September 24, 2017

Some thoughts about prisons and our responsibilities

“…And as a single leaf turns not yellow
but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong
Without the hidden will of you all.”
Kahlil Gibran
The Prophet

This excerpt from  “The Intruder” is from a book of 26 prose poetry fables by the Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1923, it is Gibran’s best-known work, has been translated in more than 40 different languages and has never been out of print.
          While Gibran has more to say about crime and punishment, he gets to the crux of the problem in this poem, which has long been my favorite and where the title of my recently published novel, “With The Silent Knowledge,” was taken.
          Growing up in this country, I’d always believed that the courts and the prisons were set up in the interest of society and to function for everyone’s welfare—for the accused and the convicted, as well for the victimized and the afflicted. With that in mind, I majored in psychology (and English) as an undergraduate and planned to go to grad school to become a clinical psychologist.
          But after a year as a “correctional counselor” in a maximum-security penitentiary, I developed a different perspective. Prison Riots, murders, rapes and myriad other heinous prison conditions no longer surprise me. 
           Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was reported to have used justice with mercy, mercy with wisdom, and the three with a balance that fit the circumstances. He was the kind of person I thought all judges should be—and were. It still bothers me all these years later that I fooled myself with this naive belief.
          Something in me still can’t accept that any American judge would ever send any redeemable man or woman to prison, if the judge realized what he or she was sending them into. Once there, the possibility of anyone ever being redeemed is less likely. 
          The chance for a crime-free life of redemption is more likely by keeping the felon in the community where the problem originated. That is not to say that I think violent and dangerous people should not be sent to prison. But since the community is part of the problem, as Gibran writes, we need to address the root causes of non-violent criminal behavior—poverty, stress, drug or alcohol addiction and abuse, lack of education, the family structure and more—and keep those offenders out of prison where they are educated with the “Big House” inmates’ mindset. 
          I have known many convicts in prison and many ex-convicts in the general population. And I can’t truthfully say that I have any personal knowledge of the prison experience, per se, ever instilling a single positive value in a person, although there are programs that reach a few. I can also truthfully say that I have no knowledge of the prison experience not disintegrating, if not stripping away the positive values a person may have when he or she enters. 
          However, we continue to send people to prison at an alarming rate. The prison population in Illinois, for example, has risen from about 10,000 to nearly 50,000 from the time I worked in one. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and results in negative societal and economic effects. 
          Much has been written about prison conditions, so we cannot claim ignorance. Judges and the communities have to be aware of and know what’s happening. And if we know, being an educated and caring people, all of us should collapse the prisons for many minor offenders by merely destroying their rotten foundations and work to solve the issues that have prompted the offenses.
          But I also know that’s wishful thinking on my part. It’s much easier to send offenders to prison to punish them and get them out of our sight rather than deal with the problems by providing educational opportunities, job training, therapy and other endeavors to promote learning to live in a society free and honorably. 
          We express concern over the fact that prisons are overcrowded. We express anger when a prison erupts into full-scale riot and guards are killed or injured—or the released felon kills someone or returns to the same life he or she left. But our society never, not even for a second, thinks the statistic of the recidivists failure is also the statistic of our failure, any more than the beliefs that the full and overcrowded prisons and the riots are the results of our failure. Or if it does, it doesn’t change anything. 
          I don’t know how long since it’s been since I started doubting the essential justice of man, but it seems like a long time ago. The Russian writer Dostoevsky said, “Man is a pliable animal, a being who gets accustomed to everything.” 
          That’s too bad in this case. Dostoevsky also said something to the effect that you can tell the quality of a society by looking at its prisons. You might want to take a look around you—he spent some time in a Siberian prison.

