Thursday, August 31, 2006

Perception is reality

Finally, it seems that someone from the Bush administration is actually explaining why they are doing what they are doing. The key phrase, which the White House has apparently figured out, is “Islamic Fascism.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has finally gone off the defensive and is now reminding people, not so gently, of the wages of appeasement. As he should – comparing the modern Democratic Party to Neville Chamberlain is absolutely appropriate. And it’s going to cheese a lot of people off. It may even do some good. But I suspect it may be too late.

Future historians will likely be puzzled by the way W. and his minions managed the public relations battle that is integral to politics. They have, for most of their tenure in office, largely ignored p.r., and the results could be potentially disastrous for their wayward colleagues in Congress this year. Whether you agree with the Democrats or not, one thing is absolutely true about them – they never stop attacking the Republicans. Whether it is Harry Reid, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, John Murtha or the “netroots” left festering in the blogosphere, they never miss an opportunity to bash Bush and his administration. And, for the most part, they have gone unrefuted. It’s not surprising that the holy “approval ratings” for W. have had a hard time getting over 40%; every day there is a Greek chorus of catcalls emanating from Washington and elsewhere excoriating him. If you are the average Joe who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to involve yourself in politics, what you know about George W. Bush is likely framed by the daily denunciations of his opponents.

I also suspect that future historians will be puzzled by the behavior of Bush’s critics. The amount of invective and ad hominem attacks that Bush has faced are so completely out of proportion to his performance that, at times, his opponents have seemed absolutely rabid. I understand how that happens – when Bill Clinton was president, he managed to do something nearly every day that would cause foaming outrage among conservatives, or so it seemed. Clinton’s real sin, as we continue to learn, is that he was almost the polar opposite of George W. Bush. Clinton was exquisitely attuned to the need for public relations, and he never ever stopped touting his accomplishments, even when they were things he actually opposed (like welfare reform). I can still remember his performance at the 2000 Democratic convention, where he entered the auditorium like a prizefighter, with a continuous crawl of every positive event of his time flashing across the screen. If you believed that Bill Clinton was responsible for even half of what he claimed, he’d be the greatest president in history and the pivotal figure of the second half of the 20th Century. I’m sure Clinton does believe that, too.

Most Americans think we are losing the war in Iraq. Most Americans think that George W. Bush is personally responsible for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many Americans think George Bush is in the pocket of “Big Oil.” Whether or not any of these assertions is true, and there is ample evidence to indicate otherwise in each case, perception is reality. And the question for this president is a simple one: for someone who was willing to take the fight to his enemies in the Middle East, why hasn’t he been willing to take the fight back to his political enemies?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Sixteen years and counting

It's still the worst day of the year, August 30, at least for me. This was the day, in 1990, when my father passed away, at the age of 57. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism, a all-too-common complication following surgery. At the time, I was only 26, while my youngest brother was only 14. Dad knew what was happening to him and didn't want to go. His hands were gripping the rails of his hospital bed and he was trying to hang on.

A lot has happened in the sixteen years that have followed. I married Jill the following year and we began our family four years later. My son will be 11 this year and my daughter will turn 7 at the beginning of the next. Jill and I moved to the Twin Cities and have made our home here. We have weathered some hellacious financial storms, including the current one, but we are strong and resourceful. Meanwhile, some of my siblings have married and had children as well; all of them have entered adulthood now. My baby brother is now a 30 year old man. Life does go on.

But I find that I think about Dad every day, even though he has been gone so long. Dad had started to develop the physical maladies that so many people who led his sort of lifestyle are prone to: he ate too much and probably drank too much, too. It's easy to say those things now, but I don't know that he would have changed that much if I'd had the opportunity to tell him that. He was comfortable in his own skin, in ways that I never have been. I admired him maybe even more than I loved him, because his character traits were so good. You'd have been hard pressed to find a more generous fellow. He was honest, open and decent. There were times that I thought he ought to be more cynical about certain people and certain things, but he always gave the benefit of the doubt to people. He was an optimist, despite the very real horrors he went through in his marriage to Mom. He loved a cigar, a cocktail and a good conversation. And he had a summer thunderstorm temper - he might anger, but he would retain his equanimity very quickly.

Dad was simply a hell of a guy. He left footprints.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

JonBenet Plame

Yesterday was a day when some really obvious things were finally said. We learned that the pathetic John Mark Carr had nothing to do with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, except in his own fevered imaginings. We also learned that the primary leaker in the Valerie Plame case was not Karl Rove or some other White House political operative, but rather Richard Armitage, a career/careerist State Department official who was Colin Powell's chief deputy. So what do we make of this?

I think that one obvious conclusion is that the news media, despite all the natural disasters and inhumanity that could be story focuses, has entirely too little to do. The amount of effort that has been expended on telling the JonBenet Ramsey story has been nothing short of astounding. JonBenet Ramsey died at the same age my daughter is now - 6. She barely had begun her life, but the life she led was filled with artifice, pageantry and meaningless ritual. She'd been dolled up and turned into a very prepubescent sex object. It was a horrible thing that she was murdered, but the fascination about her, 10 years on, is bizarre.

Meanwhile, the Plame case turns out to have been about nothing. Nothing at all. There was no White House conspiracy. There was no shadowy cabal trying to bring Joe Wilson or Valerie Plame down. As it turns out, she likely wasn't even a covert agent any more. But she was useful as a truncheon with which to beat the Bush administration. And meanwhile, Scooter Libbey can go join former Reagan official Ray Donovan in the line where people go when they try to get their reputation back.

