Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Vacation!

(Click on the photo to enlarge it.)
My wife Toni's 55th birthday was Saturday. The kids came over and we had a great time together as a family. I gave her an iPod Touch (16 gig model) and the dog gave her some fine Sennheiser ear-buds and some nice apps. We feasted on grilled food and polished off a bunch of Spotted Cow and Sprecher Black Bavarian. The shot above is the whole gang enjoying the meal....left to right, Mal's bff Breanna; son Dru's girlfriend Ashly; son Dru; daughter Mallory; the birthday girl, and our famous dog, Shadow.

Toni and I are taking the week off, so I'll be back to the blogging activities the first Monday of August.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Mission of our Mission is to...

Excuse me for being the cynic, but mission statements to me are usually just a bunch of hooey. Some facilitator or consultant or marketing guru, or worse yet some “branding expert” comes in and helps you come up with a statement that supposedly distills the essence of your company’s effort into a single phrase.

Mission statements are not to be confused with slogans, like “Wisconsin: Live Like You Mean It” or whatever that abominable new slogan is. And they’re not to be confused with mottos, like the official state motto: Forward.

Several hundred thousand years ago, the shareholders of a broadcasting company I was an investor in decided to come up with a mission statement. It was the 70’s; it was all the rage. Some guy came to our meeting at a swanky hotel and helped us formulate some pop-culture- laden dreck about “a pleasant environment in which to work, serving our communities, a reasonable return to shareholders” and crap like that.

After the big mission statement meeting, in the hotel bar, a few of my cynical partners and I came up with something like “have fun and make a bunch of money”. We thought our mission statement was a lot better than the one the group came up with.

Now, to the new mission statement of the school system here in the City of the Perpetually Offended. Ready?


Well, isn’t that stylish!!!

It works in just about every cliché you can imagine, and I’ll bet the school board members are just as pleased as punch that they came up with this gem. Global citizens! Civic Engagement! Richness and diversity! You couldn’t possibly get more “Madison” about it!!!

I’ll give you this: the mission statement reflects the values this community gives greatest lip-service to. We have a city council that often thinks it’s the UN General Assembly; a county board that’s the biggest in the nation, so all constituencies can be adequately represented; and our great state university on the big lake is often the epicenter of political correctness.

A modest alternative suggestion, taken from that bastion of higher education immortalized in cinematic history, Faber College:

Knowledge is good.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Through the Looking Glass (Where Illogic is the Norm)

It all started several months ago during a routine visit to the dentist’s office for a cleaning. They did some x-rays and the dentist told me it was time to replace a 20-year-old crown. It wasn’t urgent, so I scheduled an appointment a couple months later.

A week or so before the first of the two appointments necessary to get a new crown, I got a letter from the dentist’s office saying they were going to expect me to pay a thousand bucks for the crown. Hmm….a thousand bucks. My wife has been holding off on a non-urgent crown replacement from the same dentist….she got a letter…I found it in the file….830 bucks was her estimate.

So I called the dentist’s business office and asked why my crown would be 170 bucks more. What followed was the most convoluted non-explanation you can imagine, having to do with “rates”, “reimbursements”, “deductibles” and all that other medical insurance jargon. What I took away from the conversation was that my crown would cost 830 dollars out of my pocket, same as my wife’s.

The first appointment, the “long” one, where they pry off the old crown, clean up the remaining surface of the tooth, and take the impression for the new crown, went swimmingly. They took me back to the chair at exactly the appointed time, and 38 minutes later I was on my way home, with instructions to be careful with the temporary they’d put in, till the next appointment in two weeks.

Just before the second appointment, to install the new crown, I got a letter from their business office reminding me that I should be ready to pay a thousand bucks when I came in to get the new crown installed. Another call; another “oh, that’s just our standard procedure”. I asked how much money I had to pay, in total, to satisfy the bill. Answer: 830 bucks.

So I went to the second appointment, they put in the new crown (which fit like a charm!) and I paid the 830 bucks. Three days later, a bill arrives from the dentist’s office, telling me I need to send them a check for 170 bucks to pay the bill in full. It clearly said “your insurance has paid its portion, and you are responsible for the balance”.

Another call, another trip into the alternate reality of medical billing. No, I really don’t need to send them 170 bucks. So why did they bill me? Oh, it’s their “standard procedure”. They’re sending a similar bill to my insurance company to pay it, so I can just “disregard” the bill they sent me.

Say what???? You sent me a bill you don’t expect me to pay, and nowhere on it does it say you’re sending the same bill to my insurance company - while the bill itself says my insurance company has already paid? Oh, that’s just our “standard procedure”. Deductibles, co-pays, agreed prices, billing cycles, more medical billing mumbo-jumbo is what I got.

Do you see the scam here? How many people do you suppose pay that second bill, who never bother to make a call or ask a question about what they’re paying for? As far as I’m concerned, the quality of dental care that I got was absolutely top-notch. The quality of their billing procedures borders on criminal. It’s beyond stupid, it’s downright dishonest.

So don’t tell me we need to slow down on health care reform. I’ve learned a long time ago that you have to be a strong advocate for your own health care; you have to argue with insurance companies; and you have to be alert for billing mistakes and outright scams. We need reform NOW.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care Reform

I’ve heard so many reasons why President Obama should back off on his zeal to reform health care, and to me, none of the reasons make sense. Unless you’re very wealthy, or a Member of Congress, your health care coverage and expenses are spinning out of control.

