The Blog Squad

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Planter? Are You Serious?

In the May issue of Richmond magazine, my mother, Pat Kite, wrote an essay on downsizing from her West End home of 34 years to move into a condo in the city. I know there’s no preparing someone for the challenges that sometimes come with urban living — not that there weren’t occasional challenges in her old neighborhood, from vandalized cars to more than a few domestic disputes — but I’m finding that I’m the one who’s shocked at what her block throws her way.

In addition to dealing with a condo association, loud traffic, VCU parties and people using her sidewalk as a bathroom, there’s senseless vandalism and theft to boot. A week before my mom moved in, a planter was stolen off the front porch. I’m not talking about a flimsy window box. I’m talking about a concrete urn filled with dirt that supposedly took two or three men to hoist into place. Well, my mom, who’s not one to back down from a fight, bought a cheaper plastic urn last week. She put it on the porch, which is not at street level, and before my husband could come by with epoxy to seal it to the porch, someone stole it — in the middle of the afternoon while she was at work.

Aside from some of the annoyances, my mom's pretty happy with the move: She likes her new home and her neighbors, and saving gas money by walking to work is a definite bonus.

But this time she's backing down: No more planters for the condo (though she did file a police report). So if you happen to see someone walking around toting a $200 planter filled with an ivy topiary and petunias, give me a call.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Gilmore's "Least Bad Option"

On Monday, the Washington Post ran an Op/Ed piece by Jim Gilmore, our former governor and current presidential candidate. In the piece, which was reprinted in Wednesay's Times-Dispatch, Gilmore outlines his plan for reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Neither "stayin' the course," nor "cuttin' and runnin'," Gilmore offers a "third way," which he calls with presumably a straight face "the least bad option." You may have seen the piece but probably not in its full pre-edited state, which I have managed to obtain a copy of through terribly secret means* that are no concern of yours. I've taken the liberty of noting the sections in red that were previously there and edited out.

Dear Mr. President,

I call that opening "my grabber." I wonder how many of you would read this piece without it.

As you know from my public statements, I have supported your increase in troops in Iraq in the belief that a new initiative was necessary to bring the Iraq war to a successful conclusion. It has been my position that this troop increase should be given an opportunity to work. But now I am running for president. Increasingly, however, reports show that attacks on our troops, Iraqi police and civilians are not abating.

