Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns

Scary money

Posted on October 19, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Today is Friday the 13th, which is a date of some numerological and superstitious notoriety.

This year has featured two Friday the 13ths (the other was in January), and while any calendar year includes at least one, no year can ever have more than three. The last solo year was 2016, and the next will be 2021.

Any year that begins on a Sunday will have a repeat of this year’s January-October Friday the 13ths; the next occurrence will be in 2023.

When it occurs in October it’s doubly frightful—All Hallow’s Eve date is 13 backwards.

Why the number 13 is considered ominous and unlucky is a mystery. At least part of the explanation lies in its legendary association with misfortune as related in The Last Supper and Norse mythology.

As the natural number following 12, it also constitutes a contrast and break with the completeness numerologists ascribe to a dozen: there are 12 calendar months, 12 Zodiac signs, 12 Herculean labors, 12 Olympian gods, 12 Israeli tribes, 12 Christian apostles, 12 clock hours and (as will be sung before long) 12 days of Christmas.

Whatever the reason, triskaidekaphobia—fear of the number 13—has had significant financial implications in America.

Even huge infrastructure projects reflect intelligent people’s phobic avoidance the number. The majority of high-rise buildings in the U.S. skip the 13th floor, according to the Stress Management and Phobia Institute. Many hotels and hospitals shy away from offering a Room 13. Airports routinely omit a Gate 13.

Matched with Friday, the resulting unlucky date often thwarts travel, deals, contractual closings and other activities for millions of people. The price tag for all the foreboding of Friday the 13th? The Phobia Institute estimates as much as $800 million to $900 million will be lost today because people won’t fly or do business as they normally do.

On the flip side of triskaidekaphobia, however, is a steadily growing Halloween mania among American consumers. Spookiness is more fun than scary these days, and the crystal ball foretells record-breaking numbers for this year’s Halloween holiday celebrations and rituals.

For starters, more Americans than ever—179 million—plan to celebrate this year, according to the annual research study sponsored by the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Total Halloween spending will be a record high $9.1 billion, which is 8.3 percent higher than last year and almost double what it was a short decade ago. The largest percentage of that, more than $3.4 billion, will go to costumes, which nowadays are worn by adults and children alike.

The NRF prognosticators pick superhero costumes to be the favorite this year, but I dispute that. My dark-horse prediction is there may be as many Donald Trumps as Batmans among Halloween partygoers and neighborhood trick-or-treaters.

The remainder of boo bucks will be spent on decorations and confections. From simple wreaths to elaborate oversized displays, some $2.7 billion will be spent on pumpkins, cauldrons, skeletons, ghosts, tombstones and other paraphernalia pertaining to all things eerie that might go bump in the night. The candy tab for supplying trick-or-treaters averages only about $25 per household, but multiplied out across the vast, disguised horde of kids on the prowl for sweets, that adds up to another $2.7 billion of so in spending.

Fortunately, there are still some wonderful freebies you can enjoy as part of Halloween.

Audiobook versions of classic horror tales such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are available at no charge since those works are in the public domain. You can download them and listen on your smartphone using earbuds or a Bluetooth connection in your car.

Every year about this time, I start listening to the LibriVox recording of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

On free audiobooks, a critical quality factor is the reader’s skill and talent. This version was recorded in 2006 by “Chip in Tampa, Fla.,” and his voice, cadence and dialect couldn’t have been hand-picked any better.

It sounds as if Irving himself is relating the story around a cozy fireside.

Chip’s tone has a mesmerizing quality when describing Tarrytown and the nearby countryside; a playful timbre when depicting Ichabod’s infatuation with Katrina Van Tassel (and her wealth) and Brom Bones’ jealousies; and a haunting somberness when recounting Ichabod’s climactic encounter with the headless horseman.

In the moments just prior, while riding home in the autumn darkness, everywhere Ichabod turns he sees and hears terrifying things. Suddenly his horse stops and he is jolted to acute attention.

“Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod,” Chip purrs as he enunciates each of Irving’s splendid adjectives.

“In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something … huge … misshapen … and towering.” Chip’s pauses simulate heartbeats skipping.

“It stirred not, but seemed gathered up by the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.”

The next moments, using only words and no surround sound or special effects, recall the power of sheer language to invoke immense suspense. Listen for yourself. I can’t recommend a better Halloween treat.

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Better late than never

Posted on October 2, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

It was heartwarming—but also bittersweet—to read in the news last week that Kirby School District had successfully demonstrated its qualifications for a waiver from the state education requirement that any school with an enrollment of less than 350 be consolidated.

It took a full school generation for the Arkansas Legislature to finally stifle the stupidity contained within Act 60 of 2003, which effectively elevated student head count above every other education quality measure.

During that 12-year period, small schools with above-average test scores and graduation rates, and below-average costs-per-pupil, were shamefully closed and merged into larger (and sometimes poorer-performing) districts. Some of the lost high schools have familiar names linked forever with the cause of preserving quality rural education: Paron, Weiner, Delight.

The wheels of progress can grind even more slowly than those of justice. To its collective credit, however, when the Arkansas 90th General Assembly acted in 2015 on the proposed legislation to allow waivers for high-performing schools with fewer than 350 students, the results reflected a concordant return to common sense: It was approved unanimously by votes of 91-0 in the House and 33-0 in the Senate.

