Thursday, October 17, 2013

Calling the election before votes are cast

Ballots for the upcoming election came to the Rice Estate last week, just as campaigns for and against the most important ballot question in the history of public education in Colorado got under way. I dragged out my crystal ball, a gift from my wife on graduating from journalism school all those years ago, and prepared for some serious gazing. The three ballot issues have the potential of changing Colorado’s future and my crystal ball tells me that voters probably will stumble into decisions that do no real harm but very little good.

The big question, of course, is Amendment 66, which is a tax increase to fund public education. It’s a very good idea because while Colorado’s state taxation rate is 45th in the country, according to a CNN/Money magazine analysis earlier this year, the quality of our education is ranked at 35th in the nation, according to Education Weekly. The old adage is true; you get what you pay for. And Coloradoans are notoriously stingy when it comes to public education. We don’t have anything against it, necessarily, we just don’t want to see any money spent on it. It’s not even that we don’t want to spend our own money on it. We don’t want anyone’s money spent on it, including the oil and gas companies’ money. We had a chance to nick the fat cats pulling oil and natural gas out of the Colorado ground a couple of years ago and spend the money on education, but we are so loathe to fund education we even turned that down.

We’d rather spend it on prisons, I guess.

For reasons no one can really understand, the Logan County Commissioners included a referendum on secession from the state even though there was virtually no interest expressed in it anywhere in Logan County. Judging from the number of CDOT trucks, tractors, and humans I saw in the Sterling area when the South Platte rampaged through here, it would make sense that anyone with a keen sense of survival would vote against that one, too. For one thing, we’re more than happy to keep our rural snouts in the state trough when it comes to roads and bridges. And for another we should be smart enough to know that a state comprised of just the eastern third of what is now Colorado wouldn’t have a trough nearly big enough to fix what broke in September. Unfortunately, the vote on this question won't have anything to do with smart, as I'll explain later.

That brings us to the third big ballot question, the 25% tax on marijuana. I have to confess to mixed feelings about that one. As a once and future partaker of the magic weed, I wince at such a steep levy on a vice I would very much like to make my own. On the other hand, as a die-hard tax-and-spend liberal, I am eager for the state to get its hands on all that disposable income that will come pouring out of the tonier neighborhoods of south metro once the bud legally goes on sale.

As we get closer to election day, friends and acquaintances who know my stellar record in predicting elections – I once said, “Americans will never elect a president whose name ends in a vowel,” and I was right; Rudy Giuliani never had a chance – will be asking me how I call this one. I’ll save the local media the bother of covering the election call the decisions right now.

On the school tax, the nays will have it with at least 60 percent of the vote. It’s a tax on everybody, and people who flock to the polls (it’s just a figure of expression – this is a mail-in vote) vote against any tax that might touch them.

On the other hand, the Mary Jane tax probably will pass but it’ll be a squeaker. The voters, overwhelmingly conservative, want to punish all those potheads who made the damn stuff legal, so they’ll vote to tax the bejesus out of it.

That leaves the secession vote. I think it will die on the vine, as it should, but it will be a close vote, and here’s why: About a third of the voters will think the thing is so stupid it doesn’t deserve a vote. That’ll leave the other two thirds to actually vote. Of those, almost half will vote yes, a handful because they’re not in full possession of their minds, and the rest just for giggles and to see what happens next. But a few more than that will vote no on it because they just vote no on everything. In other words, a massive outbreak of irresponsible voter behavior will result in a decision that vaguely resembles common sense. they'll get it right but for all the wrong reasons.

There are other questions on the ballot, but only one will require an actual vote. One of the Re-1 Valley School District Board of Education seats is up for grabs in a three-way race. I started to research that so I could make a prediction, but then I realized that it really doesn't matter. In a few years the board won't have any money to operate with anyway.

Lordy, I do love elections!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A funeral in the time of the flood

In 1965 the flooding South Platte River wreaked havoc from Denver to Julesburg; in 1975, the Big Thompson River ripped its own canyon apart after record-breaking rainfall. In both floods, people died and the land was changed. Then, in September 2013, came a flood that combined the worst of those two. This is an account of the author’s very personal experiences of that time.

My wife’s mother died on a Friday. By itself, it was no more or less significant than the death of anyone’s mother, and we certainly weren’t strangers to the emotions and tumult that would follow. We’d already lost both of our fathers, my mother, and a beloved aunt within about a five-year period, so we knew the drill.

I was prepared to hold her, to feel her sobs on my shoulder, to tell her it would be okay (if you don’t count the vivid dreams in which her mom would be very much alive) and help her through this one last loss.

What I wasn’t ready for was the blow Mother Nature would deal her and her family. On the day Mom died, the northern Front Range was already reeling from unprecedented rainfall. Familiar vacation spots were blown away by the raging water in the canyons. Our youngest son and his family had been evacuated from their home by the flooding Big Thompson; further south his older brother and family were battling leaky ceilings and flooding crawl spaces. As the reality of her mother’s death sank in, my wife came to another realization: All of that water was headed our way.

By the weekend dire predictions were marching in advance of the relentless water. We watched, helpless, as Kersey, Orchard, and Weldona became inundated. Weld County seemed to disappear under a brown blanket, then Morgan County. Sunday morning we frantically filled sandbags and piled them against our garage, mimicking what we saw elsewhere, with no idea what we were really doing.
“It never got onto our property in Sixty-Five,” she kept saying, but we sandbagged anyway.

By mid-day Sunday the news got worse. Bigger than ever, people said, and even the official word was either grim or lacking altogether. (Not that the emergency management people shirked their informational duty; it’s just that when Hell is lumbering toward you, it takes its own time getting there and there’s not much to say.)

