Tuesday, March 29, 2011


This is not going to become one of those sappy homages to baseball at the dawn of a new season.  This will not be one of my annual love notes to the baseball gods, romanticizing the absence of a clock in the game, and waxing poetic about how it is the lone major sport in which the people do the scoring instead of the ball.  We all know these things to be true.  While I could write about the fresh scent of the infield before Game Number One, or the eternal life-affirming optimism that comes with all teams being tied for first place for a day, I will pass.

This will be even better than that.

My son begins his first season of organized baseball on this unseasonably chilly, late March evening.  His uniform is clean, his glove oiled, his cleats muddied with pre-season infield dirt, and his attitude unblemished by previous errors, strike outs, or base running blunders.  His slate is clean.  At age 12, this is his inaugural campaign, and I could not be more proud of him, or scared to death for him.

I am proud because this was his idea.  He wants to play a sport that I am passionate about, but I have never steered him towards playing.  It was his decision to take this challenge.  I admire that. 
I am even more proud that he is facing this baseball season without fear, at least not obvious fear.  He is behind some of his teammates in game experience by 5 or 6 years, yet he is attacking each play, listening intently to his coaches, asking me for tips, and consistently wanting to try one more at bat, one more grounder, and one more pop fly.  What he lacks in instinct and grace he makes up for with joy and tenacity.  When that ball rolls past him to the fence, no one runs harder for it, or bounces right back more quickly for the next bad hop that is sure to come his way.  He has no emotional scars from the “sun getting in his eyes” on a fly ball, and this is good.

I am slightly jealous of this time in his life.  Baseball revealed its’ cruel side to me as a child.  I learned early on that getting hit by the pitch was as good as a hit, and while I was happy to finally be on first base, the lingering fear of the inside fastball meeting bone ruined my otherwise promising career.  Other factors might have contributed to my failure at baseball.  Is this the part where I blame my father?  I loved the game and understood the game intellectually, but I just couldn’t do it very well physically.  I opted to read the daily big league box scores, attach low value baseball cards to the spokes of my bicycle tires, and argue with Yankee fans about how Oscar Gamble would never lead them to a championship, and how Jerry Grote was a better all-around catcher than Johnny Bench.  Ignorance is strength as a kid.

Those days of innocence are gone (some would argue that my days of ignorance are still with me), and I don’t miss them.  At least I thought that I didn’t miss them, until I watched my son living through his own days of innocence.  Playing baseball without memories of ever having made a mistake in a game situation is something I can no longer remember.  It looks pretty fun, though.

My son begins his journey into the world of Little League baseball with a team record of 0-0.  He is on a first place team, or at least tied for first, and has the same perfect batting average and flawless fielding percentage as every other kid out there.  Just for today.  If I could just freeze this moment in time…

Play ball.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Duffer's Lament

I heard a radio commercial this weekend for The Masters, golf’s annual showcase event.  Underneath the hushed voice of the announcer, you can hear the tickle of the ivories playing a soothing, classical melody.  “The rich tradition (translation: discriminatory history) of Augusta National.”  And the azaleas…ah the azaleas.

While listening to the promotional message, I couldn’t help thinking that this was atypical of most sporting event commercials.  Where were the adjectives and adverbs of violence and impact, the background roar of the crowd, the anticipation of a high stakes showdown between hated rivals?  What about ticket availability?  Instead, it had all the drama of a Shakespeare in the Park summer festival announcement.  I don’t know why this surprised me.  I have always questioned golf’s standing as a sport anyway.

Golf fans, prepare to be offended:   

Reasons Golf is Not a Sport

1.         You can only touch the ball once it stops moving.

The artistry of sports is that the players are trying to interact while other players move AND the ball moves.  In golf, you walk up to the ball, look at the ball, sometimes pick it up and blow on the ball, then stare at the ball some more.  Yes, it can be tough to hit, but let’s face it.  It’s a stationary object.  Try hitting a round ball at 90 mph with a round bat squarely.  Now we’re talking sports.

2.         How you dress is equally as important as how you play.

Fashion conscious players may bring in valuable merchandising dollars for the PGA and USGA, but when the drape of the man’s gabardine becomes a storyline, your in the world of modeling, not sports.

3.         Its’ signature event each year is defined by a flowering bush.

The azaleas, I will grant you, are very picturesque.  They could easily grace the cover of Home and Garden or become the subject of a complex 750 piece jigsaw puzzle.  A real sporting event is defined by the point during which beer sales are cut off – end of the 7th inning?  Start of the 4th quarter?  3rd set?  Flowers are nice, but I’d like to see golfers play the ball off a wall of ivy before I respect them.

4.         The crowd never does the wave.

In fact, there is no face painting either, now that I think about it.  What kind of legitimate sport encourages the ‘shushing’ of fanes at its major championship?  Some of my earliest memories are of my dad watching golf on Sunday afternoons – so that he could fall asleep in his Lazy Boy 1.0 (before the side lever and the built in cup holder innovations).  If it is used to induce sleep, I am pretty sure it’s not a sport – it’s a sedative.

5.         You win by scoring the lowest.

This is America.  More is always better.  Higher scores should equal victory.  In golf, a higher score equals less money and an early trip home for the weekend.  This reminds me of that middle school game of you can hit you the softest.  You go first.

6.         “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey” is never played on the 18th green.

Yes, Tiger Woods has added a level of pre-match trashing talking to the competition that had not previously existed.  Face to face taunting, however, is still noticeably absent.  You should be allowed to get inside your opponent’s head with some well crafted profane insults during a game.
7.         You can smoke while playing.

Baseball player have smoked in the clubhouse in between innings, and some NBA players are probably stoned during summer league games.  You won’t catch Ryan Zimmerman puffing away at third base in between pitches though, or Blake Griffin doing bong hits at half court.  I think it is a simple line to be drawn.  As soon as John Daly starts hitting his Marlboro red pack during a stroll down the 16th fairway, we have left the concept of ‘sport’ behind.  It’s leisure time, even though he’s sweating profusely.

