Monday, July 30, 2012

Oh, Really?

Just when you think it can’t get any sillier…..along comes the “You Didn’t Build It” meme.

Anyone capable of rational thought knows exactly what President Obama so ungracefully tried to say several days ago.  But rational thought has little to do with politics.

That the Republicans have taken advantage of the President’s gaffe is not surprising.  That it’s gone to the extent it has is somewhat surprising.  That a lot of very stupid people are falling for the meme is predictable.

What the President was trying to say – and this is crystal clear to anyone who follows politics – is that the government, which the Republicans have done their damndest to demonize for the past several decades –is inextricably involved in the creation of even the most private of private businesses.  Senator RoJo the Clown, whose principal business skill was marrying the boss’s daughter, denies and downplays the role of the low-interest government loans he took advantage of, the rail siding at his business the government was a partner in, the tax breaks he got from the government, and on and on – to say nothing of the roads, bridges, and other infrastructure elements the government played a role in.

At a rare stop in his home town yesterday, Paul Ryan told the local media (after having told the national media in prior interviews) that this “you didn’t build it” thing was a rare slip by the President, giving us a clear picture of his inner thoughts, and that (Ryan posits) President Obama really thinks the government is (insert your favorite theme here: “the source of all good”; “the source of all success”, etc.) depending on which news outlet Ryan is talking to.  He regurgitated the same crap in Janesville yesterday, where the “Walker Stalkers”, who have long since worn out their novelty and have now become sort of an embarrassment, again demonstrated their love of free speech by trying to drown out and shout down Romney and RoJo and Ryan’s remarks.

A momentary sidebar: I am the son of a man who built his own business from the ground up, selling insurance at night to augment family income after his full day of teaching (which also involved driving a school bus route beginning at 6 AM and ending around 6 PM).  Eventually, he went to part-time work at the high school and then switched to full-time insurance sales and management after he’d bought out competing agencies and the business got big enough to need his full-time attention.  He built it with help from my mother and hard work.  I am self-employed in a business I built with my experience, connections, and hustle.

  And yet I know exactly what the President was talking about.

The Republican talking heads have taken this “you didn’t build it” meme to an absurd extreme.  Late last week, the “Fox and Friends” morning show featured an on-set interview with 5- and 6-year old sisters who run their own lemonade stand, and who claimed to be extremely offended by the President’s “you didn’t build it” remark.  The girls fed a bunch of rehearsed lines to Steve Doocy and Gretchen Carlson about their investors being their parents and the growth of their business was due to their hard work and not the government.   Steve and Gretchen fawned at every utterance and joined the girls in expressing indignation that the President would say such a horrible thing.  (Did you know that Gretchen is one of those effete intellectual snobs the Republicans hate?  She was a Rhodes Scholar.  True.)

5- and 6-year old minds are perfectly suited to the “you didn’t build it” meme, and they prattled on about how they were offended by the President’s remark, and the government has nothing to do with their success.

I have a few questions for the girls (and their parents) about this lemonade stand that the government has nothing to do with.  First, what’s the source of the water you use for your lemonade?  Did you drill your own well, do your own testing and lab work to be sure you weren’t about to poison your customers?  Or, are you using a municipal water source, built, paid for, and maintained by local taxpayers who constitute THE GOVERNMENT?  Then we could get into the access question, about the streets and sidewalks the customer base uses to patronize the girls’ business.  Do they provide their own security for their lemonade stand, or do they rely on the local law enforcement unit OF GOVERNMENT to make sure it’s safe for them to keep cash on the premises of the their business?

I have dozens more questions like these.

I think it’s safe to say 5- and 6-year old minds couldn’t cope with questions like mine, because they’re not yet at a level of development to understand the social web within which they operate.

And, perhaps that’s why the “you didn’t build it” meme appeals to those mouth-breathers who aren’t capable of independent thought, either.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Gun Control

Apparently, only people like Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire who doesn’t need anyone’s money and isn’t afraid to take on other blowhards like the NRA and Donald Trump, are able to say anything of substance about gun control.  President Obama, after Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and several others were shot in January of 2011 in Tucson, promised he’d champion stricter gun control laws.  He didn’t.  He can’t afford to have the NRA throw its incredible power against him in his run for re-election.

Mitt Romney didn’t have the courage to say anything of substance after the movie-house slaughter in Colorado a few days ago.  And Wisconsin’s developmentally disabled Senator, RoJo the Clown, was allowed by the Republican Party to come out of hiding long enough to give an interview with Fox News after the Colorado massacre, and embarrassed us ‘sconnies again by saying that owning a hundred-round clip was a Constitutional right.  (OK, he didn’t actually say that.  He said limits on the sale of things like hundred-round clips would be an infringement on our freedom.)