I'd like it if the news media would think a little bit about what's gone on here, about the resources they've wasted covering these non-stories, and consider what could have happened if they'd devoted some of those resources to telling other stories. But that won't happen. And I guess I'd rather set up a shoot in Boulder, CO than Darfur, too. But the rest of us owe it to ourselves to think a little bit about it, too. Maybe, just maybe, we should demand more from our self-appointed watchdogs? I'm just sayin....

Panic time in Green Bay?

Well, that was discouraging. If you are a Packer fan, as I am, and saw the butt-kicking that the Cincinnati Bengals put on the Packers yesterday, you have to wonder about may things. The final score of the disaster was 48-17 and it's a fair representation of what happened out there. The Packers were crushed in about every way possible. The defense was shoddy, the offensive line was sieve-like and Brett Favre is starting to look like Johnny Unitas did when he played for the San Diego Chargers at the end of his career. A few observations:

  • Charles Woodson looks like a shadow of what he once was. T. J. Houshmanzadeh (or whatever the hell his name is) ran roughshod over Woodson and caught the ball all over the field. The Packers spent a lot of money on Woodson and it's hard to see any return on investment at this point.
  • Favre appears to be in same place he was last year; that is, trying to do everything. It's difficult to see who is going to run the ball this year and while Donald Driver is a fine receiver, there's not a lot of reason to believe that anyone else is going to be much help.
  • The overall level of athleticism seems way down. The team I saw last night reminded me of the Packer teams I used to see in the 70s; they tried hard, but they simply weren't as fast or strong as their opponents.

I'll always be loyal to my boys, but this is going to be a tough year.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Context

We've heard plenty about the effect of Al-Jazeera and similar organizations in how the ongoing war is perceived, and rightly so. There's a lot of sophistication in what goes on their airwaves and it's worth remembering that sophistication and sophistry are very much related terms. We've all seen how these organizations can effectively provide a direct conduit to Al Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas and all manner of related terrorist organizations, airing their videos, conducting interviews and providing analysis of their operations and ambitions.

This is nothing new, of course - the Nazis and the Japanese provided regular propaganda broadcasts during WWII, featuring the soothing tones of Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose. Early on in the Iraq War, Saddam's mouthpiece "Baghdad Bob" was the butt of many jokes as well. It seemed that we recognized propaganda for what it was. But as the conflict drags on, it seems like our media give increasing credibility to terrorists and hostile foreign government leaders and less to George Bush and the government he runs. Mike Wallace, long renowned as the toughest interviewer in the history of television, gave a respectful, even meek platform for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the daytime boss for the Iranian mullahs. Previously, Dan Rather performed a similar service for Saddam Hussein before the Iraq War began.

What's striking about this is that these men, who are sworn enemies of this country, are allowed an essentially open platform for what they believe, while an American president, especially George W. Bush, would not get a similar reception. Every time Bush encounters the media, the hostility he faces is palpable. I suspect that Karl Rove and his fellow political operatives are going to be bringing this sort of thing to the attention of the American public in the coming weeks. At this point many in the media are so heavily invested in their narrative of presidential failure, that I wonder what will happen if contrary evidence is effectively presented....

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Beloit College Mindset

Readers of this feature know that I attended Beloit College. Once a year, the college issues its annual "Mindset List," a list of statments that are purportedly true about the entering freshman class at Beloit. For the first few years, the list was pretty instructive, especially as a reminder that young people do not share common frames of reference with those of us who are older.

What has happened, however, is that the list has become less insightful and more trite each year. As a Beloit alum, I suspect that the list tells you more about Beloit College, and the intellectual limitations of schools like Beloit, than it does about young people generally. There are a few funny ones on the list (www.beloit.edu), like the one saying that for young people, Ringo Starr has always been clean and sober. But many of the other entries are not especially helpful. An example is the one about young people not knowing that Bernard Shaw was on CNN. I've always believed that the cult of personality surrounding news readers is absurd, especially in the current context. Shaw had one important moment in his career, when he inadvertently sandbagged Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential debate, but otherwise he was a standard issue talking head who happened to have more melanin than some of his colleagues and rivals.

It's been a nice schtick for ol' alma mater, but the best riposte I've heard to the list is this -- young people today cannot remember when there wasn't a "Beloit College Mindset List." And that might mean it's time to give it a rest.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More non-sequiturs from Mark Kennedy

I haven’t given any money to Mark Kennedy’s U.S. Senate campaign. I’ll bet that a lot of people who have will be asking for their money back. He is now airing yet another bizarre ad, this time bashing the No Child Left Behind act that President Bush signed into law in 2002. Kennedy explains that his father was a school superintendent in Pequot Lakes and that his father used to complain about the incoherent rules that he had to follow, which were apparently passed down from state and federal governments. Because these rules apparently exasperated dear ol’ Dad, Congressman Kennedy was duty-bound to oppose the rules set forth by NCLB, too.

There are more than a few problems with this analysis. What Kennedy seems not to understand, or wants to evade, is that the rules set forth in NCLB don’t affect school districts like Pequot Lakes. Pequot Lakes has not had difficulties in teaching its children the basics. Where the issue comes to fore is in other places, like Minneapolis, or Kansas City, or Gary, or Newark, or Washington, DC, where monies have been lavished on school districts and certain students have failed for generations. Tying funding to performance standards may not be the right answer, but the rules that existed prior to NCLB were a disaster in every way. Democrats mostly hate NCLB because they are beholden to the teachers’ unions, who would strongly prefer that their performance not face any scrutiny. Kennedy is not going to get the teachers’ union vote in any event, because he’ll never be able to out-bid the Democrats.

