Archive for August, 2011

A Better Kind of Regime Change?

When President Obama called on President Assad of Syria to leave office last week it was a sign that Gaddafi was the verge of losing Libya.  Obama made clear that the West would continue the strategy of aiding popular uprisings through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and low levels of military support.   His message to the Syrian people was clear: Don’t give up.   President Obama, like President Bush before him, has a strategy designed to promote regime change.   It’s less risky than the one embraced by Bush, but can it succeed?

President George W. Bush went into Iraq with a bold and risky foreign policy.   He wanted regime change led by the US, so the US could shape the new regional order.   The Bush Administration understood that the dictators of the Mideast were anachronistic — out of place in the globalizing 21st Century.  Surveying the region directly after 9-11-01, while the fear of Islamic extremism was still intense, they reckoned that the benefactors of the coming instability would be Islamic extremists.   This would create more terror threats and perhaps lead to an existential threat against Israel.

Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the belief that the American economy was unstoppable, they gambled.  What if the US went into Iraq, ousted Saddam, and then used Iraq as a take off point for further regime change throughout the region?

The formula was clear: invade, use America’s massive military to overthrow a regime, and then pour in resources to rebuild the country and make friends.    The Bush Administration thoroughly under-estimated the task at hand and over-estimated the US capacity to control events.     Their effort to reshape the Mideast failed.   By 2006 Iraq was mired in civil war, and President Bush was forced to change strategy.   Bush’s new realism was designed to simply create conditions of stability enough to allow the US to get out of Iraq with minimal damage to its prestige and national interests.   President Obama has continued that policy.

However, when governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell in early 2011, and rebellions spread around the region creating the so called “Arab Spring,” it became clear that the dynamics the Bush Administration noticed a decade earlier were still in play.   These dictatorships are not going to last.   Some may hold on for years with state terror against their own citizens; others will buy time by making genuine reforms.   But the old order in the Mideast is starting to crumble, and no one is sure what is next.

President Obama choose a new strategy in 2010, much maligned by both the right and left.   Instead of standing back and letting Gaddafi simply use his military power to crush the rebellion, Obama supported NATO using its air power to grant support for the rebels.    That, combined with diplomatic efforts to isolate Gaddafi and his supporters, financial moves to block Libyan access to its foreign holdings, and assistance in the forms of arms and intelligence to the rebels, assured that Gaddafi could not hold on.

Gaddafi’s fall creates the possibility that NATO assets could be used against Syria in a similar effort.   Moreover, it shows that the argument that those who use force will survive while those who try to appease the protesters will fall is wrong.   Survival is not assured by using force, the world community does not ‘forgive and forget’ like it did in the past.

The strategy is subtle.  Like President Bush, Obama’s goal is a recasting of the entire region; unlike his predecessor, Obama’s chosen a lower risk,  patient, longer-term strategy.    If Bush was the Texas gambler, Obama is the Chicago chess master.   But will it work?    Is this really a better form of regime change?

President Bush’s policy was one with the US in control, calling the shots, and providing most of the resources.   President Obama’s approach is to share the burden, but give up US control over how the policy operates.   It is a true shift from unilateralism to multi-lateralism.   While many on the left are against any use of the military, President Obama shares the Bush era view that doing nothing will harm US interests.   The longer the dictatorships use repression, the more likely that Islamic extremism will grow.   The more friendly the US is to dictatorial repression, the more likely it is that future regimes will be hostile.

So the US now backs a multi-faceted multi-national strategy whereby constant pressure to used to convince insiders within Syria (and other Mideast countries) that supporting the dictator is a long term losing proposition.   Dictators cannot run the country on their own.   Even a cadre of leaders rely on loyalty from top military officials, police, and economic actors.   In most cases, their best bet is to support the dictator.   This gives them inside perks, and can be sustained for generations.  However, if the regime falls, these supporters lose everything.

The message President Obama and NATO are sending to the Syrians and others in the region is that they can’t assume that once stability is restored it will be business as usual.   The pressure on the regime, the sanctions, the freezing of assets, and various kinds of support for the protesters will continue.   As more insiders decide to bet against the regime a tipping point is reached whereby change becomes likely.

