Archive for February, 2008

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Fatimir Sejdiu, president of newly independent Kosovo. Its sovereignty has been recognized by the US, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, and other countries — but not Serbia or Russia.

When Kosovo proclaimed its independence of Serbia two weeks ago (Feb. 17, 2008), news of the momentous occasion — and of rioting and an attack on the US embassy in Belgrade — was of more than passing interest to me.

Unlikely as it sounds, while the Kosovo War was underway in 1999, the little Point Reyes Light, which I then owned, chanced to have a correspondent in Kosovar refugee camps.

Equally unexpected, an 17-year-old refugee girl gave our correspondent, Adrienne Baumann, her personal journal. In horrifying detail, the journal of Albana Berisha from Pristina describes being caught in Serbia’s attempt to cleanse Kosovo of its ethnically Albanian majority. The journal goes on to record her family’s long and harrowing flight through the mountains to safety in the neighboring country of Albania.

Adrienne, a former Light reporter from a Chileno Valley family, had been working in Italy when the war broke out, and she volunteered to do relief work at miserable refugee camps in Albania. The Light printed her account and posted it online, along with Albana’s, prompting a flurry of angry emails to the paper from people in Serbia.

Light editor Tess Elliott has now told me she’s going to publish a recap of what was reported by the teenage Kosovar, Albana, as well as by West Marin’s witness to the war’s casualties, Adrienne. It’s bound to be a moving account.

Most Kosovars, like most Albanians, are Muslim, but culturally they are European rather than Middle Eastern. Most Serbs are Serbian Orthodox. A major reason why Serbs have long resisted Kosovar independence is that a number of their church’s hallowed places are in Kosovo.

In 1990, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic revoked the autonomy of the provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, which resulted in an uprising that lasted from 1996 to 1999, pitting Serbian forces against guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Supporting the KLA were a nowadays-unlikely pair of collaborators: Islamic mujahideen and NATO.

Initially, there were atrocities by both sides, and while the Serbian government claimed it was merely fighting “terrorists,” the UN reported that Serbs had driven 850,000 of Kosovo’s two million inhabitants from their homes. As you’ll recall, in March 1999, NATO forces led by the US intervened with a seven-week bombing campaign, stopped the ethnic cleansing, and turned Kosovo over to international peacekeepers.

Those peacekeepers have been there ever since. For the most part, Kosovo has been relatively calm since the war ended, and perhaps that very calmness is what led to one of the more-bizarre diplomatic rows of recent times.

Among the international peacekeepers were members of the Norwegian Army Telemark battalion, and they found themselves stuck killing time, perhaps making them cynical about their role in Kosovo.

100_6819.jpgAs it happened, back when NATO had intervened in 1999, a radio talk-show host in Seattle, Bob Rivers of KZOK, was unhappy with the US role as international policeman, especially because of its inconsistencies.

So Rivers took the music from the Beach Boys’ 1988 hit Kokomo, wrote new lyrics, and rerecorded the song as a political satire called Kosovo.

The parody caused much laughter in Seattle but after a year was mostly forgotten. In 2002, however, some Norwegian peacekeepers happened upon the parody. Seeing that the lyrics were apt for their own situation, the Norwegians (above) using a hand-held camera filmed themselves lip-synching to the song.

The Beach Boys’ song, as I’m sure you remember, began: “Aruba, Jamaica, ooo I wanna take ya/ Bermuda, Bahama come on, pretty mamma/ Key Largo, Montego — baby, why don’t we go?”

The song the Norwegians mouthed begins: “Croatia, Albania, somewhere near Romania/ It’s Euro and NATO — why the hell do we go?”

100_6814.jpgIn the Beach Boys’ song, the lines were: “Afternoon delight/ cocktails and moonlit nights/ That dreamy look in your eye/ Give me a tropical contact high/ Way down in Kokomo.”

Dressed in camouflage, and carrying their combat rifles, the Norwegians on patrol mouth, “Protecting human rights/ Air strikes and firefights/ And we’ll be dropping our bombs/ Wherever Serbian bad guys go/ Just up from Kosovo.” (Presumably in Serbia.)

