<![CDATA[JACK B DOWNS - Book Review Blog]]>Thu, 19 Oct 2017 16:32:26 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Juan Williams - Show Don't Tell]]>Fri, 28 Oct 2011 18:19:12 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2011/10/juan-williams-show-dont-tell.html  I’ve been listening to the debate about Juan Williams’ firing from National Public Radio with – well, frankly, there are bigger things in the world. But one element of the discussion hooked me. It’s not the part about what he said. For those of you who’ve stopped watching news of any form, Juan is a former NPR news analyst who freelances on Fox News.  NPR fired him because of what he said on Fox News last week.

            He said something about fearing the sight of Muslims in Muslim-wear on planes. I immediately cancelled our flight to Orlando. Kidding. Muslims expressing their Muslim-ness doesn’t fill me with dread.  It’s the women in silk jogging togs (matching top and bottom) with earpieces and a laser stare.  The women getting eight things done to my one. The women who are just older versions of the Pom Pons in high school who couldn’t be convinced I existed even if I tackled them in the hallway.

         I realize that if I were a well-known news personality making those statements, I‘d be responsible for you developing an irrational fear of the produce aisle at Safeway, or the sidelines at the Saturday soccer game. That’s where they propel their Escalades, to menace guys like me.

            But I digress. Sometimes the answer to a present-day problem lies in combining something tried and true with something new. Cool how that works. Take Groupon. The first recorded use of the coupon was when Joseph (of the Technicolor Dreamcoat) needed to quickly unload extra grain after a bumper crop in Egypt.  This led to the reunion of the 12 sons of Jacob, and later to the invention of the internet. You get the idea. So Groupon joins the old idea with new technology and voila! Another billionaire too young to remember when you had to shake a thermometer.

            Anyway, this leads to the larger question in the whole Williams-NPR affair.  Or, as I’ve coined it, NPR Shoots-Self-in-Foot-With-Gradeschool-Firing-Gate (Look for this term to go viral.  You heard it here first.) 

         The larger question, of course, is that of journalistic integrity – the notion that journalists occupy a special place in the panoply of all professions by reporting the newsobjectively. As opposed to news analysts, who say how they feel about the news, and its impact on larger social issues.  The question is, “Does journalistic integrity matter anymore, or as an enlightened society can we just admit that it never existed in the first place, and is not a realistic goal to strive for?”

         One way to view the question is through the prism of the age-old admonition to students of English Composition – Show, Don’t Tell. (This is not the same as the other topical debate commanding headlines this week – Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.  More on that later.)

         The caution to show, rather than tell, the reader in your narrative suggests that readers are bright and capable folks – similar in intelligence to the writer, if you think about it. So the job of the writer is not to tell a story. The writer’s job is to construct visions in the reader’s head, and to bundle those images to show the scene. To do otherwise (we counsel the fledgling scribe), is to demonstrate laziness toward the craft, and to be condescending toward the reader – both mortal sins in the moral code of writing. 

          It may sound somewhere between silly and impossible to imagine that a journalist can report facts without inflection – to let the images of the story speak for themselves, without letting the journalist’s personal views distort the written images. Maybe that’s why they call it a craft.   

         When a writer attributes intent to the actor in a written piece, that’s a clue that observation is giving way to editorializing.  When terms like pernicious, conspiracy, plead, rant, afraid, and covert appear – well, your Honor, they all call for speculation on the part of the witness – in this case the journalist. You get the idea. In Juan’s case – can I call you Juan? – worried and nervous were the offending terms. 

            Juan, show me Muslims at the airport in Muslim garb. Don’t tell me how to feel about them. In fact, if you show me the visions in your head, I may feel something completely different. Your job is not to tell me how to feel. Your job is to show me the world you see. That is, of course, when you’re a journalist. Which arguably is a full-time, not a part-time, job.

          Show, Don’t Tell, Mr. Bottorf at Parkdale High School would say, in another world, in another life. Sometimes the world that was still has something to offer the world that is.

         Good luck at Fox, Juan.

<![CDATA[Pumpkin Field]]>Fri, 21 Oct 2011 18:20:41 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2011/10/pumpkin-field.html(This is a dusted-off story for the spooky season. The idea came to me walking through a pumpkin patch on a farm surrounded by McMansions in the new suburbs. Ever wonder what secrets reside in those ancient homesteads tucked among the tract homes?)

         The old woman leaned on the post at the edge of the wood porch, straining to see through the mist. Before her, the vast pumpkin field laced its greenish-yellow tentacles in every direction. The land lay exhausted, bound tight in a web of the soft, pliant vines. The cloying odor of decay clung all around her meager homestead.

