Monday, June 30, 2008

Wildly gas-ticulating

[Ed. Note: I talked to Steve awhile ago about each of us blogging about a shared topic, a sort of intellectual exchange and a way to take in some different perspectives. One night, I was lying awake in bed worrying about the world, and decided on the following topic: Gas. I passed that single word on to Steve, with no other guidelines. Check out the result of his efforts over at Mixed Cookies. Feel free to comment here or there. Or if you have a blog of your own, let the dialoguing begin, and I will link to it from here. Enjoy!]

Rowan has been trying to sell her car, a little gas-sipper. The other day, a guy pulled into the yard in a giant truck with tires that reached up to my nipples. He wanted something more gas efficient. And a couple days earlier, a woman came to look at the car with her young child in tow. She wanted to replace her Yukon.

People are feeling the pinch of the economy and looking for relief. For some folks, the use of less gas is the most salient remedy.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve said that he thought there would be gas riots by the end of the summer. While we haven't reached that point yet, we have reached the point where people are prostituting themselves for gas money, including one incident that involved someone getting stabbed with scissors.

The situation is far more dire in Cameroon, where the people have rioted in the streets against their government's policies on gas and food. It is a place where cabbies often leave their cars sitting immobile until they can scrape together more money through other means in order to afford more gas.

We feel like the cost of our gas is so very painful, but we can put things into perspective if we look at the price of gas in Europe. Our gas is cheap compared to other countries. And while Europe offers a quality of life and an income similar to America, the people of many other countries are paying a ridiculous percentage of their income to buy gas, since wages are lower but gas costs remain the same or higher.

But how long can we continue behaving the way we have before we find ourselves in similarly dire straits?

Some of the people looking at Rowan's car have said they are interested, but they want to sell their current vehicles first. But with gas at its current price and rising, who is going to buy a vehicle that gets 10 mpg?

These people are somewhat trapped in their current circumstances by their previous short-sighted behaviors.

Their situations are not so different than what has happened to our country. Unlike other places in the world, we have sufficient space that has allowed for mass exoduses from the cities into the suburbs. Ironically, in an age where we have used technology to bring us intellectually closer together, we have tried to physically separate ourselves. We have failed to build a superior public transit infrastructure, and we have failed to fully utilize the infrastructure we have, also partly due to some need for physical independence.

Perhaps the current administration has failed us by not pushing through legislation to require automotive makers to develop vehicles with higher gas mileage, but it isn't the government that is buying all of the gas guzzlers.

And now these previous actions, which were allowed and encouraged by a strong economy and low fuel costs, are coming back to haunt us and are not easily remedied.

Some people want the government to step in and save us from the high gas prices. McCain, among others, has advocated for the idea of a gas tax "holiday" for the summer. But even if this holiday was extended for a full year or more, the idea is stupid because its effects would be minimal. The politicians are proposing an 18-cent-per-gallon cut in taxes. The average American drives 12,000 miles a year. If we use 20 mpg as an average of efficiency, the average American uses 600 gallons of gas a year. A savings of $0.18 a gallon equals $108 a year. However, the program would only run for the summer, meaning everyone would save less than $30, but at a cost of about $10 billion to the nation. Like the economic stimulus checks, it is moderate relief for us, but a giant tax on our children and our future.

The government can only affect prices so much, and the answer to the problem of rising gas prices is a riddle worthy of the sphinx. There are not simple answers since there are so many factors involved, factors as far-ranging as insurgents in the Niger delta.

The price of oil, like the price of most commodities, is regulated by the much discussed and recognized laws of supply and demand. But part of the problem with thinking about oil in this way is that no one is really sure how big the supply is. We are dealing with a problem we don't fully understand.

Instead of wishing for lower gas prices or waiting for the government to wave its long-sought magic wand, we need to change our behaviors. We need to make ourselves less reliant on fuel, instead of waiting around for others to make the change.

Joseph Romm points out that only 27 percent of Republicans believe that humans are the cause of global warming. (I don't mean to attack conservatives here; I just think Romm makes a good point starting from the use of this bit of information.) The main concern he finds with this statistic is that "if you don't believe humans are the cause of global warming, you're not going to believe that humans are the solution to global warming." If someone doesn't think his or her vehicle is harming the environment, there is less impetus to change behavior.

