Archive for March, 2011


Writers block v. insomnia

This blog post is going to be a bit unconventional.

I tried the conventional approach tonight. I sat in front of my computer for more than two hours and stared at the same blog draft I spent an hour gazing at the previous night. So, I’ve given up, at least for tonight.

The post to be is a lackluster disapproving review of “The Boondock Saints,” and for that reason I’d like to send my apologies to Nate in advance. It is of course a man movie, just not one I’m a fan of. But enough about that.

Tonight I’m parked in front of the laptop watching Dexter. I’ve wanted to catch an episode ever since I learned a UNK alum was one of the writers. I won’t bore you with a star rating or plot summary. It should say enough that I’ll finish at least four nearly hour-long episodes tonight.

Dexter brings a lot to the table, even more than the blades and saran wrap (To anybody who watches the show, is that really saran wrap? It can’t be, can it?). He’s dark, about as dark as they come. He’s a serial killer who claims to feel no human emotion. Despite this claim, Dexter maintains a ‘normal life’ with a sister, and a girlfriend. The combination is enthralling.

The show also taps into the same emotion cop shows have been abusing at least as long as I’ve been alive. It makes me feel like I could be a detective—a thought no doubt shared by many an NCIS viewer, or whatever other cop show is on besides “Cops” (heavy on sprinting, light on detective work).

Anyways, I thought I’d cure some writers block with this post, but alas I’ve spent just as much time on this one as I did on the last. I think I’ll call this post finished and watch one more episode before I go to bed. Good night.

Homelessness by the numbers

The last several posts have focused on homelessness with an anecdotal or emotional approach. With an eye toward the potential homeless shelter in Kearney these posts have focused on understanding, identifying and empathizing with the homeless. Given the lack of any empirical data to support these blog posts I decided to dive into some numbers.

Searching for homelessness numbers on the internet was not as easy as expected. Frankly it might have been easier to take the short drive into downtown Omaha to get a feel. But with a little effort some data surfaced. Both state and national statistics were available, though much of the information was a bit dated. Below are some select stats relating to poverty and homelessness as well as a link to the entire report.

  • The national child poverty rate is 20 percent, which translates to more than 14.5 million children living in poverty in the USA.
  • Nebraska has the 38th highest child poverty rate among states at 15.2 percent or 66,349 children living in poverty.
  • The total poverty level across the US population in 2009 was 14.3 percent or nearly 43,000,000 people living in poverty.
  • Nebraska’s poverty rate is 12.3 percent which means more than 214,000 Nebraskans live in poverty.
  • Based on point in time counts from Nebraska homeless shelters approximately 1,200 people sought shelter on a given night in Omaha/Council Bluffs, while 947 stayed at a shelter in Lincoln.
  • Outside of Lincoln and Omaha the next highest point in time count came from North Central Nebraska at 492.

Click here to access the full report.

Johnny Colorado

With a smile on his face, just under the uniquely southern style mustache, and a distinct smell Johnny Colorado walked into our lives. All Brett Stover, Will Gregg and I had to do was drive him fifteen minutes to get Johnny home, but his trip was much longer.

Given that the topic of my recent blog posts—homelessness—was overwhelming my trip to Denver as the dominant theme, it was nice to find a success story. Johnny Colorado had one, along with a dozen other colorful stories.

One of Johnny’s most colorful stories was about being robbed—of five inches in height. He claims he used to stand 5’9’’ but now he only reaches 5’4’’ and the culprit is a chiropractor. With all the poking and prodding his spine was bending in all new directions, but he kept going back. The chiropractor was the only thing covered after a car accident. Even though Johnny was shrinking in the passenger seat of Stover’s truck the chiropractor was not the wildest part of the story.

The doctor and his prescribed treatment, which Johnny swears by, added a heavy dose of the zany. Now, I am sure my memory is not exact, but if memory serves Johhny’s remedy involved lying on his back with one leg in the air, and massaging his thigh while blowing up a balloon. Supposedly, this ‘exercise’ was the only way he could straighten his spine. Despite the absurdity of his spine straightening exercise , this was probably one of the easiest obstacles he has overcome.

