Friday, June 8, 2012

First Thoughts

Late last week I was honored to be invited along with other members of the Madison community to share my first thoughts on the Wisconsin election results - win or lose, good or bad - for publication in the Isthmus. We were supposed to write short pieces of 300 words or less, about our thoughts, feelings, or hopes for Wisconsin after the results were in. Late in the night on Tuesday, June 5th, I wrote this:

I’ve always been a person who doesn’t like to trespass but sometimes you just find yourself over the line.” Bob Dylan, “Brownsville Girl.”

For those of us who tell stories, there are just too many metaphors about what has happened here, and Dylan’s line is about as good as it gets. Everything in Wisconsin shifted unexpectedly when Walker was elected, and many are left standing in both the same place and in unexpected territory now that he has been re-elected, again.

For those of us in business, everything worthwhile is measurable. In all that’s measurable – jobs, consumer confidence, budget revenue and deficits – Walker fails. When we also look honestly at employee attrition, morale, and prospect conversion, his numbers get even worse.

Where Walker is successful is where the Left fails: He says the thing that people want to hear. We on the Left seldom do this. Walker creates sound-bites; the Left writes position papers. The average voter won’t read more than a bumper-sticker.

As an athlete, I’m not as strong as I am resolute. Everybody I know can beat me for the first three hours – or days – but beyond that they drop off. I just don’t know enough to stop fighting, mostly. I have a tremendous capacity for punishment.

In this last sixteen months, we’ve all taken personal and professional damage that is difficult to measure or accept. Tomorrow, we get up again and do the same thing we’ve done every day since Walker was elected: We fight for what is right, and we will not stop until we’ve won.

Forward, Wisconsin. Just one more day.

Honestly, I wasn't happy with this effort. The feelings raging in my heart and soul felt bigger than the space allowed, and the ending felt to me like I had dropped a bow onto a train wreck and called the whole mess "pretty."

I had a short, fitful sleep, troubled by dreams about - of all things - Dante's "Inferno." I woke in the morning with the taste of stale wine on my lips, and wrote this:

Emotion is in general a hard thing to measure. We quantify our joys with arms held wide and our bitterness in teeny-tiny cups. (Sometimes it’s the other way around…) Neither metric is as real nor palpable as the raw feelings about Scott Walker’s re-election seem to be this morning.

Wednesday-morning quarterbacking of election results is often a mix of bravado and resolve, which together mask Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Still, losing an election is not a purely emotional experience, but – rather – it is an intellectual one as well.

Many of us wake this morning not just with our hearts torn out, but also with the thought that the outcome does not match the known facts: Scott Walker has lied to Wisconsin, has divided neighbors and family, and has measurably taken our economy, environment, and education system into a downward spiral. It took a mountain of out-of-state money – over 70% of his record hoard - to keep him in power. The prevailing online joke is that this was not an election as much as it was an auction.

So as I try to quantify the immeasurable today – that is, how I feel this morning - I struggle to avoid hyperbole. I woke in the night thinking that politics like what we’re seeing now inspired Dante to write “The Inferno.” Frankly, today my disappointment spills out from the small cup I would put it in. As I count that which can be counted, I note that while there are five stages of grief, there are also nine levels of Hell.

Today, I’m not sure which journey we’re undertaking collectively now here in Wisconsin, through grief or down into Hell.  But – fortunately, according to Dante and Kübler-Ross – I know that there’s a way through both.

The truth is that it's really difficult to address intelligently Dante's "Inferno" and Kübler-Ross's landmark treatise on grief in less than 1000 words each. I had tried to take on both in about 300. Frankly, I'm just not that smart.

Then, of course, there was all that wine, which - by Wednesday morning - had already proven to be too little: I woke up and Scott Walker was still governor of Wisconsin, after all.

I sent both pieces into the Isthmus and asked them to choose. Here is what they published, thankfully only online:

Scott Walker has lied to Wisconsin, has divided neighbors and family, and has taken our economy, environment and education system into a downward spiral. It took a mountain of out-of-state money to keep him in power. The prevailing online joke is that this was not an election as much as it was an auction.

