Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How other lives, deaths touch your own life

Every day, I peruse the obituaries of the major daily newspaper delivered to my home, as well as online publications in other American cities. My sister in California thinks I’m crazy to do so, believing there is something morbid about such activity, but I have my reasons.
Much of the day’s news is often contained on who has left our earthly existence and it IS interesting to see the various contributions they made to our society. For the record, the obituary section of the Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com) is superior to any paper in the land.
I also see if there is anyone I know, knew or, in the rare cases, with whom I had personal contact. Recently, I had three such passings that touched my life in small ways. Yet you recoil at some measure of shock to read that these people are gone.
Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine was known in Detroit, Mich. as “the Atheist Rabbi” having founded a movement known as Humanistic Judaism, celebrating Jewish history and culture but invoking the name of God. He was 79 at the time of his death from a car accident in Morocco.
Like me, he was a graduate of the University of Michigan and in 1965, he formed the first Humanistic Jewish congregation in Detroit (own mutual hometown). But before that, he was the associate rabbi (pastor) of Temple Beth-El, which was our family’s congregation. He taught little tykes like me in our Sunday school classes and presided over traditional Jewish worship services.
In 1965, he formed The Birmingham Temple in Farmington, Mich., which turned Judaism on its ear, following more of a Unitarian Universalist theme than what others knew before.
According to his obit in the Los Angeles Times, “Wine rewrote rituals to reflect a people-centric viewpoint. Thus, at Friday night services, ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ became ‘We revere the best in man.’ Poems were recited instead of prayers, and presentations on Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt replaced Torah readings at bar and bat mitzvahs.”
The small congregation expanded from eight families to 140 in two years’ time. It now claims 40,000 members worldwide through 50 “temples.”
But his passing reminded me of days very long ago. As did the death of songwriter Ron Miller at the age of 77 of cardiac arrest after battling emphysema and cancer.
If you are a fan of ‘60s music and especially, my favorite genre, Motown (the soundtrack of my youth), you might remember some of Miller’s biggest hits. He wrote “For Once in My Life,” first recorded by Stevie Wonder and subsequently, 269 times more, including a 2007 Grammy for a duet with Wonder and Tony Bennett.
He also wrote another Stevie Wonder hit, “Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday,” the Diana Ross hit, “Touch Me in the Morning” Celine Dion’s “If I Could,” and “Heaven Help Us All.”
Miller was a native of Chicago, who served in the Marines before migrating to Detroit to seek his fame and fortune. Eventually Motown founder Berry Gordy spotted him at a piano bar and asked him to write and produce for Motown Records.
But before that breakthrough happened, Ron Miller made a few scheckles by teaching people to play the piano. One of those groups was the Bloom family, at the insistence of my mother, who bought a baby grand piano but didn’t know how to properly use it. She wanted to be able to play “Moon River” for party guests and after seeing Miller play at a private club, she hired him.
Working with Mom was easier than trying to instruct her musically-dense son. I was a hopeless case because, within my DNA, there is no capacity to read music. I have the same problem with foreign languages – the ability to instantly translate words and sounds in my mind within that spectrum. I mull it over in English and the thought process just takes too long.
Still, every time I heard “For Once in My Life,” I thought of my failed attempts to become Billy Joel.
And then there was Bill Flemming, a name many of you might recognize. Actually, it would be the face and voice that would stand out. He left us July 20 at the age of 80 from prostate cancer.
If you ever watched “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” or college football or any major athletic event on ABC, chances are you heard the dulcet tones of Flemming. He called the famed 1969 Michigan-Ohio State “upset of the century” game and was totally objective despite being a native of Ann Arbor and, yes, a graduate of the University of Michigan.
He also did cliff diving from Acapulco, hurling from Ireland and more than 600 events for “Wide World of Sports.” He was also a member of 11 Olympic coverage teams for ABC and was the announcer for the 1972 chess showdown between chess divas Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Back then, THAT was a major sporting event – as big as David Beckham coming to America.
When I worked as a student assistant in the Michigan sports information department, I often came into contact with Bill Flemming and always found him to be cordial, nice and never pushy (unlike some others wearing the same insignia). He took pride in his work but never took himself too seriously.
He made everyone feel at ease – from grizzled old coaches to nervous young assistants trying to make good impressions. It wasn’t necessary because Bill Flemming liked everyone, and everyone liked him.
I will continue to check the obituaries today and tomorrow – to make sure I’m not there, but also to see who is. Sadly, the older I get, the more names I know.

