Wednesday, May 30, 2012

May 2012: Rene III

I met a fellow earlier this month.  He is a young man about my son’s age making him around 30, I commented as he had on a Detroit Tigers cap a relatively rare sight in this land of Cubs and White Sox.  Not surprisingly, this young man was from Michigan.  I said "hey a Tigers fan."  He said, "Yep, I love my home state."  We stopped and chatted.  As we talked, I learned that he was from the UP, went to Central Michigan for his undergraduate degree, and then worked at a bank in Ann Arbor.  He was downsized out his job in the great recession and found the job that brought him to my neck of the woods in the Northern Suburbs of Chicago.
Since in every blog posting this month, the topic centered around someone I just met and had an interesting story.  This posting is definitely in that same theme.  In the other two cases, I never did get their names.  In the first case, the man was a philosopher so I named him Rene for Rene Descartes who both a philosopher and mathematician.  The second person, it was a lady who worked at the Hampton Inn in Youngstown, Ohio manning the breakfast buffet.  I never got her name either.  (It occurs to me that I may just be very bad at getting names.  I already know I am not very good at remembering them.)  I decided to call this woman Rene as well simply because Rene is both a man and woman's name.  There was a certain symmetry to it.  You can read about the other two Rene’s of May at:

The fellow from Michigan actually gave me his name.  I gave him a business card.  We have already exchanged emails.  I could use his name but he prefers I do not because he does not want his boss to know what he is up to.  It is nothing illegal, he just want to make a job move and prefers his boss does not read that in a blog posting.  So, I find myself naming this young man, oh what the heck, Rene III. 
What is Rene III's story?  He bought a house.  Big deal, lots of people buy houses.  He bought a foreclosure home.  OK, my new friend Rene is a savvy shopper.  The home he bought is in Inkster, MI.  Now, he really had my interest.  Young Rene III really got me when he asked, "Guess how much I paid the house?"  I guessed $30,000.  He floored my when he said he paid $6,000 for his two bedroom, one car detached garage home, in this modest suburb of Detroit.  He said, "I miss my state and want to move home.  I want to a job there and live in my own house that is paid for.  I can live in that house make as little as $30,000." 
Wow.  $6,000 for a house.  Amazing. 
He is doing what I have kind of dreamed about and even blogged about.  I said that if I bought a place in the Detroit area at the bargain basement prices and moved there I could retire today.  I was not even thinking of the kind of absurdly low price that Rene III paid for his house.   I, of course, only thought about it.  Rene III, loyal son of The Great State of Michigan, actually did it.
Rene III's new house is in Inkster, MI.  It is where Judy and I lived when we first got married.  Per the 2010 census, Inkster is 20.5% white and 73.2% black.  15.2% of families and 19.5% of the population were below the poverty line.
Rene's mother is concerned that he bought a house there.  She thinks he is moving into a high crime area and is worried about her son's safety.  Rene, it should be noted, is white.  He told his mother not to worry.  Rene told his mother that the people in his new neighborhood are just like him and trying to get by.  I have to admire his spirit and determination.  I really believe we are not giving his generation enough credit for their determination.
People my age tend to be a little naive about how this country has changed.  We think that the economy is going to recover.  As I have covered in previous postings, the Democrats and Republicans running the county also have it wrong.  The Democrats think we will get back to pre-2008 levels of prosperity by taxing and spending our way there.  The Republicans think we will get there by reducing taxes and stimulating growth.  The TEA Party folks are essentially Republicans in my humble opinion.  The Occupy Wall Street folks are still a mystery to me.   They for sure seem to be rallying against the disproportionate distribution of wealth.  The only comment I have on this is that this has been the case throughout history.  A small minority of people controlled the wealth and power. 
