Thursday, October 31, 2013


My beautiful wife dressed to greet callers.  Oh, horrors!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Singing from Memory

As a youth, hymn singing was the only thing I liked about the church services I was strongly urged to attend. Given the chance to join in a rousing rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Amazing Grace,” I could belt it out with the best of them.

Nowadays, advancing age and COPD have reduced my vocal offerings to something perhaps best described as croaking. Also, I've been attending People’s Church, a Unitarian-Universalist congregation, for only a couple of years—only long enough to learn a few words of  hymns featured there. So when I visit People’s, my musical contribution is minimal to say the least.

Last Sunday, a mature man I’d never seen before took the vacant seat beside me. He sang all three hymns perfectly. He knew every word. He knew each melody. I was amazed.

When the service was over, I told him how impressed I was with his singing. Then we introduced ourselves. Harold Beu said, “Those hymns are easy for me. I’m a retired UU minister.”

We had a nice chat. I’m convinced Rev. Beu could teach me a lot about belief systems. I’m equally certain he could never teach me how to sing hymns the way he does.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Battling Baseball Boredom

Some time ago my love affair with baseball began a long slide that ended just short of complete indifference.

Most of the boys in my northern Wisconsin hometown participated in “America’s pastime” as players, dedicated fans, or both. A major league franchise didn’t arrive in Milwaukee until we were teenagers, so we supported various teams. We had ties to Chicago through tourism, thus Cubs fans probably were in the majority. Quite a few St. Louis Cardinals backers lived in my neighborhood. I bucked the trends by supporting the White Sox, after briefly being enamored with the Detroit Tigers.

We didn’t have Little League baseball, but a summer sports program offered early organized playing opportunities. I started as a catcher at age 11 on the team that competed against nines from other cities. Later, I donned “the tools of ignorance” (face mask, shin guards, chest protector) for high school, American Legion, and county league teams.

When the Braves franchise moved from Boston to Milwaukee, Wisconsin went baseball crazy. Normal business activity ground to a halt in Brewtown when the local heroes took the field. Every adult was in the ballpark or glued to a radio listening to the action. Interest was only slightly less elsewhere in the state. I joined the crowd as a rabid fan.

I'm catching some baseball once again
My passion began to wane during college days. My agenda became filled with more interesting activities than two- to three-hour sessions beside a radio or in front of a television set when half the time consisted of lulls between pitches and innings.

Later, following baseball became more of a chore than an entertainment. I was forced to watch lots of games. As a weekly newspaper editor, it was necessary to report on local contests. However, it was possible to avoid some of those time-consuming tasks by writing stories using scorebooks supplied by team managers. I became quite adept at creating descriptions of games I never saw.

But as sports editor of The Daily Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids I had no way to avoid baseball overkill. Rapids had a Minnesota Twins farm team in the Midwest League. Interest was high in the games played by the young professionals. I was required to attend nearly every home game (a reporter would fill in for me in extreme emergencies). There were 62 home games each season, almost all of them night games.

Covering minor league ball had interesting moments. It also forced me to watch some error-filled contests that lasted far into the night. Often it was midnight when I got to the office to compile the statistics and write my story for the next day’s paper.
My regular work hours started at 7 a.m. or earlier, six days a week.  My enthusiasm about baseball soon began its long slide downward. Later, other things pushed it further out of my life.

Business and family matters became much more important than following what I had come to view as dull athletic contests. Pro football began to replace baseball as the national pastime. It seized the American sports imagination, including mine. In retirement, I caught the golf bug. Had I still cared about baseball, time to follow it was seldom available.

Just as I my interest in baseball was nearing zero, we moved to Michigan. Since our arrival, pro football excitement waned-- the Detroit Lions seldom won a game. The Tigers won lots of games, and their fan base expanded. This year, home attendance topped 3 million. Anyone who follows news as I do had trouble avoiding stories about the Tigers. To learn directly what it was all about, I tuned into a few games on the tube. Unfortunately, I usually lost interest and moved on to something else well before the contests ended.

Now the Tigers are deep into the playoffs. The team features two of the best pitchers in the game and some powerful hitters. Not watching games right now causes people to be left out of a lot of conversations. I don’t like to be lonesome, so I’ve been watching the playoffs on television.

Unfortunately, even the playoff games strike me as less than thrilling. A few descriptions of strategies developed since my days as a player and fan have been interesting, but nothing has changed about the boredom fostered by the same old frequent periods of nothing much happening. I was close to ending my brief stint as a resurrected Tigers enthusiast.

Happily, I accidentally discovered a way to enjoy watching baseball on the tube. I was reading an intriguing book when a Tigers’ playoff game started. Feeling a bit lazy, rather than switch activities completely, I just stayed where I was and switched on the TV. I saw every bit of the baseball action and finished 70 pages of a good book during the dead times in the game. Chances of running out of interesting books are low; I’m staying on board as a Tigers fan, although not exactly a full-time one.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Dishonorable Honorable

Some years ago I worked with a manager who earned a reputation for lying frequently, although there seemed to be no reason for most of the fabrications. One subordinate observed that his leader even lied when it would have been much easier to tell the truth. Is it possible that some folks have a mysterious built-in compulsion to choose deceit over honesty?

