Monthly Archives: October 2012

Mini-Rumination: Why Women Are So Cool

Have you ever seen the Food Network program Restaurant:  Impossible?

The premise is that the host, a blowhard chef/drama queen, tries to turn around a failing restaurant in just forty-eight hours with the help of a designer and a contractor.  Most of the restaurants are very down and out – once successful, they now have tired owners and managers, a tired dining room, a tired menu, and a tired staff.  They need a kick in the pants, and the show’s star tries to give it to them.

During the forty-eight hours, the show’s star and his team completely redo the restaurant’s dining room:  generally, new tables, new floors, new wall covers, new chairs, new decorations, all-new décor.  They also introduce a new menu, teach underskilled chefs how to cook the new dishes (or fire the chefs and hire new ones), correct serious cleanliness issues, and address the poor performance of an indifferent staff.  Except for staffing issues, the restaurant’s owners are not involved and are not permitted inside the restaurant to see the work in progress.

Near the end of each episode, the show’s host leads the restaurant’s owners into the dining room, exhorting them to keep their eyes closed until he tells them to look.

Often, the owners are a married couple.  When they are allowed to open their eyes, the husband smiles, says he can’t believe how great it looks, and is elated.  His wife, on the other hand, looks around and bursts into tears because she’s so overcome with joy.

And that, dear readers, is why The Curmudgeon thinks women are so completely and utterly cool.

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Improving Baseball and Football

As baseball continues its play-offs and football is in full swing, The Curmudgeon, an avid fan of the former and a former fan of the latter, would like to offer a few suggestions for improving these great American pastimes.

For baseball:

Once a batter enters the batter’s box, he cannot step out or call timeout unless he has an equipment problem or an injury.  This includes the exceedingly annoying practice of hitters holding up one hand to the umpire to call timeout while they make themselves comfortable.

The pitcher, in turn, must deliver his pitch within twenty seconds.  This rule, currently in place only when there are no runners on base but seldom enforced, should be enforced at all times, regardless of whether there are runners on base.

Managers and coaches may not come to the pitcher’s mound to talk about strategy or technique.  If a manager wants to replace a pitcher, he walks to the home plate umpire and presents his changes while the new players enter the game and the players being replaced depart.  There’s no need for the old-fashioned wave to the bullpen; there’s a new-fangled gizmo called the “telephone” that can take care of that.

Catchers may come to the pitcher’s mound to talk to their pitcher no more than one time per pitcher per inning.  When they do, the other infielders may not join them.  Teams use hand signals to tell batters and base runners what to do and can develop similar signals to call defensive plays if they wish.

Teams may change their pitcher only once after the first pitch of an inning is thrown.  This means that if that second pitcher is having an especially bad day, his team is going to get shellacked.  And yes, this means that those thirty-seven-year-old lefthanders who are paid $600,000 a year to pitch to one batter a game will now need to begin their second career in insurance sales a few years sooner.

Relief pitchers may only pitch from the stretch position when there are runners on base.  When the bases are empty, they must use a wind-up.

Catchers may not look into the dugout to find out what pitch their manager or pitching coach wants thrown.  Pitchers and catchers are big boys now and will simply have to figure this out on their own.

Base runners trying to score may not attempt to run over or knock over catchers for the simple reason that this is baseball, not football.  Runners who attempt to do so will be ruled out and ejected from the game.  Those who do it a second time will be suspended for a year.  Those who do it a third time will be banned from baseball for life.

The Curmudgeon will not comment on the whole silliness of the designated hitter.  Suffice to say he is a National League fan and believes that only National League teams play real baseball.  At the very least, every team should play every game according to the same rules ­ even if it means going against The Curmudgeon’s strong preference and adopting the designated hitter for everyone.  For the sake of discussion, however, allow The Curmudgeon to suggest that if it is considered suitable for teams to substitute a real hitter for a pitcher in the batting lineup, why stop there, with such a halfway measure?  Why not have nine players play in the field and nine players bat without any limits on how many players do both?  Why not make baseball a two-platoon sport, just like football?  (Well, it looks like The Curmudgeon did comment on the designated hitter after all.)

