Over the weeks that you and I have been figuratively tramping around the American West together, I’ve been stuffing clippings and notes in my pocket. At the risk of revealing how diffuse and cluttered my mind has become, here are four of the items that caught my eye.
With the nation still scuffling to pull itself out of a prolonged recession, every trend is scrutinized to smithereens. And something is puzzling:
Many, if not most, businesses have laid off some workers or cut their hours. Yet as a whole, U.S. companies are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were before the steep economic downturn began.
This is in part, perhaps, because those who’ve been lucky enough to hold onto good jobs panicked. Grateful to have avoided the fate of friends who lost jobs and have been fruitlessly looking for work for months, they are cheerfully toiling longer and harder in order to stay in their bosses’ good graces.
Older workers, in particular, believe they’d stand little chance against younger job-seekers in the “cold, cruel world” where even a menial job is pounced upon like a meaty bone tossed to growling jackals. Companies can leisurely pick from among hundreds of eager, desperate, applicants who are willing to work cheap. And old-timers are not the likely ones to be picked.
As the Washington Post’s Neil Irwin reported, those who still have desks and cubicles are meekly acceding to stated or implied demands for more hours, greater output — even benefit cuts, if need be. Smaller bones are better than no bones at all.
So healthy companies would seem to have it made. They can downsize and fill vacancies with affordable newbies — often part-timers or contract employees whom they don’t have to pay health or retirement benefits. Or they can let vacancies stand, knowing that the remaining staff will be so thankful to have jobs that they’ll work longer and harder and produce just about as much as a larger workforce did before.
A Rise from the South
It’s said that time is the best healer. But every once in awhile, something pulls away a bit of the scab.
Recently, Virginia’s new Republican governor, Robert McDonnell, declared April “Confederate History Month” in his state.
Confederate imagery abounds in Virginia, whose capital city, Richmond, was the last capital of the rebellious Confederate States of America in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.
Virginia named one of its main thoroughfares “Lee-Jackson Highway” after Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, two of the South’s most prominent generals. “Lee-Jackson Day” in January is still a state holiday.
From 1984 to 2000, in an odd effort to promote racial harmony, Virginia added Martin Luther King Jr.’s name to the holiday, then uncoupled it when it was clear that the black civil-rights leader would soon get his own national day.
In the town squares of hundreds of southern county seats, including many in Virginia, statues to ordinary Confederate soldiers stand tall. Carol, who’s spending three months photographing in Alabama, and I even found one in little Tuskegee, home of the nation’s most famous historically black university.
Throughout the South, too, you’ll see defiant symbols of what some southerners call “The War of Northern Aggression” (or “Invasion,”) “The War Between the States,” or — more mirthfully — the “Late Unpleasantness.” It was not until 2000 that the Confederate flag came down from its perch atop South Carolina’s capitol building in Columbia. Civil-rights groups’ calls for boycotts of South Carolina events and attractions were only slightly muted when state officials lowered the rebel flag but then planted it on the capitol lawn.
Virginia’s past two governors — both Democrats — had allowed Confederate History Month to go dormant by simply ignoring the usual proclamation. In reviving it, Governor McDonnell said Confederate History Month would promote tourism in a state where battlefields and Civil War re-enactments are huge historical draws.
In his remarks, though, McDonnell never mentioned that the bloody war that tore the nation asunder was largely fought to preserve or eliminate human bondage in the Confederate states. Former governor Douglas Wilder, an African American, called Governor McDonnell’s omission of the word “slavery” anywhere in his proclamation “mind-boggling.” But the governor’s supporters endorsed McDonnell’s assertion that the special month helps Virginians “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”
Ordinary rebel soldiers, many of them already poor and barefoot, certainly sacrificed — their lives, in many cases. Citizens lost their homes, crops, and livestock as Union forces slashed and burned their way through the South. The sacrifices made by Confederate leaders — whose “fire-eater” rhetoric and romantic appeals to chivalry sweet-talked an undermanned and poorly armed region into a foolhardy war — are harder to fathom.
Two days after he issued the Confederate History Month proclamation, Governor McDonnell apologized “to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed” by the failure to mention slavery. It was, he said, “an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders.”
The flap over Confederate History Month brought uncomfortable questions back to life: If just about everyone can agree that slavery was the South’s economic underpinning, and that its states went to war to preserve an evil institution, should that period be expunged from the national memory? Should the Confederacy be venerated? Or can Confederate History Month artfully comingle the two points of view — saluting the bravery of southern ancestors but condemning the institution that 620,000 Americans died trying to end or maintain?
My southern friends tell me that some white southerners — relentlessly preoccupied with righting what they see as a terrible wrong from a century and a half ago — still fight the Civil War in their hearts and minds, while the region has moved on: growing, modernizing, and building upon its racial diversity.
