A Simple Thank You on Veteran’s Day

“We’re going to war, and chances are there will be a draft.”

The Twin Towers were smoldering, but not yet rubble. It was September 11th, 2001, and I was sitting in fourth period U.S. government class, which was taught by Mr. Kuehn, a squat little man who looked like a turtle outside of its shell. For all intents and purposes, he was a brilliant man. But, overcome with shock and vulnerability, Mr. Kuehn let loose a stream of consciousness that left a class of 25 students horrified, imagining themselves on the battlefield.

Again, at this point, we had never heard of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden or the Axis of Evil. That our generation would be expected to fight a war on foreign soil seemed implausible. Watching replay after replay of the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, all we knew was something bad had happened. With Pearl Harbor as his only historical comparison, Mr. Kuehn was sure this attack would lead to a strong militaristic response by the United States. Before that day, I had never considered joining the armed forces.

If we’re being honest on this Veteran’s Day, I haven’t considered joining up since.

I never heard “the calling.” Fighting for our country wasn’t built into my fiber. Aside from my grandfathers and a half-uncle, no one else in my family had served. I was far enough removed from the armed forces my whole life, it never came into consideration as I came closer to 18. It was something for other people to do, war or not. Above all, it required a courage you can’t fake — a courage I can readily admit I don’t have.

Mr. Kuehn was, of course, wrong. Despite two wars, there’s been no draft. However, a few students from my U.S. government class did wind up in Afghanistan, and that day, I’m sure, somehow impacted their decision. Over the years, I’ve met so many people who’ve served, and each time I’m taken back. Growing up, I never imagined my peers fighting a war, no less two. That reality belonged to my grandparents and their parents. Friends and old classmates fighting a war — it seems surreal even now.

I have just a hand full of friends who served overseas. From what I can tell, they’ve adjusted to civilian life without any lasting effects, but I can’t fathom what it’s like to carry the memories of war with you. Those memories never really come up, even with my closest veteran friend. Maybe it’s too soon. Maybe it’s something I could never understand, so why bother? Maybe they’ve moved on, tucked the memories away for safe keeping so they can move forward with their lives. I don’t need to know their stories to respect their sacrifice, so I don’t pry.

The very best people I know served in the armed forces, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t overtly patriotic, who’s never worn a yellow ribbon and someone’s who’s argued against the wars for a better part of a decade. I’m grateful because they allowed me to stay here. Without their willingness to serve, maybe Mr. Kuehn would’ve been right. Maybe there would’ve been a draft.

I can’t say it any more eloquently than anyone else will on this Veteran’s Day, so thank you to all of the brave men and women who’ve served for our country, especially those still overseas.

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Banning Alcoholic Energy Drinks May Just Be a Shortcut

WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING: Alcoholic energy drinks are packaged to look no different than their non-alcoholic counterparts.

The last time I drank an alcoholic energy drink, I broke a sweat just a few sips in. My entire forehead beaded in sweat and I felt waves of heat rush through my body. By the time I drank half of the 16 oz. can, I’d had enough. I felt intense pain in my stomach, as if I’d eaten glass, and my speech was starting to slur. I’m a 220-pound male who has tended bar for nearly three years. I can drink. Half a can of Joose, the alcoholic energy drink I’m speaking of, nearly put me out cold.

Joose is completely legal and you can get a can for just about two dollars. You won’t have to look hard to find it, either. (I bought the can at a grocery store.) Joose and other brands like Four Loko, Sparks and Tilt are under heavy scrutiny after several instances involving young adults suffering alcohol poisoning. Turns out a high concentration of alcohol and caffeine can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Several states are now considering banning alcoholic energy drinks, and rightfully so. Although, there is one important question that’s sort of been grazed over: Why do young adults drink these beverages despite knowing the health risks?

Answer: Cost.

The average college student stocks their mini fridge with bottom-shelf beer and liquor and they buy it in bulk. (I don’t mean to single out college students here, but most of the reported incidents seem to involve them, so let’s be real.) College students are frugal drinkers, save for maybe the week or so after they receive their FAFSA distribution. They want to have fun and rarely allow finances to hold them back. If they want to party, they’ll find a way.

What’s cheap? What will get college students the most bang for their buck? Alcoholic energy drinks, which promise a night full of energy, because after a long week of studying and testing, even 21-year-olds get tired. They’re also loaded with alcohol, so rather than drilling through a six-pack of beer, they can catch a buzz in just a few sips. That’s efficient, economical partying.

