Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Terrapin and the Panther

The Sole Heir will attend the University of Maryland in the fall. The decision was not lightly made.

It started a year and a half ago, with a core list of eight schools. Maryland was required to be one, by parental fiat: a reasonably priced fallback position. Applications were sent to Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Johns Hopkins, American University, and Maryland.

The results were inconsistent. Confusing, even. Pitt got the ball rolling, waiving out of state tuition before she even applied, then granting a full tuition scholarship by Thanksgiving weekend. Boston College accepted her, but provided no aid. Johns Hopkins put her on the wait list. The Ivies passed. American provided a large scholarship, but its base tuition is so high the remaining costs were still roughly equal to full freight at Maryland.

That left Pitt and Maryland, schools with virtually identical rankings. Late in March, Maryland ponied up with a Banneker-Key scholarship, the school’s highest honor, for full tuition. A Maryland Scholar grant from the state knocked off another three grand, so long as she went to school in Maryland.

No word from Pitt. March became April; the deadline for students to accept offers was May 1. Middle of April TSH called Pitt to see when letters would go out and got the runaround. Same thing the next week. Hedging her bets, she continued her research and became comfortable with the idea of attending Maryland. When people asked, I told them I was 99.44% sure she’d go to Maryland.

Pitt finally made their offer last Friday, April 24: free. They would pay her tuition, standard room and board, all mandatory fees, a small stipend for books, and a couple of thousand bucks to study abroad, should she choose to. (Which she almost certainly will.)

I was torn. I’d become a Maryland advocate, in no small part because the campus is twenty minutes from my house. Generous as Maryland’s offer was, Pitt’s was much better. Family meeting time, and I had no choice but to argue in favor of Pitt.

The Sole Heir, her mother, and I went around on the relative merits for an hour and a half. Death Row inmates should have a lawyer as well-prepared and eloquent as TSH was that day. She acknowledged the benefits of Pitt, and the money it would cost her down the road to go to Maryland. (She plans to go to medical school. Every dollar spent on undergraduate school is a dollar that will have to be borrowed later.) Then she laid out the benefits of Maryland. She had me wavering by the time I left. A short phone call on Saturday to mention something else she’d thought of pushed me a little farther. There wasn’t a lot of doubt by the time we all got together Sunday afternoon.

Words cannot express how proud I am. For all the work she did to earn such bountiful offers from two good schools, yes, but mostly for the manner in which she handled herself through the discussion and decision-making process. She made the right decision, using logic and facts, understanding there are other things to consider than money, and that emotional attachments play a role in such a decision. (At one point on Sunday, she said, “I’m a Maryland girl. I like it here.”)

I hope Maryland appreciates what they’re getting here. I know I do.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Well Said

I was in the process of getting revved up about the Bush Administration's torture policies and the Obama Administration's lukewarm response when I read Paul Krugman's blog post on the topic. He says it much better, and more concisely, than I could.

Maybe now I can let it go for a while.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Happy Birthday, Charlie

Everyone deserves a mentor at some point in their life. With luck, it’s your father, and I was very lucky in my selection of both parents, either of whom is always ready to help out with the immediate problem, and to guide me in a direction to make similar situations less likely, or more easily handled, in the future.

I was doubly fortunate on the mentor front when Charlie Schlueter became my trumpet teacher at New England Conservatory. Yes, Charlie Schlueter made me a better trumpet player, and a much better musician. Not good enough to make a living at it, but he didn’t get a lot to work with. Turning me into an orchestral musician was like trying to make bricks without straw.

So what’s the big deal? You pay him to make you a professional trumpeter, and you don’t make it. Where’s the mentoring? Be not hasty, Grasshopper. The mentoring is in how he taught me to be a trumpet player. Understanding there’s more to playing trumpet than sitting behind the mouthpiece. Not just what to think, but a method for deciding what to think about, and how to approach it. Breaking a problem down to its component parts to separate out what’s relevant, what isn’t, and to prioritize the parts that need to be worked on. Giving yourself permission to fail, and how it’s not the same as permission to quit.

Not a day goes by I don’t do something I learned from Charlie Schlueter. Today is his seventieth birthday.

Happy birthday, Charlie, and many more.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Just Following Orders

The Obama Administration released the much anticipated/dreaded Bush Administration torture memos yesterday. They were as bad as anyone’s worst fears.

Jay Bybee’s responses to the CIA’s request for guidance weren’t just legalistic fairy dust. They amounted to a manual on how to torture. Bybee—now a federal court judge, which should make anyone’s blood run cold—permitted eleven days of sleep deprivation. Waterboarding could last twenty to forty seconds. (Summaries, as well as the memos themselves, are here.)