So in the end, I'm proud and grateful to be among all of the voices who were asked to contribute to the commentary about this historic election. I am prouder still to have stood among the millions in Wisconsin who for the last year and a half have fought so hard against such an overwhelming onslaught of "that ain't right."

For the moment, that's enough.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dear Governor Walker: It's A Boy!

Dear Governor Walker,

I just thought I'd send you a quick update to the testimony I gave to the Joint Finance Committee at about 1:30am on February 15, 2011. You probably missed it, and - frankly - I'm glad you did.

As a public speaker, I wasn't really at my very best that night. Part of the problem was that I was really angry that you decided to "drop a bomb" on Wisconsin.

Then I spent six straight hours watching Robin Vos act in an utterly condescending and curt manner to everyday Wisconsin citizens. It was obvious in his every movement that the hearing was merely for show, and - in fact - at one point he said just this. It was likely in this same statement that he dismissed everyone waiting to speak as being from out-of-state. 

Then the hearing room doors were shut in our faces.

Then, the first chants broke out in the Capitol, spontaneously, from hundreds of voices: "LET US SPEAK! LET US SPEAK!" 

There were students chanting this - yes - but there were also teachers, retirees, nurses, public workers, scientists, service-providers, artists, and - believe it or not - people who you might call "job creators," or "taxpayers."

You know, the people you claim to cater to when you say "Wisconsin is Open For Business." 

And that was what I was there to tell you: When you dropped your bomb on Wisconsin, you claimed you were doing it for people like me. As a small business owner here in Madison, I wanted you to know that you don't speak for me.

In my big moment before the Joint Finance Committee, I was so angry that I muffed it. But that's okay. We don't have to cover that ground again. I've done so elsewhere, many times.

But there's something I said that night that I haven't repeated, and it's a story about community. Small businesses build community, not just in the dollars they generate but in other ways, too. 

On February 13, 2011, this idea manifested itself literally when a baby girl was born to two people who had fallen in love in the community of my small business. Hers wasn't the first birth from our community, and it definitely wasn't the last. But when I sat down in front of the Joint Finance Committee, this little girl's birth was such a perfect and recent example of how small local business connects people - not just to each other but to the community in which we all live - hers was a story I wanted to tell.

Both her parents once worked at my business, although at different times. Her father worked for us in high school and through college, and eventually became a manager. Her mother worked with autistic children, and ran innovative programs for them at our facility. Before they found one another, both of her parents had dated other people in our community. In fact, her father had been married before, to a friend of her mother's.

And this is where the story - for me - gets very powerful.

You see, the woman this little girl's father married, this friend of her mother's? Well, she died. She was very young, very vivacious, truly a light for all in our circle. 

So this little girl's father faced life without his wife. Her mother went on without her friend. Both grieved, and in their grief they found solace, and eventually love with one another, in the shelter of the small community of our small business here in Madison. Their marriage was a joyous contrast to the funeral we had all attended several years prior.

In sharing this story with you, this is what I wanted you to know, Governor Walker: When you drop bombs on Wisconsin, you drop them on real communities made up of real people. 

We are connected in part by the company we choose, but we are also connected by the hubs that draw us together. These hubs are not just private businesses like mine, but also public schools, community centers, and local greenspaces. When you claim that you are supporting one at the expense of the other - private businesses at the expense of public infrastructure, "taxpayers" at the expense of public servants - you reveal that you don't understand that all of these things are interlinked.

You cannot build up one part of a community by dropping bombs on another part of that same community. 

So, anyway, this is what I wanted to be sure you knew, and it's something I didn't get out during the two minutes I testified before the Joint Finance Committee.

The reason I was reminded of all of this today? Well, that little girl in my story just today got a new sibling, and it's a boy!

I'm guessing that you don't really care, but I wanted you to know that community goes on in spite of what you've done. Oh, and that - as a community - because you dropped bombs on us we're going to recall you on June 5th.