         She squinted at a dark hillock in the middle distance, an unwelcoming island in the eye of the moon’s cold beam. Bursting from the center of the mound was a tree of indistinct genus. No leaves adorned its arthritic branches, but it was thick with thorns. The skin of gnarled wood repelled the sickly yellowish luminosity misting the field. No milky light reflected off the main trunk or crippled branches from any angle. The ancient growth could have been a darker slash in the horizon, where no light escaped, but was rather ingested.

         As the countryside receded in the pre-dawn fog to a line of dark trees, the rolling field could have been a swelling ocean, the dead tree a scuttled sailing craft. Twinkling lights dotted the top layer of trees on every side, completing the unsettling illusion of a black sea heaving silently in the faint breeze, land beckoning in the distance. She glanced down and grimaced at her foolishness, noting how tightly she gripped the rail of the porch.

         The sound from the pumpkin field’s furthest edge came to her well before she could see anything. She held her breath, listening with eyes pinched shut. Her head swiveled slowly to one side and another, like a rusted radar dish, tuning to the shuffling noise of something treading the landscape.   

         The creature hove into view, slogging over the viscous vines, smashing rotting pumpkin meat under its clawed paws. It took no notice of the pale moon glow, or the cutting, cold wind. She could see it more clearly now, passing close to the gnarled tree. Its snout lifted to sniff at the stench, and it squelched a sound that might have been satisfaction.  

      The small figure draped over its scaled back moaned as the creature stepped hard in some small rodent hole and lurched on the pumpkin field’s rutted surface. The thing lumbered across the molding field, pausing to scratch its hide against the rough bark of the dead tree. It then continued its journey home. When it reached the porch and the old woman, the beast bent and lowered its burden off its back, with a gentle and graceful economy that no longer surprised her.

         The previous evening, the creature had risen from its place by the hearth when the old woman’s husband had worried the door open, struggling with a load of wood. It had bounded outside the instant the door swung wide. His arms filled with kindling, the old man cursed and kicked at the thing as it skittered across the rough-hewn porch. He’d stomped in and slammed the thick wood door in the beast’s wake. She never heard what it heard, what call beyond her range summoned it from its place by the fire out into the darkness.  

          The woman bent, and lifted her shawl to swaddle the girl, remembering another visit long ago. 


         The rain spit down from a roiling sky, clouds tossing like foam on an enraged sea. Lightning flared the landscape into garish daylight for instants. In the same beat, the thunder slammed down to thrum the land. Ernst, her mate, huddled at the rough-stone opening of the fireplace, shivering in his soggy garments.

         The storm had descended like a specter, sudden and malevolent. The old dray horse had panicked, shuddering, mist flaring from its nostrils just outside the meager barn. The farmer had beaten the roan nag nearly senseless, but it had just stood rooted, eyes huge and moist, petrified. Ernst had finally given up and stamped into the cottage through the gray slanted rain.

         He growled when his wife offered the steaming tea, then took the mug and sipped at it, calming. The fury of the summer storm was as she imagined Judgment Day, the final act in a nerve-scraping play. The sky hunched down, breathing needles of lashing rain and lightning to spear anything so hapless as to be out exposed on the land. 

         She sat a little back from the fire, at the window, watching the dray horse vibrate in terror, steaming in the cloudy spray. The horse would likely perish in the storm, from fear or a lightning blast. She was a farmer’s wife, and death was always a companion. Life was trouble upon trouble, a path of missteps and heartaches, with a flat granite stone at the end. 

         She swiveled at a flash of light. From the brooding gray hull of a cloud, a half mile beyond her garden, a cone of light shot down to the ground. She tensed, expecting the crack of thunder. Instead, a silent ball of red flame, veiled in dense black smolder, billowed up from the wounded field. 

         The next morning, she rose early in the eerie quiet. She washed, dressed, and slipped out through the front door. The land oozed wet and steaming under a pellet-gray, close sky. Earthy rich and loamy smells assaulted her nostrils, a blend like sour urine and rotting wood. She stepped around twisted branches and pieces of fencing, past her flattened square of sweet corn. 

         She approached the spot where the light had fingered down from the sky. The ground for several yards was charred, wisps of noxious smoke curling in the morning air.

         At the center of the scarred patch gleamed a strange cylinder, resembling a thin, shiny ashcan, jutting from the earth. The section she could see was perhaps as long as her leg. It leaned angled, as if it had been heaved spear-like from beyond the horizon.

         If it had fallen from the sky, it seemed remarkably intact, excepting where a thin portion of its outer skin had peeled back, offering her a glimpse inside the canister. She moved closer to the odd assemblage, staring in confusion.

