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Readers Xpress themselves

Amid all the sound and fury over the supposed “war against Christmas,” at least one local newspaper is willing to ask, in good faith, “What does the holiday season mean to you?” This was the question posed to applicants of the 2005 Mountain Xpress Holiday Guide Cover Contest. The response was a wide variety of unpredictable and creative renditions of holiday scenes submitted by artists of all ages and all kinds.

Sage and Chloe Brancella from Black Mountain, who are ages 10 and 12, respectively, entered their picture of a wish list to Santa that goes way beyond video games or battery-powered toys. This year for Christmas, they would like “to end world hunger, a cure for cancer, safe schools, the end of child abuse,” and so on.

The siblings aren’t the only ones thinking big this holiday season. Yeva, an Asheville-based artist whose artwork, poetry and music are all devoted to extraterrestrials, submitted a drawing of a bare, twisted tree with ornaments of many sizes nested in its branches. Inscribed upon the baubles are holiday wishes such as “universal health care,” “human rights” and “impeachment.” Aliens play beneath the branches as UFOs disappear into the horizon.

“All my life has to do with ETs,” says Yeva, whose collection of alien-themed knickknacks and curios may be the world’s largest, with upward of 3,000 items. “I have always been a very skeptical person, but I believe very strongly in extraterrestrials, and I celebrate the truth,” adds the artist. “I think that the earth is only a tiny cell within the body of the universe.” Her work can be viewed on the Web (www.yevasuniverse.com).

Visions of dancing snowmen, a giant menorah, a horse-drawn sleigh, a big heart encompassing all major world religions, and Oscar the “local cat” reading Mountain Xpress are just some examples of the kaleidoscope of contest entries.

Of course, they couldn’t all be winners — but you can still go and see them all up close, because they’re on display in the children’s section of Pack Memorial Library in Asheville. The artworks will be showcased now through Jan. 11.

The library’s hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday; and 2-5 p.m., Sunday.

— Rebecca Bowe

Lawsuit could delay debut of new voting machines

A dispute between North Carolina and a Raleigh-based nonprofit group over new restrictions on voting machines could leave precincts statewide high and dry come next May.

Earlier this year, the N.C. General Assembly enacted legislation aimed at making elections more secure and the vote-tabulation process more transparent. The most visible change is that any voting method used must produce a voter-verifiable paper record that can be manually re-counted after the election. Random re-counts will be conducted to verify the accuracy of any machines used in the process, and re-counts will be required in unusually close races or when the results are challenged.

The law required the State Board of Elections to certify which machines met assorted new criteria. The law also set a deadline for holding a demonstration of the certified machines for local election officials and the general public. Two manufacturers were ultimately approved: Election Systems and Software, and Diebold. Their models were on display at A-B Tech Dec. 15, including both direct-recording electronic machines and optical-scan systems (which read old-fashioned paper ballots).

The optical-scan systems are the most economical, because one machine can be used to tabulate ballots for an entire precinct, while voters fill in their ballots with pencils. DREs, on the other hand, require numerous machines per precinct, so that several citizens can simultaneously cast their votes. Modern paper-ballot systems come equipped with electronic marking systems for disabled voters. Such devices can magnify print or permit audio voting for the vision-impaired, and the paper ballots so generated are read by the same tabulating machine that scans hand-marked ballots.

Both ES&S and Diebold, however, failed to meet one stipulation of the new law — the requirement that the companies place their proprietary software in escrow with the state so that it could be examined in the event of election disputes or tabulation failures.

But the Board of Elections certified the equipment anyway, and that alleged breach of the law prompted a civil suit by the N.C. Coalition for Verified Voting, which could interfere with the time line for getting the new machines up and running. In a related lawsuit elsewhere in the state, a judge has already ruled against Diebold.

And with a Jan. 20 deadline for counties to select their machines, it appears possible that the new machines may not be delivered in time for the May 2006 primary. In that case, all counties could be forced to follow the example of Carteret County, which has used paper ballots exclusively since its electronic machines lost 4,400 votes in the 2004 general election.

— Cecil Bothwell

Making merrier

In the world of housecleaning, the elephant in the living room (and the dining room, kitchen, bath, bedroom, hallway and closets) is Merry Maids, an international home-services company with more than 1,400 franchise holders worldwide.

Each year since 1992, the U.S. division has recognized its No. 1 franchise with the Dallen Peterson Founder’s Award, a prize based on sales volume within a single territory. This year’s award went to Lynn and Joe Munchel, who operate the Arden, N.C., Merry Maids franchise; the award was presented at Merry Maids’ annual convention, held in Memphis Sept. 29 to Oct. 2.

Xpress asked Lynn Munchel why she thought her business had finished ahead of the 400 other U.S. franchises.

“I think it’s mainly because of our team members,” she said. “We have a great group of people and it’s really their award. They are the ones that won it.

“We never take for granted that people welcome us into their homes to help them, and we work hard in our businesses every day to live up to that challenge, so it’s a real honor to receive awards.”

— Cecil Bothwell

Musical healing

For professional musicians, especially those of the caliber that makes New Orleans a musical mecca, not having an instrument is like missing a limb. And as the victims of Hurricane Katrina try to piece their lives back together, local organizations are working to get instruments back into the hands of those who lost not only their living but their way of life.

“Music brings not only happiness, but also a cultural connection and a connection to life,” says Lake Eden Arts Festival Executive Director Jennifer Pickering. Like many in Asheville, Pickering has strong ties to New Orleans, and she was quick on the case when disaster struck, asking area residents to open up their homes to refugees.

“The response was incredible,” she reports. Now, LEAF is joining with WNCW and Tipitina’s in New Orleans to locate donated instruments and match them with musicians who lost theirs to the storm.

Since the program began, several hundred musical matches have been made. “The instruments we have gotten are amazing,” she says. To track people down, the group is using the Internet as well as connections in New Orleans’ tight musical community, and donations have come from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania.

“It’s not just professional musicians who need their instruments, but also the kids,” notes Pickering.

On Dec. 29, a caravan will head from Asheville to New Orleans to deliver instruments and participate in a New Year’s Eve memorial to those lost in the disaster.

LEAF is also inviting anyone who’s interested to tag along. It’s a chance to see the “Second Line Jazz Funeral for the Souls of New Orleans,” help deliver instruments, and help with repairs to musicians’ homes.

The group will be accepting donated instruments or money until Wednesday, Dec. 28. And just because you don’t have a clarinet or trombone to pitch in doesn’t mean you can’t help out. “We are still looking for tambourines,” she says. “They are not expensive, and they are easy to get to people.”

Instruments can be dropped off at the LEAF office, the Town Pump in Black Mountain, the Asheville Area Arts Council, WNCW in Spindale. To arrange for pickup or to join the caravan, call LEAF at 686-8742.

— Brian Postelle

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