Friday, July 31, 2009

Be Responsible? Why Should I? A Rant.

I voted for President Obama. Heck, I even went to the local Democratic caucus for him, and I still think he is doing as good a job as anyone might do with the mess he inherited, but I'm sick and tired of the government using my tax money to make life easier for irresponsible people! I'm angry that people who have shown no restraint, only greed and more greed, are getting my money.

"Cash for Clunkers." What a clever nickname for a joke of a $3,000,000,000 program. The new cars people are getting up to $4500 for have to get only 22 miles per gallon. What a joke! I've driven my 2005 Pontiac Vibe for three years now, getting an average of 31 miles per gallon. Even if I wanted to buy a new car, my Pontiac doesn't qualify for any sort of rebate. So

Wreck Of The Old '86 (7)Image by England via Flickr

Joe Gashog can exchange his guzzling Suburban or Expedition for something that gets all of 22 mpg and get thousands of dollars of MY TAX MONEY. Irresponsible American automakers, who produced thousands of huge S.U.V.s and pickups and only made cars like my Vibe under pressure from the government and when gas prices hit $4.00 a gallon, are making sales again. Well, maybe. Because foreign automakers can also take part in this program, Japanese and Korean car companies may actually be the ones to benefit the most. Meanwhile, in a government which goes further into debt with every new budget, lawmakers are handing out billions of dollars to people who stubbornly stuck to their gas guzzlers, despite all the economic and environmental reasons to get a new, fuel-efficient vehicle. What do I get for my responsible behavior? Nothing, except what one commentator has called "a good feeling" for having done the right thing without being financially encouraged. That doesn't fill the gas tank, bub. Why not give me a tax break for driving a high-mpg car?

And while I'm at it, what about the multi-billion dollar bailout of homeowners and financial institutions? Countrywide Finance and other companies made ridiculously bad loans to people with ridiculously bad credit. People took out $400,000 house loans on $45,000 salaries. Now they want someone to bail them out for their foolishness. When I moved to Salina, I qualified for an $80,000 house loan, with no money to put down and an annual salary of about $40,000 at the time. I knew that loan would be hard to handle, so I bought a small townhouse for $49,900. I've made every payment--because I didn't get in over my head. But I'm supposed to accept the government's using my tax money to bail out the greedy people whose eyes were bigger than their wallets. Well, screw that.

Health Care for PeanutsImage by wstera2 via Flickr

Finally, there are the changes to the health care system. I will be one of the first to say that changes are definitely needed. But why aren't there any incentives for those of us who work hard to stay healthy? How about health club membership price reductions? Tax breaks or lower insurance rates for people who maintain a healthy weight? I know, I know, there are people who are not as lucky as I've been most of my life. I've been fortunate enough to avoid any serious health issues. But I've known people--family and friends--with serious health problems. I think the government should help them with their overwhelming bills. But when my tax money goes to care for Overweight Ollie's high blood pressure medications or Sally Smoker's lung cancer chemotherapy, then I'm getting screwed. Again.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Little Town on the High Plains

I'm no expert on Cawker City, Kansas, but I did stop for about 15 minutes the other day on my way to Nebraska. Having lived in Kansas for 43 of my 47 years, I've heard a lot about "The World's Largest Ball of Twine," Cawker's pride and joy. So when I had the chance to visit, I took it.

The ball of twine is indeed quite impressive. It's impressive because of its size--it weighed 17,886 pounds in 2006 according to a nearby sign--and its age--Frank Stoeber started it 56 years ago--but also because it has given the town something to advertise as uniquely its own. Some of the sidewalks have a "string" painted on them, as if the ball has started to unravel and begun to roll around town. According to a sign next to the twine, Cawker City holds a "Twine-a-thon" on the third weekend in August. Do people bring their pieces of twine, saved since the previous August, to add to the record-holder? Do people show artwork made from twine? Wear twine-woven skirts and vests? It sounds like an intriguing and interesting weekend. Across Highway 24 from the shelter where the ball sits is the Ball of Twine Inn, a cozy-looking little place that I didn't take further time to explore. Maybe some time in the next 47 years I'll make a stop!The part of the town that I saw, running along US 24, has clearly seen better days. Abandoned storefronts dot the blocks, and abandoned pieces of farm equipment seem to be the main decor. Not that old trucks and tractors don't have their own unique appeal--I took several pictures myself--but they are obvious evidence of a town that's struggling to stay alive, like so many small Kansas communities. These wrecks, rusting yet picturesque, show the energy that used to invigorate Cawker City, as family farmers worked the surrounding fields on small tractors, hauling their crops to marker in trucks with no modern amenities like air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, or even radios. They would make a proud parade, if only someone had the knowledge, will, and money to restore them before they deteriorate beyond reclamation. If they haven't already.

