Tag Archives: Rants

Happy Irrelevant Cultural Holiday

When I was growing up—in Minnesota, nearly 40 years ago—St. Patrick’s Day meant wearing green or risk getting pinched. I remember one year in high school—probably about ninth grade—I was late for school because I couldn’t find something both green and flattering to wear on St. Patrick’s Day. And I really didn’t want to get pinched.

Finally, I decided to wear a necklace with light green beads. Weak, very weak showing on St. Patrick’s Day. I probably got pinched anyway.

About a decade ago, I moved to Illinois and I was astounded by what St. Patrick’s Day meant to people. Sure, some of the folks here wear green and Chicagoans dye the Chicago River green, but if you’re observing this patron saint’s day properly in Chicagoland, you better be toasting with a foamy green beer and a plate of corned beef.

Green leaves

Ah, green, a reminder of spring. Not beer.

Just about every restaurant around here has a St. Patrick’s Day special that includes corned beef and sometimes cabbage or soda bread. Maybe Chicago is particularly merry about this holiday, but I think this secular fascination with all things green on St. Patrick’s Day has spread across the country. I blame lazy marketers who run every great religious holiday straight into the ground by starting too early, going too literal and turning it into a secular excuse to drink alcohol.

If it’s Irish, it has to be green? Really? St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was born in England and brought by pirates to Ireland as a slave. He eventually escaped, found God and returned to Ireland as a missionary.

When we should be remembering his courage and benevolence, we’re honoring St. Patrick by wearing dorky four-leaf-clover hats and complaining about how gassy cabbage makes us.

Most of us wouldn’t know even his first name without the green beer. All we Americans need to twist the meaning of a solemn holiday is liquor, a three-day weekend and fireworks (see: Independence Day). Because newspapers/magazines/bars/TV newscasters need a hook to get our attention, we’re all celebrating a holiday that means nothing to most of us because it’s an excuse to get drunk. Yes, I get curmudgeonly about it.

If you like corned beef, you can eat it any day of the year. And if you like green beer or Irish coffee, you should examine your excuses for imbibing at 10 a.m. You may have a problem that can only be solved with a 12-step program.

Wikipedia now defines St. Patrick’s Day as a cultural and religious holiday honoring Irish heritage. OK, this is nice for the Irish, if not St. Patrick, but one has to dig pretty deep in Google results to find holidays honoring Nigerian or Japanese heritage.

Since I am a little bit Scotch-Irish (which means I could be Irish but it also means I could be Scottish), I am wearing green today in honor of St. Patrick, not St. Patrick’s Day (and also, to guard against getting pinched). And I might enjoy some corned beef because it’s delicious and plentiful. I’m passing on the green beer (though I might quaff an amber one). My advice? You do you.

I’m also sharing a little bit of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a popular prayer attributed to the patron saint which was shared in church today. This is the most secular bit of it, and it’s quite beautiful whether you believe in St. Patrick or God or green beer:

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

Thank you, St. Patrick, for inspiring today’s blog post. God rest your eternal soul.

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Cold enough, eh?

Well. wouldn’tcha know it, the third week of January came a week late this year. The same sloppy Polar Vortex that can’t keep its boundaries straight can’t read a calendar either.

I haven’t written a blog in nearly a week because I have no inspiration. And if I had inspiration, my motivation has slipped through the door to (and fallen on the ice, no doubt). It’s tough to work up a head of steam when it’s so cold, the hairs in your nose freeze.

frost

That’s sunshine behind them thar frost covered windows.

It was 24 degrees below zero this morning in southern Wisconsin, if my Beloved’s Weather Underground app can be believed. Every square inch of the windows in our unheated entryway was covered in frost. Jack Frost comes out to play when Old Man Winter gets unseemly.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go outside. I worked upstairs in my home office with the space heater on and a hot cup of tea. But many of my Midwestern friends posted pictures or videos of their car temperatures, the wide-open roads bereft of rush hour traffic and even shows of boiling water vaporizing in the frigid air.

This is crazy cold, the stuff of legend. “You remember that January in ’19 when it got down to 30 below zero? My car wouldn’t start even when I had it plugged in! My eyelids froze shut! I didn’t warm up until Valentine’s Day!”

[Did that reference to plugging in your car go over your head, my sweet Southern friend? Up here in God’s country, we have devices known as block heaters that, when powered with an extension cord, keep the oil in a car’s oil pan liquified (or at least viscous enough to flow through the engine). Yup, that’s Scandihoovian ingenuity at work, you betcha.]

We Midwesterners endure run-of-the-mill cold every year. Like, the high temperature hasn’t risen into double digits for a week, and when it finally does, a foot of snow drops out of the sky. That kind of thing happens every year. But temperatures fifty or sixty degrees below freezing? Well, that’s once-in-a-generation type of cold. That’s the stuff a good Minnesotan takes pride in. “Twenty below? That’s nothing! I go ice fishing when it gets 20 degrees below zero–just makes the beer taste better! Now forty below, that’s something to see. Or feel, rather. Only the toughest endure that kind of cold.”

