Webner House Pumpkin Path, Halloween 2011

We had our traditional Halloween Jack ‘o Lantern entryway this year.  It features 10 carved pumpkins, including tributes to Braxton Miller and Jared Sullinger and attempts to carve scary, silly, goofy, and happy pumpkin faces.  It think it’s a pretty good crop.

Thanks to our neighbors, the Taylors, for their excellent help with the pumpkin carving this year!

Fat And Fairness — And The Federal Government

What to do to deal with the obesity epidemic in America?  (And not just in America, either — recent studies also are showing increasing obesity in places like Scotland.)  Normally you might say that the eating and exercise habits of individuals are their own business.  The problem, however, is that obesity, like smoking, is statistically likely to cause significant increases in health care costs.  And when most working people participate in group health care plans, where expensive health problems inevitably produce increased premium costs, individual cases of obesity and cigarette smoking end up being everybody’s problem.

The companies that sponsor group health plans for many Americans have tried to deal with this problem by sponsoring wellness programs and offering incentives to employee participation.  But you can’t force a person to exercise or quit smoking.  Now some companies are taking a harder line, and making obese employees and smokers pay more for health coverage to reflect their increased likelihood of incurring health care costs.  Predictably, those efforts are being met by questions about the legality of distinguishing between people on the basis of weight, whether the programs have a disproportionate impact on the poor, who are said to be unable to afford health clubs and good nutrition, and the propriety of companies getting into the personal lives of  employees.  Those on the other side of the debate argue that non-smoking, non-obese employees should not pay the tab for the risky, costly lifestyles of co-workers who can’t curb their appetites for cigarettes and sugar.

It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out — and even more interesting to see what happens if President Obama’s health care statute is upheld and the federal government becomes increasingly involved in health care.  Does anyone think that federal regulators, having been given the power to require people to buy health insurance, would hesitate to mandate certain kinds of individual behavior — like eating less, quitting smoking, and exercising regularly — and punish non-compliance in an attempt to hold down costs?

Happy Halloween!

As I’ve mentioned, I prefer creepy — and what could be creepier than suddenly coming upon a detached, eyeless, old-fashioned doll’s head in a darkened room?

At first you are merely startled by the disembodied visage, but then there’s something oddly riveting about it.  You look at it, and wonder how you would react if eyeballs sudden appeared in those empty sockets and snapped open, fixing you with a grim stare, as the plastic lips start moving and speaking in a soulless, metallic voice. Or if a gushing flood of roaches abruptly came pouring through those gaping, black eyeholes, covering the floor in an instant.

Now that’s the kind of disturbing creepiness that I’m talking about!  Happy Halloween, everyone!

Pumpkin-Carving Day

Tomorrow is Beggars’ Night, so today was our pumpkin-carving day.  This year, we had 10 pumpkins to be gutted, carved, and made ready to be implanted with candles and placed on our walkway to light the way for trick-or-treaters.

I love carving pumpkins.  I like doing the emptying and carving the day before, so that the pumpkins can dry out before the big evening.  I love getting ready for it, and laying out the carving implements like a scrub nurse placing the surgical instruments on trays in preparation for an operation.

Pumpkin-carving is an occasion that demands proper tools.  Our implements include a plastic ice cream scoop, knives, shallow spoons, and two excellent pumpkin carving tools that are blunt but with serrated blades — perfect for puncturing the tough orange skin of the pumpkin and then slicing, safely, through the pumpkin flesh.

I especially like the tactile sensation of pumpkin carving.  It seems basic and ancient, somehow, like skinning a rabbit, whittling a stick, churning butter, or performing another chore that would be done on the frontier.

You cut carefully around the stem, slicing horizontally to avoid the possibility of the pumpkin lid falling into the interior.  You feel the resistance yield and hear a satisfying tearing sound as you slowly pull the top, heretofore bound like Gulliver by the tiny threads of pumpkin innards, free from the rest of the pumpkin.  You look inside, and see the slimy strings and goop and seeds and smell that heady, rich pumpkin smell.  You know that your hands will be smeared orange and covered with flecks of pumpkin, because emptying the gut is something that requires you to use your hands, grip the spaghetti-like strands, and yank them out.

Our plastic ice cream scoop is exceptionally well-suited to scraping the insides of pumpkins until they are free of the wet threads and seeds.  (This year, we contributed the seeds to our neighbor, who will bake and salt them and use them for snacks.)  I like to scour the inside walls thoroughly, so that the interiors of the hollowed-out pumpkins are as smooth as a baby’s behind.  That allows the pumpkins to dry overnight and makes them better suited for candle placement and candle lighting and burning.  And if your interior pumpkin walls are thinned by vigorous scraping,  the candlelight will give your pumpkin a cool-looking, eerie inner glow on Beggars’ Night.