We like our rights here in America. I have the right to drive my giant vehicle if I want, and while some of my neighbors might leer, the government will not even give me a small glance. However, as Romm states, "if we hold off today on government action, we will almost guarantee the need for extreme and intrusive government action in the future." If we don't make changes, or push the government to enforce changes, we'll find ourselves in a position where we don't have the ability to choose for ourselves.

We can blame Bush and the GOP all we want for our problems, but Daniel Gross contends that a changing of Presidents will not bring immediate change to our hurting economy. Gross does make the point that while new Presidents don't immediately affect the economy, they can affect our perceptions of the economy. This can lead to dangerous thinking, I believe, since our nation's perceptions of infallibility have perhaps led us to our current state of affairs. We so often feel that there are obvious solutions to our problems.

If we think a change in government is going to fix all of our problems, our personal burden to change is removed. We need to realize that each of us needs to do our part. I know that sounds old-fashioned and quaint, but in this situation I think it's true.

Thinking back on Rowan's attempts to sell her car, the image of the woman and her child and their Yukon sticks in my head. She wanted to save money now, but I think the real savings are in the quality of life for her child when she grows up. But do people think about this? As I've discussed before, people don't act for the greater good, they act for themselves. But whatever creates action is, on some level, good, I suppose.

There has been a lighter side to the situation, as it provides another launching point for the humor-inclined among us. For example, the Onion reports that "98% of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others." As long as we can laugh about the situation, things are not that bad yet.

And not all of the fallout from the gas "crisis" has been negative, some people argue. Some of our behaviors have been changing, such as some companies offering four-day work-weeks to save a day of commuter's gasoline. We need to take these stepping stones and keep moving forward. To quote Tupac, who I'm sure would be driving a bio-diesel Escalade if he were alive, "You see, the old way wasn't working, so it's on us to do what we gotta do, to survive."

Garrison Keillor recently wrote an essay titled "For the sake of the girl with the beautiful swing." He is wandering through a small town and stops to watch an in-progress Little League game. He finds himself seated next to the father of the only girl in the game. The two men talk, and Keillor learns how the father feels about his daughter: "here is his girl taking a big lead off third base and he loves her so beautifully and unabashedly and wants the world to be there for her when it comes her time to fly."

Keillor feels that our President has let us down, and he hopes that, "for the sake of the girl with the beautiful swing," our next President is better.

But it isn't just the President who must be better. Fourth of July has come and passed, and even Will Smith hasn't saved us. I have not seen Hancock yet, but I think we can take a lot from a quote from the eponymous hero: "You deserve better from me. I can be better. I will be better."

It's a mantra we should all adopt.

We must all be better, for the sake of the future, for the sake of that girl with the beautiful swing, for the sake of that person across from you at the gas pump.

For the sake of that girl still riding in the back of the Yukon.

And, yes, for ourselves.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

What do the jeans mean?

My lease on the house is up in a couple of days, so I've been cleaning out the room.

I found an American Eagle shopping bag which I thought would be useful for hauling clothes that I will sell at the rummage sale out to the garage.

When I opened the bag, I found a receipt. On closer inspection, I found that the receipt was for the jeans I was currently wearing. On even closer inspection, I found that I had purchased the jeans on this very day one year ago.

What does it mean or foretell? Does this divulge some imminent danger to my denim? Does it portend or presage some peril to my pants? Some jeopardy to my jeans?

Or something else entirely?

Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lacan at the bat

With the NBA finals now behind us, I began wondering about why I don't write more often about sports (aside from brief asides about Steve calling me autistic and a lengthy examination of Barry Bonds and Roger Maris).

Sports fascinate me, and a large number of other people, but I can't really put my finger on why.

Part of my fascination with sports relates to me being a stat geek; I like how the world can be ordered into numbers, and sports thrive on numeric representations of reality, an objectification of the subjective.