For this to work a number of things must happen.   First, a stable government must emerge in Libya.  It needs to be broad based, including (but co-opting) Islamic fundamentalists.   The West has to foster good relations with the new government, building on how important western support was in toppling the Libyan regime.  Second, the pressure on Syria cannot let up.   There has to be the will to keep this up for as long as it takes.    Third, the possibility of NATO air support has to be real — the idea is that if it appears that Syria might launch a devastating blow against the revolt, NATO will do what is necessary to bring it back to life.   Finally, the costs and risks of the operation must be kept low so the dictators cannot expect to wait out the West.

If this works, there could be a slow modernization and ultimately democratization of the Arab world, perhaps even spreading into Persian Iran.  If it fails the costs won’t be as monumental as the failure of the US in Iraq, but it will be a sign that Mideast instability in the future is unavoidable, and we have to be ready for dangerous instability.  Has President Obama found a better style of regime change?   Time will tell — and it may take years to know for sure.


Steaks, Film, then back to Pizza!

This continues my posts about pizza and my life.  I apologize for the self-indulgence, but part of the purpose of this blog is to leave a record for my kids, and stories about my past are part of that.

I left Village Inn Pizza Parlor at age 16 and then worked nearly a year at the First Edition Restaurant and Steak House, and then a summer at a drive in movie theater before returning to the world of pizza.   Each of those experiences were important, and convince me that high school kids do need to work, you learn things on the job that you can’t get in school.

At the First Edition my duties were to bus tables, sometimes run the dish washing machine, and keep the salad bar stocked.   Memories include eating steak off plates that were brought back to be washed (when you’re 16 you chow down anything), sneaking into the walk in cooler to sample some of the ice cream prepared for the bar (which had ice cream drinks), and a grill chef throwing a steak on to the ground before putting it on the grill.   “Well done!?  They want a filet well done?   They may as well go to McDonalds!”   Seeing the shocked expression of a 16 year old bus boy, the chef smiled, “Don’t worry kid, the grill will burn off any gunk from the floor.”   Needless to say, I order my steaks medium rare.

We had the cleanest kitchen in Sioux Falls according to the health inspector, and I recall cleaning grease above the grill, scrubbing down every inch, and coming in on Sunday mornings for intensive cleaning (windows, polishing brass, etc.)   To be sure, not everything was clean.   One day a waiter came back with what looked like clean silver ware.   “They say this has been sitting on the table too long and they want ones freshly cleaned.”  He then licked them.  “There, this should satisfy them.”   I watched as he brought out the “clean” silver ware and the customers thanked him (and likely tipped him well).   Another note to self: don’t send back the silverware for replacement unless it’s clear they are dirty!

I also would grab sugar packets and chug sugar during my shift.   The packets are small, but I thought I didn’t need the extra calories so I decided to try Sweet N’ Lo.   Note to self:  NEVER chug sweet and low!    The restaurant was also a bar, and at closing time if we did a really good job the manager would often let us have a beer.   That was illegal of course, but hey, this was the 70s.   The trouble was, at that point in my life I did not yet like beer.   But I couldn’t admit it (what would the other busboys think?!) — so I’d secretly pour it down the drain and pretend like I drank it.

I was very observant and learned a lot about the restaurant business and its demands.   I appreciate what waitstaff go through and still observe restaurants for how they operate.  Yet I grew sour on the job — there was no real chance to move forward.  I couldn’t become a waiter because I wasn’t 21, and thus not able to serve drinks.    I decided to try something else, so I took a job at the drive in movie theater, East Park Drive In.

That was my slackest job.   The place no longer stands — it’s now a K-Mart — but it was fun and I was able to rack up hours, even though the pay was low.   I did a couple dusk to dawns, having to wake up people who fell asleep during the night (usually it was a series of five films).   One time I knocked on a van window and saw a naked man and woman wake up.   “It’s morning, time to go,” I said.   “Thanks man,” was the reply as they covered themselves.   We’d joke and flirt with the concession girls.  They had a machine that you poured the syrup for the soda into the top, and it would mix it with the carbon water.   I started making strong sodas, my favorite being orange soda syrup, and then mix it with 7-Up.   I also recall the manager being amazed at the summer phenomenon at the indoor theaters.  A film called Star Wars was in town all summer, breaking all sorts of records.

