Sunday, December 27, 2009

Living In A State of Fear

I have a theory that the safer we truly are, the less safe we actually feel?

My home county paved its last gravel road 2 decades ago. Our typography and grid work of roadways make for some of the flattest, straightest roads in the country. Add modern traffic engineering and you have some of the safest roads one could imagine.

Upon them we drive the safest generation of cars the automobile industry has ever made. Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock breaks, halogen headlights, and interiors reengineered to reduce injury after crash impacts. We should feel pretty safe, right?

Then why are people still driving gargantuan, 4-wheel drive SUVs, their design inspired by off-road, and in some cases, military vehicles? I asked a couple SUV drivers why they continue to drive such uselessly huge gas-guzzlers. They both said it made them feel safer.

In his NBA Hall of Fame speech this year, Michael Jordan said, “Limits, like fears are often just an illusion.”

Fear of terrorism has become an illusion of staggering proportions for many Americans. Sure, I want the government worrying about it and taking proper precautions, but the fear most Americans harbor is ridiculously unjustified.

In their best selling book Super Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner provide stark data: “The probability that an average American will die in a given year from a terrorist attack is roughly 1 in 5 million; he is 575 times more likely to commit suicide.”

Why do we think the danger is so much greater than it is? Consider what happened Christmas night. A man lit an incendiary device on a Detroit-bound plane. For days to come cable news will bombard us with information about that 1 chance in 5 million as if it’s breathing down our necks. And the hundreds of suicides that took place around the Christmas holidays will go unmentioned.

A neighbor recently told me he was worried about crime. “It all just seems out of control,” he said. Watching a home security system commercial depicting criminals kicking in doors, you’d think we're all in constant danger. But according to FBI data our current rate of violent crime is about the same as it was in 1970.

In the various media accolades Hamilton County has gotten as a great place to live, our low crime is one measure. Yet, in the homes I show in my rounds as a Realtor, more and more have security systems.

We live in one of the safest places in one of the safest countries in the world – a kind of safety that the vast majority of people around the world can’t imagine. So why are we so scared?

And since the election of Barack Obama, guns sales have gone through the roof as fearful citizens, egged on by TV and radio demagogues believed Obama would dramatically tighten gun control. But the only action Obama has taken on guns is to broaden where they can be carried, making it legal to carry them in national parks.

What might those new gun owners worry about instead? The fact that nearly 60% of gun deaths are caused by suicide and accidents. And how about those women who are buying guns to protect themselves? The person most likely to kill a woman with a gun is her husband or boyfriend.

So these folks bought guns in record numbers and brought them home to the one place where they do the most damage.

A lot folks don’t understand what to fear.

How about child abductions, the worst fear of any parent? We fingerprint the kids, warn them about talking to strangers and have them report cars that drive by too slowly as they play. The schools are locked-down and the teacher and parental field trip background checks have been conducted and filed.

But the chances your child will be abducted are 1 in a million - literally. They’re twice as likely to be killed in an airplane crash. If your child is playing youth football or taking horseback riding lessons, you better pull them out because far more children are killed in those activities than are abducted. In fact, your child is 700 times more likely to attend Harvard than to be abducted.

My college freshman son, home for Christmas, lamented that if he wanted to visit one of his old high school teachers, he would have to call ahead to make arrangement with the school, then check in at the office upon arrival to get a ID tag, and then sign an arrival and departure sheet.

I suppose we can blame Columbine for this school lock-down insanity. But was Columbine the worst school massacre in history?


The worst happened in 1927 in Bath, Michigan in which 43 people were killed. In the aftermath, our grandparent’s generation did not lock-down every school in America. Instead they recognized the freakish rareness of the tragedy and went on living life in a hopeful, rather than fearful manner.

FDR was right. All we have to fear is fear itself.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Tiny Kitchen

Of the hundreds of columns I’ve written over the past 12 years for various local papers, this is one people still ask me about, so I’m sending it along again this Christmas. It was first published in the old Ledger in 1998.

The grandchildren mentioned in the story are nearly all adults now. One teaches school in inner-city Washington D.C., one is just graduating from Miami of Ohio, one is a college junior heading off for Christmas in Taiwan and Japan with his girlfriend, and the youngest, who was 4 when this was originally written has just been offered a modeling contract.

They and their parents will converge on our house this weekend, and our somewhat larger, more modern kitchen. We’ll try to make it just as nice . . . but the kitchen is probably too big.

And the grandparents? They can't take the cold anymore. They're already in Florida.

At Christmas each year 18 of us - 11 adults and 7 children, converge on a big old house in Bluffton with large rooms, tall ceilings and lots of bedrooms. The kitchen there is hopelessly small - perhaps eight by eight with a 12-foot ceiling, as if it were built for incredibly skinny, tall people. Along with the cabinets, stove, sink and refrigerator are three doorways and a little antique table that sits in the middle, leaving a square, narrow path for cooking and socializing.

We like to complain about that kitchen, but quiet enough so the grandparents don’t hear.

There are rooms in that house with comfortable chairs, places to sit and talk, yet, more times than not, complaints aside, we huddle in that tiny kitchen, drawn by nature like bugs to a back porch light. If you want a Coke or milk, either someone must move or you have to crack the refrigerator door just enough to stretch your arm in. If you want to open a cabinet, microwave, stove or rinse a glass in the sink, somebody . . . or somebodies, must move. Still we stay and gab.

It is most like this in late afternoon. There is a roast packed with spices sizzling in the oven, things steaming on the stove and 8 or 10 of us wedged in there elbow to elbow, nibbling on nuts and chips, each of us with a beer or martini. Children push their way through the legs, looking for a mother or father or cookie or cracker, or they push on to the back room where pies and Christmas cookies sit on the washer and dryer, waiting for desert.
There were years when our babies were breast-fed and burped and cradled to sleep in this crowded, hot, tiny kitchen filled with the smells of pine needles, coffee, leg of lamb and boiling potatoes, were middle-aged brothers and sisters catch up on another intervening year. We always hoped and prayed the babies would sleep through dinner. But I think our “baby” years are behinds us all and a couple of those babies who once fell asleep over their mother’s shoulder beside the warm stove are nearly as tall as the shortest of their aunts.

There is something about that cramped, cozy space, something completely at odds with the modern notion of what a kitchen must be like in a new house. There is little counter space, no dishwasher or trash compactor, no commercial-sized stove or water and ice in the frig door. It is a remarkably impractical kitchen. Thumb through an issue of Martha Stewart magazine or watch a few episodes of Hometime or This Old House - each make it clear that such a kitchen could be best helped with a stick of dynamite.

We like to complain about that tiny kitchen. My wife even rearranged the space a bit this past Thanksgiving, but there’s not a lot you can do with it without a sledgehammer. Still I wonder, would we be drawn there the same if it were a kitchen worthy of praise from Martha Stewart or Architectural Digest? I doubt it. More space, more burners, better lighting and comfy bar stools could not make us enjoy each other’s company more or make the food taste better. If it were large and spacious, if it were the “entertaining/performance space” that architects go on about on This Old House, would we be drawn there the same? I doubt it.

There’s something about close quarters that can free people’s tongues in the nicest way. You can’t design that into a modern kitchen without breaking all the rules.

Everyone here is successful. All are well-educated college graduates who have traveled abroad. One family has been living abroad for years while another comes from Washington where the father has tried cases before the Supreme Court. From Cleveland another shepherds ads we have all seen on TV and another couple helps keep 2 Indianapolis advertising firms successful. One has published a book. Everyone here has a finer kitchen in their own homes. But I would guess none of us have had as many loving, memorable moments in our own kitchens as have been had over the Christmases we’ve tolerated, or perhaps reveled in the cramped space and one another’s company in that tiny kitchen.

It makes me wonder about the things we think we need and work so hard to get, especially in this season so over-inflated with consuming and having. The pleasures of Christmas in that tiny kitchen contradict the rest of the year we spend working so hard to buy comfort for ourselves.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Peace on Earth?

Anthropologist, Wade Davis writes, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.
If more people opened their hearts to that reality, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” would be more than a Christmas season platitude.
That Biblical pronouncement from angels on the first Christmas has moved people throughout the ages. It’s served as a reminder at the celebration of the birth of Christ to let go of mistrust, grudges, and bigotry and seek kinship with people around the world.
Recently some Biblical scholars have argued that, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” was a greeting from God meant only for the Christian faithful. A couple of popular online dissertations express condescension toward those who use the phrase to urge peace and understanding for all mankind. Their tone suggests: “Peace on earth and good will toward . . . only those men who worship as I do.”
It’s heartbreaking and a little terrifying to see such a fundamentally good ethic turned upside down and backwards, because it’s a prescription for not just political and social strife, and war.
A couple years back I went to hear the Dalai Lama, the world’s Buddhist leader speak at an event in Bloomington, Indiana. He said that we couldn’t have peace until we, “disarm ourselves from within.”
Isn’t that what, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” means - disarming ourselves of not just mistrust of those who are different, but also the arrogant belief in the exclusive superiority of our own personal experience?
This week my local newspaper chirped the question, “How’s your Christmas shopping coming?” And every other media outlet is keeping me posted on Tiger Woods’ personal shortcoming. But I’ve stopped listening. As Christmas gets closer I’m thinking about what the Angels, the Dalai Lama, and Wade Davis had to say. Obsessing over buying shit and ogling at other people’s transgressions feels like a journey in the wrong direction.
The world has 2.2 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 350 million Buddhists, 25.8 million Sikhs, 870 million Hindus, and 13 million Jews, while 16% of the world’s population is agnostic or atheistic. The fastest growing religion in the world is Islam.
Some in each faith category no doubt believe those who lack their faith are doomed to damnation. Some Christians believe other Christians who don’t practice as they do are destined for hell, just as some of the Islamic faith – Shiites or Sunnis, believe adherents of the other sect are doomed.
Yet each faith also calls on their faithful to care for the wellbeing of others – all others. In ancient text and poetic language they each echo a mash-up of Wade Davis and the Dalai Lama: “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit. Disarm yourself of the arrogant opposition to that reality and love everyone.”
But it seems that everywhere we look this season, from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Internet, to TV news, too few care much about that.
And forget about foreign countries, people, and religion. It happens right here and it’s thinly sliced among variations of people.
Watching video of the health care protests, time and again I see a sign that reads something like, “Why should I have to buy healthcare for people too lazy to work.”
A little research reveals that the average American household living below the poverty line includes at least one adult working full time . . . for minimum wage. And you don’t have to look much further to realize that we all are already paying for those people because our system leaves them with no other option but to show up at emergency rooms for routine care. This leads to the highest hospital and insurance bills in the western world – bills that lead many other Americans into bankruptcy and reduced coverage.
It’s a complicated issue. But WWJD?
Most likely – not carry a hostile sign that brands all poor people without healthcare as lazy freeloaders. If anyone was disarmed from within, it was Christ.
Across our social and political landscape it seems people are armed to the hilt with misjudgments, unfair accusations, resentments, bigotry and rage.
Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. That is my wish at Christmas time. It’s more than a wish for me or those I love, but for this entire world and all the people in it. And they need not all think what I think or worship as I worship. I don’t care if they’re Muslim or Jewish, gay or straight, black or white, conservative or liberal, rich or poor. I wish it for them all the same.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Repos & Rebirth