After the preparation comes carving time — when all creativity can be loosed, and the pumpkin can become a temporary, soon-to-be-discarded testament to your artistic sensibilities.  I’ll share some pictures of our jack-o-lanterns, and our pumpkin walkway, when they are lit and on display tomorrow night.



To Blog or not To Blog ….

Blogging seems benign enough until you decide to actually commit yourself to putting words on paper – or rather out in the ether. Blogged words are forever available to all to consider: the F.B.I., C.I.A., Mom, Dad, siblings, children. (I’m reminded of the Facebook horror stories of those who didn’t think their bosses, and others about whom they comment would be viewing their unguarded moments.) In addition, a blogger has to consider others who are blogging on the same site, if there are others on the same site as there are at Webnerhouse. A new entrant has to be concerned how his or her blog will compare with the other contributors’ works.

And so, I have to consider how any blogs I may add to Webnerhouse will stack up with other Webner contributors, primarily Bob and Jim. Bob’s contributions are prolific and, usually, entertaining. The dog things don’t do a lot for me, but otherwise he presents a formidable challenge to most anyone’s writing skills, and certainly to mine. Jim’s contributions are fewer but well considered and usually about something of importance to him and, thus, well thought out and well presented. So it is with these concerns prominent in my mind, I will with fear and trepidation and at Bob’s urging submit some ruminations to Webnerhouse from time to time.

Once that commitment was made I had to then consider the all important issue of when does one write one’s blog? Apparently Bob writes his morning, noon and night time, as soon as any new breaks that he feels deserves comment. For me, as a retired person, I don’t have a lot of extra time on my hands. Therefore, a decision has to be made. Do I write first thing in the morning or the last thing at night or sometime in between? I can’t write while on the golf course, that’s clear. So mid-day is not an option most days. Late afternoon is music practice time – a retirement exercise I have taken up, modestly seriously, to try to keep dementia at bay. I am a slow starter in the mornings, and so the early a.m. is not really an option. Late at night, if I forego the martinis is probably the best time for me – but foregoing the martinis may be an issue. I may need Bob’s guidance on this subject. Today, I decided that I would not watch any professional football as none of the teams particularly excite me this year. So this Sunday afternoon, at least, by default presented itself as a viable time slot for blogging.

The next consideration will be what subjects to take on that may be of any interest to any chance reader of the blog. I am not without opinion on most topics and I am now of an age where I don’t have to be concerned if anyone agrees with me or not. That allows for a wide range of matters to be “discussed.”   This could get interesting, once the fear is put to rest.

I Prefer Creepy

What makes for a good Halloween scare?  For me, it’s the more subtle, deliciously creepy stuff that is most thrilling.

I’m not much for over-the-top gore or slasher films.  Buckets of blood spraying everywhere as a masked guy who can’t be killed eviscerates a bunch of horny teenagers may be startling, but ultimately is boring.  I’d rather watch a Hitchcock movie than any of the Friday the 13th series.  Old-fashioned horror films, where character development occurs and back stories are told, are better than the recent movies that devote all of their creative energies toward figuring out new ways to behead, impale, or disembowel the indestructible killer or his hapless victims.

Good scary movies are always suspenseful, but don’t need to be gory.  The best ones have a weird, interesting character — and sometimes more than one.  Usually they involve a twist or two, and a false start or other surprise.  Consider Silence of the Lambs.  It’s really not a very bloody movie, but I’d wager that most people felt a deep, horrible, mounting anxiety and terror as FBI agent Clarice Starling closed in on the profoundly disturbed Buffalo Bill in that ancient, darkened basement.  In my view, that scenario — and Clarice’s spine-tingling interactions with Dr. Hannibal Lecter — are scarier than Jason anyday.

Mount Rushmore’s 70th

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the completion of work on Mount Rushmore.  From start to finish, the blasting and shaping of the colossal heads of four American presidents took 14 years to complete and cost less than $1 million.

Mount Rushmore was the dream of one man, Doane Robinson, and became the obsession of its sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.  They determined that the huge heads should be carved into Mount Rushmore, and they obtained the support of President Calvin Coolidge and key members of Congress who helped make their dream a reality.  They were capable of envisioning a memorial blasted into the face of a mountain and then figuring out how it could be done safely.  (No one was killed during the construction, despite frequent use of dynamite and other explosives.)

The result is a classically American monument, a testament to American ingenuity and the product of people who dreamed big, bold dreams.  But Mount Rushmore is more than an engineering feat, it is an artistic achievement as well.  Americans who visit Mount Rushmore feels a sense of pride in the accomplishment and a patriotic stirring at the depiction of the four Presidents.  If you’ve visited Mount Rushmore, you’ll know what I mean.