The Obama Administration, which deserves commendation for releasing the memos, then made a shameful bow to the intelligence community by declaring no one who used the opinions supplied by Bybee as a justification for torturing a prisoner would be prosecuted, and the government would provide legal assistance in proceedings brought by other parties. The door was left open as to whether anyone higher up might some day face prosecution.

This whole business appalls me on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll work my way up from the bottom. Are CIA personnel so badly trained, so morally deficient, that they don’t know depriving a man of sleep for eleven days is torture? Simulating drowning for twenty minutes? Slamming his head into a wall? A good, practical, definition of torture is, “How would you feel if this was being done to one of your guys?” Well? The CIA interrogators weren’t asking for guidance; they wanted permission, and Bybee gave it to them.

Did Bybee get an erection while he wrote the memos? Did he write much of them with only one hand? Did he sit back with a cognac on cold nights and wonder what it would be like to actually be there, instead of just imagining? We don’t know as I can find no media outlet that asked himt. Not that I’d expect a comment, or that he’d even answer the phone. I can’t even find a reference to a “No comment,” or, “Judge Bybee’s office did not return calls.”

The Bush Administration was little more than a junta, often operating outside the rule of law under the auspices of jefe Cheney. Some career-advancing toady without scruples could always be found to write an opinion to justify whatever they wanted. Warrantless searches. No habeas corpus. Long-standing treaties and accords ignored. As I noted before, they treated the United States like Tony Soprano treated David Scatino’s sporting goods store.

And now the Obama Administration has officially endorsed the supposedly discredited “I was only following orders” defense. Not only will Obama, acting in our name, allow a free pass to torturers, we’re going to pick up their legal bills on the assumption they acted in good faith. No further investigation required. I wonder what the response would be if they had learned some seersucker-wearing cracker DA wrote an opinion for some Mississippi redneck sheriff that said it was okay to take them Nigras out back and teach them some manners.

Of course, you probably don’t care. A recent poll showed only 38% of Americans want criminal investigations of the torture allegations; 35% want nothing done at all. Bush and Obama anger me. The poll is saddening and disappointing. We should all be ashamed for what was done in our names, whether we approved of it or not. Our lack of that shame only makes it more deserved.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

More Wacky Texans

Texas Governor Rick Perry says the day could come when Texans want to secede from the Union. ""I believe the federal government has become oppressive. It's become oppressive in its size, its intrusion in the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state."

Texans at the April 15 Tea Bag rally showed an interesting perception of reality. Thirty-eight-year-old Melva Fried said the forced ouster of General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner was the last straw for her -- a symbol the federal government was moving toward socialism. "When a president can fire the head of a company, that's too much," she said, holding a sign that read "Stop Rewarding Failure." She did not explain how firing Wagoner for his failure was rewarding him.

Kudos to Governor Perry for wanting the onerous heel of the federal boot to be removed from their necks. Texans are more than capable of taking care of Texas on their own, thank you very much. Except for last week, when Perry called for FEMA to help with some pesky wildfires. Or last month, when he called for troops to patrol the Mexican border. Oh, and there was that time last winter when asked for an eighteen month extension of federal aid for debris removal from Hurricane Ike.

It has to be frustrating for such an independent, strong willed man to have to go to the Great White Father on bended knee. I feel his pain, and have an idea for its cure. Secede. Really. Go ahead. And take Mississippi with you. Louisiana and Alabama. Arkanses, for sure. Georgia. Florida. Pretty much toe whole Confederacy, if you like. (Northern Virginia will probably take a page from history and secede from Virginia itself, just like West Virginia did in 1861.) Y’all have been nothing but trouble for a hundred and fifty years and your contributions to American culture have been pretty much limited to grits and Larry the Cable Guy. We promise there will be no war to keep you this time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wrapping Up the Frozen Four

Some personal observations on last weekend’s Frozen Four hockey tournament:

- It’s hard to describe the enthusiasm of the crowds. Each school had a corner of the rink for its fans, and each brought their pep band to keep things revved up. It didn’t matter who scored, half the building erupted, the other half groaned.

- Bemidji State’s pep band had a previous commitment, so they borrowed George Mason’s band. This was great for multiple reasons. GMU was the Cinderella entry in the 2006 basketball Final Four, as Bemidji State was for this year’s hockey tournament. Both teams’ colors are green and gold. It was worth the price of admission to watch the band and student sections shout cheers at each other, cheers the band would just have learned that week. Both groups obviously has a ball. The conductor’s green tux was sweet, too.

