Monthly Archives: May 2010

A Royal Flush


Now Playing: I Know a Little, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Well now I don’t read that daily news, ‘Cause it ain’t hard to figure, Where people gets the blues. They can’t dig what they can’t use. If they stick to simple, They’d be much less abused.”

Or not. That’s been the problem. I’ve had toilet troubles for going on three weeks. When it started, the water in the tank wouldn’t stop running. I’m a homeowner, I know the drill. I went to Lowe’s to get replacement innards for the tank. My goal: Replace the old-fashioned ballcock with one of the newfangled flush valves that replaces the float arm and ball.

I’ve done it before. Grousing about it usually takes longer than fixing it. The only problem: There are basically two versions of the flush valve at Lowe’s, and I can never remember which is the one I want. I know from my experience that one is easy to install, the other not so much.It works but requires more adjusting than I’m usually capable of. But dammit Jim, I’m a doctor (of words, that is), not a plumber.

Sure enough, after waiting a couple of days – with water turned off, of course – to make sure the elves weren’t going to fix it overnight, I decided to repair it. Here’s the thing. I bought the one that requires more adjusting. I got it installed just fine. But I was struggling with making it work right. And then I noticed it was leaking, too, so I decided to put the old one back on.

That would have been easy enough, just a few turns of a wrench, wipe up a little water, and try again after buying the other brand.

But now the plastic screw and washer connecting the valve to the tank were stripped. They wouldn’t come off easily – not with the tools I had at hand. My good tools, of course, the ones that would have simplified this process, are scattered in the garage, left there by boys working on skateboards and other stuff. I got frustrated, I asked Austin to help me get some leverage. I got frustrated some more. I finally broke the damn valve off in the tank. And still didn’t get the screw and washer off.

Yikes. Now I had a real problem – one I couldn’t solve.

So after a day or so more of waiting for the elves to fix the problem, I called a handyman service we’d had great results with fixing the ceiling in our bedroom. No problem, they said, they’d send a guy that day at 11.

But then, just before 11, they called and said my guy had been held up on a job and wouldn’t be here until 3. Fine, I said. Here’s where I should have suspected trouble. Just why was he “held up” at the other job? But anyway, he got here a little before 3 and I told him the problem. Warning sign No. 2: He didn’t know what a ballcock or fill valve was. I showed him the carnage from my efforts and he gave me a blank look. I showed him the innards of the other upstairs toilet and he saw what had to be done. He even took the old ballcock with him on the way to Lowe’s to buy parts. Warning sign No. 3: When he got back from Lowe’s, it was with a ballcock about six inches shorter than the one he’d taken. But I figured it still might be OK.

So I let him install it. He did it, taking a bit longer than I figured. But I watched as he flushed it twice with no problems.

Everything was fine, despite the red flags. Until the next morning. That’s when I noticed that when TP was in the bowl, it didn’t exactly flush so great. And the new flapper he put on didn’t always close. Now I knew why his other job that day took longer than expected. He didn’t know what he was doing. The red flags, as they usually are, were right. So we were back to the toilet running again. I adjusted it a couple times while I waited again for the elves (they must’ve been making shoes somewhere).

Monday morning, I called the handyman service and told them my problem. They agreed to send someone out. I asked that they give us someone who had at least used a toilet before.

Handyman No. 2 showed up on time. This guy, who looked like a young Claude Akins, knew what he was doing. I showed him what No. 1 had done and he just shook his head. He went and got a new flush valve and installed it, quick as you please. It flushed great, with the proper force. Everything seemed fine. Except the flapper still didn’t close right. Not the first time. Not anytime. So he decided to get a whole new fill valve kit (which of course includes a new flapper). This took him a little longer, but everything worked great.

We’ve been flushing to our heart’s – OK, maybe some other body part’s – content since then.

Until this morning. When the flush valve came apart and launched itself at the top of the tank. And kept running, of course. I put that exploded back on, adjusted it and think I got it fixed.

Here’s the thing. The only thing that was really wrong in the first place was that the flush arm and ball needed to be replaced. I had a spare in the house. I could have unscrewed, screwed it back in and have been done with it two weeks ago. For nothing.