Things could change, but from this vantage point I have to conclude that Kennedy’s opponent, Amy Klobuchar, is the luckiest politician I have ever seen. Too bad she’s not facing a real opponent.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I get no kick from B.J. Sander

Another high draft pick on a kicker, another bad result. The Packers cut their losses yesterday when they gave punter B. J. Sander his walking papers. They have decided to go with a young kicker from Canada instead.

We've been here before, of course. The Packers found an excellent placekicker way back in 1972 when they plucked Chester Marcol out of Hillsdale College with a second round draft pick. Marcol did a very good job for a number of years, until he began losing his battle with the bottle. But since then, the Packers have reached for kickers three separate times and each of them didn't work out. The Packers picked up a punter from Michigan State named Ray Stachowitz in the early 80s. Stachowitz was supposed to be an upgrade over journeyman David Beverly, but he really never did well, hanging on for a few years before quietly disappearing. Back in 1997, the Packers decided to drop reliable Chris Jacke and drafted Penn State kicker Brett Conway. Conway was injured and never kicked for the team; fortunately, the Packers were able to find Ryan Longwell on the street. Longwell developed into the best, most consistent kicker in Packer history before his departure this off-season. Sander, a punter from Ohio State, was unimpressive throughout his tenure in Green Bay.

There seems to be a pattern here - Big Ten kickers, big legs in college, little results. Specialists can be a huge problem, of course; Phil Bengtson's 1968 Packer squad probably would have made the playoffs except for the terrible production they got out of a cavalcade of kickers. But it doesn't make much sense to draft a kicker too high. The only Hall of Fame kicker to be drafted in the first round was longtime Raider punter Ray Guy. It should tell you something.

What month is it again?

Regular readers of this feature are typically astute, and I’m reasonably certain that most everyone who finds this space realizes what month this is. But I’m not so sure that others do. Consider:

· The chattering classes apparently decided that this was Katrina Week. Not coincidentally, Spike Lee has a two part documentary on Hurricane Katrina airing on some pay cable channel or other, so we’ve been treated to a lot of blather and finger-pointing about last year’s BIG EVENT. It’s apparently important that certain aspects of the disaster (i.e., the role of the Federal Government) must be a consistent source of discussion. Interestingly, the hurricane season for 2006 has been something of a dud, especially for those who posit GLOBAL WARMING as a prime mover of HUGE CATASTROPHIC STORMS that will WIPE OUT HUMANITY AND DESTROY THE PLANET. The lack of climatological cooperation seems to be AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH to certain people.
· Cindy Sheehan is protesting in Crawford, Texas. It seems to have escaped notice, but President Bush has not been on an evil ONE MONTH VACATION down there this year. Kinda takes the air out of things for Sheehan, I guess.
· Bush has begun talking a little more about the HORRIBLE OPTIONAL WAR again. You know, the WAR THAT KILLS INNOCENTS and CAUSES TERRORISM TO SPREAD. THE WAR FOR OIL. THAT NEOCON WAR. That war. He has been inconveniently adding a little context to what’s happening. He actually used a term that’s been much in use in certain precincts – “Islamic Fascism.” He can’t do this of course, because that is PLAYING POLITICS and QUESTIONING THE PATRIOTISM of those who disagree with him. It is EVIL.

Just a guess – there might be more of this sort of thing in store. THAT EVIL KARL ROVE! WHY ISN’T HE IN JAIL? WHERE’S MY PAXIL?!!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Football is getting closer - what do we know?

After the second round of pre-season games, I think we know a few things:

  1. Brett Favre can still throw. Favre had a nice game against the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday, throwing two touchdown passes. He still has a propensity to throw the interception, but he still looks to have enough in the tank to perform well this year. Favre can break Dan Marino's record for most touchdown passes this year, and George Blanda's record for most career interceptions. He should probably own both records - it would be right summation of his career - high reward, high risk.
  2. The Vikings may have a good young quarterback in Tarvaris Jackson, but they better keep Brad Johnson healthy. Jackson has talent and poise. He reminds me of Steve McNair and Jake Delhomme. He could be a nemesis for my beloved Packers for many years. Having said that, he's probably not ready to play much this season. And the two veteran backup quarterbacks the Vikings have in camp, Mike McMahon and J.T. O'Sullivan, are both stiffs. If the 38-year old Johnson gets hurt, the Vikes will be in a lot of trouble.
  3. The AFC continues to have a big talent edge on the NFC, but the gap may be closing. These things tend to be cyclical, of course, especially in the NFL, which makes it very difficult for a team to stay on top for long. I still think the AFC will produce the Super Bowl winner, however. Who it will be is a tougher question. If any NFC team has a shot this year, it's probably Carolina.
  4. The news in college football in the Twin Cities is pretty muddled. The Gophers do not seem to have any idea who will be their tailback. Laurence Maroney is now a pro and Gary Russell is an academic casualty. Amir Pinnix should have had the job sewn up, but he doesn't. If the Gophs don't have a quality runner, they will struggle in the Big Ten.
  5. I'm really eager to see what the Badgers will be like this season under Bret Bielema. Barry Alvarez generally built efficient, powerful teams that would physically whip the opposition while committing few errors. Bielema is a young man and it will be interesting to see if he opens things up in Madison. Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, the traditional powers of the Big Ten, are all a lot more colorful programs than they used to be. The old, traditional Big Ten style can still work, but if the leaders aren't using it, it begs a few questions. The answers will start coming soon.

