Saturday, March 31, 2007

A bad hop/Q&A

I've recently been in the hospital and there's a reason for it. As some of you know, I've been plagued with headaches for most of my adult life. Monday night into Tuesday morning, I had probably the worst headache I've ever had, requiring a trip to the doctor. Because of the additional symptoms I had that morning (blurred vision, slurred speech), I was given a series of tests and I have learned that I have a pituitary tumor. I will be returning to United Hospital next week for surgery to remove this tumor and will likely be in the hospital for the next week. As a result, blogging will be light in the coming days - it's hard to write when you have IV tubes in your arms, of course.

Anyway, here's a quick primer on what's happened and what my prognosis is.

Q. So, what the heck is a pituitary tumor anyway?
A. It's a pain in the head and a pain in the butt. The pituitary gland sits at the base of the brain, more or less behind your eyes. It is the master gland that controls the thyroid, adrenal and other glands in the body. It is small (1.5 cm) but mighty. And when it develops a tumor (which happens to about 14 of 100,000 people), it can cause real harm, with the greatest threat being to the optic nerve. My blurred vision indicates that I need this dealt with, now.

Q. Base of the brain? Does that mean this is brain surgery?
A. Yepper. It is brain surgery, although the surgeons will be able to go in through my nose to get to it. That means I won't get my skull sawed. That's something.

Q. Is the surgery dangerous?
A. Not so much. The neurosurgeon who is performing my operation is one of the best in the country and historically this surgery has about a 99% success rate. That's pretty encouraging. Also worth noting - pituitary tumors are almost 100% benign, so this is not cancer.

Q. What will this mean for your long-term health?
A. Well, I'll probably be taking a lot of pills. Since the growth is so large, there's an excellent chance that my pituitary gland will need to be removed entirely. That will require hormone replacement medication for the rest of my days. More people than you'd suspect have to do this, however.

Q. Will this mean your headaches will go away?
A. Maybe. There's a disagreement between the cavalcade of doctors who are working with me. The neurologist suspects that I have also been a migraine sufferer and that those may continue, but the horrifying headaches I've had in recent weeks will likely stop. I guess that's progress.

Q. How long will you be in the hospital?
A. Sounds like about a week. The surgery will be pretty much an all-day sucker, then I'll have to spend a few days in intensive care, then a few more in the neurology ward. After that, I'll have some pretty strict doctor's orders to fill for the next 2-3 months.

Q. Any other issues?
A. I've had my wings clipped; because I have lost some peripheral vision, I am not allowed to drive until after I've recovered, and may even face restrictions after that. That's a big bummer, but I'll try to figure a way around it.

Q. Where can we get updates?
A. They'll probably set up a page for me on the Caringbridge website. I'll try to make sure that happens before I go in.

Q. Will you still blog after the surgery?
A. Mais oui. I enjoy blogging a whole lot and appreciate the chance to share my thoughts with my vast North American audience.

Q. Is there anything you need?
A. Prayers are greatly appreciated. I'm trying to keep my composure about all this and I can feel God's hand in the events. He will take care of me, with your help.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Ben and Maria both posted long-overdue updates on their blogs over the weekend.

Check out Ben at

Check out Maria at

They aren't as verbose as their Dad. Yet.

Utopia with cisterns

If you get a chance, pick up a copy of yesterday's "Source" section of the Star Tribune. The featured article is a truly jaw-dropping musing on what the future of Minnesota (circa 2037) will be like, some 30 years on. Among the assertions are the following:

  • Houses will not use any fossil fuels for power, using instead solar panels and geothermal heat pumps owned by the "community" the house is located in.
  • Houses will have typically have multiple cisterns for collecting rain water, presumably because all the water will be polluted because of global warming
  • New construction and housing developments will have no basements (because of mold and radon) and no garages (because no one will have a car, although communally owned hydrogen powered vehicles might be available for short trips)
  • Everyone will be riding on the trains to get from Point A to Point B
  • The 37 year old woman living in this prototypical house will be an "Internet bride," married to a 29 year old Chinese dude living in Shanghai, who wants to come for a visit but can't because he doesn't have sufficient "carbon credits," which are apparently being issued by someone. The Chinese dude needs an Internet bride because there aren't enough women in China. (That part will likely be true.)
  • Toilets will automatically provide urinalysis information that can be supplied to insurance companies.
  • Children will be taught by virtual reality "Avatars" and will learn everything they need to know without leaving the house. The 12 year old son of the woman (father unknown and unmentioned) will also play a game of soccer (naturually, it has to be soccer) in his room via virtual reality, with teammates from all over the globe.

There's more, a lot more. The whole thing would be laughable except that it is obvious that there are people who want to steer the future in this sort of direction, using global warming as an excuse.