August 6, 2017

Making the most of time off in the summer

Time off from work is a great way to grow personally and enhance life skills that benefit the whole world.
            As an English teacher and journalism teacher for much of my working life, I always had summers off to do whatever I wanted. Some teachers used to say that June, July and August were the best months of the year.
            And there is something to that. It gives teachers time to recharge and prepare for a new school year. During the summers off, I’ve taken courses for a master’s degree, attended a writing workshop and combined it with a vacation, hooked up a travel trailer and taken my family on a 30-day trip around the country to tour national parks, visit friends and do whatever else of interest that came up along the way.
            I even taught history in summer school one year. Another summer I strapped on a backpack, tent, sleeping bag and canteen and hitchhiked on a 30-day trip from Illinois to Washington, D.C., down to Florida, across the South and Southwest to Southern California, up to San Francisco, and back to the Chicago suburbs. I camped sometimes, stayed with friends or people I met along the road and occasionally stayed in a motel. I turned down rides just like people turned me down when I stuck out my thumb. But I met some people on that trip years ago who are still good friends to this day.
            Another summer, I went to Australia for two weeks for the filming of The Thin Red Line movie of the James Jones novel about the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II. During other summers, I’ve taken students for eight-day tours throughout historical sites in Europe with the American Council for International Studies or taken them and my own kids camping on my father’s farm in Southern Illinois.
            Those summers were fun, memorable and probably made me a better teacher. I always came back to the classroom refreshed, had a new perspective about life and looked forward to meeting my new students each year. I always told them the first day that I was glad to be back for one of the second most important jobs a person could have. A student would often say he or she thought teachers believed their jobs were the most important. I would answer that parenting was the most important job in the world because if the parents did their job, my job was much easier. Those were the parents who always came to conferences to see how their student was doing and how they might help.
            A parent who apparently wasn’t doing the best job once came to a conference, and I was telling him about the progress of his student and how he might help.
            “You mean you want me to do your job?” the man asked.
            “No,” I said. “I want you to do your job.”
            But I digress.
            When one of my daughters was quite young, she was surprised after talking to one of her friends about a trip we’d taken that not everybody’s parents had summers off. She thought they should. I understand her perspective. And while I don’t think it would work out for everybody to have summers off, I’ve always thought vacations most people have are a little skimpy and the country would benefit if everybody had a little more time off to do what they wanted, although I hadn’t thought through how that might work with most American companies’ profit motives.
            Then the first of this year, my college sophomore daughter participated in an improvisational workshop at The Second City Theatre in Chicago. So the rest of the family went along for a few days vacation in the city for a little improv of our own. It was my turn to be surprised when Caitlin came back to the hotel after the first day.
            “There are two women in my improv workshop who work for a reinsurance company headquartered in Switzerland,” she told us at dinner that evening. “Most everybody else is my age, in their ’20s. I really like these two women. They aren’t really old, probably in their ’40s, but I just didn’t think there’d be anyone that age here. One of them has kids that are 6 and older.”
            I thought it was an interesting way for the women to spend a week of vacation.
            “It’s not vacation,” Caitlin said. “Their company gives employees a week off each year to do an activity of their choosing for personal development, whatever they want to do. They said people have gone skydiving, traveled to Italy to learn to make pasta, or done whatever else they want to do for a week.
            “One of them lives in Indiana, and the other lives in Connecticut. They met each other through work and work-related trips and decided to come here. I know one of them is keeping a journal and is recording different improv exercises and warm ups to show or maybe try with her coworkers.”
            I’d never heard of any companies doing that. It’s not the summers off that teachers have, but what a great idea.

July 28, 2017

A typical bait-and-switch employed by a car dealership

Not long ago, I totaled my black 2011 Kia Sorento EX in an accident and was looking for a similar one to replace it. Deciding not to buy a new car, I started looking online and found a black 2015 Kia Sorento LX on the Edmunds website at Bob Rohrman Schaumburg Kia in Schaumburg, Ill., called and talked to a pleasant woman about the SUV, received an email from her that promised me an extra savings of $400 on the car that was already marked down from the price on Edmunds, made an appointment for a test drive, received a text from her that the appointment had been scheduled for Saturday, July 15, at 1 p.m., told her I would be there and drove the 160 or so miles to Schaumburg.
         On the drive north from my home in Urbana, I received a call from a salesman at 11:24 a.m. to see if I would be there at one. I told him I was on the road and would be there a little after one. He said, “Fine. We’ll have the car ready for you.”