The recent history, the past 50 years in the US and Europe, has been an aberration.   The aberration was two-fold.  First and foremost is the concept of pensions and retirement.  Before 1900 people worked until they either died or were unable to work.  In the latter case, their family cared for them until they died.  That was the norm.  We may be headed for that scenario again here.  Many in my generation have postponed any plans for retirement.  The second part of the aberration was the existence of a fairly large and robust middle class.  This was the strength of the United States in years since World War II.  This large middle class defined the American dream:  the nuclear family, owning a home, and the ability to retire and enjoy the golden years.  That middle class has been compromised in both the United States and Europe. 
I remember growing up in Detroit.  Our neighborhood in the city was a tidy little section of the city.  Very few of the people my parents’ age had degrees.  Most held blue collar jobs and made very good livings.  There were a disproportionate number of folks that had cottages up north, boats, and other such luxuries.  I am not sure what the percentile range of median household income our neighborhood was then.  I am absolutely certain, that the same percentile range today is not as well off. 
We were staunchly anti-communist back then.  Yet, I remember thinking that we essentially had jobs guaranteed for life, had company paid health insurance, and pension plans and social security that assured us of a comfortable retirement.  It looked and felt very much like the socialist ideal with a capitalist assortment of goods and services.
I like Rene IIIs generation.  Those that I know are very realistic about the lot of their generation.  They are burdened with debt from college.  They often work in jobs with no benefits.  They for sure work in jobs with no pension plans and their 401k plans do not seem to hold much hope in the foreseeable future.  Collectively, they hold no hope that even social security will be around for them. 
The young people that I know are not afraid to work more than one job.  They have drive and perseverance.  They know the world has changed.  They do not expect anything from the system in terms of pensions or social security.  They have a self-reliance that may actually be the most American since before the New Deal.  They may believe that my generation the baby boomer, silver spoon in the mouth, me generation, screwed things up but they do not articulate it.  Maybe it was inevitable as the economy globalized and equilibrium forces decimated our middle class.  I believe assigning fault does not matter to them.  Things are how they are and they are more busy dealing with this reality than assigning cause or blame. 
Rene III bought a cheap house.  He bought it in an economically depressed place.  He will live in a town where he is a minority.  He will look for a humble job where has chosen to live.  He will have neither  rent nor mortgage.  His taxes will be very low.  Rene told me that he will not be so afraid of losing his job and still being burdened by rent or mortgage.  He is taking control of his life and living the lifestyle that I see in his generation.  I am impressed by those I see.
Did my generation screw things up?  Possibly we did.  We are used to getting our way.  We are spoiled and have always acted as if there were no impunity.   Because of being so coddled and having inflated levels of self-esteem, we came to expect it all and to expect it immediately.  This made us, some of us, incredibly greedy.  Combine this with the Midas Touch complex and the aforementioned sense of impunity and what do we get, what did we become?  The creators of financial schemes to make brought the economy crashing down around us. 
It is not all "my generation."  My generation was a contributing factor along with the inevitable equilibrium that globalization has brought forth.  It is a most serious time and I do not see the leadership able to change their paradigms enough to solve this issue.  The leaders came into power using skills to excel and succeed in a certain model.  That model has changed and our government leaders cannot effectively operate in the New Normal yet.  This is the same phenomenon we experienced when the Japanese overtook our consumer electronics and automotive sectors by a focus on quality and consumer focused innovations.  Our industrial leaders came up through a different business paradigm and they could not easily make the change. 
The world has changed

Sidebar 1 - The name of the City of Inkster:  I grew up hearing that Inkster, MI got its name from Henry Ford who created the town for his black employees to live in.  The name Inkster was presumably given to reflect the racial make-up of the town.  I kind of believed that Henry Ford might have created a community segregated from his hometown of Dearborn.  It was somewhat believable as Inkster was very close to Dearborn but separated by the oddly shaped town of Dearborn Heights which lies mostly to the north of Inskter but also in the south of Inkster connected by a narrow quarter mile strip that lies between Dearborn and Inkster.