I also remember beers after close (by this point I indulged, albeit not as much as my co-workers).   Perhaps the low point was when I loaned my Oldsmobile — a Delmont 88 — to some drunk girls (co-workers).   They took off and my manager said, “Scott, what the hell are you thinking?”   They returned, thankfully, vehicle in tact.  Otherwise we had a running battle with kids trying to watch the movie from the lot beside us, chasing them off and/or flirting with the girls.   Of course, I had one of those flashlights with the orange bit at the top.    At the beginning we’d take tickets, and then every once in awhile I’d see trunks open a couple people pop out.   One co-worker, Orville, would yell at them and make them pay.   I’d usually just smile and look the other way.

My favorite movie of the summer was the original Freaky Friday.   I also recall learning the lines to A Star is Born with Streisand and Kristofferson almost by heart.   That movie played two weeks since one of the weeks was fair week and business that week was always bad so they didn’t bother with a new film.   I also volunteered to work every night so my co-workers could enjoy the fair.   I can’t remember many of the other films we had; I know we showed Stephan King’s Carrie.   But it was a fun summer…a few cars drove away with the speakers, but in all it was a more laid back job.

Alas, drive in movies are seasonal, and I needed to get a job in the fall.    At first I went back to The First Edition, but the job wasn’t as fun or interesting — always the same routine.   I quit to focus on debate for awhile, and then in February decided to head back to Village Inn Pizza.   A friend had gotten a job there and said they were hiring lots of new people.   So I re-applied.  The manager grilled me on why I left a year earlier, and I was honest — I said I thought the pay was better at the other place.   Then the manager, a guy named Warren Andy, looked at me intently.

“You know something, if you want to work, this is the place for you.   $2.35 to $2.45 an hour?  That differences is crap.  It’s shit.  You don’t leave a job for a dime an hour.   You know what — everything is in play here.   The old management has been fired, I’ve been brought in to clean up.   You work hard, you’ll go places, I’m even looking for supervisors, maybe three or four to run shifts.   I’m not going to choose them from the old staff, they’ve been spoiled, I’m going to fill those positions with my people.   I can’t promise anything, but if you really are willing to work, this is the place to be.”

“Yes, I want to work here, and I will work hard,” I replied.   Warren smiled.   “You start Saturday night, tomorrow, five to close.  Is that a problem?”   It was — I had plans.   “No, no problem, I’ll be here!”   He gave me my uniform — a white and red checkered shirt and a bow tie and paper work to fill out.   Little did I know I was about to start not just another job, but a job that I still look back on with pride and fondness.  I did become a supervisor in less than a month, and it was a grand experience.    More to come in future posts…


World of Class Warfare

This is perhaps the best Jon Stewart segment ever — or at least in a long time:—warren-buffett-vs–wealthy-conservatives

and especially part 2:—the-poor-s-free-ride-is-over

It demolishes the argument that slightly increasing the tax on the wealthy is class warfare, or the whining that “half the population” doesn’t pay any taxes.   (As Stewart points out, the bottom 50% of the population control only 2.5% of the wealth in the country).    This is classic, and it has punch.   It amazes me how many people are fooled by the argument that somehow the wealthy are being demonized (the Fox line on what asking for slightly higher tax rates is doing).   Middle and working class people are being manipulated into defending the wealthy.

I think that’s going to change.   The one quibble I have with Stewart is that he uses pre-tax and transfer GINI index numbers.  The post-tax and transfer numbers are even more powerful.   Enjoy the clip!   (And take it seriously — small tax increases on the wealthy are not in contradiction to true conservative principles).


Merkel’s Challenge

Europe's unlikely leader

Angela Merkel’s father Horst Kasner was a Lutheran Minister who lived in East Germany, but the family could travel to the West.  This suggests that her father had a solid relationship with the Communist party, focusing on his religious duties over political activism.  This kind of pragmatic “do what you can given the situation” attitude was passed on to his daughter.   Though she was a member of the Communist youth, she did not go through the coming of age initiation Jugendweihe that most East Germans participated in, she was confirmed in the Lutheran Church instead.

Although fluent in Russian, she was not political.   She studied science, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry.   When the wall came down in 1989 the then 35 year old joined the party Democratic Awakening and won a seat in the last East German legislature.    She worked closely with Christian Democrat Lothar de Maziere who formed that last East German government, leading towards a unification agreement with the West.

