archives: December 2006 -- January 2007

dave ["at" ] downingworld [.com] -- If you'd like to know what I think about a particular topic, drop me a line: I may use it for a future blurb. But remember: I'm not really a know-it-all; I just play one on the Web. Thanks for tuning in, from your host David W. Downing.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Read Beyond the Headlines

A news story today reports that McDonald's restaurants will begin using a new cooking oil formulated by Cargill Inc., allowing the hamburger chain to comply with bans on oil containing trans-fat. New York City has a ban scheduled to take effect in July.

At first glance, one might think this story supports the notion that by using the government to pass laws, we can spur the private sector to do what they "should" do. One might think, "All we had to do was ban trans-fat, and that forced them to figure out a trans-fat free substitute. What should we ban next?"

But it's not that simple. Reading a little more deeply into the story, we learn that:

Minnetonka-based Cargill, the largest U.S. agricultural company, worked with McDonald's for several years to create a revised oil that didn't change the foods' taste.

Did you get that? They'd already been working on it for several years. Thanks to the free spread of information -- that trans fats are a health concern -- the private sector was already doing something about it.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Man Behind the Mask. No, Wait, That's Not It...

Former Minnesota North Stars goalie Gump Worsley died over the weekend. Jim Souhan had a fun piece in the StarTribune.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

See You in the Funny Papers

I've got a column on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press today. It's another take on my visit to the birthday party meeting.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Climate Change Makes Strange Bedfellows

I came across a news story written from the angle that we should be surprised to learn that the National Association of Evangelicals has teamed up with global warming-advocating scientists. I guess conservative Christian types are "supposed" to not be concerned about environmental matters. That is a fair observation, at least to an extent, as the "evangelicals" (Still don't know exactly who the mainstream media mean by that. Does it include me? Don't know.) generally side with the Republicans, who are less concerned with this topic. Still, it does seem like stereotyping on the part of the media, the sort that wouldn't be acceptable if it were a racial group being treated that way.

But consider this if you will: It makes more sense for creationists to be concerned about climate change, than it does for secular scientists.

Here's why I say that. Creationists believe that mankind and the Earth were made in their present form by God. From that perspective, it should be seen as our duty as stewards of God's creation to not mess up the planet, to try to keep it the way he made it. So, we should be concerned if we are changing the climate, melting the ice caps, that sort of thing.

But a secular scientist, on the other hand, believes that the Earth is billions of years old, and life has evolved randomly on its own, not according to any design. The secular scientist also believes that the Earth has undergone many changes, from primordial swamp, to repeated ice ages. The secular scientist believes that the Earth has gone through great changes, and parts of the globe that were tropical are now frozen polar regions, while in other places old sea floors have become mountains. In addition, the secular scientist believes that there have been several episodes of mass extinction.

In light of this, why should a secular scientist give a hoot if the Earth's climate is changing? It has always changed. If mankind becomes extinct, that would just be in keeping with the randomness of the Darwinian universe. What's special about humanity? We just happen to be the most highly evolved life form at this particular blip in the timeline. It's not like we have souls, or anything.

If a person says that the climate "should be" such and such, doesn't that mean that person thinks there must be a plan for the Earth? Whose plan, Mr. Scientist?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mixed Messages on Race

There was a very interesting editorial in the Pioneer Press yesterday. Interesting and brave. I say brave, because it treads into dangerous territory, asking hard questions about race.

The editorial was inspired by a new exhibit on display in St. Paul at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The exhibit -- "Race: Are We So Different?" -- seems to illustrate the sort of mixed messages we get about race.

I have not seen the exhibit, but according to this editorial and other coverage, the exhibit seems to want to make the point that different races don't really exist, that we are all just human beings, members of the human race.

That sounds like sort of a return to the kind of message I remember hearing as a kid. We are all really the same. Skin color is just superficial.

But it's in contrast to the message we've been hearing more recently, a message that stresses our differences (and assigns us all hyphens) while we "celebrate our diversity."

(I mentioned a news story about the exhibit in a Jan. 8 post. That's when I mentioned I thought it was strange that while a museum exhibit was opening that would stress how we are all the same, a dog show was going on just across the street. What I found strange was that dog shows really illustrate how dogs -- which scientists say all come from one common ancestor -- have been segregated into breeds -- or canine "races" -- and how much we value "racial purity" by giving awards to the specimens that best represent their breed. Of course, there is an eternal debate over which breed is best. Hmmm. Does that show we have some inherent desire to separate not only our own species, but others, into competing subgroups?)

We're getting mixed messages. Which is it? Are we all the same? Or are we supposed to "celebrate our diversity?" Further confusing the topic is that the two perspectives do not come from competing ends of the political spectrum; they both seem to come from people on the left, which at times appears obsessed with race.

I think this country is goofy about race. Yes, goofy. That's the word for it. We don't make much sense. While we may say that race doesn't matter, we're obsessed with labeling people. Take actress Halle Berry, for example. She earned headlines as the "first black" to win the best actress Oscar. But from what I've read, she has one black parent and one white parent. Why is she the "first black"?

Then there's the great example of Tiger Woods. Do the math. His mother is from Thailand. If you insist on playing the "what is he?" game, he's 50% Thai. How about Tiger's father? Again, going by what I've read, Tiger's dad was of mixed race, including American Indian. That means that Tiger's bloodline is definitely less than 50% African.

So why is he the "first black golfer" to accomplish everything? If anything, isn't he the "first Thai golfer"?

It must be because he "looks black," based on skin pigmentation. (Look more closely, and you'll see his Asian roots, too.)

Remember the "one drop rule" that you learned about in school? Used to be, if someone had "one drop" of African blood in them, they could be discriminated against. Now, it's like we're doing it in reverse. One drop of African blood, and a person is singled out for "celebration" as "the first."

Is that really much better? For the individual being "celebrated," it is, but does it make any more logical sense?

Now, of course, we've got Barack Obama, who could be the "first black president." How does his white mother's side of the family feel about that?

But since Obama has dark skin, we label him black. We think we're so morally superior to previous generations who referred to mixed race people as mulattos or "coloreds," but are we really doing things any differently?

Okay, Obama has dark skin and a non-traditional American name. That makes him stand out as "different." But what about New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson?

Richardson wants to become the nation's "first Hispanic" president. I've read other references to Richardson's Hispanic identity over the years. That's always made me curious. Since when is Richardson a Hispanic surname? I wondered what his story was.

Well, the same page that carried the editorial about the race exhibit had a column about Richardson. Here I learned that Richardson was born to an (apparently white) American father and a Mexican mother.

There's also a photo of Richardson. I didn't think he "looked" Hispanic in the photo, the way that people would say Obama "looks" African-American. (I've used another photo of Richardson here. If you tell me that his mother is Mexican, maybe I'll say, "Oh yeah, I can see that." But otherwise...he's just a guy.)

So that's where I think it gets really goofy. Suppose Richardson were to be elected president. How many people who voted for him do you suppose would even realize that they voted for the "first Hispanic president"? St. Paul voters twice elected Norm Coleman mayor, and I'd bet few of them could tell you that he isn't just another good Irish Catholic boy from St. Paul. The now-Senator Coleman is an American Jew from Brooklyn!

Personally, I'm a fan of the good old Melting Pot theory of America. Wherever we came from, we're all Americans now -- the Native Peoples, too. That contemporary "Salad Bowl" theory, where we are a bunch of different peoples living within the same borders, is a recipe for disaster. You want a "salad bowl"? Look at the former Yugoslavia. Look at Lebanon. Look at Iraq. Those are "salad bowls."

One more related thought before I go: The Pioneer Press editorial mentioned that the "Race" exhibit covers the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. There's no mention of the internment of German-Americans. Why not? That story is largely untold. And what does that exclusion say about race, or about how we feel about ourselves and our penance when it comes to race?

The story of German-American internment can be found just blocks from the Science Museum, in the TRACES museum inside the Landmark Center.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Kids Being Kids: A Ray of Hope

This makes a good contrast to the stories about overblown birthday parties, and kids not being able to just be kids.

Students at St. Paul's Open School have invented a new game they call "fraquetball," after foosball and racquetball. Opposing two-man teams face each other in a school hallway, and try to knock a ping pong ball past each other, using ping pong paddles. While the ball must be struck with a paddle, the players may use their entire bodies to block their opponents shots.

You can read the St. Paul Pioneer Press story here.

I like that the kids have created this themselves, without adult prompting or lots of money. I also like that they keep score and hold tournaments. I love this line from the story:

In a school that doesn't use letter grades, students jump at the chance to compete, [teacher and fraquetball competitor Tim] Leone-Getten said.

