Lincoln

Farts are Funny; Censorship is Not.

Some truths that I hold self-evident:

  • Googly eyes are inherently funny.
  • A well timed fart (or fart noise) can be a source of amusement, especially if the associated odor is minimal.
  • Vandalism is a crime.
  • Our First Amendment right to free speech is a cornerstone of democracy.

How do these seemingly random things come together?  Let’s find out.

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry has represented Nebraska’s 1st congressional district since 2005.  He is also a lock to be reelected today (fivethirtyeight.com predicts Fortenberry has a 99.8% chance of winning).  Despite his strong likelihood of victory, he has numerous campaign signs and billboards around Lincoln.

One of these signs was recently vandalized by an unknown perpetrator.  They placed two large googly eyes over Rep. Fortenberry’s face and managed to change the “o” in his name to a different vowel.

For reasons I’ll get into below, I am not comfortable sharing an image of the vandalized sign.  Thankfully, State Senator Adam Morfeld has provided an image that a) pays homage to the vandals’ efforts and b) comes with a built-in liability waiver:

Now, you may be asking yourself why I’m not comfortable sharing an image of the vandalized sign.  My response is this:  I like my job and I don’t want elected officials, their staff members, and/or supporters coming after me if I am amused by flatulence and googly eyes.

While that probably sounds like a ridiculously unnecessary overreaction, there is evidence to suggest that some within Representative Fortenberry’s staff are very sensitive about the vandalism.

As the Lincoln Journal-Star reports, Fortenberry’s chief of staff – William “Reyn” Archer – called UNL political science professor Ari Kohen after Kohen “liked” a Facebook post containing a picture of the altered sign.  When Kohen did not immediately return Archer’s message, Archer escalated the issue to Kohen’s boss (the Poli Sci department chair), his boss’s boss (the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences), and his boss’s boss’s boss (Chancellor Ronnie Green) via email.

When Kohen and Archer spoke via phone last week, Archer appears* to try to link Kohen’s “like” of the image to an implicit endorsement of criminal vandalism and scolds him because of the message it could send.

*In fairness, I’m basing my opinion off of a seven minute snippet of the 50+ minute conversation that Kohen posted to YouTube.  You can listen to it here.  It is quite possible that Archer was a complete gentleman for the other 40-some minutes of the call.  Frankly, I don’t want to know.  Dr. Archer, please do not call me or my employer.

At best, Fortenberry’s chief of staff is attempting to censor the free speech of state employee.  At worst, Fortenberry’s chief of staff is threatening to make Kohen’s life very difficult through political pressure on UNL officials, and attempting to stifle what faculty members can say and do.  Most concerning is Archer’s suggestion that he may utilize “a First Amendment opportunity to put you out there in front of everybody,” which I take as a not-so-thinly veiled threat to unleash a wave of partisan outrage at Kohen.

Once that train leaves the station, who knows where it stops?  As Kohen speculated on Twitter: “In the past, such efforts have directly resulted in weeks of threatening letters, voicemails, and email messages to faculty members who found themselves publicly called out in this way (including several of my colleagues at UNL). These have included death threats.”  This is a good time to mention that the conversation between Dr. Archer and Professor Kohen took place the day before the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which is likely why all of this has hit the fan.

This entire thing is equal parts ridiculous and infuriating, which is why the way the issue was handled by Rep. Fortenberry’s staff angers and concerns me:  It is warning shot fired across the bow of anybody who dares to laugh at an elected official.

And let’s be clear: this is not a cruel personal attack on Fortenberry or his family.  It’s not libelous or slanderous.  It was not part of a calculated attack in a toss up Congressional race.  It is pair of ridiculous googly eyes and a piece of tape used to transform Fortenberry’s name into crude 7th grade humor.  The person on the receiving end of these threats had no hand in vandalizing the sign, nor did he post the picture to Facebook.  He merely clicked “like” because, like I (and probably you) think, googly eyes and fart jokes can be pretty damn amusing.  Kohen’s position as a professor at a public university is presumably all the leverage Fortenberry’s office needs to try to intimidate and impose their will.

And that is what scares me.

You see, my work – in intentionally vague terms – serves employees across various levels of government (city, county, and state) from coast to coast.  As such, it is theoretically possible that some of my work may directly impact departments and agencies in areas within Nebraska’s first congressional district, or led/impacted by Fortenberry’s political allies.

Look:  I know that out of respect for my employer and the customers we serve, it is important to have a very strong filter on what I post here and on social media.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to chime in on a topic, but held back out of extreme cautiousness.

I’ve long subscribed to the social media theory that if you wouldn’t say it to somebody’s face, then don’t say it on Facebook or Twitter.  But here’s the thing – I would have no issue with telling Jeff Fortenberry – my Congressman for the past 12 years, and the foreseeable future* – that I thought the picture of him with googly eyes was hilarious.  I’d also ask him how many times he was called “Fartenberry” as a kid, because I’d wager the cost of a campaign billboard this was not the first time.

*As thin skinned and petty as Fortenberry looks in all of this, until the Nebraska Democrats can find a viable candidate to truly challenge Fortenberry, the gig will be his for as long as he wants it.  I’ll be shocked if this incident makes a noticeable dent in the support Fortenberry receives today.