She won a seat in the German Bundestag in 1990 as a Christian Democrat (CDU), and was chosen as Womens and Youth Minister in Kohl’s cabinet.   Most saw this as symbolic — Kohl wanted an “Ossi” (someone from the East), and to put a woman on what is one of the lesser cabinet positions seemed a kind of political show.   Yet in 1994 Kohl moved her to the more important post of Minister of Environment and Nuclear Safety.   Kohl jokingly referred to her as “mein Mädchen” (my little girl).    Most Germans still were skeptical, thinking Chancellor Kohl wanted to show off an East German woman in the cabinet to help the process of cultural unification (which came about at a much slower pace than political unity!)

She has been under estimated for much of her career.   She’s a scientist, not a politician, pragmatic rather than ideological, and her conservative Lutheran values seem out of place coming from the mostly atheistic former East German.   When Kohl lost in 1998 she became Secretary General of the CDU, second to the Party Chair, Wolfgang Schäuble (who is currently finance minister).   This was seen by many as simply a sop to Kohl, since she was clearly one of his favorites.   However, the CDU did very well in state elections in the coming years, and she built strong ties with the local parties.   She also distanced herself from Kohl when a party financing scandal broke out and it became apparent Kohl had an illegal slush fund.   She was elected to lead the party in 2000, a result that surprised many and was criticized by many in the CDU who thought her weak.

Normally the CDU leader challenges the SPD leader in the elections, but in 2002 the CSU, Bavaria’s sister party to the CDU (the CDU doesn’t compete in Bavaria, the CSU competes only there) put forth Edmund Stoiber as the Chancellor candidate in 2002.  He was extremely popular and she acquiesced.   In an election shocker Gerhard Schröder (SPD) held on and defeated Stoiber.   In 2005 Germany’s closest election took place (a year early due to coalition instability), with the SPD and CDU forming a “grand coalition” (usually one of the two major parties forms a coalition with a small party).   Schröder tried to hang on to the Chancellorship, but since the CDU/CSU had 0.1% more votes than the SPD, Merkel got the prize.

Because she is center-right, many likened her to Thatcher (who was also a scientist by training).   Her steely eyes and apparent immunity to political pandering seemed like that of the “iron lady.”   However, while Thatcher was a nationalist and had an ideological faith in markets, Merkel is a Europeanist and a pragmatist.   Rather than a radical program of budget cuts and privatization, she focused on reforming programs that didn’t work, and forcing Germany to try to get back to living within its means.   She not only deftly managed a very unstable grand coalition — one that lasted all four years, surprising many — but then won the 2009 election in a way that allowed a more traditional coalition with a smaller party (the FDP).   That put her clearly in charge as Germany’s leader.    People had come to appreciate her and no longer saw her as a symbolic sop to the East; Germans started calling her “Mutti” (mother), and given the recession in 2009, her ability to win the election speaks to the faith Germans had in her to guide the economy.

Now she faces her greatest challenge.   This could be seen this week as she went to her home state of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern to campaign on behalf of the battered CDU (now behind the SPD in polls) before that state’s election on September 4th (German states have elections scattered throughout the calendar, rather than the US tradition of all being on the same day).    Her goal is nothing other than to save the EU and the Euro, preserving what her mentor Helmut Kohl considered the crowning achievement of his Chancellorship after German unification.

It has not been easy.   Despite budget cuts and tax increases at home, Germany has paid a major share of bailout money to Greece and Ireland.   This has made her and her party less popular.   Ever the scientist, she puts policy ahead of politics; it may be unpopular, but its necessary (also for the German economy, given that German banks hold a lot of the questionable sovereign debt).  However she’s also rebuffed French President Nicholas Sarkozy who has suggested Euro-bonds as a way out of this crisis.

Right now every state finances its debt with its own bond — meaning countries that manage debt and their economies well get AAA ratings and low interest rates.   Countries like Greece and Italy, on the other hand, risk being forced to default.   Moving towards Euro-bonds may solve the crisis in the short term, but Merkel worries that it will weaken incentives for solid economic policies.   The EU can’t function if countries aren’t forced to deal with the consequences of their policy choices.   Good policy has to be rewarded, poor policies punished.

She tells Germans that the EU is on the right track.   The Euro is solid.  She’s instead pressuring the problem countries to pass a Schuldenbremse like Germany did in 2009 (during the Grand Coalition) — the functional equivalent of a balanced budget amendment.  That would show investors that the countries would be forced to get debt and deficits under control.     She’s kept pressure on the problem states to cut spending and raise taxes like Germany has.   In her view this is like a scientific problem — you analyze the variables, determine the proper course of action, and then implement the plan.   Political pressure, protests and unpopularity should not push you off course.

