Nov 30, 2008

On Jdimytai Damour and the Pestilence of American Consumer Culture

Few stories have disturbed and angered me as much as news of the death of Jdimytai Damour, the Wal-Mart employee trampled to death by Black Friday shoppers hell bent on saving 20 to 30 percent on a variety of plastic rubbish for their friends and family. Damour was one of a handful of Wal-Mart workers who tried to keep out a crowd of 2,000 people that gathered in the predawn hours to purchase holiday gifts.

The unruly mob forced its way into the store prior to the scheduled opening, and frenzied shoppers knocked over and crushed Damour, with most shoppers too busy elbowing their way into the store to stop and help the stricken employee.

The trampled human being, Jdimytai Damour.

Damour loved poetry, enjoyed anime, and liked to talk politics with his family and friends. The dead worker was known as a "gentle giant" by his friends. Yet to the deal-crazed thugs who smashed glass doors and crushed the 270-pound man, Damour was little more than a slab of meat standing in their way.

Police made the eventual decision to close the store, and I suspect that Wal-Mart managers would have been quite hesitant to close the store on their own, being the busiest day of the year. Yet even the clang of corporate registers is less cynical than the angry Wal-Mart customers who whined about the store closing when they waited in line for hours.

I am thoroughly disgusted with the sick, cold-hearted bastards who killed this man, but I am positively apoplectic at the self-absorbed idiots who think their Wal-Mart shopping experience is somehow more important than a lifeless human being. Yet these morons and thugs are only symptoms of the larger phenomenon of a consumer culture in which vertically integrated media fuel a relentless obsession with mostly-useless manufactured offal: a culture of shallow desires, greedy acquisitiveness, and dead human beings like Jdimytai Damour.

Merry Christmas!

Nov 29, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote. true story? I couldn't swear to every detail, but it's certainly true that it is a story. -- Sheriff Ed Tom Bell

Nov 28, 2008

Meet Brooke, a Rescue Dog

Pictured on your left is Brooke, a 3-year-old female Beagle-terrier or Beagle-Dachshund mix. She is an affectionate dog who quickly bonds with people, and who gets along well with other dogs.

Shorter than a typical Beagle, this 20-pound girl possesses many of the traits of Beagles, including a love of the outdoors and an interest in the scents of the squirrels, oppossums, and other creatures that roam my neighborhood. Brooke is housebroken, and marches right to the back door when she needs to go outside.

We have not observed any negative behaviors in Brooke, with the possible exception of some separation anxiety (she whines when people leave the house). She loves to cuddle on the couch with people, and prefers sleeping in a bed with people than to sleep by herself. To learn more about adopting Brooke or any other Toledo-area rescue dogs, visit the Planned Pethood website for more details.

On Thanksgiving Leftovers and Leftover Thanks

The refrigerator full of turkey, stuffing, au gratin potatoes, and other holiday leftovers testify to the gap between our estimation of the appetites of our Thanksgiving guests and the actual food consumed yesterday. Of course, it is better to over-prepare than to run short of food on an annual feast such as Thanksgiving Day.

Some folks believe that the leftovers taste even better than the original meal, and there is much to be said for a full plate of reheated holiday food. My wife can cook with the best, and I heartily enjoyed a sequel to the previous day's meal.

And as I digest my second round of traditional fare, I pause to consider just how privileged I am, as there are billions of people for whom such my meal of leftovers must seem an impossible dream. I live in a land relatively free from violent conflict, a nation in which terror attacks are as rare as a blizzard in the Sahara, unlike folks in places like Mumbai or Baghdad.

I live at a time when I can still express my thoughts without fear of government reprisal, and I have access to a media outlet in the form of this blog that gives me a platform to reach a global audience. Moreover, I live relatively debt-free in my own home at a time when the global economy totters on the verge of collapse, and we should be able to survive even the worst financial calamity. Though my wife and I are far from wealthy, we live nonetheless better than 90 to 95 percent of the other human beings on the planet.

So, despite any lesser sources of irritation or frustration, my life is indeed blessed, and I offer humble thanks to God for my relative affluence.

Nov 26, 2008

On the Mumbai Horror

Squads of armed gunmen stormed luxury hotels, restaurants, hospitals and a train station in coordinated attacks across the Indian city of Mumbai Wednesday night, killing at least 88 people, injuring over 240 others, and reportedly taking hostage Westerners. At least 10 sites have been attacked so far, and the city remains in a state of chaos.

The attackers specifically targeted Britons and Americans, according to witnesses.

I find the violence especially surreal given the fact that I have been engaged in some research on the history of western India for some weeks now. After a few hours of work, I put aside my readings on conflict and trade in eighteenth century India only to find myself jarred by the eruption of twenty-first century terrorist violence in Mumbai, the financial and entertainment capital of India.

