Wednesday, September 09, 2015

A Government of Laws, Not Clerks

When Kim Davis, clerk of Rowan County in Kentucky, was released from jail a few days ago, hundreds showed up to greet her with cheers. Davis had refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite a Supreme Court decision that such unions are legal. Supreme Court decisions are the law of the land in the U.S.

Davis claims "God's authority" not only allowed but required her to deny the marriage applications. She deserves a round of boos, not cheers, for that stance. Davis is entitled to her religious beliefs. What she is not entitled to do is choose what authority governs her job.

It is quite clear that the job of county clerks is to follow the laws of their state government and the federal government. Those laws require them to issue marriage licenses to qualified individuals, and the licenses must be provided immediately upon application or after only a brief waiting period.

State laws vary somewhat, but most require the clerk to consider only that applicants meet an age requirement (usually 18), are not attempting to marry a close relative, have the mental capacity to understand their actions, and are not already married. A few states require blood tests. In no state are clerks authorized to interpret laws or follow only those they happen to agree with.

Davis is free to select any authority she wants to guide her personal beliefs. However, only properly constituted authorities are empowered to define what she must do in her public service job. That's how government works in this country, and if Davis wants to continue as a public official she needs to follow the rules.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Gamrat Dishonors Our Community

Plainwell, a small city (pop. 3,900) in southwestern Michigan, has a new claim to fame. News of a sex scandal involving the area's representative in the state legislature has spread to the major television networks, been mocked on late-night comedy shows, and circulated to all manner of  media by the Associated Press. Reuters is carrying the story, so it may even have reached foreign shores.

I was much more content when Plainwell's claims to fame were servings of great treats at the Plainwell Ice Cream Company and a history of papermaking at a giant mill now mostly decomposing in the center of town after shutting down about 15 years ago.

My inclination has been to let the scandal play out without comment here. Several investigations are under way to determine if laws as well as moral principles have been violated. However, a few folks have poked fun in my direction because of the situation. A couple of  things need clarification.

It is true that Cindy Gamrat, the female partner in the sordid affair, is a neighbor. News stories correctly identify her as "R-Plainwell," and we both have Plainwell mailing addresses. We actually live about 5 miles east of town in a community of some 450 families. Although Gamrat resides on the edge of my neighborhood, we have never met.

My silence regarding the now infamous representative should not be construed as support. Usually, I consider voting a very private matter, but I'll make a small exception in this case. I have never
Courser and Gamrat need to resign.
voted for Cindy Gamrat. One area GOP leader said two "sensible Republicans" were in the four-person primary field that included Gamrat. I voted for one of them. Gamrat also didn't get my vote in the general election, but that mattered not, because this district is very conservative, and the Republican nominee always wins local elections.

Gamrat moved to our neighborhood from Indiana about four years ago. She became the founder and leader of the Plainwell Patriots Tea Party. She and another first-term legislator, Todd Courser, upon arriving in Lansing took the unusual step of  sharing office space and staffs. They now admit to sharing a lot more.

So what?  Sexual transgressions involving politicians, some of them prominent (Bill Clinton comes to mind), seem so routine that news of another one usually gets ho-hum reactions.

One respected local newspaper columnist addressed the question by producing statistics indicating affairs involving female legislators are much less common than those of males. The counter argument that there are many more men than women holding office doesn't hold up. Correcting for that, it appears to be a fact that far fewer women politicos than men go astray, or at least fewer get caught.. That truth helps make the Gamrat-Courser affair unusual, and that makes it newsy.

More unusual is Courser's bizarre attempt to create a cover story. One of his staff recorded Courser discussing the whole thing. The tape was given to the Detroit Free Press, which broke the story. Courser arranged to have an e-mail sent to  Republican leaders in Lansing stating that he was an habitual drug user who had been caught having sex with a male prostitute. That was supposed to create such a sensation that revelations about the  Gamrat-Courser affair would be dismissed or discounted.

Another major factor in turning a minor Michigan affair into national news is that the participants are outspoken social conservatives who do not hesitate to bring up their dedication to "family values" and hurl God bombs around at will. Both are married. Gamrat has three children (she home schooled them), Courser has four children. Courser has said he won't resign because God hasn't told him to do so.

