Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Day Late

Yesterday, which was my husband’s and my late dad’s birthday was also World Malaria Day. (Make of that what you will.) It was instituted by the World Health Assembly, the decision making body of the World Health Organization, in 2007, as a day for recognizing the global effort to provide effective control of malaria.

I was reminded of that while watching a live stream of the United Methodist Church General Conference plenary session last night. Part of the session was a report from Imagine No Malaria, the United Methodist Church’s anti-malaria program in Africa. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the UMC is single-handedly responsible for the decline in the malaria death rate world wide (the death rate has been cut in half in the last four years, from one person every thirty seconds to one person every sixty seconds), or that the global goal of near zero deaths from malaria in Africa by 2015 was their own invention. 

Not to disparage the UMC program, but there are a few other agencies involved, starting with the World Health Organization as noted above. This site has a number of links. The United States Centers for Disease Control has also been active in the fight against malaria. The President’s Malaria Initiative, launched in 2005, is another partner in the global fight against malaria.

I also need to mention my own alma mater, Tulane University. Their School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is the oldest school of public health in the country and for a long time the only U.S. school of tropical medicine.  Not surprising, because the “endemic malaria and almost yearly epidemics of cholera and yellow fever” in Louisiana were the impetus for the formation of the Tulane Medical School and later the Division of Hygiene and Public Medicine, which in 1967 became the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

This allows me to end with some good news:

Researchers from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine published an article in Malaria Journal that suggests “funding for malaria prevention in Africa over the past decade has had a substantial impact on decreasing child deaths due to malaria.” Between 2001 and 2011, malaria prevention intervention scale-up helped prevent an estimated 842,800 malaria-related child deaths, an 8.2 percent decrease over the period had malaria intervention remained unchanged since 2000. The researchers note that 99 percent of the decline can be attributed to the use of insecticide-treated bednets.
"Rapidly achieving and then maintaining universal coverage of these interventions should be an urgent priority for malaria control programs in the future," the study concludes. Researchers include Dr. Thomas Eisele, Dr. David Larsen, and Dr. Joshua Yukich.

Even though I am a day late, I was not a dollar short. I donated to Imagine No Malaria yesterday. I am fairly certain that if you have some spare cash you would like to donate, they, or any one of the several organizations you can find through the links above, won’t make you wait until next year to put that money to work. 2015 is only three years away.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Today is my husband’s birthday. Today would also be my Dad’s 99th birthday if he were still alive. They were born on the same day, 40 years apart.

Every year after my marriage when I called my dad to wish him a happy birthday, I’d tell him, “You know, today is John’s birthday, too.” “I didn’t know that,” Dad would say, “Next year I’ll send him a card.” Then the next year we’d have the same discussion all over again. Dad was in his mid-70’s when I married John and beginning to show the effects of several TIA’s.

I don’t believe in astrology, but I have to admit it’s spooky how much like Dad John is. Dad, like John, used to know how to do all the basic household repairs. I never even knew it was possible to hire a painter until one of my high school classmates got a summer job as one. Dad and his brothers could do rough carpentry, masonry, painting, wallpapering, basic plumbing and the like. This is not to say they could do them well, mind you. I have fond memories of some of Dad’s work-arounds in my first house. My ex-husband did not know which end of a hammer to use, so when Dad made his yearly visit he would work on our to-do list, and if we didn’t have one, he made his own. One year he cut down a baby magnolia tree in my front yard. He also got poison ivy in the process, so it was hard to be mad at him.

John has more training than Dad in his repair skills, not to mention more power tools, but I still find myself living with some interesting results of his problem solving. I occasionally point out that it is possible to hire people to do these jobs, only to get looked at as if I have three heads, no two of which are working correctly at the time.

The other way in which they were alike is that John, like Dad, has a weird sense of humor, and like my dad, often takes it too far. I find myself sounding uncomfortably like my mom, who I always thought was a grouch. Now I am starting to understand why. You can only get so many quips in response to a serious question before the beady eyes and stare set in.

Unlike John, Dad was the master of the shaggy dog story. He would start out relating a story he had heard on the news or an incident that had happened to a friend, and three or four minutes into it, there would be a punchline. I never knew if he set it up that way all along or if he was telling real news stories and personal anecdotes when a funny twist occurred to him. He did this all my life and I still rarely saw them coming.

John on the other hand, goes in for really bad puns and other quick quips. Most of the time, he has me laughing, but not when I just want an answer to, “Where did you put my mail?”

The one way they are different is that Dad could sing. He had a beautiful baritone, and any car trip taken with him was to the tune of all our favorites: I’ve Got Sixpence, Life of a Soldier, Walking My Baby Back Home, When I Brought Her Apples (the implications of which I never understood until I was grown and gone), Stout-Hearted Men, and other songs of that era. My favorite to hear him sing was When You Walk Through a Storm. Practically my first thought when I heard that my dad had died was that I would never hear him sing again.

John, on the other hand, cannot sing. John singing sounds much like a cat with its tail caught in the door. John can whistle, however. I have never been able to whistle a whole note, let alone a whole tune, but he can. It’s so unfair.

So happy birthday to my wonderful husband, and Dad, I miss you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Saturday an election was held in the cities of Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary to add a ten mill property tax to support our ailing transit system, CATS (Capital Area Transit System). My husband and I voted for the tax, because while we don’t use public transit ourselves, we realize the importance of public transportation to people who cannot afford cars or the elderly who can no longer drive. 