For the record:  I am trained in the use of firearms by a highly-decorated combat veteran (my late father); have hunted with both rifle and shotgun; don’t have a problem with people who own handguns or hunting weapons; and I don’t think “Obama is going to take my guns away” if this nation should ever have the courage to make some stricter rules about what citizens can possess in terms of firearms and associated equipment.  Like hundred-round clips.

Mobthink and hysteria take over with far too many people every time the topic comes up.  The “from my cold, dead hands” crowd has been led to believe that any reasonable move toward controlling automatic weapons or hundred-round clips is the beginning of the end of the second amendment and will certainly lead to government goons coming to their house and taking away all their guns.

Even the members of the NRA don’t believe in the stuff the NRA leadership espouses.  Nearly three-quarters of NRA members believe the gun show loophole should be closed.  82% of NRA members think people on the U.S. terror watch list should not be allowed to buy guns.  78% of NRA members think it should be mandatory to notify police if one of your guns is lost or has been stolen.  Yet NRA leadership fights these common-sense control elements whenever they’re discussed or suggested.

Many people of my acquaintance who otherwise demonstrate the ability to engage in cogent thought seem to lose that ability when someone says it might not be a good idea to have laws so lax that some insane person (or a certified genius, or anyone) can buy an assault weapon and a hundred-round clip and six thousand rounds of ammo.  They drag out that hackneyed bit of illogic that goes “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and spout it as though it were some sort of brilliant thinking on a par with the Pythagorean Theorem.  And if challenged, they do the line-extension of the illogic by saying inane things like “cars kill people but we don’t ban cars”.

I believe the crux of the matter is their refusal to understand that reasonable restraints on the purchase of things like fully automatic weapons and high-capacity clips has nothing to do with their ownership of a Remington Wingmaster 870, their .30-06 Springfield, their Glock 19, their grandad’s M-1, their favorite varmint-eliminator, their target pistol, their skeet shooter, or any one of the thousands of other kinds of firearms commonly owned by everyone from sportsmen and hunters to urban women who feel more secure with a small handgun in their purse.

They continue to parrot trash-phrases like “if you outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns” and “tell me more about how criminals follow the law” – acting as if “banning guns” is an Obama plot just bubbling under the surface of his cool, disconnected, European-Socialist, intellectual elitism.  The NRA wants the sheeple to think that such a plot to “ban guns” is the hidden agenda of anyone who supports reasonable control.

As a nation, we don’t have the courage or capacity to talk about serious public policy at any level.  We’d rather talk about such crap as “defense of marriage” or “the war on Christmas” or what celebrity is cheating on what other celebrity.

Let’s change the topic from “gun control” to “fully-automatic weapon and high capacity clip control” and see what happens.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Who's Statue-Worthy?

Many years ago, when my friend Glen Gardner and I were doing a morning show on a local radio station, we would occasionally do a segment called “Statue-Worthy”, in which we’d suggest names and let the listeners vote on whether or not the person we “nominated” was worthy of having a statue erected.

The genesis of this segment was the statuary in the photo above: Pat Richter and Barry Alvarez, guarding the entrance to Gate 1 at Camp Randall Stadium.  The statues were put up in 2006.

While we are both avid supporters of collegiate football, Glen and I both believed that far too much emphasis was placed on it by academic institutions, that the money involved in big-time Division One football is obscene, and that the level of hero-worship that exists in the jockocracy is silly.

Dona Shalala is as much responsible for the success of the UW football program as Alvarez and Richter, and you won’t find a statue of her anywhere – not even in Bascom Hall.  Shalala was smart enough to know that guys like Don Morton and Ade Sponberg were not going to get the UW football program back on track.  She knew the people of Wisconsin would respond to a local hero like Pat Richter taking the reins once held by the legendary Elroy Hirsch, and she relentlessly hounded Richter to take the job, even insisting that they make the announcement late in the day on December 31st, so that the Rose Bowl telecast buzz would be about Pat Richter taking the Athletic Director job at Wisconsin.

Our listeners agreed that if Richter (who did, indeed, rescue the UW Athletic Department from the sea of red ink it was drowning in) and Alvarez (the winningest football coach in Wisconsin history, the only one ever to win back-to-back Rose Bowls) were statue-worthy, then certainly a statue to Shalala should be erected.   Many of the callers made light-hearted jabs about how they’d have to hire a good statue-maker, who could make the tiny Shalala appear as prominently as Richter and Alvarez.

Given the good response to the first “statue-worthy” segment we did regarding former Chancellor Shalala, on a later broadcast we put Jeff Sauer’s name up for nomination, and the listeners resoundingly responded with a loud “YES!!!” and most insisted that if we were going to erect a statue for Sauer, we’d be remiss if we didn’t also erect a statue to Badger Bob Johnson.  Between Coach Sauer and Badger Bob’s contributions of players to the NHL, you could put together a team that would stand the challenge of any Hockey All-Star squad you care to assemble.

