02 November, 2011

Truck Day Blues

Yesterday morning, I was waiting for my wife to get ready so she could drop me off at the newspaper office, one town over. Tuesday is Truck Day. That means I drive the company panel truck to Sterling, where they're printed, load most of the bundles in the box and deliver them to the post offices and news stands. It's not a bad gig 80% of the time. One day a week, I get $10 an hour to drive around and haul newspapers. And for some reason, as annoying as being up early is, one of the moments I enjoy in the day is walking into the warehouse and getting that first whiff of newsprint.

I have no idea why.

But while I was waiting, I decided to turn on the TV. Most of the time, I watch ESPN. Just because. A lot of times I regret having cable... mostly when the bill comes due … but I do like ESPN. There's something about it that just makes me feel … I don't know... connected to the universe in some ball scratching, Al Bundy sort of way. This particular morning, though, they were talking about the World Series, and I could seriously give a shit less since I wasn't invested in either team. I'm against Texas on principle, but I have no geographic love or hate for St. Louis, though I do vaguely remember their bus station. (Please see The Greyhound Quarto for further explanation.) Flipping around trying to find something else, I ran across MSNBC and Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough.

Keep in mind that not only do I not watch Morning Joe, I tend not to watch or listen to news first thing in the morning. And no, it's not because I don't care about what goes on in the world – I do. I find my news from a variety of sources and a variety of perspectives. But I have learned – maybe because I'm in the news business – that watching, listening, or reading news first thing in the morning does nothing but sour my day and my mood. Early morning news is a combination of current event memes for the memory impaired that is often mistaken for hard news (Kim Kardashian's divorce, for example... not only is it fluff, but it shouldn't count as news. After all, does Good Morning America report every time the sun rises?) When I tuned in, though, I found former NBC Nightly News Anchor Tom Brokaw on talking about his new book, and spouting, as Brokaw often does, his thoughts on how things are going in America.

One of the things I like about Brokaw is that he's one of the few left from his business who understands the importance of context. For some reason, the American people have gotten in their heads that the news ought to be objective, without context. And naturally, which ever news outlet most reflects their views (this is true all philosophical and ideological bents) is the one given the prestigious label of “objective.” One of the things about Brokaw is that he spent so much time in the corporate media machine that the context for all of his criticism is a Post World War II 20th Century America. Rather than looking at the whole, trying to wrap his brain around history as more than Manifest Destiny, he ignores the fact that most of what we're dealing with in the Post American Century is the bullshit byproduct that's been left behind to fester since the original 13 signed off on the U.S. Constitution.

The gist of the conversation as I tuned in – as described by the caption at the bottom of the screen – was that Americans need to “re-enlist as citizens.” He went on to explain that real leaders – the people he writes about in his new tome, I guess – are people who led through action, who came up from among the people. He bemoaned the absence of “larger than life” leaders who could capture the minds and imaginations of his fellow Americans.

And I had a few thoughts, which I'll list here:

  1. “Re-enlist”... a militaristic term. Maybe we ought to consider the possibility that being in some army or another is the problem.
  2. People DO need to be directly engaged in and with their community and their country... as individuals coming together for the common good. (This, kids, is the root of all civilization.)
  3. Brokaw's critique regarding the absence or need of “larger than life” leaders is incorrect. The issue is that corporate media empires like NBC and MSNBC (wholly owned subsidiaries of General Electric) ignore them in favor of spouting non-controversial public relations reports they claim are true news reports.
  4. Underlying every argument Brokaw has made since he wrote about World War II is “These kids today... what pussies!” Maybe if he were talking to them instead of a table of talking bobble heads, he might get more of the reaction he's looking for. Or if he was paying any attention at all to current events.

That was before the coffee kicked in... which it did somewhere on Benson Road between Lanark and IL-40 headed towards Milledgeville.

19 October, 2011

“What a world you must live in.”

Here's the thing: people are like cats. I suspect that's why people hate them so much. People that tend not to like cats say it's because they're dog people (I always imagine McGruff The Crime Dog and some Planet of the Apes scenario.) Some people think cats are just too sneaky. Some think cats are to feminine and flighty – including some newly minted feminists who haven't read or thought about what feminism actually is. But As critters go, human beings are incredibly predictable in at least one way: we tend to like things that mirror the attitudes and attributes we'd rather have, instead of those we actually have. And because there is no yin without a yang, no Starsky without a Hutch, no Cagney without a Lacy, it is also true that if we like the people and places and things that represent what we aspire to, then we hate the people and places and things that remind of who (and what) we really are.

Which is why most people don't like cats. They're too much like we are.

Now, don't get me wrong. We should always aspire to be more, to be better. Of course, we're short of heroic icons in these modern times. Two of my heroes, Utah Phillips and J.L. “Red” Rountree – are both dead and have been for some time. I was introduced to the stories and songs of Utah Phillips in my early 20's, and it was through him that I began to learn about the long memory he sang and talked about – the memory of workers, organizers, unions, anarchists, pacifists, agents of change... and those those who believed in and harnessed the positive power of chaos... such as Albert Parsons, Big Bill Heywood, Joe Hill, and Ammon Hennacy. I chose as my heroes those who embody those ideals I believe are important and that I hope to better exemplify and live by in my own life. Red Rountree was maybe the last of the philosophical bank robbers. He didn't hurt people, and believed in having fun. He also had a deep grudge against banks.

But it's difficult to get around that fact that most people are like cats. Cats are moody, territorial, and dislike having their routine interrupted. I have two cats, and if their daily ritual is maligned in anyway, they simply don't know what to do. And people are the same way. We like our rituals, our patterns, our hegemonic convergence that defines each and every day of our lives. We like it so much that even if we become unhappy, we live with it.

And if we're forced to face the idea that something has to change, we look for a way to change as little as possible, lest we upset our all so sacred routine.

Which is, of course, the problem people have with the Occupy Wall Street Movement. At it's core, it represents the idea that something has be done to change the inequities that most of us life under. This means not just adding new rules. It may mean throwing the old rules out and starting from scratch. Because the problem isn't just that the rules aren't fair. The problem is that in America, the Golden Rule – “He who has the Gold makes the Rules” is the only rule that matters. It is upon that rule that Capitalism is built, and it is for that very reason that Capitalism is a wholesale failure as a social, political, and economic model. We have lived under it so long that people have forgotten that Democracy – the idea that all people are equal and deserve and equal voice – has been consumed by Plutarchy and Capitalism.