Guess you could say I crapped out.

Shalom.

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d be a plumber.” _ Albert Einstein

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Let Them Eat Cake


Now Playing: Songs of Life, by Bret Michaels. “Now look at you out on the streets. Your mom and dad think you’re a freak, Don’t understand you. You wear your heart on your sleeve, Seems all the people that you meet they criticize you too. But just stand tall and face the pain. You will not fall for the masquerade.”

That’s what Marie Antoinette said (or maybe didn’t say – no one’s really sure) when told that the people of France had no bread to eat. The comment basically shows the insensitivity to the living condition of the working classes.

Let’s examine two examples of insensitivity that have surfaced in recent days.

The first involves a Cary company named Dex One. It publishes yellow-pages directories and online business directories. Its CEO, David Swanson, is “retiring” tomorrow, nudged out – at the least – after helping the company emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January. Pretty cold, you think. Others might not agree.

For one, the reorganization threw out about $6 billion in debt. And about 850 employees. And it wiped out the holdings of shareholders. But the company got a new name out of it – it used to be called R.H. Donnelley – and, at least for a time, new life.

But Swanson deserves credit for saving the company and the jobs of the remaining 3,400 employees, right? Not so much. Turns out he was the person who pulled the trigger on the acquisitions that saddled it with so much debt.

And there’s something else. Swanson – or someone at what was then Donnelley – faked part of his resume, according to Forbes. It reported in 2006 that Swanson didn’t have the bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota that the press releases announcing his ascension to CEO claimed. Or that appeared on his official bio on a trade association website. The company says Swanson never made the claims, which an unidentified company employee mistakenly put in the press releases. It does say Swanson failed to catch the “mistakes” when reviewing the press releases.

So don’t feel too bad for Swanson, even though he’s out of work at 55. Instead, you might want to feel … envy.

That’s because of what Dex – and remember, it has just emerged from bankruptcy – is paying to get rid of him.

First off, there’s a separation agreement – $6.5 million. Then there is his pension – $5.7 million. And a payment under the company’s 2009 long-term incentive plan: as much as $3.5 million. And at least a portion of this year’s bonus, yet to be revealed. And reimbursement for the cost of life insurance, health insurance, financial planning and health and country club dues into 2013 or until he gets a job or starts his own business. Like either of those are gonna happen.

But the company did drive a pretty hard bargain. In return for his deal, Swanson agreed not to sue or demand damages from Dex and is bound by a 12-month noncompete. (Though in truth, the best thing for the company would seem to be having Swanson work for a competitor – given how he “helped” Donnelley.)

Meanwhile, Dex has never apologized – to my knowledge – to the workers it laid off. Or the lenders it won’t pay. Or the shareholders it wiped out.

Example No. 2 is actually two recent job announcements touted by the state Department of Commerce. One involved Advanced Textile Solutions, which is opening a fabric plant in Caldwell County that eventually will employ about 127. The other was from WhiteRidge Plastics, which is adding 55 jobs at its factory in Reidsville. Good news, right?

Well, not so much, in some quarters. Critics have been fretting incessantly about the average annual salaries the jobs will pay: $19,111 at Advanced Textile and $21,856 at WhiteRidge.

Yes, those are pretty low. But dammit, those are jobs. Not everyone can be a software engineer or biotechnology researcher. And those folks have to work and buy bread (and maybe even cake once in awhile) themselves.

It’s  easy for people who have higher paying jobs to look down their noses at factory workers earning less.  And yes, I’d like to see those folks making more too.

But, as I’ve discovered in my “time between jobs,” working means something. And I’ll bet there will be more applicants than jobs at both of those factories.

Both companies will get incentives – Advanced will get $254,000 if it does what it says it will do and White Ridge will get nearly $93,000.

Like most folks, I hate incentives. I wish they’d go away. But they won’t.

So I’m glad the state isn’t forgetting about the folks that might not have the skills for advanced manufacturing and biotechnology jobs. Those people need work, too. And I hope they’ll get cake.