But perhaps my larger fascination is with the concept of potential, and how rarely it is actually fulfilled. Kevin Garnett is one of my favorite players, but as good as he has been, he has never been the player I wanted him to be. In 1995 Garnett dominated the high school All-American game (brought to you by McDonald's, of course), showing a shot and a handle that were alien to other big men.

I wanted him to be something we had never seen before, a seven-foot shooting guard. But somehow he settled in at power forward. Other players came along that had potential to be this hypothetical creature, the really tall shooting guard, but Lamar Odom also became a power forward and Tim Thomas ended up sucking.

Magic Johnson, who dominated before all these other guys came along, seems to fit the bill, but he was a completely unique entity, not a prototypical guard stretched to a ridiculous length. Still, it was that uniqueness that has made him an enduring enigma.

While I have an appreciation for the players who are truly unique, like LeBron and the Big O (Oscar Robertson, not Oliver Miller) and the long forgotten Fat Lever, I have a larger appreciation for players who sort of fit some preconceived notion but are slightly atypical. For example, Charles Barkley is on some levels a prototype power forward: he could post up and was a rebounding machine. But he was also fat and shorter than some of his shooting guards, like Dan Majerle. He both fits and transcends (or perhaps mutates) his position with the game.

I truly believe that sports can offer some degree of insight into the human condition, such as in some of the writings of David Halberstam. All attempts to translate sport into some higher definition fascinate me, even when they are written quickly and fall short of their own substantial potential (perhaps not unlike this post you are currently reading). Hence my fascination with some of the more esoteric sports bloggers.

FreeDarko is a basketball blog that seeks to expand on sports as some way of achieving cultural understanding. They work from an initial ethos of "liberated fandom," a concept where sports are appreciated on all merits, not just wins and losses. For example, we can appreciate Lamar Odom for the fact that he is a unique player, though not necessarily a great player. They believe in an appreciation of form and style more so than specific outcomes. Awhile back they had a post where they compare Kobe to Jay Gatsby. They define what makes basketball players either bourgeois or proletariat in relationship to the basketball world, integrating factors such as race and athleticism. While it isn't technically brilliant writing, the ideas intrigue me.

I like finding links between concepts that seemingly have nothing in common, such as sports and life in general. And I think this idea helps to explain why so many people are fascinated with sports. Deep down, we feel that they somehow reflect life, or some imagined pseudo-reality, and we draw ourselves in more deeply as we try to understand this perceived reflection. Perhaps in sports we see some sort of refereed order we have difficulty finding in our own lives.

Also, sports can help us deal with our own misgivings about our own failed potential. On any given day, a mediocre player can be as good as a great player (Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall share the record for 3-pointers in a single game). We like to feel that these bursts of brilliance may be possible in our own lives.

And like the singular pulse of one performance, we are fascinated by the idea that a player can just pull it all together for an anomalous prolonged streak, like when Brady Anderson, who otherwise never hit more than 24 homers in a season, jacked 50 in a year (though some wonder if steroids might have been a factor). We may be mediocre in life, but perhaps this year is the year. It all comes back to that concept of realized and unrealized potential.

There may be some degree of evolutionary respect that leads to our love of sports, but I don't think primal urges fully explain our passions. I was discussing this concept with Katy the other night. If sports are only a manifestation of long-gone unsheltered survivalist days, we would be most fascinated by sports such as sprinting and swimming, sports that require minimal equipment and echo time-treasured physical needs, such as the ability to escape some angry animal or catch some other tasty animal.

But most people's favorite sports, such as futbol and basketball, are largely mental constructs. Physicality plays a role, but only as it intertwines with defined skills. Perhaps this reflects some sort of human need to order the world into strict rules.

Of course, I've skipped over the idea of pure enjoyability here, such as lazing in the sun on a summer afternoon while drinking a beer and watching people whom I have no personal connection to swinging chunks of tree at clumps of cow hide.

But I believe, or want to believe, that for most people it goes beyond that. And for those who write about sports, the act of writing allows them to elevate these games, for both themselves and their readers, beyond a plane of simple entertainment. On some level, the simple application of words applies meaning.