         Just inside the opening lay an empty cavity. She saw that one side of the peeled section was hinged to the main tube. A smear of something thick and dark from the opening dripped down the side of the device, and a puddle of the same ooze clumped on the earth below. Then she saw it.

         Her first instinct made no sense. Flounder. Not that the thing resembled a fish – it was about the volume of a soldier’s helmet. But one half of the animal was not symmetrical with the other. It was as if two species were fused. This gray living thing possessed lidless eyes, scaled skin, and three appendages. Its eyes gazed wetly, perhaps studying her, neither desperate nor fearful.

         Having lived always on a farm, she was versed in the cruel tricks a capricious God will play on His birthed creatures: calves with two heads. Piglets with no eye sockets. This malformed beast-babe would not have struggled to survive, she thought, if it could glimpse the bleak future awaiting it in a world terrified of the strange.

         Wherever it had come from, it was now part of the farm, until some other whim of the gods snatched it away. She bent, clucking, and undraped her shawl from her shoulders.


     “Woman, I toldja saving the abomination’s life was a scheme hatched in hell.” The old man loomed over his grey-haired, wrinkled mate, as she stroked the golden hair of the disheveled child in her lap. A dark, stained cattle blanket draped the sleeping girl’s legs, and soiled socks covered her feet. “That beast dragging the outside world to our door!”

         “Look at her, Ernst. Where do you think she comes from?”

         “For sure we’ll never learn from the monst-”

         “Shhhh!” She hissed up at her husband, gazing into the corner by the fireplace. 

         “Ach, now!” He flung his hands up. “It’s taken to understanding our words, has it?” “Gawd.”

         “And mind your language in front of the child!”

         “What that – child – will hear from my lips is nothing compared to the sights she has already beheld this night, unless God was merciful and she was already out cold.”

         He was rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth, considering. The woman rocked the child slowly, looking up at him. She had seen the look, when Ernst was worrying out a problem. She’d seen it many times as their hardscrabble farm, once buffered by vast holdings of more affluent farmers, slowly squeezed itself in the midst of huge luxury homes. Only a thin belt of woodland shielded them from these strange city people, young and cheerful voices raised on warm summer days, cooking and mowing and splashing within easy hearing.

         “You are right about one thing,” Ernst sneered. “The name of God has no place here.” He stepped toward the black shadow in the corner, and raised a hand as if to strike it. A quick snuffle emanated from the dark shape, neither fearful nor threatening.

         “It’s not like when the- thing first arrived. Then we had no neighbors. No one asking questions. Now, we are fenced on all sides by houses full of people who look down on us. They don’t know us or care to. They won’t even buy our pumpkins anymore. They need hayrides and marchin’ through the corn and big bouncy rides for their spoiled brats. They just want us gone!”

         The man spat, rubbed his stubbled chin, and turned on his heel, pulling the rough door shut behind him as he stomped out into the day.

         The old woman rocked, humming an unhurried tune. She had seen much trouble in her day, and Lord knows many more days lay behind than before her. She held the child, and gazed into the dark corner where the creature lay. The beast was a misery to be sure, and drew misery to itself like wool draws cat fur, and never intending any mischief, she was just sure of it.

         She had raised it up, in the way of those who devoted their meager life to the land. Its living or dying was not subject to her concern.

          In the afternoon, the woman stirred the steaming apple mixture, sniffed, and added several shakes from her cinnamon can. The beast had lived, somehow. No matter what she’d tried to feed it, the thing showed no interest. It grew only slowly, but grow it did. It did not drink anything, as far as she could tell, but she always left a bowl of water near the stove. It would hunch unmoving over the bowl, staring into the still water for hours. She would look over its snout into the dark depth of the bowl. But all she saw was the creature’s reflection. 

         Six years ago, the beast had tumbled from the sky. Ernst was never kind to it, but it would not be alive if Ernst had made her turn it out. Life was full of twists. One wouldn’t expect so much rareness, living on a stingy spit of land. Yet here had come another creature, decidedly more human, laid out in the corncrib, hidden from the searchers Ernst was sure would come.

         At his roadside stand, he heard about the accident, over off the new road last night. He’d raced up to the house to tell the woman, and to pace. At first, it had seemed clear: call the police, and tell them the little girl was alive and safe. But then his eyes had gone red and his voice spluttered – how had the girl come to be on their farm? How could he explain her presence here? She could not have wandered, in her state, all the way from the scene to their door.

         “I need time to think, woman!” he had said, his eyes full of anger, and, she saw, fear. 

         She knew better than to try to talk to him. Ernst needed to work it out in his way. She hoped he would choose the right thing, though God alone knew what that was, and God did not often visit here.