Now that you’re angry, let’s turn to football.  Your anger is about to increase.

In The Curmudgeon’s version of football, the only time anyone ever kicks the ball is after a team has scored a touchdown and needs to kick off.

Teams may no longer punt – ever.  They have four downs to move the ball ten yards.  Shame on them if they fail, but if they do, they turn the ball over to the other team on downs.  This will surely increase the game’s scoring, which is a good thing.

Field goals will no longer be part of football – again, no kicking.  The act of kicking the ball, even in a game called football, is so clearly disconnected from the rest of the game that it should be banned.  Teams either continue playing until they score a touchdown or the other team takes possession of the ball on downs or through a turnover.  After some experience playing this way, it may be necessary to reconsider how many yards a team should need to advance the ball to gain a first down.

There will no longer be any timeouts.  For those of you furious that this will spell the end of those famous two-minute drills that lead to the game-winning field goal or touchdown, The Curmudgeon has a solution.  No timeouts, but during the last two minutes of the game, the clock stops every time the team in possession of the ball gains a first down.  This is a fair way of replacing the timeout, which are an entitlement, with a way to stop the clock that teams must earn (Republican football fans will certainly approve of this plan to do away with entitlements).  With this new approach, the need for last-minute field goals disappears.  Teams also will be able to use the entire field and not just the sidelines, to save precious seconds, and this, too, should make the game far more entertaining and produce more scoring.

In The Curmudgeon’s football, touchdowns still count for six points.  Teams that score a touchdown then have a choice:  they can go for an extra point by running a play from the two-yard line; if they score, they get one point.  If they wish, however, they can try to do the same from the five-yard line, which would be worth two points.  Or, if they really have courage, they can attempt to score on one play from the ten-yard line, which would be worth three points.  The Curmudgeon considers the yards and the number of points involved entirely negotiable.

These baseball and football suggestions have three things in common:  they will speed up games, they will increase scoring, and they will make games more entertaining to watch.

What more could a sports fan want?

Mini-Rumination: The Myth of the Student-Athlete

So participants in inter-collegiate athletics are students first and athletes second, right?

Tell that to Cardale Jones, who’s a quarterback on the Ohio State University football team.

As reported on ESPN.com, Professor Jones recently took to Twitter and announced, in what passes for English for him, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.”

As it turns out, Mr. Jones is the third-string quarterback for the team, which means he’s actually not playing a whole lot of football.

Based on the quality of his tweet, Mr. Jones clearly has already gone ahead and seized the initiative to skip more than a few classes.  (Which he definitely shouldn’t do.  Jones should get that education now, while it’s free, because if the best he can do is third-string quarterback in college, he’s certainly not going to be earning his living playing football.)

The Curmudgeon has written previously about his general disdain for inter-collegiate athletics and would like to thank Mr. Jones for helping to prove his point.

Mr. Jones may now go back both to not playing no football and not attending no classes because man, what do he need to be going to classes for, you know?

Mini-Rumination: Businesses Screwing Low-Wage Employees

The folks at Darden Restaurants, those exemplars of bad taste who’ve inflicted Olive Garden and Red Lobster on us, have announced that they’ll be reducing even more of their workers to part-time status so they can avoid fines associated with the health care reform law’s requirement that we all have health insurance.

According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, about seventy-five percent of Darden’s 180,000 employees are already part-timers.  Just so you know, the primary reason companies keep significant numbers of workers at part-time status is so they can avoid paying for any kind of benefits for them.  Health insurance?  No way.  Sick days?  Uh uh.  Paid vacation?  What do you think we’re running here, some kind of a country club?

In addition to bringing us rubbery shrimp and overcooked pasta, the folks at Darden are now showing us that they are applying for early admission into the Snidely Whiplash wing of American companies.  You can practically picture the company’s leaders sitting around their board room, twirling their mustaches and rubbing their hands together in delight over their latest brilliant business move and giving one another an extra pat on the back for their ‘look what we did” public announcement that could only have been made to please Wall Street and drive up the value of the company stock they’ve awarded themselves.

