Archive for June, 2009

Easier to Seek Forgiveness

We have all heard the time honored axiom of “It is easier to seek forgiveness than gain permission”, but it was a State of Georgia bureaucrat that first showed me its practical application.

Periodically, the State of Georgia produces an administrator who operates in a remarkable fashion, with unusual and exceptional power. These administrators take tax dollars and put them to interesting use. Nothing illegal here, mind you, but just interesting applications of the public’s money.

One example comes to mind of a state building administrator that masterfully saved an historic building in downtown Atlanta. This structure, one of the oldest in Atlanta, was once the freight depot for a local railroad. Built in 1869, the building is situated in the center of town very near the State capitol building. Of course, Atlanta is older than that, but after the departure of Union troops, there really wasn’t much of the old Atlanta left. By the 1960’s, the railroad had shifted its base of operations to the east of downtown, and the LCL (less than carload) freight business had dwindled to nothing, so the building was essentially abandoned. The derelicts moved in, speeding up the process of decay. Somewhere along the way, the State of Georgia gained title to this structure, but nothing was done to preserve the building.

Our administrator looked and saw what a jewel this structure is, even in its state of decay. The typical course of action would be to go to the state’s General Assembly and get funding for the building’s renovation. Of course, attendant to this process would be the usual political back and forth. There would be all sorts of meddling by the legislators, right down to the choices of colors for the ladies restrooms. Eventually, some legislator’s brother-in-law would be awarded the project. The political process would be a long and harrowing one, and would not necessarily result in the proper restoration of this important structure. So, our administrator chose another path, based on the premise of seeking forgiveness instead of permission.

In the allocation of funds for State projects, the monies awarded are usually done in even, easily readable numbers. Instead of awarding $48,362.87, the General Assembly usually awards $50,000.00 for a project. If the job is actually done for $48,362.87, then what happens to the excess? One approach is to dutifully return the excess to the State’s coffers. Or not. Our administrator quietly squirreled away leftover funds from various projects, all done outside of the purview of the Georgia General Assembly.

When one project was completed, say a roofing project, the excess materials were sent over to the freight depot. Likewise, when a roofing crew had completed one project, it was a very easy process to stop by and do a little extra work at another location. Once the roof had been repaired, the building had effectively been saved.

Now it was time for a slow restoration process. Next on the list was construction of a plumbing tower in the middle of the building. This was a concrete block structure for the plumbing necessary for a public building. Once completed, it was fitted with hardened doors to keep the vandals out. Lighting was added next, making it harder for the vandals to hide. A few dollars for doors here; some new windows there, a little paint, some new carpet (from just up the road in Dalton) and suddenly there is a great party place for the State legislature every time they meet to discuss the public’s laws.

The Georgia Road Freight Depot is a jewel in downtown Atlanta, all done through the quiet resolve of one smart administrator. When it was finally revealed that this significant structure was now available for State use, it was very hard for anybody to be mad, but you can just hear the conversations amongst the Legislators.

“Where’d this building come from?” “I dunno, hasn’t it always been here?”

Which, in the strictest sense, is true.

Read Full Post »

I found myself quoting Cicero the other day in an email to a college official; I opined “O Tempora, O Mores”. It was said in irony of course, but upon reflection, it may have been closer to the truth than I originally thought. They played rough in ancient Rome. When Cicero hectored his way onto the bad side of Marcus Antonius, they executed him, then cut off his head and hands (the hands that had written so many things), and put them on public display to remind others of the consequences of opposition to the wrong parties. Marc Anthony’s wife, the lovely Fulvia, “took Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in final revenge against Cicero’s power of speech.” In the fullness of time, Marc Anthony would move on to Egypt, gaining a nice house in Alexandria, a torrid relationship with one of the hottest babes of his time and a three movie deal with 20th Century Fox.

Today, of course, we are a cultured and modern society. Now we get the opposing parties to appear on one of the news casts and let them yell at each other until it is time for a commercial. It is just like professional wrestling; at the end of the event, everybody clocks out and goes home to their families.

What prompted me to bewail these modern times was my inadvertent discovery of a recent event that happened at the college that I attended in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. There was an impeachment effort against the President of the college’s Student Senate.