As of this writing a little-known group named the Deccan Mujahideen is claiming responsibility for the deadly attacks. Of course, this name could simply be a ruse to throw off security and police investigations, but whoever is behind the attacks certainly possesses a high degree of planning.

In addition, the deliberate targeting of Westerners suggests that the terrorists might be sending a message to the West and India about the costs of cooperation, especially in light of recent nuclear agreements between the United States and India. I am also tempted to link the attacks to the ongoing disputes over the region of Kashmir, though there has yet to be a release of the statement of responsibility from the attackers.

So we watch in shock as the death toll and injury numbers rise, and scratch our heads at the latest violence inflicted on innocent civilians in order to advance some group's radical political goals.

Nov 25, 2008

On the Calm and Reverie of a Day with Nothing Important to Do

One of the particular benefits of working in academia is the ability to rearrange one's schedule to a greater degree than with most employers. The only non-negotiable hours are official classroom meetings, and even these have a bit of flexibility, should an instructor decide to eschew a lecture in favor of a field trip, individual student consultations, or another equally valid academic endeavor.

And so it was that I found myself in the middle of a rare joy today: a day with nothing to do.

Certainly I have a relative mountain of work that always awaits me, ranging from text-editing to dissertation-writing to lecture-planning. Moreover, even a day spent working from the house likely involves a handful of chores and home improvement projects, like the air conditioners I removed from the windows and the dishes I washed today.

Yet this day was unique: there were no appointments to keep, no immediate errands to run, and no places to which I absolutely had to travel. I generally work seven days a week, in amounts ranging from six to fifteen hours, so planning a day with no specific goals takes some work in itself.

This is as close to true freedom as a 21st century person can might hope for, and I made the most of my un-planned day: catching up on some reading, grading some papers, and playing with my dogs. Yes, there was work, but the distinction is that I chose the work I wanted to perform, and took plenty of time to engage in activities that interested me, instead of finding my workload dictated by my schedule, Lipovox, or
my employers.

I think it is important to occasionally disconnect from external time determinants and experience temporal liberation, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves just how rigidly chained most of us are to our work and our obligations.

Nov 23, 2008

New Addition to the Family

In the accompanying photo, our Puggle Eddie Haskell lies next to Chauncey, a 6-month-old Puggle we had been fostering. Chauncey, on the right, was so lovable that we decided to adopt him, and the two dogs paused from an afternoon of romping around the house to take a nap.

The two Puggles are near-constant companions, and they run, play, fight, and sleep together. Chauncey provides the higher energy and exercise that Eddie did not get from our older dogs, and I must admit that having a puppy around adds an infectious element of curiosity and playfulness that influences even the older dogs.

Like me, for example.

Nov 22, 2008

On Bailing Out American Automakers

General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner; Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli; and Ford CEO Alan Mulally beg for a bailout (photo courtesy Associated Press)

I am no fan of governments wasting hard-earned tax dollars on dubious schemes, and I railed against the $700 billion bank bailout (actually $850 billion after fine print clauses), which I argued was the most blatant episode of corporate welfare in human history. Couple that debacle with the $2 trillion in emergency loans from the Fed to unidentified banking and financial concerns, and it appears that Americans will be on the hook for untold trillions of new debt, monies that will weigh down economic growth for decades.

So I suppose I should fire up my keyboard and scoff at the idea of American auto executives flying on private jets to Washington in search of tens of billions in more government handouts. After all, these are the incompetent corporate leaders - whose lack of vision and seeming inability to produce vehicles that consumers will buy - drove their companies to the brink of bankruptcy, and who might lead the Big Three into complete dissolution.

And yet, I shudder to think of the effects to the American economy should GM, Ford, and Chrysler implode, as millions of workers have direct links to the financial health of American automakers. Moreover, the income and jobs of untold millions more workers indirectly depend on a vigorous auto industry, ranging from waitresses at diners near factories to employees at retail outlets in towns and cities with a heavy automobile industry presence.

Like Toledo, for example.

At least 15 thousand jobs in my community are directly involved in producing vehicles and component parts for American automakers, and perhaps 20 percent of the local economy revolves around this industry. However, the wages and taxes of autoworkers are about all that keeps a city like Toledo afloat, even after three decades of gradual downsizing and outsourcing.

If the American auto industry collapses, you can kiss goodbye the future of cities like Toledo, Dayton, Akron, Detroit, and Flint, which are Rust Belt centers that are already reeling from an over-dependence on auto manufacturing and related industries. Now, those of you in post-industrial power centers like San Jose or Seattle might not lose sleep over the collapse of Midwestern industrial cities, but I do.