Merkel’s government should last until 2013 when the next election is scheduled.   That means she has the capacity to push ahead, despite opposition at home and abroad.   Europe is lucky that Germany has such a solid, pragmatic and fiscally conservative leader.   Despite proclamations about the death of the Euro and the fall of Europe, it’s just a few problem states that are in deep trouble, and Germany’s capacity to out perform the rest of the West makes it the central player in European politics.   As one friend quipped, “Germany may be winning in peacetime what they couldn’t win in war — dominance of Europe.”

That’s overstating it, but not by much.  If  Merkel again defies those who under estimate her and manages to guide Germany and Europe through the crisis with her steely, pragmatic and utterly rational resolve, the EU and Euro will not only be saved, but will thrive.   While Merkel’s not ideological, her Lutheran upbringing is clear in her attitude.   There is a moralism to her policy.    A united Europe is good, but individual states need to be responsible for their own budgets and policies.  Europe can only succeed if budgets are balanced, programs are rationally run, and states accept the reality of the current demographic and economic situation.

It may seem odd, but I can think of no better leader for this crisis than this 58 year old quantum chemist from just north of Berlin.   Her integrity and analytical mind suggest she won’t back down or get thrown off course by political intrigue.  She’s not blinded by ideology but grounded by core moral beliefs.   She’s one reason I think Europe will get through this crisis.

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Cherish Life

At 9:30 Wednesday morning Farmington was the scene of a horrific accident.   It took place near the busiest intersection in town, where routes 2/27 connect with route 4, near the university and the local McDonalds.   A number of people were injured and one person killed, a 12 year old girl named Tess Meisel.   Early on the only news available was that the van was associated with a YMCA camp.   The picture in the news story showed the back part completely crushed, and the girl was sitting in the back seat.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a statistic.   Another highway fatality, one of about 35,000 we’re likely to have in the US this year.   Many will be children, far too many will be teens, and it’s easy to simply chalk it up to life’s risks.    Yet like so many of us in Farmington who never knew the girl and communicated and shared links on facebook to discuss the day’s big accident, I found it devastating.    Sometimes you have to think about the faces and emotions behind a statistic.

My son Ryan is 8, and he participated in the UMF Summer Daze camp this year.   They often took vans to various field trips, some as far away as the coast.   It did cross my mind that there’s always the risk of an accident, but the vans always returned safe and sound, if not always on time.   I immediately thought of what the parents of this young girl must be experiencing.   They send their daughter to camp in Maine for amazing experiences, not expecting fate to launch such a vicious blow.

They might think they did the wrong thing sending her to camp — if only she’d stayed home in Connecticut she’d be fine.  But the thing about this kind of accident is that it is literally out of the blue.   There is nothing the van driver could have done to avoid it, you don’t expect a truck to roll over on a busy street!   Such events can happen anywhere, any time.    There’s no way to know in advance what the right move would be.

The story linked above about the girl shows that she was an intelligent and impressive young woman.   She had won an award for environmental innovation by inventing a reusable pizza box and tray.   Given what my last blog entry was about, the pizza connection made me feel a bit closer to this stranger.   I know very little about her or her family, but can imagine how horrible life has suddenly become for them as they try to adjust to a world that will always have an empty spot.    It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it; they have to live it.

Yet, that is life.  Every day is full of risk.  In the Spring Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I will teach our ‘Children and War’ class, with stories of child soldiers forced to fight, often being drugged up with cocaine.   We’ll talk about lives and families torn apart by conflict, realizing that children suffer and die in much of the world.   As horrible as this one accident is, things like this happen.   Every day brings risk.

That isn’t what I bring away from this, though.    Instead I look over into the other room where my five year old son is watching “Ben 10,” or upstairs where my eight year old is working with legos.   It’s easy to take them for granted and to think of childhood as primarily preparation for the future, giving children the tools to succeed.   That is part of it.   What they experience now will hopefully give them the strength to say no to drugs, to treat women with respect and have a strong sense of values.   Now is when they develop their work ethic and core beliefs about reality.   But that’s only a part of childhood; success and accomplishments are only a part of living.   We plan, compete, measure our accomplishments and seek to improve.    Each success is quickly past and a new challenge arises.

