Filling Our Boxes

There are certain stereotypes about Southern electoral politics. From the valorization of the James Carville types (“the Ragin’ Cajun!”) to Huey Long worship, the machine makes many flavors. One item on the “need to win the election” menu, especially among the Dirty Tricks consultants, is the Two-Sided Color Flyer™ which is also a variant of the “Klansman with access to a photocopier at his office” variant of dropping stuff under the folks’ windshields during church.

In the world of the fairly expensive kinds of mailers, you’ve got to at least ask the question of whether it has the good ol’ “Presorted Standard US Postage Paid” rectangle, and then there’s the matter of if it says who it’s from. Were these things in our mailbox from David Woods, who is running at the moment to be the mayor of our city? Or were these things from some big fans of David Woods, who claim to be the Jobs & Progress Fund, which is something in a Post Office Box in Arlington, Virginia, wherever that is.

So let’s take a look at how this man, who has proclaimed himself to be a Christian every time I have heard him speak in public, is handling his efforts to persuade our city how to vote on October 8.

This first one is from the Jobs & Progress Fund — and let me just say here, so that I am in no way misunderstood, I am a fan of both jobs and progress. Those are two of our society’s great accomplishments, Jobs and Progress, so I am certain to be a supporter of any fund that upholds those two great ideals.

But why is this fund making it look like someone is going to damage the front lawn of my McMansion with the giant sloping yard and large full-bloom camellia bush? Will someone come and write something in salt on my precious lawn if I don’t help this TV-station-owning millionaire become some kind of civic leader? I really hope not. That red arrow is screaming at me, and the headline reminding me that “VOTING IS PUBLIC RECORD” seems to insinuate that if I don’t go vote, the POLICE DEPARTMENT will show up at my house in TACTICAL VESTS and the GLOCK 22 WITH YELLOW BLADE-TECH TRAINING BARRELS and maybe a few DANIEL DEFENSE DDM4V9 SERIES CARBINES.

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Oh wait a minute, let me turn this over and, wait, there is our probate judge crudely Photoshopped into some kind of scene with rain and a good bit of wind and maybe a pillowcase or trash bag full of hundred dollar bills all flyin’ away all haphazardlike! There’s a lot going on here.

I get that in nonpartisan mayoral elections, it helps uninformed voters if one guy says that the other guy has “liberal allies” and just kind of assume that this phrase constitutes a damning slur and there ya’ go, no further questions need be asked. But when you go negative, go negative, and like Ororo Munroe, just cast the storm clouds (so many storm clouds!) of fewer job opportunities and rising crime and a failing education system. You don’t need polling to know that those are issues that our city is thinking and talking a lot about.

But what the actual hell is going on this photo? Is this trying to conjure Katrina looting? Did Steven Reed steal that bag full of cash? Is running through that field in the storm, wind blowing, fear racing through his veins? Are there barking dogs chasing him?

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But here (below) is another one, smaller, glossy, mentioning the “may have missed previous elections” angle, to build off of the “hey dummy don’t forget the election is coming up” vibe of its cousin. The address side here is just a picture of some dim bulb watching TV, but the back has Steven Reed and … is that a real picture of him and his dad at his graduation? Or did they have to Photoshop Joe Reed into a picture with his son?

Anyway, not being a Reed family historian, I also have wondered about whether his son has a lot in common with the man who is currently asphyxiating one of the state’s political parties. Oh, OK, I guess they must be the same man, is what this flyer is telling me. These two peas in a pod are going to take away my guns, perhaps including my RRA LAR-PDS Carbine with Aluminum Tri-Rail Handguard. Didn’t know the mayor could overturn the 2nd Amendment, but okay cool.

IMG_5915One fun part about this is the footnotes on the weird bullet points. They footnote to nothing! It’s all note, no foot! Set aside that I laughed out loud at the leap to Obamacare, but I guess you just say “abortion” and “gay stuff” and you don’t ask that many questions about whether they did or did not (they almost certainly did) weirdly darken Joe Reed’s face so that it seems like he is fading away into the shadowy night. And we know about the history of darkening the faces of black people to increase the menace. Time Magazine knows about it.

Well, here’s another one, with Woods on one side, looking well feathered, like kind of a “Sliver Fox Rick Perry” type of thing, and he’s a businessman and, yes, yes, safe, good government, make better new direction, and then you flip it over and it’s like BAM!

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What’s going on with that shirt, and is his arm a woman’s arm? Is this some kind of in-joke between the kind of for-sale sleaze that produce this pollution? Steven Reed has “girl arms” or something like that? And what’s in the suitcase? He’s taking MY damn money to go on some kinda vacation for work?!? Why I ain’t get to go to damn professional development damn opportunities in damn Vail, Colorado, and learn how to do a damn job but probably skip one or two of the sessions because small groups are a huge waste of time doing breakout sessions when we could be networking!

So at least there are footnotes. And if Steven Reed went to Vail on the public dime for some conference thing in 2014, I don’t totally need to see his receipts from the restaurant in order to choose between two seemingly pretty different types of guy to be my mayor.

Are you freaking kidding me? How much money did this guy spend on mailers? This beast is a FULL giant page, color on all sides, which is important when your shirt and hair are both the most blinding shade of ghostly snow. We get it, you know the guy who runs the print shop. He probably gets a new boat at Lake Martin or whatever out of this bill. It’s just so much paper! And the chemicals that go into showing Steven Reed, clumsily edited into a photo of him popping his collar (LIKE THOSE RAPPERS DO). According to this bedsheet-sized monstrosity, Steven Reed has “turned his back on us.”

Wait a minute, this thing looks like a file folder! It has a paper clip on it, and something stamped like in the Mission Impossible where they have the fat folder and then they have photos and stuff all paper-clipped in there perfectly so they don’t slide around, and then sometimes you gotta’ stamp right there on the folder and THREATEN THE PERSON THAT YOU KNOW THAT THEY MISSED AN ELECTION IN THE PAST.

