Two Lives, St. Patrick’s Day and Economics

Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) on Sunday, March 17, 2013. A link to the essay in the MJS Crossroads Section is provided below.


Charlie nailed it when he said, “I gotta move the liquor. To move the liquor I gotta fill the tables. It’s a matter of economics.” Charlie managed the Luau Lounge in the 1989 film, The Fabulous Baker Boys. The rules of economics that applied then to Seattle’s cinematic Luau Lounge apply today to the real world of Wisconsin’s bars

A neighborhood bar opens in 2012 near La Crosse and its owner tells the weekly paper that she wants her customers to be nice to each other. The website of a downtown Milwaukee bar that’s been around for a while asks, “Where Was I Last Night?” a question whose meaning depends largely on whether the emphasis falls on the second word.

While singularly tragic, Wisconsin’s alcohol related deaths are so numerous that they’re no more memorable than the second pitch to the third batter in the Brewers’ fourth 2009 road game. Names connected to them, like Neala Frye and Thomas (Tom) Hecht, may, but more probably may not, register with you.

Early on a Sunday in February, Frye stepped out of that neighborhood bar near La Crosse. The temperature was 5 degrees. She died of hypothermia. Her body was found that evening, three blocks away along railroad tracks. Her blood alcohol level was 0.21.

On a Saturday evening one year ago, Tom left that downtown Milwaukee bar to walk home. He’d been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day early. His body was found in the Milwaukee River almost two weeks later. His blood alcohol level was 0.22.

In Wisconsin, deaths like Neala’s and Tom’s bring a minor fever of grief, one that rises quickly aboard news items, candlelight vigils and resolutions then disappears as rapidly as the victims’ images leave our screens. We return to normal until the next short item appears on page 3 of the local newspaper.

We embrace this normalcy by continuing to revel in our No. 1 status in binge drinking, the percentage of the population that drinks and drivers who are out cruising under the influence ready to cross the center line to transport us from consciousness to the morgue.

If you’re in a bar here drinking and continue to stand without needing to hold onto anything or causing a problem, it’s assumed you’re drinking responsibly even if your blood alcohol level has risen to 0.21 or 0.22. You can leave the bar, then, without a word from anyone.

After all, who among us, statistically speaking, hasn’t asked a morning after, “Where was I last night?” The chances we’ve been there preclude the chances we’ll intervene.

On March 19, two days after St. Patrick’s Day, the Tavern League of Wisconsin (TLW) will hold its 29th Annual Legislative Day at the Inn on the Park in Madison. A statement at the bottom of the TLW sign displayed at many of its members’ establishments reads: “A Responsible Server.”

The fine print on the home page of the bar Tom left to head home tells us it cares about its customers, that it believes in drinking responsibly, that drinking responsibly means never driving home drunk. The Milwaukee and La Crosse bars are not unique in how they serve their patrons, nor are the tragedies linked to them.

Wisconsin, we have a problem. Where, finally, does responsibility rest? Depending on what, when or where a person drinks, if they keep at it their blood alcohol level will erase their ability to drink responsibly. At that point, as that drink departs the server’s hand for theirs, what happens to responsibility? Does it cross the bar to the server? Does it simply vanish? Or is it lost somewhere in that matter of Charlie’s economics?

MJS link:

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Wisconsin’s February and the 2013 Mining Bill

To combat the symptoms of cabin fever that came packaged with this Wisconsin February I got out of the farmhouse and into the woods, an activity dating back to my childhood.

My father was its chief proponent. We then lived in Cedar Grove, in Sheboygan County, and access to nearby woodlots and the shore of Lake Michigan was close and easy and on Sundays, particularly during the dreary month of February, my father would get me and my sister out into it.

The frozen shoreline of the lake was a forbidding tableau of broken pressure ridges onto which adventure was dangerous and forbidden. But the woods were open and inviting and the opposite side of every tree offered the possibility of a new discovery.

It seemed right to be out there among the trees. And once back home, bathed in the incandescent glow of the ensuing evening, memories of trees fueled my imagination with images of animals whose tracks I’d seen printed between them.

