Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winding Down the Year, Seeing in the New

Well hello again after an absence of more than a week, I have returned. The familial visitations of the holidays are finished once again. The readying for the new year has begun again. The amazement that the Bears can beat a team with a winning record is in full swing. In NCAA football, the SEC teams continue beating up on all the other conferences. Life is good in Streeterville. It's 23 degrees under clear skies and with a waxing moon on the horizon. A blue moon is due on New Year's Eve, unless you live in Australia or one of those Asian nations on the other side of the International Dateline. If you do, you get one to begin the New Year. "Blue moon, you saw me standing alone......"

Anyway, it was good to get home to my perch on the 14th floor. In the past week I have seen endless snow interspersed with periods of sleet and freezing rain. I have seen St. Ansgar, Iowa, population 1000. I have seen the inside of the mill that makes the feed that's given to the pigs that go into Spam. I have had my butt kicked at Bridge by a 93 year old man and his 88 year old wife. Should have stuck with Crazy 8's.

I have seen Minneapolis on the day after Christmas. (Can you say dead? Wow!) I have seen Washington Wizards, in Minneapolis to play the Timberwolves, in the same hotel where I stayed. Hey, it was across the street from the Target Center. Man, pro basketball players can make a guy feel short, and I'm not talking about on cash, although with their salaries that can happen too.

It finally stopped snowing, sleeting, and freezing raining long enough for a decent drive home to Streeterville. For the record, it's a 7 hour drive from Minneapolis to Chicago, door to door. So we're talking about an entire day shot, driving on the Interstate. Most of it was spent in Wisconsin, slogan: "Eat cheese or die!"

In short, I have done nothing but eat fattening foods and visit for the last week, sans two days spent driving. One day to Iowa, one day to Chicago from the Land of 10,000 lakes and at least as many hockey rinks. The trip from St. Ansgar, Iowa to Minneapolis is a mere 2 hour drive. If St. Ansgar were any further north, it would be a suburb of Austin, Minnesota, "The home of Spam." Incredibly, I weighed myself this morning and I did not gain a single pound while Christmasing in the hinterlands. I'm only the same mildly obese guy I was upon departure. Still, I hear a Dave Matthews song playing in my head, "Eat too much. Drink too much...."

The day today was spent cleaning house and cleaning out old financial records. Babs and I, okay Babs mostly, organized our financial records and tried to figure out what to do with our money so we can afford to retire. Savings accounts and CDs pay so little in the way of interest that they don't generate much interest. Bonds currently suck, as well. Stock market advisors warn us to expect a bumpy ride for the next year. Man, is there anything out there that is a safe investment that will grow at a rate outstripping inflation? Just saying.

Considering a second home in Florida. Has the real estate market in South Florida bottomed out yet? Can we take advantage of some other sucker's bad luck and land a good deal? Can we afford to buy it and pay for the perch on the 14th floor at the same time? It's the end of the first decade of the new millennium boys and girls. We baby boomers are readying for retirement, and the current economic situation threatens to reduce us to the status of our parents, the children of the "Great Depression." Crap! Whatever happened to easy bucks and an easy life? It was just a pipe dream after all.

I looked out the window today and Lake Michigan is turning to slush. The snow has arrived and covered the world for a while. Walked to the grocery store to pick up a few items and the icy winter wind off the lake stung my face. It must be the end of the year. It certainly feels like the end of a decade, a decade where one group of politicians squandered our national wealth, our international goodwill, and any trust we might have had in our national government. A new group of politicians arrived, bringing hope for a new day, a new way, and has struggled to overcome the legacy of the previous 8 years.

For myself, I sit here engulfed in end of the year, end of the decade, getting old and gotta retire in a few years angst. 2010 is on the horizon. A new year brings new hope. The new President reminds me that we are in a new millennium. Change may be incremental, but change does occur. Things will get better. In the meantime, I just have to bundle up and endure the winter until the equinox brings sunshine, warmer temperatures, and trips to warmer climes. Happy New Year all.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Santa Claus is a Democrat

In a surprise move yesterday, President Obama made an unscheduled stop at the North Pole on his way home from the global warming talks in Copenhagen. A spokesman for the President said that he felt it necessary to have talks with the head of Claus Enterprises regarding the impact of global warming on industries located at the nexus of impact. President Obama and Air Force One were met by Mr. and Mrs. Claus and ferried to the Claus home in what has been described as a sleigh, pulled by eight tiny reindeer. The President had no comment on the transportation.

A spokesman for Claus Enterprises, I.M. Elven, told reporters that "The current rate of buildup in greenhouse gases is going to put this whole enterprise in the Arctic Ocean in a matter of a few years if serious measures are not taken. Mr. Claus is very concerned that innocent children all over the globe will suffer as a result. Claus Inc. simply does not have the massive resources necessary to relocate, and frankly the reindeer do not adapt well to warmer climes. It's time the world put the right boot forward and stopped polluting so darned much. Frankly, Christmas is in danger of becoming just another marketing tool for Wal-Mart and Target." Officials at Wal-Mart and Target noted that there only a few shopping days left until Christmas.

Meanwhile Scrooge McDuck, well known conservative economist and Republican Party spokesman, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "The whole thing is a hoax. There is no such thing as global warming, nor is there any such person as Santa Claus. This is just one more effort to bamboozle the public by tax and spend Democrats. If anything, Santa Claus is a fitting metaphor for what the Democratic Party, and Barack Hussein Obama stands for. The guy is a socialist if ever I saw one. He dresses in a red suit for goodness sakes. He gives away presents to all kids, regardless of whether they deserve it. Another Democratic boondoggle. Hey, the guy is said to deliver the whole shebang in one night. Do you have any idea what the FedEx overnight charges would be on something that big?"

A Democratic spokesman reacted to Mr. McDuck's tirade by saying, "I'm not surprised that Republicans don't believe in global warming or Santa Claus. It should be noted that they don't believe in universal healthcare either. In the past century the Republicans have gone on record as not believing in Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights legislation, unemployment insurance, or government regulation of business. You get the picture."

The final results of the Obama-Claus summit are being kept under wraps for the time being, but it is believed that a plan is being developed to stop the great polar melt off and the subsequent death of Christmas as we know it. As President Obama stepped onto Air Force One and as he flew out of sight, the man in red was heard to exclaim, "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night."

An unnamed Republican source in Washington was quoted as saying, "Looks like the Democrats are planning for one more bailout at the expense of the taxpayers. America won't stand for this." On the street outside Republican Party headquarters, a M. Antoinette added enigmatically, "Let them eat cake."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Of Checks and Czechs

Amid all the chaos surrounding the Senate debate over health care, I try to find other things of interest. It's kind of cut and dried really. Working people want health care reform. Liberal Democrats want health care reform. Rich people, Republicans, and conservative Democrats, for the most part don't want to change anything. The arguments go on and on. I've taken a wait and see attitude. Now what is there, of interest out there aside from that and the ongoing wars in the Middle East?

Yesterday I found something that piqued my interest. It seems that the board of the UK Payments Council, a body largely made up of Britain's leading banks is making plans to abolish checks. I told Babs that the Brits were trying to abolish checks and she said, "Slovaks too?" No, not Czechs, checks. We're talking finance, not genocide.

Apparently studies show that fewer and fewer checks are being written in this electronic age. Debit cards and PINs are de rigeur. In the UK, a great many retailers have stopped accepting checks already. The problem is that there is still an older generation who have not adapted to 21st century banking practices. There are a great many people over the age of 65 who never use the internet. Many older citizens don't seem to do well with PIN numbers and debit and credit cards for payment. They don't like the idea of keeping track of their accounts online.

The target date for ending checks is October 31, 2018. Okay, that's a few years yet. People have time to get used to the idea. The banks have time to educate people. People have time to electronicize their financial lives. And this is all in Britain. What about the USA?

Frankly, considering all the to do over health care, I suspect the USA won't do away with paper checks until somewhere in the next millennium, or when the apocalypse comes, whichever arrives first. I have to ask you, "How many checks do you really write?" For myself, the only place I ever write a check is if I'm contributing to a charity or if I'm going to the dry cleaners. Why the heck is it that dry cleaners don't do debit or credit cards? Even the cabs are starting to take plastic. Checks are just plain primitive. Why my bank sends me a paper statement anymore is just befuddling.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say that the UK is on the right track. The oldest check on record in Britain is from 1659. That's 350 years that checks have served us well. All things must pass. The electronic age, c'est arrive. And it will be that much less paper we'll be using. In an age where we're worried about global warming and the buildup of greenhouse gases, we can use all the trees we can muster. Let em grow. Don't make paper out of em.

