Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Notes in My Back Pocket

Lately I've been collecting little snippets of news items and personal things that I find interesting or noteworthy. I write this stuff down on paper and tuck it into one of my back pockets, where they sit until I get the chance to sit down and write. While somewhat archaic in the age of smartphones, it's a system that seems to work, and gives me a sense of tactile nostalgia for things at a slower, more simple pace.

I pulled several pieces of paper out of my back pocket today. The items I wrote down all deserve some mention in a timely fashion, so without any more of a lead-up, here's some stuff that matters, at least to me:

Persistence, Humility, Vulnerability

The sermon at our church on August 7 has been on my mind ever since. Our pastor introduced us to Chapter 18 of Luke's Gospel. The virtues listed above are among the key points of this chapter, as illustrated through several parables.

I just found an excellent template and outline for a group bible study that encompasses, and has helped me make more sense of, what Luke 18 says about human behavior in contrast to the teachings of Christ. This particular chapter has some serious lessons about this. For example:
William Barclay states "(i) No man who is proud can pray; (ii) No man who despises his fellow men can pray; (iii) True prayer comes from setting our lives beside the life of God."
If you're so inclined, grab your Bible and follow along with the Lost Pine outline. Enjoy a little journey inward, maybe.

Memories of Growing Up in Sewickley

The link above is for a Facebook group started by Sewickley native William Gittins, who now resides in Jackson, Miss. I went to high school with a couple of his brothers. Since its start a few weeks ago, it has amassed over 1200 members and creates a tremendous online time warp if you spend too long reading the myriad recollections of many who called the Sewickley area home for some part of their lives.

Sewickley Patch picked up on the phenomenon earlier this week, and spoke with Mr. Gittins for a story they ran about the group. It's still going strong, and will hopefully also serve as a means to educate current residents about what it was like to grow up here.

A memory that popped into my head while writing this was the existence of at least 3 hardware stores (Hegner's, Sewickley Hardware, Sickeler's) in downtown Sewickley. There's something ironic to that, considering that I work for a big-box home improvement place now.

If you grew up here, and haven't checked this out yet, you should. Make sure you don't have to be anywhere for a couple of hours first, though. It's a true testament to the power (good or bad) of social media.

London Calling

The title of one of my favorite records from the early 80's, if not of all time. The Clash continued the activist tone of their previous two albums, but the album is also more polished and tempered somewhat to make their music and message more accessible. Perhaps this why my son likes this record and the band as well.

During the recent riots that tore into several London neighborhoods, songs from this record were going through my head, particularly The Guns of Brixton:
You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you'll have to answer to...
While on the surface the recent unrest in England may be similar to the anger and angst expressed by the punk movement of the 70's and 80's, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to some of the destruction. Young people burning down their own neighborhoods for sport, or because they are bored, disaffected, or the product of a dysfunctional society. London's burning with boredom now..

All kinds of little theories pop up in my head when I read about this, and then are quickly dismissed as nonsense. One theory sticks around, though - is there a correlation between lack of self-respect and and initiative and what we saw in London? Is that all part of the equation? Do we not see this as much in the US because we have these qualities in comparative abundance, or because we are better controlled?


Speaking of control, there has always been much discussion of the influence of wireless communications and social networks on the ability to rapidly mobilize people into action. From the Arab Spring to the G-20 protests right here in Pittsburgh, Twitter and other systems have been used to get people moving and taking direct action, whether for good or ill.

A recent action by San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system has raised the hackles of activists and regulators alike. Seems that as a part of preparations for protests over the shooting of a homeless man by BART police, BART administration shut down access to wireless networks through its subway tunnels.

Access to communication systems is important to life in these modern times, whether it be as part of an international commerce engine, or just a way for families to keep in touch. Arbitrarily shutting down these systems as a means of quelling dissent, or the lawful expression of ideas in a manner uncomfortable to some, is a 21st century affront to the First Amendment, and needs to be dealt with as such.

BART was wrong. This reminds me of a retail cashier rule, expressed as an acronym, with some Luke 18 and Simpson-esque connotations:

LISA - Look InSide Always.

