Exhausting Every Possibility

Who'd even think an exhaust system could be so intriguing?


 I just picked up our Acura, after getting a new tailpipe and muffler. Big deal, says you. Yes, it is, says I!

Why? Because we bought this car new in 2003, and it's the original exhaust system.  Yep, we got 174,228 miles on that muffler!

How is that even possible? For most of my life, I remember getting a new muffler every three or four years. And before I did, those cars sounded like a Harley roaring down the road.

But not in this case.  The Acura engine just didn't sound quite right. Maybe a little lower tone or something. Sure enough, the service guy said the exhaust system was barely even there any more and needed to be replaced pronto. No argument here.

Of course, the cost of a replacement exhaust, at least for an Acura, is way above what I remember with previous cars, Toyotas mostly. Today's repair cost close to $750. The thing may well be made of stainless steel, but I don't know. No matter, though, if it's going to last 174,000 miles, that's the deal of a century. $.005 per mile!

Equally amazing, we replaced the tires on our Subaru Forester at 85,000 last fall. Even the tire place could not fathom how Maureen got 85,000 miles on those tires. Yes, she does almost all highway driving, but still, perplexing. And they weren't even bald. Just close enough, so we replaced them before going into another snow season. I suspect it might have something to do with the inflation system, and I am not talking about economics. Only the dealer can do it and the tires don't leak much of whatever is in there. Apparently, it's not just air.

The tire service guy said it might be just the right kind of tire for this vehicle, combined with the type of driving we do. So to test that theory, we bought exactly the same brand tire that came with it new. It's a Japanese tire--Yokohama. Maybe it was a total fluke, but what the heck, it's worth a try.

I find this small, positive trend quite satisfying, as most car stuff is way more expensive today than in the past. Replacing a starter used to be cheap. Now they're crazy expensive. Same for an air filter. Now new cars even have these really pricing "cabin filters." Spark plugs of the past, nothing. Today, they last forever but are expensive to replace and nearly impossible for a regular Joe to replace at home. Need a new car key? Get out your credit card.  Forget about going to the hardware store and getting it done for a buck or two.

So yeah, it's nice to see at least two areas of car maintenance moving in the opposite direction. Plus, cars generally are way more reliable than the rust buckets of the past. Hence our high mileage good fortune. 

Of course, there is a downside to this auto part longevity. I still have to remember to get a new muffler when the Acura hits 348,456 miles.

Posted on June 26, 2018 .

The Key to My Happiness?


A mystery solved? It looks like it, thanks to my mechanic from Percy's Service Station on Monroe Street.

For the past six months, I've had trouble starting my 2003 Acura consistently. I'd turn the key, with full power resulting, but the engine would not turn over. No clicking. No sound at all.

I'd turn it off and try again. Voila, it would fire up.

This ritual was getting old and I figured the ignition switch must be failing. Not that I know anything about ignition switches, but I already replaced the starter and a computer part that has something to do with the electrical system, so by process of elimination...

"That doesn't sound like an ignition switch," says Jerry, my 30-year mechanic.

Why not, says I.

Jerry says when ignition switches fail, they fail. They don't work intermittently. So what else could it be?

He says, "Maybe it's the key."

I'm thinking he's referring to the battery powered fob that locks the doors and opens the trunk, but no, he's talking about the key itself that goes into the ignition. He says some now go for $400 or more because of the electrical components in them.

It turns out these electrical parts within the key itself have some connection to the starter, the ignition or something in there. That's why making a duplicate key no longer costs $2 but $50 or $100 plus.

Apparently, these parts don't last forever--at least not 14 years.

Well, that's an easy test. So I switched out the key I had been using. And? I could not get it to fail at all. Five straights starts without incident.

I think Jerry wins the prize.

Posted on November 21, 2017 .

Farewell Mysteries

My mom's passing on December 13 reminded me of some rather intriguing circumstances regarding the last moments of people's lives. Even our mother surprised my sisters moments before she passed. Unfortunately, I wasn't there on the day she succumbed. 

But let's start with the story of my dad's best buddy, Mellow. He passed away shortly after my dad died nearly 10 years ago. He was in his late eighties. When I went to Mel's funeral, he was lying there in the casket with a smile on his face! It could not be mistaken for anything else. I'd never in my life seen a smile on the face of a deceased person.

I said to my mom, Can you believe this? Did the funeral home somehow do this?  She said, "No. Didn't you hear the story about it?"

It turns out Mel died with a smile on his face! He was getting some sort of non-emergency medical evaluation and died during the procedure at the clinic. But before he passed, Mel said, "I see Angie!" Those were his last words.

Angie was his wife, who preceded him in death. Hmm.

Then there was my parents' other lifelong friend, Phil, who just died a month ago. Phil's wife preceded him in death. His niece told me the story of how Phil was alone in his house shortly after Rosemary passed, when early in the morning he heard something while he was in bed. Phil assumed his daughter came over. But when he got up, he found no daughter and he heard the words, "I'm okay." Then he noticed something like mist, which then dissipated. Hmm.

