Monday, December 19, 2016

'Hillbilly Elegy' starts a conversation about where hope has gone

By Joyce Pines

Among the many responses to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, one that grabbed my attention was a Facebook friend who decided to start a reading group concentrating on books that provide some understanding about what is going on in this country. 

Nice cover, interesting story.
I wasn’t able to make it to the most recent conversation about “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, so I’m sharing my thoughts here. 

J.D. Vance has been making the media rounds. Just Friday, NPR released a TED Talk where Mr. Vance discusses his life and his views. If you have about 15 minutes, it is worth a listen. 

I am still struggling with my thoughts about his memoir. In the preface, Mr. Vance writes the book is about “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

But it is also his own story and I sense an unreliable narrator at many points throughout the text. 

After 30 years in journalism and another seven as a therapist, I have had to develop a decent awareness about when someone is giving me a line of b.s.

Throughout the first three quarters of this book, my b.s. detector was going off frequently:

Title: He’s actually two generations removed from the hills of eastern Kentucky.

Poverty: He reports that his mother and stepfather made $100,000 but spent it as fast as they made it. So, not poor, just not good with finances. Also, grandfather retired well from a factory job - well enough to apparently afford two homes, one for himself and one for his ex-wife.

Addiction: Recognizes it but doesn’t understand it as a disease.

Tried and true conservative trope: The author resents working hard at the grocery store and eating hamburger while the no-goods on welfare are talking on their cell phones while buying steaks with his tax money. 

But then Mr. Vance surprised me.

He takes time to reflect on his own good fortune and give consideration and understanding to those who don’t have the resilience he needed to overcome a drug-addicted mother, multiple father figures and chaos at home to eventually wind up at Yale Law School.

He writes about Adverse Childhood Experiences and recognizes the problems in our “safety net” of child welfare services. 

In the New Republic, Sarah Jones writes that Mr. Vance’s book is “little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” She also notes that he has emerged as one of the media’s favorite “Trump explainers.”

What his book does right and Mr. Vance's TED Talk does even more succinctly, is highlight what happens when people lose hope - how that tears apart the social fabric. 

Democrats and Republicans have done a large swath of this country a great disservice over the past 20 years. Politicians and the professional class have worked together to deregulate industry and encourage globalization. 

Financial insecurity is incredibly destructive. Add in addiction and families crumble. The political response has been to make things even worse by punishing people for their struggles. In our rush to cut taxes, we have instead increased fines and penalties for every infraction. A person struggling who loses their driver’s license can end up never getting it back as fines and penalties pile up. 

Bridge magazine just wrote a story highlighting this issues with the number of counties in Michigan who charge individuals for every day they are incarcerated. That is how you destroy hope.

Treat people as less than human and then wonder why there is so much addiction and violence. Or why they might vote for someone who promises to tear the country apart. 

That’s what J.D. Vance appears to understand. We just haven’t figured out how to fix it. I think it will require government involvement, I’m not sure Mr. Vance would agree. 

Several events are taking place in the Kalamazoo area over the coming months to create a better understanding around the state of our nation. Here is a list:

Read, attend a lecture, explore options and help create a better country.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Use social media, follow the money and brace for the adventure promised by the Trump years

By Joyce Pines

We met on a fall evening around a bonfire fed by literature from a lost election. We met at lunchtime in the darkened band area of a downtown Kalamazoo restaurant. We met in a college lounge full of lived-in furniture in a faculty office building that was once a house. 

The election results mirror these signs I saw this fall. 
By we, I mean individuals trying to understand what happened on Nov. 8, 2016.

Even now, nearly a month later, I am still not sure what to think. Since it appears the states in the Midwest brought about this cataclysmic change and I have lived all my life in the Midwest, I am bursting my bubble to understand what happened and figure out what to do. 

I walked away from journalism five years ago this month. The company moved aggressively into an online publishing platform and didn’t need so many people. Because I had already been preparing for a second career as a therapist, I was able to walk out of the newsroom and into a non-profit clinic with a private practice on the side. I was lucky. 

