Sunday, August 9, 2009

Got jobs?

To my passion for supporting our soldiers and our farmers, I have just added another … supporting and bringing attention to the plight of the unemployed folks.
Why? Because it affects all of us. Because I have been unemployed. Because if we want to solve our other problems, we need to get people back to work first. Because if our elected officials want to stay elected, they all – no matter what their party – need to pay way more attention to this issue than they have been. They have a job. They need to focus on those who do not.
A couple of incidents illustrate why I care and why everybody should.
The first incident happened a few weeks ago (or months, depending when you are reading this).
Workers and their families and supporters and townspeople gathered a few weeks ago to pray. The workers are from the ArcelorMittal steel plant in Hennepin, Ill. ArcelorMittal announced late in 2008 they were closing the Hennepin plant. Layoffs started in February with almost 300 workers out of jobs.
A group held a rally and prayer vigil at the gates of the shuttered steel plant in late July to pray to God for help. The prayer vigil drew from all denominations and churches drew together to say a prayer for the unemployed workers. Prayers came from out of state and from as far away as California.
What kind of shape are we in where hardworking Americans who only want to earn a wage and support their families and live the American dream, are driven to call on God to save their jobs? No doubt these are religious people but I almost cried when I read the story of the prayer vigil.
While it might have been a “first resort” sort of thing, to pray publicly and at the gates of a steel mill, outside of your house of worship, for jobs, seems to me at least like a last resort kind of thing. I’m not saying at all that these are not religious folks, indeed, I believe it’s quite the opposite. It’s hard to explain. When you have to publicly pray to God to keep your job, it seems like all other public venues – specifically your elected officials – have failed you.
The second incident happened some number of years ago, in 2001, May 18, to be exact.
I remember that day for a number of reasons. I was the night editor at Sauk Valley Newspapers.
Someone called us the day before or that day, the time is not clear now, and told us that the day shift men had just been told that their shift Friday would be the last they would work, they were done. Finished. Out of work. The gates would be locked behind them and they would need to take whatever they had in their lockers with them.
The mill was the backbone of Sterling and Rock Falls and a strong support of other towns too. Generations of families worked there, made good livings at the mill that turned out steel wire and rod and kept two towns and many, many, many related businesses doing very well for many, many, many years.
The saddest part was that we heard so many word-of-mouth stories, of people who had lost their health care who were too young for Medicare and who could not even afford their medicines under Medicaid who were cutting pills up into halves and quarters just to stretch their medicines.
Small businesses began to close after a few years or cut back their hours. The hurt was felt all over the region.
Some people said – loudly and publicly – that they had no pity for the mill workers. They’d worked at the mill in low-skill, very high-pay jobs and lived on the power of those salaries for a long time. So what? Some felt they deserved it, that the unions with their demands for extremely luxurious benefits and wage packages, had driven the steel industries right out of the country to places where steel could be made cheaper, where workers worked for much lower wages.
It was a moot point. The point was that the mill’s closing, although they had been laying off workers and closing various sections of the mill for years, wounded a lot of sectors, left hurt on the region that has, to this day, only started to heal.
The positive thing is that it brought the good people front and center. Volunteers rushed to try to get some health care for those left without it, to stock food pantries, to provide summertime meals for children who might not have anything.
Any service that local agencies could offer was offered. It really did bring out the angels in the community. That area’s proudest moment – ironically – came at one of it’s darkest moments. But that’s sometimes the way it happens.
I sent the photographer to take the picture as the mill closed for the final time and he did. He photographed the men walking out of the gates for the last time. They were very, very quiet, he said.
He photographed the guard as he chained and padlocked the gates shut behind the last worker of the once-proud and thriving plant that had built and nurtured two towns and countless families, a universe of American dreams.
We reported for months after that on the efforts of those towns to help those who had been left with no health insurance and who had lost their pensions, those who were out of work and could not find work as the economy slid in the dark days following America’s darkest day almost four months to the day later.
For years after, the mill remained standing. It was always, to me, a sort of wishful thinking, that if they left it standing, another steel company would roll in, buy it, start it back up and things would magically go back to the way they were. It never happened, of course. Another company did buy part of it but the mill never did come back. After part of it burned, the town – reluctantly it seemed – agreed to start demolishing it. It was always my impression, again only my impression, that when the demolition started in earnest so did the demolition of hope of the mill and its jobs and its prosperity returning.
I’m sure everyone has heard or personally knows about the effect an industry closing can have on a small town or a large one, the ripple effect that it causes, even into businesses where you think it could never reach. It affects everyone sooner or later and in ways that they may never have imagined. It leaves hurt on towns and regions that takes decades to heal if it does at all.
I think politicians generally (although there are a handful from both parties who are working to bring jobs and to restore jobs to their districts and states) have abandoned the unemployment issue because it’s something they cannot solve with an incredible flourish. They know they cannot put people back to work overnight. I know that. We all do. But I would like to see as much of an effort being made, as many words and speeches and remarks being made publicly, on behalf of the unemployed, about the jobless situation and it’s continuing effect, as we’ve heard on cap and trade and health care.
Cap and trade and health care are things that might happen, that could happen.
Unemployment is happening and it’s like a pebble in a pond. It’s ripples are widening, from people cutting back on their food purchases (which is hurting farmers) to fewer retail purchases of everything. It’s not hard to follow the ripples either and trace the effect that unemployment everywhere is having on businesses.
I am all in favor of “green jobs.” But I also think those who are promising all these “green jobs” need to start offering more specifics. In return for government funding or government policy change, they need to tell people how many, where, what type, what skill level and what kind of training will be needed for the “green jobs” they are offering.
I really think there need to be some concrete and in writing guarantees of jobs made before any policies are changed, before any money is handed over. Words are easy to say, promises are easy to make and roll smoothly off the tongue. Written guarantees are a bit harder to renege on.
We need more than jobs for college grads and 20-somethings and 30-somethings. We need jobs for the whole age range of those folks praying over in Hennepin for a miracle. We need jobs for those laid off from Cat in Peoria, from Buzzi in Oglesby, from factories big and small in towns big and small in every region, every state in this country. We don’t need high-falutin’ techno gigs that require lengthy education and thus lots of cash to acquire.
We need blue-collar, low-skill and mid-level-skill jobs. We need jobs that don’t require years with a union or an uncle who knows somebody at the hall. We need jobs that just folks can occupy and earn a wage to support their family and thus support other families and other workers. And we need those jobs now.
We don’t need promises that these jobs will crop up someday or months from now. We need politicians of both parties to get working on it if they want to keep their jobs. Because, as we’ve all learned and painfully – nobody’s job is guaranteed. The gates can be chained and padlocked behind anybody.

