Saturday, May 31, 2008

A few predictions about where gas is taking us

With gas at nearly $4 a gallon in most parts of the country and topping $5 in some states, I'd like to make a few predictions about the next few years.

1. Big Oil is going to be as popular as President Bush. There's going to be some serious pushback against oil companies for making record profits while the rest of are forking over $60 or more to fill up our gas tanks. Right now it's just congressional hearings. I'll be surprised if we don't see some sort of regulatory controls put in place, and soon, to rein in the energy speculators who are driving oil costs up so high, so quickly.

That's soon as is in "under the next presidential administration." Bush is solidly in the Republican camp that holds that government regulation of corporations and business is fundamentally bad for America. Whoever our next president is, we're likely to see a different policy take root, one that allows greater regulation of commodities such as oil, such as we had before the Reagan administration began dismantling regulation.

2. People are going to drive a lot less. Forget canceled or scaled-down vacations, basic day-to-day travel is going to take a hit. We're seeing some of that already, as commuter trains are becoming more popular in areas where they exist, as more businesses encourage carpooling, and so on.

Speaking for myself, I've made a tremendous effort to combine trips, even if it means delaying getting something for a few days. I've gone without milk for three days rather than make a trip to the supermarket before I take Rachel to gymnastics on Thursday, right next to the supermarket. We also walk a lot more. I walk Evangeline to school every day now, and back from school when I can, and I expect on Sunday that we will walk to church as well.

We're likely to see changes in the way people attend church or other houses of worship, for that matter. People who have been driving 20 minutes or more to attend worship services somewhere else probably are going to stop. Many of them will just stop going, and others who don't stop going will at least look for a place closer to home.

That will hold true for other things as well. I imagine that we're going to see a rise in the number of people who live near where they work. They'll either get new jobs, or they'll move. A 40- or 60-minute commute by car just isn't going to be feasible anymore.

3. Cars are going to change as well. Remember how upset Detroit was at the thought of tough new mileage standards that were still weaker than anything else in the world?

We're going to see how fast Detroit can design more efficient cars. Cars made in America are going to be smaller and lighter, and they're going to get a heck of a lot better than 24 mpg. Two-seaters like the Fortwo will become more standard for singles, married couples without children, and commuters; and even family cars will change. We're going to see a lot fewer sport utility vehicles and no Hummers, and a lot more hybrids.

New York and Los Angeles already are running some experiments with fuel-cell cars. If any politicians out there are smart and have an eye to the future, they're going to make it a priority to buy those cars for city and state-owned fleets.

That will drive down the price of the cars, for starters, but it also will lay the foundation for a distribution infrastructure for hydrogen fuel, making widespread use more feasible.

4. People are going to continue to buy less. Who can afford to spend $40 taking a family of four out to eat at a restaurant when you can feed that same family for less than $8 with a homemade meal?

And with food and fuel costing so much more, and with fuel driving up the cost of everything it's used to transport, who's got the money for frivolous purchases? Expect less expensive Christmases and birthdays, more hand-me-down clothing, and more of an effort to salvage things we once would have thrown away without a second thought.

5. People with yards are going to realize that there are better things to grow on their land than grass. If you pay $2 for a pound of tomatoes, but can buy an entire tomato plant for that same $2 at a nursery, where are you going to spend your money?

You may buy tomatoes until yours are ripe enough to eat, but we're going to see a lot more people having a go at gardening. I've already saved a bundle on the lettuce we grow in our garden, and I hope to save more on beans, tomatoes, yellow squash and zucchini. Maybe even some spices and some cucumbers. We'll have to see.

Just about everyone can grow some sort of vegetable. Even apartment-dwellers typically have a porch where they could put a tomato plant in a ten-gallon pot, or a windowbox where they can grow lettuce cheaply. A smart politician, or at least one with a sense of leadership, is going to make "liberty gardens" into a matter of patriotism, as FDR did with victory gardens during World War II.