Keep in mind, not all #occupywallst folks are anti-capitalists. But they do recognize that something's fucked up. And they're willing to do something about it. It's not a revolution, that's true. But maybe... just maybe... it is a kind of evolution.

29 September, 2011

Thursday Brain Buffett: The Inheritors

My head was swimming with ideas when I rolled out of bed this morning, and I've been trying to keep a handle on them until I could sit down and get them all out. That happens sometimes. I normally try to compose this blog with a certain continuity with an echo of the long lost and rarely read essay.

This morning, though, I want to hit the highlights, keep it simple, and move on.

First of all, I want to thank Grindbone brother Kaplowitz (iamkap.blogspot.com) for bringing me onto the 2nd edition of his blogspot radio broadcast. Although the format is uber-brief, we kept it lively and hit a few high water marks. Among them:

  • I like offensive people – or, at any rate, smart people who try to offend either to educate or make fun of the unenlightened.
  • I would rather be a poor and despised writer than a desperate college instructor.
  • Writing cannot be taught, only encouraged.

It's on this last point that I want to riff first, just a bit.

To all my friends who are still ensconced in higher education, and particularly those who take on the largely thankless quest to teach First Year or Basic Writing:

I am not saying that you are, or that I was, irrelevant. So much of what writing teachers do on a daily basis ends up being a drawn out argument to justify their existence... which is part of the larger problem. A good teacher knows when to get out of the way and let the educational moment run on its own momentum; the bad ones think it somehow has something to do with them.

And since I have laboriously and copiously recorded my issues with higher education, I'll just say this: the problem with education at all levels is two-fold:

  1. There are too many fucking lackeys and weasels (Please consult your Parsons Dictionary of Often Used Words and Phrases, Desk Reference Edition) micro-managing the educational process, and they are being supported by myopic textbook publishers with a Wal-Mart mentality.
  2. The educational process in this country has been derailed by the profit motive – students being corralled into “careers” (aka turning them into trained monkeys who pay taxes so that our corporate overlords don't have to), public schools teaching testing instead of concepts and the foundations of critical thinking, and colleges and universities taking up the for-profit education model pioneered by the University of Phoenix.

The corporate influence on education in this country was unavoidable, however, since our corporate overlords have had their fingers in everything for a very long time. The mistake, often made by people who have been taught a sanitized view of history, is in believing, that the relatively recent incarnation of the multi-national corporation is the culprit.

They aren't. They're merely the inheritors.

Corporate influence on American life and politics reaches much further back. The 1920's, the Robber Barons, and the Wall Street Bankers that brought on the Great Depression? (Hmm....) Sure. But look farther. Post- World War 1 coal companies that used racism divide workers and keep unions from forming? Sure. Look back even further. Railroad Companies? Yep. Keep looking. Civil War munitions manufacturers? Yes. Slavery? Yes.

Get the point? I'm leaving out some important players in the leaching of America, but you're getting the point? I'd be willing to bet that since Adam Smith wrote his Capitalist Treaty, there's been some monger trying to get one over by exploiting the work done by other people.

And before you get all horrified, deified, homogenized, and needlessly terrified, let me point out that large scale Capitalism – the massing of capital by exploiting the labor and resources of others – is not the same thing as someone who owns and operates a business. Entrepreneurs succeed by their own sweat. Capitalists succeed on the sweat of others.

This brings me to recent events – the Occupy Wall Street Movement and it's various echo movements across the country. The problem I have is that I live so far off the beaten track that I have to rely on posted video clips and some eye witness accounts that may or may not be legitimate. Getting news online means dealing with spurious sources, trolls, moles, dunderheads, and those well-intended transmitters of information that get lost in the sea of bullshit.

Not surprisingly, the corporate owned media (Disney owns ABC, GE owns NBC, and CBS is a monster all its own. And don't forget News Corp and Viacom. For a list of who's feeding you your news, see this chart) isn't really covering the movement – and yes, I feel pretty confident in calling it that – even though there's clear evidence of something. But, here in the Big Empty, that grand land called the Midwest, it's easy to ignore the movements that may (or may not) help redefine the future.

All I do know is that from what I can tell, I like it.  

11 September, 2011

The Three Tenses: Some thoughts on 9/11, Football, and The Sacred Long Memory

I rolled out of bed this morning to get some work done before the Cincinnati Bengals play their first regular season game against the Cleveland Browns -- because, in fact, all work does stop for me when there's a football game on. I realize this relegates me to a stereotype, but I don't really care. That I was never an athlete doesn't change the fact that I enjoy being a spectator. That the Bengals are trying to recover from a lousy season, the departure of a whiny quarterback, and an owner who's head is permanently planted up his own ass doesn't change the fact that I'm wearing orange and black today. In spite of the past, in spite of everything, life and faith goes on.

After feeding the cats and taking a shower and making coffee, I made my way upstairs to my desk. The weather is starting to cool off enough that I will be able to spend more days up here, writing. (Old house, the physics of heat, and the inability to afford an air conditioner all played a role in what I am now thinking of the Ennui '11: The Summer That Nearly Killed My Soul.) I need this space -- some kind of space -- where I can simply sit and write and be alone with all the muck that goes on in my head. This morning, part of that muck means doing the day job. Tomorrow morning's newspaper deadline is looming already, and there are public officials to expose, lampoon, and embarrass into doing the right thing. (Save all your objective media bullshit, please. The Fourth Estate is rarely objective. And when it is, no one reads it, listens to it, or watches it, because it's as dull as the list of contents on the back of a box of Hamburger Helper. You want your journalists to be honest, ethical, and merciless, not objective... which means that Fox News is not really a news outlet, but a well-funded propaganda machine -- since they've proven they are neither honest nor ethical.)

The thing I am faced with when I get online, however -- because I have to check my email and Facebook before I can do anything... damned digital age -- are people's thoughts, remembrances, and tributes to 9/11.

