Monday, June 22, 2015

An Unsustainable Business Model


 
My long-time friend Doug Moe got the ax at the State Journal last week. Years ago, when my wife and I were doing the “Madison’s Morning News” show on a local station – a station which no longer exists – Doug would often sit in for me when I was on vacation. Doug was editor of Madison Magazine when we met. Through Doug, I met a number of influential, intelligent, witty, and curmudgeonly Madison characters like the late Jim Selk and civil rights lawyer Jeff Scott Olson.

These guys and other local illuminati regularly set up shop at the bar at the old Fess Hotel. For those unaware of this piece of Madison history, the Fess – a landmark at East Doty and King Street, which closed up in ’94 and became the Great Dane Brewpub – was a regular gathering place for itinerant writers, lawyers, and legislators, back when politics was the art of compromise and not the asinine partisan blood sport it’s become.

Doug eventually moved on from Madison Magazine to the Cap Times, where he wrote a fabulous “who’s in town and what’s going on in Madison” column, and then, as the death rattle of print journalism got a bit louder, Doug became a columnist for the State Journal several years ago.

And now, in a paper that once featured some of the best columns ever written, by some of the best people who ever did it – people like Doug, George Hesselberg, Bill Wineke, Susan Lampert Smith, Pat Simms, and other luminaries – we have Chris Rickert.

Since Doug was thrown under the bus and Rickert wasn’t, I can only assume that Doug commanded (and deserved) a much larger salary than Rickert. That’s how these things work in today’s print and broadcast news industry. He who makes a decent living shall be fired in due time, or have his/her benefits stripped or hours reduced.  Like my friend George Hesselberg, the brilliant State Journal writer, who’s down to around 25 hours a week now, as I recall.

It’s an unsustainable business model, this journalism thing, whether it be the print version or the TV version. The captains of industry who run these outfits demand a rate of return on their investment that is certainly not supported by earnings, and is reminiscent of the days before Craig’s List took over the job of classified advertising in nearly every community. Unreasonable dividend goals must be met, and unsustainable debt must be serviced, so – as the old saying goes, firings will continue until morale improves.

Let me also briefly mention the decline of local radio news. When my wife and I were doing that morning news show years ago, there was huge competition in radio news in Madison. Each group of stations had a thriving news department and part of our motivation was to beat the other guys. Now, there’s one news department left in commercial radio in Madison (the WIBA stations) and a respectable local news gathering operation supported by public radio. The rest of the stations are one-man bands or “sidekick” news hosts, who give “news” about the Kardashians or items purloined from some other news-gathering operation.

Doug wasn’t the only one shown the door in the latest bloodletting. Let me note the other two household names in Madison news who were also given the bum’s rush by the paper.


Sports writer and columnist Andy Baggot, whose writing I’ve enjoyed for a long time, was “downsized” or whatever the current euphemism is. He knew his stuff and he wrote in a clear and compelling style. Along with Tom Oates, Baggot is synonymous with college and pro sports coverage in Madison.


Sports writer Dennis Semrau, who covered high school sports for the paper, was summarily dismissed as well. Somebody on Facebook said this weekend “how many people have an athletic profile of their son or daughter written by Semrau clipped from the paper and placed in a scrapbook – or still hanging on the refrigerator”.

I wish all three of these veteran journalists the best, and hope they land on their feet soon.

As so many of us who were in the biz, and got fired because we did our job well enough to command a decent salary have said, after being thrown under the bus: pity the poor souls who are left behind in the newsroom. They’re the ones who will be expected to do still more, with less support and diminishing resources. They’ll have to deal with the pressure from the owners and managers who will feign astonishment when subscriptions (or ratings) decline.

It’s an unsustainable business model. I may live to see the end of the printed newspaper.
 
Good luck, you guys.
 
The photo of Doug Moe at the top of this column is copyright property of Madison Newspapers, Inc.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rest In Peace Forever, Jan




My former wife Jan Breunig was laid to rest near Sauk City yesterday, and I have no doubt she is with the angels now. She loved angels. She made four huge, beautiful cross-stitched angels which were appropriately framed and hung in our former home in Madison.

We met on a blind date in 1982 when we were both working in Oshkosh and were married about a year later. We parted ways in 1996, sitting down together at the kitchen table with a legal pad, dividing assets and liabilities prior to an uncontested divorce. We remained cordial to the end of her days. Just a few days before she passed, she phoned from a rehab center in Sauk City to wish me a happy birthday and we chatted briefly about family, and how she hoped she’d soon recover from a fall she’d had a few weeks prior and be able to go home.

We spent time in some of our nation’s most interesting cities, travelling to her nursing conventions. It was in Cape Cod in ’83, after attending one of her conventions in Boston, that we decided to get married.
 
