Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Tiny Kitchen

Of the hundreds of columns and blog entries I’ve written over the past 13 years for various local papers, this is one people still ask me about, so I’m sending it along again this Christmas. It was first published in the old Noblesville Ledger in 1998.

The grandchildren mentioned in the story are nearly all adults now. Sam teaches school in inner-city Washington D.C., Joe is a Junior at UCon, Rachel has graduated from Miami of Ohio and works in Cincinnati, Laura is a high school senior at an American school in Uruguay, Cal is a college senior who will heading to Japan for his last year, Jack is a flourishing journalism student who spent part of last summer traveling and writing in China, the Sally, who was 4 when this was originally written just danced of the Arabian in the Nutcracker and will get her driver’s license soon.

We no longer have Christmas in the house mentioned in this story. The grandparents are already in Florida.

The Tiny Kitchen

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

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

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

It is most like this in late afternoon. There is a roast packed with spices sizzling in the oven, things steaming on the stove and 8 or 10 of us wedged in there elbow to elbow, nibbling on nuts and chips, each of us with a beer or martini. Children push their way through the legs, looking for a mother or father or cookie or cracker, or they push on to the back room where pies and Christmas cookies sit on the washer and dryer, waiting for desert.

There were years when our babies were breast-fed and burped and cradled to sleep in this crowded, hot, tiny kitchen filled with the smells of pine needles, coffee, leg of lamb and boiling potatoes, where middle-aged brothers and sisters catch up on another intervening year. We always hoped and prayed the babies would sleep through dinner. But I think our “baby” years are behinds us all and a couple of those babies who once fell asleep over their mother’s shoulder beside the warm stove are nearly as tall as the shortest of their aunts.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

In The Shadow of The Courthouse

On one of the last warm days of autumn I’m at the stop light at 8th and Logan when I see him coming up the sidewalk from the county parking lot. He’s maybe 25 with freshly cut shaggy blonde hair, a deep indigo tattoo on his arm and a piercing on his lower lip. There’s a chain from his belt to a black leather wallet tucked in his back pocket. His tight, ill-fitting clothes look borrowed or found in the back of the closet, maybe leftover from graduation or a wedding. He enters the cross walk distracted, alternately and warily eyeing a legal-sized document in his hand and the Judicial Center.

He’s just one in the cast of characters on the courthouse square on any given day. As people head to offices or courtrooms, you never get more than a glimpse at their story or mission.

There is an array of lawyers passing on the sidewalk, some familiar, some unknown. I see two of Noblesville’s well-established attorneys on the same day. Jack Hittle ambles along beneath the shadow of the courthouse, bolt upright wearing a tweed driving cap. He sees my red van and offers a stiff wave as I pass. Steve Holt turns the corner of 10th and Conner in a navy blue suite with a clutch of files under his arm.

At lunchtime a scrum of B-team attorneys wait at the crosswalk. I’ve seen this group in the Hamilton or Asian Grill. A couple dominate the conversation while a young one sits with arms crossed at the edge of the action scanning the room and the faces at his table, looking lost.

You normally don’t see judges. They park underground beneath the Judicial Center. But during the lunch hour Judge Pflegging might round a corner plodding down the sidewalk in running shoes and shorts, jogging his lunch hour away. Sitting with my lunchtime gang at the coffee shop, I’ll often see a magistrate and a judge pass the window headed to Subway.

And the county employees: these are the people popping out of the alleyways at 7:50 each morning waiting for traffic that won’t stop to let them pass, the ones who get chased out of crosswalks by drivers talking on their cell phones, the ones being brow-beaten right now to cut spending, the ones trying to manage your child support payments, your property tax payments, your court date, your farm’s drainage issues, your child’s vaccinations and a thousand other things too numerous to mention.

I know scores of these folks by site, not name. I see them in the coffee shop in the morning, in restaurants at lunch, and passing under the Conner Street Bridge at the end of the day. Some hapless souls stand in the snow, smoking at break time, hugging themselves with a cigarette between two fingers beneath the granite overhang of the Judicial Center. Two of them power walk through Old Town neighborhoods during their lunch hour. And I note the mysterious habit of female workers: they carry multiple bags to and from work – some carrying as many of three shoulder or tote bags.

Comedy relief in this chaotic production comes in the form of the gorilla-marketing dude on the corner of 8th and Conner dancing in his dollar bill costume, carrying a sign that says, “We Buy Gold,” and the elderly man who sometimes sits on a bench with a sign that reads, “Jesus Saved Me From Cigarettes.”

Of all that I see on the courthouse square there’s one thing that sends a cold shadow across my heart: the television news trucks. Their arrival usually signals a moment of warped human perspective. If a hardworking, low-income mother isn’t getting child support payments from her child’s father, the news trucks will not arrive. If a deceased billionaire’s first wife sues his 2nd wife, they will be there with their satellite dishes extended skyward. If a Carmel High School student was being recognized by the County Commissioners for winning the National Science Fair, they won’t be there. If a Carmel High School athlete gives another student an “atomic goose” on the back of a team bus, the cameras will be there for the assault hearing, capturing the earnest words of a reporter’s dispatch from the courthouse lawn.

Look about next time you’re caught at a stoplight downtown. On any given workday you can witness suggested tragedies, hints of law enforcement, glimpses of criminal justice, and the beginning of half-told stories.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In Search of A Downtown Theater

It’s summer, 1993. Downtown Noblesville’s last theater, The Diana, has been demolished at the corner of 9th and Clinton. From her family business across the street, then Mayor, Mary Sue Rowland could view the rubble. No one did more to keep the building standing than Rowland. She understood it was a valuable economic asset, but her city council and the local business community didn’t back her up.

If community leaders could go back and undo that event, they would. In fact some folks are trying right now.

The groups trying to reestablish a theater downtown are as far flung as The Belfry Theatre, Noblesville Cultural Arts Commission, the Hamilton County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the City of Noblesville. Proposed locations are varied as well. But it’s agreed a live theater as part of a larger civic center is the vital missing element needed to help downtown realize its full potential.

According to Mark Tumey, board president of Noblesville’s Belfry Theatre, "A part of the Belfry's long range planning is the possibility of relocating to downtown Noblesville.” Tumey says that surveys of both their board and their patrons support such a move.

Tumey sees more than Belfry patrons benefiting. “The possibility of a theater with the heritage of the Belfry's located in the historic downtown area, coupled with local retailers and restaurantswould certainly present a pleasant experience to all,” Tumey says.

The Belfry’s plan is just the first of many stars that will have to align if a theater is to be built.

(At right: The old Diana Theater once stood at the corner of 9th and Clinton. Its demolition by Society Bank in 1993 was opposed by then Mayor Mary Sue Rowland, and the Noblesville Preservation Alliance. Pictured here are a group of newspaper boys standing beneath its marquee,circa 1925. The gentleman in the back, far right is John Wise, Noblesville's main newspaper delivery man from the 1890s until the Great Depression.)