I had a harder time believing the name Inkster was given as a reference to skin color.  I was right.  An internet search shows that the city was named for Robert Inkster, an immigrant from Scotland who operated a steam saw mill in what is now the city bearing his name.

Sidebar 2 - Travelogues:  I love travelogues, the literary kind.  The people that author them travel around and write about where they visited.   Besides the history of where they went, the value of these writings is usually in descriptions and depictions of the people that they meet.  The people they write about are the common man, the Joe average citizen of wherever they were visiting.  They write about the salt of the earth people they meet giving insight into the uniqueness and sameness of their lives.  We pass these same people every day and ignore them.  Yet, when good traveloguers travel half-way around the world and meet people we would normally ignore, we are fascinated with these same people. 
I do not read enough of these.  In fact, I have read just four.  I have read and written about John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley.  I have read In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin and Tribes with Flags by Charles Glass.  My favorite of all time was a travelogue called The Crossing Place by Phillip Marsden about his travels through Armenia in the early days of independence from the Soviet Union.  I really wished I had done what Phillip Marsden had done and so brilliantly wrote about.  I could not put the Marsden or Glass books down. 
I was assigned to read the Steinbeck book as a freshman at the University of Michigan.  The others were all read by choice and somehow randomly found their way into my hands.  I am amazed how these authors wrote about the history of where they travelled but more so how they got to know and capture the story of folks that they met.  .   I always thought about traveling around, meeting people, and writing about them.  I realized that I do not have to go far.  Interesting people are all around me... all I have to do is take a little time to talk to them.  That is apparently how I spent part of this month.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ms. Rene

I was in Youngstown, Ohio over the weekend. I had breakfast in the Hampton Inn in which we were staying. It was one of those free breakfast buffets so popular in the lower end hotel chains these days. The had cereal and oatmeal, cheese omelets, spicy American fries, bagels, muffins, breads, waffles, fruit, juices, and coffee. It was pretty good, well stocked, and it stayed well stocked and fresh the entire time I was sitting there. There was not a whole lot of cooking involved. It was all about preparation. The cheese omelets were pre-made and just had to be heated. I imagine it was the same with the potatoes and the bacon. I am sure the preparation of the oatmeal and pancake batter was also minimal: add water, stir, and put into the keep it warm and dispense container. I was impressed with the lady that was keeping everything clean and stocked. So, I thanked her.
She was a nice lady. She works five days a week from six in the morning until noon. It is a job. It is a job that pays no benefits. She has a high school education and recently went to vocational school for accounting (I believe they used to call this simply bookkeeping). This lady, I will also call Rene because for the life of me I cannot remember her name, had to be in her late 40s or early 50s. Rene has no idea what the future holds for her. She knows that she will not be able retire in the near future or maybe ever. I gathered that Rene was divorced. As far as I could tell in the short conversation I had with her was that her daughter graduated from college and has a job she doesn't like and would like to change even though she does feel fortunate to have a job with benefits. This goes to support the point I have been making for a couple years.
Both of these Renes are poster children for the fact that we have become a country in which a vast majority of people will not be able to retire. These folks all work hard, perhaps even enjoy their jobs, but are not really building a career or any kind of nest egg. I am surprised that no one talks about this... at all.   The Democrats do not really address this. The Republicans for sure do not. I suppose we, collectively, do not want to depress the vast majority of the population.  They push for less government and more independence for individuals.  
The Tea Party is made up of a lot of Renes.  It is a prescription that would allow corporations to pay less and offer less and less benefits to the common man. It is the death knell of the middle class. It may just be inevitable. I hate being right in this case. Perhaps, I am the only person that sees this. If others see it, I feel like I am the only person bothered by this. It is change. Things are changing and I am afraid that this change is inevitable.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Annals of Relativity

Recently, I was at the College of Lake County.  I was at the Southlake Campus not the main Grayslake campus.  I was in the faculty prep room which is basically a room with about eight computer workstations for faculty to prepare for their classes.  I was working next to a fellow adjunct who appeared to be in his forties with a scruffy beard and a balding head of hair that might have been combed... yesterday.  His style of dress was non-descript not very fashionable casual bordering on the urban grundge.  I am sure he is used to, and enjoys, not being noticed. 
