Friday, March 28, 2014

The McCollumn - 3/28: "So long, folks and thank you"

I’ve never cared for goodbyes.
A proper farewell requires a certain overindulgence in sentimentality and nostalgia that I generally try to avoid.
Emotions of the sort that usually cause tears to abound, which isn’t pleasant for anyone involved.
Unfortunately, goodbyes are sometimes necessary, so, dear readers, I apologize for what’s to come.
After almost six years and 281 issues here at the “Opelika Observer,” I depart today to begin a new job down in Baldwin County.
Though I am excited for the new opportunities and experiences this job will bring, it has been somewhat difficult to come to terms with the thought of actually leaving Opelika.
While I’ve been here for nearly 28 years now, it has really only been in the last six years that I’ve truly come to know and appreciate the town I call home.
Being a journalist in a small town requires more than just reporting on what goes on in said community. One must take an active part in joining that community to fully understand how and why it works.
Having a dedicated list of family and friends here who were ready-made sources and stories certainly didn’t hurt matters, though I perhaps could have done without comments like “I used to change your diapers in the church nursery” when trying to conduct interviews.
Good journalists always attempt to remove bias or personal feelings from their writing, but when you’re a reporter in your hometown, such a task can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Thankfully, I’ve never claimed to be a “good” journalist.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally used this column as my personal soapbox, shouting my unfiltered thoughts and opinions even when I knew myself to be in the minority.
Those rantings got me a fair share of hate mail, a handful of subscription cancellations, a public scolding while I was working in my parents’ restaurant, an unsolved act of mailbox arson and a forced non-apology apology to a Congressional wig - and I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything.
I will always be thankful for the support and kindness I’ve received from my “Opelika Observer” family over the years, and I will always look on the time I spent here as some of the best and most rewarding days of my young life.
The staff and owners of this newspaper truly love the city of Opelika, and this paper reflects that sentiment well – pages filled only with local news and photos, created by local people for local people.
Though the Observer’s pages may on occasion criticize or cavil with some issue or decision, those harsh words come from that solid love of this city – the desire to have the best and be that best we know we can be.
As I close this chapter of my life, I’d like to thank this town for the indelible mark that will forever stain my soul.
This charming, crazy village and its colorful cast of characters raised me and molded me into the man I am today, and I’m truly thankful for that.
Wherever I go and whatever I do, that Opelika Bulldog spirit will always be with me – to lend me hope, to wish me well and to make my heart smile.
Goodbye, my friends, and may you fare well.
A native Opelikan, Cliff McCollum is an amateur field herpetologist, news editor and chicken salad mogul.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The McCollumn - 2/28: "Lord, save us from ourselves"

After an interesting period of debate last week, the Alabama House of Representatives approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters a say in whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in schools or other places.
Reading the transcripts of the debate is enough to give one pause, as we learn from our ‘honorable’ representatives some facts that may be less than factual, things like people who follow Mohammed practice “Muslimism” or having the Commandments continually referred to as the “10 Amendments” by some members.
Even the bill’s sponsor, our own retiring Rep. DuWayne Bridges, seemed to have trouble with the Biblical laws he was attempting to protect and defend, as he initially and incorrectly identified “Love thy neighbor” as one of the commandments.
For a group of people who claim to love and support the “word of God” as much as Alabama’s politicians claim to, it seems odd they would get one of their beloved commandments wrong, especially with at least one ordained minister in the chambers as a representative (Opelika’s own George Bandy) who should have helped correct them.
Though it would have been relevant to the debate at hand, no one thought to grab a Bible and actually read the Ten Commandments there in the chamber.
Rather than provide relevance or rationale, our state legislators simply continued to posture, inserting their own interpretations and synaptic misfirings into the “holy word of God” they all claim to defend so passionately.
Surely one of them, if not all of them, had a Bible in their offices they could brought with them to this discussion, but, alas, it appears any holy scripture found on Goat Hill is strictly ornamental and not meant for purposes of research or evidence.
Rather than spend time on some of the major issues still currently facing our state – unemployment, education funding, taxation issues – a good deal of time seems to have been spent arguing over whether or not to include John 3:16 in the bill for Biblical displays.
I don’t see religious belief or faith as bad things generally, but when politicians try to reach out with religion in mind, things seldom go well.
Even if you agree with the spirit of Rep. Bridges’ bill (and I would guess a number of you do), it should still give us pause that the politicians arguing to let the public vote on this issue aren’t well informed on said issue.
We elect these men and women to be our representatives, our voice on matters that are important to us, and this is how they use those powers?
Half-prepared arguments that pay lip service to something as important as religious faith shouldn’t be tolerated.
We make professed religious faith a litmus test for most of our statewide candidates here in Alabama, but we don’t hold them accountable to the tenets and practices of the faiths they claim to adhere to - that is, we can’t and don’t make them say some form of “shibboleth” (Judges 12:5-6) to prove their piety.
But perhaps I am simply overreacting and need to take a page from the BAT Bible (that’s Bridges Alabama Translation, for you uninitiated):
“And, lo, God had done gave Moses an 11th Amendment, just in case he needed it, what said ‘Love thy neighbor,’ like my son Jesus, what ain’t been born yet, will have done said.”
A native Opelikan, Cliff McCollum is an amateur field herpetologist, news editor and chicken salad mogul.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The McCollumn - 1/24: "#pman #communism"

