A little self-reassurance

Please bear with me on this one. I was a newspaper journalist for 40 years. Now, newspapers have declined across the country, but while they were still prominent, I’d like to think I made a tiny contribution to the careers of two young journalists who came through The Paducah Sun in Kentucky, where I was the night city editor for 12 years. I’d like to tell you a little about them, and in so doing, I’m indulging in a little therapy.

Shelley Street was a summer intern at the Sun in the late 1990s. She came out of Murray State University’s journalism program and shone so brightly that when she graduated in 2000, Karl Harrison, the executive editor at the Sun, grabbed her immediately.

Shelley could handle just about any news event you could throw at her, but she excelled at personal profile features — you know, the kind that people like to read because they’re about regular folks in their own community. Usually, they were real tuggers at the heartstrings because of the person’s life circumstances, so Shelley and I used to laugh about what she called her “Care, Dammit” features.

When I left the Sun for good (third time’s a charm) in 2005 to live and work in China, I thought Shelley might go on to larger newspapers and thrive by writing “Care, Dammit” features that would make a difference in bigger cities. But no, Shelley met Paul Byrne, married him, and because she loved the area around western Kentucky so much, I guess she always knew she would give of her talents and stay there.

But then something happened. Harrison was unjustly fired at the Sun, and his successors didn’t suit Shelley. She left to become a victims’ advocate in the local court system — a job that, at least, coincided with her compassion for people facing tough situations. She did the job for five years, but when the internal political nonsense got to be too much for her, she left and wondered where God was going to lead her next.

She learned about a job at the Mayfield Messenger, a newspaper in a town south of Paducah. She interviewed and got the job a year ago. Now, working for a thrice weekly newspaper has challenges of its own, and small community newspapers never have enough staff to handle all the copy, but Shelley has returned to journalism, and she loves it. She somehow juggles work and her family life (Paul and their son, Drew), but best of all, the “Care, Dammit” features are back. That means the stars are realigned properly, and I can sleep better again.

Then there is Jimmy Nesbitt, who also interned at the Sun one summer, and when he graduated from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, we grabbed him, too. Jimmy was a wordsmith supreme, and even he’ll admit he was a better writer than a reporter. But he worked on his reporting skills and improved, and about two years later he went on to a job in Evansville, Indiana, where he covered primarily the police beat. I especially remember his stories related to a tornado touchdown in the area, which meant he hadn’t lost his touch with features.

But just as Shelley left journalism for a while, so did Jimmy. He went to work as the public relations director for the United Way in Evansville. After I had moved from China Daily in Beijing to the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong in 2007, Jimmy and I exchanged emails about his unhappiness at the United Way, and I recommended that Jimmy apply to China Daily as an editor.

He spent three years editing in the international department and writing a bit for China Daily, then decided it was time to go home. Now, in the meantime, Jimmy met Tiffany, the love of his life, in Beijing. Tiffany is a lovely Filipina, and I was happy to attend their wedding in the Philippines. So now any move was going to entail both of them.

Jimmy found an ad looking for a features editor at the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota. After he had been there awhile and Tiffany had also later landed a job at the Journal covering — of all things — the police beat, the newspaper lost its managing editor (the number two position in the newsroom), and Jimmy suggested I apply. The interview went well, I went out and met the publisher and other department heads, and I got the job. So, in a way, Jimmy “paid back” my recommendation that he give China a try.

Unfortunately, Jimmy couldn’t know that my employment at the Journal would last only three months. Cutbacks mandated by the corporate offices meant I was laid off, but the publisher did a fantastic thing by doubling my severance pay so that I could move back to Kokomo. Jimmy was so apologetic, but hey, that’s the way it goes sometimes in the news business. In fact, Jimmy ended up taking over part of my responsibilities, and he did his best as the Journal continues to limp along. (In fact, the editor-in-chief who hired me and the publisher later got their walking papers, too!)

Then last week, Jimmy gave me some great news: He’s found a new job as the deputy managing editor for the Berkshire Eagle in western Massachusetts. He starts in mid-August, and they’re moving next week. He’s only 39, so landing such a great job at a paper that cares enough about news to have 50 editorial employees seems to bode well for his future.

There were other interesting interns who came past my desk in Paducah — Brian Peach, the city reporter, who’s now in Hong Kong (yeah, I had something to do with that); C.D. Bradley, another reporter who eventually left journalism, went to law school and is now an attorney for the IRS in Atlanta; Craig Newburn, who also ended up in law in Paducah; Bryan Sinquefield, who now works as a researcher for the Library of Congress in Washington; and Nick Harnice, probably the least likely intern for us who, last I heard, works for the Secret Service.

So, yeah, I guess I did touch some lives along the way. Thanks, Doc, I feel much better now.

I will say this once

I am not an enemy of the American people.

I dedicated my professional life — 40 years of it — to journalism. The job of journalism is to inform the public. Sometimes it is news, sometimes sports, sometimes features. The service we perform, while sometimes antagonistic, is meant to make the public think.

Yes, journalists are usually liberal and progressive. There are certainly American values that we cherish and should be preserved, but preserving them doesn’t mean being so conservative that we get stuck in the mud and never move forward.

Because I was brought up in a home with a father who served in the U.S. Air Force for 14 years and a mother who lived under communism in Lithuania as a young girl, I certainly understood the value of living in a free country and honoring those who fought to preserve those freedoms. But as I got older, other factors began to figure into my thinking. As a result, I’m probably one of the most centrist people I know in my politics. I joke that I like to sit in the middle and laugh at both sides.

But political polarization is no laughing matter. It’s ripping our nation apart. Throughout our history, we’ve always had differences of opinion, but our leaders in Washington have always sat down and compromised on issues to move us forward. Not anymore. Now both sides dig in, refuse to move, and as a result, we stagnate.