Brenda Myers, Executive Director of Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau also sees economic benefit for other players downtown. “Anything that can drive evening activity to downtown is a plus. And a theater is a good way to do it.”

In fact, merchants and restaurant owners get a little giddy when they imagine several hundred Belfry Theatre goers converging on downtown for Friday and Saturday night shows and weekend afternoon matinees.

Myers’s Visitors Bureau, like an increasing number of such organizations has stepped beyond traditional tourism promotion, expanding into the realm of economic development that can bolster tourism. Partnering in the construction of a theater would be a prime example.

But the goal coalescing around a future theater isn’t simply to house the Belfry and enhance retail sales downtown. It’s hoped such a facility could solve other problems as well.

Christy Langley of City of Noblesville’s Economic Development Department notes that the annual Mayor’s Ball, and the recent Chamber of Commerce 75th Anniversary celebration had to be held in Carmel. “Noblesville needs a place for public functions like that,” Langley says.

Brenda Myers agrees, “Noblesville doesn’t have adequate banquet space. A civic center with a theater could do that.”

(below: the Wild Opera House, which once stood a half block south of the courthouse on 9th.)

Mary Sue Rowland’s interest in a downtown theater didn’t end in ‘93 with the demolition of the Diana. Now, as a member of Noblesville’s Common Council and the Cultural Arts Commission, she’s been pushing to keep a proposed theater on the City’s front burner. Working with the Arts Commission, she asked Darren Peterson of Peterson Architecture to re-imagine another Noblesville theater that was demolished decades ago; The Wild Opera House. (see photo at top of entry)

Peterson’s resulting design shows a new civic center theater in the same 9th Street location that once held the Victorian-era opera house, now a city parking lot.

Rowland has presented the plan to various city committees and it was discussed at the common council’s most recent planning retreat, making the final list of projects the council wants to pursue.

Rowland says, “The vision of the Cultural Arts Commission is a facility that could be a meeting space for 400-500 people for events like banquets and the Mayor’s Ball. And the theater might be a convertible space that could also be used as a dance floor, or winter Parks Department classes.”

Christy Langley summed up what most stakeholders in a potential theater agree upon, “We need to avoid a Palladium-styled project,” (referring to Carmel’s opulent and staggeringly expensive new facility), “and do something that’s more appropriate for Noblesville.”

But a simple reality remains; today the former locations of Noblesville’s old theaters are barren asphalt. Rebuilding a theater on one of those sites will require the commitment of many organizations all working toward the same goal.

(below: Another view of the Wild Opera House. Photo thanks to Dave Heighway.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lives In A Baseket - 2003

A vintage Contrarian from 2003:

Last winter a soot-covered bushel basket appeared on my desk. Its contents were found in the attic of a home being renovated on South 10th Street. The folks doing their work are regular readers of The Contrarian. Because I write a lot about local history, they figured I'd know what to do with them.

The rickety basket was crammed with letters, programs, invitations, and wallpaper samples. They provided a glimpse into the life of the Alexander family of Noblesville, brother Harry and Fred, and their mother, Lou, between 1888 and 1900.

Fred Alexander wrote the earliest letters home from California. In those days young men dreamed of testing themselves in the untamed West, to “grow up with the land,” as they called it. Fred wrote home to the local paper describing his 1888 train trip across the plains and through the mountains. He then often wrote home from Pasadena where he struggled to make something of himself.

Throughout last winter I read these letters late at night. I’d spread a towel across my lap and open a few of the filthy envelopes, blackened from a century of attic dry-rot and roofing debris. Time after time I’d tell my wife, Greta, “I’m going to stop with this and give it all to a proper historian like Dave Heighway.” But then, greedily, each night, I’d open a few more letters and read. It was like snooping in someone’s diary - a guilty pleasure.

Summers in the early 1890s, Fred’s brother Harry wrote to his girlfriend, a young schoolteacher named Clara. During the school year she rented a room in the Alexanders’ 10th Street house, but spent each summer with her family in Clinton, Indiana. Harry’s letters give tiny glimpses into life in Noblesville in the 1890s. He describes the flowers planted in the yard, vegetables tended in the garden, the town’s gossip, the newfangled concrete paving of a sidewalk in front of his law office downtown, and the political goings-on in the Methodist Church choir. The letters mention once significant figures in Noblesville – Meade Vestal, leader of the town’s brass band, and Thomas Boyd, then Noblesville’s big man on campus, a state senator who would stand trial in a scandalous paternity suit in 1893.

In these letters Harry can been seen carefully cultivating a relationship with Clara. Delicate hints of affection – but not too much, suggest Harry was uncertain if his interest was returned. In each letter, he calls the Alexanders’ little 10th Street house, “The Rest Cottage.”

In 1892 Fred returned from California to the little house on 10th Street, called Anderson Street in those days. He falls in love with a girl from Frankton, named Gertrude. Letters over the next year tell a tragic story.

In spring of 1893 Fred finds work in Chicago during the opening of the World’s Fair, writing faithfully to Gertrude, expressing his undying love. He finds an apartment for them and describes the people and the places in Chicago that he dreams will make up their world after they marry. He writes home before the wedding giving instructions to his brother Harry to, “rent a horse and carriage,” and “buy me a new shirt.” In autumn he comes home to ride in that carriage and wear that new shirt. But Gertrude is sick from a disease the letters never define. After the wedding they stay with her family in Frankton. Then, in early 1894, Harry, who had gone to Frankton to help Fred through the impending tragedy, writes to Clara, boarding again at the Alexanders’ house in Noblesville, opening his letter with the stark phrase, “Gertrude is gone.” Just months after the wedding, Fred’s wife had died. Amid the jumbled debris in the bushel basket I found a stack of printed flyers, announcing Gertrude’s death. In his misery, Fred returned to California, then wandered to Florida.

There were many happy things in that bushel basket – hand made invitations to the club parties that filled peoples lives before television, like Shakespeare Club meetings in which members took turns reading the works of the bard. There were colorful, intricately printed invitations to recitals where local children would sing, play piano, or recite famous speeches. There was a program from the dedication of the First Presbyterian Church, a ribbon from “Bromo-Seltzer Day” at the World’s Fair in 1893, a program from a play at famed English’s Opera House in Indianapolis, graduation announcements and calling cards left at New Year’s Day receptions.

As my winter of letter reading wore on I followed Harry’s Alexander’s summer letters to Clara. By 1896 his affections were out in the open. I followed their wedding plans and his work to make the “Rest Cottage” just right for her. That summer he traveled regularly by train between Noblesville and Clinton, staying with her family there, missing her terribly when back in Noblesville.