'Gasland' Comes to Sewickley

A year ago last week, the acclaimed documentary 'Gasland' was shown in Grand Junction, Colorado. Josh Fox, the film's Director, was on hand for the screening to field comments and questions. I wrote about this at the time because I was living there, and also lamented the absence of a local media presence to publicize and report on the event. Granted, it's a much smaller media market over there.

Tonight at 6:30, the film gets a screening at the Sewickley Public Library, albeit without Mr. Fox in tow. The publicity has been fairly robust, at least online, and it's a good bet there will be an interested crowd at the library this evening.

Regardless on which side of the drilling debate you may fall, the film is worthwhile
because it helps to document the activities of the drilling industry would otherwise not see the light of day. I've seen enough of the effects to the environment, and on society and culture, to know that jobs and money are great but are not all sweetness and light. We have enough of an industrial past here to (hopefully) remind us of that.

Time to persist on some house projects. Have a great day.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Roads Not Taken

I've been a fan of driving older highways when traveling across the area or across the country. Like anything else, time has been a factor in determining when it's been possible to do this. My last trip across from Colorado is an example; I did have enough time to divert and see some really pretty countryside in Ohio. It made the conclusion of what up to that point had been a pretty tough drive much easier and somewhat uplifting as well.

I thought about this when the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission announced in late July that it was raising toll rates 10 percent for drivers paying cash, but not raising tolls for those using the E-Z Pass electronic toll collection system. Their justification for this was that it's more expensive to collect cash tolls, and they want to encourage Turnpike users to sign up for E-Z Pass.

Callers to local talk radio during the week that the news of the increase broke were concerned about their vehicle movements being tracked. Some also complained about some toll roads that have gone completely cashless, relying solely on transponder-based payment and license plate ID and billing of those vehicles not so equipped. Those bills, I should add, usually come with extra fees attached, especially if you are in a rental car. This is one reason why we should have just stayed on US-1 on our honeymoon in Florida, and also why I will not travel the E-470 beltway around Metro Denver.

I really don't have a problem with the E-Z Pass, but I don't have one because I don't have the need for one. I have relatives who use the Turnpike regularly for business; that and the large amounts of truck and other commercial traffic validate the Turnpike system's position as a major component in the engine of commerce. This includes the short spur between US-22 and I-376 at the Pittsburgh Airport, and I-376 itself between Chippewa and New Castle.

For those occasions when time is money, then the Turnpike system may likely be the only cost-effective alternative to get to where you or your goods and services need to be as quickly as possible over land. If, however, you are a tourist or traveling family without an E-Z Pass, it will make the Turnpike even more expensive.

are viable alternatives.

This is not to say that I won't ever drive the Turnpike again. As a historic road, the Turnpike has features that I have yet to see, most notably the 13 miles of abandoned highway (including two tunnels) just east of Breezewood. My brother and I did once traverse the tunnel between the two service plazas at Midway, back in the 70's before they closed access to the public.

These are the fun things about traveling that are too often forgotten in the rush of life, and even the rush of vacations. For too many of us, the journey is not as important as the destination. It kind of mirrors the approach toward life that many have taken in the age of instant information, conspicuous consumption, and a preponderance toward self-gratification.

So when I plan to go somewhere, I try to make the time for a more leisurely and interesting drive than would otherwise be afforded by Interstate highways. Leslie and I experienced a little of this on US-1 south of West Palm Beach, which I thought would be more interesting than I-95. We went through many small business districts, eventually arriving at Lake Worth. The business district was very lively and attractive, with some beautiful old cypress trees around City Hall. We ate at Dave's Last Resort, and spoke at length with one of the proprietors, who grew up in Aliquippa.

In the Pittsburgh area, there are plenty of options. US-30, US-40, US-22, and US-19 all run through the general area, and while at times congested by local traffic are nevertheless much more interesting than any Interstate. I have a long-term affinity for US-6, and would love to take it from Meadville to at least Scranton someday.

Fortunately, there are online utilities such as Google Maps that give users the option of obtaining directions excluding highways and/or toll roads when possible.

Consider spending a little more time enjoying more of the journey, as well as the destination, the next time you decide to travel. As Robert Frost once said, it may make all the difference.

Have a good weekend ahead.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Reclaim Our Sensibilities

I'm going to return to a Grand Junction issue, if only because it involves a topic that I'm very familiar with, in an area of town where I still have an interest.

