Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * Catching up with Jim Politis

I wrote about Jim Politis almost four years ago as he was working to get the state legislature to allow Virginia farmers to grow industrial hemp for fuel, oil, and fiber. Finally, he’s been successful. Here’s how it came down.

“In 2015, the General Assembly, in their Farm Bill, added a provision to allow universities to grow and experiment with industrial hemp for experimental purposes,” he told me. “Virginia State University in Petersburg and Virginia Tech began growing at their research farms. James Madison University has no agricultural land, so they were allowed to work with local farmers. All these schools have agricultural departments.”

“VSU began looking into vegetable oil for food and fuel. Tech’s work was more in fiber. All three researched seed production. Each region is suitable to different crops for different needs. Our area is best for fiber.

“Seed crops are planted with less density,” he said. “Fiber crops are tight, and grow straighter and taller, up to 15 feet. Cotton and flax are other fiber crops, but in comparison, hemp is stronger, it takes less chemicals and water, and has four times the yield per acre.

“We also have legalized medicinal cannabis in Virginia. There are five pharmaceutical houses in Virginia to process it. People I know are using it as a crème to rub on arthritis, or swallowing it as a tincture.

 “The Federal Government is still working on their legislation. But meanwhile, Virginia is moving forward and will now allow farmers to grow. Legalization of industrial hemp has wide bi-partisan appeal.”

I asked what constituency might be against it.

Jim said, “The only thing I can logically say is that perhaps the corporations are against it. Hemp will be a competitor to the big guys. It can become a commodity.

 “With the state opening the doors to industrial hemp, farmers will begin to grow it. Farmers are entrepreneurial people. They’ll experiment and see what makes money for them. I think it’s the last step towards my long efforts. Now we’ll still need to see how it’s regulated. And they’ll need to have customers to sell it. For ten years, I’ve been working on this, and this is a big victory. It’s huge! I was one of the leaders, and when you work on something for a long time and are successful, it’s satisfying.”

During the process, Jim faced serious medical issues. He’d long had problems with his heart. After a bout with pneumonia from which he suffered for weeks, it was determined that he would need a new heart to survive. “My left ventricle stopped pumping,” he said. “I had had a defibrillator put in. My cardiologist said ‘Jim, you just need to slow down.’ I was on the (Montgomery County) Board (of Supervisors) then and I couldn’t slow down. I had a farm and a store. I went to the University Of Virginia Medical Center. They said I had heart failure, and my heart was only pumping half the volume it should.

“I had a heart transplant, and now have a heart from a young man of 21 from Atlanta. The surgery was terrible. I was there for 8-1/2 months.”

After many transplants, patients leave in 10 days. But he had lots of infections and four more surgeries. The whole shebang cost $3.1 million. His insurer paid $250,000, as that was all they would allow for that procedure. He paid a few thousand. UVA absorbed the rest.

I said, “So UVA has invested in you to the tune of almost $3 million.”

“Yes,” he joked, “But I taught them all about hemp. Guess what? They’re going to finally grow it at UVA!

“I’ve always been an activist. I was one of the first farmers around here to grow buffalo. I’ve always taken risks. It kept me energized. We made lots of tough decisions in my 16 years on the Board. I wouldn’t change a single vote. The two big things I did to impact our area were the buffalo store and hemp. We sold the farm and the store. I’m volunteering at Tech with their hemp research. I’m still working with the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.

“For some reason I made it through (my heart problems). I was being wheeled after one of my surgeries back to my room from the recovery room. The nurse said, ‘I hope you make it. Most people don’t.’ I said, ‘I’ll be back.’ My determination and will to live saved me.”


* * The airlines are making us miserable

Undeniably, one of the most awesome aspects of life in the modern era is that if you can afford it, tomorrow you can be anywhere in the world. In 1492, it took Columbus two months to cross the Atlantic and discover (How can you discover a continent that already had 7,000,000 people on it? That’s a topic for another day.) America, but now you can fly from Spain to Hispaniola in eight hours. Sadly, it’s a far less comfortable experience than it could be, and the airlines are making it so on purpose.

At no time in my life am I happier that I’m small in stature than when flying. I stand a mere 5-feet 5-inches and have a short 27-inch inseam, yet I’m still cramped in an airline passenger seat. This was painfully obvious on a recent trip to Italy, where the return transatlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia left me sore and angry. I’ve learned since that the airlines want customers sore and angry. Because it makes them more money.

Like many aspects of the past, when in public life, people were more formal. Look at any photo of people attending a baseball game or boarding a train 100 years ago, and you’ll see men wearing ties and top-hats, and women wearing dresses, hats, and make-up. Train travel, even into the 1950s, was an elegant affair, with uniformed conductors and dining car waiters who polished fine silverware and china between meals. Manners and civility were practiced in every interaction, and the RR companies and emerging airlines treated customers with the utmost respect. That’s all gone now. There was a point in time that must have slipped by me when profits overwhelmed humanity.