Some of you might be surprised to learn that I am a rather staunch anti-Communist.
You won’t find me testifying before a Congressional committee on the matter, nor will I try to pull a Whittaker Chambers by trying to hide damning evidence in my pumpkin patch.
My fight against the Reds has been almost entirely accidental, the odd offshoot results of a wayward Twitter hashtag and a beautiful young woman.
Years ago, my friend Tess Hollis sent me a tweet about some random memory from our time working together at Auburn University’s student newspaper, “The Auburn Plainsman.” Hollis took advantage of Twitter’s commonly used hashtag system and used the phrase “#pman” to get her point across.
Any of our friends or any Auburn people who happened to see our tweets would likely be able to infer her meaning, bolstered by my return usage of the same “#pman” hashtag in my response to her.
However, a few hours later, I received notification that my Plainsman tweet had been retweeted and favorited by some Twitter user in the tiny nation of Moldova.
Using the powers of Google, I was able to surmise that what we thought of as a simple abbreviation for our newspaper was actually a rallying cry for cadres of young radicals in Moldova who were attempting to free their country from the yoke of Communist rule.
After the country held elections that were widely seen as unfair and rigged, the Communist party attempted to form a government, but the small nation’s liberal and progressive youth took to the streets in angry protests, tired of the same old Communistic status quo.
To them, “#PMAN” was an abbreviation of “Piata Marii Adunari Nationale,” the name for the biggest public square in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova – a public forum to express their extreme displeasure with falsified elections and corrupt elected officials, as well as a symbolic place where the tree of liberty can bloom.
Unfortunately, the Moldovan progressive protests of early 2009 were unsuccessful. The fraudulently-elected Communist leadership ran roughshod over the Moldovan people and their rights. Some protestors ultimately lost their lives.
In 2010 I was in Destin, Fla., with a group of friends, celebrating the upcoming wedding of one of the guys in the group. 
At some point in that evening, I came into contact with Yuliana – a gorgeous young lady who had an accent which vaguely sounded like she was trying to help Boris Badenov look for “moose and squirrel.”
I asked her where in Eastern Europe she was from, and she quickly replied “Moldova.”
My ears perked up, but I set myself to “Red Alert” status - what was the agenda of this lithe young creature before me?
Was she a freedom fighter who came to America to escape possible retribution and oppression for standing up for free and fair elections? Could she be a covert Communist plant, sent to our country as some sort of spy here to stir up trouble?
I made her say “shibboleth” by asking her directly about the Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, and, to my surprise, her eyes immediately sparked with recognition as she talked about her life and experiences in the still Communist country.
Yuliana hated the Commies, and she and her brother were both involved in protests against their corrupt late-2000s election.
One ill-fated protest almost cost Yuliana and her brother their lives, as the police sent to disperse the protestors used force and weapons – her brother was shot in the spine and lost the use of the lower half of his body. Yuliana’s parents thought it best she leave the country for fear the state police would try to find and punish her, so they moved her to Florida to stay with relatives.
To this day, I remain touched and somewhat haunted by her harrowing personal experiences.
What originally was, to us, a non-sensical abbreviation for an inside joke was a rallying cry for freedom and liberty to a group of young people roughly the same age as we are, trying diligently just to try to gain some basic rights we Americans take for granted.
I hope they keep fighting on – ever to conquer, never to yield.
A native Opelikan, Cliff McCollum is an amateur field herpetologist, news editor and chicken salad mogul.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The McCollumn - Throwback: "In defense of the Red Pen"