It has been noted on many occasions that the reason that academic arguments are so vituperative is because the stakes are so small. And, viewing this event from the outside world, apparently nothing could be closer to the truth. From what I can gather, this impeachment got underway because: “The petition began largely as a result of Student Senate meetings regarding theme housing. Several students were dissatisfied with the way in which [the President] and Student Senate handled the discussion of, in particular, Queer and Ally House, Feminist House and Asian Cultural House.” Continuing, “…..I would still be having this discussion if we’d gotten the house,” said [name deleted], one of a group of students who applied for Feminist House. “These issues are bigger than houses.”“

Evidently. As a sensitive guy of the 21st Century, I respect their feelings and goals. And, based upon my own college career, I am more than willing to filter things out because, let’s face it, when you are in the 18 – 22 year old demographic, you can say and do some spectacularly odd things. Not that one is willing to admit it at the time, but with the richness of experience, you gradually get better. On the other hand, college is supposed to be a training ground for the contemporary world, and you have to wonder what sort of life these students are being trained for.

The impeachment petition was handled by an online petition site, one that does not reveal the names of the petition signers until the petition reaches 300 signers. In the end, the petition did not reach critical mass, so no names were revealed and the episode ended without any action. It could just as easily handled by ACORN. Apparently, the hard feelings remain. The Student Senate President in question graduated and moved on to become an intern for a U.S. Congressman’s office. In this case, college did indeed train her for the outside world, such as it is.

In a larger sense, however, this event keyed me in on something which has been bothering me about my college for quite a while. My quoting “O Tempora, O Mores” was supposed to be a lament on the state of modern society, but in fact, this is closer to reality than I am comfortable with. Granted, this situation could just as easily be Paul Lynde singing “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie. Nor is this totally out of character for my alma mater; this college has always enjoyed a reputation for a radical bent. Not as bad as Reed College or the late Antioch College, but certainly things were a little more outré on our campus, regardless of the era. Add to this the fact that small colleges are miniature hothouses for interpersonal behavior; like elder care facilities, everybody spends a lot of their time discussing what other people on campus are doing. Further, my alma mater is located in a smallish town that is far from major cities, just the right recipe for the college’s famed odd behavior.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, for it was this same environment that I was comfortable in for four years. Whatever the college experience might have been for me, it did expose me to some interesting ideas. And, of course, since I was a callow youth, a lot of those ideas were wasted on me at the time. It is only in the fullness of life that I have come to appreciate some of the details. And, because of the nature of time, I can’t go back to relive and relearn.

One thing that my college exposed me to was a Mississippi blues player named Bukka White. At the time, whatever encounter I had with Mr. White must have been odd; we were two Southerners on a college campus in the 1960’s filled with people who were not from The South. If I had known then what I know now, I would have invited Mr. White out to a grassy hill along the south side of campus, pulled out a bottle of his favorite hooch and set down to empty that bottle and to talk about trains. Trains are an integral part of blues music; you can’t get out of the Mississippi delta except by train or bus, and you don’t hear that many bus songs. Perhaps, Bukka would have pulled out his National and played…..

Now, I look back and realize that I have a lot more in common with Bukka White than I do with the college that I once attended. My memories of the college have become pale; the campus is like the stage of the play Our Town. The structures were there simply as backdrop for the human events that would happen there. Drama is not the right word, for they were happy times, when we were all young pups, full of life. It was those relationships that made me what I am today, and I am thankful for them. It is also helpful to remember that this was in the past.

Institutions change, things get better, but they don’t necessarily change in a linear fashion. There are missteps along the way, and a series of events has keyed me into the realization that the college that I attended is no longer remotely the institution that it was when I was there. It probably shouldn’t be. I suppose that I could enumerate the little slights and major differences, the tiny panes of glass that make up the stained glass window of my disaffection, but that is not my point.

The discovery of a Student Senate impeachment effort simply serves to remind me of just how far apart I am from my alma mater. It would be easier if everybody there was evil, which is far from the case. Rather, it is the radicals that have taken control and there is little room for moderation. One recent description of the College: “…..is a liberal arts college, in every sense of the word “liberal.” Radicalism has played a key role in our society, for it was the radicals that pointed out the inequities, but it was the vast middle that ultimately made the decisions. Now it is the middle that has been marginalized and it is the radicals that are setting the agenda. The middle has been driven away. This is part of a long rumbling slide away from that school and what it meant to me. And one small college is not an isolated example.

