Thursday, October 7, 2010

Learning from the Past

Eastern Michigan University Logo
    The following article is reprinted with permission from Eastern, the official magazine of Eastern Michigan University. I choose it for several reasons. First and foremost, it is a well written piece about the Aryan Nation and their attempts to recruit farmers in the early 1980's, with a brief mention of a similar rhetoric in today's politics and the importance keeping the fight against hate crimes in the spot light. Eastern Michigan University is also my alma mater. I had a wonderful experience at Eastern and recommend it to anyone considering a higher education. Re-posting this article is a great way to highlight some of the great faculty and staff that Eastern has to offer.

Watching the Movements of Hate
by Jeff Mortimer

Jack Kay
     When Jack Kay, EMU’s provost and executive vice president, was just starting out in academe in the early 1980s, he made a risky move that has echoed throughout his career.
     An assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he was researching the farm crisis of the time (in many ways, a precursor of the subprime mortgage crisis that torpedoed the economy a quarter of a century later) when he learned that the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group, was trying to enlist members from the farm community.
     This wasn’t unusual. Such organizations, Kay says, are always on the lookout for people who might be sufficiently disaffected to join their ranks.
     “I decided that I wanted to find out more about how this group operated,” he says, so he spent several days a week over a three-week period at its compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where the Aryan World Congress was being held.
     While members of the media who had been invited by the group to attend the event focused their attention on its more spectacular aspects, even renting planes to cover the cross-lighting ceremony, Kay kept a low profile.
     “I was more interested in their everyday operations,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily in disguise, but I didn’t volunteer who I was. They just thought I was someone who was interested in joining their movement. I didn’t embed myself, but I worked pretty closely with law enforcement before going in and saw some of the folks I had communicated with in law enforcement undercover in the compound.”
     He got an eyeful, and an earful.
     “In addition to the picnics and the small talk and those sorts of things, they did a lot of ‘othering,’ where they tried to distinguish themselves from the other, to be frightened of the other,” he recalls. “I heard, over and over again, about how the Jews have controlled the Constitution. And I discovered the book that the members all read, The Turner Diaries, a novel of what happens when the white revolution occurs and how bands of white warriors exterminate the Jews and send the blacks back to Africa.”
     But the worst, he says, was the “Bible training” provided to youngsters in the early elementary age group:
     “The minister would hold up a caricature drawing of what was supposed to be a rabbi, a person with a yarmulke, crooked nose, and a long beard with what looked like lice crawling through it, and say, ‘Children, what is this?’ and a six-year-old boy would raise his hand and say, ‘It’s a Jew rabbi.’ The minister would say, ‘What do Jew rabbis do?’ and a little girl would say, ‘Around our holidays, they will kidnap Christian babies and cut their throats and drink their blood.’
     “It made you want to crawl to get out of there.”
     He did, of course, eventually get out of the compound, but he never got his experiences in the compound out of his mind. Not long after his stint with the Aryan Nations, he was called upon to testify before the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska state legislature. Then he presented testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
     Even as his record of accomplishments grew – as a leading scholar of rhetoric and communication, and as an administrator at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Flint before coming to EMU in June 2009 – he continued to study and speak out about the methods, motives and dangers of groups promoting racial and ethnic hatred.
     And he became a “go-to guy” on the subject for the media. From the time he started keeping count in 1990 until last spring, he appeared on television news programs more than a hundred times and did more than 60 interviews for newspaper and magazine articles.
    Then his already busy life got even busier late in March, when nine members of the Hutaree, a self-described Christian militia movement, were arrested in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana on various federal charges stemming from an alleged plot to kill police officers.
     National Public Radio wanted to know Kay’s views. So did WDET in Detroit. So did And so on. What he had to say wasn’t sensational or alarmist. In keeping with his demeanor and the rubrics of scholarly precision, he tried to be clear about what was and wasn’t happening.
     First and foremost, he differentiated between most militia groups and those that claim a divine imprimatur.
     “I really do get frustrated when there’s a broad brush stroke applied to these groups,” he says. “There’s a great deal of distinction between religiously fervent groups like the Hutaree or Aryan Nations and the southeast Michigan militia, people who have come together to do target practice, learn survival skills, learn how to live off the land. They’re not all that happy with the government but they’re not out to overthrow the government. The groups that go undercover, that advocate violence, that advocate sedition, those are the groups I’m talking about when I talk about dangers.”
     The possibility that one of these organizations might actually achieve its far-fetched dreams is not among those dangers. Kay estimates that they have a combined membership of about 100,000, hardly enough to pull off a revolution. But that doesn’t make them harmless.
     “They desperately want attention,” he says. “They want to show that their movement is real and has power. You do that by using the tactics of terrorism to instill fear, and they have the potential to engage in some actions that would be pretty terrifying. That’s why we saw things like Oklahoma City.”
     That’s also why, in Kay’s view, hate groups need to stay near the top of law enforcement’s to-do list. “It’s important for them to take these people seriously,” he says. “I understand that there is clearly a First Amendment issue here. Certainly these groups have the right to speak, to have extreme views that are terrible views, and we can’t and should not attempt to prosecute them for those views. It’s when those views turn into an action, that’s when we need to go after them.”
     A more subtle concern is the seepage of their rhetorical style into mainstream political discourse, a kind of collateral cultural damage.
     “The real fervent groups use Hitler’s technique of dehumanization,” Kay says. “It becomes much easier to commit genocide if you reduce people to subhumans. In the debate on immigration, you’re hearing some of the same language that some of these neo-Nazi groups are using.”
     In the long run, an ounce of educational prevention will probably be worth more than a pound of law enforcement cure.
     “Really, this is an educational challenge,” he says. “How do you help young people see this is not a choice to make, or that people who have made this choice have made the wrong choice? Unfortunately, we aren’t that good at teaching history, and these folks have become far more rhetorically sophisticated. Why can’t those of us who want to point out how wrong they are use words and symbols as well as they do?”
     While experience has shown him that a pedagogical pairing of the arts and history can work − “Seeing a play of the diary of Anne Frank can be far more powerful than reading a paragraph in a history book,” he says – he’s well aware that the evidence is still largely anecdotal.
     “I have a strong belief that the arts are an incredibly effective way of creating discussion of these situations we should be talking about, but I can’t point to many research studies that show whether they’re effective,” he says. “How do we promote behaviors of civility, behaviors of understanding, behaviors of accepting differences? Quite frankly, I don’t think we’ve done enough study of what is effective and what isn’t.”
     Maybe it’s time to revisit those farmers the Aryan Nations tried to recruit back in the ’80s.
     Their efforts, Kay recalls, were “very unsuccessful. Farmers don’t scapegoat.”

