Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tree'd Volume II

Yes, it's New Year's Eve and I'm still writing about Christmas but that's just indicative of how this holiday season unfolded. We are both behind the eight-ball for the last month and we make it through Christmas by the skin of our teeth.

We still have much to do on Christmas Eve. Robin has the day off so we head out to buy last minute items like stocking stuffers. There is no better place on Earth for stocking stuffers than Big Lots. Scores of cheap and close-out items but always a few nuggets amongst the clinkers. Unbeknown to us, our local store terminated its lease and sold most of its stock over the last month.

We enter the store and see aisles of empty shelves. After three weeks or so, only the most mutant items remain. Actually, this is a golden opportunity for marketing students and working professionals. They should all take a tour of that store to see ideas that someone signed off on but should stay in the darker recesses of the marketing mind.

Ideas like Bald Guyz Wipes. Yes this is a real product. No I can't make this up. Bald Guyz Wipes are moist towelettes made specifically for wiping your personal dome. What happens if you use them somewhere else? Do the Bald Guyz Police jump out of your gym bag and arrest you for Unauthorized Use Of Marketing-Targeted Products? Let's look at the following official Bald Guyz bullet points:

  • Specially formulated for the bald guy.
Are bald guyz different physiologically? Are we endowed with special Bald Guyz Powers? Am I not living up to my Bald Guyz Potential? Are we poorer spellerz? Can I join a group like the NAABP?
  • Cleans and Freshens
Help me understand why a piece of skin exposed to the open air needs, er, "freshening."
  • 16 wipes in each box
Are you sure that's enough? After all, if my head needs freshening, I should do that like once an hour, right?
  • Green Tea extract cleans your head from the natural oils secreted during the day while providing a cool fresh feeling.
If those "oils" are natural, why are we cleaning them off? Their continual reappearance tells us maybe they're important. Or maybe this forward-thinking company wants to sell you a product called ChappedHead later on.
  • This quick drying Swiss formula will give you a clean and renewed feeling, leaving your head with a natural healthy look.

Picture with me a roomful of white-coated Swiss scientists stroking their Van Dykes and uttering pithy truths like, "Yah, I zeenk it needz more uff zet grrreen tea shtuff. "

There is also a product called "Lifelike Legs" or something to that effect. Hang the life-size Lifelike Legs out of a garbage can or car trunk and use the Lifelike Kicking Action to fool your friends. A regular laugh riot.

Great men and women are dying in Iraq so we can waste valuable resources on crap like this.

Time is critical and we need to wrap presents. For weeks I tell myself we need Scotch Tape. Here it is Christmas Eve and still no Scotch Tape. Nerves fray. Both of us get snippy and start taking it out on each other. Robin asks me to pick up her prescription at CVS when I go buy Scotch Tape. I want to scream because I will have to wait for the prescription to be filled but I take one for the team and hold it in.

Now I'm at CVS waiting in line to see the pharmacist. In front of me is a small man made smaller by sitting in a wheelchair. He knows the pharmacist and they're laughing over something. HIPAA mandates I do not divulge. Later on, while searching out the Scotch Tape, I find him having a lighthearted conversation with a clerk. After minutes of searching, it turns out the Scotch Tape is over by the magazines and our friend is already there reading Motor Trend.

I want to strangle this guy. He has no right to be upbeat in a wheelchair on Christmas Eve. Then I realize it's my attitude that needs adjusting, especially since I'm planning a nice surprise gift for all the girls this scaled-down Christmas. I buy a box of those chemical heat pads for Robin as a peace offering. Her upper back is killing her lately. These pads bring relief.

So I'm shamed into cooling it for Christmas Eve. Scotch Tape in hand, I ready myself for The Final Hurdle. Unbeknownst to everyone I suffer secretly from Gift Wrap Anxiety Syndrome. I cannot produce one passably wrapped rectangular package in less than an hour. In the same amount of time, I can pack a transmission for shipment across the country.

Three hours later, I emerge from my office perspiring after wrapping three packages. In the same time, Robin wrapped thirty gifts. No baloney. Now she's curled up on the sofa watching A Very Special Christmas Eve Presentation of HGTV's Property Virgins. Seems a young couple expects their first child real soon but can't find anything in their price range. The Realtor shows them a partially completed manger conversion. I think I've seen this one before but I can't remember how it comes out......

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tree'd: Volume I

The spirit of Christmas finally smacked me in the face like a refrigerator falling off a speeding furniture truck. Last Saturday, my lovely wife Robin and I participated in an event we like to call The Annual Christmas Tree Lug. There is a Christmas tree lot at the end of our street about a quarter mile down the hill from our house. Parking is at a premium and it's too much of a pain to put the tree in the trunk so we walk down to the lot and buy our tree.

Like much of America, we downsize Christmas this year and carry that theme to our choice of greenery. We opt for a skinny six foot tree instead of the usual seven- footer, saving fifteen bucks and perhaps ten pounds of tree in the process. Of course, my wife wants to bargain the price down too. She'll bargain over anything from groceries to electronics at the drop of a hat. Robin is probably the only woman in America who enjoys buying a car. It took me a long time to find a woman who relishes frugality as much as I do. My love for her knows no boundaries because of it.

So we pick out our tree, pay our reduced price and lug the tree back up the hill. After a bit of trunk trimming, the tree stands proudly in our living room ready for decorating.

Now we pull out all the Christmas music. Nobody does Christmas music like The Jingle Cats. Thank God. The joke and the novelty wear out their welcome after the first five seconds. Any more than that and one is either certifiable or has a house full of seven-year-olds.

Actually, we lead off with the inimitable Vince Guaraldi and music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. This album is a real touchstone for my generation of fifty-somethings. Guaraldi's playing is superb as well.

While futzing with the lights, we segue to An Oscar Peterson Christmas. Why these two people rate their own Christmases separate from the rest of us I do not know. The album alternates between admirable restraint and admirable tearing it up.

Once the lights are up and rearranged 42 times, Oscar has had his moment and my wife hauls out A Windham Hill Christmas. Now here's an entire organization with their very own Christmas. Does anyone share anymore?

While my wife handles most of the ornament placing, I start preparing the London broil thawing out on the counter. A little seasoning rub and into the broiler it goes. There's nothing like the broiler on an early '50s O'Keefe & Merritt gas range. Adjustable rack height and flame level make it the Cadillac of broilers and a must for steak lovers everywhere.

Now the house smells like steak and baked potatoes microwaving in the "nuke." This is enough to make me cry on its own but go ahead and add in the Celtic Christmas music wafting out of the stereo and the live tree smell. I'm ready to go.

Then I look at the tree. On it are favorite ornaments from when Robin's daughters were little, mixed in with newer stuff from my life with them. Since I weaseled my way into their lives, many of the ornaments I added have an outdoor theme. There's a little hiking boot, a lantern, a mountain tent and a pair of snowshoes. There's also my favorite shown in the photo above.

If you can't make out the shape, I will tell you the white thing is a roll of toilet paper. Most backpackers know the plastic international orange trowel is the international symbol for, well, you can take it from here on your own. I love this ornament. Robin's daughters hope the cats carry it off and bury it somewhere.

So now the music plays, the steak sizzles, Robin looks very cute decorating the tree, and she's handing me some ornaments. At that moment, I realize how much history hangs from its branches. Every family's tree is a totem. Each ornament is a little bit of history and comfort. The cats like batting them around too.

For most of the 19 years since arriving here at the Outpost, I did not put up a Christmas tree. I felt I had better things to do with my hard-earned money. My job was to strive and suffer until I reached The Ultimate Goal. That was a mistake. Perhaps putting up a tree and staring at those ornaments would make me miss my family too much when they're 3,000 miles away. Now with Robin and her two daughters, knowing our tree is truly il nostro albero brings a new and exciting level of happiness.

Now I'm ready to fall on my knees and thank God for allowing me even this small glimpse of marriage and family life as a husband. Most of my friends married in their twenties so they have a twenty-five-year head start. I am a mere rookie.

