Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Syria. And Then What?

Newt Gingrich is a disagreeable man in the worst sense of “disagreeable.” He set the stage that Carl Rove, an equally despicable political operative, exploited to create the current childish legislative stalemate in Washington, D.C.

As Speaker of the House, Gingrich was the first Republican leader to threaten to shut the government down if he didn’t get his way at budget time. Fortunately, President Clinton called the speaker’s bluff and he backed off. Later, Gingrich led the impeachment troops against Clinton in an effort to persuade people that lying about some casual sex acts constituted “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Even some of his closest allies couldn’t stomach going along with that line of nonsense.

The geezer agrees with a thoroughly disagreeable pol
The geezer has difficulty finding any area of agreement with Gingrich. But this week I found myself in complete agreement with no less than five public statements by the failed Congressman and presidential candidate. Gingrich does not want the U.S. to enter the Syrian civil war with military action. In interviews with reporters and on the internet, he said:

* The recent atrocities in Syria and those that have taken place over the past two years are deplorable and inhuman. Before bombing Syria over the regime’s latest crimes, however, we should stand back and ask, “And then what? I agree.

* A brief bombing campaign in Syria might make the U.S. and its allies feel like they are doing something, but it will prove nothing. It is unlikely to tip the scales in the civil war to favor the rebels. I agree.

* Both sides in Syria are bad. One is a brutal dictator, and the other includes radical Islamists and terrorists who are dangerous now and who would be brutal in power if given the chance. I agree.

* We will not be able to spend the time, money, and blood needed to create a desirable outcome in Syria. There is no victory to be had there. I agree.

* Conflicts in Syria, Egypt, and Libya are small threats compared with the disaster that could ensue and the lives that would be endangered if Iran succeeds in its drive for nuclear weapons. We should focus on the truly big threat instead of the headlines of the day or we will face much worse headlines in the future. I agree.

Haven’t we learned enough about the tremendous and unsustainable costs of removing minor despots in the Middle East? Mr. President, this is no time for an ego trip to show how tough you can be. Sit back and ask, “And then what?”  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Next for Big Ten Football--The Big Twenty?

“How many teams are in the Big Ten now,” she asked?

I had to think a minute before answering: “Fourteen.”

That bit of numerical craziness somehow seems fitting. The relative sanity that once prevailed in college football is vanishing rapidly as the almighty dollar lures institution officials to forsake the last remnants of tradition and stop pretending they are sponsoring amateur teams primarily to benefit students.

But then, Big Ten conference membership often has been a bit bizarre. After starting with seven schools in 1896, the conference quickly grew to include ten midwestern universities and gain the name that became official years later. However, Michigan was kicked out in 1907 for violating rules. So the Big Ten had only nine functioning members until the Wolverines returned from exile in 1917.

The University of Chicago, a powerhouse throughout the early days of college football, was a charter member of the conference. But the Maroons’ gridiron program fell on hard times in the 1930s, and the school dropped football in 1939.

Robert Hutchings, the Chicago president, said years later in an interview for Sports Illustrated, “The university believed that it should devote itself to education, research and scholarship.” What a novel thought! An educational institution should focus on academics.

The Big Ten numbered nine for the next ten years. Several attempts to add Notre Dame failed, although the school was a national football power whose South Bend, Indiana, location was smack in the midsection of the Midwest. Rumors had it that the Irish wanted in, but several rival schools kept them out. Instead, Big Ten schools voted to actually become ten again in 1949 by adding Michigan State to their ranks.

Perhaps in a “tit for tat” action, the Notre Dame trustees said no in 1999 when Big Ten officials tried to negotiate a deal to add the Irish to the lineup.

The tensome held for a long time, but ultimately the administrators just couldn’t resist making sense into nonsense. In 1993 they added Penn State to the conference. That not only again disrupted the namesake math, but it stretched the definition of “Midwest” beyond reason. In a feeble bow to tradition, conference commanders voted to keep the Big Ten name, but alter the logo to include a semi-hidden “11” in their emblem.  The “little 11” logo lasted only until 2011, when Nebraska became the 12th Big Ten member.

Ten that is eleven didn't last. Would The Big Something be appropriate? 
Conference officials didn’t bother to stick a little “12” into the logo. They knew bigger things lay ahead. Sure enough, next year the University of Maryland and Rutgers University will field Big Ten teams for the first time. Maryland’s location is self-evident, and the last time I looked Rutgers was in New Jersey, a midwestern state if there ever was one. But regional identity no longer is considered a virtue by the “Big Something.”

University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez recently said, “We’ve come up with a thinking that we want to be national, we want to have to play at least two bowl games in Florida, we want to play in Texas, we want to play in the desert (Arizona) and we want to play in California. Also New York—so we can spread our brand nationally.”

Sounds more like a corporate marketing exec than an educational institution official, doesn’t he? Alvarez is not alone.

Michigan State AD Mark Hollis said, “This (adding Maryland and Rutgers) creates new opportunities to be where our alums and donors are.” His comments came in a discussion about entering more television markets. The Big Ten now has its own network. After the 2012 season, the conference paid each school $25.7 million  as its share of television loot, most of it earned by selling ads through its own network.