I think there's a bigger lesson for the educational establishment in that.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Birthday Parties Only Tip of Iceberg; THIS Takes the Cake!

Why does this birthday party issue bother me so much? I think because I see it as only one little part representing a much larger agenda. Just as the Birthdays Without Pressure activists say birthday parties are only one example of what's wrong with our consumer culture (and I agree with them there), I fear that their desire to rein in birthday parties is only the tip of their larger agenda -- an agenda that scares me.

I fear that what they really want is to remake this country into something else. They're really no different from say, someone like Jerry Falwell, who might want to remake this country the way he sees fit. Or Islamists, who might want us to live under Sharia law. Oh, sure, they may be well-intentioned, but that can pave a lot of roads. They have their vision for America, and they want everyone else to conform to it.

But where they are even more dangerous than Jerry Falwell or the Islamists is that they are able to hijack our official government entities -- at least the educational system -- in an effort to bring about their vision for a better nation.

Am I crazy? Am I some nut who sees black helicopters circling his house?

Judge for yourself. On Thursday, January 18, one of the founders of Birthdays Without Pressure, Julie Elhard, appeared live on the air with Joe Soucheray, on his Garage Logic radio show. What follows is an actual transcription that I made from a recording of that program.

Soucheray: "Is it safe to say this: If you could wave a magic wand, would you prefer to live in a community in which the adults do not throw extravagant birthday parties?"

Elhard: "I would wave my magic wand and and put me in Europe, where they don't do that. Where Europeans do not go extravagant with Christmas, or birthdays, or any of that. It seems to be something that happens a lot in this country and not in other countries. So, yes, I would prefer to wave my wand and just have a little more moderation in our consumerist and junk-filled culture."

Soucheray: "Are you familiar with a particular European model that you would prefer to copy, or is this something you've just gathered?"

Elhard: "No, I lived in the Netherlands for four years when I was studying music there, and it's a great country, and they live in moderation and they live in smaller places and they have time to go out for coffee or tea every day, you know, and see their friends, and the kids are not suffering because they live in small places and have fewer toys. They're great. They're independent, they ride public transportation to school, and there are a lot of great things about countries like that. [pause, and then longingly] I wish we could be like that."

I wish Soucheray had asked her, "Why on Earth did you come back?"

But really, how different is that from a Falwell-type longing for a country where everyone goes to church on Sunday, and no one lives together without getting married, and all the mothers stay home in the kitchen all day?

Or an Islamist wanting this to be a country where cab drivers don't have to give rides to passengers carrying alcohol, or blind people with guide dogs, or maybe even Jews?

The difference is, those groups don't have the public education system -- and our tax dollars -- helping them try to impose their "vision" on the rest of us. (That will never happen for the Falwell-type vision. The Islamist vision? I'm not so sure about that one. One day we may all be living under Sharia law in the name of "tolerating diversity."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Things I Didn't Make Up

A round-up of things so good, they have to be true. I couldn't make this stuff up.

Drinking Water Can Kill You

We've been hearing for years how important it is to drink lots of water. And we mustn't forget the kids. They can't get together for an activity without someone saying, "Drink plenty of water! You don't want to get dehydrated." Never mind that when I was a kid, we ran around hour after hour in the heat, and didn't get a drink until one was available, but no one ever collapsed.

Now, in the wake of a 28-year-old California woman dying from drinking too much water as part of a radio contest, we are being told that we don't need to drink so much water. Eight glasses a day? That was pulled out of thin air! Fahgettaboutit!

According to this story in the Pioneer Press, "Most healthy people can meet their daily hydration requirements by drinking when they're thirsty."

It's that sort of all-too-common reversal that feeds my skepticism. Remember when butter was bad and margarine was good? I remember when Time magazine and Science Digest were warning us about "The coming ice age" that was going to kill us. No wonder I'm skeptical about global warming.

Oil for Tortillas?

Let's see if I've got this straight. Buying foreign oil is bad for the U.S. It's good to buy less oil and use things like ethanol, made right here from our own corn. That way, instead of sending our money to oil sheiks, we'll support American farmers instead. Ethanol production and use is up, and corn prices are up. That's great news, right?

Not so fast. How about our neighbors to the south? Mexico sells oil, so they suffer when the U.S. uses less and when prices drop. But that's not the worst of it. There's a double whammy.

Soaring demand for corn for ethanol has sent corn prices over $4 per bushel. While that's great for Midwestern farmers, it could be killing Mexican peasants! Corn tortillas are a staple of the Mexican diet, particularly for the poor. With world corn prices going up, impoverished Mexicans can't even afford their tortillas, according to this New York Times story.

You realize what this means, don't you? By reducing our dependence on foreign oil, we're starving peasants in Mexico! Don't we care about the rest of the world? We need to buy more foreign oil, not less!

I guess what's good for the Sheiks is good for the peasants.

No Cheers for These Leaders

The high school in Whitney Point, New York, has ruled that cheerleaders must appear equally at boys' and girls' games As a result, cheerleaders have stopped accompanying the boys' basketball team to away games, so that they can perform at all home games -- girls' and boys'.

It's really their business how they want to assign student activities, but I can't overlook the reasoning they are using. They say that Title IX requires it, and the state athletic association says that cheerleaders should be provided at the girls' games "regardless or whether the girls' basketball teams wanted and/or asked for" them.

The argument is that without cheerleaders, the members of the girls team don't get an experience equal to the boys. But if that's the goal, where does it end? How about the crowd? If the girls don't draw as large a crowd as the boys, how can the experience by equally as exciting? What can be done about that? Limit admission to the boys' game to no more people than attended the girls' game? Force or hire people to attend the girls' games?

The Honeymoon Is Over. But It Must Have Been Pretty Boring, Anyway

Finally, get a load of this one from "Dear Abby":

Dear Abby: Could you settle an argument between me and my husband? We've been married only four months.
I get out of the shower and dry off, or walk into the bedroom to dry off. He says I should dry off in the shower. Who is correct? -- Ann from Florida

Dear Ann: You should dry off wherever you are more comfortable drying off, and if your controlling new husband doesn't like it, then HE should dry you off in the shower.

How dumb is this guy? Or how ugly is Ann?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Birthday Party Reformers Still Don't Get It

First, I want to emphasize that I absolutely agree that these over-the-top birthday parties being described are nuts. I am not writing in defense of ridiculous birthday parties. It's just that I think people who think they need an organization in order to stop themselves from participating in the foolishness are nuts, as well.

And while I agree that the Birthdays Without Pressure people and other advocates we've been hearing from (They made NBC's "Today" show yesterday!) have identified a problem, I think THEY STILL DON'T GET IT.

Putting on my sociologist's hat and my analyst's hat, I'd say that the root cause of Birthday Parties Gone Wild is that they are about the parents, not the children. The parties have become a vehicle for the parents' own entertainment and ego gratification. The parents use them to compete with their neighbors and enhance their own social standing. They have become about the parents' own fragile psyches, not the children's.

But some of the "solutions" being offered don't change this. Rather than a return to the simple, kid-directed at-home birthday party, it's still about the parents. And it's still overly complicated. For instance, I've heard people talk about how birthday parties are a great way to teach children about the world, and that they can use their parties to help the poor, for instance, by donating gifts to charity.

That's fine. If it's the child's idea.

But if it's the parents' idea, then all that's being done is that the child's party is being hijacked for a different sort of parental agenda. Whether the parents are using the child to "keep up with the Joneses" or advance their own "social justice" agenda, they are still using the child.

Let the birthday party be the child's.

The Birthdays Without Pressure website has a list of suggestions for better birthday parties. For the most part, I agree with them. (That one about everyone getting a present has to go. It's counter to everything else we've been hearing from Dr. Doherty and this group.)

But there's an irony here. By listing ways to have a birthday party that earns the approval of this group, they're simply exchanging one set of "community expectations" for another. And, they're putting them in writing!

I can see it now. One of the present complaints is that if a party doesn't give out gift bags to all the guests, bratty little Nevaeh will exclaim, "This is a rip off!"

But what if Birthdays Without Pressure achieves their goal and everyone accepts their recommendations for how birthday parties should be? One day, Nevaeh's little brother will come home from a party crying, "Mom, it was awful! They tried to give me a gift bag!"

Won't that scandal get the soccer moms' tongues wagging at the ECFE meeting! No more play dates for that child.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Teach Your Children Well: Pay Later

My previous post, about the birthday party meeting, was featured on Joe Soucheray's Garage Logic radio show yesterday afternoon, along with lots of Joe's and the listeners' thoughts on the subject.

