Stuff Ballard Wrote

Category: Joy in the world (Page 1 of 2)

Underfoot, Trump & Mussolini

Asheville Daily Planet, 10/2016

Underfoot rubbed his eyes. He had clicked over to the Republican convention during a commercial, but the TV picture wasn’t Cleveland – or 2016, for that matter.

The outdoor crowd all wore black shirts. And they were chanting in a foreign language. Caught by surprise, Underfoot found his mind understanding: “Urrà per Fascismo!”  Hooray for Fascism!

“Holy smoke!” Underfoot whispered. “I’m watching the March on Rome in 1922!”

He shook his head, and the TV picture returned to Cleveland. The shouting thousands wore bright colors, and the speaker was Donald Trump: “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement!”

Underfoot, a strange man in every way, was a professor of government who had no interest in politics.

Quickly, time and space thinned again, and the Fascist leader was speaking in Rome.

“Benito Mussolini,” Underfoot whispered, leaning forward now with his elbows on his knees. Italian had been his required language for his Ph.D.

Mussolini was demanding that King Victor Emmanuel remove liberal prime minister Luigi Facta. He was personally to blame, Mussolini screamed, for rampant disorder across the country.

Blackshirts – no, they were Republicans now – were on their feet, urging the speaker on. Trump was reciting statistics on widespread crime and violence in America. Nobody is safe! Massacres!

Underfoot wanted to go back to “Property Brothers,” but he could not. He could only get to his feet and look out his window into the moonlight.

Everything looked peaceful. But still…he half-turned his head toward the hall closet where he kept his father’s old hunting rifle. He observed outside that his house location gave him an excellent field of fire.

On the TV, Trump was saying: “When I take the oath of office, next year, I will restore law and order to our country. Believe me!”

Underfoot spoke to the TV:   “No, no, you can’t promise that! Public safety in America is state and local, not the president!”

Then he thought, “Unless…No, no, he’s a candidate for president. He can’t mean that! Can he?”

And Trump continued: “I will work with and appoint the best and brightest prosecutors and law enforcement officials to get the job properly done.”

Underfoot pounded both hands to his head as he processed what he was hearing. He said in measured, thoughtful syllables: “The people in his audience don’t know that presidents can’t appoint local prosecutors – but what if Trump himself DOES KNOW? What if he is not spouting ignorance? What if he plans to nationalize law enforcement under the president?”

Italian on TV again. But not the March on Rome. Now Mussolini was elsewhere, clearly Naples, in front of a mammoth rally (60,000 people). Underfoot heard Mussolini saying in a serious staccato: “Our program is simple: we want to rule Italy.”

Underfoot wagged his head: “I can’t believe that Trump has a long-range plan like Mussolini’s! He’s got to be what he seems to be: a know-nothing bullmonger!”

The TV went back again to Trump, in another speech somewhere, saying that the military will obey him.

Underfoot couldn’t sit down. He paced the floor muttering, “What if…what if Trump IS ignorant? That’s worse! What if he actually thinks he CAN DO these things when he gets power? And he actually GETS power?”

Underfoot knew stuff the rest of us don’t know. He had written a book on the failure of the Constitutional “checks and balances” system. He knew how easy, in fact, it would be for a strong leader to take total power in America – if he wins over the military with promises of glory, like Mussolini did and he has a large, loyal paramilitary force

What Underfoot didn’t know was that militia groups, extreme gun rights groups and “Don’t tread on me” groups are the backbone of Donald Trump’s popular support.

He dropped his arms to his side and shrugged. “Politics,” Underfoot whispered as he sat down. “Well, let’s hope he’s wise in how he does it,” And he turned back to “Property Brothers.”



Kids & the Melting Pot

Citizen-Times, 8/2016

In the milling crowd after my grandson’s high school graduation in Northern Virginia, parent groups gathered by nations of origin: those from Korea, for example, India, several African cultures.   They were mostly speaking their native languages.

But in the midst, their children excitedly talked together…in flawless American English.

Next day, we picked up my granddaughter after school, and she had two other teens with her. From my front seat in the van, I couldn’t tell who was who. Their rapid-fire English was exactly the same. Everything about them was the same…except one girl was African-American and one was a white minority.

