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nora
I don’t remember who told me I should write about Nora McGee.

I remember it had something to do with the 81-year-old woman’s woodworking, that she had taken it up as a child in an age when grown women rarely did that work. Among other things, she built several floor-to-ceiling cabinets for her kitchen. I remembered the feminist gist of what she told me about growing up as a tomboy in the early 20th century, but until re-reading the story not the wonderful phrasing she used.

“Back in my day, women weren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “I just decided, instead of knitting when I didn’t want to, I would hammer when I wanted to.”

I liked doing stories of women striking out into men’s territory. Around the same time, 1987, I wrote about the only four women in Lenoir who were criminal defense attorneys. It’s still a men’s field – I think I have seen more women at the Caldwell County Courthouse working as prosecutors than defense attorneys in the past three years.

Until a relative of McGee’s sent me a photocopy of her story recently I didn’t remember her name, but when that relative mentioned McGee’s name to me a week or so earlier I wondered if that was the woman I wrote about who did the woodworking. It sounded familiar.

When the photocopy arrived in the mail I recognized it, and yet it differed from my memory.

I shot the photo the News-Topic ran of her moving wood on a saw, but I remembered shooting it at a different angle. I remembered she wore a dress at the time, and I would have described it as sort of dark and plain, yet when I saw the black-and-white image I could tell it must have been gray or, more likely, light blue with a simple floral pattern. As I sat at home Saturday morning thinking about writing about the difference between my memory and the photo, I thought her hair was darker and longer than it actually is in the photo.

We all like to think of our memory as a video recorder. Everything that goes in is played back reliably and the same way every time, unless it gets erased. Then it’s just gone. But what we recall, that’s what was. That happened.

With rare exceptions, though, we have fluid memories. Even in the events we remember, details change. People change. Some things fade out, while new details may emerge.

I remember from that group of women defense attorneys just one name, Nancy Epstein, maybe because that stood out as not a local name. I remember I thought she was attractive. Maybe that’s the only reason she’s the only one I can remember – or maybe I have told myself she was attractive because hers is the only name I remember, and I can’t think of another reason I would forget the other three.

Or was her name Nancy? Google can’t find her.

Were there really four women in that group? Maybe there were three.

I don’t have the newspaper clipping of that story, only the memory of the photo I shot, the women standing together somewhere in front of the courthouse.

Maybe I was meant to work as a reporter because even as a teenager I knew that memories weren’t always reliable. I often said when telling people what I recall, “If I remember accurately …”

In a poetry writing class in college, one of our assignments was to describe our earliest memory. Mine has always been a few moments in a medical setting when I must have been an infant. I wrote my description of it as best I could but couched all of my details with qualifiers, saying that this is how I remember it, and pointing out the gaps that I didn’t remember. The professor read each student’s submission without telling who wrote it, and after reading mine he told the class he knew exactly the procedure being described – one that, as he talked about it, I had no idea existed. Then he declared that the careful insistence that the memory’s details might be flawed clearly indicated that the entire thing was a work of fiction because no one said things like that when describing a memory.

No one knew I had written it, so I could not feel humiliated at being called a fabulist (I should note I got a good grade in the class – lies in poetry are not a bad thing, apparently). Mainly I wondered: Had I learned about that procedure at some point and forgot about it? Had I seen it on TV and internalized the imagery? I’ll never know.

The memory feels as real as my interviews with “Miss Nora” and Nancy Epstein. That’s why I have to couch my words. That’s why we all should.

NOTE: After this was published, a reader emailed me and said I probably was thinking of Nancy Einstein, who now practices law in Morganton. She was correct.

Bill Tate, Meadowood Studios
One thing that hasn’t changed about newspapers is errors.

On page 1 of the yellowed, disintegrating copy of the Lenoir Topic, one of the weekly predecessors of the News-Topic, donated by Frank Coffey and recently posted by Bill Tate on the “Lenoir and Caldwell County History” Facebook page, the paper’s publication date appears as Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1905, but on page 2 it says Wednesday, Aug. 30, 1905.

That makes me feel better about the much more recent times the News-Topic has carried the wrong day, date or both.

