Monday, August 21, 2017

I work with Santa Claus


 

 

Apart from the fact that working as a substitute teacher pays pretty well for the number of hours I put in, there are 3 additional reasons that I continue to work in my so-called retirement years: 

1) every week, I learn at least one new thing

2) every week, I manage to teach a bunch of students a few new things

3) every week, I meet some very interesting people, both young and old 

When I checked into the office of a local high school on one of the first days of the current school year, I found myself standing directly behind a man who was wearing a bright red shirt, and was sporting a a delightful bushy white beard. Since he apparently would not need a pillow to fill out a Santa costume, my first thought on seeing him was “that’s Santa Claus!” As it turns out, I was exactly right.



 
 
His name is Mark. Like most baby boomers, he has held a variety of jobs in his lifetime, including bartender, music venue manager, legal researcher, stage actor, and on-air personality. As a result of his work in the music industry, he had a chance to work closely with a number of famous performers. And, yes, he got a chance to know Jerry Garcia personally. 

In 2012, he started working as a department store Santa during the holiday season. He typically works a 5 week shift, and gets paid VERY WELL for his time, and his compensation usually includes the use of a car and lodging. Since he is just as generous as Santa, he uses the majority of his "mall money" to support his charity work, which is visiting home and hospital bound children and adults in the Tucson area, which he does on a year-round basis.

As you’re probably aware, Santa is very familiar with technology. After all, how else could he keep track of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice? Not surprisingly, a few years before Mark started working as a department store Santa, he started a Facebook page called Santa for all seasons.  

In recent years, he has expanded his interests to include working as a substitute teacher at local high schools. Like most of us, he usually winds up monitoring a class that is not related to his major in college (I have yet to monitor an Economics class). In the Army, people who are trained cooks wind up being mechanics, and trained mechanics wind up being cooks. Somehow, it works for the Army, and it also seems to work for local school districts here. 

Not everyone gets to work with a celebrity on a daily basis, but if you’re listening, Virginia, I have a few words of wisdom for you: 

There IS a Santa Claus! 


 

 

 

 




 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Welcome to Transylvania




Transylvania is a real place, even though you might initially think that it is a location invented by Bram Stoker as a setting for his famous novel, Dracula.

It is located in what today is central Romania, and it has a very long history. Prior to its conquest by the Romans in 106 AD, it was the center of power for the kingdom of Dacia.

It’s not entirely clear what inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, but invasion literature was very popular in England during the last years of the 19th century. Dracula was published in 1897, but was actually preceded by at least 3 other vampire novels in the earlier parts of the 19th century. Bram Stoker spent 7 years researching European folklore and tales of vampires, and was heavily influenced by Emily Gerard’s 1885 essay titled ”Transylvania Superstitions”. Although Bran Castle in central Romania is commonly referred to as Dracula’s castle, it bears no resemblance to the fictional one created by Stoker.





The word “trans” suddenly became a hot topic a few days ago, due to the actions of our tweeter-in-chief. Without consulting with his military leaders, Trump issued an edict (by Twitter) that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the military “in any capacity”. Although it is difficult to know exactly how many transgender people are serving in the military, studies done by UCLA and the Rand Corporation put the number between 10,000 and 15,000.

Although the majority of Trump’s decisions appear be impulsive, with little regard for facts or consequences, it appears that he may have had a little help on his latest decision. To their credit, our military leaders do not plan to take any action until they are ordered to do so by John Mattis, our Defense Secretary.

In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality determined that, compared to the general population, transgender people:

Were 2.3 times more likely to serve in the military –

Were 3 times more likely to have experienced a sexual assault -

Were 3 times more likely to live in a household that had an annual income of less than $10,000 –

Were 4.8 times more likely to experience police harassment –

Were 8.7 times more likely to have attempted suicide at some point in their lives

The “man behind the curtain” on Trump’s recent decision is James Perkins, the head of Family Research Council. Early in his career, he purchased Klansman David Duke’s mailing list for use in a political campaign he was managing, and in 2001, he gave a speech to the Louisiana chapter of Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group. Perkins is a graduate of Liberty University, a right wind Christian college that was founded by the late Jerry Falwell. 

