Friday, December 19, 2008

The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be

Last night, the book store fulfilled its promise, maybe for the first time. I had always envisioned it as a creative community gathering place, a resource for the literate and literary. We had sponsored numerous events to foster the growth of that type of relationship with the community, but attendance, especially on non-Friday For the Arts nights, had been sporadic. This was partly due to my sometimes clumsy efforts to promote the events and partly due to the events themselves not quite resonating with their intended beneficiaries. It has been, to say the least, a steep learning curve. But last night, the walls rang with the musical clack and clatter of words bouncing off of words. The shop teemed with talented young writers who shared their work and worked on building their own creative community. The Governor's School Reading Series kicked off here last night, and we traded in ideas, coffee and comfortable seating, the way I've always intended.

It's important for writers to commune and equally important for them to read their work aloud in a supportive environment. But it's not only important to the writers. It's also important to a healthy, vital community to hear new voices and fresh ideas. The best thing about these particular voices is that they're good! So often, young writers (and some not-so-young writers) fall in love with their own vocabulary and use their writing first and foremost as the vehicle to show it off. Another mistake young writers frequently make is to write outside themselves. Because their life experience is usually somewhat limited, they try to compensate with vividly imagined but unwieldy fantasies. Not so with the group that was here last night. To a one, they had something to say; they had strong, viable voices; and they weren't afraid to use them. They wrote and spoke with passion and clarity about topics that mattered. They showed they have the courage to write and speak honestly, and they deserve ears to listen. So mark your calendar for the next reading in the series: January 15 at 5 pm.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Efficiency Review, Reviewed

Following is an open letter to the Mayor of Petersburg, pasted in its entirety, from Greg Werkheiser, executive director of the Phoenix Project in response to the paralysis and, in some cases, foot dragging recalcitrance surrounding city government's response to the Berkshire Advisors' Efficiency Review. Will this latest bout of heightened visibility be the impetus for real change in this city's government? It's long, but worth a read through, particularly the recommendations section. My comments on it to follow.

Dear Mayor Mickens,

Thank you for your willingness to adjust the format of last night’s public meeting on the Berkshire Advisors’ Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness Study to reflect the expectations of the public for a more direct exchange of feedback. I am sure you were as impressed as I was at the size of the meeting’s audience and their deep hunger for timely action on the recommendations of the Study.

As you know, I serve as Executive Director of the Phoenix Project, a nonprofit organization that serves as a facilitator and matchmaker in Petersburg, helping the community identify its priorities for revitalization and helping bring to bear resources on those priorities. Over the past three years, we have built a strong partnership between the Petersburg community and nine colleges and universities, each of which regularly makes available students, faculty and administrators to work on economic and community development projects for the City. To date, more than 350 students, faculty and administrators have completed more than 150 capacity building projects for fifty-five nonprofit and municipal organizations serving the residents of Petersburg. Our work together in Petersburg is now serving as a model for efforts in other parts of Virginia and is receiving national attention. We are grateful for your support of our efforts and your continued welcome of our work in Petersburg.

As we have come to know Petersburg, its residents, nonprofit organization leaders, faith leaders, business community, and public servants, we have been impressed with their resilience and determination in the face of many challenges. As our university partners have brought resources to bear on these challenges in the short-term, we have also engaged our partners in Petersburg in a discussion about the longer-term revitalization of the City. It has become clear to us through these conversations that the lack of accountability and capacity in City government are chief impediments to sustainable revitalization of the City, and that our work here provides short term infusions that cannot lead to longer term positive results without significant changes in the City’s management.

We believe that you and your fellow members of Council were therefore acting responsibly and with great respect for your constituents when you voted to engage a third party consultant to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of City government in an effort to ensure that Petersburg’s citizens are well served. Our Associate Director, Marion Werkheiser, served on the committee that selected Berkshire Advisors to conduct the Study, and the Phoenix Project helped organize community gatherings to provide input to the consultants as they gathered information for their report. We also remained in close contact with the consultants as their report was repeatedly delayed by an inability or unwillingness of city staff to provide basic information about city operations; their contract called for delivery by the end of 2007, yet the report was not delivered to Council until August of this year. I write to clarify some of the process questions that arose at last night’s meeting and suggest a path for Council’s response to the Study.