The problem is few actually know what’s in a can of Four Loko, because you won’t find a serving recommendation, calorie count or caffeine total on its label. According to NPR’s Anna King,

“Phusion Projects will give only an estimate of how much caffeine is in [Four Loko]: One can has about as much caffeine as a six-pack of Diet Coke. One can also fills an empty wine bottle and in fact, contains about as much alcohol as a bottle of wine.”

You can rightly assume Four Loko’s competitors achieve the same alarming numbers.

Do I support a ban on alcoholic energy drinks? I’m hesitant to say yes if Everclear and Bacardi 151 are being left on the shelf. However, I would like to see these beverages sold at a higher price with a more detailed warning on the can. Ban alcoholic energy drinks and college students will resort to the more traditional mix of vodka and Red Bull.

Anecdotally, I know alcohol and caffeine are a lethal mix, but I can’t explain why. That wasn’t a part of the drug-and-alcohol curriculum I was taught growing up. Every story I’ve read regarding alcohol energy drinks and young people being hospitalized has shared the same theme: They didn’t know what they were drinking. Short of banning these beverages, we need to do a better of job explaining their ill effects to students as early as high school.

After all, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about harmful substances in this country, it’s that banning them or making them illegal won’t make them go away.

South Dakota Bars and Restaurants Go Smoke-Free — Finally

Bar owners across South Dakota went fetal Tuesday night after a statewide smoking ban passed with 64 percent of the vote. Many seem sure that a smoking ban surely spells doomsday.

Fear not, South Dakota. In fact, I’m one of many customers more likely to go and spend my money at your establishment now that I won’t require a Hazmat suit to enter.

Most of the fear is anecdotal. South Dakota bars and restaurants offer video lottery, which has generated about $100-100 million in annual revenue for the state since 2002. South Dakota receives 50 percent of the money video lottery machines take in, so as soon as anything threatens their popularity, the immediate concern shifts to how South Dakota make up that money?

Let’s not jump off the ledge here. South Dakota is still South Dakota, and speaking as someone at prime bar-going age, business will be fine. What else is there to do?

When Minnesota passed the Freedom to Breathe Act in 2007, small-business owners and smokers alike thought it would put bars across the state in a chokehold. I tended bar at a high-volume college bar before and after the smoking ban went in effect. Anecdotally, I can say customers — even smokers — overwhelmingly preferred the smoke-free environment. In fact, I more frequently saw the same costomers on consecutive nights.

The Minnesota measure was passed to ensure employees are given a healthy workplace. A few weeks before the ban went into effect, I was forced to see an ear, nose and throat specialist after working four nights in a row. I had a wicked throat pain, which I thought was strep, but it was mid-summer, so it seemed unlikely.

“You must work at a bar,” the doctor said. “I see this all the time. You’re lucky that ban passed. I would tell you to find another job.”

I made more money as a bartender in college than in any full-time big-boy job I’ve held since graduating. I feel I was a good, hardworking bartender. The fact I’m not a smoker shouldn’t disqualify me or anyone else from working in hospitality. Every employee, no matter the job, should have the right to work in a healthy, safe, controllable environment. Accidents can happen — miners get trapped, firemen get burned, cashiers get robbed. Employers must take responsibility  to ensure these instances are few and far between. In that vein, is eliminating smoking really that difficult? If it’s protecting your employees — especially those who are on a company health care plan — isn’t it worth it?

According to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 17 percent of adults in South Dakota smoke. Last year, WebMD ranked South Dakota as No. 26 among states with the most adult smokers. At best, one in every five customers is asked to smoke outside.

Don Rose, a family friend and owner of Shenanigan’s Pub in Sioux Falls, was the leading voice of opposition to the smoking ban. His argument was that of a small-business owner who wanted the freedom to choose whether or not smoking be allowed in his establishment.

In a Monday interview with KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, Rose said:

“You take all, the bars in Minnesota are hurting, North Dakota are hurting, Montana are hurting. I get letters every day … I know that the state is preparing a budget they’re gonna be revealing in December that’s gonna show a 20 percent deficit in video lottery income. They’re planning on this.”