Stained carpets, missing light fixtures, trashed rooms and the telltale signs of broken families. That’s what you see when you spend your days showing bank repos to potential buyers.

As you enter the front walk, sometimes neighbors wander over to tell you the sad story they witnessed from their kitchen window or over the back fence. “She left him after he lost his job,” or a recent standout, “He left her and she was here in the house for a few months with the kids and then they all just disappeared.

That Noblesville home was pretty on the outside and looked like a steal. But on the inside it felt like a crime scene. The neighbor went on, ” . . . then the husband came back to try to clean up the house and saw what happened while he was gone. A huge freshwater tank full of fish left to die and rot in the summer heat, kids drew all over the walls with Crayons, dog crapped all over the rug, yard unmowed for weeks. You name it, it’s broken.”

When people are about to lose their house they get mad at their circumstances and mad at the world. They often take it out on the house.

With Indiana at or near the top in foreclosures nationally for the better part of a decade, our foreclosure scene is nothing new.

Noblesville’s Deer Path neighborhood is a good case study. It had 46 foreclosures in its first 4 years of existence, a record accumulated 2 years before the economy collapsed last year.

But no need to beat up on new construction, there’s plenty of misery across the repo landscape. Last week on a picturesque street in Old Town I showed a house that made my skin crawl. Carpets were packed with filth (was that oil or mud?), an old mahogany buffet, clawed by some long-gone dog sat askew in a rank kitchen, and animal feces scattered a back room. Standing in the moldering cellar, scanning the crawl space with a flashlight, the beam found a gaping hole in the foundation and a house cat that stared back impassively.

And you only have to look at a few repos before you realize there must be a secondary market for a home’s mechanical systems.

Two years ago I showed a rural Westfield repo to a young Noblesville couple. It was clean and well scrubbed but missing its furnace, central air unit, toilets, sinks, ceiling fans, kitchen appliances and cabinets.

Like a car on blocks in a bad neighborhood, the house had been stripped. But one person’s misfortune becomes an opportunity for someone else. My buyers took the house and put it back together, making a nice first home for themselves.

And if you’re tempted to believe that bologna about the market collapse being caused by the government forcing lenders to loan money to poor people, you haven’t seen the high-end of the foreclosure crisis. In reality, just 1 in 5 of the bad loans going into foreclosure were made to low-income buyers.

Earlier this month in Carmel, I showed several foreclosures & pre-foreclosures priced over half a million dollars.

And last week I showed a home priced over $1.7 million. It’s in the midst of a now famous mortgage fraud case. There were $9 million worth of loans taken out on the house: a case study in a decade of weak regulation of lenders and AWOL government oversight.

The pool is filled with algae, outdoor hand railings are rotted, vandals have smashed hand-cut stonework, and an outdoor cooking area has been trashed. Inside, every refrigerator, wine cooler, dishwasher, oven, cook-top and a fireplace mantel were gone. In one of the two garages, old signage from The Levee restaurant is scattered about. In the basement theater room, wires hang uselessly from wall ports where the speakers and components were ripped from the walls.

Like much of the rest of the country, foreclosures have raced across our county like a wildfire. But wildfires have a way of setting the stage for rebirth

The homes that have been a drag on my Old Town neighborhood for years have fallen into foreclosure and been bought for a song by investors and young folks with a dream. Drive up and down the streets and alleys now and you’ll see scaffolding, ladders, dumpsters and stacks of lumber and siding – signs of rebirth amid the debris.

It keeps reminding me of those documentaries about Yellowstone a few years after the big fire where you see these strong, young shoots of growth springing out of the ash.

Another Noblesville Blogger You Must Read:
There’s a Noblesville writer whose blog is getting noticed on a nationally well-known web site called Timothy McSweeney. The writer is Charlie Hopper and he lives in a picturesque Colonial Revival home on Maple Avenue with his wife and 3 kids.

Charlie is one the brightest and funniest people I know. He won a competition for a regular blog spot on the McSweeney site by writing about his true-life attempts to write and sell a hit country song in Nashville. His “beleaguered, but hopeful” journey will put a smile on your faced.

Anyone who has ever chased a long-shot dream while trying to hold down the fort and walk the straight and narrow will connect with Charlie’s stories.

Give him a read at:

Friday, November 13, 2009

3 Local Mysteries

1) Mysterious Subscriptions Numbers
In the August 19th issue of Hamilton County’s The Times, the paper’s publisher, Tim Timmons wrote in his weekly column:

“When we purchased The Times back just about a year ago (boy, time flies!), we had a paid circulation of less than 4,500. Today, I'm more than a little pleased to share that our paid circulation is up to more than 8,100.”

Timmons went on to say: “During today's economic ups and downs, it's more gratifying than I can possibly express that we have grown 80 percent in less than a year.”
Link to actual column:

Numbers like that encouraged my local real estate office to switch our weekly showcase of homes advertising from the Star to the Times. I checked with our Tucker corporate office and they were pitched this 8,100 figure.

But those circulation numbers are mysterious for 2 reasons.

-In October, less than 2 months later, as required by the United State Postal Service, The Times published its official circulation numbers in a grainy, hard to read legal ad.* It showed the paper’s owner signed his name to a document that pegged its average daily circulation for the previous 12 months at 4,308, a number less than it was when the current owners took over, almost half the number cited by Mr. Timmons just 2 months earlier.

-Earlier this week I spoke with a representative of the Times and ask about the number discrepancy. He said that both numbers were wrong and that it’s really more like 6,000, but that he publicly uses the 8,100 figure.

2) Mysterious Messages Embedded in Asphalt
Noblesville is home to an increasing number of “Toynbee Tiles;” mysterious messages embedded in the asphalt of a city street. The Contrarian first wrote about these in 2007 when the first one appear at Logan and 9th Streets.

Such messages have been found in major cities around the U.S. and in several South American cities. Who’s placing the messages, why, and how they manage to do it without being seen remains a mystery.

Several can be found around the courthouse square. The first to appear locally can be found in North 9th Street just feet from its intersection with Logan Street, touching the northern-most crosswalk. It reads:

“Toynbee idea
in movie 2001
resurrect dead

planet Jupiter”

If you want to understand what it means, Goggle it. It’s way too weird and complicated for me to explain.

In the past year others have appeared at the corner of 9th and Conner and one appears to have disintegrated at Logan and 10th, leaving it random letters embedded, but scattered around the intersection.

They are apparently made by cutting out the design, mosaic-style from colored pieces of linoleum and then sandwiching the resulting panel between two pieces of sticky roofing felt. The sandwiched message is dropped on a smooth road on a hot summer day and car tires compress it into the asphalt, initially looking like a rectangular patch in the road. After weeks or months the top layer of roofing felt wears away and reveals the linoleum mosaic message, now fully embedded into the street surface.

3) Mysteriously Inept Writer: He can write (sorta), but can he dress himself?
I was invited by local writer Dan Logan to help judge a writing competition that was part of his writer’s workshop last Saturday at Forest Park Lodge.

I dressed myself all by myself, because I’m a big boy now, and I went off to the writer’s workshop and while there was treated like a reasonably intelligent person who knows a thing or two. I was honored to sit for a few hours with Noblesville’s well-known and successful novelist Susie Crandall and judge short stories written by the workshop attendees.

During a down hour before naming the winners, I left the workshop and went out about the community and ran some errands, then came back to Forest Park to see the awards handed out.

Everybody shook hands and complemented the winners and went home.

When I got home I sat on the edge of bed and unlaced my shoes, only to discover, to my horror, that I had spent the entire day walking around with two different shoes on.

Perhaps I need to do what my kids had to do when they were in elementary school: present themselves before my wife for inspection each day before leaving to make sure nothing was inside out, backwards, or on the wrong feet.

*To see an original, readable copy of the postal form The Times filled out to better understand what the numbers mean, email the Contrarian and I’ll send you a clean pdf.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Environmentalist, or Just Cheap?

You could call me an environmentalist, and that’s fine, but my obsession with becoming more energy efficient and resourceful has as much to do with the prospect of saving money as it does with environmentalism.

It started over ten years ago when I began converting our light bulbs to compact fluorescents. And when the furnace died last year, we had new high efficiency furnace and central air units installed. But like the compact fluorescents, those are automatic no-brainers.