Call me selfish, if you like, or call me stubborn for continuing to live in the Rust Belt, but I think that the U.S. auto industry is too important to simply shrug our collective shoulders and allow to wither. Besides, $25 billion pales in comparison with the $2.7 trillion that Congress and the Fed have already committed to "save" financial giants like AIG and JPMorgan-Chase.

Of course, keeping autoworkers and employees in related industries gainfully employed helps prevent declines in consumer demand for big-ticket items like appliances, housing, and electronics. The financial ripple effects of 1-2 million more unemployed auto industry workers would far exceed the the costs of infusing cash to stabilize the Big Three and position the American automakers for success in the coming decades.

Such federal beneficence, however, should come with appropriate conditions, not the least of which could include either a preferred lender status or a substantial preferred stock position. As a taxpayer, I insist that any bailout of the automakers comes with verifiable benchmarks for transitioning to vehicles with higher fuel efficiency and new energy technologies, as the Big Three utterly failed to prepare for global energy challenges, despite over three decades in advance notice.

I still cannot fathom how none of the major American automakers did not have a highly fuel efficient and inexpensive vehicle in a ready-for-retool-and-rollout mode, even after such previous experience as getting pimp-smacked by the Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s in meeting sudden consumer demand for energy efficiency. Heck, Indian automaker Tata Motors figured out how to design and produce a 60 MPG car for $2,300 (admittedly with much cheaper labor costs and lower safety and environmental standards). Why is it that GM, Ford, and Chrysler cannot (or will not) produce similarly inexpensive vehicles with high fuel efficiency?

It seems to me - even with high wage UAW workers and EPA/NHTSA regulations - that an American automaker should be able to produce a car that people can afford to purchase and to drive. In the 1970s and 1980s I owned a few used cars that fit this profile, like a used VW diesel Rabbit that got over 50 MPG in the city, or this rusty 1976 Subaru wagon I bought for $400 that ran for two weeks on $8 (the fuel gauge was broken, but I think I got 40 MPG in this 4-cylinder, 5-speed clunker).

So, I am all for bailing out the Big Three, but we should demand that these companies produce vehicles that meet the needs of American consumers in an world in which rising energy costs will continue to ratchet up pressure to change our ways. To ignore the collapse of American automakers is to sign the death warrant for dozens of American cities.

Nov 21, 2008

More Advice to the Downwardly Mobile: Recession Preparations

The grim financial news this week should be enough to convince even the optimistic people that we are headed into a significant period of economic retraction. Moreover, an increasing number of analysts are projecting that the decline might spiral into a financial cataclysm on the order of the Great Depression.

Or worse.

Prudent folks keep at least one eye open to such possibilities, and this post is another in a series of articles on financial advice for the downwardly mobile geared toward those who wish to avoid serious financial pain in the next few years. Taking steps now to prepare for the worst might make the difference between survival and ruin as we look ahead to what portends to be a bleak 2009.

1. Conserve your cash. You need to build the largest possible hoard of cash to get through unforeseen circumstances, up to and including extended periods of unemployment. Just because you feel secure in your job does not mean that your cash-strapped employer would keep you on during a financial collapse. Assume that you might face a year or two of unemployment, and save like it is your full-time job. Now.

2. Clip coupons and watch for deals on groceries and necessities. Fortunately for consumers, the grocers are feeling the pinch, and there has been an increase in loss-leading marketing. Do not spend even a nickel more than you must for basic commodities, and get your children involved in cutting coupons for you (my wife has long exploited the labor of our children for this chore).

3. When possible, repair rather than replace. Yes, some appliance and auto repair specialists can be expensive, but consider that the cost of repairing a big-ticket item might extend its lifespan to the point where the repair cost pays for itself several times.

4. Barter for services. In your network of friends and relatives there are quite a few talented people in a wide variety of fields. Perhaps you could babysit for the auto mechanic who puts a water pump in your car, or you might tutor a friend's child in exchange for haircuts for the family. Get creative, and start looking around now for people with whom you can negotiate mutually beneficial exchanges.

5. Start planning a garden for 2009. If you are new to growing your own food, keep it simple: a half-dozen tomato plants, some lettuce, a dozen pepper plants, and some low maintenance herbs. While gardens can be labor-intensive, the initial investment in seeds and sprouts can yield produce many times its value. Besides, a fresh-picked tomato simply tastes better than anything you purchase in a supermarket.

6. Get health and dental checkups now. Yes, your crappy HMO is about as useful as a snooze button on a smoke alarm, but ANY coverage is better than none. If you lose your job, your insurance will run out, and those teeth cleanings and annual physicals can be quite expensive.

7. Make sensible insurance decisions. If your car is paid off, get rid of collision insurance. Go with the highest deductibles you can stomach, which will lower your premiums, and get rid of extras like roadside assistance, rental car coverage, and towing. Decide on liability limits that fit your income and wealth scenario: a person making $25K a year has no business with a policy offering $1 million in protection, while someone making $100K a year would be poorly protected with an auto policy providing only state minimums.

