Saturday, November 25, 2006

Waving the White Flag

You may remember that I cleaned out the freezer while Mom was gone to Illinois to visit her sister. I got rid of three huge trash bags of food - steaks and chops and roasts and chicken and vegetables and bread loaves and various kinds of potatoes and ice cream - items all far past their "sell-by" date. When Mom came home, the freezer was clean, empty and unplugged. We had a polite discussion about it, with me insisting that the freezer should not function as the "black hole" of food storage, into which things disappeared, never to be seen again.

Mom is like the squirrels that bury walnuts in the back yard, then forget where they have stashed their hoard. Very likely, Mom and the squirrels are motivated by the same innate need for security, in other words, having provisions put back for a rainy day. The only difference is that there is a natural reason for the squirrels' behavior, as it helps the walnut trees perpetuate their species. There is no such rationale for Mom's actions, unless you consider the molecules of freezer burn as on par with baby walnut trees.

My dad used to say about my mother that when it came to arguing, "she's like a termite; she undermines from within". He stated this with resignation, a warrior who had lost many a battle against the peace-nik. What he meant was that Mom hates head-on confrontation. She will never just take you on, even when she vehemently disagrees with your position. Instead, she is the voice of polite reason. She very seriously considers your side and allows as how you could be correct. But if you know her, as I have known her for 60 years, you know the war is far from over. This is only her opening gambit.

This is what she did with the freezer. "Yes," she said, "I think you're right. In fact, we probably ought to just sell it. It is only the two of us now and we don't really need a freezer."

"Well, Mom, " I responded. "You bought it, so it's your decision. I don't really care to keep it as long as we don't fall back in the habit of stuffing it full of things we never end up using."

(You notice how I used the term "we" in order to sound cooperative although I doubt I've ever contributed even $10 worth of stuff to the freezer.)

"No, I think we should probably just get rid of it. It will give us more room on the back porch."

"Well, all right, then."

So, it sat there on the back porch, not running. Every now and then, I asked Mom if she'd called the paper to put an ad in yet about selling it but she always said, "not yet, but I'm going to."

Then we were within a couple weeks of Thanksgiving. I asked her if she was going to get a turkey breast, which is what we always have for Thanksgiving since a whole turkey is too big for the four of us and no one will eat anything but white meat. Sadly, she replied, "well, Krogers (or Lo-Bill or Bechtol's) had them on sale but I didn't go ahead and buy one."

"Why not?" I asked, somehow knowing I was being set up.

"I didn't have any room to keep it frozen until Thanksgiving."

"You don't think we could make room in the freezer in the refrigerator?"

"No, its clear full. So, I guess I'm just going to have to wait until the very last minute. Of course, by then, I may not be able to get a turkey breast. Well, that's okay." She smiled brightly. "We'll just have something else for Thanksgiving, maybe a nice pork roast."

"Mom," I said, "I love roast pork but I don't want it for Thanksgiving! I want turkey!"

She just looked at me until I said exactly what she knew I would say.

"You know, Mom, maybe we should keep the freezer."

"Well, Honey, if you really think so. That way I could go out and buy a turkey breast and have some place to put it until Thanksgiving." She paused. "So, do you want me to go plug it in so it can start getting cold?"

"Go plug it in. But, Mom, let's just not cram it full of stuff we don't use again, okay?" I said, a little desperately, knowing I was waving the white flag of surrender.

"Oh, no," she said, "I absolutely agree."

One good thing about Mom is that she is always gracious in victory.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you - to my friends and foes alike. I hope you have a wonderful day of family and fine food. Perhaps we will disagree again tomorrow but for today, I wish you the very best.

My mother, who is the most cheerful person I know, always says that if you feel down, you should make yourself think of five good things you're grateful for.

Here are my five for Thanksgiving Day:

I'm thankful for my family and friends. I'm thankful that Mom is her perky little self at 86. I'm thankful that I'm a mother-in-law and that I really like my daughter-in-law and I think she likes me too. I'm happy that Lisa and John are doing well and seem to be enjoying their life together. I'm grateful that I have many close friends who mean as much to me as family. I'm even grateful for the friends who aren't friends anymore. Misunderstandings have occurred and diverging paths were taken but the memories of the good times we had together can never be erased.