My friend Kay Heggestad, a physician who has long had an interest in end-of-life care, told me in White Coat Wisdom that, inexplicably, people seemed to have an ability to time the moment of death. She told of multiple examples of how patients waited until loved ones arrived, the beginning of the new year, attendance at a wedding or other event, etc. Once those goals were achieved, the patient would pass. Hmm.


Now my mom's situation. Two of my sisters and two of my mom's grandchildren were with her before she died. Mom had long stopped communicating at this point and was sleeping constantly.

"Her breathing was very sporadic," said my sister Joan, who was there when mom passed. "She opened her eyes for maybe ten seconds. She was looking straight ahead, upward," Joan added. Mom had tears in her eyes.

Naturally, one wonders, What was she looking at? And, why did she open her eyes at that moment when she was no longer conscious?



Posted on December 24, 2016 .

Countdown to 1,000

They’re lurking everywhere. Ironic names, that is.

In the newspaper. On TV. In radio stories. And of course, on the Internet. A few of my recent favorites are gun rights advocate Amy Hunter, clean energy promoter Jay Cole and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson Nicole Coffin.

My Wacky News Names book, which is filled with such aptronyms or apt names, came out a few years ago. But that didn’t stop me from collecting. In fact, I’ve found and noted about 260 more names since the book was published and am only four names away from totaling 1,000!

Collecting these names is word play, plain and simple. Many are really obvious like a realtor named Amy Agent or a singer named Eddie Cantor. But sometimes they’re just funny! Dick Bacon was a Milwaukee guy known for sun tanning all year round. R.O. Crapo authored a report on toxic manure. Thank you, Eric Korbitz. Yes, I have observant friends who feed my addiction.

These are all real names, even if some are hard to believe. You just need a little faith. Perhaps visit the congregation led by Pastor Wilfredo De Jesus. If he can’t inspire you, maybe Roger DePriest’s biblical counseling service might do the trick.

When I did an interview with Channel 3 regarding Wacky News Names, anchor Eric Franke mentioned that in his business, some weather broadcasters make up their names. As an example, he told me about the meteorologist Dallas Raines, an obvious fake. I’d never heard of the guy. But after that interview I checked, and sure enough, there is a weather guy by that name. I also found that his relatives detailed their family history to prove that Raines is indeed his real name!

Sure, it’s hard to imagine that Linda Finger became a gynecologist, or that John Grade is an education professor, or that officer Tom Jones arrested David Cassidy. But these people live and breathe, as reported in newspapers and other media every single day.

I’ve even met a few of these folks in person. I was lucky enough to dine with Dr. Frankenstein himself in Sacramento about five years ago. He penned the foreword to my book.

Of course, I wonder if a guy named Ed Wall was destined to become a corrections secretary or whether it is only a coincidence. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. The serendipity of the name discoveries is what makes it so enjoyable for me.

So after about thirty years, I am up to 996 names! The next four may be discovered in a couple of weeks. Maybe sooner or much later. You just never know. Sometimes there’s a drought and I don’t notice any for quite a while.

The only thing I can tell you for sure about this phenomenon is that I am grateful that I’ve never been a patient of vasectomy specialist Richard Chopp.

Posted on August 6, 2016 .

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough


Read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough not only for the wonderful narrative about the Ohio bike mechanics who invented the airplane, but for the stunning photos that document their achievement.

My personal favorite is the photo of the flying machine over the Statue of Liberty.

But it was the first plane, which Orville flew for 12 seconds near Kitty Hawk, South Carolina, that really is amazing. In the whole scheme of things, air travel is not that old. You can actually go see the original plane at the Air and Space Museum.  

Until reading this book, I didn't realize the pilot was lying on his stomach, using his weight to maneuver the plane.

McCullough, the author who also narrated the Civil War series by film maker Ken Burns, is a talented story-teller in his own Wright (ha-ha). He deftly introduces us to the Wright family, describing how meticulous and dedicated each is to the pursuit of knowledge. That's what led to the first airplane; not a desire for wealth or fame.

I loved the way he concluded the biography, noting that Neil Armstrong was also an Ohio native. To honor the Wrights, Armstrong carried a piece of muslin cloth from the original 1903 flyer when he walked on the moon in 1969.


I have this beautiful silver coin which commemorates the first flight. It means a lot more to me now that I know their story. 

Posted on October 11, 2015 .

Steve Jobs and Fresh Air

What a fantastic program Fresh Air put on as the new Steve Jobs movie debuts.  It's such a beautiful day for a walk, so I suggest listening to this Fresh Air podcast and hear Steve Jobs explain how he and his buddy Woz created a computer company.

We also hear from Biographer Walter Isaacson, who discusses Jobs and what it was like to work with him. We also hear the Wisconsin connection to Steve Jobs, as both of his biological parents attended UW Madison. The fact that Jobs had met his father at a restaurant a couple of times but did not know the guy was his father is truly mind blowing.

