Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ghastly Gein Pops Up Again

Ed Gein died of cancer in a mental institution two decades ago, but writers concocting stories about horrible events for the Halloween season continue to resurrect him. People who lived in Wisconsin 50 years ago, as I did, would prefer the world forget about Gein.

Younger generations may not have heard of the killer, grave robber, and mutilator of bodies who lived in a farmhouse he decorated with human remains near the small community of Plainfield, Wisconsin. But they can get the idea from a series of fictitious monsters patterned after him. Gein’s story was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock”s famous thriller, “Psycho.” He also was the model for Leatherface in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Leatherface wore clothes made from human skin; so did Gein. More recently, Gein inspired the terrifying “Buffalo Bill” character in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Gein admitted, without a trace of remorse or concern, to two murders and exhuming more that a dozen bodies from the local graveyard. He made lampshades, bowls, a shirt, and other items from the cadavers. The local sheriff investigating the disappearance of a woman found her in Gein’s farmhouse. Her beheaded and disemboweled body was hanging upside down from a ceiling beam. The discovery was made in November 1957, the year I graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

I never encountered Gein, nor did I help those who burned his farmhouse to the ground shortly after he was arrested. But I unknowingly passed too close to him for comfort many times over a four-year period. Perhaps I exaggerate the proximity, but nevertheless the annual resurrection of this creature scares hell out of me.

Plainfield is about the halfway point between Madison and my hometown. I, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, drove through the area whenever a trip was made to or from home by auto. One time, three of us stopped in a Plainfield bar for a beer. Two men who stopped in a Plainfield bar a few years earlier never were heard from again. Although he was known to favor dispatching or mutilating women, Gein was suspected of doing the men in. He never admitted guilt regarding the missing men. There were several other mysterious disappearances in the area over several years.

Thank God I never hitchhiked home from school. That probably was due more to circumstance than common sense. Thumbing a ride was an acceptable way to travel in those days. Neither we youngsters nor our parents thought much about the danger involved. Nowadays, parents worry much more, and hitchhiking is rare. Teenage travel may be less adventurous, but it surely is safer.

If you are among those planning a pilgrimage to look for spooks where Gein’s farmhouse stood, or in the Plainfield cemetery where he is buried near many of his victims, please do us all a favor this Halloween. Stay away, and let Ed stay dead.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Help Is On the Way

An Associated Press headline today said, “Iraqis have money, but lack know-how in spending it.”

There’s a nonproblem if ever there was one. As soon as we vote a whole lot of incumbent senators and congressmen out of office week after next, we’ll send them over to act as advisors. This should be a bipartisan group. Plenty of blame for our current financial problems is available to shower on both parties.

When President Bush becomes available in January, he can assume command of the crew. It won’t take long for that bunch to show our Arab friends how to go from riches to rags.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Playing Around Comes Around

In the wake of huge drops in value of many shares on the stock exchanges this month, I feel sorry for three groups.

People who are in their sixties, entrusted their savings to the markets, and were planning to retire soon may have to postpone their entry into the golden years, and quite a few may have to work until they drop. This group doesn’t have ten or more years to wait for the markets to recover.

Younger guys and gals who were saving to help their kids with college education costs or to get a down-payment on a home also took a big hit if they listened to the sweet music of brokers and “financial advisors” who said putting their cash into the market rather than into more conservative savings plans was the only thing to do. The race no longer went to the steady; to be “with it” you had to be among the swift, nimble, and clever. You could charge or borrow for just about anything, and the big returns you would earn in the market would pay off your balances at some vague time in the future. The arguments were persuasive, but they were hogwash.

Some middle-aged workers also deserve sympathy. After their employers canceled or refused to finance any new company-funded retirement plans, they had little choice but to bet on the stock market through 401K’s as a way to accumulate wealth they would need in the future. Some tales are told of employers actually telling workers it was to their advantage to get out of company-funded retirement plans in favor of “personal choice” arrangements.

The people I couldn’t care less about are in the big group that smugly told solid citizens for years that they were outdated and stupid for putting their nest eggs into safe investments, such as long-term certificates of deposit or tax-exempt municipal bonds, because the returns just didn’t match the rich rewards available in the market. These jerks deserve what they got. They should have paid more attention to the words in some common descriptive phrases:

We play the ponies.

We play the tables.

We play the slots.

We play the stock market.

When you choose to gamble, you ought to be prepared to take the consequences without a lot of whining. Calling a gambler an investor doesn’t change the odds a whole lot.

Disclosure: The Gabbygeezer has no position in the stock market.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Slightly Provincial

The nice lady on the phone several days ago was a true voice from the past. Betty Rowe Baker was a close friend of my sister and the daughter of one of my heroes (see Nov. 2, 2007 post, “My Hero, Dr. Rowe Baker”). I hadn’t talked with Betty Rowe for at least 50 years.

We did a lot of reminiscing about days in the old hometown. My caller mentioned that she subscribed to the Tomahawk Leader, although most of the names in the news no longer were people she knew. That observation got us onto the topic of something that was unknown to many of us when we were kids in a small town. We seldom knew the street names, or if we did, we were hazy about where they were.

