Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thanks, Mr. Alexander!

This last Wednesday, The Onion proposed a brilliant solution to the problems with Congress resolving the current US deficit issues. Send eighth grade civics teachers in to show the partisan chest-pounders how to behave. Pity it was just a joke, because I think eighth grade teachers might have just gotten that group of over-age schoolboys to behave.

That reminded me of my eighth grade Government teacher, Mr. Alexander. Junior High really warped my reality as far as teachers were concerned. Up til then, my teachers were all White, middle aged women.

In seventh grade, I got my first minority and male teachers. The minorities were great. I loved both Mrs. Reynolds for Science and Mrs. Henry for Choir. The males, not so. Our art teacher was seriously creepy. He ended up getting fired before the end of the year because he tried to hit on one of my shyer classmates. The coach I had for History practically tripped over his knuckles walking into class. He carried a custom-made paddle with special air holes designed to increase the pain and suffering of any student he used it on. As he boasted, "It'd make strong boys cry." He'd slap that paddle whenever he got bored with teaching us--which was most of the time.

I admit it, the minute I walked into my Government class, I was more intimidated than I'd ever been with any teacher in my life. I was 5'5" at that time and I about fell over trying to look my Government teacher in the eye. His name was Mr. Alexander and he was the tallest darkest skinned man I'd ever met. I was doing my best not to think about either the Art class creep or the History class sadist at that point.

I took a deep breath and got a front and center seat as usual. Being blind as a bat, I was always stuck up there. Who knows? Maybe it did improve my grades.

"So," Mr. Alexander said after taking roll. "How many of you like government?"

He got a pretty negative response from us. Our generation was being forced to go to war, getting hurt and in student demonstrations. There wasn't a lot of like or trust going on then.

"How many of you like these?" He held up a dollar bill. Our response pretty much took a 180-degree turn.

"Well then, if you like money, you better at least learn about how Government works." Mr. Alexander went on to point out the symbolism of the dollar bill. He added. "The US government prints our money. Through labor laws, they determine how much money you're going to earn and with taxation, they also tell you how much you're going to keep. Your government also effects whether you serve in the military, get a student loan, and a whole lot more."

A whole lot more of us were interested after he got through with that speech. Mr. Alexander managed to do what few of our teachers had done so far, he'd made the subjects we were learning in school relate directly to our every day lives.

I got a lot more comfortable with Mr. Alexander through the year. Mr. Alexander might have looked intimidating because of his height, but he was genuinely a very nice man. He'd sit down at a desk to talk to the shorter class members so we weren't craning our necks.

Yes, to answer the question you are probably wondering about, he went to school on a basketball scholarship and he coached the school team. He was nothing like the coach I'd encountered the year before. He didn't need a paddle in his hand to get order, I'm not sure I ever saw Mr. Alexander with a paddle. He occasionally raised his voice when the class got unruly. Normally, he spoke in a quiet manner, but if he needed to you could hear him all the way down the hall.

And, unlike that History class, I learned a lot in Government. That class is where I wrote my first letter to my GOP Congressman--about the national debt. The letter was Mr. Alexander's idea since I griped about having to live within my allowance when the government did not. No, I never got an answer to that letter from my GOP congressman. I never got an answer to a darn-near identical one I wrote in 1985 when I was first out on my own, newly married and struggling to make ends meet while the government was going further in debt. Most of the time I don't get answers to my letters, but I still write them because as Mr. Alexander told me if we don't speak up, we aren't going to get heard--and maybe if enough of us do speak up, we'll start something.

Mr. Alexander walked us through the Constitution. That's the first time I'd read the document in its entirety. He also told us how the Constitution could be amended. Like I said, he could have told the folks insisting on a Balanced Budget Amendment that they couldn't do that.

He also taught us how laws were made. He omitted the part about posturing and partisanship. I learned that on a Senior Class field trip in Urbanology. Our class's consensus after we saw the Oklahoma City Council behave like grade schoolers was that they'd all be kicked out of the Student Council if they acted like that.

Yeah, it's a pity Congress didn't have a Government teacher like Mr. Alexander or our Student Council sponsor in High School to call the membership down when they acted like children this last week. They might have gotten something done before the stock market dumped $700,000,000,000 worth of value.

I did get the Government Award that year. I may still have the certificate somewhere in my papers. I hope I thanked Mr. Alexander for that. I definitely do thank Mr. Alexander for all he taught us.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

COMMENTARY: Too big to fail--too expensive to keep big

I grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Up until the 1980's, the state had rules against branch banking. In a city with 650 square miles of area, it's pretty annoying to have to go back to your bank to make a transaction. ATMs were scarce at that time. I never understood why the Oklahoma State Legislature wanted to keep banks so small.