The Norwegians dance atop armored vehicles and a bombed-out bus. From the bus, they mouth the lines: “Every time we go/ To little places like Kosovo/ We never really know/ What happens after we go/ Tough luck for Kosovo.”

100_6817_11.jpgIn 2005, three years after the clip was filmed, it ended up on the website You Tube; Serbian television quickly found and aired it; television stations throughout the Balkans then rebroadcast the clip; and all hell broke loose.

Furious, the Serbian government claimed the clip proved what Serbia had been saying, that the peacekeepers were hostile to the country. Surprisingly, the Serbs also complained about the indecency of the soldiers sometimes being shown bare-chested.

Norway’s ambassador to Serbia immediately apologized, saying, “I really hope this incident will not disturb the lasting and deep friendly relations between our countries.” Luckily for them, the Norwegian peacekeepers had by then completed their tour of duty and were no longer in the military, so they were not disciplined.

Here’s a link to the video. I should warn you, however, that while the bulk of the video is humorous, its ending is grim although not gory.

100_6827.jpgThe song ends: “Somalia, Grenada,/ Or rescuing Kuwait-a/ We screwed you, Rwanda/ Wish we coulda helped ya/ Iraqi embargo/ How it ends we don’t know…” At this point, the soldier singing gets hit by a truck for the final irony.

There once was a country called Yugoslavia.

At the end of World War I while the victors were dismantling the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, they created Yugoslavia by cramming more than 20 ethnic groups into one ungainly nation rife with internal rivalries.

From 1945 until his death in 1980, Communist Party boss Marshal Tito — popular for having led Yugoslav resistance to the Nazis — was able to hold Yugoslavia together. But less than a decade after his death, the Soviet Union dissolved, and soon afterward, Yugoslavia did too. (Although Yugoslavia had been communist, it had not been part of the Soviet bloc.)

The onetime Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence in 1991, Bosnia a year later. Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, but the UN didn’t recognize it as a sovereign nation until 1993. Montenegro declared its independence in 2006. Kosovo two weeks ago became the sixth region to secede, leaving Serbia as the only region still wearing the mantle of the old Republic of Yugoslavia.

North Marin Water District manager Chris DeGabriele this afternoon announced, “Cleanup of the sewer spill which occurred Monday, Feb. 18, in the Oceana Marin subdivision [of Dillon Beach] has been completed.

“Sewage debris deposited on the steep hillside where the sewer spill occurred has been removed. Staw wattles, jute netting, and native grass seeding have been applied to the affected area to help prevent erosion and limit sediment from entering the drainage swale and storm drain that flows to the ocean.” The swale is downhill from where the sewer pipe broke, apparently because tree roots damaged a joint.

The spill was relatively small; initial estimates were that it totaled something over 250 gallons, some of which reached the ocean and some of which ended up in the swale and on the hillside.

logo1.gifA Dillon Beach resident discovered the spill Monday afternoon and notified North Marin, which in turn notified county, regional, and state regulatory agencies. NMWD repairmen, along with a truck from Roto Rooter, were dispatched to Dillon Beach, which took them through the town of Tomales. As it happened, the Tour of California bicycle race stopped traffic in and out of Tomales for more than an hour that afternoon, but DeGabriele assured me that the bicyclists were long gone before his crew needed to get through town.

“Results of tests completed by the County of Marin from the ocean-water samples taken on Tuesday, Feb. 19, show bacteria levels are much lower than the acceptable [maximum] standard, indicating the ocean water is safe for body-contact recreation,” DeGabriele reported. As a result, “warning signs and precautionary tape keeping people away from the area have been removed.

Today the inside of the affected pipeline is being remotely inspected with a television camera to determine if areas other than that which failed on Monday afternoon may need repair. NMWD’s contractor will begin repair of the pipeline early next week.

“NMWD provides sewer service to 222 homes in the Oceana Marin area,” the North Marin manager noted, and “17 of these homes are connected to the sewer-collection pipeline which failed.

“The six-inch-diameter, ductile-iron pipeline was installed in the mid-1970s in open terrain down a steep hillside, extending from Kona Lane to Kailua Way.”