Just meeting Johnny in Denver speaks to his life’s hurdles. He is originally from Louisiana. About the time hurricane Katrina showed up Johnny decided life would be easier in Colorado. Now, he works selling steaks and lives just outside Denver.

Johnny is a constant entertainer with many a story to tell. Discussing his job selling steaks or life around Denver he laughs and jokes while sharing life lessons gleaned from 26 years of experience. But one topic shifted his tone to passionate and serious.

Homelessness was more than a discussion point for Johnny. He remembers when he was 15 far from his family and without a place to spend the night. His mom’s advice was to find the nearest homeless shelter, and that is exactly what he did.

The shelter was where Johnny started his comeback. The shelter provided this teen with a warm meal and a place to spend the night. The shelter gave Johnny the time and security to turn his life around, find work, and get a place of his own. But the shelter did not do it all.

Once Johnny found work the shelter became harder to visit. Adhering to check in times was a requirement to get a bed and Johnny’s two jobs did not mesh with the shelter’s schedule. He recalls spending nights underneath a bridge and heading to work the next morning in a suit and tie.

Spending days in an office and nights under a bridge was a tough adjustment, and one Johnny was not living alone. There were a shocking number of his coworkers doing exactly the same thing. I would find such a statement hard to believe if I had not seen nearly 50 homeless people before taking 100 steps into town.

What I found most shocking about Johnny Colorado’s story how quick the fall into homelessness came and how long it took to drag himself out. Johnny found himself homeless at an age when most are learning to drive and tackling challenges like freshman English classes. In a flash Johnny became homeless, a position he assures me is not unique. Freeing himself took years and forced him into plenty of situations we would find just as uncomfortable as sleeping under a bridge. It was a struggle to break habits he built on the streets, and to form new ones. After spending the night on a cot in a shelter and eating lunch on the street outside the same building, meeting a coworker for coffee or a nice dinner must be pretty uncomfortable.

Road Trip: Shelter in Colorado

Will Gregg (Left) and Brett Stover (Right) on the Continental Divide Trail near Herman Gulch.

On the second day of my four-day Spring Break road trip to Colorado, we finally made it to the capital and it turns out Denver has homeless people too.

After about ten hours in the truck the previous day, Brett Stover, Will Gregg and I rolled into Denver with nothing on our minds but lunch and a little adventure. By the time we walked a few blocks into town we stumbled on some others in a similar position. About 25 homeless people were eating lunch outside a local shelter.

There was no shouting, yelling, or drunkenness to report. Frankly, everyone was calm and dignified. Less than a block later we passed another shelter with a similar number of people outside, just sitting in the sun. Although these people would never be mistaken for millionaires, they were not easily identifiable as homeless either.

If either of my roommates brought home one of these homeless people and presented him as a coworker I would not bat an eye—and not just because my roommate brought home two homeless people the previous week.  Every person outside that shelter looked no different than the majority of people I interact with every day.

I guess that is what the shelter has to offer. Thanks to a hot meal, shower, and place to spend the night homelessness does not have to make these people any different. Instead of worrying about the basics of food and shelter people are free to find work and end the cycle of homelessness.

Hopefully that is what a homeless shelter could accomplish right here in Kearney. With a little community support a Kearney homeless shelter could provide hope, get people off the streets, away from crime, and back to life on their own terms.

Homelessness: streamlined

Living homelessness was the goal of the United Way of Kearney’s homelessness awareness event in 2009. That crucial experience is exactly what Kearney needs as the city decides whether or not to open a homeless shelter.

In big cities homelessness is a problem that people must confront every time they are stopped by a panhandler or pass someone sleeping on the streets, but in Kearney the problem is hidden. Our nationally low unemployment leaves most of our population unfamiliar with homelessness, and uncomfortable with the homeless as a result. But our discomfort does not compare to that of someone struggling just to live and eat.

