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Saturday, April 1, 2023

Lesson Learned

When I was a kid, I got a really neat present from a family friend, a fellow named Vince Antonelli. The Antonellis lived in Pittsburgh, and we would go visit them now and then. The patriarch of the family, meaning Vince, was a great guy. He even let me drive his riding mower around, all over his yard.

He had played football at the University of Pittsburgh in his day, and remained connected to the team somehow, I'm not sure if he was a coach or a manager or what... But I know that he acquired for me a genuine NCAA football. Real leather. Even the laces.

It was the envy of the neighborhood, so nice that I felt compelled to write my name on it with a Magic Marker. But it was no trophy-case pigskin, no, we made sure of that. Before long, the scuffs and grass stains on the ball were more pronounced than my block printing.

One afternoon, somewhere in between Halloween and Thanksgiving, misfortune struck. On a punt, the football became lodged in the naked branches of the big walnut tree at the end of our field (read: Mr. and Mrs. Johnson's yard), waaay up there.

The sun was getting low. The other kids dissipated. I threw a stick at my beloved football a few times, to no avail, before trudging home. I wasn't a shy kid when it came to complaining, and when my Dad got wind of this, he marched me right out of the house and up the street.

I told him how hopeless and pointless it was, how I had tried to get the ball out of the tree, that it would be there forever, that the wood would grow around it... He would have none of it.

My Dad, Dr. Heller, is a university professor. He taught Geography, not Physics. But he selected a chunk of firewood from the neighbor's wood pile, and calmly began throwing it up into the tree. He wasn't even aiming for the ball, really, just making sure that his chosen projectile went in the right direction each time. Again and again. And again. And again.

I became a little bit concerned that he would get bonked by the piece of wood as it returned to Earth each time, especially as it began to get dark. My father explained to me, with the same purposeful and methodical patience that he applied to his task, that the idea was to just keep trying. Eventually, he advised, we'll succeed.

By that time I was nearly vehement in my disagreeability about the situation. "It's just a friggin' football," I whined in the chilly air. "Let's go already."

And go we did. About three tosses later. When the chucked wood startlingly knocked the football out of the limbs that had cradled it for so long. I ran over to recover my prized possession. Dad walked over, picked up the trusty piece of firewood, and put it back where he had gotten it.

Then we went home.

Dad likes to tell that story to this day. He does not refer to it as The Story of the Football, or The Football Incident... He calls it The Lesson of the Football. Because he's a teacher. And he taught me something important that evening, something I've never let go.

I'm lucky. I have had role models in my life like him. And Vince Antonelli. Two guys who were quite different and yet quite the same. They'd consider me to be remiss in my duties if I did not keep throwing this piece of wood at that football.

pH 4.o1.23


Wednesday, February 1, 2023

National Freedom Day

The Sun came out today. In some parts of the country, that's no big deal; expected, even. In southwest Michigan, it's something we haven't seen in a while.

Never mind our warm yellow star itself. After the dreary January we just had, I could go blind just staring at the snow in the bright light, as if it were a stranger. Always remarkable, it's like this every year, every winter.

For a lot of people, seeing the blue sky for the first time since the holidays is enough to warm the heart - for others, only the skin. Their insides never thaw.

It is February 1st. In some years, that's a day marked by tragedy, as in 2003, when the space shuttle Challenger burned up in the atmosphere. Or by events that would turn out to be massive in their eventual scale, like in 1865, when Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.

In other years, history has recorded that, really, nothing happened on 2/1. In 1980, when I was 12 years old, the only thing that happened on this day was the debut of Blondie's "Call Me"... Which, in all fairness, would go on to become Billboard's Song of the Year.

Twelve is an awfully young age to have your existence stopped. To live on only in memories and images and documents. If this had been my last day at that age, Charlie's age when he died, I would have missed out on more things than I can list here. Mount St. Helens had not yet erupted. Jimmy Carter was president. The Pittsburgh Steelers had just won their fourth Super Bowl.

