And the Loser is …

In April, after serving two years as an appointed member of the Rockridge School Board, I ran for a full term spot and finished dead last among the competitors for the seat. I have a feeling the result was related to my outspoken advocacy for a Education Fund Referendum for the district. At my last meeting before leaving the board I had an opportunity to talk about my time as a board member and what I think I did wrong, or right. Here is what I said.


Ever since Nixon’s famous “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech it has been the prerogative of people who lose elections to make it worse by saying something about the results and what they mean. I’ll try not to do that.

Since this is likely my last board meeting I wonder if you would indulge me, for just a couple of minutes to tell you something about what being on this board has meant to me and what I learned.

I would like to start by saying what a pleasure it was to discover, when I got on this board, that these folks up here were not a bunch of malevolent ogres, but in fact a group of good people who stepped up to do a job nobody else wanted to do, for no pay, in their free time, and who are doing their best with really bad options. I have learned a lot from them and they have been universally generous and helpful to me as I tried to learn the mountain of information required to be a really good and useful board member as Thomas the Tank Engine would say.

I lost this recent election pretty badly and I‘m afraid that it wasn’t for lack of “getting my message across” as losing candidates usually say, but very likely because I did get it across. I said what I thought and a lot of voters did not agree. That, of course, is their prerogative. I have been told by a number of friends since the election that it was a mistake to advocate an Education Fund referendum. School tax referenda are the only opportunity most people get to “vote against taxes” and if you look at the data on school referenda it is clear that they frequently take advantage of that opportunity. But I could not duck this question. I felt I had to make my position clear. Because working for an Ed Fund referendum was where I got started in this process three years ago and I still believe it is a sadly necessary step given the state of Illinois today.

It is hard to explain, in a few words in the newspaper, the complexity of the problems handed down to districts like ours from Springfield. It has taken me a full two years of study to put the picture together in my head and it is still a blurry picture.

Illinois – A Tale of Two Districts

Education in Illinois today is a story of haves and have nots. Rich suburban districts like Northfield H.S.D. 225 are buying their students laptop computers. Their state of the art schools offer classes like architecture, ceramics, photography, astronomy, forensic science, meteorology, and seven (yes, seven) foreign languages. At Glenbrook High School you can participate in debate team, contribute your writing to the literary magazine, take courses in radio and TV broadcasting (yes, they have their own radio station, WGBK), and compete on the swim team. The Northfield District spends $21,577 per student on operations. Virtually all of their funding is from local property taxes and you will be further discouraged when I tell you that their total tax rates are lower than ours.

Contrast that with Beardstown C.U.S.D. 15, a poor semi-rural district along the Illinois River. Beardstown currently spends $8464 per student on operations and $5300 on instruction. 76% of their funding comes from the State. I don’t need to tell you; they do not have their own radio station.
Sometimes you hear people say that money can’t buy education results. When I look at the funding and performance of Illinois schools, however (which any of you can do on the Illinois State Board of Education website) one quickly sees that money not only makes a difference, it makes a big difference. Northfield pays their teachers $101,000. 80% of those teachers have a masters degree. Beardstown pays their teachers $43,000. Given these options where do you suppose the best teachers in Illinois go?

In every parameter analyzed by the ISBE Report Card Northfield trounces Beardstown: Graduation Rate – 96% vs. 84%, PSAE scores – 85% vs. 31%, Readiness for college classes – 83% vs. 13%.


What about Rockridge? The Rockridge District has a 19% higher median household income than the State, 41% higher than Rock Island County as a whole. Yet our district has no frills. We are not handing out laptops. We do not have a pool. Our buildings are old, our textbooks tend to be old, and we have grade schools which lack a full time principal on site. Right now our performance metrics are not bad. Our graduation rate is 96%. Our PSAE ranking is 62%, well above Beardstown, but far behind Northfield. Our readiness for college numbers stand at 45%, almost exactly at the state average. So far so good.

The Illinois Constitution says “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” Illinois, quite obviously, has not met this obligation. The state aid foundation number, $6119 has not changed since FY 2010. Costs, of course, continue to rise. Furthermore Illinois has not even fully funded its foundation obligations for the last several years. In FY 2013 payments to districts stood at 89% of the amount owed in the formula. In simple English this means that those rich districts like Northfield fully fund (some would say extravagantly) their schools from local taxes while poor districts in Illinois have lost even that pittance from the state which kept them afloat.

Rockridge was one of the losers. From 2009 to 2014 Rockridge’s general state aid went from about $2.7 million to $1.2 million annually. That is $1.5 million dollars gone missing from our budget – every year. What can we do?
The fundamental nature of budgets does not change just because Illinois fails to meet its obligation. You must cut spending or increase revenue. The board has done a great deal of the former. I sat up on the stage in the auditorium at a recent meeting and listened as students, teachers, and members of our community (people I respect a great deal) spoke earnestly about the value of music education and the quality of our program here at Rockridge. And I believed every word they said. And I wanted to get up and walk down into the audience and join them. And then I voted to make the program cut. Because we had to.