One comment that came up on the show was that in the discussion about Birthday Parties Gone Wild, no one really seemed to be stressing the idea that parents could simply tell their children, "We can't afford it."

I hadn't mentioned it in yesterday's post, but the matter of "not affording it" did come up at the meeting. It was dismissed as a non-factor. Dr. Doherty said you can't simply tell your children "we can't afford it," because children these days know that you can just put it on your credit card.

If that's true, that's another indictment of the way we're raising our children. If children are learning that you can have anything you want, just by using your credit card, we're failing them.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Report from the Birthday Party Meeting

Last night I went to the meeting about Big Birthday Parties. (See previous post.) I was in for a surprise. I expected maybe two dozen people, but there were well more than 100.

This had become a media event. A news crew from the local Fox 9 station was there (It made their news program that night.). But that's not all. There was also a crew from ABC's news magazine 20/20! The speaker, professor Dr. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota's Family Social Science Department, said he had been fielding media inquires since 6:00 am.

(A delayed broadcast of the meeting is also scheduled for the St. Paul schools' cable channel 16: Jan. 24, 10 am; Jan. 27, 10 am & 5:30 pm; Jan. 31, 10 am; Feb. 3, 10 am & 5:30 pm.)

I found Dr. Doherty to be an excellent speaker. He was both informative and entertaining, a combination not found in enough professors. The topic of his presentation was "Parenting Wisely in a Too Much of Everything World," so it wasn't just about birthday parties, but about a bigger picture, and how Birthday Parties Gone Wild are one part of that. (To be fair, put in that context, the subject didn't seem as ridiculous as the newspaper stories about Birthdays Without Pressure made it seem.)

Dr. Doherty began by asking people to give examples of what they see as "too much" regarding children. Some answers included:

-- Too many TVs

-- Obesity -- too much food

-- Midnight hockey practice for second graders

-- Advertising directed at children (Dr. Doherty mentioned that some countries ban advertising directed at children. That earned applause.)

-- Too many presents

-- Too grown-up/sexy/revealing clothing for little girls

-- Over scheduling of kids

-- Too much homework

-- Video games

-- Too much lack of respect/manners

It struck me that many of these complaints are not really new. They may just be updated to reflect current trends and new technologies. If you go back to the 1970s, the 1950s, the Jazz Age, Shakespeare, the Bible, Plato, I think you'll find many of the same complaints about "what's wrong with kids these days." Indeed, a generation ago, people were saying the same things about those sitting in the audience.

Dr. Doherty then asked us to discuss with people next to us the reasons for these excesses. After a few minutes, people shared with the entire group the causes they had identified.

I was glad to hear that others also identified my primary reasons: high disposable income, and two-income families. Other reasons offered were parents competing against each other, with their children as proxies, and parental insecurity about raising successful children, which leads to overindulgence.

It was also pointed out that there are fewer children per family these days, which makes it easier to spoil them. Someone mentioned a culture of individualism, and a turning away from God, which, unfortunately, Dr. Doherty seemed to want to distance himself from.

These were all pretty good reasons, and I agreed with them. I was impressed, because I was sure this was a pretty "progressive" group in attendance (translation: liberal Democrats).

But as if to make sure I wasn't disappointed, there were a couple of anti-Bush related reasons offered: the devaluing of the dollar in China, which lets us buy cheap goods, and that after 9/11, we were told to go shopping.

Shopping available 24/7 was also offered as a reason for "too much." We can get whatever we want whenever we want. We don't have any limits imposed upon us. A suggestion to bring back "blue laws" to keep stores closed on Sundays was met with applause.

(This was the strangest moment of the evening: a crowd of people, a majority of whom I suspect would say that President Bush is shredding the Constitution and taking away their civil liberties, applauding the idea of the government closing stores on Sundays, after earlier applauding the idea of banning advertising.)

Personally, I think the biggest reasons for "too much" are prosperity and two-income families, which are related, of course. A woman I spoke to said she pays to have a birthday party at a commercial venue because taking the time to prepare her house for a party is just too much to imagine. I asked if it was fair to say that she is an example of someone having more money than time, and she said that is correct.

The truth is, despite all the complaints about the terrible economy and statements that this will be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents, people have money. Our standard of living is very high. The highest it's ever been. And a big part of that is the two-income family.

But the two-income family has brought about vast social changes, including, not surprisingly, changes regarding how we raise our children. Familes have more money, but less time. But it's politically incorrect to point that out, because that's "blaming women," so I was glad to see it acknowledged at last night's meeting.

That was part of the irony I felt. This was a crowd that had to be left-leaning, yet they were echoing many of the concerns of social conservatives from the right. It was as though the "progressives" thought they were looking for "new" ideas regarding parenting, but what they were really longing for was a return to "traditional family values."

As Mr. Spock might say, "Fascinating."

Dr. Doherty himself expressed what I consider many traditional (what we've been told are outdated) ideas. (I think Joe Soucheray might say he sounded like a GLer.) He said we worry too much that children are fragile, and that we must protect their self-esteem. He said they have to learn that they aren't going to be good at everything, that they shouldn't expect a trophy just for showing up, and that they shouldn't expect to be given something when they go to someone else's birthday party -- they can take turns; their own birthday will come around each year.

About 50 minutes into the presentation, Dr. Doherty began to talk specifically about birthday parties. This didn't cover much new ground that wasn't covered in my previous post, so I won't get into details on it. He gave examples of extravagant parties, and talked about how people feel pressure to live up to community expectations, and the bar keeps getting raised.

Dr. Doherty said that it is hard to combat this individually, so that's why we need "community conversations" about reining in Birthday Parties Gone Wild (No, he didn't use that term. It's mine.). That's where I object.

I agree with the concerns about "too much."

I disagree that it should require some sort of organized program or "community conversations" to break the cycle. I'm fascinated by the way people express a sense of victimhood, of helplessness, as though they are powerless to not go along with the crowd. All you have to do is say "No, we are not going to spend $500 on your birthday party. Invite six friends over after school and we'll have cake and ice cream."

But that's too hard! is the cry. All the other parents are doing it!

I say, grow up and be the adults, people! If you can't resist peer pressure, how can you expect to be taken seriously when you tell your kids that they should? How will you be able to ask them, "If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"

After the presentation, I briefly talked to Dr. Doherty, and told him I had attended the meeting as a sort of anthropological exercise -- I wanted to observe the people who felt they needed meetings and programs to stop them from doing what they really didn't want to do in the first place. I like to think he understood what I was talking about, since to some extent that's what he himself is doing.

I know many of you listen to Joe Soucheray's Garage Logic, so you'll understand this next reference. If there was a Ray of Hope in the meeting, it was that Dr. Doherty expressed what might be called GL values. The members of the audience longed for those values, but they didn't seem to know how to embrace them. With that in mind, we can see Dr. Doherty as a sort of GL emissary to the Euphorians, speaking to them in their own language.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Just Stop It!

We've had the war on Big Tobacco. A villain has been made of Big Oil. Fast food menus are under attack in the war on Big Fat. Now, another front has been opened. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the war on Big Birthday Parties.

First, let me tell you a little story. A few years back, Bob Newhart made a guest appearance on "Mad TV." In a sketch that reprised his role as a 1970s TV sitcom psychiatrist, Newhart listens to a patient's various personal neuroses, then gives her this straightforward advice:

"Just stop it!"

(Believe it or not, you can see it on YouTube! )

I thought of that sketch when I read a story last week in the local Highland Villager, a great community newspaper St. Paul is fortunate to have. To my mind, the story reads like a parody. You couldn't make up something this good! A group of local parents -- whom I suspect could be accurately described as upper middle class and well-educated -- have decided that children's birthday parties have gotten too extravagant.

I agree completely.

So what's my point?

The ridiculous part of the story is that this group of parents seem to see themselves as victims of society. Rather than simply telling themselves "just stop it," and refusing to join in what they see as an escalating, "keeping up with the Joneses" birthday party race, they've decided what's needed is an organization, a website, a public meeting (Tuesday night at 7:00 pm, at St. Paul's Highland Junior High School), and a University of Minnesota professor.

So we now have a group called Birthdays Without Pressure (www.birthdayswithoutpressure.com). And our tax dollars are involved, even if only indirectly. This grew out of the St. Paul schools' Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program, includes an ECFE teacher, the aforementioned U of M professor, and the web site, created and hosted by the University of Minnesota.

As I said, I agree that people have gone overboard with children's birthday parties. My kids have gone to parties at amusement centers, for instance, and I've thought, "What did they spend on all of this?" But even those events pale in comparison to some of the scenes described in the story.