I didn't just walk out of the newsroom, I walked out on journalism. So much so that I stopped reading the news on a regular basis and although Brad and I established this blog, we didn’t do much with it.

All that changed between midnight and 6 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016. Recognizing this nation isn’t what we thought it was, it appeared time to dust off the reporting and writing skills. Facebook acquaintances responded positively to my increased social media commenting and sharing. Brad attended and reported on a meeting (following post). I was quoted in a Christian Science Monitor story. I have even tweeted President-elect Trump.

That’s the thing. We all have the power to get involved and it is so easy. Just a few strokes on a keyboard. The trick is to use the keyboard and then follow-up in real time face to face. I met mourning Democrats around a bonfire, therapists (at a restaurant) searching for ways to better serve our clients in these difficult times and fellow citizens looking for answers through a shared reading experience. 

I briefly entertained never setting foot in my home state of Indiana again. Instead I decided it would make more sense to use my skills as both a writer and therapist to dialogue and be respectful and listen. I am keeping my Facebook feed open to friends, family and acquaintances of all political persuasions. Why? According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of us get our news from social media. If I block those who are sharing news I don't like, then I will be wrapping myself back up in a cocoon of ignorance.

When I see a post with a source that I don't know, I look it up. If it is wrong, I respectfully respond to whoever posted it. I can also use the little button on Facebook to report questionable content.

Our household has purchased digital subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post. I've expanded my Twitter feed to include Fox News. I am sharing content from those sources.

Chosen one of the 10 best books this year.
I read Jane Mayer's book “Dark Money” and Thomas Franks’ “Listen, Liberal” and really believe citizens need to examine everything. I have started reading "Hillbilly Elegy" and will continue pursuing books on the state of America.

Most of what is happening boils down to following the money. Always ask: Who benefits? And follow that with: Who suffers? 

I grew up on a farm where the ongoing philosophy was wanting as little government intrusion in our lives as possible. I get that. 

My life experiences have taught me, however, that we live in a complicated society and we must try to lift everyone up. If we don't, unrest grows. 

The rapidly increasing income inequality in this nation could destroy us. Those who favor that inequality will do what they can to distract us by inciting us over racial issues, illegal immigration, scaring us about LGBTQ individuals and denying women the right to control what happens to their bodies.

We must stand up for what we believe in. So we'll just let the preamble of the Constitution say it all: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

"Ourselves and our Posterity" - that's everyone including people of color, immigrants, those who identify as LGBTQ, all religions or no religion - EVERYONE.

This is going to be an adventure. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Progressive Kalamazoo / Kalamazoo County Democratic Party meeting at Theo & Stacy's

