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"

Monday, July 2, 2012

Commentary: HBO's 'Newsroom' and a former colleague's passing leave me mourning my newspaper family

William R. Wood and Linda S. Mah smile on May 17, 2012 as they are awarded the Tony Griffin Golden Word Award by InterCom at Western Michigan University. (Photo courtesy of John A. Lacko /

By Joyce Pines
View From Kalamazoo

The new HBO series “The Newsroom,” reminds me that one of the things we’re losing in today’s Internet-driven information grab bag is the sense of family that newsrooms created.

Although set at a cable news network, the second episode of “The Newsroom,” brought back memories of working as a young reporter in newspapers in Indiana and Illinois and a little of my early experiences in Kalamazoo.

The HBO show, starring Jeff Daniels as the TV anchor for a 9 p.m. cable news hour, includes a newsroom full of young people eager to make their mark in the business. Like the fictional characters, I didn’t make much money, my personal life was lived in the middle of the open newsroom and after work we’d all go to the bar with the best drink deals and cheapest appetizers. It was a life full of deadlines and disasters and because we are reporters, we were constantly in each other’s business, right down to emails inadvertently sent to the wrong people.

It was a pressure cooker but the idealism, passion and drive produced good journalism. What’s more, it was fun. A newsroom is supposed to be a place where its inhabitants can and should talk or argue about everything.

Connie Schultz got it right in a recent column for Creator’s Syndicate when she said she missed the brainstorming that used to go on in her newsrooms. It was, as “The Wire” fictional metro editor Augustus Haynes says, “a magical place.”

These thoughts tugged at me as I attended a memorial service for Kalamazoo Gazette staff writer Bill Wood on July 2, 2012. Bill was one of those reporters who had a habit of walking into a newsroom discussion and posing some of the most jaw-dropping questions you could possibly imagine. He saw the world differently. I thought the pastor at his memorial put it well when he noted that Bill looked for what was good and beautiful in the world.

Bill was fearless when it came to asking questions and he was courageous in fighting his 7-year war with cancer.

Looking around St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, I was astonished by the diverse elements — politicians, musicians, chefs, actors, playwrights, journalists — who came together under one roof.

It was the power of Bill’s personality and writing that brought all those people together. It was also the love and respect the community feels for his wife, Linda Mah, a fine journalist in her own right.

Today, the demands of technology, the changing economy and perhaps the increasing concentration of media ownership among a few entities concerned with profit more than community is tearing newsroom families apart throughout the nation.

I fear something important is being lost. Newsrooms allowed people who care about news, facts, writing, photography and design to debate the information gathered and decide the best way to present it to the community.

We weren’t supposed to agree all the time - it was the debate that mattered. It gave us different ways of looking at things, the opportunity to ask the questions that would lead to follow-up stories. We took the time to argue about what words we were using and why. Plus, we were entrusted with the historical context for what was happening because we had been about the business of gathering the news for decades.

A newsroom scene from “The Wire” on the proper use of the word evacuate provides a fine example of the kinds of discussions that people who care about language and the meaning of words have with one another.

During my first years in journalism, being in the newsroom was a great learning experience. I spent much of my day outside the office - meeting people, covering meetings and events. Then I would return to the newsroom to write the stories, discuss them with my peers and editors, and then go out in the evening to replay the day with coworkers, one of whom I eventually married.

Bill and Linda were among several married couples who worked in the Gazette newsroom during my tenure there. It added to the family feeling that existed as coworkers went to weddings, watched children grow up, overheard squabbles, shared stories of illnesses, triumphs and losses.

Sometime shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, things began to change. Management began endlessly repeating the mantra “less is more.” First it was shrinking news hole and then it became shrinking staff.

When the buyouts began, the fun ended. The family that was the newsroom was torn asunder. Yes, intellectually it was just business. But it was also the community’s knowledge that was being tossed out, because many of the people who had been at the Gazette the longest and knew the community best were let go. It was no longer a priority for the newspaper to be guardian of the community’s history by having staff members skilled in knowing who to contact, how to find old clippings and files and knowing the community well enough to know the power structure and who gets what done. 

In his newest mystery, “The Skeleton Box,” former Gazette reporter Bryan Gruley includes a scene where the main character, Gus Carpenter, the editor of a smalltown newspaper, has to go to the county clerk to look at old issues on microfilm, because the owners of the paper turned the archives over to the county. MLive Media Group gave the Gazette’s archives to Western Michigan University. I love it when fiction and reality collide.