I must say, I was impressed with the efforts of an unknown local artist who has painted reproductions of several famous works of art and posted them in windows of buildings both occupied and empty. I saw Van Gogh's Sunflowers and a couple of Impressionist works. The people of Cawker City have no excuses to be unaware of their artstic heritage! I wish I had had more time to see what other paintings I could have spotted, but the road called, so I took one last look at nearly nine tons of sisal twine sitting under its custom-made shelter, then crawled back into my car and followed a farm truck out of town.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ending the Health Care Crisis Simply and Quickly

As I listen to President Obama talk about his health care plans, I start to think about some possible ways to raise money for it, and possibly even to eliminate the need for government intervention in the first place. I'm not questioning the need for change--we definitely need to do something. Are these ideas perfect? Probably not. The suggestions add to government oversight of our lives and to our tax burden, and I'm not so sure I like that. But I'll put them out here anyway, because Americans can't, won't, or don't take care of their own health. If Americans would take personal responsibility for their own health by exercising, eating right, not smoking, and finding a way to relieve stress, I don't think there would be a need for any sort of huge health care program. Be that as it may, changes apparently must come from outside, because too many Americans are unable or unwilling to make them personally.

First, cigarette smokers bear a huge tax burden because their habit is politically and socially unpopular. I'm not questioning that. Smoking stinks, raises the risk of cancer, and harms those in the vicinity through second-hand smoke. But why only smokers? Right now, obesity is one of the largest (pun intended!) health concerns in the United States. There should be small taxes on fast food (read or watch Supersize Me or Fast Food Nation), candy and other unhealthy snacks, soft drinks, and alcohol. These taxes could be phased in, but if enough items are taxed, then the taxes on the individual items wouldn't have to be very large to raise impressive amounts of money. Anything to encourage people to adopt healthier eating habits (including yours truly!) would help Americans make steps toward better individual health. Taxation of cigarettes has cut the number of smokers dramatically. Perhaps doing the same to the unhealthy items I've listed would do the same for their use.

Second, use that tax money to fund more opportunities for people to live healthy lives. Use it to build bike paths and even sidewalks in neighborhoods that lack them. Use it to buy bikes that can be shared by people in poor neighborhoods. Use it to pay for part of people's memberships to health clubs, but make sure that those people are using that membership wisely. Use it to subsidize healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, not the producers of high fructose corn syrup. Use it to help schools hire enough physical education teachers that all kids from kindergarteners through high school seniors can take classes which may provide their only exercise all day. Use it to fund drug treatment programs. Maybe even use it to give tax refunds to people who succeed in making themselves more healthy by quitting smoking, lowering their cholesterol, losing weight, or making similar improvements in their health. Using the money in people's own neighborhoods, so they can see its impact directly in their lives, as opposed to sending it to large entities like insurance companies and health care providers, will go a long way toward encouraging healthier lifestyles.

People are always saying that they want government out of their lives--until they need a service that government provides, such as public education, good roads, and Medicare or Medicaid. Then they're only too happy to draw on the government's bank account. As I noted earlier, if people would simply take as much responsibility as possible for their own health by eating right, not smoking, and exercising, there would not be any need for government taxation to reach into their pocketbooks and wallets to fund health care. Come right down to it, the answer to our health care problems is incredibly simple--and it's found within each and every one of us!
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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cattle Drive on Country Club Road

Angus cattle grazingImage via Wikipedia

That's right, a true cattle drive, right down the middle of the paved road named Country Club Road! And I even played my own very small role.

As I was heading back into Salina on a two-hour bike ride, I noticed a car stopped right in the westbound lane of traffic, blinkers flashing. Cars would slow down, stop for a moment, then proceed slowly. I finally puffed my way up to the car, where a woman said, "Cattle drive coming! You might need to speed up." Still panting after the previous hill, I replied, "I'm afraid speeding up's not an option!" She then recommended that I pull over into the ditch when the cattle came by. I crested the top of the hill, and there they were, coming out of the pasture on the south side of the road, a small herd of black cattle.