Here's the reality - the amount of governmental force necessary to impose such a world on people would require a totalitarian government. I suspect that those who would like to do said imposing would have no problem with that. Still, I suspect the required cisterns would be pretty much unusable, because there would be too many bodies of governmental agents floating in them trying to enforce their dictates.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Deus ex machina at the Barn

From our pals at Wikipedia:

Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase that is used to describe an unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot (e.g., having the protagonist wake up and realize it was all a dream, or an angel suddenly appearing to solve problems). The phrase has been extended to refer to any resolution to a story which does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic and is so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though more palatable, ending. In modern terms the deus ex machina has also come to describe a being, object or event that suddenly appears and solves a seemingly insoluble difficulty, where the author has "painted the characters into a box" that they cannot easily be extricated from (e. g., the cavalry coming to the rescue). A classic example of the use of this type of deus ex machina is in Homer's Odyssey; a more contemporary example is in Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. The device is a type of twist ending.

Give this much to Joel Maturi; he’s definitely showing himself to be an “out of the box” thinker. Forget the Odyssey or The Andromeda Strain; hiring Tubby Smith away from Kentucky has to be the best example yet.

Minnesota basketball fans have been pretty patient since the 1999 academic scandal that torpedoed Clem Haskins. Dan Monson is a very nice man and ran a clean program, but the Gophers have been a pretty rank (and unranked) outfit in recent years. Lately coaches of big time programs have been raiding Minnesota for talent with impunity; Marquette, Wisconsin and Michigan State have all extricated blue chip talent from the state without much of a struggle.

That should change now. Tubby Smith has a lot of credibility in his profession for his coaching acumen. His teams are generally athletic and play excellent defense. He has won a national title. He has a reputation for integrity and class that is second to none. He is a proven winner. But if he wants to succeed, he needs to recruit well and keep Bo Ryan, Tom Crean, Tom Izzo et al. out of the state. It will take about two years to see what kind of impact he will have. But considering the box the Gophers have been in, he’s definitely the type of guy who could change things in a hurry. I may have to take back some of the nasty things I’ve said about Joel Maturi….

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Penguins have no navels (updated)

I actually stumped Google with this one.

First, please endure a few parenthetical paragraphs to set this up. About a quarter century ago, I used to participate in the annual Lawrence University Trivia Contest, which went on for 50 consecutive hours starting at 10:00:37 p.m. on a winter Friday night, until midnight on Monday morning. The contest consisted of the sometimes addled broadcasters on the campus radio station (WLFM) asking a series of questions concerning matters that most would consider trivial. An example:

Q. What is the state muffin of Minnesota?
A. Blueberry

Things have changed dramatically for the contest now that the internet has made researching the obscure significantly easier, but people continue to play. I personally enjoyed playing trivia so much that I helped to start a similar contest at my alma mater, Beloit College. Other schools in the Midwest (St. Cloud State, UW-Stevens Point) also have similar contests.

One distinctive feature of the LU contest was their longtime propensity to play strange, Dr. Demento-esque songs throughout the contest. One that I particularly remember was titled “Penguins have no navels,” which detailed in song a few points about the physical features and overall morphology of these always amusing seabirds. A sample, quoting from memory:

They have no navels so they can slide on their bellies
At speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, per hour
And that’s pretty fast
Julius Ceasar wearing argyle socks, oh yeah

I have to quote from memory because I was not able to get Google to cough up the lyrics of this song, to say nothing of the performer, writer, etc. But now that I’ve raised the topic, future historians of the phrase will have the opportunity to cite this esteemed online outpost as the “go-to” source.

So, what does this have to do with anything? Believe it or not, my real topic is Amy Klobuchar a/k/a Senator Hotdish. And part two follows below.


Penguins have had a pretty good run lately. The charming documentary film “March of the Penguins” was an unexpected hit in the United States in 2005. Last year the Disney factory coughed up a film called “Happy Feet” featuring a penguin who channels tap dancer Savion Glover and preaches against global warming. And, as always, penguins are favorites of schoolchildren everywhere, including a certain daughter I have.

But are they drowning because of global warming? Amy Klobuchar thinks so. In her remarks on Wednesday prior to meeting the high priest of global warming, Al Gore, she relayed that she encountered a crying 8 year old girl from Roseville who was worried about penguins drowning because of global warming.

Now, we’ve all heard about the drowning polar bears, which are apparently headed for extinction in the next few days because the planet is heating up so fast. But I hadn’t heard about penguins drowning before.

If you Google the topic, you get articles from, a somewhat fanciful lefty website, mentioning that penguins may be migrating from one part of Antarctica to another. Perhaps they are drowning in the move, but I doubt it, since Penguins are among the best swimmers in the animal kingdom. Now I don’t know of too many 8 year old girls who read; good thing, too, because it would be prima facie evidence of child abuse.

So what are to make of this? I can think of a few things. First, for someone who promised to “change the tone” once she reached Washington, it seems that our Amy has succeeded. The former holder of her seat, Mark Dayton, was a wide-eyed loon. She is apparently auditioning for a seat on “The View.” That’s a change, all right.

Second, it’s clear that Amy would rather exploit the ignorance of children rather than instruct them. She could have assured this fretful Roseville girl that the penguins are not drowning, but instead she decided to use the story as a talking point. That’s not changing the tone at all, of course.

