Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Of the pause that follows a period....

As someone who remembers the lunar landing of '69 (barely), who grew up in a world where the domino theory ruled U.S. foreign policy, who visited Estonia when it was a reluctant state within the Soviet empire and who actually remembers a time when there was once a Soviet empire, I've learned lately that I'm an old-fashioned girl.

I understand that we have only eight planets now in our solar system, with the demotion of Pluto to "minor planet" status; that the map of the world has been redrawn numerous times in my lifetime and the Soviet empire collapsed of its own weight. Though irritated with the diminishment of Pluto's status, I am on board with all of these changes.

It is a radical change in modern punctuation that leaves me gasping. Having learned to type the old-fashioned way - using a typewriter - I grew up believing that a period is always followed by two spaces.

Apparently, I've been doing it wrong for a very long time. One is supposed to add just one space after a period.

From The Chicago Manual of Style Online:

The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however – my colleagues included – prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes. I’ve noticed in old American books printed in the few decades before and after the turn of the last century (ca. 1870–1930 at least) that there seemed to be a trend in publishing to use extra space (sometimes quite a bit of it) after periods. And many people were taught to use that extra space in typing class (I was.)

But introducing two spaces after the period causes problems:

(1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence;

(2) even if a program is set to automatically put an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof;

(3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability—as your comment suggests, it’s probably just a matter of familiarity (Who knows? perhaps it’s actually more efficient to read with less regard for sentences as individual units of thought—many centuries ago, for example in ancient Greece, there were no spaces even between words, and no punctuation);

(4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents (I find that the earmark of a document that imposes a two-space rule is a smattering of instances of both three spaces and one space after a period, and two spaces in the middle of sentences);

(5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.

So, in our efficient, modern world, I think there is no room for two spaces after a period. In the opinion of this particular copyeditor, this is a good thing.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) weighs in:

Publications in the United States today usually have the same spacing after a punctuation mark as between words on the same line. Since word processors make available the same fonts used by typesetters for printed works, many writers, influenced by the look of typeset publications, now leave only one space after a concluding punctuation mark. In addition, most publishers' guidelines for preparing a manuscript on disk ask authors to type only the spaces that are to appear in print....

As a practical matter, however, there is nothing wrong with using two spaces after concluding punctuation marks unless an instructor or editor requests that you do otherwise.

Ah ha! Even with the MLA, this is an area of controversy. "Leave only one space after a concluding punctuation mark" - but "nothing wrong with using two!"

And confusion apparently reigns elsewhere. According to an poll, of nearly 10,000 people polled, 47 percent favored two spaces; 43 percent favored one space; and eight percent of those polled voted to try and convince others to follow the one space rule.

Clearly, while most people tend to accept the new order of our universe as maps and solar systems evolve, when it comes to punctuation, closing down sentences with just one space has not achieved universal acceptance among users.

I may be old fashioned, but apparently, I'm not alone.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Glorious Heritage

My son turned nine yesterday. He is my first-born; his birth nine years ago signified that precise moment when I became, like all parents, equally connected to the past and future. As a parent, I pass on the lessons I've learned through my life experiences to my children, who (one hopes) will use them as guideposts as they move forward to inhabit the future.

The end of this dreadful year leaves me feeling melancholy, and it is my role as a parent that worries me most. I know that I will at some point have to answer to my children - I will have to explain how we took astronomical surpluses and made them vanish – poof – like Harry Potter vanishes when he drapes his invisibility cloak over himself. Of course, Harry reappears the moment he takes the cloak off. Our federal surplus, however, has vanished – and our children will be paying down this debt for many years to come.

I'll have to explain to my children how a president who coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism" decided to remain on vacation after Katrina, the worst national disaster in our country's history, devastated New Orleans.

I'll have to explain how a nation that once prided itself on being a beacon for liberty and the rule of law became a vocal advocate for the use of torture.

When my children come to me with questions about the meltdown; about the use of torture; about the disaster known as 2008, I don't know if I'll have answers that will satisfy them. But I do know that I will share with them something that Teddy Roosevelt said more than 100 years ago when he spoke at the 4th of July celebration in Dickinson, North Dakota in 1886:

"...It is peculiarly incumbent upon us here today so to act throughout our lives as to leave our children a heritage for which we will receive their blessing and not their curse.

"If you fail to work in public life, as well as in private, for honesty and uprightness and virtue, if you condone vice because the vicious man is smart, or if you in any other way cast your weight into the scales in favor of evil, you are just so far corrupting and making less valuable the birthright of your children...."

As we look back on the milestones of 2008, it is clear that we have ill-used our blessings in ways that have devastated the value of our children's birthright. It is time now to move forward as if we all belong to the future; to act in ways that renew the "glorious heritage" we've all been granted as residents of the United States of America.

For in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, "it is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it."

Monday, December 22, 2008

The True Spirit of Christmas....

In a day that brought us the news that banks who got billions in the bailout aren't keeping track of their money, here's a story about the kind of wealth that springs from generosity.

To me, this story in today's NY Times exemplifies the true spirit of Christmas:

It's about a successful businessman who never sought credit for helping others during the Great Depression. He instead believed his generosity toward others was simply "the debt we owe one another and ourselves." A wonderful sentiment, then and now.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pitiful, Dreadful, Wonderful Life of a Classic Film

Christmas is here with a vengeance and with it, the annual denunciations of It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that wound its way into the cultural slipstream in the early 1980s and has never left it. This year’s popular denunciation can be found here in the NY Times.

It’s a great review by Wendell Jamieson, who calls the film a “terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It’s a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away….”

