Saturday, January 25, 2014

Living Near Mars

I've had the good fortune to live in a lot of different parts of the country without being confined to an Army base. Everywhere else was south of St. Louis Park, where I grew up (although Northfield was merely 40 miles south).

Whether living elsewhere, or visiting, I regularly field the question "How do you survive the winters in Minnesota?" My pat response is to describe Venus as being too hot to be habitable, Mars as being too cold and Minnesotans as residing just this side of Mars' survival zone. I may need new material.

Reports from Northern Minnesota this winter suggest that air temperatures are lower than the temperature on the surface on Mars. While there's been some quibbling about the accuracy of the claims, let's not sweat the small stuff. It is miserably cold out.

Here's how cold. I'm getting calls from all over asking if we're okay, typically from friends and family experiencing a 100 degree temperature differential.

My brother Jordan, who lives in Connecticut, called me at 6:50 a.m. this morning from the Bahamas. He'd seen the weather reports and wanted to check in. His timing resulted from assuming that I'd be up early on a Saturday morning tending to the horses. It didn't occur to him that, were that true, I probably would not have removed and/or rummaged through insulated coveralls, a sweatshirt, a long sleeve shirt, insulated jeans, flannel pajama pants, two pairs of socks, insulated boots, insulated gloves (worn inside mittens), a neck warmer and a ski mask to answer the phone and take his FaceTime call.

My blood-brother Bruce called several times from Los Angeles last night, concerned about the cold and that he couldn't reach me. Bruce hasn't lived in Minnesota since 1964 or so. His first assumption when he can't reach me is that I'm frozen mid-step between the office and the parking ramp. He inadvertently taunts me, as if the impatience is one-sided, by telling me that he can't wait to see me in March when I travel to L.A. for a national credit union directors' conference.

My father, who, thankfully, mailed me his no longer needed insulated jeans last fall, called from Yuma when he saw the weather reports. Normally, I describe Yuma as some Godforsaken good-for-nothing middle-of-nowhere senior holding pond. However, after observing the horses' breath float through the air in the barn this morning, it occurred to me that God forsakes no one and that there's a reason Dad no longer needs the insulated jeans.

We'll survive. I'm too old now to be one of those "Look at me! I'm riding a fat tired bike on the frozen lake!" guys. Or, at least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Those cyclists are nuts. I'm inside, pondering, enjoying our new Keurig coffee maker, enjoying the quiet calm of the Independence countryside, disturbed only by Deb's proficiency with the snow-blower.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Beware of Politicians Bearing Bromides

We are about to start a ten month sprint to our next national election. Control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives is at stake. The results of the election will determine the direction the country takes, or stalemates, in matters of immigration, gun control, climate change, economics, taxation, health care, foreign policy and gender equality.

These issues are big; they are serious. We are all impacted by the outcome of the elections. The positions of competing candidates demand serious consideration. A vote in support for one candidate over another should be cast after a careful weighing of the qualifications and fitness for office of each of the competitors. 

I had planned to write generally about my frustration with the mindless name calling and fear-mongering that passes for electioneering these days. The appeals to our viscera shortcut the ability and willingness to look in depth at the merits of each candidate seeking our support. My need to deal in generalities fell by the wayside when I received a solicitation from Minnesota Eighth Congressional District candidate Stewart Mills.

I have known Stewart Mills for about 20 years. We have mutual friends in the Gull Lake area and have socialized together. He has proven to be a valuable executive with the the Mills family businesses, negating jealous assumptions of nepotistic promotion.  Mr. Mills has been a generous benefactor to local charities, providing support when asked to numerous fundraising ventures. I expect him to be formidable, well-funded candidate as he seeks to wrest the Eighth District seat from Congressman RickNolan and the DFL in November.

It would have been nice to have received campaign literature from Mr. Mills that signaled his intent to run a campaign on legitimate issues. It would have been refreshing to see this newcomer to politics renounce relying on soundbites and half truths to garner support. It would have been nice to see a display of courage evidenced by a discussion of substantive differences in approaches to addressing our nation's ills. Instead, yesterday's opening gambit from the would-be congressman was little more than mindless name calling and fear-mongering.

