Thursday, January 31, 2008

What is Justice?

Today on the radio a DJ posed the question: Should the guy who was driving the snowmobile when news anchor Randy Salerno was killed be sent to prison? The responses to the non-scientific survey were split about 60-40 against prison-time.

I'm with the "no's" on this one for this reason: Since the crime he committed was, arguably, a non-violent offense (even though it resulted in a tragic death), it does not serve to protect society or "pay back" the family for their loss to put the guy in jail.

A better way to serve justice in this case would be to a) prohibit him from ever driving a snowmobile again; b) require him to do some kind of alchohol education or rehab program; and c) require him to perform community service, such as spending a year traveling around the country doing speaking engagements to high schools, colleges, and other groups to talk about the consequences of drinking and driving any kind of vehicle.

And this raises a broader set of questions with implications that reach well beyond the criminal justice system: Why should non-violent offenders be imprisoned? Wouldn't it make more sense for them to pay their debt to society and their victims by performing some kind of service that relates to the crime they committed?

This approach--the logical consequence approach to non-violent criminal justice--has many advantages. It reduces prison over-crowding. It saves the state money; and in fact, some of the logical consequences could actually generate revenue which could be used to offset the costs involved in prosecuting the case.

I'll bet that logical consequences result in lower recidivism rates than do prison sentences. In other words, you're less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system after doing community service than you are after serving time in prison. Google turned up a study in Finland that demonstrated "slightly lower" recidivism rates after community service than after prison sentences.

These are not new ideas, of course. (There is nothing new under the sun--Ecclesiastes.) Prison Fellowship International calls it "restorative justice" and has been advocating for these kinds of changes in the criminal justice system for a long time through its Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. Restorative justice emphasizes "repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders."

So if these ideas have been around a long time, and international agencies are advocating for these kinds of changes, why are we still putting non-violent offenders in prison? Why aren't we offering treatment to drug abusers instead of putting them behind bars? Why are we putting people who commit white-collar crimes in prison instead of having them teach principles of financial management in urban high schools?


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cinching the Belt

Mr. Peevie created a household budget that allowed $600 per month for groceries. I was shocked. "Six hundred dollars!" I squeaked. "I'm sure we don't spend that much on groceries."

"You'd be surprised," said Mr. Peevie grimly. Sure enough, ten days into the month, he notified me that we had already spent $250 on groceries. Forty-two percent of our budget gone, but 67 percent of the month left.

So I decided to start paying closer attention when I loaded my cart at the produce market. It turns out that food is rilly, rilly expensive! Even the basic stuff costs way more than you think it should. Bread, for example, is $3.29 per loaf if you get the kind that has a little bit of actual nutrition left in it. Milk is $3.09 or more per gallon. And if you're lactose intolerant, forget about it. A half gallon of soy milk is close to $4.

(Why is soy milk so expensive, anyway? Isn't it cheaper to grow soy beans than to raise cows?)

My little local market has great prices on some things, like produce and deli meat. But the price on some staple items will stop your heart. Cheerios, for example. My family goes through an entire institutional-size box of Cheerios in about 45 minutes--so I refuse to pay $6 for it. I can usually get it on sale at the big chain grocery store or the local big box store.

But now I'm faced with an additional trip, which means extra time and gas. With gas at nine bajillion dollars a gallon, is it really worth it? Get out the calculator.

I've started to make a side trip to the Holsum bread outlet (9207 N. Milwaukee Ave, Niles) as well. Instead of paying more than $3 per loaf, I pay $1 per loaf--and sometimes even $.50. I did do the math on this trip, since the store is exactly five miles from my house. If I conservatively get 12 miles to the gallon, and gas is $3.30 per gallon, then I'm spending about $3 to save $2.30 per loaf. Four loaves of bread will last me 9 or 10 days. That's a net savings of $6.20, which translates to $223/a year.

But this little outlet saves me money on more than just bread. I buy cookies for the kids' lunches, and gravy packets for 79 cents instead of jarred gravy for $3. I save on bagels and biscuit mix, too. On Sunday I fed my family of five a delicious meal of biscuits, sausage, and gravy. Total cost: $4.50.

Last night I made southern fried chicken (thighs and drumsticks), garlic mashed potatoes, and yummy gravy. I even opened a bottle of wine, and the total cost was still less than $10.