In keeping with the Phoenix Project’s role encouraging community engagement to develop community-wide priorities, I was particularly dismayed by the excuses offered by five City Council members at last night’s meeting for their repeated and intentional failure to turn in completed surveys to the consultants performing a study for which taxpayers paid tens of thousands of dollars. These excuses included a lack of time to respond (even though they were given more than seven months to respond); inability to articulate their consituents’ preferences (articulating constituents’ preferences is the definition of serving in representative government, even when one is newly appointed to the position); not having the report on which to base the survey (but the survey was required to inform the report); and Berkshire’s failure to receive the survey upon first transmission, and the Councilmember’s refusal to re-send. If City Council members do not have the time or commitment to complete and deliver a survey critical to the fair assessment of the operation of City government, they will not have the much greater amount of time and commitment required to oversee the fixing of the very broken city government. These members should be invited publicly to affirm their willingess and ability to assume the time-consuming responsibility of oversight of transformation change, or they should be thanked for their service and invited to resign from their office to make room for leaders who do have the time.

I was further dismayed last night by Council’s refusal to admit the true circumstances surrounding the absence of representatives from Berkshire Advisors at this meeting. As you know, Berkshire Advisors was contractually obligated to present its findings in person to City Council and to the Board of the Cameron Foundation. Berkshire staff repeatedly, and for many weeks, requested permission from the City Manager for the opportunity to present their findings and recommendations at a City Council meeting, but they were consistently ignored. We are grateful that Council finally voted last night to invite Berkshire to present its findings to the public. Yet this situation reveals the detriment of Council entrusting further action on the recommendations of this Study to the very City personnel who sought to deny the opportunity for the public to hear directly from the consultants. How can you now expect the public to agree with you that such persons are earnestly committed to or capable of fundamental change?

In the first two minutes of last night’s meeting you berated in front of all attendees Councilmember Pritchett for speaking out publicly about the Council’s unwillingness to fulfill its oversight responsibilities by relying too heavily on the City Manager for information and to do the Council’s work. Yet the excuse the Council offered last night for not having developed in the four months since the Study was delivered an action plan to address the significant management challenges it faces was that Council has not yet received guidance by City staff. This failure simply affirms the reality Councilmember Pritchett acknowledged. The Council seems unwilling or unable to offer leadership independent of the City Manager.

This places front and center the question raised by the Study: whether top City staff, on whose long watch the dysfunctional conditions have manifest, are the appropriate persons to lead the City through transformational change. Of course it is the case that no single person is responsible for the maladies facing the City. But top management has demonstrated clear and extensive failures within their direct control. As the Efficiency Study pointed out, there are no accountability mechanisms for government in Petersburg. Is the Council still not willing to put in place such measures of accountability at all levels of government, including top management?
The Study proposes significant changes in every City department, the implementation of which could take a number of years. It will be important for Petersburg residents and community leaders to be involved throughout that process, as difficult decisions are weighed and made. To that end, I respectfully suggest the following course of action for City Council:

1. Prior to the next City Council meeting, members should frankly assess whether the transformational leadership required to fix the many troubles identified by the Study will require more time and/or energy than they are personally able to commit over the next several years. If so, they should have the courage to tender their resignations at the next meeting. Candidates to replace them should be asked to describe in detail their plans for supporting transformational change in the management of City government.

2. Those members of Council who remain should prepare themselves to describe in detail to the public at the next meeting and at all meetings thereafter, their personal plan for supporting the transformational change required in City government.

3. You stated last night that City Council will receive memoranda from City staff containing scenarios for implementation of the Efficiency Study recommendations at a meeting in January. Please request that those memoranda be submitted to Council and made available to the public at least one full week in advance of the January meeting. Failure to provide the memoranda in advance severely limits the ability of Council and the public to prepare for the meeting and further delays informed discussion of action that must be taken.

4. As you indicated you would do last night, employ the public school phone tree to provide notice of the next public meeting; also, ask the Progress-Index to do an article in advance of the meeting (in addition to the legal notice), put details of the meeting on the City’s website, and circulate notice to City leaders for whom the City has email accounts encouraging them to circulate it to their contacts.

5. Council should be prepared at the January meeting to announce a complete schedule of meetings for 2009 and 2010 dedicated just to public discussion of progress in reforming City government as indicated by the Study. The meetings should be held at least every other month, in an open-exchange format, without the presence of City staff. Every City Council member should come to these meetings fully prepared to discuss and answer questions about progress on specific action items. The maladies diagnosed by the Study are far too serious and numerous to be adequately addressed to the public’s satisfaction in a handful of episodic meetings.

6. Appoint a private citizen-led task-force to provide guidance directly to the Council on implementation of recommendations of the Study.

7. Set aside thirty minutes at each regular City Council meeting for members of the task force to report exclusively on the City’s progress in tackling an aspect of the dysfunction in City government diagnosed in the Study. The Council should suspend its practice of not responding to specific citizen questions for this portion of the meeting.