And now that Donald Trump is our president, conservatives cheer because they love what he stands for. But when he came out last year and said publicly that journalists are “enemies of the people,” he lost my respect completely.

What he calls “fake news” is simply news he doesn’t like because it challenges him, and his ego can’t take it. But is that news really fake? Is it really — pardon the pun — trumped up?

Heaven knows there’s plenty wrong with journalism today on the national level. Everything changed when CNN signed on in 1980, and it wasn’t long before TV news executives discovered that although there are certainly news junkies out there, was there really 24 hours of news a day that the American people really wanted to know?

True, Americans are, in general, ignorant of the world around us. We might know that London is the capital of the United Kingdom, but how many Americans know the name of the UK’s prime minister? Or the name of the current president of China?

So when there wasn’t enough news we needed to know, what did CNN do? It began to fill the time with analysts and commentators, who tried to tell us what the news meant and how we were supposed to think about it. The problem was, the people they employed were liberal, progressive — and that was a failing of the system. If they had done their job right, they would have had commentators from both ends of the political spectrum — liberal and conservative. That would have provided a proper debate.

But they didn’t, and what happened? Rush Limbaugh happened. The conservative viewpoint was being ignored, and the backlash brought forth champions of that perspective. Today we have Fox News attempting to “balance out” the “liberal press.”

The Tea Party’s emergence in 2009 is, in my opinion, one of the key events in the polarization of America. Ultra-conservative and stubborn, they were convinced that their view is the only right one. And many Republicans in Congress, frustrated by Barack Obama’s landslide victory in the presidential election, joined the movement.

It all set the stage for the arrival of Donald John Trump, whose relationship with the news media is confrontational at best. He lashes out with tweets, but what his supporters seem to ignore is that those of us who dedicate our lives to journalism are trained professionals. Most of us are college graduates, and part of that training is critical thinking — which is all too lacking in society today.

It was journalists such as Walter Cronkite, who finally presented the Vietnam War as pointless because the “domino theory” was flawed. Journalists dug out the truth about Watergate — not taking what our government leaders say at face value. And it doesn’t matter which party a president belongs to: Journalists go after Democrats and Republicans with equal fervor when they try to hornswoggle the people.

Yes, the people. “We the people,” as the Preamble to the Constitution says. The journalists of this nation — whether on the world, national, state or local level — dedicate ourselves to informing the people. Not like in China, where the press is controlled. Thank God that James Madison, when he wrote the Bill of Rights, included freedom of the press in the First Amendment.

But that freedom comes with a responsibility. We’re not an enemy of the people; we serve the people every bit as much as our elected officials are supposed to. To that end, when we are confrontational, it’s usually because we’re trying to keep the people from being hornswoggled.

A tale of two restaurants

On Friday, I had interesting experiences at two restaurants — one in Kokomo, the other in Indianapolis — and it got me thinking about the relationship that a restaurant builds with its customers.

Friday night dinner with friends is a weekly joyous experience, and this time we went to Monterrey, which I think is the newest Mexican restaurant in Kokomo. First, I have to say that Kokomo has about 10 Mexican restaurants, and for me they kind of all blur together. The food is all pretty much the same, so what makes one place stand out from the crowd? I think it’s how the staff and the food build their relationship with their diners.

If that’s true, Monterrey is at a disadvantage right off the bat. I arrived first and got the table, and after the waiter took my beverage order, I looked around at a huge dining room — 50 tables easily. The good news for Monterrey is that almost every table was occupied, so that means business is good, right?

But the lack of intimacy gives rise to a perceived assembly-line approach to preparing the food, and the result is that, to the diner, slapping beans and rice onto the plate means that not a lot of care went into it. On top of that, my entrée — a beef chimichanga, surrounded by those ubiquitous beans and rice, plus a salad and guacamole — made two impressions, one good and one bad. The good one was the guacamole, which I usually don’t eat because I’m not fond of avocados. But this guac was excellent, and maybe I should pay more attention to it when I eat at any Mexican restaurant.

The bad impression was the coarseness of the chop on the onions and peppers in my chimichanga. I thought the veggies should have been chopped a little more finely, and when you evaluate one restaurant against another, it’s details that make a difference. Yes, Monterrey was good, but Kokomo has at least three Mexican restaurants with food that I think is just as good if not better, and the relationship I have with the people who make the food and serve it to me as if my business matters is the reason I probably won’t go back to Monterrey anytime soon.

Earlier that day, I went to Indianapolis for food that I can’t get in Kokomo — Greek food. My friend Jon, a teacher in Indy who had the week off, and I agreed to meet for lunch at a Greek place on the northside, named Hellas Cafe, located on Westfield Boulevard, just south of 86th Street.

Kokomo is a city of only 57,000 people (2010 census), and the most “exotic” cuisine in town is a Thai restaurant on the southside. Yes, it has places that make gyros, but if you want moussaka or spanakopita, you have to go to Indianapolis. The good news is, the three Greek restaurants at which I’ve eaten in Indy are all very good, and I discovered Friday that Hellas Cafe is the best of the three. And it’s the one that’s closest to Kokomo, which means the two others will have to muddle through without me.

Hellas Cafe is a fairly small restaurant, maybe 30 tables at most. But the dining room is divided up into sections, and that makes for a more intimate dining experience. Jon and I couldn’t care less about intimacy in the context of a romantic dinner for two, but again, if you’re going to go out and eat somewhere, it’s not just the food and the value that matter, right? If the quality of the food and value were the most important thing, you could order by phone or app and pick it up or have it delivered.