The Isaacson book is fantastic so I am eager to see how Aaron Sorkin developed the screen play for the movie.

Posted on October 10, 2015 .

Bottled Water--Less than Refreshing Economics

At the Art Fair on the Square earlier this summer, I was struck by a sign. "Soda: $1.50. Water: $2.50."  Interesting that plain old water is making such a splash these days. It is actually in high enough demand to command a higher price than the sugared stuff. That's actually a good, healthy sign. Madison really is a progressive place.  I'm all for the popularity of water drinking over soda, but I am rather amazed at the price points. Over the weekend,  I was twice struck by the sticker price for a small bottle of cool water.  In Illinois, we were at the convention center in Rosemont attending the big coin conference. Olivia was thirsty so we walked up to the refrigerator in the lobby and pulled out a bottle. The clerk rang it up at $3.50! Damn, that's some mighty expensive water. I found the experience rather ironic, given we were in close proximity to one of the largest freshwater lakes on the planet!  Yesterday, we were even closer to that same lake and the price was higher. At Irish Fest on the Summerfest grounds, which is literally on the shores of Lake Michigan on a sweltring afternoon, Olivia again needed something to drink. We went up to a stand and they were selling the same brand of water...for $4.00. Yikes! I once read that it costs about a penny or two for that much water out of the tap.  This time, we glanced around the corner for alternatives before plopping down the cash.. Is that A bubbler?!  What a discovery.  That water was refreshing in more ways than one.

At the Art Fair on the Square earlier this summer, I was struck by a sign. "Soda: $1.50. Water: $2.50."

Interesting that plain old water is making such a splash these days. It is actually in high enough demand to command a higher price than the sugared stuff. That's actually a good, healthy sign. Madison really is a progressive place.

I'm all for the popularity of water drinking over soda, but I am rather amazed at the price points. Over the weekend,  I was twice struck by the sticker price for a small bottle of cool water.

In Illinois, we were at the convention center in Rosemont attending the big coin conference. Olivia was thirsty so we walked up to the refrigerator in the lobby and pulled out a bottle. The clerk rang it up at $3.50! Damn, that's some mighty expensive water. I found the experience rather ironic, given we were in close proximity to one of the largest freshwater lakes on the planet!

Yesterday, we were even closer to that same lake and the price was higher. At Irish Fest on the Summerfest grounds, which is literally on the shores of Lake Michigan on a sweltring afternoon, Olivia again needed something to drink. We went up to a stand and they were selling the same brand of water...for $4.00. Yikes! I once read that it costs about a penny or two for that much water out of the tap.

This time, we glanced around the corner for alternatives before plopping down the cash.. Is that A bubbler?!  What a discovery.

That water was refreshing in more ways than one.

Posted on August 17, 2015 .

Can We Trust the News? And What is News, Anyway?

A recent Mitch Henck column regarding so-called “a la carte media” really hit a nerve. To compare Rush Limbaugh to Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and AP makes a mockery of journalism. Partisan talk radio doesn’t equal news coverage any more than Fox News equals actual news.

“The good news is nothing is wrong with a la carte media,” argues Henck. I wish. Everything is wrong with partisan media. Political talkers are fast and loose with the facts. Sometimes it appears that they actually make them up, or they just keep saying the same thing over and over again. How many times can Fox News scream Benghazi via its hosts or flashing graphics? Enough times to create many opinions that are far from informed.

Anybody interested in actual journalism should read the Loudest Voice in the Room, by journalist Gabriel Sherman. His well-researched, even account of Roger Ailes convincingly argues that his Fox News empire offers pure propaganda and little resembling journalism. Ailes has an ideological product to sell and millions of like-minded viewers are all too ready to buy. Nothing to worry about, Mitch? Nothing to worry about if you don’t care about facts.

Henck’s main premise, though, is on target. Most of us may well be guilty of what academics call confirmation bias. We watch and listen to people who largely confirm our own views. That’s not good because we shut ourselves off from those who may teach us something not readily in our experience. What’s worse, though, is to declare all mainstream journalism biased and take cover under partisan sources of information, often deeply flawed and or misleading, and claim that is the “other side.” No. A fact is not liberal or conservative. It’s just reality.

Do reporters and news outlets have a political slant? Sure. One of my UW-Madison journalism professors once told our class that, “total objectivity is death.” We are all shaped by our life experience and we all have opinions. This, however, doesn’t mean real journalists go into work with a political agenda. Good reporters work hard to get the facts and present them fairly. For almost a decade, I filed for what Henck considers “liberal” NPR. I can assure you that the editors at NPR are as thorough and professional as any reader or listener would hope. I could never get away with just filing some political diatribe because that happened to be my point of view. To put NPR on the same scale as Fox is less than credible. They are completely different animals. One is a journalism shop; the other is not.

It’s also a mistake to assert that the “a la carte media” simply provide an alternative view. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—two great pillars of journalistic excellence—provide a different focus on the content but they actually report news! They come at it from different vantage points but real journalism strives for fairness, thoroughness and accuracy.

