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The unthinkable happens every day, somewhere.

Some ordinary thing, some routine activity, goes horribly awry.

Something such as going down the stairs at home.

Ashley Moss must have gone up and down the stairs in her apartment in Granite Falls hundreds of times, and gone up and down countless other stairs thousands of times since she was a child.

Yet something went badly wrong Tuesday, and she was found dead at those stairs. Police said it appeared to be just an accident. She fractured her neck in a fall.

My house has stairs, and every now and then I’m reading while walking, or thinking about something going on at work, and I miss a step, or I hit the edge of the step and slip down, flailing for the rail. I curse myself for not paying attention, but I don’t think much more about it.

Most of the time when we talk about “the unthinkable” we mean someone close to us dying suddenly in something like a car wreck, a boating accident, a random shooting. But those are things that we know are dangerous and potentially deadly events. We think about the possibility. That’s why we wear seat belts and why boats have to have life jackets on board, and why dark alleys in the city scare us. That’s why mothers ask us to call when we reach our destination so they know we are safe — and they can stop worrying.

We mean they are unthinkable because we hate to think about them.

But no one thinks about death when approaching a flight of stairs.

Falling down the stairs is depicted two ways in movies and TV shows: as comedy and as deadly – more often as comedy. In “Get Shorty,” John Travolta’s gangster character throws a stuntman down the stairs in a restaurant. The stuntman is humiliated but not injured. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’ character and a terrorist he is fighting both tumble down a single flight of stairs. Willis is unharmed; the terrorist is killed — deadly for the bad guy, no big deal for the good guy.

Perhaps the number of times we have seen falling down the stairs portrayed without serious injury contributes to us not thinking about what could happen.

But it’s not the only thing we never think about that can go fatally wrong.

How many times have any of us had the flu? We don’t think about that as something that could be fatal except for young children or adults who are frail, but the flu can turn from what we think of as an incapacitating but temporary illness to pneumonia and then to sepsis, when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight an infection can trigger a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems. Less than two months ago a 21-year-old bodybuilder in Pennsylvania developed sepsis from the flu and died.

We don’t think about how fragile life can be, the myriad tiny hazards we cross each day, or how close we are to being in the situation of Ashley Moss’ parents, Mark and Cherry Moss. That’s something Mrs. Moss said in a story we ran Friday:

“The one thing that Mark and I are getting across to people is, hug your kids tight, … because you don’t know.”

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Journalists think journalism is the main point of “The Post.” It seemed kind of secondary to me when I saw the movie earlier this week.

The movie is about events surrounding the publication of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a secret, Pentagon-compiled history of the conflict in Vietnam – which predated the U.S. troop presence there, with U.S. involvement stemming from decisions made during the Truman administration. That history catalogued decades of lies that the U.S. government told the public about what it was doing in Vietnam and how successful those efforts were.

The New York Times obtained that history and found itself in the legal crosshairs of the Nixon administration after it began publishing stories detailing the lies.

The movie, though, is about what key figures at the Washington Post did after that.

Some, including journalists at the Times, complain that the movie should have focused on the Times and how it got the papers. But the movie doesn’t focus on the journalism surrounding the Pentagon Papers. There would be good drama to be found there, but that’s not what this story is.

The primary story “The Post” tells is that of Katharine Graham, her struggle to grow into the role of publisher and the decisions she had to make that could have destroyed her and, perhaps most significantly in her mind, her children’s inheritance.

The movie takes some license with the reality of Graham, portraying her as a much more fragile person than she was, and also with the reality of how extensive the pushback was against publishing the story, so the situation portrayed is largely accurate, but the drama is ramped up markedly — as often happens with movies.

If this is a movie primarily about journalism, then why is there so little actual journalism portrayed? The initial act that led to the Pentagon Papers coming into the Times’ possession is portrayed as that of a whistleblower, with no involvement of any journalist — the movie viewer doesn’t even know, at that point, where the documents land. Later, the Post reporter Ben Bagdikian is shown tracking down the whistleblower, but there is less of him in the movie than Graham as either the lone woman in a room full of male bankers and lawyers or the lone businesswoman in a room full of housewives or secretaries.