Braxton Comes Of Age

What a great game!  What a great homecoming victory!  And what a great coming of age moment for Braxton Miller!

This was a game where Ohio State’s defense, led by John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, was dominant for three quarters.  In the meantime, the Buckeye offense was playing the ball control game, running the ball, and hoping that Boom Herron and Braxton Miller could break big runs.  And they did — but then Wisconsin came back.  Behind their cool senior quarterback, Wisconsin sliced up the Buckeyes defense for two quick scores in the fourth quarter and looked to have the game in hand.

But then, Braxton.  Miller somehow eluded the Wisconsin rush, as he had done all day, and then threw across his body to a wide-open receiver for the winning TD.  After a few nervous moments, and a weird double penalty that gave Wisconsin an extra play, the defense harried Wisconsin into an incompletion, and the Buckeyes had a great win.

This win may not mean much of anything, but then again it may mean everything.  Braxton Miller has shown that he can keep his cool and lead his team back to victory when all seemed lost.  Next game, the Ohio State offensive gurus might decide to let Miller throw the ball a bit more — and that could make the Buckeye running game that much more formidable.  Whatever the result, Ohio State’s season just got a lot more interesting, and the games to come just got a lot more meaningful.

Building A Solid Majority Can Be Done

You may not have heard about it, but last Saturday there was a significant election result.  In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, was reelected with a huge majority.

Louisiana has an unusual system.  There is an open primary, and if no candidate gets a majority of the votes, a run-off election is held.  Jindal was one of ten contestants, and he won 66 percent of the vote — with his closest competitor garnering 18 percent of the vote.  Jindal, who is only 40, has been consistently popular since he was first elected, and as the article linked above notes, no well-funded Democrat wanted to challenge him.  Those election results are even more impressive when you consider that Louisiana has historically been a Democratic stronghold.

What has Jindal done that has made him so popular?  It looks like he has just kept his promises and worked hard at his job.  He has cut spending, cut taxes, and secured enactment of targeted tax credits in high-growth industries.  He fought for the state when the Gulf oil spill occurred, and he is credited with helping to turn around New Orleans schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  His tenure has seen an influx of people into Louisiana and a recognition that the state is a good place to do business.

It all seems so simple.

The Public Employee Pension Problem, From Sea To Shining Sea

It seems like every day brings a new story about how states across the country are struggling with public employee pension and health care benefit costs.  In Ohio the issue is at the forefront due to the upcoming vote on Issue 2, and I’ve written about the huge challenges confronting Rhode Island and Illinois.

Now California — which may have the biggest problem of all — is trying to work through the issues.  On Thursday Governor Jerry Brown declared California’s current system unsustainable and unveiled an approach that tries to deal with the inevitable effects of demographics.  Brown, a Democrat, proposes raising the retirement age for most government workers from 55 to 67, increasing employee contributions to 50 percent of pension costs, and moving the state’s system from a complete defined benefits program to one that includes a 401(k) component, where employee benefits depend on their contributions and the performance of investments they have selected.  He also proposes reforms to ensure that pensions are based on regular salaries, not on bonuses or overtime.  Public employee unions have been critical, arguing that they have recently given concessions and that any changes to benefits should be the product of collective bargaining.

From sea to shining sea, the handwriting is on the wall:  states and local governments eventually must grapple with meaningful reforms to budget-busting public employee pension and benefit costs.  The Ohio General Assembly attempted to do that with the legislation that is the subject of Issue 2.  If Ohio voters reject Issue 2 come Election Day, the issue is not going to go away.  Why not tackle it now?

From Grandpa’s Bookshelf: Grandma’s Book Of Sayings

Years ago, when Grandpa Neal moved into a retirement community, I inherited every volume on his bookshelves.  I took them because I love books and because I think the contents of bookshelves say a lot about their owners.

Recently I stumbled across a slim volume from their bookshelf.  Inside were pages of Grandma Neal’s handwriting, where she had jotted down favorite poems or sayings.  (As I’ve written before, she had an encyclopedic memory for verse.)  The passages are about life and death, love and disappointment, faith and motherhood.

Two pieces had particular resonance with me.  The first is from Sir Humphrey Davy:   “Life is made up, not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things, in which smiles and kindness, and small obligations given habitually, are what preserve the heart and secure comfort.”

The second is the last stanza of Invictus by William Ernest Henley:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

There is something moving about looking at the pages of writing, in pen and in pencil, with cross-outs and insertions, knowing that my long-dead grandmother held this book and her hands brushed the pages as she wrote things that were meaningful to her.  I feel that I know her better, having read what she chose to write.