8.         It is cheaper to go to watch a round of golf than to play one.

18 holes with a cart could run anywhere from $80 to $150 per – on a cheap course.  Pebble Beach runs about $500 a round.  A pick-up basketball game is free on a public blacktop.  Soccer requires a ball and some grass.  Football requires a ball and pants that you don’t mind getting dirty.  My point is that real sports should be accessible.  Golf has priced itself out of the accessible market.

9.         Someone else carries your equipment during the competition.

Shouldn’t part of the physical challenge be doing all that walking while lugging your own 50 pound bag of clubs and accessories?  Better yet add a clock and give points for finishing fastest.  At least then you are closer to being a real sport.  Tell me that tuning in to see Vijay Singh running with a full bag on the back nine one Sunday isn’t must watch TV.

10.       You can’t play it in a domed stadium.

I think that’s self-explanatory. 

Golf is a competition, like darts or bowling or poker.  Golf is lots of fun, and it requires hand eye coordination and endurance.  No argument there.  But a sport?  You’re reaching.  I will go out on a limb and call it an activity.

Next up: Why making a series of left hand turns at high speed for 4 hours is not a sport either.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pressure Gauge

My kids received excellent reports card this month, but I will not be shopping for a new bumper sticker to proclaim my pride in their achievement.  It’s my kid’s accomplishment, not mine.  I believe that these well-intentioned displays of praise and pride become more of praise and pride for the parent’s, not the child’s, success in raising them.  Where I live, however, my attitude about not trumpeting my kid’s achievements on a rolling billboard seems to be the exception.  Let the pressure of expectations begin right here on the rear bumper, and hope the kid doesn’t get run over. 

I should not be surprised by this.  We parents have been fed a steady diet of information that defines our main parental function as a Manual Ego Inflation (ME!) device.  If we aren’t praising their every little movement, we are crushing their chances of going to a good college.  “What a handsome little BM, Johnny.  So solid and well shaped.  You must have worked very hard on that!”  Poor Johnny may be proud of what he made, but now the pressure is really on to produce something bigger and better the next time he sits.  Some things are better off coming naturally.  Undue pressure can cause unintended consequences. 

Little Einstein videos cater not to the child’s brain centers, but to the parent’s.  Baby Mozart CDs stimulate activity in parents, not our children – and I think the activity is spending more money.  Flash cards help parents learn how to create unrealistic expectations of our child, not for the child to learn word recognition…at age 2.  Yet, our neighbors have this stuff strewn across their family rooms, so we didn’t want little Johnny to be left behind.  Group think in the parenting world is a very powerful force.

It has only gotten more intense as the kids have grown up.  In our house, we are now entering the pre-college phase, where every class, every extra-curricular activity, every volunteer effort will be used as a measuring stick for admission into college and a lifetime of student debt.  The pressure of understanding the college admission requirements is mounting, and the pressure to make the correct life-altering decisions for our child today is immense and growing.  Is it possible that if our little one doesn’t have enough school club leadership positions on her college application that she is doomed to a life of cashiering at the local membership warehouse?  I would like to think that she might still survive without a Ph.D, or a diploma from UVA, but if I listen to the chatter, I am not so sure.

My feeling has always been that after the Ivy League schools and a small handful of other prestigious institutions (MIT, Stanford), what matters is the degree, not the name of the school.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with high expectations and coping with pressure, particularly since children often rise to the occasion in ways that can surprise us.  There is, however, something inherently wrong with not accepting our child for who they are – a unique person with different skills, different interests, different learning abilities, different tastes, different motivations.  In short, my child is not the same as the kid next door.  The challenge for our educational system is to teach our children in a standardized fashion in an increasingly personalized and customized world.   

Learning is hard to measure, but it is certainly more than test scores and Certificates of Participation.  Traditional ‘carrot and stick’ methods of motivation for teachers and students may result in slightly better test scores (although the research is inconclusive on that point), but it does not make for better students interested in lifelong learning.  And given the pace of information these days, don’t we need lifelong learners?  A daughter who pulls As and Bs in honors classes who also has a countdown sheet for the days left of high school is not preparing for lifelong learning.  She is preparing for the end of learning, and as we all know, learning can never end if we hope to be competitive as a nation into the future.  Yes, we need more math and science experts, but we need artists and entrepreneurs and social workers, too.

I recently attended a presentation of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, sponsored by my local high school.  Cherie had seen the movie, and found it provocative.  She insisted that I attend a showing so we could discuss how its message might affect how we are parenting our kids through these high school years.

The movie discusses the enormous pressures that are heaped on our adolescents to achieve for the sake of achievement, to learn facts instead of concepts, to learn how to game the system instead of thrive within it, to learn to memorize today instead of memorizing ways to learn for tomorrow.

Can there be viable, alternative ways to teach and learn in the 21st century?  We decry our children’s obsession with video games and ignore the potential opportunity.  The games teach strategy.  The games teach incremental improvement, monitored on a dashboard that provides instant feedback on performance.  The games teach teamwork.  Consequences of wrong choices are immediate.  Kids continue to play, even when they lose, and in many cases, it only gets them to try harder the next time.  Wouldn’t it be great if all this described our academic environment?

My son Thomas and I were out bike riding last summer, just exploring parts of the outer limits of our neighborhood when he remarked, “It’s fun getting lost when you know where you are.”  This struck me as downright Suessian in its simplicity and truth, and it had a larger message for me, like most Dr. Suess quotes.  Kids learn best when they explore on their own, and what they require from us is just a safe home base as an anchor.  We don’t need to guide and lead, as much as we need to invite and support.

With all this in mind, and confident that at least my kid’s school understands the crazy pressures to excel at all costs, I get this email:

It’s Never Too Early to Think About College!
Program for Parents of Students in 7th, 8th and 9th Grade Monday, February 28 at 7:00pm in the Auditorium.

·         Have you heard about the increasingly competitive college application process and want to know how to help your child prepare and make good decisions? 
·         Are you worried that you are not helping your child enough to prepare for college?
·         Are you worried that you might be pushing your child too much?
·         Does your student have an academic plan for high school?

The message was clear.  Regardless of what might be best for your child, this is the era in which we live.  Get on board, or risk being run over by the honors student next door.  Beep beep.