The last letters come from Fred, fighting in the Spanish-American war, still trying to make something of himself – this time in the military. From a small island near the Philippines, he tells of deprivations, military ineptitude, and personal disappointments.

I don’t know what became of the Alexander family. Don’t know how many children Harry and Clara had, whether Fred ever married again, or when they all said their last goodbye to the “Rest Cottage.” But I think of them every time I pass that little house on 10th Street.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blind Rage

A lot of angry Americans are heading to the polls this November. Problem is, a lot of what their anger is based upon is utterly false. Below are some of the things voters believe – and are mad as hell over, that aren’t actually true. Because The Contrarian hates the political smear emails that fill our inboxes masquerading as fact, I have footnoted this post using a wide variety of respected sources.

Claim #1: Taxes are out of control. Truth is, taxes are lower now than they’ve been in decades. In 2009 nearly half of all Americans owed no federal income tax(a). In 2008, 36% of Hoosiers paid no federal income taxes(b). In fact, federal taxes collected this year will represent the smallest portion of our overall economy since 1950. Only four developed nations collect less from their taxpayers than the U.S. They are Japan, Turkey, Mexico, and South Korea(c). And amazingly, according to a recent CBS/NY Times Poll, only 12% of Americans are aware that last year’s stimulus bill actually lowered taxes for 95% of Americans. 24% of respondents believed their taxes went up, while 53% thought they’d stayed the same.

Claim #2: I’m Mad As Hell About Health Care Reform. Let’s take these one at a time.

-“It’s a complete takeover of our healthcare system.” Not true. That would be a British or Canadian-style system, something that was never seriously considered in Congress. The government will not show up to nationalize your doctor’s office, hospital or pharmacy(a).

-Maybe you got the email titled, “Another Obama Nightmare,” claiming the reform bill included a 3% tax on all real estate transactions. No true(b).

-“Health Care Reform will raise my taxes this year.” Again, not true(c).

-“Health Care Reform will create panels to decide how much care patients get.” Not true(d). We can credit Sarah Palin in part for this mistaken belief thanks to her famous claim the bill would create “Death Panels,” which would decide who lives and dies. I received another mass email claiming that senior citizens would be forced to get euthanasia counseling every 5 years, presumably to encourage them not to request aggressive medical procedures, thereby saving the government a lot of money. Also not true (e).

-“Why should I have to pay for health care for people too lazy to get it themselves?” I received a number of anti-health reform emails painting unflattering pictures of the stereotypical “Welfare Queens” wanting free health care. So, let’s start by dispelling some myths about poverty. The majority of welfare recipients are white and either suburban or rural, not black and inner-city(f), and the average family living below the poverty line has at least one adult working full time(g). And in 2009, 60% of the 1.5 million bankruptcy’s filed in the U.S. were caused by medical bills. The majority of those filers were educated, middle class homeowners and 75% of them HAD! health insurance but reached policy payout limits(h).

Claim #3: The Federal Government Won’t Do Anything To Control Illegal Immigration. I spoke with a Tea Party activist this summer who insisted Obama and the Democrats were refusing to do anything to control illegal immigration and that crime was out of control in Arizona border towns. This echoes the sort of thing you might hear on Fox News (a). Truth is, crime in Southwestern border counties has dropped more than 30% in the past 20 years and F.B.I. statistics show the safest 4 cities in the U.S. – San Diego, El Paso, Phoenix and Austin are all in border states (b). And while the number of those trying to cross our southern border has dramatically declined due to the weak economy, the U.S. broke its record last year for the most deportations of illegals: 392,000(c), well up over G. W. Bush’s last year in office. The Department of Homeland Security also has begun auditing employers suspected of knowingly hiring Illegals,(approximately 3,200 employers) and as a result imposed more than $50 million in fines. There are also more border patrol agents currently working on the border than at any time in U.S. history (d). And the President recently sent 532 National Guard Troops to the border to help out.

I could go on, present the truth about the bailouts (polls show most Americans believe the bank bail outs happened under Obama, though they actually happened under G. W. Bush and the previous Congress(a)) the deficit, gun control, but you get the point. We’ve got a country filled with angry voters who don’t know very much about what they’re angry about.

Why do so many people believe so many things that are just plain false? I figure there are a number of reasons – and no footnotes here, this is just my opinion.

First, the quality of TV news in this nation has truly suffered as networks focus more on quarterly profits and less on meaningful reporting. And petty conflict sells. If you’re outraged about something and show up at your congressman’s town hall meeting and scream at him, the camera will be in place to follow every moment. Stand up at the same meeting and politely share thoughtful concerns, and it will not appear on the 6:00 o’clock news. Calm debate is just not interesting.

Secondly, there is a cottage industry that creates politically-charged emails that are filled with – well, there’s no other word for it; lies. This is something forces on the right have become very fond of. I say on the right because at least twice a week I get an email that attacks President Obama or the Democrats in Congress and 9 times out of 10 they turn out to be absolute lies. During the 8 years President Bush was in office, I got exactly 2 emails attacking him, and those were obvious jokes, not intended to trick anyone with a false claim.

Considering that every one of those smear campaign emails ends with a comment like, “Send this to all the people you know who are true patriots.” I’ll do the same thing to my readers for the first time.

If you know someone who loves America and wants it to be a better place but is so blind with rage they can’t tell the truth from political propaganda, please forward this to them.

Taxes 1: (a) Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research organization. (c) The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization. (c) Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.

Health Care 2: (a) CBS News Healthwatch (b) 3% Real Estate Tax: (c) Fox News, The Associated Press. (d) Associated Press. (e) (f) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and, (g) Bureau of Labor Statistics, (h) CNN Health:

Immigration 3: (a) (b) FBI Statistics , The New Yorker. (c) Department of Homeland Security, (d) The Arizona Republic

Bank Bailouts: (a)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Desperately Seeking Atticus Finch

If Americans ever needed Atticus Finch, we need him now.

My favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird, in large part because of the main character, Atticus Finch. Amid the racially charged populism in his small fictional town of Maycomb, he remained a stoic reminder of the values we claim to believe in. As his friends and neighbors struggled with their religious and secular predjudices, Atticus stood firm for both Christian and American values, eventually becoming the subject of scorn.

I search for that kind of quiet wisdom in our nation’s most contentious debates, and seldom find it. We live in an era when chest-beating demmogogues get all the attention and quiet voices of reason are ignored. Scream and pound your fist at a town hall meeting and the cameras will capture every moment. Quietly stand for what’s right, and you’re invisible.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what Atticus Finch would make of the debate over a proposed mosque 2 blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks.

In the novel, Atticus didn’t lecture much, but in contentious moments offered soft-spoken lessons in human decency to his two young children. What would he tell his children if they expressed sympathy for the recent protest signs against the mosque that read, “All I need to know about Islam I learned on September 11th”?