You might want to think about this the next time you want a casual restaurant dinner.

Selling Pot for Fun and Profit

Remember midnight basketball?

Back in the 1990s, a Clinton administration anti-crime bill called for providing modest federal funding to pay for midnight basketball leagues, mostly in troubled urban communities.  The theory was that if you gave young people something constructive to do, they would focus on that instead of committing crimes.  (No one ever explained why these young people shouldn’t have been at home and in bed at midnight, but that’s an entirely different matter.)

Like a lot of people, The Curmudgeon has never bought into the notion that if you fail to create organized, constructive ways for young people to use their time, they automatically will turn to crime.  That certainly wasn’t how it was for The Curmudgeon growing up.  During the summer he would spend hour after hour outside, just playing ball – and not in formal leagues or at public playgrounds, either.  The leagues only played at night, and as for the public playgrounds, let’s just say that a Jewish kid was not welcome at the playground that was a five-minute walk from The Curmudgeon’s childhood home and he risked life and limb if he didn’t go there with a large, mixed-religion group.  Consequently, going to the playground to shoot hoops or play stickball in the schoolyard was never an option.  But neither, however, was attempting to swipe baseball cards off the shelf at Woolworth’s or trying to boost Beatles cassettes from Korvette’s.

No, The Curmudgeon, his brother, and the kids on his block played ball on the street – a narrow, one-way street with cars parked on both sides and trees that often interrupted the path of balls both hit and thrown.  Stickball, football, hockey – the gang played them all the time.  If it was just The Curmudgeon and his brother, there were two-man games like pitcher-catcher, wireball (if you don’t know wireball, you’ve led a sadly deprived life), and first base; there was throwing around a football, practicing catching the football one-handed, practicing sideline catching with both feet in bounds, practicing perfect seven-yard snaps to holders, and even, on occasion, practicing throwing left-handed; and there was hockey – one brother as the goalie, one brother as the shooter, stand fifteen feet from your brother and try to blast a hole in him.  The Curmudgeon’s aim was pretty accurate; his brother’s, alas, was not, exacting a considerable toll on the family house’s screen door and garage (dad, if you’re reading, it was all Ira’s fault).

So what happens to lead someone to cross the line between wireball and taking spare change off the kids playing on the swings at the playground?  Aside from those who steal for food money – and The Curmudgeon doubts this accounts for very much of the crime committed by teenagers – he has a simple, two-word explanation:  bad parents.  He suspects that bad (or absent) parents are a factor in a great deal of the crime committed by young people.

But what about not-so-young people?  What would make a mature, seemingly educated adult who has always walked the straight and narrow turn to a life of crime and how might such a person rationalize those actions?

The Curmudgeon has been thinking about this since late last year, when he read the article “The New Dealers” in the November/December issue of Mother Jones.  Subtitled “Is the recession driving Americans into the economy’s last growth sector?”, the article is about unemployed and underemployed but heretofore law-abiding adults who turn to growing and selling marijuana when their employment and income prospects are beyond dim.

In the story, one person states that “I would only have ever done this because of the recession” and continues that

I’m not a bad person…I wouldn’t get into other kinds of crime.  It’s pot.  It’s practically legal out here now.  This fit my morals:  We needed money; I did something.  I feel proud of that.  I really do.

Proud, indeed – as her mother no doubt is as well.

Another explains that

My wife and I thought about it for a good month.  There were heavy cons, but once it got here, it exceeded everyone’s expectations.  The first pound took less than five or six hours to sell.  After that, it started getting bigger and bigger.

There you go; he thought about it – but then, when he saw how easy and lucrative it was, he no longer needed to think about it.

This gentleman’s story continues.