Of course, the fact that doing away with paper checks is being proposed by forward thinking liberals means that, in all likelihood, the tea party sorts, those who oppose a woman's right to choose, those who oppose health care reform, those who deny global warming is real, those who think that violence and mayhem in our society can be dealt with by giving everyone a gun, those who would bring the Christian religion into every public school classroom, those people will find some way to oppose the very sensible step of doing away with paper checks. Now that I've said that, can we face the fact that pennies are useless, and dollar bills could honestly become a useful tool, as a coin?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Northern Iowa Chronicles: The Heartland in Winter

Babs and I will be going to Iowa in about a week to visit her family. It's December and there are 10 inches of snow on the ground in North Central Iowa. It's cold. It's white. It's flat. The Heartland in Winter.

Over the last 24 years, Babs and I have spent a lot of December time in Northern Iowa. There is Christmas and there is her father's birthday. The trouble with Christmas in Northern Iowa is that the locale is about 2 hours drive directly south of Minneapolis, about 10 minutes drive from the Minnesota border, about 20 minutes drive to the home of Spam. That means you're seriously in the Northland there and it snows a lot in late December.

Babs and I moved to Chicago in late 1985 and shortly thereafter began making holiday excursions to the Heartland in Winter. On more than one occasion it snowed so much after we got there that we had to spend some extra days until the snow plows could make the roads passable. One year we decided to avoid the snowed in experience on the roads by flying into Rochester, Minnesota about 45 minutes away from the Heartland in Winter. Rochester, Minnesota motto: "We're not just about the Mayo Clinic. Honest we aren't."

Anyway, Rochester, Minnesota (Mayoville) has an airport with one runway long enough to serve big jets. As per usual it snowed massive amounts while we were visiting the relatives and guess what? That one runway gets shut down, and we were snowed in for a couple of extra days. Two days later we called the airport and they said they thought they would have the runway in good enough shape to fly out later that day. We all hopped in the car and headed down the Interstate, saying our good-byes and readying ourselves for the trip home. Got to the airport and they still hadn't gotten the runway cleared quite yet. Hung around and hung around, and finally American Airlines put everyone on a bus and drove us to Minneapolis where there were bunches of cleared runways and flights to Chicago.

Going to the Heartland in Winter. Gonna get snowed in. Get used to it. Doesn't matter how you arrive. Nevertheless, the Heartland in Winter can be fun. My father-in-law is currently 92 and he has birthdays in December, some of which are memorable. On his 80th birthday we made the excursion in early December, using that trip as an excuse to go somewhere exotic on vacation at Christmas.

For the 80th birthday we got the entire family together and headed off to Rochester, Minnesota (We're not just about the Mayo Clinic. Honest we aren't.) to a restaurant that has autographed photos of lots of famous people on the walls. Apparently, the rich and famous have to have some place to eat when they come to Mayo City. Anyway, we had a lovely lunch and afterwards we were thinking of a celebratory cocktail.

The father-in-law got to thinking and he summoned the waitress over. "You know we used to have these drinks and I'm not quite sure what went in them, but they had whipped cream and a filbert on the top." At this point he added, "We just always called them Angel Tits. They were good. Do you think anyone here knows how to make those?"

The waitress smiled and said, "I'll check." She came back and said, "The bartender knows how to do it. We can fix you up."

Father-in-law grinned from ear to ear and with a grand gesture encompassing the table full of relatives said "Angel tits all around." Turns out they were basically a variation on Kahlua and Cream. The mound of white whipped cream with a filbert strategically placed gave the drink its name. Nevertheless, there were Angel Tits all around and they were enjoyed by one and all.

It strikes me that this is a fitting way to celebrate the Heartland in Winter, or a great many other places for that matter. That is such a nice sentiment to wish for everyone you know, to let them know you have warm, fuzzy feelings for them and you'd like to share them in hopes that they warm, fuzzy you right back. Forget "Merry Christmas." Forget "Happy Holidays." For me the appropriate seasonal greeting is "Angel Tits all around."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Birthday to Views

As Walt Kelly's Pogo once said, "Looks like Friday the 13th comes on a Sunday this month." It is the 13th of December and today is a special occasion for me. No it's not because I took Babs to a George Clooney movie. That may be special in its own way, but today is special because Views From the 14th Floor is one year old today.

In the past year I have written about my literal views from the 14th floor overlooking Lake Michigan and I have written about my views on life, education, living in Streeterville, politics, and I have at times just had fun with this, such as the post on "The Hat With Flaps Factor," and conversations with the "Reverend R.D. of the Church of There Ain't No God, but There Sure As Hell Is Morality."

I have met some new friends through this medium, who for whatever reason seem to appreciate my writing. I have managed to ruffle some feathers, and in some cases alienate some longtime friends with views that upset them a little. In some cases there were things I said that maybe were better left unsaid. In other cases Babs checked out a rant I'd written and told me maybe I better not say that online. I listened and wrote about other things on those days.

At any rate, Views From the 14th Floor is what it is. Sometimes I'm serious. Sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I write when I really have nothing to say, but I do it anyway. It has provided a structure to my life and has been helpful in my quest to become an everyday writer, someone who could possibly finish a novel. To those of you who may have been offended by something I said, "Sorry about that." To those of you who have disagreed with my views, "Sorry about that." To those of you who seem to like my writing and my views, unequivocally, "Sorry about that." Oops. I mean thank you for any adulation and appreciation.

Anyway, so much for the maudlin 1 year anniversary stuff. I have a story I'd like to pass along. A couple of days ago I was in the grocery store on the aisle with all the sandwich bags and freezer bags, etc. As I proceeded down the aisle I encountered a little old lady in a full length fur coat, desperately trying to grab some large freezer bags from the top shelf. She couldn't reach them. She was too short. Channeling my inner Boy Scout, I stopped my grocery cart and asked, "Do you need some help?"

The little lady, who had an expensive dye job on her hair to keep it from being gray, and who could've had a face lift perhaps, to keep her from looking her age, said, "Thank you." I asked her how many she wanted, and she said, "Five." Don't know exactly what she wanted with five boxes of gigantic freezer bags, but who am I to question the elderly in their fur coats? I gave her the freezer bags and by way of making some small talk, jokingly added, "It's a sad state of affairs when I'm the tall one." (I like to say that I'm 5' 8 1/2" or 5' 9" on a tall hair day. Sadly, at age 59, tall hair days are few and far between.)

At this point the little lady looked a bit puzzled and said, "What's that? You're Italian?" I chuckled to myself and corrected her. "No. I said it's a sad state of affairs when I'm the tall one." She nodded sagely and told me "I used to be taller." Then she went on her way down the aisle, hopefully searching for items on lower shelves. Even if she had shrunk a little in her age, this woman could not have possibly been more than 5 feet tall on a tall hair day when she was in her twenties.

It's funny. This was a woman who obviously was fighting tooth and nail against aging. She dyes her hair. She works very hard on keeping her face from showing signs of aging. She dresses to the nines in her furs and designer clothes even when she goes to the grocery store. Yet she cannot get a hearing aid, because that is a sign of age, or at least she thinks it is. I, the guy who gets the freezer bags from the top shelf for her, I wear a hearing aid. Better to hear the world around you than not. When you do not, that is a sure sign of age to the rest of the world.

We all fight against aging in one way or another. We all age anyway. You don't have to embrace it when you're 45 years old and never do anything challenging or interesting again. You don't have to stop growing and changing as a person because you reach a certain age. It's amazing the things we can do and continue to do at ages when we thought our grandparents were older than dirt. The physical vanities suffer, however, no matter how we fight against them. The hair changes color. In some cases, it falls out. The face develops lines that tell a story of your experience. Keeping the body in shape becomes more difficult over time. The inner life becomes richer. The life experience of the years makes you a more interesting person.

It's specifically those life experiences I draw upon in my "Views." I enjoy being here. I hope you do too. So here's wishing "Views" a happy first birthday, and many more.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Appropriate or Inappropriate Education For All? What Do You Think?

At the risk of alienating any number of Special Education teachers out there, I feel it necessary to comment on a situation that is prevalent in the public schools today. Special education was started by caring individuals with only the very best of intentions. The idea was to provide an appropriate education to any student who had some disability that negated their ability to function in the regular classroom on the same playing field with those students who needed no special considerations.

At one time, special education meant small classes of special needs students who worked with them in books and materials that reflected the actual ability levels of the students. Often the work was specially tailored to give them real life training that was applicable to skills needed in getting a job. Then some parents became irate that their children were being excluded from regular classrooms and went to court.