No, people go out to eat good food and enjoy the experience. That means the service is efficient and friendly, and the restaurant gives off a good vibe. You want to feel as if the kitchen slaved to make your plate perfect and that the staff cares that you liked the food and the experience well enough to come regularly.

Hellas Cafe hit a home run for me on all counts. The saganaki (flaming cheese) for an appetizer — yeah, Jon and I went all out — was the best I’d ever eaten. My pastichio (Greek “lasagna”) and Jon’s gyro platter were excellent, especially the way the green beans were prepared with a kind of bread crumb crunch. And then for dessert, Jon had a piece of baklava, and I tried the chocolate mousse frog, which was a small chocolate cake topped with a bit of mousse and all encased in a chocolate shell (death by chocolate!).

And the whole experience was underscored by Amber, our server. It turns out that she and her husband are friends with the owner and drive from Evansville (wow!) whenever they need help with servers. Amber was enthusiastic, explaining that the owner imports the cheese used in the saganaki, how the green beans have been a local favorite for more than 20 years, and she made sure the flow of the food was even and stayed on top of our drink refills.

When Jon and I left, totally satisfied, we decided we had found a great alternate place to get together for lunch and chat. Usually, it had been PF Chang’s nearby, but now we’ll ask each other, “Chinese or Greek?”

How do you choose your favorite haunts for eating out? Of course the food matters, but it’s also the total experience. That’s why Monterrey kind of rubbed me the wrong way even though the food itself was fine. But Hellas Cafe reminds me more of the experience I enjoy when I eat at Dos Molinos (for Mexican) or Martino’s (for Italian).

How far China has come — and will go

If I were ever going to write a book about my 10 years in China, this might be the first chapter, because I believe my American friends need some background about what life in China was all about — a frame of reference, if you will.

I was working for The Paducah Sun in Kentucky when I got a little restless in 1997. I saw a classified ad in a trade magazine called Editor & Publisher looking for editors to work for one year at China Daily in Beijing.  I applied and was surprised to get an invitation to work from late June 1997 to late June 1998. China Daily provided apartments to its “foreign experts” — a group of about 12 native English speakers whose job it was to “polish” the reports written by the Chinese staff reporters until they were fluent for publication. The newspaper was owned and operated by the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China.

Yes, I’m sure there’s a CIA dossier with my name on it somewhere.

Actually, under the old Chinese communist system, all workers had their apartments provided for them. Technically, they did have to pay rent, but it was minimal, and of course, everything belonged to the state. The pay was minimal, too. But the center of life in China at that time was the work unit, whether it was a factory or a restaurant or a newspaper. Everyone knew everyone, and each company also had a party representative who outranked even the president of the company.

As a result of that arrangement, the party always had its spies out. If something unusual happened — let’s say a family whose wife became pregnant with a second child, which was illegal at the time — it wasn’t long before the authorities were informed and proper steps taken to remedy the problem (in this case, a forced abortion).

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong (it used to be spelled Mao Tse-tung), the Communists ran the Nationalists off to Taiwan and established the “People’s Republic of China” in 1949. Mao lived until 1976, after which there was a period of uncertainty regarding leadership within the party. Mao had hand-picked a successor, who was regarded as a man of high character but couldn’t form any kind of coalition to run things. Then came Deng Xiaoping, who was in charge from roughly 1978 until he retired just after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

After Deng — who is revered as the number two leader in Chinese history after the People’s Republic was established — came Jiang Zemin, a powerful leader from the Shanghai faction of the party. He became general secretary after Deng stepped down and held the position until 2002. One of the other leaders at the same time was Zhu Rongji, who became premier (the number two) under Jiang in 1998 and served only one five-year term. But one thing Zhu did changed life in China forever.

Basically, under Zhu, the communist work unit’s structure — which had been in place for almost 50 years — was broken down. He told the people, “We’re going to pay you more to work, but now you have to pay proper rent.” The people were going to have to take charge of their own lives and buy long-term leases (the state still owns everything), and that turned out to be a hallmark. Zhu and Jiang didn’t get along in many ways, and perhaps Zhu — who was famous for his work ethic — doesn’t get the credit I think he deserves for paving the way for the other major event in modern China’s economic history — joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Once China joined the WTO, it had to play by the same trade rules as all the other countries in the world. It was a bit of a struggle at first, but as of 2016, China surpassed Japan and is ranked as the number two economy in the world, after the United States.

But Zhu’s putting Chinese people in charge of their own destinies, economically speaking, had far-reaching effects on workers’ attitudes. Under the communist scheme, workers couldn’t have cared less about their jobs. Pride in a job well done meant nothing because promotions were usually based on political criteria, not performance. Even the apartments were drab because they belonged to the state, so who cared how they looked? Besides, it’s always been part of the Chinese mindset not to stand out. No person is more important than the group. Individuality was not important, and to a large extent, it’s still true. It’s just part of Chinese culture — just the opposite of how we think in the West.

To give you an idea about that, the Chinese loved NBA basketball while I was there. They highly respected Michael Jordan because of his work ethic on behalf of the Chicago Bulls, and the six championships spoke for themselves. Compare that with Dennis Rodman — the tattoos, the “look at me” attitude, even the dressing up in a bridal gown. The Chinese had zero regard for him.

Now, China’s rise on the world economic stage has its downside. Chinese people now have more money than they’ve ever had — if they’re willing to work for it. But now there’s a certain arrogance that comes with it. More and more headlines pop up in Asian newspapers about Chinese overseas travelers who have a sense of entitlement just because they’re Chinese. And the government even promotes that attitude, intentionally or not, with the way it deals with its neighbors over — for example — which islands belong to China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It acts like a 3-year-old: ‘Every toy is mine!”

