Mountain Snail

Stuff Ballard Wrote

Category: Joy in the world (page 2 of 2)

Save the bread!

Citizen-Times, 8/2013

An emotional voice broke the silence: “When we first came here, they said we’d rise to our potential….”

“And they promised big dough, too,” interrupted a sultry, sugar-coated voice.

“Shut up, Cinnamon,” another female voice hissed.   “This is no time to be wry. Let Whitey talk.”

The original speaker continued: “They couldn’t sweeten the package for us enough back then, never stopped buttering us up. Working here would be a piece of cake, they said. We’d loaf around all day. Now we find out the crummy truth….” The speaker was clearly beaten.

“Three days they give us, one day for some,” an older, crustier voice added in measured tones. His words were sandwiched by sobs from others. “Me for instance. Dozens of us went through together, and I was the best of the batch. Now, come morning, I’m flatbread.”

Quelle poisse!” a new voice said softly. Similar sentiment came from nearby in Danish.

I hear these voices every time I walk through the bakery section at Ingles. I hate their puns, but I’m sympathetic to their cause. If I weren’t a diabetic, I’d be more active in rescue work.

This column is a protest against how Ingles handles end-of-life issues for their fresh bakery products. Of course I don’t mind that some products expire after three days or that they replace unpackaged donuts every day. I mind what happens at expiration.

Every morning, when new products come out, old product goes down the chute into the trash compacter. No second chance like their plastic-wrapped bakery products that go to Sav-Mor stores. No second chance on a day-old rack like Wal-Mart. No second chance at a food bank or shelter. Down the chute.

The story goes that somebody got sick in another state from a bread product Ingles donated to a shelter. They sued and won. So Ingles decided it just wasn’t worth the hassle and risk. The story could be bogus, but something spooked them.

My family lives on Ingles’ reduced-price products with colorful stickers. Every Friday after breakfast with friends, I stop by and get a nifty little bag of what I call “condemned” bananas. We’re delighted with near-expiration produce that didn’t go to the compacter or to non-commercial pig farmers.

The sadness comes in the bakery section. The idea of wasting good food is totally distasteful (sorry, bakery puns are contagious).

Ingles needs to put their bakery guys and legal guys together in a Black Mountain room with representatives of open-handed churches, shelters and food banks. Tell them:   “No dessert till you find a solution.”   They’re smart people.

Heed the voices in your bakery section, Ingles.   Bread for the breadless! Add this to your long list of good deeds.



Allegory of NC politics

Citizen-Times, 5/2013

Nobody could remember when squirrels didn’t control the Neighborhood Assembly. They were the majority and were supported by most other animals, raccoons and possums especially.

But not the mice. Mice squeaked that squirrels were dictatorial, that they didn’t give mice a voice in neighborhood government. Squirrels chattered in laughter, mocking how a mouse would sound calling the Assembly to order. Mice wanted representative boundaries set by nonpartisan committee. Squirrels called them pipsqueaks and “nibblers” and mostly ignored them.

Mice were different from others. Mice were political animals. Squirrel policies in Encee ─ that was the name of their neighborhood ─ were praised in other neighborhoods as “progressive.” But mice hated squirrel policies; they called them “bushy-tailed.” Whenever mice gathered, they denounced the biased bushy-tailed media and squirrel “giveaways” that kept minorities loyal to them.

Mice were obsessed with their own “wire-tail” political theory. And some, called Pack Rats, were very wealthy. This combination, political obsession and money, would turn Encee upside down.

Mice were happy when others underestimated them.   They smiled when their ideas were called “Mickey Mouse.” Mice dreamed of power. And they had plans, secret plans. They quietly broadened their base of support. One group of mice, the Church Mice, hadn’t wanted any part of dirty politics.   The political mice brought them in by promising to pass laws forbidding things Church Mice didn’t like. It worked. They had study groups on how to turn wire-tailed theory into legislation.

The mice made their move in an off-year election when most animals wouldn’t vote. They were quiet (“Like a mouse” was their code) until the last month.   Then they sprang. Yes, the mice sprang. They used Pack Rat wealth to destroy non-mouse candidates. (Their attacks were too nasty to describe here.)   On election night, the unimaginable happened. Mice now controlled the Assembly.

You can just imagine how excited the mice were!   They had planned all those years.   Now they could make wire-tailed theory the law of the neighborhood. They paid back Church Mice by passing a constitutional amendment they wanted.   They paid back Pack Rats by restricting organized workers. In their first budget, they cut money for “bushy-tailed schools” and approved more schools that could be easily controlled, that would teach wire-tailed theory.

