Friday, January 31, 2014

The Pain of Potholes: One More Thing to Endure This Winter

If your drive to work in the morning is anything similar to mine, you understand the dismal pothole situation happening on Grand Rapids roads.  I have mastered the art of the quick swerve to avoid pummeling my car into an unexpected pothole.  Not only are we dealing with loads of snow and ice this winter, but driving around Grand Rapids has become similar to a video game in which the goal is to master the side-to-side maneuver to avoid hitting a pothole, not to mention another car.  

TRIP, a Washington D.C. based national transportation nonprofit, estimated that the average Grand Rapids driver spends $1,027 in repairs per year driving on faulty and unsafe roads.  An annual pavement analysis for Grand Rapids stated that the condition of roads in the city improved in 2013.  Some experts believe the improvement statistics are due to “short-term fixes,” that will eventually become faulty, which is perhaps what we drivers are experiencing this winter.  The Metro Council put out a report in 2013 which documented the overall pavement conditions of the Grand Rapids area road network.  They concluded:

 “Continued under investment in the core transportation infrastructure combined with the loss of buying power for local municipalities has resulted in the worst conditions since GVMC started doing surveys in the mid 1990’s.”

The City of Grand Rapids awarded some money last year for pothole damage claims.  They also denied fifty-five claims; most they stated were not reported correctly, thus they had no knowledge of the pothole and no chance to fix it, according to a report from the comptroller’s office.  There are proper steps to filing a claim of pothole damage on your car to the city.  Make sure you document the time and location of the pothole, and photograph both the damages and the pothole; similar to if you were filing a claim with your insurance agency.  Take all the appropriate steps to ensure you have a chance at an award for your damages.  

Along with trying to get damages paid for, we all want to make sure our cars are all right after this treacherous winter.  Take a few simple steps to check if your car has pothole damage.  Check your tires first for flats or punctures, inspect your tire rims for dents, and make sure your shocks and struts are properly maintained.  The smartest thing to do after nailing a huge pothole is take your car into your auto mechanic for a quick inspection.  That pothole can cause further damage than you would think.  Better safe than sorry; especially when it comes to funding repairs.

This winter will have tested not only our stamina as Michigan residents, but the durability of our vehicles too.  I hope that the Grand Rapids Streets and Sanitation Department takes a close look at the condition of our roads and comes to a solution that will protect our vehicles in the future.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A revolution in seating, a Grand Rapids tradition

Many Grand Rapidians know that our city  has been known as the Furniture City since the late 19th century. Perhaps you've had a chance to browse the Furniture City exhibit at the Public Museum. Grand Rapids rose to a city of fame in furniture production due to its proximity to the large stands of hardwood that were logged between 1840 and 1900. Michigan was the largest lumber producer in the United States in the latter half of the 1800s. Grand Rapids, being situated on a river between the north woods and Chicago, grew exponentially as a result of this industry and spawned another industry: furniture. All over the city even today stand the old furniture factories that employed so many migrating Americans and Europeans.

But along with the mass-produced parlor and bedroom suites that were shipped to fill new housing going up around the developing country, Grand Rapids companies produced and are still producing innovative pieces that have changed the way we Americans have lived our lives.

In 1886 Grand Rapids School Furniture Company introduced the student-desk combination, which revolutionized school seating. Eventually this company would be known as American Seating and would locate on the Westside. In 1921 American Seating updated this desk to the “Universal” which featured adjustable height, swivel seats, and bases that didn’t need to be bolted to the floor and which was scientifically designed to promote good posture. This model was successfully sold and used for decades.

If you didn't sit in the "Universal" in school, there's a good chance that you sat in another American Seating desk iteration, or rode to school on a bus with American Seating benches, or cheered for the Detroit Tigers in an American Seating fold-up chair.  Grand Rapids chair design has affected our experience of studying and recreating for much of the 20th century. But it would also affect the way we worked.

In 1976 William Stumpf created the Ergon chair for Herman Miller - the first ergonomic chair designed to limit stress on a person working at a desk. By now ergonomics is a commonly used phrase and we have numerous products available to prevent neck and back strain as well as carpal tunnel syndrome and any number of conditions that result from long-term sitting and typing. But the Ergon, and later models, the Equa and Aeron, were breakthroughs for making "a beautiful chair comfortable."

More recently sustainable furniture design has become a focus of Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers. Steelcase designed the Think chair to be not only attractive and ergonomic, but environmentally sustainable. It is Cradle to Cradle certified and composed of only safe materials, 40% of which are recycled. There are no harmful toxins or dyes used in its manufacture which is deliberately designed to minimized energy use and emissions. When the chair is no longer usable, it is 98% recyclable itself.

Clearly, this type of manufacture is an order of magnitude away from clear cutting forests to mass produce furniture, although much of that original Furniture City furniture still occupies bedrooms and dining rooms around the country.