Brad Werntz

Friday, April 20, 2012


I think I wrecked a really good joke. (Yes, sometimes I'm that guy at the party.)

What did I do? I made a few serious comments about a picture that is making the rounds on Facebook, just at the moment that everybody was laughing about it most. The picture? It's a nice shot of a yard sign from the Republican Party of Outagamie County that says: "We Support Governer Walker."

Considering that our good governor has himself made the same spelling error - on his own official communications, no less - it's a pretty funny and telling testament to just exactly who our opposition is here in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Basically - in a nutshell - as a group these seem to be people who can't spell or write, and sometimes have trouble making the words come out pretty when they speak, too. 

I laughed out loud, and went to re-post it myself. But then I didn't because I had a thought, instead.

Humor works especially well when it confirms and reinforces expectations, and - in particular - stereotypes. Reiterating a stereotype almost always triggers the laugh-track. In our lowest forms of humor, we haven't grown beyond sniggering when the black guy asks for watermelon, or the blonde girl says that she doesn't get it.

So here locally in Wisconsin (and in the nation at large, in fact) we've broken into two basic groups: Those who can spell and care about such things, and those who can't and don't.  

As somebody in the first group, I don't understand. Spellcheck is on everything I own; when I want to misspell a word it takes an effort to over-ride my devices. I try to turn a blind eye to the two most basic forms of typos - "their/there/they're" and "it's/its" - but I admit that I grind my back-teeth every time Walker mixes "are" with "our" (which he does with some frequency.) In the sign example from Outagamie County, the writer, the printer, the proof-checker, and the person who put the sign on their lawn all had to look right past the glaring error, and either miss it or just not care.

The people in the grammar-challenged group find little humor in being the butt of our jokes. For our pointing out that they don't talk so good, they call us "elitist," and "out-of-touch." They say we've only got "book learning," and that we have "no common sense." 

Are we elitist for pointing out that their written fundamentals of language and communication - the very foundations upon which they base their arguments - are flawed, and in simple ways that can't be ignored? 

In a brief exchange last night in the comments where a friend had posted the photo of the sign, I asked this question, and got a really good answer: "Everyone makes typos. But it takes someone special to print a few thousand of them and put them in the ground. Or drive them around the country on the Tea Party Express. I wouldn't worry about being elitist for laughing at this. In fact, I'll start worry about being elitist when I can go a month without worrying about paying my bills. Until then, I'll take my small comforts in knowing the opposition can't figure out spellcheck."

Yes, I admit: Grammar and spelling errors have been great for my morale, too. I laugh every time.

Otherwise, I've been wrestling with this issue. I've been in a number of written exchanges with people from the opposition, and sometimes their arguments are so bad I've been tempted to ignore them entirely and just copy-edit what they write, instead. When I can't fix their thinking, my first impulse has been to fix their grammar and spelling. 

But do we want the opposition to feel stupid because they know that we think that they can't spell, write, or reason? Do we want to play into our pre-defined stereotypes as "educated elitists?" In either case, aren't we just making it easier for all of us just to dismiss one another?

What's really hard for me is trying to grapple with the complex communications underneath the typos. I admit that it's an effort just to find the human beneath, that someone who has something to say about what they believe, and then to find space in both my head and heart to hear them.

My heart would like to find the common ground. My head gets too comfortable with the idea that it might not be there.

As my friend on Facebook said,"I find nothing more infuriating than being called an 'elitist' for remarking on how stupid mistakes make you look stupid." In my attempts at trying to dig down beneath the stupid mistakes, I've rarely found valuable insights beneath. I would like to believe that this isn't always the case.

How does one reconcile this? 

Honestly, I don't know. I need to seek out people smarter and wiser than me, hear what they have to say, and think about it a bit longer.