A dozen years had not only demonstrated the false promises and fallacious pretensions behind Act 60, but also revealed the ridiculous folly of closing schools where students were not only often setting the curve for academics and college readiness, but also operating more economically than megadistricts with miserable proficiency percentiles.

Kirby’s high school earned a School of Innovation designation in 2016, and its average ACT score is 16 percent higher than the state composite mark. Along with Kirby, the Strong-Huttig school district also was granted a waiver. Both schools possess an all-important indicator of quality education, which is powerful community support and parental involvement.

All schools that receive waivers from Act 60’s consolidation requirement must demonstrate that they are not in fiscal, academic or facilities distress and that they have no violations of accreditation standards.

Many people, small school patrons, rural education advocates and other volunteer organizations worked long and hard to right the wrongs perpetrated by Act 60. The unanimous approval of waiver legislation was essentially a standing ovation to their efforts, and good schools that would otherwise be shutting their doors are instead still successfully serving rural communities and children.

Universal acclaim

Hillary Clinton’s new book has caused commotion around a number of subjects, but at least one unifying excerpt surfaced in the news recently.

In her memoir, Clinton quoted a couplet from John Greenleaf Whittier:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

Whittier was one of America’s renowned “fireside poets,” which also included the venerable voices of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell, William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These 19th century writers were the first class of Americans whose poetry proved more popular than British authors, and their influence was enhanced by their long lives and highly visible careers.

Clinton’s selection is from “Maud Muller,” a poem published in 1856 about a chance encounter of two people from different worlds (a barefoot rustic maiden and a polished judge passing by who asks her for a drink from a spring) who each imagine life married to the other. That moment of imagination is fleeting, and both go on to predictable lives: The judge weds a wealthy woman; Maud marries an unlearned farmer.

The snippet in Clinton’s book is a mere tease. I’m adding a few more verses here to serve up a better sampling of Whittier’s sumptuous mastery of word, rhyme and meter.

After the judge sips from Maud’s tin cup, the pair share small talk of haying and weather and flowers and trees. As they parted unspoken dreams arose in both, yet the world drew each back into their respective station, and life goes on.

But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;
And the young girl mused beside the well,
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.

In older age, both occasionally still fondly recall their happenstance meeting; Whittier addresses the lamentations in the lines just before the phrase Clinton used:

Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;

But in closing, the devout Whittier favors fervent faith over futile melancholy.

Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;
And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!

Alert reader revision

Last week I credited Bing Crosby with singing Irving Berlin’s song “Abraham” in the movie Holiday Inn.

That was half-right.

However, as an astute reader noted (from memory, no less!), the lyric I singled out was actually sung by Mamie, played by Louise Beavers, with her children on her knee.

Kudos and thanks to Stephen Caldwell for helping set the record straight on a beautiful scene from a great film classic.

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Monumental miss

Posted on August 25, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

I’ve never met anyone who supports repealing the 13th Amendment, and reinstituting slavery. I’ve never heard of anyone proposing such a thing, regardless of how radically right the “alt-” reaches.

That peculiar institution perished forever on American soil in 1865, thank God. Involuntary servitude of that sort isn’t part of anyone’s daily life, and hasn’t been now for more than 150 years.

It is, however, part of U.S. history.

And in all the ruckus surrounding monuments lately, we’ve missed a tremendous opportunity for some truly teachable moments.

At an intellectual level, historical knowledge among average Americans runs on the low side. There’s no H in STEM, which helps explain why national benchmark scores for proficiency in history among American eighth-graders is around 18 percent.

Stories and examples of people, young and old, being befuddled about correctly connecting dates and events and wars and presidents and so forth are as amusing as they are commonplace.

YouTube videos of random Americans on the street being unable to answer the most basic questions of U.S. history garner views in the tens of millions for their humor.

Interviewer: “Who won the Civil War?”

Young woman: “We did!”

Every Fourth of July average passersby caught on camera can’t name a founding father, pin down the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, or even identify the country from which we gained our independence.

A populace that has trouble placing our founding conflict in the right century is most assuredly easily misled about the finer points of complex politics and economic pressures leading up to secession.

Instead of tearing statues down, we should be holding them up for discussion, and challenging everyone with an interest about the value of historical education—and the risks and costs of historical ignorance.

History books are typically large and thick for a reason. Skimming the surface on major historical matters generally results in mis-education, and the ensuing peril isn’t the erasure of history but the propagandizing of it. That’s what’s most on display in this ongoing uproar over Civil War statuary.

See what you can score on a few “Trivial Pursuit-type” questions:

1.Who wrote “In this enlightened age, there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”

(A) William Seward (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Abraham Lincoln (D) Henry Clay

2.Which Civil War general owned more slaves?

(A) William Tecumseh Sherman (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Ulysses S. Grant

3.Name the U.S. state whose Black Code of 1853 prohibited any black persons from outside of the state from staying in the state for more than 10 days, subjecting blacks who violated that rule to arrest, detention, a $50 fine, or deportation?