Editor's Note:  I read in The Week that a NYC woman is suing her pre-school for "hurting the child's chances of making it into the Ivy League."  She complains that her daughter's $19,000 per year school places undue emphasis on "shapes and colors." 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Why My Brackets Suck

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons that history has to teach.” – Aldous Huxley, quoted in The Wall Street Journal

Every year, I submit myself to the torture that is March Madness.  I am not a gambler by nature, but I make an exception for the tournament.   I have a competitive streak, but that streak does not encourage me to throw away my money away in a game of chance.   Bracketology, however, is the exception that proves the rule.  I always do the brackets.  Some years, I study the teams, and make informed choices.  Some years, like this year, I study nothing and make uninformed choices.  The outcome for me rarely changes, though.  As I have often said, it is better to be lucky than good. 

My preparation for filling out my 2011 bracket was more casual than normal.  I probably saw the fewest games leading up to the tourney than I ever had before, but I do listen to sports talks radio to and from work, 20 minutes each way.  I hear the sports geniuses impart their wisdom on teams all season.  I figured that gave me as good a chance as any other year.  Besides, I was still riding high my 2nd place finish in 2010 in a vendor sponsored bracket challenge.  I won a $200 spa treatment (can you say “Happy Mother’s Day?”), so I was filled with unfounded hubris.  Given my recent history of successful prognostication, I was ready for my One Shining Moment in 2011.  Winning.

One weekend is now in the book, and this year, I suck.  As a community service for everyone picking teams next year, here is a tutorial on how NOT to pick:

East Region
Sweet Sixteen picks still alive:  Ohio St., North Carolina

I was feeling pretty good about myself after the first 2 days.  I picked 7 of 8 in the first round.  My only choke was Xavier.  I can’t be blamed for that one.  Marquette came out of nowhere.  FAIL.  I can’t be too proud however; I am left with the Number 1 and Number 2 seeds in the region.  Hardly went out on a limb with those picks.

I assumed that since Kentucky put last year’s team into the NBA that this would be a down year.  I had the scrappy sons of the coal miners of West Virginia over UK.  FAIL.  I hate Jim Boeheim at Syracuse for no good reason.  He burns me every March.  If I pick them to lose, they win, and vice versa.  This year, I thought I’d fool everyone, and I had Syracuse in the Final Four.  This was a team ready to explode.  That must have been the Kiss of Death for the Orangemen.  They blew up, alright.  FAIL.   

West Region
Sweet Sixteen picks still alive:  Duke, Arizona, San Diego St.

This is my best region, and it gives me hope for next year.  Like the East, I had 7 of 8 after the first round, but I have 3 of 4 teams still playing at this point.  I am sure that many of you would trade places with me in the West.  My failure in this region is all about Missouri.  I always pick Missouri.  I have no idea what the team looks like this year, but whenever I picture the Missouri squad, I picture big, strong, tall, athletic, intimidating players.  Actually, what I picture are the members of the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity (the Tri-Lambs) from The Revenge of the Nerds, coming out of the tunnel to defend their court.  How could a team like that lose?  Easy – I picked them.  FAIL.  I am proud of my Arizona prediction.  They always play well in March, thanks to the steady hand of Lute Olsen.  What? He doesn’t coach there anymore?  No problem.  I have AZ going down to San Diego State anyway.

Southwest Region
Sweet Sixteen picks still alive:  Kansas

I nailed 5 of 8 in the opening round, a very underwhelming result, especially when the 1 vs. 16 and 2 vs. 15 match ups are freebies.  I had epic failures across the board otherwise.  I favor good career tournament coaches over no names, so I went for Louisville.  Never bet against Pitino in the early rounds.  FAIL.  I had VCU over Georgetowne, but as a local radio listener, I knew VCU was impressive and G-Towne had nothing this year.  Some G-Towne guy was injured (like my in depth analysis?).  I was certain that those big corn fed boys from Perdue would manhandle VCU.  FAIL.  Since the Texas A&M football team would beat the Florida State football team, I assume that would translate into the gym.  FAIL.  Notre Dame was supposed to be a Number 1 seed a few days ago, so no way they lose before the Round of 16.  I should have known.  Last time they were any good, Digger was their coach, and Bill Walton played for UCLA.  FAIL.  I did have the Spiders of Richmond winning against Vandy, but I thought that would be the end of their Cinderella story.  I always remember Richmond as a 15 seed beating ‘Cuse a hundred years ago, and I assume that the magic would carry over, but not too long.  FAIL.

Southeast Region
Sweet Sixteen picks still alive:  Florida

Didn’t there used to be a Midwest region?

Not much to brag about here.  I picked a paltry 5 of 8 in the first round again.  I had St. John’s in the Final Four, mostly because they were the only team I saw play twice all year, apparently during their hot streak in January.  I guess things changed since then.  Where have you gone, Lou Carnesecca?  I learned that Malik Sealy isn’t on the team anymore.  FAIL.  I had Pitt in the Final 8, but I am sure many did, too.  Sidney Crosby plays in Pittsburgh, and out of deference to my son, I couldn’t pick any Pittsburgh based team to do too well.  FAIL.

How could BYU possibly advance to the Sweet Sixteen after losing their star player to a season ending suspension?  I did not factor in that a team of virgins plays with greater energy and pent up intensity than a team of non-virgins.  FAIL.  I also thought that Belmont used up all their magic dust last year.  I guess some was left over, and K State goes home.  FAIL.  

The one that really irks me is Michigan State.  I have bet against Tom Izzo too many times, and he has killed my bracket many a year.  I never pick him to go as far as he does.  This year, everyone said State had nothing, but I have learned my lesson.  Never bet against Tom Izzo in the tournament.  Even with a 14 loss team, he’ll win the first game against UCLA.  Lock it.  FAIL.       

The optimist in me sees that my final 2 teams are still alive – Duke vs. Kansas.  I went way out on a limb and picked two blue blood programs, both Number One seeds this year.  I can’t be proud of that, even if I am right.  Besides, there are probably 1 million other brackets out there with the exact same final pairing.   Because of my selections this year, the rest of the tournament is unwatchable, but I will keep watching.  Hurts so good.

