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?


Summer of Covid

The combination of our getaway property and RV was a godsend this Summer of Covid.

Our 13 acres in Wisconsin’s North Kettle Moraine area always provide a peaceful respite from Chicago’s urban density.

Our first challenge was getting the RV to Moraine Elaine from winter storage in Southern Indiana.

Starting in mid-March, Wisconsin told Illinois residents to stay away – unless they planned to move to their summer homes and remain long term. (Not us.)

We carefully watched the situation develop through April. Finally, in May we decided, travel advisories or not, it was time to move the RV. We arrived at Moraine Elaine May 20, a month later than normal.

How pleasant to wake up in the morning and check if Luke, our friendly barn cat, was waiting for us on the steps to the RV – ready to tell the first person out the door he’d like a serving of canned food. This year we were joined by the neighbors' two young cats.

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How pleasant to check the bird feeder for the arrival of a new species, some just stopping by on a northerly migration, others hanging around for the summer: Indigo buntings, various woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals.

How pleasant to once again bicycle our favorite county roads, walk familiar routes and, for Elaine, bird favorite spots.

How pleasant to light logs in the fire pit and watch the skies darken, revealing bright stars.

Once in Wisconsin, we took steps to minimize risk. At our favorite restaurant, we found the patio open with appropriately distanced tables, but were disappointed to discover servers were not wearing masks. (At the time Wisconsin was one of four states that did not require waitstaff to wear facial covering.) We did not go back.

The local Pick n’ Save (a Kroger property) enforced a corporate mask mandate. We took satisfaction watching an employee turn away a couple who refused to wear ones. Walking away the husband grumbled, “I guess we’ll go hungry tonight.” We thanked the young woman for standing up to them. Over the summer customers got the message, and Elaine compared compliance in line with our local Jewel-Osco.

In contrast, the local Fleet Farm also had a corporate mask mandate posted on every door, but no enforcement and wide disregard by customers and employees alike. We tried very hard to avoid the place and to plan ahead and buy supplies at our local Menards, where a mask mandate was vigorously enforced.

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With infections trending down, we felt comfortable inviting a group of socially responsible friends to join us  over the Labor Day weekend. They brought their own sleeping accommodations -- two tents and a pop-up trailer. We spaced out around the firepit. For our friends it was it was a welcome “mini-vacation” from the city.

 

 

(Kris, who took these pictures, brought along Soji to keep an eye on us.)

 

 

When they headed south toward Chicago, we headed north toward Upper Michigan and the Arrowhead Country of Minnesota.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we returned to Moraine Elaine, the fall surge in infections was well underway in rural Wisconsin (and wide swaths of the Upper Midwest). We still traveled to Moraine Elaine, but now made a point of avoiding contact with local residents.

We were not all that upset that, due to a commitment that had nothing to do with the pandemic, we left out getaway property for the season two weeks earlier than planned. We hugged Luke one last time (he will be in good hands over the winter) and fired up the RV.

During this Summer of Covid, we were at Moraine Elaine 50 days over a 150-day (five month) span. It was so pleasant. Helped us keep our sanity.

 


Happy Birthday Luke!

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Because of the attention he got as a kitten from the then-neighbor’s grandkids he’s very friendly. He’s often on the front steps to our RV when we get up – ready for pets and extra food. He will curl up in Norb’s lap when we have a blaze in the firepit – until he hears something in the woods that needs to be checked out.

Since we are only on the property 45-50 nights a year, we have always depended on neighbors to take care of Luke the rest of the time. The arrangement has changed over the years, but obviously has worked.

Nancy and luke

 

 

This is the third winter Nancy, who lives down the road and loves cats, has backstopped the next door neighbors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luke has a heated box in the barn’s parlor for warmth, a heated water bowl, food and a south-facing window that provides warmth and a view.

Luke in Window 5


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.


Mile Markers: a message to classmates

Classmates:

We recently passed a noteworthy mile marker on our journey through life.

John Lundberg’s death, June 27, is the 89th In Memory entry on our class website. For a class of 356, it means one quarter of our classmates have died.

These are the boys and girls we played with in our neighborhoods, in band, on sports teams, and competed against for the attention of teachers and cute members of the opposite sex. Never again will be able to smile as we talk with them about those “good old days” at class reunions.

Take a deep breath, and think again: the glass is three-quarters full.

We have aches and pains. We’ve gained a bit of weight. We see doctors more frequently and take medications. For exercise, we walk instead of run. Senior moments are more frequent and annoying.