All that is left is the support of an institution that you believe in. And if you have nothing in common with the institution of today, what is there left to do? It is not that I am angry about this; far from it. Rather, I look at the state of my college as it is today and I just don’t really care. It’s like a marriage gone bad, where both partners no longer respect each other. Why support an institution that espouses a philosophy so contrary to the way that I live?

I have migrated away from the zero sum games that some play. I have left places where the free exchange of ideas has been eroded for political or personal gain. The world that they envision is alien to me; rather than enjoy what we have in common, we are now exploited by what makes us different. I have wearied of that because it is so contrary to what I’m in life for. I no longer walk the paths of confrontation; it’s not worth the effort.

With the fullness of time, and a reflection of my life, I have migrated to places of respite from the toxic environment that some parts of this world have become. I have found contemplation and thought, appreciation for what I have earned and been given. I have found institutions that allow me to exist in peace; a wonderful marriage, a fine church, a great neighborhood. It is not that everybody there agrees with what I believe in, far from it. Rather, I have found places where I can consider the hard issues of this life without having people getting in my face about what I think. Would that my alma mater could be so, and perhaps it is, but it does not appear to be so.

Bukka White has left this world on the last GM&O train out of town, gone on to a better reward than the hard life he lived. I headed out on Santa Fe train No. 18 decades ago. That was all in the past, but the delta blues stick with me to this day.

Read Full Post »

The Digital Conversion

Well, here we are again; digital television is scheduled to become a reality. The first time around, we were told that people were unprepared and that the governmental funds for the converter boxes had been exhausted. So, it is now time for a second try, and this one looks like it will stick.

Certainly by Sunday, the conversion will be newsworthy material, with people saying on camera: “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” When you think about it, though, if they had actually been watching television over the last year, they would have known that this was coming, so you have to wonder just how legitimate their statement is.

The confusion can be legitimate, since my local cable provider has told me both that I have nothing to worry about, that they will handle everything and, at the same time, telling me that I need a cable box for each television to enjoy what television has to offer.

It seems that the more televisions I have, the less I enjoy the medium. And, will there be news coverage of people saying “Who cares about television, it’s all junk anyway.”?

We’ll see. Or we won’t.

Read Full Post »

They Go Back Home

As our economy resets itself downward, interesting things are happening. One interesting development is the departure of a number of people who were here because of plentiful jobs, which is not the situation today. The Wall Street Journal calls one of them an illegal immigrant, as were many of them. CNN waits until the third paragraph to utter the phrase. Certainly, after years of arguing about the status of many of these people, the media is finally coming to grip with the facts of the case. Nor is this strictly limited to the United States; the Czech Republic is paying their illegals to go home. Italy is tightening things up, too.

The immigrants’ presence here was always fluid since they had never made the thorough commitment to become a legal resident of the United States in the first place. The fact is that they are leaving in a more easy fashion than they came. The effects here are uncertain, but there are interesting examples of the effects of recession. Dollar outflows from the United States are dropping. The Border Patrol is making fewer arrests. While some illegals are leaving, many others are still here, staffing the chicken plants and farms that require their inexpensive presence. I leave the full discussion of that matter to another day.

I’m not strident on the topic of illegal immigration on one level, the personal one. The illegal immigrants that I know personally are hard working, honest individuals who truly want to become citizens of the United States. Along the path to citizenship, they have been ripped off by dishonest lawyers and other people promising to make them whole, but only taking their money and leaving. Because they are not citizens, they have little recourse. It’s sad.

On other matters, however, I believe that people who use the services of our governments should also be in the position to be legal voters and taxpayers; i.e., legal citizens. My religious faith says that I should care about these people, and I do. The legal and moral aspects of their behavior are more murky, and our nation remains undecided about what to do. There is the specter of Sweden, which has been overwhelmed by illegal immigration by those seeking the social welfare network that this country generously offers.

I do know that there is one effect that we cannot gauge. As these people return to their home countries, they take with them the lessons learned in the United States. Those that came here showed the initiative to get up and get themselves into the U. S., certainly an entrepreneurial streak. While they were here, they worked hard and sent money back to their families. With their departure, they take few things with them besides themselves, but they also take an idea.