That all changed in 1982 when Penn Square Bank went under. That failure sent the entire banking infrastructure into chaos. Overnight, OKC banks started falling like dominoes. At that time, we joked the branch bank was the FDIC. Worse, Oklahoma was in a recession that some of the older folks likened to the Great Depression.

Just imagine what the situation would have been like had Oklahoma adopted the practice of allowing branch banks. We wouldn't just have single failures, several smaller banks across the city could potentially have gone down at once.

I remember driving downtown one Sunday on some school errand back in the mid-1980s only to see a bunch of cars around our bank. We knew at that point that they were being audited. Sure enough, they were closed for business the next day. Same thing with any bank. If you saw cars in the area when the bank was normally closed, it'd be closed for good very shortly thereafter.

Thanks to FDIC insurance, our deposits were always covered. All we had to do was just write our last check on the defunct bank to a new one and start a new account. We gave up on vanity checks pretty quickly and settled for the plain vanilla freebies the banks gave out.

Failures happened more frequently than I care to remember. Some years, we had accounts in three separate banks.

The scandals were interesting. At the "Gold Dome" bank, the President of the bank had collateralized Remington sculptures from the Cowboy Hall Of Fame's collection on display at his home. Those same sculptures also had loans on them from a couple of other banks.

When we moved from Oklahoma in 1998, we had a box of 'souvenir' dead checks from half a dozen banks. I can't tell you how many we went through before we finally settled on one the last few years.

When we moved to Oregon, we had a different option: Bank of America. For a state that liked local businesses, Oregon had no problem with branch banking. There were branches all over the city with ATMs in a lot of the places where we'd want to go. Since there was a branch right around the corner from the first place we lived in Beaverton, we grabbed an account there. The folks were friendly and helpful and actually helped us get acquainted with the area. Yeah, we had some issues with a wrong address on our checks, but the bank had the situation squared away as quickly as possible.

Austin had a BOA convenient to us, too. Same thing about good hours, friendly and helpful people. Back then, I knew I could count on my bank to be there when I needed them. That was pretty refreshing, actually.

Knoxville not so much. When we first signed up, we learned our branches here had abbreviated hours and even more abbreviated service. Both TX and OK branches of BOA would take secure documents for shredding. TN will not. The list goes on. Worse, when I first encountered the downtown TN branch, the lobby was so stinky with cigarette smoke, I could barely breathe.

The only reason we haven't changed banks is the local ones might just suck more. When I first came here, the "big" bank had the UT-K coaches dressed in orange as advertising spokesmen. No discussion of locations, hours, interest rates, or insurance, just a strong suggestion that the bank supported the Vols. Oh and I think we got a sport koozie with our deposit. :(

2008 comes along and BOA is going under. They've got to have help from our government. And, of course, they get it because they're "too big to fail."

They're too big to pay taxes, either. I was pretty mightily annoyed when we had to make an arrears payment on 2009 and I realized we were writing our check to the IRS on a bank that was paying zip, expected to be bailed out whenever they got in trouble.

Big surprise when I saw this article below. BOA's potentially going to break up. Why? What it comes down to is they're not profitable enough as one big entity. They're going to sell off the banks that aren't profitable and get sleeker and slimmer.

Hide and watch, our measly Knoxville banks might just end up being owned my someone local. With my luck, it'll be the orange koozie bank.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

COMMENTARY: If it was Aunt Samantha instead of Uncle Sam

There never would have been any "Trickle down" because nobody likes a drip.

We wouldn't borrow money and turn around and cut our income. Aunt Samamantha would call that, "Cutting off our noses to spite our face."

We wouldn't be in debt. Aunt Samantha doesn't believe in spending what you don't have.

Women wouldn't have babies just to starve and poorly educate them to face an uncertain future.

Aunt Samantha believes in education. That means an equal shot for everyone to get at least through high school. Kids who want to go through college should also get a chance at loans and grants if they work hard and keep their grades up.

If Aunt Samantha wanted people to do something, she'd tell them what she wanted and then pay them after they'd done it to her satisfaction. Handing out money based on an unwritten agreement is a fool's game.

Aunt Samantha believes in compromise. She doesn't think any good plan came from everyone coming to the discussion table agreeing with each other. She also believes in Time-Out and spanking, though she realizes that most big boys get the wrong idea when she wants to turn them over her knee.

Aunt Samantha remembers that our Founding Fathers came to this country to escape a State Religion. If someone insists on bringing Christianity to the table, Aunt Samantha's going to bring the Holy Bible and read the Sermon of the Mount to them so they'd know precisely what Jesus said about taking care of yourselves and your fellow persons.