Fortunately, February is quite literally right around the corner and she’s bringing balmier weather with her and the distraction of the Superbowl being played in Atlanta. We Midwesterners don’t care much about a couple of teams from the coasts trying the best one another in a Southern city, but heck, we like any reason to make a hot dip or place a friendly bet. We’re just glad the cold gave us our chance to exercise our bragging rights.

California: A Tale of Two Sequoias

One of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen in all my travels across this amazing Earth is General Sherman.

tree general sherman

General Sherman, center

General Sherman is the world’s biggest tree (by volume) and is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old. That makes the tree older than Christianity and, quite frankly, most dirt.

Gazing on this beautiful tree makes one feel distinctly like a mosquito – an irritating little blood sucker whose life is a blink and whose death is a smear of blood that is wiped away in a single breath.

General Sherman is a sequoia, a genus of redwood coniferous trees, found only at a certain elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Sierra Nevada is situated mostly in California, and it also boasts Yosemite National Park, where we observed first-hand the “tunnel view” of the park which features Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Waterfall. Breathtaking.

California is, of course, home to Napa Valley, too, where we spent nearly two weeks sipping on some of the best wine on earth, grown in the distinctive valley. We got there by driving across the Central Valley with an abundance of rich soil where most of the country’s almonds, olives, strawberries and celery are grown.

It’s a state rich in natural beauty and natural resources.

And it’s where 39 million Californians call home.

Including the well-rounded bleach blonde who, in dropping off her equally bronzed and perfectly coiffured friends behind the Boon Fly Café, managed to block the narrow passageway for a solid five minutes while she chatted with her buddies as they unloaded … something …. obviously important, but unseen … behind her vehicle. She was clearly the most important person visiting the cafe that day.

My Beloved and I were attempting to leave the premises (what’s the rule about elevators? Always let passengers exit before you board, right? Isn’t that wise advice for busy parking lots, too?). When Bleach Blonde eventually got back behind the wheel and looked as if she was finally ready to proceed to the parking lot behind us, my Beloved didn’t back up to make way for her. Instead, he inched our pick-up forward (I love him for his ballsiness), which forced Bleach Blonde to back up (which she should have done in the first place and certainly without hesitation once she returned to her vehicle).

Then she had the gall to stare me down as we passed. She! Was ticked! At us! For making her! Back up!

Oh, really!

She was driving an enormous, gleaming black Toyota Sequoia, pretty much the biggest sports utility vehicle on the road.

Of course.

Unfortunately, Bleach Blonde is Exhibit No. 1 in my book of Arrogant Californians, who seem to inhabit the state at an above average rate.

Have I ever told you about the visit I paid many long years ago to a bed-and-breakfast in San Diego?

Surely I have (because I’m still smarting from the glance two decades ago of the Californian looking down her nose at me as she marveled at my origin). But just in case you missed it, let me regale you.

Being a Midwesterner means sometimes defending one’s residence to people who aren’t from the Midwest.

I remember a conversation one morning at a San Diego bed-and-breakfast with a California couple. When I told them we were from Minnesota, they exclaimed, “Minnesota! Who would ever want to live there? You must be crazy!”

As Californians, they apparently thought they knew Minnesota to be a vast wasteland near the Canadian border where it’s always winter and residents rarely emerge from their igloos.

It’s cold in Minnesota, and winter is long, and that bitter season is one of the reasons I became a Minnesota transplant for a while living two states south.

But it’s not so bad that only crazy people live there (only some of the people who live there are crazy). And for the record, despite Illinois’ history of criminal governors and high interstate highway tolls, that Midwest state is also not filled with a bunch of rubes, and it’s a nice place to live.

In my limited experience in California, but certainly during my most recent visit, the only polite and deferential Californians we met were the ones we were paying. Servers, clerks, Uber drivers, the woman at the veterinarian office – all of them were pleasant, some joys to meet.

California drivers? If they weren’t passing us going 100 miles an hour on winding mountain roads, they were cutting us off in eight lanes of traffic. Some of them were borderline psychotic.

California RVers in the parks we stayed who apparently sussed us out by our Illinois license plates? Let’s just say they were cool. If they acknowledged our existence at all.

Most of the pourers at the wineries we visited were quite friendly (I’m thinking of you, Miner Winery, and Jean-Pierre at CRU. Impeccable). But as soon as you tried to hand over a 2-for-1 pass, we got the side-eye and anemic splashes of the vino. The message: Coupons are so low-class. Midwesterners use coupons. Therefore, Midwesterners are low-class.