What happened was that it became nearly criminal to keep any student of any ability level or with any sort of disability from the regular classroom. Schools of education began preaching the doctrine of total inclusion, meaning every student of every ability in every classroom. The idea came to pass that every student could succeed in a college preparatory program with appropriate accommodations and an individual education plan. Does anyone detect fallacious logic at this point?

Special education has become a dumping ground for students who at one time were called "dumb." Oops! Very politically incorrect there. Too bad. Many of these kids are kids who have difficulty reading past a 3rd grade level, can't do math beyond simple arithmetic (You want them to do algebra and geometry? Forget it.), and often can't find their rears with both hands. These are kids who need training for a vocation and often need some type of counseling, not attempts at preparing them for a college they will never attend. You are setting these kids up for failure.

What often happens is that these kids get frustrated trying to do work that they are patently unable to do and they resort to acting out in class, wandering in the halls, becoming habitually truant, and any number of other coping mechanisms that get them out of actually trying to do the work. Being placed in a regular classroom, they create such scenes and disruptions that they get in the way of the education of those students who are able to do the work at an appropriate level. Special education teachers often cater to these students, babying them, cajoling them, making excuses for them, and doing whatever necessary to justify passing them along without the requisite skills or knowledge.

They create unhealthy dependencies that do nothing to prepare special education students for success in later life. Yesterday a special education student wandered into my classroom 15 minutes late for class (Nonchalantly.). I repeated the instructions that I had given the other students 10 minutes before. I gave him a photo-copied sheet with the day's assignment on it. I told him to be seated and get a textbook out. The young man sat down and said to me in an inquiring tone, "Mr. Ray, most teachers give you something to write on when you get a sheet like this." I said, "Excuse me? You want me to give you the paper to write on?" He, quite genuinely insisted that I should provide him with the paper to write on in addition to the textbook and the guided reading prompts.

A great many of these students become so dependent on their teachers that they expect teachers to provide them with paper and pencils and to sit with them while coaxing them through every last step of the work. Often they think they can't be expected to remember to bring any necessary tools with them, so they make teachers keep their notebooks in the room for them and expect the teacher to remind them of its presence in the room every day when they arrive. A great many get to the point that they expect teachers to point out any correct answers in a textbook and if possible just give them the answer, negating any responsibility on their own part to work. Yet they are routinely passed along.

Teachers, such as myself who actually demand some effort of these students are met with incredulity, anger, and swearing from students who are accustomed to being passed along no matter what, because they are special needs students. We are met with reprimands and disgust from supervising administrators, for failure to meet the needs of every student, no matter how ridiculously insane the expected task. Many just give in and pass every special ecucation student, no matter what. It deflects the heat from oneself.

So how are these kids being prepared for any reasonable life after school? Answer: They're not. They are being set up for failure and a life of dependency and poverty. The system needs to be corrected. We cannot continue to pretend that there is a cookie cutter education that works for every child. Not every student has the same ability, needs, or desires in life. Not every student needs to be prepared for college. Every student deserves an appropriate education. That means very different things from student to student.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Immigrant Stories

This past Saturday I was reading in the Chicago Sun-Times about a young man who is facing deportation. Apparently his parents entered the USA illegally when he was 6 years old and he has been here ever since. Now INS wants to deport him when he is a straight A student at UIC.

The sad thing about many illegal immigrants is that they are working their butts off trying to achieve the American dream. They often work for sub-standard wages, without any benefits, and constantly in fear that they will be discovered. Yet they are working, not milking the system, as a great many anti-immigrant activists would have you believe. They just want a better life than they had wherever they came from. They want a better life for their children.

If their children are born in the U.S. those children are automatically U.S. citizens. If they are born in another country, they are illegal, as are their parents. In cases such as this one, the young man has been in the U.S. so long he really knows nothing about the place of his birth. In this case that is Mexico. A college student who has lived in Chicago since he was 6 years old naturally comes to feel like Chicago and the USA is home. To send this young man to Mexico would be to exile a legitimate American to a foreign land with a foreign way of life. He has done everything right and by the book. He excels when so many native American students do not. He is an asset to the U.S. So why the hell is he being kicked out?

Where I work at the Outpost in Back of the Yards, there are a great many students whose parents brought them to Chicago illegally. INS has to know this. They are everywhere. The illegals form a shadow economy of low paid workers who keep the city, and other cities as well, chugging along. The children are, well, just children, like any other children. Some struggle in school. Some are motivated and do exceptionally well. I know of at least one such student who managed to make it to graduation as the valedictorian of her class. Scored a 3 on an AP exam. Yet her college hopes were seriously damaged by her illegal status. Being illegal, she could not get the typical loans or grants available to other low income students. She talked of going to Mexico City to a university, but was daunted by the fact that she had lived in Chicago so long that she felt like a foreigner in Mexico. She also talked about just getting a job and maybe going to a City College part-time, a 2 year college.

What appears to be happening, to me, is that the government is looking the other way as long as the parents continue to work for poverty wages and keep American businesses chugging along, but the kids are set adrift. For God's sake, we allow the best and brightest of nations from all over the world to come to the U.S. and attend universities, as long as they have wealthy and powerful parents. Why can we not lift up the best and the brightest from among us when they are living down the street, and deserve a break? Are we such a racist, xenophobic nation that we cannot stand to see a few Latino students prove they are the equal of any native born American, or the rich kids from abroad? It is time we took a long, hard look at our immigration policies. It is time we showed some compassion for those who have not a choice about where they were born or where they moved to, or how they got there.

In other immigration news, Tai Shen, the panda born at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. is also being deported. It seems that Tai Shen's parents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang were merely loaned to the U.S. with a specific agreement that any offspring of the pair would have to be returned to China. Tai Shen is 2 years old and has never known any other world but the U.S. National Zoo. Doesn't know a word of Mandarin. Speaks fluent bamboo, though. Nevertheless, can this be fair, a child of the Western world being torn from his roots, and sent to live as a stranger in a strange land? Just one more immigration injustice boys and girls. Oh, and I will get to that story I promised, eventually, the one about "Angel tits all around." Just give me the appropriate moment. Meantime, I think I'll look out the window for a while. There's a trifecta of precipitation out there tonight, snow, sleet, and rain all mixed together.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Northern Iowa Chronicles: Of Badgers and Dogs

The temperatures in Streeterville have been hovering in the high 20's and low 30's for the past few days. That means the rich ladies in their fur coats have brought out the little doggie sweaters for their doglets to wear when they walk them. There is no coating of snow and ice as yet so there have been no spottings of little doggie footwear.

I spotted one little doglet this morning proudly sporting his best Wisconsin Badgers sweater. Somehow I doubt the doglet in question has ever met a badger, real animal or UW mascot. Nevertheless he looked natty in his little Badger-wear. Oddly enough, the only time I have ever enountered a real badger outside a zoo was not in Wisconsin at all, but in Northern Iowa.

Ever seen a pair of dogs tag team a badger? Not a pretty sight, but given some of the possible alternatives I was pretty glad to have dogs with us when we encountered a badger while on a walk in the woods near my in-laws' house. And what we're talking about here are two family pets, tail wagging, lick you in the face pets, not trained killers.

Babs and I had been visiting her mother and father in the house in the country and we decided to take a walk and get some exercise. The walk took us down the gravel road past rows and rows of corn. What else do you expect to see in Iowa? At the end of one corn field was an expanse of woods and an old road that was grown over in grass and weeds. There was a fence along the edge of the woods and a gate across the road. We climbed the gate and headed off down the road in the woods and the two dogs (Dogs or dawgs, but definitely not doggies with sweaters.) squeezed under the fence and followed, running and barking and doing things dogs do in the woods, sniff, bolt for squirrels that scurry up the trunks of trees, etc.

About a quarter mile up the road in the woods was a clearing and an old farm house that had been abandoned for many years. It was the kind of place that high school kids like to call the old haunted house and dare one another to go into it after dark, usually after consuming copious quantities of beer. It was the middle of the day with the sun high overhead and Babs and I wandered in. What we saw was an old farm house from a previous era and odd little remnants of lives and people who had moved on.

When we came out of the house we discovered the two dogs barking furiously at something on the edge of the woods. Babs and I went over to see what was going on and what we discovered was the two dogs taking on a badger. For the record, badgers are ugly nasty looking critters with nasty looking yellow teeth. Wouldn't want to encounter one without the dogs or a gun or something.

The way the dogs worked it was to come at the badger from both sides and take turns coming at it and attacking while the badger was occupied with the dog from the other side. Want to try and stop a dog from attacking when it's in a life or death fight with a badger. Not a good idea. The only thing we could do was stand back and let it happen, and hope the dogs won, not the badger.