It is clear from the statements previously made by your administration that there was never any intention to become embroiled in a guerrilla war, urban or otherwise. Clearly your intention was simply to become embroiled in a massive conventional war. American power is not advantaged in such a situation. Trying to fight a guerrilla war in the cities and towns of Iraq has opened opportunities for terrorist enemies such as al-Qaeda and fostered an environment for a Shiite-Sunni civil war in which we have no stake. We were led down this path in part by those who said, "If you break it, you own it." And, of course, by you, Mr. President. This statement asserts a responsibility to contain, control or resolve the centuries-old conflict between competing interests in the Middle East. We did not create these competing interests, and we do not own their conflict. Oprah taught me that. I assert that where and what we fight for must be strictly measured by the interests of the United States.
Like you, I reject the Democrats' policy of an immediate withdrawal or a withdrawal on a timetable. Unfortunately, they are playing to the polls to obtain political advantage at home, to the detriment of the United States. I, however, being a man of unimpeachable principle, would never stoop so low as to change my political position based on the mere opinion of 76 percent of the citizenry of the United States. But I also believe we cannot continue our present policy. We must find a third way.
First, I urge that we stop thinking it is our responsibility to solve the Iraq conflict. Second, I urge you to remember that John McCain thinks it is. It is not. We behave as an occupier, defining what the future of Iraq will be. We suggest their troop strength. We dictate to their parliament. Some politicians even suggest we partition their country. Worst of all, we are starting to suggest that we will define "benchmarks," which gives us an excuse for withdrawal if Iraqis cannot perform the impossible.
I urge that we define our goals in terms of America's national interest, and let the people of Iraq take care of their national interests. The United States has a stake in preventing a government from emerging that is expressly hostile to us, such as in a coup inspired by al-Qaeda. I think we can all agree that this would, as the 18-29 year-old voters say, totally suck. The United States has a stake in not permitting the invasion and occupation of Iraq by any of its neighbors. This can be done through a military assistance program and diplomatic initiative. Beyond this, the responsibility for peace and order of the country rests with the Iraqi government, which can make a specific request to the United States for assistance like any other country of the world. (By calling 1-800-BEG-4-AID.)
As a veteran of the U.S. Army (did I mention I am a veteran?) I believe we cannot just abandon Iraq. I believe the only realistic alternative -- the least bad option, if you will -- is a limited deliberate drawdown of our military men and women and a redeployment of the forces remaining in the region to areas where they can more efficiently and effectively carry out a clearly defined mission.
I believe that the American military is on target when officers ask for a mission that includes maintaining -- either at bases in Iraq at the request of Iraq or in bases in Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- a military force powerful enough to launch special operations missions against al-Qaeda or Sunni insurgents in Iraq; train Iraqi troops to defend their own country; and guarantee the security of the Iraqi government, if so desired by Iraq.
This approach of drawing down our forces while maintaining the military presence needed to preserve democracy in the country and launch special operations missions against terrorists would save U.S. lives and (car!) tax dollars as well as prevent Iraq from becoming a base of operations for foreign jihadists and buy valuable time to train Iraqi forces.
This policy I suggest entails risk that the political or military process inside Iraq may not come out as we hope. But we are already at risk in the Middle East.
American interests come down to protection of our national security, protection of Israel's right to exist, and averting, if possible, a general war in the Middle East, nuclear, cream pie or otherwise. Our present conduct in Iraq distracts from or is detrimental to those goals. I urge you to refocus American policy toward Iraq to further these strategic goals. And to visit

*pure creative license

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

X-treme dedication

Like a lot of people, I read about the Richmond guy who finished first in the XTERRA Urban Assault bike race on Saturday and then went directly to the church to get married.

And I’m sure a lot of folks, sipping their second cups of coffee at the breakfast table Sunday, said, “That guy’s nuts!” Especially when they came to the part where Jimmy McMillan cut back on drinking wine at the reception because he had two road races the next day. Yes, the day after the wedding. That’s one tolerant bride, we all thought.

Jimmy McMillan’s out of the ordinary, but I can understand where he’s coming from a little bit since I started seriously running back in December. A lot of folks work out when it’s convenient — when the weather is nice, when there aren’t too many errands or responsibilities, when they feel inspired (perhaps by the suddenly tight pants in the closet), and I’ve certainly fallen into that category before. Hey, at least we’re working out! But there’s something to be said for getting out there and being active even when you don’t feel like doing anything. I never thought I’d be running five or six days a week for hours at a time. And from the outside, that may sound absolutely cuckoo.

But the payoff is great when you set your heart on something. Interrupting your honeymoon for a bike race is taking it further than most people would go, but I admire McMillan’s extreme commitment to his goal and hope that I can emulate just a little bit of that nuttiness in my running career.

“A Wicket Good Time” — Updated

Jason Tesauro, our intrepid drinks columnist and a true modern gentleman, penned a feature story about the singular pleasures of croquet for our June issue, recounting some of his past successes — and, sadly, failures — in the Virginia/West Virginia State Croquet Championships.

Well, we're happy to report that Tesauro (in action at left) did himself and his Confederate Hills Croquet Club peers proud in this year's edition of the championships, held from June 10 to 12 at The Greenbrier, taking third place in his first year playing in the first flight division (just one step down from championship flight, the highest level). "It’s the nicest trophy I’ve ever won,” Tesauro reports, “all the way back to a Camp Bernie second-place horseback riding trophy.”

