Friday, October 31, 2008

Today's gripe

I've tried as hard as I can to avoid politics in this space, but something I heard on television this morning crawled under my skin. Both the presidential candidates have said some pretty stupid things over the past few months, and I just can't take it anymore.

At a rally in Ohio yesterday, John McCain introduced Joe the Plumber as "an American hero."
Now wait just a minute.

This is the guy who asked Barack Obama a question which was, essentially: If I were really a licensed plumber, and if I weren't already a tax delinquent, and if I wanted to start my own business, and if that business were successful enough to make more than $250,000 in profit, would my taxes go up from 36 percent to 39 percent?

So, now he's an "American hero," just like the brave and unselfish soldiers who have thrown themselves on hand grenades to save the lives of their comrades.

What a sad denigration of heroism this is.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 10

(Grandmother Dorothy and my father, Bronxville, N.Y., 1957)

My mother's family history is simple and straightforward: They came to this country in early 20th century from Poland, where my mother's parents were born, peasants, like countless generations before them.
My father's family tree is more complicated and mysterious, its trunk and lower branches obscured in the ground fog of time. What little we know about the paternal line is something we'd rather not know at all. You wouldn't either if you found out Booker T. Washington was a slave on your ancestors' Virginia plantation. While Booker T. was working for The Man - James Burroughs – my father's mother's Irish and Scottish ancestors were on the Oregon Trail. They became pioneers in Oregon, Washington and Alaska and seafarers who sailed the China route. At the time my mother's mother was boarding a steamship for America, my paternal great-great-grandmother, Ada Woodruff Anderson, was churning out novels about adventure in the Northwest. Her daughter, Great-grandmother McCully, would become a writer, too, mostly of gardening books and articles. Her daughter – my grandmother Dorothy – never published but was a writer at heart, an avid reader and the composer of great letters. She would have a profound influence on my career, although this would not be apparent until years after that summer of '69 in California.

She lived on Bancroft Street in San Diego at the time, an old, quiet neighborhood, with her second husband, Harry, a retired Navy man. It was a house I still walk through and around in my dreams: a garage stacked with dusty curiosities, a miniature house where Gram did her sewing, a lemon tree, a shuffleboard court, and a garden that Harry was constantly tending and watering.

Gram was pencil thin with a constant and broad smile that made her top-heavy. I remember her, there and when she visited us on the East Coast, as delicate and sophisticated, a cigarette and cocktail balancing in her hands like weights on a scale.
I spent a couple of days at their home that August, poking around the garage, playing golf with Harry, and sitting in the porch swing with Gram, and that's where it happened. No, not the broken ankle, but her influence on me: what she would say that would set my course.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 9

Although Bim sold insurance for a living, most of his friends had real-man jobs: policemen, firemen, career Marines. He took me to their weekly poker game for some cigar smoking and whiskey sipping and gambling, although these guys played with nothing but pennies. Sorry, but it's not so impressive when the motorcycle cop in a muscle shirt and flat-top pushes a stack into the pile and says, "I raise ya 15 big ones," and a hush falls across the table, even though he's talking about 15 cents.

It was this group of he-men who taught me to play Indian poker. This came late in the evening, when they had had too much to drink and were acting silly. In Indian poker, everyone gets a card that he holds against his own forehead so that everyone can see the player's card except that player. It's a game that seventh-graders find hilarious; for drill sergeants and San Diego's Finest, it's pathetic.

Bim let me ride his motorcycle around the neighborhood, and he promised that he would borrow a friend's bike and the two of us would ride out into the desert and spend the day. But when Saturday came, his friend did also, and I found myself riding passenger on Bim's bike, which was more than disappointing; it was mortifying, because there is nothing so pointless as being a passenger on a motorcycle. It's like watching someone eat a good steak while your jaw is wired shut.

Nevertheless, the day was enjoyable, exploring wilderness which today's is probably a housing development or a shopping mall. Bim's friend pointed to a cliff from which a trickle of water fell smashing on the rocks below. He said that he had seen a girl standing at the top of that cliff two weeks earlier, stark naked except for a string of beads around her neck.

For a young man in 1969, that was an exciting thought. I kept my eyes peeled for naked women, but we saw almost no one the whole day. Exploring around the base of that cliff that afternoon, I found a bead necklace among the wet rocks and put it in my pocket. Years later, I would take that necklace out of a box of mementos and recall that vision of unclothed beauty, that vision that I never experienced other than in a tale told under the canopy of tall aspens on a hot Southern California day.