Both times, I smiled and said to myself, “This is how it should always be.” Races and cultures were set aside. They were American kids.

I was observing the behavior of teenagers. But more than that, I was seeing the hand of their parents.   By word and by example, these kids had learned that people are people. Parents had guided their kids toward success in America by jumping into the great Melting Pot.

I thought, “If society were like this, we wouldn’t have need for ‘diversity.’” People would be equal. They’d just look different.

Parents are the key.


Supreme Court rocks!

Daily Planet, 2/2016

I’ve become a cheerleader for the United States Supreme Court. No pompoms, just a big S on my white sweater.

What has me in this mood? A hint:

In December, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps drawn by the Republicans in 2011 are just fine, thank you, and what’s all the fuss?   The vote was 4-3, along party lines.   A grievous, heinous outrage goes uncorrected by our local Supremes.

So…to the tune of “Buckle Down, Winsocki”…1-2, 1-2!


“Johnny Roberts, you will do what’s right,

Politicians got us in this awful plight,

Things are all mixed up, you can fix things up;

Your esteem picks up, if you will only do what’s right.”


Nah, you say? You think Justices decide cases on a Constitution treadmill?

Let’s take a stroll through Court history and see how big the Constitution has been in their decisions.

In the debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, some of those in opposition – obscure men because they lost the debate – wrote a series of articles.

One, written by a New York supreme court judge named Robert Yates (pseudonym “Brutus”), predicted that if Supreme Court Justices were independent, like in the Constitution, they would forget the Constitution and follow their own opinions. He wrote:

“They are independent of the people, of the legislature, and of every power under heaven. Men placed in this situation will generally soon feel themselves independent of heaven itself.”

In response (Federalist 78), Alexander Hamilton just blew smoke. He said the judiciary is the weakest branch because it has no army and no purse.

Whatever happened to Robert Yates later on, he was right in 1788.

The so-called “plain text” of the Constitution was never really plain. At best, justices have seen the Constitution through their own eyes. More accurately, they’ve ignored it and decided on other grounds.

In the Dred Scott decision, the slave-owning majority thought they’d settle the slave question once and for all. The Founding Fathers , they said, regarded Negroes as inferior, so that’s that. They expected universal acceptance. They got the Civil War.

Old-time laissez-faire Justices slapped down FDr’s New Deal in the ‘30s – until Justice Owen Roberts concluded that FDR’s big wins in 1934 and 1936 meant that America wanted FDR’s policies. He switched sides – not on the Constitution but what he saw as the right thing to do.

In Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren used a heavy hand, especially with Court conservatives, to muster a unanimous decision that school segregation was wrong – morally wrong.

Our current Chief Justice, John Roberts, voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act because he saw the law’s intent and result as something good: improved health care in America. And he didn’t want his Court to kill it.

Likewise, in the Court’s decision on gay marriage, Anthony Kennedy applied his own belief on homosexuality. He once wrote, “Adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons.”

Now it would appear that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide on gerrymandering. Their rulings last June point that way. But more important, abuse levels can’t be ignored.

North Carolina state law requires that districts cross county lines as little as possible. In 2011, the ethically-neutral GOP computers drew maps that split 50 counties and over 500 precincts to get sufficiently rigged elections.

Republicans took control of seven states in 2010 and then drew redistricting maps. In 2012 elections, Democrats got 16.4 million votes in those states, Republicans got 16.7 million, an even split. But Republicans elected 73 to Congress, Democrats elected 34.

The core evil of gerrymandering is conflict of interest. Politicians shouldn’t be allowed to draw the boundaries of their own districts.

The Supreme Court understands that Legislative and Executive branches are hopeless. If election fairness is to be restored, they know they must step in.

The Court will do it.

Naming cars

Citizen-Times, 12/2004

[Long since retired but still with opinions]

I name things for a living. Over 22 years, my colleagues and I have named hundreds of products and companies – from NationsBank to a paint color for an airline.

So I like to think I know a winning name when I see one. And losers, too.  I watch commercials, sometimes nodding with admiration, sometimes muttering, “How much did they pay for that dog?”