By now, Robin wonders what's up with me. I can't begin to tell her all the different feelings coursing around simultaneously. So I grab her and we dance until I get it back together enough to talk to her about it. Evidently, she's not used to the men in her life confessing the simple truths about themselves because it looks like she's ready to cry too.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

There's No "I" In Team But There Is In "Married"

My lovely wife Robin and I entered the state of Holy Mortal Wedlock about two and a half years ago. This is her second trip, having two beautiful and ridiculously intelligent daughters with her first husband. This is my first marriage. Not too many men get married for the first time at 50, unless they lead the Warren Beatty life first. I did not lead the Warren Beatty life.

We met online. Okay, I hear the howls of derisive laughter from here. Tell me again how meeting at a club or party or even a wedding is better than meeting online. With online dating, one can sort through a few pics and write some letters, leading eventually to talking on the phone. If all systems are go, meet in a public place. Bring a wingman if you're still nervous. Your wingman can sit nearby at Norm's or House of Pies with the other party's wingperson. Perhaps they make a connection and start seeing each other as well.

Despite living only seven miles apart, there's no other way our lives intersect. Online dating is a great way to break out of one's normal crowd, especially if one finds oneself meeting the same type of person over and over again.

Sure, there are pitfalls. People do lie. Women sometimes lie about their appearance. Men have been known to lie about their circumstances. Do people lie more online than they do at closing time in a bar with the beer goggles on? Most people are sober online unless it's 2:00am and the beer goggles are still on. At that point, you're more apt to write the Stupid Drunken Email to your ex.

Besides, savvy online daters can read between the lines. We all know the true meaning of words and phrases like, "curvy," "has curves," "creative" and "athletic." Besides, what is an athletic build really? If a guy's gut looks like a basketball, that's athletic, right? From what I hear, the answer is yes.

Some people don't lie outright but they give the truth a good beating. For instance, I learned "average" height for an American man online really means 5 feet 4 inches. I was once rejected by a tallish woman because she told me over the phone I "sound short." I insist my real height is in fact the 5 feet 11 inches reported in my profile. She replies if I admit to 5 feet 11, I am probably 5 feet 6.

Online dating facilitates identifying crazy people before meeting face to face. If a person writes a 12,000 word profile outlining their desire to be understood, chances are good you won't understand them either. If a woman's photo shows big hair and high-waisted jeans, chances are 1987 was the last time she was happy.

One time I get to the calling point with someone who spends the last half of the first call bagging on her ex. The next time she bags on her ex for an hour. The third time it's ninety minutes. After that, I suggested we might change the subject. She told me I was just like all the other men who never listen.

Get my point? Online dating is also a public service. Another potential murder-suicide averted.

Say what you will. Since I entered the state of Holy Mortal Wedlock, I no longer dwell on the circumstances of our meeting. I'm married, I like it and work to stay that way. Now I try to understand exactly what it means to be married.

My wife insists we are a "team" but sometimes we both act like we're alone. Let me know if the following rings true:

My wife is in the bathroom applying eye makeup. The door is open. I walk in and say, "Honey..." Now she's shrieking and I have to peel her off the ceiling.

"You scared me, " she replies shakily after catching her breath.

"How? by walking in and saying, 'Honey...?'"

"Well...I didn't expect you to walk in."

"Okay, let me get this straight. We're married. We share the house, yet you don't ever expect me to walk into the open bathroom? Ever?"

Here's another: I'm entering the shower. Halfway in, I realize my wife removed the freshly laundered washcloth I placed in there previously. Now I'm dripping wet and fuming because I must drip over to the linen closet to retrieve a fresh one. My wife inquires about the tirade later.

"What was all the swearing about?'

"You took the new washcloth out of the shower. I was forced to walk through the house dripping wet to get another one."


"What do you mean, why? There was no washcloth...."

"Why didn't you just get in the shower and call for me to bring you a fresh one instead of stomping around all mad?"

Hmmm. She had me there. However, I ignored Newton's Second Law of Marriage (pick yer battles ya eejit) and put up a front.

"Because...Because...I am a man. A man always provides for his own washcloth."

Yes I said that. Looking back, it doesn't make sense to me either. My wife endures this logic on a daily basis for two and a half years now. Truth be told, I forget for a moment I have a teammate.

Teammates pick up the slack for you sometimes when your "A" game deserts you. When your shot's not dropping, you compensate with more hustle and tenacious defense. Encourage your teammates when the day isn't theirs. Cajole them for sloppy play.

Little by little, I get the picture. Marriage most resembles basketball, though a good argument can be made for doubles tennis, ping-pong or badminton.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Goodbye, Old Paint

Had to sell my old 1989 Nissan Sentra the other day. Actually, I didn't sell it so much as betray it. The car would no longer pass a smog test without about 300 dollars worth of catalytic converter and other parts. While the car ran excellently, it wasn't worth the additional investment. Especially since I bought it for 375 dollars at an impound auction almost four years ago.

Trust me, this is the "good" side.

The State of California bought this car off me for 1,000 dollars. Yes, that's ten hundred bucks. How does a dented old 375-dollar car turn into a thousand-dollar machine four years later? The California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) wants older, more polluting (Their opinion. More on that later) cars off the road so badly, they pay 1,000 dollars to retire your car. Of course, "retire" is the shiny happy euphemism for "crush the living snot out of it." Hence the term "betrayal." I felt like Werner Klemperer as Eichmann repeating, "Don't worry. It's only a delousing shower" to my car as we approached the salvage yard where they inspect the cars for the BAR.

Yes, your car must pass an inspection so it can be crushed. One can't drag in any dead player and get a grand. One must prove three years of ownership with a recent registration. The car must move under its own power, start and stop on command, have all the smog gear present, an intact windshield, at least one door glass and make the drive to the salvage yard without being towed or pushed in. The car must have at least three years worth of life left in it. How they prove that is beyond me.

Oh, and if another name is on the title with yours, grab a Power of Attorney form from the DMV. One woman was turned away in tears at the thought of talking to her ex-husband about their huge old Chevy Suburban, not to mention the eighty gallons of gas consumed going back and forth to the salvage yard. Retiring that behemoth offset all the soot from the last three local wildfires.

I'm taking a moratorium from visiting that particular salvage yard for parts. The thought of seeing my dowdy but reliable steed partially disemboweled by hordes of jackals before meeting the final end in the crusher disheartens me.

So what's the fascination with these rolling wrecks? There are a couple of forces at play here. First of all, I am frugal. I am not cheap. Frugal means buying a 375-dollar car knowing that a couple of hundred well-placed dollars and a time investment will result in a car capable of good service for a number of years. Cheap means buying a 375-dollar car and expecting it to be perfect.

My wife thinks I take perverse pleasure in owning the unownable. She's right but postponing a car's trip to the crusher helps the environment without cost to taxpayers. Squeezing all the life possible out of a consumer product before recycling means less demand for a substitute. If I buy used cars all my life, at least six new ones don't get built.

While a new car has fewer emissions, the greater amount of raw materials required to construct those new cars more than offsets the difference. Coke provides the fuel for steel making; huge amounts of electricity from coal-fired power plants powers aluminum forming and the plastic materials are petroleum. Does the world need any more plastic?

My old manual transmission Sentra weighed about 2200 pounds. A new one similarly equipped weighs 2885 pounds. The extra 685 pounds means the new car uses more fuel than the old one. I don't expect the country to adopt my hair shirt environmentalism, but I have the knowledge and tools to make it work for me.

Besides, why would I want to buy something for twenty-five grand that becomes twenty grand the minute I sign the contract? Remember, a car can only be sold as new once. People think a new car depreciates upon leaving the dealership lot. Actually it depreciates while the Finance Manager beats you over the head.

For most people, buying a three-or-four-year-old used car is the cheapest personal transportation alternative. Insurance and registration costs are far less, plus the original owner takes the major depreciation hit. A modern three-year-old car with 30 thousand miles on the clock has at least another 175 thousand more miles left in it with any care at all. Unless the first owner used the car to haul logs.

My wife rolls this way. Last year, we went to the LA Auto Show to see what she'll buy in two years.

Meanwhile, I took part of my filthy state lucre and purchased another fine piece of automotive craps-manship. This beautiful 1989 Toyota Camry!

Hey I'm going upscale. This car has air conditioning. At least, all the air conditioning stuff is present. The car followed me home from the impound auction for a mere 225 bucks. That's roughly 12 cents a pound.