(A) Kentucky (B) Illinois (C) Missouri (D) West Virginia

The words condemning slavery as evil were written in a letter to his wife in 1856 by Robert E. Lee.

Contrary to popular belief, Lee owned no slaves. He was executor of his father-in-law’s estate, which included a slave plantation. Reports of Lee “freeing his slaves” are false; the slaves Lee freed belonged to his father-in-law, in accordance with the dying man’s wishes.

Sherman never owned slaves, having never lived in a state where slavery was legal. The only general among the three that apparently owned a slave was Grant, and the only evidence of that is a manumission document for a single slave Grant signed in 1859.

Like Lee, Grant managed his father-in-law’s farm on which a number of slaves worked.

Racist and discriminatory black codes were prevalent in antebellum northern states in what is now the midwest region. The language above is from Illinois, but other states such as Indiana and Michigan had similar discriminatory laws designed to impede racial immigration.

Indeed, in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville observed racial prejudice in America to be “stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant,” he wrote, “as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

He pondered the paradox, and offered a provocative proposition: “[W]hy have the Americans abolished slavery in the North …, why do they maintain it in the South, and why do they aggravate its hardships?” he asked.

“The answer is easily given. It is not for the good of the Negroes, but for that of the whites, that measures are taken to abolish slavery in the United States.”

It’s unclear how many of the chanting protesters have ever bothered to read Chapter 18 of Democracy in America, but a safe wager is the number would be minuscule. Tocqueville is only one voice on the matter; the vast chronicled record is full of brilliant thinkers.

The historical racial relationship in America isn’t tidy, and neither were the Civil War’s causes or consequences; simplistically portraying either as such will produce no progress.

The undeniable truth is that broader, deeper knowledge dispersed among any participants in this overcharged argument would bring greater empathy to all. It’s never too late to learn.

A toppled monument educates no one. Ignorance threatens us all.

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Eclipse Fever

Posted on August 18, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Monday will mark a milestone of celestial proportions. The swirling orbits of the sun and moon will align to produce the first total eclipse to span the entire U.S. in nearly a century, and the first to touch any portion of the country in nearly 40 years.

The last total eclipse to slide from sea to shining sea across America was in 1918, and Camden was right on the centerline path.

While none of Arkansas this time will be in the “path of totality”—that roughly 70-mile-wide shadow that will sweep over the land turning daylight into nighttime—the Natural State will get a full dose of a major partial eclipse.

In the northeast part of the state, residents are only a short drive (two to three hours or so) away from being able to see what has been repeatedly described as simply an indescribable vision.

In 1925, a total eclipse clipped the northeast U.S., and the New York Times front-page coverage was awash with superlatives about the sight.

“A Brilliant Show … Thrills Millions” the huge headline proclaimed, adding “City Halts to Gaze.” “Corona Divinely Beautiful,” one subhead read, and another reported that the watching multitude was “Awed by Jewel of Light Hanging from Luminous Ring.”

That “diamond ring” effect is visible in the totality zone, and it’s part of the “Baily’s beads” phenomenon. Those are little bright spots of light formed just prior to and just after totality in which the sun’s light is peeking around the rough edges of the moon’s surface.

Right before (and right after) the total eclipse occurs, the beads of light blink out until there is only one left, and the resulting image then resembles a ring with a single light-splashed diamond.

Most people have seen photos of total eclipses of the sun, and if you haven’t, any Internet search will return loads of them.

But the event promises to be one for which a photograph can simply not do justice. All previous witnesses attest: You have to see it to truly appreciate it. So “totality trips” are being planned with eager abandon.

Nationwide, more than 12 million people live within the path of totality, and while estimates vary about how many Americans will be driving to an “umbra site” for viewing, all predictions are in the millions.

The magnitude of the dip in workday productivity and the spike in non-rush-hour traffic jams will thus likely be momentous—as will the accompanying economic rarity of “eclipse tourism.”

From where the moon’s shadow will make landfall in Oregon to where it launches seaward again in South Carolina, towns and cities small and large will be cashing in on the cosmic spectacle. All along the totality path, hotels have been booked for months (sometimes years) and local populations are expecting to multiply, sometimes by tens of thousands.

Unassuming Casper, Wyo. (population 55,000) will be a prime watch spot, and if you happen to find an available hotel room, expect to pay well over $1,000. Some Airbnb properties are going for $5,000.

Hopkinsville, Ky., is a quiet town of 32,000, but because it will feature one of the longest eclipse durations in the nation, officials anticipate crowds totaling as many as 200,000 for Sunday and Monday. The city has been planning for eclipse traffic for five years, and the boost to the local economy might be as much as $30 million.

Nashville, Tenn., is one of the largest cities in the totality zone, and planners there are expecting a $20 million shot in the arm from overnight visitors arriving for the eclipse.

By all accounts, investing some time and money on Monday to witness the total eclipse will produce a priceless return. “It’s an experience that does not seem of this life or this world,” one astronomy author observed.

In addition to spectacular visuals—the “shadow bands” that radiate on light-colored surfaces can never be photographed, only seen by the naked eye—it’s a total-body encounter.

Because all the sun’s rays are blocked, the temperature can drop precipitously and noticeably, fooling plants and animals that night is at hand.

