Monthly Archives: October 2014

A True Republican Leader

The Progressive, a magazine The Curmudgeon has come to dislike because everything about both its appearance and its content screams “amateurish” (in fact, he no longer subscribes but occasionally picks up an issue), nevertheless comes up with some juicy stuff now and then – like this one.

Jim Thompson, chairman of the Winnebago County, Illinois Republican Party chapter, ended one of his newsletters this way: “Media update for the week: saw on the news this week the offspring of a donkey and a zebra, black and white legs, rest all donkey. Not sure why this is news: Now if we can teach him to read a teleprompter, we could have two living creatures the media will fawn over that is part white, part black, and all a**!

Mr. Thompson sounds like a natural leader, doesn’t he?

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Even as a Child, The Curmudgeon Abused His Power

This year, we are being told, marks the fiftieth birthday of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, which runs the buses, trolleys, and trains as well as the subway and el in the five-county Philadelphia area. The Curmudgeon has ridden SEPTA literally thousands of times, including during his five years in high school (don’t even think it: it was a five-year high school), five-and-a-half years in college (okay, you can think it here), and more than a decade of commuting to offices in Philadelphia’s central business district.

Old-timers remember SEPTA’s predecessor, the Philadelphia Transit Corporation, or PTC. The Curmudgeon, now closing in on fifty-seven years of age, was just six years old when PTC magically became SEPTA – excellent preparation, in hindsight, for a period of about ten years in which almost every bank in the greater Philadelphia area changed its name when state banking restrictions were eased. The Curmudgeon remembers well becoming angry at Provident National Bank, which was then purchased by PNC, angrily leaving for Continental Bank, which was then acquired by Midlantic Bank, which was then, in turn, acquired by PNC, which essentially left him back with the same bad people he had been trying to escape in the first place.

But he digresses.

The Curmudgeon has one vivid memory of the old PTC. One day, and clearly he was no more than six years old because he knows these were PTC and not SEPTA days, The Curmudgeon was with his father at a gas station at the corner of Bustleton Avenue and Knorr Street in Philadelphia. With one exception when he was much older, The Curmudgeon’s family always had old, on-their-last legs cars (including one old junker that dad bought for next nothing, had the front seats reupholstered, sent mom to pick up at the shop, and then the car died on the way home, never, ever to work again), and dad had his cars fixed at this particular Atlantic station (later ARCO) because there were no auto shops near where The Curmudgeon’s family lived but his grandparents lived around the corner from this gas station and at least we could kill time with mom’s parents who, if nothing else, always fed the family exceptionally well.

Bustleton Avenue is a fairly heavily traveled city street and one of the major roads cutting through the northeastern part of Philadelphia and the 59B bus that rode up and down it came often and was reliable, and as father and son hung around the gas station for a while, son noticed the buses whizzing by. A natural question occurred to him.

“How do the buses know when to stop to pick up people?”

Dad explained that people stood at the corner waiting for the bus, and when they saw the bus approaching, they would step up to the edge of the sidewalk, to the curb, almost in the street, and when the bus driver saw that he would stop, open the door, and pick up his latest passenger.

Moments later, The diminutive Curmudgeon – only a Curmudgeonette at the time – noticed a bus traveling in his direction coming from north to south. As it got closer, he stepped toward the curb and earned a big, satisfied smile as the bus ground to a halt before him. Dad quickly grabbed his son by the hand, pulled him away, and shrugged sheepishly at the bus driver, who kindly smiled back at him.

The Curmudgeon told this story at a family gathering not too long ago and his sister, an elementary school teacher and keen observer of all things related to the behavior of children, told her older brother that this was probably the first time in his life that he abused his power. (She also tends to think of her brother’s blogging as an abuse of something or other and as a phase she clearly, and maybe even dearly, hopes will soon pass.)

The Curmudgeon was a bit taken aback. Really? Stopping a moving bus was an abuse of power? Wasn’t it just a use of power, he asked.