Is there a recession around the corner? Looks likely. But I'm slowly getting the hang of cinching my grocery belt and cooking frugally. (Not cheaply, as the Frugal Gourmet used to say. Cheap is no bargain, but frugality delivers quality without waste.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rare Parents Who Care

Like that alliteration? Me too.

My oldest son, C. Peevie, goes to a Chicago Public School, Edison Regional Gifted Center. It's been, for the most part, a successful academic setting for him. Edison has attracted some really wonderful teachers that have nurtured C.P. both mentally and emotionally; and he's certainly been challenged to learn and perform at an accelerated pace.

I love the diversity of the families at Edison. The school is racially and geographically integrated, with kids coming from all different parts of the city to be a part of this educational community that consistently rates among the top three in the entire state year after year. (It's not, however, terribly economically diverse, being the school with the smallest percentage of kids that qualify for subsidized lunches in the CPS system.)

But here's what's really outstanding about this school: the parents. Especially the parents of the kids in C. Peevie's class, but many of the other parents as well. They are involved in their kids lives, motivated to participate in the life of the school, generous, kind, helpful. They know their kids are smart, but they see them as so much more than just little brains. C. Peevie has classmates who volunteer in nursing homes, clean up the beaches on Earth Day, and serve meals at homeless shelters. They pull together to help each other out with big things, like when a family has a crisis, or in little things, like when a kid needs a ride home after school.

Every year these public school parents put on a fund-raising event that collects tens of thousands of dollars. I think they've raised $70K or $80K every year in the last few years. They solicit local businesses for goods and services, they donate valuable items, they bid hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for kid-created artwork and unique teacher-sponsored activities. They are committed to getting a good education for their kids, and they put their money, time and energy where their mouths are.

So now the CPS big shots, in all their wisdom, have recommended moving this perennially successful school from its current building to a different location in order to make room locally for neighborhood kids currently attending overcrowded schools. The Edison parents are moving mountains to make sure their voices get heard about this poorly-planned, poorly communicated proposal.

Not every parent is opposed to the move, but most of us can understand the concerns that others have expressed about the process, the issues with the new location, and the resources that we have poured into our current space. What's remarkable to me about this whole situation is how invested and involved these public school parents are. Not just the members of the PTO and local school council, either. They're writing letters, making phone calls, mounting PR campaigns, using vacation days to attend school board meetings, making speeches, and attending Saturday morning meetings to strategize and write position papers.

They're doing everything short of challenging the Superintendent of CPS to a duel to the death--but there's one guy, the parent of a kindergartener, who is headed in that direction.

Technically, the fate of Edison has yet to be decided by the vote of the school board. Technically, there is still a public forum where citizens can voice their concerns. But the technicalities seem like after-the-fact formalities that won't actually influence the decision. If this is really the case, then it's just not right.

I'm not one of the ardent nay-sayers opposed to the move in general. I am, however, vehemently opposed to bad process. Process is what keeps us civil and civilized. A fair process by definition results in a fair outcome, and this is what these committed, energetic parents--and their children--deserve.

So, Arne Duncan, and the rest of the Chicago Public Schools board, if you're listening, and I hope you are, here are my questions: Has this process been fair? Has it been unduly influenced by politics? Have parents really had a fair chance to be heard? If not, then what's the harm in postponing the decision until later this year, after there's been time for real and true citizen and parent input?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Shall We Dance?

In my mind I'm a lithe, graceful, coordinated dancer with smooth, creative movements and a clear sense of rhythm. I close my eyes, and I can see myself gliding on the dance floor with a tall, elegant partner who guides my movements with a firm but subtle touch.

In real life, however: not so much. I bite my lower lip and bob my head and lose track of the beat. I step on my partner's toes. I try to lead, even though I don't know where I'm going. I'm an object lesson in unrealistic expectations.

Well, all that embarrassment is coming to an end. Mr. Peevie and I have signed up for four very low-key, very basic dance classes at the kids' school. It started off badly when we missed the first session because of circumstances outside of our control.

But when we showed up for the second week, we were relieved that the instructors looked like regular people and not like Bruno and Carrie Ann. I don't know what I was expecting -- ball gowns? sparkly lights? -- but the gym looked like a gym, and the other dancers were wearing, for the most part, regular clothes. (One woman was draped in a long, flowy, sparkly jacket-thing, but maybe she was headed out to a big gala after the lesson.)