He might sit that little boy and little girl down and tell them that you can’t judge the world’s 1 billion Muslims by the actions of a handful of men. Judging all people of a particular religion, color, or ethnicity by the actions of a few is the definition of bigotry.

If Atticus were around to watch a recent discussion on FOX News, what would he think of Newt Gingrich’s comments?

"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington," Gingrich pronounced, adding, “[and] we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor."

I suspect Atticus would calmly shake his head in dismay at the ways demagogues manipulate history. It was the organized national policies of the Japanese when they attacked Pear Harbor and the German Nazis when they persecuted the European Jews, not rogue elements within those countries. He would recognize that the only way the analogy works is to first believe that an entire religion and everyone who follows it attacked us.

What of the frequently heard observation, “Well, a Muslim country like Saudi Arabia would never allow the construction of a Christian Church?” Atticus would likely tell his children, “America doesn’t measure itself against a repressive, religious monarchy.”

And what would he make of the claim that a mosque 2 blocks from ground zero would be disrespectful to the families who lost a loved one on 9/11? My guess is he’d ask, “Then why are new mosques being opposed in cities and towns across America from Sheboygan, Wisconson to Murfreesburo, Tennessee? Are they also too close to ground zero?”

He’d probably also consider the innocent 60 America Muslims who were killed in the twin towers. What would mosque opponents say to the families of those victims? Do they grieve less than Christian or Jewish families who lost loved ones? Who is ready to tell them that a Christian Church or Jewish Synagogue nearby is fine, but a place of worship for their murdered loved ones can’t be allowed?

And what of the sex shops and strip joints just as close to ground zero as the proposed Mosque? No one is protesting those? Are we saying it’s okay to bump and grind nude for dollars near ground zero – okay to buy sex toys there, but not okay for Muslims to worship there?

And what a lost opportunity. We’ve asked the Muslim world, “When will the moderates stand up to the extremists?” Muslim moderates showed up in New York to build a peaceful place of worship and we kicked them in the teeth

Atticus would no doubt wonder all this. He understood what mob mentality, coupled with a fear of “those who are different” can do to people.

The final realization that might make Atticus sigh heavily and rub the back of his neck in worry: the same political forces opposing the mosques in Manhattan, Sheboygan, and Murfreesboro also support Arizona’s new racial profiling law, oppose affirmative action and gay rights, and routinely vote-in national leaders who upon taking office cut the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement budget.

But who am I kidding? If a modern-day Atticus Finch appeared on the streets of Manhattan to stand up to mosque opponents in defense of racial equality, religious freedom and tolerance he would be vilified just as he was in the novel. Members of the mob would concoct smear campaign mass emails linking Atticus with all that’s evil and wrong in the world. Angry talk show pundits and political opportunists would question his patriotism and religion

They would practice upon Atticus what former Clinton Administration aid Vince Foster described in his suicide note as “The politics of personal destruction.” Something that’s already been practiced upon those Americans planning the mosque

In reality, Atticus Finch was a product of fiction. That’s fitting. The voices of reason in the mosque debate seem as illusive as fiction.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How I'll Remember Anna

In my first memories of Anna she’s 7 years; a blonde child with a round face punctuated with a little v of a chin. She’s bounding through our neighborhood with her little sister, Maggie, a redheaded cherub run right off a Campbell’s Soup.

Anna’s parents were the first close friends Greta and I made as a newly married couple. The four of us partied together, dined together, were civic volunteers together and worked on our historic homes a block away from one another. And in a summer when both my wife and Anna’s mother were pregnant, we sat with them in a movie theatre when her mother went into labor with her little brother Tommy.

As she grew Anna revealed herself as smart, headstrong and intrigued by the world outside the ordinary. One night when our families were eating together she refused to touch the meat entrĂ©e proclaiming she was going to be a vegetarian. Her father pointed out that she didn’t much like vegetables, but she couldn’t be moved.

That was Anna.

During her parent’s divorce she and I locked heads time and again, never more so than the day friends helped my family move to a new home a block down the street from the old one. Anna was 13. Eating pizza in our new kitchen at the end of the day’s work someone commented about how clever Anna was. She chose to prove it by listing her insights into her parent’s divorce. My heart ached knowing this was hurting her father, who sat silently nearby. So I attempted to argue her into silence. A mistake.

When she finally insisted she was as smart as any adult because she had seen what was happening between her parents, I shot back, “Yes, but you weren’t smart enough to know not to talk about it out loud in front of this crowd.”

That silenced the room and silenced Anna.

In the years that followed - whether at a cookout at her father’s new house or the wedding night I was the best man at her father’s 2nd marriage, there was coolness between Anna and I born of that hurtful argument.

As she grew into a woman I barely noticed, wrapped up in my own family and with our contact fragmented by the two separate homes where she lived. At the periphery of my world she graduated from high school and went off to college, coming home once with dreadlocks (not very many pasty white girls can pull that off). She was left-of-center, making me predisposed to want to know what she was reading and listening to. We often compared notes and critiqued each other’s choices. I recall us laughing once about the little boy in the movie, “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” who claimed his mother had “R. U. N. N. O. F. T.’d.”

As a young woman in her early 20s, she came home from college with breast cancer. And it was only then that I realized the kind of woman that little girl had become. She greeted everyone with a beaming smile and electric blue eyes. The hard edges of her opinions polished and softened. They were still there, but no longer a constant challenge to the listener. Because she worked at Smith’s Jewelry store that was next door to the coffee shop which was my home away from home, we spoke often.

Chemo gave her a baldhead like mine and I teased her about stealing my haircut. She eventually beat breast cancer with dogged determination and uncommon grace.

Sometime after her hair returned, we sat with a few other folks over lunch at the coffee shop. As others returned to work, we eventually found ourselves the last two sitting on the big green couches. We reminisced about that distant world where her parents were close friends with Greta and me and the children from both families played in the same neighborhood.

Out of the blue she said, “I’ve often thought of you as a sorta second father . . . this other male voice of moral direction in my life.”

I was dumbfounded. If I’d been asked to list ten things she thought of me, that wouldn’t have been one of them.

Eventually the cancer came back. It wasn’t stronger than her high wattage smile or strong enough to overpower her whit and grace, but it slowly took everything else.

Knowing she needed company, my wife invited her for lunch one day this summer. I drove home from the office, not having seen Anna in a couple months. To find her pale and using a walker took my breath away. We all sat on the brick patio beneath the wisteria on a warm summer afternoon talking.

We reminisced about years gone by, conflict and kindness among family and friends as our cat wound its way between her feet and another young friend’s baby crawled in the grass nearby.

A few weeks later the walker was joined by a wheelchair.

While lunching downtown a month ago I bumped into her mother. She told me the high threshold at her backdoor prevented Anna from getting her wheelchair onto the backyard deck. On my way back to the office I popped home to get a hammer and crow bar and drove the two blocks over to her mothers house.

