Saturday, December 31, 2011

And This is Why 2012 is Going to Be a Better Year

Do you see this? THIS? THIS is why 2012 is going to be a better year. Because folks aren't just going to sit around and let things get worse.

Business Owner Starts School Supply Collection for Hurting District

Kids at Muskegon's Edgewood Elementary school dob't have paper, pencils, crayons...BASIC school supplies. The community is pulling together to right this make sure, from a personal level, that our kids in our community have the basics for education, with people volunteering to be art teachers, music teachers, gym teachers when the school itself can't provide these educational basics. YES...this is something the State should be taking care of. But they're not, are they? So we...WE step in today.

I drove through this part of town recently on my way to my aunt's house and counted over a dozen boarded up homes, just from the main streat. Homes with ragged blue tarps are up in place where a roof should be, where cardboard and duct tape are up where windows should be...even as the winter overtakes the region.

This is a school where 100% or NEAR 100% of the kids are on free-reduced school lunches. Parents can't send their kids to school with these supplies. The teachers have supplied all they can. The school district itself is financially on the rocks.

It's not a region that's falling. It's a region that has fallen. It does no good to shakes ones head and pretend that voting the Right People into office is going to make a damn bit of difference in the prosperity of the kids living in there RIGHT NOW, TODAY, this week, next month, next year. That's a fight for the long term.

In the short term, communities need to move in and make the change, help each other out. Get out there and make a difference, dammit.

Throughout these challenging times, many of the teachers have reached into their own pockets to provide needed school supplies at places like Edgewood Elementary, according to Principal Sonya Hernandez. Parents also struggle to send the kids to school prepared as Hernandez points out that her school is approximately 100 percent free reduced lunch.

Hernandez turned to her friend Mitch Dennison who is with the Facebook group “Muskegon Social Media Tag Team.” Hernandez expressed the needs from everything from pencils and papers to crayons and binders. Grand Haven business owner and CEO of Media 1, Chris Willis, saw the post and sprung into action.

“I said is this for real? Pencils and paper?” Willis exclaimed.

Willis put out a school supply collection box at Media 1, 605 Elliott St, Grand Haven, just before Christmas. Other businesses followed.

This can't be a short term, one time thing. We need to pull together. Maybe a good thing will come out of these hard times. Maybe communities will start seeing their interconnectedness in 2012. Maybe they'll learn to look to one another as partners and neighbors. Maybe in 2012 we'll start to realize that the good and future of our communities and children is our own personal responsibility today. Today. Today. Right now. GO! Go do something good, you!

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Short List o' Cheap Produce

One thing I did not do as much of in 2011 as I did in 2010 is canning. In 2010 I spent an embarrassing amount of time finding excellently priced produce at the Farmer's Market and preserving it.  I went right for the half bushels of vegetable seconds, priced for $5 or so.  For example, I got a huge basket filled with about a dozen or so heads of cauliflower for five bucks. If you're a cauliflower eater, you know those fellas go for about $3 per head at the grocery store.

Seconds are the veggies that have spots on them and other minor defects, but are otherwise fine.

It got to the point where I'd have bushels of produce in the mud room waiting to be processed and frozen, or canned, or dried. And so for most of the past year and a half, we've had plenty of veggies just sitting around waiting to be had...and by the time we ran out, not a problem: it was summer again and the farmer's market was open and there was stuff coming out of my garden. And I admit part of why I did less preservation was partially out of laziness, and partially out of feeling kind of silly about the whole process.

But now, having slacked off in my veggie preserving ways, we're facing the grim reality of veggie prices again. Three freakin' bucks for a head of cauliflower. And where last year I had put up BUSHELS of apples, this year I put up maybe half a bushel and apples are FOUR BUCKS for a bag.


So I've been pricing veggies in the real world once again, trying to come up with a peaceable, low cost solution.

What I've found so far in the Below $1 per pound range is this:

Cabbage: Cabbage is probably the cheapest vegetable in the produce aisle, often cheaper than POTATOES, coming in at around 44 cents per pound vs. 45 to 50 cents per pound for a bag of spuds. Vitamin A, Vitamin B1 and B6, phosphorous, and of course sulfur...which is apparently good for you for whatever reason. So I've been buying cabbage.  Fortunately, my three year old loves the stuff.  We eat cabbage multiple times per week.

Bananas: You can fill my ear all darn day about why bananas are so cheap, but as for now, when buying cheap foods, they're one of the cheapest types or produce per pound, with a high nutritional and caloric content. Today, for example, I got 5 bananas for $1, or about 500 calories, and the kids love 'em. When they start to go mushy, put 'em in the freezer until such day as you have time to make banana bread.

Sweet potatoes: These vary in price a lot, from month to month, or from store to store. They're about 99 cents per pound but can get as cheap as 65 cents per pound. They have much more energy than, say, cabbage or carrots, and are loaded with vitamins. Another great thing about sweet potatoes is this: they keep forever. You can put a sweet potato on the counter for weeks and it's still fine to eat.

Squash: In the early winter to late fall, squash can get as cheap as 65 cents per pound, an incredible buy, and they, too, will last forever on your kitchen counter and make great soups.

Carrots: We BLOW through carrots in the Muskegon Critic household. The kids open the fridge, grab a carrot, and much on it throughout the day. Carrots have plenty of vitamins and fiber, and they can be as cheap as 75 cents per pound.

Clearance Veggies and Fruits: Our grocery store has a cheap produce area where produce that's near to being removed from the floor are placed and marked WAY off. For example, today I got a bag of 8 roma tomatoes in the clearance veggie place for 78 cents. I picked up a few more of those bags and I'm going to freeze them.  When you fined a deal and you happen to have the means, you can go into preservation mode and freeze/can/dry them.

It's true though, that older veggies have less nutritional value. But in a world of financial constraints we're looking for healthier alternatives to Macaroni and Cheese Dinner. For higher nutritional's good to opt for frozen veggies.

Frozen Veggies and Fruits: Frozen produce can often be had for less than $1 per pound, especially at the thrift stores like Aldi: peas, carrots, green beans, broccoli, spinach greens, diced onions, bell peppers.

Anyway...there's that.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Boy, He Suggests We Drink Milk From Grass Fed Cows

"What do you mean everything is made out of corn?"

"Well, what do the cows eat?"


"And the chickens?"


"And when the cows eat the corn, their bodies are made of corn, so when we eat the cows, our bodies are made of....."

My boy covered his head and laughed for a bit and threw up his hands "CORN!"

"And milk is made of"


"And we're omnivores, which means what?"

"It means we eat EVERYTHING"

"YES! And if we eat only one thing it's terrible for us."

"But dad!"


"Country Dairy, when we went there for our school field trip....they said their cows only ever eat grass!"



"I had no idea."

"Yeah! So maybe we should buy their milk!"

"Yeah...let's do that."

The house I've long admired down the street, the small one with the huge lot that used to have a pile of logs in the back and boxes of wood with a sign on it saying "Wood $3. Good size pieces" -- the one that now has a solar array and a chicken run in the back. It has a sign along side the road that says "Fresh eggs."

This may be just the opportunity I've been looking for to snoop on the home owner's land and talk to him. OH! And buy some local eggs.

Lake Superior's Giganto Faucet.

Here's an interesting article that underscores the degree to which the Great Lakes are a managed ecosystem:

The International Lake Superior Board of Control, under authority granted to it by the International Joint Commission, has set the Lake Superior outflow to 1,560 cubic metres per second (m3/s) for the month of January, effective Jan. 1. This is the same as the December outflow. This outflow is as prescribed by Plan 1977-A.

One would think talk of water would be inherently un-dry. HA! See that? A pun.'s not true. It stays pretty dry from there on out, talking about how much water is being allowed to flow from Lake Superior into Lake Michigan-Huron.

If you imagine the Great Lakes like this:

A Series__
                 Of Four__
                                                Each pouring water into the next

That's sort of how it works, starting with Lake Superior at the top, like this:

pours into   Michigan-Huron__
pours into                                Erie__
pours into                                           Ontario__

Which pours into the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the ocean.

To keep water levels managed, water flow from Lake Superior can be restricted from flowing into the lakes below. Right now Lake Superior had a lower than usual supply of water coming in from water melt and rain and tributaries, while Lake Michigan-Huron had a higher than usual supply of water coming in from water melt and rain and tributaries. So they're keeping water flow for January the same as it was in December. Whatever that means.

Wacky, no?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Refrigerator Soup

I come from a Slavic church as a kid. Czech. Slovak. Czechoslovak. The old ladies in the pews who spoke a broken English but baked up a delicious cabbage roll who got the sacrament in Slovak right where they sat...

My parents after their kids left the nest (My brother, me, my sister) would host Czech-Slovak Seminarians, young adults who chose to serve the Lutheran Church.

"What are you used to eating?" my parents would ask them.

"....soup? I guess. I eat soup....mostly. Soup. Every day. Soup."