Monday, July 23, 2007

No full faith and credit from Austin

Under the current Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, the public has seen an abomination taking place in higher education, where those in charge have failed to put their full faith and (most importantly) credit behind two programs – the Texas Tomorrow Fund and B On Time – aimed at helping students advance toward college degrees.
By their actions and votes, Austin lawmakers think it is more important for blind people to own guns, or toll our public roads to death, or to sanctify the hamburger, than allow students to gain access to state universities and colleges. They now renege on the prior agreements made with the citizenry, and tell the public that only the privileged will have financial access to higher education at a time when increased learning, not less, is needed for society’s future growth.
The Texas Tomorrow Fund Guaranteed Tuition Program was established in 1996, to permit Texan families to lock down the cost of future college tuition and fees (five years’ worth of tuition and fees ant any state university) at current prices (at the time of agreement) for their children, either by installment payments or paying a lump sum – all tax-free. As originally envisioned, parents could enroll their children at any age.
It sounded like an excellent deal for people to plan for a child’s future education, and some 158,000 contracts were executed. TTF garnered assets of some $1.6 billion (yes, with a “B”), making it one of the state’s largest investment funds.
But poor financial planning by the state and the trickery that the legislators employed (massive diversion of ALL program funding, from state parks to gasoline taxes used to fix the roads) to deal with a budget deficit (while still trying to provide for some imaginary property tax cut).
So, in the summer of 2003, the Legislature closed TTF to newcomers and, at the same time, approved the dirtiest word in Texas education – deregulation. Austin gave the state’s 35 colleges and universities an open invitation to increase tuition at whatever level they felt like (until then the Legislature set the rates), and lo and behold, what result was a record hike in those fees – more than 40 percent over the last four years.
TTF can only pay tuition that is less than the average, not more. That means the more expensive institutions must cover the difference out of their own funds. In 2005, the six largest Texas universities had to pony up with $7 million to cover the difference for students using the Tomorrow Fund, according to the Comptroller’s report.
Now, TTF is underfunded by some $3.3 billion, according to the Comptroller’s office and TTF remains closed to anyone trying to open an account. In fact, so short-sighted has been the Legislature in its handling of this programs that TTF won’t be able to cover tuition payment through … 2029.
And now we have major problems with the B On Time Loan program, which provides eligible Texas students with no-interest loans to attend state colleges and universities. If a student meets a set of standards and specific goals, the entire loan amount can be forgiven upon graduation.
A BOT loan disappears (but appears as taxable income to the IRS so no one gets off Scot-free) if the student earns an undergraduate degree or certificate from an eligible institution with a grade point average of 3.0 or more (on a 4.0 scale), and does it in four years (five years for engineering, architecture students or other advance degree programs) or two years for community college degrees.
Alas, the dear ole Legislature fooled around and made changes to BOT’s funding for 2008-09 and there isn’t enough money provided to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to fund all the loans already approved and promised to incoming students. In fact, notification of this shortcoming only was sent to prospective students a few weeks before the start of school. Because of the budgetary dilly-dallying in Austin, the two schedules (application process approval and financial notification) didn’t jive.
When you combine all this with the alteration of the 10 percent admission policy (which allowed for the top 10 percent of any high school’s graduating class to have priority for state college admission), it becomes fairly clear that higher education in Texas will only be the province of the rich. Graduates form rural communities, and especially small-town minorities, have been placed behind the economic eight-ball when compared to the wealthier, and far more whining, suburbanites, who all too often believe that a place at UT or A&M is theirs by some sort of divine right because of their address.
Such policies and priorities are just wrong, and it is time for the public to recognize it, be vigilant and change the representation in Austin – to bring in people with priorities that actually benefit more than just a precious few.
And THAT cannot be done unless you actually VOTE to change the faces sent to Austin. Unless such policies are just fine with you and, if that is the case, I feel sorry for your vision of this state’s future.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

You shouldn’t take it with you

Author's Note: This is the column that appears in today's (July 19) edition of the Dallas Morning News' Collin County Opinion Pages:
Human nature, being the bewildering phenomenon that it is, makes some of us confess to things we’d rather not make public. Almost all of us fib (just a little) to loved ones (we call them “white lies”) and on our taxes (we call them “deductions”).
And this summer, many of us Collin Countyies will take trips to special places and return with what can generously be considered “souvenirs” – those little mementos (a towel, ashtray, glass) with hotel insignias to remind you of the wonderful times while staying there.
I have my personal collection over the years – towels from the UT Frank Erwin Special Events Center, Golden Nugget and other Las Vegas hotels that have been reduced to dust by dynamite and the wrecker ball. One hand towel came from our honeymoon hotel in Waikiki and I just found an old shoe shine pad from the Hotel Thayer at West Point, N.Y., obtained during the 1972 NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
I’m no criminal; it’s just human nature … but at least one unnamed Texas-based national hotel chain which, in English means “country house or villa” (and for which there are NONE offered within the chain) is addressing such behavior. Upon check-in recently to one of its double-bedded rooms, there sat a small placard on the nightstand.
And it read:

Dear Guest,
Due to the popularity of our guest room amenities, our Housekeeping Department now offers these items for sale:
Bath towels – $20
Hand towels – $15
Bath mats – $10
Face cloths – $10
Pillows – $30
Set of Sheets – $60
Blankets/Comforters – $50

After arising from sticker shock, I continued to read:
Each guest room attendant (the new politically correct term for “maid”) is responsible for maintaining the guest room items. Should you decide to take these articles from the room, instead of obtaining them from the Executive Housekeeper (PC for “head maid”), we will assume you approve a corresponding charge to your account. Thank you.