Whether we continue down that road, toward Beardstown, if you will, depends on how you view Rockridge today and what kind of community you aspire to have in the future. You might believe Rockridge is an extravagant district plagued by waste and overspending. I just don’t see that. But we can keep cutting. We can cut extra-curriculars and athletics, we can cut more of those people, like teacher’s aides and secretaries, whose daily interactions with our children shape their educational experience, and of course, we can cut teachers. We can become Beardstown with all that that entails.

I think I can safely say that we are not going to be Northfield but I think it is within our capacity as a community to keep being Rockridge. That is why I worked to get Rockridge Forward passed. That is why I supported the 1% sales tax. And that is why I said what I said during the campaign. My approach was unsuccessful, obviously, but I still am not convinced it was wrong. Problems are never solved by sweeping them under the rug. The solution to these problems ultimately lies with the voters of Rockridge, and Rock Island County, and, of course, the State of Illinois.

I said in the paper that good schools are the best thing a community can spend money on. They are an investment in the future. They pay dividends even to those residents without kids in the school. Studies show that and I really believe it. You can look around at communities with bad schools. You don’t want to live there.

As I leave the board I am still optimistic that we can keep Rockridge Rockridge. It has been my great pleasure to work with this board and these fine administrators and our wonderful staff. This place is as good as it is because every day these folks are doing more than they should have to with less than they need to do it. We, as parents, are lucky to have them.

by Dustin Joy

Pilot’s Journal – Philly Wintertime (What is his story?)



William Penn atop City Hall

JANUARY 30 – Philadelphia, PA

I wake up this morning to the sound of a car horn 19 floors below me. Even up here the sound is clear and loud as if it is right outside. I sit in a corner window and look out on Market street, normally bustling, but now relatively quiet, even abandoned for some seconds at a time.

It’s a Sunday morning in January and light snow is falling. In fact, it is not exactly falling since each flake is wafted upward near the buildings. Sometimes I can watch the same snowflake levitate before my window for as much as 5 seconds before it is lost from view among the millions of its fellows. The office building across from me is exactly aligned with my hotel room but is set back from Market street by three or four feet more than my window and so affords me a view down the street to City Hall. On top I can see the austere statue of William Penn, his back turned from me, his shoulders covered with snow.

I am looking straight across now into the window of an office. All the offices are dark, but all the curtains, if they have them, are open so that I can look into each one. This one is a large corner office and I wonder, immediately, what kind of person works there. The desk is clean; unobstructed by clutter of any kind. The office is rather spartan, in fact, except that it contains, in addition to the desk, a round table with two chairs. Also, around the perimeter of the window shelf are a number of pictures in frames and a vase with no flowers in it. I can’t see the pictures since they face into the room, away from me, but I fancy they contain the smiling visages of some handsome children, now in their late teens or early twenties.

Maybe someone who keeps his office so neat can also keep his life in order and I like to think this guy also has a picture of he and his wife of twenty-some years on a beach in the Bahamas. No, make that Fiji. Yeah, the guy with the corner office is going to be able to afford it. As I examine the office more closely from my vantage point a mere thirty or so feet away I realize that the term spartan was overstatement. There are, in fact, a number of objects present which lend some definition to this office’s owner.

A second glance reveals a large globe in the corner of the room sitting on a stand about waist high. Does this say something about the occupant’s business, requiring geographical reference, or his own personal love of travel? Surely the latter, I think, for a globe is not as precise as an atlas for such reference. Yet, the thing might be some sort of status symbol, or backdrop for clients, suggesting that the man possesses a long view or a worldly approach. I secretly hope that he is, like myself, simply someone who likes maps.

In another corner I note a couple of personal items that I am surprised at myself for overlooking at first. There are two white binders, a small brass replica of the Liberty Bell, and a white, limestone looking rock of unknown provenance. The binders are not out of place in an office, of course. They look like computer manuals, to me, and indeed there is a computer monitor on the desk. What is odd, though, is that there are no other books or publications visible anywhere in the office. I carry more reading material in my flight case than this guy has in his entire office. The rock is curious, I think, because of its plainness. If it were a geode or the fossilized Trilobite it might betray some interest, by the owner, in geology. In the case of a polished geode it might even be just a conversation piece or decoration. But it is as pale white and nondescript as a piece of gravel. What is it, then? Perhaps it is a souvenir; a piece of coral from the beach in Fiji. But it is ridiculously large to be a memento from a vacation. It probably weighs five pounds.

My little boy and I, when we are in the city, play a game with each other called “what is his story.” We watch people passing on the street and take turns describing their lives and what they are doing. I will say “that lady walking fast with her coat pulled tight around her just won $10,000 on an instant lottery ticket and is hurrying home to tell her husband.” He will say “that man carrying the umbrella is really an FBI agent. He is undercover trying to bust a drug cartel. His umbrella is really an weapon.” And so on. So when I look into this corner office I try to make a life for this, not fictional but still unknown, character.