Meanwhile, there's still a lot of baseball to think about. More on that soon.

Deserving to lose

The upcoming election cycle is becoming increasing dreary and depressing. As I listen to the candidates, I am increasingly convinced that Michael Barone has it exactly right. The Republicans definitely deserve to lose, but the Democrats don’t deserve to win.

I’ve been watching in amazement the increasingly desperate campaign flailings of Mark Kennedy, the Republican nominee for the open U.S. Senate seat here in Minnesota. Kennedy made his bones as a solid, smart and diligent Congressman in the 6th Congressional District, which leans somewhat more conservative than the rest of the state. He is running against Amy Klobuchar, the Hennepin County attorney, who has managed to take a pretty good lead even though she has offered essentially nothing other than her father’s famous last name as a justification for her candidacy.

Kennedy has now run at least three television advertisements, each more incoherent than the first. I wrote about the first, introductory ad in my July 26 entry. This too clever by half advertisement continues to run regularly on Twin Cities television stations. Kennedy’s latest ad suggests that he has a plan to solve high gas prices. He suggests repealing (temporarily) the federal gas tax, and removing any tax breaks that Big Oil is currently getting, and taking the money that this would supposedly net to develop alternative fuels. Okay, let’s look at this.

· The federal gas tax is $0.183/gallon; this means that, if I put 10 gallons of gas into my car, it would save me $1.83. I paid $2.81/gallon this morning. The $1.83 that I would have saved would have meant I would have paid $2.62/gallon instead. Would it help me? Sure – it would save me about $250/year in the aggregate. If I’m smart, I could use that wisely.
· I really wonder how many tax breaks the oil companies currently get. I don’t think the domestic oil companies are really the issue, as they do not control the price, the overall market does. Unless the US figures out a way to tax the likes of Petronas (Malaysia), Pemex (Mexico) and especially PDVSA (Venezuela) and ARAMCO (Saudi Arabia), and other nationalized oil companies, there won’t be a lot to gain. Here’s a hint – the US has no shot at getting any money from any of these entities.
· Alternative fuels, in the lexicon of any Midwestern politician, means ethanol. And it would be difficult to find something that’s more heavily subsidized than ethanol.
Long and short of it? Kennedy’s proposal is silly. It really doesn’t do anything useful to solve any issue. And it distracts from the real issue – that the Democrats are essentially proposing surrender as their foreign policy.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Cherchez la femme

Something I've noticed - in recent days we've seen two separate aviation-related incidents involving women. On one, a trans-Atlantic flight was diverted to Boston after a female passenger began behaving strangely on the flight. There's a pretty good account of what happened in yesterday's Best of The Web Today column on the Wall Street Journal's opinion website (www.opinionjournal.com). Subsequently, a woman attempted to sneak potentially explosive liquids on a plane at an airport in Huntington, West Virginia.

These two incidents may be coincidental, but I wonder. We've heard a lot of hand-wringing about profiling passengers and the legal, moral and ethical pitfalls involved. I'm guessing there will be more attempts, but the perpetrators may not be young male Arabic or South Asian Muslims (e.g., Pakistanis or Malaysians). The nation grows weary of all this. But there's a reason why the Founders termed "eternal vigilance" the price of liberty. And all the Carter administration federal judges in Detroit (and elsewhere), and all the shrill self-congratulatory rulings they issue from the bench, won't change that.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Surrender

And now, a Mr. Dilettante song parody. Hum along if you'd like

Old Joe told me, yes he told me
I'd meet guys like Ned
He also told me stay away
You never know, so he'd kvetch

Now when I stepped into the booth
I heard the bloggers scream
This Cindy Sheehan good old fever dream

Jesse's all right, Sharpton's all right
They just seem a little weird
Surrender, surrender, just don't give the game away

"You can't vote for Lieberman,"
Ol' Ned said, turning three shades of green
"I've got solutions to your problems,"
He said from his limousine

Now don't you fret about the war
There's nothing to fear you see
Because Madame Albright is on the scene

Nancy's all right, Russ is all right
The just seem a little weird
Surrender, surrender, just don't give the game away

Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The news about Koren Robinson's arrest in Mankato for drunken driving and other related charges is sad, indeed. For some, alcohol is the road to ruin and there's no excusing what Robinson did, especially causing a high-speed chase down Hwy 169.

While it's not clear what the results of this latest incident will be, we can reasonably surmise that Robinson's career with the Vikings is probably over and his NFL career is as well. He came into the league following a stellar career at North Carolina State, having played a key role in defeating the Gophers in the legendary Micronpc.com bowl way back in 1999. Who could forget that day? He joined the pass-centric attack of the Seattle Seahawks and under the tutelage of Mike Holmgren, learned the NFL game. But he couldn't stay away from the bright lights and developed a significant drinking problem. Seattle eventually released Robinson after a series of incidents and he came to the Vikings with hat in hand last season. He needed a chance and the Vikings were the last chance he had. He thrived under the laissez-faire coaching of Mike Tice and soon became a key contributor to the team. He was rewarded with a multi-year contract and league-wide praise for his courage in facing the demons. Only Monday, sportscaster Michele Tafoya sang his praises on Monday Night Football. But one day later, he threw it all away.