Last week in Isthmus, Bill Lueders made a great point about one of the new buzzwords associated with health care: HIPAA, which stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. One of the benefits was supposed to give us increased privacy. Lueders says exactly the opposite has happened. Who has access to your health records now?

The people you would least want to know all about your health are the folks who have the most information about it. And those folks are insurance companies, which use the information to prevent us from getting insurance or coverage, and to find reasons not to pay our claims.

Another question, which the Obama administration is sort of addressing, is why for so many people, health insurance is tied to their job. Another big buzz-word is COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), which means if you lose your job, for a few months you can have the privilege of remaining insured, by paying “both sides” of the policy cost.

This change to health insurance being tied to you job happened relatively recently. I remember when I bought my own health insurance, but then gradually it became part of the “benefits package” employers offered. Things started to go downhill from there, as far as I’m concerned.

We stopped caring how much drugs cost, when we changed the way we paid for them. First, we paid the cost out of our pocket, and then submitted the charges for reimbursement from the insurance company. We knew just how much the drug cost, because we actually paid for it.

Then, they changed it to a confusing system of co-pays and deductibles, so nobody really knows how much money the drug companies are charging. I have one medication, a common asthma med, which costs $235 for a month’s supply if I buy it myself, but $10 if I buy it through our insurance plan.

Despite the mounting number of health care horror stories, most of which relate to insurance, there are those who say the President should slow down, not try to take on too many things at once, worry about the economy now, and health care reform later. I think he knows that if it doesn’t happen this year, it’s not going to happen - again. Time is of the essence.

And to those who say “what, you want a politician making decisions about your health care?” I say “better a politician than an entry-level employee at a huge insurance company”. In my case, which I believe is common, more often than not some faceless nameless person at an insurance company is already telling my doctor what he can and can’t do in caring for me. Or at least what they’ll pay for.

Socialized medicine? Another scare tactic. Members of Congress have socialized medicine. They tend not to talk too much about that, though.
There are billions and billions of dollars at stake here, and some firmly entrenched special interests. For my money, ANY change would likely be for the better.

Tomorrow: my adventures in the wacky world of medical billing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

There'll Never Be Another Walter Cronkite

Tom Brokaw is probably the only one who comes close to having the kind of credibility Walter Cronkite had. But as far as I’m concerned, the current crop of network TV anchors probably couldn’t even have gotten a job with CBS when Cronkite was Managing Editor of CBS News.

It’s not that Katie, Brian, or Charlie are incompetent. They’re cut from a different cloth and none of the three have near the actual, hands-on news experience Cronkite brought to the anchor chair. Katie really doesn’t know how to act during a newscast until the very last story, when she can be smiley and bubbly. Charlie just isn’t that good at anything; too bland. And Brian does a good job of delivering, but I get the feeling he really doesn’t understand much of what he’s reading.

Did you notice CBS didn’t have Cronkite’s successor, Dan Rather, do anything about Walter’s passing? Dumb Dan, as I call him, still has a huge lawsuit pending against CBS, still in denial about that hatchet-piece he ran on George W. Bush - so blatantly wrong and not-fact-checked that not even firing the people who did it could save Dan’s career.

Rather’s Texas buddy, billionaire Mark Cuban, hired him to do a show for his HDNet channel after his disgraceful fall from the anchor chair at CBS. Rather’s first replacement, Bob Schieffer, was probably the best person to hold that chair since Walter retired. And he was the ultimate company man, graciously saying nice things about Katie when she took over.

Cronkite not only knew what he was talking about, he had a staff of reporters and producers who knew what they were talking about. They knew how to get a story, how to get past the PR people and lobbyists, and to get the facts.

The world of TV news is so much different and fractionalized now than during Cronkite’s heyday in the 60’s and 70’s. We have bombastic blowviators like Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, backed up by staffs not of actual hard-core NEWS people, but producers who seek out information (largely from the internet, of all places) to support a point of view, rather than ferret out the truth. And the biggest insult of all is “Fox News”.

Rush Limbaugh calls himself “America’s Anchorman”, and it’s frightening how many people think his program is “news”. At least the late radio news icon Paul Harvey clearly labeled his broadcast “News and Comment”. Charles Osgood is likely the last man standing, in that department.

No, I don’t think there will ever be another Walter Cronkite. It’s a different era. It’s a 24-hour news cycle, not just 5:30 PM Central Time once a day. Standards have changed dramatically, not only in content, but in the forced marketing of everything. Julie Chen spends her summers hosting a bad reality show for CBS (Big Brother) and then slides back into her “morning news person” role the rest of the time. Walter must have loved stuff like that.

The TV news biz has become an adjunct to the TV entertainment biz, and everything is cross-promoted breathlessly on the network TV “morning news shows”, which consist of a few minutes of actual news, and endless segments about celebrities, insipid interviews with politicians, and thinly-disguised commercial plugs.

Walter Cronkite defined the TV news business in the 60’s and 70’s. But it’s a business that really no longer exists.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Old Man Watson

He lost it on the 18th green, when a putt he’s made a thousand times in his long career came up short, forcing a playoff that ended his hopes quickly. A few months shy of 60, Tom Watson gave a lot of us “geezers” a thrill.