Dash Shaw Sells Out? *

Senior writer Harry Kollatz Jr. wrote about local cartoonist Dash Shaw, his book The Mother’s Mouth and his contribution to the anthology Stuck in the Middle in our April issue. Turns out that in addition to finishing up his next graphic novel The Bottom-Less Belly Button, Shaw has also been dipping his foot into the superhero-centric world of Marvel Comics (check out a sample here), working on a Doctor Strange story for an upcoming project the publisher’s billing as the “Indie Anthology,” featuring artcomix creators like Shaw, Johnny Ryan (who already skewered more than a few of Marvel’s characters in the scathingly scatological and aptly titled Comic Book Holocaust), James Kochalka and Michael Kupperman taking on Marvel’s icons.

Funny thing is, before all the movie and licensing money started pouring in toward the end of the ’90s, Marvel was in dire financial straits for a while there, filing for bankruptcy in 1996. This led now-defunct publisher Highwater Books to release a tongue-in-cheek Marvel Benefit issue of its anthology Coober Skeeber, in which, you guessed it, artcomix creators offered their (unauthorized) takes on Marvel characters. Kochalka’s Hulk story for Coober Skeeber was later reprinted by Marvel, and now the biggest company in American comics appears to be taking that ball and running with it. —Chad Anderson

* We kid, we kid.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

No Child Left Inside

In today’s Washington Post there’s a story that all parents should read. Staff writer Donna St. George introduces us to author Richard Louv of Last Child in the Woods fame. In his book, he gives a label — “nature deficit disorder” — to a phenomenon that’s happening across the county — kids who don't play outside.

Want proof? From 1997 to 2003, Sandra Hofferth, a family studies professor at the University of Maryland, found there was a decline of 50 percent, from 16 to 8 percent, in the proportion of children ages 9 to 12 who spent time outside doing things such as hiking, walking, fishing and gardening. So, there’s now a push for a “green hour,” an hour of casual outdoor play every day. Now that summer’s here, how will you make sure your kids step away from the video games and get outside? — Sarah K. McDonald

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Summer Irritations

As a child I traipsed around the woods with my father and brothers quite a bit, never to be bothered by poison ivy, ticks or other woodland annoyances. But over Memorial Day weekend, alien-like itchy bumps and a rash began popping up on my arms and stomach. Poison ivy? Poison oak? I hadn’t seen any while working in my flower beds just days before, but what else could it be? I was so disgusted by my own arms that I wore long sleeves in the 100-degree heat, not wanting to catch even the slightest glimpse. Benadryl and calamine lotion didn’t cut it, so a six-day dose of prednisone was in order. It seems to have done the trick, but now I’m terrified to return to my yard. What other dangers are lurking among the weeds and shrubs?

Perhaps ticks have it in for me now. Good thing we recently got an e-mail here at the office about how to deal with those buggers. Instead of going in violently with a pair of tweezers, the suggestion was to apply a glob of liquid soap to a cotton ball. Then cover the tick with the soap-soaked cotton ball for about 15 to 20 seconds, after which the tick should come out stuck to the cotton ball.

The July issue of Parents magazine has tips for remedying more of summer’s irritants, including sunburns and bee stings. Tip: Neutralize the venom of a bee sting with a solution of meat tenderizer and water or solid antiperspirant. Do you have any tried and true tricks of the trade to tackle the challenges summer brings your way? —Sarah K. McDonald

Monday, June 11, 2007

"What's in the Water?" Revisited

In early May, Ralph White, the director of the city of Richmond’s James River Parks system, told me that about 65,000 people per month visited the river parks last summer, according to a survey.

Because it’s such a recreational magnet is partly what motivated us to do a feature in our June edition on the health of the James. The feature is titled “What’s in the Water?” and hit the stands a couple weeks ago.

Another reason for this piece was to coincide roughly with the James River Association’s release today of the “State of the James” report. The report looks at several indicators of the river’s overall health. — fish and wildlife populations, the amount and quality of natural habitat, the amount of pollution in the water, and the efforts to protect and restore the river.