When reading this, I thought to myself that Jamieson is spot on – It’s a Wonderful Life truly is a dark and foreboding film, though remarkably uplifting at the end. To me, it’s a tribute to the filmmakers that a film about the relinquishment of dreams can provide such inspiration and hope.

Jamieson also thinks that Pottersville, with its strip joints and gambling halls, would not only be a more fun place to live than Bedford Falls, but “would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today.”

Here, we disagree. Las Vegas may be a great place to visit, but I personally don’t think the strip is a great place to raise a family. And he may want to check out the economic health of the gambling capital of the nation: in 2006, Fortune Magazine placed Vegas in the “dead zone” of the nation’s housing market – two years before the crash.

Or read today's story in Reuter's about how the Wynn casino is faring in the current slump - the news is not good.

Clearly, gambling and strip joints aren't really the cure for all economic ills.

Jamieson was a Clash fan when he saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time, courtesy of a high school teacher who screened the film for him and other students in 1981. And despite the angry persona he had donned in high school, Jamieson became a fan of the film – and today still gets chills at the end of the movie. But he’s convinced that most people love the film for all the wrong reasons. “Because to [Jamieson,] It’s a Wonderful Life is anything but a cheery holiday tale.”

And that’s precisely why I love the movie. I agree wholeheartedly with Jamieson that it is anything but cheery; it's a story about sacrifice, about committing to family at the expense of one’s dreams. It’s a story about taking a stand against the Trump of the time without the motivation of a financial payoff.

George Bailey had a tough life, a “pitiful, dreadful life,” according to Jamieson, and yes, the life was miserable and difficult, but most lives are lived, as Thoreau noted, in quiet desperation, and that's most likely the reason for this film's popularity, the idea that a life lived caring for others can be rich and fruitful.

It's also a revolutionary movie, by American standards. In traditional American mythology, we tend to revere the rich Mr. Potters, our Waltons, Rockefellers, Pullmans and Trumps, though delighting in their foibles. George Bailey's life careened off track early and never again veered in the direction of his dreams. It's rare to lionize the chump, but that's what this movie did to such success.

Jamieson’s review is cheery in a wholly unexpected way. In researching for the review, Jamieson interviewed Frank Clark, the district attorney for Erie County in New York, to better understand the ramifications for having an $8,000 shortfall on the books.

According to Clark, despite the friends who donate to the cause of George Bailey’s missing funds at the end of the film, George Bailey would still be liable for the original $8,000 loss and could easily be sent to jail for the misdeed.

And I think about the all bankers who lost a few billion dollars from the company books when they turned the real estate market into the biggest craps table in the world, and I think a jail sentence for such behavior would be a wonderful thing indeed.

Friday, December 19, 2008

When triumph collides with disaster....(to paraphrase Kipling)

The mother of the father of Bristol Palin's illegitmate baby was arrested today on drug charges.

Also today, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich quoted Kipling while notifying Illinois residents that he will fight these needless corruption charges until his dying breath.

Christmas – and all the marvelous spirituality that comes with it – is in less than a week.

Sometimes it is hard, as Kipling said, "to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs...."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

COPs on the job! Coming to the rescue...sort of...we think?

Last week, when the world was abuzz over the expletive-laden discourse Rod Blagojevich had engaged in over a vacant U.S. senate seat, a terrifying news story happened concurrently that was relegated to the sidelines, if noted at all by the news media.

I’m talking about the release of the first Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) for Economic Stabilization.

You can download the report here.

The COP report opens immediately with the acknowledgement that the four members of the panel are not necessarily working in sync. And you don’t have to get far into the report to come to that conclusion: on page two of the report, it’s clear that Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Dallas) does not approve of this report.

In a press release filled with vagueness, Hensarling tries to explain his opposition to the report. He states his goal is “to do whatever I can to ensure that [TARP] works.” And right now, the action he is taking is to vote against the first COP report.

I read his brief press release (which you can find here.)
and have no idea what important issues he feels are being ignored. I do understand after reading his release that Hensarling’s good conscience leads him to believe that “the jury is out” on whether or not the oversight panel will be an effective vehicle for overseeing TARP.

So I begin reading the report feeling curious that a key member of the oversight panel questions the effectiveness of the panel. But I sally forth to explore the ideas and conclusions offered within the first report on Bush’s TARP for our financial industry.

As I finish the second paragraph, I realize I’m terrified. We start with the acknowledgement that “the American family is at the epicenter of this crisis” and then we launch into dire statistics that support the thesis:

– The unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 14 years
– In the last three months, 1.2 million Americans lost their jobs – and more than half a million of those losses happened in November
– One in ten mortgage holders is now in default
– Credit, when available, has become dramatically more expensive for borrowers
– The U.S. stock markets have lost more than 40 percent of their value in the last year

So how is TARP helping those of us at the epicenter of this crisis? Good question!

In fact, the report has lots of good questions – questions like “who got the money, what have they done with it, how has it helped the country, and how has it helped ordinary people?”

And questions like:

– What is the Treasury’s strategy?
– Is the strategy working?
– What have financial institutions done with the taxpayer’s money so far?

That there are no answers to the last question is one of the most terrifying aspects of the report. Apparently, “the Office of Financial Stabilization has administered the TARP program without seeking to monitor the use of funds provided to specific financial institutions.”

If this is true, we’ve handed billions of taxpayer dollars – no strings attached - to institutions that turned the U.S. housing market into the biggest crap game in the world. One can only wonder what these proven opportunists will do with this cache of free money.