We saw the first evacuation notice go out. It was south of Highway Six. Maybe, we thought, that would be enough. My wife’s telephone kept beeping and warbling and tweeting and tinkling; updates on the river, updates on the funeral arrangements. Is it really twenty-four feet at Balzac? Can’t be, not possible, Brush would be washed away. Did somebody sing “Ave Maria” at Dad’s funeral? Who’s working on the obituary? Did Johnny’s place flood in Sixty-Five? Yeah, “Ave Maria” and “How Great Thou Art.” Did we sandbag enough at Mom’s house? Yes, and there’s a good berm. They didn’t have that in Sixty-Five. Is somebody going to deliver a Eulogy? Oh, God, if that ditch is running, we’re gonna’ get water! Check facebook again – are we going to be evacuated? Which priest will be have?
And so it went all day. We packed, we filled water jugs, we filled the dog feeder, we left keys in the cars, we got ready to leave, we braced to stay. Mom had died and the apocalypse was upon us. The mind and soul are taxed to cope with either; my wife was trying to handle both at once.

Finally, late in the afternoon, with the Broncos up by an almost embarrassing score, she couldn’t take it any more.
“I have to go,” she said flatly. I knew she wasn’t talking about evacuation, though that was the context. She had to get the hell out of there, to run as fast and far as she could before it all crushed her. I threw her bag in her car, kissed her and promised I would stay safe. She left for our son’s house in Denver. She left her lap dog Cocoa behind, much to the pooch’s distress.
I went back in the house and experienced a loneliness I have never known before. I wanted to call her back, to beg her to stay. I wasn’t going to abandon the home I’d spent eight years building and landscaping and planting and fencing; it’s mine, and if it’s going to get washed away, well, it will have to be washed out from under me!

That was silly, of course. Water never even got on the property in Sixty-Five. The floor of the house is nine feet above flood stage. I drove down to the river bridges to check. In the waning daylight it didn’t look so bad. The “middle channel” was running, the river was certainly full, but there was plenty of capacity left, wasn’t there?

I haunted the internet and Facebook pages. The people who are supposed to watch things lost track of the crest, that all-important gob of water that defines a flood out here in the valley. It was supposed to be here at eight o’clock, then maybe nine. In the night, nobody knew where it was or how big it was or when it would get here. Ten’ o’clock, where is the crest? Eleven o’clock, no news. Then, suddenly, it was at Messex, and then Merino, and then it was in Atwood, and in a flash the authorities doubled the size of the evacuation area. I looked at the map and looked again. There it was, the interstate on one side, the old highway on the other. And we were in the middle of it.

It wasn’t an order, actually, but it wasn’t an idle suggestion. The order would come later, in the wee hours of the morning, but it was going to come. Make a decision and make it now; get out or get trapped.

Water never even got on our property in Sixty-five, remember?

This is bigger than Sixty-five, they said.

I grabbed Cocoa, locked the front door, climbed in the pickup and headed for Denver. I was evacuating. I was being prudent. Maybe I was being silly, but if so, I’d be back home by noon the next day and at work by one o’clock.
Monday, while the river swallowed everything around our home, we walked our granddaughter to school. She told her teachers that Nona and Grandpa were from Sterling and they’d been “flooded out.” The teachers clucked and cooed over us, making sympathetic faces, and then we walked back to our son’s house.

The phone calls and messages started again, more of the same, funeral arrangements made from 120 miles away, juxtaposed against images of highways closed and bridges washed, our chances of returning dwindling by the hour. Cell phone batteries were exhausted and recharged and depleted again. There was a conference call with a priest, calls to brothers and sisters, text messages, emails, tweets, the full complement of modern telecommunications harnessed to keep a handful of men and women abreast of the latest developments. The music, the highway closures, the priest’s rules, the state’s regulations, the Gospel reading, the road conditions, bridges open and closed, flowers ordered, hotels available, relatives who could and would be there and the detours required for them to attend.

And then the game changer. A key pump in the wastewater treatment system was swamped and damaged and out of commission. No-flush. No way in, no way out, no way to tend to basic sanitary needs. The bad news was relentless; the electrical sub-station was inundated, maybe the power would go out, delaying the funeral another week, forcing them to close the casket. A very large clan was going to descend on our home in five days to bury the matriarch of the family, and there were no beds to rent, no restaurants open, no useable indoor plumbing anywhere in town. Back at our own house our toilets worked and we had fresh water, but the roads were cut. The wretchedness of the possibilities became clear.

By Tuesday things weren’t any better, but they weren’t any worse. We had to come home, had to see for ourselves. We piled all of our luggage and Cocoa into the pickup, locked my wife’s car, and headed for home. We were not prepared for what we found. The brown blanket covered our friends’ and neighbors’ homes. The road to our house was impassable. The affable police officer manning the barricade gave me all of the facts he had, including the fact that I was not going around his barricade. I respected that. A sympathetic CDOT worker took me aside and surreptitiously pointed out a “back way” around the barricade to where a dry road would lead us home. The affable police officer turned his back and studied his barricade. I climbed into the pickup and informed my wife that the truck’s four-wheel drive was about to become useful.

“What!?” she replied.

“Buckle up, Buttercup,” I said.

I won’t deny I enjoyed being bold and brazen and a little bit outlaw-ish, especially since the detour involved driving from open prairie into the sheriff’s office parking lot. In a few minutes we were home.