You open it and there’s Woods, laughing at a super funny joke, and Reed’s photo on the other side is black-and-white because, sure. He’s so bad we won’t even colorize his photo! Why you want everything colorized! You’re the real racist!

This is insane. The Jobs & Progress Fund should be ashamed of themselves, but we all know that people who make these things are constitutionally incapable of shame.

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And here’s his positive mailers. you’ve got a small one, saying he’s going to “attack” the “drug trade” and “dealer network” that “feeds” our crime problem. Oh, okay dude. Glad nobody had thought about doing some kind of War on Drugs before. Let’s arrest everybody.

Do people really think the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police is a super meaningful endorsement? Woods does. It’s on his mailers and he mentioned it in the WSFA debate on Sept. 26.

And here’s the last one. The clip art people. But also the zip code that tells you where it was mailed from. And the permit number. And it was paid for by the campaign. On Vaughn Lane. So David Woods can say that this is his mailer. He highlights smiling people thinking happy thoughts about Montgomery’s public schools. He can distance himself from the Jobs & Progress fund.

The election is soon. I’m writing this with at least the possibility that Woods could win. By the time you read this, we will know what happens. Does Montgomery embrace the bad old style of its negative, racist, extremely embarrassing past? Do the campaigns of the future play these cards, hire these kinds of people, make these kinds of appeals?

Or do we try something else?

The New Whitewater Park

We’ve all seen the headlines about the new $50 million “whitewater park” that is expected to open in spring of 2022. It’s the centerpiece of the single largest economic development project in our city in recent memory. It’s headline news.

Charlotte has one, we are told. Videos like this one are circulating to get people excited.

If at some point, that link ends up disconnected, the idea is this: You build a fake river next to a real river, and people pay to paddle around in it. Like the North Carolina one, our “whitewater center” is predicted to include retail, restaurants, hotels, concert venues and event facilities. Unlike the Charlotte one, which covers 1,300 acres, ours is going to be a bit smaller. Ours will be one-tenth the size, covering 125 acres and focused on a 25-acre whitewater course. In addition to paddling down a fake river, there’ll be restaurants, shops, a beer garden, an outdoor concert venue and a hotel with a conference center. It will have a climbing tower, zip lines, mountain biking trails and rope courses.

Let’s talk more about this, Lost in Montgomery style:

Where is this?

Odds are very, very good that unless  you’re in the Air Force, you don’t spend a lot of time in this part of Montgomery. The site is going to be on Maxwell Boulevard, west of I-65, towards the Air Force Base. The historic Chappell House, an 1854 cottage that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, will sit smack in the middle of the two entrances for the place.

What is the Chappell House?

According to the sign out front, the Chappell House was built around 1850 and is one of our city’s last known standing pre-Civil War cottages. It occupies the site of General John Scott’s pioneer settlement from 1817, the creatively-named “Alabama Town.” In some ways, it’s the foundational site of our city. Chappell House has columns on the entrance stoop, showing how Greek Revival architecture influenced styles at the time. John Figh, who was involved in building our state capitol building, likely helped to lay the walls. In 1975, the United States government purchased and restored the house, intending it to serve as the Central Office for the adjacent Riverside Heights housing project, one of Alabama’s earliest great examples of deliberate historic preservation through adaptive use.

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When we went to the Chappell House, there were about ten homeless people hanging around there, some sleeping on the porch. It’s an area that radiates need. It’s a quick walk to the Nellie Burge Community Center, Family Promise of Montgomery, and the Faith Rescue Mission.

According to the website, Exploring Montgomery:

The ground around the Chappell House . . . at 1020 Maxwell Boulevard (nee Bell Street) is more interesting than the structure itself. An Alabama Indian town existed on this site as late as 1775. In 1819 this dirt was part of the Alabama Town which joined New Philadelphia to become the Town of Montgomery, but activity soon shifted to the East and the this area became vacant. The land was then acquired by planter/brick-maker James Chappell, who in 1845 built this rather undistinguished 1-story house. In the late 1930s the Chappell Plantation was used to accommodate the large emergency housing development built to support the adjacent Maxwell Field and its buildup for WWII. The Montgomery Housing Authority grew out of that development, and it used this old house as its offices for fifty years. The only redeeming feature of the building seems to be its age and the small Greek Revival front porch, but even those attributes are nullified by the mismatched-brick addition along the West (left) side, placed there by the Housing Authority. So now, as a final blow, the conversion of Bell Street into Maxwell Boulevard has taken what little was left of a front setback, and made poor Chappell House curbside. Such is progress.

A Landmarks Foundation site described it as, “the only tangible reminder of an enlightened government reuse decision and of one of the New Deal era’s boldest public betterment programs.” When the Junior League of Montgomery published its Guide to the City of Montgomery in 1969, the Chappell House was singled out as one of a dozen structures representing the city’s architectural heritage.

Krista Johnson, a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, went out to the Chappell House in July of 2018 and talked to some of the homeless people and wrote a weird first-person story from the perspective of the building.

Okay, that’s enough about Chappell House. Clearly that building should be preserved and made beautiful. Hopefully it won’t be torn down or turned into some kind of souvenir shop slash ticket booth for the water park. But what, again, is the deal with this water park?

The creators of the one in Charlotte were inspired by the Penrith Whitewater Stadium, an Australian thing built for the 2000 Olympics. The Charlotte one (let’s call it the USNWC) boasts the world’s largest and most complex recirculating artificial whitewater river. Theirs cost $38 million to build, and allegedly costs $6.8 million per year to operate.

