Archive for July, 2014

Let Children Play

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

In a surreal story that made its way on Facebook, a South Carolina woman was arrested for child abandonment for allowing her little girl, age 9, play in a park all day while she worked at McDonalds to provide for the family.

Still, yeah, I get it.  Nine may be too young for that.  Though I’m pretty sure the odds of something bad happening to the girl would be greater if she rode in the car to her mom’s job and spent the day at McDonalds.   But the initial result – the woman was arrested, her daughter taken away and she lost her job  – was absurd overkill.

Luckily the backlash has gotten her reunited with her daughter and she’s back working as a shift manager at McDonalds.  She still has a court date ahead though – and if it wasn’t for social media spreading her story, who knows what would have happened!

It still says something about our society.   Everything is so controlled and regulated that parents have to worry that any misjudgment might get reported by some nosy adult.   An 11 year old didn’t want to go into the store so her mom ran in leaving the girl in the car just a few minutes.   An adult saw the child, called the cops, and the mom was arrested.   Huh?  The girl was happy, there was no abuse, but the police swooped in.

They said it was 85 degrees outside, the windows were closed and the car wasn’t running.   But the girl wasn’t hot, and hey – she’s ELEVEN!  I’ve known 11 year olds who babysit!  She can open the door and join her mom in the store if she wants.   It’s not like she’s a dog unable to operate the door handles.

When my kids went to day care I had to send food for lunch.   Both were somewhat picky eaters, so I made sure that I sent food they’d like.  It wasn’t always government approved healthy.  Luckily I don’t live in Manitoba where I could be fined for such a thing.  The unhealthy lunch in question?  Left over roast beef, potatoes, carrots, an orange and milk.   How could they feed their child such rubbish!  Luckily the day care gave her Ritz crackers to make it healthy.  I mean, HUH?

What this does, of course, is push parents away from allowing kids unsupervised creative play.  If I let my kids, aged 11 and 8, go on a bike ride around town, will someone think it’s unsafe and that they should be supervised?   If they go across the street to the playground, do I have to be there with them the whole time?

Of course not, kids need freedom to explore.  If every activity is supervised and controlled, they’ll not learn how to improvise and make do with whatever life gives them.  They’ll want some kind of formula or activity – or else be bored.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames.  It keeps kids inside and safe.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames. It keeps kids inside and away from all those dangers out in the world.

Parents respond to the societal push towards rigidity and control by allowing kids the freedom to do one thing nobody will get in trouble for: play video games.  You can shop, drive, or do anything with your kids heads focused on screens and nobody will bother you.  That is far more accepted than a little creative unsupervised free time.

The culprit here isn’t just the state, but all those businesses and companies that make money off of kids.  Nobody makes money when kids run out to explore the local stream or trails.  Yet if my 11 year old falls off his bike two miles from home, someone will certainly wonder why I would let him ride so far unsupervised.

Then there is fear.  Parents imagine what could happen, no matter how unlikely, and think it will if they don’t protect their kids.  People get so obsessed with safety that they lose a rational capacity to calculate probability.   Many activities that people think are dangerous are far more safe than a car ride across town.

When I was 11 I explored Sioux Falls on my bike from one end to the other, and I’d zoom down hills reaching 40 MPH (I had a speedometer), having to be really careful no cars were coming down the cross streets.  I’d spend hours away from home, stopping by friends, exploring or just being a kid.   Yes, I’d read, watch too much TV and sometimes have to be pushed out the door.  But no one was going to arrest my mom when my sister and I would walk to the park when I was nine (and she was seven).


Schools play into this by demanding more work, tests, and seat time, leaving kids only a few hours a day for real play – and much of that gets taken up by lessons, activities or clubs.   Recess ceases in sixth grade, and parents complain about early release days.   I don’t mean this as criticism of the schools or teachers – I was President of the PTA last year at my younger son’s school and really admire the work they do.

And in rural Maine I think we have a bit more common sense.  When my youngest was in first grade he was playing with a nerf gun in the car – and proceeded to walk into school with it.  My eldest told me that he took the gun in so I headed back to the school.  The staff thought it was funny – and apparently my son turned it in voluntarily, realizing he shouldn’t have it there.  But geez, in some suburban areas I’d probably have been arrested!   Sending a kid to school with a toy gun!  And, of course, many would think I was a horrible parent, worthy of jail, for letting my first grade son have toy weapons!

So I don’t worry that the parent police will get on my case here, and there are local streams, trails, and play areas for the kids to explore.  Yes, unlike me they have to wear bike helmets when they ride, but at least they can ride.  Let kids play.  They’ll have enough serious time when they have to pay the bills and work.  This time should be magical.  They need to be in nature, not just learn about the environment.  And give parents leeway to decide what their kid can handle.

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Dancing in Germany and Austria

Thanks to Taylor for putting together this awesome video.  Our travel course in a nutshell!


