Thoughts From A Grateful American On Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, a day on which every American should be grateful for the sacrifices of members of our military, both past and present.  We enjoy our current freedoms only because, over the history of our Republic, members of the armed forces have been willing to fight and die for the United States of America and its citizens.

One of the finest places to reflect upon the sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen is Arlington National Cemetery, that peaceful resting place on a hill within view of Washington, D.C.  The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a particularly stirring reminder of those sacrifices.  Silent, somber, and simple, the ceremony of the changing of the guard does great honor to the remains of the unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War that are entombed in the white marble vault.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been continuously guarded since 1937 by soldiers who call themselves Sentinels.  The changing of the guard ceremony is about ten minutes long and is full of symbolism, where every step and second are scripted and have special meaning.  Some of the frequently asked questions about the ceremony are answered here.  The inscription on the tomb also is moving:  “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.”

Happy Memorial Day to all, and heartfelt thanks to all veterans and active members of our armed forces.

New Albany In The News

Richard called my attention to this piece in today’s New York Times, which carries a New Albany, Ohio dateline.  The reporter was in Ohio to report on the governor’s race between incumbent Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich, and was here in New Albany because Governor Strickland came by to cut the ribbon on a new corporate technology center.

The article doesn’t really say much that is new, although it does cite a recent poll that shows Strickland with a slight lead.  The race should be a close and interesting one.  Although Kasich was a popular figure on cable TV news shows when he was in Congress, most people don’t watch those shows.  I don’t think Kasich is well known in Ohio, particularly northern Ohio.  Strickland is a moderate who has cut the state payroll, although Ohio still has about an $8 billion gap that it needs to close.  Kasich’s investment banker background could hurt him if Democrats successfully paint him as an out-of-touch Wall Street scoundrel, but I think it is too early to say whether that effort will be successful.

The themes of this race have yet to fully emerge, and the economy will play a big role.

Morning Watering, Afternoon Weeding

Memorial Day weekend is here, and the hot weather has come with it.  Today the forecast is for a high temperature around 90 degrees.

Yesterday I did some weeding during the afternoon and I noticed that the beds were a bit dry.  This morning, after Penny and I took our morning walk but before the sun has risen in its full majesty, I did some watering in the back yard.  The air was mild, the humid earth and the jet of water from the hose smelled clean, and I felt a sense of small accomplishment as I sprayed our plantings and drank a cup of black coffee under a clear sky.  I like it when summers fall into this kind of rhythm, with watering followed by weeding followed by watering again and progress measured by healthy, growing flowers and brown paper bags filled with the remnants of unwanted plants.

Goodbye, Man

Dennis Hopper is dead.  Best known for his role as Billy, the leather-fringed drug-added biker in Easy Rider — who seemingly said “man” after every phrase — he was an actor with a knack for creating highly memorable, out-of-the-mainstream characters.

Hopper was excellent as the photographer in Apocalypse Now, as the sympathetic alcoholic basketball-obsessed assistant coach in Hoosiers, as the mad bomber in Speed, and as Kevin Costner’s one-eyed nemesis in Waterworld.  He never seemed to play an average guy with a desk job, a mortgage, and a wife and kids.

To my mind, Hopper’s greatest role was as the skin-crawlingly creepy nutbag, Frank Booth, in Blue Velvet.  Hyper-violent, appallingly obscene, sadistic, deeply troubled, constantly sucking on his mask of drug vapors and calling for someone to play the “Candy-Colored Clown they call the Sandman,” Hopper was riveting and totally believable every instant he was on screen.  His magnetic and utterly disturbed character was a big reason why Blue Velvet gets my vote for the most suspenseful, terrifying movie of the past 30 years.

Business As Usual

I really haven’t followed the Joe Sestak/Barack Obama/Arlen Specter story because I didn’t care about the outcome.  Now that the full story has been told — at least, according to the White House — it is weirder than I thought it would be.  According to the report, President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, dispatched former President Clinton to approach Sestak and offer him an unpaid position on an obscure advisory board if he would drop out of the primary against Specter.  Sestak declined, then disclosed that decision in an interview where he suggested the job that he turned down had a bit more meat — like the Secretary of the Navy, for example.

What is strange about this story is that the White House thought that Sestak would ditch his chance to run against a weakened, mush-mouthed, party-changing hack for a chance to get a coveted seat in the U.S. Senate in exchange for a seat on the 36-member Federal Advisory Board on Widget Construction, or something similar.  Did they really think even a master arm-twister like Bill Clinton could sell such an empty and one-sided bargain?  And it is weird that Sestak would trumpet his decision and make it out to be some incredible act of intestinal fortitude, when the actual offer was about as tempting as 2010 season tickets to the Cleveland Indians at a five percent discount off face value.  If the White House account is true, both sides look pretty stupid.