Yet in a way, China’s standing up for itself is understandable. The country has a long history of being beaten down by England or France or — in the 20th century — Japan. Finally, the Chinese have the economic power to say, “Enough!” It’s just that now they sometimes carry that self-confidence a bit too far.

When China opened its doors to the world in 1979 and American and European companies sent senior executives to live there and teach the Chinese lessons in how to do “joint ventures,” nobody knew how much China could grow. Now we do. In a few years, China’s economy will surpass that of the United States and be number one.

But quantity does not necessarily equal quality. China still has a long way to go in producing dependable products that it can export to other countries. There are very few  brand names that the world recognizes as Chinese, let alone respects them. The only reason so many things marked “made in China” are of any quality at all is that the Western companies that employ the Chinese workforce send inspectors to make sure the quality of the products matches the reputation of the brand name.

The Chinese and U.S. economies are now forever tied together. China is richer than ever before. I still remember when I first arrived in Beijing in 1997, Chinese TV still showed reruns of Dallas and Dynasty. The Chinese thought all Americans lived like the Ewings and the Carringtons. In only 40 years, they have begun to carve their own dynasties, which have nothing to do with emperors and military power.

Napoleon was once quoted as saying, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Two centuries later, I guess he was right.

Lent and my Chinese family

Maybe it was Rodney Dangerfield — the stand-up comedian from the Baby Boomers’ era who “don’t get no respect” — who said, “Mixed emotions is watching your mother-in-law drive off the cliff in your new Cadillac.”

For me, the season of Lent brings mixed emotions. I think about my Chinese family, with whom I spent nine days recently in the Maldives Islands. This family adopted me because I was all alone in China. If I’ve never told how Tu Hongwei and I became friends, maybe now is the time.

The year was 2005. I believe the Lord led me to Beijing for whatever purpose He had. I worked at China Daily, the Communist Party-owned English-language newspaper, as a senior editor. When I arrived, there was no apartment for me, so China Daily put me up temporarily in a guest apartment across the street at Jingmao Daxue, the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE).

I had a problem with my laptop, and just down the street was a computer shop with a repair department. I was trying to explain my problem but wasn’t getting anywhere until a Chinese woman offered to translate for me. We got the problem resolved, and I learned that my savior’s name was “Daisy” and she was a first-year graduate law student at UIBE.

I remember asking if she would teach me some Mandarin Chinese, and she said she couldn’t because of the demands of time on first-year law students, but she would ask around and see if she could find a schoolmate with more time who would be willing to take me on. That person turned out to be Hongwei, who was about to get his master’s degree in law.

Hongwei is an excellent teacher. The relationship blossomed into friendship. I met his girlfriend, Chen Xu (“Cathy”), and I was in their wedding — not as best man, but as the holder of the documents. My job was to announce to the gathered guests that this was indeed a legal marriage and pronounce a “blessing” on the happy couple and all the guests. Hongwei wrote everything out for me in pinyin, the system of using the Roman alphabet to write Chinese words. I was the only Westerner there and a bit of a novelty, but I was honored that Hongwei and Cathy had asked me to participate.

Originally, Hongwei wanted to be a judge in the Chinese legal system because he believed it desperately needs integrity, and he’s right — it does. When he asked me to help him choose an English name, we finally decided on “Eric.” I always thought that if he became a judge, rulings signed by “The Honorable Eric Tu” would be very respectable. Even so, I’ve always called him Hongwei, which translates as “magnificent.” (Jeez, no pressure, Mom and Dad!)


But as things turned out, Hongwei went to work for the Ministry of Commerce in its international division. China has done a lot of investing in other countries in the form of “friendship projects,” in which a Chinese company builds a hospital or a school, for example. Hongwei’s department researches the applying companies, chooses the best one for the project and then goes to inspect it when it’s completed. In that capacity, he’s been to countries in Europe, central Asia, Africa and even Micronesia.

That brings us to the Maldives. Hongwei is the ministry’s supervisor of the bridge construction that, when finished, will connect the island on which the capital, Malé, is located with the neighboring island where the international airport is located. (Currently the connection is by passenger ferry.) It’s a 33-month project and is due to be finished in September.

When he knew he was going to be sent to the Maldives, Hongwei texted me and said, “Can you come for Lunar New Year?” Cathy and their 9-year-old daughter, Tu Landuo (“Maria”), were planning to fly down from Beijing. I said I’d see what I could do.

It was a wonderful time. As it turned out, Hongwei’s parents came, too, making six of us.

Family dinner

One of the things we always liked to do when we got together was play games. The two I taught them were Yahtzee and canasta, and on this visit, we taught Maria how to play Yahtzee, and now she’s hooked, too. So when I left, I gave the dice to Maria as a gift.

Hongwei’s family is fairly typical of Chinese families in their belief system. They worship their ancestors. They know I’m Christian, and I even gave Hongwei a bilingual Bible at one point. That’s where the sorrow of Lent comes in for me. For all the wonderful things Hongwei and Cathy have done for me over the past 13 years, I pray constantly that they are in the Lamb’s Book of Life and somehow they will find and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. There are more than 100 million Christians in China now. Maybe someday they will join that number.

Do you have friends like Hongwei and Cathy? Maybe they aren’t Chinese, but you know what I mean. They’re such wonderful friends, but they aren’t believers. In this season of Lent, when we’re reminded that Christ died for the sins of all mankind in every generation since Adam and Eve, I feel sorrow that I might not see Hongwei, Cathy and Maria in Heaven.

And I also pray for friends I’ve lost because of our difference in beliefs. But I can’t dwell on it because I can’t control their spirituality. We Lutherans believe that while people do not participate in their salvation — it’s solely the work of God — they can block His never-ending grace, mercy and love.