It is easy to underestimate the power of coincidence; nonetheless, I am surprised by a sudden rekindling of interest in The Point Reyes Light and West Marin Citizen as representing two poles of community journalism.

100_6809.jpgA German journalist, Stephan Russ-Mohl, showed up at my cabin yesterday to interview me about the changes at The Light since I sold it two years ago. In 1992 while teaching Journalism at the Free University of Berlin, Russ-Mohl authored Zeitungsumbruch: Wie sich Amerikas Press revolutioniert, which devoted a chapter to The Light. Unfortunately, I can’t read it.

All I can tell you is that is that the chapter begins with a (presumably translated) comment by American journalist Robert Giles: “Die amerikanische Provinzpresse steht heute nicht mehr in der Tradition eins couragierten Journalismus, eines Journalismus, der Anstoß nimmt.”

Apparently the passage complains about “die amerikanische Provinzpresse” losing the courage to become indignant.

However, Russ-Mohl goes on to say, “Ein Beispiel jedenfalls, daß es mutigen Journalismus auch an den Grass roots noch gibt, liefert ein Winzling unter den amerikanischen Zeitungen, der ein Strückweit nördlich von San Francisco erscheint: The Point Reyes Light.” I surmise that 15 years ago the author could see some counter-examples, including The Light, but as they say in Germany, “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.” *

Another book that devotes a chapter to The Light is Pulitzer’s Gold, which has just been published by the University of Missouri Press and is selling remarkably well.

Engagingly written by Roy Harris (senior editor at CFO magazine), Pulitzer’s Gold looks in detail at what the 12 most-recent winners did to earn the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, which Joseph Pulitzer considered his top prize.

100_6804.jpgThe book also details the work of several other of the 92 winners (through 2006) of the Public Service gold medal, including The Light. These others were chosen, Harris writes, “because they are not only terrific stories but also fine illustrations of how Pulitzer Prize-winning work has evolved over the years.”

The Light won its gold medal in 1979 for an exposé of violence and other wrongdoing by the Synanon cult.

Pulitzer’s Gold notes that Robert Plotkin now owns The Light and concludes its chapter on the newspaper: “Though new to Marin, he has grand ideas. ‘This is going to be the Paris of the twenties. This is going to be the Beats of San Francisco in the fifties.’ Talent will gravitate to The Light, he says, because it is still known, even back East, as the little California paper that won the Pulitzer Prize.

“Mitchell, though, will never forget how strange it felt to have been so small and to have won so big: ‘It’s like being out playing touch football and making a good catch, and somebody says, “You could play for the 49ers with a catch like that.”’”

Meanwhile Point Reyes Station journalist Jonathan Rowe’s article, The Language of Strangers, in the January-February Columbia Journalism Review continues to generate discussion. The article describes the new incarnation of The Point Reyes Light and the advent of The West Marin Citizen.

100_6510.jpgIn discussing The Light’s editorial approach under its new publisher, Rowe (at right) wrote, “First, there was the braggadocio and self-dramatization. Most people in his situation would lay low for a bit, speak with everyone and get a feel for the place. Instead, Plotkin came out talking. We read that he was going to be the ‘Che Guevara of literary revolutionary journalism.’ The Light would become ‘the New Yorker of the West’ …. [However] he soon showed a gift for the irritating gesture and off-key note.”

A flap erupted when Peter Byrne, a columnist for an alternative newspaper, The North Bay Bohemian, posted an angry comment on CJR’s website where Rowe’s magazine story was online.

Byrne, who called Rowe’s article “terribly one-sided and unfair,” referred CJR readers to a column he himself had written. In the Bohemian column, Byrne wrote, “It seems evident to me that Plotkin breathes journalism day and night, and has responded to the expressed desires of his provincial readers,” adding that “The Light under the direction of Mitchell … was staler than day-old toast.”

Explaining his interest in The Light, Byrne acknowledged that “last year, Plotkin and I talked about working together, but it did not pan out since I require a living wage.”