I noticed him.
I noticed him not for his dress but because what was on his computer screen.  No, I was not looking over his shoulder at what he was working on.  He actually got up and walked away.  As he was moving away, the motion caught my attention.  In glancing to note what was happening, I noticed that the computer screen was on the sign-in page for Oakton Community College.  I figured he was teaching there as well.  But as is my buttinski habit, I made a comment  upon his return to the pc.  It was something moronically clever like "hey, you are at the wrong school."  He answered "oh yeah, I teach there as well."  I told him that I also teach at two schools as well.  He trumped me by saying that he teaches at three colleges.  Not only does he teach at The College of lake County and Oakton Community College, but he also teaches at Harper College.
I said "wow, how many courses?"  He said "nine."  Nine?  Nine course at one time.  That is crazy.  I asked "nine? really?  wow."  I asked him a few more questions just to get a sense of how this could possibly work.  This fellow, whose name I never got, teaches philosophy.   I wondered if this made it more possible to teach nine courses at once or harder.  He certainly has to lecture on the subject so that is probably the same.  I imagine he has to read a lot of essays and to me that would be harder than grading a math exam. 
I never got the fellows name.  It does not matter.  If I did then I would have to have him read this before I post it.  But, I should give him a name.  I am already tired of calling him "this fellow."  As he is a philosophy professor, lets call him Rene for Rene Decartes who was both philosopher and mathematician and thus is a name that appeals to me. 
Rene told me he lived in Milwaukee.  That blew my mind even more.  Not only is the man teaching the equivalent of three full loads he is driving at least 2-3 hours a day depending on traffic and which school he is teaching at.  It is 71 miles from Milwaukee to Harper College.  Finally to top it all off he told me he has three children.  The oldest is ten and the youngest is two.  How does he manage all of this?
Three, maybe four, classes is considered a full time teaching load.  It truly is when you factor in preparation, office hours, and grading.  Three or four classes will keep one quite busy.  I have taught as many as four and it made for pretty full days and weeks that went by at a brisk pace.  If one is organized and on top of things, as I am certain Rene is and I aspire to, a heavy teaching load can be become routine.  If one has taught the courses before, as I am sure Rene has, the syllabus and the lectures are set.  But even with that, I am always tweaking the course to improve the way I get the lesson across to the students more effectively.
Philosophy?  Really?  In my third year of teaching, I have yet to meet one student who uttered the words "in my philosophy class."  I have yet to meet anyone other than Rene that actually teaches philosophy.  I just checked the CLC website and course catalog (I really love the internet) and found there are five full time faculty teaching philosophy.  Not only this, there are nine course offered as of the 2012 Summer Term.  Of course, this makes sense.  It just was not on my radar screen.
In getting back to Rene, I wondered how much he made.  If he is a pure adjunct, i.e. part-time with no benefits which is my suspicion, let's assume he is getting paid $2,100 per course as Philosophy courses seem to be 3 credit hours each.  That means Rene was paid $18,900 for this past semester that began in January and is just ending now.  Annualized, assuming a he teaches two semesters at this pace and a paltry four courses in the summer, Rene could be pulling in a whopping $46,200 a year.  Believe me; he is earning every dollar of that.  Entry level full time faculty at these same colleges are probably earning somewhere in the low $50,000s with just a masters degree and maybe $60,000 with a PhD.
I am way impressed with the work lifestyle Rene has created for himself.