Through the course of these little show segments between 2006 and 2008, Glen and I came up with a list of other people who were statue-worthy and passed muster with the audience. 

And, of course, with any discussion of statuary around Camp Randall came the universal complaints about the “Nail’s Tales” statue which went up in 2005.  It’s perhaps best described as a maggot-infested corn cob, and a friend of mine (TV writer and producer John Roach, who knows a thing or two about sports) suggested Sunday that now that there’s an empty spot where Joe Paterno’s statue was, the good folks of the Badger state should ship Nail’s Tales over to Pennsylvania to fill the void left by the removal of the Paterno statue.

In his daily column/blog on the Isthmus Daily Page today, reacting to the news about Penn State, former Madison Mayor (and UW grad) Dave Cieslewicz suggests that the statues of Richter and Alvarez also be taken down.  He makes the same points Glen and I did years ago, but far more eloquently, with his rapier-like Polish wit.

The question “who’s statue-worthy” will always be one with many answers, but maybe it’s time to think a little harder about the kind of idol-worship we engage in.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Famous Tuba, Indeed...

I just got word from my tuba-playing friend Greg Laabs in Appleton that he has purchased the late Larry Pagel’s Martin tuba from Larry’s daughter, and Greg is having the tuba restored.  I bought my 1968 Conn 20J tuba from Greg a few months ago, and I hope some day to be able to make the trip back up to the Fox Cities and “Greg’s Tuba Store” to just play a few notes on Pagel’s famous Martin tuba.

The picture at the top of this post is of a recently-restored Martin 4-valve double-B-flat tuba.  It’s the kind of tuba that Larry Pagel owned and played during his many years with the famous Red Raven orchestra.  The band was named after the Red Raven Inn in Hilbert, where Lawrence Duchow had put the group together as the house band.  To say the band made the big-time is an understatement.  Pagel played with that famous band from 1938 at venues from coast-to-coast and border-to-border until the band’s last gig, in 1954. Then Larry worked with the Jay Andy Dance Band (which booked out of Appleton), and Larry finished his career playing many years with the Gene Heier band (which booked out of Manitowoc). 

This is the family picture of Lawrence Ruben Pagel, who passed away on October 21st last year at the age of 93.  I’ve often called Larry the “Godfather” of all Wisconsin old-time tuba players, because he was the first to achieve wide success and recognition for playing tuba in a Wisconsin-based polka band.  Pagel is on every RCA record the Red Ravens made - including the first recording of the “Elephant Waltz”, a staple in the repertoire of just about every old-time tuba player.  Many others have recorded the Elephant Waltz; Der Cammack recorded what I consider the definitive version of the tune with the Scheid band, in 1961.  I recorded it with the Check band in 1976.  But Larry’s recording was the original.

How influential was Pagel’s tuba-playing?  So much that my original tuba teacher and mentor, Ernie Broeniman, bought a Martin tuba as soon as he saved enough money from his gigs with the Don Peachy Band.

Here’s a shot of Ernie with his Martin tuba – a three-valve model.  Ernie said he wanted a Martin tuba so bad that he couldn’t wait to save more money to buy the four-valve model that Pagel played, so when he had enough money together to buy the slightly less costly three-valve model, he pulled the trigger.  I learned to play on Ernie’s Martin tuba, and it was his mentoring and support that landed me my first job with an old-time band, filling in for Ernie with Ray Dorschner’s Rainbow Valley Dutchmen in the summer of 1965 when I was a junior at Hortonville High and Ernie was off working on his Master’s Degree at Colorado State. 

Ernie got his first professional gig when he was a junior in high school.  He played tuba in the Horicon High School pep band. One night, Don Peachey, leader of a very well-known polka band that booked out of nearby Burnett, heard Ernie playing with the pep band, hired him on the spot, and fired his regular tuba player!  Ernie worked with and recorded with Peachey, and with the Bernie Roberts Orchestra (Ernie is on the famous Roberts recording of Red Wing Polka); and has worked with many other well-known bands including the Don Schlies band.  Ernie founded the great Dorf Kapelle group 25 years ago, and the group is still going strong, doing live appearances and recording.

There are a lot of first-class old-time tuba players that have come from Wisconsin; so many that I’m hesitant to name names, because I know I’ll forget someone who’s really good and likely influenced my playing.  But before all of them, there was Larry Pagel – and it’s good to know that his horn is in good hands, and will be cared for properly. 