Good thing, too. While always vigilant for wear and tear, this car was tortured. With the limited time and space of an auction, I couldn't tell this car was hurt in ways I never saw before. The previous owners (plural because one person could not be this inept yet still have the wherewithal to drive) were neither skilled nor well tooled. Every nut and bolt touched by them is either snapped off or gnarled to the point where no wrench will fit. So every typical ten-minute disassembly requires an hour. Per bolt.

For example, the plastic window crank wore out on the driver's side window so instead of spending five bucks and replacing it, some genius used a vice grips to roll the window down. Not only is the mechanism destroyed but they tore up the "door card" upholstery too. The rear wheel brake cylinders leaked for at least a year but they repaired that by replacing all the front brake stuff instead. Unfortunately, they screwed that up in ways I can't even describe so all the front brake stuff had to be trashed as well. Leaving out all the retaining hardware means the front caliper hoses carrying the brake fluid were almost sawed through.

Replacing the front McPherson struts requires two nuggets of knowledge; install them on the proper side and tighten the large retaining bolts really tight. They did neither. So if the car wasn't impounded, would these jokers die due to brake failure or because the suspension fell apart? If either happened, would they be the only victims or would some innocent bystander buy the farm as well?

Believe me, I understand "survival mechanics." There's a right way and a wrong way. It's not hard to acquire the knowledge, especially when motivated by lack of funds. Knowledge is the price paid for poverty. Judging by what was in the trunk, there was enough money to do the job right.

Buying a car from an impound auction entitles the buyer to everything in the trunk too. I bought a Toyota Starlet from auction a few years ago for 200 bucks. In the hatch area was a man's leather jacket and a child safety seat. I sold the jacket for 35 dollars, the safety seat for 20 bucks. Hello 145-dollar car. Drove it for almost three years.

The Camry came with about 60 bootleg DVDs in the trunk. Most were boots of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. All but two were made by bringing a camera into the theater and shooting the screen. Okay, I can see how a person gets away with sneaking the camera in but what about the tripod? There's no way someone shoots the screen without one.

So yes, I take frugality and environmentalism to its extreme. Many years of freelancing and voice-talent-ing made me this way. It's a tough habit to break. With the economy in the toilet and employment opportunities spotty, I'm not sure this is the time to break it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ready Or Not, It's Christmas

Here in the City of Angels, the Christmas spirit is hard to come by. Of course, watching the news lately strangles everyone's good time but LA is unique in its suffering. First of all, we had no autumn. OK, I see the jokes on the horizon. "In LA you know it's autumn because the smog changes color."

Yes, the seasons are not so pronounced here. However, the week before Thanksgiving featured triple-digit temps. The hot dry Santa Ana Winds fanned three area fires leaving hundreds of cinder piles where homes once stood. Ash fell out of the sky for three days. The sun was an orange disk cloaked in the murk. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, huh? Not.

With LA's famed Endless Summer reluctant to leave, with more families showing up at homeless shelters and charity holiday meals due to economic woes or having lost everything to the flames, no one is ready for the holidays.

The lovely Robin and I threw our annual Christmas Kick-Off party this last weekend. Our official date is the first Saturday in December (or DeCember as it's spelled around here) because nobody else is crazy enough to mount another major food shindig so close to Thanksgiving. Therefore, we expect a high turnout because we're the only game in town. Lethargy was our competition this year and we lost.

About 16 people showed up when our usual turnout is 50. Everyone still around left in a conga line at 10:30 pm. Robin and I were dumbfounded. Last year, the house rocked with laughter, music and good times.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not crabbing about the lack of turnout. Hey, I have a refrigerator stocked with enough food to feed 34 no-shows. It was still a very nice party and I enjoyed everyone's company immensely. Rather, I worry about what we choose to live without in these tough times.

The television news relates stories of shoppers cutting back on gift-giving. Robin tells me more than one of her co-workers told her only their young children will receive gifts. Fewer than usual, too. Okay, we all have less disposable income but Christmas is here, ready or not. So lets all quit being bummed because Santa can't give Johnny and Jane an X-Box this year. Let's get back to the basics and remember what this season is all about.

My best childhood Christmas recollections do not focus on the gifts but the people. Seeing all my cousins at my grandparents on Christmas Eve. My Uncle Sam teasing my youngest cousin Valerie about Santa getting hit by a car on the way to her house. It sounds mean on your computer screen but it was wickedly funny to the rest of us in 1965. Mind you, this went on for years. Uncle Sam added a new twist every year and Valerie fell for it again and again. We still laugh at the thought.

The traditional Italian-American Christmas Eve revolves around fish. Catholicism before Vatican II required a meatless meal on either December 23rd or the 24th for everyone over seven years old. Anyone who knows me more than five minutes knows I hate fish. Sorry, but I know what we put into the ocean so I'm not eating anything coming out of it. Besides, I never understood the whole fish thing. People like fish but they don't like it if it tastes too fishy? What is the point, then? When one eats a steak, one hopes it tastes really steak-y. Anyway, I made do with the spaghetti and clam sauce, straining the clams out by drawing individual spaghetti strands through my teeth.

What I remember most is the amount of love and laughter in that kitchen. My grandfather and grandmother were legends in their neighborhood. They really didn't say much on Christmas Eve. Usually they just sat there and beamed. The love and respect they gave their family and friends returned to them a hundredfold. The family and the in-laws all got along incredibly well.

The adults exchanged small gifts. Grandpa augmented his cigar supply. Uncle Sam got another dress shirt for work. Small quantities of cologne or fancy soap changed hands. A box of Russell Stover chocolates might make an appearance. My family was never a "stuff" family. Christmas for the adults was more about the hugs and kisses than the goodies. Santa was always good to me, though.

As we got older, the Catholic Church forgot about meatless days but the tradition remained so my recently-departed Aunt Agnes made me a baked stuffed pork chop. Every year I looked forward to that baked stuffed pork chop because it meant I was once again in the bosom of my family on Christmas Eve. December 24th was the only time I ever ate them. Doing so any other day might dilute the significance.

These people love to laugh. The table groaning with food and the happy boisterous voices ringing out greetings or jokes or opinions about some current event still rattle around in my head. Unfortunately, I live far away from most of my family so our little yearly soirée with our best friends laughing and the kids chasing after the cats gives me a small taste of that atmosphere. It's why I look forward to it and why I won't let any outside forces ruin it.

The next couple of years will strain this country more than any time since World War II. Time to strip Christmas back to the basics. Everybody is bummed over something this year. So forget the X-Box or the set of Calloway woods and get together with family and friends. Don't miss the parties because you're not in the mood. Be proactive. The parties and family gatherings are mood-altering substances. Hugs and kisses and laughter are free. It's what you'll remember 30 years after the toys and trinkets are forgotten.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Agnes Jaglinski Votto 1925-2008

My Aunt Agnes died over the weekend so there's been no blogging. As with all my relatives who die, I took time to think about them and their impact on me.

"Auntie Ag" married my uncle Pasquale "Pat" Votto at a relatively young age. Pat was a hands-on hard-charger at the Griest Manufacturing plant where they both worked. They moved into a house right next door to my grandparents. This has to be a harrowing situation for a young Polish girl; marrying the family firstborn son with your Italian mother-in-law sixty feet away.

Family lore has it my Aunt Agnes wasn't much of a cook back then. My grandmother taught her to cook Italian over the years. Aunt Agnes took that ball and ran with it, becoming not only a good cook but a great one. She was a scratch baker, too. Turns out Auntie Ag was a bit of a hard-charger as well. I bet that was the initial attraction.

She never did anything halfway. Both my aunt and uncle were the epitome of hard work and its rewards. My whole family is that way.

Aunt Agnes did not suffer fools gladly. She was on warm terms with irony and sarcasm. When relating a story about one dimbulb or another, she would punctuate the dimbulb's aha moment with an ironic but lusty "Hallelujah!" He was not too bright that one letmetellya.

This early exposure to irony and sarcasm probably fostered my love for same. Biting wit was a hallmark of holiday table conversation. Auntie Ag was at the forefront. In our presence she usually let us kids have the floor, especially as we got older. She loved to listen to our stories about high school and college. No matter how young we were or how trivial the topic, She always listened hard to what her nieces and nephews had to say. When I was younger, I could hear her holding court over coffee with the other adults around the dining room table. The woman had strong opinions. We didn't always agree with them but she had them.