Time after time, there are scenes contrasting Graham’s roles – the socialite, publisher’s wife role into which she was raised, and the business owner/publisher role into which she was thrust. The scenes illustrate the man’s world of 1971, where a woman making important decisions was treated by men like, to borrow a phrase of Graham’s from one scene, the sight of a dog walking upright.

And other than the scene of the socialite housewives, in all the other scenes the woman all are young. They are the next generation. They are the ones following, looking to the example of Graham’s generation of women.

To be sure, this is a movie partly about journalism as a necessary means of holding government accountable – thus director Steven Spielberg’s emphasis on a key part of the Supreme Court decision: “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

But if this is not a movie primarily about Graham, why so much emphasis on scenes where Graham is an object of obvious veneration by young women? This happens in crowds of women twice, and both times the young women part for her like the Red Sea for Moses, all of the young women gazing upon her in open admiration, and it happens once with a young woman working for the U.S. attorney general. The movie hammers the point, as Spielberg movies tend to do with their points, that Graham was a trailblazer for women.

And as if to further drive home the point for all of the men who still think it’s a story about journalism, Spielberg has editor Ben Bradlee’s wife explain to Bradlee why Graham had the most to lose and showed the greatest bravery. Bradlee does not argue with her.

So, for the question, why does the movie focus on the Post rather than the Times? Precisely because Graham found herself in a crucible like no one else did (or at least, since in reality it all happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to agonize over the decision, Graham’s situation posed for the movie makers an irresistible potential for a crucible). That her crucible was a key moment in journalistic history would be beside the point if there were not powerful people who today believe the government should control what the media can publish.

This is a movie about women, and more than anything else this is a movie made for this new “Year of the Woman.”

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NOTE: One thing I’ve not read about “The Post,” anywhere: If the Post had only 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, as stated in the movie, there’s no way it would fill two giant boxes, not unless paper in 1971 was many times thicker than it is now. Pick up a ream (500 pages) of paper. You are talking 8 of those. That’s less than one box.

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New scenery needed


My blog is named “Newsroom With a View,” and the view has been what I saw from the Hanover, Virginia, newsroom of Media General’s central editing center at the time I worked there. Since then, obviously my physical view has changed — my current office has no windows, but if it did they would not look out on anything as nice. However the country I am in now is much nicer, and my views on the news landscape have changed. So I am in search of new imagery for my blog background. I still have a newsroom, and I still have a view, but as anyone who has been reading me can tell, all of that is different now.

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When we die, our families remember our smiles and laughter, tears and tantrums, the animals we cuddled and the games we enjoyed. Our mothers remember what we smelled like. Our fathers remember how helpless we made them feel. Friends and relatives alike linger on our photos, mentally caressing the memories.

An autopsy report is the opposite. It is striking for its clinical distance, the dispassion that renders a human being into a collection of anatomical descriptions. It carries and conveys no memory or warmth, just the immediate nature of the cold, decaying tissue on the table in front of the medical examiner, who tries to thoroughly document what was and was not wrong with the body before it died, and especially what precisely may have killed it.

“The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished, adult Caucasian woman who appears consistent with the stated age.”

Her stated age was 18. She died in Lenoir. In family photos she has long, straight, light-brown hair and a radiant smile, whether standing alone modeling a dress or cuddling with a younger brother.

She arrived at the medical examiner’s office at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem in a body bag, her hair 16 inches long. She wore black shorts, a black shirt, a black bra, and an ankle band with her name on it. “Personal effects accompanying the body include a hair tie and flip-flops,” the autopsy report said.

In its way, the report describes a young woman who by all appearances had many years ahead – a young woman who matched the one her family and friends could see in their treasured photos. The clinical version of that, though, is the absence of abnormality, the cataloguing of healthy tissue, using the same terms over and over.

“The ears are not unusual. The lips and gums are pale and atraumatic. The teeth are natural and in fair condition. … well-developed … without injuries … unremarkable … symmetrical … intact … free of abnormality … normal … intact … intact … smooth … usual … unremarkable … unremarkable … intact … free … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … unobstructed … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … normal … without focal abnormality … not unusual.”