I don’t think it is too much to ask that I retain basic First Amendment rights without feeling paranoid that somebody is going put unnecessary pressure on me.

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Chicken Dance of Joy

It was with great joy that I learned that chicken sandwich giant Chick-fil-A will open their first Lincoln location sometime this year.  I love me some Chick-fil-A.  I love the chicken, the waffle fries, the sweet tea, and their sauce.

Oh that sauce…it’s one of those magical condiments that makes anything else taste better.

Plus, it will be a nice upgrade from the other chicken-only chain in town:  Raisin’ Canes.  This may be sacrilegious to some, but for a place that only does chicken fingers, the chicken at Canes isn’t all that great.  Heck, I’d argue the chicken is middle of the pack in the food they do serve:

  1. Cane sauce.  It’s an odd BBQ-ranch hybrid, but it works.
  2. Fries.  A good mix of crispy, crinkly, and salty.
  3. Sweet tea.  Until Chick-fil-A arrives, it’s the best sweet tea one can get in Nebraska.
  4. Texas toast.  Good, but not great.
  5. Chicken fingers.  It’s not that they’re bad, but they’re definitely not a standout.
  6. Cole Slaw.  I’m not a cabbage and mayo sauce guy, but the Cain’s version is not very good.

Don’t mind if I do.

The biggest challenge will be getting to eat there.  The location particularly close to home or work, and given the way Lincoln loves its chain restaurants, the place will probably be packed for months and the drive-thru line will be 15 cars deep – even on Sundays.*

*Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays.  Get it?

Like anything else, there is some bad that comes with the good.  Aside from a dramatic spike in Chick-fil-A commercials, we’ll also get a front row seat whenever the next political controversy involving the chicken chain arises.  The conservative Christian company leadership will be favored and respected by many Nebraskans.  Personally, I just want to enjoy a #1 combo without having to weigh the sociopolitical implications of my lunch choice.

Feit Can Eat: Sebastian’s Table (S)

What if I told you that I went to a new restaurant and the best thing I ate was the brussels sprouts?  I’m guessing you would take that as a sign to never, ever eat at that restaurant.

But, in the case of Sebastian’s Table, a Spanish tapas style restaurant in Lincoln, that would be a very big mistake.  The sprouts, like just about everything else these serve is eyes rolling back in your head, want to lick the plate good.

Sebastian’s Table is one of the latest ventures of Ground Up Restaurants, a Lincoln group that is bringing kick-ass food to a city with an unhealthy love for chain restaurants.  First, there was the GUP Kitchen food truck, the must-try Honest Abe’s Burgers and Freedom, and the delicious Sasquatch! bakery (as well as the recently opened Sasquatch Cafe, located in a glorified coat closet in the Well Fargo building downtown).

I'm guessing he's related to the Dos Equis guy.

I’m guessing he’s related to the Dos Equis guy.

Sebastian’s is not a true Spanish tapas restaurant where most of the food is traditional (or derived from) Spanish dishes.  The best example of a true Spanish tapas restaurant in Nebraska is another favorite:  España in Omaha.  Instead, Sebastian’s is probably best described as a tapas style restaurant (i.e. small plates of food) with cuisine that may not necessarily have Spanish influences.

For those unfamiliar with the tapas concept, it’s very simple:  select one, two, or three items per person.  These dishes are meant to be shared with those at your table.  The items come out as they are prepared, so it is not like a standard restaurant where somebody’s food sits under a heat lamp while the rest of your order is finished up.

The Food

Simply put, the food is excellent.  Sebastian’s menu isn’t huge, but the flavors certainly are.  Let’s start with the aforementioned sprouts:  They are quartered and mixed with hazelnuts, piquillo peppers, and an orange gastrique.  Then the works is cooked until the brussels get a caramelized char.  And now my keyboard is covered in drool.

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Trust me, my poorly lit cell phone phone does not do them justice.

Another favorite is the beef skewers.  Thin pieces of fork-tender tenderloin grilled to perfection and topped with chimichurri, all resting on a smoky romesco sauce.  My biggest gripe is you only three in the serving, which invariably means Mrs. Feit Can Write and I have to battle over the last one.


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Heaven on a stick

 

As I mentioned earlier, not everything is Spanish per se.  One of the more popular items is their version of a spinach and artichoke dip.  The Sebastian’s version has rich smoked Gouda, parmesan cheese, spinach, and herbs and is served with some delicious bread.  It is rich, gooey, and packed with flavor.

In our two visits, we have only had one dud.  The Risotto Espanola, a risotto with a definite paella influence, has shrimp, chorizo, scallops, and chicken mixed with a tangy sauce.  It’s not that the dish was bad, it just wasn’t what we were expecting.  To her credit, our server recognized this and offered to replace the dish with something else.  We ended up with the Chorizo and Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese, and were as pleased with the fine service we received as much as we were with the bowl of creamy comfort we received.

Sebastian’s Table also does desserts, with a mixed assortment of seasonal items, a daily pie special from Sasquatch! bakery, and a rotating bread pudding.  I come from a long line of bread pudding connoisseurs, and the chocolate peanut butter bread pudding from our first visit certainly held its own.