My creative guess is as follows: This guy likes the perks and prestige of his job; Vice-President of marketing, I think. But he finds the work unfulfilling and hollow. He works in the city because he has to, but he pines for the countryside. His nice home in a close-in suburb is also too constraining for him, like a necktie pulled a little too tight. So, he has saved his money and bought himself a small farm, out near Lancaster, I think, or perhaps in the pine barrens in New Jersey. On this farm is a ramshackle farmhouse where he spends his weekends, maybe even today, fixing it up. After spending the week firing electrons back and forth from his computer to another, he likes the feel of a hammer in his hand; something solid and tangible. He likes to sit and look at the drywall he put up in the kitchen of his farmhouse. Sure, there is a blemish here and there where the joint compound is not perfectly smooth, but its not bad at all for a guy with smooth hands. Behind the house is a collapsing old hulk of a dairy barn which he sees in his mind’s eye as a guest house; somewhere he could bring select friends from the city to admire his country life. Behind the barn is a little bluff with an outcropping of white limestone. One day he took his hammer and knocked off a protruding piece. He put it in the trunk of his BMW and carried it up to his office when no one else was around. He doesn’t like to show off. I have decided that he is a geography buff and keeps the globe because he likes it. He keeps the rock, also, not to show off, but to keep a little piece of his dream next to him in the soul-sucking city. The rock is in a corner of the window shelf, after all, not in the middle of his desk. It is there for him, and sometimes he runs his hand across it to calm himself after a frustrating meeting or teleconference gone bad.

The little Liberty Bell is more puzzling to me. It could be an award, maybe something his company gave him in honor of an anniversary or the landing of a big contract. If it is, he doesn’t value it, for it is tucked far back in the corner behind the rock. Maybe it’s a souvenir, also, although a Liberty Bell is a curious souvenir for someone who lives in Philadelphia.

I have fleshed out enough of this man in my mind. I like him. He is solid and hard working, but he yearns for something more meaningful out of life than making sales. He loves his family, is proud of his kids (they go to Princeton and Penn. State respectively), and has a country soul. His coworkers think he is a little strange (the rock) and his country neighbors look down their noses at his amateur carpentry. To them he is a city slicker. To the city folks he is a mystery. He is out of place in both the worlds he inhabits and that somehow endears him to me even more.


In the evening I go downstairs to the hotel restaurant, a place called the “Elephant and Castle or Castle and Elephant,” a reference to an intersection in London, I believe. The restaurant specializes in British food, as if that was a selling point. I am seated by a waiter who seems irritated by my very existence. Consequently I make him refill my iced tea about seven times during the meal. The menu contains such tasty offerings as bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, and Yorkshire pudding. Haggis and tripe are nowhere to be found, so I settle on the shepherd’s pie and begin to dig in. Dig is the appropriate word since this shepherd’s pie is literally a pile of hamburger, peas and carrots in the bottom of a dish completely covered by mashed potatoes. It isn’t too bad.

As I eat and torment the waiter I happen to notice that I am sitting in a small enclosed sunroom which sticks out onto the sidewalk about six feet. In daytime one would be able to look up through the glass ceiling to see the tall buildings all around the hotel. Being dark outside it seems rather like eating your meal in an aquarium with passers-by gawking at your table manners.

About halfway through the meal I notice that a lump on the sidewalk outside that I had taken to be a pile of rubbish has rolled over and revealed itself to be a homeless man. He has been lying flat out on the sidewalk and when he sits up he is staring straight at me with a baleful expression. I halt, a spoonful of mashed potato halfway to my mouth, and stare back transfixed. He is a small black man with grizzled hair and he is wearing several ragged coats. All around him are discarded newspapers, which had served as his blankets. His eyes are unfocused as if he has just crawled out of bed which, in a way, I guess he has.

Being my mother’s son I am kind of a sucker for guilt, anyway, but I find it hard to even take another bite of my meal. Here am I, a not at all undernourished “young” man eating what turns out to be a nineteen dollar meal, after tip, while one of my elders sits on the sidewalk on a freezing cold January day with no home, no one to care about him, and no prospect of a meal like mine in the foreseeable future.

To my discredit I go upstairs quickly after paying the bill, but the old man stays with me. I reflect that a really good person would take part of his meal in a box over to the man or give him some money. But I don’t do that. And I’m not sure why. I tell myself that it is because I am afraid of being accosted by him, or by an unsavory looking character waiting at a stoplight nearby. But, of course, the old man would be no match for me, unless he has some kind of weapon. And why would he? And it is a busy street, with many pedestrians stepping over and around the old man. And, and, and… Probably I am afraid of what those pedestrians or my fellow diners will think. What a revolting excuse.

It is easy to rationalize the plight of a man like that by saying that his own choices have led him here. Even so, it breaks your heart to think that he has been, in the dim past, somebody’s baby boy, cheerful and full of promise, just like my little boy. If that’s not worth the benefit of the doubt I don’t know what is.