Coming through the back screen door I found Anna in a bed in the middle of the living room, watching the HBO series Six Feet Under on DVD. I bent down and hugged her, saying that it was my favorite television drama of all time. As I pried the threshold from the back door jamb I told her the show was hard to watch back to back on DVD – too depressing to watch more than a couple episodes at a time. She craned her neck back over her pillow and gave me a mystified smile. “Why can’t you watch more than a couple episodes?”

I shrugged my shoulders without saying anything. Couldn’t bring myself to say it’s because the show is about death and a couple hours in one sitting was about all I could take. That she didn’t get the death connection but was fascinated by the writing and the characters said a lot about Anna.

On the day Anna died in that bed in that room in her mother’s house, her father called and asked us to come over for a beer. Greta and I went and stood on the back deck and laughed and cried with the family and an assortment of old friends. At one point a hot air balloon appeared between the trees at the end of the street just long enough for me to snap its picture with my phone.

About that time, inside the house, someone turned on the stereo to the “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” soundtrack. The familiar picking intro to “A Man of Constant Sorrow,” filled the air. And I thought of the woman from the film who had, “R. U. N. N. O. F. T.’d.”

That’s how I’ll remember Anna.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Comcast: Don't let the door bump your ass on your way out!

How could a company as inept as Comcast continue to grow? Well, I’m finished trying to figure that out. The Meyer family will soon pull the plug on our cable and move to another carrier.

The last straw? When I started having trouble sending and receiving emails from my Comcast account. In mid-July their “help center” said I would get a call from an IT expert within about 3 days. On the 4th day I called again and asked why no one had called me. “(irritated sigh) Sir, these things take time. You’ll get your call.”

That’s par for the course with Comcast.

When Comcast, by some freak upending of the laws of free enterprise bought Insight in the spring of 2008, I panicked. All my real estate marketing listed an “” address. “Don’t worry,” a Comcast employee cheerfully told me, “the old address will be active for a year.”

Thirty days later my Insight account was locked and I was forced to transfer to a address. I complained to customer service. “A year?” the voice on the other end laughed, “nobody here would have told you that.”

That’s when I should have cancelled my service. But I was caught in the whirlwind of a busy life and couldn’t bother reconstructing TV and Internet service and all my marketing materials at once.

Then came the pixilated TV picture.

A technician came and replaced all our coaxial connectors. I wanted a HDMI cable run through the crawl space between a computer and TV. He told me to buy my own cable (sounds reasonable), run it through the crawl space (I can do that) and he’d return to hook it up.

He gave me his cell number and told me to call when I was done. Then he showed me a small, high-tech device and said with a flourish of importance, “And when I come back, I’ll bring you one of these, the latest digital tuner from Comcast. Half the size of the old one.”

I ran the cable, called the tech guy and left a voice mail. He didn’t call back. I called everyday for 5 business days. No response.

On the 6th day I called Comcast “customer service” (an apparent oxymoron) and was told to go to the Comcast store to pick up a digital box.

The Comcast store is where dreams go to die. Every customer in line is pissed-off, as is everyone behind the counter. A grumpy employee pushed a massive, clunky digital box across the counter. It looked like an early 1980s VCR.

“No, no, no, I said gently, “I want one of those new, small digital boxes.”

“What?” she sneered at me, shaking her head. “Nobody has those boxes yet. I haven’t even seen one.”

I looked over her shoulder, through the chicken-wire glass to the warehouse beyond. Technicians where loading Comcast trucks with equipment. “Look,” I pointed, “I live two miles from here. The guy who came to my house must have loaded his truck here. You must have those boxes.”

Her lips tightened like she was taking a drag on an invisible cigarette. She abruptly pushed the clunky box a couple inches closer to me and barked, “Do you want the box or not?”

I took the box. I just wanted to solve the problem and move on.

When Comcast bought Insight my bill increased by more than 30%. I called to complain. A customer service rep said, “Oh, somehow your service was transferred from Insight ala cart. We can put it in a package and save you money.” Great. My bill went back to just slightly above where it was with Insight.

Six months later it went back up 30%. I called to complain and was told my introductory rate had expired. I explained what the employee told me 6 months earlier. “Sir, there was never anything wrong with the billing. You were simply given a temporary introductory rate in response to your complaint.” I complained until he lowered my rate again. I soon discovered about 20 channels had disappeared from my service. Six months later my bill went back up again.

A month ago ¾ of the channels disappeared from any TV in our house without a digital box. I called and was told we now need a box for every TV. They would give us 2 for free. My wife picked them up and upon returning commented on what a depressing and negative place the Comcast store is. “Everyone there is angry.”

“Tell me something I don’t already know.”

On a recent Friday evening I tried to hook up those new boxes. The moment I connected one to the kitchen TV, all TVs in the house lost their signal and our Internet went down. I called Comcast and was told there was a system outage in our neighborhood. Amazing coincidence.

I finally got 1 box working. I called to get help with the other box. After 20 useless minutes talking to technical support I gave up. That TV remains useless.

And have you seen their commercials? The grainy images of a person maneuvering around an electronic maze while rapping in a monotone? These may be the worst commercials ever produced in advertising history.

How could a company that’s so utterly inept, who routinely misleads their customers, who provides such spotty, sloppy, hostile service be so successful? Comcast just bought NBC Universal for crying out loud. Is this final proof that the best man doesn’t win?

Last week while vacationing on the beach in South Carolina, I came into the house dripping wet from swimming and heard my cell phone ring. It was Comcast. In a foreign accent so thick I could barely understand, a woman (I think) explained that she was calling to help fix my email problems.

The call that was supposed to come in 3 days had taken 3 weeks. It was way too late. I’d already set up a new email account with another provider and begun editing all my marketing materials.

“I’m kinda busy right now,” I told her. “You’ll have to call me back later?”

If you know someone who wants to receive The Contrarian columns, reply to this email and include their email address. © 2010 by Kurt Meyer

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Technology's Feast & Famine

Meeting recently with a 26-year-old first time homebuyer to write an offer on a house, I suggested we try to imagine the sellers’ motivations. My buyer quickly responded, “Oh, I know their motivations.”

“How so?” I asked.

“I pulled up their property tax records from the county web site and got their names and new mailing address. I drove by that new address. It’s a bigger and more expensive house than the one they’re selling. Then I went to Facebook and typed in their names. On the wife’s wall are photos of her pregnant and others of her holding a baby.”

My internal “creeper alert” was going off. All I could say was, “Really?” My buyer went on.

“On the husband’s Facebook wall were several comments saying he’s stressed about making two house payments. So they probably moved because they needed more room for their growing family, and they’re financially strapped because they own two houses. So I’m going to low-ball them on price. I figure they’re desperate.”