“All the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much.” _ George Harrison

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How Many Moral Oil Companies Will Fit On The Head Of A Pin?


Now Playing: Rebel, by Tom Petty. “Hey hey hey! I was born a rebel, Down in Dixie on a Sunday morning, Yeah with one foot in the grave, And one foot on the pedal. I was born a rebel.”

It’s a trick question, of course, prompted by a Facebook friend’s post this morning about his boycott of BP since the giant oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico. On the one hand, I sympathize with him. I don’t use BP any more, but I used to regularly, back when I lived in Gastonia. There was a station on my way to work, and it was convenient. That BP wasn’t an environmental criminal didn’t figure into the decision.

That’s what the company is now, and it’s hard to resist the urge to punish it somehow.

But whaddaya do?

Switch to Exxon? Yeah, and the Exxon Valdez never happened, right?

Switch to Shell? Human-rights and environmental violations in Nigeria.

Switch to Chevron? Wide-scale environmental abuses in Ecuador. The company faces a class-action lawsuit that accuses it of dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon.

Switch to ConocoPhillips? Does business with Iran, according to The New York Times.

The sixth member of the Big Six oil companies, France-based Total SA, does business with Myanmar (Burma), possibly the most-regressive regime on the plant. It also apparently bribed members of Saddam Hussein’s administration to keep oil flowing from Iraq.

So you look to smaller companies. Not much luck there either, my friends. Hess and Citgo, for example, are among a group of oil companies ordered in 2008 to pay $442 million for contaminating water wells in the U.S.

The point being, be outraged at BP if you want. Boycott its stations if it floats your boat. But unless you start biking and walking, chances are you’re buying gasoline from just as big an environmental and moral criminal.

Back to the original question. How many moral companies will fit on the head of a pin? Until you find one that we can test with, no one will know. Not even Mr. Owl. Who figured out that it takes three licks to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.

Now that’s wisdom.

“These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.” _ Abraham Lincoln

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What’s In A Name?


Now Playing: The sounds of my handyman fixing the upstairs toilet. Don’t want to distract him with music. Today’s just made his second trip to Lowe’s, last week’s already had been there. I had been a few days before that – all for the same crapper. When will it all end?

My name. I don’t hate it, and I’ll tell you why. But I have to admit it’s a little frustrating at times?

Me: “Hi, I’m Arthur Murray.”

Other person: “Oh, do you dance?”

Me: “I’m willing but not particularly able.”

Rinse. Repeat.

It does get a bit old. Other Person usually thinks he/she is the first person ever to make the connection. I smile and press ahead. But then Other Person usually hangs on. “I’ll bet you get that all the time, right.” I nod, and try to get the conversation back on track, all the while wondering why, if Other Person thinks that, he/she feels the need to go down that road in the first place.

On the other hand, it is a good icebreaker, and if – and I usually do – I handle it with grace, it usually gives me a quick in with whomever I’m talking to. And I can think of two superheroes named Arthur – Aquaman’s name was Arthur Curry, and The Tick’s not-so-brave-but-not-so-dumb sidekick was named Arthur.

But of course I wasn’t named after the dancer or the superheroes. The moniker came from my father’s family. A little explanation is in order.

Figuring out my father’s family was always a bit dicey for me growing up. For one thing, there were a ton of brothers and sisters to remember, and some, even then, were dead. I think I’ve mentioned before, the generations in my family were extremely messed up. I was younger, in some cases 20 years or more younger, than my first cousins, and that was true on both sides. My dad’s family had another challenge, though. They never called each other by their correct names. Mary James, who died before I was born, was always called Jim. It was years before I figured out that Jim was a woman. Gladys was always Gala. George was Brother. John was Tab. My dad was Man. And so it went.

An aside: My dad kinda kept up the tradition. My sister, Becky, was almost always Doll. My brother, Frank Jr., was Smiley (I can’t remember if my Dad nicknamed him that, but I do know that nearly everyone except my mom, my sister and I called him that). I had a nickname, too, but that’s a topic for another day.