He is doing what he has to do to earn a living or his share of the living for his family.  This is kind of the modern era.  The unemployment statistics are bandied about quite a bit especially as I write this.  The April 2012 numbers were just released and the press is rife with opinions as to whether the recovery has stalled again or if this is just another blip whatever that means.  What it means to me is that the economy has changed and this level of unemployment is the new normal.  People like Rene are just doing what they have to do to get by.  He is working hard, driving all over Chicagoland, and making a living.  That he does not get benefits or he has almost no job security is just the norm for a growing number of people.  Yet, he and many others do what they have to to do.  They are determined to survive and thrive.  This is a part of the American  Spirit that I love and admire.  It is the part of the spirit that is encouraging and inspiring.
What then is relative part of this?  Simple.  I thought I was organized and working hard.  Then I met Rene.  I guess I am neither as efficient or hard working that I thought.  Also, being busy and working hard is independent of how much money one makes.  I have to believe Rene puts in the same hours as your average CEO definitely without the pay and perks and possibly without the stress. 
There is always someone doing more and doing better.  There is always someone doing not as well and in more need of assistance.  We have to keep the notion where we are, what we are doing, and how we are doing in perspective.  It is too easy to get too wrapped up and obsessed with our own comings and goings.  We need to see what others are doing.  It is just a good and sobering thing to do. 
I hope to run into Rene again.  I have a lot more questions for him.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Radio Daze 2: Bye-Bye AM Radio

Bob Ufer behind the WJR microphone
This is not about the demise of AM radio really but rather me no longer listening to it.  In the past few weeks, I realized that the last AM radio station that I listened to advertised an FM version of the same.  Since the 1980s, about the only AM radio station I have listened to is CBS News Radio; weather and traffic every ten minutes on the 8s, sports every half hour on the 15s, and news updates at the top and bottom of the hour.  The only time I listen to News Radio is when I am in the car.  I began listening in Detroit.  I continued to do so when I moved to New York.  When I moved to Chicago in 2006, the first preset I programmed in my car was 780 AM CBS New Radio Chicago.  I learned last week that the same station
From the days of my crystal radio, I listened to AM radio.  It was natural, it only received AM stations.   When I got my transistor radio, it also was only AM.  So, I listened to AM radio.  As I entered my teen years, I began listening to pop music.  There were two stations in Detroit that catered to teens.  One was not actually in Detroit.  In fact, it was not even in the state of Michigan or even in the United States.  CKLW was based in Windsor, Ontario across the Detroit River.  It was 800 on the dial.  The other, more popular, station was WKNR commonly referred to as Keener 13.  It was 1310 on the AM dial.
We all listened to Keener.  We listened to the countdown every night.  We would discuss which song was #1 and what we thought might be or should be #1 instead.  It was the heyday of the Beatles, Motown, and the Monkees.  They even published a little handbill of the  that we all seemed to have copies  There was lots of excitement and lots for us young teenagers to talk about.  I remember when Louie Louie from the Kingsman hit the charts.  It skyrocketed to #1 and stayed there awhile.  It was a great three chord song and the, oh boy, all that controversy about the lyrics.  It was one of those stations where the DJs were all high energy talking the "hot new single" and "the hits keep coming." There is a website dedicated to the memory of this station  I just found it when I was looking up the frequency of the station.  They even have the weekly top hit charts on this website.  Here I am longing for the old days of AM radio, but I have to admit that the internet is awesome.
There were other cool things about AM radio back in those days.  During the day, all one ever got was the local stations.  At night, for reasons I do not fully understand, you could dial in radio stations from other cities.  It was kind of exciting back then to be able to tune in to a station in Chicago, Cleveland, Nashville, and at times New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.  The reception was often staticky and the game was to figure out what city the station was based in. My father's side of the family were mostly from Boston.  We used to visit there for a few weeks every summer.  It was a cool and wondorous place in my view.  It was a place I thought I wanted to go to college.  So, it was really special when I could pull in a Boston station.
It sounds totally lame these days of internet and satellite radio, youtube, skype, and everything else available to us in this information age.   Today, as a ten or twelve year old, I  would have probably been playing video games instead of trolling for AM stations from other cities.  I probably should have gotten into short wave radio to easily pickup and listen to radio stations from all over the world. What can I say, I never thought that was worth the money to do so.  I guess I was just an AM radio guy.