The medical examiner noted a spot of bleeding under her scalp near the base of the skull – perhaps from where she fell backward and hit her head as she died? The report doesn’t offer the examiner’s opinion.

She had only two other injuries, extremely minor, that could have come from everyday activity: a very small bruise over her right shin, and a slightly larger, lighter, yellowish bruise over her left shin.

She had a very small amount (less than 5 percent) of abnormal or scar tissue in her heart, which may or may not have pointed to future heart disease many years ahead.

The answer to what killed her came not from anything on the table in front of the medical examiner that September day in Winston-Salem, but from blood drawn from an artery in the young woman’s thigh the summer day she was found dead.

She had taken cocaine apparently mixed with a few other things, but the fatal mix was cocaine and cyclopropylfentanyl – a chemical cousin to a powerful opiate, fentanyl, that has been implicated in a rapidly escalating number of drug overdoses and deaths nationwide.

There probably wasn’t much cyclopropylfentanyl at all. In fact, there was nearly 10,000 times more cocaine in her blood, and there was less than half a gram of cocaine. If all the cyclopropylfentanyl in her system were spread as powder on your living room table, you wouldn’t notice it among the dust — but it could still kill you.

That’s all it takes to end a life. One day perhaps your life.

Your laughter, your tears, your rages, hugs, joys all pass into memory, while you and that poison in your blood lie inert, waiting to be coldly examined by a stranger.

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I never wanted the cat. I hadn’t even wanted the first one, who was born to a semi-stray under our back porch in Richmond, Virginia. I had no control over that or my wife crawling under the porch and falling in love with the runt of the litter.

But the second one more or less was my fault. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t want it, but I didn’t keep my mouth shut, so it was my fault.

Two or three months after the semi-stray’s litter under our porch, in the early morning dark as I took a bag of garbage out to the bin in the alley I heard a kitten-ish peeping. I went back in the house, got a flashlight and went hunting for the source of the sound. Eventually, the sound led me to the concrete landing of the apartment building next door. Under that landing was a small gap, and in that gap two tiny eyes glowed in the flashlight beam.

I went back in the house. I figured the mother cat would come and find the kitten. Before I left for work, though, I told my wife what I heard and found.

About two hours later, my wife called me at the office. That little, tiny kitten was climbing the outside stairs of the apartment building outside her study. The stairs had a large gap between each stair, and she worried it would get very high up, then fall through a gap to the concrete pad. I told her to relax, it will be fine, it’s so tiny it can’t possibly climb very far. I hung up.

I turned to a co-worker and said, “There will be two cats in my house when I get home from work.”

I was right.

The first cat was still a kitten but, as quickly as kittens grow, loomed like a giant over the second, who hunched his back to make himself as big as possible and jumped sideways at the first cat, who stared at the odd sight.

We soon learned that wherever the new kitten had come from, he was being paper-trained. We found out because the room where we kept him had bags of old magazines and paperback books, and one day I found him dumping on top of one stack. I remember holding him upside down, poop trailing over his belly, as I tried to carry him someplace where he would not leave a holy mess. A short while later I explored and found his previous visits to our library stacks.

With all other paper removed from that room except a large square of newspaper around the litter box, he chose to poop and pee on the newspaper, not in the box.

But it occurred to me: If he wants to pee on paper, try putting a square of newspaper inside the litter box. It worked! Over time, I put narrower and narrower pieces of paper in, until one day he was litter-trained. Voila! I’m a genius!

He was an adventurous boy, but odd. He got in my lap exactly one time, for just a few minutes. Then he jumped down, never to return again. He didn’t resist being picked up, but he stiffened. It reminded me of stories about babies born to women addicted to crack, “crack babies” was the term. I called him a “crack kitten.”

We did not let the cats roam, but in Richmond we had a second-floor porch, and we put a kitty door in the screen door to it, so the cats had, except in very cold weather, free access to an outdoor area pretty much 24 hours a day. Then one night we couldn’t find him. I went around the house calling for him, then went out on the second floor porch, wondering if he was under a chair in the dark. I called his name. From the distance, on the ground below, he meowed. I ran inside, grabbed a flashlight and ran out the kitchen door. I called him, he meowed, and the flashlight fell on him, his eyes shining back.

