Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sheriff's Election

After 20 years of being involved in politics, I swore I was finished. No more walking the streets to hand out campaign literature, no more serving up tenderloins and apple sauce, no more forcing signs into summer-hard ground, no more attending endless strategy sessions. But now, it's time to elect a new sheriff and I'm reneging on my vow. I'm supporting Bob Land because he's a good man with tremendous experience in administration, investigation, drug eradication, all the qualities our department needs. (Confession: I consider Paul Karst a friend and great guy too and would not be terribly disappointed if he won).

I was part of the Wabash County Sheriff's Department for ten years. I watched many changes through the decade I was there. I came in with Tim Roberts and Dallas Winchester, who brought a new level of achievement. Equipment was updated - new cars, a stove on which every burner worked, modern weapons and communication equipment. Deputies were encouraged to update their training until most of them were instructors. Eventually, we hosted training ourselves, becoming a test site for Firearms and Pre-Basic Training and Jail Officer school. We also became a test site for inmates getting their GED.

Having been a detective himself, creating a detective division was one of Tim's first priorities. Early on, Barry and Mike embarked on an intensive campaign to identify and provide evidence against drug dealers which resulted in officers from all the departments in Wabash County going out to serve warrants: approximately 20 people were arrested on one marathon night.

Tim made his vision clear: making cases and catching criminals were what we were all about. Of course, the deputies also had to investigate accidents and serve civil papers and transport prisoners but taking criminals off the streets was our first responsibility.

So, we rolled along for eight years. We were generally happy with one another and the people seemed pleased with the performance of their department.

When Tim's 8 years were over, our Detective-Captain Barry Hicks, ran for Sheriff. He was by far the most qualified by virtue of knowing the department and the jail backward and forward. We all liked Barry and under normal circumstances, he'd have had the overwhelming support of his co-workers. But it wasn't normal circumstances because of his brother, Steve. When Barry asked if I'd support him, I said I couldn't, not because of Barry himself but because of Steve, whom we'd hired a few years earlier.

"I've never seen you stand up to him, Barry." I told him, "I think he's a bully with an agenda and the thought of Steve with unlimited authority is a scary thought."

Barry shrugged and said, "well, he's family and that's the way it is." That was Barry's motto but we later discovered, it wasn't Steve's.

If any voter had read the campaign literature that year, it seemed they would have had to vote for either Barry or Bob Land. Leroy Striker was the stealth candidate. His qualifications were minimal but he showed us how to win an election. He'd spent years behind the scenes winning friends and influencing people - coaching wrestling at Southwood, being active in the Friends Church, serving on groups like the Child Protection Team and the Domestic Violence Task Force. And he had another huge advantage: he announced from the git-go that Charlie Smith would be his major and everyone loved Charlie. (Sort of the opposite of Barry and Steve).

I watched with dismay as Leroy took over. He seemed to see us as a bunch of country bumpkins who had to be whipped into professional shape by his State Police expertise. Whereas, Tim had been all about action, Leroy was all about appearance. He remodeled our offices, then the entire basement to move the deputies downstairs. They loved it at the time, having their own offices and computers, but we lost a kind of camaraderie we'd had before, a camaraderie Tim and Dallas had encouraged because information is what makes law enforcement go 'round and sometimes casually passing on a nugget information is what solves a crime. Now, instead of drinking coffee and hanging out with us as they had before, the deputies were mostly out of sight. With Leroy's arrival, we went sterile. It felt more like working for an insurance agency than an active law enforcement agency.

Leroy never seemed comfortable with the deputies and I always thought it was because they knew more about the nuts and bolts of police work than he did. The time he told me that, "if any of these guys tangle with me, I'll make their lives a living hell," I knew we were in trouble.

Shortly into Leroy's first term, Barry was diagnosed with cancer. He went through treatment and struggled to pull his weight. What he couldn't carry, the other deputies carried for him. One day, Leroy called the officers together and asked if they thought he should put Barry on sick leave. They all said no except his brother, Steve. Steve told Leroy he'd be doing Barry a favor although in reality, Barry had told his family the one thing he wanted was to die an active cop.

Barry was put on disability but he got a letter from his doctor saying he was able to perform all his duties so he had to be allowed back. Only, he came back to the midnight shift because Leroy said it would be uncomfortable for Steve to have him on days because of the hard feelings Barry now had for him. Thirds were rough on Barry although the other guys helped him as much as they could. When he finally had to give it up, Steve got both his rank and his office.

I always thought Leroy let me stay as long as he did because he had to pick my brain about budgets and paying claims and ordering cars and filling out insurance applications.....but eventually, he replaced me. I honestly wasn't angry because secretaries are their bosses' closest confidantes and they need someone in whom they have absolute trust. Leroy wasn't sure he could count on me to be a loyal subordinate...and he was right. I hated most of what was going on in the department.

I hated that the Reserves, whom we built up to the 20 we were budgeted for and, who were absolutely essential manpower in a small department, were reduced to ticket writers and transporters. I don't know how many Reserve officers the department still has but at one point, they were down to 7 or 8.