Posted with permission from Eastern magazine, Fall 2010 edition. Links and images added by The Itch

Sunday, October 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Reversal by Michael Connelly

     Michael Connelly's The Reversal is the 16th mystery novel featuring LAPD Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch and the third featuring defense attorney Michael "Mickey" Haller. The two came together once before in Connelly's 2008 book, The Brass Verdict.
     In this case, defense attorney Mickey Haller is approached by District Attorney Gabriel Williams and asked to be a special prosecutor in the very important and sensational case of a murdered twelve year old girl. The girl, Melissa Landy, was kidnapped and murdered in 1986. The killer, Jason Jessup, was convicted and spent twenty-four years in prison before DNA evidence won him a reversal, and a new trial. Haller agreed to take the case, if he could hand-pick his second chair, his investigator, and be autonomous and entirely independent from the District Attorney's office. Haller picked his first ex-wife, Maggie McPherson, as his second, and Detective Bosch as his investigator.
     I have read many, but not all, or Mr. Connelly's books, and enjoyed every one. This one started off a little rocky. For those who have read the previous Bosch books, they know the character well. But in this book, there did not seem to be much of a relationship or character development, good or bad, among Bosch, McPherson, or Haller. There were implications for some potential conflicts, but nothing materialized.
Author Michael Connelly
     Mr. Connelly could have done more to explain the history of the characters for people who are either unfamiliar with them or read so much that it's difficult to recall all of the details of previous books. Oddly, I have often complained when authors spent too much time doing that, but since I've become a more avid reader, I've found it is helpful to refresh my memory.
     The Reversal switches between first and third person, using first person on chapters from Haller's point of view and third person in chapters following Bosch. It was sometimes difficult to follow among the constant switching. 

     That said, The Reversal didn't need much character development, didn't need to tie the background of the characters together much, and didn't need to refresh the reader's memory about what happened in previous novels. The plot had enough to keep any reader occupied, anxious, and waiting to find out where the story was going and when the crisis was going to unfold. At times, it seemed to be setting up for a disaster for Bosch and Haller, only to find things going well, too well, for our heroes. The story had several small build-ups, each one anticlimactically averting crisis at the last minute. But when disaster did unfold, it was without warning and not at all what I was expecting.
     The Reversal was everything I expect from a good mystery: it held my interest, was entertaining, surprising, and felt much shorter than its 389 pages.

4 of 5 Stars!

The Reversal is scheduled for release on October 5, 2010. It is published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group

Saturday, October 2, 2010

HIGHLIGHT CLEVELAND 2 for 1: St. Stanislaus Polish Festival and Congressman Dennis Kucinich

St. Stanislaus Church
     This weekend is the Polish Festival at St. Stanislaus Church on East 65th Street in Cleveland. The church is an historical cultural spot in Cleveland and has traditionally served the Polish population in and around the neighborhood. It has some meaning to me, too, because it was the church my Grandfather was baptized in and attended as a young man. (Interestingly, I learned that he also attended school there for a couple years, but his Polish language skills were so poor they put him back several grades. Eventually, he withdrew and attended public schools.)
Inside St. Stanislaus
     The Festival included a band, The Nu Tones, Friday and Saturday nights, dancing, several games of chance, Polish baked goods, and some trinkets and other St. Stan's and other religious items for sale. And food. Lots of it, and it was all delicious. They had beef rolls, chicken, pork, sauerkraut and kielbasa, cabbage and noodles, cabbage rolls, cucumber salad, potato pancakes, and cheese, sauerkraut, or potato pierogies.  
     The Festival was very crowded. It was not a great environment for my two year old son because there was not a lot for him to do there and he was not patient enough for the long lines. Despite his impatience, it was worth attending. If you like good Polish food and would like to support an organization that is working to keep the neighborhood and its traditions alive, then consider attending the St. Stanislaus Polish Festival this year and in the years to come.

