Bob Is Dead

Bob Feller died yesterday. One of the highlights of my years in Denver was getting to see Feller pitch at McNichols Stadium in an "Old Timers" game. Feller was in his 70's and most of the guys in that game were either unrecognizable as athletes or in their late 30's to 50's and barely out of the game and looking to prove they were still players. Feller was a Cleveland star before I was born and he was one of the most amazing players of an amazing generation of players. When white-haired Bob Feller came up to pitch I didn't expect much, but his first pitch blew by the batter and the next three batters didn't touch him. He walked off to a standing ovation and gave the stands a tiny tip-of-the-cap.

I don't know why, but it always moves me unexpectedly when someone who was a hero to me as a kid turns out to have been a truly special person. Rapid Robert interrupted the prime of his career to join the Navy and fight in WWII. When he came back, he restarted his career and in his spare time he barnstormed the country with players from the Negro League in his off-months. His star-power was responsible for introducing thousands of white fans to men like Satchel Page, Josh Gibson, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, and the players who revolutionized the game in the late 1950's, after Feller retired and moved on to his business career. He just did the things he wanted to do and, often, what he wanted to do was the right thing.

He said what he thought and he thought more than the average person. His lack of political correctness got him labeled as racist or worse by a media that hasn't been worth noticing for at least three decades. I feel lucky to have seen Robert Feller pitch, even it if was 40 years after his prime. In his prime, he was said to have thrown a 106mph fastball. In his old age, he whipped up on men half his age and made it look easy.


Tipping, When Your Career Path Depends on Begging

I was in Durango, CO when I began to write this. My grandson and I were taking a Rocky Mountain motorcycle tour and we ended up here after a few days of camping. Right after parking the bike at the motel, we went for a walk downtown and stopped at an ice cream shop. An ice cream cone and a smoothie cost me about $10 and the server was obviously putout that I didn't leave a tip.

I suspect my father went his whole high school teaching life without spending much more than $10 on tips. His advice on tipping was that extraordinary service might warrant a tip, but just doing your job is what you get paid for. Today, people doing practically any sort of job that requires some sort of interaction with a customer expect a tip for the slightest nod to common courtesy.

I suppose I should be interested in the fact that most of these folks have done a pitiful job of planning their careers. I should probably care that their lack of technical knowledge or employable skills has relegated them to a life filled with the repetitive phrase, "Would you like fries with that?" or "Can I get you another beer?" I should find sympathy for the awful situation these people find themselves in after a life of screwing off in class, taking the easy path through the public education system, and grabbing an easy job at Old Navy or Payless Shoes instead of pursuing a career in manufacturing or doing something meaningful and useful. Sorry. I can't generate any sympathy for any of those decisions or the results.

A kid recently told me he had "the best job in the world." He was a guide in the Grand Canyon. So, having recently experienced the tactics guides use to weasel tips out of customers, I said, "Cool, you're a beggar." He was offended. Go figure.

When you spend at least half of the time you're with a customer telling them about how hard you've worked for all of your "outdoors degrees" and how much student loan debt you're in because of those degrees, you're begging. When you mention, every five minutes or so, that your guide has worked hard to show you a good time and that the guide deserves something extra for that effort (even if you paid $500 for a couple of days on a rubber boat), you're begging. When you make a special trip, with your hand out, around the group of tourists to be sure they have an opportunity to tip you, you're begging. There is no such thing as a "professional beggar." You're either a panhandler or you aren't one.

There are all sorts of jobs that are more critical, more entertaining, more helpful and more important than the occupations that incorporate begging. Firemen don't expect a tip after saving a home from a kitchen fire, so why tip a valet for parking a car? Teachers don't expect tips for educating children for a life free from begging and panhandling, so why tip a waitress who didn't bother to listen in school and who chose the high tech life of moving plates from a counter to tables? Not that long ago, craftsmen refused tips as a matter of pride. If we have degenerated so far that begging for handouts has become accepted practice for any act of employment we might as well walk around with "will work for food" signs on our backs.

No tipping for common courtesy and expected service isn't disrespect or cheapness, it's reasonable. You chose your career, you do your job, you know what the salary was when you accepted the job, why imagine the public is obligated to make up for your lack of foresight? If the foodies wonder why most people would rather grab a fastfood burger and go home, look at the unrealistic expectation of "food serving" beggars for your first clue.

