Friday, August 31, 2007

Required reading

As most readers of this feature know, I have an 11-year old son named Ben. Ben will be heading off to middle school this week and thus returning to the tender mercies of the Mounds View School District. Ben loves to read; a fella could get a hernia hoisting all the library books we get during the summertime. Since Ben is such a voracious reader, he manages to cover lots of literary territory. But there's a catch.

Because he's 11, he's quickly moving into oppositional mode when it comes reading suggestions from his dear old Dad. I put together a brief summer reading list for him and he fought me all the way on it. I had three books that I wanted him to read:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Animal Farm, by George Orwell

I think these are sensible enough choices - the first two concern boys and the challenges of growing up in a world where adult supervision is either absent or lacking, while the third is one of the best treatments of the Soviet Union ever recorded, but written in the form of a fairy tale. Well, the boy balked at all of them. He read parts of all three, but put them all aside, instead turning his attention a variety of other books, including several by one of my favorite contemporary authors, the sportswriter John Feinstein. He's also read at least a dozen history-themed books this year, including works on World War I and the American Revolution.

As I ponder Ben's reading choices, I can certainly understand why he might not want to read what I present to him. I was 11 years old back in 1975 and my interests then were similar to his; I read and re-read "Hockey Stars of 1975" at least a dozen times that year. I also muscled up to read William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" that year, mostly to show off. Eleven year old kids are, in the main, contrarians; it would be unfair of me to expect my son to be any different.

But it got me to thinking: what are the books an 11-year old boy should know? One of the biggest challenges we have is that we don't have a commonality of knowledge in ways we used to. You may recall E.D. Hirsch's late 1980s book, "Cultural Literacy." In it Hirsch laments the lack of common knowledge among Americans. I've long agreed with him about this - common knowledge, like common courtesy, common sense and common decency, are actually uncommon these days.

So I'm throwing it open: what are the books an 11-year old boy should know? My readership is usually pretty intelligent and sophisticated, only rarely slack-jawed and drooling, so I'd be curious to see what you think.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The worst day of the year, 17th Anniversary Edition

Seventeen years have passed, but I remember it like yesterday. It was a very long day - I left my apartment in Oak Park, Illinois and took the El to Union Station, where I caught the Amtrak to Milwaukee. My sister met me there and we traveled north to Neenah, Wisconsin, to the Theda Clark Regional Medical Center. She recounted her attendance at the fateful concert at Alpine Valley that had taken place earlier that week. She'd seen Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, guitar heroes all. That night the helicopter carrying Stevie Ray and members of Clapton's road crew slammed into a hillside, killing all aboard and adding Vaughan's name to the roster of rock legends who perished in the Upper Midwest.

It was a beautiful late summer day, sunny and a bit hot, but comfortable enough. My father had been transferred to Theda Clark from St. Elizabeth's in Appleton following quadruple bypass surgery. He had a heart attack two weeks prior and was not really getting better even after the surgery. The doctors explained the dilemma: since Dad had not been able to get up and around, he was in danger of suffering from a pulmonary embolism. While drugs were available to break the clots, they might jeopardize healing from the surgery he'd recently undertaken. Dad was caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as the Police once sang.

We were now there, all six of us. I, the eldest, newly engaged, had been the last to arrive. Two of the siblings were still in high school. And we waited. The doctors and nurses would come and go, bringing periodic reports, decidedly non-committal in tone. My dad's best friend, himself a doctor, came by and told us that he didn't like what he'd seen. The longer we waited, the better it might be, but a pulmonary embolism is a serious problem and it could happen at any time.

As night fell, we left the hospital to get something to eat. We headed to the Appleton outpost of George Webb, the legendary greasy spoon that was a Wisconsin tradition, with locations seemingly on every street corner in Milwaukee. We tucked into massive plates of grease and tried to forget, if only for a moment. With visiting hours over, we headed home, hopeful that the silence was golden and that maybe, just maybe, things would turn out. One of my brothers returned to his home in Milwaukee, hoping that maybe he'd not need to return that night.

Around 10:20, the phone rang. I picked up the call. The nurse said that Dad wasn't doing too well and that we should come back to the hospital. "We're on the way," I replied, without inflection. We piled into a few cars and headed back to Theda Clark. Once we got there, the news was grim. A clot had formed and had traveled to Dad's lungs - a pulmonary embolism. The only hope was surgery, and the odds weren't good. Could someone give us permission to perform it? My stepmother said, yes, yes, please perform the surgery.

We headed for the chapel and prayed. Meanwhile, my brother sped back from Milwaukee, hoping to arrive in time to provide his support and prayers. But the odds were against us and eventually the news was bad. At 11:50 p.m., Dad was gone.

So many things have happened since that day, 17 long years ago. I married my fiancee and we've had a wonderful marriage that has produced two beautiful children. My siblings have long since entered adulthood and two of them are now parents as well. We've had tremendous fun and more than a few heartaches since that day. We lost our stepmother 8 years later and our mother two years after that, both victims of their 40+ year addictions to cigarettes. Those days were horribly sad, too, but likely inevitable.