I stopped off at 7-11 for a Gatorade after my hockey game last night.  The estimated Powerball jackpot is $101 million.  I bought a single ticket, since my luck is due to change for the better (or should I say, it is due to change for the ‘bettor’). 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Employing Logic

According to some who testified last month in front of the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), there is wide spread discrimination in the hiring process against those who are currently unemployed.  This perceived discrimination has a disparate impact on protected groups, such as blacks and the elderly, the EEOC Board was told, and it must be rooted out and eliminated. 
Suffering from “unemployment” can now be categorized as a disability.  Find me a good lawyer.

“Throughout its 45-year history, the EEOC has identified and remedied discrimination in hiring and remains committed to ensuring job applicants are treated fairly,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien said. “Today’s meeting gave the commission an important opportunity to learn about the emerging practice of excluding unemployed persons from applicant pools.”

“Emerging” to describe the trend could be accurate, if you define “emerging” as something that has not yet happened, a mere thought but not yet an action.  Yes, there is no reputable data that this type of discrimination is occurring, and it could be just created out of whole cloth from nothing but angry blog posts and the cocktail party complaints of disgruntled and desperate long term job seekers.  The idea of excluding the unemployed from an applicant pool, however, has certain shock appeal in these times of stubbornly high unemployment rates, and reality should never get in the way of a good story.  If unemployment rates are high because of discrimination, at least we’ll have a legal remedy to look forward to…hmmm… 

Hearings like this one at the EEOC give the unemployed a bad name.  The unemployed in this worldview have a condition to be avoided, like the flu or poison ivy.  In this view, employers believe that unemployment can be avoided, much like one can prevent a cold or other infectious diseases through careful planning and precautions.  Unemployment becomes the modern day scarlet U that labels the job applicant as a failure.  Being unemployed must mean he didn’t try hard enough, or that he wasn’t a team player.  Certainly unemployment is an avoidable condition, completely within the control of the “so-called victim”.  We are a nation that prizes the Protestant work ethic, and loss of work is the ultimate failure of the person.  “He’s not working.”  In our sunny corporate climates of positivity-at-all-costs, a person with a history of failure is persona non grata.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  Unclean!

I don’t know of any systemic discrimination against those currently unemployed (“You can start tomorrow?  Even better!!!”), but I can see how a negative perception could morph into an actual company practice.  Hiring managers get this.  The unemployed in America didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t get along with their co-workers, or worse – no longer had the requisite job skills to survive in the 21st century workplace.  “If only he was more adaptable, his former employer would have kept him, and we need adaptable employees.  NEXT!”  Of course, this is all unspoken, in much the same way that those with bad haircuts have more difficulty finding work.  It isn’t talked about, but nudge nudge, let’s see some more candidates.  Not illegal, but not smart business, either. 
Workers get this message about avoiding the stain of the unemployed label, too, and they internalize the shame of losing a job.  The savvy job seekers know that the word unemployment is too negative, too depressing for the audience of friends, neighbors and potential employers, so the word has evolved into the more tasteful phrase - “in transition”.  In this word version, one is never “unemployed”, which is something that happens TO someone.  One is merely voluntarily passing through a phase towards a better, more satisfying work life.  At least “in transition” is more honest than yesterday’s favorite euphemism for being out of work for a period of time: “I’ve been doing some consulting work to stay busy.”  HR people everywhere nod and wink when someone explains their most recent employment gap with that excuse.  Everyone with $35 for a website domain license is an entrepreneur and small business owner.  Tell an HR person that you’ve been consulting recently, and our knee jerk response will be, “Keep plugging away.  I’m sure you’ll find something soon.”

Even the expression, “losing a job” makes it sound as if it is something you misplaced, like your car keys, and you only need look harder to find it again.  Even the political rhetoric, particularly on the Right, is explicit in its distain for those not working.  These are the folks responsible for the decline of America, thunder the talk radio voices, and their entitlements represent theft from the employed, hard working Americans.  In this environment, if the unemployed feel discriminated against, that is certainly understandable.  They’re being marginalized every day while Wall Street profits (and their image) have recovered.  What a country.
If the unemployed are being excluded from job applicant pools, and I am not sure they are, these could be some of the reasons.

One of the problems with railing against this kind of perceived subtle discrimination is that the more you fight against it, the worse it can become.  In the process of trying to protect an aggrieved class of individuals, you run the risk of painting them as victims, weaklings who need extra support and consideration – exactly the kind of impression you would prefer not to leave with a potential employer, or Right Wing blogger.  It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat before you have even answered the first interview question.
“It’s important to explore every available legal option to prevent this practice from spreading and cause even more damage at a time when workers are already suffering from record rates of joblessness,” stated one of the professionals at the hearing.

Now I get it.  Who can we sue?  When I read this, I do see a case of Far Left overreach.  Hiring always involves discrimination, the selection of one over another (“he has such discriminating tastes” is a compliment, remember) – you just can’t discriminate for illegal reasons.  Last time I looked, race, gender, ethnicity, disability are all protected statuses.  Being unemployed didn’t make the list.  My ability to discriminate between two closely situated applicants makes me especially good at my job.  Unemployment is not a disability.  It may not be fair, but it is not illegal.

Perhaps if we didn’t tolerate the unemployed being demonized as lazy, entitlement seeking slugs, we wouldn’t have this issue at all.  It is worth a shot. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Guitar Hero

“This is my guitar. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My guitar is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my guitar is useless. Without my guitar, I am useless. I must play my guitar true. I will.  Amen.” - Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, senior guitar instructor, Full Metal Jacket.

After a quarter century, I have finally upgraded my guitar. 

My dream of being a guitar player was born in the same way most meaningful childhood dreams are born – from jealousy.  It was Prom Night 1980 on the Jersey shore, and everyone’s dates were gathered around the fire pit to listen to the guy strumming the guitar as the waves gently caressed the sand.  Thanks to that guy’s musical charms, that was the only caressing happening on that beach.  The girls gathered ‘round and were hypnotized by his renditions of Led Zeppelin classics, Steve Forbert ditties and Don McLean ballads.  OK, there's only one Don McLean ballad, but as we all know, that song goes on for hours.   I vowed never again would I let some musician kick metaphorical sand in my face by stealing my date’s attentions.  I would master the guitar, and the girls would swoon.

