Category Archives: Current Affairs

Remember the 32

I was working the newsroom this week, when my wife sent me a photo with the caption, “Who are these people?” It turned out to be a “Save the Date” card from two of my former students who found love while finishing off their degrees here.

The editor in chief of the paper poked her head over my shoulder and asked what was up.

“I just got a Save the Date card from Ashley and Isaac,” I explained.

She had a blank stare on her face.

“You were here when Isaac was the managing editor, weren’t you?”

Again, a total blank stare. It was at that point it dawned on me that although the kid I was speaking with was 22 and ready to graduate, even she wasn’t old enough to remember a kid who was practically running the newsroom two years earlier.

I often joke that I have “grad-nesia,” an illness that blurs the lines among generations of students to the point where I swear someone just graduated last year while they’ve actually been out of school for half a decade. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated, in that the institutional memory of college institutions is tiny at best. “Back in the day,” for most of my staff was about 18 months ago. “A long time ago,” was two years.

Something that happened 10 years ago? It has the same social relevance of the Tea Pot Dome Scandal or the Bull Moose Party. Even if that event shook the entire nation to its core.

Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. Student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty on campus while wounding another 17 over a three-hour time period before ending his own life. Even in that time of nascent social media, the pure insanity of the event exploded through digital channels and traditional media in a way that kept everyone in the country linked into the devastation.

I had a personal interest in that shooting, as I was pretty close with the general manager of the student newspaper out there. I also knew the editorial adviser. Our student media listserv was flying with questions and concerns for those folks. Both of them were named “Kelly” (one guy, one gal) which led to some “which one?” questions as we all tried to reach them. I finally got a hold of female Kelly and she told me she was safe, things were crazy and her staff was working, so she was probably going to be off the grid for quite some time. At that point, I was able to breathe again.

As my staff watched from safety 1,000 miles away, none of us knew what to do. Our EIC suggested we send pizza, so we did. It was a typical college-kid move, but we weren’t the only ones to think, “Hey, maybe they’re hungry.” Professional and collegiate news staffs from all over the country did similar things to the point where the staff of the Collegian had to ask, “Hey, guys, we appreciate this, but could you stop now?”

The student paper did some incredible work over that amount of time, including obituaries for each of the 32 victims of the shootings. I remember watching male Kelly give a speech on this less than a year later at a journalism convention. He explained that most of his staff was comprised of cub reporters and non-journalism folk. The university didn’t have a journalism feeder program, so this was truly an extra-curricular endeavor for most of them. If the newsroom he had was anything like some of the ones I’ve worked with, you had a handful of kids who had a passion for journalism, a group of folks who were told at one point they were good writers so they showed up to write and a bunch of students who came for the access to sporting events and concerts and to write columns about what they thought was important.

None of them was ready for this. Nor should they have been.

The thing that I remember most about Kelly’s speech was that he talked about gathering his staff and explaining how the newspaper was going to handle the situation on obituaries. The first question a kid raised is the most obvious one: “Nobody is going to want to talk to us. How are we supposed to do this?”

Kelly’s answer is one I use to this day: You might be right. People might not want to talk to you, but you don’t have the right to take that choice away from them. You approach them respectfully and you offer them the chance to speak. If they decline, you express gratitude and you leave. But don’t take away their chance because you’re afraid.

In the end, those obituaries were stocked with sources and stories that captured the essence of 32 people who never made it past April 16, 2007 and propelled the paper to a Pacemaker Award and national prominence.

I have to admit that 10 years have put this story to the back of my mind as well. The year after the Virginia Tech shooting, the Northern Illinois Shooting happened and that one struck a little closer to home. I had interviewed there for a job at one point and many years before, my grandfather had been in the police department in DeKalb, the city surrounding the university. After that, we seemed to be stockpiling shootings and disasters to the point that “Virginia Tech” became less of a euphemism than it once had been.

I also have to admit, it’s easy for things on a university campus to wash away quickly. My first year in Indiana, we had a student get shot and killed by a cop. The name of Michael McKinney was everywhere for more than a year. We covered that story from the shooting through the civil suit and there wasn’t a student alive on that campus who didn’t know that story.

Fast forward to the fifth-year anniversary of the shooting and I told my editor we needed to do the anniversary story on the McKinney shooting.

I got the same blank look my EIC gave me just this week: “Who?”

As far as most schools are concerned, the short-attention-span theater is a blessing in disguise. When horrific things happen in some cities and towns, family members still live there and those moments of pain become imbued in the fabric of the society. Events of agony live on from generation to generation. In the case of colleges, four years can wash away pretty much everyone in the student base who knew what happened. The memories fade to rumor and history.

In the case of the Virginia Tech Shooting, the students there are refusing to let the memory of those 32 people go unnoticed this year. Several cadets are asking that the new residence hall be named for Matthew LaPorte, a sophomore ROTC member who gave is own life to save countless others when the shooter broke through LaPorte’s classroom barricade. The staff of the newspaper published a special edition titled “We Remember 32,” which is complete with a set of 32 stories of the 32 people who died that day. An online version is available here as well.

It’s hard to remember and easy to forget.

But some things need, even if painful, need to be commemorated.

UW Budget Cuts: There’s always a reason…

Every two years, Wisconsin Republicans come home and see that the UW burned the roast.

Or left a mess in the kitchen…

Or didn’t buy more beer…

Or forgot to pick up the dry cleaning…

There’s always a reason that when the budget comes along, and the UW System leaders ask for money, Republicans decide instead to smack it around and then cut higher ed in the state.

Four years ago, it was the allegation that the UW had stockpiled more than $1 billion in its coffers without telling anyone.

(Of course, that wasn’t true, but it was more than enough to create fake outrage and cut nearly a quarter of a billion from the System.)

Two years ago, it was the idea of an “autonomy for cuts” trade: We cut you to the tune of 13 percent and we then let you get away from us and live your lives.

(Of course, that was never going to happen. After making the cuts, the Republicans came up with the “what’s the point of giving you freedom if you won’t do what we want you to do with it?” argument that still makes my head spin.)

This time, I honestly thought it was going to be a Canadian hip-hop artist/UW-Madison professor who would be our sacrificial lamb. Damon Sajnani wrote a course called “The Problem of Whiteness” and Republican Dave Murphy lost his mind over it and threatened the U with budget cuts if this shit wasn’t stopped. Never mind Murphy is basically Exhibits A and B for what’s wrong with Whiteness…

In the end, Scott Fitzgerald realized he couldn’t fuck over the system of his alma mater just because of one class, so he needed a better reason.

And of course he found it.

Thanks in large part to some financial shell games at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, in which a former chancellor co-mingled state money and private foundation money to burnish his legacy and make his cock swell, all of the universities in the system are now being investigated.

Never let it be said Fitzgerald missed an opportunity to do his best Scrooge impression:

 

Fitzgerald stopped short of saying the university foundations issue would affect state funding for the UW System in the next budget. “When it comes to the state budget, members and finance committee members in particular, have a straight-forward process. How much is being set aside, how much is available.”

That said, “it’s human nature when you hear about something like this… ” Fitzgerald added.

 

Actually, Scott, it’s not. It’s sub-human nature to find flaws with everything in hopes of being able to make something suffer for your own pleasure. It’s the same approach kids take when they get a magnifying glass and discover they can use it to immolate ants. It’s power and dominion over those who lack the means and the recourse to fight back.

The state contributes 17 percent of the funding the UW System gets each year and yet you get to write all the rules. Every two years, you and your ilk get all fake outraged over some perceived slight, some perceived error in judgment or some stupid issue that allows you to whip people into a frenzy before you slash education.

The reason this works is because A) the universities suck at explaining anything to people who aren’t academics (and I say this as being an academic who watches the overly academic people fall all over themselves fucking this up every single time) and B) it’s so much easier to channel rage and anger than it is to marshal common sense.

I’m quite certain the cuts will come and the U will bleed and more quality faculty will flee this state like rats of the Titanic. We will then see a period of normalization until it comes time again for Ray “Oliver Twist” Cross to approach you with his bowl in hand and meekly request:

“Please, sir… more.”

Trump and the unfortunate addiction to spectacle

If you want to look for a “life imitating art” moment for today’s healthcare vote, it has to be this one from the movie “Black Mass.”

James “Whitey” Bulger tells his associate exactly what Trump told Republicans by calling for this vote: “You wanna take your shot? Take your shot. But make it your fuckin’ best because if I get up, I’ll eat you.”

This whole thing is horrifying: The potential repeal of the healthcare law, the CBO’s estimate of 24 million people losing coverage, the way in which our government can’t seem to run for three hours without falling all over itself… Say what you want to about the eight years of W., but compared to this, well… at least his stupid was just stupid. It wasn’t vindictive, blind-sighted and angry.

The one thing that makes it just so fascinating is the same thing that makes people slow down at a massive freeway wreck, despite pissing and moaning about the gaper’s block: It’s the rarity of spectacle.

This is how Donald Trump has made his money and gained his fame: He kept people guessing and he always delivered a cliffhanger.

He sued the NFL. Who does that?

He bragged to Billy Bush about sexual assault. Who does that?

He kept Omarosa on Season 1, week after week. Who does that?

The answer is Trump, because he knows what few people are willing to admit: Humans don’t like the safe play and we want to see if there’s going to be a car wreck.

Name the last time a president went to congress without knowing if he had the votes to get something done, especially something this big and this early in his term.

Name the last time regular citizens (or people like me who are abnormal but still don’t pay attention to politics) were aware that a big vote was coming and waiting to see it like “must-see TV.”

This is Gary Cooper in “High Noon” or John Wayne in “Rio Bravo” or Brett Favre throwing another fucking rocketball into triple coverage.

The spectacle works on TV because it has no real impact. You knew Cooper and The Duke would be fine. As for Favre, well, at least if you weren’t in Vegas, his errors wouldn’t cost you anything.

The same couldn’t be said for Trump to this point, given his actions cost this world the USFL and Billy Bush his job. The Omarosa thing still remains baffling, but minor issue. And perhaps that’s the best way to look at his jackassery to this point: It hurt people but not a lot of people most of us know or give a shit about. Meanwhile, the spectacle jacked a lot of people up through the roof.

But now, he’s playing with live ammo. He’s the paintballer with some serious weekend warrior skills joining the Marines. Lives are actually at risk here and yet he seems to think we’re still playing paintball.

In that case, he’s taking his best shot.

Let’s see if someone gets up and eats him.

Hierarchy of Needs: Asshole Edition

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is something every high school student or college undergrad runs into at some point in a sociology or psychology class. The concept is simple: You have a set of psychological and physiological needs that work in ascending order from most basic to most enlightened.

In short, you need to make sure you are fed, rested and healthy first and then you can worry about safety and security. After that, you start getting into things like friendships, family, belonging, self-esteem and reaching your potential as a human.

Given both the broad applicability of this theory and the longevity of it within the field, it always amazes me that we give people who are jerking themselves off for those self-esteem needs control over people who can’t make it off of first base.

Even more, I’m always disgusted when those people who probably will never reach self-actualization (but feel they have) are using their power to fuck over people who just want food, water and shelter.