Nothing on the 1905 front page was about anything in Caldwell County, except for all of the local ads – and there were quite a few. One was a long, text ad for Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, a pill that supposedly protected you against germs:

“It increases the vital power, cleanses the system of clogging impurities, enriches the blood, puts the stomach and organs of digestion and nutrition in working condition, so that the germ finds no weak or tainted spot in which to break. … Only one or two a day will regulate and cleanse and invigorate a bad Stomach, torpid Liver, or sluggish Bowels.”

That was just one of many ads throughout the paper for “cures” of various kinds — Cuticura Soap, Ointment and Pills, Mozley’s Lemon Elixir (another for “torpid liver”), Dyspepsia by Crab Orchard Water, Cascarets Candy Cathartic (for your bowels, “They work while you sleep”), Sloan’s Liniment and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which pitched itself exclusively to women starting with the headline, “STOP, WOMAN!” by promising confidential advice by mail for health issues that women would not feel comfortable confiding to male doctors.

Page 2 carried in the top left corner, under the incorrect date, two important items of information: The subscription cost, $1 a year, and the Topic’s telephone number, 7.

Page 2 also carried a mix of news, from the newly brokered peace treaty between Russia and Japan to the General Assembly passing a measure for a referendum in Lenoir on issuing $50,000 in bonds for streets, sidewalks, sewer lines or an electrical plant.

Page 3 started with the heading “OF LOCAL INTEREST” and listed people who had been somewhere or were on their way:

“Mrs. Harper Beall has returned from a visit to Chester S.C.

“R.A. Ramseur has been on a trip to Mitchell.

“Carroll Rapp went to Guilford College Monday.

“Mr. J. Gorden Ballew returned to Baltimore last Friday.”

Farther down, under the headline “Sweet Girl Freshmen and Sophomores,” was a short paragraph:

“It was a sad pity that the Topic reporter belongs to the wrong ‘sect’ (to quote Samantha) Tuesday, for a whole carload of sweetness came up billed for Davenport College. It sho’ was a pretty sight to behold all those nice girls at once. The conductor did look so happy.”

Under that was the news of “the terrible damage done by a mad dog” rampaging from Lenoir to Patterson, which was finally shot and killed under the Crisp, Cilly & Co. store in Patterson.

With that news was a message issued by Lenoir Mayor Edgar Allan Poe saying that, because no one knew how many other dogs the rabid dog may have bitten, “Notice is hereby given that all dogs found on the streets of Lenoir unmuzzled for the next thirty days will be shot.”

Ads on this page included one for a 12-room house in Granite Falls for sale for $1,000. “We stake our reputation on the assertion that you cannot duplicate this for $1,500.00,” it said.

Page 4 brought more details on the Russia-Japan peace, including a separate wire story on world leaders crediting Teddy Roosevelt with brokering the peace, and a mix of state, national and international wire items, then some “filler” (the news term for short things used to fill inconvenient space), including some one-liners that also appeared as filler on at least one other page in the same issue, such as, “A woman’s idea of heaven is five parts wavy hair and five parts a good figure,” and, “A useful thing about automobiles is all the new cuss words you learn when they won’t work.”

The news largely petered out by page 5, where there was a long piece of fiction, “Luke Hammond, the Miser,” by Prof. William Henry Peck, and other apparently syndicated specialty feature items. One, “With the Funny Fellows,” relayed short, presumably fictitious anecdotes supplied by papers around the country:

“I was surprised,” said the Rev. Mr. Goodman, sternly, “to see you playing golf last Sabbath. I should think you’d do better –”

“Oh!” replied Hardcase, “I usually do. I was in wretched form last Sunday.” – Philadelphia Press.

Page 6 was what we would call today the religion page, with lots of inspirational messages and lines (“You have no right to elect His work if you reject His word”). Curiously, it also was the home to the highest number of “cure” ads.

Page 7 was the business page, aside from a wide column down the left side made up of pseudo-scientific pronouncements, including the headline “Mars Inhabited,” with a short description of what scientists know of Mars “By Camille Flammarion, the Famous Astronomer,” which described a wondrously pleasant climate on Mars and concluded, “We know the globe of Mars perfectly; in fact, far better than the earth.”

Bill said there were a total of only seven pages to be posted. I have yet to figure out how that can be so, since every piece of paper I’ve ever seen from any era has both a front and a back, making two pages. Perhaps that’s one thing about newspapers that has changed.