If you live west of, say, Istanbul, you’ve probably heard of April Fool’s Day. It’s April 1, the day when French and French-Canadian kids sneak up and slap a picture of a fish onto their friends’ backs. Then they yell, “April Fish!” and laugh uproariously.
People also play April 1 pranks on each other elsewhere in Europe, out of some hoary tradition having to do with Pope Gregory XIII’s decree in 1582 that the new year would no longer start on that date. Each April Fool’s Day Americans, too, get perverse pleasure out of telling false stories while striving to keep a straight face.
“D’ja hear? Vice President Biden just resigned!” Stuff like that. When the victim replies, “Really?” with a gasp, your cleverness is confirmed. “April Fool!” you announce, and laugh uproariously.
When I was a kid, I thought it was incredibly inventive each April 1 to whisper to whatever girl sat in front of me to stay still, VERY still.
“What?” she would respond nervously out of the corner of her mouth, holding herself stiff as a board.
“There’s a spider on your neck!”
Her shriek, leap from her seat, and frantic brush of her lapel pretty much coincided with my smug announcement of “April Fool!”
Some April Fool’s Day stories are classics. In 1957, our friends at the BBC ran a TV piece that showed Italians happily harvesting spaghetti from trees. This prompted predictable inquiries on the telly, such as, “Do you know where I could get some vermicelli-tree seeds?”
In 1998, rational mathematicians across the United States panicked when an obscure society reported that the State of Alabama had changed the value of the mathematical constant pi. The alarmed whizzes completely missed the significance of the April 1 date on the announcement.
Many a radio disc jockey, stretching cleverness beyond its limits on April 1, has solemnly reported the death of a prominent figure who is actually alive and about to get angry. After a dirge or two is played and stunned listeners call to convey their shock and sadness, the jock cries out, “April Fool, you idiots!” He then laughs uproariously, closes out the show, and is fired.
In a famous April Fool sports hoax in 1985, author George Plimpton raised the flickering hopes of New York Mets fans when he reported that the baseball team had signed an amazing phenom, Sidd Finch, a pitcher who could throw a ball at 270 kmh (168 mph) with unerring accuracy. Not only that: Finch had studied in Tibet and practiced the art of “siddhi” yogic mind and body control.
Girded by all these whoppers to be wary, we in Washington, D.C., did not for a moment buy a story that appeared in the Washington Examiner this April 1. The newspaper reported that the hometown Washington Redskins football team had acquired Donovan McNabb, the star quarterback of its hated rival, the Philadelphia Eagles. And what made the deal sweet, the paper added, was that all the ’Skins had to give up in return was a second-round prospect in the upcoming draft of college players.
The story was preposterous — an obvious fib: McNabb was an all-star performer and an acclaimed leader of men. The Eagles would never send him to an arch-foe that competes in the same division. Besides, the story appeared on . . . April 1. Duh!
The Examiner quickly fessed up. The lame story had been the best April Fool’s tale it could come up with.
Then, three days later, sports fans’ tranquility on a beautiful Easter Sunday was shattered when word pinballed across town that Donovan McNabb had in fact just been traded to the Redskins for a second-round draft choice.
We’re Not in Kansas Any More
Speaking of April Fool’s Day, if you’re a Google user, you’ve probably noticed little touches that the search engine adds to its home page every once in awhile. A green motif on St. Patrick’s Day, for instance, or a goblin face on Halloween.
But for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why, when I opened the site on the morning of April 1, the word “Topeka” appeared — without explanation — in place of the usual “Google” trademark.
Why the name of this city in Kansas, out of nowhere?
It was another April Fool’s gag of sorts, and a clever one. With his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt explained that “Google” became “Topeka” for a day to honor the Kansa Indian tribe, which, he said, was famous for digging potatoes. His site, in turn, is known as a good place to dig for information.
The switch was a good-natured reply to Kansas’s capital city, which has been lobbying to become the testing ground for Google’s new ultra-fast fiber-optic network, which will dramatically improve access to the Internet and bring jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to some community, somewhere. At least 22 cities had mounted expensive Facebook and other Internet page campaigns aimed at catching Google’s eye and contract.
Topeka’s mayor issued a proclamation changing the name of his town to “Google, Kansas,” for the entire month of March. Had I been there, I’d have run over to the train station and changed the name of the famous line to the “Atchison, Google, and Santa Fe.”
“Whether we get the Google Experiment or not,” wrote the Topeka Capital Journal during “Google, Kansas” Month, “the excitement alone has been a ton of fun!”
Hoary. Gray or whitened by age.
Pi. Pronounced “pie,” this is the mathematical ratio of the circumference of a circle to the circle’s diameter. It’s approximately 3.14159265 to 1.
Smithereens. Small fragments or bits, as in “blasted to smithereens.” It comes from the Irish “smidirin.”
Vermicelli. Pronounced “ver-mi-CHELL-ee,” this is round and very thin spaghetti. The name in Italian means “little worms.”
Whopper. Something really big, as in a fish or a highly exaggerated joke.