It’s doubtlessly got to be great for a city to have an official Olympic training center for whitewater slalom racing, which is what they do at the USNWC. Did you know that kayak racing is an Olympic sport? You can learn more about that here. Now is the part where you chant U-S-A and hope that our American men and women will train really hard at paddling so that we can defeat kayaker Jiri Prskavec of the Czech Republic. His father, Jiri, was a two-time Olympian and the younger Prskavec pulled in a respectable bronze in Rio. Really scintillating stuff for you to read about the Czech competitive canoe team, I know.

When it’s not training American canoeists, the USNWC evidently makes $22 million dollars a year.

Who gives a crap about Charlotte? What’s our park going to do?

According to Keivan Deravi, a local economist type who is president of Economic Research Services, our economic impact will be $40 million dollars a year. The folks behind building this thing said the attraction should draw about 300,000 visitors to Montgomery each year, with ongoing operations expected to generate more than $35 million.

So our water park is one-tenth the size of Charlotte’s but is going to make double the money?

I guess. Maybe the numbers are wrong. Math is weird. It’s hard to guess things that haven’t happened yet. We’ve got Air Force folks who like to do outdoor fitness stuff. And maybe some of the EJI memorial/museum tourists will want to careen down a fake river, plus, maybe, um, some team-building exercises from corporations?

Let’s remember that the USNWC opened in 2006, and as of 2013, only had an operating profit of $4 million, according to “the nonprofit’s annual financial report filed with Mecklenburg County.” And that was with seven years of overt government subsidies. Oh, and banks wrote off $26 million of the $38 million owed by the center for construction costs.

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Wait, it’s a non-profit?

Yeah, evidently, in this free market economy, the site is owned by Mecklenburg County, N.C., with the property leased to the nonprofit USNWC.

As a result, they’ve got “the largest and most profitable pumped whitewater park of its kind in the world, with design features tailored to maximize commercial rafting revenue and other high-demand recreational attractions.”

Yeah but how is the USNWC grossing more than $22 million a year with “700,000 user days/activities served,” which has over 200,000 folks annually rafting its whitewater channel, but our economist says we’re going to do $35 million to $40 million in economic impact based on forecasts of only 64,000 out-of-town visitors a year?

Well, don’t glaze over this part, but other places cite Deravi’s study as showing an annual impact of $6 million, which is lower than in Charlotte, but still pretty solid. According to a visitor profile study conducted by Longwoods International for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (PDF), Charlotte had 28.3 million visitors in 2017, 12.2 million of which spent the night. Of those, 2.4 percent, or 680,000 people, indicated that the U.S. National Whitewater Center was a motivator to travel to Charlotte, and 73,200 said that they did attend the USNWC as part of their trip to Charlotte.

Deravi estimates 64,000 out-of-town visitors a year, which is roughly the point needed for the park to break even. Deravi said those figures don’t include use by what he calls “hardcore” whitewater enthusiasts, or anyone who lives close enough to drive here. “Then you get into incidental tourists. That’s where the money is,” he said. It’s worth noting that while his study doesn’t seem to be available online, there’s a video of his presentation here. And here’s the key slide:

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Two percent of cars stopping. That seems like a small amount, but really, it’s not. That’s 2,000 cars per day stopping because they want to pay $60-ish per person in the car for this “whitewater” experience, plus presumably a hotel and meals and such.

Is that a reasonable expectation?

The Montgomery Zoo allegedly draws about 200,000 visitors a year. but a lot of those are repeated customers. They’re locals and families with season passes. The ballpark estimate for the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial and museum was around 400,000 to 500,000 folks at the one year mark. Some whitewater park backers estimate total annual attendance at almost 300,000, and the projected impact would obviously skyrocket if it approaches that level of activity. Some people in the “greater river region” are already counting their money from the “ripples” (note: hilarious whitewater economic reference).

Is there at least a budget?

A special “cooperative district” has been created, controlled by the county, which is pumping about $35 million into the project. The city is evidently contributing about $16 million worth of land. The city bought the last handful of homes on the site over the last few years, and the last resident was expected to leave by Sept. 1.

Yeah, but why are we doing this now?

All of the talk about the current mayoral election has been about how the new mayor is going to be able to write Montgomery’s next chapter. Evidently, the authors of the previous chapters want to put their fingerprints on the coming years too. That’d be County Commissioner Elton Dean, who received 4 percent of the vote in the mayoral election, who has been front and center of the whitewater park announcement rollout.

This story from the Montgomery Advertiser is a must-read, It’s about a local mom, Megan McKenzie, who, evidently was disappointed that Montgomery didn’t land some brewery’s “new East Coast taproom,” and put together a self-described “shabby PowerPoint” presentation about the USNWC and pitched a Montgomery version to city development officials Mac McLeod, Lois Cortell and Galen Thackston. Evidently, those folks dug it, and sent her to the County Commission, then to the mayor’s office and eventually to Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner.

What do Steven Reed and David Woods think about this idea?

No idea, but one of them is going to be the mayor soon. The Montgomery Advertiser’s coverage of the idea has been fawning, and relies heavily on quotes from people like Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Corporate Development Ellen McNair (reassuring us that evil eminent domain was not used to acquire the properties) and Montgomery County Commission Vice-Chair Ronda Walker (“This facility is going to be bigger and better than anything folks around here have ever seen.”) Oh, and for all you “folks around here,” who’ve never seen anything, by the way, Ellen McNair is the mother of Megan McKenzie, which probably makes it a lot easier to get your economic development idea in front of the right people.

The “president of the Montgomery Advertiser” (not to be confused with the editor or publisher) seems to be a big fan of the idea, penning this opinion piece calling the project “a game changer” that will reverse our city’s brain drain. No pressure or anything.

Are you hating on this idea?

No!

Look, we are a little skeptical of the amount that local media is telling us that people are excited about this idea:

David Sadler took a detour on his trip to Atlanta to share a piece of his mind with the people behind a $50 million Montgomery whitewater park. He stood in the back of a crowd of dozens at a Tuesday night town hall and listened to the presentation, ready to criticize the plan.