Here's a photo of Jan, just before addressing a national advanced practice nursing convention in Boston.
 
We got married and bought a huge, beautiful home on the north side of Oshkosh - which Jan, ever practical, thought was “too big”.
 

Here's a photo of Jan painting the deck surrounding the pool at our home in Oshkosh shortly after we were married. She had her dad's sense of practicality, and never "hired out" a job she could do herself.


She loved to grow things, and turned the northeast corner of the expansive lot at our Oshkosh home into a garden.


Just as we had finished furnishing and decorating that huge home, making it our own, hosting parties with our friends and families and were settling into a life together, we both lost our jobs. We put the big house on the market, sold it unbelievably quickly and had a contest to see who could get a job first and agreed that we would go wherever the job took us.

Jan won; after negotiations, she accepted a job with a Chicago-based national health care organization which wanted her to set up a joint-venture home health care operation with one of the South’s most prestigious hospitals, the Ochsner Medical Institutions in New Orleans. The day she accepted the offer, we went to lunch to celebrate, and when we got home there was a message on the answering machine, offering me a senior administrative position with a major public university in Ohio.  We laughed at the timing, packed up, and moved to The Big Easy.

Living in New Orleans is an experience never to be forgotten. I loved the city; Jan tolerated it. Business moves at a different pace in The City That Care Forgot. Within a few weeks of arriving in southern Louisiana, I was able to land a great job with Xavier University. After a year there, and getting their joint venture up and running, Jan told the folks at headquarters in Chicago that she was more than ready for a move.

They gave her a choice of New York City or Los Angeles. That’s how good she was at her job. The powers-that-be in Chicago were ready to send her to her choice between the two largest cities in America. She asked me which I preferred, and soon the movers had packed up our stuff and we were headed to the west coast.

I was in heaven; Jan was buried in work. I went to a headhunter a few days after we were unpacked and settled in, and had my pick of five jobs. I interviewed for and was offered a job as General Manager of a Business Electronics firm. A few months later, I was recruited by a huge media consulting corporation and went to work for them. I was having the time of my life. Jan was working incredible hours and facing challenge after challenge. There was tremendous pressure from Chicago to accomplish nearly impossible tasks, and, of course, absolutely no support. We were making tons of money. We discussed it.
 

Here's a shot from our Los Angeles days, taken from the Griffith Observatory. That's the L-A skyline in the background, complete with the standard smog.
 

She said with her advanced practice nursing degrees (Jan earned a BSN and an MSN) and accreditations, she could work registry jobs with hospitals all over the L-A metro and make great money – literally hundreds of dollars for an 8-hour shift, and much more for a 12-hour shift; working three days a week doing 12-hour shifts she could command a six-figure income, and have absolutely no management worries. She’d work difficult and challenging shifts in ER’s all over L-A. Her “favorite” was Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, followed closely by the big Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills. She was constantly on the run during those long shifts, dealing with life and death decisions, but she’d come home and leave the job behind her.

And she would be taking care of patients, the real reason she got into nursing. So she told the boys in Chicago to stick it, and took registry jobs.

In the late spring of ’88, there was family trouble at home in Sauk City. Serious enough that she thought it would be best to move back there. I fought it. I dragged my feet. But I acceded, and again we packed up everything we owned in one huge Ryder truck – pulling a big U-Haul trailer – and rented a home in Middleton.
 

Here's a photo of that strange combination of Ryder truck and U-Haul trailer in front of our suburban L-A home, just before we left to return to Madison. Jan's dad and her uncle flew out to L-A to help us move, and we just couldn't get everything we wanted to keep into that truck - so we rented the trailer and put the rest of our stuff in it.
 
I’d accepted a job with my former employer and shortly after we were settled in, Jan took a management job at a downtown Madison rehab facility. Within a couple months she had landed the job she really wanted, at UW Health, working in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Clinic at University Hospital.

She flourished in that job. She published articles that led to speaking engagements at high-powered health care conferences all over the nation. The doctors loved her, the patients loved her. She was a brilliant diagnostician. She and a few of her other Advanced Practice Nursing Practitioners lobbied the state government and won “prescriptive authority” for board-certified Nurse Practitioners in Wisconsin. (In other words, it gave Master’s Degree nurses with the APNP designation the authority to write prescriptions under the protocols of their institution.)

I was rebuilding an AM radio station which was once the premier station in the city (the former WISM-AM) and loving the rocket-ride back to respectable ratings for the station. Long hours, starting with the morning show, which meant I’d have to get up around 3:45 AM to be in the studio, and several times a month, after the morning show, I’d be on the company plane headed to one of the other affiliate stations to do programming, news, and management consulting work.