Dance instructor Greg was wearing jeans and scuffed shoes like a regular guy. Richard Gere, unfortunately, was nowhere in sight. Dance instructor Penny had real leather dance shoes peeking out from under her pantlegs, but otherwise she avoided any resemblance to Jennifer Lopez in Shall We Dance. I considered this to be a distinctly positive thing.

Greg and Penny started us off easy, repeating the lessons from the previous week. The box step: simple, straightforward, honest. Mr. Peevie and I were briefly confused by the ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six count when we tried to do it to actual music--this goes back to what I was saying about my lack of rhythm--and I started to get frustrated because Mr. Peevie was too passive.

"You're supposed to be leading," I hissed at him. "You're too passive!" So he clamped his hand on my scapula, stuck out his jaw, and danced like a man. "Now that's more like it," I said, following his manly lead while we box-stepped our way through Let Me Call You Sweetheart.

After we had nailed the box step, we moved on to the swing dance: slow, slow, quick-quick, or step, step, rock-step. This one got tricky when we tried the old under-arm-turn maneuver. Poor Mr. Peevie practically ended up with sprained fingers because I kept turning the wrong way. After a bit of one-on-one tutoring with Greg and Penny, I finally got the hang of it--although I still found myself moving my lips as I counted the steps and kept time to Gershwin's* In the Mood.

Finally, we got to some real music and real dancing: the cha-cha, to Santana's Oye Como Va. Surprisingly, the simple cha-cha was the easiest dance of all--I didn't even have to move my lips or point fingers at Mr. Peevie.

I believe I felt rhythm deep within my soul, and I know for sure I felt soreness deep within my quadriceps. After a week of rest and Tylenol, I am ready for Week Three: The Forbidden Dance.

[Update: I had Gershwin on my brain, but In the Mood was actually popularized by Glenn Miller. Duh. Props to Moses Butcher for the correction.]

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Freshman Composition 101: Redux

Hi. My name is E. Peevie, and I'm a (recovering) prescriptivist. I come from a long line of unapologetic linguistic prescriptivists. Just a few weeks ago my mom commented on the incorrect usage by a television personality of who versus whom. I suggested that according to common usage by native speakers, the distinction was no longer valid.

"So," said my tiny, white-haired momma with a tinge of hostility and possibly even a mote of self-righteous indignation, "Just because everybody does it, that makes it right?"

"Well, um, yes," I said, "in language it does."

"Hmph," said momma.

I know what she was thinking, and what she would have said if the conversation had continued. She would have asserted that of course common usage doesn't change the rules. She might have even compared it to moral relativism: Just because everybody now thinks __________(fill in the blank) is OK doesn't make it right.

I wonder what she'd think of this post in Language Log about the use of the "singular they" to refer to the next president of the United States. Geoffrey Pullum points out that this usage has occurred for the first time because this is "the first moment in history when there is a genuinely non-trivial amount of doubt about whether the next president will be male or female."

Actually, I know what she'd say. She'd be horrified, and insist that the correct pronoun would be the gender-neutral "he," or she'd grudgingly suggest that even the more politically correct "he or she" would be a more correct choice.

When I was an English major back in the dark ages, my grumpy department head, Dr. William Pixton, was a standard-bearer for standard English. His very own "Some Conventions of Standard Written English" was the required text for the composition classes I taught as a graduate teaching assistant. I made freshmen cry with my red pen bleeding all over their lame essays, filled with p-antes and p-agrees and s/v/a's. I drilled it into their thick Okie skulls that pronouns must have clear antecedents, and the antecedents must agree in number with the pronouns.

(I even edited my little brother's papers with the same hard-line approach, and to this day that high-achieving yet tender-hearted big-shot trembles at the mere mention of a p-ante. This post is dedicated to him.)

But I've switched teams. I believe, like GKP, that the singular "they" is here to stay. And I'm starting not to mind so much.

More importantly, isn't it brilliant how relevant and interesting grammar and linguistics are? I'll bet you had no idea.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Movie Review: Juno

Michael Cera is the Victor Garber of Generation Y. Every facial tic, every blink, every posture is natural and yet perfectly modulated to communicate the subtleties of his character's emotions. Am I coming on too strong? I love this kid, and I think he's great actor. You don't need any other reason to go see Juno besides the fact that Michael Cera is in it.