In the end, the COP report offers mostly questions and very few answers. In Washington, apparently, oversight happens only after the money has been spent.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Harder than Harvard...

Who knew that getting a seasonal job at Best Buy would be harder than getting into Harvard?

According to a story on NPR today, more than one million people applied for 24,000 seasonal jobs this year at Best Buy. That's 40 applicants vying for each job.

By contrast, in spring of 2008, Harvard had received approximately 27,000 applicants for almost 2000 spots, which translates into roughly 13 applicants for every student admitted.*

You can listen to NPR's story here.

And you can read about Harvard's applicant pool here.

*Math skills highly questionable, due to lifelong interest in language arts. Apologize in advance if ratio is off in anyway.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"I've got this thing..."

I’m a dreamer – yes I am, a died-in-the-wool dreamer who dreams that liberty and justice and the American way mingle together in peaceful co-existence. But lately, as you can imagine, my dreams leave me with the strange, nightmare sensations of anxiety, panic and fear.

I wake up these days realizing that what we're witnessing today is a total failure of leadership. We live in a society where we simply cannot trust bankers, mortgage brokers, priests, presidents, vice-presidents, the CIA, Treasury secretaries and governors.

At least not the governors of Illinois. Especially not the current governor.

Just last month – in fact, it was just the day after the celebratory send-off party in Grant Park for Barack Obama as he said good-bye to his senate seat and hello to the presidency – Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recorded as saying, “I’ve got this thing and it’s f***ing golden, and uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for f***in’ nothing. I’m not gonna do it. And, and I can always use it. I can parachute me there.”

We all know by now that he was, of course, referring to the senate seat left vacant by our president-elect, the seat that Blagojevich wanted to sell to the highest bidder – or use to parachute into the senate himself.

But I still dream and yearn for the day that our politicians realize that all of them possess that “thing and it’s f***ing golden” and it’s a thing that they should really never want to give up – ever.

It’s called the public trust.

And when politicians and business leaders trash this trust, as we’ve seen in 2008, something golden is lost forever.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

But I voted for change!

At least I thought I voted for change, way back in 2002, when I cast my vote for Rod Blagojevich for governor.

George Ryan, the Republican governor who preceded Blagojevich, had left office under a cloud of suspicion (sending millions of dollars in state contracts to friends and family, granting truck driver’s licenses to unqualified drivers in return for cash.) He now sits in jail, waiting patiently for the early release that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin inexplicably seeks for him.

During his term as governor, Ryan had met with Fidel Castro and ended the death sentence in Illinois due to concerns that it was not administered fairly, an action led to his nomination for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet he balanced a desire to help others with an insatiable greed. In 2006, he was convicted on multiple charges of corruption and has served less than two years of a six-year prison sentence.

In 2002, Blagojevich charged into the governor’s office waving the flag of reform. Yesterday, he was accused of committing acts of corruption that are astonishing in their reach – all involving “pay to play” schemes. Give me money – you can become the next Illinois Senator. Give me money, and you’ll get your $8 million grant to help sick kids. Fire the jerks on the editorial board who hate me and you’ll get bankruptcy protection money.

The trail of corruption in Illinois is long, crooked and has no end in sight. Right now, I’ll just hum a little Sam Cooke (who once called Illinois his home) to help me muster up the belief that “it’s a long – a long time coming, but I know that change’s gonna come.”

One can only hope.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The October Rose

‘Tis the season to bring love and joy into the world – and here’s one of the loveliest stories of the year…

It’s a story that begins in October 2008, when the economy is in a state of collapse; the culture is in crisis, and faith in humanity – at least, my faith in humanity – is at an all-time low.

It is precisely at this time that my next-door neighbor, Annie Jennings, comes home from high school bearing an orange rose. She presents this flower to her mother, Ellen, with the announcement that she is one of the “Sweet 16,” a member of Libertyville High School’s Homecoming Court.

Annie is not quite 18 years old, a high school senior with stick-straight, sandy blond hair, glasses and a big smile. We hire her to feed our cat whenever we head out of town and we leave knowing our cat is in very good hands. So when I learn of her selection as a member of the homecoming court, I am intrigued. This is the girl who watches my cat, after all.

Ellen is curious about what it means to be a member of the “Sweet 16.” Turns out that the senior class has voted, and Annie is one of a select group of girls to be considered for the Homecoming Queen. Within a week, the entire student population will choose one girl from this group to be the queen. Usually, the Homecoming Court has 16 girls; this year there is a tie, which means there are 17 girls being considered for this honor.

Ellen is a practical woman, a librarian who drives a Honda Fit economy car. The desire to be a homecoming queen has never been hers. Still, she is happy for Annie and vaguely proud that her daughter has been plucked from obscurity in this way.

She becomes concerned, however, when Annie assures her that she will win the title.

And, frankly, when Ellen tells me this, I’m also concerned. As much as I like Annie, she doesn’t at all fit in with my preconceived notions of what a Homecoming Queen is. I just assume that this is an honor that the pretty girl wins, the popular girl, the cheerleader. Not girls like Annie.

Diminishing Expectations
Annie doesn’t fit my notion of homecoming queen because she has Down syndrome. She was born with trisomy 21, and has 47 chromosomes, instead of 46.

In our culture, we strive for the bigger car, the bigger house, more stuff, but in human biology, more is not better when it comes to chromosomes. The extra chromosome that causes Down Syndrome brings with it a number of physical traits and attributes specific to this condition, including an upward slant to the eyes, reduced muscle tone and developmental delays that can range from mild to severe.