But at the same time, I can rejoice in the Christian family and friends I do have, and I am so grateful for each and every one of them. What a glorious time it will be in Heaven with Mom and Dad and Oma (my mom’s mother) and all those family members and friends.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6)

But who’s going to listen to me?

It’s ridiculously early in the Maldives on Sunday, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about our government and what we can do fix what’s become terribly broken.

This all started with a Facebook posting by Bill Bartleman, a man whom I came to respect greatly when we worked together the The Paducah Sun in Kentucky. He wondered “aloud” why the Russians, with their alleged tampering in the 2016 presidential campaign, would back Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Following posts offered a number of theories, but I wrote that I had voted for Clinton based on the “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know” theory.

That’s neither here nor there, really. Those of you who know me know that I’m pretty centrist in my political views. And regarding the election, what’s done is done. Even if these Russians are found guilty of “tampering,” so what? It matters only if American votes were stupid enough to be swayed by anything they posted. Those of you who supported President Trump probably voted more against Clinton than for Trump.

But isn’t the real message here that we voted against a candidate rather than for one? What does that say about the way things are in determining who our leaders are?

I have two proposals that might fix the problem. The first involves the primary system, which I contend is badly broken. How often have you wanted to vote for a candidate who has dropped out by the time it was your state’s turn because he or she fared poorly in early state primaries or caucuses?

My suggestion is four regional “super Tuesdays” in May, and rotate which region goes first — Northeast, South, Midwest and West. Every candidate gets to be heard in all 50 states. I can almost guarantee Trump would not have won the Republican nomination had we done it this way, or if he had, at least the other GOP candidates would have had a more stabilizing influence on the political dialogue.

But the current situation — in which New Hampshire and Iowa always go first and blah blah blah, knocking out voices that deserved to be heard in all 50 states — has got to go. Then if the parties still want to have their conventions, fine, though I also have a problem with this “super delegate” nonsense.

How would it happen? I assume Congress would need to legislate it, and that’s why the status quo will probably remain the status quo. Why would Washington ever do anything to unfeather their nests?

Second, congressional term limits are a must — two consecutive six-year terms for any senator and four for the House of Representatives. Then they must lay out for one term before they become candidates again. My proposal is for the same reason as other term-limit proposals — to force a break in political inertia. I’m sorry, but I think having the same U.S. senator in place for 30 years is a bad thing. They become power mad and have an inflated sense of their own worth. Are you listening, Mitch McConnell?

And at a time in our history when we’re facing a leadership crisis and a degree of polarization in society that I’ve never seen before, maybe it’s time for new people to step forward. Then if the veteran politico can win after laying out for one term, fine. But at least it would force the voters to think whether the re-entry of an “old” voice is better than having the new one.

Thanks for reading this. I really think these two proposals would improve our government, but, hey, why would anyone listen to me?

Two Christmas memories

You, my friends, have so many wonderful Christmas memories because you have families, and they add spice — for better or worse — to your holidays.

For me, two Christmas memories stand out — one as a child, one as an adult.

I can’t even tell you the year of the childhood memory, maybe 1967 or ’68. My dad was playing music with his band at an area pub on Christmas Eve, and we couldn’t drive to Detroit to see my grandmother and uncle until the pub shut down, probably around 11. Well, gee, it was Christmas, after all.

When he got home, we piled our things into Dad’s 1965 Chrysler and set out on the road. I remember it had just started to rain as we headed north on U.S. 31 toward South Bend. This wasn’t the usual route we took, and it turned out to be a key factor in the journey. When we reached South Bend, Dad gassed up the car, and the rain had changed to snow. Nothing major, but I remember the flakes were big.

I moved from the back seat to the front next to Mom, who took over the driving while Dad lay down in back. Since the route wasn’t familiar, we were looking for Interstate 94, but I navigated Mom into making a wrong turn, onto Michigan Highway 60. When I realized what I’d done, I thought, “OK, no big deal. We’ll end up in Three Rivers, and from there, we’ll go north to Kalamazoo and pick up I-94 eastbound.”

The problem was that the snow on M-60 had reached a depth of two or three inches, and Mom — now going no more than 35 mph — was concerned about running off the road. Fortunately, we were trailing snowplows whose tire tracks kept Mom from a disaster. We reached Three Rivers, and U.S. 131 to Kalamazoo was finally familiar ground. It was just about 20 miles north to the I-94 interchange, and although the snow was still relentless, the highway was four lanes. Mom, ever careful, continued her 35 mph pace.

Just as we reach the I-94 exit, Dad woke up and offered to take over driving the rest of the way. Mom pulled over on the on-ramp … and put the passenger-side tires into a ditch! This is now about 3:30 a.m., with no snowplows or tow trucks in sight. Mom saw some houses in a subdivision about a half-mile away and offered to see if she could find someone awake to call a tow truck for us while Dad stayed with me in the hope of flagging down someone who could pull us out. I was told to get in the back seat and take a nap.

I have a vague recollection of flashing yellow lights and being pulled out of the ditch around 6 a.m. Mom said later she had caught the lights on in one of the houses; a woman had come downstairs to her kitchen to baste the Christmas turkey in the oven. Mom was allowed to call a tow truck, and she then rejoined Dad at the car.

The speed on I-94 to Detroit couldn’t have been more than 45 mph because the snow had reached four or five inches, and snowplow drivers were doing their best to make the highway passable. Kalamazoo to my grandmother’s house was usually about two hours and 10 minutes under summertime conditions. We stopped for breakfast, as I recall, and made it to my grandmother’s house around 10 a.m. Christmas Day. The house was decorated in typical ’60s fashion, the feature of which was one of those silver aluminum Christmas trees with a four-color turntable. Kind of cliché as I look back on it now, but it was a Christmas of love — the five of us with “Oma” (the German term of endearment) and Uncle Paul.

