Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Chili Cook-Off - Mark your Calendars

October 21, 2006 will be the fourth annual Wabash Cannonball "Chili for Charity" Cook-off at Paradise Spring in Wabash. This event was originally the brainchild of "Wild Bill" Gerding (Market Street Grill) and Steve "Bo" Bowman (Old Kettle Saloon). They conceived of the cook-off as having two main purposes: 1) to raise some money for local charities and 2) to bring people to Wabash to have fun. Of course, the fact that the fun revolved around chili, one of Bill's favorite subjects (he being the winner of many a chili contest himself) was a driving factor.

I was fortunate to be invited onto the Chili Cook-off Committee. The term "committee" is somewhat misleading because normally, a committee implies Roberts Rules of Order, formality, dedication to a strict agenda - none of which applies in this case. Everyone gathers in the backroom of the Market Street Grill to hash out plans and ideas in a somewhat disorganized way that includes lots of laughter. Bill and Steve are our own version of Thursday Night Live, although they frequently trade roles, being Clever or Clueless, by turns.

The method works because, ultimately, everything gets done properly and professionally which is proven by the fact that ours is now the largest sanctioned chili cook-off in the state of Indiana. In the last four years, Chili for Charity has given over $40,000 to Wabash County organizations, such as the Animal Shelter, the new Wabash museum and Shop with a Cop. This year's recipients will be: CASA (which advocates for children involved in the legal system), Operation ELF (providing Christmas for poor children), the Dallas L. Winchester Senior Center Food Pantry, The Firehouse in North Manchester and the Woman's Clubhouse.

The number of contestants continues to increase (we're hoping for close to 100 cooks this year); the number of people who attend continues to grow as well. Last year, between 2,000 and 3,000 wandered around the grounds of Paradise Spring, having paid $5 to taste all the different chili recipes. Contestants, some from as far away as Illinois, Ohio and Florida, compete in producing the best-tasting chili - like Dreamweaver's Chili, Gut Buster Chili, Hosehandler's Chili, Bahama Mama's Chili, Diamond Coyote Chili, Smokey Joe's Chili, Blown Gasket Chili, among many others. There are also showmanship categories. In the past, we've had cops and robbers, hillbillies and dance hall women, cowgirls and Colts cheerleaders. Besides chili, attendees can enjoy live bands, take their kids to have their faces painted, eat the best tenderloin sandwiches from Tim Roberts' mega-Traeger grill or visit the beer tent. Oldies 106 will be on hand, as always, to describe the action in real time.

There simply isn't a better way to spend a crisp fall day than at the beautiful Paradise Springs grounds, either competing by cooking chili or simply eating your fill of the best chili recipes in the state and beyond. So, come down and join us this year. You'll have a great time and by doing so, you'll also contribute to worthy causes right here in Wabash County.

Visit www.chiliforcharity.com for details.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Class Warfare - Who is Winning?

The New York Times reports today that the median wage for hourly workers has declined two percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation, even though productivity has continued to rise. Wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross national product since the government began recording the data in 1947! Furthermore, corporate profits have reached their highest share since the 1960's.

Economists at Goldman Sachs explained one reason for the high profits of corporations this way - "The most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor's share of national income."

Americans used to believe, and for most of the last century they were correct in believing, that wages and productivity naturally rose together. If we continued to work harder and smarter, we would benefit. But so far in the 21st century, that prospect has been turned upside down: productivity has continued to increase, but wage increases haven't kept up. In 2000-2005, productivity was up 16.6 percent while wages only rose 7.2 percent, according to the Labor Department.

Quoted in the New York Times, Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said - "If I had to sum it up, it comes down to bargaining power and the lack of ability of many in the work force to claim their fair share of growth."

In 2004, the top one percent of earners received 11.2 percent of all wage income. In 1994, their percentage was 8.7 and 30 years ago, it was less than six percent.

In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor (and middle class) are getting poorer.

Usually, if you quote statistics like these, the right side of the political spectrum loudly accuses you of fomenting class warfare. What the working class doesn't realize is that there has been class warfare going on all along and we are getting our butts kicked.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fear of Heights

I went to see my kids in Louisville where they live in an apartment on the 15th floor of a high-rise apartment building. I have never liked heights ((which shows itself in fear of flying and even elevators beyond the 2nd floor) but just how innate this fear is was brought home to me on this visit because they don't smoke in their apartment. Instead, you have to go out on the balcony.

