Monday, August 31, 2009

I'm A Fair-Weather Fan

One week from today, Labor Day, I could be sitting in Miller Park, in fabulous seats seven rows directly behind home plate, watching the Brewers and the Cardinals in what might have been a very important National League Central Division Battle.

But I won’t be.

I’ll probably be puttering around the house, closing up the pool for the season, or getting in my wife’s way as she grills something fabulous. We’ve both lost interest in the baseball season. We put our fabulous seats at Miller Park for next Monday’s game for sale to the highest bidder, and will buy some expensive meat to toss on the grill, or something.

My wife, as I have mentioned in the past, is a die-hard Cubs fan, and she had a fun season last year. So did I, as a die-hard Brewers fan. Who could forget the last game of the regular season, against the Cubs, with Sabathia on the mound and the win that got the Brewers the Wild Card berth - against the Phillies, who promptly dispatched the beer men and went on to win the World Series. All this, as the Dodgers destroyed her Cubs in the first round.

So we greeted the return of the season this year with an unforgettable trip to Arizona and Spring Training, and that high-angle Cactus League sun stoked our fires in anticipation of the regular season. We spent my 60th birthday at the end of May at Miller Park, tailgating with our kids before the game, and watching the Brewers beat the Reds 5-2.

But by the time my wife’s birthday arrived late in July, the Brewers were on the ropes and the Cubs were playing like dopes. Now, neither team has a realistic shot at the playoffs, and the Cards seem to be unstoppable.

Back when we bought the fabulous Labor Day seats in June, we had it all doped out: it would not only be a pleasant day at one of our very favorite sports venues, but the game would have huge significance: while the Cubs were off in Pittsburgh, the Brewers would be battling the Cards in a game we thought would have a major impact on not only the division race, but on the wild card standings as well.

Not so much, as it turns out.

So we’ll be homebodies over the long holiday weekend approaching, doing domestic tasks at half-speed. I’ll probably turn on the Brewers game for background in the afternoon. My wife will check in on her Cubbies with her iPod as we enjoy the extra weekend day.

But I know, as sure as I’m sitting in front of my computer typing this now, that as we descend into the depth of winter, at some point I’ll say to my wife….”think we ought to spend the money to go to Spring Training this year?”

And I know what the answer will be.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Beer and the UW

They used to joke that the largest draft beer account in Dane County was the University of Wisconsin. It’s probably not true, but when you consider the amount of beer that flows from the taps at the Union Terrace and Der Rathskeller, it’s got to be a lot of suds. Any place that’s got Spotted Cow, Guinness, Corona, and Heineken on tap, like the Rathskeller does, is bound to be popular.

But, as the students begin to return to campus for the fall semester, the UW is sending some strong messages about its changing relationship with beer. This past week brought a one-two punch of news stories illustrating the beginning of change.

First was the story about the UW’s ire with the Budweiser folks, for putting out “fan cans” of Bud Light in red-and-white cans. The brass in Bascom Hall said it created an unsanctioned association between the university and Bud Light and demanded that it be pulled off the store shelves.

The folks at the big brewery pointed out they’ve been selling their product in red-and-white packages all over the world for many years, but said they would end the promotion soon.

Maybe the legal eagles over on campus should go after the Coke folks, too, since they’ve also been selling products in red and white packages for a long time.

Then came the news that the UW has ended its long-standing deal with Miller and Bud for advertising during Badgers sports broadcasts. Ouch! There goes about a half a million bucks in revenue. The jock department, of course, fought against the move, but Biddy put her foot down and said “NO”. After the Chancellor made it final, the boys over on Monroe Street said they’d step up and take one for the team.

King Barry was grousing on TV last night about how his opinion makes no difference, and started talking about raising ticket prices. What’s the matter, Mr. Alvarez - no confidence that the broadcasts of your athletic products aren’t good enough to attract new sponsors to fill the hole left by the breweries? Or is this just an excuse to raise ticket prices, since the football product last year was not up to the standards he set.

For some time, the “fun police” over at the UW have pointed out that it seems disingenuous at best to preach about the evils and dangers of binge drinking, and then accepting all the revenue from the various beer deals.

As far as I’m concerned, saying that beer causes binge drinking is sort of like saying gasoline causes arson. There’s a relationship, but it’s not causative.

Drinking is nearly universal on the big campus here, and binge drinking has become far too widespread. Hoisting a few is deeply woven into the fabric of life in Wisconsin, and young folks often carry that concept to excess. Any cop on the street will tell you binge drinking is behind a whole slew of other problems.

The culture is beginning to change here in Wisconsin. Attitudes toward drunken driving are slowly starting to harden. The damage alcohol abuse does to families and society is now being exposed more than ever. Our institutions reflect our culture, and the UW is making some hard decisions about its image, and its role in guiding our young people.

Change never comes easy, and they’re not going it cold turkey, but now it’s evident the relationship between beer and the UW is not what it used to be.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nice Work - if you can get it...

We pay our state legislators - in both the Assembly and the Senate - a tad less than 50 grand a year, plus all the per-diem money they can grab, which for some of them can amount to another ten grand a year or so.

But in many cases, the elected representatives aides make more than they do - a lot more. Jodi Jensen makes just shy of 90 grand a year as an aide to Representative Mike Huebsch, a Republican from near LaCrosse. Huebsch used to be a big player, when he was Assembly Speaker a few years ago. Now he’s just another one of the 99 game-show hosts in the legislature.

Jensen was his Chief of Staff when Huebsch was the speaker, but now she’s just a “research assistant”. The maximum pay for that job is $58,632. But she’s still paid her former salary of $89.300 a year. That’s because most former aides to the muckity-mucks up there are allowed to keep their higher pay, even when they’re shifted to lower ranking jobs.

In fact, the AP says 43 aides are making a total of 319 grand more than the top pay ranges for their positions, which - curiously - is nearly as much as the 372 grand the Assembly will save by furloughing its employees for 8 days this year.
This is either an argument for paying the 99 clowns in the legislature a much higher salary, or for abandoning the farce of “furloughs”, or for staying within salary guidelines for the job you actually do.