My employer was open and needing bodies, so I reported to work the next day. I don’t know what my wife went through, making the necessary arrangements over the next two days, but the value of her sisters’ assistance is incalculable. A brother-in-law conspired with a co-worker to get Mom’s burial clothes to the mortuary and another sister met my wife at the barricade to make the long trip through Atwood into town for last-minute arrangements. The three women, through sheer dint of their strong wills – inherited from their deceased mother – got the job done, even as the combined resources of local, state and federal authorities struggled to set their world aright.

The funeral was little different from all the others I’ve attended for my wife’s family. An unaware observer would have wondered at the priest’s comments about hardship and extreme circumstances. There was no talk of no-flush and only rare mentions of the inconveniences of having to rent motel rooms 40 and 50 miles away. At the end of the day it was clear that what I had watched was not so much a natural disaster as the hard determination of a family to render proper respects to its beloved mother, regardless of what Mother Nature threw at them.

The water will recede, the infrastructure will be rebuilt, and blessedly boring routine will return. But for my wife, things are irrevocably changed. She’s fled her home because it was no longer safe; she’s lost the last person standing between her and mortality. These things change a person. For her, life will never be the same.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Greatest English Teacher Ever

School starts for me this evening. Shortly after supper I’ll venture again behind the steel fences and concrete walls of Sterling (Colorado) Correctional Facility, there to teach Humanities 121 for Northeastern Junior College to a score of inmates working to make something of their lives. And a week from tomorrow I’ll start the weekly drives to Morgan Community College to teach English composition. I’ve been teaching college English and related classes for over five years and it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. And every time I crack open an English textbook, I remember the Greatest English Teacher I Ever Knew. She was the teacher who first instilled in me the desire to teach (God, that I had followed that instinct she awakened!) and who sealed forever my love affair with the English language.

Her name was Catherine Hume, and she taught senior English the year Charlie Morris, Ralph Nelms and I were forced to take her class because … well, because it was required and we were seniors. I’ll never forget her leading poor Ralph out to the water fountain in the main corridor to run cool water over his wrists because he was falling asleep in her class. It was a nice effort, but didn’t change the fact that Ralph was working nights at his father’s business to keep it afloat. Things were not easy in a small prairie town in the 1960s.

Anyway, one day Mrs. Hume decided we needed to understand that William Shakespeare’s plays were not meant to be read, they were meant to be performed and watched. She was especially enamored of “The Scottish Play” (if you think I’m going to invoke Bill’s Curse by typing the name of the play here, you have another think coming!) and so decided to present to us high school seniors her version of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in Act 5, Scen 1 (not to be confused with Lady Macbeth's Soliloquy, which takes place, coincidentally, in Act 1, Scene 5.)

On the appointed day, Mrs. Hume directed us to arrange our desks in a huge circle in the classroom. She drew the blinds down on the windows (it was believed the lead-impregnated blinds would protect us from Communist A-bombs exploding over Denver) and turned out the lights. She draped herself in a shawl, lighted a candle (today’s school administrators would suffer a heart infarction at the mere thought!) and stepped into the center of the circle of students in that darkened room. Remember, our town is a farm/market hub in the center of America. Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas come together here. This was high school back in 1968. Ralph Nelms’ wrists hadn’t been adequately hydrated yet.

Try to imagine what we saw: A woman at the end of her teaching career, already a great-grandmother, who has reminded us that the only “accurate” depictions of this play present this scene with Lady Macbeth nude (now there’s a mental picture for high school seniors!) holds a lighted candle in the middle of a darkened classroom and recites, from memory:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

Mrs. Hume left out the other characters’ lines, reciting only Lady Macbeth’s lines, while we followed along in our textbooks. When it was over, when she’d instructed all in the castle to put on their nightclothes and return to their beds, she blew out the candle. There was complete silence in the classroom. Her next words were, “Jeff, please turn on the lights.” I jumped when Lady Macbeth said my name. Even Ralph was still awake and paying attention.

Mrs. Hume cast off the shawl and set aside the candle, then spent the rest of the period drawing out of us ideas about the power of the throne and the true power of those behind the throne. It doesn’t compare with the discussions of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve seen in graduate school, but it was the first time it ever occurred to me that what William Shakespeare wrote about was more than just a naked old queen sleepwalking in a blood-drenched castle. Mrs. Hume’s performance awakened in me a curiosity about what Shakespeare was really writing about.

Years later, while fulfilling my undergrad requirement for a BA in journalism, I happened to take two sections of Shakespeare in one quarter. It was an exhausting immersion in The Bard, and toward the end I struggled to keep straight the plot lines and character lists. But the result has been a lifelong love affair with William Shakespeare’s work and the way he used language to evoke emotional responses from audiences.

I took those classes because Catherine Hume went far above and beyond what was required to teach English lit to us High Plains seniors. Every time I attend a Shakespeare play, every time I laugh at the antics of Elbow or shed a tear at the fate of Ophelia or tremble with rage at the connivance of Iago, I remember that day when Mrs. Hume put on her shawl and lit her candle. That simple act of educational courage opened my mind to my native tongue in a way no one else ever had.

If I am a successful English teacher, it is in no small part because of Catherine Hume’s devotion to the idea that even we South Platte Valley high school seniors could appreciate one of the greatest playwrights of all time. I can’t speak for Charlie and Ralph, but as for me, she was right. And that’s why Catherine Hume is, to this day and forever, The Greatest English Teacher Ever.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Out of absurdity, a glimmer of clarity

The silliness that would have about 10 Colorado counties secede from the state continues to sputter along, although it doesn’t seem to be getting much bigger.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past several months, I’ll update you: Weld County “rural folk” have had a bellyful of being governed and want nothing more to do with the Colorado General Assembly or Governor. It all stems from some stupidity on the part of the Legislature over gun control, and the radicals up in the Greeley area want to go all Concord-and-Lexington over it. Rather than abandon their lucrative oil and gas royalties and move to Montana, where they might actually find some sympathy, they want to carve the northeastern corner of the state out and make a new state.