Consider the claims in Mr. Mills' literature. President Obama is 
  • hostile to small business owners (underlined and in boldfaced)
  • contemptuous of spending restraint
  • obsessed with raising taxes, and
  • hell-bent on a government takeover of health care.
As to Congressman Nolan, the picture is just as frightening and just as short on substance. Congressman Nolan is

  • to the left of President Barack Obama! (underlined and boldfaced)
  • an unapologetic liberal
  • recipient of an F (underlined and boldfaced) rating from the National Rifle Association
  • convinced that President Obama's health care takeover doesn't go far enough, and
  • an advocate of more Big Government stimulus spending despite the fact that the first round was a trillion dollars down the drain.
Congressman Nolan's call for campaign finance reform is referred to as "welfare for politicians!" (underlined and boldfaced). According to Mr. Mills' literature, Congressman Nolan's "biggest gripe" is that "President Obama doesn't go far enough in his Far Left policies!"

You get the idea. The solicitation consists of a four page letter, devoid of substance, but full of references to Reagan Republicans (good), Big Government (bad), repealing Obamacare (good), Nolan's liberalism (bad), Mills' business experience (good), Nolan's business experience (just kidding; not mentioned). Drop me a line and I'll send you the entire diatribe.

As I've said, I've known Stewart Mills for 20 years. But I've known Rick Nolan for nearly 37 years. We were acquaintances when I worked on Capitol Hill in the '70's (he had the better job). We became close friends when we both returned to Minnesota. I've had the honor of offering counsel to him, when asked, in his capacity as a Congressman, as a private citizen and most recently as a candidate. Rick Nolan is one of the most thoughtful, dedicated public servants I have had the pleasure to know. 

He has strived to make good on his 2012 promise to promote the civility in Congress he enjoyed during his first tenure in D.C. His stand on campaign finance, for example, is not a plea for "welfare for politicians". It is the result of his recognition of the very real damage sustained by us all when our elected representatives are expected to spend 36 hours a week fundraising just to meet the threshold of modern day campaign costs. Similarly, he takes President Obama to task for not pushing for a single payer system of health care first proposed by Republican politicians and generally acknowledged as the only way to successfully assure universal coverage. Recognizing that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, he spends his time trying to fix its ills, not waste time on meaningless repeal votes.

 My point here is not to argue for Congressman Nolan's views over Mr. Mills. That will likely come later. My point is that we should strive to be an educated electorate and demand that our candidates, Republican AND Democrat, rely on more than a series of inflammatory one-liners to earn our support.

Unflattering pictures of a bearded Rick Nolan from the '70's or attacks on his age are no more relevant to the issues in this campaign than complaints about the length of Stewart Mills' hair or his social exploits. When you see a campaign relying on such tactics, or on the scare tactics of Mr. Mills' campaign literature, it is time to stop and ask whether the proponent is so lacking in actual justification for his election that baseless pandering is the central theme of his or her effort.

No differently than any other job interview, a campaign should clearly identify the substance of the office-seeker and why he or she is the best person to fill the position. Few of us would seek employment by merely describing ourselves in platitudes to the interviewer and promising illusory solutions to the challenges posed by the job. A political candidate seeking our support should be held to the same standard we impose upon ourselves.

As we sprint toward November 4, let's take the time to consider the actual merits of each candidate and refuse to accept easy answers and slick campaign promises as substitutes for thoughtful resolve to make a difference in public service.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Where Have You Gone, Spencer Tracy?

One of my earliest movie memories is being befuddled watching the 1960 screen adaptation of Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized telling of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial". The movie probably aired on television in 1964 when I was 12. While I missed the parable about McCarthyism, which the country had recently survived, I was familiar with Darwin's theory of evolution. I could not believe that someone could be criminally prosecuted in 20th century America for teaching science in a public school classroom. My young mind cheered when the character based on William Jennings Bryant became flustered by Clarence Darrow's cross-examination, caught up by contradictions in "God's Word".

By 12, I was an avid reader. I had been attending Hebrew School five days a week and Junior Congregation at our synagogue on Saturday for several years. I understood the concept of faith and the power of Biblical (Five Books of Moses) lessons. I viewed the lessons as stories, designed to guide me in my conduct in society. That remains true today. The idea that someone's religious beliefs could be imposed on society in general to mandate conduct, worse, thinking, was abhorrent. Live and let live. It never occurred to me that I should rail against my non-Jewish friends because they consumed pork or went to work on Yom Kippur. Their faith led them to behave in a different manner than mine did, albeit just as Godly from their point of view.