Whine, whine, whine

C: We love Beth Dolinar's column but if she continues to inject political barbs in them we will cancel our subscription. - M.O.

A: What? Did I miss something? You're talking about Beth Dolinar, right? The woman who writes about her kids and after-school treats and hair extensions and such things. Sponge Bob Squarepants isn't running for Congress, is he?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How to Break and Ankle, Part 8

Bim and his wife, Jeanine, had three little boys, the oldest of which was 9. Perhaps it was for their sake, because my presence would be an influence on them, that Bim was determined to make a man out of me.

My hair wasn't all that long at the time, but it was long enough to make my aunt and uncle worry that I might be one of those kind, you know, "light in the loafers," as he would say, a Nancy-boy. So the first thing they did was to arrange a blind date.

"I already have a girlfriend," I pleaded, but they ignored this as imaginary nonsense and summoned one Debbie, a neighbor girl who stood about six feet-two in flat shoes, and add another four or five inches for the teased hairdo. I kept this photo of us, Debbie and me in the backyard of Bim's house with my cousins and their dog. Jeanine had sent it to me and had written some quotations on the back. Apparently, I had said, "Boy, are you tall!" And apparently, Debbie had said, "Don't you have any other shoes?"

I can't recall where we went that night or what we did, but I do remember the crick in my neck I got from looking up all evening.

Bim's next manly endeavor was to take me to San Diego Stadium to watch the Chargers play and exhibition football game. Our seats were in the top row of the highest section, the steps to which were so steep that it was nearly impossible to carry beers up to them without spilling them. We carried many beers. We cheered with such enthusiasm that the few other people sitting below us in our section found other seats where they could remain dry. The top section of seats was so steep that when after my fifth beer I lost my balance and tumbled forward, I landed five rows away.

If you think that here is where I finally broke my ankle, you are wrong. I landed as relaxed as a laundry bag filled with lingerie, and got up laughing like a jackass.

No, I would get my punishment, but it would come later.

Monday, October 27, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 7

Back in 1969, the airlines offered student discounts, and you could fly standby for half price. I used to fly to New York from Pittsburgh for $12, and that included a meal and a complimentary cocktail. So, flying from Chicago to California, rather than hitchhiking, was a no-brainer. I probably paid no more than $40 for the flight to Los Angeles and the connection to San Diego.

I called Bim from the airport in Los Angeles and told him when I would be arriving. Bim was my father's half-brother, just eight years my senior. As a child, visiting relatives in California with my family, I had idolized Bim, the rollicking teenager with a stack of comic books in his closet as high as my head.

Back then, the entire clan would come out to the airport in San Diego to greet us – all my father's siblings and cousins and all of their children – cheering us as we emerged from the baggage area as if we were movie stars. Coming in for a landing, I wondered if I would get the traditional welcome, even on such short notice. But only Bim was waiting for me. I saw him before he saw me, touching up his neatly coiffed hair with a pocket comb, standing in the bright sunlight in a white dress shirt and black slacks, looking so adult.

And then he saw me, sauntering toward him in an old work shirt and bell-bottoms I had altered myself by slitting the legs and sewing in triangles of bandanna cloth; a knapsack flung over my shoulder, the long hair and muttonchops, the aviator sunglasses. Then he recognized me, although his face was screwed into a question mark. He said my name, but it was a question. We shook hands, and he tentatively touched my shoulder. He could not mask his disappointment.
"Jeez! Look at you," he said. "You got so tall, and… I just didn't expect… I mean, what's with the costume?"

He had expected me to appear clean-shaven and clean-cut, dressed appropriately for travel, a younger version of my father, the brother he idolized. I was a shock, from which he would recover, but he would spend the next week or so trying hard to make me "normal."

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 6

I trotted after the white Chrysler that had stopped on the ramp. I could see three men in the car. The back door swung open. I took a quick look. It looked like an episode of "Ozzie and Harriet."

OK, for all of you not old enough to get that, I'm not talking about zoned-out rock and reality star Ozzie Osborne, but rather Ozzie Nelson. That old TV show featured the real-life Nelson family in make-believe situation comedy. The two boys, Ricky and David, were the handsome, athletic, respectful, white-bread ideal sons with no nonsense about them. David's fraternity brothers were always dropping by the house for large helpings of milk and cookies. It was a show about typical America that exists only in the wishful thinking of chuckleheads.