In the late 1980s and interviewer asked me to rate the names given to four new entry-level luxury cars – Acura (from Honda), Infiniti (from Nissan), Lexus (from Toyota) and sterling (from Britain’s Rover, which was a repackaged Acura).   I rated them, in order, Lexus (easy to pronounce and the middle X says “sex”), Acura (if they spend the money to teach us how to pronounce it, which they did), Infiniti (too many syllables) and, finally, Sterling.  This last one had nothing to recommend it.  Focus groups predictably said it was the most British.

So you see, I[m pretty good at predicting success,. Which brings me to Chevrolet’s new Cobalt, the new replacement for Cavalier.

I understand why they’re changing the name. General Motors can’t upgrade the Cavalier and set the price they want for it.  To do that they need to introduce an entirely new car.

But why Cobalt?  It violates almost every rule of good naming.  OK, it’s easy to pronounce.  But all words out of the dictionary come with baggage, and cobalt’s baggage is heavy.  The Cobalt Bomb, developed in the ‘50s, was never tested because it’s incredibly “dirty,” some say even capable of ending life on earth.

Like Sterling, there are hundreds of products named Cobalt – including an upscale boat and a car audio system.

My thumb was about to turn downward when a little light went on somewhere deep back there. I remembered a condominium developer who hired my partner in New York to evaluate names he was considering for new properties – Ice, —, Blue —  These are names designed to appeal to young, affluent buyers.  So is Cobalt.

I still don’t like it. , but oh my, am I not their target customer!

21st Century passing me by

Citizen-Times,  11/2015

In my dream, I sit on a bench beside a busy street. I notice the traffic is all moving left to right. It’s a parade. I understand I’m watching the 21st century pass me by. I’m happy.

Immediately in front of me, two young men are carrying a banner: “Tech Now!”

After them, a leased BMW convertible, with young people facing me and chanting: “We don’t guess, We’ve got GPS!”

I smile and wave. I prefer my maps – but they know that, don’t they?

Then comes four teenagers, anatomically joined to their smart phones. One takes my photo. Another sing-songs: “Hey, old timer, wanna text with me?” Another says, “Missed you on Facebook, Pops!” And they all chant: “Hashtag!   Hashtag! App, App, App!” And they double over laughing.

The 21st century isn’t just passing me by. It’s mocking me.

Now a brass band, not playing parade music.   They’re bouncing along and at times shouting, “Uptown Funk!” Their instruments are turned toward me. “That ain’t music,” I shout. The leader smirks. I’m not smiling.

A TV weatherman walks by. He’s repeating: “Turn your clocks forward tonight – those of you who still have clocks.”

I shout: “Hold it, bud! I have clocks! Who doesn’t?” He ignores me.

Now another two men come with a banner:   “Revamp English!”

I stand up: “Hey! Now you’ve gone too far! You’re messing with my language!”

A flatbed truck comes by, with a man bent over a stamping machine. He’s minting new words. I see he’s just finished one. He holds it up to me: “listicle.”   I sit down. I know “listicle”: a literary article that utilizes lists. It’s OK. English has always been the Play-Doh of languages, back to “gerrymander” and before. This new word belongs with “sitcom, brunch, labradoodle, infomercial, Frappuccino,” and Stephen Colbert’s wonderful “truthiness.”

But then a long bus appears. It has somebody in every window, endlessly repeating the same sentences. It’s moving slowly.

The first window has an interviewer on “CBS Sunday Morning”: “Your job is pretty unique, isn’t it?”

I’m on my feet again: “No! No!   ‘Unique’ means the only one!   ‘Pretty unique’ says there are degrees of uniqueness!”

At the next window, a woman is saying:   “He’s so going to get in trouble for this.”

I’m at the window, pointing my finger: “”So’ can only modify one word! So happy, so rich! It can’t modify the whole rest of the sentence!”

A mob crowds the next window. I pick out one voice: “He has mental health issues.”

I’m shrieking: “He does not have issues! He has mental health problems! Problems! An issue is something in dispute between more than one person!”

I wake up. It was just a dream. Wasn’t it?


