Tuesday, December 16, 2014

They Say Christmas Is About Jesus

On my way down Conner Street, a man standing on the corner in front of the Judicial Center was illuminated in my headlights. He held a sign that read, “Christmas is about Jesus.”

I smiled sadly. I’ve grown cynical about those trying to enforce what this time of year is “really all about.” But I also realize it’s no small matter to stand in the rain in the dark flashing a religious placard at people, so I want to think he’s sincere. Yet, what he means by “Jesus” may not be what I’m thinking of.

As I drove on, the man and his sign disappearing in the rear view mirror, I thought about the self-satisfied Christians I see around me, those who want to talk endlessly about Jesus and yet eagerly and smugly spout half-truths and myths about the poor. That hateful disconnect gnaws at me this time of year.

A lot of people want to talk about Jesus but aren’t much interested in his teachings about the poor. It’s an inconvenient truth to be glossed over while we think about redemption.

Scanning the talking heads on 24-hour news channels in recent years it was easy to find the indignant, teeth-gritting insistence that welfare recipients be drug-tested. The underlying suggestion: “They’re all lazy drug users, right? They’re not getting my money to spend on drugs!” Never mind that states that have tested found relatively few drug abusers and cost taxpayers far more than was saved by creating a bureaucracy to administer the tests.

Yet, another class of welfare recipient is let off the hook. Every time you buy food or drink in a restaurant in the greater Indianapolis area you’re paying a tax for Lucas Oil Stadium. Do we drug test the millionaires profiting from those government handouts? Jim Irsay? Andrew Luck? The Lucas family? Our farmers also take welfare checks, the checks we’ve given the clean name, “farm subsidy.” Why aren’t we drug testing all of these people? They take government handouts just as surely as welfare recipients.

We might have scared Jim Irsay straight and actually saved taxpayers some money if he were forced to reimburse us some of our tax dollars with his millions.

Funny that once somebody has money in their pocket we stop asking questions. The Jesus I read about didn’t. He started by doubting the people with money. I’m disheartened that our secular impulse to hate the poor gets disconnected from our belief that Christmas needs to be about a guy who urged us to love the poor.

Maybe it’s because most people don’t know that the average family taking government assistance has at least one adult working full time – but that job doesn’t pay enough to live on. Yet we feel free to hold their feet to the fire, casting them as lazy and suspected drug users while ignoring our farming and football welfare queens.

In the angry, carefully manufactured political emails that slither into my inbox, I still hear welfare recipients stereotyped as the black inner city welfare queen who wears a fur and drives to the grocery in her Cadillac to buy cigarettes, booze and birth control with her food stamps.

When you discover how easy it is to prove so many of these stereotypes wrong, you realize that people don’t believe it accidentally, they’re not simply mistaken, they WANT to believe these things. I guess most of the white, middle class Christians sending me these hateful emails don’t realize that the average welfare recipient isn’t black and inner city, but in fact white and rural.

Hoosier humorist Kin Hubbard once wrote, “It’s no disgrace to be poor; but it might as well be.” If Jesus was on Twitter, I bet he’d sound a lot like Kin Hubbard.

Of course most Christians care about the needy, offering assistance through their churches, Habitat for Humanity, and many, many other organizations. Still I puzzle over the anti-poor undercurrent found mostly in our political debates.

As I scan social media, I routinely find little memes like the one at right posted by good Christian folks. It’s got about it what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness;” sounds like it’s true, but it isn’t.

For over 30 years America has been redistributing wealth – from low and middle-income workers to those at the top.

Those at the top of U.S companies – who in most cases do not own the companies they work for, continue to pay themselves and their colleagues more and more and more, while whittling away at pay and benefits for those at the bottom, lobbying against unions, and against having to pay their fair share of taxes. And this is so enshrined as a supposed moral foundation, if point it out you’ll be accused of class warfare.

You can’t multiply wealth by dividing it? That’s precisely what America did in the 1950s – you know, in the “good ‘ol days,” when the wealthy paid more than 90% of their income in taxes and union membership was high. It was a time when the difference between a CEO’s income and that of an entry-level worker was much smaller than it is today. Much, much smaller.

And the economy boomed. And the middle class grew.

The author of this twisted list of 5 “truths,” and the endless number of folks who shared it on their Facebook walls must not be aware that the average welfare recipient takes welfare for a relatively short period of time and doesn’t in fact live on it their whole life. Some do, but that’s not the norm.

And the notion that half of the public believes, “they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them,” is astonishing in its arrogance. In that 50% of Americans are the elderly who spent their lives paying into social security and are now drawing it (and still paying taxes), active duty soldiers and vets getting promised pay their earned by protecting us (and still paying taxes), and people getting unemployment benefits after paying unemployment insurance taxes for years (and still paying taxes).

I was told once that figures can lie and liars can figure. It’s one of the truest things I ever heard.

When your hatred gets so strong you lump the elderly, the soldier and the laid-off worker into a bundle with the few who truly scam the system, well, you’re an overachiever, though not a very admirable one.