It wouldn't take much effort to turn vacant lots into community gardens, to keep people from going hungry, nor would it take much sacrifice for corporations with huge and useless lawns to convert some of that space over to community agriculture, saving themselves the cost of maintaining their lawns and banking themselves some serious goodwill in the public eye.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The living room is the best place to go camping

Rachel is sleeping out under the stars tonight. Sort of.

Owing to my brother Herb's great love of being bitten, stung and inconvenienced by nature, we for the last three years have suffered the indignities of camping out on Memorial Day weekend, albeit with the mitigating factor of doing so with family. This year, owing less to the exorbitant rates now being charged for gasoline than to scheduling difficulties, we gave the annual trip a pass.

And not a year too soon, if you ask me. I hate being unable to sleep because the ground is rocky and the air is bitterly cold. But I digress.

My children, despite being more closely related to me than to their uncle, love camping. So Rachel was disappointed to learn that we weren't planning to eat cold and tasteless food around a smokey fire and pass the hours in sheer boredom. She begged and pleaded, and asked again and again if we could go, as though that would change our circumstances.

But daddy remains, if nothing else, resourceful. Last week he suggested the prospect of camping out in the living room. We could cut out the moon and some stars from construction paper and hang them from the ceiling, and then climb into our sleeping bags. It would have all the novelty of camping, with all the fun and comfort of taking advantage of 10,000 years of human progress.

Evangeline gave up the first night after 10 minutes, meaning there is some hope for her, and she went upstairs to sleep in her bed. Rachel followed soon after, disappointed that she had no one to sleep with in her plastic tent, leaving me alone to camp under the stars, as I already had fallen asleep on the couch. (Natasha, sensibly enough, had decided that if we were camping at home, she was going to pretend to sleep at a hotel near the campground, as my parents regularly have done all four years.)

So the first night was a disappointment, but Rachel has made up for it since. For the past five nights, Friday included, she has dutifully camped out in the living room. To her, it's the real thing. She even has a flashlight she can use if she needs to go to the bathroom during the night.

If my brother decides we should make the family trip again next year, I have to remember to sell everyone on the virtues of this arrangement. It's cheaper, you sleep better, and from everything Rachel has expressed, it's every bit as much fun as Herb's sort -- maybe even more, because when you wake up, you have all the conveniences of home right at your fingertips.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

and the good news is

I don't need a root canal. At least not yet.

Rachel and I took a walk downtown today so I could see the dentist, following a three-alarm toothache I had over Memorial Day weekend. The ache was centered in a molar where I have a massive filling at the gumline, and although it passed after a day, I don't want to kid myself. If it feels like you have a burning coal in your mouth and it hurts so bad that you want to cry, you have a problem and need to see the dentist.

So I saw him, and he found no swelling, no looseness of the tooth, no sign of infection or inflammation, and nothing obviously wrong with the tooth. Not even a sign of a new cavity.

An X-ray revealed that there was some loss of bone under the tooth, but even that wasn't entirely certain. The empty space existed at the time of the last X-ray at least, which means if it is the result of lost bone mass and not just the angle of the X-ray, at least it's not growing worse. (You can lose bone mass there if you put lots of pressure on the tooth as you chew, and erode the peridontal tissues that act as a cushion. At least that's what the dentist guy said.)

So what does it all mean? That the nerve in my lower left rear molar isn't happy, possibly because of the filling, and possibly because I have an overbite and so my back teeth do more work chewing than they're designed for, to make up for the chewing work my incisors don't do.

At some point, maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but at some point I'll need either to get the root canal done, or I'll need to have the tooth extracted. And he really advises that I not get the tooth extracted, because of what that would mean for my other teeth.

Brush properly, eat well, and take care of your peridontal tissue. It's the bursa of your mouth.

Getting caught in the act of fathering

I had my first run-in with the law in ages this morning, on suspicions that I was luring a young girl into going somewhere with me.

