Not Just Whistling Dixie

In a conversation today a co-worker used the phrase “not just whistling Dixie.”  It made me stop and think for a minute, and I wondered:  why is the ability to whistle Dixie treated so dismissively?  Is whistling Dixie considered pathetically easy?  I then tried whistling Dixie, and I realized that I couldn’t possibly do it — the notes just come too quick for my clumsy mouth to successfully deal with them.

The sad fact is that my whistling ability, well, blows.  I really can only whistle part of one tune.  It’s a passage from The Dance of the Little Swans in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, and even then I can only whistle it at super-slow speed.  If Russia’s greatest composer heard my dismal rendition of one of his most beautiful compositions, he would hurl himself in front of the Czar’s carriage.  And because I can only whistle one part of one song, when I’m in a whistling mood I repeat it over and over.  I recognize this is ridiculously annoying, but I can’t help myself.  So I try to reserve my whistling for those times when I’m by myself.

In reality, UJ is the whistling prodigy in our family.  He not only has a broad repertoire of standard tunes from Happy Birthday to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island, he also has the ability to whistle “by ear” and can faithfully recreate just about any song.  I haven’t tested him by asking him, for example, to whistle Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in Whole Lotta Love, but I bet he could do it. And he also has the lung power and whistling technique that allows him to really project his whistling, too.  You can hear the whistling UJ approaching from blocks away, sounding like a kind of high-pitched pipe organ.

When it comes to this crucial musical talent, I’m afraid I’m not even a patch off my older brother.  And I’m not just whistling Dixie, either.

Cranking Up The Old Money Machine

President Obama’s State of the Union speech this week drew the lowest ratings in 15 years.  Why?  Because this is America, and we get bored with anything that’s been around for six years.  The President is old news, and nothing he says or does in a wooden speech to politely attentive members of Congress is going to change that reality.

And let’s not forget, too, that we’ve turned the calendar to 2015 — which is the year before the next presidential election, which means we’re due to be bombarded with an increasing barrage of news stories about the would-be candidates who want to take the President’s place at the podium.  As if on cue, supporters of Hillary Clinton have made it known that she will be receiving financial commitments for her anticipated campaign that will be “astounding.”  Their goal in lining up an immediate avalanche of cash is intimidate potential opponents and cause them to refrain from challenging Clinton in the first place.  It’s like a “shock and awe” military campaign applied to American politics.

The article about the Clinton effort doesn’t say what would constitute money commitments that are “astounding” and “like nothing you’ve ever seen,” and it’s hard to imagine that sheer numbers are going to boggle the mind given the amounts being spent on political campaigns already.  The Federal Election Commission estimates, for example, that about $7 billion was spent on the 2012 election.  We’ve come to expect big spending on politics, and many of us get email fundraising appeals every day — even now, with no election on the horizon.  So where is the shock level?  $20 billion?  $50 billion?  $100 billion?

Money is important in politics, obviously, but ultimately money is just money.  Americans spend lots of money on lots of things, such as $7.4 billion on Halloween, $20.5 billion on video games, and $73.9 billion on soda.  You can buy commercial time and produce slick ad campaigns, but if your message isn’t resonating with voters you’re not going to win.

Perhaps the Clinton money machine will scare away some contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, but those fraidy-cats probably weren’t serious challengers, anyway.  If there are politicians out there who truly believe in their positions and want to use a presidential bid to forcefully advocate them, they aren’t going to be cowed by mere money, no matter how much it is.  And don’t forget that America loves an underdog.  A spunky candidate who is seen as bravely challenging the establishment and the aura of inevitability might make that “astounding” amount of money seem like chump change.

From a-Ha To ZZ Top

After months of painful work, my careful reconstruction of my failed iPod is coming to an end.  I started with a-Ha, worked my way through the Beach Boys and Beatles, through Elton John and Veruca Salt and Yo-yo Ma, compiling dozens of different playlists along the way, and have finally hit Zuilli Bailey and ZZ Top.  After that end-of-the-alphabet omega point, there are some random Japanese characters and numbers — .38 Special and the 5h Dimension figure prominently, for example  — but we’re basically done with the project.