Today’s airlines have discovered that they can make more money and increase their profits by tacking on additional fees for things they routinely provided every customer in the price of their ticket. You want to take luggage with you? That’ll cost more. You want to eat something? That’ll cost more. You want legroom or a seat large enough for a standard human being? Still more.

The airlines are totally conscious of this abuse. They even have a name for it: calculated misery. They’re purposefully making us miserable because making us miserable makes them more profitable. Sure, it’s antagonistic, baleful. But if you want to get somewhere distant in a reasonable period of time, you have few choices. Basically what they’re doing is making their baseline service, air travel, so wretched that you’ll pay more to avail yourself a happier experience.

Of all the sinister things the airline does, making their jets more crowded is tops. With each generation of new planes, they order seats that are marginally smaller and closer together than before and cram more seats inside. Poor you if the person sitting next to you is, shall we charitably say, large, as his or her pulpy arms spill over onto your shared armrest. Pity you even more if YOU are that large person, because you’re miserable all around. Not only are you fighting for side-by-side space, but your legs are jammed into the seat in front of you and whenever that passenger moves, it jars you. Movement up and down the hallways – god forbid you need to tinkle on an eight-hour flight – is similarly fraught with unpleasant interactions with other passengers.

Airlines do this because they can. You’d never return to a restaurant that seated you at a different table from your date, charged you for water, kicked you out if someone arrived willing to pay more, or forced you to pay to use the toilet. Restaurants typically have competitors, and they know they’d lose your business if they treat you like vermin.

Conversely, with few exceptions, the airlines face little competition in their various routes. After decades of mergers, almost the entirety of the domestic market is comprised of only four airlines: Delta, American, United, and Southwest. So even if one of these airlines treats you and your traveling family like cockroaches, there’s little you can do about it. They know, and their computer models show, that one bad experience is enough to get many customers to fork over more money to avoid the next one. The skies are now distinctly unfriendly.

Maybe this is our fault. We’ve all bought into the Walmartization of consumerism, where the lowest price is everything. Shame on us; you get what you pay for. Still, it’s maddening.

You might be reading this, smugly thinking that you never (or seldom) fly, and are thus unaffected. Consider that Congress is now evaluating scrapping laws on Net Neutrality, meaning the Internet service providers will be able to monitor your usage and charge for services and upgrades accordingly. Prepare yourself for that calculated misery.

Next time I travel, I’m going to take a train.


* * A big change in the House

Did you feel the ground shake on Election Day?

Especially in the Virginia House of Delegates, the results couldn’t have been more surprising. Democrats won in a “wave” election, sweeping lots of new Delegates into office, many in districts not previously thought to be competitive, and potentially yielding a Democratic majority, something nobody thought was possible. AND Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Ed Gillespie for Governor by a margin not seen in a generation.

So what happened?

Four years ago, I ran for the House in District 7, encompassing some of Blacksburg, some of Christiansburg, all of south Montgomery County, all of Floyd County, and most of Pulaski County. My joke goes that I ran a successful campaign, but not as successful as my opponent. At the time, Delegate Nick Rush was a one-term incumbent Republican in a heavily Republican district. I understood that my chances were slim, but wanted to give him a challenge.

Two years ago he ran unchallenged. I saw him shopping at a hardware store on the Saturday before the election. No need to campaign if you don’t have an opponent! This year he easily defeated newcomer Flo Ketner.

After my loss, I spoke with former congressman Rick Boucher. He said the political winds shift over time, and a similar wave that swept him from office in 2010 could sweep many Democrats back into competitiveness. That’s apparently what happened this year.

When I ran, if I remember correctly, there were 88 incumbents (with 12 open seats due to retirement) who faced 44 challengers and only 2 lost. Two years ago, there were a similar number of incumbents and none of them lost. I concluded it was extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent, largely because of the gerrymandering of the districts.

Gerrymandering, as you recall from high school government class (You loved government, didn’t you?), is packing large majorities of voters for party “A” into a small number of districts to obtain smaller majorities for party “B” in many districts, thus ensuring more wins for party “B.”

Currently we’re operating under Republican-defined districts, to their benefit. (To be fair, in the past Democrats did much the same thing.) Consistently, we’ve had more votes cast state-wide for Democrats and more Republican winners, evidenced by the House of Delegates that prior to this election had 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats and the federal House of Representatives that has 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats.

Nevertheless, this time, the Democrats, most of them women, astoundingly picked up at least 15 House seats, with another 3 too close to call, potentially shifting the entire balance. Many of these districts were considered so heavily gerrymandered to the Republicans that in prior elections, Democrats didn’t even try.