It was a close call, all things considered. I mean, there I was at nine o'clock in the morning, walking hand-in-hand with Rachel. Right down the sidewalk! In broad daylight! Who knows what acts of perfidy I might have perpetrated if someone hadn't freaked out and called the police.

I had already been up to all sorts of silliness. I'd told her a stories about grass that ran and hid in the living room because it didn't want to be cut. Just imagine how far things might have progressed if they had gone unchecked. Why, I might have told her other stories that were even sillier!

The officer was apologetic, since I was obviously a father walking with his little girl. (Rachel even vouched for me, though I do wonder what Evangeline would have said if she had been the one in that situation. Probably something like, "He said he's going to give me a puppy, officer!")

The officer explained that someone had called 9-1-1, twice, practically hysterical that there was a grown man with his shirt off, walking away with a little girl, and so he'd been obliged to check it out. I showed him my license and explained about my psoriasis and how sunlight helps it clear up, and he drove off.

It was kind of odd, but it was reassuring to know that they are looking after Rachel's best interests.

I'm just glad he didn't come by when I was giving her a piggyback ride.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Time for farewell: the black rider approaches

We found out this evening that Natasha's mother has about two or three months to live.

She told us a couple years ago that she had been diagnosed with small-cell carcinoma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer. Now the cancer has metastasized, as cancers will do, and has spread to her liver, her lungs, a rib, her arm, and her lumbar region. Surgery removed the tumor from her neck, but there's nothing they can do about the rest of it. Her body is too spent from the cancer and a previous chemo regimen to handle further chemo at this point.

My wife, as I'm sure you can understand, is taking it pretty badly. Natasha is only 33; her mother, 57. It is far too early to say goodbye, and yet the time has come when goodbyes must be said. She is flying out to Arizona next Wednesday, and will stay there through June 10 to help Ma and her partner as she recovers from surgery. (The partner also has cancer, in his colon.)

This news about her mother's situation comes hard on the heels of a 30-day notice by her employer that her position is being eliminated due to funding shortages. On that same day that they said they expect her to take her accumulated vacation time first, rather than cashing it out at the end. Bad news comes not upon a single horse but with a stampeding herd.

Grief, however, is ruthless. If we don't pay her toll when first requested, she guarantees that we will pay, later, at a far steeper price.

Evangeline and Rachel know that their grandmother has cancer, and they know that she's been in the hospital because of it. They don't know yet that it's terminal, nor do they know that they probably won't get to see her again. (I can't even begin to tell you the knot it puts in my stomach to set that down so coldly in writing.)

We're going to talk with them about it tomorrow night at dinner. I expect it will be difficult for them both, because they love Grandma.

Years ago the Brucker remarked that the true evil of death isn't borne by the one who dies. For the departed, death is a mercy. It ends suffering and puts them beyond the reach of disease, old age or spite.

The evil of death is visited upon the people who are left behind. Children, grandchildren, parents and friends are left with an empty space for as long as they remain on this earth. I see that happening here, and I'm struck by just how spot-on his comments were.

I appreciate your prayers. Natasha has a long road ahead of her, and I plan to be with her every step of that winding path.

Thanks everyone for your time spend reading this, and thank you for your prayers.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

when your parents just don't seem to get it

It's a difficult thing when your parents forget some of the moral lessons they worked so hard to instill in you.

I never had any black friends growing up in suburban western Pennsylvania. My neighbors and everyone at school were as white as my family. We saw non-Caucasians from time to time, but for all I knew, most of the rest of the world was as white, culturally and racially, as I was. To my parents' substantial credit, they raised all four of us with a clear moral understanding that it was wrong to denigrate anyone based on the color of their skin. As much as it was possible in such a situation, we were raised to be color-blind.

So I've been a little disappointed by some of the e-mail I've been getting from my mother the last few years. A few years ago, she shared an outraged e-mail about how the U.S. Postal Service was honoring Islam with a set of Ramadan-themed stamps, even though Muslim had killed thousands of Americans on 9-11. When I would get these things, I would chalk it up to her infamiliarity with the Internet, debunk the claims of the e-mail, and remind her to check those things out on before forwarding them, and move on.

