The Ponytail Puller

Politicians are a weird and often unfathomable breed.  The weirdness isn’t just limited to American politicians, either.  Take John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Key is under fire because he repeatedly tugged on the ponytail of a waitress at a cafe he frequents in Auckland — even after she told Key’s security people, and later Key himself, that she didn’t like it.  When she finally went public with Key’s conduct, and he started to be criticized for it, he apologized, said his ponytail pulls were meant to be “light-hearted” and not intended to make the waitress uncomfortable, explained that the cafe was a place where had a “warm and friendly” relationship with the staff that involved “fun and games” and “practical jokes,” and gave the waitress two bottles of wine.

Anybody who’s ever been bullied recognizes this scenario.  The bully invades your personal space and does something physical that they think is funny, their sycophants dutifully laugh at the antics of their leader, and the bully keeps rubbing your head or punching your arm every time they see you even though you ask them to stop.  If they get caught in the act by a teacher, they insist it’s all simply joking between friends — one of whom just happens to be bigger and more powerful than the other, who always seems to be the butt of the “jokes.”

Key’s conduct doesn’t just reflect a bullying attitude, though — it also reveals the power relationships to which politicians the world over become accustomed.  Most of us would never dream of physically touching a waiter or waitress, much less doing something as painful, intrusive, and asinine as pulling a ponytail and continuing to do so even after being asked to quit it.  Key did it because, surrounded by security people and wearing the mantle of national leadership, he could.  It’s the same attitude of power and entitlement that makes American politicians unconcerned by the fact that their motorcades and security cordons inconvenience normal folks and makes them mad when an average person has the temerity to question what they’re doing, their motives, or where they are getting campaign contributions from.

In Key’s case the hair-yanking probably gave him a little thrill and direct sense of power, besides.  Anyone care to guess how many of the “practical jokes” at the cafe were pulled by Key on the unfortunate members of the staff and how many were directed at him?

Pots Forsaken

There’s been a game-changing development at the coffee station on my floor.  The old multi-pot coffee device — the kind that is directly linked to the water supply so that steaming tureens of joe can be prepared to sate the thirsty appetite of java junkies — has been ignominiously unplugged and cast aside.  Now we’ve got a Flavia machine instead.

IMG_5158Is this change a big deal, really?  I’ll say!  The old machine was my dependable morning friend.  Every day when I got to the office my inviolate routine was to head directly to the coffee station, turn the machine on, remove the basket, insert a fresh filter, cut open a coffee packet and dump it in, press the brew button, and then listen to the hot water and coffee grounds start to cluck and burble and work their caffeinated magic.  By the time I checked email and finished my first few chores of the day a fresh pot was there, black and fragrant and ready to fill my cup.

But coffee habits have changed.  Now when you walk around downtown Columbus you inevitably see throngs of people carefully gripping their coffee cups, taking a scalding sip now and then as they head to their workplaces.  Some of them won’t drink “office coffee” any more, so there is less need for multiple pots of coffee on the burner, and much of the coffee that is brewed goes unconsumed and ultimately gets poured down the drain.

Hence, the Flavia.  Rather than making a hearty, bubbling pot of coffee, it hisses out a solo cup prepared from pre-measured foil packets that slide into a slot that snaps out of the machine.  And it’s not really a full cup, either — as least not in my massive mug.  No, the Flavia machine fills to about the halfway point and stops.  It makes my morning coffee look a bit lost and overwhelmed and forlorn, but at least I’m not being wasteful.

The Champs And The Chief

The reigning college football champions visited the White House today, and President Obama made the Ohio State Buckeyes feel welcome and appreciated.  We may not agree with the President on all things, but he did a good job of spotlighting the defining qualities of this team of stalwarts:  they were a resilient bunch who didn’t back down after some initial adversity and showed true character in winning an improbable championship.

Kish wonders why Presidents spend their valuable time visiting with sports champions and similar cultural figures.  I don’t.  America is about a lot more than politicians and business leaders.  Our sports and sports heroes help to define us and illustrate many of the traits that we think have helped to make our country great — traits like competitiveness, grit, and drive, and a refusal to quit when the going gets tough.  The Buckeyes deserved a little recognition from the nation’s Chief Executive for their unforgettable season, and kudos to President Obama for deftly handling that small but nevertheless important task.

Hydration Nation

IMG_5192Driving home today from Russell’s show in Detroit, Kish and I stopped at a Speedway somewhere along Route 23 to gas up.  I went inside to use the facilities and there, strategically located on the path to the restrooms, was this extraordinary shrine to hydration.  An entire section of the interior was devoted to every non-alcoholic form of refreshment you could possibly imagine — and this picture doesn’t even include the coffee station that included eight different kinds of coffee and a mocha java machine.

Are Americans really so thirsty that a random gas station stop needs to include a Quench Quad that features so many different kinds of soft drinks in sizes that include large, giant, and suitable for use as a swimming pool?  Is it any wonder that so many Americans are struggling with obesity issues when they are guzzling king-sized cups of sugary beverages and spooning down frozen concoctions every time they stop for gas?