One of our local court jesters, Representative Terese Berceau, told the AP she was “blown away” by how much folks like Jodi Jensen are making. (Let the record show that Berceau is a Democrat, and Huebsch is a Republican.) Just blown away, she was. The AP reporter (Ryan Foley) pointed out that Berceau’s legislative assistant, Brian Rieselman, is being paid over 60 grand in a job that should max out at just over 44 grand.

Well, that’s different!

Rieselman used to work for the Justice Department, where he earned 60 grand, and Berceau didn’t want him to take a pay cut. She told Foley she didn’t try to manipulate the system - she just paid him the highest salary she could.

What a boss!!

Lest you think I’m singling out the politicians for ridicule again, the same thing went on constantly in my former occupation as a broadcaster. Some DJ would get promoted to Program Director and get a nice raise; he’d fail, and be busted back down to DJ, but keep the higher pay.

At least those who are benefitting from this system in the legislature are being rewarded for experience and longevity; and not for failing.
It’s their bosses that do the real failing up there.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Growing Pains

Wisconsin has some of the most powerful open records and open meetings laws in the nation, and we like to know what our politicians are doing. The laws were written long before e-mail became a dominant communication tool, but obviously, e-mails are a critical part of the public record.

You’d think that the Chief of Staff for a State Senator would know that, but Rose Smyrski claims she didn’t. She testified last week that she regularly used her own Yahoo e-mail account when she worked at home, evenings and weekends. Smyrski runs LaCrosse Republican Senator Dan Kapanke’s office.

She claimed she didn’t know that records created at home on her Yahoo account, doing state business, wouldn’t be subject to the open records law, because she was at home - not at the office.

How convenient.

It’s so much easier just to use your home e-mail than to log into the state’s system to send the messages.

How inconvenient.

Especially when the Democrats sued under the open records law to get a look at her “homework”. There’s no policy against what Smyrski did, but then again, there are no guidelines on when it might be appropriate for state employees to use personal e-mail accounts to do state business.

No matter what, Bill Lueders, head of the state’s Freedom of Information Council, says there should be such a policy or set of guidelines. Lueders states what should be obvious when he says work done at home on the state’s behalf, using a personal e-mail account, is still part of the public record.

I’m sure it never occurred to Ms. Smyrski that all she had to do to keep it legal, would be to send a copy of each e-mail and response she did from her personal account, to her state account. But it’s so inconvenient to add another recipient to the “to” line.

The intent of the open records law is blindingly clear: if you’re doing anything that relates to state business, it’s part of the public record, with very, very few exceptions. Now, because of Ms. Smyrski, the State Senate will undertake a review of its e-mail policies.

Common sense would seem to suffice, but apparently not. Especially when you’re dealing with politicians. Or people who are deliberately trying to hide something. Or who just don’t have any common sense.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Obey Only The Good Laws

Wisconsin’s Republican Attorney General, John Byron VanHollen, has decided that the state’s new domestic partner registry is unconstitutional, so he won’t represent the state in any legal action arising from legal challenges regarding the registry.

Well, isn’t that special? J B gets to decide what’s constitutional and what isn’t. Wait till Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson finds out. She probably thinks it’s up to our state’s highest court to make that call.

Since VanHollen used phrases like “When policy makers have ignored their words, I will not” in making his grand announcement a few days ago, it’s obvious that the person speaking is a political operative, not the person elected to represent the state and defend its laws.

Other experienced litigators, like Christopher Clark, a senior staff attorney with Lamba Legal, which was hired by Fair Wisconsin after J B made his announcement, have said the domestic partner registry and Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage are NOT in conflict with each other.

So it’s just politics, really. Those narrow-minded do-gooders like that horrible Appling woman and her “Wisconsin Family Council” are always on the prowl to defend the illustrious institution of marriage, and I’m sure J B made them happy.

In America, we make up our own laws. They aren’t delivered from on high, on a smoking tablet. We make them ourselves, and when we don’t like our laws, we break them. If enough people break them, we just change the law and move on.
Situations like this latest foolishness from J B always make me think of one of our city’s more colorful legal figures, Edward Ben Elsen, who died in 1983. My good friend Doug Moe has written extensively about Eddie in his columns over the years.

Eddie announced his candidacy for Dane County D-A in the nude from the stage of the Dangle Lounge, a downtown strip club that flourished back in the 60’s. He ran on the slogan that he’d enforce only “the good laws”. Doug tells a great story about Eddie and another famous Madison attorney, Bronson LaFollette, former state Attorney General and candidate for Governor.

When LaFollette’s dog Cutter kept getting picked up by Maple Bluff cops for running loose off-leash, Elsen represented Cutter, and demanded the cops pick Cutter out of a line-up. He demanded a jury of Cutter’s peers: a dozen Irish Setters.

It’s one thing to tell amusing stories about some of Madison’s colorful characters, and quite another to systematically deny basic human rights to an entire group of people. I’m confident Fair Wisconsin will prevail in this flap. Politics and law are not the same thing. But as with our laws, when we don’t like our politicians….we can change them, too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

There's Battle Lines Bein' Drawn...

Madison is a city where neighborhood associations have long held a great deal of power influence with city hall. On the city’s southwest side, two new groups have sprung up to deal with “change”, but the neighborhood association isn’t taking sides.

One of the new groups, which consists solely of white folks, wants to have a formal “Residents Bill of Rights” and a new “Code of Conduct and Behavior”. That group is holding a meeting Wednesday. The other group, which consists largely of black residents of the neighborhood, is holding a picnic at Elver Park Saturday.

The man who heads the latter group, Jim Monroe, is a minister at True Worshippers Community Church. He says instead of constantly looking for the differences between us, we ought to spend a little more time identifying the similarities. He thinks a few folks from the white group ought to sit down with a few folks from his group, and have a talk.

There are many euphemisms for what’s been happening on the southwest side for the past couple decades. Some call it a “neighborhood in transition”. I guess that means now, you don’t see all white faces in the neighborhood.

These new faces aren’t just Madisonians who moved to a different part of town. Some are, but quite a few are from Milwaukee and Chicago. And there’s been an increase in low-level crime the past few years. A couple months ago in the neighborhood, “Pig” Collins, a 17-year-old boy, became the city’s first murder.