But, don’t forget, “Jesus is the reason for the season!”

This blind hatred of the poor is what makes me sad when people say, “Christmas is about Jesus,” because so many of them also refuse to embrace Jesus’ message about the poor, instead happy to cast the poor in the ugliest of lights, holding up the extreme worst and pretending it’s the norm.

In a graduation speech in 1978, Hoosier bard Kurt Vonnegut said, “It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with pure hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.”

It is not helping the poor that will be the end of any nation, it is hatred.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Temptations Of An Addict

I was 13 years old and raking leaves in the front yard with my father on a Sunday afternoon in late October. A man who looked to have started his day dressed for church trudged down the sidewalk with a sport coat draped over his arm, his collar open, necktie pulled loose and one tail of his shirt hung over his belt. He stopped and asked, “Do you know anywhere in this town I can get gas, even just a couple gallons to get me to my next stop?”

My dad’s shoulders slumped. He was having an internal struggle with competing motives–one selfish, one altruistic. He’d been hoarding gasoline in 5-gallon cans in the garage to protect his commute to Kokomo and he’d told no-one he had it–didn’t want others begging in just this sort of situation. But he would not leave this wayward salesman stranded. There was not a single gas station open in our town, and besides, gas was scarce. “I’ll sell you 5 gallons,” my dad said.  “Aww, Jeezus! Thank you,” the man said. They muscled a gas can into my dad’s trunk and drove off to wherever the salesman’s car and its empty tank had coasted.

When you’re raised in a country where folks feel entitled to gluttony and gross consumption–so much so that you didn’t even recognize it as a problem until a moment of depravation, you remember the scarcity. But in the years since, I’ve often felt like I was the only one who remembered.

Weeks earlier, Middle Eastern oil producing countries (OPEC) had declared an embargo on oil sales to the U.S., and there we were with our pants down, everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, driving big gas-guzzling cars. Who was tooled-up for making fuel-efficient cars? Japan. The handful of years ahead would see a painful revolution in the economy around my little town.

The once untouchable American automakers staggered and gasped for air along the ropes like an aging, overweight prizefighter in the ring with a young, smart, chin-jabbing upstart. My father’s and my brother’s jobs relied on the auto industry, as did a close aunt’s and uncle’s. Our town had a fire truck and piston ring factory, and those close relatives drove to Kokomo everyday working for Chrysler and Delco.

Some people blamed the government. Others blamed auto company bigwigs. Some blamed the unions. Nobody blamed themselves.

Because of that oil crisis and another 6 years later, the decade ahead was marked by economic, employment, financial, and daily living upheaval across the country. Everyone began driving smaller cars, dropping their ceilings and lowering the thermostat to save energy, moving closing to work to shorten their commute and taking vacations closer to home.

In my first year of college I wrote a poem for an English class. I still recall some of the lines:

If I die on foreign soil,
Will you remember me?
If I die for foreign oil,
Will you drive a mile for me?

But Reagan got elected and loved on oil producers and murderous dictators in the Middle East. In the years ahead when things got hot in Iran or Iraq, our navy reflagged oil tankers and escorted them through the Persian Gulf at the cost of tens of billions of tax dollars, masking the true cost of oil. It showed up in our taxes, but not at the pump.

And that useful time Americans spent in oil-rehab in the late ‘70s–that time spent learning to conserve and save money and clean our environment was squandered. We went back to big cars and our gluttonous habits like a heroin addict fresh from the Betty Ford Center, yet once again with a needle in his arm – the pusher soothing us that we had a right to muscle cars and big trucks–even if just for a commute. “C’mon. We’re fuckin’ Americans!”

In the years since, gas prices have soared and collapsed in irregular cycles. During the soaring we buy more fuel-efficient cars and curse the oil companies for their greed and whoever is in the White House for their incompetence. During the collapses we’re in mindless ecstasy, like a food-deprived dieter on a milk shake and french fry binge, and buy extended-cab trucks and urban assault vehicles as if there’ll be no price to pay. We’ve gone to war against dictators and crawled in bed with brutal bastards in countries with oil, claiming it’s for high-minded reasons. But somehow we seldom apply our “high-mindedness” to countries that have no oil.

Even if the average American doesn’t notice, the rest of the world does. It’s why they either blatantly hate our fucking guts, or simply don’t like us, or at best, only mistrust us, much as friends and family of addicts don’t trust them, even when they’re on the wagon. You never know when they’ll go off the rails again and start stealing and betryaing to get their fix.

And here we are again at a pivot point. Our country is producing oil at a 20-year high, natural gas at an all-time high and alternative fuels at an all-time high. The price of oil is in free fall and we just elected a new congress whose campaign funding came in barrels from energy producers.

They, and our impulses, want us to consume.

We’ve made some impressive headway in producing and using energy more wisely – in a way that could start to turn the corner on global warming and keep our current environment healthier. We’ve started to do it in a way that considers the world our kids and grandkids will inherit, as opposed to our usual, selfish, immediate reflex to go back to the way things used to be. A smart person would say of the collapse in oil prices, “I will not be taken in by this temporary reprieve. I will stay the course to a different life, free of these relentless, destructive, booms and busts.”

