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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I had a few things on my mind last week

A couple of things caught my attention this week:

First was the United States Postal Service’s move to open retail centers in Staples stores around the country.
The centers will allow customers to buy stamps and ship packages using the USPS.

I admire USPS’s chutzpah in going out on its own to find a way to serve its customers.

For years, it’s been trying to get Congress to agree to changes it says will save money. But, as happens with pretty much every single issue that comes up these days, politics gets in the way.

Lawmakers from small, rural areas grouped together to block a move to eliminate Saturday delivery.

But USPS is working around Congress in ways that benefit the consumer. This one puts postal service in stores on weekends and in the evenings, when post offices are closed.

The problem is that the Staples sites likely won’t be staffed by USPS personnel.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe was matter-of-fact about the issue.

“That’s Staples’ business,” he said. “They make their own business decisions and it has nothing to do with us.”

Staples’ spokeswoman Carrie McElwee referred questions about the 200,000-member union to USPS.
The only one that’s really speaking is the union itself.

It’s calling for boycotts and protests at pilot locations in California, Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Union officials also are about to call on company shareholders to intercede.

I’m not sure why USPS and Staples can’t make this deal meet in the middle. The retail centers are a good idea, but I’d rather hand my mail and packages over to a trained postal employee. There are tons of regulations and limits associated with the movement of U.S. mail, and I’d rather handle it right the first time than find out too late, down the line, that an unskilled employee handled my parcels improperly.

* * *

Warren Buffett, Dan Gilbert and their billion-dollar offer for a perfect NCAA tournament bracket got under my skin this week.

I’ll admit, this point was far down on my list of reasons this bothered me: It’s just not going to happen. So, why not offer $10 billion, since you’re just wasting our time.

But my real problem is I’m troubled about why they’re focusing on something so trivial.

Is it because they know it’s just words, that they’ll never have to pay a dime anyway?

If they’ve got a billion dollars just lying around not doing anything (and, really, who doesn’t?), I wonder why they don’t offer it, instead, to the person who cures cancer.

The stories I’ve read about the prize have given high praise for the feat of working out a perfect bracket. I’ve done brackets before. Lots of us have. We know how difficult it is to even get a perfect round, or region, let alone get the whole thing right.

But, those of us who’ve lost someone to cancer surely consider that horrible disease to be a bit more important than a bunch of college basketball picks.

Gilbert’s involvement makes it a lot less tasteless for me. The Cavaliers owner has consistently been a donor to causes around the Cleveland area, including a scholarship program in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

In addition to the main prize offer with Buffett, Gilbert’s company announced it will split $2 million among the 20 most accurate predictions submitted to the contest. At the same time, Gilbert announced that he will donate $1 million to educational charities in Detroit and Cleveland.

This last part seems much more acceptable, because it’s money that’ll actually be awarded. And, he’s taking care of the cities where his company concentrates its business.

Friday, January 17, 2014

With a little help, language puts me on the right track

I’ll consider it a little victory.

It’s not often my thoughts match those of Euclid Police Capt. Scott Roller. At least not at the start of the conversation.

So, when it happened last week, I silently did a little happy dance in my chair in the basement of the Euclid Police Station.

We were there for what was my first meeting of the Euclid Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association. I graduated in November as part of Class 27.

The group serves many functions, but one of my favorites is that it raises funds to purchase body armor for the city’s police officers.

The discussion turned to an inquiry from an officer who wondered if the group would provide funds for a type of vest that far exceeded what other officers wear. It consists of heavier-duty panels, and it’s designed to be worn over the vest that most officers wear regularly. It’s not worn all the time.

My initial thought was “is that really necessary?”

Then, from the back of the room, Roller said he wanted to ask a question: “If someone asked for an armored personnel carrier, would you buy that, too?”

Yes! Let’s dance.

During the discussion it was decided that, yes, the group could probably buy the vest. But that’s not why the program was started.

You see, the purpose of the funding program is to encourage officers to wear up-to-date body armor all the time. This other vest? Yes, it is armor worn on the body, but it’s not the type of “body armor” that the program was envisioned to subsidize.

I’m resisting the urge to call what most police officers wear “bullet-proof vests.” That’s mostly because they’re really not “bullet-proof.” They have open sides where the arms come through, and, well, they only cover the chest and most of the officer’s back. Head’s open. Legs are open. Arms are open.

The words matter. And, thankfully, Roller is helping to keep me focused on them.

I’ve written about Roller before, in a column after an early class as part of the ECPA in which I realized how important asking questions is to police work.

In five months of knowing Roller, I’ve become well-versed in the art of his conversation. He works in questions as other artists work in clay or watercolor.

He’s a tricky guy, because as he asks, I find my own way to the answer.

I’m also learning to look at a subject in a different way. To look at underlying issues; to consider that things might not be a simple as they seem, or as I might like them to be.

It’s rare that I don’t take notes when we talk. A conversation Monday ended with two pages of notes and the topic of this column.

We got into a discussion about an incident that occurred late last year in Mentor.

A 56-year-old man was arrested when police responded to his apartment after reports that a man was threatening his neighbors with a knife. Mentor Police said the suspect had barricaded himself in his residence and refused to speak to police. Police made entry, and said the suspect charged at them with an object in his hands. Mentor Police said one of the officers fired a shot inside the residence that didn’t strike the suspect or anyone else.