Lest one think Aunt Agnes a hard nut to crack, any child could melt her heart. She loved every child ever born and any child yet to be born. She advocated for children. She became a cafeteria lady because she loved children. Of course, she ran the joint after a short while. The food got a lot better too.

If one was fortunate enough to be Auntie Ag's niece or nephew, it was obviously a reward for good deeds done in a previous life. She was loyal beyond belief. That woman sat through a driving rain to watch me run my leg of the mile relay (now 4x400m relay) at a regional high school relay meet. Anyone attending a high school track meet knows they take awhile to complete. Relay meets are to regular track meets as War and Peace is to haiku. There are endless rounds of the same event so as many kids as possible can participate. The mile relay is near the end of the program.

Because she and my cousin Valerie sat through that whole meet (perhaps Valerie will forgive me someday), I did my best to make sure the day wasn't wasted. I ran the third leg, passing two competitors and handing the baton to our anchor in second place. He took care of the remaining competition and Hamden High placed first overall. If Auntie Ag sat all day in a cold rain to watch me run for 50 whole seconds, then cold rain was no excuse for me to let up. She holds the record for most times a relative other than my parents watched me compete through high school and college.

Perhaps Aunt Agnes loved children because she had so much trouble conceiving one of her own. She knew the preciousness of each child. Reproductive science was positively stone age back then compared to today. With time running out, doctors tried an experimental procedure to give her one shot at having a child. The procedure was a success and my cousin Valerie was born in 1961. Which segues nicely into my most memorable Auntie Ag moment....

It was 1961. Auntie Ag was standing in the front doorway. She was wearing one of those maternity smock tops women wore back then. I was sitting in the car but I was so small, I could see upwards out of the window. My mom was standing in the open driver’s door of her white 1959 Ford Galaxie. The two women were shouting at each other over the engine noise. I can’t remember what was said but they were both having a laugh.

Then my mom said something and Aunt Agnes smiled. She always had a nice smile but this was special. I never saw anyone smile like that before. It was a 100-megawatt smile. Not some goofy grin but a knowing smile. That smile was so amazing, it stuck in a five-year-old’s memory. I recall it 47 years later like it happened yesterday.

Later in life we hear people talk about pregnancy making women glow. Whenever anyone broaches that subject I think of Auntie Ag and that smile every time. Every time. At that moment there was no one on Earth happier or more fulfilled than Agnes Votto. Knowing she experienced that level of joy in her life makes me feel a little better about her death.

Three weeks ago, she entered a hospice because she just couldn't go anymore.
Aunt Agnes was no-nonsense even about her exit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jerry's World of Wheels

Right now, I'm doing more mechanic work than I've done in ten years. That greasy, slimy, wounded Nissan Sentra engine is sitting on a pallet in my friend's print shop ready for its makeover. My wife's water pump just gave up the ghost. Well, actually, her water pump is fine. Her Toyota's water pump ground to a halt literally so I'm replacing it two days before Thanksgiving with all the shopping left to do.

Unfortunately, the water pump housing is corroded to the point where it leaks. Only Toyota dealers sell the housing and the only way one can procure said housing is with a factory water pump. So my 32-dollar Bosch Lifetime Guarantee water pump from Pep Boys just turned into a 120-dollar Official Toyota Factory Parts water pump and housing. Jeez. There must be 32 million dollars worth of parts in every Camry. Mechanical inclination provides no immunity to shelling out money for auto repair.

While I got my voice-over act together, I had a little auto repair business called Jerry's World of Wheels. I came to your house and fixed your car in your own driveway. Or on the street. Or on the lot at Warner Brothers. It got to the point where I farmed out some work to real mechanics looking for side jobs. The whole enterprise came to a screeching halt when thieves stole four grand worth of automotive tools from my apartment storage space. I did not have insurance. The cost of insurance in LA for four grand worth of automotive tools is four grand.

There are many auto mechanics in Hollywood. Some are as fine as anywhere in the world. Others prey on the acute knowledge gap of the area's artistically inclined citizenry. I knew a comedy writer so mechanically inept, he could not tell the difference between any keys on his key ring. Every time we got in his car, he jammed every key into the ignition until he found the right one. That was my customer base.

So is this:

Except for spark plugs. Everyone knows what spark plugs do. They spark, right? This one nugget of automotive knowledge becomes the linchpin of conversations with the mechanic.

Mechanic: "The flat tire is unrepairable. I'll have to replace it."

Customer: "Maybe it's the spark plugs. Did you check the plugs?

The rip-off shops figured it out pretty quickly, which gave rise to the $49.95 "tune-up" (6 & 8 cylinders higher). For 50 bucks, the mechanic installs four spark plugs. That's it. The job takes 15 minutes and the materials cost is $5. That's $180 per hour for labor, far greater than the 50 or 60 bucks an hour charged by the typical shop back then. The satisfied clientele goes home flush with the knowledge their own spark plug diagnosis was correct. Never mind why the plugs got fouled in the first place. If they foul up again, the customer will be back for another set. In a modern engine, the plugs should last 30-40 thousand miles or more.

Which made it hard on me. When a customer needed a tune-up the following conversation inevitably ensued:

Me: "All you need is a good tune-up."

Them: "Great. How much?"

"One hundred dollars"

"Wait a minute. Achmed's Auto charges $49.95. Tune-Up Guys charges the same thing plus I get a free pine-scented air freshener."

"Well, for a hundred dollars I actually tune up the car."

My second favorite dodge is the 99-dollar two wheel brake job. Of course, "some cars extra." Unfortunately, "some cars" means pretty much every car on the road except for 1964 Chevy Novas. Disc brakes are extra. Try to find a car without them. Brake pads capable of actually stopping the car or lasting more than six months are also extra. Extra parts required to restore your braking system are way extra. So your 99-dollar two-wheel brake job is now over 300 bucks. I would charge $185 from the beginning. Some cars extra, of course.

The upshot is many shops do business in a way having little to do with what's actually wrong with your car. They exist to separate you from your money using your own car as bait. How to spot the frauds? Have some familiarity with what's going on under your hood. You don't have to take the car apart. Just know how things work well enough to talk to your mechanic of choice.

I don't understand cheesy mechanics. A reputation for honesty is worth far more over time than the Quick Buck. Hoards will beat a path to your door, especially since new cars get more complicated and the knowledge gap grows greater and greater.

You're on your own for the pine-scented air freshener. I hate those things.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Alaskan Turkeys

Yesterday, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin pardons a turkey. No big news there. As we all know, governors pardoning turkeys is a well-worn tradition around this time of year. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger pardons turkeys, which takes on a whole unintended life of its own given his thick Austrian accent.

Usually, some functionary of the local turkey farmers association brings a well-coiffed bird to the governor's office or some other neutral site where a state governor reads a very slightly humorous proclamation over extemporaneous gobbling and some wing flapping. There's a few ha-has and a softball question or two. Then everyone goes home including the turkey who probably ends up dead much to his or her chagrin.

Here's where it gets good. Governor Palin travels to an Alaskan turkey farm to preside over the ceremony. She reads a prepared statement over the incredible din inside the turkey coop. After the "pardon," someone asks her to hold a turkey, which she refuses to do, and settles for hugging it. Prudent behavior since the bird is rather filthy.

After the ceremony, the governor does a stand-up answering questions and chirping out a few poorly constructed run-on sentences echoing snippets of Republican Party platform rhetoric she remembers from cramming for her debate. Meanwhile, farm workers are sticking turkeys into a funnel device where the birds are beheaded right behind her! Underneath the funnel device is a trough running red with...Wait a minute. Why am I describing this to you? See for yourself:

Governor Palin approved the stand-up location herself. She and her staff show an appalling lack of attention to detail. Unfortunately, that is one of the job requirements for Vice President or even City Alderman.

Now don't think for one minute I don't know how turkeys are raised or slaughtered. That's not the point. When I was about four years old, my Uncle Pat took me along to buy a fresh killed chicken for Aunt Agnes at the local poultry butcher on Legion Avenue in New Haven. Uncle Pat went into the back for a moment and I wandered in after him. Just as I turned a corner, the butcher laid the chicken's neck across a chopping block and deftly relieved the chicken of all further responsibilities. The headless chicken flapped its wings for a moment, then all motion ceased.