Both of us were working the long hours again, but it was fun for both of us, we had a comfortable income, had bought a nice home, were driving expensive cars (Corvettes and Cadillacs for me, low-slung sports cars and big SUV’s for Jan) and we did at least two international vacation trips every year. Work hard, play hard.
 
 
We flew to Denver quite a bit to spend time with my brother Pat and his (now former) wife Joann. Here we are getting ready to tailgate before a Bronco's game in '89. We went to a lot of Broncos and Rockies games together.
 

Here's a photo from - I think - 1991, at my brother's home in Denver, with Jan holding our nephew Joseph. Jan loved kids, but a horrible, crushing car wreck that she was in when she was a senior in high school left her unable to have children of her own.
 

Our careers moved on and Jan's star continually rose in the medical community. We added a huge deck and put in a big pool and had a three-season “Florida room” built onto the house. I called it our “lawn elimination program”. Jan re-landscaped the entire property, with shrubs and beautiful flowers. She created and tended a garden. She took up cross-stitch and knitting and made clothes for all our family members.
 

We took warm-weather vacations every year during January in Wisconsin, visiting Florida, Cancun, the Bahamas - where we bought a parcel of land thinking we'd eventually build a vacation home - and other exotic locales. Above is a photo of us on vacation in Aruba in '91 or '92.

Jan's diagnostic skills and her ability to notice small things that could have a big health impact were legendary. At a summertime pool party we held for my family at our home in Madison, my mom was getting out of the pool and drying off. Jan said “Pauline, let me see the back of your neck – I think you have melanoma there.” As always, Jan’s diagnosis was correct; my mom’s doctors in Appleton confirmed it a couple days later, and said Jan had spotted it just in time; they were able to remove the cancer surgically and mom has been cancer free since.

In the spring of ’93 we made another of our frequent trips to Colorado to spend a few days with my brother and his wife and family. I got sick. At first Jan thought it might have been the altitude. We’d rented a car at the old Stapleton airport and driven up to Aspen to my brother’s condo. Jan said maybe we should go from 8 thousand feet in Aspen down to 5200 feet in Denver – to make it easier for me to breathe. We left for Denver the next morning. I was getting sicker, not better. Jan said we’d best get on a plane back to Madison right away. We did. When we got home, I was breathing a bit better but still very sick.

Jan wanted to take me to the ER at UW Hospital, but I said I just wanted to rest. I was so tired. She said we had to go RIGHT NOW. I protested. I was so tired. She hauled me up off the bed, helped me into her car, and we headed for the ER. I passed out in the car and Jan punched me in the arm, hard. She kept yelling “stay awake, stay awake, don’t go back to sleep”. She kept punching me and yelling to keep me awake.

When we got to the ER, they put me onto a gurney and wheeled me into a room. I was tired and dizzy and all of a sudden I was dead. Saw the white light and everything. I remember the sensation of rising up and looking down onto my body on the gurney in the ER.  47 seconds of flat-line. I woke up hours later, in a hospital room, with paddle burns on my chest from the defibrillator and a hole in my sternum from where the ER docs rammed a needle full of epinephrine into my heart.

They told me most people don’t survive something like that. I still have the little printout strip from the EKG with the 47 seconds of flatline; I still have the blood work printout where many of the items on the list say “value not consistent with life”.

What Jan had realized was that I had pneumonia, and my body was shutting down. I could quite literally have died if she hadn’t taken immediate action that resulted in saving my life. I am alive today only because she saved my life.

My lungs are still compromised – they always will be; and the bitter cold air of January really, really bothers me, but I’m alive thanks to Jan.

Our lives moved on together.

Jan bought one of those new-fangled “home computers” – back then, it was Windows 3 for PC’s – and taught me how to run it. She was always just a step or two ahead of the times on stuff like that, always learning, always experimenting with new technologies.

 
Jan loved sporty cars, and the car above was one of her favorites - a classic 1984 Datsun 280 ZX Turbo 2+2, which I gave her as a 40th birthday present in '94. She'd owned a beautiful '84 Datsun Turbo Z when we lived in New Orleans, and just loved it. We kept that blue Z-car for years, taking it with us to L-A and then to Madison, but it finally became prohibitively expensive to maintain and we traded it in on a brand new Nissan 4-Runner SUV that Jan had her eye on. But I knew she missed that Z-car. A few years later, I saw the car above on a lot in Madison, and knew it would be the perfect birthday surprise for her.


Above is a photo of the "original" '84 Turbo-Z that Jan bought when we lived in New Orleans. This photo was taken in front of our town house in Metairie (west suburban New Orleans) right after she got the car. She loved the removable T-tops and wasn't afraid to use the car's horsepower. When we moved from New Orleans to L-A, she flew out ahead to start her new assignment and I drove her beloved Turbo-Z from New Orleans to L-A. On the second day of the long journey, I gassed up somewhere in Texas and followed a brand new Corvette from the gas station back onto I-40 headed to El Paso. The Corvette kept it at an even hundred miles an hour, so I just set the cruise control on the Z-car to 100 and followed him about a quarter-mile back. Needless to say, we made good time!