Mick Mulvaney, who has a net worth of more than $2.6 million dollars, took time out of his very busy schedule Thursday to lecture reporters about how Community Development Block Grants are shitty things and that programs attached to them often “don’t work.”

One of those programs? Meals on Wheels, which provides food to thousands of elderly, house-bound and impoverished people each year. To wit:

Meals on wheels sounds great. That’s a state decision to fund that particular portion, to take the federal money and give it to the states and say, look, we to want give you money for programs that don’t work. I can’t defend that anymore. We cannot defend that anymore. I can’t defend that anymore. We cannot defend that anymore. We’re $20 trillion in debt.

First, you CAN defend it. You CHOOSE not to do so. There’s a difference there. (e.g. I can’t strangle myself. It’s physically impossible to do so. I could use a box cutter to lop off my wiener. I just choose not to.) Let’s not conflate the two ideas in the way that Mulvaney does so that he’s able to say, “We’d LOVE to do this but it simply can’t be done.”

Second, hasn’t every Republican since the party made a big Right turn made the case that the federal government should give money to the states for things and let the states decide how to run shit? I seem to recall there being people talking about a block-grant-based program that is supposedly great that needs to happen right now…

Third, and perhaps most importantly, can Mulvaney update the press today after he gets visited by Marley’s ghost?

Look, I get it that defending a lot of shit Trump is saying and doing is a lot like justifying the actions of a meth-addled toddler with a machine gun: No matter what you say or do, this isn’t going to work out for you. This is how we got terms like “alternative facts” and an explanation regarding on how wire tapping is actually about cameras in microwaves. If this keeps up, Trump will basically knock Bill Clinton’s explanation of not having “sexual relations with that woman” out of the top ten most incredible verbal gymnastics in politics.

However, we’re talking about fucking food here. Everyone should be able to easily grasp the concept of what it’s like to be hungry and how shitty it is when you can’t get to eat. Hell, the kids in my classes have stomachs that grumble when they don’t eat breakfast and then have to tolerate me for two hours. Now multiply that by 1,000 desperation points, add in other shitty aspects associated with poverty, weave in being too old or sick to find a way to make/grow/get your own food and then have some dick hole who’s about your kid’s age tell you, “Hey, y’know, fuck you and your hunger.”

Trump pulled his voters heavily from senior citizens (53/45 over Hillary Clinton) and from those without higher education (those without a degree went 52/44 for Trump). These are the people who are most likely to need programs like this because they don’t have cushy pensions, stock options or whatever the hell Mulvaney keeps in his Scrooge McDuck vault at home.

And if you look back at Maslow’s pyramid, you find that it’s hard to think or understand things when you don’t have your hunger sated, so these kinds of folks are likely to remain in a spiral of voting for the rich folks who continue to fuck over the poor folks.

Uncle Tack

His given name was Thedrick Emerson Wright, but nobody ever called him that.

To anyone who worked with him, played softball for him or just spent time with him, he was just “Tack.”

Or if you were a kid like me, he was “Uncle Tack.”

It was never clear to me, or my dad who befriended Uncle Tack through his work at Ladish, where that name came from. Ted, Thed, TE or even “Big Man” would have made more sense that “Tack.” What was clear was that he was an integral part of my life growing up and loving man-child who always made us laugh, even as he fell apart.

Depending on who was around or how much beer had begun to flow, the stories about Uncle Tack were as legendary as they were outlandish. His supposed height was somewhere between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-8, depending on the length of his Afro and who was telling the story.

When you are 5 years old, the truth of the matter tends to matter very little, as he was simply a giant to me.

His weight fluctuated from a lean and powerful 270 to what he often called “a biscuit,” as in “I’m just a biscuit off of 300” or “a biscuit off of 320” in his later years. Dad used to tell me that Uncle Tack was short-waisted, so when they sat down together, my 5-foot-9 father and Uncle Tack looked to be about the same size. Only when he rose did he unfurl the towering figure he truly was.

I remembered how he would wear those 1970s outfits, including short shorts and long athletic tube socks in the summer. His legs reminded me of a frog’s: long and muscular with a sense that he could leap over anything. I also never forgot his hands: he would envelop my tiny paw with his giant ebony mitt, wrapping his narrow fingers all the way around it as he would say, “How you doin’ there, Little Man?”

Growing up where I did and when I did, I had little concept of the issue of race or how divisive of a topic it truly was. We moved into my parents’ new home when I was 4 and Uncle Tack came to visit. I remember yelling, “Uncle Tack! Uncle Tack!” and rushing up to hug him. Neighbors looked over at us quizzically and asked my parents in an almost “hope against hope” tone, “Uh… UNCLE Tack?”

My parents explained that it was a term of respect for family friends to be designated as “aunt” or “uncle” as opposed to “mister” or “missus.” That part never trickled down to me at that age. He was just as much of a family member as anyone else with that familiar moniker. It’s probably why when I was 7 or so, I asked my parents quite loudly at a McDonald’s, “What color will I be when I grow up?”

Uncle Tack, however, dealt with a lot of the racism of the day, even though he never seemed to let it impact him when he was near us.

One time, Mom and Dad went to Las Vegas with Uncle Tack and wandered around the strip in those halcyon days of the early 1970s. Dad and Uncle Tack went to the bar to order a drink. The bartender served Dad, but skipped Uncle Tack. Dad called the guy back and ordered a drink for Mom, giving the guy another shot to do the right thing.

He skipped Uncle Tack again.

“Hey,” Dad barked at the guy. “Aren’t you going to get my buddy’s drink?”

“Oh,” the barkeep replied. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t see him standing there.”

It could have been an honest mistake, although I somehow doubt it was easy to miss a 6-foot-5 black man standing at an empty bar sporting a fire-engine red three-piece suit.

Other stories came home of people at the factory tossing around what we would now call “casual racism,” but back then they called it “teasing” or “pranking.” One such case happened after Uncle Tack shaved his head. Some guy put five Milk Duds in a row on his desk with a sign that read, “Tack’s family.” Instead of filing a complaint or blowing up in a rage, Uncle Tack simply ate the Milk Duds. Why let them go to waste?

He always was that “gentle giant” in the most clichéd terms possible, but there were also legendary stories of him dispensing justice, or at least putting people on notice that he would.

In one such case, he was attending a Kool and the Gang concert at some local venue when a guy behind him kept kneeing him in the back. Uncle Tack asked the guy to stop, and the man kind of mumbled something in return. A few minutes later, the guy was back at it. Uncle Tack became slightly more firm in his request as the guy gave him kind of a look like, “Hey buddy, I paid for this seat.” A third time, the kneeing returned, so Uncle Tack rose from his seat, turned to face the man and in an even voice declared:

“If you knee me in the back one more time, I’m kicking the shit out of your whole row.”

The man quickly stopped.

Even when he was older, he had no compunction about evening the odds when he felt his family or friends were in a rough spot. My freshman year of college, I had a roommate who was making my life hell with drug use and other shitty behavior. Repeated requests to the hall association to try to fix this fell on deaf ears. When Dad shared the news with Uncle Tack, my protector replied, “So when are we driving up to Madison to take care of this kid?” Uncle Tack had to be in his 50s at that point, but he still was ready to go.

Above all else, I remember laughter surrounding Uncle Tack. He would sit in our kitchen and tell stories and Mom and Dad would howl with laughter. He would even tell stories about things they had all experience, but he did so in such a way that made you think, “Man, I wish I had been there…”

There was the time he came over to meet with my folks around dinnertime: He had just polished off two Big Macs, fries and a Coke, but my folks were eating supper, so he sat down and joined them. He ended up eating almost two-thirds of a full pot roast that was supposed to be sandwich meat for the week.

Nobody minded. It was Uncle Tack.

Each spring, he’d come to the house and coax my mother into joining his softball team. He was a hell of a recruiter and a great motivator, but my mother was getting on in years and each season he asked, it took a little more to get her to bundle up for those frigid March games and play for him.

She had to be in her 40s near the end of his coaching career and he had tons of younger players from which to choose. Still, he always told Mom he needed her left-handed bat and her speed to make the team complete.

I remember hunkering down on those freezing cold bleachers at Beulah Britton Park and watching my mom play each season. I still remember the other players on the team: Sharon, the giant guard from the factor who could crush a homer on to the tennis courts. Joyce (also known as Ice), a sharp short-stop with a quick first step, a wicked bat and a glare in her eyes that would just cut you in half. Steady Betty was there in left, catching everything hit to her and hugging Uncle Tack each time she came in from the field. Carol, the pitcher who was the only one about my mom’s age, who we still see from time to time around Cudahy.

The hard part for me is understanding now that Uncle Tack wasn’t the saint I always remembered. Laughter often covered pain. The “dapper” outfits often hid financial problems. Other positives painted a thin coat of cover on top of the negatives.

He was divorced from his wife, which rumor had it, was because he had been fooling around with some of the younger softball players on his team. He had trouble at work, as he often missed a day or two with no real reason for doing so. His kids were at odds with him and somewhat wandered aimlessly, based on the chatter I overheard.

The biggest problem, though, was his inability or unwillingness to take care of his diabetes. When he retired from Ladish, he headed back to Tennessee to be near family. By then, he was a massive man who loved sweets more than anything. A few years after he left, his health really began to fail. Recently, he had both legs amputated at the knee. Always the joker, Uncle Tack explained in a phone call to my father how he looked:

“I’m the same but now you’re as tall as me.”

That was the last thing Dad heard from him and that was several years back.

When I called home last night, Dad was talking about the weekend card show and other such things, when Mom shouted something from the living room to him. He then told me that he’d just heard from a friend of his that Uncle Tack died earlier this week. He was about 68, Dad said, although that was as much of a mystery as everything else surrounding the man.

It’s hard to write this, not just because it’s so hard to capture the essence of who Uncle Tack was and what he meant to me, but also because I’ve learned that writing like this is often seen as an affront to “more important discussions” of race and human interaction. That makes me worry people will overlook the man I know for the broader picture I have no intention of painting.

Uncle Tack wasn’t the “magical Negro” in my life, to borrow a term from Spike Lee. He wasn’t the “black friend” that got rolled out to counter claims of racism. Even though I hadn’t seen him in quite some time and I’m in my 40s, he will always my Uncle Tack.

He hugged me as a kid. He stood up for me as a young man. He danced with my wife at my wedding (albeit under the watchful gaze of his new protective girlfriend). He made me laugh all the time.

He was family and I’ll miss him something awful.

Seeds of Hope

The young woman sitting next to me scrunched up her face as she looked at a resume I would have killed for at her age. She had three internships, including one at a major media outlet and a second at a center for investigative journalism. She was the editor of her paper and had earned honors and awards along the way. Still, she had that look.

“I just hope I get a job,” she said. “It’s rough out there…”

I half smiled as I shook my head and told her, “You’re going to be fine. You have a ton of great experience. We just need to rearrange a few things to put the emphasis on the best stuff first…”

I suggested moving a few things around, emphasizing professional experience and pushing her college work down. We talked about her social media presence and if it would be something that would showcase her journalism or if it fit the “I ate a hot dog today. It was good.” motif. I told her I knew her boss and that he didn’t hire crappy people, so that should help her feel better about herself and that she should ask if he would be a reference for her.