I’ve suggested we just join Nebraska -- after all, there are more Husker t-shirts in northeastern Colorado than in the Nebraska panhandle -- but Lincoln called me the other day and said, “No, thanks! We already have plenty of dull-witted rednecks incapable of critical thought.” Oh, sure, now they get picky!

So on a slow news day about fifty people got together in Firestone to talk up the idea of secession, and the Longmont Times-Call sent a reporter named Scott Rochat out to report on it, no doubt as punishment for some recent journalistic sin. Seriously, that's how newspapers work -- fuck up the police beat, and you get banished to the Weld County circuit. I know, I used to work for the T-C back in the day. I became the newspaper’s “Firestone Correspondent” for a time in the early 1980s, but then my spelling improved and I was moved to the Lyons desk.

According to Scott’s report, the twoscore-and-ten people who showed up spent the time voicing “loud approval” of the idea. Well, of course they did -- that's why they were there in the first place. They have to be loud because there are so few of them. The population of Firestone, CO, was 10,385 in 2011. Fifty is zero-point-four-eight percent of that. Interestingly, the Denver Post’s Adrian Garcia put the number at closer to 70, which increases the percentage of Firestone's population to a whopping zero-point-six-seven percent.

I'd like to know two things: First, who did Adrian piss off to draw that assignment and, second, with a crowd that small, why can't a couple of disgraced scribblers working for the same media giant at least agree on a nose count? Was it less than one-half of one percent, or a little more than one-half of one percent? Let's get this accuracy thing nailed down, shall we?

Regardless of the exact puniness of the crowd, the meeting convened and absurdity ensued. How absurd? Well, the Times-Call got a photo of a guy named Lenny Zimmerman holding up his hand for some reason. Lenny, the cutline informed us, is from Boulder County. And he’s obviously casting his lot with a crowd that hates Boulder County. (Hey, Lenny, move to Weld County, bud! You’ll fit right in and you can drill for gas in your back yard. It’ll be fun!)

And, of course, at least one good ol’ boy, in recognition of the idea’s obvious lack of a snowball’s chance in Hell of succeeding, had to say, “At least we’ll send a message.” Yes, and that message is, “We are intolerant hillbillies.” Message received.

Meanwhile the rest of this corner of the state wants zip to do with secession, but the fantasy has inspired at least one damn good idea. Phillips County Administrator Randy Schafer would assign each county either one Representative or one Senator – just like Congress. The senate, being the “upper chamber,” makes the most sense to me. So, instead of six senators from Denver County, there would be one. And instead of one senator for 11 counties in northeastern Colorado, there would be 11 rural senators.

Schafer's idea is the perfect compromise, and why Colorado didn’t do that back in the 1870s I will never know. I don’t doubt it had to do with lining someone’s pockets – these things always did – but it’s not too late to use common sense to give the state’s less-populated counties the representation they need. So let the theatre of the absurd play out over in Weld County.

The idea of apportionment by county is a good one and needs to be pursued. It’s a helluvalot more viable than the fantasy of revolt that has seized our western neighbors.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

NC religion 'law' was an embarrassment

Whenever I get to thinking that things have gotten hopelessly dumb under the big gold dome on East Colfax in Denver, I can now console myself that things in the Colorado Capitol aren’t as bad as they are in Raleigh.

I’ve been to Raleigh, NC, and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle is one of my favorite places to spend a vacation. I've been there at Christmas and in early spring and, to this country boy from the Colorado prairie, it's hard to tell the difference. They have flowers and shrubs and trees there I'd never heard of, and the woods are so dense you can drive past a whole subdivision and never see it. It is serene and scenic and just plain easy on the soul.

So you’d never know from walking down Fayetteville Street of that very cosmopolitan city that the wet, cool winters breed insanity. I don't mean the giggly, mischievous insanity of a UNC sorority hazing or the balls-to-the-wall insanity of the Duke Bulldogs making the Sweet Sixteen. I mean the full-on, piss-your-pants-in-public insanity that goes on in a mind so addled by backwoods inbreeding that it can barely remember to take a breath and swallow its own spit.

Alas, it appears that such insanity courses through the halls of the North Carolina State Legislative Building, for on April 1 the North Carolina General Assembly saw the introduction of a bill that would establish an official state religion.

I know, I know, I thought it was an Old Confederacy April Fool’s joke, too. I had visions of a bunch of wool-suited yahoos in Jesse Helms masks yukking it up for the cameras; tasteless, yes, but funny in a junior high kind of way. (Of course, I first thought the pope’s resignation was an invention of The Onion News, too, but that’s for another day.)

But no, there are several Republican Tarheels who apparently slept through high school civics class and are of the bizarre notion that the whole constitution thing is ... um ... unconstitutional. It appears, from the way the bill is written, that North Carolina Republicans aren’t real clear on just what the U.S. Constitution is or what it’s for. And they have no clue about the duties and powers of the American court system, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

In their April Fool's joke on their state, the bill's sponsors state pretty plainly that the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution basically, well, nullifies the U.S. Constitution. They seem to think that all 7,816 words of the Constitution and its 27 amendments were mere piffle, and that the 10th Amendment is some kind of holy writ that says, "Oh, never mind all of that, the states are sovereign." In any event, they say, the Constitution applies only to the federal government, that hated stronghold of liberalism and gay rights and baby killing, and does not apply in any way to the state governments which are (that word again) sovereign.