When they return to their homes and families, they come back to a place where the money that they had sent has been invested and spent. Who knows what all those exiting dollars have created there? At the same time, they come home after full exposure to a wide-open democracy, and they will look at their home country with the wizened eyes of those who have seen that there can be a difference.

Although they never fully assimilated, these people were here long enough to see our culture, both the good and the bad. In their time here, they have seen the American people up close and personal, and they know that we are generally a good and honest country. They also have seen the exceptions to that fact.

At a time when capitalism is under threat in the United States, they take with them the experiences and, perhaps, the starting capital for something permanent with their families in their original home.

They are like seeds thrown into the wind. May they find fertile soil in which to grow.

Read Full Post »

On Baltic Birch

I have had a long standing relationship with the commercial side of the woodworking business for several decades. It’s an interesting business, which with the exception of the last year or so, has been generally prosperous and enjoyable. Although not directly involved with the woodworking business, I’m still there several days a week, renting an office from a cabinet maker friend. I also do his bookkeeping, which gives one an interesting perspective.

Another friend, who has always been involved with high technology ventures, came by one day at the time when the technology bubble was bursting. He gazed at the tableau of woodworking machinery, hardwoods and sheet goods and commented: “It must be nice to be in a business that actually makes things.” It is.

Years ago, back in the 1980’s, another woodworker stopped by one of the earlier shops, when we were on St. Charles Avenue. As is woodworker custom in the late afternoons, beer was drug out and we were sitting on the loading dock and talking about things wood. He asked an interesting question. “Have you ever wondered why Baltic birch plywood varies so much?” Baltic birch is one of those staples of the cabinet and furniture business, with a clear grain and even color that makes it quite desirable. This woodworker had an interesting point, since Baltic birch ply wood was available for a period of time and then would become unavailable for months. Cabinet shops often stockpiled in anticipation of the eventual shortages. When the shortage ended, the first batches of new birch ply were so bad as to be unusable. After several months of junky plywood, things would even out and everything that you bought from the supplier could be used. Then, without warning, birch ply would simply not be available again, for months.

Baltic birch plywood comes from Finland and Russia, and in that day, “Russia” was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; i.e., the Commies. Our woodworker friend continued: ”Finland accounts for some of the birch ply production, but the vast majority of it comes from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union birch ply comes from state-run forced collective farms, which are directed from a central planning agency. The people working on these farms have no say so in how things are run, with all decisions coming from Moscow.”

“So, what happens is that these collective farmers sit around and drink vodka all day, doing absolutely nothing. Thus, here in the United States, Baltic birch plywood becomes unavailable. Eventually, Moscow discovers what is happening and sends people down to the collective farm to get things into motion. Then you have the poor quality stuff that hits the market because everybody is slamming the stuff out to meet production quotas. Eventually, everybody is sobered up and back working as they should be. Things are cool and the apparatchiks head back to the civilization of Moscow. Quality production continues for a while and prices in the United States go up. With a decline in demand that resulted from the higher prices, the vodka drinking begins again, leading to the next shortage.”

With the fall of communism, the collective farms went away and production is now handled by for-profit companies, which has led to a steady supply of Baltic birch plywood, but it should serve as a cautionary tale. Government run businesses don’t quite have the ability to produce that which privately operated businesses do. The general goals and motives of the two institutions are fundamentally different.

As an aside, I made an interesting discovery about Russian-market vodka. We’re not talking about the stuff that is intended for the North American market. More than a little of that stuff is actually a commodity alcohol from somebody like Archer Daniels Midland. The vodka “manufacturer” buys this industrial product, mixes it with imported water or whatever to create an unique product. No, we’re talking about the street-level Russian vodka, like what the guys out on the Baltic birch collective are drinking.

Years ago, a friend who is a Russian-area studies expert stopped by the house one day to catch up, and he had brought a nice bottle of real Russian vodka as a small tribute. I thanked him for it and started to shelve it when he asked: “Wouldn’t you like to try it?” So, I drug out a couple glasses, he opened the bottle and poured. The stuff was very fine indeed. Then he asked: “So, what are you going to do with the rest of it?” I said that I would save it for a special occasion, to which he snorted: “Take a look at the cap.” It was a pull tab cap, unlike the Stelvin closure type caps. In other words, in Russia, when you opened a bottle of vodka, you were going to drink the whole thing.

ваше здоровье!

Read Full Post »