My reaction to the Capitol siege: Bean Soup!

Watching the siege on the Capitol Wednesday, January 6, my mind turned to Senate Bean Soup because I once had the privilege of enjoying it in a Senate dining area.

When John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan, March 30, 1981, the NBC Network News operation in Washington asked for additional support. A field producer in the Network Bureau in Chicago, I was dispatched to help out.

One day I was assigned to link up with a Washington-based crew to cover a Senate hearing. Before the afternoon session, the crew suggested we eat lunch in a Senate dining area frequented mostly by Senate staff members open, as a courtesy, to members of the news media. (It was off limits to the general public.)

A tradition, bean soup has been on the Senate menu since about 1905, served every day. I had to have it.  As I tasted the soup, for a moment I was no longer a journalist but a citizen in a bit of awe at the privilege of getting a modest behind the scenes glimpse of the inner workings of our democracy. And what a special place the Capitol building is. What it stands for.

Watching a mob with no respect for -- maybe no understanding of -- democratic processes storm the Capitol and enter the Senate, just made me shake my head.

We have lots of work to do trying to bridge the gaps in our highly polarized nation. Mob violence is not the answer. We must talk this through peacefully, not over a beer in bar, but over a bowl of Senate Bean Soup at the Capitol.


Got an RV to sell?

There’s no disputing 2020 was a terrible year for businesses in general – and for the thousands of workers who either lost their jobs or had their hours cut.

But there are exceptions. Many homeowners are remodeling, helped by very low interest rates. That spurs construction jobs and appliance sales. Bicycles have been hard to come by. So, it turns out, have been RVs.

Reports of the sharp increase in demand for RVs hit us dramatically in mid-August, when we drove onto the lot of the RV dealer not far from our Wisconsin property. A lot normally full of vehicles for sale was two thirds empty!

As we checked in, Gary the service manager, assured us they were not going out of business. To the contrary, demand far exceeded the supply of RVs available. In years past, they might have 40 trailers of a specific model on the lot. They had two. When the sales staff got word of a delivery, the vehicles were often sold by the time they arrived.

They were not alone. An RV dealer in Pennsylvania that normally sold 10 units a week was closing sales on 300.

Two things converged to create this boom. First, trailer and motorhome manufactures shut down for about four months when the pandemic hit in March. So, no supply. About the same time, more and more families, decided RV camping was a safe way to get away from home but keep their pod safe from the pandemic – much better than flying or moteling. Hence, a big surge in demand.

A classic example of supply/demand economics.

IMG_0136                                                       At Pelican Lake, near Orr, MN, Sept. 13, 2020

We were very happy we had decided to upgrade to a newer used RV last December.

Years ago, we started taking an extended fall tour beginning in late August. The weather is still good and family trips are over because kids are back in school. With schools – elementary to college closed--RV parks – private and public – were still busy. The family-owned campground in Two Harbors, MN, on Lake Superior, we stayed in filled up every night. So did the municipal campground in Grand Marais, also on Lake Superior.

Minnesota was no exception. Across the country, according to industry news stories, demand for campsites jumped dramatically in 2o2o.

Wife Elaine, who does our trip booking, said next year she will have to start sooner to book the reservations we want.

Is this the start of trend or a fluke?

For couples who had been thinking of buying a camper and hitching it behind their pickup and decided to take the plunge, all may go well. Over time, they may even move up to a larger trailer or try a motorhome.

On the other hand, it takes time and, especially initially, a bit of patience to learn the ins and outs of RV life. Like a boat, it seems something always needs maintenance. Keeping one in tiptop shape is not cheap. How many will realize, while it may have been an option to get away from home in 2020, it’s not their cup of tea.

Will there be a glut of used RVs on the market next year or in 2022?


Got quarters?

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For sake of my tenants, please spend them.

I wasn’t aware of the quarter crisis caused by the pandemic until I got a pleading email from a tenant in August. The local supermarket would no long sell him $10 rolls of quarters. Neither would his bank. Without quarters he couldn’t wash his clothes.

A second tenant chimed in, calling them “exceedingly difficult to find.” When she visited her parents in the suburbs, the local banks would give her only $5 in quarters.

When Covid-19 struck in the spring, the normal circulation of currency was disrupted. Small-dollar purchases often made with paper and coin – that morning cup of coffee – simply weren’t being made. People were staying home. Those who ventured out found their local bakery closed, and if it was open, they were encourage to use credit cards.

