Whose Interests Are We Looking After, Anyway?

I’ve always been one who has attempted to stay up-to-date on current events.  It’s not at all unusual for me to come across a news story or a report that causes me to mumble to myself, “I find that hard to believe.

I often wonder if this propensity toward disbelief is simply the result of my advancing age and with it an increasing tendency toward curmudgeon-like behavior and attitudes; or if, on the other hand, these events really are justifiably hard to believe.

Here’s a news story that I’m confident most people will agree has totally blown itself off of anyone’s Believability Scale!

Back in 1997, Bay City, Michigan instituted a new agreement with the union which represents the teachers working in its public school system.

If you’re like me, you probably think that its commonplace for all modern school systems to practice a Zero Tolerance approach to the use and/or distribution of drugs and alcohol on their premises and grounds. That just seems to be a fundamental principle, does it not?

Well, apparently not in Bay City, Michigan.

It turns out that under the 1997 master agreement with their union, Bay City teachers could be found to be under the influence or in the possession of illegal drugs in their classrooms up to three times before they could be terminated from their jobs.  If they were found to be alcoholically intoxicated, they were allowed five chances before similar action could be taken!

Apparently knocking back a stiff drink before tackling the Geography lesson is a more acceptable practice than taking a quick toke on one’s pipe or doobie.

Amazed?  Don’t be, it gets worse.

Under the agreement, a teacher caught selling drugs in their classroom would be suspended for three days and have to undergo counseling. But they were not in jeopardy of having their employment terminated until they were caught selling drugs a second time!  (Hold on, I’ve got to read this paragraph again.)

Students in the Bay City system, aren’t quite so lucky.  Middle and high school students who are found to be under the influence of illegal drugs are immediately given either a five day suspension or a three day suspension accompanied with mandatory counseling.

I guess the school system’s administrators believe that five days away from school is sufficient to make any drug counseling unnecessary.  Go figure?

I’ve heard of cases in other school systems in which students were immediately expelled for having a bottle of Advil or a prescription inhaler in their backpacks.  I’ve always found that to be an extreme case of over reaction.  But now the other end of this nonsensical continuum has clearly been found to be located in Bay City, Michigan.

I have to ask, who’s minding the store, or in this case, the public schools.

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The Limitless Joys of Home Ownership

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. There’s not a cloud in the sky and the temperature is a very reasonable 73 degrees.

I can think of a lot of things that can be done on a day like today.  Most of them very pleasant endeavors.

Unfortunately, I find myself painting windows; the outside of them to be exact.  Have I mentioned that I loathe painting?

I live in the southern United States and the summer sun down here has a unique way of devouring paint, thus exposing the surface beneath the paint to the harmful effects of the weather.  Let the paint start to crack and peel on your windows (unfortunately mine are wooden, rather than the newer high tech aluminum or vinyl models) and fairly soon you’ve got yourself a much more expensive proposition to deal with than purchasing a gallon of paint.

I find that repainting the windows is necessary every third or fourth year.  That’s why, on a Chamber of Commerce day like today, I find myself painting windows.  Shamefully, it’s been at least 5 years since I last painted mine.  So much for heeding my own advice and counsel.  My negligence knows no bounds.

I’m not what I would call a bad painter, but I’m certainly not a good painter either.  I’m an apprentice rather than a journeyman when it comes to having a paint brush in my hand.

I understand the principles involved with painting.  It’s just that I don’t like putting those particular principles into practice.  If I had to list the jobs around the house that I most loathe, house painting (inside or out) would be right up there near the top.  There, I’ve mentioned it.

But there is another task which I hold in even greater disdain than slapping paint.   That would be caulking.  Caulking anything to be exact, whether it be the seal around a window or the tiles around a bath tub.

Caulking is a home handyman skill which I’ve never mastered.  I think it’s a case of “you can’t put in, what God left out.”  I look with envy upon the precise, smooth, straight lines of caulk laid down by those who really know what they’re doing.  When I finish, my bead of caulk resembles the tracks left by a jeep after it’s sped through thick mud.

Now after I’ve finished caulking the windows that I’m currently painting, I’m going to be confident that they will be weather tight.  On the other hand, they will also be artistically flawed and unpleasant to look upon.  Thankfully, most of the re-caulking that I’m having to do is on second floor windows; safely out of the range of most prying eyes.

Enough rambling.  It’s time to go back out and scrape the panes on the last couple of windows that I painted earlier this morning.  I’ve decided to put off any more caulking until tomorrow.

Joy and have a good day!

A Momentary or Complete Loss of Perspective?