As for myself, though--as a man who apparently does see some larger meaning in sports--why don't I write about them? Sports, with their numbers and rules, are built upon a world of specificity, a specificity that perhaps I don't want to embrace in my writing. It is much harder to transform the concrete into the abstract than the abstract into the abstract. Perhaps I'm too lazy or lack the insight to create such transitions. Or maybe I just drink too much when I watch sports, and lose the meaning I thought I saw.

Also, the permanency of writing plays a part. As sports statistics are recorded for posterity, so are the words we commit to paper or cyberspace. No one wants to be thought of as the Mario Mendoza of writing. We are scared of waving our pens in the air and going down swinging.

In the same way that a baseball player can choose whether or not to swing at a pitch, we choose whether or not to write about something. The best hitters often don't force the issue, they let the game come to them. Perhaps I have yet to see the right pitch.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In which I develop dyspepsia

Lately, my speech has been assuming dyslexic or aphasic tendencies. I've been subconsciously substituting the wrong words into my conversation.

For example, the other day Rowan was wearing a crocheted shirt. I described it as croqueted.

I said two people were in "cohorts" when I meant "cahoots."

I've been mixing up numbers, such as saying "seven" when I mean "eleven."

These slips have been frequent enough that other people have noticed. I hope it's not a tumor.


I had another one of those weird moments where I got antagonistic with a co-worker.

My boss said she felt like beer and chips. She knew we had beer in the fridge, and I informed her that we also had chips.

"No we don't," one of my co-workers chirped.

"Yes we do," I responded.

"No we don't," she said again.

"Yes we do," I countered. "I can see them from where I'm standing. They are right there." I pointed emphatically toward the kitchen. "I can show them to you if you want."

She still didn't seem to believe me.

Later, as I was working quietly, another co-worker suddenly said, with no provocation, "I can see them from where I'm standing," and began to giggle. This action made me realize how absurd the earlier exchange was.

At the end of the day, I was getting ready to head to physical therapy, where they would put me in the traction machine. I told my co-workers I was off to therapy.

"Talk therapy?" the woman I had spoken words with earlier asked. I don't know if she was joking or trying to say I need emotional help.

What I really need, I think, is for people to believe me when I tell them things. Except when I mess the words up and it doesn't make sense.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday, Yay! The 13th, not so Yay.

I did some guest-blogging over at Mixed Cookies. Check out the link over to the right of the page. It's a music blog, and I go in-depth about the mix I made for the trip to Anchorage. Delightful stuff, really. I don't know about that picture that leads the thing off, though.

Next, I've dug into the archives to bring back a post from a Friday the 13th past. Enjoy.

Have you practiced your skills against the dark arts lately?

I was sitting at my desk this morning, doing my usual drone-like labor, when I realized it was Friday the 13th (F13 from here on out). I don't recall ever having anything bad happen to me on F13, but if there is a year for this to happen, it's this year. However, my boss did just give us the okay to leave an hour-and-a-half early, so the day has actually started quite nicely. My brother has always proclaimed he encounters bad luck on Monday the 20th, but that just seems foolish.

So many people have a fear of F13 that it is a named phobia: these individuals are referred to as paraskevidekatriaphobics. Not all cultures find the number 13 to be unlucky; the Chinese and ancient Egyptians considered it to bode good fortune. Still, it is estimated that 8% of the population has a fear of F13.

Several theories exist about why 13 is considered unlucky (triskaidekaphobes are those who fear the number):

It is the average number of menstrual cycles most females have in a year; male dominated society had an odd distaste for all things feminine.

In Norse myth, 12 gods were invited to a banquet. Loki wasn't invited and then proceeded to whup some ass in retributition. (Actually, Loki wasn't much of an ass-whupper. He talked the others into beating the shit out of each other.)

Judas was the 13th guest at the last supper.

I began thinking about the whole 13 thing, and came up with a theory that part of the myth may have to do with the fact that 13 is a prime number--rare and therefore meant to be feared. I couldn't find any reference to folks who have a fear of prime numbers, but did encounter some other interesting numerical oddities and other random facts:

The sum of primes up to and including 13 is equal to the 13th prime.