8. When inviting Berkshire Advisors to present their findings and processes at their earliest availability, please advise them to be prepared to describe the process through which they solicited input from City Council members and City staff. The public deserves to understand the true circumstances surrounding their representatives’ failure to participate in the survey process.

9. Conclude, as so many of us have, with deep regret given our personal affinity for Mr. Canada, that it is no longer an open question as to whether he has the ability to lead transformational change in City management. Hire a professional recruiting firm and task them with securing the highest quality applicants for the position. Set above-market salary for this position to enable the recruitment of applicants with proven experience in turning around broken city governments. Have a candidate in place by March, allowing him or her to immediately, with the further assistance of the recruiting firm, hire replacements for the many vacant positions in City staff leadership and build a team capable of delivering the change the community so deserves.

The Phoenix Project stands ready to partner with the City in this process of transformation, and we will seek out resources from all of our university partners and other contacts to assist in whatever ways we can be helpful. We are committed to our work in Petersburg and believe that the Efficiency Study represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Council to reverse Petersburg’s decline and chart a new course for good government and prosperity for all residents.

I have been impressed by your personal character in the three years in which we have had the opportunity to work together. I think you have the ability and the courage to set an example for other Council members at this critical time in the City’s history. Should you lead boldly you will have my full support and deep gratitude.

Respectfully yours,
Greg Werkheiser
Executive Director
The Phoenix Project

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Who Is Venus Flytrap?

He's not speaking in a dungeon, really. It only looks that way because my camera is cheap and crappy.

The world needs more Tim Reids. Tim Reid was an articulate, insightful, thoughtful black man before Barack Obama made it fashionable. Long before Obama rose to rock star status after the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Reid quietly laid part of the path for him by chipping away at overt and covert racism through television and film. Reid has made it his life's work to bring real African-American people to us through his characters. Real people with real problems, joys, sorrows and triumphs. People that aren't based on exaggerated stereotypes and white perceptions of how black people "should" be. People that don't demean themselves by taking the path of low self-expectation. People that don't spend their energy denigrating themselves or others. People who, in short, don't cater to the lowest common denominators of our society, whether they be racist, misogynist or otherwise unable to see and respect our shared humanity.

Tim Reid was here at the store last night, and it was a rare treat to hear him speak. He spoke about passion and integrity in art and life. He spoke about the responsibility he felt to use his art to add something to the world. He lamented the lack of moral compass in today's artists, particularly comedians. He talked about the way young comedians of the hip-hop generation (whether black or white or whatever) spend a lot of time and energy trying to come up with new ways to be shocking, but not much time inventing new ways to be FUNNY. He talked about how our political correctness has taken a lot of the fun out of our culture.

What struck me maybe more than anything about his talk was that his voice was the same one in his memoir. The same quick, mildly self-deprecating wit came through in person as did in the book. Normally when a celebrity "writes" a book, they do little besides allow limited access to the person who REALLY writes it, and provide a name to stamp on the front. But Reid managed to once again, tell a very compelling story in his own voice in his memoir and, by doing that, has once again given us a real person to admire.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

Petersburg is all about opportunity right now. The city brims with potential. All over town, airguns and hammers and drills drum a steady cacophony of progress. There are at least ten buildings I can think of off the top of my head whose owners are pouring ideas, money and sweat equity into them in the hopes of renting the bottom floor to a business and the top two or three to residents and, ultimately, creating the kind of urban vibe that makes people excited to come here.
So now I'm in that mix (as if I weren't already). I've been introduced to an opportunity to move my store from its current back alley into the commercial corridor of Sycamore Street. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's actually kind of a tough decision. On one hand, I get approximately zero walk-up customers and no impulse shoppers at my current location. It's a full five minute discussion to explain to someone how to get to me. Sometimes, it takes multiple phone calls. There is nothing particularly special about the building, except that it does have a warm, open feel and, maybe most importantly, it's MINE. I own the building and all the sweat blood and tears I and many of my friends have poured into it. I've thrown my back out there, right there in the front flower bed. I've dug up spark plugs and light bulbs and manifolds. Beth and I painted the floor its current Ronald McDonald red.
Flip side: the guy I'd be working with to renovate the proposed Sycamore Street location TO SUIT has already been featured on HGTV's "What You Get For the Money." His sense of style and aesthetic are impeccable. And he's excited about putting together an ultra-hip book store/coffee shop/neighborhood hangout in the space. The kind of place people go to because it's cool to be seen there. The space itself is located on Sycamore Street in the Uptown section. So it's not exactly "there" yet, but it, like so much else in Petersburg, has a lot of potential. It's a few blocks removed from the bulk of the existing businesses and the Friday For the Arts crowds, but one of the city's best galleries will move there in the summer and another is projected to open next year as well. The new ice cream and snack shop just opened, a full service spa is already there, and another beautifully redone historic building waits for the right tenant in the next block.
Flop side: the parking situ is less than optimal. There is minimal onstreet parking, usually full, and only one city lot in the back to service increasing numbers of residential and commercial properties. Although my potential landlord says he's never had a problem finding parking, I have...several times. And, as far as walk-up customers, it may be jumping from the freezer to the ice tray. There is little pedestrian traffic in the area right now, partly due to limited parking and partly due to limited business to attract it. There is the pain factor and expense of moving, not to mention the minor problem of needing to sell the building I'm in first. In this economy, that may be the long pole in the tent. So I'm torn. On one hand, I see it as a great opportunity. On the other hand, I see it as yet another leap of faith. I've made so many of those in the past year, I'm starting to worry that not having a net is going to catch up to me.