What does it all mean?  I’m not sure, except for this:  there are a ridiculous number of talented musicians out there, and an even more ridiculous number of great songs,, and I desperately want to have them all.  What surprises me in my effort is that there is so much great music that I want to have on my iPod, just in case — and also how much fun it can be trying to organize it into playlists.  My musical tastes are broad, and if someone tells me I’m going to need to choose among the Beatles, the Temptations, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Coltrane, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, and countless other artists, I’m not going to be a happy camper.

Fortunately, the old iPod has sufficient storage capacity that I don’t have to make such choices.  I can winnow things down without cutting crucial things out — and that is a great luxury of the modern world.  We are lucky we live in times of such technological advances.

One Country’s Slow-Motion Suicide

The “replacement rate” a society must achieve to maintain its population is a matter of cold actuarial statistics:  an average woman must bear 2.1 children during her lifetime.  If that fertility rate is exceeded, a country’s population grows; if the replacement rate isn’t met, the country’s population declines.

According to tables published by the World Bank, fertility rates vary widely.  In Niger, for example, the fertility rate is 7.6.  In Japan, on the other hand, the fertility rate is 1.43 — far below the replacement rate and one of the lowest rates in the world.  And, in fact, Japan’s population is declining.  Last year, 1.27 million Japanese died, and only 1.001 million were born.  Such rates obviously aren’t sustainable long term.  They are particularly troubling if, as in Japan, the current system involves long-lived retirees receiving pensions funded by the tax payments of a shrinking pool of younger workers.  Again, cold statistics dictate that, some day, the financial crash must come if trends aren’t reversed.

Of course, cold statistics really don’t tell us the whole story when it comes to birth rates.  Why aren’t Japanese men and women getting together and having children, as they have since time immemorial?  A recent survey concluded that a big part of the procreation problem is what the Japanese call “herbivorous males” — men who have lost their “masculine confidence,” have eschewed the burdens of high-powered careers, have no interest in girlfriends or families, and are content to work at low-paying jobs and shop for recreation.  The survey also shows that many Japanese have lost interest in having sex and that even young married couples routinely go weeks and even months without it.

Why is this so?  It’s not a question born of prurient interest, but ultimately one of national survival.  After countless generations of human history in which a desire for intimacy has been a principal focus of personal interaction, why are people in countries like Japan losing interest in an activity that is essential to the survival of the species?  And how can the country change the dynamic?  It’s a crucial issue, because If the demographic trend isn’t reversed, Japan will continue to commit slow-motion suicide.

Fast Failure

Richard had a story recently about the unexpectedly rapid demise of a Jacksonville-based company called Body Central, which sold clothing to teenage girls and 20-somethings in the “fast fashion” industry segment.  After years of strong growth and expansion of its outlets into new malls, Body Central suddenly hit the wall and closed its doors.  Richard’s story is an interesting treatment of the arc of a company’s existence in modern America.

What happened?  Basically, capitalism.  Body Central, and other stores catering to the same market segment, kept expanding to new locations and storefronts and expected the demand for clothing from teenage girls and young women prowling the malls to continue to grow indefinitely.  But the tastes and buying habits of Body Central’s target audience changed.  They decided that going to malls wasn’t necessarily the bees’ knees and started looking for more clothing on-line.  In the meantime, Body Central had growth-related problems, like managing distribution centers.  Revenues shrank, efforts to redesign stores to reattract customers failed, and ultimately the enterprise crashed.

Capitalism has a long and proven track record for incentivizing production, creating wealth, and enhancing efficiencies — but it’s a messy process.  Businesses begin, occasionally thrive, and often fail.  Sometimes the failures are of mom-and-pop shops, but sometimes they are of companies that experienced some success but just couldn’t move to the next level, and sometimes the failures are of mega-corporations like Blockbuster that are killed by new technologies, changing consumer tastes and buying habits, and competitors who develop a better product or service.  It happens, but it doesn’t make the situation any more enjoyable for employees who are out of a job when the company hits the wall.

Goodbye, Body Central!  You’re just the latest in a long line — and you won’t be the last.