Several CJR readers, including Rowe himself, have by now posted responses. “Byrne acknowledges that Plotkin is ‘narcissistic,’ which is his word not mine,” Rowe wrote. “But he blames this trait on us dim-witted locals, who lack a capacity to appreciate good journalism. ‘Townies waving pitchforks and whale-oil lanterns,’ he calls us. Now that’s reporting. It’s an interesting psychological theory too.”

100_6805.jpgA CJR reader named Monica Lee replied to Byrne: “Petah, Petah, Petah — sit yourself down, read much, study hard, and maybe someday you will write a piece as brilliantly spot-on about small-town newspapers and what they mean to a community as Jonathan Rowe has done.”

Another reader, Steve Bjerklie of Point Reyes Station, responded that publisher Plotkin is “a wealthy dilettante with a journalism degree playing out a Walter Mitty fantasy at The Light, and the West Marin community suffered for it until the advent of the rival Citizen.”

Michael Mery of Point Reyes Station wrote that Byrne’s comment was “a typical journalistic cheapshot — little information coupled with limited experience.”

I subsequently saw Mery in Toby’s Feed Barn and remarked on his response to Byrne’s commentary.

It was drive-by journalism,” Mery said with a laugh. Although Mery came up with the clever turn-of-phrase on his own, he’s not the first to use it in describing a smear written by an out-of-town journalist who shows up only briefly. In fact, there is a book with that title by an author named Rowse (not to be confused with Rowe).

The Point Reyes Light controversy shows no sign of letting up any time soon, which no doubt explains why Sausalito-based Marin Magazine has now arranged to publish a lengthy excerpt from Rowe’s article.

* German slang that translated literally means: “All I understand is train station,” which is comparable to saying, “It’s Greek to me.” How do I know this and not know German? A little Vögelchen told me.

A pipeline apparently broken by tree roots caused a small sewage spill into the ocean at Dillon Beach Monday, North Marin Water District manager Chris DeGabriel announced today.

“It’s estimated that over 250 gallons of sewage surfaced from a broken pipeline on a steep hillside in the vicinity of Kailua Way,” he said, adding that the leak “was likely caused by tree roots damaging a pipe joint.”

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Seen from Elephant Rock, Dillon Beach looks tranquil with Lawson’s Landing resort and the mouth of Tomales Bay in the distance. In the town’s Oceana Marin subdivision, however, a sewage spill caused a bit of a commotion yesterday.

Kailua Way is within the Oceana Marin subdivision, where North Marin operates the sewer system. “District crews responded, and Roto Rooter Sewer Service was dispatched to the area,” DeGabriele reported. “The spill was contained and initial pipe repair made within four hours of the district’s response.

“During that time, raw sewage flowed over land and ultimately into a drainage swale and storm drain that flows to the ocean…. The affected drainage swale and beach has been taped off and signed to keep people away from the area.

“Water samples upstream and downstream from the spill are being tested, and the results will be made available as soon as possible. Cleanup of the sewage discharged onto the area has begun, and the district is pursuing permanent repair of the pipeline.”

DeGabriele said a Dillon Beach resident first alerted North Marin to the spill and that “Marin County Health Department, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, and California Department of Fish and Game were notified of the incident.”

North Marin’s quick notification of regulatory agencies contrasts with the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin’s slowness to report two sewage spills totaling 5.2 million gallons into Richardson Bay, an arm of San Francisco Bay, on Jan. 25 and 31.

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A herd of up to nine blacktail deer have taken to spending their days on this hill, here joining the horses of Point Reyes Arabians for a late-afternoon snack.

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California’s Department of Fish and Game has estimated that well over half the roughly 560,000 deer in California are Columbian blacktails, the deer native to West Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Mutual friends. Two blacktail does licking each other’s coats.

For years many people believed (and many websites still say) that blacktails are a subspecies of mule deer, a species found from the Northwest to the deserts of the Southwest and as far east as the Dakotas. DNA tests, however, have now found mule deer to be a hybrid of female whitetail deer and blacktail bucks. Or so says author Valerius Geist in Mule Deer Country.

mule_deer-238.jpgWhitetails first appeared on the East Coast about 3.5 million years ago, as this blog previously noted. DNA evidence suggests they spread south and then west, arriving in California about 1.5 million years ago.

