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As I set out to write this I remind myself that I’m a relative new-comer to the city of Chicago.  I’m not fully aware of everything that takes place in this city – it is too large and too multi-faceted to know all of it’s nuances.  None the less, I cram daily to learn about it’s political and social past, present, and future.

The recent strike by the Chicago Public School Teachers brought an entirely new subject to the forefront of my reading.  Union contracts aside, I believe that teachers are generally underpaid and under appreciated by our society as a whole.

We bulk at the idea of a teacher earning $75,000 a year, but thinking little of a sports figure who earns millions.  We cry foul when NFL referees strike and our teams fail, but think little of children who are not getting a proper education.

Teachers prepare our population for the future, kind of like infrastructure prepares our cities to meet present and future demands.  A city without electric and water lines won’t grow and a city with poor education won’t grow either.  So when I read that Chicago public schools have a graduation rate of just 60% I became a bit bewildered.

The people I know love Chicago.  I love Chicago. I moved here, in part, because civic pride is as broad as the city’s shoulders.  We relish this place, from it’s architecture and high-rises to it’s parks and museums.  We thrive on our ability to get things done and be the city that works yet we pay little attention to the fact that 40% of students who attend public schools will not have an adequate education to obtain even the most menial jobs.

In denying this aspect of our city’s future, we are creating our own problems. We are creating poverty faster than we can solve it’s problems.  We are creating the very blight that we’re trying to eliminate.

An under-educated population has fewer options.  Without access to entry level jobs or college or trade schools the city will experience sustained unemployment levels and will see sustained levels of crime and injustice perpetuated on both sides of the economic and social platform.

These injustices lead to higher costs for the city as a whole through the increased need in social assistance, police presence, and increased economic demands on individuals and families.  Chicago already has challenges with these issues yet the root cause continues exists.

Teachers and the school board cannot take the all blame.  Societal issues play a large role in a child’s education.  These societal issues are, however, primarily rooted in poor education and lack of access to income.  It is a cycle that is being perpetuated by a broken system.

Rahm Emanuel must address this part of the city’s infrastructure if Chicago is to become the world class city that he envisions.  Every business that is located within the city of Chicago must address this issue as well, because without an educated workforce, few businesses will be able to sustain their presence here.

Rahm secured millions of dollars for transportation improvements that will keep the city moving.  The owners of Wrigley Field seek funding to renovate their infrastructure for the sake of economic viability.  Corporations seek tax benefits as a reason to stay or relocate here.  These incentives help make Chicago a city that we love.

Still, no matter how improved our trains become, how nice our stadiums become, or how beautiful our skyline becomes, none of it will matter if 40% of our students cannot find a future in their own city or any other, for that matter.

Throwing money at the education isn’t necessarily the issue at hand.  The issue at hand is that the education system is broken and a city that ignores the basic education needs of it’s population will never be a world class city.  It cannot.  A city that ignores education will be forever caught in a cycle of repair rather than growth.

Fixing the education system is not a challenge that is unique to Chicago.  It is, however, I believe, a challenge that can be met here because Chicago has a history of being able to get things done.  This city has a history of making great things.  Our education system must be great as well and there should be no greater priority for Rahm Emanuel than to create this infrastructure alongside every other piece of the city.

I don’t claim to have the answers to this challenge but I do know that this city is filled with incredibly talented people who know how to make things work.  There is an entire floor of the Prudential building staffed with some of the brightest people in the country and they’re working on Obama’s reelection campaign.  These people are passionate and I’ll bet that they’d have some ideas.

Here is one idea.  How about setting up an on-line site for donations?  Individuals could contribute $5 or $15 or whatever they could to help the Chicago Public Schools.  Corporations could donate.  People living anywhere could donate.

Obama’s campaign brought in $181 million in September alone.   Half of that could be of use in creating a world-class education system for this city.

Why not take donations?  Let’s let Chicago see who is really interested in this city’s future – and let’s let them out do one another for the sake of public opinion.  Let’s see who’s really invested.