I’m as big a football fan as the next guy, but I’m having a very difficult time generating any real empathy for the position of the “regular” NFL officials who are still essentially out on strike.

I’m all in favor of people being properly compensated for their work, but I also believe that the free market economy should have a significant role in establishing what is a fair and equitable rate of compensation for any job.

NOTE: I’m going to leave out post-season play for the purposes of the following comparisons.

Do you know what NFL officials earn now?  Under the current agreement, NFL officials earn an average salary of $149,000 per year.  This is for a season that runs from August until December; a 5 month work year.  NFL officials are, and always have been, considered to be part-time employees.  By the way, a brand new first-year NFL official earns $78,000 per year.

For comparison purposes, Major League Baseball umpires earn an average of $200-300,000 per year.  Now before you scream “foul” in favor of the downtrodden NFL referees, let’s remember that the MLB umpire work year stretches from March (spring training) through October, 8 months.  The MLB umpires are also considered full-time, professional employees.

So let’s compare.  A part-time job which pays $149,000 per year versus a full-time job which pays $200-300,000 per year.  That sounds like a fair balance, particularly considering that in the case of both positions, the league in question pays all of their travel and hotel expenses.

How many of you who are reading this would turn down a part-time job paying $149,000 per year?

Another sticking point in the current negotiations between the NFL and the officials is the league’s desire to eliminate the current NFL official’s pension and replace it with a 401k plan.  I have to ask, what other part-time job comes complete with a pension plan in the first place?  The NFL’s position is that most corporations are doing the exact same thing for their employees.  In fact, Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, is not covered by a pension plan.

The officials are apparently okay with this proposal in principle, but in practice they want the NFL to fund their individual 401k plans to the tune of  approximately $38,000 per year.

$38,000 per year.  Did you know that $38,000 per year is more than the current annual median income in the United States?  I worked in the corporate world for over 30 years and I can assure you that I never received a 401k matching contribution anywhere close to $38,000 from my employer.

So where are we?  $149,000 per year annual salary, a part-time job with a 5 month work year, all travel expenses covered, and the company wants to kick in a 401k plan.

I have to tell you; that’s sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.  And I’m sure it does to the hundreds of thousands of folks across this country who currently find themselves under- and unemployed.

My advice to the NFL officials who continue to hold out for more:  Either get back to work or tender your resignations so somebody else can take your place.

Time to get on with it, gentlemen.

Let Me Introduce You to Dummy Hoy

I’ve been a lifelong fan of the game of baseball.  Where others see a slow and plodding game, I see a game of countless strategic moves and counter-moves which are only apparent to those willing to take the time to learn the “game within the game”.

Passionate baseball fans tend to become students of the game; learning facts, statistics, details, and minutiae which more ordinary run-of-the-mill sports fans might well find unimportant.

That’s why, as I was watching today’s game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, I was surprised to learn a bit of baseball history that I had never been exposed to before.  During a lull in the action, one of the announcers noted that Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies was about to pass Dummy Hoy in the record book for career stolen bases.

Dummy Hoy?  I’d never heard of Dummy Hoy.

Let me tell you about him, but before I do; have you ever wondered why umpires utilize hand signals to indicate whether a player is safe or out when running the bases?  Just as important, have you ever wondered why hand signals were needed in the first place?

Hold those thoughts, for as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s “the rest of the story!

William Ellsworth Hoy was born in 1862.  He lived a long life, dying in 1961 at the age of 99.  When he was 3 years old, Hoy came down with meningitis which resulted in his becoming permanently deaf.  Overcoming his disability, Hoy went on to play Major League Baseball from 1888 until 1902.  A center fielder, Hoy played most of his professional career for the Cincinnati Reds.

Derived from the word dumb, meaning the inability to speak, Hoy acquired the nickname “Dummy” at a very early age.  It stuck.  Unfazed by the negative implications associated with his name, Hoy was reported to have frequently corrected people who called him William, insisting that he preferred to be called Dummy.

By the end of his baseball career, he held several major league records, including the record for the most games played by a center fielder.  But Hoy was also noted for his speed as a runner, which made him a very real threat for stealing bases.

Being unable to hear the verbal calls made by umpires during games, Hoy is credited with developing the hand signals, still in use today, that are used to indicate whether base runners are safe or out; valuable information to have if you are to be successful in stealing bases.

It’s interesting to note, that Ed Dundon, a deaf pitcher who played in the same era as Hoy, is credited with assisting in the development of the hand signals used by home plate umpires for indicating whether pitches are balls or strikes.

So there you have it!  A little bit of baseball history revealed and two genuine nuggets of obscure and nonessential information that will surely come in handy the next time you want to completely stump your friends with a bit of trivia.