     While we were at the Festival, we had an opportunity to meet Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He was there with his beautiful wife meeting and greeting people, shaking hands and saying hello. He was kind enough to pose for a picture with my son and me Ken. 
Ben, Me, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich
     For the last several years, but especially after 2008, I have been a fan of Mr. Kucinich. At first I liked him only because I respected how he did his job as a congressman. He always stood up and spoke up for his beliefs and brought a lot of needed attention to them. During the Presidential election of 2008 I started to pay much closer attention to his politics, and discovered his positions were very close to my own. Since then he has had my support, and probably always will. 
     About six months ago I wrote a post that included a link to an inventory of political positions that would take the answers provided and  place the person taking the inventory on a political spectrum. In addition to left and right, this spectrum included a vertical axis to more accurately place political ideologies. The web site also showed where today's leaders and candidates placed on the graph. Not surprisingly, I was very near Mr. Kucinich.
     I think we can all count on Mr. Kucinich to really stick up for the middle/working class. Many politicians say as much, but then cast their votes in favor of business or corporate interests, and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves. This is evidenced by his desire for single-payer healthcare and an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things. 
     Meeting Mr. Kucinich today was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise. In a way it changed my experience at the Polish Festival on a personal level. I went to see St. Stanislaus, my grandfather's childhood church and school, to learn or experience a little of the history of my family. I thought it was very likely that members of the Tylicki family were there, even if I didn't know them or even recognize them.  While there, I met Mr. Kucinich, whose hard work for the people of Cleveland and the United States will make the world a better place for my son to grow up in. 
    For many, the Polish Festival was just an opportunity to have a good meal, attend a fundraiser for a cause that is important to them, and socialize with family and friends. For me, it was a moment when appreciation for the past and optimism for the future met.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Meeting With President Carter Thwarted

     I heard an interview on my local NPR station, WCPN 90.3 Ideastream, with former President Jimmy Carter last week. Mr. Carter called in to the Sound of Ideas to promote his most recent book, White House Diary, and his upcoming book signing appearance at Joseph Beth Booksellers at Legacy Village. The next day I made the trip to Legacy Village to buy the book and get the required line-voucher that guaranteed my opportunity to meet the former President. Days later, my friend Sarah made the same trip, and we eagerly awaited our exciting meeting, sure that he would sense our enthusiasm for politics and our great respect for him, which would lead him to befriend us both, ask for our help and advice for achieving world peace, and catapult The Itch right up there with The Huffington Post and the Daily Kos! (I know, a little grandiose for a book signing that prohibited dedicated autographs, posed photographs, or even bringing a camera in, but the man was a President, surely he has a sixth sense for talent when he sees it!). But, sadly, it wasn't meant to be.
The unsigned books.
     Sarah and I got there at about 11:30 am for the appearance that was advertised at 1:00 pm but we were told when we bought the books would likely start at about noon. Since it was raining all day, we were grateful that the line was entirely contained within the store, and we were not far from the front. So, we waited. And waited. No Mr. Carter.
    Shortly  after one I checked my email and saw a Politico breaking news notice. The time stamp was 12:50 pm. I read it and learned that Mr. Carter was indeed in Cleveland, but instead of coming to Joseph Beth Booksellers, was at MetroHealth Medical Center being treated for an unknown illness. The attached article indicated he was met by medics as his flight landed at the airport and taken right away to the hospital. About ten minutes after my discovery, the staff at Joseph Beth announced that there was a delay, but the event was not yet canceled. About half hour after that, it was canceled. As a consolation, we were all given 10% off coupons on our total purchase at the bookstore, excluding Vera Bradley products, naturally.
     Sarah and I left the store, broken-hearted and with shattered dreams, and had to settle on lunch at Stir Crazy, a walk through the Apple store, and the word of the staff at the bookstore that the event would be rescheduled.
My friend and Itch fan, Sarah, standing
where we would have met Mr. Carter.
      The day was not a total bust.We enjoyed meeting and talking to several people in line near us, most interestingly a former Secret Service Agent who was on Mr. Carter's protection detail during his presidency. And I got to have a nice lunch.