I didn't really mind until I actually went out there. The first time, I heard a siren and thought it would be fun to track it from the balcony from which you can see across many city blocks. I grabbed a cigarette and headed out and over to the ledge, peering out to locate the source of the siren. A moment later, it suddenly struck me that I was hanging out 15 stories up with nothing below me but thin air. The balconies, I noticed, seem to be attached very flimsily to the side of the building. Oh, they may pass Louisville building codes but my own standards are a little stricter and would include something like 15-foot pillars made of solid steel supporting the balconies from below. I realize that would spoil somewhat the attractiveness of the building but we are talking safety here which would seem to over-ride the importance of eye-appeal!

My head began to swim; my legs actually almost buckled. Faint-headed, I resisted the humiliating temptation to drop to my knees to crawl but, instead, crept back step-by-shaky-step, where I clung like a limpet to the outer wall. For the rest of my stay, only pure addiction drove me out, barely, to the balcony for a few quick puffs.

Lisa's assignment in Louisville is for 13 weeks, of which approximately 6 weeks have passed. I fervently hope her next placement includes living quarters nearer to terra firma.

Time Marches On....

I'm surprised how many people make note of the times I write on this blog which mostly tend to be quite early in the morning. I wouldn't have thought this is even something people would pay attention to - but - instead of commenting about the controversial political issues I bring up, they marvel that I wrote the segment at 2:30 a.m. Instead of writing a rousing response, they register amazement at the middle-of-the-night time stamp.

I hate to disappoint readers but part of the earliness can be attributed to my lack of technical expertise. When our esteemed governor mandated that we exchange our Hoosier independence for sheep's clothing and bow to yearly time changes as the rest of the country does, I dutifully changed the time on my computer. Unfortunately, the obstinant machine was evidently pre-programmed to "Indiana" time and convinced that I was wrong, it refused to accept my correction. It will register the proper time for two or three days and then, it fixes itself back to what time it would be pre-Daniels.

Perhaps, the computer is only sensing my own reluctance to obey this order from on high. But, whatever, I am ignorant about how to over-ride its decision to return to an earlier (and better) era when Indiana marched to its own timely drummer.

Therefore, after many attempts to fix the problem, I have now given up and simply add a mental hour to the time that is reflected on my toolbar. This means that if the blog entry thinks it was written at 2:30 a.m., it was really 3:30. Granted, this is still pretty early.......

Monday, August 21, 2006

Union Watchdogs

During the 50's and 60's, the heyday of American labor, union membership was about 35 percent. By 1980, it had fallen to 22 percent of the work force. Currently, only about 14 percent of American workers belong to a union.

I think it is not coincidental that during the same time period that union membership was falling, American manufacturing lost seven million jobs to outsourcing. Or that real median take home pay for workers has dropped $1 an hour from what it was in 1982. Or that the low unemployment rate trumpeted by the government is actually about 12.5 percent if the unofficially unemployed are added in. (See how clever the feds are when they drop the additional 13 week unemployment pay period laid-off workers used to count on? Once you no longer collect unemployment benefits, you are no longer unemployed! So as people run out of unemployment benefits, the unemployment rate drops.) Or that American employees work 1978 hours per year compared to 1400-1700 in Europe. Or that 46 million Americans have no health insurance benefits, 31 million of whom are employed. Or that since 1985, 97,000 defined benefit pension plans have been done away with. (Defined benefit means you are promised x amount of dollars per month upon retirement. Most companies prefer to contribute to an IRA. Thus if the stock market tanks and the value of your IRA goes down, too bad so sad for you, it's nothing to your former employer).

I have ranted about the short-sightedness of American labor ever since President Reagan destroyed the air traffic controller's union back in 1981. The majority of Americans cheered Ronnie for showing those air traffic controllers who was boss, never thinking that s--t rolls downhill and most of us were positioned downhill from the air traffic controllers. As long as I can remember, we've been resentful of the auto workers, the elite of American labor. Instead of fighting ourselves to get a bigger share of the corporate pie, we were jealous of those who were able to move into the middle class on the strength of a blue collar job. It wasn't fair, we sulked. Instead of hoping to climb higher ourselves, we wanted to bring them down to our level.