Perhaps I’m getting this wrong, but I’m just sitting in my home office, typing on my laptop and posting to my blog. There’s no editor (other than my husband) to tell me I’m going overboard, no business reporter sitting next to me to argue against my economic theories, no one to push me to find a resource other than my go-to favorite, “The Wire.”

I have found a life after journalism and I love it. Sometimes I think I took a long detour through journalism to get to the place I really belong - psychology.  But saying goodbye to Bill filled me with such sadness.

I’m mourning a man who was a delightful character and colleague. His passing also reminds me that the family of journalists who were entrusted with continuing a tradition begun in 1837 of telling this community’s story has been stripped of its building and most of its resources.

But Bill was an optimist who sought goodness, truth and beauty. His wife Linda is still among those trying to report the news in Kalamazoo, so I will continue to hope for the best — good, professional journalists who are valued and recognized for the work they do by those who sign their paychecks and by the community in which they live and work.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Commentary: Michigan legislators err in disrespecting Kalamazoo woman of achievement

By Joyce Pines
View from Kalamazoo

The Kalamazoo YWCA’s annual Women of Achievement dinner is generally not an occasion for controversy. It is an opportunity to recognize women, from high school students to senior citizens, for their contributions to the community.

This being an election year, the fact three southwestern Michigan state legislators chose not to sign the proclamation for Sarah Stangl, one of the six women recognized May 17, made news because she worked as the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender student services coordinator at Western Michigan University.

The legislators did sign the proclamations for the other women honored: Lola Clark Atkinson, Audrey Lipsey, Bobbe A. Luce, Alfrelynn J. Roberts and lifetime woman of achievement Kathy B. Beauregard.

It is sad that two of the individuals who refused to sign Stangl’s proclamation were women - state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, a Lawton Republican, and state Rep. Margaret O’Brien, a Portage Republican. The third non-signer, Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, signed an early version of the proclamation, and then refused to sign the final version after he saw that Schuitmaker didn’t sign it and her name had been removed.

All three legislators advocate for service to country. I take issue with how they are performing that service in this case.

You either serve everyone in your district or you don’t. Schuitmaker, O’Brien and Bolger chose not to serve, but to judge one of their constituents.

Proclamations like this cross politicians’ desks all the time and are routine. They usually don’t make the news and these wouldn’t have either, had the politicians just done their jobs and endorsed the work of the community leaders who chose these individuals.

Instead, O’Brien told WKZO: “I do have my own values, so you have to make sure that as you’re signing something that it’s something that’s going to be consistent with what your values are.”

Gov. Rick Snyder’s values must be different from O’Brien’s because he signed the proclamation, or maybe he was just doing his job and not turning a community celebration into an opportunity to hurt an individual.

Actually, I’m not sure what values not signing the proclamation upholds. Even if you have a problem with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, would you disrespect someone who is paid by a state university to help those LGBT students by not signing a proclamation recognizing her work? Does anyone think those students will cease to exist if the university doesn’t have an office to assist them?

My family’s values include leading by example, supporting family members by modeling good behavior, showing compassion for those less fortunate and not judging others.

The annual women of achievement dinner does more than honor six long-time community volunteers and achievers, it also spotlights the next generation of promising female leaders. Our daughter was among 26 young women of achievement who were honored.

Schuitmaker, O’Brien and Bolger disrespected all of those young women by suggesting that it is still OK to judge an individual because of the people that individual chooses to serve. The stand of those legislators also violates the spirit of the gay rights ordinance passed by a large majority of Kalamazoo voters in 2009 which grants protections in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodation to the LGBT community.

A great evening ended on a sad note when YWCA CEO Jennifer Shoub revealed what the legislators had done. It wasn’t the lesson we had hoped our daughter would get from the evening, but it was a powerful reminder that the work of the YWCA in social action and advocacy is far from done.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Picture Gallery: Kalamazoo Marathon fills streets with runners

Runner 127 smiles as she sees volunteers with water and snacks on Bronson Blvd. near Maple Street, just beyond the halfway point during the Kalamazoo Marathon on May 6, 2012. (Bradley S. Pines) CLICK TO ENLARGE

For a picture gallery of 21 images from the 2012 Kalamazoo Marathon, please click below:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Commentary: It's not about puppy mills and empathy, it's about mental health

By Joyce Pines
View from Kalamazoo

Vintage Contemporaries
When longtime Kalamazoo Gazette reporter and columnist Julie Mack wrote, “Why can’t we treat poor children with same empathy as the 350-plus dogs rescued in Allegan County?" I applauded.