Once the commotion was over, Uncle Pat looked around and saw me standing there. I wasn't supposed to see dinner meet its demise but I did. I remember being more surprised about the process than anything else. So from a very early age I knew how my food gets dead. Auntie Ag's chicken was delicious, too.

My problem with the Governor and her staff is their total failure to think things through. Instead of controlling the situation, she and her staff were controlled by it. They can't even do a stupid post-turkey-pardon stand-up correctly. Would you talk about prison reform while someone was receiving a lethal injection in the background? Didn't they realize the national press was hovering in the background rejoicing in the delicious irony of the situation? The Republicans are thinking about running this woman again in 2012? Governor Palin makes Dan Quayle look like William F. Buckley. At least Quayle listens to someone else once in awhile.

There are dozens of Republicans more qualified for the office of Vice President. However, the ham-handed out-of-touch right wing of the GOP didn't want to be the child left behind on the whole change thing:

"Look! We're gonna make history too! Sure, the Democrats have that colored guy running for the top job but we got us a girl Vice-President! She kills moose and believes evolution is intellectual gobbledygook just like you do do!"

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I'm in the middle of pulling the engine on the Nissan Sentra I wrote about last week. Plus, my lovely wife and I are holding an estate sale this weekend with a friend so we're spending our evenings shlepping furniture back and forth. I'm also on a deadline for getting the engine out of the car so I've been remiss in adding new material. Please forgive me while I microwave something instant for you. As with real microwave dinners, the heavy lifting is done by someone else. Just heat and eat.

I read a very good column by Rosa Brooks from the LA Times. She outlines all the last minute legislation the Bush administration is rammrodding through before they steal the silverware on their way out. Presidential pardons and wacko legislation are a time-honored privilege of a lame duck president but this stuff goes beyond the pale. It may take the incoming administration years to undo it all. You can read more about it by clicking here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Apocalypse Home Makeover

Yesterday, the sun was little more than an orange disk in the sky obscured by tons of airborne ash kicked up by the three large wildfires burning in our vicinity. Though the closest fire is about 25 miles away, the smoke burns the back of all our throats and ash falls out of the sky all over the county. So if it's not Armageddon, it's a little bit of Pompeii.

We painted some furniture in the garage over the weekend but we may redo it because all the ash flying around in the air stuck to the wet paint. The particulate matter makes the air too foul to run. I've run in 110-degree heat, 24-below cold, monsoon rain and blizzard conditions. For me to say it's too smoky to run is a lot.

So far, the fires immolated about 850 homes. These are not your average house fires. Back in my Boston days, I had a temp job salvaging the ruins of structure fires. Sometimes the framework remained standing so I'd comb through the wreckage looking for anything salvageable. That job ended when a worker complained about the dangers of negotiating fire-weakened structures. The work was dangerous and dirty but finding a cache of relatively untouched family photos in the water-soaked wreckage provided some comfort for the families involved.

With a wildfire, the temperatures are so high, the building materials burst into flame spontaneously from the heat without any fire actually touching the structure. Or an ember drifts into a roof vent and touches off the attic insulation. Regardless of the ignition method, the end result is a concrete slab, a freestanding chimney and a pile of ash. Take it from one who knows. These people are lucky to find a pottery shard after wildfire consumes their house.

Some of the victims are wealthy people up in Montecito. It doesn't matter really when fire vaporizes all the pictures of your children, all their first grade finger paintings, the Father's Day cards they made for you, or videotapes from their fifth birthday party in 1991. Plus, any mementos from previous generations turn to ash and fly away with the breeze, only to land on my car or sting the back of my throat. No wonder the taste is so acrid.

No matter how wealthy the family, those days will never be recaptured. A lifetime of little thisses and thats telling a family's story goes poof. That's why we keep many of our most irreplaceable memories in a concrete and steel storage unit about a mile from our house. We live on a hillside just below Forest Lawn Memorial Park. A fire sweeping up our hill could be at our threshold in a few minutes. We'll have enough time to grab some clothes and a few files before we're boxed in.

My lovely wife Robin's maternal grandfather was Dr Corwin Hinshaw. Google his name and you'll discover a Nobel Prize candidate for his work in curing tuberculosis. Dr Hinshaw also worked with Charles Lindbergh studying the effects of high altitude on the human body. We are caretakers for quite a bit of this great man's memorabilia including rare 16mm footage from a lifetime of world travel. Personally, I'd feel better if a university held these effects but as long as they're under our protection, they'll be stored where their loss is less likely.

So what can we do for people losing everything in a wildfire? Aside from helping them with immediate needs, buy an empty scrapbook and fill it with every picture of the victims you can find. Call other friends and relatives to contribute. Everyone has pictures taken with other people in them so comb your archives. Check your videotape library for appropriate footage as well. Help restore a family legacy by replacing the irreplaceable. Clothes they can get anywhere.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Sale Wags The Blog

Advertising dollars are the de facto censors of our media. Since advertising pays the freight in this country, advertisers often determine content by sponsoring material compatible with their products or services. Controversial content can send advertisers running for the hills. My previous post on Proposition 8 even strained friendships.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about fixing old cars as an antidote to
car dealers' deceptive practices. Since Google sends a bot to crawl my blog, the ads accompanying it changed to automobile manufacturers, dealers and bad-credit loan providers. More importantly, people clicked on those ads more often as opposed to the pro-Prop 8 ads accompanying my anti-prop 8 entry. Nissan: Good. Politics: Bad.

So what's a blogger to do? Write stuff to attract a better class of ad? Or write what I really want to write about regardless of the revenue consequences?

Let's have some fun. Since blog content drives ads, I'll add some irrelevant non-sequitor words and phrases to my post in order to steer the ads in a direction counter to the relevant content. We'll see what pops up.....Jiffy Pop.

In some parts of the country, it seems our last election created as many questions as answers. Senate races in MN, AK and GA are still up in the air, plus the passing of CA Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriages caused a flurry of lawsuits and constitutional challenges. The 50-50 split in all these contests guarantees controversy no matter what the final outcome. Advil for pain relief caused by stress.

Though the measure did pass, supporters of Proposition 8 are howling over the lawsuits, especially since the City and County of Los Angeles filed suit as well. They feel the People have spoken and that should be the end of it. If this is what the People want, then by God, the People should have it. Worship this week at a church, synagogue or mosque near you.

The suits filed fall into two categories. First, amending the state Constitution requires a two-thirds majority. Sylvan Learning Center can improve your child's math scores. So at the very least, the measure must be re-filed. Also, the statute may run counter to the US Constitution's right to equal protection and due process. Regardless of the final outcome, this measure is going to court. I wouldn't be surprised if it goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Judge Judy: Weekdays on Channel 9.

For all you Pro-Prop-8-ers, don't think the conservative-leaning court will tilt your way automatically. Those nine judges are all Constitution hounds. New K9 Advantix controls fleas and ticks. They will side with the Constitution. Regardless, the main beneficiaries of this fight will be the lawyers. See the Great White Sharks at Sea World.

Last night I read the US Constitution over again. Looks to me like the Prop 8 opposition has a case. The State of Connecticut now approves same-sex marriage because they see where the legal argument is going, not because Nutmeggers have a greater affinity for gay people. Virginia Is For Lovers.

The more moderate pro-Prop elements argue the original law allowing same-sex marriages changes the definition of marriage. They believe marriage is a religion-based institution meant to codify the sexual relationship between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation. Cialis: Any time the moment is right.

Here's where it gets sticky. Formula 409. Marriage is also a civil state of being. It alters tax structure for the participants favorably and generates revenue for the state in the form of licenses, etc. H & R Block. A US taxpayer cannot be barred from taking advantage of every deduction to which he or she is legally entitled. Other than age or species, the government cannot dictate who can marry whom. The New Wild Kingdom on Animal Planet.

The government cannot meddle in religious arguments, nor can religion alter government policies as long as those policies refrain from discrimination. Going to court will either strike down barriers to same-sex marriage or cement opposition in place forever. Concrete: The flexible construction material. The way I see it, the odds of a favorable outcome to either group are about 50-50. Las Vegas.

Then there are the less moderate who believe homosexuality is both a choice and a sin. NASCAR. Was heterosexuality a choice or did I miss something? Know the warning signs of Alzheimer's. I don't remember being in any line or being asked, "You attracted to the female equipment? Step right this way".....Victoria's Secret.