         When I arrived, I was met by a young man who immediately started looking for the SUV to show me. I told him that I’d been told it would be ready. A few minutes later, he came back and told me that the car had been sold.
         I was stunned after driving more than 160 miles, paying tolls and having been told the car would be ready and available. Another man behind the desk who was sitting beside a man I think was the general manager, Alik Freeman, engaged in a whispering conference with him and then told me they opened at 9 a.m. and the car had been sold shortly afterward.
         When I told him I’d been called at 11:24 and told the car would be ready when I arrived, he apologized, said it took awhile to close the sale and wanted to know if I would be interested in anything else.
         I was quite angry, bit my tongue and said little, but told the man that his apology meant nothing, nor would I even consider buying a car there. Nothing else I could do but write about it on this blog, contact the Kia corporate office, the Illinois attorney general and the Better Business Bureau, post it on Facebook and spread the word.
         Bait-and-switch happens all the time, I’ve heard. I understand they weren’t holding the car for me, but I would have appreciated a call telling me that the car had been sold rather than a call to see if I was keeping the appointment and that it would be ready for me when I arrived. That didn’t happen and when I looked online days later, the car was still on the Bob Rohrman Schaumburg Kia website.
         Another one of life’s lessons learned about trusting what people say.

July 10, 2017

Former Handy Writers Colony member, author and playwright Shirota funds Lowney Turner Handy scholarship

Author and playwright Jon Shirota, the last member of the Handy Writers Colony in Marshall, Ill., has given the Marshall High School Foundation $5,000 to fund the Lowney Turner Handy Creative Writing Scholarship for the next 10 years to give $500 annually to the best writer at the high school. 
          “If I live to be 100,” Shirota, now almost 90, said and laughed, “I’ll give another $5,000 to continue it for another 10 years.
          The Japanese-American who was born and raised on Maui and lives in Southern California is the author of Lucky Come Hawaii, written at the colony in the early 1960s, Pineapple White, Chronicles of Ojii-Chan and several other stories and the following plays: Lucky Come Hawaii (adapted from the novel), Leilani’s Hibiscus and Voices From Okinawa. All three plays were published in Voices from Okinawa and have been performed in New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Okinawa and Japan. 
          When Lucky Come Hawaii was adapted into a play, it was awarded a production grant from the John F. Kennedy Center for New Plays and led to other plays and other playwriting awards for Shirota. He has received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the American College Theater Festival, the Los Angeles Actors Theater Festival of One Acts, the Los Angeles County Cultural Affairs Department, and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and National Endowment for the Arts. 
          Shirota wanted to fund the scholarship to honor Lowney Handy for nurturing him and helping him become a writer, without whom he doubts he’d ever have come to be a writer. He was working as an Internal Revenue Service representative in Los Angeles when Handy invited him to the colony in 1963. He resigned immediately, loaded up and drove the 2,000 miles to Marshall.
          “She showed me the way,” Shirota said. “And I have the signed picture of her that she gave me on the wall of my office that I look up to each day as I sit down to write. She inspires me. My contribution to the writing scholarship is my way of honoring what she did for me.” 
          On the occasional trips back from his California home for James Jones Literary Society symposia, Shirota visits Handy’s grave in Marshall and leaves a bouquet of flowers after standing quietly before her grave in quiet contemplation. 
          After hearing of Shirota’s contribution, another former colony member who has contributed to the fund for the annual $10,000 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award, Robinson, Ill., native Don Sackrider said, “It seems the Handy Colony lives on. How nice.” 
          While the Lowney Handy Writing Award has existed for many years, and a certificate is presented to the winning student each year by Dr. Jim Turner, Lowney’s nephew, it has never had a cash award to go with it. 
          “This is certainly a great tribute to Lowney and to Marshall,” said Alyson Thompson, director of the Marshall Public Library who has been instrumental in helping Shirota set up the financial contribution and is working with him and the Marshall High School Foundation to get the award in place for the next academic year. “It is not only an attribute to her, but to the community as well. And for that we are all thankful.” 
          The $500 annual scholarship will be given to student who completes an application, holds a GPA of 2.5 or higher—Shirota likes the lower GPA because he never graduated from high school and joined the American Army as soon as he could and was stationed at Schofield Barracks where Jones was stationed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor—and be a graduating Marshall High School Senior. 
          Included with the application is a Creative Writing Essay as outlined by MHS Senior English teacher Amy Gard or her successor. Marshall High School students also compete for an essay-writing award, initiated by the James Jones Literary Society, based on Jones’ short story, “The Valentine.”
Another former colony member, Edwin “Sonny” Cole, a Marshall native who wrote two novels, Some Must Watch and A Legacy of Love, before turning to teaching at Menlo Park, Calif., becoming head of the lower school and then becoming headmaster where he stayed until retirement, also remembered Marshall by leaving $100,000 to the Marshal Public Library after he died in 2015. 
          The library has all the books written by members of The Handy Writers Colony. Besides Shirota, Jones, Sackrider and Daly, other writers from the colony who published books include John Bowers, Tom Chamales, Jere Peacock and Charles Wright.
          Contributions will be accepted for the Lowney Turner Handy Creative Scholarship by the Marshall High School Foundation at 806 N. Sixth St., Marshall, IL 62441, to help fund the scholarship for years to come to honor Handy who mentored many writers at the colony and was the guiding force in From Here To Eternity author James Jones’ initial success.

