Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Last Bele Chere

Can't believe it's been so long since my last post.  I've been delinquent!  Seriously, though, there hasn't been that much new that bears wide dissemination.  There are a few highlights, though.

Right after my last post, I went up to Indiana to do another training session at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.  This time, I was the mentor to a group of three guys heading to Afghanistan under the US Embassy.  They were the best team I've had so far.  They were motivated, forward-looking, and hard-working.  I really didn't have to do a whole lot to guide them along.  Mostly, I'd just suggest: "maybe you should consider this ...", or, "what do you think a Provincial Governor would want to learn from you from your first meeting?".  And they'd run with it.  In all the training scenarios, they were extremely well-prepared.  When we threw curve balls at them (like a simulated insurgent attack, or really dicy interviews), they kept their cool and responded like pros.  It was great to be a part of that.  I wish Eric, Steve, and Deon all success in their Afghanistan assignments.

Since returning home, I've been working in the studio a bit.  I've got a painting that's almost completed now and might only need one more session.  Then it'll be at the stage where I set it aside for a few days to look at it with fresh eyes and see how badly it's screwed up.  Once it's signed, I'll post it here.  This is the first real painting that I've done in two years, and I tell ya, it feels good to be working this way again!

On Friday, Janis and I went to Bele Chere.  For those of you who haven't been to Asheville, Bele Chere is a huge, 3-day outdoor festival held downtown.  There are several stages with live bands, hundreds of street vendors (food, artists, and bric-a-brac), thousands of people, and potentially a great time.  It's the largest free street festival in the southeast.  But this is its last year: the Asheville city council has decided not to fund it next year.  Bele Chere started 35 years ago as a way to bring people back to the dilapidated downtown area.  Since then, the festival has grown from a one-day event to a 3-day monster, and downtown has changed from near-abandoned into a thriving, lively center.  But downtown merchants generally don't make any money from Bele Chere.  In fact, many close down, because the crowds generally stay on the street except when looking for rest rooms.  There have been grumblings for years about whether it's worth it, and this year the city's financial issues forced the decision.  Bele Chere may continue if somebody steps in to fund it (maybe the tourism businesses?), but chances of that are slim.  So this is probably Bele Chere's last hurrah.

So we went early Friday afternoon.  It was a good time: it wasn't too hot, it didn't rain, there weren't too many people out yet, and most everybody was in a good mood.

We had lunch at Farm Burger, which is a restaurant we'd been wanting to try anyway, and had some fabulous burgers and beer.

The Ultimate Air Dogs were doing their thing, chasing after their tennis balls and jumping into a big pool.  We're thinking of getting a small inflatable pool for the backyard and seeing if our two Shih Tzus would like it, too!

The only thing marring the festivities was a group of street "preachers" in Pritchard Park.  I put that into quotes because they weren't preaching love, they were screaming purely hateful anti-gay rants.  They were as bad as the Westboro Baptist Church morons.  Not only that, but they had their bullhorns turned up as high as they would go.  The poor vendors around them had to listen to this bullshit all day long.  Some of them fought back by setting up speakers and amps and playing songs like "I'm Sexy And I Know It" as loud as they could.  There have been street preachers at Bele Chere every year, but this was the worst lot I'd ever seen.  As to the noise, I asked a policeman if they couldn't get them to turn down the volume, and he said that they could not.  Bummer.

On the positive side, I ran across two really good artists.  One of them is Shelagh Forrest, a Florida-based photographer, whose photo business is Sacred Spirit Photography.  I found her images of the Buddhist way of life in northern India and Bhutan to be stunningly beautiful, with a message of serenity, calmness, and dignity.  Unlike the rest of the artworks at Bele Chere, her work has something important to say, and she says it very well.  The other artist is Brian Vasilik.  He's a caricature artist.  Unlike most street caricaturists that I've seen, Brian understands facial anatomy and really looks at his subjects.  I watched him draw a young girl and he skillfully captured the nuances of her face as well as her spirit.  He's easily one of the best I've seen and it was fun to watch him work.