Crack Of Dawn

This morning I’m up and out the door on my way to Cleveland.  I’ve got to pick up a colleague and get up to The Best Location in the Nation by 9 a.m. or so — which means getting up and hitting the road early.

IMG_1613Typically people express sympathy when this occurs, but I don’t mind rising during the wee hours and getting started on the day.  I’ve  been an early bird for as long as I can remember.  I take after my grandmother, who said with a chuckle that she liked getting up at the “crack of dawn.”  (I always enjoyed that phrase, too, but Tom Waits kind of ruined it when he said, in the bass-driven intro to the classic album Nighthawks at the Diner, that he was “so horny that the crack of dawn better be careful around me.”)  When UJ and I spent the night at her house, she and I inevitably would get up by 6 a.m. and have our breakfast, while UJ and Grampa Neal slept in.

We’ve all got our unique circadian rhythms, and there is no right or wrong way.  Winston Churchill stayed up until all hours and stayed in bed until late morning but was incredibly productive nevertheless.  For me, “sleeping in” means staying in bed until 7 a.m., and if I tried to sleep later than that I’d just end up with a groggy and unpleasant headache.  I feel sharp and energetic in the morning, and I want to get up and get going.  When your body is telling you its time to rise and shine, why not just reconcile yourself to the inevitable and do the best with it?

So by the time most of you read this I’ll have been up for hours, whistling and listening to the radio and piloting my car on my way north on the familiar trip up I-71.  Doze on, sleepyheads!  This early bird likes the crack of dawn, Tom Waits notwithstanding.

When The All-Stars Come To Town

This weekend Columbus will host the NHL All-Star Game.  Already you see signs around town welcoming the players, coaches, fans, and other folks who are coming to town for the Game and the festivities — like these signs found at one of the hotels on Capitol Square in downtown Columbus.

IMG_4682Unfortunately, Columbus’s home team, the Blue Jackets, have been struggling this year.  Their fans will tell you it’s because they’ve been wracked with injuries.  After the CBJ closed with a rush last year, made the playoffs, and won a few games before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the hockey diehards hoped that the Jackets would get off to a fast start and the All-Star Game then would help to cement enthusiasm for the Winter Game in Ohio’s capital city.  Things haven’t quite worked out that way.

Still, it’s a great thing to have people from all over gather in Columbus for a weekend, and the Arena District, where the All-Star Game will be played, is an area that shows off Columbus very well.  I would say that I hope that the weather cooperates — but I’m not sure what kind of weather hockey aficionados want, anyway.  Maybe a winter snowstorm and frigid temperatures that would be unwelcome to most of us would just make the rinksters feel like dropping the puck and crashing the boards.

One other thing about hockey players:  unlike NFL stars, basketball players, and for that matter participants in the annual Arnold Sports Classic, hockey players are normal-sized.  When you run into them around town they also seem to be friendly, polite, hard-working guys.  They’ll fit right in in Columbus, a generally friendly, polite, hard-working town.

Our New (Old) Library Branch

IMG_4671Kish and I are big users of the award-winning Columbus Metropolitan Library system.  Now that we have relocated to German Village, we obviously won’t be using the New Albany branch as we have been doing for years.  So, where to go?

It turns out that the venerable Main Library on Grant Avenue is one of the nearest branches of the CML.  It’s an easy walk from German Village and a terrific facility, so we’ve decided to adopt it as our new branch of choice.

The Main Library originally was called the Carnegie Library, and its original building was opened in 1907.  It’s a beautiful marble and granite structure with fantastic interior flourishes, including tiled hallways, stained glass skylights, soaring ceilings, and sweeping staircases.  There’s also a huge modern addition behind the original building that was added in 1991.  It doesn’t have the same architectural panache as the original — at least, not in my view — but it is huge and houses an enormous collection on three sprawling floors.  As a fan of the music CD options the CML offers, it’s nice to be able to browse a different assortment of jazz, classical, and rock options than was found in the New Albany branch and make a few impulse selections, as I did yesterday.

IMG_4667Our timing in beginning to use the Main Library is just about perfect, because the recent addition will be closing in less than two weeks for a major renovation — and, as one of the librarians explained yesterday, the library will somehow try to fit the staff and collection back into the original Carnegie building during the renovation period.  It will be good to see the initial building returned to its intended use again, although it will undoubtedly be a tight squeeze.

