Friday, July 25, 2008

Loading up the Family Truckster

For generations families have stepped out of their comfort zones. They’ve taken stock of their finances, packed their belongings and ventured forth into an unknown section of the world and a whole different dynamic of familial relationships. I am, of course, speaking of the Family Vacation.
There have been big evolutionary changes in most aspects of this rite of passage. It is no longer Ma and Pa strapping the water barrels to the side of the Conestoga, wedging sacks of flour between the cradle holding little sister and the small keg of gunpowder, and hoping to get to Grandma’s house before the snow started flying. Modern travel is characterized by each individual in the car being wrapped in a cocoon of personal space aided by the technology of iPods, portable DVD players, specially designed neck pillows filled with heated therapeutic granules and potpourri, and Dad praying they get to Grandma’s house before the power supply for the electric doodads has been drained, requiring actual interaction amongst the occupants of the minivan.
I may just be a typical overly nostalgic middle-aged person, but I think many aspects of the family trips I took as a kid surpass the hyper-technological, safety first travel of the early 21st century. As I have stated before in these pages, I am pro car seat. My children were always wedged into a great tightness, like Pooh in Rabbit’s front door, as we drove anywhere, often to their chagrin. In contrast, in my youth we did not have the rules or even the availability of anything beyond a lap belt in the back seat. The four Pyle siblings would bounce around the interior of the station wagon like free range potato chips in their airy bags before the communistic sameness and compactness of the Pringles can car seats and seat belts were imposed upon us all.
How many of you remember those pre-minivan station wagons, with the inexplicable fake wood paneling on the side (was it supposed to resemble an English professor’s den)? There was a bench seat in front and another one behind it. Beyond that lay an expanse of metal and plastic which was perfect for spreading out an unzipped sleeping bag, a plethora of pillows, a supply of cookies, G.I. Joes, and Danny Dunn, boy scientist, books in order to pass the time. (For girl memories, substitute Barbie and Trixie Belden into the preceding sentence.)
The memories I carry of our family trips have Dad behind the wheel wearing one of those porkpie golf hats, often of a purposefully ugly color, with his elbow crooked out the open window. I was sitting right next to Dad with my oldest brother, George, sitting in the front passenger seat to my right. He wore a military hat which looked like the one Fidel Castro was always seen wearing. (Which was odd, because George may be the least militaristic person I have ever known.) Mom (with no hat) sat behind Dad. Not in some subordinate role, but rather to handle all responsibilities which required more than one hand or taking one’s eyes of the road, i.e. handing out Space Food Sticks and drinks from the thermos of water or tending to the child who was car sick or felt slighted by a barb from another sibling. The baby sister, Mary, would be sitting in the back seat with Mom. The “Back Back” which is what we called the furthermost recesses of the vehicle would be inhabited by number two son, Eric.
There was no technology used. We very seldom even turned on the radio. There was conversation and no fear at all of silence. I believe my dad liked the silence for two reasons. The first reason is the obvious desire for a calm environment in which to drive. The other benefit was if it had been particularly quiet for twenty to thirty miles he would, with no warning, reach out and slap my thigh. He used a cupped hand which did not cause any discomfort, but added optimum volume making sure the surprise was felt throughout the car, not just on my thigh.
This week I will be the guy with the ugly hat, hanging my arm out the window taking my family on a road trip. None of my kids sit close enough to me to slap thighs. I can, however, speed up just enough to cause a kid’s hand to jump as he/she brings a drink to his/her lips putting a dollop or two of water right down the shirt (another trick of the “dad trade” left to me by my father).

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Dad by Any Other Name Would Still be Clueless