The most enticing race was in Prince William County. It pitted 13 term Republican Bob Marshall against Danica Roem, a journalist, rock musician, political newcomer, and the first openly transgender person to ever run. Marshall described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe,” who authored Virginia’s version of the “bathroom bill,” that was so

pilloried in North Carolina. Roem won by almost 3000 votes! I’m not making this up; a transgender woman beat a conservative homophobic man.

Apparently culture war issues don’t win elections any more. We’re a Newer Dominion now.

How were Democrats able to overcome this structural handicap? The Monday morning quarterbacks are still busily analyzing the contests, but I think it can be mostly attributed to the retribution of women and people of color against the ascension of Donald Trump. David Toscano, the leader of House Democrats said, “The day after the Trump election, it began raining candidates in Virginia.”

Since the Republicans won complete control of the Congress and the White House, they’ve sputtered. No repeal of the Affordable Care Act. No new immigration policy. No border wall. Zero major legislation. The tax reform bill they’re working on doesn’t even have total support from their own party. To me, what happened that Tuesday was buoyed by anti-Trump, anti-Republican sentiment and may be a model of things to come in 2018.

Beyond the partisan brinksmanship, what can we expect legislatively? I suspect we’ll join the 32 other states so far that have passed the Medicaid Expansion that will benefit hard-working people in low-wage jobs that are now uninsured, something outgoing Governor Terry McAuliffe worked tirelessly but unsuccessfully to accomplish. With most of the new winners being women, I suspect we’ll see no more efforts to diminish rights of women to control their own bodies. And I suspect we’ve seen the last effort to pass legislation dictating where someone must pee.

Election tallies show that the Democratic areas became more Democratic and the Republican areas became more Republican, underscoring the continuing polarization of politics. And, for better or worse, our sparsely populated area of SWVA is increasingly dominated by Northern Virginia.

It’ll be fascinating to see how these trends play out moving forward. Hold on tight!



* * Bethany Mott cares about your child

“The New River Valley is an official child care desert, as designated by the Center for American Progress,” Bethany Mott told me. Bethany is the Executive Director of a new organization here in Montgomery County called, ABCs, the Alliance for Better Childcare Strategies, and she’s trying to fix that.

I met with her in my office to talk about how well, or in this case, NOT well, we’re taking care of our youngest citizens, those from infancy until they enter kindergarten.

“ABCs is a new non-profit that is the result of a two-year working group, a committee out of (Virginia) Tech and other concerned members of the community who realize there is a crisis in child care.” She said our situation is common, but worse here than many places. “There is only one child care space for every five children under the age of five. There are about 5000 children and only 1100 spaces. The other children are being shunted between relatives or informal situations, or being taken care of by a parent who isn’t working.

“So it’s an economic development problem because those parents might want to be working. And it’s an educational readiness problem because the children aren’t ready for kindergarten. Children who aren’t ready for kindergarten when they start may not be reading by the third grade. Statistics are grim about whether they’ll graduate from high school and have a successful, prosperous life.

“With our current system, funding (for child-care) only comes from one place: tuition.” In other words, parents are paying for child-care. There is no societal contribution, for example from the state or federal governments. “It typically costs anywhere from $700 to $1200 per month. Given the median income of Montgomery County residents, many simply cannot afford that. Thirty-six percent of local families live under 200% of the Federal Poverty Limit. So they would have to spend 40% of their gross income on quality child care for a preschooler and one year-old. Nobody can do that. So there’s an industry conundrum.

“It’s a highly regulated industry to provide our children with safety and education. ABCs has a three-fold mission. First, we will create more capacity. We want to keep our young adults here. So we need more capacity. Second, we want to improve quality, both in childcare facilities and in in-home providers. We are working with Virginia Quality to support education of the childcare workforce and the Chamber of Commerce on recognition, granting an ‘Early Childhood Educator of the Year’ award. And third, we’re working on affordability. We’re launching a scholarship program to help working families that are above the poverty limit and don’t qualify for assistance but are still unable to afford quality child care.”

But this is a private market, we agreed. Like other businesses, childcare centers need to be successful financially. Running a facility has many expenses, mainly the staff.

The state provides funding for some poor families for child-care through a state grant program. But the family may still struggle to find a provider or may be put on a state waiting due to lack of funding.

“We want our children to grow into successful adults, contributing to society and paying taxes back into the system,” Bethany said. “Our community has a vested interest in preparing these children. We also have a vested interest in helping families climb the income ladder.”

“Is there anybody who doesn’t understand this readily,” I asked innocently.

“Yes,” she shrugged. “But it shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s a rational economic issue.”