When the time finally came for questions and comments, he raised his hand. “I don’t even have a question anymore. It’s just a cheer,” said Sadler, who runs a downtown concierge service. “I’m stoked.

“Now that we have it, we’ve got to make the most out of it.”

But whether we are personally excited to raft in a fake river, we hope the idea is a success — as long as it is done in an environmentally and fiscally responsible way. In Charlotte, the prices to enjoy the facility are:

Day Pass: $59; Two-Day Pass: $109; Annual Pass: $219, and single-activity passes which ranging between $30 and $90.

Are people in Montgomery going to pay that to canoe a fake river and do a ropes course? Maybe.

We’ve also heard of these big projects being sketchy before: Anyone remember what was involved in Birmingham creating Dreamland? What about the $3.5 billion DreamVision theme park that was going to happen near the Shoals? That one involved a ten-year prison sentence and an astonishing fraud that exploited over 40 Alabama investors. And don’t forget the long-ago proposed “west side water park” for Gateway Park.

But there are Olympic-level canoeists who’ll use their competitive amateur luster to shine an economic development dollar. And a lot of people can get wealthy from building an economic engine on land where this is currently happening.

So, let’s grab our rafts and grab our paddles! It’s time to whitewater!

Free Magazine Review: AL Metro 360

What’s in a lifestyle?

It’s how you live your life. It’s not the ends of that life, which is fleetingly short when considered in geologic time — or even in the span of modern human history. You may ask yourself, on occasion, when thinking on your own mortality, what your life is for and whether and for what reason you might be remembered when you’re gone. The answer, perhaps sadly, is: probably nothing. Your life is for no reason at all. Live a great life, get an obit in the New York Times if you are exceedingly “important” and lucky, and then get forgotten in the relentless march of human history. This kind of thinking has driven folks to great ends, or to madness, or to suicide, or its various slow-motion cousins like addiction.

We recently adopted a kitten who, I am pretty sure, believes that she will live forever, or at least doesn’t seem to sweat the question of her eventual death. Maybe some day she will see the Death of Cats. But we humans know that the clock is ticking, and we organize our lives around ways to ignore, postpone, rationalize, or bargain with the eventual end of life. At some point, we’ll enter (with foresight or unexpectedly) a sleep without waking. Your heart, whose beating noise was probably once a source of abject elation to your expecting mother, will stop. Maybe this will be abrupt. Maybe it will be slow. But someday you’ll be cold to the touch, and all of your hopes will be dissolved like so much dust in the air, and your grandest aspirations will be remembered, if at all, in a memorial that may end in cake, or whiskey, or lemonade and people in surprising hats. And the world will go about living an assortment of similarly short lives plagued with the usual thoughts of parking tickets, skin abrasions, sporting events, and the perennial longing to belong.

Which brings us back to lifestyle. Life ends. But a lifestyle is, on purpose, not about teleology. To paraphrase Coach Saban, it’s about the process — not what you live for, but how you proceed toward the end. It’s who you know, what you do, and (most importantly for the modern lifestyle industry) it’s what you buy. The style of life is something that you can embrace while you plug your ears to mortality’s persistent whisper. A well-cut dress shows off your curves to the glances of potential suitors at the bar. Tasteful paint on a wall tells house guests that you are attuned to the latest thinking on generating peaceful moods. Bright throw pillows make any space more welcoming.

And all of these things will decay and find their resting place in the ash heap of history. Nevertheless we pursue the endlessly accelerated carrot that is lifestyle, which has become conflated somewhat recently with the Instagram idea of our “best life.”

Before this inevitable passage into the infinite beyond, you may happen to read the new free magazine titled AL Metro 360. When you do this, you could be passing time at a doctor’s office bracing to hear the news about your new and mysterious mole. Or you might be at the salon burning your follicles with a chemical color to cover your grey. Or standing awkwardly at the bar hoping for a table at your favorite restaurant. The key here is that you are waiting. You are ticking away the moments before you draw that last breath, before you see the moon one more time, before you can’t even summon the strength to say goodbye to those you love.

But there is good news. With AL Metro 360, there is a kind of hospice care for the living. The magazine advertises itself as “The Premier Lifestyle Magazine for the Heart of Alabama,” and as you flip through its glossy pages, you may feel enervated by the way that lifestyle can fill the void of purposelessness. Gwyneth Paltrow has made an unseemly amount of money selling the style of life, and here we Metro Region residents have a chance to aspire to a lifestyle ourselves. And, better yet, you can consume this while waiting for your oil to be changed as you listen to the malnourished ghouls of Good Morning America yammer along. Bonus points if you are drinking a paper cup full of coffee that tastes like regret seasoned with pesticide-flavored creamer.

You don’t need to think obsessively on your own mortality. There are ways to put such thoughts off until your last moments with a breathing tube and a humiliating hospital gown. AL Metro 360’s advertorials offer the following strategies:

  • Drink “Gem-Water.” Harness the power of gemstones to transform your everyday water. The purveyor is humble: “While the metaphysical scope of their power may be open to interpretation, the fact is that tasting is believing.” As I know from sitting through classes on the Greeks, the fact is that the long tradition of speculation about metaphysics does not offer specific guidance on the usage of semi-precious rocks to purify water. So that claim holds up. Pay money to Bella, in the Peppertree Shopping Center, to hold off death’s cold grip with the healing power of water infused by shiny stones.
  • Eat cake. AL Metro 360 acknowledges its precarious hold with an article titled: “Life is Short – Eat the Cake,” wherein a confection-selling bakery in Union Springs is lovingly profiled. Hopefully author Traci V. Davis, who also took the photographs, availed herself of enough bakery treats to make herself feel better about a career spent writing puff pieces about local businesses that, while probably tasty, contribute to Alabama’s obesity epidemic. The high that sugar provides can help us make it to an evening’s rest. As you lay down afterwards, consider that half of your life is spent in unconsciousness, and its end is an unending dreamlessness.
  • Stay fit. As you seek advice, AL Metro 360 offers a guide to staying fit at “any stage in life.” This guide terminates at the 70s, so if you live beyond that you are, evidently, out of luck. Why not eat some cake?
  • Plan your own funeral. All of that cake is going to have consequences. Fortunately, Ross-Clayton Funeral Home is there for you. AL Metro 360 profiles the family-owned business, which is turning 100. They seem like they are probably very good at a difficult job. There is no accompanying discussion of the incredible disrepair that the city allowed the Lincoln Cemetery to reach before intervention was finally leveraged. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned here from ten years reviewing free magazines, there’s no room for bad news.

