Thursday, March 31, 2011

Madness in Madison

It’s no surprise that recent political events in Madison, Wisconsin, included some strange twists and turns plus touches of creativity.

Democrat Senators fled the state to prevent passage of anti-union legislation. The Republican Governor finally got the bill passed with some parliamentary trickery. Protesters came from near and far. Most estimates pegged maximum crowd size in and near the capitol at between 85,000 and 100,000 on the busiest days.
A ferocious Badger

Some of the protesters displayed as much creativity as the Senators and Governor, including the lady pictured here with the sign she developed to let the Governor know just how she felt. The grandma, Nancy Rathke, displayed the tenacity of some protesters who now intend to impeach the Governor when she said, “Grandmas united can never be defeated. And now let’s make it so.”

Were I the Governor, I would be nervous.

Eccentric behavior has been a hallmark of Madison politics for a long time. Several unusual incidents occurred back in my student days at the University of Wisconsin and later when Sandy and I were residents of the city.

A young lawyer protested the addition of a one-way lane on University Avenue by driving the wrong way on it in an antique auto until the police showed up and arrested him. Local media were on hand and the publicity caused city fathers to remove the lane and restore the avenue to its previous condition.

A candidate for Mayor threw more than his hat in the ring when he held his announcement event at the “Dangle Lounge,” a notorious topless bar in downtown Madison. With media reps and political supporters packing the place, the candidate jumped up on the bar and opened his trench coat to reveal he literally “had nothing to hide.” The voters were not impressed by the full-frontal revelation--he lost the election by a considerable margin.

The Dangle Lounge, featuring athletic young women dancing all night on top of the bar, played a role in our lives when I worked for four years at the Forest Products Laboratory, a major U.S. Forest Service research facility on the edge of the University campus.

Quite a few relatives, friends, and Forest Service business associates visited us. The city offers may fine things for visitors to see—spectacular views from the Lake Mendota shoreline, a beautiful state Capitol, many excellent examples of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, and other wonders. The University campus offers enough points of interest for a solid day of touring.

What did our visitors want to see when we asked them? After a moment of embarrassed silence, many suggested we take them to the Dangle Lounge. We hosted so many trips there that we actually got bored with the place.

Our good friend Dick Paynter, resident artist at the Forest Products Lab, fit right into the “Mad City” scene. Before one New Years Eve bash, he landed a moonlighting job at the Dangle. He was hired to apply body paint to the dancers. He created some interesting designs.

Sandy and I unwittingly accepted one of Paynter's recommendations when we asked about good places to go for a night on the town. Bars that openly acknowledged they catered to gay men were unusual in the late 1960s. We learned quickly that our friend had directed us to one.

We sat at the bar. The bartender was wearing a powder blue jumpsuit. When he decided he needed to visit the men's room, he unzipped the suit, let it fall to the floor, and calmly sauntered across the room in the buff.

Sandy and I were willing to try a few new things during our years together, but we never went to that bar again. There were enough other kinds of madness in Madison to amuse even the most jaded adventurers.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Aim, Boys, Aim

Would someone please tell those Libyan rebels who claim to be hard up for arms and ammunition to stop firing rounds into the air to celebrate every little thing? The enemy seldom attacks from that direction.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sighting a Beauty

The death of Elizabeth Taylor this week rang a bell in my memory of a close, although brief, encounter with the great actress and legendary beauty.

The Chamber of Commerce in my hometown, Tomahawk, WI, for years billed the community as the “Gateway to the Great North Woods” as it sought to establish the place as a tourist mecca. We had many nice resorts in our locale and lots of visitors from the Milwaukee and Chicago areas who returned year after year, but ours was somewhat of a minor- league resort area. The big-time was farther up Highway 51, about 30 miles due north, in the Minocqua area.

In summer, Minocqua went from a sleepy little burg of about 1,000 souls to a booming place where the wealthy and near-wealthy escaped city heat and responsibilities in favor of boating, fishing, or just relaxing in an informal environment. Elizabeth Taylor spent some ten summer vacations at a lodge called Cedar Gates on Lake Minocqua.

Minocqua was pretty much a family vacation spot. Mom and Dad brought the kids along, and that meant an influx of teenage girls. This fact was not lost upon young men who lived a half-hour drive away. My friends and I made several forays to Minocqua, convinced we were just the guys to entertain any bored young ladies who were seeking companionship. I don’t, however, remember that we ever found any girls who shared our high opinion of ourselves.

One sunny day in the early 1950s, three of us were strolling down the small Minocqua main street. Ms. Taylor, arm-in-arm with a handsome man wearing a yachting cap, approached from the opposite direction. The man probably was Michael Wilding, the second of eight Taylor husbands. We came nearly face-to-face with the pair, and, as I recall, even had to step aside for them to pass.

