Sunday, January 31, 2010

keep a stiff upper lip

The British are famous for staying calm and carrying on.

Shortly before she moved to Evanston in the spring of 2007, Sharon encountered a man who added an entirely different meaning to the term.

Due to a wide variety of work locations, the four members of the Brennan clan found themselves living in three different locations in the Chicago area in 2006.

Kelly was a nanny for a family that lived in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago, so decided it made sense to get her own apartment in the Lakeview area of Chicago, close to the Belmont harbor.

I had moved to Evanston not long after starting work at The Autobarn, and wound up renting a one bedroom apartment a block from the dealership where I worked, starting in June of 2005. Since Brian did not have any solid prospects in the Logan Square area, he decided to become my roommate, and wound up landing a couple of different jobs in Evanston.

Since the family that Sharon was a nanny for lived in Chicago, it made sense for her to commute to work from Logan Square, and all 4 of us got together on the weekends, normally in Logan Square.

In late 2006, Sharon’s family moved to Glencoe, which meant that her commute time increased to more than an hour on heavily traveled Western Avenue, the l-o-n-g-e-s-t street in Chicago

After taking care of a small child all week, and enduring a LONG ride home, she was usually pretty beat by the time she backed the old Buick into the carport at the apartment on North Drake.

One evening in the spring of 2007, she arrived home after a particularly trying day at work, and after a horrendously long commute, to find that an obstacle was blocking access to the carport

The “obstacle” turned out to be the body of a recently-deceased homeless person who lived in the area.

Since all she wanted to do was put the car in the carport and “put on her jammies”, she didn’t have much patience for her situation.

Fortunately, another homeless person was standing nearby.

When she saw him, she said, “hey, put on these plastic gloves and help me move this body”.

He said, “lady, I’m not touching that body”, to which she replied, “oh yes you are!”

Dutifully, he put on the plastic gloves that she always kept in the car, and helped her move the body way from the carport garage door so that she could back her car in.

After they had finished moving the body, she told the homeless man to call the cops, and she retired for the night.

In a manner of minutes, two fire trucks, an ambulance, and a police car appeared in the alley, and the rapidly stiffening remains were put into a zippered bag and hauled away.

It wasn’t too long after that that the two of us moved into a larger place in Evanston, and we’ve been there every since.

Although Evanston DOES have its share of eccentric people, it’s a much more pleasant place to live in than Chicago, but here’s an interesting fact:

I’ve known Sharon for more than 40 years, and regardless of where she is living, life will never be dull.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

the way that things out to be

In a perfect world, schools would have all the money they need, the Air Force would have to hold a bake sale in order to buy a bomber, and chubby ultra-conservative talk show hosts wouldn’t get paid huge sums of money for making outrageous statements on the air.

As we all know, though, this ain’t a perfect world.

In 2010, the California school system will attempt to plug its $700 million deficit by laying off 9000 staff members and teachers, and Chicago is hoping to use federal money to help close its projected deficit of $475,000,000.

The first flight of the B-2 (stealth) bomber was on July 17, 1989. Although the Air Force initially planned to buy 132 bombers, the program became so costly that only 21 were actually purchased. The total program cost, which includes development, engineering and testing, averaged US$2.1 billion per aircraft (in 1997 dollars). No matter how you slice it, it would take an awful lot of cookies to buy even ONE of these things.

Rush Hudson Limbaugh III first started working at radio stations when he was 16 years old. Although he was fired in Pittsburgh in late 1974, when he was reportedly told by management that he would never make it as on air talent, and should consider going into sales, he continued to pursue positions in radio.

As of 2006, Arbitron ratings indicated that The Rush Limbaugh Show had a minimum weekly audience of 13.5 million listeners, making it the largest radio talk show audience in the United States.

According to a 2001 article in U.S. News & World Report, Limbaugh had an eight-year contract, at the rate of $31.25 million a year. In 2007, Limbaugh earned $33 million. On July 2, 2008, Matt Drudge reported that Limbaugh signed a contract extension through 2016 that is worth over $400 million, breaking records for any broadcast.