We would use our public transportation system if there were more frequent buses out at our end of town. My husband grew up in New Orleans, and I lived there during graduate school and the early years of my first marriage, and everyone took buses and the streetcar, at least part of the time. When I first moved to New Orleans, bus fare was a nickel, with free transfers. I had come from a city (Buffalo, NY) where the fare was 25 cents, plus a dime for transfers, so I was thrilled. By the time I was married, fares had increased to a dime.

Baton Rouge had buses when I moved here with my now ex-husband, but mostly in the downtown area. There was no bus to take me from home to work, so when we bought our first house, we also bought a second car.

Efforts have been made over the years to improve the transit system, but unlike in other cities, people here seem to think of public transportation as one of those services provided grudgingly for the destitute, sort of like food stamps, not as a service that everybody might profit from in terms of less traffic, less wear and tear on the family vehicle, and time to sit and read during the daily commute.

So as I said, my husband and I voted for the tax, but we were amazed when it actually passed, at least in Baton Rouge and Baker. It did not pass in Zachary, which means they won’t be getting the promised improvements, which include:

I. Service Improvements
  • Decrease wait times between buses from the current average of 75 minutes to 15 minutes (at peak hours)
  • Build 3 new transfer centers to replace "spokeî system with "gridî system
  • Overhaul bus stops, with new shelters and benches
  • Overhaul all signage for transit stops, providing detailed route and time information
  • Add GPS tracking to fleet, with exact arrival times accessible on cell phones
  • Increase service from 19 to 37 routes, including high-demand areas that currently are not served (eg. O'Neal Lane, Coursey Blvd., Essen and Siegen Lane)
  • Increase peak-hour buses from 32 to 57.
  • Create eight new express and limited stop lines:
Express Routes
  • Southern University to Downtown
  • Airport to Downtown
  • O'Neal Lane to downtown
  • Mall of Louisiana to Downtown
  • Highland / I-110 to Downtown
Limited Stop Routes
  • Baker/Zachary, through Southern University, to Cats Terminal
  • Florida Blvd to Downtown
  • LSU to Downtown
  • Lay foundation for Bus Rapid Transit system

and some governance reform and accountability goals.
Then last night the other shoe dropped. A majority of council members indicated that now that CATS has its own funding from the property tax, they will probably drop the $3 million that is already in the budget for CATS in 2013. Okay, to be fair, the money from the new property tax is much more than that 3 million, but the point of the new tax was not to add another 3 million to the general pool for the council to play with.
I was suddenly reminded of a few nasty incidents I had forgotten. Years ago, during the Mayor Screen administration, a tax increase was placed on the ballot to provide additional funding for the public library. It passed, and Mayor Screen promptly convinced the council to cut the equivalent amount from the city-parish budget, so the library had about the same amount of money it had before, but Mayor Screen had a new fund to spend on his pet projects. He knew that an unrestricted tax increase would not have passed, but tied to a popular program like the library, it would. A badly burned city thereafter voted down tax after tax for much needed improvements to the school system.
Then there was the marriage license surcharge to support domestic violence programs. Following the lead of other states, activists managed to convince the legislature to increase the fee for marriage licenses by $10, with that money to go to funding domestic violence programs throughout the state, including new programs for rural areas. When Buddy Roemer took office, he was concerned about fiscal problems in the state and managed to get the extra money folded back into the general fund. When cost-cutting measures led to a budget surplus, the money did not go back to domestic violence programs as planned. 
When I mentioned these incidents to my husband, he said, “Why do you think so many programs are protected in the state constitution? They knew just what these guys will do, given a chance.”
I feel like I owe a big apology to the anti-tax group that lobbied long and hard against the bus tax. For weeks I had been griping that they did not care about people who need to ride the buses, that they would deprive them of a way to get to a job and then complain about lazy people who won’t work. I guess I had forgotten the library incident because I didn’t think of the bus system as a popular service, like the library. Maybe some of the anti-tax people were acting out of race and class prejudice, but maybe a lot of them were just tired of the old bait and switch.
I know I am.

Monday, April 23, 2012


About 15 years ago, a friend of mine loaned me a string of pearls to wear to my nephew’s wedding. I liked the pearls so much my husband offered to buy me some for Christmas. Unfortunately, before Christmas, his old car, which had well over 100,000 miles on it, began developing a series of problems and it became apparent he needed a new car, which meant no expensive Christmas present. I preferred having husband drive a safe vehicle to wearing pearls to pick him up at the side of the rode when he broke down, so a new car it was. I named the car Pearl. 

Eventually he did buy me the pearls. 

About five or so years ago, we started looking for new patio furniture. The furniture we had is made of steel mesh with a rust resistant powder coat of paint that finally began to rust. I had bought the furniture a bit at a time from a chain furniture store: first the oval table and six dining chairs, then a glider and armchair seating group, then a chaise longue*, and finally a baker’s rack to hold pots of plants and the little decorative garden ornaments that I love to buy because anything outside no one expects you to dust.

John had the dining set sandblasted and primed one year for my birthday and he painted them, but the paint has long started to blister. So we decided to look for cast aluminum furniture and settled on a table and chairs and a seating group.

Naturally, at that point Pearl, who was getting on in years, decided to have the vapors and once again John was looking for a new car. This time I named the car “Fern”.