Dredging Up The News

Richard had another really good article published in the Florida Times-Union this week.  This one is about the history of Army Corps of Engineers’ chronic underestimates of costs — and the resulting substantial cost overruns — in prior efforts to deepen the Jacksonville harbor.  It’s a significant issue for the people of Jacksonville, because a new river-dredging project is being touted, and local government would be picking up part of the tab.

This kind of story is important, whether you live in Jacksonville or not, because it deals with a very common scenario.  Business leaders and politicians pitch a big project, promising that it will create jobs and is needed to keep the community competitive.  Politicians like big projects because they create a sense of progress and, not incidentally, the pols get to award contracts for the construction work.   Project boosters produce feasibility studies and cost estimates that make the project seem like a bargain and it gets approved — but then when the bills roll in, the costs are far above the estimates and, often, the promised economic benefits either don’t materialize at all or are far below what was forecast.

In this instance, Richard used public records requests to obtain documents that show what prior Jacksonville harbor-deepening projects actually cost, which is typically many multiples of the rosy cost estimates provided before the projects got underway.  It’s another good example of Richard’s smart use of access laws to report facts that help to educate the reader and provide some meaningful context to the political promises.

It’s interesting that one of the people Richard interviewed for the story, a professor who studies ports, noted that every large infrastructure project involves cost overruns and delays.  We would all do well to keep that reality in mind the next time our local leaders want taxpayers to endorse a new jobs-and-progress project.

Russell At Cranbrook

IMG_5215Russell’s time in the master’s program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art is drawing to a close.  In a few days some of his new work will be shown as part of the graduating students’ exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum, followed shortly thereafter by an open studios event and then by graduation in early May.

IMG_5182Kish and I are excited to go up and see Russell’s new pieces as displayed in the museum and also to see what is underway in his studio.  In the meantime, we’ve been reflecting on Cranbrook, the institution.  It’s an interesting and physically beautiful place, with a fascinating history that finds deep roots in notions of American exceptionalism and the uniquely American ability to find a better approach to education, creativity, and craftsmanship, unbound by traditional notions of class and status and settled ways of doing things found in European cultures. Having a Master’s art program on the same campus as a secondary school, sharing grounds that feature lovely buildings, art objects, and carved expressions of sentiments about the importance of constantly seeking beauty in your daily life, is certainly an unusual concept not found in every educational institution.

Cranbrook has also been, I think, a good fit for Russell.  Returning to the Detroit area — Cranbrook is in Bloomfield Hills, a Motor City suburb — after living for several years in Brooklyn has allowed Russell to really reconnect with his Midwestern roots, in ways that have found expression in his artwork and artistic interests.  Cranbrook’s multi-disciplinary approach, in which students in the painting program are interacting regularly with student metalworkers, ceramic artists, architects, sculptors, fiber artists, and photographers, has also allowed Russell to experience different perspectives on art and experiment with incorporating some aspects of those approaches into his own artwork.

It might just be the Dad in me talking, but I think Russell’s willingness to experiment and embrace and understand what other students are doing has been true to the vision of a different, open approach that led to Cranbrook’s founding in the first place.  I think the people who started the Art Academy would be as proud of him as we are.

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Tax Torn

Well, it’s Tax Day — April 15, the due date for most federal and state income tax filings.  The butt of jokes by comedians for decades.  The annual source of angst for millions of American taxpayers.  A rallying cry for conservative anti-taxers ever since the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 and allowed the federal income tax in the first place.

My feelings about Tax Day are decidedly ambivalent.  I recognize that taxes are the price we pay for living in a free society, and I pay them willingly.  A modern military with modern weaponry, a welfare state system that tries to help the poor and elderly, and a government that shoulders far-reaching tasks like disease control or preventing alien species from invading the Great Lakes can’t be funded by the system of duties and tariffs that supported a much more limited government during the colonial era.  I also think it’s ridiculous for people like Ted Cruz to talk about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.  If you accept that taxes must be paid, as I do, there must be an entity that collects the tax.

At the same time, it’s hard for me to feel warm and fuzzy about our tax system or the IRS.  Last night Kish and I watched the latest Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and it tried to make viewers feel sorry for the IRS, because IRS jobs are boring, the Internal Revenue Code is constantly being changed by Congress, and IRS funding has been cut.  Good luck with that effort!  The IRS may be necessary, but don’t expect me to give it a hug, okay?  And when I sign my forms and send in my payments, don’t think I’m a nut if I wonder about the presence of unfairness in our tax code and abuse and favoritism in the highly political process by which tax exemptions are determined and tax rates are imposed.

Every year, as I look at the forms and the complicated instructions, I wonder if there isn’t a simpler, fairer way to do it.  Say what you will about the sales tax, but it’s a straightforward percentage that anybody can calculate, and it targets consumption rather than work.  If you want to soak the idle rich, wouldn’t a tax when they buy ridiculously appointed $200,000 SUVs be a good idea?  And user fees that are triggered when a specific federal service is used — say, for use of ports and customs, for airline security, or for drug or vehicle testing to ensure compliance with safety standards — also seems fair.  Couple that with an income tax and withholding system that involves fewer exemptions, exclusions, deductions, tax rate levels, and schedules, and maybe you’ve got a workable system that won’t cause so many Americans to take the IRS’s name in vain come every April 15.