Tha Dog Pound

It was unnaturally warm last night. So much so that we were sitting on the front porch enjoying a beverage when a meatheaded old brindle pit bull we'd never seen before wandered into the yard to play with Harper. It was an idyllic dog romp through the clover--Harper dominating the dog as she is wont to do, him letting her, us petting them both. Then Shaft, the skulking little ne'er-do-well male dog across the street, decided he couldn't take this affront to his territory.
Side note on Shaft's personality: Shaft is the kind of uneasy little beast who sees you come in and out of your house several times a day and sometimes he barks at you and sometimes not. When you're out walking sometimes you'll get a sense that something is following you and you whirl around expecting to fight the Walnut Hill knife rapist, but it turns out it's only Shaft, sneaking around behind you like he's trying to pull a flank maneuver. You call him, he starts growling. You walk toward him, trying to make friends. He turns and slinks off, only to resume following you after you turn and keep walking.
Meanwhile, back at Michael Vick's Ranch: Shaft charged down the hill toward the street and growled at the stranger dog. Bared his teeth. Then he ran. Well, he got about ten feet before that pit bull was on him like stink on crap. A blur of brown and white and then the most horrible, asphyxiating yelping sound. The pit had him by the throat. That fast. And he wasn't letting go. I have never seen anything like a pit bull when it has something locked up. The scene escalated rapidly. Beth ran over, the people in the house came out. When I ran over, a fully grown man and woman were out there kicking and hitting this pit bull as hard as they could, screaming, cussing, etc, hollering about, "he's gon' kill that mother f------!" And ole Shaft WAS, in fact, rapidly expiring. Beth and I both yelled at them to get a water hose, because that's really the only chance to get a bulldog off of something without killing it. About that time, one of the men went and got a shovel and was about to brain the dog. The pit got distracted by the woman hitting him in the head and went to shift his grip and Shaft somehow weaseled out of there. He ran on around the house with the pit hard on his trail. The neighbors managed to get Shaft into the house and the door closed just before the other dog showed up at the door. Just as quickly as he'd gone berserk, the pit calmed down into the same docile fellow he'd been before the ugly scene. He was wheezing from the exertion and from being kicked in the ribs and his nose was bloodied but, other than that, he was totally calm. It's hard to tell, because it seemed like everything was in super slow motion, but I'd estimate the whole thing lasted less than five minutes. If it had lasted a minute more, I have no doubt there would have been at least one dead dog.
We fended off the guy with the shovel, who looked like he still had some inclination to use it, and took the pit bull back over to the house while we called the police. They didn't want to send anyone out at first, because it was an animal control problem, but finally they agreed. Fast forward to the end. After some cajoling and convincing on our part (there apparently is no provision for after hours animal control emergencies except to call someone with a key and hope they can come out), the dog rode off in the back of the police cruiser.
All that to say this: the ugly, snarling, violent scene last night made me kind of rethink my opinion of pit bulls. I had always thought they were a breed whose behavior doesn't justify their negative reputation. I had always thought the way an animal, any animal, acted was a direct reflection of its owner and how it was trained and treated. I had owned a pit bull before and thought it was the most loyal, gentle dog I had ever had. But this dog was also someone's pet. It was well cared for and not scarred. And it turned on a dime and became a killer. Granted, Shaft is annoying and it wouldn't have been any great loss to the Brandon Avenue scene, but still. I wouldn't have a pit for a pet now. Not after seeing what I saw last night.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Two Worlds Collide