Mice surprised everyone by acting so quickly.   Their “BB brains” (a squirrel epithet) had legislation ready for consolidating power. Mice now had no interest in nonpartisan Assembly boundaries.   They devised a scheme that guaranteed their own reelection. And they passed laws that would reduce voting numbers for squirrels.

Mice now scurried about looking for other bushy-tailed policies they could reverse. And yes! Squirrels had probably named the neighborhood. Encee had to go!

So they renamed the neighborhood…Shambles.

I was a ghost

Daily Planet, 5/2013

I used to be a ghost. I was invisible, but you could see my handiwork. I watched and listened as others spoke my ideas, smiling when my words were quoted in the press.

That’s right: I was a ghost writer.   My name never appeared on books, magazine articles, thank-you notes, boardroom resolutions, resumes, movie treatments, business proposals, poems, speeches, letters and, once, an article for a scholarly journal.

I thought of those days during the disastrous speeches by Romney and Ryan at the Republican National Convention. And I did some smiling last month when I visited old friends in a Chicago suburb. You see, I wrote a series of love letters in college that helped their romance along. Neither of us mentioned the letters. I guessed he never told her.

Ghosting might be the second-oldest profession.   Alexander Hamilton wrote George Washington’s Farewell Address. Franklin Roosevelt spoke the words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but it was Louis Howe who coined them. Most of John Kennedy’s memorable lines were written by Ted Sorenson.   Gerald Ford brought in comedy writer Robert Orben to lighten up his verbiage.

An interesting ghostwriting moment came when President George W. Bush was selling the Iraq War. He assigned the job of “messaging” the war to speechwriter David Frum.   Sorenson did say, “The man who controls the pen has a great deal of influence over what ultimately becomes presidential policy.” Frum’s assignment went beyond influence.

Most of the time I was only asked to take the client’s ideas and craft them into flowing rhetoric. The meat and potatoes were cooked; I provided the gravy. But not always. Sometimes I even had to do the shopping.

The chairman of a large bank once asked me to write a speech for him. His instructions, more or less, were: “Here’s the subject they want me to talk about. Make me look good.” And I did.

Well, a few months later, my office phone rang.   “Mr. Ballard,” a familiar voice said, “we have a problem. The press is asking for our corporate policy on a certain subject, and we don’t have one.   Didn’t you write a speech for the chairman a while back on that subject?” I said I did. Did I have a copy? I did.   A messenger would be right over, she said. I protested that I had written it without input from the chairman.

“Did he give the speech?”


“The messenger will be there in 15 minutes.”

One speech for that chairman I regret. I wrote the speech he gave to bank officers about competition among Texas banks for loans. The speech told the officers to get busy selling loans. Not long after, Texas banks collapsed from bad loans.

Looking back, I feel sorry for my clients ─ that they had to hire me. The very process of writing is, after all, the process of thinking. When we write, we’re constantly seeking ideas, sifting and winnowing, accepting and rejecting, developing and discarding. We follow lines of logic and discover new questions.   We’re sometimes forced to change our minds. We challenge a simplistic idea, and it crumbles. We research. We interview. But we try to go beyond our sources to new conclusions.

True, we elect and hire people for their ability to make good decisions, not their ability to talk about them. But it’s a shame that intellectual rigor is regarded as a luxury. I’m happy that President Obama is a writer as well as a leader.



Envying the rich?

Citizen-Times, 4/2012

Back in January, Mitt Romney was asked on the Today Show if he stands by his previous statement, that anyone questioning inequality in America and misconduct on Wall Street is envious of the rich. He repeated that if they do that, “it’s about envy.” He later said that discussions about inequality in our society are “very envy-oriented.”

Well, Mitt, I believe that inequality is destructive to our society. And I don’t have an envious bone in my body. I have a great wife, great dog, great little house, great little car, great kids, great grandchildren. (no, that should be “wonderful” grandchildren).   I’m a contented man. Oh, I might have a reaction to somebody’s 1955 Thunderbird convertible, but it’s more “How cool” than “I wish I had it.”

When I was in business, I spent time with some of these people I’m supposed to envy, mostly CEOs of client companies. And I can only think of a couple that I’d want to spend an evening with. While they were looking down on me, I was sizing them up as people. Once I was in the room with two CEOs during a break and heard them one-upping each other on Gulfstream jets. I left the room before I puked. I had a few tell me with a chuckle about illegal or unethical tricks they’d pulled, like I was the family dog who wouldn’t understand. An exception certainly was the time I traveled with Stanley Marcus (of Neiman Marcus). A total delight.

