Category: Uncategorized


To Villavicencio we go

Colombia is one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. Not at all like I expected when I was studying the county in my political science field study course Human Rights and Democracy in Colombia. The grim subject captured all my attention during the summer course and was a stark contrast to the landscape once we arrived for our trip.

So, on the way to Villavicencio and one of the most chilling stops on our trip I made up for neglecting the scenery by sticking my head and my camera out the window nearly the entire way from Bogota. I have already tried to pen a description of the trip and found I was not up to the task. Instead of setting up another flop I think it is best to let the pictures speak for themselves.

These were some of the fun parts of the trip, but much of what we did was far from pleasant. But that is a story for another day.

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West Bank is one of the most unlikely settings in the world for a comedy, but West Bank Story strings together 20 minutes of jokes, songs and dancing to keep the chuckles coming through a modern day adaption of West Side Story.

Director Ari Sandel’s musical comedy follows a feud between the Palestinian Hummus Hut employees and their neighbors, the Jewish employees of Kosher King. Budding lovers Fatima, Hummus Hut employee of the month, and David, an Israeli soldier, come together in the crossfire of the fast-food fight and attempt to make peace between the two groups.

Hummus may seem like a foreign jumping point but West Bank’s jokes hit home from the start. From the moment Ahmed snaps his way onto the screen, of course stopping to sample the hukaa, and is joined by Ariel and his curly haired and yamaka wearing crew, it is clear the film will leave no one hungry for more stereotypes or jokes.

Clever dialogue pokes fun at the ageless conflict out of place in the modern setting, and extends humor to even an edible form with “death by chocolate suicide bomber cream pie”. Given the seriousness of the conflict, confrontations could be expected to change the tone, but even though Ariel and Ahmed call each other terrorist and occupier, their arguments mostly consist of trading oh yeahs in a juvenile shouting match.

Even as the film moves to the love scenes enough cheese is added to keep the humor flowing. West Bank Story carries that theme clear to the end when David tells Fatima of a place where Jews and Muslims live in harmony—Beverly Hills.

West Bank Story spent its 20 minutes digging for laughs in an otherwise dreary situation and that is something we can all appreciate. The fast-food focus easily opens both sides to comical prodding and left me more than satisfied.

Vigilante justice. No two words better sum up the theme of the movie, “The Boondock Saints.” They go a long way toward explaining why it’s such a popular movie, and why I can’t stand it.

But I’m a hypocrite.

After all “The Boondock Saints” is by all accounts a great man movie. It has all the necessities: beautiful women, testosterone fueled action scenes, and explosions. Men can cheer on two reluctant underdog heroes as they fight for a righteous cause.

Erik in Dublin

Me posing during a conversation in Dublin, Ireland.

To make the setup even better, the two heroes are Irishmen, just like me. So, I ought to identify with a pair of Celtic heroes, right? Unfortunately I can never seem to do that.

In one scene, Connor and Murphy MacManus shoot up some sort of strip club. I cannot help but wonder if everyone in there really deserved to die.  Many a strip club visitor has crossed my path over the years, and, frankly, the world would be a worse place with them gone.

Justifying the MacManus brothers’ killing spree is at the crux of my complaint. Maybe all those people in the strip club did deserve to die, along with all the others slain by the Irish duo. But we will never know. Without a trial there can be no confession, no punishment, no catharsis, and no rehabilitation for the criminals or the victims.

The MacManus brothers may be able to justify their actions, but any mafia member, or person connected to the MacManus brothers’ victims has the same justification. That line of reasoning could easily be extended to justify killing the MacManus brothers and creates a never ending cycle of violence.

The truth of the matter is Justice is too complex to fit through the barrel of a gun. The only thing that bullet carries is revenge, and it makes the Boondock Saints no more than common thugs.

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.

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