Then on Wednesday, I got an e-mail from her about Barack Obama and what a disaster he would be for the United States if he were elected president.

Now I'm an Obama supporter, it's true, but if someone wants to question his qualifications, that's fine. You can complain that he's too liberal, or that he lacks the requisite experience for the job, and while I might disagree, I won't begrudge you the right to say your piece. I probably won't even begrudge you the right to send such a critique to my e-mailbox, especially if you're a good friend or a close relative.

I draw the line at racist crap, though, and my mom (I'm sad to say) crossed that line. The e-mail was a collection of quotes allegedly culled from "The Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams of My Father." As near as I can tell, the quotes are all accurate ... as long as your notion of acccuracy isn't affected by little details like changing the meaning of a quote by removing it from its defining context.

The basic thrust of the e-mail is this: Barack Obama hates white people, is sympathetic to al Qaeda and its goals. You'd have to be insane to vote for him.

Racism is an ugly little snake. It feeds on ignorance and fear, and uses them both to stoke the fires of its own hatred a little bit higher and a little bit hotter. My mom's no dummy, but for some reason she's willing to shut off her filters when someone she trusts forwards this crap to her, and then she allows the hateful little people who spawn this e-mail to use her to spread their hate further.

She knows better than this. Why does she do this?

The really sad thing is, I called her up on Saturday to talk with her about it. I had just spoken to my oldest brother. He was so repulsed by what she had shared that he actually had set up his e-mail account to reject anything from her address. I realized that I was letting something simmer and stew that I needed to address head-on.

So I explained to her why I found the e-mail objectionable: not because it attacked Barack Obama, but because it was racist and because it pandered to fear and hatred. I tried to explain what a reasoned criticism of a candidate would look like, and why this one completely failed to pass the muster.

I explained that it ran contrary to the values that she and dad had tried to pass on to us, and that we were passing on to our children, and I might as well have been talking to a wall.

She could not see what the problem was. To her, it was just a different, and important, perspective on the man who likely will be our next president. She could not understand why I thought it was racist, or why Brian found it so objectionable. As far as she could see, she was the wronged party in this whole affair, because we weren't listening to what she had to say.

It was sad to see, and more than a little painful. My mom raised us to be tolerant and respectful, and now, for whatever reason, it looks like she's forgetting in her age the lessons she taught us so well in youth.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Using humor against thuggery

Not so scary now, is he?
Want to stop an evil man cold? Don't fight him. Laugh at him.

Resistance gives evil people respectability and emboldens their followers, which in turn increases their respectability. Worse, you risk making a martyr of him to his followers. That's a problem, because everyone admires a  martyr. This is true even with the worst of leaders. People still talk about Adolf Hitler with a sort of ironic awe — he was the most evil man alive, he was a brilliant strategist, he was this and that — when the truth is the guy was freaking nuts and belonged in a room with padded walls.

No one follows or respects a walking punchline. It's possible to defang the cobra without taking a swing, if you know how and where to hit them. The cobra won't like being laughed at, and it may bite you, it's true -- but no one who heard the joke will ever fear the cobra the same way again.

Evil exists, and people have a shocking propensity for evil, but only in comic books do we find evil megalomaniacs with much frequency. In the real world evil men are pudgy, are terrible planners, boast about skills that they don't have and often are compensating for all sorts of inadequacies.

The governed often prop up the govern-ers and make their government possible. All that is needed for evil to fail and to fall is for their followers to stop following. Even men like Hitler, Hussein, Milosevic and Ronald Reagan* couldn't do their great evil without the willing partnership and service of people who generally would be considered good-natured, but for their appalling willingness to go along.

So mock evil leaders and evil people without mercy. Identify the weakness in their supposed strength, and make them seem as ridiculous as they really are.