A year or so later we began talking about moving to Texas, so it didn’t seem advisable to buy heavy, expensive garden furniture before we got there. Then the house didn’t sell, which was just as well because our son moved from Texas to Europe, and might be there another year. The furniture hasn’t been getting any younger, of course, so we went shopping again.

I’m not sure whether the price of furniture has been going up or my memory has been going down, but the amount I thought was going to cover the dining set, love seat and armchairs, just covered the oblong table (larger than our old one) and dining chairs at the 20% off sale price. So we bought them, and are going to buy the other pieces one or two at a time as we can. There’s a sale coming up around Memorial Day and another one at the end of October.

Of course, in the meantime, my car is 12 years old. That raises a big question. How do you name a car after a chaise longue?

*It is, too, spelled that way. It means “long chair” in French, although my translator app renders it “deckchair”.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Now I'm Confused

Recently my husband and I received an email signed by our pastor at St. Anonymous, announcing the resignation of the Director of Youth. I wanted to cite the entire email here, since this post is about how I found it confusing, but even if I change the person’s name and substituted gender neutral pronouns*, I think there would still be legal and ethical issues with quoting the entire email. So I’ll cite snippets to be as clear as possible about what I find disturbing, and change the name and pronouns in those.

The email starts out by announcing that the employee in question, Comic Sans and the pastor “have been in a discernment process for some time regarding hir position at St. Anonymous.” It continues that zie and the pastor agree it would be better for all if Comic “takes time to pursue additional skills and education needed for hir to follow hir calling in Youth Ministry.” Okay, zie is quitting a job in mid-April to start school, only we aren’t being told which school. The email ends with “I know you join me in thanking Comic for the amazing Spiritual Gifts [capital letters in the original] zie has shared with us, and for hir participation in our family of faith.”

If you don’t know our pastor, you might not find this message unusual. However, while she is preaching, Dr. J is quite colloquial. Her sermons are peppered with expressions like, “I’m just sayin”, “Woohoo!” and “This is not rocket surgery”. While her written messages are a little more formal, she doesn’t regularly use expressions like “have been in a discernment process.” This announcement looks like it has been carefully crafted with the help of someone else. Someone is leaving a job; why is careful crafting of the announcement even necessary?

On the face of it, the announcement could cover at least three situations:

1) A popular youth leader who took on the job with the minimum amount of training but great interest and dedication realizes that to do the youth ministry work zie wants, zie needs more training. I think that is what we are supposed to read into this. The problem I see is, that the timing is odd. Normally one would not quit a job to go back to school until school is ready to start. Even if zie were attending summer session, one would expect an announcement more along the lines of, “Comic Sans is resigning hir position as Director of Youth to begin working on hir master’s degree at Happy Happy Joy Bible College beginning this June. Zie and I have prayed over this and are sure this is the direction God wants hir to take in life. I’m sure you’ll join me in offering Comic our best wishes.”

2) St. Anonymous has decided that it needs to upgrade from having a Director of Youth to having a Youth Pastor with the appropriate degree and training. The current incumbent does not qualify at present, and the church cannot afford to hold the job open for hir while zie attends school, but everyone agrees that going back to school is a good career move for hir. If this were the case, however, the church would have been notified of such a meeting and decision by the Administrative Board.

3) Or it could cover a situation in which the employee had personality conflicts with one of more of the youth, one or more parents of youth, or someone in administration. Those last two categories are not mutually exclusive. The announcement as written seems to be designed to cover this third scenario, while implying the possibility of the first one. If there is a conflict, or even dereliction of duty, I can understand the board taking the view that it isn’t everyone’s business.

But then why send this email at all? Why not just make the announcement that Comic Sans is leaving us after X years of service and we all wish hir well. The parents and youth probably already know the real reason and the fact that Comic is leaving is all the rest of us need to know. It’s not rocket surgery.

This looks like the kind of announcement you make when you feel like some sort of explanation has to be given, but such a non-explanation explanation always makes me think the worst (and not necessarily of the employee). It seems to me that the congregation either needs all the facts or else just the barebones “Comic is leaving us”. My experience is, anything else just leads to the gossip the church is no doubt hoping to quash.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

*So I’m using “zie” for third person singular, nominative case and “hir” for third person singular, objective case.

The Orphan Train Museum

Evangeline Downs Racetrack in Opelousas opened this week and John and I decided to go. There’s a nice hotel connected to the racetrack, which bills itself as a “Racino” because it has a casino (just slot machines and video poker) attached.

Races don’t start until after 5 PM and John and I don’t like casinos, so we looked for other things to do during the day. We started at the Opelousas Tourist Center on the grounds of Le Vieux Village (The Little Village), a collection of rural buildings from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. One of the buildings is the old railroad station, and inside of part of the station is the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum

I have to admit, when I first saw the words “Orphan Train Museum” on the outside of the train station, I thought it meant orphaned bits and pieces of old trains, until I saw the signs pictured below:

When we went into the museum, the manager*, who offered to give us a tour, asked if we knew anything about the orphan trains of the early 1900’s. “No,” I said, at the same time John said “Yes.” The manager started us off at the beginning. 

