Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I'll be out of cyber-touch for a while as the wife and I are headed out on a long overdue vacation. First to Nashville, TN and a performance of the Grand Ole Opry (Wendy is a big fan of country music, so this is for her). Then east to the outer banks of North Carolina, since we're both big fans of the ocean and have never been to this part of the Atlantic.

Though I'm usually an obsessive trip planner, with a pre-planned itinerary that includes our hotel, activities and sometimes even a restaurant I want to visit, this time we're just going to cruise the country and see what interests us along the way.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

I Want To Retire

Some day, why not. Afterall, my younger brother age 52 is taking a buy-out and retiring from GM at the end of the year. Lucky guy. This past week I received in the mail a booklet from my own outfit that controls my pension plan. Titled "To and Through Retirement", it promised tips to get my portfolio on track for retirement.

I already knew where this was going before I turned the cover page:

---according to their analyses, I won’t have enough in my 401K to retire until I’m 80,
---unless I invest large sums of my present income into their financial products;
---those financial products will include risky ventures such as stocks and insurance.

They don’t call them stocks and insurance in their literature. They’re called equities and annuities. Have you noticed the changing vernacular businesses use to avoid having a negative connotation of their product or business? Don’t say stocks, say equities. It’s not a used car, it’s a pre-owned vehicle. You’re not taking out a second mortgage on your home, you’re cashing out the equity. Casinos call it gaming; we call it gambling.

Stocks are a gamble in my book, ever since the dot com bubble burst. I saw my retirement savings shrink. My colleague and I figured we would never be able to retire because we would owe into our 401K till we died just to break even. Yet there’s always a push from the financial planners for you to put large sums into stocks. Am I being cynical in thinking there must be a large commission in it for them?

Anyway, back to the magazine. A sidebar featured a fellow "nearing retirement" at age 71. Age 71?? I want to have worn out three rocking chairs before I’m 71.

By the way, they suggested that he put almost 50 per cent of his retirement portfolio into stocks.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reality Challenged

A colleague at work describes Ann Arbor as 16 square miles surrounded by reality. I believe my buddy is referring to the politics of the city, which is quite liberal, but it's a good lead-in to an Ann Arbor adventure the missus and I had this past week.

We've been wanting to take some long walks to get us in shape for our upcoming vacation, so we decided to hike "The Arb", an expanse of forest and field in the middle of Ann Arbor, owned by the University of Michigan. First time for us.

So we parked our car on a side street and hit the trail. Passed by the trail brochures since "I don't need no stinking map." Not a good idea it turned out.

We passed lots of folks at first, joggers, couples and the like. Not so many later. Then I went off the trail a bit to climb a railroad grade to see if a train was coming. While up there, some young man emerged out of the heavy brush on the other side, carrying a well worn paper bag and mumbling loudly to himself.

So I headed back to join Wendy, this guy right behind me. He continued past us, but stopped, stared at us wildly, kept talking gibberish, then swung his head back and laughed out loud. Finally, he turned and walked the other way. Wow. Nothing like meeting one of the local mentally disturbed homeless folk during a leisurely jaunt in the woods.

It spooked Wendy. Everytime she heard a noise afterwards, she froze. I'd have to put my arm around her, then point into the trees. "See, it's just a squirrel. And over there, the guy with the hockey mask is Jason. And if you look over there, you can see Freddy Kruger lurking behind a tree. Nothing to worry about."

Anxious to rejoin civilization, we ended up taking the first paved road we saw, which just took us farther away from where we had parked. And we were in big yard-big house country. Which meant lots of big dogs. Unleashed and extremely territorial. There was a private road we could have walked which would have shaved four blocks from our hike back. But one of those dang big dogs came charging across an expansive front yard to cut us off.

Eventually, we HAD to ask for directions from a local walker. I volunteered to run ahead and bring back the car, though Wendy described it differently. "I begged him to run ahead and bring back the car."

I didn't think our adventure so bad. And we got to meet one of the truly reality-challenged denizens of Ann Arbor. How cool is that!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Unique Casa Dominick's

Ever since I came to the Ann Arbor area over 25 years ago, I've been intrigued by Casa Dominick's. This Italian bistro, nestled amongst the older two-story homes that border the main University of Michigan campus, serves draft beer in Mason jars.