Frankly, thinking about how gay people do it makes me squeamish. Pennzoil. Then again, thinking about my parents doing it makes me squeamish too. Sunrise Senior Living. My squeamishness Pepto-Bismol is not enough to Ban deodorant certain groups from their inalienable Star Trek rights.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cleansing the Political Palate

Spent the last couple of days using other parts of my brain than the Political Lobe. A friend of mine hired me to pull the cylinder head of his 1989 Nissan Sentra to determine the damage caused by the disintegration of the stationary timing chain guide and the subsequent loss of the proper relationship between the cam and crankshaft.

Not following along? My friend's engine went boom. My job was to determine the size of the boom. It was a pretty good boom (four bent exhaust valves and some correspondingly dented pistons) but not Armageddon. The question now is whether to fix what broke and leave the rest of the very-high-mileage bits in place or do we pull the whole engine and rebuild it? Either option is not conventionally cost-effective.

So why even bother repairing an almost 20-year-old car? Why not punt and buy a newer Nissan with more pizazz? Who uses the word "pizazz anymore? People who like words with three "Zs" but I digress. Some people would rather spend money fixing their old cars than spend ten seconds with a car salesman.

The automobile sales business has very little to do with automobiles. It's all about separating you from as much of your money as possible using cars as bait. Most people are clueless when it comes to buying cars. They don't realize the entire industry probes its constituents for every little psychological weakness. You, the consumer, are the rat in a B.F. Skinner experiment.

For instance, the great majority of car buyers care only about two things; how much down and how much per month. As long as the dealership gets close to those figures, they're happy. I've never seen people so happy to pay thousands more than the sticker price for a Toyota or Chevy or Ford that won't be worth what they owe until about ten minutes before their last bloated payment. This is the rule rather than the exception. People leave the lot overjoyed because they think they got "my price" on their new Honda. Well, if folks bothered to do a little arithmetic or even bring a calculator, they would add up all those monthly payments plus the up-front whip-out and realize their price was thousands higher than the factory sticker.

Here's how it works. The average sticker price markup for a new car is about 15 percent for the base and 17 percent for the options. GM, Ford and Chrysler are slightly higher while the Japanese manufacturers are a little lower. That doesn't seem like much, does it? If you think that's fair, then you also think most auto dealers buy their cars at wholesale and sell them for retail. Sorry, but most dealers floorplan their fleets. The manufacturer "loans" them the new car. The dealer owes only the interest on the loan until the car leaves the lot. If a new Subaru sits on the dealer's lot for two months, that might be $400.

Now comes Mr & Mrs Down-and-Monthly. They don't know it but they just paid three thousand over a sticker price already marked up by 15 and 17 percent. Plus, the dealer hits them for an "extended warranty" costing $1200 for which the dealer pays about $200. Most new cars are capable of a quarter million miles with any kind of care, yet the dealer makes it sound like the engine will blow up tomorrow like a hand grenade and kill your kids. The "Finance Manager" convinces them their credit is poor because they paid their cable bill two seconds late, not to mention running their credit once for each dealer in their 250-dealer network to lower their score. That's good for an extra point on their interest, plus the "fee" for writing the loan in the first place.

So for an investment of a mere $400, The dealer makes about five grand. Mr & Mrs Down-and-Monthly are delirious because they got the Subaru for the payment they wanted. Would you like to make five large on a $400 investment? Multiply that by 200 cars or more a month.

One would think the sales force makes a killing. Nah. Average pay for a car salesman in this country is about 28 grand a year. The majority of cars are sold by people who will be out of the business completely after six months or less. Dealers overhire sales staff, pay a minimum wage base, expect a 60-hour week, then scam their way out of paying full commission. When I sold cars, not one of my managers could explain the commission structure to my satisfaction or even repeat it the same way twice. "Well, Jerry, this month your kilograms-per-donut ratio overflatulated, so that eats up part of your check." Uh-huh.

My Sales Manager wants blood so at 10:30 one evening (our store closed at 11:00 pm even on Sunday nights). I convince a young man to buy a used Honda Accord Coupe from me for three thousand dollars more than the already exorbitant asking price by focusing him on down-and-monthly. Meanwhile, the buyer thinks he broke me down. The Finance Manager sells him a warranty (cha-ching), then falsifies his income so he qualifies for a loan. Suffice to say, it's not a discount loan.

Since the young man is "only looking," he neglects to bring his checkbook. Therefore, I borrow a used Nissan off the lot and follow him 35 miles to his house. There I wait for a half hour in a dark garage with two growling pit bulls while this guy makes himself a snack. Check in hand, I blister back to my house by 3:30am. The dealer wants the check immediately so I wake up at 7:30am on my day off to get it there. Six weeks later, I wonder what happened to my $650 commission.

"Oh we had to take that car back. The kid couldn't even make the first payment. We had to "unwind" him. Grabbed his old car just before it got auctioned off. It's your own fault. You should've known he didn't qualify."

This is auto dealer treatment in a nutshell and I'm on their team. It's why I teach people how to buy cars without jeopardizing their kid's college educations. It's also why my friend wants his car repaired.

NOS factory short block: $395.
Rebuilt cylinder head: $230.
No monthly payment: Priceless.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Good Afternoon, Mr Precedent.

My lovely wife wakes up this morning a full hour before the alarm with tears of joy in her eyes and optimism about facing the challenges of the day ahead. Trust me, this is highly unusual weekday behavior. By mutual agreement, we usually interact as little as possible before her morning cup of coffee. It's too dangerous and the potential for serious injury too great.

This morning is different. We talk about the election, John McCain's concession, Barack Obama's victory lap and the issues still undecided as of 5:30am PST. Seeing my wife renewed as she is this morning, I realize today is the first real day of the 21st Century.

For better or worse, what we remember as The Sixties started on November 22, 1963. The 21st Century had its defining jump-off point yesterday. We as a nation threw off the cloak of fear left over from the last century and today bask in the warmth of hope for the future.

There are many reasons why Barack Obama is the President-elect. First and foremost is the man himself. Though he possesses a fine intellect, he is smart enough to know he doesn't know everything. Last night, he even asked for our help. The man is a consensus builder. He will raise the level of political discourse in this country for sure. Through cheap shot after cheap shot, he remained even keeled and unflappable during the campaign.

It's also nice to have a president finally who can speak. The English language is not an obstacle course for Barack Obama. Most importantly, he pronounces the word "nuclear" correctly. After hearing Sarah Palin, I don't think the American public could stand another four years of nu-cu-ler.

Future historians will point to the youth or the rising power of Black and Latino voters in this election. They'll point to age being a greater concern than race. Someone will mention the Democrats' excellent campaign strategy or their ability to forecast accurately the mood of the country.

Three main agents responsible for this Election Day tidal wave will not receive any credit. Barack Obama could not win this election by himself. He could not win if every African-American and Latino in this country voted twice.

Give some credit to two generations of Moms and Dads teaching their children to look past the color of a person's skin and into their hearts and minds. These people ignored the well-burnished prejudices of their forebears. Instead, they support and applaud the excellence of their darker skinned teammates, schoolmates, neighbors, class presidents, business partners, Aldermen, Mayors, Congressmen, Senators, Cabinet members and, yes, cherished friends and family members. They pass those traits to their kids.

The products of such an upbringing voted yesterday along with their parents in record numbers. Therefore, the man with vision and ideas won, regardless of skin color or age.

Give credit also to the religious Right. Over the last three decades, they prey upon their constituents' fears, make tolerance a sin, publicly slander two decorated war heroes with lies and innuendo and tell us 9/11 is God's retribution for homosexuality and liberalism. They attempt to destroy a war hero's reputation with outright lies perpetrated by disgruntled frauds who accept money and favors for lying. They do this because their own candidate has no heroic qualities, a less-than-stellar public service record and affects a Texas accent even though he was born in Connecticut.

In this election, The religious Right decides they like one of the war heroes they slandered previously, replace his ideas with theirs, then pimp him as the "traditional family values" candidate, even though the candidate cheated on his first wife while she recuperated from a crippling car accident. They do this because this candidate's opponent is a devoted church-going family man with a lovely wife and two beautiful daughters. Meanwhile, they point to the man's name and float lies about his religious affiliation to the more clueless in their flock. When they find out Obama is Christian, they savage his crazy pastor, all the while forgetting about their own crackpots spewing their own brand of hate, intolerance and vitriol.