The Sentinel's Amy Hamilton wrote an excellent story for the Sunday edition about the efforts of a new community organization to rally support for addressing what they perceive as undesirables behaving badly, particularly in Hawthorne Park. Ms. Hamilton deftly balanced her story with the inclusion of background information on both the challenges and services available to both the transient and chronically homeless in the GJ area.

This group, calling itself Reclaim Grand Junction, states as its mission:

1. Safety for our children;

2. Compassion for our neighbors who need it most;

3. Balanced policies from our city.

Additionally, the group makes a point of saying that they are not "anti-homeless". Well, most of us really aren't. As citizens and/or Christians, we give of our time and/or bounty to aid those in need. Maybe what they meant was that they're not anti-homeless; they just don't want to see it everyday.

As a property owner and former resident in the immediate vicinity of Hawthorne Park, I would like to comment further:

First, I believe that the group should add the following to their site's list of definitions:

Definition of RECLAIM

transitive verb
1. a : to recall from wrong or improper conduct : reform
b : tame, subdue
2. a : to rescue from an undesirable state; also : to restore to a previous natural state
b : to make available for human use by changing natural conditions
3. a: to obtain from a waste product or by-product : recover
4. a : to demand or obtain the return of
b : to regain possession of

It seems to me that the first and fourth definitions best describe the intent of Reclaim GJ's efforts. Whether that intent remains just underneath the emotionally-charged labels of "Safety" and "Children" remains to be seen. As with many of our homeless, there's more to the story than what's on the outside. Whether people can get past their disdain and look at each other as human beings and citizens is where real change will come from.

While I'm thinking about it, the photo on the home page of Reclaim GJ's website, depicting a small child standing next to a person laying on trash-strewn ground, bag-wrapped bottle in hand, is incredible, as in "lacks credibility". The Sentinel reported that the photo was staged...well, duh.

I lived in the Hawthorne Park neighborhood for 12 years, and still have family there. We used the park for many purposes, and never felt that our safety was compromised by the presence of someone sleeping on the grass or congregating in the shelter. In fact, I had some enlightening conversations with some who dwelled in the park by day and at a shelter, a tent, or a camper shell at night.

I spoke with my son yesterday; he said that he hasn't really noticed anything outside of what has been the norm at the park for the last several years. What really has changed?

The manner in which Reclaim GJ is putting their "campaign" before the public has generated some attention, and may even spur some action on the part of City Administration. However, Council has been down the "safety" road before, with mixed results.

I've also forwarded the Reclaim GJ site and the July 31 Sentinel story to the Colorado Chapter of the ACLU. Those concerned might want to read the letter that they wrote to City Council in 2009 regarding a proposed panhandling ordinance. That letter is available here.

Particular attention should be paid to the comments regarding officer discretion, due process of law, and the concept of safety. Quoting the letter from ACLU Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein:
"The council should question whether this ordinance is truly meant as a safety measure or whether, as in other communities, the safety rationale is a pretext for the proponents’ true motivation: to push the homeless and unemployed out of sight".
I also have questions about having compassion for those "who need it most". To me, that's definitely in the eye of the beholder. Is someone capable of pulling themselves up with a little help deserving of such "compassion", or is someone incapable of such action, as a consequence of their own infirmities, addictions, or choices, worthy of our attention? Can the law make a distinction, especially when, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, "courts have found loitering and vagrancy laws unconstitutionally vague"?

I believe Reclaim GJ when they say they are not anti-homeless. Perhaps they'll join the many groups that are already stakeholders in trying to address what is a daunting and escalating issue in many areas of the City and Mesa County. However, I do not believe that their stated mission will complement that of many charged with rendering assistance to what Christ called "the least of these" (Matthew 25:45).

On its surface, Reclaim Grand Junction feels like just another attempt to address homelessness by moving it somewhere else where it can be conveniently ignored. I feel for those who have been affected by illicit activity near their private residences. I'm confident that government, working with the Coalition for the Homeless and other stakeholder groups, will continue to address those engaged in aberrant behavior, while respecting the rights of these less fortunate citizens accordingly.

"Safety" is not a euphemism for NIMBY; nor should it be camouflage for intolerance.

Have a great day.