Eventually the dog tag team prevailed and the badger stopped moving. We were able to coax the dogs back to the road and the trip back to the house. These dogs had reverted to their deepest instincts had worked the kill like a pack does. They protected themselves and the people who feed and love them. Then, as if an on/off switch had been flipped, these savage pack animals were the tail-wagging, face licking family pets once again. They looked up at us expectantly as if to say, "That was fun. What're we gonna do now? Pant! Pant!"

The trip back to the house was uneventful. Back over the gate. Back up the gravel road between the rows of corn. Then the trip down the long driveway to the house in the country overlooking the Cedar River. The dogs took a nap. Babs and I poured ourselves a drink. Think I'd rather encounter a badger in a zoo, or as a costumed character on the sidelines of a UW football game.

Next up in the Northern Iowa Chronicles: Angel Tits All Around!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Changing of the Seasons and Bigtime College Debts

It's December 3 and I saw my first snow of the season today. The high temperature didn't reach 40. The snow was blowing sideways. Not quite cold enough yet to stick, but give it a couple of weeks and we'll have that white ground cover that lasts for a couple of months. It's that time of year when you feel good about getting out the sweaters and hats and scarves and gloves and heavy coats that you haven't worn in a long time. It's that time when you look forward to the cold wind and the first really heavy snowfall. It's winter in the celebratory stage. Come February it'll be in the regrettatory stage, but one thing at a time boys and girls.

Oh, and it's also the time of year when it goes from being cooler near the lake to warmer near the lake. It was 36 degrees when I left the Outpost in The Back of the Yards, and it was 38 degrees when I reached the perch on the 14th floor overlooking Lake Michigan. All temperatures were taken at the Mini. As usual, no wind chill factors available at the Mini, but I walked 4 blocks up the street to Treasure Island and it wasn't too bad out. Got to wear the new birthday coat (No, not the birthday suit. Even I wouldn't go out in 38 degrees dressed like that.) that Babs gave me this year. Nice leather, and long. Looks like something Tony Soprano might wear on a casual day.

Anyway, enough about the weather already. What I really wanted to talk about today is debt, college debt. There are a lot of people in America, just now, who are up in arms about the rising cost of college tuition and how much debt kids emerge from college with. A headline in the Chicago Sun-Times this morning jumped out at me. It said, "Average college grad in Illinois owes more than $20,000." It gave a list in a sidebar that showed how much the average college grad from various Illinois schools owes after graduation. It varied from $13,418 on the low end, at Northeastern Illinois University, to $32,134 on the high end, at Loyola University of Chicago.

The funny thing is that grads of Northwestern and DePaul come out owing less money on the whole than students who attend Loyola, and I went to graduate school at Loyola. I know for a fact that Loyola is cheaper than either of the aforementioned schools. Babs cleared it up for me. She explained that these universities are more fully endowed and there are two kinds of students. There are rich kids whose parents pay for the full ride and they thus emerge from the college experience debt free. Then there are the really smart kids who take advantage of the endowment the university enjoys. These students get lots of scholarships and grants and don't have to borrow as much money. So even though the overall cost of tuition, books, and living may be higher, their students end up owing less after graduation. Go figure.

At any rate, all of these universities have students coming out owing $20,102, on average. The median for the schools listed in the sidebar was somewhere around $18,000. This fact has led many Americans to be seriously appalled. "How can you saddle children with this much debt, in their twenties? It's a national catastrophe."

I have two observations about this debt. Who in the heck are these people who are paying the full ride for their kids to go to schools that charge $35,000-$40,000 per year? I'm not even talking Harvard or the University of Chicago here. I'm talking Northwestern and DePaul. Can't these kids cover some of it themselves? They might appreciate it more, and the parents might have a little more retirement money to enjoy.

Secondly, college is an investment. Get a degree and you get a better job and you make more money. Get an advanced degree and you make more money yet. Better deal than the stock market or a money market account or CD's or bonds. Big return on your investment. This is not a frivolous expense. Furthermore, the average post-college debt is $20,000, give or take. In today's dollars, that is the cost of a new car. That new car begins depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot, but that college degree makes you money the minute you get it and just keeps on appreciating year after year.

How many of these college graduates own $20,000 cars? So why is it such a big deal to owe $20,000 in college debt to get a good job that will pay you back big time? Can we stop with the whining people? Even if you go to a big time med school and rack up $100,000 in debt, you're still going to get that money back in spades people. Get real.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a poor kid from Central Arkansas. He borrowed money and went to ASU. He moved to Illinois and went to SIU on more loans. He ended up in Chicago and went to NEIU and Loyola. (Paid for these last two with cash as he went.) Now that's a lot of borrowed money. That's a lot of college tuition. That poor lad turned these college experiences into a home on the 14th floor on Lake Shore Drive and a pretty good life. All loans were paid off long ago. All tuition is just a memory. It was an investment in the future and the future finally arrived. $20,000 in college debt? My Mini Cooper cost more than that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wars and Rumors of Wars

The Senate is busy debating the merits of health care reform. The President announced today that he is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The American public is obsessed with Tiger Woods' auto accident. Can I just go on record here as saying, "Who the hell cares?" About Tiger Woods that is. Lives hang in the balance and we're wondering if Tiger was driving drunk, what's up with his wife, and wondering why he's skipping a tournament. Get over it people. It doesn't matter.

For that matter, Lou Dobbs leaving CNN is pretty inconsequential. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are all just a lot of noise and distraction that adds up to zero. They entertain people with a questionable grasp of the facts, and do nothing other than distract people from the real issues, those that affect millions of lives. Do I think every American should have access to adequate health care? Well, duh! The Senate is busy beating each other up over that one, and it's frankly not getting a lot of press. That came when the above mentioned nimnals were busy trying to keep the issue from ever reaching the debating stage in the Senate. Too bad! The issue is on the floor and they're talking about a vote before January 1, 2010. Cool!

What really has me concerned just now are the two wars that the U.S. is carrying on in Asia. When the Twin Towers came down on 9/11/2001, it became apparent that we were at war. We were at war with a loose group of terrorists who were being harbored by the government of Afghanistan. The world supported us in going after Al-Qaeda and their support group, the Taliban. Then the Bush-Cheney axis decided that they'd whip up support for kicking Saddam Hussein's butt while we were at it, and while we had troops in that general part of the world. Turns out the supporting reasons for taking on Hussein and Iraq were total b.s. and we got mired in a war there that drags on and on and on and ...... The real serious threat to the U.S., in Afghanistan was relegated to the back burner, and Osama bin Laden got away. He's still out there somewhere plotting against the U.S.

Meanwhile in Iraq we got rid of Saddam Hussein readily, but many years later we're still nowhere near establishing peace in the Fertile Crescent. The Sunnis don't like the Shi'a and vice versa. Neither of them like the Kurds. The Kurds are the only ones that really like the Americans. Somehow they keep the other two groups out of their area and have established some semblance of peace and prosperity. The other two keep blowing each other up and periodic Americans to encourage us to leave so they can get on with serious carnage. We still have somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 troops in Iraq. They are supposedly leaving sometime soon. Meaning in the next decade?

Over in Afghanistan we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 68,000 troops already and President Obama, after much consideration, has decided to send an additional 30,000. The fight against the Taliban goes on, and has spilled over into neighboring Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons. The Afghan government is decidedly corrupt. The recent Afghan elections are questionable at best. The Pakistani government is somewhat chicken shit when it comes to actually engaging revolutionary fundamentalist Islamic groups, in spite of the fact that said groups control a significant part of the country.

The President says the 30,000 additional troops should do the job and we will begin bringing them home in 2011. That's just over a year from now. Believe that? Got some nice beach front property in Arizona you might be interested in. Just to recap. Iraq is still a mess. Osama bin Laden is still at large and dangerous. Afghanistan is not pacified, nor is it a stable and real democracy. The Pakistanis have gotten into the mess and if they screw up the terrorists get nuclear weapons. We won't even mention the crazy assed theocracy that is Iran.

This all seems to me to be a mess that India, Russia, and China should be interested in helping to correct. They're in the immediate neighborhood and it could very well spill over their borders. It also seems to be a matter that concerns the United Nations. Let's see. What was their purpose again? Oh yeah, world peace. Haven't done real well in taking care of that, have they?

Hey, we could use some help in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in shutting up Iran. As for that Iraqi thing, well we oughta get the hell out, like yesterday. Let them sort it out for themselves. Not our job. 100,000 troops there still? Hey bring them home and pay them to do something constructive instead, like repair roads and bridges, or run Wall Street and the banking industry, instead of the lame brains currently running the financial industry. Army and National Guard troops couldn't do worse, could they? Just a thought.