Watson called himself a geezer on the Friday of the British Open, and I’m sure he meant it as irony. But sports writers and columnists and commentators had a field day with the “age” issue, particularly on television, where the default position is EXCESS.

You’d think Watson was pushed up to the 18th green in a wheelchair, and shakily attempting to maintain his balance on the green, according to the picture the announcers were painting about this “old” man. The only “old” sports analogy the ABC announcers didn’t drag up, during Watson’s march down the 18th fairway, was that George Foreman was the Heavyweight Champion of the World at age 45, a feat far greater than Watson’s would have been.

Golf is a game you’re supposed to be able to play all your life. When you start losing your distance off the tee because your body isn’t as supple and your muscles not as strong, you just use a lower-lofted iron on the fairway for your second shot. And putting has always been the great equalizer.
So what’s the big deal about a guy who’s 59 doing well in a sport you’re supposed to be able to play all your life? I guess, because nobody his age has ever done so well in a major tournament. But stand by for this to change, because they weren’t’ kidding when they said 60 is the new 40.

I get more than a little tired of all these youngsters in their 30’s thinking guys like Watson are “old”. Wisconsin native Andy North, one of the ESPN golf commentators, was born in March of 1950, so I guess the guys that work with him must figure it’s extremely unusual for someone born in 1949 like Watson, to actually be playing competitive golf. Mike Tirico is pushin’ 50.

Having attained 60 this past May, it probably irritates me more than usual to hear someone my age, like Tom Watson, referred to by the TV announcers as if he were Methuselah. I don’t “feel” sixty, at least not in the sense of my dad’s generation. I was 35 when my dad turned 60, and I know darn well my dad’s 60 was not the same as my 60.

Guys my age talk about it frequently, how we feel so much better than our dads did, at our age. We know so much more about diet and pharmaceutical chemistry these days, and its impact on aging. The only guys I don’t mind calling me an age-related name are the guys over 80 who are members at the health club I attend. They call me “young fellow”.

But I have little doubt that even though he didn’t win the British Open, the TV folks will be talking all week about how this “old man”, Tom Watson, gave everybody a thrill.

Those of us who are Tom Watson’s age will be snickering.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Anybody Got The Time?

I have a pattern of plunging into projects headlong, confident that I can master a new skill, with the ultimate end of saving a few bucks, and then crashing and burning, poorer, no smarter, and ultimately frustrated.

My wife can list the catalog of my numerous failures, but she’s too nice a person to do it.

My latest venture is to become my own watch-battery changer. I have negotiated the purchase of what I hope will be all the small tools necessary to do it, have downloaded scads of information about how to proceed, and I’m on vigil for the FedEx lady who frequents our neighborhood. I’ve secured a source for replacement batteries.

This all began a few days ago, when my bride mentioned in passing that she had about half a dozen watches she couldn’t wear, because the batteries are dead. She and I are both big fans of the watch as a fashion accessory first, and timepiece second. Her tastes run to trendy; mine run more toward flashy.

I have a Rolex Day-Date that’s got to be worth somewhere well north of ten grand. I could never bring myself to invest in such an extravagance. It was a gift from my brother. The night of my father’s Irish wake, we were sitting at the kitchen table in our parents’ house, drinking Jameson whisky, and I admired his Rolex. I had on a 29-dollar watch with a radio station logo on the face.

He said “let’s swap”, and even in the sober light of a cold February day in Wisconsin 14 years ago, he wouldn’t take his Rolex back.

A few years back, I let fly for an Omega SeaMaster James Bond watch. At a dinner party my wife dragged me to, an executive from Trek Bicycles - and obvious watch aficionado - recognized it on my wrist, and asked to try it on.

Made it worth every cent!

I haven’t gone off the deep end in this watch-battery-replacement enterprise. The Rolex and the Omega will NOT be victims of my amateur meddling. Registered dealers, only! The Rolex is a “perpetual” model, so there’s no battery anyway.

But I am fearless in tackling the job with my wife’s fancy Diesel model, her various Anne Klein watches, and my assorted other less distinguished watches. If past is prologue, in a short time I will be either a hero in her eyes - again - or a goat - again.

If you see an ad on Craigslist in August offering “like-new watch repair equipment” for sale, you’ll know how it turned out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rick Wagoner: Fail

By any definition, Rick Wagoner’s tenure at the helm of General Motors was a failure. On his watch, Toyota surpassed GM as the world’s biggest auto manufacturer. GM failed and went into bankruptcy, after absorbing 50 billion bailout dollars from the taxpayers, via President Bush and President Obama.

GM stock, once a part of every institutional portfolio and one of the bluest of the blue-chip stocks, went from about 70 dollars a share when he took over as CEO, to under 3 dollars a share when he was forced out a few months ago.

So, what do you get for retirement benefits after you’ve so thoroughly run a company into the ground? A lifetime salary that anybody could live on…74 grand a year…and on top of that, over 8 million dollars in cash over the next five years. Not to mention a 2.6 million dollar life insurance policy. Oh yes, and a juicy liability policy, as well.

But, as rich as that farewell package is, Wagoner would have been far better off under the terms of his previous employment contract, before the bailout. That deal would have given him 23 million dollars, PLUS his “lifetime salary” of 74 grand a year.

Now, you and I own about 61% of the new post-bankruptcy company, called “General Motors Company”. Four fewer GM brands; fewer factories and assembly plants; far fewer dealers; and hope that the company will survive - to say nothing about “thrive”.