And while I remember precisely where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the planes flying into the World Trade Center Towers, I will not pine about that here. Any attempt on my part to insert myself into a momentous and tragic historical event would be pointless.

The focus of such remembrances should be on the people who died, their families, and the subsequent  responders and Ground Zero workers who have and continue to sacrifice a decade after the event. The focus ought to be that even though it has been 10 years, that we shouldn't lull ourselves into junking the events of September 11, 2001, into some kind of convenient decade package -- which is what pundits and pseudo-historians tend to do. Decade packaging is a myth. The events that shape us as individuals and as a society do not stop and start at 10 year intervals.

Remembrance is not a word I use lightly. The very word itself has a kind of religious resonance for me. It reminds me of the religious zealotry I hid behind in my youth. "This do in remembrance of me," was what Jesus said, according to Luke 22:19, as he ate with his disciples at Passover. And while I have since rejected the metaphor for God and spirituality I was raised on, that specific word retains a particular resonance that never fades.

For me, though, remembrance continues to take on a larger, longer, and deeper view. Responses to the 9/11 attacks are a part of what I have come to think of as The Long Memory. This collection of stories, songs, and poems provide the permanent under current that keeps humanity moving. The Long Memory exists above, beyond, below, and outside of history. History is an abstract collection of events that are generally told with a specific narrative in mind. The Sacred Long Memory -- indeed, it may the one and only sacred thing -- ties together the past, the present, and the future. This Do In Remembrance Of Me. That is the purpose and the meaning: ensuring that the past stays with us and informs our present, and takes us into a better future.

The tragedies and travesties that have occurred as a result of the those horrific events are as much a part of the event as the planes flying into the towers and into the Pentagon and the crash of United Flight 93. Wars and rumors of wars. Torture, the silencing of dissenting voices, the xenophobia and all too familiar brand of Nationalism (think Hitler and Mussolini) that some people mistake for patriotism and "defending democracy." The soldiers who have sacrificed life and limb to keep Halliburton in business and to maintain the high price of a barrel of oil are just as much a part of those events as well. Gitmo Prison, Abu Graib, and the various crimes against humanity committed in our name are a part of those events, too.. and they continue to this day. President Obama has managed to continue most of the same war tactics that horrified rank and file Democrats during the Bush II regime. We're still fighting an expensive war in Afghanistan that no one talks about. We're dealing with a lingering recession here -- that, admittedly, Obama inherited -- but given the intransigence of the GOP, the tomfoolery of Tea Baggers, and the sheer spinelessness of the Democratic Party, there's no end in sight that doesn't hurt the poor.

And when I speak of remembrance, I also speak of the fact that 3000 + people died on 9/11 as a direct result of years of hawkish and exploitative American foreign policy. (Don't forget, Osama bin Laden was CIA trained to be our proxy during the Cold War to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Also, maybe one of the reasons the Bush/Cheney regime was so sure Saddam Hussein had WMDs was because WE GAVE HIM SOME when he was our proxy against Iran, which was backed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.)

These things, and the stories and songs and poems that have come as a result, are all a part of the Long Memory.

There are those who would make 9/ll a national holiday, and I can see their point. But it's not an idea I support.  How many people really know why Memorial Day is a holiday? Or Labor Day?  Did we immortalize December 7th, 1941 with a day off of school and work? (The answer is no. After all, it's too close to Christmas, the high and holy day that celebrates consumerism and egg nog.)

Remembrance means moving forward and carrying the Long Memory with us every single day. Adding to it every single day. Passing it on every single day. This Do In Remembrance Of Me. Part of engaging in Remembrance means that life and faith -- faith that some good can still happen -- must go on.

And the last time I checked, "to do" is an active verb. It means to perform a specific act, as in DIYDS. (Do It Your Damn Self.)

06 September, 2011

Notes from Bizarro World (Post-Labor Day Post)

The more history I read and the more I consider our present circumstances, the more I think I live in Bizarro World.

For those of you who are not imminently COOL enough to know what I'm talking about, I am referring to the cube shaped planet Htrae, where Superman's block-headed alter opposite Bizarro lives:

(This is also the real  location of Crawford, Texas.)

Because everything on Bizarro World has to be opposite of everything on Earth, this -- again for those of you not comic book inclined -- is a copy of the Bizarro Code:

The implication, of course, is that everything done on our planet is perfect -- or at least, our goal to try and get as close as possible.  And of course, in 1960's comic-speak by PLANET, they mean THE UNITED STATES.

After some deliberation, I've come to the conclusion that if I'm supposed to live in a world where beauty and perfection are the goals, then I'm in the wrong one. As a matter of fact, it seems as if the highest goals and deepest desires of the planet -- and by the planet I mean THE UNITED STATES  -- are the exact OPPOSITE of any attempt to attain beauty, truth, or perfection.

Thus, I can only conclude that I currently reside on Bizarro World.

Because only on a planet such as Bizarro World could Labor Day pass with little or no attention paid to the fact that celebrating Labor -- that is, the Labor Movement -- has more to do with the holiday than fireworks and barbecues. Neither The History Channel, nor The Documentary Channel showed anything about people who work, the history of labor in this country, or the struggle for workers rights and the legalized murder of labor martyrs like Joe Hill and Albert Parsons -- just to name 2; and given the current drive by Tea Baggers, lily-livered Libertarians, GOP'ers, and spineless Democrats to further undercut unions in this country, I sort of thought that maybe one of them might have run something. I don't think PBS even ran anything, either.

The only national news item that ran about Labor was Teamster President James Hoffa calling the Tea Party a bunch of "sons of bitches." Of course, Fox News -- trying, I guess, to distract attention from Der Fuhrer Rupert Murdoch's problems  -- had to give the TB'ers yet another platform by covering the the drippers' condemnation of Hoffa's comments.

On the other hand, I'm not really surprised. Since we are clearly a country of people who have forgotten our history -- accepting, instead, the sanitized, glamorized, homogenized version sold to us in history textbooks -- it's no wonder that we are repeating it.

But since I am clearly on Bizarro World, I should point out one of it's key inhabitants. And no, I don't mean Bizarro Superman, or even Ambush Bug.

The sad part about liking comic books is the realization that in real life there are no super heroes swooping down to save us. Institutions of government and religion and of higher learning have failed us.