Seeing starlight at midday will be weird enough, but the glow from the sun’s revealed outer atmosphere is said to be odd and surreal. We normally never see solar plasma; little wonder everyone who gets a glimpse of it in the corona during an eclipse is awestruck.

There’s a siren-song aspect to eclipses, however. Their beauty belies a menacing peril: Looking at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can cause immediate, irreparable damage to your sight, and in some cases blindness. Eye safety is a must if you intend to catch the eclipse fever. Solar-film protective glasses are available lots of places; some experts prefer welding goggles.

Ironically, it is perfectly safe to remove eye protection during the brief period of total eclipse. It’s recommended, in fact; otherwise you won’t get the full extraordinary visual effect.

If it’s cloudy or you can’t make it on Monday, don’t fret. Another total eclipse will appear in 2024–and it will feature a totality path right through Arkansas.

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Speaking of federalism

Posted on August 5, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Aug. 1 was the designated day when the rubber starts meeting the road for 700 or so new laws in Arkansas. It marked the passage of the 90-day citizen referendum period following the end of the legislative session, after which laws without specific effective-date clauses go into effect.

One law that didn’t get passed (or even proposed) was to declare Tuesday Arkansas Federalism Day. That is, after all, the merit-worthy governmental system which lends the credence and authority to our state motto’s core principle.

Each of the United States is still free and independent in many ways, despite continual congressional encroachment, to enact legislation governing the broadest spectrum of everyday activities. The resulting blessings and curses, silliness and seriousness, praises and protests, and all other emanations in response to the assorted acts of the 91st Legislature in actuality serve to strike a celebratory chord.

Federalism not only lives, but thrives, and thank goodness it does.

It celebrates diversity at its most fundamental core. From the very start, which is to say from the earliest colonial times, the people of the various states were different. The states themselves were different, too—topography and climate helped create diverse dictates, mandates and habits regarding lifestyles, language and legacies.

All those state differences, refined through the decades, is what makes and keeps America interesting.

Texas has had 75 mph speed limits for years. We’re just now getting ours.

High school students in other states may or may not have to take personal-finance classes. It’s the law in Arkansas now.

Not every state lets suckers (mis)use their debit cards to play the lottery. It became officially accepted legal tender here on Tuesday. Some states don’t even have a lottery. And among those that do, they manage and regulate them differently.

Being united but different states makes for wonderful travel experiences, and one of the prime indicators of locality is the way we talk. Dialect is often a dead giveaway precisely because words, pronunciations and speech are so regionally rooted.

A couple of Ph.Ds studied the matter as part of a linguistic survey project at Harvard, and then visually mapped the informative and amusing results.

What do you call insects that glow at night? the researchers asked. Here in the Natural State, and across the whole South and most of the Midwest, they’re lightning bugs, of course. Get west of the plains of Kansas, however, and folks all call them fireflies.

Is a privately hosted sale of household items properly termed a garage sale, a rummage sale, a yard sale or a tag sale? It depends. Arkansas looks pretty split on the map; more along the eastern Mississippi River border favors the “yard” prefix, while the Northwest Arkansas area prefers “garage.”

There’s a solid Southern color block on the map for the answer to how a group of people is rightly addressed: We all say “y’all.” But up north and out west, it’s “you guys,” hands down.

When you’re thirsty for a carbonated beverage, where you live colors your drink request. Californians and New Englanders will ask for a soda. Northerners want a pop.

In Dixie we’ve turned a brand generic. Give us a coke.

Water fountain or drinking fountain? The latter in the South and East, the former beyond the Rockies.

A freight hauler is a: (1) semi/semitruck; (2) tractor-trailer or (3) eighteen-wheeler. Most of the nation falls into camp 1. There’s a camp 2 patch up in the northeast, and most of Louisiana and Mississippi and part of Arkansas belong to camp 3.

Do you lace up sneakers or tennis shoes? If you said sneakers, you ain’t from around here, or anywhere even near here.

Caramel is a pretty simple word, but the number of syllables pronounced is completely dependent on geography. The syrupy, three-syllable vocalization is limited to the lingering vowels of the Deep South.

Another drawling divide: the second “a” sound in “pajamas.” North of the Mason-Dixon they all incorrectly rhyme it with “jam.” Everybody knows it’s an “ah” sound, like “father.”

And hard as it is to believe, most Americans verbally mangle the obvious sounding out proscribed by the spelling of the word “lawyer.”

If you thought the “loy-er” pronunciation was limited to New Yorkers and their neighbors, think again. We who say “law-yer” belong to the rapidly shrinking minority.

The map depicting what miniature crustaceans are called looks like a colored layer cake: red across the southern bottom for crawfish, green in the middle for crawdad, and blue all along the Canadian border states for crayfish.

I decided to test the validity of an interactive graphic quiz published by the New York Timesfeaturing 25 questions from the original Harvard Dialect Survey (which had more than 100).

The online exam claimed it would produce my personal dialect map from my answers.

I dutifully replied to each query, and after the final submission, the map popped up as promised.

It’s unnerving to seem so easily predictable that a mindless tabulation tool can peg you.