No, sister said. A use of the power would have been getting onto the bus and then riding on it. Stopping the bus with no intention of getting onto it was an abuse of power, she insisted.

The Curmudgeon thought about it for a moment and then realized that even if one wanted to consider this an abuse of power, it most certainly was not his first. He then told her about something that happened before she was born, when her big brother was just a little boy and exercised the truest form of little boy abuse of power: he was “anal retentive” – the real, literal meaning of the word as it is applied to children and not the title people inaccurately and maliciously apply to those who seem overly attentive to the little details in their lives. That, he insisted, was a true use and abuse of power, and almost certainly was his first major abuse of his power.

Sister nodded and The Curmudgeon could see her thoughts even though she remained silent. “That explains a lot,” she was saying to herself, and her brother couldn’t really deny it.

The Lone Fool State

Oh, those Texans.

They hate government, especially the federal government. They want it underfunded, out of their state, out of their communities, out of their pocketbooks, and out of their lives.

Until, that is, they want something from that same government.

Take Texas senator John Cornyn and representative Michael McCaul. (Please!) They’re a couple of conservative, gun-totin’, god-fearin’, lib’ral bashin’, gov’mint-hatin’ Republicans who want to kill off the federal government and probably wouldn’t object to Texas breaking off from the U.S. and forming its own country. (The Curmudgeon has written in the past about what kind of country Texas might be on its own.)

But now, these sushi-despisin’, boot-wearin’, Democrat-malignin’ Texans want something of the federal government: they want the airports in Dallas and Houston to be added to the five U.S. airports at which special measures will be taken to screen arriving travelers for Ebola.

Texas_LoneBrainCell-2So these fine public servants want government out of their lives and out of the lives of their constituents – until, that is, they find that they want something from government.

And then they make their demands without a hint of shame.

But that’s Texas for you: the Lone Fool State.

“Old School”?

As he has written in the past, The Curmudgeon, apparently terminally single, occasionally uses internet dating web sites in an attempt to cure that condition. It’s a tough road to travel, far more suited to those with style than those of us forced to rely on mere substance. He marvels at some of the qualities upon which some women in his dating pool absolutely insist: some are looking for men in their fifties, for example, with a full head of hair, or who live within five miles of them or who are ten years younger than they are or who will go zip-lining or bungee-jumping with them or who can’t wait to get to know their eight dogs and four cats or who have a Harley or…

You get the picture.

The way these sites work, for those of you fortunate enough not to need them, is that people fill out a questionnaire and upload a photo or two, all of which is assembled into a profile available for other people to read. If you like what you read – or, as usually seems the case, if you like the pictures – you can write to that person. Some profiles say virtually nothing; some, like that of The Curmudgeon, are long and detailed enough that it’s probably best to get a drink and maybe even a snack (not to mention your reading glasses, because we’re getting old, people) before you sit down to read them. Some are straightforward and dry, some are upbeat and enthusiastic, some are angry, and some demonstrate a degree of ignorance that is downright scary; The Curmudgeon wrote a while back about the latter, so if you think he’s exaggerating, look here.

And some, like a profile The Curmudgeon read earlier this week, are pretty funny. This particular woman, in response to a question about what she would like to do on a first date with someone new, wrote that she was looking for someone “old school,” which she described as the man bringing her a single rose on that first meeting, taking her out for dinner and dancing, and then sending her a sweet text message the next morning.

Yes, old school. Because when our fathers started courting our mothers, that’s exactly what they did: they sent mom a nice text after their first date.

Attention, K-Mart Shoppers

Got cash?cash

Hey, Texans

Since Texas introduced oppressive regulations that make it almost impossible for any facility that performs abortions to continue operating, the state has 75 percent fewer such facilities than it did just two years ago. Now, only eight such facilities must serve a state with a population of more than twenty-six million people spread out over 269,000 square miles.

Meanwhile…

In 2013, forty-two percent of all executions performed in the U.S. were carried out in Texas.