There are many other strange quirks to this story, including Gamrat being thrown out of the Republican caucus for breaking its rules. If you like to delve into political-sexual intrigue, do a computer search and you'll find all sorts of interesting stuff.

If you study the matter, you probably won't wind up feeling sorry for Gamrat or Courser, only their families. They clearly have not been star-crossed lovers caring intensely only for each other. In one of his cover-up statements, Courser called Gamrat "a tramp." Gamrat stood beside her husband while making a tearful public confession about the affair, and never mentioned Courser by name.

Six of seven top Republican leaders in our county have called for Gamrat's resignation. Michigan Tea Party leaders have demanded that both Gamrat and Courser resign. The Mayor of Plainwell said Gamrat has made a mockery of her role in government, and "needs to go away." I agree.

(On Sept. 10, Courser resigned from the Michigan House of representatives while votes were being taken on expelling him. A short time later, the House voted to expel Gamrat.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Dubious Distinction

Our town featured a different kind of summer diversion this year. The Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit "The Way We Worked" had a place of honor for several weeks in a renovated area of the historic Plainwell Paper Mill.

Our local arts council and district library were principal sponsors of the exhibit, and they created
some related activities using the work theme.  Among them, the library hosted an essay contest. Several categories for authors of different ages all revolved around employment experiences. Why not enter? I thought. I extracted some material published  in lengthy articles elsewhere and assembled it into an essay about my first job as a shoe shine boy.

Several days after the exhibit left town, a cheerful librarian called with the news my essay was a winner and prizes would be forthcoming.  It was great news, but got a little less great when she laughed and said there were six prize packages for the five authors who entered the competition, so everybody got a prize.  I felt a bit as some youngsters might when everybody who races around the track gets a blue ribbon because "we all are winners."

My ego got a small boost when the librarian said she thought my essay was the best. But when I  stopped in to get my prizes and read the other four entries on display, I realized there were some pretty darn good stories in the "contest." Did that pleasant lady tell everyone their essay was the best?

The prize packet included a nice "Essay Contest Winner" certificate and a Barnes and Noble gift card. The third item was a $25 share of stock in the Michigan Paper Company of Plainwell. Wow, those were issued many years ago. Could be very valuable. Not really--the Plainwell Paper Mill ceased operations 15 years ago. The buildings are  being demolished or, in a few cases, remodeled for other uses.

Incidentally, the Smithsonian exhibit is an outstanding audio-visual presentation. If it comes your way, take the opportunity to see it. And, if the locals sponsor an essay contest, give that a go. Chances of winning are very good. If nothing else, you might ask about that sixth prize package the Plainwell folks couldn't find a winner for. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Unladylike Luck

Members of my family shared a belief that unexpectedly finding money made the discovery date "your lucky day." Thus, I was pleased to spot a penny in the parking lot of my dentist's office when I opened the car door.

Why not, I thought. I was there merely to have a final cap placed over what had been a troublesome
Not all pennies are lucky.
tooth. No problems were expected. I'd paid for the procedure in advance, so not even financial unpleasantness was in sight.

The new dental assistant told me what to expect. "I'll pop off the temporary crown, clean up the old adhesive, fit the final, and take an x-ray so the doctor can be sure all is well. Then he will cement the final crown in and you'll be good to go."

That worked for a couple of minutes. The assistant failed twice with the x-ray. She called in another assistant. Two more attempts failed. An assistant who had worked there for several years was summoned. Zip. Done. "Would you look at this, please?" the original assistant asked.

"Hum," said the veteran. "Where is that image from?"

"It's one we took from the wrong angle before you got here."

I heard a muffled conversation in the hallway, and the dentist appeared. He clicked the computer monitor back and forth several times, studying the screen intently. "Well," he said, "there's good news and not so good news. Your crown work is perfect, but the tooth next to it is in serious trouble. You need a root canal. We'll set it up."

"How much?" I asked.

"Only about $700."

I later figured my net good luck for the day could be valued at around minus $699.99. Old family beliefs aren't always reliable.

Friday, July 17, 2015

How Terrible: Oil May Get Cheaper

The headline in USA Today shouted: "Iran deal boosts fears of global oil glut."