That’s about as serious a crime as can happen, and nobody’s even pretending it should be tolerated as part of the “transition”. But it seems to me that these white folks over there have their undies in a bundle about such trivial matters as underwear. In their proposed “code of conduct and behavior”, they mention specifically their ire about boys who wear their pants well below their waistline, with their undies hanging out.

They’re annoyed that the kids walk down the street instead of the sidewalk, and that they choose to congregate in front of stores in the strip malls. I think a lot of the fear comes from people who have never lived anywhere but in Madison, and they want things to stay just as they always were.

In 1988, I moved here from Los Angeles. We bought a nice home in the Burr Oaks neighborhood from an Italian family. A lot of people at work said “you bought a house THERE? Aren’t you afraid?” At that time, places like Sommerset Circle and Magnolia Lane and Badger Road were just about to make the news. The folks at work thought Burr Oaks was a “tough” neighborhood, the worst in the city.

I told them when I lived in New Orleans, there were neighborhoods were ambulance drivers would refuse to take calls. And that there were places in east L-A where white faces were very much NOT welcome. And that if Burr Oaks was as bad as it got in Madison, they really didn’t have much of a problem.

It’s all relative, I guess. But when it comes down to being annoyed that some young folks choose to wear their pants a different way, and actually putting it in writing in a suggested “code of conduct”, it’s time to take a deep breath, a step back, and take stock of what’s really important.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nazis Everywhere

Congressman Barney Frank had finally had enough of the idiots who call President Obama’s proposed health insurance reform a “Nazi policy”, and verbally excoriated some stupid young woman in a town hall meeting in Dartmouth, MA a few days ago. Video clips of the interchange have been on all the news outlets, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s easy to find on YouTube and worth looking at. Just type Barney Frank into the YouTube search engine and it’s the first clip that comes up.

It’s about time somebody put these ignorant sheep in their place.
The topic came up on Russ Limbo’s radio show when a caller said people like the stupid young woman, and those who are carrying firearms to town hall meetings, were making the Republicans look like fools. El Rushbo quickly “corrected” the caller, giving one of his patented windy exhortations about how it’s really the left that’s behind all this stuff.

Besides, the radio blowhard said in winding down his lecture to the caller, the Nazi death camps didn’t come until way at the end of the war anyway.


I know America’s most-listened-to radio host flunked out of college in his first year, but you’d think someone who makes as much money as he does would hire a producer or two who could give him a quick lesson about Nazis, since he likes to talk about them so much these days.

The death camps decidedly did NOT come “way at the end of the war”, as the blowhard said. For the last three years of the war, healthy Jews who had previously been sent to concentration camps as slaves under Hitler’s regime, were sent instead directly to the extermination camps.

Details, details. America’s Anchorman (that’s what he calls himself) should broadcast a correction. Oh, wait, I keep forgetting…it’s not a “news” program.
People like the young woman in the video clip with Congressman Barney Frank and those who would compare our President to Adolph Hitler have either a huge misconception about what National Socialism is, or simply don’t know anything at all about history. It’s probably a bit of both.

Name-calling and inflammatory rhetoric are all part and parcel of American politics. It’s one of the reasons so many people have been completely turned off by politics and politicians. I think it’s one of the reasons so few people actually vote. They’re turned off by all the negativity and high-volume name-calling.
We can disagree, and we can do so noisily. But when the discourse devolves to name-calling and fear-mongering, perhaps a brief time-out is in order.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Is It Tommy Time Again?

Stick it to ‘em! What a better way to do it!! Memorable words from Tommy Thompson, whipping up a crowd in northern Wisconsin a few years back, trying to get them to buy into his idea to build a new baseball stadium in Milwaukee, paid for in part by taxing the folks in the Milwaukee metro area.

In his enthusiasm, Tommy apparently forgot that in this day and age, just about anything you say in public is going to wind up on the news, and there was a brief flap about it, mainly from talk show hosts.

Our state’s longest-serving governor got his baseball stadium, Miller Park, and got Lambeau Field renovated, and built and improved an awful lot of highways through his Corridors 2020 plan, set in motion years ago. Anybody who’s ever driven from Madison to the Fox Cities or from Madison to Dubuque can thank Tommy for turning once-treacherous 2-lane roads into 4-lane expressways.

Where eagles soar and Harleys roar. That was another one of Tommy’s great lines about the state he unabashedly loves. He loved to get on that Harley and ride, either around the square or around the state.

Say what you want about Tommy, he was a leader. The only reason he’s not still governor is because he tearfully answered George Bush’s call to be a member of his cabinet, based on Tommy‘s dramatic reform of the state‘s welfare system, which he called “Wisconsin Works“. Tommy staked out bold initiatives, admittedly in much better times financially, and knew how to twist enough arms in the legislature to get things done.

With Jim Doyle not running again, the race is wide open. Some of the usual suspects from both parties have announced they’re running or thinking about running. Some are “Madison” players that don’t have much statewide exposure, and some are fairly well-known veterans.

What we need now is a leader. Not a manager, but a leader. There’s a difference. Managers keep things running, smooth out the bumps, and pay attention to the details. Leaders have a vision, are good at explaining it, and are often bored with the details. But leaders move things forward.

Jim Doyle’s been a manager. In his next year and a half, perhaps he can accomplish a few more things, like maybe working on a new system to reform the way education is financed in our state. But we need a man or woman with a bold vision for our future, who can beat back the dweebs in the state legislature by stating that vision clearly to the people and getting a mandate for action.

It’s time to elect somebody who can stick it to us, I guess.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Can't Things Just Stay The Same

We voted for change, but once we get to a certain age, we don’t really want things to change. We want the items to be in the same place in the supermarket every time we shop. We tend to take the same route every time we go to a familiar place. We go to bed at the same time, and we wake up at the same time. We repeat the same behavior with the expectation we’ll get the same result.

At least, those of us who are not insane do. They say repeating the same behavior with the expectation of a different outcome is a sign of insanity.

When they move the cheese, whether literally in the supermarket or figuratively in our routines, we become uncomfortable. We just want things to stay the way they are. It takes a lot for us to change routine. We’ll go back to our favorite restaurant even if we have one bad meal there. But two bad meals in a row - we’re outta there! And we don’t go back and try the restaurant again until someone we trust - a friend or family member - says “they took care of the problem”.