But there it was. The dot for the city named most similar to me was sitting smack-dab in the Arkansas center.

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Magical feat

Posted on August 1, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Dumbledore. Hogwarts. Hermione. Hagrid. Voldemort. Muggles. Quidditch. Patronus. Gryffindor. Horcrux. None of those words were in anybody’s vocabulary back before June 1997, except one.

J.K. Rowling’s head had been full of the wizarding world of Harry Potter et al. for six years when she finally persuaded (after a dozen rejections) a publisher to roll the dice on her book. It was a small gamble: The Bloomsbury Publishing first print run was only 500 hardback copies, and two-thirds of those went to libraries.

That English first edition bore the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Executives at Scholastic Corp., which bought the American rights for publication, worried that younger readers on this side of the pond might confuse the title with philosophy, so they substituted “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

The title edit seems like a heresy now, in hindsight, especially since the book explicitly mentions French alchemist Nicolas Flamel, and the Philosopher’s Stone is a legend dating back at least 1,600 years.

But at the time the book was still relatively unknown, though proven popular in England, so license was lamentably taken. No one dreamed or predicted the ensuing phenomena.

It’s rare for a single author to literally change the world, especially one as unpresuming as Joanne Rowling. (The J.K. nom de plume was another change, courtesy of the publishing industry; her Bloomsbury agent thought a feminine name might stunt sales among male readers. Joanne actually has no middle name or initial.)

Indeed, the literary feat of the Harry Potter book series is nothing short of magical.

In Wikipedia’s list of best-selling books, which excludes those of a religious, ideological, philosophical or political nature, fewer than 10 individual volumes have sold 100 million copies or more in the annals of publishing. Every author on the list has been dead for decades, some for centuries, except one.

In the book series category, the Potter septuple set dwarfs other well-known and hugely successful competitors such as Twilight, Nancy Drew and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Collectively, Harry Potter books have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. That’s 12 times the Divergent trilogy sales, and 20 times the Hunger Games series.

Even though it’s been eight years since the final book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) was published, its record of 11 million copies sold in the first day of release is a record of spellbinding proportions. The only rival to come close—within 2 million copies of that number—is the preceding Potter book, that of the Half-Blood Prince.

For perspective, consider the best-selling books from last year. The Girl on the Train sold more than 800,000 copies in 2016, ranking it second.

The script for the new theatrical play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (not a novelization, but the actual character lines in playwright narrative) topped the list, selling more than 4 million.

Book sales alone, while a staggering measure of stupendous accomplishment, are only part of the Harry Potter story of cultural domination.

The first book sat atop the New York Times best-seller list for so long that other publishers finally pressured the Times to split its list, and distinguish between adult and children’s fiction–essentially giving the Potter book its own category.

Hollywood couldn’t resist tapping into the frenzy either, and the eight-film franchise (the Deathly Hallows novel was covered in two movies) proved as astronomically successful as the books.

Rowling had a heavy hand in their production, reserving script-approval rights and insisting on an all-U.K. cast, for example, and the results reflect favorably on her instincts. Film versions of fabulous novels often fall short; Harry Potter movies not only measured up, they raised the roof.

All of the Harry Potter motion pictures are included in the Top 50 grossing movies of all time. The last one, Deathly Hallows Part 2, earned $1.3 billion worldwide, and the total film series grossed more than $7 billion.

“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme parks are rumored to be on par with the enchanting nature of the books and movies. Merchandise sales add billions more to the revenue stream that can be traced all the way back to a single mom’s first fantasy manuscript—which 12 publishers all now greatly regret passing on.

I’m fortunate that the first two decades of the Potterverse coordinated with my own children’s coming of age.

I remember well my introduction to Rowling’s world, as a beach read that, much to my own surprise, I simply couldn’t put down. The summer releases of subsequent volumes often coincided with our family vacations, and we’d be up until the wee hours poring over the next installment.

More than once we attended a midnight viewing of the newest movie release, and though I was never in character costume for the event, I was accompanied by several who were.

The original Harry Potter generation is now old enough to start having children of their own. More than 4,000 pages of J.K. Rowling prose, and all the Hogwarts students’ adventures, patiently await them.

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Railway reverie

Posted on July 22, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

“A something in a summer’s day,” begins an Emily Dickinson poem that praises the long, lazy contemplation that often launches and lingers in July shade.

Squinting against the westward sun in my daily drive home, and glancing at the railroad tracks parallel to the highway, I’m drawn once again to dreaming about rural rail travel in the Natural State.

First, let’s lay a few facts on the brightly sunlit table.

Remember that TV commercial a few years back when gasoline prices were high in which a freight-train company boasted of moving a ton of cargo 400 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel? It’s more than just true; it’s conservative. The national average is around 430 miles per gallon, and some lines exceed 500 miles. A ton is 2,000 pounds. Or roughly the weight of a dozen people.

Passenger rail travel is 17 times safer than automobile travel, based on fatalities per billion miles. A dozen people dead in one year from train wrecks is a bad year. More than 30,000 people killed in car crashes is an annual average.

Texting and driving is bad business. It’s a horrible habit that has already killed and injured countless people. It’s also not going away. Forget stats, just look around next time you’re in your vehicle. Or look in the mirror.