That means it's up to us.

Or, you could wait on Ambush Bug.

03 September, 2011

21 Anno Domini

Ken Parsons, 1955.
The picture I chose of my dad was taken in 1955... 18 years before I was born. Although I have pictures of him from my childhood – the way I remember him – but I like this picture of him more than any of those. This is him in his youth, in his prime. There's a cockiness in his stance that grew into something larger, into a mental and spiritual indefatigably, which lingered, even when his health and his body began to fail him. The stamp on the back of the picture indicates that the picture was taken – or, at any rate, developed – in November of that year in San Antonio, Texas. The only thing I know about my dad being in Texas was that after being in that state with two other friends – he in the Air Force, and one friend each in the Navy and the Army – my dad received a letter from the governor asking him to please never return to the state or risk being incarcerated.

At least, that's the way I remember him telling the story. And while I'm sure that there was probably some exaggeration involved – the men in my family are prone to exaggeration – I have found there's an element of truth in all forms of exaggeration.

Today is the 21st anniversary of his death. Some years it's easier for me to handle than others. This year seems a bit more difficult than I've experienced in a while. Maybe it's because lately I've been acutely aware of his absence. There are times when I still want to ask his advice, still want him to make everything better. I'd ask him what he thinks about my life. Silly, really. I think maybe the reason I care so little about the opinions of other people is because his opinion was always the one that mattered – and in its absence, there is no one who's opinion can act as a substitute.

That he is gone doesn't mean I don't still learn from him. That I can't remember the sound of his voice doesn't mean he still doesn't speak to me. It is the blessing and the curse of children to carry their parents with them, in their bones and in their hearts. The imprint is a permanent one. I continue to learn from him because the core of what I learned continues to apply to my everyday life. He teaches me that being honest counts for more; that convictions are worth standing up for; that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity until they've proven otherwise. He also teaches me that I am not less deserving of respect than others so long as I remember these three things.

I miss you, Dad. Give'em Hell.

01 September, 2011

From the Publishers of The Parsons Dictionary of Often Used Words and Phrases

success, n: 1. A culturally constructed product that is marketed and sold at an enormous mark-up to the young, the feeble-minded, and the hopelessly inept which blames the poor for being poor and gives rich people credit for things they haven't really done; this myth insists upon itself as gospel truth and blames people who do all  the right things but still get screwed for not bringing their own lubricant.

alternate definition:

A culturally constructed myth used to teach children that the best way to be happy is screw over everyone else.

31 August, 2011

Tea Party Boob Job

I was thinking yesterday of Pat Buchanan's 2000 Presidential bid. After announcing his break with the GOP -- calling it, as well as the Democratic Party, a beltway party (which one of the two lucid things he's ever said in his life. The other was when he cried for his binkie as a baby.) -- he more or less took over the Reform Party started by 1996 Presidential hopeful Ross Perot. Buchanan's political platform called for, among other things:

  • withdrawing from the United Nations and the expelling  the U.N from New York;
  • getting rid of the IRS, the Department of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and affirmative action programs;
  • eliminating taxes on inheritance and capital gains.

In addition to losing the election, he also unhinged the Reform Party as a serious third party, which had, since Perot began, moved a bit left of center. Prior to Patty boy getting the nod, the Reform Party tried to get Natural Law candidate John Hagelin to carry it's banner. Hagelin is a physicist and proponent of Transcendental Meditation.

There were some pundits and politicos who suggested that Buchanan's run was not so much an attempt to get back into White House using the front door -- after all, he was a Nixon speech writer and an adviser to Nixon, Ford, and Reagan -- as it was an attempt to either change the direction of or completely unhinge the Reform Party. He did both. Yes, they're still out there. But they're taken about as seriously as the Green Party.

Now we have the Tea Party Movement -- which is a hobgoblin of social and economic conservatives, religious wackos,  disgruntled GOP'ers, and bigots. Enter Sarah Palin, far right wack job and late night spank material for uptight conservative white guys everywhere. Tea Baggers love her the way 13 year old boys love Bree Olson.

And they have Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa Caucus in spite of confusing American movie icon John Wayne with clown costumed serial killer John Wayne Gacy;


While there are some uber-conservatives and evangelicals who like Bachmann, she won't survive a national campaign. Loony may play in Iowa, but not so well in other places. The same goes with Sarah Palin... although she seems amazingly immune from her own stupidity in a way that reminds me of George W. Bush.

So what if the Bachmann/Palin plan is really just the GOP's way of unhinging the Tea Party Movement as a serious political entity? I've been told that the Tea Party really isn't a political party. Some say they want to refocus the GOP. Some say they want to shoot Mexicans on sight. So who am I supposed to believe?

What if Bachmann/Palin is nothing more than the GOP's core attempting to redefine the same old platform using a religious psycho and a former beauty queen? Aging white men in America tend to move from their chairs for only a couple of reasons: to go to the bathroom and to see a pair of bouncing tits. In this case, it's a 2fer...

19 August, 2011

Mick's Rules For Living: Another Revision

I've been working on this list, trying to whittle it down to something simple. The first list was ambitious, and not unlike the inner workings of my brain, a bit abstract. Not that there's anything wrong with abstract thinking. But, abstract ideas only work when they are tied to something concrete... that is, theories that can only remain theories are pointless. 

So, here we are. The updated list.

1. Do No Harm. Ever. I don't know how to simplify this. Violence begats violence and never creates anything lasting or positive. And the use of violence -- either actual or implied -- to force your ideas on other people helps to create stupid people.

2. Wear Clean Socks. I can't recommend this highly enough. If you must wear socks, either because you have a job that requires it or because it's cold, make sure they're clean. You can be a week beyond the need for a good bath, your clothes can be rags, and you could look like an extra from a zombie movie. But if you're wearing clean socks, you just feel like better. Trust me.

3. Read something non-essential everyday. People who read are less likely to develop Alzheimer's later. They're also less likely to be stupid.

4. Don't live any further from a bar than a 20-30 minute walk or 40 minute bus ride, unless you know you have a ride. Seriously. And if all else fails, drink at home. It's cheaper, anyway.