But what I’ve seen since that warm October day in 1973 leaves me cynical. I am not hopeful. I call myself “The Contrarian” for a reason. I would not be surprised if we leave the wind turbines to rust in the fields, bulldoze the solar panels to make way for bigger parking lots, and turn Prius drivers into the butt of our jokes (if they’re not already), and then buy even bigger, more ridiculous cars. And then of course, when prices go back up because of our staggering overuse, we’ll blame the oil companies and the government.

Couldn’t be our fault.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Worst Company In America

In case you need telling, it's Comcast.

Several years ago I got so frustrated with Comcast, I cancelled my service and got a new provider. Their customer service and corporate behavior rests smug and profitable at the bottom of the barrel.

The end of my patience with Comcast started about 5 years ago when I began having trouble sending and receiving emails from my Comcast account. In mid-July their “help center” said their corporate policy guaranteed 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.”

When Comcast, by some freak upending of the laws of free enterprise was successful enough to buy Insight in the spring of 2008, I panicked. All my real estate marketing listed an “insightbb.net” 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 comcast.net address. It destroyed years of emails I archive for business liability reasons. I complained to customer service. “A year?” the voice on the other end laughed, “Nobody here would have told you that.”

When a customer service representative calls you a liar, you know you’ve got problems.

Dishonesty toward and disrespect for it’s own customers seems to be company policy at Comcast. And right now, they’re running TV ads claiming they’re living up to “net neutrality.” Net neutrality revolves around the fear that companies like Comcast could bail on neutrality by creating Internet fast lanes for rich companies who can afford to pay for it and slow lanes for everyone else. But there’s something they’re not explaining. They’re bragging about following 2010 rules, but don’t mention their obligation to follow those rules expire in 2018, and they don’t mention what their policy will be at that point.

Oh yeah, and they don’t want to have any of that regulated by the government.

A few years back, just before my email problems, one day all my TV suddenly had pixilated screens.

I stayed home all morning waiting for a technician who eventually came and replaced all our coaxial connectors. I wanted an HDMI cable run from my computer to my cable box, to my TV. He told me to buy my own cable (sounded reasonable), run it through the crawl space (I could 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. Exasperated, I went.

The Comcast store is where dreams go to die. Every customer in line was pissed-off, as was everyone behind the counter. A tired-looking woman (sporting resting bitch-face) 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.”

Over her shoulder, through the chicken wire glass was a warehouse where 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.

Stuffed suites representing this sorry company have been in our nation’s capital lobbying congress this year, trying to get their merger with Time Warner approved. Priceless! The perhaps least ethical company in America, who treat their customers with careless contempt is trying to get bigger and more powerful and they need some help from our congress – you know, our current congress who currently have an 11% approval rating?

What could possibly go wrong?

A month after my 20 channels disappeared, ¾ of the remaining channels disappeared from all TVs in my house. I called and was told I now needed a new box for every TV. They would give me 2 for free, I needed to pay for any others. My ex-wife picked them up and upon returning commented on what a depressing place the Comcast store is. “Everyone there is angry!”

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

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 remained useless for weeks.

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 bought NBC Universal in 2010 for crying out loud! And they’re now trying to merge with Time Warner! Is this final proof that the best man doesn’t win?

I eventually did get that call back about my email problem – the call I was originally waiting for. 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.

First time I wrote about my horrible experiences with Comcast several years ago, I actually got a call from one of their public relations representatives who had seen the post. She called to offer an apology from the company. “I’ve forwarded your email to corporate leaders,” she told me sympathetically. “Someone will be contacting you soon to try to make amends for your unfortunate experiences.” She was actually quite nice. She sounded apologetic and sincere. Perhaps they would give me a year of free service! Maybe a refund for past years of poor service!

As you might expect, no one from Comcast ever contacted me, except to tell me when my bill was due.

At least they’re consistent.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Selling Fear In The Time of Ebola

Panic and conspiracy theories can do dangerous things.

Mid-August, in Liberia, a mob stormed a clinic, attacking aid workers, freeing Ebola patients and stealing contaminated equipment. The mob’s trigger appeared to be mistrust of westerners and upside down conspiracy theory logic that noted wherever there were foreign aid workers, there was also Ebola, so the aid workers must be spreading it on purpose.
While all our news channels seem to be peddling panic, nobody sells it as cynically and willfully as Fox News.

Often humor says it best.
For a dose of fear mongering, misinformation and manipulation regarding Ebola, tune into Fox. It’s a prescription for intellectual poison: a 3-ring circus staring everybody willing to twist public safety to their own profit; politicians looking to demonize their opponents, pundits and anchors hoping to advance their careers, conspiracy theorists theorizing, and xenophobes selling fear of foreigners.