In the end, she seemed to feel better and thanked me for my time.

“You’ll be fine,” I told her again, emphasizing each word. “You’ll be just fine.”

I’ve spent the last two weekends working with student journalist at a variety of conventions, which is one of the best things I do in life. Last week, it was Minnesota’s best of the Midwest convention while this week, we convened for a pro/college hybrid for the best journalism the state has to offer.

Being around people “like me” is usually a comfort to most humans, in that we enjoy social gatherings that emphasize shared, learned behavior. Even more, we tend to understand each other better when we have chewed some of the same dirt. As Eddie Murphy once remarked about marriage, “Find the perfect person for you. I’m not saying they’re perfect. Find someone just as fucked up as you are in the same way and settle down.”

Still, this convention was one I had dreaded for a number of reasons. First, I’m running the board of the college group, which means I need to show up, dress sharp and schmooze with people, all things that don’t really thrill me. Second, it’s like Bill Buckner walking back into Shea Stadium for me in many ways.

The people I know there knew the much younger version of me: The one who fucked up a lot. The one who bordered on arrogance and then swung to a complete lack of self-esteem. The one who was probably the annoying kid they wished would learn to calm down a little more and not be so excited over every police scanner call. It’s painful thinking back about that “me” and it’s even more difficult realizing how long ago that was.

The kid I helped work through her resume was someone I probably would have never dealt with back then. She worked at the Badger Herald. I’m from the Daily Cardinal. Capulet and Montague don’t have shit on that turf war. However, as I talked with her a bit, it dawned on me she wasn’t even born when I was a college journalist. The dislike I have for her institution remains, but for some reason, it wasn’t as hard as I would have once thought it to be when I helped her plan out Life 2.0.

Later that day, I walked through the exhibit hall, and I ran across a guy I worked with back when I was a night-desk reporter. Andy now runs that center for investigative journalism at which this kid was interning. When he noticed me, he stopped what he was doing to say hi and prepared to introduce me to the folks gathered around him.

One of the people who turned around was another former newspaper staff who remembered me and gave me a huge hug. It turns out Pat had retired from the paper during one of the rounds of “downsizing” efforts and was now teaching at a small, private college and advising the paper. I told her, “We need to get you onto our board…” before explaining what it is I was doing and what our college group was all about.

She had this look on her face, and I couldn’t really figure it out. It was half amazement and half pride.

“Yeah,” Andy chimed in. “He’s all grown up now…”

I laughed. He just smiled.

He remembered how excited I was the time he offered to buy me a six-pack of beer if I’d take some mundane assignment he’d been given. Andy was happy he could go on his vacation without worry. I was thrilled: You mean I’ll get some extra hours, mileage money, a story in the paper AND BEER? Holy shit!

I didn’t know if Pat remembered the time she and I were working on a Sunday together and two stories had rolled in: Racist literature was found in a news rack at a grocery store and major vandalism had hit the area Walgreens. She was coming in later and I had half of each story and I hoped she’d let me keep one. When she arrived, she told me, “Take them both. I’m working on something else.” It was like a day of free ice cream. I can still remember thinking to myself, “Wow. I’ve got TWO STORIES in the paper today. This is unbelievable.”

Back then, moments like those were the world to me. For them, it was just another day of work.

After I left Andy’s booth, I wandered over to the walls of poster board that contained the award-winning work of journalists throughout the state. Not more than a minute of browsing went by before something grabbed me: A column with a familiar face staring back at me. The hair was more professionally cut, the cheeks a bit fuller but I knew the half-grimace that stared back at me.

One of my former students: First place for local sports column.

I backed up and started from the very first board, carefully examining each byline.

Second Place: Environmental writing

Third Place: Business coverage

First Place: Local education coverage

Third Place: Feature Writing

More and more of the names came back to me. Scared kids, wondering if they’d ever get an internship. Wondering if they’d get a job. Wondering if they’d be any good.

Professional journalists, all. Award-winners to boot.

My eyes settled on the last panel where the college winners were and found one bittersweet moment:

First place, News/news features.

The kid who wrote it was my editor during last year’s run of crushing misery. She stuck with me through thick and thin, knowing her life would be so much easier if she just asked me to quit. Instead, she hunkered down and dealt with the pounding, just like I had. In the end, though, she couldn’t take it anymore.

She dropped out of school, refusing to return for her senior year. She moved on to the tech school last semester, where she hopes to earn a degree that will let her work as a nursing assistant. She never wants to be in journalism again.

She wrote a personal experience feature story on Project Semicolon, a movement that started in 2013 after founder Amy Bleuel lost her father to suicide. Bleuel also struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, so she looked for a way to communicate that struggle to others in hopes of shedding light on these mental illness issues. The non-profit organization uses the semi-colon as a symbol of how you are the author of your life and authors choose how to end a sentence. The semi-colon says, “I’m pausing here, but I will choose to continue.” Many people who back the movement get a tattoo of a semi-colon as a way of reinforcing this belief.

Katie’s piece wove her own struggles into the broader story of Project Semi-Colon, which was started only about an hour’s drive from here. The narrative thread was her decision to get the tattoo and to share that moment with her mother.

I could feel the tears welling up as I started to read the story, so I just moved on and took a breath.

A great moment. A great kid. The one I couldn’t save.

My career choice often leaves me with mixed emotions. I think back to the most stinging comment people make about educators: “Those who can’t do, teach.” There are days I think maybe they’re right. Could I have stuck with journalism for 22 years and done more and better things than I did? Maybe I’m that tragic tale of wasted youth, the human vessel of lost potential I now try to drag out of other people as some sort of penance for my own transgressions…

Then there are days like yesterday, where I see how the kids who once pondered their own inadequacies are tearing it up at various publications in places they want to be. I see it in every “noun-verb” attribution they use and how I pounded that into them. I see it in their commitment to fairness and accuracy. I see it when they email me to ask, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a student of yours and you really helped me out a ton… I’m looking for an intern and I was hoping you had one of your kids to help me fill the slot…”

Those days, I see myself as a good farmer: I take those little seeds and put them in the best soil I have, tend them the best I can and then watch them grow to fruition. I help make sure the seedlings get what they need to survive. I realize how important this is now more than ever, in a field littered with cutbacks, high stress and public malice toward the profession.

Maybe that’s a good way to look at this.

I sow some of these seeds of hope for journalism.

And sometimes, it’s important to step back and enjoy the garden.

Journalism: A shitty job in a nuclear winter

One of my former students became a science reporter a few years out of school and once found himself on a trip to Chernobyl. A group of researchers were collecting stool samples from people who lived adjacent to the old Russian nuclear reactor, trying to see if they were suffering from any radioactive poisoning nearly three decades after the meltdown.

He sent me a post card from the area with a final line I still love:

“Journalism. It’s a shitty job but somebody has to do it.”

I thought about him and that trip today when I was trying to read anything in my social media feed that wasn’t about Trump’s press conference. When all I was left with was if Steve Kerr was going to play Russell Westbrook alongside his four Warriors in the All-Star Game and Draymond Green clarifying his “slave-owner mentality” statements, I gave up.

Trump’s hour-plus screed was a brick of uncut alternative facts, packaged in a wrapper of vulgar abuse and denigration. The word “rambling” might be overused at this point and I don’t think it goes far enough. It was like he took every topic of interest or a point of pride he has, wrote them on bingo balls and then had the machine spit them out to determine the order of his talking points.

The biggest problem came when he started taking questions from the press, one of his favorite targets of abuse. A reporter from Ami Magazine, a conservative orthodox Jewish publication, offered Trump the olive branch he was desperately seeking, a pass on personal anti-Semitism. However, as Jake Turx tried to ask Trump to explain how he planned to fight this problem, Trump just stepped all over himself, assuming Turx was calling him anti-Semitic and then told him to sit down and shut up.

When a reporter refuted Trump’s claim that his 306 (actually 304) electoral votes was the most since Ronald Reagan, he dodged with “I meant Republican victory.” He then was told Bush 41 had way more, which led Trump to blame his staff for the information.

Perhaps the worst moment is the one most people are noting: Trump’s clash with April Ryan, a long-time member of the White House press corps. Ryan, who is African-American, asked about Trump’s plans to improve urban areas that he often referred to as terrible hell holes and wondered if he’d reach out to the CBC and Hispanic caucus in congress. Trump seemed unaware of what CBC stood for, but upon learning it stood for Congressional Black Caucus, asked Ryan if she’d set up the meeting for him.

“Do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?” Trump asked her in what could only be described as a confrontational tone.

At this point, I had two thoughts:

  • Based on his “you all know each other, right?” approach, I was amazed Trump didn’t start off with, “Hey, I loved you in ‘Hidden Figures!’ What’s your question?”
  • If you believe that Sean Spicer isn’t getting fired, buy stock in Orbitz. This guy is going to put a dent in our national supply by Saturday.

This press conference, naturally, scared the living shit out of me as a citizen, but my one saving grace is that I can turn off the TV or ignore the news. The journalists who have to work in this environment are like the people at Chernobyl in 1986, going shirtless and using some Windex to clean up the mess.

Journalism has always been a shitty job and it takes a weird breed of person to do it. If you don’t believe me, you should have been in our student newspaper’s newsroom this week. Conversations regarding a dead squirrel, double entendres about a professor “coming” and whether Meatloaf’s “I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)” was about anal were among the most acceptable for public consumption.

The kids do this for almost no money, which will get them ready for a career in a field where cutting positions and salaries is an annual ritual. They talk to people who don’t want to talk to them about things everyone wants to know but no one who knows is willing to disclose. (A student told me an administrator offered him about a three-minute “No Comment” on a topic we had been covering. My first response, “Did you record it so we can use it as a quote?” The answer, of course, was “yes.”)

Abuse in this field is common. I’ve been called scum, an asshole, a weasel, a vulture and worse. One lady told me my mother didn’t raise me right. I’m sure there are worse ones that I’ve just blacked out of my memory. It got so bad that I used to have a recorder attached to my phone so I could record the abuse. That way, when the person on the other end became sweet as pie to my boss and accused me of random shit, I could just play him the tape.

The thing that amazes me about all of this is that we keep having more and more kids entering this field with the idea that each one of them probably has (at the very least) one Cousin Carl who believes everything not on Breitbart is fake news. Many of the kids I teach come from the Rural Red areas of the state where family members at Thanksgiving ask things like why they aren’t earning an “honest living” like “Gene the Retard” down the way who sells dachshunds out of his trailer.

One kid who recently changed majors to journalism sat with me after I mentioned that a long time ago, when I was changing from pre-law to something or other, Dad told me I needed to find a field where I could get a job.

“As long as you aren’t majoring in English or something else stupid like that, I don’t care,” he said. “You just need to be able to get a job.” (Incidentally, English was going to be my major right up to that moment…)

The kid’s dad had said something similar when he made the change to journalism and he wondered what was out there for him. I explained about the various ways the skills he picked up in journalism would make him a fine hire for a ton of great jobs. He relaxed and then asked, “Can you tell my dad that? He runs his own business and he thinks this is a stupid move.”