We all probably wonder sometimes if those beautiful people on the silver screen get that way largely because of the attentions of expert makeup professionals and artistry by lighting and camera wizards. Anyone who has seen Robert Redford in the flesh knows he magically grows taller for his movie roles.

The day we saw Elizabeth Taylor she was making no attempt to enhance her appearance. She was wearing jeans—the old-fashioned kind, not the skin-tight variety we see today—a nondescript windbreaker, and a scarf over much of her jet-black hair. Nevertheless, there was no doubt about her identity.

She was absolutely gorgeous.

No Enhancements Needed

Sunday, March 20, 2011

When Will We Ever Learn?

(Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. Amid various assurances by politicians and generals that all is going well there and in Afghanistan, it seemed a good time to dust off this post, which was published last June, and issue a revised version.  Careful review indicated only a few words needed to be changed. The only important developments have been increases in the totals of wasted lives and treasure and fudging about the date for complete withdrawal from Iraq. My flag is at half-staff and my heart is heavy today in mourning.)

Are there any Americans who don’t want to bring our young men and women home from Iraq and Afghanistan? Unfortunately, yes.

Despite what they say publicly, many generals and admirals who gain power, promotions, and places in history during wartime really don’t want to end major conflicts. They prosper when battles rage, yet are careful to stay safe and snug in their war rooms. When’s the last time we lost a general in combat?

Despite what they may say publicly, many corporate leaders whose firms are enriched by profits from producing guns, bombs, aircraft, tanks and other implements of war do not want wars to end. It doesn’t take long to replenish the arsenal in peacetime, and a full storehouse of armaments significantly diminishes bottom lines of companies making the weapons of war.

The two groups comprise the American military-industrial complex. Isn’t that the very complex Dwight D. Eisenhower, a fairly experienced military man, warned us to beware of when he left the office of President? It is. History now verifies the wisdom of his warning. Our nation is in a precarious financial position because of the huge cost of two wars, yet no one except members of the complex and those duped by them wants to be engaged in those wars.

Some suggest we should simply quit and go home, because neither war can possibly result in benefits worth even a fraction of the costs. Some maintain we must stay as long as necessary to establish democracies, which somehow will promote stability in the volatile Middle East.

Some, like me, think the two wars are distinctly different. We ought to get out of both, but for different reasons and in different ways. A rereading of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, by Fareed Zakaria, a bestseller in 2003-2004, supports some of my beliefs, although the expert and I disagree on a few important points.

A big-time political analyst, Zakaria is considered a liberal by many conservatives because of his dark skin and foreign-sounding name and a conservative by many liberals because of what he says. Born and reared in India, Zakaria seems best categorized as a pragmatist. He discusses real-life pathways to establishing, developing, and nurturing democracies, based on his own experiences and rigorous study of history and political science.

Briefly, he thinks it foolhardy to defeat the bad guys in a country militarily, get the residents to hold elections as soon as possible, and declare that democracy has been established and the citizens will henceforth enjoy the benefits of freedom. Instead, he suggests a much slower process is realistic, with American-style democracy finally arriving thanks mainly to the efforts of the locals, not outsiders. The first steps are to develop basic institutions, especially establishing the rule of law. Then capitalism can begin to flourish, helping the citizens to attain a reasonable standard of living. What Zakaria calls liberal democracy, featuring personal freedoms, guaranteed rights, and citizen participation, then has a good chance to develop.

Zakaria thinks invading Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein was justified because of his evil repression of his own people—no government that followed the tyrant could be as bad. I disagree.

There was no good justification for invading Iraq. With very effective no-fly zones, occasionally effective economic sanctions, and a large segment of world opinion against him, Saddam posed absolutely no threat to us. Nasty as he was within his own borders, he was under control as far as our interests went.

Saddam had destroyed his weapons of mass destruction to protect himself. His secular government was an effective check on theocratic Iran, ruled by some pretty evil guys in their own right who really are a threat to us and some of our allies. He also kept the unruly Kurds in the north occupied with fending his forces off, which probably pleased our Turkish allies. His presence helped stabilize the Middle East far more than his absence has.

That said, there is a chance for democracy to succeed in Iraq, despite horrendous bungling by the U.S. government seemingly designed more to destabilize than stabilize the country. Iraq did have established institutions and rule of law (even repressive law offers a measure of security for the general public). A strong military enforced the rules before we took over and dismantled the most fundamental institutional needs. Rebuilding essential institutions has taken a long time and a huge amount of our taxpayer money, but that part of the task of establishing viable government finally is enjoying some success.

Before and during Saddam’s reign, unlike most Arab countries, Iraq had a large cadre of literate and educated citizens, and was allowing some participation by women and minorities in politics and professional fields. Many of these people fled during the civil war that followed our invasion, but some are back, and educational institutions again are functioning. Much business, except for the vital oil industry, follows western-style capitalism and free enterprise principles. A secular state headed toward classic democracy has a chance there.