The AP has a story today about how this episode really hurts President Obama’s reputation as a “different kind” of politician.  I don’t agree with that, because I really doubt that any voter has viewed him from that perspective for months.  His effort to portray himself as a squeaky clean, “transparent” anti-politician took a few mortal hits below the water line and sank like a stone during the crass, endless “health care reform” horse-trading and deal-cutting.  No, the people who support President Obama right now do so because they agree with his agenda and think he can accomplish the policy initiatives they support.  To me, the harm for President Obama is not that this incident hurts his reputation as a pristine politician, but rather that it hurts his reputation as a capable politician.  Why in the world was President Obama running interference for a hopeless and undependable dish rag like Arlen Specter?  Specter must have driven some kind of seriously unholy bargain with the President to create that kind of political obligation.  Why would the President agree to such a bargain under the circumstances?

The Fez

On Mother’s Day we had the family over, and Mom brought over a surprise for me:  Grampa Neal’s fez from the Tadmor Shrine in Akron, Ohio.  The fez is an evocative item; you feel a connection when you hold something that you know another person once wore.  This fez is a sturdy piece of work, with a leather hat band, a well-preserved tassel, and the familiar Shriners logo.

Grampa Neal's fez

I don’t know much about Grampa’s activities in the Shriners — technically, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.  Like many people of his generation, he was a joiner.  He was a Mason, a Shriner, and an Odd Fellow, and perhaps belonged to other fraternal organizations I don’t know about.  There isn’t a lot of information about the Shriners on the web, either.  The home page of the Tadmor Shrine in Akron, Ohio is here.  You can see the Tadmor Shrine building, which looks like it has been around since Grampa was a member, and learn about the current officers, but it doesn’t provide the kind of historical information I was hoping to find.  When did Grampa join?  Did he hold any offices?  And — even though this is unimaginable to me — did he ever drive one of those tiny cars in a Memorial Day parade?

According to the Tadmor Shrine website, the organization is based on “Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth.”  It is clear that Shriners do some good work, through their hospitals for children and support for local organizations.  But what exactly is the connection between Shriners and Masons?  Wikipedia indicates that you have to have completed some levels of Masonry to be a Shriner and provides some history, but that is about it.  A Google search doesn’t yield much, either, although it doesn’t take long before you start to get into secret conspiracy-type websites and the kind of speculation that made National Treasure such a romp.

I’m just going to have to reconcile myself to the fact that I’ll probably never know what Grampa Neal did with the fez on, or what secrets he learned and kept faithfully.

Wingtips On The Beach

The picture of President Obama, wearing dress slacks, a white shirt, and dark shoes as he “checked for tar balls” on a Louisiana beach, gave me an unexpected chuckle. 

I suppose the White House wanted to have a photo op that conveyed in some visible way the President’s concern about the oil spill, but why would the Leader of the Free World use a few minutes of his three-hour visit to beachcomb for a few tar balls?  Surely he could have used his precious time more productively.  And didn’t he feel a bit silly looking profoundly at a tiny tar ball, as if it held some meaningful secret on how to stop, or at least minimize, one of the worst environmental disasters our country has ever experienced?  I bet he was thinking: “This is ridiculous.  What kind of look am I supposed to have on my face right now, anyway?  Concerned?  Scientifically curious?  Angry?  Sad?  Why did I let Gibbs talk me into this idiocy?”

The photo of the white-shirted, dark-shoe-wearing President on the beach also reminded me of the classic shot of Dick Nixon relaxing on the beach, as he strode purposefully by, leaving wingtip prints in the sand.  Why do most Presidents look like nerds when they are on the beach?

The Competence Question

Peggy Noonan’s column today argues that the oil spill disaster raises serious questions about the Obama Administration’s assumed competence.  I’m not sure that I agree with the notion that people are concluding that the President and his team are incompetent, but I do think the implicit message of the oil spill and its aftermath undercuts the notion that the federal government can be trusted to handle everything.  Even if you assume that the President and his team were “fully engaged” and “totally focused” on the spill since “day one,” you still have to question the cumbersomeness, delay, and miscommunication that seems to necessarily accompany the involvement of the federal government in this kind of incident.  Why did it take so long to unleash the booms?  Where are the people and materials employed to try to keep oil out of the marshes and wetlands?