The sense I've always had was that Dad wasn't ready to go. On his deathbed, he was gripping the railings, as if fighting to keep himself from leaving. He knew, I'm guessing, that he was leaving way too soon, and fought like hell to stay, even if Heaven beckoned. I can only hope that they have wonderful windows in Heaven, because I'd want him to know how wonderful his grandchildren are, that the young lady he admired has turned out to be a fantastic wife, mother and daughter-in-law, and that his boy is proud to be his son. Seventeen years on, even as I shed a tear or two, I trust he does know these things.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

12-inch collars again in Milwaukee

This is getting really old. For what seems like the millionth time, my beloved Brewers are fading as the pennant races get serious. This year the starting pitching has gone south, featuring kerosene-drenched Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush and their DL list pals, Ben Sheets and Claudio Vargas. The Brew Crew should be running away in the dismal NL Central; indeed, they were running away back in May. But now that August is fading into September, the Brewers find themselves in 3rd place.

The beneficiaries of this slide may turn out to be the Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a pennant in over 60 years. They make a fine role model for my Brewers. As much as I love baseball, the cruelty of rooting for these silly Brewers makes me think my son Ben is correct; Ben is an avid Twins fan and hates the Brewers with a passion that defies reason. The kid may be on to something....

The senator from Ida-ho

Bugs Bunny put it best: what a maroon. For about 20 seconds, once I read the writeup in today's Star Tribune about Senator Larry Craig's wide stance and close encounter with a vice cop out at the airport, I was thinking that it was possible for that maybe, just maybe, his actions had been misconstrued. But then I remembered experiencing similar behavior in a public rest room in Milwaukee years ago, when I was still young and generally unaware of such things. I never did tumble to the meaning of the commotion in the stall next to mine and I went about my business and left without understanding what it was about. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

So, what do you do with this guy? My personal wish is that he goes back to Boise or wherever he's from and leaves our vice cops alone; perhaps he can join the cast of the Napoleon Dynamite sequel or something. But he clearly doesn't belong in the Senate. One other thing - I wish these dudes would stop dragging their wives up on stage with them. He should have had Jim McGreevey or someone vouch for him, rather than forcing a victimized spouse to share the withering glare of the spotlight.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Will the last member of the Bush administration please turn out the lights?

First it was Rove, now it's Alberto. Pretty soon the D's won't have anyone left to have indignant press conferences about. Alberto Gonzales has resigned as Attorney General, hounded out in large measure because of a completely phony scandal.

I'm torn. On balance, I don't think he did a very good job on a lot of issues. He also was singularly ineffective in dealing with the demagoguery currently emanating from Capitol Hill. But at the same time, I surely don't enjoy seeing Charles Schumer and Pat Leahy taking victory laps right now. The standard-issue Washington politics these days have gotten way to Borgia-esque for my blood. Of course my blood is the least of Washington's concerns these days.

The question remains: what to do. Back in March I made a somewhat tongue in cheek suggestion that Bush should replace Alberto G. with Amy Klobuchar, the silly woman that Minnesotans inexplicably sent to Washington last fall. My rationale was that she wouldn't be able to refuse the job, and by accepting the appointment, T-Paw could name her replacement and turn control of the Senate back to the Republicans, thereby putting Schumer, Leahy, Biden, Levin and the rest of the worthies back in their cages. Or, in a better alternative, we'd have her on record as refusing to help her country, or better yet, have the spectacle of the Democrats rejecting her nomination in order to keep her in the Senate. Lots of potential mischief there....

It won't happen, of course, but I still would like to see Bush do something that would really upset the applecart. I continue to believe that the Democrats have wildly overplayed their hand since taking control of Congress and that a little presidential jujitsu might lead to a very surprising and gratifying result in the 2008 election cycle.

But I'm guessing boldness is not going to be forthcoming. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the choice turns out to be someone like Patrick Fitzgerald. The rumors appear to be Michael Chertoff, but he's probably too closely aligned to Rudy Giuliani and the D's would look to sink him in any confirmation hearings.

I'm telling you - send Amy K to Justice!

Friday, August 24, 2007

State Fair

Minnesota, Minnesota
We are south of Manitoba
We are east of North Dakota
We’ve got something really rare

And that would be, in the words of Ann Reed, the State Fair. And that’s where the Dilettante clan was yesterday, wandering the soggy fairgrounds and ducking half-eaten corndogs and various corn-fed fairgoers, often attired in ways that are, shall we say, interesting, in the Chinese curse sense of the term.

We went there on opening day, also known as “Thrifty Thursday,” because some of the prices are somewhat reduced, a primary consideration these days. Since I have relatively young children, we end up spending a lot of time on the Kidway, where my motivated children blow through hard-earned cash at an alarming pace. If you buy in advance, you can get 20 ride tickets for about $10; if you don’t and succumb to the whining, you pay about 75 cents a ticket at the Fair itself. Considering the rides usually require 4-5 tickets, a kid can blow through $10 in about 20 minutes time, even on a “Thrifty Thursday.” Our strategy is to come and go from the Kidway as much as we can; temporary departures allow the Mrs. and I a bit of sanity and a few less whiffs of the carnies, to say nothing of keeping the kids from getting bored while we view things that are more interesting to us.