We ought to get out of Iraq—soon, but not next week. We ought to do it just about the way we recently started to do it, by setting some dates for major withdrawal events (which the Iraqis demanded). It was to our advantage to do that to motivate the Iraqis to get serious about running their own affairs. We need to stick with the final date—out by the end of 2011. And we need to make sure that is a true “out,” not just a point at which to negotiate extensions.

Once we leave, the Iraqis will resolve their differences either peacefully or by fighting it out, and any outcome will be more beneficial to us than squandering further lives and dollars with a never-ending adventure that should not have begun in the first place. We gain nothing by staying in Iraq any longer than the end of 2011.

To my chagrin, the war I enthusiastically supported (I opposed invading Iraq from the moment the idea arose) has turned out to be the bigger bummer. As part of a majority of Americans, I strongly backed President George W. Bush when he ordered our military forces, with as many NATO allies as he could round up, to attack Afghanistan and topple its government. I believed the radical Islamic state that trained and harbored terrorists deserved the strongest possible retaliation for the dastardly 9/11 attack on our country.

Our military did a great job in Afghanistan, just as it did in Iraq. Our government didn’t make nearly the number of blunders in post-war Afghanistan as it did in Iraq, but as things have turned out the overall strategy imposed on our military was faulty, and our latest strategy adjustment is not working.

Just as we have so long ignored the sound advice of that old leader Dwight Eisenhower, we ignored the counsel of a more recent outstanding military commander, Colin Powell. Powell’s philosophy is that successful military ventures must have a carefully defined and limited mission, including an exit strategy.

We broke Taliban control of the Afghan government and tossed most of them out of the country pretty easily. Then we made the big mistake. We stuck around, hell-bent on killing or civilizing the rest of the Taliban, and finding and prosecuting Osama Bin Laden.

Americans like to personalize their collective enemies. In fact, one man restricted to moving from cave to cave by the threat of a multi-million-dollar reward for his capture is not much of a threat to the United States of America. The reward, plus launching a missile at a cave occasionally, would have been sufficient actions on our part to render him ineffective. And, as for the Taliban, they just melt back into the populace when our forces take some territory and return when we leave.

Afghanistan bears little similarity to Iraq. It consists of a whole lot of illiterate tribal people who could care less who rules in Kabul as long as they are relatively secure, free to cultivate their poppy cash crops, and able to collect pay from whatever rebel force is fending off foreign invaders or battling the central government at any particular time. There never has been a coherent system of national institutions. Evidence is scant any could be developed in the foreseeable future.

We should have gone into Afghanistan as we did. We should have punished the Taliban for their sponsorship of terrorism as we did. We should have put a large price on Bin Laden’s head and made a diligent search for him, as we did. Then we should have brought our people out, leaving the Taliban with a clear message that we’d be right back to kick hell out of them if they sponsored anything that even barely resembled an attack on us or our allies.

Now, we need to put silly politics aside and do what is in our national interest. George W. Bush and company made a major blunder by invading Iraq. Barack Obama and company decided that a troop “surge” coupled with a new territory holding strategy was just the thing needed to triumph in Afghanistan. A surge was a factor in improving the situation in Iraq. It hasn’t worked in Afghanistan, reinforcing the idea that the two wars are radically different. Both Presidents have blundered; these are equal opportunity wars for our top politicians to screw up. Unfortunately, Bush’s blunder cannot be corrected. Obama’s can.

Instead of sticking around for many more years until we can make a phony declaration of victory, we should get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Next Wednesday would not be soon enough. Of course, a little more time than that will be needed to arrange an excuse for withdrawal and plan to get our forces out safely.

A withdrawal excuse is at hand. Officially, we are part of a NATO military mission. We should meet with leaders of our allies, many of whom already are withdrawing, for an up or down vote on total withdrawal. The outcome is assured. We can claim we had no choice but to accept the verdict of our NATO allies and “reluctantly’ leave Afghanistan’s corrupt leaders to search for a new group of outsiders from whom to extort cash. When we go, Afghanistan will return to the dark ages, a regrettable situation for women’s rights and any prospects for religious and other freedoms there, but that is a price we must pay.

There was no hope of establishing a viable national government of any kind in Afghanistan when the British left the feudal country many years ago. There was no hope when the old Soviet Union withdrew massive forces not long ago. There is no hope now, at least not in this century. Staying there is just a waste of lives and cash that is badly needed to protect civilized people from terrorists, to reduce our national debt, and for other useful purposes.