By Bradley S. Pines

   Walking into Theo & Stacy’s restaurant on Portage Road in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Nov. 17, it was apparent that the place was filled beyond capacity.
   “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” I said to Angel Johnston, a Kalamazoo County Democratic Party precinct delegate and self-described ‘political revolutionary’ who greeted me at the door.
Shannon Sykes, Kalamazoo Co. Democratic Party Chair
   “Yes, you’re right,” she said, “and did you know that (Roy Scheider's famous line from “Jaws”) was improvised?” 
   I was surprised to hear that, and surprised that about 350 progressive voters had created a standing-room only condition. It far outstripped the venue’s safe capacity. About half of the group, most new to any political action, moved outside the restaurant to meet there. Most had learned of the event from a Facebook post by Progressive Kalamazoo.
   Shannon Sykes, the outgoing chair of the Kalamazoo County Democratic Party, facilitated the meeting inside Theo & Stacy’s. While this was the regular Third Thursday meeting of KCDP, she also welcomed Michelle Richards and all of the Progressive Kalamazoo voters interested in getting involved in politics at the local level.
   Sykes offered the mic to allow attendees to share their feelings following the recent election. “I’ve seen many Democratic defeats,” said one person, “but this one is terrifying.” One woman, was asked, “Do I have to go back to Mexico today?” by one of the preschool children she works with. “This is not okay,” she said.
Theo & Stacy's full to capacity
   Another said that the talk (among Trump Republicans) about Muslim registry and “internment camps makes me feel I’m on an alien planet.” One person said if Muslim registration was required, all Progressives should register as Muslim, to “overwhelm the system.” 
   One longtime labor leader asked for “a return to the party of Bobby Kennedy.” Another reminded voters that Clinton had won the popular vote by over a million votes. “We won. We’re still the majority and we’re still here!”
   Each attendee was encouraged to sign up to work on one or more of many issues of vital interest to Progressives, including health care, women’s rights, immigration reform, LBGTQ issues, and many others. Attendees left their names, email addresses and phone numbers to aid in organizing the political work to come. So many people took Democratic Party membership applications that Sykes reminded people that they may pick up more applications at the Party office at 3254 S. Westnedge Ave. in Kalamazoo. 
Michelle Richards of Progressive Kzoo
  Sykes, and Progressive Kalamazoo’s Michelle Richards, stressed that party membership wasn’t required, just a willingness to get involved. 
   The next big meeting will be the 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10 Kalamazoo County Democratic Party annual convention, scheduled for the Washington Square Public Library branch. As this is a small venue, the convention site may be changed. All are welcome to attend.
    Some division between those who supported different Democratic primary candidates remains. David Benac, who volunteered to help craft the National Democratic Party Platform, encouraged Democrats to “embrace the passionate grassroots activists” and Angel Johnston urged unity among all Progressive voters. 
   Outreach in several ways was suggested. “Finding common values” with other working-class voters and “a reaching out – this is not a diverse room, we’ve to a lot of work to do to not be so segregated.” The overwhelmingly white, middle-class group sought ways to include other, more diverse local voices in the Progressive movement. “We can’t sit in an echo chamber, we need to listen to the people on the other side to find shared values,” said another attendee. 
  Sykes agreed and said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” She identified candidate recruitment, including building a ‘farm team’ of candidates in all levels of government.
   It was refreshing and encouraging to see 350 empowered local voters gather to make their community a better place to live, and to volunteer to help make it happen. 
David Benac listens to Progressive speakers

To see more images from the meeting, please click here:

For more information:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Maintaining your sanity one book at a time

Humble suggestions for my adult children and anyone else who cares to read

My family is looking at a couple of milestones in 2016: our youngest will graduate from college in May, our oldest is getting married next September. These events have me thinking about life lessons I would like my adult children to absorb and consider.

I’m talking about the things I’ve learned since the kids graduated high school – or maybe some things I learned while they were in high school but they wouldn’t have listened to or believed at the time.

As parents know, our children are quite convinced we lose several IQ points during their teenage years. We regain them slowly. My mother is 79 and I now realize she is absolutely brilliant.

So I offer some motherly advice to my adult children. If the rest of you get something out of it, so much the better.

We’ll begin with a fact many adults don’t want to acknowledge: being an adult can be boring and talking to other adults can be even more boring, as in completely mind numbing.

When I went to college (Valparaiso University, class of 1979), I didn’t get the memo that it was supposed to be four years of bacchanalian excess. Instead I plunged into meeting other young women who wanted to talk about more than boys. We fueled our late-night discussions with chips and soda and trips to Donut Hut. We shared opinions; we worried about nuclear power and the environment. We talked about movies and books. Politics and religion were fair game. It was the early years after Roe v Wade made abortion legal. We were certain we could manage work, marriage and children.

I can’t remember the details of those conversations but I do remember the enjoyment of talking about substantive issues and I remember with great fondness the fun I had bantering with Alexis, Judy, Sam, Angie, Monte, Christy, Penny and Kathy.