Such is the lot with health care reform in 2009, or, as I prefer to say, health insurance reform.

I scanned the TV band yesterday watching reports on news channels of the latest set of town hall protests. My conclusion is that mainly, those who are protesting the proposed changes are those who are happy with their health insurance. They’re insured, they’ve had reasonably good experiences with their insurance carrier, and I have little doubt they’re happy with their treatment.

That’s why I’m with those who call it health INSURANCE reform. We’ve got the best doctors, nurses, health care professionals, and facilities in the world. We’ve got the crappiest health insurance companies on the planet. Those opposed to the so-called “public option” say it would cripple the existing health care insurers, and, you know what? I’m OK with that.

The fools who are worried about rationing under a government program need look no further than their own health insurance company. Do you think any one of them can honestly say they don’t believe their health insurance company rations care? They, or a family member or friend, have NEVER had a procedure or expense denied? Too many people just don’t have the capability of analytical thought. Try and get an insurance company to pay for a gastric banding operation if you’re obese. Cutting-edge medicine is rejected by insurers as “experimental”.

The people the TV news shows seem to represent the least in their coverage are the 48 to 50 million Americans who DON’T have health insurance. They can’t get it for many reasons, not the least of which is they can’t afford it. They have pre-existing conditions which disqualify them. Or it’s connected to a job, and they’re unemployed.

Speaking of that, what about the situation facing a lot of people I know: downsized during the economic downturn, they’re still covered under a COBRA. If you’ve never had the “pleasure” of finding out how this works, once your COBRA days have run their course, you’re about to discover the wonderful world of dealing with a health insurance company on your own.

The people I see in the TV coverage of the loud town hall meetings mainly consist, in my estimation, of people have health insurance and like their plan - resisting change; and the elderly, who are the most vulnerable to the kind of fear-mongering the opposition has ginned up.

We voted for change. The President is right. The absolute worst thing we can do is nothing at all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lipstick on a Pig

Overseas Contingency Operation. That’s the new way of saying “Global War On Terror”. Gradually, over the past few months, the Obama administration has been using the new term to replace the old, in official memos and in public appearances.

Since late March, the new crowd in power in Washington has been trying to get away from using one of George Bush’s signature phrases when talking about our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, early in President George W. Bush’s second term, then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld started calling it the “global struggle against violent extremism”, but his new phrase never caught on.

Rummy had been listening to the advice of some of the more senior military commanders at the time, who said “Global War On Terror” seemed to give al-Qaeda and other radical groups the appearance of being a unified front, and calling it a “war” overstated the strength and nature of the enemy.

The Washington Post spoke with John Nagl, the former Army officer who helped write the new manual the military follows in dealing with counterinsurgency. Nagl, who’s now with a think-tank in Washington DC told the paper “We are facing a number of different insurgencies around the globe - some have local causes, some of them are transnational. Viewing them all through one lens distorts the picture and magnifies the enemy”.

How we use words and phrases affects how we think about what those words or phrases represent. Let’s face it: “Overseas Contingency Operation” has none of the emotional punch of “Global War On Terror”. An even more current example is the growing use of “Health Insurance Reform” rather than “Health Care Reform”. Most people seem to be happy with the care they’re getting from medical professionals, so some of the forces trying to shape the public debate are trying to capitalize on using different wording.

It’s sort of like the difference between “pro-life” and “anti-abortion”. It’s the same thing, but the emotional tone of one is far different than the other. The old joke about how city subdivisions are named is another example. The cynics say if it’s called “Park View”, you can bet there’s no park, and there’s no view.

No matter what the current administration chooses to call the fight against terrorists, it still means our military is involved, our soldiers are going to be in harm’s way, and you can pretty safely assume it’s going to cost us a lot of money for a lot more years. “Overseas Contingency Operation” may not be an attempt to put lipstick on a pig, but it sure sounds a lot different than “Global War On Terror”.

Friday, August 14, 2009

No Sense of Decency

It was a sunny, warm fall Friday afternoon….the 10th of October last year…in the Minneapolis suburb of Lakeville, Minnesota. John McCain had made a swing through western Wisconsin earlier in the day, which is why a lot of folks still think the incident happened in the Badger state. He was at a town hall meeting in the quiet Minnesota community just east of Marion Lake.

The McCain-Palin campaign was running out of steam. I think they knew, by the time that gorgeous fall afternoon rolled around, that Barack Obama was going to win the election. But John McCain is not the kind of man who quits because the odds are against him. His running mate was somewhere else that day, no doubt making more ugly, untruthful accusations about their Democratic opponent.

At the Republican town hall meeting in Lakeville, a grandmotherly lady took the microphone, and said to John McCain about Barack Obama, accusatorially, “he’s an Arab”. I’ll never forget the look on McCain’s face, and the demeanor of his body language, as he reached out, took the mike away from the lady, and said “No ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, which you can relive easily on YouTube. It said to me that at long last, the Senator from Arizona had a sense of decency.
Two days later, on Sunday the 12th, the man who became known as “Joe the Plumber” - a man whose real first name is Sam, and not a licensed plumber - would rise to his 15 minutes of fame.

Back on the 9th of June in 1954, the infamous Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, was grilling a lawyer named Joseph Welch on national TV. It was during the Army-McCarthy hearings, and Welch was General Counsel for the Army. You can easily find this video on YouTube, too. McCarthy accused one of Welch’s law partners, young man named Fred Fisher, of being a communist.

Welch pushed back hard at the bully from Appleton, who seemed to think the United States was overrun with commies. Welch said “At long last, have you no sense of decency, sir?”. Historians say that was the point where America finally had enough of Joe McCarthy.

McCarthy, as it turned out, had no sense of decency. He died a broken and disgraced man.

I’m wondering, although I think I know the answer, if Sarah Palin will ever come to a point where she discovers a sense of decency, and stops ginning up falsehoods about “Obama Death Squads” and all the other outrageous statements she’s made about health insurance reform.

There may not be a YouTube moment, but perhaps we can hope that some day sooner, rather than later, she’ll make another “Status Update” on her notorious Facebook page, and say “all the stuff I posted about death panels and pulling the plug on grandma was just to prank you”.