Now, before you picture dusty cowboys and cowgirls astride their dun and gray and spotted horses, let me fill you in on the actual details. First, no horses. Instead, there were trucks and a four-wheeler, and a woman wearing a bright orange vest jogging alongside the cattle. Second, no dusty trail. I already told you why--they were driving the cattle along a paved road. Third, no chuck wagon. After all, the drive was only about 1/4 mile, from one pasture to another. Finally, there were probably only 25 cattle or so all told. Small peanuts compared to the drives of the Old West.

The small herd trotted down the hill toward me, completely covering the road. I pulled into the ditch, as recommended, but spectator wasn't to be my role. The driver of the lead truck shouted over the rumble of his diesel pickup, "Will you ride back and block that open gate?" I turned around and pumped downhill about 100 feet, then pulled off into a small drive where, sure enough, the gate was open. But this wasn't the cattle's destination, so I planted myself--bright red shirt, black athletic shorts, silver bike helmet, and sandals--right in the middle of the drive, holding my bike. No cattle were gonna get by me!

And only one even seemed to consider it. He (or maybe she, I didn't notice) turned and eyed me for a couple of moments. No problem, I've been around cattle a bit and wasn't intimidated. Then I remembered my RED shirt. A RED shirt blowing lightly in the southeasterly breeze. Was that what he was contemplating? The story, of course, is that waving a red flag (or a red shirt?) in front of a bull will make him charge, after all! I know that's an old tale, unsupported because of a bull's color-blindness. But I wondered . . . until my brief stare-down ended when the cow simply turned and joined the rest of the herd. So, maybe I looked threatening enough? Maybe this was a particularly non-aggressive bovine? Maybe it was just warm enough that this beast felt more like heading to the water hole than facing me down? Or maybe it was curiosity, pure and simple.

The rest of the cattle had jogged on by during this short encounter. I stayed in the drive until the traffic backed up by the herd was past, watching the 21st century wranglers turn them into a pasture. Then, with the thanks of the driver of the trailing pickup, I renewed my ride into town.

And there you have it. The true story of my brief participation in the '09 cattle drive on Country Club Road.
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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Runnin' the Rock

Indian Rock, that is. This is a small park in Salina, the site of the last white clash with Native Americans in this area. Although surrounded by houses now, the rugged heights of the park's one hill give a good idea of why the battle took place here. The hill is situated along the Smoky Hill River, where a drop-off into the river bed makes further movement east impossible. In nearly every battle, it is preferable to control the high ground, and Indian Rock is the highest ground on the west side of the river. While hiking along the trails, I find it interesting to consider where Indians might have hidden during that battle. I'll never know for sure, of course, but maybe one of my guesses will be right!

For years, I'd driven and bicycled up the roads, hiked the trails, and even scrambled up the steep sides of the hill where there are no trails, but until Saturday morning, I had never tried running those trails. And it was fun! I found myself running longer than usual before needing to walk. I think that's because the scenery is so much better than that along the river levee where I usually run. I liked going up and down, facing the challenge of watching my footing while keeping my stride where possible. I found myself at the top of the hill considerably sooner than I expected, too, since the trail winds around, runs down by the river, and then meanders its way to the top. As opposed to the road, which takes the most direct route--that is, the steepest route--the trail left me pleasantly winded, not exhausted like the road does. The trail carried me from bluffs overlooking the baseball fields of Bill Burke Park to the high banks of the river, around the small fishing pond at the base of the hill, and finally to the highest point, where the cooling breeze was a delight.

Running through the trees was a nice change of pattern, too. Yes, they do block the breeze, but that only makes coming out into the clearings all the more welcome. Spiderwebs are a definite issue, particularly if you're the first one on the trail, as I was that morning. Fortunately, this time I only ran into two, and they were more like single strands left from a web's weaving than the entire webs themselves. I brushed them away and kept going. Several park benches offer accommodating places to sit, should I need one, and there's even a drinking fountain at the north edge of the park. I didn't need the benches on Saturday, but I was more than grateful for the cool water!

I don't have a strong sense of direction, and though I can't get lost in this small park, I did notice myself looking for clues about which trails I'd taken and which ones I hadn't. Sadly, though, the strongest clues were not unusual trees or picturesque views. They were the various pieces of trash lining the paths. Indian Rock patrons, just like the visitors to so many of Salina's other beautiful parks, apparently don't mind tossing their water bottles, candy wrappers, and cigarette boxes to the ground. "Did I run this path already? Yep, must have. I recognize that faded Evian bottle over there." Maybe next time I'm at Indian Rock, I'll do my running, but then, instead of heading right home, I'll do a bit of litter patrol while I'm catching my breath.