Let’s bring our young heroes home, and soon.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ask Your Barber

One of the benefits of living near a small Michigan town is that I can visit an honest-to-god barber shop--the kind that has real, heavyweight swivel chairs, a real barber pole outside the door, and real, experienced male barbers ready to apply the clippers and scissors just the way you want.

Sports posters adorn the walls in Otsego’s barber shop, where I’ve become a regular. The talk is of the fortunes of the Lions, Packers, Tigers, Red Wings, and other manly interests, including political gossip. The only change from the snip shops of my youth is that a woman occasionally enters with her husband, children, or grandchildren.

The presence of a lady or youngster doesn’t affect the conversation in the shop at all. One of the curious things I’ve observed in barber shops over many years is the absence of profanity or dirty jokes. I started my working career shining shoes in barber shops in 1946. I’ve yet to hear a serious cuss word or suggestive story. Could it be that only gentlemen get haircuts in real barber shops?

Well into the 1980s, barber shops were male sanctuaries. Rarely was a woman seen in one, a far cry from the situation now where the barbers are females in most establishments. I mentioned the lady “hair stylists” to one of the older Otsego barbers. His reaction was, “Well, the kids have to learn somewhere.”

During the first half of the 30 years we lived in Ogden, Utah, "Dick's Barber Shop" in the lower level of the old Ben Lomond Hotel was the place to go to get inside information about what was going on in the city. Dick was a good listener and had a great memory. He could provide accurate situation reports on just about any topic.

Almost all the Forest Service men who worked in Ogden got their haircuts at Dick's. He knew a lot about what was going on in the Service, and could recite an impressive list of former customers who had transferred to other duty stations. Occasionally, the barbershop grapevine was more efficient than official channels.

One legend featured a regional office employee who arrived in Dick's chair during a lunch hour. When the haircut was finished, Dick asked, "What's your reporting date in Atlanta?"

"What?" the forester asked. "I'm not going anywhere. You must have something mixed up."

The man dashed back to the office and confronted his supervisor about the transfer rumor. "Oh yes," the boss said, "I just didn't have time to tell you this morning. You've been reassigned to Atlanta."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Take Your Pick

The governor of Michigan is proposing substantial tax increases for middle-class retired people, especially those who own their homes, so he can give businesses a huge tax cut. We qualify for the higher individual taxes, but not the business tax break. Tough choices loom in our future.

The tax increases for us amount to six percent of our net income, income that already has been reduced due to rock-bottom interest rates and a lack of cost-of-living increases in two pension payments over the past two years.  We will not be in as dire a situation as some, but we will be hurt badly.  We will have to consider every purchase even more carefully than we now do.

Recently, by coincidence, we gained insight into the type of beverage choice that may become necessary. We bought a six-pack of V-8 juice cans for $2.99 just days after picking up a couple of bottles of really cheap, but pretty good, wine at Walmart. A bottle of the cheapo cabernet was $2.97.

True, it isn’t a completely fair comparison. The wine was two pennies cheaper, but a bottle contained 167 milliliters (about 6 ounces) less fluid than the six little cans of vegetable juice. Well, what are a few silly milliliters, anyway?

If the gov succeeds in pushing us right to the wall, the beverage choice may be difficult for Sandy. Easy for me, though. I’ll go for the grape.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Number, Please

I’m a word butcher, not a number cruncher, so I had to think a bit about a recent e-mail from fraternity brother Jeff Weir.

Weir is a successful attorney and real estate investor in northern Wisconsin. He also has authored a well-written novel. When I knew him years ago, he was struggling a little. It’s great to learn how he has progressed since then.

Weir said he was rummaging through a drawer and discovered his old Sigma Nu Fraternity membership card. He wondered how many of the brethren would remember their initiation numbers and the Greek letters designating the chapter.

I still can recite the Greek alphabet (I’m good at that kind of stuff), so the chapter designation came to mind easily—Gamma Lambda. However, I’ve spent more than two years trying to engrave my latest phone number in my memory. The initiation digits could have been trouble. They weren’t though. My initiation number is unforgettable. It is 714.

Anyone who recalls the long-running television show “Dragnet” would know that Sergeant Joe Friday carried Badge 714. What are commonly called fraternity pins more formally are known as badges. Thus, I have always had only to think of the indomitable cop Friday to remember my badge also is 714.

Number recollection must vary considerably among individuals, and perhaps the numbers themselves. I easily bring my social security number to mind. BW (beautiful wife) Sandy cannot remember hers no matter how hard she tries, although she easily recalls many more other numbers than I do.

The only other number of any importance I can readily recall is my military serial number. I was forced to memorize it 53 years ago. Why it still often leaps to mind completely escapes me. Perhaps I dream of being captured by some horrible enemy and remember my training company sergeant yelling: “Don’t tell 'em a damn thing but name, rank, and serial number,” and I want to be ready to do just that.

What strange numbers come to your mind?