Probably not.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Continental Express: FAIL

You would think after all the horror stories since September of 2001 about passengers trapped in airplanes sitting on the tarmac, going nowhere, that the sort of thing that happened in Rochester, Minnesota a few days ago would NEVER happen. Not in 2009, after all the harangue and to-do about people trapped on airliners going nowhere, and with federal legislation pending about such incidents.

American citizens, held captive on an American airliner (OK, a Continental Express airliner), on American soil. For hours and hours and hours, with common sense nowhere to be found.

Don’t blame the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration, which Continental tried to do. Don’t blame Rochester airport management, which Continental tried to do. The airport manager woke to a cell phone call at 4AM Saturday from an acquaintance trapped on the plane, begging for his help. A couple hours later, they were finally off the plane after the night from hell.

Bad weather diverted the flight, bound from Texas to Minneapolis, to Rochester. Good call. Who wants to fly through violent storms? The passengers figured they’d be on the ground an hour or so, while the storms to the north cleared. Nope. Locked in the airliner ALL NIGHT LONG.

Locked in with one semi-working toilet, which didn’t flush, and not one but two crying babies for your listening pleasure. 8 hours of olfactory and auditory torture. A period of time, seemingly interminable, I assume, for the 50 people on board, which could have been avoided with a small amount of what we used to call common sense.

While Continental has tried to blame everybody from the TSA to the airport to the crying babies, the US Transportation Department’s General Counsel has been directed to investigate the debacle, and a couple of Senators quickly saw it as a media photo-op to push passage of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

By the time the storms had cleared Minneapolis, the crew of the airliner had exceeded the number of hours they’re allotted by FAA rules, so Continental dispatch in Minneapolis said it would send another crew. Why couldn’t the passengers get off the plane, and spend the night in the terminal, a few feet away? The geniuses at Continental Dispatch gave some idiotic response like “the TSA isn’t on duty until 6 AM at Rochester, so if they got off the plane, they wouldn’t be allowed to re-board without going through TSA security”.

So the Continental brain-trust in Minneapolis kept the passengers locked in the plane all night long. Meanwhile, a Northwest airliner which had met a similar fate, had the passengers on their plane grounded at Rochester aboard a bus and in Minneapolis hours before the Continental passengers were even allowed to get off their plane.

As a grizzled veteran street cop who’s a pal of mine often jokes, “let’s get those guilty bastards in here, give ‘em a quick fair trial, and then hang ‘em!!!”. I have a different idea.

Let’s put those Continental Airlines Minneapolis dispatchers into the same situation they put 50 people through last weekend and see how THEY like it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bleeding Cubbie Blue

Being married to a Cubs fan has its ups and downs. Mainly downs, the last week or so. My wife, who spent her wasted youth in the stands at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, for reasons I don’t completely understand turned her back on her Sox-loving mom and dad and became a Cubs fan. My sketchy knowledge of her formative years leads me to believe that she may have been a fan of BOTH teams. I can hear my other Chicago sports-following friends (with names like “Soglin” and “Zweifel“) groaning.

I’m a true-blue Brewers fan. I grew up the 50’s and attended the Braves World Series games in ’57 and ’58 in Milwaukee with my dad. I’ve been able to follow the Cubbies since the 70’s, because of the ubiquitous “Super Station” (WGN) that carries their games. When I lived in places like Los Angeles and New Orleans, I couldn’t get the Brewers games, but WGN was on the cable.

Last year was ecstasy and agony for my bride. We went to that late-July series between the Brewers and Cubs, and the fourth and final game of the set…July 31st…was one of her highest highs and my lowest lows. The Cubs prevailed, 11-4, and the outcome was never in doubt. By the middle of the 6th inning, surrounded by Cubs fans at Miller Park, I said to my wife “I can’t take any more of this. Meet me in the bar at Friday’s when you Cubs fans are done thrashing us”.

We all know how last year turned out for the Cubs.

Now, with the recent acquisition of her iPod Touch (a birthday present from the dog and me) she can follow her Cubbies even if they’re not on TV. She has some “app” downloaded that lets her “watch” the game through our in-house wireless internet setup. It’s some sort of hi-tech play-by-play representation she sees.

Last night was torture for her. As we were laying in bed with the 9 o’clock news on, she had her iPod going. She was cussing out Carlos Marmol. He hit a Phillies player with a pitch, to load the bases in the 8th. Then he walked in a run. At that point, her disgust with Marmol became disgust with Cubs skipper Lou Piniella for putting Marmol in and LEAVING him in.

Her pals at the famous “Bleed Cubbie Blue” website concur with her analysis. Ever since my friend Barry Orton pointed me to the website in January, it’s where I get the Cubs news not reported to me by my wife. This morning, she was still fuming about Lou putting in Marmol, who’s let the Cubs down so many times this season.

I will not predict if it will be agony or ecstasy for Cubs fans this year. As of this morning, since the Cubs, Brewers, and Cards all lost last night, the Cubs are 3 games back of the Cards and the Brewers are 6 and a half games back. Both the Brewers and Cubs are 4-6 in their last ten games.

We have great seats for the Brewers-Cardinals game at Miller Park on Labor Day - right behind home plate. I’m thinking by then, there’ll be a lot less at stake for Brewers fans, than Cubs fans. The Cubs will be in Pittsburgh that day. I’m hoping the Cards will be distracted, keeping an eye on the Cubs score.

You see, I bleed BREWERS blue.

It's A Familiar Pattern

We love to do this. We, meaning the media. We build up a young entertainer by showering them with publicity; we follow their every move. We chronicle their most mundane activities - walking down the street, shopping, having lunch. Then we find or create a flaw, trumpet it as news, and tear them down.

Then we repeat the cycle.

Britney. Madonna. Marilyn (Monroe, not Manson!). The names change, but the story’s the same for so many young ladies. It’s a bit different for men, but times change and the torch passes, from Sinatra to Presley, Presley to Jackson, and on and on. Sometimes, you can even mark the moment it happened. Some would say that the Video Music Awards ceremony in 2003 was the symbolic passing of the torch of queendom from Madonna to Britney Spears, with the famous open-mouthed kiss.