Even though Indian Rock is no rural getaway run, for a few minutes while I was huffing and puffing my way along those paths, I could imagine myself a hundred miles from the hustle and bustle of Salina. And that's why I'll be going back soon.
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Sunday, July 5, 2009


Assorted flowers in Park Seed Company GardenImage via Wikipedia

I've noticed an interesting dichotomy about the yards in town as I take a slow bike ride on a summer evening. It seems that the nicer the yard is, the less likelihood there is that anyone will be out enjoying it. The homes in the wealthiest parts of town have lovely flower gardens, fountains, immaculate grass, and, sometimes, play equipment that would put a park to shame. But invariably, there is no one outside. The houses appear deserted, sitting back away from the street in splendid isolation, although I might see the flicker of a TV screen through a window. That's rare, too, though, since the houses are normally shuttered up like a maximum security prison.

But when I enter the less ritzy parts of town, there are people walking and bicycling. Kids are playing in the yards, many of which connect, with no fences to limit the size of the play area. Sometimes music will be playing and a group of adults can be seen sitting on the porch, watching the kids and enjoying the cool air of evening. I can get a real sense of neighborhood, as opposed to the isolation that seems to hover like a fog over the large McMansions sited on their huge, golf course-perfect lawns.
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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Workin' at the Carwash

From out of nowhere this Wednesday evening, I found a spurt of energy, so I took full advantage of it and vacuumed my car, then took it to the car wash, where I got rid of nearly 3,000 miles' worth of bugs, and finally came home and waxed it.

I remember going with Dad to wash the 1967 Pontiac, the blue one that I sometimes still have odd little dreams of finding in my garage! How times have changed! And not just the price of the wash, though that is certainly different, too. In 1970s Alta Vista, there was one car wash, under a lean-to roof behind the laundry. It was a dirty little spot because of the mud and water endemic to a car wash. I don't remember how much the car wash cost, but I'm thinking probably 25 cents got a car fairly clean. Then Dad took a couple of paper towels and wiped it off. The wash had two settings: wash (soapy) and rinse. Only one car at a time, thank you very much!

Later, when I was old enough to have my own vehicle, I had a 1973 Ford F-100 pickup, also blue, but with a white top. Odd now to think of how enjoyable washing that truck was! I'd spend an afternoon in the backyard with the hose from the house and a bucket of soapy water. It was probably dish soap, I'd guess. The pride of first ownership does wonders for car care!

I continued to enjoy cleaning my cars, from the brand new 1980 Chevy LUV pickup I got for high school graduation (Mom paid for it, and I paid her back--slowly--over the next few years) to the 1990 Dodge Daytona I bought after my divorce, and the 1954 Chevy I bought from a friend, but never could get to run very reliably. I owed the last two at the same time, and liked the look of the two clean vehicles, the red Dodge and the light blue Chevy, sitting in the driveway.

Now, though, car washing seems just a chore, a drudgery. I know it's good for the finish, and I still like looking at a clean car. The car wash has changed dramatically. There are several here in Salina, all with multiple self-service bays, and one drive-through bay. I don't use the drive through very often, since I think it's expensive and doesn't do a very good job. It certainly didn't get those Utah trip bugs off my car as well as the self-service wash did tonight. The settings are presoak, soap, clearcoat, foaming brush, rinse, and spot-free rinse. (This is a misnomer if ever I've seen one. Just try driving off without drying the car and see how "spot free" it is.) A token costs $1.00 just to get the water and soap flowing. If you're fast, and your car isn't very dirty, you might be able to give it a decent rinsing for that $1.00, but I used $3.00 tonight.

When did washing my car become a chore, something to dread? I think part of the change started with my living in apartments, because of the lack of access to a hose like we had in the backyard in Alta Vista. Now I have to drive somewhere and pay for the wash. Also, my current car, a little 2005 Pontiac Vibe, just seems more like transportation than a car! I enjoy driving it, but the thrill of just getting in a vehicle and driving for the fun of it is as long gone as $1.00 per gallon gas. I like my Vibe for the 30-31 miles per gallon it gets, but I have sacrificed the zip I had in the Dodge, for instance.

And maybe it's age, too . . . I think my back's going to be aching tomorrow, thanks to all the bending I did tonight! The thrill is gone, but the obligation to keep a possession protected remains.