No segment of the economy has been hit harder than laundromats. According to an association count, 56 percent of them require customers to insert quarters into their machines.

In the meantime, I am doing what the banks wouldn’t: selling $10 packets of quarters.

I own the machines, so I collect the quarters, and I developed a system: For every $10 they add to their monthly rent, which tenants pay electronically, I deliver a packet of quarters. Two months in, it seems to be working.

In fact, it actually saves me money. Banks long ago stopped using coin-counting machines and may not accept a roll of coins.  My only real option is Coinstar, which has installed machines in supermarkets and other retail outlets. It charges a 15 percent service fee. So, I have every incentive to take care of my tenants first.

 I win. They win. And some coins remain in circulation, even if they don’t leave the building.

The Federal Reserve insists there is no shortage, it’s a matter circulation. If people would just start spending quarters, all would be fine. But they aren’t, and who knows when, or if, they ever will.

My tenants can’t wait if they want to wash their clothes.


Wisconsin Struggles with Covid-19 Surge

During a visit earlier this month to Wisconsin, we watched the state struggle with a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the reaction of a population, particularly in rural areas, reluctant to face reality.

Since the state’s Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers Safer at Home order, on May 15, it has fallen on local officials to make decisions about confronting the pandemic up to local officials. Two months later, as the number of cases climbs dramatically, some communities, are being forced to confront the issue – often against vocal opposition.

Green Bay, Racine and Superior all passed mask ordinances July 22. Green Bay is in Brown County which has recorded the third highest number of Covid-19 cases, thanks in part of an outbreak at a meat packing facility.

After the Green Bay City Council passed the mask ordinance, every member of the council, the mayor and the police chief received death threats.

In Sheboygan County, where cases are surging, the Plymouth Common Council decided to study the mask issue, punting any decision until a meeting Sept. 8. How many residents will come down with the virus in the meantime?

An increasing number of businesses are taking the lead, requiring employees and customers to wear masks. Over the last two weeks, associates at the Fleet Farm in Plymouth have started wearing face coverings, and some customers had taking the hint.   

The Pick ‘n Save, a unit of Kroger, has a well-established mask and social distancing policy. During one visit, we were pleased to see an employee at the entrance tell a couple they had to wear a mask to enter the store.  The couple walked away, the man grumbling, “I guess we won’t have anything to eat tonight.”

A friend who was bicycling in the area recounted an experience he and a = friend had at an area bar.

A woman, in her 60s or 70s walked all the way around the bar to their table and berated them for wearing a mask. Didn’t they know wearing the mask would not keep them from getting sick?

True. But she missed the point. The mask keeps a wearer from spreading the disease to others – like her. And at any given time, we may be incubating the infection or asymptomatic.

We cannot help it wonder if this surge could have been avoided – or at least minimized -- if Wisconsin still had a statewide Safer at Home policy.


A flyover offers a chance think things over

The Navy’s Blue Angels flew over Chicago today, part of its America Strong campaign, a tribute to healthcare workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

We were good and stayed home. We had hoped to see formation from our yard because we live less than a mile from Lake Michigan and two blocks from a Level 1 trauma center. We didn’t even hear them.

But friends who live in high rises overlooking the Lake, like Patty Coen who took this beautiful picture, did.

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All of this is very nice. But the best way for us to pay tribute to health care workers is to wear a mask and practice social distancing. In that manner, we might make their jobs a little less stressful.


Write your obituary. I just did

With the Corona Virus Pandemic keeping us at home, this is a perfect opportunity to research and write yours. You will do your loved ones, a reporter or anyone trying to write your death notice, and yourself a favor.

Reporters and funeral home employees may be asking your loved ones for information that might not be at the tip of their tongue at a time when they are grieving and trying to make arrangements for a memorial service. The exact date and location of your birth? When did you graduate from high school? College? What degree? What was your most remarkable achievement? A turning point in your career?

Perhaps you can appreciate why every now and then a newspaper columnist urges readers to write their own obituary. Reporters appreciate accurate information and the ability to obtain it with minimal intrusiveness at an emotional time. It may also give your loved ones an opportunity to say something like "What I really loved/admired/appreciated about him/her was …."