Well anyway, David's fraternity brothers were offering me a ride, which I took. The guy sitting next to me in the back seat was wearing a short-sleeve madras shirt, white jeans with neatly ironed creases, and Docksiders. They all looked as if they'd just come from a barber shop. Where was I going? Why? Where was I from? What did my father do for a living? Did I enjoy sailing? They peppered me with questions, and all three, even the driver, felt compelled to look at me and make eye contact when they spoke. It made me nervous.

"Do you smoke pot?" the one in the backseat, the youngest, asked me. He seemed fascinated with my clothes and long hair and sideburns. I realized that they had picked me up out of curiosity. They had seen hippies before, but they'd never really talked to one. "Sometimes, but I don't make a habit of it," I answered. They all looked very disappointed.

By afternoon we were rolling across industrial Indiana. The questions kept coming: "How long do you think it will take you to get to California?" "Where will you sleep along the way?" "Aren't you afraid of being stranded in the desert?" I hadn't thought about these things, and although I tried to be nonchalant, the questions rang in my head like alarms. I unfolded my map and studied it. Hmmm. I thought Iowa was a small state, but on the map it looked enormous, vacant, frightening.

David's fraternity brothers were headed for their homes somewhere north of Chicago. Earlier, I had told them they could drop me off just beyond Gary, Ind. I thought about the 1,750 miles of hot pavement ahead of me and considered the bottoms of my moccasin slippers, purchased just a week earlier but already sprouting holes.
"Do you guys pass O'Hare Airport on your way home?" I asked them. "How about just letting me off there."

Complaints and questions

C: I've received the OR for 20 years and have come to rely upon it as a
primary news source. However, as somebody who has been following the
presidential election closely, I was surprised to see you feature the
AP article, "AP poll: Race tightening in final weeks" prominently on
the front page. As you probably know, AP is not the only organization
out their conducting polling and, as pointed out in the article, the
results of the AP poll differ widely from MOST of the other reputable
polls. If you would like to see an effective comparison of all of the
presidential polling data, I suggest you visit
this site. In any case, given the anomalous nature of the AP poll, I think that the OR exhibited
bad judgment in highlighting this information on the front page. - A.L.

A: Polls rarely come up with the same results, and they can be way off at times. What was significant about the AP poll was that it did differ from the other polls and came up with results that showed the race much tighter than other polls indicate. Also, this poll suggested the race is growing increasingly tighter. That is news, and the fact that this poll employed basically the same standards as other national polls and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points gave it veracity.

Granted, we at this newspaper may put a little more trust in the AP poll because we are a part of the Associated Press. Not many readers realize it, by the AP is not just a service we purchase; it is a worldwide cooperative in which member newspapers and other media share the news they gather and pool their resources in order to cover news around the world that would be impossible to cover on their own. The news that the O-R gathers and writes is picked up by the AP and offered to other newspapers, TV and radio stations, and what those others gather is offered to us.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 5

The drivers of cars and trucks coming through the Ohio Turnpike entrance stopped and grabbed their tickets, then headed up the westbound ramp, staring straight ahead, ignoring me as I sat on a guardrail holding my "WEST" sign. Patience, I kept reminding myself.

Another group of hitchhikers had appeared beside the eastbound ramp – two girls and a boy, maybe my age or a little younger. Every time a likely looking ride passed them, the girls would jump up and down and wave their signs, like cheerleaders at a fundraiser car wash. One of the signs read "N.Y." and the other said "Woodstock" and was adorned with a guitar and flower crudely drawn with crayon.
I watched them wear themselves out for about half an hour, and then one of the girls crossed the traffic and headed in my direction. She was wearing hip-hugger bellbottoms and a fringed leather vest with nothing on underneath it.
"Hey, man, like where are you going?" she asked me.
I held up my sign and told her California.
"Wow! That's like really far away. What's happening there?"
I told her I didn't know of anything happening there, I just wanted to go there.
"Far out! We're going to the Woodstock Musical Festival. Did you hear about it? Like everyone is going to be there."
I'd heard something about it, but wasn't interested. I had grown up around New York and had gone to boarding school upstate, and I had no desire to be back there at the moment.
"Hey, man, why don't you come with us? It would be groovy."
No thanks, I told her. Wherever she was going, this Woodstock thing, couldn't be as thrilling as California. Of course, I didn't mention that I wasn't going to San Francisco to drop acid and demonstrate against the war and have my fill of free love, but rather going to San Diego to stay with my grandmother, aunts and uncles and share the bedrooms of my juvenile cousins.