The orphan trains arose out of a desire to take homeless children off the streets of large cities, primarily New York, and find them a place to live. Two agencies, The Children’s Aid Society and the Foundling Hospital of New York, (both in existence to this day) sent the orphans (who usually actually had living parents who could not care for them) to homes around the country. The Children’s Aid Society, according to a large poster giving their story, only sent 79 children to Louisiana, but the Foundling Hospital, a Catholic institution started by a nun, sent more than 2,000.

Since we were in the heart of Catholic Louisiana, I was expecting a sunshine and roses story of lives made brighter by the devoted work of the nuns and the dedicated priest, Father Engberink.

Not quite. One of the first things we heard about the Foundling Hospital was “Those nuns took good care of the children, but they were mean.” Even when mothers told the nuns they were leaving the children at the hospital for a short time and would come back to reclaim them, the children were sent off and when their mothers came back, they had no way to find them. According to our guide, the hospital was repeatedly asked to release its records and told stories of them being destroyed or lost. When they were finally presented with a subpeona several years ago, the records miraculously appeared. We were also shown a document surrendering a child to be placed on the orphan train. Our guide called our attention to the signature, obviously that of a well educated person. He pointed out that many of the mothers who left children at the Foundling Hospital were poor immigrants, and doubted that it was truly the mother’s signature. I am not sure that’s a fair conclusion. It’s possible to be well educated in your own country but still not be able to work successfully in a new one.

Most of the orphans, we were told, were not formally adopted. They were treated in many ways like indentured servants. The rules of the Children’s Aid Society specified that boys were expected to work on the family farm or business and to stay until they were 18. The families were also expected to treat these boys as they would their own children when it came to living conditions and education, and a child could be removed from a home if he weren’t treated well, but the CAS according to our host, did not make regular home visits. The Foundling Hospital sent a visitor once a year.

About five minutes into our tour another group arrived: two women who decided to visit because a friend of theirs learned only after her grandmother’s death that grandma had been an orphan train rider. She never told anyone in the family. Yes, our guide said, that was very common. In 1907, being an orphan was a shameful thing, and besides, the riders were derided by their schoolmates as “Yankee children”, which meant a lot that soon after the Civil War.

Then he told the story of his own father. His father was sent south on the orphan train when he was three, along with his sister Agnes, who was six. There was another George on the train, and the two got mixed up. Agnes tried to tell her new family that the George they had was not her brother George, but she spoke only English and the family spoke only French. Not until a year later, when the annual visitor arrived, did both families learn of the mistake. By that time, both boys had bonded with the families they were in. However, rather than allowing Agnes and her brother regular visits, Agnes’s foster mother did her best to keep her from the boy.

Only when our host was grown did he learn of his father’s past. Comparing notes with a friend who was somehow related to Agnes, they realized the two were brother and sister and insisted on getting them together. The story of their reunion is not an sentimental one. It went something like, “Well, George,” said Agnes. “Well, Agnes,” said George.

There were many stories of the orphan riders, some of whose pictures were on a wall. There was a woman who was adopted by a very wealthy family and treated as their own. There was another woman who was abused by her foster family and who as an adult refused to use their name. She married and she and her husband, despite being poor, sent all of their children to college. On his deathbed, her foster father told her how proud he was of her and complained that his other children were squandering his money. We weren’t told her response. 

The most famous of the orphan train riders was a football coach at one of the smaller universities in Louisiana who had a stadium named after him. Nobody knew until he was older that he was an orphan train rider.

Several of the orphan train riders became nuns. One of them is still alive and wants to transfer from her convent in New Orleans to the sister house near the museum, but hasn’t been given permission.

We saw a number of donated artifacts, mostly clothing the children wore (handmade by the nuns at the Foundling Hospital) and the numbered tags that were pinned to their clothes so their new families would know them.

Afterwards my husband asked me whether I thought the orphan trains were a good thing or not. I think the people who dreamed up the idea thought they were doing well, getting children out of danger and into homes where they would at least be fed and housed and probably educated. They were expected to work, but all children who lived in poor rural areas were expected to work. It’s easy to say that more of an effort should have been made to keep families together and to enable mothers to keep their children, but that takes more resources than poor, private agencies have.

The problem is, I think that the good intentions these agencies had toward these children were shaped by ideas about socioeconomic class, nativism versus immigrants, shame attached to unwed motherhood, and the view that the agencies and not the children’s parents knew what was best for the children. Furthermore, I’m not sure these ideas have ever gone away. I think they affect our views of how to save children from poverty to this day.

*I’m not sure what his title is, actually. He and his wife staffed the museum, which is very small, just one large room, that day, and I got the impression that he was instrumental in starting it, but the museum is run by a board of directors, so I don’t think he was the owner, either.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Watching Sausages Being Made

As I may have mentioned before, my husband is a retired state civil service worker. When he retired from working for the state of Louisiana, he did not intend to retire from his work life, but his attempts to find another job have been unsuccessful. So at the moment, our income consists of my Social Security and his state pension. We do have a considerable amount of savings, but we aren’t relying on them for income just yet.

He also belongs to an organization of  state retirees. This organization has been reaching out to current employees, primarily those on the cusp of retirement. So when we attended a recent meeting of the group, it was not surprising that the topic was Governor Jindal’s plan to decimate reform state pension laws. Governor Jindal first tried to pass these reforms a few years ago, shortly after Mama Jindal retired from her civil service job with a full pension. Changes, which would apply to current employees, not just new hires, include extending the retirement age, changing the formula used to calculate benefits to base them on the last five years of salary rather than the last three, as is currently done, and increasing employee contributions by 3 percent. That 3 percent, however, is not going into the retirement fund. It’s going into the general fund. In other words, it’s a tax. (“No it’s not,” says our governor. Why not? Sound of crickets.) Even worse, it's a tax on the people the state owes money to be used in order to pay those people the money owed them. 