Just before the river report was due out, Bill Street, the JRA’s executive director, gave me a brief preview and said he expected the James River to receive something like a “C” grade overall — not great but not dismal; alive and relatively healthy, but with a lot of room for improvement. (You should be able to get a PDF of the report soon at the JRA’s Web site.)

In general, Street says, there has been a steady rebound in some of the wildlife and fish in the James. Bald eagles and osprey have begun to thrive again, and rockfish populations are strong, he says. Other aquatic life — namely freshwater oysters — are struggling, he says.

And check out this fact: Those oysters are like nature’s own Brita filters. Each oyster can filter 40 to 50 gallons of river water a day. But they’re in short supply because the river bottom habitat is silted over in many spots.

For that feature. I spent a little time on the water, in the tidal section of the James near Hopewell, with Street, and the JRA’s riverkeeper, Chuck Frederickson. I also interviewed a handful of people who have either a professional or personal interest in the health of the water flowing down the James.

As we floated along the current, Street and Frederickson both gave me some perspective on how much we’ve changed the river since Capt. John Smith arrived at the mouth of the James in the 1600s. Back then, the JRA guys told me, Smith’s ship logs record that the oyster banks were so thick with oysters that they were navigation hazards. And the water was so clear that the ship mates could see the vessel's anchor on the river bottom in 40 feet of water.

Today, in spots, Frederickson is lucky to be able to see one meter (a little more than three feet) into the water. And that’s just the minimum standard for water clarity — if you can see something in the water a meter deep, then that should allow enough light through to the underwater grasses that are prime habitat for aquatic wildlife.

Our story contains the meat of the issue with the James — that although pollution controls have largely succeeded in cleaning up the river, daily human and animal impacts continue to send tons of waste, sediment and chemicals downstream.

The state, of course, has mandated upgrades in water treatment facilities throughout the state by 2011. And as Street told me in May, counties and cities along the James are slowly moving to development policies that take the river watershed into account.

Says, Dick McElfish, the director of environmental engineering for Chestefield County: “We’re looking at how we can reduce impervious areas, meaning roads, and all the runoff and how we can increase natural areas above and beyond what we’re currently doing.” He says the county has no formal effort yet to require what’s called low-impact design. “It’s not a requirement yet. It’s just a buzz word.”

As our story mentions, some localities are aggressively pursing these low-impact policies. Regionally, Street says, New Kent County has made notable efforts to pair its rapid growth with sound watershed management.

In Richmond, the most notable recent development is Councilwoman Kathy Graziano’s proposal to create a conservation easement along the James in the city limits.

With JRA’s press conference today announcing the "State of the James" report, you can expect to hear more about river’s health and preservation in coming days and weeks. —Jack Cooksey

Friday, June 08, 2007

Cabin Fever

Paris Hilton went in and out of jail* in less time than my 6-year-old has been incarcerated on the couch with a bucket and a thermometer perched close by. Having ventured no farther than my own mailbox in the past four days, I have had less exposure to the outside world than that schmuck, Andrew Speaker, the TB patient who has been on Larry King, Good Morning America and, if I have my facts straight, is set to head out on the American Idols tour this summer.

It has not been a good week. Johnny "Sixteen Mil" Johnson might disagree, however, having given Supervalu a courtroom beat-down this town usually reserves for lawsuits named (insert city agency here) v. Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. While Johnson was busy adding another "riches" to his rags-to-riches-to-rags story, I've been busy reaching for rags. Sweet mother of God, that's a lot of vomit for a 37-pound person! While she rages with conventional fever, the little one and I are crazed with the cabin variety. Since the quarantine began, our eyes have consumed:

7 episodes of the Brady Bunch (from the complete series DVD set the kids gave me for Mother's Day)

2 episodes of I Spy

1 Flintstones

4 Buzz Lightyear of Star Command

1 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

1/4 Leave it to the Real Beavers (Discovery Channel)

1 Beauty & The Beast

1 whole day's programming of PBS Kids

I must say my attention span seems to be slipping away, drip by drip, kind of like the pipe behind the first floor bathroom that every once in a while just starts leaking for no reason and then ... where was I? ... yes, my attention span seems to be getting shorter but happily the newly redesigned Times-Dispatch understands my suffering. Now I can read Q&A-type stories with hip, chatty language that recognizes that I am in the desirable 18-49 demographic and that I take my news like my men — light, breezy and not too deep.