Of course it’s a stupid move, if you enjoy low-stress jobs with good benefits and career security. It’s also a stupid move if you enjoy being liked and you don’t want your illusion shattered when it comes to thinking the best of people. It’s a really stupid move for 1,001 other reasons that undercut sanity and longevity. Still, the kid felt like he found the right major, so like a moth to a flame, he decided to stick with it.

I was glad for that and I’m looking for more just like him because we need those guys and gals to fill in the ranks of reporters, editors and other journalists who push back every day against the tide of bullshit. Talking to kids who want to be the next reporter to be told, “Sit down! You’re fake news” really energizes me and makes me want to get them ready to go in the corner and fight for the puck. That’s why this weekend finds me at a journalism convention in Minnesota where kids from a lot of small-college Midwestern schools will show up and learn how to write, report, dig, challenge and fight better.

Best of all? The person running the convention told me the number of attendees this year is higher than it has been for the past several mid-winter conferences.

And, like any other decent journalist, I’ll make sure to check it out before I believe it.

Dear CMU Republicans, Hitler was never fucking funny.

Oh for fuck’s sake:

A Central Michigan University registered student organization apologized via social media late Wednesday night after an anti-Semitic Valentine’s Day card apparently handed out by a member of the group sparked anger among students and community members.
The Valentine features a photo of Adolph Hitler on the front and the words, “My love 4 u burns like 6,000 Jews,” and is signed “XOXO, Courtney.”

I’m waiting for Sean Duffy to find the “good things” that came out of this whole Holocaust deal, now that it’s clear we can always find a silver lining in whatever stupid shit people on your team do.

A rally against hate came out after this hit the fan at CMU, and it’s good that people get loud enough to let assholes know that this kind of behavior isn’t acceptable. That said, who the fuck thought this was a good idea in the first place? Someone actively went about building this stupid valentine and made sure to place multiple copies into the bags of students who were getting them. And of course, I’m sure, they thought it was hysterical because, hey, nobody THEY know ever got shoved in an oven or gassed in a shower. I mean, can’t we all get past this?

When I was in fifth grade, we had a Holocaust speaker and I will never forget some of the stories he told us about death and hopelessness. I can still see his gnarled, age-spotted hands in my mind’s eye as he pointed to the ceiling during a story of how he watched a man hang himself from the rafters with a belt and did nothing to stop him. It was survival, he explained, and we didn’t have the luxury of worrying about people we knew but for whom we had no direct responsibility.

He came back and spoke to us one more time a few years later. During that time, there were many people who still could speak but chose not to. People who hid their tattoos and spoke about such things only in hushed tones or drunken despair. As the years went by, however, there were fewer and fewer people who could speak from a first-person perspective on what had happened.

When I wrote for the local paper, I met a woman who escaped from Germany before the Holocaust. She married a man later who survived Bergen-Belsen and she told me the horrors he experienced. Until the day he died, he slept motionless, with his arms crossed, because that’s how he was forced to sleep in the camps.

At each institution I taught, whenever a speaker on this topic visited, I actively encouraged my students to attend. I explained that it would be horrifying and painful, but that it was something that they MUST experience in life if they are to understand basic human decency and dignity. To understand how those places existed and took so much from so many for such a stupid fucking reason was to understand the dark side of humankind.

I have to admit, I’m sure I said and did a lot of shit stupid things when I was that age. I’m sure I didn’t sidestep every gay joke or correct every negative stereotype associated with race or gender. I’m positive that I am fortunate as hell that social media didn’t exist back then, or else, God alone knows what might have come rolling out today about me. However, stupid though I was, I knew there were very clearly some things that were way the fuck out of bounds.

Hitler is NOT a meme or the ace in the hole you drop when you want to win an argument. He was the central gear in a movement that showed us how deep the rabbit hole really is and how dark night can be. He is not a colloquialism.

Neither is rape, as in “That math test totally raped me.”

Neither is gay,  as in “He’s so gay over his new truck.”

Neither are a dozen other terms that take life-altering events and turns them into euphemisms for casual conversation.

The thing that makes it easier for us to course-correct some of these fuckups is to have actual, live examples of those things that show up in everyone’s faces and say, “Really? The math test slipped something in your drink, took you to an apartment and told you to relax as it ripped off your clothes and forced itself into you repeatedly as you were too incapacitated to move, scream or fight, leaving you with a lifetime of physical, mental and emotional scars? It did all that?”

Unfortunately, we keep losing those people who can explain what life was like living six inches from death for years at a time because of the whims of a madman. And because time erodes direct contact and immediate understanding, we get the Hitler Valentine and someone who thinks it’s fucking funny.

“Keep it”

I was 12 years old when my great-grandfather died and my experiences with him were limited to Christmas events, birthday parties and the occasional times we watched a parade from his porch. Most of what I know comes from family legends and stories others told. Two things sat at the core of each tale:

  • He worked hard all his life.
  • He was an immigrant.

I thought about him this week with the immigrant ban, the Muslim ban or whatever the hell “anti-terrorist” spin the alt-White House is putting on this. His life spanned exactly 100 years and there was a lot of life in those years.

He came from a country that no longer exists: the “Kingdom of Bohemia” which later became squished into Czechoslovakia. Bias was pretty clear in that area of the woods as the Czechs and Slovaks didn’t have a lot of love for one another. The Bohemians were kind of the Stu Sutcliff of that area, but after World War I, they got stuffed into this new set of boundaries and that was that.

Great-grandpa was long gone by then, setting off for America on ship of some kind. How he got the ticket or how much money he had on him never made it into the family story, but he came from a family of farmers in the Old Country, so the answers were probably “No clue” and “Not much.” What did make it into the mix was that he met my great-grandmother when he got here, another Bohemian refugee. They were in the early 20s when they got married, or “spinsters” in the language of the time. Nobody thought it would last or that any future generations would spring forth.

They stayed married 72 years, until great-grandma died at 96, and produced four children (“Joe, Doc, Pa and Aggie,” my father would say.) So much for conventional wisdom.

They landed in a small Wisconsin town abutting Milwaukee, where my grandfather found work at the local factory, like most immigrants. He was a carpenter by trade, however, so each summer he would quit the factory job and build houses in the area to earn a better living. When his own family had reached a critical mass, he built one for them, finishing it up right around the time my grandfather was born. He lived there, raised four kids in that tiny building, outlived all of them and died in his own bed a month after he turned 100.

The backyard was the size of a two-car garage, but it sported a plum tree that produced enough fruit to eat, can and squeeze into a liquor-based form. When he sensed the plum tree was coming to the end of its useful life, he’d plant a half dozen seeded saplings and wait for one to assert dominance. He’d then destroy the others and chop down the old tree. The plum wood served to heat the house and cure meat.

He had a postage-stamp sized garden that was crammed to the hilt. Every time he picked something, he planted a new item to squeeze more food out of his patch of land. He also went to church every morning with a small paper bag, a useful item to collect the mushrooms he found along the way. By noon, great-grandma turned his find into a soup. That would be lunch.

Of all the stories I remember, this one always stuck with me:

Somewhere around between the World Wars, he got an official letter from a government agency in the old country. It explained that his father had died and that as the oldest son, he had inherited the family farm. It was a reasonably decent enterprise and during that era (the Great Depression), the farm would provide him a nice financial boost. The letter said he had to go back to fill out some papers and it was his. He could even sell it right then and there if he wanted.

My great-grandmother, who never really bothered to learn much English, wanted to go back. She missed her homeland and she also wanted to show off how well the family was doing. My great-grandfather, a practical man who knew how tenuous life could be in unstable times, scrawled a word in Bohemian on the letter and sent it back.

The mystery of that letter and the farm and the family remained part of frequent discussions around the family. We never really knew what happened or why until somewhere around his 90th or 95th birthday, where my father and his siblings managed to get great-grandpa to sit down at the kitchen table and tell stories. He eventually got around to the story about the farm and revealed what he had  written:

“Keep it.”

My great-grandfather saw himself as living the American dream. He came here with very little, found love, started a family and set down roots from which future generations could grow. He knew that if he went elsewhere, he might not get back or might not get let out. The whims of others would dictate his situation if he decided to reconfigure his life. So, he stayed put, built a life and never stopped working to improve things around him. (Another legendary family story was when my father stopped by to wish him a happy 97th birthday, only to find him on a rotten wood ladder climbing onto the roof. “Grandpa, what are you doing?” my dad shouted. “I cleaning rain gutters,” he said in his broken English. “But Johnny (a 30something cousin of mine) just cleaned those last week!” Great-grandpa shook his head. “You kids… You never do good enough job.”)

For generations, people who ARE here have always come up with reasons that THEY are OK being here, but THOSE GUYS shouldn’t be. It’s a continual series of, “Go back where you came from!” We can make weak arguments about potential terrorism, but that’s all they are: weak arguments by irrational people hoping to keep others from taking something they believe is essentially theirs. It’s less of a “Give me your tired” crowd and more of a “Go back where you came from!” contingency that makes the noise.

Great-grandpa never mentioned outright bias or hatred. He wore it on his face: A grim, tight-lipped determinism seemed to be his resting pulse. Dad heard stories second and third hand about how if it weren’t for a particular supervisor who liked great-grandpa, he’d have been out on his ass several times, simply because he wasn’t “one of us.”

What Trump and his supporters tend to forget is that every point in time, all of us used to be “one of them.”

“Fuck You Nation” – National Edition

A year or two back, I coined the term “Fuck You Nation” to capture the general sense of how people in this country were tending to treat one another. The argument at the time was that when it came to the rise of Donald Trump, the mistrust of the media and the general sense of political discord, people were less “pro” something and more “fuck you” toward people they saw as “the opposition.” At the core of the argument was a general sense of self-righteousness, absolute certainty and an overwhelming sense of anger and bile.

If President Trump’s first week in office is any indication, I might soon need to patent that term and put it on T-Shirts. That, of course, presupposes we all survive long enough to have shirts printed and that the First Amendment isn’t outlawed.

“ALTERNATIVE FACTS:” We used to call these things “lies” or “bullshit” but now we have a whole new term. For fronting a party that hates politically correct language, Kellyanne Conway is doing a great job of coming up with some of her own. In defending Sean Spicer’s argument that the crowds at Trump’s inauguration were record-breaking and larger than Obama’s, she said it’s clear that Spicer just used “alternative facts.” In other words, “I see that you are saying X by supporting it with all sorts of information, but clearly it isn’t within my narrative, so I’m going to just tell you that you are wrong because the public has the attention span of a meth-addled squirrel.” In short, “Fuck you and your faggy little reliance on facts. REAL AMERICANS KNOW BETTER!”

We are so close to changing the national anthem from the “Star-Spangled Banner” to Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.”
“OPPOSITION PARTY:” Steve Bannon, who seems to be sporting the “probable cause” look, granted an interview to the NY Times this week in which he told the paper that the media is “the opposition party.” He also said the media needs to keep its mouth shut,” something that is not only grammatically incorrect but runs counter to the whole purpose of the media.

Bannon’s case is a simple one and it rests at the core of Fuck You Nation: We won, you lost, so go fuck off for a while. He relies on the narrative that reeks of populism and group-based conflict studies: Demonstrate superiority, cite things in an authoritative way without providing documentation, rally support within your group through glittering generalities and call into question the motives of people who disagree with you, rather than focusing on the disagreement. Perhaps most reflective of all these elements is a single quote:

“The elite media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” Mr. Bannon said of the election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.”