What’s the reality of the Ebola threat? The best data I’ve found says your chances of getting Ebola in America are 1 in 13.3 million. That means you have a 1,428 times greater chance of dying in a car accident, a 3.4 times greater chance of being killed by a shark and are more likely to be killed by lightening.

But like Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb & Dumber when told by his love interest that there was a 1 in a million chance she’d go out with him, America seems to be saying, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”

How has our health care system handled the disease? Other than one stumble in one hospital, we’ve done remarkably well. After that initial stumble in Texas, we’ve managed to quickly find, isolate, and treat the tiny handful of people who have had the disease on our shores. And last Sunday’s 60 Minutes piece about the nurses and doctors at that Texas hospital painted a very different picture of that first Ebola death than the story of ineptitude we’d heard in the media thus far. Rather than ineptitude, it looked heroic. What’s more, it’s overwhelmingly our doctors, our professional medical folks, and our money on the front lines in Africa fighting the disease.

As prime international destinations go, when it comes to fighting Ebola, the U.S. is pretty much #1 in the world and Americans are safe.

But you’d never know that listening to 24 hour news channels, especially Fox, where fear-mongering was a fixture long before the first Ebola case in the U.S.

New York Magazine online documented this recently, posting videos of prime examples. The sorry highlights include Ashleigh Banfield breathlessly comparing Ebola with the terror/military group ISIS and asking a medical expert if both threats should be treated with the same strategy. The guest was stunned by the stupidity of the question. But Banfield pushed on, “All ISIS would need to do is send a few of its suicide killers into an Ebola affected zone and then get them onto mass transit [in America].” The doctor told her she was wrong.

I wish I could say that was an isolated case of bad reporting, but on Fox, it’s virtually the norm, a constant stoking of fear and mistrust, and of course there’s the relentless argument: the Ebola threat to Americans was caused by President Obama’s weak leadership and a bumbling federal government. GOP house and senate members line up to insist that our borders be closed (likely not doable), that direct flights from affected African countries be banned (no such flights currently exist) and to make dramatic conspiracy theory accusation that truly veer from misinformation into lala land.

There was one moment of wisdom and calm from Fox’s Shep Smith who put the Ebola issue in brilliant, level-headed perspective. But that was an anomaly.

On Fox News Radio’s John Gibson Show, psychiatrist Keith Ablow, a member of Fox News’ “Medical A-Team” claimed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Obama affiliates himself with Africa, much more so than he thinks of himself as the American president and therefore he is allowing Ebola into our country to purposefully kill Americas.

Couple that with conservative radio nut-jobs who have claimed Obama is letting Ebola in to kill white American.

I blows the mind to stop and think about the times we live in. We’re so used to hearing loonies insist our president wasn’t born in America, that he’s a Muslim who doesn’t actually practice the Christian religion of the church denomination he’s attended his entire life, that he doesn’t really love America or want to protect our troops, that it’s actually not shocking to hear a supposed medical expert claim that, yes, now, our president actually wants to kill Americans.

For mainstream politicians, Rand Paul wins the award for making groundless, dumb accusations, suggesting on a number of shows that the government is purposefully misleading the public about the danger of the Ebola virus. When asked to present evidence or give examples, he offers none.

And this guy wants to be president.

At a time when our media and our leaders should be trying to calm the public and share the facts, why are Fox news and the likes of presidential wannabe Rand Paul urging panic and mistrust? In earlier generations when powerful figures in tense moments used their positions to sell fear it led us to deprive people of their civil rights – whether it was with Japanese interment camps or communist witch hunts or illegal wire taps on Vietnam War protesters.

In Africa, Ebola panic and conspiracy theories are born of poverty, superstition and poor education and when it plays out in the streets it’s dirty, and ugly and dangerous. In America, Ebola panic and conspiracy theories are born of greed, power lust and partisanship and when it plays out on the airwaves it is clean, and groomed and dangerous.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

West by Midwest: they smoke weed out there!

Last week, sipping a gin and tonic at the Denver airport at the end of my 2nd visit in a year, I found myself pondering other recent trips out west, Seattle and Portland included and considering the cultural differences between here and the Midwest.

Denver's capital building from my son Jack's apartment building.
To start with, yes, it’s true, just about anywhere you go in Denver the earthy, sweet aroma of marijuana greets you. Standing in line at the Great American Beer Fest I smelled weed. Sitting in my son’s kitchen in Capital Hill the smell rolled in the window regularly. Standing outside my other son, Sean’s place a block away, weed fumes waft down the street and up the stairwell. It followed me everywhere I went.

I started to think Willie Nelson was stalking me.

But the unique in these northwestern places goes beyond being on the cutting edge of legalized pot. There’s an easy-going “chill” to these cities that make them comfy places. Crowds at concerts and festivals strike me as more gracious and tolerant. Folks on the street are relaxed and smiling. They’ve got a refreshing “can-do” and “live and let live” way about them.

We like to think that technology is collapsing the borders between us, and I think it clearly is.