He did low-ball them and they eventually accepted his price. He had never met these people, but knew very personal details about them that saved him, while costing them thousands of dollars.

Think of it as the “feast and famine effect.” Often, new technology has a way of flooding us with one kind of contact, while starving us of another. The results are sometimes regrettable.

This spring my 19-year-old college freshman told me he deactivated his Facebook account. Earlier in the school year he found himself feeling isolated and lonely and started to wonder if Facebook was part of the problem. He’d gotten a little addicted - obsessed with wondering who was online - what were they saying - did they respond to his last comment? Being able to access it on his iPhone only made things worse.

As he described this, I recalled a Saturday night when I was on my computer and saw he’d just posted a comment – at 10:00. I commented, “What kind of college student is in their dorm room on a computer at 10:00 on a Saturday night?” He replied, “Yeah, kinda pathetic.”

So one night he just closed up his computer, grabbed his favorite DVD and went over the a friends apartment and asked, “Who wants to watch a movie?” He spent the evening with friends, in-person, instead of online and noted as he walked home how different the evening would have been if he’d stayed in his room and on his computer.

So he deactivated his account and made a concerted effort to spend more time with friends. Though he had hundreds of Facebook friends, the relatively few he spends time with face-to-face made life far more rewarding.

More feast and famine.

I’ve written often over the past decade about the hidden side-effects of new technology. We think about the new thing we get when a new technology arrives in our lives, but we never think about what we lose. The reality: the time we spend doing that new thing replaces time we used to spend doing something else.

What’s ironic about online social networking is that it can choke off our face-to-face social networking. We sit inside our homes staring into our computer screens and end up truly knowing fewer people, and knowing them less well, having traded it for more access to the fleeting thoughts and personal information of many, many more people.

Of course, there’s good in the feast. That’s why we embrace it. On Facebook I’ve been connecting with people I went to high school and college with – some I haven’t seen in 20 years or more. And students from my teaching days have found me, too. In my mind they’re still 16 or 17, but through their photos I learn about their husbands and wives and children. How could that be bad?

It can be bad when you get so infatuated with the new technology that you feast on its superficial gimmick to the exclusion of existing nurturing aspects of your life.

Watch a group of teenage girls together. They are physically together, but also apart as they each stare into their cell phones, texting rapidly to someone who isn’t really there. They are with many people, and no one, both at once.

Greta and I commented on this to our 15-year-old daughter recently. This is a girl who routinely sends and receives as many as a hundred text messages a day. She offered an insightful reply: “Seems like Facebook and texting hurts friendships.”

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“I’ll have plans to meet up with somebody in the evening, but when we get together we have nothing to talk about because we’ve been texting and reading each other’s posts on Facebook all day long. We already know the latest in each other’s lives.”

And that’s what the feast and famine is all about: overfeeding on something that can’t really satisfy your appetite to the exclusion the things that really nourish. Perhaps the challenge of embracing any new technology is to balance the two.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Our Perfect Storm

The Contrarian is getting lazy. My once a week column that became a once a week blog, eventually became an every other week affair, and lately, I think I’ve been lucky to get one out every three weeks.

After 12 years and approximately 400 columns I’m always thinking of things to write about, but somehow not getting around to actually writing them.

So, here is a repeat of a vintage column that I’m still occasionally asked about. It was first published in 2003 and recounts a terrifying moment from the 4th of July that year.

Our Perfect Storm
By the Hoosier Contrarian, Kurt Meyer
July, 2003

Every parent’s worst nightmare is to lose a child. That possibility faced me this 4th of July at my in-laws’ lake cottage in Michigan. Worse still, it was a result of not only freak chance, but also my own foolish choices.

We slipped away from the dock on a sunny morning. The lake was calm. In the canoe were my two youngest, Jack, 12, his sister Sally, 8, and their 10-year-old cousin, Laura. We paddled though the shallows along the north shoreline to the swamp, a place where we’ve caught turtles for years. The water on this route is seldom over the children’s heads, so I didn’t make them wear life jackets, leaving them tucked behind our seats instead.

Paddling the length of the reedy, lily pad-dotted swamp, we caught nothing. But at the end is always the best place to hunt. It’s an opening behind shielding overgrowth where the surface of the water is choked with seaweed and moss and is shaded by a line of massive trees that hide the western sky. Countless times we’d sat silent in the middle of that space and caught turtles. But that day - no turtles. In the reeds around us, there were no chirping birds and in the lily pads, no groaning bullfrogs. Perhaps animals sense things we can’t.

Then we saw it. As if God had drawn a line across the sky separating peace from chaos, a bank of dark clouds inched over the trees in front of us. On the other side of the lake people had seen it approaching for some time. Two miles to the east, the weather siren blared, though we didn’t hear. We backed out of the marshy clearing. Jack said, “Let’s cut straight across the lake. It’ll be faster.” I foolishly said okay, thinking we’d simply paddle through some rain.

Jack and I paddled toward the center of the lake and the cottage on the far shore, the two girls sitting on cushions between us. Thirty yards from shore we left the shallows. I tossed a life jacket ahead and asked Laura to help Sally put it on. But before the jacket was buckled a powerful gust of wind hit us from behind. In one sudden burst everything changed.

With the sudden gale of wind waves grew all around us. I noticed that most boats were gone from the lake. The wind was blowing so hard I knew we’d never be able to turn the canoe around. Jack cast a worried look over his shoulder at me, then lowered his head, paddling hard. I tossed another life jacket to Laura.

By now the entire sky was dark, rain was pounding, thunder bellowed and lightening flickered. Growing waves rolled over the edge of the canoe. Repeatedly I dug my paddle into the water to straighten us toward shore, perpendicular to the waves. But the wind had other ideas, continually driving us sideways. I was scared, but told the kids we’d be fine.

Little more than a minute ago all was calm. I’d never seen anything like it before, or since.

Before Laura could get the life jacket buckled, a huge wave crashed into the side of the canoe. I leaned desperately to counter it, but in one of those sickening slow motion moments I saw the children turn to me in unison with terrified expressions.

And in that moment, we all went under.

On shore, my wife Greta watched this all through her mother’s bird watching binoculars. She called 911 and her family frantically searched for a way to help us. But how? We were so far out. And should they send more people into danger?

I came up on one side of the canoe and all three children popped up on the other. “Hang on,” I called, and each child reached out and gripped the rib running down the center of the overturned canoe. Laura’s life jacket was wedged under her arm. Jack and I had none. I reached under the canoe and located the other two jackets thankfully still wedged behind the seat. I threw one to Jack. But we couldn’t put them on. The waves were slamming into my back and then hitting the children in the face, pitching us up and then down, swamping us over and over. I was terrified that one of them would let go and then be driven below the surface. I thought of diving under and righting the canoe, but the waves were so violent they’d just tip it again, and maybe I’d lose a child in the process. So we hung on.