June 23, 2017

Impasse, Arrogance and Responsibilities in Springfield

I returned not long ago from a tour of Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Iwo Jima where I went with Military Historical Tours and the Iwo Jima Association of American to attend the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima and the annual Reunion of Honor where the United States and Japan, once bitter enemies in combat, come together as comrades in peace to commemorate the battle that took the lives of 6,821 Americans, another 19,000 causalities and the lives of 21,000 Japanese. That war preserved our freedom.
         Unfortunately, however, we citizens in the state of Illinois don’t enjoy the freedom we should because of the puerile manifestations of partisan politics in Springfield reminiscent of school-yard bullies for which Gov Bruce Rauner and Speaker of the House Michael Madigan are the principal players in the resulting lack of a budget, people and businesses leaving the state in droves, college students going to universities out of state, school systems throughout the state cutting programs and faculty, ad infinitum.
         There was a saying in the Marine Corps for people like them: “Lead, follow or get (there were stronger words when it was as critical a situation as it is now) out of the way.”
         The Iwo Jima veterans on Guam, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima now in their late 80s and early 90s were able to follow that directive at the ages of 17, 18, 19 and 20 and on up without acting as these two politicians both do in their esteemed positions of responsibility. Where would this country be had all those men and women fighting in World War II behaved in the deplorable manner both the governor and the speaker are now?      
         Another adopted Marine Corps mantra and directive that has been quite successful is to “improvise, adapt and overcome.” The Marine Corps and the other military services and the civilian working men and women who keep the country moving smoothly follow that concept. The part of society that rarely practices that concept and leave people behind, as Marines and others in the military and all good citizens never do, is many politicians like Rauner and Madigan.
         Their arrogance amazes me. I first met Madigan briefly in 1986 on an elevator in the state Capitol when I was raising money and doing publicity for the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That was just after a couple of us had gone to Rep. Zeke Giorgi, a World War II veteran, and got a $500,000 rider attached to the Veterans’ Bill so we could order the marble and get the memorial dedicated before year’s end.
         On the elevator, Madigan was surrounded by his minions and had the arrogant and pitiful look of superiority and desire for power that the state has come to know so well from him. He looked prime for a blanket party, even then—in Marine boot camp when one of the recruits failed to measure up to his responsibilities, the other recruits threw a blanket over his head after lights out and delivered a few punches for inspiration. Of course that is not PC now, but once was all it took to help get the recruit squared away.
         Madigan’s personality and behavior remind me of the comment usually attributed to Sir John Dalberg-Acton, the 8th Baronet, who was an English Catholic historian, politician and writer: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
         That is not to say that the governor is any different. He’s got the power corruption thing, too. He just smiles more and tries to dress more like the common man. And he’s filthy rich, much like our current president, and just as arrogant as either Madigan or Trump. I’ve met Rauner a couple of times. Once at the dedication of the Chez Family Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois and once at the celebration of designating Champaign County as the “Birthplace of the Tuskegee Airmen March 1941” with signs to be posted on local highways. Rauner was jovial and wearing his campaign and political face in both instances. Neither of them are impressive in their actions and the condition in which they have the state of Illinois.

         ’Nough sed. While this is mainly cathartic, I hope they both can do the right thing and sit down with members of both parties and settle this impasse. They owe it to those who fought and died for our freedom and to those living here in Illinois and depending upon their leadership, not their power struggle.