Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jesus Saved Me From Cigarettes: and other curiosities from Noblesville's streets and waterways

Pimp My Rental
Leaving the Community Bank drive-thru on Saturday the 13th of June, I was interested to see a large crew of people scraping, painting, and landscaping 220 N. 10th St. According to an article in The Times two days later, the people were volunteers for Keep Noblesville Beautiful (KNB), and members of the Hamilton County Probation Department as well as those working off community service mandated by County Courts. They had gathered to improve homes in need of upkeep.

According to a source inside KBN, they did the work on behalf of a tenant at 220 N. 10 who asked for help fixing up the property. What KNB didn’t know that Saturday, and what wasn’t mentioned in The Times story was that the property they were improving is owned by Steve Holt, a County Commissioner, local attorney, and real estate investor who owns many investment properties throughout the county.

“Kids, get the hell outta the way!”
Local resident and DJ for 97.1 Hank FM, Ernie Mills, took this photograph on a recent weekend at Potter’s Bridge. Kids were floating on inner tubes in the river while others strolled the walking trails or fished from the river bank when fishermen in boats with oversized motors came roaring through with no apparent care.

One can only hope that the hidden boulders and floating logs of White River thin out that portion of the herd.

“Jesus Saved Me From Cigarettes”
That’s what the man’s sign said. He was sitting on a park bench on Logan Street in the shadow of the Courthouse last Friday, noontime, holding up his sign. I was so intrigued I parked the car and asked him his story.

His name was Larry Adams. Sitting in the sweltering heat Larry told me that in 1980, after he was saved, he asked Jesus for help kicking his smoking habit. In a prayer, he asked Jesus to give him a headache every time he lit up a cigarette. His prayer was answered. Headaches came each time he weakened and tried to take a puff.

In a later prayer, Larry asked Jesus to give him a headache whenever he drank beer. Larry no longer drinks or smokes cigarettes. He told me he just wanted to come to the courthouse square to share his experience with others.

Can’t See The Forest For The Trees
New ordinances being imposed on downtown Noblesville are guaranteed to make it less attractive to merchants and shoppers alike.

Merchants have been told they cannot put out sandwich board signs without a permit. The permit application requires a $100 fee and if granted, merchants must purchase $1 million in liability insurance. This is puzzling when you consider the most dangerous trip hazard currently on the sidewalks downtown are not sandwich boards, but the scores of flag poles.

In my ample time sitting out at Nobles Coffee & Tea, The Marketplace, and Matteo’s, I’ve not seen anyone endangered by sandwich board signs, but I’ve seen plenty of baby stroller wheels locked up by the flag polls and plenty of pedestrians with flags wrapped around their faces on a windy day. Is there $1 million in liability coverage for each flag?

And restaurants were recently notified that outdoor seating must leave a 40” open space between the seating and the star brick path

This is built upon the mystifying belief that the star brick strip is not a safe walking surface, so what’s left must provide a “treadable” space for pedestrians and wheelchairs. Which again is puzzling, because the variation in star brick surface appears to be less than the dimpled panels the City recently installed in sidewalk ramps – for the sake of safety.

I measured the “treadable” space along outdoor seating at one of Noblesville’s most popular downtown restaurants. As people sat and scooted out their chairs, the “treadable” space quickly shrunk to 16”. While I spoke with the patrons we set the tape measure for 40” and tried to imagine how the restaurant could comply. It could only be done by reducing their already meager seating by two thirds.

I asked a City Planning Department representative what they would do when seating shrunk the “treadable” space narrower than 40”. I was told it’s a violation that if repeated enough, would result in the establishment’s “encroachment permit,” being revoked. In other words, no more outdoor seating for that business.

But consider this. The distance between a city bench on the south side of Conner Street and the star bricks provides an ample 40” “treadable” space. Yet the moment you sit down, your feet reduce the “treadable” space to 30’-35’. But there’s no accounting for that in the new ordinance. I asked the same Planning Department official about the City’s violations and was told there were no provisions to address violations caused by the City. So if a restaurant violates the ordinance, they will be sited and stand to lose their right to outdoor seating. Do this on City seating and it’s okay.

On the east side of 8th Street, the City’s benches, flowerpots and trash cans leave only 15” of “treadable” space. Perhaps merchants should sue the City to force them to comply at the same rate they expect of merchants.

All this bureaucratic silliness doesn’t just encourage merchants to leave downtown, it also scares off shoppers. Why? Because the city has also banned bicycles from downtown sidewalks.

Having raised children in Old Town among other families raising children in Old Town, I assure you that if this ordinance is enforced, children on bicycles are essentially banned from downtown because parents know the streets are too dangerous.

All this effort to address minor fringe issues is puzzling, because there’s no plan for addressing downtown’s #1 safety issue: motorists who chase pedestrians and bicycles out of crosswalks.

How could such a supposedly conservative group of leaders produce so much illogical, nit-picking, bureaucratic, red tape aimed at ham-stringing small business people?

Vibrant city centers I have visited in America and abroad are organic, imperfect, funky places. Those that are heavily regulated tend to be sterile governmental and banking centers that die everyday at 5:00 when the bankers and bureaucrats go home. Noblesville’s leaders are apparently satisfied with the latter.

[Perhaps this all could have been avoided by simply banning the sales of antique military paraphernalia downtown.]

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Debating The False Bill Cosby

I recently received an emailed prescription for turning America around. It clams to have been authored by frequently insightful and always outspoken comedian Bill Cosby. But further research reveals that Cosby did not write it. Other emails attribute it to late comedian George Carlin, who also did not write it.

The list fascinates me because it represents a bundle of mob-mentality notions. It masquerades as good ‘ol American common sense, but manages to ignore much of what America has stood for over generations. It also reminds us of the many ways the Internet has replaced the corner tavern, the beauty parlor, and the barber shop as the spreader of gossip and often narrow-minded, middle-America angst. The lynch mobs and misguided coups of the future will not assemble on the streets, but on the Internet, fed by intellectual perversion like this.

Here are the Fake Cosby’s bullet points for a better America, followed by The Contrarian’s rebuttal.

The False Cosby: “’Press 1 for English,’ is immediately banned. English is the official language; speak it or wait at the border until you can.”

The Contrarian: So we're going to demand more of modern immigrants than was expected of our own ancestors? Many of our adult immigrant ancestors spoke their native tongue coupled with broken English until their deaths. Often only their children learned English and in many ethnic neighborhoods (in the good 'ol days) streets signs and businesses often used the local ethnic language. How quickly we forget.

#2 & #3
The False Cosby: 2-“We will immediately go into a two year isolationist posture to straighten out the country's attitude. NO imports, no exports. We will use the Wal-Mart policy, 'If we ain't got it, you don't need it.'” 3-“When imports are allowed, there will be a 100% import tax on it.”

The Contrarian: The world economy has been destroyed time and again by isolationism. And the behind-the-scenes Wal-Mart corporate policy is one that aggressively and systematically lures American manufacturers to China. Impose the False Cosby approach and Wal-Mart’s shelves would be empty, just like the logic behind point #2 & #3.

The False Cosby: “All retired military personnel will be required to man one of our many observation towers on the southern border (six month tour). They will be under strict orders not to fire on SOUTHBOUND aliens.”

The Contrarian: So we’re gonna start shooting north bound boarder crossers? Sounds like the East Germans at the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

The False Cosby: “Social security will immediately return to its original state. If you didn't put nuttin in, you ain't getting nuttin out. The president nor any other politician will be able to touch it.”

The Contrarian: So we're going to start putting elderly people out in the streets when their money runs out? Housewives who raised children instead of working in factories and children whose parents have died will no longer get benefits? Whose values does that reflect? Attila the Hun? Marie Antoinette? Kim Jong il’? How about a little WWJD?

The False Cosby: “Welfare - Checks will be handed out on Fridays at the end of the 40-hour school week and the successful completion of urinalysis and a passing grade.”

The Contrarian: Okay, the False Cosby is pretty close to right on that one. I would also throw in long-term, systematic corporate welfare, like that our corporate farmers have been enjoying for decades. If you’re mad about the GM bailout, better stop eating American farm produce. It’s been socialized for decades.

The False Cosby: “Professional Athletes--Steroids. The FIRST time you check positive you're banned for life.”

The Contrarian: Okay, that’s 2 for the False Cosby.

The False Cosby: “Crime - We will adopt the Turkish method. The first time you steal, you lose your right hand. There are no more life sentences. If convicted of murder, you will be put to death by the same method you chose for your victim; gun, knife, strangulation, etc.”

The Contrarian: Turkey is our model? P-lease. Did the False Cosby ever go to church or read the Constitution? First, we don't inflict cruel and unusual punishment, not because we're weak on crime, but because we're better than the criminals and we're trying to build a culture in which elevated morals are embraced, not mocked. I'm with Martin Luther King: "An eye for an eye leave everybody blind."

The False Cosby: “One export will be allowed, Wheat. The world needs to eat. A bushel of wheat will be the exact price of a barrel of oil.”

The Contrarian: Sounds good at first, but equating oil with food reveals how sick our love of cars truly is. Contrary to American cultural norms, the right to eat and the right to drive an urban assault vehicle are not equal.

The False Cosby: “All foreign aid using American taxpayer money will immediately cease, and the saved money will pay off the national debt and ultimately lower taxes. When disasters occur around the world, we'll ask the American people if they want to donate to a disaster fund, and each citizen can make the decision whether it's a worthy cause.”

The Contrarian: Think the world hates us now? Do this and find out what it's like to sit entirely alone: hated and looked down upon rather than admired and emulated. To the nations whose democracy was nurtured or protected by our aid – “Hey guys, you’re on your own! All that business about us being a beacon of hope for the world? Well, we’re really not in that business anymore. I mean, come on. We’re already letting the elderly starve (#5) and shooting immigrants at the border (#4). You think we care about you?”