It's all my fault

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“I’m not fat, I’m fluffy.”

I’ve always loved that saying. Until recently.

“We come from a long line of little short fat Irish people, Jeannine. Get used to it.” That line was from my mom. Ouch. Apparently we’ve left the world of “It’s just baby fat, honey. It’ll go away.”

So anyway, I decided that I make some not so great food choices and I make them a lot and my level of physical activity is, well, slim to none. I decided I needed to fix things.

Let me repeat that – I eat too much sugar, salt and fat and I don’t exercise enough.

Let me narrow it down a bit more – the reason I am overweight and unhappy with how I look is my own fault.

My thinking here is a bit revolutionary for the times, I know.

I’m not blaming American corn farmers because my morning and mid-day gas station double mocha cappuccinos have corn sweetener in them nor am I blaming them for the donuts and cookies now laying around my house or even for the Doritos. I don’t drink pop at all, I just never have and I don’t particularly care for it. Iced tea and coffee are my caffeine of choice.

I’m not blaming dairy farmers because I put half and half in my coffee. Darned cows need to only make skim milk. Not that luscious, wonderful, rich … okay, focus, focus, Jeannine …

I’m not blaming hog farmers because I love pork chops, bacon, ribs, pulled pork barbecue. Did I mention bacon?

I am not blaming the chicken guys because I love me my fried chicken.

I am not blaming McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell or the Dog House (local joint) because I partake of their products more often than is healthy for me.

I am not blaming my spreading equatorial zone on the futon or the Travel Channel (damn you, Tony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern!) or Law and Order or What Not To Wear. Or Twitter or Facebook. Or even the short stories I like to write.

I am blaming myself.