My adult memory is less eventful but significant in its own way. It’s Christmas Eve 1993 in Paducah, Kentucky. Oma and Uncle Paul have passed away, so it’s just the three of us. I had moved to Paducah from Orlando, Florida, in August of that year because Dad had had triple bypass surgery. When Mom called to give me that news, an alarm kind of triggered in my head, saying, “You don’t know how much time you have left with your parents.”

Because a former boss was from Paducah (small world!), he gave me the name of the executive editor of The Paducah Sun, Karl Harrison, who hired me to be the night city editor. I remember having to put the Christmas Day newspaper to bed around 9 p.m., and I drove to Mom and Dad’s house for a quick dinner before going to the candlelight service at church, which started at 11.

On the way to the house, a light snow had begun to fall. By the time I pulled out of the driveway heading for church about an hour and a half later, the snow was a thin blanket on the road. It looked so peaceful, like a Christmas card, and I thought, “This is where God meant for me to be at this point in my life.”

In a way, I committed professional suicide by leaving a good job in Orlando for Paducah and a job that paid $6,000 a year less. But as things turned out, I was with Mom at the hospital when she passed away in 1999 and with Dad when he passed away two years later. Family memories don’t carry a price tag, and I never regretted that move. For all that Mom and Dad had sacrificed for me, I was happy to be there for them before they left this world. I miss them, but Lord, the reunion in Heaven will be truly awesome!

A career for which I’m grateful

In a way, I guess I’ve been writing my autobiography with these posts, and 40 years in the journalistic profession are something I think I can feel good about. In that time, the industry has certainly changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Every era in our history has had controversies for journalists to address, whether it was civil rights, the Vietnam war or — today — a polarized American society fueled by a president who had never been involved in government before. The “liberal” press goes after him, and he uses social media to rebuff and inflame but not explain.

I began my journalism career at The Kokomo Tribune, first as a part-time sportswriter, and when I finished at Indiana University and completed the six-week course at umpire school, I returned to Kokomo. From the spring of 1976 until my first full-time job in the fall of ’77, I worked two part-time jobs — editing sports for the Tribune in the morning (it was an afternoon newspaper then) and working at WIOU-WZWZ on weekends and whenever a fill-in was needed. I was the one who got to tell listeners in Kokomo about the death of Elvis Presley. My lead sentence: “‘The King’ is dead.”

I’ll never forget the tryout as a “stringer” at the Tribune. The Cincinnati Reds had won the World Series in 1970, and Bob Ford, the sports editor, handed me his scorebook and told me to write  up Game One from his scorekeeping. The funny thing was, I forgot to mention the final score in my story, but he hired me anyway. (I never forgot a final score after that.)

I did my share of writing, covering high school basketball and other sports, but Bob liked how I edited and encouraged me to keep going in that vein. I guess all the English grammar I’d learned from Connie Chapel and Elizabeth Handley at Kokomo High School stuck with me. Sports is a language all its own, and some sportswriters get so caught up in jargon that they sometimes leave literacy behind. I learned the craft of how to translate sports-ese into standard English.

My first full-time job was in a four-person sports department for the Danville Commercial-News in Illinois. Then to Evansville, where I had a sweet gig for a year as a news-side copy editor in the morning and a radio-TV reporter/critic in the afternoon.  In 1981, I landed a full-time editing job in sports at the Roanoke Times in Virginia.

I left in 1984 to go to San Francisco in the belief that I’d been hired by the San Francisco Chronicle. How I could misinterpret the words of the sports editor so horribly, I don’t know, but he was kind enough to help me find work at a nearby newspaper in the Bay Area. It lasted about five months, and when I saw an ad for a vacancy in the sports department in Roanoke, I called to find out what was going on. They ended up rehiring me, and I stayed another year before moving on to Cincinnati.

From Cincinnati in the spring of 1986 to Long Island in the summer of 1987, to Denver in 1988 to Orlando in 1990, all that time was in sports, almost entirely as a copy editor. In Orlando, I was the copy chief and stayed for three years before my world changed completely.

Mom and Dad had chosen to retire to the area around Paducah, KY, where Dad had grown up. But in 1993, Dad had triple bypass surgery. Everything was going well in Orlando, but my sports editor was a particularly difficult man to work for. He would do written weekly reviews of the department’s work in which he invariably loved his writers and criticized his copy desk. I’d had a chance to enter management as assistant sports editor in charge of the desk, and although I would have liked to be a manager, the downside was working even more closely with him, and I turned it down.

So when Mom called me about Dad’s upcoming surgery, a little alarm bell rang in my head, saying, “You don’t know how much time you have left with your parents.” Barry Forbis, my boss in both Cincinnati and Denver, grew up in Paducah. He put me in touch with Karl Harrison, the executive editor of The Paducah Sun. About four months later (though it seemed longer), Karl gave me the choice of working as the layout editor in sports or night city editor on the news side.

I moved from Orlando, where I had been making $40,000 a year (with no state income tax), to Paducah, where I would be making $34,000. Granted, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but this was a family decision. I was an only child; it was always just the three of us at home. For all that Mom and Dad had done for me, I thought it was time to give back. I never regretted the decision because I was bedside with both Mom (in 1999) and Dad (in 2001) when they passed away.

Now, the job at the Sun was a complete shift in gears for me, as I went from sports to news. But the job of night city editor turned out to be one of the biggest blessings ever. Not only did I expand my journalistic horizons by transferring to news, but Karl also put me in charge of the Sun’s summer interns. I was an on-the-job teacher. I had these budding journalists look over my shoulder as I edited their stories, explaining each change to their copy and why I was making it.