Bannon’s quote ignores key elements of reality (the popular vote, the media weren’t running for anything) and uses a single fact to create an overreaching singular reality (Donald Trump won the presidency, ergo all things he said are clearly 100 percent right and should be supported by this nation.)

In short, “Fuck you and your whiny bullshit. Shut up and get out of our way while we fix things.”

“GASLIGHTING:” During the past nine years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes the asshole in my department tick. His ability to manipulate reality to fit his needs, rely on rules one minute while discarding them the next and the absolute certainty in which he took positions I knew were wrong fascinated me. I’d never dealt with someone like this and I had to understand it. About three years ago or so, I came across the book, “The Gaslight Effect” by Robin Stern. I remember reading through it and thinking, “Holy shit, this is a real thing. I’m not going crazy.”

Gaslighting is now the hot term and it has come to represent an “Emperor has no clothes” moment for the Left. However, it’s a lot more complicated than ego, manipulation or trying to create the Fourth or Fifth Reich (whichever we’re on now…). Gaslighting is both psychological manipulation and unyielding abuse that removes an individual’s sense of self and crushes the human spirit for another person’s selfish gains.

In a psychological sense, this is easy to understand, as manipulation, groupthink and other concepts have been studied for decades. Asch’s seminal work on conformity makes it easy enough to see what happens when something that appears so real and obvious to one person is contradicted repeatedly by others. Sane people tend to want to “see it from another point of view” or “avoid upsetting the apple cart” to the point of subjugating their own (accurate) reality to that of others. In other words, when Line B is clearly the longest, you still want to figure out why it is that everyone else in the group (all confederates for the experiment) is picking Line A. Eventually, like Picard, you come really close to saying there are Five Lights.

This leads to the second part (crushing opposition) and it is why the lines about voter fraud and crowd sizes are so scary. If people are willing to go against all present data to agree with an obvious lie, what happens when the stakes are higher? Say, a border fence? Or a war?

The problem with the Gaslighting Effect is that those who use it will never admit they are wrong. They might eventually give up the topic or change strategies on it, but they’ll never say, “Yep, you got me there!” A perfect example of this came yesterday when Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled his meeting with Trump in the wake of Trump’s continued movement toward a border wall. Nieto came out and said, “Look, if you’re going to keep this shit up, I’m not going to come and even bother talking with you.” Rather than let it look like he got stood up for prom, Trump said this:

“We have agreed to cancel our planned meeting,” Mr. Trump said in a new conference Thursday afternoon. “Unless Mexico is going to treat the U.S. fairly, with respect, such a meeting would be fruitless, and I want to go a different route. We have no choice.”

By recasting this as a mutual thing, it looks less like Trump got stuck holding the bag and more like he was the one saying, “Look, unless you’re going to build this wall, you can stay on your side of the river and suck a burrito.”

This is what makes Trump so dangerous and it’s also what makes him so popular. Again, Fuck You Nation rears its ugly head: “You want me to say I’m wrong? Fuck you.”

 

In the end, the core of Trump will always be tied to “Fuck You Nation.” I read his inaugural and, honestly, it was really appealing and unvarnished from a middle-America perspective. There are a shit ton of empty factories in places where I live (and have lived). There aren’t a lot of good jobs for people of all walks of life can get. It often seems like we’re running around the world looking for something to fix instead of investing in people back home. If you want to be the president of the United States, shouldn’t you put the needs of the U.S. and its people at the front of the line? These things, on the flat face of them, do make a lot of sense to a lot of people who feel they have been forgotten because we now all have to worry about who gets to use which bathroom.

Trump makes the big picture small: You personally got shafted. I’ll help you get yours. However, this is like playing chess with a myopic obsession of moving a rook repeatedly. It’s never supposed to be about one piece for a president. It’s supposed to be about the board.

But when you are that one piece, everything he does makes sense:

“The world has told you, John Q. Public, ‘Hey, buddy, fuck you.’ Now, let’s turn this around and tell those people, ‘No, FUCK YOU.’”

The Problem of Whiteness meets the Problem with the Witless

It seems that Rep. David Murphy, who chairs the state’s committee on colleges and universities despite never having graduated from one, came out swinging against a course titled “The Problem of Whiteness.” This class is taught at UW-Madison, is an elective and is taught by professor Damon Sajnani, who has a Ph.D. in African-American studies from Northwestern. Murphy found the class – an elective, mind you – to be so disturbing he called for the entire UW System’s funding request to be yanked unless the class was cancelled:

 Murphy, who is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, said he and his staff looked at “The Problem of Whiteness” course description for the spring semester, as well as the background of its teacher, Assistant Professor Damon Sajnani. He concluded: “We are adding to the polarization of the races in our state.”

 

SNIP

 

Murphy said he had been “trying to talk up” to fellow lawmakers increased funding for the UW System in the next state budget but was now having doubts.

“If UW-Madison stands with this professor,” Murphy wrote, “I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”

 

This is the textbook definition of bullying and a shakedown. The university system contains 26 campuses, 180,000 students, 40,000 faculty and contributes nearly $6 billion annually to the state and Murphy wants to hold it hostage over ONE COURSE. He has also demanded that Sajnani be “dismissed.” Keep in mind, he never took the course, never read the texts associated with the course and never received a complaint about the course. He just basically decided to screw with the university because he can. We’re about a millimeter away from Murphy saying, “Nice budget you gots here… Shame if somethin’ were to happen to it…”

 

Murphy didn’t stop with just this one course, however, noting that he was going to have his staff check into ALL classes at UW-Madison to make sure “they’re legit.”

Asked what he and his staff would be looking for in courses, Murphy said they would not need to look at disciplines like chemistry or business, but “we’ll be looking at the humanities. I realize college is a place to discuss ideas that aren’t necessarily everybody’s idea of how things ought to be, but I want to make sure there’s legitimate education going on.”

 

This would be hysterical if it Murphy didn’t have actual power over state resources. Let’s review a few things:

  1. Murphy never graduated from college. He couldn’t even finish a degree at UW-Fox Valley, a two-year school in the system. He spent his life in agri-business and as a real estate guy. How, exactly, would he know if the courses were “legit” or not? What level of expertise does he bring to the table that would indicate his life and educational experience will allow him to sniff out all these potentially illegitimate courses? That would be like me walking around the surgical wing at the Mayo Clinic and checking up on all those brain surgeries to make sure they’re being done right.
  2. The professor he attacked at this point is an international scholar. Sajnani hails from Canada, where he not only received a bachelor’s and master’s degree, but he also is an accomplished member of the hip-hop community. For all the shit legislators give people about not getting “real world” experience in an area of interest, this guy has walked the walk in various aspects of life. His Ph.D. comes from Northwestern and he’s been a fellow at Harvard based on his research. So exactly how would he be unqualified a) teach this course and b) contribute to this university?
  3. Does Murphy realize he just backed the state into a corner with his stupidity? Let’s say for the sake of argument, the state wants to fund some, but not all of this UW System request. Anyone with a good PR person (read: anyone but Murphy) would immediately pounce on this and say, “Look, we got cut because Dave Murphy is trying to undermine academic freedom at our flagship university!” Regardless of how often he denies it, the case can be made that he threatened the budget if the course wasn’t cut, the U has not (and will not) cut the course and now the budget got cut.

 

This isn’t the first time the state has threatened the system’s budget. A few years back it was Steve Nass, who holds two degrees from UW-Whitewater and somehow thinks he made it in life despite that, took on the system over courses. He and several other Republicans killed a budget request when it created an overblown shit fit about an alleged $1 billion systemwide surplus.

Usually what happens is, the regents ask for money for faculty raises or improved facilities and the Republicans find something to get outraged about. It’s not a case of actual outrage, but they do a good job of making people really upset about these greedy, liberal (probably all gay drug using) professors in their ivory towers who don’t understand reality. Thus, they cut the budget, hold it out as a pride point and continue to divide the state between the “haves” and “have nots,” all as they do very little for either group.

Doctor makes “monkey face” comment about Michelle Obama. Outraged? Yes. Shocked? Nope.

In the days after the presidential election, people have tried to parse the reasons for the rise of Trump and how racism will awaken from the dark, like it’s the Force or something.

The current narrative has gone in one of two directions, both of which seem to land on the same group: Rural, uneducated white people. In one version of this, it was an economic/culture issue that led rural whites to see Trump as a savior. This is something Trump has been playing up in Indiana this week, where he courageously threw money at Carrier to only lose some U.S. manufacturing jobs. In short, it’s about the work and the country mouse/city mouse divide.

The second version is racism, although it pretty much lands on the same basic group: Rural, uneducated white people. This narrative pushes out the concept that Trump tapped into that vein of racism that flows through the heartland like melted butter and stoked fears of Muslims, Mexicans and African-Americans. It was these simple-minded rubes who turned out in droves to “Make America Great Again” in hopes of getting back to that simpler time when all you needed to know about minorities is how many fifths of a person they counted for.

The stats bear out a lot of both of those elements, although more of the first than the second. Of course, the main problem is that you don’t get to take your alleged job creator without his side order of racism, something many people overlooked in their race to the bottom.

The second problem is that when it comes to racism, sexism and other “isms,” it’s not as simple as population density or if you’ve ever seen a building taller than three stories before.

Dr. Michelle Herren, an anesthesiologist and University of Colorado professor, came under fire this week for posting racist comments about Michelle Obama. Herren called the First Lady a “monkey face” said she spoke in “poor ebonic English.” Naturally, she followed that up with “There! I feel better and am still not racist!!! Just calling it like it is!”

I don’t know what was supposed to convince readers more that she wasn’t racist, the heavy use of exclamation points or the “calling it like it is” thing. The person who turned her in to Denver Health and the board of regents said she was shocked and outraged by Herren’s comments. Herren is now on a leave of some kind until the hospital can figure out what to do with her/the fervor dies down and she can slink back to work.

The media reporting on this has listed her title, her salary ($363,000 a year) and her education, in what I’m assuming is a way to let people know, “Wow, look at this! This really SMART and RICH lady is even saying shit like this.”

I was outraged as well to see comments like this, but shocked? Not a chance.

I’m uncertain as to what people think makes someone who has a medical degree less of an asshole on any front. I guess we could hope that people with higher levels of finance and education are more likely to become cultured and worldly, thus giving them a better perspective on race and class.

A few recent media pieces have demonstrated that, no matter who you are or where you are, racism lives among us. John Oliver’s look at gentrified schools shows that these dividing lines in the North were given a pass when the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Trevor Noah and Tomi Lahren went at it this week about racism and Trump. Although the media notes that Noah “owns” her or whatever, if you watch the whole interview, he really didn’t. It reminded me of the Hagler-Leonard fight in which you saw Hagler punching hard, but for some reason, Leonard kept holding his own on the scorecards. (She’s got a college degree from UNLV, which obviously isn’t the reason she’s such a YouTube star. She might be the first woman a Republican jerked off to on a computer without turning the sound down.)