Let me define the people I’m talking about.   These aren’t your penny-ante millionaires. They aren’t professionals. Many rich lawyers have happily crossed my path, and there are a few medical doctors I’d like to know better. (Doctors’ arrogance is usually professional, I’ve found, not personal.) The people I’m talking about are the super-rich.   We’ve had a glimpse into their world through Romney and his five houses and his wife’s two Cadillacs. In dramas like PBS’ Downton Abbey, I think most Americans never quite understand the class structure─particularly how the underclasses know and keep their place. I’d have made a terrible peasant.

The super-rich belong to another time, like when John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour, Jay Gould, and James Mellon paid someone else to go fight the Civil War in their places. Mellon’s father wrote to him that “a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health. There are plenty of lives less valuable.”

The super-rich are the French nobility in 11th century England. We’re the Anglo-Saxon serfs. Serfs back then used the English word “pig”; the nobility used “pork” from French.   That is, one class raised the animal; the other class ate the meat. We don’t figure in their world, even if their activities impact us vitally.

If they would stay on their estates and yachts, none of us would have a quarrel with them. Do you Jay Gatsby thing, dude. But they don’t. They intrude. As you read this, they’re buying the 2012 election. In Wisconsin, only 7 percent of Governor Scott Walker’s funding in his recall battle comes from Wisconsin. Most of the rest comes from billionaires in Texas and New York. As our May 8 primary approaches, you’ll see TV ads from “Restore Our Future”─ads that de-restore Rick Santorum─and you’ll wonder, Who is Restore Our Future? Search “restore our future contributors” on Google and find out. Look down the 10 pages at how much these donors gave and what companies they represent, and ask yourself, “Hmmm, what might these people expect in return from President Romney?” And in the fall, when you see “American Crossroads” on an ad, remember that 98 percent of Crossroads contributors are billionaires.   (President Obama has a super-PAC, but it’s piddling compared to these super-funds.)

Let’s put things in perspective and look closely at one of these super-rich.  Robert Rowling, owner of the Omni hotel chain, is worth $4.7 billion. He gave $2.5 million to American Crossroads in 2010.   That’s five-one-hundreths of one percent of his net worth. Now let’s suppose that you, the reader, have a stash worth $100,000. A contribution you’d make that would be comparable to Rowling’s would be…fifty bucks. Contributing a few mil doesn’t make a blip on his bank statement─but it can sway an election.   That’s what’s going on. They give what is to them chump change in order to make it easier for them to make more after the election.

Who do these people think they are─giving millions to political candidates who will favor them with low tax rates, trying to buy elections so they can play their high-finance games without interference from us Anglo-Saxons serfs (that is, government regulation)? Who do they think they are─taking all they can for themselves without regard to how their risk-taking impacts us all, even pushing an ideological agenda against assistance to the poor? Who do they think they are? Well, they think they’re the nobility, the masters of our future.   And they could just be right.

No, Mr. Romney, I don’t envy these people. They make me angry. And I’m going to do my best this year to see they don’t succeed.   This Angle-Saxon swings a mean vote, and it will be against you and the birds that flock with you.

I’m happy I’m a Democrat

Daily Planet, 10/2012 (slightly different, News-Record)

I start every day in my ageless yellow corduroy chair, by an open window when possible, hoping for birds singing in the nearby woods.  This is my time to think through issues and anticipate the day ahead.  It’s a peaceful time.

One morning recently, though, I realized that I was…what?…very happy!  It was a totally positive feeling down deep in my being somewhere.

Right away I realized that the source of my joy was ─ simply ─ that I’m a Democrat.

I scribbled down details, but before I get to that, I should tell how I came to be a Democrat.  I voted for Nixon in 1960 and, soon thereafter, went to the Philippines as a missionary Bible translator.

Those years changed me.  I lived with resourceful, tough, but terribly poor, people.  Ever since then I’ve been solidly behind people who struggle to get by, with small business enterprises, with the poor.

When I returned to the U.S. after 15 years, my first stop was the Jimmy Carter headquarters in Times Square, to volunteer.  I hadn’t voted since 1960, but I knew I was a Democrat.

So why am I happy to be a Democrat?

Because I can’t ignore the powerless and give more power to the powerful.  I have to oppose people who see the world as a profit center and working people as an annoying line on their profit-and-loss sheets.

When I worked for Democrats in last year’s campaign, I was working for public education that lifts up ambitious young people and for health care that gives peace to parents in despair over suffering children.  I give smiling thanks to God for this privilege of service ─ service in politics.

I’m happy that I get to spend time with positive-minded people, people who see politics as a way to make life better for more people.  And I get to actively oppose people who gladly cut programs that help the poor so they can “shrink government.”

I’m happy because I get to support people who love our earth and want to protect it for later generations.  And I get to oppose people and companies who see the world’s resources as something to be exploited for somebody’s profit.

I’m happy because I get to support people who want as many people to vote as possible.  And I get to oppose people who use voter-suppression gimmicks, like voter ID, to maximize their power.