- No matter how many times I see it, I still stay to watch hockey players shake the opponents’ hands after beating the snot out of each other for two-and-a half hours.

- Each team formed a semi-circle to face their fans’ corner of the ice and saluted them with their sticks at the end of each game. Very classy.

- In the play that defined the weekend for both The Sole Heir and me, a Vermont player dove head first, with his stick fully extended, to keep the puck from sliding into the empty net as time expired. The outcome was not in doubt, but he’d be damned if he was going to lose by two goals. Seeing a 5-4 score in the record book tells future generations it went down to the bitter end; 6-4 just doesn’t look the same. Helluva play.

- Not only did we get some national TV time in a crowd shot, The Official Main Squeeze of The Sole Heir got a picture of it on his cell phone and sent it to her while we were still in the building.

In summary:
Tickets: $360
Tee shirts and souvenirs: $108
Food: $75.
Having my kid think of me when the tickets came available to her: Priceless. This was as good as the 2007 US Open. In some ways better, since it was her idea.

The Frozen Four

We’re back from The Frozen Four, and, once again, I wish was as smart every day as I was when I told the Sole Heir to score those tickets. (Especially since I passed on buying them myself a year ago.) Personal observations will follow. Today I need to review the games themselves, as they still haven’t worked their way out of my system.

Thursday’s opening game was worth the trip. How were we to know it would be the least exciting game of the three? Miami of Ohio used its superior size to hammer Bemidji State through an even first period, then wore them down. Miami doubled Bemidji’s shots on goal in the second and third periods and won going away, 4-1, on an empty net goal.

Thursday’s nightcap was widely considered to be the championship. Boston University was the overall Number One seed, and Vermont was solid; Miami and Bemidji were fourth seeds who snuck in with hot weekends in their regional tournaments. BU had lost twice to Vermont during the season, but jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead. Vermont countered with three quick, unanswered second period goals, but BU tied the game late in the period. Vermont took a 4-3 lead midway into the third, but BU scored twice within 1:13 for a 5-4 victory.

Saturday’s game was supposed to be a formality, but, in the only planning mishap of the weekend, no one told Miami. They came out unintimidated by BU’s reputation and didn’t back down after falling behind a goal after one period, tying the game with a second period goal.

Tightly played through the first ten minutes, Miami began to assert itself about midway through the third period, to the extent The Sole Heir and I noted to each other that Boston had “better think of something or they’re in trouble.” Miami scored with about seven minutes to go, then with just over four left to make it 3-1 and Boston really was in trouble.

BU called timeout and pulled the goalie with 3:30 to play, which is a lo-o-o-o-ong time to leave the net open. The way Miami was playing defense, I would have bet on another 4-1 final. This is why I don’t bet. BU scored with 1:00 left, then again with 13 seconds to play to send the game into overtime. The noise after the tying goal was so great the sound backwashed in and out of my ears until it sounded like a siren.

Overtime in a hockey playoff is the most exciting, nerve-wracking thing in sports. First, it’s true sudden death. Each team has equal opportunity at the puck (unlike football), and the goal will likely come out of nowhere to end the game in an instant. Second, teams are always far more interested in scoring the winning goal than they are worried about giving it up.

Miami came out like the last minute of regulation never happened: confident and aggressive. Both sides had good scoring chances as the game went up and down the ice, until A BU player took a shot from near the top of the left face-off circle. A Miami player tried to block it, but his timing was a split second off. The puck deflected off his leg and floated end-over-end over the goalie’s shoulder and into the net. Game over.

A truly great game, regardless of the sport or level of play. The kind of game where, if you weren’t a hockey fan going in, you would be coming out.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Those Wacky Texans

At first I thought it was an Onion parody: Texas Legislator Wants Asians to Americanize Names. But no, it’s true. At a hearing for pending legislation on voter identification, Rep. Betty Brown suggested to a witness that Asians should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

Brown has since apologized to Asians, but the jury has decided. Betty Brown, you are today’s winner of today’s Michele Bachmann Clueless Bitch Award.

Congratulations< betty. Enjoy it while it lasts. I’m sure Michele will do some stupid tea-bagging thing soon the wrest it away from you.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Insidious Effects of Gay Marriage

I have been known to blame just about anything bad on the spread of gay marriage: the weather, the economy, losses by favorite sports teams, my inability to get published. You name it. The Show Tunes Correspondent has found a complete compendium of everything we can expect from the legalization of gay marriage here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

One Cool Kid

Last Monday I was sitting at home, minding my own business, eating dinner while watching an episode of The Wire with the Beloved Spousal Equivalent, when the Sole Heir called. The conversation, once it was established I wasn’t recording the Orioles game—which is where she called from—went something like this:

The Sole Heir: Do you want a pair of tickets to the Frozen Four this weekend? I think I can get us a couple.