But my point is, I don't need a "program" to help me NOT do the same thing. Just last Friday, my son had his birthday party at home. Some friends walked home with him after school. We played a game of pumpkin bowling outside, they had home-made pizza, cake and ice cream, opened presents, played a while, and then their parents picked them up at 6:00 pm.

What was so tough about that? If any of the other parents think we're cheap, that's their problem. But now I see we may have been ahead of the curve, by refusing to follow the curve in the first place! (I'm such a reactionary, I've become a "progressive.")

I'm not the only one to think this is nuts. St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray took the birthday party crisis to the woodshed in his Sunday column. But I doubt that the Birthdays Without Pressure group will be adding Soucheray's suggestion for a simple party to their website. Joe says it's tough to beat a bunch of kids running around shooting each other with cap guns.

Coincidentally (I think), the Pioneer Press yesterday also had a feature story about Big Birthday Parties, obviously based on the publicity efforts of the Birthdays Without Pressure group. Read this story if you really want to get a feel for how nuts some people are. (There's also a sidebar listing some expensive birthday party options.)

What this story really makes clear to me, is that Big Birthday Parties aren't about the children. They're about the parents. But people being people, they're prepared to do plenty of rationalizing to convince themselves that it's really for someone else.

Cyndie Lund is one example of Moms Gone Wild. While snapping pictures at one of the expensive parties (yes, plural) she wedding-plannered for her six-year-old, she said:

"I don't put a dollar amount on this because it's something they'll always remember. It's so exciting to see the kids have fun."

There you have it. It's so exciting. So exciting for her.

Lund is also a believer in including the other kids' parents, too. "I encourage the parents to stay. I think the parents should be a part of it."

Of course. That way, you can show off in front of them.

Another mom, Amy Lindahl, said she was willing to spend $250 on a party at Club Libby Lu because she saw it as a gift of an experience to the other kids.

Oh, so it's sort of like charity work? How altruistic.

But one of the Birthdays Without Pressure moms, Julie Ehlhard, has now opted for simpler birthday parties. Still, she's worried about the consequences.

"I don't care what other people think about me, basically," Ehlard said. "But for my son, I don't want him to feel left out or disappointed or shunned by other kids because he didn't give out good party bags."

Don't worry, Mrs. Ehlard, from what I've read in these stories, the best birthday present you can give your kid these days is to NOT throw an extravagant party. Teach your kids that they don't have to have everything, that they don't have to be as immature as the adults, "keeping up with the Joneses," and when they grow up they'll thank you for it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Remember 9/11. Please?

I fear people are forgetting 9/11.

I just heard some people on the radio discussing the war in Iraq and the larger situation in the Middle East, and they were saying, Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't need their oil? Then we wouldn't have to worry about that part of the world.

Not so fast.

Our troops are not in Iraq because our oil supply had been interrupted. Yes, considerations of oil are interwoven into everything having to do with the Middle East. But on September 11, 2001, people from the Middle East -- mostly from our supposed ally and oil supplier Saudi Arabia -- attacked us right here at home. That was the spark for a chain of events that culminated in the American invasion of Iraq.

So we could pretend we didn't need the Middle East, but how would that stop them from coming here to attack us again and again?

We're often told that poverty and hopelessness breed terrorists. If we weren't buying their oil, they wouldn't be getting our money. Their economies would be even worse. People would be poorer and more hopeless. Would they all of a sudden stop hating the Great Satan just because we didn't buy their oil? I don't recall ever hearing these terrorists say they hate Americans because we buy their oil. They don't care about that. They hate us for religious/social/cultural reasons.

People forget that we tried "containment" with Iraq for a decade -- no-fly zones, sanctions, etc. That didn't work. Even the UN subverted it. Finally, something had to give. If anyone thinks that if we didn't need oil, we could just ignore the Middle East and "let them kill each other," he's sadly mistaken. They're not afraid to come and get us where we are. They've already done it. Twice, in fact.

What? Did you forget the same group tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993?

People are forgetting 9/11, as surely as they've forgotten that 1993 bombing.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Fascism is Good for "Those People"

Here's some irony for you: The same Americans with their undies in a bunch, worried that President Bush is "dismantling the Constitution" and taking away all their civil liberties, tend to be the people telling us now that Iraq was better off under Sadam, because "at least people could walk down the street without getting blown up." Or that Somalia was better off under the Islamic Courts Union, or Afghanistan better off under the Taliban, "because at least there was order."

I guess fascism is good for other people.

As for being "safer" under the tyrants, that depends. I guess you were safe as long as you did what they wanted. Otherwise, you'd be rounded up and shot. And you couldn't defend yourself, because it was all legal and official.

Hey, 60 years ago people said, "At least Mussolini made the trains run on time."

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Bums and Thieves "on Principle"

I previously mentioned a group of people in San Francisco who, calling themselves "The Compact," pledged to live the past year without buying new items (with a few exceptions), instead relying on used items and things they can get for free. Here's an update on how the year went for them. Some have pledged to continue living this way.

If you'd like to read the wider-ranging post in which I first mentioned them, click here.

This current story also mentions people called "freegans."

As it turned out, The Compact was modest as far as economic boycotts go. Several cities in the United States and Europe have communities of "freegans," people whose contempt for consumerism is so complete they eat food foraged from trash bins whenever possible, train hop and sleep in abandoned buildings on principle.

The San Francisco group, by contrast, exempted food, essential toiletries like toothpaste and shampoo, underwear and other purchases that fell under the categories of health and safety from their pledge.

I don't think we needed to come up with the name "freegans." We already had words for those folks. "Thieves" and "bums" come to mind.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Miami Ice Could Save Winter Carnival

The front page of Sunday's Pioneer Press has a story about how the upcoming St. Paul Winter Carnival is hampered by a "lack of ice."

But turn the page, and you'll be met with this headline: "9 million pounds of ice need home."

Here's the ultimate irony: The ice is in Miami.

It seems that the Florida Emergency Response Team has 9 million pounds of ice, well, on ice. It was put into storage in anticipation of the 2006 hurricane season. But since President Bush didn't cause such severe storms as he did in 2005, the ice wasn't needed. Meanwhile, the agency is paying $90,000 a month in storage fees.

According to the news story, the $1.8 million in ice must be disposed of before it "spoils," and new ice will be purchased for the 2007 hurricane season. (Your tax dollars at work.)

The story reports that state guidelines say the ice can be given away only to registered charitable entities or other state agencies. Could they give it to the non-profit group that runs the St. Paul Winter Carnival? Someone needs to check into this. The ice is in 225 semi trailers, parked in rented cold storage.

But don't arrange delivery until the ice is needed. The way things are going with the weather here, St. Paul would have to pay for storage, too!

Monday, January 8, 2007

Race and Breed

This is something that caught my eye. I don't know what the point is, exactly, but it's something to think about and keep in mind as we observe the world we live in.

Saturday's paper had some photos from the Land O'Lakes Kennel Club Dog Show, held over the weekend in St. Paul. My eye was attracted to a shot of a lineup of identical golden retrievers. (I'm sure their owners can tell them apart.)

The experts tell us that all dogs are descended from a common ancestor. The concept of purebred "breeds" has been created by humans, through human-directed breeding. But they are all still dogs. One breed of dog is still fully capable of interbreeding with another dog.

But people try to make the members of the breeds meet a narrow list of criteria for how they should look. People have created "diversity" in breeds, but then demand conformity within each breed. It's a sort of segregation.

Now, let's look at Sunday's paper. Here's the headline "A fresh look at race," and a story about the "Race: Are We So Different?" exhibit which opens this week in St. Paul at the Science Museum of Minnesota. From reading the story, I'd say that the exhibit has a goal of teaching us that we are all human beings, and that the concept of "race" has been exaggerated and used to segregate people.

So... with dogs we strive for racial purity and segregation. With people, we want to emphasize that we are all the same.

It's a strange world.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Making a Fortune, Ten Cents at a Time

Have you ever had ramen noodles? They cost just pennies for a dried brick of noodles, and you cook them for three minutes in boiling water. I would have guessed they were a traditional Asian food dating back centuries.


They date only to 1958. Their inventor, Momofuku Ando, died last week at age 96.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Ending Global Warming Hits Poor the Hardest

An item in the paper this week said that Minnesotans can expect lower heating bills this month, thanks to warmer-than-average temperatures, which have reduced demand for natural gas, thus boosting supplies and lowering prices. (Not to mention -- which they don't particularly -- that warm weather means less fuel used, which also means less money spent.)

That's good news, isn't it?