What Next in Ukraine


The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis.  295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists.   So where do we go from here?

Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych.  Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.   Personally, I get the Crimea gambit.  Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954.   But the rest?

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down.    Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down. Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity.   He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow.   Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.

Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions.   However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.

For awhile, it seemed to work.   The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military.  At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.

However, supporting a rebellion is tricky.   While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause.  Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

So what now?  First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU.  While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.

The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated.   Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable.    If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.

Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular.   Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy.   German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests.  The Cold War is long dead.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy.   Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.

President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels.   What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine.   That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US.  At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis.  At first, things could spin out of control.

That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side.   A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out.   So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent.   More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.

Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face.   Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus.   Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.


Manufacturing Scandals

Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

If anyone epitomizes the toxic partisan atmosphere of the US Congress these days, it’s Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.   Whether it’s allegations about Benghazi, the IRS, or most recently the Hatch Act, Issa has searched for anything he could use to manufacture a scandal in order to tarnish the Obama Administration.   He has issued 99 subpoenas, most of them unilateral and political.

Recently, trying to argue that the White House was violating the Hatch Act prohibiting senior officials from engaging in political activity while doing their duties, Issa subpoenaed David Simas, a top White House advisor.  The White House balked, saying there is no reason to him to testify and as a top advisor he was immune from such a subpoena.   Issa had called two other witnesses, but after seeing that their testimony would contradict his claims of clear violations of the Hatch Act, he quickly ended the session without giving them a chance to testify.

Issa's actions have infuriated ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings who correctly notes that Issa's actions has destroyed the committee's credibility

Issa’s actions have infuriated ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings who correctly notes that Issa’s actions has destroyed the committee’s credibility


The subpoena abuse and abrupt cutting off of testimony that would weaken his claim angered ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings, who said Issa was using the committee as “center stage for political theater.”   Indeed, Issa’s activities go far beyond the norm for that committee.   His subpoenas are mostly “unilateral,” meaning they don’t have the approval of the ranking Democrat nor has the committee voted.  In essence he’s casting his net wide hoping he’ll find something.

This is unprecedented – in the past (except for a brief time when the GOP pursued Clinton) the committee has been very careful with subpoenas – almost always they had bipartisan support. That in a microcosm is what’s wrong with Washington.  Rather than trying to figure out how to run the country better and solve problems, the goal is to find some way to politically embarrass the other side.


But there is also reason not to trust Issa. Issa has been accused of car theft, insurance fraud (he settled out of court for $20,000 with an insurance company rather than collecting hundreds of thousands he was insured for because the fire was so suspicious) and there is no evidence of how he was able to purchase his business anyway.  In short, the guy is at best shady.  (Read more: here)

The desire on the far right for some kind of scandal to use to impeach Obama has failed, yet they have created a fantasy land where they think Obama’s been acting like a tyrant.  They claim he’s trying to run the country with executive orders when the number he’s made is small by historical standards, and minuscule compared to his predecessor.    Of course, when Dick Cheney, architect of an Iraq war that has damaged US foreign policy more than any other policy in history, says Obama’s the worst President – well, it’s clear he can’t handle reality.

The GOP has to watch it.   While inbred blogs and talk radio can get them to bolster their own fantasies and think it’s clear that Obama is an idiot and the scandals are real, that’s not reality.  It’s a political fantasy shared with an almost cult-like set of memes and false beliefs.


They correctly see how the culture of the US and our role in the world is shifting due to globalization, changing demographics, and economic reality.   They don’t like the way the country is changing, and a black President Barack Hussein Obama personifies the new emerging America.  Rather than dealing with reality, they hope they can make it go away by finding some sexy scandal that could destroy Obama and thus the America he represents.

That prevents them from playing a constructive role in dealing with the real issues (rather than improve Obamacare they try in vain to eliminate it).  Ultimately, reality bites.  The world is changing, and there is no super scandal that will turn back time.  We need a constructive conservative voice, not a delusional one.

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Who Says 1-0 Games Aren’t Riveting?


For a little over two and a half hours Sunday we were treated to a spectacular finish to an amazing World Cup Tournament, one that even saw Americans showing soccer enthusiasm as the US team made the final sixteen.   My wife and I were on the edge of our seats at a local pub as we’re too cheap to have cable.   We were pulling for Germany and experiencing moments of panic, such as when Toni Kroos messed up a head shot and gave Argentina a clean shot at a goal.  Later it appeared Argentina had scored only to be ruled (correctly) offsides.

What a way to end a career - Miroslav Klose sets the all time World Cup goal record and his German team wins the tournament!

What a way to end a career – Miroslav Klose sets the all time World Cup goal record and his German team wins the tournament!

There were also numerous moments of hope.  Germany handled the ball well, a shot went off the post and passes just missed – Miroslav Klose, the all time World Cup goal leader was just off on handling a pass.   The tension was palpable.  Because games are often won 1-0 at this level, every possible goal is exciting.