Me: Well, duh. Sure.

The Sole Heir: Okay, I’ll let you know for sure tomorrow.

And so it came to pass that my daughter, who called the BSE and me just last weekend for advice on prom dresses—okay, she really called the BSE; I was dismissed pretty quickly—hooked dear old Dad up with tickets to the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey National Championships. Two semi-finals on Thursday, and the championship on Saturday.

She’s done a lot of cool stuff, some of which has been reported here. (More of that to come as the deadline for college acceptance approaches on May 1.) None of it has made me happier than her thinking of her Old Man for something like this.

Last night’s doubleheader was as fun as we thought it would be. More on that after Saturday’s game.

Fair is Fair

Iraqi Shiites celebrated the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to American troops yesterday by burning effigies of George W. Bush.

Is it any wonder the rest of the world looks at these guys like a dim-witteduncle? George W. Bush s responsible for a lot of things Iraqis can be justifiably angry about, but getting rid of Saddam Hussein isn’t one of them, certainly not from a Shiite perspective. If there’s one day a year they should be grateful for Dubya, this was it.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Not a Problem, an Opportunity

The State of Maryland has its shorts in a knot over an unintended side effect of the Supreme Court’s declaration that DC’s handgun ban was unconstitutional. Now that people can buy and own guns in the District of Columbia, there is only one licensed gun dealer. Since federal law prohibits buying a gun in a state in which the buyer is not a resident, Congress responded by passing a law that allowed DC residents to buy their guns in Maryland or Virginia.

Virginia has no problem with this. Most illegal DC handguns probably came from Virginia via straw man purchases in the first place. The new law just allows them to stop feigning indignation every time someone points it out.

Maryland is upset. The state claims it lacks the resources to do all the background checks, especially since the new ones will require searches of DC records, which are as well organized as straws in a windstorm. Times are tough in Maryland, too, and the state lacks the revenue to maintain services for its own residents. Adding the DC burden is going to be a real problem.

On the other hand, why should Virginia gun dealers get all the extra business, and Virginia all the extra sales tax revenues? There is a simple solution: charge a fee for each records search needed to buy a gun. You pay for title searches on your house. All states finance their departments of motor vehicles through license and registration fees. Why should this specific service be exempt? The only people with a need to have background checks done are gun buyers. Why should all Maryland residents, many of whom do not own guns, have to pay for those who do, especially if they are from out of state?

Staff an office adequate to the task, and charge the gun dealer for each records check. The dealer may then pass the cost along to his customers, or not, as he wishes. It’s the free enterprise system at work.

You're Welcome

Wells Fargo Bank has reported a surge in profits for the first quarter of 2009. I am a Wells Fargo mortgagee who has never missed a payment, so I am taking full credit for this good news. I realize the stage coach division has been down recently; I’m just trying to pick up the slack any way I can.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Sobotka Corollary to the Yankee Principle

The New York Yankees have been, and continue to be, adamantly against revenue sharing in baseball. They have by far the largest revenue base, and the largest payroll. What the Yankees, in their New York hubris, fail to grasp is they need the other teams to be competitive. Eventually even New Yorkers would look elsewhere for entertainment if the American League evolved into a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals.

The same is true of the economy as a whole. Capitalism has been very, very good to America. The churn of companies rising and falling is accepted as part of the cost of doing business. Regulation of business is viewed as a necessary evil by most, pure evil by others. Entrepreneurial spirit is valued above all else, unless the government can be talked into underwriting some expenses.

What is too often forgotten on Wall Street and K Street is that not everyone can be a tycoon. I’m not talking about those who try, but fail: you pays your money, you takes your chances. I’m talking about the people who, for whatever reason, choose not to play. People who are content to put in their forty hours, go home, and play with their kids. Pay for their home and retire without having to worry if the price of dog food will starve them.

A pure capitalist sees these people as having no value. They’re weak, and exist only as overhead to slow the engine the entrepreneur is trying to drive. This is why ardent laissez-faire capitalists are ultimately mistaken. Deluded, even.

Not everyone can be a titan of industry, even if they wanted to. Someone has to actually build the cars. Unload the ships. Mine the coal. Even as our economy becomes more service based, we still need people to work retail sales, repair appliances, and cut hair. Cops and fireman and teachers aren’t nice to have; they’re critical.