However, there are plenty of other good reasons to see it. It's well-written and well-acted, for one and two. Ellen Page plays the eponymous Juno, who is not lovable in a sweet and cuddly kind of way, but her character kind of grows on you.

Sixteen-year-old Juno talks (on a hamburger phone) like a Woody Allen character, her conversation salted with sarcasm and snark. She's world weary and naive at the same time. Her pale would-be boyfriend, Paulie, runs track and consumes orange tic-tacs. In a few years he'll be husband material--reliable, gentle, and devoted; he's definitely not boyfriend material, especially to a precocious teenager who typically has a hard time seeing past Paulie's skinny legs and concave chest.

Out of boredom, or curiosity, and possibly a tiny bit of lust (but maybe not--she seems kind of ambivalent) Juno gives Paulie the adolescent wet dream of a gift: they lose their virginity together in an overstuffed chair that later, in a scene I don't really understand, ends up in Paulie's front yard.

Juno gets pregnant and spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what to do, whom to trust, and whether or not any adults ever get their shit together. Is there a good solution? Juno, predictably, considers abortion, but her classmate's caricature picketing and a nonchalant, gum-popping desk clerk abet the cause of life. When she finds the perfect couple to adopt her baby, she's hopeful; but beautiful Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) turns out to be more than a tiny bit desperate, and her husband Mark (Jason Bateman), immature and disillusioned.

I laughed (a lot), I cried (a little, but then again, I cry at DeBeers commercials and M*A*S*H reruns, so don't give that a lot of weight). I loved the tight, clever banter. My friend MD observed that the characters, especially Juno, didn't talk like real people, and she's right, of course. But we would talk like that if we could. Instead, in real life we snap our fingers and say, "Rats! I wish I'd thought to say that at the time!"
(Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox.)

Young Genius

An article in MSN Encarta reports that Albert Einstein's mother "encouraged his strengths by asking him the same question every day when he got home from school: 'What's the best question you asked today?' "

So I've started asking my kids that question, too. I want them to think and to question; I want them to love to learn. I don't care whether they make important scientific discoveries or write poetry or fix cars; but I do hope that whatever path they end up on, that they'll never stop reading, thinking, learning, and asking questions.

So. Last night I was driving M. Peevie home from a birthday party, and I asked her, "M., what was the best question you asked today?"

She thought for a moment, remembering her day at school, and the fun party, and of course, the birthday cake. "I know what it was," she said confidently. "I asked, 'Can we have seconds?' "

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Worst Nightmare

C. Peevie got inadvertently abandoned yesterday. A friend who was supposed to pick him up forgot to do so. I expected him home by 4:30, but by 4:45 I started to wonder where he was. I figured my friend was running late or had stopped off with the boys to get a snack. Finally, I called her at 5. She picked up the phone, and as soon as she heard my voice, she realized what had happened.

"Oh, my God," she said. "I completely forgot I was supposed to pick him up!"

She started to tell me how she had gotten distracted, but I begged off in order to call the school. When no one answered--of course not! It was after 5 p.m.!--I herded the other kids in the car, and went searching for him. Maybe he was still sitting in the trees outside of the school, where he usually waits for me.

Meanwhile, I called a friend who lives near the school: no answer on either the home phone or the cell phone. There was no soggy boy waiting in the trees, and I banged desperately on the door of the school until the maintenance person let me in. Of course he wasn't there, either.

Back in the car, A. Peevie and M. Peevie were starting to worry about their big brother, and we all said a short prayer for C. Peevie. The phone rang; it was the nearby friend. "Is C. Peevie with you?" I asked, knowing the answer. He wasn't.

"OK, kids, he probably walked home," I told them. "We're going to drive home slowly, and I want you guys to look out the window. Holler if you see somebody that might be your brother."

We started driving home, but of course, there was more than one route he could have taken. I turned down Avondale, windshield wipers scraping obnoxiously. We passed the firehouse, and headed toward the park along a really dark and lonely stretch of road. I felt fear rising in my throat, but I swallowed it back down.

My cell phone rang, displaying an unfamiliar number. "Hi, Mom. It's C. Peevie." He was calling from another friend's house--one hour after he should have been home. He had waited outside in the dark and rain for half an hour. Then he walked with his trumpet and backpack to his friend's house a few blocks away--but no one was home.

He waited there another 10 minutes or so, and then decided to head home, more than 1 1/2 miles away. He's only 12 years old! It was dark and raining, but he was calm, smart, and resourceful.