Last spring when it became clear that our old gas powered lawn mower was on its last leg, I went a little further. I bought an electric mower with a built-in battery.

It’s no heavier than a regular mower, has a bag, and a nifty single-touch height-control lever. I plugged it into an outlet in the garage right where I once kept its gas powered predecessor, charged it overnight, and in the morning had enough stored power to mow an acre.

No more hauling gas cans to the station and storing them in the garage. No annual tune-ups. No more stubborn pull cords. Just lift a lever and it runs.

Granted, the electricity has to come from somewhere and often that’s a coal-powered plant. But not always. The power plant north of Noblesville in Riverwood has been converted to natural gas, scrubbers can be put on coal-fired plants and wind generation is on the rise. And I’m reducing ground level ozone - that stuff that leads to summer no-zone alert days when you’re asked not to mow lawns.

This fall I used that electric mower to turn my yard leaves into fertilizer and mulch for the vegetable garden. I mow the leaves instead of raking, gathering them in the bagger. I dump some of the chopped leaves in the garden and turn them into the soil to recharge it for next year. The bulk of the chopped leaves are piled behind the garage to decompose over the winter. Once I’ve got the garden going in the spring, I use this leaf-mulch to mulch around plants. This returns yet more nutrients to the soil and holds in more moisture, requiring less watering.

That makes fewer leaves for city pick up, less money spent on chemicals and fertilizers during the growing season, and less water used to grow the plants. And the pulverized leaves left behind among the blades of grass on the lawn will be fertilizing it next spring and summer (I also cancelled my lawn service last spring).

Last spring I bought two rain barrels from Hamilton County’s Soil and Water Management offices. They came with hardware that connects the enclosed barrels to downspouts to gather water. I found a 3rd, identical barrel for free and built a platform from scrap lumber behind the garage for all three to sit on. I plumbed the barrels together so that the water from one flowed to the others. I hooked them up to the garage downspouts and dropped a little pump that had been gathering dust in the garage into one of the tanks. A hose from the pump ran to the yard-side of the garage. After the first heavy rain I was able to water the lawn and garden with rainwater. Those 3 tanks together hold 165 gallons of water, which could be gathered from one long day of rain.

I did the rough math, and it will take about 3 years for this rain barrel investment to break even and start saving me money, which I’m willing to wait for, but I’ve also got water for the plants during the next drought, which has value in itself.

And that garden did pretty well this past summer. There was romaine lettuce, spinach, and broccoli in the spring, and tomatoes, peppers, basil, and carrots in the summer. Mid-summer I planted more lettuce, spinach and broccoli for fall. The lettuce is done, the 2nd go-round of spinach failed (not sure why) and the broccoli is coming on. I also put in an asparagus bed this summer, which is another long-term investment. I can’t harvest any until the spring of 2011, but again, I’m willing to wait. The little wispy, fern-like starts are promise enough.

Environmentalists will say I’m helping the environment because I’m growing my own food at home and buying less stuff shipped across the country. That’s great. But I like doing it, regardless.

Last month our water heater died. So I made the leap. I had a tankless water heater installed5. Out with the old 50-gallon behemoth that wastefully maintained hot water all night while we slept and all day while we were at work. The new model only heats the water we need, and better yet, it never runs out. Should take about 3 years to break even on the extra expense, but it comes with a 25 year warranty, so for 22 years I’ll be saving money every month.

I also get $150 rebate from the gas company and a $780 federal tax credit for installing it.

Some of this stuff – the high efficiency furnace, the tankless water heater, even the compact fluorescent bulbs cost more initially than their less efficient counterparts. But I’m a firm believer in the old saying, “Penny pinchers pay twice.” The larger investment today means less expense in the long run.

And if it makes the environment cleaner, well that’s pretty cool, too.

Friday, October 30, 2009

24 Hours on Facebook

Friends and family had been bugging me. “You gotta get on Facebook!”

Half of the technology and marketing articles I’ve read for my industry – Real Estate, insisted you’ve gotta have a Facebook page to be an effective and successful Realtor.

But everything I read, observed, and just plain sensed about Facebook told me it could easily become a 2nd job. So I put it off. That is, until Wednesday of this week. I finally logged on, set up a page with photos and links to my blog and my company website, and quickly clicked through the names of a couple dozen friends, family and neighbors to add as friends.

Then all hell broke loose.

I’ve got a lot of home listings right now and get an email notification every time a Realtor sets up an appointment, and then again when they’ve shown it and provided feedback. I get another burst of emails for the listings I’m showing to my buyers – showing instructions and feedback requests. Add on top of that emails from home inspectors, title companies, other agents, and just plain friends, family and column readers. Some days it can literally take hours to sift through my emails.

Now add Facebook.

In my first 24 hours on Facebook I got 39 emails notifying me about each person who confirmed me as a friend, every comment they wrote on my wall and every event I was invited to. Just a couple hours after creating the page I left the office at 4:15 with my email inbox clean. When I opened my laptop at 9:00 that evening volumes of information had arrived on my Facebook page.

-My cousin Jennifer went home sick from work and lots of her friends (who I don’t know) are praying for her.
-My brother-in-law Paul is in Spain, updating his itinerary as he goes, and his friends, (who I don’t know) are commenting on his various locations.
-Geoff updates his status: “Geoff Davis is at home” He only lives a couple blocks away from me – I saw him drive down the street a little while ago so I already know he’s home.
-Amy and Susan (sisters) are sharing jabs about the World Series.
-Richard got thrown out of a bar in Daytona;-)
-When I added my niece, Laura as a friend, it gives me two twisted words to retype for verification: they spell, “laxative late.” The word “constipation” flashes in my mind for a moment. I move on.
-My son Jack and his friends give a shout-out to their favorite skateboard shop, including pictures of skateboards and them just horsing around.
-Jack’s girlfriend comments on my last column.
-Past client, Adam keeps updating me every time he beats a level in a video game.
-My niece, Laura in Santiago, Chile has taken a poll about the foreign language she would most like to speak (German, by the way,) and her friends (who I don’t know) are commenting.
-Nikki’s anticipating an airplane trip and is exited.
-My cousin Jennifer is doing something regarding electronic gifts under electronic Christmas trees.
-My neighbor and friend Julie has just gotten over H1N1 and her friends and family (more people I don’t know) are commenting.
-My uncle Max mowed the lawn.
-My brother, Tom took a quiz to guess the identities of movie stars with their eyes whited out and sends the pictures so I can play, too.
-Doug, a past real estate client is offering smoked hams and turkeys for Thanksgiving.
-My cousin Jennifer is updating her status, again? Oh hell, that girl’s spending too damn much time on the computer telling people what she’s doing.

I realize my iphone has already downloaded a Facebook app.
Oh, good:-( I can update my status anytime, anywhere.

-Amy and Peggy are planning to get coffee together.
-Jack sends more horsing around photos.
-Adam is done with the video games and now he and Nikki are at the airport to fly to a Phish concert.
-I realize my 14-year-old daughter, Sally has rejected my friend request.
-My oldest son Cal sends pictures of someone in a Power Rangers costume.
-Hannah is going to see the Sufjan Stevens film, again.
– and damn-it-all, my cousin Jennifer is doing something again! "Girl, get off the computer and do something productive."

I made none of this up. Not one word. Skipped a lot of less interesting stuff, and it’s only the first 24 hours!

Will anyone go back to work when the recession is over or will we all just sit unshaven in pajamas for days, sending polls to our friends asking, “Which is the hottest Kardashian?” and “Should Barack Obama be allowed to shut down Fox News?” and “Toilet Paper Installation: Over or Under?” – three actual polls I’ve seen in my first 24 hours.

The only really useful information I got in this first day was from my mother, who saw my comment about Facebook being a second job and wrote, “I usually can't find my spot on the thing, never find anybody’s' pictures, and can't figure out what I'm really suppose to do. I find this too time consuming.”

Thanks Mom.

Status Update: Kurt’s at the doctor’s office getting his regular allergy shot. I’ll update you all when I get back to the office.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"That's So Gay"

Warning: Some language in this column may be offensive to some people. (It’s certainly offensive to me.)

“That’s so gay!”

Having been a high school teacher for 16+ years up until 2002 – and having teenage children for much of the time since, I’ve heard that phrase more times than I can count. If a teenager thinks something is unstylish, or silly, or just plain stupid, they’ll say, “That’s so gay.”

My wife was even surprised recently reading a Rolling Stone interview with Madonna to hear the queen of pop use the phrase. I even heard a Noblesville mom say it recently.

I wonder if the mom or Madonna or the typical teenager would say, “That’s so black?

Of course they wouldn’t, because they understand that such a comment would be offensive to African Americans. So what makes anyone think that gays feel any differently?

When I recently questioned a Noblesville High School student about this they were defensive. “The phrase has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s just something people say.”


When I was in elementary school back in the 1960s in a small Indiana town, it wasn’t unusual for schoolchildren to call you a “dumb” or “stupid ‘N’ word” if you messed something up. It’s hard to believe looking back from 2009. But when everyone uses a particular phrase, it seems normal.

I may have been the stupidest kid ever, because under the age of perhaps 8 or 9, I never associated that usage of the “N” word with African Americans. At least not until I said it at home and got slapped in the face by my mother (the first and only slap she ever gave me).

When I was a high school teacher, there was a period in the early ‘90s when my students actually used the phrase, “That’s so Jewish.” It meant the same thing as, “That’s so gay.” In talking about the Jewish version of the phrase with that Noblesville High School student, she told me she has a friend at Westfield High School who says, “That’s so Jewish,” all the time. She felt that was going over the line and clearly not right, and told her friend to stop saying it. Yet she thinks saying, “That’s so gay,” is perfectly fine.