When they asked me to speak at the convention, they told me I should tell a story about the candidate. It should be something with real emotion, the candidate’s campaign manager said as we stood at my front door, the limousine parked with its engine running in my driveway. It should be something that would humanize the candidate.

I blinked and tried to think of something. “It would be a lot easier,” I said, “if the candidate were a human.”

“Ha ha,” the manager said. “You’re only the … (pausing while flipping through a small notebook) eighth person today to tell me that.”

The limousine driver honked. The manager raised a finger toward the car and told me, “You’ll go on the middle of the second night, with other old friends.”

“Who else?” I asked.

The limousine driver honked. The manager looked over, and a back window in the car rolled down a tiny crack, enough to shoot a look at the manager.

I knew that eye. “Oh, hey!” I waved. The window rolled up.

The manager began to turn. “We’ll be in touch. Think of a story.”

I watched the limousine pull away, my mind a blank. A story with real emotion.

I went inside. My wife was waiting in the kitchen. “What was that about?” she said.

“I’ve been asked to speak at the convention.”

“Won’t that get you in trouble at work? What will your boss say?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t see how I could turn it down.”

She poured me a cup of coffee. “What are you supposed to talk about?”

“I’m supposed to tell a story with real emotion that would humanize the candidate.”

She looked at me blankly, then crossed her arms. “That would be easier if you were talking about a human.”

“Yeah.” I sat down with my coffee.

She looked concerned and brushed my arm. “Do you have a story?”

I shrugged.

I thought and thought about it. I thought all day, and when I went to bed that night I stared at the ceiling thinking. That’s when I thought of something. I got up, went to my laptop and wrote the whole thing down, with much more detail than I thought would be needed in a speech, but I wanted to be sure I got everything down.

A couple of days later the manager called to check on my progress, and I said I had a story that I thought would do a lot to humanize the candidate. I told the whole thing.

Silence on the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

“That’s a terrible story.”

“Why is that a terrible story?” I asked.

“You end up bleeding all over a police officer. It sounds like a testimonial for the police officer.”

“But it’s very emotional.”

“Only because you’re crying almost the whole time.”

“But –”

“Nevermind. We’re running out of time anyway, so we won’t need you. Thanks very much for your efforts, though. We need your vote.”

And that was that.

I really should call to check on that police officer again. She was so kind.

When I first heard that the local Republican Party was moving into the vacant space beside Lenoir City Hall that most recently was the Azteca Burrito restaurant, I had a thought.

Perhaps, I thought, the party is one-upping the Democrats, who lately have been having a number of functions at Howard Brewing. When Azteca Burrito was open, its owners built a bar, so that space not only has a bar to match Howard Brewing, it also has a kitchen!

“The Democrats have beer, but so do we, AND we have freshly grilled burgers,” the Republicans could say.

The Democrats then would have to raise the ante and find a way to provide food too, and probably more variety if they wanted to lure people their way.

Of course, I know the idea is too good to be true.

The result would be another bidding war between the parties, except the kind they have now tends to benefit lobbyists and interest groups, while the average person feels forgotten and left behind, as any supporter of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders will tell you.

But how much better would it be if, instead of pandering by promising trade wars or free college or other trinkets costing trillions, what the parties provided was an ever-expanding list of options on an actual menu?

“Don’t go to McDonald’s, now GOP stands for ‘Get your Order Personalized,’ and we won’t make you use a kiosk either!”

The Republican menu might lean toward the bold, the barbecue, the Tex-Mex and brisket and steak.

The Democratic menu might have more ethnic specialties, more unusual spices and ingredients, plus vegetarian options.

Or maybe I’m exposing my preconceptions.

What they would cook would be less important than the fact that everyone would have no doubt at all what the effect of their political preference was. It wouldn’t be an idea or policy, it would be on a plate, right there in front of them.

“Make America Great Again”? Make America’s steaks, man. We’ll decide whether they’re great, and if they’re not we’ll go across the street and see if the other guys do better “Fighting For Us” against indigestion.

I’d work in the slogans of the Libertarian and Green Party candidates too if I could find them.

I think this is the ideal recipe, so to speak, for political reform.

When I first heard that the local Republican Party was moving into the vacant space beside Lenoir City Hall that most recently was the Azteca Burrito restaurant, I had a thought.