Of course, I had to read the story to see who was afraid and how serious this whole glut business could be. Surprise! The fearful are those who devote their lives to gambling on Wall Street, and apparently their concern relates only to the possibility the mega-oil companies of the world may see their profits, and thus their stock values, fall a bit.

Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow
Michael Cohen, an energy analyst at Barclays, was among the  fearful. According to Barron's, he said, "Iran's efforts to raise oil exports could not have come at a worse time, given the market's lingering oversupply."  He promptly was contradicted by other experts who pointed out that Iran is not in a position to immediately dump a billion gallons of oil on the world market.  It will take six months or more to gear up production, although some reserves have accumulated and could be released sooner.

Hey guys. Do any of you care about the effects on the folks who use oil products? I can't think of anything those of us who are forced to fill the gas tanks of our vehicles to survive in this modern world have to fear from stable or lower  prices.  I can think of several reasons for us to celebrate.

1. Lower oil prices may hurt economies of producers such as Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, but they help net oil importers, including the U.S.  Lower oil prices make our companies more competitive. More important, they put extra dollars in the hands of consumers, and consumer spending drives most of our economy.

2. U.S. oil producers have been on a drilling and pumping spree since fracking technology made increased production possible. If world prices drop, some of that activity will stop or decline as it becomes too expensive. Problem? Heck no. Fracking can have very serious environmental effects.  If we need less of it, that is all to the good.

3. Unless our politicians are willing to accept continued deterioration of our roads and bridges, they must raise taxes, and the most convenient way is to increase existing per gallon taxes at the pump. Here in Michigan, even with a decidedly anti-tax legislature, our pols are flirting with a deal that would increase our tax by 34 cents per gallon by 1217.

The federal government so far has shown little interest in a tax increase, but it cannot support that position forever. The highway trust fund is unsustainable.

Of course, tax increases will reduce or eliminate the positive effect of lower oil prices on consumers, but at least they will not cut into our present spending power much, if at all. And we'll have a better and safer transportation infrastructure.

If benefits such as these promote fear, I would like to be terrified.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Another Blogaversary

Today is the ninth anniversary of the birth of this blog. This small-time journalist created the first post in 2006 after checking out a blog by big-time journalist Mort Reichek titled "Octogenarian."

Mr. Reichek was 81 at the time his work encouraged me to start blogging. He continued posting well-crafted stories until he suffered serious injuries from a fall. He died at 87 about a year after the accident.

So far, I've posted some 500 items. As my own octogenarian years rapidly approach,  I find story ideas flowing as freely as ever, but the energy needed to do the hard work of expressing them clearly
and concisely is beginning to fade. However, although my entries probably will become fewer and fewer, I hope to keep going at least as long as Mr. Reichek did.

My biggest pleasure has been new insights gained from fellow bloggers whose posts I read regularly and who visit here to view my offerings and make comments. Also important to me have been those who choose not to make comments on the blog itself, but express their opinions about my writings personally. As every writer knows, appreciation, and even disagreement, by readers is what keeps us going. It tells us somebody out there cares.

I've come to value many of the people who go to the trouble of commenting on my work as new friends, even though I've not met some of them face-to-face. If you are thinking about starting a blog, think about that. Go ahead--it's worthwhile.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

How About a Civility Bomb?

I've been watching a few newer movies lately and, against my better judgment, reading some comments on web page items. It's disgusting how many F. . . bombs are being tossed at us. None of the F's added a thing to the movie plots. And certainly none enhanced the reputations of commentators who insist on leading off their opinions with them.

One that really disgusts me is the title of a very good site: "I F . . . . . . Love Science." Does that F-bomb serve any useful purpose?  For me, it spoils a visit to a place that has some great information.

Just now, I saw a comment by a more civil individual. She started with: "WTH." For those turned off by even the mild "hell," a totally acceptable "heck" might be imagined here. I like it. Even better, couldn't we stand to touch one more key and  respond to ridiculous stuff with, "Huh?"