The Cost of Inclusion

At the school where I teach, we "enjoy" all of the fruits of our inclusive society. We do our best to cater to non-English speaking students, even though we have practically no foreign language skills among our faculty. We try to find a way to include students with all sorts of mental and physical handicaps. At the core, we are a vocational school (as terrible a thing as that seems to be these days) and while our educational focus is directed toward giving students the background for obtaining jobs, our administration (and federal and state law) appears to be disconnected from the fact that some disabilities preclude the possibility of success in some fields of employment.

There is a delusion in the United States that we "can be anything" we want to be if we just want it bad enough. Working hard to achieve success is generally considered to be unnecessary. Having skills and natural abilities is equally superfluous.  All that matters is that we want something and are given a chance to achieve it. This is an extension of the American weirdness that puts individual rights over the obvious needs of society. Not only do you have the right to prepare yourself for an occupation and employers who wouldn't employ you under any circumstances, but you have a right to require the public to provide you with a school loan that you will never be able to repay.

Here's a hot tip: if you are 62 years old, fat, short, slow, and as agile as a wounded hippo, you can not play professional basketball. In fact, if you are any one of the above things you can not play professional basketball. If you can't sing, you won't star on "American Idol." (Of course, if you are the spoiled offspring of a wingnut media star, you might be a finalist on “Dancing with the Stars” because only nimrod wingnuts watch something as dumb as DwtS and they will, obviously, vote for anything if it is stupid enough.) If you are unable to master the basic concepts of algebra, you will be an unemployable engineer, scientist, or math teacher. If you are lazy, you will fail at everything you attempt. (Unless you are a rich kid, then money trumps everything in politics and business.) If you are stupid, you will be doomed to a career behind a fast food counter, hauling garbage, driving a truck or a road construction implement, or (if you are a child of our ruling class) managing one of the nation's financial institutions. No amount of legalistic coddling will convince anyone to hire you for a job for which you have no ability (unless you have Daddy's money). You may have a degree in Creative Writing, but if you can't write you won't sell books (unless . . . you know). You could, however, be an intern editor at most of the nation's publishing houses for as long as your school loans will support you or Daddy's money holds out.

Reality doesn't have much of a grip on political correctness and federal legislation, though. As in everything about our system, it will apparently require a massive, painful, disastrous depression or a population-depleting plague for us to come to our senses. We will keep pretending that little Buford can become anything he wants to become, simply because several of the dumbest people ever born have become President of the United States. It would be worth noticing that any damn collection of cells can make it to the top if those cells come from the ruling class; Bush II being the best ever example of that. However, people who rise through the classes are a whole different breed from the harelipped spawn of our social elites. Like them or not, Ike, Carter, Clinton, and Obama are considerably brighter than the average schmo on the street. We've had a few mental midgets from the working class, Nixon and Reagan come to mind almost instantly, but the majority of ground-up Presidents have been pretty exceptional people. The representatives of the ruling class haven't been so impressive. Other than the two Roosevelt's and Kennedy, you have to go back to the early 1800's to find an example of a brilliant rich kid rising to power. And Kennedy doesn't look so good under close examination.

Since too much of our "higher education system" has become a babysitting service for rich kids, I suppose it makes sense that we've dumbed down the standards of education to accommodate that bunch. I think it's cruel to set these kids' sights higher than Congress, Wall Street, or the other repositories of fools and bums. It would be unfair and unkind to tell a doofus like G.W. Bush that he could "do anything." His whole life was about proving that he couldn't do anything and that's exactly what he proved while he hung out in the White House. So, in the interests of kindness I recommend that federal college loans be given to kids who have some hope of actually being educated. The rest of us should remain content in the knowledge that most of "higher education" is boring, pointless, and barely manages to be poor preparation for a management position at Starbucks.

The Incredible Old Party

After a conversation with a co-worker last week, I've decided that Republicans have done something truly amazing; Republicans have joined the interests of the rich and powerful and the poor and uneducated. So, I recommend the acronym for the party be changed from "GOP" to "IOP" or the Incredible Old Party. This is a really incredibly achievement and the party and its politicians should be celebrated for their accomplishment.

Democrats and minority party hopefuls might as well hang it up because once the rich and powerful are joined with the gross mass of humanity in a common cause, whatever that cause may be (and I have no idea what the occasionally-working-class expects from their distant and 3rd class association with powerful elites), there is no stopping them from achieving their goals.