Rush Limbaugh calls people like me bleeding hearts.  I wear his scoffing as a badge.  And I can’t help wondering if Jesus’ opponents didn’t call him a bleeding heart for some of his ideas, like Matthew 25:34-40.

Why I write

Citizen-Times, 8/2012

A friend I respect surprised me with this:   “I’m a conservative, and as I read your columns, you think conservatives are bad people.”

His criticism was disturbing to me. I write columns and letters to make people think.   If I offend people, I defeat my purpose.

Conservatives are good people, especially conservative Christians. No question about that. But they are misinformed, terribly misinformed. Too many of them read, watch and listen to people ─ the bad people in this context ─ who sacrifice truth and sanity in their war on Barack Obama.

Agenda 21 and world government. Obama’s schemes to cancel the election and establish dictatorship. “Personal freedom” through extreme capitalism. Global warming a hoax. Non-stop nonsense.

And Obamacare. For goodness sake, the Obamacare model was born in the conservative Heritage Foundation (Google “wall street journal obamacare’s heritage”) and pushed by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s (WSJ piece has Romney-Gingrich debate quote).   Conservatives loved the personal responsibility the plan requires ─ until it was proposed by Obama. Then it became a plot to take away our freedom.

I’m sad that so many good people believe the bad ideas and distortions that are circulating around today. That’s why I write.

Grow Amtrak!

Citizen-Times, 7/2011

My wife and I have taken several fabulous train trips, including one to San Francisco and back. So this column on rail travel claims no objectivity.  But logic is logic.

This month in Washington the House Appropriations Subcommittee on transportation will almost certainly impose crushing funding reductions on Amtrak, possibly zeroing out their subsidy and limiting capital funding to the minimum needed to avoid bankruptcy. Dumb, really dumb.

In the 1950s the government decided to put billions into airports and highways, with the result that privately-run passenger trains couldn’t compete, and haven’t since. The government chose the winners.

But then is not now. Today the issue is fuel:  we can’t sustain our current level of oil imports.  And trains are the most efficient way to move people.  The TV commercial–that trains can move one ton 436 miles on one gallon of fuel–got a “yes” from  Much is made of comparative figures, but it’s clear that if U.S. train ridership only doubled and our trains were modern like Europe and Japan, rail travel would obliterate cars in MPG per passenger. The rolling friction of steel on steel is about one-tenth that of tires on concrete. And this is without the “social” factors of accident frequency, noise, congestion and pollution.

All forms of transportation are subsidized. If we had to pay the real cost of airline travel–airport construction, 400 control towers, 22 air traffic control centers, 1,000 radar-navigation aids, 250 radar systems, 55,000 federal salaries, and 30% of pilots trained by the military–airline flights would look like country club board meetings. And if we had to pay the real cost of roads, all highways would be toll, and we would pay for streets with increased property taxes.

It’s ridiculous to think of shutting down Amtrak. Instead, Congress should prepare for a certain future by investing in additional capacity–dedicated tracks for higher speeds and better on-time records and lightweight, more efficient trains.

Why don’t they? Mostly, I think, because Amtrak is a sitting-duck line item in the budget.  Subsidies for other means of transportation are hidden.  And of course as far as Republicans are concerned, they’re against trains because President Obama and environmentalists are for them.  They’re knee-jerk jerks on that.  We’ve seen GOP governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida cut off their nose to please their base.  The NC General Assembly put restrictions on matching funds for high-speed rail this year, but they didn’t kill it.

I would urge everybody who loves Amtrak–and sound logic–to tell Congressman Shuler and Senator Hagan to protect funding for this vital piece of America’s future. If you have time to waste

Mountain dialect forever!

Citizen-Times, 7/2011

I dropped my Georgia accent about the same time I switched sides in the Civil War.  I realized the Confederacy wasn’t a “glorious nation bright and fair” but a clique of rich boneheads protecting their slave property.  And I got tired of walkin’ across the flowuh and sittin’ on the front powitch.

Dialects fascinate me. The introduction to a book I just finished on a Philippine language says–in the context of finding a spelling system for that language–“One can only imagine what English would be like if dialect variations had to be represented in dictionaries.  In North Carolina, for example, the word ‘hair’ is pronounced at least five different ways.”

I write here because I find myself emotionally attached to the WNC dialect. Among many things, it’s wonderfully economical in collapsing syllables.  The first person I met here was named Hard.  I said, “Hello, Hard.”  In writing, I saw he was Howard.  I hate to see it going the way of all regional dialects, a victim of the modern world and television.  My wife lost her local accent in college, but it comes back gloriously when she’s enthusiastic.  I hope the grandchildren of today’s children will still be speaking Mountain.


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