Of course a real concern here is that President Obama has a seriously good agenda, health care, jobs, banking oversight, creating high speed rail corridors, etc., etc., etc. The problem is that he can get all of that done, and the only thing the American public is going to remember is war, war, and more war. LBJ inherited a situation in Vietnam. He expanded voting rights and civil rights in general. He oversaw the expansion of the public safety net and helped launch Medicare. The only thing the public saw then and for the most part remembers now is Vietnam.

Obama runs the risk of being a one term President who, for all the good intentions, got mired in a mess that was created by a previous administration, and didn't know how to get out of it. If he lets that happen history will be unequivocal in its assessment. LBJ=BHO. Let's hope this one works out a little better. I remember Vietnam well, and I know enough history to know that Afghanistan was a mess not to be conquered by either the British Empire or the Soviet Union. Can the U.S. succeed where others did not? We'll see.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tis the Season

The first hurdle of the end of the year holiday season is passed. The guests have returned home. A sizable portion of the leftovers has been eaten and we didn't have to resort to turkey pancakes. Black Friday has come and gone. I have managed to steer clear of the hordes that have descended on Michigan Avenue. The lights are lit on the Magnificent Mile. The big tree that looks like something out an impressionist painting with its blurred lights is in its place at the Hancock Center.

Larry the Doorman finally called one wrong when he assured me that we'd get a few flakes of snow before Thanksgiving. He still has a better average than the television weather geeks and Phil the Groundhog, however. The temperature is trending downward, though. Extended weather outlooks predict highs in the 30's and some wet snow later this week. Looking out the windows on the 14th floor, the green and red lights are signifying the Christmas season at Navy Pier and silently proclaiming, "Come! Celebrate the season! Spend money!" The skies have been an end of the year gray quite a lot recently. November ends and December begins this week.

I went to the grocery store to pick up cat food and cat litter and various assorted necessities of life today and the Christmas Carol Muzak was in full bloom. What this means is that now, not only do we have to worry about dropping those pounds we picked up while gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving, but we have to worry about what to buy for those nearest and dearest to us as Christmas presents. The pressure is on.

In between Christmas parties and planning for those trips to be with families over the holidays, we have to agonize over what to buy so we don't look like people who don't really love their loved ones. How many times have I heard, "Oh you don't have to buy me anything, really." or "Let's just agree not to buy anything this year." Still, there are disappointed crestfallen faces on Christmas morning if some people get cool stuff and others do not. So not buying is out of the question.

Then there is the unspoken, "Is this present good enough?" This accompanies the agreement not to spend too much on presents. Did you get something that is equally as cool as what someone bought you? Is your present so far over the top that the other person will be embarrassed that they didn't get you anything nice? How do we reach an equilibrium where each person receives a gift that is neither too lame nor too nice, and everyone feels okay about what they got and what they gave?

These are the real traditions of Christmas in America. This is a country where the economy revolves around selling so much stuff during the last quarter of the year that most of the rest of the year sales can go flat and the economy still keeps chugging along. This is the real tradition that keeps us going back year after year buying stuff that we shouldn't have, stuff that we really don't need, but stuff that keeps the economy chugging along. Somehow it has wormed its way into our psyches and made itself a part of our collective neuroses.

For now I can divert my attention by the fact that the Bears are down to the Vikings 24-7 after the first half. Then, I must invevitably turn my attention the fact that Babs bought me an expensive and really cool leather coat for my birthday. Can't afford to give a really lame Christmas present this year. Wouldn't want it to look like I don't love her as much as she loves me. After all, I'm an American. Love=Money spent. It's a Christmas tradition.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Haven't Done Your Holiday Shopping? Buy Buy Now.

A couple of days ago Gail Collins, in the New York Times, stated that the U.S. fiscal year is currently divided into two seasons, Baseball and Shopping. Of course she also told us that Oprah Winfrey's current wealth has been measured at trillionedy billion dollars. Using this figure as a benchmark, the accounting team of R.D. and Associates assures us that the current U.S. National Debt is 17.2 gazillion dollars, and of that 17.2 gazillion dollars in debt, 19.56% times Pi divided by the square root of two, is held by the Peoples Republic of China. (Not to be confused with the Peoples Republic of Mao would have approved of some of us becoming gazillionaires if we were attaining the money from the American Capitalist Pigs.)

This state of affairs reminds me of one of my favorite movies of all time, Americathon. In this movie America is deeply in debt and owes so much money to a Middle-Eastern Hebrab oil-rich country, that the U.S. is in danger of having the whole country repossessed by the oil interests. Seems the only company in the country that is turning a profit is a running shoe manufacturer and is owned by the Indians. The movie was made in the 1970's and nobody had yet foreseen the boom in Indian-owned casinos. Nobody as yet had foreseen the prospect of China going capitalist and buying up all of those U.S. government securities, not to mention buying huge stacks of U.S. dollars to keep the value of the dollar high on the international market while keeping the Chinese currency low in value. At any rate, it seems to be the Chinese we have to worry about foreclosing on the mortgage and taking over the country.

In the movie, Americathon, a telethon is held to raise the money to keep the U.S. afloat and the Indians step in to keep the Middle Eastern oil interests from taking over. In 2009 reality, the Chinese may threaten to take over and the only ones who could save the country might be Oprah and Wal-Mart. I can see it now, the U.S. is bought up by Oprah and Wal-Mart. In a power move, Wal-Mart assassinates Oprah, manipulates a hostile takeover, and the next thing you know there is no longer a democratic state. The Presidency has been replaced by the "Greeter in Chief," sort of like the Russian head of state. Everyone knows Putin really runs that place.

That's not what I really wanted to talk about, though. What I really came here to talk about is Shopping Season. Yes, it is Shopping Season already. Baseball season, after all, has been over for, what, 3 or 4 days now. (You know, the Extended Playoff, Extended World Series Season for television broadcast, complete with Designated Hitters, and accompanied by steroid pumped home run hitters, making somewhat less money than Oprah Winfrey, but somewhat more than the GNP of a small third world nation.) At any rate, shopping season is upon us. Mickey Mouse told me so, and Disney cartoon characters do not lie and they are good for the economy.

Last night was the official kickoff of Shopping Season in Chicago with the "Festival of Lights Parade." Mickey Mouse came riding down Michigan Avenue on a float that looked like the Water Tower (The one thing downtown that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and currently a big tourist draw, though not nearly as big as Mickey Mouse) and shot off fireworks. As Mickey went by the Christmas lights came on on Michigan Ave. Mickey proceeded down the entire length of the Magnificent Mile turning on lights, spewing fireworks from his float, and bringing the good tidings of great joy that Shopping Season brings. Yup, Shopping Season has definitely begun.

I believe the official motto of Shopping Season this year is "Save our economy. Buy lots of stuff." This has been endorsed by the Council of Economic Advisors. Of course they also endorse selling naming rights to the White House and Congress. These are soon to become the Coca-Cola Congress and the Pepsi Presidency. At present, no corporation worth its salt wants to invest in the naming rights to the Supreme Court. Just not sexy enough. Although, if you ask me, the idea of a Victoria's Secret Supreme Court might just add a little pizazz to a very stodgy institution.

Not to be outdone, a religious alliance has gotten onboard with the emphasis on the importance of Shopping Season, while still stressing the religious underpinnings that brought it about in the first place. As it turns out a group of religious scholars have recently found a previously unknown book of the Bible, The Book of Accountancy. Quoting from this Book of Accountancy, none other than the Pope himself has urged us to "Go forth and shop in abundance. I have seen the plastic and it is good. I have seen the black cards made of carbon fiber and they are even better. Eat for the food is aplenty. Drink for the time for celebration is here. Spend your fill for the long winter cometh and the New Years Day hangover is imminent, and the Super Bowl shall endeth and Spring Training it cometh...."

Well, at any rate, boys and girls it is the Shopping Season, known in some areas as Spending Season. It keeps the nation afloat. It keeps the populace happy and sane. Go spend scads of money and be content. In the meantime, all gifts and cash should be sent to "The Real Rex Ray," c/o Views From the 14th Floor. Think of it as salvaging the nation. See you on Tuesday.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing For Money, Writing For Fun

As a teacher, I usually take my summers off and do other stuff. They send me paychecks anyway. They take money out of my check when I'm working and send it to me in the summer so I don't starve or get evicted or have my lights shut off or anything. The other stuff is usually stuff that I would really rather be doing than teaching history to teenagers. Sometimes it's training for a marathon. Sometimes it's a music project. Sometimes it's just laying around reading and doing crossword puzzles and annoying my wife who has to work year round and resents layabouts.