Ellen and her husband John discovered Annie had Down’s the day she was born. That moment of joy, the arrival of a beloved baby, was, for John and Ellen, tempered with worries about Annie’s future. All of the expectations new parents have for a new baby were shifted, altered and diminished when the Jennings found out Annie had Down’s. And like many children born with Down’s, Annie had some serious medical issues that required multiple surgeries by the time she was seven.

Ellen will be the first to tell you that caring for an infant with Down’s can be overwhelming. Annie is the second daughter in the family; her big sister Laura is four years older, a college senior now, planning for a career in special education.

Ellen knows what it is like to have a “normal” child. She knows the joy that comes from watching a baby reach the traditional milestones within the traditional time frame; she knows the absolute delight that comes from watching a baby discover smiling, rolling over, crawling, talking, walking and reading - all at the right time.

When Annie was a baby, these goals seemed remote and impossible.

“You know, I cried for the first two years of Annie’s life,” says Ellen. “I thought that for the rest of my life, the only thing I would have time for would be to care for Annie.”

Discovering Aptitudes
When Annie was two, however, Ellen found solace from an unlikely source for this liberal Democrat: a column by the conservative political columnist George Will. Despite their political differences, Ellen discovered that she shares one thing in common with Will – they both have a child with Down syndrome.

In this particular column, Jon Will’s Aptitude, Will talks about the complexities and the joys of Jon’s life as a young adult with Down’s. In describing Jon’s inherent gentleness, Will is unwilling to attribute this character trait to a genetic malfunction. Instead, Will says, “let’s just say that Jon is an adornment to a world increasingly stained by anger acted out.”

“Reading George Will’s column, I realized that perhaps there could be more to Annie’s life than being just “special needs.” And I realized that perhaps my life could involve more than exclusively caring for Annie,” says Ellen. “George Will certainly has a full and rich life, and I began to see that it could be possible for me as well.”

And from that moment forward, things changed for Ellen. She reclaimed her future. She worked with the district to prepare Annie for school and, once Annie started in kindergarten, she worked with the school to make sure Annie got the services she needed. When Annie was in school full time, Ellen then got a job as a librarian at the local library.

The Importance of Inclusion
Which brings us to that week in October, when Annie was firm in her belief that she would be voted the LHS homecoming queen.

“How did they even know to vote for her in the first place, to make her one of the Sweet 16?” I ask Ellen.

I have the outsider’s perspective when it comes to popularity. I had a small, close-knit group of friends in high school, but being known in a wider sense by the larger group was beyond my skill. I’m quite impressed that people knew Annie well enough to vote for her in the initial selection that made up the Sweet 16.

“I don’t know,” Ellen tells me at first. “All I know is that whenever I walk the hallways with her, everyone seems to know who she is.”

Later, when she has time to think about it, Ellen revises her answer. “We are lucky because we live in a school district that believes in inclusion – believes in placing students like Annie in mainstream classrooms. We moved here for that reason.”

When she entered kindergarten, Annie was placed in a traditional classroom – not a special education facility. From the moment she became a student, she mingled with “the normies” as she likes to call the mainstream students.

As the curriculum became more specialized in high school, Annie continued to mix with “the normies” through a school-sponsored program called Best Buddies.

Julia Bleck is a senior at Libertyville High School and like Annie, a member of the Homecoming Court.

“I first met Annie a long time ago in Religious Education classes through our church, but I hadn’t been in class with her again until this year, when we had gym together,” says Julia. “I had such a great experience that it made me want to join Best Buddies this year. That’s where traditional students get to hang out with students like Annie. I think having a group like Best Buddies allows kids to be more understanding about their peers – and more accepting of everyone.”

Janet Brownlie is the principal at Adler Park elementary school, and was there when Annie started in kindergarten.

“In my mind, Annie is the 'poster child’ for inclusion as her presence in the school and classroom and all that she has achieved is what we wish for every child,” says Brownlie. “She has parents who have given her every opportunity to feel she can achieve, be happy, be involved and be like any other typical girl her age. The classroom environment enabled her to have a differentiated curriculum when needed, yet recognize that others also had challenges and maybe she wasn't that different.”

But Annie is different. She has Down’s. And she approaches the upcoming coronation ceremony like it is a done deal – she is absolutely convinced that she is going to win.

What do you say when your child so firmly believes in something you know cannot possibly be true? Ellen and John did their best to prepare Annie for the inevitable – for the fact that someone else most likely would be crowned.

“There are 16 other girls, Annie,” Ellen would say, and Annie would respond with her usual blend of confidence and exuberance. “But mom, everyone tells me they’re gonna vote for me.”

The Queen Is Crowned
The big day finally arrives. Ellen and John accompany Annie to the Homecoming Assembly in the gym.

“As we walked in the gym with Annie, everyone was yelling her name,” says John. “I was really surprised at how many people knew who she was.”

Ellen selects seats near the door. She’s not sure how Annie will react if she doesn’t win and wants an easily reached escape route.

“The first thing they did was to announce the top eight contenders. And Annie was one of them,” said Ellen.

So now Annie sits in the front row, surrounded by the pretty girls, the ones you expect to win.

“The senior class president did this little act where he ran up and down, pretending to place the crown on each girl’s head,” says Ellen.

Finally the president stops to crown the queen – and he stops just behind Annie, and he places the crown on Annie’s head. The gymnasium erupts in applause and cheers. And the cheers are deafening: “Annie! Annie! Annie!” And Annie’s screams of joy are among the loudest.

Ellen is videotaping the proceedings, and at this point, the camera gets really shaky. The camerawoman is crying ¬– Ellen is crying – just like she did in those early years when life as Annie’s mom promised to hold only struggle.