But not so fast. Some people are convinced that this year's so-far mild winter is caused by GLOBAL WARMING. They argue that we should drive hybrid cars and screw in fluorescent light bulbs to reverse the effects of GLOBAL WARMING, so that we can return the temperature to what it should be.

But then, won't we need to burn more fossil fuels to keep warm? (And won't that add to GLOBAL WARMING?) And won't that drive up demand? And won't that push up prices?

And won't that hit the poor the hardest?

Doesn't that put "progressives" in a conundrum?

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Living Wage Passes in St. Paul

The St. Paul City Council yesterday passed a "living wage" ordinance, and Mayor Chris Coleman will be happy to sign it. The ordinance affects wages paid by companies doing business with the city, or receiving subsidies from the city. There are quite a few restrictions in the ordinance, regarding size of companies and dollar value of the business' relationship with the city, so it's unclear just how much impact this will have.

In principle, I oppose such an ordinance. It will result in the city's taxpayers paying more (or a cut in police, fire, libraries and rec centers -- they're always the first ones threatened when the pols want to raise taxes), and doesn't necessarily increase wages paid to the city's residents. Who says the employees involved actually live in St. Paul? (The well-paying jobs being lost at the St. Paul Ford Plant are overwhelming filled by non-St. Paul residents.) So St. Paulites may end up paying more to run their city, while sending more money out in paychecks to people in Forest Lake or Hudson.

In the case of subsidies, such as tax increment financing or city grants, I think the wages that will be paid should be a concern. That's a matter of return-on-investment for the city's money. If a company wants help, but won't employ many ST. PAUL residents for good wages, then the city should just refuse to help.

But that doesn't mean we need a law.

I have some other questions:

Did anyone on the council consider what effect this might have on the "grocery gap"?

Mayor Coleman said in a written statement: "After months of working together with labor, faith and business leaders, I am confident that we've crafted a strong and sensible living-wage law that is good for working families in St. Paul."

Why was the Mayor working with "faith leaders" on this? Doesn't he know we can't even have a secular Easter Bunny in City Hall? Were they all Imams? I guess that would be OK, then. We already consult with Imams regarding how to run our public schools in St. Paul.

Seriously, why is it that if "faith leaders" speak out against same-sex marriage or abortion, it's seen as some sort of violation of "the separation of church and state." But if "faith leaders" want to advocate "living wages" or tax increases, it's "Welcome, take a place at the table."

Saturday, December 30, 2006

My Brush with President Ford

Here's a past experience that came to mind due to a couple of current news items.

In 1988, I was returning to the Twin Cities from Portland, where I'd been on business. I was waiting to board a connecting flight in the Denver airport. It was about the first of March, but the weather was fine -- no two feet of snow then. While I was waiting for the boarding call, former President Ford and his escorts boarded my plane and were seated in first class.

The odd thing is, the way this plane was configured, the rest of us had to walk through first class and past the former president on the way to our own seats. I don't understand why they didn't board the former president after the rest of us were onboard. Then we wouldn't have even known he was there. Wouldn't that have been a more secure procedure?

Well, it's not much, but it's my brush with the former President. We flew together. And it involved the Denver airport.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Oil Not Worth Dying For? Then Get Out and Walk.

Here's something to ponder. Fairleigh Dickinson University professor Peter J. Woolley offers us his take on the "nonstory" of the year. Woolley wrote this for the Washington Post, and it appears on the St. Paul Pioneer Press opinion page today.

When all is said and done and the ball begins to drop on New Year's Eve, 44,000 people, give or take several hundred, will have died in auto accidents this year. To put that number in perspective, consider that:

· At the 2006 casualty rate of 800 soldiers per year, the United States would have to be in Iraq for more than 50 years to equal just one year of automobile deaths back home.

Woolley goes on to use several other comparisons, but I think the comparison to soldiers dying in Iraq is particularly thought provoking. Consider all the claims that this is a war for oil, and "Oil is not worth dying for." Now consider that if indeed this war is "about oil," America's oil addiction is primarily about automobiles.

So while the mainstream media are obsessed with counting every soldier's death in Iraq -- as they rub their hands gleefully, anticipating the day when they can celebrate a body count of 3,000 -- they ignore this "nonstory."

Linking the war and traffic deaths, we must then conclude that while many people think it is not acceptable for 800 people to die yearly to ensure our oil supply, it is perfectly acceptable for 44,000 to die yearly engaging in an activity that creates the demand for that oil.

If you think this war is "about oil," then I sure hope you're walking to the weekly anti-war protest on the Lake Street bridge. And no taking the bus, either. They burn fossil fuel, and they run people over, too. If you're not walking, then you're part of the problem you're protesting.

It's peculiar the way we humans assess risk. We're not logical about it, as Mr. Spock would be quick to point out. We fear some things that will likely never happen to us, yet we don't give a second thought to real dangers. Any time we leave the house, we could be going to our death. Woolley writes:

· According to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying in an automobile crash is one in 84 over your lifetime. But your chances of winning the Mega Millions lottery are just one in 175 million.

So... every day, people get into their cars and drive to the store to buy lottery tickets. Hmmmm....

It's funny the things we decide to be afraid of. Do you personally know anyone who has died from Radon gas in the house? I don't. Yet I've tested my basement air, as I've been instructed to do.

Do you personally know anyone who has died in a traffic accident? I do. I'll bet you do, too. But are we afraid to drive?

I think it would be fascinating to do a study looking for correlation between people who don't buy insurance or wear their seat belts because "it won't happen to me," but do buy lottery tickets because "somebody's got to win!"

Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Grocery Gap" the Latest "Social Justice" Issue

Radio host Joe Soucheray (AM1500 in the Twin Cities, 2-5 pm, www.garagelogic.com) uses the expression "getting windmilled" when someone's publicly-expressed convictions ironically -- and often hypocritically -- come around to bite them in the butt. It started when some members of the Kennedy clan -- great environmentalists that they were -- sang a different tune when some windpower generators were proposed for an exclusive area where the Kennedys spent their time. All of a sudden it was, "Not in my backyard!"

Have we got a case of windmilling today! And more proof that self-described "progressives" can't link. I refer to the "grocery gap" story in today's Pioneer Press.

The paper has "discovered" that people living in the core cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis have poorer options for grocery shopping than do their suburban counterparts.

Well, duh. That's not news. The real story here is how the people who claim to be the most concerned about this problem are the same people standing in the way of doing something about it.

This is full of irony. But the liberals or "progressives" who claim this is a "social justice" issue can't see it.

First off, I think they should be pleased with what they find in this story. It features a man who takes the bus down University Avenue to get his groceries. Isn't that what they want? They hate cars. They love transit. And just think: After a few more years and a billion dollars worth of light rail construction, he'll be able to take THE TRAIN instead!

Interestingly, Mr. Davis is going shopping at the Aldi store. If I recall correctly, the "progressives" didn't want that store built. It didn't fit their "vision" for "high-density transit-oriented development" in the University Avenue corridor.

So if we need grocery stores in the urban core, where are they supposed to be built? The "progressives" want only smaller, upscale store. They hate chains. They hate cars. They hate parking lots. They've really windmilled themselves.

When Target announced plans to use its own money to build a Super Target -- bringing another grocery option with wider selection and lower prices to the urban core -- the "progressives" fought it tooth and nail. They don't want auto-oriented development! But then in this story, we hear how hard it is to shop for groceries via bus. People without cars suffer. Will it be easier with THE TRAIN?

The "progressives" hate "big boxes." Just imagine if a Cub store were to be proposed for the Ford Plant site! Yet in this story we hear how good big, chain grocery stores are -- better selection, fresher food, lower prices. They can't link!

St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman recognizes that it's difficult to carry bags of groceries on the bus. We're told that lack of cars makes it hard to shop for groceries. Yet these "progressives" don't want anyone to use a car. Then how exactly are people in the city supposed to buy groceries? Do they expect to have a Cub Foods on every corner?

They hate the suburbs. They want "high-density" development, not a "big box" and a big parking lot. Then they bemoan the lack of shopping options. THEY CAN'T LINK!

Whatever the cause of this "grocery gap," the same people crying about it as a "social justice" issue are also standing in the way of doing something about it. Why are groceries more expensive in the city? Let's see, "living wage laws," politicians beholden to unions, resistance to development, endless development requirements.... can't they link?

In a sidebar, Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak says, "It makes no sense that people in cities, who are more transit-bound, with less income, are subject to the highest grocery prices." Actually, it makes perfect sense. It's basic economics. They have fewer options to take their money elsewhere, so they'll pay more. Just like you'll pay more for gasoline at a fishing resort at the end of the Gunflint Trail. Also, a small store can't sell milk and bread as loss leaders, the way a big store can. A "big box" store can advertise and sell staples cheaply to get people in the door, then make it up with good margins on those 65 kinds of vinegar, or expensive designer cheeses.

