Monday, November 26, 2012

'Tis the season

Posted By on Mon, Nov 26, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Sandhill Cranes fly over Indiana's Bee Hunter Marsh at sunset. - COURTESY OF MAGIC ISLAND PHOTOGRAPHY VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Courtesy of Magic Island Photography via Flickr Creative Commons
  • Sandhill Cranes fly over Indiana's Bee Hunter Marsh at sunset.

Editor's Note: Mr. Hoppe is on vacation this week. This column originally ran November 30, 2009. For this reprint we include a special video bonus.

When I was a little kid, Christmas won the holiday derby in a walk. Let me count the ways: there was snow, lights and colorful decorations, time off from school and (drum roll) presents.

Christmas began with the arrival of the Montgomery Ward catalog. That thing was thick as a big city phonebook, with every page in living color. We pored over it, folding pages and circling items, making mental notes and dropping hints. Arriving in the mail at just about the same time of year that darkness started falling at the unnatural hour of 4:30 in the afternoon, the Montgomery Ward catalog was, for a few weeks, at least, a hedge against what we later learned to call Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I'm still nuts about Christmas. But, over the years, I think I've come to love Thanksgiving even more. I finally realized that last week.

We celebrated the annual feast up in Michigan City. As fate would have it, both my wife's folks and my own happen to live up there. The past couple of years haven't been easy for either set of parents. Health issues have made it increasingly difficult for one or another of them to get around. To tell you the truth, it's a gift that both couples are still with us.

On the other side of the spectrum, our son lives in Chicago, where he's been lucky enough to find a job. He has to work a lot of nights, and there's not much left in his wallet after he pays his share of the rent. But in an economy where roughly one out of every five young men between the ages of 25 and 34 is unemployed and a third of young workers that age are living at home, we're proud he's holding his own.

Anyway, thanks to public transportation, the Chicago South Shore Railroad, the last interurban train in Indiana, our son and Amy, his partner, were able to finish work Wednesday and be in Michigan City before dark.

Meanwhile, my wife and I picked up a fresh turkey at Goose the Market, packed up our dog and the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and headed north on Highway 421. We've made this trip more times than either of us can count. At this time of year, the fields have been cut down to scrub and the trees are bare. You realize more than ever how big a part the sky plays in a Midwesterner's sense of place. Whether it's low and stormy or high blue, it's a show that never quite repeats itself and never, ever, rests.

We did the cooking at my in-laws'. Everybody that could, chipped in. I know it's fashionable at this point in a holiday story to crank out a bit of snark about a cross-dressing cousin, blowhard uncle, or munitions-dealing brother-in-law. Some grotesquerie to help rationalize our inability or unwillingness to find comfort in anything that might be called traditional. Sorry, but that's not the way it happened.

At least not this year.

The fact is, we did a pretty good job of taking care of each other. The turkey was moist, the stuffing was amazing, the mashed potatoes had a whiff of rosemary and, as usual, there were way too many sweet potatoes. We dimmed the lights in the diningroom and the grandfathers trailed off to nap to the white noise of a football game. Light from the kitchen washed over the faces of the grandmothers, who pulled up chairs in the doorway to reminisce about past reunions while watching their young ones perform the laughable choreography that ensues when eight hands try cleaning up in a small space.

The next morning there were leftovers to pack, a train to catch. The sun finally came out. My wife heard that the sandhill cranes were making their annual migration from Canada and the upper Great Lakes states. Each year at this time, from late September into December, thousands of these birds gather in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area before going on to parts of Florida. Since we were passing the refuge on our way home, she suggested we stop and have a look.

The sun was setting when we got there. We heard the cranes before we saw them -- a great, raucous, choogling sound. The birds themselves are formidable, they stand over 4 feet high and their wingspans can be as much as 6 feet across. There were thousands of them milling on a green, marshy pitch, with hundreds more arriving in flocks from all directions.