Last summer I decided to write a mystery novel. Not having to work all day, I slept late, wrote a bit on the novel every day, and in the late afternoons I would switch gears and write this blog. Not having to work all day, I also managed to find time for running and biking along the lakefront, and the usual tedium like housework, laundry, and grocery shopping. It was a good life. I got about 40,000 words into said mystery novel and Views From the 14th Floor was blossoming.

Then came September and school teacher that I am, I had to go back to work, shaping little minds and lives. What happened then was that, well, I had to work most of the day. I got home and there was pressure to work out at the gym or run along the lake, or the alternative-"Get fat!" Then I had to work on the novel and blog as well. Weekends brought house cleaning, grocery shopping, and errands galore. It got busy.

What actually happened was that I went to work, came home, worked out, and generally found that I only had time for one writing project. As it turns out I'm quite attached to my blog. I usually blog. The novel has been suffering. It advances slowly in fits and starts, on rare weekday afternoons, and occasional weekends. I'm still not past 50,000 words and it is now November. Something has to give.

I honestly considered giving up "Views From the 14th Floor" altogether, or at least until the novel is finished. I may yet have to do that. In the meantime I have come to the decision that I must cut back on blogging and give specific days to the novel. I am changing my modus operandi to a 3 day a week blog. Beginning next week Views will be written on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I will be working on the novel on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Sundays are a day of rest.

It wounds me greatly to have to cut back on this forum, but let's face it, I do not get paid a penny for doing it. I do it because I like it. The novel is fun too, but in a different way and it takes a great deal more thought and work. It has the possibility of a monetary payoff, and another reward in the form of "Wow I didn't know you could do that," from friends, family, and self. The novel must have its day. If it works out, I have an idea for a second already to begin.

After I reached age 50 I learned to play guitar, write the musical accompaniment to songs, and run a marathon. Now I'm involved in another marathon. Writing a full length book is a marathon. It is not something to be undertaken lightly. You have to pace yourself and keep plugging away, just as you do when you run 26.2 miles. Short stories are a piece of cake. They come in a burst. Novels come a little bit at a time over a long period of time. My research tells me that publishers want 100,ooo words for a mystery novel. I'm almost halfway there, and the tale keeps unwinding. Twists and turns develop. They have to be resolved. The mystery has to be solved. The characters' lives keep developing. I have to spend some time with it, thinking it through, letting it all happen.

The bottom line is that this novel needs to be finished in first draft form by the time next summer arrives. One year should be sufficient. That necessitates that I take my life in control, and that means more novel, less blog. I appreciate the regular readers and I will continue to be here. I just won't be here every day, as I have for quite some time. Heidy ho boys and girls. Life moves on.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Having a Bad Day

I had a really bad day today. Teenagers running amok in the halls screaming and yelling. A rash of gang tagging showed up in the locker area on the third floor. Kids openly wearing gang colors inside the school and daring teachers to say something about it. It was one of those days when working in a school in The Back of the Yards you really wish you were one of the lucky ones who gets to work at a nice college preparatory school in a neighborhood where kids aren't busy shooting other kids.

In addition, I'm feeling my mortality today. I have two brothers, one 69 years old and one 64 years old. My oldest brother recently went through back surgery and prostate surgery. My other brother, the 64 year old one just today had surgery for a cranial aneurism. The surgery went well, but they had to delay it for months because of weight and high blood pressure issues. My younger sister has diabetes. My older sister complains about back pain. Everyone is getting old. I went to the gym and worked abs, did weights, and ran 4 miles today. No back problems, no prostate problems, no high blood pressure, no cholesterol issues, no diabetes. Not yet anyway. I'm actively fighting it all.

Still, knowing that your siblings, not your parents, are old and having health issues makes you feel old by association. The time of graduations and weddings is past for siblings and their children. Graduations and weddings are for grandchildren now. One begins to wonder how long before the funerals begin, before close relatives and friends begin to fade from the scene one by one. I intend to fight it, kicking and screaming. I plan to live to be a hundred years old. I plan to see my fiftieth wedding anniversary with Babs. Who will join us at that ripe old age?

I was driving home after school today and was stopped and made to turn around by the police. There was yet another incident on 47th Street with herds of cop cars accompanied by fire trucks and paramedic vehicles. Couldn't see what had happened. Cops weren't talking. Just told me to turn around and find another route to the Dan Ryan. Another shooting? A hit and run? Who knows? I had a bad day. Someone else obviously had a much worse day.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dow Jones Positives and Unemployment Negatives, They're Both Up.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 10,400 today. The big guys are saying that the recession is over. They're partying on, passing out bonuses in the form of stock options, and presumably breaking out the corporate jets once again. The trouble is that the unemployment rate has reached 10.2%, the highest it has been in a long time. For the Republicans out there who want to bash Obama, the last time the unemployment rate was that high was in 1983, when it reached 10.4%. That was during the reign of Ronald Reagan, the demi-god of the right.

I really think that the bigwigs want to put a positive spin on this to make themselves look good, and while my stocks are doing better, I certainly haven't recouped everything I lost when the stock market values went down the crapper. To illustrate a point, I was in a taxi riding down Michigan Avenue two nights ago and we were on the Magnificent Mile. I looked up and lo and behold, there were three burned out lights in the Neiman-Marcus sign. Unless one wants to go to Barney's, Prada, and the high end shops on Oak Street, there is nothing in the world that represents high end conspicuous consumption more than Neiman-Marcus, better known in some circles as "Needless Markup." Yet this high end bastion of plenty for the wealthy does not replace the burned out bulbs in its big honking neon sign? Are they suffering so? What will the ladies in furs and gentlemen in their Italian designer suits think when they discover their favorite store full of overpriced crap has fallen on such hard times? Will they now find it to be declasse? Where will they go to use their AMEX black cards?

Further, if big companies such as this are suffering and cutting corners on the eve of the busiest selling season of the year, what can we expect from others? Or is it the case that the wealthy are having to cut back as well. Can we expect to see former Neiman-Marcus shoppers in J.C. Penney's? Will they surreptitiously make trips to Target, or even K-Mart? Will the lure of a "Blue Light Special" reach all the way into the stratosphere of finance?

What next? Will Mercedes-Benz dealerships be reduced to offering 0% financing and free oil changes? Will Chase, Citibank, and Bank of America find themselves offering free toasters to bring in customers? (Well maybe espresso machines in many neighborhoods.) Will fleece become the new fur? Will Armani be reduced to designing more comfortable gym shoes?

This is a brave new world boys and girls. The multi-billionaires are at risk of becoming only billionaires. the People accustomed to making 7 figures in a year may be reduced to 6 figure salaries. Oh my God, the horror! And true to the principles of trickle down economics, the 6 figure guys may lose their jobs and be reduced to searching for jobs that only pay $80-90K/year. The middle managers may be your next barrista at Starbucks.

We have come full circle now, boys and girls. Those on the lower end of the economic spectrum are in full-blown unemployment mode. Those who find jobs often find that the best they can do are low-paying service sector jobs that are part-time. They represent the underemployed who do not find their way on to the list of fully unemployed. Then there are those who have been looking for work for so long that they have given up altogether, another group that typically does not show up on counts of unemployed. These are in addition to the 10.2% of officially unemployed.

Got a good idea about how to create some jobs? Write your Congressman. Call your President. Invest some cash if you have it, in a startup. There are not enough temporary jobs at Christmas, stocking shelves and running cash registers, to employ everybody that needs a job in this country. They don't pay enough to meet most people's needs, and these jobs only last until January anyway. We are in serious need of long-term solutions. Otherwise a lot of people better start planning to emigrate to one of those third world nations where all of our jobs were outsourced. I don't think China wants us. They have enough people of their own, and a lot of Chinese people are poverty-stricken and in need of serious employment.

For myself, I'm wondering if there is money to be made in low-cost neon sign replacement. That might go a long way toward supplementing my teacher's retirement when I finally have enough years in the system to retire, sometime around age 75. Then I won't be dependent on the possibility of national healthcare. Medicare is already there for people who are older than dirt. Remember Bill Clinton? You know, the guy who had sex with bimbos in the White House? Well, for all of his foibles, he once said something very wise, as regards this current situation, "It's the economy stupid."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Where Has All the Middle Class Gone?