So what’s interesting at the Fair this year? Here are a few things:

Prices are up on food, in some cases a lot. Like most fairgoers, we have a usual ritual for the food we buy; the kids and I always have a “Pickle on a Stick” and we usually go for some Sweet Martha’s cookies at the end. The pickles were up 50 cents this year, from $1.50 to $2, while a bucket of Sweet Martha cookies is now a stiff $13, up $2 from last year’s $11. We didn’t bother with the bucket this year; the cookies are good, but not $13 good. If you plan to go to the fair and do it right, expect to pay at least $25/person for food. We didn’t try anything new, but early word is that O’Gara’s has a new version of corned beef and cabbage on a stick that’s pretty good; kind of combination corn dog/Irish egg roll, from what I could tell.

We managed to get the kids on television last night – we sat in the stands for Channel 4’s 5 p.m. newscast and the last shot of the broadcast featured Ben and Maria, waving wildly for the camera. Their grandparents saw it, so my kids have now used up about 15 seconds of the 15 minutes of fame they are allotted. It’s interesting to sit in on one of these newscasts, just to watch the producers and camera people at work. There’s a lot of artifice involved in television production and the process of putting together a broadcast requires a lot of work. I also enjoyed being a quiet smart-aleck while sitting in the stands. I’ve always had a little Statler and Waldorf in me and I made a few of my fellow spectators laugh by suggesting that Channel 4 anchorette Jeannette Trompeter has a cousin named Jeanette Saxophonist.

The best deal for kids is the “Little Farm Hands” exhibit on the far north edge of the Fairgrounds. It’s free and the kids get a good feeling for how a farm actually works. Last year we volunteered to help at this exhibit and it was exceptionally hard work, but from the customer side it’s pretty neat. And the kids can even get a free can of green beans for you to lug around the Fairgrounds the rest of the day.

We didn’t see it, but there’s a new North Woods exhibit, also on the far north edge of the Fairgrounds, which looked pretty cool.

Since it’s an off year for elections, we didn’t see a lot of politicians. That itself is a big improvement, although you can still be the first kid on your block to get an Al Franken button if you really want something like that. I sure don’t, but such things are available.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Barney's Clubhouse Pow

If you grew up in the Green Bay area during the late 70s – early 80s, you’ll remember this reference. But all it does is set up another round of bullets. Sorry about that, fellow nostalgic cheeseheads!

  • The blame game continues on the bridge, with the odious Nick Coleman now feeling bold enough to assign the entire responsibility to T-Paw and his henchwoman, Carol “Frau Blucher” Molnau. But now word comes that the NTSB is investigating something that I suspected from the moment I first heard about the collapse – the automatic de-icing system that had been installed on the bridge back in the late 1990s. That would have been during the administration of Jesse Ventura, whose MnDOT commissioner was Elwyn Tinklenberg, the fellow who was first out of the gate in blaming the current administration for the collapse. Tinklenberg managed to get his shots in on the day of the collapse itself, so sure was he of culpability. Here’s the thing – the de-icing system is likely one factor, since it released chemicals that may have helped to corrode the structural steel bridge supports. But it’s only one factor – the 288 tons of construction equipment parked on the bridge, the years of pigeon guano (as always, minty fresh!) and the normal wear and tear of 40 years of extraordinarily heavy use were all factors. But let’s not reality get in the way of a good witch-hunt. Nick Coleman would have felt right at home in Salem, Mass back in 1692.
  • Some weird stuff in baseball over the past few days, and all you have to do is look at one team that was involved – the woebegone Texas Rangers. The Rangers were absolutely handcuffed by our Johan Santana on Sunday, striking out 17 times over 8 innings. This same team went into Baltimore and put up 30 runs in a single game last night. Baseball is the most capricious of our games – while the better team usually wins, strange things like this happen. Meanwhile, I know the Rangers lead the league in twill lettering on the back of their uniforms, thanks to Frank Cattalanato and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. They ought to get those two on an Olive Garden commercial or something.
  • We’re going to the State Fair this afternoon. The kids really love going and we rarely miss it. It’s difficult to explain to a non-Minnesotan how big a deal the State Fair is in this state; it’s really part of the DNA. I didn’t understand it until I went – growing up in Wisconsin, the State Fair there is not really that big a deal. But it is here. We’ll have a full report on our exploits anon.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Three feet high and rising

Things 'round here are getting almost Biblical. The Month of Ghosts began with the horrific 35W bridge collapse and now we have seen torrential flooding in southeastern Minnesota over the weekend. Some of the footage from the area is simply mind-boggling and the sudden fury of the water reminds us of how little control we really have over our world. While I have struggled with my health and my continuing lack of suitable employment, I really haven't lost anything that absolutely matters in the last 16 months, least of all my life.