         She turned at the sound of the latch lifting. Her husband had been gone all day. Ernst stepped inside, stole a look at her, then glanced down again, and closed the door softly. The creature shifted in its corner and settled. For once, Ernst didn’t take notice. 

         He shrugged out of his ancient oilskin, and hung it on its peg by the door. Moving to the sink, he shoved the sleeves of his long johns to his elbows, and jabbed his gnarled hands under the running water.

         “How is the girl?” She wiped her own hands on the starched apron, and eased a stray lock of gray hair from her forehead with the back of one hand. She lowered the flame below the simmering pot a notch. Then she noticed the red clay on the knees of his overalls.

         Her heart lurched. “Should I try feeding her again? Does she show any sign of stirring?”

         He rinsed the soil from his forearms, and lathered his hands with soap from the dish.

          “It wasn’t going to work trying to explain what she was doing under our roof, now was it? Give me no choice but to make sure she’s not discovered. Such foolishness and danger. But she’s well hidden now.”

         “What did you do, Ernst?” She felt something inside her fall and settle to the bottom, like a penny coming to rest in a wishing pond.


         The next day police did come, asking questions. The beast was hidden safe in the vegetable cellar, the trap door concealed under scattered hay. The two officers were polite, but their eyes wandered constantly, peering into the corners and shadows of the small cabin and outbuildings.

         “Yeah, one passenger ejected. Female. But her daughter’s gone missing. One shoe found, not the adult female’s. And some unidentified prints in the mud. You haven’t seen anything…unusual? ”

          Ernst stood on the porch, his gnarled hands resting on the rail. “Prints? What kind of prints?”

         “In the last few years, Department of Natural Resources says we’ve had some anomalies here in the county. The’re’s a word. Deer carcasses mostly. Hunters would find animal cadavers, back in the woods. Eaten by – well, we don’t know exactly. We thought maybe bear-”

         “I never heard of bear attacking deer.”

         “The deer probably weren’t killed by – whatever it was ate them. More likely wounded by hunters, and died in the open. But their bodies – we could never be sure, and no one was pressing charges-”

         “Here in Harford County? I think the last bear must be gone from here a long time ago,” Ernst responded thoughtfully.

         “So did we.” The patrolman stared out over the field, his nose wrinkling. “But this isn’t any bear.”

         “Where’s your dog?”

         Ernst turned to look empty-eyed at the officer, as they passed out of the cabin into the dooryard.

         “I noticed the water bowl,” the officer said.

         “We get cats sometimes.” Ernst shrugged, as if to say who knows? “From the neighbors.” The old woman noticed the two officers exchange a smirking glance. “The water we can afford,” Ernst continued. “So we leave it out for strays.”

         The woman gave her husband Ernst a hard look, but he avoided his wife’s gaze. If the officer had glanced at the old woman in that moment, she was sure the he would have seen the lie. But he was peering across the yard, out at the landscape of decaying vegetation. 

         The police eased into the patrol car, pointed it back down the grooved lane, and drove slowly away.


         No one else came asking questions after that. Ernst never told his wife where he buried the girl, and she didn’t ask. Somewhere in the acres of pumpkins, he had sewn the child. Next year she would rise in the field. Nothing is ever wasted on the farm, just as there is never any gain.

         She felt bad about the girl, alone and cold somewhere out there. But on a farm, death and life shared the same gambler’s coin. Ernst was no more unpredictable than God, she thought, and that was the end of what she thought about it. 

         The old woman stood on the porch, listening to the soft snuffling from inside the cabin, and gazed out over the withering pumpkin field.

<![CDATA[The Awesome Colossal Quiver]]>Wed, 24 Aug 2011 18:22:09 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2011/08/the-awesome-colossal-quiver.html My eyes opened this morning to clear, vivid sunshine here outside the nation’s capital. For an instant, the world was normal. Time to rise and greet the welcoming day.

     Then it all came rushing back.

     It was a day much like this one. Yesterday. A time so close, well, chronographically. But now the peace I knew resides on the other side of a great regional trauma.  Since the spinmeisters haven’t seen fit to attach a moniker – probably because even they, jaded as they often are, are themselves still reeling and shuffling in dumb fascination through the rubble of the cataclysm – let me humbly christen the Event as the Awesome Colossal Quiver, or ACQ.

     I know I know. What words can possibly capture the upheaval we all experienced? My mind tells me it was only seconds, but as so many others have said, it seemed to go on for a half-minute or more

     Les Bagel of nearby Finksburg summed it up for all of us: “It felt just like an earthquake! Don’tcha think?”

