Thursday, April 29, 1999

gas out

In case you didn't know, Friday is supposed to be the day of the great American "gas out."

Friday is the day when drivers all across the country are supposed to boycott gasoline stations, according to a petition circulating on the Internet. Supposedly, by not buying gas, the American consumer public will send a clear message to oil companies -- and the oil-producing countries in the Middle East -- that the recent hikes in the price of gas are unacceptable.

Yeah. That'll work.

I heard about this undertaking through an e-mail a friend sent me. The message has been circulating nearly two months now and, given the nature of the Internet, probably will circulate in one form or another as long as there are people with e-mail.

The text runs something like this:
It's time we did something about the price of gasoline in America! We are all sick and tired of high prices when there are literally millions of gallons in storage.

Know what I found out? If there was just one day when no one purchased any gasoline, prices would drop drastically. ...

I have decided to see how many Americans we can get to not buy any gasoline on one particular day!

Let's have a gas out! Do not buy any gasoline on April 30, 1999! Buy on Thursday before, or Saturday after. Do not buy any gasoline on Friday, April 30, 1999.

After outlining this strategy, the author of the note asks for gullible readers like my friend to pass the letter on to as many people as possible, with the assurance that only a few million participants will be enough. After all, we can make a difference.

I rank this particular exploit right up there with tilting at windmills as a suitable pastime for Don Quixote. Much as I love the idea of the common person "sending a message" to the corporate world, I'm unconvinced that a boycott of this nature is going to have any real effect; moreover, it strikes me as incredibly immature.

It's quite possible the nameless author of this petition doesn't remember the mid-1970s. I was less than 10, but I remember some parts quite clearly. As I recall, the world supposedly was running out of oil then, and by the end of the century, so popular belief had it, all the fossil fuels would be gone.

We had strict rationing of gasoline based on the last number on our license plates. If your plate ended in an even number and you had an empty tank on an odd day of the month, you were out of luck. A few years earlier, when I was too young to remember, there were limits on how many gallons motorists could buy at one time.

Nowadays gas costs about $1 a gallon in Central Jersey, a little less in some places and a little more in others. I usually can fill my Cavalier for less than $15. I'll assume the author is from California, where a gallon of unleaded costs about $1.80, according to the Gas Out Web site. He still doesn't know how good he has it.

When I was in Haiti during the 1994 embargo, gasoline cost upward of $40 U.S. a gallon and had to be bought on the black market because it was being smuggled in from the Dominican Republic. Even in countries not currently under economic sanctions, gasoline can cost about $4 or $5 a gallon everyday.

So while I admire the idealism, however misplaced it has to be, I feel kind of sorry for people who are up in arms over a measly 20-cent gas hike. If they really want to send a message to the oil industry, they should buy a bicycle and ride that to work all summer instead.

It might even improve their health and the air quality.

Thursday, April 22, 1999

scarred for life

Being a journalist has scarred me for life.

I entered the field as something of a last resort. When I started my first newspaper job, I had been out of college just over four years and already had gone through two teaching jobs and a host of other fulfilling occupations, including pizza delivery and gas station attendant.

I had enjoyed my stint on The Lafayette, the college newspaper where I had been an editor and columnist since my freshman year until I ran afoul of political correctness gone amok my senior year, and at the advice of a friend, I applied for a job in Somerville at the chain of weekly newspapers where he worked.

I worked there as an editor for 18 months, and if the journalism bug didn't get me, I was intrigued enough to apply for a job with The Packet Group and in November 1997, I discovered community journalism. No longer was I a plain and simple Joe; now, by stepping into a phone booth, I could become Clark Kent.

The job often lacks the excitement Hollywood gives it. On TV and in the movies, every episode details a fight against corrupt politicians, a Satan-worshipping board of education, and a cover-up so big that someone's bound to win a Pulitzer and make a mongo-huge book deal.

In the past three years, I've heard the magic phrase "Stop the presses!" only twice, and in neither case had they even started. And book deals on corruption? Don't make me laugh. (I never did investigate the possible occult entanglements of school boards, though.)

So much for "The Newspaper," where Michael Keaton and Glenn Close get into a fistfight over whether to stop the run or not. (I also learned my lesson from that scene, and ever since have never engaged in fisticuffs with my superiors. Glenn Close's line, "You are so fired," has as much power in reality as it does in a movie.)

But there was a rush to knowing that people counted on me in my reporter days for an unbiased account of what happened in their schools, in their municipal government, in their police department, and in their neighborhood.