The renovation plans are impressive.  One of the main goals is to link the library to Columbus’ Topiary Park to the east by getting rid of an intervening parking lot and fence, landscaping the area, and adding an open deck that will function as a reading area.  It sounds like a terrific idea . . . and any proposal that replaces downtown surface parking lots with more green space has my enthusiastic support as a matter of course.  The east facade of the existing library building also will be replaced with glass, and the library will incorporate some new technology and new features in its children’s space.  All told, the renovation will cost $30.4 million and won’t be completed until summer 2016, which means we’ll get to become very familiar with the Carnegie building in the interim.

Using the Main Library is different from the New Albany branch — it’s far bigger, and the New Albany branch didn’t require the security guards that seem to be an inevitable part of any downtown building that is open to the public — but it has all of the features that make the Columbus Metropolitan Library system so excellent, including the ability to reserve books, CDs, and other parts of the library collection on-line.  Columbus’ Main Library is a treasure to be supported, and I’m glad that the community is investing in it.

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New Digs

We’re now officially landowners again.  On Friday afternoon we closed on our new house located smack dab in the middle of German Village, located near Lindey’s, G. Michael’s Bistro, and the Book Loft.

IMG_4641It’s an older brick home built, we think, in 1906, and there’s a fair amount of work to be done before we move in.  Kish is acting as a kind of general contractor, coordinating the appearance, estimates, and work of painters, hardwood flooring firms, electricians, landscapers, and cabinet companies who will be getting the house up to Code — in this case, Kish Code. Already, work has begun.  We met with the painter yesterday morning, and he and his assistant spent the day patching holes and putting on the priming coats.

In the meantime, Kish has been fielding helpful advice from a decorator and friends who have that feng shui flair, particularly on the big sticking point — light fixtures.  What should we hang in the foyer, and what in the dining room?  Should they match in some way?  How do we thread the needle of three desires:  wanting fixtures that are physically attractive, put out sufficient light to serve their real purpose, and are easy to clean and don’t require impossible physical manipulations when it’s time to change a bulb?  We’ve looked at so many light fixtures that all of the pop-up ads on any website we access immediately cycle to lighting products and special deals on chandeliers.

It’s an exciting time for us.

Flogging For Blogging

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in America and other countries where personal freedoms to speak, think, and worship as we choose are recognized and protected rights are just that — lucky.  Not everyone in the world is so fortunate.

Consider the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger.  He started an on-line forum called Liberal Saudi Network that sought to encourage discussion of religious and political issues in the kingdom.  Badawi wrote about the importance of moving to a more secular state and published his views on issues like the continued existence of Israel — the Guardian has a story about some of his writings — and it was too much for the Saudi government.  Badawi was arrested, narrowly avoided the death penalty for apostasy, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes — as well as a huge fine — for criticizing leading Muslim clerics and disobedience.  His wife and their three children fled the country.

The lashes are to be administered publicly at a rate of 50 each Friday until the sentence is completed.  After the first 50 lashes were struck outside a mosque in Jeddah, Badawi was so badly injured that a doctor concluded that he could not sustain another 50 lashes the following week, and the next round of lashes were postponed.

The treatment of Badawi has caused an international backlash, and now the Saudi King has referred Badawi’s sentence to the Saudi Supreme Court.  Badawi’s supporters are hopeful that his sentence will be reduced, but there are no guarantees.  Saudi Arabia has a long and brutal record of public beheadings, lashings, and other medieval forms of punishment, as well as repressive treatment of women, and its wealth and oil reserves have largely immunized it from the consequences of its conduct.

Those of us who live in free countries often take our liberties for granted.  We shouldn’t.

Fighting For Law Students And Gaming The Rankings

The last few years have been tough for higher education, and no sector has been harder hit that law schools.  Since 2010 the number of students taking the LSAT — the test that most law schools use as an admissions tool — has plummeted, and the number of new students entering law school has plunged to the lowest level since 1973.  That’s a problem, because there are 53 more law schools now than there were when Watergate was front page news, and they all want to fill their classes with tuition-paying students.