I write this as a journalist interested in helping you accurately fashion your last message.

I do not write this because of my age and, at 70-plus, greater risk of death from the Pandemic.

I write this because my wife and I, enjoying traveling across Oregon in our RV last September, came across the cleanup of a head on collision involving two RVs. Both drivers were killed and their wives critically injured. Death can come at any moment.

A draft of my obit is in a secure place, and won't be posted as a template. Don't want anyone to inadvertently announce my death prematurely.

The format for a well-written obit is rather simple. In the first paragraph, who you were and your most noteworthy achievement. Like any lead, a reason to read on.

In the second or third paragraph, who announced or confirmed your death, with date and cause of death.

Next tell a story about yourself. Be sure to include your birth date and location, the full name of your parents, your spouse's full name and date of marriage.

Keep it to 350-500 words. Keep it simple. Keep it accurate.

It's your last chance to immortalize yourself.

Helpful hints:

Read a few newspaper obituaries from your local newspaper or The New York Times, which has elevated it to high journalism.

While looking for things to watch during this period of sheltering at home, check out "Obit," a short-lived, feature-length film about the obituary unit at the New York Times. It's available for online rental.

Search the Web for "write your obituary."

 


A lesson from Kobe Bryant’s death

Take a moment and try to imagine yourself in the shoes of Kobe Bryant's wife, Vanessa. What it must have been like to learn of the deaths her husband and 13-year-old daughter in a helicopter crash. Or of three siblings realizing sister Gianna would never come home.

So sudden. So final.

In September, driving our RV across eastern Oregon, we encountered a head-on crash involving two RVs. Both drivers were pronounced dead on the scene. Their female passengers, presumably their wives, were airlifted from a local hospital to a trauma center in Boise, Idaho, in critical condition.

I struggled to put the crash out of my mind as we continued on our journey.

For 18 months, I have thought of – and avoided – writing about a similar incident that claimed the life of my personal trainer and swim instructor, Angela Park. A triathlete, she was biking to work August 9, 2018, when a truck turning right failed to yield and struck her in Chicago's Greektown neighborhood. She left behind a husband and two daughters, 8 and 3.

I mourned for weeks.

Now it's time to face the keyboard and share two thoughts I take away from these tragedies.

First, for the sake of your loved ones, draw up a Health Care Power of Attorney designating two people, in order, willing to carry out your wishes about efforts to extend your life. Let's assume the first one is your spouse/partner. But if both of you are seriously injured at the same time, you need someone willing to step up and carry out your wishes. (While at it, also draw up a will and Power of Attorney for Property.)

Second, don't procrastinate. Live life to the fullest -- now!

Bryant, by all accounts, was passionately pursuing a second career as a sports mentor to boys and girls, not least daughter Gianna, who dreamed of playing for UConn and, after college, in the WNBA.

The RVing couples presumably were enjoying their retired years traveling around the country. A dream pursued by many people, including us.

Angela less than two months before her death had again qualified for an ironman triathlon – a grueling test of endurance that would take close to 12 hours to complete. She coached triathletes and had plans to open her own gym. She was pursuing a dream – with passion.

Examples to emulate.

 


Armstrong Walked. At WBBM-TV we sat

Where was I when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon? Sitting in a control room at WBBM-TV at the end of a frustrating day.

My assignment that day was to produce the 10 p.m. news which was scheduled to air about the time of the space walk.

In those days, news producers were given two pieces of guidance by station management.

First, produce the newscast, even if scheduled for preemption. It would be too embarrassing to lose a network feed – more likely in those days – and not be able to broadcast the normally scheduled local news.

It was hard to get excited about going through the motions, but that was our job.

On the day of the spacewalk, a film editor, who shall remain nameless, announced shortly after arriving for his shift that he was leaving. When reminded we had to prepare a newscast, he stormed off in a huff and slammed the door to his editing room. It had a smoked glass window – and slammed the door so hard it shattered into a thousand pieces. Just steps from the entrance to the newsroom.

The second piece of guidance: If the newscast is delayed, it can’t run past 11 p.m. Station management was unwilling to pay overtime to the technical crew.

So, we sat in the control room. Watched the walk. And went home – leaving behind one broken window.


Bruce Rauner’s fowl problem

The Republican who would be governor of Illinois does not know the difference between a chicken and a grouse, has a problem with math and apparently could care less about conservation.