What direction will Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers go in next given that models of education and work are likely to change, possibly quite radically, in the next quarter century?

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Grand Rapids Standard of Living

The Rapidian has an article up ("Further questions on Grand Rapids standard of living") with a poll for Grand Rapidians to take to help us measure the overall standard of living city-wide. It would be great if we could get as much participation from as many different demographic groups as possible, so get on over there and take the poll (please).

Thank you for your support.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Unemployed in West Michigan, muddling through the system

As I described before, receiving your unemployment benefits in Michigan may be more complicated than it looks.  After weeks of not receiving an unemployment check, I decided I had better visit the state's unemployment problem resolution office. But I soon discovered that this office was packed by 8 o'clock. Apparently, the state's new eligibility questionnaire had doubled the wait time to resolve individual problems. Getting there as the doors opened only indicated that you might be able to meet with a case worker by late afternoon. But I didn't exactly have anywhere to go that day.

As I waited in line, the fellow next to me told me my best bet was to arrive early - like an hour and a half early - and wait outside until the doors open. I found myself standing outside the unemployment office at 6:30 in the morning. The wind chill was -5. But at least I would get answers, I thought.

The silver lining to all this is what you hear while waiting in line. Among the roughly 100 shivering souls waiting alongside me, many had very interesting stories as to why they're there and what their problems are. It made waiting outside in a soviet line, in the pre-dawn dark just a bit more bearable.

After finally (number #35!) gaining admission to the unemployment office, I sat, waited, and talked to the guys on either side of me. One was a highly skilled high-end plumber, and the other was a diesel trucker. What interesting stories they had to tell about their travels and their situations in life currently, and the challenges of small business. There is plenty of real suffering in this jobless recovery, and men have taken it on the chin.

Finally my number was called. As I approached the front of the line, I was motioned to talk to someone on the phone. Really? Well, all right, I figured, as long as I get some answers. Except I didn't. In so many words, I was only told that my case had been assigned to someone. It occurred to me that I had little power to affect change regarding my "pending status" anyway. Resigned, I left, my view of how a bureaucracy functions confirmed.

A few weeks later, in January, 11 weeks after my last unemployment check, when I logged on to the unemployment benefits portal, my benefit claims had changed status, and the next day, I got a check for that almost 3-month backlog of benefits.  At no time during this process was I able to communicate with anyone who had knowledge of my situation or could make any decision about them. There was no one to call, email, or otherwise query. I was relieved to finally receive my unemployment money, but the lag time occurred during Christmas, in the bleakest part of the year. If my family hadn't had savings to fall back upon, we could have been like any one of the many families who have been evicted or foreclosed on in the past five years. Weave your own safety net, Michiganders, in case the government one isn't there to catch you when you get tripped by this economy.

And wear a scarf - it's cold out there.

--John Potter

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Grand Rapids Public Schools accommodates transgender student

With the diversification of American society, different groups - religious, social, sexual, cultural - are beginning to require and demand different accommodations from public schools and governmental bodies. Recently the Grand Rapids Public Schools had its first request for the use of a different bathroom from a transgendered student, Kitty, who felt unsafe using the facilities provided for girls and boys:

“I’m worried that I’m going to go in [in the men’s bathroom] some day and I’m going to get beat up and they’re not going to have any proof of it,” Kitty stated in a recent interview with News 8.

Michigan does not have any laws requiring schools to provide transgender students requests for separate bathroom or locker room accommodation. Other states, most notably Colorado, have also seen problems like these filter through the legal system. The Grand Rapids Public Schools decided to deal with Kitty’s request by creating a unisex bathroom available for her use, an easy to implement solution. Other public schools have allowed transgendered students to use the bathroom or locker room of their selection, regardless of their physical sex.  Some parents and students are uncomfortable with that solution, however, feeling it violates privacy having a person with male genitals in the girls’ bathroom (or vice versa) and that the rights of the few have been given preference over those of the many. This is a hard situation to explain to children who come to grips with their own identities over time and who develop awareness of the world outside themselves slowly. Bullying and social shunning aren't new phenomena in schools (or societies), and while no one wants to see a child suffer, people's ideas about what are proper responses to dealing with difference or identity expression vary. Many of the comments on the TV 8 article express anger over how these problems should be (and are) solved.

A child’s experience in the school can have profound impact over him during the course of his lifetime. Bullying has been a hot topic in schools and in the media lately, but it's not entirely clear whether bullying is on the rise, or whether an obsession with bullying is on the rise. It's also likely that as we encourage people to express what is different about themselves, more conflicts will arise about the appropriateness of various forms of self expression and, again, the rights of the many versus the rights of the few. It would be a step forward if we as a community in Grand Rapids could attempt to get to know each other and our individual and communal problems before we consult a lawyer or file a lawsuit.