As I had done with the man in the corner office my mind plays a game of “what is his story” with the old man without the moderating influence of my cheerful little boy. I go to bed feeling lousy, indeed guilty and lousy.

But I wake up early in the morning and I fly to Jacksonville, Florida where it is warm and sunny. It’s funny how a change of scenery can improve your temperament. I leave winter and the old man behind me in Philly and I go on about my life, as we all must do. But every game of “what is his story” is not fiction. Behind each person we pass on the street there is a real story; happy, sad, or, like most of us, happy and sad. And I think it behooves us, when we are playing “what is his story,” like we all do, to remember that fact. And perhaps sometimes we need to take some shepherds pie out to the man lying on the street and maybe ask how the game is going for him.

Pilot’s Journal – Philly Summertime

Walt Whitman Bridge

July 26 – Philadelphia, PA

I don’t know why, but Philadelphia always inspires my imagination. It may be the history the place is steeped in. It may be the reputation of the city as a cultural crucible. Heck, they have a bridge named after Walt Whitman- something interesting has to happen when you are there! I almost expect to see Ben Franklin or maybe Bruce Springsteen walking down the street toward me.

I am not a frequent visitor of big cities. I live in the country. I probably visit Chicago a few times a year. On my trips I often stay in hotels on the outskirts of cities like Atlanta, Washington, and Denver. But in Philly I get the chance to stay right downtown on Market Street and walk around, soaking in the city. Today I woke up late (1700 show time) and went for a walk in mid-morning. I walked the equivalent of 3 miles, just turning right here and left there, with no particular agenda. Doubtless my impressions of the city would seem trite, especially to one who lives his life here. My wide-eyed descriptions of the “huge buildin’s and all them people” would generate laughs from locals. But, in my own defense, I have always believed in the value of seeing old things with new eyes. The people who work every day in downtown Philly cannot see it anymore with the sense of awe and mystery that I do. Nor can I anymore see some of the beauty inherent in the place where I live. Someone from the city could visit our farm and recognize a subtle majesty in the row upon row of corn and the rolling hills. I still appreciate these but can no longer see them with new eyes.

Walking around Philly, to a rural boy, is a full sensory experience. There are sounds, smells, and sights impossible in the country. There are “big buildin’s” and, my goodness, there are people. I walk down the bustling sidewalks and I feel strangely dissociated from my own body as a wave of humanity folds around me like water in a stream. The heat is intense and enveloping. After a while the shouts, honks, and sirens fade into a persistent background hum, like the constant drumming of waves on the shore when you visit the beach.

It is absolutely impossible to guess what you may see next. A brass band? Yes! In front of a newly-opened, storefront McDonalds, a door swings open and out marches a man carrying and playing a sousaphone, followed by a trumpet, trombone, and incongruously, a man strumming a banjo, all dressed in dazzling red and green sequins. The proprietress of a fortune-telling and palm-reading shop is arguing with her landlord about the rent right in the middle of the sidewalk (didn’t she know the landlord was coming?). What’s that smell? A mix of sauerkraut and fresh baked bread (does krautbread exist? Probably here.) A well- endowed woman passes in a bright yellow t-shirt with black letters splayed across her ample, bra-less chest, the wording – IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU ARE TOO CLOSE.

I stop for a Coke at a food court in one of the office towers and share a table with a harried looking middle-aged man in a rumpled suit and tie wearing a clean, white panama hat. Throughout his meal he pecks away at a tablet computer with a pencil-like stylus and fumbles from time to time through a stack of stapled files each headed “Application for Easement” or something like that. I conclude that he isn’t going to speak to me at all when he suddenly looks up, in what I take to be a sense of obligation, and says, without looking over at me, and in a strangely loud voice, “How hot is it outside?” I say “pretty hot” to which he responds nothing for about 3 minutes, then “It was really hot yesterday.” I allow that it probably was and we each resume our silence for the remainder of the meal. I think of the famous supposed rudeness of city people, then remember that I have had numerous similar conversations with farmers in our area.
I walk some more and pass a young couple paused at a street corner, looking around. The boy, about 20, is unexceptional, if fairly handsome. The girl, though, is one of the most attractive young women in my experience. The thing that distinguishes her most, however, is that she has two of the largest, most ungainly-looking, hearing aids I have ever seen. These are of the old style, flesh-colored crescents which wrap around the outside of the ear with a long loop of rubber tubing going into the ear canal. I figure they predate solid state electronics and may be heirlooms from pre-transistor days. They look like something a elderly man might have worn, but surely not a beautiful young women with otherwise trendy attire.

I am exhausted. I have been up the steps of the art museum, perhaps not with Rocky’s enthusiasm. I have seen the Liberty Bell. I have eaten in Chinatown and seen frogs and turtles in aquaria along the wall; not pets, by the way. Sweaty and feeling washed out I trudge back toward my air conditioned hotel room. As I turn the last corner I pass a heavy-set lady in what appears to be an ill-fitting nightgown. She gives me a broad smile and winks at me as I pass.