Why do we spend our precious time on this earth writing about the glossy-papered trash that infests our shops and salons? At base, it’s because nobody talks about this stuff. These miserable bindings of ink and pulp are taken for granted as part of the background noise of our lives, like coupons, billboards or online advertising. They are “magazines” in the same sense that Krystal is “food.” Reading them is mastication in the service of rank consumerism. They are vehicles for persuasion — for plastic surgery, white flight custom homes, clever handbags stitched by tiny fingers, discerning private schools, local events designed to make you feel cultured, and ways to feel “Fabulous for Fall” (hint: booties and “statement pieces”). Somewhere someone is making an actual living purveying all this. Maybe it’s editor Jodi Hatley, who we’re pretty sure used to be the “editor” of River Region Living, which was once known as Montgomery Living.

Rebranding is a powerful thing. Altria used to be noted death merchant Phillip Morris. But you can still get a nice case of lung cancer from them for around $6 a pack if you live in a low tax state like Alabama. KFC used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken before they decided that nobody wanted to be reminded of the “fried” part of their unhealthy Confederate nostalgia machine. Pabst Blue Ribbon, once the cheapest beer imaginable, became the hipster drink of choice and now costs $44 per bottle in China because, well, globalization and its discontents.

So we can’t blame AL Metro 360 for its move to stay relevant. They’ve expanded their scope – no longer about the River Region, they’ve got the whole state in their name now. The “Metro” part is meant to make us feel like we’re part of a forward thinking urban community. Nobody’s publishing a magazine called AL Rural 360. Most of Alabama is too busy preventing those people from voting or getting health care to entertain them with fall fashion projections. The 360 part is a little bit of panoramic mystery. We do live in a time when entertainment vehicles try to wrap around our lives more than ever before. There’s a booth in the mall that offers a “5D” experience, which we assume involves having the smell of progress blasted in your face along with water vapor.

Life’s ultimate terminus in sight, we have a full wraparound view courtesy of this humble publication. Those who feel unrepresented by AL Metro 360 might want to read again the various profiles of aging white community fixtures and meditate on the ways that their identity is in fact subsumed therein. Before the unity of the grave, don’t you want to be a team player?

The editor kicks commences this issue of AL Metro 360 with an editor’s note saying that, “Aging is a fact of life and it affects all families.” She’s so right. You grow older each minute. Your lifespan is but a microsecond compared to those of our mountains’ great glaciers, which we all are helping to destroy. But maybe the pablum here gives you hope for another day. In which case, all we can offer is that timeless classic from occasions both happy and horrifying: Bless your heart.

Free Magazine Review: Anniston/Gadsden Christian Family

Where did it come from? A loved one recently went on a work trip to Gadsden and brought this back as a souvenir. He knows I love a good free magazine. And because Gadsden just finished its star turn in the national media thanks to senatorial candidate/noted moralist/Tiger Beat enthusiast Roy Moore’s supposed lifetime ban from the Gadsden Mall, I wanted to know more about life up there.

Who publishes it? Anniston/Gadsden Christian Family is put out by Carlton Publishing, Inc. They are based in Gadsden and not to be confused with Carlton Publishing Group, which is a real thing. It’s a larger format publication that seems like it might come out every month. Unlike a lot of free magazines, this one has a mission statement. It says, in part, that the magazine “exists to provide Christians and the community at large with ways to grow and develop as part of Alabama’s Christian Family. The local publication is designed to promote positive living by sharing with readers the latest news on entertainment, healthy living, parenting and inspirational literature as well as what individuals and organizations are doing to try to address the needs of the family.” That’s a lot to get through in 35 pages.

Who’s on the cover? In July, it’s Miss Alabama Callie Walker, shown making a grateful pageant face while another woman places the winning tiara on Walker’s head. The cover story takes up the magazine’s two middle pages and is printed on a distracting color background of roses. The headline is “Taking the Stage with Faithful Confidence,” which made me curious about what unfaithful confidence might look like. The story itself is broken up into “Art Facts,” Faith Facts,” and “Trash Talk.” I did not know this about the job of being Miss Alabama, but evidently one part of it is having a “platform,” like a political candidate. Walker’s seems to be recycling, which the story’s author, Camille Smith Platt, describes as “sustainability.” Walker wants schools across Alabama to adopt recycling programs to preserve the earth, which she says was given to us by the Lord.

Recycling, as it happens, is a particularly touchy topic here in Montgomery, where we’ve recently been told that our local recycling plant – the one that shut down, leaving the city to pay the tab for a giant unused facility that did not expect that people would try to throw dirty diapers in the trash – will be reopened by a new contractor with a plan to use the plant to recycle while turning excess trash into fuel. Yes, that seems like it will totally work.

Meanwhile, the evidence is accumulating that consumer recycling is kind of a scam. China’s not accepting recyclable materials much any more, so there’s nowhere to put stuff, and it’s mostly going into the landfill. Read this article about it if you’ve got some doubts. But having kids recycle has some obvious appeal as a lasting solution to the many problems facing Alabama, so it’s pretty clear why this was a winning issue for Miss Alabama.