In mid-June he stood beside three caged domestic chickens to decry wasteful spending on an effort to save the greater prairie chicken – a member of the grouse family – from extinction in Illinois. In a wire story he is quoted saying “We have plenty of chickens in our state…”

Not prairie chickens. They’re a whole different fowl and an important link to the state’s heritage.

In the 1880s they numbered in the millions in Illinois. Then farmers plowed under more and more prairie grassland – the natural habitat for this ground bird – to plant corn and soybeans. By early this year, only about 40 survived, on two parcels of land near Newton that make up the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area.

The bird’s spring mating ritual is an amazing sight to see and hear, something we went the extra mile to experience in April 2012. It wasn’t easy, but wife Elaine is an avid birder.

The mating dance begins one half hour before sunrise. We had leave our RV campsite to drive about 30 miles in pre-dawn darkness along unfamiliar roads with only a printout of directions (no GPS). Elaine said I didn’t have to make the journey, but I figured it was best if she navigated and I drove. Because I grew up in Iowa, rural roads don’t intimidate me, even in darkness.

We arrived at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources “office” – a modest old farm house – just in time. In part because it was the middle of the week, we were the only visitors. (On weekends during mating season getting into special blinds requires reservations.) The two DNR employees led us to scopes at the edge of the field. What we saw made it worth the early alarm clock.

I don’t have the photographic equipment to capture the mating dance, but here in a YouTube post is an example of what we saw and heard. Turn the audio all the way up. The best “dances” are at 2:45 and 3:45.

Those are the endangered species Rauner showed so much contempt for. His target was the cost of flying 91 prairie chickens from Kansas to enlarge the Illinois population and increase its genetic diversity.

Rauner put the price at over $100,000. In truth, the cost of the flights was a $7363. And none of that was actual tax dollars.

Here’s the big picture that Rauner either ignored or didn’t bother to understand.

This is the first year of a planned three year $519,230 program to bolster the state’s prairie chicken population. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides $337,500. The state’s share is $181,730, most of which goes toward ongoing work at the natural area and DNR salaries. Both the state and federal dollars come not from income or sales taxes but from outdoor enthusiasts through hunting and fishing licenses and other user fees earmarked for conservation.

In other words, the dollars are coming from people who appreciate the need for conservation of our scarce, often threatened natural resources. If Rauner wins the November election, we can only hope he respects this covenant – and does not become the governor who killed off the last of the  state’s prairie chickens.

 

 

 

 


The Boston Marathon Blasts

This time it’s personal, in a way that 9/11 and the Oklahoma City acts of terrorism were not.

I don’t know anyone who was injured Monday, or for that matter entered in race. And I was hundreds of miles away when the blasts went off. Nevertheless, as a runner who has experienced three Boston Marathons, it struck home.

All day Tuesday I was angry, upset. In a funk. I could not overcome a bad case of writer’s block.

 

My first trip to Boston, in 1981, was not to run but to work. A field producer for NBC News in Chicago, I was doing part of a story for Nightly News about the thousands who had no hope of winning, but were winners nonetheless.  My focus was on a cardiac rehab patient who’s recovery had gone so well that he was able to run a marathon.

I took it all in: the atmosphere, the party along the race course, the start and the finish. At the finish line I had an elevated position roughly 100 yards form the finish line, trying to pick out the subject of my story in an endless wave of runners. A similar position Monday would have been midway between the blasts on the opposite side of the street.

I arrived in Boston a 10-mile-a-week jogger and returned to Chicago determined to some day run that marathon. Boston is the only U.S. marathon with rare exceptions to have a qualifying standard. You have to be reasonably fast to gain entry. That’s what makes it the Olympics for the great mass of serious runners.

Thanks to meeting a runner who became my coach and friend, I ran my first marathon that fall, and the next spring, a race fast enough to qualify for Boston.

The next two trips, in 1983 and at the 100th in 1996, were icing on the cake. Rewards for hard training and determination. I ran both under less than ideal conditions, but I finished. Today they’re beside the point.

That first trip to Boston was a life changing experience. Running became a central part of my lifestyle. Not only does it keep me fit – physically and mentally – I worked hard enough to regularly earn age group medals at Chicago area races for three decades.

Now, 32 years later, someone or some group has attacked my very being. And I’m pissed.