Pilot’s Journal – Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh - The Point

Pittsburgh – The Point

Saturday, August 27, 2011 – Pittsburgh, PA
We were supposed to overnight in Hartford, CT tonight but due to the approach of Hurricane Irene the powers-that-be concluded, rightly I think, that they would like to have their airplane far away from 75 mile per hour ground gusts. Consequently we repositioned our plane empty to Pittsburgh and had the good fortune to find that our usual hotel in PIT was booked up. That was good news because our company was forced to put us up at the Wyndam Grand, probably the best hotel in Pittsburgh, and right downtown on the point. We arrived about four in the afternoon after some small kerfuffle with the limo service.

I changed clothes and looked up some tourist information on the internet. I was disappointed to find that most of the museums, etc. I was interested in were already closed for the day or closing within minutes. So I ventured out around downtown to see what I could see. My first stop was the point park, otherwise known as the confluence. This is the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. It is a beautiful park and all the more so for the human activity around me. Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers stood directly across the Allegheny river from me and it was game night. A stream of people, literally thousands, was filing slowly and cheerfully out of downtown, through the park, and across the bridge to the stadium. It was a walk of perhaps two miles but everyone seemed in a good mood. There was no pushing or rowdiness and everyone seemed to be taking their time.

Since I was not going to the game I simply sat down along the cement parapet which runs along the river and watched small boats jockeying in the current to find anchorage abeam the stadium. I decided that some folks must come by boat to watch the game which struck me as a wonderful idea. I did not see any unoccupied boats, however, so I’m not sure whether one or two stayed to watch the boat while the others went to the game or if the boats were just there to get caught up in the general excitement of the evening. Periodically a large steamboat looking vessel laden with hundreds of people would round the point from the Monongahela and pull right up to the landing below the stadium. It was a gorgeous night with cool temps and a light breeze and, despite the nearby hurricane, not much cloud cover. I didn’t have this beautiful park to myself, but nearly so. Excepting the stream of humanity crossing the northeast corner of the park there were very few people along the promenade itself. I sat and soaked in the sights and the cool evening air and watched the sun go down.

It is an odd thing to be by oneself in a city which is not your own. You feel that you are somehow apart from the rest, yet, in a big city it seems to me that no one owns the city. A stranger in my small town is indeed a stranger and residents, though friendly, recognize his outsider status. But in a city as large as Pittsburgh nobody has a big enough share to claim posession. You can own a town like mine, but you can’t really own Pittsburgh.

An Interesting Story?

Harold Holt in diving gear with fish taken from a home moy.

Harold Holt

I am interested in novelty. I guess that is the equivalent of saying “I am a human being,” which is not, after all, very novel. There are six and a half billion of us careening about the planet. Regrettably, we do not all possess compelling stories. My trip to Wal-Mart lacks the two essentials for interestingness. To be interesting today a unique thing must happen to a regular person or anything must happen to a “famous” person. While my trip to Wal-Mart does not meet the threshold of interest, Britney Spears’ trip to Wal-Mart very well might, as evidenced by the newspapers. On the other hand, for a story about me to rise to the level of an “interesting story,” I must be killed by a falling meteorite on my way to Wal-Mart. Worth it to you, perhaps, but not to me.

The story I am about to relate has, I think, everything one would desire in an interesting story, and yet, I suspect, many of you will never have heard of it. Though it did occur some forty years ago, time has never been a barrier to a story achieving “interestingness.” We are still entranced by the soap opera that was the Tudors and movies about World War II are too numerous to count. I think it may be a factor of geography which has kept this interesting story from most of us. It is part of the stuff I’m interested in. It may fascinate you, too. Judge for yourself.

The story begins on a warm Summer day in 1967. Five old friends were out for a drive along a familiar stretch of Pacific coast. Their purpose that day was to witness the passing of a famous sailor engaged in a global circumnavigation. His boat was projected to pass near a headland adjacent to the large bay. Near the headland facing the open sea lay a stretch of sand called Cheviot Beach which they all knew very well. The beach was a pretty spot and a perennial favorite for skin diving and snorkeling. It had, however, a reputation for rip tides and strong currents. Around noon the friends stopped at Cheviot to take in the view.

One of the beachgoers that day was a distinguished looking 59 year old man with striking silver hair. He possessed a dignified bearing and an obvious confidence. Despite showing a bit of the roundness that comes with late middle age he was quite physically fit and a good swimmer. Family videos and photos often showed him spear-fishing or free diving, sometimes in the company of beautiful young women. On this fateful day he decided to go in swimming.