According to http://www.winningthroughpageantry.com. a good pageant platform offers a specific solution to a cause that you are particularly passionate about. The author includes a list of causes from recent Miss America pageants to give ideas. These include “Global Awareness” (presumably a rebuke to the Flat-Earthers) and “Internet/Social Media Safety” (Be Best, y’all). You can also pay the site’s administrator money to receive their advice for winning at pageants. As an aside, the pageant Internet is pretty intense – there’s a whole economy of pageant consultants lobbying for money from tiara-seekers. Everything I personally know about beauty pageants I learned from watching The Simpsons, so all of this was new to me.

What else is in the magazine? A number of what seem to be regular features (“Humor in Holy Places,” “An Encouraging Word,” “Kids Korner”) whose pictured authors all seem to be white women. Many of their biographies emphasize the writer’s availability for speaking engagements. My favorite column was “Legal Matters,” whose name makes it seem like you might be getting an update on the law somehow. This month, authors Myron Allenstein and Rose Allenstein, have chosen to cite scripture extensively (including several block quotes) to support their contention that freedom comes from God. They do not mention all of the slavery in the Old Testament. The column itself has a little bit of a Fourth of July theme, but it’s very unclear what this has to do with the law.

Several columns appear on the same page as an advertisement for the author’s local business. This is true for “Healthy Living,” written by the owners of Apple a Day Health World. This column, which offers extremely specific advice about the exact amounts of at least 15 vitamins and nutrients, features a footer that informs the reader that “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.” Evidently the magazine’s commitment to “positive living” does not extend to “scientific living.”

The end of the magazine features a July calendar of events and homemade ads for works by local writers, including for a self-published thriller whose blurb promises that “the details of Pastor Jack Pate’s fall from his lofty pedestal to the depths of sin’s depravity mesmerize readers throughout this suspenseful novel.” Ripped from the headlines.

Who is reading this? Christian families, presumably. And people looking for a coupon for Stevi B’s Ultimate Pizza Buffet. By branding itself as “Your source for GOOD news!” it’s maybe for readers who find the Anniston Star or the Daily Mountain Eagle too gloomy, who want to peruse an endless series of full-color ads for local businesses punctuated by parfait recipes, tips for diabetic foot care, and tips for those with breathing problems. The core audience probably overlaps a lot with the people who enjoy receiving those coupons in their postal box (“It’s like getting money in the mail!”) and who clip and save advice columns to mail, in a passive aggressive fashion, to relatives that they secretly dislike.

Sometimes a free magazine teaches you a lot about a place, or at least about the editor’s vision of a place. Sometimes it gives you a few chuckles while you wait to get your oil changed. And then sometimes it just leaves you feeling a little closer to death, having spent time within its pages. Anniston/Gadsden Christian Family is closest to the latter. Mostly recommended for lining guinea pig confines and lining raised garden beds.

 

Montgomery Wal-Mart and Guns

I was the guy clutching the six-pack of Haynes all-white cotton athletic socks, a four-pack of vegetarian Italian sausages, a box of LED light bulbs, and the August 2018 issue of Guns and Ammo, that self-describedpreeminent and most-respected magazine in the firearms field, featuring reviews, news, and articles about firearms,” (italics theirs).

I’d picked the black-and-gray cover (Masuser M18: Boom! Shuck! Boom!) from a colorful rack near the car magazines, just near less preeminent and most-respected periodicals touting HEAVY BORE AR-15 PLATFORMS and Buffalo Heavy .44 Mags, designed for super deep penetration on large game, in fonts similar to those in porn mags.

And much ink has already been spilled comparing those two genres, the gun mags and the nudie books, but Wal-Mart sells the one, and not the other, and today I was in Wal-Mart having my masculinity constructed towards violence, and not lust. Besides, Wal-Mart sells the accoutrements for the gun mags too.

Big news in February was that Wal-Mart would no longer sell guns and ammo to people under the age of 21. Three years ago, Walmart ended its sales of modern sporting rifles, including the AR-15. But they still sell guns. And bullets. Bunches of ’em. And a whole bunch of magazines about guns (and toy guns, and movies with guns, and those aren’t what I’m talking about here).

Just like Guns and Ammo is framed as the centrist most-respected part of the gun world conversation, Wal-Mart is seen as the clean retail version of the gun-selling universe of the online world. The digital conversation about guns makes Guns and Ammo look like Mother Jones and the people that are buying assault rifles in parking lots and at gun shows (no background check!) are likely contemptuous of the low-magazine capacities of whatever Wal-Mart is pushing. But Wal-Mart makes them easy to find, just like the socks and vegetarian Italian sausages I was holding.

This isn’t a screed about the public health crisis that we’re obviously undergoing with the ridiculous saturation of guns across our culture. If you want to check out what Moms Demand Action are doing, the link is here, and they’re in the trenches at state capitols across the nation, trying to turn some common sense into law.

I own guns. More than two. And we can debate the merits of that decision just like we can debate whether it’s ethical to even be shopping at Wal-Mart in the first place.

But the thing about gun enthusiasts, paging through the monthly offerings of Guns and Ammo, is that they are under the impression that they are merely looking for a less obtrusive hip holster, or a device suitable for assassinating South Pacific mountain goats (horns that span as much as 60 inches across). The dude in front of you in the Wal-Mart check-out line buying an unusual array of canned catfood and nearly-identical looking tinned salmon and tuna? He may be thinking about a shotgun that can hold an entire box of 2.75″ shells so that he doesn’t have to stop to reload when he goes to kill all of his coworkers tomorrow.

These matters, we are led to believe, are the purview of the police and the security budgets of the private establishments where we shop. The police officer I saw on this trip to Wal-Mart was texting as she and her partner walked languidly towards to electronics department to sniff around someone who was getting a little too familiar with the DVDs and video games. The security guard enjoyed asking random people to produce their receipts as they left the store, as if an allegation of theft was a suitable excuse for detaining people attempting to leave the premises with their own property.