Well, we've come close to accomplishing that mission but I don't know how happy we are about it. Ford and GM are practically on the verge of bankruptcy, both having laid off tens of thousands of workers. Because as they've gone down, we've gone down even farther. As they've lost benefits, we've lost benefits. As they've taken pay cuts, we've taken pay cuts. Their s--t is rolling right down the hill at the rest of us. Just in Wabash, the kinds of of good-paying blue-collar jobs many of us used to depend on to raise our families, are being decimated. Alloys workers were recently starved into giving up a huge share of their pie. General Tire, which used to be one of our primary employers is now GDX, with a parking lot that is almost empty compared to the "good old days". Celotex is a skeleton. Once you start down the path of "we have to bow to the company's will to save our jobs", you wonder where it will end. How much sacrifice on our parts will it take for America's employers to be satisfied?

And what happens to places like Alloys and its employees impacts even jobs that were never union or high-paying. I've heard through the law enforcement grapevine that the Sheriff has recently told his jail staff and deputies that they will be going on a new schedule. Instead of the four days on and two off they currently work, they will be going on a 4-2, 5-2, 4-2, 5-2, thus working 2 extra days a month for no additional pay. This is on top of having their working hours increased from 8 to 8 1/2 per day when he first became sheriff. At one time, this would have been unthinkable - expecting employees to continually give more time with no corresponding increase in pay. Now, I suppose, we've become so accustomed to "givebacks", we accept them as our lot in life.

Unions were the pace-setters. They set the standard and companies that didn't want to become unionized tended to match them to keep the unions out. Voila, both union and non-union workers benefited. Now there are no pace-setters and we are all worse off for it.

I've heard people complain about what the unions became - arrogant and greedy - and I can't really argue with that. But the unions were like our economic watchdogs. If they became too vicious, the answer was to re-train them, not to do away with them. Union members had the votes to insist on change if they'd been paying attention. Without any watchdogs to protect us, we are vulnerable to having our pay and benefits and pension plans plundered and that is what is happening. Unions weren't only the watchdogs for their own companies but for the entire neighborhood.

Corporations are often arrogant and greedy themselves (think Enron) but we aren't simply in favor of abandoning business as beyond salvation. Presumably, we favor reforming the individual companies that step over the ethical line. It should be the same with unions.

But, we have been complicit in killing off our own watchdogs so when they come for our wages and benefits, there is nothing we can do but stand and cry.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Terror Plot....or not

I have to say that I mistrust the politics of terrorism. Not that I deny what happened on 911 and not that I don't think we have to keep a constant vigil to thwart terrorists who, without doubt, wish us harm and would hurt us, spectacularly, if they could.

But what I also think is that politicians have learned to use terror as a political weapon and don't hesitate to play on our fears when it is their best political interests. For instance, it always seemed to me that back when our our terror alert system was jumping up and down the scale, we always went to a higher alert when the Bush administration wanted to change the subject (right after the Democratic National Convention, for instance).

Now, one of Tony Blair's own, Craig Murray, who used to be Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan, is skeptical about the most recent terror arrests in England. He says:

"None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn't be a plane bomber for quite some time.
In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases, passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged about in internet chat rooms.
What is more, many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year - like thousands of other British Muslims. Like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.
Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes - which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information this way. Trouble is, it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn't give is the truth....
We then have the extraordinary question of Bush and Blair discussing the possible arrests over the weekend. Why?"

Why, indeed. The defeat of Joe Lieberman, Bush's most cooperative ally on the Democratic side, coupled with the success of Hezbollah in making themselves look like the victors (at least the political victors) in the Israeli/Lebanon conflict and added to that, the absolute mess Iraq has become, which makes both Bush and Blair look incompetent, and there seems more than enough reason for the B's to want to turn our attention back to terrorism.