Monday, January 6, 2014

GR Kids (will eventually) Go Back to School

For kids, winter break can be a glorious time, just as much as going back to school can be a dreadful time. Michigan children are getting a little reprieve this week because of our extreme weather, but soon enough they are looking at open schools and months of more work and less play. Most adults remember praying hard for snow days and how disappointing it was when the weather just missed us. Back to the grindstone.

For parents, this transition can be trying as well. Kids who were up at the break of dawn on Christmas morning suddenly can't be pried out of bed. And getting them to do homework again is another stressor. Here are few easy tips to help make the switch from break to school that much smoother. 

Get back into your school routine again. For most children, break means staying up later and watching more TV or playing more computer than usual. It is important to reestablish the school routine when transitioning out of winter break. Make sure your kids go to bed at a normal bedtime so they will have enough energy for school. If you didn't start this routine this past weekend, you've got today and tomorrow to get them settled into normalcy.

Cut back on the sweets. Children get all kinds of sweets and treats for Christmas and New Year's. Every event is another opportunity to inhale sugar and carbs. Before school starts, set firm limits again on snacking and sweets and reintroduce proteins and vegetables into their diet. They will sleep better and have more energy without as much hyperactivity. Have them try cooking with you or taking a cooking class for kids. Kids who work to make their food are more open to trying what they've created.

Make sure your kids are getting some exercise. In those harsh, winter months when break ends and school begins again, staying locked up in the house for days leaves children feeling restless. On a snowy afternoon, after the snowplow has cleared your driveway, take your kids out sledding or ice-skating. Do an activity that will tire them out after a few hours so that going to bed a little earlier is a lot easier. Limiting media is doctor advised, and exercise leads to happier days for you and them.

For most kids, the transition from fun to academics is hard. Do your best to make learning fun for them. Update their school supplies and have them decorate new school folders. Get them excited about learning again by taking a day trip to the public library or to the Grand Rapids Public Museum (there's a great dinosaur exhibit right now!). Sit down as a family for some homework time every day; doing it together will help them and keep you involved in their education and aware of what is going on at school.

When making the transition from break to school, remember: consistency, consistency, consistency. Kids will struggle against the boundaries that you draw for them, but they will also thrive when they fully understand and can meet expectations. It can be trying initially, but with a little coaxing, your kids will get right back into the swing of things.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Unemployed in West Michigan: more complicated than it looks

When I was younger, I was always a bit curious how people seemed to simply wait in line to get an unemployment check. It appeared as if it was a somewhat unappetizing way to attain free money. In other words, I felt as if it was a world an enterprising person never had to come into contact with. Naive me.

Last September I was laid off from a job I had had for 15 years I knew the unemployment office was to be my eventual destination. And I inquired from friends what that actually entailed. But I gradually became acquainted with the full scope of process: keeping record of your job search, going to a Michigan Works office, getting acquainted with calling an interactive phone recording (asking about my job search). And fortunately for me, the regional problem resolution office was only a mile from my house.

Then the checks started coming. It wasn't a lot of money, but it wasn't insignificant either. A welcome relief actually when so many bills need payment. I seemed to have the system down - keep records, fax those records monthly to Lansing, collect money. Then I made a mistake. I told the truth.

The truth was that, feeling the pressure to supplement my income, I applied for a low-paying very part-time janitorial job. I then decided that would almost be counterproductive to finding a job in my field, so I turned it down after being offered it. The aforementioned phone recording that asks questions about your job search does indeed ask if you've turned down any jobs. Well, I detailed through subsequent paperwork the why, who, and where of this refused job.

Michigan's unemployment system does not necessarily cut off benefits if you refuse a job. It depends whether it's in line with your previous salary and experience. The employer is contacted, and a review of the facts occurs. This is something that should take a few weeks, correct? I'm still waiting after nearly 3 months.

To complicate matters, Michigan's unemployment office instituted a new interactive phone system to determine eligibility. Such a system is not new in itself, but the roughly 30 questions needing to be answered takes a full 25 minutes. Eventually I realized that using the state's website to answer their questions was a quicker route.

Somewhere, I'm sure, a state bureaucrat confidently assumed that instituting a new and highly specific questionnaire would weed out fraud and abuse. Perhaps even generate savings. And of course, the internet would expedite this process for everyone. But they didn't think it through. At least they didn't consider the resulting casework overload. My guess is that this bright idea was floated in the past. But someone with more experience thought this through and realized it might not be so successful in execution. She must have retired. I suppose that's the problem with bureaucrats - they're rather immune to feedback.  Just ask any of the hundreds of people who swamped the Unemployment Agency last Monday, stood out in the freezing cold for hours, and didn't get to speak to anyone. Government doesn't tend to have to worry about marketing and continuous improvement the way small businesses do.

So what happened when I decided to take action and meet with an unemployment officer? Stay tuned; I'll answer that next time.  Perhaps I'll have heard something back by then, but I'm not holding my breath.

--John Potter