Thirteen is the smallest absolute prime; that is, if you have multiple digits and move them around, you still have a prime number (31).

The sum of the remainders when 13 is divided by all the primes up to 13, equals 13.

There is no elliptic curve over the rationals Q having a rational point of order 13. (I have no idea what this means.)

The number of the beast first appears in the 13th chapter of Revelations.

The longest recorded flight of a chicken is 13 seconds.

Maybe these tidbits aren't so enlightening for the discussion at hand, but interesting nonetheless. Now for the examination of our fear of Friday:

The crucifixion supposedly took place on a Friday, and Adam supposedly tempted Eve with an apple on Friday.

Friday was execution day in some societies, but was the Sabbath in others.

As far as the whole fear of femininity thing, Friday is named after Freya, Norse goddess of fertility.

As for why the combination of the two is extremely unlucky, there is debate. Obviously, if you take one unlucky concept and combine it with another unlucky concept, you get a very unlucky concept.

Some folks attribute the date to the decimation of the Knights Templar (brought into common knowledge by Dan Brown; grrrrrr), which occurred on October 13, 1307, which was a Friday. However, many point out that this is a pretty obscure event to lead to such a widespread superstition.

Some folks believe that Cain killed Abel on F13. However, this just seems dumb because we didn't have the standard calendar then, and why would we attribute a date named for a Norse goddess to a Biblical event?

So the truth is that we really don't know. Enjoy your day, and I will try to send some good vibes your way.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"The cool thing about strippers is that they're sorta like robots."

We have returned from Anchorage unscathed and slightly poorer. Anchorage remains as it was, having survived our onslaught.

The first night, we ended up at Humpy's despite Steve's earlier proclamations that he did not want to go to Humpy's at all during the trip. Tequila was shot, beers were drank, cookies were tossed, events were later recounted in the passive voice. (I know I've used that last line before, but I like it. So there.)

We were hungover enough the next evening that we didn't go out. But we did go to the mall during the day. I bought two shirts on clearance, which made me happy. It felt nice to act urban again.

I also kicked Steve's ass at frolf, and he restrained himself from calling me autistic.

Both Saturday and Sunday we did breakfast at Snow City Cafe. I love that place, despite their crazy long wait for a table. I bought a day-old discount cupcake that I then gave to Rowan two days later. The cake was not so good, but she did enjoy the frosting.

Sunday night we went to Glacier Brewhouse. The food was excellent, and allowed us to feel moderately upscale before we went to ABC (the Great Alaskan Bush Company, for those not in the know), which is most definitely not upscale.

I have never before been to a strip club without a pole for the dancers to use. This peculiarity left me considerably disappointed. However, there was no cover charge and the beer was reasonably priced, so the excursion was not a complete loss. The naked women helped, too.

(Please note that I do not seek to objectify women or, in the words of a drunk Dude, "treat objects like women, man." I just occasionally like to appease my base desires. If it was socially acceptable, I would walk around nude. Those who know me know that this statement should not be doubted.)

The trip back was uneventful, though I was a little nervous about eating a several-day-old discounted turkey and American croissant that I bought at the Cantwell gas station.


As I was making the music mixes for the trip, Steve asked me if I was going to include any Faith No More. I didn't, but he included "Epic" on his mix. He then proceeded to use this word as much as possible throughout the trip. We even coffeed up at Epic Espresso on the ride back. When he returned to work at the library on Tuesday, the first book that came across his desk was titled Epic.

Was our trip epic? Most likely not, depending on most accepted definitions of the word. However, the traditional epics grew from acts of constant retelling. So in time, perhaps, the trip will be epic.

But most likely, it will just be remembered occasionally over beers. And I'm alright with that.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Life is a highway

I made it through the week without insulting anybody (that I'm aware of), possibly due in part to the fact that my brain has felt like a pile of zombie goo for the past four days. Maybe it's spring, maybe I'm just tired, or maybe it's the ridiculous amounts of Bun on the Run creme de menthe brownies I've consumed in the last couple of days.