I had some wonderful, dedicated young people to coach. We ended up hiring three of them — Shelley Byrne, Jimmy Nesbitt and Brian Peach — when they graduated. In some ways, I can feel good about the role I played in launching their careers, and they have told me more than once that I was a very good teacher.

But in 2004, I was starting to feel as if I was spinning my wheels — a feeling of, “Is that all there is?” I had had one year off from the Sun and went to work for China Daily, which is an English-language newspaper owned and operated by the Communist Party. The chief of operations in Hong Kong had just been named editor-in-chief in Beijing, and his right-hand man, Wang Hao, sent me an email asking if I could make one change in the operation at China Daily, what would it be?

I wrote back that there needed to be a level of editing that worked more closely with the writers, who were notorious for filing their stories and then disappearing, leaving us editors to guess what they meant in some of their sentences. Wang Hao wrote back, saying that my idea was a good one, and inviting me to come to Beijing to implement the writing/coaching position I had suggested.

At the same time, I had interviewed for a copy chief position at the Denver Post. So I did to China Daily what its managers would always do when they needed time to make a decision: I stalled. I simply didn’t answer the email, which is definitely what the Chinese do. As it turned out, the Post offered me a position, but not the position they had posted. It was one level lower, which I thought was a bait-and-switch. I told them, Johnny Paycheck style, to take this job and shove it and wrote Wang Hao back, asking, “Are you still interested?” The answer was, “When can you come?”

The 10-plus years I spent in Asia make up the last “era” of my journalism career, and it deserves a separate treatment, so I won’t write about it now.

All in all, my 40 years in newspapers make up a career that certainly wasn’t run of the mill. I also think my perspective on the journalism industry is unique because the three eras of my career are so diverse. And, as I said earlier, the industry has certainly changed in four decades — from a time when newspapers were the main source of news for the country, to a more electronic age stressing TV news, to an internet-based gathering of information.

If I could summarize my perspective of the news media today, I would say two things: One, that 24-hour news channels are one of the worst changes ever in the history of news gathering because there isn’t enough worthwhile news to report to fill 24 hours, and so what CNN and FOX news do is put on programs that try to tell us how to think with their analyses and debates. They are not balanced — they don’t even try to be — and that is definitely a contributing factor in the polarization of American society today.

I prefer the era before CNN signed on in 1980. The three major networks had a half-hour of news to show us in the evenings, so they had to be very discriminating about how they filled that time — with only the material they thought we needed to know. For more in-depth information, we took the time to read newspapers. It had the added benefit of keeping the country literate, certainly much more than we are today.

Second, information spread on the internet is not supervised by trained professional editors who can spot unbalanced reporting. Real pros care that the news the public gets is fair, balanced and — most of all — trustworthy. What’s more, they’re trained in the legal aspects of news — to spot when something is potentially libelous or defamatory. I’m sorry to say this, but when information is spread by everyday people, it’s like what Forrest Gump’s mother said about the box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. You don’t know if that info is trustworthy, so you start believing what you want to believe. And that is how this polarization in American society began.

Yes, the media has always been more liberal than society in general, but would any baby boomer who knew the work of Walter Cronkite, for example, call him a flaming liberal? No, he was a responsible journalist. When he finally spoke out against the Vietnam war, it was a measured opinion, and it made an impact.

Better that the news media stick to reporting facts and let us make our own decisions on the issues of the day, because we’re actually smart enough to do that. But if today’s news media can’t stick to the facts and believes it needs to tell us how to think, the problem is that people are going to get lazy and let these commentators get away with it.

And we shouldn’t. But I’m just a politically moderate 40-year news veteran. What do I know?

“Hats, flags, whistles and guts”

I was sorry to see that the crew that officiated last night’s Titans-Steelers game, headed by referee Ron Torbert, missed applying the fourth-down fumble rule toward the end of the first half. It reminds us that, as well prepared as these NFL officials are before they go out onto the field, they are human.

The rule entered the NFL rulebook starting in the 1979 season, after a famous “Holy Roller” play between the Raiders and the Chargers in San Diego. As quarterback Ken Stabler was hit, he fumbled the ball forward — whether intentionally or not is still the subject of great debate — and the ball was muffed forward several times into the end zone, where Raiders tight end Dave Casper fell on it for the winning touchdown.

The rule now says that on fourth down — or any down after the two-minute warning in the second or fourth quarter, or overtime — only the player who fumbled may recover legally for the offense beyond the spot of the fumble. If any other offensive player recovers the ball beyond the spot of the fumble, the ball goes back to the spot of the fumble. No more shenanigans!

The game in which the “Holy Roller” fumble took place in 1978 was officiated by the crew headed by a friend of mine, Jerry Markbreit, and the rule is still known by NFL officials as “the Markbreit rule.” Jerry worked in the NFL from 1976 to 1998 and is still the only referee to date who has worked four Super Bowls. After retiring from the field, he worked as a “consultant” for the officiating department, sharing his experience with referees who are up and coming. He’s 82 now and still lives in the Chicago area.

Jerry worked as a referee in the Big Ten before that, and when the NFL hired him, he worked for one season as line judge with one of the greatest referees of all time, Tommy Bell. When Bell retired at the end of the 1976 season, the four other members of his crew went to supervisor of officials Art McNally and asked to be kept together in order to help develop Markbreit as the new referee. McNally agreed, at least for a couple of seasons, and it apparently worked out well.

People who lived in Kokomo in the late 1960s and early ’70s know me for the umpiring I did on the Little League parks around town. UCT was my home field, but I got the chance to do a lot more umpiring around Kokomo and the surrounding area. It was the beginning of my love of officiating. While watching an NFL game in around 1968, I learned that Tommy Bell was a lawyer in Lexington, KY, during the week. I found the name of his law firm and wrote him a “fan letter” because I admired the way he ran his games, and I was surprised when he answered it.