Now, entertainers can attain huge celebrity status and pile up untold wealth at a much younger age, because of the explosion of media. Monday night, the Teen Choice Awards annual event was televised. Miley Cyrus presented Britney with the “Ultimate Choice Award”. Miley’s 16; Britney is 27. Cyrus proclaimed Spears to be “her idol”.

For those who don’t have young daughters and don’t follow this stuff closely, Miley Cyrus, daughter of country music star Billy Ray Cyrus, was known in a former life as “Hannah Montana”. Just a couple short years ago, parents shelled out ridiculous amounts of money, 300 dollars and up, to get a seat at a Hannah Montana concert for their daughter to see the Disney Channel star.

Last summer, she released an album (“Breakout”) which symbolically and musically broke her from the Hannah Montana-Disney Channel-squeaky clean role. Around the same time, she did the notorious soft-core-porn photo shoot with her dad. It was on all the TV morning shows.

Now, the next step has been taken in the advancement of her career as a pop star. At the Teen Choice Awards, Cyrus performed her new song, “Party In The USA”, dressed in black hot-pants and biker boots, doing a pole dance. A teenage stripper.

At 16, she’s got to move that career past the pre-teen girls who adored her, to the high school girls who will adore her. So she must change her image. Instead of a cowgirl, she must become a stripper. Gotta follow that trail blazed by Britney, her idol! Apparently the next steps will include having a child or two, going to rehab, and forgetting to wear underwear.

I can’t remember the program or the network that carried it, but a few years ago a reporter in Baghdad asked a man on the street why he was so leery of the American presence in Iraq. The man spoke pretty good English, and there was no mistaking the meaning of his clear, one-sentence answer:

“Because we don’t want our daughters to grow up to be Britney Spears”.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Calling Captain Kangaroo....

Years ago, you woke to your alarm clock, did your basic hygiene, and sat down to breakfast. You may have read the morning paper or had the TV or radio on in the background as you got your day underway. Now, things are very different in the typical American household.

The New York Times ran an article about a “typical” family in East Lansing, Michigan, to illustrate how different our morning world is these days. The dad wakes up around six, fires up his laptop, and checks his work e-mail, first thing in the morning. He surfs the net to pick up his news, spends a few moments on his social media sites, and then texts his two boys with a wake-up message.

The two boys sleep with their cell phones next to the bed. Dad’s text gets them up, and they start texting their friends as mom calls them to breakfast. Kids today don’t use alarm clocks. They set a wake-up time on their cell phone if they need to. Dad admits he uses text messages as a “household intercom”, because the boys always respond to text messages.

Mom and the kids don’t have the TV or radio in the background at the breakfast table. She’s surfing news sites, while the boys play video games on their iPods. Dad’s getting dressed and ready to head to work.

Sound familiar?

Online and wireless communication traffic patterns have adjusted to a new “normal”. According to Anchor Networks, a Boston outfit that analyzes use of the internet, traffic didn’t used to pick up until people booted up their computer at work. Now, web and wireless traffic tapers off around midnight, and begins a huge rise around 6 AM, and by 7 AM, it’s “like a rocket ship”, says the Times article.

WAY earlier than it was, just a few years ago.

What we do first thing in the morning on a workday is dramatically different from the pattern just a few years ago, and worlds away from the typical morning just a decade or so ago. The whole family may sit around the breakfast table at the same time, but it’s likely each member has their own electronic device of one sort or another, and they’re each doing their own thing.

When I was a boy, we had one TV set in the house, and if my sister and I got up early on weekends, we managed our own cereal and milk, and watched the test pattern (remember that?) until the cartoons came on. My kids, who were born in the early 80’s, each had their own TV in their bedroom, one in the kitchen, and another in the living room.

Now, they use their TV’s more for playing games like “Rock Band” or “Guitar Hero”, and they get their news from the RSS feeds on their smart phones and the constant barrage of text messages they receive and send.

It’s likely the morning routine of their kids will involve devices, technologies, and content platforms that haven’t even been invented yet - as alien to us, as smart phones and the internet were to our parents.

Monday, August 10, 2009

License? We Don't Need No Steenkin' License...

The circumstances surrounding the resignation of Chandra Fienen as Governor Doyle’s “chief legal counsel” are about as clear as mud. But one thing is pretty clear: practicing law without a law license in Wisconsin can get you into big trouble.

Friday, Chandra Fienen voluntarily handed in her resignation, a letter consisting of two sentences, just about the same time the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the Office Lawyer Regulation accusing her of practicing law without a license. State law says you can’t call yourself a “lawyer”, “solicitor”, or “counselor” with the intent of making folks think you’ve got a Wisconsin law license.

Particularly if you don’t HAVE a Wisconsin law license, which apparently Fienen does not.

And, the way the Republicans see it, when Fienen wrote a letter to the Republican Party in March, calling herself the guv’s “Chief Legal Counsel”, it’s reasonable to assume that she intended the Republicans to believe that was qualified to use that word “Counsel” - a word that gets you in trouble with the law if you’re not licensed.

So, how does somebody without a license to practice law in Wisconsin get appointed to the hundred-grand-a-year job of “Chief Legal Counsel” to the guv? Apparently by promising that you WILL get a Wisconsin law license. Fienen was high up in the food chain at the state Commerce Department over a year ago when Doyle tabbed her for the job.

They knew at that point she didn’t have a Wisconsin law license; so she apparently told the folks in the guv’s office she’d take the Wisconsin bar exam and get a license. It’s not like she walked in off the street and pretended to be a lawyer; she practiced law in California. But, since each state’s law has its own particular ins and outs, they all require a state law license before you can hang out a shingle.

Or become “Chief Legal Counsel” to the governor.

This is where the details get real muddy. Fienen apparently took, and passed, the Wisconsin bar exam, but for reasons which aren’t clear, she does not actually have a Wisconsin law license. I suspect the Republicans will waste little time in digging up the details on that.