It was known back in the 1980’s that the state retirement program was underfunded. Legislation was passed under Governor Buddy Roemer that initiated a forty year plan to catch up the deficit, with the bulk of the state’s contributions to be made between the tenth and twentieth years of the plan. When year ten rolled around, the plan was revised such that the bulk of the payments would be made instead between the twentieth and thirtieth year of the plan. This change was not made by state civil service workers, of course, it was made by elected officials.

You know whose pensions are not being modified under the current bills? Do I even need to say that that the answer to that question is elected officials?

Yesterday, the state Senate Finance Committee met to consider the governor’s package of retirement bills. The retirees group sent out an email alert and hubby decided to go, so I went too.

The meeting was scheduled for 9:30. The committee room was full but we got seats in the overflow room, which had several TV’s so we could watch the proceedings. 

The first thing that happened was the meeting being adjourned due to lack of a quorum, and rescheduled for 11:30. There could have been some perfectly innocent reason for that. People who wanted to testify before the committee had to fill out cards, green cards for those in favor and red cards for those against. When the chair announced that the meeting was postponed, he informed the people who had filled out red cards that they had to do it all over again.*

When the meeting reconvened, the first bill to be taken up was one involving municipality participation in DROP programs for police and fire fighters. Discussion of this bill had been postponed for a week to obtain information about the financial impact on cities due to this bill. Some information had been obtained about police budgets, but none about fire fighters. Despite not having the information, the committee passed the bill out of committee. That was a sign.

Next came Senate Bill 51, the bill extending retirement age. Under current Louisiana law, a civil service worker with thirty years service can retire with full benefits at any age. So if you went to work in the state typing pool or DMV at the age of 18, and worked steadily for 30 years, you could retire at 48.  If you want to retire after 25 years of service, you need to be at least 55. If you are 60 years of age or older, you can retire with any number of years of service, but you need at least ten years to be vested in the retirement plan. Under the Governor’s package, the retirement age for all current retirees, with no matter how many years of service, would be increased to 67.

Or so we thought. When the 11:30 meeting convened, the chair announced that they had pulled the original bill and replaced it with a substitute bill, that phased in later retirement ages based on years of current service, and calculated benefits in two stages. So if you went to work in the state typing pool or DMV at the age of 18, and worked steadily for 30 years, you can still retire at 48; you just can’t draw benefits until you reach age 55 or you can draw reduced benefits. 

The committee first heard testimony from three members of the governor’s staff, who tried to convince us that:

1) There is a financial crisis in the retirement system. The gap between the amount of money needed to fund pensions and the amount in the retirement fund has grown larger since the 40 year plan was adopted. Taxpayers are having to cover a substantial amount of the current pensions.

Well, yeah. Because the bulk of the catch-up payments were shifted by a decade. If the original 40 year plan had been followed, the gap would not be widening. However, by the end of the 40 year plan, the gap will be narrowed again, if no one makes any more stupid changes. So this whole “crisis” is a manufactured one, although tweaking the system for incoming hires may make sense.
2) The original reason for giving state workers a better retirement plan than that found in the private sector was to make up for lower wages in the public sector. Wages in the public sector are now equal to or better than those in the private sector.

Maybe, if  you average in all the wages of all civil service employees as compared to comparable private sector employees. What happens if you break out comparable groups by job title and educational level, such that engineers in the public sector are being compared to engineers in the private sector, lawyers in the public sector are being compared to lawyers in the private sector, medical personnel in the public sector are being compared to medical personnel in the private sector, and so forth? The public sector doesn’t pay as well for those people. 
It’s true, pensions for state retirees are far better than anything now available in most of the private sector, but for most of the years state workers have been working to earn those pensions, their wages lagged far behind what the private sector was able to pay.
And of course, what they neglected to add is that if you work for the state of Louisiana, you don’t pay into Social Security. The comparison they were making was state retirement benefits versus private retirement benefits, not versus private retirement benefits plus Social Security benefits. Although it was hard to say what numbers they were using, since at no time did anyone quote them.
3) The original bill was constitutional and the new substitute bill even more so. Why is this an issue? Because the retirees group doesn’t think so and is going to sue of this law passes. Why do they think it is unconstitutional?
Louisiana Constitution Article X, Section 29(B) makes membership in a state retirement system a contract between the members and the employer:
Membership in any retirement system of the state or of a political subdivision thereof shall be a contractual relationship between employee and employer, and the state shall guarantee benefits payable to a member of a state retirement system or retiree or to his lawful beneficiary upon his death.
Article X, Section 29(E)(5) also provides:
The accrued benefits of members of any state or statewide public retirement system shall not be diminished or impaired.

Legal counsel for the governor’s office tried to show that changing the retirement standards for existing workers does not “diminish or impair” their benefits. 
Remember that 49 year old who is either going to give up the 6 years of benefits she would have received between age 49 and 55 or receive reduced benefits? Well, her benefits are not being "diminished or impaired", according to the governor’s office, because the benefits she earned up until now are still being treated the same, so she won’t get any less than the benefits she earned in 28 years. 