His friends attempted to dissuade him. The surf was heavy that day, they argued and, after all, the man was recovering from a shoulder injury for which he had been taking painkillers. Furthermore, earlier in the year, he’d had a skin-diving accident of sorts resulting from a leaky snorkel which necessitated a rescue by friends. Nevertheless, he was a man’s man and a leader and he dove into the waves. After a short time in the water the man slipped beneath the surface and did not reappear. The group on the beach was probably not worried immediately. Their friend was known for his “incredible powers of endurance underwater.” As a spear-fisherman and free diver he often lingered among the corals. As seconds became minutes, though, the group became frantic and began to scan the waves as far as they could see. Some thought he may have been caught by a rip current and pushed further down the coast. Surely he would soon be walking up the shore toward them. He was a good swimmer and experienced with these riptides. A man could save himself in such circumstances by swimming with the current instead of fighting it. Their friend would know this, of course.

While still hoping for the best, the friends did contact the authorities. Within hours there were hundreds searching for the missing man including police, navy divers, air force helicopters, and local volunteers. The search was unprecedented and was carried out diligently but with no success. After two fruitless days and thousands of man-hours authorities announced that the man was presumed drowned. The man’s wife had arrived on the scene later in the day and his two sons actually took part in the search. During the second day relatives and friends interviewed on television constructed increasingly bizarre and hopeful theories under which the man might be found alive. To this day no body or artifact has been found.
To this point our story, though admittedly tragic, is not novel, nor, perhaps, even interesting. Drownings occur every day around the world. Even experienced swimmers can be overcome by currents and rip tides. Fatigue, illness, or cramps can render even the best swimmers helpless. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that 3,443 people drowned in this country in 2007, nearly ten people per day. The story does not meet our first criteria of interestingness. Drowning is not a unique thing. Unfortunately it is far from unique.

So why do I believe this story bears interest. Well, perhaps some clues may help. Would it help, for example to know that this warm Summer day on the Pacific coast was December 17, 1967. Summer in December. Our story must take place, then, in one of those “other” countries on the periphery of the world. Already we begin to see why the story has escaped our collective interest in the United States. We can hardly be bothered to know anything about our immediate neighbors here in North America – Canada and Mexico. Would it make it more interesting to know that cheviot beach lies on a point of land just south of Melbourne, Australia. There have been brief American flirtations with Australian culture in the past. Though Paul Hogan and Yahoo Serious have long ago faded from American movie screens we still occasionally see some suburbanite throwing a “shrimp on the Barbie,” and I can hardly see someone holding a knife in hand without commenting “you call that a knife, here’s a knife.” Still, though we regard Australians as the coolest world denizens aside from ourselves, we just can’t get excited about a fairly commonplace thing happening to a bloke 9000 miles away. What if I told you that two of the five “friends” on the beach that day were bodyguards. Now the interest needle registers a blip. Regular guy drowns, big deal. Man with bodyguard drowns, our ears perk up. Still, we may not cross the interest threshold without something a bit more…. something. After all, when British Billionaire Robert Maxwell fell off his yacht and drowned under mysterious circumstances it hardly registered in the American psyche. But when Actress Natalie Wood drowned off the coast of California it was big news and big interest for weeks. Our ethnocentrism filters what we see and what we ultimately care about, as does our sense of fame. The story of the drowned Australian gentleman doesn’t hold my interest because drowning is unique, and it will probably not grab yours, either. Nor would it impress most of you if I told you the man’s name, Harold Holt. Few Americans would find that name famous enough to join the list of four or five Australians we regard as famous Australians. Who do we have? Paul Hogan, of course, although many Americans could only summon up his character name, Crocodile Dundee. Some would recognize Julian Assange’s name, now. Though I doubt many would know he was Australian. How about Rupert Murdoch. If he fell off his yacht and drowned I’m sure it would be covered ad nauseum, at least by Fox news and the Wall Street Journal. Other than a couple of musicians who gained fame in the American music market, that’s about all the Australians Americans know or care about. Still, I think you will find my story interesting because of who Harold Holt was.

Without further ado let’s check the theory. Harold Holt, the silver-haired swimmer who disappeared on Cheviot beach never to be heard from again, was the sitting Prime-Minister of Australia. This is akin to Barack Obama going for a walk in Yellowstone Park and being eaten by a bear. How could it happen? Would an American President, even in 1967, be allowed to swim alone in the Ocean without water wings, a shark cage, and six secret service agents in scuba gear dogging him into the shallows. What fascinates about this story is the “foreignness” of the whole idea.