If that horn could talk, the stories it could tell……

Monday, July 16, 2012

Smart Meters and Dumb People

There’s a small flap in Madison about the new water meters the water utility will begin installing in a few weeks.  The meters keep track of your usage, and every so often send a radio-frequency (RF)signal with the data, so the water company can keep better track of you consumption.  The water company won’t have to send a meter-reader person around to do it; they’ll be able to bill monthly rather than quarterly; and if you develop a leak, you’ll know about it sooner.  The picture at the top of this post is what they typically look like.

The flap in Madison is not about big brother invading our privacy (though that’s the angle you might think the east-siders and isthmus-dwellers might take); the flap is not about replacing humans with machines; the flap is about the RF emissions of the new “smart meters”.

Americans are, in my estimation, by and large dummies when it comes to math and science.  Most high school students avoid these subjects whenever possible, unless some math or science content is mandated, or, for the college-bound crowd, the high school guidance counselor convinces them they need to get a little math and science under their belt to be more attractive to the college they have their sights set on.

One of the local TV news stations  recently did a story about the apparent discovery of the so-called “God particle”, the Higgs boson, and the dweeb who wrote the story (and the anchorette who read it) obviously didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.  The story said “the particle was found deep underground in Switzerland”, as if some European physicists had been digging deep holes in the earth looking for this elusive boson.  (Supercollider?  What’s a supercollider?)

There are plenty of websites out there on the internets that have sprung up in opposition to this new generation of water-meters, and people who don’t understand a thing about science are most easily buffaloed by quasi-scientific-sounding language.  Surfing a representative sample of these anti-new-water-meter sites will likely elicit a chuckle from anybody who knows the first thing about RF emission.

These Madison folks, the noisy handful who are all up in arms about this RF flying around from these new water meters, obviously are operating without a clue.  They wouldn’t know a milliwatt from a millirem from a milligram.  But they seen on that there innernet that RF is bad for ya, it’ll fry yer brain, and the gubbmint is tryin’ to cover it all up!

These are the kind of folks who apparently don’t realize that their cell phone operates by emitting RF; that the baby monitor they use in their home emits RF; that their in-house internet router emits RF; that the TV remote emits RF (a lot of the newer ones work on UHF, rather than infrared); that their microwave oven emits RF; that their GPS device emits RF; and on and on.

Don’t bother trying to explain it to these folks.  As I’m fond of pointing out, today, we can have our own opinion about anything, and we can have our own facts about anything.

You’d be investing your time better by giving a lecture about dBm values to your dog, rather than to these folks.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Day With The Dutchmen

The Iowa license plate on the big grey GMC van rolling into the parking lot at Culver’s on 8th Street in Monroe says “SHOWTIME”.  At the wheel of the rig is Becky Livermore, a talented, smart lady known to tens of thousands of fans as “Barefoot Becky”.  Her husband Terry Ard is riding shotgun; also in the van, which is laden with hundreds of pounds of stuff it takes to put on a performance (music, stands, instruments, speakers, amps, etc.) are Dale Baker, and my friend Tom Plummer.

It’s just past noon on Sunday. The quartet in the van have been on the road since just after breakfast, which, in this case, was in Trempealeau, 184 miles to the northwest of Monroe.  Becky parks the rig, bounces out of the van, and with a broad smile shakes my hand.  Terry does the same, and then, Dale and Tom join in.  A quick round of “good to see you again” is exchanged; Becky says “so, are you going to sit in with us for a set today?” – and my quick reply is “no indeed, not when you’ve got a pro like Tom with you.  I’d embarrass myself!”

Three decades ago, I was a tuba player, fortunate to have worked with some of the better polka bands that crisscrossed the upper Midwest, and I played tuba on a lot of polka records.  Those old records, from the 60’s,70’s, and early 80’s are, in fact, the genesis of this day with the Dutchmen.  A couple years ago I got a Facebook message from a tuba player named Tom Plummer, asking if I was the guy who played tuba with Ray Dorschner’s band and John Check’s band back in the day.  After I confirmed it, he told me he grew up listening to me on those old LP’s, and he lightheartedly referred to me as one of his tuba idols!  That was the beginning of a great friendship.  A month ago, I spent a day with Tom at his home in Lake City, Iowa, where he’s the long-time band director at South Central Calhoun High School in Lake City. His bands have won enough statewide awards and competitions to fill several shelves with trophies and plaques.  It’s a rare year that Tom’s high school jazz band doesn’t win the Iowa state Division 2 championship.

Tom often plays tuba and e-bass with Becky’s band, and I’d been looking forward to this stop in Monroe for months, for another chance to visit in person with Tom.  It’s often said that tuba players have similar personalities – good sense of humor, happier in the back row of the band than the front row, gregarious, and with a zest for life.  I guess part of it comes from lugging that huge horn around – you gotta have a sense of humor!  Tom arranged with Becky to have me meet them for lunch in Monroe, before they set up for their gig at Turner Hall, and I can’t thank him enough for making it happen.

