Heartland View

Flying out of Columbus today on a clear, cold day, looking at the familiar grid pattern of the farmland below, I was reminded of an enlightening conversation I actually had on a flight some years ago. The well-dressed, older woman sitting next to me, who apparently hailed from one of the coasts, was looking doubtfully at the countryside below and finally asked: “What is going on down there?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why are those squares and rectangles on the ground?” she asked.

“Those are farms,” I explained.

“Oh,” she replied.

I know they call our neck of the woods “flyover country,” but don’t the folks on the coasts at least know what they are flying over?


Bracing For The Weirdest Summit Ever

According to news reports and a tweet from President Trump, there will be a summit meeting in the next two months between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.  The agreement to set up a meeting was brokered by the South Korean government, and the place and time of the summit is currently being determined.  In the meantime, North Korea has agreed that it will not engage in any more missile testing until after the summit occurs.

Whenever and wherever it happens — if it happens at all — the meeting promises to be the weirdest, most closely watched, most unpredictable summit in history.

donald-trump-kim-jong-un-ap-mt-171101_16x9_992Viewed solely from the standpoint of normal diplomacy, this meeting will be highly unusual.  North Korea and the United States have no diplomatic relations of any kind, and no American President has ever met a North Korean leader.  In fact, the United States and North Korea technically remain in a state of war, because the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.   Even President Nixon’s famous trip to China, which reopened relations between America and China, was built upon a prior period of thawing relations and more diplomatic prep work than would occur before this summit.

Add to that the fact that President Trump and Kim Jong-Un have been trading venomous barbs about each other and engaging in lots of saber-rattling talk until now, and are two of the most unpredictable leaders in the world besides, and you have to wonder what the talks between the two of them will be like.  The diplomats and underlings who will be present, from both sides, will no doubt be desperately hoping that Kim Jong-Un and President Trump follow whatever scripts their respective sides have prepared — all the while knowing that history teaches that they probably won’t.  And the media, which carefully analyzed a handshake between President Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin when they first met, will have a field day examining and breathlessly reporting on every wink, nod, and offhand comment.

North Korea has long been a problem that has been ignored by world leaders, hoping it would just go away — but the provocative, destabilizing conduct of North Korea has gotten more and more dangerous as it has worked to develop nuclear weapons and tested long-range missiles.  Something needs to be done to get North Korea off the path of confrontation and into more normalized relations with the United States and the rest of the world.  Will The Weirdest Summit Ever be able to achieve that?  The world will be watching the weirdness, and holding its breath.

On The Other Side Of The River

When Kish and I lived in D.C., I don’t think we ever made it to the Maryland side of the Potomac River. We we went to the Virginia side all the time, in Alexandria, and Arlington, and at Mount Vernon. But the Maryland side seemed like No Man’s Land.

Now I’ve finally made it, for work-related meetings. The meetings are in one of those massive, sprawling convention centers that is like a city within a city. It’s got a nice waterfront path, a big Ferris Wheel, a water taxi, and a fine view of a bridge leading to the Virginia side. And, it’s right on the landing path for Reagan National Airport, with planes descending about every two minutes.

So, this is the other side of the river, eh? Who knows? Maybe if I look hard enough I’ll find the silver dollar George Washington supposedly threw across the Potomac.

A Question For The Gardeners Out There

In the past, I’ve dabbled with gardening.  I particularly enjoyed planting flowers at our old suburban home and watching them bloom and grow and flourish.  I liked getting my hands dirty and seeing the product of my manual labor, and I even accepted weeding and watering our small flower beds as a useful weekend activity.

img_0090But all of my experience with flowers is Ohio-centric, from having a sense about the kind of flowers that seem to do well here, like the zinnias I planted at our old house, right down to following Mom’s admonition that you shouldn’t plant flowers until after Mothers’ Day.  I’m guessing that a different rule of thumb would apply in a different climate, like Maine, where the weather might not really warm up until well into June.  Drawing exclusively upon midwestern Ohio experiences and trying to apply them to a rocky northern coastal area that is constantly exposed to salty air and experiences periodic nor’easter storms seems ill-advised.