Instinctively I ran toward him — and instinctively he bolted through a hole in the fence.

For the next three days we searched around, and I walked the alley at night, calling his name. Research told me that indoor cats that get out tend not to wander very far because they are afraid, but he seemed to be too afraid to call out. One evening he did, and I followed his sound. I called him, he meowed. I advanced. I called him, he meowed, I advanced. I was getting close — and then a car with an extremely loud muffler roared down the alley. He didn’t answer me anymore.

The next night, I waited until after 11 p.m., when it was quieter out, and went out and called his name. He meowed from what sounded like the neighbor’s yard. I went out the front door and around to the neighbor’s side gate. Luckily, it didn’t have a lock on it. I went in and sat on the back steps and called the cat. After I called a few times, he emerged from the darkness and rubbed up against me. I petted him and petted him and called his name. Then I gently scooped him up, cradled him and started the walk back home. As we neared our front porch, a loud car came rumbling down the street, and the cat tensed in my arms, so I locked my arms down on him and hurried to the front door. The car passed, the cat relaxed, I opened the door, and I dropped him gently to the floor.

“Percy’s home!” I called out as I wept.

In Lenoir, we have no outdoor porch for cats to lounge on and stare hungrily at birds, but we have plenty of windows. Lots of big, tall windows, so lots of sun, morning, noon and late afternoon. And a big staircase, with high ledges looking down the stairs to the first floor. It’s a good house for a cat.

But cats don’t stay kittens. Age catches up. During the past couple of years, he developed an auto-immune disorder, and then diabetes, and then a little more than a week ago something like a severe sinus infection. He stopped eating. The vet also found lesions inside his mouth. Because of the diabetes, he already had been losing weight, but without eating his weight plummeted. On Thursday we decided we had to put him down.

For years I have lamented the burdens of these cats. I never wanted him in the first place. When the hell will I stop crying?

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Dream leaves the mind spinning

My brain confronted me with a puzzle the other night.

I dreamt I was with a large group of people in a restaurant’s side meeting room, one of those wood-paneled spaces that groups can rent for private functions. It was a casual group of people who seemingly all knew each other, though I don’t remember feeling I knew much of anyone other than my wife, who sat next to me at a small table.

On a low stage at the front of the room, everyone watched a game a little like “The Newlywed Game” in which a couple would be called forward and questioned or presented with facts about themselves.

I was called up — but not with my wife. The woman I was paired with was someone I apparently had once been seriously dating. I say apparently because I had no memory of her. None at all. Yet everyone, including my wife, knew us as a former couple and saw nothing unusual about the pairing.

I hesitated when our names were called, staying seated and uncertain I should go forward, but finally I followed this woman to the front and sat beside her.

In the dream I could see her quite clearly, yet hers was a face that did not and still does not remind me of anyone I can recall. She seemed nice and pleasant, average height and weight, round face, a nice smile, light-brown hair with tight curls.

I looked at her and tried to remember, but I also tried to act as though I did remember.

As the game began, an older woman in the front and to my right, a relative of my former significant other, stood and said something about quitting. The room erupted with laughter. The implication I gathered was that we had simply quit. My former girlfriend laughed self-deprecatingly, acknowledging the nugget of truth in the cutting joke. Her eyes shined. She was not angry or bitter.

I woke around that time.

What in the world was that dream about?

Don’t say, “Quitting.” Perhaps “quitting” is part of it, but quitting what?

I once read a theory of dream interpretation that said every person in your dream is actually you. Any significant person in the dream represents something about yourself, so you should look for the quality that the person represents. Looking at dreams that way has often helped me find a meaning.

But this time I’m a bit stumped.

What would that woman represent about me? Aside from being pleasant, she was a brief cipher, not a force. She never spoke or did anything but walk to the front.

What about myself do I feel I’ve “quit” so much that it’s a forgotten part of myself?

And what’s going on in my life now to make me feel this way?

Or, to use a different dream-interpretation theory, maybe my focus should be on the feeling the dream produced. Maybe the dream means I’m afraid there is something about me that seems obvious and funny to everyone else, including those closest to me, but I’m blind to it. That feels like a possible answer, but it also feels so universally true of people that it’s too easy an answer.