Finally, it would be nice if someone, anyone, in the Minnesota news media would have at least mentioned this little exchange. Michele Bachmann, the new 6th District CD representative, recently was skewered repeatedly for some ill-informed statements she made concerning the war. The skewering was entirely justified, since Bachmann was wrong. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that Klobuchar is right. A little digging would be in order, no?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

W's Keyser Sose

Back before we had kids, my wife and I used to go to movies that weren't exclusively made by Pixar. One of the last films we saw before the birth of my son was "The Usual Suspects," a fine film featuring, among others, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollak, Gabriel Byrne, Benecio del Toro and one of those Baldwin brothers. If you've seen the film, you know that the key to solving the mystery finding out the identity of Keyser Sose, a mysterious criminal mastermind who sets the intricate plot in motion.

Some of my B of A pals believed that Ahmad Chalabi, an exiled Iraqi national and somewhat shadowy figure, was the Keyser Sose of Iraq, given his propensity to be involved in all manner of intrigues surrounding the developments in Iraq following the fall of Saddam.

But Chalabi's got nothing on Harriet Miers. Miers, long-time adviser to the President, failed Supreme Court nominee and all-around White House majordomo, appears to be a key player, along with the hated evil monstrous proto-Machiavellian Snidely Whiplash-esque neo-Rasputin Karl Rove, in the profoundly silly scandal involving the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Miers seems to be everywhere in this administration. And every time there's blame to be apportioned, we see her friendly, somewhat schoolmarmish visage.

Excuse me while I catch my breath - that was a whole lot of adjectives there.

At the end of The Usual Suspects, the identity of Keyser Sose is revealed, but in such an ingenious way that I won't share it, on the off chance you haven't seen the film (and you should). I think we can take it as a Sign Of Progess that W's Keyser Sose is female.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Baseball is coming

It's closer and closer. Every day. Just a few thoughts:

  • Looks like the pitching is holding up pretty well for the Twins right now. I will be curious to see if Sidney Ponson actually makes the squad; he has pitched pretty well the last few outings. They may need him, since Carlos Silva continues to look pretty shaky.
  • It's been a pretty quiet spring training for the Brew Crew. Ben Sheets appears to be ready, which is excellent news. Of course, we've heard that before.
  • I am very curious to see if the rented mules of the AL Central, the Kansas City Royals, have improved over the offseason. They have their own phenom in 3B Alex Gordon, who really looks the part. The Royals have had a turnstile at 3B ever since George Brett retired and it will be interesting to see whether this kid can make it happen. With all the talk this spring centering around the other teams in the division, I suspect the Royals may sneak up on a few people this time around. Problem is, they live in a very tough neighborhood.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bullets rip through blogosphere

The gunman remains at large:

  • 3,000 – 4,000 anti-war protestors march through Minneapolis. So went the headlines on the 10 o’clock news and so showed the front page of this morning’s Star Tribune. I guess it is newsworthy that, in a metropolitan area that is approaching 3 million in population, only 3,000 – 4,000 people would be willing to go out and participate in a little self-congratulatory street theater. It was a pretty nice day yesterday, too. Glad that we went over to the Science Museum over in St. Paul instead. There you can actually learn something.
  • But then again, not as much you might think. The Science Museum is currently mounting a special exhibit about the topic of race. Most of the insights offered therein will be familiar to anyone who has been forced to endure a half-day “diversity” seminar in a corporate setting. It’s the usual litany of complaints – the privilege of white skin, the illegitimate sciences of the past (eugenics, etc.), intellectual bogeymen that most people have never heard of (Richard Jensen, Charles, Murray), etc. I think there is one clear advantage of being a white dude in 2007 in America, but it’s not what these bien pensants think. The one advantage I have is that I am generally free to believe whatever I please about most things. There are enormous pressures on those who fall under racial/ethnic rubrics to conform to an accepted range of thinking on most issues, especially for African-Americans. Perhaps someday the Science Museum, or some other such place, might consider mounting an exhibit on the pernicious effects of political correctness and other forms of groupthink. I know, it won’t happen, but white dudes like me are allowed such heterodox thoughts. For too many African-Americans, heterodox thoughts are only allowed in a Chris Rock routine.
  • Since I was at the Science Museum yesterday afternoon, I did not see the Badgers lose to UNLV in the NCAA tourney. It is a sad end to what was a wonderful season. Losing Brian Butch turned out to be a huge issue and it’s easy to understand why; the 6-11 Butch is a pretty versatile fellow and because he can score from the outside, he really changed the dynamic for the Badger offense. Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor were valiant down the stretch, but Bo Ryan’s crew needed a third option that didn’t materialize. Meanwhile, one of my anonymous correspondents proved to be pretty prescient about Ohio State, the conference nemesis of the Badgers. The Buckeyes barely survived the weekend because they ran into an officiating crew that didn’t get the memo about Greg Oden being a demigod. Oden fouled out and the ever-pesky Xavier Musketeers took the game to overtime before the Buckeyes wore them out. Next time the Buckeyes may not be so lucky.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A modest proposal

MEMO TO: George W. Bush

FROM: Mr. Dilettante

DATE: March 16, 2007

RE: The AG Kerfuffle

Well Mr. President, it would appear that the Democrats and their friends are going to continue bruiting about the fact that your attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, actually exercised his prerogative to fire subordinates. It also appears that Gonzales actually may have received input on this matter from Karl Rove. There may even be a paper trail to that effect, if the breathless news reports on the matter are to be believed.