I'm thankful that I have a job. It is amazing how changed circumstances serve as a reality check on situations we normally take for granted. A year and a half ago, I was down to my last unemployment check and had no prospects. Thank God, a position came open in the Prosecutor's office. It was a familiar world of legal papers and law enforcement and working with people I already knew and liked. Looking back on jobs past, I feel fortunate for the years at at the Sheriff's Department and City Hall, working for men like Dallas Winchester and Tim Roberts, who were friends as well as bosses, and where going to work every day was fun.

I'm thankful that I'm relatively healthy at 60. Even though, I will admit that I was grumpy when I was diagnosed as diabetic and when the doctor told me to avoid all white foods as well as most fruit. I told him I thought it would be easier to give me a list of foods I could actually eat and he said, "green vegetables are good." That was not a thankful moment in my life. But, over all, despite some aches and pains, I have no major complaints in the health department. I'm also thankful for the improved health of others I care about who have had medical crisis lately.

I'm thankful for the personal computer which makes both work at work and work at home so much easier (I am old enough to remember carbon paper and trying to erase oh-so-carefully so there wasn't a big ugly blot on a letter or report and typing manuscripts over and over rather than deleting and replacing). The computer opens up entirely new worlds of communication so that you can now read newspapers and blogs from all over the world and and tap into opinions and stories you'd never have been exposed to. You can easily stay in touch with friends and family. And from my end, it also allows me to share thoughts in a freer way than writing for an organization. On computers, you can entertain yourself by playing games or watching video clips on YouTube or Crooks and Liars. If you miss almost anything on t.v., you can usually track it down on the computer. You can look up information on any subject you're interested in. You can listen to any song you want to hear or burn cds with only your favorites on it - mixing up Barbara Striesand with AC-DC and Elvis with Toby Keith.

I'm thankful that the Democrats took over both houses of Congress. Not that I have absolute, complete faith in any political party but I hope the Dems will take the country in a new direction where workers are given a little fairer shake and corporations are taken down a peg or two (or three). I hope we'll start bringing our kids home from Iraq sooner rather than later. And I hope from now on, we'll always have divided government. Too much power in the hands of one party has not turned out to be a good thing.

No one gets out of this world without some scar tissue. We've all won some battles and lost some. We've all been hurt and felt as if we were treated unfairly at times. But we've also all had our joys and triumphs. Most of our glasses are either half full or half empty at any given time but which one of those perspectives you concentrate on will determine what kind of Thanksgiving you have......on this day and every day.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Searching for the Peon

These days, if you're not paying attention, it is so easy to get behind the times. I've been thinking of buying a new car since I gave the little truck back to John. I want a brand-new one because of the reliability and the warranty but I know that what I can afford is cheap. So I went on the internet to check out car prices. I was thinking of maybe a Ford Escort or a Chevy Cavalier. But guess what? Ford doesn't make Escorts anymore and Chevy no longer produces the Cavalier. Now Ford's lowest priced vehicle is the Focus and Chevy's is the Cobalt. I'd never heard of a Chevy Cobalt.

Since I've been thinking of cars, I've been looking at the ones on the road and parked around to see if I can find a car I really like. I have yet to see a Cobalt although I have seen a couple of Ford Focuses. One thing I've noticed is that many of the cars look pretty much alike and that's so regardless of price. Back in the days of my youth, you could tell an upscale car from a low-priced one. Expensive cars were big and just had a look of luxury about them - Cadillacs and Lincoln Towncars and Mercury Marquis', for instance. You could never confuse any of them with a Maverick. Now, sometimes, you have to look for tell-tale gold. If a vehicle's logo is in gold, it is probably on the higher-priced side even though it has the same boxy body as the cheaper cars. And it probably won't be huge. Hugeness seems to be a thing of the past with cars, although not with SUV's.

Most of the richness of cars is now on the inside. If a car has seat warmers and navigational systems and leather everything and an extravagant sound system, it is probably an expensive model. Of course, you can get all these extras on inexpensive cars too if you willing to pay for them but then your inexpensive car isn't inexpensive anymore.

I've noticed this especially on television ads for cars. They will advertise whatever vehicle and in big letters, will be the starting price - STARTING AT ONLY $18,995!" Then in tiny little letters will be - "as shown, $27,895". So, if you want the car and are satisfied with an a.m. radio, a fan mounted on the dash instead of air conditioning and seat covers made from re-cycled brown paper bags, you might be able to purchase it for the "starting price".