Granted, I’m no constitutional scholar, and if you want proof of that just ask me about the legality of DUI roadblocks (and bring a lunch because you’re going to be awhile); but I am a reasonably intelligent adult and my reading comprehension is somewhat above the average, if I do say so myself. And I have read the U.S. Constitution, and it clearly outlines some "thou shalt nots" to the states. In Section 10 of Article 1, which is specifically titled, "Powers prohibited of States," the Constitution declares that states may not "pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility." This is just after Section 9 of Article 1, which prohibits Congress from doing those same things.

Sections 1 and 2 of Article 4 are devoted to restrictions and responsibilities laid on the states, including the famous "Full Faith and Credit" clause of Section 1. Section 2 begins with the sentence, "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States," and then goes on to enumerate a long list of ways the states shall treat their citizens. But in case there's any doubt, there is also the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which says, in part: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States ….” This is a post-Civil War amendment that was meant as a dope-slap upside the Confederacy's head and the admonition that, "No, damnit, the states most assuredly are not sovereign!"

Oh, sure, you can argue that, by this logic, Colorado’s legalization of marijuana is actually illegal because federal drug law is stuck in the 1930s, but you would be guilty of a false syllogism (look it up, Spanky.) It ain’t the same thing, not by a long shot.

So yes, North Carolina’s proposed law is an outright violation of all U.S. citizens’ right to be unmolested by those who would force their religious beliefs upon people who believe differently – or who don’t believe at all. As such, it is illegal, unenforceable, and unconstitutional, and is the worst defiance of U.S. law since May 1861. Maybe that's something to be proud of among the crazies in Raleigh, but to the rest of the America it is an absurdity as poisonous as the distillates produced in the piny woods of Rowan County.

Fortunately, the whole thing was short-lived and by Thursday evening the NC House leadership was announcing that the infernal thing was dead. For a few days, though the TV news folk (whom I view with the same distaste as DUI roadblocks) had their fun with the story. WRAL-TV gleefully led its web site with the story for a couple of days while the staid Raleigh News-Observer buried it toward the bottom of the political page, as if embarrassed to even report it.

An embarrassment it was, but at least it didn't happen here. So while our own legislature remains adorably naive and utterly ineffective, at least it's not a national laughingstock. And with that bunch, you take what you can get.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The thin line keeps moving

Somebody keeps moving the line between sensitive tolerance and needless political correctness. I tripped over the damn line the other day at work. I was engaged, along with a couple of coworkers, in water cooler banter and we were talking about, among other things, the perfect peanut butter sandwich. I offered my father’s recipe:

Two heaping tablespoons of smooth peanut butter, about half that much honey, and then mix vigorously. Or, as I put it, “beat it like a red-headed stepchild.”

There were chuckles, but one of the women in the group offered the opinion that my characterization probably wouldn’t be funny to the red-headed stepchild. There was a moment of embarrassed silence, so I offered an alternative.

“How about, ‘beat it like a rented mule?’”

“Isn’t that cruel to the mule?”

“It is, but that rhymes.”

“Sounds like a good band name, though,” someone else opined. “Cruel to the Mule.”

I wasn’t going to let my father’s peanut butter sandwich recipe get hijacked by junior high band name games.

“Okay, how about, ‘Beat it like Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston?’”

“Who’s Sonny Liston?” the IT guy asked. Damn kids, anyway.

Miss PC shook her head. “Racist."

"Racist!? No, darlin', racist is 'Beat it like Ike beat Tina.' And that's worth twofers, 'cause you got racist and mysoginist."

She smiled indulgently. "It's racist because championship heavyweight boxing evokes a scene of black men engaged in blood sport for the entertainment of wealthy white men and women."

“Oh, fer ... okay, how about 'Like a gypsy beats a tambourine?'”

“Do you know any gypsies? Do you know if they go around beating on tambourines?"

“Beat it like you’re mad at it!”

“Promotes violence as a solution to conflict.”

“Like the Ravens beat the Niners in the first half of the Super Bowl?”

“Whoa, waitaminnit, there, slick!” said the telephony contractor, a San Francisco transplant.

“Wait a minute yourself, pal,” I replied. “Aren’t you the guy who’s always cracking wise when you come out of the phone closet? ‘Hey, look, everybody, I’m out of the closet!’”

“Yeah, but when I say it, it’s funny. When you say it, it’s gay bashing.”

“You’re not even gay!”

“Hey, hey, easy, Trigger! Don’t go spreadin’ that shit around. I was in a bar Friday night, six broads asked me if I thought their titties was real or fake. Straight guys just don’t get that kind'a action.”

“That’s disgusting,” said the politically correct earth mother with obviously all-too-real titties. I had to agree. Brilliant and even awesomely inventive, in a TV sitcom kind of way, yes, but disgusting nonetheless.

“But what about my sandwich?” I asked. My dad used to say that kind of stuff, I explained, and it wouldn’t be the same if there wasn’t some smartass simile to describe the mixing motion.

“Why does it have to be an allusion to violence” Earth Mother asked. “Why not just say to mix the honey and peanut butter vigorously to a creamy smoothness?”

I thought a minute. My first thought was, "What. The. Fuck?"

Then I thought of my old man, pipe tucked in his shirt pocket, vigorously mixing his peanut butter and honey to a creamy smoothness.

I shuddered.

“I think when you see the a allusion to goodness and rich flavors, you’ll agree it’s the best way to describe the process,” she said, and then she walked away.

“Yeah, maybe I’ll do that,” I called after her.

The hell I will. Next time I make Pop's peanut butter sandwich, I'mma beat that shit like Johnson beat Goldwater.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lower the drinking age? Good idea -- for everybody!