We'll all have a good laugh, and these people will become the punchlines they deserve to be.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

* That's a joke, son. A punchline. A laugh. You gotta stay with me, boy. I keep pitching them, and you keep dropping them. You gotta keep your eye on the ball. Eye, ball. Eyeball. That's another joke, son. I made another funny.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

lice, electricity, and death

Everybody's hair came up lice-free tonight, after days of steadily declining numbers. So that's good.

We had a friend out to the house today who knows about electric stuff, to look at the wiring. He determined that the problem isn't with the wiring inside the house -- which means the public utility has to come and fix the problem at its expense, not ours. I called their customer service line today, explained the situation, and noted that we've called several times over the years over concerns about a loose connection that was causing our electric power to flicker. Hopefully we'll get more satisfaction this time. So that's good too.

On the downside, we learned today that Natasha's mother is in the hospital with a broken vertebra. The oncologist found that her lung cancer has metastasized into her bone tissue. That's not so good. Pretty lousy Mother's Day announcement, actually.

My brother-in-law, Kevin, is flying out to Arizona some time soon to see her, particularly if they do surgery to remove the tumor. My brother has enough frequent flyer miles to get Natasha a free ticket to Arizona as well, so we are discussing when best to use it.

To be honest, I'd rather be stuck with the electrician's bill, but it doesn't work that way.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Eddie Murphy: 'Kill the White People'

I recently came across this video from an old Saturday Night Live sketch, back when Eddie Murphy was on the show, in the 1980s. It's rather striking what they could get away with back then:

It some ways, it reminds me of Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," which -- despite its rather outrageous plot, characters and steady stream of jokes -- had a rather serious theme of racial equity.

Murphy did a lot of routines on SNL that poked racism in the eye. This one confronts white racist attitudes and fears about blacks, specifically the fear that black men especially are consumed by rage and pose a threat to our lives and well-being. The "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" routines made fun of our views of inner city life.

In the end, I think Murphy and his humor, raunchy and raw though it often was, did a lot to tear down some of the walls that existed between the races in America today.

Friday, May 09, 2008

christianity's tire swings

"Christianity has a lot of bullies, a lot of potholes, poison ivy everywhere... and a set of truly kickass tire swings with really cool people in one corner if you stick around long enough to find it."
-- Liadan, "Ten Percent"

can't get a break

It's been a bad week so far. I wish, just once, that God would decide "You know, that Dave Learn deserves a break" and send me a financial windfall.

Last week, I borrowed an ax to chop some firewood that's been sitting in our driveway since last fall. I managed to split exactly one log, and to pull several muscles not accustomed to hefting an ax and chopping wood. I've had a steady ache across the top of the chest as a result almost ever since.

On Thursday afternoon, we discovered the girls have lice. This requires combing everybody's hair thoroughly at least twice a day to remove adult lice, immature lice and their eggs. It also requires washing and drying pillowcases, sheets and bath towels every day; freezing combs and hair brushes to kill any eggs that might be on them; and a few other things that have to be done.

On Friday afternoon, the washing machine broke. The repair worker who came to fix the washing machine ended up charging us $70 just to say that he couldn't fix it because the transmission was shot. A few years ago, it would have been possible to buy a rebuilt transmission and install it; nowadays, you have to buy a new transmission, which drives the cost of the repair up high enough that it's cheaper to buy a new washing machine.

Efforts to find a store selling used appliances were fruitless. A Freecycle check turned up something, but it already was taken. So a new washing machine it is. We needed to spend $400 on a new washing machine like we need the girls to announce that they're dropping out of school to join the Hell's Angels. (Side note: Evangeline said this afternoon how cool it would be to have blue hair, since no one else has it.)

Incidentally, did I mention that Natasha is losing her job in about six weeks?

Tuesday the microwave oven stopped working. The lights come on and it makes that cute noise it makes when it's running, but if there are any microwaves being released, they're not warming up anything inside the microwave. It's been around a long time, and it's put in some good innings, but did it really have to quit now?