About three weeks ago, I received the "gift" of a starter for Amish friendship bread from an alleged friend. We'll call her "Lana." Now, I have the cooking skills of a caveman, but this was something I could appreciate--an easy, gradual-rising recipe with explicit instructions. Although my culinary past has been checkered at best, I saw myself working through my cooking issues with this, then moving on to more and more complicated recipes before finally romping gloriously through Elysian Fields with the Larousse Gastronomique.
The idea of the bread being slow and methodical appealed to me. I liked that "only the Amish know how to make the starter." I pictured some humble, Nurse Ratched-haired Amish lady back in rural Pennsylvania humming as she mixed it by hand before sending it out into the world, and I teared up at her innocence. I loved the notion of kneading and burping the bag every day and watching it bubble and ferment. I liked that you could only use wood and glass cooking implements. Somehow, it harkened back to a simpler time. AND, given my current fiscal constraints, and my ever-growing disdain for the gross commercialism Christmas has become, I thought it would neatly address both these issues. I would give a loaf of bread and a starter kit to many of the people on my list. It would be both thoughtful and frugal. That is, if I survived the vicious cycle of the bread itself.
The first run was almost biblical in its magnitude. Each bag makes four more starters and two loaves, which made me think of the five loaves and two fishes (or two loaves and five fishes, I forget). We were gonna feed the multitudes, except we couldn't give the things away. Most of my friends, it turns out, have already been through their friendship bread cycle and have no desire to get caught up in its yeasty clutches again.
Every day, there's work to be done with the starter bags. I'm either kneading or adding ingredients, or both. This is all well and fine--it doesn't take that long and it's easy--until day six comes and I'm late for work and out of milk and the $*^&# starters each need a cup of milk, in addition to a cup of flour and sugar. Then I realize, I have become a slave to the bread. I get two of the four situated at home by diluting the 2% milk with water to make two cups, dropping half a starter on the floor when the bag slumps over the counter edge while I'm diluting the milk. The dog dutifully laps it up before I can get to it, and I'm already running through my mental phone book in search of an auxiliary kneader for day seven, because I'll be at the vet all day with the sick dog. Because there's no way I can make it by the grocery store AND open on time, I drag the other two bags to work with me and do my duty by them with milk from the store, promptly squeezing a big splash of starter onto the counter and floor when I knead a bag that wasn't fully closed. It's 1050, I open at 11, and the bread has just taken over the last bastion of my sanity. By now, I am hating on the Amish--God bless their modern-convenience-hating, wholesome family-oriented gray-clad hearts! I seethe through days 7,8, and 9, lulling myself into a false sense of normalcy. Day ten rolls around, and I realize when I walk in the door at 9 pm and four bags are sitting there staring at me like some evil, amorphous, self-rising devils; that it's baking day and I was supposed to get the vanilla pudding on the way home, but I didn't and now Food Lion is closed. So I put it off a day, come home the next day proudly dragging the bag of vanilla pudding, only to realize I'm out of sugar. The bread is, by now, LAUGHING. I hear it when one of the bags explodes because I forgot to burp it on days nine and ten. Exhausted, I call Lana and make her feel somehow responsible--you GAVE me this stuff, remember? So she gets out of bed and brings me all her sugar and I manage to make it through baking two of the starters before I collapse in a flour-coated heap on the floor to awaken the next morning and start the cycle all over. I want to throw the remaining starters away, but somehow I can't bring myself to do it (what if it doesn't come back around in time for Christmas?). So I put an ad on Craig's List to give them away. So far, no takers.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Trucker Butterfly

So I was sitting here a little while ago bawling my face off over an article in the paper about a couple in upstate New York who stinted the broken wing of a monarch butterfly and sent the recovered insect to Florida with a trucker who was willing to take responsibility for its safe passage. This is the second time in about a week that I've walked around my shop a wreck--a big emotional sucking chest wound--and I don't know what's happened to me. It seems I'm becoming my mother, who will drop a tear on you before you can say Hallmark Christmas movie.
Also today, I've been helping my sister edit poems and stories from her middle school-aged students via email. They're bright kids and well-taught, but they use language in the same way gangly-legged, pimply-faced pubescents french kiss. They're so excited about their new skill, and so they practice it with great enthusiasm, in staggering quantities, but without much discretion. And boy, is it messy. Time after time, I've written comments to the effect of, "So what?" (phrased in a more tactful way) and "Give us concrete imagery and examples instead of big, abstract words." I told one young lady that I cared less about her entire first stanza than one crumpled deer on the Maury River roadside. I went on to explain why: because I see that deer, picture it bounding across the road. I see it freeze in the arc of headlights sweeping around a blind curve, and then I picture it lying in the unnatural pose in which it fell. Why does that mean something to me? Because as a human, I identify with something else alive. I identify with the concept of going about the business of my life until waylaid, maybe even run over, by some uncaring juggernaut. My point is this: there is nothing more immediate and real to me than something else alive, in need, and nothing more human than trying to help. On the surface, it's an insect, and maybe the laws of selection dictate that you should leave it alone. Dig a little deeper, though, and it's a snapshot of the connection between all life. It's the illumination of one tiny act of humanity. It's a good news story in a time when we don't get many of those. It's getting outside the mindset of, "It's not my business--probably wouldn't make a difference anyway" and making the world better by the breadth of a butterfly's wing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chester Envy