Colorado Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) will be stunned when he learns that he and I agree on something. Greg and I have clashed repeatedly in the past, mostly over what I view as his allegiance to the right wing fringe (I’ve never actually called him a teabagger, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who did) and his unrepentant support of torturing “terror” suspects. So it was with some surprise that I learned of Greg’s latest attempt to knock common sense into the Colorado Revised Statutes.

Sen. Brophy has proposed a new law that would allow young people 18 and over to drink alcohol with their parents under certain circumstances. The generally accepted genesis of the bill was a dinner at which Brophy and his wife celebrated their daughter’s 20th birthday but were distressed to realize that said daughter could not even have a glass of wine with dinner. The assumption is that the new law would cover restaurants and other public venues, as long as the “minor” was accompanied by parents. I was astonished to learn that Greg Brophy is old enough to have a 20-year-old daughter. Of course, I’ve never met the man in person (a lapse that I need to correct forthwith) but his official Colorado portrait is of a much younger man. But I digress.

Of course, the opposition to Sen. Brophy’s bill has come out of the woodwork, most prominently in the form of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has, over the past two decades, gone from being a driving force behind drunken driving reform to its current role as irrelevant cultural scold. Of course MADD will oppose anything that liberalizes the consumption of booze, and I think Greg hit that finger directly on the nail when he said MADD “just (doesn’t) like demon rum.”

There is some credible opposition, however, and it comes from the Colorado Restaurant Association. According to ABC News, via the Huffington Post, Pete Meersman, who is CEO of that group, has serious misgivings about the onerous burden Brophy’s bill will place on restaurant owners. Most restaurant owners also are owners of Colorado liquor licenses, which are got by a byzantine process that rivals the Court of the Queen of Hearts. If you doubt the puritanical roots of all that is American, attend a hearing of your local city council when it sits as a “liquor board.” Cotton Mather would blush at the self-righteousness of the average council member when considering licensure of spirits. The process itself is nothing short of restraint of trade, and if gun stores were licensed and policed the way liquor stores are, there would be nary a one in business today. Nothing freezes the heart of a liquor peddler faster than a summons before the local “liquor board” to plead for license renewal. The mere suspicion of dealing demon rum to anyone several minutes too young is enough to shutter a store until everything gets sorted out.

So Meersman has a point. Who is a minor’s parent? The question goes to the heart of the definition of family. (I’ve tried for years to get Webster’s Dictionary to accept my definition of family: Those who love you because they have to. So far they haven’t answered.) Does a foster “child” who is 19 qualify if celebrating her birthday with foster parents? Is any legal guardian considered a parent? Would the guardian have to present papers proving such guardianship? The problems are myriad, and on that point, I have to agree with the restaurateurs. Both of my sons and one daughter-in-law have been or are currently engaged in restaurant food service, and their horror stories of liquor service to the public are, well, horrifying. For that reason alone, Brophy’s law is probably doomed.

Greg might have gotten the CRA’s endorsement, however, if he’d been bold enough to go the distance on his proposed legislation. The answer is obvious: Simply lower the drinking age to 18. The arguments against such a law are illogical and steeped in emotion, superstition, and bad science. Arguments in favor of it are completely rational, regardless of what your local Baptist preacher tells you.

Look, the U.S. Government, in its wisdom, has decided long ago that 18-year-olds are mature enough and smart enough and wise enough to vote for president, mayor, state senator, and other offices of similar gravity. The U.S. Government, in its wisdom, has decided long ago that 18-year-olds are mature enough and smart enough to fight and die and become forever maimed in combat in service to their country. The states have decided long ago that people even younger than 18 are mature enough and smart enough to marry and have children, to work for an adult’s wages, to be tried as an adult for crimes they commit. In fact, in every aspect of life in America, the magical age of adulthood is 18.

Well, in every aspect except one. At an age when every nation in Europe allows its citizens to imbibe alcohol, we Americans still treat our 18-year-olds like children. The United States is one of only seven countries with minimum drinking ages set at 21. The six others are Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Palau and Sri Lanka. Four of those six are populated largely or almost entirely by Muslims. Palau and Sri Lanka have no such excuse. Three nations -- Iceland, Japan, and Paraguay – set the minimum drinking age at 20 and two more – Nicaragua and South Korea – at 19. The rest of the world sets the minimum age at 18 or, in some cases, even lower. Interestingly, an Australian web site about talking to teens about drinking specifically set the ages of "teen" as between 12 and 17.

It’s time to recognize that the true age of adulthood, in all aspects, is not 21, but 18. It is time to allow wounded 19-year-old combat veterans returning from America’s wars to enjoy a drink at the local American Legion. It is time to allow college students to have wine with dinner. It is time to allow all of America’s voters to hoist a glass in celebration or in sorrow on election night. It is time to catch up with the world.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pot's legal? Oh, cruel irony!

It is finally legal to partake of marijuana in Colorado and, while I’m happy with the progress, I’m not investing heavily in Zig-Zag just yet. First, I have to decide whether I’m even going to “do” pot again? And if so, in what form?

That’s right, “again.” I have smoked a form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, or cannabis) exactly four times in my life, all before I turned 30. Twice, while stationed in Germany in the U.S. Army, I went to parties where large bowls of hashish were passed around. It was not uncommon for us Cold Warriors to be high, sometimes for long stretches of time. As ubiquitous as drugs were in the New Volunteer Army, it's a wonder most of us weren't jailed at one time or another. We weren't, of course, because most of our officers and non-coms were Vietnam veterans, and while they wouldn't have hesitated to bust any of us lower enlisteds for dope, you can bet your best bong the evidence would never have been seen the inisde of an MP station. Where our leaders led, we gladly followed, and sometimes it actually enhanced life's experienes. Buy me a double bourbon someday and I’ll tell you what it was like to watch “Tommy” while jacked up on hash and Crown Royal. After mustering out, on two occasions after returning to the States, I toked generously from doobies being passed around after-work parties thrown by the then-manager of a local ... um ... media outlet. Hey, I’m not revealing any deep secrets here; I’ve confessed all of this to an unsmiling inquisitor for the Colorado Department of Corrections, and still passed the background check.

