Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Mystery of the Paper 'Shrooms

Okay, I thought I could live with the mystery and the romance of not knowing.

But I can’t take it anymore…


Two years ago, when I first came to RMU, I was walking through the Magical Forest, i.e., the scenic pathway from Massey Hall to the main part of campus, when I noticed some very large mushrooms growing at the base of one of the tall pines. Upon further inspection, I realized that these very realistic fungi were actually made of paper.

Who would make paper mushrooms? Why would they “plant” them along this secluded pathway? Would they taste good on a hamburger with Swiss? It was certainly perplexing, but not enough for me to actually do anything about it.

Then it happened again this year. Now I absolutely must know.

So in the coming days I will be launching an investigation into the Mystery of the Paper ‘Shrooms. If anyone out there knows anything about the origin or meaning of these imitation toadstools, drop me a line at

Stay tuned…

--Valentine J. Brkich

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Enough is Enough

Det. Brian Johnson used to handle only “hot case” homicides. As a result, his hours were erratic and he didn't get to spend much time with his 10 and 11-year-old sons. Eventually, he switched to "cold" cases so that he could work steady hours and be able to give his sons the kind of guidance they can only get from a male role model. “It’s easier to set kids on the right path when they’re young than trying to turn them back once they’ve become teenagers,” he said.

Johnson was part of a panel discussion held on Oct. 21 in RMU's Rogal Chapel to discuss the alarming increase in violence among young males today. Called “Masculinity and Violence,” the discussion was organized by Paul Spradley, RMU’s assistant director of student life for multicultural affairs, as part of the national Week Without Violence. Sponsored by the YWCA, the Week Without Violence showcases a series of programs to help reduce violence in our communities.

The “Masculinity and Violence” panel included three members of the City of Pittsburgh Police Department: Cheryl Doubt, commander of investigations and firearms; and Brian Johnson and Sheldon Williams, both homicide and investigations detectives. Throughout the discussion, the panelists – all of whom are parents of young boys and/or men – talked about what they see as the reasons for the increase in violence. They also shared some of the steps that the Pittsburgh Police are taking to help resolve these issues.

Williams, Johnson, and Doubt all agreed that violence is becoming more prevalent and egregious because society is increasingly tolerant to it. Williams said he attributed the increasing violence to changes in societal dynamics, particularly a deviation in the standard of morality throughout the community. They also cited the importance of having a male role model to provide guidance, both in words and in action, which is something that so many young men just don't have today.

I think Cmdr. Doubt said it best, however, when she said that our own apathy is a main part of the problem. "Criminals are counting on us to turn our heads and look the other way," she said. "If we want the violence to stop, people have to get to the point where they say, enough is enough.”

I say enough is enough. What do you say?

-- Valentine J. Brkich

Friday, October 16, 2009

He Wrote the Book on Fashion

On October 3, I made my way over to Nordstrom’s at Ross Park Mall to finally meet Tom Julian ’84, the president and founder of Tom Julian Group. I had interviewed him over the phone for the cover piece of our spring 2008 issue of Foundations magazine, but this was the first time I’d ever met him in person.

Julian was warm and friendly right from the start, and he treated me like a member of his own family, many of whom had gathered to see him sign his new book, The Nordstrom Guide to Men's Style. As a celebrity reporter and chronicler of “red carpet” trends for the Style Section of for, the official website of the Academy Awards, Julian has long been the go-to guy in men’s fashion. And now he’s got the book to prove it.

Since I’ve always considered myself to be somewhat style-challenged, I was pleased when Julian gave me my own personal signed copy of the book. Now I have no excuses.

Click the play button below to watch the brief interview.

--Valentine J. Brkich

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hail to the chief

Talk about a life-changing experience. When President Obama came to Pittsburgh last month to address the AFL-CIO convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention center, RMU senior Tyler Punteteri not only met the president backstage, he even got to drive in the presidential motorcade.

Thanks to an uncle who is active in Democratic politics, Tyler and his grandfather ferried members of the White House press corps from the airport to the convention center to cover Obama's speech. Tyler shook the president's hand, though he admits he was too nervous to strike up much of a conversation with the commander-in-chief.

"I didn't know what to say to him. I was just so excited," says Tyler, a finance major from Wampum, Pa.