The Drink

For Mrs. Feit Can Write and myself, one of our favorite parts of going to a Spanish restaurant is a glass (or three) of sangria.  In this regard, Sebastian’s Table does not disappoint.  There are two house made sangrias (a red and a white) on tap at the bar.  Both are very delicious and pair nicely with the various dishes.  Additionally, they have a monthly rotating sangria that features some unique flavor combinations (the March version, “Gusts of A Thousand Winds” combined pineapple, peach, pomegranate, ginger, and Sriracha into a delicious glass of sweet and spicy heaven).

Sebastian’s also has a vast wine list, local craft brews from Nebraska Brewing Company on tap, and a menu of unique craft cocktails, including the Dead Man’s Wallet, which takes rye whiskey, ruby port, lemon, and house made cinnamon syrup to create a one of kind flavor profile.

The Atmosphere

The vibe is laid back, yet classy.  Sebastian’s Table is located in an old two level building.  The smaller main level contains the bar and kitchen.  The individual tables are up a single flight of stairs.  You’re not going to find a TV turned to ESPN, and in our two visits, we have not seen very many kids.  Sebastian’s Table is perfect for date night, a night out with friends, or a fun change of pace.

Check, Please

Prices at Sebastian’s Table are reasonable to slightly above average.  Some folks may balk at paying $8 for three steak skewers (“especially when I can get a big ol’ sirloin and sides at Applebee’s for the a few bucks more!”) or $9 for my beloved brussels sprouts, but the prices aren’t bad considering the quality and taste (not to mention supporting a local business).

To be sure, you can get a bad case of sticker shock if you order a bunch of tapas, drink several glasses of sangria, and generally live it up (been there, done that, spent over $100 for two people).

But you can also have a very good, and very unique meal, a delicious cocktail or glass of sangria for less than $20 per person – especially if you go on Tuesdays when the sangria is bargain priced at $2 a glass.  Even in a chain-friendly town like Lincoln, that’s pretty good.

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(Author’s note:  Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post?  Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge?  Like clicking on links?  These questions are all answered here.)

Restaurant Yin and Yang

About a month ago, Mrs. Feit Can Write and I found ourselves with the opportunity for a mid-week date night.  As any parent of young kids will tell you, when these opportunities arise, you need to a) seize them, and b) maximize them.  In doing this, we saw a strange dichotomy between how two different establishments function.  What follows is a case study in restaurant extremes – how to do things, and more importantly, how NOT to do things if you want to be successful.

Even though it was a date night, our evening actually began with a familiar parental errand – taking a kid to a practice/class for one of their activities.  In this case, it was a gymnastics class that our four-year-old takes.  Normally, one of us gets her there, makes sure the class gets started, then run a quick errand (Target, grocery store, etc.).  But with both of us taking her, we decided the best thing would be to drop into the nearest establishment for a drink and an appetizer.  This led us to our first stop.

Restaurant 1:  Skeeter Barnes

First off, Skeeter Barnes is not a restaurant owned by the 1980’s standout of AAA baseball (at least to my knowledge, anyway).  It is a barbecue/steak place with three locations in Nebraska that claims to have the “best beef and BBQ around”.  While it’s never been a place I crave, they’ve been around for 10-15 years and appear to do a nice business even though the restaurant is kind of tucked away in a nondescript industrial park on the southeast corner of Lincoln.

We walked into Skeeter Barnes around 5:45 on a Thursday.  We stood, alone, in the reception area of a mostly empty restaurant for five minutes waiting for somebody to greet/acknowledge us.  There were one or two full tables and a two people sitting at the bar, but otherwise, their large space was all but deserted.  Strike one.  While we’re standing there, I notice they have a grease board saying that Long Island ice tea is on special.

We sit down in the bar area and order drinks.  My wife asks if their margaritas are good.  To her credit, the waitress responds honestly and states that they use a bottled mix, so their version is nothing special.  My wife opts for a beer.  I ask for a Long Island.  We also order an appetizer to share – one of those fried onion blooms.

A few minutes later, the waitress returns to tell me that they are out of the mix they use for their Long Islands.  Aside from questioning why they need a mix for a Long Island (it’s a bunch of booze, some sour mix and cola), I cannot fathom why they list a special if they are incapable of making it.  Remember, it’s 5:45 on a weeknight, and the place is almost empty.  It’s not like they’ve already made three dozen and used up all of their ingredients.  Strike two.

Our onion arrives, and it is less than spectacular.  Slightly burnt on the outside, lukewarm to cold on the inside.  Strike three.  We paid our bill and left to pick our daughter up from her class.

After we dropped our daughter off with the sitter, we headed out for dinner – and a complete reversal of what we had experienced earlier.

Restaurant 2:  Blue Orchid

We walked in and were immediately greeted and seated.  Blue Orchid does not have drink specials, but they do have a good menu of unique drinks made from scratch – no bottled mixes here.  I ordered a Thai Bloody Mary (house infused lemongrass and Thai chili vodka, yellow tomato juice and yellow curry paste) that was one of the best bloodies, I’ve ever had.

My wife loves their spring rolls – little rolls of deliciousness perfectly fried and served hot.  For my entrée, I ordered the yellow curry – a rich, warm, bowl of comfort with potatoes, carrots, and beef covered in a mildly spicy yellow curry.  It was outstanding.  My wife loved her dish, a spicier red curry with salmon and vegetables.

