Thursday, May 26, 2011

A 500-mile common thread

Where has the year gone? It's the end of May already. Perhaps at least a month of 2011 washed away in the rains without me noticing. But now that May has arrived and has almost departed, I can take a little reflection time.

For as long as I can remember, the Indianapolis 500 has been a part of my month of May. Is it mere coincidence that The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is celebrating its 100th anniversary the same year as I celebrate my 50th? Well, yes, probably it is. But I'm going to ignore that fact. You see, I grew up in Indiana, and the Indy 500 was "our race." So when Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again in Indiana" on the Sunday before Memorial Day, it's kind of like a family reunion.

One of my earliest childhood memories is rooting for Parnelli Jones to win the 1967 race. I was thrilled because I heard my driver was ahead so much of the race. My parents had to explain that Parnelli had car problems in the last five laps and did not win. My next favorite driver, Al Unser, took up the slack for me, winning in both 1970 and 1971. How did I get these drivers as my favorites? I'm not sure. I'm thinking I probably just liked the name Parnelli, and since I had a cousin named Al, that was probably the determining factor. Childhood decisions don't require a lengthy thought process.

The race in 1973 was a mess. I remember listening to the race when it finally was run on Tuesday after two rainy days. Art Pollard was killed earlier in the month in a crash, then at the start of the race on Sunday, a huge fiery crash almost killed driver Salt Walther. The images of his legs sticking out of the bare remnants of what had been a race car are still burned in my mind.

The next year, my parents took me to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. The cars, the colors, the crowd, the pageantry -- and this was just for qualifications! I saw many things I had never seen before, and in the stands I saw things I probably shouldn't have seen. But life goes on. I made the trip to the brickyard whenever I could after that, even getting free reign to the media center as a college student since one of my professors was a long-time announcer for the race network.

Twenty-five years after I first visited the speedway, I took my own boys to the track for the first time. After sitting around watching the track dry for close to three hours, my elementary-aged sons finally got their first taste of real racing. We were sitting near the pits when the first two cars went out to warm up. The boys had seemed fairly disinterested up to that point. About 45 seconds after the cars had pulled out, I got their attention, pointed to the north, and said, "Boys, watch this." Five seconds later the two cars came screaming by at around 210 mph making a terrific noise and almost blurring my vision as I tried to watch. I looked at my boys to see them jumping up and down, cheering and screaming in utter excitement. I understood exactly how they felt as I smiled.

I think most people have something that warms the heart, reminding them that there is a common thread in our lives from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to cynicism. It could be a love of baseball or the familiarity of an old building or an often-played song. Family traditions and favorite places keep a sense of home in our lives. For me, it's a 2.5 mile oval track in Speedway, Indiana and a race that brings me "back home again" no matter where I am. Our family won't be attending this year, but you can bet we'll be sharing the race experience. And the common thread of my life will continue to run much farther than 500 miles, all the way to the next generation. I hope each of you have a thread to share that leads you back home again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Wind opinion up in the air

One of the things about having my job is that I tend to have a lot of information about almost every local subject either in my head or scattered somewhere on my desk. I have to learn new things, then translate the information and retell the story. In the past couple of years, I have had a crash course in wind energy and wind turbines. My editor and I joke that we've had to learn more about wind energy than most people in the state, and that's probably not far from the truth.

But being in the news media, everything I write is to be done without bias. Sometimes that is tough to do. After all, I have opinions just like everyone else. Lock 12 Van Wert County residents in a room and ask them a question, and you're sure to come out with no less than 15-20 different opinions. That's the way we're wired. But with wind energy, being impartial is easy for me because I'm really still up in the air on the whole thing.