Play ball!

Only 92 Days Left Until the End of Time!

Whoa! I just realized that this is September 21st!

We’re only three months from the Apocalypse! Time to get busy, I guess. Doing what, I really don’t know.

I remember back in the 70’s (yes, I’ve been around the block more than once), thinking that it was going to be cool to read the novel 1984 in 1984 just to see how accurate Orwell had been in predicting our future.

In hindsight, he got a few things right. The book predicted some social/political trends fairly well, but the world in 1984, at least my slice of it, wasn’t nearly as dark, drab, and foreboding as old George thought it would be. Of course, I’d never been to Detroit.

I’ve never been a big believer in the accuracy of predictions of future events. Take the work of Michel de Nostradamus for instance. Countless books and television shows rave endlessly about his alleged gift of prophecy.

Not so fast, every example of Nostradamus’ power of prophecy involves a true believer identifying some notable event that has occurred in history and then going back and digging through the prophet’s nebulously worded quatrains until one can be found which seems to be referring to the event in question.

Come on now! These are not “Predictions”, they are “Postdictions”.  Just once, I’d like for someone to take one of Nostradamus’ quatrains and truly predict something specific that’ll happen in the future, say, 2020.  If the event occurs, maybe I’d believe that ol’ Michel de might have been on to something after all.

In reality, if I looked long and hard enough, I’m sure that I could find a Nostradamus quatrain which “predicted” my Aunt Sally’s third marriage to that liqueur salesman.

Anyway, you would have to be living under the proverbial rock to not be aware that the Mayan calendar, which was started some 5,000 years ago, supposedly predicts that the “End of Days” will occur on December 21, 2012.

**SPOILER ALERT** – I recently read an article concerning an anthropologist who has been living with and studying those few Mayans who still remain in Mexico and Guatemala.  The anthropologist indicated that, while the present day Mayans are aware of the significance of December 21st in their calendar, they say it’s just a time of “new beginnings”, rather than the end of everything.  Apparently, none of them are over at the flea market in Tegucigalpa selling off all of their possessions at bargain basement prices.

If I had to make a prediction, I’d say that we’ll all probably wake up on the morning of December 22nd and have a cup of coffee.  Granted, once the caffeine kicks in, some of us will undoubtedly be jolted back into reality with the thought, “Holy crap! I’ve only got three days to do all of my Christmas shopping!

What really concerns me is what the History and Discovery Channels are going to do with all of those Mayan Apocalypse documentaries they’ve been running and re-running for the past four or five years?

I Master the Fine Art of Grocery Shopping

Just over five years ago, my 30+ year career in corporate America came to an abrupt and totally unexpected end when I, and ultimately 3,000 or so of my coworkers, found ourselves out of work. To a large degree this action was taken so that the company’s senior management team could apply the savings recouped from our salaries to their bottom line and thus assure themselves of reaping their annual bonuses for another “Job Well Done”.

I’ve lost track, and frankly any interest, in what slights of hand those guys have used to continue to ensure the receipt of their annual ill-gotten largesse, but I can assure you that they are more than up to the task!

In any event, that’s only an introduction to today’s ramble.

Shortly after finding myself in an unexpected state of early retirement, one of the domestic tasks that I took on was responsibility for the weekly trip to the grocery store.

I remember cruising the aisles of the local Publix (my personal grocery supplier of choice) at around 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday and seeing another middle-aged male pushing a cart down the aisle toward me. As we passed, we exchanged a mute glance that seemed to say to each of us, “What are you doing in here at a time like this? You should be at work.”

Unfortunately, this scene was to be replayed with increasing frequency over the next few months as more and more of my peers joined the ranks of the un- or under-employed.

But I digress once again.

I quickly took a real liking to the act of grocery shopping. I approached the task as I had done so many others during my work life. I began to systematize the process, eliminating non-value adding steps, and laying out a route through the store that minimized the distance I had to travel and the time that it took for me to load my cart.

It goes without saying that I never entered the store without a list of the items I was after.  As I’ve told my wife many times over the years, “I never shop, I buy!”

I was intent on developing grocery shopping into a highly efficient art form.

It wasn’t long before I became known as a regular at the store. The stock clerks would nod in recognition, dare I say admiration, as I sped down their aisles. I plucked items off the shelves without stopping, intent on achieving my objective with minimum effort and no loss of time.

I knew I had “arrived” so to speak when, on one memorable morning, as I turned my cart into the checkout queue, the clerk, a short and very pleasant Russian woman, looked up at me and said, “You really know what you’re doing! You, a good customer, are!”

Then she handed me a Hershey’s chocolate almond nugget!