A quick tour by the Prez and an examination of a tar ball or two doesn’t address the issue of why the federal response has been so painfully slow.

The American Worker, The Public Art, And The Cleveland Fed

The entrance to the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank

I was up in Cleveland yesterday and walked past the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which was built in 1922.  It features a large, black, metal statue of what appears to be a seated worker, muscles bulging and torso bared, holding a large hammer.  (I say appears to be a worker because it could be a representation of Prometheus, or for that matter Thor.)

I like this kind of public art, which is ubiquitous in American cities that were built up in the ’20s and ’30s.  Often the sculpture is in the style of Soviet Realism or totalitarian art, with stocky, thickly muscled workers striding forward or performing various acts of manual labor. There’s almost always a stern eagle nearby, too.  It is interesting, and seemingly a bit incongruous, to see that kind of art in front of the Cleveland Fed.  Perhaps recognizing the irony, on this day a passing pigeon had strategically left a large deposit on the worker’s head.

A Tough Assignment

The recent post about discrimination against unattractive people reminded me of one of my toughest journalism assignments.  It happened in the summer of 1978, when I was an intern for the Cleveland bureau of the Wall Street Journal.  The bureau chief was intrigued by an article he had read about a worker who claimed discrimination due to weight.  He thought it would make a good story, and I agreed.  At that time, at least, a good reporter looked for people to interview and quote.  But where to find people who may have been discriminated against because of their size?

I can’t remember if it was my idea or his, but one fine day I found myself at the unemployment office in Cleveland looking for interviewees.  The idea was to find overweight people who were applying for benefits, identify myself as a reporter, and then ask whether they thought their size contributed to their unemployment.  It sounded feasible in the abstract, but as I stood in the unemployment office looking at the poor folks applying for benefits, I suddenly thought it was a pretty stupid idea.  Wouldn’t they be insulted if some punk kid suggesting that they were fat?  Still, I knew reporters sometimes must ask questions in tough circumstances, so I steeled myself and walked up to a likely candidate.  To my surprise, the person was friendly, apparently not offended that I had concluded they were overweight, and quite willing to discuss whether their weight had affected their employment.  It became progressively easier with each new person I approached.  I don’t remember anyone who rebuffed my questions, and I ended up writing a story that was published in the back pages of the Journal.

I don’t think that every incident makes an anecdote or teaches some deep life lesson.  Still, that experience made me realize that speculation about what people may do or how they may react often is wrong and that it is worth at least trying something before concluding it won’t work.

Spare The Rod, Spoil The Program

I’ve posted before on the potential NCAA violations committed by the Michigan football program, which initially were reported by the Detroit Free Press.  Some nine months later, Michigan has now completed its “internal investigation” and admitted to certain violations.  It concluded that there was a breakdown in communications and it fired one staffer and reprimanded seven other people involved in the football program, including Head Coach Rich Rodriguez.  It also put itself on two years of probation (although not of the double-secret variety). The school clearly hopes that its self-administered punishment will cause the NCAA to refrain from imposing other tougher sanctions that further sully Michigan’s reputation. 

It’s hard to believe it took nine months for Michigan to figure out that there was a breakdown in communications, but it doesn’t surprise me that Michigan didn’t ultimately hold Rich Rod accountable for the failings in his program.  Michigan took a big risk in hiring Rodriguez rather than a “Michigan man,” and so far it has been an embarrassment and a disaster for one of the most storied, respected programs in college football.  The team has been terrible, players have transferred and raised questions about Rodriguez, and scandals like the Free Press articles seem to be lurking around every corner.

Let’s hope Michigan has fixed those communications breakdowns and established appropriate supervision over its football program, because Rodriguez surely understands that if the Wolverines don’t win this season he is gone.  Coaches whose jobs are hanging by a thread often are more attentive to wins than compliance.

An End To Logan’s Run, And To 24

Well, I’ve watched the series finale of 24, and I think it showed why the show really needed to end.

It really seemed like not much happened during the two hours.  Sure, Jack got shot by Chloe, bit off the ear of Logan’s suckboy, whispered his dialogue, and resisted assassinating the Russian president, and his recorded message of lukewarm platitudes somehow convinced President Taylor to walk away from the “peace agreement” — but to my mind the “will she, won’t she” plot about President Taylor really didn’t create much tension or, for that matter, interest.  The scenes with the Russian President, the UN Secretary General, and Dalia Hassan came across as a lot of background noise and filler; it seemed clear all along that President Taylor would eventually return to her principles, and that Charles Logan would be foiled again.  You almost expected him to say, “Curses!”