And twenty-seven percent of Texans have no health insurance – the highest rate in the country. Despite this, Texas has repeatedly – and with true Texas bravado – gleefully and enthusiastically rejected the opportunity offered by the federal health care reform law to expand its Medicaid program at no cost to the state’s taxpayers for several years and at just minimal cost thereafter.

So Texans, please, can you tell us when you’re going to start caring as much about the living as you do about the unborn and dead?

U.S. Postal Workers vs. Staples

Last week, postal workers across the country rallied in opposition to their bosses’ decision to authorize Staples stores to operate limited-services postal counters. At these counters, Staples employees will sell stamps and accept packages for shipping.

The Curmudgeon, who generally has a high regard for the U. S. Postal Service, has a few thoughts about this.

For starters, and this isn’t the real issue, postal workers shouldn’t urge people to boycott Staples. The issue here is about what postal service executives decided to do, not about Staples. If Staples hadn’t gone for this deal someone else certainly would have, and in this dispute between postal workers and postal service executives, Staples is practically an innocent bystander.

They also shouldn’t act as if this is the first time anyone’s ever sought to involve private businesses in the delivery of postal services. Staples has been selling stamps for years; the cashiers have them under their drawers (their cash drawers, not the other kind). So have others, including many supermarkets and drug stores. In fact, The Curmudgeon walked to his neighborhood Staples last Sunday to buy stamps.

And let’s not forget Sam Drucker running the post office out of his general store on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

Authorizing businesses to provide some postal services is about enhancing access to those services for customers, not breaking unions.

And The Curmudgeon can tell you about access.

With a father living across the country and in need of a reliable pipeline of Tastykakes, Dubble Bubble, Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, Wilbur Buds, cheap cowboy paperbacks, and other things he couldn’t find in the Los Angeles area, The Curmudgeon has long been a frequent post office user. Back when he worked in Philadelphia’s central business district and took public transportation to work he would have to bring his packages with him to work so he could mail them on the way to the office or at lunch time because the neighborhood post office was never open when he was home. The subway on which he commuted was always packed with passengers standing nose to nose (this is where The Curmudgeon, not a coffee drinker, first encountered that delightful phenomenon known as coffee breath), and he often drew withering stares from fellow passengers because of the extra space his parcels occupied.

When he moved to his current home and worked at home his access to postal services was better: he could drive to the post office during his lunch hour. Of course, so did everyone else who worked in the general area because it was the only time of the day when there was a confluence between their freedom to do so and the post office’s business hours, and the result was large numbers of people descending on the post office in the same narrow 12:00 to 12:30 time-frame. With long lines and fewer service windows open because postal workers have a right to a lunch break, too, he sometimes struggled to complete his business and get back to work on time. Even with the advantage of working at home, going to the post office remained a real inconvenience.

And then something wonderful happened: a few years after he moved to New Jersey a card shop open in a shopping center that was a three-minute drive from his home and it had something he had never seen in such a place before: a postal mini-station where – surprise, surprise – it sold stamps and accepted packages for delivery. He knew it wasn’t going to last because he could quickly see that the card shop had no customers and was going to fail, but for about two years, The Curmudgeon loved it: closer to home than the post office, fewer people in line, friendlier clerks, and better, more convenient hours. When the card store finally closed (not because of The Curmudgeon: he bought all of his greeting cards there and more chocolate than he should have been eating) it was back to the regular post office and the challenge of completing his business on his time instead of his employer’s.

The Curmudgeon imagines that he’s not the only person frustrated by the post office’s continuing inconvenience. The postal service is a service business, but like so many service businesses, it’s not very service-oriented and not very customer-friendly. In general, its hours are ordinary business hours – the very times when most people cannot use its services. In fact, it might be argued that only in the past few years has the post office even begun to view the people who come through its doors as customers.

And that’s what this business about using Staples to enhance access to postal services seems to be all about.