On a day when I’d heard, “That’s so Jewish,” more times than I could tolerate I put all my students on notice that I would not tolerate the use of the phrase in my classroom any longer. But sure enough, within a couple days someone used the phrase to describe something they didn’t like. I sent the boy to the office for using offensive language.

He was dumbfounded. He thought I was nuts, insisting there’s nothing wrong with the phrase because (here we go again), “It has nothing to do with Jewish people.”

Kinda coincidental that it carried a negative, instead of a positive connotation. How come none of these supposedly harmless phrases that reference historically maligned minorities are never complementary?

Let’s just be honest with ourselves. Homosexuals are the last group that it’s still socially acceptable to openly hate or discriminate against. Let’s also be honest and admit that a phrase that was once meant to clearly ridicule gays became so ubiquitous, that lot’s of people don’t even associate it with its original meaning. But for the person being offended, the meaning is still there.

You can say I’m caught up in political correctness, but I base my objection to the phrase on my Christian upbringing and the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you’re Catholic, would you like to repeatedly hear people say, “That’s so Catholic,” to describe something they hate? Oh, c’mon now, it has nothing to do with Catholics, it’s just a harmless phrase, right?

Or how about, “That’s so Hoosier?” Or perhaps, “That’s so female,” to describe something ugly or dumb or foolish?” Why be so touchy? It’s just a phrase.

Sound ridiculous? No more ridiculous than, “That’s so gay.”

Just as we look back and shake our heads in disbelief at the insensitive phrases once used that negatively reflected upon African Americans or Mexicans or Jews, one day in the not so distant future, we’ll look back and wonder how regular people could have been so cruel and rude to say, “That’s so gay.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rembering Brown County (and a little about the Nobel Prize)

Drove down to Brown County with friends last Saturday for a party in the woods at Susie and Larry’s cabin. They call it Larryland.

South of Trafalgar, as the predictable grid of northern roads gave way to winding and turning lanes among the hills, I got to thinking about the year and a half I lived in Brown County after graduating college.

I’d spent so much of my life on the flat land of northern Indiana, moving to Brown County in the mid-‘80s at the age of 24, the place just didn’t feel like any part of Indiana I knew. It felt like the south.

I rented a guesthouse from an elderly woman named Angie, just west of Nashville off 46, up a steep hill and in the forest right across from the Little Nashville Opry. My place was one room, maybe 20’ x 20’ with a kitchenette built into one wall and an entire bank of windows, ceiling to floor, looking out on a ravine on the opposite wall.

Angie was a remarkable woman. She’d spent her life in New York as an editor at various fashion magazines. At retirement she followed her daughter and son-in-law to Brown County in the 60’s. They lived next door to us. Angie’s frail body was bent and twisted by arthritis, but she lived with a determined joy for life, her house filled with mementos from her life out east.

Angie had a dog named Ky. He was half German shepherd, half coyote. My first night there I came home from work after dark. As I walked from my car in the pitch black of the forest, I could hear Ky growling as he circled me in the undergrowth. In a scene right out of a horror film, I fumbled with the key in the unfamiliar lock, panicking as Ky drew closer, his growls more insistent. I burst inside, quickly slammed the door and flipped on the porch light. Ky glared back at me, teeth bared.

Angie had apparently watched the whole thing from her window.

She met me in the driveway in the morning and said, “Maybe you better feed the dog for a few days. You need to make friends with him” I did and Ky and I were friends from then on. Many nights he would sit outside my window and howl at the darkness. Coyotes on neighboring hills would howl in response, their cries echoing through the woods.

Angie’s son-in-law Sam was a former New York attorney who retired to Nashville and got elected County judge. Sam was an expert on mushrooms and had written a book, “A Judge Judges Mushrooms,” detailing every kind of mushroom that could be found within a mile of his house. Occasionally he would show up at the door exclaiming, “There are these fabulous little red mushrooms growing under the propane tank. Sauté those in some butter. You’ll love ‘em. But watch out for the puffball mushrooms. They’re poisonous.”

His enthusiasm usually included a casual warning that made you afraid to pick and eat anything.

As I sat around a campfire at “Larryland” on Saturday I thought too about the cultural differences between northern and southern Indiana. There are towns down there with names like Gnaw Bone and Bean Blossom. There’s a little bit of a nasal twang down there that you don’t hear so much in Marion or Ft. Wayne. Listen carefully next time you hear John Mellancamp being interviewed and you’ll hear what I mean. And I heard the term “you-uns” for the first time and then often, a term interchangeable with “ya-all.”

And there’s a driving culture too. Brown County drivers will pull out in front of you no matter what, forcing you to slam on your breaks to avoid a rear-end collision. Locals spend so much time trapped on those winding-curving roads behind slow-driving northerners who’ve come down to gawk at the scenery, they’d just rather get in front of you, no matter the risk.

When I originally went down for the job interview, Nashville looked like a happenin’ little town. What I didn’t know until I moved there was that, at least in those days, it closed down around 6 o’clock. Bloomington was my salvation. Younger friends from high school, still at IU provided nightlife. There were sorority dances, movies, and bars in what has to be one of Indiana’s best towns.

It was there that my wife and I first dated. She would drive down from Bluffton (the flat northland) and spend the weekend with me.

Saturday, as I watched the guests – mostly Noblesville folks – the adults playing corn hole and Mexican horseshoes while the kids rode 4 wheelers and played kickball amid the towering trees, I couldn’t help remembering that there’s just something a little different about the southern part of the state.

Thoughts on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize
Of course there are those . . . bothered because the President of the United States got the Nobel Peace Prize. Interesting that it was just a few years ago these same folks were calling Bush’s detractors, “un-American,” for not supporting the president. But even some fans of Obama are a little puzzled by the award. I was surprised the Nobel committee did it, but not puzzled about why.

Just after the announcement, one of the smartest, quiet observers of politics I know, fellow Realtor Bill Campbell, came in the office and asked me what I thought. Trying to boil it down to the simplest terms, I answered, “He got it because he isn’t Bush.”

Bill smiled and paused, as he often does at my blunt observations and offered a similar, though far more insightful answer. “It was the Nobel Committee’s way of saying: America, if you want to be the leader of the free world, this man’s approach is what we want.”

Bill said it better than any high-priced media pundit has in the past week.

The world never understood why we elected George Bush. Where some Americans saw tough resolve in Bush’s foreign policy, the world saw belligerence. Where some Americans saw folksy style in Bush’s gaffs and stammering, the world saw ignorance.

From the world’s perspective, the only tool George Bush had in his foreign policy tool kit was a sledgehammer. So every problem was addressed with that sledgehammer, whether verbal (“You’re with us or against us,” & “Axis of Evil”) or militarily (2 wars, torture, illegal wire-taps, Guantanamo). In Obama, they see a person whose tool kit includes precision tools for delicate work. The kinds of tools of diplomacy that do less unintended damage and destroy fewer friendships.

Bill was right. This wasn’t about a specific accomplishment, as Obama’s detractors will insist it should be. It’s about an international preference for how America presents itself on the national stage. Like many of the Nobel Committee’s picks over the years, it was a choice that said, “We think “this (Obama),” rather than “that (Bush)” is what the world needs now.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Political Correctness - Noblesville Style

We often hear complaints about political correctness on the national level. But in Noblesville’s resurrected Daily Times, in its weekly (though downsized) insert in the Star, and in its new Noblesville Current free newspaper, we have our own version of political correctness.

It manifests itself in a troubling uniformity. Our local news feels carefully sanitized.

It seems near exclusively aimed at community cheerleading. If there’s something negative going on, well it better be petty conflict or something juicy like an abducted child, a bank robbery, or a house fire if it’s to find its way into print. If there’s news with critical meaning that reflects splits in the community or questionable behavior on the part of our leaders, you better not blink, or you won’t know it happened.

There’s nothing wrong with community cheerleading. In general, I think Hoosiers are so self-deprecating; they tend not to cheerlead their communities and state enough. But what happens when we cheerlead to the point where we speak no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil?

Consider the puzzling story of a tax increase currently being promoted by Mayor John Ditslear and councilmen like Roy Johnson and Dale Snelling. They have a budget deficit. But instead of making serious, far-reaching budget cuts, they want to impose a “fee” for trash collection. They’ve argued that Westfield and Zionsville residents pay a trash fee, so it’s time Noblesville residents paid for their trash pick-up too. Problem is, we’ve already been paying for trash pickup through our property taxes. They’re not giving us a rebate on that, but adding the trash tax in addition. And think how easy it will be in the future to fund extra spending by raising the trash tax a dollar or two next year, and maybe again the year after that, and perhaps again the year after that.

You’d think the local media would want to tell residents that city leaders want to impose a $120 or $140 annual tax increase. But even with three local print news outlets, you’d have to look pretty hard to find it in print.

Back in August the Noblesville Star did one story about the trash tax, but used the City’s “fee” term, and never questioned the flimsy rationale behind the arguments City leaders presented.

How about the Noblesville Times? I’ve scoured its pages since August and can find not one story referring to the tax increase. They’ve run several columns from Mayor Ditslear and endless city press releases. But none mention the tax. The only mention I’ve found in their pages came in a couple letters to the editor. If the Times is the only local paper you read, you’d probably have no idea Ditslear, Johnson and Snelling are trying to raise your taxes.

Which raises a glaring question: Why?

There’s a neighborhood group on the north side of Old Town going door to door across the community organizing opposition to the trash tax. No story has been done about them.


The Star, The Times, and The Current all ran glowing stories about the Mayor’s State of The City Address. The Current said the address was “filled with good news.” There was not a single mention from the Mayor or the papers that a budget deficit was leading the Mayor to push for a tax increase on Noblesville residents.

Kinda hard to believe they all forgot to mention that little detail.