So, a larger pool of law schools is grappling with a shrinking pool of applicants.  What to do?  Well, you could take students with lower LSAT scores and college GPAs and accept more applicants — but then you’d get a lower ranking in the publications that try to rank law schools, like U.S. News and World Report.  That would be bad, because a lower ranking might mean that fewer students will want to apply to your law school in the first place and fewer potential employers looking for elite candidates will be interested in interviewing your graduates.

The result of this quandary apparently is law schools that are trying to game the system.  The idea is to maintain high standards for applicants for berths in their first-year classes, but then throw open the doors to transfer students to fill out larger second-year and third-year classes.  Indeed, American University Law School in Washington, D.C. has seen so many of its students transfer to George Washington University Law School, also in D.C., that a law professor at American wrote a Facebook post accusing GWU of “raiding” American and actively trying to game the rankings, because only the credentials of GWU’s incoming first-year students are reported to the ranking entities.

In the rarefied and genteel world of law schools, such accusations are unusual, and the notion of law schools fighting for students is a bit unseemly.  But tuition payments are the lifeblood of law schools, and in some instances schools are fighting for survival.  When your very existence is at stake, the white gloves come off.

A Three Starbucks Stroll

How much coffee do the people of Columbus, Ohio drink, anyway?

IMG_4533My new walking path to work heads straight down South Third Street, from German Village to downtown Columbus.  It’s a pleasant walk of about a mile and a half, past churches, hotels, the Ohio Statehouse . . . and three Starbucks.  Three, in such a short distance!  And there are other, independent coffee houses like Stauf’s sprinkled in along the way, too.  If you wanted, you could easily buy your steaming hot cup of triple latte grande with whipped cream, drink it, get multiple refills along the way, and end up in the office with a groaning bladder and a head buzzing with caffeine and sugar.

Starbucks are ubiquitous in our culture, like McDonald’s was years ago when there seemed to be a Golden Arches at every intersection.  But many of those McDonald’s outlets ultimately closed, either due to overkill, or Big Mac fatigue, or America’s innate interest in always moving on to the Next Big Thing.  You wonder how many of the Starbuck’s that now dot the landscape will survive, and when the current fixation with jazzed-up, flavored coffee will end and be replaced by . . . who knows what?

Cardale Comes Back

Cardale Jones, the Cinderella Story quarterback who went from third-stringer to the man who led Ohio State to a National Championship over a three-game span, had a press conference at 4 p.m. today.  Everyone assumed that Jones, who was eligible for the NFL draft and has definitely showed the cannon-powered arm that NFL teams covet, was going to announce that he was leaving the Buckeyes to turn pro.

Not so.  Cardale Jones surprised just about everyone by announcing that he was staying in school.  He said: “I don’t know why you guys made it such a big deal,” and added “the  NFL after three games was really out of the picture for me.”  That’s a very sensible, mature perspective for a 22-year-old who could be expected to have a swelled head after being the talk of the sports world during his improbable rise to stardom.

But that’s not all that Jones said, and did, that was remarkable today.  He also mentioned that he didn’t expect to be handed the starting quarterback job and just wanted a chance to compete for it against Braxton Miller, who was out all season with an injury, and J.T. Barrett, who played brilliantly before suffering a brutal injury that ended his season and gave Jones his chance.  It’s refreshing to see that Jones doesn’t feel that his three-game blitzkrieg entitles him to special treatment.

So why did Jones have a press conference to announce that he was staying in school?  The location of the presser was the Ginn Academy in Cleveland, a school that caters to inner-city kids and tries to give them a quality education and a future.  By having the press conference there and announcing that he was going back to school, Jones tried to show some leadership and demonstrate to the kids of Cleveland that he values an education.  That’s a very impressive effort by a guy who, before the last month, was known mostly for an ill-advised tweet he sent years ago about not coming to Ohio State to “play school.”

I don’t know whether Cardale Jones will ever be a star NFL quarterback — but I really don’t care about that right now.  I think his actions today show he is a pretty good person who has grown a lot, and that really is a lot more important.