I hear objections to having a couple hundred wind turbines in the county from time to time. Actually, they aren't as frequent as they used to be. But I've heard some of the typical complaints which sound more like the usual “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) arguments. “They might catch on fire!” Or “Birds will get killed by spinning blades” or “They'll be noisy or cause shadows” or whatever convenient excuses come to mind. While I can sympathize to some extent, I really don't pay much attention to NIMBY objections. Since I bought my house in the 90s, I now have a couple of large hog farms, a dairy farm, and electrical plant, and who knows what else -- all within a couple of miles. I know about NIMBY. We just have to deal with that.

I also hear real objections, like whether or not wind energy is going to be a real answer for the electrical needs of the country. Since wind energy can't be stored, a wind farm can't take the place of a coal-burning power plant. So it's not a final answer. I'm not sure it's money well-spent by the government, but at least we're seeing the results around here. Usually I have to drive to a far-off state to see what bridge or useless museum my tax money has purchased.

But you know, the objection I hear the most is that some people think they are ugly. I don't get that. Apparently other people don't either since there seem to be plenty of cars pulled to the side of Paulding County roads with eyes glued to the tall white towers. I've taken the drive numerous times with my kids, counting the number of completed turbines and looking at the sites where one or two vertical pieces are in place -- stumps, I call them. The blades reach high in the sky above us as we drive along, looking like overgrown white mosquitoes at times, or as my wife observed, like a fighter jet flying sideways when viewed from one angle. I could sit and watch them for hours, much in the same way I could stare at a campfire. It just sucks you in. Ugly is just not a word that comes to mind when I see them.

“Well, that's because you don't have to look at them all day, idiot!” (I'm sure someone just said that as they read... hope they don't mind me cleaning up their language!) Actually I don't have to look at them, but I can. Even though the turbines completed thus far are all in Paulding County, I can see about a half-dozen from my backyard. At night, the red lights atop the nacelle (the part the blades appear to be attached) shine brightly, blinking in unison at me. Even though the closest turbine is more than five miles away, they are still part of my landscape... part of my backyard.

Will these turbines and the ones still to be erected in Van Wert County always be pleasing to my eyes? Hard to say. There could come a time when they become as outdated as the farmhouse windmills that are just now starting to vanish from the countryside. But for now, they are bringing in a much-needed economic boost. And for that we should be thankful.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Deciphering the dress code

Today, it's a polo shirt and a pair of khaki pants. Yesterday I dressed up a bit more with dress slacks and a button-up shirt. The day before that, I wore jeans. Consistency is not a hallmark of my wardrobe. But let's face it, you have to be prepared for anything. This is especially true for me, where my week often includes attending a banquet and taking pictures of farm animals.

Dress codes have always mystified me. Granted, I don't keep a wide variety of clothing in my makeshift closet, but I don't think I could fit in everywhere. There's something called “smart casual” (as opposed to “dumb casual, I suppose) which includes a blazer or sports jacket. Now to me, a blazer suggests perhaps becoming a TV anchorman, but not really casual. And “informal” includes “business attire” which requires a business suit and a tie. Maybe my rural midwestern upbringing has messed me up, but how does anything involving the wearing of a suit and tie fit into “informal” wear?

I started thinking about all this when I ran across a story about a Swiss bank and its dress code. The bank is UBS and the dress code is 44 pages long. OK, not exactly. Until January it was 44 pages long. Then the bank officials got tired of being made fun of by people all across the world, so they decided to whittle it down to a small booklet. It seemed that the bank wanted to control how all of their employees looked and smelled right down to the color of their underwear (skin-tone). And having run my own business, I do understand that looking “professional” means something very different to certain employees. But these folks were getting pickier than the father of a teenage girl.

How we dress has certainly changed over the years. When I was a child, few men would even think about attending church without a necktie. (That could be why fewer men attended services.) Women wouldn't dream of wearing slacks to sit in the pews. We were taught to dress out of respect to God. Of course for many, they dressed to attract attention with their new clothes, but you get the idea. Now many churches stress the condition of the heart rather than the condition of the wardrobe.