Working, marriage and children followed the bachelor’s degree. Somewhere along the line adult conversation centered on what activities the kids were doing and what the adults were buying. By the end of my 30s, I labeled these “stuff” conversations and I stopped wanting to go to social gatherings because I couldn’t stand to hear about other people’s “stuff.”

I admit I was/am jealous. Most of the people we hang out with have really nice stuff while the linoleum on our kitchen floor is vintage 1950s and disgusting. We’re waiting for the stove and refrigerator to die before we upgrade to something this century. 

Another thing I noticed was that in my 20s, I felt pretty free to share my opinions. As I matured, I slowly realized that sharing my views on everything was often not welcome at social gatherings. Heck, it wasn’t even welcome in the newsroom where I worked. Let’s just say it was made known to me that I can come off as intimidating.

My current reading stack. 
The answer to my hunger for deep conversation revealed itself thanks to a neighbor and a bookstore. In the course of sending my youngest to elementary school, I met another mother and we got to talking about books. She shared that there was a neighborhood book group. Over the next few months I let it be known that I would be interested in joining should there be an opening. Eventually I was invited.

Around the same time a local bookstore began hosting a monthly book group. I started attending. The bookstore closed but the book group is still going strong. At one time I was in four book groups, including one I dragged my youngest to in Ann Arbor. I’ve since maintained regular attendance in just two groups.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say those book groups saved my sanity. They have provided a monthly venue for good conversation. It starts with the assigned book and branches out into myriad topics, all substantial and enriching.

My book groups put everything on the table: politics, religion, racism, divorce, death, aging parents, illness, infidelity - anything and everything gets discussed.

Plus I’ve been given the opportunity to read books I never would have picked up on my own from “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline to “The Solace of Leaving Early” by Haven Kimmel. I’ve shared book club selections with my children and husband.

Even reading books I didn’t like has proved valuable. It forced me to hone my critical thinking skills and learn more about myself. I learned to go beyond saying I just don’t like something to recognizing what it is inside of me that is reacting negatively to the book. I’ve learned to value that people I respect can read the same material I despise and love it. I’ve learned that my enjoyment of a book is affected by where I am both physically and mentally when I am reading the book. I've learned to be still and listen when someone else is talking.

So here’s my humble suggestion: when you get to the point where you begin to notice that most of the adults you know spend most of their time talking about kids and stuff and it is starting to bother you – find a book club and join. Bookstores and libraries can help you connect with local book clubs. It is preferable to meet with a group in person on a regular basis, but you can check out the online book club Goodreads to get started.

It can’t hurt to start a family book club either.  When the kids come home to visit, I notice they scan the shelves and sometimes depart with a book or two.  They also arrive bearing books as gifts. It’s a wonderful way to stay connected.

As for me, I am looking forward to reading "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt and "Euphoria" by Lily King as the September selections of my two groups. I am also excited about facilitating a discussion about "The Painter" by Peter Heller at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in November. 

And the next time you get bored at a social gathering, ask around and see if you can find another reader. It's cheaper than having to buy new "stuff" to have something to talk about. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Being mindful about the difficulty of change

A walk on a beautiful day is a great distraction.
People who know me have credited me with preparing well for the jump into psychology from journalism.  Change, however, is not all that easy. I found I needed to stop being a writer for awhile.

It has been an interesting few years personally. My husband went from being at home a lot to being at home a lot less as his new work has him traveling at least two weeks every month. Our children are looking forward to getting married (our oldest) and graduating from college (our youngest) next year. I am working harder than I ever have and yet I'm also aware of a need to pay closer attention to my body and its care.

I read a book about denial in which the author explained that humans are the only living creatures aware that they have an expiration date. So, he argued, we developed the capacity for denial so as to live as if we will be around forever.

As we age, however, it gets harder and harder to deny certain realities. I see spots on my hands that didn't exist a few years ago. I can no longer live on a diet of soft drinks and candy and feel good at the end of the day.

The losses also begin to pile up - jobs come and go, children grow up, dreams go unfulfilled and loved ones pass on.