So goodbye, Bele Chere.  We had a good time, but I think Asheville will be able to get along without it next year.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Letter to My State Representative, Michele Presnell (R)

I've tried over the past several months to keep this blog focused on art and life and away from politics.  The North Carolina legislature, though, has turned into a national embarrassment.  The most recent elections swept a large Republican majority into power, giving them the House, the Senate, and the Governorship.  In the past few months, they've been like going berserk, rolling back decades of progress.  Some examples:
- Kicked 70,000 people off the unemployment rolls on July 1st, and cut benefits from a max of $535/week to $350, and cut the max time from 26 weeks to 20.  Governor McCrory says he cares for the unemployed.  Yeah, taking away their lifeline is a sure bet to help them out.
- The "Gun Rights Amendment" would allow restrictions on carrying concealed weapons in only seven specific circumstances and would prohibit the state from conducting any general confiscation of weapons.  The goal?  "Fight federal tyranny."
- The "Monsanto Protection Act" took away the authority of local agricultural boards to control what gets planted in its local area.  This legislation came from Monsanto and other Big Ag companies who want to force farmers to buy their seeds.
- Forced all welfare recipients to undergo a background check and a drug test, for which they would have to pay.  The stated goal was to reduce welfare fraud and save the state's money, but a similar action in Florida wound up costing the state a lot more than it saved.
- Tried to seize control and ownership of Asheville's water system from the city and turn it over to a separate non-city board without any compensation to the city.  Asheville has filed suit to keep this $1B asset.
- Repealed the ban on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.
- Slashed the budgets for public schools, and shifted a large chunk of the remaining funds to charter schools.  At the same time, they eliminated the requirements for charter schools to run criminal background checks and have licensed teachers.  Yes, that's just what we need: unlicensed felons teaching our kids all day long.
- Slashed the budget for higher education.
- Taxed parents if their college kids voted anywhere other than their home, and requiring people to vote where car is registered.  The goal?  Keep them lib'ral college kids from voting in large blocs in places like Chapel Hill.  Or, better, from voting at all.
- Tried to allow a state religion and declare that the state was exempt from the US Constitution and court rulings.  Seriously.
- Tried to make it a felony for a woman to expose her nipple in public.
- Is currently debating competing budget plans that slash taxes for the wealthy and raise them for middle and lower income groups.

The most recent embarrassment (as of this afternoon, anyway; they may have done something else since then) is an effort to essentially eliminate abortion providers in the state.  They slipped some anti-abortion amendments into, of all things, an "anti-Sharia" bill.  Really: they drafted a bill to make it illegal for foreign laws to apply in North Carolina, a really pointless bill if I ever heard of one.  So they slipped these anti-abortion amendments into the law literally late at night, at the last minute, without telling anybody (or at least, anybody that might have a different idea).  The resulting hullabaloo made NC's legislature (again) a national embarrassment.  Even Governor McCrory had to issue a weasel-worded threat to veto the legislation.  Within a few hours, a Senate committee had re-worded the anti-abortion amendments and slipped them into a bill on motorcycle safety.  Again: last minute, no warning, didn't tell anybody, not even the Democratic members of the same committee.  I mean, it worked so well for them before, didn't it?  (NO.)

I've been regularly writing my state Representative and Senator (both Republicans, of course) to tell them what I think.  Not that it makes one iota of difference.  So now that this ridiculous motorcycle safety/ant-abortion bill is moving to the House, I wrote my Representative (Michele Presnell).  Here's the text:

I learned that a House committee is debating SB353, a motorcycle safety bill, that is now loaded with restrictions on women's access to abortion.  The NC legislature is a national embarrassment for its efforts to sneak abortion restrictions into completely unrelated bills, including an anti-Sharia law (which is an unnecessary embarrassment all its own - foreign laws do not apply here) and now a motorcycle safety law.  Worse, the Republican-dominated legislature is slipping these amendments into legislation without any public notice, or even notice to Democratic representatives ON THE COMMITTEE DEBATING THE BILL.  

Please: the Legislature should behave like adults, not first-graders.  If you want to debate abortion restrictions, draft a law and debate it on its merits.  Republicans have certainly proven in this session that they can write a gajillion laws in no time at all.  Quit sneaking anti-abortion restrictions into completely unrelated legislation.  All you're doing is embarrassing yourselves once people find out what happened.  There is a growing sense that all of you need to be thrown out at the earliest opportunity simply because you have no idea how to legitimately run a legislature.

Meanwhile, VOTE NO on this ridiculous bill.

