I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Union and Separation

How I Slipped Down a Rabbit Hole and Found Myself Mired in America

When I was first commissioned by the Lowell Ledger to report on a "union meeting" at the Englehardt Library, I had no idea that I would get involved in a story that was far too big to be contained in the one article I was writing. Over the next few weeks, the struggle between two opposing sides over the wording of a contract for utility workers would bleed over into other facets of my life, confusing the boundaries of "that story" and "my story" until I found myself part of a narrative about the people and the governing bodies they elect. What I was actually experiencing was the life story of a small town in Michigan called Lowell, or, in other words, a big dream in the collective consciousness called America.

My mission was bi-fold, to reveal and to simplify - to reveal because the contract negotiations had gone on for over a year between union lawyers and city lawyers "behind closed doors," and to simplify because the entirety of the story would have to fit on half a page with a possible addendum in the back of the paper. When I was first hired on to the Ledger in November of last year, publisher Jon Jacobs described how difficult it was that City of Lowell and Lowell Light & Power would not give even the littlest scrap of information to the public about their negotiations. Nearly a year later, I had thought that everyone at the Lowell Ledger had forgotten about this struggle when I was given my first assignment to cover an informational meeting that a municipal watchdog group named VOICE (Voters Organized in Civic Excellence) of Lowell had put together.

Democracy at work in Lowell, Michigan.
The revelation was easy. Finally, the people of Lowell had eyes on the process that had been unfolding for so long without their input. It was the simplification that proved difficult. If the world were simple, then you could reduce the one side - the Lowell Light & Power workers, the City of Lowell workers, their families, the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) union representatives, and the members of VOICE of Lowell - to the one word "union" while reducing the other side - the City Council, the Lowell Light & Power board, the city manager, the manager at LLP, and their myriad lawyers - to the word "city." In fact, VOICE of Lowell and the IBEW do not share the same mission. If the IBEW were corrupt and it was bringing harm to this little community, it would be the duty of the VOICE to call them out. Furthermore, VOICE of Lowell is an open group, a group that Perry Beachum could join, as well as anyone on board, even Mayor Jim Hodges. Truly understanding the struggle unfolding in Lowell requires throwing the concept of simplicity out the window.

If the diametrical opposition still screams in your ear, consider the similarities one can find between the "two groups." Barbara Barber took over leadership of VOICE of Lowell after founder Ivan Blough died in June of 2010. Ivan Blough was a legend of a man, Lowell's own Paul Bunyan or John Henry. I'd even heard stories of the man, and I was raised in a completely different town. Ivan never put any limits to the types of structural problems he could repair nor the types of social injustice he could battle, doing repairs on the Lowell showboat and striving to keep the community informed on what was going on in their town. If you were to try and find someone to compare in Lowell today, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone more committed than Greg Canfield of Canfield Plumbing and Heating. I first met Greg while reporting on his activity in raising money for the local food pantry at Flat River Outreach Ministries (FROM) through Lowell's Food Fight charity competition, but Greg's philanthropic work extends to paying for water heaters for people in need and doing pro bono work for flood victims. You could argue that taking the time to be on the Lowell Light & Power board is just as charitable as any of his other work, especially because running your own business keeps you busy enough as you are. Of course, you cannot make this comparison if you think we're discussing yeses and nos, odds and evens, pros and cons, because these two great-hearted men who have so much in common exist at opposite ends of the extreme, at least according to "the simplification," Ivan Blough with the people and Greg Canfield with the powers that be.

The Canfields supporting Flat River Outreach Ministries.
Ultimately, I wrote my simple article and I got paid for it, but whether you consider the preceding paragraphs  a well-articulated, touching and emotional statement or simply verbal vomit of all the thoughts stuck in the author's head, they prove that this story doesn't color within the lines. I stand with the people who want to be let in on the process of government, but at the same time, I feel for the council member who is so wired from being on the defensive that he can't get a good night's sleep. The process of government is scary. To take sides in a seeming dichotomy is wrong, or at least in bad faith. My instinct is that the people are getting the bad end of the bargain of American democracy, and that the people in power are selfish and manipulative, but my experience includes instances of people purposely giving away their every freedom because laziness is easier than involvement. My experience includes instances of public officials who are really trying their hardest to make a better world, from President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner down to each and every council member I encountered in Lowell. In fact, I would go so far to say that they are mostly all coming from a good place when they make those pronouncements that seem so discordant with liberty and justice, or, at least, the origin of these campaigns came from a wholesome place.