Charlie buys wholesale for about $3000 a pound.  Selling by the quarter-pound, he more than doubles his stake, clearing $8000 in a good month.  ‘Austin has lots of weed festivals,’ he explains.  ‘Then I can’t get it fast enough.’  He spends the proceeds on ‘diapers, clothes, gas, rent, lights, food,’ and college fees.  He and his wife, Kim, both still owe on student loans – in Kim’s case, a $600 monthly payment for a ‘useless’ culinary-arts degree that a promoter convinced her would lead to a high-paying career as a chef.  Charlie’s drug dealing freed her up to quit waitressing and pursue a bachelor’s degree online.  Plus, she explains, ‘To give our kids the life I feel they deserve, you have to have money.’

Well, that’s a pretty darn good rationale, wouldn’t you say?

Another new dealer has another rationale:  “I only deal marijuana…I don’t feel like a drug dealer.”

Well, that’s very different, right?  It’s okay because she doesn’t feel like a drug dealer.  It’s her feelings that should matter, right?

They can justify it all they want, but when you come right down to it, they’re breaking the law.

Is what they’re doing any different from cleaning out a cash register when a clerk turns his head?

From swiping the money out of an old lady’s hand as she steps away from an ATM?

From running past a folding table where little girls wearing green uniforms are selling their cookies and taking the shoe box with the money?

The Curmudgeon thinks not.  Bad people or the product of bad parents, it doesn’t really matter.  No matter how you attempt to rationalize it, there’s no acceptable rationale.  These folks may think they’re good people, but they’re not.  They’re criminals.  (And for the record, The Curmudgeon, who’s never touched marijuana in his life, supports its legalization, but until that happens, selling and using it remain a crime.)  They may think it’s okay to break certain laws, or just marijuana laws, but it’s not.  And while it may be nice that they think selling drugs to buy things for their kids is good, it’s not.  Their kids don’t need new Nikes or an iPod; they need parents who know right from wrong and who model that understanding every day.  They need parents who can tell them that copying the test answers from a classmate is wrong, that copping a research paper from an internet web site is wrong, that being sixteen years old and drinking beer behind the backstop at the playground is wrong, and that swiping baseball cards from Rite Aid (Woolworth’s, alas, is long gone) is wrong – and who can say such things credibly without their kids looking at them and saying, or thinking, “You sell pot for a living but your nose is all bent out of joint because I swiped a ninety-nine-cent Kit Kat bar from the 7-Eleven?”

These particular people who’ve chosen to sell drugs believe they’re good people doing an acceptable thing out of necessity.  They’re not.  They’re criminals.  They think what they’re doing is okay.  It’s not.  They’re criminals.  And while The Curmudgeon generally is disturbed by the sheer degree of punitiveness of the American justice system – it’s one of the harshest in the world – he thinks these people are especially dangerous.  An argument can be made that a lot of people who engage in criminal activity either don’t know better or have been wired or destined for a life of crime from childhood.  But not these people:  they know better, know they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, yet they do it anyway.

And that, readers, is downright scary.

Mini-Rumination: Hey, Pennsylvania and New Jersey Voters!

Your states both have incredibly mediocre Democrats representing you in the U.S. Senate who are up for re-election this year.

Do you even know who’s running for the Republicans?

Come to think of it, have the Republicans even bothered to put up credible opponents to these two incredibly mediocre Democratic senators?

And for a Few Moments, Time Stood Still

Last Saturday morning The Curmudgeon attended the annual book festival staged outdoors on the main street in nearby Collingswood, New Jersey.  Now involuntarily an early riser, he arrived unpleasantly early:  about 10:30.  The crowd was still sparse – it gets quite busy later in the day, as The Curmudgeon learned back when he wasn’t an involuntary early riser – and people strolled leisurely past tables behind which writers sat, hoping against hope that someone might just buy their book.

