Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankfully, All's Well For Us

Where were you when Paris was terrorized? That may well join others on the list of famous "where were you" questions--when JFK was assassinated, when man first walked on the moon, when the World Trade Center was destroyed.

I was at home, and more than a little nervous. Beautiful wife Sandy, son Lee, and Lee's fiancĂ© Karen were in Europe to visit family in Germany, tour favorite places in Austria, and attend a special birthday party for Karen's mother, Ilse. Fortunately, nothing on their agenda took them to Paris. Nevertheless, as reports continued to appear of threats and discoveries of new terrorist plots my concerns deepened.

As things turned out, I had nothing to worry about. All the travelers said they had a great time renewing acquaintances with favorite people and places while fueled by liberal doses of schnapps and pretzels. Sandy had an unusual fall on an escalator in the Munich airport, but she somewhat miraculously emerged with only bruises and no pains. The only other problems were minor frustrations with needs to modify parts of the travel plan to avoid delays at borders caused by refugees.

Some of the hosts expressed worry about how I was faring as a solo act back home in Michigan. They should have known all was well. One of my responsibilities was caring for Pearl, who emerged
Pearl resting from guard dog duties.
as a fearless sentinel after years as a mere lap dog. When someone or something got too close to our house one night, Pearl routed the intruder with a chorus of strident barking. That may have been a first. Previously, she was known to emit various grunts, snorts, and snores, but never a real bark.

An event in the latter part of the travel scenario caught my attention. Shortly before the travelers started their journey home the U.S. State Department declared a world-wide travel alert. I was relieved when Lee phoned to tell me their 10,000 mile trip was going to end at our front door in about an hour.

Our reunion didn't quite happen on schedule.When the travelers arrived an hour and a half after his call, Lee appeared somewhat shaken. "What happened?'

"I hit a deer out on the highway," he said. The site of the collision was less than a mile from our home.

Years ago, I was a passenger in a sedan that hit a deer. The front end of the car was seriously damaged. A wrecker hauled it away for major repairs. A conservation officer hauled the deer carcass away the next day. There is nothing unusual about seeing dead deer on the sides our highways in southwestern Michigan, especially this time of year when the hunting season is under way and the animals are moving around during the  rut.

I expected really bad news. However, Lee took some evasive actions and the collision was a glancing blow. The deer limped away. The car showed no signs of significant damage.

Although some horrific things have happened in other places, our little family has much to be thankful for this year. We'll be celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow. . . right on schedule. Best holiday wishes to you and yours.

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Bad Approach to Our Potholes

After several years of wrangling and the decisive defeat of a referendum, our Michigan legislators enacted a program designed to fix our deteriorating highways, roads, and bridges. Everyone agrees the infrastructure needs work. No one seems to agree the new program is a good answer to the problems.

The financing is far from what our accountant governor sought. Big tax collections for repairs are deferred for years into the future. Despite some smoke and mirrors, the program includes substantial tax increases, to the dismay of many of our Republican legislators. Democrats are expressing general dislike for a major part of the plan that will cut other important programs in the future should the economy fail to grow to unlikely levels.

Yet I've not heard a lot of complaints about one feature of the plan that I find worthy of scorn. The good guys among Michigan vehicle owners are going to be penalized for their efforts.

Our state has above-average rates of health problems, such as asthma, associated with air pollution. Sensible people would think our political leaders would be doing everything possible to clean up what we breath. Not so, it seems.

Vehicle registration fees will increase 20 percent starting in 2017 under the new plan to bring in additional revenue for infrastructure work. No problem there, BUT owners of electric or hybrid vehicles with pay $30 to $200 more than owners of comparable gas guzzlers. The tab for those who prove their concern for air quality by what they buy and drive will total about $216 million of the $400 million provided by registration taxes.

Supposedly, this unequal registration taxation is to level the field because the electrics and hybrids obviously use less gasoline and therefore pay a smaller part of the taxes collected at the pump than do other vehicle owners. That is true, BUT shouldn't the goal be to discourage gas usage, thus conserving a nonrenewable resource (oil) while helping to reduce air pollution? Of course it should.

In California, a state long concerned about poor air quality primarily due to motor vehicles, a better approach to registration fees is in place. Owners of electric vehicles pay about 6.5 percent less than owners of other vehicles, or about $20 less per year for a modestly priced new car. This is the right way to go; our Michigan legislators have chosen the wrong way.

(Disclosure: The Geezer's vehicle is an elderly Pontiac that runs on gasoline.)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Will Detroit Lions Fans Fire the Owner?

In a National Football League season that began with optimism, loyal Detroit Lions fans once again have descended deeply into doom and gloom.

Avid team backers have a standard answer when questioned about their favorites: "Same old Lions." The "same old" Lions franchise goes way back. Its last NFL title was won in 1957. Since then, the team has won only a single playoff game. Fans have been treated to just one winning season in the past 14 years.