It was interesting to me that, as the series reached its end, so much of the show focused on Charles Logan.  I think the writers recognized that he was the one compelling character in the show who hadn’t been fully fleshed out or painted into a corner.  We all know Jack will stoically stand for his concept of justice, and that Chloe will help him to the end.  With Logan, however, you never quite knew how far down he would go, and in the end, by killing his aide and then trying to kill himself, he showed there really was no bottom to his depravity and megalomania.  (Of course, being Logan, he couldn’t even be successful in his suicide attempt.)  Too bad he didn’t get to die a good death at the hands of Jack Bauer — but perhaps the writers wanted to leave open the possibility that Logan and Jack would cross swords again.

Jack, meanwhile, got to say thank you to Chloe for her years of help, and that was a scene that packed some punch.  And then, Jack Bauer walked off into the sunset.  We’ll apparently see him again on the big screen, with the Russians, the Americans, and God knows who else in hot pursuit.

The Widening Ripples From The Gulf Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon experienced a blowout and caught fire on April 20, 2010.  (I remember the date because it is my birthday.)  Since then, enormous amounts of oil have been spewing, pretty much unabated, into the Gulf of Mexico.  Amazingly, more than a month after the incident we seem no closer to plugging the spigot and stopping the flow of oil than we were the day the blowout occurred.

It is now clear that the United States is facing an environmental disaster of the first magnitude.  We have seen the pictures of the massive oil slick and the oil-soaked birds, we know about the fragile wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas on the Gulf Coast and the Florida coastline that will be devastated if they are reached by the oil slick, and we understand that entire industries — like the fishing and tourism industries along the Gulf Coast — are likely to be ravaged by the catastrophic spill.

It also seems clear that the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath will have significant political consequences.  Supporters of offshore deep water drilling for oil are going to have a tough time explaining why we should sanction risky conduct that, in the event of a mishap, threatens such appalling consequences and is apparently so impossible to remedy.  And while I am not someone who believes the federal government should be able to snap its fingers and solve every massive problem immediately, it is hard not to question why we haven’t been able to at least contain the spill and promptly collect, distribute, and place booms to try to fence off environmentally critical areas. There is a whiff of incompetence in the federal government’s seemingly haphazard response to both the initial incident and the resulting oil spill that no amount of political spin can dispel.

Summer Is Here

Our patio, flower bed, and back yard

It feels like it, anyway.  Today the temperature got to the mid-80s, and bright sunshine lit up the landscape after long, grey days of rain.  I sat outside on one of our patio chairs, barefoot and in shorts and a Piton t-shirt, listening to music and reading the afternoon away.  Birds were singing in the trees, our freshly planted flowers looked sharp and distinct against the green shrubbery and dark brown dirt,  and the hot sun felt good on my face.

I hope that summer is, in fact, here to stay.

An Ugly Form Of Discrimination?

The Washington Post has a column today about the “last bastion” of discrimination — namely, discrimination against people who are overweight or unattractive.  The author, a Stanford law professor, argues that discrimination based on “irrelevant physical characteristics reinforces invidious stereotypes and undermines equal opportunity principles based on merit and performance.”  She advocates for a law that bans discrimination based on appearance, contending that such a law could “reflect our principles of equal opportunity” and “play a modest role in advancing healthier and more inclusive ideals of attractiveness.”

According to the article, Michigan and some local jurisdictions have laws banning discrimination on the basis of appearance, and no flood of “loony litigation” has occurred.  Indeed, she argues that people would be unlikely to invoke the law because to do so would be to confess to unattractiveness.  I’m not so sure about that conclusion.  In my experience, people who have been fired are perfectly happy to cite every possible argument that it was discrimination, and not their poor performance, that caused their dismissal.  I can certainly imagine lawsuits where multiple paragraphs of the Complaint are devoted to describing comments about appearance that the former employee received over the years.

It seems to me, though, that simply countering the “floodgates” argument also ignores another important point.  Many of the qualities that employers value most highly — like reliability, commitment, and integrity, among others — are intangible qualities that can’t be measured on an application form.  Physical appearance, however, can provide clues that employers may use to make judgments about whether the person would be a suitable employee, and I think employers should be permitted to factor it into the hiring equation.  If the person that you are interviewing is a slob, would you want to hire them for a job that required great precision and attention to detail?