5. Never offend a bartender, secretary, or janitor. They run the world. Deal with it.

6. Be kind to all critters smaller than yourself. 

7. Only apologize when it's sincere, and never subjugate your will to the whims of others. Another consolidation of two previous rules. The only thing a person has in this life that's worth a damn is integrity. Let the bastards take that and nothing else matters.

8. Be honest. Even if it hurts. It often does.

9. You know you had a good day when you can sleep that night. Really. Any other qualification is false advertising.

10. The only thing you have to do in life is die. Everything else is an option. 

17 August, 2011

Complete Text of an Expurgated Article Published This Week

Water Ordinance Amendment Discussed, Old Issues Surface

By Mick Parsons for The Prairie Advocate News

Mount Carroll – Changes to the city's Water Ordinance, as proposed by Tom Charles (Ward 3) were discussed at length, and the input of landlords and property owners being taken into consideration as the council works on the final draft. In spite of the generally favorable response to most of the changes to the amendment draft, however, some old issues surfaced delineating clearly the factions and tensions within the city council that many voters hoped to get rid of in the last election. And in spite of the fact that half the council being in their first term, the same old divisions that gave a sense of gridlock to the last council still pervaded the conversation.

Water On the Brain

The big discussion for the night was draft of amendments to the city's water ordinance. Even though the new ordinance calls for an additional $100 deposit for new water accounts – with only landlords and residential owners being able to get the deposit back after 12 months of timely payments – and it also provides a time line between the date the payment is due and when service is cut off for nonpayment... and essentially removes any discretionary ability on the part of City Clerk Julie Cuckler, who has been critisized by current aldermen Sisler and Bork and former alderman Nina Cooper for her more humanitarian and one on one approach in dealing with delinquent payments... the major issue among the more vocal residents present at the meeting still boiled down to whether or not a new water ordinance would do any good.

Before going over the draft, Alderman Charles (Ward 3) tried to organize the conversation into two parts. He intended to first discuss the water ordinance “going forward” and wanted to keep the more contentious arguments related to delinquent water bills as a separate issue. He was also careful to point out that the purpose of discussing the ordinance draft was so that area landlords and residential owners could give their input, ask questions, and voice concerns.

One local landlord, Leo Haag, insisted that the only problem with the current water ordinance was enforcement – or the lack of it. “Most of the mistakes with delinquent water bills have been made in the building.”

Trying to keep the conversation on track – or perhaps hoping that his elegant solution would calm the concerns of those present – Alderman Charles went on to read more of the proposed changes. If the proposed changes pass, the city will not turn off the water at any landlord's property without a notarized letter stating that the property is vacant... this is in response to a previous situation in which a landlord had a tenants water turned off while they were still living there. Also, landlords will be responsible for 2 months worth of delinquent water bills, if there are any, should a tenant move and leave a delinquent bill; that two months will be offset by the $100 deposit, however. If a landlord includes the water in the cost of the rent and gets behind on the bill, the city will leave the water on until the property is vacant.

The new ordinance would also add a $50 administrative fee for lien preparation that will be passed on to the landlord, along with the court establish legal fees.

Charles passed out copies of letters to delinquent water bill customers – one to property owners, and one to tenants. The language of both letters was pretty much the same, except that landlords and residential property owners would have to pay 10% interest on the past due amount and tenants would only have to pay 5%. This was met with some grumbles of displeasure from the landlords in the audience, but Charles said that since landlords are in business to make money, it's important that the city hit them where it will most affect them.

Alderman Bob Sisler (Ward 2) took issue with the “legally possible” clause. In other words, the state statute does limit the city in some respects. For one, no public utility can be shut off between December 1st and March 1st, and for another, it's illegal for any utility to be shut off when it will exacerbate a medical problem and place the resident at risk... and if the city did so, it would be open to legal action. City Attorney Ron Coplan pointed out, however, that there's no state law restricting evictions for non-payment of rent.

Alderman Doug Bergren (Ward 3) then asked Coplan whether or not it's true that state law makes landlords responsible for the unpaid water bills of their tenants, and Coplan conceded that Bergren was correct.

And while there weren't that many vocal objections to the the proposed Water Ordinance Changes, there were when it came time to discuss how the city will deal with delinquent water bills. After Andy Shaw asked what happened to large water bills left behind by former tenants who move out of the area, Charles reminded the audience that the city has found a collection agency, Tri-State Adjustments, to track those people down and attempt to collect the debt.

The biggest issue that those present – clearly landlords – had was that in the end, they could still be held responsible for the unpaid water bills of their tenants. As Bergren, Charles, and City Attorney Ron Coplan pointed out, however, that's the state law.

Mr. Haag also pointed out that no other utility operates the way Mount Carroll operates it's water utility. He insisted that neither JoCarroll nor Nicor would allow an account to get as behind as some of the delinquent accounts on the city's past due list.

Jan Handel, echoing Haag's complaint, asked “Why do the bills get so high?” She later added that there was already an ordinance on the books that wasn't enforced. She was echoing a criticism going back to the previous council, and to previous council meetings during which – like this one – the city clerk was openly critisized in spite of the fact that she, like the mayor, were re-elected. Alderman Sisler has made much of his stance in favor of going by the letter of the law, and others, like Alderman Bork and former Alderman Nina Cooper, haven't been shy of their public critiques of either the Clerk or the mayor. And while there was a point when it seemed like the tension on city council was going to dissipate so that while disagreements would remain that business could at least get done, it seems like the same old tensions and same old factions are again having sway.

And in this case, even though the proposed ordinance would do precisely what some critics of the city, the clerk, and the mayor have wanted – namely, remove the clerk's discretionary powers when it comes to dealing with past due water bills – there were still those who took the opportunity of a public forum to voice their dissatisfaction with what they see as a history of mismanagement. To hear the group present at last week's council meeting, one would think the entire town was in an uproar.

Of course, the other significant group of people who will be impacted by the new water ordinance – the tenants – was not present at the meeting; though to be fair, unlike the landlords they weren't expressly invited to what is an open public meeting. That they didn't come out themselves suggests that they've been busy on the phone with their aldermen, or there's an apathy to what goes on, or they think their thoughts don't matter.