We ordered lunch and the conversation began.  The band had started this road trip Friday late afternoon in Toledo, Iowa, playing from 4:30 to 6 PM at the village’s annual Stoplight Festival.  (Yes, it celebrates a traffic light in Toledo, but the story behind it is too lengthy to relate here.)  It was about a hundred degrees at that time of the afternoon and they were playing on a platform in the direct sun, with no cover.  Then they packed up and headed for Saturday’s gig in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, which has for decades hosted a big polka festival in July with lots of bands.  I’ve played at that festival many times, back in the 60’s.  We talked about mutual acquaintances working with the bands at Ellsworth, and how there are fewer bands now, but the crowds are still good.

The lunch-table conversation is light and lively.  I’m struck by how similar it is to conversations I had with fellow musicians back in the day.  Lots of witty by-play and laughter; good-natured ribbing.  It’s obvious these folks are comfortable with each other and get along well.  It’s Becky’s band, and there’s no doubt she’s the boss.  After her husband, Terry, gave her some lighthearted grief about being the boss, she says “I wish I’d met Harold Loeffelmacher (the late, legendary leader of the famous Six Fat Dutchmen band) – I heard he was sort of gruff, too!”  I assured her he was, and that she was a long way from having Harold’s temperament.

Becky started playing professionally as a young lady back in 1988.  Why the bare feet?  She claims it was just more comfortable playing that way, and, savvy marketer that she is, she knew every band needs a marketing hook, and “Barefoot Becky” became her identity.  She’s extremely personable, is a virtuoso on the accordion, sings like an angel, and knows how to get the crowd up on its feet.  You don’t survive in the band business for as long as Becky has, without being very good at what you do, and, to do it full-time, like Becky does, you’ve got to put a lot of miles on the van.  You have to take what’s available, so Becky books as a two-piece band, a three-piece band, a four-piece band, and, like this weekend’s gigs, as a five-piece band.   The administrative load of booking and managing a band is not for the faint of heart.

Becky’s husband, Terry Ard, is the tech and electronics guru of the band.  In addition to completely handling the audio set-up for each performance – which is absolutely critical – Terry has mastered several instruments, and it’s his versatility that’s key to the overall sound of Becky’s band.  On Sunday’s gig, Terry will play guitar, banjo, trumpet, and baritone horn – in addition to doing vocals on many of the tunes.  He switches between the instruments seamlessly, never missing a note, and is a tremendous showman.  Because of his flexibility, the band can present several distinct “sounds” to the audience.

Dale Baker, the drummer, is a veteran of many years on the road.  He mentions in conversation that his dad had a band, and he still has the music library stored at his home.  His musical roots run deep.  He’s soft-spoken, but not shy, and quick to join in a practical joke.  In a band like Becky’s, the drummer is the foundation of everything.  After all, this gig, like nearly every other one that Becky books, involves playing songs that people dance to.  And you can’t have fun dancing if the beat wanders all over the place.  Dale’s kick drum sets the tempo, and Dale keeps tempo like a metronome.  His fills and accents drive the band, while providing the rhythmic foundation that the band – and the dancers – can’t operate without.

As we’re finishing up our burgers and fries, Don Elmer walks into the restaurant.  He’s driven down from his home in Omro to be the reed man (clarinet and saxophone) for Becky on this gig.  Don and I are both alums of Ray Dorschner’s Rainbow Valley Dutchmen.  Don played with Ray in the 50’s.  There’s not an old-time tune that Don can’t play, and play well.  And he’s a real character.  After a round of handshakes and greetings, Becky asks Don how he’s doing, and Don says “I’m able to perform menial tasks under constant supervision”, which draws a round of loud laughter.  There’s a style of old-time music called “hoolerie” (HOO--la-rye), which features a clarinet lead, and Don is a master of it.  Becky takes full advantage of Don’s talent in this style by lining up several hoolerie tunes in the set-list today.

The boss says it’s time to head for the gig, so we do.  Tom hitches a ride with me over to Turner Hall, so we can spend a few extra minutes visiting.  It’s amazing how much we discovered we have in common via our online friendship – we’re both strong family men;  big baseball fans (Tom is a die-hard Cubs fan); both of us spend a lot of time with our dogs; and of course, there’s the universal brotherhood of all old-time tuba players.

The setup (or, “load-in”, as the younger set now calls it) is a well-practiced and highly choreographed ballet, first lugging all the instruments and equipment onto the stage through a very narrow and twisting passageway at Turner Hall in Monroe, a venue I’ve played scores of times back in the day.  I try to stay out of the way, and contribute to the effort only by carrying a couple of small cases from the van to the stage.  My artificial joints don’t do stairs well.