To get back on point, despite the kidding I’ve gotten through the years, I don’t hate my name – I really like it, a lot – and here’s why:

I got the name Arthur from my dad’s side of the family. I wasn’t the first, though. My cousin, Arthur Ray Carr, is five or six years older than I am. He was always called Arthur Ray, never just Arthur. Why two Arthur’s in the same generation?

Because we were named after my Dad’s brother, also named Arthur. That Arthur Murray died in World War II, in the Pacific. I think it happened during the invasion of Tarawa. I say think because my Dad, who also served in World War II, wouldn’t talk about the war except with other people who had been in it. I know almost nothing my namesake’s death. I know little of my Dad’s. I know he drove a tank. I know he served under Patton – and loved him. I know he fought in the Battle of Bulge. And that’s about it.

But I’m extremely proud – pacifist though I am – to be named after a real American hero.

And by the way, I’m no saint on the name thing either. A few years ago, I interviewed the then-new CEO of Oakwood Homes. His name was Miles Standish. We finished the interview and chatted about our respective burdens, neither of which we minded much. The interview turned into a cover story a few weeks later.

The headline: Pilgrim’s Progress. I had to admit, it was pretty good.

So says Arthur O. Murray, your not-so-brave-but-not-so-dumb writer. I can live with that.

“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” _ Marshall McLuhan<!–, Understanding Media–>

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Two That Got It Right


Now Playing: Oh My Sweet Carolina, by Ryan Adams. “I ain’t never been to Vegas, but I gambled up my life, Building newsprint boats I race to sewer mains. Was trying to find me something but I wasn’t sure just what, Funny how they say that “some things never change.”

I didn’t watch the Lost finale last night. I only watched a part of the first season and a little bit of the second, jumping off for good when the whole Dharma Initiative thing was introduced. Never looked back.

But I understand that most folks were disappointed by the wrapup episode last night. Whatever.

That’s the way of most wrapups. Putting a bow on things, whether in a movie or the last show of a series, rarely captures the essence of what made the show good in the first place. Look at Seinfeld. Too much of that finale was forced and not funny. In a show about nothing (and I really liked it, by the way), nothing mattered. I didn’t like M*A*S*H, found it too preachy and very predictable. It’s finale was maudlin and unbelievable in too many places. Never like Newhart, but I did like the way that ended – a nod to the vastly superior The Bob Newhart Show.

But as far as tying-up-the-loose-ends episodes go, I can only think of two.

One, of course, is the greatest finale of all: The final episode of The Fugitive. To me, it was one of the best shows on television in the first place. And this episode was stellar, with Dr. Kimble finally catching the one-armed man in a fantastic amusement park hunt with Lt. Gerard, who by this time was helping him. Every bit of it was believable, including the cowardly neighbor who had seen the one-armed man kill Kimble’s wife but never come forward. But the key was the characters in the finale acted just like they did in the other parts of the series. Of course, they had the luxury of setting up the finale during the entire season, because they knew from the get-go they were shutting down.

The other series with a fulfilling finale was Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, a favorite of my boys when it ran from 2003 to 2007 on Nickelodeon. The series was a really good look at junior high school that seemed like it was written by people who actually had gone to junior high school – as opposed to That 70s Show, which had to have been written by people who didn’t actually live through the 70s. It had superheroes, ninjas, art thieves, dumb adults (a staple on kid shows), a wise adult (Ned’s science teacher) and a bit of romance. It was funny and cute and I’m not ashamed to say I enjoyed it. I was glad the boys rarely missed the show.

Other than those, most shows would have been better to have just ended it. Though I do wonder if The Invaders ever took over the earth or if Roy Thinnes was able to stop them, and whether Alias Smith and Jones ever got their pardons and just what the deal was on the mysterious sea creature in Surface and …

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” _ Orson Welles

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What She Did, Not Said


Now Playing: Tear Stained Eye, by Son Volt. “Like the man said, rode hard and put away wet, Throw away the bad news, and put it to rest. If learning is living, and the truth is a state of mind. You’ll find it’s better at the end of the line.”