Most of the books on display were written by people who fancy themselves writers but would be wise never to give up their day job.  For the third or fourth year, many appeared to hope they might be the next J.K. Rowling, peddling fantasies about sorcerers and goblins and whatever all that nonsense was that people ate up so eagerly in the Harry Potter series.  Interspersed between the fantasy writers were the vampire writers, all hoping they’ve created the next Barnabas Collins, along with people who dug into their own pockets to publish books about some uninteresting aspect of their own lives.  The books on display are discouraging in their apparent ordinariness, but what’s most encouraging about the festival is how many people will come just to see the books – even when they know there’s virtually no chance they will depart with their wallet any lighter than it was when they left home.

Because it was still early the masses had not yet arrived, so there were just sporadic pockets of people browsing the displays and talking to the writers and sellers and listening to live music from a series of stages temporarily set up at roughly two-block intervals.  As he walked west, though, The Curmudgeon noticed a fairly substantial crowd standing outside a tent.  Drawing closer, he saw a very familiar face, a handsome man with a full head of brilliant white hair (The Curmudgeon, a baldie, notices and appreciates a good head of hair on an older guy and is always a bit envious).  The man stood comfortably, microphone in hand, addressing a crowd of mostly middle-aged people in his familiar French-accented English.  The Curmudgeon stood and listened for a few minutes, unable to lose the grin he had sprouted, before resuming his stroll.

About a half-hour later The Curmudgeon was on his return trip, walking east, when, amid tables almost bereft of browsers, he spotted ahead a long line of people, apparently awaiting an opportunity to get their book signed by a writer.  Again he drew closer and again he saw that same white-haired man, smiling happily at the middle-aged adults who looked at him with absolute adoration in their eyes.

The man’s name is Bernie Parent, and from 1973 to 1979 he was a true sports hero in Philadelphia, a hockey player in a town that had strangely taken to a sport that few of the residents had played, or even heard much about, growing up.  For most of the past thirty-two years since his injury-shortened career ended, Parent has remained in the Philadelphia area but kept a relatively low profile ­– that is, until last winter, when he returned to the ice at the age of sixty-six to play one last old-timers’ game improbably staged outdoors, on a makeshift sheet of ice put down in a football stadium.  Of the dozens of legends who eagerly seized this one last moment of glory, the fans clearly embraced Parent the most – most likely because of a combination of his excellence as a player, his warmth and ever-present smile, his charming accent, and the enthusiasm he displayed over his questionable judgment about attempting to play semi-competitive hockey again at such an advanced age.

There in Collingswood last Saturday morning, the people who grew up watching Bernie Parent play stood in a crowd to hear him speak and then stood in a long line for the opportunity to say hello and have him sign their book.  These were middle-aged people, like The Curmudgeon, all long past the age when people are supposed to have heroes, but one of those heroes had returned, and for a few magical moments, time stood still for them:  it was 1974 and the sunburn from the parade down Broad Street still smarted, and the man so many of them – of us – worshipped at that time was standing in front of them – in front of us – strangely like a peer yet clearly still peerless, and we were going to hold onto it for every moment we possibly could.

Mini-Rumination: The “New” Health Insurance Credo

So if health insurers are now all about helping their customers stay well and avoid injury and illness, how come The Curmudgeon had to fork over $31.99 for his own flu shot?  Why didn’t his health insurer believe this would be a good investment in keeping him healthy?

Mini-Rumination: A New View of Entitlements

We hear and read a lot about entitlements.  Mostly, we hear and read that they’re a bad thing that’s ruining the American economy.

But there’s another perspective on entitlements.  If you read only one newspaper column on politics this year, if you read only one newspaper column on the economy this year, if you read only one newspaper column on entitlements this year, it should be this one, which appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post under the byline of columnist Steven Pearlstein.

This is, without question, one of the best political/economic columns The Curmudgeon has ever read in his life.  You can find it here.

Thinking About Teacher Tenure

Sometimes a great idea remains a great idea forever – its greatness never diminishes.  Sometimes, though, great ideas have their day in the sun and are great no longer.

Take tenure for public school teachers, for instance.

Contrary to what some people believe – and what some people want you to believe – tenure for public school teachers does not guarantee those teachers a job for life.  All it means is that they can only be fired for cause – such as evidence that they are not good teachers.