All of these things we dutifully record.

There will come a day, whenever and however it comes about, when our species no longer exists. This would become true for the dinosaurs who came before us. They could not have fathomed it at all. We humans barely can even with all our accumulated knowledge.

Just as mammals took over in prominence after the big lizards were gone, something else will follow us here. But we are unique in our words and our pictures and our stories and our rolls of plans. Squirrels, birds, fish, frogs, insects - they don't do those kinds of things. Not even primates, our closest cousins in the animal world, do.

It's not unfair to ask: If it ends up that nothing knows about us, are we even here at all? Probably not. And if nobody is here to examine all of this, to sift through the data, to sort through the volumes, to learn about us whether they care or don't... Does it even exist?

In sheer quantum terms, the answer is, no. No, it doesn't. The trophies, the selfies, the videos, the blogs, the hard drives, the libraries, the museums... It won't matter any more than the crumbling concrete and rusting rebar will. We will never have been known to exist, therefore, we don't exist now.

Then why do we try?

Because, at the end of each day, eventful or not, it's all about one thing: How do you feel about yourself? Although not tangible, such feelings are just as temporary, something none of us will have to worry about for too terribly long.

And the Sun will rise again, regardless of whether or not anyone is here to somehow capture the moment, whatever it may bring.

pH 2.o1.23


Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Down Stairs

Can the Year 2023 get a Disney Genie FastPass to the front of the line already? Or the end of it, whatever? Just skip the holidays - we're all broke anyhow - and move this thing along. Because 2022 is exhausted.

We already know 2024 is going to be a doozy (if we even make it that far as a civilization). So next year may be that last big gulp of fresh air for the nation to collectively hold until the next election.


Even sports isn't sufficient to rub the sleep out of my eyes. Michigan's football team is on the brink of a championship (just like last year) after beating Ohio State (just like last year) but will likely face undefeated Georgia (just like last year).

Let's face it; reruns suck. They're almost as bad as watching movies wherein you already know the ending, like Titanic, or Passion of the Christ. When an entire year seems like a rerun, you just want to turn it off... When six, seven, eight years in a row seem like reruns, then you realize that your misery is, in fact, syndicated.

And what a syndicate we have here in Kalamazoo. So many things go wrong in this place, yet, no one ever admits having done any.

Sometimes this can have staggering implications, like in the case of my young nephew Charlie, whose Cause of Death was misclassified (deliberately) by Medical Examiner Joyce deJong in 2015.

She's still here. He's still gone. That will be the story next year. And beyond. The emotional damage this has done to my sister is not measurable by a yardstick, or a beaker, or a scale. But it is immense.


When such things get swept under the rug, the person holding the broom is seldom held to account. In cases like ours, where an appointed bureaucrat is standing in your way, it's not cool. But in other cases, the wealthy benefactors of such bureaucrats are the ones doing wrong, with barely any consequences. This leads to a feeling of impunity among the Top One Percent, which is the kind of thing that gets handed down to their coddled offspring.

It's pretty obvious why. There is almost an American tradition of citizens being trapped in company-owned towns, where everyone is dependent on The Man in the White Hat. This is not fresh ink being spilled here.

It's exhaust.

Even so, for us, the legacy they left to Charlie - and the way it was done - conjures up some of the worst images of human history. Of times when rulers went unchallenged, and they threw casual yet raucous parties, like so many heads from atop the Templo Mayor.

pH 12.o6.22


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Of Laws, Mice and Men

It has been said, as many times as anything else has ever been said, that ours is a nation of laws and not men (or women). This can lead to spaghetti-thinking, with saucy strands winding around cheesy meatballs from California to the Capitol, such as:

- But weren't all of the laws actually made by men?

- Did those men want to to do things that were clearly wrong (like own slaves) so legalizing wrong things was the easiest route to doing them openly?

- Did those men listen to other men around them, ones who were not elected to make laws, when deciding who could do what with whom and where?

