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.

Monday, May 3, 2010

GUEST POST by Kent Smith: Why Kent State Still Matters

 Kent Smith is a friend of mine and the co-author of the book, Please God Save Us.  He is also an elected school board member for Euclid City Schools and works for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor writing grants, among other things. Kent posted this essay on  the Facebook page he and his co-author, Derek Hess, share for their book and gave permission to repost it. The original can be found here.  Today, Kent and Derek attended events at Kent State University marking the 40th Anniversary of the Kent State Massacre. Four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard while protesting the Vietnam War; the protesters were unarmed.  I hope you enjoy this piece written by Kent, and consider buying a copy of the book. In addition to thoughtful essays, it contains provocative art by Derek Hess.

“Why Kent State Still Matters”
Because it was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. 
When unarmed protesters and innocent (just on their way to class) students were killed at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, it broadly undercut support for the war in Vietnam. On Monday, May 4th (40 years ago) Kent State students gathered to protest their government’s escalation of a war and four of them paid for it with their lives. And, as a result, this nation began to question its principals and its priorities.

One of the critical dynamics of America at that time was that war protesters were despised. Think about it. America — the nation — had a past of military heroics. Just 25 years earlier, we stopped Hitler and had saved the world. Our US military had only fought “noble” battles. And now those teenagers and students were questioning our nation. Who are these damn kids? After May 4th, student protesters became sympathetic figures who were acting patriotic, instead of class-cutting babies who needed a haircut and a shower.

What young America had realized was that this battle - based on political ideologies on a peninsula in Southeast Asia - was not worth their lives. Remember the military draft had been reestablished just 5 months earlier. And just 5 days earlier (4/30/1970), President Nixon had gone on national television to announce that the US military had begun operations in Cambodia. The war was spreading. The war that Nixon said he would end was growing. A war that now had a draft and a war that Kent State students knew might demand their service.

So they gathered, their voices grew, they questioned their government as their constitution allowed them to do. Then rifles fired and the bullets flew. And Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer and William Schroeder – the oldest of which was only 20 years of age — were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. Nine other students were also shot but survived.

Public support for the Vietnam War began to collapse as news of Kent State shootings spread. 5 days later over 100,000 gathered in Washington DC to protest the Kent State massacre. And 40 years later, we from “Please God Save Us” are happy to be back tonight in Kent, Ohio to remember that wars should be questioned, dissent is patriotic and 20 is too young to die.

by Please God Save Us co-author Kent Smith
(All Rights Reserved. However, you are free to copy this essay - just credit the author)

*Images added by The Itch.