     I hope Mr. Carter's illness is short-lived and he fully recovers soon. He is a great man and has done his best, more than his fair share, to make our country and the world a better place. Although I was disappointed that I didn't get the opportunity to meet him today, I won't be disappointed if he is unable to reschedule the event, as long as it means he is protecting his health and well being so he can continue his work in a meaningful way. 
     Get well soon, Mr. President!


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Burqas, Pornography, and the Right to Choose

      The most recent issue of The Humanist magazine has a picture of a woman wearing a niqab and little else in a sexy pose on the cover. Within the pages of the magazine were several articles from both sides of the issues of the rights of women to wear a niqab or burqa and work in the pornography industry. Although very different topics, they involve the same essential question: can women engage in conduct or activities that others believe is harmful to the women who participate in that conduct or activity.
     There are several countries in Europe, France most prominently, that have pending or passed legislation that will ban women from wearing burqas in public. There are two main arguments for this legislation. The first is that of security, that concealed identity is a public safety risk. The second is that the wearing of the burqa subjects women to a loss of identity, and therefore a loss of political power, and women are forced to wear the garment by men, subjugating them to second class citizenship. Proponents argue that women don't have a real choice about wearing the burqa, and therefore the law is necessary to help them break free from their oppressed lives. The penalties of the laws do generally reflect that position; fines for women cited for wearing the burqa are low, a couple hundred dollars, but fines for anyone forcing or requiring women to wear them are high, in the thousands of dollars.
     Opponents of the law argue primarily that the laws violate their religious freedoms, arguing that the wearing of the burqa is a requirement of their Islamic faith; the Koran requires women be dressed modestly, and that includes the covering up of their bodies, including their faces. Opponents also cite an intolerance and or hatred against Muslims, and argue that the law unfairly targets them and their lifestyle.
     Pornography is another controversial topic. In fairness, it must be mentioned that not all pornography is made by consenting adult actors. The illegal sex trade and human trafficking is a growing industry worldwide, and includes forced prostitution, sexual slavery, sex tourism, kidnapping, and the rape of young children, both girls and boys. Those behaviors should never be legal, and those engaging in them should be punished as the law allows. For this purpose, however, I am referring to legal pornography and adult entertainment.
Pornography in the United States is a multi-billion dollar industry. Despite that, there is significant opposition to it. Opponents argue that the adult entertainment industry objectifies women, regardless of the reasons women offer for getting into the it and the voluntariness of those decisions. According to this view, women who freely and knowingly decide to go into the adult entertainment industry for all the right reasons are harming other women by doing so, because it furthers the belief by men that women are sex objects and nothing more, that the behavior of men in the adult industry is acceptable, and that all women want to be treated as they are depicted in pornography. 

     I agree in part with all the arguments just summarized. But agreeing with some of both sides of an argument and perching myself on a fence is not something I often do. So I had to sort it out and pick what side of the fence to land on.
     Women who wear the burqa are likely forced to by a religion or culture that systematically subjugates women. They lose their identity and with it their political power. They likely don't have the real ability to choose to wear the burqa or not, and that is disturbing.
Women who work in the adult industry may do so for the wrong reasons. They may be objectified by the people they are working to entertain and the people they are working for. Some women may be forced into the industry either by force, threats, coercion, or maybe just by the fact that they have no other way to earn a living to support themselves and their families.
     But there are other considerations before laws are passed to ban the burqa or pornography. First, would passing those laws really work to solve the problem? Would women remove their burqas in public, or just no longer go out? If the law had the desired effect, and thousands of Muslim women were out uncovered, does that mean those women are suddenly liberated? There are lots of ways to repress women, the burqa is just one of them. Many women, Muslim, Christian, and agnostic alike, are treated poorly by the men in their lives without having to cover up.
     If laws were passed that outlawed the adult entertainment industry, would women suddenly be free from objectification by men? Would the demand for the adult entertainment products disappear? Or would the illegal sex industry fill the void, without regulations and organization that are currently in place?

     In addition to doubting the effectiveness of banning burqas or criminalizing pornography, I don't believe the motivation for those changes are altruistic. Do people really want to protect Muslim women from oppression? Will security really be stronger because of the burqa ban? Or are these convenient excuses for religious intolerance? Will banning pornography really improve the lives of women? Or will it satisfy those that have religious objections to pornography, scoring points with the self-rightous?

     Is it possible to freely and rationally choose to engage in the behaviors these laws would prohibit? Do women really need to be protected from their own decisions? In a free society, this is really the most important question. If one percent of women who wear burqas or work as an adult entertainer are doing so freely and voluntarily after careful consideration, should they be told they can't to protect the other ninety-nine percent? What if the number is five percent? Or twenty-five percent? At what point is their freedom to make an informed decision important enough to protect?

     To say that women can't make informed decisions about their lives and need protection of laws (written mostly by men) is sexist.

     The United States, like all free societies, has a history of protecting the rights of everyone, including people whose views and lifestyles are not popular. That is what freedom is. It is supposed to be what our soldiers fight to protect. Therefore, the only conclusion I can come to is that wearing a burqa or working in the adult entertainment industry must remain a legal choice.