In business, the dress code depends on the type of outlet. In factories, safety equipment is the main concern, but elsewhere these codes dictate how people dress. I worked in radio for ten years back in the 1980s. Now you would think if there was one business where it wouldn't matter what you wear it would be radio, right? PEOPLE CAN'T SEE YOU. However, there was usually a business office attached to the studio complex at radio stations, so management always wanted these young disc jockeys to look “professional” if they were on the job during any business hours. Which meant that if I worked from 4 p.m. until midnight, I would have to dress appropriately because someone might see me during that one hour that my schedule overlapped with the business folks.

At some point my laundry didn't get finished, and I faced having to go to work with no clean dress pants. Rather than wearing dirty pants, I slipped on a pair of jeans with my dress shirt and put on a tie. I was a little nervous going into work in jeans, but I soon found that no one noticed my jeans because everyone was impressed I had worn a tie. I got more compliments on my attire that day than in the previous six months combined. So when I was in management, I passed this little trick onto other young men with a limited number of dress pants. No one ever noticed the jeans. It worked every time.

So perhaps the secret to proper dress is not skin-tone underwear, but delivering a good focus -- a tie, a beautiful hat, or whatever is kicking around in your closet. Make sure it's tasteful to more than just people your own age, then strut your stuff with pride. Just be careful around the farm animals.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Tornado Watch-ing

For a second straight week, Van Wert County survived a tornado warning this week. Sirens blared, half-dressed people ran instinctively to shelter, and all over the region there were people nibbling on fingernails or in all-out panic mode. Tornadoes scare people. I get that, especially in Van Wert County. That November day in 2002 was one of the few days I had my entire family in the basement. I even joined them there for a minute after I saw the high winds suddenly switch the direction they were pushing the trees. But for the most part, if there's a tornado watch, I go out and try to watch.

I've been caught out in many storms, but I've never actually seen a tornado. My wife would love to be a storm chaser and watch these giant funnels. Ironically the day a tornado hit our neighbor's house, our whole family was away. We saw nothing but the aftermath. The one time we had a reserved ringside seat, and we were ten miles away. Figures.

I do have a healthy respect for tornadoes. I know people who were directly involved in the F-4 that rumbled through here almost a decade ago, and suffered great loss. I watched news accounts on the Internet and on television of places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Ringgold, Georgia, which were blasted by twisters on Wednesday. For years I've heard the stories of chickens having their feathers stripped away, stalks of corn being driven through tree trunks, and personal items being carried hundreds of miles by the tornadic winds. The destructive power boggles the mind.

When I was a child growing up in Indiana, I had a few brushes with tornadoes, or at least the effects of tornadoes -- both physical and emotional. One storm tore through a town of a couple hundred people, ripping the roof off the gymnasium of the old school building. I still remember riding in the car past the permanently retracted roof, and further down the path of the tornado, staring at trees that were freshly bent at a 45 degree angle. Those trees continued to lean for years afterward.

I also remember the panic that overtook my aunt when I was very small. The story was always that a tornado headed at you sounded like a freight train. We were discussing that during a particularly bad storm back in the 60s. We had gathered at my grandmother's house because she had a basement and we did not. My aunt was particularly nervous that night, having heard that tornadoes sound like freight trains and hearing the mighty winds blowing outside. Suddenly, she heard that sound that made her scream, certain that destruction was seconds away. What was the sound? A freight train sound? Sort of. It was a train whistle. I remember she almost had to be pulled off the ceiling and reminded that tornadoes don't have train whistles!

People today will, at times, become unnecessarily panicked over the threat of a tornado. Some of that panic can be avoided with a little education. A little study of twisters can tell you what sorts of things to expect when a storm threatens. You should know that a tornado watch just means that the conditions could allow tornadoes to form and a warning means there is a rotating storm somewhere. Information during a storm also can reassure a person when it isn't necessary to grab Toto and run to the storm cellar with Auntie Em. With the Internet, weather radios, and even television, it is possible to find out most everything that is happening as it happens.