The ice is melting too fast (yes, another study!), the Russians hate us again, Silvio might be dead, Darfur ... well, just Darfur, Bono refuses to answer my letters (hear me now, little Irishman, you will be mine!), the health insurance system is in a shambles (did you hear?), terrorists want to kill us and take over our malls and reprint our money, the housing market is in the toilet and neither TomKat nor Brangelina has yet to self-destruct and I'd be fine with all of it if my daughter's temperature would just drop to two digits so that I could return to a normal life of scrubbing toilets.

Insanity would be a welcome relief at this point. Spending 72 hours and counting locked up with your own children makes it easy to understand why someone would try to hurl themselves into the popemobile.

-- Janet Giampietro

* and back in...

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Week's Odd Dealings

Former Sen./Gov. George Allen has filed papers to form a political-action committee to raise funds to put conservative candidates into office. Allen's PAC is called Good Government Action Fund (GGAF). Apparently Allen thought it would be a better idea to name his PAC something that sounded like "gaffe" rather than his initial name for it — My Action Committee Allied for Conservative America.

Saints be praised! Fighting Joe Morrissey is running for the 74th District House seat that will be vacated by Donald McEachin (who is making a run at Benjamin Lambert's 9th District Senate seat). If the gods of column writing are looking down upon me sweetly on June 12, Morrissey will triumph. However, if the gods of good sense should have their way ...

If I had no children to care for and nothing to do with my day, I would most certainly be camped out at Richmond Circuit Court with a bag of Doritos at the Johnny Johnson trial. Even reading it in the paper has been riveting in its weirdness. Not weird in a "what-kind-of-insane-hair-will-Phil-Specter-show-up-with-today?" sort of way, but, you know, Richmond weird. Strange enough has been the tale of the rags-to-riches-to-rags Johnson allegedly being driven out of business and to physical and mental ruin by Goliath supermarket chain Supervalu. But when you thought it couldn't get any stranger, here comes Jim Ukrop Himself, once the benefactor and mentor of Johnson, testifying for the defense that Johnson was not satisfied with slow growth of his businesses and bit off more than he could chew. "I was personally always trying to slow him down," Ukrop said. OK, so it's not exactly "if it doesn't fit you must acquit" but I'll bet that courtroom was breathless yesterday.

Speaking of weird — how about that Ray McAllister column about VCU and Oregon Hill? In a nutshell it said, “Give up, David. Goliath is not only big but also important. And also, big.” But what really seemed odd was the “quit ‘cher whining” tone the column struck. I must agree that it seems unlikely Oregon Hill will win this one but how can one expect after all these years of vigorously defending its borders and unique character that Oregon Hill — of all neighborhoods — would give up without a fight?

In the annals of suspicious stories (JonBenet, the Lindbergh baby, Pia Zadora's Golden Globe) it is hard to imagine one that rivals Andrew Speaker's. Speaker is the guy with TB who's been traveling all over the world coughing on people. OK, apparently he's not coughing — yet — but he has a particularly rare and dangerous strain of tuberculosis that is found in pockets of Russia and Asia. The story was bizarre enough when we learned that he traveled all over the world after being warned and eventually ordered not to and that he was let into the U.S. by border inspectors even though he was on a list to detain. Now this — the unbelievable stunner: his new father-in-law is a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control whose specialty is — wait for it — TB!!!! Everyone official insists the guy in no way contracted it from the CDC lab. Are you frickin' kidding me? —Janet Giampietro