 

 

 

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It just so happened that the furniture that I found most appealing and within my price range is made in the United States. I didn’t necessarily plan it that way, but when a family member suggested I shop at Ikea instead, I reminded them that spending a few extra dollars for an American made product is probably a better thing to do these days.

These days – that even sounded a bit odd to me when I said it because I’ve never really bothered to look to see which workers my money was supporting. Sure, I purchased a pair of New Balance shoes a couple summers ago when I heard that they had moved some their manufacturing to Maine. Generally speaking, however, I’d throw into the shopping cart whatever it was that caught my eye and/or had the best price.

Considering that my relocation to Chicago has come about after a series of very fortunate events and years of hard work and conservation, I thought it might be a wise idea to make sure that I keep the good karma moving forward. I’ve made the decision to outfit the place with American made products whenever possible.

My first challenge was to find new dishes. While the style that would have looked best with a modern interior was made in Japan, it didn’t seem right to send my money there when I had American made options. Instead I chose Fiesta dinnerware made in West Virginia by Homer Laughlin. The same classic design for decades but in nifty new colors. I’ll admit that knowing that Fiesta Ware is keeping families in their homes in West Virginia makes the style a perfect fit in my new kitchen.

Speaking of kitchens, I was delighted to discover that Libman brooms are still made in Arcola, Illinois so I chose a Precision Angle broom made from 80% recycled plastic. It was the same price as the “designer” broom that was made in China. I’m still looking for a scrub brush that’s not made in China.

With the toaster and coffee maker I was not so fortunate. Would it really be that difficult to make a toaster in the US? It’s a fairly simple process of stringing heating cables inside of a non-combustable housing. Add a lever, a timer, a couple springs and that’s that. Certainly someone in the US could pull that one off.

Although Brahms Mount in Maine produces linen towels from American raised Alpacas, the $130 price tag for a bath towel is a bit steep. I went with a Macy’s sale item instead that was produced in India.

For cookware I discovered Calphalon from Toledo, Ohio. It appears as if their hard-anodized cookware is still made in the States. It’s certainly not the least expensive, so I’ll buy a piece at a time and I only need a few pieces. I seldom cook vast arrays of food so a entire kitchen ensemble isn’t necessary.

In preparation for hosting a few friends for New Year’s Eve, my search for martini glasses led me to Crate and Barrel. For only $1.95 per unit, their Dizzy line is both unique and American made.

The new coffee table was made in Minnesota and the bed frame and media console were both made in North Dakota. The sofa comes from North Carolina, as one might expect. All these pieces come from Room & Board which tries to source from US companies whenever possible. And with a personal shopping assistant from Minnesota named Sandy Northberg I was made to feel right at home, don’tcha know. She e-mailed me today to see how I liked the new pieces.

My mattress, the first good mattress in which I’ve invested was manufactured in the US under the direction of Value City, formerly a Schottenstein company out of Columbus, Ohio. Selected and paid for while in Columbus and delivered to my flat in Chicago – that’s convenient.

With all thats happening with the American unemployment levels it just makes sense to look for American brands first. In some cases the cost might be slightly higher but for the most part I find prices fairly competitive. When given the choice it’s a much better option to give my money to my “neighbors” because keeping their income in tact keeps our neighborhoods intact which in turn keeps our cities and towns intact and viable.

I’ll continue to look for examples of American made options as 2011 continues and post what I find here. In the mean time, consider your shopping habits and determine if you can contribute to the stabilization of your neighbor’s future.

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During the summer of 1983 I lived in a small town in rural Finland.  It was just a summer but there I met friends that I’d know for a lifetime.  I also encountered a rich simplicity that made me want to stay.  Practicality.  Modesty.  Balance.  But most of all, simplicity.  Little was wasted, there was little want and people were happy.

Fourteen years later, in 1997, I found myself working in Finland.  The world had changed and so had Finland.   Despite the changes that had taken place in politics and economics I returned to find the Finland that I had remembered.  A place of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity.