But we also enjoy friends and family. A good number of us travel (or at least did before the pandemic). We have found new, meaningful activities to fulfill our days. We share stories on Facebook and here, and write of seeing each other at the next reunion.

That’s another mile marker just down the road: the 60th anniversary of our graduation from high school.

Will we? Dare we for our own health plan a reunion next year? Until there’s a successful Covid-19 vaccine widely available, we can’t answer that question yet. Maybe in six months. For now, just something to think about. The Class of ’61 could celebrate 61 years in 2022.

In the meantime, for our own sake let’s do our part by social distancing and wearing masks.

Take care of yourself.

Norb


Chevy and Honda lose to both Ferrari and Ford

The weekend of June 19-21 was slated to be the high point of the racing season at Road America.

The world class road circuit, nestled in the rolling Kettle Moraine hills about an hour's drive north of Milwaukee, has become a traditional stop on the IndyCar circuit, the pinnacle of open wheel racing in the U.S. The track is only about 10 miles from our Wisconsin getaway property, so the 2020 dates have been circled on our calendar for months.

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Road America, June 2018

Drivers love the four-mile, nine-turn course with significant runoff areas. Fans love the place. The pits are accessible and the smells of roasting sweetcorn and broiling brats tempting stops at the concession stands. For Chevrolet and Honda, the only two engine suppliers, and the teams the challenge is to adapt to a long course with significant elevation changes.. Thanks to pandemic-related closings, IndyCar was forced to tear up its calendar. Road America was suddenly faced with an empty track on a premium week. (The track will host an IndyCar doubleheader July 11 and 12.)

So, the track opened its gates to race fans June 19 for a Friday Night At the Movies, featuring – how appropriately – the 2019 award winning Ford V Ferrari. The high whine of the Chevy and Honda turbocharged engines would be replaced the more guttural roar of 1960s-era Ford and Ferrari engines.

Road America got a good turnout. The cars were carefully spaced, one for every two spots. Pull up a lawn chair, sit, sip, watch the sunset and then enjoy the movie.

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In a nutshell, spurned in a bid to buy Ferrari, Ford executives, decided to beat Ferrari at its own game by winning the most prestigious road race on the planet, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 – and do it in three months. Ferrari had won the race six years in a row and Ford did not have a serious racing program. So, it turned to Carroll Shelby, who had won Le Mans for another manufacturer in 1959. When a health issue forced him to stop racing, he turned to building race cars. Besides racing, the film is full of corporate intrigue and has a nice family dynamic. (More here: https://time.com/5730536/ford-v-ferrari-true-story/)

But this blog is not about the movie, it's about the setting and nice gesture by Road America. (Kudos to the person who came up with the idea.)

A very fun, different experience.


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."

 


Scotts Bluff: how the West was really won

Scotts Bluff towers 500 feet above the surrounding plains of the Nebraska Panhandle, just east of the Wyoming border.

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For scientists, it's a natural marvel. The cap rock at the top dates back 22 million years, revealing millennials of years of history for geologists to study.

For pioneers heading west in the 19th Century, it was a milestone on their trek west along the Oregon Trail.

 

 

 

 

Between 1841 and 1869 an estimated 350,000 people joined wagon trains formed along the Missouri River. They followed the North Platte across Nebraska in search of a better life (homesteaders in Oregon), religious freedom (Mormons in Utah) or fortune (gold in California). Scotts Bluff was milepost 500 -- one third of the way to their destination.

At the Scotts Bluff National Monument, visitors can get a glimpse of the Oregon Trail (paved in the photo, it was little more than ruts worn into the dirt). Displays dispel at least four myths about how the West was won.

1.    No horses. The wagons, loaded with a ton or more of family possessions and food supplies, required the far sturdier oxen who could survive eating poor quality grass.

2.    No Conestogas. Eight feet wide, they were freight wagons pulled by six animals. The typical wagon used by settlers, sometimes called a Prairie Schooner, was only four feet wide by 11 feet long. Imagine putting all your possessions in a half bath.

3.    No passengers. Everyone walked to lighten the load and make room for precious possessions.

4.    No serious Indian threat. In fact, some actually helped the settlers by offering food and working as guides. An Indian killing a pioneer was extremely rare. Most deaths were accidental, at the hands of another member of the wagon train.

Scotts Bluff, sometimes called Nebraska's Gibraltar, offers great views of the Western Plains and what settlers endured looking for a better way of life.