GOP forbids sea level rise

Citizen-Times, 8/2014

This comedy of sadness began in 2010, when a state-appointed science panel of the Coastal Resource Commission (CRC) recommended that N.C. prepare for a 39-inch sea-level rise this century.

We’re at particular risk because we have 2100 square miles of broad, low-lying coastline and thin barrier islands. So structures with long lives, like houses and roads, should be designed accordingly.

Bring in the clowns. Republicans captured the General Assembly that year, and almost immediately, they filed HB 819, a bill that bars state agencies from adopting any “rule, policy or planning guideline that defines a rate of sea-level change.”

In 2016 the CRC will present the state’s official prediction for how fast N.C. sea levels will rise. Late-night comedians made N.C. a laughing-stock. A Scientific American blog quipped that N.C. “can escape sea level rise…by making it against the law.”  

Two weeks after the bill passed, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that sea-level rise at Cape Hatteras and northward is accelerating four times the global average. Nature Magazine wondered if nature is “mocking N.C.’s law-makers.”

I don’t have to tell you what’s going on here, do I?

Real estate and homebuilding interests are big donors to Republicans. One group of mostly development types, called NC-20, argues that “there was virtually no science at all supporting [accelerating sea-level rise], only ‘computer models’ driven by assumptions about global warming [and] ice melting.” And: “All that ‘preparation’ would not come cheaply.” NC-20’s main scientist is John Droz, a real estate investor on the coast who has degrees in math and physics. Incredibly, wrote that Droz posted a call for people with experience in sea-level rise who would bolster his views, because, he wrote, “This is not my area of expertise.”

Later he claimed to have consulted 30 oceanographers.   (NC-20’s website notes a lesson they’ve learned: “Facts do not matter in regulatory issues as much as power.”  

Wow. So while other states less at risk than N.C. (at least Maine, Delaware, Louisiana, Florida, California) believe in science and are preparing for up to four-foot sea-level rises, our Coastal Resource Commission will set N.C.’s own private estimate.

Oh, did I say that Republican leaders have replaced eight of the 13 members of the CRC, plus the chairman (a donor to the governor’s campaign)? The CRC is now friendly to development.

You’re tempted to classify these people as anti-environment nutcakes. But it’s much worse. They’re cynics. Like everything else since 2010, Republicans support the guys making profit. They blow smoke about the “flawed science” of the experts’ report. But in fact, they’re formulating a convenient untruth. Throw ‘em out. This year Tim Moffitt and Michelle Presnell. More in 2016 when our loser governor loses.

I’m liberal like these guys

Daily Planet, 5/2014

I never called myself a “progressive.” It seems contrived by liberals to avoid being liberals.   I’ve been a “moderate” in recent years because liberals push private issues as fiercely as right-wingers push theirs.

But in fact, when I examine my deep beliefs, I’m definitely a liberal – in the historic sense.

I’m a liberal like Abraham Lincoln. I think if I had been around in the 1850s, living in the South, I’d have worked against the stupid idea of leaving the great United States over slavery. Maybe I’d even have ridden with WNC’s 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry in the Union Army.

I’m a liberal like Theodore Roosevelt. I’m with him in preserving wilderness for future generations and making selfish corporations think more of the public good.

I’m a liberal like Woodrow Wilson. I argue that America must lead the world – not like McCain interventionists want but as a shining lamp to the world for peace and humanity.

I’m a liberal like Franklin Roosevelt, who gave us Social Security, minimum wage, weekends and so much more. He was not content to watch working people and the elderly be treated with disrespect.

I’m a liberal like Woody Guthrie. I like to think I’d have joined with factory and field workers, singing myself hoarse on “You can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ to the union!” As Woody said, “I made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right.”   A man for today.

I’m a liberal like Harry Truman. He took on the corporate war profiteers, integrated the military – and turned back the tide of world Communism. He had a sense for what is right, and he did it, no matter what.

I’m a liberal like Earl Warren, the Eisenhower-appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court. He went individually to the justices and challenged each one to do the right thing on school integration. The decision was unanimous. He was a leader when leadership was needed.

I’m a liberal like Lyndon Johnson, who strong-armed the Civil Rights Act through Congress, even though he knew it would mean the South would be Republican for decades.