How cool. Like drinking moonshine. Certainly the folks quaffing their favorite brew appear happy as they raised their jars to toast the latest Wolverine victory on the veranda outside, or on the wraparound porch on the second story. [We should certainly celebrate our awesome victory over the Irish on Saturday]

So it was a first when Wendy and I dined there Friday, a stop in our ongoing Frog Island creme ale tour of 2006. My wife's armed herself with a list of local pubs that reportedly serve her favorite Michigan microbrew.

Well, cross off Dominick's for sure. Frog Island was a no-show there. We had LaBatt's instead. After placing a sandwich order at the counter, we brought our beers out back to a marvelous beer garden surrounded by a privacy fence.

We passed a fountain where water streamed from the, uh, body part of a cherub statue into a concrete reservoir below. Also cemented into the brick wall that secured the little urinator was what appeared to be an old gravestone. Maybe the original Mrs. Dominick resides somewhere underneath all this. We sat at one of the oversized picnic tables, shaded under a canopy of branches, trees that I did not recognize, giving the impression we were at at an arboretum. Or some nook out of a Ray Bradbury story.

Finding an empty table spot was problematic as many were reserved for a Tappa Kegga Day fraternity (aren't they all?) or on this day for incoming students from the pharmacy college. Gee,I don't think I want my future pharmacist taking notes on mixing drugs while his host is mixing drinks.

Anyway, I thought they had an interesting security system for taking and delivering sandwich orders. When my wife put our order in, the counterperson asked for her name and last initial. Then over a mini-loudspeaker we heard "order for Wendy." I volunteered to go back inside to pick up our order, but wondered what would prevent somebody else from claiming our pre-paid Italian and meatball sandwiches.

The answer? When I presented myself at the counter to pick up an order for Wendy, the server asked, "Last initial?"

"T", I replied. Hea, how ingenious! I'm going to suggest this to tech support at work to replace the cumbersome password system we use now.

I just sign into the computer as "Dave."

The computer responds, "Last initial?"

Then I type in "T."

I'm in.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fans On The Field!!

My old high school classmate Bob has a souvenir of a big football win from when he attended Michigan State University as a student over 25 years ago.

It was the year that MSU toppled Ohio State, a victory as unlikely a quarter century ago as it is now. After the final gun sounded, Bob said "see ya later" to his girlfriend and charged the field to celebrate.

During the raucous post-game revelries, the goal posts came down in Spartan stadium. Bob and others walked out carrying a large piece of history, later cut into smaller pieces for each of them to cherish.

I thought about that while I attended a University of Michigan football game this past week in Ann Arbor. Late in the game, I walked from section to section, taking pictures as The Big House is soon to be renovated. At each entrance to the stadium, I noticed that police had joined the ushers.

Any spectator now passing through any of the 44 section entrances passed by at least one officer, it seemed. Why were they there now? They weren't there before. To keep the fans off the field when the game ended would be my guess.

When our local high school team won a big see-saw football game that went right down to the last play, their fellow student fans charged the field to embrace their heroes. There's nothing like watching the collective spirit of our sons and daughters cheering together in a unique display of school pride.

But I read in the newspaper this week that one local football league has banned fans from the field, period, after one particularly successful football team made a point to routinely invite their fans into the on-field, post-game huddle. And the fans obey the new rule, standing behind a chain link fence now as their team huddles after the game.

We're becoming a nation of sheep, I fear. We pay taxes, obey the laws, leash our dogs, tolerate spam, put up with crooked politicans and greedy oil companies, watch our savings dwindle with the high price of health care and prescription drugs . . . where will it end?

I envy Bob his trophy. Some day I hope I have the courage to celebrate some personal victory in a way that I'll remember the rest of my life, legal or not. But Bob also needs to be careful with his partisanship. If he needles my University of Michigan boosterism too much, I'll rat him out to the authorities at Michigan State.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Stranger On A Train

[My wife suggested I re-run this blog from last year, in remembrance of the anniversary of 9/11 today]

Anyone who rides AMTRAK knows it has the mechanical dependability of a very old car. Electrical malfunctions, engine breakdowns and track problems are commonplace. While we were riding back from Chicago last year, the air conditioning failed in nearly all the cars, though not in the dining car where we sat as part of an overflow of ticketed passengers. Before long, a woman about our age asked to join us at our table, wanting a respite from her warm, stuffy accommodations.

She was talkative in a motherly manner. At first she seemed a bit self-conscious at intruding but eventually she opened up. After describing her work with executives in the auto industry and the challenges of traveling alone, she began talking about her life and her family. Her husband had died some years ago, stricken by cancer in the prime of life. That left her to shepherd their two young daughters through the often tumultuous years leading to adulthood.

