Monday, July 14, 2008

Eighty Percent Spiderman

It's funny what you can learn about yourself on the web. I had no idea I was anything like Spiderman. Now, Green Lantern, heck I can see that...

You are Spider-Man

Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man
Wonder Woman
You are intelligent, witty,
a bit geeky and have great
power and responsibility.

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Rest in Peace Barbara Dee Still, 1948-2008

Death has closed its icy grip around my heart once again. Yesterday, April 20th, my aunt, not yet 60 years old, lost her long struggle with cancer. Wife, mother, grandmother, aunt.

I mentioned previously that when my grandfather met and married my grandmother, he had three children and she had two. "Aunt Barb" was the youngest of the three of my grandfather's kids. Her middle name is like mine, and from the same source. Or, rather, mine is like hers, as she came first.

A scant six weeks after I was born, Aunt Barb gave birth to Melissa Jane, the first of her two daughters (she had no sons). "Lissa" and I two were the first of nine grandchildren for Dee and Dorothy Winters. Three years later, Holly Christine came onto the scene as grandchild number six.

I grew up in a town just a handful of miles from where Aunt Barb, Uncle Tom, and cousins Lissa and Holly lived (I once rode my bicycle out there, but the treacherous farm country roads made it something I didn't want to do a second time). Being so close, we spent a lot of time with them, and this included my other aunt and uncle and their three sons, all of which lived in the same town I did. We were a close-knit family back then, and even today haven't entirely lost all the ties, though we're spread out across the country.

One of my favorite memories from growing up is of a trip to the coast for a four or five day vacation of camping, playing at the beach, fishing, and just general mayhem. Aunt Barb and Uncle Tom packed their two kids, two of their neighbor kids, one of our other cousins, my sister and I into a couple of vehicles, bolstered each others' resolve, and headed for a house they had rented near the beach and one of the many Oregon coastal lakes. What were they thinking? We all had a blast. By the end of the trip, all the kids were calling Aunt Barb, "Mom," as it was easier than the mix of "mom," "Aunt Barb," "Mrs. Still," or whatever else we were all calling her.

The title of "Mom" fit her pretty well, too. She lived her life very focused on her family, often putting her own needs to the side in favor of what someone else needed. She loved to cook, and even operated a small event catering business "on the side" in addition to a career of more than thirty (maybe forty, I've forgotten) years at the post office.

I think the thing I loved most about Aunt Barb was that she was quick to laugh. Not to say that she didn't know when to be serious, but life just seemed to amuse her. I think her favorite phrase was, "oh, what the hell?" Her laugh was something hard to describe, but I heard it often enough that I'll always remember it.

Barbara Dee Still, born Barbara Dee Winters to Dee and Shirley in 1948, is survived by her husband Tom, daughters Melissa and Holly, and four beautiful grandchildren. There is no question in my mind that she rests in peace, and is probably watching over us all, amused at the whole spectacle. She will be missed by everyone who knew her.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

One Ring To Rule Us All

The 2008 presidential election primary campaigns have hit their strides, with only the most hardened contenders hanging in there. There continues to be uncertainty in both parties, uncommon this long after Super Tuesday, when nearly half of the states hold their primary elections and favored winners often emerge.
The most recent casualty of the race, Mitt Romney, was running a strong race, but has "suspended" his campaign in the face of John McCain's juggernaut rise through the cluttered Republican field of candidates. That left Mike Huckabee, the come-from-nowhere governor of Arkansas and Baptist minister who is arguably where he is because a spark of attention he got from Stephen Colbert. It's not that Colbert, however much he'd like to take credit, "made" Mike Huckabee, but the attention he got on Colbert's show boosted his campaign enough that people knew his name. That got him enough popular mind share to get some airtime that he has used very, very effectively to deliver a homespun, conservative Christian message that is increasingly popular in hometown America. And with Romney out of the race, he's the only serious competition for McCain. His strategy at the moment seems to be winning enough delegates to keep McCain from achieving the critical 1,191 votes it takes to win the Republican nomination before the National Convention in September. He said as much in his speech after the "Potomac Primaries" poll closings, suggesting that something may happen to the elder Senator between now and then; he stopped short of calling such a race-changing event, whatever it may be, a miracle, but the implication was certainly there.
The other Republican still holding on is Congressman Ron Paul, the popular Constitutionalist who seems to average around four percent of the vote in every primary, mostly culled from the Internet where his plain-spoken sensibility is only overshadowed by Senator Barack Obama. Congressman Paul is clear and vociferous about his message, and hasn't wavered throughout the whole campaign, something that the other candidates from both parties have a hard time claiming. Unfortunately, in this era of quips, buzzwords and an endemic shortened attention span, the Congressman's call for a "return to a constitutional government" has the sound of stodginess. It's clear by now that, short of "a critical event" such as one speculated on by Governor Huckabee, Ron Paul's chances for winning his party's nomination are slim. His dogged continuation on the campaign trail in the face of such overwhelming odds shows that he's committed to getting his message across. Hopefully his supporters realize that they're spending money to promote the message, not the candidate.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the Vietnam war hero with over 22 years' experience in Congress, appears to have his party's nomination locked down.  He swept the Potomac primaries, though not without fighting down significant popular support for rival Mike Huckabee.  Maybe if the Senator took up playing guitar he could appeal to the young conservative crowd better, and seem a little more "down home" to the rural voters to give himself a little more breathing room.  His speech after the polls closed was filled "I" this and "I" that, once referring to himself four times in one sentence.  The speech sounded as much like an Oscar acceptance speech as anything, with him spending a lot of airtime recognizing cronies in the audience and giving a nod to his opponent.  From there the speech turned to gloom and doom about how his particular brand of dogma was better than "theirs," and had all the panache of a wet blanket.  He was obviously reading it from a teleprompter, and it looked on a couple of occasions like it was the first he'd seen what he was reading.  Overall, it wasn't a good showing.