I hated that our contribution to the Drug Task Force was limited to one part-time officer because Leroy didn't seem to believe there was a serious drug problem in the county. I hated that, although Leroy said he had no "quota" for tickets, if officers didn't produce enough, it was reflected on their performance evaluations.

But life goes on and now Leroy's administration is almost over. Bob Land has the qualifications and experience the department desperately needs to get a new lease on life. So that's why I'm involved in politics again. It's just one insider's view and, admittedly, I'm a disgruntled former employee, but one who still loves the department and wants the best for it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Home Sweet Frigid Home

Brenda and I just got back from a few days down South. We went first to Biloxi, Mississippi. Stayed at the Isle of Capri Hotel/Casino. Didn't win any money but we had fun playing and  it was warm enough to walk on the beach in the sun and that felt oh-so-wonderful.

There is a lot about Biloxi that is sad. I'd been in the area before and remembered seeing block after block of gorgeous old historic homes on the Gulf Road. Now, it is just miles of empty lots, broken trees and foundations. They are rebuilding. The casinos are there and some condo complexes and here and there people have re-built their homes but mostly, it is empty memories of what used to be.

We ate at a wonderful French restaurant called Mary Mahoney's. How it escaped the hurricane, I don't know. It is one of the oldest buildings in Biloxi. There is a 2000-year-old live oak, called the Patriarch, in the garden dining room. I had Crab & Shrimp Au Gratin - crab and shrimp and angel hair pasta baked in crusty, golden cheese, perfect French bread, antique furnishings, attentive old black waiters exuding soft-spoken dignity.

Went to a souvenir store where Brenda ended up buying two hermit crabs for her great-grandchildren. They are so cute. Their shells have been painted so that one of Brenda's is like a little yellow bird with a topknot and the other is a jockey cap. You have to buy extra shells because as they grow, they shed their shells and have to move into roomier digs. They drink from a wet sponge.

Years ago, Brenda, LeAnn and I went to the east coast. Brenda, the chocoholic,  bought a three foot tall chocolate bunny at a candy store in Saratoga Springs and for the rest of the trip, the rabbit got favored treatment. For instance, I usually always had to sit in the back seat because Brenda and LeAnn are tall and long-legged while I have short, stubby legs. On this journey home, I had to sit on the hot, sunny side of the car because, of course, the rabbit had to have the shady side!

Now here Brenda and I are once again having to consider our passengers' comfort ahead of our own. We could only eat in a restaurant where we could park under a tree so the sun didn't beat down on them. And we had to let the car run in the morning so it was sufficiently crab-warm. We had to remember to keep their sponge wet (but we didn't have to worry about feeding them because crabs get car sick so we were told to wait until we got home).

From Biloxi, we drove to New Orleans. A friend of Brenda's advised her not to go. He'd tried once, got lost in a nasty section of town, panicked and when he found the interstate again, he got on it and hightailed it for home. Fortunately, we drove right to the French Quarter where we spent the day sightseeing and shopping and eating. We sat outside at the Cafe Du Mond drinking cafe au lait and eating beignets without even having to wear a coat.

New Orleans is one of my favorite places - elaborate iron grillwork draped in ribbons and bows, musicians playing blues on the streets, artists with their paintings leaned against the walls,  music spilling out from the bars, people of all sizes, shades and descriptions, bakeries and candy stores and gift shops.

Usually, this time of year, New Orleans in totally decorated in the green, gold and purple that symbolize Mardi Gras but this time, the Mardi Gras decorations had to share space with Saints stuff. New Orleans is a happy, happy town. One man told us he was coming from the airport in a taxi when the Saints won the play-off. He said you could hear a giant roar and people just started erupting into the street, hugging and kissing and dancing and cheering. When the New Orleanians heard we were from Indiana, they begged us to let them have the Super Bowl. "You won two years ago and after all we've been through, New Orleans needs this win." They almost convinced me although ,my kids would send an assassin after me if I told them I was going to root for the Saints instead of the Colts.

The night before we were going to leave, the weather channel was predicting a bad storm moving across the mid-section of the country.  We were in dread of having to travel through the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky on ice and/or snow-covered highways. But we lucked out. It was bright and sunny the entire way. We watched the temperature gauge on the car drop from 60 to 50 to 40 to 30 to 20....by the time we got to Indiana, it was 17 and by the time, we got to Wabash, it was 14 and snow-covered. Hard to believe we were drinking coffee outside in the sun just a day and a half ago. Someone remind me why I live in Indiana.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The More Things Change....

Good Lord, after trying to ignore politics for so long, I raise my head just for a minute to check out the political landscape and find that things have gone from bad to worse. The Supreme Court recently decided that the problem with the country is that corporations don't have enough power and influence. Poor little fellers, their desires and needs are being overridden by the greedy old People. So, in a new ruling, the Court, in its wisdom declared corporations to be persons, just like us, in terms of how much money they can contribute to campaigns. If you thought the banks and insurance companies threw their weight around before, just wait. Their ruling is actually a little more complex than that but that's the gist.