I would like to apologize up front to the majority of you who may not care about this issue. Perhaps this will give you enough information to become aware of the subject.
Dear readers, I’m worried terribly about words that are creeping into the vocabulary of schools of education and our nation’s classrooms - words and phrases like “Error-making is a sign of progression in the language,” “Put down the red pen,” and “Stop error-hunting.”
These horrible quotes are becoming standards, as a generation of new teachers is being told to put down the trusted red pen in favor of a kinder, gentler green or purple felt tip. You know, so students’ feelings won’t be hurt by the mean, old red pen.
Led by figures like Connie “Mushroom Head” Weaver, these zealots insist that our red pens are harming the fragile psyches of these young writers, preventing them from ever being able to express themselves creatively through writing.
I will grant that in some of the initial stages in language development, embracing error-making can be seen as a sign of learning progression.
However, even in those early ages, I’ve found that children who attempt to experiment with larger vocabulary words would still like to be told the correct way to spell them.
I was one of those kids.
I saw the red ink not as something truly bad, but as an opportunity for learning.
Through the wonderful teachers I had who used the red pen, I learned the joys of the Oxford comma, apostrophes in plural possessives, MLA format and the wonder that is the proper plural version of cul-de-sac (its culs-de-sace, and it’s one of the best words in the English language).
The red pen provides guidance and wisdom.
It imparts knowledge whenever red ink and paper meet.
Green can’t cut it, and purple isn’t up to the challenge. You’d run the risk of having students’ papers look like Barney the Dinosaur exploded on them. (Now that would be dangerous to their psyches - these kids grew up on that singing purple nuisance, and they love him).
Green and purple are too passive. They say to me, “You could make these changes, perhaps, if you wanted to, but I respect you enough to let you be creative.”
It’s enough to make you heave.
Red says, “Stop. Take a look at this and reflect.” It’s directive and solid.
If you are an art teacher watching a child try to turn a lump of clay into a beautiful piece of pottery, don’t you help them shape it and guide them in a fairly precise manner?
Why should our written language be treated with less respect than clay?
I don’t know why, but it is.
As for the “It stifles creativity” argument, I think this group is simply underestimating the strength of mind and character some kids have. I think they are a group that is up for the challenge.
In the classrooms I’ve been privy to, I’ve seen a population of students that are crying out for guidance and aid. They want to know how to be better.
That’s a wonderful thing and we need the red pen to help guide them.
However, such sentiments are now in the minority.
My views are seen as old-fashioned and outdated, gone the way of the evening paper and the milkman.
Unless there’s some greater infusion of energy and hope into the Red Pen Resistance, our breed may soon die out.
This is intended to be a warning signal, to show what is becoming standard practice.
Is this honestly what you want? I would pray not.
They’ll never take my red pen, though.
That would force me to utter a phrase like “Not until you pry it from my cold, dead hands” and my Chuck Heston impression is not a good one.
It would, however, be an absolutely true statement.
I won’t give it up without a fight. Care to join me?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The McCollumn - 1/10: "A little bit more joyful, full of song"