I remember soup. Not often "dinner" with a capital D, but soup. Cauldrons of food meant to last for days. Bits of food dredged from the fridge and dropped into a liquid. More commonly as I got older and my parents busier. Refigerator Soup.

Perhaps potatoes. Perhaps celery. Perhaps green beans and perhaps zucchini (it gets kind of slimy) and perhaps a meat of some sort like chicken or turkey or beef. But always bay leaf. Always.

Bay leaf. Always.

It waited for us. The soup. After school. It sat there, ready to serve.

Back in medieval times the pot sat on the fire with leftovers and scraps added with only the eaten parts subtracted. Always an additive process. Leftover soup. As old as Western history. The cauldron on the fire with edibles added to a liquid. Soup and soup and soup and soup.


Never a recipe but for soup. A vector of liquid and food with spice or herb to dominate the randomness.

Tonight we had refrigerator soup. Stuff from the freezer and fridge that was just about to fade to "bad" with a chicken stock I got from boiling and boiling and boiling a chicken carcass after the meat was removed, and then froze in a pint jar in the freezer.

The boys, they ate with little comment. The wife added alphabet noodles to the randomness and stock. The boys, they know the wrath of Daddy when he makes something that the Boys they don't like or don't eat, or comment negatively on. Mostly the Boys they keep their fool moufs shut during dinner and eat or not based on the deliciousness of Daddy's cooking.

But soup. They mostly eat soup. Provide crackers of the Saltine variety and they'll eat.

Refrigerator soup.

A random mixture of leftovers, added to liquid and broth and served in a bowl on a winter night with crackers. Bland and spartan and generic and like home.

Whatever Happens, It Needs to Happen Now

Along with quite a few others, I'm part of the "Social Media Tag Team" in Muskegon, Michigan. It's a group of active people in the city who organize online to make the city a better place to live, to champion the region, to bring business into the area, and to rally support for important local causes.

One such cause, called for and organized by another member of the Tag Team, is a drive to get pencils, paper, and other school supplies to children in the Muskegon Height's School district.

Pencils. Paper. Note pads. Rulers. Folders.

School supplies.

For a public school. A public school that is millions in the hole.

In order to survive, Muskegon Heights Public Schools has to cut $4.6 million from its budget in the next six months.


“This is a fight for survival,” Marios Demetriou, deputy superintendent for the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District told staff who gathered at the high school for an overview of the district's finances.

Donating pencils, by the way, isn't something you do to make the city a better place to live. It's what you do when a public institution is drowning.

Helpful tip: Drowning isn't characterized by kicking and splashing and yelling for help. It's characterized by a head tilted toward the sky silently bobbing just below the surface, arms raised up. When you see that, you have seconds -- SECONDS -- to help.

The Muskegon Heights school board has asked the state to appoint an emergency financial manager.

Eclectablog makes a compelling point, however, that emergency financial managers don't help, long term. And it makes sense.

Many of these communities are places where middle class families are vanishing or gone, where the opportunities for social mobility are vanishing or gone, and where a meaningful tax base is vanishing or gone.

It doesn't matter how much you cut as a financial manager, because there is no money at the local level, and there will not BE any money at the local level.

This is not a problem that can be solved at the local level. It's a problem that needs to be addressed at the State Level.

We can talk forever and rightly so about the need to bring back social mobility, and re-build the middle class. But that's a Long Term Goal. It's not going to help kids and families and low wage communities today.

It's infuriating that Michigan has an entirely Republican government right now, bent on dissolving public institutions. But it's even MORE infuriating to think that the general electorate won't see the crumbling of Michigan cities and schools as an election issue because these low income communities are insulated in their own self contained government entities where people can think the problem is Over There.

I liked the Emergency Financial Manager law because at least it was half the solution: State involvement when the city was unable to fund the most basic of civic needs. And help RIGHT NOW. But you can't do that AND take away state funding. You can't do that AND make poor cities rely more and more on local funds that don't exist as our current State Government is doing. Not to mention the extremely problematic nature of removing power from publicly elected officials.

That said, I don't believe we can abandon Emergency Financial Managers without a replacement solution, and I don't see one on the near horizon. Whatever happens, though, it needs to happen NOW.

Extraordinary Natural-Urban Art Photos of Muskegon

The thing about Muskegon is that it's a strange combination of woodland and factory, boondocks and urbanization. It's hard to capture the mix of natural and gritty-man-made edges of the region in pictures and tends to either come across as one or the other without really communicating both essential aspects that permeate and define the city and the people.

I've come across a most excellent Muskegon Photographer and blogger, Joe Gee Photography who manages to capture this essence with extraordinary skill.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Romney Should Stick to Topics He Knows, Like Downsizing, and Stop Hating on Detroit

There he goes again, hating on the Domestic Auto Industry. Maybe Romney thinks he has some rights to trash on Detroit or Michigan because he was born in Detroit. You know, like how it's okay to tell "Polack" jokes if your great grandfather was a "Polack", right? Which reminds me of a j...


Everybody knows Romney's "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" statement during Michigan's darkest hour in a generation or more. It wasn't so much a statement as it was an opinion he published in the New York Times. And it wasn't so much an opinion as the HEADLINE - "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" - the opinion piece where he said "IF General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye."

Now that he was proven wrong, Mitt is using his Detroit born cred to openly, shamelessly, mocking a point of pride and a source of jobs in Michigan: the Chevy Volt.

The latest example, they say, occurred last night when a caller on a Boston-area talk radio program asked the former Massachusetts governor how he would describe the Chevrolet Volt.

"Let's see. An idea whose time has not come,"
Romney responded, chuckling as he delivered the one-liner at the tail end of a 20-minute interview.

Mitt Romney has a terrible case of thinking he can move right on into a group and relate. Like the time he told Actual Unemployed people that he, himself, is unemployed. Ha. Or the time he told Detroit to go bankrupt cuz he's down with living in Detroit cuz he was born there. Remember that? That thing I just mentioned a couple paragraphs up.

One thing that has made my teeth curl over the years was listening to the occasional person disparagingly suggest that Michigan needs to reinvent itself. Romney went there with his "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" opinion piece. As if we didn't know that, already. As if regions throughout the state haven't been trying like hell to do that for decades.

Oh but NOW that we're turning it around with evolving ideas, and reinvention is taking root, now it's the wrong kind. It's the wrong kind of reinvention. The wrong kind of turnaround. The wrong kind of jobs. The wrong type of thing to show pride in, and put food on the table.

The Chevy Volt has been a huge success and GM plans to start manufacturing 60,000 of the cars in 2012, starting this January.

I've been down near the foundry in Roosevelt Park, when I'm out to buy milk and groceries at Aldi, and lately there's been an old, familiar smell that I barely realized was less common until now. The smell of the foundry in production. The smell of people making things again. And you know what? It's not bad at all.

Now that folks are angry about Mitt's statement, does he say he was mistaken or does he dig his heels in and suggest that yes...he was right to hate on peoples's jobs? Of course he's digging in.

But Romney's campaign says slow sales justify the statement, and in an email to, suggested Democrats are trying to change the subject to avoid talking about President Obama's record.

"As a result of President Obama's failed economic policies, thousands of Michiganders have lost their jobs, homes, and businesses," Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg told in an email. "The only way to turn this economy around is to elect a new President, and Mitt Romney has the skills and qualifications from a career spent in business to create jobs and put Americans back to work.

Obama? Obama was the only one willing to save American manufacturing. My suggestion to Romney is that he shut the hell up and maybe talk about things he actually knows about, like downsizing and kicking people out of their jobs.

And now, a Chrysler Commercial:

Monday, December 26, 2011

I Hate Feeling This Way


YES! I have figured it out.

It's the comment threads. I HATE news related comment threads.

I've been feeling repulsed by politics lately. Repelled by the news, in general. A visceral reaction. I've recoiled, wanting to avoid the sense of irritation and anger I felt when reading the news online. The feeling like I want to lash out and post angry, sarcastic things in the comment threads to people who I feel are being idiots.

I HATE feeling like that...I HATE IT, because I know there's some dude on the opposite side of that screen who is probably a decent fellow when push comes to shove. Probably has a gaggle of kids crawling on him and he's a great father. Probably donates freely to Toys for Tots but says idiotic inflamatory things on the Internet as late-night entertainment to unwind from a hard, frustrating day or work, or WORSE...because he gets angry at something HE disagrees with and just can't help which case the online comment threads are just a horrible self-feeding hate machine.

GOD I feel awful after reading them. I feel awful and upset and uncomfortable.

I just want to punch people. I hate feeling like that.

I'm fine with ideological struggle, but I'm not fine when we start thinking of our neighbors as bad people because of their politics.

I went in to start reading some news today after a long hiatus and felt fine right up until I started back in with the news comment threads and there it was again. That anger. That instinct to lash out and eviscerate somebody who probably just had a shitty day and is venting on the Internet.