The expansion frenzy is far from over. In public statements, Michigan AD Dave Brandon has strongly hinted at more growth. That probably will mean going to 16 teams in two eight-team divisions. It’s looking more like a professional league alignment all the time.

Sorry sports fans. I can still work up a little rah-rah spirit at the prospect of a traditional Wisconsin-Minnesota game or a Michigan-Ohio State contest, but Rutgers vs. Nebraska leaves me cold. Count me out. I’ll concentrate on backing the Green Bay Packers. At least they don’t deny being professionals who want to rake in more dollars by promoting their “brand.” 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Yes, Let's Debate Security vs. Freedom

Strident voices have been busy of late proclaiming Edward Snowden a heroic whistleblower for disclosing details of U.S. intelligence gathering. Less loud, but more thoughtful, commentators argue that he is a traitor whose systematic leaking of classified information has seriously damaged our security.

Honest disagreement is possible about which label Snowden deserves. However, it is hard to disagree with President Obama’s statement that it is time for a national discussion of how much personal freedom and privacy Americans should be willing to sacrifice in the interests of security. That discussion now is occurring—in the media, on the internet, and in gatherings of families and friends. 

Although I believe we must continue to combat terrorism, I think we have overreacted to 9/11 in ways large and small.

The huge mistakes are obvious. Invading Iraq on a pretext and hanging around for years in Afghanistan at tremendous costs in lives and dollars have done incalculable damage to the strength of our nation and our position in the world. We can’t undo those blunders, but at least we gradually are withdrawing from untenable positions in the Middle East.

I want to be there during searches
Personal experiences color my thoughts about overdoing security measures in smaller ways. Security people did it right the first time my luggage was searched in an airport after 9/11. I was allowed to stand next to the searcher and observe every move. And, my belongings were handled carefully and returned to my suitcases in a semblance of order. This was exactly how our luggage was searched several times after airline trips to Mexico before 9/11. I have no objection to that sort of procedure.

More recently, however, both I and beautiful wife Sandy had our luggage searched when we were not present. Apparently, the system had changed, and not for the better. When we opened bags after the trips, our belongings were in complete disarray.

Searching one’s property without a warrant or some reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing when the owner is not present to me is a clear violation of constitutional law. There have been documented cases of security personnel stealing items from luggage they were inspecting, another reason this practice should be stopped. If requiring that the person whose property is searched be present causes travel delays, so be it.

Several years after 9/11, Sandy was taken out of a line in the Kalamazoo airport for a strip search. Admittedly, she appears to fit the classic profile of a terrorist. On tip toes, she can stretch to a menacing 5 foot 2. The majority of her hair is gray. She is more than slightly beyond the age associated with optimum physical strength. Bottom line: Sandy is not a particularly threatening person.

It probably is necessary for security people to pick subjects at random for intensive searches to avoid charges of profiling, but what followed Sandy’s selection was uncalled for and served no purpose.

First, she was told to leave her purse, ticket, and boarding pass behind as she was led to a search booth. She refused. After some argument, the security types allowed her to take the items along.

A man entered the booth and instructed Sandy to remove her clothing. She demanded that he be replaced by a woman. After more argument, her demand was met. (I later advised her that the experience might have been enhanced had she stuck with the man, but stopped saying that when she obviously failed to admire my brilliant wit.)

Sandy refused bad treatment and made her refusal stick. How many others passively follow orders? We haven’t made trips by air in the last few years, so perhaps the offensive and probably illegal invasions of privacy have been modified. If not, they should be.

How much freedom and privacy should we be willing to give up in the interest of security? There’s a reasonable balance to be struck. Perfection isn't possible, but we need to discuss the issues and make necessary changes in the systems now in place.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Don't Need One, MUST Have One

Back in the 60s when materialism steamed full speed ahead on its way toward dominating (some think ruining) American life, I acquired my first real big boy toy. We bought a house with an electric garage door opener. The devices were just starting to become standard gear for homeowners. Now, even those with so much junk in their garages they can’t fit a car in have automated door openers.

What fun I had. A favorite amusement was seeing how far away from home I could be when the control button opened my door. As I recall, the record was a block-and-a-half. Opening a few neighbors’ doors along the way didn’t faze me. That happened often before opener technology improved.

Recently, our 23-year-old garage door opener died. An emergency trip to Home Depot was mandatory.
A weight-lifting exercise I can do without
I quickly secured a replacement with some new bells and whistles, including all kinds of automatic things, some of which I don’t fully understand and probably don’t need to.

“We’ll be around all week,” I told the service manager. “When can we get installation?”

“They’ll call you,” he said.

The voice on the phone sounded a bit subdued, “I’m sorry, but we’re really busy. We can schedule you three weeks from now.”

“What! Don’t we still have an unemployment problem here in Michigan? Are you sure three weeks is the best you can do?”

“Yes’” she said. “Maybe somebody is out of work around here, but our installers definitely are not.”