Arkansas is a rural state, with regional population centers serving smaller communities in hub-and-spoke fashion. Whether northeast, northwest or central–people in little towns travel to big cities for work, health care, college, shopping, dining and entertainment.

The mode of transportation is almost exclusively the automobile. Many roads run right alongside railways.

Arkansans love their cars, or more accurately, their trucks and SUVs. When Popular Mechanicsmagazine published its list of “Unofficial State Cars” last year, the GMC Yukon prevailed in Arkansas, where it sells at 407 percent of its national average.

Nobody ever said automobiles were cheap, and they aren’t. The AAA estimates the average annual cost of owning a vehicle at $8,000. With well over 2.5 million vehicle registrations in Arkansas, discounting for commercial and public registrations, our collective yearly tab could still be in the $15 billion range.

Measured in annual miles driven per licensed driver, we’re a little above the national average at 15,000 per year. We criss-cross our state in two-, three- and four-hour driving trips frequently and regularly. Football season features throngs of motorists flocking to and from Fayetteville, Little Rock and Jonesboro.

Many people make weekly business trips to the state capital from those same corners.

Viewed in an aggregate analysis, all those facts present a bona fide opportunity. Here and now, 148 years after the ceremonial Golden Spike celebrated transcontinental unity, it’s time for Arkansans to come into the age of rail travel.

Granted, since rail passenger service was never prevalent here, the notion feels foreign. But habits can be changed, and should be when they save money, energy and lives.

Then there’s the cost. Trains have always been viewed as prohibitively expensive to set up, run and maintain. But innovative inspiration arrived via Vermont, where an outfit called AllEarth Rail recently unveiled new, value-driven ideas for restoring commuter rail service.

Headed up by energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, AllEarth Rail is using 1950s-era Budd rail diesel cars to slash costs and drastically improve efficiency over traditional diesel multiple unit (DMU) systems. The Budd cars are basically self-propelled passenger cars, with a compact but powerful diesel engine mounted below the floor.

A renovated Budd car costs 85 percent less than a new DMU car, requires half the crew and can seat half again as many riders more comfortably. Operationally, Budd cars provide high flexibility at low overhead. Maintenance costs are minimal (engines can be completely changed out in an hour), acceleration is good (54 mph in 90 seconds) and no costly switch engines or crew are required for en route divisions.

That means a single train can cost-effectively serve multiple destinations. There’s also no need for costly turnarounds at terminals; Budd cars have engineer controls at both ends.

Blittersdorf predicts AllEarth Rail can provide regional rail service at one-third the cost of Amtrak. That kind of savings makes Arkansas commuter rail transit worth a second (and third) look.

Maybe our own passenger-train initiative is anchored around major state universities, where funding might be coupled with educational investment as a built-in added benefit to students.

Costs could be minimized by keeping schedules and stops simple at first, and adapt as demand emerges. Consumer behaviors change when alternatives appear, and the perceived barriers to railroad riding would easily evaporate once it became available and commonplace.

Who predicted Uber’s popularity? If we had weekday morning and evening commuter trains running to UA, ASU and UALR, and weekend and holiday schedules anchoring sports and other calendar events, it’s anybody’s guess what additional entrepreneurship possibilities would arise around the newfound market of riders.

The state and taxpayers already heavily subsidize planes and automobiles. Trains would provide some real safety solutions, some needed relief to congested roadways and some welcome reduction on the carbon energy grid.

All aboard!

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Spirit of ’31

Posted on July 7, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

There is something momentous about a large and diverse population aligning along a universal plane of thought.

That’s what still happens every Fourth of July in America.

It was visible in Facebook feeds from sea to shining sea, which featured quotes, photos and videos honoring our national birthday. Posts were as varied as people themselves, and all highlighted what so proudly we hail. Some posted snapshots of their families adorned in red, white and blue. Some filmed fireworks. Some shared famous speeches or essays.

Every expression centered around the same theme, whether comic or romantic or dramatic. The love of liberty evokes the full spectrum of spillover emotions; the tear erupting from joy and hope is no less damp than that born of sympathy for struggle and sacrifice.

All were encompassed in achieving our Revolution; all are enshrined in our remembrances.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries after Thomas Jefferson’s declaration was adopted, Independence Day still harmonizes us to the common chorus of patriotism on parade.

John Adams predicted as much, with uncanny accuracy. He foresaw a national anniversary festival “with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”

The only smudge on his crystal ball obscured the date; Adams thought it would be July 2, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t technically adopted until July 4.

One notable and unexpected observer of a Fourth of July celebration in 1831 was a young French fellow who would, seven years later, publish a book chronicling his stay in America and his observations on our democracy.

The pen of Alexis de Tocqueville was not idle during his visit, and in addition to abundant notes Tocqueville also wrote numerous letters to his family in France. Those personal messages, contemporary to his daily activities as a visitor, are easier reading than his scholarly masterpiece work detailed with analytical scrupulousness and annotation.

The voyage across the Atlantic took 35 days, and a month at sea in those days and conditions is essentially incomprehensible for us today.