I discovered the other day that the man who “has talent on loan from God” was born on January 12, 1951, so the least I can do is wish the old windbag a happy birthday. Interesting enough, Howard Stern (the other “bad boy of radio” was born exactly three years later, on January 12, 1954. Being controversial has also been highly profitable for the man who has been fined the most times by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). When he signed a five year contract with Sirius in 2004, it was for $500,000,000, which means that the curly headed “shock jock” from New York makes at least twice as much as our friend from Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

In colonial America, people could be put to death simply for disagreeing with their minister. As a result, our Founding Fathers made sure that freedom of speech (as well as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly) was part of the new country’s program from day one.

I don’t listen to Limbaugh, simply because all that misinformation makes my head hurt. Truth be told, though, Rush DOES represent the way things ought to be around the world.

In parts of Afghanistan today, people are being killed because they allow their daughters to attend school

Last summer’s riots in Iran are recent reminders that freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, are simply not available to large numbers of people around the globe.

Even this week, Google and the Chinese government are embroiled in some animated discussions about censorship on the internet.

Freedom of speech isn’t always a pretty picture.

From 1910 through the 1960’s, Bughouse Square in Chicago was the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation, and a popular Chicago attraction.

In the early 1960’s, comedian Lenny Bruce started to push the boundaries of free speech as a stand up comedian

In 1963, a young preacher named Martin Luther King gave a speech in Washington, D.C., and set the stage for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 less than a year later.

In the mid-1960’s, the center of free speech activity shifted to the west, and Ground Zero for the Free Speech Movement was in Berkely.

In 1972, George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee for performing “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television". If you're interested, you can still watch in on YouTube.

It wasn’t long after that that talk radio started to blossom.

Strangely enough, Rush Limbaugh’s enormous financial success is actually due to the actions of former President Ronald Reagen.

In 1984, Limbaugh returned to radio as a talk show host at KFBK in Sacramento, California, where he replaced Morton Downey, Jr. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine—which had required that stations provide free air time for responses to any controversial opinions that were broadcast—by the FCC in 1987 meant stations could broadcast editorial commentary without having to present opposing views. Daniel Henninger wrote, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, "Ronald Reagan tore down this wall (the Fairness Doctrine) in 1987 ... and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination."

Rush is going to continue to generate a lot of publicity, so my lack of interest in his broadcasts isn’t going to hurt him very much. There are 136 references about him on Wikipedia, and 17 on, and he gets press in a number of other places as well.

Limbaugh flunked out of college after two semesters, and his views on how things ought to be are a lot different than mine, but he’s proof positive that anything is possible in America, and for that, all of us should be thankful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The wedding feast at Cana

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever He tells you.”

John 2:1-5

The gospel for the second Sunday after the Epiphany was the very familiar story of the wedding feast at Cana, which was the site of the first miracle performed by Jesus.

It wasn’t widely publicized at that time, and as miracles go, it wasn’t that big of a deal. With a little effort, I can turn water into beer (the third most popular beverage in the world) if I add some yeast, some malted barley and some hops. In today’s world, making available 150 gallons of good wine to a small wedding party that already was pretty well buzzed would be the height of folly, and the kind of act that would make trial lawyers very appreciative.

This year, though, the reading provided an opportunity for the revelation of a real miracle, one that is much more significant than the one that took place at Cana.

I have been attending services at a small local ELCA church for a little better than two years, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I noticed a small sign over the front door that read “servants entrance”. Although I know that we are all servants of the Lord, it wasn’t until this past Sunday that I realized the full implications of the phrase.

On a sunny Saturday morning this past October, one of the younger members of the congregation died suddenly, and I took off some time from work the following Wednesday to attend the funeral at the church. In all my visits to that location, I have never seen more people crammed into that little house of God than I did that day. All of wrestled with how to deal with the situation, but in the final analysis, we were all simply being God’s servants because our mere presence at the church provided at least some “moral support” to a couple of families who continue to grope with the tragedy.