At 3:18 a.m., I rose from bed to begin writing this. That awakened my wife, who has trouble sleeping anyway, and she went downstairs to heat some coffee. I listened to the clank of her mug on the counter, the thump of the coffee pot and the beep of the microwave oven as I stared at the computer screen and tried to remember details of the dream.

Struggling with the dream and unable to make sense of it, I thought hopefully that maybe it was just an effect of a couple of pepperoncini peppers I ate with my beef dinner. I thought of Scrooge telling the ghost of Jacob Marley, “There is more of gravy than of grave about you.” It took three more visions before Scrooge not only recognized but accepted what he was being told about himself that night. Perhaps I’ll get three more cryptic dreams that will line up.

But I doubt that’s it either.

The one thing I know for sure that I quit was that night’s sleep.

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Sitting under a tiki-decorated patio umbrella in the early evening heat Wednesday at downtown Lenoir’s Hogwaller Stage, my wife and I chatted with a 50-something Caldwell County native as we waited for the sun to drop behind the county office building and a band to begin playing.

This is the third summer that you can find outdoor music with your dinner and drinks one or more evenings a week at Hogwaller, which is on Church Street directly behind 1841 Café, but our friend said he wasn’t even aware there was a stage there until just a couple of weeks ago.

He had a friend he had asked to meet him there. While we were talking to him, she texted him a question: Where is Hogwaller?

She had never heard of it either, though the name “hogwaller” in relation to that spot downtown long predates either of them.

In fact, this man — born and raised here, never lived anywhere else, and active in the community — had never even heard of 1841 until that first trip. He didn’t know that right across Main Street from it was another restaurant, the Side Street Pour House, with 40 beer taps and full bar.

We didn’t talk about it, but I would wager that if he didn’t know about all that, he didn’t know that a couple of blocks west is Loe’s Brewing, serving craft beer with gourmet burgers, pasta and sometimes a few other things, or just a little farther west Joan’s Sourdough Bread (fresh bread plus lunch), or Essie and Olive (known for popsicles but also serving lunch), or the Corner Creamery (ice cream!), or J&A General Store, or the soon-to-open Fercott Fermentables (home brewing supplies, beer and wine). I could go on.

I’ll assume he knows of the downtown antique stores, as well as Piccolo’s Pizza, which has been downtown since he was a young man.

This is something I keep encountering.

A few years ago a woman who grew up in Happy Valley and lived here all her life said she had no idea what was in downtown Lenoir or even what the streets were — she had never been.

When Lenoir had its first-ever beer garden at a street festival a couple of years ago, a woman who lives in Lenoir was irritated to find out about it only after the fact.

Last year a man who moved to Gamewell a number of years ago from another state said he didn’t even know how to get to downtown Lenoir — even though he had been to the U.S. Post Office there many times. He just went straight to the Post Office and then straight back out again. After I told him to just go another block or so farther west than he had before, suddenly he discovered Piccolo’s, his new favorite pizza place.

“Love the layout,” he wrote to me, “feel like I’m on a set for the TV show American Pickers!”

Similarly, the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission’s program “Hired Education,” in which a set of 30 local teachers get a three-day immersion in the local economy, consistently prompts expressions of surprise among its participants: They toured companies they never heard of before, or saw machines they never dreamed existed in buildings they pass every day, and involving jobs they had no idea anyone in Caldwell County held.

A man walked into the lobby of the News-Topic a couple of weeks ago and asked if there’s a shoe-repair place in town. Yes, about three blocks from our office.

Need I point out that all of these places and businesses have been in the newspaper within the past few years?

No one is more acutely aware of how much smaller newspaper staffs are than they used to be, and how much less they are able to cover than they once could, than a newspaper editor is. But there still is a lot of local knowledge missed by people who don’t regularly read the paper, whether on paper or on our website. It doesn’t cross their personal experience or their Facebook feed. It’s information that won’t seek you out. You have to look for it, without knowing for sure what you’re looking for. That’s one thing the newspaper is still good for, and it’s not a small thing.

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