8. Cut frivolous expenses. Do you really NEED to spend $100 per month on pilates, diet pills,
and jazzercise? Does that health club membership provide you any more exercise than you could get in your own backyard? Does Junior actually like tae kwan do, and shouldn't you be cutting your own grass instead of using a service? If you look closely at your budget, you can probably find $100-$200 per month in unnecessary expenditures, which is money that could be going into the bank.

Nov 19, 2008

Advice from a Father to His Children

Typically folks compose messages like these when they are on their deathbeds, or after some significant life event caused them to re-evaluate their priorities. I think of Tim Russert, whose untimely death at the age of 58 was a source of great sorrow, but who was fortunate enough to have penned two books on fatherly wisdom before he died.

I am neither dying nor going through a period of deep personal discovery; instead, I just had a moment of insight: you never know the exact time of your death until it happens, and I would be saddened to be one of the unlucky people who fails to pass on to his children a written summary of his thoughts on what is important in life.

So these words are for my children, though if they inspire anyone else to do some housecleaning or self-inventory, this will be an added bonus. Feel free to leave any other words of advice you think children should know in the Comments section.

1. Be honest. I'm not talking here about pretending your friend's hideous haircut is beautiful, or some similar act of interpersonal kindness. Instead I mean the kind of honesty where people know you are reliable, truthful, and dependable: you don't embellish your accomplishments, you do what you say you will do, and people know that your word is like gold. Moreover, you never screw people over for your own personal aggrandizement, no matter how great the gain.

2. Look out for the less fortunate. While we never lived like kings, you never lacked for food, shelter, and love, and I expect that you remember that this puts you ahead of at least 90 percent of the human beings on the planet. Be generous with your time, judiciously direct some of your wealth toward worthy charities, and never let it be said you stood by and did nothing to help a fellow human in serious need.

3. Be faithful. It is true that at least one of you - if statistical patterns on American marriages hold up - will have to go through the process of divorce. However, that does not mean that you should cheat on your spouse; moreover, faithfulness is a desirable trait in employment and many other life endeavors. A clean break after an honest effort to repair a relationship is the best way to live your life when work and personal relationships sour.

4. Violence, bitterness, and rage are usually cancerous and rarely productive. I have been guilty of each of these at one point in time or another in my life, and there is little to be gained from allowing yourself to wallow in these destructive modes. Let go of anger before it burns holes in your stomach lining or poisons your relationships.

5. Be unselfish. There are plenty of greedy bastards in the world, and frankly I expect more out of you. Let other vehicles into traffic, let old ladies go ahead of you at the bank, and don't eat the last of the salsa when dining out. Your unselfishness will become a virtue, and you will be rewarded many times over in ways you cannot fathom. Trust me on this one.

6. Be flexible with rules. I'm not telling you to break laws or work rules, but rather that you find ways to meet the spirit of a rule when dealing with customers, associates, and strangers. Being a slave to rules and regulations only means that you are an uncaring, unthinking automaton, not a person who is generally trying to make the world a better place.

7. If it's not yours, don't take it. We all know not to steal, but I am thinking instead about those ways in which we rationalize the acquisition of all sorts of ill-gotten items. I remember finding $50 on the floor of the bank when I was 16 years old, and how I stuffed that dead president in my pocket faster than Tatum O'Neal diving into a pile of Bolivian marching powder. Yet even to this day I feel guilty about that impulsive decision: what if that money meant some retiree had to go hungry, or if that lost $50 caused someone to have a car repossessed?

8. Make amends for any stupid, harmful, or selfish acts you commit. Related to the previous advice, even the best people sometimes ignore their consciences, or fail to think through the consequences of their actions. When you know the person you harmed or hurt, make it up to them in some equivalent fashion, and don't ask the aggrieved party - just follow through. In addition, anonymous acts of restitution can mean that your intentions are in the right place, since publicly admitting guilt might mean that you simply want recognition for your remorse. If you no longer know how to contact someone you have harmed, make a donation in kind to a related charity. That person you hurt might never know, but you will know of your atonement, and you can kiss goodbye a heavy dose of guilt.

9. Enjoy the simple pleasures and natural beauty around you. I've known some unhappy people who never seem to rest, who spend thousands of dollars on products like the ubiquitous fat burner, and who cannot appreciate the everyday joys around them. These are folks who travel the world seeking strange environments, higher highs, or continuous infatuation, when all along the happiness they sought was in their own homes.

10. Work hard. Yes, you will sometimes work in places where slackery is the norm, or where working hard brings no extra financial reward. Too bad - work hard anyways. The last time I checked, almost no one in human history has been fired for working too hard, and extra effort usually translates into a feeling of self-satisfaction. As a side note, also remember this: if the course of action you are contemplating seems difficult, it is probably the right decision. Easy solutions tend to be the ones that get people into trouble.

