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Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

A gift for the governor

Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven't got - a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th. D...that's Doctor of Thinkology. -- The Wizard of Oz

If I were a great and terrible wizard, or even a humbug with power and a following, I'd award new governor Scott Walker an honorary college degree. (Since we're in Oz now, we can play fast and loose with the University of Wisconsin Committee on Honorary Degrees rule that excludes elected officals.)

After all, it's for a greater good: helping Walker find his way to the home that Wisconsin might be for all of us.

Walker lacks a college degree. I don't think that's a reflection on his intelligence. After all, he's been Milwaukee County Executive for seven years and before that served in the state assembly for five terms. He ran an excellent and successful campaign. Even this Barrett supporter has to admit that Walker was far better able to articulate a compelling message.

But Walker's lack of a degree creates problems.

  • It puts him in an uncomfortable position to advocate for education, something any governor must do, and ours especially. One of Wisconsin's lingering business problems is having a somewhat less educated workforce than other states.
  • It makes him an uncomfortable model for even his own children.I suppose he's a good model for the Horatio Alger approach (hard work allows worthy youth to overcome odds), but most of us would want our kids to combine an excellent education with that same hard work. It just increases the odds.
  • Finally, I think it's at the base of his uncomfortable, ambivalent, even adversarial, relationship with the state's great but faltering public university system.

If you don't have something others value, like a degree, it's easy to say that thing really doesn't have much value. Remember the parable of the sour grapes?

I have a vested interest in this issue. My kids go to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Milwaukee. I work for the University (though not in a union, tenured, or high-paid position). But I'd worry about maintaining higher education as one of the key parts of the prosperity puzzle anyway. The best world has great public universities AND great private ones, feeding and interacting with business, government, and all the other parts of the success puzzle.

Having a degree doesn't make people smarter. Sometimes, it does what the Wizard does, putting a mess of pudding in one's head. But doing the work of learning makes people smarter. And there are all kinds of "schools" for that, including the one Walker has attended. Still, a good liberal arts education exposes you to methods that can help you think better, ideas that give you a broader context. And it makes you fit more easily into the crowd of leaders.

Since Walker now leads all of Oz and not just the Emerald City, it would be nice to lift what very well may be an obstacle to his confidence and clear headedness. Just take the issue off the plate. After all, Oz didn't give the Tin Man, the Lion, or the Scarecrow anything that they didn't already have.

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Curious George learns about business in Thailand

International business, Governor Walker, Thailand

Son George, a Wauwatosa West graduate and junior in business school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is spending this semester in Thailand.

Quite an adventure for a kid who’s never had much chance to travel.

Helping make this possible was a small scholarship for studying expanding markets in Asia. I hope that kind of help survives the new “more austerity for little people” approach to getting through our state's serious budget problems.

And not just because the children of people with modest incomes need a little extra financial help. That kind of knowledge and experience is what the rest of the world expects of business people.

Our Facebook chat conversation this morning went like this (please excuse Facebook casualness):

Mom: I hear you’re humbled by the European students’ knowledge of geography.

George: i’m humbled in general by my lack of cultural knowledge but hey
im learning.
Mom: You taking advantage of those perks (in the “dorm”: sauna, pool, aerobics classes)? AND learning geography?
George: europeans know a lot though. yes and yes. school is fascinating as well great professors.
we are actually going to work with business to facilitate international trade with thailand. i’m excited for that.

Talk about getting down to business fast.
George mentions his wonderful professors in Thailand:

George: see, they are international and experienced. one is an indian who works in LA and consults for international trade. one is a swiss guy who worked hospitality and sold a series of 5 star hotels and retired then started teaching. one is a hilarious and demanding thai guy with great examples and anecdotes. i dunno. its pretty cool.

Pretty cool indeed. George’s learning curve so far has been off-the-charts fast. Of course, it’s facilitated by contact with people who have very different ideas and world views, different knowledge sets and values. Different experiences.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Can Wisconsin "open for business" guided entirely by a new insular “in crowd” (as opposed to the old one)? This isn’t just a problem for Governor Walker, this problem of narrowing the circle of advisors and ideas: it’s a problem for President Obama, as it was for President Bush.

George McLaughlin will be a valuable asset for whatever business hires him – or better yet, whatever business he creates. But will Wisconsin be the place he’ll want to do business? Can we keep him “down on the farm” after he’s seen a wider world?

That will depend greatly on how well we educate our people here, how creative and innovative we are, not just on how fast we reduce worker's wages.

May poles and stripper poles

Mad Dog Saloon, Mayor Didier,

One of the great pleasures of growing older is tormenting people with your fond recollections of the past.

I, for example, can remember a time when the word "pole" brought to mind tether balls and the month of May.

The May pole was a quaint custom to welcome spring. Pretty ribbons were attached to the top of a pole, and young girls in sprightly frocks each held a free end. Music would start and we'd dance around the pole, half circling one way, the other half the other, weaving the ribbon around the pole.