Live life focused on seeking success and when it’s over it can seem pointless.   Our accomplishments are transient and likely to be forgotten within a generation.  To see life purely in terms of what one accomplishes would be to see the loss of a 12 year old girl as a waste; the accident denied her potential for success and eliminated all that she might have achieved.   Perhaps her pizza box will catch on, otherwise, so much potential was obliterated.

No.  That’s not the way to look at life.   None of us are here for an eternity.    For even the famous less than one tenth of 1 % of ones’ dance on this planet gets remembered or recorded.    To measure life in that way is to deny the true essence of living.   Whether you live to 12 or 120, each moment is at any given point in time all that exists.   Now lasts forever.   What matters are connections with others, interactions with family and friends.   Laughter matters, a sense of joy matters, the light she brought into the lives of family, friends and acquaintances matters.   Those things are just as consequential if one’s life lasts 12 years or100.

Those moments are true reality, they are where the human soul resides.   They can’t be measured in days or money because time and wealth are transient and ultimately dissipate.   No one gets out of here alive.  You can’t take it with you.  The joy one brings into the world simply by being has power and meaning on its own.   Her 12 years could well have been more consequential and powerful than many peoples’ entire lives.   Not a wasted life, just shorter one.

For me this also means vowing not to let a day go by without thinking about my children not in terms of who they might become or what they might do, but for the spark of light and life they bring to each day: for the way in which their laughter and sense of play brings joy, contentment and exuberance to all of us.   To cherish the moments today, NOW, when we are connecting is the meaning of life, not plans or accomplishments.   Cherish life in the present.   If the future brings tragedy, those moments and memories will be the essence of what that life meant, and it can be powerful, good and change who we are.     That is as real for a 12 year lifespan as for a 95 year life.    That is as real for widow who loses her life partner as it is for the parent who lose their little girl.

And maybe as we connect to that part of life, those moments and memories can transcend time.   Time with my five year old is unique; he will never be five again, these moments are valuable in and of themselves.    To cherish life is to realize no matter what the future brings, now has meaning.

Tonight a family in Connecticut is likely grasping for meaning, staring into a void that feels like it will never go away.  Life goes on; time doesn’t heel all wounds but it can hide them.   Yet ultimately it does disservice to the life of anyone if their death brings long term pain and saddness to others.  It may take awhile, but hopefully the family of Tess Meisel will see that remembering the moments of living and how they enriched their experience not only dignifies her life but overshadows the fact she left early.  For now, many of us in Farmington are sending prayers, positive energy and shedding tears for a family whose little girl we did not know, but whose life ended tragically in our town.


Pizza and Me

Despite having a blog devoted to politics, philosophy and the cultural changes taking place in the world today, I’m going to start writing about an important part of my life: pizza.   As I reflect, I realize that I cannot do justice to “pizza and me” in one post.   So interspersed with my other writings I’ll inject a pizza post now and then.  Consider this an introduction.

As a child I did not like pizza.  I didn’t know why, I’d never tasted it, but it just seemed something I wouldn’t like.   Then at Shakey’s Pizza in Sioux Falls at a birthday party my sister Roni had, I decided at age 12 to try a slice of hamburger pizza.   Delicious!  I was hooked.  Since then pizza has played a strong role in my life.

My first job was at Village Inn Pizza in Sioux Falls at age 16.   I left it for a higher paying busboy/DMO position at First Edition Steak House (instead of $2.15 I’d make $2.45 an hour), but returned in less than a year.   DMO stands for Dish Machine Operator, and I was told by the manager Warren that I was the fastest dishwasher he’d ever seen.   Perhaps I had a future in that profession, but I never pursued it.   Within a month after my return to Village Inn I was promoted to Supervisor/Night manager, and continued working there off and on until I was done with college.  My sophomore year in college I got a 30 hour a week job at a law firm, but in summers I combined it with my pizza work to total 60 hours a week.    Before going to grad school I worked at Guido’s pizza in Sioux Falls, an unbaked pizza place that later went out of business.  It was either me or the manager/owner working there, and due to lack of business I spent most of my time studying Italian or playing Donkey Kong.