I had sort of suspected that Democrats had become obsolete after the mid-term elections. When the loony right joined hands with the country's idle rich and stuffed ballot boxes with votes for candidates whose only campaign promise was "no taxes for rich people," I thought the country had taken a last turn toward the right and the sort of upper crust inbred degeneration that has marked the fall of every great empire since Greece. The most recent concession of what was left of the Democratic party convinced me that the war is over and the rich have won. When Obama decided to cave to Republican demands that the Bush Tax Cuts be not only extended but enhanced so that the idle rich and the braindead elites of the country be allowed to soak taxpayers (a category of citizens the rich avoid and an activity of which they do not participate) for even more luxury and indolence, I realized Democrats and progressives are dead and just don't know it. It's not just that Obama gave in to every Republican demand on the tax code, it's that he did it after "fighting" for a more rational tax system during an NFL commercial break. I guess the "change" Obama has brought to Washington could also be called "wimpiness."

So, I hand it to Republicans everywhere. You guys are the Incredible Old Party; the party of the incredibly rich and the incredibly stupid.


My Father's House

Xmas is approaching. It's a season I've disliked all of my adult life. Of course, I love the break from work, in the few years that break occurred, but for most of my life Xmas meant suffering awful commercial music and phony sentiment and propaganda from the most unsentimental and least spiritual institutions in the history of humanity; American corporations. Outside of the togetherness and joy my family receives from Xmas, I'd rather skip the whole thing and hide out in a Montana hermit's cave for the whole second half of December. I am an atheist and if it weren't for Tom Jefferson's precious "separation of church and state" and that beautifully worded opening statement in the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"), I suspect most of my love for the United State's Constitution would have been sorely tempered. Xmas is when most of the country ignores the First Amendment and we all pretend to be religious and loving. All of us except for those Americans who go on bombing and killing throughout the world in the interests of our favorite international corporations. It's a time full of contradictions, oxymorons, cynicism, and greed. It can't end quickly enough for me.

Part of the Xmas ritual for the last 35 years of my life has been an semi-annual trip to western Kansas to visit my parents. "Semi-annual" because of weather, distance, and the constant tension between my father's fundamentalist family and my secular nuclear family. Two years ago, my step-mother died. Last spring, my father died. Kansas is forever in my rear-view mirror. I still have a brother who lives in Kansas, but we've agreed to meet anywhere but Kansas from here out. Today's rant is the view from that driver's seat:

This is the Google View of my father's house, in Dodge City, KS. The home where he lived for the last 15 years of his life. Dodge City, KS is where he spent almost all of his adult life. Feel free to examine everything about that place. It's currently occupied by a free-loading minister who has convinced my step-sister he is improving the place by squatting there indefinitely. The housing market in Dodge has dried up so completely that this modern, well-cared-for home will probably sell for less than 50% of what it might have brought four years ago. Dodge is a wonderful example of the damage pseudo-conservative values have brought to the Midwest.

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My father was a high school math teacher for more than 40 years. Making a rough guess, based on his class sizes and typical course load, he taught 10,750 kids Trigonometry, Algebra I & II, Business Math, and, finally, Consumer Math (idiot math). Those years he was confined to teaching idiot math were supposed to be a punishment, incentive for him to quit, but when he lost his sight he was cared for and appreciated so much by "his kids" that he looked back on those classes as some of his best in a long career.

His last few years as an educator were doubly cursed by near-blindness brought on by chemotherapy, which he suffered in an attempt to suppress thyroid cancer, and a hostile school administration, which was endured because the new administration was hostile to older teachers. The cancer wasn't as malignant as the mismanagement, in the long run. My father loved teaching. He retired, reluctantly, at 73, and that pretty much marked the end of his life; although he survived almost 20 more years.

I think he would have enjoyed part-time assistant teaching, in a more enlightened community, or tutoring, but his last years teaching in the Dodge City School system were so miserable that he left the profession completely. He looked back often. In all of the conversations I had with him about his last 5 years, he had nothing but good things to say about the kids he taught (and those who taught him) and nothing but bad things to say about the spoiled brats in administratiion who mangled his city's public school system and squeezed all of the inspiration out of his career. I have no names to name, but I hope they know who they are. After spending more than half of his life in the same school, he left with about as much honor as if he'd been caught dipping into the school's petty cash.

My father's career was almost entirely in a small, rural area. He was a devastatingly conservative man in a completely conservative area. They were made for each other. Since nearly half of the city passed through his classes, you might say they were made of each other. Because of his perception of the Pendergast Democratic machine in Kansas City (mostly from the right wing editorials of Emporia's William Allen White) and his life-long dislike of Harry Truman, my father was a consistent Republican, regardless of how rarely Republicans lived up to his moral and philosophical values. It was a constant source of disagreement between us until the year he died. When I read Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, I saw my father in every page. When I hear any version of Pat Metheny and David Bowie's This Is Not America, my father's logic and his patriotism and his unwavering loyalty and the constant Republican betrayal of all of those things are my mental videography to that soundtrack.