I said, “We’re moving into a high-paced, global, highly competitive, technologically based economy. If our kids can’t compete, we have no future.”

“Exactly,” she agreed.

I listed a bunch of traditional industries that once fueled the economies of our region. Textiles. Furniture. Coal. People want these things to come back. But they won’t. Communities that don’t recognize the terminal demise of these industries are destined for failure. Communities that accept these realities have a chance for success. ABCs is promoting adequate quality childcare as a necessary foundation for future success.

We talked at length about other models worldwide, where the government took a more active role. Here, the government funds education K-12, but before, in child-care and afterwards in college, you’re generally on your own. Those become personal economic investments rather than societal. Bethany ended our conversation with “ABCs is established to help working parents have choices and access quality childcare. ABCs is strengthening our local childcare infrastructure to enable families to work and children to be prepared for kindergarten. It’s about economics, quality of life, and our future.”


* * So I got a quick shower

Yes, I know. You’re reading the headline and asking yourself why you should bother to read an article about me taking a shower. People take one every day. The recent shower I got was a bit different.

Many of us who are politically motivated have a series of issues that frame our perceptions of the nation and world. National security. Education. Health care. Taxation. Infrastructure. Energy policy. For me, during the last several decades, the issue of gun violence has been near or at the top, accentuated when a madman killed 32 people in my town of Blacksburg and at my Virginia Tech, 11 years ago. We lose over 30,000 of our fellow Americans each year to gun violence. It’s a national tragedy, unique among other First World countries.

Other industrialized nations have implemented a series of common sense gun restrictions, combined with active mental health treatment schemes, to virtually eliminate gun violence. For example, following a mass shooting in Australia in 1996, that nation implemented stringent gun controls that lowered their rate of gun deaths to 10% of ours. We have the 11th highest rate of gun violence in the world, and by far the largest of any large or highly developed nation

Any number of reasons contribute to our inability to reduce the carnage here. Various interpretations of the Second Amendment have limited what lawmakers feel they can do. Powerful lobbying groups like the NRA carry a disproportionate level of influence, and because they have significant funding can put oversize pressure on lawmakers. And there’s the legacy of our Wild West past.

Communities like Las Vegas, Orlando, Austin, San Ysidro, Sutherland Springs, Littleton, Charleston, Camden and schools like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Stoneman Douglas have experienced the horror of mass shootings.

We know we cannot eliminate guns or gun violence from all private hands in America. But I’m convinced that strict background checks which would make it harder for people suspected of violence, waiting periods to eliminate sales at gun shows, better safety features (e.g. embedded chips to prevent anyone other than the original buyer from firing a gun), limited lethality (in muzzle velocity and magazine capacities), and liability laws for dealers, manufacturers, and owners whose guns are involved in shootings, would all reduce the carnage.

After each of these terrible events, empathic people have implored lawmakers for change. But after each, the dust has mostly settled and the blood has mostly been wiped away with little if any change. Through the power of social media, however, after the Stoneman Douglass massacre on St. Valentines Day, activists became emboldened and took to the streets. Last week, I participated in a Rally for Commonsense Gun Reform organized by the New River Valley chapter of the national action group Indivisible, at the town center in Christiansburg, a half-block from Congressman Morgan Griffith’s office.

I found myself carrying a borrowed sign that had in the background the black silhouette of an assault rifle and in the foreground the red circle with the diagonal line indicating “no,” alongside 25 or 30 other protestors. Several drivers honked approval. We got some thumbs-ups and some thumbs-downs.

Then, a driver in a pickup truck slowed and threw a shower of water from his cup at me, splashing my face, head, shirt, and sign. I wiped myself off and the ink began to run on the sign. I was so flabbergasted by this liquid assault I didn’t think to retaliate or even be angry.

Afterwards, I was overwhelmed by mixed emotions. I have had far worse done to me by ugly people. What the guy did was despicable, but it would only damage myself more if I lashed out. Then he's hurt me twice. Maybe, just maybe, he’d return home and realize he was an ass. Maybe on Sunday, his preacher will say something like being kind to your fellow man or turning the other cheek, and he’d feel remorse. Who knows? Maybe he was simply an ugly person, and would find smug self-satisfaction in his dastardly deed. I can’t concern myself with that. All I know is that not lashing out, not throwing a fire-hydrant or similar thing back at him, makes me feel better about myself.

I think people like he are scared right now. They really, truly feel that their lives will be deeply endangered if jack-booted thugs storm their house to take away their weapons. And they see me, and the other protesters, as facilitators.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m sure this guy remains adamant about being able to exercise his Second Amendment rights, to the extreme, in the way he interprets them. But then he became angry enough at me to prevent me from exercising my First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly free from abuse or assault from him. I’m guessing he’s the type of guy who would need the concept of hypocrisy explained to him.