As we were tossed, air was being driven from under the canoe; it was sinking, along with my hopes. The children kept looking into my face for answers, but I had none beyond, “It’ll be alright, just hang on and we’ll get pushed to shore.” But the truth was I wasn’t sure we’d make it that far. From gripped Sally’s arm from time to time telling her, “Just hang on. We’ll be all right.”

Two white speedboats appeared, circling near us – the only visible boats on the lake. The children screamed out and I waved a paddle in the air, but amid the sheets of rain and the valleys of waves, they didn’t see or hear us. I tried to imagine what we’d do once the canoe went down completely – clutch our life jackets and hope we could swim to shore? It seemed like a long shot.

Than, as a wave lifted us high, I saw a pontoon boat over Jack’s shoulder. Behind the wheel of his rickety pontoon boat was my 80-year-old father-in-law, Huvie (pronounced like “movie”). Crouched low on the deck were my brothers-in-law, Mike and Kirk. They drew close enough to grip the end of my outstretched paddled and stayed close long enough for me to push the closest child, Jack, into the arms of an uncle. The wind and waves drove the boat away. Sally screamed, thinking she was being left. I feared she’d lunge from the sinking canoe toward the pontoon, but Laura gripped her arm and held her in place

I inched my way to Sally as Huvie approached again. I grabbed one arm and forced her outward. An uncle plucked her from the water, and then Laura, and then finally, me.

Even the pontoon boat was unsteady in the waves. We lay flat on the deck, and Huvie steered us to shore, to a yard full of terrified family members.

I think it was the closest I’ve ever come to death. But that can seem meaningless when you have children. What nags at me still is the thought of my foolish decisions and then the feeling of powerlessness with those three children looking desperately back at me as they gulped water and bobbed in the waves.

The children who were in that canoe with me that day are all teenagers now. Jack is 19, will be a sophomore at Ball State this fall, and just got back from 6 weeks in China. Laura will be a high school senior at the American School in Uruguay next year and is at acting camp this summer at Vassar College in New York. Sally will be a sophomore next year, is getting ready for Driver’s Ed.

Sally and Jack and our immediate family canoed down White River today. Other than the heat, the weather was fine.

If you know someone who wants to receive The Contrarian columns, reply to this email and include their email address. © 2010 by Kurt Meyer

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Selling Inexpensive Homes Can Be Valuable

The real estate business can be odd. We Realtors breeze into the lives our clients, get to know their kids, hear about their jobs, their commute, the marriage or birth or divorce that prompted the move, and sit at their kitchen tables while their cat or dog or baby sniffs or claws or pulls themselves up on our pant leg. And we lead them through the often-emotional journey of buying or selling a house, a process that usually reveals their hopes and dreams for their family.

And after a few weeks or a few months the job is done, we shake hands at the end of a closing and we breeze out of their lives and into someone else’s.

I’ve been fortunate recently to work with a couple buyers looking at expensive homes. One family settled on a $500,000 home while another client has looked at 2 houses priced over $1 million. These homes have 3-4 car garages, 5-6 bedrooms, at least three and a half baths, hardwood floors, granite countertops, tiled & marble baths, basement wet bars, theater rooms, and climate controlled wine cellars.

But as enjoyable (and profitable) as it might be to sell those big dollar homes, some of my most rewarding experiences in real estate have come from helping people buy very inexpensive homes.

My favorite sale was to a 30-something woman I’ll call Shelly.

One day at the office doing what we call floor duty – answering the phones when people call about a house. Shelly walked in looking a mixture of weary and timid. Once she sat down she said simply, “I want a house.”

We chatted about what she wanted. Shelly said she worked as a waitress in a high-end restaurant, had just left a bad marriage and was hoping to buy a place for herself and her two daughters. She described the crummy, poorly maintained rental she was living in and said, “I want something better for my girls. They shouldn’t have to live like this.”

The human side of me wanted to help her. The professional side of me understood how waitresses and bartenders often handle their money. Many claim their paychecks on their taxes but hide the cash tips from the IRS. If Shelly’s claimed income wasn’t high enough, she wouldn’t be able to buy a house.

I took her across the hall and sat her down with our in-house lender and discovered that was exactly the case. If she’d claimed all she actually earned, she would have qualified. But with the cash tips hidden, she didn’t qualify.

So on the back of an envelope the lender and I made a list of the things she needed to do in the next year to put herself in a position to buy a house. I asked for her phone number so I could check her progress, but as she left, defeated, she said, “Oh, I’ll just call you once I get this figured out.”

I was certain I’d never hear from her again.

A year later I had completely forgotten about Shelly. But one day our receptionist buzzed in to my office, “Kurt, you have a visitor in the lobby

As I came down the hallway I saw Shelly standing at the receptionist’s desk with a tattered envelope in her hand. After we said hello she handed me the envelope and said, “I did everything you told me to do. Can I have a house now?”

I looked at the envelope in disbelief. My handwritten notes from a year before were faded, perhaps bleached by the sun during weeks or months on the dashboard of a car. Alongside each line item there was a checkmark. A half a coffee-cup ring ran along one edge and what looked like food stains were splattered near the top. On one corner was a hastily scribbled phone number labeled, “Credit Bureau.” In the blank space at the bottom she’d made a wish list describing her dream house; “3 bedrooms, at least one and half baths, a good roof, a quiet street, and a yard beg enough for a dog.”

“Yeah,” I smiled at her, “you can have a house.”

What we found cost just $79,000. It was all she could afford: a small, modest pre-fab ranch on a quiet street with a good roof and a yard big enough for a dog. It had plastic woodwork, dated, though clean carpet, low ceilings, paneling, and no garage. Everything was well maintained and in proper working order. Both daughters got their own bedroom and a new dog got a yard.

At the closing, Shelly was certainly happier than I was, but I ran a close 2nd.

If I’d had my wits about me I’d have kept that envelope, framed it and hung it in my office as a reminder of how rewarding this job can be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why Arizona's New Immigration Law is Wrong

Arizona’s new immigration law is a betrayal of our Constitutional values. Let me show you by applying the “Arizona logic” to another big problem: illegal guns.

Our Constitution guarantees Americans the right bare arms. But there are so many guns in this country it’s hard to separate the legal from the illegal?

By illegal I mean guns that are being sold on the street, from criminal to criminal, often stolen from law-abiding citizens and held by people convicted of violent crimes who have no permit for those guns. This illegal trade and ownership of guns provides muscle for the illegal drug trade, nurtures gang violence, and spreads criminal activity nation wide.

It’s a problem of a scale and impact so large it touches nearly every person in America, requiring ever-higher taxes to fund law enforcement to battle it, and effecting the personal safety of people in large cities and small communities alike. I want a new law to address this chronic problem in Indiana. I hope other states will adopt it as well.

