Thursday, March 31, 2011

When an Estate Sale Becomes a Memorial Service

Touring the Estate of the Late Harry E. Tibbs while Contemplating Life and Death

I went to an estate sale last Saturday at the residence of the late Harry E. Tibbs. Dr. Tibbs was well known in the academic and music community. His talents as a church organist and college music professor were legendary. Touring his estate turned out to be a reflection upon a life well lived.

Items for sale at the estate included a lovely grand piano, bookcases, fine china and works of art that the professor had gathered from around the world. I had gone to the estate sale looking for a pedestal dining table, which was not to be found. What I did, which is usually what I do when I come upon an estate sale, was to tour the house and consider what the deceased owner’s life must have been like.

Over a year ago I went to an estate sale in a nearby neighborhood. Though the house had obviously been in a state of disrepair for some time, as I wandered through the house and adjoining garage I kept repeating to myself, “Here once lived a craftsman!” I saw so many tools and items to be used in making all kinds of things. At that sale, I ended up buying a small red metal tool box filled with an assortment of tools. I also bought a slab of black marble, probably the remnant of some counter top project.

On this day as I toured the Tibbs estate, I marveled at the view overlooking the city from the mountainside of that upscale Altamont Road residence. Two stories and a full basement were filled with artifacts that spoke of a full and elegant life. In addition to the piano, fine china and art work, there were wine racks, kitchen equipment, a vast array of cookbooks (including one on medieval cuisine). There were many scholarly books and classical recordings.

I found three items to purchase:
  1. A hardback copy of the Viking Portable William Blake.
  2. Machlis’ The Enjoyment of Music, a comprehensive reference book that had a library card holder labeled, “Dr. Tibbs Reserve.” It had apparently been in use at the university library for Professor Tibbs’ students to use. The card inside contained the dates and signatures of the last students to check out  the  book.
  3. A CD of various classical Christmas music recordings.
I spent exactly five dollars. As I left the estate I said to myself, “My death will definitely be less complicated than that of Dr. Tibbs.” That is what I tend to do at estate sales – I treat them like a funeral, contemplating the life of the deceased while at the same time reflecting upon my own life. Self assessment seems to go along with respect for the dead.

As I left the estate, I got into my Ford Ranger and put in the CD I had just purchased. Though it was the end of March and a bit warm, the weather was gray and overcast with a slight mist. I turned on the AC and for about 20 minutes listened to some of the finest classical Christmas compositions and imagined it to be a December day.

Contemplating the passing of a remarkable man and considering my own brought to mind a poem I had written almost 30 years before when as a young man I had tried to broach the subject of my own demise:

                     I Shall Go Quickly 

                     I shall go quickly from this world
                    With traces left behind;
                    As a fragrance lingering
                    To be dispersed by the wind;
                    As an image upon the retina
                    To fade as new sights are seen.

                    Today, mine is a slow and steady gaze.
                    I stand still before the flow of creation
                    Pulsating joy and wonder in stillness of thought.
                    Today I linger in the greenwood and listen,
                    But I shall go quickly from this world,
                    With traces left behind.

                    11/82                                Charles Kinnaird


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wake Up with E.B. White, John Legend, and The Roots

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
                                                                              ~ E. B. White

Friday, March 25, 2011

Moving Toward the Common Good, or Slouching Toward Dystopia?

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

                         ~William Blake (from "Jerusalem")

[This is my second essay inspired by reading Wayne Flynt's book. The first essay can be found here.]

In Wayne Flynt’s Dixie’s Forgotten People: the South’s Poor Whites, he offers a clear picture while providing some understanding of the poor white culture that has been marginalized from mainstream society in the South. Describing something like a caste system in the South, Flynt portrays the historical and sociological developments that contributed to their plight. While agriculture was dominant in the earliest days of the English and Scots-Irish settlers, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, the textile industry did much to shape southern life. At one point Flynt quotes from The Wasted Land, by Gerald Johnson to show that the textile industry in the South was as much a social endeavor as it was a commercial enterprise. The South offered cheap labor for the textile industry as it moved from the Northeastern factory establishments. There were some textile entrepreneurs who hoped to revitalize the decaying and gloomy prospects of the lower class whites of the South.