I need to avoid at all costs the comment threads. It's going to take me days to recover from reading this last set of news comments. GRrrrrr.

Churning, Wind Swept Lake Michigan on Christmas - Video

Took some video of wooded West Michigan dunes, wind-swept beach, and a churning Lake Michigan over Christmas and spliced them together.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

This, to me, is's so....SO...*sniff*.. BEAUTIFUL

Sniff. I've been listening to the most beautiful song in the world this week on the verge of Christmas. Over and over. The kids request it. It's a song of hope and pride, of American ingenuity and accomplishment, of community and togetherness, of family, of kindness where one does not judge ones fellow man, and gives him a ride across the country. It's a story of greatness and appreciation of greatness. A story of a world where a family can support itself on a single income and have time together and support themselves, and live their lives and pursue the life they want.

This is my America....right here. It's BEAUTIFUL....

(Full transcript near the bottom)

The venerable, musical genius Weird Al depicts a three major figures of classic Americana:

- The individual who strove for and accomplished greatness.

- The middle class family.

- The third character being the America around the family: the many other major accomplishments by others that his family has visited in previous vacations, mama's home-made rhubarb pie, the smelly hitch-hiker Bernie, the neighbors waving them goodbye.

I believe the most powerful parts of the song go something like this:

Well I had two weeks of vacation time comin' after workin' all year up at Big Roy's Heating and Plumbing...

And this one...

"On these hallowed grounds hallowed grounds, open 10 to 8 on weekdays, under a little shrine under a makeshift pagoda, there sits the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.

Ooohh...what on Earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing? Windin' up 21,140 pounds of string. What was he trying to prove? Who was he trying to impress? Why did he build it? How did he do it? It was anybody's guess. Where did he get the twine? What was going through his mind? Did it just seem like a good idea at the time?"

And what did our middle class hero do when he saw this amazing accomplishment? When he saw this glorious huge majestic sphere? He was so overwhelmed by its sheer immensity that he had to pop himself a beer.

And I said with smile "Kids, this here's what America's all about. Then I started feelin' kinda gooey inside and I fell on my knees and I cried and cried, and that's when those security guards threw us out.

Well, I had two weeks of vacation time coming.
After workin' all year down at Big Roy's Heating and Plumbing.
So one night, when my family and I were gathered round the dinner table, I said,
If you could go anywhere in this great big world, now
Where'd you like to go to?"
They said, "Dad...
We wanna see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota."
They picked the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

So the very next day we loaded up the car with potato skins and pickled weiners,
Crossword puzzles, Spiderman comics and mama's homemade rhubarb pie,
Pulled out of the driveway, and the neighbors, they all waved goodbye.
And so began our three-day journey.
We picked up a guy holdin' a sign that said "Twine Ball or Bust."
He smelled real bad, and he said his name was Bernie.
I put in a Slim Whitman tape, my wife put on a brand new hair net.
Kids were in the back seat jumpin' up and down, yellin' "Are we there yet?"
And all of us were joined together in one common thought,
As we rolled down the long and winding Interstate in our '53 DeSoto.
We're gonna see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.
We're headin' for the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

Oh, we couldn't wait to get there, so we drove straight through for three whole days and nights.
Of course, we stopped for more pickled weiners now and then.
The scenery was just so pretty, boy, I wish the kids could've seen it.
But you can't see out of the side of the car because the windows are completely covered
with the decals from all the places where we've already been.
Like Elvis-a-Rama, the Tupperware Museum,
The Boll Weevil Monument, and Cranberry World,
The Shuffleboard Hall of Fame, Poodle Dog Rock,
And the Mecca of Albino Squirrels.
We've been to ghost towns, steam parks, wax museums,
And a place where you can drive through the middle of a tree.
Seen alligator farms and tarantula ranches,
But there's still one thing we've gotta see.

Well, we crossed the state line about 6:39,
And we saw the sign that said, "Twine Ball Exit - fifty miles."
Oh, the kids were so happy, they started singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" for the
twenty-seventh time that day.
So we pulled off the road at the last chance gas station,
Got a few more pickled weiners and a diet chocolate soda,
On our way to see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.
We're gonna see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

Finally at 7:37 early Wednesday evening, as the sun was setting in the Minnesota sky,
Out in the distance, on the horizon it appeared to me like a vision before my unbelieving eyes.
We parked the car and walked with awe-filled reverence toward that glorious, huge, majestic sphere.
I was just so overwhelmed by its sheer immensity, I had to pop myself a beer.
Yes, on these hallowed grounds, open 10 to 8 on weekdays, in a little shrine under a makeshift pagoda,
There sits the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.
I tell you, it's the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

Ohhh, what on Earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing.
Ohhh, windin' up twenty-one thousand, one hundred forty pounds of string.
What was he tryin' to prove?
Who was he tryin' to impress?
Why did he build it? How did he do it?
It's anybody's guess.
Where did he get the twine?
What was goin' through his mind?
Did it just seem like a good idea at the time?

Well, we walked up beside it, and I warned the kids,
"Now you better not touch it, those ropes are there for a reason."
I said, "Maybe if you're good, I'll tie it to the back of our car, and we can take it home."
But I was only teasin'.
Then we went to the gift shop and stood in line, bought a souvenir miniature ball of twine,
Some window decals, and anything else they'd sell us.
And I bought a couple postcards: "Greetings from the Twine Ball, wish you were here."
Won't the folks back home be jealous.
I gave our camera to Bernie, and we stood by the ball,
And we all gathered around and said, "Cheese."
Then Bernie ran away with my brand new Instamatic,
But at least we've got our memories.

So we all just stared at the ball for awhile,
And my eyes got moist, but I said with a smile,
"Kids, this here's what America's all about."
Then I started feelin' kinda gooey inside,
And I fell on my knees and I cried and cried.
And that's when those security guards threw us out.
You know, I bet if we unravelled that sucker, it'd roll all the way down to Fargo, North Dakota,
'Cause it's the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.
I'm talkin' 'bout the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

Well, we stayed that night at the Twine Ball Inn.
In the morning we were on our way home again.
But we really didn't wanna leave, that was perfectly clear.
I said, "Folks, I can tell you're all sad to go."
Then I winked my eye and I said, "You know,
I got a funny kinda feeling we'll be coming back again next year."
'Cause I've been all around this great big world and I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather go to
Than the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.
I said the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This fireplace. The insert. We installed it in 2007, four years ago, after the winter in which we got a $400 heating bill, and we've saved money ever since with our fireplace.

Our house, it's old. An old house. No insulation. The exterior walls are layered like this from the inside out:

Plaster --> Brick --> Stucco.

So we invested in a fireplace insert to help heat our home and keep the cold at bay. And now it means more than warmth. The Boy carries wood in with me. They ride around and around in the driveway while I split log after log after log. They ask me to come outside and split wood while they ride their bikes in circles nearby. Hanging out.

The older boy, seven now, has been learning to start a fire, and do so with one, single match.

It's a point of pride for him. The fire we have now was started by my boy and his single match three days ago..

He prepares by pulling small tinder...we call it "grump"...from the logs. Thin, fibrous ones. Thicker ones. Frayed parts of wood left on the logs from the splitting. He arranges them into a pile before him. He places two large logs into the fire place to insulate his "house of heat", then bundles a small handful of thing fibrous bits of "grump", leaning them against a log on the inner side of the two logs. He lights it, and slowly feeds it as he sings his house of heat song -- "house of of heat...I am building a house of of heat, house of heat...I am building a house-of-heat" He adds and adds more and more grump until the fire is large enough that he can blow on it without putting it out. Then he places a larger piece of wood on top of the hot core he's created...he pulls out the flu, closes the door and watches as the fire grows.

I watch him the whole time.

We're letting the three year old open the fireplace door, supervised, and add a piece of wood. I explain to him about fire exactly as I explained it to his brother: "The fire doesn't like being in this box," I tell him. "It wants to get out so it can cause trouble and burn things. But we need to keep it in there where it can keep our house warm. So we always keep the door closed, to keep the fire in here." And the flu "the fire needs to breathe, so we open this to give the fire some air. And we put the wood in to give it food."

The fire place, the insert, has become more than just a means to heat our home. Each child, despite warnings and efforts to keep them away, has once, and only once, absentmindedly touched the fireplace while hot.

Just once.

And now they keep a safe distance with respect but not fear, huddling near it on an early winter morning to dry off from a bath. And on a winter afternoon we bring wood in together. The tiny boy carrying one piece of wood. The less tiny one carrying three. And me with the tote of wood. We all help to bring in the wood that will heat our home for the next day. At night we sit near the fireplace and read stories: the Three Investigators, a Series of Unfortunate Events, Alice in Wonderland.

It's a sense of security against losing gas, and against high bills.

It's a gathering place. A place of learning. A shared task. A conceptual frame of reference for fuel and energy. They see the walls and walls and walls and walls of split wood required to heat our home. They play by those walls. Make forts near the walls.