My “Arizona-style” gun law for Indiana: The police shall have the power to stop those they suspect of carrying an unregistered or stolen gun and ask them to prove that they have the right to own and carry that gun.

No sooner is my proposal signed into law, the National Rifle Association and the politicians whose campaigns they fund, go ballistic. “You’re infringing on the rights of law abiding Americans,” they protest. They demonstrate in the streets, harangue on television and radio talk shows, demonizing the law. The NRA promotes a boycott of Indiana.

I’m stunned by the opposition. I respond, “How could any law abiding citizen who wants America to be a safer place disagree with my law? If you have a right to own and carry a gun and bought it legitimately, you have nothing to be afraid off?”

“That’s not exactly true,” my opponents respond.

“Legal gun owners are going to be targeted by the police,” they say. “Any hunter with a gun rack in their truck, people coming and going from gun stores, gun shows and firing ranges, and people just legally walking around with a gun on their hip could be stopped and harassed by police.

“We do want to address the problem” my opponents insist, “but what you’re proposing infringes on the Constitutional rights of law abiding Americans. Just because you have a chronic problem that, yes, is hurting America, doesn’t mean that heavy-handed laws are the answer, especially when they betray our Constitutional values.”

Would my gun law get a lot of guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals? Probably. Should we do it? No. Because it violates the Constitution.

How is that anything like Arizona’s new law?

Our Constitution guarantees Americans the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. But there are so many illegal immigrants in this country it’s hard to separate the legal from the illegal?

Illegal immigrants flood in through our porous borders in numbers so great their presence is a problem of a scale and impact so large it touches nearly every person in America, driving down wages, burdening taxpayer-funded medical facilities, and driving up taxes to pay for public services like schools, fire and police. Arizona wanted a new law to address that chronic problem.

So their police will have the power to stop those they suspect of being an illegal immigrant and ask them to prove that they are an American.

Civil liberty groups like the ACLU and immigrant rights organizations have gone ballistic. I think the law is wrong because it infringes on the rights of legal, law abiding Americans.

Supporters of the law respond, “How could any legal citizen who wants America to be a better place disagree with Arizona’s law? If you’re an American citizen, you have nothing to be afraid off?”

That’s not entirely true.

American citizens who have dark skin or a foreign accent are going to be targeted by the police. Anyone of Latina heritage, people coming and going from ethnic groceries or restaurants, and people just legally walking around immigrant neighborhoods could be stopped and harassed by police, constantly being asked to prove their citizenship.

I do want to address the problem but the Arizona law infringes on the Constitutional rights of law abiding Americans to be free of unnecessary search and seizure. Just because you have a chronic problem that, yes, is hurting America, doesn’t mean that heavy-handed laws are the answer, especially when they betray our Constitutional values.”

Will Arizona’s new law find a lot of illegal immigrants? Yes. Should we do it? No. Because it violates the Constitution.

Our forefathers wrote a constitution not based on what was easy or expedient, but based upon what was right. Dictatorship, monarchy, and marshal law are easy. Constitutional democracy is hard. Start pulling at the thread of popular shortcuts and the whole flag could unravel.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ice Cream & China

I got home from work still deep in thought. I stepped from the garage to the yard and walked over to the garden to survey the romaine, the spinach, the early shoots of asparagus.

I dropped my briefcase in the grass and bent over to pull a weed, thinking about a phone call from earlier in the day. As I did, I heard the ice cream truck turn onto Cherry Street. The familiar blooping, doinking sound of Pop Goes The Weasel echoed among the houses.

I flinched.

That’s because for years that sound would soon be followed by the sound of kids - my kids, running and screaming for me. “Dad, can I have a dollar?’

Jack, our now 19-year-old middle child was always the most desperate. He’d appear before me in a breathless panic. “Please, please, please,” he’d whine, doing a funny little dance like he was running in place and shaking his hands as if to dry them off.

I usually handed over the dollar.

Jack would appear later with multi-colored pastel sherbet smeared around his mouth from a Teenage Mutant Turtle pop with gumball eyes.

But today no one is running for ice cream. Jack and his brother Cal are off at college and their younger sister is at track practice. The ice cream man passes by and disappears down the street. This once lucrative block is now a bust for ice cream peddlers.

I pluck my briefcase from the grass and head into the house still thinking about Jack’s phone call earlier in the day.

He said, “A professor recommended me for a trip this summer to do some writing and blogging”

“A trip where?” I ask.

“China,” he replies.

There is a long silence.

That’s a whole lot more than a dollar. A whole-lotta dollars in fact.

There’s nothing in his voice to suggest he’s doing that little ice cream dance. No hint that he’s flinging his hands about waiting for the money. His voice is cautious and apologetic. He knows he’s asking for something big, something bigger and more important than a frozen treat.

“I understand it’s a lot,” he says. “It’s okay if you say no. I’m just wondering if it’s possible.”

Yeah, it’s possible, I think to myself. But at what cost? I worry over the money. Worry that instead of working the summer to earn money for his textbooks and gas he’ll be doing something expensive. And to be honest, I lament not having him around all summer.

When Jack and his older brother Cal were small, we bought a rental property with a loan from my parents. It was to be the boy’s college fund. Once last year when Cal called from college to ask for money, he asked me, “Dad, where exactly does this money come from?”

“Remember all the years you picked up walnuts over at the rental,” I tell him, “all the times you mowed the lawn, cleaned the gutters, helped me reroof? That rental is where the money comes from.”

There was a stunned silence at the other end, though I’m sure I explained it repeatedly when he was 8, or 10, or 14 years old - when he was mad about having to go there and work. Either he forgot, or the meaning never sunk in.

A couple hours later he sent me a text message that read, “You’re so smart. Thanks for being such great parents.”

Well I had great parents, too and they made it possible for me travel abroad when I was in college. They didn’t really want to, but they did. It was one of the most valuable experiences in my life. One I’ve always wanted to provide for my own children.

And so we do provide it. Jack will go to China. The rental property works it’s financial magic once more. I guess I always knew I would say yes, but was just trying to figure out how to get there.

A few weeks after Jack’s call, Greta and I joined him in Muncie for lunch with his professors and the other students going on the trip. A Chinese family cooked a hot-pot dinner for us. We sat around a table dropping shrimp, crab, pork, green beans, cauliflower and mushrooms into a bubbling wok filled with herbs and spices, then plucked it all back out and onto our plates. It was fabulous. They talked about where they would travel over the summer, Hong Kong, Beijing, the Great Wall, and Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

Jack’s excitement is palpable. Like George Bailey pacing the train platform and lusting over travel brochures in, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jack has been chomping at the bit to get out into the world. Knowing that and being able to make it happen is gratifying. It’s harder to give than ice cream, but way more rewarding.