Although the Family Research Council describes itself as “the leading voice for the family in our nation’s halls of power”, its real specialty is defaming gays and lesbians. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called it an anti-LGBT hate group, putting it in the same category as the Westboro Baptist Church. 

The Family Research Council was founded by James Dobson in 1983. In recent years, the group has also set up a Facebook page called Faith Family America. If you review their page, you will notice that I added some background about its parent organization on April 2, but it was not an April Fools joke.

https://m.facebook.com/faithfamilyamerica/?refid=46&sld=eyJzZWFyY2hfc2lkIjoiMDE3OWY0ZmZjYTAzZmMwM2MzY2E5OTBkYzkxZGY5OWEiLCJxdWVyeSI6ImZhaXRoIGZhbWlseSBhbWVyaWNhIiwic2VhcmNoX3R5cGUiOiJTZWFyY2giLCJzZXF1ZW5jZV9pZCI6MTg3NTU1ODk4NSwicGFnZV9udW1iZXIiOjEsImZpbHRlcl90eXBlIjoiU2VhcmNoIiwiZW50X2lkIjoxODQ4NTk3ODUwMjYwNjAsInBvc2l0aW9uIjowLCJyZXN1bHRfdHlwZSI6Mjc0fQ%3D%3D

James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and the Family Resrach  Research Council, recently expressed his belief that transgender people using public bathrooms should be killed, completely ignoring the fact that “irregularities” in public bathrooms were the exclusive domain of Republican politicians. 
  

I’m not opposed to folks who consider themselves to be religious, but I AM opposed to the ones who hold extreme religious views. The same people who STILL believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim also believe that Donald Trump is a Christian. Both of those beliefs, of course, are pure fantasy.

Sadly, the religious extremist part of our population strongly support a man who is clearly mentally ill. In August of 2016, Michelle Bachmann (the queen of crazy) told the Christian Broadcasting Network that God picked Donald Trump to be the Republican Party’s nominee, and the “religious nuts” believed her. 81% of the white evangelicals voted for him.




To further solidity that base, Trump invited 30 religious leaders (including Bachmann) to the White House in early July, where they laid their hands on him as he bowed his head in prayer. He also recently nominated Sam Brownback, the failed governor of Kansas, to be Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. 

It’s not clear at this point how Trump’s desire to rid the military of transgender people will pan out, but I predict that it will follow the same path as the Muslim bans that he tried to implement earlier, and head straight to court. Since it is illegal in America to discriminate against people due to race, creed, color, national origin, or sexual preference, his edict is also unconstitutional, and likely to be stopped by the courts.

Although Bram Stoker’s novel was a commercial success, the character of Dracula became MUCH more popular after the motion picture industry started making movies about the character. To date, there have been more than 200 movies that have been made that either used him as a villain, or included his name in the title of the film. None of the actors who played in those films, however, will ever be as well known as Bela Lugosi, who starred in the 1931 film version.

If you carefully study a picture of Bela Lugosi, you will notice that he has a very distinctive hairline. If you also study a picture of Anthony Scaramucci, who was recently named as the White House Communication Director, you’ll notice that his hairline is a very close match to the one sported by Bela Lugosi.









Just a coincidence, you say?

Probably, but wouldn’t it be interesting to have Dracula strolling through the White House late at night?

As Donald Trump tossed and turned in his sleep, in preparation for his next 3 a.m. tweet, the sight of Dracula strolling through the halls would likely bring back memories of Ichabod Crane (from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow) rushing away in terror from the flaming pumpkin tossed his way by Brom Bones (the headless horseman).




Perhaps we would never see him again.

Now, wouldn’t that be a damn shame? 








Monday, July 24, 2017

Alice's restaurant



I love old churches.

On a trip to Oceanside, California earlier this year, our small group walked through Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, which was founded in 1798, Since it is the largest of the 21 missions in California, it is known as “the King of the Missions”. It has been close to ruin several times since it was first built, but it is now a beautifully restored and fully functional building.