     Without the support of the unaffected parts of the country, it is unclear how we could go on. I am reading for the hundredth time one post from FACEBOOK, from a supporter relaying a message of hope. I am sure there will be others too, as the hours stretch into weeks. I can barely make out the words. The laptop screen blurs through my tears. But just a brief snippet from the piece:

     “Hey. Did you feel the quake? Musta been cool.”

     Okay. That was the whole piece, and they probably would’ve said more, but people who weren’t here, in this place, at the precise moment, will forget ACQ long before we are able to put it behind us.  I wish I could remember the exact time, to mark the anniversary each passing annum. But miraculously the lights did not dim, the power did not go out. PEPCO must be popping champagne in every office and repair truck in the region. 

     We will go on. We are Americans, after all. East Coasters to boot. We are the same stock who clawed back from the Flurry Fury of the great December 2009 Dusting. We are down, but not out. 

     Tomorrow will be time enough to return to other worries – the location of Quaddafi, the Cat Three hurricane currently bearing down on North Carolina. Let the days own trouble be sufficient..am I right?

     For today, we simply reach out, neighbor to neighbor and Democrat to Democrat. Or those other guys, as the case may be. Today we grieve. For the upturned lawn chair. For the early releases, and cancellations, and the myriad rippling consequences of ACQ.  For traffic and low interest and for a president that lay in his hammock while the nation’s capital trembled. 

     So continue to pray for us. Be generous in your donations. And be sure, we will rise from ACQ stronger.

<![CDATA[America's Got Gymkana]]>Wed, 10 Aug 2011 18:23:09 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2011/08/americas-got-gymkana.htmlI am just another bozo on the bus. But once in my life, for four glorious years, I was a member of the University of Maryland Gymkana Troupe. As I sit here counting on my fingers and toes, and then my wife’s, it has been almost as many pounds ago as years ago. Jimmy Carter was campaigning for president in a new wave of hope after Vietnam and Nixon’s departure.

I didn’t appreciate at the time what a unique opportunity Gymkana was for a guy like me – a commuter student in a sea of faces in a university factory overwhelmed with its commitment to at least offer an education to every graduating Maryland high school senior.

I discovered Gymkana the very first day of college, quite by accident – for those young enough to believe still in coincidence. I followed the sounds of laughter and pounding flesh down a dark hall in Cole Field House, and entered the double wooden doors to a room of magic. 

For me, it was the trampolines. I eventually worked up the courage to take a vault too, and the rest was the best part of college for me. Aaron and Bobby and Seth and Bunny and Rodney and Gina and Nancy and Mary and Hugh and Freddy and Rick and Gary and Frank and … and so many names that are on the tip of my tongue – right there.

I didn’t know what to expect last night, watching America’s Got Talent: YouTube addition. It had to be ladders or vaulting, right? But ladders is sooooo slow until everyone’s up. And vaulting doesn’t get interesting until you start piling bodies on the box, right?

What I saw blew me away. The hand that covered my eyes fell from my face and I watched, rapt. And they were right. It is unbelievable that these kids are not, like, from Cirque de Soleil. The first time I ever stepped on a trampoline, I was 17 years old, a frustrated, nearsighted diver, and it opened up a world to me that proved the difference between college-as-the-place-I-spent-four-years, to a land where I could soar, high above the bus. Just for that brief time.

In my secret heart of hearts, I don’t really believe that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame.  The closest I’ll ever come was probably last night, watching a technicolor version of my fading memories, and swelling with pride. I wondered, giddy, if they were the same ladders we packed into the truck that I occasionally got to drive to local shows. I hope so. I believe they were whittled by George Kramer and Joe Murray out of an old ship’s keel.

If they weren’t, don’t tell me.

<![CDATA[Notes from the Belding Diner and Station]]>Thu, 30 Sep 2010 18:11:06 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2010/09/notes-from-the-belding-diner-and-station.htmlIt’s ironic when you think about it, how often a road that starts life as a “bypass” invariably becomes, over time, the road of choice, and the settlements it was designed to bypass become the places no one stops at anymore. At one time in western New York, Route 5 was the main thoroughfare going east to west. Then came Route 20 – the four lane. Then I-90, part of the interstate highway system.  Now you could walk, if you like, down the centerline of Route 5 for several minutes at a stretch without risk of being sideswiped. 

One of the many small businesses along the dusty route that dimmed when the new roads came was a diner and gas station at Portland Bay, about six miles west of Dunkirk. The owners – my great grandparents, Bert and Ellen Belding – stayed on after Route 5 succumbed to the success of the bypasses. It was also their home, after all, on the windswept southern shore of Lake Erie.