#11 & #12
The False Cosby: 11-“The Pledge of Allegiance will be said every day at school and every day in Congress, and 12-The National Anthem will be played at all appropriate ceremonies, sporting events, outings, etc.”

The Contrarian: I thought it was only communist Russia, China, Cuba, and North Korea that demanded obedience. You'd have to ignore a lot of what America has stood for (and our soldiers have died for) over the past 230+ years to force people to follow this medieval list and then also say the pledge.

The list ends with this salutation:
“Sorry if I stepped on anyone's toes. GOD BLESS AMERICA.”
-Bill Cosby

The only toes the False Cosby stepped on are those who have read and understand the Constitution, those who have at least a rudimentary understanding of foreign policy, and those who put their religious faith into practice. The fake Cosby platform is an attack on reason, and a beckonning call to mob logic. It’s a reminder that the Internet, for all its technological brilliance, it’s also a chalkboard for nuts, extremists and axe-grinders.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Send this to everyone you know who loves America!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's None Of Our Business 6/10/09

The television and radio debates I hear about gay marriage confound me. They constantly miss the heart of the issue.
Those who oppose gay marriage immediately pull the debate toward broad critiques of homosexuality. Does God approve or disapprove? Is it natural or unnatural? Will it destroy marriage as we know it? And way too often, supporters of gay marriage get drawn into those pointless questions.
I’ve got nothing against asking those questions. They’re completely reasonable questions for an individual to ask themselves, but they have nothing to do with the public debate in a free democracy.
We don’t try to regulate what church our neighbors attend, if any, nor whether they are Republican or Democrat, whether they and their lover are married or not, all of which have important social and political implication. We consider those issues private business. Why treat marriage differently?
But opponents of gay marriage don’t want to talk about that. They pursue abstractions instead. Such as “Gay marriage threatens traditional marriage.”
With America’s divorce rate hovering around 50%, it’s hard to imagine what gays could do to hurt marriage that heterosexuals haven’t already done.
And opponents want to argue that gay marriage is wrong.
But that’s easy to fix. If you think it’s wrong, then don’t marry a gay person.
When I taught school, it was clear that some of my former students were taught by their parents to hate Jews, or Catholics, or African Americans. And I shudder to think of some of the dangerous, fringe religious beliefs some people hold dear in this country. But the only way to make it illegal is to force other people to accept my view of the world.
The simple truth is, what someone else believes, deep in their hearts, is none of our business to regulate. Even if we think the practice of those beliefs like bigotry are damaging to our culture, at some point you have to step back and accept that as long as it does no physical harm nor infringes on another’s rights, it probably can’t be regulated and we don’t want to do the police-state sort of intrusive things one would have to do to regulate it.
So if you think gay marriage is bad, teach your children it’s bad and for goodness sakes don’t enter into a gay relationship. But other than that, mind your own business.
But proponents still argue, “The Bible says it’s wrong!”
But that’s their Bible, from their religion. It’s not what everyone believes.
One of the things our forefathers believed was that everyone should be free to worship as they wish. The fact that the Bible says something is a perfectly good reason for a Christian to order their lives accordingly, but it doesn’t give them the right to force others to live out their idea of a Christian lifestyle.
What two consenting adults do with their lives is none of our business, no matter how wrong one’s individual faith might say it is. Christianity also teaches that adultery is wrong. Yet it’s not illegal. To control that, you’d have to start meddling in people’s bedrooms. That anyone would want to do that to heterosexuals or homosexuals is at best, bizarre.
There’s something else that’s never mentioned in this debate. Those trying to insure that government forbid gays and lesbians the right to marry are generally also part of a political movement that claims to want to get government off our backs.
Really? They apparently want less government involvement unless it’s something they personally want to control. And then, they want absolute control.
Those who want to tell gays and lesbians that they can’t marry strike me as awfully similar to the men in the Middle East who insist a woman cover her face or wear a burka. They seem say, “My moral view is so superior that I will not tolerate you living your life as you see fit. I know better for you than you know for yourself. And if you won’t willingly do what I say, I’ll pass a law that forces you.”
The idea that people wanted to go to the polls in California last year to make sure another adult of legal age couldn’t live in a loving, legal relationship with another adult of legal age is mind boggling. Because it’s none of our business to make that choice for others.
Gay rights forces have a slogan that says, “Can we vote on your marriage?” It sounds like a stab in the heart of opponents, but opponents would only reply, “That suggests a moral equivalency where none exists. We’re not equal. Hetero is right and homo is wrong.”
And we’re right back to judging gays as bad people.
But opponents don’t really want the argument to be about that because it sounds mean and un-American to label a class of adults involved in legal behavior as secondary citizens, entitled to lesser rights because their nature or behavior offends some. But that’s really what this is all about, judging some Americans to be less equal than others.

Trouble In The Heartland 6/3/09

Driving out to Bonge’s in Perkinsville in the summer is a treat. The road between Strawtown and there winds and turns, rises and falls, following White River that flows beyond a line of trees to the north. Oceans of corn spread out in all directions rolling like waves on a gentle breeze. As I pass the picturesque farms, I’m often moved to comment, “It still looks like Indiana out here.”
Of course, my comment is as much a reference to that bucolic landscape as it is about the endless miles of asphalt lined with strip malls and subdivisions in Hamilton and Marion Counties where I spend most of my time.
But in reality, the parts of the state that still look like Indiana, beyond the relatively wealthy confines of Hamilton County are not fairing so well.
After publishing a book in the early 2000s, I drove all over the state in my GM pick-up truck with a case a books and slide projector in the back, doing my little dog and pony show in small towns and dying industrial cities like Anderson, Muncie, and New Castle. I spoke in libraries, bookstores, churches, museums, private residences, and yes, a time or two, county highway garage conference rooms. I got a good look at Indiana’s dying rural, small town and industrial fabric. A lot of those places look like a war was fought in their old downtowns and residents took up safer ground in little plastic and asphalt enclaves by the Interstate.
Growing up in Tipton in the ‘60s and ‘70s, everybody’s folks were either family farmers or worked in the auto industry. Tipton had FMC, a firetruck manufacturer, and Perfect Circle, a piston ring maker. My dad, uncle, and eventually my older brother worked at Chrysler in Kokomo and an aunt worked at Delco.
The auto industry got caught with its pants down in the mid-’70 when gas prices spiked and they had little to offer suddenly energy-conscience car buyers. You’d think they would have learned, but last year it happened all over again. And the family farms started dying out and going corporate when I was in college.
The heartland’s fall from grace has been coming a long time.
My dad told me over the weekend that an acquaintance of his had bought that old, long empty FMC property in my hometown for a song, in fact, for less money than my last car cost.
Yesterday I drove out of Hamilton County up 213, through Tipton and into Howard County to meet with clients, driving through places I knew well in my youth. I came upon the cemetery south of Hobbs and thought of old high school buddies who rented a place near there after graduation. They tore the racks out of an old refrigerator and plumbed it for a beer keg. One of them, Donny, hired me to build an oak stereo cabinet. I remember taking it to him out there when it was done.
Cornfields pass my window. Some little seedlings are springing up in obedient rows. Others fields lay fallow with their low ends under water and the remnants of last year’s stalks rotting atop some of the richest soil in America.
Pulling through Hobbs I recalled going to Kent’s wedding at the little church down the road in the early ‘80s. Corporate farms forced his family’s small farm out of the hog business a long time ago.
I pass a well tended home with a gleaming pole barn and extravagant landscaping. Then appears a 1920s bungalow with boarded up windows and a driveway littered with rusting cars. In the side yard a long forgotten grape arbor tilts disastrously close to the ground.
Along the way I pass two old depression-era WPA rest stops.
Driving into Windfall, I remember picking up a pizza with my high school friend, Max at a little pizza place there. To my surprise it’s still in business. After graduation, Max went to work for Firestone, now just a few blocks down the street from the Noblesville home where Greta and I have raised our kids. I haven’t seen Max in 30 years, but know the jobs there are few and set to disappear entirely this year.
I pass a Wilmoth Group real estate sign. Non-real estate folks don’t know Wilmoth primarily represents banks selling repossessed houses.
In Europe you often come upon castle ruins as you travel. Half of a stone archway will rise out of a hillside, hinting at long-gone glory. In Greentown I pass a sad old Victorian home covered in fading aluminum siding. Its porch and sidewalk are gone, but the two concrete steps that once served the porch still rest alone and useless in the middle of the yard, leading to and from nowhere. In America’s compressed historical cycles, these are our ancient ruins.
In Kokomo, ten miles west of Greentown, the news is glum. Chrysler has merged with Italy’s Fiat. Who would think that a member of Italy’s rickety, union-controlled industry could buy an American giant. Delphi is on the ropes, and the radio tells me GM has just filed for bankruptcy.
There are cries of socialism about the GM bailout. In fact, one client told me recently he was so mad at Obama about the bailout he’d never buy a GM car again. But the corporate farms I’ve been passing all afternoon have been taking federal subsidies – essentially corporate welfare, for years, a practice as socialistic as any GM bailout could be. Guess my client better boycott American food, too.
Things in the heartland haven’t been right for a long time.