In moving up the coast, whitetails evolved into blacktails, which resemble them in appearance and temperament. Blacktails eventually extended their range eastward, meeting up with more whitetails coming from the east. Apparently the blacktail bucks were able to horn in on the harems of their parent species. The result: mule deer.

Mule deer as seen on the website of Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills. The deer are so named because of their long ears.

And for an amazing look at a whitetail deer, check this YouTube clip of one running into the path of a motorcycle on a mountain highway — but avoiding a collision by jumping over the biker as he ducks.

What is there to say about the American turkey that hasn’t recently been said? In the last 20 years, wild turkeys have spread throughout West Marin. I grew up in Berkeley and six weeks ago attended a New Year’s Eve party there; to my surprise, residents of my old neighborhood were likewise talking about wild turkeys moving in on them.

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Well, how ‘bout this curiosity? Why does the bird have the same name as the country? As it happens, Turkey was the talk of the world’s chattering classes this past week after Turks voted that henceforth women can wear headscarves in universities. But getting back to the coincidence of names….

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Here’s an explanation from an educational website, Kidzone, for younger students; it’s consistent with the etymology given by The American Heritage Dictionary:

“When the Spanish first found the bird in the Americas more than 400 years ago they brought it back to Europe. The English mistakenly thought it was a bird they called a “turkey” so they gave it the same name. This other bird was actually from Africa, but came to England by way of Turkey (lots of shipping went through Turkey at the time). The name stuck even when they realized the birds weren’t the same.”

The African bird which the English confused with the American turkey was the guinea fowl, The American Heritage Dictionary notes. As it happens, for the past two months that bird has been the talk of Point Reyes Station’s chattering classes, such as we are, because a representative of the alien species has been walking the streets of town.

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The first report of that streetwalking was published in this blog Dec. 16. Yesterday, The Point Reyes Light reported that after two months of hunting and pecking throughout Point Reyes Station, the bird has now been caught by Station House Café employee Armando Gonzalez.

A word of warning. If guinea fowl is the dinner special some night at the café, remember the caution of Inverness Park biologist Russell Ridge: “You better like dark meat.”

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow,/ That the small rains down can rain?/ Christ, that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again — Anonymous, circa 1530

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Happy Valentine’s Day! from a flock of Canada geese and from SparselySageAndTimely.com (or WestMarinNews.com for those of you using the URL that’s easier to type). This photo, which I post annually for Valentine’s Day, was shot from my deck. Inverness Ridge is in the background.

For the sake of West Marin’s lovers, let’s hope the goose hangs high this Thursday. That odd-sounding expression, which was more common a century ago, means everything is wonderful, presumably because geese fly higher in good weather.

A fascinating article in Wednesday’s Marin Independent Journal reveals a “second massive sewage spill” at the same Mill Valley treatment plant discussed in the last posting here. The total amount of sewage spilled in one week is now put at 5.2 million gallons.

Because of a bureaucratic snafu, the Jan. 25 spill of 2.45 million gallons into Richardson Bay, an arm of San Francisco Bay, didn’t come to light until after last Thursday’s spill of 2.75 million gallons. As the article by reporter Mark Prado explained, the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin (which owns the treatment plant) should have immediately notified the Regional Water Quality Control Board after the first spill but instead emailed notification to the regional board’s parent body, the State Water Resources Control Board.

A typo in the email resulted in the date of the spill being given as Jan. 15 instead of 25. Seeing the date, a state employee put the email aside, assuming it dealt with a two-week-old event, the newspaper reported. When the regional board finally learned of the earlier spill, The IJ added, they too were confused by the typo — until yesterday.

20080205__sewage_lead.jpgHealth officials posted signs at beaches and waterfronts along Richardson Bay warning people of the contamination last week after the second spill was disclosed,” The IJ noted and showed such a sign, which was photographed by Jeff Vendsel.

Why the sign looks almost as serious as the one below that health officials posted many months ago next to the Green Bridge! The Marin Environmental Health Department in early January told me this sign should have been taken down in October and would be right away. It’s still there.