Unfortunately, there's no spellcheck for people, and I find that I'm resistant to the idea that there's a spellcheck for ideas, too.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Here's The Deal

Conversation at dinner the other night took an unexpected turn, when my second daughter said to my son: "I just don't want to see you hurt and bleeding, with skinned knees and black eyes. That's just too much for me to think about so please don't do that again, okay?"

At the playground that day, my son stood up to two bullies who were chasing his three friends. My son's friends happened to be girls who were genuinely scared. The bullies were boys of my daughter's age (a year older than my son), and she knew their reputation on the playground. She could list their crimes and their victims on both hands. She was clearly upset at the idea that her brother might have been their next target.

"Were you scared of the bullies, boy?" my wife asked.

"No," said my son. He practices martial arts, and has earned several belts. I seriously doubt he could hurt anybody, but he does know how to throw and take a punch, he's confident, and he can handle pain. "It just wasn't right, what they were doing, so I told them to stop."

Something inside of me tightened. I've been that little boy. In some ways, I still am.

I'm a small man, and was a small boy, too. I learned early on that in most fights my opponent would be much bigger than me. If I had to fight, I learned to be fierce and not hold back. Sometimes the only difference between a winner and a loser in a fight is the willingness to stand toe-to-toe with somebody and wait for what happens next. Many people of all sizes can't stomach this, and - in particular - bullies often don't know how to do it.

In a world as simple as a playground, you can win most fights simply by standing your ground. If they come to blows, you don't have to hit first but if you hit hardest and in the most vulnerable spot at the very least the fight is over quickly. For a little guy, there's nothing to be gained in long, drawn-out battles. 

But the world is much more complex than a playground. For one thing, you can't just up and hit people. For another, battles drag on and on. They don't just end suddenly and definitively, with one winner and one loser. There's often collateral damage. Every survivor leaves wounded, every witness is traumatized. You can win battles and lose wars, or vice versa, or both at the same time. Outcomes are often indistinct and nebulous. For most wars, there is never any such thing as "Mission Accomplished."

We've been fighting for a long time. This country has literally been at war for over ten years. First, with other nations, and now we're at war with ourselves. Further, the economy has made it a struggle for many just to survive. When people are already at the edge, they fight more fiercely over things both big and small.

It seems to be the state of things, this constant battle.

I find lately that I'm tired of fighting. I realized recently that I have battle fatigue.

This battle fatigue manifests itself as writer's block, and a reticence to be social. I have a hard time engaging at any level, because the small battles seem so trivial while the larger ones seem so daunting; the small interactions feel like distractions, and the big ones are too intense. I've all but stopped writing, but not because I have nothing to say. Quite the contrary: The things I need to write don't seem all that important, and the things that I want to write take all of my attention, so I find I have way too much to say all at once. And nothing comes out.

But here's the deal: The fight isn't over yet. And I'm not done fighting, either.

How do I know? I haven't stopped caring, and - right now - you can't care about important stuff and not also be a fighter.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Chat Pack

My second daughter likes to play a game called "Chat Pack" at the dinner table. So - often - we do. The game is pretty simple: There are a couple hundred cards in a box with questions printed on them, and we take turns choosing questions, which we then all take turns answering.

For example, tonight the first question was: "Of all of the characters in all of the movies you have ever seen, which one is most like you?"

My daughter said,"Elizabeth Swann," a character from the Pirates of the Carribbean series.

Naturally, on hearing this my son (who is younger) chose "Jack Sparrow," who is the pirate hero of that same series.

I stalled while answering, as all of my characters were from movies that the kids had never seen. So the kids offered up a few possibilities: The father from "Good Luck, Charlie!" and/or "Wizards of Waverly Place" were favorite - and agreed upon - contenders. (Internally, I wondered: "Am I getting that FAT?")

And this is how Chat Pack goes, round after round, dinner after dinner.

But the next question out of the Chat Pack box really stumped me: "If you could see the headline of a newspaper from January 1st, 2100, what would it say?"

The truth is, I had answers for this question, but they weren't the kind of things you share with young children.