- Were any of those men drunk at the time?

We may not have all the answers today, but we do know that once the ink is dry on the lawbook, that's pretty much it. Unless the Supreme Court were to become hopelessly ideological in nature, and begin issuing baseless edicts rooted in their own moral preferences, laws have sticky tendencies.

Unless, that is, they're brushed aside by those in power who don't feel like being obedient. People like Joyce deJong, who is the de facto Medical Examiner for almost all the counties in western Michigan. Of course there are laws on the books that control the appointed official that holds that title. But only if the local Commissioners will vigorously enforce them. Which they don't.

What is a citizen to do? File a lawsuit? Take one's petition of grievance to the other branch of government, the courts, who are tasked with playing referee to the arguments? Good luck with that - judges are free to be capricious and arbitrary if that's what they want to do.

In bigger cities, the business of civic duty can be vast and overwhelming, so a lot of pettiness gets put aside out of sheer necessity. That's not always the case in smaller places, like Kalamazoo, where all our public servants could easily fit under one preacher's tent.

If our M.E., the vindictive and dishonest deJong, had to be an obedient public servant, my nephew's Death Certificate would reflect the truth. (She guesses he died by suicide; we know better.) This seemingly clerical-in-nature error doesn't make much difference to her, or to the rest of our community, but it is hurtful to my family and it skews vital statistics that the County compiles and provides to the federal government. [Shrug.]

In the mean time, Kalamazoo has evolved, or at least morphed in the seven-plus years that have dripped away since Charlie died. The city has officially changed its wide stance on other subjects... Like urinating and defecating in public.

Yeah. That's now legal in this town - well, "decriminalized". Why? Because hey, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go. As with everything in The Book of Charlie, you can't make this up.

Ergo, if you should find yourself in Kalamazoo, be advised to keep your head down, lest ye step right into a pile of human waste. Which we Hellers have been doing here for quite some time now.

pH 8.16.22


Friday, April 8, 2022

Student Body, Right

Can intelligence be measured? Does it have a weight, a volume, a quantity consisting of units? Is it bespoken of materially, manifesting itself in property, propriety or prosperity?

Is it even an objective thing? Is it verifiable through achievement? Through notoriety? Personality? What tells the rest of the world that you're smart?

A baseline of some kind is in order to even have such a high-minded discussion. Although some blue-collar snobs may reject it, most of society would agree, graduating from college is a pretty decent sign of a workable IQ. I can accept that - and I don't have a college degree.

I know a little bit about graduate-level academia, though, because my Dad was a professor at Western Michigan University. I grew up knowing about the inner workings of the place - the politics and the little rubs that maybe caught Dr. Heller in a slightly wrong way.

But that was back in WMU's heyday, when the student body accounted for almost half of the City of Kalamazoo's population. That glory faded a long time ago. The latest numbers - metrics we can all get our hands on and our heads around - bear this out.

Enrollment is down dramatically at Western, again, this time plunging by 8.6 percent. That follows an almost-as-calamitous 2021, when it dropped by 7.1 percent. In simpler terms, for every seven freshmen that arrived on WMU's leafy campus in 2020, six are showing up today.

Some eggheads out there might point to the pandemic as probable cause. But I don't know about that. Kalamazoo County wasn't exactly a Covid-19 hot spot like Kent County or Oakland County, plus, we generally stay away from each other here anyway.

Besides, isn't one person's pandemic another person's opportunity, creating healthcare demand on an unparalleled scale? Western Michigan University is home to Homer Stryker School of Medicine (WMed), after all.

Rather than more medical students being attracted, WMed has actually seen the number of applications it receives go down year after year, just like WMU. And they have yet to crack the Top 100 list for medical schools in nearly a decade of existence. (But they are also the contracted coroner for many counties in Michigan so the uptick in autopsies was, I suppose, greatly appreciated.)