Don’t worry about the guv, though. Just in case he runs short of legal advice, he can turn to the Attorney General, J. B. VanHollen. But VanHollen is a Republican. Oh-oh….a Democratic Governor and a Republican Attorney General! How could the voters have done that! Back in the 90’s, there were famous feuds between the guv and the A-G. Tommy Thompson was the guv, a Republican, and he was constantly at odds with his Democratic Attorney General, and Tommy hired lawyers to fight his own Attorney General in court several times.

Now, who was that Attorney General who did battles with the Republican Governor?

Oh yah….Jim Doyle.

You gotta love Wisconsin politics.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hail to the Ch-Ch-Ch-Cheif!

If you watch Home and Garden TV, which, like another substance I used to rant about in my radio days, is highly addictive and extremely dangerous, you’ve seen the ad. HGTV seems to me to be a lot about homes and not very much at all about gardens, so apparently the people who placed the ads must not watch HGTV and thought they were going to reach plant-lovers.

I’m talking about the ad for Chia Obama.

We saw it again last night, and my wife said “they MUST be kidding - this is so….disrespectful, so wrong”. A chia head modeled after the likeness of our new President. Chia pets came to moderate popularity in the early 80’s, using cheaply-made clay figures, which you smear with paste containing chia seeds, and, the thing sprouts chia hair.

The first chia in the likeness of a human was in 1995, when the San-Francisco based company introduced “Chia Guy”. Prior to that, the chia figures were mainly cartoon characters. To think that they’d put out a likeness of our 44th President and hawk it as “Chia Obama” was nearly too much for us to take.

Most everyone knows the jingle that goes with the TV ad..”cha-cha-cha-chia!!!!”. The ad usually runs most heavily around Christmas time, although I can’t imagine who would buy and give such a thing as a present. Which is why my wife and I were somewhat skeptical that the ad we’d been seeing on HGTV wasn’t real.

Some sort of joke from the nastier wing of a certain political party, which attracts folks like Karl Rove and that Limbaugh person, is what I speculated. But having drawn paychecks from the media for all our professional lives, my wife and I knew no political party spends that kind of money, when there’s no election at stake, and on a channel that never carries any political programming.

The most controversial thing on HGTV is that show where prospective home-buyers narrow it down to three potential properties (House Hunters), and you try and guess which one they’ll actually buy.

So I went on the internet in search of the truth, and within a few moments had placed an order for the Chia Obama. I selected the “Determined Obama” one. There’s also a “Happy Obama” model. Twenty bucks gets you one.

After you order the Chia Obama, you can take a survey, asking you which historical American people and things the chia folks should put out next. The list includes 14 choices, from JFK to Ronald Reagan, from the Liberty Bell to the Statue of Liberty. You can vote for as many as you like.

I’ve had a Davy Crockett Coonskin Hat, a Daisy Red Rider BB Gun, a hula hoop, a Pet Rock, a mood ring, a Pound Puppy, a Cabbage Patch Kid, a Beanie Baby, and probably every other fad that’s come along. But until now, I’ve never had a chia pet. Nor a Chia Obama.

Hail to the cha-cha-cha-Chief!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Expensive Little Buggers!

Having spent too much of my life in the news biz, I have a pretty fair sense of skepticism about most things. When I saw the story earlier this week that the government says it will cost a middle-income family $221,000 to raise a child through age 17, the “reporter radar “ went on.

My college debate coach always preached that we must define terms. What’s “middle-income”? Well, according to this story, a middle-income family has an income between 57 and 99 thousand dollars a year. And, not surprisingly, the government figured that the higher your household income is, the more you’re likely to spend, raising you children.

Higher-income families, and the only definition I could find for that is families that have an income of six figures a year or more, will likely spend an average of $367,000 raising each of their children to age 17. But averages and numbers can be deceiving, so caution is advised.

I got out the calculator and fired up the internet. Since my wife and I have already “raised” our children, both in their mid-20’s, I noted the cutoff point of age 17 doesn’t include any college expenses - unless they’re figuring that during their first 17 years, you’re “spending” money on a college fund for the kids.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, the cost of sending one kid to UW-Madison for a year is about 15 grand. And, a word to the wise - if you don’t have a college fund started for your potential Badger, you’d better hope little Johnny or Jane can find a REAL good part-time job in school. And you’d better get ready to fill out those pesky FAFSA forms. For those not familiar, that’s “Free Application for Federal Student Aid”, and the only thing “Free” about it is the application.

Back to the math. 221 grand over 17 years averages out to 13 grand a year, or $1,083 a month. Per kid. Wait a minute….is the government telling me that if I had a grandchild born last year, my kid will spend over a thousand bucks a month, on the average, raising that child to age 17? I sure hope my kids are reading this. No grandkids yet, and none on the immediate horizon.

Just for grins, I made a set of assumptions about a potential grandchild, and then did some quick research about present-day costs. The study said housing was the biggest cost - which is probably bogus, because you need housing whether you have kids or not, and the costs are not incremental. So I’m still wondering how the government estimated the cost at over a grand a month.

Two jobs…both parents working…means day-care, and a quick trip to the US Labor Department’s website said the national average for day-care cost is now $611 a month - per kid. Madison, I quickly determined, is right in that ball-park for cost. You can spend a lot more, and spend a lot less getting day-care in Madison.

Throw in groceries, clothes, school fees, and all of a sudden I’m not so skeptical about that $1,083 a month figure. And, come to think of it, my wife and I did get a nice “raise” when our kids became fully independent.

As far as I’m concerned, whatever money we spent raising those two wonderful young adults is the best money we ever spent. Just don’t ask me to really add it up!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Makin' The BIG Bucks Now...

At first, I was shocked to hear that Urban Meyer, the head football coach of the Florida ‘Gators, has a new contract which will pay him 24 million bucks over the next six years: 4 million bucks a year. I know that’s chump-change to the professional practitioners of the sport of football, where the highest-paid NFL coach (Mike Holmgren) makes twice as much as Meyer.

Guys like Ben Roethlisberger make 27 million in a good year.

Meyer’s deal is interesting, because it doesn’t appear he was in no way about to “jump ship” from the ‘Gators. He had a good year, to say the least, and they rewarded him. But let’s not get sidetracked on stuff like “exceptional performance bonuses”, or whatever they decided to call them at the UW. Bret Bielema makes about a million and a half a year.