Southern Mill Towns

Textiles, poverty, and the South all strike a deep chord with me. I grew up in Alabama’s Tallapoosa County. My home was in Jackson’s Gap before the family moved into the metropolis of Dadeville (population 3,000). Many of my school classmates came from mill working families. Russell Mills, later to become the Russell Corporation, was perhaps the largest employer of the area. They were located in the neighboring town of Alexander City, along with another large textile manufacturer, Avondale Mills. Down the road in the other direction was another large employer of unskilled labor, Pepperell Mills in Opelika. In addition to these large industrial giants there were many smaller textile mills in the area. Indeed, from one county to the next, small villages and valleys were scattered with numerous small textile plants, each specializing in a particular product.

There were no unions in our area. Mill owners were known to make benevolent contributions to the community in the building of a school or a hospital or other community improvements. They provided employment for countless citizens, but never any guarantees. Alabama was (and still is) an “at will” state, which means that employees are hired at the will of the employer and can at any time be terminated if the employer has no further need of the employee’s services. If you saw the movie, Norma Rae, you saw something of the milieu of my childhood and the people I knew growing up. [That movie was filmed in Opelika, used many locals as extras, and the producers were very happy to find a mill in place that so perfectly fit with the story they wanted to tell – I’m not sure the mill operators realized what story the film was telling.]

Beginning in the 1860’s, the textile industry brought scores of people off the farm and into the towns and cities. Millwork was hard and tedious, but it offered a steady income that was more reliable than farming for the landless poor. When I was coming of age, I had classmates who were looking ahead to a life in the mills. Some quit school at age 16 to work in the mill, some began working after graduation from high school, glad to have a job that required no further education. There were others of us who had no desire for the routine grind of unskilled labor and we set our sights on life beyond the textile valleys of home. Some of us opted for college as a stepping stone, others gravitated to the military, but none of us ever imagined that the huge textile industry that surrounded us would not always be there for generation after generation.

Though mill work was not what I envisioned for myself, I looked around at the community and saw that the mills gave many people meaningful, productive work. They were able to have a roof over their heads, provide for their families, go to the ball game on Friday nights, and take time off to go fishing on the lake. Indeed, the mill was an integral part of southern life in three productive shifts. There were churches and schools that for all practical purposes served as adjuncts to life in the mills. I knew from talking to my classmates that at Russell Mills, you got a paid day off on your birthday, and after 25 years, you got a watch at the annual company picnic. Then when the Russell Corporation gained national prominence as the manufacturer of uniforms for the major sports teams, it became a source of pride for everyone in the community. But with no unions, there were no guarantees, other than the seemingly endless grind of the textile machinery that would always be in need of workers.

Capitalism Without Conscience

Then the unforeseen happened - the mighty spindles came to a stop. Mills that had been run by local families who had some connection and investment in the local community began to see stiffer competition in the global market. Warren Buffet’s conglomerate bought out The Russell Corporation and moved much of the production to Central America where unskilled labor was much cheaper than in Alabama. Avondale Mills went belly up trying to compete – they were bought out by another company which managed to keep 200 jobs in the community. Employment opportunities quickly drained, not only from Tallapoosa County, but from the surrounding counties as well. The Pepperell Manufacturing Company which had flourished in Opelika closed its doors in 2006. People with no specialized training or education were left with little opportunity. Mill work may have been bleak and mindless, but joblessness takes a much greater toll on the soul.

In my mind, what my hometown and the surrounding area witnessed was capitalism without conscience. In the past, wealthy mill owners at least felt some obligation to the community. Now the large conglomerates had no human face and no interest in the local community. They could pull up stakes and move to wherever they needed in order to increase profits, with no apparent remorse over the wounds left in the local community.