But the postal service’s employees are responding the wrong way. Instead of protesting what their bosses are trying to do, they should be challenging those bosses to deliver the same level of service Staples will be offering. If postal workers are serious about fighting off this challenge, they and their union leaders should go to their bosses and suggest that the post office match Staples’ hours: open until nine on weekdays, open all day and not just for a few hours on Saturday, and open all day on Sundays. They should do this, moreover, for regular pay, not for overtime pay, because evening, Saturday, and Sunday hours can hardly be viewed as above and beyond the call of duty when the competition is prepared to do business during those same hours. (Actually, if The Curmudgeon had his druthers, most businesses would be closed on Sundays. Requiring people to work on Sunday was just another battle in the war against working people, waged by people who never work on Sundays, but that battle was lost long ago and The Curmudgeon has no intention of attempting to refight it on this issue.)

Together, the post office and its employees have dug their own grave on this one, but they have the tools to dig their way out. Whether they will do so is entirely up to them.

But The Curmudgeon isn’t holding his breath.

More on Halloween Lights

As strange as he found the Halloween lights he mentioned yesterday, The Curmudgeon believes they’re a good thing.

And not because they’re decorative and colorful, which he always appreciates. (The Curmudgeon is seriously into bright and colorful. His home these days is increasingly looking like an infant’s nursery; the only thing missing is a mobile – but he hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility of stringing one up in his living room.)

No, he views it as a good thing for an entirely different reason.

Economists like to point to a number of factors as indicators of the state of the economy and consumer confidence. They look at unemployment figures, growth in the GDP, retail sales trends, durable goods orders (whatever that means; seriously, is there anyone out there seeking to order goods that aren’t durable?).

halloween 2The Curmudgeon has always looked at another, simpler factor: Christmas lights. Living in the same general area for much of his life and spending more than a little time there even after he moved (a whole fourteen miles) away, he began noticing when he was about twelve years old (after writing a report in seventh grade about inflation) that when times were tough, Christmas light displays were fewer and less elaborate. When times got better, they became bigger and more common, and in good years, they were plentiful and elaborate.

So now, he’s hoping that this bold display of orange for Halloween, not even Christmas, is a sign that the residents of the working-class area in which he encountered it are increasingly finding gainful employment, more confident than they have been in recent years, and not as fearful that their next pay envelope will also contain a pink slip.

A New Wrinkle in the Celebration of an Old Holiday

While driving through a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood one night last week (for Philadelphia and Philadelphia expatriate readers: Mayfair), The Curmudgeon noticed bright lights adorning more than a few houses on the side streets.

Christmas lights this early? he asked himself. Are these folks serious? Will the movement to make Christmas a year-long celebration never end?

halloween 1And then The Curmudgeon drove past a few more streets and noticed what his first glance had missed: that most of the lights were orange, not Christmas green and red. He turned down one of those side streets and took a closer look, and his suspicion was confirmed.

These weren’t Christmas lights. They were Halloween lights.

That’s right: Halloween lights.

Since when? The Curmudgeon knows that many people decorate their homes for Halloween, but since when are they putting up lights that are every bit as plentiful and elaborate as Christmas lights?

And if this new kind of lavish display isn’t so new, how did The Curmudgeon miss it?

The Dubious Value of Political Debates

‘Tis the season for political debates.

And for the life of him The Curmudgeon doesn’t understand why.

A recent Washington Post article lamented the decline of debates between candidates for public office. More and more, the Post noted, candidates – especially incumbents – are choosing not to debate or to limit the number of debates in which they participate. This is too bad, the Post observed, because

Voters who rely on debates to clarify their thinking, to connect with a candidate or to get an answer to the question candidates choose not to discuss on the campaign trail, will have to make their decisions without that input.

Really?

The Curmudgeon has a word for people who “rely on debates to clarify their thinking.”

Stupid.