I am not the first person to be a dad. That may have been the most patently obvious statement ever. Right up there with phrases like “It can get a little windy in Kansas” and “Dean Martin was cool”.
Even though there have been so many fathers before me there is no master class or even a fully reliable brochure which delineates how to do it well. This is probably due to the fact no two children, fathers, or situations (even similar situations hours apart) are ever truly the same. That fact is really starting to tick me off. So, I, like every father before me, just muddle through as best I can.
The family joke is we are not socking money into education funds. We are saving to pay the therapy bills my kids will accrue when they get old enough to realize the sheer volume of stuff I did not understand. There are also the occasional times I do things completely on purpose to cause them grief. One of those things is writing about them in the newspaper (insert diabolical laughter here).
I have to adjust to the fact that my children are starting to leave the truly childish existence I am used to, not good at, just used to behind. Emilyjane, the oldest one, is fifteen. This means she is in high school. This means she is driving. This means she is going to date (ack) boys. This means dad has some adjusting to do.
My wife, Claudia, is adjusting better than I am, but that is to be expected. Just the other night I had between 7 and 249 teenagers in my basement. Okay, it was twelve, but that’s within the range I mentioned. (I’m not lying. It’s hyperbole, a tool writer’s have used for generations.) Anyway, my wife came into the room I was hiding, uh, working in. She was very excited that our house was the “go to” house for my daughter and her friends.
She was focused on the facts that our daughter was in our house, she had friends who were good kids, her friends saw our house as an acceptable place to be, and we knew they were all safe. I was focused on the facts that there were several hairy legged boys near my daughter, I was paying for the snacks and soda pop they were drinking, and since I am an old man with a job I would be going to bed as they were raucously laughing below me. (Actually, they wouldn’t keep me awake. I can go to sleep lying in the middle of a forest being cut down by thirty or so chainsaws, more hyperbole.)
Alice is child number 2, in birth order, not in my heart. (Each child thinks one of the other kids is my favorite, which plays to my advantage from time to time. Insert more diabolical laughter.) Luckily for me Alice is not to the high school, driving and boys stage…yet. I can still pretend she is a little girl, even though she has grown nine inches in the past year (not much hyperbole), developed a sharp wit (sometimes at the expense of other family members) and started spending inordinate amounts of time fixing her hair and using her cell phone. It happens to all of them sooner or later, like that old movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both girls were lucky enough to land featured roles in the Depot Theater Company’s production of Seussical. Emilyjane does a great job playing a larger than life character. Her character is a self-absorbed vamp. This role is nothing like her in real life…thank goodness. It shows off her acting chops, her singing talent, her dancing skills and entirely too much leg for the comfort of her old man. Alice plays the kid who “thinks big thinks”. I have to admit I was taken aback by her performance. She showed a professionalism beyond her years which again forces me to face the fact she too is growing up before I have a chance to get used to the idea.
Now for the kid riding drag on this herd, George. He will be going into fourth grade in August. Alice may have played the kid who thinks big thinks, but George lives the role. He can devise elaborate scenarios and characters which would make any Hollywood screenwriter jealous. He does it daily. He loves to describe in minute detail his latest creations. The little dude could talk the bark off a tree, the fur off a sasquatch, and any politician under the table.
I enjoy being a father. I just thought my in charge-ness would last longer. Wrong again, Dad.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Seussical Children

Both the girls have featured roles in the Depot Theater production of Seussical.

Alice is JoJo and Emilyjane is Mayzie LaBird.

Alice was great. She doesn't perform around the house like EJ and George do so it was a bit of surprise to see her really shine up on stage.

Emilyjane had a fun part to play, larger than life and not her personality at all. The role allowed her to show her singing talent, her dancing talent and entirely too much leg for her father's comfort level.

Emilyjane is just out of shot in the balck and white photo shown here and in the newspaper today. Which caused some consternation.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Oil companies can be pretty slick

You may not have heard. The mainstream media isn’t paying a lot of attention to this situation, so I thought I’d point it out as a public service. Gas prices are getting a tad high. According to a Department of Energy website the national average for a gallon of gasoline on July 7th was $4.11.
The line graph on that webpage resembles a mountain range. There have been some real ups and downs over the last two and half years. Unfortunately, the graph point representing the current price is a Mt. Everest, 29,035 feet above sea level, peak, not a Mt. Sunflower, 4,039 feet above sea level, the highest point in Kansas, peak (I can be educational while depressing everyone).
Of course when things like this happen everyone wants to point fingers. The price of gas is going up and up because the oil producing countries are gouging us. If somebody on eBay has a Beanie Baby collection that the United States, most of China, the entire European Union and a great deal of India wants he is not listing it for twenty bucks. Supply and demand is the simplest law of economics. Even the guy left staring at a warehouse full of “Giuliani for President” bumper stickers understands supply and demand, at least he does now.
Maybe it isn’t the fault of the big oil producing nations. Maybe it is the fault of big oil companies. Naaah, it couldn’t be their fault. Those guys are barely making ends meet as they struggle to pay the oil prices and at the same time do all that scientific research into alternative energy resources, renewable ones, which are plentiful right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
I have just been handed this piece of information. Three of the top five companies in the United States, as far as pure income generated, are oil companies. Wait that’s income. It doesn’t mean their making any profit. What? Exxon made a profit of 40.6 billion dollars last year. Which is enough money to purchase 9,878,345,498 gallons of gas at the local pump. That ought to get the family truckster to Disney World and back a few times. Try 68,126,520 times to be exact. This means the entire population of Hutchinson could, individually, drive to Orlando and back once a month for the next 138 years. (As an educator I must point out to all young people reading this that math skills come in handy no matter what your profession, even newspaper columnist. Stay in school.)
Fortune Magazine, the home to all things obscenely rich, lists the top five revenue earning companies, in order, as: Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, General Motors, and Conoco Phillips. Wal-Mart makes its money often trading on the hardship of others, but we are not bashing them at the moment. General Motors brought in a ton of money but they were able to lose much more than they made for a negative profit margin. That leaves the three oil companies.
Exxon made more money in profit than all but fifty-seven of the Fortune 500 made period. Their profit was 11% of their income. Yet we are not supposed to vilify them for making any money off this increase in gas prices. That is like saying the Joker is not to blame for using the money from his bank robberies to buy a mansion, a swimming pool, a private jet, a condo on a remote tropical island, heck, the whole tropical island, like the C.E.O.’s of oil companies do. Rex Tillerson, the C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil has a compensation package (you and I get paychecks, these guys get compensation packages) of $13 million a year. That is (more math girls and boys) $35,616 dollars every day of the year, even Christmas and John D. Rockefeller’s birthday.
T. Boone Pickens announced he wants to put money towards utilizing wind power. He says we ought to exploit the “wind corridor” stretching from the Canadian border to west Texas. Think about it. Instead of dealing with Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad we have to deal with farmer guys from North Dakota. Talk about a no-brainer.
My solution will utilize wind power and find a use for politicians. Place wind turbines around Denver from August 25th through the 28th and Minneapolis from September 1st through the 4th. All the hot air being blown at the political conventions would create enough energy to power electric cars for each citizen of Hutchinson to go to Orlando and back once a month for 139 years.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