The fireplace is a place of warmth, and a thing to be respected. This fireplace. It's a central part of the family. A presence in our home. Moreso than a furnace in the basement could ever be.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Come January Michigan Will Slash Unemployment Benefits by 30%

The grand re-experiment to see if society can be improved by kicking the shit out of the unemployed continues in the Great State of Michigan. And believe me, we know unemployment. We're experts. EXPERTS in unemployment. As The Onion once said back in 2007:

"LANSING, MI—In another devastating blow to the state's already fragile economy, the Unemployment Insurance Agency of the state of Michigan permanently shuttered its nine branch offices Monday, leaving more than 8,500 unemployment employees unemployed."


"People from all over the state used to come just to visit our unemployment office," Ayers, 52, said. "Just like Detroit, Ypsilanti, Novi, and most other Michigan cities, Flint's an unemployment town. Has been as long as I can remember."

This State, being no stranger to unemployment, seems to have voted itself into office a bunch of folks who think the remedy to chronically high unemployment is to slash the time allotment for unemployment benefits by 30%, from 26 weeks to 20 weeks.

Starting this January, the new rules go into effect and folks freshly dropped from their livelihoods only get 5 months to look for more work. But not just that. Heck no....

The measures require some unemployed workers to take new jobs after 10 weeks of benefits even if the available work is outside their previous experience or pays lower wages than they were making before. They also make it harder for someone to collect jobless benefits if they're fired for cause or leave a job voluntarily.

The goal here is to either:

1. Punish the unemployed as motivation to be Not Unemployed.


2. Chase the unemployed the hell out of Michigan.


3. To screw workers in order to cut unemployment insurance costs for Michigan businesses and repay the Federal government the unemployment money lent to it because MICHIGAN HAS BEEN SCREWED for so long, exhausting the unemployment insurance coffers... in NOW is the worst possible time to kick the unmployed to the curb.

The new laws also allow the state to sell bonds through which Michigan employers can repay the $3 billion owed the federal government for loans made to cover unemployment benefits from 2007 until now. The proceeds from the bonds will be used to pay off the debt, eliminating hefty penalties and interest employers now are paying the federal government.

Employers will repay the bonds and the state will get back $38 million borrowed from the general fund to cover the payments.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce said the bonds will save employers penalties and interest, even though some will see their payments go up to repay their share of the bonds. Wendy Block of the chamber said the overall legislation will reform the insolvent unemployment insurance system to address many of the problems that created the funding crisis.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Researcher Finds Ancient Tools Deep Below the Waters of Lake Huron

Earlier this year an anthropologist found a pointy stick a hundred feet down at the bottom of Lake Huron, dating back to 8,900 years. University of Michigan anthropologist John O’Shea. He found a stick likely crafted by human hands. Perhaps a stick to pitch a tent or hang meat. Something. But a relic of humanity.

Photobucket (photo from the Detroit Free Press)

The 5 1/2-foot long pole, tapered and pointed, is positively prehistoric — 8,900 years old based on carbon dating — and evidence of human activity along a land bridge that once linked northeast Lower Michigan to what today is central Ontario.

“The first thing you notice is that it appears to have been shaped with a rounded base and a pointed tip," said U-M anthropologist John O’Shea, who talks about the discovery and the search for ancient hunting sites in a video.

Before Socrates. Before the Odyssey. Before the Egyptian pyramids, people occupied the coast of Lake Huron. Ten thousand years ago, when Lake Huron and the upper Great Lakes were much smaller, prehistoric human beings lived along their coasts.

Underwater archaeology in the Great Lakes is a relatively new field, producing some exciting finds of human existence in North America. The most recent research is coming as a result of recent, detailed underwater mapping of the water bodies. The detail has helped scientists determine where the shallower coastline used to be, and then predict where human populations were likely to have been hanging out.

Two years ago University of Michigan researchers found evidence of ancient drive lines at the bottom of the lake; long rock structures that people would chase caribou toward, and as the caribou formed a single file line people at the end of the drive line would kill the week's meals.

Surveying an underwater ridge with side-scan sonar and remote-operated vehicles, John M. O’Shea of the university’s Museum of Anthropology and Guy R. Meadows of the Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratory discovered stone features that resemble those used today in the Canadian Arctic to hunt caribou. The submerged features date from about 7,500 to 10,000 years ago, when the lake’s level was much lower and the ridge was a narrow causeway that ran from present-day Michigan to Ontario, dividing the lake in two.

It's easy to forget, sometimes, that we inhabit an ancient land, storied and rich with human history going back thousands of years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't Tell Me Where You Work. Tell Me What You Do.

Do you ever lose interest in the big things?

Sometimes weeks go by where big things hold no interest for me. Not just no interest. They hold no meaning. Big things like national news. Like electoral politics. Like national policy on this or that.

I read the news, or listen to the radio and at times it all seems like it's happening on Mars. Disembodied. Floating in the ether. Way up there.

Meanwhile I'm feeling the rocks on my feet. The frozen wind in my face. I ponder that we have no bread, no milk. I think about making bread in the evening rather than buying a loaf for $1.50. I gauge the presence of toilet paper. I wonder if I have enough butter, if the car that acting up that we have that replaced the dead car is suffering a serious problem, why my son has been grumpy. I think about commitments I have made and if and when I'll fulfill them and mentally note the date and try to recall things I said I'd do this week.

Somehow meaning and significance shifts from day to day, week to week. As though meaning is a spirit channeling through random events and objects. It takes a vacation from the large, fleeing from the sounds on the radio and macro-visions of the nation, to personal interactions, to the flavor of something I ate as a child, to small personal accomplishments or failures.

Today a man behind me in line handed me a pen as I searched around for something with which to write a check.

I turned and thanked him and took the pen and turned again to the man and gave him a good look as I thanked him.

I knew him. The man in a hoodie and a stocking cap. A fellow I knew in high school...whom I barely knew in high school. With whom I had barely had more than a two or three sentence conversation. All I knew is that he and his girlfriend had a child before the end of high school and he married her and went to work to help support the child. As I get older, the more admirable that becomes.

"It's you!" I said. And called him by name.

We talked for some time as if catching up on time lost.

The impulse we both had was to talk about our work. Somewhat excusively he said he made a living chopping vegetables, and had for more than a decade. As though somehow it was the defining thing about him.....a person, chopping vegetables 40 or more hours per week to receive the cash he needs to live.

It felt unfortunate to me that the questions "what are you doing" or "what have you been up to..." are so often answered by describing the tasks and people we sell our time to.

I made the usual statement about work being work. And told him I'm trying to write.

He brightened and talked about his band. His band that tours from Detroit, through Ohio and Indiana and around the lower part of Michigan. He told me about experimental jazz he and a friend did in his basement. And recording equipment he used to help friends who also wanted to record.

For a man with such a rich, active creative wonders why the first impulse of self definition is the one where he chops vegetables.

There are so many rich, creative minds all around us. Refilling our bottomless cups of coffee. Asking us "will that be debit or credit"? And too often that's all we see. As though the people around us go home into a box and shut down when the day is over. When they're done doing the job that's too easily dismissed as "menial"......

.....and maybe they're not working themselves to death, two or three jobs. Maybe they're finding more meaning and value, and depth and motivation and self worth in an act of creation. The people too easily dismissed as insignificant because of the tiny, TINY sliver of the life we happen to intersect with.

We've moved ourselves into a position where our financial success is the metric we ourselves use to define success.

I love stumbling across the artists in my community. I love it. I love talking to the cashier and learning that she loves to paint. I love meeting an old friend who, on his own time, challenges his own skill as a musician. I love the dancers...and I'm fascinated by the woman I know who hula-hoops and breaths fire in her spare time. These aren't RICH people. They're not even getting by easily. But they are fulfilled.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fiction: Jenny Says She's Doing Fine, Now

This one fits the proper specs under 300 words. If you're wondering what's this's just a fun writing thing. Starting a story with "The Doorbell Rang" and ending it with "the snow began to fall."

It should be no more than 300 words. Anyway, here's take two:

The doorbell rang. I was right in the middle of my second shot of bourbon and felt a little embarrassed about heading to the door. But what the hell, it's around seven what. I paused in case somebody else might answer the door I was sitting 10 feet from.

"I got it!" I yelled to the household in general, put down my copy of the I Robot I had been intending to read for the past decade and a half, and answered the door.

It was Paula from next door, widow of a well respected boxing coach who got into some state boxing hall of fame or something.

"I got your mail" She said blandly. "Here." She thrust a letter into my hand, turned and left.

"Seeya, Paula!" I said perfunctorily probably after I had closed the door, and glanced down at the envelope; hand written address on Christmasy stationary with a big, sleigh-bell stamp on the front.

My address. But addressed to some Ms. Hilda Franz.

I sat back down on the couch and yelled, " we know a Hilda Franz?"