Legal counsel also tried to assure the committee that constitutional review of the bill would be fast-tracked and settled in a few months. There ensued a lengthy question and answer session in which it became clear that a) the senators did not understand how the new benefits were going to be calculated, b) senators were concerned about how much defending the bill in court could cost the state and if they would be liable for back payments if the law was overturned, c) the governor’s people had no answers to those questions and d) the senators were going to pass the bill out of committee anyway, even without having those questions answered.

So after the three witches governor’s office staff, we heard from the State Auditor. When the possibility of constitutional issues were introduced, he commissioned an outside law firm specializing in contract and retirement law to look into the constitutional aspects of the bill as originally proposed. The person who had prepared that report was present and testified that the law stood a good chance of being declared unconstitutional, that it would take at least two years to decide, and that in states in which similar changes to pensions had been overturned, the states then owed substantial amounts in back benefits.

The committee then recalled the governor’s legal counsel to explain dueling opinions on the constitutionality of the bill. Counsel made vague references to 60 years of case law and Louisiana contract law and one specific reference to the court’s opinion in a recent retirement case. Consultant pointed out that most of the “60 years of case law” occurred prior to the 1974 constitution, that the Louisiana contract law referred to involved the state’s ability to amend contracts between private parties, not between itself and private parties, and that the specific case cited concerned how interruptions in time of service affected benefits.

Finally opponents to the bill were called. At this point, the chair noted that it was getting late and said he would have to restrict each speaker to two minutes.

Gosh, if it were only possible to tell how the committee is leaning on this one. 

Representatives of the state retirement system and the teacher’s retirement system spoke briefly about the impact the bill would have on people currently in the system, especially those of retirement age who still want to continue working. If the bill passes, those people will have three months to decide whether to go ahead and retire or to take the chance that the bill might be overturned and possibly lock themselves into years of more work for less in benefits. One of the Senators assured them that they would work on the bill on the floor to make sure their concerns were addressed.

Gee, I thought that’s what the committee was for. ("I'm just a bill, up on capitol hill . . .")

Mostly they turned their remaining time over to another attorney, this one a Louisiana attorney who had worked for the state attorney’s office. He prefaced his remarks by pointing out that he had read all of the documentation from the convention that produced the 1974 constitution, to be sure he had a sense of what the writers intended by Article X, Section 29(B). He also pointed out that the amendment that added Article X, Section 29(E)(5) was added at the time the 40 year catch-up plan was adopted, apparently to make sure that the legislature did not throw the responsibility for making up the shortfall in the retirement system back onto the workers.

At last, I thought, someone who can answer the questions that arose earlier.
At which point the chair announced he was going to have to cut the speaker off due to time considerations.

Do you notice the catch 22 here? If you have a lot of people who want to speak in opposition to the bill, each one just gets a few minutes. If you don’t have a lot of people who want to speak in opposition, well, obviously no one is opposed but a few cranks.
The attorney announced he had emailed his prepared remarks to the committee members and the chair assured him they would read them. An hour later (during which there was no break for email reading) the bill passed committee.

Quelle surprise.

*I find it funny that even though the committee room was filled with flat screen TV’s, laptops, tablets, and smart phones, they still use those red and green cards.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Things I Learned from the Evil Girl Scouts

I did a brief stint in the Girls Scouts back in my girlhood in the 1950’s. I was reminded of this yesterday, when I ignored common sense and went to the Strawberry Festival in Pontchatoula wearing my beloved white jeans. Whenever we go to the Strawberry Festival, we always have strawberry shortcake. I was as careful as I could be, but nonetheless got a spot of strawberry topping on the leg of my freshly washed pants.

Not to worry. I remember from my Girl Scout days how to remove fruit and fruit juice stains from cotton. You stretch the fabric over a bowl or basin, and pour boiling water through it. Stain gone. Yes, it’s true that it probably would have disappeared if I had simply washed the pants in warm water with bleach, but if any of it had been left, the cold rinse cycle might have set it. I was taking no chances.

What else did I learn from the Girl Scouts? I learned how to set a table properly (properly = not how my husband does it.) Forks on the left with napkins to the left of the forks. Spoons and knives on the right. Glasses on the right above the knife. I would drive my mom crazy not putting the fork on the napkin. I would later grow up to drive my mom crazy by moving to the South and calling her “mama” in good Southern girl style. Good Northern girls are expected to drop that last vowel (or even the whole syllable) sometime around toilet training. I was a big disappointment to my mama.

I drive my husband crazy with my table setting, too. He also prefers the fork on the napkin, unless he places the fork on the right and the knife on the left. He does try, though. Lately he has been placing both on the left, but with the fork to the left of the napkin.

I also sold cookies, pulling them from door to door in a red wagon borrowed from a friend. Since I had to do this after school, it meant I was usually out until dusk. I don’t know if we kids were really any safer going door to door at dusk back in the 50’s or if our parents just thought we were. Most of the Girl Scout cookies we have bought have been purchased from coworkers whose daughters were supposedly selling them, or else purchased from a table set up in front of Walmart. I think that’s wise.

I learned other things: green serge is not my best look, berets are hard to balance on your head, a square knot is tied “right over left and left over right”. 