My imagination has somehow survived more decades than I readily admit and now I’m lucky enough to have 100 acres over which I allow it to run free. Other Wisconsinites are much luckier. They and their imaginations have access to more than 2 million acres within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and state forests and parks. Milwaukee County residents also have parks encompassing nearly 15,000 acres.

With all that available space it might seem ludicrous to worry about the negative impact of a comparatively miniscule open pit mine that will almost certainly open in northwestern Wisconsin once the legislature approves a mining bill that has fluttered back like Dracula. Interesting how similar “mine” and “Mina,” the object of Dracula’s blood lust, are.

The promise of jobs seems to be the primary reason the mine proposed for Wisconsin’s Penokee Range is being considered. Those jobs–the numbers range anywhere from 700 to 3,500–are part of Governor Scott Walker’s unfulfilled 2010 promise to add 250,000 jobs by opening Wisconsin for business. The current incarnation of the mining bill, like the one the 2012 legislature closed the coffin on, seeks to streamline the mine’s application process to add those jobs. That streamlining would weaken environmental safeguards and that is the mining bill’s real reason for being. It is part of an ongoing effort to weaken Wisconsin’s traditional commitment to protect the environment.

That’s why it isn’t ludicrous to worry about an open pit mine in the Penokees. If the state legislature enacts Scott Walker’s wishes and adds the mining jobs it is also embracing his shortsightedness. To an economic order that is rapidly reestablishing itself away from a dependency on manufacturing; mining jobs are about as relevant as jobs assembling typewriters. But training Wisconsin’s workers for jobs in industries associated with tourism or renewable energy would draw beneficial businesses to Wisconsin by illustrating its forward thinking while reinforcing its commitment to the environment.

If Scott Walker was interested in making the hard choices he so frequently trots out as his forte, he’d make them with an eye on a future for Wisconsin that stretches beyond personal ambition. But he apparently lacks that capacity so his mine will come to the Penokees, its toxic runoff will pollute the surrounding area and Lake Superior and he won’t care.

After, amid future Wisconsin Februaries, I’ll be out imagining what might have been on snowshoes and a pair of hiking boots that have logged miles here in the Chequamegon as well as the Cascades and Rockies where everywhere, amid breathtaking beauty, indelible scars remain from industries that, like Scott Walker, got what they wanted then turned away from the destruction they wrought.


Links to my pervious essays on the proposed mine in the Penokee Range of Northwestern Wisconsin.

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Graduates Special? We Never Were.

Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, July 27, 2012

One summer afternoon in the ‘80’s my friend Jim said, “Our high school years were the last good years of our lives.” Jim and I were fending off desert heat in the shade of his garden during our summer vacation from teaching English at Boise State and I remember wondering whether it was the heat or a lapse in judgment that caused him to say that.

Still, today, while the national conversation considers David McCullough Jr.’s commencement address to the 2012 graduates of Wellesley High in Wellesley, Massachusetts about their not being special, Jim’s idea is worth another visit

Were those years in the late ‘50’s spent dealing with books and the near occasions of sin at Messmer High in Milwaukee the best years of my life? Were any of us special?

Special is easy. We weren’t. Special was not an adjective we applied to ourselves or our prospects. If anything, we were, perhaps, the first generation that differentiated itself by not identifying with adults; specifically, our parents. We were the furtive beginnings of rock. They were the tag end of the decades-long big band era. But that was a distinction we would, or would not, make years later.

Instead, we spent our high school years at ordinary after-school and summer jobs because we knew that if anybody was going to pay our way ahead it was us. We didn’t talk about volunteer work to enhance our applications to one of the Ivy’s or a year touring Asia before the rigors of Stanford. We simply and realistically separated what was possible for us from what was not and moved on without talking much about it. The ordinary, pressure-free nature of what we did inside Messmer and out made those years good.

