Monday, May 27, 2013

Mysteries Great and Small

This Sunday the Rev. Jill McAllister, minister at People’s Church in Kalamazoo, did what I thought was an outstanding job of addressing “The Great Mystery”—who are we, where did we come from, and what is the meaning of life?  Several times, she quoted statements by Forrest Church, a leading Unitarian-Universalist minister, author, and theologian.

Those references set me thinking about one of the minor mysteries in my life—did I or did I not, meet Forrest Church back in 1974?  I pondered the question briefly six years ago while writing a passage in 
Forrest's father, Sen. Frank Church (Wikipedia)
my memoir, “Days with the Dads: Recollections of a Small-Time Journalist.” Included was a story about encounters with the Church family. One was a fairly lengthy conversation with Forrest’s parents. Years later, beautiful wife Sandy and I stayed several nights in the Church family home in BoiseID after it had been converted to a bed and breakfast.

Because my memory of the first encounter with the Churches was more concerned with a personal lesson in humility than precisely who all the characters in the story were, I spent no time researching the identity of the young man who was present. Here is an excerpt from the story in my book:

“Merely spotting or exchanging only a few words with a famous person is, of course, nothing like spending a little time talking with one. I've had only a handful of those opportunities. One momentarily inflated my ego, but then quickly took the excess wind out of my young sails.

“In 1974 (while serving as Public Information Officer for the Boise National Forest), I was directed to drive over to the Sawtooth National Forest from my duty station in Boise, hook up with my boss at Redfish Lake, and then attend a meeting with some other people at the lodge on the lakeshore. My boss was Forest Supervisor Ed Maw, a man with many years of service in Idaho and other places in the Intermountain West.

“I got there early, and was the only person around as I stood outside the lodge having a smoke and waiting for Maw. Out of the lodge came a handsome man dressed in western-style clothes. A lovely woman and a young man accompanied him. They came directly to me (I was in uniform), and started a conversation about what my job was, why I was there, and what my thoughts were about some of the National Forest management issues of the time . . . .

“The whole situation put me on cloud nine. Here was little old me exchanging chit chat with members of one of the most prominent families in the state, and Senator Frank Church was among the best-known politicians in the country. He served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years, leading many national initiatives. He was a prominent contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1976, losing out to Jimmy Carter. His wife Bethine, the lady in our little discussion group that day, was the daughter of a former Idaho governor and was engaged in many high-profile activities of her own.

“By the time Maw approached us, I was pretty pumped up about the prospect of introducing my boss to my famous newfound friends. It didn’t happen. Senator Church stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hi, ya, Eddie.’ He and my boss were well acquainted. I was treated to a good dose of instant humility.”

About 30 years later, I read “The Jefferson Bible,” a document the famous president spent years assembling. Forrest Church wrote a lengthy introduction to the work. That caused me to wonder if the young man I met at Redfish Lake was Forrest. I started doing some research to determine that, but other matters intervened and I never got back to it.

Rev. McAllister’s sermon on Sunday caused me to wonder once again. This time, I checked some dates. The research proved conclusively that I could not have met Forrest Church that day in 1974 at Redfish Lake. He would have been quite a few years older than the lad I talked with. It must have been his younger brother, Chase, who Wikipedia tells us still lives in Boise. Forrest Church died at age 61 in 2009.

Although I’m slightly disappointed at learning I cannot claim a personal encounter with the famous cleric, it is always a pleasure to ponder some of the inspirational words he left behind.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Inequality Isn't All Bad

The geezer reads several blogs devoted largely to bemoaning the evils of discrimination against older folks. One problem often addressed is lack of equal employment opportunities. Another involves cost-of-living adjustments that fail to recognize increased needs of seniors for expensive health services.

However, news from a nearby city, Portage, MI, shows the old caution, “be careful what you wish for,” might sometimes be good advice.

For many years, every Portage homeowner age 62 or older got a 10 percent discount on water and sewer bills. A rate study committee appointed by the City Council recently recommended eliminating
What? No discount!
the senior citizen discount program because it was “found to be noncompliant with current nondiscrimination requirements” by giving one age group a preference over another. The city attorney agreed, saying the program favoring oldsters probably was unconstitutional, and could cause problems for some city bond sales.

As a consequence, about 3,000 elderly Portage residents lost their rate benefit. Surely at least a few believed they deserved the break. How many appeared at a hearing to protest the change? Zero!

What’s next? Will Applebee’s cancel my 10 percent senior discount because some miscreant seeks a ruling that it is unconstitutional? Will Denny’s start charging full price for my morning coffee? Will all who favor seniors fall in line in a sort of discount domino effect? Carried to the extreme, this kind of stuff could put insurance goliath AARP out of business.

Clearly, demands for equality should be considered carefully. After all, anyone can see we geezers deserve to be more equal than others.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Don't Touch Our Tree

It almost seems that a ghostly hand reaches into the federal bureaucracy every now and then to resurrect an old, bad idea.

Back in the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, a Nixon appointee, sought to diminish the stature of the U.S. Forest Service as he took a reactionary stance in the face of growing environmental concerns. Butz made it clear that one of his under secretaries would be running the show, not the Chief of the Forest Service who traditionally had operated rather independently. 