The most important lesson came from a troop member in a wheelchair. She had cerebral palsy and couldn’t talk or walk, but her parents wanted her to have the Girl Scout experience. Since our troop leader had had polio as a child and walked with a slight limp, our troop was seen as a suitable place for her. (We never went in for camping much.) We all accepted her, but thinking back on it, we probably didn’t interact with her as much as we could have. In defense of us girls, I should add no one tried to teach us how. Nowadays she would have some sort of augmentative communication device to help her ask “Would you like to buy some cookies?” and help her quote prices as she sat at a table in front of Walmart, but back then we were all in the dark about those with disabilities. I commend her parents for finding a troop for her, and our parents and leaders for impressing on us that we had better be nice.

My life has a way of repeating itself. For 36 years, I worked at a rehab facility that started out being exclusively for children with cerebral palsy and expanded to take care of children with all disabilities. I arrived there shortly before the passage of Public Law 94-142, The Education of All Children Act. I saw the computer revolution that allowed us to give non-verbal children devices to help them talk. So yes, I was able to help children, verbal and non-verbal, practice asking, “Would you like to buy some cookies?”

And I never forgot how to get fruit stains out of my jeans. 

Friday, April 13, 2012


Recently I received a request through Flickr from a student who wanted to use my photo of a cladoselache fossil in a report she was writing for school. The only fossils I could think of that I had taken photos of were the ones at the dinosaur exhibit in Lafayette, and none of them were of something called cladoselache. Some of them were untitled, and one I had titled “Marine Fossil”, so for all I knew, the student had recognized one of those as cladoselache. I shamefacedly admited to not knowing which picture she meant, and gave permission for her to use it if she would tag it for me.

It turned out that the picture in question was in an older group of pictures taken at Moody Gardens Aquarium in Galveston, Texas, and I had in fact titled it Cladoselache because the name was displayed prominently in one of the pictures I took. Like many people with digital cameras, I have more enthusiasm than skill, and take a lot of pictures, which I then post to Flickr and apparently promptly forget.

I like to encourage the young, however, so I was happy to email her a copy of the picture to use. In exchange, she offered me a copy of the finished paper. I accepted, since I am hoping fervently that her paper is based on orthodox science and not a claim that the fossil is the result of Noah’s flood. I couldn’t think of a polite way to ask.

Now I need to think of a tune to use to remember the word “cladoselache”. I became aware of the usefulness of music as a mnemonic device while reading an article by Isaac Asimov about the molecular structure of the molecule para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde. Asimov explained how each change in a benzene ring led to each prefix and suffix in the name, as a larger lesson on organic molecules. Then he told a story about how he was traveling one day and began singing the word  “para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde” to the tune of The Irish Washerwoman. A woman sitting near him exclaimed, “You know it in the original Gaelic!”

I cannot for the life of me tell you what para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde is*, but thanks to The Irish Washerwoman, I have never forgotten the word.

Another musical mnemonic I use, with a more practical application, comes from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. In Episode 1105, Baby Ana, the platypus, is given her name, short for “ornithorhynchus anatinus”.  Handyman Negri writes her a song based on her name. I searched diligently online to try to find a video or audio of the song, and couldn’t. So you will just have take my word for it that the words 

“Ornithorhynchus anatinus,
Ana, Ana, Ana,
Ornithorhynchus anatinus,
Ana, Ana, A-a-a-na”

can be replaced with
“Trustworthy, loyal, friendly, helpful, 
Courteous, kind, obedient,
Cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean,
And reverent, reverent, reverent.”

So what is a cladoselache, you ask? I don’t know. I’ll have to wait until Monday to find out. That’s when the paper is due.

*other than that it is an aldehyde and see correction below.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

In the Garden

Now that I have potting soil, I decided to buy more plants to put in the pots. While we were at the Home Depot, I saw some lovely mixed containers of petunias, verbena, and coleus. Since I have over half a dozen empty containers sitting around my garden, the last thing I needed was another container, but I wanted to buy a similar mix of plants to place in a big concrete tub in the back. I also wanted to find some more herbs and some Jacobina to replace the ones in the back bed that my husband had removed, thinking they were weeds.

My husband, bless him, has removed at least a ton of plants over the years that needed to be removed. Unfortunately, he has also weeded out my chives, garlic chives, almost all of the plumbago from the side bed, most of the oregano, although it grows back rapidly so it wasn’t a big loss, and the aforementioned Jacobina. Jacobina die back to the ground in winter and in the spring they look like sticks. The sticks were in the exact same spot as the flowering plants of the preceding summer, which should have served as a clue, but let’s let bygones be bygones. 

Yesterday I spent plant shopping, and today I planted several containers. Plants in containers never get mistaken for weeds. Pictures are below. I also bought four Jacobinas. They are going to require digging with a shovel to plant, so I assigned that task to John. It seemed only fair.

I should know better than to put more than one kind of plant in one pot. It always starts out looking pretty, but in the end, there will be only one. This year, my money is on the petunias.

That spot in front of the bear claws is where the Jacobinas grew.

The basil plants look small now, but in a week or two, they will be several feet high.

I never have any luck with geraniums. Say goodbye to this one.

Hibiscus. It has several buds ready to bloom. Hibiscus plants are related to okra.

Every Christmas I buy a live poinsettia for the front porch, and then leave it in its pot in the garden until it dies.This one keeps clinging to life (barely), so I repotted it and moved it to a sunnier location. My mother in law had a neighbor who grew a poinsettia in her yard. It grew up a wall and stayed red all winter. Even though New Orleans is not far from Baton Rouge, it has a slightly different climate for growing things (not to mention much richer soil).