Christopher Caldwell’s piece on what I’d like to call the Control-Alt-Delete-Right showcases the spectrum of education and nuance in this scary-as-shit movement:

There are many such groups, varying along a spectrum of couth and intellect. Mr. Spencer, who dropped out of a doctoral program at Duke and worked, briefly, as an editor for The American Conservative, has his own online review, Radix Journal. The eloquent Yale-educated author Jared Taylor, who hosts the American Renaissance website and magazine, was at the conference, too. Kevin MacDonald, a retired psychology professor whose trilogy on Jewish influence is a touchstone for the movement, also came.

None of this excuses the bigger picture of people who spray paint swastikas on kids’ lockers or do the “hail Trump” salute. However, there’s enough shitty behavior to cover the people with Stars N Bars bumper stickers on their rusty truck and those who take a Lexus to the hospital, but won’t take an elevator with a black orderly.

Or as my father, a man with a tech-school degree, was fond of saying: “Educated doesn’t necessarily mean smart.”

We’re Not Like You

I live in what would be considered a rural area, even if you don’t consider the kinds of people who consider everything that’s not in L.A., D.C., New York, Atlanta and Chicago to be rural. We have 3,300 souls in this city and the biggest issue on the ballot here was whether we should be forced to vote in “districts” for city council or if we should be voting as a city.

I’m pretty sure my alderperson is my friend’s cousin.

And he’s related to half the town, so that’s a pretty safe bet.

My state is going the way of Trump, even as CNN keeps doing the “too close to call” thing at 12:30 a.m. The sad part is I know so many of these people who decided to vote that way.

They check out my groceries. They sell me my gas. They deliver my mail and pick up my garbage. They have kids who play with my kid. They wave to me as I work on my truck and I do the same to them as they mow their lawns.

I, like A, won’t apologize for my vote. I wasn’t excited to vote for Hillary, as I was with Obama or Ross Perot (my first presidential vote). I wasn’t ambivalent either, as I was for Clinton in 1996. I was fucking petrified like I was in 2004 when I cast a vote for John Kerry and spent half the goddamned day and night checking my computer and nearby TV terminals for updates as I flew to Tennessee for a media convention. Maybe even more so this time because while stupid scares me, arrogant ignorance sends my heart into arrhythmic palpitations.

This was an election of anger.

This was an election of hatred.

This was an election of difference: Us vs. Them.

Donald Trump knew something a lot of we “smart people” didn’t: Hate and Anger is so much easier to mobilize than anything else we have inside us. The longer this circus went on, the more we kept thinking, “Sure, these assholes will turn out in force to watch him scream about making this country great again, but when it comes down to it, they’ll either figure out he’s a con man or they’ll be too busy watching a ‘Duck Dynasty’ marathon to show up and vote.”

Of all the people who didn’t see this coming, one did: Bill Maher.

Like him or hate him, Maher basically knew this country backwards and forwards when it came to the little enclaves of Americana that tend to host comedians. He knew that people were pissed and were ready to kick someone, anyone in the balls over their perceived sense of what was wrong with this country. He kept telling us, “Look, you are the dumbshits who kept saying, ‘He won’t run’ and then he did. ‘He won’t win a primary’ and then he did. ‘He won’t get the nomination’ and then he did. WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO FUCKING WAKE UP?”

I woke up today.

I looked at the people in my polling place. Old people in flag sweaters. Fat guys with “With us or against us” T-shirts. Farmers with “Make America Great Again” hats. Women who love making jam and talked about the wonderful way things “used to be.”

It was like the back end of every one of these Sorkin Scenes:

I feel right now like I felt in 2004: A heap of useless, exhausted beyond belief, stunned by the stupidity of my fellow citizens as I try to talk with a mouth full of ashes.

A is right. We have to get up again. The question I have is, “Who is standing next to us when we do?”

When you don’t see this coming or you can’t see this within the people you think you know, the ability to rise again becomes more difficult. The ability to think, “Maybe things will be better after some time passes,” crumbles away. The sense that, “All we have to do is let people see that we’re all in this together,” dissipates in your hands as you realize hope is an illusion.

And yet it is one we must cling to. Even as reality proved to us this very night that faith, hope and trust are no longer common traits we share with those around us.

An open letter to Cubs fans from an Indians fan

Dear Chicago Cub Fans,

It took all seven games, and extra innings to boot, but you did it. You broke the Curse of the Billy Goat and won your first World Series since the end of Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. The long wait of “next year” is over. It’s done.

World Champion Chicago Cubs.

I bet it sounds great.

As a Cleveland fan, I have to admit it hurts more than I thought it would. In the end, I was just exhausted. Down 1, down 4, comeback, comeback, extra innings, rain delay, down two, rally for a run, lose with an out from the last guy left on the bench batting… Like my team, I had nothing left to give.

I remember saying at the beginning of the year that it would be amazing if the Cubs and Indians made the series because it would be great either way. Tonight, watching the Tribe’s chances slip away, I realize I was wrong about that.

I came to my first conclusion based on the last time we lost in a Game 7. We lost to the Carpetbagging Marlins, a team built Enron: Gobs of money spent to guarantee a prize for the owners, only to have everything come crashing down shortly thereafter. If you don’t believe me, go back and look at the 1997 and 1998 Marlins rosters. It’s like two completely different teams.

They were an expansion team with five years experience.

They were a collection of overpaid free agent talent.

They caught some of the luckiest breaks in postseason history.

The Cubs are none of those things: They grew their own talent, they suffered (Jesus, have they suffered) and basically each game was what it was.

Unlike every other historical moment in Cleveland sports, you don’t have a “THE” moment, like “The Drive” or “The Fumble” or “The Shot.” You also don’t have a “blame” factor. If you asked me why we lost this series, I can’t point to a single person. It’s not “Jose Mesa” or “David Justice” or “John Elway” or “Michael Jordan.” The closest, I guess, would be Tyler Naquin, who misplayed that ball in center during Game 6, but hell, that wasn’t even close to being in the same league as these others.

I go back to what I think Bert Sugar said about watching the Holmes-Cooney fight in 1982: One was a complete fighter. One was an incomplete fighter. As the fight wore on, the difference became obvious.

The Cubs had all the pieces and everything clicked at the right time.

The Indians didn’t and eventually, it caught up with them.

That said, the realization that this wasn’t going to be as great as I thought it was settled in when it seemed like every friend I had came out of the closet as a Cubs fan.

I meant what I said back in June: All I wanted was one championship for one of my teams in my lifetime.

I got it.

I’m good.

Still, it doesn’t feel any better watching the outcome of that Faustian bargain come to bear so soon. Yes, I am happy that you’re happy, but having to hear about it 24/7 is like having a best friend telling you how good your ex is in bed. I get that you’re happy, but damn…

So this year is your next year and congratulations for that. I’m sure it’ll take a while to get adjusted to the “Can we still be loveable without being losers?” thing and trying to figure out how to kind of sweep away that whole “Man were we dicks to Steve Bartman…” episode. Take the chance to soak it all in and enjoy it.

All I ask of you is that you savor your win without being unnecessarily cruel to me and mine. We weren’t the bad guys in this. We just happened to be the team that got in your way when the wheel came around for you. Like you, we play the game the right way, we have a great manager who inspires his guys and we hate Joe Buck, too.

Above all else, though, do your best not to turn into Red Sox fans, who got three championships in ten years and bitched about not winning more. Don’t bitch about your payroll if it swells to only the second-largest in baseball or that your team only pilfers a 20-game winner from a lesser team EVERY OTHER year. Don’t let the media around you create some bullshit “-gate” that has everyone on DriveTime Sports Call-in bitching that everyone should get fired and the team should start over.

People without a horse in the race this year were pulling for you because you represented what they wanted to see in life: The miracle moment when the impossible becomes possible for all the right reasons. It’s the same reason they cheered for Boston in ’04 (Well, that and everyone hates the fucking Yankees if they have an ounce of humanity in a crust of a soul within them.) and reveled in the death of the Bambino’s Curse.

Don’t become another big-city fan base of entitled assholes, complete with an entourage of bandwagoners.

It’s harder than it looks, but I have faith in you all.

Best,

Doc

A Stronger Letter Will Follow…

Angelo Drossos, who owned the San Antonio Spurs during their ABA days, was a hard-charging Greek businessman who was known to have an incredibly bluntness about him, especially when he knew he was right.

The most famous story about him, retold in his own words in Terry Pluto’s classic book “Loose Balls,” involves his purchase of future-Hall-of-Fame shooter George “Ice” Gervin. Drossos had purchased Gervin from the failing Virginia Squires, only to have the team’s owner (Earl Foreman) come down with a case of seller’s remorse. The league president, Mike Storen, sided with Foreman and demanded Gervin be returned to Virginia. He threatened Drossos with a number of unsavory penalties in a series of telegrams and letters.

Drossos responded in a telegram only he could have written:

“Fuck you. A stronger letter will follow.”

I thought of Drossos and his way with words today when I read the NY Times’ legal response to Trump’s demand that the paper retract a story that accused him of groping two women.

Trump is no stranger to the legal system, nor is he unwilling to sue at the drop of a hat. My favorite Trump suit is the one he filed against comedian Bill Maher, who accused him of being fathered by an orangutan. It wasn’t a libel suit, however, as Trump was actually suing for a breach of contract. Maher had jokingly noted that he’d give $5 million to the Hair Club for Men in Trump’s name if he could produce a birth certificate that proved Trump’s mom wasn’t fucking a simian in the zoo.

(Shockingly, the case never got very far.)

However, the concept of libel is one that scares even the best journalists. Nobody wants to be sued in general, but libel suits are often dicey because you often have legal interpretation meeting issues of “polite society.” Judges can often be offended by content and thus take it out on the messengers.

When I teach libel to my reporting kids, I often point out that truth is the ultimate defense against libel. Sure, if you report that the governor stole money from the state to buy Corvettes for underage prostitutes the guy is going to look bad and want to sue you. However, if you can prove this is all true, you should be OK in court.

Most people use the “truth shield” as the safest venue for fighting a suit like this.

David McCraw decided to go at this a different way, which is why he is now my new personal legal man-crush.

McCraw instead doubles down on the idea of libel in his letter, pointing out that “the essence of a libel claim, of course, is the protection of one’s reputation.” He then goes on to point out how there is virtually no way to ruin Trump’s reputation, because he’s such a vile, stupid, sexually fucked up nut wad. He lists a series of items that demonstrate Trump’s own statements basically paint him as exactly the kind of guy who is likely to grope women, and thus the article is essentially par for the course.

As one of my good friends pointed out, it’s not every day that a lawyer gets to write the phrases “libel per se” and “piece of ass” in the same letter.

The letter then takes on a more conventional approach, in which McCraw notes that the paper did what the law allows by publishing “newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern.” He also states that if Trump doesn’t like it and thinks he can use the law to crush his critics, “we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”

In other words: Fuck you.

And in deference to the late Angelo Drossos, I don’t think even HE could write a stronger letter that could follow this.

35th and Shitbag

Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin found himself in hot water this week for telling the truth at a Madison Rotary event about his team’s city as well as his experiences there. Somewhere between trying to jack up excitement for a team that went 33-49 last year and trying to explain how the state’s $250 million investment in an arena that looks like Elvis’ haircut, Feigin made a comment about race and the city:

“Very bluntly, Milwaukee is the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced in my life. It just is a place that is antiquated. It is in desperate need of repair and has happened for a long, long time. One of our messages and one of our goals is to lead by example.”