Even as I write this, I am aware of my hypocrisy and error. By generalizing Californians as aloof snobs, then I am stereotyping just like I believe Californians do as they look at me and think “Midwestern hick.” I have many fine friends of California origins; immediately, I think specifically of two of my virtual friends, both former Creative Memories field leaders, who are among the hardest working, God-fearing and kindest people I know (and, let’s be honest, they friended me even though I’m quite obviously from the Midwest, where Creative Memories had its home office). So let’s be clear: Not all people who live in California drive Sequoias and behave as if they’re the biggest tree in the forest.

But.

Some do.

Which is one of the reasons I believe California is a nice place to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Fast casual highway robbery

Worse than tip jars, it’s fast casual restaurants that present a receipt for you to sign with “optional” tips.

Before you know how long your food will take.

Before you know if it’ll be hot when it arrives.

Before you know if the cook omitted the onions as requested.

Before you know if you’ll have to hunt down your own napkins and silverware (ahem, probably plastic ware).

Before you know if you’ll have the ketchup you want.

Before you know if you’ll be wanting a second beer and having to stand in a long line to get one while your meal gets ever colder.

Before you know if you have to bus your own dishes.

What’s fast casual? It’s those restaurants where you eye the menu board while standing in line to place your order and pay the cashier before finding a seat. Sometimes you retrieve your own order when your name is called and sometimes a food runner–not a server by any means–delivers your order. Think: Panera Bread.

I’ve been to a number of fast casual, non-chain restaurants recently, many of which use Square credit card processing or a variant, and when the order taker thrusts a receipt at me to sign (or turns the iPad to have me sign), it offers suggested tips. Not a tip of 5 percent or 10 percent, which might be reasonable to reward an order taker and a food runner who do a quarter or half the work a server performs in a sit-down restaurant, but suggested tips of 15, 20, 25 percent–one place suggested a 30 percent tip! Really? Before I know anything about my dining experience beyond the description of the food (provided by a menu board) and the price? Are you kidding me?

Don’t get me wrong here. I appreciate good service, and I think most servers work hard and earn a 20 percent tip (20 percent pre-tax–I’m not gonna tip a server based on the government’s share). But someone who knows how to operate an order-taking device and maybe a bartender who knows how to pour a glass of beer from a tap? Twenty percent? 

Um, no. 

I wouldn’t be offended if the suggested tips started at 5 percent, but to even list 30 percent is a complete joke.

I’m going to start writing Yelp reviews complaining about this practice, and I’m going to start looking for the “other” button to fill in a tip more in line with 5 percent or 10 percent. But I’m going to look around first, and if it looks like I’m going to have to bus my own trash, I’m passing altogether on a tip. If I’m doing most of the work, I’m keeping the tip for myself.

Weighty matters

Oh, my gawd, I saw the most compelling news story on the Today show this morning while I was running on the treadmill (thank gawd I was multi-tasking).

Today national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen revealed that fast food served at major chains like McDonald’s and Subway doesn’t actually look as good as the commercials portray (Fast-food face-offs: Does it look as good in real life as on TV?).

Can you believe that?

No, not that Americans are getting short shrift on their fast food orders. That Jeff Rossen hasn’t ever heard of food styling. Or photography filters.

Is it false advertising that you can’t actually see the ground beef patties in your Big Mac (like on TV)? Or is it false advertising that Rossen passes himself off as an “investigative correspondent”? He spent an afternoon and $20 to develop this 5-minute piece of this enlightening video.

Ugh.

This is what’s wrong with television journalism, I thought as I covered the treadmill miles. So I changed the channel, only to find Good Morning America tackling the troubling trend of skateboarders taking to freeways for their hijinks, complete with the hashtag #FreewayChallenge. This was accompanied by repeating loops of the daredevils falling in the street. I felt like I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. So if we have Jackass-inspired video and a hashtag, then it’s news?

No, this is the definition of the word irritainment, which I learned earlier this week from a “news” story in the Star Tribune. Irritainment is defined as “entertainment that is irritating but also so enticing that you can’t stop watching.”

So I quit watching. I turned off the TV news and hit the weights.

Flat tax proposal is like winning the lottery — worth dreaming about but not worth much more

“Imagine a 10 percent income tax, with every American filling out his or her taxes on a postcard or iPhone app. And abolishing the IRS as we know it.”

~ Ted Cruz, candidate for U.S. president

OK, let’s imagine a flat tax for a minute.

  • I wouldn’t have to calculate the value of the 10 pairs of men’s jeans I donated to Goodwill (because there wouldn’t be a charitable deduction).
  • I wouldn’t have to track down the three different 1098 forms from last year that calculate the interest paid on my first mortgage, second mortgage and refinanced mortgage (because there wouldn’t be a mortgage deduction).
  • I wouldn’t have to figure out how much we contributed to the 401(k) (because there wouldn’t be a deduction for retirement savings).