Even as the evidence accumulates, we want to hang on to the illusion that we have control. We spend precious hours replaying the past in search of a better outcome. We try and predict the future. We expect our parents, our children, our partners to do what we want them to do and are dumbfounded when they don't or won't.

We become anxious, fearful, angry and we don't always recognize what is happening.

I didn't. For me, anxiety tipped into a panic attack a couple of years ago. I spent all day in the E.R., got a stress test, a clean bill of health and a prescription for Xanax.

As a person who spends 40 hours a week treating addiction, I really didn't want to take Xanax, an addictive benzodiazepine. It is meant to be used for panic attacks. When used for that purpose it is quite effective. But I didn't like the way it made me feel after the panic was gone - weighted, irritable, tired. I wanted a solution to anxiety that did not involve pills.

What I have found is Mindfulness  - a buzzword these days because of recent studies showing that the practice actual rewires the brain in positive directions. I'm not talking about sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and repeating "Om" over and over.

Queen Anne's Lace along a trail in Portage.
What I mean by mindfulness is training yourself to live in the present and accept what you see and experience without judgment.

For example, today was one of those picture perfect summer days, the humidity was a scant 32 percent, there was a cool breeze, the temperature was around 80 degrees and the sky was deep blue with a few white, puffy clouds. In my new career, I only have one day a week off and this was it. I decided the best thing I could do was take a walk for my health and practice the mindfulness I preach.

I went to Bicentennial Park in Portage and walked the trail between Milham Avenue and Kilgore Road. It is a 3.2-mile round trip. I made it a point to focus on what I could see and not think about anything beyond what my eyes noticed. It was a visual feast. The frequent rains this summer have produced an abundance of wild flowers. As a child growing up on a grain farm in Indiana, we called these flowers weeds, but at this stage of my life I can stop and admire their beauty and fragility. I allowed myself to enjoy everything around me - the flowers, the breeze, the crickets. It was perfect and I was content.

When you see the world as it is - both tragic and beautiful - and accept that you don't get one without the other, that is mindfulness. When you can realize that you are a part of all this, that whatever or whoever created all of this also created you, it banishes anxiety. It also helps one to accept that change is inevitable and we should take time to enjoy what is right now, let go of what happened yesterday and try not to ponder the future too much.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Looking forward to following Kalamazoo journalist on his swing-state election journey

Chris Killian
By Joyce Pines

Since leaving the realm of daily journalism, specifically the opinion pages of the Kalamazoo Gazette, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stomach politics.

Prior to switching to psychology full time, I spent six years taking the pulse of southwestern Michigan, particularly as it relates to politics. I sparred with Fred Upton and Jack Hoogendyk on a number of occasions, held meetings with dozens of local politicians and handled the letters and comments from community members who held strong political views.

Since leaving journalism, I have been encouraged to run for office and get involved in party politics, but so far I have found that to do that would betray all the ideals of journalism that I still embrace.

Now, I find myself switching channels whenever a political segment comes on either my television or radio.  From what I do hear and based on my own immersion in the subject for the past six years, I feel quite comfortable in my understanding of where the leaders of both major parties stand on the issues. I don’t need to hear, read or see it 24/7.

I will vote but I firmly believe our system is broken and I am most disappointed in the media’s coverage of politics as a sport and its increasing polarization into conservative and liberal camps.

A recent New York Times piece about how journalists allow both political parties to wash their quotes before using them in stories is just another example of the sorry state of the field.

My time away from journalism has also made me realize how most of the people I talk to each day find politics too complicated, too ugly and generally too out of touch with what’s going on in the United States of America.

That’s why Kalamazoo journalist Chris Killian’s plan to visit the swing states and talk to voters from August to November is such an intriguing idea. I’ve worked with Chris at the Gazette and we both studied in the counseling psychology program at Western Michigan University.

Anyone who has read Chris’ work in the Gazette can see that he cares about people and is dedicated to telling their stories.