That's spearmint on the right, and rosemary on the left. I'm hoping the spearmint will live long enough for me to use it in a recipe I want to try. The plant growing around the pots is Mexican bush sage.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


This morning my husband wanted to go to the Home Depot to buy some more mulch, so I went along. He also wanted a new pair of ear protectors to use when he works with power tools, so while he looked for those, I browsed the garden section and picked out a few plants for the pots I have in the yard. I bought a hibiscus to put by the side door, a geranium to put on the other side, and two basil plants for the 3 foot high pot in the garden that runs along the driveway. In the past, the size of the pot has tempted me to plant a mix of herbs, but the basil always takes over. Those plants look puny now, but they are going to get big.

Once I got home and weeded out the planters, I realized I needed more potting soil. By that time hubby was busy sanding the tongue on his trailer prior to painting it, in the process trying out the new ear protectors, so I drove myself to Lowe’s, got a buggy, found the potting soil, and tried to lift it into the buggy. “Tried” is the operative word here. They were standard looking 24 quart bags, but they felt like lead. I finally got one into the buggy, at which point a muscular young man browsing next to me offered help with the second bag. I accepted gratefully.

Another muscular young man was at the checkout counter and when I asked for help loading the bags into my car, cheerfully complied. As the second bag went into the trunk, I saw the trunk dip noticeably. “That’s 80 pounds in there,” my helper explained. “Each bag weighs 40 pounds.”

That made me feel a little better, but not much. I used to be able to deadlift 160 pounds for reps, when I was 25 pounds lighter than I am now. Ten years younger, too, but I was deadlifting 60 pounds for reps last year before I broke my foot. That may be part of why I broke my foot, but still, I should be able to lift 40 pounds.

When I got home, I stopped the car in the driveway next to the first pot and tried again. By putting my arms under the bag as far as it would go, and bending my knees as far as they would go, I was able to lift one bag and shift it the three or four feet to the grass next to the pot. So far, so good. I drove around to the carport, and saw hubby putting the wheelbarrow back after having used it to remove a rotting stump. The wheelbarrow! How could I have forgotten it? It was exactly what I needed.

I took a bucket with me back to the first pot. I cut open the bag of soil, shoveled as much as I needed into the first pot, shoveled some more into the bucket to carry over to the second pot, and carried the bag, now down to half its original weight, over to the third pot. After I got everything planted and watered, I moved the wheelbarrow over to the car, lifted the second bag into it, and parked the wheelbarrow next to the trunk while I decided what to do with the bag.

Then I went to fix lunch, and forgot all about it. Later on, I found my husband had moved the bag of soil to the trailer with the mulch, and put the wheelbarrow away. I thanked him, and said I had trouble moving the bag because it was heavy.

“Yeah, I noticed,” he said. Okay, that makes me feel better, but tomorrow morning, I am getting back together with my dumbbells.

I should be able to lift a puny 40 pounds.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter Dinner

When my husband and I first married, we either spent Easter with his mother or she came to our house for Easter. My mother-in-law’s favorite thing to cook for Easter, believe it or not, was rabbit. “You eat the Easter bunny on Easter?” I whispered to my husband the first time I was confronted with this dish. He had never made the connection before.

When we hosted, we usually made leg of lamb, although MIL would also take hubby shopping for rabbit and cook it herself.

For the last decade or so, we’ve been traveling at Easter, since I always had a week and a day off. Thus it was that I found myself last week trying to remember what we usually make for Easter dinner.

Boiled bunny was out. Lamb was a possibility, but I decided what I really wanted was a ham steak. I found a great recipe, too, Country Ham Steak with Glazed Apples. There was just one little problem. My husband does not like to eat ham hot. He only likes it cold.

After 24 years of never cooking ham for dinner, I decided “too bad”. If he didn’t like it, he could fix himself a peanut butter sandwich. With the ham, I planned Oven Baked Sweet Potato Fries, summer squash casserole, iceberg lettuce wedges, and crescent rolls. John was put in charge of salad dressing and dessert. 

I didn’t hear any loud screams as I picked out the ham steak at the store, or when I ran the whole menu by him.

From the point of prep work, this turned out to be an easy Sunday/company dinner. I was able to do several things in advance: core and slice the apples (and refrigerate them in lemon water so they wouldn't brown), peel and slice the potatoes, and put the squash casserole together ready for baking.  The potatoes take the longest to cook, and while they were cooking I had time to set the table, assemble the salads, put the rolls on a baking pan, then after I flipped the potatoes, cook the ham and apples. They take about fifteen minutes cook time. I used a mix of cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg on the sweet potatoes. I also only used one teaspoon of salt, not the recommended tablespoon.

With the oven door open, the oven cooled down pretty quickly from the high temperature required by the potatoes to the lower temp needed for the rolls. I cooked the rolls while we ate the salads. If you have two ovens, the rolls and the squash casserole (which I cooked in the microwave) can cook at the same heat in one while the potatoes cook in the other. Or you can just do a stove top vegetable. The ham recipe and the potatoes made a great combo but a variety of vegetables would work.

And there were no peanut butter sandwiches. John ate the ham with no complaints. One might almost say, like a lamb.