I was as happy to receive that Hershey’s nugget as my old senior management team is over their annual bonuses.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch (a whopper actually), but it brings a smile to my face anyway.

There’s Something to be Said for Living in the Country

There are a number of trees along the property line which separates my backyard from that of my neighbor.   Among the trees making up this natural border were four cypress trees.  Those are the tall cedar-looking trees popularly used for windbreaks and for adding privacy to one’s property.

Over the past few years, something (a fungus, a beetle, or a tree plague of unknown origin) had infected these four trees.  Unfortunately, earlier this Spring it was evident that three of the trees had succumbed and that the fourth was in the last throes of its struggle for life.  The really bad news was that one of the dead trees was leaning over a fence and in danger of toppling, at any moment, into my neighbor’s backyard where young children often play.

Time to call the tree service to take the dead trees out and eliminate the hazards they posed.  Now the story begins to get complicated.

Up until a couple of years ago, we had lived in the country.  That is to say, outside of any municipal city limits.  In the interim, we’ve been annexed by the closest city and are now beneficiaries of all the services and regulations that such municipalities provide for, or is it enforce upon, their citizens.

In the good old days of rural living, I’d call the tree service.  They’d come out the next day, chop down the offending tree(s), grind them up, and be on their merry way.

Sadly those halcyon days are gone.  After the trees service came out, inspected the dead trees, and agreed to handle the situation, they told me that I would have to get a permit from the city to remove the trees.

“But they’re dead!  Is there any legitimate question that they need to go?” I asked.

“Not really,” replied my friendly neighborhood tree surgeon, “but the city Arborist will want to confirm that and make sure there aren’t any other issues.”

Issues?  What issues could there be?

Five days later, the trees were still dead and still continuing to lean over my neighbor’s backyard.  I called the tree service to check on the status of my permit application.

“Oh yeah, we sent it in.  The Arborist has it on his schedule to come out and inspect your trees.  He told us that he suspects that there might be a “density” issue with removing them from your property.”

Say what?  I then learned that the city now has regulations which state that every residential lot has to have so many trees that grow higher than the house’s roof line and so many that are shorter than the roof line.  I wonder who was behind this landmark legislation and when it had been sneaked into the city charter.

Apparently, the Arborist was concerned that removing the four dead/dying trees would drop me into a state of noncompliance.   Why did he suspect this?  He’d never been on my property before.  More importantly, was I going to be told I had to leave the dead trees in place just to satisfy the demands of the new city ordinance?

Then I thought of the new residential community that is being developed two or three miles down the road from my house.  Six months ago, it had been a very heavily wooded area overlooking a greenway which meanders along the banks of a local creek.  Today, it is an ugly splotch of mud and dirt which has been clear cut of every tree.

So I asked the tree service representative, “How can the Arborist be concerned about my removing four dead trees on my property, but apparently have no problem at all with a real estate developer coming in and completely stripping every tree off of 10 acres of land?”

“Oh!  That’s a zoning thing.”, came the reply.  In other words, it’s City Hall, and as we all know, you can’t beat City Hall.

Fortunately, the City Arborist finally found time in his busy schedule to inspect my trees.  He agreed that they were dead and that given the number of healthy trees remaining on my property, I was not in violation of any known city ordinance.

Order has been restored.

The moral of this story?  Henry David Thoreau had it correct when he wrote, “That government is best, which governs least.”

Staying Safely Behind the Technology Curve

I’m actually quite computer literate and generally stay on top of all of the latest technology trends. I just tend to be slightly lethargic in my personal implementation of the latest and greatest technological gadgetry.

Take cell phones for instance. Everybody in my family had one for several years before I finally relented and got one for myself.

Two years ago, at the insistence of my wife, I finally started considering the possibility of purchasing a Smart Phone. I eventually decided on the iPhone 3GS, mainly because the iPhone 4 had just come out and AT&T was selling off its inventory of the 3GS for $50 a pop.

I picked up a 3GS at the local AT&T store. Once I began to use it, resistance was futile. I was assimilated; totally. I go no where without it. I’m constantly browsing for the latest apps and finding new and creative things I can do with my iPhone.

If I move slowly in adopting new technology, my wife is absolutely glacial in her approach. Recently, she had decided that a Smart Phone might be beneficial to her in her work; in fact her company had offered to buy her one. So last night, the two of us headed out to the local AT&T store last to see what was available.

Now I, and every geek worth his salt, know that the iPhone 5 is due out in a few days. But I hadn’t considered the possibility that the release on the new iPhone might result in history repeating itself in the form of real bargains on the purchase of an iPhone 4.