As a Wisconsin boy, I've seen and done a lot of drinking in my time. But, for whatever reason, I've been able to largely walk away from the lifestyle. I have a beer about once a month these days and haven't gone out drinking at all, except for a few random bachelor parties. I can see the allure is still there, but it's not been that difficult to walk away. I'm lucky, I guess. I do hope that, someday, Koren Robinson can defeat his demons once and for all.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Reasons to be Cheerful

I'm a casual fan of Ian Dury, a British pub-rocker who put out a few wonderful ditties about 25 years ago. One of my favorites is his somewhat sardonic update on Rogers and Hammerstein, "Reasons to be Cheerful," in which Dury sings (sort of) about things he likes, including claret wine, carrot juice, Steven Biko, singing along to Smokey Robinson, and the solos of John Coltrane. His list may not exactly jibe with yours or mine, but I always have liked the tune because it does remind me that no matter how bad things look, there are reasons to be cheerful. It's probably not coincidental that Dury released the song around the same time that Monty Python featured the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," as sung by the lead character in their movie "The Life of Brian," as he is being crucified.

So instead of worrying about Hezbollah, or snarking about on annoying politicians, today let's consider some of our own "Reasons to be Cheerful." Here's a short list:

Pennant races
Smiling kids' faces
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Old chestnuts on the radio
Groucho, Harpo, Chico (Dury mentions them, too)
Steaming cups of coffee
Heath Bar English Toffee
McDonald's Buffalo Chicken Sauce
Mowing the lawn in the early evening
Sunsets over Lake Johanna
Justin Morneau
An Arnie Palmer in a tall glass
Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

Feel free to add yours.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Month of Ghosts Redux

It’s difficult to believe, but Mom died six years ago on this day. I’ve discussed my mom a fair amount in this space; she endured a lot and achieved more than she likely knew. She died following complications from a mastectomy, but it’s difficult to know how long she would have lasted, as she had developed emphysema and was essentially confined to a wheelchair the last year of her life.

I think she still felt she had a lot to live for. She had recently met her third grandchild, my nephew Joel, who was born one month before her passing. Six years on, she now has six grandchildren, as Will, Natalie and Eddie have joined our family. This next generation, including Ben and Maria, are generally blessed with healthy grandparents on the other side of their respective families, so at least the kids can share the wisdom and love these maternal grandparents will provide. Still, it’s a shame that only Ben remembers Mom. She had a lot to teach these children, but the lessons will have to come second-hand.

Coffee with the Scourge

So I met the Red Scourge for coffee on Friday. As readers of this feature generally know, there are two people I know who are referred to as the Red Scourge. One is, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, a drunken, vainglorious lout who lives in Wisconsin and who is well known for his beer-fueled but ultimately harmless antics. The other Red Scourge is my former co-worker, an innocent looking red haired woman with an abundance of native intelligence, a no-b.s. sensibility and a tongue like a lash. That’s the one I saw.

We both are B of A refugees and we’ve both endured sometimes difficult job searches since the offices we shared were closed earlier this year. Although our experiences since then have varied to some degree, we’ve come to some similar conclusions:

· We both are finding that our experiences are a double edged sword. Banks generally are pretty generous with job titles; while it’s a neat thing to refer to yourself as an “Assistant Vice President,” those words, when placed on a resume, can actually hurt. In most cases, and most places, a VP is a senior leader of an organization; at B of A, VPs are something less than that. Both of us have found that the job title makes prospective employers think you are “overqualified” for a job.
· While business is supposed to be good right now, companies are still very cautious about hiring. We’ve both had experiences where a job that was posted did not, ultimately, get filled. Companies continue to run quite lean.
· We both have very mixed emotions about our former employer. There is no question that the team we had was a great group to work with, but the amount of institutional support we had seemed lacking. It’s still not clear that B of A is committed to the line of business; if they had been, they would have made more of an effort to keep the team intact.

We’re both moving on with our lives, but there are a lot of loose ends. And a few scars that have yet to heal.

Stockyard Days Parade

Most of the suburbs of Twinstown have some form of annual celebration/festival/confab. In most cases, the celebrations have a theme that relates to something about the area’s present or past. I live in New Brighton, which generally qualifies as one of the most non-descript of suburbs. If you drive the streets of New Brighton, you generally find classic, Wonder Years-era suburban homes, generally on quarter acre lots, typically with well manicured lawns. It’s a tidy, unremarkable place bisected by two major expressways (35W and 694) and most people pass through my town without giving it a second thought, just as people pass through places like Elmhurst, Illinois, or West Allis, Wisconsin, to cite two similar places.

With not much to talk about now, New Brighton looks to its past. About 100 years ago, New Brighton was a rail town, one of the first stops out of Minneapolis, and its primary business was stockyards. There were often more cattle than people in town in those days. Around the same time, stockyards also sprouted in South St. Paul and this competition routed the New Brighton stockyards, which quickly faded from the scene. Despite this evident failure in the city’s past, the city chooses to celebrate this failed heritage with Stockyard Days. Like most of these festivals, a big part of the hoopla is the annual parade, which marches through “downtown” New Brighton (a non-descript New Urbanist invention that looks most like a small office park) and then down Old Highway 8 to the American Legion post. Ben and his Cub Scout troop marched in the parade this year, so Maria and I went to see the festivities. We plunked down in front of St. John the Baptist school with Maria’s grandparents and watched it happen.