At least they’ll still make Cadillac, Corvette, and that sexy new Camaro. The new electric car, the Volt? Ah, let’s talk about something else. We’re still workin’ on that.

As Richard M. Nixon used to say, “let me make one thing perfectly clear”. I am NOT in favor of having congress, the President, or some car-czar micro-managing the new GM. But since we own well over half the company, I’m glad somebody representing our interests is helping paint the broad strokes for the new company’s future.

There’s an old story that talks about how the Japanese and American car-makers had a rowing contest. The Japanese team had eight oarsmen and one steerer. The American team had eight steerers and one oarsman. After the American carmakers lost the first race by two miles, they reorganized the team into one chief steerer, three executive steerers, four assistant steerers, and one oarsman.

Let’s hope that Fritz Henderson, the new CEO at GM, does NOT follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, and knows that it takes more than a lot of highly-paid executives to build and sell good cars.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wisconsin Is Divided Into Three Parts

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, said Julius Ceasar, and anybody who’s studied Latin can tell you that phrase means “All Gaul is divided into three parts”. It’s a familiar early Latin lesson including a bit of history concerning France (Gaul).

Many of my friends who’ve only lived in southern Wisconsin are amused when I say Wisconsin is divided into three parts. Roughly speaking, by my estimation, the dividing lines are Highway 21 and Highway 29. Madison and Milwaukee are south of Highway 21; between Highway 21 and Highway 29 lie the Fox Cities (Green Bay south to Oshkosh) and Eau Claire - LaCrosse is right on the line; and north of Highway 29 there’s the huge expanse of “northern Wisconsin”.

The folks who live south of Highway 21 are, as far as I’m concerned, the most “liberal” of all the Wisconsinites. Between Highway 21 and Highway 29 folks are quite a bit more conservative in their politics. And north of Highway 29 - well, let’s just say that it’s a different breed of cat that lives up there. Rugged individuals who take the phrase “property rights” pretty seriously and think those of us down here in Madison are one step away from being commies.

My perspective on this comes from being born and raised in the Fox Cities, and while I consider myself an independent politically, my family members who still live up there think I’m a huge lefty. I even lived for years in that lefty loony bin of southern California, for heaven’s sake!

Crivitz is a small town off Highway 141, well north of the Highway 29 dividing line. They hold the American flag to be a sacred symbol of their nation, and they don’t like people messin’ with it, especially around the 4th of July. Just before the 4th this year, a Crivitz businessman, Vito Congine Jr., started flying the flag upside-down outside his restaurant.

To most folks, flying the flag upside-down is a symbol of distress, and that’s the message Vito was trying to send to the Village Fathers in Crivitz. Vito spent 200 grand to remodel a run-down joint into a nice Italian family restaurant, and the Village Board now doesn’t want to give him a liquor license. Vito says it could mean bankruptcy, so that’s his distress, and his reason for flying the flag upside-down.

According to the Associated Press, a few hours before the annual 4th of July parade in Crivitz, four local cops went to Vito’s restaurant and removed the flag, acting under “orders” from Marinette County DA Allen Brey. The county sheriff, Jim Kanikula, admitted it’s not illegal to fly the flag upside-down, but said it was “making the locals angry“.

Village President John Deschane is 60, an Army vet who served in VietNam. He said “if he wants to protest, let him protest, but find a different way to do it”. Vito, who’s 46 and a Marine veteran who was called back to serve in Iraq in 2004, said “it’s pretty bad when I go and fight a tyrannical government, and I come home to find it right here at my front door”.

The parade went off as scheduled, and the flag was returned to Vito the next day. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is more than a little bit interested in Vito’s case, and is preparing legal action against the village for violating Vito’s First Amendment rights.

Of course, the Wisconsin ACLU office is in Milwaukee, with a branch here in Madison. They’ll face a challenge in explaining to the good folks of Crivitz that the First Amendment is there to protect UNPOPULAR speech. Popular speech doesn’t need much protection, north of Highway 29 or anywhere else in the nation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Power of Viral

An old buddy of mine, Bill Geist of Madison, wrote a note on his Facebook page last week about the speed and power of information these days. It was a brief story about how a Canadian band, The Sons of Maxwell, were travelling to Nebraska for a one-week stand many months ago.

Musician Dave Carroll’s guitar, a $3500 Taylor, was severely damaged by United Airlines.
Bill’s note drew attention to a YouTube video made by Carroll, who had been so frustrated in his months of dealings with United that he gave up and wrote a song about it. United kept denying any responsibility. So Carroll composed a song about his experience, calling it “United Breaks Guitars”. The video is four and a half minutes of fun at United's expense.

The first video went up on YouTube one week ago today. By the next morning, the video had doubled the hundred-thousand views milestone. By noon Wednesday, the number of viewers had rocketed up to over half a million, and was getting ten thousand views an hour.

By the end of the day, “United Breaks Guitars” had hit 1.2 million views, and had garnered posted comments from over 8 thousand people. The next morning, it was still growing…1.4 million views. Folks on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social media websites were still sending links to the video to their friends.

The network news operations picked up on it, and organizations like USA Today and Fox News had each sent tens of thousands of their readers to the video by linking it to their sites. This morning the view-count was well over 2.7 million. In one week, nearly three million people had seen the video, and uncounted millions had heard about it or commented on it.