The birds gather twice a day, at dawn and again at sunset, to call back and forth and to dance with one another. They flap their wings and jump up and down. This may be a form of courtship, but apparently there's also a chance they do it simply because it feels good, it's a bonding experience and, yes, it might even give them joy.

And they do it at Thanksgiving.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Memo to Pence: Legalize it

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM


OK, so Mike Pence is about to be the next governor of Indiana. Speculation has already begun about what he'll do. With giddy Republican majorities in the state Senate and House, it seems the sky's the limit for the governor-elect. A lot of folks think he'll use his office as a stepping-stone for an eventual run for president. So attention is turning to how he will parlay his executive clout into legislative accomplishments.

I have a suggestion: Pence should legalize pot.

The elections on Nov. 6 were big in a number of ways. America's first African-American president was handily re-elected by a surge that included majorities of young adults, women, Asians, blacks, and Latinos. Gay marriage was approved in three states and an anti-gay marriage amendment was defeated in a fourth. And in two states, Washington and Colorado, proposals were passed to legalize marijuana.

The prospect of legalized pot for recreational purposes looks like it could be a game changer. What's been called a war on drugs has really been a war on people who like some marijuana in their lives. While it is now permitted for medicinal purposes in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, so-called medical marijuana has failed to drive a stake through the heart of the country's cannabis prohibition. To a great extent, this has been because the Justice Department has seen medicinal dispensaries as Trojan horses intended to circumvent the antiquated federal law intended to separate people from pot.

The new laws in Colorado and Washington have honesty on their side. They make no bones about their aim to let people smoke pot if they want to, without fear of being busted. They will also turn a relatively minor vice into a potentially significant source of economic development.

In Colorado, for example, marijuana will not only be taxed, it will be regulated so that any merchant selling the stuff is required to show they've grown it themselves. This combines a brew-pub business model with a buy-local ethic to help assure, ahem, a high level of quality, plus a righteous alternative to the Mexican drug cartels that currently provide most of the grass for sale on today's black market.

Instead of ceding an industry that could be worth millions — by some estimates billions — of dollars to Mexican gangsters and turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals, people in Colorado and Washington voted for freedom — and an enhanced revenue stream.

Mike Pence should pay attention.

Just as it took a staunch Cold Warrior, Richard Nixon, to open diplomatic relations with communist China, it will probably take a social conservative like Pence to bring sanity to our state's outmoded and wasteful prohibition against pot. Liberals can't do this for fear of being branded libertines by right-wing reactionaries like, well, Mike Pence. Mitch Daniels might have done it in the name of pragmatism. But Daniels arrived in office ahead of pot's historical curve; he had to spend a fair amount of time living down his having been busted for possession when he was in college.

In case he's not aware of it, Pence needs to know that Indiana has developed a rather nifty reputation for the quality of its homegrown product. From our state forests in the south, to the Indiana Dunes up north, the Hoosier state has proven to be a remarkably hospitable environment for the cultivation of primo weed. Time magazine estimates that pot is California's leading cash crop. The same could be true here. Instead of photo-ops showing cops burning down lush stands of our artisanal cannabis, we should be featuring it at the State Fair.

Once Pence takes office, he's going to find himself presiding over a state with scant means of support. Property taxes are capped. Our cities and towns are struggling to keep cops on the beat. Pence and his Republican chums will need to find money somewhere. Legalizing, regulating and taxing pot will provide the state with enough revenue to fix plenty of, er, potholes.

But that's not all. If Pence is really serious about running for president one day, he's going to have to add something besides hostility to Planned Parenthood and gay marriage to his resume. Like just about every other Republican in the country, he'll have to try to at least make it seem like he's open to new ideas. Making Indiana the Mississippi of the Midwest isn't going to cut it.

Pence can sell pot legalization as an advancement for individual rights, a new cash crop and a lucrative source of revenue. If he moves quickly enough, he can also make ending pot prohibition part of his crusade against big government. We all saw the commercial. Pence said he wanted "to say yes to Indiana and no to Washington, D.C." Well, what better way to do this than by legalizing marijuana? It'll be a stick in the eye to the Justice Department and blow a raspberry at the Obama administration. Why leave all the fun to Colorado and Washington state?