Most of the lower-priced models feature four cylinder engines or even something featured as a "super-charged four". I had one of the newest Ford Escorts when they first began making 4 cylinder vehicles. It was a 1984 1/2 Escort. If you wanted to pass someone in it, you had to make sure you had a stretch of highway approximately as long as the state of Montana to do it in, otherwise, you would get right beside the vehicle you were trying to pass and just hang there, watching in terror as a semi bore down on you. I got to the point of simply never passing on a two-lane road because that Escort had no little extra burst of speed to call upon in an emergency. It got up to its max, about 70 mph, and settled in. Surely though, they've improved the performance of four-cylinder cars in the last twenty-plus years.

Cars are harder to recognize than they used to be. People at the Courthouse probably wonder about me if they see me stooped down,peering at the name plates of vehicles. A lot of car producers now go with a series of numbers and letters rather than names. If I see a J92Z, I have no idea what kind of car that is. For better or worse, if a vehicle bore the label, Vega, I knew it was a Chevy.

I guess it must be hard to constantly come up with new car names. They've already used most of the rugged-sounding place names, like Montana and Dakota, Tahoe and Yukon and Outback. Some car companies went with geographic names that imply elegance, like New Yorker. The newest Buick is the Lucerne. (You can't quite imagine a car or truck called an Indiana, can you?) Some cars have been named for tough, brave and speedy animals, like Cougar, Mustang and Ram. But how about Grizzly? Don't you picture that as a monster SUV? And there are names that seem to imply luxury even though you're not sure exactly what they mean, like Escalade and Avanti. Honda gives its cars names that make you think of solid, reliable, good citizen vehicles - Civic and Accord. They save the most impressive names for the expensive cars. The cheap little cars get cheap little names. You know without ever seeing it that a Neon is going to be a reasonably priced, small car. They are not going to give a vehicle like Buick Park Avenue a name like Neon.

Anyway, I know I probably can't afford any car with a royal sounding name, like a Marquis or a Crown Victoria but if there is a vehicle called Peon, that is probably the one for me.






Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Night at the Races

Well, Flaming Kisses came in second. It would have been fun to go down to the winner's circle with Phil and Brenda but second is nothing to be ashamed of. I got to see the race track from the owner's side of it this time. We watched some races just like ordinary folks but then I went to the saddling paddock with Phil to see Flaming Kisses get saddled. The trainers and owners were upset because there weren't enough saddle boys. Apparently, they are the only ones who can saddle the horses, so we waited and waited while grooms walked the horses round and round. Thoroughbreds are Type A personalities. They know what's coming and they don't like to wait so some of them were getting hyper and cranky. Their walkers tried to keep them as far apart as possible although this isn't easy to do when there are so many animals crammed into the small space of the saddling area. I thought I would not like to be a groom in that melee of high-spirited horses who sometimes aimed an impatient kick or tried to take a testy bite out of a walker's arm. Meanwhile, Flaming Kisses stood quietly, looking around with interest at all the hubbub, waiting for his turn to be saddled.

After the race, we went back to the barns. I had never been in the Test Barn, which is where the top three winners of each race have to go to be drug-tested. I discovered that horses have to be relaxed in order to urinate. They come back from a race with the adrenaline pumping, just as humans do. In order to calm them, they are put in a closed stall where they can't be distracted by what is going on outside. A recording of whistling is played to them which I suppose has the same effect as "white noise" on people. Eventually, the lack of sensory stimulation settles them down. Someone sits in their stall with them until they are relaxed enough to pee. This person's job is to collect the output so it can be tested.

I have always been interested in all the different jobs that people do. When I was unemployed, I toyed with the idea that I might try to be something besides a secretary but I can honestly say that I never realized one of the opportunities available to me might be "Equine Urine Collector". Maybe if this is what I did, I'd tell people I was a professional E.U.C.

We went into the restaurant back in the barn area. The same bottle of water that costs $2.40 at the track is only a buck in this restaurant. Everything else is cheaper too. This is the kitchen that feeds the trainers and jockeys and grooms and owners. It has an easy-going feel to it. The people all know each other; they know the horses. They speak in a foreign language not easily understood by an outsider to the world of racing. There are monitors in the kitchen on which you can watch the races. You can place a bet in the kitchen and collect your winnings too, if, in fact, you have winnings, which I never did.