December 6th was Finland’s 93rd year of independence.  In 1917 Finland declared it’s independence from Russian control.  It had been ruled by Russia as a Grand Duchy beginning in 1809.  Prior to Russian rule, Finland had been controlled by the Swedes.  Swedish occupation lasted for roughly 560 years.  Throughout both occupations the Finns held tight to their native traditions, beliefs and values – essentially, their cultural mythology.

As a visitor I had always felt that the Finns were similar enough to Americans.  I didn’t see any glaring cultural differences but my friends said that I would never truly understand the differences until I lived there.  And then that happened, essentially, as my weekly life transitioned to living and working in Helsinki.

What I always enjoyed about Finland was it’s predictability.  Things just worked.  For example, buying a train ticket required certain steps and these steps were always the same.  Speaking to a clerk in a shop or market followed certain expected (yet bare bones) pleasantries.

What later drove me absolutely crazy about Finland was it’s predictability.  Every store clerk asks the same question and responds with a similar response.  Buying a train ticket can now be done on line, but one can still go into the central station, take a number and wait for the little “bing-bong” sound that signals that it’s now your time to be served at a specific window.  This same series of events takes place in banks.

In my twenty-five years of dealing with life in Finland I’ve seen the country go from near poverty – when in the 1980’s the government spent wildly on facilities and infrastructure to the 1990’s when the nation was repaying it’s own debt, to the roaring millennium years as part of the European Union when cash was pouring into the country and every spare centimeter of land was being built upon.  And now again, to a period of reduced spending and conservation.

Despite relative recent events of poverty and wealth, and over centuries of foreign rule, Finland now commands one of the best standards of living in the Western world.  Nearly free, life-long educational opportunities, one of the best public school systems in the world as well as the world’s highest rate of Internet connectivity.  Finland’s population is one of the best educated and most competitive in the world.

And this is what I have learned from Finland – While outside influences may change, a value system of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity brings about long-term prosperity and keeps one’s cultural identity in tact.

Over the past decade I’ve led a life focused on these values.  I chose to live in a house that was practical.  Leaving consumerism behind I shopped very modestly at thrift stores forgoing “fashion” for warmth and costly for inexpensive.  When I left a long-standing career I made the decision to choose balance in my life over income. Later, that balance created even greater income.  Whether it was growing my own food, collecting rain water or living without air conditioning and foregoing the use of an automobile, my choice was always simplicity over complex.  Practical rather than expected.

Despite cultural norms or political expectations I simply lived my life by practical and modest methods.  While others complained about the high cost of driving, I transitioned to public transit.  While a political battle ensues over the acceptance of train travel in Ohio, I’ve been traveling by train (as an Ohioan) and also avoiding the cultural debate taking place at airports.  As our country battles with job loss, I’ve been buying American made products.

When I decided in 2006 to postpone moving until 2010 so as to increase the equity in my house, I knew I was embarking upon a plan that would work.  I knew it would work despite what everyone said was possible because, and solely because I had made modest and simple choice in previous years.

And because I held true to my beliefs, dreams and goals, I have been able to create a new standard of living for myself that goes against the current cultural, political and financial expectations.  When everyone said that it couldn’t be done, I believed that it could.

I can’t help but think that my time in Finland helped create this personal paradigm.  The cultural stability and long-term success of the Finns despite outside influence is likely due to the maintenance of practical, modest, balanced and simple ideals, values and beliefs.  Live a simple life and you will be rewarded.

Thank you Finland.

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Tell me, who wouldn’t like the chance to re-create a portion of their time in high-school? No matter how popular – or not, one might have been, it’s the most quirky time for kids. Fitting in to a new body, both physically and emotionally as well as trying to fit in socially – somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Face it, that’s not easy.

For gay kids it’s even more difficult. It was for me. Things weren’t as difficult for me as some of the stories we’ve heard in the news lately. High school was actually a bit easier than elementary and junior high school where the teasing was never-ending.

In high school I never felt in harms way and there was never any physical aggression towards me, but I was the kid in high school that was called “faggot” as well as the kid who had the word FAG carved into his locker. I tried to ignore it. Pretending that the problem didn’t exist only made the isolation greater.