As a Progressive, I hold not just a hopeful vision of what's possible in our future, but a glowing one. What we can accomplish in this world if we resolve to is just astounding, in my mind. While I don't know that we can ever build Utopia, in 2100 I believe we can have a world where most people the world over are able to achieve their full potential. However, as a realist here on the ground in Wisconsin this past year, and as an observer in our national story this past decade and more, I also have my doubts. Lately, these doubts are seated deeply in a rut that was dug by the collective discourse of our nation, and of our world.

My education is in language, and more particularly how language is used in art, and artifice. When I think about how language will be crafted to make headlines in 2100, I think first on how language is being used - and not used - today.

We have real and dire issues facing our nation and world in these next 88 years. Instead, collectively we're talking about issues that are manufactured, and ultimately inconsequential.

The world population has doubled in my lifetime, and is set to do so again, and then again - and perhaps a third time - in the next 88 years. Yet we have a finite resource in this one special planet, and the methods we have used to feed, water, house, and transport our population are already stretched to current capacity. Rather than talk about this, we're talking about banning contraception, and limiting women's access to health-care (including specifically abortion but also the whole range available.) It's as if the answer to population growth is obvious in a ludicrous contradiction: Just ban contraception.

Hunger and thirst grow every year in poor nations the world over. Together, these fierce shortages of basic essentials represent the biggest threat to peace and security we've ever known, as the looming wars over access to water have the potential to make the oil wars look as quaint as the salt wars of antiquity. Yet, we're waging cultural battles about what constitutes love and specifically marriage in our little microcosm of a country. There's a visual meme on the internet that defines this dichotomy exactly: In side-by-side visuals, a picture on the left shows two men kissing, and the picture on the right shows two starving boys begging for food. The challenge posed with the picture is: "If the image on the left shocks you more than the picture on the right, you need to re-examine your values."

Everywhere, we are facing graphic and clear evidence that our ability to sustain an extraction-based model to fulfill our growing energy needs will be challenged. This is a fancy way of saying that we will run out of coal, gas, and oil, someday for sure but perhaps even in the next 88 years. Yet we continue to fight over where to drill, frack, and dig next, basically ignoring the fact that we are poisoning both our environment and our culture by driving this bus at full speed towards an inevitable dead-end.

Beneath all of these challenges is the giant gorilla in the collective room called "Climate Change." The amount of intellect spent in language to explain away the vast body of scientific and anectodal evidence before us is staggering. (What a waste of brains...) We can deny the causes of climate change all we want, or explain it away as a periodic bump in a natural cycle, but the bottom line is that we need to be prepared to live - and not just exist but thrive - on a warmer planet in these next 88 years. This demands changes in infrastructure and culture that the world has never addressed on this scale. Here's what we're talking about, instead: Whether either Creation or Evolution should be taught in schools, or perhaps both.

Worst of all, if we trace the trickles of these conversations back up the faucet to their source, it's easy to see that the most valuable commodity on our planet has been unrecognized and undervalued for years, if not decades. Because of this a very priveleged few have been able to corner the market on it. In short, there are people in this world who own the conversation. What we talk about, our very language itself, has been bought out from under us. Our collective conversations are now being sold back to us, and - what's more - we are footing the bill for the right to advertise to us. We are in fact paying people to sell ideas to us, and then we buy into those ideas as well.

The brutal brilliance of this business model - the ultimate control mechanism, in fact - is why we can't have conversations about the real and important issues that face us, today. We talk about what's in the headlines instead, and these distractions are the most dire threat to the headlines of tomorrow.

So when I think about what the headlines will be in 88 years, I have to admit to myself if not my children that perhaps there will be no headlines, that we will have failed completely to have the right conversations to make any headlines at all possible. Privately - as a worst-case scenario - I envision a world where humanity continues to exist, but in a neo-Dark Ages state. Imagine current Somalia, on a worldwide scale.