My congressman, Fred Upton, may fit that mold. He has done a good job lately of tossing aside big chunks of his integrity.

In August, Upton said, “I know some of my colleagues have suggested that they will not support (a continuing resolution to fund government) unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded. I think this would be a lousy idea and certainly harm the most vulnerable.”

Early this month, Upton voted to shut down the federal government unless President Obama agreed to stop implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

A few hours after the shutdown went into effect, Upton said, “The Affordable Care Act is not ready for prime time, but shutting down the federal government is not the solution.”

Upton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He supported the relicensing of the accident-prone Palisades nuclear plant, and has long proclaimed the safety of nuclear plants.  However, this summer when radioactive material leaked into Lake Michigan from Palisades Upton visited the plant and termed the leak “unacceptable.”

Early this year, Upton requested more funding for the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up a large area of chemically polluted soil in the Kalamazoo. But on March 21 he voted to drastically reduce the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency then said it didn’t have enough funds to clean up the Kalamazoo disaster area.

It is customary to refer to Members of Congress as “The Honorable” John or Jane Doe. Upton has demonstrated that he no longer deserves that salutation. If you live in southwest Michigan and are looking for a rascal to turn out, one is close at hand.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

More Than a Mess

Several observers termed the shutdown that separated 800,000 federal workers from their jobs on Tuesday a “mess.” A few called it a “debacle.” I think stronger language might be in order to describe what a small group of Tea Party demagogues in Congress has foisted on our country.

In addition to ruining the lives of a lot of innocent people, many already suffering financially from the effects of a funding sequester, what the ultra-right wingers have done will waste vast amounts of our tax money and could be downright dangerous for many of us.

The government shut down briefly several times during my quarter century of employment with the U.S. Forest Service. In addition, a major unit merger advertised as a cost-saving measure seriously affected my work and the work of those around me. It ought to be obvious that when employees are engaged in making contingency plans for big changes in their organization, or carrying them out, they have little time to do the normal work they are paid to do. That work has to be done some time. Often, catching up after order is restored involves hiring additional employees or paying contractors. Each day the current shutdown continues will cost us billions of scarce tax dollars to be paid in the future.

Others have thoroughly discussed the huge negative impact on our still-fragile economy of abruptly canceling the wages of 800,000 people and suspending contract work that pumps mega dollars into private firms. Tying up federal funds also has a ripple-down effect that damages important state and local government activities

YOU are nonessential. (well, maybe)
Far scarier than economic consequences are risks to public health and safety inherent in the shutdown. Despite congressional exemptions to keep military and some other categories of employees on the job, there are risks in the present situation. Some result from the complexities of deciding precisely which employees are essential. Even when that exercise seems straightforward, it often is not.

For example, the Forest Service contingency plan for the shutdown, issued on September 20, said, “This plan assumes some Agency activities will continue that are essential to protect life and property. . ."

The first activity listed is “Fire Suppression including fire fighters and all necessary equipment costs . . .”

Sounds like an easy plan to carry out. But what seems a no brainer is not--a whole lot of difficult judgments are involved. They have to do with the nature of the fire suppression organization.

The firefighting organization is a combination of a small number of full-time professionals, a larger number of Forest Service people who have other full-time jobs and who work on fire problems only as needed, and an even larger number of contractors and part-time employees. Exactly who is essential can be a bit mysterious.

Consider this possibility. A relatively new full-time employee, let’s call her Josephine, works at a low-level purchasing job in a small unit. Prioritizing the unit’s work indicates the best course of action is to furlough Josephine as “nonessential.” Remaining employees with more experience could carry out the most important unit activities.

However, Josephine has completed some special procurement training and done satisfactory work when called to help handle logistics on a major forest fire. As a qualified fire support person, she could be called away from her normal job for fire duty, but it is impossible to predict when that might happen, or if it might happen over a period of weeks or months, or possibly even years.

Is Josephine “nonessential” because of her primary job, or “essential” because of fire assignments that may, or may not, materialize? How that seemingly small decision is made could be a factor in putting lives or property at risk.

In another agency, reports of shutdown effects say “routine food inspections have been suspended.” Sounds somewhat innocent, but think about it. Do you want chances taken with the quality of the food you eat? What god-like person decides which food inspections are routine, and which are “essential"?

And yesterday, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate committee that he could not guarantee our national safety because 70 percent of our intelligence community has been furloughed. Clapper pointed out that spies who are poorly paid, or paid not at all, tend to switch sides in the world of espionage. Imagine that. Apparently the Tea Party crowd in Congress could not.

The federal government shutdown is shaping up to be much more than a mess or a debacle. It’s looking a lot like a full-blown disaster.