I got right to work.  An undertaking of this magnitude required deep thinking, however, and about 5 years worth of deep thinking passed quickly in the misty haze of college.  My first lesson happened in approximately 1985, when Terry Coe introduced me to the complex stylings of Pink Floyd and Neil Young.  Learn 4 chords and you can play about 80% of their entire catalog of tunes.

Practice is fairly sporadic when you don’t own a guitar, and I wanted to improve.  I must have dropped some major hints, because that Christmas, 1986 I believe, my brother bought me my first guitar.  It was a Hondo, very similar to a Fender or a Les Paul guitar since those brands also have strings and a neck - standard. The similarities end there, however.  Given my neanderthal talents on the instrument, we were perfectly matched.    It was a beginner’s model, and so was I.  Now I could play Pigs on the Wing (Part I), Horse with No Name, and Heart of Gold all day long, or at least until my fingers hurt.  10 minutes, tops.  I couldn’t sing along, though, since that skill was much like patting your head and rubbing your belly simultaneously, a trick that sounds easier than it is. 
For the first 18 years or so, I couldn’t play any song seamlessly from beginning to end. I knew pieces of about 10 songs, and I would pound these riffs out mercilessly, most famously jamming my interpretation of the ending of Starship Trooper by Yes.  That little sequence really helped build up my fingertip calluses.  It also helped clear the room on occasion.  No matter.  I was having fun.  I had forgotten that the original inspiration for learning guitar was to impress women.  It had morphed into a hobby that I was proud of, but only if no one ever heard me.  It was more fun to tell people that I played the guitar than to actually have to prove that I could play.

I did not treat my first guitar with the proper respect due a vintage Hondo.  I left it in damp basements.  I didn’t buy a case for it until 5 or 6 years ago.  I tuned it reluctantly.  I ignored it for periods of years in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Thankfully, I have recommitted to the art.  I am playing about 5 nights a week for 20 minutes or so.  I could struggle through dozens of songs, most of which a reasonably culturally aware passerby could recognize.  I had no idea until I bought the new guitar, though, how much that old Hondo was holding me back. 
With my new guitar, I know what an A chord is supposed to sound like now.

Sometimes, the equipment does make a difference.  You could have a very good golf swing, but until you hit a ball the first time with a King Cobra driver, you have no idea how good.  Upgrading from the classic wooden hockey stick to a top of the line composite can add speed and movement to your slapshot.  I now have a guitar that proves that I can play actual, recognizable songs from the beginning to the end.  I still have the strumming technique of an ape, but I am a guitar player, at least in the privacy of my basement.

I’m ready to head back to that beach in Jersey and claim my prize.

Hey, where’d everybody go?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Human Sacrifices

It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season when we traditionally give up things for six weeks.  Many still fall back on the ol’ reliable sacrifices, like chocolate, watching TV, or gossiping about others.  I think that a Lenten sacrifice has to be more meaningful.  Choosing the proper sacrifice for the season is an intensely personal matter, but we can always use some suggestions from the public.  Let’s look to our leaders, heroes and role models for examples of what real sacrifice is all about.  What are they giving up for Lent?

·         House Speaker John Boehner:  Jobs.
·         Rep. Michelle Bachmann:  Facts.
·         2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney:  Everything he believed in before 2007.
·         Rep. Paul Ryan:  Math.
·         Obama:  Give up pretending to like Hillary, chucking up 3 pointers all day long, and making crank calls to Biden’s office.
·         Michelle Obama:  Sleeves.
·         Sen. Harry Reid:  Daily P90X routine.
·         Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:  Chicago-style politics.
·         Former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld:  Accountability.
·         WI Governor Scott Walker:  Good faith bargaining.
·         Wisconsin Public Employees:  8% of pay.
·         NPR employees:  Listening to NPR.
·         National media:  Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed.
·         Glenn Beck:  Viewers and sponsors.
·         WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: Blind dates.
·         Fan base of small market major league baseball teams:  Optimism.
·         NFL owners:  Transparency.
·         NFL Players:  16 game schedule.
·         Slugger Albert Pujols:  St. Louis.
·         Former, and soon maybe to be current running back, Tiki Barber:  Sitting at home waiting for phone to ring.
·         Tiger Woods:  Swedish massages.
·         Miami Heat President Pat Riley:  Patience.
·         Justin Bieber:  Locks of hair.
·         Lady Gaga:  Pants.
·         Bruce Springsteen:  Snooki.
·         Future princess Kate Middleton:  Privacy.
·         Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:  Relevance to the 18-45 demographic.
·         American Idol:  Ratings.
·         Biggest Loser Contestants:  Haven’t we done enough already?
·         Miami Heat:  Winning.
·         Charlie Sheen:  Losing.

Good luck with your commitments this spring!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Smells Like Teen Spirit

As first time parents of a 15 year old daughter, we set rules for our daughter with an eye towards safety and security, and hopefully we’re encouraging personal growth along the way.  We’d like her to make smart decisions, but realize that she may not always act in her own best long term interest, or the best interest of others.  In a perfect world, she would be able to self-regulate those impulses to do foolish things for short term gain (speeding, skipping homework, staying up too late), but we know that for her own good, “trust but verify” is a good policy.

As a first time 15 year old, it is hard for our daughter to understand the rationale behind our rules and regulations.  It’s to be expected.  She tries to argue the rules, bend the rules, pretend she didn’t hear the rules, and lash out at the rule makers.  She will often employ advocates – siblings, friends, other adults – to plead her case, or to blatantly trick us into changing the rules.  She likes to accuse us of being “freakishly overprotective”, to which we respond that we are merely being “protective”, and that there is a world of difference between the two concepts.  Of course, to the one being affected by the rules, there is no difference.  Freakishly or not, she says, the rules stifle her personal growth and freedom, and must go.

The impulses of adolescence do not always follow a predictable pattern, and we as parents must remain vigilant to insure that our daughter has an environment that allows her to grow into the productive adult we know she can become, respectful of others while focused our her dreams.