Halfway through the current campaign, the Lions have lost seven games and won one. In effect, their season is over. Only a highly unlikely miracle would get them into the playoffs.

Ford family members (yes, the auto guys) have owned the club since 1963. They have long been accused of having too much patience with inept team management. Response to the current losing season, however, has been anything but patient. Family actions are bordering on firing everybody. And a Lions fan, probably with tongue in cheek, has launched a movement to fire the Fords.

When the Lions record hit 1-6, Head Coach Jim Caldwell fired three top assistants. After a disastrous seventh loss in the league's annual game staged in London, England, Martha Firestone Ford fired the team president and the general manager. Caldwell has been spared, perhaps because he is a new guy in the organization or because there aren't many folks left to fill in as head coach should he be sacked.

Fan Jeff Tarnowski last month announced it was time to can the Fords. He started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise $1.4 billion to buy the Lions. CBS Sports reported initial enthusiasm was high, but initial contributions didn't measure up. Early donations totaled $930. Tarnowski says he will give the money to charity if a purchase fails to materialize.

Tarnowski has a way to go. Michigan's population is about 9 million. One amateur accountant calculated it would take a donation of $150 for every man, woman, and child in the state to raise enough cash to make a serious offer for the Lions.

Would the Ford family accept a serious offer? Not a chance. Martha Firestone (yes, the tire guys) Ford is 90 years old, but she is said to be very energetic and dedicated to changing the Lions losing ways. Forbes magazine says she is worth  $1.38 billion, so a shortage of personal cash is not a problem. Mrs. Ford's four children are vice chairmen of the team, and one is being groomed to assume the owner role.

William Clay Ford bought the Lions for $4.5 million 52 years ago. The club may have lost games, but it undoubtedly made big money over the years. The team has produced a tidy return on Mr. Ford's investment. Win or lose, Lions ownership will continue to be a family affair. The team will be playing at Ford Field for a long time to come.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Deflated and Rejuvenated

This week's annual medical exam, paid for by Medicare thanks to a provision of Obamacare, had a new twist. The nurse asked if I minded having a trainee participate with our regular family doc.

"Not at all," said I, and that was a good call. A pleasant, efficient, and obviously competent woman training to be a nurse practitioner arrived and did a fine job of  poking, jabbing, inspecting and questioning before the doc arrived to analyze things. I could find only a tiny flaw in her performance. As we were discussing the possible need for a colonoscopy, she observed, "You've reached your life expectancy, you know."

I chuckled at that lapse in exam-side manner, and suggested it only meant I was likely to live a little longer. But later in the day the full import of the statement hit me, and I felt a bit depressed by once again being reminded that it is no longer wise to make a lot of long-range plans.

This morning another pleasant woman lifted me from any lingering sadness. I headed for the local favorite breakfast restaurant to take care of hunger pangs caused by fasting before some routine blood tests ordered by my medical examiners. Two attractive waitresses called me Honey, Sweetie, and Darling in the span of about 10 minutes.

Of course, many geezers no doubt are addressed that way. But I'm going to hang around a while longer to confirm that.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Pope of Hope

Pope Francis has come to these shores and gone. The evening news can return to over-emphasizing other stories. What did the papal visit mean to Catholics and others in the U.S.? That was the topic of a lively discussion this weekend by a dozen friends.

Our group included one person who grew up as a Catholic, has left the church, and is unlikely to return. Another was once married to a Catholic and has many Catholic friends, although she is an Atheist. The rest of us had various religious backgrounds that did not include Catholicism; most now are Unitarian-Universalists.

Very few negative words were spoken about Pope Francis or his visit. What's not to like about a charming man who champions causes dedicated to helping the poor, reversing economic inequality trends, and living in harmony with our natural environment? And this Pope practices much of what he preaches, living modestly unlike some of his predecessors who favored regal splendor for themselves while telling others to sacrifice.

Now the question is what, if any, lasting positive effects will the papal words have. Our discussion group members advanced several ideas.

One with considerable expertise on environmental matters thought the Pope's statements that global warming is a fact and human activities are a principal cause would help move reluctant members of the U.S. Congress to see the light. Another said any advances toward more humanitarian and less dogmatic characteristics in the Catholic Church were welcome, and Pope Francis is steering the church in that direction.

I thought the most insightful comment was that Francis' appearance at this time in America was a masterful stroke of public relations. The church as been hard-hit by membership and financial losses in the wake of revelations of priestly misconduct. Exposure to a new leader who exhibits personal warmth, tolerance, and a gentle spirit was a positive thing for an organization very much in need of some warm fuzzies.

I agree that Pope Francis, with only a few minor exceptions, rather expertly delivered the right messages at opportune times. There is hope that some of his words will promote lasting changes.

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. Both decided to run in Nov. 3 special elections to fill their seats, stating "let the voters decide." The voters did. Gamrat finished third with less that 10 percent of the vote; Courser did even worse finishing behind a bevy of opponents with about 3 percent of the vote )

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.