Twenty-eight years ago, Ronald Reagan opens the door and welcomes the religious Right to the table. Since then, they hog more than their fair share and leave their dirty laundry all over the house. They forget the whole basis of their religion is a tablet upon which is written, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." The religious Right defeated by Karma, of all things. Revel in the irony.

Finally, let us remember countless nameless people of color who gave their lives unwillingly for this day. The images of their lifeless forms hanging from trees, or attacked by dogs, or dragged away from a lunch counter, or beaten senseless by corrupt law enforcement, or knocked over with fire hoses, or bombed during Sunday School, or spat upon while trying to educate themselves are burned in our collective consciousness. As a white man, I may not know exactly what I want this country to represent. However, I am certain about what I don't want this country to represent.

Happy 21st Century, America. You taught us right, Ma. Got a lot of work to do. Let's get going.....

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Barack Obama For Change

Let's make some history today! VOTE!

Monday, November 3, 2008

"I think we need a bigger boat."

Remember that scene in Jaws when Roy Scheider's character throws chum in the water, then the shark breaks the surface right behind him? Maybe if Dick Cheney screened the movie before he endorsed John McCain, he could avoid feeding the Democrats. Checkitout.....

I Oppose California Proposition 8

We lost enough due process and individual rights the last eight years. Unfortunately, the little blog bots picked up "Proposition 8" and flooded my site with supportive ads. I'm trying to remove them now. Regardless, they'll be gone tomorrow.

Read my blog entry below outlining my opposition to Proposition 8.

The Biggest Banana Republic Ever

The Right wing of the Republican Party turned the United States of America into the World's Largest Banana Republic. For that alone they should be knocked off the Executive Branch for a good long time.

Don't believe me? Here's how they did it:

In 2000, Dubya runs a campaign platform stating in effect, "Vote for me and I'll give you 200 dollars." Heads in several small Caribbean islands as well as a few rogue African nations nod in approval. Then they argue with each other over the idea's origin and from whom Dubya stole it.

The networks "call" the Florida election For Al Gore. Florida Banana Republican officials call the networks, telling them don't count Dubya out so soon. About ten minutes later, the pendulum swings in the other direction. I started watching election coverage in 1968. Never saw that before. Probably won't see it again.

Suddenly, this great nation of ours can't seem to count votes.

The vote counting problem occurs in a state run by the brother of one presidential candidate. Hi Jeb. No, we didn't forget you. Hear that sound? It's your future political aspirations circling the bowl. So happy to know you gave them up for so little.

Anecdotal evidence surfaces in the state run by the brother of one presidential candidate regarding certain people being denied voting opportunities by false rumors, veiled threats, and bald-faced lies. The evidence gets far more factual and far less anecdotal as impartial witnesses corroborate stories. By the way, those "certain people" denied their voting rights? They vote for Democrats traditionally. Spell "Florida" M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. Anybody seen George Wallace lately? Good, solid Banana Republic move.

Banana Republican lawyers and election officials outmaneuver calls for recount or re-vote. Al Gore bends over because destroying the original ballots and starting over may contribute to global warming.

Now the Dubya Banana Republican regime begins in earnest. The attacks on September 11 interrupt the sacking of the federal government. Dubya retaliates by attacking the perpetrators' neighbor (IRAQ) on trumped-up "evidence" of WMDs. That's like me coming to your neighborhood and punching you in the face. You retaliate by coming to my neighborhood and punching my neighbor in the face. Start a pointless theater in the War On Terror. Distract the Press and constituents. Go back to sacking the government.

My vote for the best Banana Republican move: High ranking government officials (Hi, Dick) profit directly from starting the Baloney War with Iraq. See, the first Afghan campaign ended too quickly. Starting a war in Iraq means a nice, long, complicated campaign and ensures a second Afghan campaign when Al Quaida and the Taliban renew themselves. Three wars for the price of one. Imagine the profit potential.

The Dubya Regime is the most cynical administration ever foisted upon the American people. Oh, I forgot. It wasn't foisted on us. We were caught napping when a bunch of zealots who don't know the difference between debating the issues and attacking the messenger snuck this one by us with a little help from his bro.

Debatably, the boldest Banana stroke might be inviting Sarah Palin to join the ticket. Evidently, Republicans are so sure of a win tomorrow, they spotted the Democrats a vice Presidential nominee. Ms Palin is totally incapable of listening. Ask her a question and the answer has nothing to do with the question.

"Governor Palin, why haven't you released your medical records?"

"John McCain is a maverick and we're gonna send him to the White House."

Every time she doesn't know the answer to a question, it's a "Gotcha" question. Yes, it is a "Gotcha" question. Answer it anyway. All the other candidates do. Glad the press woke up finally.

Last Friday, Governor Palin was scammed on a Canadian radio show. She thought she was talking to French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Meanwhile "Sarkozy" has a cheesy accent, tells the governor his wife is "hot in bed" and he enjoyed the Hustler documentary, Nailin' Palin. He asks her about the Canadian Prime Minister and the Premier of Quebec by name, yet it does not register that the names are fictitious. One would think Governor Palin should know the names of the highest-ranking government officials from a country sharing a huge border with her state. The woman is totally oblivious but don't take my word for it. Listen for yourself....

A good Banana Republic President knows when the jig is up and it's time to grab the silverware on your way out. Someone should tell Dick Cheney that time has past. In a last gasp of clueless arrogance, Cheney endorses Senator McCain this last weekend. Who's next? Idi Amin? Hey Dick, 75 percent of the country hates you and your boss. Don't do the Senator any favors.

A special note for the Big Boss: Dubya, if Barack Obama wins the election tomorrow, it means your Banana Republican administration is the worst ever. No one else in history screwed up the presidency badly enough to prevent a rich white man from winning the next one.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Johnny We Still Hardly Know Ye

I like John McCain. He has the best environmental record of any national-class Republican, he attacks pork-laden bills like they were stealing his own wallet and he served his country with distinction both as a military man and as a Senator. I told my lovely wife, "Boy, the Democrats will have their work cut out for them if McCain wins the nomination." Lots of people in the middle felt the same way.

Here's why I won't vote for him on Tuesday: Everything I liked about John McCain has been beaten out of him or paved over by people and institutions who don't give a damn about who he is and what he really believes. Which means they don't give a damn about the grand majority of moderate Americans he represents.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an old copy of Esquire magazine dated August 2006. Senator McCain is the cover story by Chris Jones entitled One Of Us. The article relates an appearance at a Darien, CT fundraiser hosted and attended by moderate Republicans. These are John McCain's people.

The attendees worry about the religious Right and their grip on the GOP. The Senator tells them, "I urge my friends who complain about the influence of the religious Right, get out there and get busy. That's what they do! Now, if we believe in the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the big tent party, then we have to get together and show that. The fact is, some of us have sat idly by while those very active people have basically set the agenda for our party. I get attacked every day because I'm working with Ted Kennedy. How can I work with Kennedy? because I want to get something done!"

Can you imagine those words coming out of John McCain's mouth today? His conservative minders would have a fit. They would issue a "clarification" having little to do with the actual meaning of his actual words. Talk about media filters!

The religious Right dislikes the man but they realize the good Senator is the only chance they have to retain the White House after Dubya wiped his butt with the country. However, they can't resist backing this horse without gelding him first. Unfortunately Senator McCain wants to be President McCain so badly, he'll help them do the job.

That's why I won't vote for him. In 2000, he won the New Hampshire primary. The religious Right boys asked him to stand down so Dubya could waltz to the nomination without spending too much of their money. When McCain refused, they let him have it like Cain slew Abel.

During the South Carolina primary, Jerry Falwell's people called voters and asked questions like,"Would you vote for John McCain if you found out he fathered a black child? Would you vote for him if his wife Cindy was a drug addict?"

Now there is not one atom of truth to either of those queries. South Carolinians thought, "Wait a minute. If Jerry Falwell is asking these questions, they must be true." Unfortunately, the media ran with the story for awhile because they didn't bother with that small detail I like to call fact checking. So the "push polling" worked perfectly.

Regardless, McCain was gone. His own party helped twist the knife. Now he jumps into bed with the very same people who did him in once before. All he had to do was sell out almost everything he stood for. Everything he suffered for.