11. Read quality books. This is especially important in the age of instantaneous digital gratification, when book-reading slowly gets replaced by text messages, on-demand video, and other empty-headed sources of entertainment and knowledge. Yet the lowly book has served humanity well for countless generations, and your knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, and science will benefit you better than any YouTube bum fight or episode of Total Request Live ever will.

12.Regularly attend a house of worship. There will be times when you are not feeling especially religious, and you think that religion has nothing to offer you, but you should still go to church. If nothing else, kneeling before God teaches you some humility, and every religion offers useful advice on how to be a worthwhile person. Besides - you can benefit from being around a people who seek deeper meaning to this vale of tears we call life, and the bars are not open on Sunday mornings, so use this time wisely.

13. Avoid being a judgmental, falsely pious twit. If we ran a highlight reel of all of the worst moments your life, you would look just as contemptible as the ignorant schmuck you saw on tonight's news in the latest segment of televised human idiocy. Balance your derision with an ounce of recognition that we are all capable failure and incompetence, only most of us go through life without our darkest hours becoming public knowledge. Thank God that you gained wisdom from your selfish escapades, and extend compassion to the recipients of ridicule, for it may be your turn some day.

14. Remember you are loved. Yes, I sometimes holler, and I can get too absorbed in my work, but never, ever doubt that your mother and I love you more than anything else in the world, and that we will give you as much help as we can. Now, don't expect us to bail you out every time you dig yourself in a financial hole, but we have experienced much in our first decades of life, and we can probably help you solve problems you thought were insurmountable. If we can't, at least you'll know where you can get a hot meal and a hug - the world can be a cruel place, and your family members are your best allies against the woes that heap upon you.

Nov 18, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Another good thing about being poor is that when you are seventy your children will not have declared you legally insane in order to gain control of your estate. -- Woody Allen

Nov 15, 2008

On Snowfalls, Institutionalized Torture, and Dilawar

I rented a disquieting film about the system of torture that evolved in the years since the terrorist attacks of 9-11 entitled Taxi to the Dark Side. The film, in a detached and almost surreal fashion, soberly examines the history of the maltreatment of prisoners designated "enemy combatants" by the U.S. government, and brings to a wider audience first-hand accounts and interrogation video that document the subversion of such cherished American ideals as habeus corpus and the rule of law.

I finished watching the documentary, and even I - a jaded and cynical observer of the world who finds little new in the pantheon of atrocities that human beings commit against each other - even I was shaken. Alex Gibney's film, in an understated and austere manner, gradually builds upon previous scenes with a deceptive sluggishness, like a plodding and disinterested donkey climbing a crooked mountain pass in the desert sun.

Yet the languid pace fits the subject matter, for it has been over seven years since the United States began its descent down the slippery slope of ignoring the Constitution and international law in the treatment of detainees in the so-called War on Terror. For if I am uncomfortable during what actually turned out to be 106 minutes of information on torture, consider how a period of years might feel to a detainee at Guantanamo, denied access to attorneys, due process, and even the right to a trial.

I then looked out the window and saw thick snowflakes falling from the sky, covering up the still-warm ground and covering up the last of the unraked leaves. My mind turned away from the film for a moment, and I thought that composing a quick post about the year's first significant snow accumulation would be an easy 10-minute effort in updating my blog.

Then I thought about Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver killed in 2002 by U.S. interrogators while he was a prisoner at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan. Dilawar's legs were beaten to the extent that the military coroner described them as "pulpified," and had he lived Dilawar would have needed the amputation of both legs to survive.

Had Dilawar lived, of course.

My dogs needed to go outside, and I took some photos of my canine friends romping in the snow. My mind, however, wandered to disturbing images from the film of unmuzzled guard dogs used as devices of torture, as well as the obvious fact that Dilawar will never again feel snowflakes on his face in his small village of Yakubi at the base of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

I really meant to write more about the snow here in Northwest Ohio, you see, as I am an avid weather enthusiast and the first snow of the year is normally a source of awe and wonderment to me.

Except on days like today, when I learned about the 23-year-old taxi driver named Dilawar.

So you can choose to allow distractions like the new fall of snow to take your mind away from troubling topics like dead Afghan villagers, systemic torture, or the trampling of the U.S. Constitution. Let the cover of fresh snow bury your lingering doubts about the legality and even value of state-sanctioned torture, abuse, and murder, and let it bury those pangs of conscience that bother you for not standing up against injustice.

Hell, I wouldn't blame you: watching films like Taxi to the Dark Side is hard work, and there are images that will terrify you more any horror film you could rent. And recommending this film to a few friends - especially friends who like lighthearted romantic comedies and animated Pixar flicks - why, people are going to think that you are some kind of radical or doom-and-gloomer, or that it is you who has the problems, not the U.S. government.