     That is not to say that nothing should be done to help the women who need it. We should work to ensure that all women have access to quality education and lots of options for their lives so they can live free from abuse and violence. Women should have counseling, support, and legal and physical protection when they choose to leave any abusive or repressive situation.

     I know these topics are controversial. The objectification of women is a very real problem in the United States the world. But we all have the right to make decisions in our lives, and sometimes we make harmful ones, or ones that do not meet the approval of others.
That is Freedom.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lou Barlow and the Missingmen

     My brother, Rob, is a fan of music; all music, really, but he seems to really enjoy what I know as Indie Rock, and what I personally think of as alternative rock that is not popular enough to be on top forty radio but has a strong, loyal following, tours small, local venues, and puts out good but lesser known or unknown music outside the Indie Rock loyalists. I also sometimes think of it as a type of musical philosophy or approach, i.e. if any of the Indie Rock bands become popular enough to make it big, be played on top forty stations, and get big record and tour deals, a true Indie Rock fan would be obligated to disown them and label them sell-outs. 
     Anyway, Rob has been a fan of Indie Rock for years and spends a lot of time going to small venues that feature this type of band and lots of talented local bands. He has talked me into going to see two of them. One was in Toledo in 1998; we saw the World Inferno Friendship Society.  Good times.
Lou Barlow at the Grog Shop, August 27, 2010
     The second time was last night. I went to the Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and saw Lou Barlow and the Missingmen. My brother had suggested several times in the past that I see Lou Barlow. He told me about Lou's successful career as a solo artist and as a member of the band Dinosaur Jr
     The Grog Shop is in a popular and trendy Cleveland area hot-spot called Coventry. It reminds me on a much smaller scale of Ann Arbor. It is near Case Western Reserve University, and therefore attracts a lot of college students.  The Grog Shop is a small venue that consists of an open room with a bar on one end and a small stage on the other. When I got there, one of the opening bands was playing. Lou was out getting ready, walking among the crowd, and talking with friends and fans.  He took the stage and did a set of solo acoustic songs, was joined by the band for another set, and finished up with another solo acoustic set. He performed for about two hours, and interacted a lot with his fans. 
     I don't know enough about music to write a critical post about any band. I could count the number of live music concerts I've attended on my hands. I will say that I enjoyed the show enough to buy one of Lou's CDs and a t-shirt, stayed for the entire event, and even hung out a while afterwards. Lou is a very talented musician and I hope he has a happy, successful career for as long as he wants it. 
     Although I can't write a critical post about Lou's music, I can write about what stood out to me about the event. First, and somewhat trivially, I noticed Lou wasn't wearing socks during the show. I was so struck by that that I was going to ask him about it after the show. I was imagining all sorts of interesting reasons for not wearing shoes during a performance, like being able to better feel the vibrations of the music, or maybe something superstitious. That mystery was solved about two-thirds of the way through the show, when Lou announced it was merely because, with shoes on, his feet are too wide to comfortably operate the pedals on his equipment. 
     The second thing that stood out was the crowd itself. It was not as crowded as I thought and hoped it would be; there were maybe about seventy-five to one hundred people there. But the crowd was intensely engaged with the music, and seemed very familiar with Lou and his work. One girl seemed so moved that by the end of the show she had cried a little. While Lou and the Missingmen were playing, very few people left the stage area, not even to refill their drinks, even though they could have heard the music just as well at the bar that was only fifty feet away. I can't say what Lou's career goals are, and I don't know why anyone likes the music they like. But I can say that the people that came out to see Lou Barlow play last night are fans in the truest sense, the real deal, and for the true love of Lou's work. 

     Although I've enjoyed both bands I've seen at small local venues, I don't know that it will become a regular thing for me, but when Lou Barlow comes back to Cleveland, I'll be there. I wish Lou all the best for the rest of his tour, his music, and his life. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Highlight Cleveland: The Botanical Garden

     I don't know much about gardening. I couldn't tell you one flower or plant from the next, when they should be planted, or if they require sun or shade. I've never had a green thumb, but I have always enjoyed nice gardens, beautiful landscapes, waterfalls, flowers, and other naturally peaceful places. My appreciation probably comes in part from my dad, who creatively landscaped and gardened his yards and frequently took us to parks. 
     Today, for the fourth of fifth time this year, I went with my family to the Cleveland Botanical Garden. The Garden is located in Cleveland's University Circle area, near, among other things, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland Institute of Music, Western Reserve Historical Society, the Children Museum, and in the heart of the Case Western Reserve University campus. The Garden is actually several gardens, indoor and out, that flow together. 
     Indoors there is the Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse, which includes two gardens. First, The Spiny Desert of Madagascar. In addition to plants, there are some tortoise, lizards, and cockroaches. The second garden in the glasshouse is the Lush Rain Forest of Costa Rica. Of course there are many plants, some birds, a frog, and more. But most interesting in the Rain Forest are the butterflies. They are everywhere, and it is not unusual for one to land on a person walking through their home.