And that local style of political correctness can pervade the community. When a resident in the Wellingtons tried to get his homeowners association to alert association members about the proposed tax increase, they refused.

A community is like a family. Imagine a family where the members never complain because of an aversion to appearing impolite, who never have a heart to heart about a problem for fear of being negative, who never question authority for fear of being in disfavor with the leader?

Many of us have known a family like this. These families are usually led by a dictatorial head of household who only offers affection in return for obedience and does not tolerate dissention. And imagine that this family lives in a lovely house, drives shiny new cars, dresses in the latest fashions and belongs to all the right organizations. On the surface this dysfunctional family looks perfect. But that perception is of course superficial.

And the strangest thing about such families is that the members who allow problems to go unmentioned are tolerated. But members who dare points out the problem are not. In that world, it’s a greater wrong to point out sin, than to commit it. As my father-in-law puts it, “They wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if they had a mouthful.”

A community can be a little like that if you’re not careful.

I recall my college political science professor, Dr. Minez; a bald, rotund, grandfatherly Portuguese immigrant with a thick accent and a passion for American democracy. When a student complained about partisan arguing in Washington, Dr. Minez shot back, “That arguing is oil on the machinery of democracy. Never worry when a contentious debate is taking place. Worry when everyone seems to agree. Because in a democracy the silence of agreement is usually imposed by a powerful central force that has no meaningful opposition. And that’s when a democracy is in the greatest danger.”

Now all of that is pretty dramatic talk when referring to a little trash tax increase of $10 or $12 a month. But the trash tax and the way talk of it is being glaringly avoided by our local media is just the latest minor manifestation of the way our community – our community family, deals with unpleasant realities. We pretend they’re not happening and marginalize those who point out that they are.

That’s political correctness – Noblesville style.

And in case you don’t read it in the papers, Mayor Ditslear’s trash tax is tentatively scheduled to be considered at the Common Council meeting on Tuesday the 13th of October at Noblesville City Hall. To find out more about the citizen opposition to the trash tax and how you can get involved, contact Dwight Dickerson at

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ripping an Old Friend

“The music on this compact disc was originally recorded on analog equipment. We have attempted to preserve, as closely as possible, the sound of the original recording.”

I deal so much in digital music these days; I hadn’t read that line in awhile. I read it recently on the back of John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album as I ripped it onto my computer. At some point I realized that my database of nearly 17,000 songs had only a couple Lennon solo songs. Needed to fill in the gaps.

As the computer hummed and whirred, assembling 1s and 0s out of Lennon’s final works, I found myself studying the photo of John and Yoko below the warning that “the sound might have some limitations.”

I know the story of the photo. It’s 1979 or ’80. John and Yoko are standing in front of the Dakota building in Manhattan where they lived while the album was being recorded. A gray line of buildings recedes into the background. Lennon stands in profile looking toward Central Park. His hair is cut surprising close to the version he had ala-“Help”-era Beatles. Not the shorter version of the Ed Sullivan show, nor the longer hair of the late ‘60s that made him look like a feeble old man. Beneath the hair, that sharp, almost Greek nose dominates the face. And his chin reminds me of what a young British gal recently told me she was looking for: “A man with money and a chin.”

Lennon had both. But he wasn’t chasing drugs or women any longer. You can see it in his face. He’s at the leading edge of middle age, trying to be a good father and husband. The cocky swagger of “Twist and Shout,” and the taunting righteousness of “Give Peace a Chance,” are gone. Instead, he looks simply content. It’s apt that a song on the album has a lyric the read, “feels like we’re starting over.”

But he couldn’t know what would happen to him on that sidewalk in the months ahead. It was not a new beginning, but an ending.

A couple years ago I walked up to the iron-gated drive in Manhattan, along that spot in the photo with one of my kids. We’d been across the street in Central Park at the spot Lennon was looking toward on the Double Fantasy back-cover. We were watching the gurus and mesmerized tourists light candles in Lennon’s memory in the little spiral of asphalt known as Strawberry Fields. We walked up to the gate and a guard on the other side pointed at the ground and said, “He was killed right there. That man shot him right here.”

I remember the night it happened. It was a Monday night and I was a college student at Ball State. Our dorm room door was open and Monday Night Football played on a TV across the hall while I studied. Somebody stuck their head into my room exclaiming, “John Lennon’s been killed. Somebody shot him’.”

A few years later, while pumping gas with the windows down and the car radio on, I heard a familiar voice singing an unfamiliar song. At first, I thought it was Lennon, but no, it couldn’t be.

I’ve often thought about that little moment of joy, the pleasure of being surprised by an old friend’s voice– maybe someone you hadn’t thought of or heard from in awhile. How many hours of my youth did I sit in my attic bedroom in Tipton with headphones on, listening to Lennon? Uncountable.

Turns out the eerily similar voice on the radio was Lennon’s son Julian, singing the song, “Valotte.” When Julian was a child, Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” for him.

So I’ve corrected that unforgivable sin – having thousands of pieces of music in my computer data base and almost no solo Lennon. That is the unending task of the audiophile – making sure you’ve got everything you need, especially from familiar voices of the past.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tax Reform, Tax Increases, & Taxing The Poor

The State’s property tax reform brought much needed relief to a large numbers of Hoosier homeowners, but its been costly to some of the poorest among us, and they’ll get hit again if Noblesville raises taxes via a trash fee.

I’ll skip over the boring details of property tax reform and highlight one result: property owners who can claim a Homestead Tax Exemption (it’s their primary residence) saw their property taxes go down. That helped the regular Joe who owns his home.

But those who own rental property or business property and are not eligible for those 2 tax exemptions saw their property taxes go up substantially. For example, I own two rental properties. Taxes went up on those so much that my rental enterprise went from paying for itself each month and earning a small profit to losing money each month and costing me out of pocket to make up the difference.

Even though some are paying more, in total, reform cost the City of Noblesville $2.9 million in tax revenues for 2010, according to one Noblesville Common Council member who contacted me.

Property tax reform was sheparded through State government by Noblesville’s own Senator, Luke Kenley. And while no doubt Senator Kenley is getting an earful from some county and city leaders, the impact of property tax reform for cities like Noblesville are founded on a pretty solid conservative political philosophy: those with local control should be making more of the taxing and spending decisions for themselves. The State has essentially said, “We’re going to collect less on behalf of cities and as a result, give you less. If you want more services, parks, etc., you raise the money among your population for the things you and they want.”

So Noblesville’s Mayor, John Ditslear is trying to figure out how to provide the same services as before without the pain of serious spending cuts and without going to the community and building concensus for a tax increase. That’s where the tax increase for trash service comes from. They’ve got a budge shortfall and the trash tax is an easy fix. I’m against it, but not out of some jerk-knee reaction against taxes.

To be honest, I get frustrated with my fellow taxpayers. Nothin’ wrong with wanting lower taxes. But taxpayers seem to think that reform means the tax fairies will appear in the night and pave the roads, pay the unemployment benefits, manicure the parks, you name it, and maybe we won’t have to pay so much.

Remember that saying about, “no free lunch?” But at this time, I see holding the line on taxes as a matter of social justice.

As I said earlier, property tax reform hit owners of rental property pretty hard. I’m a Realtor and deal with landlords every day. Those I know are passing on their property tax increases to their tenants through increased rent. So property tax reform has already raised living costs for the lowest income residents in our town. Add a new tax on trash collection and those least able to pay will see their rent go up again, because landlords will pass that on, too, rather than see their investment lose money.

It’s easy to forget that the amount of the monthly tax increase Mayor Ditslear is pushing so hard for could pay the reduced school lunch rates for a lot of low income families.

It’s a matter of social justice.

Most people I know have been tightening their belts, trying to figure out how to do more with less. Some people have lost their jobs, some of lost their homes, and some others are simply afraid either might happen at a moments notice. This is not the time for government to come to folks, especially those least able to pay, and ask for more money. This is the time for government to tighten their built in the exact same way local families have had to.

Three separate Noblesville Common Council members I spoke to listed for me line items of waste still in the budget that haven’t been cut. Some are perks for city employees and others are pet projects. Still, Mayor Ditslear pushes for a tax increase rather than make the hard budget decisions.

Various bits of legislation effecting local governments pushed by Senator Kenley at the state level have a common thread. Many are aimed at making city mayors and county commissioners across the state more accountable to their constituents, making it harder for them to tax or regulate without the consent of voters. But some local leaders have a hard time letting go of old habits.

At a budget meeting last Wednesday, while Mayor Ditslear was in China with Governor Daniels, his assistant, Rusty Bodenhorn and his City attorney, Mike Howard, tried to use a legislative trick to slip the trash tax increase through when we wouldn’t expect it – at last night’s council meeting. The 4 council members on hand refused.

Bodenhorn and Howard work for us. It’s kinda hard to take – knowing they’re getting paid by us while they concoct tricks to raise our taxes in a way we can’t stop.

Which lays bare the dirty side of Noblesville politics. Here, decades of leaders have been used to ramming things down voters throats. The notion of going out into the community and building consensus with taxpayers is treated like a trip to the dentist.

There’s a group trying to put a stop to any talk of a tax increase during this recession. A neighborhood group that started as a crime watch organization for the north side of old town has been circulating a petition to stop Ditslear’s tax increase. For a copy of the petition and instruction on how to use it most effectively, contact Dwight Dickerson at

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lessons Learned From Teaching, Escape Me Now

Before I was a Realtor I taught high school graphic arts for 16 and a half years.

My classroom was a free flowing, organic place created by my predecessor. It required juggling various activities and a sometime volatile student population. I wrestled with it, abused it and got my ass kicked by the place a time or two before I finally figured out how to make it work.