I don’t like to pat myself on the back but here, I will. I’m doing what a lot of overweight and lazy people (like myself) won’t do these days.

I am blaming myself for being overweight and lazy and unhappy with my health and how I look and how my clothes fit.

We need to blame ourselves.

We need to blame ourselves when we turn fat and get that muffin-top and those love handles and thunder thighs. We need to blame ourselves when we go through the drive-thru and choose fried time after time instead of making the salad choice now and then or just taking the time and ambition to cook up a healthy meal at home.

We need to blame ourselves when we ignore the concept of “everything in moderation” and just embrace the “everything all the time” model of eating.

We need to blame us when we head for the cheese curls and pop and high-calorie snacks every time instead of looking for healthier alternatives.

We need to blame us when we don’t get off our keesters, when we plop ourselves in front of the TV with shows or the PlayStation or whatever instead of walking around the block a few times a week.

We need to blame ourselves when our kids are overweight at age 6 because we don’t, like my parents did, send the kids outside to play.

Not safe? Go outside with them to watch them. I see plenty of kids in the neighborhood I live in playing outside, running around, riding bikes and I live in a mid-size town where not everyone does know their neighbor. I also see parents sitting out on their porches or the steps or even – gasp – riding bikes with the kids or doing yard work.

Kids don’t like to play outside? Maybe because they’ve never tried it. If they don’t know what to play, tell them to make up games instead of letting PlayStation turn their imaginations and creativity and quick thinking to useless sludge. Well, you can say it nicer than that.

Walk them to the local park and swing on the swings or play on the merry go round or the slides with them. Better yet, invite some of their friends and spread the health around.

We need to blame ourselves when we turn up, a few or many years down the road with the consequences of our diet and exercise decisions in the form of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. We need to blame ourselves when we can’t walk up six stairs without gasping for air, when we cannot see our feet to tie our shoes.

We need to blame ourselves when we can’t fit into the clothes we own instead of blaming clothing makers for making the sizes smaller or the seams more apt to rip open when trying to contain an overload of cellulite.

You say it’s not your fault really? That thyroid or other issues are making you fat? Then go get treated and talk to a dietitian so you can compensate for your condition.

It is true that income and availability do limit our food choices, especially income. But there are programs available virtually everywhere that can help people adapt a healthier lifestyle and make healthy food choices. If a program isn’t available or is inaccessible, head to your local (free) library and look something up on a computer that, again, most libraries have these days, especially city libraries. If there are no computers, check out a book on healthy eating and exercise.

The key word is choices. I made the choices I made and now I make the choice to adjust my diet and get moving and do something about it. All of us choose to eat and move and live the way we are eating and moving and living.

Farmers don’t choose for us. McDonald’s doesn’t choose for us. The futon and the TV and Playstation don’t choose for us. We choose.

All of this is possible if you want to change you. If you don’t want to change then you will continue to embrace the groups and individuals who give you excuses. You will listen and give credit to those who pile blame on American farmers, on grocery stores, on restaurants, on society and culture, on cities and regions even, on anything they can so that people don’t have to blame themselves.

“If you can’t find a way, you’ll find an excuse,” is what a great newspaperman and managing editor once told me. He was and is right.

We have a choice when it comes to being healthy. We will either find a way or we will find an excuse.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Both Worlds