  

As impressive as this building is, it is not the oldest church that I have been in, a distinction that belongs to Mission San Xavier del Bac, which was completed in 1770. Today, it has been beautifully restored, and masses are still celebrated there on a regular basis. It also happens to be located about 5 miles from our current home in Tucson.



If we ever get tot Germany, I’d like to retrace our daughter’s steps, since she actually got inside the cathedral in Cologne. Construction on this place started in 1248. If you would like to get a better idea of what is was like to build a structure like this a LOT of years ago, read “Pillars of the Earth”, by Ken Follett.


The July 23 edition of USA Today had an article about the “repurposing” of some of the old churches in our country. Sadly, at least a few of them have been razed to become a Walmart, but most of them have fared better than that. The most expensive example of repurposing is a condo development in Washington, D.C. known as The Sanctuary, where individual units sell for as much as $1,000,000.

The best known repurposed church (at least to us baby boomers) is a church that was built in 1829 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The original name was St. James Chapel, but in 1866, it was enlarged and renamed Trinity Church. At some point in time it was deconsecrated, and in 1964, it was purchased by Alice and Ray Brock, who converted it to their private home. In 1965, they hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at the place, and one of their guests was a young man named Arlo Guthrie, who they had met due to their mutual connection to the art-oriented Stockbridge School. After dinner, Arlo and few other guests offered to take out the garbage – and that’s when things got interesting.




I’ve actually been to Stockbridge, Massachusetts (the scene of the crime), and I have seen both the former church that the Brocks bought (now the Guthrie center) and the local police station, where officer Obie used to work. I have even been to Alice’s first restaurant, which was located directly below the studios of Norman Rockwell.

Arlo Guthrie purchased the property in 1991, and converted it to the Guthrie Center, a non-denominational church. Every year at Thanksgiving, the center hosts a “Thanksgiving dinner that can’t be beat”, and the proceeds from the dinner are used to fight Huntington’s disease, the ailment that killed Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie.

Some of the church repurposing in our country has taken a more sinister side, since at least a dozen churches in America (including one in my old home town of Evanston) are purported to be haunted. Although the real officer Obie died in 1994, and his old chair sits inside the Guthrie Center, he has not made an appearance – so far.

If you ever find yourself in the Northeastern part of America on a road trip, and you’re feeling hungry, just remember this fact:

You can anything you want at Alice’s restaurant. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m57gzA2JCcM















Monday, July 17, 2017

This swill is not swell


 

 

The summer after I graduated from college, I shared an apartment near St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minnesota with three other guys, all of whom had at least some connection to the St. Paul seminary. One of them eventually became a Catholic deacon, and one of them actually made it all the way through the ordination process – but it got complicated after that. 

What we all had in common was a fondness for beer. Fortunately, one of my roommates (John Huls, who later became a pilot for the Air Force) went home to northern Minnesota on nearly a weekly basis, and he always brought back at least one case of Fox Deluxe beer, which sold for less than $3 for a case of 24 bottles. 

As you might suspect, Fox Deluxe is not what you would consider to be a “premium beer”, but in 1969, there weren’t a lot of premium beers anyway.  

As I was waiting in line this morning at a local grocery story, I thought of Fox Deluxe again, largely due to the fact that the customer in front of me was buying a 30 pack of Busch beer, which sells for roughly $17.99, not much more than you would pay for TWELVE bottles of the better known craft beers like Samuel Adams, Shock Top, or Blue Moon. . 

Fox Deluxe was brewed in Chicago until the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, when production was shifted to my old home town of Waukesha, Wisconsin.  A short time later, production was shifted to the Cold Spring brewery in Minnesota. 

Due to the proliferation of craft brewers in America, you would assume that Fox Deluxe had simply gone the way of the dinosaurs – but you would be wrong. 

Today, there is a new Fox Deluxe brewery in Oswego, Illinois. Their offerings include an IPA, a wit, a doppelbock, and an abbey blonde, all of which are a far cry from what Fox Deluxe sold in the summer of 1969. 