One of families that was in attendance that day was the family of a young man named Danny.

Danny has been plagued with kidney problems for many years, and has undergone a number of operations that attempted to improve his health.Since all of us need at least one functioning kidney in order to live, his wife Kim put out a plea last summer to the congregation for a kidney donor.

A number of people from the congregation agreed to be tested for compatibility, and one candidate (in particular) leaped to the front of the pack.

Pastor Daniel is an interesting guy, the kind of preacher who generally manages to turn the traditional sermon into a thought-provoking and relevant conversation. His father is also an ELCA minister, which means that Pastor Dan “is the son of a preacher man”. With apologies to the late Dusty Springfield, he is one of the few religious leaders “who could really reach me”

In addition to his many good qualities, that fact that he came up with the idea for a “beer and Bible night” makes him OK in my book.

In order to be considered as a kidney donor, potential donors must pass three major hurdles – they must be healthy, have a compatible blood type, and pass a “cross match”. They also must pass a psychological screening After several months of tests, Pastor Dan was found to be a good match for Danny.

Since the first living kidney transplant took place in Boston in 1959, more than 50,000 Americans have donated their kidneys to people in need. According to the National Kidney Registry, there are three types of living kidney donations:

Direct donations
Paired exchanges
Non-directed donations

Of the three, direct donations (where the donor knows the recipient) are the rarest due to the fact that the donors are incompatible in the majority of cases, which means that Pastor Dan’s compatibility with Danny is highly unusual.

Although the procedure is more dangerous for the recipient than the donor, it is not entirely without risk for the donor:

Interestingly enough, people who have donated a kidney typically outlive the average person. Although the exact reasons for that aren’t known, there is suspicion that the altruistic act of giving the gift of life and the happiness and satisfaction that follows has a positive impact and leads to a healthier and longer life.

If you’ve ever had eggs and ham for breakfast, you’d agree that although the chicken made a contribution to the meal, the pig definitely made a commitment.

Although people who choose to be ministers freely give of themselves, it’s not a stretch to say that very few of them are as committed as Pastor Dan.

The surgery is scheduled to take place in the near future, and it will put Pastor Dan out of commission for about six weeks.

To quote from John again:

“Jesus did this, the first of His signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed His glory: and His disciples believed in Him”.

Although it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could doubt Pastor Dan’s sincerity, his selfless and courageous act should be convincing proof that all of us should believe in him.

God bless you, Pastor Dan, and God bless all of us.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

vegetables are people, too

On December 21, 2009, the New York Times published an article titled “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts like to live, too”.

Admittedly a bit “tongue in the cheek”, the article inevitably takes us to a much earlier, and even crazier, hypothesis: that grains are people, too.

When mankind shifted from a “hunting and gathering” lifestyle towards agriculture about 12,000 years ago, one of the first crops planted was barley.

Due to a fortunate set of circumstances, and through an Act of Providence, one of our long gone ancestors (in about 9000 B.C.) discovered that malted barley, when combined with water and yeast, would produce something called “beer”, which is one of world’s oldest prepared beverages. (hops were added a little later).

After water and tea, beer is the third most popular beverage consumed today. Every day, 10,000,000 pints of Guinness (which is brewed in 43 countries) are consumed around the world. Although that’s a LOT of beer, Guinness is not even close to being the most popular beer in the world.

That honor belongs to a Chinese beer named Snow

Although there have been countless songs composed about beer, there have also been a surprisingly large number composed about barley.

English folk songs about barley go back as far as 1568, but the song that most of us are familiar with is “John Barleycorn”. Although quite a few people have produced versions of the song, the one done by “Traffic” is the version that most of us know best:

John Barleycorn

The guitar solo version shown below is also well done:

strummin' along

If you’ve enjoyed listening to this hauntingly beautiful song for a lot of years, but had now idea what is was about, the lyrics below will help you make a little more sense out of it:

There were three men came out of the West,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn must die.

They've ploughed, they've sewn, they've harrowed him in,
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn was dead.