Notice also the quote from Angela Dawson, of the Northside Food Project: "Our food system is pretty broken." Where have we heard that before? Could nationalized, "single-payer" groceries be far away?

I agree wholeheartedly that people in the inner city would benefit from better grocery shopping options. But the powers that be are so incapable of linking, they can't see where they contribute to the problem and stand in the way of solving it. And it's not only groceries. Why do people in St. Paul have to travel to the suburbs to see most movies? Why do we have to travel to the suburbs for good prices on consumer electronics? Why do we have to travel to the suburbs to buy materials to fix up the city's aging housing stock? It makes absolutely no sense. Yet, proposals for a multiplex, a Best Buy, or a Lowe's at University and Snelling are rejected as not "transit-oriented." I've personally heard Mayor Coleman say that people aren't going to be getting on the train with a sheet of plywood. No, but they might get on the train with a new light fixture -- or some deadbolts for their doors.

The "home improvement gap" is another "gap" that the mayors ought to be concerned about. I think it's more important than the "grocery gap." If the mayors want their cities to be desirable places to live, the housing stock needs to be maintained. How are low-income people without cars, in old, run-down houses, supposed to get affordable materials to fix up those houses, build equity, and improve their lot in life, if you don't let modern home-improvement stores into your cities?

As if to support my point, here's another story from today's Pioneer Press. It tells about how thieves are breaking into abandoned houses and stealing copper gas line, creating gas leaks and great danger to the people living nearby.

The burglaries highlight one of the problems with vacant buildings. The number standing vacant in St. Paul has more than doubled in the last five years, leading to concern about declining property values and neighborhood blight.

Crime? Vacant buildings? The quality of the city's housing stock? The "progressive" leaders and activists of St. Paul and Minneapolis don't have time to fiddle with things like that. They've got more important things to do. Like build trains with other people's money. And blame grocery stores if low income people are overweight.

We have people in St. Paul who have the means to live their own upscale urban lifestyle, but while they try to make themselves feel important and happy by implementing their "vision," they make it harder for the less well-off. Then, they turn around and want to be feel good about themselves because they "care" so much about the little people, and demand that the government do something. You know what it is? It's a sort of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. That's when someone makes someone else sick, so that the perpetrator can then take some sick satisfaction in serving as a caregiver.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Admit It: You're Biased

Back in college, I had only one journalism department class in basic reporting (I double majored in communication and poly-sci), but one thing I recall from that is being told by my professor that "admitted" is a loaded word, and we should use it sparingly because it implies wrongdoing.

Yet, I hear it all the time, from what are supposed to be the nation's foremost journalists. Frequently -- not a coincidence -- it's in stories that involve President Bush. Just yesterday, I heard ABC News anchor Charley Gibson -- doing the ABC Radio news -- report that the Bush administration had "admitted" that Polar Bears are endangered. Huh? Has W. (or Cheney, though his aim is suspect) been personally poaching them?

No, but Gibson was clearing trying to blame Bush for the bears' endangerment. Gibson went on to opine that while the Bush administration referred only to "climate change" and melting ice, clearly this was a recognition of "Global Warming."

No liberal bias in the mainstream media? We sure could use some climate change there.

Surprisingly, the New York Times did better. In a NYT story that appeared in my paper today, the Times writes that the Interior Secretary "acknowledged" that ice is melting, but didn't take a stand on the cause. The Times story reported that many experts say the cause is "global warming," but didn't give its own opinion the way that Gibson did.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

You Think You've Got a Tough Job?

How'd you like to be Baghdad's only Christmas tree salesman? http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/16308344.htm

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Is This Bush's Fault, Too?

The Christmas Day paper also brought news that Ethiopia is now openly waging war in Somalia. Ethiopia is fighting on the side of the UN-recognized Somali government, against Islamic militias that control most of the country. Majority-Christian Ethiopia feels itself threatened by the Islamists across the border.

A couple of things to point out here: One, the Islamists are trying to take control of Somalia away from the UN-recognized government. Ethiopia wants to prevent that. Where is the UN? If Somalia's government is backed by the UN, then doesn't it follow that the UN should back Ethiopia's efforts to defend that government?

Two, the story notes that the Islamofascists are calling on foreign Muslims to come join the "holy war," and hundreds -- or more -- have already done so.

Boy, doesn't this sound a lot like Iraq? And we're told repeatedly by U.S. liberal intellectuals that the ONLY reason these Islamofascist killers are killing people in Iraq is because the U.S. is there. Everything would be find if the U.S. just left and stopped attracting them to Iraq and riling them up.

Is the U.S. in Somalia?


Gosh, it still must be Bush's fault, isn't it? It couldn't be that there really is an evil movement of international Muslim fascist terrorism -- like Bush claims -- could it?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Holiday

Here's another installment in the war between "Christmas" and "Holiday." The St. Paul Pioneer Press yesterday -- Christmas Day -- couldn't figure out what it wanted to do. The front page had a nice banner proclaiming "Merry Christmas." So it seemed that the paper was OK with the notion that December 25 is in fact a national holiday called "Christmas." I was glad to see that.

But inside, on the front page of the paper's "Daily Life" section, was a holiday activity for us. There was a maze, with the goal being to help Santa Claus get down the chimney to the stockings by the fireplace. And what headline was used here?

"Have an amazing holiday."

Why not an "amazing Christmas"? It's Santa. It's December 25. How is "Christmas" not appropriate? How is it, in fact, not a more precise -- and better -- choice? That is really bizarre.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Strange Bedfellows, Redux

More political correctness run amok...

Just two years ago, the city of Minneapolis appointed a new fire chief. Notable was that the new chief was a woman. I noticed from the new chief's picture in the paper that she looked quite "butch," and then there are those stereotypes about women firefighters... but I told myself not to think like that, and besides, what business was it of mine, anyway?

Well, it turned out that the new chief became a cause celebré, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press had a feature story about how the new chief was a lesbian, and how wonderful that was. I wrote about that at the time, asking who was more "open minded" and "tolerant," me -- who said it was none of my business and irrelevant -- or the mainstream media -- which insisted on making a BIG DEAL out of the new chief's sexual orientation?

Now two years have gone by, and fire chief Bonnie Bleskachek is in the news again. Actually, she's been in the news quite a bit, for quite a while. She has been accused repeatedly of improper conduct -- sexual and otherwise -- toward her subordinates. The most recent news is that she has "accepted" a demotion, but won't be fired. Read the story in the Pioneer Press, and you'll wonder how that can be. Any middle-aged, white, heterosexual male facing these sorts of charges would be fired, sued, and maybe neutered. But Minneapolis' boy mayor R.T. Rybak fears there might be a lawsuit if Bleskachek is fired, and he doesn't know if the city would win.

Among the many charges is that Bleskachek THREE TIMES was naked in a hot tub when department employees were present. Another time, she was seen "making out" with an employee on the floor of a fire station workout room.

This is amazing. She can't be fired? Is there a lower standard for lesbians? Apparently. This is totally ridiculous.

But what I also find interesting, is that while the Pioneer Press "celebrated" Bleskachek's sexual orientation when she got the job, the paper now seems to downplay it when reporting this story. Even though it is now an integral part of the story.

Political correctness can come back and bite you in the butt.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Strange Bedfellows

I've been told by a certain someone from Hopkins that this item isn't worthy of inclusion in his editorial realm. Harumph! He suggested it was more worthy of Downing World, which I think might be a put-down. Well, I found it amusing. So there.

My Saturday Pioneer Press had a photo of Donald Rumsfeld, looking dejected and rejected, under the headline "Parting thoughts." Immediately adjacent was a story headlined, "Bush supportive of Cheney Pregnancy."

I've always heard that politics makes strange bedfellows, but this looks like the strangest love triangle ever.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Workers Need to Follow the Work

I'd like to link a couple of things here today.

First, consider that we've all heard repeatedly that members of certain segments of society, living in certain areas, face grim prospects for their futures, because they can't afford to go to college, and there aren't any "good jobs," just "burger flipping" jobs available to them. As a result, apologists say, it's only natural that so many people turn to a life or crime or perpetual welfare dependence. The solution, they say, is more government spending on education, and government efforts to created jobs for people in these locations.

Now, consider last week's immigration raids on meat packing plants. According to this story in the Pioneer Press, the raids could be crippling for the Swift plant in Worthington, Minn., because the plant depends so heavily on immigrant workers. The story reports that the plant has difficulty finding workers, as it is in an area of low unemployment.