Based on my experience, I have a few predictions as to what he’ll discover.

There are a small number of strong conservatives and strong liberals who back Republicans and Democrats no matter what. These folks are so rooted in their beliefs that you can present factual evidence of mistakes both parties have made and it won’t make a bit of difference. There’s even research that explains this which you can read in Jonah Lehrer’s book, “How We Decide.”

I suspect he will also meet people who do not understand how our political system works. I ran into a number of people over the years who thought U.S. Rep. Fred Upton voted in the state Legislature. People will take time every four years to vote in the presidential election, but they rarely take the time to vote for the politicians who will have the most impact on their lives - school board members, city commissioners, even state legislators.

Another group Chris will encounter are those who decry the government and complain about paying taxes, yet take full advantage and can’t imagine living without its services - Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, disability, etc. Some of these people even work for the agencies which provide these services. These folks consistently vote for whoever promises to not raise their taxes, yet these same politicians vote to raise all kinds of “fees” which results in those who are struggling having to pay more for services.

But most people are much more complicated than our visions of conservative and liberal, people whose life experiences and outlook don’t push them into one category or another. Their stories are the ones I’m looking forward to reading and that Chris has pledged to write. I believe that these people are the heart of our great country.

I’m excited for Chris and his project. I love that he has been able to raise money through the Internet to pay for this enterprise and I kicked in a very small donation myself. As of my writing this, he has raised $3,601. He’s got 17 more days of fundraising and I figure given the age of the van he’s driving, he may need all he can get for unexpected repairs.

I look forward to seeing what he will produce in the coming months. It’s giving me a glimmer of hope for both journalism and the democratic process.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Welcome back Bryan Gruley

By Bradley S. Pines

Today, Bryan Gruley is a big-time journalist, a reporter-at-large for Bloomburg News.
Bryan Gruley reads from "The Crisscross
Shadow" by Franklin W. Dixon,
a Hardy Boys mystery.
Early in his career, he was hired by News Editor C. Lane Wick as a reporter for The Kalamazoo Gazette. He returned to the Kalamazoo, Michigan, area on July 14, for a visit to the Portage District Library.

Gruley is the author of three acclaimed mystery novels set in his fictional Up North lake community of Starvation Lake. They revolve around the life of Gus Carpenter, the editor of the small-town newspaper, The Pine County Pilot, and the lives of those around him. In each novel, family relationships, secrets and deeds from the past play an important role.

At the Portage District Library, Gruley talked about his books and signed the latest, "The Skeleton Box."
Although not conceived as a trilogy, this third novel does complete a story arc for Gruley's Gus Carpenter.

It is, on its surface, a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery, but it is so much more. Gruley is a craftsman, his places and his characters feel genuine. The nicknames his hockey players bear, the chatter at the local bar and diner, the emotions and actions of those in his stories all ring true. Put that down to the journalist in him.

Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books sold books during the visit, and several signed copies of all three novels will be available at her two locations, 407 N. Clarendon and 2413 Parkview in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Gruley wore a T-shirt, a gift from his wife, Pam, that misquotes a scathing, over-long amateur review of his debut novel on His quick humor was evident in both his writing and during his visit.

Gruley says he credits a book given to him by his mother, "The Crisscross Shadow," a Hardy Boys mystery, as perhaps inspiring his career as a novelist. He revealed that he's trying to decide whether to continue the Starvation Lake series with an offer to publish two more, or to write a thriller which is also set in Michigan.

"The Hanging Tree," his second novel, has been optioned by a Hollywood filmmaker. But, he said, the odds are that he'll never see Johnny Depp or John Cusack play Gus Carpenter. No matter, for as long as Gruley keeps getting up very early each morning and hammering out novels, the pictures he paints will more than do.

For a picture gallery of image from Bryan Gruley's visit, please see:

Here's Bryan Gruley in a Simon Schuster video talking about his latest novel, "The Skeleton Box"