Just how fun is it to be homeless? I sampled it one night, and I do not need seconds.

My fellow UNK exchange student Amanda and I were half way along the 3-hour train ride to the airport in Amsterdam on our way to tour Athens, Venice, and Rome when we hit a roadblock. We had missed the last train from Rotterdam and would be forced to spend the night.

Not having a single person to call for help was a lonely feeling, but not unlike the feeling homeless people experience every night. At 2 a.m. Amanda and I were finally kicked out of the train station. We dressed for the tropical weather we never reached, and it was too late to find any place to spend the night.

The bus stops in front of the train station offered the only windbreak, and a weak one at that. After less than an hour shivering in our shorts and T-shirts we needed a change. We emptied our bags to put on every piece of clothing we packed, and used our towels as blankets. It was about as warm as it was fashionable.

I discovered the real chill in the air that night thanks to the whip of the gray tail of a trench coat. It opened to reveal a faded fanny pack on top of a dirty shirt and pair of pants, topped with a worn fishermen’s cap that hid the face of its wearer. Countless worries flooded my imagination.

Like most Nebraskans, my experiences with the homeless came largely through the TV. On the tube homeless people are either the source of violence or the target, and I did not want to be either. It was passed 3 a.m., I was wearing four T-shirts and a towel, and sleep was not an option.

What would I do if this man demanded the money for my trip? What if he tried to take our possessions? What if he attacked me, or worse Amanda? Could I defend us?

There are more than a few occasions when men in their early 20s feel bold or brave—this was not one. Of the five hours Amanda and I spent outside that train station in Rotterdam not one minute was spent in comfort. Uncertainty and fear were constant and only left when the sun rose and the train carried us away.

Leaving Rotterdam was a relief, but for the man in the trench coat that night may never end. During the day he is harassed by people like us while he struggles to even find a meal or bathroom. At night, he must defend his priceless possessions, like the coat that kept him warm on that chilly night, or the pack where he surely keeps anything of value. At any point he could wake up on the other end of a knife from someone ready to take his life for his faded pack and dreary jacket.

Kearneyites would do well to remember that the feelings of uncertainty and fear they feel around the homeless, are shared by the homeless. The main difference for the homeless is that the fear never ends.

Critics of a Kearney homeless shelter fear an increase in crime, and they are probably right. Inevitably whether for a crime of necessity or otherwise, some homeless person will be arrested. But the price of a broken car window or a stolen I-pod is insignificant compared to the relief a homeless shelter would provide. In fact, given the extreme poverty some people live in, maybe we would all be better off without those I-pods in the first place.

When the United Way put on a homelessness awareness event at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2009, the goal was to let people experience homelessness. That crucial experience is exactly what Kearney needs as the city decides whether or not to open a homeless shelter.

In big cities homelessness is a problem that people must confront every time they are stopped by a panhandler or pass someone sleeping on the streets, but in Kearney the problem is hidden. Our nationally low unemployment leaves most of our population unfamiliar with homelessness, and uncomfortable with the homeless as a result. But our discomfort does not compare to that of someone struggling just to live and eat.

How fun is it to be homeless? My experience only lasted one night, and I do not need a second taste.

My fellow UNK exchange student Amanda and I were on our way to the airport in Amsterdam, from Middelburg, about a three hour train ride. We were set to tour Athens, Venice, and Rome and were about halfway to Amsterdam when we hit a roadblock. We had missed the last train from Rotterdam and would be forced to spend the night.

Not having a single person to call for help was a lonely feeling, but not unlike the feeling homeless people experience every day. At 2 a.m. Amanda and I were finally kicked out of the train station. We had not prepared for any cold weather adventures, and it was too late to find any place to spend the night.

The bus stops in front of the train station offered the only windbreak, and a weak one at that. After less than an hour shivering in our shorts and T-shirts we needed a change. We emptied our bags to put on every piece of clothing we had packed, and used our towels as blankets. It was about as warm as it was fashionable.