We've all heard the stereotype that cheap, immigrant labor is being exploited by greedy American capitalists, who pay minimum wage -- or even less! Is that the case in Worthington? Are the greedy Swift Co. executives exploiting their immigrant workers? Are they relying on immigrants so that they don't have to pay reasonable wages?

It doesn't look like it to me. The news story says that these packing plant employees -- hired unskilled and without advanced education -- make $9 to $12 an hour. That sounds like good pay for unskilled work to me. No wonder people are willing to make such efforts to enter the U.S. and take such work.

So my question is, Why don't people in "disadvantaged," bullet-riddled locations such as North Minneapolis simply move to Worthington and take on honest work? The cost of living is lower outside the Twin Cities, too.

Sure, there are barriers to relocating. Relocating may cost money. People have to know about the jobs. Extended family may have to be left behind. But if people in another country -- people who can't even speak English -- can learn about such jobs and find their way to Worthington, why can't someone who has been born in this country, speaks English, and has benefited from the American education system?

I think if you can identify an honest answer to that question, you'll have the first step toward actually helping people trapped in a culture of poverty and crime.

When did we decide that people are entitled to have jobs brought to them? People used to go where the work was. Indeed, most of us, if we haven't ourselves relocated to follow the work (as I did, though only about 60 miles), live where we do because an ancestor was seeking work or business opportunities there. That includes those of us Minnesotans of European ancestry, whose forebears came here to farm, or work in the iron mines or flour mills.

Now we see a new wave of immigrants -- both legal and otherwise -- making their way to places like Worthington (population 11,000) in search of honest work. It's the same old story. Meanwhile, the descendants of the original iron ore miners, for instance, demand that the government bring their region some new jobs when the mines shut down.

The perils of immigration seem to make immigrants a self-selecting group of hard-working, ambitious people, willing to do whatever it takes. But once here, the ease of American life makes their descendants soft.

Friday, December 15, 2006

We Need a Vice Senator

No, not that kind of vice. We've got plenty of those already. What I'm thinking is that we need someone to step in when a U.S. Senator is incapacitated.

This thought is brought on, of course, by the current speculation over the future of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson. Johnson, in case you've been living under a rock, is critically ill after surgery to treat bleeding in his brain. If he were removed from office or died, South Dakota's Republican governor could appoint a Republican to replace the Democrat Johnson, putting the Senate split at 50/50, and giving Republicans the deciding vote (for two years, anyway) from Vice President Dick Cheney. But according to what I've been reading, only the Senate can unseat a member. The voters or governor can't do it. And the Senate is loathe to do so. There are several examples of Senators "serving" in name only after becoming incapacitated. Of course, with all of their staff, I'm sure they can cover a lot of their responsibilities even if physically unable to be in the building very often.

What bothers me the most is the idea that the seat "belongs" to the Senator. It doesn't. It belongs to the voters. So if a Senator can't serve, he should resign. But according to associate Senate historian Don Ritchie, "The Senate is a family, as well as a club. There's a real sense of sticking together."

Ouch! If that doesn't show something wrong in our government, what does? Senators owe their allegiance to their states' voters, not to each other. It's not difficult to be cynical about Ritchie's quote.

So, if a Senator is incapacitated, the concern shouldn't be about whether he loses "his" seat. Our concern should be that his state's voters are still being represented. And politics shouldn't get in the way. We don't need to pretend that someone in a coma is still "serving" just to prevent the other party from gaining political advantage.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Sky Is Always Falling

I've been thinking about how some people always must have something to worry about. Some people seem to always have to worry about some apocalyptic scenario which will bring about the end of the world as we know it. And I'm not talking about something from the Book of Revelation.

Currently, it's GLOBAL WARMING. That apocalyptic fear is accompanied by Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," along with other works of fiction depicting polar ice caps melting, rising sea levels, and other disasters, all produced by wealthy Hollywood liberals who jet around in private planes burning huge amounts of fossil fuels.

The fear of an environmental apocalypse seems to have replaced the fear of nuclear annihilation. Back in 1983, we had the made-for-TV movie "The Day After" to help convince us of that danger. Oddly, we're still here.

Before that, we had the Malthusian fears of Paul Ehrlich's "Population Bomb," first published in 1968. (This was also the era when we feared the "coming ice age.") Of course, since then, the Earth's population has doubled, and there's enough food to go around, it's just a matter of distribution and paying for it. Famine world wide has been reduced; it hasn't soared as Ehrlich predicted.

What was the fear before that? I think it was the original nuclear scare. The Russians were going to get us with their H-bombs, so school kids were trained to hide beneath their desks.

You know what I'm noticing here? All of these apocalyptic scares seem to peak while Republicans are in the White House! It's as though some people are so upset when their guy is not in charge, they have to get themselves all worked up about something they can blame the Republican for!

So just wait. If a Democrat wins the White House in 2008, global warming will fall off of the radar. All we'll hear about it is how the incumbent Democrat has fixed it, and happy days are here again. It'll be the new economy, sex, and rock and roll again.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Pot and the Kettle

The world is appalled that crackpots and Iranians are gathered in Tehran to deny that the Holocaust happened. This includes American KKK member and politician David Duke. (I guess birds of a sheet flock together. Think about it.)

Meanwhile, there's no shortage of people -- including UN head Kofi Annan -- willing to deny the genocide of Saddam Hussein, in order to blame President Bush for making Iraqis worse off.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Joe Biden and the Hood

Some of you may believe that there is something called "liberal media bias." I used to think that, too, before I was set straight. Only conservatives think there is such a thing. Liberals say there is not, as does the mainstream media. So there you have it, the returns are in. By a 2-1 margin, it has been ruled that there is no such creature as liberal media bias. You can't argue with a mandate like that, can you?

Nonetheless, let's speak hypothetically for a bit. If liberal media bias did indeed exist, this might be an example of it:

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker last week wrote a column about how Sen. Joe Biden is embarrassing himself by "playing redneck" and trying to woo Southern votes in pursuit of the White House. Parker notes that Biden has been invoking the spectre of slavery to try to win political points.

His first reference came during an interview last summer with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Wallace asked Biden how a "Northeastern liberal" could compete in conservative Southern states against someone like former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner -- at the time a possible contender.

Biden replied: "My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state has the eighth-largest black population in the country." Well, yee-haw!

Example number two:

Biden's second testimonial as a born-again Southerner came last week while he was visiting South Carolina. Speaking before Columbia's mostly Republican Rotary Club, Biden reminded his audience of his slave-state heritage and hinted that Delaware's alliance with the North was merely an accident of geography.

Delaware was a "slave state that fought beside the North," he said. "That's only because we couldn't figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way."

Are we to infer that Biden is pro-slavery? Parker notes:

Of course no one seriously thinks that Biden was touting slavery. More likely he was trying to say something friendly to his audience, as in: "I may be from a state north of here, but I love South Carolina, and I'll say any fool thing to get your vote."

I agree. We shouldn't infer that Biden is stumping for slavery. Rather, he's sucking up to his audience,the way politicians do. Pile it higher and deeper; it's just political B.S.

But there seems to be a double standard here. The only place I've heard about Biden's comments is in this column, and the columnist isn't even calling Biden racist, just foolish. I've seen no other news coverage of Biden's comments.

But remember Trent Lott? Just four years ago, the then-Senate minority leader got into political hot water while speaking at a tribute to Sen. Strom Thurmond. Using very poorly-chosen words, Lott said that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had been elected president back in 1948.

Immediately, there were cries of outrage. Lott was endorsing segregation, his critics claimed, because at the time Thurmond had represented segregationist forces.

I think that's reading too much into it. Lott never intended to imply that. He was simply piling it higher and deeper, adding to the already considerable pile of political B.S. and praise being heaped upon the elderly Senator, who was being feted upon his 100th birthday, and in honor of his overdue retirement.

This "scandal" resulted in continuous news coverage until Lott resigned his leadership post.

But Biden? I guess if he says something stupid, it's OK. He can just go right on campaigning for the presidency.

You have to wonder, what if a Republican had said exactly the same things Biden said?

Friday, December 8, 2006

It's Elementary: Presidential Election Disputed

We've got another presidential election brouhaha. This time, it's over the student council presidency in a St. Paul suburb.

Roseville sixth-grader Jasmine White won the election, but her opponent cried foul. Jasmine had passed out custom fortune cookies containing her campaign message, and the parents of her opponent lodged a protest about her buying the election. Jasmine had gotten pre-approval of her campaign tactic from the student council adviser, but the principal decided to overrule that decision after the election had taken place.