Yesterday, I drove the 20 minutes north to Chester to a friend's shop. The friend was one of the first people I met in Petersburg and helped me immensely in establishing a foothold on the slippery slope of small business ownership and in setting up my shop in Petersburg. Little did I know that, three months after my grand opening, she'd move on to the greener pastures of suburbia. I felt betrayed. WHAT?!? You're leaving? But you just opened (in the space I pined away over for my store, no less)! And the arrival of an independent bookstore surely signals the beginning of a major renaissance. Here I come to save the day!
But as I drove on non-potholed streets past eclectic shopping centers and newish, fully accredited schools, I started to understand why she moved away from a downtown that is surely, this time, like so many times before, on the verge of being something special. In fact, I may have developed the slightest case of Chester Envy. Restaurants, shops, schools, houses neatly arranged with, get this, ample parking designated for them! No psychiatric deficients manning the front doors like it's their job. I was not approached for a cigarette or bus money, I was not asked for an odd job, nor was I verbally assaulted for being married to The Doc (all regular occurrences on any given day in the 'Burg). Although I didn't know exactly where I was going, I felt safe. The growing sense of envy was not helped in the slightest when I pulled into her parking lot. Pristeen black asphalt, new building, fresh paint, workable public infrastructure and, best of all, a community dedicated to sensible development. In short, all the things Petersburg does not have.
That set me wondering why people like me make Petersburg our home. Why do we keep believing and pouring our blood, sweat and tears toward what we hope will be the town's eventual triumph? Are we hard-luck cases ourselves? Do we want to be the proverbial big fish in the small pond? Do we want to be the only game in town? Is it easier to have the safety net of being able to blame our personal failures on a city that's failing? Maybe, maybe not. It's hard not to hope for good things for this city. We see so much potential for a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past. It's hard not to root for the underdog. This city has certainly had its share of adversity. It's hard not to get caught up in a sense of the excitement of possibility, especially given our country's recent path. So we choose to live and work here and, on some level, to cast our fortunes in with those of the city. But it's also really hard to keep being positive when there seems to be no comprehensive plan to "get there from here," and seemingly no sense of urgency about developing one. Seeing a town that's already there makes it that much more obvious.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Art Of Guileless Fiction

I've been trying to understand why I love a good children's story almost above all else these days. This after I've just sat here and sobbed through Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie in preparation for my Kids Book Club meeting tomorrow morning. The conclusion I reached (after ruling out regression) is that there is nothing better to me than a good story, simply told. I'm of the school that believes that good stories want to be told. There are millions of them out there right now, sailing around on the winds like dreams, waiting for their chance to be born. Looking for the person who has enough self-confidence to see the story as bigger than themselves, someone who recognizes beauty in simplicity and can get out of the way of it.
Children's authors, perhaps because they make their living writing for an audience that hasn't learned the art of guile, seem to understand this better than other authors. I'm so tired of books that are studiously and condescendingly obtuse, as if their authors are writing for the Pulitzer Committee instead of for the sake of the story itself. I'm tired of fluently jumbled chronologies, tired of innovative techniques, bored with trickster narrators, exhausted with the lion's share of the history of a country summarized neatly in footnotes in a work of fiction! Tell me a good story well, and you don't need gimmicks. Tell me something that illuminates our shared humanity. Tell me something that surprises, enlightens, makes me laugh and cry. Tell me something true. You don't need $50 words to do it. You just need to listen and then get out of the way. And read some children's books before you start.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


One of the many interesting things about the transition from military life to that of a self-employed business person, is that it has changed the definition of, well, almost everything. Here's a less than profound for-instance. During an adult lifetime spent in the military, cruising around to some of the world's least desirable places, "Squatter" was how I thought of myself in most foreign countries. Certainly, I considered the political aspect of the term: that we were unwanted temporary residents of whatever port we'd crashed for that particular 3-6 day span. But mostly, it was even more fundamental than that. That is to say: You didn't ever SIT on a toilet in east Europe or west Africa or, say, in certain southern Georgia gas stations (even assuming there was somewhere to sit, which wasn't always the case). You squatted and worked your little excremental muscles to direct the stream in what you hoped was generally the right direction, wiped what you could with toilet paper you had stuffed in a pocket for the evening and left without looking back in the hopes that whatever vermin resided there would be so impressed by your unflappability that they'd leave you alone. This concept served me well for more than 16 years and allowed me to escape such notorious armpits as Lagos, Nigeria and Naples, Italy without incident.