Don’t call me a bleeding-heart. That says I’m a sucker for a sob story.

I’m in the long tradition of liberalism, dating back to the Old Testament law and prophets, that says people should treat other people fairly and justly, honoring the poor. And I have no question that I’m on the right side.

And I don’t doubt that right will prevail. The rich and powerful control North Carolina now, but the people cannot be deceived for long. North Carolina’s government will side with working people over the privileged. We will take on our role once again as protectors of the earth. Our sick, elderly, children and mentally ill will be cared for. Elections will be fair once again. Our schools and teachers will have what they need to prepare our children.

Until then, we must work. This year we must work to elect candidates who favor people like us, not the rich and powerful.

Who are we, really?

Not published

She knew me well enough to write my obituary.   That’s why her question was so strange:

“Who are you, really?” she asked over the rim of her coffee cup.

I was in my 40s, and nobody had ever asked me that before. She was my mentor in writing for money, a skilled interviewer. She let her question hang in my silence.

My mind went to who I am to my children, my parents, my wife, my clients and finally said, “I’m a lot of people.”

We all feel like that sometime, don’t we – like we’re a collection of roles? Our job is our identity, or we’re like T.S. Eliot’s “preparing a face to meet the faces that you meet.”   Hypocrisy sometimes, but more like mush.   We feel like down deep, behind the roles, nobody’s home. It’s not a happy feeling.

But my mentor was also wrong. She was thinking like Popeye: “I yam what I yam.” We’re not snowballs rolling down a mountain, unable to change direction, ending up like we started, just more bloated.

I believe we all start out with the same core spirit, somehow made in the “image of God.” We’re in a body of flesh, so that spirit is overlaid with genetics.   Then we’re influenced further by life experiences, for good or bad or nothing. The sum total is “who I am” – right now.

The important thing we should keep in mind, I believe, is that we’re not stuck as one person, unchangeable, forever. The imprints of genetics and experiences aren’t decisive in who we are tomorrow.

Our church in Madison County maintains a “prison group”: inmates from Buncombe Correctional who are integrated into the life of the church.   We see change – in the inmates and in us. They experience belonging and love, and to us they contribute deep spiritual insights from their lives. We’re agents of change, but we’re learning that our ability to effect change in others is really very limited. In the end, they have to make the change decision themselves.

Actually that’s how it is for all of us. We choose daily. We can embrace the image of God within us, or not.

In the movie, “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” Curtin asks Dobbs: “What do you think about gold changing a man’s soul so that he ain’t the same kind of a guy?” Dobbs (Bogart): “I guess it depends on the man.”

This year we can start to be people who stand strong. We don’t have to be mush. We don’t have to be stuck in our past. We can change. We can be agents of positive change in others, too. Our spirits, after all, were created in the image of God.


Thanksgiving, upper & lower-case

Citizen-Times, 11/2013

Thanksgiving isn’t a habit common to modern people– not with a lower-case T, anyway.

In my grandparents’ generation and before, people were thankful for what life brought them. They didn’t have much and didn’t expect much.

We do. We expect. We take life and life’s goodness for granted. We aren’t prone to thanksgiving – until, that is, something happens that makes us thankful.

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and we were putt-putting along I-20 in our 1974 Volkswagen bus. We were approaching Rayville, Louisiana.

Rayville. What a blessed place to blow an oil seal.

The first Rayville citizens we met were in a pickup that pulled alongside us. They were shouting and waving wildly for us to pull over. On the shoulder, while one wiped the oil from their windshield, the other told us about Buddy Rhoten’s truck stop in Rayville. He got a chain from his truck bed, and they towed us there and left before we could thank them.

Next, the bright kid at Buddy’s cash register.   He listened to my story and called the boss. It was Sunday afternoon, and the Saints were playing Minnesota on TV, but Buddy Rhoten came.

He was a huge man with neat, black sideburns and a black cowboy hat. He walked straight over to me: “They tell me your VW died. Let’s go look at it.”

He called a mechanic friend and took us to the bus station. My wife and kids had school the next day. Buddy gave us a chunk of his day but refused any payment.