This morning I read in the Chicago Sun-Times that "the share of male workers with good jobs, defined as those with health care, retirement benefits, and wages that add up to at least 60 percent of the median household income, dropped from 46.5% in 1979 to 31.3% in 2008." I was shocked and appalled. The median household income in the U.S. was just over $50,000 in 2007. This means that less than 1/3 of all employed men in the U.S. make at least $30,000/year and have health care benefits and a retirement program.

Let me expand on that thought. If a man is making less than $30,000/year, and he does not have health care benefits or a retirement plan, it is very unlikely that he will A) be able to afford health care on his own, or B) be able to afford to put money into an IRA or other retirement plan after bills. Suffice it to say that most of those men who are married have spouses who also work. In all likelihood they still do not meet the median income measure at $50,000, have a formal health care plan for their family, or have a voluntary retirement plan beyond Social Security. This is the documented case for over 2/3 of American men.

Where has the middle class gone? Well let's look at some facts. The approximate percentage of American men with at least a B.A. degree is 30%. What we are talking about here is the fact that the percentage of men with "good jobs" is just about equal to the percentage of men with college degrees. That is to say that "good jobs" to be had without a college degree are practically non-existent. The age of the man with a high school diploma and a factory job that paid a middle class wage are gone. The middle class is shrinking. More families are struggling. We are in danger of becoming like those third world nations where a few wealthy people live a good life, but huge numbers of people live in dangerous poverty in slums. (See Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, or Colombia.)

Part of the problem is that the profit impulse has sent large numbers of those factory jobs overseas where companies can get the job done for a lot less money. Part of the problem is that we do not value simple labor and pay for it in a reasonable fashion. Part of the problem is that we do not value education enough in American to invest in it in a way that gives appropriate skills to all. Part of the problem is that the portion of the population with a good life is just plain greedy and they will not invest their windfall, via taxation, philanthropy, or other such to see to it that the population on the lower end of the spectrum is taken care of. (Kind of a "I got mine. Get your own, kind of mentality.)

Truthfully, 90% of the income in this country is in the hands of 10% of the people, and 8% are middle class people like myself. 2% are disgustingly wealthy beyond belief and actually hold the majority of that 90% of the income. And all of this that I am talking about has not even factored in things like race and ethnicity. All of the above is more or less true for white people. Can you imagine how skewed the income and good life statistics are for African-Americans or Mexican-Americans?

I'm not sure what the answer is to this problem. I do know that A) we have to develop some jobs that pay a reasonable wage, with benefits for those without a college degree B) those who do not go to college need to get some training beyond high school C) we need to redevelop industries at home instead of shipping them all overseas (We cannot support a nation that is based on the service sector.) D) the leadership of our nation in Washington D.C. and various state capitals needs to put together a brain trust to address this problem. Mr. Obama, you said, "Yes we can." Now let's see those words put into action. Nothing less than the American way of life is at risk.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Eye For An Eye And A Life For A Life

On November 10, 2009 John Allen Muhammad, the so-called D.C. sniper, was executed by lethal injection. He maintained his innocence of all murder charges to the very end. I don't believe him, but I don't believe he should have been put to death at the hands of the state either. A life in prison is good enough. As long as he was off the streets and posed no danger to the public at large, that was certainly good enough. I grieve for the victims and their families, as I grieve for anyone who dies prematurely. Life is short, and it is precious.

I am not a religious man and that makes life all the more precious to me. I do not believe that there is a life beyond that physical time on Earth. To take that life away from someone is an unspeakable crime, whether the taker of the life is an individual involved in crimes against his fellow man or the state, seeking retribution and punishment. For those of you out there with a religious bent to your life, the Book of Exodus tells us that God gave Moses the basic laws engraved in stone. There were 10 of the commandments God told us all to live by, and one of those laws was, "Thou shalt not kill." This commandment did not say, "Thou shalt not kill, unless you are the state punishing a horrible criminal who is guilty of unspeakable acts." It said only, "Thou shalt not kill." I believe this implied universality.

Further, my studies in religion show that all three of the major monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, accept the Genesis and Exodus stories. It's part of all three faiths. Not one of these religions says it's OK to kill another human being. Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah. Doesn't matter what you call him (or her or it), God says no to killing. As for the other major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, I don't believe either of them condone killing, certainly not Buddhism. So let's get this straight, here and now, there is not a major religion in the world that says killing is OK, not for any reason. (So how come so many so-called religious people are out there punishing the infidels by killing them? An argument for another day boys and girls. Today we are talking about capital punishment, an instrument of the state.)

I have compiled a list of the nations that practice capital punishment, and as it turns out most of the advanced nations, those that are industrialized, have the highest standard of living, and have the highest levels of educational achievement, have outlawed capital punishment as a barbaric practice. Capital punishment is overwhelmingly practiced in poor and authoritarian countries, and if I might add, in conservative Islamic nations. Yet there are three nations that are in the advanced, industrialized nation category that still practice capital punishment. Those nations are China, Japan, and the United States of America.

Truthfully, China falls into a category of nations practicing capital punishment that have repressive communist governments, including North Korea and Vietnam, both on the border of China proper, and similar in culture and methods for keeping the populace under control. All three make the top ten for executions in the year 2008. China, by far, outstrips the rest of the planet. There were fewer than 6000 state sponsored executions on the planet Earth last year, but at least 5000 of those were in China. That is to say that 83% of all executions on the planet Earth were in a country that holds approximately 17% of the people. Even if you support capital punishment, these statistics are really out of whack. What's wrong with this picture?

For the record, the U.S. comes in at number 5 in executions with 37 last year and Japan comes in at number 10 with 15. The rest of the top ten is populated with conservative Islamic nations and Iran and Saudi Arabia lead the way, coming in at numbers 2 and 3 respectively. So why are the U.S. and Japan, the nations with the #1 and #2 economies in the world and with the most advanced technology in the world and with two of the highest standards of living in the world, traveling in this company? Once again, what is wrong with this picture?

There are those who believe that capital punishment is a deterrent to violent crime. Don't think so. I think we all need to face it. Capital punishment in America is about retribution. It is not about deterrence. It falls under the heading of cruel and unusual punishment and in any thinking sense should be outlawed as a violation of the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution. I cannot speak for the Japanese. They have their own issues and I do not profess to be an expert on them. For the rest, what we have is obvious repression for political and religious reasons, plain and simple. For the religious, I have to remind you, "God does not approve of killing." For the political, history has shown that you cannot continue to rule by threats of imprisonment and death forever. The people will rise and change this eventually. I simply want to exclude the U.S., my home country from this "Hall of Shame." I do not believe a nation as great as this one should be traveling in the company of repressive regimes that rule by force.

The Top Ten Hall of Shame for Executions in 2008:

1. China-5000

2. Iran-346

3. Saudi Arabia-102

4. North Korea-63

5. United States of America-37

6. Pakistan-36

7. Iraq-34

8. Vietnam-19

9. Afghanistan-17

10. Japan-15

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Of Wars Both Cold and Hot

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall, an event that marked the end of an era, The Cold War. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, a day that honors soldiers who have served this country in wars both cold and hot, but initially began as Armistice Day, a day remembering the end of "The War to End All Wars." Both events are worth remembering. Both events signal the end of something that cost a great many lives because of political differences in the world.

The Cold War was, in many ways, one of the most brutal, protracted military engagements between two nations in the history of the world. While the two main combatants, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., never really went to war with one another, they fought from 1945 until the late 1980's or early 1990's. They fought through proxies in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. They fought through spy games around the globe. They supplied arms and monetary support to 3rd world nations around the globe. People suffered, people died for nearly 50 years because of the argument over capitalism vs. communism. If you hadn't heard, the capitalists won. The communists oppressed their people, and imprisoned and killed the dissenters. The capitalists merely stole from theirs, and kept a great many in poverty, but that's another story.

It is incredible to me still, that the great conflict known as the Cold War came to a screeching halt not in a hail of bullets, not in a nuclear holocaust, but without a shot being fired, as the communists gave up and the people celebrated on the symbol of the East-West Divide, the Berlin Wall. Communist governments one after another simply ceased to exist without civil strife. New governments were built. The iron curtain was put away, and East and West Germans became, just Germans. Soviet Communists became Russians once again. As the old order crumbled, nations that hadn't seen self-determination in decades and decades once again became sovereign.

The armistice at the end of World War I, however, ended only after the first "Total War" in human history. Millions of soldiers died of trench warfare, poison gas, machine guns, bombs, and ugly disease. Millions of civilians died of starvation, disease, and unrestricted submarine warfare. It came as the result of global competition for colonies, wealth, domination, and empire. At the end, Woodrow Wilson had a vision for the future, a future without war, and where nations had the right to determine their own fates.