On a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show, a guest made a joke about the south being backward and hostile to Bill’s aggressive liberal politics. Maher was quick to disagree, noting that every urban area he performs in across the America is as plugged in and worldly as any other, with universities, ethnic restaurants, food co-ops, a broad base of religious faiths and strong appreciation for the arts.

My son Sean during our hiking trip last week.
My own little corner of Indiana has its Thai restaurants, brewery tasting rooms, organic food producers, Trader Joe's, immigrants, vegans and hipsters. About any musical artist you want to see performs here. There's opera, orchestra and professional soccer. I’ve seen just as many hipsters in Indy’s Fountain Square as I found in any other vibrant inner city neighborhood in Portland, Seattle, or Denver. And Indy has been winning recognition lately as an increasingly bike friendly town.

But there are differences.

Mid-westerners in general, and Hoosiers in particular, have what I impatiently call a “can’t-do spirit.” Propose a new idea and somebody’s quick to list all the reasons why it won’t work.

It’s a suffocating cultural reflex.

It’s very Midwestern and so very Hoosier. Got a new idea? “Lemme tell you why it won’t work.” You’ll hear Garrison Keillor describe the characters in the fictitious Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon that way. Hoosier politicians specialize in it.

Former Indiana University economist Morton Marcus once said, “If the Garden of Eden had been placed on the banks of the Wabash, we’d still be waiting for original sin.” Hoosiers just don’t want to be first. We’ve got our rut matted down just the way we like it. I’m proud of being a Hoosier, but this nay-sayer tendency make me absolutely crazy

Folks in northwestern cities seem to have little fear of being first. Little fear of looking at the world with fresh eyes.

They like the outdoors, but instead of just saying so like most folks do here, they actually go out and use it. Hoosiers will say they long for the great outdoors of the west. I’ll ask, “Do you ever drive an hour to southern Indiana and hike in the state and national forests? Do they ever go caving down there? Ever throw a kayack in our beautiful local river?” I often get blank stares in response.

Northwesterners love live music, and instead of simply buying their annual tickets to Jimmy Buffet, Dave Matthews and Zack Brown Band, they actually go out to hear live music on a regular basis –small acts in small venues are just fine. That seeds a local musician culture. If you don't support live music at the grassroots, you don't get a thriving local musician culture. Northwesterners seem more interested in social justice, concerned to the point of taking action over whether those with less are cared for. They celebrate the odd, the weird, the unusual, rather than recoiling from it. These are the places that loved Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut while folks in Indiana scratched their heads at his unique, sometime controversial style. Mass transit makes perfect sense to those in the urban west. That’s why it’s so easy to move around their cities. Here, Indy has been wringing its hands for a couple decades about light rail. We just can’t make ourselves pull the trigger. While we grumble about why it won’t work, northwestern cities go ahead and build it.

The view hiking near Estes last week.
True, those cities have their own, over the top weirdness. There’s the Portland movements to sorta legalize homelessness, “Ya know, why can’t these folks sleep outside in public places if they want to? Isn’t it their right?” I’m thinking, “My God! Shouldn’t you at least start by trying to find them a home?” And the near flat-earth insistence that Portland’s water not be fluoridated. And my Seattle friends joke, "People out here get pissed if you're smoking a cigarette in public, but not if you're smoking week."

These northwestern places are prone to such first world luxuries. Folks in third world countries wouldn’t understand. You first have to be spoiled before you can start fearing your luxuries with “fresh eyes.”

But these western places are mostly different in admirable ways.

And along with their “can-do” spirit, they have a “live and let live spirit.” That’s why legalized marijuana is taking hold out west along with gay marriage and doctor assisted suicide.

So I sit in the Denver airport preparing to head home to the Hoosier state where politicians say the want to get government off our backs but at the same time are so damn eager to dictate the terms of our private lives. And progressive change? I won't be expecting that anytime soon. My local and state leaders are likely ready with a list of reasons why change won’t work.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

The Empty Nester

July 30, 2014

When I was first restoring this house it was full of small kids and life was a whirlwind.

I was a school teacher by day, sold real estate evenings and weekends, was president of a local not-for-profit, had a weekly column in the local paper, was assistant coach of one of the kid’s basketball teams, and was editing and trying to publish a book.

And, yeah, I was restoring this house and was father to small children. Children with soccer, basketball and baseball games, with Cub Scout  & Brownie meetings and science projects and papers they forgot to start writing until the night before they were due.

Each morning at 6:00 I was shot out of a cannon and I ran as fast as I could all day until I dove back into bed. In the morning, the alarm clock lit the cannon fuse again.

During this time, my father, who wasn’t very good at commiserating or sharing emotionally expressive thoughts said, “You remind me of myself when I was your age. I had every unpaid job in town.” Unfortunately I have inherited my father’s habit of offering solace that also sounds like an insult.

My older workaholic sister, Jama shared with me something our dad told her, “We make our own hell. Nobody does it to us.” Our dad told her that.