It does not matter that your predecessor fired all the U.S. Attorneys upon taking office, including one or two who might have been inclined to investigate his Arkansas activities. All of that may be true, but none of the players in this current drama are in the least bit interested in context, history or even an accurate portrayal of events. No point in worrying about it, right? So, what do you do?

Mr. Dilettante believes that if you are going to comment on a problem, your credibility will be much higher if you bring a potential solution with you. Here’s mine:

  • First, “reassign” Mr. Gonzales to a position on your personal staff. You can even give him an office next to Karl Rove. You can tell everyone that you believe his talents are better suited toward other matters your administration must deal with. You don’t have to be specific, so don’t bother. Besides, you seem to value his advice and counsel more than his administrative acumen. Alternatively, Vice President Cheney might name Mr. Gonzales to be the replacement for “Scooter” Libby.
  • Nominate Amy Klobuchar, freshman senator from Minnesota, to be your new Attorney General. Yes, Klobuchar is a Democrat and is politically indistinct from the other baying senators who are trying to gin up a personnel matter into High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Klobuchar most recently ran the Hennepin County prosecutor’s office, so she has comparable credentials to Bill Clinton’s useful AG, Janet Reno. To make this work, publicly leak your intention to choose a Democrat for the open position and ensure that Klobuchar’s name is first on the list. She will not, in the end, be able to resist your request. You will gain wide (if temporary) praise for your willingness to be “bi-partisan.”
  • Promise AG Klobuchar “full rein” to investigate the matter. Simultaneously announce a huge Justice Department initiative to look at “criminal justice” solutions for enemy combatants/terrorists. By the time AG Klobuchar comes up for air, it should be January, 2009.
  • Meanwhile, sit back and watch Governor Tim Pawlenty appoint either former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and/or Rep. John Kline to fill out the remainder of Klobuchar’s senate term. Either would be a fine team player and, of course, the switch of this one seat would tip the balance of power in the Senate back to the Republicans, effectively putting Carl Levin, Joe Biden et al. back in their cages.

    Let me know if you have any questions.

    CC: Karl Rove

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Arrow of Light

Now it was ending. We had begun the journey in the cafeteria of Bel Air School some five years earlier, with Ben clutching a flyer and listening as well as a six year old boy can. The tall, bespectacled man in the tan shirt had told Ben and a number of equally wide-eyed boys about the opportunity they had and the adventures ahead. When the man asked if we had any questions, Ben’s hand shot up.

“Well,” he began, “I like to have fun. Do you get to have fun if you join?”

The man in the tan shirt smiled. “You bet you do,” he replied.

He was right. Five years later, in the gymnasium of Christ the King Lutheran church, three blocks north of where the journey had began, another man in a tan shirt asked Ben and nine other boys to come forward. The boys were bedecked in their uniforms, most covered with the various badges, pins and totems that symbolized the five year journey they had completed. “This is a great group of guys,” the man said. “They have worked hard and now they are ready to receive the highest award of Cub Scouting, the Arrow of Light.”

When my son is really happy, his smile has enough candlepower to light Fenway Park. This was one of those moments. As he clutched the arrow he had made a month before, he approached the “advancement bridge” that Cub Scouts cross each year as they move from Tiger to Wolf to Bear to Webelos. He had crossed the bridge each year before, but now there were members of Troop 399 on the other side, waiting to greet him. Jill and Maria were ready with the camera to capture the moment.

As I watched, the memories rattled in my brain like atoms at Fermilab. There he was, jumping off the hay wagon to climb the sand hill at a starlit Bunker Hills Park, while the parents marveled at the half dozen deer browsing along the trail, oblivious to the screams of delight from the candy-addled children. There he was, combing the wooded trails of Driftwood Park, discovering the remnants of a teenager party that had happened some time before. There he was, glowing like the Citgo sign over the Green Monster, holding the miniature sled he had built. There he was, giving a silent fist pump of celebration after receiving the trophy for second place at the Pinewood Derby. And there he was, amazing the instructor (and his father) at Webelos Activity Day by being the only Scout in the room who knew the identity and works of Aaron Copland.

As the ceremony ended, Ben and his family met briefly with the Scoutmaster for Troop 399. Just as it was five years before, we watched a brief presentation on what being a Boy Scout is like. When the scoutmaster asked if we had any questions, Ben’s hand shot up.

“So,” he began, “I hear we get to go camping a lot. Is that true?”

The scoutmaster smiled. “You can go camping every month, if you’d like.”

Somehow, I suspect Ben will try.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Good heavens, Miss Yakamoto, you're beautiful

Guess you have to blame my being an English major for this. Science interests me but I've never had the patience necessary to be an effective scientist. I ended up scuffling through my required science classes in college, precisely because they all required a weekly three-hour laboratory session that usually felt like the equivalent of taking four Benadryl capsules. I always had "other priorities," as Dick Cheney might say.