This one is going to be difficult to write, because it’s personal. I know, most of my blog posts are, but this one is really personal. And it’s a tough day as well. Today would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. It isn’t, though. She died two years ago, either on this day or on May 22nd, we never found out which. She had a massive heart attack, likely in her sleep. Weep not for her. She spoke by telephone with a neighbor and friend her birthday night and told her what a great life she had lived. And she meant what she told Mrs. Culley. I’ve missed my mom terribly, more than I would have ever dreamed. I’ve written about her before, most prominently in this post.

But for all her virtues, my mom wasn’t a saint. Particularly where race came in. I grew up in a house where racial epithets were common. That’s how it was in much of Southside Va. in the 1960s, I’d guess. Or at least in the homes I was in.

After awhile, though, I noticed something. My parents, particularly my mom, talked a better game about being racists than they ever played. Here’s what I mean: My dad threw the n-word about regularly, but he really enjoyed the company of my brother’s fellow worker, Leon. He’d laugh like crazy, with Leon, whenever they’d get together. And my dad loved Flip Wilson. And Fred Sanford. And George Jefferson. He really did.

As for my mom, she often got together clothes and food for a local black family. We knew Teenie because we worked in tobacco with her. She had about 10 kids, and I knew three or four of ’em. I played basketball with Kenny nearly early day at my elementary school, long before my elementary school desegregated. He was a good player and a good guy, and I never thought too much about the differences in our appearance. I just wished I could shoot like he did.

That wasn’t the only family my mom helped. I know she gave away other stuff, but she never made a big deal about it. I saw her help wreck victims on the road in front of our house. Didn’t matter what color they were. Ever.

Contrast that with people who say all the right things publicly but have hearts filled with subtle hates and prejudices.

I hate the words, but I’ll take kind actions and hateful words over hateful actions and bland words. Anyday.

My parents’ hearts were always in the right place, even if their tongues weren’t. Especially my mom’s. That’s why her heart lasted so long before it wore out in her sleep.

And that’s why I miss her terribly, today, and many other days.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” _ The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within.” _ Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Good Times Bad Times, Part 1


Now Playing: Concrete and Barbed Wire, by Lucinda Williams. “This wall divides us, we’re on two different sides. But this wall is not real; how can it be real? It’s only made of concrete and barbed wire.”

Time travel has always fascinated me. I’m pretty much a sucker for any movie/television show/book about time travel. Today’s blog is the first of probably the bunch that I’ll eventually write on the topic. Just think about it. How great would it be to have the ability to go back in time and fix your mistakes before they happened – or right great wrongs. Think how much better we could make things.

Except we can’t. Not because time travel isn’t possible. I truly believe it is.

But one of the rules of time travel, as firmly planted in my psyche as the Three Laws of Robotics, is that the past can’t be changed.

That rule was firmly established in my first contact with time travel. It was in a Superboy comic book in the 1960s, one of the reprints in an 80-page Giant, I think. Those were always my favorite. You’d get eight or nine stories for a quarter. Just couldn’t beat them.

Anyway, in this one, Superboy decided to go back in time – I think it was his first trip into the past – to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A more noble goal there could not be. I’d like to think that would have made Reconstruction a bit easier and blunted some of the lingering bad feeling between the North and South for generations.

Alas, was not to be. Superboy made it back all right on the fateful day and was going to see the President in a Washington hotel. But he got fooled by an entry on the register that said Mr. L. in some room wasn’t to be disturbed. SB thought the Mr. L was Lincoln, so he went to the door. Turns out this Mr. L was an adult Lex Luthor, who had fled into the past to escape Superman. Lex quickly pulled a chunk of Red Kryptonite, which had unpredictable effects on SB that lasted 48 hours. This unpredictable effect was paralysis. So while Lex taunted SB, even striking a match on his nose, Lincoln’s assassination proceeded on course. (One of the great touches of the story was Lex’s remorse when he figured out why Superboy had come back into the past. He considered it his worst crime.)

Once the red K wore off, SB returned to the future, where he came to the reluctant conclusion that the past was the past – never to be changed. Too much inertia to overcome in the time stream. So that’s what I believe, too.

The past is for observing, learning from, but it can never be changed.

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” _ Albert Einstein

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