At the ticket counter, my credit card was refused, and my check was out-of-town. Enter Mrs. Chipley. “When I heard your conversation at the counter, I knew I was supposed to help,” she said as she paid for our tickets with her local check. She took my questionable check in exchange.

Thanks to Rayville people, we celebrated thanksgiving that year.

So why aren’t modern people inclined to be thankful anymore? Rayville is a clue.

Our world is insulated. We don’t want other people’s problems, and we don’t let them have ours. We fight any vulnerability that might need somebody’s – or Somebody’s – help.

Also, I think the more advanced a culture becomes, the more its people tend to think and not thank. There’s a cause for every effect. Remarkable children are the product of genetics and our good upbringing.   Good health comes from good habits.   Why complicate the formula and make things spooky? Why?   Because spooky is probably true.   Ask any Alcoholics Anonymous person about his Higher Power.

Thanksgiving is a good habit for us all remembering those who’ve helped us: parents, mentors, spouse, kids. If they’re alive, thanking them in person; if they’re dead, in spirit.


The Stream & NC gov’t

Daily Planet,8/2013

Hasslebrook probably thinks too much. Maybe he thinks because he doesn’t talk much. Or maybe he doesn’t talk much because he’s thinking.

Not that he comes up with solutions. Mostly he wonders. He wonders if there really are people like the ones in TV commercials. In church, he will sometimes miss the sermon because he’s pondering something new in the Scripture lesson.

His mind often makes comparisons. Looking over his flower garden recently, he saw a similarity between intrusive plants and aggressive drivers. He wondered if some humans and plants might share a twisted gene for bullying and competition. He didn’t wonder enough to do research. He just found the similarity remarkable.

So when the flash flood came last month and disabled his bridge, he had much food for thought.

The big rain came at night. By midnight Hasslebrook’s happy little stream was a mud-red juggernaut, carrying along tree trunks seemingly too big to have fit under bridges upstream.   High-water lines on trees showed the creek rose 15 feet. It topped his bridge.

Now Hasslebrook stands on the bank of a peaceful stream – 12-foot wide again, ankle deep, crystal-clear. The great destroyer of last week is puttering its way over the solid rock creek bed, whispering hello to the bridge as it passes underneath, as it always did, seeming not to notice that its fierce alter-ego had smashed the bridge out of commission.

As Hasslebrook ponders this transformation of his creek, he feels…what? The popular word today is “surreal.” And it fits.   The scene is unreal, unbelievable.   He looks up at the bridge towering overhead and tries to recreate in his mind his creek reaching that height and higher.

Then as so often happens, a clear comparison came to his mind:   the Republican Revolution now underway in Raleigh.

Republicans came out of nowhere and swept away Democratic legislators long-secure in their districts. And once in control, the flood of their legislation was determined and inescapable.

Hasslebrook admires their efficiency of action, but he doesn’t agree with the substance of it. Just two days before the big rain, a friend had sent him a link to a New York Times editorial, “The Decline of North Carolina,” that listed some of the Republicans’ actions that we here know so well. “Decline,” Hasslebrook thought, “Yes, my proud state is in decline.”

But the now- quiet stream gives him pause. It doesn’t fit in the comparison to the Republican Revolution.   Raleigh is a swirling turbulence today, not a dancing brook. The stream obviously speaks of rest.

Maybe this is about the future, he thought. But when in the future?

If it’s near future, say 10 years, then the Republican Revolution worked! Their predictions of “freedom” came true. Crushing labor unions and slashing environmental regulations did bring in business, and jobs are abundant. The disabled bridge is an institution the GOP pushed aside – maybe the public school system.   It’s still standing, but now it’s more bygone than busy.

If the future is farther out, Hasslebrook thought, then the peaceful stream is N.C. after Democrats have regained power and sorted out the GOP years. The debris of GOP failure litters our lives in N.C., but the stream of state is calm once more.

As Hasslebrook turns to leave the creek, the phrase “Bridge of Sighs” pops into his wondering mind. He muses that it’s appropriate both literally (of his destroyed bridge) and figuratively (of the institutions destroyed by the Republican flood).

“No matter,” he says out loud. “Time will tell.”


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