The incident, which occurred on Dec. 14, remains under investigation.

The conversation took off when I asked why a shooting that involved one bullet, fired by someone Mentor Police willingly admit fired it, would take so long to investigate. As it turn out, there are some really good reasons that I hadn’t considered.

That conversation covered a lot of territory.

Some dealt with why it’s so important to me to know what happened that day. He understood my feelings that if we tell the public the investigation would be ongoing that we should tell them its results.

Some dealt with how the investigation has to protect the rights of both the suspect and the officer involved.

The law gives criminal suspects certain rights, but what about the officer?

“The suspect has rights in court. Doesn’t the officer have a reasonable expectation that he will be treated fairly, too?”

Then, there was the big one.

And, as a writer and editor, it’s this one that, to me, might be the most important.

I discussed the shooting using the word “accidental.”

Roller corrected me and used the word “unintentional.” Actually, it could be either, because we don’t know yet what happened.

Some might say he’s playing a game of semantics. I disagree.

I once had an editor who forbade the word “accident” in our coverage. His explanation was that it applied a legal definition that we’re in no place to make. We’d say wreck or crash.

For police, a shooting is either “unintentional” or “intentional.” Simplifying that, it becomes “he didn’t mean to fire” or “he meant to fire.” It widens slightly, though, when a shooting is deemed “intentional, but justified.”

Accidents do happen. Guns are machines, and machine parts break. But when someone pulls a trigger at a bad time, it might be unintentional, but it’s no accident the gun goes off.

This all started because I asked who’d be responsible for the damage done to the apartment from the bullet that was fired inside.

I admitted that I was trying to find another way to get at the outcome of the investigation. And, above, you see the progression of our conversation.

Once again, I found myself looking at the issue from another side. If we call it an “accident,” we tend to think, “accidents happen” and move on. When we call it “unintentional,” we accept the possibility that it might have been preventable. But it might not be preventable, too.

It’s an angle I hadn’t considered, and it’s an important technique that I need to master.

The language you use can force you to think about issues from angles you might not have considered, and change the nature of the discussion.

You should try it.

Twitter: @Lauranh

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Getting the facts straight on Lighten Up in 2014

It stinks when the first thing you do in the new year involves a screw-up.

Welcome to 2014, Laura style.

Unfortunately, it seems a lot like 2013.


New Year’s Day has, for the past six years, involved making a plea for participants in our annual weight-loss contest, called Lighten Up.

The name actually includes the year of the contest, so this year, it’s Lighten Up in 2014.

Last Wednesday was no different, as we included on the front page a little story explaining the rules of the contest and how to enter.

Only I forgot two of the more important facts involved in Lighten Up.

The first was I forgot to mention that those who sign up should include an estimate of their current weight.
It’s not a big deal, really. I’ll find out how much they actually weigh soon enough.

And so will you, when it’s listed in The News-Herald on the first Sunday of February, along with the contestants’ pictures.

Honestly, the only reason I ask is so I’m prepared in case we ever get a contestant who needs to be weighed on a different scale that can handle more weight than the one we use at LEAN Living in Concord Township.

The personal training and fitness studio on Crile Road has been our home for the past five years. Owner Jaime Brenkus’ scale goes up to about 450 pounds.

We’ve never had a contestant who weighs more than that, so we haven’t had to find our Plan B.

Here’s hoping this isn’t the year.

My second whoops involves leaving out a key fact about the contest.

I mentioned how you sign up: Email me at before 5 p.m. Wednesday, and include your name, complete address, a daytime phone number and a 100-word essay about why you’re interested in signing up.

I mentioned the basic rules: Contestants agree to a monthly weigh-in at LEAN Living, and to a monthly personal health assessment with an official with the Lake County General Health District. They agree to have their weight listed in the paper every month, and to blog once a week on our website about their progress throughout the contest.

Then there’s that other other item I forgot.

I am trying not to be hard on myself, because this is only the second year we’ve done it.

I forgot to mention that those who sign up are subject to a cutdown after three months. Those who don’t lose 5 percent of their initial weight will be dropped from Lighten Up.

Last year, it cost us about 15 people.

So, if you’ve signed up already, know that is part of the Lighten Up process, too. If you haven’t, and are still interested, read up a few paragraphs and get cracking, because time’s running short.

The program has been pretty successful so far, with contestants over the first five years losing 1,468.05 pounds.

I won’t lie: Keeping it off has been a struggle for many of the contestants involved.

Some have put a lot back on. Some have put all of it back on and more.

They all stress one thing when they talk about Lighten Up, though. There’s a lot of motivation there when you know your name and how much you weigh will be listed in the paper and on the website every month.

In the first five years, only a couple of people have walked away when they realized that was a fact.

Many have stayed because of that fact.

I just need to find that black magic to keep them motivated after the contest.

I’m sure it involves meetings and weigh-ins and some form of public display, just like is offered via Lighten Up.

I have a few months to work on that.

In the meantime, I’d better get cracking on this year’s contest.

And, if you’re interested, we’d love to have you join us.
Twitter: @Lauranh