Partisan talkers—left and right—, as well as ideological websites and organizations, primarily fan the flames of partisan rancor. They don’t help us learn and allow us to make up our minds based on the facts. With all of the heat “a la carte media” generate, the main thing lost is enlightenment.

So yes, there is a monumental difference between speaking loudly into a microphone and reporting the news.


Posted on April 19, 2015 .

In Memory of Dr. Phil Dougherty

Philip Dougherty,  MD

One of the most compassionate physicians I've been privileged to know has passed away at age 84. Philip Dougherty, MD, of Menominee Falls, was an internist who dedicated himself to educating people about end-of-life planning. He saw too many patients die in a way that went against their own wishes because family members couldn't agree how to proceed.

I've pulled a six-minute segment from an interview I did with Doctor Dougherty back in 2007, when I interviewed him for my book, White Coat Wisdom. He would be thrilled that people learned more about the death process when hearing about his own passing.

Doctor Dougherty died at home on April 2, 2015. His son, Phil, says the family carried out his wishes almost exactly as he prescribed.

Posted on April 4, 2015 .

End of an Era for Italian-American Family


In 1907, my dad's father, Steve, sailed through Ellis Island from Sicily on the ship pictured. He settled in Milwaukee where he and his wife, Francesca, raised eight children. Very soon, the last surviving member of that Busalacchi clan will pass on. My Uncle Joe, the baby of the family, is now terminally ill in hospice. He is 92 years old, and according to my cousin Mike, not responsive.

Busalacchi family

Yes, it's sad but not terribly sad. My late father Sam (88) and his siblings enjoyed extraordinary longevity. Uncle Tony died last August at age 100! The eldest brother, Sebastian, was 99 when he passed away in 2012. The others also enjoyed plenty of years in retirement: Antonia (94), Peter (85), John (83) and Agatha (80). Heart disease was probably the most common cause of death, though cancer struck, as well.

All eight siblings lived through extraordinary times. My remaining uncle, Joe, told me his mom was known as a "Five-Star Mother," having sent five of her six sons to fight in World War II. They all survived that trauma and returned to Milwaukee to start their own families.

Before then, they all lived at 209 N. Jackson Street, Milwaukee, on what it is now the Summerfest Grounds. My dad told me how he used to swim naked in Lake Michigan during the summers. He also told me about living in this childhood house in Milwaukee. His eldest brother had his own room, as did their two sisters. The other five boys shared a single bedroom!

Although their father was a fisherman, and later in Milwaukee, a foundry worker, the sons all pursued different occupations. Mail carrier, plumber, iron worker, factory worker, bar owner and public works director. No radio reporters!

The boys (except my dad) soon tired of Milwaukee's ice cold weather and headed for Florida, although one brother, Uncle John, went west to Las Vegas. I remember deep tans on all of them, especially my Uncle Tony. My dad, on the other hand, stayed put. He loved Milwaukee and took the winters in stride.

My father's family is on a different journey now, soon to be re-united spiritually, after 107 years in this country. My grandfather came here, according to Ellis Island records, with less than $50 in his pocket and could not speak English. My father rightly described him as a pioneer. Indeed he was.

With his youngest son about to pass, it is heart breaking, but incredulous, too. 

Posted on April 2, 2015 .

Who loves the IRS?

Who loves the IRS? How many hands are raised? OK, I'm no big fan, either. Even so, this is not a rant against the agency. In fact, today was an absolutely extraordinary day for us, in terms of our interaction with our tax collectors.

You get one of these in the mail, and it's, Oh crap..

The saga concluded today but began more than six months ago. The initial letter told us we owed $750 for something related to our nanny from 3 years ago. How could we be that far off? You plug in the numbers and the HR Block software crunches the numbers. But HR Block has an Ironclad guarantee. If you are ever audited, we will be there by your side the whole way.

 Uh-hu. So we called Block and the rep recommended we just pay the $750, avoid any extra interest and then dispute it. If the software was wrong, they'll pay. Right. What are the odds that the frickin software is wrong? Gazillions of parents also have nannies and Block was unaware of any other problems. We're screwed.

So what do you do? You cut a check, because nobody is going to hire a tax attorney regarding $750. But I did at least want an explanation.

Interesting, how the letter says we owe this cash but doesn't say why. So you have to call. After waiting quite a while, Maureen gets an agent who says we need to ask in writing. Why? She explains that the IRS is short-staffed and doesn't have people at the ready to answer questions like this.

So they have people at the ready to say we owe $750 but no people to explain why.

The IRS requested a copy of our tax return for that year, in addition to the form regarding the nanny. I dug it up and sent it in, all the while wondering why the IRS doesn't have this information already. I mean, they examined the return and determined I ripped them off by $750!

We still get no explanation, so we write the letter asking for it. In a couple weeks, we get a response. Thanks for writing, but we're still really busy. We will respond at a later date. I believe we went through another round of letters like that, too. So busy, no time to explain why we needed your $750 so urgently from three years ago.