One resident did speak up, however. Terri Evansberger pointed out that there are “extenuating circumstances” that might cause people to get behind on their water bill, and that those things should be taken into consideration. Alderman Charles pointed out that the new Health and Welfare Fund – which was approved by ordinance that same night – would give people options to pursue in trying to get their water bill paid.

Alderman Rose raised the point of seasonal restrictions again and Alderman Charles said, “We won't break the law.”

Alderman Sisler, wanting to get in one more dig before the conversation moved on said, “Not anymore.”

To TIF or Not to TIF

Another issue that continues to draw attention to the divisions on the board is the Mount Carroll TIF District and how TIF funds actually work. The TIF fund has been the focus of ire, complaints, and confusions among some present and past members of the city council; and even though one alderman, Doug Bergren, deals with TIF Funds in his day job and in spite of the exhaustive efforts of supporters as well as the media to explain how and why TIF works, when the issue came up last week the same old confusions bubbled to the surface.

The owners of Mount Carroll Bowling wrote a letter to the city council asking it to take action regarding their TIF request. According to the TIF agreement that Mount Carroll Bowl has with the city, it can receive 90% of it's TIF increment, and the owners are hoping they can use the TIF funds – which are tied to the Estimated Assessed Value (EAV) of the property – to make up some of the $78,000 they've invested since buying it in 2009.

The problem is that when the owners and the city went back to look at the business's 2007 EAV, it was inflated well beyond what the owners think the property was actually worth. And while that can be looked into, the end result is that because of the higher assessed value in 2007, Mount Carroll Bowl may not be able to draw from the TIF Fund because they haven't paid in.

To keep it simple – mostly because is simple – supporters of TIF Funds claim they are a way for localities to use local money for economic development. In the case of Mount Carroll's TIF District, which also includes Pearl City Bank, Schneider House Furniture, and Main Street Commons, the TIF Fund is fed by the difference between the 2007 EAV and what the business actually pays in property taxes. For example, If a business in the TIF District paid $3000 in property taxes in 2007, but they paid $4000 in 2011, that extra $1000 would go into TIF. Conversely, if they paid $3000 in property taxes in 2007 and $2500 in 2011, then nothing would go into the TIF.

Generally, a business only qualifies for TIF Funds – based on an agreement with the city requiring passage by the city council – if they pay in. The owners of Mount Carroll Bowl claim the 2007 EAV was so high and that it's dropped so much since then that there's no way they will ever get TIF money.

Mayor Carl Bates suggested two options:
  1. They don't get any money, as per the agreement, since nothing has been paid in, or
  2. The bowling alley and the city agree on an amount – a smaller amount than what they're asking. – and they get that.
The mayor was clearly pushing for the second option, saying he wanted to encourage a business that has helped bring people into downtown. “All I can do is suggest,” he said. “I feel we should participate at some level. That's my opinion.”

Alderman Bergen suggests a specific number: $15,000 – which could help Mount Carroll Bowl install much needed air conditioning on the lanes. The mayor said that is a separate thing and not really covered by the TIF contract.

The only concern that Alderman Mike Risko (Ward 1) raised was one of favoritism. “I don't want to play favorites,” he said.

As of the council meeting last week, the TIF Fund has a balance of $31,021.20. According to the agreement between the TIF District and the City of Mount Carroll, once disbursements are made to those businesses which get them – Pearl City Bank for one – the balance of the TIF FUND will then be transferred to the Water Fund to pay on the Debt Service.

Bergren, who was clearly displeased with the notion fo draining the TIF, said “If we keep a low number in TIF, we'll never be able to do anything.”

There was some talk that the TIF agreement needs to be reviewed in light of the issue with Mount Carroll Bowl. According to the mayor, it's an issue they are likely to come up against again in the future with other TIF businesses. But some alderman – Sisler and Risko – claimed to not understand how TIF works. Sisler claimed that it might make sense to “someone that's smart.” Neither Risko nor Sisler were on the council when the TIF district was formed, but the issue has been discussed so much that does beg the question as to whether it's a matter of being smart enough or a matter of being politically cautious enough and tip toeing around a topic that has been a contentious point among members of the current and past councils. In other words, if all else fails, play dumb.

Who's The Boss?

Some of the current tensions among members of the city council showed while Alderman Sisler reported some of the complaints and comments he'd gotten from some of his constituents. Sisler said he was fielding calls from residents in Ward 2 about pot holes on Washington Street between Clay and Main; that people in a town this size call their elected officials, many of whom are also neighbors and friends, isn't really all that surprising. But apparently, in spite of all the years of leadership experience boasted to by many of the aldermen, and in spite of all the focus lately on following proper procedure in wake of JoCarroll's Public Relations campaign of tutoring new alderman in Parliamentary Procedure, there's still apparently some stark philosophical disagreements on the role of alderman in a town the size of Mount Carroll.

“I don't understand the chain of command,” Risko complained. After essentially accusing his fellow alderman of nitpicking and micro-managing, Risko said the job of an alderman was to provide overall leadership and not to “get involved in minutiae.”

“You're way off,” Sisler said. And other members of the council, including Alderman Bergren, along with residents sitting in the audience, seemed to agree.

In other council news, Lou Schau of the CDC talked about the Historic Preservation Fund. It has $6,000 to hand out this year, and they have decided to lend $3,000 each to Deane King of Second Rose and to Mary Kernan of New Morning Glass. Since it's inception in 2006, $41,000 has passed through the fund and into improvements in the downtown district. Also mentioned that there are three more flower boxes downtown, all paid for by downtown business owners and that Bella's and Brick Street Coffee have extended hours. Alderman Doris Bork (Ward 2) asked whether all the loans from the Historic Preservation Fund have been repaid. Schau said that there hasn't been a problem or default yet. Risko praised the CDC for it's work and the way it's improving the downtown.

Alderman Sisler asked about the golf cart – which isn't running – and whether it is meant to run on the street. Charles pointed out that the golf cart is technically a city vehicle... which Sisler didn't think was an answer to his question. Generally, however, in order for a vehicle such as a golf cart to be street legal, it must have head and tail lights and be registered with the state and plated.

Len Anderson reported that the next Cruise Night is on 8/20. He also asked the council to consider another $800 donation for next year. This donation comes out of the band fund, and usually in 4 increments of $200. The council went ahead and voted to approve the donation.