     Outdoors, there are no fewer than ten gardens, including a gateway garden, themed gardens, restorative garden, Hershey's Children's Garden, Japanese garden, topiary garden, a rose garden, terrace garden, woodland garden, and herb garden. Of course, having a child, the Hershey's Children's Garden is a favorite. There are many interactive features, including a fountain children can run through, strawberries, an electric train, a tree house, a lagoon with fish, frogs, and tadpoles, and more. Even at just under two years old, my son loves it. The Hershey's garden has special events scheduled throughout the season for children of all ages. 
     As I walk from one garden to the next I think I would like something like that in my back yard, but couldn't pick one style if I wanted to! Some seem to require a lot of work, likely daily, to keep them looking so pristine. Others look like they aren't gardens at all, but instead are like walking through a beautiful, natural, forest that happens to have a path and stairs for my convenience. Each section of the outdoor gardens blend and flow nicely. Most of the gardens are easy to walk and are handicap accessible, but some areas have hills, unpaved paths, or steps. 
     In addition to summer programs at the Hershey's children's garden, there are many other programs throughout the year. There is a library, open to anyone visiting the gardens and to members, that has story hour once a week for children. After the story, there is usually a craft. On Wednesday nights during the summer there is a wine bar and food tasting from restaurants in and around Cleveland. In early spring, there is Orchid Mania, which includes an amateur photo contest. This weekend, there are landscapers showing their work, and vendors with plants and flowers for sale.
     Inside, is a gift shop with a variety of garden and other items, including a large selection of books, typical gift shop items like pencils, lights, t-shirts, and hats, and non-typical items like glass art, bird feeders, candles, and more. The Garden Cafe features unique items and uses local produce when possible.
     The Cleveland Botanical Garden is a non-profit organization and offers various levels of membership. All include free admission, and higher levels provide other benefits including advance notice to events, discounts at the store, and free parking. I have been a member for the past year, and look forward to renewing my membership. 

     Since joining the Cleveland Botanical Garden, I have become interested in others, and have visited some. It has provided a new appreciation for gardens and gardening, nature, and the importance of local food gardens, sustainable gardening, and other ecological issues. The garden is also a quiet, peaceful place to visit. I hope this encourages others to visit the CBG, or a botanical garden in your area. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Much is Too Much? Is the Simple Life a Better Life?

     Recently I've had conversations with several friends about the simple life:  living with less money, less work, less technology, less hassle. It seems to be a very desirable thing right now. 
    One of the friends runs his own business. He's had a rough couple years, starting with the unexpected death of a couple friends, then the lease on the building where he ran his business was unexpectedly terminated, then he had a very hard time find a new one. Finally, a year and a half later, he seems poised to get back on his feet. Time has passed since the loss of his friends and the business is up and running. But he lost his mojo, his heart just isn't in it, and he is having some difficulty making the decisions and commitments necessary to run a successful shop.
     The second guy is doing all right. He owns a nice house, has a good job, and a wonderful girlfriend. But he has always liked to take it easy, relax, vacation, sit by the pool, do some gardening. He is tired of the office politics, the games, tired of the rat race. He has spoken often of buying an inexpensive condo in Florida (apparently, there are some great deals after the collapse of the housing bubble). He went there last week and made a few offers, but nothing stuck. He is ready to retire at thirty-four years old, take his savings, and live cheap. Maybe work at a fitness center, earning just enough to get by, but living in beautiful Florida, a small simple one bedroom place, near the beach. He argues that even though he would make less money, have fewer luxuries, a smaller home, he would be happier, and that is more important. 
     These conversations have led to conversations with my beautiful wife about our lives. We make a decent living, far more than I ever thought we would, and still are sometimes check to check. We don't have a lot of luxuries; we live in a small house with no basement. I drive a fourteen year old car. We don't take extravagant vacations. We don't have lots of jewelry. But could we do with less? Could we be happier? 
     Many of our friends and coworkers, who make the same or less money than we do, have big $300,000 houses with all the furnishings and toys that one would expect and two new, often leased, cars. New computers. Finished basements. Two vacations per year. We don't know how they do it. And they sure don't seem happier than we are.
     Just a day or so ago I was reading in a book about how so many Americans are living beyond their means, thanks in part to successful marketing, inflated housing values that allowed people to borrow against equity that disappeared, and cheap money that was lent to almost anyone by banks that seemed to forget about the risk management part of their function in society. 
     This book was not the first place I read or heard about this trend. My first clue was when I bought my house ten years ago and the mortgage company approved me for about double what I figured I could afford. I have credit card limits of over $30,000, with constant offers for more.  I saw the homes so many friends and colleagues were buying (and now the amount of overtime they have to work). Of course, it was all built on a house of cards that collapsed in 2008. 