Only on this day in October, when Annie is crowned the 2008 LHS Homecoming Queen, Ellen is crying tears of joy. She’s crying because life has wonderfully failed to meet those earlier expectations; it has in fact surpassed them in ways Ellen never thought possible back in those dark, early days, before she really knew who Annie was.

“Inclusion has been such a great thing for Annie,” said Ellen. “The experience of being in a classroom with regular students gave everyone the chance to see how similar they all are. There is absolutely no way Annie would have been in this position if it had not been for inclusion.”

Julia Bleck also thinks inclusion makes a difference. “I think it really showed character in our school and proof that Best Buddies works when Annie was nominated and chosen for Homecoming Queen,” says Bleck. “In some places, she might not have even gone to school with me. Being with Annie as part of Best Buddies gave me an understanding of how all the buddies are alike. We all have the same interests in hobbies. When people don’t get the opportunity to be together – there isn’t a chance for students to find this out.”

John Jennings was happily surprised for many reasons. “I went to an all-boys high school, so we didn’t have anything like this,” says John. “The biggest surprise for me was to see everyone at the school be so generous. I went into this thinking that the girls on the court would be tolerant of Annie – but they were genuinely excited for her when she won.”

Janet Brownlie, Annie’s former principal, knew that Annie had a chance to win the crown. “When I heard Annie was on the Homecoming Court, I had an inkling that she might be our next town Queen as I can't remember any time that Annie didn't share a smile, a friendly hi and many hugs to everyone she met,” says Brownlie. “No wonder she was voted to represent Libertyville High School at Homecoming!”

The Future
None of us ever knows what the future holds. This much is certain – in June, Annie and her peers will graduate into a society that seems on the verge of collapse. The Class of 2009 has been bombarded this year with evidence of impending doom – an economy in a freefall, a political system that seems to answer only the needs of the special interests, a culture seemingly propped up by an insatiable desire to acquire things, no matter what the cost.

During this time of instability and chaos, Libertyville High School held an election for Homecoming Queen, a longstanding tradition with the school. It was an election where any of the girls in the Homecoming Court would have made a wonderful Queen.

But in choosing their queen this year, the Libertyville High School students chose hope. They chose happiness. They chose Annie.

Maureen O’Connor is president of the LHS student council – and has known Annie since they were in the same class together in 3rd grade.

“Annie is always smiling – and she’s never said a mean word about anyone,” says Maureen. “That’s why everyone loves Annie. I knew when she was nominated that she was going to win.”

Annie still glows when she talks about what it was like to be crowned: “It was great! It made me happy – really happy. I love it. I love being a student at this school because I feel loved.”

“While on the Homecoming Court, it was a whirlwind of a week – a pizza party, the parade, hanging out at the football game – and I loved being able to share this special experience with Annie,” says Julia Bleck. “She is a wonderful girl and I’m so glad she’s received credit for being such a great person.”

“I’m a senior, so this is my fourth homecoming celebration,” Maureen O’Connor says. “And in my four years here, the gym has never been so loud as when Annie was crowned. The whole school just went wild for Annie.”

Annie has many hopes for the future. She hopes that life after high school includes a job. She wants to marry her boyfriend.

I have my own hopes for the future. I hope that all of us get to experience the joy everyone felt in the gym the day Annie was crowned queen. There was so much joy in that room on that day! Annie felt it; her parents felt it; the 16 other girls in the Homecoming Court felt it; you can see it in their faces in the video Ellen shot; you can hear it in the cheers.

In this world that, to paraphrase George Will, is not just stained but horribly damaged from “anger acted out,” I find I’ve learned a lot from Annie, my neighbor with Down’s. I’ve learned that our expectations can sometimes – thankfully – be impossible to meet, that life can surprise us with brilliance and joy from an unexpected source – and that, if you’re lucky like me, royalty can be found living right next door.

Annie Jennings, getting ready to go to the homecoming dance, holding the autographed football that the LHS football team gave her. Photo by Chip Williams.

To see Annie's crowning moment, check out the local news coverage of her coronation:">WGN News story">Fox News (Chicago affiliate)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The "Homeless Shelter" - AKA Lost in Springfield....

We packed up the van and headed down to Springfield, Illinois to spend time with family over the Thanksgiving weekend.  My in-laws have a wonderful home that our children simply love to visit. 

What makes a home?  The people who live in it, of course.  And certainly, the physical structure of a house is important.  Walls, roof, flooring, when put together in the right way, create a structure that provides shelter from the elements.

For me, my home is my anchor.  It is the place where my life is lived, the place where my children are raised.  It is the place we, as a family, learn to love – and live – with each other. 

When in Springfield last week, we drove by a home that has lost its mooring. It is called the Maisenbacher house - and it has recently become a homeless home.  By that, I mean the structure has been uprooted and now sits squarely in the middle of Jackson Street in downtown Springfield.

Check it out:

Through the illusory magic of photography, it looks like my eight-year-old son is holding up the house.  Not so! Springfield is the state capital of Illinois, a government town, a city preparing to celebrate Lincoln's bicentennial in just a couple of months.  And it's a city that wants to keep this house standing no matter what the cost.

In fact, you could say that the house is in the middle of a custody battle that will keep it right in the middle of the road until it is resolved.

The Maisenbacher house was built about 150 years ago, making it a Lincoln-era home.  In the age of Obama, it's a home that has been abandoned for years.  Rooms were filled with garbage.  The neighborhood has been commercialized and recently, the Springfield Clinic eyed the Maisenbacher property as a prime site for its new parking lot.