The elephant in the room is, of course, the recession. Name any sector of business that isn’t struggling right now. The other point of contention: Fargo and West Fargo are the only cities in North Dakota where smoking is banned from bars and restaurants. The rest of the state allows smoking bars. Finally, should South Dakota be relying so heavily on video lottery? If what Rose said is true, the budget will be short about $20 million from decreased video lottery income. That’s not a number to balk at, but hardly crippling to the South Dakota state economy. Yet, I wonder how the smoking ban — or smoking, in general — affects the cost of health care in South Dakota. Anyone?

(I completely respect Rose. As far as I know, he’s not nor has he ever been a smoker. He’s a very savvy business owner who only wants his rights left alone by the state. I get that. I also know he cares for his employees. I sincerely hope this doesn’t harm his business at all. I suspect it won’t.)

I swear, bar owners of South Dakota, your businesses will be just fine. Just wait for Thanksgiving weekend, when folks like myself return home. I used to despise meeting up with friends at the bar, but now, I’ll be the one leading the charge. I doubt I’m alone.

And please, don’t act like the smoking ban is difficult to enforce. In today’s Argus Leader, one bar owner said, “People are just going to stay home. The same thing is going to happen in the bars. I can’t see spending five bucks for a drink and then standing outside to smoke.” The same owner said she would tell a customer its illegal, but she wouldn’t call the cops.

If that’s the case, if a smoker is happier to stay home, maybe the problem isn’t the smoking ban — the problem is your establishment. And if you’re not willing to respect the law, maybe you should turn over your liquor license.

Pardon The Inconvenience, But Recount Isn’t Horner’s Fault

For those who witnessed the 2000 presidential election, recounts are a painful walk down memory lane.

Here we go again.

Democrat Mark Dayton leads Republican Tom Emmer by just about 9,000 votes in the Minnesota gubernatorial election, soit appears the race will be decided by automatic recount. State election rules require an automatic recount for any election decided by less than 0.5 percent of the overall vote. Dayton’s lead is just about 0.43 percent.

In 2008, Minnesota endured a recount between two senatorial candidates — Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman — who sparred for eight months while the votes were tallied and the results were taken to court. Franken eventually won but the lengthy process was an embarrassment and left Minnesota underrepresented in the U.S. Senate.

This time around, the candidate I voted for, Independent Tom Horner, is catching a fair amount of heat for siphoning votes from Dayton, à la Ralph Nader-from-Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. There may be a sliver of validity to the argument. If I hadn’t voted Horner, I certainly would’ve voted Dayton. But voting isn’t about convenience or expediency and I didn’t have to choose between Horner or Dayton. I wasn’t about to spurn the candidate I truly wanted to appease Dayton supporters or quicken the vote counting.

Here’s some of the Horner vitriol I’m seeing on Twitter:

  • “Oh goody. Another MN recount. Thanks, Tom Horner! asshole”
  • “Holyfreakincrap the Minnesota Gov. race has entered recount territory. NOOOOO! Damn u Tom Horner. Independence party sucks. Pick a side!”
  • “Frickin 3rd parties!!! From Ross Perot to Tom Horner to Tim Olson & everyone in between, self-serving 3rd parties steal votes from Repubs”
  • “Right now I HATE Tom Horner, well meaning peep as he may be.”

So much for favoring the emergence of a third party, because, as one of the above tweets put it, moderate voters should just “pick a side.”

I say kudos to Tom Horner. Though he pulled just 12 percent of the vote (compared to about 44 percent for both Dayton and Emmer), he commanded respect through nearly 30 debates and represented the Independence Party of Minnesota with class and integrity. I believe Horner’s campaign paired with the feckless back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats will boost membership and interest in his party over the next few years.

Who knows how long Recount 2010(-2011?) will last. No matter what, though, don’t let impatience turn to blame. Horner had every right to run, as did the four other third-party candidates whose combined 24,000 votes kept Dayton and Emmer within the automatic recount margin.

That’s democracy, folks, and it aint’ always a drive-thru. Even if you voted Dayton or Emmer, you should celebrate the fact there were other options on the ballot. One of the two will still win. If you believe in your candidate and your candidate is worth a damn, it shouldn’t matter if there’s two, three, 15 or 100 names on the ballot. If your candidate loses, that’s really no one’s fault but their own.

If WAFF-TV Had Ethics, You Wouldn’t Know Antoine Dodson

A heinous attack in Huntsville, Ala. has turned into a multimillion dollar empire for Antoine Dodson. But is it right?