And that's just not something that can be explained to the kids, at dinner, while playing a game.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Comments on Wisconsin AB 426, 2/17/2012

I went to the Wisconsin Capitol early this morning to try to participate in the hearing for Wisconsin AB 426, which was written to streamline the mining permitting process here in the State. The bill was written expressly to support Gogebic Taconite, a Florida mining company that wants to dig a 1200' deep, mile wide, and four mile long strip-mine in the heart of the Penokee Hills in Northern Wisconsin. This land is some of the most pristine in the state. It is also the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior. It is sacred to Native Americans, and is not incidentally protected under treaty-rights. A strip mine there would irrevocably change the land and the culture in the region, forever.

Prior to preparing my comments, I contacted the Outdoor Industry Association for supporting information. David Weinstein there was very helpful in helping me craft talking points that were based on data about the impact that Outdoor Recreation has on Wisconsin's economy. My goal was to be very brief, non-emotional, and deliver as much data as possible. (This is likely one of the driest speeches I've ever prepared, fair warning...)

I waited six hours to testify, and during that time listened to all of the invited witnesses. However, I needed to leave prior to  public comments being allowed before the Joint Finance Committee. Here are the comments that I prepared, which I intended to deliver in the two minutes we were allotted:

Hello, I'm here to speak about the business consequences of the proposed mining bill. By way of background, I make my living in the Outdoor Recreation Industry. I have started two Wisconsin businesses that employ about thirty people at the moment. I am an active member of the Outdoor Industry Association, and I also serve on the board of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

I'm here to speak against AB 426, and in particular the proposed mine in the Penokee Hills.

This conversation is NOT about extraction versus conservation. This conversation is about jobs versus jobs. While the mining company promises 700 jobs for the region, these 700 jobs put at risk a far greater number of jobs that already exist there. In stark contrast to the jobs that Gogebic Taconite is promising, jobs that already exist in the region that support the Outdoor Recreation Economy are:
  • Sustainable.
  • Tourism-based.
  • Cannot be exported.
  • Are not prone to cycles of boom and bust.
  • Have lasting and magnified impacts in local and rural areas.
According to recent figures released by the Outdoor Industry Association, The Wisconsin Active Outdoor Recreation Industry:
  • Contributes over $9.7 Billion annually to Wisconsin's economy.
  • Supports 129,000 jobs across Wisconsin.
  • Generates $570 Million in state tax revenue.
  • Accounts for over 4% of the Gross State Product.
Meanwhile, the most recent reports by the National Mining Association - from 2008 - show that mining contributes just .9% to Wisconsin's economy. In other words, less than 1% of Wisconsin's economy comes from mining. AB 426 puts at risk a significant portion of Wisconsin's current and future economic output for what amounts to a rounding error. Further, for perspective, the Gogebic Taconite Penokee Hills $1.5 Billion mining project is in total about one-eighth of what the Wisconsin Outdoor Recreation Economy contributes to the state each year.

As you vote on this bill, please consider also that:
  • Protected lands and Outdoor Recreation play an outsized role as an employer in rural areas.
  • If any of you have ever traveled the North Lands of Wisconsin - at any time of year - you know that finding lodging can be a real challenge; the area is booked year-round by paddlers, hikers, hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers and ATV enthusiasts, skiers, snowshoers, leaf and bird watchers, and many other outdoor enthusiasts.
  • For every $1 that Wisconsin spends in land and water conservation, $2.75 is generated for local economies annually.
  • The Outdoor Industry relies on a vibrant and diverse recreation infrastructure, and the Penokee Hills site is truly a unique and special part of Wisconsin; it is as special to our state as the Grand Tetons are to Wyoming, or the Grand Canyon is to Arizona.
We cannot sacrifice our state's wilderness crown jewel to the short-sighted and temporary gain that this bill, this mine, and - in fact - this vision represents. We can do better in and for Wisconsin.

I urge you to kill this bill here, and now, in the Joint Finance Committee.

Thank you.

ps: I will be writing an expanded piece based on these points, as well as about the experience of listening to the six hours of testimony. Stay tuned.