But, things sometimes change.

One September afternoon, as I was mowing what was left of the lawn around our home, I realized that I was falling in love with the woman I’d worked with, doing the morning show, on the radio station. She’d moved on to TV, but we’d remained good friends. Jan and I had often baby-sat her kids when she divorced her husband and became a single mom. I tried for a long time to fight the feelings, but couldn’t deny them. Shortly after our 13th wedding anniversary, Jan and I separated. I moved into a condo in Fitchburg.

Six months later Jan and I divorced, and a year and a half after that – on Friday the 13th in June of ’97- I married my former morning show co-host and became stepfather to her two middle-school age kids. Our son and his wife made me a grandpa this past October, a couple days before our daughter married the man of her dreams in Connecticut. Toni and I have been together 18 years now, although we first met at work 27 years ago. She is my best friend and I cannot imagine a life without her.

Jan and I stayed in touch; she dated a couple guys but nothing too serious. She finally met and married a really great guy, Larry, with whom she shared the rest of her life. They travelled internationally, and even built her dream home on a hill overlooking beautiful scenery near Sauk City. I’m glad she got to do so many things she always wanted to, with Larry as a wonderful husband and companion.

Without warning in ’04, when she was 50 years old, she suffered a massive stroke. Docs said she wouldn’t walk again. She proved them wrong with her massive will power, but her work days were over. She took full disability from her UW Health job and retired.

Not too long after she and Larry had moved into the beautiful home they’d built, on a blustery late fall night, Jan had another stroke. They took her to the hospital in Sauk City, where they stabilized her as best they could, and called for MedFlight to airlift her to UW Hospital, where she could get the best care. But with wind gusts of more than 50 miles an hour, MedFlight was grounded. It was simply impossible to fly in such conditions.

They put Jan into an ambulance and drove to Madison as fast as they dared, but every minute that passed meant more damage was being done to Jan’s incredible brain. When she was released from the ICU at UW Hospital to a rehab facility, she asked me to visit. I sat in the lobby waiting for her to be brought out in her wheelchair.

The nurses were wheeling patients around the lobby and to the elevator; it was around lunch time. A nurse was pushing a woman in a wheelchair toward me. I didn’t recognize the woman. Then it dawned on me – my God, it was Jan. She had a huge post-surgical scar all around her skull, much of her hair had been shaved off, her left eye had a big cushioned patch over it, and her left arm was immobilized.  Her speech was barely intelligible.

I remember being angry after the initial shock wore off – angry that God would let this happen to such a wonderful person. Jan’s dad told me the prognosis was not good. She’d never walk again; she’d likely regain only a small capacity for speech; a litany of bad news.

As usual, Jan beat the odds, learned to walk with a cane, her speech continued to get better, and before long, she and Larry were taking trips to Hawaii, going on cruises, and Jan was enjoying life again. We would talk on the phone three or four times a year; she wanted to know all about how my family members were; she wanted to hear all about my stepchildren’s successes and adventures; she was making the absolute best of the capacity left in her body after that second stroke.

She sent Christmas letters with pictures of her travels with Larry; she never missed sending birthday cards to my brothers and sisters and stayed in touch with them. Just before my birthday, this past May 31st, Jan called and said she’d taken a fall, and was spending some time in a rehab facility in Sauk City, and she wouldn’t be able to get a birthday card in the mail to me, but wanted to wish me a happy birthday. We chatted for a bit and then she had to go to a rehab class.

That was my last interaction with her. On Thursday, June 11th, she had another stroke while in the rehab facility; again they transported her to UW Hospital, but – there was nothing the doctors could do. She passed away in mid-afternoon, and her funeral was held at St. Norbert’s in Roxbury on June 17th.
She is with the angels now. I am privileged to have shared some of the best years of her life.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The “Political Leaders” of Wisconsin Are Jackasses (or, “How I Learned That It’s Fun To Meddle with UW-Madison and Other Venerable Institutions”)


 
The anti-science gang of dolts running the state legislature, with their constant attacks on public education in the Badger state, need to be spanked and put to bed without supper. From their transparent, ALEC-driven mission to dismantle K-12 public education and turn it over to their cronies in “the private sector”, to their attempt to meddle with the mission statement of our great state university, to their petty attacks on the ranks of DNR scientists, these guys – and gals – in the clown car need to be given directions to the nearest cliff.

The popcorn-peddler (he really is) who runs the State Assembly and actually graduated from UW-Whitewater, Robin Vos, and Lt. Col. Scott Fitzgerald (US Army – retired), the guy who runs the State Senate and actually graduated from UW-Oshkosh, have a contempt for education and science that belies their baccalaureate degree.