According to Char Miller, who directs the environmental analysis program at Pomona College in California and writes frequently on western resource management topics, Butz soon learned that Forest
Mr. Secretary, spare our tree.
Service people would put up a fight when their traditions and prerogatives were challenged. In a recent “High Country News” article, Miller said:

"Earl Butz . . . was a profane man known for his hair-trigger temper and rough handling of subordinates. So when the Chief of the Forest Service stood him up for a meeting, Butz unloaded in response: 'There are four branches of government,' he reportedly snarled, 'the executive, legislative, judicial and the Gawd-damn U.S. Forest Service.'”

Butz wasn’t the only Secretary of Agriculture, Republican or Democrat, who sought to tighten control over the Forest Service. Although agency chiefs gradually were forced to yield considerable decision-making power to the parent department, they succeeded in maintaining a degree of distance from politics at the top of the Forest Service. To this day every chief has been a career natural resource professional, not an inexperienced political appointee.

Agriculture asserted its predominance in another way. This idea was to change the way people referred to the Forest Service and the other 19 agencies USDA supervised. That was done after a “study” by department design specialists resulted in publication of a “USDA Design Manual.”

The design manual mandated use of “USDA Forest Service” instead of the traditional “U.S. Forest Service” in publications and news releases and on exhibits, letterheads, and elsewhere. There was no choice.

Those of us who headed Forest Service publishing and public information units were told clearly at a national meeting that the new identification specs were mandatory, not just guidelines. There were a few veiled references to the ability of the Department of Agriculture to cause withdrawal of our regional authorities to publish if we did not comply.

We complied, but we didn't like it. Old hands grumbled and continued to privately proclaim they worked for the “U.S. Forest Service.” They thought the change was akin to the U.S. Marines suddenly becoming known as the USDOD Marines. Upon retirement, no longer in the clutches of the Secretary of Agriculture, I and a great many others immediately dropped the USDA label in our writings and public statements. The U.S. Forest Service lived on, although unofficially.

In the big scheme of things, small matters like agency labeling tend to escape media attention. The general public, understandably and rightly so, is interested in what government does or doesn't do, and cares very little about the precise identity of its agents. To federal workers, however, the name of the outfit they work for is an important morale factor.  Most of those I've known share a desire to identify with a well-defined group known to do quality work, just as most private sector employees do.

Recently, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack dredged up the old name game as a pet project. Officials wasted gobs of time and money over three years developing “One Brand.” The idea was to cancel all traditional agency signs and symbols and replace them with one Department of Agriculture logo. Guess what? The change was made quietly by issuing a “Visual Standards Guide.” Sound familiar? Shades of the 70s!

The directive stripped the Forest Service of its pine tree emblem, in one form or another, the mark of the agency since 1910. Current employees had to gnash their teeth and quietly accept the order. Retirees didn’t have to conform, and they didn’t. They went on the attack, bombarding Vilsack, members of congress, and anyone else who would listen with objections. According to Char Miller:

“Their opposition took on the air of a revival meeting.  They talked about the emblematic power of the Pine Tree logo to bind them to one another and to the land they helped steward.  The evocative shield and the uniform to which it was pinned testified to their devoted public service, they said. Shedding these symbols, and the emotional attachments they held, seemed like a deliberate attack on their collective history. These defenders proved a potent collective, and so overwhelming was their opposition that it forced the Agriculture Department’s hand.”

“In a one-sentence release April 4, the department granted the Forest Service an exemption to its One Brand directive. You could hear the hosannas from agency retirees and staffers a mile off.”

Miller titled his commentary, “Don’t Mess with the Forest Service.”

Of course, the headline was designed merely as an attention getter. Miller ended his article with a more important statement:

“As the dustup with the Forest Service suggests, a proud institutional history is a sustaining source of workplace identity and individual satisfaction. That’s a core value even Earl Butz might have respected.” 

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Taxing the Good Guys

That master of irony, Oscar Wilde, got off many good lines during his creative writing career. Perhaps best known is “No good deed goes unpunished.”

We are about to see good deeds by many Michiganders punished for no good reason if a bill now before the state legislature becomes law. The bill would raise registration fees for owners of hybrid and electric vehicles.

How crazy can our local law makers get? Apparently, some would ignore 40 years of national policy intended to replace gas-guzzling vehicles with more efficient models. The original idea was to reduce or eliminate our dependence on imported oil. A more important reason that has come into sharper focus
Less Woulld Be Better
recently is to reduce excessive consumption of fuels whose use contributes to air pollution and climate change.

Going to hybrid or electric vehicles has a big impact. Our family car gets relatively good gas mileage. However, we could do much better. I've done the math. If we replaced our aging sedan with a comparable Toyota Prius or Ford C-Max, we would double our gas mileage. 

Making that significant contribution to environmental quality would cost us about $5,000, the difference between the hybrid price and a gasoline-only auto with comparable features. People who own hybrids were willing to back their beliefs about environmental quality with cash, although they probably could recoup the investment with savings at the pump over the life of the vehicle.

I know several Prius owners (the C-Max wasn't sold in the U.S. until this year.) None bought their cars to save money. Every one of them made the purchase to help enhance the environment. Punishing them with higher taxes would be idiotic. 

A much better idea is to simply raise the tax on gasoline to get the increased road maintenance money we need. That would create a bigger incentive for millions of us to reduce our carbon footprints by “trading up” to one of the growing number of fuel-efficient vehicles on the market today. It also would reduce at least some unnecessary driving, and that would help, too.