Even though we were both a little full, we each made room for two desserts that we love.  My wife loves their ginger creme brule – a rich custard flavored with ginger and topped with burnt sugar.  I got the young coconut cake, which is a white cake with a light and creamy white chocolate frosting, speckled with pieces of young coconut.  This isn’t the shredded stuff that comes out of a bag and smells oddly like sunscreen, this is the flesh of a unripened coconut – a sweet, slightly chewy delicacy.

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Postscript – Not surprisingly, about three or four weeks after our visit to Skeeter Barnes, they closed their doors.  I read that they lost their lease, but I have to believe that their lack of business was probably the biggest culprit.

Nebraska Movie Roles Rejected by Matt Damon

The city of Lincoln, NE is abuzz with star-struck awe.

Matt Damon has been in town this week.

Supposedly, he is here with his nephew who will be a freshman at the University of Nebraska this fall.  There have also been reports that his nephew will try to walk on to the Nebraska football team.  But frankly, I’m not sure I buy any of that.

I mean, it’s not like Damon is the first famous Hollywood movie star to visit Lincoln.  Harrison Ford (allegedly) checked out one of our gentlemen’s clubs.  Wesley Snipes rented a loft in the Haymarket* while filming a movie.  And let’s not forget our movie star next door, the star of Oscar contenders like Witless Protection and Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Nebraska’s own Dan Whitney (aka Larry).

*My wedding reception was in the loft Snipes rented.  The loft had an attached master suite where we stayed on our wedding night, so technically I’ve shared a bed with Passenger 57.  But I’m pretty sure they changed the sheets after Willie Mays Hayes left town.

So why was Matt Damon really here?  And why did he spend all of his time on campus?

Clearly, he is researching is next movie role.

What movie, you ask?  I’m not sure yet.  According to my University sources, the following ideas were shot down by Damon.

The Osborne Ultimatum*
Damon plays Dr. Tom Osborne, a straight-laced, tea totaling football coach by day and a profane, hard-drinking, rogue double agent for the Enforcement Division of the NCAA Compliance Department by night.  The year is 1983, and Osborne faces an impossible challenge:  guide his Cornhuskers to a National Championship, or allow Miami to win the title, setting in motion a carefully choreographed series of events culminating in the “Death Penalty” being handed out after booster Nevin Shapiro corrupts the school beyond recognition.

Late in the championship game, (which is illogically played on Miami’s home field), Osborne’s Husker trail Miami, but they’re driving down the field.  Turner Gill’s pass is inexplicably dropped by a wide open Irving Fryar, but then back-up I-Back Jeff Smith rambles in for a touchdown, putting Nebraska down by 1 with very little time left.  What does Osborne do?  Kick the PAT and bring glory to himself, or go for two and set the diabolical Operation Hurricane in motion?  Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger (played by Ben Affleck) cannot believe what comes next.

*Initially, I was going to do the Osborne Identity, but today I challenged fellow No Coast Bias writer Chris Hatch of Burnpoetry to do a take on that title.  I figured he’d do one of his Photoshop movie posters (like this one) and that would be end of it.  But no…Chris went above and beyond, creating this masterpiece.  Since there is no way I can improve upon that, I’m stuck with one of the other Bourne trilogy titles.  I chose Ultimatium mainly because I couldn’t remember the name of the other one.

Good Bo Hunting
Matt Damon co-wrote this script about Bo Pelini, a humble janitor from the south side of Lincoln.  Bo is cleaning up in the football offices when he sees a seemingly unsolvable problem on the board – how to stop spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks using lead-footed defenders.  Head Coach Frank Solich is stunned by the revelation and decides to bring Bo on to his staff.  Bo has a mild anger issue, so he must also meet with a school psychologist (played by Carl Pelini) to get in touch with his true self.  Ben Affleck co-stars as Pelini’s buddy, Barney Cotton.

Delaney’s Eleven
Jimbo Delaney (George Clooney) is just released from prison, but wants to plot the heist of the century – stealing Nebraska out from under the Big XII and transplanting it into the Big 10, while sticking it to the pompously smug Notre Dame.  Delaney arranges a team to infiltrate the Big XII, and a complex web of scams, tricks, and bogus media reports is constructed.

A large ensemble cast stars in this movie.  Damon plays Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez.  Ben Affleck appears as Texas blogger Chip Brown.  Julia Roberts plays Nancy Osborne.  Rave reviews for Woody Allen’s performance as Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman.

Delaney’s Fourteen
In this sequel to Delaney’s Eleven, Jimbo Delaney wants to add to his vast empire, by pulling one more big heist.  His team is reassembled, and are ready to go.  But instead of pursuing big, worthy targets like North Carolina, Florida State, Georgia Tech, or Notre Dame, Delaney sets his sites on Rutgers and Maryland.

Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez (once again played by Damon) wonders aloud why the team was gathered, when this caper could have been “pulled off by the same see-no-evil idiots who ran Penn State during the Sandusky years”.  The film is a dud because the projected numbers from the D.C. and New York markets never materialize (that and not even Scarlet Knight alumni want to endure 108 minutes about Rutgers).  Ben Affleck makes a cameo as the ghostly spirit of Joe Paterno.