So, a question for the expert gardeners out there:  if you want to learn about gardening practices in Maine, or any other new location, where should you go?  Is there an authoritative guidebook or website that provides information by region and can get into detail about the basics, like the native plant life, the safe time to plant flowers and which ones are most likely to thrive given the climate and soil conditions, whether planting seeds or seedlings is the best course, and whether particular kinds of grasses or shrubs are more prone to succeed or fail than others?  Can you trust the folks at the local hardware store or gardening shop to only offer plants that have reasonable prospects for success given the local conditions, or is that approach doomed to failure?

I feel like a newbie here, and I’m not sure that doing random internet searches and trusting to the Google Gods is the best way to go about gathering information.

“Nobody Cares About Your Thoughts And Prayers”

The other day I ran across an interesting piece from a public relations firm called Hennes Communications about how companies respond to horrible events like the recent school shooting in Florida.  The piece is intended to provide some advice and guidance in a world where companies, like just about everybody else, feel compelled to take to social media to express their views on what’s going on — especially tragedies.

276d9b7a9329e9bcdc3465df84cb664f-atheist-meme-meme-humorEntitled “Nobody Cares About Your Thoughts and Prayers,” the piece takes companies to task for rote, mechanical reactions to bad events.  The piece notes that “thoughts and prayers” has become the reflexive response, and states:  “’Thoughts and prayers’ has become a meaningless message, a quick toss-off for those too lazy, and too disrespectful, to stop, turn off their smart phone, close their office door for a minute and think about the tragedy at hand.”  The article notes that other trite, overused reactions are “Our hearts go out . . . ” and “There are no words.”  The article says the latter phrase is “mortifying” and responds to the “no words” reaction as follows:  “Yes there are. You just said four of them. And if you really believe someone’s tragedy is not worth more thought and human emotion than that, then prepare to be pilloried by the always-vigilant, ever-righteous haters who troll social media.”

And, speaking of social media, if you google “thoughts and prayers” you’re going to find lots of “thoughts and prayers” memes like the one I’ve included as the artwork for this post — all of which express the view that sending “thoughts and prayers” is pretty much useless.

It’s an interesting issue, because we’re confronted with the need to react to tragedy with unfortunate regularity.  Occasionally it is a huge calamity, like a hurricane or a mass shooting, but more often it is something that is more personal in scale, like a death in the family or a horrible medical diagnosis or development.  When those bad things happen, and you want to acknowledge the profound loss or anguish that someone has experienced, it is hard to capture the right sentiment.  Words often do seem inadequate.

Both of my parents have been dead for years, so my own experience with being on the receiving end of condolences isn’t fresh — but I know that I appreciated it when people took the time to add a meaningful personal note.  Whether it was recounting some nice personal memory of Mom or Dad, or speaking from the heart about how they dealt with the loss of their own parents, those little personal notes meant a lot, and I still remember them.  When dealing personally with grief, I appreciated all of the good wishes, and I obviously wasn’t grading the condolences I received on the “rote expression” scale, as apparently happens on social media these days — but all I know is that the more individualized notes really had the biggest impact.

So, I agree that words do matter.  Basic sentiments of support are fine, I think, but well-chosen, thoughtful expressions of concern and support can really make a difference.

A Pepper Spray Present

Every year, the nominees for the Oscars get a lavish gift bag with all kinds of special items donated by companies that are looking for a little big of PR.  The bags are not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but they’ve become a kind of tradition and are loaded with goodies like plane tickets, high-end cosmetics, and new, uber cool gizmos.

So, what’s in this year’s swag bag?

promo343614230Well, among other things there’s a 12-day trip to Tanzania, something called a “24 carat gold facial” — that sounds like it will fit right in with the Hollywood tradition of wretched excess — and a “conflict-free” diamond necklace.  Oh, and multiple kinds of pepper spray, now that the Harvey Weinstein horror story and the exposure of many other producers, directors, agents, and actors have revealed Hollywood to be a place of rampant sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and outright rape.