Now that my most exotic destination is West Bank Street in Petersburg, I've refined the concept of squatting to serve my civilian needs. Over six months of looking through the glass bowl of small town central Virginia, "Squatter" has come to mean those members of our society who make a living out of glomming free stuff from local businesses. I should point out here that I'm not talking about folks who come in, buy a cup of coffee, set up their computer and use my wi-fi to check their email and surf the Internet for an hour or two. I'm not even implying that coming in and hanging out at the local bookstore without buying something ain't cool. The whole point of having a comfortable seating area, wi-fi and coffee is so that people feel welcome to come in and chill for a little while. I'm mostly talking about the professionally unemployed folks who make up a sizable minority of Petersburg's population, typically on some form of disability payment, who literally have nothing else to do besides hang out either in the streets or in whatever business they've selected as the day's mark. I know this probably sounds mean-spirited and petty because, without firsthand experience with Petersburg's storied partnership with Central State Psychiatric Hospital AND the city's cultivation of a Section 8 housing market cities four times its size would envy, I would have thought so too. I've read some references that estimate that over 40% of the population is disabled in some way, and it's a well-documented fact that the literacy rate here hovers around 60%. This is certainly not the fault of the people who are disabled, and I don't put it on them, but it does lead to a somewhat dysfunctional city. So here, without my trademark tendency to exaggerate, is a sampling of descriptions of my Squatters to date.

Squatter #1 skulked in a minimum four of the six days per week I was open during my first couple of months. Some days, he'd sit on the wall outside waiting for me to open, but always, he was here by the time I'd been open an hour. Ex-military himself, he apparently believed this gave us instant rapport and would set up base camp on one of my couches and proceed for the next five to seven hours to hang out with his new vet buddy. He didn't even leave to eat, he laughed and talked loudly to himself, he got up and grabbed books periodically to use as reference material for whatever project he had spread out over half the seating area. He talked to me almost constantly as I worked on the administrative tasks required to run the business during my slow times. It exhausted me to keep being nice when all I really wanted was soem quiet, but I convinced myself that even this wasn't so bad--he was a nice enough fellow, just seemed to have some social adjustment issues. Then he also developed the tiniest little annoying habit of insinuating himself into conversations with other customers. Finally, after the fourth customer commented on his unsolicited comments, we had to have the "appropriate amount of time to be spending here" talk. This was my first time kicking someone out, and I felt like an absolute ass. In spite of exercising as much tact as I could muster and reassuring him that he was a good person and it was nothing personal, it was like I'd kicked the poor guy in the face. I haven't seen him since, but I HAVE refined my squatter confrontation technique on a couple more.

Squatter #2, I can't actually pigeonhole as a squatter: we'll call him a polite and likeable gentleman with a job and slight squatter tendencies. #2 would come in about once a week and browse the fantasy and graphic novel sections, then settle down with his chosen paperback, reading sometimes the entire book before putting it back on the shelf. Alternately, he would fall asleep on the couch and I'd have to wake him up and tell him this really wasn't the appropriate place to nap. He was always extraordinarily polite and solicitous of my well-being, and he sometimes bought an item, so having "The Talk" with him was a tough call. I mean, what kind of petty jerk squabbles with a customer over a couple of paperbacks? Our Squatter/landlord relationship finally ended after his third fully read Jim Butcher novel made its way back onto the shelf unpurchased. I took him over and gently showed him the difference between the spines of all the unread books and those he had read. Soft covers that have been read are easily distinguishable because all the other spines in the bookcase are pristeen, and the ones that have been read have noticeable creases in them. Barnes and Noble may be able to afford to replace them, but no small bookstore can. Fortunately, squatter #2 got the message and has since turned into a regular customer who DOESN'T read entire books without buying them. Come to think of it, he hasn't been in to sleep on the couch in a while, either. Ah, a success story.