I was so proud of my C. Peevie. He knew his way home, and he called me as soon as he got to a phone. "Were you scared?" I asked him, once I knew he was OK. "No, not really," he said. "Just wet."

"I would not have been able to do that when I was 12," I told him later. "Oh, mom, yes you would," he said modestly. I asked him again if he had been scared, and he admitted, "Maybe just a little." But he was utterly forgiving and, I could tell, a tiny bit proud of himself. It was an urban adventure.

Poor, damp, tired, hungry boy. I couldn't stop hugging him.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Roger Ebert: Can We Have Dinner Sometime?

Sometime in my life, I'd like to have a leisurely dinner with Roger Ebert, and talk about movies and books and writing, and how they fit in with the really important things in life. I love how he sort of accidentally fell into his dream job, a career that combined something he loved with something he's very, very good at. What providence!

I love Ebert's writing. There are few things I like better in this world than really good writing. To attain this accolade, a writer has to first be a top-notch thinker. There's no such thing as a great writer who isn't first of all a clear, smart thinker. I don't buy it when a person says, "I know what I'm thinking, I just don't know how to say it." Bullshit. If you don't have the words, you don't know what you're thinking, and if you say you do, you're a pretender. It's best at that point to just stop talking. (Trust me, I know of what I speak.)

But I digress. My point is, Roger Ebert is a really talented writer, which necessarily means that he is a clear, logical, and at times, deep thinker. I admire that. I learn so much more from his reviews than whether or not he liked the movie. There are nuggets of philosophy, or literature, or history; if you read enough of Ebert's reviews, you end up getting a bit of a film school education. I always find myself wanting to learn more, read more, think more.

But while his reviews leave no doubt about his expertise and cleverness, Ebert's style is never intimidating or pedantic. He doesn't patronize me, nor does he try to impress me with his vocabulary and mastery of the subject matter.

I love Ebert's reviews because he obviously loves movies. I swear, I don't know why some reviewers don't just quit their jobs and become RTVF professors--they seem to hate everything they see, unless it's completely unfathomable to us regular viewers. But Ebert loves movies! He doesn't love, or even like, everything he sees; but he often finds value and redemption in movies that other reviewers scorn. More often than not, my movie-going experience matches up with the movie-loving guy rather than the nose-in-the-air critic.

Readers who love excellent prose, even if they are not necessarily film buffs, should seek out his columns in the entertainment section of the newspaper. Each review is different, and Ebert takes chances with his style and format instead of boringly sticking with the same rubric of grade, summary, critique. For example, his re-review of E.T. was writtten in the form of a letter to his grandkids, and he seizes the opportunity to reveal a new or renewed observation about the POV of the filmmakers--that "almost every important shot is seen either as E. T. would see it or as Elliot would see it. And things are understood as they would understand them."

Later in this same redux review, Grandpa Roger observes, "That's the sign of a great filmmaker. He only explains what he has to explain." See what I mean? Each review is a tiny class in the art of film-making.

Thanks for the education, Roger Ebert. And if you're ever free for dinner, it's a standing invitation. You're on the cover of The Green Room's People We'd Love to Have Dinner With Sometime issue.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Soup for Life: Corn and Wild Rice Soup with Smoked Sausage

Here is a soup recipe to kick off your new year. My family has been enjoying this soup since Mr. Peevie discovered the recipe in 1995 (Bon Appetit, November). We served it as the first course in our Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was so satisfying and delicious that we almost skipped the turkey and headed straight for the pumpkin pie!

This soup has a chunky, satisfying goodness that is both sweet and savory. Pureed corn thickens the broth, and each spoonful delivers a kernelicious, nutty taste sensation. Serve it as the main course, with warm bread, and no one will walk away hungry.

Don't be shy about increasing the amount of sausage, since it often comes in a 16 oz. package instead of 10 ounces. Use it all. For that matter, increase the number of carrots, too--but then you'll need more chicken broth.

My final tip to make this piquant first course even more nutritious: use your own homemade, vegetable-enriched chicken broth. Nutritionists say that boiling vegetables leaches most of the nutrients right out of them--so strain out and discard the soggies, but put the veggie vitamins to work in your soup stock.

There now. You never knew I was a budding foodologist, did you? Stay tuned in 2008 for more of my hidden talents.