One of the definitions of “swill” found in the Urban Dictionary is “cheap crappy beer”, which the 1969 version certainly was. 

Just as there is still a market for MD2020 and Ripple wine, there is also still a market for what is now called “sub premium beer”, which holds roughly 10% of the market share for beer in America today.   

The Slate article included below provides more insight into the “sub premium” market. Although I would recommend that you read it in its entirety, here are a few of the highlights: 



Natural Light – it’s the best-selling beer in the sub-premium category, and the 5th best- selling beer in the country. According to RateBeer.com, however, it is the second worst beer in the world, trailing only Olde English 800, which is a malt liquor. 

Milwaukee’s Best – according to The Beast, it should more properly be called Milwaukee’s Worst. The best description of the beer, though, is the description of it by a Beer Advocate user named bambam2517: 

Took about 9 of these before I could swig down a swallow without making a clicking sound with my cheeks. Once I got past that though, it was all I thought it could be. Got me cross-eyed, piss in my roomies sock drawer drunk. Left me with a skull splitting hangover the next morning. Everything I remember from it in college is still true. 

Busch – introduced by Budweiser in 1955 to undercut Budweiser’s low end competitors. The most redeeming quality of the beer is its label, which depicts snowy mountain peaks. 
Image result for busch beer
 

Miller High Life – the “champagne of beers” used to be considered high class, but its image slipped when Miller discounted its price in the 1980’s. 

PBR – this is the only one of the sub-premium beers whose sales have increased this past year, possibly because it is now considered to be a “rebel” beer 

Porkslap Pale Ale – not necessarily the best beer of the group, but worth buying just to get the label.


Image result for porkslap pale ale
 

None of us will ever try any of the world’s most expensive beers, even though I’d be tempted to buy a Samuel Adams Utopia if I suddenly had more money than I knew what to do with. What’s particularly interesting is that a version of Pabst Blue Ribbon also would up on the list. 


Whether you like beer of not, it’s a fact that Benjamin Franklin had this to say about it: 

“beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” 

How can I argue with that? 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Those darn foreign cars


 

 Until the 1960’s, foreign cars did not make much of a dent in the American car market. By the early 1950’s, General Motors was the largest corporation in America, and from 1949 to 1978, the full size Chevrolet was the best-selling car in America for all but 3 years.  

By 1955, General Motors became the first corporation in America to pay $1 billion in taxes, and the only employers in the world who were larger than General Motors were the combined Soviet agencies. 

Needless to say, things have changed a lot in recent years. 

In 1949, Volkswagen sold exactly 2 cars in the United States, but the company’s sales increased dramatically in the 1960’s, in large part to the efforts of their advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach. In 1999, Advertising Age’s “The Century of Advertising” voted Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ads as the no.1 campaign of all time. In 1970, Volkswagen sold 570,000 Beetles, its peak year for the model. 
 
 
 

 
 


 
If you read through the link below, you’ll discover that General Motors has had some tough times in recent years, which culminated in the firing of its CEO by the President of the United States in 2009. 


Up until the 1970’s, Japanese cars sold an insignificant number of cars, even though Toyota first started selling cars here in 1957. Over time, the deteriorating quality of domestic models, coupled with safety issues for VW, helped Japanese car sales to increase  In 1982, Honda became the first Japanese brand to establish a manufacturing plant in America (in Marysville, Ohio). Other Japanese makers quickly followed suit, and today, Honda has 4 manufacturing plants in America, and Toyota has 6. In addition, Nissan, Subaru (Fuji Heavy Industries), and Mitsubishi all built plants here, and they have been followed by other European and Asian companies.     

 Although the full size Chevy was the best-selling car in America for decades, it eventually lost its crown to the Oldsmobile Cutlass, which was the best-selling car in America in 1976, 1980, and 1981. 

The Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in America between 1992 and 1996, but gradually fell from favor. For the last 15 years, the Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in America. Prior to 1998, the best-selling Japanese model (for 15 years) was the Honda Accord. 