You might say that life is too short to waste 106 minutes hearing about some dead towel-head, right? Like, sorry about the torture and murder and all, and the wife and baby he left behind, but Dilawar is just an unfortunate casualty of war, right? Besides, there are some excellent college football games on cable this afternoon, plus the NFL tomorrow, and who likes to be weighed down with all that guilt?

Or instead you can drive to the video store, rent this film, and force yourself to do the difficult work of being an informed citizen. Of course, you will not walk away from the film with a warm and content feeling like you would by going to see a new release animated comedy like Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and the faces and voices of torture victims are always unpleasant to experience.

On second thought, do not rent this film tonight. Shit like Taxi to the Dark Side is probably just a bunch of anti-American propaganda, undoubtedly financed by Islamist extremists, and I'll bet we could find a way to link Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi to this plot if we connected enough dots. No, friend: grab a beer and watch the snow, and be comforted knowing that all this torture shit is far, far away from your Barcalounger.

Nov 13, 2008

On Bad Days and Comparative Hardship

Not quite eye-appealing, but better than hunger

I drove to Detroit this morning not realizing that I forgot: a) to pack a lunch; and b) to bring along either my debit card or some cash. I cursed aloud my lack of preparation, realizing that the $1.10 or so in change lurking in my car would not translate into much of a lunch.

Now, as someone with an extra twenty pounds, missing a meal will not equate starvation, but the thought of having to wait nine or ten hours to eat did not exactly brighten my morning, an overcast day that matched my temporarily impoverished gloom.

Yet something caught my eye in the backseat of my Hyundai: it was sort of brownish-yellow and looked remotely edible, and happened to be an uneaten banana that had been bouncing around my backseat for a few days. A lump in my jacket turned out to be another small blessing, as I found a granola bar stashed away a week or so ago.

My mood remained less-than-chipper, but I drove on, comforted with the knowledge that I possessed caloric options when hunger began to gnaw.

As I neared my destination brake lights suddenly screamed in front of me, and I watched a four-door silver sedan do its best imitation of an accordion under the rear bumper of a panel truck. As I gawked past, I noticed both airbags deployed in the car, though no one appeared injured in the collision.

The truck had minor dents and scratches, but the silver vehicle was in a sorry state: in addition to the significant body damage, the car's engine would no longer start, and the street was awash with coolant, oil, and a hundreds of shards of metal and plastic that spelled the letters t-o-t-a-l-e-d.

The police arrived almost immediately, and I left my number should a witness be needed, stepping back from the accident to take a few pictures (note to self: regularly carrying the camera around translates into more material for blogging, like how hitting the jackpot in Vegas requires actually hopping on a plane and traveling there).

So I walked back to my car, silently thanking God that this was not my day for an accident (at least not yet), and I noticed my meager lunch on the passenger seat. Suddenly an overripe banana and a granola bar looked a lot more like a feast than desperate leftovers, and I write these words with the last remnants of the savory, extra-sweet banana on my tongue, grateful that my day went better than the days of many people less fortunate than me.

Nov 12, 2008

On New Tires for an Old Car

I make frequent trips up to the Detroit area in my trusty 1995 Hyundai Accent, a car I purchased last year for the inexpensive price of a mere $700.00. The vehicle, which had only 79,000 original owner miles when I purchased it, turned out to be the best value-per-mile vehicle I ever owned, and I am now into my fifteenth month of driving this high-mileage automobile.

I recently noticed a bit of a vibration in the front end, and I decided that the 15,000 miles I put on the set of used tires that came with the vehicle was long enough time to roll the dice. I took the car to Belle Tire on Secor, and I was also prepared to hear bad news about the front end, as I considered the possibility that the slight shudder might have its origins in a worn tie rod end or some other suspension/steering related issue.

Alas, the new tires and a wheel balancing did the trick, and the mechanic reported the the front end was in "excellent shape." It is always rewarding to leave an auto repair facility spending much less than you planned, and $281 for a full set of 50,000-mile tires turned my car into a smooth-gliding, vibration-free piece of mechanical bliss.

I no longer spin my wheels in wet weather, and I was surprised at how much better the car handles on the open road. I also suspect that the 30 MPG I receive on the highway might creep upward a smidgen, given the balancing and proper inflation. Still, this is a small price to pay for safety and peace of mind, and this fruitful vehicular investment seems poised to provide three or more years of service.

There is a metaphor here in prudent investments and taking care of possessions in a world of financial uncertainty, and I cannot under-emphasize the value that previously-owned vehicles represent to cash-strapped consumers. Instead of dashing out and saddling yourself with a 5-year, $400-per-month loan on a flashy new vehicle, consider instead the money you can save in with a vehicle in the $700-$1000 range that has higher fuel efficiency. Sure, you will not impress supermodels, but they were not going to date you, anyways, dude.