After a got my MA and did a stint working for a Senator in Washington DC I decided the political games of DC were not for me so I quit and moved to Minneapolis, MN.   There I learned that an MA in International Studies from Johns Hopkins SAIS was impressive, but not really helpful in getting work in that part of the country.  So I became an Assistant Manager at Rocky Rococo’s pizza, starting in Uptown and then opening the store in Brooklyn Park.   My pizza career ended when I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota.

Through grad school I ate pizza almost daily.  I made my own dough, mixed spices with tomato sauce, paste and water to create my own sauce, and topped it with cheese.    Between that and pasta (usually also with a self-made red sauce and some grated Parmesan cheese) I ate cheaply but well.  I mean, pizza and pasta, what could be better?   To this day I still make pizzas often, though I’ve found that my family prefers the cheap store pizza sauce to my own concoction.

I still remember my first night at Village Inn.   It was my first “real” job, and I was told to run ovens.   They had a “buy a family size get a single free” coupon out, so my ovens were full.   They were the old fashioned Blodgett ovens where you use a large wooden spatch to get pizzas out — no wimpy conveyor belt.   Here in Farmington both the Farmington House of Pizza and Athena’s have the same kind of oven.   I also had a metal tool I could use to pull the pizzas to the edge (it had a spot to grab the pan with), and then lift the pizza to check the dough.  I also had to pop bubbles.   Bubbles emerge if the pizza hasn’t been “doc’d” (little holes put in the dough), and even if doc’d often pop up as the dough rises.  They can get very large and potentially ruin the pie.  Unless they were small, you had to not only pop them, but cover them with a little cheese to avoid having an ugly pie.

I would later become one of only a few people who could run all four ovens full of pizzas without needing assistance (I also would hold the record for rolling out pizzas, topping pizzas, and dishwashing — I was fast!   Thats a trait I have to this day – slow people annoy me.)    That first night was fun, I was getting constant praise for how well I was doing on ovens and it was cool to bake pizza and then pull them out of the oven, slice them, and call out on the intercom “pick up pizza number 35 please,” and take the order to the counter.  I felt very important, I was the guy handing out the pizzas!

Alas, one negative of those wonderful old Blodgett ovens is the tendency to burn oneself.  Over the years I got burns all over my hands and arms, but the worst was that first night.   I got a bad burn on my hand, and it puffed up bigger and bigger as I kept working, having to put my hand into the oven to retrieve pizzas.   I tried putting ice on it, and ignored a co-worker’s plea that I ask to be relieved of oven duty.  This was fun, I didn’t want to have to go bus tables!

At about midnight that co-worker told the manager about my burn, and he came and looked at it.   I expected sympathy or perhaps praise for fighting through the pain, but instead he got mad.   “This is just a job, you don’t have to be a hero,” he yelled at me, “my God, when did you get the burn?”   When he found out that I got it relatively early in evening his anger grew.   “You can injure yourself badly, the heat from the oven only makes it worse, that’s just plain stupid.”    He then ordered me to go the ER — my first ER visit ever — to treat the burn, and said to make sure I tell them Workman’s Comp should cover it.   “And don’t ever do anything this stupid again.”

The ER experience was interesting.  The manager had called my parents to let them know I’d be late, and I definitely had an interesting first night in the pizza business.   The manager went from anger to playful teasing later on, I think he realized he’d made his point.

Still, that first stint at VIPP (Village Inn Pizza Parlor) was short.   A neighbor owned the First Edition restaurant and talked my parents in to having me apply there.    It would be a year before I’d be back at VIPP and really make pizza a permanent part of my life.   But hey – running ovens, getting a burn, going to the ER…I’d say it was an interesting first night in the working world!


Wii Skills

I am an “older father.”   In my twenties I split time between grad school and a job in Washington DC, finally becoming ABD at age 29.  ABD = All But Dissertation, it’s a point in graduate school where everything is complete for earning the Ph.D. except this nasty 300 + page bit of original research.  Until I finished my doctorate at age 35 I picked up teaching gigs wherever I could, at the University of Minnesota (where I was doing my Ph.D. work), St. Olaf College and Carleton College (both of Northfield, MN).

All this kept me busy and earning enough money to have an active social life, and I cherish those grad school years as some of the best in my life.  I had enough money to enjoy myself (even while living in tiny studio apartments near downtown Minneapolis), surrounded with colleagues in the same boat, and not feeling much in the way of life stress.   Basketball every Saturday at 10:00 AM, Friday happy hours, exploring the world of political science, teaching my first classes — I loved those days.