She yelled back from the kitchen "Uh...wasn't she the previous owner of this house before she died? Like...a couple years before we bought the house or something..."


I opened it. Inside, a standard Christmas photo-card of a large family, with a hand written note at the bottom:

Merry Christmas from all of us, Mom. Jenny says she's doing fine, now.

-- Charles.

A phone number was written carefully at the bottom.

I poured another glass of bourbon and picked up the phone.

Outside, the snow began to fall.

Fiction: Snowless

The doorbell rang. Something I always imagined to be a 1950s middle class simulation of opulence; two long brass tubes hanging from an art deco style box on the wall, reminiscent of the Empire State Building, but in a tiny room in a tiny cape cod. The bell sang out the first chime. The "Ding". But never a "Dong". The "Dong" vanished long ago. Or maybe never existed at all. But it delivered exactly the same incomplete sensation of hearing the beginning but never the "Two Bits" resolution of "Shave And a Hair Cut..."

It helped that my kids enjoyed the doorbell, at least. Somehow a doorbell ring for them was an exotic treat. They would speculate on which one of their friends it might be at the door.

But mostly, I hated it. The door bell.

I hated it because it usually served as a lonely, punch in the gut reminder that I was still home in the afternoon, filling up space.

I hated it because, really, who rings the doorbell anyway? Nobody I know. Few dared, really. It looked like an electrocution hazard. The plastic covering on the button had become brittle with weather and age and had crumbled in revealing just a tiny light bulb presumably lit by the same current and ancient wiring that half rang the half doorbell.

I hated it because it meant somebody I didn't know was at the door. And that usually meant I would end up buying some school funding chocolate or expensive half cup of popcorn in a decorative Christmas tin from a very adorable neighbor kid that I couldn't afford to spend money on. Or worse...I'd end up saying No to the cute little neighbor kid my son plays with in the summer because I don't have any money or anticipate having cash on hand and I end up feeling guilty and then depressed about not being able to afford some $8 half cup of popcorn in a decorative Christmas tin.

I answered the door to a blast of fresh chilled December air, and the constant white noise in the distance, the low, almost subliminal roar of Lake Michigan just down the street and beyond the dunes. Late December, three days before Christmas, and not a flake of snow, though. Not one. My wife particularly brooded over that. She owned a small store. Our only tenuous source of income and snow, it seemed, had magical properties in the retail world. Dry roads, clear skies and people just don't go shopping. Dump snow and ice all over the roads, and suddenly people remember they have to be at the store right away to buy stuff.

I opened the door to a cold, snowless day full of browns and naked trees and freeze dried greens of plants that kept the photosynthesis right up until the frost and dried into stasis.

Some middle aged guy in a knit snow hat in a brown paint and grease stained Carhardt coat stood on the porch.

"Hey!" He said and held out a deeply calloused hand.

I shook it and said "Hey...what's up?"

"Hey, uh...need your lawn mowed?"

"My lawn?" I stepped out onto my porch with him into the cold and looked out over my dead, brown lawn through wisps of freezing water vapor coming from my breath. The man's old, matte black F-150 seemed to rust away right there before my very eyes right there in my driveway, a snow blower and a lawn mower in the back. In the cab a young boy looked out the passenger side window. "Well..." I paused.

They man said nothing.

I looked out at my lawn again. A lump started rolling up in my throat. Little synapses duked it out in my head between just saying "yes, of course, it's Christmas!" and saying "no, are you crazy? we're broke and the lawn is dead." while another part of my brain calculated if I had actually had enough cash in the house to even pay for a mowing of a non-existent lawn. And how much would my wife be annoyed if that money was suddenly gone?

"My lawn, eh.....? It's sort of...." I slowly started while the parts of my brain duked it out, trying to come to a happy resolution.

"Yeah..." the man said, with a distant chuckle, his hands now stuffed into his pockets.

"Yeah..." I said with a matching tone. Then, "I.......don't have a snow blower. And I have this huge driveway. Maybe.......maybe when it snows..."

The man nodded and smiled "...IF it snows..." he chuckled again....

"Right? Yeah, IF it snows. I'll need that. And you might want to talk to my neighbor here, she's
in her 90s and her nephew just moved away and he usually did the driveway for her in the winter. So...what are ya looking for to plow something like that driveway?"

"Oh, whatever. I don't care. I gotta cover gas, of course."

"Okay. Crazy times, eh?"

"Ya got that, right......well....Merry Christmas" He smiled broadly and shook my hand again, and turned down the steps of my porch. His son watched him return to the truck.

And suddenly, the snow began to fall.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"This is for her..."

The following is NOT fiction. It happened while I was paying my electric bill.

There's a certain kind of feeling in the lungs, in the guts, when the air crystalizes at freezing. Not quite snow. Not yet. But the fact of snow without precipitation. The body knows. It just knows. And the darkness comes at 5:00 PM.

I drove down to the Consumer's Energy building on Hoyt between Laketon Ave. and Hackley St., named after the lumber baron who refused to abandon the once-lumber town after the trees were gone. The Consumer's Energy is in a blighted region of the city with boarded up homes on the way, and official papers with city ordinance numbers duct taped to the doors. Across the street a crumbling home with one such sign and somebody's earthly possessions behind cracked glass, stacked to the ceiling in the mud room.

I had to make an urgent payment to the electric company, hence the in-person visit. Right to the source. Long story. We were about 5 months behind on electric payments and I'd been calling the company telling them that if they could pretty please just delay the shut-off for another week, I'd pay least the amount to push the shut-off date further into the future. Twice I assured them, and twice they delayed payment.

At the zeroth hour I pulled up at the building and was preceded by a woman who had driven a rusted, crumbling beater that shuddered to a stop. I walked into the door behind her, cash in hand..............and waited in line. My children bounced on the chairs near the door.

Two women sat behind bullet-proof acrylic windows taking money and talking to customers. But only one, it seemed, was moving the line.

The other was occupied with a long term conversation with a young woman with a baby who appeared to be in her pajamas and a sweater. Good natured. Laughing.

"" said the woman "...You know how it is. I mean....they just sit there in a pile, right? I don't know where they go. I probably lost it...."

Nodding, unspeaking, the woman behind the two inch thick bullet proof plexiglass...

The young patron kept speaking "....I mean....I GUESS the payment plan is good. But that's...that's.....I guesss that's what again? How much is it?"

"Fifty dollars...." The women behind the plexi prompted

"Yeah....fifty. Dollars. I mean. And if we miss that today than what again? Fifty you said?"

"Yes, fifty. It was the payment plan we arranged."

"Oh! That was the...okay...boy, how could it be so much?" a long pause "I what again happens if we don't have the...the what?"

"Fifty dollars. Well...we....that's when the account needs to be discontinued."

"Okay. So....I see....yes....well...I mean, we....I mean...I....I hadn't seen the bill itself. So........." a pause and nothing....

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Oh I'm just trying to picture where we put that agreement. I'm just trying know, see it. I can't see it. I....there' know how it get the mail and it just ends up in a pile..."

The woman with the baby on her hip looked studiously at the floor during the whole conversation, ignoring the long line. Talking. Talking in a low voice. Quietly. But in a silent, silent room of people waiting in line.

She just talked.

As though every second she talked was another second the power stayed on. As though somehow in the circular conversation the situation would somehow maybe resolve itself.

I stood in line. I felt momentarily irritated that one woman was taking up 50% of the capacity of this line. But that quickly faded and I felt a bit of shame and resolved to pretend as though the other teller behind the plexiglass wasn't even available to me. That just the one was, and I'd just have to wait.

Slowly. Slowly. The line crawled. My children became more animated and impatient. The woman at the other window with the child on her hip kept talking...and in her manner just from seeing and not from hearing one might thing she was talking to a long lost friend. Small laughs and a smile on her face as she talked and gestured.

Then...finally the women in front of me went up. The woman who drove the rusted beater that shuttered to a stop before she went inside. I heard the women at the front of the line...

"Can I just have a bill sent to my house again?"

"Yes, Ma'am" said the teller " that all?"

The woman in front of me handed the teller a check..."This is for her..." and she pointed at the young mother in the other line with the baby on her hip....

Then she left. She made a bee line to her beater and drove off. The two tellers behind the counter looked at one another in confusion. Then said to the other woman "Well...I guess Merry Christmas." The woman with the baby on her hip just looked at the floor and said "I....I don't think she pointed at me. I don't know who that is."

"Well, she paid your electric bill..." said the unoccupied teller blandly.... "Next! She looked up at me."

All the people in line, who had been staring blankly and silently burst out with a chuckle..."Merry Christmas, Mama...." said an older woman near the back of the line.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Food Assistance Use at Farmers Markets Grows 130% in One Year

Boy there's so much stuff going on today I almost feel silly talking about food stamps and farmer's markets. Obama laid down the gauntlet with a bold statement in favor of restoring the American Middle Class, there was some great information and press about the successes of "Obamacare", and Hillary Clinton has been promoting gay rights globally...