Jeff Woodside from The Carroll County Chapter of Pheasants Forever was at the meeting to ask the city for it's annual $100 donation towards the Pheasants Academic Scholarship Program. It was motioned and passed after a short discussion. Risko did ask if the city donated to other organizations for similar reasons. The mayor answered no, but added that the city does donate to the After Prom and other worthwhile projects when there are available funds and when the council is approached.

Former Alderman Diane Lego was named to the Mount Carroll Planning Commission. Lego, who served on the council until she decided not to run last year, made quite an impression of her leaving when, at her last meeting as an alderman, she returned the $100 Christmas bonus check she received from the city because she was an alderman. Prior to Lego being voted onto the the Planning Commission, Alderman Risko asked her why she wanted to serve when she made her displeasure with the current city administration so clear. She answered that she simply wanted to serve and that the only reason she returned the check in such a grand manner was because she didn't feel that aldermen should get a holiday bonus.

During the general audience portion, Andy Shaw said that his property in Mount Carroll has sewage back up problems every time it floods and that he hopes the city will look into the issue, since it's clear that last year's flood wasn't the last flood of any magnitude that the city would have to deal with.

Jean Schintzler commented that the city still hasn't done anything about her water problem, even though city workers have been up to her house and tested her water. She maintains that the water she put in her pool was “as brown as the Mississippi River” and that when it comes out of the tap it often smells like rotten eggs. Alderman Sisler couldn't resist the urge to ask if that meant the water was “pot-able.” Schintzler went to say that when she called the mayor at home – again – to complain about the problem that the mayor told her he'd just shut the water off.” Bates later said that he said it out of frustration and that of course that wasn't the solution to the problem. During the meeting Mayor Bates said that even though the city has tested her water that it will take another sample and send it off to a lab in Sterling, which will test for more than chlorine and lead.

08 August, 2011

The Decay of The Art of Argument

The problem with argument in this Post-American Century America is that no one likes a good argument anymore. We like to fight with words – admittedly, fewer and smaller words than we used to – but it is still considered the intellectual's preference to rocks, sticks, knives, or guns. We stake out our territory and strike out, like our tribal ancestors undoubtedly did, with the sole purpose of mental evisceration. I think of it like the Catholic Church's Crusades of centuries ago – convert or die. This is the approach that most of us take. But these two things are not the same.

Running parallel with that massive chunk of cultural sewage is another crucial piece of infrastructure that keeps the whole mess moving downhill – the dire and politically correct desire to be “polite.” These two things aren't nearly as contrary as people tend to think. Fighting with words accomplishes nothing and no one ever really wins... although everyone tends to walk away feeling like they have.

There are times in the often violent exchange of ideas when being polite is a nice break. A palette cleanser, if you will. Graciousness will take you pretty far in the world... if that happens to be your goal.

But even in a well-reasoned argument, there is often reason NOT to be polite. Conceit, snobbery, bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia can all be thinly disguised with a polite tone and a long knife smile. We talk a lot about compromise in this country... mostly about the lack of it... but the truth is no one really wants to compromise. They want to win while still being able to take umbrage at the fact that the other party didn't simply agree and capitulate.

This is the problem. We've lost the ability to argue in any way that useful, or even entertaining. We like to sit around with people who think like us, who talk like us. We join groups on Facebook so we can dish in publicly private setting. Now we have “circles” on Google + so we can control what we say and show to whom... even though it's possible to do that on Facebook if you spend five minutes looking over your account settings. And really, there's nothing wrong with getting together with other people – either in real time or online – to share similar views. (So that's NOT what I'm saying here, you ninnies who want to throw a Constitutional argument at me. I know all about the First Amendment. It's my bread and butter.) And because we've been taught to actually believe that the hallmark of civilization is our ability to be polite and that America is near the pinnacle of perfect civilizations, we think that the sometimes heated arguments over ideas are unamerican.

First of all, if history, current and past, has, is and should teach us anything, it's that there's very little about civilization that's very civilized. A smile and a polite tone does not make for an intelligent and enlightened individual. In my experience, the biggest, ugliest, stupidest bullies are the ones that smile. We have a history of exclusion and of fighting over who we ought to include: Non-Christians, Blacks, Women, the Irish, The Chinese, The Germans, The Japanese, The Gays, The Arabs, The Mexicans. I'm leaving some out, I know, but the list really is long. We've blacklisted artists, actors, directors, writers, comedians. (And I say WE because anything that's done in our name with our consent is something we bear the responsibility for.) We are nearly as cruel to other humans as we are to the other critters that scramble over the Earth... and the argument could be made that we're even more cruel to our own because we're more apt to take pity on a starving dog or a pitiful looking cat than we are to give a panhandler a buck. (And before you say “Yeah, the panhandler should get a job,” keep in mind that cats are natural scavengers and most dogs are intelligent pack animals. Making assumptions about why someone's homeless, or not working is simply the way we justify our lack of humanity. It's rooted in the idea stated thusly to me during a conversation once at a bar: “If I have to work everyday and hate my job, so does everyone else.” Yep. The If-It's-Good-Enough-For-Me fallacy. Mostly I think people resent the homeless and the unemployed because they know they're a paycheck away from being the same way. Similarity, in addition to making Facebook have a point, also breeds contempt.)

The other thing that history should teach us that for all of our accomplishments, Sweden is more stable democracy.

The overall result? We fight with words instead of argue. We've let the dumb bastards who are in charge – and who are always in charge regardless of what political party has the majority – convince us that arguing is rude and unamerican. Our alternative is that we fight with words... which is petty, pointless, and juvenile. The only real bonus is that it can be mildly entertaining for the first two minutes, or right before the commercial break.

I suspect that down deep, beyond the social programming and the institutionalized cultural miasma that is modern education, the real reason people don't like to argue anymore is because to really and truly argue requires not only the ability to think critically, but a moral and ethical integrity. It's important not to confuse argument with debate. We should never be a society of lawyers. Debate, sometimes referred to as Forensics, – like they sometimes still teach in public schools instead of real history or science – encourages people to learn all about something but be prepared to argue any position. There's no moral or ethical inquiry involved. The Greeks called this Sophistry and it was the Sophists who had Socrates killed. People like this mistake debate for the Art of Argument. The difference is Argument, if it is to be an art, must have some ethical and moral integrity. Art of any kind... painting, sculpture, writing, motorcycle maintenance … must have those same components. It's part – though not all – of what makes Art.