Inexplicably, people in government got worked up about paving this property to put up a parking lot.  So lots of people had many discussions and decided to dig the house up, move it to another location - and only then did they discover that there was no foundation to place it on.  So it sits today, two weeks after the move, on Jackson Street – literally on the street.

The city originally wanted $822,000 to build a foundation, pay movers, etc. and so on. Today, the Springfield City Council is voting on whether or not the city should put up $280,000.  The owners of the house, Court and Karen Conn, who own a bed and breakfast elsewhere in Springfield, apparently hope to turn the dilapidated structure into a store for products made in Illinois.  Thus, the city feels apparently compelled to shower these business people with money.

All this was discussed in a week when the state of Illinois (different governing body, I realize!) closed down a neighbor of the Maisenbacher house, Frank Lloyd Wright’s exquisite masterpiece, the historic and fully renovated Dana Thomas house.  (

I’ve read this article., and this article, and this article,and this article.

And I still have no idea why anyone thought that a run-down and abandoned 150-year-old building should suck up nearly a million dollars in tax revenues.  Or why anyone with even the tiniest bits of brain matter in their head didn't know that you really shouldn't move a house until you've got a foundation to put it on.

So for now, the Maisenbacher house has become a roadblock, a money pit, a Lincoln-era reminder that foundations always need to be built before throwing money at projects.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Music for our times...

The image of the Big Three CEOs flying their own private jets to D.C. (strange how the idea of jetpooling never crossed their minds) to beg for federal money somehow makes me think of an influential album released 40 years ago.

I'm speaking of Beggars Banquet by the Stones. If there's any beggars attending any banquets, it would be CEOs who know how to beg for cash like the best of the bums.

So with the image of fat cats sitting on leather seats in the privacy of their own jets in mind, let's take a look at how beggars fared at the banquet 40 years ago...

The first thing you realize as you listen to the songs on the album is that Beggars Banquet is unbelievably timely, in spite of its age. It opens with a bang: Sympathy for the Devil, a song about Lucifer, the Devil, a song loaded with a history of violence and rage. It was a song played during their Altamount concert, where a man was stabbed after he had pulled out a gun (though not necessarily played at the precise moment of the murder.)

With lyrics that cover the blitzkrieg, the assassination of the Kennedys, the murder of the Romanovs and the doubt of Jesus, it offers a timeless glimpse into the greed, hatred and misery that has been around for a long long year.

And I think these days, the nature of the game still has most of us puzzled.

Sympathy for the Devil segues immediately into No Expectations - with lyrics many can relate to today: Once I was a rich man and now I am so poor.

Later, we hear Mick singing songs about a tramp sittin' on my doorstep and strange stray cats and about how the famine swept the land - providing stark images of isolation and darkness.

The album also includes the Stones' rousing anthem to political upheaval Street Fighting Man and ends with an ode to The Salt of the Earth.

The ten songs on Beggars Banquet offer a stripped down honesty in the lyrics and some of the best rock 'n roll music ever laid down on tape, fusing blues and rock in a way that seems as fresh today as it was back when it was played for the first time.

1968, the year this album was released, was the year we lost Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; it was the year the city of Chicago waged war on the protesters who came to the Democratic Convention; it was the year Nixon became our president.

It is remarkable that something released 40 years ago at the height of the violence of the 60s is so relevant today.

Great art is timeless. So let's hoist a few and celebrate the auditory banquet offered by the Stones so many years ago.

Lets drink to the hard working people
Lets drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Lets drink to the salt of the earth

Monday, November 17, 2008

BONUS! (Chrysler style)

Oh to be a highly compensated Chrysler executive! You get to run your company into the ground, hold your hand out in the hopes it will be filled with government bailout money AND look forward to a big bonus at a time when everyone else is worried about hanging on to their job.

According to this article in the Detroit Free Press, Chrysler plans to hand out $30 million in retention bonuses to its executives. And at least six Chrysler execs "are due to receive bonuses of more than $1 million a piece."

As they move to line their pockets with millions, Chrysler executives are joining with Ford and GM leaders to ask the federal government for $25 billion in loans.

Really? Seems that free markets are fab when you've got the feds to cover your losses.

This I do know: when I buy my next car, it will not come from Detroit. Maybe the feds feel compelled to support failed business leadership - but I won't.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Word of the Day: TARP

TARP:  A Word with Multiple Meanings

In layman's terms, a tarp is a piece of material used to cover and protect exposed objects or areas.

Here you see how my family employs a tarp to protect us from the elements during a camping trip.

In the current language of American economics, TARP is the acronym for the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, led by the brilliant investment banker, Henry Paulson, who now serves as the nation's Treasury Secretary.  TARP is the Fed's attempt to protect the nation from the collapse of our economy.

TARP is also a shifting landscape – in a statement today, Paulson announced changes in how he wants to invest those billions of TARP-assigned tax dollars.  He's decided that purchasing illiquid mortgage-related assets is no longer "the most effective way to use TARP funds."  He's now looking at shoring up the consumer credit market (because consumers need more debt in their lives) and "exploring ways to reduce the risk of foreclosure."

You can see his remarks here. It's an interesting example of a story that ebbs and flows with optimism and concern.

Happy News
Paulson starts out on a happy note, stating that "the actions taken by Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the FDIC in October have clearly helped stabilize our financial system."  (Happy news for the banks, but I'm sure the people at GM and Motorola and other troubled non-financial organizations don't feel quite the same joy.)

He then goes on to assert that "we have taken the necessary steps to prevent a broad systemic event."  (Really?  I thought TARP was necessary because we're in the throes of a "broad systemic event.")

