Many years ago, several elections ago, the Cook County Coalition of Lake Associations held a candidate forum. There were many hard-hitting questions about property taxes and protecting water quality and so on. But the question that sticks in my mind from that long ago Q&A session was—who pays for the coffee and treats consumed at county board meetings?
There was a round of laughter when the question was asked, but it was obvious that people— voters—wanted to know. What government fund was used to purchase the coffee? How much was allocated to cookies and donuts each year? Was this an acceptable use of our tax dollars?
The audience seemed pleased to hear that the commissioners themselves provide the goodies shared during the midmorning break. There is a schedule and they all take turns bringing a treat. In fact, they not only bring enough for their board colleagues, they bring extra for county staff and citizens— and members of the press—in attendance. I’ve been fortunate over the years to sample some tasty treats prepared by local politicians. My favorite treat is the rum cake made by former Commissioner Walt Mianowski.
And the coffee itself? That is paid for by donations from the commissioners and county staff as well. No tax dollars wasted on coffee.
However, I don’t think money spent on coffee would be a total waste of county funds. I know, people who know me will be quick to say that I am addicted to coffee, so of course I would be supportive of the government providing coffee. But there is more to it than that.
The idea came up recently in a meeting I had with some Blandin Foundation Community Leadership participants. I was meeting with them to talk about our shared experience with the leadership training. They were taking part in the traditional Blandin leadership program and I was in the midst of the Editors & Publishers program. We were comparing notes and talking about the topic they have chosen to work on—building government trust.
I shared some of the things we are considering at the paper, such as the yet-to-happen “Coffee with the News-Herald.” As I explained that I would like to get together with readers now and then to chat over a cup of coffee, there was laughter. One of the Blandin participants said, “I see a theme here!”
Apparently one of the group working to build trust in government had suggested that the county offer coffee to taxpayers waiting for help. One of their group liked the idea of a little coffee station in the lobby of the planning & zoning office or the assessor’s office—like those at the car dealership or fancy hair salon. She suggested that a beverage—it didn’t have to be coffee, it could be a nice rooibos tea or even a cooler filled with refreshing water—would go a long way to soothing an irritated soul.
It brought to mind the book by Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, about Mortenson’s accidental foray into humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although his story was questioned as exaggerated and his charity challenged in 2011, it is clear that Mortenson’s nonprofit, Central Asia Institute, has built and helped operate some schools—and it continues to do so. So despite the cloud of uncertainty surrounding his story, Mortenson is doing good works.
And what good Mortenson has accomplished started with Three Cups of Tea. The book title comes from a proverb of a Tibetan/Pakistani ethnic group, the Balti: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family…”
I know, it would be complicated to have a coffeemaker and hot water and tea bags and containers of water scattered around the courthouse. It would be an additional task for a county staffer who already has enough to worry about. No one has time to sit and drink three cups of tea before conducting government business.
But it’s a nice thought. It’s good to see leaders thinking of ways they can build trust, even if it is with something as simple as providing coffee or orange pekoe to visitors. It’s a start.
There is no trouble so great or
grave that cannot be much
diminished by a nice cup of tea.
It is not very often that the Cook County News- Herald republishes an article from another newspaper. It is complicated to get permission and we prefer local content. However this week, I obtained permission from the Grand Rapids Herald Review to share a heartbreaking story about a father’s struggle to cope with the suicide of his daughter.
I didn’t go looking for the story on page A7. A father, John Bauer, contacted the Cook County News- Herald because his daughter, Megan Bauer Stejskal, a beautiful 33-yearold social worker, spent some time in Grand Marais. She worked as a mental health practitioner and at Superior National at Lutsen golf course in the summer. In the short time she lived on the North Shore she made many friends, who were all shocked and saddened to hear that she had died.
The News-Herald did not report the circumstances of her death because it didn’t happen in Cook County. She chose a different place, Bayfield, Wisconsin, to end her life. The News-Herald received an obituary from the family with the phrase that starts so many obituaries of suicide victims. According to the April 6, 2013 obituary, Megan “passed away unexpectedly.”
Truthfully, I was glad at that time that the News-Herald didn’t have to share the painful details. One of the most difficult stories for a newsperson to cover is the story of suicide. Reporting on death is never easy, whether that loss was caused by a car accident, a fall, a fire or by drowning. It is our job to share the details of a tragedy, to provide a historic record, but we know that by doing so we are adding to the suffering of family and friends.
Because of the stigma attached to mental health issues, we know the coverage of a suicide is even more hurtful. Along with the usual grief, there are so many unanswered questions. And often there is guilt, uncalled for because suicide attempters are very good at concealing their pain and hiding their plans, but agonizing guilt nonetheless.
Aside from cut and dried reports of a suicide death, reporters are hesitant to touch the topic. That is why receiving an email from John Bauer asking to talk about his daughter’s passing took my breath away. He attached the Grand Rapids Herald Review article and asked if we would reprint it. John wanted to share the painful path his family has been on.
In his grief, John Bauer is reaching out to others. He and his family talked about Megan’s life and death on the public television series Call Me Mental in a segment on suicide. In that video, John shares the terrible statistic that someone in the United States takes his or her life every 13 minutes.
In addition to sharing the story of his beloved daughter, John Bauer is gathering the tales of others who have been touched by the tragedy of suicide to be presented in a special multimedia exhibit in 2016. At press time he said he had heard from about 25 people who wanted to participate in some way.
There are others out there. Others who need to talk about their loss, who should not have to hide the way their loved ones died. John Bauer notes that it would be good if someday instead of saying a suicide victim had “died unexpectedly” obituaries could be similar to people who have perished from cancer or heart disease. John Bauer said his goal is to instead see obituaries share the truth—that a loved one died “after a long and courageous battle with mental illness.”
And better yet, John hopes that his exhibit, his call to talk about it, will lead to suicide prevention. He said if he can prevent one person from killing himself or herself the painful work he has undertaken will be worth it.
There are some who think that talking about suicide will lead to a suicide attempt. The therapists I’ve spoken with say that is not the case. In fact, they said checking in with a person who suffers from depression is more likely helpful than hurtful. Letting a person who struggles with depression know that they can call you anytime to talk is helpful. Sometimes despair strikes at unexpected times, at times when a person feels he or she should be happy. Having a phone number—or a list of phone numbers of people who care—close by can help.
Asking difficult questions like, “That sounds like an awful lot for one person to take; has it made you want to hurt yourself?” or “Are you feeling so bad that you’re considering suicide?” can actually be a relief to someone who is contemplating that extreme measure. Asking those questions can free a person to talk about it and to hopefully consider other options.
Suicide is not easy to think about, to talk about and certainly not to write about. But with efforts like the exhibit being put together by John Bauer, the discussion will be little easier.
The life of every person is like a
diary in which he means to write
one story, and writes another.