Thus started an avocation of love with NFL officiating. In that letter to Tommy, I mentioned a minor mistake I’d noticed, and in his letter, he invited me to send a critique of his crew’s work whenever I saw them on TV. I did that for many years, and when Tommy retired, Jerry invited me to keep it going, so I did. I don’t do it anymore because 10 years of living in China meant I had lost all touch with any officials I had come to know through the critiquing process. But it was fun while it lasted, and I got to know quite a few NFL officials. I was invited to be their guest at a few games, too.

The average football fan has no idea the preparation these officiating crews go through. Even back in the days of Tommy Bell and Jerry Markbreit, the crews spent all Saturday evening at their hotel, running the film of the game they had worked the previous week with comments the league office had made. Tommy and Jerry also brought my critiques to those sessions, and I feel good about the tiny contribution I made, because I heard several times that my critiques were often better than the league’s.

NFL crews stay together for the whole season, and I remember an article written about Tommy’s crew that appeared in Sports Illustrated around 1969. Before the crew left the locker room to go out onto the field to work, field judge Fritz Graf gave a chant that the crew had adopted: “Hats, flags, whistles and guts — you can’t work a game without any of them.”

Today, NFL crews do much more preparation. They get the broadcast of the game on a thumb drive to watch on their tablets while they’re flying home from the game. They study that, do rules quizzes and participate in a midweek conference call with the whole crew. This age of high tech makes its demands on the officials, and the level of pressure is very high. So, a downgrade of the type that Ron Torbert’s crew will get for missing that fourth-down fumble enforcement last night will be devastating to any chance for a playoff assignment for any of the seven members.

That’s why I feel for the guys on that crew. That empathy started about 50 years ago with that first letter to Tommy Bell. Good memories.

When it’s hard to love your country: two cases

I have a question for the people who are so outraged by some NFL players’ kneeling during the national anthem. What exactly do you want?

Yes, I understand you love your country. So do I. I stand for the national anthem. At least we have that in common. But do you really think you (or anyone) can force the protesting players to stand and honor a country they obviously don’t love because of the social injustices they see and want to point out?

Do you want the league to force them to stand? How exactly would it do that? Would Commissioner Roger Goodell issue a directive that, from now on, all players must stand? And what if they don’t? What then? Fine them? Arrest them? For what?

As I said, I love my country, too, but folks, the kneeling is pointing to social injustices in the United States of America that they say need to be addressed. By kneeling, they are merely exercising their right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed to us all in the First Amendment. And while some see this protest as disrespectful to the veterans who have fought for our freedom, you need to be aware that many veterans have said and tweeted that they fought for that First Amendment right — even when they despise the opinion being expressed.

Remember the Vietnam War? There were protests then, too. Some of them included the burning of the Stars and Stripes, which many people regarded as a kind of sacrilege. But then something happened. Street v. New York came to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, and the court did the unthinkable by ruling that burning the flag — as heinous an act as it was — was covered under the First Amendment.

So how is kneeling during the national anthem any different? The NFL knows this. It knows that trying to force these players to respect their country is futile if not impossible. So really, people who say they will boycott the league, not watch games anymore or buy merchandise are just being silly. Patriotic, yes, but silly. If they want to be angry at someone, they should direct their anger at the kneeling players, not the teams and not the league. But let’s face it: They have a right to express themselves under the First Amendment, even if it flies in the face of the love and respect the rest of us have for our country.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Hong Kong, where soccer fans have been booing the playing of the Chinese national anthem before matches in the stadium. That’s right — downright booing. These people are saying, essentially, that the “March of the Volunteers” is not their national anthem. They are Hongkongers, dammit, and they don’t want anything to do with the People’s Republic of China. They hate the denial of freedoms by the Chinese government — the same government that, on August 31, 2014, issued a declaration that although Beijing agreed to allow Hongkongers to elect their chief executive “eventually” after the territory was handed back to China in 1997, it decided that Hong Kong would not get to participate in who those candidates would be.

If you remember the two-month Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong in the fall of 2014, that was the issue the revolution by university students and other lovers of democracy was about. They wanted the people of Hong Kong to place at least one of those candidates on the ballot in a kind of preliminary election. Beijing said no, we will decide who the candidates will be, but you’ll still get to elect one of them as your chief executive. What happened after that is that the Hong Kong Legislative Council rejected Beijing’s “electoral reform,” and the current chief executive was chosen the way all the other ones have been chosen: An elite committee of about 400 prominent Hong Kong citizens meets to select a person, and Beijing says either yes or no. (Beijing has always said yes since 1997, because the committee always chooses someone it knows Beijing will approve of.)

No wonder, then, that democracy-loving soccer fans are openly booing the playing of the Chinese national anthem. But Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing majority government wants to identify and arrest anyone caught booing. Why? Well, because it’s unpatriotic. Those fans are disrespecting their country.

Do you see the parallel? And don’t say it’s OK to boo the Chinese national anthem because China is a communist government that suppresses freedom. These fans are simply exercising their right to freedom of speech — a freedom they may not have in 2047, when the agreement between Britain and China on how Hong Kong was to be governed for the first 50 years after the handover expires.

An article in my former newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post, had a headline that said, “What would Donald Trump think of the booing?” Would he cheer them on because they’re exercising their freedom of speech against a government that is reducing their freedoms, or scold them because they’re being unpatriotic?

You can’t force people to love their country whether it’s in the football stadiums of America or the soccer stadiums of Hong Kong. To me, the more important principle is freedom of speech — a concept that is just as American as the flag and the anthem.

As British historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote in paraphrasing the French writer Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”