Perhaps, I thought, the party is one-upping the Democrats, who lately have been having a number of functions at Howard Brewing. When Azteca Burrito was open, its owners built a bar, so that space not only has a bar to match Howard Brewing, it also has a kitchen!

“The Democrats have beer, but so do we, AND we have freshly grilled burgers,” the Republicans could say.

The Democrats then would have to raise the ante and find a way to provide food too, and probably more variety if they wanted to lure people their way.

Of course, I know the idea is too good to be true.

The result would be another bidding war between the parties, except the kind they have now tends to benefit lobbyists and interest groups, while the average person feels forgotten and left behind, as any supporter of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders will tell you.

But how much better would it be if, instead of pandering by promising trade wars or free college or other trinkets costing trillions, what the parties provided was an ever-expanding list of options on an actual menu?

“Don’t go to McDonald’s, now GOP stands for ‘Get your Order Personalized,’ and we won’t make you use a kiosk either!”

The Republican menu might lean toward the bold, the barbecue, the Tex-Mex and brisket and steak.

The Democratic menu might have more ethnic specialties, more unusual spices and ingredients, plus vegetarian options.

Or maybe I’m exposing my preconceptions.

What they would cook would be less important than the fact that everyone would have no doubt at all what the effect of their political preference was. It wouldn’t be an idea or policy, it would be on a plate, right there in front of them.

“Make America Great Again”? Make America’s steaks, man. We’ll decide whether they’re great, and if they’re not we’ll go across the street and see if the other guys do better “Fighting For Us” against indigestion.

I’d work in the slogans of the Libertarian and Green Party candidates too if I could find them.

I think this is the ideal recipe, so to speak, for political reform.

Part of me agrees with Teresa Schmedding’s “The news industry can’t cut its way to quality.” After all, I made largely the same point myself in 2012. Schmedding writes about the massive layoff of copy editors at the Bay Area News Group and what it portends for the quality of stories that BANG will be able to produce from here on — and what the likely effect among the reading audience will be:

“When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.”

And she’s right, of course. To a point. I certainly agree that cutting by itself can’t improve the product we are trying to convince people to buy.

My emphasis was different because I focused on the content creators, those who generate the story ideas and/or chase down the stories. People who are not creative or not bright can’t generate interesting stories, so in my view you need to pay enough to get and keep such people. All trends so far seem to show that media employers disagree.

Schmedding’s point is that everyone needs an editor. Even the most creative and intelligent people make mistakes and are blind to their own errors. I am reminded of this constantly at work, most recently this morning as my publisher remarked that in the proof of our big, annual, tourism-focused magazine there were a lot of errors I marked that were in stories I had already edited. “There always are,” I said. The entire reason copy editors are necessary is that all of us are often blind to errors we made.

During my time in the corporate media world, I was surrounded by people with primarily business training. My desk for most of my time in Richmond was alongside desks of accountants. I listened to them talk on the phone to staff at individual newspapers, explaining the rules, and I heard more budget discussions than I could ever wish to for the rest of my life. I understand perfectly well the reaction of cutting — when revenues drop, you cut expenses and seek new ways to raise revenue (I cannot address here whether media companies are adequately trying the latter). That’s why copy editors may be first on the cutting-room floor: A publication HAS to have those who write the stories, because without them there is nothing to edit; so you reduce the editing layer to preserve the content layer, opening the door to more errors in the product.

The ledger-based mindset is reducing not only staff numbers but squeezing pay so that payroll totals are shrinking even when the staff level does not. From that kind of view, it’s positive to maintain staff levels while reducing the cost of that staff.

The idea that any expenses at all need to be protected, even raised, as you cut others is counter-intuitive to this way of thinking. But to me it seems urgent. The smaller you get, the smarter you must be, because there are fewer people making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. There are fewer people who know what to do and how to do it, so they ought to be more valuable.

However, the assumption Schmedding and I both make is that there is an audience of sufficient size to support news and that would actually do it if the quality were maintained at a high enough level. Not many local or regional publications have tested this assumption, but the Orange County Register did, to disastrous effect.

Almost every week I receive fresh reminders from current or former subscribers that they do not recognize or appreciate the difference between good work and bad. I get far more complaints when the Sudoku puzzle is left out than when there are grammatical errors in the paper’s lead story. I have been told regularly that the crossword puzzle was the only reason to get the paper.