"Well, peace, man," she said, flashing me the hand sign before heading back across the ramps. Even before she reached her friends, a VW microbus loaded with luggage on top had stopped to offer them a ride. Pulling away in a sputtering cloud of exhaust, the girl flashed me another peace sign out the window, and I felt a pang of regret.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

David Sedaris' fifth collection of stories, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames," is, like the others, hilarious. To enjoy his self-effacing humor and appreciate the often preposterous situations he finds himself in, you have to get over the fact that he is openly gay and not shy about his preferences and peculiarities. If you can accept that, you'll be treated to laugh-out-loud reading.

Sedaris has made a living out of writing stories and then reading them to audiences. That his stories are intended to be heard is the strength of his writing. The author Kurt Vonnegut used to say that he wrote novels like a series of jokes, a few paragraphs building to a punchline. Sedaris takes the same approach.

Beyond the belly laughs, Sedaris is a keen observer of human nature, a quality that has become more apparent with each succeeding book. Among the human frailties he expounds on in this book is addiction, and his description of quitting cigarettes will strike a chord with anyone who has ever tried it.

Western Pa. "racist"?

U.S. Rep. John Murtha caused quite a stir and was rightly lambasted for his remark in an interview with the Post-Gazette editorial board that Western Pennsylvania was "racist." Talk about painting with a wide brush.
Murtha met with the Observer-Reporter editorial board a few days later and acknowledged his mistake.

"I shouldn't have said that," he explained. "What I should have said was that there are racist elements here, and who would argue with that?" That there are racist elements all over the country is true, and you would think undeniable, yet some would indeed argue with that.
Murtha said he was confronted by a man who was angry about the racist remark. "I'm not a racist," the man told Murtha, "it's just that I can't vote for a black man."

I had a similar experience the other day. A guy told me: "I don't care, I'll vote for Obama, I don't care if he's black or green with yellow polka dots. He's not going to move next door to me or marry my daughter, so it's OK for him to be president."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How to Break and Ankle, Part 4

Monroe was not the only Perrysburg boy to attend W&J College. Regis was also in our class, and through the two of them and visits to their homes on weekends and vacations, I made other friends in the town I thought of as ideal and dreamlike.

It seemed that most times we approached Perrysburg through thunderstorms on the Ohio Turnpike, but in the distance we could see the town gleaming like a diamond, rays of sunlight from a break in the clouds reflecting off wet roofs and church spires. The weather was always perfect in Perrysburg, its people always pleasant, and if there were any problems there, they were packed away in boxes and stacked in cedar closets.

My recollection of those days I spent there in August is foggy after nearly 40 years, but I do remember that I did not see Regis, because he had already left for basic training in the Air Force. And I recall the guilt I felt for my betrayal of him.

In the beginning of our sophomore year at college, Regis and I became close friends and confided in each other about our fear of the future. We felt trapped in college, needing to be there for the draft deferment only. If we left college, we'd be drafted, and there looked to be no end to the Vietnam War, so once we graduated, we'd be sure to be plucked. The U.S. was drafting more than 300,000 young men a year at the time, and although only a small percentage of them would end up in combat, you couldn't tell us that at the time. In our troubled minds, being in the military was equal to death in a rice paddy.
We were angry at the government for the theft of our freedom, torn by the conflict between our own morality and sense of duty to country, and ashamed of our cowardice. So, we made a plan to escape, to emigrate to Australia. At the end of the semester, we withdrew from W&J. I called home and told them that I had quit college, but not about Australia. The next day, my father flew up from Florida, and he, along with the dean of students, managed to talk some sense into me, and I re-enrolled.

Regis' father did not come. "I knew you wouldn't go through with it," he told me in disgust as he left for home. Rather than be drafted into the Army, he enlisted in the Air Force. Monroe would do the same.

Regis' family lived on Front Street, and I stopped by to see them. They tried to be pleasant and welcoming, but there was a noticeable chill in the conversation, and awkward avoidance of Regis' name. He was gone, and they could not put aside the fact that I was a cause of that.

