only work if the Bible burning were an offering of some sort, to peace I suppose. Burning with sneers on our faces is merely a tit for tat, or spit for spat as the case may be. And that is so obviously the problem, not the solution.

I don't propose burning Bibles as an anti-Christian gesture, more an attempt to balance the fallout. I've no disrespect for the Bible, a great book, it guided my upbringing and life values, however poor my adherence. Indeed, it is perhaps shoddy understanding that leads me to think that using the Good Book in any way to defuse hatred would be considered Good Works.

I specifically chose the Gideon’s Bibles because they seem the most nondescript. I don’t propose to offer the small white Bible my mother carried at her wedding and I carried to a smattering of Protestant Sunday schools throughout my childhood. No one suggests you give up something personal when dealing in symbolism.

Maybe that's why symbolism never works well for me at a burning -- be it a flag or an effigy or a book or a whole city -- I have a hard time grasping the philosophical from video of hotly led and undisciplined hooligans with no stake in their wake.

It always seems to me, sitting at a slight remove from my television, we have the stake in this wake, we theater-goers who had planned, at the end of the show, to make dinner and get on with it. We hadn't planned to bump up against a band of hooligans playing irresponsibly in the public streets attempting to set-off the Apocalypse.

So here I am, at my great remove, slack-jawed with wonder. If regulatory stop work orders halt bulldozers, court orders protect threatened individuals, how can there be no Homeland Security measure to protect America from a band of hooligans screaming fire in a crowded theater?

For that matter, when will the public health laws kick in? I thought in America we provided protective confinement for people in imminent danger of harming themselves and others.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Freddie Krueger and the Slaughterhouse Next Door

I attended a free-form citizen zoning meeting the other night. Yawning yet? Some newspaper editors claim the word "zoning" in a headline forces readers to turn the page. It’s a given, then, that the headline about this meeting would include the word "Slaughterhouse." If zoning procedures were horror shows, slaughterhouses would be Freddy Krueger.

The compensation for a zoning reporter failing to entice broad readership is the intense and protracted readership a really juicy zoning procedure creates. When zoning procedures are in your back yard it isn't a yawn, it's a replay of the War of the Worlds when radio listeners believed the nation was under siege from Mars. Zoning proceedings, for those wrapped inside them, feel like a siege from Mars. And it goes on for years.

For about 80 folks this was their first zoning proceedings meeting about the Martians targeting their neighborhood for a landing. They were scared and frenzied which adds up to angry and mean. Zoning procedures are cathartic but safe, vigilante-ism without the danger of guns. Money is the primary weapon. Because the proceedings are in zoning-ese (Martian by any other name) Money is called Property Rights.

Another dozen folks at the meeting were elected, appointed and hired government officials. This was not their first Freddy Krueger zoning proceeding. They expected and received a routine exercise in participatory democracy where a single misspoken word could cost them their jobs. They anticipated the yelling and scorn thrown at them and the accusations of wrongdoing and incompetence.

And there were about a half-dozen folks sitting with the farmer who launched this siege by asking county staff if he could build a slaughterhouse on a parcel of land near these 80 folks.

Staff said it looked unlikely but since this was America the famer had the right to seek approval from the proper zoning board.

At this point, facing staff discouragement and neighborhood outrage the farmer is rumored to have made the typical applicant decision: Fight, if for nothing else the principle of Property Rights.

Property Rights are not the same kind of rights that extend down your arm and through your fist but end at my nose. Property rights cross boundaries. That's why there are zoning procedures and zoning boards and citizen hearings and a lucrative business in land-use law.

People not believing in Property Rights are -- and how obvious can it get -- Communists.

Property Rights are, however, mercurial. Logic suggests these same 80 folks would have supported the farmer's Property Rights to carve his cornfields into building lots for their homes -- even though the elected, appointed and hired government officials at the time would have tried to explain that cornfields are a net gain in the public coffers and building lots a significant and continual loss.

The citizens would have yelled and scorned them, accused them of wrongdoing and incompetence. The government people would have claimed allegiance to Property Rights and blended a residential and agricultural zone.

This leaves these 80 citizens worried about a slaughterhouse. Clearly, their homes stand as testimonial, Property Rights can trump the common good.