That seems fair, doesn’t it?  Most employers get rid of people who can’t do their job, don’t they?

Tenure for public school teachers emerged for different reasons in different areas, but mostly, its origins can be traced to the days before teachers were unionized and teaching jobs were political patronage positions.  When young women graduated from college (remember, until unions helped make teaching the kind of job that could support a family, a far higher proportion of school teachers were women), their fathers would take them to a local political leader and get them a job as a school teacher.  They then would work at those jobs until their political patron lost his power.  When that happened they were fired and replaced by friends of the new political boss.  Over time, even the party bosses who loved doling out patronage jobs came to realize that this was not good for kids, so they found a way to exempt teachers from this kind of unnecessary turnover:  tenure.

Now, teachers have a different kind of protection from inappropriate dismissal:  their unions.  Unions negotiate complex contracts with public school systems that spell out in detail how teachers’ performance will be evaluated, what circumstances may lead to teachers’ dismissal, and what mechanisms of due process shall be employed for determining whether a teacher should be dismissed for poor performance.  It’s all there in black and white, negotiated and mutually agreed.  When you think about it, it renders the entire concept of tenure unnecessary – even obsolete.

But tenure does serve one type of person very well:  the political demagogue.  Politicians love to blame poor student achievement on teachers and love to point to tenure as the reason why school systems can’t get rid of poor-performing teachers.  Get rid of tenure, these demagogues insist – The Curmudgeon is working hard at this moment not to look at New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who’s sitting there in the front row, frothing at the mouth – and they’ll improve public education.

Nonsense.  Tenure doesn’t prevent public school systems from getting rid of bad teachers; lazy public school administrators do.  Those administrators decide that documenting bad teachers’ shortcomings is too much work or is not worth the effort, and they – not the outdated concept of tenure – are responsible for bad teachers remaining in the classroom.

Every profession has practitioners who are less able than others.  Every restaurant, for example, doesn’t have great food – because not all chefs have the same level of skill.  Some doctors are better diagnosticians or surgeons than others – remember, for every doctor who can brag about finishing in the top ten percent of his class, another discreetly hides a bottom ten percent ranking.  Look at a newspaper sports section sometime:  every day, in black and white, you can read a number or a series of numbers that tell you, in objective terms, how the performance of individual baseball players and entire teams compare to that of other baseball players and other teams.  Even better, look around where you work:  some of your co-workers are better at their jobs than others, right?

Well, people can stop eating at the bad restaurant – or the owner can replace the chef.  People find new doctors all the time.  The owners and managers of baseball teams trade, fire, and demote inadequate players all the time.  As for your own workplace, well, can you honestly tell The Curmudgeon that you’ve never experienced the relief that comes with the dismissal of a co-worker whose poor performance was dragging down others?

Public school districts can and should do the same – but tenure isn’t the obstacle to doing so.  Sloth is.  Lazy administrators and school principals, or administrators and principals too timid to take on teachers’ unions, decide that the benefits to be gained from initiating dismissal proceedings aren’t worth all of the effort.  According to a recent article in the Washington Post, a study found that ninety-four percent of all public school teachers in Chicago had been rated “superior” or “excellent” in their evaluations and just four out of every 1000 rated “unsatisfactory.”  How is that possible?  It’s not:  the only way that happens is if the evaluators are incompetent or if they just don’t think it’s worth the bother.  Neither of those explanations is the fault of teachers.

Eliminating tenure won’t cost a single public school teacher his or her job.  Instead of opposing the elimination of tenure for public school teachers, those teachers and their unions should eagerly embrace the idea – embrace it because such a development would be an important first step in preventing demagogic public officials from demonizing teachers and also would shine a much-needed spotlight on principals and administrators who fail to do their jobs – fail to identify teachers whose performance falls short, fail to work with struggling teachers to improve their performance, and then fail to seek to dismiss teachers who, no matter how much help they receive, simply cannot cut it in a public school classroom.

And then we can all move on to the more serious question of what ails public education.