Jack Graduates 5/27/09

We named him Jack, after my uncle, and gave him the middle name Lloyd, after Greta’s uncle.
From the time Jack was little he’s looked like me. His younger sister giggled recently holding up his senior picture alongside mine from 1978. It’s the sort of thing I think most kids are ambivalent about. You struggle to be your own man, but get the constant reminder, “You look just like your Dad.”
I’ve always tried to console him with, “You’re a new and improved version of me; taller, smarter, better looking and a harder worker.”
The years of his childhood seem a million miles away. When he and his siblings were babies I always checked on them before I went to bed, leaning down to their faces to hear them breathe. Now when I peak in Jack’s bedroom, I’m sometimes startled at the sight of this 6-foot tall young man sleeping in his bed.
When he was a small boy and I peeked in, sometimes he’d wake up and say, “Hi Daddy,” The six foot tall man responds now with, “S-up?” or a stern, exasperated, “What?”
He got that irritated impatience from me, too.
You can gauge the stages of a child’s life by the stuff they leave laying around. Over the years the Legos that littered the house gave way to skate boards leaned against the wall in the entry hall, and now, and I mean literally, today, there are car parts on the dining room table. We parents grumble and moan, but the hole left in our lives when his older brother went off to college will get bigger when evidence of Jack’s changing interests disappear from the house next fall.
In his childhood he often reminded me of an over-eager puppy, jumping and yipping, pulling at his collar, dragging his master down the street. To this day he’s still straining against the collars life wraps around our necks – school, work, parental rules. I’ve never seen a kid so eager to get on with life.
You hear people refer to those with a big heart. Seems Jack’s oversized heart comes out when things are the toughest.
On a 4th of July weekend when Jack was 12 he paddled at the front of a canoe with his younger sister and cousin seated between us. As we left the swamp and decided to cut straight across the lake toward his grandparents’ lake cottage the sky above was blue and the air still. But behind us a straight line of black clouds carried on vicious winds was hidden by a line of tall trees. We were totally unaware as it bore down on us. It hit us just as we were most vulnerable, in the deepest water and the furthest from shore.
When our fight against the storm was lost and the canoe overturned in the midst of the violent thunderstorm, Jack popped back up from beneath the waves and kept his head. That calm and cool helped keep his sister and cousin calm and cool, too. One of my strongest memories of Jack is of him bobbing in the water amid thunder and lightning and battering waves, his face studying mine, trying to measure my reaction to figure out how much danger we were in. We were in one hell of a lot of danger. But the boy kept his head.
This past winter I told him real estate sales where thin and I needed his help cutting costs around the house. Without a complaint he stopped asking for lunch money and spent the last semester of his senior year coming home and eating lunch.
Small things say a lot. Right or wrong, Meyer men won’t often tell you they love you. They show you in other ways. Right or wrong, perhaps he’s learned that was well.
The volatile temper he displayed as a child is long gone, trained away by as good a mother as any child could have. When the kids were small Greta regularly put them down in front of an old black and white video of the Mary Martin stage version of Peter Pan. When Peter is trying to teach the children to fly he urges them to think “Lovely thoughts.” When the smallest boy is having trouble Peter urges him to think, “Lovelier thoughts!” That was Greta’s frequent respond to Jack’s angry outbursts in childhood. “Lovelier thoughts!”
In a framed print above a computer in our house is a picture of that little blonde boy in a Peter Pan costume for Halloween –green tights and tunic and the cap with an orange feather in it.
That boy flies away now on skateboard road trips with a lovable and dedicated gang of friends to Louisville, Cincinnati and Bloomington. As the weather has warmed this spring, they dash off to the train trestle in Cicero where they literally fly off into the reservoir – as his mother sits at home wringing her hands.
Jack graduates from high school this Friday. In the fall he’ll pull free of our collars and reigns and fly away to college.

A Blast From The Past 5/20/09

Last time I saw Barks was June 22nd, 1986, the day after I got married. She and my old college roommate, Renner were getting in her car and leaving the weekend gathering.
We’d been part of a group of friends who met on a Ball State study program in England. But within a few years of coming home, we each graduated and scattered. After my wedding I never saw the two of them again.
After driving by my real estate signs and reading my newspaper columns for the 5 years she’s lived in Noblesville, Barks recently surprised me with an email.
A week ago we met for lunch at the Marketplace on Logan Street and sat at an outdoor table reminiscing while her small son listened.
We shot through a list of names and long lost friends, sharing tid-bits of information. We talked about her relationship with Renner and about mine with a girl named Miller. We talked about our London professor and leader, Dr. Heady.
Dr. Heady once took me and Miller around Munich on the subway, urging us not to pay. “It’s the honor system,” he said. “Nobody checks to see if you’ve got a ticket.” But on the ride back from Dachau, the three of us got arrested for riding without paying.
On another occasion, Dr. Heady lied to the British courts, claiming to have a group of American law students who wanted to meet with a judge who could explain Britain’s legal system. None of us were law students. Yet, by some freakish miracle we got a private meeting with the legendary Lord Denning – then, England’s equivalent to an American Chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Barks said that Dr. Heady died a few years back after a life of hard living and alcohol.
And Dr. Kasabaric, who had recruited us all for the study program, was presumably still in a British prison. The year after we returned to the U.S. he left Muncie to take Dr. Heady’s place in London. While there, he murdered his wife.
As our food arrived, Barks asked what I remembered most about the camping trip our two couples, she and Renner, and me and Miller made to Devon and Cornwall, along England’s southwest coast.
We’d rented an old car from a place called, Rent-A-Wreck and drove out of London on a spring morning with a cooler and a tent. I have old photos of me and Miller, Renner and Barks, each couple snuggling beside a campfire. We drank local mead and alcoholic cider. We explored castle ruins and drank beer in country pubs with locals.
I told Barks a story about the trip she’d never heard. At a campground lavatory with its banks of showers and sinks, Renner and I washed our faces and brushed our teeth while the girls did the same on the ladies side. As we shut off the water and started to walk out, Renner pulled me aside with a finger to his lips. He nodded toward an air vent. The sound of the girls talking as they primped echoed through the ductwork. We listened as they chatted lightly about how they missed their boyfriends back home in Indiana.
As we slunk out, defeated, I told Renner, “When we get back to Indiana, this, (the 2 romantic affairs) will be over in a heartbeat.”
“”Over’, is the end,” Renner winked. “This is still the middle. Enjoy it.”
Barks laughed hard with the sun in her face and her 5-year old squirming in her lap.
Her significant memory of the trip:
On a rare sunny afternoon, along a Cornwall beach we’d hiked through a sandy opening into a rocky cavern the size of a church sanctuary. Overhead, light spilled in from random gaps in the rocks. I don’t recall how we spent the time in that magnificent space – perhaps lunched as we often did on cheese and baguettes, Spam, and bananas – whatever survived in a backpack, and as we did so, the tide came in, submerging our exit. We country bumpkins from land-locked states had trapped ourselves.
Barks recalled the panic, the four of us climbing ever higher in the cavern for an opening big enough to fit through. We eventually found one and clamored out into the sunshine.
We talked about our children, our spouses, our careers. And we talked about Renner, who neither of us had seen in 23 years. Knowing him had changed us both, opened our eyes to the world a little. He was a free spirit who was always trolling for beauty and wisdom off life’s beaten path. I recalled him arriving early for a party I held in Carmel at my first apartment after graduation. He was standing in the empty driveway loaded down with a camper’s backpack.
“How did you get here?” I asked.
“Hitchhiked from Cleveland,” he shrugged.
Renner turned me onto jazz, Bob Marley, and Scottish singer-guitarist John Martyn. Riding on a bus or a subway, he’d put his Walkman headphones on your head and say, “Check this out, man.”
How old friends slip away, I’ve never understood. Talking with Barks over lunch I felt like I’ve often felt looking back at my past. It can sometimes seem so distant; like remembering a book you read about somebody else.
As I headed down Logan Street after saying goodbye to Barks and her little boy, I promised myself I’d do better at keeping in touch with old friends. I have been too much of a bridge burner, too immersed in each new phase of life to stay in touch with those who populated the old ones. That is not a compliment.

Driving in Denial 5/16/09

A few years back I was in the Wal-Mart parking lot during a gentle rain. As I approached the driveway in front of the building, the cars made me wait as they passed. Drivers sat dry and warm in their cars, avoiding eye contact with the pedestrians they made stand in the rain and wait. At such moments I am reminded how callous cars have made us. Cars have desensitized us to the world we’ve made for them.
A trip to Europe or to a pedestrian-friendly U.S. city like San Francisco or Portland reveals through contrast what an ugly mess we’ve made of our land for the sake of our cars. Here in Noblesville we’ve seen restorable historic architecture – irreplaceable pieces of our heritage, leveled for random handfuls of parking spaces. Over the years the city has taken patches of wetlands and removed the ancient trees so a road can be cut through it.
Nothing is so stupid or heartless that we won’t gladly do it for the sake of our cars. Some recent Christmas I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Castleton looking about that repulsive landscape. Asphalt deserts stretch forever, punctuated with harsh 24-hour halogen lighting, garish signage, trash blowing in the medians, gray guardrails and cast concrete pillars – and cars, lines and lines of cars. A pedestrian in this place is a menace and a fool.
That we create such large “public” spaces that are too dangerous for pedestrians and bicycles is not a complement to our culture. When land planners hold public forums to see what kind of growth taxpayers want, nobody votes for a Castleton kind of place. But it seems every town gets one . . . or two . . . or a dozen.
That Europeans get it so right and we get it so wrong is a national disgrace If you ever get a chance to sit in an outdoor cafĂ© in Paris on the Champs Illisay, look across those six lanes of traffic passing through the Arc De Triumph. You’ll be left wondering how a nation as functionally bone-headed as France can make a six lane road a pleasant place to sit and sip a cup of coffee, while we struggle to do it with just 2 lanes.
But the answer is really pretty simple. They build places for people. Cars are forced to adapt. We build places for cars. People are forced to adapt. We go to Europe or “quaint” places in America, and marvel at the old world charm. Yet, look at some of the barren, ugly areas near Indianapolis’ downtown, like sections of Meridian, Pennsylvania and Delaware streets just north of the circle. A hundred years ago these were lovely places, built primarily for people. Yet nearly every modern fault to be found here was caused by foolish compromises made with the automobile.
Please don’t tell me that such compromises keep our economy strong. Start with Japan and look across Asia at countries that are increasingly kicking our asses economically. They are, almost universally, like the rest of the developed western world, pedestrian/mass transit societies. When gas prices spike, it hurts us a lot more than it hurts them.
It’s ironic: During WWII our fathers and grandfathers went off to save Europe, then came home and began dismantling the ways our cities and towns were similar to Europe. We let the world’s best rail systems fall into disuse and built an Interstate system whose use would destroy small town economies across the nation as businesses, their locations now dictated by the automobile, were drawn to the highway. Whites, unwilling to live alongside blacks, abandoned them and our cities and built new, disjointed communities in the suburbs, places where shopping, school, work, worship and entertainment could not be reached without a car. This ugly, physically dysfunctional world is now taken for granted by generations who can’t remember or don’t know what life was like before.
What is beyond our windshields seems not to matter. We fear the slums of the inner city, yet drive daily through strip mall hells like East Washington Street in Indy, seeming not to recognize they’re every bit as bleak. As a nation we spend tens of billions of dollars a year building and maintaining roads, but can’t find the money to upgrade our rail systems. Indiana automatically spends hundreds of millions annually to build and maintain roads but wince at the thought of diverting a portion of that into a commuter rail system to serve our most congested areas. We send our children off to war in the middle east, drive our big gas-guzzlers, and give barely a thought to the fact that the tyrants, their wars, and our involvement with them is built almost entirely around oil – who has it, who wants it, and who gets rich off it.
Let’s look beyond our windshields and take a hard look at what our over zealous love of the automobile has done to our communities, to our lives, to our health. This doesn’t mean abolishing cars; it just means their needs won’t automatically win every debate regarding community design.