They've let him lie for a very long time,
‘Till the rains from heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head,
And so amazed them all.

They've let him stand ‘till midsummer's day,
‘Till he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard,
And so become a man.

They've hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They've rolled him and tied him by the way,
Serving him most barbarously.

They've hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he has served him worse than that,
For he's bound him to the cart

They've wheeled him around and around the field,
‘Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath,
On poor John Barleycorn.

They've hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he has served him worse than that,
For he's ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl,
And he's brandy in the glass;
And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl,
Proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman, he can't hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can't mend kettle nor pot,
Without a little Barleycorn

At the end of July last year, President Obama shared beers with Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley at the White House. He was far from the first president to consume beer at the White House (George Washington reportedly drank it after every battle, and Franklin Roosevelt won the Presidency on a campaign platform of “beer for prosperity”), but he’s the most recent example of how beer can help the world be a better place.

The next time you have a beer, give some thought to what’s REALLY in that glass, and say a prayer of thanks to John Barleycorn.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

bang, you're dead

Few topics get people riled up more than gun control, and every time some nut with a gun kills a bunch of people, the debate starts all over again:

In recent weeks, there has been some discussion online about the fact that virtually every household in Switzerland has at least one gun (issued by the government) and it’s said to be one of the safest countries in the world.

The most recent discussion that I’ve seen cites reference to the fact that the former Soviet Union, Turkey, Germany, China, Guatemala, and Cambodia (among others) have instituted strict gun control laws at various times in their history, much to the detriment of at least some of their citizens:

your number is up, pal

Being a doubting Thomas, I’ve checked out some of the assertions, and found that they are essentially accurate.

For example, although the 1938 German gun laws were actually a relaxing of the previous very strict gun laws, the laws specifically excluded Jews from the manufacturing and ownership of weapons and ammunition:

put down that ammo, Jakob

In addition, gun ownership in the People's Republic of China outside of the military, police, and paramilitary is forbidden. Possession or sale of firearms results in a minimum punishment of 3 years in prison, with the maximum being the death penalty:

trap shooting is closed for the day, Mr. Li

I’ve never owned a gun in my lifetime, nor do I plan to buy one, but I’m not a believer in the total ban of gun ownership in the United States.

I’m opposed to the total ban simply because it doesn’t work. Although Chicago instituted a total ban on guns in 1982, it has one of the highest death rates from firearms of any city in America.

However, I also believe universal ownership of guns by every household in America is totally idiotic.

If you click on the hyperlink in this sentence, you can see that the United States has one of the highest death rate from firearms of any country in the world. South Africa, which has by far the highest number of firearms related deaths in the world, has gun control laws similar to the United States. Like the NRA, The South African Gunowners' Association represents the interests of the firearms industry and gun owners. Like the NRA, it opposes and lobbies against the regulation of gun sales. SAGA is recognized by the NRA, the National Firearms Association of Canada, the Sport Shooting Association of Australia, and the Sporting Shooters Association of New Zealand.

In contrast, England (which has some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the world) has one of the lowest rates of firearm deaths.

The concept of a militia being necessary goes back to at least the 12th century in England, and debates about it have raged ever since.

The 2nd amendment to our constitution was adopted on December 15, 1791. According to the American Bar Association, there is more disagreement and less understanding about the right to bear arms than of any other current issue regarding the Constitution.

Because of a long history of neutrality, the Swiss Armed Forces army does not take part in armed conflicts in other countries, but is part of some peacekeeping missions around the world. Professional solders only constitute about 5% of the Swiss armed forces, which essentially means the country has no standing army.

By dad used to say that the only two countries that were neutral during WWII were the cowardly Swiss and the peace-loving Irish. Although his statement IS accurate, there were some other countries that were officially neutral during the war against Hitler, and some of them may surprise you in view of what’s happening in the world today:

Saudi Arabia

The interesting thing about Denmark is that the country was actually invaded by the Nazis, but still did not declare war against their oppressors.However, in view of the fact that the United States hasn’t actually declared a war since the end of WWII (and we’ve had a lot of “police actions” since that time) Denmark’s position may seem more understandable.