Tommy Lee Goes to College – The Movie
Surely you remember 2005’s hit “reality” series Tommy Lee Goes to College, where the Motley Crue drummer “enrolls” at UNL and finds himself in all sorts of zany (yet totally realistic) scenarios – like trying out for the Cornhusker Marching Band and studying with the coed known solely as the “Hot Tutor”.

In this feature-length film, the part of Tommy Lee is being played by Tommy Lee Jones, and Damon stars as his nerdy, yet lovable roommate Matt Ellis.  Tommy’s is working in the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, and may have found a way to reverse the damage caused by concussions in football games.  Unfortunately, Tommy suffered a concussion while practicing as Taylor Martinez’s backup, and the research may be lost forever.  Can Ellis and the Hot Tutor help Tommy Lee recover the research (and win the big game) in time?  Ben Affleck co-stars as Taylor Martinez.

Legend of Pat Tyrance
Damon plays Micah Kreikemeier, a career backup linebacker, struggling to make a contribution to the team.  He forms an unlikely bond with the sage Pat Tyrance, a star linebacker from the 1980s.  Through a combination of hard work, perseverance, and luck, Micah learns the keys to being a feared linebacker.  In the Big Game, Micah uses the knowledge Tyrance gave him to lead Nebraska to an amazing, come from behind victory.  Ben Affleck appears as Linebackers Coach/Special Teams Coordinator/Recruiting Coordinator/Bus Driver/Lunch Lady/Hot Dog Vendor/Assistant to the Regional Manager Ross Els.

Saving Sam Cotton
In this military drama, oldest brother Ben Cotton is brutally attacked by Texas A&M’s Tony Jerod-Eddie.  Middle brother Jake suffers a torn ACL.  Persistent message board threats have forced their dad Barney Cotton into hiding.

Not wanting to deliver the dreadful news that her whole family is gone, Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst instructs a select team of grad assistants and student managers to bring youngest brother Sam Cotton (played by Matt Damon) back home to his mother before it is too late.

Warning:  the first 20 minutes of the film – featuring footage of Nebraska’s loss to Barney Cotton’s Iowa State offense, Jake’s mangled knee (played by Ben Affleck), and ultra slow-motion shots of Ben’s cotton balls being tugged – may be too gruesome for some viewers.

Fireworks! Get Your Illegal Fireworks!

Driving around Lincoln recently, I saw a billboard that caught my eye.

It was for the “Fireworks Emporium” in Rock Port, Missouri

The sign describes the Emporium as the “Home of the ‘Really Good Stuff'”.  What does that mean?  While they don’t specify anything, they do hint at it by mentioning their stuff is “NOT available in Nebraska!”  In other words, things that are allowed under Missouri law, but not by Nebraska / Lincoln laws (bottle rockets, M-80s, among others).

I was able to get a low-quality picture of the sign with my phone before the light turned green:

Billboard

Come get your illegal fireworks!

I am struck by the message, and I admire the balls behind this billboard.

They are saying:  “Look – we know that Nebraska, and especially Lincoln, have some pretty restrictive fireworks laws.  But we also know that you want to celebrate the Fourth by blowin’ up some stuff that is bigger, louder, and more awesome than what you could find in Lincoln.  So take a short 80 mile drive down to Missouri and stock up on some seriously good stuff – the stuff that will impress your friends, scare the neighbors, and risk your fingers.  Sure, much of what we sell is illegal where you live.  But we don’t care.  Just like you don’t care.  So since you’re going to break the law,  you might as well do it right – with us.”

In short, this billboard is saying, “Come buy your illegal fireworks from us!”

I know, I know – the majority of fireworks laws are notoriously under enforced, especially on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th of July (as well as the nearest weekend).

However, the State Fire Marshall’s website states very plainly:

“It is illegal to transport fireworks across the state line as stated in Nebraska State Statute 28-1248. Only a licensed distributor or jobber may bring fireworks into the state. You may also want to check with the US Department of Transportation regarding any restrictions or requirements they place on transportation of fireworks.”

But the good folks that Fireworks Emporium in Rock Port, MO don’t really care about that.  Neither do the proprietors of the other big fireworks shops in Rock Port or Watson – two small towns in the northwestern corner of Missouri that are a bottle rocket’s flight away from both Nebraska and Iowa.

I wonder if other businesses employ this same strategy – enticing people with products and services that are illegal where they live.

The numerous casino billboards and commercials in Omaha (just across the river from legal casino gaming in Council Bluffs, IA) are the first thing to come to mind.  But there is a key difference:  For the casinos, you actually have to leave your state to utilize the product.  With Rock Port Firework Emporium, you buy them where they are legal, but then you likely transport and use them in a place where they’re prohibited by law.

Now that marijuana is legal in Colorado and Washington, do you think the legal sellers pot are advertising in bordering states?  Is there a billboard in Corvallis, Oregon advertising the Marijuana Emporium in Bordertown, Washington, taunting the locals with promises of the “Really Good Stuff” not available in Oregon?

For the record, I don’t have a problem with the Fireworks Emporium advertising in Nebraska, nor do I really care if product purchased there is blown up here (I will neither confirm nor deny having used bottle rockets inside the borders of the Great State of Nebraska).  But as a fan of advertising, I can’t remember another ad with a similar message.