So imagine our surprise when we learned that AT&T was selling the iPhone 4 for $0.99 (that’s 99 cents). I thought that getting a 3GS for $50 a couple of years earlier had been a bargain. By comparison, an iPhone 4 for about half the price of a small cup of coffee is an absolute steal.

Needless to say, we both are now sporting new iPhone 4’s. In addition, AT&T gave me a trade-in credit of $54 on the old 3GS; more than I paid for it originally.

As I was walking out of the store, I told the salesman to expect me back in a couple of years to pick up an iPhone 5 – just before the 6’s come out!

Nothing like staying a generation behind the “cutting edge of technology”!

Right Down There with Used Car Salesmen and Congress

Such is the plight of the NFL’s replacement officials!

I was watching Monday Night Football last night.  The Atlanta Falcons were hosting the Denver Broncos.  As much as I would have liked to have been focused on the athleticism of the players, the play calling of the coaches, and the ebb and flow of the game; my attention was constantly being drawn to the performance of the replacement officials.  I wonder how the average football fan would rate the performance of the replacements through the first two weeks of the regular season?  Probably not very highly.

I have a real sense of empathy for these guys.  Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be walking in their shoes.  No matter which way they turn, they find themselves in an undeniably difficult,”Lose-Lose” situation.

“Say what?”

They know that regardless of how well they perform their jobs, they will shortly no longer be officiating NFL games.  They know that the NFL coaches and players relate to them as students often relate to substitute teachers, figuring out just how much they can get away with – and then pushing for just a little more.  They know that given their own inexperience, every call they make will likely be challenged and open to ridicule.

Is it any wonder that they sometimes take a bit too long in throwing a penalty flag and then sometimes take inordinately long periods of time in deciding what to do next?

On average, it takes 3 hours to play a typical NFL game.  It took just under an hour to complete the first quarter of last night’s Broncos at Falcons game.  At one point, I was considering the possibility of going on to bed and getting up this morning in time to catch the 4th quarter.  Fortunately, the pace picked up in subsequent quarters, but it still took 3 hours and 20 minutes to complete play.

Now I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the regular officials who are holding out for a better deal, which of course means more money from the NFL.  After all, they earn an average salary of $148,000 per year for a part-time job and that sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

But I do think that it’s time for the NFL to cut to the chase and come to an agreement that gets the experienced officials back on the field; and the quicker the better.  For years, I’ve thought that it would be in the best interests of the NFL to have full-time, professional officials – but at this point, that’s a story for another day.

That said, I also think it’s time to cut the replacement officials a little slack.  If they weren’t out there on the field, would there even be an NFL season right now?  I hope that they’re being well compensated and, after the dust settles, will be able to look back on this experience with a least a little bit of a smile.

Change is in the Air (And None Too Soon)

I’m about ready for the travails of the summer to be at an end.

This year, I spent too much of the summer baby-sitting my upstairs air conditioning system.  Being a creature of comfort, I realized one afternoon that the upstairs was noticeably warmer than the downstairs.  More than would be expected from the application of the simple scientific principle that “hot air rises”.  Two years ago, we had new heating and cooling systems installed – one that services the upstairs and one for downstairs.  I would have expected that two-year old HVAC systems would still be performing at peak efficiency, but as I soon learned, this is not always the case.

To cut to the chase, the root problem with the upstairs system turned out to be the cooling coil.  The heart of the system, so to speak.  The coil that was installed two years ago had been manufactured using aluminum and copper.  Cooling results in condensation, condensation produces water, water accumulates on the copper tubing causing corrosion, corrosion produces pin-holes, pin-holes allow refrigerant to leak out which results in an unappreciated warming of the upstairs.

Fortunately, the systems were still under warranty and the manufacturer now produces cooling coils made entirely out of aluminum.  So much needed balance has been restored to the temperature profile of my house, as well as my overall demeanor.

All of this is just to preface the realization that I’m more than ready for autumn to get cranking.   A few days ago, I walked out to pick up the newspaper and noticed an almost imperceptible crispness in the air.  The rising sun soon warmed the day up into the mid-80s, but it was undeniable that “football weather” was closing in.

It won’t be long before all of my shorts and T-shirts are neatly folded on the top shelf in my closet and my jeans and sweatshirts are back in service.

Make no mistake, in about four months I’m going to be begging for warmer days, but right now I’m enjoying the inevitable change in the season.

Here’s a bit of poetry to welcome in the Fall.  Enjoy!

          When Ted saw a fresh-raked leaf pile
          He decided to jump in with style.
          A half gainer he dived,
          And his spine broke in five
          As he missed the leaf pile by a mile.

                                                              – Anonymous