So who IS the highest-paid college football coach? That would be Pete Carroll at Southern Cal, who commands an annual paycheck of 4.4 million bucks. Closer to Meyer’s stomping grounds, Coach Nick Saban at ‘bama is paid 3.9 million a year, and Les Miles over in Baton Rouge is paid 3.75 million a year by LSU. (Geaux Tigers!)

So, when I did a few minutes worth of internet searching to find the information above, I wasn’t really “shocked” any more about Meyer’s new deal. I also learned, in my few minutes doodling around on the internet, that if you want to make REAL money coaching, get a job in the NBA. Phil Jackson makes 10.3 million a year in LA, which is also where the highest-paid baseball coach works: Joe Torre pulls down 4.3 million a year as skipper of the Dodgers.

I think really, particularly in Madison, the group which fares worse of all in collegiate athletics is the students. Just a few days ago there was a story about how the UW Marching Band parents are miffed because they’re being shuffled around Camp Randall again. And a couple days later, there was a story about student tickets for Badger men’s hoops games this coming season will be sold only in half-season packages.

Of course, the way the folks on Monroe Street spun THAT, was to say twice as many students would be “eligible” to buy tickets. The Kohl Center holds 17,190 in basketball configuration, and they’ve “generously” set aside 2,100 seats for the students. Wow, a whole 12 percent. By the way, never mind that back in 2005 the students rejected a proposed half-season package idea from the Athletic Department.

But, who knows - maybe some day in the mythical future, one of those students who was lucky enough to win the Athletic Department’s seat lottery selection process will go on to be hugely successful in life, or inherit a thriving business, and will build alma mater a new palace for the jocks to frolic.

Or buy a U-S Senate seat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Nation of Dummies

If you go to the movies as frequently as I do, you’ve probably seen the ad they run before the movie (and, before the 12 minutes of “coming attractions” trailers) hawking Jay Leno’s new prime-time weeknight show which starts in mid-September.

And, if you were a fan of the “old” Jay Leno Tonight Show, you’ve no doubt seen the vignettes he did with people on the street, called “Jaywalking”, which usually manage to make you feel better about your level of general knowledge about the world, and, in my case, worried about the number of dummies walking around out there.

This new ad that runs in theatres has a quick montage of a handful of these “Jaywalking” bits, and a couple of them are real stunners. In one, Leno asks a young lady “who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?”. She gives him the thousand-yard stare, and then says “no clue”. Leno says “who lives in a pineapple under the sea” and her face lights up and she squeals “Sponge Bob Square Pants!!!”. (No bonus point for knowing that Patrick Star lives under a rock.)

In another quick clip, Leno, with a different young lady, points to a U-S flag flying over a nearby building, and says “how many stars are on that flag?”. After a moment or two of squinting at it, the woman says “I don’t know…I can’t count them, the wind is moving it too much” - or words to that effect.

Then, there’s a clip of a fake quiz show, similar to “Jeopardy”, that Leno has set up with three studio contestants. Playing the role of Alex Trebek, Leno says “Who fought in the civil war?”. One of the contestants quickly buzzes in, and says “ahhh….Germany….and, I think, Japan”. World War, Civil War, what’s the dif? They’re both wars.

I’m so old that Alaska and Hawaii became states when I was in about the fourth grade, so I suppose it’s easy for an old fogy like me to remember that there used to be 48 states, and since 1959 there are 50. And I learned that there’s one star for each state on our flag, a lesson that somehow apparently was never taught…or escaped…the young lady Leno quizzed.

Wonder what would happen if he asked who Betsy Ross is.

I suppose you could argue that it’s not fair to blame the general lack of knowledge about our republic, its foundation, and its operation on elementary education curriculum planners. I probably learned more from my mom reading to me as a small child and making sure I understood my “civics” homework, than from the dedicated teachers who were constantly dealing with the discipline problems I caused!

If you’re reading this, I’m confident you know how many stars are on the U-S flag (and even what the stars stand for) and probably how many horizontal stripes are on the flag. And you know who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and you know who fought in the Civil War - or, as they called it when I lived in New Orleans, the “War of Northern Aggression”.

We used to call these things “common knowledge”, but now, it’s apparently uncommon knowledge for our children’s generation.

Monday, August 3, 2009

It's A Big Day

Today, Monday August 3rd 2009, is a big day for several of my friends. They will stand in line at the Dane County Clerk’s office and apply for a Declaration of Domestic Partnership. The new document, a vital record created under a new state law, will go into the same category of vital records as birth and death certificates.

It’s not a “gay marriage”, as some of the hate-mongers would have you believe. It’s a document that, among other things, has been made necessary by the authoritarian actions of narrow-minded people who have denied hospital visitation rights or medical leave rights to same-sex couples.

The haters, like Julaine Appling and her so-called “Wisconsin Family Action” outfit, have taken the new law to court, calling the Domestic Partner Registry an “assault on the people”. Appling told Isthmus “we’ve been extremely tolerant in allowing them to live wherever they choose”. The “them”, of course, is gay people. Them.

There’s us, and there’s “them”, I guess, to the haters like Appling.

I still haven’t been able to figure out how guaranteeing basic human rights to gay people harms or diminishes the rights of “straight” people in any way. But during the public discussion surrounding the amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution banning gay marriage, the argument was advanced that if you allow gays to marry, pretty soon we’ll be legalizing marriage between humans and animals.

Sort of like when the nation so graciously extended the right to vote to women, a century ago with the 19th Amendment, groups quickly arose to extend the right to vote to gerbils and hyenas - NOT.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t tell people how to live their lives, and I don’t care for them telling me how I should live mine. To me, outfits like “Wisconsin Family Action” get their jollies by telling other folks how they should behave. Appling and her cohorts refer to gay people as “a fringe activist group”.

A month or so ago I was having lunch at a downtown bistro with a friend, and the topic of the Domestic Partner Registry came up. I said “there’s a lot of hate and fear out there, but I think it’s mainly a generational thing, and a lot of the haters are dying”. She said “it’s a matter of time, as well, with people who have friends and colleagues who are gay realizing they don’t really have the same rights”.

To her, and her friends and mine who are standing on line today, it may be one small step at a time, but it’s a major stride toward equality.