I wonder if anyone dressed as Kelly Dodson for Halloween.

You know, Kelly Dodson? The Huntsville, Ala. woman who was saved by her brother, Antoine, after a man broke into her home in the middle of the night and attempted to rape her. Of course, Antoine Dodson has become famous since WAFF-TV reported the story earlier this year:

Dodson’s “career” as a budding viral-video star really took off when the Gregory Brothers and their Auto-Tune The News clip for barelypolitical.com got ahold of the WAFF story, which has received over 37 million views:

The auto-tuned version of Dodson’s interview has since become one of the best-selling singles on iTunes, generating enough revenue for Antoine and Kelly Dodson to move out of the projects. Antoine and the Gregory Brothers even performed at this year’s BET Awards. His viral fame has also led to an endorsement deal with a mobile app called Sex Offender Tracker:

Over the weekend, I saw dozens of people dressed as Antoine Dodson for Halloween. (Antoine even endorsed www.bedintrudercostume.com — the official Antoine Dodson Halloween costume.) His overwhelming popularity makes me only more concerned about WAFF-TV’s sensational editing of the original story, which included Antoine’s hyperbolic, over-the-top rant not because it was informative, but because it was entertaining.

I raised this point to someone at a party the other night.

“These stories are reported all the time,” she said. “Trust me — I’m a journalist. I would’ve included his rant, too.”

No matter how many times I go back and look at the original story, I can’t help but think Antoine’s comments should’ve been edited. If I was in the editing room, I would’ve kept the following (in bold) from the original:

“Well, obviously we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbing in your windows. He’s snatching your people up, trying to rape them, so you need to hide your kids, hide your wife and your husband, because they’re raping everyone out here.

“We got your T-shirt, you done left fingerprints and all. You are so dumb. You are really dumb. For real.

“You don’t have to come and confess that you did it. We’re looking for you. We gonna find you. I’m going to letting you know now. So you can run and tell that, homeboy.”

Really, that’s it. We already know the story concerns an attempted rapist who got away. “Raping everyone out here” is factually wrong and could incite unnecessary panic. The threat at the end isn’t really news (nor advisable by legal counsel). The only bit of information Antoine adds to the story concerns the evidence left behind.

But the WAFF-TV editors knew they had something. We live in a viral culture and I doubt anyone from WAFF-TV is surprised Antoine Dodson has become famous overnight. (Although he’s taken viral fame to whole new level.)

Look, it’s easy to feel warm and fuzzy about the story, because in the end, the Dodsons moved away from the projects and (probably) continue to make a living wage of one interview. However, how’s Kelly Dodson? Has she recovered from her traumatic experience, or is she reminded of it everytime she hears her brother’s auto-tuned interview or sees him on the BET Awards or hears “run and tell that, homeboy” or sees kids dressed as Antoine for Halloween? This all stemmed from Kelly being violated, an experience so damaging, some women never fully recover.

It’s good to see that some positives have resulted from the attack. But, I can’t help but feel WAFF-TV got a free pass for showing little in the way of ethics.

Worst Minnesota Storm Ever! (No, Really!)

Today's storm is expected to produce 28-foot waves on Lake Superior. Don't forget your lifejacket.

In the spring of 1995, my family moved into a new house in what was then the westernmost part of Sioux Falls, S.D. My dad — a homebuilder — included an elevated back porch that faced the northwest horizon. From there, we had a perfect view of the summer storms that would bubble up and slowly rumble in to wreak havoc on the city.

It was on that back porch I would obsess over severe weather, giddily awaiting the next hail storm, flash flood or tornado. I would run in and out of the house during severe weather warnings — inside to check the latest Doppler radar image and outside to spot tornadic activity on my own. Twister came out in 1996 and I fantasized being among that bunch of wily storm chasers, zigzagging across Tornado Alley, partly for science but mostly to win Helen Hunt’s affection. Unfortunately, my math and science skills lagged, so I never really stood a chance at being a meteorologist.

My parents still live in the same house, but the view has since been blocked by residential development. Still, the weather geek in me lives on. I think it’s a Midwestern thing. How many arbitrary conversations do we have on a day to day basis regarding, of all things, the weather?

To be fair, we endure some brutal weather in the Upper Midwest. This isn’t news to any of you reading this within the region, but try living in the mundane, entirely redundant Pacific Northwest climate you’ll yearn for days like today.