There were three things on display – beauty queens, politicians and candy. Many, many suburbs have similar festivals and it seems that all of them stage beauty pageants. We saw lovelies from Hopkins, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Fridley, Vadnais Heights, Little Canada, Hopkins, Lakeville, Woodbury, Richfield, White Bear Lake, Stillwater and other suburban enclaves, most wearing satin gowns and cowboy hats. We saw candidates for governor, Congress, the state legislature, the state senate, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, school board, county sheriff and even more obscure administrative fiefdoms. And there was candy. Everyone was throwing candy to the spectators. Maria came home with more candy than she generally gets for Halloween and she was covered with campaign stickers from the various politicians and the mark of the Vulcans (of St. Paul Winter Carnival fame) on her cheek.

I find these parades oddly reassuring. They are a vestige of a simpler past, where communities were more than aggregations of people with similar demographics. The evident quirks you see on display are all too human and that’s hard to gainsay in a time where inhumanity is on the march.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

We still have t-ball

It's easy to get cynical and one of the greatest challenges I face is avoiding the grasp of cynicism. It's easy to watch the cruelty and indifference of human beings to one another - the daily newscasts are little more than a running chronicle of man's inhumanity to man, along with health tips, since someone in the news departments apparently believes that we all want to cling to this mortal coil for as long as possible. You wonder why that would be, if things are so terrible.

One reason is t-ball. There's nothing like watching a group of six year old kids earnestly chasing a soft padded baseball around a dirt field, the air punctuated with shouts of joy and the occasional tear because someone fielded "my ball." When a kid catches a ball, or strikes a mighty blow that clears the infield, or finally gets to have the post-game treat, there is pure joy on display.

This has been, in many ways, a crappy year. But giving our kids a chance to smile, play and be a kid can make all the bitterness fade away, if only for a moment. Those are moments worth cherishing. Thank you, New Brighton Park Department, for giving us those moments.

8/10 is not 9/11

At least this time. As you've probably heard, British intelligence foiled a plot where terrorists were planning to board commercial airliners and blow them up in flight using liquid explosives. Two quick thoughts:

  • Hooray for the MI5; unlike the sieve-like CIA, they don't leak their methods to the press; they simply find the bad guys and catch them.
  • Memo to those who aren't currently intersted in the threat of terrorism - you may not be interested in terrorists, but terrorists are clearly interested in you.
  • Ned Lamont typically doesn't have to worry about these things, of course, because he can use a private jet.

I'm glad that someone continues to take this stuff seriously.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Star Tribune begs The Big Question

(Note: edited on 8/10/06 - I got part of the details of this wrong yesterday, but the point is the same)

This campaign season the Star Tribune has decided that merely proffering its hilariously rigged Minnesota Polls is simply not enough. They have also taken on the role of self-appointed "watchdog" of the various political campaigns now ongoing in Minnesota. Today's entry is an especially risible example of begging the question.

The Star Tribune takes on an obscure Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press release, which alleged that Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty has been calling Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kennedy a "weenie" for distancing himself from President Bush. They take the DSCC to task for conflating statements that Pawlenty made in a different context.

It's all well and good, but there's a problem. No one, except for those who get press releases from the DSCC, would have even known the charge had been made; in nearly every case the pressies didn't run any stories because there was no story. But now, since the Star Tribune has ostentatiously aired the report and branded it false, it has given the false charge currency by mentioning it to an audience many times the audience of the DSCC.

The feature might as well have said, "Pawlenty denies asking Kennedy if he's stopped beating his wife." Put another way, it's the same as killing a mosquito that had landed on Kennedy's leg by shooting the mosquito while it's still on Kennedy's leg. Solves one "problem," but retails another to a wide audience. Another nice performance by the Strib.

The Shadow knows

So it happened - upstart limousine liberal candidate Ned Lamont, darling of the Kos crowd and standard bearer for the Howard Beale wing of the Democratic party, defeated Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut senate primary yesterday. Lamont will be the official Democratic candidate, while Lieberman will continue to run for re-election, this time as an independent. What to make of all this? A few thoughts:

  • While it would be uncharitable to argue that the official position of the Democratic party in re the Iraq War is now abject surrender, that's the case in Connecticut. I am still waiting to hear a coherent explanation of how surrendering will improve the US position in the world, but that seems to be what these folks are advocating. I don't think "cut and run" is actually a pejorative enough term for what is proposed here, by the way.
  • If Lieberman goes on to win the election, he has said he will continue to caucus with the Democrats. But I wonder about that - he is now persona non grata and other Democratic representatives will be duty and honor-bound to support Mr. Lamont. Can Lieberman really go back? And if he beats Lamont, will all be forgiven?
  • If Lamont really does win the general election, he will likely have a lot more visibility and power than the typical freshman senator. It would be interesting to see how he would use it.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? In the old radio show, it was Lamont Cranston, a/k/a the Shadow. In the next three months, the voters of Connecticut are going to be putting on their own show.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Budum alert - time for a Twins update!

It's remarkable, really, that the Twins are sitting at 65-45 and contending for a playoff spot in the American League. Back at the beginning of the summer, this team looked dead, with only one reliable starting pitcher available and a lineup filled with has-beens and never-wases at many positions. I've been watching baseball for over 35 years now and I've never seen a team retool on the fly as successfully as the Twins have.

Think of what has happened:

  • Hitting machine Nick Punto replaces cigar store indian Tony Batista at third. Punto doesn't hit for power, but he's on base a lot and he has a knack for driving in key runs.
  • Punchless Juan Castro leaves for Cincinnati, and Jason Bartlett comes in. Bartlett is currently hitting over .370 from the 9 hole.
  • Lew "Diminishing Returns" Ford gets injured, and two more Jasons, Kubel and Tyner, come in and both hit about 100 points higher.
  • Shannon Stewart gets injured, but others cover his at bats and the team doesn't miss a beat.
  • Torii Hunter gets injured, but the same thing happens.