There were seldom concise lessons taught before neat rows of chairs. Instead, controlled chaos, as students were up and about working at various tasks. At times I worked with advanced students running an offset printing press while other kids screen printed nearby and others developed pictures in a darkroom while still others did graphic design on a bank of computers. It was that free wheeling aspect of the place that made kids love it, and made it hard to control.

I was ridiculously tough on kids at first, trying to show them who was boss. That was a loser’s game. Over a couple years I learned a finesse that made it work. Mixing firmness with a sense of humor I learned to disarm hecklers and even allow class clowns and macho boys to occasionally win small battles, just so long as I won the war for control. The boys were easy.

But while teenage girls were easier to deal with on the surface, they were harder to deal with in the long run. I learned to handle the unpredictable emotional ups and downs and the vicioius condescention they brought to the classroom by watching how they treated one another.

Teenage girls have the ability to be the meanest creatures on earth. They trade in a social cruelty that boys can only guess at and haven’t the fine touch or emotional intelligence to replicate. If you dare care about their approval or want their affection, you’re handed them the ability to crush your spirit. If you’re a social competitor of a smart teenage girl, may God have mercy on your soul.

Learning all that helped me survive as a teacher. The key was getting older, losing hair, gaining a little weight, and as a result, not caring about most of the things teenage girls found most important – like being stylish or cool or acceptable to a particular group.

I would sing out loud while I ran the printing press with little or no care for their protests. I would sing a Little Feat song, mimicking that slow, New Orleans drawl, “Oh Juanita, my sweet Chiquita, what are you up to? . . . there’s a fat man, in the bathtub, with the blues –ue-ues . . .”

Consider it my, “Whistle while you work.”

I’d sing Lyle Lovett: “She’s got big red lips, she’s got big brown eyes, and if she treats me right it’s a big surprise.”

They’d shake their heads and smirk at one another. It was my Madonna oldies medley that made them realize once and for all that they couldn’t hurt me. I’d sing, “Get into the groove, boy you’ve got to prove your love to me,” which somehow faded into, “We’re living in a material world, and I am a material girl.”

Over a couple years a group of girls came up with a response rhyme they’d sing when I finished a song, “ Mr. My-ya, you’re on fy-ya, and I ain’t no ly-ya.”

Of course the joke was if anyone was on “fy-ya,” it wasn’t me. And that’s okay. At least we were talking and doing productive learning amid the silliness. I had made myself likeably unthreatening and in the process pulled down the wall that often stands between adults and teenagers.

Over the years they drew their chairs up to my desk as I graded papers and shared painful secrets. “Mr. Meyer, my parents are getting a divorce,” as the tears trickled down their faces. “Mr. Meyer, my boyfriend hurts me,” or, “Mr. Meyer, I’m pregnant and don’t’ know how to tell my parents.”

On Take Your Daughter To Work Day, I would take my daughter Sally when she was little. We’d pick up donuts on the way to school to share with the students. They loved my little girl and saw in her the sweet little girls they once were – before boyfriends, before thongs, before the clamoring confusion of their teen years. They drew in coloring books with her and took her off to the lunchroom like a mascot to sit with their clique.

When my wife, Greta went back to teaching I was free to pursue another career. I jumped at the opportunity. I drove to my classroom late one July, cleaned out my desk, typed up a resignation letter and drove away like a guy who’d just won the lottery.

But now, 7 years later, I realize I have lost that magic, that good natured mojo that allowed me to connect with teenage girls. It shows up in my relationship with that little girl of mine who is a teenager herself now. Often both my sense of humor and my “clever” observations about the world are met with blank stares (if I’m lucky), exasperated sighs, or a bristled shrug of the shoulders. I don't dare even sing a rediculous song.

I said earlier that a teenage girl can crush your spirit if you dare care too much about her approval. Perhaps that lies at the heart of the problem. Now the teenage girl isn’t some stranger’s daughter, but my daughter.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mayor Distlear Plans Tax Increase

Noblesville Mayor, John Ditslear is proposing to charge each Noblesville households an additional $10 to $12 a month for trash collection to help cover budget shortfalls. He’s calling it a “fee,” but just about anyway you look at it, it’s a tax increase.

I heard about the trash tax increase an hour after it was unveiled in a Saturday City Council retreat at City Hall on August 22nd. I scoured the Noblesville Daily Times for the following week but found no mention of it in their pages. In his two weekly columns in the Times since the Council retreat, the mayor wrote about water safety and going back to school, never mentioning that he wanted to raise our taxes. The typical taxpayer couldn’t read about it until 5 days after the Council retreat in the now once a week Noblesville Star, and that article never questioned the Mayor’s use of the term, “fee.”

If somebody at City Hall tries to tell you it's a fee, ask them these 4 questions and see how they do:

1) Am I getting more service for my additional “fee?” (No. We’re paying more to get the same service as before. That’s a lot like a tax.)

2) Is it voluntary? Can I opt out and tell the City, “I’ll just find my own way to get rid of my trash. I don’t need the service and won’t be paying the “fee.” (No. The “fee” is mandatory. That really sounds like a tax.)

3) Will the City lower my tax rate equal to the amount I’ve already been paying for years that covered the cost of trash collection? (No. We’ll all keep paying that, and now also the new “fee.”)

4) If the amount we paid that used to cover trash collection came from taxes, how can the additional amount we’re going to be forced to pay be called anything other than a tax?

The term “fee” is political spin. In reality, this is a tax. You’ll even hear doubletalk like, “Westfield residents pay $10 for trash collection and Zionsville residents pay $11. Noblesville is the only town with trash collection that doesn’t charge its residents a fee for it.”

That rationale leaps right over spin and enters the realm of outright falsehood because it suggests we’ve been getting something free that we will now, in all due fairness have to pay for. But trash collection has never been free for Noblesville residents.

We’ve been paying for trash collection with our taxes. Noblesville City Hall just never broke it out as a separate line item per house and never sent out a separate bill, as they do with sewer bills. No City leader bought it for us with their paycheck and no benevolent trash collector did it for free. We paid for it. But the money we paid for it will now go to some other budget item and we’ll pay the City an approximate $130 extra a year for something we’re already paying for.

When facing a tight budget, this type of “fee” charging amounts to lazy leadership picking the low hanging fruit. They don’t have to fight to justify a cumbersome increase in property taxes; they simply add an extra amount to your sewer bill. That billing system is already set up and operating. A few keystrokes and the city can gather an extra $1 or $2 million from taxpayers.

And now that it’s a line item “fee,” it can easily be raised .50 cents one year, a dollar the next. I’d be willing to bet that the $12 a month will be $20 a month in just a few short years.

One of the things that raise eyebrows about the proposed tax increase is that it’s coming in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. While families are tightening their belts and trying to figure out how to do more with less money, the Mayor isn’t. Noblesville Common Council member Mary Sue Rowland opposes the new tax and feels that the shortfall should be covered through city belt tightening. Mary Sue told the Contrarian that $2 million could be cut from the City’s budget and make talk of a tax increase irrelevant.

Fellow councilman Brian Ayer won’t go that far, but he wants to see if she’s right before he even considers a trash fee tax increase. Brian told the Contrarian he’s bothered that at the Council retreat they spent over an hour talking about charging a trash fee and only a few minutes about budget cuts. Ayer’s is sure there are large amounts of money that could be cut from the budget, but isn’t certain it’s enough. He wants proof they’ve done everything to cut all the fat before they go to the taxpayers and ask for more.

Though he did not return my call for comment on this piece, fellow councilman Steve Wood voiced opposition to the trash fee tax increase in the Noblesville Star last week.

One can only hope that these 3 Common Council members prevail and a new taxing mechanism isn’t imposed on Noblesville residents.

Local Republicans have been complaining about the possibility of higher taxes at the national level. Well we've got it happening right here and it's being imposed by local Republicans. Maybe we need Tea Party protests at Noblesville City Hall.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reclaiming September 11th

That anniversary will be here again soon and it’s time we took it back and reclaimed it, not as a day when someone did something bad to us, but a day when we do something good for ourselves. September 11th should be declared a Day of National Service.

As horrific as 9/11 was, in many ways I’m embarrassed by how our country reacted to it. We played along as politicians fear mongered to get elected or keep us obedient. We shrugged our shoulders as our leaders twisted the threat to justify things they wanted to do long before that fateful day ever occurred. And we hardly noticed the many ways we compromised on our American values – from torture, to illegal wiretapping to invading a country that wasn’t involved in 9/11 and wasn’t supporting terrorism.

But most of all I’m sick of the annual hand wringing and wallowing in victim-hood

In an era when it seems all news is shaded to be sold as drama, 9/11 is the ultimate drama. While it should feel like we’re honoring the sacrifices of victims and heroes, it instead feels like the media trivializes them by relentlessly replaying and repackaging the day’s events for dramatic effect.

The anchorperson breathlessly asks, “Do you feel safer?” If not, “Then what are the dangers?” Let’s talk about it and talk about it and talk about it until we’re afraid to get on an airplane or trust anyone with dark skin or a foreign name. The crass motive to titillate viewers with mayhem or tug at our heartstrings to keep us tuned in lies beneath the surface of relentless, solemn news pieces that will soon run about 9/11.

Of the mistakes our government made after 9/11, perhaps none was so great as not having asked the American people to do something, to contribute or sacrifice in some way toward victory over those who seek to harm us. Asking people to support the president or the troops or to be patient with the war would have been a lot more effective if people were actively involved. But we weren’t and still aren’t. While our soldiers are still under fire, we’re still watching Dancing With The Stars and eagerly awaiting the start of the NFL season, barely aware of their sacrifice. We’ve been repeatedly asked to feel a certain way about the war on terror, but not to actually do anything of real meaning. Bush didn’t ask us, and as we ramp up our offensive in Afghanistan, neither has Obama.