What’s going on today? Oh, you haven’t heard? Check weather.com:

Unimpressed? Check out this headline from Star Tribune meteorologist Paul Douglas:

That’s right, weather nerds — this is a storm worth talking about. Douglas writes:

Computer models are predicting today’s storm undergoing “bombo-genesis” near Duluth today, with a central pressure as low as 28.3″ by evening. If the computers verify we may very well set a record for Minnesota’s strongest storm (measured via barometric pressure) on record. According to Jesse Ferrell’s blog at Accu-Weather.com Minnesota’s deepest storm on record was 28.47″ near Rochester.

I doubt I’ll be the only one hitting refresh on weather.com later today to watch the barometric pressure drop. (Geek cred!)

It doesn’t take a sociologist to determine why we’re so adamant about idle weather banter. Weather is one of the few things that links strangers living in a common area. In fact, locally, I suspect it’s a point of pride. Sure, we grimace when the high is (-6) degrees, but it’s one of the first things we’ll brag about when anyone asks what Midwestern winters are like.

The forecast for Minneapolis today calls for a high 55 degrees with sustained winds of 35 miles per hour, gusting to 60 miles per hour. An inch of rain is likely. Also likely: I’ll talk to a total stranger about the weather at some point today. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, either.

That’s part of being a Minnesotan.

(Note: If you snap any cool weather-related photos today, send them my way so I can post them here. E-mail them to atmiller14@gmail.com! Include a description if possible.)

Waiting for “Superman” Oversimplifies a Complex Issue

In Waiting for "Superman", Daisy wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian. That's why she enters the lottery to attend KIPP LA PREP.

Fitting complex issues like global warming or educational reform into a two-hour documentary is a monumental task, but an impressive one nonetheless. In Waiting for “Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim pits high-performing teachers and charter schools against the crumbling public school system, which he claims lacks accountability and consequence for union-protected teachers who don’t pull their weight.

If only explaining the crisis in public education was so simple. It’s much more advanced. Guggenheim makes plenty of strong points about potential — what any kid can do if learning from great teachers at great schools — but the movie skirts around several factors, including shrinking state budgets, a brutal job market and educational alternatives outside of charter schools.

1. Public schools are poor. Schools across the country are cutting teachers and administrators for budgetary purposes, which in turn leads to larger class sizes and less classroom space. Gym and music classes are seeing the guillotine, along with safety patrol, nurses and counselors. This isn’t to argue public schools should be given a free pass. (They’re not being given anything.) However, they’re being asked to do more with less — an impossible expectation.

2. The unemployment factor. According to the Wall Street Journal, in a study examining the graduating class of 2009, about 7.6 percent of students who earned a Bachelor’s degree would wind up unemployed. Compare that to students who would graduate with an Associate’s degree. Their unemployment rate? 6.1 percent. The face of higher education is changing. If the purpose of college is to earn the skills necessary to find a job after graduation, we need to start thinking about what’s best for youth, not our mantel. As many of my friends can relate, a four-year degree means nothing without a job.

Guggenheim’s documentary makes constant reference to the importance of earning a Bachelor’s degree. Why? Not all students can/will be doctors, lawyers or engineers. That doesn’t mean they can’t find quality employment. I believe over the next decade, factoring in the overwhelming costs of college and burdens of student debt, students should be encouraged to pursue community college or trade school if that’s where their interests lie. It plenty cases, it makes more sense.

3. Public, charter and private. That’s it, right? Wrong. Perhaps some of the most exciting changes in secondary education are being found online. Public and for-profit schools alike are allowing students to earn their diploma through online education. In his annual letter on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates wrote, “A lot of people, including me, think [online education] is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things—especially in combination with face-to-face learning. With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.”

Gates, who advocates for reform in “Superman”, believes online learning can provide opportunity among budgetary constraints and access issues. Online education means students wouldn’t have to be shackled to the “dropout factory” in their district. It could also mean longer study hours, individualized education and more resources for research and tutoring.

Waiting for “Superman” wasn’t necessarily intended to provide a prescription so much as offer a diagnosis. Guggenheim’s documentary, as was the case with An Inconvenient Truth, is meant to create a dialogue and throw our attention at public education, the most important service in our country. Pledging money to help fund classroom projects is a good start, but we need to think bigger and broader.

This movie is only the start of the conversation.