It's just been a great day.

And here's some more good news...sort of. More Michigan farrmers markets are accepting food assistance from people, and the amount of food assistance spent at Michigan farmers markets grew by 140% from 2009 to 2010.

While it's not great that there's a growing number of people relying on food assistance. It's a good thing that food assistance money is, more and more, being spent here in Michigan on Michigan grown produce at local farmers markets.

For those not in the know, the Michigan name for the food assistance card is the Bridge Card. And as a note to Newt Gingrich, no...though it IS a card, you actually CANNOT use it to fly to Hawaii.

Anyway, here are the numbers:

Number of Farmer's Markets Accepting Bridge Cards: 2009 - 26 | 2010 - 49
Statewide Bridge Card Sales at Farmers Markets: 2009 - 297,077 | 2010 - 705,969
Average Bridge Card Sales per Farmer's market: 2009 - 12,376 | 2010 - 17,219
Average Amount of Bridge Card Transaction: 2009 - 12 | 2010 - 16


The Holland Farmers’ Market will also be applying for the “DoubleUp Food Bucks ” grant, which will allow users to double their redemption power, up to $20. It is hoped that the City will be able to self-fund the program after the two year period.

The way I see it...these are dollars going to feed Americans, used more and more to go into the pockets of local, small time American farmers. It's fantastic.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Renaissance of Great Lakes Research

We bundled the kids up and filled a thermos with hot chocolate and went to Hoffmaster State Park where we hiked through the dunes and woodlands for two hours, down to the lake to sit on a log and have some hot chocolate. It was cold. And the wind was hash. But it was worth it. And in the end did the children fall asleep in the car ride back like we had hoped?

No. Not at all.

One of the 200 foot tall parabolic dunes we passed on our approach to the beech had decided at some point that it was tired of sitting around. It somehow shed its trees and soil and decided it was time to move a bit. I've passed this dune dozens of times and it seems to have gone from soil to pure sand all at once...and this time around we found a line of orange flags on spikes situated at the very bottom of the dune. A gas line? A water line?

We went over to examine one and it basically said this:

Leave this flag alone, Bud. We're researching dune movements.

A professor from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan was researching the movement of dunes. Awesome. And as we wandered down to the water front we found yet another research field with a large array of instruments from the same professor, researching dune formation and deposits of sand washed up and blown in from the Big Lake.

For those who want to know more about dunes and dune formations there's some fascinating information here on the website.

It's a beautiful thing. I don't recall seeing much in the way of evidence of Great Lakes research growing up in the area. Now we've got the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory down by Pere Marquette just off of Lake Michigan. We've got the Annis Water Resources Institute along Muskegon Lake. We've got Calvin College in Grand Rapids apparently researching dune formations. And of course we've got the Grand Valley State University Wind Research Buoy.

There's a renaissance of Great Lakes research going on and it's long overdue.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Muskegon Coal Plant to Close, No Coal Burning Replacement to be Built. Demand Met by Renewables.

The 63 year old coal fire power plant in Muskegon is scheduled to close in 2015. There will be NO replacement coal plant construction.

Let me say that again: the Muskegon coal plant is shutting down, and it will not be replaced. Check THIS out...

Along with the current energy market forces, Consumers' decisions also were made based on future expectations of energy savings from efficiency measures and additional generation from alternative sources of power. Consumers Energy now is constructing the 100-megawatt Lake Winds Energy Park, a commercial wind farm in southern Mason County.

Opponents of renewable energy need to stick that in their crack bowl and smoke it. Between this and a Bay County wind farm that was put on hold because power demand had been met with renewable energy...the suggestion that wind power doesn't shut down coal plants is pretty much blown out of the water.

And it's not just ONE coal plant being shut down.

The closure of coal unites at the Cobb plant, J.R. Whiting plant near Luna Pier and the Karn/Weadock Plant near Bay City are due to the same factors that canceled the company's plans for a clean coal plant.

The closure of the seven smaller, older coal units and the environmental improvements to its remaining generating units will reduced Consumers power plant emissions by 90 percent, company officials said.

Do I have to say it again? It's a new world. I'm saddened by knowing that over 100 jobs will be lost when the coal plant closes...though there is an advanced battery manufacturing plant opening up that will employ hundreds, and a proposed wind turbine component manufacturing park. We hope that will go to help replace those jobs and give work to those families.

I drove down the road this drizzly December afternoon with my kids and passed by Every Woman's organization that helps women in need. Next to the familiar building I've seen my whole life, something news. Rows and rows and rows of solar panels pointed toward the sky generating clean energy. It was part of a project funded by the US Department of Energy from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

It's a beautiful thing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Environmental Protection Agency FINALLY Starts to Rein In the Source for Destructive Invasive Species

This is the beginnings of some good news. It's kind of huge, in fact. And my hat goes off to the Obama administration for FINALLY moving forward with great lakes ballast water treatment regulations. Would I like to see it stricter? Yes. But it's a step in the right direction.

It's decades overdue. And it's going to immensely slow the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes.

On Wednesday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency released a draft of a new rule that will require overseas ships visiting the lakes to eventually install treatment systems for ship-steadying ballast tanks. Contaminated ballast discharges are the preferred pathway for hitchhikers such as quagga mussels, zebra mussels, round gobies and dozens of the ecosystem-fouling invaders that have arrived since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the lakes to deep-draft foreign vessels over a half-century ago.

Read more:

Am I thrilled that the EPA is giving shipping companies TWO YEARS to get their act together and install the treatment systems, while more and more exotic species could be getting dumped into the Great Lakes with every salt water ship?

No. I'm not thrilled. On the other hand, the shipping companies can't swing this change on a dime. They'll reasonably need some time to change over. Fine.

Yeah...they should have done it decades ago. But to be fair, the EPA and the Coast Guard should have demanded these changes decades ago. Had they enforced the laws that were in place, maybe we'd be in a different spot. It's not like there hasn't been years and years and years and years and years and years and years of warnings.

The BEST part of this bill? It doesn't restrict states from implementing their own, more stringent requirements on ballast which I issue my heartiest HA HA to the salt water shipping companies. Cuz if ANY state creates stricter guidelines, the ships have to conform to the strictest regulatory requirements.

Even if Wisconsin uses the minimum of Federal requirements it doesn't matter because the ships STILL have to go through New York's waters to get there, and New York is working on a bill that is ONE HUNDRED TIMES more strict that the International Maritime Organization standards.

If a ship doesn't conform to New York's standards...they're not getting through to Wisconsin. Tee hee. But New York is giving the shipping companies until 2016 to conform to THOSE rules.'s not like they're unreasonable.

For those who aren't sure what this is all about:

Saltwater vessels coming into the Great Lakes have been been bringing invasive species into these waters for half a century. The ships constantly need to change their ballast water as they load and unload cargo. It's like a floating million gallon aquarium, dumping critters from different ports into the great lakes.

It's been a disaster for the Great Lakes. Not just the Great Lakes, but every fresh water system that connects to the Great Lakes including the Mississippi River watershed (Which is only connecting the Great Lakes watershed though an artificial connection in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal). If you've got zebra mussels where you're living, you can thank lax and unenforced ballast water requirements.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

We had to add MORE SEATS for our renewable energy presentation!

Last night our group, the West Michigan Jobs Group, hosted a showing of Carbon Nation and renewable energy presentation at the local library. As a side note I want to stress that the group has about a dozen people all working their butts off to promote wind power and green jobs in Muskegon, Ottawa, and Oceana Counties. It's our group. Our. We. Us.

And we got a nod to our efforts in the local paper in an editorial about Muskegon's mushrooming renewable energy plans....

But, Muskegon County wouldn't even have this opportunity if a group of Muskegon residents hadn't taken the initiative a year ago to let wind developers know this county wouldn't turn its nose up at jobs related to green energy like neighboring counties had.

That's US! Woohoo! And now we're working to do some more, starting with local showings of Carbon Nation.

The turnout at the first showing was great. The librarian who helped to set up the room said she always put out 30 chairs just to be safe. Well...we filled them all, and had to set up more.


There was even a line:


The movie is a VERY TIMELY renewable energy primer...timely because a LOT of the things they talk about in the movie are happening here in Muskegon and they're happening All At Once:

The most recent thing to happen here is a FEDERAL STIMULUS grant of 3.2 Million Dollars is coming to Muskegon to help build renewable energy solutions for low to mid income families AND non-profit organization in the area that benefit disadvantaged communities. Every Woman's Place, for example, is getting a solar array on the roof. AWESOME.

MUSKEGON — The Muskegon-Oceana Community Action Partnership's solar energy project gives a new meaning to “empowering” the poor.

MOCAP recently received a $3.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant — federal “stimulus" funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — to provide renewable energy installations to Muskegon-area nonprofits serving low-income people.