Wasting Your Vote

Apparently, I was supposed to vote today.  The City of Lincoln held a primary election.

Frankly, I had no idea that my primary democratic responsibility was being called into action today.  I don’t read the local paper very often, and when the wife and I watch TV at night, she’ll always pick a Law & Order rerun over the 10 o’clock news*.

*My wife finds many of the news stories (murders, violent crimes, etc) depressing, so I can appreciate that you might think choosing Law & Order or Law & Order: SVU local news is curious – given the amount on violence on many of those shows.  Yet, I think that on some level she prefers L & O because we always know that in the end, Detectives Benson & Stabler (or District Attorney Jack McCoy) will always get the bad guy.

Anyway, I’m not going to lose any sleep about sitting this election out.

Why?  Because it was a complete and utter waste of time and resources.

Had I bothered to vote, I could have voted in the following city races:

  • Lincoln Airport Authority.  Nicholas J. Cusick ran unopposed.
  • Lincoln School Board.  I don’t live in one of the four districts where the seat was up for election, so I wouldn’t have been able to vote.  Regardless, all four candidates ran unopposed.
  • Lincoln City Council.  There are three at-large seats up for election.  In this primary, voters picked up to three from the seven initial candidates, with the top six advancing to the general election on May 7.

That’s it.

Seriously.

Three races, a total of nine candidates, and only one went home a loser*.

I’m not sure if the candidates cared about this election.

*My sincere condolences to Norman L. Dority, whose 4% of the City Council vote wasn’t nearly enough to extend his campaign.  If it helps, your vote total would have won three of the four school board races. 

What a waste.  The Lincoln Journal-Star estimated this election will cost around $135,000.  I haven’t seen any voter turnout numbers yet, but the election commissioner was expecting around 20,000 citizens to vote.  Judging by the airport authority vote, at least 15,742 people bothered to show up.

I’d love to know who the people are that intentionally showed up for this vote.  I can understand the candidates, as well as their family and friends.  I can understand the folks who work at the polling places taking 45 seconds to vote.  I suspect a number of retired people with nothing better to do might feel obligated to vote (especially in some of the retirement communities that doubled as polling places).  But other than that, why bother?  Other than crushing poor Norm’s dreams of civic duty, not a damn thing was decided today.  We get to do it all over again in four weeks.

Lincoln needs to move away from holding city elections on odd-numbered years, and pair up all local elections with the state and federal elections in even-numbered years.  Yes that might mean some years there is a ballot full of candidates, which could mean some voters aren’t properly educated on their City Council candidates.  But the trade-off is a much better voter turnout when there is an election, and a general public that is not apathetic about a fundamental freedom that millions of people have died for.

Give me something to vote for and I’ll be there to vote (and I’ll take my young daughter with me so she learns the importance of voting).  But I’m not going to waste my time to rubber stamp a bunch of people running unopposed.

Don’t You Need Snow For A Snow Day?

The big news in Lincoln is Winter Storm Q*, which is expected to dump anywhere from 6 inches to 14 feet of snow over much of the Midwest.  The doomsday predictions of the storm have coming all week, and are so severe that Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel is in town (as I saw on Facebook this morning, Cantore doesn’t show up to admire your sunny days).

*What is the deal with naming winter snow storms?  Was some land-locked meteorologist feeling left out by the names given to hurricanes?  And worse yet is the choice of “Q”.  I have two issues with Q:  1) If you can’t pop for an entire name (Quincy, Quantavius, Quentin) then don’t bother with a single letter, and 2) Many Lincolnites associate the name “Q” with a downtown gay bar (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Unless the Q Bar is sponsoring the storm – and really, how far off are we from selling the naming rights to weather events? – let’s skip the names.

The snow was supposed to start falling Wednesday night, and continue all day Thursday.  So it made sense that Lincoln Public Schools called off classes for Thursday, which sets off a domino effect of parochial schools, small towns, daycare centers, and businesses closing too.  Heck, even the University of Nebraska called off classes, which is a rarity*.

*During my 4.5 years at UNL, classes were only called off once – for the Blizzard of 1997 – when Lincoln got 12-15 inches of heavy, wet snow that downed trees and left thousands without power for days.  That, my friends, was a storm worthy of a name.

When I went to bed last night, I peeked out the window, and was somewhat surprised to see that it had not started snowing yet.  No biggie – I set my alarm a little earlier, knowing that I’d be shoveling the driveway in the morning.

Morning came and….still no snow.  Seriously.  Not a flake. I got the kids ready for daycare and we set off on the nearly deserted streets.

As you might guess, there is a significant amount of grumbling going on about the decision to close schools before a single flake falls.  Many people (myself included) remember trudging to and from school during heavy Nebraska snows, with a snow day being an unexpected treat – not a foregone conclusion.  I read several of my friends griping about the decision, and what calling a snow day with no snow falling says about our culture and toughness.

But ultimately, I think they made the right decision.

Yes, the first flakes did not start falling until a little after 10 am, and as I type this (1 pm) there is maybe 2 inches of accumulation.  Surely, LPS could have gotten in a partial day; monitoring the weather and dismissing classes when the snow started to pile up, right?

Wrong.