United Airlines quickly became aware of what Mr. Carroll had done, and late last week offered him a fairly large amount of money to “settle” his claim concerning the damaged guitar. Saturday, Carroll posted a quick response to the offer on YouTube, saying he didn’t want money from the company…only acknowledgement that they’d wrecked his guitar. He suggested they take the money they’d offered him and give it to the charity of their choice.

Carroll has promised he’ll do two more YouTube “songs” about the United adventure. He’s gotten tens of thousands of suggestions about what he should put in the songs, from people who saw the first video.

Sometimes, it’s hard to get a handle on how quickly things happen on the internet, and for the folks at United Airlines, it was a harsh lesson on how one frustrated and dissatisfied customer can pretty easily give you a huge black eye in the internet age. The total impact of the first “United Breaks Guitars” video, and the two that will follow, is nearly unimaginable.

There’s a lesson here somewhere.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Stand By For Furloughs

In the interest of full disclosure, let’s get this out of the way right away: my wife is a state employee, and she’s gonna get furloughed. 13 days into the state’s new fiscal year, it’s still not at all clear to her when she has to take the furlough days, or, even if her department really is subject to the furloughs.

Resistance is futile.

I’ve read everything the Office of State Employment Relations will let me read online, and one thing is clear: the guv and his 132 fellow-travelers in the legislature intend these furloughs to cover EVERY state employee.

Even Barry Alvarez.

Although, the King of Athletics has repeatedly groused to the local sporting press that it just doesn’t make sense or fit in with his coaches’ schedules and routines. But the folks at OSER (so I don’t have to type “Office of State Employment Relations” every time) have said these furloughs are intended to affect every state employee, whether they get their money from rich old white guys in Cardinal red sport jackets, or from Uncle Sugar himself in the form of grants.

If you haven’t been paying attention, because you’re not a state employee or not married to one, since the state has been spending more money than it takes in, there’s not enough money to go around, so they’re ordering 16 furlough days over the next two years. Lots of states are doing it. 21 to be exact, and the average number of furlough days per year is just over 12, so with 8, Wisconsin’s apparently doing better than many other states. OSER and the politicians try to make that clear.

In Hawaii, state employees are being handed out 3 furlough days a month….36 this coming year…and while there’s plenty of legal maneuvering surrounding Hawaii’s furlough plan right now, at least those folks can head to the beach no matter what day or month it is. If my wife winds up on a furlough day in January, I’m pretty sure we won’t spend it on the beach.

Connecticut, Maine, and Michigan have just picked the days on the calendar for furloughs. I’m not sure how that will work with folks like ER docs and critical care nurses. “Sorry, no emergencies today - we’re on furlough”, or whatever.

Here at El Rancho Morrissey, we’ll manage my wife’s 16 furlough days in the household budget over the next two years. Sure beats the kind of “furlough” my former employer laid on me, last November! You’re fired; Happy Thanksgiving. Not even a thank-you for 30 years.

If you’re a state employee, or are married to one, I feel your pain. Too bad the transportation fund has been raided to death and there’s no more tobacco settlement money to throw into the pot. But for folks like me, who were “furloughed” from their jobs and had to take the self-employment route to continue to generate income, there are no furloughs and no paid days off.

Life’s a beach, huh?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Nobody Wants Her Money Any More

Watching a baseball game the other night, my wife turned to me and said “nobody wants my money any more”. She was complaining about the onslaught of ads that follows every half-inning in a baseball telecast. Apparently all the products that they were hawking at this particular break were aimed at people far younger than us.

I hit 60 in May and she’s approaching 39 - again - toward the end of this month. We’re old farts, as far as the Madison Avenue crowd is concerned.

Apparently my wife is not interested in a product which claims it will give you much thicker and longer eyelashes, if you buy it and use it faithfully for something like three months. The spokesmodel for the ad was Brooke Shields - a “compensated endorser”. Seems to me the last thing Brooke Shields ever needed was help in the eyelash department. The list of side effects, however, was quite off-putting to me, should I ever decide to enhance my eyelashes.

My bride was also not interested in a new telephone (why do we still call them that?) which plays games with you, provides GPS in case you get lost, and allows you to update your Facebook status on-the-go. I believe, but I’m not sure, that you can still place and receive phone calls on the device. She has a Blackberry issued by her employer, which probably can do all the stuff the ad talked about, but she uses it 100% for work. No Facebook-status-updating.

Then there was an ad for beer, flavored with lime and salt. No thanks. Bam-bam-bam, three 30-second ads, back-to-back-to back. Then back to the game. Baseball’s makin’ money. Lots of ads.
Watching a baseball game is usually a shared-time activity for me, if the Brewers aren’t on, and it’s a “school night” as we still call Monday through Thursday evening. I’ll usually have the laptop fired up, reading blogs, checking the news, surfing the net, finding ideas for these little stories I write every day. The ads tend to pass without my notice.

I thought a bit about my wife’s comment that nobody wanted her money any more, and reminded her that apparently everybody wants my money, particularly the folks who make Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis, and that drug that stops you from having to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes. There’s an ad for one of them, and an ad for beer, in seemingly every half-inning break.

We’re not rich, and probably never will be, but the wolf isn‘t at the door. With both kids through college (well, just about, for our son) we’re starting again to do things like take real vacations, and buy each other nice birthday presents.