He also acknowledges that TARP set a "land-speed record from announcing a program to getting funds out the door" – the Fed had announced plans on October 14th to purchase preferred stock in federally regulated banks and thrifts - and had sent $115 billion out the door to eight financial institutions in less than two weeks.

Speedy is good, I guess.  I hope someone is just as swift at making sure these institutions are being held accountable for these funds - and that their executives are not jetting off to an expensive spa at our expense.

Thankfully, however, Paulson recognizes that "any future program should maintain our principle of encouraging participation of healthy institutions while protecting taxpayers."

At least the boss is aware there is a need to protect the people funding the plan.

Continuing Concerns
But then he ties up the package in a wrapper of worry by saying things like, "our financial system remains fragile in the face of an economic downturn here and abroad...." and "...banks and non-banks may well need more capital given their troubled asset holdings, projections for continued high rates of foreclosures and stagnant U.S. and world economic conditions."

(But, phew, we've prevented that "broad systemic event" we were all so worried about.)

A Blanket of Money
One point I hope the banking experts in the Fed understand:  that expanding credit to companies on the verge of collapse and to consumers facing layoffs doesn't really solve the problem.  We need more than healthy banks.  We need more than the ability to borrow more money.

Before we can buy, we need a paycheck.

We need healthy companies that can employ American workers, instead of lay them off by the thousands.

As it reads now, TARP is a big blanket of money covering up the exposed flaws in our system.  But in focusing almost exclusively on expanding our ability to borrow, it seems to be doing nothing to actually fix the flaws that got us into this crisis.

And that's a problem that will continue to haunt us well into the future.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Word of the Day: Sacrifice

In the early winter of 1918, after four years of a terrible war that destroyed much of Europe, the Allies and the Germans decided to stop hostilities on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

That they could be so poetic in their timing of the cessation of battle, after years of the brutality and horror brought by World War I, is astonishing.

The official end of World War I happened later, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June of 1919, but the day that marked the end of fighting was the day that President Wilson chose as Armistice Day, the national holiday to honor the soldiers who served in that war.

Of course, the "war to end all wars" did nothing of the kind. As time went on, we added more wars to history, more heroes to be mourned and remembered.

In 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, President Eisenhower changed Armistice Day into Veterans Day to honor the heroism of the veterans of all wars.

War Stories
My father was a veteran of the Korean War, the "forgotten war." He was the kind of soldier who spoke very little about his experiences on the front line of battle. It really wasn't until he drew near his own death that stories about his war-time experiences began to bubble up to the surface.  The presentiment of his own mortality freed him up to talk about the deaths he witnessed in a distant land so many years before.

What I wish I'd known then: I wish I had known to ask more questions when he shared the bits and fragments of his war stories.

What I know now: the experiences of a soldier in war are incredible, painful, incomprehensible sometimes, yet we need to remember these stories; we need to know these stories; we need to hand them down to the next generation with the hope that in doing so, we are doing a small part to ensure that no one has to endure those experiences again.

Today We Remember
Today is the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. Today is Veteran's Day, the day we honor all the people who have risked – and continue to risk – their lives in battle to protect our rights as Americans. I am filled with gratitude for their sacrifices.

America was born of war and is embroiled in war today. The bones of our soldiers lie scattered throughout the world. Today, we remember the sacrifices, the valor and the stories of all the American men and women who have fought and died for our principles.

As a nation, we are forever in their debt.

Giving to Get Back...

They came with tables...

They came with blankets...

They came in droves...

This was the scene you could find last Friday at Old Orchard mall in Skokie, Illinois.  And no - these are not Springsteen fans waiting in line to buy concert tix - these people are patiently waiting (some even pulling an all nighter in the chill of the midwestern winter) in the hopes of scoring L.L. Bean gift cards being given away as part of the grand opening celebration of the retailer's newest store.  

The Motivation of Money
While Volkswagen is hoping to lure consumers into showrooms with a strangely clever ad campaign, L.L. Bean is using one of the oldest promotions in the book - handing out money just for showing up.  

In a time when economic news seems woefully bleak, the appeal of L.L. Bean gift cards was enormous, with a large crowd of people lining up for the opportunity to draw a card worth anywhere from $25 - $500. According to Greg Elder, L.L. Bean vice president for retail stores, approximately 2500 people showed up for the chance to get one of the 500 gift cards being handed out. This is very similar to what Elder sees at other store openings.

L.L. Bean gave away a total of $17,875 in gift cards that day.

And that's not the extent of the L.L. Bean's investment in the new store.

As a company that has built a strong brand by supplying affordable outdoor gear to families, L.L. Bean takes pride in its commitment to environmental conservation.  The company invested in the design of the new store to ensure that it was built to US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.  By utilizing technology and systems that increase energy efficiency, L.L. Bean reduces the store's environmental footprint.

The company has also made the choice to invest in its new neighborhood as well.  As part of the grand opening celebration for the Skokie store, L.L. Bean will contribute $25,000 to Chicago Wilderness for the Illinois Backyard Nature Center.

Giving to Get Back...
The promise of money is always a powerful motivator.  And last Friday, hundreds of consumers had all the patience in the world to wait for the money L.L. Bean was handing out.  But will it build loyalty?  L.L. Bean is banking on that...but only time will tell. 

(Photos courtesy of Chip Williams, whose work you can find at

Friday, November 7, 2008

"The most important story of our time."

Okay, so I confess that I'm scratching my head over Volkswagen's new Routan Boom ad campaign, you know, the one where Brooke Shields informs us about a fertility boom caused by breeders in dire need of German engineering.