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Confederacy's Place in History

      (I've been trying  to craft a post that would cut through, with a rational statement, the controversy related to display of the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capitol and elsewhere.  So many conflicting opinions, interpretations of Civil War history, and downright nonsensical statements have appeared that sorting things out proved to be a daunting task.  Yesterday, a fellow blogger did the job for me. "Morning Fog," a site whose proprietor had a career with the U.S. State Department, displayed just what I was feeling, but struggling to put into words. His post follows.)

In recent days, and for many years before, governments, politicians, and others in the U.S. South have sought to justify the continued widespread public display, sale, and reverence for the flag of the Confederacy as a matter of history.  "It's our history," they may say, or perhaps they say they are honoring the valor of those who fought for what they believed in.

I'm very much against any efforts to deny, or to whitewash, U.S. history.  The Civil War (or if you prefer, the War Between the States), is part of what we are as Americans, imbued in our psyches, even for our most recent immigrants, because its effects and its many remaining manifestations are still a part of our everyday lives.  So historians will continue to attempt to analyze and explain it, and museums will continue to offer glimpses of it.

But symbols aren't history, when raised to the top of flagpoles around the country, or splashed across automobile bumpers.  Despite claims to the contrary, they are rallying points that serve only to keep sick
Not something to honor.
ideas alive.  In this country, we teach school children to honor and even "pledge allegiance" to the flag - a kind of a dumb idea in my opinion (a FLAG? Really?), but if we blow away the smokescreen, we have to understand that the "Stars and Bars" is also a claim of allegiance.

Allegiance to what, though?  Is it history, even if Americans generally have very little regard for history?  Is it pride in relatives who served loyally for a cause, although there are lots of people in this country today who are descended from the Tories of the Revolutionary War period, who weren't evil and believed in their cause, yet I'm not aware of any state in the union today that flies the Union Jack  Causes are embraced only when someone wishes they weren't lost.

And what is that cause?  Some would have us believe that it has to do with legal issues (the right to secede), or even economic ones (concerns about destroying the economic base of the South).  And it did, in part, at that time.  That's history.  But it also had to do with a principle, or as Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens put it shortly after several states officially seceded, the new CSA government's cornerstone:

...rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. 

A devil's advocate might suggest that allowing the symbols of Confederate principles to be widely on display would give relatively harmless vent to regressive thinking that might otherwise go underground and turn to violence.    That has not proved to be the case.  It's time to recognize claims on "history" for what they are:  a sham.

Monday, June 22, 2015

It's Time to Toss the Symbols of Hatred

While we mourn our brothers and sisters who were murdered in Charleston, we also need to stand up and declare it is time for bigots who continue to inspire racial violence with outdated symbols to discard their battle flags.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Buying a Bargain Burger

Can you get a first-class burger (with fries) in a nicely maintained restaurant with good service for a third off the menu price? Yes you can. But you need the right qualifications and a proper alignment of incentives to pull it off.

A nearby Applebee's is our dining spot of choice when we want to enjoy a reasonably priced meal in a pleasant place. Our food selection normally is something a little more elegant than one of the seven
How America gets fat (but yuummm)
varieties of hamburgers on the menu. But recently everything aligned so amazingly well, I just had to go for one.

I chose the "American Standard," otherwise less grandly known as a cheeseburger, priced on the menu at $9.99. However, our dine out date happened to be a Monday, and while we were planning it along came an Applebee's ad proclaiming every Monday evening "$5.99 Burger Night."

I asked the waitress if that included the burger I wanted. "Oh yes," she said. "It's all of them."

Every Monday at Applebee's has been "Veteran's Day" for some time. All vets, and I am one, get a 30 percent discount on all food items all day long. I assumed two simultaneous big discounts weren't going to apply, but asked anyway just for fun. "Yes," she said, "you get the Vet discount too." So my $9.99 burger magically became a $4.19 item before it even was plopped on the grill.

But that's not all. I paid the bill with a gift card purchased at a 20 percent discount using a credit card that gave me a 1 percent cash back bonus. So my $9.99 goodie cost me a net $3.31. With a deal like that, I might have to become a Monday night fixture at Applebee's. Of course, after a month or two on a burger regime I might not fit through the door.

Really, I'm not quite as cheap as all this sounds. I did tip that helpful server on the regular $9.99 amount plus drink and tax.