We went into one of the barns looking for a man who was supposed to be getting Phil and Brenda's filly a gate card. The young racers have to pass a test proving they will smoothly enter and exit the starting gate before they get their gate card. This is a requirement before they can be entered in a race.

There are several long barns at Hoosier Park. Each stall has a window opening outside. There were horse heads poking out of almost all the windows. Horses are curious creatures. They like to know what is going on around them. I guess I would need something to occupy my time too if I had to stand in a stall most of the day.

Most of these horses are not the creme de la creme of thoroughbred racing. Indiana's breeding program is still in its infancy and the state's tracks haven't yet earned the prestige of places like Kentucky and New York and Florida and California although the Hoosier horsepeople hope for the best.

Still, unless you are a breeding and racing afficionado, you won't know the difference between a Kentucky Derby entrant and a $5,000 claiming racer. The horses all look beautiful to me as they prance onto the track with tossing heads. They gleam in shades of chestnut and bay and black and dappled gray. I don't suppose they know either that their names probably won't go down in the racing history books or that they'll most likely not be setting any speed records here tonight. They'll do the best they can to win and give you back $8 for the $2 you bet. A bunch of thoroughbreds battling it out to reach the finish line first is just as entertaining in a cheap race as an expensive one. You can't tell by looking that they will arrive a few seconds more slowly at the finish than their more aristocratic brethren.

And you never know, do you? One of those horses with his or her head poked out of the stall window, just could be the next Cinderella story of racing. It happens. The money people spend millions to breed the ideal horse and it often pays off but on the other hand, champions sometimes come from the most unexpected places. Suddenly, there he is - the perfect combination of speed and heart. Its the possibility the horse people work toward, long for, dream of.......

We Can!

Everyone probably has different ideas about what they hope the new political alignment in Congress will achieve (or fail to achieve). Here is my wish list:

1) Iraq, of course. I think both Republicans and Democrats are hoping the bi-partisan Iraq Strategy Group, led by James Baker and our own Hoosier statesman, Lee Hamilton, will come up with some solutions everyone can live with. No one quite knows what to do about Iraq and there are no easy answers but maybe the ISG can provide a framework to build on - something midway between "stay the course" and "cut and run", giving both Republicans and Democrats cover to meet in the middle. My own preference would be to give the Iraqis a deadline, and not a very long one, to get their act together and then say, "we got rid of Saddam for you; you voted; you have a government; most of you hate us and want us gone, so as of _____ it's your baby, do the best you can with it - we're out of here." I don't expect that to happen.

2) My number two priority is heathcare. I think it is time to re-visit the national health care issue. We were so spooked by the Harry and Louise ads about Hillary's healthcare program that we ran terrified into the arms of the HMO's and "managed care". Now all the things Harry and Louise warned us about if we went with Hillary have come to pass anyway. Our premiums keep going up even as our benefits go down - if we are lucky enough to even have health care. More Americans families are forced into bankruptcy by medical bills than for any other reason.

I believe national health care makes good economic sense as well as being the morally right thing to do (we are the only industrialized nation without some form of universal health care for its citizens). Our health care premiums keep going higher because we have to help pay for the treatment of Americans who don't have insurance and can't pay. One reason our auto companies are doing so poorly is that they have to pay huge group health premium on their employees, whereas companies in other countries do not have this expense. Furthermore, I know many people who would retire and who could afford to retire if retirement income was the only consideration. Instead, they'll keep working until they are 65 because they can't afford health care until they are old enough for Medicare to kick in. This means fewer jobs open up for younger people who are looking to move in or move up. Many in the medical community worked against national healthcare. They were afraid they would be dictated to by the government but would government be any worse than the insurance companies who now determine both treatment and payment with their profit margin being the bottom line?

3) Reform tax policies. Democrats want to reduce the taxes of the middle class (even the upper middle class) by doing away with the Alternate Minimum Tax. It is the right thing to do but they need to make up that tax income from somewhere else in light of the budget deficit. I think they should re-institute the top tax rate the highest income achievers paid during the Clinton administration. The rich got richer under Clinton. Lots of Americans became millionaires and even billionaires. The tax rates then didn't act as a drag on competitiveness or motivation for success. The upper, upper classes have had some glory years of economic gain under Bush but its time to slow the gravy train down a little.