Since going consciously deciding to embrace a more frugal lifestyle at the beginning of the decade, my wife and I have saved a great deal more money than when we made twice as much per year. Moreover, our ability to save also allowed us to take a 17-day vacation to Spain and Portugal this summer that might otherwise have been beyond our ability to afford.

So, chuckle at my 13-year-old purple subcompact when you see me at the stoplight, but remember this: I am saving thousands of dollars per year in this machine, and that I can weather even the worst financial cataclysm by staying frugal.

Nov 10, 2008

Meet Pugsley, a Rescue Puggle

On your left is Pugsley, a 6-month-old, 17-pound Puggle who was rescued from a Northwest Ohio animal shelter. He is a sweet boy who is quite affectionate and playful, and who has many years of love to give the right family.

Pugsley has been with us for just a few days, but he has already won over the people in our house. Though rather active, Pugsley is not a hyperactive dog, and he is fond of curling up on the couch with people to watch TV or read a book.

An intelligent dog, Pugsley already knows a few commands, including "sit" and "down," and he is showing signs of having been housebroken at one point. He gladly joins our other dogs outside to go to the bathroom, but he has had a few accidents in the first week, so his next owners need to be patient with this.

Pugsley does not appear to have any negative traits so far, and he will happily go for car rides, walks, or any similar activity. He pulls a bit on the leash, so his new owners will need to work with him on appropriate walking behaviors. To learn more about adopting Pugsley or any other Toledo-area rescue dogs, visit the Planned Pethood website for more details.

Nov 8, 2008

Live Fleetwood Mac - "Tusk" - with Special Guests

As a teenager I did not quite understand the bitter sarcasm and not-so-subtle phallic imagery in the Buckingham-penned song "Tusk," though I thought the song was especially quirky and catchy.

I find "Tusk" to be one of the best uses of a marching band in a pop song, though admittedly this is a small sub-genre of music. While listening today to the live Fleetwood Mac collection The Dance, I was intrigued by the live appearance of the USC Trojan Marching Band, who reprised their 1979 contributions to the original "Tusk." Here is the video of the performance, courtesy of YouTube:

The reaction of the crowd to the unannounced marching band is especially worth studying; can you imagine attending a Fleetwood Mac concert and suddenly being treated with such an aural and visual extravaganza? This is worth at least a NetFlix rental to experience in higher definition the talented Marching Trojans, though perhaps calling New York movers is a bit extreme.

Click and enjoy.

Nov 6, 2008

On Noisy Libraries and the Decline of Decorum

No longer a place for solitude and study

Given the rather busy environment in my office area - coupled with my need to do some research on my dissertation - I sought out what I believed would be a quiet refuge in the university library. Surely in the library I would find the relative solace by which I am better able to think on days in which I am sleep-deprived.

Of course, with the first floor of the University of Toledo's Carlson Library converted to a digital commons, I did not expect to find a noiseless environment among hundreds of AIM-using, mp3-downloading, and WoW-playing undergrads. I chose instead the third floor, which used to be my favorite tranquil respite.

Unfortunately, a group of boisterous young men engaged in everything except quiet study, and the crinkling of potato chip bags and tinny hip-hop beats from a laptop computer proved to be deal-breakers for me. Next stop: fourth floor.

This area, though, contained quite a few young women with cell phone conversations and giggled collective discourse about recent parties. I tried moving to a more secluded corner, only to be interrupted by some clod on another cellphone: "Hey. What y'all doin'? Yeah. Yeah. That shit smells rank, dog! Yeah. Yeah. I'm bout to jet. Yeah. Hunh! A-i-i-e-e-e-t!"

The fact that the dolt was a skinny white kid with dreadlocks only heightened my irritation at the intrusion: can there be a more ridiculous hairstyle than a suburban dude trying to look like Peter Tosh circa 1976? By the way, kid: the word is pronounced "STAIR-oids," not "STEER-oids," you semi-literate cretin, and most intelligent folks do not pronounce the word "feel" as they do "fill." Your repeated use of the phrase "Ah FILL you, bro" might be misinterpreted as a statement of sexual desire - just some information in case you ever want to engage in self-improvement.

I finally found an open group study room and closed the door to insulate myself from the uproar, achieving an hour's worth of peace. Yet I regretted the fact that I did not have the foresight to bring with me a set of earplugs to drown out the noise of hundreds of boorish, self-absorbed twits who believe that the library is just another location for social gathering, and whose utter disregard for the handful of people actually studying speaks volumes about the me-first attitude of too many Americans.