Writers of the blog Living a Simple Life
     These conversations, experiences, and other current events force me to ask myself, my wife and family, and of course anyone else who would like to discuss it: Can we, and should we, live with less? Should we raise our children more simply? What would or should we eliminate in our lives to accomplish this? What might we gain from it? 
     It is easy for me to say I could do with less. I could probably do without a home phone, possibly without television, walk more and drive less, eat at home more often, borrow books more often than buy them. Am I prepared to have my son go with less? Really have him live without TV, fewer toys, fewer and cheaper clothes, less of a house? Much of this might be uncomfortable for him as he gets older and attends school with people who seem to have everything. But will the lessons be worth it? Am I prepared to have my wife do with less? She works hard as the primary care taker of our son, and still works two long, hard days each week. Doesn't she deserve to have more?

     Although I complain about not having the money I want, we are doing well. We save a lot towards retirement. We have a high mortgage payment for a small house, but only for nine years. Our being cash poor is difficult now, but is kind of by design and serves a purpose. But for so many Americans, people that I know and love, that is not the case. Sooner rather than later we, individually and as a society, have to make some hard decisions about our quality of life, about what is important and what isn't. We have to shift gears, from spenders to savers, and that might hurt our economy in the short run. But will it make us all happier? It probably will. And it will probably allow the economy to become stronger and more stable; replace the house of cards with an economy built with bricks and concrete.
     Unfortunately, even after learning the hard lessons of our near economic collapse and the recession that followed the last two years, it seems those largely responsible for causing it are ready to get right back to the game. They complained that too few regulations contributed to risky behavior with little oversight, even though they lobbied for fewer regulations. Then they publicly begged for more, and now that Congress is considering it, are back to lobbying against it. It seems nothing has been learned.
     I understand the argument that the grass is always greener on the other side. When I had nothing, I wanted more. When I have more, I want a simpler life. But there has to be a median, a comfortable place where we can provide for our families reasonably without the stress of more, more, more. It is a responsible course, one Americans need to take and one that should be encouraged by each other, government, and businesses to sustain our way of life.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jury Duty

     About a month ago I got my a notice in the mail from the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas court that I had been summonsed for jury duty. Although I've been a registered voter for over eighteen years, this is the first time I've had the opportunity to fulfill this important function in our criminal justice system. Last week, I fulfilled my civic responsibility with pleasure, and I enjoyed the experience.
     I had been summonsed to begin on Monday, May 10th and serve for a minimum of five days. In Cuyahoga County, there are thirty-four judges that get jurors from the same pool. So unlike smaller counties or municipal courts, Cuyahoga County always has a large pool of jurors ready, probably about two hundred. When no juries are needed, the prospective jurors wait in a large room. When a judge calls for a jury, twenty names are selected randomly and those people are taken to the court room, where eventually twelve will be selected and one or two will remain as alternates.
     The jury pool room was comfortable and had a quiet area, tables, chairs, office like cubicles, and WiFi. Most people had books, computers, or an iPod or some other similar device to keep them occupied. I enjoyed the opportunity to read my books and work on the computer without the constant interruption of a toddler. Some prospective jurors would talk amongst themselves, play cards or other games, or even sleep! I'm sure a few new friendships were formed during our time in the pool.
     On my second day, I was finally called for a jury. I, along with nineteen others, went to the twenty-first floor of the court house and were under the care of judge's bailiff. We waited a short time in the deliberation room before being assigned a number, one through twenty (I was 16), and led into the court room. The judge explained the process and importance of the jury as the deciders of fact. He explained that while he decided legal matters, and those decisions could be appealed, the jury decides the facts, and the decision of the jury can not be appealed.
     After the judge's short speech, the process of selecting, or seating, the jury began. The process is called voir dire, and allows the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney to ask questions of the prospective jurors to determine if anyone has a prejudice against the court system, police, defendant, or some other reason they may not be suitable as a juror. Prospective jurors are under oath when asked these questions, and must answer truthfully. After questioning, either side may request a juror be removed for cause, and identify the cause. Then, each side gets to dismiss a certain number of jurors for no cause, called a peremptory challenge.
     The case I was called for was a felonious assault. The defense was hinting at the affirmative defense of self-defense; that is the only thing about the case that revealed during voir dire. The first twelve jurors were in the "box" and being asked questions. After initial questioning, no one was removed for cause, and only two were removed peremptorily. And juror number 15 was selected as an alternate, leaving me left unselected and sent back to the jury pool.
     It is unlikely, although not impossible, that I would have been selected to serve on the jury anyway. As a police officer, most attorneys don't want me there, prosecutors or the defense. Perhaps they feel our experiences make us too biased, or that we are more prone to believe fellow law enforcement officers, or that we would have an undue influence over other jurors during deliberations. I suppose I don't blame them, even though I think I would have been a fine juror.
     After being sent back to the jury pool, I was never called again. At the end of day three, the jurors I served with were released early, and did not have to serve the remaining days of our summons, which meant I had to return to work two days early.