You can see the ad">here.

It's clever.  It's funny.  But it's weird.

Frankly, I'm uncomfortable with any ad campaign that promises to let us "witness the most important story of our time.  Ever."  (Check out the website, I'm telling you - this claim is front and center!)

Especially an ad campaign launched at this critical time in our history – and suggests people are having babies in order to buy a particular brand of car.

Pitching the Pitch
Just imagine how the agency pitched this idea to the folks at VW:

"The minivan is a car associated with breeders - and to make that point, we'll create a "documentary" on The Routan Boom - an explosion of babies being born to parents who have a hankering for the VW Routan.  Having babies now gives them license to buy into the breeders top choice for transport - the VW minivan!

"To hook people, we'll toss in phrases like "People have children as an excuse to get German engineering" because let's face it - it's a memorable phrase.

"Trust us - we know we'll find true success by linking an expensive purchase during a recession to the German engineering originated by Hitler's desire to develop a German family car.  People are always motivated to act when given powerful subconscious reminders of World War II. 

"To fully connect with our audience - people who intend to breed – we'll bring in Brooke Shields, a funny, beautiful actress who had a tough time getting pregnant – and who got into highly publicized pissing match with Tom Cruise over her use of anti-depressants when dealing with post-partum depression.

"It's got just the right zing needed to sell minivans!"

Creating Enduring Memories
You've got to hand it to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency that created the campaign.  I have no idea how the pitch really went, but they did a phenomenal sales job.

And they've created an ad that is truly memorable.  

According to a story in Ad Age, the Routan ad was the most memorable new ad launched during the period from 9/15/08 - 10/12/08 - more than twice as memorable than the average new commercial screened at that time.

But I do wonder how effective it will be in selling Routan minivans, though right now, VW is doing well in comparison to other car manufacturers.  

This fall, when GM saw sales drop 45 percent from a year earlier, Volkswagen was able to prevent such a precipitous free fall, with sales for its cars dropping by less than 8 percent, according to Ad Age.

So who knows?  Maybe making a memorable ad is all that is needed to move product today.

Or maybe VW is able to capitalize on the brand it has built in the last few decades.

Or maybe consumers really do want to have babies just to buy a particular minivan, which if true, would be one of the most astonishing stories of our time.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Word of the Day: Debt

I was an American Studies major in college, which I've lately realized does not give me the expertise in finance needed to figure out what has gone wrong with our economy.  Waiting until after the market crashes is probably not the best time for a crash course in new vocabulary terms like "credit default swaps" and "collateralized debt obligations."

If only I'd gotten an MBA instead of an MFA!

From my rudimentary research, credit default swaps (CDS) are contracts that promise to cover losses on securities in the event of default.  But apparently, as we have all learned, people who own these contracts don't necessarily have the money to cover losses should a default occur.   Apparently people bought and sold the idea of money without actually having any money to back it up.

Visualizing the Vague
In all honesty, I have not been able to uncover what it means to own a collateralized debt obligation.  But you can read more about it here in this nifty interactive explanation offered by

Here you'll see water flowing into buckets in ways that succinctly illustrate how mortgage defaults can create a devastating cash-flow drought.  And today, of course, the drought is severe - with money as scarce as rain was back in the 1930s dust bowl era.  

Which brings me to my word for the day:  debt.

The Strongest Fundamental
We keep calling this a credit crisis.  As the economy lurched into a freefall, we were told that massive infusion of tax dollars was needed to capitalize banks so they could start lending to each other without fear of failure.  Because in the post-millennial era, once the ability to lend and borrow is curtailed, business as we know it fails.  

To me, a writer without an extensive background in finance, credit is just another word for money you don't have.  It's a nice word for debt.

Debt is what happens when you buy things you can't afford; credit is what you use to pay for the spree. 

So when, exactly, did debt became the only fundamental of our economy to remain strong?  Viewing it through the prism of my liberal arts background, our crisis today isn't a "credit crunch" - our crisis today is one of overwhelming reliance on debt. 

I can only hope that the smart financial minds of our country are busy solving this problem in ways that strengthen all the pillars of our economy - not just our ability to add more debt to the ledger.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Word of the Day: Chicago


The City that Works. Urbs in Horto. City in a Garden. City of Broad Shoulders.

A city with a complex relationship to race.

A city that Martin Luther King, Jr. visited in 1966 in an attempt to bring the civil rights movement north.

A city where, during that same visit, Dr. King was hit by a brick thrown by angry whites during a march through Marquette Park.

"I've been in many demonstrations all across the South," said King after the march in Chicago. "But I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I've seen in Chicago. I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate."

Last night, in a Chicago park that had been a key battlefield during the 1968 Democratic convention, an enormous crowd gathered to witness history. White people. Black people. People of all ethnicities came to Grant Park to see Barack Obama.

They didn't come to hate. They didn't come to throw bricks. They came to celebrate.

Last night, a crowd gathered in Chicago and the world watched. And last night, when the whole world was watching, they looked to Chicago to see a black man stride onto the global stage as president-elect of the United States.

That such an event could happen in such a city exemplifies not just the "enduring power of our ideals." It showcases our ability to transform hatred into acceptance as we strive to achieve that "more perfect union" first described by our founding fathers.

We are fortunate to witness history in the making, fortunate to climb closer to the mountaintop, fortunate to live in a country that continually reinvents itself using blueprints drawn up more than 200 years ago.

"Out of many, we are one."
– Barack Obama to the crowd at Grant Park, November 4, 2008