It’s about time the people of this state woke the hell up and sent these two men the same kind of message they sent to Governor Walker when he tried to change the mission statement of the UW. The message, by the way, was essentially “HEY – that mission statement is not yours to change, doofus.”

This group of dolts, reinforced by positive feedback from some of the state’s choicest collection of tea drinking morons, now wants to make the UW System the only institution of higher learning on the planet that won’t give academics the protection of tenure, babbling ill-informed platitudes like “those high-paid professors ought to spend more time actually teaching, rather than doing research that’s really partisan garbage”.

Perhaps it is as simple as these guys – and gals, like Bert Darling – are really so ignorant that they don’t understand tenure.  Take this case, boys and girls: brilliant recent Ph.D. grad seeks position with institution of higher learning to pursue further research and share it with colleagues. Institution of Higher Learning UW no longer offers tenure-track positions. Institution of Higher Learning XX does. To which Institution of Higher Learning does our brilliant young Ph.D. grad apply?

Let me make it more simple.

As a former chancellor of the UW recently wrote, generations ago the people who settled Wisconsin and founded our state’s institutions scraped together their pennies and nickels to build a land-grant university which has become the fourth-leading research university in the nation – ranked ABOVE Harvard, Yale, Cal Tech, MIT, and on and on. The Wisconsin Idea – the name by which we know the mission statement of the UW – the one Mr. Walker tried to f with – says, among other things, that the knowledge generated by the UW must be shared with all the people of the state.

Perhaps one of Mr. Vos’s constituents is a dairy farmer, who has a problem. His fields don’t yield as much as his neighbors. His cows don’t give as much milk as the farmer down the road.  Yet he follows the same practices as his neighbors. To whom does our farmer turn for help? The UW Extension Ag Agent. That person brings to bear the brainpower of all his colleagues to help Mr. Farmer figure out why his yields are down and his milk production is down. That’s the Wisconsin idea in action. That’s why those immigrants and settlers sacrificed to support this institution with that plaque on Bascom Hall about sifting and winnowing and so on.

Perhaps one of Lt. Col. Fitzgerald’s constituents – or, God forbid, the Senator himself – suffers some sort of debilitating ailment that none of the local doctors can figure out. What happens next? The local docs say “we’re going to send you to Madison to UW Hospital to see if those docs can figure out what’s going on here.” Odds are those doctors – and all their researchers and scientists, just like the dairy experts and soil scientists of the UW Extension – will put their heads together and come up with what’s wrong, and how to fix it.

It just seems so shallow and narrow-minded to bash this great institution that the people of Wisconsin have created and supported for generations.

Clowns.

Today, facts aren’t facts any more. It used to be that we accepted facts and agreed on them. Now, the constant ass-braying we hear is “everyone is entitled to their opinion”- as if opinions were the same as facts.  

In practical terms, the UW-Madison has a 15 billion dollar impact on Wisconsin’s economy. It represents 193,310 Wisconsin jobs. The five billion dollars spent by UW-Madison and its faculty, staff, students, and visitors generates an additional seven billion dollars in economic activity. For every dollar of state funds invested in the UW, $24.14 in economic activity is generated in Wisconsin.

Those are facts. They’re not my opinion, and they’re not someone else’s opinion. The source of these facts is not the UW-Madison, but rather the PRIVATE SECTOR company known as NorthStar Consulting Group.  One would think these tea-drinking politicians running the show under the big top now would be able to understand FACTS like these.

But they’re busy cutting the ranks of scientists at the DNR, because, well, science.

And undercutting K-12 public education, by slashing funds for school districts and even going so far as to try and make Wisconsin the only state in the union which would do away with licensing standards for classroom teachers and to allow anyone – high school dropouts included – to become a teacher.

What’s happened to us? Why are we allowing these dweebs to do things like this? Are enough of us ‘sconnies so jealous of teachers and scientists and professors that we think it’s right for our politicians to get away with crap like this? Has politics really become hate-sport, rather than the art of compromise?

I keep hoping that some day the people of this great state will wake up, take a good look around, and say it’s time for us to take control again, to throw the bums out, and start fresh with citizen-legislators who respect government and want to help it work better, rather than the majority in the legislature now, who apparently hate government and are there to dismantle our long-revered institutions.

It’s well past time to get rid of the clowns.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Those Who Gave All


 
A few years back, my wife and I had a couple of younger friends over for dinner. It was the first time they’d been in our home and they requested a tour. On the upper level hallway of our four-level home, there’s an area we call the Wall of Fame. Pictures of various family members, graduations, weddings, that sort of thing. It’s a big wall and there are a lot of pictures.