Corporations have probably benefitted most from Bush policies but they need to start being forced to be good American citizens. No more tax breaks for moving overseas; no more windfall profits on oil and gas; no more giveway deals on leasing land for logging, mining or drilling; no more no-bid contracts for re-building Iraq with bonuses and cost-overruns approved even as they didn't achieve what their contracts called for. I could go on and on.....

4) Do away with earmarks with which incumbents try to buy permanent seats in Congress. Come up with some formula to give each state x amount of dollars, based on population or amount of taxes sent to the federal government or whatever and then let the states decide what their most pressing needs are for that money. Hopefully, the states themselves would be more sensible than to build "bridges to nowhere". Museums and swimming pools and parks are nice but we all have to be willing to give up some things if we don't want to leave enormous deficits for our kids and grandkids to have to pay.

5) Rebuild New Orleans. The fact that this country cannot even manage to reconstruct one of its major cities a year and a half after it was devastated simply amazes me. America is the land of enterprise, the nation that rises to challenges. We rebuilt whole freakin' countries after World War II and now we are not even capable of rebuilding a city? Bring in Dutch engineers if our own aren't capable of figuring out a levee system to save New Orleans from flooding. It's not just for New Orleans itself, it is for our own sense of national pride. If we do not have the will and the spirit and the creativity to do this then America has lost something invaluable. We are no longer the country that sent a man to the moon and and built an interstate highway system and the Golden Gate Bridge and......

6) We simply must achieve energy independence from foreign oil. Everything should be on the table on this one. Fuel standards, gas taxes, big bucks on research and development. I would maybe even go along with off-shore drilling and in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge if it was accompanied by all the other policies that could lead to energy self-sufficiency. We can't afford to need Middle-east (or South American) oil so badly that we have to hold hands with authoritarian regimes like the Saudi royal family.

7) I'm an economic populist. I think it is past time to re-negotiate NAFTA and CAFTA and all the other trade agreements that have not been fair to the American worker. Ideally, trade agreements should bring the lower-class workers of other countries up, not bring our own down. Not only are we dependent on middle-east oil but it seems we are also dependent on other countries for everything else. We are so busily exporting our industrial base, I doubt we could even clothe ourselves anymore if we didn't buy from China. If the rest of the world shut us off, we wouldn't have televisions or sneakers or lamps or computers or even some of our crucial military components. We wouldn't be able to call customer service about our credit card bills or get a'hold of tech support to help us with our software problems. I'm not sure just what America does produce anymore. Evidently, we don't even have any companies that are capable of managing our ports.

8) I want the new Congress to pass stiff ethics legislation. I want them to limit the influence of the lobbyists. I want them to start thinking about what's best for the American people and not just their big donors. I want experts to sit in on energy meetings and disease control meetings and education meetings and environmental meetings. I want union representatives to be included on labor meetings. I don't care if the lobbyists sit in too to present their side of the story but theirs shouldn't be the only voices to be heard.

Those are my main hopes for America's future. They all have one thing in common. It seems to me that in the last several years, America has become a "we can't" country. We can't give our citizens health care; we can't rebuild New Orleans; we can't become energy self-sufficient; we can't build cars and televisions and keep ourindustries and jobs in America; we can't write fair tax laws; we can't legislate ethics in our leaders; we can't find a way to end a war and bring our soldiers home. It's all so hard, we "just can't". If I have ever believed one thing about America, it is that we "can" do anything we set our minds too. This fearful, "we can't" America just seems so alien to anything I ever believed about my country. I believe we "can" and I hope we "will".

Monday, November 6, 2006

Attention: Wabash County Voters

Concerning the race for State Representative in District 22, there is a radio ad running in which Larry Rensberger says that he is not running for office and gives his complete support to Bill Ruppel. The Larry Rensberger in the ad is a ringer! He is NOT the same Larry Rensberger who is actually opposing Ruppel! People have told me about this ad and asked if, in fact, the real candidate has dropped out and if they would be wasting their vote if they vote for Larry Rensberger. The answer to these questions is no. Larry Rensberger has NOT dropped out. If you planned to vote for him, please do.

I think this comes under the heading of "dirty politics".