Thursday, June 25, 2009

Strauss, You Were in Tune

In Days with the Dads, I implied that Johann Strauss II may have been spending too much time in Viennese wine taverns when he created his classic waltz. We crossed the famous “blue” Danube twice two years ago, and it definitely was green.

This spring, as we headed north from Vienna along the Danube, we observed the same phenomenon several times. The river was green. It was green when we stopped for the evening at a bed and breakfast in Regensburg on a bluff overlooking the stream. The day had been sunny and bright, as had all others when we had observed the famous river.

The sky was overcast when we rose early the next morning. The Danube was deep blue! It stayed that way as we turned west and drove through the upper river basin, an area not often visited by international tourists. At Walhalla, a temple built on a hill by King Ludwig I of Bavaria to honor distinguished Germans, excellent views of the river were part of the attraction.

A bust of Strauss is among the 130 on display in Walhalla. He can look down on a beautiful Blue Danube, and marvel at the ignorance of American tourists who don’t understand that it’s when and where you look at things, as well as how, that matters.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Health Food

Constantly seek the truth, and you shall find it. The author of the “Flat Belly Diet” recommends olives as containing monounsaturated fatty acids, iron, vitamin E, copper, and fiber. The fiber helps control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Eating only a few at a time is suggested, because olives have mega calories.

I subscribe to this great wisdom. At regular intervals, I surround two small olives with several ounces of cheap gin and a dash of expensive vermouth. The drink should be stirred, not shaken. (Agent 007 may have been a 10 with women, but as a connoisseur of martinis he was a zero.) After sipping the drink until it is depleted, make another and ingest it.

Four olives consumed in this manner invariably make me happy as well as healthy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grading Off the Curve

As a land grant institution financed mainly by legislative appropriations, the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s was committed to enrolling just about anyone who applied on time after graduating from a high school within the State. The faculty often seemed equally committed to flunking out all who failed to meet rigorous standards.

“Standards” were very much in the mind of the applier in those days in Madison. There were great differences between requirements for passing some “snap” courses and successfully negotiating many tough required courses.

Freshman English was a requirement. It was taught by grad students in small, workshop-like classes with emphasis on creative writing and all sorts of demerits for grammatical and format errors in the compositions. The mere thought of freshman English frightened some wannabe engineers, who could be great number crunchers but woefully inadequate wordsmiths.

English 1a and 1b were pretty easy going for me. In 1a, the presiding grad student bestowed an A on every one of my papers and test results. But when my final grade arrived, it was a B!

I sought an audience. “I don’t understand your complaint,” the instructor said. “You should be proud. I only gave three B’s in my three sections. You would have to master English to get an A. No college freshmen ever could be on that level. I’ve never given an A for the course.”

No wonder some of the engineers were terrified.

Elsewhere, “standards” apparently could be negotiable. History was among my loves, but the lecturer for one course on Americana was totally boring and so was the textbook. I took to cutting the classes and leaving the book on a shelf a bit too much--so much that the big point counter on an essay question exam called for a description of a phase of history totally unfamiliar to me. Desperately, I filled most of the blue book with a contrived answer to the question, hoping good penmanship would count for something.

The blue book came back with a passing grade and a note beside the contrived answer: “Obviously, you skipped two lectures about this and didn’t bother to read Chapter 10. But I was intrigued by how you dreamed up a totally fictional part of American history. So I gave you a B for creativity on this one.”

And then there was the long-running student joke that surfaced every semester at registration time. “Don’t take basket weaving. I heard four Navajos signed up. They’ll raise the curve out of sight.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Miracle Worker?

President Obama’s appointment of Utah Governor John Huntsman, Jr. as ambassador to China seemed a good idea when it was announced. Huntsman speaks Mandarin Chinese, a skill acquired and used during a two-year stay among the inscrutable ones as a Mormon missionary.

After recently learning some details about Huntsman’s negotiating skills, I think the appointment rating should be ratcheted up several notches from “good” to at least “excellent.”

Huntsman actually convinced the Mormon Church to let the legislature change several of the stranger provisions of the State’s liquor laws. On May 12, the “Zion Curtain” was lifted in restaurants. This quirky regulation required bartenders to prepare drinks behind a partition so patrons could not see them concocting the sinful mixtures. On July 1, looser regulations will permit establishment of the State’s first distillery since the 1920s. It will operate in Southern Utah. Also in July, the private club system will end. For decades, imbibers had to buy a membership to drink in a bar, or enter as a guest of a member.