While I am faithful, I do struggle with my faith from time to time. God's plan is so far beyond my reckoning that I find myself chafing at the limitations of my own intellect. I marvel at the certitude of so many people, especially those whom I find myself disagreeing with politically. It must be comforting to have all the answers.

It's now been nearly 17 years since I lost my father and 7 years since I lost my mother, both in the month of August. It's long been a bad month for me, but 2007 has been a bad month for many other Minnesotans. I do hope that we all get some peace in the remaining time we have this month.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A boy like that will kill your brother

That’s because he’s got a gun and he’s not afraid to use it.

  • Don’t look now, but here come the Cardinals. The Brewers have apparently decided that they aren’t ready to dispense with their 25 years of ineptitude and the team that beat them way back in ’82 is now coming on. What a terrible week in Milwaukee so far. It’s been so much fun watching this young team play, but they’d better get their act together soon. A healthy Ben Sheets would help, too.
  • So my beloved alma mater, Beloit College, now ranks 67th in the U.S. News survey of national liberal arts colleges, tied with Kalamazoo College in both academic prestige and odd-sounding names. There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about the U.S. News rankings, which are positively Byzantine in how they are derived, but it’s not especially encouraging to see your school graded as some sort of poor man’s Bard or (worse) Lawrence. I think we beat out Normandale Community College, so that’s something, I guess. One thing I did learn from the rankings – I had no idea that Grinnell (ranked 11th) is sitting on a $1.4 billion endowment. They’ve got more money than King Canute.
  • They’re still fighting over the bridge here, not surprisingly. The design that has been put forth is sadly lacking in sacred light rail amenities, which seems to irritate people who had never thought of adding light rail to 35W before the bridge collapse. The train seems to hypnotize people here, who continue to talk about a great success it is and how it could change everything, even as we continue to provide multi-million dollar subsidies to keep it running. It doesn’t look like the choo-choo fans are going to screw up the timetable for rebuilding because of their kvetching, but it won’t be for a lack of effort. Maybe R.T. Rybak and his fellow light rail fans can get Grinnell College can help pay for the light rail – won’t hurt to ask, right?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Blogging with the Benmeister

So my son Ben is here with me this afternoon and he's going to help me out with this particular post. Since he hates my beloved Brewers, I'm going to censor him from commenting on that particular subject, but he may have something else to say - let's find out, shall we?

What's the matter with you? You let me guest blog, and now you're going to censor me? Well, I'm going to rip you in an attack ad right now, so bring it on, Dilettante! Actually, I'm not as hostile as I sound on the blog. After all of these violent words, I'm going to leave it to my associate here, who is going to tell you how glorious I really am. And don't forget to read my blog,, for all the latest rips.

Ben is actually a sweet kid, although he comes on like Jim Rome without the cheesy mustache sometimes. No one in our family has a cheesy mustache - we leave that sort of thing to certain California-based associates of ours.

Actually, Ben has a beef that we're currently investigating. Ben is the proud owner of a Game Boy Advance gadget and he has long been known as an inveterate gamester. He has eagerly purchased the three previous versions of EA Sports' Madden video game juggernaut. Unfortunately, it appears that Madden o8 is not going to be available in the Game Boy format. This is part of the usual planned obsolescence scam that is so prevalent in this industry - essentially, by no longer making new titles in the GBA format, kids (or more to the point parents) are forced to buy newer, more expensive systems (like the Nintendo DS, which is roughly double the price of the GBA and has the added feature of a flimsy stylus that is easy for children to lose and has about a $10 replacement cost). Ben is, not surprisingly, pretty p.o.'ed about this and he may consider launching some form of protest. I hope he succeeds - he shares the family loudmouth traits and he can be articulate, even when he's ripping my beloved Brewers. He'll have plenty to say about this in the coming days. And I just might, too.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Try our hubris, I swear! No really, I'm swearing! #@(!

Once in a while I pop in and visit a nest of liberals at the Star Tribune. They have a number of blog sites, including The Big Question, which is their ostensibly political blog. It was originally started by their long-term political reporter, Eric Black, who was one of the bigfoots who left the Strib during the recent wave of buyouts. The site is now run by D.J. Tice, who directs political coverage for the Strib and used to be the house conservative columnist at the Pioneer Press.

The format there is typical of many political blogs - the host posts an article or question about something political, then turns it over to various posters. I would estimate that probably 75% of the posters there are lefties of varying degrees, including at least one fairly active political operative named Bill Prendergast, who is a regular contributor to the "Dump Bachmann" website dedicated to the political destruction of our favorite Minnesota holy roller congresswoman (you can find the link yourself if you're so inclined).

As I said, I like to stop by from time to time and throw a few turds in their punchbowl. While Tice and his predecessor Black always have sought some measure of civility, the lefties are like most lefties; i.e., arrogant and condescending. On that site I have been compared to a trained monkey and to Benito Mussolini because of my views, which not surprisingly I find quite persuasive. I have to bow before such erudition.