Once during those years my sister Cindy and her husband Jeff visited from Florida. We were up late – my ex-wife and Cindy on the patio talking while Jeff and I played endless games of H.O.R.S.E and drank beer in the driveway. A child came out in their sleeper suit, awoken by the relentless thump of the basketball. Jeff, who also wasn’t very good at sharing emotionally expressive thoughts, paused mid shot, looked past the ball toward the house and yard, wife and child and said, “You’re a lucky man. You’ve made a really good life.”

Yes I did. And I still do. I’m a very fortunate person.

Though I long-ago freed myself of that manic work schedule, this year I’ve found myself back at a workaholic work day at the very time the children are grown and gone. It should be easier. But even that complaint is a fortunate man’s observation: I’m making good money and publishing a book.

Never the less, I’m exhausted, it is Wednesday and I need a nap.

It is over three years now since I first packed my bags and left this house, 18 months since I kept the house in the divorce, a year since all the boys left in a single autumn and their sister went off to college and nine months since a single soul-numbing weekend in which my brother-in-law, Jeff took his own life on a Friday night and my father died on Sunday. This year has been the busiest of my twenty years of real estate. I have worked insane hours. The relaunch of a book I wrote will take place this coming weekend. In a couple days my house will fill with guests and I will be the center of attention and responsibility.

Lunch at the coffee shop with Peggy and Kelli is done and I desperately need that nap. I drive home and climb the stairs.

Though it’s the middle of the day, I make my rounds. I walk the L-shaped hall and look into each bedroom. I started this when my kids were babies, checking to make sure they were breathing. Then, as they grew I continued my rounds each night before bed to make sure they were asleep or just to watch them a-snooze and think about the age they were and what that meant at the moment. But now each bed is empty. I’ve grown used to this. I’ve cleaned them and prepared them for my weekend guests. The kids are all gone and I am here in the house alone.

Walking to my bedroom I have the faint sense of being left behind, as if everyone else went somewhere and I was the last one left in the world we all once shared together. They, and their mother, all gone. But there’s no real emotional content behind that thought. It’s just a thought. I chose this as my way forward and I’m at peace with it. The kids left because they grew up and started their own lives. All is as it should be.

The sun is pouring through the south-facing windows. I lay down and Gracie curls in behind my knees, purring. I quickly fall into a deep sleep.

An hour later I struggle to wake from a heavy, drug-like sleep. An unseasonably cool July breeze billows the shades out from the window sashes. I’m aware of the sound of a girl giggling and boyish hearty laughter coming over the porch roof and through my bedroom window. I know those voices! It’s the ghosts of my children playing in the side yard. They are running from the sidewalk to the garage, laughing as they go, the joyous sound recedes from my bedroom, echoes hard and bright through the stair landing window, and comes again, this time muffled, from Cal’s back bedroom window down the hall. I think I smell food. Pot pies in the oven downstairs? We’ll eat dinner around the kitchen table soon!

No. That’s wrong. It’s not the sound of my children’s ghosts. It’s their echoes ­– echoes from ten or fifteen years ago that got stuck in the eves of the roof and the foundation vents. The cool breeze has blown them free to be heard again.

But no. Wait! It’s not that at all. It’s the neighbor children playing in the side yard. That’s what it is. Playing in the same place where my children played. Playing the same sorts of games.

As I work my way through this from deep sleep to full waking, I am not sad. I have few regrets. Cal is in Japan. Jack and Sean are in Denver. Sally is visiting my sister, Jama in LA. Their mother lives across town with another man and I am here in our old place. I share this room with another woman. It is all as it should be. We are all in our own good places, places we chose, and on good terms with one other.

This summer, it seems we have all arrived where we should be.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Athletic Exceptionalism

In the past couple weeks we barely digested the brutality of the Ray Rice video before Adrian Peterson’s story filled the airwaves. And by week’s end Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston was revealed as perhaps the biggest jackass in modern sports after a string of incidents – part comic, part cruel, part criminal.

NFL star Ray Rice was caught on tape slugging his fiancĂ© in the face (who went on to marry him), fellow NFL star Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse after “spanking” his 4-year-old son, and Winston, who was accused of sexual assault last year and cited this past April for stealing crab legs from a grocery store, was last week documented standing on a table on Florida State’s campus shouting vulgar obscenities at female students.

There are two ways to be outraged about these cumulative offenses – offences that add to an already long list of offences from top-shelf athletes. The first is the abuse of women and children by individual perpetrators. But the actions of the organizations charged with policing the behavior of these individuals bothers me even more.

When individuals fail us in a moment of anger or passion or vulgar stupidity, that’s one thing. When organizations that have supposedly consulted in reasoned calm and still resolved to fail us for the sake of protecting financial interests or avoiding organizational embarrassment, that’s another matter.

The child abuse charges against NFL running back, Adrian Peterson exposed the dividing forces that make it hard for organizations to take action – those defending the status quo, and the abusers. Retired NBA star Charles Barkley defended Peterson citing cultural and regional norms, saying that African Americans from the south simply spank their kids more. “Whipping – we do that all the time,” Barkley said.