The shit hit the fan so hard and so fast that Feigin had to walk his comments back in an interview with the Journal-Sentinel that same day.

“Milwaukee is a terrific community with wonderful people and I am proud to be a part of it,” Feigin said in a statement. “I was addressing a question about the social, economic and geographic divides that exist and how we can help address them. It wasn’t my intention to characterize the general community as overtly racist.”

Notice the “very bluntly” part came at a speech while the fine-tuned horseshit came in a statement? In other words, “I’m sorry I told the truth because I know I could get fired if the team isn’t drawing people and I made the mistake of being honest about my experiences here.” Also notice that Feigin is making a personal statement here: He says that it’s his experience that the city is segregated and that race is a big divider in the city. He wasn’t trying to use charts and diagrams to outline the math behind his experiences. He just noted how he felt about it. Y’know, kind of like how Newt Gingrich feels the country isn’t safer, even though crime is down? Or how some people just “feel” that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim infiltrator who will lead the next wave of a New World Order into Texas to take the guns away and pilfer the freedom of people in Amarillo? Yeah, just like that.

Except Feigin is actually more accurate in his perceptions than the Tin Foil Hat Militia down south.

I lived in and around Milwaukee during my formative years and have family dotted all throughout that area. I still visit on a monthly basis, if not more, and Feigin has a pretty good handle on what’s going on in that area.

Sherman Park.
Laylah Petersen.
Frank Jude.
Ernest Lacy.
The Dahmer situation.

These are just a few of touchstones for anyone who wants to look up and notice that, hey, we seem to be having a lot of problems when it comes to how the black folk and the white folk experience life, safety, justice and so forth in Cream City.

The comments after these articles are the exact kind you would expect to see here: the “presumably white” commenters are looking for “the smoking gun” of racism and the “presumably black” commenters are saying, “The whole fucking building is on fire and you’re asking us to point to the match that started it before we have a right to comment.” In both cases, people can see what they want: No, we don’t call the “bad part of town” something politically incorrect like “the ghetto” or “the inner city,” but that doesn’t absolve the city of sin. Not to generalize, but “The North Side” is just as clear of a code for Milwaukee whites as either of those things.

When I was younger, my friends and I would cruise around on Friday nights in our shitty cars. We knew that if you went toward Whitefish Bay (A.K.A. “White Folks Bay), we could gun our cars hard enough to set off the alarms on the street-parked BMWs and Lexuses. However, if we made a few wrong turns, the streets of brick homes suddenly became boarded up row house and corner markets with bars on their windows.

From Lincoln through Good Hope and from about 6th street up to about 68th, we knew we didn’t belong. It was the place one friend’s father told us that “Somebody oughtta build a fence around that area, throw in a shit ton of guns and let them go at it.” On the personal level, there were more than a few times we ended up in some place in that area to get gas and referred to it as being on the corner of “35th and Shitbag.” I’m not exactly proud of that, but I wasn’t alone in knowing where the lines were drawn in my hometown.

Telling people like Feigin to dial it back only continues to shove the issue under the table, only allowing it emerge when something becomes explosive. At that point, the “good white folk” can point to that flashpoint and either “tut tut” about it or stare on in amazement because “I had no idea things were so bad for those people.” Instead, let’s take that moment of blunt honestly and celebrate the fact that people who get here from elsewhere can see what we really are, even if we can’t. Then, let’s take advantage of this so that maybe we can have discussions on this when something can be done and not just after something was done.

Promises, Promises

My dad held very few points of pride when it came to things he did or didn’t do. He never smoked at all, he doesn’t “owe anyone anything” when it comes to financial concerns and he didn’t make a promise he didn’t think he could keep.

“If I said we’re going to do something, we did it,” he always told me. “If I said ‘No,’ I meant ‘No.” If it was ‘Maybe,’ anything could happen. But if I said we’re doing it, we did it unless something really changed the situation.”

He wasn’t kidding. I asked to go to my first baseball game when I was about 8 years old. He promised we’d go that Friday, not knowing it was “Bat Day” in the middle of a pennant race. The traffic was insane, the tickets were hard to get and it was just chaos at old County Stadium. Dad disliked all of those things, but we went and he never complained.

Promises were an important part of my life and I kept that same attitude for my kid. If I said we were going for ice cream, we went. If I said we weren’t doing something, begging only strengthened my resolve. I get the importance of promises, especially when people are relying on you.

That said, the kinds of promises we made as fathers were the kind that led to positive outcomes. They also occasionally were broken when circumstances intervened on us. Occasionally a promised trip had to be postponed due to a funeral or an illness. Sometimes, it became insane to persist in the promise.

When I was 10, Dad promised to take me to opening day. He got the tickets, pulled me out of school and we went to the stadium. In typical early-April fashion, it was about 40 degree, so we were all bundled up. It was also raining, so we did our best to stay dry.

The game was postponed for almost two hours and we were both freezing and soaked. Finally, Dad asked if I wanted to stay and I said, “Let’s go home.” Eventually the game started (we caught the first pitch on the radio in the car on the way home) but it was stupid to stay there and die in the frigid weather to prove a point.

When it comes to promises, Scott Walker and his ilk need to better understand the difference between the inconveniences of Bat Day and the stupidity of not coming in from the rain.

Walker unveiled his latest plan to close a $1 billion gap in the transportation gap by delaying some projects, shuffling money to local municipalities and cutting the department’s budget in other ways. The purpose of making these changes? To keep his promise of not raising taxes:

 

“Governor Walker has kept his word by proposing a reasonable transportation budget that sets the right priorities and doesn’t increase taxes or the registration fee,” said a statement from Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).

Walker campaigned in 2010 for governor by criticizing Democrats like his predecessor Gov. Jim Doyle for failing to execute work on the Zoo Interchange. But Thursday Walker said it wouldn’t be fair to criticize him in turn for proposing delays to the north leg of the Zoo, saying that it was in better shape than the interchange’s aging core that is on track to be replaced.

“I make promises and I keep promises, and my promise to the taxpayers was I’m not going to raise taxes and fees,” Walker said.

 

Like many Republicans, Walker treats “tax” like it is a four-letter word. Then again, given his educational standing, he might think it is one.

The larger point is that this was a stupid promise. When we lack for revenue and need to get things done, we have to get more revenue. Things in the real world do, in fact, cost money. To that end, we can’t just say “delay this” or “delay that” to make it seem financially responsible. That’s like the guy who knows his brakes are going on his car, but to replace the pads will cost $200. Instead, he keeps riding the brakes for months and months until he literally can’t stop. At that point, he’s warped the rotors and irreparably harmed the calipers, so the job now costs $1500. Sure, he stuck to his guns that he wasn’t going to get them fixed, but at what cost?

Walker can’t back out of his pledge to not raise taxes because his lizard brain can only see the attack ads for his next campaign about how he raised taxes. Him worrying about that is like the captain of the Titanic worry about how all this water is going to tarnish the brass railings on the ship. Trust me, pal, you have bigger concerns.

Speaking of promises, what about that whole 250,000 job promise? What about that whole “Open for Business” pledge? Yeah, not so much on either of them and those are the important ones if you want to get revenue hopping in this state. No one with half a brain or a sense of proportion would have expected him to hit the 250K mark or that just posting “open” signs would have businesses pouring into the state. That said, had he made a stronger effort with better logic to make those things happen, it is far more likely that he could have made good on this third pledge to keep tax rates down.

I don’t like taxes any more than any other person out there, but I can tell you that I do vote for them locally. In a small town like the one in which I live, I can see where my tax money goes: The city well gets fixed. The trash pickup is awesome. My street gets plowed quickly. Same thing with schools: New computers, improved facilities, more engaged kids all come from me checking the box that says, “Take another $10 out of what I make each year to improve stuff.”

I hope people who drive the I-94 corridor that will be delayed or the area near the zoo that’s a total shitbox will also be able to see what happens when we make stupid promises and forgo our responsibility to improving society. Sure, it’s hard to see how things like teacher pay or university subsidies pan out for individuals, but when the potholes are knocking the fillings out of their teeth, I hope they feel the tax break was worth it.

“It’s Not About You” AKA- Stop writing shitty columns

Column writing is a lot like comedy: Everyone thinks they can do it and that it’s easy, but only a few people actually have the chops to do it well often.

For every Richard Pryor or Erma Bombeck who breaks ground and creates timeless moments of social awareness, there are thousands of people who think dropping N-bombs or coming up with theories on how socks get lost in the dryer will land them a comedy Grammy or a publishing deal.

And for every Mike Royko or Leonard Pitts who captures the essence of a place or people and shines a bright light on the problems there, there are tons of us (I include myself here) who use too much space to talk only about shit that lacks value to the readership at large.

When I was in college, I figured this out when our paper’s opinion editor asked me to write a weekly column. The first two or three were fine, but then it got into “Here’s what pisses me off this week” and it really went downhill. I stopped writing for a while, that with the promise if something ever really hit home and I thought it mattered, I’d write a column.

When I did, I heard people telling me, “Wow, that was great! You should do this every week!”

No, I shouldn’t. The whole reason it was good was because it had value to me, it had broader applicability to my audience and I wanted to write it. It couldn’t be just about me. It had to include research, depth and value. It had to say, “This is how WE as a collective are seeing X or dealing with Y.

In short, I learned “It’s not about you.”

When I would write without keeping that in mind, I’d devolve into the kind of shit I’ve been seeing this week from a number of professionals.

Start with the column the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to retract and scrub from its site by columnist “C.J.” that attacked Jana Shortal for her choice of fashion while reporting on the Jacob Wetterling story.

Despite producing a great report on the revelation that a man finally confessed to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing the boy in 1989, “C.J.” focused on Shortal’s choice of fashion:

cj_column

With the exception of a few screen caps floating around, you’d have better luck finding Jimmy Hoffa than a copy of this column, which the Star-Trib apologized for after removing it. Shortal is trying to stay above the fray on this one, refocusing the point of this on the story itself: A dead kid as opposed to her pants.

Another modern marvel of sensitivity, Dave Hon, gave readers a lot to think about in his look at “Why I’ll never date a feminist.”

Hon outlines his thesis that feminists are basically looking for reasons to hate men and that because “political issues have been creeping into the bedroom” he has trouble with people who “are more loyal to their gender and not their significant other.”