Perhaps what we experienced was what happened in the Northeast when the industry came South in search of cheap labor. At any rate, I can see a few lessons to be learned in the aftermath. One, it is shortsighted to attract industry with promises of cheap labor while doing precious little to educate and equip the citizens who will be the workforce. Two, companies will only heed the needs of the workers out of necessity – hence the need for workers to have a voice and some ability to broker terms with company management. A third lesson might be that perhaps we need more diversity in employment options - more small enterprises rather than one huge industry.These are lessons that my state seems still unwilling to consider. Alabama cheered when it attracted Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota to build in the state, but is this not yet another example our state being at the mercy of large industries ever migrating from one labor source in search of cheaper wages?

Not Just a Regional Phenomenon

We are making and producing less and less, not just in the South, but throughout the United States. Remember when Walmart boasted “Made in America?” When was the last time you saw that slogan painted across a Walmart delivery truck? When my hometown saw The Russell Corporation shifting its workforce to the sweatshops of Honduras, the same thing was happening throughout the country. Manufacturing was leaving, moving to third world countries where goods could be manufactured for less money to bring companies and shareholders higher profits. Most of the U.S. population, while they may have wanted industries to stay, seemed perfectly willing to accept lower prices at the checkout line as a fair outcome. We heard no great unified protest from the public as individuals and communities throughout the South as well as across the heartland of America struggled with job losses and "vocational retraining" in the absence of real jobs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I see many questions at hand. How are we doing? What are our prospects for the future? Do we have a citizenry equipped to contribute to the well being and the common good of the community? Are we training the next generation to be vocationally adept so that they can provide for themselves and contribute to the community? Will we start making things again? Will business and industry have any investment in the local community? Will what happens in my community (and in your community) ever be as important as profits for the huge corporations that our polititians remind us we need in order to have jobs? Will company bosses ever again feel any compunction to give back to the community? Will the U.S. worker be once again marginalized as has been the lot of so many working poor in the South throughout its history?

Unfortunately, for too long it has benefitted society to have a readily available workforce that is poor and needy, and therefore willing to accept whatever menial labor we need done, at the lowest wage possible. We will placate the low wage earner from time to time with some token benefit: a gift watch here, a day off there, a Christmas bonus and a pat on the back. As long as society at large benefits from a permanent underclass we will always have the poor with us. Once they were in tenant farm shacks, then in mill villages and mining camps. Now we find them in urban housing projects, rural trailer parks, and rental housing with many falling prey to cheap whiskey, meth, and cable TV to pass the time in the absence of meaningful work.

I have hope for humanity because we carry with us the aspirations for justice, freedom and peace. We also carry with us a penchant for war, greed and oppression. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi says that "There is more good than evil in the world—but not by much." It is that little bit more that can lead us to a better world. Will we find a way to move toward the common good, or will we continue to slouch toward the dystopia which George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and others have warned us of?

                                                                                                                         Charles Kinnaird


This photograph, taken by a photographer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows a female employee tending the machines spinning cotton thread at the Pepperell Manufacturing Company textile mill in Lee County, Ala.

-- From Howard Washington Odum Papers (#3167), Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Photo from the
Alabama Department of Archives and History

  Avondale Mills in Alexander City

Avondale Mills, a textile plant, was a longtime employer in Alexander City until the company folded in 2006. Parkdale Mills purchased the plant, averting the loss of about 200 jobs.

Overseer and two doffer boys in front of machinery at Avondale Mills in Alabama. 

Photo by Lewis Hine
Children who worked at a textile mill in Pell City, Alabama, in 1910.

This photo is from an insightful article, "The Legacy of a Cotton Culture," by Larry Lee, director of the Center for Rural Alabama


Recommended Reading:

“The Legacy of a Cotton Culture,” by Larry Lee. The Daily Yonder, March 26, 2010. Online at

“There Is Such A Thing As Rural Development,” by Larry Lee. The Daily Yonder, April 9, 2010. Online at

“17 Rules for a Sustainable Local Community,” by Wendell Berry, online at

Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites, by Wayne Flynt, Indiana University Press; New Edition (October 19, 2004)

Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites, by Wayne Flynt, University Alabama Press (November 8, 2001).

All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg, Vintage (September 8, 1998).


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan Ring the Bells

An excerpt from  “The Dry Salvages,” (from Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot):

 And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.

"Ring Them Bells" is one of my favorite tracks from Bob Dylan's 1989 album, Oh Mercy. There is also a live performance by Dylan "Live from the Supper Club" in 1993 that can be seen here.