While she spoke, she pulled out a picture of her daughters. They were both long-haired, slender, conservatively dressed and with a scholarly demeanor. In fact, both girls were bright, though the older daughter held more of a passion for success. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a business degree. Then, she was among a few fortunate graduates to secure a position in the lucrative field of investment banking.

Eventually, she landed in New York, with a salary approaching six figures, her mother said. Pretty good for a young twenty-something. Four years ago this past Sunday, she was at her post high up in the World Trade Center towers. Then the planes hit. Her mother anticipated a phone call, knowing her daughter would want to let her know right away that she was okay. So she waited. An hour passed. Then two.

When after several hours, there was no phone call, the mother said she was overcome by a feeling of tranquillity. Whether it was mother's intuition, a spiritual sense, or something else, she knew her daughter had perished that morning. Her words brought my wife to tears. They both hugged and cried together for a moment. Then the mother went on to talk about her surviving daughter--her career as an oceanographer and her life on Cape Cod.

After we got off the train, my wife and I made sure the woman's car was still there where she left it. She thought it might have been towed after several days. The car was there and we parted ways. That was the last we saw of her. This past week I thought about that woman, whose name I don't remember. As I watched news footage of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the memorials marking the anniversary of 9-11, I thought of how we opened our hearts as a nation to those affected. And it doesn't always take a generous donation to offer comfort. Sometimes it just takes sympathy, a few tears, and a hug.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Two Thumbs Up

When we have faith in ourselves, we can move others to overcome extraordinary obstacles to help us accomplish our goals. That is the theme of two movies I saw separately during the past week.

My wife and I saw Little Miss Sunshine at the local Michigan theater on Saturday. In this offbeat comedy drama, a dysfunctional extended family helps a young girl realize her dreams of competing in a junior beauty contest.

The motley ensemble includes a suicidal uncle, a drug addicted grandfather and a teenaged brother who has forsaken speech to discipline himself for a career in the Air Force.

Just getting to the pageant aboard a just-as-dysfunctional mini-bus tests their relationships and determination in a story that has you alternately crying tears of laughter and tears of sadness.

A more poignant tale of personal faith is Whalerider, a movie we rented from the local library. This film traces the journey of a young girl trying to win the love and respect of her grandfather, a chief of a people whose culture seems doomed by encroaching modern society.

Her grandfather, distraught that he has no male heir to whom he can pass on his leadership role, must come to grips with a world over which he has diminishing control . . . and for which he partly blames his granddaughter.

Both of these are independent films which means they don't receive the hype or advertising of your average studio-produced flick. They rely mostly on word-of-mouth and film festival awards to bring them public acceptance and box office business. It's been a long while since I've seen ONE new movie I could recommend. Well, here's two.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Dognaps Here And There

Just past the witching hour last night I was awakened by a noise in our house--the kind of sound which immediately and fully wakes you because you sense something isn't normal.

To me, it resembled the lock popping and the front door opening downstairs, though what you think you hear in your sleep is often just a guess. Of course, our miniature "watch dog" was nowhere to be found.

So I sat up in bed. More rustling. Was our son coming home from college a day early this Labor Day weekend? Unlikely. Much too quiet for that. I rose and entered the upstairs hallway, quickly switching on the light there.

Peeking downstairs, I saw the front door closed. Whew! Then I heard more odd muffled noises. They were coming from our older son's bedroom down the hallway. Though he had long moved out, it was still a minefield of old clothes and sundry other items in there.

When I fully opened the door, I saw our little poodle mutt Doogie making himself comfortable among the empty video boxes and a comforter on the floor. He looked at me indifferently as if to say, "What!"

Why can't that dog pick a place to sleep and stick to it? He sleeps in our bed, under our bed, down the basement, on our younger son's bed, on the family room floor, and on and on, all in one day and night. Rattling around to make a nest in Greg's empty room was a first, however.

Doogie takes "Mi Casa Es Tu Casa" way too literally, especially for a dog. My wife Wendy said Doogie was excitedly prancing around her Lazy Boy recliner one day. Wasn't hungry. Didn't want to go out. So she motioned him to jump up and share her seat with him.

That settled him for a bit. Then he jumped back down, dancing again while appealing to Wendy with his big dark eyes. She realized Doogie wanted HER to leave so he lie down and stretch out on the Lazy Boy himself.

Maybe in his little way he's campaigning for a doggie bed for Christmas.