Another 110 middle- and low-income homeowners in Muskegon and Oceana counties will receive similar active and passive solar energy devices. Installation of the devices by local contractors already is underway, with the project expected to be completed by March.

See that? "Installation of the devices"? Translation: JOBS! Putting people to WORK.


Another benefit of the stimulus? The Fortu PowerCell advanced battery manufacturing plant in Muskegon has begun construction...that's MORE jobs building the plant, AND more jobs when it starts making batteirs. Hundreds of them. HUNDREDS.

The Muskegon Commissioners just completed and approve the lease agreement for a 100 MW wind farm in Muskegon County's massive waste water treatment facility....



AND two huge companies are looking to create an industrial park in the Muskegon area, focused on creating wind turbine parts:

MUSKEGON — Two leading West Michigan's companies have joined forces to plan a Muskegon manufacturing center designed to support the state's growing commercial wind industry.

L3 Combat Propulsion Systems in Muskegon and Rockford Berge in Grand Rapids have established the Michigan Wind Energy Consortium, which includes other companies, with the intention of forming an industrial center.

The consortium is not a developer of wind farms but a group of companies and supporting agencies that would build parts for wind turbines, ship those parts around the globe and service the land-based wind industry.

And they want to do it from Muskegon.'s like a dream come true. If we can secure these industries. If we can MAKE things again. If we can DIVERSIFY our economy into new industries....

...we can FINALLY be putting people back to work. Muskegon has had a rough 30 years, with ups and downs, but mostly downs with double digit unemployment as often as not. Our downtown has been literally bulldozed to the ground so we could start over. And the people here have been trying like HELL to re-invent the economy here for decades, trying to add more diverse industries to the mix. And it seems like we're right on the edge of actually doing it RIGHT NOW.

Stay tuned.



Hat Tip to the Sierra Club for letting us use the movie!

Monday, November 28, 2011

In January Michigan Will Start Taxing Me On Insurance Premiums to Save Blue Cross Some Money

And yet another tax on the middle class.

We recently got a letter from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan about the Michigan Health Insurance Claims Assessment Act that will go into effect one month from now on January 1, 2012.

Snyder, a Republican, worked with state lawmakers on the measures and agreed to them as part of the effort to balance the state’s budget overall. In addition to the new tax, the state ended a 6% use tax on Medicaid managed care organizations. The blanket 1% tax on all payments is expected to cover some of the losses from eliminating the use tax.

So a 6% Use Tax on Medicaid Managed Care organizations was scrapped and replaced with a tax on insurance claims and premiums "The new rules will impose a 1% tax on all health care claims paid in the state and use that money to provide health care for low-income residents."

As I understand it, many of the managed care organizations are subsidiaries of insurance companies -- so Michigan effectively removed a tax on insurance companies who get money from Medicaid, and replaced it with a tax on insurance claims and premiums for self insured folks like myself.

I have no problem paying a little more if I know it's going to help folks less fortunate. What gets me is when my taxes are raised so that massive companies awash in cash can have a tax cut.

Michigan's legislature and governor simply shifted the tax burden from large corporations to the average Joe in order to maintain the same level of Medicaid funding we had before.

Our lawmakers were hell bent on removing the 6% use tax primarily on insurance companies and in order to keep Michigan eligible for 780 million dollars in Federal funding for Medicaid, they shifted that cost to everybody else.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another Great Lakes Invader, This Time it May Not Be All Bad

I used to joke that with all the invasive species throwing the Great Lakes ecosystem out of whack that we might as well get it over with...just dump all aquatic critters into the Great Lakes and have them duke it out. Let the critters sort it out and create some sort of enduring bizarro pan-aquatic ecosystem.

Boom. Done.

But until that day when my imaginary, nightmare solution comes along, we walk a tightrope maintaining balance with the Great Lakes ecosystem.

One bit of potentially good news is the very recent invasion of the bloody red shrimp. 2006. The shrimp invaded in 2006:

The Great Lakes are facing another invader -- the bloody red shrimp -- but research suggests the crustacean interlopers could serve a useful purpose.

Mike Yuille, a researcher at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says the shrimp, named for their bright red spots, may become a new food source for native fish.

He says the shrimp, about the size of a thumbnail, tend to swim in swarms that can look like "red clouds" and are often seen during the day near shore areas.

Read more:

Turns out this new invader may be providing a new bottom-of-the-food-chain food source for smaller predators like yellow perch. It works a little bit like this:

1. For ten thousand years the base of the food chain in the Great Lakes has been a tiny shrimp called diporea. It was once the dominant biomass in the Great Lakes. The great thing of diporea is that it's an energy dense little shrimp easy for the fish to eat.

2. Zebra mussels moved in from the Black Sea and Caspian Sea without any native competitors for food and sucked up all the food that the diporea used to eat, collapsing the population of diporea. Fish then had to turn to eating small zebra and quagga mussels, which are much MUCH less energy dense than diporea.

3. Enter the bloody red shrimp (2006). Also introduced to the Great Lakes via foreign ballast water, exactly like zebra mussels. Once again it's an energy dense food or native's ALSO from the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, so it's evolved over the millennia to naturally compete with zebra mussels. So far, there's mounting evidence that the fish are eating the shrimp as they spread.

The “bloody-red shrimp” Hemimysis anomala, was first reported in the Great Lakes by NOAA from samples collected in Muskegon, Michigan in November of 2006 in waters connected to Lake Michigan. It is a small shrimp-like crustacean (order Mysidacea) native to the low-salinity margins of the Black Sea, the Azov Sea, and the eastern Caspian Sea and most likely was brought into the Great Lakes via ballast tanks. However, mysids are also used by aquarists as a high-nutrition food for aquarium fish, although we have not found any records that Hemimysis is used this way.

And incidentally, it turns out Muskegon Lake was where the bastards were firs discovered..a fact I just learned about just now on the NOAA website...weird....

The main Muskegon population was found in a swarm of over 300 individuals per m3. It has also been found in samples taken in Lake Ontario off Oswego, New York. In both locations, adults, juveniles, and pregnant females were found, indicating that this species is reproduction in the Great Lakes.

As I've mentioned before, the Great Lakes are a managed eco-system. Because of a constant barrage of invasive species for most of a century, the Great Lakes are no longer a naturally balanced eco-system. The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission and state level natural resources departments fight year after year after year to maintain an ecological balance. We'll never be able to go back to what the Great Lakes were. We can, at best, maintain a system that we want.

Let's hope that the bloody red shrimp help the system maintain a balance.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To Match the Gov. You Need to Donate 6 Cans of Veggies Per Day

There is NO WAY Charitable Giving will ever be able to replace the Federal Government in the ability to meed the level of need we have. I'm sick to my liver of hearing from conservatives that charity should or even CAN replace the US Government as a way to meet need.

My tiny boy, the little one, goes to preschool now. And as usual I was dropping him off a few minutes late. He races me to the door. On the race to the door, I saw boys carrying box after box of canned goods into a van. The school had done a food drive. School wide.

A school-wide food drive. It went on for a couple of weeks in preparation to fill food pantries for Thanksgiving. And as I watched the boys fill that Econoline Van, I peeked around the corner to see the amount of food they had stacked up, as an older man took the cans from the boys and arranged them neatly into the van.

My first thought was "Wow, that's a lot of food"

Then my mind did some rough calculation -- Yes I keep these things in my mind, sue me :

Can of corn: about 300 calories
Can of carrots: about 200 calories
Can of beans: 450 calories
Pound of spaghetti: 1600 calories

Times the a random adult food consumption of 2000 calories per day times 365 for 730,000 calories in a year for a 160 pound sedentary male.

The van, at best, contained enough food to feed a 160 pound person for MAYBE half a year. My best guess. How do I know? Because I have spent a couple years stockpiling food and I've kept track of the number of calories in our basement food stockpile. And I can tell you that unless there was a lot of hidden rice and pasta somewhere, that van, while looking full, would have fueled an adult for six months. Maybe.

A two week long elementary-school wide food drive produced just about enough food to feed 1 adult for 6 months. Or to be generous, enough to feed one 8 year old for a year. Or twelve 8 year olds for a month. Or fifty-two 8 year olds for One Week.

Or perhaps three-hundred-sixty-five 8 year olds for a day.

Though it took two weeks and hundreds of contributing families in order to get there.

I'm not entirely sure what my point is here.

It certainly isn't to discourage people from contributing to their local food pantries, or to stop giving to food drives.

Everything helps.

But the amount we give...the amount we CAN in fact a drop in the bucket of need. Charitable giving CANNOT and WILL NOT ever be able to fulfill the role of the US Government. EVER. EVER. EVER EVER EVER. It can't.

Let's break this down.

1 in 4 people in Muskegon County are on food we're looking at about 43,000 people on food assistance.

I realize that the folk going to food banks are often times folks NOT on food assistance, or people who ARE on food assistance but who can't get by on that. But let's work with the 43,000 number for the sake of convenience. And let's assume at least half of those folks are children. So we'll use a rough average of 1600 calories per person per day.