Over on the Democrat's side, it's a tight race between Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, with a scant few delegate's votes separating the two. Obama, with his sweep of the Potomacs, pulled ahead of Clinton after trailing her for most of the race. Pundits have called it a deadlock or stalemate because of the closeness of the race, but it's likely that Obama has just hit his stride late in the game, and in the final stretch toward the DNC finish line is going to continue to widen his lead. Many political analysts have pointed out that Obama "sort of grows on people" as his message settles in. Clinton, on the other hand, seems to be losing momentum as she coasts along on her liftoff blast without any fresh material, giving time to her detractors to dig deep into what she has said so far.  Jules Verne thought in 1865 that we could land men on the moon with a space capsule fired from a huge gun. While it may be possible, we found that the more likely way to get there is with a rocket, continuously pumping fuel into a reaction chamber until you achieve sufficient velocity to hit your target.
Barack Obama seems to be taking just such an approach.  Or, at least, his burn is clean enough that there's no sputtering and backfiring.  Where Senator Clinton looks consistently more worn and frazzled at each successive speech, Senator Obama looks as strong as ever, with a strong, clear voice and a Kennedy-esqe tempo that combine to give his message of hope, the "yes, we can" that is his campaign cry, a ring of truth that people can easily recognize.  It may seem cliche, but people intuitively know when something is right; when a message "rings true," there's no need to pick it apart, no need to see if there's a wolf under the wool.
In the 2004 election, I remember hearing one of John Kerry's speeches where he pulled off the same tenor and tempo trick that is the hallmark of any great orator.  I remember thinking that, if he could do that same thing every day for the rest of the campaign, he would have a chance of beating George W. Bush.  As it turned out, his speech was a one-off.  Never again did I hear him speak in that same fashion, and in the end, President Bush won re-election in a sweeping victory.  Senator Kerry may not have had a chance either way, but on that day he had the nation's ear and he let go of it.
Speaking in Wisconsin after the Potomac polls closed, Barack Obama wore the Ring of Truth. His speech was filled with hope couched in a nest of "we" references that spoke to the thousands of supporters surrounding him in the stadium.  And those supporters looked like America, or at least the one I know.  They were a mix of races, genders and age groups, and by the look of their clothing, they came from a variety of backgrounds and career paths.  This is in stark contrast to the room full of old white men in rumpled suits that surrounded John McCain.  And, where McCain's supporters clapped politely at a few junctures in his speech, Obama's crowd cheered like it would raise the roof of the building.

Barack Obama is offering us, the American people, a message of hope couched in language of unification for a broken country that is dying at its core while highwaymen rob it of its resources and warlords send its young to perish in a desert for no good reason.  It's a message of hope that the voice of Middle America will be heard above the din of the lobbyists and special interest groups, and it's a message of hope that we can, together, build our country back to a level of heath and education that will make us strong again, respected in the world again, and again the envy of the rest of the world.  He delivers this message with a clear voice, a fierce and powerful voice, a voice that carries the ring of truth.  One ring to rule us all.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cars, cars, cars

We went to the Portland Auto Show last Friday, actually shopping for a new car instead of just gawking the way we've done in the past.  The needs of the cafe are putting a toll on our Volvo station wagon, a 2001 V70 T5.  Semi-monthly trips to Costco to pick up cases of soda, soy milk, tuna and whatever else is required put a heavy burden on the suspension and brakes, and all the in-town, stop-and-go traffic is wearing out the engine.

With gas prices the way they are, our knee-jerk reaction to look for a "green" oriented vehicle has become more of a driving force, so to speak.  Unfortunately, most vehicles that are extremely fuel efficient from a "miles per gallon" perspective, such as the Toyota Prius, lack significantly in load carrying capacity.  What we really need is a small SUV, with emphasis on the "utility" and not so much (if any) on the "sport."  There's a wide range of options in this class of vehicle, and almost every one of them is rated at 15-17 m.p.g. in the city, a scant increase over the 14-15 m.p.g. that our Volvo's on-board computer shows we're getting currently.