Look, we knew damn well we weren't going get any of that money back, but geez, we are entitled to an explanation, right? Well, today it came.

Maureen got this letter while I was outside digging up bushes.

"We got a letter from the IRS," She began. "You're not going to believe it."

Here we go. I was expecting it to detail how I screwed up the form somehow and how they have now checked previous years for additional problems and we owe even more.

But it went a completely different direction and I can hardly believe it. I was right and the IRS was wrong. Let me say that one more time: THE IRS WAS WRONG!

Tell me the last time you heard that the IRS admitted it made a mistake and was sending out a check?

Read for yourself, in case you think I'd make this up.


That figure includes interest, by the way...



Posted on November 8, 2014 .

Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson

The sub-title of Winner-Take-All Politics nicely sums up the content of this fascinating, very readable book about what happened to national politics in the U.S. over the past thirty years: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--And turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

The authors, both political scientists, describe in detail how Republican politics moved much farther to the right with a zeal for tax cuts targeted specifically for the extremely rich. Voters, on the other hand, have not changed that much politically. The authors cite surveys which find much more moderation in the country than in the halls of Congress, though Conservatives have gained more adherents to their philosophy.

They quote Bruce Bartlett, one of the main proponents of Jack Kemp's supply-side economics proposals and an adviser to Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush.

Bartlett says GOP fiscal philosophy has become "so distorted into something that is, frankly, nuts--the ideas that there is no economic problem that cannot be cured with more and bigger tax cuts, that all tax cuts are equally beneficial, and that all tax cuts raise revenue."

The authors report that the top 0.1% grabbed over 20 percent of all after-tax income gains between 1979 and 2005. The bottom 60% got 13.5 percent.

Greed certainly plays a central role in this drama. The Republican Party figured out how to raise massive amounts of money from corporations and Wall Street. These interests demanded their due and they got it in the form of favorable policy that lowered tax rates, especially benefiting those in the top tier of the 1% income earners.

The Democratic Party also caught on and started raising huge funds as well, and since those on Wall Street were constituents of some powerful Democrats, they provided the necessary additional votes to allow deregulation of the financial industry, creating Enron, Worldcom and ultimately a near collapse of the banking system.

Trying to right the ship has been nearly impossible because of the GOP strategy of blocking nearly every initiative brought by the minority party. That's been accomplished by changing the filibuster rules. When the GOP consistently votes in lockstep, it is able to thwart just about anything the President champions, making him and the minority party look weak and ineffectual.

Where this leaves middle class voters is up a creek without a paddle or a boat, for that matter. Unions have been so defeated and organizations representing voters and good government have been so underfunded, relatively speaking, there are few voices to thwart the rapacious appetites of wealthy, well-represented interests groups.

Sadly, government is not functional in Washington today unless you have unimaginable wealth and a cadre of lobbyists to represent you.

As we celebrate the nation's independence, one can only wonder what in the world Jefferson and Adams would think of this.

Posted on July 6, 2014 .

Eight-Year-Old Humor

I brought the girls to UW Hospital tonight to see Maureen for the first time in four days. She is coming home tomorrow after finally getting bumped from the ICU.

While we were visiting, a nurse dropped in to say hi and mentioned that she read in the paper that Maureen resigned from a committee charged with coming up with ways to battle alcohol abuse. We all chuckled about how she managed to resign from anything while hospitalized! Maureen went into a rather detailed explanation, during which Serena appeared to pay keen attention.

"Let me get this straight," she began. "When exactly are we going to the cafeteria?"

Posted on June 19, 2014 .

DEROS Vietnam by Doug Bradley

The only books I've ever read about Vietnam were textbooks from high school. With DEROS Vietnam, by Doug Bradley, I got a dose of reality, from the perspective of a journalist soldier who labored in an office environment in Saigon.

I actually know Doug, as he was an excellent communications specialist for UW-Extension when I was a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio.  In addition, I am concluding a short-term post at UW System while Doug was a former Communications Director there. Despite our association, I knew next to nothing about his service history until reading this book. It's filled with vivid descriptions, salty language and good story-telling.

Doug calls his work of short stories fiction, but there's a real Dragnet quality to these stories and characters. The names may have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, but this account sure sounds like the real deal to me.

DEROS stands for Date Eligible for Return from Overseas. Apparently, everybody knew his DEROS date. Bradley describes a nightmarish situation where absolutely nothing makes sense about this war and everybody wants out ASAP.

Given my age, I barely missed the Vietnam War draft and could envision being in the author's shoes, given my own journalism background. Bradley survived this experience, building a long-lasting marriage and a remarkable career, but not everybody was so fortunate.

DEROS Vietnam is a quick read and one worth exploring. It reminds us how not all wounds are physically inflicted, how lives are horrifically disrupted and changed forever by an experience of war and why countries should engage in combat as the absolute last resort.

It appears as though Doug Bradley's facilitation with words has soothed his wounds through the years, with DEROS one more cathartic example of how he is dealing with the reality of the Vietnam War.