Growing up, The Curmudgeon doesn’t recall many political debates. In school we learned about the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate, but what we learned wasn’t very comforting: that Kennedy may have won the election because of his performance, during which he looked cool and collected while Nixon looked uncomfortable and shifty (alas, Nixon’s default demeanor), but that people who listened to the debate on the radio – still the primary way some people followed the news in 1960 – felt Nixon came out on top. It was a classic case of style winning out over substance – not a very reassuring thing.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford debated his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter, three times, and those debates were most notable for a serious gaffe by Ford, who insisted that Poland was not subject to Soviet domination in eastern Europe, and for the lights going out during the debate in Philadelphia. From that point on debates became an important part of our political landscape.

And The Curmudgeon is not at all happy about it.

After all, what can we really learn from a debate?

Well, we certainly can learn which candidate is the better debater.

And the value of that is…?

Nothing. It has no value. Just because someone is a better debater doesn’t mean he or she is better or smarter or has better ideas or is more qualified to hold the office being contested. All it means is that the person has better debating skills.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t very relevant to holding public office. Presidents don’t debate. Governors don’t debate. We like to think legislators debate, but really, the rules that govern Congress, state legislatures, and even city and town councils frequently are so rigid and formal that there’s seldom any real debate. Yes, people talk, yes, they give speeches, but there’s very little genuine back and forth between the two sides on any issue. Each side enters into the “debate” with the points it wants to make and it makes them; responses to the points offered by the other side are strictly optional and real engagement between people with different views is virtually non-existent.

The Curmudgeon can only recall one debate that he found enlightening. A few years ago, a New Jersey contest for the U.S. Senate featured incumbent Robert Menendez, a Democrat, running against Tom Kean, Jr., son of the state’s popular former governor. The Curmudgeon finds Menendez to be, well, kind of slimy, and based on what he was reading about Kean, the Republican sounded a lot like his father – that is, an old-fashioned, moderate Republican and therefore possibly a reasonable alternative to Menendez. Then they debated and The Curmudgeon saw for himself what no amount of reading could reveal: that Kean was, how shall we say this, just not very bright. (This appears to be what we get when the sons of respected and respectable elected Republican executive branch leaders try to follow in their daddy’s footsteps).

But this was clearly an exception in a sea of pointless debates.

Another reason debates aren’t very useful is that increasingly, the candidates of the two major parties are so far apart on the issues that matter most to voters that there’s really nothing to debate. Once upon a time, candidates might debate about somewhat nuanced differences in how they might approach, say, public education or crime or the pursuit of peace in the middle east. They might reasonably offer points to prove that theirs was the better approach and that they deserved your vote so they could pursue that approach.

debatersNow, though, the major party candidates are usually miles apart on almost every issue – especially domestic issues; Republicans are at one extreme of the spectrum and Democrats are at the other. If you’re the kind of person who’s interested enough in public affairs to tune into a debate, you already know the extreme positions of the two candidates – and what’s more, you already know which of the extremes you prefer, or at least can more easily tolerate.

So what’s the point of debating?

But, you may say, not everyone is as informed as some of us, some people need the debates because they’re not getting information about candidates from any other sources.

This is true – but, The Curmudgeon suggests, irrelevant.

Think about it.

These folks aren’t getting any information about candidates from newspapers.

Or radio.

Or television.

Or the internet.

Or social media (heaven help us when people start relying on social media for information about public affairs).

Do you really want such people voting at all? Of course they have the right, but do we really want to encourage them to go to the polls? (The Curmudgeon has written about the unenlightened electorate before. Find that piece here.)

So then who are the debates for?

They’re for the news media – for reporters who don’t care what the candidates say on matters of substance and are looking for a “gotcha” statement that a candidate makes in the heat of the moment (like President Ford’s); they’re for editorial writers who can’t think for themselves; they’re for the people who ask the questions and who fervently hope that a sharp question about something nobody cares about (except for the boys and girls on the bus) will catapult them into a national spotlight; and they’re for League of Women Voters types who think, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that debates do even a little bit of good.

The Curmudgeon actually is a fan of debate; in high school, he was even on the debate team (surely that doesn’t surprise you). But what the politicians do these days isn’t debating, it’s not even remotely enlightening, and it’s no longer worth the time and effort that goes into staging and preparing for them.