Case in point: After the whole Abu Ghraib affair broke. Senator John McCain told his President he would not stand for torture by the United States, seeing as he was the only one in the room who had any practical experience with torture. A couple of days later Senator John McCain backed off that stance, in effect telling everyone the United States really practiced Torture Light. All the great taste of regular torture but with fewer calories.

Here is a man who endured years of unthinkable atrocities at the hands of his captors. The North Vietnamese refused to set his broken limbs properly, which is why he can't comb his own hair. They subjected him to mental cruelty. They tortured his fellow prisoners when he refused to cooperate and vice versa. If there is anyone in America who is sick at the thought of Americans participating in anything smelling like torture, it's John McCain. But the man walked away from his own dearly held and hard won principles because his new handlers didn't like them so much.

What happened to THIS John McCain?

Another case in point: Just this last summer, John McCain realized Big Oil's hue and cry for increased offshore drilling to offset high fuel prices was a scam. The reserves would not affect oil prices for years. They would be depleted in eighteen months anyway so it wasn't worth the risk environmentally. Two days later, McCain's ready to put on a hard hat and start drilling himself. Evidently there were meetings where he received "the facts." One wonders whether "the facts" involved a cattle prod.

Meanwhile, the man debates Barack Obama, a past president of the Harvard Law Review, and doesn't lose by much. Not a bad showing considering Barack Obama believes every word coming out of his own mouth and John McCain does not believe everything coming out of his. Some other entity drafted most of his policies du jour. Try debating positions you don't believe in personally. Pretty tough, isn't it?

If John McCain allows himself to be pushed around by fringe elements in his own party, how tough will he be on the enemies of America? Maybe I'm just a jerk with an opinion, but I'm a jerk who votes.

It's very sad for me to see this fine man held in captivity again, this time by his own ambitions. This time around, John McCain seems a lot more compliant than the last time he found himself in this predicament. Perhaps it is better to kneel down than bend over.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"I now pronounce you Husband and...uh...The Other Guy."

Here in beautiful sun-stroked California, voters go to the polls on Tuesday and decide on the fate of gay marriage. If enacted, Proposition 8 prohibits same-sex unions, making it confusing for either side because voters supporting same-sex unions must vote "no" while opponents need to mark the "yes" box.

Frankly, I thought we decided this one once and for all. Same-sex marriage passed the CA State Supreme Court back in May. The Court found banning marriage on the basis of gender violates equal protection laws. The ruling also makes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation virtually indefensible.

Okay, so California has a same-sex marriage law. Now comes this proposition funded largely by the Mormon Church and other out-of-state conservative groups. This is where I'm puzzled.

In my last post, I discussed the conservative movement as advocating a weak central government with greater powers delegated to the states. Theoretically, greater "states rights" gives you and your neighbor the opportunity to govern yourself as you see fit. Since our country is a physically large "melting pot," certain legislation passed by the federal government might be inappropriate in some regions due to climatic differences or local custom. That's the theory anyway.

Since the founding of our country, each state makes its own marriage laws. Interesting how conservatives from other states want to violate our state's right to adjudicate marriage as we see fit just because they don't like Adam and Steve getting hitched.

Driving around LA, I see bumper stickers urging a "yes" vote to "restore marriage." Organized street-corner demonstrations ask motorists for a "honk to preserve marriage." I'm all for preserving and restoring marriage. Perhaps those supporting Proposition 8 should think about restoring and preserving their own marriages before they dictate to others.

In this great land of ours we like to call This Great Land Of Ours, Holy Mortal Wedlock gets the stuffing beaten out of it every minute of every day. Statistically, a few more than half of all marriages end in divorce. 70 percent of all married people admit to stepping out on their partners at least once. So a great majority of married people don't care really about the sanctity of marriage until Adam and Steve decide they want to cement their relationship and exploit the tax advantages. Now everybody's in a rush to preserve good ol' marriage.

Here's some unsolicited advice: Before sticking one's nose into other people's marriages, one might want to ensure one's own marriage is wired nice and tight.

I gave this proposition a good going over before opposing it. I realize there are very few marriages I care about. First and foremost is my own. Am I being the best husband I can be to my wife? Is there anything I can do to improve my own marriage? Right now, I hear my wife yelling, "Make more money!" in my head.

I care about the marriages of my family and friends. I hope everyone is happy and well. If I don't know you, I waste not one moment thinking about the state of your union. So if I don't care about the marriages of strangers, why should I care about who (or what) they marry?

Besides, I don't believe for a minute that gay couples hold Holy Mortal Wedlock in any higher esteem than the rest of us. So gird yourself for the spectacle of same-sex divorce. Talk about Must-See TV! I can see it now...

Gay Divorce Court. A combination of regular Divorce Court and Antiques Roadshow. Each contestant states a reason why he should be the recipient of each piece of community property. Tears are encouraged. The combination of best story and the closest guess at the item's value wins the item. Oh the pageantry! Oh the savagery! Oh the ratings!

See, there's an upside to everything. Hey, if Adam and Steve invite me to their wedding, I'm going. I'm sure it will be very tasteful.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Noah Webster Spins

There's an old saying about religion and politics not being suitable topics for polite conversation. Which is why I'll cover them straight away.

First, I want to thank Newt Gingrich and Lee Atwater for fouling the waters regarding the use of the word "liberal" as if it were profanity. I admire their success at changing the meaning of the word completely. They took a simple political philosophy and turned it into a euphemism for all of society's most loathsome traits.

This from the duo that brought us Willie Horton. If you recall, ol' Willie was a repeat offender released from Walpole prison during Micheal Dukakis' reign as Massachusetts' Governor. Mr. Horton committed more crimes after his release so he became the lens through which the Republicans burned Mr. Dukakis beyond recognition. Never mind George Bush Sr. releasing at least a dozen Willie Hortons during his tenure in Texas. We only remember the original Willie but I digress.

The ever-expanding definitions of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” do a great injustice to the majority of Americans whose personal beliefs defy simplistic attempts at categorizing them as either. Both sides manipulate a very simple concept by adding religion and lifestyle considerations having nothing to do with the meaning of either word.

The classic political definitions of liberal and conservative pertain only to the role of government in people's lives. Liberals believe a strong central government can be a positive force for good while conservatives want the federal government limited to maintaining infrastructure and the military. Both views are important for checks and balances. All the other stuff about churchgoing, "family values," the Bible, etc is irrelevant. For instance, true liberalism and conservatism have nothing to do with one's stance on gay marriage. It has everything to do with one's stance on a separate gay marriage bureau.

The way I see it, there is one main difference between today's liberals and conservatives. Liberals will spend more than the country makes, then raise taxes until we pay it off. Conservatives will spend more than the country makes, then weasel out of paying anything off until the dollar is worth nothing and our kids foot the bill. The national debt broke records during the last three Republican presidential administrations. What's conservative about that?

Neo-conservatives coined the phrase “tax-and-spend liberal” to bridge the gap between what liberalism really means and what they want America to believe it means. They also know tax-and-spend liberal sounds a lot catchier than don’t-tax-but-spend-even-more conservative. A "conservative" friend once told me, "It's not how much money you have, it's how much money you can borrow."

The lifestyles of many so-called conservatives are hardly that. How can one be called a conservative while ransacking one’s company to support a totally unsupportable lifestyle? These people live like there's no tomorrow. Is that a "conservative" value? Liberals go to church, worry about their kids, and hate wasting money just like conservatives do. They also believe money for the GI Bill and after-school programs for kids is money well spent.

Here's my new rule: If conservatives want to co-opt every worthwhile value in America, they should actually conserve something. A natural resource would be nice. Maybe cutting out cowboying around with the military would be a good thing. Many people identifying themselves as conservatives want disaster relief, help with college loans, and protection against tainted food and dangerous drugs. Sounds pretty liberal to me.

For what it's worth I am registered as a non-partisan moderate who leans ever so slightly to the left these days. Sometimes I lean to the right. Right now, the left is more right than the right so that's where you'll find me.

I had to laugh when Senator McCain called Barack Obama's economic policies "socialist." Especially after he himself just signed a bailout bill giving the US government an equity stake in some private institutions. When it comes to sharing their debt, the right switch hits.