Pence claimed he would fight for the right of Hoosiers to run our own schools, choose our own health care, and produce our own energy. But where's the joy? All most Hoosiers have ever really wanted is the right to get high.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Indiana versus itself

Posted By on Mon, Nov 12, 2012 at 9:41 AM


"Look where the people are," said CNN correspondent John King, as he massaged his blue and red electronic map of the United States on election night last week. It was still early. Mitt Romney had a slight lead. But, as King surfed from state to state, zooming in on particular counties, he explained how the contest would play out. Although it was too soon for him to come right out and say it, King was showing where President Barack Obama would get the votes to win re-election.

"Look where the people are."

America, the pundits like to say, is a divided country. This is true on its face, but last week's election proved those divisions aren't set in stone and that, in fact, a shift is taking place. That shift was reflected in an array of political outcomes last Tuesday night. But politics is just a manifestation of larger demographic, social and cultural tides. America may be divided, but that division has less to do with opposing ideas about how to solve the country's problems than it does with one side's trying to resist the momentum of history.

People complained throughout the campaign about Romney's lack of substance. Romney's pitch seemed based entirely on the idea that the president had failed to preside over a robust enough economic recovery and that he, Romney, could do better. Romney claimed that the president had engaged in an "apology tour" that debased the nation in the eyes of the world.

Romney, it turned out, was speaking in code. What he was actually trying to say was that the very idea of President Barack Obama was un-American. This notion was at the root of Republican resistance to Obama throughout his first term. Time and again, most notably in his adoption of a health care program originally devised in conservative think tanks and implemented by Romney himself in Massachusetts, Obama attempted to gain bipartisan support by proffering Republican ideas, only to be rebuffed. For Republicans, saving the country meant destroying its president.

But Romney couldn't come out and say this. Instead, he ran a campaign designed to visually accentuate the characteristic that made him most unlike Obama — his whiteness. The Republican convention, where his candidacy was officially launched, played like an updated version of the old Lawrence Welk Show.

As the campaign wore on, it became increasingly clear that what Republicans at all levels had to offer were not ideas about "getting the country back on track," but an array of retrograde measures — from limiting women's access to contraception to building higher walls around our borders — intended to stop the future in its tracks. What they offered was not a vision, but a fantasy meant to evoke America's past.

Look at an electoral map of the United States and you can see where this fantasy still has traction — those parts of the country where the people tend to be predominantly white, exurban or rural, and evangelical.

But look, as King said, at where most people are today and the future begins to come into focus. America, for all its amber waves of grain, is an urban, multi-racial nation, where more than half the people are women. Whether these people can be described in the tired clichŽs — liberal and conservative — dominating our shopworn political vocabulary seems unlikely. What is clear is that, for them, Obama looked just fine. Better still: he didn't make them feel like second-class citizens.

Democrats won big last week not because there is general agreement with all they may or may not stand for. They won because they have figured out how to be inclusive at this moment when a shift is happening — and people, like all those voters who waited in line for hours, refuse to be left out. This makes the Democratic Party messy, bumptious and infuriating. But it's also, for the time being, describes the nation.

This puts Indiana in an awkward spot. This is a state at odds with itself. Like the rest of the country, Indiana's urban and industrial sections voted Democratic. Obama won Marion County with 60 percent of the vote. We also turned a longtime Republican seat in the U.S. Senate blue and repudiated a conservative, corporatist effort at school reform that was highly touted by mainstream media and the business community.

But our governor and state legislature are virtually all Republicans, reflecting a state that doesn't know what to make of its cities, is suspicious of newcomers, and has yet to come to grips with how to reconcile a low level of per capita income with the increasing cost of basic services. The state's previous administration won plaudits for its balanced budget. But this fiscal juggling act did nothing to improve the condition of our air and water, the sophistication of our workforce or the health and welfare of our people.