She followed it up with a second column, “Puppy-mill dogs aren’t children, readers point out, so difference in empathy is about difference in circumstances.”

Julie writes: “In theory, there is a social safety net of government and nonprofit programs to address the dysfunctions and ensure that children have their needs met. Yet liberals are right in saying the current safety net has major, major holes, and conservatives are right in saying there's a fine line between helping and enabling.”

All true. But the problem is not just programs that don’t work, feelings of entitlement, resentment of the safety net and, of course, single, uneducated mothers.

It’s a mental health issue.

I know this because it is what I see every day, but my work as a psychologist means that I can’t talk about what is said behind my closed door.

But I can use the example of the fictional Bigtree family from the novel Swamplandia! by Karen Russell to illustrate my point.

The book was named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer this year.

Strip away the fancy writing and the literary tributes to Mark Twain and Homer and you have a story of a family plunged into grief by the death of a mother, then faced with financial ruin. The father, unable to cope, abandons his three teenage children and sinks into alcohol dependence and depression. The children try to survive.

The oldest, a boy, leaves home to make his way in the world. He sort of realizes he doesn’t have the skills, but he works hard and catches a few breaks. The middle child’s inability to step up and care for herself leads her to embrace a disturbing fantasy as she runs away from the family home. The youngest, abandoned by the other two, doesn’t have the skills to recognize a male predator who shows up and offers to help her find her sister.

What author Karen Russell fancifully describes in her book actually happens to people — death, financial ruin, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness and sexual abuse.

In real life, it would cost untold thousands to put this family back on the road to wellness and require massive involvement by the safety net we so increasingly disparage.

At the end of Swamplandia!, none of the characters have really come to terms with the death, from cancer, of the mother.

The father needs treatment for alcohol dependence and could lose his low-wage job at the casino. How’s he going to pay for health care, school or a place to live with his children?

The oldest child needs to get his GED and then go to college. How will he pay for it working at an amusement park for low wages? Will he be racked with guilt for abandoning his sisters and feel responsible for what subsequently happened to them?

Both daughters need to go to school. The middle child needs mental health services to determine the severity of her delusions and the possible need for her to take expensive medications for the rest of her life if she should be diagnosed as schizophrenic. At some point she may need adult foster care.

The youngest child needs to deal with probable post traumatic stress disorder resulting from her kidnapping and rape. Police will also have to be involved, although, given the circumstances, it may be hard to find any evidence of what happened.

Finally, should the children become wards of the state after being abandoned by their alcoholic father? Although the characters are from fiction, this is the kind of stuff that happens in the real world several times a day.

Swamplandia! takes us through a family’s crisis and then ends the tale once the family is back together. In real life, the family’s struggles are just beginning.

If we are not willing to recognize the role mental health plays in society’s problems, we won’t be able to come up with workable solutions.

Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and someone who has dealt with substance abuse dependence and mental illness, was the speaker at the Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services annual breakfast on April 26.

He has founded a new organization, One Mind for Research, which seeks a unified approach to mental health research.

It’s a good idea, but we also need a unified approach to understanding the role our mental processes play in all aspects of our lives.

The Bigtree family did not set out to become a burden on society, but their inability to handle what life threw at them, tangles them up in the safety net, such as it is.

If all most of us feel up to handling is rescuing puppies, then the problems that plague us will only continue to grow. Things happen for a reason and we need to offer understanding to both the children and their parents.

Monday, April 23, 2012

More background on the whistleblower case playing out in a Battle Creek courtroom

By Joyce Pines
View From Kalamazoo

The Kalamazoo Gazette is reporting that the whistleblower trial over the Enbridge pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River may be coming to an end.

Longreads, which is an excellent website highlighting serious journalism from around the Internet, is profiling a three-part series from OnEarth about the whistleblower John Bolenbaugh and the secret that may be driving his need to hold Enbridge responsible for what happened in 2010.

Written by Ted Genoways, it presents a case that Enbridge's cleanup was a bit on the hasty side and far from thorough. It is also important to understand that there's a big difference between pipes flowing beneath us carrying light crude oil and pipes carrying the much nastier and heavier tar sands, that include the chemicals benzene (causes cancer), toluene and n-hexane (causes nerve damage).

Genoways, by the way,  has won National Magazine Awards six times. He's editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

It's worth your time to read this story.