The contrast between how ordinary we were back when and what we were hearing from our students at Boise State prompted Jim to call our high school years good. Our students were beginning to tell us that ordinary was no longer acceptable. A “C” early on in a semester was a reason to withdraw from a class. The prospect of anything less than an “A” for a final grade became an urgent, late semester request for extra credit work. Being average or even less than perfect was no longer part of their life scenarios. A few years later when I moved to Tucson to begin teaching at Arizona I found that surreal set of student expectations had magnified. It was as if the bell curve, to which all of us are still subject, had disappeared. The notion of a middle was gone, a thought that should resonate with all of us today.

Somewhere in my files is a lecture on the value of being average in which I tried to show that falling into that middle category, the one that keeps the wheels turning and the lights on, enables someone else to research a cure for cancer or develop a V-8 that will deliver 70 mpg.

Being average is the bedrock upon which we all rest. We may or may not build above that solid beginning, but the recognition of its existence and value is essential nonetheless, just as it was to Jim’s idea about our high school years. They were good because they were so ordinary.

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Sgt. Bales and the Greatest Generation

Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, March 30, 2012. A link to the essay on the page appears below.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will live in our memories as the soldier accused of leaving his base in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan before dawn on March 11 and killing 17 Afghan civilians. The act is being called unthinkable, but we don’t know what the suspect was thinking at the time.

Five years earlier, this was what Bales was thinking, as he recalled a 2007 battle against Shiite militia in Najaf, Iraq, during his second tour there: “The cool part about this was, World War II-style, you dug in. You’re taking a shovel and digging as fast as you can. I’ve never been more proud to be part of this unit than that day.”

The remarks are telling because with them Bales identifies himself with the Greatest Generation more than he does with his unit. I know the feeling, and so do a lot of you who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan or any of those skirmishes like Kosovo that are thoughtlessly brushed aside. No matter where you went to serve your country, you were held to a standard established between Dec. 7, 1941, and August 1945, the dates that bracket WWII.

The Greatest Generation began its life as the title of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 bestseller about the men and women who endured the Great Depression, fought in WWII and came home to a grateful and admiring America. Now it’s embedded in our language, a term as common as it is inaccurate. Apply “greatest” to the generation that returned triumphant from WWII and every generation after it lives in its shadow.

I remember walking in the 1950s to the Ritz theater on Villard Ave. in Milwaukee to see John Wayne in “Flying Leathernecks.” After that, I wanted only to fly for the Navy. By 1966, I was flying in Vietnam. Careful what you wish for. In the ’70s, I was interviewed about Vietnam and was asked, “Is there anything you want?”

I replied, “I want to kiss a nurse in Times Square.” The reporter was too young to know that I was talking about the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945 – V-J Day. That reporter may not have known, but some of you will and perhaps, then, will see my point.

Brokaw was wrong. Our greatest generation might turn out to have been the one that gave its young men and women to fights in Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War or the troubles in between them all. It might be the one that is giving its best now to our questionable interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. It might be one we’ll never know.

We cannot continue to hold our brave people to a standard that cannot be achieved. There is a different standard now, one that we have refused to accept because we have been looking back at one that died in 1945. Winning will no longer mean what it meant then. The nurse has left Times Square.

Think of the people we have sent to war since 1945 and the ones who didn’t come back right and the ones who didn’t come back at all. Thank them. Call them the greatest. Call them that until someone else steps up, fills their boots and makes us as proud as they have.

Think, too, of Sgt. Bales and how he may have landed lucky side up in another place and time.


Link to the “Sgt. Bales and the Greatest Generation” in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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My Father, the Snob

Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday, March 3, 2012, under the headline “Santorum thinks my dad is a snob.”  A link to the essay is provided below.

In the spring of 1957, near the end of my junior year at Messmer High in Milwaukee,  my father took me for an evening drive along the city’s Lake Drive. The purpose of the drive was motivation. My grades were neither good nor bad, whereas my sister, a Messmer Senior, had excellent grades. The difference doubtless weighed heavily on my father as he drove north so the big houses built on the bluff above the lake we’re visible on my right. As they rolled by my father said, “If you study hard you can have all this.” Looking back I invariably notice two things about that statement. First, the statement is a false. You can study hard and still end up in a shack outside Fallon, Nevada. But, second, the statement gave me options. I could choose the things exemplified by those houses or not.