Lee County lost a good man last week in Lee Benham, though some of you might not know him or his name.
According to his obituary, he was a railroad man for 11 years and a trucker for some 30 years after that. He loved his family and was active in his church, directing church orchestras and choirs.
Anyone who had been involved with the Opelika High School Spirit of the South Marching Band throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries knew him, though.
He was “Mr. Benham,” the substitute teacher almost always assigned to the band classes and a constant volunteer and band booster for the music program.
Our generation of “bandos,” like the ones who came before us, would occasionally try to trick Benham when he subbed, swapping instruments with our neighbors and laughing at how clever we were.
The joke was on us – he’d make the out-of-place students try to play their newly acquired horn, and the jig would be up.
He’d help haul equipment with the loading crew, packing and unpacking the large amount of equipment you’d be surprised to learn travelled with the band.
He never complained, unless you weren’t pulling your fair share.
He hardly scolded, unless you were doing something clearly reckless or downright foolish.
He even helped us find our pitch before our pre-game warm-up circle; his internal tuning fork was always on the level, neither flat nor sharp.
Whenever something needed doing, he’d be there, willing to lend a hand or an ear because he believed in what the band, and music, meant in the lives of his students.
He knew it because he lived it, having fallen in love with band in his childhood, and he wanted all of us to have a similar, if not better, experience.
He knew that music education could bring joy, discipline and pride to kids who may not have had opportunities for growth otherwise.
While his health had flagged in the last few years, he never stopped being a strong supporter of the program and always loved to hear the Spirit of the South marching in to Bulldog Stadium.
You don’t recognize the impact folks like Lee Benham have on you while growing up.
You take for granted their time and efforts to help kids they don’t even know to have wonderful and lasting memories that they’ll carry with them forever.
It just takes a moment to make a lasting impression on a person’s life, and Lee Benham was such a person for many of us.
He gave what he had and did what he could, and tried to make our little part of the world just a little bit more joyful and full of song.
Rest in peace, Mr. Benham, and I hope Heaven’s Marching Band met you at the gate to play you in. You certainly earned it.
A native Opelikan, Cliff McCollum is an amateur field herpetologist, news editor and chicken salad mogul.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The McCollumn - 12/27: "Bah humbug for a reason"

   I often get accused of being a “Scrooge” this time of year, and I can’t say that reputation is undeserved.
  The Christmas season does tend to bring out my worst side, but, as a veteran of the War on Christmas, you’ll forgive me if I occasionally lapse into PTHSD (post traumatic holiday stress disorder).
I served my tour of duty during the War on Christmas right next door at Auburn University, a campus so rigidly conservative in its political and religious beliefs that calling it a “bastion of Christendom” seems insufficient.
The War began here back in 2005, when then Auburn University College Republicans president Laura Steele and her minions became incensed at a name change for Auburn’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Due to some changes in the ceremony itself (including the addition of a menorah and other non-Christmas tree lighting fixtures), the SGA thought it wise to change the name of the ceremony to the “Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony.”
Steele and her followers became incensed, declaring that Auburn was “trying to take the Christ out of Christmas” and even made it onto Fox News, where anchor Sean Hannity helped add further fuel to the fire.
Due to Steele’s impassioned response, the SGA later formed a student committee, the Holiday Tree Lighting Committee, to address the issue and try to form a “less provocative” name.
Because of my position in the student media at Auburn (and the fact that the sitting Plainsman editor made me), I was named to the committee but tried hard not to interfere with its workings.
The only suggestion I ever made was that the committee’s initial idea of renaming it the “Festival of Lights” might be problematic, as that nomenclature is already in use by the Jewish faith (Hanukkah) and Hindus (Diwali).
When my involvement with the committee became public, Steele’s replacement at the AUCR, Auburn’s own Kristi Cottrell, was angered and demanded my removal from the group, as she was certain I would be up to no good, what with my horrid political correctness and all.
What she had to fear from an Opelikan who was raised Southern Baptist at Opelika’s First Baptist Church is beyond my comprehension, but, due to my title as president of the College Democrats, I was, apparently, suspect and probably a pinko Commie, too.
Rather than cause more unnecessary fuss, I gladly accepted their forced resignation, but not before the story was picked up by the local daily paper, which ran the story on its front page.
Ever since then, I have always gotten at least two or three comments made to me about that debacle each Christmas season – people asking if I was going to rename it a “Kwanzaa bush” or a “Saturnalia Spruce” ... as if Douglas firs were a regular feature of first-century Judea.
Now, every time I hear of some new report or way that Christmas is being “persecuted” here in America, I can’t help but roll my eyes.
There is legitimate persecution in this world: Christians being jailed for publicly professing their faith in countries like China and North Korea, believers being targeted and killed in countries like Egypt and Syria simply for attending their churches. Someone saying “Happy Holidays” to you instead of your preferred “Merry Christmas” is not persecution, even though some of you try to stretch the definition of “persecution” to make it so.
The phrase “Happy Holidays” does not stop you from freely worshipping God in your chosen fashion. It does not oppress you or try to stifle you in any fashion.
Take a look at what other believers have to go through across the world, and then fall to your knees in contemplative prayer to thank God for the blessing of being born in this country.
We really ought to consider ourselves lucky that the idiotic “Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays” battle is apparently what passes for “persecution” here. Were that our friends in the Far East were so lucky.
I hope you all had a pleasant Christmas and I wish you all a pleasant New Year ... or, in other words: Happy Holidays.
A native Opelikan, Cliff McCollum is an amateur field herpetologist, news editor and chicken salad mogul. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