Sure, corporations have a right to exist. But if they're going to want their freedom, don't expect Aunt Samantha to be their Sugar Mama and clean up every mess they make.

Aunt Samantha likes people in uniform. That goes for all the men and women in public service from fire, police, and soldiers. If she saw them on the street, she'd thank them. She wouldn't deny them care if they'd gotten ill or help for their families if they were injured. Aunt Samantha keeps her word to them because they've been faithful to her.

Aunt Samantha wouldn't allow political organizations to call themselves "parties" if no one is having fun.

Aunt Samantha doesn't like gripers. Her motto is: "When you're in a hole, you shut up and stop making it deeper."

Tea would be a refreshing beverage served for a pick-me-up, not a party bent on put-downs of almost everything this country fought for the last 235 years.

(c) Rebecca Kyle -- 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Very Bad Men--Harry Dolan

I first encountered Harry Dolan's work in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards contest. Bad Things Happen, which is the predecessor to this book, had me wondering for almost two years what the character was doing buying a shovel. What was he going to bury and why?

Dave's settled down as the editor of Grey Streets magazine. He's even gotten married to police detective Elizabeth Waishkey and he's happily settled with her and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Sarah.

He really didn't expect to get another case when he picked up the manuscript submission for Grey Streets. But those pages depicted a murder that had already occurred and listed the victim for the next crime.

The reader knows Anthony Lark committed the crime from the beginning. Lark's got some serious issues: words evoke colors. That point of view is one that is both eerily fascinating and makes the reader want to jump right out of Lark's head as soon as possible.

The story's intricate enough that you might need to make careful note of who-done-what particularly since the story is so fast-paced. The end's definitely worth the wait and the writing does not disappoint. Harry Dolan has a skill for creating memorable characters and places. I like the Ann Arbor setting, because it's one that really has not been depicted in mysteries very frequently and it's good to go to a new place.

Very Bad Men is the sequel to Bad Things Happen. For the most part, this sequel stands alone, but if the premise or setting intrigues you, I would consider reading the books in order.

Rebecca Kyle, July 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Downpour -- Kat Richardson

Back in 2006, I picked up the paperback of Greywalker because the title intrigued me. I started reading and I couldn't stop. I told several friends about the series and predicted it would be one to follow.

Downpour is the sixth book in that series. The title fits in more ways than just describing Washington State's weather. Private Investigator, Harper Blaine, is literally deluged with trouble. She is still recovering from a shooting where she's died for the third time (that she knows of) and returned to this world. One more death and that's it for her. As she says, "Getting shot's not like it looks in the movies." It's been six months, and she's just now getting back on her feet. Harper's got an important job tasked to her the first time she came back from the dead: to help the denizens of the Grey, the space in between here and The Big Sleep.

Since "ghosts and vampires don't pay the bills." Her initial assignment is traveling up the Olympic Peninsula to a place called Crescent Lake on a follow-up of a background check for a regular legal client. The witness she's investigating, Darin Shea, seems wrong to her, but the surroundings are even worse. "Blood Lake" the locals call the place and that fits better.

Harper's working on the Shea background when she stumbles upon a burning car. She tries to rescue the driver only to discover the accident is not happening in the here-and-now, but in the Grey. When she runs the tag, she discovers the driver, Stephen Leung, has been missing for some time and nobody's filed a report. As a Greywalker, she's obligated to help solve this case so Leung can earn his rest.

Add to that, Seattle PD Detective Rey Solis is on her case about the disappearance of her ex, Will Novak. Harper could tell him what really happened, but he's definitely not going to believe her.

Downpour is even more atmospheric than its predecessors which mostly take place in Seattle. Blood Lake's an eerie and fascinating setting and the skillfully woven intertwined plots will keep you guessing long into the night.

I confess, I'm getting tired of the "kick butt heroine" that urban fantasy spawned. Instead of the tank tops and tramp stamps, Harper wears regular clothes and carries her ferret Chaos around. Harper's got weaknesses, but she's making the best of her lot with humor and intellect. I enjoy Harper's relationship with her current squeeze, an off-the-grid computer genius named Quinton and the "carpet shark" Chaos. Think you get all the fun of having a ferret around without the nasty chores.

It is possible to read Downpour without its predecessors. Richardson has woven enough backstory in without annoying infodump to give new readers a heads up and old readers a refresher. Still, I'd recommend that you start from the beginning if you enjoy noirish fantasy with a Raymond Chandler flavor. Here's the Greywalker series in order:

1. Greywalker
2. Poltergeist
3. Vanished
4. Underground
5. Labyrinth
6. Downpour

Friday, July 1, 2011

COMMENTARY: Slutwalk -- Knoxville

There are days I'm really glad when my family doesn't call. I could imagine the conversation today.