At different periods in his teaching career, he was a basketball coach, a football coach, and a tennis coach. He coached a state championship runner-up basketball team in 1955 and '56. Several of his tennis students had successful college careers and a couple became college tennis coaches. At times, my father was a famous man in Dodge City. At times, he was almost an outcast; as when he publicly and loudly opposed the installation of the teacher's union in Dodge's public schools. For most of his life, like most 1950's K-12 teachers, he held several part-time and summer jobs to make ends meet; manufacturing company and department store accountant, farm laborer, filling station attendant, newspaper delivery, and various Amway-style (including Amway) pyramid marketing scams. In fact, when I looked at Wikipedia's list of "multi-level marketing companies," I saw more familiar names, from boxes and literature in my parents garage and basement, than unfamiliar. When my father was 60, he was working a 7-day work week, putting in an 18-hour workday five-days-a-week, with a 5-hour weekend break. When he retired, his teacher's pension, Social Security, Medicare, and some veteran's benefits provide him with the only security he'd enjoyed in his life. He had, practically speaking, next-to-no money in the bank, although his home was paid for and he had no debt. The fact that two decades disconnected from an active life was all that it took for my father to fall from a valued member of this small society to someone who's death was barely noticed is evidence that if you want to be remembered, die young.

He was a WWII Navy veteran, although he believed that FDR had unnecessarily involved (possibly through conspiracy) the United States in an Old World war. He had been an LST officer in three European Theater invasions (North Africa, Italy, and Normandy) and, later, became a gunnery officer on assorted aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Colonel S. L. A. Marshall's "military efficiency" book, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, that described how our military could "improve" training so that new recruits are willing to kill on first contact at a much higher rate. Marshall complained that only 15% of WWII soldiers were willing to shoot to kill on first contact. Tyler Boudreau describes the resulting campaign of "improvement" in his column, To Kill or Not to Kill. My father was one of the 85%. In fact, he hoped to stay in that group throughout the war. When he accepted his Navy officer bars, he promised that he would never return fire if he was in a "kill or be killed" situation. Fortunately, he didn't have to. He sort of managed living by that promise by not having to directly fire a gun, although he targeted his aircraft carrier and LST gunnery crews. He told me about this promise in the 1990's, two-and-a-half decades after our Vietnam War battles that had seemed to place us in opposite camps regarding war and organized murder.

After the war, he returned to college, finished his teaching degree, got a job as a business teacher and football coach, started a family, and tried to put everything about war behind him. Eight years later, the love of his life, my mother, was diagnosed with liver cancer and one year later she died at age 34. I don't think he ever recovered, although he remarried four years later and added three more children to his responsibilities.

Our relationship was always a war zone, mostly over religion but also politics. We, honestly, loved to argue. We wanted to understand and "convert" each other, especially during a particularly verbal and intellectual period during his late sixties and through his seventies. I learned more about this complex, reserved, intelligent man in that decade than I imagined there was to know.

My father's (and my mother's) collection of 78 rpm Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Spike Jones, Duke Ellington, and big band and dixieland records introduced me to music and jazz. His 1950's appreciation for the Everly Brothers (in the midst of his general dislike for R&R and country music) taught me that music is mostly about pleasure and humor rather than some serious concern. That attitude has helped preserve my love of music through some pretty difficult times. It also allowed me to make a generally cantankerous character, Stephen Temmer, into a friend instead of someone who was convinced I was a musical idiot.

His mathematical approach to analysis, eventually, found its way into my career when that mutated into electrical engineering. His willingness to debate philosophical and political issues (a trait that came late in life to him) without fouling personal relationships became one of my life's ideals. His idealism, honor courage, work habits, loyalty, pursuit of knowledge and career goals all set standards for my life that are beyond my capabilities.

He was a small town farm-boy who lost countless friends who poured out of his LST into WWII enemy fire, left the career he loved, unrecognized and unappreciated, buried two wives, and suffered the loss of his incredible vitality and lived another 30 years practically as an invalid. Partially out of self-protection and more out of practicality, he absorbed those injuries and kept going. My father was my connection to Kansas and now that he is no longer there and there are so many things wrong with that place I happily relinquish and sever that connection. On this first anniversary without an obligation to ask me to consider that 1,000 mile trip to a place that is as foreign to me as any European country, I acknowledge that my ability to let that place fade into my life's rear-view mirror is a gift from my father.