The McCollumn - 9/6: "Life lessons from a drive-thru window"

A few years ago, I was inadvertently introduced to a series of sentence fragments that would forever alter the course of my life.
I was going through the drive-thru at the Burger King in Opelika with my friend Bobby, eagerly awaiting our order of fries and Coke-flavored Icees.
As we pulled up to the window to pay for our purchases, we were met by a heavy-set woman with long DayGlo colored fingernails who mumbled the price incoherently and grabbed the $20 from my hand the minute I stuck it out of the window.
She quickly tapped several buttons on the register, eventually hitting the magic one that allowed the register to open to produce our change.
As she handed me my change and our order, she uttered those life-changing and mystifying fragments: “ ’Preciate it. Have a day.”
Bobby and I thanked her and I rolled up my window as we started to speed out of the parking lot.
“What did she just say?” I asked Bobby. “Did she really just say...”
“‘Preciate it. Have a day,’” Bobby replied. “That’s what she said.”
I hardly knew where to begin.
As an undergraduate English major, I have to watch myself to keep my inner pedantic grammarian in check.
I’m a threat to take the trusty red pen and correct copy mistakes I see out in the world.
When presented with such a lovely example of authentic sentence fragments as a part of real world dialogue, my inner English teacher jumped for joy.
“Have a day,” I repeated, trailing off as I reached the end. “What kind of day am I supposed to have? There’s no adjective there.”
Was I supposed to have a good day filled with joy, happiness and gratuitous action scenes filled with explosions?
Was I fated to have a horrible day filled with enough angst and grief to make 19th-century German literature seem exuberant and buoyant by comparison?
Where was my adjective, that delightful, necessary word to give that noun “day” a sense of direction and purpose?
“Maybe that’s just it,” Bobby said. “Maybe she just means have a day. Make your own day, you know?”
When Bob’s right, he’s right. “‘Preciate it. Have a day,” has become a bit of a personal mantra, a way to bolster my spirits and prepare myself for whatever day may lie ahead of me.
Good or bad, I should “’preciate” the life I have, the living I’m allowed to continue.
There is no adjective there because we are empowered to adjectivize our own days.
We have to take power of our own lives and mold our actions to create the world in which we want to live.
If you want to have a happy day, choose to be happy. Make choices and decisions you think will make you happy.
If you are determined to have a bad day, go all out and wallow in self pity and sorrow until you’ve created your own Sylvia Plath scenario. Just don’t put your head in that oven – it’s not worth it.
You can’t be passive when it comes to you; you must be an advocate and lobbyist for your own best interests.
I don’t know what sort of life experiences led that noble Burger King employee to impart that wisdom to Bobby and me, but we will be forever indebted to her.
To this day, we generally end our phone conversations and meetings with those two simple sentence fragments, reminding ourselves we can have whatever kind of day we want to have.
In life, there will always be what I like to call “peripheral people,” the random background actors that will occasionally bless you with words of hope or wisdom.
These peripheral people can be anyone or everyone, so you must have constant vigilance in looking for them.
If you don’t wake up and pay attention, you may miss the unadorned brilliance of an error-laced non sequitur or throw-away factoid.
Keep an eye out and an ear open for your peripheral people. You’ll appreciate it and have a day.
A native Opelikan, Cliff McCollum is not someone who can easily be explained. Cliff tries to live his life rejecting the notion that we can all be summed up in a few simple sentences like these – and has resisted having one of these at the end of his column for years. But, since he must ... he enjoys amateur field herpetology and serving up chicken salad and caustic comments at downtown Opelika’s Cottage Cafe.