During WWII in northern Indiana, my father sold war bonds on his paper route. People planted Victory Gardens, rationed gasoline and many other commodities so they would be readily available for the war effort. Women sewed socks and turned old cloth into bandages. Folks recycled iron, copper – you name it, for the war effort. A gospel song from that era even called on people to help the soldiers abroad by using “the weapon of prayer.”

Instead, after 9/11 President Bush told us to, “go out and shop.” Get on down to Starbucks and Abercrombie and Fitch; that’s how you can help.

The war in Iraq alone has cost us $10 billion a month. There must be something we all could have been doing these past 8 years to help out besides shop and wave flags.

The best thing we could have done is take back September 11th from the terrorist and claim it as our own. Not as a sad day for America, but a day that makes America stronger every year.

September 11th should be declared a Day of National Service.

If I could, I would replace every tearful bell tolling on 911 with citizen-driven projects to rebuild inner-city parks. I would pre-empt every TV and radio replay of the terror of the day with information about where to volunteer to give blood, help the illiterate read, take out a shut-in, clean a fouled stream, mentor a struggling small business or rebuild a burned-out church. I’d cancel every politician’s 9/11 commemorative speech so there would be more time for volunteers to carry-in a thank you meal to their local fire and police departments. And I’d ask people to stop wringing their hands in fear of terrorists being put in American prisons and instead use those hands to send a care package to an American soldier abroad with something in it of real use they could share with the 3rd-world children they serve near.

We couldn’t let the, “Go out and shop,” people get a hold of this day. If they did, NASCAR would schedule a race and soon we’d be drinking beer and grilling brats every 9/11 and as on Labor and Memorial Days, eventually forget why we got the day off.

I challenge readers to expunge their sorrow this September 11th with a random act of kindness. Go out of your way to do something positive. What do you have to offer your community that goes unused? What does your community need that goes untended? Instead of reliving the pain of that day, set aside some time to lift those who are down, to enrich those who are poor, or to fix something broken.

Two years ago, my daughter and I gathered supplies for the local animal shelter. Last year, a group of men in my neighborhood spent the day painting the home of a single mom with two kids. It can be that simple. Find something that needs doing and do it on September 11th.

Correction from last week’s column:
In last week’s column I said that Republicans controlled the House and Senate in Washington for the 12 years previous to January 2008. I was a year off. Their 12 years of control ended in January of ’07.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dear Conservative Friend

Dear Conservative Friend,

You worry me. As you show up at town hall meetings to protest health care reform, I’ve gone from simply disagreeing with you to genuinely worrying about you.

I know, you’re sighing heavily and rolling your eyes, but hear me out.

During last year’s election you sent me emails claiming Barack Obama was a Muslim who wouldn’t wear a flag lapel pin or say the Pledge of Allegiance. Both liberal and conservative news outlets found these accusations to be utterly false. But a couple months later you sent the same emails to me again.

You sent another email claiming Obama wasn’t an American citizen. Twice now Hawaiian officials have verified that Obama was born there. But you keep insisting otherwise.

Though I often disagree with you, your basic, reasonable conservative beliefs should be enough to make you disapprove of Obama. Why do you need conspiracy theories?

The mortgage industry collapse began in July of ’07. Economists say the recession started in December of ’07. You told me last year that our collapsing economy was Bill Clinton’s fault though he left office in ‘01. If that’s true, what was your party doing for the 12 years immediately prior to December of ’07 when they controlled both the House and Senate? And in the 6 years leading up to the recession your leaders had complete control, as Bush was President. In that time they could have enacted or struck down any law. But just a couple months after Obama took office, you told me the economy was Obama’s mess.

Listening to you one would hardly know your party controlled our government for so long.

The pundits you listen to on radio and television say that Obama is a fascist and a socialist and is taking all our rights away. I ask you for hard evidence, but your answers are weak.

You told me Obama would take our guns away. You and your friends flocked to buy firearms. But this May Obama instead signed a law expanding gun rights – allowing them in National Parks.

A few nights ago I saw a hero of yours, Glenn Beck, on his FOX news show claiming that Obama’s legislative record proves he’s pursuing “reparations” for African Americans. The accusation was delivered with breathless outrage, and with no rational evidence.

You’ve been holding “Tea Party” protests because you believe current debt spending will lead to higher taxes. Yet, when your party’s leaders doubled the national debt between 2001 and 2008, I never heard you utter a word of complaint.

Now you and your friends are protesting health care reform at town hall meetings. I’ve seen the posters held up outside these events – doctored photos of Obama shaking hands with Adolph Hitler and Obama with a Hitler mustache.

During one of President Obama’s town hall meetings on health care last week, I turned on your favorite channel, FOX News. They showed a fleeting moment of the President explaining health care reform, then went back to regular programming, promising to return to the President, “if there were any fireworks.”

It worries me that you think that’s fair and balanced reporting.

Conservative friend, you keep telling me horror stories about Canada and England’s health care systems, even though no one in Washington is considering a system like theirs.

You applauded at Sarah Palin’s resignation speech when she implored the media to, “Stop making things up.” A few days later she made the unfounded claim that health care reform would result in, “Death panels,” that would decide who lives and dies. It worried me that you saw no contradiction.

Though most hospitals across the country already offer end of life counseling, you claim that such counseling paid for with federal dollars would lead to euthanizing elderly people. It worries me that you find that claim rational.

You say a federal health insurance program is socialism that must be stopped. Puzzling, because during the Bush years the leaders you elected reinstituted welfare-style “subsidy” checks to farmers and devised a drug benefit program for the elderly. Both programs took money from those who had it and spread it around to others. Why didn’t you protest that socialism?

My Conservative friend, back then, when I protested, you told me I was un-American to criticize the Commander and Chief while our troops were at war. Well our troops are still at war. I don’t see that stopping you now.

Yes, friend, you worry me.

You seem averse to introspection. You insist that every problem is the other side’s fault, and in fact would have turned out fine if things had only been done your way. And when you hear things that conflict with your point of view, it’s dismissed as a liberal news media lie. Therefore, you never have to reevaluate your beliefs.

You worry me because you seem unable to agree to disagree. How do we have a rational political discourse in this country when anyone who disagrees with you, from Clinton to Sotomayor to Obama you angrily label as racists, fascists, socialists, communists, or America haters?

You don’t seem to realize that it’s possible for someone to love America and disagree with you at the same time. You have no monopoly on patriotism and no exclusive claim to moral values – and you don’t know it.

You worry me because amid all of your shouting and bizarre accusations there seems to be no meeting the opposition half way. In your world, compromise and statesmanship are dead. All that’s left are winners and losers.

Neither a friendship nor a marriage can survive on such terms. And I worry, neither can a country.

I'm not afraid of Obama, I'm afraid of you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Trials & Tribulations of a Bald Man

The indignities of being bald arrive early and stay late.

One afternoon in college – this was the early ‘80s, I ran into Randy, a clueless preppy jackass who studied in my department. We chatted a minute on the sidewalk, clad in our backpacks and down vests. Just as the conversation ended and we were about to each head our own way, Randy stared at my forehead, puzzled, and suddenly spat, “Oh my God, Dude, you’re going bald.”

Thanks Randy. Did I mention he was a jackass?

As the next decade wore on, I proceeded to truly go bald. It was all for the best I guess. When I had a full head of hair it never did what I wanted it to do anyway.

There were some positive signs early on, signs that maybe hair was way over-rated. On a flight to Phoenix with my sister, Cindy and her first husband in those early receding hairline days, a cute young flight attendant gave me way more than normal attention, frequently stopping and chatting. When the young gal wondered off to fill someone’s coffee, Cindy leaned across the aisle and gave me her dry, familiar, dismissive smirk, gesturing toward her forehead, “Must be a father-figure thing.”

“What do ya mean?” I asked.

“The receding hairline,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “You must remind her of her father.”

When I was a schoolteacher, boys would try to put me on the defensive with passive-aggressive questions about being bald. Out of left field and in front of the entire class, one would raise his hand and ask, “ Does being bald ever get you down?”

I’d respond with, “Yeah. Sometimes. Then I meet somebody with an embarrassing haircut like yours and I don’t feel so bad.”

Score one for the bald guy.

The Hair Club for Men commercials in the 1990s didn’t help with my self-esteem. Somewhere between the clips of formerly bald men running their fingers through new hair as thick as 1970s shag carpet was a clip of a busty blonde in a bikini chirping, “I don’t know why, I just like guys with hair.”

Thanks, Hair Club.

As I lost more and more hair, I tried to accept it by cutting what was left shorter and shorter. When I was a teacher I had a principal who did just the opposite – he wore a toupee. But it was clear he was self conscious about it, as well he should have been. It was a damn ugly, ill-fitting hunk of hair. When we talked, he’d stare at my receding hairline. I’m sure he was trying to imagine how he would look without the rug. It helped me understand how women feel when men stare at their breasts in conversation. I wanted to draw a downward arrow on my forehead and write, “My eyes are down here.”

Once you get a toupee, I figure you’re kinda trapped, and he was. But cruel reality intervened for my old principal. He fought cancer and of course the chemo gave him little choice but to throw the toupee away. After surviving that terrible journey he never wore it again.

Fellow bald man, Dave Kimmel, a North Elementary 4th grade teacher gets the same kind abuse the rest of us bald men get. Recently a small child asked him what was wrong with his skin. “What to you mean?” he asked. The little girl leaned closer and said softly, “It’s all over your head.”

Out of the mouths of babes. Yes, Virginia, once you go bald, the skin is “all over your head.”

I myself joke about being bald as a way to break the ice. On rainy days, I tell people, “I hate days like this. I spend all morning getting my hair just like I want it and then it rains.” But when I’m teased by somebody about being bald, I usually say something like, “I’ve as much control over this as a person in a wheel chair has over their handicap. Do you make fun of people in wheelchairs?”