If we think metal detectors and pervasive security guards at every store, movie theater and public event are a) sufficient sacrifices of liberties and b) likely to succeed at stopping mass murders, we may wish to yet further reflect on whether the 24-hour establishment selling us eggs and floor polish and reloadable prepaid credit cards ought to also be selling us guns, as well as the periodicals that let us know about Kel-Tec’s important safety recall on its Sub-2000 rifles due to a heat treatment that could cause the barrel to rupture when a cartridge is fired, causing serious personal injury.

We don’t like to think much about the people that are reading an article encouraging people to buy a magazine-fed shotgun that the author claims saved his live “many times” during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Need a magazine that carries 20 shotgun rounds at once? The Mossburg makes them, and the shooter has a “distinct advantage when changing out loads to meet the need.” What need requires a shooter to maintain an advantage when changing out one 20-round batch of shotgun shells for another? That’s the business of Freedom Loving Patriots™ and likely none of yours.

Gun people have their own magazines, their own websites, their own television shows, and their own political candidates. And those candidates are the ones that currently make the laws. And the people for whom that is immensely frustrating? Those people have likely never spent much time lingering around the gun magazines and ammo aisles at their local Wal-Mart.

 

Don’t Give Up on Montgomery Schools

This morning’s New York Times (I read the paper version, I know, I’m old) brought news of new research out of Stanford that should shape the way we think about what counts as a successful school district. The article linked above, which you should absolutely read, does a good job of breaking down rock star education researcher Sean Reardon’s new study on educational opportunities. Herein, I give you a brief summary of the study, because it’s very clever. This part is a little nerdy. Then I give you the good news. Because I feel like a lot of times when we talk about the Montgomery schools we are full of bad news. Finally, I give you the bad news. Because there’s some pretty bad news in this study. Then I open the floor for discussion, if anyone out there in Lost in Montgomery-land is still listening. I know it’s been a while since we’ve written.

So, first, what is this new study and why does it have me so excited? Two things, really. First, it’s really big. It looks at 45 million students in 11,000 school districts. That’s a lot of data. Second, it’s methodologically innovative. Generally, studies that look at how well schools are doing just look at average test scores. That’s how Alabama decides which schools will be called “failing” for its private school giveaway tax credit.

This study calculated average test scores in third grade, but then went a giant step further and calculated growth rates in test scores from grades 3-8 for twelve different cohorts of students. This is a measure of student improvement over five years, and it’s meant to take a closer look at what, compared to the entry baseline, schools are adding to a student’s experience. Think about it this way: if everything performed as normal, a student should grow five years’ worth of schooling in five years. If a school is excelling, a student could have a higher growth rate. If schools are underperforming, a student would get less than five years worth out of their five years of seat time.

If average test scores were a good measure of school performance, we’d expect growth rates to be correlated with average scores. The thing is that those two measures – growth rates and average test scores – turn out not to be correlated. Which means, in the first place, that we should not be using average test scores to identify so-called failing schools, as they are likely to be simple reflections of socioeconomic status. This kind of ranking fails to incentivize growth and, as Reardon argues, may drive parents into districts with higher socioeconomic status, increasing economic segregation (ahem, Pike Road).

Before we get to changes in test scores, let’s see how Montgomery’s average scores stack up nationally. Here’s where our third graders stand.

We’re ahead of Chicago (the big dot there) but still almost one year behind the national average. Here’s where our eighth graders stand.

We’re almost three years behind the national average now, while Chicago’s getting pretty close to average. So Montgomery students are falling behind, while Chicago’s seeing closer to average test scores. Here’s what the change in scores looks like:

And here’s how to read this chart (all charts from the NYT interactive I linked to in the first paragraph). Chicago students are getting about 6 years worth of test growth out of their five years of schooling – a pretty remarkable achievement. Montgomery students are only getting three years – putting us in the bottom 1% of school districts nationally.

But wait, you might be saying, I thought there was going to be some good news here. There is. This study’s findings contain a few things that should give us hope that MPS can be improved. First, it finds that socioeconomic status is not destiny. A relatively poor (81% free and reduced price lunch) and racially segregated school system (10% white) like Chicago’s can make big gains, even though (unlike Montgomery) it has a large number of English language learners (about 17%).

And it means that big increases in per-pupil spending (while good) aren’t necessary. The Saraland schools spend some of the least in Alabama (only $7,789 in 2016) but saw 4.8 years of growth after 5 years. By contrast, wealthy Mountain Brook spent $12,162 per pupil and saw 4.9 years of growth in the same period. That’s not a lot of return on investment. Montgomery only spends $8,420 per pupil, and Chicago’s $12,000 seems like a lot until you realize that a) the cost of living is a lot higher there, and b) that’s still less than Mountain Brook. Here’s one more chart I pulled showing how we stack up against nearby districts.So we may not need to raise property taxes to get better schools, which is good, because it’ll probably be a cold day in hell before that happens here. And we can stop scapegoating race and poverty, because districts like Chicago do just fine. All of which is good news. It gets us out of the mindset of things we can’t fix and put us into a place to consider the things we can fix. Which is good, because MPS is in serious trouble.

But, there’s still plenty of bad news here. Mostly the part where our students are only getting three years worth of education out of five years of seat time. That’s positively criminal, and it’s something we need to take very seriously. Those years in grades 3-8 sort you out for success or failure in high school, where tracking makes it difficult for students identified as underperforming to break out of the molds we put them into. These are critical times, and MPS is failing at its core duty. We need to be having serious and data-driven conversations about what it means to get students at grade level, and how to increase proven practices like teacher collaboration and principal autonomy. Otherwise we’re failing our children – and worse, our community.

Discussion is welcome in the comments section.

 

The Shots

We’ve been here nine years now.