Among them are old photos of my dad and my wife’s dad, in their WW2 uniforms. There’s a picture of my Aunt Virginia in her WW2 WAVES uniform. During the big war, Aunt Virginia – one of five sisters – said “we don’t have any men in our family to help win this war, so I’m going, and that’s all there is too it”. There’s a picture of my dad's brother, Uncle John, in his Army uniform. He was a spy during the WW2 era, although back then they just said “he’s attached to OSS”. That stood for “Office of Strategic Services”, which became the CIA. He wouldn’t tell us where he served, but he spoke Japanese, which might have been a clue.

Viewing the pictures, our young friends said “oh, so you come from a military family!” No, not really, we said. Back then, during the big war, just about every family in America had a member who served in the armed forces. We explained that it’s typical for us baby-boomers to have close family members who did their duty and came home from the big war.

For 407 thousand American families, there was a family member who did not come home from the war, a family member who lost their life. 60 million people died in WW2, which was about 3% of the population of our planet at that time.

The photo at the top of this post is from an unknown source; it made its way around the internet yesterday, Memorial Day. I imagine it to be a young woman who lost her husband in one of the wars we have going now. It’s an incredibly sad photo.  She’s holding the folded flag presented to her by a military officer at the funeral, “with the thanks of a grateful nation” while she’s bent over the coffin in grief.


Here’s another photo that got a lot of exposure on the internet yesterday; a photo of a young mother grieving at the grave of her 19-year-old son who was killed in action in Iraq five years ago.

I grew up at a time when probably a third or more of the adult men in my small village had worn the uniform of their nation during the big war. Now, with the all-volunteer army, only a small fraction of one percent of our nation is serving in the military.

Younger people today are disconnected from the wars their national leaders have gotten us involved in. They may know somebody from their high school class who served in Afghanistan or Iraq; odds are strong they don’t know anyone who was killed in action in either of those nations.  Since 2001, about 7 thousand of our soldiers and an equal number of civilian contractors have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So the odds are pretty small that anyone in America actually knew someone who was killed in action since a small band of Saudi Arabians flew airplanes into our buildings.

I think it’s that disconnect – being aware that many of our troops are dying in these seemingly endless wars, but not actually knowing any person who has died in action, or a family which has lost a member – that has allowed our leaders to continue these wars.

Vietnam was the war of my era, a war that claimed the lives of 58-thousand American troops. My kids have been given the “Viet Nam Death Tour” many, many times when they were younger. Every time we’d drive from our home in Madison up to visit my family in the Fox Valley, as we got close to my small hometown of Hortonville, I’d point out the home of one of my high school classmates who was killed in that war. There are four of them. Guys I went to school with who lost their lives in Vietnam.

And that’s not counting my grade school friend Tommy Armitage, who was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and gave his life to save four other Marines by throwing himself onto a Viet Cong hand grenade in February of 1969, while I was drinking beer and talking smart in college.

Having those direct connections to war deaths was one of the main reasons my generation rose up against the war machine and stopped it. We were losing a pointless war and too many of our friends were getting killed in it.

It’s also why I get my Irish up when I see so many posts on social media and hear so many TV folks talk about how Memorial Day is a day to honor “all our brave service men and women”. No, it’s not. That’s Veterans Day. Memorial Day is to honor the men and women who paid the ultimate price. They deserve a day of their own, and I’ll take any bet on whether those serving right now agree with me that their day is Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Day is to honor those who gave all.

God bless all those who gave their lives doing what our nation asked them to do; and thanks to those who volunteered to put on the uniform and go where our nation ordered them to go.

I think if today’s young people had the kind of personal connection to war that my generation and the generation before mine did, things would be different.
Very different.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Iowans Pull Together Following Lake City Twister


My guess is the Class of 2015 at South Central Calhoun High School in Lake City, Iowa, will be known as “the tornado class”. On Sunday evening May 10th around 7:30, an F-1 tornado dropped out of the sky on the far west end of Lake City, tore the roof right off the high school, and then carved a path of destruction across several residential blocks in the western Iowa community.

My good friend and fellow tuba player Tom Plummer is the band director at the high school, and he lives about 6 blocks from the school. In the picture at the top of this post, taken by the Iowa Department of Public Safety the morning after the twister, you can see the damage done to the school. On the left side of the photo, you  can see an SUV hooked to a big white trailer between two of the buildings. The building to the right of the SUV and trailer is Tom’s new band room, which was built just a few years ago.  The twister did no damage to that part of the school.



Above is another shot of some of the damage the twister did.

Tom and I have established a tradition. Each year in June, we pick a weekend that works, and I spend 3 or 4 days as a guest in Tom’s home. We drink a little beer, watch a little baseball, and play a lot of polka music. Lake City is a small community of about 17-hundred folks, very much like my small hometown of Hortonville, Wisconsin – which was also hit by a tornado a year ago. So I’ve got a special affinity for Lake City.