If someone had told you at the beginning of the season that Batista, Castro, Rondell White, Ruben Sierra, Stewart and Hunter would produce almost nothing, you would have assumed that the Twins would be 20 games below .500. But here we are. Enjoy the pennant race - you'll not likely see anything like this season again.

Teeing up t-ball for the last time

My daughter's fearsome t-ball team will take the field again tonight for a game against the dreaded Team Three. This is the last game of the season. I had planned to provide ongoing coverage of her season, much as I had for my son's team, but it's been difficult to do that. There are a number of reasons:

  1. It's difficult to provide a score when no one is keeping score
  2. It's not easy to capture the action of a t-ball game, except to note that it bears only a passing resemblance to baseball
  3. You would have to be especially churlish to criticize the performance of a six-year old child
  4. At this level, praise is best offered directly to the kids, not via a blog

There are a few things that are true, however, about my daughter's team, that are worth noting here.

  1. I don't know that you'll find a nicer group of kids than this group. We had 11 very distinct personalities on display, but they all managed to get along very nicely.
  2. Not surprisingly, we had a wonderful group of parents as well. They were uniformly supportive of their kids and really cheered on everyone.
  3. My co-coach is really a fine individual and his son has a chance to be a really good ballplayer at the next level. We also had one other kid who is remarkably talented. It can be a challenge for kids like that to not be bored with the basic coaching that we have to do at this level, but these two young men are very good about it.
  4. While I'm very happy about the kids I had, it's disappointing that the City of New Brighton was only able to field three teams this year. I know there are kids in the age group who might like to play, but for some reason they aren't on the field. That does not bode well for the future of the sport in this community.

If you are in the area and want to see a fun, spirited game, come check us out. Game time is 6:15 tonight at Pike Lake #2.

Imagine that

So we learn today that Reuters is pulling over 900 published photographs from its archives. The photographs were taken by a "freelance" photographer in Lebanon named Adnan Hajj. It appears that at least some of his photos were faked. I'm shocked, shocked to learn of this.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Neville's heirs

I've been thinking about the 1930s a lot lately, and not just because I've been screening Marx Brothers movies with the kids. It's easy to forget things as time passes, and as I watch the events of the past few weeks unfold, I've been thinking a lot about another 1930s figure, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain served as prime minister of Britain in the late 1930s and was famous, and later infamous, for his penchant for negotiating with Hitler. He famously proclaimed that an agreement he made with Hitler in 1938 would offer "peace in our time." Oddly enough, Hitler didn't quite see it the same way and within a year war engulfed the European continent.

As I've listened to all the wise souls in the UN and other respectable organizations call on Israel to cease fighting back against the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, it certainly seems like 1938 again. The intellectual backdrop for these calls posits, intentionally or not, a moral equivalence between the Israeli democracy and the Islamic terrorists who attack it. Israel has, as modern democracies do, taken great pains to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. Hezbollah couldn't care less and routinely attacks Israeli civilians. Some of their mis-fired rockets have even struck the West Bank, killing Palestinians. But somehow, even though Hezbollah instigated this, the Israelis are apparently supposed to offer a cease fire.

It seems bizarre that we have to keep belaboring this point, but we do. Israel's enemies seek nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state, and as a bonus, the death of as many Jews as possible in the process. In short, they seek genocide. And these enemies are remarkably consistent in this. Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, the former government of Iraq, the current government of Iran - they all agree on this. Genocide is not rational in any sense; it's even less rational to believe that you can successfully negotiate with those who seek genocide. I too am tired of this war, but we cannot negotiate it away. Neville Chamberlain famously carried an umbrella with him, but it provided no shelter from Hitler. Those who offer an umbrella today are no better.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Is Mel Gibson really more dangerous than Hezbollah?

You'd think so, based on some of the news coverage this week. Everyone in the news media seem to be completely up in arms because Mel Gibson apparently went on some sort of an anti-Semitic tirade during a drunk driving arrest in California over the weekend. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Hezbollah continues to attack Israeli cities daily, while their patron Mahmoud Ahmedinejad casually suggests that hostilities would end if Israel would simply get with the program and cease to exist. Maybe, just maybe, do ya think there might be some misplaced priorities here? Just asking.

Hooray for Captain Spaulding

Turner Classic Movies did a good thing yesterday, running a Marx Brothers marathon. I was able to watch Animal Crackers with the kids last night, which gave them another look at the anarchic humor of these now American icons. Over 75 years have passed since Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo shared their zany antics with the world and yet the humor is so universal that it stands up well today.

Humor is, inevitably, a very self-referential form of communication. Context can be everything and many comedians who had audiences in one era have great difficulty reaching an audience later on. If you ever have a chance to watch an episode of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" on television, you should do it. It is amazing to see how gracelessly the humor there has aged; the one major talent on the show is Lily Tomlin, who has made a fine career for herself in Hollywood, but nearly everyone else on display has faded quickly from the scene. For that matter, watch some Lenny Bruce if you can. You'll be amazed at, with the distance of 50 years, his humor seems to lack the edge that was his calling card back in the era. Just guessing here - audiences 30 years on will mostly wonder what the fuss was all about when they watch re-runs of "Seinfeld."