There are many landmarks and monuments in time, but one of them is the moment when we stopped calling the police after hearing gunshots. Before that point, we were diligent citizens, counting shots as best as we could, offering to speak to the officer that we assumed would be dispatched to the scene, noting the time of the shots and the direction from which the appeared to come. After that point? Just numbness, rolling over, trying to go back to sleep, a tiny prayer of thanksgiving that our house wasn’t hit by a stray bullet.

They almost always come when we’re in bed, but that doesn’t mean much because we’re in our late 30s, now our 40s, and we have full-time jobs, so we’re often in bed by 10 p.m. We’ve heard the shots as early as 9, once in a while during the day, two or three times while standing in the back yard, but mostly at midnight or – like tonight – at 3:30 a.m.

If the dog hears them, she’ll often let out a little growl, but she’s mostly joined our apathy, giving up on any reaction. Ears perk up, then she rolls over.

Sometimes I lay in bed with secret agent fantasies, like maybe one day I’ll get so experienced that I’ll be able to identify the kind of gun by how it sounds, the number of shots fired, the echo of the ballistic ringing. But I never learn anything substantive to add to this fantasy. Usually it’s just crack-crack-crack. Or sometimes crack-crack … crack-crack-crack. Then silence.

Then you can sit and wait for how long between the cracks and the sirens. Sometimes the sirens never come. I’d say it’s about half and half, maybe less than half the time that you hear a flicker of one, usually further away than the shots. Sometimes it’s five minutes, sometimes fifteen. Once in a while you hear the helicopter. There’s never any roaring motor of a high-speed chase, although sometimes I imagine one of those too, with people shooting from car to car as they flee the police.

Most often though, I imagine a social scenario about what led to the shooting. Maybe it was anger over something that happened today at a high school – someone was discovered talking to someone else’s girlfriend. A short burst of shots might be unidirectional, aimed at a house while the people inside were sleeping, just a warning message. Sometimes there’s return fire. Maybe a deal went bad.

The number and order of the shots can really help you sketch out a scenario. Bang-bang. Was there arguing before? Bang-bang-bang. Was that return fire, or perhaps a few more shots from the first gun? Time passes. Bang. Was that a shot at a retreating car? Did it take someone a moment to find their gun? Were their fingers fumbling and bloody by this point in the exchange, making it hard to pull the trigger?

You can sketch scenarios about the quiet aftermath too. Maybe there is imperceptible yelling. Maybe there’s a baby crying. Maybe someone is alone, feeling the life slowly leaking out of them. Maybe the last thing they hear is some stupid TV show.

I’ve only seen a dead body once, at a gas station near our house. Ever since, we’ve called it The Murder Chevron. It was a guy laying face down in the parking lot while I waited at a red light after a super early morning airport run. I knew he was dead as soon as I saw him, and I read about the killing in the newspaper the next day. It felt really meaningful, seeing this guy’s body. The newspaper said he was from Selma, and they think it was about drugs and money. I used to know his name, but I forgot it.

I’ve never gotten gas at the Murder Chevron, even though it’s pretty close to my house.

Usually there’s nothing in the newspaper about the gunshots, which really reinforces the idea that there are two cities called Montgomery. In one, people shoot guns in the middle of the night (rarely in celebration or target practice, probably mostly at other human beings). In the other, the Chamber of Commerce is having some kind of event, or someone is raising money for some disease.

If we ever do see something the next day about the gunshots, we always feel a little connected to it. The sound of them unites everyone who is within hearing distance. We may not know the heart-racing exhilaration of having been the shooters, nor the pure terror of having been the targets, but we’re still witnesses, whether we roll over and go back to sleep or not.

It’s always a little surprising how far the sounds of gunshots will carry. At 2 a.m., the crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack sounds pretty close, but you see in the paper the address and you’re always a little surprised that you could hear it from inside your house from several blocks away. Guns are loud. Our city’s nights are usually so quiet.

The other thing about seeing it in the paper or on the TV is that you start to get names, which really help you sketch out your little imagined scenarios. But those names fade, and you’re never at the funeral, never feel the loss of a newly-empty bedroom, or the pain of seeing someone who can’t really walk anymore because there’s a bullet in their hip. It’s just part of the fabric here, something that would freak out some European town for months, but is just part of the cheap cost of life here.

Only once were the shots really close, but they were really, really close. They were right across the street, and I’ve never been awakened by anything quite like that. It was a drive-by. It was more of a CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK and underneath it were a few pop-pop-pops. My stupid movie-trained-never-been-in- war brain told me that someone was emptying an automatic (maybe an AK from the clanking sounds of the bolt) while someone else fired a few shots from a pistol.

Nobody died.

The street was littered with shell casings, which the police came and collected. They said “the grandma” had been hit in the head but was OK. They said it was a domestic violence thing, where the dude was mad about something or other and wanted to send a message to his girlfriend, ended up hitting her grandma by accident, and punching holes in the windows of the nice little house across the street from ours. Our neighbor, who was a cop at the time, said later that he asked about the case and said that the girl didn’t want to press charges against the guy, even though she knew it was him. So I guess nobody got arrested, and those people moved away shortly thereafter, and we were glad.

That was several years ago, though, and nothing that dramatic has happened close to us since. Mostly it’s several blocks over. Mostly we never learn anything about what happens. They’re just the gunshots – punctuation marks in the night, waking you up, reminding you of the violent world just around the corner, of the fragility of life, of the ever-presence of firearms.

We have guns too.

The imagination does not confine itself in the way that residential poverty segregates our neighborhood from the ones giving birth to all of the gunshots. No, the imagination runs wild, and I imagine someone trying to kick in our front door, a different kind of pow-pow-pow, one that the dog would not ignore. And I imagine pulling out the gun and trying amid panic to squeeze off a few shots, at least to let the intruder know that this home invasion would involve threat to life and limb. And maybe that’s what they’re thinking in those other neighborhoods too. They just want to protect themselves and their property. They just want to be safe and sleep at night.