The Myth of Historical Moral Purity 5/6/09

Napoleon once said, “History is a lie, agreed upon.”
A decade ago, while researching my book Stardust, set in the 1890s, I repeatedly came across stories and data that contradicted the claims of long-gone moral purity I’d heard from the elderly while growing up. Even the Noblesville family, the Tuckers, whom I researched and then fictionalized in my book, found themselves connected to many such contradictions.
“Divorce didn’t happen back then. It was unheard of.”
How many times were you told that?
The legendary Middletown study done in Muncie, Indiana in the 1920s, pegged Muncie’s divorce rate during the 1890s at around 7%.
If that figure is representative of Indiana as a whole, that means one of every 14 marriages ended in divorce. In that era, in a town like Noblesville, everybody knew at least 14 married couples, in fact, there were likely 2 or 3 times that many married couples in their church alone. In other words, everybody knew people who were divorced.
In 1893 one of the three sons in the Tucker family divorced his wife.
Also common in that era were stories about men who simply packed up and left wives, never to be seen again, but never divorced.
How about pre-marital or extra-marital sex?
“Well, it just didn’t happen back then!”
French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled America in the 1830s commented with surprise that American parents allowed their daughters to go off on walks and to dances with boys, “un-chaperoned.” This social reality is echoed in countless period novels and memoirs running right up to and beyond the turn of the 20th Century, and no doubt often led to the rather common outcome of human nature and romance.
One of the most interesting things I encountered in my research was the, “false promise” lawsuit. In the late 1800s such suits were near routine. It worked like this: A woman filed suit against a former boyfriend, asserting, “He claimed he loved me and would marry me, so I gave him my virtue. Then he didn’t marry me. He should be punished.”
While unimaginable today, why would a woman publicly admit to having pre-marital sex in a culture where it came with a socially damaging stigma, especially considering these cases were reported widely in Noblesville’s daily papers? I can think of only one answer. Her affair was already an item of gossip. And so, how do you retrieve a fragment of your honor? Go public and claim you did it only for high-minded reasons, but ended up victimized, diverting attention to your supposed abuser.
So what about the young couples who had pre-marital sex and remained silent or got married? Considering the social costs, my guess is they far out numbered the public scandals. False promise suites were likely the tip of the iceberg – the ones that went bad.
What’s more, I came across a study that compared the marriage and childbirth dates for women in several small New England villages in the 1820s and ‘30s. It found that over one third of the women in those villages were likely pregnant on their wedding day . . . or, 180 years ago babies only needed 5-7 months to gestate.
Also in the summer of 1893, the father of my research family, Dr. Albert R. Tucker, testified in a court case. It regarded a women from Carmel who had come to Noblesville and charged Noblesville’s state senator with “bastardy.” She claimed he had fathered her child. Both she and Boyd were married – to other people.
In war, the cruelty of our modern world seems to have reached horrific heights. Stories from recent conflicts in Bosnia, Haiti and the Sudan tell of rape used as a weapon of war. But when I found letters written home from World War I by Dr. Fred Tucker, the youngest son of the Tucker family, he mentioned encountering French refugees escaping battles around their villages. They told how their young women had been systematically abducted by German soldiers for “immoral purposes.”
A hard look at history provides even more reasons to believe that much of what is held up as proof of the decline of traditional morality is to some degree simply evidence of a more open and honest society.
In 1892, a young man named Charlie Queer (I’m not making this up) was arrested on Noblesville’s courthouse square dressed as a woman and claimed to police he was trying to make himself more attractive for the man he loved. In the summer of 1893, Charlie committed suicide. One can only imagine the torment of being gay in Victorian-era Indiana.
A few years later, Noblesville was scandalized by public revelations of a love affair between two women. Again, one must wonder how many such relationships simply remained private?
What’s this world come to when children have to fear sexual predators?”
Even that notion crumbles when you scratch the surface of history. In recent years the Catholic Church became embroiled in a sex scandal as adults began coming forward with stories of being molested by priests in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. And then even older people, whose abusers were long dead, related stories of being molested by priests in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
Have we experienced a loosening of moral norms in recent decades? Certainly. But also, where pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and child abuse where hidden before, now they’ve been drawn out into the open and discussed.
As my friend Pat said recently, “Maybe it doesn’t happen that much more often, it just has better press.”

Tea Parties Serving Up Denial 5/22/09

If I were the kind of person who worried for Republicans, my concern would be one simple thing: Republicans appear unable to accept any responsibility for the current state of our economy, leaving them looking out of touch with reality.
Tune in to FOX News and hear repeated explanations why our economic woes, from repossessions to the collapse of Wall Street banks, ware caused by something Democrats did.
Let me say up front that I think both Republicans and Democrats deserve blame for where we are. But I don’t meet many Republicans who agree. And that’s the problem. Until Republicans stop making excuses and pointing fingers, accept some hefty responsibility for our current troubles and explain to voters what they’ll do differently in the future, they may stay the opposition party for the foreseeable future.
Consider recent history.
In the summer of 2007, Countrywide, the nations biggest lender, announced it was in financial trouble. So began the collapse of the lending industry.
That summer of ’07 I negotiated the short sale of a Noblesville property that was nearing foreclosure. I needed the seller’s lender to approve the sale. After repeated attempts to speak with the lender, I finally got a live human on the phone and referred to documents I had faxed days earlier. An exasperated voice on the other end of the line sighed heavily, “Look buddy, we’re getting so many foreclosures and so many requests for short sales, we can’t keep paper in our fax machines.”
That’s just one example that there, in mid-’07, the building blocks of the mess President Obama is dealing with today were already beginning to crumble. Just months earlier, Republicans had lost control of the House and Senate, ending 12 years of legislative control of the federal government.* During those years, no Democrat could have passed any legislation unless Republicans agreed. What’s more, for the previous 6 years, Republicans also controlled the White House and during that time President Bush issued no vetoes. Meaning, elected Republicans were in complete control and in apparent agreement for the 6 years immediately preceding the onset of economic decline.
The overwhelming majority of bad loans that would fall into default up to this very moment were made during that 6-year period. Likewise, the majority of the credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities sales that crippled Wall Street were made during the 12-year period of Republican legislation control. The federal regulators charged with overseeing Wall Street (and businessmen like Bernie Madoff) during the past 8 years served at the pleasure of George W. Bush.
And though Clinton handed Bush the biggest annual budget surplus in U.S. history, it was turned into the largest annual budget deficit in just 4 years of complete GOP control. The federal debt would double during Bush’s 8 years.
Despite all this, after little more than 8 weeks in the White House, the gang at FOX News was calling this Obama’s economy. Conservative friends blame mortgage failures on Democratic Congressman Barney Frank. Others tell me unions caused it all. And even though most American’s are paying taxes at a rate similar to that paid 30 years ago, FOX followers showed up on bridges and piers last week to throw tea bags in the water, protesting Obama’s “high taxes.” Among the 35 protesters who showed up on Noblesville’s footbridge over White River, one held a sign reading, “Obama Lied, The Economy Died.”
That’s a big bowl full of hard-core denial. Enough to give you intellectual whiplash. If this is really all the Democrats’ fault, why didn’t Republicans do anything to redirect matters during their recent and extended total control of the federal government?
We do not hear Republicans answer that question. Instead, we’re told Obama is a fascist and a socialist. Many “tea bag” protesters across the country compared Obama to Hitler, Marx, and Mussolini. Others called for revolution and anarchy and openly hoped Obama would fail to turn around our economy.
This doesn’t strike me as a rational way to convince voters you should be back in power. It sounds to anyone who doesn’t drink the FOX News Kool-Aid like crazy talk from sore losers.
In 1994 when voters threw out the Democrats, handing the House and Senate to Republicans, it happened because the Democrats had behaved badly and led poorly. They deserved to lose. When voters picked Democrats to take control in January of 2007, they did so because Republicans behaved badly and led poorly. They deserved to lose.
The danger for Republicans is that there’s no self-evaluation, no contrition. Instead they offer go-for-broke, anti-Obama hysteria. This will look even more unforgivably out of touch with reality should Obama succeed in turning around our economy.
*The Senate briefly shifted to Democrat control (though in reality they were the plurality party, being one short of a majority) after Republican senator Jim Jeffords changed party registration to "Independent" in June of ‘01, but later returned to Republican control after the November ‘02 elections.