Now let's stop playing dumb and look at some of the real reasons young people rely on when deciding where to take their scholastic talents. Start with tuition. Spending one semester at Western Michigan University will cost a student a little over $6,000... WMed, a lot more than that. Since everybody borrows the money anyway, you can throw a heaping helping of interest on top of that amount.

Indeed, just last year, the university decided it was prudent to hike tuition by 3.1% and room and board by 3%. This took place under the guidance of the university's new president, whoever that is.

Now throw in some sociology. Kalamazoo has horrible weather, high crime, broken infrastructure, boring architecture, frightening pollution and really bad roads. It's also chock full of mean people. And there are no solutions, because our city and county governments are stocked with self-interested C-average types who like to pick and choose which rules to follow, when to follow them.

This place has about as much sense of purpose and charm as a mouse trap. Not attending WMU, then, would be a sign of intelligence. This is a good place - to avoid. Do the smart thing. Pass on it.

And pass it on.

pH 4.o8.22


Monday, February 28, 2022

Some Sunny Day

 The Gods of War are walking the Earth.

The bravery of the Ukrainian people, juxtaposed against the cruelty of the Russian would-be Empire, is historic in its scope and depth, resonant with emotion, dynamically awful.

I may have beefs with my local government, we have our differences, but I would never call it tyranny. Not compared to what we see happening in older parts of the civilized world right now.

I'm a Gen-Xer. We were raised on all of the things that existed before everything we have today. We didn't have e-mail; we had paper and pens and envelopes and stamps. Our parents drove us around in station wagons, not "crossovers" or SUVs. We didn't have a remote control... We WERE the remote control.

The telephone was attached to the wall. Reading material was generally printed. We weren't allowed to use calculators in school because that was considered cheating. There was no Google - some families had an encyclopaedia at home, and beyond that, we had to deal with the Dewey Decimal System and the stupid Index Card Catalog at the library. 

We adapted to all these changes, just as our forebears adapted from the slide rule to the computer. But one thing remained the same:

The threat of global thermonuclear war.

Having lost her young son in 2015, my sister has infrequently suggested that Charlie must have died in order to be spared some other horrific event... It's kind of hard to argue with that right now, with Russia's nuclear forces on high alert, their ICBMs aimed principally at us.

My dad, also a Charlie, is a retired geography professor, and he served in the Air Force way back when, as an officer. He has a pretty good understanding of which cities in America will be important targets to the enemy in the event of a nuclear exchange.

Kalamazoo is an unassuming rail and freeway hub connecting millions of people between major cities like Chicago, Detroit and Grand Rapids. Strike One.

We have an airport, a university (with a medical school no less) and two hospitals that serve the whole region. Strike Two.

And we have Pfizer, where the Covid-19 vaccine is produced, along with other drugs that enhance the quality of American life, such as Rogaine and Viagra. Strike Three.

In short: Kalamazoo's not gonna make it. The Russians probably have six, eight nukes with our general ZIP code on them (49oo1), maybe more. If the Gods of War decree it, none of us stand a chance.

Historically speaking, with the sand potentially running out of the hourglass, many bad people have sought to atone for their wrongs. They tried to get it off their consciences before the bitter end.

Not here. It's easier for them (and now, for us all) to stick our heads in the sand... As if that would save any of us from being flash-fried like toner on a piece of paper stuck in a copy machine.

pH 2.28.22


Wednesday, February 23, 2022

On Potholes and Autopsies

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is running for re-election this year in a contest that may as well be called "Snow White vs. The Seven Dwarfs". Her victory is as predictable as the potholes that reveal themselves each year when the winter ice sheet recedes.

While Whitmer's first term was considerably derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, she ran in 2018 on a rather simple message, meant to appeal to everyone: "Fix the Damn Roads." She might as well run on that platform again, since the roads have most certainly not been fixed, at least not where I live.