The first few days went badly. Ours is a double door, eight feet tall, with glass panels across the top. It is heavy.

Because modern garage doors have no outside handles, my first attempts at coping with opener-less life were to get out of the car, walk around to the front door, unlock it, walk through the house to the garage, lift the door using the handle on the inside, get back in the car, drive into the garage, get out, and pull the door shut.

Beautiful wife Sandy, as usual, found a better way. I was a little surprised when after observing me in action a couple of times and listening to my complaints  she said, “Let me do it,” after we pulled into the driveway.

She walked straight to the left corner of the door, bent down, got her fingers into a little gap under the door edge, and with a mighty heave lifted it up. That became our standard entry procedure. I could barely budge the damn thing off ground zero that way. But if a little lady could, what choice did I have?

After a week using the Simplified Sandy System, I began to ponder the “want vs. need” question. We now and then mutter about the need for more exercise. Getting in and out of the car a few extra times surely could help maintain or even develop agility. Raising that heavy door had to have some positive influence on the old upper and lower body muscles.

Perhaps, I thought, we could return the new toy to the Depot and live without an opener, as everyone did for years before clever advertising and our desire to “keep up with the Joneses” convinced us “we just had to have one.” Installing an outdoor handle and lock could be handled easily as a do-it-yourself project.

Without an unneeded opener, we would be healthier and a bit wealthier by enjoying some minor savings in electricity costs.

Then I thought about getting out of the car and wrestling with a heavy door during a typical Michigan driving rainstorm. Or, in the midst of a lake-effect blizzard. Or, when I was in a hurry to get inside to begin enjoying the cocktail hour.

I called the installation people and begged, “Can’t you possibly get to us sooner?”

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Art of Friendship--Numazu and Kalamazoo

You can fly from Detroit Metro to almost any major airport in the world in a single day, although sitting for 14 or 15 hours on a direct flight can make it feel like a very long day. Nowadays, it usually takes much more time to plan a trip overseas than to actually make the journey.

Our son Lee’s recent Japanese adventure took a lot longer to develop than most. Its genesis was a casual conversation four years ago between his mother, Sandy, and a fellow shopper in a Kalamazoo store. As proud parents often do, Sandy found an opportunity to mention that her son was a stained glass artist who produces beautiful creations.

Unknown to Sandy, the lady she chatted with was connected to the Kalamazoo-Numazu Sister City Committee. Committee members make a cultural exchange trip to Japan in odd-numbered years to stay with Numazu citizens and serve as hosts to sister city friends in even-numbered years.

Lee putting finishing touches on the gift from Kalamazoo to Numazu
Committee planners soon contacted Lee about the possibility of getting an original stained glass piece from him. Two years later, several representatives visited Lee’s studio near Plainwell. They needed something special to mark the 50th anniversary of the sister city association. They requested and approved a preliminary drawing. A few months ago, Lee was commissioned to create the work of art that would be carried to Numazu as the official gift from the City of Kalamazoo to recognize the long-time friendship.

Lee’s creation features two symbolic birds—a Japanese Crane and a Cardinal representing the U.S.—holding a banner proclaiming “Understanding, Friendship, Kalamazoo-Numazu 1963-2013.” The biggest part of his compensation was an all-expense-paid trip to Japan as part of the 41-person American delegation visiting their sister city. Lee gave a brief speech at an evening banquet where his work was presented to the Mayor of Numazu.  By all accounts, the mayor and the other Japanese friends loved the gift.
A banner at the Numazu City Hall entrance greeted the Kalamazoo delegation

Lee stayed with a Japanese couple in their home for eight days. Much of his time was spent on organized tours with the visiting group of area sites that represented ancient and modern Japanese activities. However, during times reserved for host family-visitor interactions, Lee’s “house father” and “house mother” liked to just stay in their home and talk. Lee said those discussions were highlights of his visit. The fact that his house mother is an English teacher was a big plus.

Lee found he liked traditional Japanese food, which in some cases surprised his hosts. They also were amazed to discover he was proficient with chopsticks. He acquired that skill years ago when his mother and I often took him to Asian restaurants in the U.S. As a little boy, Lee developed an exceptional ability to eat with chopsticks, much more advanced than ours.
Lee went traditional at a cultural fair sponsored by the Japanese committee

Lee had to cut his visit short because of a commitment to display his art at a show in Michigan. His house father provided a final kindness. The trip to the Tokyo area’s Narita Airport by train involved two transfers, a very difficult situation for a tourist who spoke no Japanese. The house father escorted Lee all the way. Although they got lost for a time in one of the world’s busiest airports, the host found the correct departure point. In parting, he offered a final bit of house fatherly advice: “Go home and continue to produce beautiful art.”

Thanks to the house father’s train route navigation talents and his quick thinking in the airport, Lee got on the plane just in time. His art will stay in Numazu, however, on permanent display in the city’s Cultural Center.

Lee’s creations now are owned by discerning people in Japan, Australia, Italy, and Germany as well as many states in the U.S.  If you want to take a look at representative pieces of his work, the easiest way is a quick visit to Enjoy.