To a capitalist, these people are overhead, a drag on the bottom line. Yet automakers sell a hell of a lot more cars to these folks than they do to business owners. The board of directors of Consolidation Coal aren’t going into the mines any time soon, and it’s a safe bet Rick Wagoner couldn’t hook up a transaxle if his life depended on it. The entrepreneurs provide vision and, we hope, leadership, but it’s still the people fixing potholes and washing windows who actually get these things done.

I’m not so na├»ve to believe this is going to change anytime soon; money talks. But until there’s some fundamental recognition of the value of the non-capitalist in a capitalist society, we’re going to end up where we are now every thirty to eighty years, no matter how smart the Masters of the Universe like to think they are. I’m not advocating class warfare, though it may sound like it to some. I’m not even pushing for common courtesy. It’s just common sense.

(Explanation of the title: Season Two of The Wire dealt with the loss of stevedore jobs on the Baltimore Harbor. The union leader was named Frank Sobotka.)

Friday, April 03, 2009

Surprise Surprise Surprise

South Carolina governor Mark Sanford has decided at the eleventh hour to accept the federal stimulus package. I’m shocked—shocked!—by this reversal of his principled position.

Only a true cynic would think even for an instant that Sanford saw this as win-win for himself. First he got to polish his conservative bona fides by trashing the stimulus as a socialistic corruption of the traditions that made this country great. Then he could point to South Carolina’s 11% unemployment rate and say he had to take the money against his will and better judgment because his people are hurtin’ bad.

He might as well announce the creation of his exploratory committee for a 2012 presidential run now and get it over with.

Not an Anti-Semantic Comment

From the Washington Post, Friday, April 3:

Pope Benedict XVI marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II with a memorial Mass on Thursday and new prayers for the Polish pontiff's beatification.

Prayers are always appreciated. Whether you believe in them or not, it’s the thought that counts. It’s nice for Benedict to pray for JP’s soul, but for beatification, which leads to sainthood? It’s not God Who makes that Decision: men do. In this case, a man appointed by Benedict, Archbishop Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Sainthood is nice, too, but it’s not a God-given appellation. (Neither is pope, but that’s a different heretical post.) It’s something the Catholic Church came up with on its own, for its own reasons. I think of it as the Hall of Fame for Catholics, but that’s probably the heretic in me talking.

Canonizing someone does not make that person a saint; officially, they were always a saint. Canonization is only the earthly recognition of this fact. This means God has already done his Part; it’s just a matter of getting we slow catchers-on to get with the program. Benedict has already waived the traditional five-year waiting period for canonization. Now he’s publicly praying and advocating for it, even though John Paul II is already either a saint, or he isn’t. Nothing Benedict, or any Catholic official, can do will change that. They’re just deciding about the human, earthly acceptance of it. (Which could be wrong, whichever way it comes down. Humans, unlike deities, are not infallible.)

Benedict isn’t really praying; he’s lobbying. He has his own bully pulpit as jefe Catolica, and he’s getting out The Word to those who will make the actual decision—and work for him—how he wants it to come out. Which is fine. Spare us all the mysticism. It’s not like a huge golden hand came through the ceiling and tapped Benedict alone of all the cardinals to make him pope; he won an election. Took several ballots, too. This means men chose him, independent of divine inspiration. God may be a lot of things, but not many would argue He’s indecisive.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Life on Planet Republica

Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) wrote today in today’s Washington Post:

[Obama’s budget] shows very clearly where the president and the Democratic majority want to take our country: sharply to the left

With all due respect, Senator Gregg, have you seen the 2008 election results? Did you watch the campaign? That’s exactly what they said they would do, and that’s why they’re the majority today. That’s what most people want.

Reaganite Republicans have grown so fossilized in their thinking that accepting reality is now considered to be a leftist principle. The prime precepts of their alternative budget are to cut taxes, freeze most spending for five years, halt stimulus and slash federal health programs for the poor and elderly. This is basically saying the fiscal policies that exacerbated the current situation can fix it if we just do them to a greater degree. Yes, the bursting of the housing bubble brought this on, but the uneven expansion of the Bush era, a lack of reliable spending on infrastructure maintenance, and weakening of the social safety net have made the current recession much deeper than it needs to be. All they left out was a loosening on bank and financial regulations. That should fix things right up.

These guys honest to God don’t get it. For weeks I thought liberal-leaning commentators were overexuberant when predicting the Republicans were on their to becoming a rump party. If they keep this up, I’m not so sure.