We're looking at a food need of: 68,800,000 calories PER DAY.
in Muskegon, alone. About 69 MILLION calories per day. Per DAY.

Conveniently, we can break that down into spaghetti, which is 1600 per pound. So to try to match what the US Government is helping with with SNAP benefits Muskegon County alone we'd need to be donating 43,000 pounds of spaghetti Every Single Day. Assuming people can survive on spaghetti alone, which they can't.

Or about 230,000 cans of corn EVERY SINGLE DAY.

There are about 170,000 people in Muskegon County, let's pretend the other 3/4 who aren't on food assistance are supplying the food. That's 127,000 people. Or let's say about 3.5 per household for about 36,000 households, which is actually an acruate depiction of the households in Muskegon County.

That means EACH HOUSEHOLD would need to donate at LEAST 1.2 pounds of spaghetti, or 6 cans of vegetables EVERY SINGLE DAY.

This is the reality if the US Government stopped helping with food assistance and we relied on charitable donations to meet the FOOD need.

There's simply no way charitable giving would meet the need of even food.

Ask yourself, have you really donated $125 of food every single month?

COULD you donate $125 of food every single month?

And these numbers are going to get WORSE when you move to counties with even MORE need per capita.

There is NO WAY Charitable Giving will ever be able to replace the Federal Government in the ability to meed the level of need we have.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Forcing Poor Children to Clean our Schools

I admit, one of my favorite jobs ever was working as a custodian for a very large child care center. When something broke, I fixed it. When a child puked masticated crunch berries on the floor, I was the guy who came out the with the magic sawdust-clay mixture to soak it up and take it away.

When the center was short handed in the infant room, I got pulled into the infant room. When they were short handed in the 3 year old room, I got pulled into the three year old room. And when the kids finished their lunch, I was the guy mopping up vast amounts of wet, sticky rice from the floor, sanitizing the tables, chairs and high-chairs, and washing the dishes.

I sanitized doorknobs. I filed down jagged parts of metal that somehow, ever once in a while, stuck out from steel door jams and bathroom stalls. I hauled out dozens of bags of dirty diapers...and yes, I cleaned up an unholy amount of poop from a dozen itty bitty toilets.

Incidentally...these are many of the things Newt Gingrich believes should jobs for poor children in our public school systems. Perhaps you haven't heard Newt Gingrich's suggestion that we shit can the union custodians at our schools and hire poor students to do the work instead.

Cleaning up vomit. Cleaning feces off of toilet seats. Handling cleaning solvents that can eat right through latex gloves. Washing dishes with an industrial dish washer that heats the water over 180 degrees, enough to scald young skin...I can't tell you how many times I burnt myself in that water. OUCH. Plunging toilets plugged with diarrhea and toilet paper, then sanitizing the toilet seat for the Non Poor students.

Newt Gingrish wants our children cleaning blood, mucous, feces, urine, dried snot, vomit from floors and walls and door knobs with chemicles that can eat the skin right off your arm or cause permanent blindness if it splashed into the eyes or loss of smell if some Janitor Kid jammed his finger up his nose...which kids never do, right?


Because an 8 year old is going to observe strict safety regulations, right?

When tasked with removing the rusting nails from the wooden playground equipment that has been discovered on the playground, that child janitor is of course going to be mindful he doesn't pierce himself....or when an errant ball sends glass and fluorescent mercury filled lightbulbs shattering to the ground, we're absolutely certain that nine year old girl is going to be so extremely careful not to slice herself open, expose herself to mercury, or for lack of attention span leave shattered slivers of glass on the shelves that happen to house the flatware and plastic cups for lunches and snacks. We're sure she'll observe proper safety procedures when removing snapped off electrical prongs from outlets.

We're absolutely sure little Kayden is going to be mindful enough to shovel the sidewalks and keep the entry ways salted to prevent people from slipping, and that he'll be sure to winterize the water systems and change the furnace filters, make sure the soap dispensers, paper towel dispensers, toilet paper rolls, hallway hand sanitizer cartridges, and, of course, cherry scented urinal cakes made from hazardous quaternary ammonium compounds are well stocked.

And surely those very custodian children will be on hand for the monthly to weekly deep cleans that take place late into the nights when most lucky children are at home. Polishing the floors. Dusting the vents. Changing the light bulbs on ladders 20 feet in the air in the massive gymnasium.

But maybe............just MAYBE...... Newt has no idea.

Maybe he doesn't actually know what janitors do. Maybe he imagines there's a routine to the job. Go in, wax on, wax off, mop the floor. Done.

DONE. Clean and sanitary. Every day is exactly the same. In Newt's mind, this master custodian he's talking about will have plenty of time to watch over the children as they clean the grease trap in the kithchen. He'll follow them around as they use the high torque 60 pound floor buffer, which, incidentally, one of my teenage co-workers at the child care drove through a wall at one point. He'll be sure they're not leaving the mopped floors covered in soap, and watching over them to be sure they handle toxic chemicles with proper care at all times.

I can't keep going on talking about this.

Newt is a fucking idiot who clearly hasn't worked a day in his life, and if he has, his decades of corruption have stripped away any working understanding of what it means.

He should be embarrassed for suggesting we make poor children clean our schools. There is SO much wrong with that statement and the most irritating thing is, he doesn't even know WHY.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

There is a Transformational Shift in the Industrial Belt

I admit my mood tends to swing based on the amount of money I happen to have at the time. We've hit a bit of a dry spell....or....rather, we're back to the dry spell after a deceptively prosperous month or so. And right before Thanksgiving which has me feeling a little less than exuberant.

But no matter, the Muskegon Critic household will be Giving Thanks for our vast American bounty at Grandma and Grandpa's house. I'll crack a quart of my homemade pickled beets and a couple quarts of my homemade apple sauce made with HONEYCRISP APPLES....which I don't care what you say or think but honeycrisp apple applesauce is hands down the most amazing apple sauce you will ever have. Maple undertones.

I'll bring some of my homemade bread.

It's all good.

But as tough as it continues to be, there's fantastic news on the horizon:

MUSKEGON — Two leading West Michigan's companies have joined forces to plan a Muskegon manufacturing center designed to support the state's growing commercial wind industry.

L3 Combat Propulsion Systems in Muskegon and Rockford Berge in Grand Rapids have established the Michigan Wind Energy Consortium, which includes other companies, with the intention of forming an industrial center.

Yeah, baby. That's green manufacturing. Add it to the heap. The advanced battery manufacturing plants that have come to West Michigan as a DIRECT result of this Administratoin's policies, and wind power manufacturing plants coming to support an industry growing as a DIRECT result of this Administration's investment in wind power and renewables from the stimulus package.

I honestly do not care what other folks say. I do not. I don't.

I don't care.

Cuz I've seen a withering industrial economy with double digit U6 unemployment crumbling for years, and years, and years. I've read the articles for most of a decade about businesses shutting down, moving out, leaving forever. This recent rash of OPENINGS, of companies talking about OPENING UP SHOP's unreal.

Is it moving as fast as I want? No. But is it moving AT ALL? Absolutely. The century old paper mill closed down in 2009. An advanced battery manufacturing plant, with tax credits championed by Joe Biden himself, has broken ground and will be opening next year, employing hundreds of people previously displaced by the closing paper mill.

Yesterday I drove by a local car dealership and looked longingly at the new Chevy Sonic...the replacement for the Korean made Chevy Aveo...NOW built in Orion Township, MICHIGAN. 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

As of May 30, 2011 the plant employs 159 salaried employees and 1,300 hourly employees.

I mean...holy shit.

Think there isn't a transformational shift going on in the Industrial belt RIGHT NOW, think again. But it doesn't happen overnight. It doesn't happen even in the matter of a year. But it's happening. And it's happening RIGHT NOW. It's happening RIGHT NOW directly from policies of THIS administration, from refusing to let America's domestic auto manufacturing industry crumble to supporting green manufacturing...there is a DIRECT correlation to what is happening now in this town that has held some of the highest unemployment in America for most of a decade.

When the advanced battery manufacturing plant in Muskegon is up, when a wind turbine manufacturing center opens in the abandoned hull of the paper mill center, when local manufacturers and machine shops are tooled to make parts for cars that were once made in Korea but are now made in the USA........this town's economic malaise will be a distant memory. And we'll have to make damn sure it never comes back.

That's the burden. That's the burden all over America.

We're never coming back to this place again. I don't ever want to come back to this place again. I want to build a society where we never come back to this place where we leave a loaf of high calorie homemade bread on the counter because we know it's cheap to make and our kids will eat on it over the course of the day. 1900 calories per loaf, enough to fuel a 180 pound man for a day. 45 cents of flour and butter and shortening.

Where was I?

Ah yes.

The manufacturing center.

I'm for it. I'm happy about it. I'm grateful for even the possibility.