So, with my drug-checkered past, I should be ecstatic about Amendment 64, right? I mean, I should be settling into a hot tub with Led Zep on the stereo speakers and getting righteously and legally stoned. Or one would think. Well, turns out it ain’t quite that easy. I quit smoking cigarettes thirty years ago because I was getting more colds in the winter, and they were lingering longer. I still have a small collection of pipes (including a couple I salvaged from my late father’s home) that I can’t smoke because the desire is still there to inhale. I now fight something that isn’t asthma but acts sort of like it, and our world’s deteriorating climate is making it worse. Obviously, sucking THC-laden smoke into my lungs is out of the question.

Other forms of imbibing aren’t much better. I’ve only recently begun to closely monitor my sugar intake (or, in my loving wife’s words, “No more sugar for you, fat-ass!”) so cookies and other sweets with stoner juice in them are also verboten. Topical applications have been known to cause rashes, and just eating the stuff can tear up an old stomach. In fact, it is entirely possible that, having survived youthful indiscretions and then abstaining long enough to see marijuana legalized, at least in the only part of the world I care to live it, I may not be able to ingest it safely. Can you say “cruel irony?”

The key word here, of course, is “safely,” as in “without any fear of damage.” That whole “safe” part may have to be rethought, and here’s why: As I plod deeper into my sixties, I begin to realize that I’ve probably already achieved the pinnacle of whatever sorry-assed career I was ever going to have, and now it’s just time to have whatever fun I can afford in the time that’s left. And lest you think the “afford” part isn’t significant, let me disabuse you of the notion. Vice is damned expensive these days. I can’t afford to become an alcoholic – and don’t think I haven’t tried – because the price of my daily pour keeps going up, and I refuse to be a “cheap drunk.” Nobody in my tax bracket can afford a decent hooker these days (don’t ask me how I know this, I just do.) A "friendly" game of Texas hold’em costs a C-note just to get in the door. And the “free” internet porn is a mere echo of what it once was (see above reference to hookers.) So aside from an occasional gift of booze from reliable friends and family, so-so-quality weed may be my best bet for a good time, and an occasional good time may be as good as life gets in my decline.

Sure, if I get the weight down, get the blood pressure under control, get a little exercise, eradicate the chronic cough, eliminate the kidney stones, yadda, yadda, yadda, it’s possible for me to live almost as long as my father did. And that’s about twenty more years. If I’m lucky, I’ll dance with one granddaughter at her wedding. Don’t pity me; I’m the product of genetics and poor judgment, and I’ve reconciled myself to what I’ve done. Jesus may forgive but Mother Nature doesn’t.

So, if my life is now passing from autumn into early winter, why not get all of the enjoyment out of it I can? I have room at the Rice Estate to cultivate a little hemp, the lovely but agrarian Mrs. Rice has a gift for bringing forth bounty from the soil, and I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Now that I think about it, maybe being able to legally smoke dope will provide the incentive I need to resolve all of my health problems, if for no other reason than to be able to get high without looking over my shoulder. Hey, you set your goals your way, I’ll set mine; don’t judge me, just love me as the sinner I am.
In fact, it’s just possible that cannabis sativa could become part of my new health regimen. Hell, I might end up dancing with all three granddaughters at their weddings. Now, if I can just teach the little stinkers how to roll a decent spliff, Grandpa will be all set.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Publishing list was splashy, lazy journalism

Occasionally, something happens in the world of journalism that causes conscientious journalists to question their deeply-held beliefs about the scope of the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. The recent publication of the names and addresses of handgun permit owners should be just such an incident.

On Dec. 23, ostensibly as part of its extended coverage of the Sandy Hook school shootings, the Journal News of White Plains, NY, published the names and addresses of all of the pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties. New York state law and the U.S. Constitution clearly make such publication legal. Nonetheless, a lot of people, including the county clerk of nearby Putnam County, where the Journal News also has requested such a list, are crying foul. As of this writing, County Clerk Dennis Sant had refused to comply with the newspaper’s request, although it’s likely that, should the Journal News decide to pursue the matter, Sant would be forced to turn over the list.

The Journal News, and every other journalist in the United States who is asked to comment on the incident, claims it has every right to publish the list. And so far, the only defense the Journal News has offered to critics is exactly that: They did it because they could. That is an excuse offered all too often when it comes to publishing information that is of no real use to readers but causes a kerfuffle on Main Street. No doubt the staff of the Journal News thought they were being pro-active and edgy when they published the clickable interactive links on their web site and the list of permit holders in their pages. I'd be willing to bet they even invoked Ben Bagdikian's immortal defense of publishing the Pentagon Papers: "We don't just have the right to publish, we have a duty to publish!"

But the gun permit lists aren't the Pentagon Papers, aren't even in the same category. The Pentagon Papers were highly secret documents that chronicled the extent of deception and incompetence at the highest levels of the U.S. Government in prosecution of the Vietnam War. The list of gun permit holders is just another list of perfectly legal licenses and permits that any moke can get for the asking. And some of the people who's names and addresses are on that list are former police officers, prosecutors, and judges, some of whom are responsible for putting away some really bad guys -- guys who'd probably like to know where those people live. At best, it's a shopping list for any gang banger who wants to get his mitts on handgun and isn't afraid to break a window to do it.