When I left their house it started to rain, and it rained all night. I decided it was time to move on.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: I have received the Observer-Reporter for over 20 years even with the political left slant in most headlines. The endorsement you gave in 2004 to John Kerry was weak at best but the endorsement for Obama lacks any reasoning or facts on him. You talk more about how John McCain is not ready than Obama being qualified. Could that be because of his slim resume as you mention. You compare his slim resume to Sarah Palin who is running for VP with John McCain. Truth is she has more experience in governemnt than Obama. Biden? The guys a joke and not worth talking about. I can't subscribe to a paper that endorses a SOCIALIST. And Obama is a socialist if you care to check. Thank you for your time. Now I will call and cancel my subscription. - T.S.

Answer No. 1: "Error of opinion is to be tolerated when reason is left free to combat it." - Thomas Jefferson
Answer No. 2: Oh, shut up you nasty old crank.

How to Break an Ankle, Part 3

(Fred, left, and Monroe in my dorm room, 1968)

The two-lane road to Perrysburg was 14 miles long, and because no one would stop to give me a ride, I had to walk all the way, in my slippers. Dusk and I reached Second Street at the same time, and I was hot, tired, footsore and discouraged.
A quiet had settled on the town; the birds had quit singing, and only the faint humming or air conditioners and the occasional creaking and slamming of a screen door could be heard.

Earlier, walking backward with my thumb stuck out, I had daydreamed of walking into town quite differently: My friends would come running out of their houses, yelling "He's here! By God, he made it!" Their sisters would throw their arms around my neck and peck me with kisses, and we would all march arm in arm to some beer bash held in my honor.

The blue light of television sets flickered and smells of finished suppers emanated from the old houses shaded by sycamores as I reached my friend Monroe's house and knocked on the door.

Monroe and I lived on the same floor of our dormitory our freshman year at W&J. He, his roommate Fred and I became close friends, but both of them left college after that first year, Fred flunking out and Monroe on his own accord. Monroe had the look of British entitlement about him – powder-blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, prominent teeth. Put him in a pair of jodhpurs and riding boots and you'd swear he was one of Queen Elizabeth's sons. He was funny, and kind, and although it never dawned on us at the time, gay. "Gay" was not a term in use at that time. If anyone had ever broached the subject – and no one did – we would have said, "Are you kidding? Monroe's not a homo! He's just… sensitive." We were in denial, despite all the obvious clues. Fred let Monroe do all the decorating in their room, which had posters of Dionne Warwick and Barbra Streisand on the walls, a beaded curtain in the doorway and Judy Garland on the stereo.

I knocked again at the door, but the house was dark and silent.
With a heavy sigh, I lifted my pack and padded down the walk toward town, feeling invisible, in search of a pay phone and, I hoped, an offer of a bed for the night from one of my other Perrysburg friends.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 2

At 20, I hadn't been alive long enough to acquire much wisdom, which you could see by looking at my feet. I stood at the entrance ramp to the Turnpike in Beaver County wearing a pair of bedroom slippers. They were soft-soled moccasins that I bought at K-mart for $2.99. They were a lot cheaper than real shoes, but they didn't hold up too well on pavement. I'd just buy another pair every time the soles wore through to my bare feet. They looked cool, I thought.

I wouldn't even consider picking up a hitchhiker today, but hitching rides was a common and relatively safe form of transportation for young people in the 1960s. A tractor hauling a flat-bed trailer loaded with girders slowed and stopped and I had to climb like a monkey to get up into the cab. As safe as hitchhiking seemed, you still had to wonder about the people who picked you up. It was always a good idea to take a good look inside the vehicle before you sat down and slammed the door. The truck looked OK: an aqua-colored transistor radio hanging from the roof of the cab, a box of Tiparillos and a statue of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. The driver, a fortyish, paunchy, jovial man in a wifebeater T-shirt, asked me where I was headed.
"California, eventually, but Perrysburg, Ohio, to start," I told him. I planned to mooch off friends first. He said he was headed for Michigan but could drop me off at an exit about 14 miles from my destination. No problem, I thought.

He told me he liked to offer rides, that talking helped keep him awake on the long hauls. He did most of the talking, telling jokes and laughing in that way that some people do – silently, squinting, lips pursed, convulsing. He told me that I couldn't imagine what he witnessed from his seat high above the other cars. He had seen both men and women driving on the turnpike stark naked. He described the sexual acts he had witnessed in passing cars.
We drove west through the hottest and brightest part of that August day with the windows open, bouncing as if we were riding in a stage coach. Approaching Toledo, he pulled off the road at a place near where I'd be able to get a ride toward Perrysburg. We shook hands, he wished me luck getting to California, I thanked him, opened the door and, forgetting I was about eight feet off the ground, tumbled to the gravel.