But for the workers at Lowell Light & Power and City of Lowell utilities, a contract will be forced upon them by their municipal leaders whether they like it or not if negotiations do not result in an agreement within the next couple of months, so all of this peace, unity, and camaraderie that is so evident to me is likely to be on hiatus for those who are in the thick of it. I get to walk in and out of this situation, but these people have no other home for the next few months than the jungle. My heart goes out to them all.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Local First Puts Local... First

 How the People Learned to Bail Out the Michigan Economy Themselves
The Needs of Local Businesses Outweigh the Needs of the Chain, or the Internet
Spock, paraphrased 

Elissa Hillary heads Local First, a Grand Rapids-based organization started in 2003 by Guy Bazzani in order to boost consumer support of local businesses. She was interviewed on a September 4 segment of "Stateside" on Michigan Radio.

She painted a picture of what greater Grand Rapids might look like if people thought to shop first and foremost at local businesses rather than national and international chains. When people shop at small nearby businesses, a whopping 73% more money stays in the community. Why should this matter? When that money stays in the community, it creates jobs, and helps fund things like schools and road repair. In a state where it seems like every main road is replaced each summer and there are multiple school districts under state emergency control, there should be no more clear solution than to shop locally.

Hillary says that if people make a small change in their buying habits, it can make a big impact. She cited a study done by Civic Economics claiming that if everyone in Kent County were to shift one in ten dollars that they would already be spending - we are not talking about buying anything more than you already do - the impact would be $140 million more dollars in the area and 1600 more jobs. Imagine the possibilities were the average Michigander willing to spend twice or three times that much locally.

Meijer is a regional grocery chain that has been
operating out of Grand Rapids, Michigan since
1934 and many of their products are local.
One thing that people often trip over on the way to shopping locally is the belief that chain stores are more convenient, providing a wider selection of products at cheaper prices. Hillary says that this is not necessarily the truth, at least not in all cases, but chain stores have a tendency to spend so much more money in marketing in order to make you believe that they are a better choice that it is hard to see through to the local store. Where does this enormous marketing budget come from? The consumer, of course - you and me and all our neighbors.

The internet provides another stumbling block, and this is particularly depressing, because unless you are ordering from a local business 100% of the proceeds from your purchase leave your community. Hillary suggests that when we view our expenses we shift from looking at price and start looking at cost. While the sticker price of a product or service from a chain or internet source might be lower than that of a local business, the cost to the community is egregious. Money leaving the community leads to stores closing and jobs leaving the community which leads to a reduction in government tax income - which you know they'll take from somewhere else. For Hillary, every dollar you spend is a vote, so if you spend your money at a local business, you are voting for that local community and the success of your community.

Grand Rapids has always been very entrepreneurial, and in the last decade or so it is a mecca for start-up businesses. When I moved out of state several years ago, I remember going to all of these interesting places and thinking: Grand Rapids doesn't have cool bars or restaurants; Grand Rapids is boring. When I moved back a couple years ago, everything had changed. It was like going from black-and-white to technicolor.

My future father-in-law Cliff Yankovich has been writing about this kind of stuff for at least as long as I've known him on his blog called Cliff's Riffs. I would be lying if I said I had any earlier influence on this subject than his writings and the life he leads. In 2009, he challenged his readers to spend $10 a week locally if we wanted an extra $36 million in the state economy and he subsequently provided example after example on how easy it is. Because he is connected to two local businesses, he's written articles on "the impact of doing small (micro) business" and "the net effect of doing business with a local shop." Cliff is telling the same story as Local First - people need to start thinking about where their money is going.