When it's time to help your kids with their Science Fair projects, you can't let them know that those are your views, though. Both Ben and Maria recently entered exhibits in the Valentine Hills Science Fair. Ben, as a fifth grader, was required to participate, while Maria, as a first grader, had no such obligation. But Maria is nothing if not competitive, especially in the sibling rivalry game. She has entered cars in the last two Pinewood Derby events for Ben's Cub Scout troop and she there was never any doubt that she would want to enter an exhibit as well.

Ben took his obligation the way many eleven year old boys take it, with equal mixtures of excitement and scorn. He very much liked the idea of competing, but wasn't particularly interested in doing a lot of work on the project. So there we were, the night before the contest, holding a professional display board, a flashlight, a piece of wax paper, a camera, a library book with information on the solar system, and a young scientist with a sullen attitude. What to do?

We had a plan. Ben had previously discovered an experiment where you could recreate the effect of sunlight on the planet Venus by shining a flashlight through a piece of wax paper. I had Ben do that, taking his picture while he did it. The pictures we took are simply a hoot; Ben holds the wax paper with great disdain, as if it were a dead muskrat. We then took a picture of Ben holding his library book open to the pages about Venus. Then we did some marketing.

We went down to the ancient computer in the basement and began detailing our efforts, comparing what we saw with what happens to the sun's rays as they hit Venus. Then we noted that, per the book, Venus's atmosphere contains a great deal of carbon dioxide, which causes a greehouse effect that dwarfs the comparable effect on earth. In fact, the temperature on the Venusian surface is hotter than on Mercury. We then made a politically correct point that more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would make things hotter, too. Bingo - mother lode. We printed it up the results, got the pictures developed quickly and pasted the thing together. And Ben got a healthy B+.

What does this tell you? A few things, actually, and not all of them positive:
  1. Telling people what they want to hear is always a popular choice;
  2. Sometimes the best work gets done when your back is against the wall;
  3. There can be a pretty big difference between the lessons you are taught and the lessons you ultimately learn; and
  4. Just because something appears on a project board does not guarantee intellectual rigor.

I'm guessing that Ben will approach science the way I did, i.e., only when absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile, Maria's project turned out to be a way for her to do her favorite thing, drawing. Her topic was "What Makes a Bird a Bird." So Maria patiently explained that birds have common features (feathers, beaks, warm blood, a skeletal system with a backbone and eggs that hatch). She then drew pictures of penguins, bats and bees and used them as illustrations. It was pretty good for a first grade project and she had fun.

The only bummer is that the huge snowstrom, a/k/a SNOWMAGEDDON'S BAD *** COUSIN, wiped out the opportunity for other students and parents to see the masterpieces coming out of our laboratory. But we'll remember it well. We've also learned that professional display boards are excellent for fort-building and hide-and-go-seek games. Again, the lessons you are taught are not always the lessons you ultimately learn.

Monday, March 12, 2007

And as for the Big Dance itself....

A few very preliminary thoughts:

  • The Big East didn't necessarily get the respect I thought they would. Syracuse and West Virginia both ended up on the outside, while our beloved Marquette squad hardly got a break. MU did stumble a bit down the stretch, but falling to an 8 seed is pretty amazing. Even more troubling is a first round date with Michigan State, the school where Tom Crean made his bones as an assistant under Tom Izzo. Ultimately I think the Golden Eagles match up well against the Spartans, who are far too dependent on Drew Neitzel. But it's a tough assignment, especially with Carolina waiting in the wings. MU needs to get some better big men, and soon.
  • Ohio State really roughed up the Badgers in the Big 10 championship game, so the 2 seed is about the best they could have expected. One might be upset that they landed in Florida's bracket, but consider this: if you really expect to win the tournament, you probably have to beat Florida, sooner or later. I think the Badgers can get past their initial likely opponents, starting with hated Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. But I don't know how they stop Joakim Noah and Al Horford short of a restraining order.
  • My best early guess on a sleeper team is Winthrop. They can score, defend and their losses are all to other teams in the tournament. Notre Dame got a tough early assignment.
  • If you are a Minnesota Gopher fan, do not fear that this tourney has nothing for you; chances are good that one of the mid-major coaches you'll get to see over the next week will be announced as the new man at the Barn. Could it be Lowery, or Theus, or someone else? It won't be Flip - that much is certain.

Fearless predictions? Maybe tomorrow.

A true son of March

When you think about the month of March, there are plenty of images that spring to mind. It’s a capricious time in the northern climes, as spring attempts to arrive and (often enough) gets buried under another blanket of snow. It’s a time of hope for baseball fans watching the reports from Florida and Arizona and dreaming that maybe this year is The Year. It is a time of celebration around St. Patrick’s Day, a chance to quaff cheap beer dyed green. In Chicago, they dye the Chicago River green and stage a parade where the Democratic Machine and the labor unions get to strut down State Street, usually chasing their green plastic derby hats as the gale force winds whip them about. It can also be a time of reflection – a significant chunk of the Lenten season always falls in March.