Above is a shot of Dale setting up the drum kit, Tom grabbing the bass library, and Becky and Don visiting.  Meanwhile, Terry is busy stringing the bird’s nest of wires and connectors for the mikes, setting up and balancing the sound system, and attending to all the details that go into making a professional sound presentation for the band.

Tom takes a few minutes to warm up on his e-bass.  Aficionados of the electric bass will note that Tom plays a classic Fender Precision Bass.  He uses it on fox trots and other non-polka dance tunes that Becky has lined up for this afternoon’s gig.  For those uninitiated in the classic Midwest dance-hall format, songs are played in “sets” – and usually, a set consists of three songs.  It’s typical to alternate between polka and waltz sets, and about every fifth set is a fox-trot or “modern” dance set.  A successful bandleader like Becky will have a real sense for what the crowd is responding to, and will alter the presentation to give them what they like; and, will also have done enough gigs to know what to do the get a complacent crowd off its butts and dancing.

Here’s a shot of Tom and me, with Tom in the “uniform of the day” (Becky likes colorful, unusual shirts). He’s holding his Conn 20J tuba, which is the gold standard for tuba players who work with polka bands.  Conn stopped making the 20J model decades ago, so, like collector cars, Conn 20J tubas are in limited supply, carry a fairly high dollar value, and tuba players who own 20J’s keep them in good shape.  Tom’s 20J dates back to the 1930’s, and is a very smooth-playing horn.  (Yes, we love to play each other’s horns, or, as I call it, take it for a test drive.)  I bought a 20J brand-new in 1966, when Conn was still making them, and sold it in 1984 when I moved to Los Angeles.  Just a few months ago, the bug bit me again, and I bought another 20J, a 1968 model, from a tuba-playing friend in Appleton.

Tom is a consummate artist on both the brass bass (tuba) and the electric bass.  He’s played with scores of well-known polka bands, big-band style dance orchestras, and everything in between.  His bass-playing can be heard on many records (or, as they’re now called, “CD’s”.)  Playing old-time bass is something I know a bit about, and the very first time Tom sent me a CD of his playing, I was blown away by his talent and skill.  He’s really studied the genre, and can make that big Conn 20J “sing”!

The time for visiting and warming up was over; and right at the stroke of 2PM Becky started the gig with her band’s theme song, Ideward’s Polka – a tune written by Ray Dorschner’s son Steve when Steve was all of four years old!  Becky is kind enough to allow me to sit off to the side on the stage, about ten feet from Tom, hidden from the audience by a curtain (prompting Terry to say “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”). On that very first song, Tom perfectly executes a run up to high B-flat.  I chuckle to myself, because when I was playing, it would take me a good 10 or 15 minutes of playing to have the courage to attempt hitting a high B-flat.

This is what it looks like from behind the band – a perspective the audience never gets.  During a break between sets, I switched sides and went to the other side of the stage, so I could capture a photo of all five band members hard at work.  The band sounds great.  Everybody’s got their “road chops” up, and they’re really clicking together.  Set after set, Becky’s got the crowd up on their feet, dancing to the music and clapping in appreciation after each song.  She’s got that innate sense of figuring out what makes any particular crowd happy, and then providing it.  Of the hundreds and hundreds of tunes in the library, fewer than a hundred will be played in a four-hour gig.  Knowing which tunes to play, and in which order, is one of the central tenets in establishing a following.  It’s one of the many reasons that Becky draws a crowd everywhere the band plays.

For those of you reading this blog who can also read music, here’s a sample:

This is the tuba part for the Red Raven Polka, the theme song of the famous Red Ravens Orchestra of Hilbert, Wisconsin – a band known around the nation in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, founded and led by Lawrence Duchow.  About 16 measures in, you can see the tuba solo made famous by Duchow’s tuba player, Larry Pagel, the “godfather” of all Wisconsin old-time tuba players.  This particular arrangement has every note written out, which is often not the case for old-time bass players.  Often, the tuba part is nothing but a “chord sheet”, which simply names the chord of the melody, measure-by-measure, like C,C, C, G7, C, C, F,F,C,C, and so on.  Becky’s bass library has a mixture of chord sheets and tunes where every bass note is written.

One of the great joys of playing tuba in a polka band is the freedom to improvise: you get to make up your own bass line, following the chords, but adding fills and runs to accent the arrangement.  It’s not a stretch to say that playing tuba in a polka band is like playing jazz: you follow the chord structure of the melody, but you make up your own part.

I have another commitment that I need to honor that evening, so about half-way through the gig, during a break, I thank Becky again, say my farewells to the band members, and head back up to Madison.  The band will play another couple hours, then pack up the van, and hit the road for home after the long weekend of playing.  For my friend Tom, who lives the farthest west, it means he won’t get home to Lake City until ten minutes after 1 AM Monday morning.