It’s therefore not surprising that this year’s Oscar swag bag has a decided personal safety and security element to it.  It includes at least three different pepper spray options — including a key ring-sized device — two personal body alarms, and a kit that allows you to determine whether your drink has been drugged that no doubt will immediately come in handy at one of those Oscars after-parties.

It tells you something about what it must be like to be a part of the oversexed, overprotected, underinvestigated, and underbrained world of the Hollywood glitterati.  Normally I would object to the idea of Oscar nominees getting thousands of dollars in freebies on “rich get richer” grounds, but this year maybe the swag bags offer some hope and some perspective on what a wretched place Hollywood really is.  Maybe at least one of the nominees will grab their pepper spray and spiked drink kit, don the personal body alarms, sell the “24-karat gold facial” and the “conflict-free” diamond necklace for a little ready cash, jet off to Tanzania for that 12-day holiday — and wisely decide to never come back to the lewd and lecherous land of Oscar.

One Reason Why College Is So Expensive

There’s a longstanding debate in the United States about how expensive college has become, and what to do about it.  Some people say we need to get over the notion that every young person needs to go to college, and recognize that learning a trade that is always going to be needed is a perfectly fine way to live a happy, productive life.  Others argue that we need to make college loans more available, and at better terms, and still others say that students loans are a long-term trap for the borrowers and therefore the federal government should pay for college.

Curiously, there’s not much of an outcry for colleges and universities to actually take steps to cut their costs and, as a result, cut their tuition.  And while there are some low-cost alternatives, in the form of community colleges, traditional economics don’t seem to apply to the college decision-making process.  Low-cost competitors don’t restrain the pricing of tuition at more prestigious institutions, because there is always a gaggle of parents, and students, willing to pay exorbitant amounts to go to Harvard, or Stanford, and acquire the diploma from an eminent school.

stanford-university-696x391Could colleges and universities cut costs and offer lower tuitions?  A recent article about the school bureaucracy at Stanford points to one way it could be done.   The article describes the explosive growth in the administrative apparatus at the school and cites some interesting statistics:

“Expenditures for non-academic administrative and professional employees have doubled at US colleges in the past 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students and faculty. According to the Department of Education, administrative positions have grown by 60% between 1993 and 2009, ten times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Private schools are more guilty than their public school contemporaries; there are now 2.5 non-academic employees for every full-time tenure-track faculty member at private institutions, which exceeds the 2:1 ratio at public universities. A proliferation of associates and assistants, marketers and managers, now outnumber faculty and TAs.”

Why has the number of administrative employees at colleges doubled, and what do all of these people do?  Were you aware that, at Stanford, there is an “Office of Alcohol and Policy Education” that has its own associate dean, assistant director, operations manager, and assistant dean?  Or a Students & Activities Leadership area that is supposed to “help students find community and foster passions” that has four professional staff members?  And the growing college bureaucracy not only contributes to the spiraling cost of an education; the article linked above argues that the administrative state at Stanford not only consumes resources and money, but also “strangles student culture” and harms the education students receive.

When I went to school at Ohio State in the ’70s, the administrative part of the University was small, and many of the positions and offices described in the article about Stanford didn’t exist.  And, not coincidentally, tuition was very reasonable.  And while some new positions are logical and appropriate, such as those that seek to enhance diversity and inclusion on campus, the need for other additions is highly debatable.  When I was in college, we didn’t need school administrators to help us “foster passions” or “find community,” we somehow managed to do it ourselves.  And maybe it would be better for students, and a more fitting preparation for the real world, if students had to muddle through themselves without having an army of officious administrators dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.

Are there school trustees, or college presidents, out there who are willing to tackle cutting bloated administrative budgets, eliminating nonessential positions, and making the cost of an education more affordable?  We may find out only of students and parents decide to stop writing blank checks when it comes to tuition.