Posted on June 14, 2014 .

New Chapter

from Van Hise

from Van Hise

To Dean Health Plan

To Dean Health Plan

This post has nothing to do with a book, but I am about to embark on a new adventure! Maybe an insignificant experience last week while visiting Maureen at UW Hospital was some sort of omen.

I was departing the elevator on my way to Maureen's room when a man I did not know greeted me.  "Good morning, doctor." It was such a brief and unexpected encounter, I just responded with a "good morning" in return and chuckled to myself.

I have no idea why he assumed I was a doctor but maybe a dress shirt and tie is typical MD attire these days. Despite my lack of medical training, I will soon begin working for Dean Health Plan, resuming my long history with health communications. I'll be an editor and writer for four magazines, in addition to other new media duties. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dean, it's among the largest physician-owned practices in the U.S. The Dean office (above right) is less than two miles from our house! I will not miss the parking challenges of campus.

My brush with educational communications at UW System will conclude two months early to accept this new opportunity. And I can't say enough about my current boss Heather LaRoi and her colleagues at UW System. True professionals. Thank you for the chance to learn and work with you on behalf of President Ray Cross. The hurdles are many for those on the 17th floor, but you are all up to the challenge.

I will miss these new co-workers almost as much as the close proximity to Babcock Hall ice cream, Union South and climbing those 17 flights for exercise. But most of all, I'll miss Donut Day! (At the Wisconsin Medical Society, ironically, every day was Donut Day!)

Thanks to Dave Giroux and Ray for their interest in bringing me to UW System and to my new boss, Mary Carr Lee, for encouraging me to take a closer look at the Dean Health Plan job, which is closely suited to my interests, skills and abilities.

I start a week from Monday.

Nobody will call me "doctor" at Dean, but I will enjoy working with and for physicians again.

Posted on June 12, 2014 .

Loudest Voice in the Room

First an admission: I have never watched Fox News. We don't have cable, so the only Fox News I have ever experienced has been via John Stewart commentaries or Internet clips posted on FB, etc.

So why read The Loudest Voice in the Room by Gabriel Sherman, which examines the life of the amazing, trailblazing and crude Roger Ailes, the man who built the Fox News machine? My interest is mainly borne of fascination with how this "news" network ever got off the ground.

But my curiosity also relates to friends and family who depend on Fox for much of their news consumption. Of course, they supplement their diet with a side of Rush Limbaugh, too. They continually have a take on current events I can barely fathom.

After reading journalist Sherman's thoroughly documented account (112 pages of footnotes), I have developed a better understanding of why half the population seems to have a completely different read on the "news" than I tend to glean from main stream journalism.

This book is the story of a man who began his career as a TV producer for the Mike Douglas show. He was somebody who early on understood the importance of camera angles, lighting and the general power of television, especially for politicians. (He helped Richard Nixon gain credibility).

Above all, Roger Alies learned to get high ratings by giving viewers what they wanted.  He hired beautiful women anchors to appeal to his white male dominated audience. He made certain the stories he covered hit an emotional appeal. And he made sure the network constantly reinforced its messages by repeating them over and over and reinforcing them again with screaming graphics.

In one telling example told by Sherman regarding a business program Ailes started at Fox, a male Fox colleague asked a new hire about her professional background. She replied that she had experience reading the weather on TV. What are you doing here, he asked? His colleague then shook her breasts in response.

When Ailes studied Nazi propaganda films he soon realized how effective they were, though he never espoused Nazi ideology. Even so, he learned that if you repeated the same message over and over again, it eventually would have its intended impact on the audience. That certainly explains many of the faux story lines Fox News has perpetuated: President Obama doesn't have an American birth certificate. There's a war on Christmas. Various claims regarding the terrorist strike in Benghazi continually are reported. Sherman provides an entire chapter on Ailes' desire and tactics to elect a conservative president and bring down President Obama. 

To counter legitimate charges of bias, Ailes created the tagline, "fair and balanced." Just repeat it over and over and voila! Balance.

But Sherman documents that Ailes himself is not and never has been a journalist. He simply redefined what news is. The Fox executive decided that whatever he chooses to broadcast is "news." The other side, according to Ailes, can be covered by the "liberal media."

Just to be clear, Ailes refused numerous attempts to be interviewed for this book, and actively attempted to sabotage the author's efforts and tarnish his reputation. When you read this account of Ailes' life, it becomes abundantly clear that there are only two sides to an argument: Ailes' and everybody else's. He's a man who's devoted his life to controlling the message, and that certainly wasn't going to change for his own story.

So the author relied on hundreds of first-person interviews with people who worked at Fox, Ailes' brother and published interviews Ailes has done through the years. In addition, Sherman quotes from the book Ailes himself authored. The portrait that emerges is a truly disturbing one, especially in later years when Ailes appears to descend into more frequent rages and bouts of paranoia (He said the Democratic Party was going to assassinate him). 