The diner was little more than Ellen’s kitchen, situated at the west end of a large dining room. A bar separated patrons – and little relations – from the kitchen itself. The rest of the small building was a bedroom for Ellen and Bert on the east end, with a tiny bedroom attached in the back. A small mudroom served as the diner’s entrance, and opened onto a gravel drive that eased back onto Route 5 to the right. Just over 30 miles down the road nestled the shore town of Erie, PA.

Out front, right on the highway, stood a teetering pop stand, little more than a box room with sides that lifted, held by  thin sticks, to expose the counters on all four sides. The remaining paint was loose and chipped, a legacy to an ambitious whitewash years earlier, probably at Bert’s hand, or my grandfather Johnny, or my dad, Jack. Dusty samples of the Nehi and other available pops graced the planked counters. Large reach-in coolers, compliments of the vendors, graced the stand in my earliest memory.  Later, slow sales undoubtedly contributed to the decision to remove them.

The bathroom – well, technically, there were two.  The women’s and the men’s. Both were located in an auto service station steps from the diner. Out Ellen’s back bedroom door was a sidewalk. To the left was her back yard, and to the right was the gravel driveway. Directly opposite the bedroom door was a bathroom, at the side of the service station. It was just as it sounds – a gas station restroom. Inside the station was where the gentlemen would go. There was no facility for showers or baths. Ellen would pay me a dime to watch the gas pumps on occasion. I understood much later that she periodically bathed in the cellar below the dining room, in a washtub, while I assisted the infrequent customer. 

The configuration seemed perfectly reasonable to me. We all thought it very cool that our great grandmother sold ice cream, and that we rented a cottage from her for two weeks every year. I remember her pumping gas when I was very young. Later, she was an industry leader in self-serve pumping, by virtue of the fact that she slowed considerably in her eighties. 

I loved watching the pumps for several reasons.  First, there was not much work involved, but there was a large piece of slate sitting on a low table next to the pumps. It was placed there, likely by Bert, so a boy would have a blackboard on which to scrawl endless insights. I used it for this purpose, and was delighted that year after year, the giant slate sat patiently awaiting my next flash of brilliance. 

I was likewise enchanted with vehicles. Specifically, their license plates. I collected the numbers, by state.  Fortunately, not the plates themselves, for that could have landed me in a bit of trouble. But I loved writing down the numbers from mysterious foreign locales such as Ohio and Indiana. Wherever I traveled as a child, I scanned the license plates of cars, looking for an as-yet undiscovered gem. Once, Nova Scotia. Once Hawaii. Or a western state, like Arizona or Utah. Never Mexico, sometimes Quebec, often Ontario and California.  Ellen’s station, while it did not have much traffic even in my youth, usually yielded a disproportionate number of exotic plates. For some reason, the Empire State was heavily represented.  

Ellen died in the bedroom of the diner when I was 17, on the first day of the year, 1970. My father and I drove the eight hours or so for the funeral.  I never knew Bert. He died at 76, about five years before my birth. Everything I described exists now only in my mind.  There is a vacant lot, no hint at the life that used to team there, and the fertile ground where lasting memories were born. It is kept up, almost as if it were common ground in a cemetery.  The only thing that remains to mark the passage of a people is an old stone table. 

Its dimensions are such that it would not seem out of place on a tourist stop of Ireland’s ancient folk – an example of the ponderous stacked stones that defy modern technological duplication. First as a boy, and then as a ripped young man, I would try to simply budge the topmost piece, the table’s surface. For years, every summer it was our picnic table. Later, as a young man, when the diner became for me too a way station rather than a destination,  on my journeys north into Canada, the table was a writing desk.  The last time I stroked the rough gray surface, I was on a walk down memory lane with my second son, then in his stroller.

I probably recounted for him the family legend of how Bert collected and assembled the stones for the table, including a bench on either side, all in an afternoon, all by himself, and perhaps aided by a little liquid spirit. No one has ever offered another accounting, and now there is almost no one who could know, first hand, how the table was constructed. In the years since, friends traveling through that part of the country will stop to take pictures, and report that it still stands, canted and abused by Lake Effect snows, and years of frosts and melts.

I think it is not an entirely bad thing that Bert’s effort of an afternoon becomes a legacy, standing amid so much that has vanished into gentle green grass. I know I will be very sad when the table finally collapses, sadder still if I collapse first. Unless of course I build my own stone table. I think great grandpa would be pleased to know the table is still remembered, and still stands. Thanks, Bert.