General Motors was the largest auto manufacturer from 1932 to 2009, when it get passed up by Toyota. In 2014, General Motors got passed up by Volkswagen, and is now the THIRD largest car company in the world. Eventually, of course, one of the Chinese companies will move to one of the top tiers, since China is currently the largest car market in the world. China already makes models for Volvo and Buick that are sold in America, and that trend will likely continue. 

Korean cars first entered the American market in 1985, when the Hyundai Excel was introduced to our market. The car’s quality was good, and the car sold in large numbers because it was considered to be a bargain. 

The Hyundai Motor Company was founded in 1976. After its merger with Kia, it is now the 4th largest auto manufacturer in the entire world, behind Toyota, VW, and General Motors.  The company’s manufacturing plant Ulsan, South Korea is the world’s largest integrated auto manufacturing facility.  

Many Americans would not even consider buying a Kia, but here is something to consider: 

For the last 2 years, Kia has had the best initial quality of any manufacturer, according to J.D Power and associates. If you also include Genesis (another Hyundai subsidiary) and Hyundai, you’ll realize that Hyundai has captured 3 of the top 10 spots in the survey.


Today, there is no such thing as an American car, or a Japanese car, or a European car, since all vehicles use parts from all over the world. The car that has the highest percentage of American parts and labor is actually the Toyota Camry, and cars that you might consider “American iron” (like the Chevy Impala) are actually made in Ontario Canada. If you are curious where a car is built, the first number (or letter) of the 17 digit VIN will tell you that information.


A few months ago, our Nissan Altima (made in Smyrna, Tennessee) had outlived its usefulness, and was replaced by a Hyundai Sonata. You can consider it to be a Korean car if you want, but only if you consider Montgomery Alabama (where it is built) to be part of Korea.  

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that General Motors was the first corporation in American to pay $1 billion in taxes, so here’s a fact that will surprise you:  

In addition to my Social Security income, I also receive income for being a substitute teacher. Since both my wife and I are both over 65, we qualify for a double exemption, so our taxable income for at least the last 2 years has been ZERO. In spite of that fact, though, we paid more in taxes than General Motors, who had a tax CREDIT in 2015 of $1.9 billion, even though its earnings before taxes were $7.7 billion. General Motor’s worst year was 2008, when it lost over $30 billion, and had to be bailed out by the U.S government. 

In pure dollar amounts, the government lost over $10 billion on its investment in GM, but saved the country from a disaster that would have been far worse. However, when you factor in the profit that the government made from its $432.7 billion in both TARP and the auto industry, the government actually made a PROFIT of $10.9 billion, including the $10.5 billion it lost on General Motors.  


If you’ve ever hesitated to buy a “foreign car”, consider this: 

In 2010, only 3 of the top 10 cars sold in America had domestic names, but 9 out of the 10 were made here. In 2010, Chevrolet (the “most American” of brands) sold 20 models in American but only 10 of them were made here. . 


 You can still the USA in your Chevrolet, but you’ll meet a lot fewer Chevys along the way than you used to, and you’ll see a lot more of “those darn foreign cars”.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The religion of Facebook




 

 

 

The Washington Post published an article on the morning of July 4 that had an interesting premise. It stated that if Facebook were a religion, it would be the second most popular religion in the entire world. 

That seems a bit far-fetched, until you consider a few facts: 

The most popular religion in the world is Islam, with 1.3 billion adherents. 

Close behind the religion of the Muslims is Roman Catholicism, which has 1.2 billion followers. However, when grouped together with its many variations (Lutheranism, Greek Orthodox etc.) Christianity jumps to the number one spot, with 2.1 billion followers. 

If you review the chart shown below, you’ll discover a few surprises: 


The THIRD most popular religion in the world (with 1.1 billion “followers”) is “none of the above”, which translates into “non-believers”. In all, there are 4300 religions practices around the world, including the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which is considered a legitimate religion in at least 2 countries in the world. 