But most of all, March is about basketball. March is the time of March Madness, when the high school tournaments in each state unfold. The “Big Dance,” the NCAA tournament, takes place in March. The tournament brackets are printed and posted throughout the land and countless side bets and office pools are made. SportsCenter junkies pore through the results looking for trends, while those who have little or no interest in the game fill out their brackets with a mixture of wild guesses and largely irrelevant considerations (school colors, toughness of mascots, etc.) Every year the tournament itself is grand theater, with obscure schools defeating mighty universities and buzzer-beating bombs sending fans into ecstasy or agony. While I love baseball most of all, I think it beyond dispute that basketball can be the most dramatic of our major sports. It is also beyond dispute that the most consistently competitive and entertaining of our major sports championships is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Given all of this, it’s especially appropriate that my best childhood friend, Mark Miller, has his birthday today. Mark is a deluxe basketball junkie who has turned his love of the sport into something substantial. Way back in 1985, after Mark had graduated from UW-Oshkosh, he had an idea. He wanted to publish an annual basketball yearbook that would focus on basketball in Wisconsin. He would produce a publication similar to the preview magazines that regularly appear on newsstands before each season, but his would feature basketball at the high school and collegiate level. Mark’s own basketball career had ended back in high school, but he had already begun cultivating relationships with coaches and players during his college years. He would give it a go.

Mark traveled the state that first year, spending most of his time trying to explain his vision to skeptical coaches and local advertisers. Most publications never reach the store shelves without sophisticated market research. Mark didn’t have that, but he did have a hunch; he thought that if he could produce a quality product and provide fair analysis of the state basketball scene, there would be an audience. He worked like crazy, did almost all the work himself, and got the inaugural Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook published in the fall of 1985. It was a Herculean effort and he lost a lot of money his first year. But his hunch was correct – there was a market.

As the years went on, Mark continued to publish the WBY while simultaneously pursuing a journalism career at a variety of local newspapers throughout the state, moving from Waukesha to Sheboygan, to Oshkosh. Along the way he inexorably became the “go-to” guy for basketball in the state. Coaches came to see him as an ally and confidant. Players were thrilled to have their names in the WBY. Advertisers began to see that there was an audience for this publication and ad revenue started to climb. As the internet became a greater source of information for people, Mark expanded his universe to the World Wide Web, starting two excellent websites, and He leveraged his relationships with coaches throughout the state to create a highly successful holiday tournament in Milwaukee and, this season, a “Border Battle” tourney pitting Wisconsin teams against Minnesota squads. The kid from Xavier High who dared to dream big is now recognized as the pre-eminent basketball expert in the state of Wisconsin. It’s a great story that I’ve been observing from a distance for many years now.

Happy birthday to a true son of March – Mark Miller, who has proven that you can live your dream. Your old pal couldn’t be more proud of you.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Game on

Finally, the showdown begins. CNN reports:

The troop withdrawal timetables in the House are embedded in appropriations legislation that provides money for care of wounded troops, for better equipment and training, and for expanded operations in Afghanistan.

It has become increasinly obvious that the Democrats are intent on micromanaging the war and slowly steering the result toward their preferred (if unspoken) result, which is defeat. The defeat would belong to W. alone, of course. His war. His legacy.

Tell you what. That sounds good. Because if the D’s succeed in this effort, they will own the future, after the troops limp home because of their lack of funding. If I’m right about what such a future might bring, the Democrats will be ruining their chances to lead for a generation or more. And that would be, to paraphrase Martha Stewart, a good thing.

All along, the Democrats have said they are more qualified to lead than W. Now they get to prove it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Gregor "Scooter" Samsa

Which would you rather wake up as, a cockroach or a convicted felon?

Gee, what a happy choice! Luckily for Scooter Libby, he doesn’t have to choose. After his conviction in US Federal Court, he gets to be both. He has been through a bizarre, multi-year prosecution in which a special prosecutor, who has only one case and an unlimited budget, gets to present as Byzantine a case as is possible, charging a crime that stems out of an investigation of a crime that apparently never happened. It’s enough to make your head spin.

I’m probably oversimplifying things a bit, but the case against Libby has relied on distinctions that would have befuddled Bertrand Russell. What apparently Libby did is not give accurate testimony about conversations that he apparently had two years previous, while the prosecution witnesses, who don’t necessarily remember things that well, either, dispute what he said. He said, she said, perjury. And prison, presumably.

The whole thing is Kafka and Lewis Carroll with a bit of Camus thrown in for seasoning. And perhaps we could throw in Ionesco and Buñuel, too. And why not Zola, too, while we’re at it? It is the height of absurdity to convict someone in a cover-up of a non-existent crime. So what’s the good news? Libby can probably delay things until about 01/20/09. Then, about midnight, W can pardon ol’ Scooter. Then Scooter can have a cocktail with Marc Rich.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A few quick thoughts

But just a few.

  • Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton went to Selma, Alabama over the weekend to speak on the anniversary of Dr. King's march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The more I see of Obama, the more I think Hillary may have a problem. Obama is an outstanding orator, as good as anyone I've seen in my lifetime. Clinton is not. I still don't sense there's a lot behind the screen with Obama, but Hillary is going to have a difficult time attacking this guy.
  • Ann Coulter was at it again over the weekend, throwing out a favorite sexual epithet in the direction of John Edwards. It was gratuitous, silly and deeply frustrating. But that's our Ann. She is smart enough to realize that every time she does something anti-social like this, she's guaranteed another fifteen minutes. There's a reason why such unsavory types as Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell et al. are trotted out in the mainstream media to supposedly offer the conservative position: they confirm the biases of said media. I'd suggest that Ann stop beating her wife, but then I'd be just like her, no?
  • Par Ridder is going across town to be the publisher of the Strib, leaving the Pioneer Press to do it. Not sure what it means, but hiring Ridder did save Avista Capital Partners having to pay relocation fees for another publisher, I suppose. Don't expect much change at the Strib, though.
  • So the Badgers lose to the Spartans at East Lansing, then barely survive a return meeting in Madison, all in less than two weeks. Did you catch Bucky's likely first round opponent in the Big Ten tournament? You got it, the Spartans. If Badger fans are not tired of seeing Tom Izzo and Drew Neitzel by now, just wait....

The men behind the curtain

Sometimes you do have to pay attention to the men behind the curtain.

Saturday Ben and I were running around the north metro for his baseball tryouts. Ben, at 11, has now reached the magic age where he enters the regular Little League, the one with the traveling teams, the World Series and the chance for moppets to practice flexing for ESPN. Since Ben plays in the Shoreview Little League, there's a chance some of his peers may do some flexing - this organization sent a team to the Big Dance back in 1997 and is regularly one of the most powerful programs in the state. Since Ben has played in this organization for four years now, he knows how to play and he really enjoys the game, but he is not likely to be chatting up Gardy a decade from now. The Shoreview folks do take this sort of thing seriously. So Ben joined a bunch of other kids for the big tryout on Saturday.

The tryout process is pretty mysterious for a first-time dad like me. We were told to report to Line Drive Sports in Lino Lakes on Saturday morning for an evaluation of Ben's hitting prowess. Line Drive is a batting cage in an industrial complex that was pretty much hiding behind the mess left behind by SNOWMAGEDDON'S BAD-*** COUSIN. I drove right past it on the first approach and realized, once I was approaching Mora or something like that, that I'd overshot a smidge. So I turned around and eventually found the place. The kids were given numbers to wear - Ben was number 571 - and were ushered to the back. Parents were told to stay behind.

So the ritual was shrouded in mystery. At one point the door opened and I was able to catch a quick peek at the set-up. A panel of coaches were sitting high above the kids, looking for all the world like the Supreme Court, except clad in nylon warmup suits. The men appeared to stare impassively at the lads, occasionally writing something on a clipboard. Not a word was spoken, it seemed. While the parents milled around in the pro shop and pawed through the overpriced merchandise, kids would emerge, one by one, either smiling or frowning. After a while, Ben came out with a smirk, an expression he's clearly learned from his father.

"How'd it go, slugger?" I asked.

"I was a little bit rusty, I think," Ben replied. "But I'll get to play in the American League, right?"

"Sure," I said.

Here's what that means. At this age they take the best kids and put them in what is called the National League. Here the top kids, the ones who are eventually headed for the high school varsity, the AAU and all the other tentacles of the sportsocracy in this country, form "traveling" teams that require their parents to essentially sacrifice their social lives for the coming year. Traveling teams are very glamorous, as the kids get to compete all over the area and beyond. Nothing quite beats the fun of a 9 a.m. game in Inver Grove Heights, or maybe an overnight trip to New Ulm. Kids who aren't quite up to this lofty level play in what is called the American League, which is a lot like the league Ben played in last year, except with more spitting, I guess.

Can I be honest? I'm glad that Ben will be in the American League. He'll be able to play, learn and have fun, rather than having some manufacturer's rep/Earl Weaver wannabe eroding Ben's ego with invective or (worse) silence. As a practical matter, the terminus of Ben's baseball career will likely be in beer league softball some day. You don't need expert teaching to play that.

I love baseball, but youth sports get a little too intense sometimes. The game is the thing and I'm glad Ben will be playing this year. Maria will, too. More on that in coming posts.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Brew Crew

Finally, a few words about the True Blue Brew Crew.

It's been 15 years since the Brewers have had a winning record and 25 since they made their only appearance in the World Series. That's a long stretch of futility. Plenty of fine players have come and gone through Milwaukee during the long drought, but the Brewers have always seemed to be short of something - a power bat, defensive acumen, starting pitching. The current braintrust in Milwaukee has been slowly adding talent for years. Last year it looked like things were going to change, but somehow there was yet another epic mid-season collapse. So should we have any expectations in 2007?

Sure. Why not. They are playing baseball in Florida and Arizona right now. This is the time of optimism. And there are reasons for optimism in Milwaukee.