Ring Them Bells
By Bob Dylan

Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride.

Ring them bells Saint Peter where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it's rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow.

Ring them bells Sweet Martha for the poor man's son
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep.

Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies.

Ring them bells Saint Catherine from the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress for the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong
And they're breaking down the distance between right and wrong.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hitting the Wall

I am in the process of reading Wayne Flynt’s book, Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites. Flynt is a historian (professor emeritus, Auburn University) who offers an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a group of people who were isolated from the mainstream of Southern society. One can find stereotypes of the South’s poor whites in popular culture where they are written off as hillbillies and rednecks, but Flynt brings the thorough scholarship of an historical eye along with a compassionate understanding of the people he writes about.

Much of what I am reading shows me how so much in my southern homeland has been repeated from the days of the early settlers down to the present day. In the opening chapter, “The Invisible Poor: Toward a Definition of Southern Poor Whites,” Flynt describes the plight of downward mobility for the poor whites. There were many causes that contributed to this, but one had to do with land distribution. As the frontier of the South was opened up, the abundance of natural resources led to wasteful methods of agriculture. It was cheaper for the wealthy land owners to buy new land to cultivate than it was to care for the land they had. As a result, planters moved on to new lands and left the depleted, less productive land to the poor white settlers. They maximized their personal profits rather than caring for the land.

Is this not what we continue to do in our nation? Are not environmentalists and conservationists vilified by the moneyed corporations who have no intention of using their capital on any long range environmental planning? Do politicians not scorn the implementation of legislation that would protect our resources because it is too expensive and will cost jobs?

Just as did the early plantation owners, our corporate bosses today continue to use up resources like there is no tomorrow. We have a national attitude that resources are ours to be used up. (This is one reason I do not like the term Human Resources which is the common corporate designation for its personnel – is the underlying intention to treat “human” resources in the same way we have treated our natural resources? Use them up until they are depleted?)

It is not dark yet, however. We do have in this country a significant community of people who are speaking out for a more responsible approach toward industry and environment. There are organizations that promote protection of wild life and natural lands. Other organizations advocate for green energy sources and business practices. There are people asking the same questions that the Native Americans asked when they made community decisions – how will this affect the next seven generations?

What I fear is that as a society, we will have to hit the wall before truly effective, large-scale changes are made. As long as the oil companies continue to make record profits, where is the incentive to find alternative energy sources? As long as we can live our comfortable lives, how many will really be interested in making the necessary changes to avoid hitting that wall? The truth is, we no longer have the seemingly endless frontier of resources to plunder, as did our ancestors. There will come a point at which we must face the crucial questions of sustainability.

Will we make the turn, or will we hit the wall?


Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites, by Wayne Flynt, is published by Indiana University Press. First printed in 1979, the new edition was released in 2004.

For a truly insightful examination of the South's poor whites, check out Rich Bragg's memoir, All Over but the Shoutin'. My blog post, Southern Nights and Stereotypes is about Bragg's memoir.


A short and incomplete list of environmentally conscious organizations:

The Nature Conservancy
World Wide Fund for Nature
National Audubon Society
Greenpeace International
The Sierra Club
National Wildlife Federation
World Resources Institute

Find a longer list here, or do a web search for a multitude of sites


Friday, March 18, 2011

The Workers Built this Country

It is the workers who built this country. So often the burden of the building rested on their shoulders with few rights or privileges extended to them. It was at a time when the wealthy barons and industry magnates grew their fortunes with little or no regard for the worker that public sentiment and labor unions were able to gain more humane treatment for workers. Legislation ended child labor, gave workers the 8-hour day and the 40 hour workweek. Healthcare and pensions were also gained so that workers did not have to just labor until their dying day.

As we watch what happens in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio let us not forget who built this country. Let us not fail to recognize and honor the vital contributions of the "working class" that includes teachers, nurses, policeman, firefighters, civil service workers as well as laborers. In solidarity with the workers of the country, remember the words of Carl Sandburg in his poem, "Chicago":

By Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,

Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,


Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

T.S. Eliot and Cat Stevens: Winding up where they started

From T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding (No. 4 of The Four Quartets):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

From Cat Stevens' "Sitting":

Oh life is like a maze of doors
and they all open from the side you're on.
Just keep on pushing hard boy, try as you may
You're going to wind up where you started from
You're going to wind up where you started from.