Forty years later, I am appalled that we take science and secular education so lightly in the U.S. that we are still having debates about whether our children should be taught evolution. While the modern approach by the proponents of Creationism is to artificially temper the impact of imposing religious beliefs by insisting that two theories of mankind's development be taught side by side, letting the students "choose", my abhorrence is not lessened. No one really believes that young students in an environment offering both religious and scientific theories to explain the development of our species freely and effectively weigh the merits of each. The insistence on injecting Creationism or "Divine Intervention" into a public school curriculum necessitates debunking the scientific theories that explain the process in less convenient terms.

If we focus on debunking science to mold minds to accept matters of religious faith, we sow generations of unthinking conformists. We reap the erosion of technological excellence and take a back seat to economies and cultures for whom education encourages acting on curiosity and distinguishes matters of faith.

We are already seeing the impact of co-mingling teaching matters of religious faith with the results of scientific study. According to the Pew Research Center, only 60% of Americans believe in evolution; 33% do not. Members of Congress serving on the House Science Committee unabashedly proclaim that "evolution, embryology and the Big Bank Theory" are Satan's work.  Incredibly, the handful of individuals in control of the committee in Congress responsible for approving legislation related to science, don't believe in science. More incredibly, there's not enough outrage from the public or courage by the Speaker of the House to effect the reassignment of the individuals to less conflicted positions.

We have all been bombarded with allegations of efforts to impose Shari'ah law on Western Civilizations. They typically arrive in our emails or Facebook news feeds as urgent warnings to wake up to the rising birth rate among Muslims and the deference being shown to Islamic practices in American jurisdictions. Without getting into the accuracy of the warnings, I find it incredibly ironic that the religious right in the United States, terrified at the prospect of having someone else's religious beliefs imposed to control their secular activities, fails to recognize that governing in accordance with Biblical passages is just as threatening to our Constitutional system of government.

We are free to practice our respective religions. We are not entitled, in public forums like public schools, to impose our religion and the faith on which it is based on everyone else. Parochial schools offer a solution for parents determined to emphasize the Almighty's interaction in the world around us. Let us insist that religious indoctrination be limited to schools affiliated with churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams and the like. Let us also encourage a vigorous examination and questioning of scientific principles without threatening God's wrath on those who do so.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Thank You, Molly

Observation 1: My daughter-in-law, Molly BD Stern, posted a comment on Facebook a week or so ago in which she asked when I was going to return to blogging. This proves that God put our in-laws on the Earth, a generation or so after we'd become set in fixed behavioral patterns, in order to push us in directions immediate family members knew better than pursue.

Observation 2: My good friend and prolific blogger, Charlie Leck (, has often noted that he writes to give his grandchildren insight into their grandfather, preserving an ancestral log for generations to come.

Observation 3: Today is January 1, 2014. As the first day of the year, tradition dictates that we make resolutions as we look to the future and acknowledge shortcomings of the past.

Observation 4: Tying it all together, God willing, 2014 is the year in which my daughter-in-law will make me a grandfather for the first time. I have resolved, again, to follow Charlie's example and to acquiesce to Molly's request, and spend some time this year pondering from the prairie.

My failure to maintain this blog over the past couple of years did not result from a lack of opinions. It resulted from the inability to overcome the sense of futility felt at the prospect of sharing opinions with a public not interested in discourse outside the scope of propagandistic soundbites. I love to write. I do a lot of writing as part of my profession. But it is excruciatingly difficult to allocate time to the process when you feel like you might as well be baying at the moon.

We shall see how this goes. My plan is to write frequently, but briefly. My plan is to post links on Facebook and LinkedIn and encourage discourse. I may not always be civil, nor always politic. I will respect the opinions of others as long as they result from honest introspection developed from reasoned analysis. I will not hesitate to express my own reasoned analysis to ridicule charlatans and politi-bries (my word) who promote themselves by taking pages from the Joseph Goebbels' Big Lie playbook. And, to keep it light,  I will rely on puff pieces from time to time, likely to highlight my photography or personal relationships.

Somehow, January 1, 2014 seems like the perfect date to relaunch Prairie Pondering. In 2014, my son will become a father, my daughter will become a bride, my friend Rick Nolan will seek well-deserved reelection to Congress and (to be continued).

G. Keillor's Underwood Typewriter