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So why was this sign along Papermill/Lagunitas Creek posted in the first place? Did millions of gallons of sewage also spill into the creek? Did any sewage spill into the creek?

Not according to North Marin Water District. North Marin monitors water quality in the creek because it draws the drinking water for Point Reyes Station, Olema, and Inverness Park from creekside wells.

As was noted here in Posting 94, North Marin’s tests of Papermill Creek’s water have found only normal amounts of bacteria, including e-coli bacteria, NMWD senior chemist Stacie Goodpaster told me. After a rain, of course, the amount of bacteria in the creek goes up temporarily, Stacie noted, because bacteria get washed into the creek.

However, she added, North Marin’s current testing cannot determine the source of the bacteria; they come from soil, decaying plants, or animal waste. She felt reasonably sure there has not been any sewage leak into the creek, for that would cause there to be at least 50 times as much e-coli in the water.

Marin Environmental Health later confirmed there was no indication of a sewage spill into Papermill Creek.

Supervising health inspector David Smail told me that under state standards for Recreation 1 (swimming) freshwater, the maximum number of enterococcus bacteria per milliliter is 61 in a single day’s sample (104 for saltwater). The last sampling at the Green Bridge, which followed unusually heavy rains in October, resulted in an enterococcus count of 63 (only two over the limit), but under established “protocol,” that requires a sign, David said.

And despite the “avoid contact with water” line in the county sign, Papermill Creek did not test unsafe for boating (Recreation 2). So the “avoid contact” part wasn’t accurate even at the time the sign first went up.

But who’s to care? Runoff from heavy rain carries apparently normal amounts of soil, plant debris, and wildlife waste from forested parkland into Papermill Creek; doesn’t that warrant posting warnings at least as dire as those for a 5.2-million-gallon sewage spill?

Needlessly alarming West Marin’s tourists and local residents doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s just bureaucracy fubar. Or crying wolf.

100_6619.jpgBefore we forget the wrecks that never happened near Dogtown a week ago — when half the southbound lane in a 55-mph section of Highway 1 dropped away….

You may recall that storm water pouring off the roadbank at left undercut a 20-foot stretch of highway about 5:30 p.m. Jan. 25. Fortunately, a Caltrans supervisor “proceeding slowly” (in the words of his boss) found the gap in time to warn motorists before any fell through it. He was also able to keep motorists from having to swerve around it at the last second, possibly resulting in head-on collisions.

Eve Breckenridge of St. Helena looks down the steep slope below the missing roadway.

Prompting this retrospective on the event was the news about a hapless sewage-treatment-plant operator in Mill Valley. From what I read, he didn’t leave enough pumps on when he went home last Thursday night (apparently not anticipating how heavy the rain would be), and this caused the plant to overflow into San Francisco Bay. The result, of course, has been an environmental and public-health headache.

By way of contrast: Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus yesterday got for me the name of the road-crew supervisor who was keeping an eye on the condition of Highway 1 thoroughly enough to be proceeding slowly. When supervisor Eamonn Dymer rounded a curve and discovered half the lane ahead of him ending abruptly in a high dropoff, he was able to stop in time and then alert others.

Most people would have expected any storm damage that dangerous to be more visible from a distance, but the supervisor, who is based at the Manzanita Maintenance Yard, was properly observant and thus careful. In today’s sense of the word, supervisor Dymer wasn’t heroic. Nowadays that term is usually reserved for the player who scores the winning touchdown. But because supervisor Dymer went about his job the way he was supposed to, he was able to avert some horrible crashes.

The two incidents should be a reminder that despite the attention we give politicians and celebrity CEOs, it’s our too-often-forgotten working people who mostly determine whether our country is safe and functioning. But unless they screw up, we seldom talk about them.

It makes me wonder whatever became of society’s admiration for diligent workers. These days it’s little more than perfunctory speeches on Labor Day and employee-of-the-month photos on retail-chain walls. We may be in the 21st century, but we need to remember that the real heroes are still hardworking people going about their daily jobs.