Legalize It 4/15/09

Isn’t it time we legalize marijuana?
Now hold on. Don’t dismiss the idea so quickly, the way we’ve all been dismissing the idea for years, hell – decades.
When someone suggests it, we treat them like UFO nuts or ghost hunters, or, well, serious dope smokers. But even though I haven’t smoked it in decades and don’t have any desire to, we’re really only hurting ourselves by keeping it illegal.
Let’s at least admit that we’ve lost the war on drugs. And it wasn’t even close. We lost by a mile. Try as they may, both Nixon and Carter lost the War on Drugs. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton tried and lost the battle, too, as did both George Bush I and II. We’re still losing the War on Drugs.
They say you have to pick your battles carefully. Pick the ones you actually have a chance of winning. Accept defeat on the ones that are hopeless. Ironically, and at least in the short-term, that’s just what President Obama did when he refused to get drawn into the debate on legalizing marijuana when asked about it in an online town hall meeting a couple weeks ago. I suppose he’s already got too many battles to deal with.
But the fight we picked with pot is so similar to the fight our grandparents picked with alcohol, isn’t it time we accept reality and tried to turn pot smoking to our advantage?
Routinely, pot is estimated to be the No. 1 cash crop in both Hawaii and California. California, with an economy larger than that of France, produces an estimated $14 billion of illegal pot each year. Legalize and tax it at the approximate new 20% rate for cigarettes and you get $2.8 billion in revenue a year, just for California.
Legalized pot and give a huge boost to Indiana farmers. During WWII Indiana was a major grower of hemp for military rope production. Our climate is perfect.
We’re not just missing out on the opportunity to turn hidden illegal labor and revenue into legal jobs and taxable revenue, we’re wasting a fortune fruitlessly trying to stop it.
We spend $150 billion a year on policing and courts with nearly 48% of that marijuana-related. We spend another $68 billion per year housing people in prisons, with one in three serving time for non-violent drug crimes.
Those statistics only hint at the world of organized crime and drug lords made rich in large part by one simple reality: pot is illegal.
Think Prohibition. When our grandparents illegalized booze in the 1920s, drinking didn’t stop, it just went underground, heavily funding a criminal economy that turned two-bit street thugs like Al Capone into liquor lords. At the same time our nation spent millions trying to chase down regular citizens who were going to drink one way or another, whether it was legal or not.
When alcohol was legal again, it put a huge dent in organized crime and allowed law enforcement to focus on more pressing matters. What’s more, it accepted the reality that people are going to drink, so it was pulled back out in the open where its use could be regulated and taxed.
The lesson learned and often stated by that generation who tried to illegalize alcohol: You can’t legislate morality.
When I say legalize it, I’m not talking about crack or meth or heroin. I’m just talking about that leafy herb.
Is it bad for you? Yes. But no worse than alcohol, the most abused drug in American by far. And probably no more costly to our nation’s health than burgers and fries, deep-fried cheese and Oreo Blizzards. Should anybody be allowed to get it and smoke it? No. Should people be arrested if they smoke and drive? Yes.
Here’s the Contrarian’s proposed legislation: Legalize marijuana. Forbid additives that would make it more addictive or intoxicating. Make it available along-side alcohol in observance with each state’s alcohol sales and consumption laws. There is an introductory 5-year ban on imports to allow American farmers and industry time to organize growing, branding, and distribution systems. Tax it at a rate of 20%.
Perfect answer to the pot-smoking problem? No. Like most of life’s problems, perfect answers are not available; you only get to choose greater or lesser evils. Accepting that is part of being a grown-up.
In my youth I was told that marijuana was a gateway drug. Start there and you may become a heroin addict. But looking back at high school and college and all the pot smokers and beer drinkers I’ve known, it’s notable that I’m not aware of any pot smokers who became drug addicts, but I know many drinkers who became alcoholics.
Which makes it kinda hard to figure out why alcohol is legal, but marijuana isn’t.

Lessons In Interstate Driving 4/8/09

On a two day, thousand-mile drive to Florida last Friday and Saturday, it occurred to me that driving behavior has changed since the days I learned to drive in the 1970s.
Out of shear boredom, I conducted a highly biased sociological study of Interstate driving. My findings are below.
Lesson #1: “75 is the new 55.”
At some point passing through Tennessee when I had the cruise control set at 80 – and exasperated drivers were passing me on the right – cutting in and out of the right two lanes, I shock my head and said, “They’ve got to be going 90 or 95.”
Greta looked up from her book and said, “75 is the new 55.”
Amen, sister. And I’m as guilty as anyone.
We remain in an era of accelerated instant gratification. “I wanna be there, and I want it right now!” The journey is to be tolerated. The destination is our birthright.
Lesson #2: The “fast lane” is a dead concept.
When I was a kid the fast lane was a place where faster traffic went past slower traffic. When a faster driver approached a slower moving car, the slow guy noted this approaching reality and courteously moved to the right.
Today the fast lane has become a promise of swiftness that rarely pays off.
Think of the intermittent reward of gambling. People throw away their money gambling because, well, they won once, and so they keep playing and losing, waiting for another big payoff.
Likewise, people line up in the far left lane, beating the steering wheel with their palm, wondering what the hold up is. They got in the fast lane a time or two, long ago and actually went fast, and so they hope against hope that once that blockage opens up, they’ll be zipping along smoothly.
By giving up and slipping into the center lane I made it past the front of that line a few times on the way down here and so can tell you first hand what the various blockages are.
Blockage #1: Drivers absorbed in a cell phone conversation, unaware that they’ve stacked up traffic behind them.
Blockage #2: Elderly drivers who have forgotten the point of the fast lane and come to see it as just another lane. When you finally pass and give them the stink-eye, they look back and gesture to the other lanes like, “Hey, there are three lanes. They’re all the same. I chose this one. You choose yours and get off my back.”
Blockage #3: Long-haul zombies – not truckers, but forlorn Midwesterners in Civics and aging mini-vans who decided to drive non-stop all the way through. They’re just staring ahead with swollen eyes, mouths agape, half mesmerized/half lost, and way, way past caring that there’re a line of 20 or 30 defeated drivers behind them.
Blockage #4: Me. People like me are indignant as hell and don’t care if you’re irritated. We’re already going fast, dammit. And however fast that is, well buddy, that ought to be fast enough for anybody! “If you don’t like it, next wide open break in the center lane, I might get over for you, but it will have to be wide open – it can’t cost me a moment.”
Lesson #3: SOBs + Enablers = Injustice
There is a class of driver so despicable they don’t deserve even the smallest courtesy. They are the “SOB Driver.”
How to spot the SOB: There is road construction ahead and you’ve had ample warning that a lane must merge left. As you near the final merge, drivers have all lined up. But here comes the SOB barreling past the line on what’s left of the dying lane. He (and it’s always a he) pulls to the front of the line, puts on his turn signal and waits to be let in.
Which brings us to The Enabler. This is typically a hybrid whose enabling tendency combines with their #1, or #2 Blockage tendencies. It’s The Enabler who lets the SOB in ahead of everyone who followed the rules.
As I merged dutifully in line in Southern Georgia watching an Enabler allow an SOB in a pick-up truck to slip in ahead of us all, I realized it’s Enablers who also spoil petulant children, and who allowed Hitler to consolidate power in 1930s Germany,
Me, Mr. Blockage #4 will be joining the other players in a mad retracing of our steps this coming Saturday. Wish me well.