And a performance by Yusef Islam:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Unexpected Signs of Hope

Here’s another blogger’s entry that is well worth reading. Donald Schell relates the following events that have emerged recently in the media which offer a fascinating look at things alternative and “out of the box”:

- HBO’s award winning biopic ‘Temple Grandin,’ on the hard life and huge gifts of the autistic Ph.D. who overturned a whole generation of experts’ settled conclusions about autism while she radically altering our treatment of cattle in the U.S.

 - the NPR story of the Vipassna Buddhist meditation program for lifers in Donaldson Prison in Alabama

- National Geographic’s documentary on atheist neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s research on stress in baboon communities in Kenya and his wholly unexpected discoveries when a disaster moved one baboon community toward a active teaching of compassionate, collaborative behavior

- “Fresh Air’s” interview with Matthew Alexander, author of Kill or Capture, How a Special Operations Task Force took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist.

These are events that tell us it is not dark yet. You can read the entire article here.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday/Blackbird

Excerpts from Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the ag├Ęd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Blackbirdby Paul McCartney

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
all your life
you were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Snyder v. Phelps at the Supreme Court

I am sure I am letting my emotions get in the way when I ask, "If this is right, why does it feel so wrong?" I wrote last April (Three Cheers for Justice Alito) about a Supreme Court decision that I disagreed with, and talked about how, to my surprise, Justice Samuel Alito cast the one dissenting vote. Now, with the Snyder v. Phelps 8 -1 ruling, once again I am uneasy with the higest court's decision. Yet I also find some small consolation - this time that at least one justice argued that hateful incendiary speech should not find protection under the right to free speech - and once again surprised that my ally is Justice Alito.

I know many legal minds will be able to show how, undesirable as the Westboro Baptist Church's actions are, we must allow it if we are to value freedom of speech. However, I cannot see how showing up at a private funeral with signs that say such things as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags" is in any way appropriate. Furthermore, I do not see what such actions taken at military funerals have to do with the group's hateful protests against the gay community. What about the privacy of the grieving family? What about expectations of public decency during times of public mourning?

I found one blogger who took this occasion to celebrate her surprise at agreeing with Justice Alito (much as I did last April). This writer does a fine job presenting the details of the Supreme Court decision and Alito's dissenting opinion. Check it out on the Reaching for the Moon blog here.

Thursday evening addendum: Today I read The New York Times headline article, "Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals," by Adam Liptak. In the interest of getting the whole story, I recommend it. In the short article, Liptak gives a concise summary of the judicial ruling and covers most of the "whys and wherefores." I think that wisdom lies in knowing both what liberty allows and what is appropriate to implement. Wisdom can take Justice Roberts' and Justice Alito's opinions, hold them together and make a healthy choice of action.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Give It A Rest - On the Sabbath

I’ve heard from a number of different sources about the National Day of Unplugging, from sunset on Friday, 4 March to Saturday, 5 March. It is sponsored by Sabbath Manifesto (“Slowing down lives since 2010.”)

According to Tanya Schevitz, Program and Communications Coordinator for Reboot, “The project is the brainchild of Reboot's network of artists, writers, journalists and filmmakers who work in the technology and media sector, and are at the forefront of electronic communication. But they've also begun to realize how pervasive electronic communication is harming their personal relationships; their ability to focus; and their ability to savor the world around them."

The principles of the Sabbath Manifesto are:

1. Avoid technology
2. Connect with loved ones
3. Nurture your health
4. Get outside
5. Avoid commerce
6. Light candles
7. Drink wine
8. Eat bread
9. Find silence
10. Give back

This is the second annual National Day of Unplugging. It was not on my radar last year, but I think I’ll give it a try this weekend.

Internet Sources:

Sabbath Manifesto:


My Jewish Learning:

The Huffington Post article (from last year):

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