Advertisers still want our money. It’s just that we don’t buy eyelash enhancers and new cell phones. Or beer automatically flavored with lime and salt.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wretched TV Excess

I’ll never forget seeing the Mona Lisa. Back in the 70’s, I was in Europe, and our Paris stop included a trip to the Louvre. Down a hallway, you rounded a corner, and there it was. One of the most famous paintings of all time. How many people had gazed on that face painted 500 years ago and wondered what she was smiling about?

I suppose to the staff of the famous museum, who see the painting frequently, the Mona Lisa doesn’t have as much emotional impact as it does when you actually see it for the first time. I don’t think familiarity breeds contempt with a work of art as great as the Mona Lisa, but I’m guessing it doesn’t rock you back on your heels when you’ve seen it in person for the hundredth time.

I consume more news every day than the typical person, so I’ll admit I get “overexposed” to stuff more quickly than most people. I haven’t actually counted the total number of times I’ve seen the video clip of Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris saying a tearful good-bye to her daddy. But as of this morning, I’m going to guess I’ve seen it 40 times.

Because I channel-hop, I’m bound to see it more times than most people. I’ll spend 15 minutes with five different TV news channels on an average weekday morning, so I’m bound to see any given news clip at least five times.

But as usual, when there’s a truly compelling piece of video, TV producers run it, run it, run it again and again. In one 15-minute segment Wednesday morning on one channel, I saw the clip FIVE times. Average: once every 3 minutes. This morning: twice in two minutes, on the first five minutes of the "Today" show.

This constant re-running of video clips is not a new phenomenon. In the weeks following the September 11th attacks, the clips of the planes hitting the World Trade Center were run so many times that teachers, psychologists, families of the victims, and media critics openly begged news producers to stop doing it.

How many times do you think you’ve seen the video clip of the houses collapsing into Lake Delton last year? The local TV stations still run it on their “news promos”, and every year on June 9th we’ll probably see it repeated another 20 times per station.

There is no such thing as tasteful restraint any more. Every one of these clips I’ve mentioned represents a personal tragedy for someone - a family member of a victim of 9-11; the owner of a house destroyed in a freak disaster; or the family of a dead pop star, seeing that little girl so emotionally overwhelmed and distraught.

I’m not saying the producers of TV news shouldn’t run these clips. I’m saying their bosses should explain to them that often, in the news biz, familiarity DOES breed contempt.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Robert S. McNamara: Fail

It took him way too long to figure it out, but in 1995, Robert Strange McNamara finally admitted he was wrong, terribly wrong. However, it was far too late for the 58-thousand soldiers who died in the VietNam War between 1959 and 1975. The man who was Defense Secretary to JFK and LBJ thought the war, which he started in ‘59, would be over in ‘65 and that the South Vietnamese would win their independence.

Boy, was he wrong. But at least, he admitted it.

A lot of guys my age hated his guts in the 60’s and 70’s, as our high school buddies got shipped to ‘Nam and either got killed or got really messed up physically or mentally. Popular artists lampooned McNamara, who was a big-shot at the Ford Motor Company before President Kennedy asked him to run the Pentagon in 1961.

McNamara and his colleagues were called the “whiz kids”. A lot of folks over 30 thought these guys were whip-smart and the cream of the crop. Uncle Sam was gonna kick some Commie butt over there in the rice paddies and win the hearts and minds of those folks.

Not so much.

When it became obvious to Walter Cronkite and everybody else that the war was a mistake in the first place and was being horribly mis-managed and that we were being lied to by the Pentagon, McNamara wrote in his memoirs that he wasn’t sure if he quit - or if President Johnson fired him.
McNamara should have learned something when the Bay of Pigs invasion of southern Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro, three months after JFK took office, failed so miserably. McNamara and the CIA were confident we could just barge in there and effect regime change.

Sound familiar?

McNamara and the CIA thought the Cuban people would join the invasion, rise up, and throw Castro out. Exactly the opposite happened. The “smartest guys in the room” didn’t learn from that failure, and replicated the failure in Viet Nam.

Don’t tell me that you can’t see the parallels with the Iraq war. Remember how we were going to roll into Baghdad, put on a shock and awe show, and the Iraqis would shower our troops with love and flowers and give them parades?

“Mission accomplished” - NOT.

McNamara admitted, three decades later, that the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Viet Nam War were wrong. I don’t think we’ll be hearing about any mistakes made by George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld three decades from now - or ever.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Clear Channel: FAIL (Again)

The New York Post yesterday published a story about the latest sign that Clear Channel, the largest broadcast group owner in the known universe, is about to default on its loans - again. The huge Texas-based conglomerate, which owns six radio stations in Madison, floated another loan offer through its billboard division, and it sank.

Seems nobody wanted to buy another 3 billion dollars in debt from Clear Channel. This sets the stage for the company to further annoy its lenders this fall, by breaking the loan agreements again. Clear Channel has fired over two thousand hard-working broadcasters in the past year.

Managers fired? Not a one. Worker bees? Just about everybody. It’s no scoop that most of the stations owned by Clear Channel, Entercom, and Cumulus are down to bare-bones on-air staff. Early-afternoon news on Madison’s WIBA-AM often comes from a Clear Channel station in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

My former employer, Mid-West Family Broadcast Group, which owns seven radio stations in Madison, went through what it called “economic” staff cuts late last fall. Vaunted local TV operation WISC last week went through still another round of cuts and layoffs, and for the first time, the station terminated a news anchor’s job, along with several others. News anchors are the most public faces of the local TV stations, and are usually “safe”.