Even today, I occasionally try to get stations from far away. If I am driving from Chicago to Detroit late at night.  I will go to the AM dial, punch scan on my car radio, and see what I can pick-up.   Most of AM radio is syndicated.  There are a lot of talk shows, Spanish stations, and religious stations.  The local content is almost non-existent.  It is not the same.
When I was until I got a little older, into my teens,  my taste in music became more serious and changed from pop to more hard rock or alternative rock.  Around the 1967-1968, we got an AM/FM portable radio.  Just about at that time, WABX started broadcasting heavier rock with less commercials very low key DJs and the better sound that FM brought to the airwaves.   It quickly and quietly grabbed the attention of the teens and college aged young people in Detroit.  It was way cooler than Keener.  No more popular music on AM radio.  That was the beginning of the end.
There was still sports. I remember listening to the Detroit Tigers, Lions and Red Wings on the radio.  TV was, of course, great but there was something special about radio.  The announcers for the Red Wings and the Tigers made the game magically come to life. on the radio.  WJR, the Great Vocie of the Great Lakes, broadcast these games.  I remember in 1967, my father and I were painting a rental property we owned  It was early September the weather was pure glorious late summer weather in Detroit.  The Tigers was playing the Boston Red Sox.  The winners of the series would win the American League Pennant.  They were great games in great weather painting a house listening to George Kell and Ernie Harwell make the game live for father and son.  What a magnificent memory.  We listened on the portable radio.  The Tigers lost to the Red Sox.  The outcome hardly mattered.  The experience and memory of it was and still is special.
In 1968, I became a Michigan Football fan.  I listened to their games on AM radio when they were not on TV.  In those days, every game was not on TV like they are today.  Radio, AM Radio, was a huge part of my Michigan experience.  It became even crazier where a little known broadcaster on a small Ann Arbor radio station became all the rage for his unbridled flagrantly biased passion for Michigan and fiery quirky broadcasts.  Bob Ufer became unbelievably popular in the mid 1970s.  WJR picked him up.  This ex-Michigan track star who owned his own insurance agency was so admired, many Michigan fans would turn up the radio and turn down the sound on their televisions.  Bob Ufer was that good and that love by Michigan fans.  Here is a youtube of Bob Ufer calling what is called one of the greatest plays in the history of Michigan Football and with argument Bob Ufer’s greatest call.  It is vintage and classic Bob Ufer:  

It was October 27th, 1979, the homecoming game against Indiana. And with six seconds left and the score tied at 21-21, the greatest play in the history of Michigan football was about to take place. It has been 30 years since that play, and 30 years since what is often considered Bob Ufer's greatest moment in the booth at Michigan Stadium. 

There are other sound clips and youtubes of Bob Ufer.  He passed away in 1981.  With him went some of the magic of AM radio for me.  Bob Ufer was not a TV guy.  He was made for radio and he used that medium to the fullest just simply by being him.  You lived the games with Bob.  His broadcasts were giddy and intoxicating when we won and a funeral dirge when we lost.  Now the best broadcasters go to television.  That is only natural.  That is where the big audiences and big money are.  Not for Ufer.  He was a radio man all the way... an AM radio man.
Change is part of this world.  The accelerating pace of change with regard to electronics is at the leading edge of change.  A short hundred years ago there was no radio, just telegraph.  Look at how far we have come and how small the world has become simply due to the ability to broadcast instantaneously around the world on television and internet.  We take it for granted.
It is funny how nostalgic some of us can become for something that was barely a blip in the span of human history.  We long for the days when radio was the only on-air broadcast media.  We long for the early days of black and white television shows that were aired live.  It is a longing for the days of some of our best memories.  That is all I am doing.
I am going to youtube to listen to more of Ufer’s broadcasts...