There was a short wait before I discovered the real chill in the air that night. The whip of the gray tail of a trench coat demanded my tired attention. It opened to reveal a faded fanny pack on top of a dirty shirt and pair of pants, topped with a worn fishermen’s cap that hid the face of its wearer. Countless worries flooded my imagination.

Like most Nebraskans, my experiences with the homeless came largely through the TV. On the tube homeless people are either the source of violence or the target, and I did not want to be either. It was passed 3 a.m., I was wearing four T-shirts and a towel, and sleep was not an option.

What would I do if this man demanded the money for my trip? What if he tried to take our possessions? What if he attacked me, or worse Amanda? Could I defend us?

There are more than a few occasions when men in their early 20s feel bold, brave and brash—this was not one. Of the five hours Amanda and I spent outside that train station in Rotterdam not one minute was spent in comfort. Uncertainty and fear were constant and only left when the sun rose and the train carried us away.

Leaving Rotterdam was a relief, but for the man in the trench coat that night may never end. During the day he is hassled and harassed by people like us while he struggles to even find a meal or bathroom. At night, he must defend his priceless possessions, like the coat that kept him warm on that chilly night, or the fanny pack where he surely keeps anything of value. At any point he could wake up on the other end of a knife from someone ready to take his life for his faded pack and dreary jacket.

Kearneyites would do well to remember that the feelings of uncertainty and fear they feel around the homeless, are shared by the homeless. The main difference for the homeless is that the fear never ends.

Critics of a Kearney homeless shelter fear an increase in crime, and they are probably right. Inevitably whether for a crime of necessity or otherwise, some homeless person will be arrested. But the price of a broken car window or a stolen I-pod is insignificant compared to the relief a homeless shelter would provide. In fact, given the extreme poverty some people live in, maybe we would all be better off without our I-pods in the first place.

Data: A dirty word

Four letter words are tough to escape on a college campus. Whether it’s in the gym, the cafeteria, or just walking to class a @$%*, *&!?, or #!@$ is inescapable, at least for long periods of time. Although the hierarchy of expletives is far from ironed out, one quad-lettered thorn causes more pain than most – data.

Just uttering those two syllables sends shudders down the backs’ of students across departments. Many students—the ones who spent college avoiding math and science—are prone to horrific flashbacks triggered by the word. One minute they are in the union eating with friends or reading the newspaper and the next they’re under the bright lights and cold professor’s stare from whatever general studies statistics course they were lucky enough to survive.

But data don’t have to be scary. Despite all the numeric baggage graduates carry with them, data can still be clear and dare I say it, fun. That may mean stepping over the piles of statistics and excel documents.

Infographics have been mending the ties between people and data for years. Thanks to them long lists of data, like American’s perceptions of European countries, can be converted into easy to digest graphics (like the one pictured above).

Understanding topics as diverse as torture can be made painless by an infographic, like the one on the left. Below are links to a number of infographics that tackle a variety of issues.

Crash decapitates bike

In high school I always thought my greatest athletic feat would come on the football field or basketball court. Instead, I was in the middle of a residential neighborhood with only my little brother and sister in the audience.

We were on our way back home from the YMCA. I was in charge of the kids for the summer and trying to get them some exercise, so when Chase, my then 12 year old brother, wanted to race home I said ok. In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the bike I borrowed from my dad for the trip.

I was standing up peddling furiously on my bike when it happened. Snap. It is an odd feeling, having a bike underneath you one instant and crumbling to the pavement the next. A flash was all it took to ruin my dad’s bike, and send me over the handlebars onto the smoking hot pavement nearly one mile from my home.

The next second and a half was the most physically impressive accomplishment of my life, and it probably saved my life, or at least proper brain functioning. The handlebars on my dad’s bike snapped catapulting me over the front of the bike faster than I could regret not wearing a helmet.

Somehow I managed to hurdle off the pedals and over the front of the bike. Any trip up would have ended in a concrete face plant. But I hit the ground running and manage to bring myself to a stop in the middle of the street, seemingly unharmed. That’s when I saw the blood.