For all I care, the school could rule her the legitimate winner, or it could disqualify her. I don't give a rip. But what really riles me is the way the school "solved" this problem: They left it up to all the candidates in the race, who declared the two candidates "co-presidents." According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Central Park Elementary Principal Florence Odegard explained it thusly:

"The kids learned that things are not perfect," Odegard said, and that when problems arise the challenge is to "come together and find a solution that's not going to divide us."

I beg to differ. That's not what they learned. They learned that no one ever loses. They learned that you should expect to be able to make everything perfect. What they didn't learn was that sometimes things don't go your way, sometimes there are controversies, someone wins, someone loses, you take you lumps and accept it. You need to establish the rules and stick to them. That's a "life lesson" they could have learned from this.

I fear we're not far from this mentality when it comes to elections that mean something. In the past two presidential elections, the losing side refused to accept defeat, and the media played right into their hands, treating the losing candidate like some sort of "co-president" for some time afterward. (Maybe still.)

If the 2000 election is replayed in the near future, I can imagine the Democrats, as a last resort, proposing a "co-presidency." I really can.

OK, maybe not. They'd never recognize a Republican "co-president." But what about in a different race, one with two self-described "progressives" or "greens"? What if two of these neo-comms were in a disputed race for say, Minneapolis city council? I can imagine the other leftists on the council "solving" the problem by seating both candidates.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

65 Years Ago Today: Attack on Pearl Harbor. Don't Forget.

Make the Minimum Wage $1,000, and We'll All Be Rich

Ed Lotterman had a good column today about the lunacy of minimum price laws. The topic was spurred by the current controversy over whether Wal-Mart and Target can sell prescription drugs here in Minnesota for $4, or if that violates state laws against retailers selling below their cost.

It's a good column. Give it a read.

But I want to write about an idea I had while reading the column. An idea about the BIG PICTURE.

I think this is an example of the evolution of what I'm going to call "free market socialism."

We don't really want to take care of ourselves. For a long time, people have demanded that government or our employers provide for us. Government provides because we are its citizens. Employers provide because we are their employees.

But here's a new development. In an area -- providing cheap prescription drugs -- where many people have not been satisfied with what either the government or employers have been doing, there is a new player. Big retailers have decided to step in and provide for us because we are their CUSTOMERS.

Citizens. Employees. Customers. All people needing to be taken care of.

What exactly is Target's motivation? How altruistic is Wal-Mart being? I don't know. But does it matter?

The giant retailers, on their own, have decided they will act to solve a problem their customers are having. They don't need to make money on the drugs, they probably figure, just as long as people keep coming into their stores and buying other goods. I'm sure they're hoping they'll gain new customers, too.

In a way, it's like socialism. These businesses are so large that pretty much everyone spends money at them. So they are earning money from all of us -- some more than others, just like taxes -- and then returning a benefit to everyone -- again, not necessarily in proportion to what has been paid in.

It's sort of a redistribution of wealth, performed under the capitalist system. Isn't that an interesting way to look at it?

Of course, while consumers benefit, there are losers. Those would be the independent druggists who have to make money on prescriptions, because they don't sell lawn mowers and bicycles and socks and TVs. This move by Target and Wal-Mart is another blow against them.

But you can't have it both ways. Target and Wal-Mart can very efficiently distribute drugs as a loss leader. If we value inexpensive prescription drugs, then we will have to embrace developments such as this.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Four Legs Good, Two Legs... Ahh, Who Cares

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker has a very interesting column this week about "the elephant and the embryo." The timing is good, because it goes well with something I recently heard on the radio.

Parker writes about a soon-to-be-released national Geographic documentary called "In the womb: Animals." The film uses 3-D, computer-enhanced ultrasound scans to show mammal embryos in the womb, acting, Parker writes, much like baby animals act outside of the womb.

Parker suggests that this could be the best PR yet for the anti-abortion movement. Why? Because while people can make themselves pretend that a human fetus is not really human, people can't resist baby animals.

(It's true. Here in St. Paul this year there was a big fuss about some no-good jerk who killed some puppies in a parking lot and threw them into a trash bin. He was brought up on charges. I thought it would have been a really great story had he thrown them into the bin behind the abortion clinic. Maybe some of the staff who worked there would have seen it, and they could have been quoted telling us how "barbaric" the perpetrator was. Oh well, that much irony is too much to expect. But I can dream.)

The second part of this is that I recently heard a radio spot on behalf of doing medical research on animals. I don't know whether it was a paid ad or a public service announcement, but it sought to convince us of the value of using animals for medical testing by telling the story of a patient whose life had been saved by such research. The twist was that the patient was not a man or a woman, but a racehorse.

So, we were told, animal research doesn't just save human lives, it saves animals lives, too.

Good grief! That they would make that spot tells us one thing: They think there are people out there who won't be swayed by the idea of saving human lives, but will be swayed by the prospect of saving animal lives.

Sure supports what Parker has to say.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

U.S. Could Learn from Saddam?

Saw something interesting Monday night on ABC's "Nightline." The reporter was visiting with a former Iraqi government official. The reporter had met this official, who served as his "handler," years ago when he visited Iraq. As I understood it, the official said at that time that he hated Saddam, but of course he couldn't say that publicly.

They showed video of a conversation with the same official when Saddam was defeated more than three years ago. In that video, the official expressed his joy that Saddam had been removed from power, and expressed his gratefulness to the U.S. for doing so.

Now, let's go ahead to today. How does he feel now?

He'd like to see Saddam back in power.

That's how bad it is in Iraq right now. They can't stop themselves from killing each other, so apparently they'd rather have Saddam stopping them by doing the killing himself.

The former official said that a strong leader was needed to control the country. Logically, then, the U.S. should help Iraq by acting more like Saddam acted. You know, just round some people up and shoot them. Maybe that will get the message out. Yet when U.S. soldiers "go too far" and embarrass people at a prison by putting hoods on their heads and such, the world acts as though it's genocide.

If Iraq "needs" ruthlessness, but the U.S. can't do hardly anything, then what chance is there for success?

Americans aren't supposed to be dying so that Iraqis can kill each other. If that's what they want, let them do that without our help. The idea was that we would release the Iraqi people from the oppression of Saddam, and they could live happily ever after in peace. But there's a fatal flaw in the plan. They don't seem to want to live in peace.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Help the Sal / Book Show Runs Through Sunday

Don't miss your chance to shop for great children's books online, and support the Salvation Army at the same time. Did I mention I'll kick back in my commission, too, making even more free books we can deliver to the Sal? Click here for more info and to get shopping! THIS OPPORTUNITY LASTS THROUGH Sunday, Dec. 10.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Peace? Them's Fighting Words!

It came home from the elementary school, a "certificate of appreciation" thanking us for contributing to the "Fall Fun Raiser" ($$$). (Interesting how they are perfectly willing to make money off of Halloween, but they won't use the name. Just like all the merchants banking on making money off of Christmas shopping, but they won't say "Christmas. We are truly a society dedicated to having things both ways.)

The certificate is decorated with various little symbols and phrases. "Theaters of learning." "Caring." "Multiple intelligences." "Do your personal best."

But it's this one that rubs me the wrong way: "Peace."

That has bugged me for a long time, the way "peace" gets thrown about at the school. Why? Am I in favor of war and violence and mayhem? Of course not. So why does it bug me so? Why was I put-off by the "peace garden" and the school song about "piece by peace we build our community"?

Part of it is that my kids were already at peace with everyone else when they started at the school. It was only the school, telling them they should all live in peace even if they have different colored skin, for example, that gave them the idea that people might not be expected to live in peace in the first place, and would have to work at it.

That's part of it. But I think the main reason "peace" bugs me so much is that it is really code for so much more. It's a code word that represents an entire left-wing political agenda.

Don't believe me? Imagine if I went to one of these liberal-dominated parent/teacher organization meetings and told them I objected to "peace." They'd think I was a nut. Or at least some sort of evil, mean-spirited right-wing fanatic. Worse yet, maybe even a Republican. How could anyone be "against" peace.

So how could I explain why their use of "peace" bothered me? Was there a similar word or phrase to which they would object in the same way? I thought about it, and I think I found it:

Family values.

How would the liberals like to have "family values" in the school song, or in multiple languages on a "family values" pole in a "family values garden"?

They wouldn't like it at all. But why? Are they opposed to family values? Don't they like parents and children and families?

They wouldn't like it because they would say that "family values" is political code for a right-wing agenda. And they'd be right. To a large extent, it has become exactly that. In the same way, "peace" represents a left-wing political agenda.

But notice how only one of these agendas gets supported by our tax money.

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