While Kalamazoo itself is a joke, as cities go, poor road conditions in general are not. In India, for example, potholes are responsible for the deaths of 10 people per day. Michigan's motorists are more likely to pay with their savings accounts than with their lives, as their car suspension parts snap and buckle under the strain of unnecessary roughness.

So we don't invest in the roads here. Call it the Other Kalamazoo Promise: You will be replacing your tires, rims, shocks, struts, springs, ball joints, tie rod ends, wheel bearings and other parts on your vehicle on a regular basis if you choose to live or work here.

Is it somehow super-expensive to patch potholes? No... About $40 or $50 for the patching material, plus a couple of guys and a truck. Repaving the roads would be a much better solution, of course, and that costs anywhere between $300,000 and $900,000 per mile, depending on width and other physical factors.

So why wouldn't the city and the county want to invest in our infrastructure, even if the State government won't keep its word to do so? I guess we have other things to spend our money on around here. Lord knows we don't raise enough in taxes - if we did, we wouldn't have a bunch of billionaire patrons stocking the larder like we do (something very few, if any, other cities have ever done).

One of the projects that the wealthy have brought to our town is called WMed. If you have read this blog even a few times, you know that WMed has contracts with nearly all the counties in Southwest Michigan and beyond to perform coroner services. They perform about 1,000 autopsies each year here, at a cost of about $3,300 per corpse.

If you cheated and used a calculator, you know that comes up to about $3.3 million per year. That's enough money to patch hundreds of thousands of potholes, or to pave between 3 and 10 miles of road each year. So why are our roads so much worse than our neighboring city of Portage?

Perhaps we have other priorities here. Perhaps the county is too busy fending off lawsuits - from citizens and former employees alike - to budget its resources sensibly.

Or maybe they just don't care.

It's kind of easy for me to believe the latter, seeing the way WMed's Chief Pathologist, Joyce deJong, lied her ass off on my nephew Charlie's death certificate. Even after she changed her story, she still refused to change the document!

If I lie to my boss, I get fired. If you lie to your boss, you get fired. But the Medical Examiner in Kalamazoo gets paid whether she chooses to be honest or not and her salary alone could pave, what, another quarter- to half-mile of road. Depending on width. And other physical factors.

Nothing changes here. No matter what promises are made or who is supposed to keep them, nothing gets put right. Not the coroner, not the roads, not the parasitic clowns who live off our consent to be governed. You can think about this stuff the next time you're waiting for your car to be repaired... I tend to think about it a little more often than that.

pH 2.23.22


Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Kalte Nacht

Nazi madman Josef Mengele enjoyed experimenting on innocent children. Among other horrific things, the bad doctor liked to stick them in freezers. History and God alike have damned him for it.

Mengele got away with his sadistic insanity in real time because, hey, he was a government official when he did it. That's the sort of rotted nonsense most any evildoer will deploy until it crumbles in the face of actual justice.

Fast-forward to Kalamazoo in the year 2022. And swallow hard.

Somewhere out there, on this sub-zero night, is an evicted citizen named Issa Smith and her small children. Maybe indoors, maybe not. This time of year, when it gets this cold in Michigan, an industrial freezer would likely be warmer than any local park bench.

Homelessness, in this environment, is akin to a death sentence. So who bears responsibility? Who would turn a single mom and her vulnerable youngsters out in these circumstances? Not the murderer Mengele; he's dead.

It was, in fact, Kalamazoo County's 9th Circuit Court Judge Alexander C. Lipsey. That's who decided it was in the public interest that children should shiver. Over a landlord-tenant dispute. Like most judges in this morally frostbitten town, he sided with the powerful, against the powerless.

He's a judge. He has the discretion to do just about anything he wants, within or without the law (I've seen him do it firsthand), and this is the decision he made.

Look, I'm not going to further excoriate the guy, since it's obvious to any decent person just how fucked up that is. But I will point out that he has made rulings in the past that also negatively impacted the lives of single mothers and their little ones - rulings that veer into outright cruelty.