Not in this economy.

Advertising dollars have gone away from broadcasting and onto the internet, where they can be carefully targeted and efficiently managed. The typical radio or TV station gets 99% of its revenue from advertising sales, and about 1% from renting tower space to cell phone and pager companies. One look at the Sunday paper’s want-ads, and you know times are tough there, too.

The economic model for large-scale broadcast (and print) ownership is no longer sustainable. Wall Street bankers have fleeced the big group owners for outrageous loan fees and terms for more than a decade, and while there may be still one more round of that ahead, it’s gonna die. You just can’t “make the numbers” any more.

Who’ll survive? For lack of a better term, the “mom and pop” operations. Owners who don’t have a boatload of debt on untenable terms, and who’ve made their money since day one by serving their local communities with local news and information, local sports, and helping local merchants with affordable and effective advertising.

Those which will fail and disappear are those who have a company executive in some other city telling them what news to cover, which shows to run, what music to play, how to sell commercials, and a CFO who’s constantly trying to feed the beast called “debt service”.

Monday, July 6, 2009

For Sale: A Madison Icon

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read it….Marsh Shapiro is putting the Nitty Gritty up for sale. He wants to sell the famous restaurant to his son-in-law, but they’ve apparently had trouble putting the financing together. The home of the world-famous Gritty Burger up for sale - stunning!

Marsh and his wife Susan have been friends of mine for years. I can’t begin to count how many birthdays my wife and kids and I have marked at his fine establishment downtown, or the great lunches we’ve enjoyed at the Middleton restaurant.

Everybody who’s anybody has been to the Gritty. One time my wife and I were there for somebody’s retirement party, and ran into former UW Athletic Director Pat Richter. We share the same hip replacement surgeon - Dr. John Rogerson -and talked about what a great job Dr. Rogerson did for both of us.

Both my kids, when they graduated from LaFollette High and headed off to the UW, were forced to undergo my indoctrination to The University Of Wisconsin - Madison, and that meant three things: assigned reading of Tom Bates’ book “Rads”; a tour of the campus with my narration about what the REAL campus landmarks are; and a mid-day tour stop for lunch at the Gritty.

Marsh would stop by the table and give exquisite lectures to my kids about the history of the joint, drop the names of a bunch of NFL and NHL stars who hung out at the Gritty during their Badger years, and then would deliver his incomparable spiel about Sterling Hall.

He’d point to a certain booth in the restaurant and say “right there…that booth…in where the Armstrong Brothers, Leo Burt, and David Fine planned the bombing. Your dad has told you about Sterling Hall, hasn’t he?” My son solemnly nodded in the affirmative during his indoctrination, and my daughter did the same the next year.

It’s almost 40 years since the blast heard round the world, which ended young researcher Bob Fassnacht’s life and heralded a new attitude about our nation’s involvement in that southeast Asian war.

But, time marches on. I can’t believe Marsh is 70, and I’m 60. As young men, we would never have trusted anyone our age now!

Whatever’s ahead for Marsh and Susan, I wish them the best. My family will continue to patronize the place, but we’ll miss their tremendous hospitality. And I’ll always wonder what really IS in that famous Gritty Sauce……

Thursday, July 2, 2009

You Could Put An Eye Out With That Thing...(Happy 4th)

My first memorable personal experience with 4th of July fireworks was in 1957 at my uncle’s summer home on Lake Butte des Morts. There, my cousin Jeff had a masterpiece of Chinese ingenuity called a “Repeating Bomb”. It was about six inches tall, a tube on a base, with a fuse sticking out. I’ll never forget the simple directions on that clandestine piece of pyrotechnics: “Light Fuse and Run”.

He set it on the broad lawn behind the house leading to the lake, lit the fuse, and we ran for cover behind my dad’s green ‘57 Chevy. It did not disappoint. It let off five of the loudest explosions I’d ever heard and brought the adults running out of the house to see if Winnebago County was under attack.

As an adventurous youth in the 60’s, I blew off far more than my fair share of Cherry Bombs and M-80’s. And back then, those things packed a punch - not like the wimpy stuff that passes for fireworks today. One M-80 tossed into a phone booth would blow the glass out with enough force to maim anyone nearby. (Don’t ask how I know that.)

In the 70’s, a pal of mine had invited me to his parents’ Fond du Lac home for some real good cookin’ and a beer or two on the 4th. Late that night, after the fermented malt beverages had taken effect, we went down into the basement of the home where my pal’s dad had created “The X Bomb”. It had a number, like X-17 or X-3 or something; I can’t recall. It was shaped like a rocket. We set it up in the back yard under the cover of darkness and launched it. Suffice it to say that the roar that went off when it had achieved maximum altitude was deafening.

In the 80’s, it was harder to get high-quality fireworks that pack a punch. My brother had made a road trip south in the mid-80’s and had his hands on what he called “some good stuff”. We were at our parents’ house for the 4th of July, and when the time was appropriate, we decided to “test fire” one of the M-80’s he’d brought with him. We set it on the top of my parents’ wooden picnic table, lit it, and put an empty coffee can over it to see how high we could blast it.