That was a pretty nice minute spent imagining. Since I spent several hours tracking down the aforementioned items and about 100 others as I prepared for tax season.

Fun afternoon. Who likes that kind of minutia?

I’m not saying I’m a Cruz supporter (please do not pelt me with wet noodles — I’m just considering one of his proposals), but I really would love a simple flat tax, especially the one Cruz is calling for since it’s nearly half what this household is paying now (in the interest of fairness, I must tell you that Cruz critics say his plan would bankrupt the U.S. government, but I’m looking at my selfish picture here for one minute, not the country’s).

No one can say they love tax time. Not even a tax preparer — maybe they love the paychecks, but the work this time of year is crushing. (They’d all be out of a job if we had a flat tax because who would need help filling out a postcard, right?)

People who get refunds? (What’s a refund?) Do they like tax time? Well, they shouldn’t. A refund only means they gave the government an interest-free loan. If there was a flat tax, there would be no such thing as refunds — because the 10 percent would come out when the money was earned and there would be no quibbling about it.

Imagining a flat tax is fun, but the hard reality is that something as simple as a flat tax will never happen in the United States. Way too many special interests have a stake in deductions of one sort or another or in the tax preparation industry. Abolish the IRS? Ha! The realist in me just doesn’t see it happening.

But it’s nice to dream.

Flint water crisis is a drop in the sorry bucket of government

The presidential election season tends to bring out all kinds of haters, but especially government haters.

  • I hate government waste.
  • I hate Washington, D.C.
  • I hate federal government mandates.
  • I hate do-nothing politicians.
  • I hate paying for government programs.
  • I hate those bozos in Springfield (this is specific to Illinois haters, but there are probably state government haters in every state).
  • I hate pork (by pork, I don’t mean bacon — even vegetarians don’t hate bacon, they just don’t eat it — I mean pork barrel, that wasteful spending that we all pay for but only benefits one district).
  • I hate Democrats.
  • I hate Republicans.
  • I hate socialists who hate bankers.
  • I hate bankers who back socialists.

You get the picture. So we’re all looking for the candidate who spends less, does more and doesn’t clog up the news with negative advertising. Unfortunately, one man’s government waste and pork is another man’s hope and change.

But can all the haters agree on this? If government doesn’t do anything else, shouldn’t it be responsible for providing clean drinking water?

Even before providing for the common defense or ensuring the blessings of liberty (freedom of religion, speech, press and all that), isn’t potable water, like, the No. 1 way to promote the general welfare? Human beings can’t live for more than three days without water (and it gets downright uncomfortable after just 24 hours). Not to say anything about icy cold beverages, nice hot baths, washing clothes and watering lawns, right?

Water is right up there at the top of the priority list.

So this whole Flint, Mich., debacle makes me sick (not as sick as it’s making Flint residents, I’ll bet, but still, I’m appalled).

Here’s the deal. For the most part, a modern citizen can’t ensure her own potable water (though I once was pretty pleased in the investment of a simple water filter). Sure, 150 years ago, I could have dug my own well and lugged water in buckets I made myself from safely harvested materials, but nowadays, the government sources the water (or permits the well digging), the government treats the water and the government governs the pipes through which the water flows.

Government exists for exactly this sort of job. Most of the time, when it’s being done right, I’m quite happy to leave water delivery to government because the government can take advantage of volume discounts. I’m fine to pay for my share in one way or another, usually through taxes of one sort or another and then by the gallon in usage rates, because then I don’t have to buy own water treatment plant, water tower and pipe delivery system.

Same theory applies to road construction, the fire department, the military and libraries. I can’t afford to do these things for myself so paying for a piece of them ensures I have roadways on which to drive, that firefighters will come to my aid when my house goes up in flames, that fearless soldiers will fight on my behalf and that I can borrow a book for free.

But none of those things matter if I’m dead. And I’m dead if I don’t have a dependable source of safe water.

Effective governance requires knowledgeable personnel, active oversight, safe equipment and, I’m sorry to admit, tax-hungry entities like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food & Drug Administration.

Somewhere along the line, effectiveness in Flint’s water system got flushed.

At some point, we may know who exactly is to blame for Flint’s lead contamination problem, but I suspect the blame lies, in some way, with every level of government — local, state and national. A lot of lazy oversight and buck passing probably will be uncovered.

At worst, it’s just this sort of situation that inspires conspiracy theories (I was once a reporter in a town that refused to have its water fluoridated — because, lower your voice and look around furtively, that’s how the government poisons its citizens). And at best, the crisis in Flint is why so many people hate government. Because if government fails at the most basic and necessary functions, then what hope do we have that government — in any form, with any leader, of any party — can address our bigger, even more complex problems, like poverty, health care and North Korea?

Alas. Not much.