It seems the Republican fantasy of an America where everyone knows their place and is grateful still counts in Indiana. We'll see how long this lasts. Anyone who has visited a medium-sized or small Hoosier town in the past few years knows how hollowed-out many of these places feel. They are where the people aren't.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Dreams for the next four years

Posted By on Mon, Nov 5, 2012 at 4:00 AM


The on-going reality show we call political campaigning has been interrupted this week for something called an election. Everyone concerned will pause, take two or three ragged breaths, catch an extra hour of sleep. Then the show will go on.

Our entertainment industry (which includes "the press") needs this show.

So do the political parties.

The big campaign contributors can't live without it.

As for everybody else — those of us, that is, who try to think elections are what the show is supposed to be about — well, we can dream can't we?

Here are some of my dreams for the next four years ...

Legend has it George Washington could not tell a lie. Abraham Lincoln was known as "Honest Abe." But when it comes to contemporary politics, honesty seems to have fallen by the wayside. I don't know when it was that Americans turned being lied to into a virtue. Maybe it was when we voted George W. Bush a second term, even though anybody paying attention knew he lied about the need to go to war with Iraq. You'd think people would have been pissed-off about something like that.

We preferred Bush's dishonesty to facing facts. In this latest campaign, one candidate dumbfounded observers by blatantly changing his positions on different issues in order to seem more or less conservative, depending on the audience. But this did not disqualify him. Instead, many of his constituents forgave his dissembling. Somehow they decided his saying one thing and doing another would be OK.

Being honest, I know, is not always easy. There's a reason why people say the truth hurts. But, in the public realm at least, honesty is the next best thing to oxygen. I dream we get lots of it.

But honesty can be hard to come by when people are afraid. And Americans have become a fearful people. This is not the image we're used to. We like to think of ourselves as John Wayne, the barrel-chested individualist with a Winchester in one hand and a jug of bourbon in the other. But take a look around: We take off our shoes and submit to full-body searches in airports, trying to fend off yesterday's terrorist attack; we arm ourselves, we claim, for fear of violence in our public places or at home; we see a threat to marriage in the desire of same sex couples to share vows.

People who are afraid have a penchant for blaming some one, or some thing for what's gnawing at them. Lately, the favorite target has been government. It's the government that keeps us from doing this or that, that gets in the way or keeps us down. The trouble is that the government, to paraphrase Pogo, the cartoon possum, is us. Unless, of course, we make government a spectator sport.

I dream we shake off our fears and get in the game.

One of the biggest troubles we have with fear is that, the bigger it is, the more we try and ignore it. This is how we've treated increasingly weird and disruptive weather events. Two hurricanes in New York harbor in the span of 12 months; an extreme drought throughout the nation's bread basket; a year in which winter never really came — we've known something strange was happening to our climate for some time, something that we human beings were largely responsible for. But we've put off coming to terms with this looming crisis because, well, we're addicted to a way of life that turns out to be unsustainable.

Look at what just happened to our Eastern Seaboard. In a single day, more people lost power than live in the combined states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Maine and both the Dakotas. As New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo remarked, what do you do when what we used to call 100-year events become the new normal?

You take them seriously, for a start. It's not as if we haven't known that the garbage we put in our air and water is dangerous. They don't call that 107-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that contains numerous petrochemical and industrial plants "Cancer Alley" for nothing. We have a corridor like that of our own through the steel belt in northwest Indiana. But our society is so dependent on using high doses of toxic energy, it is almost impossible for us to imagine life without it.

Rather than deal with the problem, we have tried to justify it. Some have gone so far as to suggest it's God's will. The fact remains that things appear to be getting worse. In September 2012, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported Arctic sea ice declined to its lowest extent since records began.

This presents us with a real dilemma: We can set about the ridiculously difficult task of changing the way we live — or we can, as our politicians like to say, kick the can further down the road. Once again, it's up to us. I may be dreaming, but if we're not made for dealing with this stuff, who is?

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