I've suggested to a few posters there that, if they really interested in having their side run the country, they might be better served to limit their invective and actually try to make cogent arguments and take a less, shall we say ad hominem approach. Interestingly, they have no use for my advice. The tone is usually something like "if you want me to be civil toward the people who have destroyed this nation and brought us Chimpy McBushsatanhitler Buscho corruption and sank our international reputation to an all time low and [insert your favority lefty talking points here], I refuse! #@* *(#&@(#, I won't be silent about it!"

Oh, and #@*#( Halliburton, too. And #@*(# Dale Carnegie, for that matter. @*#(@(#.

Sometimes I wonder, do these people really understand what they sound like? Do they understand that the dripping condescension and arrogance they display is singularly unattractive? Or are they so committed to their hatred, their rage against the injustices they perceive, that they can't get how crappy they appear?

Guess not. And that's why I think the Democrats may not want to be too sure of their inevitability in the next election cycle. One of the many reasons why Karl Rove was successful is that he often simply let the Democrats monologue, as they say in "The Incredibles." No matter what you think of W's performance, and the performance of the Republican party in recent years, they don't go around actively insulting vast portions of the populace. That might at least partially explain some of their electoral success over the past 30 years.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Weaponless in Seattle

Q. What do you have when you have to bring in half your AAA team as position players?

1) The Minnesota Twins
2) The Rochester Redwings masquerading as the Minnesota Twins
3) No chance
4) All of the above

The answer is obviously 4). And that is why the Twins are getting their butts beaten up and down the West Coast. You cannot win if you cannot score. And typically, AAA lineups do not beat big league teams, especially the very good ones in the AL West.

There’s been a lot of speculation about the job Terry Ryan has done this year, but I think it’s been pretty evident from the start that this year’s team was going to be short. There was a lot of magic in the air about the Twins last year, which led to some unrealistic expectations. There was a reason why Nick Punto had never held a regular job in the major leagues before last season, to use just one example. The Twins are scrappy and have some legitimate star power, but their everyday lineup simply does not compare to that of the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Indians, Angels or Mariners. Not surprisingly, those are the teams that are leaving dust in the faces of the Twins. Remember, Twins fans – there’s always plenty of room on the Brewers bandwagon!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Rove if you want to

So Karl Rove is leaving the White House. What does it mean?

My guess - not as much as you'd think. I've long suspected that Rove's main role in the White House has been more as a sounding board than as a brilliant strategist/surrogate brain. One of the more amusing memes of the Bush presidency has been the dichotomy between Bush the dumb-ass and Bush the Evil Genius. Over the course of W's presidency, he's been called both, often by the same people. It's not really possible to be a dumb-ass Evil Genius, so there's more than a little bit of cognitive dissonance in this critique. Thus, Karl Rove, Bush's closest advisor, must be some sort of Rasputin who manipulates Chimpy McBushitler (or whatever the current apellation is) to come up with the evil yet bumbling machinations that have characterized the last 6-7 years. Bush couldn't have come up with anything on his own, because he's too stupid, the reasoning goes. Never mind that a lot of these critics of Bush's acumen tend to have their terminal degree from places like Inver Hills Community College, not Yale and Harvard. Perhaps the evil genius side of Bush was able to trick these august institutions into awarding him degrees. But I digress.

Anyway, it's never made a lot of sense to assume that Rove is doing Bush's thinking. He is a key adviser, without question. He is also a very good, not great, political strategist. But I suspect we'll learn that his influence in the Bush White House, while substantial, was not necessarily decisive. And I suspect that we'll learn, 20-25 years on, that Bush is a lot smarter and more sophisticated than his critics have portrayed him. Reagan has recently gone through this sort of revisionism. When the historians get to the subject, it's going to look a lot different than it does now.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Five minutes

That's all I have today. How much blogging can I get in? Let's find out. Go!

  • Packers 13, Pittsburgh 9. Defense is good. Brandon Jackson appears serviceable. Aaron Rodgers leads three scoring drives. A good start.
  • Rams 13, Vikings 10. No offense. Tarvaris Jackson appears to be as good as the 70s dance band Tavares. Heaven must be missing an angel....
  • Revised global warming data from NASA indicates that 1934, not 1998, is warmest year on record. Yep, let's fundamentally alter our way of life because of computer models that end up getting revised.
  • Romney wins Iowa straw poll. Of course he did. Still not sure we'll ever have a president named Mitt.
  • Booker T and the MGs play Dakota with local drummer pinch-hitting. Doesn't matter; any drummer worth a darn would know their material. Wish I'd been there.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I love a parade

We’re now in the middle of my community’s annual summer celebration. I live in the blissfully non-descript community of New Brighton, Minnesota, and each August we celebrate New Brighton’s quasi-agricultural past with the “Stockyard Days” celebration. At one point, about 100 years ago, New Brighton was a railroad stop and was the site of some stockyards, which eventually lost out to the massive operations in St. Paul and South St. Paul. The centerpiece of the celebration is the Stockyard Days parade, which runs down Old Highway 8, one of the ugliest streets in the Twin Cities. Using Old 8 for the parade route is a lot like holding a home tour in the mud room, but that’s what we do. I guess if it gets dirty, no one cares.