 The question then becomes: Just because it’s legal, does that make it right? The Journal News hasn’t even offered the clearly obvious defense it could be making, and that is this: Handguns in the possession of private citizens are dangerous things, and Americans should know who among their neighbors are dangerous. One reason they haven’t made that defense might be because it’s disingenuous. Having a handgun permit doesn’t make a person dangerous. Few mass killings are ever done with handguns because they simply don’t render a high enough body count. Tying legal ownership of permitted handguns to the Sandy Hook killings is like tying everyone who has a license to fly an airplane to the 911 attacks.

But here’s my biggest problem, as a journalist, with the lists that were requested and published. It’s lazy journalism for the sake of sensation. If the Journal News really wanted to perform a public service to its readers, and really wanted to tie that service to the Sandy Hook killings, it should have published the names and addresses of everyone in its readership area who owns a Bushmaster AR-15 assault-type rifle. Ah, you say, but there are no such records, and what records there are are kept secret by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms! True, and that’s the point. If the Journal News had expended two or three times the effort trying to get records of people who own assault style weapons, it would have come up empty-handed, and could have reported about the gaping hole in record-keeping on guns. It would have run head-first into the BATF, which considers the public records law a minor nuisance (while it funnels illegal weapons to Mexican drug lords.) And reporters would no doubt have been thrown out of every gun shop where they asked for names and addresses of customers.

So yes, in one sense the JN would have come up empty-handed, but they would have had a better story. They would have been able to document the complete failure of gun legislation when it comes to protecting you and me from people like Adam Lanza and James Holmes. They could have canvassed local gun stores to find out how many such weapons have been sold (although that would have required the burning of shoe leather, something reporters are loathe to do in this age of the Internet.) They could have documented the pitifully thin shield the gun reporting laws present and started a real dialogue about beefing up registration and records of guns in New York. It could have provided a foundation for a cause, the cause of making it easier to know who does and who does not own guns capable of killing twenty people in five minutes.

Instead, the JN did the easiest, fastest, splashiest thing it could do: It demanded, and got, a completely irrelevant list of law-abiding citizens and put their names and addresses in a clickable, interactive web page, and pretended it had practiced real journalism. Alas, it has not. It has only exposed several hundred of its readers to even greater danger than they faced before they got their gun permits. And that’s a shame.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A reason to write after all

I suspended this blog a while back; September 6, in fact, was the last post before the entry on the Sandy Hook shooting, and I posted that one only because I was writing a piece for the local newspaper anyway. The September 6, 2011, essay was posted just two days before my father entered a hospital for exploratory surgery. For the next three months he recovered, relapsed, rallied, and finally relapsed, failed to rally, and died. And when I say I “suspended” the blog, I don't mean there was any intent. It just means that, after my father died, I didn’t feel like writing. In fact, now that I think about it, I probably didn't write because, if Pop wasn’t around to read it, there wasn’t much reason to write.

For most of my adult life I've made my living by writing, and in all of the writing I’ve done, Pop was my biggest fan. He understood better than anyone I know that just because something is finished doesn’t mean it can't be made better. A written work is "finished" only because the writer has run out of time. Given more time, a piece can be infinitely improved. I learned this by listening to my father and his father tell stories and improve on them with each telling. From them I inherited a love of language as a raw material for stories. The love of writing was and is in our blood (two of my brothers share the love to this day.) The only thing Pop liked more than writing was talking about writing, usually while drinking some really good Scotch, and he could recall from memory long stretches of the American literary canon. When I wrote, I wrote for him because I knew he understood how hard it is to write well.

The last meaningful thing I wrote, before just a few weeks ago, was his eulogy, which I delivered at his memorial service. Like all writers, I sometimes take my stuff out and re-read it, and I always wish I’d had another week to work on that eulogy. What I really wish is that Pop could have read it. He’d have denied that he was the guy I wrote about, but he’d have been honored, and he would have suggested changes, and probably good ones at that. I won’t include it here; it would be meaningful only to people who knew Pop, and almost all of them were present that day.

I haven’t written since then because I just didn’t have anyone to write for. Writing is a process, and often an arduous one that requires one to constantly take bearings the way a ship’s master gains his shoreline bearings from a lighthouse in the dark. Pop was my lighthouse, not just when it came to writing, but when it came to life. When life battered me to the point that I completely lost my bearings, just a word or a look from Pop would tell me where I was. In the world of politics, faith, and human relationships, I knew the exact latitude and longitude of his light and could use that light to get myself back on course, safely across the river bar and into the sheltered bay. That light went out late on the night of Nov. 25, 2011. Two of my brothers and I were at his side when he breathed his last and sank, pale and cool, into oblivion. My world has been very dark since then and I have felt adrift in a strange and dangerous sea.
To be sure, there have been new joys in my life; my last grandchild was born a few months after Pop passed, and our other grandchildren are growing and thriving and thrilling us almost every day. But one joy simply disappeared after I wrote his eulogy; I lost the ability to enjoy writing. I posted on a couple of chat boards I frequent, but even that became laborious. My wife, who knows well the curative powers of creative expression, suggested I write about how I felt, but I was too loaded down with the feeling of it to write about it.

And then the Sandy Hook shooting happened, and something stirred. I couldn’t not write about it. My fingers found the keyboard and before I was finished I’d contributed an op-ed piece to the local newspaper. Now the publisher wants to talk to me about regular contributions. I’m excited. For the first time in more than a year, I’m excited about writing.

It seems only right, my contributing to the local newspaper. Back in the 1990s I edited it, and for the five years before he died, Pop had a column in it. He would be proud to know that my byline is back on those pages. And that is reason enough to write again.