Winston Churchill & Lady Astor 4/1/09

Greta and I went to a dinner party with neighbors recently and the conversation got a little loud and bawdy. A fun crowd of people. As we walked home down Conner Street, I recalled my favorite dinner party story.
It was the famous incident between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. The two sat side by side at a dinner party and throughout the evening Churchill was his usual self – told off-color jokes and used coarse language. Finally, an indignant Lady Astor spouted, “Sir, if you were my husband, I’d poison you.” To which Churchill replied, “And Lady, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
I love Churchill.
Sometimes in life, we’re stuck beside both kinds of people at public affairs – sometimes the Lady Astors of the world, and sometimes the Churchills.
A few years back, when channel surfing at night, I’d sometimes stop for a moment at the Howard Stern show. It was video of his radio show, which is absolute trash. I’d watch a minute or two, much the way a rubber-necker ogles a car accident – you don’t really want to be a part of it, but a voyeuristic peek won’t hurt, right?
The premise is this: Stern invites a well-endowed young woman – model, actress, minor celebrity, whatever – to come on the show. He quizzes her about her love life – but not in an intelligent way, instead, the way a drunken frat boy on spring break might chat up a call girl on a street corner. The whole point is to get the guest to take her clothes off. In other words, the Howard Stern show is the intellectual equivalent of a teenage boy’s sex fantasy, with a good sound stage. I don’t know which is more pathetic, the aging host who still thinks this is the height of comedy, or the guest who thinks if she undresses it will further her acting/modeling career.
And just so you know, I wasn’t waiting for the payoff, because this was basic cable. All you saw was a woman with scrambled mega-pixels over her chest.
I recall once channel surfing from Stern and immediately finding myself in an alternate world of idiots: Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. I’d gone from a pompous egomaniac to a delusional egomaniac. Pat was blathering on, comparing liberals to Nazis and insisting that if Disney didn’t turn away from its gay-friendly policies, God would send a hurricane to destroy Orlando (I’m not making this up).
On the 700 Club Pat Robertson pretends to read the news while spinning each story in such a way as to canonize the Christian-conservative point of view while vilifying any point of view that might have been considered progressive at any point during the past century.
In short hand – guns are always good, homosexuals are always bad, reinstating prayer in school would solve most of America’s problems, poor women will keep having babies if you keep paying them welfare, and September 11th was proof that America is so sinful, God couldn’t be bothered to protect us.
For me, the involuntary vomiting reflex is triggered as quickly by Robertson as it is by Stern.
But, there was talk of a dinner party at the beginning of this ramble.
Let’s say you’re in purgatory - stuck at a dinner party - they’re seating people - Pat Robertson is on one end of the long banquet table and Howard Stern at the other. The seats in the middle are taken by the intelligent and reasonable people you would prefer to sit with. But, you must sit at one end or the other. Which end would you choose?
In truth, there’s a little of both men in me. There’s a part of me that like’s to cut loose and speak my mind in a crowd of friends. I’ve offended my fair share of people with bawdy conversation and rude jokes. There’s a childish side of me that likes to shock people (especially the Pat Robertson kind of people).
There’s also a part of me - the parent and former-teacher side that discouraged teenagers from pre-marital sex, alcohol and drugs. As a high school teacher I frowned at 16+ years of bathroom and sex humor, not because it was my job, but because often it’s simply not funny, just childish. Howard Stern is proof that the dimmer the brain, the older you get before you stop laughing at that stuff.
But I have to admit, at the dinner party, I would sit next to Stern. That’s where the most interesting conversation would take place. And this propensity to choose the rude over the prude is apparently rubbing off on my children.
Tuesday night, working on this column, I looked up from my laptop and told my kids the story of Winston Churchill and Lady Astor, to which, my 14 year old daughter, Sally, replied, “Did you say, ‘Lady Ass-turd?’”
I hung my head in despair a moment, and then laughed really, really hard.

Toynbee Tiles, Traffic & Socialism 3/25/09

Toynbee Tiles:
In June of ’07 The Contrarian wrote about a Toynbee Tile that appeared near the northern crosswalk at 9th and Logan Streets in Noblesville. Toynbee Tiles are mysterious linoleum-cut messages embedded in the asphalt of a city street and refer, in part to the film, 2001, A Space Odyssey. Thousands of such messages have been found in major cities around the U.S. and South America. The person(s) placing the messages remains unknown.
A mosaic of letters, cut from linoleum-like flooring materials are sandwiched between two pieces of roofing felt, then dropped on a newly paved street on a hot day and become embedded by car tires. As the top layer of roofing felt is worn away by traffic, the linoleum message is revealed.
A new one has appeared at Conner and 9th Streets, just south of the crosswalk between the Corner Cottage and the old Lake and Lodge building. Another appeared and quickly disintegrated at the same intersection last summer.
For more in depth info, try the Wikipedia entry:
Traffic in Noblesville
In October of ’07, the new Exit 10 opened at 146th and I-69, extending the 4 lanes of 146th Street from I-69 to western Carmel. The Contrarian argued then it might dramatically reduce traffic along Conner Street. Before that, much of the east/west traffic in Hamilton County had no other option but to funnel through Old Town via State Road 32 or Greenfield Avenue. Suddenly there was a better option.
The general consensus among The Contrarian’s friends who live on Conner is that traffic is as bad as ever.
By mid-2009 new INDOT traffic counts for Conner will come out and we’ll see what’s actually happened, but I suspect my friends are right.
In a related matter, recently a city official suggested to the Contrarian that traffic volume on streets like Conner had not dramatically increased in the past 20-30 years.
That might initially seem a little nutty, but there was a strong argument to go along with it, founded in traffic flow science. He argued that when traffic gets oppressive on a particular street, some frustrated drivers start taking alternative routes, thereby tempering traffic on the busy street.
As a result of the conversation The Contrarian tracked down 15+ years worth of Conner Street traffic counts. Between the early ‘80s and late ’90s, traffic on the residential stretch of Conner Street increased by 232%
Socialism or Monarchy
A recent Contrarian column was about the notions of entitlement that contributed to our current economic woes. Since then, leaders in Washington have tried to mandate that union workers at struggling car companies accept pay cuts as part of auto bailout agreements, and have also tried to retrieve high-dollar bonuses AIG execs were paid, presumably with taxpayer bailout money.
Both groups should be taking pay cuts. Not for a philosophical dislike of unions or the extremely wealthy, but because of simple practicality.
If workers want to unionize and bargain as a group, it’s their right. But when people around the world are willing to work for a fraction of UAW pay, the union doesn’t have much bargaining power. If UAW workers want to even have a job, as sorry as we may be about it, they’ll have to work for less to compete. No pro or anti-union philosophy here, just reality.
And what about big Wall Street bonuses?
Many of us own stock and have 401ks and IRAs invested on Wall Street. When a chosen few at the top of Wall Street banks, brokerage firms, etc., siphoned off huge amounts of money as bonuses, they were taking our money.
Should the best and brightest and hardest workers get paid the most? Sure. But how much is too much?
If you own your own company, take as much pay as you want. It’s none of our business. But if you work for a publicly traded company, or work buying and selling publicly traded stocks for investors - and you take an irrationally high pay package, well you’re taking from investors to fund your lavish lifestyle – not because it’s fair, but because you can. As an investor, it’s fundamentally unwise to invest in a company that foolishly wastes money like that, especially if that company is failing.
And forget about the bailout money for the moment. Companies who overpaid execs were diminishing our return on investment long before recent federal bailouts.
If union pay and benefits are suggestive of socialism, then excessive executive pay is suggestive of monarchy – the notion that by sheer position, someone is entitled to massive wealth at the expense of others.
Wall Street insiders say that if these guys don’t earn mega-millions, they’ll take their talent’s elsewhere. As with UAW workers, in this economy, you have to kinda scratch your head and wonder where they’d take their talents. And, if we learned anything from the Savings and Loan crisis of the late ‘80s, the Enron scandal, and our current economic crisis, it’s that these fellas at the top aren’t the irreplaceable, infallible geniuses that their gargantuan pay packages suggest they are.
So let them go to another company if they can find one. We’ll all make a better return on our investments without them feeling entitled to skim off the top like monarchs, Mafiosos and 3rd world dictators.

Standing Up To Teachers Union 3/18/09

Last week President Obama waded into politically dangerous water when he suggested that schoolteachers should submit to merit pay evaluations. In other words, let’s figure out who the best teachers are and pay them more.
These are politically dangerous waters because teachers unions across the country both supported Obama and hate the idea of merit pay.
I hope he wins this one, because while teachers should earn more, they shouldn’t get it until they’re willing to prove they deserve it.
As a young teacher I discovered a hard truth first hand; a bad teacher could earn the most while the good teacher could earn the least. Seniority, not quality drives pay.
I was the youngest of three teachers in my department. I taught elective courses, so students could choose them or not. I worked hard to build my program while the other two teachers, near retirement, let their programs languish. Kids fled their classes for mine.
One of those department colleagues was the worst teacher I’ve even known. I’ll call him Bob. Bob bragged about how little he worked, read the newspaper while students did rote bookwork, and used 30 years of banked leave days to take one day off a week. He delighted in disciplining students and was an unapologetic racist.
Bob bragged he had 30 years experience. Our principal once whispered to me, “No, Bob’s got 1 year experience, 30 times.” But those 30 years meant Bob was at the top of the pay scale. I was at the bottom, making $15,000 less a year.
Though my classes overflowed, our department’s student count declined as kids fled Bob’s classes, sometimes for other departments. With our department’s numbers down the superintendent was eventually forced to eliminate one teacher to close a budget shortfall. I had the least seniority, so I had to go, and Bob would take over my classes.
It didn’t matter that I was making a difference in kids’ lives. The program I built at low pay would be handed to a tenured teacher who did little work at high pay.
The superintendent invited me to go with him to the statehouse to lobby the legislature to pass a stalled school-funding bill. “If that bill passes,” he said, “we’ll have the money to keep you.”
I went
I tracked down my representative in the marbled-lined hallways. He confided that he supported the funding bill, but couldn’t say so publicly. Republicans and Democrats were playing chicken with legislation (and peoples lives), each daring the other to go first. He hoped the bill would pass, but couldn’t promise anything.
Disgusted and heartsick, I walked out the side doors of the statehouse and looked up at the ISTA building across the street, the offices of the Indiana State Teachers Association. This was the union whose rules mandated that Bob earn more than me and that he stay and I go.
The legislative logjam broke and I kept my job. Still it was a powerful lesson.
I’ll say it again; Teachers should be paid more. It will add prestige to the position, draw more talent to the profession, and will reward the majority of teachers who are doing a good job. But it shouldn’t happen until teachers agree to partially set aside seniority and submit themselves to merit pay evaluations
Teachers argue that merit pay would be subject to politics and favoritism. Well, welcome to the real world. That’s what most Americans in most companies live with. It would be imperfect, but at least it would be imperfect in pursuit of excellence, instead of the current system, which is imperfect in pursuit of a failed concept - that seniority equals quality.
A staggering irony I can’t quit pondering: those who spend their entire careers making value judgments and grading others refuse to be judged and graded themselves.
Nearly fifteen years after that brush with job loss, I faced the utter stupidity of seniority-only pay concepts again, not because I was too young, but this time, because I was too old.
A month after my 40th birthday, wanting to teach closer to home, I called about a job opening in a Hamilton County school. The principal told me bluntly, “You’re too old. I can’t hire you. You’re too high on the pay scale. I can hire someone right out of college for far less.”
Maybe a prospective young candidate would have been better than me, but there was no way to know, because seniority settled the issue before anyone was interviewed.
Can Obama convince the unions it’s time to change? I’m not optimistic.