When Barkley comments on social issues, he’s often like Dick Cheney commenting on national defense – they both specialize in being wrong.

When Peterson tore a branch off a tree and “spanked” his 4-year-old son, it broke the skin and injured the child’s scrotum. The debate here isn’t about spanking. It’s about child abuse.

I spanked my children, but not as a regular matter of course. Why teach children that violence is the go-to answer for a problem? Instead, I spanked them when their behavior was out of control or they’d endangered their own lives – perhaps run into the street. There would be time later for teaching moments, but at those instances I needed to dramatically get their attention in a flash. So I’m not against spanking. But if the palm of your hand on the back of a child's jeans isn’t enough, and you’re breaking branches off of trees for a weapon, and more importantly, if your child needs medical attention as a result of a spanking, then you didn’t “spank” your child, you abused them.

Debate over!

There are a lot of people who were raised in a lot of circumstances that gave them ideas about personal conduct that land them in jail. That’s not a reason not to put them in jail.

And our reactions are more than a little convoluted and contradictory.  We’re demanding legal action against guys who used violence or aggression in moments of need or anger – guys we love for the violence they use to win games for our entertainment.

But the bottom line: the NFL and NCAA have a problem on their hands and I believe it’s a problem with the athletic culture in this country. According to USA Today, since 2000 there have been 713 instances of NFL players having run-ins with the law that were more serious than minor traffic violations. For an elite, pampered class of individuals marketed as role models to kids and pitchmen in public service ads, that’s not such a great record.

We have to be a little careful in tarring all athletes over the actions of a few. I’m routinely dismayed by the media’s willingness to hold up examples of the extreme and sell it as the norm. The media sell violence, sex, and drama in much the same way Hollywood does. But the stories of top-tier athletes out of control are coming with such frequency it’s clearly more than just a few bad apples. Much as the Catholic Church had to accept that there was a systemic problem with child abuse among priests, the NFL and the NCAA need to accept they have a systemic problem with athletic exceptionalism. And they’ll have to face it and deal with it firmly and honestly, or a chunk of the public will turn their backs on these institutions, starting with the women they’ve been marketing to aggressively in recent years.

In the world of international politics, we speak of “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that America is so big and so strong and speaks with such moral authority that the rules restricting the behavior of other nations don’t apply to us. I think the same notion follows our premier athletes. They’re so big, so strong, so talented, and carry on their shoulders the hopes and dreams of so many fans, they are exceptional – the rules of social decency and criminal justice apparently don’t entirely apply to them.

If you’re like me, you routinely saw evidence of this athletic exceptionalism in high school and college – athletes given the best equipment and the most attention, parents who came for game after game and shouted with passion – but never came to the science fair, the spelling bee or parent/teacher conferences. I routinely saw athletes behave badly and pay no price, or saw higher ups cover for them. As a former teacher who had to grade athletes, I can't count the times I heard parents or coaches plead, "C'mon, he's worked so hard. Don't let one little mistake ruin everything this young man worked so hard for." In other words, don't give him the F he earned, give him a passing grade . . . so he can play ball Friday night.

Our actions show time and again what we value. The gravity that holds the rest of us to the earth does not weigh so much upon premier athletes. And I’m just cynical enough to imagine that if Ray Rice could be given no more than sensitivity training even though police had a video of him slugging his wife in the face, it’s likely the USA Today data hides the true number of incidents of abuse and misbehavior – the times an NFL player was allowed to walk without a report after telling a police officer, “Maybe you don’t know who I am . . .”

Think we don’t give preferential treatment to athletes? Next time you’re buying food or drink in the greater Indianapolis area, consider that our millionaire professional gladiators, the Colts, play in a stadium funded by taxes you’re paying on your beer, your latte, your dinner. And Jim Irsay, the owner of that team was caught last May intoxicated behind the wheel of a car filled with illegal pills and $29,000 in cash. For all my social media friends beating the drum for welfare recipients to be tested for drugs before they get their check - why don't we test Irsay and the Colts players? They take tax-payer money as certainly as any welfare recipient? 

Why don't we? Because they're "exceptional." The poor people who can't afford to attend the professional games we subsidize with our tax dollars will be tested, but not the boys at the top taking handouts. We even sanitize the language. The poor take evil "welfare" while the rich are "subsidized" with "job creating" public funds.

More than all of that, I’m bothered by how the NFL, the Ravens, the Vikings, and the University of Florida handled these situations. Forget for the moment about pampered individuals acting in moments of passion, rage, or arrogant foolishness, and consider the learned leaders – the boys at the top, who after careful deliberation in board rooms and consultations with law enforcement did literally the least they could do after investigating Rice, Peterson and Winston. They did just enough to say they’d done something – to cover their asses, but hardly enough to address the situations . . . that is until the public got a good look. The men leading these entities either don’t know what century we’re living in or they hold the spoiled child’s view of right and wrong: it’s only wrong when you get caught.

As long as we confer elite athletes with god-like status, some will act as if they are living exceptions to our rules.