Stockyard Days is a good peg for such an event, because it gives a discernible theme for the parade and it thoroughly confuses all the neighboring suburban beauty queens on display. The lovelies from Hopkins and Anoka and Lino Lakes and Vadnais Heights and other such places show up with tiaras, permanents and ball gowns and then end up smashing a Stetson on their heads. Suddenly they all look vaguely like Debra Winger circa 1980 and you want to look for the Lone Star and the mechanical bulls. But that’s not what this parade is about, ultimately.

Candy is what the parade is really about. Just ask my son, who brought a plastic shopping bag to the parade and collected about 4 pounds of candy that had been tossed from the various parade units. I am not exaggerating this – he typically hauls in a lot less candy at Halloween than he does at this parade. My favorite part was when a local dental clinic was just about carpet bombing the crowd with hard candy; this is an excellent way to drum up business.

My daughter Maria had a chance to march this year with her Brownie troop. She was very happy to do so and she managed to fling candy at her brother, just like everyone else did.

Since this is an off year for elections, there weren’t nearly as many politicians on display. It also seemed like the air was cleaner, but I have to assume that was coincidental.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Stampeding over a collapsed bridge

Even as the work continues and the sixth body is removed from the river, the politics of the 35W bridge collapse are starting to heat up. Frankly, it's beginning to feel like a stampede.

Yesterday our old pal James Oberstar, the wizened Iron Ranger who has managed through seniority and attrition to become one of the most powerful Congressmen in Washington, announced that he was going to seek a 5 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax to fund infrastructure. This would be on top of whatever increase the state might add in a special legislative session. The ever-earnest Oberstar swears that the federal increase would be "only" for 3 years. But that's not how it works in Washington - as I recall, the AMT was a temporary measure as well, but it's still on the books and has been steadily capturing more and more unsuspecting taxpayers since its introduction in the late 1960s.

You can make an argument that the nation's infrastructure has been neglected. The 35W bridge actually looked better to my untrained eye than many other bridges I've traveled over the years; if you want to see a really scary bridge, take the U.S. 52 bridge over the Mississippi at Savanna, IL some time. I have seen estimates that it would take something like $1.3 trillion to bring the current infrastructure "up to code." If we think doing this is a priority, we're talking Marshall Plan type numbers.

But here is the question - is it necessary? While the 35W bridge collapse was a horrific event, does it follow that we're going to see a whole bunch of other bridges collapse in the near future? Or, more likely, will this one event cause local governments throughout the nation to step up their efforts to monitor and repair the infrastructure they have jurisdiction over? And will these repairs require an increase in the gasoline tax? Or could the money come from judicious cuts of other programs, like (to use local examples) the subsidies for the Guthrie Theater and the new Twins ballpark?

I know, it's impolitic to ask these sorts of questions, especially in the wake of a tragedy. It's "playing politics" and it's crass. Only Democrats are allowed to do these things. By the way, have we put Carol Molnau on the pyre yet? C'mon, c'mon, it's getting late.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Mischievious mysteries (featuring guest blogger Maria)

I'm here this afternoon with Maria, my lovely seven year old daughter. Maria would like to discuss mischievious mysteries. So, let's see what happens:

First, let's ask - how's Lenny doing? Lenny is my nickname for my brother, Ben. Second, who are the teachers for me and Ben/Lenny this year? Well, oh well, we'll find out. That's the mysteries part.

Now on the mischievious part. I'll bet Ben is up to something today. Like, when we were playing with Ben's GameBoy, he kept talking to the Pokemon and saying stuff like, "Yes, power! Yes! We're going for the death!" I kept telling him, the game isn't just about getting power. You can actually have some love with the Pokemon. Oh well, we'll find out what he's up to. Now, back to Dad. Ahhhhh, barra barracuda!

I would note that the classic rock reference contained therein is completely Maria's. She has a lot of musical influences and wants to be a rock star some day. There is the matter of getting the electric guitar and amp, and putting up with a little bit of screeching before she learns how to do the wailing solos, but I wouldn't bet against her. At a minimum, I'd guess she'll be better than most of the mopes who appear on American Idol.

Kids have a lot of dreams. So do I. And we're working on them every day. Always good to have my guest blogger Maria around - you can also find her at, and you can also find my son at, where we rages eloquently against Barry Bonds. We do present all sides here at Mr. Dilettante.