As for Obama, he was grascious and friendly, even organizing a picture with Tyler and the other volunteers. The picture was snapped, by the way, by Pittsburgh Penguin Tyler Kennedy, and Tyler Punteteri also got to meet another Penguin that day -- a guy by the name of Mario Lemieux.

"It was fantastic. It was very exciting," says Tyler.

Tyler was so fascinated with the mechanics of a presidential appearance that he's now interested in doing political advance work himself. Maybe someday you'll see him, zipping by in a limousine bearing the presidential seal.
--Jonathan Potts

RMU's Hidden Symbols

Back in 2003, novelist Dan Brown took the publishing world by storm with his highly controversial book, The Da Vinci Code. Just recently, he released his long-awaited follow-up, The Lost Symbol, which centers around the mysteries surrounding the many Masonic symbols found around our nation’s capital and on our national currency.

At the center of this new thriller is the fresco known as “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” which adorns the ceiling of the Capital Dome. Painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), this Raphael-esque fresco covers an area of 4,664 square feet and took eleven months to paint.

In the center of the fresco, Brumidi depicts George Washington rising to the heavens with classical female figures representing Liberty and Victory. Washington is depicted as a godlike figure here, hence the word “apotheosis” in the title, which literally means “the raising of a person to the rank of a god.”

Six other groups of figures are included in the painting symbolizing American ingenuity in war, science, marine, mechanics, agriculture, and commerce.

Ed Karshner, assistant professor of English studies and communications skills at RMU, pointed out that the commerce grouping actually depicts Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, handing a bag of money to our very own Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. “Mercury was the patron god of alchemy, which sought to transform lead (the body/material) into gold (the soul/spirtiual),” he says. “Mercury represented the swift intellect and was associated with Hermes, the messenger of the gods. So, the intellect is handing Robert Morris a spiritual reward of transformation (i.e., what was lead is now gold), which is a pretty cool metaphor for a university.”

Each semester, Karshner has students in his Mythology class look for the hidden symbols around campus. “I also like to look at how groups use symbols, icons, and indexes subconsciously,” he says. “It's a kind of symbol scavenger hunt and a mind puzzle, but it's also fun and can be illuminating.”

Karshner points out that at RMU we have a ziggurat: a stepped hill with a temple (Rogal Chapel) on top. “You can look at ancient Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica to see examples of these pyramids,” he says.

We also have a dome and spiral in the Nicholson Center, which Karshner says symbolizes the migration or emergence into the mind or the ascending to heaven. “All of these symbols fit into RMU as a university, since they all reference a migration upward to a higher consciousness and a transformation of self.”

--Valentine J. Brkich

Friday, October 9, 2009

What's So Civil About War Anyway?

I first became fascinated with the Civil War after reading Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that chronicles the Battle of Gettysburg. From the first page, this remarkable work of historical fiction grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Shaara’s writing made history come alive, and it debunked the myth that history is inherently boring.

From then on I was hooked, and I began devouring books on the subject. I even managed to drag my wife to Gettysburg one cold and rainy spring day to tour the hallowed grounds.

Then I read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, in which Horwitz recounts a year he spent touring many of the war’s sites and battlefields, and, in the process discovers that, in many parts of the South, the Civil War never really ended. Horwitz’s tale inspired me to go on my own Civil War tour one day. And now I’m finally going to get that chance.

Next spring, students in RMU’s Civil War Study Tour course, taught by Daniel Barr, Ph.D., will be spending the first week of May visiting some of the war’s most influential sites and battlefields. This totally online course will take students to sites like Harper’s Ferry, Mechanicsville, Richmond, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Antietam, and Gettysburg. I’ll be tagging along to document the trip and get some video of our students as they get a close-up look at American history.

I'm really looking forward to this trip. In fact, I’ve already started filling my haversack with salt pork and hardtack! (Actually it's just my backpack, and I'll probably just bring Slim Jims and stale crackers.)

Online threaded discussions throughout the course will allow students to discuss what they have learned about the sites and what they hope to gain from the tour. After the tour, students will evaluate the tour as an engaged-learning experience and compare how being at the sites differed from or enhanced traditional methods of instruction. (Registration will begin in early November. Interested students can contact Prof. Barr for more information at

I'm really looking forward to next May. Once I finish the tour, I think I can finally refer to myself an official Civil War buff. Fortunately, I’m already married.

– Valentine J. Brkich