And I’ve got a special affinity for Iowans. My two kids (step-children, if you’re one of those people to whom biology matters) were born in Burlington, Iowa in the mid-80’s. I’ve always thought their Hawkeye heritage helped give them a pragmatic approach to life: sensible, down-to-earth, the harder I work, the luckier I get -you get the idea.

I’ve written before about my June weekends at Tom’s house in Lake City. Last year, I based the entire essay on the wonderful, friendly, helpful Iowans I encountered on my journey from Madison to Lake City. It’s here if you want to read it when you have time.

As usual, I digress.

Back to the Lake City tornado, and how those Iowans dealt with it. Because of my many years in southern California and many more in Wisconsin, I’ve been through earthquakes (4 of them) and tornadoes (about 10, I think). Both are very powerful forces of nature, and both will terrify you if you’re close to either.

Shortly after the tornado hit Lake City Sunday evening, Tom posted on Facebook that he was OK, and he put up some pictures of the wreckage in his neighborhood. I didn’t want to call him or text him; I figured he’d be plenty busy dealing with concerned family, and with his professional responsibilities as a teacher at the high school the tornado had just hit.
 
The high school is the heart of a small community. At one point or another, just about everybody is directly involved in something at the high school: a graduation, a concert or play; a sporting event; perhaps a civic meeting. The high school’s identity is the town’s identity, because it’s a reflection of the people who live there, pay their taxes there, and send their kids there.

When a small-town high school is rendered unusable by a natural disaster, the entire community is affected. Within a couple days of the disaster, these Iowans – who came together immediately to deal with the pressing problem of having no high school – had the power back on, much of the community cleaned up, and had made difficult decisions about the immediately pressing issues of where to hold classes, how to deal with the disruption of the school calendar right at the end of the school year, and a million other details.
 
If you have time, the local newspaper wrote a great article about this coming-together and decision-making. The article is linked here.

What these folks did, without arguing about who was in charge, who had jurisdiction, who had authority to do what, was really remarkable: everybody just pitched in and said “how can I help?” If you read the newspaper article, you’ll learn that Lake City’s churches and civic organizations immediately stepped up to volunteer spaces to serve as temporary classrooms.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association volunteered to bring in lunches for the school kids. The school board met, and without a long, drawn-out debate, made decisions about how to deal with the problems dealt them, when to set graduation, where to have it, and what would happen between now and then.

They dealt with bids for the contractor who’d put the new roof on, and decided while they were at it how to most efficiently coordinate the district’s plans for improving wi-fi and air conditioning in the school. They said they might have to put off a parking lot repaving project for a year or so because of the need to deal with the situation the tornado created.
 
And they did it all in about 72 hours.  In Madison, it probably would have taken four months, three new committees, and thousands of man-hours of debate, arguing, and ox-goring to make half as many decisions.

The whole nation could learn a good lesson from observing how these small-town Iowans faced and dealt with their problems; how so many people and institutions stepped up immediately with that “how can we help” attitude.


Good job, Lake City, in showing the rest of the world how it’s done.  I can’t wait to visit again, in a few weeks, and see how you’re coming along.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Two Brave Women


 
I spent some of my Monday evening talking with two of the most brave women I’ve ever spoken with. They’re not firefighters or EMT’s; they’re not active members of our military; they are a mother and daughter who are both breast cancer survivors.

I’m doing a story on behalf of the American Cancer Society for one of my part-time gigs, the Wisconsin News Connection (Public News Service), an online news organization which reaches a stunning 45 million people every week. For perspective, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News each reach about 4 million viewers a week.

Mom is a 50-something mother of three who lives in the Milwaukee suburb of St. Francis. Daughter is a 20-something mother of two who lives in Pewaukee. They’ll be participating in the Make Strides Against Breast Cancer event at Veterans Park in Milwaukee Saturday morning. The picture at the top of this post is from last year’s Make Strides event.

I call them brave because they both have absolutely horrifying stories about their bout with breast cancer, and they tell their stories with courage and deep feeling, sometimes pausing a moment when emotion overwhelms them, but quickly moving forward with the absolutely gut-wrenching aspects of what breast cancer did to their lives, and what they did to fight it, conquer it, and move forward with their lives.

There was no way the mom – Jill – could have known in 2008 that what started as an “itchy feeling” in one of her breasts would result in a double mastectomy. And there was no way that she could know that in 2013, her daughter Gina would face a diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer.

There was no history of it in their family. Neither had any of the risk factors. As it turned out, neither Jill nor Gina have the marker for the breast cancer gene. Their stories are different, but the disruption to their lives as mothers was the same – and the same as it is for literally thousands of Wisconsin women (4300 is the ACS estimate) who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Jill’s doctor called her – on Jill’s birthday in 2008 – and said she had good news and bad news. The bad news was, “you have some very bad and suspicious tissue in your right breast”. The good news was “if it is cancer, we think it’s the kind that we can get out surgically, without chemo”. 