Bonds gets the record

So it happened last night. The lovely wife and I saw the shot live on ESPN. Now he’s got the record. Mrs. D was not happy and my son was incensed this morning when I told him about it. I say: Go get ‘em, A-Rod….

p.s. Henry Aaron’s pre-recorded message was quite effective and classy. Totally in character and great to see, just like Hank Aaron’s career.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Comparative Literature

Most colleges have a comparative literature program, which typically allows young people to spend lots of their parents’ hard-earned money and plenty of Pell Grant taxpayer largesse to read obscure authors in tandem with the deep thoughts of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and similar literary parlor-trick artists. You can learn something in such programs – like how to bore the crap out of someone at a cocktail party. But it’s usually not a productive venture, no matter how much you spend on tuition, and it’s often a ticket to a post-grad barista gig.

Despite those caveats, I was thinking about the value of comparing ideas from different realms because of two books I’m currently reading. The first is a book I’ve been meaning to get to for some time now, Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower,” which provides a valuable and readable history of the origins of Al-Qaeda by detailing the careers of Osama bin Laden, Zayman al-Zawahiri and the various blackguards and henchmen that are part of the Al-Qaeda orbit. At the same time, I have been re-reading one of my favorite novels, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” I have put “Lord of the Flies” on my 11-year old son’s summer reading list and I wanted to refresh myself with it before he starts into the book. I have long believed that “Lord of the Flies” is one of the best parables of modern life that you could find and in re-reading it, I remain convinced of it. I think every boy should read this book, because the story explains, in ways better than I am capable, the principal problem of civilization. That is, how do you control the impulses of young men?

As I look at “The Looming Tower,” I am struck by how much the problem in the Middle East, and in Islam generally, is really not that exotic at all, despite the barbarism that has marked the Islamist movement. The problem in so many of the places is pretty simple – you have a lot of young men who have directionless lives, filled with boredom and arbitrary rules. Poverty is not the problem; as has been consistently demonstrated, some of the worst of the Al-Qaeda operatives have been scions of the middle and upper classes in their respective countries. What has happened is that the Salafist strain of Islam, combined with the notion of takfir, have been combined in a way that essentially allows these folks to take whatever action they need to accomplish their goal, even if that means killing thousands of innocent people, often in the most barbaric ways. Al-Qaeda gives these directionless youths something to believe in, and something that is especially powerful since it gives them dominion over others. It becomes pretty easy to see the similarities between Jack Merridew and bin Laden, to say nothing of the similarities between Piggy and, say, the modern Democratic Party.

I commend both books to your attention. If you’d like another book that would also make a good companion to this topic, try Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer.”

I'm in the MOB now

Groucho Marx famously remarked that he would never want to be part of any club that would have him as a member. But I don't hang on Groucho's every word, so it was high time that I finally moved this enterprise into an orbit with other bloggers. As a result, I have now joined the MOB, i.e., the Minnesota Organization of Bloggers. This group of bloggers includes a number of particular favorites of mine and I highly recommend that you stop by. I will be constructing a blog roll that contains the name of all these blogs and will add it to this site in the coming days. Make sure you visit some of the other blogs in the MOB; as Bill Cosby used to say on "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" you just might learn something before it's done. Hey hey hey!

Monday, August 06, 2007


We're now five days on after the collapse of the 35W bridge over the Mississippi River. There's a lot of work to be done in surveying the site, removing the debris and most of all recovering the victims who remain trapped underneath tons of concrete and the murky waters. There's no doubt that this has been a traumatic time around here, but I sense that we won't be wallowing in the event too much longer. There's simply too much work to be done and Minnesotans aren't generally in the habit of indulging self-pity.

We went downtown on Saturday to see the Twins game, but our trip was fairly circuitous, so we didn't get very close the bridge itself. Since it was a weekend, it wasn't especially difficult to get around the downtown area. We decided to avoid the 3rd Avenue bridge, which is the closest to 35W, instead choosing to go about 1/2 mile further to the west to use the Hennepin Avenue bridge. That worked very well and it is very easy for us to take East Hennepin over to Stinson Boulevard, then snake our way through the industrial areas of Nordeast back to Highway 88 and home. This is a workable trip under normal circumstances; when I used to work downtown and had to drive, I would often take this path to get home, especially if the traffic reports for 35W were not promising, and they often weren't. One of the advantages of living where we do is that it is pretty easy to get most places in the Twin Cities; although New Brighton is technically a St. Paul suburb, we live only 2 miles from the edge of Nordeast. Although we'll have to see how things develop, the immediate impact of the bridge collapse has not been that onerous for us personally; it's quite possible that many of us who relied on the bridge will be able to figure out ways to minimize the impact.

We've only seen glimpses thus far, but it's inevitable that the long knives will be coming out about this matter. Personally I don't think it makes any sense to blame anyone for what was clearly a multi-factorial disaster, but there have already been some calls for the head of Carol Molnau, who runs MnDOT. Not surprisingly, the calls have come from the hyperpartisans among us, like the ever-frothing StarTribune columnist Nick Coleman. But I don't think Molnau will ultimately take a bullet on this; while there are reasons to wonder about the bridge inspection program, most of the people who have been complaining loudest about it are people like me, i.e., people with no particular expertise on bridges and/or structural engineering. My guess is that once the investigations run their course, it will turn out that no one factor was decisive in what happened. Sometimes people do the right thing and the result is still terrible.