As a result of this curricular and cultural confusion, we've mistaken cleverness for wit, eloquence for intellectual and spiritual depth. We would rather let everyone feel like a winner than consider the possibility that some of our ideas are wrong. The truly critically minded folks out there often reconsider their positions on things. I know I do. And I do change my mind... though not because I'm ever really compelled by word fights that contradict my own experience. I change my mind because it's important to be open-minded.

But that's not the same thing as polite, either... though many do mistake them. Often.

10 July, 2011

Hack Life

[This bit has two very different dedications: to my wife, who believes I am brilliant in spite of me. And to the bozos, without whom my current ire would not exist].

Part of me is having trouble simply focusing today; I have moods like this, and they seem to be more frequent in the summer months than during any other time of the year. The dead of winter presents its own problems, of course. The winter wonderland is, after a point, not so wonderful. That's not to say there isn't beauty to be found here in the Driftless Zone; there is a lot beauty to be found in the rivers, streams, and lakes; around the Mississippi River, the great compass and latitudinal divider of this land called the United States. I call it that because any place I have traveled I tend to map it in my mind from two distinct points – the Mississippi River and the place I grew up, Bethel, Ohio. The river is a fixed point in my mind... an embodiment of all the romance, all the commerce, all the good and all the evil that goes on within the borders of this country. Bethel is less fixed in my mind; yes, it's the place I grew up, but other than that, it holds no real nostalgia or affection. I don't hate the place as much as I used to; but I don't really miss it much either; and I'm sure it can say the same about me.

I have stories to write, and I will write them. Articles for the paper. I enjoy my new role as a freelance journalist primarily because it's the sort of job that suits my temperament. I hate alarm clocks, I despise offices, and the only routines I put any energy into are my own. Straight work – that is, 9 to 5 (or 6-3:30, or 3:30 to 11:30) wage slavery – is full of routine. Dull, dull routine. That most people grow accustomed to routine doesn't make it any less vulgar.

As a freelance journalist, my schedule is determined by the story; and it's true that the schedule can, at times, be horribly predictable... politicians are hobgoblins for their officiousness and OCD consistency when it comes to meetings. Sometimes they meet simply because they have nothing better to do, because they nothing else to justify their existence on Earth, and because there's nothing worth watching on television. But dragging myself to public meetings is nothing compared to dragging myself to an office or a cubicle or an assembly line station. And yes, I've done those, too. The horrors that people subject themselves to for a paycheck are staggering when one begins to notice.

So why the problem focusing? I have notes for three articles, all of which will get written this week. I have notes for articles to come. This isn't the sort of occupation that really allows for days without focus; it's always jumping ahead, jumping ahead. I get one deadline down and the next is looming. And because I'm freelance, when I don't write, I don't get paid. That's the life of a hack, the life I've chosen. And I would not choose another, except to get paid for the books and poetry I write. Sadly, though, no one reads books, and only poets read poetry – and while I am college educated, I lack the appropriate pedigree to be taken seriously by academic journals. They like craft over style and substance. Then there's a whole cadre of non-academic journals and presses, but they prefer style over craft and substance. Editors are a notorious lot, and few of them deserve the title – which is, of course, why they have it. At least in journalism – another one of those dying businesses, like education and DVD rental stores – I get to see something of the life around me, put it into words – some of them falling on the profoundly and purposely illiterate – and get a little scratch to pay my penance for life in the aftermath of the American Dream... rent, utilities, and the various bills one is expected to pay is one is to be welcomed as an adult.

Sometimes the articles are less than interesting, and it's difficult for me to move myself forward into the writing. That's not so much the case today; two of them are good, one a potential barn burner. The other is little more than a re-editing of copiously written meeting minutes written by someone else. So it's not really the content of the articles themselves that are driving me to distraction.

But recently, I've been besieged by bozos.

Or, to be more specific, I've been preoccupied with them more lately. I've always known they were there. I first noticed them when I was very young. Bozos always always seem to have or presume to have power over other people. The sole purpose bozos have for living, the occupation that justifies the precious oxygen they use up, is to maintain to maintain this illusion of control. They've built their entire lives on it, this illusion. This illusion is the thing that gets bozos out of bed in the morning; they feed off the compliments of others, they exist only if they are recognized as “being in charge.” They live their lives thinking only about how their obituaries will read. And in the process, they actively work to destroy all that is good and noble in the world, simply to maintain a ridiculous point of view... because they can't suffer honesty, and they can't cope with their own fear and mediocrity. Because fear breeds mediocrity, kids. That's as true as true can get.

My problem with bozos has been that they are not attacking me. When bozos attack me, I dispatch them quickly, and without much thought. Life and energy are too precious to spend on them, and I do not believe in wasting either of mine. But lately, the bozos have been after my wife... one of the rare souls who is good and true and noble in a world that has gone to hell. She loves with her all, and she loves honestly, and she gives more of herself than most people are able to give. And while some might think me biased, keep in mind that I have, in my time, been in company of saints, sinners, murderers and angels. I have met and continue to meet the best minds of this generation. I have a basis for comparisons, and I tell you all quite honestly, most … including myself … don't measure up to her. I wake up every day knowing I don't deserve her, and the days when I don't measure up in some sense leave me feeling miserable. She is one of those rare people who loves unconditionally. She puts all of herself into the things that matter and into the things she cares about.

And then... and then... there are the bozos. The mediocre middle-managers of the world. The forgotten and disgraced (justifiably) idjits of history. I would name some of them, but she would prefer that I not. The truth... another truth that is as true as truth can be... is that she and I walk through the world differently. I can only be myself when I am brutally honest, and she... she knows how to temper her anger with love and with laughter. She is peaceful by nature, whereas I am peaceful by choice. People that meet her first are often surprised that she is married to me. I have given up disabusing people of their ridiculous notions; the only thing that matters is that the life she and I lead is not defined by the shortcomings of others.

Fear leads to mediocrity.