Adding fuel to the fire of suspicion, it has been reported that British law enforcement was not yet ready to make arrests in this case. They wanted to allow the suspects to go through their "dry run" before they moved in on them. It was Bush and Blair who wanted it done sooner.

Also, Bush and Cheney seemed to know about the impending publicity of these arrests when they made statements to the effect that Connecticutians who voted for Ned Lamont instead of Joe Lieberman, were giving aid and comfort to Al Qaida.

Would our government (and Britain's) really play political games with our fears of terrorism? I hate thinking so but there seems lots of evidence that the answer is yes.

Peach Run

In my twenties, my in-laws always took me down to Madison, Indiana, for a birthday weekend. A big part of the appeal was Kentucky peaches which were at their peak of perfection about the time of my birthday. We always stayed at the Hillside Motel which, as the name indicates, perches on a hill high above the Ohio River so that you can sit on your balcony and watch the barges being shepherded down the river by their guardian tugboats. Some time during our stay, we crossed the bridge to Kentucky to visit Bray Orchards and buy peaches. The rest of the time, we wandered around Madison, which is one of the gems among Indiana cities, containing 133 blocks on the Historic Register, one of the largest historic designations in the nation.

Brenda and I decided to recreate what was a nostalgia trip for me. Not much has changed in Madison - which is one of the great things about it. Madison was formed in 1809. Its location on the Ohio River made it a boom town for a while, a center of transportation, manufacturing and agriculture. Then, like so many other places, the good times ended. Progress, if by progress, you mean destroying the old to make way for the new, was stopped in its tracks.

Fortunately, the town leaders recognized early on that their blocks of historic buildings, including 1600 homes, government centers and businesses, were something to be treasured and protected and themselves could become a source of tourism and income. They acted to put regulations in place so that any business wanting to locate in the city center had to conform to the architectural integrity they wanted to preserve. In Madison, no gaudy signs or bright plastic or metal store fronts were allowed downtown.

In the same way, the blocks surrounding the city center are filled with venerable old homes dating from the early 1800s, several open for tours. To the north, Madison is encircled by high wooded hills and to its south, it ends at a park fronting on the Ohio River.

On Brenda's and my trip, 35 years after my last visit, the Hillside Motel was still there and I even found Bray's Orchard on the internet. We made a run to the Kentucky side of the bridge so I could buy my peaches, then had dinner and meandered around town. In the evening, we sat on our balcony and watched the traffic on the river, including barges, boats and flocks of honking geese.

This weekend (Aug 17 thru 19) is Madison's Ribberfest, which they advertise as "barbeque, blues and balloons". Brenda and I had debated which weekend to take our trip. Our choices were the hustle-bustle, crowd-filled, music-drenched, mouthwatering barbeque of Ribberfest or the quiet of a weekend when nothing special was going on. In the end, we opted for the peace and relaxation of watching the river go by. Another year, we may try Ribberfest.

Either way, its nice to know that Madison will still be there, timeless as ever.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Relief

I almost take the hot weather personally because I hate it and the men in my life were always trying to drag me into it. My view of the perfect climate contains snow-capped mountains and woods of northern pine and clear glacial lakes and alpine flowers. My father forced me to live in Southern California and Arizona. My husband convinced me to move to Charleston, South Carolina and Houston, Texas.

When we lived in Trona, California, a high desert town owned by American Potash and Chemical Company, surrounded by lakes of poisonous substances, salt-topped and odorous, we were warned about going outside for too long. Because there was almost no humidity, you could keel over from heat prostration without even realizing you were hot.

By contrast, not realizing you were hot, was never a problem in Houston. In Houston, you were continuously aware of exactly how hot you were. You were stifingly, bakingly, hellishly hot. And you were that hot for approximately nine months out of the year. Houston winters are perfect - 72 degrees each and every day (at least that's how I remember it) but they couldn't make up for nine months of pure heavy humid blistering misery.

I think of the differences in climates as being characterized by water. In northern climes, water is energetic. It riffles over stream beds and races over rocks; it falls down cliffs and surges into shore.

In the hot part of the south, they have bayous instead of creeks. The heat even saps the energy of the water. It oozes between its banks with scarcely a ripple. When you look at the brown sluggishness of a bayou, you feel that if you dipped your hand into it (which you don't want to do because there are sometimes alligators in bayous), it would have the consistency of molasses.