But I did not break my ankle then. That would come later.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Whine, whine whine

C: Since you have allowed The Observer-Reporter to become a willing partner with the Democratic Party Propaganda Wing - the Associated Press - why not scrounge up enough courage and decency to place a name on your masthead that actually describes the conversion. I'll assist you. Consider: "The Democrat Reporter" or, even better, "The Socialist Democrat Reporter". The latest swill that you pass off as journalism,
"Review: Palin has checkered history on ethics issues" (October 15,2008 - front page -right) is another of the unsubstantiated, rumor based rantings of a couple of AP hatcheters who have slithered through the sewers of Alaska muckraking for any little fantasy from anyone who has ever had any reason to wish Sarah Palin harm. No one, not even Sarah Palin, becomes the Governor of a State without ruffling a feather. All your AP hacks, and the army of investigators sent to Alaska by the Democratic party, have found as sources are political foes who are slightly disarranged of wing and mind.- R.K.

A: A really important part of news are its first three letters: n-e-w. Sarah Palin is new and news. Barack Obama has been around running for president for two years, and all of his skeletons have been trotted out of the closet, dusted off and examined already. And Joe Biden and John McCain have been around forever. Every mistake they've ever made has already been written about many times. John McCain was embroiled in a scandal that branded him as one of the "Keating Five," but that was back in the '80s, and nobody cares about that anymore.

And nobody would give a damn about Sarah Palin taking gifts and favors and giving fat government jobs to her friends if she hadn't climbed up on a pedestal and proclaimed herself a champion of ethics.

Sorry, pal, but it's the job of reporters to point out the hypocrisy of politicians, and they all get their turn being poked, Democrat, Republican or whatever.

How to Break and Ankle, Part 1

Bones, even those of a healthy 20-year-old, will break when stressed in just the right way. This usually happens when you least expect it, so I learned in the summer of 1969. Let me take you back there.

Think back to when you listened to Neil Diamond singing "Sweet Caroline," and Creedence Clearwater Revival doing "Bad Moon Rising." Think about the first time you might have heard "Hot Fun in the Summertime" on the radio. That was the summer of 1969.

My academic performance during my sophomore year at W&J College had been miserable, and so I was forced to attend the summer session to soak up some Shakespeare and sociology. Classes were over at the end of July, and I had the whole month of August to kill before the fall semester began. I had no desire to go home; my parents had moved during the school year to Florida, which was hot and friendless and no home to me.

Spending August at the apartment on North Avenue I shared with friends was an option, but not a good one. We had fun that summer – skinny-dipping at the No. 4 dam south of town, and the party we hosted at our apartment for the moon walk on July 20 – but there were problems. My friend Richard, from my hometown, had enrolled for summer classes and moved in with me. It was his mother's idea. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he had suffered a mental breakdown. She thought summer school would be a good distraction, and that I could keep a close watch on him. I agreed, not knowing just how far over the edge Richard had gone.

You could see Richard coming from blocks away; he was the one wearing the blaze-orange flight suit and the green rubber boots. When you didn't see him, you'd hear him, wailing away on his electric guitar from his nest on the third floor of our building, littered with empty gin bottles. What he played was mainly distortion and feedback, which sounded like torture and brought neighbors to our door begging us to make him turn down the volume.

We fought about this, and one time he even packed his things in his Mercury Cougar and left town, much to my relief. But a few hours later, he returned, promising to behave better. He settled into his nest and, eventually, his old habits and showed no intention of leaving until September.

And so I had to go. I thought I would make it an adventure, so one morning I packed a knapsack, wrote the word WEST on a piece of shirt cardboard with a Magic Marker and left Washington, intending to hitchhike to California.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A new story

There comes a point in many a young person's life when he or she must break away from parents, or friends, or school and go on a quest. This is a rite of passage, an affirmation of independence, a search for adventure, an escape from routine.

The quest may not lead that person very far away, physically, but it often leads to unexpected discoveries and consequences.

Many young people embarking on their journeys of discovery in the summer of 1969 found themselves dancing in the mud at Woodstock. Although my own quest occurred at that very time, I was not present at that famous musical festival but chose an entirely different direction.