Perhaps pure force of old habit raised my hand. Thankfully I saw a staffer's incredulous look before my hand was noted. My hand dropped. "I thought I could just explain it," I said to her and started suddenly to giggle, and not in the good way, in the bad way like when you see Freddy Krueger walking in the door.

"I don't think they would hear it," the staffer said.

I left the hearing to wait in the car for my government official husband who -- as I had been once -- is paid to endure these encounters.

I accept my departure could be considered avoidance, abandonment. But I prefer to consider it an exercise in self-control, something that needs to be given a lot more play in these free-form citizen zoning meetings.

It leaves me wondering what would happen if you just invited Freddy in for a cup of tea. Or a Budweiser. But then that giggling starts again.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I can't believe I left my press pass at home. One of my cronies -- as my husband refers to my journalistic-ally bent friends -- told me to flaunt my credentials. Pathetic as they are, she reminded me, a press pass is the key to the city.

How many times have I told students, even their high school newspaper's press pass carries weight. Everybody, everybody, EVERYBODY wants to talk about themselves to a professional listener.

And although my hair is still dark and my face somewhat leaner in the laminated photograph, I do have a press pass and -- albeit from a company no longer in business -- IT WOULD HAVE WON ME THE RESPECT OF THE GATEKEEPER OF SALVADOR DALI'S HOUSE.

His house.

But no. I didn't listen. I pulled that ancient old laminated press pass out of my wallet more concerned with the Tel Aviv airport than thinking about Salvador Dali. I took it out of my wallet and I KEPT IT AT HOME! Digging before the gatekeeper I discovered I had I kept my government pass in my wallet. WAS I CRAZY? No one in Tel Aviv asked me a thing about credentials. They just kept asking the origin of my name and if anyone had asked me to deliver a package out of the country. Then they'd asked me again, about 20 seconds later, like maybe it had slipped my mind.

How can I be offended by that. Obviously I am slipping. Turning into a non-journalist -- because who else would leave their press pass at home. So many of us former journalists are slipping -- some becoming flaks, others complete sleaze-bag journalists others sanctimonious. By this I mean, lean toward the sleaze-bag spirit of the old days and even if you have to use your kid's computer software and the laminate-kiosk at the nearest mall: DON'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT YOUR PRESS PASS. We're talking about Salvador Dali's house.

Oh, and a small flashlight. Press pass or not, likely you're still in that economy hotel room down a hallway without a single electric light bulb. Some things change when you lose your credentials. Some things stay the same.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Few Minutes Before Midnight

A few minutes before midnight in the Tel Aviv airport, jetlagged already and awaiting another transatlantic flight I found myself confessing, again, the accusation that my generation abandoned the struggle for Justice to become insurance salesmen and grow houseplants. That’s how it would have been said back then, salesmen.

I confess this time to an intrepid young woman who’d asked permission to share a table then left her passport beneath her wallet at its corner as she returned to a kiosk to retrieve a bowl of soup rich with pesto. She had graduated a few months prior from boarding school and launched a “gap year” from the West Bank. In response to my praise of the soup she said life was more primitive where she had stayed. People made their food from scratch, she said. She expected to enroll next year in a conservative Jewish seminary school in New York.

I am meeting my daughter in the airport; she is a few years older than the future seminarian and has also been in Israel. Her time was spent within a multi-national project viewed with suspicion by Israeli officialdom. “My daughter is working for World Peace,” I tell this younger woman with the small ironic smile that provoked wry and slightly condescending smiles from my Baby Boomer peers back in America.

I tell the younger woman how glad I am to see young people getting back to our unfinished work on Justice. I tap my cell phone, worrying my daughter about the approaching boarding time. I mention Stuart Brand to the girl, the visionary scientist who grasped the significance of the first photograph from space of the entire planet which, Brand said, “gave the sense that Earth’s an island…” He coined not merely the phrase but the entire “Whole Earth” concept and led many of its earliest manifestations.

The message to us Children of the Sixties that We Are One wasn’t exactly taken to heart, I confessed.

It is 30 years since my accuser said we abandoned the struggle for Justice once we saw the price of war. He told me this the week John Lennon was shot, 10 years after Kent State where overly armed and undertrained Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 students to rein-in protests against the Vietnam War. Four were shot dead. After that, he told me, my generation went home to sell insurance and grow houseplants. We didn’t merely capitulate; I inferred from this, we didn’t even stop at collaboration: We turned tail and returned to the lives of petty privilege feeding Injustice.