That success was short-lived, however, as Squatter #3 has been my most challenging case. Squatter #3, you see, is transgendered, not that there's anything wrong with that. But before I knew her as a him, I had noted that she had come in once and hung out for an extensive amount of time, reading a couple hundred pages of a couple of books and making copious notes out of them, even taking her shoes off to get a little more comfortable on her first visit. So I had already filed her under the "Potential Squatter" category. The second time she visited, she informed me (and everyone else who happened to be in the store that afternoon) that his name was Keith (not his real name) and that he was transgendered. Roger that, good on you, I went on to shelve some more books. He went on to talk fairly extensively and somewhat graphically with a friend of mine who happened to be in having a cup of coffee (see how that works?) about the procedure for transitioning. Now, although this was beyond the scope of what I feel like I ought to hear in a bookstore in the course of a business day, he seemed to need someone to talk to, and my friend seemed to not be offended. Neither of us encouraged any personal details, but what the hell? Let him talk for a few minutes. Until one of my little blue-haired Daughters of the Confederacy rolled in and I hit the panic button. Fortunately, with the help of my friend, we managed to avoid the impending train wreck. I talked loudly with the little old lady about the weather until my friend could steer Keith onto safer conversational ground. Next time I saw Keith, he was railing about how someone or other was dissing his decision to live as a man, and since he considered me an open-minded person, wanted me to help him find help. So I did some digging around and sent him off with the web address of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered group out of Richmond and off he went to research the new possibilities. Well, he came back the other day to report his progress, loudly, with two of my good conservative Civil War historians from Prince George County in close attendance. Now, don't get me wrong. I couldn't give a crap that Keith is living as a dude and don't really consider it any of my other customers' business. My problem with Keith is this: he MAKES it my other customers' business, and most of my other customers definitely would rather not be involved. In other words, it's like this has become the testing ground for various over-the-top strategies to be acknowledged as a dude. This particular day, he was standing up here at the check-out counter, looking like a badly dressed woman, talking in a woman's voice to the retired Air Force guy and the Civil War historian woman, getting into a grip contest with the man, and telling the woman he'd hold his strength back when shaking her hand because she's a lady. He introduced himself as Keith and got into a mock sword fight with retired Air Force as he was telling me he had resolved his "issues" and gotten happy with himself. I prayed he didn't elaborate and held my breath until the old folks left. And this really sticks in my craw, because I don't want to get into the habit of playing morality police based on my perceptions of what my more conservative customers consider moral. If some of my customers are offended by Keith's decisions or actions, isn't that a problem between them and not me? I don't want to get into the habit of babysitting people for appropriate behavior, especially when appropriate is such a subjective term. But where I draw the line, where I HAVE to draw the line is at the bottom line. If his behavior loses me customers, and I feel like it eventually will, then I have to have "The Talk" with Keith next time he's in.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Intellectual Dishonesty

Despite all economic indicators to the contrary, I decided it would be a good time to open the independent bookstore of my childhood dreams, in a town mildly infamous for its 40% illiteracy rate, in May. Six months later, I sit alone in my shop on a Saturday afternoon, taking an inventory of my marketable skills, and trying to decide what to do for money until the City of Readers engages with me. Fortunately, it turns out there is a wealth of opportunities for freelance writers out there in Internet-land. Without exception, these positions offer diverse assignments to choose from, the ability to work from home (or in my case, work) and the promise of riches untold. Great, I think, sign me up.
So I sign up to be writer number 24601 on Get my welcome aboard email, studiously read the guidelines (to include a very THOROUGH--and what turns out to be thoroughly ironic--briefing on plagiarism), sign off on the policies and eagerly open up the assignments tab to start my new part-time career. What awaits me there is page after page of academic possibilities: there are essays due, some apparently in three hours, that must be ghost written. There are research papers, theses, midterm projects--from high school on up through doctoral level--that the student can't be bothered to complete. Most have source requirements, some require specific documentation formats, a few even require you to make a specified number of spelling or grammatical errors so the "client" doesn't have to go in and insert them to personalize the work. The going rate for your intellectual integrity? Anywhere from $7 on up to around $90.
I have to be honest. I don't have any cause to pass myself off as holier-than-anyone. I thought seriously about it for a while. I mean, hell, what business is it of mine if little Johnny likes to party instead of write his papers? I'm not making any money selling books, and I need to make some little pittance for not only my fiscal situation, but also to feel like a self-reliant, capable human being. What difference does it make whether I do it or someone else does it? It's not like my participation or lack thereof will even change the speed of the academic paper supply juggernaut. There are hundreds of other little anonymous writer numbers who will take the assignments if I don't, and that's only on THIS particular site. I can write this stuff well, with one brain hemisphere tied behind my back. Why not? Why should I sweat what happens to these few sentences strung together after they leave my computer? I guess it really comes down to one thing: because it's just plain dishonest. On the most basic level, this moral dilemma equates to the same reason I left the military: I was making good money, but I felt in my gut that I was selling my soul for it. So I won't do it. Someone else will. The papers will still get turned in, and that's okay. I'm not responsible for making the whole world better, only my little corner of it.