The same take-no-prisoners tactics he's always leveled at his perceived enemies, Ailes trained on this author, including attacking his journalism and comparing him to Jason Blair, a disgraced plagiarist from the New York Times

"Although he may not have intended it," writes Sherman, "Ailes' confrontational response to the reporting of this book was as revealing as any comment he would have made in the course of an extended interview. "

Roger Ailes is a propagandist, plain and simple, but a large portion of his audience may genuinely believe they are getting actual "news." That is the scariest revelation of all.

The Loudest Voice in the Room is an outstanding, engaging book which illuminates a seminal figure in American politics. Roger Ailes may not be a journalist, but he certainly made his mark on the news business. By the stunning weight of the evidence Gabriel Sherman has amassed, it most certainly has been a black mark for journalism, political discourse and democracy itself.

Read it and weep.

Posted on May 3, 2014 .

Colorado River Adventure

Astonishing is an appropriate word to describe the scenery along the Colorado River. The massive cliffs and enormous boulders along the way seem more probable for a movie set than what we normally recognize as reality.


Our adventure began in Las Vegas where our tour company picked us up at 6 am under the massive clown sign for Circus Circus (I'd never stay there again because it is like living in a maze) half hour later we met our tour guide, Reid, who proved to be a kayak master who did everything but tuck us in at night. Reid brought all of the supplies, including water, tents, food, first aid, etc. He works for aptly named Desert Adventures, which supplies everything one needs to survive on the river. Reid's infectious love of the Colorado was just a bonus.

Reid with Serena

Reid with Serena

The short van ride down a very steep road past a check point resulted in our first glimpse of massive Hoover Dam from the river. Quite an incredible sight. The water it was holding back is Lake Mead, which serves several states and is a warm 85 degrees or so at surface level.

Everybody who goes on the river must have IDs and kids need a copy of their birth certificates--precautions begun after 911. I was told the concern is more that somebody might attempt to poison the water supply than blow up the dam.

When we arrived at river level carrying all of the equipment, police boats were in plain site, as a man in his 50s apparently jumped off the bridge near the dam the prior afternoon at 3. I'm glad we didn't see any more than that and our river trip began uneventfully.

We settled into our two-person, supply-loaded kayaks and off we went under clear skies. The current was quite strong and we struggled to follow Reid's directions. Having a guide in these spots is priceless, as he tells you when to stay close to the shore, where to avoid a big cross current, when to paddle the hardest, etc. There were a few moments when my heart raced, hoping like hell I wouldn't get swept off course. My kayak partner, Serena, was understandably spooked a few times, which didn't exactly help calm my nerves. But ultimately we did fine, especially after I finally figured out the rudder system on the kayak.

Reid was invaluable off the river, too. He knows the best places to stop along the way to hike, have lunch, camp or all of the above. The best surprise for me was the amount of hiking. It was such a terrific break from paddling because the environment is just so arresting. I never imagined we'd visit so many hot springs and enjoy so many walks through gorgeous, rocky terrain.

At our camping spot, I was too lazy to go for another hike before dinner, but Serena and Maureen made the 30-minute trek. When they returned, they were all smiles. Serena couldn't stop talking about the hot pools, the big ladder leading up to them, etc. When the rest of us went with Reid the next day, I soon learned what Serena got so excited about. You are soon walking in a wide, winding corridor with cliffs 500+ feet high on both sides with a tiny warm stream running down the middle. During flash floods, Reid said the water can rise 20 ft! You'd be totally screwed if you were in there then. 

"You don't drown," Reid offered helpfully. "You die of blunt force trauma." Remember, there is nothing but solid rock surrounding you, in addition to some trees and other vegetation.

The real payoff is the hot pool, where a 20-rung steel ladder led us. I'm not crazy about heights but made the climb anyway and lived to experience nature's warmth. The pool above that was just short of boiling, so I only waded into that. A couple from Hawaii was neck deep in it! 

My mother-in-law is 68 and courageously made the climb up that ladder, too. She stepped very carefully and made it just fine, but I was worried she might slip and come tumbling down. Descending backward down those first few steps wasn't exactly enjoyable for me, either but worth the experience. On the way back, Reid had us drink some warm water flowing from the center of the rock wall, which had a pleasant tea like taste. It was quite warm, as well.

On another hike, we got a glimpse of a few big horn sheep, including an agile baby who seemed quite comfortable on those steep cliffs. Other than ducks that followed us everywhere and a few high flying ravens and hawks, there wasn't the amount of wildlife I had hoped for.

The first day of paddling was pretty easy because the wind was at our backs, though it was very light wind. The next day was forecast to be very windy, which would make the trip more challenging. But luckily, we only experienced several minutes of gusts which dissipated and never reappeared for the remainder of our trip. A short time later, after we reached our destination point, we heard two people were tossed off their kayaks and had to be rescued. A Milwaukee native, Jeffrey, was the one who rescued them! In fact, our guide, Reid, is also a Milwaukee native.