We found houses because they were “across the street from Nick’s, next door to Schmidt’s, “ or “right where the road turns north in Jersey City.” I knew where Wisconsin Avenue was because we lived on it. And Fourth Street was familiar, because beyond it, when walking “downtown,” Wisconsin Avenue was known as “Main Street.” Other than that, my knowledge of the location of streets was limited.

We thought we were pretty sophisticated in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. After all, a passenger train stopped beside the depot at the end of Main Street every day. It disgorged travelers from such grand places as Chicago and Milwaukee. We even had a famous eatery. Jim’s Logging Camp, a steakhouse a few miles up the highway, modestly advertised itself as “The Antoine’s of the North,” assuming that we and tourists who came to our city were acquainted with New Orleans’ restaurants. We thought we were pretty worldly in many ways, but in fact we could be very provincial.

One night at our dinner table Mom started a conversation about a “man from Illinois” who lived in our immediate neighborhood. After a while, my sister asked just who this man was. When Mom revealed his name, we learned that the immigrant has lived across the street from our family home for 27 years!

Apparently, it took a little time to become recognized as a fully integrated citizen of my hometown.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bring the Sheriff Back to Town

A whole lot of us thought deregulation was the way to go when our hero Ronald Reagan made it a pillar of his campaign in 1980. After all, wasn’t free enterprise the American way, something to be taken literally? And with less government interference, business people would just naturally be freer to lead us to prosperity, and wouldn’t that be wonderful?

So we ran roughshod over what we saw as a misguided regulator crowd. Laws were changed. Officials were admonished to be kinder and gentler to the very guys they were supposed to be watching, because, after all, American business leaders could be trusted. And, of course, private enterprise does everything better than government. It can even regulate itself, we were told.

Well, American business leaders can be trusted. Their job is to operate efficiently and maximize profits for their shareholders. They can be trusted to work hard to make their operations successful. There is nothing wrong with that. Without guidelines about what is permissible, though, financiers and business people face too much pressure to produce large short-term profits, and do it quarter after quarter. That was part of the problem when we went overboard with deregulation. Caution became a dirty word. Many individuals crossed the line and committed fraud. Others had no ethics to begin with, and gleefully took advantage of the new deregulated situation.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot the lessons of the not-so-distant past. Government programs that did work in combating effects of the Great Depression included considerable regulation of our financial institutions. That inspired confidence, which along with wartime spending, lifted us out of economic disaster. In the late 1980s we should have learned the lesson again when relaxed regulation of Savings and Loans created an expensive bailout crisis. We quickly forgot about that and went on our merry deregulation way.

We ignored two very fundamental things about human nature. First, like it or not, greed is a major motivator of Homo sapiens. Second, many of us like to think we are considerably smarter than we really are.

Let’s face it; most of us simply do not understand the complexities of high finance. We haven’t a clue about what’s going on with derivatives, hedge funds, credit-default swaps, and exotic mortgage-backed securities. Hedge fund managers don’t even reveal how they are investing the money entrusted to them! Investors are supposed to just have faith.

Ignorance about high-level money matters is not confined to the middle and lower classes. The wealthy often don’t understand sophisticated financial deals, either. They, however, can hire accountants, lawyers, and other expensive advisors to protect their interests and make big profits for them. We common folks simply are unable to do that. We have neither the money nor the contacts.

We are the minnows in the financial pond. It should come as no surprise that the big fish just ate a whole lot of us little fish. They almost always do. This time, we suffered the additional indignity of being forced to pay the costs of the meal.

We must empower our government to closely monitor and regulate our financial institutions simply because we cannot protect ourselves from greedy executives and the predators who are ever-ready to pick our pockets to benefit themselves or their clients.

We need to get the sheriff and a whole lot of deputies back into our financial community right now. We need to back them up by restoring many old regulations and creating some stiff new ones, and we need to cheer them on as they round up the wrongdoers and hang them high. We need enterprise that is both free and fair.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Campus Comedy

A promotional ad during a timeout in Saturday’s Wisconsin-Michigan football game extolled the virtues of the “Wisconsin Idea” in education—“The Boundaries of the Campus are the Boundaries of the State.”

That’s another way of saying UW pioneered in developing extension activities. When I was a freshman at Wisconsin, another activity that often drew attention, and sometimes criticism, was nearing its end at the school. The student humor magazine, the Octopus, was in its final year. The magazine’s motto was “The Bounders of the Campus are the Bounders of the State.”

Only a true zany could come up with something like that. The editor was one. He lived in the room next to mine in the cheap rooming house where I spent my first semester. One of the editor’s favorite projects was producing an Octopus issue that was a parody of the student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal.

The editor christened the parody paper the Daily Crudinel. I don’t remember the exact number given, but I do recall one of the most ingenious items on the Crudinel sports page. A headline proclaimed: “Fencers Lose to Illinois, Six Dead.”