Visit Local First at their web site. After you're done learning about this community support group, buy a local coffee or ice cream cone. It is so easy, you'll kick yourself for not starting earlier.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Heaven and Hell Are For the Dead

A Review of The Walking Dead #2

The story of Rick Grimes is a series of reversals, a fact that is just as true in the second issue as it is throughout all of The Walking Dead. Alone and surrounded by the dead, sometimes animate and sometimes put to rest by bullets to the brain, Rick's entry into Georgia and its "Southern Hospitality" feels like an entry into the afterlife. This is amplified by the fact that the first and last word of dialogue are both "God." At the beginning, Rick curses this life after death, saying "God Dammit! Not again!!" when he finds another gas station void of gas. By the end, Rick says "Thank God," as he embraces the family that he has been searching for. You could say that Rick experiences both heaven and hell.

Thank goodness Rick talks to himself. Since
thought bubbles are no longer in style, much
of this issue would have otherwise been as
word-free as the beginning of Kubrick's 2001.
The metaphors for heaven and hell are ample. The first panel shows Rick driving in the darkness and the last shows Rick in a community by day. He mourns for a dead family after seeing the destruction of Atlanta only to praise their life when Glenn's suggestion of hope is fulfilled. Perhaps the most telling example of heaven and hell is that of Rick's loneliness and his ascent into community. I've heard just as many people say, "Hell is being alone," as "hell is other people," but for many cultures it is alienation that breeds evil and sin and hell while community provides good and love and heaven. For many religious persons, hell is the absence of God. This hell as defined by negation is popular with some of the more philosophic Christians, people who are trying to answer some of the problems left over from the omnipresent, omnipotent, completely good nature of God running into the presence of suffering and the reality of hell. Though Rick Grimes experiences some good moments, meeting a horse and recounting his favorite moment, it is clear that this is Rick's hell, a world where the ones he loves are absent.

It is a gruesome hell. Those who have passed are eternally dead, always and only experiencing death. They are granted a second life, but it is no life worthy of the word. These "zombies," as they are named for the first time by guardian angel Glenn, bring their "bad word" of death to anyone they encounter. When Rick ventures into what he assumes to be a government protected zone in Atlanta, he is surrounded by the undead and they feast on his horse alive. Certainly, the horse would have died of starvation, dehydration or exposure if Rick hadn't freed it, but the nameless beast didn't even enjoy the dignified end that Rick gave the unnamed zombie at the end of the first issue when he shot it in the head. Rick's bullets were reserved for the shamblers closing in on him.

Since so many stories these days are based on the Odyssey, one would assume that The Walking Dead would be much like Gilligan's Island. Much like the crew of The Minnow was always coming close to rescue only to find themselves back on the island, Rick Grimes would keep getting closer and closer to his family only to miss out on them once again. Perhaps he would walk by them while they are hiding in the trunk of a car, or he would rush toward them as they are pushed into a helicopter that he is too late to get to. In reality, Robert Kirkman reunites Rick's Odysseus with his Penelope and Telemachus - Lori and Carl - immediately, tearing them apart in the first issue and putting them back together in issue two. Kirkman is setting up for a long, drawn-out drama, in which we see the metaphorical innards of the characters just as we saw the literal innards of Rick's horse. (Keep in mind that Rick got pretty deep in his conversation with the horse, almost disturbingly so, while he believed he was alone in this world, because this theme will certainly pop up again.)

Let's not forget the words of the street-savvy Glenn when he said, "Don't give up hope, man..." After all, Rick, Lori and Carl are united and part of a group of survivors, and the thing about survivors is that they are all alive. They aren't on the ground because of bullets or on the streets because of a mysterious reanimating force. Rick's reunion with the human race makes it clear that this world is for the living, while heaven and hell are for the dead.

You'd think somebody would get some spray paint and ominously write that Georgia is the home to
Southern inhospitality. I guess those rascally teens must have had something else on their minds.