There are a few SUVs that are green-oriented, including the Jeep Liberty Diesel.  We like the idea of a diesel, since there's a biodiesel filling station just blocks from our house.  But the Liberty Diesel only gets around 19 m.p.g. in the city, and Jeep is so unhappy with the overall performance of the engine that they're going to stop using it.  Many auto manufacturers, from Honda to Land Rover, are saying that they'll have diesel SUVs available in the U.S. "real soon now," but they always seem to be about eighteen months away from showroom floors.  These vehicles are expected to perform in the 22-24 m.p.g. range for city driving, and over 30 m.p.g. on the freeway, both excellent numbers considering the class of vehicle.

With diesel out, we looked to the scant few available hybrid SUVs.  The Ford Escape Hybrid, with its upscale Mercury counterpart, is getting rave reviews for its ability to get 30 m.p.g. in city driving.  The cargo area is a little smaller than we were looking for, but reasonable.  We could never make a full shopping run to Costco with anyone else along, but that rarely happens anyway, so it's a manageable issue.  Beyond the cargo capacity, though, the quality of the interior put us off.  For a vehicle priced around $30,000, the interior had a distinctly cheap plastic feeling one would expect from a low-budget Hyundai or Kia (mind you, I realize that both those manufacturers make higher-end vehicles that are nicely appointed).  After many years of driving Volvos, we're used to a little more refinement in an interior.  We're willing to let luxury go in favor of better fuel economy, but the interior of the Mercury Mariner Hybrid seemed like it was about as sturdy as an egg shell.

The next stop sent us looking at the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, currently ranked highest in "ooh-ahh" factor when discussing such things.  Rated at 27 m.p.g. in the city, it drinks a bit more than the Escape, but is quite a bit larger and has much better appointments than its domestic cousin.  The Highlander has a third row of seating, with a seven passenger capacity, and is fully decked out with fun options like an electric lift on the tailgate (nice when your arms are loaded).  Unfortunately, the price reflects all the finery.  At $45,000, the Highlander Hybrid is about 50% more expensive than the Escape Hybrid.  Our Volvo wagon was around $44,000 new, but we didn't buy it new and paid less than half the sticker price for a four-year-old car.

We were a bit in despair as we prepared to leave, not wanting to pay what seemed like an exorbitant price for the Highlander, yet not wanting to put up with the cheap-feeling interior of the Mercury.  We were caught in the middle.

On the way out, I spotted the Saturn display, which I'd previously missed.  Before going to the show, I'd done quite a bit of research into the vehicles I was interested in, and had more or less written off the Saturn Vue Hybrid because it's not a "true hybrid," as it uses what amounts to an oversized alternator and battery to help the engine along at appropriate times.  But in the final analysis, it's rated at 25 m.p.g. in the city (32 on the highway), and is priced starting just under $25,000.  We could almost buy two for the price of a fully-outfitted Highlander, and the fuel economy is comparable, considering the Highlander's highway rating of around 23 m.p.g.

The interior of the Vue is not exactly luxurious, but the plastic trim feels sturdy enough and not like it will fall apart on first contact with a solid object.  There's plenty of cargo area, even with the rear seat backs up, and the suspension is nice and firm (we load tested it with over 500 pounds of people sitting in the cargo area and over 300 in the front passenger seat).  The seats are comfortable enough, particularly with the upscale leather option (fully loaded with all available options, the Vue Hybrid is priced just over $27,000).  We're looking forward to taking one for a test drive.

One would think that, particularly given the Northwest attitude toward all things environmental, car dealers would stock up on hybrid vehicles before showing them off at a local car show.  But finding a hybrid SUV to take for a test drive is a serious challenge, and finding one to purchase is even more difficult.  The Saturn dealers keep telling us it will be the end of February before anything but a showroom model is available.  That, to me, seems like an odd way to sell a car.  Luckily, we have the option of waiting.  The Volvo isn't exactly falling apart, it's just been a little abused.

The other car-oriented thing we've been doing lately is shopping for a small delivery vehicle for what we hope becomes a significantly expanded catering business at the cafe.  We think we've decided on the Miles ZX40.  After Oregon tax breaks for businesses buying an electric car, the net cost would be about $15,000.  That's a lot of money for something to zip around downtown delivering sandwiches, but the fuel savings over time (the cost per mile to drive the ZX40 is in pennies) combined with the customer goodwill for being a green-minded company creates quite an offset for the initial purchase price.  And, compared to the other all-electric vehicles available, I actually fit behind the wheel comfortably (I could barely get into our out of the Zap three wheeler).

I'll post an update as our quest to find new transportation continues.  By the way, the '65 Jeep Gladiator pickup project I've been working on is slow going.  We're stalled out on getting the new(er) steering column in.  I went and bought a welder yesterday so we could fabricate a couple of brackets.  I would have rented one, but over the years I've found several instances where I needed a welder for this-or-that, and decided that now was the time to just buy one.  My friend Jared, who's been doing a lot of the work on the Gladiator lately, is on the hook to get me started with welding skills, but from what I hear, practice is the only thing that will make you any good at it.  My sister is a certified welder, and once had a job building microbrewery tanks.  She and I figured out long ago, though, that we can't learn things from one another, as we're both stubborn and impatient.  Better for me to learn from someone who isn't a member of the family.