Those are not the majority, I tell myself, but how can I ever know how many of what is left in our circulation — less than half what it was in the late 1980s — recognize and appreciate it? If I can’t find that, how do I convince the ledger-minders to offer pay to reward work that fosters it?

I don’t usually post here the opinion pieces I write, but this is not just local and in many ways not even just a state issue.

It’s a fact that boycotts are blunt instruments, particularly when aimed at an entire state. Allies as well as foes get hurt.

South Carolina businesses learned that during boycotts over display of the Confederate flag. Indiana businesses learned that during boycotts over that state’s short-lived “religious freedom” law that allowed businesses to refuse service to homosexuals.

A column in the New York Times by Linda-Marie Barrett of Malaprops Bookstore/Café in Asheville illustrates the collateral damage being done now to North Carolina businesses over House Bill 2’s repeal of anti-discrimination protections in various cities and its explicit allowance, by omission from the list of protected classes, of any kind of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Barrett complains that despite her business’s stance against HB2, “Customers from other states tell us they won’t visit until the law is no more. More threatening to us financially and to our community culturally is the cancellation of events by authors.”

In her column she asks authors to reconsider boycotting North Carolina bookstores because the stores need the revenue that author visits bring, and their local customers need to be lifted up.

She has a point, but the whole point of a statewide boycott is the economic havoc it can wreak, ultimately impacting as many legislators’ districts as possible and the entire state economy as a whole to create a sense of urgency that otherwise would be missing. Appeals to compassion have limited effects, but the power of the purse is strong, which is why boycotts are so often effective.

Senate President Phil Berger, a living blunt instrument who is the ultimate force that would have to be overcome to repeal HB2, is a lawyer from the tiny town of Eden, in Rockingham County. What exactly could anyone boycott that he would care about? Not much. Even if there were something, Berger has proven to be a “my way or the highway” kind of fellow.

That means his political allies in the legislature have to be convinced to change their minds and risk Berger’s wrath. Without a boycott, how would anyone do that? Protests? Sit-ins? The “Moral Mondays” protests have well established that the legislators are utterly immune to such appeals. But many of them are businesspeople or live in districts with businesses that are being affected by the boycott, or else their pet projects will be affected by a decline in state revenue needed to support them.

The question is how many millions of dollars the state’s economy will have to lose — how many hundreds or thousands of new jobs have to be withdrawn by companies canceling plans to grow here — before enough of HB2’s backers are willing to admit the whole thing is a sham.

And that’s what the law is, a sham. There was no enforcement mechanism written into the feature of the law that its backers most vocally defend, the requirement for people to use the public restrooms that correspond with the sex identified on their birth certificate. Politicians have raised the false specter of sexual predation in the restroom, ironically by heterosexual men posing as women, to justify all the rest of the bill’s discriminatory elements (and its completely unrelated prohibition of local minimum-wage rules). Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, told the Washington Post, “Moms want to be able to send their 11-year-old daughters into the bathroom and not worry about grown men being in there.”

Woodhouse is right, mothers do want that — but HB2 does not a single thing to make sure no grown men are in the women’s room. The law puts no police in the restroom and takes no steps to actually control who uses which room. There was no way before HB2 to prevent a sexual predator from entering any restroom, and there remains no way under HB2 to prevent it. There also is no new punishment in HB2 for anyone caught in the act.

In other words, HB2 does nothing more than shout angrily into the wind. That’s why the outside world has heard only anger in its passage.

Passing the law had only one point: Creating passion in a voter base that is perceived as dispirited by the presidential campaign and that may not turn out in large numbers this fall.

But that backfired and made the state the target of national scorn, as did Gov. Pat McCrory’s ham-fisted executive order last week that left all of HB2’s major features intact even as he insisted, falsely, that he was acting to remove the reason for the boycott. All his executive order did was gift-wrap a reason for the national media to do more stories about the boycott, what prompted it and illustrate that McCrory’s order did nothing to change it.

It’s not fair that Malaprops and other businesses are being made to pay the price for a cynical election-year strategy, and it’s not fair that hundreds or thousands of North Carolinians will not be able to seek high-paying jobs with PayPal or Deutsche Bank or any of the other companies canceling their plans here.

But fairness was never the point behind HB2. Damage was. And damage it has wrought.