     Jury duty is an important part of our criminal justice system. I have heard people make arguments that the average citizen is too unfamiliar with the courts and legal system to be entrusted with such important decisions, and judicial panels or professional juries would be better. I've heard people complaint about having to serve because they are missing work, or it is their summer break from college, or they just don't want to be bothered. Over the years, people have gone to such efforts to get out of jury duty that the courts will almost never excuse anyone anymore, which is why I had to serve despite the unlikely chance I would be seated.
     I wish more people valued the jobs of jurors, that more prospective jurors took the responsibility seriously, and that fewer people attempted to skirt their civic duty. I will acknowledge that unlike some of the others, I am paid by my employer for work missed as a result of jury duty, so I'm don't have the financial concerns of some, but I still think it should be viewed as a more positive experience and privilege. 

     The Cuyahoga County Common Pleas court did a wonderful job handling its jury pool. I felt we were all treated respectfully and fairly. The conditions of the jury pool room were comfortable. The food at the nearby cafeteria was not bad. The staff that were in charge of managing the group was polite, friendly, and helpful. It was a positive experience, and I look forward to having another opportunity to serve.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: So Cold the River

     I have been a fan of author Michael Koryta since, Tonight I Said Goodbye, the first of a four book series featuring private detective Lincoln Perry. Since then Mr. Koryta's writing has gotten better  with each effort. His stand-alone, Envy the Night, is all the evidence anyone needs to be convinced that Mr. Koryta has become an author with a big future ahead of him, in the same league as Michael Connelly, Dennis LeHane, and James Lee Burke
     When I heard that Mr. Koryta's latest book, So Cold the River, was going in a slightly different direction, I was skeptical. It is, I was told, still a mystery, but has a mystical or super-natural element included. So, while I had confidence in Mr. Koryta's writing, I didn't know if it would be for me.
     I loved the book, and the super-natural element was easy to believe, not too far out of this world, and made the book fantastically captivating. Although it is about five hundred pages, it is a great, stimulating, captivating read that moves quickly.
     It starts with Eric Shaw, a former up and comer in Hollywood. After losing favor there, he returns to his hometown and finds himself estranged from his wife, angry with his powerful father-in-law, and barely making ends meet filming weddings and other events. His work catches the attention of a guest at one of the weddings, and she hires Mr. Shaw for a special project, a gift for her husband: to learn the life story and make a documentary about her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, whose past is a mystery that originated in West Baden Springs, Indiana. A clue to the mystery is an old bottle of mineral water, Pluto Water.
     Mr. Shaw reluctantly takes the assignment, and becomes immediately fascinated with the Pluto Water, which was rumored to cure a wide variety of ailments. Eventually, his curiosity gets the better of him, and Mr. Shaw takes a sip, just a sip, and has visions of West Baden Springs of old, visions that start telling a story that he can't stay away from. A story of a different, an infamous, Campbell Bradford, who left a family behind in West Baden Springs, never heard from again.
      The book tells the stories of two times, one in the past, one in the present, but both very real, and building towards a powerful collision. Mr. Koryta has done another great job developing dynamic and believable characters and relationships. Even some of the more unsavory characters have some good, or at least endearing, qualities. His writing is amply descriptive but never so detailed as to become boring. And although this book hasn't been released yet, I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Itch Goes to Washington, D.C.

     Last weekend my family and I went to Washington, D.C., for a quick visit. It had been over ten years since I'd been there, and I really looked forward to the visit, particularly because we were staying in the heart of the city, blocks from the White House, Capitol, FBI Headquarters, the National Mall, Treasury, the Newseum, and Justice. We visited the Botanical Gardens, Building Museum, Portrait Gallery, and Police Officer's Memorial.
     I had visited D.C. a few times in the past. The first time was in the eighth grade, on a class trip. We visited the monuments, museums, and Mt. Vernon. The next time was as a college student. I worked for the Student Government and a small delegation went on a lobbying trip with the United States Student Association. It was fun, but we were busy, and there was little time for taking in the sights. My last visit, until this weekend, included tour the Hoover Building, and a $100 parking ticket.
     Each time I was in Washington, from my visit as an eight grader to my most recent trip as a husband, father, police officer, political junkie, and blogger, I am amazed by the aura of power and influence. Decisions made in that city influence the entire world. They save lives and take lives, protect and destroy, provide and take away. It is larger than life. 
     During my visits to Washington, I experienced the sights, smells, and noises of the city.  We ate at the restaurants, walked the streets, visited the buildings in one of the most powerful cities in the world.

     It was a humbling experience.

     I am the same husband, father, political junkie and blogger that I was before I visited Washington as I am now. Those who live and work there, who were elected or appointed to serve the people of the United States, and in many ways the world, are the same as you or me. We share the same sights, smells, and noises; stay in the same buildings; eat at the same restaurants. While their work is important and their decisions effect millions, they are no better or worse than me or you.
     I wish more of them would remember that.