There was no choice embedded in another thing my father said that evening. He said, “You’re going to college.”

According to Rick Santorum, that makes my father a snob, a notion so far from the truth that it’s laughable. My father was an immigrant and, except for a 16-year foray into small business ownership, worked at blue collar jobs until he died of a heart attack a little more than two years after our drive that evening.

I chose Marquette University because I could live at home and ride the #30 bus to and from campus. An event called the Freshman Mixer launched my first year. A band played music to which I didn’t dance while I wandered around. I stopped to talk to another freshman who didn’t look like someone from Milwaukee. During our conversation I remember him saying, “How can I tell my grandfather who looks through the barbed wire at the land he once farmed that he can never go back?” I also remember him saying the words Palestine and Israel and then I moved on. Back then, I would probably have had a hard time telling you where exactly those places were. But I know now that my education at Marquette began with that statement.

The object of going to college, the point President Obama was doubtless making when he expressed a desire that all students should have access to a college education, has less to do with attending classes than it does with beginning an exploration of the infinite possibilities life offers, some planned for and some, the best of the lot, that arrive by surprise while you’re just wandering around while listening to the band.

At Marquette the Jesuits gave me a strong sense of social justice, a trait that seems almost quixotic today, but one for which I have been grateful ever since. Also at Marquette, ROTC gave me opportunities that led to my flying for the Navy. In Vietnam, the two combined in troublesome ways I now find more interesting than they were then worrisome.

Had my father lived long enough for me to take him for an evening drive along the lake in Milwaukee I wouldn’t mention the houses I still find ridiculous. But I would thank him for insisting on college and add, “This Republican candidate, Rick Santorum, thinks you’re a snob because of that.” I’d have a hard time explaining that to him. He’d come a long way from his native Germany and successfully earned the right to stand confidently on every rung he’d climbed to. But he was not a snob.

He simply wished more for me. My college education became his wish fulfilled. I realize now that when it came to the subject of college my father had a broader view than Rick Santorum because he wasn’t pro-choice.


Link to essay in the Wisconsin State Journal:

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The River, Here and There

Published in an edited version in the La Crosse Tribune on Friday, February 24, 2012 under the headline “Like life, river tough to control. The entire essay appears here. A link to the La Crosse Tribune’s edited version is provided below.

Delta State University is located in Cleveland, Mississippi, 825 miles downriver from La Crosse. I was invited to speak there a while back and during an evening reception at my hosts’ home I was shown a mark on a hallway wall that showed where flood waters would reach if the levee system along the river gave way. The mark was about three feet up the wall and I was told that many homes in the area had similar marks, there as cautionary reminders of what might happen if local vigilance and the work of the Army Corps of Engineers someday failed.

Although Cleveland is about 20 miles east of the Mississippi those flood marks say it is really on the river. So are we all.

It is roughly 1,500 miles from the Mississippi’s source at Lake Itasca, in Minnesota, to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana’s bayou country. The river drops 1,425 feet over that distance; roughly a foot per mile. Today, a drop of water beginning its journey at Lake Itasca will take 90 days to reach the Gulf. Using knowledge I gained as a boy while dropping sticks into rivers of snow melt flowing along curbs, I’d say that by the time that drop of water waves bye-bye to Riverside Park in La Crosse it still has 70 days of travel ahead of it.

If the levees and dams upstream from La Crosse weren’t there the drop of water might be tempted to stay a while. It, and the silt it carries, might stay to enrich the wetlands along the river and its tributaries and perpetuate a cycle of life that was doing pretty well before we came along to intervene.

On the other hand, if those levees and dams weren’t there barge navigation as far north as Minneapolis would not be possible and many homes and businesses along the river would not exist; none of that and more would, at least as we know it today.

During an afternoon during my visit to Cleveland, I was taken on a tour of the levees. You can read about their history or you can listen to it in Lyle Lovett’s rendition of “I Will Rise Up.” It seems that back in the bad old Delta days when the river threatened to breach the levees, persons unknown were sent across the river from the Mississippi side to blow the levees on the Arkansas side. Thus, the water that threatened both sides became a problem for only one of the sides.