We all loved the trip, but some more than others. "Why did that stupid river trip have to ruin everything," said Olivia to her mom as I write this, lamenting that we'd have to leave soon for Wisconsin. She much prefers hanging out in the mountains in grandma's back yard in Rio Rico, Arizona, as one can surmise by viewing our group photos.

It's actually a fine trip for kids, especially if the weather cooperates and you have a good guide. The river itself is a real joy, crystal clear and even drinkable. That's what made it real for me.

Emerald Cave photo by Dennis Allen

Emerald Cave photo by Dennis Allen

When you experience such jaw-dropping beauty over a couple of days, it sinks in that no movie scene could possibly compete with Mother nature.

rss Block
Select a Blog Page to create an RSS feed link. Learn more
Posted on April 24, 2014 .

173 and Counting...

It's been almost a year since Wacky News Names came out. The book chronicles the many ironic or contextually funny names that constantly appear in the news. But since the book went to press, I have continued to log 'em as I read 'em. This is an endless collection which grows by the day, especially since I have minions sending me even more names via email since the book came out. And yes, I do verify my submissions!

New lower price. Click the cover!

New lower price. Click the cover!

Just today, I read about a boat captain named Martin Leake. Not long ago, a pilot who conducted an aerial tour of a disaster area is named Gary Bird. Keeping with the disaster theme, I learned about a 1994 tornado that did a number on a community named Big Flats.

I also read an article quoting a lighting specialist, Lisa Clarity. Morgan Brooks is a meteorologist who informed me about flooding. And then there was the defense attorney who defended his client against sodomy. Appropriately, his name is B.J. Bernstein. 

In the world of publishing, I came across a book on botany, written by Bob Flowerdew. I just finished reading Paul Tough's excellent book, where he argues that grit and determination are important predictors of student success. Maura Lerner wrote a piece last week about on-line college courses.

The crime names always get my attention. There's Samuel Mullet, accused of hair-cutting attacks. Sounds hair raising! Jay Skare is an alleged pedophile. Indeed. And Charles Walker escaped from prison by presenting fake papers and waltzing right out the door.

The world of business remains a plentiful font of appropriate names, too. There's Craig Sword who founded a knife company, Window Snyder who is a security specialist related to Windows XP and Steve Small, a human development specialist!

The names people remember most are the medical ones, and for good reason!  Laura Finger is a gynecologist, Richard Chopp is vasectomy specialist and John Noseworthy treats people with smell-related disorders!

Many of the new medical names come via my friend Richard Frankenstein, MD, who wrote the foreword to my book. For obvious reasons, he also has a heightened interest in this phenomenon.

Please keep the names coming.  We can do better than 173.

Posted on April 13, 2014 .

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

How Children  Succeed is well done. I'm not a big fan of education books because they almost always involve test scores, which I find boring.

But Paul Tough is a journalist, a great writer and takes a different tack. Maybe natural ability, great genes and high SAT scores are not the best way to predict success in kids.

Tough argues that skills which include, curiosity, perseverance, optimism and self-control are better predictors. And he says those traits can be taught.

"[Science] says that character strengths that matter so much to young people's success are not innate; they don't appear magically, as a result of good luck or good genes," writes Tough. "And they are not simply a choice."

Tough says society can do a lot to influence the development of children by providing support to low-income families. Parents may lack the ability and the resources to offer their children what they need to succeed, and that includes being a good role model.

He says making this effort will not just be good for the kids, but good for society too because it would lessen the need to pay for remedial education and job training. In fact, one program was determined to provide "seven and twelve dollars of tangible benefit for every dollar invested."

Invest your time in this book and learn about what Paul Tough is proposing.

Posted on April 5, 2014 .

Million Dollar Idea

Wouldn't it be cool if you could give your kids or grand kids a million dollars? Sounds like a get-rich quick scheme, right? Actually, it's quite the opposite. Your kids get rich, very rich, very slowly.

I was listening to financial guru Paul Merriman, who discussed a brilliant idea in one of his podcasts. Here are the basics of how this works. Sock away $365 per year until the child is 16. You will have invested a total of $5,840 on their behalf. Stop. You are finished.

Now here's where the magic takes over. Assuming this teenager begins working at age 16, open a Roth IRA for him or her, putting the money into an all growth-stock index fund. Put in the maximum amount you can annually, drawing it from the $5,840 kitty. Keep doing that every year until the original fund is depleted and everything is transferred to the Roth IRA.

That's it. Then just wait five decades or so and, they'll have one decent pile of cash. When the kids are senior citizens about to retire, the IRA will likely be worth roughly a million bucks or more. Merriman says a 10% average return would not be overly optimistic for a growth fund over a very long time period, especially if one invests in value funds. Thank you, tax-free compounding!

I encourage you to listen to Paul Merriman explain it, as he does a much better job of laying out the details.

This idea takes me back to my teen years when I wrote out a check to my dad for a million dollars on his birthday. He absolutely loved it and laughed uproariously when he opened the envelope. With our kids, we're actually going to give them a million bucks. Dad would have just loved this plan, but his grand kids will love it more.

Posted on April 3, 2014 .