Lessons In Pet Ownership 3/11/09

Lesson #1 You know your cat is too fat when she can’t lick her own ass.
Nina was promising enough as a kitten. We have an unbelievably cute photo of our daughter Sally, aged 4, dressed as a cat for Halloween cradling little Nina. Soon after that Nina started packing on the pounds.
We bought that “Indoor/Adult” cat food, but it didn’t help.
And there’s a twist. Nina was bulimic. (I’m not making this up.) No disrespect to the actual destructive condition afflicting humans, but Nina binged and purged everyday. She should have been sickly and slender but she just grew increasingly obese. The vet had no explanation.
Watching Nina strain like a failed contortionist to take care of her personal hygiene was like passing a car accident; too horrible to look, too tragic to look away.
Lesson #2 When a dog doesn’t bark or scratch at the door, but only stares at you with a beleaguered, forlorn mope, it’s hard to differentiate, “I love you,” from, “I’m about to crap on the rug.”
We chose our dog, Hanna because she was a whippet. (A whippet resembles a small greyhound.) Whippets we’d seen were quiet and obedient. Aside from the fact that she trembled constantly, Hanna was well behaved and never barked. So well behaved we took her to my parents’ house for a Sunday dinner just days after we got her.
Once there I bragged to my aunt Margaret about Hanna. Just as I was highlighting her house training, Hanna squatted right before us and took a dump on the carpet.
So, like coaxing small children to use the bathroom (“Try to go, whether you need to or not!”) before a car trip, we had to force Hanna to the back yard several times a day, whether she wanted to go or not.
Lesson #3 If your cat sleeps under the covers, wear body armor.
Rudy was a great cat and loved to sleep at our feet under the bed covers in the fist big, drafty Victorian Greta and I lived in after we married. One winter night Rudy got a little lost trying to get out from under the covers. Burrowing to the top of the bed he got caught inside Greta’s flannel nightgown. By the time he found his way to her close-fitting neckline, the poor guy was in a panic – like a swimmer struggling to the surface for air, and Greta was none to happy either. Half asleep, she got the neck unbuttoned before he used his claws to tear his way out.
Lesson #4 Turtles and fish both love water, but don’t really mix.
Sally’s map turtle, Buddy, was a good guy, but like Nina, had hygiene issues. He shared his tank with several gold fish won in the ping-pong ball toss at the carnival. They survived the car ride home in a plastic bag, but not Buddy’s tank. A couple weeks after each cleaning, the tank filled with a green funk that couldn’t be killed. I consulted every pet store, bought every water treatment, and spent a year’s worth of college savings on ever more powerful filters. Still, the green gunk always came back.
One night I decided on drastic measures. Sally and I put Buddy and the fish in a bucket and scrubbed the tank and filter with bleach. We rinsed everything well to get rid of the bleach and then filled the tank up and turned on the filter. It looked great. We put in the animals and went downstairs to watch TV.
When Sally went up to bed she let out a siren-like shriek. I ran up to find all the fish floating, dead and her room smelling like a bleach factory. We’d rinsed everything so well. Everything that is, except the filter rotor basin, which was filled with bleach.
Buddy was fine, but we gave him back to the pet store where we got him. It was for his own safety.
Lesson #5 Cats do not do High-5s
Orion was the smartest and toughest pet we ever owned. A badass tomcat as big as a small dog, he could stop your heart with a stink-eye that silently growled, “Don’t mess with me.” He hated the sound of human laughter, coughing, sneezing, and the voices of children. When Sally was small, Orion always looked for an elevated perch to keep out of her reach. But as she grew, his only remaining option was to fight.
When Sally gingerly reached out her hand to him as he sat on a kitchen bench, Orion swatted the air, claws bared in a warning she didn’t understand. Sally exclaimed to Greta, “Hey Mom, Orion just tried to give me a High-5.” How do you tell a child, “No Dear, he was trying to scratch your eyes out.”
She eventually learned that lesson the hard way.

In Search of Good Legislation 3/4/09

The goings-on at the Statehouse this session are a bit frustrating.
Governor Daniel’s plan to streamline Indiana’s governmental structure to save money is thankfully hitting resistance.
I didn’t vote for Daniels first time around, mostly because as Budget Director for President Bush, he helped turn the largest budget surplus in U. S. history, handed to Bush by outgoing president Clinton, into a staggering budge deficit in just 4 years. Yet, at times I’ve been pleasantly surprised by “Our Man Mitch.” While I haven’t always liked his proposals, at least he’s trying to drag Indiana (kicking and screaming at times) into the 21st century. His government reform plan is part of that mission. But he’s got the process backwards and in some cases, just wrong.
Wrong: Trying to get more schools to consolidate. As a former teacher (16+ years) I’m not convinced that bigger schools are better.
And his hope to eliminate Township Trustees seems excessive as well. While Trustees might benefit from rules forbidding nepotism and for mandating more acceptable ratios between dollars spent on aid to the poor and administration costs, his hope to totally eliminate them strikes me as having the cart before the horse.
Like residents in heavily Democratic Lake County, we here in Hamilton County live with a one party system. Many leaders maintain power in part by conducting expensive political campaigns funded by contractors who do business with their cities and county governments. As long as this, “pay to play” system is legal, I don’t want to see any political offices consolidated.
Daniels also seeks to move from 3 county commissioners to 1 commissioner. That one “Lord Commissioner” could appoint his own treasurer, recorder, and assessor, positions that would no longer be elected. That’s an invitation to corruption. Do that, and there’s absolutely nobody left in county’s like Hamilton and Lake to look over the “Lord Commissioner’s” shoulder and question how they raise money and hand out contracts. That strikes me as a very good way to create 92 fiefdoms led by 92 Rob Blagojeviches.
Once we reform campaign financing, lobbying, rules for issuing contracts, and make pay to play illegal, I’ll be ready to talk about consolidation of elected offices, but not until then.
I don’t care how much money it would save. Much of what we do in a democracy is not done because it’s cheap; it’s done because it’s right. Dictatorships are cheap and efficient. In comparison, democracies are expensive and cumbersome.
But ethics reform isn’t getting much traction in the Statehouse this session.
S.B. 15 would prohibit General Assembly members from working as lobbyists until a year after they leave the legislature. An identical bill died last year.
S.B 198 would put the power of redistricting into independent, bi-partisan hands, instead of the highly partisan process we have now that results in gerrymandering: a system that guarantees safe Republican and Democrat seats by drawing freakish boundaries. Among the many downsides of gerrymandering is its byproduct - gridlock. Take our national scene as an example. Safe Democrat and Republican districts encourage hardliners. We have lots of hardcore folks on the right and on the left and ever fewer in the middle. Safe districts do not nurture compromise candidates.
Will either measure pass? Don’t hold your breath.
My pick for dumbest legislation proposed so far: Senator Johnny Nugent (R-Lawrenceburg) proposed S.B.12, which would allow students to carry guns on Indiana college campuses. He argues it will keep students safe from criminals. Folks who propose such gun legislation ignore crime statistics that point out most handgun deaths are not caused by criminals. They’re caused by accidents or crimes of passion (otherwise level-headed folks doing something stupid with a gun when drunk or in a fit of rage). And considering that college officials nation wide are battling a binge drinking epidemic, I’m not sure having more guns laying around dorm rooms will make anybody safer.
Lastly, mass transit issues continue to struggle. Noblesville’s own state Senator, Luke Kenley co-sponsored a bill to put in place the governing bodies and funding mechanisms required to make light rail between Noblesville and Indy a reality. The bill cleared the house but had two of its funding sources removed. Kenley told The Indianapolis Star last week that he wondered if the timing was right. “It’s a long shot for passing this year,” he told them.
Commuter rail service is vital to making Indianapolis a world-class community. In a NUVO Newsweekly story I wrote several years ago, Senator Kenley said of traffic congestion, “We can’t simply pave our way out of this problem.”
It’s true, the democratic process seldom gives us exactly what we want, but as Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”