It turned out to be REALLY “good stuff”. The detonation actually broke the two-by-eight plank it was set on, and I believe the coffee can is still in orbit. Dad was not amused, and the next day we had to replace the plank and repair and repaint the picnic table.

Nowadays, in Nanny Headquarters USA, a/k/a the City of Madison, anything that’s fun is against city ordinance. You are allowed only sparklers, snakes, snaps, caps, and party poppers. And the fine for a first-time violation is up to A THOUSAND DOLLARS.

Humbug! Party poppers, indeed.

Well, I don’t live in the city. I live in the township of Madison, which is far less nanny-ish. And this old dog has a few new tricks up his sleeve for tomorrow night, and that’s all I’m sayin….

Fatherhood: Michael Jackson

Just as there are print publications like the ones you see at the checkout stand in the grocery store that carry nothing but sensational and largely speculative “news”, there’s a tawdry underbelly to the internet, where people say crappy things about people.

The website TMZ, which broke the story of Michael Jackson’s death, is running a story saying Jackson is not the biological father of his three children. Well, there’s a scoop! Anybody who’s ever seen pictures of the Jackson children knows there’s not a hint of biraciality in them.

Finding out that Michael is not the biological father is like finding out that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire were on steroids. Really? You don’t say. Suddenly, in what should have been the waning days of their baseball careers, they put on a huge amount of muscle bulk and started knocking balls out of the park every day - and baseball fans everywhere were in benign denial.

The anonymous were quick to make snarky comments about the TMZ story saying Jackson isn’t the biological father. Well, I have news for them. Whether or not he is the biological father is not relevant one bit: not at law, and not in real life. He brought those children into the world and he is their father, by any definition except biological, and that’s not relevant.

The biology of the issue of paternity does not make one whit of difference to the millions of men around the world who are step-fathers. I’m one of them. And although he may have been connected to his children in a different way than I am to mine, Michael Jackson is every bit their father. He obviously loves them, supports them, and watches out for them, the way any decent father would.

Just a few years ago, when his hometown, Gary, Indiana had a ceremony to give him the key to the city, Michael loaded his kids in the car and took them down to 2300 Jackson Street (named after the President, not the pop star) in the heart of town, to show them the house where he was raised - something any father would do. But most dads don’t have limos and entourages to deal with.

Because my step-son is tall and fair-skinned, people I’ve only known a few years comment “well it’s easy to see where he gets his height from” when they meet or see a picture of my step-son. I’m six-foot-three with fair skin and they just assume that I’m the biological father. And of my step-daughter, they say “she looks just like her mom”, with absolutely no implication about my involvement in the biology.

We tend to judge people by their actions, and not their intentions. And when we first got married, my wife’s parents and siblings judged me largely on how I treated her children. Being a father is not about sex or biology. Anybody can father a child, and lord knows there’s plenty of that going around, and not just in Hollywood. Now, my wife’s family and those two wonderful young adults - my step-children - know that I’m their father, and that I will be there for them and “have their back” to my last day on earth.

So make fun of Michael Jackson and ridicule his often-unusual behavior if you want. But he IS the father of those children. Even the most sarcastic of his detractors has to admit that Michael Jackson was a gentle soul who loved his children and hated no one.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

He Came, He Saw, He Got Outta Here....

In his most important political battles, Newton Leroy McPherson Gingrich failed. Oh, sure, there was the Contract With America, 15 years ago, which got him a lot of press, but a year later the Republican engine stalled, and more Clintonistas were elected. Bill Clinton called Newt’s 10-point manifesto the “Contract ON America”.

In the 1998 mid-term elections, Republicans sustained their biggest losses in more than six decades, and, amidst ethics charges and declining popularity, Mr. Newt not only resigned as Speaker of the House, but resigned his seat in congress.

He hung out with the late Jerry Falwell and other God-in-Government types, and now runs a right-wing foundation. Monday, Mr. Newt was in Milwaukee to raise money for Scott Walker’s second run for governor. Walker ran in 2006 but dropped out when he ran out of money.

Mr. Newt himself is frequently mentioned as a Republican candidate for President in 2012, and he says he’s seriously thinking about it. Fox News Channel pays him to be on TV regularly, to keep his face in front of the public.

It’s not a scoop that this fundraiser Monday was pricey. The top ticket was five grand, and for that, you and your significant other (no pun intended) got your picture taken with Mr. Newt and got to participate in a round-table discussion with him. A grand got you the photo-op, and 250 bucks got you into the door, and that’s it. 800 people ponied up.

But the real kicker is that Mr. Newt didn’t even ENDORSE Scott Walker! Apparently Mr. Newt is hedging his bet on who’ll be the Republican nominee for governor, with Mark Neumann also in the mix. Whoever it is will likely face Jim Doyle, who’s giving signs that he will run for a third term. Diamond Jim had better have a few more of those pricey golf outings to fatten his warchest.

Mr. Newt says the voters will be desperate in October of 2010 for low-tax less-spending smaller-government candidates. He claims voters will have recoiled in dismay from the policies of the Obama administration.

I’m not sure if Wisconsin voters in general are still as tired of the same old failed politicians running for office as they were during the Presidential primaries last time around, but there’s sure nothing new about people like Mr. Newt, Mark Neumann, and that crowd. The Republicans seem to like these guys like McCain and Gingrich who have a lot of miles on the odometer.

Stay tuned. It’s gonna get real interesting in a few months.