For Becky and Terry, getting home to Mount Vernon, Iowa, means a rare 5-day break in the schedule.  But Terry has some recording jobs he’s booked, so it’s only a few hours of sleep for him and then back in the van; for Becky, it’s a time to tackle some of the administrative work that never ends, and piles up while you’re on the road: bookings to attend to, musicians to hire, phone calls and e-mails to return, and preparations to be made for the rest of July’s gigs.  The band is on the road 15 days in July, 18 days in August, and 21 days in September, with travel involving five states: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota.  That’s a lot of gigs, and a lot of miles. 

But for those who do it, it’s the only way to live.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Health Insurance Reform

My friend Stephanie is, to me, a perfect example of why we need “ObamaCare” to stay in place, and why we need to go even farther than the Affordable Care Act, and truly reform the way we think about and pay for health care in this country.

Steph is a young lady I met during the tail-end of my radio news anchor days.  She was hired on a part-time basis to help produce talk shows, and as so many who start in that position do, she worked her way up to an on-air job.  Soon realizing that her part-time status was not likely to become full-time, with the attendant “benefits” (health insurance), she left for another job which offered her full-time status and benefits.

Why one’s health insurance is linked to a job has never made sense to me.  Of course, you can buy your own health insurance (if they don’t reject you for a “pre-existing condition”), just as you buy your own car insurance, homeowners or renters insurance, and life insurance (yes, I know, some benefits packages also offer a form of life insurance), but if you buy your own health insurance, you’re going to pay through the nose.

Steph was diagnosed with breast cancer several months ago.  Thank GOD she had good health insurance, so her doctor bills and chemo were pretty much covered.  Then, a few weeks ago, toward the end of her chemo treatments, something hit her like a bolt out of the blue.  She had a stroke.

Her boyfriend got her to the hospital quickly enough to minimize the damage, but plenty of damage was done.  She lost movement on much of the right side of her body.  She bounced back quickly, and within a few days, was sending e-mails and posting on social websites from her hospital bed, using her left hand only, and struggling to get her brain to issue the necessary commands to accomplish the task.  She will need a ton of physical therapy and a considerable number of prescription meds, on top of the huge array of chemo meds.

The doctors said she should be able to leave the hospital soon, but will need a lot of p/t in the coming weeks and months to regain some mobility and learn the work-arounds when much of the right side of your body isn’t taking commands any more.

Her employer, which I choose to identify only as a local outlet of a gigantic multi-national conglomerate, did her right when she told them the docs told her the earliest she’d likely be back at work would be December.  They said her job would be there for her whenever she could come back.  Steph had burned so much vacation and sick-leave time in dealing with her breast cancer and chemo, that the company said their only choice was to place her on indefinite leave, and that meant she could keep her benefits (health insurance) only by taking the dreaded COBRA – which, in her case, means she’ll be on the hook for about $550 a month.

For a young woman just getting started in a career, not making the King’s ransom in salary, and not having had enough time to stash away a bunch of money in savings, and not being able to work, $550 a month is a huge nut to crack.  Her family and friends have assured her they’ll help, while she takes the long re-hab road a step at a time.

Can you imagine what her next several months will be like?  Chemo, on top of intense physical therapy, and a daunting daily array of prescription meds.  With no insurance, it would seem to me that any young person in a similar situation would be facing bankruptcy and other dire consequences.  With her COBRA, and a lot of help from family and friends, she at least has a fighting chance to go back to work.

I don’t have to paint the entire picture for you.  Her life from this point on is one huge health insurance nightmare.  If the dweebs in Congress roll back all or parts of the ACA – like the ban on pre-existing conditions as a cause to reject a health insurance applicant – she’s doomed if she goes back to work and then gets laid off.

Modern medicine has already saved her life – twice.  Yes, the care is expensive.  Yes, the necessary medications are expensive.  But for Steph, and literally thousands and thousands of other young people like her – people who often balk at paying for health insurance “because they won’t need it until they’re a lot older” – many of the key provisions of the ACA are vital.

It’ll never happen to me?  It’ll never happen to my children?

Ask Steph and her family about that.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Baseball, Hot Dogs, and the 4th of July

Baseball is the great American pass-time, tightly woven into the fabric of our lives, part of daily conversation for tens of millions of us, and – unfortunately – reflective in many ways of our changing society.  There seem to be so many more morons and idiots among us now, compared to when Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball.

That’s right – it’s an oft-repeated urban legend that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, but he didn’t, and as a matter of fact never claimed he did.  A bunch of jocks and politicians got together and decided that Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.  Doubleday was never in Cooperstown.  And, it may shock you to learn he is NOT in the Baseball Hall of Fame there. The jocks and politicians even “ruled” that Doubleday invented the word “baseball”, but that’s just more baloney.