They tried to make the boys do it too, but they rebelled and usually managed to muck up the dance by running wild, tangling things up hopelessly.

That reminds me of a political metaphor but I'll leave it to your imagination.

We danced the May pole on the first of May. That day, we also made little paper cones with pipe cleaner handles, filled them with flowers or candy, and left them on our neighbor's doors. It was a sign of goodwill and shared pleasure in the end of winter.

My sister and I made sure we left May baskets at Mrs. Tebo's door. She was one of those charming old ladies who kept you supplied with gum and cookies and did not yell at you for stepping on her grass.

Nowadays (signal for here it comes: the world going to hell in a handbasket!! statement), young girls are more likely to be familiar with stripper poles. Mylie Cyrus announced her move to adulthood by gyrating on one. Oprah and lady magazines like Redbook endorse them for their audiences of earnest, efficient women eager to burn calories and gain the attention of their husbands. There's even a movement to make pole dancing an Olympic sport.

And now Wauwatosa may be getting its own stripper poles at a place to be called Mad Dog Saloon. Dominic LaLicata wants to take over the Applebee's family restaurant on 68th and State, installing a large stage and poles.

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The admirable quality of keeping low

A friend of mine recently made a lofty declaration about the latest political "disgrace." "This must not be allowed to happen," he exclaimed. He has a much higher capacity than I do for outrage, so he says things like that a lot.

I wonder how he can be so certain. I read the article and it sounded like a pretty reasonable proposal to me.

But I don't want his ready certainty. I want more uncertainty, along with the openness to learn more facts and to consider different points of view.

To do that, I'm working on an interesting Quaker spiritual practice most of us have never considered: keeping low. What an alien notion in a competitive, winner-take-all society! In a world of self-esteem not anchored in accomplishment. In a world where anything that smacks of lacking confidence is seen as weakness that might draw the more fit survivors to peck our poor bowed heads bloody.

Before I explain what "keeping low" means, I need to mention two other related Quaker beliefs: 1) there is that of God or the divine in everyone, and 2) no person is "higher" than another person. The second is a very democratic sort of idea.

"Keeping low" means not putting ourselves above others. It's what my parents meant when they warned us, "Don't get a swollen head." Don't think too highly of yourself, they said often, because really, you are not all that. Among the dark Norwegians in my line, humility is grounded in superstition: if you do get above yourself, expect a hard, hard fall any minute now.

The Quaker notion is a little different. According to Patricia McBee, "To keep low is to be teachable and open to the workings of the Spirit. . .to be taught by everyone we meet: children, bus drivers, the folks who disagree with us. . .government officials. . .Keeping low says we look for ways to learn together, to integrate our piece of the truth with others' pieces of the truth. . ."

Keeping low is a missing piece of the puzzle in our debate about civility and careful speech. Without keeping low, civility is just another form of framing, a more gentle way of waiting to pounce with our own clearly superior, more elegantly stated, notions.

Civil speech is courteous, respectful, and truthful. It does not depend on exaggeration or slanting information. It's pretty clear why civil speech is essential to solve the hard problems that face us. We don't have to waste time defending ourselves or refuting falsehoods. We don't get sidetracked.

It also makes life more pleasant and encourages us to develop better vocabularies and more sophisticated ways of speaking. And that's fun. If you want to feel humbled about your ability to use language, see the Coen brother's True Grit.

Still, others remind us that strong speech is sometimes necessary to awaken people to the seriousness of situations, while a few gloat that the civility of others will give them an advantage in manipulating the masses.

Misleading people is reprehensible, so we'll ignore that. But sometimes it is necessary to inflame people, to move them to do the hard work of changing corrupt or broken systems. How do we know when to escalate? Now that we move our anger and fear from 0 to 60 in a fraction of a second, we lose the ability to understand degrees of urgency.

I have a lot of faith in keeping low as a way to a wider truth. As McBee says, "the miracle of keeping low. . . is its power of disarming our opponents with our compassing and willingness to learn. It's a critical and exacting practice for those who would be peacemakers."

Or, I think, those who would be problem solvers. Keeping low isn't just for avoiding bullets anymore!

How 'bout them Packers?!

Packers, Aaron Rodgers

This blog entry is dedicated to the late Randy Anderson, who would have been blogging here about the Pack pre-game, game-game, and post-game.

In many respects the game-watching crew was like all others: seated behind chips and salsa, green and gold cake, and with at least one fan who silenced small talk during the game. Eruptions of cheer, despair, or indignation, however, were welcome.

The difference was that I, not a sports fan, was there. But this game was not to be missed or watched alone. The whole point of fandom, I think, is feeling like part of a community. And what fun the game was to watch.

Especially the second half, where the outcome became uncertain.

For me, stories with surprises, come-from-behinds, and suspense about the ending are always the most interesting.

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