Happy birthday, you have cancer.

Jill never did have to go through chemo, but she was suddenly faced with another big decision, and, without hesitation, told the surgeon to remove both her breasts. Jill said to me “I didn’t want to deal with it any more. I did not want to have to look at cancer again. It was just breasts. I still have my life, and that’s more important than any body part.”

That experience – I’ll spare you all the horrifying details – put her daughter, Gina, on high alert. She began doing self-exams every day in the shower. Then, suddenly, one morning in the shower early in 2013, she felt a small lump. She immediately called her doctor, and they got her in to clinic right away.

Gina told me “if I had not been so diligent in doing self-exams, I would probably not be here today, nor would I be able to say today that I am cancer free”. Gina’s odyssey was far different than her mother’s. Even though she’d done self-exams every day, her breast cancer was already at Stage 3, spreading to other parts of her body. She had to undergo 22 rounds of chemotherapy and several bouts under the knife on the operating table.

If you do not know someone who has had chemo, you may not realize what a toll each course of chemo takes on your entire body, your mind, and – if you’re not careful – your outlook on life. It can be brutal. It can be demoralizing. It makes your hair fall out and your bowels go crazy.

When you walk into the lobby at many clinics where breast cancer patients are treated, like the Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center at UW-Madison, you often see photos of women who’ve lost their hair, whose bodies have been ravaged by the chemo, which – in my words – damn near kills you before it cures you – IF it cures you. Those pictures are up there so women –and their families -will have a real perspective on what the treatment is going to do to them.

I don’t know where women like Jill and her daughter Gina come up with the courage to not only undergo the radical cures they had to endure, but to be able to tell somebody like me – a complete stranger – about it. They’ll tell you they do it because maybe just one person will hear their story, and maybe it will help give them the courage to endure the gauntlet of diagnosis, treatment, therapy, surgery, and recovery.

I’ve long said we don’t need more awareness about breast cancer. Every person knows someone whose life has been touched by it. We need a cure, not awareness.

So when Jill and Gina step to the starting line Saturday morning in the sea of pink that will surround them at the Make Strides Walk in Milwaukee, they won’t be walking to bring awareness to the disease. They will be walking – as Jill told me – to raise DOLLARS for the American Cancer Society.

Please remember that.  Dollars, not “awareness”.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

It's Already Too Late




I know, I know – they generated 10 runs last night including a grand slam from the new guy, but there is still no reason to believe the Brewers will not finish in the cellar of the NL Central this season. The signs are all bad.

Just like the Wisconsin spring that just won’t seem to really arrive this year, spring is not a season of hope for the Brew-crew, who are the worst team in baseball in scoring runs and the worst team in baseball in allowing runs. Not good signs.

I won’t throw any more rankings or statistics at you; that’s not my style. I’d rather, like the young folks, talk about my feelings.

Wait, one more technical thing: according to the Fox Sports people, to even have a chance at a Wild Card, the Brewers have to finish the season playing at a .530 pace, which would be a better pace than they’ve played in the past five years – except the 2011 season, when Ryan Braun was gobbling down performance enhancing drugs like crazy.

.530? Not gonna happen.

Braun is not even an average player any more. He followed the classic pattern and did the drugs, got his stats up, got his huge money deal, and now he’s just another player with a huge paycheck and crappy stats. Ramirez is asleep this year., too.

And now we have another one of those BS stories regarding a freak injury. A few years back it was Lucroy making up some story about how his wife knocked a suitcase off a hotel room bed onto his hand, or whatever; now we’ve got the BS story from Gennett about ripping his hand open in the shower.

Right.

At least Luc’s injury this time around – the smashed big toe – is one for which we have incontrovertible video evidence.

I love the Brewers. I’m a Brewers fan. I have an old-school glove-and-bat Brewers decal on my huge gas-sucking SUV. But starting the season this way takes so much wind out of my sails. In February, in anticipation of at least a decent Brewers season, my wife and I said “next year again FOR SURE” about spending a week or so in Arizona at Spring Training.

We’ll go to Spring Training again next year, and take in a game or two at the Maryvale Complex, and see the Cubs new facility, and head out west of Phoenix to that great Camelback Ranch facility the Dodgers and White Sox now call home. But it’s a little bit sad to have to look ahead to late February next year, when it’s only late April this year.

What makes matters worse, we can’t even see the Cubs on TV this season, because $$$$$$ rules everything that has to do with pro sports.

When I write my next baseball rant, along about All-Star break, I do hope I’ll regret having given up so soon.