"Check out last Tuesday's arrest sheet for the next town," a voice mail message told me, and sure enough, I found an arrest some people would rather have go unnoticed. "Someone tried to abduct a little boy yesterday," another person told me, and bam! another story.

Nothing gets the blood of a reporter racing like a news story to cover. One day a friend of mine and I were headed out of the office for a moment to get some cavities in a bottle. An ambulance zoomed up the side street and stopped behind our parking lot.

"I have to check this out," I told my friend, and raced back to the chain link fence behind our lot. Over the past 20 years, these fences have become a lot harder to climb, and I caught my foot on the top. I finally pulled free and made it down the other side of the fence, but my shoe decided to land on the parking lot.

On the next pass over, my pants leg caught on the wires that line the top of the fence. I hung there for a minute, scraping my hands on other wires, before I finally yanked it free, tearing a six-inch gash in my work pants.

I made it to the scene with both shoes, a torn pants, and a left hand that was bleeding profusely where I had cut it on the fence. At home that evening, I found I had another cut on my stomach and more scrapes on my legs. Months later, a quarter-inch white line remains on the palm of my hand where the fence cut it.

Journalism has scarred me for life. But I got my story.

Thursday, April 15, 1999

surviving easter

If I have to eat another ham sandwich, I'm going to throw a fit.

This past Easter Sunday was the first Easter my wife and I celebrated as a married couple. Last year, when we were only engaged, I think we observed the holiday by eating out at a restaurant, hanging out for a while, and finally heading back to our respective apartments, where we passed the rest of the day doing our individual things.

Not this year. This year, by gum, we're a family and I was determined to make sure we celebrated Easter properly. So on Holy Saturday, I paid a visit to the local supermarket to buy the proper ingredients for a Learn family Easter dinner.

It was about the time I pushed the shopping cart through the front door that I realized I had no idea what a proper Learn family Easter dinner involved. I don't know why that should be the case; I've been a member of the Learn family for 28 Easters, and all but five of them had been with my parents.

"Mashed potatoes," Natasha had told me before I left. "You have to have mashed potatoes."

I'm not sure why she thinks she's an expert on these matters; she's been a Learn for only 10 months. Still, in only 10 months I've learned that when Natasha uses that tone of voice, I have to listen. Natasha is only 4-foot-11, but she can make every inch count when she has to.

I picked up the potatoes in one aisle, bought some pork stuffing from another aisle, and found the perfect Easter ham in the back. ("I can't wait to hear how you plan to stuff a ham," one friend told me Sunday morning at church. Before I could tell her that that wasn't the point, Natasha cut in with, "He just likes to eat stuffing," and proceeded to embarrass me by recounting the time a box of stuffing was all I ate for dinner one night when I was a bachelor.)

Now I should mention that due to various circumstances, I have become the de facto househusband. I take our dirty clothes to the Laundromat every week, I wash the dishes after most meals, and more and more lately, I have been preparing the meals. I'm a liberated man of the 90s, and this is not a problem for my self-image.

The only problem is I don't know how to cook.

So it was that late Sunday afternoon, Natasha was talking to my parents about their Easter celebration. I walked into the study where she was and asked, "Honey, how do I glaze a ham?"

She told me, and when I still didn't get it, she made a mixture of mustard and brown sugar and glazed it for me. I popped the ham into the oven, peeled the potatoes and went back into the study where she was now talking with my brother Brian, who had just called.

"Honey, how do I make mashed potatoes?"

"Boil them!"

"How long?"

"Until they're done!"

(My brother later commented that it sounded like Natasha and I had been at any moment ready to file divorce papers over the mashed potatoes.)

Next it was, "Honey, how do I cook broccoli?"

"Steam it, or it'll lose its nutritional value," she said. (She really does talk like that, mind you. She's the only woman I've ever known to complain that she has a large surface area-to-volume ratio and that her glomerular filtration rate is higher than convenient.)

Of course, we have no bamboo steamer, despite the many TV ads I saw for them when I was a boy. I finally improvised a steamer by placing a colander of broccoli on top of a pot of boiling water.

By 8 p.m. - thank goodness for daylight-saving time - dinner was finished. We had a nicely done (if I do say so myself) box of stuffing; mashed potatoes with undercooked, unmashed pieces of potato mixed in for variety; mostly cooked broccoli and the ham.

All 10 pounds of it. For the two of us.

Did I mention that I'm sick of leftovers?