The Brewers should have a good overall lineup. Prince Fielder appears ready to assert himself as a star at first base, showing the tremendous power from that is a family trademark. He is also surprisingly nimble at first base. Rickie Weeks has tremendous talent, but the 2nd baseman has had a difficult time staying healthy. If he can do it, he's a guy who could/should hit 25-30 homers a year. Shortstop J. J. Hardy is another talented fellow, but he's also had a lot of trouble staying healthy. If he can, he could be a lot like the Twins' Jason Bartlett, except with more power. Third base is where things start to look dicey - Corey Koskie is really struggling with post-concussion syndrome and he may not be able to answer the bell this year, which would mean a platoon of Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino at the hot corner. Both Counsell and Graffanino are well-established major leaguers and utter professionals, but both are also the kind of guy you'd prefer to replace in your lineup.

In the outfield, it appears that the Brew Crew will be sorting through some combination of Geoff Jenkins, Kevin Mench, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Corey Hart around centerfielder Bill Hall. Hall moves to the outfield after a spectacular, nomadic year in the Brewer infield. Hall has a big time bat and should be a good fit in center. Jenkins has served the Brewers long and well for many years, but it looks like he may be running out of gas, just as the team may turn the corner. He may hold a place in Brewer history similar to that of Brian Noble, the fine Packer linebacker whose career ended just as the winning began. Hart is a talented guy and looks like a ballplayer, but he was pretty inconsistent last year. If he is ready to take the next step, he could be a 20-25 homer guy who makes the big plays. Mench is an American League player (read: a DH) but he can hit well enough to get some steady at-bats. At catcher, the Brewers picked up Johnny Estrada from the Diamondbacks. Estrada is a better hitter than the Miller/Moeller combo that has been behind the backstop in recent years, but he's not a long-term solution.

The key, as always, will be pitching. In theory the Brewers should have an excellent rotation. Ben Sheets is a big-time talent who has had his last two seasons wrecked by injuries. The question is whether he will rebound, or is he Kerry Wood North? Chris Capuano had a pretty good year given the lack of support he had last season, and Dave Bush is just fine as a number four or number five starter. New acquisition Jeff Suppan was a key to the Cardinals winning the World Series this year, but he's not a top line starter. If he can give the Brewers 12-13 wins and 200 innings, he'll have accomplished a lot. Claudio Vargas pitched well for the D-backs last season, winning 12 games. The Brewers hope he can duplicate that.

Where things went south last season was in the bullpen. Derrick Turnbow is a massively talented guy who developed a bad case of Steve Blass Disease last year. He became completely ineffective after spending the previous year and one-half blowing away the National League. Turnbow still has great stuff; if he gets his head on straight, he could rebound. Meanwhile, Francisco Cordero did well as Turnbow's replacement and projects as a potentially dominant set up man. The Brewers have other relievers who have pitched fairly well in stretches in the recent past, including Matt Wise, Brian Shouse and Jose Capellan. If these guys hold up, the Brewers may be able to close the door after the sixth inning a lot this year.

So how will the Brewers do? Excellent question. The defending world champions are in their division, but the Cardinals had a puzzling off-season where they let key players like Suppan go. You have to assume they will remain tough, but you wonder. The Astros are rebuilding on the fly and remain a dangerous team, but they don't scare you. The Cubs spent a lot of money in the off-season and I suspect that Alfonso Soriano will be an absolute monster in Wrigley Field. But I've seen Ted Lilly pitch and I don't see him making much of a difference; and, at this point, Kerry Wood and Mark Pryor are more likely to appear on a milk carton than in the Cubs dugout. The Reds are hard to read, too - I suspect they will be hanging around at the end, while the Pirates seem mired in the basement. I do love their ballpark, though. Given their neighors, you could make a credible argument for the Brewers winning the division. You could also make an argument that they will finish fifth. So I'll compromise and predict that they come in third.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

SNOWMAGEDDON's bad *** cousin

Mark Twain famously remarked that everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. Sounds about right. As I write we are in the middle of the second big snowstorm of the week. We got a foot over the weekend, now we get the other foot today. Or maybe it's a boot; hard to say. I know which part of my anatomy the footwear is reaching, however.

We have spent a lot of time talking about the weather, or rather the climate, in recent years. You can hardly get through a newscast without hearing the drumbeat about global warming, or climate change, or something like that. I've learned that we are pretty much doomed unless we start letting the government hoover our wallets some more, whether via global carbon taxes, or CO2 emission offsets, or something. No one has precisely explained what's going to happen to the money, but we gotta pony up.

Assuming the teacher's unions don't get all the money first, I guess we're going to have to start writing the big checks, mostly likely with carbon-free inks. I also understand, from those more enlightened minds, that we'll have to change our ways. We may have to stop using gas powered lawn mowers and put the kibosh on the hibachi. If you want to barbecue a steak, you may have to put it under your armpit, which should work when the median earthly temperature is up to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. My understanding is that will be sometime in about 2011 or so.

I'll be sure to do all this, of course. I'm a good citizen and I want to make sure I save the planet for the kids and all that. I am a true believer in Global Warming and I will take all appropriate steps to get my mind right about this. But first I have to find my car under all the snow.