Aunt Jeanne: Do you have any plans for the weekend?
Me: Not really, but tonight I'm going to the slutwalk

That would have taken some explanation. It might for you, too. Slutwalks are protests which started in April 2011 in response to a Toronto police officer advising college women that rape would be less if they didn't dress like sluts. Since then, cities all over the world have hosted slutwalks to increase awareness of rape.

Why did I want to attend? For my best friend's non-verbal autistic daughter who was raped by her grandfather. For my high school classmate who was raped by a stranger and she was blamed for wearing shorts in 100 degree weather to play in her own backyard. For an author who had the guts to stand up in a room full of people at a sci-fi convention and tell people, "Yes I was raped." For so many others....And ultimately, because I've been damn lucky and I know it. I don't want other people's lives to depend on luck. I want something to change and I believe that change starts with awareness.

About fifty people came out for Knoxville's first Slutwalk. The event happened in conjunction with a monthly celebration that happens in downtown Knoxville's Market Square and surrounding area called First Friday. First Friday consists of gallery openings, performances by musicians and a local drum circle.

I was surprised that a third of that group was male, including one of the organizers. Participants were dressed in everything from a pink satin corset and platforms to regular street attire. I wore a red shirt in memory of my Mom, who was always too afraid to wear her favorite color because it would mark her as a "streetwalker."

While our spirits were high, we were people on a mission. We were there to help heal victims by giving them a chance to speak out and affirm to them that they were not to blame for their rapist's choices. We were also there to raise awareness about the seriousness of rape and to defend victims' rights for all people affected. We were there to increase awareness of what rape is and start encouraging society to place responsibility for crimes where it belongs: squarely on the shoulders of the people who choose to commit those crimes. Period.

Yes--people. Rape is not just a feminist issue. Rape effects everyone. If the victim is female, she's got male family and friends who have to support her. One in every ten rape victims is male according to the USDOJ. And those male victims have to have been hurt pretty badly to report. Male rape is the most under-reported crime there is.

Tonight, we stood in a circle and shared why we'd come. This was a difficult experience, but I believe a cleansing and healing one. More than a fifth of the group had experienced rape, some at the hands of people close to them. Some were in tears, others enraged and needing to find a positive outlet for their emotions.

Listening to people's stories was one of the hardest experiences I've ever had, but very worthwhile if it helped people to heal. Many had not spoken of their attack in public til now. Part of me wanted to cover my ears and run. Another part wanted to reach out and embrace the folks who were hurting so badly.

This was a very loving and open environment, encouraging even. Tony surprised me when he confessed to the group that he'd managed to escape a pedophile. I still can't remember how a grade-school friend and I escaped a band of older boys who jumped us as we walked home from school.

There was no pressure on us to do anything. If we chose, we could just hang out where we'd originally met up. Or we could walk around in groups and pass out pamphlets to the people gathered on Market Square for First Friday. Tony and I joined a group of three with a great young male spokesman who was there in support of his fiancee.

Reactions from the people on Market Square were varied. Folks my aunt's age and older were shocked at the vulgar language (slut) and the clothing. Most women were supportive, but we felt we might have worried some young women. And, some of the guys in party mode were really enjoying the sight of the costumed slut-walkers.

Fine, let them enjoy as long as they don't try to harm anyone. That's the purpose of the slutwalk, to get attention for a serious cause in a fun way for both participants and audience. Ultimately, to get across the message rape really isn't caused by the clothes victims wear, or the way they wear our hair or anything else. Rape happens to people of all ages, colors, sexes, in all manner of circumstances and dress--the crime is caused by a rapist's sick urges to hurt and dominate another human being by force or stealth.

One of the women in the group works with high school students and talked about ending the 'rape culture' in our country. I hope we have taken a valuable step tonight. Even if we've raised the awareness in just a few people, that's enough. They'll spread the word.

Imagine, one Toronto cop lit the fire with just one word. It's an honor to be part of a group that's carrying the torch across the world.

There's more planned. We're going to be raising money to hold a parade march later on this fall. Johnson City and Jonesborough, TN will be holding their own slutwalks on July 23.

That torch will hopefully catch fire and keep going. It's time men accepted responsibility for their actions and women were free to enjoy their bodies themselves without fear of harm. It's time we teach our young boys how to properly respect themselves and others. And finally it's time only a freely given "YES!" means consent for sex.