Well, that shuts them up, but of course it’s not the same thing, and I know it. I’m just trying to turn the tables in the harsh way that is my habit. While it’s true that both bald and handicap people can’t control their condition, handicap people have real obstacles to overcome while we bald men have only wounded vanity to deal with.

Some men overcome their wounded vanity with grace. Think Noblesville legend Murphy White. If there’s a man on this earth who looks better in a hat than Murphy, I haven’t met him. Anytime I try to cover my baldhead with a hat I look like I’m going to a costume party as, well, somebody who looks stupid in a hat.

How’s that for diminished expectations? I’ve quit envying men with hair and started envying men who look good in hats.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cindy Goes To The Doctor

One day last March Cindy woke up with a red and swollen eye. Her predicament offers a case study on American’s dysfunctional health care system.

For years Cindy had a comfortable income earned from a small business she operated in the shadow of Noblesville’s clock town. At an ever-increasing price, she bought health insurance. As the price got higher, she accepted an increasingly higher deductible, to the point that her coverage, though it cost $700 a month, was for all practice purposes, catastrophic insurance. She was paying for most expenses out of pocket. But at least she was covered for a major illness.

But last fall as the national economy tanked, so did her business. To make ends meet, she dropped her insurance and joined the other 50 million Americans who have no health insurance.

And then she woke with that eye problem. A pretty small issue, really. She didn’t have cancer, wasn’t maimed in an accident. But her relatively simple problem became an maddening ordeal.

She tried to find inexpensive treatment and went to a local Med-Check center. They said they would charge $150 for a consultation. Sounded high to Cindy. They kindly suggested she try the clinic at Wall Mart. So she did. The Wal-Mart clinic suggested she go to the emergency room.

Her attempt at bargain shopping failed.

Lots of people say competition in health care would bring prices down. But when people have a stroke or heart attack or cut their arm open, or for that matter, get some mysterious inflammation in their eye, they don’t typically go looking for bargains. They look for relief. It’s why competition hasn’t worked very well in health care. You rarely have a couple days to read Consumer Reports or compare quotes from competing doctors.

So Cindy went to the emergency room.

Once at Riverview Hospital a nurse put some numbing drops in her eye.
A doctor came in, examined her for 5 minutes and said he couldn’t help her, but referred her to a specialist. When she left, she asked a checkout clerk what she owed and was told, “We’ll catch up with you next time you come in.”

She drove to the specialist’s office at 146th and Cumberland and after another 5-minute consultation she was given some eye drops. The drops made her eye hurt more. She quit taking them and decided to let nature heal it for her. Which eventually worked.

Then the bills started rolling in. There was a bill from Riverview Hospital for $350 with no itemization or explanation. The ER doctor also billed her $196 for their fruitless 5-minute consultation. That’s a rate of $2,353 per hour (Who does he think he is, a Wall Street banker?). The specialist charged her $100 for his 5-minute conversation that resulted in the eye drops that didn’t help.

So the total bill came to $646 for a lot of driving around, fleeting encounters with doctors, and a treatment that didn’t work. Cindy still doesn’t know why her eye was red and swollen.

Why did Riverview and the ER doctor charge so much? A Riverview representative told me the hospital bills $22 million worth of care a year that goes uncollected. You see, as people complain about “socialized” healthcare plans being considered in Washington, few acknowledge that it’s already socialized. The hospitals, insurance companies, and doctors have done it themselves. They’ve been forced by market realities to charge those who can pay to cover losses caused by those who can’t pay.

The expenses are compounded because those without health insurance tend not to see the doctor when they have a cough or the flu – because they have no coverage, then show up at the emergency room a week later with pneumonia, which is far more expensive to treat than the original illness.

Was the doctor bill high because of malpractice insurance? Research tells us that malpractice insurance, lawsuits, payouts and extra tests run on patients by doctors to protect from lawsuits accounts for only 1% of health care costs. Eliminate that and Cindy’s bill falls by just $6.46.

Cindy called the hospital and the doctors and asked for an explanation of the bill. She was told they’d give her a 20% discount if she didn’t have insurance. Sounds like more socialized, “spreadin’ it around,” to use the parlance of last year’s election.

While Cindy was struggling to understand the bills, Cigna, owner of her former insurer, Sagamore, announced that their 1st quarter profits had tripled to $208 million, which disappointed Wall Street insiders who had hoped for more. According to Forbes, Cigna’s CEO, E. Edward Hanway, earns on average, $15.6 million per year. Which helps us understand another problem for people like Cindy. The goal of most insurers and providers isn’t simply to provide a service, but also and perhaps more importantly, their goal is to earn a profit.

To this day, Cindy still owes the $646, is being threatened that her bills will be turned over the a collection agency, and still, nobody’s asked her if her eye got better.

Facts about American healthcare:
*The Institute of Medicine estimates that 18 thousand people die each year in America because they have no health insurance.
* The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a universal
health insurance system. -American Journal of Public Health
* Half of all bankruptcies are caused by medical bills. Three-quarters of those filings are
people with health insurance. –Health Affairs, 2006
* There are four times as many health care lobbyists in Washington as there are members
of Congress. -
* According to the UN Human Development Report, while the United States leads the
world in spending on health care, “countries spending substantially less than the US have
healthier populations.… The infant mortality rate for the U.S. is now higher than for
many other industrial countries.”
* A baby born in El Salvador has a better chance of surviving than a baby in Detroit.
The infant mortality rate in Detroit is 15.5, compared to El Salvador's rate of 9.7. -
• Canadians live three years longer on average than Americans do.
* Cubans have a lower infant mortality rate than the United States and according to the
U.N. Human Development Report, a longer average lifespan.
*Americans rank 29th in the world for life expectancy. We tie with Jordan. –CIA World Factbook

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Where Have All The Young People Gone?

When I first got involved in civic activities in Noblesville in the late ‘80s there were a lot of people my age, fellow 20-somethings participating. Though I served on city committees, Main Street, Benchmarking, the Housing Authorities and other groups, I was most active in the Noblesville Preservation Alliance (NPA).

By the mid ‘90s NPA’s energy was waning. But a new group of young people got involved and reinvigorated the organization, buoying it with fresh energy and ideas.

But since that time I’ve often wondered where all the young people have gone. Yes, NPA has had new people join and become active, but they are disproportionately middle aged or older.

I stopped Noblesville’s volunteer extraordinaire, Nancy Chance one day at Riverview Rehab last year and asked if she noticed a similar lack of young adults helping out at the community projects she’s working on. “This young generation,” she said, “well, they’re not joiners.”

In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documented in excruciating detail the many ways volunteerism and community participation is in decline in America.

I wonder if we’re getting a glimpse of the first generation of latchkey kids to become adults. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings of today are the first generation raised, for the most part in families led by two breadwinners or by a single parent. The media dubbed this age group, “Generation X” (GenXers).

When the Baby-Boomer generation came home from school, they’d often run out to make their own fun – organize their own neighborhood baseball, basketball, football teams. Might as well, there were only 2 or 3 TV channels for most folks. And there was an adult home in most of their houses, so watchful parents kept track of what was going on in the neighborhood, which gave parents the comfort needed to let kids roam. Boomers, like their parents were joiners. They went to all the school activities, joined the school clubs, and sat in pep-club blocks so big they filled entire sides of gymnasiums.

But the world Boomers made for their kids, the Generation GenXers would be very different.

Because both of their Boomer parents were working, GenXers were told to come inside and lock the door when they got home from school, a home that might have 30-100 cable TV channels, VCRs, DVDs, computers and video gaming systems. When they went out and were physically active, most often it was in adult-directed sports and enrichment activities – dance lessons, piano lessons, soccer, T-ball, and on and on. In other words, if the adults didn’t have them sequestered in the house, they were driving them to a seemingly endless array of adult-controlled activities.

In the years I taught GenXers in the ‘90s and early 2000s, a relatively small group of kids joined extra-curricular activities compared with my age group in the 1970s. Few of my students saw football or basketball games as the place everyone would be on the weekend. Their fun was fragmented into often-isolated clicks that didn’t just go to ball games, but rented movies, played video games or hung out at the mall.

Could it be that the waning numbers of young adults active in civic groups is just a reflection of the way they were raised?

I used to be encouraged when young couples moved into my neighborhood, figuring they’d get involved and reenergize things. In the past decade I’ve gotten over that foolishness. GenXers lives out their lives behind closed doors.

And as we Americans always do when there’s a deficit of some sort, we create a program or a class to address it. At the school where I once taught, in the early 2000s they began requiring seniors to do community service before graduation. Noblesville did this recently to a class of seniors to make up snow days.

But it’s doubtful we can change young people this way. Some things, like social norms actually do come to us by osmosis. Whatever takes place routinely around us during our formative years imprints us somehow, forming our expectations, motivations, and notions of what’s reasonable. If you’ve been raised with the feeling that your home is an island apart from the community, rather than a part of the community, if you’ve spent most of your time within the confines of that place rather than free to roam around and interact with your community, and if the adults around you guided all organized activities instead of you having the opportunity to form and referee your own teams in the school yard after school and over weekends, well, you’re probably going to interact with the world differently.

It is perhaps unfair to lay this all on young adults. Main Street director and fellow Realtor, Joe Arrowood has been leading local not-for-profit groups for decades. He told me recently, “It’s harder and harder to find anyone to volunteer.”

I do see the current economic downturn igniting some soul searching in young families. A few of my recent GenXer real estate clients tell me they want to live more simply and pursue less consumption, to live a life less dedicated to chasing a bigger car, a bigger house, and more expensive gear for their kids. But whether the resulting free time can spurs a more community-focused lifestyle, remains to be seen.