In our financial and energy industries, we as a nation set rules with an eye towards safety and security, and hopefully we’re encouraging business growth along the way.  We would like these industries to make smart decisions, but realize that they may not always act in their own best long term interest, or the best interest of others.  In a perfect world, they would be able to self-regulate those impulses to do foolish things for short term gain (pollute the environment, promote dangerous financial products for short term bonuses, use cheaper materials for infrastructure to cut costs), but we know that for their own good, “trust but verify” is a good policy.

In our financial and energy industries, it is hard for these companies to understand the rationale behind our rules and regulations. It’s to be expected.  They try to argue the rules, bend the rules, pretend they didn’t hear the rules, and lash out at the rule makers.  They will often employ advocates – lobbyists, politicians, commentators – to plead their case, or to blatantly trick us into changing the rules.  They like to accuse us of being “freakishly over-regulatory”, to which we respond that we are merely being “regulatory”, and that there is a world of difference between the two concepts.  Of course, to the one being affected by the rules, there is no difference.  Freakishly or not, they say, the rules stifle their profit growth and freedom, and must go.

The impulses of capitalism do not always follow a predictable pattern, and we as citizens must remain vigilant to insure that our industries have an environment that allow them to grow into the productive businesses we know they can become, respectful of others while focused our their bottom line.

Of course, my daughter will outgrow puberty and all of its hormone-fueled behaviors.  At that seemingly distant point, she will set her own rules and guidelines for self-control, grounded in the lessons and dysfunction that we instilled in her.  The financial and energy industries in this country will never outgrow the sometimes self-destructive urges of take-no-prisoners capitalism, and reasonable regulation will always be required to protect our nation and its citizens – as well as protect the industry from itself. 
Reasonable people can debate the web of regulations that can stifle industry when government oversight runs amok.  Examples of over-regulation clothed in good intentions are everywhere.  Just like parents, we as citizens can be blinded by disappointment and anger when things go wrong or mistakes are made, and we can vote and act out of emotion instead of calm, deliberate reason.  Rules and regulations require constant review to remaining meaningful and effective in changing times, and that’s true for daughters and businesses. 

Reasonable people should also recognize that those who are to be regulated will lash out like teenage girls when confronted with any restrictions on their activities.  It’s human nature, and we should be wary whenever a company cries out reflexively, “It’s not fair!”  We need to tell our financial and energy industries firmly and in a unified voice our motto: “I know you don’t think it’s fair, sweetheart, but if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times - trust but verify.”

Works in my house...as far as I know, anyway.

Monday, March 7, 2011

True Wellness Balances Left and Right

Health care in America is an intensely personal and private matter that has enormous public implications.  As much as we would like to compartmentalize our personal health decisions away from the public impact of those decisions, we cannot.  If we contract the flu and do not seek treatment, we are more likely to infect others.  If we do not participate in a health insurance program and become injured in a car accident, the costs of emergency care are shared by all.  As a national ethos, we value independence and self-reliance; as a society (and humanity as a whole), we are interdependent and affected by the decisions and actions of our neighbors.  It may not always be obvious in the moment, but it is nonetheless true.  Somewhere in the middle of these competing values lie privacy rights, and therein is a philosophical battleground.

With this in mind, I am drawn to a current debate regarding wellness programs.  Wellness programs have gained popularity with employers as a way to encourage positive private health decisions that promote positive outcomes for the entire group.  Most wellness programs allow individuals to voluntarily participate to improve their own health, while the employee’s participation has the added benefit of keeping down potential health care costs for the entire population.  Productivity of workers has been shown to increase in work environments that promote personal wellness.  These programs include among other things weight loss contests, health risk screenings, and exercise classes.  This sounds like a perfect solution that has both an individual and group benefit.  Things get slightly more complicated when we start talking about effective metrics for these programs, and the potential for privacy breaches.

Here’s an example of what is being debated right now.  According to some interest groups, regulatory barriers exist that discourage employers from offering wellness programs.  The main barrier seems to be the rules protecting personal private health information.  Health care advocates and employers need this data to measure results and encourage behaviors that benefits everyone in the select group.   Some labor advocates have accused employers of sponsoring wellness programs to penalize or remove employees from their health plans, and some regulators agree. 
Another example is the collection of family medical history information from employees during employer sponsored wellness screenings.  Medical professionals will tell you that without information on someone’s family medical history and the person’s predisposition for certain conditions, it is more difficult to draw up a proper wellness regimen that fits the individual.  Without family history, you are left with a generic one-size-fits-all approach, hardly the best advice for custom situations.  The GINA law (Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act) bars employers from offering any incentive to employees to divulge this family history.  Is this classic overregulation, or reasonable privacy protection?

Gretchen Young, senior vice president for health policy at The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), a not-for-profit representing large U.S. employers, recently spoke to regulators at a meeting held by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Even if plans do not give their participants a financial incentive to complete a risk assessment, they are still unable to use any family medical history obtained from the risk assessment to guide these individuals into disease management programs, Young explained, noting that “experience has shown that without the encouragement of a health professional, many participants who would benefit from participation in a disease management program will never enroll.”

Source article:  http://www.shrm.org/hrdisciplines/benefits/Articles/Pages/RegulatorsImpede.aspx 

Employers, it can be argued, are trying to help their workforce with wellness programs tailored to individuals.  Regulators, it can be argued, are suspicious of employer’s motives for wanting to be so benevolent, and have a critical role protecting workers.  Can both sides be right?

Unfortunately, even something as universally accepted as personal wellness and overall health awareness has its challenges, and Right and Left have conflicting, and in my opinion, legitimate views on the subject.  This issue isn’t even viewed uniformly within the same political persuasions.

Some on the right would question the corporate intrusion into personal health choices, another example of the ‘nanny state’; others on the Right might reflexively see these regulatory barriers as another government expense driving up health costs, and therefore support elimination of these regulations.

Some on the left will argue that this invasion of privacy will be used to discriminate against high risk individuals in employment decisions (and it is an invasion if those who comply with the medical history requests receive financial benefits that others who are more guarded with their history do not); others on the Left will say that wellness programs like this are the best way to promote a stronger workforce, and these programs represent an employee-employer relationship model worth expanding.