<![CDATA[Track Changes vs. New Comment – Why it Matters]]>Wed, 22 Sep 2010 18:13:54 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2010/09/track-changes-vs-new-comment-why-it-matters.html IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH THE REVIEW FEATURES OF MS WORD, YOU’VE PROBABLY USED NEW COMMENT AS WELL AS TRACK CHANGES. BOTH ARE DESIGNED TO ALLOW A REVIEWER TO EDI\ OR PROOF ANOTHER’S DOCUMENT, SIMILAR TO TAKING A RED PEN TO A HARD COPY. WHEN YOU REVIEW ANOTHER’S WORK, DO YOU FLIP A COIN – NEW COMMENTS OR TRACK CHANGES? DOES IT MATTER?           Recently I conducted a two-day Proofreading class for some federal agency employees. This subject came up, and we had a spirited discussion on why it doesmatter. While the mechanics are very similar, the question is, Are you taking over control of the document, or are you a collaborator on the document, or are you simply assisting someone else with their document? If the answer to the question is that you are assuming control or are collaborating, then use Track Changes. If you are simply assisting a friend or colleague by proofing or editing, then use New Comment

         The distinction is that in one case, you are the new author, or co-author, so you are free to change the text itself. If you like timely more than opportune, or preferperspicacious over wise, then change away. It’s your document. But if it’s not your document, then suggest a word if you like, or simply comment that you think the author has made an odd or awkward word choice. Since it’s not your document, you don’t have to provide alternate language.  Simply respond as the gentle reader to the clarity you experience with the text.

           One might argue that where there is a clear violation of a grammar rule – maryland is spelled with a small-case m, or a plural subject is linked with a singular verb – useTrack Changes to fix the error. While this mechanically signals the need for a repair, it also involves a level of taking over that is best avoided.  Simply comment to the problem. 

         Two quick examples of when the mechanical means can run afoul of the philosophical end: 

1)           As government contractors, we often deliver documents to our clients, which they approve, disapprove, or approve with comments. The delivered document is not approved for payment until the client and the contractor agree that it meets the requirements. What happens when a contractor gets back from the client a document loaded with changes created using Track Changes, pending contractor approval? At that point, whose document is it anyway?

2)         In our writing critique group, we proof each other’s work electronically. In this case, the author is never contemplating the transfer of ownership of copyrighted work. So we use New Comment exclusively. Otherwise, by actually changing someone’s text, pending the author’s approval, haven’t I become at least a limited co-author?

         When asking yourself which to use, remember the question is about the writing situation.  Am I assuming ownership of a piece someone else started? Track Changes. Am I on a collaborative document project? Track Changes. Does someone else own this document before, during, and after I do my thing? New Comment.

Happy writing!

<![CDATA[Lake Magic]]>Sat, 18 Sep 2010 18:15:11 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2010/09/lake-magic.htmlMy Aunt Mary called this summer, excited about the vacation she’d just spent at our ancestral compound in Portland Bay, New York – the poor person’s version of the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port. Her description of Lake Erie in rare perfect conditions stirred memories long dormant, of bonfires reflected in the water’s dark surface, and endless days swimming and collecting treasures.  Of strolls along dusty lanes in shimmering heat, licking sweet confections from my great grandmother’s diner. Of glorious anticipation driving one of a dozen routes through western Pennsylvania and of the ineffable sadness when it came time to journey back to Greenbelt.

          Though I only spent two weeks every year there, the Lake is the gateway to my most vivid childhood memories. How is it that the rest of my childhood can be recalled only dimly, but the adventures at the Lake have traveled down the course of my years like a coffee table book, always within easy reach?

                Mary feels the same. Several years ago, in a very practical family decision, we unanimously agreed to allow the last parcel of our ancestor’s compound to be sold to outsiders. The Lake, after all, is an eight-hour drive. After grandma passed away, the energy to spend precious vacation time to drive two days there and back dissipated to nothing.  We could, after all, rent a cottage on the grounds if we chose. Why be saddled with the dubious legacy of a lot on the cliff overlooking Lake Erie?

         Yet after her trip up, Mary found herself second-guessing the decision. She found a sympathetic ear in me.  E.B. White, in his essay, Once More to the Lake, says,

“It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the      grooves which lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”  

                When I was young, it seemed most of my friends, like us, journeyed to be with distant family on vacation.  Nowadays, that is seldom the case. (Although this summer our family undertook an epic ten-day trip to Colorado to join my brother Mike, our parents, and most of the siblings in a joyful wedding celebration.)  Our vacations are now to strangers’ oversized homes in the dunes of the Outer Banks, or to timeshares and campgrounds in Orlando, or elsewhere. 

                I wonder if my kids, when they are older, will remember vacations as I do. As the highlights of my existence, the most memorable times.  As Mary and I talked, we replayed the family decision to sell away our childhood, in a sense. Would we, if we were given a do-over, take it?  How do you value the non-economic portion of that decision?

         Russell Baker says that parents feel “children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.” That was brought home to me again, in a gift across time and distance. 