Setting aside the inconsistent-to-poor snow removal in Lincoln, the general inability of Lincoln drivers to deal with snowy roads, and the logistics of thousands of working parents trying to get out of work to get their kids home – and believe me, these are all incredibly valid concerns individually – there is still one key reason why LPS made the right call:

As parents, and as a community, we entrust the safety and welfare of our children to their hands.  We count on our schools to keep them safe from all sorts of danger while they are there, and a winter snow storm/blizzard is definitely one of those things.  Believe it or not, some kids still walk to and from school all by themselves.  Do you want your kid, or your neighbor’s kid out walking around today?

I appreciate that LPS was in a true no-win situation.  If they don’t cancel classes and Lincoln gets socked by a foot of snow and/or some cute little kid gets hurt walking home then they never hear the end of it for failing to plan for a storm that we’ve known about for days.  If they do cancel school and the storm turns out to be a minor dusting (leaving poor Jim Cantore pouting in his parka), then they are the administration who cries “wolf!” and is failing to educate our kids.

I think Lincoln got it right.  Yeah, it was a little awkward this morning when it was not snowing, but their simple act helped avoid a lot of risk and kept kids safe.

And in a post-Newtown world, that is what our schools should be doing.

Snow Way, Let’s Get Plowed

Lincoln, Nebraska received about six inches of snow Tuesday night.  As the snow started to pile up, crews from the city’s Public Works department were out plowing streets, and spreading sand and salt to help make the streets driveable before the morning rush*

*Note – I use “rush” in a very loose sense.  There are several hindrances Lincolnites face in getting to work in the morning (two lane streets, bad drivers, poorly timed traffic signals, never-ending road work, confusion on how a roundabout works, etc.) but gridlock caused by an abundance of traffic is not one of them. 

Most cities have a rush hour.  Lincoln has a rush 5 minutes.

The city and the Public Works folks faced heavy criticism after the last snow storm.  By the time plows reached the side streets, the snow had been compacted down into large sheets of ice that lasted for weeks.

So with the new storm, came a new plan of attack:  city crews would try to get ahead of the game by dumping salt while doing the initial plowing.  (more about the plan and the previous criticism can be found in this Lincoln Journal-Star article).

This is good to hear.  When something is obviously not working, try a different approach.  I commend the city for trying new things.  Especially things other than the “Annie Strategy”* that has been used in the past.

*The “Annie Strategy” is where the city parks the plows in the garage and sings “The sun will come out tomorrow.  So you gotta hang on ’til tomorrow, come what may…“.  Technically, this strategy has a 100% success rate (snow wouldn’t last long in a Nebraska summer), but it doesn’t foster a lot of confidence in city government.

Not the Public Works director (I think)

But here is the thing I don’t get:  Why is there a need to keep experimenting with new approaches and techniques?  I get that every snow storm is unique and brings its own set of circumstances (amount of snow, time of day, day of week, wet snow vs powder, snow vs ice, and many other factors).

But…

Why is the city still experimenting?  Lincoln has been a city for a long, long time.  I’ve lived in Lincoln for 20 years.  In each of those twenty winters, we have received at least one snowfall with more than six inches of snow.  Why isn’t there a tried-and-true, battle tested plan of attack for whatever Mother Nature throws our way?

I understand that things have changed in the last 10-20 years:  taxes are lower, gas is more expensive, crew wages and benefits are more expensive, Lincoln’s population and number of streets have increased, people are out on the streets around the clock.  All of these things must make it a real pain in the ass to get streets plowed.

But…

Lincoln is not the only moderately sized city (250,000 people) facing these challenges in the snow belt.  What do other comparable cities do?  Is their snow removal better or worse?  What works and what doesn’t work?

I’m not the kind of guy who gripes all day long about paying too much in taxes, and this rant isn’t about whether or not my tax dollars are being used efficiently.  I am just struggling to comprehend why in 2013 we still don’t know the best way to clear snow and ice off of city streets in a relatively timely manner.  Maybe we need to give Mr. Plow* a call…

Surely it’s not that hard.

*That name again is Mr. Plow.

Exercising My Right to Complain (and other random election thoughts)

Today, I voted over the lunch hour, guaranteeing my right to complain for another four years.  I would like to exercise that right, as well as share some of my thoughts and feelings on other national and local issues.

Let’s start it off with the main event:  the presidential race.

President Obama reelected.  Despite this and my last two posts, I do want to keep this space largely free of politics so I’ll withhold my thoughts on the reelection itself.  But I will say this:  I have two (adopted) children under the age of four.  My daughter has an African-American birth father, and both my son’s birth parents are African-American.  Having an African-American President isn’t going to erase (or likely reduce) the racial challenges they will face in their lives – especially in an overwhelmingly caucasian state like Nebraska – but it will make it easier for me to tell them that anything is possible.  And that is a huge victory in our household.

Poor timing.  For the majority of the night, we kept our coverage on ABC – mainly because I prefer their Lincoln affiliate for local coverage.  Unfortunately, when Obama got the necessary 270 electoral votes, we missed out on the moment as we were watching a local reporter stumble through an interview with a reelected Congressman.  Talk about anti-climatic.