An objective glance at his history proves that he's practically made a living doing it, which may cause you to wonder, why? Why would he harbor resentment for the most helpless members of our society?

The bargain-bin judge isn't the only public servant to blame around here, though, as dishonorable as he is. Ms. Smith contacted the members of the City and County Commissions in Kalamazoo - her representatives - asking for help. They opted to ignore her.

It all sounds pretty familiar to us Hellers.

As a woman and her children may be freezing to death out there tonight, the rest of us at least get the faint comfort of knowing that Lipsey's reign of (t)error is coming to an end. He won't be allowed to run for office after his current term expires because of his advanced age. That's the law...

Because here in Michigan, we know, throwbacks aren't necessarily a good thing. We know that as surely as we know that the temperatures will plummet in late January.

pH 1.26.22


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Season of the Witch

Despite all that happens here on Her scorching surface, Mother Earth just keeps rolling along, unimpeded by our mental ideas about time and space, unbothered by the billionaire gnats flitting about her watery, verdant, rocky celestial body. Whatever "it" may be, "it" matters not to Terra Mater.

For the inhabitants of our solar system's shining blue jewel, frantically flipping the pages on our calendars, it means that we have again reached the end of October. Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, the crops have been picked, the leaves are turning colors, the frost is on the grass. Finally...


It is the anti-Holiday, the subject of horror movies, a moonlit celebration of pagan trickery and artful deceit. Disguises. A night of calculated movement in the darkness. Some people would prefer that to be every night, with or without the candy.

Of course, it has been duded up for daylight nowadays. "Trunk or Treat" has largely supplanted the traditional way of doing things, conducted under the hovering gaze of parenthood in school and/or church parking lots - what good is that?

The shepherds of utopia have wrung the fun out of Halloween, compared to the way it used to be, there is no doubt about that. And progress only goes in one direction, so we're not about to go trudging back to the wicked old days.

Amidst the tragedy of the loss of my nephew Charlie, there is still a black light shining on some of the things we shared during his short lifetime. Halloween was one of Charlie's favorite holidays (right up there with his birthday and Christmas). I've written about it here before.

He was not a Treat-Trunker or whatever the hell you'd call that. He was old school, donning a damn good costume each year, coming home with enough sugar to feed the Army. The kid loved it. And I at least get to live with the knowledge that he got to experience Halloween in much the same way that I did.

Part of the thrill involved in such stealthy - almost professional - skulking was the fact that there really was danger out there. Some children, being bigger and lazier and less creative than their peers, opted for criminality instead of ingenuity. Going door-to-door in a methodical accumulation of goodies was simply not for them.

They'd let the others, their victims, do that hard work for them. At the right moment, they'd jump someone, ripping the heavy pillowcase from their frantic little hands, then go thudding off into the gloom.

Bullies. The very reason that clowns are scary.

Dedicated Trick-or-Treaters were mindful of that, and would either wear running shoes, or travel in packs. Or both. Bullies can travel in packs, too, after all.

One of the problems facing society today, another thing that our planet does not much notice, is that bullies run rampant among us, even as belabored adults. In response, the same people who come up with things like Trunk-or-Treat have tried to eliminate bullying from schools by decree. They tried to teach it out of humanity. But that won't work and should not be attempted.

Our parents taught us how to handle bullies. Ignore them at first, but if they escalate the confrontation, you had to know how to fight. And fight we did. Because bullies don't want to fight; they want to bully. And when you fight them, they generally go find somebody else to pick on.

We were not shielded from this harsh reality of the world because our elders knew that bullying does not end when childhood does, as if slated to do so on the calendar. They are all around us, among our bosses and co-workers and neighbors and fellow congregants.

They're on the Internet. They're in our government. They're on the other side of oceans that, like the trees on the street I grew up on, don't seem so big as they used to.

They are the real-life monsters and demons that we live with for all 365 days of the year. I believe in ghosts.

And I've known a few witches... Haven't I, Joyce?

pH 1o.28.21