However, that isn’t conducive to long term relationships and starting a family.   A few go that route in grad school, but it’s rough, and the job market tends to separate people.  I waited until I got a full time tenure track job and didn’t have kids until after I turned 40.  It allowed me to travel, enjoy my youth, and have an extended period of adult time with lots of freedom and limited responsibility (as well as limited income).

Becoming a father in my 40s has been a great experience.  It forces me to stay in shape (when my youngest graduates from high school I’ll be 63 — I want to still ski and play tennis with him!), keep up on how not just college students but also school age kids are living, and feel younger than I really am.

Yet I realize how different the world is.   We were in a hotel in New Hampshire the other night and Ryan, 8, asked in a frustrated voice, “dad, I can’t figure out how to pause this TV.”

“It’s not a DVR, it doesn’t pause,” I explained.   He thought that very odd.   The idea of not having a trove of recorded DVR “events” to watch — Avatar the Last Airbender, Adventure Time, Star Wars Clone Wars, iCarly, etc. — seems odd.   In fact Dana (5) had trouble accepting that a show he wanted to watch, Ben 10, could not be watched yet because it wasn’t on until later.   “Can’t you just go there (on the guide) and click it?”

“Not yet,” I replied, realizing that in a few years that probably would no longer be a barrier.

Where they really amaze me is with video games.   Now, I admit, I am not into video games.   As a teen I did play pac man and donkey kong, but most of the time I found myself bored by them.   My dad and youngest sister would spend hours with the Atari playing missile command and other such games, I’d get bored after five minutes.   I’m that way with puzzles, rubrics cubes and anything like that — if it gets frustrating and doesn’t offer any real benefit (I mean, so what if I have a cube with every side the same color, what the hell does that give me?) and takes time, then I’m outta there.   I’ve played the Wii a few times, but have the same reaction.  I’d rather write a blog entry.

Ryan and Dana, however, are already Wii experts.   My five year old son is better than me on just about every Wii game, and he can’t even read the directions.   He navigates by trying various buttons and figuring out which get him what he wants.  He watches his older brother and then picks it up.  He can spend hours with Wii Lego Star Wars, calling me over “dad, look, I have a ghost yoda,” and laugh at the fun things his characters can do.  It’s often not what a serious player would be doing, but he gets his kicks.

On Monday night, though, we had a Wii disaster.   Ryan got a game “Zelda the Desert Princess,” where some character named Link is battling various creatures in various habitats.  The music and graphics are pretty good, but I have no clue what the game’s about.    He’s been spending hours on it.   We’ve had talks about ‘screen time’ and figuring out ways to get him to put more variety in his activities (hmmm, sort of like how my mom didn’t want me watching TV all the time), but between Pokemon on his DSI or Zelda on Wii, he becomes obsessed.

Monday I heard him crying loudly in the other room.   Imagining that he fell down the stairs, hit his head on something hard (I mean, he takes pain pretty well, so this loud cry had to be serious) I ran in.   He was in the easy chair clearly in distress.  “I accidently erased almost all my Zelda progress,” he told me, “230 hours.”  (That shocked me, but I guess play hours are not literal hours but reflect progress on levels…or that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.)   To his credit he got over it quickly.   I had to pry him away from the Wii for awhile, but later let him go back, I could tell that he needed to make some Zelda practice before he could be at peace — and he did, he seemed to enjoy redoing the old levels.

Lest I create the impression the boys are tied to video games, they’ve actually had an active outdoor summer — Ryan has a great tan.   But it’s Wii skills and other technological advances that show me just how different their world is than mine was.   If I don’t know an answer to a question, Ryan’s first response is “google it.”     If the store doesn’t have something he wants, he says “go on line and buy it.”    In the world of our children all information, all products, all entertainment and communication with friends is all available right now.   He’s not old enough for facebook or texting yet, but I’m sure that’ll come.

Still, at the end of the day, as I put the kids to bed, hug them, tell a story and tuck them in, I realize that for all the differences, at base parenthood is still the same.  I may not have the Wii skills, but to be there for them, build a relationship of mutual trust and be close to them is what matters.    And when Dana calls me “Scott,” and Ryan calls me “Dude,” that’s OK.    This isn’t 1968.   But I not only love my kids, but also like them and feel extremely close to them.   What more can one want?