These changes are revolutionary in the Beehive State, and the word is that Huntsman was the driving force behind them. Perhaps we moved from Utah too soon. However, abolishing the private club requirement has a negative side for snobbish drinkers. In the good old days, one could buy an annual club membership for $10 or $12, and the club repaid the fee with a free birthday dinner or some such ploy. So membership really was a freebie, and there was a certain aura of intrigue about presenting a card at the door of a local hot spot—something like entering a speakeasy during prohibition, I suppose.

The other nifty thing about the club system was that people on the lower end of the economic scale could pretend they were among the wealthy. At one time, we belonged to three or four clubs in Ogden. It was fun to say things like, “I’ll meet you in the lobby of the Ben Lomond Hotel, and we can go up to my club.” Or, “We could hold the party at one of my clubs. Just pick the place.” To similarly impress people in Michigan, I would have to pay real dollars, and quite a few of them, for club memberships. Oh well, it is said that freedom has its price.

It is amazing that Huntsman was able to twist enough Mormon arms to remove some of Utah’s restrictive liquor laws. He may be just the man to talk the Chinese into allowing a little personal freedom in their repressive society.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Flash of Stupidity

It would be unfair to say that Chrysler management always has been stupid. After all, the founders outperformed many domestic auto competitors to become one of the “Big Three.” And, when things went awry in the 1970s, Lee Iacocca rode in on his white horse to save the day with timely product redesigns, “straight talk” advertising featuring himself, and the ability to persuade federal authorities to guarantee massive loans.

Since then, however, Chrysler leaders have committed more errors than a Little League team in its first practice game. Perhaps the residents of the executive suites were too busy counting their multi-million-dollar compensation packages to make a fumbling attempt at good management.

When I worked at The West Bend Company in 1964 as Sales Promotion Manager for the Direct Sales Division, I was privy to enough details of a Chrysler business decision to be confident that someone in the automaker’s top management had a flash of stupidity similar to some of the recent blunders.

West Bend was prosperous at the time. It was the world’s leading manufacturer of coffee makers, and near the top in various other types of cookware and small kitchen appliances. The company also was among the top five outboard motor manufacturers in the U.S. West Bend outboards were not well known because most were made for Sears and sold under the Sears name. West Bend didn’t emphasize sales under its own brand in the U.S., but sold small outboards successfully in other countries, especially Canada.

Unfortunately for West Bend, Sears’ execs decided the company had to have big outboards. Despite spirited resistance, West Bend was forced to retool its Hartford plant at heavy expense to get 80- and 100-horsepower outboards rolling off the assembly line or lose its largest customer. The deal allowed West Bend to sell the big motors under its own name, but they did not sell well. They did not sell well under the Sears name, either.

West Bend was stuck with an expensive, unprofitable plant. Company leaders started quietly looking around for a buyer for the outboard motor division. Chances of it continuing as a viable business were very low. Potential buyers expressed little interest, until Chrysler suddenly came forward.

As a department head, although mine was a very small department, I sat in on monthly marketing meetings conducted by Vice President Bob Lockman. Lockman was a tyrant when it came to meetings. He started exactly at the scheduled time. He once told a manager to get out and shut the door behind him after the unfortunate fellow arrived at 10:01 for one of the 10 a.m. marketing meetings.

Thus, it was surprising when Lockman was not at the podium at 10 a.m. on a monthly meeting day. We all waited, of course, and the wait extended to about 20 minutes. Then Lockman breezed in smiling broadly between puffs on a giant cigar.

“Guess what guys,” he said. “A Chrysler vice president just phoned and threatened me. He said if we wouldn’t sell them our outboard motor division, they were going to build their own plant and drive us out of the business.”

After a long drag on the cigar, Lockman chuckled. “I told him the offer was highway robbery, but since Chrysler had put our backs to the wall we had no choice but to accept.”

Lockman emerged from another cloud of cigar smoke with a laugh. “That Chrysler exec really was a tough negotiator. He forced us to take about double what our division is worth.”