Clearly, it will take some unlikely alliances to move wellness programs into the 21st century.  The answer to this issue may not fit neatly onto a campaign bumper sticker, and each side’s proponents cannot easily be given political labels.  Real life, as it turns out, is much more complicated.

Editor’s Note:  A full posting on wellness, and I haven’t even mentioned the silly attacks on Michelle Obama’s promotion of healthy eating habits.  Who knew telling you to ‘eat your vegetables’ like your mama told you was the 3rd rail of politics.  Bon appetite, and be well! 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The GOP is Right

One of the GOP’s regular talking points resonates with populist power.  “The government should manage its budget just like hard working families manage their household budgets.”  It has common sense appeal, and many of us can relate to having to make difficult trade-offs in life because some want (and sometimes some need) is beyond our ability to pay for it, either now or in the future. 

So I’ll join in the experiment, and imagine our government managing its finances just like my family would, and many of my neighbors do today.  It is not fair to compare government revenue to household revenue, since household revenue is generally fixed by salaries of the parent(s), and government revenue fluctuates based on economic conditions across the country and the globe.  We can focus on spending, however, and that seems to be the focus of today’s debate anyway.  Let’s see…

Our house needs new windows.  The old windows are unsafe for our children because they are heavy and they have a tendency to fall quickly and without notice.  The windows are no longer well sealed, and the drafts of cold wind from the outside are driving up our heating bills.  The cost of the oil to heat our home can fluctuate from month to month, and it is tough on our budgeting to predict the price.  We make the decision to buy the new windows, and finance the cost over a period of years.  While this puts our family into debt in the short term, it does reduce our dependence on the volatility of the oil bill, and better protects our kids from injury.  As an extra benefit, the value of our entire home increases more than the cost of the windows.  This is a good debt to incur.

We value our kid’s education, so we are saving money for college every month.  Since college could cost more than we have saved so far, we are prepared to incur some debt to finance part of their education.  Of course, we are open and honest with the kids that we will contribute towards their future in this manner, but part of the bill will come to them.  As beneficiaries of the great American college education, they will need to shoulder some of the burden, but we believe that a college educated child has a better long term earning potential than one without a college education.  This is a spending decision that will pay off for us as a family.

We need transportation to get to and from work.  We could consider moving into an urban area with public transportation available, but that has its own trade-offs, and it isn’t entirely cost-neutral.  We decide to buy a car, and regularly maintain that car according to manufacturer’s recommendations.  We want the car to last as long as possible.  There are times when paying for the next tune up puts us behind, but we realize that a repair bill would be far more costly.  It doesn't need to be the newest car, but it does need to be efficient.  Paying a little more up front for the most efficient car will pay off down the road. 

We contribute to charitable causes that our friends and family support.  If someone is running a 5K for cancer research or a bike ride for MS, we will allocate some dollars to these worthy efforts.  We know that it is important as contributors to society to be engaged in this manner, and our children need to know that no matter how tight things may be, supporting those in need during their time of need is worth the sacrifice.  We are not one family in isolation, but one family that is dependent on the health of the entire community.  These contributions may need to be reduced, but never completely eliminated.

We save money for our future health care expenses, knowing that it is inevitable that we will someday need health care assistance.  We pay the premiums as insurance protection, and live a lifestyle with smart eating and regular exercise.  We take responsibility for our own health, but realize that the insurance is mandatory.  I try to work for the company with the best health plan, usually the one with the largest pool of participants.

We believe as a family that the future belongs to those who have a creative streak and can synthesize information in new ways.  Rote book learning is a good foundation, but our kids need exposure to the arts to truly succeed and stand out in the 21st century.  Therefore, part of our limited household budget will go towards dance and music classes for the kids.  Some may see this as an extravagance, but we see it as a necessary part of raising a well-rounded generation of active, curious, lifelong learners.

We eat out at restaurants too often.  If we divert that money to grocery shopping and eating at home, the cost per meal is less.  We are not delusional – we recognize that money not spent at a restaurant doesn’t flow directly to our family’s bottom line.  We understand that the real savings is the difference between the restaurant cost and the grocery store cost added to our home infrastructure cost (heat, light, water, cooking utensils, etc.).  Eating at home is cheaper, but not as the full cost of restaurant meal.  We can cut here.

Home defense is an area where we can reduce our costs monthly.    We can buy better locks, and install better lighting around the outside.  An expensive alarm system might make us fell safer, but there are other, less costly ways to provide for our defense.

In short, we as a family understand the difference between good debt and bad debt, and we manage our finances accordingly.  We agree with the GOP that our government should manage finances with the same philosophy as our family.  Not all dollars within our budget are equal. And each cutting and spending decision does not carry equal weight. 

Our family financial future is a marathon, not a sprint.  We go up and down, debt rises and fall based on circumstances.  If we keep our eye firmly fixed on the end of the road, financial freedom, we will get there.  We also recognize that trying to get their by exclusively eliminating all of our spending is counterproductive, and ultimately the wrong course. 

Our family will invest in infrastructure and education, so perhaps our government should do the same.  Thanks for the advice, Republican Party!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Two Cheese Heads

I have tried to remain calm.  I would not call myself an alarmist, and in matters of politics and economics, I prefer to take the long view.  The pendulum swings left then right then left then right again, and the genius of our form of government is that things never sway too far in either direction for too long.  The nation endures, and in fact, prospers.  Things are never as grim as they seem.  What is happening in Wisconsin, however, has me alarmed.

Like many of you out there in Internet Land, I have been following the situation in Madison, WI closely, and I have been dumbfounded by the new Governor’s reckless actions all in service of a transparently political agenda.  I am not sure how else to make sense of the fact that the unions have conceded to the budget’s financial demands of reduced pay and benefits, yet the Governor still insists that they give up their rights to collectively bargain in the future. 
I was even more dumbfounded after the Governor was taped on a prank phone call admitting that he considered planting agitators in amongst the protesters, and that he was preparing to negotiate with the Democratic opposition in bad faith (basically tricking them to return to the state as a trap, with no intention of truly hearing their position).  The episode inspired me to make my own call to the Governor, and as luck would have it, I was connected directly to Scott Walker himself.  Good thing I had my tape recorder handy. 