The great comedians of every era understood (and understand) what while humor is self-referential, the best humor is grounded in understanding of the human conditions and the inherent silliness that resides within all of us. We all need a laugh and the Marx Brothers knew how to get one. And now, so many years on, they still do.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Minimum Wage! Hah! (Sound of whip cracking)

You might remember They Might Be Giants, a two man band that trafficked in short, cerebral and often surreal little ditties. My understanding is that they are still a working band, but they have not really had much prominence since the early 90s. One of their funniest little songs was one called "Minimum Wage," whose lyrics are captured just about in their entirety in the caption to this post. The royalties for that song probably have contributed to the estates of the TMBG members. More on that in a moment.

Whenever I hear the debate about raising the minimum wage, I think of that song. The minimum wage is largely a fiction, since nearly every job in America pays more than the minimum, which is currently $5.15 per hour. Even the crappiest temp jobs I've seen listed pay at least double that amount. You have to be especially inept to make the minimum wage in this country.

As a result, raising the minimum wage will do very little to help anyone. However, eliminating the estate tax would be very helpful. There has been a lot of carping about linking these two items, especially since eliminating the estate tax is seen as a "tax break for the rich," which makes it EVIL EVIL EVIL EVIL. The really rich rarely pay it, because they can afford financial advisors who set up lawful means to avoid it. Those who lose out because of the estate tax are largely heirs to a family farm or business; they are often forced to sell or close their farm/business/enterprise to pay the tax. It's always difficult to see how the estate tax is anything but destructive in those instances. To use just one example, the brilliant attorney Amy Klobuchar seems to think repealing the estate tax will somehow benefit Paris Hilton. I would wager that Ms. Hilton's money is already well-protected. And even if it weren't, it's difficult to understand why a law should punish Paris Hilton just because she is rich.

If you have an estate, the money in it was likely taxed at least twice - once, when you earned it, and a second time after you've invested it. I wonder how many times the government really needs to reach into our wallets.

El Caudillo

For reasons that only the mainstream media might comprehend, but only if they were willing to think hard about it, the apparent health crisis of Fidel Castro is front page news across the country, momentarily bumping the Middle East to the bottom of the page, or even page 3 in some cases. This is curious.

Castro has run Cuba for nearly 50 years now. In this time, the Cuban nation has suffered through a slow, steady decline into ruin. He has tolerated no dissent, has regularly jailed political opponents and has been more than willing to send his citizens off to die in pointless wars across the globe. Oddly enough, these are some of the things that George Bush has been accused of doing, but it is the rare voice outside of Miami’s Cuban enclave that brings any of this up. Most coverage of Castro in this country tends to take his pronouncements at face value.

One of the main reasons tyranny persists is that there are always those who admire tyrants. Even today, Hitler has his supporters, as do Stalin, Mao and countless others who were willing to do anything to gain and maintain power. Castro is cut from the same cloth as these others. If he is indeed entering his final days and preparing to meet his Maker, it would be a very happy day for the Cuban people.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The month of ghosts

August arrived this morning. For many people August is vacation month, summer's last hurrah. Here in Minnesota August is the month of the State Fair, a huge part of our collective consciousness. It's a month of pennant races, pre-season football, golf championships and some of the best, most accessible sunsets of the year.

It's my least favorite month, by a long shot. Everything I mentioned above is important to me. We have had some wonderful times during August, but it is the month of ghosts. It is the month that I lost both my parents. I've discussed my mom at some length in this feature earlier this year, and there's a lot more to say about her amazing, contradictory, awful yet fascinating life. But today I'm going to talk a little about Dad.

Dad was born in 1933, a child of the Depression. He came of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time of tremendous upheaval in our nation. His generation is something of an afterthought in the American pageant. He was still a boy during WWII, but was a grown man with young children during the 1960s. There has not been a president from his generation, and it is quite likely that there never will be. No one ever called his generation the greatest, nor were his contemporaries indulged as the Baby Boomers are.

Dad, like his contemporaries, were simply expected to participate. He was expected to graduate from high school, and he did. He went into the Army in between Korea and Vietnam, serving two years in Europe. He came back, went to school and married a pretty young executive secretary. He went off to the big city of Chicago to make his fortune. But because his wife suffered from demons that he could never quite grasp, he decided to return to the relative safety of the Fox River Valley. He worked hard, traveling extensively for business. He played hard, too. He liked a cocktail and a cigar and often had a set of golf clubs in the trunk just in case an opportunity arose. He had a warm sense of humor, an expansive if conservative world view and a trusting nature. He had friends all over the state of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was, in short, a hell of a guy.

But the defining relationship of his life, his first marriage, was disastrous. His wife's mental illness was an explosive, insidious beast that caused him almost unbelievable grief. He tried to protect his children from the rages, but the task was too large for him to bear at times. He soldiered on, as members of his generation do, for 13 long years, but after a while he could not take it any longer and he eventually left. It would be six years before he could finally help his children find a better life under his new roof. And then, only seven years later, he was gone, dead from complications following open heart surgery, on August 30, 1990.

Dad died less than a month after Jill and I announced our engagement. I am comforted to know that he knew I had found a wonderful woman to marry. But he never met any of his grandchildren. It's a shame, really. And while I think of Dad nearly every day, it's always in August, the month of ghosts, where it gets toughest of all.

Eddie gets religion

We made a quick trip back to Appleton last weekend for my nephew's baptism. Young Eddie is a strapping young lad with a full head of hair and very long fingers. Although there's not a lot of tall people on either side of the family, this young boy has a chance to tower over his parents and his cousins once everyone has grown up. The baptism itself was nice and it was good to see my family again.

It has been said that the birth of every child is another vote that the world not only will go on, but that it should. My nephew is a perfect example of that.