The Republicans in our legislature have definitely succeeded on one thing.  They are turning me from a guy on the political sidelines (I bitch and moan and vote) to a Democratic activist.  These idiots in Raleigh are rolling back decades of slow, painful progress.  They must go.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Gettysburg Anniversary

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg.  A couple of years ago, while researching my family history, I discovered that one of my ancestors was wounded and captured there.  The fact that he survived at all is something of a miracle.

Lorenzo Whitaker was 19 when he joined Company K of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in Iuka on Saturday, March 1, 1862.  Company K was known as the "Iuka Rifles" from Tishomingo County.  His first action was the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia on May 31- June 1.  It was quickly followed by the battle at Gaines Mill, then at Second Manassas in August, where they routed Union forces.  Two weeks later, they routed three more Union units (4th and 8th Pennsylvania and 6th Wisconsin) at the Cornfield at Antietam, while losing almost half their men killed or wounded.  The 2nd Mississippi then retired to Goldsborough, North Carolina for the winter to recuperate and reorganize.

In the spring of 1863, Lorenzo and the unit laid seige to Suffolk, Virginia.  In June, they moved north as part of General Lee's plan to take the fight to the Union.  The 2nd Mississippi was in the vanguard of Confederate forces moving southeast along Chambersburg Pike towards Gettysburg when the fighting started on July 1.  The 2nd Mississippi hit BG Cutler's brigade of the Army of the Potomac head-on.  Cutler's unit lost about 500 men and were driven back.  Confederate troops captured one gun and limber and routed the Federal troops (the 147th New York and the 2nd Maine Artillery) from the field.  The Confederates chased the Union forces toward Seminary Ridge, but the chase became disorganized.  Much of the unit was trapped in the Railroad Cut by the sudden arrival of Union reinforcements.  This cut, which was too deep to allow the Mississippians to shoot effectively, became a killing ground.  Some escaped, but many more were killed, wounded, and captured, and their battle flag was lost.  Lorenzo Whitaker was probably one of the wounded and captured.  The unit rested on July 2nd.  On July 3rd, the remnants of the regiment participated in Pickett's Charge, where they were disciplined and effective, but decimated nonetheless.  Total casualties from Gettysburg are difficult to pin down.  It is estimated that there were just under 500 men at the start of the battle, but suffered approximately 380-390 killed, wounded, captured, or missing (about 80% of its complement).

This is the Railroad Cut today.  At the time of the battle, of course, there was no bridge, and the railroad had not yet been laid.  The 2nd Mississippi was trapped by Union forces on the ridge at left and the sudden arrival of reinforcements coming this way along the railroad bed.  The southern soldiers had nowhere to go.  Some at the far end of the cut got away, but most of the unit was killed or captured.

Lorenzo was sent to Fort Delaware, a prison camp.  Fort Delaware was a horrible place, on par with any concentration camp in any war.  It was a Union fort on Pea Patch Island, in the middle of the upper reaches of Delaware Bay, off Delaware City.  At one time, it held up to 13,000 prisoners, many from Gettysburg.  Water was putrified and food scarce.  Rats were a delicacy.  Diseases such as scurvy, smallpox, malnutrition, measles, dysentery, and diarrhea were widespread.  All had lice.  One prisoner wrote that he shrank from 140 pounds to 80 pounds during his time there.  Approximately 2700 Confederate prisoners died during captivity; 2436 are buried there.

Lorenzo survived Fort Delaware, though, and on June 11, 1865, was released, two months after Lee's surrender.  He returned home to Mississippi and became a farmer.  He married Jennie Billings on May 30, 1866, and raised six children.  He apparently died sometime around 1896 at about 55 years of age.

I wish I knew more about Lorenzo.  I wish there was a photograph of him, along with Jennie and the kids.  I'd like to know more about this man than what can be gleaned from a few recorded census and muster records and history books.  He must have been tough as nails, but he must have retained his humanity as well.  His daughter, my great-grandmother, was a cheerful and gentle woman who nonetheless had her own iron will: she defied her parents and eloped with her beau at age 21.

So as we commemorate Gettysburg over the next couple of days, and think about its impact on our country, I'm going to think instead about it's impact on me, personally.  Had anything been different there, had a bullet gone slightly right or left, or an order been given a second earlier or later, I might not be here.  The individual strength of one man, though, pulled him through multiple major battles, two years in a prison camp, and into a farmer's life in the reconstruction South, where he successfully raised a family, one of whom eventually led to me.