I know what you’re thinking: no proper home is complete without a set of sheets too small to cover any normal bed and which feel like someone dump a pile of sand on them in the wash. Every child wants to dry off using a towel that feel like cat claws on tender skin and all of you have dreamt of wrapping up in those hotel comforters on a chilly night.
For $140, you can owe a set of four dingy white, overly-bleached, over-starched towels and hand towels that are too small to cover most infants and over which most of America has trampled on dirty hotel room floors – without even so much as an insignia to designate initial origin. Gee whiz, the folks at West Point Pepperell are shakin’ in their boots at the prospect of the consumer frenzy.
And there’s this “other” issue. In past years, through mental lapses (or that bad waffle mix at 7 a.m. – I’m not sure which), my wife and I have accidentally donated a few pillows of our own to the corporate cause on various trips.
I am not quite sure if the people at “The Villa” owe me anything, but by their own calculations, I figure it should be good for a $90 credit … if I follow their logic. What’s good for the goose should be equal for the gander.
Bottom line? These people think a little too highly of their laundry product. Recent changes find them washing their linen less often (under the guise of water conservation), meaning there is less to do for housekeeping. Pass the savings to the customer? Ha! The rates have all gone higher.
Want to penalize people for stealing towels and sheets? Tell them at check-in that the hotel reserves the right to add a penalty equal to one night’s stay for loss of linen. But don’t make a laundry list of charges for your laundry. That’s highly overrated, like the room you’re in.
Back to human nature, being what it is, I did something to remind me of my experience for the night.
I took the placard.
For this column. It went UPS the next week.
My guilt was overwhelming.

Overheard at the dinner table

Actual conversation in my household last night:
Me: Honey, let's go to a movie Saturday afternoon.
Wifey: Can't.
Me: Why not?
Wifey: Gotta wait for it to come.
Me: For what?
Wifey: The book!
Me: The Harry Potter book? It'll get here and you'll hve plenty of time to read it. But we need to see a movie.
Wifey: Can't. Gotta read it as soon as it gets here.
Me: Why? It won't disappear. It won't change.
Wifey: Gotta read it through when it gets here.
Me: What about Sunday?
Wifey: Can't. Gotta sleep.
Me: Why?
Wifey: Will be up all night reading the new Harry Potter book.
Me: Oh for Goodness sake. Save me from this nightmare.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lady Bird's recipe

In honor of the late Lady Bird Johnson, whom they laid to rest in her beloved Stonewall, Texas last Sunday afternoon, I present you with one of her gifts - a chili recipe that she proudly made for guests.
I got it first years ago on a post card that was sold for a quarter at the LBJ Library in Austin and LBJ National Parks Site in Johnson City. So it's not a secret family heirloom.
As chilis go, it's sorta bland unless you "Emeril" it several notches, but I was told she enjoyed making it for ranch guests and it was her creation.
So enjoy!

Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili
4 lbs. ground beef (chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. ground oregano
1 tsp. ground cumin
6 tsp. chili powder (to taste)
2 cans (1 lb. each) tomatoes, not drained
Salt to taste
2 cups hot water

Put meat, onion and garlic in large, heavy pan; sear until lightly colored.
Add oregano, cumin, chili powder, salt, tomatoes and hot water. Bring to boil; lower heart and summer for 1 hour. As fat cooks out, skim from chili.
Serves 8-12.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Good night and good luck with all that

So Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki claims his nation doesn't NEED U.S. troops to help protect his sorry ass and his worthless nation.
Then this should be our response.
"Goodbye, good riddance and we won't let the mosque door hit us on the ass on the way out."

If this fool doesn't want us there, we should NOT be in that hell hole one SECOND longer than is needed to pack up and leave.
And, oh yeah, we are taking everything with us - including your goddamn oil.
Suck on THAT!
Another reason to get the hell out of there ...NOW!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

G.I. Joe

In 1999-2000, had most Democrats known that Conn. Senator Joe Lieberman was SUCH a warmonger, as he poses to be today, he would NEVER have been nominated to be Al Gore's running mate. He is a total betrayal to the party, that rightfully voted against him in 2006. Sadly the Republicans abandoned their own party's nominee and re-elected Lieberman as an independent.
Lieberman acts like the best GOP war supporter in Congress for Bush's shameful war.
And as one fellow Jew to another, Joe should be ashamed of himself. The U.S. is not conducting any kind of mitzvah. We've set ourselves up to become to brunt of all the world's anymosity.
Joe, you're a total schmuck about this.