Entitlement and Its Day of Reckoning 2/25/09

Fresh out of college and working briefly at the Glendale Mall I noticed that the cars parked in the fire lanes, blocking fire hydrants, and parked underserved in the handicap spaces were expensive cars. It was mostly Cadillac’s, Mercedes and BMWs, seldom Chevettes, Civics or VWs. It seemed the wealthier folks just felt . . . well, entitled.
While I was harshly judging the well to do for their sense of entitlement, I was wracking up foolish debt with my first credit card. It was so easy to buy clothes, music, concert tickets, and dinners out with money I didn’t have. There’s a foolish sense of entitlement in that, too. As if the rules of balanced budgets somehow didn’t apply to me.
Your see, the rich aren’t the only ones whose sense of entitlement led us to our current economic woes.
The media has had a field day reporting on insane bonus payments to Wall Street bigwigs – the very bigwigs whose financial shenanigans helped tip us into economic chaos. And we regular folk (including me) have been filled with outrage and disgust. But as we’ve flogged the rich boys on Wall Street, not to mention cabinet appointees who “forgot” to pay their taxes, I keep thinking about the economic foolishness all around us in our middle class world this past decade.
True, the boys at the top have been gluttonous pigs.
In 1980, the average CEO earned 42 times as much as the average worker. By 2005 CEO pay had risen to 411 times that of the average worker. These folks helped drive our economy off a cliff while they were stuffing their pockets with cash.
But the middle class has been reaching beyond reason, too.
Right here in Noblesville there are neighborhoods built in the past decade or so where as much as 10% of the homes have gone into foreclosure. We’re not alone. According to RealtyTrac, last year more than 2.3 million properties experienced foreclosure filings. And I don’t just blame lenders and builders who led home buyers to their doom, I also blame the buyers themselves who sat across the desk with the bull shit meter going off in their heads, but going along because it gave them what they wanted - a new house, a bigger house, or simply more real estate bling. reports that in 2006 and 2007 alone, there were nearly 1.4 million consumer bankruptcy filings in America. The overwhelming majority – middle class consumers.
So who was spending beyond their means, assuming someone else would pick up the tab? Not just the boys at Merrill Lynch, who handed out $3.6 billion in executive bonuses this past December while their company was going down the tubes and they were coming to the government for a bailout. It was also regular, middle class consumers run-amuck with credit cards, car loans, home loan refinances, and payday cash advances.
And like the Wall Street boys who paid themselves while their ship was sinking, in my day job I’ve seen what middle class people do when they’re about to lose the home they couldn’t afford in the first place. Many pull out and resell the furnace, AC unit, kitchen cabinets, and light fixtures. It’s not uncommon for banks to repossess houses right here in Noblesville that have been stripped by the very people who didn’t make the payments in the first place.
When the whole tree is rotten, it’s a little silly for the roots to bad-mouth the upper branches.
What’s the next wave of foreclosures likely to hit our economy? Properties bought by upper middle-class investors who watched too much HGTV and late-night get-rich-quick infomercials, then foolishly invested in flip projects or new condos using interest-only loans.
Yes, the foolhardy can be found at all income brackets.
According to BusinessWeek, middle class American consumers are carrying nearly $1 trillion in credit card debt. That’s more than the President’s entire stimulus bill in credit card debt alone!
The simply reality is, our entire country, from top to bottom has been living beyond its means, and feeling entitled to it.
But you wouldn’t know it listening to radio call-in talk shows or listening to co-workers around the water cooler. It goes something like this, “How is it the CEOs who caused this mess get big pay packages while little guys like us who play by the rules have to pay taxes to clean up their mess?”
The truth is, lots of people at all incomes levels have not been playing by the rules.
True, already wealthy folks who money-grub to buy a bigger vacation house in the Hamptons look a lot worse than the little guy who overextends on his credit cards to buy his label-conscious kids trendy clothes. But they’re both part of the same problem.
In his address last night, President Obama said that, “The day of reckoning has arrived.” And that’s true for everybody, not just the guys at the top.

Knick Knacks & Artifacts 2/18/09

We are a family with knick-knacks.
One example: The kitchen shelf holding cookbooks is lined with toy figures. This is my wife’s doing. If you know her you don’t believe me, but it’s true.
There are two Power Rangers, Gumby’s little horse Pokey, a tiny, bulbous, flesh colored baby in a diaper, a two-inch metal figure of Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote, a bobble-head doll of Dwight from the TV show The Office, Dexter in a space suit from the children’s show Dexter’s Laboratory, and three old matchbooks; one from Max Robinson Real Estate, one from Billie Caldwell’s run for Auditor long ago, and a vintage Jim Dandy matchbook with that red-headed Jim Dandy kid on it clutching a burger and licking his lips.
We keep a reasonably clean house, so cleaning around this stuff gets a little laborious. Still the knick-knacks and artifacts accumulate.
In the little den where I’m writing this column a floor-to-ceiling bookcase has items of major, minor, or incidental meaning wedged here and there. There’s an antique brass fan I bought by accident at an auction in a box of items, “too numerous to mention,” a full-size wooden bowling pin found behind a couch in my in-law’s house, a tiny A & W Root Beer mug from my childhood cradling a huge palm-sized marble from my father-in-law’s childhood, and an Ertel’s soda pop bottle I found in the creek in Tipton when I was a kid. That’s just the left side. Two shelves on the right side hold (but are not limited to) a whiskey crock, a large beer bottle I found in an out-house pit, a fist-sized cast iron acorn from an iron fence, and old cigar tins. On the wall nearby hangs a mounted bear head that was shot by my wife’s grandmother in the U.P. of Michigan.
No, we don’t live in a sports pub.
I suppose a reasonable person would say, “Enough is enough, get rid of some of this stuff.” But since there aren’t any reasonable people around here, we press on.
At Christmas my kids got me a giant glass bottle to hold more of my cork collection.
Yes, that’s right, a cork collection.
For years I’ve been saving corks from bottles of wine consumed at weddings, holidays, dinner out with friends – you name it. On the side of each I write the names of the people who helped drink it, the event and date and put it in a jar. Above the kitchen cabinets is an assortment of antique containers filled with 20 years of corks. I suppose I oughta stop. Maybe after that new 5-gallon bottle is filled.
The windowsill above the kitchen sink is a whole-nother matter. It holds all the little artifacts we’ve found in the yard of our Victorian-era house while gardening over the years. Ceramic marbles, a porcelain arm and leg from a doll, a brass button with an “FD” in the center and floral patterns around the parameter, fossils and random shards of colorful pottery are clustered together. Added here and there – a tiny celluloid deer from my wife’s grandmother’s long-gone kitchen, an impossibly round, palm-size stone I found and a ceramic green snowman with black hair our oldest son, Cal made in elementary school. Again, I’m just giving you the high points. There’s actually much, much, much more stuff it would take pages to explain.
In my day job as a Realtor, I routinely show houses with every knick-knack gone, every countertop clear, and every bookshelf free of personal photos or mementos. We Realtors are always telling sellers, “Declutter, declutter, declutter!” But like an accountant who can’t balance his household checkbook, the clutter simply grows in this Realtor’s house.
For home selling purposes, decluttering creates the feeling of openness. It also creates a fantasy for buyers, inviting them to imagine, “When I buy this house, this is how I’ll live.”
No, you won’t.
But some people get close. I visit friends’ homes and wonder why they don’t have a stack of mail on their dining room table like we do. Where’s the little jar of shells they found on vacation in Florida? Where are the bird skulls, buckeyes, even more fossils and antique medicine bottles, you know, stuff like we have among the bookshelves in our living room? They probably crammed it all in closets before we arrived.
We Meyers may be hoarders, but we’re hoarders with a taste for the unique and antique. But someday when we die, somebody’s going to have to deal with all this; like the little Chinese terra cotta soldiers my parents sent home from China that sit on the fireplace mantle, or the unusual stone and architectural glass objects clustered around the hearth, or the . . .

Is Racism Dead Now? 2/11/09

It’s African-American history month and the election of our first black president is something I’m still trying to digest. Some friends have asked me, “Now, with Obama’s election, can we finally put that whole racism thing to bed?” But the things I heard during Obama’s journey to the White House – right here in Hamilton County, tells me it’s a bit early to declare that racism is dead.
I had a creeping sense of it during the campaign last year.
Perhaps every presidential candidate has been a victim of a smear. The rap on Gore said he was a liar. The assaults on Bush and Palin painted them as hollow and stupid. The smears about John Kerry claimed he was a flip-flopper and a false hero. A smear against McCain in the 2000 primaries claimed his time as a prisoner of war rendered him mentally unstable. And Hillary Clinton was cast as a manipulative shrew. With each of those a grain of truth or popular perception was blown out of reasonable proportion. And Obama got some of that, in the exaggerated claims that he had no experience and that he “palled around with terrorists.”
But there was a whole vein of outright smears directed at Obama that struck me as an invitation to racism. They repeatedly suggested, “He’s not one of us.”
There was the mass email a year ago claiming Obama was a closet Muslim that were sent and resent until millions of Americans had gotten it. A colleague who believed it brought it to my attention.
Media outlets investigated the charges and found them utterly false.
In June came the first of many mass emails questioning Obama’s patriotism. One claimed he wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, then another claimed he wouldn’t wear an American flag lapel pin. I heard a co-worker pronounce it true.
Yet, these accusations were easily proven false.
Other emails claimed Obama attended a radical Muslim “madrassa” school in Indonesia as a child. The Associated Press and CNN visited the school, interviewed Obama’s classmates, and found zero evidence to support the notion it taught anything remotely radical. Yet another mass email claimed that Obama was sworn into the Senate with his hand on the Koran. Also false. That was Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison. Obama used a Bible.
These Obama smears focused on a single relentless theme; “He’s foreign, he’s scary, he’s not one of us.” Begging the question, Who is,“us?”
Was the “us,” white Christians? Was all this idiocy a substitute for the fact that on the surface of American culture today it’s not acceptable to call someone the “N-word?” So, cast him as an “other” and let people’s darker fears about dark-skinned people lead them where the “N-word” might have taken them anyway?
Once Obama won the election, a whole new set of emails began circulating. I got the one promising to show the band practicing for the inaugural. The accompanying photo showed a primitive African tribe in loin clothes dancing in a circle, beating drums.
After the public good will of the inauguration, many folks shared with me the private ill-will they overheard at work that day.
One friend told me that as they watched the inaugural on TV in their office, a coworker looked at the ocean of disproportionately black faces before the Capital in D. C. and said, “I bet most of ‘em are on welfare.”
Another friend told me that as she watched the inaugural at work, filled with a sense of pride that a black man had been elected president, her boss stood behind her offering mock-Ebonics as an overdub to Obama’s speech.
Another friend heard a co-worker refer to Obama, using the “N-word.”
I have contradictory feelings about the racial implications of Obama’s election. One part of me marvels, “Look how far we’ve come,” while another part of me wonders, “Will all this racial nonsense ever end?”
So when people say, “Okay, can we stop worrying about racism now that Obama’s been elected,” I feel a little like a child who’s been begging for something and an adult finally, begrudgingly shoves it in my hands and grunts, “Now, will you shut up?”
Well, there’s nothing childish about wanting an end to racism. But there is something a little childish about thinking that electing a black president would end it.
America has obviously come a long way, but what could be heard right here in Hamilton County in the months leading up to the election, and then on election day in the offices and hallways of work places, make it clear we’ve still got a way to go.