I wouldn’t need to explain Kent State to these two women; they’d been in Israel where overly armed men and women just their ages roam the streets. It would have been difficult to explain how it appeared back then that only men made war.

They would surely have grasped the quote from that time, “This is a nation at war with itself,” which Wikipedia attributes to a lawyer in the Nixon administration, but which was too broad a sentiment of the time to actually be accorded to only one man.

But as for One Earth – the Whole Earth – could they have grasped the significance of seeing for the first time our entire plant from outside, the recognition that we are not merely All One, it is actually a very tiny place. The first visualization of the mother planet, and she looked alone.

I offer none of these explanations. Instead I say, “He lost his daughter and her family in 9-11.”

Why keep sharing this shard of guilt in the first place? And why now consistently endow it with the unrelated but somehow connected accumulated weight of 9-11?

And why in particular burden these fresh-faced women whittling toward World Peace? To assuage my own guilt? Simply because I had spent 13 hours in mind-numbing pettiness trying to move harmlessly and unharmed through Israel for no other purpose than to get home. I had not even been long in Israel. I had spent the weeks touring lovely European seashores and museums. I had bought my daughter a T-shirt of Pablo Picasso’s “Don Quichotte.”

Was that it? Simple but now compounded guilt?

It is time to seek our boarding gates. She has finished her soup and would like a polite way to exit. I am texting my daughter that it is time to board. All of this and a large glass of wine too quickly downed weighs on my jetlagged soul. “I’m nothing but an old hippy,” I tell the young woman. We smile and part.

And that alone of what I’ve told her was a lie. I wasn’t a hippie. In May of 1970 when four died in Ohio I talked a big game but pretty much expected life insurance, house plants, daughters. My friends and I didn’t choose petty luxury over war. We never considered war would – or should – interfere with the accumulation of petty luxuries. Few of us expected Lear jets, for example, but we all expected homes of our own, well, with our husbands and enough food and even ballet and piano lessons for our daughters. More petty bourgeoisie than hippie.

The Vietnam War was ludicrous. Our generation of soldiers weren’t saving anyone's world for Democracy, rescuing unjustly tortured and exterminated peoples. There didn’t even seem a conspiratorial economic reason for Vietnam as in oil in Iraq. Vietnam was our parents' petty bourgeoisie war.

It is only today I think to ask my accuser, what would he have had us do? Even had it been possible for Kent State to morph into a Harper’s Ferry what would we be today? Israel? You can't go to war to end war. It doesn't work. Nor did the peaceful strategies of refusal work when the war was more a generational struggle than a cultural clash. It is harder to bite the hand that feeds you than the one that takes your food away.

But even as I boarded, despite of or because of my tipsy jetlagged state, I still thought I'd handed something off. Something more than my guilt. Something kinder than the worn-out warning to do as I say, not as I do. I hope this young woman and my daughter nose around a bit about Stuart Brand or Kent State, about collective efforts and the incorporation of peace into life, even petty lives. And I also hope my husband watered the plants in my absence. It seems always a good thing to have reminders that in spite of it all, life is flowering around us.

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Island Is Sinking

Not only is St. George Island sinking, the water all around us is rising.

This is old news. So old that the Maryland state government, through its Department of Natural Resources, has an agency now that tracks by how much. There's a website where you can make the calculations yourself, if you have the time and inclination to fiddle. http://shorelines.dnr.state.md.us/sc_online.asp
If you really delve you can discover how quickly your very piece of the rock -- probably not a rock anymore -- will disappear from view. My piece disappears somewhere between two and five feet -- that could be two feet sinking, three feet water rising or any combination thereof. Or maybe, actually, four feet will do it for me. It seems this isn't an exact science yet, the future and weather still having something to do with it.

It almost seemed at a meeting last month that we St. George Islanders were slow to the draw. News of the disappearing Chesapeake Bay islands is nearly passe'. "Saving an island in the Chesapeake Bay," Alex Roy of the Maryland Department of the Environment said glibly last month to a gathering of St. George Islanders, "everyone is trying to do it."