Poisonous things seem to be drawn to unrelenting heat. Think of Indiana. How many poisonous creatures do we have? Timber rattlesnakes and brown recluse spiders. That's about it. But consider the southern states with their scorpions, killer bees, fire ants, rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, alligators. Even the killer kudzu plant suffocates the other plants around it. It is a scientific fact (okay, maybe not so scientific but it seems pretty unrefutable to me) - deadly beings prefer hot weather. (Come to think about it, even politics seems more murderous in the south).

But, now, whether because of a natural weather cycle or global warming, the midwest seems to be getting progressively hotter. We no longer have the rock'em, sock'em winters that we used to have - the howling blizzards, walls of snow lining the streets - but we do have longer, more heat-drenched summers, at least it seems that way to me. (When Brenda and I went to Ohio this spring, the Lake Erie folks complained because the lake didn't freeze over last winter as it always does).

If this keeps up, pretty soon the kudzu, the killer bees, the fire ants will be here. Our cockroaches will get bigger and our water will get slower. Along with the possoms and coons, we'll start to see dead armadillos along the side of the road. If you ever go past my house and see a "for sale" sign, you'll know I'm moving to Minnesota.

What a Drunkard Says

I was married to an alcoholic and we used to have endless discussions about the meaning of what a drinker says when he's drunk. My view was that the wounding comments and hateful allegations are what they really think but are kept from saying by their inhibitions when they are sober. Alcohol lowers those inhibitions and allows them to say what they believe without considering the consequences.

His contention was that you should ignore everything anyone says or does when they are under the influence. They don't really mean to say what they say or to do what they do. Alcoholics almost seem to see being drunk as a "home free" zone.

"Oh, I called you blankin' bitch? You know I didn't really mean it, Honey, I was drunk."

"Oh, I embarrassed the kid in front of his friends?"

"Oh, I put the car into the ditch?"

"Oh, you paced the floor all night worrying because I didn't come home and you didn't know whether I was hurt, dead or in jail?"

"Ah, well, I get a pass on all of it because I was drunk at the time so none of it counts?"

See how it works?

Which brings us to Mel Gibson spewing anti-Semitic garbage when he was arrested for drunk driving. He uses the same "I was drunk" defense to explain away the hatefulness. But I feel the same way about Mel as I felt about my husband. Those ugly words had to come from somewhere. I mean, he didn't say, "I hate walruses. Walruses are the most evil beasts on earth." No, he chose to dis the Jews and you have to believe that in some part of his brain, it's what he really thinks or there would have been no Mel Gibson mental database for him to tap into.

There have been, of course, endless hours of television coverage about Mel's situation. This is just the kind of juicy scandal t.v. commentators love to pontificate about. They speak in such serious tones, as if they are truly convinced this is a high-minded, socially relevant discussion when they really just want to dish the dirt on a celebrity.

There have also been long debates about Mel on the Police discussion group I belong to. Mostly, the cops think he got unfair treatment because, of course, if he wasn't rich and famous, no one would have leaked his D.U.I. paperwork to the media. It's a non-story when a local nobody rants and raves while he's being arrested for drunk driving. (The members of the List are mostly strongly conservative and I have a feeling they wouldn't have been quite as sympathetic if the arrestee had been the producer of Fahrenheit 911 rather than the producer of the Passion of the Christ - but maybe I'm being cynical).

I personally have no compassion for Mel in this regard. My thinking is that lots and lots of benefits stem from being rich and famous. Everywhere you go and everything you do, your wealth and celebrity buy you special treatment. If you are a Bono, you can call upon Presidents and Senators and television news anchors to assist you in your goal of helping poor Africans. If you are a Don Imus, you can raise a gazillion dollars almost overnight to fund a ranch for kids with cancer or a hospital for amputees coming back from Iraq.

So it is only natural that when the rich and famous screw up, they reap the same kind of mega-attention, only in the negative rather than the positive. They can't have it both ways. I have a feeling that, even now, Mel wouldn't want to be a poor non-entity, even if it meant the details of his arrest would be buried in a Sheriff's Department file cabinet somewhere.