One nation, under stress, with liberty...

Eleven score and twelve years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. A nation constructed with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. With apologies to Mr. Lincoln, I think I have found the problem. It’s the people.
Our forefathers must be approaching an r.p.m. within their respective tombs which would make a Formula One race car jealous. Formula One engines can reach 19,000 revolutions per minute, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Mr. Jefferson down in Monticello needs an oil change.
Before people start lighting up the Globe Exchange with cries that I am “anti-American” I very much appreciate living in this country and I could only be happier if I had Exxon stock. The precepts this country was founded on are still admirable and worth protecting. This country is still the top dog in many ways and home for the things which are most important – freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of choice in so many aspects of our day-to-day lives. (Do I want to spend my last four bucks on a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk?)
This country is in the middle of its 56th bloodless coup. It is the 56th time we have gone to the polls to decide who will run the joint. Unlike many countries the United States does not rely on strong arm tactics or mindless thuggery to enforce the will of one party. Oh, sure, the advertising and media can be terribly pushy and about as accurate as an inebriated darts player. Also, we’ve had mindless voters, and witless candidates, do great harm. However, a quick glance at Mr. Mugabe and his “run-off” election which actually revolved around “running off” the electorate with guns, clubs, and a level of unpleasantness approaching Stalinesque proportions lets us know things are better here than lots of other spots.
My problem is I have never subscribed to the “it could be worse” line of defense. This brings me back to our spinning founding fathers. They wrote marvelous pieces of work with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. They set the stage for a nation of freedoms, a nation of choices, and a nation for white men. I’m sorry but that is what they had in mind. Not to fault them. It was the way things were. The true brilliance of the framers of the Constitution is they allowed for change. They knew the world would not remain the same so the rules which governed this great land should be flexible. The impetus for much of the grave spinning has to be so many people ascribe completely wrong interpretations of the documents because they do not see what James Madison and company knew: things change, these rules may not always be just right.
The Constitution took effect march 4th, 1789. Just two years later the Bill of Rights was ratified showing a willingness to fiddle. Over the years we have given more people the freedoms and powers reserved for white guys in the late 1700’s. We have amended the Constitution as well as thought better of it and changed it back. (The 18th Amendment or the 21st Amendment was done while somebody was drunk.) It is a living thing which has occasionally had a pillow placed over its mouth and nose for a prolonged period of time, but has always managed to fight back.
Here are some suggestions for tinkering with the Constitution.
Amendment XXVIII: The rights of citizens to whine and complain about the government shall be abridged if said citizen did not vote in the election pertaining to the matter he/she is kvetching about. (One of the few things normal run of the mill people can do to effect change is vote.)
Amendment XXIX: The citizenry of the United States shall have it strongly re-iterated that earlier in the Constitution it states they have the right to pursue happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed and if you are unhappy you do not have the right to screw things up for others.
Amendment Catch XXII: Any person showing a deep desire to be President of the United States is showing, by said desire, he/she is not qualified to be President because no one in their right mind would want to go through all the junk it takes to get elected unless there were some selfish ulterior motives meaning the good of the nation was not the motivation meaning he/she should not be President. Therefore, officially declaring for the Presidency disqualifies one from running.