Tonight, I had the opportunity and pleasure to cover an event that celebrated the opening of a wean to finish hog facility in Knox County, Illinois.
The Links and the Higgersons are great people, very gracious and welcoming and established in the area as farm families who have farmed and raised livestock for several generations.
This new facility, which is operated by Aaron and Nathan Link and Jared Higgerson, is a big venture. I talked to Aaron and Jared and they expressed confidence that the U.S. pork industry will make a comeback, as it has done before in times of trouble, and be strong again. The two new buildings are proof of their faith in the future.
On the way to the farm, I passed a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. He was riding a Harley Davidson, had a black leather jacket with what appeared to be a big PGR patch on the back. Flying from the back of his bike were two full-size American flags. He was headed south, toward Galesburg.
This night was also the visitation for Illinois National Guardsman Spc. Christopher Talbert who lost his life in Afghanistan July 7. That was, no doubt, where the lone rider with the American flags was headed.
I support our U.S. soldiers and their mission. I also support our U.S. farmers and their mission. Both soldiers and farmers are vital to our freedom and our happiness. Our soldiers protect our freedom, our farmers give us food. It's a wonderful combination of people to support, let me tell you!
Knox County has a strong farming tradition and a very strong livestock farming tradition.
The area also has a strong tradition of military service. Soldiers and sailors like Spc. Talbert, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Gary Rovinski of Roseville, Army Pfc. Caleb Lufkin of Knoxville and others have made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tonight I thought how much we owe to both our farmers and our soldiers and how tough these two groups are in the face of adversity.
Farmers and soldiers, although their circumstances are different, face daily trials that would make most of us either not start at all or throw up our hands and say 'enough!'
But they don't.
Farmers are the ultimate gamblers. They plant crops, buy livestock, build buildings and then see how the cards turn up. They do that because they love what they do and for others, so that we may have safe, secure, affordable food and a continuing supply of it.
Soldiers take risks of a different sort, they risk their life and limb and future happiness each day when they go out on their missions. They do that to stop the spread of terrorism or at least try to keep it from our shores, to bring freedom to oppressed people so they can make their lives better and to protect their fellow soldiers. Soldiers do that because many love what they do, they love the job of soldiering, and for others, for us, so we may have a safe and secure supply of democracy and freedom.
Tonight, as I documented the leap of faith being made by two young farmers and thought about the ultimate sacrifice paid by one young soldier, I thought how very, very lucky we are to have these people around us and what an enormous debt of gratitude we owe both.
Thank you, U.S. farmers.
Thank you, U.S. soldiers.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Why this?

"These are not the first soldiers and this is not the first war."
Those were the words someone said to me when she also told me she thought I was a little too enthusiastic about my support for our deployed soldiers.
"Don't you?" I asked.
"Yes, of course I support the soldiers but you don't have to be so - obvious - about it," she said.
The reason I am enthusiastic and passionate about supporting our deployed soldiers stems back to 2004 and 2005. I was a reporter for a daily newspaper. Our local National Guard unit deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This - along with the events of 9/11/01 - was new ground for all of us. From our managing editor down to the youngest reporter, nobody had ever covered soldiers or families in a war before.
We were hometown reporters so we knew these families very well, they were our neighbors.
It made that job harder and easier. Harder because every time we heard there were casualties and especially in the areas we knew "our" soldiers were, we waited on pins and needles to hear that everyone was safe. In an odd way, the few of us who did cover the unit almost did become part of the support group for those soldiers, part of the big extended family.
We were blessed with two incredible people who headed up the Family Readiness Group. They understood the value, even if the military didn't then, of keeping the public informed and getting the public support behind their local soldiers. They made sure we stayed informed, they hooked us up with families for interviews, pointed out interview opportunities - even for soldiers who weren't in the unit but were from the area.
I loved covering these soldiers and their families because they were then and are now so dedicated to their task. They are ordinary human beings, just ordinary young men and women, doing an extraordinary job in unbelievable circumstances. Their families are the same way, hometown people who have jobs and lives who have to wait on pins and needles for their children to return from war.
Of course this is not the first war and these are not the first soldiers but these are our generation's wars and these are our generation's soldiers and we should support them as completely as the Greatest Generation supported the young men who marched off to fight in the Pacific and in Europe.
That first deployment, all of the soldiers from our hometown unit survived, a few were wounded, one very seriously, but they all came home. They came home to parades and dinners and free beers and the adoration of entire communities. Some of them, sadly, came home to deal with the effects of PTSD and the aftermath of their deployment, the effects of which were only beginning to be addressed. The unit lost one member to suicide on Thanksgiving Day 2005. His death galvanized his parents to demand that the military take a better look at PTSD and soldier suicide. It taught everyone that just because a soldier has returned home, doesn't mean his battles are all over.
Even though I'm in a different job now, where opportunities to cover the military are fewer, I still support them through Twitter and Facebook and care packages.
Everybody needs a cause, that same person said to me another time. Well, she is right. Everybody does need a cause. It makes you feel good at the end of the day that you did some small thing, without needing or asking for reward or thanks, for someone else.
Everybody does need a cause and supporting the military is mine.