Sorry to shake your beliefs, if you weren’t aware of this.

But, like American politics in 2012, the method used by the Mills Commission in 1908 (which cooked up the Abner Doubleday story) apparently followed the maxim that if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it.

One of the many things that attracted me to my wife was her love of sports, in particular, baseball (although I think she’s actually a bigger hockey fan).  Above is a shot I took of her with her mother and late father, at a Sox game at Comiskey Park in July of 2002.  We have gone to countless baseball games together, and have taken our kids to scores of Cubs, Sox, and Brewers games.

We used to go to at least one Cubs game at Wrigley Field every year – often to several each season – but we haven’t been to Wrigley for at least five years.  It’s expensive, it’s a long drive there and back, and the last time we went, there were so many morons around us that it just made the entire experience unpleasant.  We were surrounded by idiots in thousand-dollar-suits, who had apparently won some sales contest for some mutual-fund peddling outfit, and the lot of them spent the entire game on their Blackberries, calling their pals and saying inane stuff like “Guess where I am?! Wrigley Field!!!!”.  By the third inning they were drunk, and more obnoxious than I’d care to describe, dispensing at full-volume such baseball wisdom as "you gotta hit it where they ain't!!!"

The last five years or so, we’ve gone to plenty of Brewers games, but we spend the big bucks and get seats directly behind home plate, about ten rows up in section 117 or 118, where we have been surrounded every time by people who actually pay attention to the game and leave their bratty kids at home (rather than waste a hundred bucks to buy a seat for them).  We have also been spared from the typical drunken boorish behavior that’s exhibited at Miller Park, just as it is in ball parks around the nation.  At least in our experience at Miller Park, the folks who buy the good seats behind home plate are there to see the game.

My friend Jennifer Miller, who, like me, was a news anchor for the past couple decades (although, of course, Jennifer is MUCH younger than me), and is a huge Brewers fan, went to a game at Miller Park a few days ago and was so off-put that she wrote a great rant about it on Facebook.  She made several cogent points, including “the Diamond Dancers add NOTHING to the Miller Park experience” – THAT, Jennifer, is very much a matter of opinion….and she said “The more beers the drunk behind you has, the more he thinks he’s an expert on the game of baseball.  Sober up and shut up, though not necessarily in that order.”  But Jennifer’s next two points both made me laugh out loud.  She wrote “Awwww, you brought your baby… the ballpark.  I have 3 kids so I am more than qualified to tell you that no one under the age of 3 ever got anything out of a major league baseball game.  Never mind that you’re bringing your infant into a loud, hot, germ-infested environment filled with tens of thousands of people (many of whom are drunk), when babies do what babies do (cry and poop), it’s no fun for you or those around you.  In my day, you got a sitter or you didn’t go.  Sorry.”

True dat, sister!

And the last point of Jennifer’s rant: “Hey you.  Yeah, you 20-something in the short shorts and the way too tight Brewers’ t-shirt.  Give it up!  Ryan Braun is not going to marry you.”  (By the way, the game Jennifer was at was the one where the Brewers smoked the D-Backs, featuring two Braun round-trippers and two runs scored by “Rickie Darnell Weeks, Jr”.  I love that Jennifer knows his full and proper name!)

Jennifer, Ryan Braun may not marry that 20-something, but…he just might show her a night on the town.  You will need to discuss this further with my wife, who dated a lot of ballplayers and essentially lived at the ballpark on the south side of Chicago in her checkered youth.

There are way too many unsupervised brats at ball games these days.  Kids who have no interest in the game, who are apparently dragged there by their parents, who allow these hellions to annoy the other fans, unfettered.  My tuba-playing friend Tom Plummer, who loves kids and has been an Iowa high school band director essentially all his life, took his adult son to see a Cubs-Twins game at Target Field a couple weeks ago.  Tom is one of those die-hard Cubs fans who thoroughly understands every aspect of the game (“a student of baseball”, as they used to say), follows it religiously, and is up-to-the minute on news and opinions regarding the team.  His Facebook report on the game said “Target Field was awesome. Soriano crushed two home runs.  I got to see the Budweiser Clydesdales. The down side was that it was “Undisciplined Kids Night” and “Moron Night” at the ballpark also.”  Tom is far too much of a gentleman to call them “brats and drunks” – but again, another example of a major league baseball experience diminished by people who can’t control their drinking, and can’t (or don’t) control their kids.

Regardless, baseball is our national game, and after I watch the hot-dog eating contest on ESPN the afternoon of July 4th, my wife and I will tune in the Brewers-Marlins game from Miller Park.  But we’ll do it from the air-conditioned comfort of our media room, undisturbed by drunks and brats, with the American flag flying proudly over the Morrissey Compound.

Bad behavior at the ball park has become as American as apple pie.  Happy 4th of July!