Tocqueville kept up his spirits, however, and shared stories of the adventure. Writing to his mother, he described his fellow passengers: “We didn’t really mingle until the sixth day, when everyone crept out of his hole. … I should like to acquaint you with the inhabitants of our little world, who, not counting a cow and a donkey, number exactly 181 by my reckoning, 30 housed in the cabin section, 13 in steerage, 120 in the bow, and 18 crew.”

When Tocqueville arrived in New York, he immediately began sharing his revelations regarding American propensities about work ethic, hospitality and food consumption.

He noted that the typical day began early with a couple hours of work before breakfast at 8.

“[W]e were quite surprised at first to see women appearing at the breakfast table with faces carefully made up for the day,” he wrote on May 14 to his mother. “We are told that this is customary in all private houses. Paying visits to a lady at 9 in the morning is not thought improper. …

“[W]e are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets,” he added. “Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack.”

In another letter the next day he reported the “incredible contempt” Americans had for distance on this sprawling continent.

Navigation on “immense” rivers and canals in America made travel consistently possible at “4 leagues an hour [12 knots],” he wrote. “Thus, people do not say that one is 100 leagues away from one’s destination, but 25 hours.”

In June, while visiting Sing Sing (Tocqueville’s official purpose in visiting America was to study prisons), he wrote to his father that “this population is one of the happiest in the world.” He credited American contentment to a universal spirit of industry that left no time for “troubling the State.”

“The more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth,” he said, “that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied.”

On July 4, 1831, Tocqueville was visiting Albany for administrative meetings, and encountered the state capital’s celebration of the 55th anniversary of American independence.

The parade and ceremony culminated in a large church, where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in its simple language (he characterized the reading as “in no way a theatrical performance”). But the effect he beheld awed and astonished him.

“It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there,” he wrote in a letter.

“In this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with [a previous] one … with which, for a moment, it shared all these generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”

Goosebumps in July continue to be a uniquely American tradition. May it always be so.

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Hard to watch

Posted on June 30, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Most videos of vicious criminal attacks like the ones released this week from New Orleans and Georgia carry a warning: “Contains graphic content” or “Viewer discretion advised” or “May be disturbing to some viewers” or similar. Inevitably, what frequently appears next on the screen should be extremely disturbing to all viewers.

Ironically, these types of videos are typically captured by security cameras, often without audio, and usually with a “wide angle” lens that minimizes detail. Thus they’re nowhere near as graphic as the simulated violence projected on massive movie screens, which features gruesome closeups of blood and gore and amped-up sounds for blows and gunshots.

But even the most empathetic moviegoers understand, deep beneath their artificially induced fears and horror, that these are all actors. They are people pretending to be bad guys. As soon as the camera stops filming, they all laugh and joke together.

There’s no real violence, no real blood, no real harm. Movie pseudo-violence is, in essence, a conjoined twin of fake news.

In contrast, watching security-cam footage of an attack invokes a series of shattering realizations: These really are bad guys. Those really are innocent victims. They really did get hurt. This actually happened. I’ve been in similar places and situations—it could happen to me!

In case you missed the revelatory and very disturbing videos that have gone viral in recent days, here’s a recap.

The first video shows a Bostonian pair strolling along in the French Quarter last Saturday night (in New Orleans for a religious conference, as it turns out), when suddenly a group of young men is seen running up from behind them.

One of the ambushing attackers leaps onto the back of the tourist on the left and drags him down in a choke hold, as another pummels him.

The other tourist turns, startled, to see what’s happening to his friend.

Ominously, the largest of the attackers is right behind him—unseen—with his arm back and ready to strike.

His full-force right hook blindsides and cold-cocks the tourist, who tumbles face-first onto the sidewalk, where a pool of blood forms beneath his motionless head.

In 15 short seconds, it’s all over. The victims are robbed and left to deal with the aftermath of their injuries.

The tourist knocked unconscious is still in critical condition.

Just hours earlier, a few blocks away, another video surveillance camera captured a lone man walking on a sidewalk—as another man trails him.

Suddenly the trailing man begins to trot, and as he gets within striking distance he unleashes a vicious roundhouse blow from behind to the right side of the victim’s head. When the slugged man staggers back to his feet, the attacker resumes swinging.

Ultimately the victim is able to flee across the street and out of camera range.

Over in Baxley, Ga., an assault on a female food-stand owner was video-recorded last Thursday. Two customers, a man and wife, evidently complained about their chicken being cold.

The owner apologized and refunded their money.

That wasn’t enough for the pair, who began hurling obscenities at the woman. When the owner came outside to tell them she had called the police, the female suspect went berserk in a flailing attack that broke the owner’s nose and backed her up against the wall.

What unfolds next on the video is chilling and indeed hard to watch.

The owner’s 15-year-old daughter gets out of their truck to help her mom. On the video she can be seen focusing on the female attacker. She is not watching, and does not see, the very large male attacker outside her frame of vision.

In a split second, he steps forward and drives a blindside straight-right punch into the petite teen’s face.

Her head is savagely snapped back and she is knocked off her feet. She tries to stand up but is visibly dazed as passers-by arrive to help.

“Who does that?” her mother said later in an interview. “Who punches a child like she’s a grown man standing there?”