And speaking of banks, the new credit card rules go into affect on February 22. The new law, known as CARD (Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act - does Washington employ a whole battery of people, paid for by us, just to come up with these catchy acronyms?) does several things to help consumers including declaring that any payment beyond the minimum must be applied to the debt with the highest rate and not allowing card companies to charge fees based on how a customer pays (on-line, by phone, etc), and disallowing the use of a double billing cycle.

But....did you have any doubt that credit card companies would come up with new and clever ways to rip off their customers? One way isn't especially clever, it's just blatant. According to an article in Market Watch by Chuck Jaffe, First Premiere Bank has come out with a card with a 79.9 percent interest rate. Yes, you read that right - 79.9 percent!

It's almost like First Premiere is telling Congress - "so, you think you want to play rough, we'll show you what rough is really like."

Other things banks are doing are initiating annual fees on cards that haven't included annual fees in the past and I love this one - they're adding "inactivity fees" to capture people who don't use their credit cards at all for long periods of time. Card companies are moving to variable rate cards because they'll no longer be allowed to raise rates on fixed rate cards. The variable rates will be tied to the prime but it isn't straightforward, rather they have a tricky way of doing it that brings in more $$ for them.

There are other changes planned, most of them over the head of the average consumer even if revealed in a Disclosure Statement.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The New Consumer

I used to have a rule about shopping as much as possible in my hometown on the grounds that it was short-sighted not to support your local businesses even if you had to spend a few $$ more to do it. It is in our best interest to keep our communities vibrant and diverse and prosperous because that environment bleeds down to the rest of us. I felt (and still feel) the same way about buying American cars. Yes, I know they are often assembled in other countries but presumably, more of the dollars those sales generate stay here versus going, say, to Japan.

Then Walmart came and sure enough, a lot of small stores went out of business just as had been predicted. Now there are items you can buy nowhere else in town, at least, not unless you patronize another large chain like Walgreen's or Dollar General. In addition, our Walmart expanded last year so now you can do one-stop shopping there, buying your groceries (more competition for our food stores) at the same time you pick up underwear for the kids and buy the new pair of earrings you've been wanting as well as a video game and a fishing pole and a lamp...all while they change the brakes on your car. Not to mention, do your banking, fill your prescriptions, get your hair styled and take a pizza home for dinner.

I grant you the gargantuan entity that is Walmart creates a lot of (not very good) jobs on the front end but it takes away more (good) jobs at the back end by outsourcing its vendors to low-wage, low-quality countries, like China.

I go to Walmart as seldom as possible but what I do now is even worse as far as having an impact on my town. I do most of my shopping on-line, the bulk of it at Amazon.com. Amazon offers some advantages no other place can match.

1) Amazon makes it amazingly easy to buy. I began as a book customer. Once I'd filled out my information, it was saved and I was able to make purchases through Amazon's "one-click" feature. I see what I want and click one button. Done. I receive an instant message saying my order has been placed and then a confirming e-mail. I usually receive my purchase in one to two days.

2) Amazon rewards loyalty. I bought John an Xbox for Christmas (at a cheaper price than I found anywhere else). I promptly received a $60 rebate which I took advantage of when I bought Lisa's Christmas necklace, and then got another rebate for that.

3) Amazon's customer service is outstanding. I first started using Amazon because my taste in reading material had changed. I didn't want to read mysteries that included recipes or little old lady detectives or mysteries disguised as love stories or any book by an author with "Patterson" in his name. I developed a taste for darker, graphic mysteries, with heroes who weren't quite heroes, many written by authors from Ireland or Scotland or England. These were books not often found at the library or Barnes & Noble.

Furthermore, if I discover an author I like, I can also order his or her old books. By going to the author's Amazon page, I can see every the book the writer has written. And I can buy used copies for cheap through Amazon's affiliate outlets (often less than $5, even with shipping and handling).

The kind of books I like are labeled "Noir" so Amazon suggested I join a Noir discussion group. Through the group have found several new authors I love.

Amazon tracks what I buy and makes recommendations based on what I've previously purchased. And I don't have to take a wild chance because I can go to the review section to get a feel for what a book is about and what others thought of it. Amazon sends me notices when any of "my" authors come out with a new book. I can pre-order it and have it in my hot little hands as soon as the libraries and bookstores.

They have reviews for non-book items too. When I bought my digital camera, I went to the discussion board and said I was a novice who wanted a quality camera that would be easy to operate. They gave me advice and I've been pleased with what I bought. John worried when he found out I'd bought him an Xbox because there are different versions and he was sure, in my ignorance, I'd pick the wrong one. But I didn't just take a swing and hope for the best. I consulted the Amazon people and got the one John would have chosen for himself.

You can get an Amazon credit card or a Kindle or become a Gold Premiere customer. I haven't done any of this so I can't recommend them but presumably, they come with additional perks. I also haven't had occasion to return anything but from what others have told me, Amazon makes it convenient and replacement comes with no questions asked.

So there you go - for all these reasons, I patronize Amazon.com more than any store. I guess I've become a 21st century consumer.

FYI - my current most loved author is Andrew Vachss, author of the Burke series, which are wonderful.