Popular vote vs. Electoral College.  As I write this, President Obama has a very slight lead in the popular vote* (around 200,000 – less than the population of Lincoln, NE), but he is absolutely crushing Romney in the all-important Electoral College (303-203 at the moment).  This is bringing up the same debate we have every four years on if the best way to elect our President is to continue the Electoral College or put it simply to a popular vote where the candidate with the most votes wins.

*Currently, I’m mixing up my election coverage with some Fox News.  The nice blonde lady is struggling to figure out why Romney lost even though he is doing well in the popular vote.  I’m guessing this anchor was hired more for her looks than her political savvy, but surely somebody there can explain the Electoral College to her, right?

Without getting into that debate, I think the thing we must recognize is how well – in this election and in 2008 – Barack Obama and his campaign team did in a) understanding exactly how the system worked and b) creating a winning game plan to win under the system in place.  Frankly, I think if the goal was to win the national popular vote, Obama’s team would have emphasized that instead of focusing on the critical swing states.

For what it’s worth, I’d love to see how the election would have played out if every state used the system in place in Nebraska and Maine:  the electoral votes are not winner-take-all, but are divided by Congressional district.  That could be a fair compromise to the issue.

Long lines to vote.  Throughout the day, I heard stories of folks having to wait for hours on end to vote at their local polling place.  And I don’t understand it.  This is my sixth presidential election, and I have never waited more than five minutes to cast my ballot – and for most of them (including today) I simply walk in, sign the thing and vote.  So what is the deal?  Are there not enough polling places?  Not enough workers staffing them? Whatever it is, it needs to be fixed.

Moving closer to home, there were a handful of local races and amendments that I felt strongly about.  Looking back, I probably should have shared my thoughts before the election, but given the large margins by which they were defeated, it probably would not have mattered.

Bob Kerrey loses his bid for the U.S. Senate.  Despite some late polls that showed Kerrey (a former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator) had closed the gap on state senator Deb Fischer, this was never really in much doubt.  Kerrey never had much of a chance, and the simple fact that he – somebody who has not lived in the state since 2000 – represented the Nebraska Democrats’ best (and only) hope for retaining Ben Nelson’s Senate seat should tell you everything you need to know about the strength of the democratic party in Nebraska.  But to be clear – it stinks.  Yes, there are some bright, young, and talented democratic senators in the Unicameral, but blowout losses in the elections for  three congressional districts, both Senate seats, and the Governor’s mansion over the past few years demonstrates the failure of the democratic party to recruit, develop, and support talented candidates.

I can certainly understand that few people in this vastly Republican state care about the stumbles and fumbles within the Democratic Party, but, having both parties being viable and competitive is in the best interest of all Nebraskans.  The GOP is more than holding up their end fo the bargain.  Let’s see if the Democrats can do the same.

During his acceptance speech, Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry forgets one of his children.  It is a standard part of the post-election speech.  Candidate thanks his wife, his kids, and everyone who supported him.  Fortenberry was doing the same thing; he recognized his wife, named three or four kinds, and was moving on when his wife interrupted him to point out that he had forgotten about one of his daughters – who was standing four feet away from him.

An amendment to extend term limits is rejected.  The amendment would have kept term limits on the Nebraska legislature, but would have changed the maximum number of terms from two to three.  Personally, I liked the idea as the Unicameral is seeing good senators forced out and replaced with inexperienced newbies, who spend most of their first term getting familiar with the ropes.  A part of me thinks this was defeated for the same reason term limits were initially enacted – to keep argumentative and contrarian senator Ernie Chambers out of office.

Speaking of which….

Ernie Chambers reelected to the Nebraska Legislature.  He’s baaack!  His WikiPedia page refers to him as “‘Defender of the Downtrodden’, the ‘Maverick of Omaha’ and the ‘Angriest Black Man in Nebraska.'”  He was forced out by term limits, sat out for four years, and is back and ready to use his mastery of the political process to block bills that he does not support.  Ernie adds much-needed life to the Unicameral, and he does a good job of thinning out some of the junk bills that get pushed every year.

No pay raise for the Legislature.  An amendment to give Nebraska’s state senators a $10,500 pay raise (from $12,000 to $22,500 a year) is soundly rejected.  I know that my fellow Nebraskans are a fiscally conservative bunch, but I wonder a) why anybody would spend thousands of dollars campaigning for a full-time “part-time” job that likely pays less than minimum wage per hour worked. and b) if there is any way that a person like me (i.e. married, kids, car payment, job that pays considerably less than six figures) could ever survive as a Senator without starving (or getting cozy with a lobbyist).  As the old cliché goes – you get what you pay for.

Campaign Workers and Volunteers.  As I was driving my kids to daycare this morning, I recognized a former co-worker (Phil Montag) holding a alarge campaign sign at an intersection.  Ten hours later, as I was taking my daughter to her gymnastics class, Phil was still on the street corner still holding that sign.  I assume that Phil did not spend his entire day holding a sign up for motorists to ignore, but I have a ton of respect for the folks – on both sides – who freely give their time, talents, and energies to help their candidates get elected.  Some really believe in their candidate(s).  Some – like Phil – are political junkies who enjoy the nuts and bolts of elections.  Regardless, I applaud those who do the little things to help make our democratic elections work, from the presidential elections down to a humble race for County Commissioner, such as the one Phil was holding a sign for.

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