Part of the reason we have periodically fallen in love with Australian culture is this wild-west wackiness that allows a Prime-minister to go missing. We got a taste of this in our own country in 2009 when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford disappeared for two days to visit his mistress in Argentina without telling anyone. It captured public attention pretty thoroughly for about two weeks. But, still, that was just South Carolina. We are talking here about the leader of a country and indeed a continent just vanishing off the face of the Earth — and never coming back. The Aussies take these things in stride better than we ever could and that’s what we love about them. Australian politics have always been filled with quirky and fascinating people and goings-on. In 1986, for example, former Prime-Minister Malcolm Fraser was found wandering about the foyer of a seedy Memphis, Tennessee hotel wrapped in a towel and not wearing any trousers. In 1987 former Australian Liberal party (which by the way is the more Conservative of the two Australian political parties) leader and longtime Speaker of Australia’s House of Representatives Sir Billy Snedden was found in a Travelodge near Sydney, dead and naked and wearing a condom. It was soon revealed by national newspapers that Sir Billy had “died on the job” of a heart attack “at the peak of physical congress.” It seems hard to top this excellent story, but it was topped. It was later learned from Sneddon’s son Drew that the woman who sent Sir Billy off to heaven was, indeed a former girlfriend of Drew himself. Far from angry about it, Drew was quoted as saying, “I knew (my father) did chase a couple of my girlfriends in the past,” he said. “He celebrated New Year’s Day every night of the week. It’s something to tell your mates at the rugby club, isn’t it? My old man nicked my girlfriend.”

There has been much speculation and some conspiracy theories over the years about Harold Holt’s death. Some claim that he was distraught about some political scandals which might have cost him the Prime-Ministership, so he committed suicide. It was opined that he had a long-time mistress whose existence, if revealed, would accomplish the same. Some less rational explanations nonetheless gained small followings, including the theory that Holt had been abducted by aliens, kidnapped by a Chinese submarine, or killed by CIA divers. No evidence has been found to prove anything. Holt is simply gone and that is what makes this a great and interesting story.

The Sycamore

There is a reason that mankind will never completely do away with wild things, hard as they might consciously or unconsciously try to do so. The reason lies in the limited scope of man’s perceptions and in the simple dogged persistence of nature.

There is little doubt that man has the capacity, with bulldozers, end loaders, excavators, and trucks, to undo nature’s patient workings of a thousand years. They have done it and they will continue to do it until the last trumpet blows, if you believe in that sort of thing.But they will not, ultimately, eradicate nature and natural things.

Along the Mississippi River, behind my father’s house, grows a nearly 100 foot tall sycamore tree. It is magnificent in its scale and its bearing, and I have stood at its base many times and looked up, slack-jawed, and just said WOW! How old it is I do not know. I could imagine it’s slow, relentless growth as the native Americans paddled by in dugout canoes. I could imagine Abe Lincoln stopping briefly at this pond to water his horse as he made his way to New Boston to do his none too impressive surveying job there. And I can picture generations of little boys growing up and growing old on this farm, fishing in the pond, helping their dads chop fire wood in this forest, and ultimately chopping their own firewood and planting their own corn. The sycamore grew patiently next to the pond. A hundred years, two hundred, it is hard to know.

The sycamore, or one like it, will continue to grow behind my Dad’s house. As the generations of humans in this little town are born and live and go to their graves it will persist. It will grow patiently and each year it will scatter its little seed balls on the mud below. And someday, when the river is neither too high nor too low, one will put down roots in a forsaken spot no other plant has been able to exploit (for a thousand unknowable reasons) and it will begin to grow. And the generations of humans will live some more lives, and drive bulldozers even. And it might be that after the sapling has pushed up six inches into the sky that a careless hunter will visit the pond and step on it and push it down into the mud. And it will be bent and may never recover its straight, proud bearing. But it will persist and start its crooked path toward the sun again. And perhaps, when it is six feet high, a buck deer will wander past with its velvety new antlers and rub some of the stuff away on the little sycamore and in the process give it a deep wound that will be visible on its trunk for a hundred years. Or perhaps the corps of engineers, in their wisdom, will determine that this little pond, good for nothing else, would be the perfect place to pump in 2 cubic acres of sand dredged up from the bottom of the navigation channel. And in that moment our little striving sapling will be buried alive and will die. If the big tree still lives its environment will be so altered that it, too, will not recover. Or perhaps the corps will simply cut it down to provide a road to their new sand pile. And these local tragedies will only be one more setback for nature, ultimately. There have been so many such tragedies it would be impossible to catalog them. Maybe sycamores, altogether, will succumb to these thousand little insults and become extinct. In that day we will have hurt ourselves and we will have destroyed the sycamore family, but nature will simply move on.

If you don’t believe in the persistence of nature go to Hawaii and look at a volcano erupting and try to picture in your mind’s eye how this devastation could turn into a verdant paradise brimming with life. Even here, along the muddy Mississippi, some little cell of life will persist when the last sycamore is chopped into kindling. Maybe a cottonwood can tolerate the sand better. Maybe it will take the old sycamore’s place and become the dominant life force in this vicinity. Maybe it wont be a tree. Maybe the deep sand will preclude any sapling from making another start here. Instead maybe the prickly pear that grows on the hills above will spread down into the new “desert” and use its special skills to translate a little sun and a little moisture into green paddles and pointy spikes. Or maybe only some sort of algae or bacteria can make a beachhead here. But rest assured that it will grow, and given enough time, it will evolve, and maybe its generations, after millions of years, will make something like a sycamore again. And maybe not. Maybe it will ultimately evolve a sentient creature with dextrous hands and a big brain capable of building and driving a bulldozer.