But perhaps the greatest education one needs is basic geography. I'm continually amused by people who cannot seem to grasp that a storm traveling east from, say, Willshire, is not endangering Grover Hill or Scott. Now I could chalk it up to people not being able to read a map or knowing which direction is east, or it could be that storm panic has set in and no amount of information can penetrate the brain until a meteorologist shows up at the front door giving the All Clear signal.

So my tornado season advice is simple: (1) Respect storms, but don't let your mind glaze over in panic, (2) Gather information from as many reliable sources as possible, (3) Learn the basic geography of places in the region, especially to the south and west, and (4) If you hear a train whistle, it's just a train.

The Thrill Is Gone

Blues singer B.B. King sang, “The Thrill Is Gone” about a relationship that took a nose dive. In the song, B.B.'s lady apparently did something wrong, and now the relationship wasn't the same as it used to be. While I can't be as brief as Mr. King with this one, I think the thrill wears off far too quickly in many things, and I'm not even talking about relationships.

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Americans first entered space. Alan Shepard climbed inside his Mercury-Redstone rocket dubbed Freedom 7 and took a 15-minute sub-orbital flight that made people in this country take notice of space flight. That is, if they hadn't noticed Yuri Gagarin become the first person in space just three weeks earlier. But in 1961 and for that entire decade, people were aware of space flight. Sometimes they were skeptical. Sometimes they were proud. But when there was a scheduled liftoff, people paid attention.

The drama continued through the Apollo missions, then the launch of the first space shuttle in 1981. Then after a while the shuttle launches became routine. We didn't gather to watch as before. On a January day in 1986, a radio announcer complained that he had to stop his show so the station could carry yet another broadcast of a space shuttle liftoff. After all, no one really listened to those anymore. He changed his tune about 73 seconds after liftoff when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing seven astronauts and stunning this nation and the world.

But after a couple more successful missions the disinterest was back. The thrill was gone. Even the 2003 Columbia disaster didn't keep interest in the shuttle missions. Let's face it, if we weren't down to the last two shuttle missions, the apathy over a space shuttle launch would be deafening. Even the thrill of sending human beings into space can't keep us riveted anymore. And for as long as it has been, we can't truly describe what it was like when the entire country would put life on pause while the countdown marched toward liftoff. The newness, even for those of us who remember, has worn off.

I was thinking about all this while driving around, flipping through the stations on my radio. When I stumbled across an old Beatles song, I realized that a majority of people today don't have a true appreciation for the uniqueness of the music of that Liverpool quartet. The sound was new and different -- unlike tunes that had been revolving on turntables up until that time. Today, introducing someone to the early sound of the Beatles is not that impressive because all kinds of music sounds like that now. Someone growing up in this century cannot truly appreciate what a shock it was when the opening guitar riff of The Kinks' “You Really Got Me” hit the radio or the psychedelic guitar of Jimi Hendrix's “Purple Haze” or the folk-rock guitar and nasal vocals of Bob Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone.” It's not necessarily that the thrill is gone. Some of us still remember that thrill and realize how groundbreaking these records were. It's just that the thrill can't be brought back.

One of my favorite firsts was the first time my son laughed at something he saw. He was a fairly quiet baby, not speaking until after his first birthday. But one night as I held him on the couch with the television on, I heard him start to laugh. Not just a giggle to himself, but he was laughing at the show on TV. I turned to see what had tickled my baby's funny bone and smiled. He was watching an old Three Stooges film. I couldn't have been prouder. My son had good taste in comedy.

It's a shame that various thrills can't be bottled or framed or pickled or whatever else preserves something. First date, first job, first baby, first kiss, (you can continue that line of thinking on your own time) -- they all have their own unique place in our hearts and memories. But the feeling can't really be shared or recaptured. So I believe that we should truly enjoy those firsts that come our way. That even goes for the firsts we might rather never experience. Each new day is a gift and an experience. And maybe, just maybe, each new day will bring an ever-so-brief thrill that will help you remember all the thrills that have gone before.