The United States has taken a much different path than Switzerland regarding the defense of our country and its allies, as evidenced by the fact that the 2010 budget for defense is $663.8 billion dollars.

I don’t want to know how much money that is for every man, woman, and child in America, but I DO know that it exceeds the GDP for Poland, which has the 18th largest economy in the world.

At various times in our country’s history, various citizens have become outraged at the government’s intrusion on their right to bear arms. One of the most recent groups to come into being was the Michigan Militia, which was formed in 1994 after the events in Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. When the founder of the group, Norman Olson, blamed the Japanese for the Oklahoma City bombings committed by Timothy McVeigh, his credibility plummeted to zero, and the group essentially dissolved after that.

At some point in the Cold War, both America and the Russians came to the conclusion that we each had way too many bombs in our arsenals. Avowed anti-communist Richard Nixon was involved with the first meeting of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, which were held in Helsinki, Finland in 1969, and the arms race gradually wound down. None of us feels comfortable about the fact that both Iran and North Korea are trying to be nuclear powers, and Pakistan (an Islamic country) already is, but the current state of affairs in the world is in reality the unintended consequences of our arms race with Russia in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

To quote Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and it is us”.

Where do we go from here?

For starters, our country and our world will become MORE DANGEROUS and not MORE SAFE by adding more weapons. Although some people feel that the Nobel Prize committee was premature in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, if you re-read his Inauguration Day speech, as well as his speech in Cairo last June, I think you’ll agree that he’s on the right track.

As citizens, the best thing we can do to guarantee our safety is not to buy a gun, but to write a letter to your congressman. To paraphrase the famous bumper sticker popularized by the National Rifle Association in the 1970’s:

"I'll give you my keyboard when you take it from my cold, dead hands!"

And to quote Forrest Gump:

“that’s all that I got to say”

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Kudzu is a plant in the pea family that originated in southern Japan and southeastern China. Like the humble molasses syrup, it can be used in a wide variety of end products. For example, it is used for soil improvement and preservation, animal feed, medicine, starch, soaps, lotions, jelly and compost.

Kudzu was introduced from Japan into the United States in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where it was promoted as a forage crop and an ornamental plant.

From 1935 to the early 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers in the Southeastern United States to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted it widely for many years.

It was subsequently discovered that the Southeastern US has near-perfect conditions for kudzu to grow out of control — hot, humid summers, frequent rainfall, temperate winters with few hard freezes (kudzu cannot tolerate low freezing temperatures that bring the frost line down through its entire root system, a rare occurrence in this region), and no natural predators. As such, the once-promoted plant was named a pest weed by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1953.

To a certain extent, the conditions that are ideal for growing Kudzu (warm and moist places) are also conditions that are ideal for the making of bread, which brings me to the tale of the great kudzu bread.

One of the books that I received for Christmas was “Best-Ever 400 Budget Recipes”, a book that was first published in London in 2007.

Since I’m very fond of fresh baked bread, the first recipe that I decided to make was Rye Sourdough Bread, which I started just before the end of the year.

If you’ve ever baked bread, you know that it’s a very time consuming, and labor-intensive, process.

The creation of the Rye Sourdough bread actually involves four different steps over a three day time period:

(1) creation of the starter
(2) creation of the sponge
(3) adding the flour to the starter and the sponge
(4) baking the bread

On the morning of January 1, I finished step 3, and neatly placed the completed product into 5 separate bread tins.

Because I had to go in to work, I wasn’t able to complete the process, so I asked Sharon to bake the bread when she got back from the airport.

By the time she got home, the bread mixture, just like kudzu, had spread all over the kitchen table. In desperation, she scooped it all together, and wound up putting into one VERY LARGE pile, and one MEDIUM pile.

The end result can be seen below:

Truth be told, the final product is DELICIOUS, but it DOES have a fairly strange appearance.

I’ll definitely bake more bread in the future, but for the next attempt, I’ll be sure to be a little more mindful of the time.