I think that the pressure of the situation is getting to him.  You can judge for yourself, from the transcript below, if he is becoming increasingly unhinged as the protests rage and public sentiment turns against his proposals:

MSRP:  The Right wing media has compared your battle with public service unions to Reagan’s battle with the air traffic controllers in 1981.  Of course, that comparison is absurd on many levels; the two situations couldn’t be more different, except for the fact that unions are in both stories.  They say that Reagan was tough as nails in that moment of crisis.  What about you?  Are you the new Reagan?

WALKER:  As I think it was nails that said, and I’m really really flattered, cos he got it right. I mean he might be nails, but I’m frikin bayonets, you know. I’m battle tested man. I’m tired, I’m so tired of pretending like my life isn’t perfect and bitchin and just winning every second and I’m not perfect and bitchin and just delivering the goods at every frikin turn, because, look what I’m dealing with man, I’m dealing with fools and trolls, dealing with soft targets and its just, you know its just strafing runs in my underwear before my first cup of coffee because I don’t have time for these clowns. I don’t have time for their judgment and their stupidity and you know they lay down with their ugly wives in front of their ugly children and look at their loser lives and then they look at me and they say “I can’t process it” well no you never will stop trying, just sit back and enjoy the show. You know?  [Copied from: Transcript of Charlie Sheen Meltdown on Alex Jones Radio Show | The Global Herald http://theglobalherald.com/transcript-of-charlie-sheen-meltdown-on-alex-jones-radio-show/12032/#ixzz1FT54KAak]

MSRP:  That’s tough talk about the Democrats in the State Senate, don’t you think, Governor?  Your careless rhetoric is not helping solve problems in your state.  Face it, you’ve won by getting the unions to agree to your financial conditions.  Now it’s all just about politics and pleasing your corporate masters, isn’t it?

WALKER:  Boom, that’s the whole movie, that’s life. That’s life, there’s nobility in that, there’s focus, it’s genuine, it’s crystal and it’s pure and it’s available to everybody. So just shut your traps and put down your McDonald’s, your magazines, your TMZ and the rest of it and focus on something that matters. But you can’t focus on things that matter if all you’ve been is asleep for forty years. Funny how sleep rhymes with sheep. You know. Anyway. We’re getting off topic. We don’t care anymore Alex, we don’t care. Let’s get to the work business because there’s been a lot of speculation, a lot of rumors. Imagine that with the media.  [Copied from: Transcript of Charlie Sheen Meltdown on Alex Jones Radio Show | The Global Herald http://theglobalherald.com/transcript-of-charlie-sheen-meltdown-on-alex-jones-radio-show/12032/#ixzz1FT5GfhoD ]

MSRP:  My name isn’t Alex and I am not a legitimate member of the media, but thanks.  I heard that the Democratic leader in the Senate has been trying to contact you directly to see if there is any common ground that will allow for a resolution of this problem.  Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz was open to a resolution that would temporarily strip workers of the collective-bargaining rights, but then bring them back after 2 years.  This doesn't sound like much of a deal for state employees, but still you announced that this isn’t good enough. You want both the cuts and the union-busting provisions, and will accept nothing less.  Will you take his phone call and agree to listen to reasonable compromise options for the benefit of all Wisconsin residents? 

WALKER:  Yeah I didn’t care about that vanity card. In fact I went right straight home with that one and just dispelled that. And that was actually, you know, one of the few compliments that clown has paid me in freakin almost a decade. But I’m excited to get back to work and not to completely discount what you just talked about, if you bring up these turds, these little [inaudible] losers, there’s no reason to then, you know, bring them back into the fold because I have real fans, they have nothing. They have zero. They have that night and I will forget about them as my last image of them exits my beautiful home. and they will get out there and they will sell me and they will lose. And they will lose the rest of their lives as they think about me and my life the rest of their lives, so, bring me a challenge somebody, because, you know, it just ain’t there. Winning.  [Copied from: Transcript of Charlie Sheen Meltdown on Alex Jones Radio Show | The Global Herald http://theglobalherald.com/transcript-of-charlie-sheen-meltdown-on-alex-jones-radio-show/12032/#ixzz1FT5TuRcJ]

MSRP:   Those unions who supported your campaign are exempt from the proposed law.  This is so embarrassing to the State Trooper’s union that they have rescinded their endorsement from the 2010 election.  Gov. Walker, I do not believe that saying “my bad” is good enough, do you?

WALKER:  It’s yeah, it’s an understatement, you know it’s, I’m sorry man I got magic and I got poetry at my fingertips most of the time and this includes naps. I’m an F-18 and I will destroy you in the air and I will deploy my ordnance to the ground.  [Copied from: Transcript of Charlie Sheen Meltdown on Alex Jones Radio Show | The Global Herald http://theglobalherald.com/transcript-of-charlie-sheen-meltdown-on-alex-jones-radio-show/12032/#ixzz1FT5jfPWY]

MSRP:  It appears that you are gambling that your extreme position will make you a darling with conservatives.  You are looking for support from within your own party, but that support has been tepid at best.  Gov. Daniels in Indiana, possible GOP candidate for President, will not support an elimination of collective bargaining rights in his state.  Tea Party darling Rick Scott in Florida will not support elimination of collective bargaining rights in his state.  Scott was quoted as saying, “My belief is as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine.”  Romney issued a weak statement that did not even mention you by name.  You must not be feeling the love.  What would you say to them if they were in the room right now?

WALKER: I would say, I am sorry if I offended you. I didn’t know you were so sensitive.   I think the mistake I made is that people misinterpret my passion for anger.  It’s all about judgment. No real gratitude. They are not welcome to be in the presence of what I am delivering. They need to say wow, look what this guy’s doing for all of us. [Copied from: Transcript of Charlie Sheen 20/20 interview, ABC Television]

MSRP:  I hope you get the help you need, and quickly.  It could be time for an intervention.

WALKER:  (Dial tone)