I was dragging so much on Wednesday that I went over to the Tesoro to get an ICEE. There were no men purchasing ICEEs at that moment, but there was a gaggle of four high school girls. I felt uncomfortably feminine standing there amongst them filling my cup in differently flavored layers of iced fluffy goodness. And then I felt extremely twitchy for the next two hours. I think I've been working in a male-free atmosphere for too long.

Tomorrow, Steve and I head south for a nice long weekend of not being in Fairbanks. I burned a couple of music mixes for the ride, much to Steve's dread, I am sure. Hopefully, adventure will ensue.

Lastly, I will quote Homer Simpson, as I like to do when leaving the 'banks: "So long, SuckTown!"

Monday, June 2, 2008

I got an ultrasound yesterday

No, I'm not pregnant.

But I am doing my best to turn into my father. I've sported a mustache occasionally. The woman informs me that my back hair seems to be filling in, which is disturbing on several levels. And now the back beneath that hair is rapidly breaking down.

After a week of intense agony triggered in part by 15 miles of canoeing over the holiday weekend, I visited a physical therapist. She did not give me any specific reason for my back pain, instead pointing to potential aggravating factors, such as my desk job, that my upper back slopes more forward than it should (making me more at risk for back pain), and that it seems as if my upper vertebrae are collapsing on their cartilage.

This is all very troubling information to me, since my father has had cartilage removed from his back and five vertebrae fused together. His back does not generally feel good.

The therapist then ran an ultrasound machine over the afflicted area, saying something like "the deep pulsing waves will help relieve tension." It sounded very scientific yet new-agey at the same time, which did not provide me with much mental comfort, or, as I've determined a day later, physical comfort.

Still, I am sure the pain I am currently feeling is much less than the pain endured by those individuals who choose to pass a living person through their lower regions.


Slate, an online magazine owned by the Washington Post, is one of my favorite websites. It covers a range of topics, including art, entertainment, science, and politics. It even offers a weekly poem, which is obviously of interest to this barely-practicing refugee from the fine arts establishment. In my humble opinion, a lot of the poems published in Slate suck, or are at least fairly unapproachable. They are chosen by Robert Pinsky, who, from what I have read of his recent musings on poetry, is a pretentious prick and one of the reasons why the masses don't give a shit about poetry. (Check out his terse and completely useless responses to "Frequently asked questions about the business of verse.")

But this week's poem, "The Names" by Joe Wilkins, moved me. Maybe the people in it and the landscapes described struck me as Midwestern somehow, opening up some deep-seated ache for home. But it also reminded me of the song "We can't make it here," which I've written about previously.

The closing lines from "The Names":

...This country I call home is, like yours,
lost, and my people too are lost, like me,

so let me hate with them, let me sit up at the bar,
and curse the banker, the goddamn-silly-designer chaps
the new boss man from back east wears,
let me speak the names of the dead and get righteous,
for at least one more round.

On the surface, the poem is about remembering the people from the author's childhood who have died. The poem also clearly deals with socio-economic issues. But I can't help but feel a certain pointed politcal undertone as well.

I only talk politics when I've been drinking, and even then I don't have enough convincing information to back up my beliefs. But sometimes it feels good to get righteous, and Wilkins speaks to that, which in turn speaks to me. There is something cathartic about a rant, especially the unfocused, wandering, tangential, stream-of-conciousness rant, and in tough times, who couldn't use a little catharsis? As Wilkins says, "It's easy,/ and some days easy's what I need."


The other day, the boss lady took us out for ice cream. Most of the crew ordered sundaes. As she ate her maraschino, one of my co-workers said, "Look, I've got the proverbial cherry on top."

"No. No you don't," I replied sternly.

"What?" She seemed confused.

"You don't have the proverbial cherry."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a real cherry. There's nothing proverbial about it. The cherry is actually there. I saw it."

Later, while telling the story to Rowan, I started to feel bad. This was the same woman whom I went nuts on when she claimed that "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins was actually about a man drowning.

I heard her make this claim from my office, and started shouting, "No, no, no. Not true. Not true!"

Sometimes, I just can't stop myself from being an asshole. And sometimes that bothers me, but I guess it's part of who I am.


Also, being the hard-living rocker that I am, I really like the Nonpoint version.