Buy Kurt's book, "Noblesville"

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Philosophy Via Sitcom: Everything Happens For A Reason

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I cringe when I hear people say that, feeling a little like Sheriff Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show, the way he gently smirked, shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck when Opie or Goober mistook the true message in a teachable moment.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is usually an evasive misreading of what actually happened or worse yet, blatantly false. What’s more, it often feels like loser talk masquerading alternately as religious doctrine, superstition, Buddhism or folk wisdom.

I call it, “loser talk,” because it’s offered with a shrug of the shoulders after things don’t work out as hoped. Nobody ever wins a game, then pumps a fist in the air and shouts, “Oh, hell yeah! Things happen for a reason!”

There’s a classic episode of Andy Griffith when Andy is alerted by the feds that a delivery of gold will pass through Mayberry on the way to Fort Knox. He and Barney must provide security. Andy tells Barney and swears him to secrecy. Through a series of foolish, prideful stumbles, Barney tells person after person until all of Mayberry knows. Barney wants to blame it on town gossip – on the inevitability of the relentless forces of human nature, rather than blame his own actions.

I have experiences not unlike that in my real estate career. Clients will ignore my advice and make repeated decisions based upon false logic and ego, then when the bad thing happens that I warned them about, they very rarely say, “Wow, I blew it.” Instead, they shrug, “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Everything happens for a reason.”
If I’m lucky, they stop there. If I’m not lucky, they say, “Guess it just wasn’t in God’s plan.”

That makes me crazy. If there was a modern HBO version of Mayberry, Andy would say, “Now Barney, don’t blame God for the convoluted clusterfuck of bad choices you made.”

People want to blame the great beyond, when they ought to blame themselves.

I realize sometimes things really do happen for a reason. Aunt Bea carefully and lovely makes a pie with a flakey crust she fills with fresh apples and lots of sugar and cinnamon. Floyd the Barber coos, “Oooo, Bea, that’s gooood pie!” The pie was good, “for a reason.” Earnest T. Bass throws a brick through the jewelry store window and Andy takes him to jail. Earnest T. Bass went to jail, “for a reason.”

Cause and effect, plain and simple.

But that’s not what people mean when they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” They’re talking mysticsm. They’re talking fate and inevitability, as if there’s nothing they could have done to make things turn out differently.

That’s rarely true.

In one episode of Andy Griffth, Gomer outsings Barnie to win a spot on the Mayberry choir. If, “Everything happens for a reason,” is the mantra Barney repeats over and over to make peace with his disappointment, I accept that as reasonable. But if it’s the salve Barney rubs on his wounded ego – as if the unknowable blackness of the universe meant for him to fail, then I think he’s missing the point of the failure. Take singing lessons! Practice! But stop blaming fate!

And sometime things in fact don’t really happen for any reason whatsoever.

Truth is, I’m also in the, “Shit Happens,” camp. I’d like to think Howard Sprague would be in that camp with me. I can imagine his reasoning, professorial tone explaining to Thelma Lou that “there’s a lot of chaos in the world, entropy if you will, and so sometimes shit just happens.” Howard would explain to a disbelieving Thelma Lou in his familiar rising and falling notes that, “God didn’t pre-ordain everything and there’s no pre-written script dictating what will happen at every given moment to every single person. I think there are thousands or millions of possibilities depending on which turn you take or choice you make.”

"God doesn't direct every moment on earth?" Thelma Lou asks, searchingly." Howard answers with two words, "Free will."

If there’s ever a positive connotation to, “Everything happens for a reason,” it’s when offered in retrospect, when one realizes they’ve ended up in a good and happy place, despite the fact that something bad happened to them in the past, like they were meant to face that earlier obstacle so they could find true success later, somewhere else. Let's imagine Andy with his third season girlfriend, Helen Crump, looking back on his first season girlfriend, Ellie Walker. He might think he was always meant to find happiness with Helen, but first had to be tested by a breakup with Ellie. But I don’t believe that. When bad things happen, we adjust and learn, making the best of the situation we’re left in. If we’re really trying, it makes sense we’d end up in another good place. It doesn’t mean it was meant to be, it means we made-do with our situation. If the shit hadn’t happened with Ellie, and there’s no reason to believe it was inevitable, Andy wouldn’t need to hook up with Helen in season three. But things didn’t work out and so he adjusted and made things work with Helen.

Meant to be? Happened for a reason? That’s storybook talk. Andy made-do and Helen was a great gal. Isn’t that enough?

I think sometimes the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason” is a like that single, pathetic bullet in Barney’s shirt pocket. Maybe people who say it lack intellectual or emotional ammo. They just have the one single bullet-phrase to explain the disappointment of failure. And the unthinking use of the phrase by otherwise intelligent people, like that lone bullet Barney has – meant for a gun with six chambers, is an embarrassment.

Though I’m an outspoken guy, most of the time I ignore it when people pointlessly say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just as Sheriff Taylor most often would, I purse my lips, smile knowingly and say nothing. 

It would take too long to explain all this anyway.