The Baxley police chief said, in his 41 years on the force, “I have never seen anything like this.” If you watch the video, you’ll likely echo his sentiment.

Assaults are the most common of all violent crimes. Nationally, the rate of aggravated assault is nearly 50 times that of murder.

Louisiana has been a top-10 state for assaults for decades, and it also holds the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the land—for the past 27 years.

But cowardly criminals ambushing vulnerable victims pay little attention to state borders. With video cameras becoming ubiquitous, we’re all able to witness more criminal brutality at its ugliest.

Most of us cannot imagine blindsiding a stranger to steal his or her wallet, or slugging a child in the face when she’s not looking.

We must commit to more deeply study the factors that cause anybody in an advanced civilized republic to behave that way as a normal course.

It’s not only a shame that our society discounts concussions and broken jaws as “minor” injuries when dealing with violent criminals. It’s a national disgrace.

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Statehood cartography

Posted on June 23, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

June is statehood celebration month for Arkansas, which was admitted to the union as the 25th state on June 15, 1836.

We were truly the Natural State back then, with a scant population dotting the broad expanse inside our freshly decreed borders.

A cartographic document published by H.S. Tanner at the time illustrates the scarcity of towns. The counties aren’t fully formed, and precious few recognizable incorporated areas are present.

Up in the northeast corner, for example, no towns are listed at all in Greene, Mississippi or White counties. Among the small number of towns that are listed—no county boasts more than two—the names are mostly unfamiliar.

Good luck finding Jackson, once the county seat of Lawrence County, although a diligent sojourner can still navigate his way to the appropriately named Old Jackson Cemetery.

What’s left of Davidsonville is memorialized in a state park, and the only other Randolph County town marked is Columbia, which time has mostly obliterated except for an old church and cemetery.

Over in Jackson County, Litchfield was another early county seat that is gone with the wind, and the only outpost named on the 1836 map.

In Crittenden and Independence counties are the only two Northeast Arkansas towns which survive intact on modern maps: Batesville and Marion.

St. Francis County lists two towns: Franklin and Walnut Camp, neither of which exist today; Franklin was located in what now would be Cross County, near the St. Francis River.

North of Marion in Crittenden County, the map denotes the community of Greenock. A navigator today would find nothing but farmland where the early county seat once stood, and the funeral for the last person interred in the old Greenock cemetery occurred in 1935.

Izard County centers of population on the 1836 map are listed only as Pine Bayou and C.H., the latter of which may signify a “Court House,” given its proximity on the White River.

Looking over the rest of the state on Tanner’s cartographic rendition, only a handful of names still mark popular towns and cities: Little Rock, Benton, Hot Springs, Helena, Fayetteville, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren.

Several unincorporated communities, like Carrollton in Carroll County and Collegeville in Saline County, are featured on the old map.

City and town locations shifted over the 18 decades since the statehood map against a geography that’s largely unchanged. Our rich supply of rivers were all mostly named by 1836, and landmarks such as Magnet Cove in Hot Springs County and Sugarloaf Mountain and “Petite Jean” in Scott County were marked.

The latter mountain inspired visitor Washington Irving, a few years prior to statehood, to wax eloquent: “a picturesque line of waving highlands—of mingled rock and cliff and wood, with far bottom below.”

None of our prominent present-day lake destinations existed back then, of course, but the large oxbows along the Mississippi are shown, with Grand Lake down in Chicot County specifically called out.

In accordance with Missouri Compromise stipulations, Arkansas’ application as a slave state was paired with Michigan’s—though there were initially few slaves within the boundaries of the Arkansaw Territory when it was organized in 1819.

That would change quickly.

Census figures show that the slave population grew from fewer than 2,000 in 1820 to more than 111,000 on the eve of the Civil War. The reason for the influx was primarily the growth of cotton production in the southeast regions of the state, and as an early land of opportunity, the state’s overall population saw similar gains.

Only 12,000 souls called the entire territory (which included most of modern-day Oklahoma) home in 1820. Four decades later, state residents in a land mass roughly 50 percent smaller totalled 435,000 in the 1860 census.

Life in Arkansas in the late 1830s or early 1840s was still primitive, compared to northern and eastern states, and accounts from the time vary in describing the people that travelers encountered.

One German visitor related his stay in 1838 at the small Northeast Arkansas farm of a man named Saint, with an Irish wife: “Our hosts to all appearances are very religious people, and we had prayers every evening. … The house was built of logs, roughly cut. … A field of about five acres was in front of the house, planted with Indian corn …”

He also described a beautiful night in which the soft breeze and starlit sky kept him and two American co-workers, one of whom was a “strict Methodist,” from sleeping:

“[T]here was nothing more natural than that we should talk of the stars, then of heaven, then of religion; and as we entertained very different views, our conversation degenerated into a hot dispute which was put to an end to about midnight by a heavy shower of rain …”

That selection is taken from A Documentary History of Arkansas, which serves up 300 pages of letters, essays, editorials, legislation and other material to chronicle our state’s origins and progression.

Arkansas history is a rich but often untapped resource. The statehood anniversary is a good time to remedy that, even if only a little.

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