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Spaghetti_Monster

 


 
Although Facebook has only existed since 2004, it would be considered a VERY successful company. As of today’s date, it has 2 billion followers around the world, which technically would make it the world’s 2nd most popular “religion”. However, in July of 2014, Facebook had 2.2 billion users (roughly 1/3 of the world’s population), which technically would have made it THE most popular “religion” in the world,


To say that Mark Zuckerberg has done well in recent years is a HUGE understatement. In January of this year, his net worth jumped by $5 billion, and it has increased rapidly since that time. As of today’s date, he is worth $62.5 billion, which makes him the 5th richest man in the entire world. It’s not hard to imagine him eventually passing Bill Gates to become the richest person on the planet.


To put Zuckerberg’s wealth into perspective, consider this fact: 

He is now 31 years old. If you added up the net worth of every other individual in the United States who is 31 years old, their wealth would be unlikely to be worth as much as Zuckerberg is all by himself. On top of all that, he was Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2010 – when he was 24 years old.  


 Although Donald Trump has been on the cover of Time 14 times, he was 43 years old when he made it the first time – and not all of those covers have been complimentary

 

 


As the article in Forbes magazine mentions, he and his wife plan to give away 99% of his wealth during their lifetimes. Since he has founded an LLC instead of a charitable trust, he has a lot more control over where his money goes, which means that he could dwarf both the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelman on political donations, Although he would be considered a conservative by some people, and a liberal by others, the notes under “politics” on his bio (see Wikipedia article) seem to indicate that liberal causes have a strong edge in his overall philosophy.
 

Zuckerber’s wife, Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg, is the daughter of ethnic Chinese refugees who fled Vietnam in refugee boats. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school class in Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard (where she met Zuckerberg) in 2007. She graduated from the University of California (San Francisco) in 2012 with a medical degree, and is now a licenses pediatrician. She is fluent in Cantonese, English, and Spanish, and is the first person in her family to graduate from college. Her famous husband, meanwhile, can read and write French, Hebrew, and ancient Greek, in addition to his fluency in English. 

We can argue until the cows come home about whether America is the greatest country in the world (it isn’t) but where else could a young Jewish boy from New York, and the  daughter of immigrants, enjoy success beyond the wildest imagination of even the most optimistic of our population?  

Can I get an “amen”, brothers and sisters?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

His name was Pierino




None of us can explain why our brains work the way they do, so you’ll understand when I tell you that I have no idea why I woke up this morning thinking about a person who was very famous when I was growing up.

After breakfast, I did some research, and learned a number of interesting facts about him. He was the 7th of 10 children born to a poor immigrant family in the early years of the 20th Century, but the first of the family who was born in America. Since his family spoke their native tongue at home, he did not start speaking English until he started school.

Although his father was a poor mill hand, he believed in the value of music for his children, and all of his children took music lessons, even though he could barely afford them. Because his family did not have a lot of money, young Pierino started working when he was 10 at a local barber shop for the princely sum of 50 cents a week.

When he was 14, his father became unable to work due to a heart condition. By this time, Pierino had acquired enough skills as a barber that he was able to open his own barber shop, In a very short period of time, he was doing well enough that he had to hire 2 additional barbers.

When he was 17, he met his future wife at a picnic, and fell immediately in love. By the time of his death, at the age of 84, he and his wife had been married for 65 years. Due the delight of my Catholic relatives, he was “a good Catholic boy”, and he managed to get through his entire life without a hint of scandal. For their silver anniversary, Pierino and his wife traveled to Rome to visit Pope Pius XII. While there, he was named a Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and his wife was named Lady Commander.

At the age of 20, his musical training as a child paid off, and he was offered a singing position in a band. However, since the $28 he would make in a week was less than $125 he made as a barber, his wife could not afford to travel with him, However, his father encouraged him to pursue a singing career, which turned out to be very good advice, since his career spanned for close to 60 years. In addition to live performances, he also performed on the radio, on television, and in movies. He finally retired at the age of 82, after acquiring numerous awards, including three stars on the Holllywood Walk of Fame.

I won’t tell you his name, but if you click on the link shown below, you’ll be able to listen to his best known song. I guarantee you that it will stay in your head for the rest of the day - but I can’t explain why.