Indeed, it seemed everyone and their brother was around last month to help St. George Island start. Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (three people from there), the Maryland State Highway Administration (two people from there), St. Mary's County Department of Public Works, a state delegate, a county commissioner and the president of the St. George Island Improvement Association met with about a dozen islanders to start the ball rolling to save St. George Island.

The meeting began with a lot of talk about how much more water sits on the land than has in past years, how much longer water stays around and how deep on the road and lawns the water reaches. Both rain water and tidal water.

The island includes 6.8 miles of shoreline -- not all of it eroding -- and is losing about 1.2 acres of land a year. The maps make this obvious to people who don't even live here. A lot of handouts were passed around confirming that indeed there is higher water, sinking land and less than perfectly maintained roads, waterways, ditches and bridges.

There was some more talk about why all of this has occurred. There were suggestions about which departments of government performing in different ways have caused or might be able to alleviate some of the problems. But as to the larger problem -- the island is sinking and the water is rising -- there were two immediate (so-called) proposals:

The state road people are going to make sure their roads aren't being undermined by the sinking and rising. If their roads are impacted they'll look for some money to make as quick of a fix as possible. Long term fixes weren't seen as particularly likely at this juncture. County road fixes consist of more asphalt and money is running low for even this.

Secondly, the Department of Natural Resources is poised -- if requested and when formal application is made -- to send planning and consulting type folks into the St. George Island community to facilitate and help St. George Islanders' "build a plan," explained Zoe Johnson with the climate change agency. The coming together to form a collective remedy to stave off tidal inundation has already begun in some Eastern Shore communities, she said. As Roy of MDE made clear, there are growing numbers of Chesapeake Bay communities facing erosion, rising tides, sinking land, evacuation and relocation.

So regardless of the proposals, there isn't exactly a solution to the problem. The goal of the planning effort is for citizens to agree on a fix and find a way to pay for it.

The Department of Natural Resources which coordinates both the climate agency and the citizen planning events is already involved with a number of other tidally-impacted communities around the Bay. Smith Island seems the most immediate. Apparently that plan has now moved into the Relocation Planning stage. The sinking and rising calculation for those folks is that they won't have any land left above water in 25 to 30 years.

Once a reporter it's hard to give up the cynicism. So forgive me, but if I were giving odds on these proposals resulting in action I'd start hoping there's something undermining the state road -- roads get funded. Plans, for the most part, just lead to arguments which lead to more plans.

But if I were an optimistic islander I might look again at the maps and note that my tiny hunk of the rock is colored in dark blue which suggests it will take two to five feet of sinking/rising to put my lot underwater. And the good news here -- the road to my house will go before two feet.

Maybe instead of meeting as a community to build a plan that looks destined to ultimately result in evacuation and relocation strategies we could just jump ahead of the game and start learning how to build boats.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Gene Weingarten Is Not My Friend. Yet.

That's what the inestimable Southern Maryland journalist Michael Gray would say when a story's subject didn't like the story line.
Boohoo, Gene Weingarten with your promiscuity and too many friends on Facebook. Come on, man, you are a journalist. You are the only columnist left standing at The Washington Post Magazine. What exactly did you think would happen making blind liaisons with people you didn't know, who held motives you couldn't divine? I suspect you thought -- what a wealth of story ideas.
Or maybe you were just not thinking, Gene. Well, think now. Take a breath and listen to your tech people. They are breaking you in slowly. And you need to be broken in if you're boohooing about 1,400 friends.
The woman trying to market my blogs would scoff at your tech people's suggestion of fans -- she wants followers. Do you know what she would see in 1,400 friends? A toe in the door of the long shot opportunity to make money on blogging.
I don't mean to frighten you, Gene, but this is in some shape your future.
Your column came to me via e-mail from one of my semi-gainfully employed journalist friends. That's professionally better standing than about half of us who have lost our gainful toeholds in the biz. We're print refugees, Gene. We have seen the future. And for most of us it looks more like Facebook than The Washington Post Magazine.
Trust me on this too. No matter how much your tech people pimp you out, you aren't going to ever feel like Justin Bieber. You're a writer. Albeit you write for one of the best newspapers in the world, probably might not even know the names of the ad reps hawking you, but consider, this might be the best paying gig you'll ever get by written word.
Indeed. Only 1,400 friends? You're the columnist for The Washington Post Magazine! If that meant what it used to mean maybe you could feel like Justin Bieber. But as it stands, newspaper readers are disappearing faster than the dinosaurs split.
So "boohoo."
Un-friend who you want -- though your suspicions are correct, it is not pretty. Turn them into fans to make your tech team happy. Whatever. But if the problem is simply that your choice of friends are boring, maybe you need to pep up your own postings to attract a more fascinating crowd.
And I further suggest, whatever you do with your friends, keep in mind that one of these days you and your ad rep might have the same social security number. And when that happens, you're gonna want every friend you can get.