I'll be writing about that journey over the next several weeks. As always, I'll stick to the truth as much as my faulty memory can recall it. The characters you'll read about are or were real people, although I may change their names. And please feel free to comment about your own experiences and share them with other readers of this blog.

I'll give this story a curiously cryptic title: "How to Break an Ankle." It starts tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Today's gripe

Last night, on the way home from work, I passed the following dead animals lying by the side of the road: a deer, a raccoon, an opossum, a ground hog, a skunk and two cats. This in a distance of less than 8 miles.

These must be really hard times, not just for humans, but for animals. Why else would they be throwing themselves in the paths of cars in such numbers?

I'm going to start an office pool, the winner of which will correctly predict the day this month (or next) when PennDOT gets around to sending the carcass collector to Park Avenue to remove the deer just across from the cemetery entrance and right up the street from the high school. You can't miss it. It's bloated, its legs are sticking up in the air, and it's starting to leak.

Complaints and comments

Where have all the whiners gone? Don't get me wrong; I don't really miss them. but I am curious as to why readers of this newspaper and this blog who normally devote a good bit of their leisure time to bitching and moaning about how we write and edit have suddenly gone quiet.

Maybe they've all gone off to campaign rallies to either boo Sarah Palin at hockey games or to plead with John McCain to win so that their unborn babies do not have to grow up in an Obama administration.

Of course, it's possible that I've simply scared them away from this blog with my boring stories that never seem to end. Oh, by the way, I'm starting another one tomorrow. Anyone have a problem with that?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Chasing Utopia

(Walking paths at EVI meander through the village.)

While staying at the Wild Goose, I leafed through "Eco Village at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture," written by one of the community's founders, Liz Walker, in 2005.

It took about three years for an idea to develop to the point when land was purchased and construction began. In 1994, this mission statement was adopted:
"The ultimate goal of EVI is nothing less than to design the human habitat. We are creating a model community of some 500 residents that will exemplify sustainable systems of living - systems that are not only practical in themselves but replicable in others. The completed project will demonstrate the feasibility of a design that meets basic human needs such as shelter and food production, energy, social interaction, work and recreation while preserving natural ecosystems."

Walker's book describes the community's innovative efforts in energy production and use, conflict resolution and economics (dollars are stretched by sharing resources). But she also writes about the problems common in all of society - problems that even the smartest, best-educated and well-meaning people cannot avoid. In any community, there are those who must have their own way and are intolerant of others' opinions. She cites a rift over whether the community dining hall should offer some meals containing meat, and how that led to three families pulling up stakes, despite tireless efforts to reach compromise. And then there are those who just won't turn down the volume on their stereos.

In the little neighborhood where the Wild Goose is, the closely packed houses all face toward a common area with footpaths. All kitchens face this area so that it's possible to see who's home and what the kids are doing and with whom they're playing. This closeness has its advantages, and it's easy to imagine how it might drive someone crazy.

There may be no Utopia, no perfect way for humans to live together. But that doesn't mean that people should stop chasing it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Discovering Eco Village

(The dining hall at Eco Village of Ithaca)

At about this time last year, we were planning a trip to Ithaca. Problem was, it was Parents Weekend, or something like that, at Cornell University, and every single hotel room in town was booked. Except for one. That was at the Wild Goose Bed & Breakfast.

It seemed too good to be true. Sure, it was a couple of miles from town, but it was less than half the price of the Holiday Inn. We pulled off Route 79 onto a dusty dirt road called Rachel Carson Way that wound through fields of an organic farm. The Wild Goose was in Eco Village, an "experimental community" that we saw as a cluster of modern, angular homes. You can't just drive up to the houses; you have to park and then haul your bags on foot into the village, which is for pedestrians only. (We found out later that there are carts lying around that anyone can use to haul stuff.)

No one was home at the Wild Goose, but the door was open. Eco Village is a place where people don't normally lock their doors. We followed Post-it notes up to our room, which was small but cozy. We had to share a bath with another room, but for the price, it could hardly be beat.

Later, we met the innkeeper, Gail Carson, a former opera singer, who filled us in on Eco Village, how it got started, and who the people are that live there. Although they do have a dining hall and take turns cooking meals for the community (mostly vegetarian, $6 a person), Gail assured us that the folks did not go out in the fields, hold hands and chant at the moon, or do any other such things we might associate with the communes of the 1960s. These are pretty normal people who just happen to like living in a close community of caring neighbors.