Armistice Day was set out to remember the end of that great tragedy that was World War I, in the belief that we could avoid further conflicts, in the belief that technology had reached a point where war was unthinkable. Sadly, the end of World War I sowed the seeds of World War II and even more people died in more unthinkable ways. World War II sowed the seeds of the Cold War. Now we find ourselves remembering all veterans, not just those who fought the war that was supposed to end all wars.

In our ignorance and humanity we have not found a way to end wars. They go on and on. There is always another big one. Now the war de jour is the war between radical Islam and the Western world that they believe threatens their way of life. There are yet more casualties every day. One day, we will have a day commemorating the end of the Crusades, Part II. Until then we have Veterans Day to remember all soldiers, from all conflicts. Take a moment and remember that The Cold War ended when a whole group of people simply tired of the whole thing and realized the stupidity of the conflict. They simply stopped.

Now if the radical Islamists could be made to see the futility, the stupidity of their condemnation of everyone not just like themselves. If they could be made to see the economic sense of ending war, the benefits to be reaped from a peaceful interaction with the rest of the world, regardless of culture, belief, or way of life. If our own government could be made to see that we cannot possibly pound everyone who disagrees with us into submission. Trying to do so simply costs needless lives on both sides. Until then, we have Veterans Day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reunions, Good and Bad

Reconnecting with old friends is an odd experience when you haven't seen them or spoken with them in twenty or thirty years. Last year I went to a forty year high school class reunion. Yes, I did graduate from high school in 1968, and consequently from college in 1972. I was a part of the hippie anti-war lefty movement. We all had a great deal of hair in those days, and most of it was on our heads, not coming out of our ears or sprouting on our backs.

At that point I had never been to a class reunion and for some reason the fortieth intrigued me. I agreed to go. Babs and I packed our bags, hopped in the Mini, and off we drove to Jacksonville, Arkansas, "Home of the Red Devils." First of all, I was a little put off by the fact that the only class reunion I'd ever attended was being held in a VFW Hall. Forget any political ramifications from the fact that I'd been an anti-war protester during Vietnam. It was just a little seedy. That's all. Concrete floors and drinks from plastic cups. I've come to expect a little more.

Then when I began interacting with all of those people I once knew forty years ago, I couldn't believe how many fat old people were impersonating people I went to high school with. Babs and I looked positively young and chic in contrast. Of course there were one or two notable exceptions to the fat and frumpy run of old classmates. These were the women who had somehow failed to age like the rest of the crowd, and in some cases looked a great deal better than they ever did when younger. I believe we are talking about the cosmetic surgery crowd here. The very best faces, boobs, and butts that money can buy.

Then the really disappointing thing was that most of these people were just plain-assed boring. All they seemed to be able to talk about was their kids and grandkids. I couldn't give a good two cents about all of those people's kids and grandkids. Never met them. I wanted to talk about what people had been doing with themselves for the last forty years and apparently the only thing they'd been doing was reproducing and seeing to it that their offspring reproduced, not a lot more. Didn't anyone go around the world? Didn't anyone see cool stuff? Didn't anyone do cool stuff? Apparently not. Babs and I left early.

This past weekend an old friend from the late 70's showed up in Chicago. He and I once did live improv shows together in bars in a group known as The Traveling Medicine Show. He also contacted another friend from the Traveling Medicine Show who it turns out had been living in Chicago all along and while I knew he was here, I didn't know where. Turns out his name is very common in the Chicago telephone book and I really didn't feel up for calling every one of them and asking if each and every one of them was the one who once was in an improv group called the Traveling Medicine Show. The three of us got together. Old friends. Old drinking buddies. Old artistic mates.

When Dan and Chris and I were in our twenties, we were actors. We were all young, thin, artistically inclined and could charm the pants off a crowd or an unsuspecting young lady. Thirty years later, we're all in our fifties. Everyone has put on weight. One still has all his hair and it hasn't really turned gray. One of us has hair on the front of his head,but a huge bald spot on the back of his head, and the whole shebang has turned gray. One of us has virtually no hair on top of his head at all. Can any of us still turn the head of an unsuspecting young lady? Only if the young lady is a waitperson anticipating a big tip for flirting with the geezers and giving them good service. I personally suspect that when young women smile at me it's because I remind them of their father.

Man we had some stories to tell. We were all once actors. One of us still does some acting occasionally, when he can find the time away from the demands of family and making a living. The impulses are still there, though and when you put us all together everyone is on, competing for attention, for conversational time, for ego strokes. Put too many actors in a room together without a script or a director and it can get anarchic and ugly at times. This wasn't really ugly though. I got to see people who were actual friends, not people I accidentally knew because we were from the same hometown. We had things to tell one another, about cool stuff we'd done and seen and experienced. Okay, one of us did bring pictures of his two daughters and bragged about them, but it wasn't the only thing he had to talk about. There were divorces and new relationships and trips to Europe and parts unknown. There were shows we'd done and people we'd met and a million stories to tell and a sense of wonder that somehow we'd all managed to survive all the stupid crap we did when we were younger.

I guess the moral of this story is that "You can never go home again, literally, or figuratively." And not all reunions are created equal. There are people with whom you have never reunited for a long time because you really had nothing in common at all. And there are those with whom you have never reunited because you were all just very busy living life to its fullest. For a good reunion, I'll take the latter anytime.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Of Oversize Classes and the Company Line

I was sitting in a meeting with the Principal of my school yesterday, and today as well, and I found myself thinking about something I read in the Chicago Sun-Times last week. It seems a recent study by psychologists in California found that bosses who feel incompetent are more likely to bully subordinates. The study says, "If people feel incompetent and they happen to be in a high-powered position, that's when the aggression kicks in."

I cannot possibly say that this is the case with my current Principal or others I have worked with in the past, but I do know that as a teacher who has actively worked with the teacher's union regarding possible violations of the union contract I have regularly been subjected to bullying, browbeating, and endless lectures (as if I were some ignorant willful child) that make my eyes just glaze over and my ears tune out until the tirade is over.

One of the most consistent sources of friction between teachers and Principals is the size of classes. It is no secret that when you have too many kids in a classroom it becomes difficult to teach any of them. Teachers spend far too much of their time in a too large classroom dealing with discipline issues rather than doing any real teaching. There is a point of diminishing returns as the classes get larger. Smaller class sizes yield better results. Research supports this. Money concerns cause reasonable people to deny this.

It is no secret that public schools are dependent on public funding sources and the amounts available to pay for those schools and their staff are always in short supply (unless you are one of the lucky ones in a wealthy suburb or in one of the elite urban schools where the best and brightest are admitted to prepare them for a university education). It becomes inevitable, then, that the pressure to cut costs comes from on high to the middle managers, and in this case that means school principals. They are under pressure to employ the fewest number of teachers possible to educate the largest number of students possible, and in the process to preach the company line. This usually involves the above mentioned bullying of the union delegate in the school and any other teachers who dare question the wisdom or legality of decisions made regarding numbers of students in the classroom.

Over the years I have been told by school administrators that "A good teacher can control a classroom and get good results with 40 students in a room." Really? In what universe? The common argument in Chicago, vis-a-vis the union contract is "Although the contract says no more than 28 students in a classroom, 28 students times 5 classes daily is 140 students. As long as the teacher has no more than that 140 students they can have 35 students in one class while having 23 in another class. The realities of programming students sometimes dictates compromises on this issue." This argument comes from administrators who spend zero time in a classroom with 35 kids, trying to teach something.

What has happened is that the teachers and administration have become an adversarial pair, not unlike two competing political parties, and they constantly jockey for position. What gets lost in the process is what's good for the students. A teacher may actually need to spend some extra hours from time to time without worrying about whether they are getting paid for every minute. An administrator needs to acknowledge that stuffing as many kids as possible in a classroom is unconscionable. It does not meet the needs of the students. It makes the already difficult job of teaching children even more difficult.

There is much ado about failing schools and bad teachers. "No Child Left Behind" gives lip service to addressing the needs of those schools and their students while doing absolutely zero about realistically addressing those needs. Until policy makers are willing to admit that children in public schools have needs that will require hiring enough teachers to do the job, we will continue to have children graduating from high school who do not have minimum basic skills to compete in a 21st century economy. Until policy makers admit that money must be committed to this purpose, the middle level administrators and teachers they supervise will continue to be played off against one another and the losers will continue to be the students who go to these schools.

What our public schools often need is a few more caring individuals to work with the kids in smaller classrooms. What our public schools do not need is another MBA to run the system with an eye toward slashing budgets and making the schools operate more efficiently, as though the schools were another corporate entity. At the public schools of America our product is the future of our nation. I think that is a product worth investing in.