Choosing China

You are an American POW during the Korean War.

After years of mistreatment, at the war’s end, you are given the chance to go home, or to go to China.  And you choose . . . China?

Here’s the interesting story of the young American named David Hawkins who did exactly that.  Notwithstanding the inhumane treatment he received during the war, which decimated his group of POWs, he decided to live in China at war’s end.  Why would you pick China over America?  I’m not sure that this article answers that question, but it tells an interesting story.

The young man who decided to go to China lived there for three years and then decided to return home to America, where he has lived ever since.  He describes himself as a “real patriot” and a better American as a result of the experience.  I don’t doubt him.

The Most Popular Game In Town

In the current “fall season” — to the extent such a thing even exists anymore — 13 of the 14 most-watched TV shows have been NFL games.  The only non-NFL program that makes the top 15 is Two and a Half Men.

Why is the NFL so popular?  For one thing, it’s the perfect American game.  The NFL emphasizes speed, color, and violence — lots of violence — with a few cheerleaders thrown in.  It’s an exciting game (at least it is if you aren’t watching the Browns), filled with crackling big hits and spinning runs and tremendous athleticism that get the blood pounding.  And lately the NFL has gotten savvier.  It’s marketed to men and women, and to every demographic type.  I’m sure the marketing effort has contributed to the popularity of pro football, too.

But there is one other thing that has given pro football a big edge over the regular network programming.  The programming wizards at CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox have to worry about competition from HBO, Showtime, TNT, AMC, and many other cable channels that produce original sitcoms and dramas and reality shows — precisely the kind of programming that you used to be able to see only on network TV.  The NFL, by contrast, has no competition.

HBO isn’t going to out out and create a new pro football league to compete with Monday Night Football.  If you want to watch pro football — and millions of Americans crave it every autumn weekend — the NFL is the only game in town, regardless of which channel it is broadcast on.

In The Mood For A Ghost Story

Who doesn’t remember sitting by a campfire as a kid, seeing the reflections of the flames dance across the faces of your fellow campers, and felling that delicious chill flash up your spine as you heard a particularly creepy ghost story?

Ohio has its share of such stories, ranging from a haunted carousel horse to the ghost funeral train of Abraham Lincoln rolling through Urbana to the spirits who roam the halls of the Buxton Inn in Granville to the weeping Woman in Gray who mysteriously appears to visit the grave of a Confederate soldier who is buried in the Camp Chase Civil War prison camp cemetery here in Franklin County.

Of all the stories, I think the creepiest is the tale of the Dark Angel of Maple Grove Cemetery — a large stone angel protecting a grave that was inhabited by evil spirits, flew across the countryside slaughtering livestock, and then returned, blood-smeared and distraught, to the grave by morning.  Sadly, the true story simply seems to be one of a vandalized grave.

The Buckeye State not only is home to tales of the supernatural, but also to an organization called The Ghosts of Ohio that will investigate and debunk those tales.  Its website is worth a visit, and its roster of spooky stories provides lots of good ideas for some of those campfire tales that might be recounted come Halloween night.

Issue 2 In Continental, Ohio

According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, Ohio’s Issue 2 — the issue that addresses collective bargaining and pension and health care benefits for public employees, among other matters — will get trounced at the polls.  Nevertheless, we are still getting blitzed by fliers and ads about Issue 2, so the campaigns apparently still think the outcome is in doubt.

One of the anti-Issue 2 mailings features a fresh-faced young teacher named Kyley Richardson of the Continental Local Schools.  She says “Issue 2 takes my voice out of my classroom.”   The mailing explains that “Issue 2 takes away the voice of teachers to negotiate for things that keep our students safe and successful — like smaller class sizes, up-to-date textbooks and safe classrooms.”  It also says that Issue 2 “could force teachers to do even more standardized testing” and “could mean more teacher layoffs.”

According to the school website, Ms. Richardson teaches Spanish at the Continental Middle School.  Continental is a small town in rural northwest Ohio.  Its website says it is a “very stable community” made up principally of farm families “with excellent work ethics.”  It has a population of about 1,100.  Given these circumstances, how often do you think Ms. Richardson, or any Continental teacher, has had to engage in hard-fought negotiations about class size or safe classrooms?  And if Issue 2 passed, do we really think that Ms. Richardson would be “silenced” — or do we think she could go to the next Board of Education meeting and they would listen respectfully to whatever she might say about “textbooks,” “standardized tests,” and “teacher layoffs”?

With all due respect, Ms. Richardson’s views about what Issue 2 “could” do don’t have a lot of credibility with me.  I remain convinced that most public employees oppose the measure because they know it will affect their pay and benefits, and not because of these other issues.  Why don’t they just come out and say it?