It is not, however, Utopia. That's because it is inhabited by human beings, who make everything difficult.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Gorging on nature

Please excuse my disappearance. We thought we might get away from all the election B.S. and the crashing market for a few days by going up to the Finger Lakes to visit our son and his girlfriend. Of course, there is no escaping politics.

For a couple of hours, though, we did find some relief in one of Ithaca's fabulous gorges. This photo was taken along the hiking trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park. As in all the gorges in Ithaca and Watkins Glen, the scenery is spectacular and the hike invigorating. And it's all free.

As we did last year, we spent our nights at Eco Village, and experimental community high on a hill overlooking the town. It's sort of a commune that grew up and became sensible. More about it later.

Friday, October 3, 2008

We've got gas

One thing that Sarah Palin mentioned last night in the debate was particularly interesting: "And we're building a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline, which is North America's largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever to flow those sources of energy into hungry markets."

The part about "we're building" is a bit of a stretch. It's still more of a pipe dream, if you will. It's been in the planning stages for many years, and it looks as if construction won't be started - if at all - until sometime in 2010. The plan is to build a pipeline all the way from Prudhoe Bay to Chicago and pump 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas to the U.S. each day. This would provide 7 percent of the nation's gas supply. When The New York Times wrote about this last April, (click to read),, the cost was estimated at $30 billion. That's inflation for ya.

Now what I'm thinking is this: Allegheny Power couldn't even manage to build a power line across Washington and Greene counties for all the heat they got, so how are the oil companies going to talk everyone from the friggin' North Pole to Chicago, Ill., to let this pipeline cross their backyards?

And here's an interesting observation: Gas wells are being drilled all over this area into what is called the Marcellus Shale. There's about 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas locked in the shale down there, more than half of it in Pennsylvania. Current U.S. demand for gas is 23 trillion cubic feet per year. Granted, the gas in the Marcellus Shale is a little harder to extract than the gas in Alaska, but criminy! You don't have to spend $40 billion to pipe it; the pipelines are already here.

I can see why Palin prefers the Alaska gas option: It will bring Alaskans $3 billion a year. But if the Marcellus Shale turns out to be as productive as some folks think, that pipe will remain a dream.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Today's gripe

The renegade Republicans who voted against the bailout measure in the House earlier this week had a couple of good points. I think their idea of making banks purchase insurance on their bad loans instead of having the government purchase them had some merit. I think their objection to buying those securities at some imaginary value rather than the present market price was right on. But some of those renegades, including our own Congressman Tim Murphy, voted against the measure for preposterous reasons. Here's what Murphy said in a press release immediately after the vote:

"... Instead of moving the bad debt around we should be creating a means by which to bring actual money into the markets. If we drilled on the outer continental shelf and went for the Colorado shale oil, if we looked to the north slope of Alaska we would yield trillions in federal income. Trillions of dollars into our economy. Real money. But we continue to keep it all off limits."

I guess Murphy has it in mind to nationalize all the oil companies, because how else would we yield "trillions of dollars in federal income." Even if our government were to subsidize all this new drilling (you think about a $700 billion incentive to the oil companies would work?), it would take many years for the oil to reach the market, and if the oil companies were not nationalized, they would simply be selling it on the world spot market. How would that free up credit in this country?

All we have to do to get out of this mess is to drill for more oil? Hey, I guess that kid you were going to send to college can wait 8 or 10 years until he can get his college loans. Hope your car last that long, too.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

An angry reader phoned the office the other day, demanding to speak to "somebody important." Not that I am all that important, but I wasn't around my desk at the time, so the call went to another editor, who listened patiently but was unable to get a word in before the caller hung up.

Basically, the complaint was about the front-page article on Monday about Sarah Palin and the favors she had received as mayor of her Alaskan town. We are out to get her and never write anything positive about her, the editor was told.

The gifts and favors Palin received as mayor were typical of small-town politics - perhaps sleazy, but hardly criminal. These ethical lapses were no big deal at the time they happened and would be no big deal now, and the article by the Associated Press would never have been written, if it were not for Palin's own claim to be the champion of ethics in Alaskan politics. The Republican campaign advertisements have gone even farther, claiming she "saved" Alaska from oil company villains and crooked politicians.

The press has an obligation to hold all politicians to their word, and just because she is a woman and a highly popular candidate does not excuse her from scrutiny.