That’s a dramatic example from a mostly unattractive history of our attempts to control the Mississippi. It only differs by degrees from the seemingly benign attempts upstream here in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, what we do to water here we do to water everywhere. New Orleans wouldn’t have to cower behind its levees and worry as much about the next Katrina if the levees and locks and dams above and below La Crosse were absent so the river could spread onto its natural floodplains during spring runoffs and exceptional summer rains. Perhaps Arcadia wouldn’t be as concerned about the Trempealeau River if the wetlands that disappeared to make way for Ashley Furniture’s expansion were still in their original location.

But you’ve heard all this so many times before that by now it’s just part of the background noise of Coulee Region life.  Besides, the news is telling us that this spring flooding is forecast to be minimal. We could use this probable reprieve from the Earth to think about what might yet happen if we don’t consider the results of the choices we make when we choose to intervene against the natural order of water. Or we could borrow a page from this season’s impractical guide to ice fishing and venture farther out onto this thin ice while hoping for what we shortsightedly define as the best.

Link to the edited version in the La Crosse Tribune:

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Gogebic Taconite and Our Wetlands

Published in the Green Bay Press Gazette under the headline “Gogebic’s iron mine should be examined from all angles.” A link to the commentary is provided below.

Count on the debate over the permitting process that would allow Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC) to move forward with a mine in the Penokee Hills west of Hurley being resolved in favor of the mine. The current political power structure within the Wisconsin legislature makes that a certainty. Only the pending recall proceedings targeting Governor Scott Walker and a group of state legislators could change that outcome. Which is why the mining bill being debated in Madison has “rush” stamped on it.

GTAC will not move forward with its plan unless concessions are made to shorten the timeline of the permitting process and the need to protect wetlands that will be impacted by the mine’s progress. Absent the concessions, GTAC will take its interests, and the 700 jobs it promises, elsewhere. In exchange for the concessions, GTAC promises to avoid impact on streams and wetlands where possible and to minimize and/or mitigate harm if those impacts cannot be avoided. It also promises no net loss of streams and wetlands. Further it says it will comply with the National Clean Water Act and all effluent limitation regulations.

Forget the low-rent extortion tactic of that 700-job carrot. That is yesterday’s news when it comes to corporate games. Ashley Furniture played that card on a larger, 2,000-job scale in Arcadia when in it sought permission of expand onto a wetland bordering the Trempealeau River. The jobs ploys are there to distract us from the real prize, concessions at the expense of wetlands.

The Ashley-Arcadia debate was resolved in 2005 when Ashley created a 34.5 acre artificial wetland after receiving permission to expand onto an existing 13.5 acre natural wetland. In 2010 floods put much of Arcadia and Ashley’s plant under water and renewed the wetland mitigation debate. How soon we forget.

GTAC’s mine in Ashland and Iron counties will affect a complex ecosystem of aquifers, wetlands, lakes, streams and rivers that combine to form a watershed that sustains the land and life around it while flowing north to empty into Lake Superior. The impact is within reach of Copper Falls State Park, and other popular tourist destinations. The mine is also within our memories’ reach of Kennecott Copper’s Flambeau Mine, 110 miles southwest, near Ladysmith, where reclamation efforts covered the open pit but left behind significant toxic metal contamination of the adjacent Flambeau River.

By contrast, the first phase of GTAC’s open pit mining operation will focus on a 4.5- by 1.5-mile site covering 4,320 acres, almost 24 times the size of the Flambeau mine, before a potential expansion onto GTAC’s full, 22-mile lease.

Water has a habit of joining other water. The relatively pure water being played in the GTAC debate will unavoidably unite with water touched by the extensive mining operation. That will happen, save some sudden turn of events in Madison. Instead of a short-sighted rush to grant GTAC a permit we should instead make every studied effort to insure the outcome is one that favors our long-term survival.

Link to the commentary in the Green Bay Press Gazette:

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