Last night’s episode of Glee made me realize that my time in high school was more like Kurt Hummel’s than I had remembered. Kurt is the gay kid at the fictional McKinley High in Lima, Ohio. Like Kurt, my high school crush was a guy on the football team. We palled around often, skipping class and taking off on his motorcycle for an hour or two.

Also like Kurt, I aspired to the pop-musical group known at the South Singers. Unlike most high school musical groups in the Twin Cities, the South Singers wore polyester slacks and open collared shirts – and let’s face it, that was really something to aspire to in the early 1980’s. And while the South Singers never really made it (legal issues with the director) the Tigerettes, our dance line always went the state championships.

And like Kurt said in last night’s episode, “…but most of all, I’m not challenged in the least here,” I too was bored in school. Completely and utterly bored. Classes were easy (except for Algebra 2). Nothing in high school challenged me academically, so I took part-time class at the Vocational Institute, where I found I was kind of bored too – but at least it was away from school itself.

Our school’s population was diverse enough that I could hang out on the periphery of certain groups. For example, I had a couple friends who went to Soviet summer camp on the Baltic sea. And another friend who played violin and spent her summer on the Trans-Siberian railroad. And like Kurt, another friend was a kid in a wheel chair who played on the handicapped hockey team. We were all misfits to a certain degree.

But unlike Kurt, I didn’t have the resources that gay kids have today. And unlike Kurt, I wasn’t “out” – no one in high school was then. Granted, what’s available for gay kids today isn’t perfect, but it’s much more than what was available for kids in 1982.

So last night when I saw Kurt visit the fictional all-boys school in Westerville, Ohio and see for the first time that there is a different reality that can be lived, I was jolted back into my high school years wishing that that was me.

I wished that I could have found something completely and utterly astonishingly different at such an early age. That I could have had a “Blaine” to hold my hand and run with me through the school’s commons. There were no songs on the radio that related to my situation. To have had the most handsome boy at school sing a song to me would have made me the proudest boy in the school.

But there were no role models at that time. The only thing that kept me going was knowing deep down inside of myself, that I was okay just the way I was and that sooner or later I’d meet people like myself. I don’t know how I knew that because nothing around me reinforced that belief. But somehow I knew it.

It took years and years to discover these people and I can only wonder what life would have been like if it had happened earlier. I’m okay though with how things turned out.

Life does get better. And maybe I started feeling that way just a little bit back then, when I was riding around on the back of the motorcycle that belonged to the most handsome boy at my high school.

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Think with me for a moment…

Let’s say that I want to live in a big house. Well, it doesn’t have to be that big, but what I’d like to have I can’t quite afford – a couple extra rooms and a larger kitchen. Maybe an extra bathroom.

Currently, however, I can only afford something that’s less than I truly want, so I have two choices. Live without a home or buy something that’s affordable and put a little work into it.

Let’s say I chose the latter. With the loan I’m offered I purchase a small house that’ll do for now. It’s practical and does the job – providing shelter as well as offering an investment opportunity.

Over the course of a couple years I spend a little, make some repairs, remodel the existing kitchen and bath. Spruce up the yard. Neighbors walk by and see the work and decided that perhaps they can spruce up their place a little too. Fresh paint, a new porch and maybe some new landscaping.

Then one day, a few years later, I realize that not only is my current home looking better than ever, but the neighborhood has gotten better as well. More people have taken it upon themselves to repair or at least tidy up their homes and yards. It took some work. Not just for me, but for everyone in the neighborhood.

The next year I decide to sell my house and with the profits I’m able to buy a house that’s got more of what I want. It has a bigger kitchen, a second bath and a spare bedroom. I like it! It’s what I dreamed about having for a long time, and had I not purchased my previous home, (and put a little work into it) I’d have not been able to create a profit. In fact, the neighborhood may not have even improved. Essentially, the investment paid off, not just for me, but for my neighbors. They can expect a profit because, over all, the neighborhood improved.

What happened with this theoretical housing model is what can happen with the 3C rail corridor – so long as Ohio politicians decide to, at least invest in a little something. I agree that we’d probably all prefer high-speed trains zipping in and out of town that could carry us to Chicago or New York in a matter of hours. But right now that’s far too expensive.