Now, I am far from a library purist, or one of those noise Nazis who used to populate public libraries, shoosh-ing even the slightest unintentional sound from a fidgety eight-year-old. I do not expect total silence, nor do I frown upon the occasional quiet conversation between library patrons. Heck - I even smile when I am at the public library and I see some parent with a screaming urchin, recalling the days when my progeny disrupted someone else's reverie.

However, the noise level at the library today by students who ought to know better bordered on the sort of dull clamor one might expect in a shopping mall or in the concourse of a sports arena, punctuated with occasional yelling voices and the beeps, chirps, and song snippets from electronic devices.

Am I a social anachronism, a person so out of step with a changing world as to seem a curmudgeonly throwback? Or is this lack of library civility and decorum evidence of a larger decline in human interaction, a bellwether of civilizational degradation?

Or should I just keep searching for a serene corner and spend more energy on tuning out the rowdy louts?

Nov 4, 2008

2008 Election: Prediction Thread

Like other pundits and bloggers, I cannot resist the temptation to dust off my crystal ball and prognosticate about the election. I will also be glued to the television set, hungrily gobbling up every piece of electoral news like I was a displaced refugee at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Yeah, I know: that was tacky. Sue me.

Feel free to use the comments section to record your own predictions:

256 Democratic House seats
179 Republican House seats
59 Democratic Senate seats
41 Republican Senate seats
367 Electoral Votes - Obama
171 Electoral Votes - McCain
52.1 Obama Popular Vote Percentage
45.1 McCain Popular Vote Percentage
1.9 Nader Popular Vote Percentage
0.9 Barr Popular Vote Percentage

Ohio Polling: Lined Up Out the Door

(Toledo, OH) In order to beat the mad rush of voters, I decided to arrive early at my local poll station. Unfortunately, at least 50 other voters showed up before I did, and I had a 45-minute wait before I cast my 2008 vote.

By the time I left, there were over 100 people in line, a queue that extended out the door of the building. This is easily the busiest I have ever seen this particular polling station, and the election workers scrambled to keep up with the crowd. We elected to use paper ballots instead of standing in a 15-person line to use the touch-screen machines.

In an unofficial exit poll of Brooks family voters, Barack Obama scored four votes, while two voters declined to publicly declare for a candidate. These figures represent a swing of one vote toward Obama in the past weeks, or a 33 percent increase in Obama voters from 3 to 4.

Left: Local canines less-than-enthusiastic about the election

Canines in our house reportedly offered to vote for the candidate most likely to provide dog treats on demand. Our Puggle, Eddie Haskell, demonstrated equal support for both Obama and McCain in an unofficial poll in which the following question was asked:

"Would the GOOD BOY EDDIE like to cast a DOGGY-WOGGY vote for Barack Obama?"

"Would the GOOD BOY EDDIE like to cast a DOGGY-WOGGY vote for John McCain?"

Nov 2, 2008

Hanging Out With Al-Jazeera

Left: Felicity Barr (center, in fuchsia jacket) and crew at work on the Maumee

My web presence opens up quite a few interesting opportunities for me to meet folks from around the world, and today I spent an hour or so with a crew from Al Jazeera English as they camped out in Toledo to broadcast live on the Maumee River.

The network sought out guests with some knowledge of local politics, and other people interviewed today by correspondent Felicity Barr included Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who was on before me. Buckeye Cablevision is one of only two U.S. systems to carry the Al Jazeera English feed, and I am glad the network chose Toledo as a destination for its 2008 election series.

Television is not my favorite medium, as I prefer to sit and ruminate over the precise words that communicate my thoughts. I admire people with an ability to think on their feet and sound intelligent in three-to-four minute unrehearsed bursts, as it usually takes me a few minutes just to warm up. Still, I trust that I did not come across as a complete rube; I will post a link to the interview when I find it uploaded.

Finally - I ought to address the lingering xenophobic idiocy regarding Al Jazeera English. I have been surprised at the number of people who assume that the network is somehow a "mouthpiece for terrorists," as the far right warmongers at Accuracy in Media (AIM) like to claim. I find the network to be relatively balanced - though admittedly with a bit of a pro-Palestinian bent - and Al Jazeera English often covers stories ignored by the mainstream U.S. news media.

You can access the network on station 269 on Buckeye Cablevision, and I find the coverage more akin to the BBC than I do to any so-called "terrorist media," such as Hezbollah's al-Manar network, banned by the Department of Treasury and the FCC in 2004.

Nov 1, 2008

Leaves Like Fire

The sun broke free from a sea of dreary clouds this afternoon to ignite the colors of some trees near my house. The sudden burst of color seemed more like a conflagration than a group of trees exchanging chlorophylls for carotenoids.

Then the sun returned to its place behind the dense cloud structures, and I trudged on in the cool fall air, only momentarily warmed by the sun's rays and the luminescent foliage.