Thanks for the call, Mary.

<![CDATA[Bob Costas, I Must Take Exception]]>Wed, 15 Sep 2010 18:16:14 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2010/09/bob-costas-i-must-take-exception.htmlWhile watching the Redskins beat the Cowboys in the 2010 season opener (did I mention how sweet that was?), I heard Bob Costas at halftime complaining about a late-game call made by an official in the Detroit- Bears season opener.  Calvin Johnson caught a 30-something – yard reception in the back of the end zone, then seemed to lay it down, or spike it, at the end.  Referee Gene Steratore and the league called it by the rules – Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 (8-1-3-1), to be precise – and the reception was no more. 

Costas said, in part, “When the letter of the law seems at odds with common sense…. If it looks and feels like a touchdown, it should be.”  

With all due respect for Bob, as well as common sense, and granted that it looked like a clean catch, to say that common sense should prevail in sports is a little misleading. Sports are peppered with examples of “silly rules” – rules which would seem to have no bearing on the level of skill, or demonstrable dominance of one team over another:

  • the dropped third strike in baseball that allows a batter to advance;
  • 12 men on the field in football, even when the 12th man is a lumbering tackle 30 yards from the action;
  • the technical foul in basketball on a time-out called with none remaining;
  • the signed golf card, or the requirement to walk the course, in golf.
But when you think about it, what rules in sports aren’t silly? When sports games are designed, there is no requirement to apply common sense. It’s a GAME. Games are meant to be diversions from our real lives.  They are not meant to be extensions of them.

Each rule is as valid as every other rule. That’s the definition of sport. So you can argue what the ref saw. But you can’t argue that a particular rule is unfair, or nonsense, except that it may create an inequity between positions, such as pitcher versus  batter, or quarterback versus linebacker. What can be said to be common sense about the requirement to get three outs to retire a side, rather than say, two? Or Four? What is common sense about making a kick-off in play after ten yards, so that either team can recover? Doesn’t the same arbitrary element apply to every rule in any game? 

What makes games fair in a sense most of us can agree on is that rules exist, and that they’re applied fairly.  That is much different than insisting that the rules themselves be fair. The latter has no meaning that I can see. Gotta disagree on this one,  Bob.  How about you?

<![CDATA[Redskins (Whew!) Whip Cowboys 2010]]>Mon, 13 Sep 2010 18:17:31 GMThttp://jackbdowns.com/1/post/2010/09/redskins-whew-whip-cowboys-2010.htmlLet me context this by stating I am a fair-weather Redskins fan. Ever since I came to consciousness about the subject, I’ve felt the name of the Redskins should be changed. I also decided years ago that with so few hours in a week to fulfill my dreams, Sunday afternoon football was an easy sacrifice. Why sit on my butt for hours watching other men, who’d worked and sacrificed to reach the pinnacle of their God-given talent, when I could use the time myself?

My loyalty to the Redskins didn’t wane in a long, gradual sunset.  It ended abruptly, about the time Joe Gibbs said for the first time You know what Life is what’s happening while I’m busy fixating on the burgundy and gold.  It was also aided by the retirement of Darrell Green.  More than a man I always admired on and off the field, he seemed to be, in the cut of John Elway, Randy White, and Cal Ripken, a dying breed of sportsman who kept allegiance to a single team his entire career.  That helped fan the illusion for me that it was about something other than a big paycheck.

One of the disappointments of this past Sunday’s 2010 opener against Dallas was that I had to send my eldest son to bed at halftime. Who are these games for, anyway? My son is playing football now. I played 40 years ago. Heck, dear advertiser, I can also guaranteehe has more discretionary income than I do. But I digress. 

 This past Sunday night, as the flag I never saw fluttered to the turf to mark a holding penalty with no time left, I was transported back to a Thanksgiving scene in my youth. I don’t have to google this one.  I don’t remember the final score, but I remember his name.  Clinton Longley. The setting was a friend’s living room in Waynesburg, PA, the year: 1974.  Though the Redskins would go on to achieve greatness many times in their rise to the pinnacle (and their endless ride back down), though Walt Garrison would astonishingly be denied his touchdown by Ken Houston, through all the great and good times gathered in our Greenbelt home to cheer them and tear up over them, there was the great heartbreak of 1974.

I was drawn back to the tv Sunday, perhaps like many other fair-weather fans, as well as the die-hards, by the promise of hope over reason.  Some might even refer to it as the working definition of insanity – to repeat the same act over again, expecting different results. Ali versus Frazier. The Bird versus Magic.  The Redskins versus Dallas.

Sunday night’s win doesn’t erase my Thanksgiving memory. Not entirely. But Clint, wherever you are, I hope you were watching.