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Are We So Rude?

Last year's county budget hearing shocked me. Teachers, traditionally crying the loudest for tax hikes, were applauding the Constant Yielders.

The CY-ers are, in essence, our local version of the Tea Baggers. There are a parade of new faces over the years, but they all stand on the shoulders of a long-line of St. Mary's CY-ers entrenched long before I arrived in 1984.

Constant yield translates into a property tax mechanism that saves a homeowner of today about $170 a year. It saves a great deal more for the owners of super-duper homes, owners of multiple properties, commercial building owners and owners of large tracts of land zoned for development.

It doesn't save people who don't own a home anything at all. In fact, it can directly translate into service cuts to the poor.

So for public school teachers who depend upon taxes for their livelihood and upon the basic health and welfare standards of their community for the general well-being of their students, opposition to the Constant Yield Rate was an historic no-brainer.

So last year was weird.


So I sat before the television again this year, popcorn in lap, and was comforted in that sick-kind-of-way to see the teachers had returned to their traditional tactics. For hours they stood to ask for more money, many taking the opportunity to belittle, mock and insult the five county commissioners in charge of granting close to half of the schools' $177 million budget.

Don't get me wrong. I am certainly no foe of the mockery of public officials. It is often how I manage to sit in front of the television watching democracy unfold.

But even back when I had to attend in person I was amazed and confused by the technique at these county budget hearings. I'm sure I've more than once already quoted my mother's warning, "Honey attracts more flies than vinegar."

Well, I never much listened to my mother either.

So the insults are as traditional with county teachers as is Guerrilla Theater. This year they offered wieners in front of the school where the commissioners held the hearing. (Get it?) And they wore big carnival eye glasses to emphasize the short and long views. For me, the television audience who didn't see the wieners or the signs outside, the glasses provoked thought about the broad and narrow views.

Today I can more personally empathize with the rocks and arrows -- the spouse of a sitting commissioner, no longer a legitimate reporter -- but I confess, for as far back as when the county commissioners were my weekly fodder, I felt sorry for them at these budget hearings. No matter how short or long visioned they were -- or are, the bottom line is, at these public hearings they're simply sitting ducks. And they really don't have millions of dollars left to deal with.

It's not like stones and arrows have anything to do with the building of a public budget. And why would teachers complain of unpaid overtime to lower-paid sitting ducks who are similarly belittled at least monthly over matters equally beyond their control? It just doesn't make good sense if your goal is relief. Surely a teacher grasps the irony of the bumper sticker slogan, "The floggings will continue until morale improves." You do, don't you?

Then again, it's not like comments at budget hearings ever addressed the economics of running a school system, actual personnel and service losses associated with the constant yield tax rate or really anything other than each speaker's personal priority.
Budget hearings are more similar to petitioners coming before the king than the art of balancing a budget.

The months leading up to the hearing are when the dollar by dollar budgeting is largely completed for the pragmatic reason of needing a budget to have a hearing about. This budget document is typically crafted in cooperation and collusion with some of the very people who then stand red-faced and arms waving before the sitting ducks and spew their ire to -- nowadays -- the camera.

Sitting back with popcorn and history, it is great theater. In that sick-kind-of-way.

But to put it on TV next to all the other reality shows makes it much less humorous and much more obvious that it isn't confined to St. Mary's Constant Yielders or Constant Yellers. This is the style of contemporary public discourse. It fills every level of governing and of society.

Even our organizations form around central themes of common enemies: Cancer, the Republicans, the Democrats, Reproductive Rights, Women, Men. Even churches and parishes are selected by common enemy themes. And teachers have long complained that attitudes of disrespect and exclusion fill their classrooms.

I've got to think that turning St. Mary's County Budget Hearings into back-biting and finger-pointing reality television isn't helping.

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