And sure, expanded rail service in Ohio is going to take some investment. We’ll need train stations, some new switches and we’ll probably start by using some existing equipment. Just like my first house – it’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

And while we live with what we can afford, we add a few more jobs here and there. Our train stations attract a certain amount of attention and maybe some businesses pop up to support those traveling by train. It costs a little to maintain, but it’s an investment. We’re working towards a goal.

A few years later it’s decided to upgrade the tracks and remove some of the grade crossings so that the trains can go faster. New technology allows for improvements that were not possible just a few years earlier. But, because we made the initial investment, we can now capitalize on the existing infrastructure.

Some may think that this is an over-simplified model. Perhaps it is. After all, I can zip to and from Chicago and New York by plane and I don’t have to think about making an investment of my own.

Understand, however, that our airports have not been built by the airlines. And our highways have not been built by the automobile manufactures. Indeed not. Airports and highways are built through federal, state and local funding. These government funded facilities support economic opportunities for the associated communities.

As an example, might Experience Columbus find it difficult to attract conventions if Port Columbus were to shut down? Would our hotels find guests if they could only arrive and depart by automobile? Would our shopping centers and entertainment venues survive if our highways could not bring in visitors? Could UPS deliver your package if our streets didn’t exist?

As a reader, you may never ride one of the 3C trains. Or maybe you will. But as a resident of Columbus, and as a resident of Ohio, you’ll receive tangible benefits by having this city connected to a national passenger rail system.

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If you’re like me, you’ll stay up late every now and then.  Maybe its because you’re out with friends or maybe it’s because you’re engaged in something interesting like reading a book, watching a movie – something like that.

Consider this:

Scenario A)
Let’s say that you’re up late one night and get to sleep around 3 a.m.  About five and a half hours later you wake up, stumble to the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee – maybe some fruit or a danish, or maybe french toast and eggs.  Gaze out the window for a while contemplating the day ahead of you – then freshen up, brush your teeth, lace up your shoes and hit the streets with a plan.

Scenario B)
Maybe you don’t like staying up that late.  And maybe you like to sleep more than six hours.  So, let’s say that you hit the sack around 2 a.m.  After a full eight-hours of sleep you wake up, brush your teeth, have a leisurely breakfast, chat with a few folks over coffee and then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon taking in the sights and sounds of the city.

Scenario C)
Some may like the idea of getting up early, watching the sun rise, reading the paper or knocking out a few chapters of a great book.  Then it’s a intriguing conversation over lunch, an afternoon nap, and by early evening you’re ready for the theater, the opera and a late dinner at a little bistro around the corner.

Imagine that in Scenario A, you walk out the door and find yourself in downtown Chicago – at the base of the Sears Tower no less.

In Scenario B you walk out the door and find yourself just four blocks from the National  Mall in Washington, DC.

And in Scenario C, you open the door and find yourself at Penn Station in New York City.

Do you know that these options currently exist, using Ohio’s existing passenger rail service?  Sure, it requires a drive to Cleveland to catch the train, but it’s possible, it’s completely do-able and it’s relatively inexpensive.  Amtrak operates two trains a day to Chicago, and one a day to both New York and Washington DC.

Yes, it requires a trip to Cleveland to catch the train, but passenger rail exists and it works.   And it’s comfortable.  Even with the drive to Cleveland, it’s relatively convenient.    It’ll be more convenient when boarding the train in downtown Columbus is possible.

Supporting the expansion of Ohio’s passenger rail service also means taking advantage of what we have today, funding what we have today so that those funds can be used to expand service in the future.

If you one of the supporters of the expansion of passenger rail in Ohio which will include the 3C Corridor project, I encourage you to take the train next time you’re planning a trip to one of the three destinations, served directly, on Amtrak today.

$49, one way to Chicago.
$77, one way to DC.
$86, one way to New York.

These are next-day departures, not advanced reservations departing from Cleveland.  Chicago and DC are can also be reached from Cincinnati, but with longer travel times.

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