One thing that unfortunately hasn't surprised me is that many of the victims are neighbors of ours, including two people from neighboring Mounds View and another from my former town of Shoreview. 35W is best known as the main path to the southern suburbs, but those who cross the bridge are, in the main, headed for the staid enclaves of northwestern Ramsey County. There are a lot of us who live up this way and generally the communities we live in are not especially newsworthy; my town is most noteworthy for its complete lack of noteworthiness. Most of us live quiet lives, filled with church picnics, Little League games and neighborhood parades where the dignitaries throw fistfuls of candy to the kids along the route. Those routines won't change much, I think - the kids got enough candy from the St. Anthony parade on Friday that their haul rivaled what they get at Halloween. Life goes on.

The media bigfoots are leaving town now; W was here, but he's gone on to other matters as well. While it may not be normal for a long time, we'll adjust. We're Minnesotans. That's what we do.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A new venture

I'm starting a new side venture blog - Comedy Acres. You will find this blog at Comedy Acres will be a gathering place for my old collegiate chums. We'll be posting lots of things there, although I have no idea what it will ultimately develop into. Mr. Dilettante remains as it is.

More soon, including thoughts on the ongoing story that is dominating things here, the collapse of the I-35W bridge.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A terrible beauty is born

The images, now ubiquitous, are horrifying. The twisted green metal superstructure, tangled and jutting out at bizarre angles, providing a reminder of the incredible force unleashed. The slab of concrete blocks the river flow, with equally large slabs jutting out from the shoreline below, pointing toward the hazy, August sky. The cars, buses and trucks are scattered throughout the site, with unknown numbers of late model vehicles submerged under tons of steel and concrete.

It’s a horrifying thing, the collapse of a major bridge. The rumble of death will reverberate here for a long time. This is the stuff of disaster movies, a Jerry Bruckheimer image writ large and real. We’ll live with the consequences of August 1, 2007 for many years.

Still, there is beauty if you look for it. The performance of the first responders was magnificent; the death toll could have easily reached 100, maybe 200 people, but most likely will be far less. The police and fire departments of Minneapolis, so often the well-deserved targets of invective and ridicule for their petty corruption and silly political correctness, performed with grace, professionalism and amazing calm, given the extent of the calamity they found. The paramedics and doctors arriving on the scene were ready, moved quickly, and saved dozens of people. The Red Cross, whose Minneapolis headquarters sits nearby the scene, provided valuable services and comforted the victims and their families. Even the politicians, so often a hindrance rather than a help, performed with grace and restraint, with at least one notable exception, about which more in a moment.

We were far away from the event as it happened, fetching the weekly groceries. We had no idea what had happened and had turned on WCCO radio, more because we noted a line of storms on the western horizon and were looking for a weather update. As we drove home from the store on 35W, about 10 miles north of the site, it became clear that something horrific had happened. The answering machine was already filling with concerned calls from my relatives in Wisconsin. I have crossed the 35W bridge thousands of times in the 15 years I’ve lived in Minnesota and my relatives knew that. It is quite possible that when the list of victims becomes known, I will know someone who was on that bridge at the fateful moment; many of my friends and neighbors use this bridge each day. I hope not, but all of us who live and work in the northern suburbs must prepare for the possibility. All the victims, whether we know them or not, will need our prayers and support.

I am certain that the recriminations will start coming, even before the scene is cleared and the victims identified. It already started last night, as I watched the execrable Elwyn Tinklenberg on KARE television essentially state that the bridge collapsed because the state had not raised the gasoline tax up to a level of his liking. There will be others who will blame Carol Molnau, or Tim Pawlenty. We could just as easily blame Karl Rolvaag or Harold LeVander, the respective governors who presided over the construction of the bridge back in the late 1960s. Neither of them is available for comment at this time.

I hope the recriminations don’t come, though. They are not helpful. What matters now is identifying the victims and comforting their families. What matters next is rebuilding the bridge. We have work to do.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Return to the Month of Ghosts

We're back to August, the month of ghosts. As regular readers of this feature will recall, this is the month in which both of my parents died; my father in 1990, my mother in 2000. While there's a lot to like about August, especially in the Upper Midwest - the warm days, the beautiful sunsets, the State Fair - it's personally difficult for me to not think about the losses my family has had during this time of year.

Still, I'm trying to face the future. Sadness is normal enough, I suppose - I think about my parents every day. I long for their counsel, their support, their love. You don't realize how much you miss those things until it's too late. But the lessons I learned from my parents work in new contexts as well. When I consider how Jill and I are raising our own children, I can clearly see how my own childhood has profoundly affected the decisions I've made in my life, especially where the kids are concerned.

Okay, I promise not to go all introspective this month. There's plenty of stuff to write about in politics, sports, music, etc. But know that the ghosts are out again. And they may alight here in the next month on more than one occasion.