After I saw the mug shot and saw the title, I honestly thought it was an Onion satire at first. When I figured out it wasn’t, and I realized that I was going to have to tell “C.J.” to fuck off for “beauty shaming” Shortal, I had this moment:

 

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If the comments after the column are any indication, we’re about six minutes away from when the “wow what a sexually desirous partner” memes force the Internet to implode. Skipping past that for a moment, reading Hon’s column led to several questions:

 

  • You do understand that by just linking to stuff, you aren’t actually proving anything, right? The link has to have something of value behind it that supports your claim and not just other assholes rambling on without any sort of support for their stupid position? Or that linking to things that simply have a word you want to feature in your point doesn’t make your point true? Based on your use of links to random bits of information that required a stretch of reality to see how they applied to your point, I don’t think you understand how linking works. Looking at your “disagree” videos and your “consent texts” link, I think you don’t understand that links aren’t like a magic spell: Using them on words doesn’t magically make things true.Case in point, check this out: Dave Hon is likely rumored to keep fucking that chicken when the time has come today to do so.
  • You do know what a “time peg” is, right? As in a reason why you are writing whatever the hell you’re writing about at this point in time? For example, a “never forget” 9/11/2001 column makes sense this weekend, as it’s the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on that day. A “Michael Dukakis is Not Getting My Vote for President This Year” column makes no sense because he’s not running for anything other than the bathroom at this point in his life.Why am I reading this diatribe against feminists at this point in life? Did you just get dumped by someone who didn’t like it when you called her “sugar tits?” Did your downstairs neighbors play their Indigo Girls music too loud while you were trying to watch The O’Reilly Factor reruns? Did a woman with an unshaved armpit lean on you during your bus ride to work? What? What is it that evoked the Hon-icane of anger that was this column? You probably want to put that in there…
  • For whom were you writing this? I can’t imagine that you looked at your audience in St. Joseph, Missouri, studied the demographics, determined your niche and then thought about how best to serve those people. The closest thing I can think of is that you and the rest of the cast from the first season of the Big Bang Theory got together over a few beers before one of you uttered, “Women are bitches, man,” thus leading to your magnum opus. I’m sure there are tons of real stories out there that demand attention and could use a strong voice to promote and advocate resolution. Even worse, this showed up in the women’s section titled “Josephine” (shudder), so it’s clear you didn’t really think about what the audience wanted to hear.

 

There are other questions that came up, including “Why couldn’t you wait until John Oliver was back on the air to publish this? People have already compared you to a rat and an ogre, but Oliver is the master at finding just the right comparative for pea-brained dipshits.” However, I keep going back to the third item: What made you think other people wanted to read this shit?

When I teach opinion writing, the first rule is: This isn’t about you. The other five basic rules all stem from that, most of which people pick up on pretty easily. It’s that first rule, though, that people either forget or ignore too often.

Journalists like column writing for two basic reasons:

  • It conveys an aura of importance. You get to be the voice of authority, deeming a topic worthy of attention and then yourself worthy of explaining to the masses how to think about it. Plus, you get to have your mug shot in the paper, which is really cool. (That said, I have a feeling at least one feminist artist is airbrushing Hon’s mug onto a few maxi-pads as we speak…)
  • It takes less work (when you do it the way these people did) to do a column than it does to do an actual story. Reporters have to go out and get facts and interview people and stuff. Columnists get to be glib and snarky and tell people to suck it. Even better, if people lose their shit over your previous column, this can lead to ANOTHER COLUMN talking about how people hated your last column and why THEY can suck it! It’s like the loaves and fishes of column opportunities!

 

I get the allure of columns and since we all get to be experts now in whatever way we want, the desire to play the “dig me!” game will always continue to grow. However, the whole reason “mass” media is going down the crapper is because the people in charge of it fail to address the audience principle: If you don’t give people what they want or need, you will cease to have an audience.

And I’d bet a dollar to a dime that no one gives a shit what a columnist charged with tracking the fucking habits of local news personnel thinks about a reporter’s pants or the sexual desires (full-body shudder) of a sentient jar of mayonnaise.

Keep it short.

No

In honor of Daniel Victor’s simple answer in his NYT tech column, here are my five-words-or-less responses to a shit ton of stuff going on in the world:

 

Brock Turner was released from jail after three months from jail. CNN asks: Did race affect the Stanford Rape Case?

Yes.

 

Stanford has decided to ban hard alcohol at campus parties in the wake of the Turner scandal. How effective will this be in stemming the tide of bad behavior and situations involving sexual assault?

Beer.

 

Media outlets have announced the debate moderators for the presidential debates: NBC’s Lester Holt, CNN’s Anderson Cooper/ABC’s Martha Raddatz and Fox News’ Chris Wallace. Given the spectrum of voices, the “one-on-one” style approach and his promise to be “more presidential” will this lead to a fair and civilized debate from Donald Trump?

Ask Hugh Hewitt.

 

A prominent Latino surrogate for Donald Trump announced Thursday he had officially withdrawn his support from the Republican presidential nominee, saying he was “misled” because Trump said this week he was going to deport illegals. 

How?

 

School districts throughout the state are facing massive teacher shortages and can’t find people who can teach specialties or meet special needs of some students. To what can we attribute this gap and how can we fix it?

Act 10. Repeal it.

 

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand for the National Anthem, something he has done in the past. What does this say about him as a person and our country?

Free speech. Use it.

 

What about the people, including former athletes, who have taken him to task for this?

Consider the source.

 

What about the police officer in Philly with a Nazi-style tattoo across his arm, who was working at a protest march? Does this guy have the right espouse his beliefs in this fashion as a representative of the city and the police force dedicated to protecting it? How do you explain this?

  1. Wear sleeves.
  2. Not on duty.
  3. This

 

 

 

Eleven

It’s an odd experience being face to face with a person you constantly called a shit-brained asshole and a greedy fuckwad behind closed doors. It’s even weirder when you are enjoying the moment.

When we were trying to buy our current house, we were in the middle of a major mess of balancing the whiny bullshit of our buyer with the stubborn refusals of our seller. This pulled us financially in both directions and it made for some really rough nights around the old homestead.

The guy who had the house we wanted refused to move on any of our demands, even those that were essentially issues of law. For example, we conducted a radon test, which makes sense given the limestone base out here and the depth of the basement. When the test came back at a higher-than-legal limit, we wrote into the final offer that they install a radon removal system.

He refused.

The same was true about the minor gas leak coming from the hot water heater, the mudjacking of unsafe concrete and the exterior venting of the bathroom exhaust fans.

It turned out, this wasn’t the guy or his wife, but rather his really shitty real-estate agent combined with our really weak one. Ours was a young woman with limited experience in the field and theirs was a end-of-the-road older guy who had no interest in selling and came from the time when calling women “sugar tits” was considered common office communication.

Eventually, it got ironed out and I was so grateful I’d never have to deal with these people again.

That is, until I found out they essentially moved two houses away. I kind of lost my mind and even when we got down to the final signing, I refused to sit in the room with them until after the paperwork was done.

What you learn about people during the time you review their home for purchase only tells you a small part of the story. The gun safe in the kitchen pantry, the “Terrorist hunting permit” on the refrigerator, the “bullet maker” in the basement and the locked upstairs office room all gave me pause. Then again, so did the IV unit hanging in the master bedroom.

What I found out later was that they were moving because their son, Jacob, had a rare form of cancer. The kid was about 5 or 6 years old and had been dealing with this all his life. Facebook updates on his progress were met by cheers when they went well and prayers when they did not. The sale of the house was in part for finances (they moved to a smaller, less expensive place) and part for physical reasons (they needed a single-story house as the steps were too much for the kid).

After the move, the dad and I would exchange waves as he drove past. Jacob and his folks occasionally showed up on our porch asking if we’d like to buy wreaths from his Boy Scout troop or a donation to a school program.

Eventually, he wound up in our driveway on one occasion when I was out fixing the car. He was wearing a Spider Man shirt and he had this incredible little smirky smile and thick, tinted Coke-Bottle glasses as he wondered if she’d like to come over and play for a while. There was about a three-year gap between them and she was still in the “boys are gross” stage, but she went.

She had a blast.

This led to a few play dates of the old-fashioned kind: She was bored and she went over and knocked on his door and asked if he’d like to play.

His mother later told me that whenever the doorbell rings, “Jacob prays that it’s her asking to play.”

About a month ago, she returned home with an invitation to his birthday party at the city pool.

Thus, I found myself face to face with his dad, talking about kids in a polite and civilized fashion I could never have previously imagined. Especially given the number of times I screamed that he must be a greed-based ass-fuck.

Apparently, being wrong is something I’ve gotten good at.

“So, is Jacob officially 8 yet?” I asked

“Oh yeah,” he said. “His birthday was a few months ago but we waited until now for the party because he wanted it at the pool. He made it.”

I’m not sure if he meant it the way I recalled it or if I’m reading too much into it, but of all the things said to me that day, his last words stuck in my head.

He made it.

As time continues to gather steam, pushing my child toward womanhood, I have found myself utterly resistant to these changes. My wife told me that the “tweens” are the worst, so I should be ready for two or three years of weird.

To this point, we’ve gotten it.

She vacillates between weeping and laughing, something my wife blames on hormonal changes.

Her friends talk about boy bands and lockers and so forth, as opposed to those days they argued about if iCarly was real.

I find it difficult sometimes doing the laundry, as I’m folding tiny bras into virtual pocket squares. Even more difficult is listening to the carpool chatter about which of the girls in their class is “the most flat-chested.” (Keep in mind that all of them are so poorly endowed, you could only measure cup size with a micrometer.)

Even the other day, as I was sleeping in my chair, she came down and woke me to let me know that I needed to go get some takeout for dinner.

“Mommy doesn’t feel well,” she said before putting on her “knowing” face and adding. “You know, Daddy, she’s on her… period.”

I’m sure that tiny pads and tampons will soon arrive in our house as will larger bras and a fixation with her hair. I’m a decent guy about all things like this, buying everything from tampons and Depends to nursing pads and whatever else the women in my life needed. Still, it’ll be harder knowing that she’s not my little girl any more.

And yet, it took that pool party for me to realize I shouldn’t be fighting this march of time but embracing it. The parents of this boy spent his whole life wondering if this would be the day their son’s life would end. I haven’t thought in those terms since the major ultrasound that let us know we hadn’t miscarried again.

He made it.

Three words that I’m sure they had to say over and over again.

Test after test.

Treatment after treatment.

Day after day.

He made it.

It never occurred to me once about when we should or shouldn’t hold my kid’s birthday party because she might not live long enough to get there. My biggest concerns are if the girls at school are bullying her or if one of the boys decides to take too big of an interest in her.

“She made it,” never once exited my lips with the same level of resolve and relief these people must have felt every day.

Every year around this time, I recall my kid’s life story: The miscarriage, the Ice Storm, the chaos surrounding her birth. After those opening lines, life is blur of birthday parties, Halloween costumes and summer vacations.

This year, for her 11th birthday, I’m putting more thought into valuing each and every day.

Maybe ice cream for dinner every so often. Maybe playing a game of cards with her more often when she asks. Maybe just telling her I love her an extra time or two.

As she continues to get older and has more of those life-altering questions that can’t be solved by a hug or a stuffed animal, I’ll also need to be ready to game up.

I don’t want to talk to my kid about sex any more than we already have or what to do when the movie “Mean Girls” basically becomes the living embodiment of her school. It’s hard enough to resist punching out some of the little twerps who pick on her now.

Each day can come with a new crisis, a deeper hurt or situation neither of us saw coming. I’m sure it will feel like we’re getting hit with a whole sack of hammers while falling down the stairs.

I try to think about Jacob as much as I can. I wonder how someone so small can deal with something so big on top of all the other garbage growing up throws at you.

But if he can find a way to make it, I’m sure we will too.