And then Thursday night, I flipped on the light switch in the bathroom. The bulb blew, which isn't a big deal in itself, but for some reason, it took half the outlets in the house with it. I needed an extension cord to run the washer and dryer tonight, the answering machine and cordless phone are out, my alarm clock has no power, and some nonessentials like the TV and DVD player are kaput for the time being too. (Ironically, the VCR has all the power it needs.)

It's not the circuit breaker. I checked, and not a single one had tripped.

The fellow who owned the house two owners before us did a lot of handyman stuff, and based on some of the repairs we've had to make and still do need to make, he did a half-baked job at a lot of them. The electric wiring was one of the things he did -- we just had no idea how half-baked it apparently was until Thursday night.

We had planned to use the tax rebates for paying down Natasha's college loans some more, or making a bigger payment on the mortgage, and investing a little more. Now it looks like the whole thing is going to be blown on the events of the past week.

I know I shouldn't complain -- I know how much rougher it is in most of the world -- but it almost feels sometimes like God is saying, "Hey! Dave Learn's starting to get ahead. How'd that happen?" I already live a much simpler lifestyle than just about everyone else we know.

If he's trying to teach me something, he doesn't need to do al this. I'm willing to listen.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

just an old-fashioned iPod

Back when Rachel was in preschool, the teacher had a record player in the classroom, clearly labeled "record player."

I pointed out to her that her room probably was the only place they were likely to encounter something so antique that it actually played 45s -- I've actually had college students not believe me when I explained about 45s and LPs -- and suggested that she explain to the children, "This is what iPods used to look like."

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


"Priest, it is a fearful thing to see yourself as you really are."
-- Judas Iscariot, "The Man Born to be King"

Friday, May 02, 2008

All our teeny-tiny pets

The girls, especially Rachel, have asked several times for a new pet ever since our dog Sandy died a few years ago. We've always had to say no, because of allergy concerns, but the request resurfaces with some regularity.
It's been a while since either has asked, and Tuesday afternoon I discovered why. While Rachel and I were waiting for Evangeline to come out of the bathroom at the school, I found that Rachel already has pets, several of them in fact, all living in her hair. They've been laying eggs, making her scalp itch, and generally doing all those cute little tricks that lice know how to do.
Like spreading to other people's hair: her sister, her mother and her father.
So Tuesday night we spent hours -- hours! -- combing nits and lice alike out of Evangeline's hair, a thick, lustrous coat of brown hair that's never been cut in her life. Rachel's hair was easier, but still time-consuming. Once the girls were in bed, Natasha and I took turns combing out the bugs and their eggs like a couple of chimpanzees, while the other read Ursula LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea" out loud.
Changed all the bedding yesterday afternoon, and today too. Washed all the towels, all the sweatshirts. Gave everyone's head a good scrubbing to do whatever we could. I even teased Evangeline about having her long, long hair shaved all the way down to the head.
There's at least another week of this to go.
Stupid lice.l

and so it begins...

This week brought the best evidence yet that middle age is not as far off as it used to be.
It was Tuesday afternoon and I was trying to shepherd Evangeline and Rachel out of the school, dealing with one thing and another. They had to go to the bathroom. They had to get a drink. They had to say goodbye to Rachel's buddy Eliza. Rachel didn't have her sweatshirt. Evangeline didn't have her backpack.
"Where's your backpack?" I asked. She looked at me as if I were crazy. "Where's your backpack?" I repeated tersely. Still no answer, just a blank look. "Evangeline!" I fairly snapped. "Where is your backpack?"
"You're holding it," she said, and at last I followed her gaze to my left hand. There, dangling from two fingers, was Evangeline's Spider-Man backpack.
"Oh," I said, not really sure how to recover from that, but suddenly identifying very closely with my mother. "Right."
I haven't reached the top of the hill, and I'm definitely not over it yet, but there's no question that I've started to climb.