Big red drops of blood splashed onto my tan khaki shorts. I was sure I must have done something awful like clipped my groin, but at least Chase and Sydney were with me. That did not last long.

After a few minutes of heavy breathing, and exhausting but stationary confusion, I realized the blood was coming from my hand. The newly broken stub where the handlebars had been cut my finger and, thankfully, the bleeding stopped rather quickly. Not as quickly as Chase bailed though.

It was Chase’s rush to get home that prompted our race in the first place. He could not wait to get home to play video games. So, I guess it should have came as no surprise that he high-tailed it home before I even stopped bleeding.

Pushing a broken bike home was no fun. Triple digit temperatures and a brush with death did not make it any easier. The broken handlebars did not help much either. Without them moving the bike meant adopting a posture I should avoid until I am retired, or live in Notre Dame. I had to bend down to hold the front tire while guiding my up the hill to my home, with the bike occasionally darting left or right and smashing to the ground.

It was a short enough walk that I did not blame Sydney when she asked to go play at a friend’s house. That is where she ends up on most summer afternoons anyway.  Either way, I found myself making the slow walk home alone.

My emotions swirled toward anger as I wobbled home by myself. I was ready to deal Chase a tongue lashing for ditching me to play video games. After all, I do not ask for much, but a little concern would have been nice.

By the time I got home my anger cooled. Chase got away with little more than a passing comment. I am awful at holding a grudge. Even though I was not mad my bike crash made me realize something. It is nice to have someone walking next to you, even when everything turns out fine.

World’s top dictators

The recent dominoes toppling in the Middle East have brought attention to many of the region’s strong men. Some, as Jon Stewart pointed out, are a bit more eccentric than others.

Current headline grabber Muammar al-Qaddafi barely cracked the top ten worst dictators Parades 2009 list. Parade released a list of the world’s worst dictators in 2009. Familiar faces include al-Qaddafi of Libya at number 10. Newly ousted Hosni Mubarak of Egypt took the last spot on the list’s dishonorable mention list at spot number 20.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe takes the top spot for inflation which brought the price of a loaf of bread to 25 billion and his country’s crisis health conditions that led thousands of deaths from cholera. Prominent U.S. trading partners King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made the list at number five and China’s Hu Jintao grabbed the number six spot. Some of the biggest thorns in Hillary Clinton’s side made the list as well with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il earning the third spot, Iran’s Sayyid Ali Khamenei at the seven spot and Cuba’s Raul Castro earning the thirteenth spot.

For a the full list of the world’s worst dictators visit Parade’s website. Perhaps you will see a few of tomorrows political exiles on this list today.

Stuck in the Middle

As a student of political science I have always been intrigued by the prospect of a third party emerging in U.S. politics. Candidates often rise from the fringes such as the Libertarian Party, Green Party and more recently the Tea Party. Given America’s winner-take-all electoral system third parties need majorities to earn a spot at the table, and few spots have been created recently. But moves by both parties to political extremes have alienated a large number of Americans whose views are often expressed by a number of centrist columnists and commentators.

A list compiled by The Daily Beast names 26 of the leading voices that moderate the growing American center. Columnists like Kathleen Parker and David Brooks sit next to satirists like Jon Stewart on the list. These commentators often denounce oversteps by both political parties and many have openly detached themselves from longstanding partisan affiliation. Below are some examples of columns and posts that declare centrist views.

David Brooks, Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, categorizes Obama’s politics. “Getting Obama Right”

Andrew Sullivan, a writer for The Atlantic, announces his break from a long association with the Republican Party in “Leaving the Right.”

Charles Johnson, a blogger on littlegreenfootballs.com, states his reasons for breaking from the rightward drifting Republican Party in “Why I Parted Way With The Right.”

These examples are just a small taste of the conversation that is currently flourishing between the members of America’s center. Click here for the full list from The Daily Beast.

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