Bill Nye has said “We do not need to save the world, we need to save the world for us.” This is the point of environmentalism. The value of a sycamore tree, ultimately, is not to nature. Nature could not care less whether she exploits her resources with 100 foot sycamores or single celled algae. It is we, with the giant brains and the ability for aesthetic appreciation who need a 100 foot sycamore if for no other reason than to look up, slack-jawed and say WOW!

by Dustin Joy



My first post is a tribute to a great friend and mentor of mine who passed away this year. Merle was my Dad’s cousin but, as you will see, he was a great deal more than that to us.




When Robin Williams died last year more than one fan expressed his grief with the simple phrase “I can’t imagine the world without him in it.” Why that sentiment rings true when applied to Williams but would not necessarily do so for another actor is a question which is difficult to pin down. I suspect it has to do with personality; that undefinable glimmer of something; we don’t quite know what. Williams obviously had an outsized personality. You might say, indeed you would say, that Williams was a personality. He was bigger than life.

I have known a few “personalities.” These are the folks who make us the gift of a larger life. They pour into us a kind of energy or warmth or happiness or something. They are a kind of exothermic chemical reaction in human form in which heat and light are transferred from one to another without appreciably dimming or cooling the giver. I have known a few of these people in my life and I have treasured each interaction with them. My friend Gregg’s mother was one of these people. One day, after her passing, I tried to explain to him what I meant when I talked about this strange phenomenon. After grasping about and stammering for an explanation I said, “whenever I saw her or even thought about her, an involuntary smile came to my face.”

This has been a long way to go to tell you simply that Merle Joy brought an involuntary smile to my face whether I saw him or even thought about him. He was never on TV that I know of but he also had what Robin Williams had. He had an outsized personality. Indeed he was a personality.

I was about to say that if there was a person in this world who didn’t like Merle Joy I would like to meet him. That would be incorrect. If there existed in this world someone who didn’t like Merle Joy I would emphatically not want to meet him because there would be something very wrong with that person indeed.
Merle was a friendly guy. He was a smart guy. He was clever and witty and generous and gregarious. Many people have some of these qualities. Some people you know have several of them. But Merle was more than the sum of his parts.

He was friendly, sure. Everyone who ever met him knew that instinctively.
Clever and witty? Merle had both in spades. To me the sign of a great mind is revealed by a clever pun and no one ever turned loose a great pun on the world like Merle. Gregarious? Obviously! The man loved to talk. But he didn’t love to talk to hear his own voice, like some people do. This is where we find the unique spark of personality that was Merle. He was, and I think I may be getting to the point now, a “generous talker.” What I mean to say is that he loved to talk and he loved to listen. He wanted to hear what you had to say. He had a brilliant mind and in his three score and twenty (which is of course how Merle would have said it) he had acquired an amazing treasure trove of knowledge. Yet, when he spoke with you or me or even a child Merle did not want to tell you something so much as he wanted you to tell him something.

I have always thought that the measure of a person’s kindness could be taken by listening to him talk to children. It is easy to disregard what children say or discount their thoughts as unimportant. When Merle met my daughter Chloe for the first time she was just a little girl and he was a seventy plus year old man with a world of experience. But when they spoke Merle became a six or seven year old child himself and showed his genuine interest in her world. He talked about music with her and school and maybe her pets but he was not struggling to seem interested. He was interested. That genuineness is something you cannot fake. Kids are not fooled. They are better detectors of bullshit than you or I. And each year when we made our annual 15 hour round trip pilgrimage to Falls City to visit the “other” Joys Chloe always wanted to go along. Merle was a magnet that drew you in and no one who knew him could ever stay away for long.

Autodidact is a ten dollar word which means “self-taught.” Merle loved to learn words like that. Most of my heroes have been autodidacts in one way or another. Merle was certainly one of these. I would be very surprised indeed if he didn’t learn something new on the last day of his life. I hope he did. I hope we all can.

A favorite game that Merle played with relish was called “I know something you don’t know.” If you ever played this game with him you know that his delight in playing it in no way contradicts the generosity of spirit I described above. The game was for him simply an exercise in his lifelong quest for knowledge and he played it every day. Merle loved to play it. And, here is the best part; I always thought he was happier to lose the game than win it because then he got hold of a new, fresh piece of information. He was hungry to know about the world and he was hungry to know about you.

I did not get to know Merle as well as I would have liked. The ever present barrier of Iowa, which we both cursed mildly, prevented it. But I knew him well enough to realize that he was something special. He was certainly a special part of my life.

I am not a religious person and I concede that I don’t know what happens to us when we leave this world. It is a satisfying thought, though, to picture Merle reclining on a big cloud looking down through the mists at us scurrying around down here and chuckling to himself and saying with a grin “I know something you don’t know.” And I, and many, many others will be standing down here saying “I cannot imagine this world without him in it.”