It looked, alas, like it was going to be a 0-0 decided by a penalty shoot out.   Then in the second overtime, at minute 113 the incredible happened.

Let me back up.  At minute 87 Miroslav Klose left the game to thunderous applause.  The 36 year old is retiring and this was his last World Cup appearance.   The camera focused in on his replacement, diminutive midfielder Mario Goetze.   At 5’9 and just 145 pounds, the 22 year old from Memmingen Germany who plays for FC Bayern Muenchen looked almost like a child heading into the most important game in four years.   I thought to myself, “wow, they’re removing the all time World Cup goal leader?  But that kid might end up a hero tonight, you never know.”    I was prescient.

Klose leaves the game, greeting Mario Goetze, his sub and soon to be national hero

Klose leaves the game, greeting Mario Goetze, his sub and soon to be national hero.  Despite Klose’s immense skill, fresh legs and young talent proved a winning combination

Goetze’s talents have been known to the German soccer world for some time – he’s one of the brightest up and coming stars.  That night it was only fitting that as Klose’s replacement he’d score the winning goal.  It came at minute 113.   Andre Schuerrle sent a cross pass to Goetze as he closed into the goal.  He skillfully controlled it with his chest and kicked a perfect shot past Sergio Romero, who had been spectacular for Argentina the entire tournament.   Suddenly Germany had a 1-0 lead with only seven minutes to go!

Argentina did get another shot when Lionel Messi, who won the Golden Ball as the World Cup Tournament’s best player, had a chance with a penalty shot.  It sailed over the net, and Germany held on to win.

Christoph Kramer remarkably kept playing after a series head collision - something bothersome to FIFA officials

Christoph Kramer remarkably kept playing after a serious head collision – something bothersome to FIFA officials.  He left the game as it was clear he was disoriented.

Wow!   Schuerrle, who made the pass, had come in earlier in the game to replace Christoph Kramer, who left with a head injury.

Of course, for Germany this victory came on the heels of an unbelievable 7-1 shellacking of the favored Brazilian home team.   At this level games with scores like 7-1 are unheard of.  It was a shock.  The German press didn’t know how to respond the next day.   Americans used to blowouts now and then (Superbowls that end 52-14, or a World Series game that is 10-1) might have thought it was just a bad day for Brazil.  But soccer is a game of such skill and control that at the level of the World Cup semi-finals this just doesn’t happen.  It would be like a 96-6 Super Bowl!

The agony on this woman's face captures the feelings of Brazilians as their team collapsed in the semi-finals

The agony on this woman’s face captures the feelings of Brazilians as their team collapsed in the semi-finals

Brazil lacked two of its regular players, but clearly what happened was more psychological than physical, and involved a kind of collapse that a very disciplined and opportunistic German team could take advantage of.    The trouble started when Miroslav Klose scored to set the World Cup all time goal record, overtaking retired Brazilian hero Ronaldo.  That put Germany up 2-0, which is a huge lead in World Cup level soccer.   It’s hard to score twice, especially if the other team focuses on defense.

For whatever reason, perhaps a momentary lapse due to the fear of letting down the home crowd, Brazil collapsed.   Within the next six minutes Germany scored three more goals (this was all early in the game – Klose’s goal was at minute 23).   Toni Kroos scored twice in a row so fast many thought they were watching a replay of his first goal.  It was a complete breakdown.   Germany scored two more timesin the second half and Brazil finally got a goal near the end, but soccer fans were left realizing there might not be a game like this at the last stages of the World Cup in 50 years.  Or ever.  It also speaks to the level of skill and control soccer players need to demonstrate – and almost always do!

So Germany wins its fourth World Cup, the first officially as unified Germany.  The others were in 1954, 1974 and 1990.   Germany would unify in October 1990, and that World Cup victory was in the midst of an amazing transformation – it was just after the wall came down and before unification.  Germany lost to Brazil in 2002 the last time it got close.    Of course, Mario Goetze wasn’t even born when Germany unified or Germany won its last World Cup.

The US was competitive this time, making the top 16 before losing 2-1 to Belgium

The US was competitive this time, making the top 16 before losing 2-1 to Belgium

To be sure, most Americans didn’t really follow the World Cup, especially after the US was eliminated.   Conservative pundit (or jester) Ann Coulter mocked soccer, saying that American Football was a real man’s sport.   Yet if one gives soccer a chance, it’s clear that there is a good reason why this is the world’s most beloved sport.   Perhaps only Quidditch is superior.   And even Coulter would have to admit, soccer players have much more impressive physiques!   And it was nice to watch a sporting event that didn’t take time out for TV commercials.

So the World Cup is over, and tonight I was out practicing soccer with my eight year old son who is on a soccer travel team this fall. He’s already better than me (and knows it), and it’s good to see young Americans finally embracing soccer – or to be accurate, football.