Saturday, August 30, 2008

Politics: manufacturing celebrity

The naming of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate has reminded of the late Neil Postman’s warning that in this entertainment age of visual mass media, we are amusing ourselves to death.

His warning was literal and extended to politics, which has become so entertaining it is hard to take seriously.

“Dream tickets,” “compelling stories,” “star power,” "showcase conventions."

Politics today has everything to do with the manufacture of celebrity, and virtually nothing to do with the discernment of leadership.

The last time I checked the president had the power to decide life and death. Even with those stakes in mind, George Bush, an entertaining campaigner, became "the decider."

We have indeed been amusing ourselves to death.

Will we do it again in 2008?

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wanted: a two-stroke rebellion

The following should send a shudder through the growing realm of scooterdom. At least two-stroke scooterdom.

I set out this morning on my scoot, a Chinese-built TN’G (for “twist – the accelerator —and go"). With its Italian pretensions, it’s called a “Milano.”

Needing gas, I told the 17-year-old attendant that about $2.25 worth of premium would fill’er up.

I really do try to say that and not sound smug but never quite pull it off.

As you will see, smugness can quickly turn to hubris on the road.

I set out down Barbur, down Naito, across the Morrison Bridge. I was set to rendezvous with my web master, Todd, at Down Capitol Highway, I scooted. Down Barbur, down NaitoPeete’s Coffee on Weidler, not far from Lloyd Center.

Six or so blocks from Peete’s, the scoot died without so much as a sputter or a cough. I coasted into a conveniently open parking place and tried kick starting the dead beast. Nothing. Not even a gasp.

No time to tinker with the thing, I fed the parking meter and set out with 10 minutes left to make it to Peete’s. I arrived 5 minutes late and sweaty. It was hot.

Meeting over, I returned to the parking place, tinkered, retinkered and gave up. I was about 10 blocks from Scooter Street, which sells TN’Gs. At times like this, topography becomes important. I detected a slight grade down from where I was to the distant garage. I coasted three blocks and pushed seven.

Bare-chested in the heat of his garage, Kevin, the mechanic and co-owner, idly puffed on his cigarette as I explained what had happened, starting with my filling the tank and ending with the scoot’s sudden shutdown.

He tried starting it. Nothing.

“I’ve seen four of these recently,” he said, the smoke from his cigarette spiraling upward. “I think it’s the ethanol. It mixes with the oil and attracts water in the tank and that gets into the engine. It can also rust the tank.” (Technical note: two-stroke engines require an oil-gas mixture.)

Thanks to City Commissioner Randy Leonard, Portland now requires 10 percent ethanol in gas sold in the city. It’s labeled as “E10” on the pumps.

“I can drain the fuel line and clean the fuel filter and nozzles, but I can’t get to the scooter for a few days. I’m backed up,” Kevin said, adding that he expected I could have the scoot back to me by September 9.

Scootermania has hit the city in this last summer of George Bush’s oily reign thanks to larceny at the pump. And now, of course, we are helping America’s farmers and agricultural cartels by driving up grain prices by requiring ethanol in the gas.

Meanwhile, the politics of ethanol has created a quiet little crisis in the two-stroke community — those of us who use the raspy little motors to power scooters, boats or chainsaws.

“So,” I said peering into an uncertain two-stroke future and asking the obvious, “after you fix this, what’s to prevent my being back here after my next E10 fill-up?”

Kevin vaguely suggested putting the gas in a special container and letting the ethanol settle out. That would presumably leave me to “cream” the unadulterated gas off the top.

Right, like curds and whey.

Why hadn’t I heard anything about all of this before? Why is there no outrage?

“No body cares about scooters,” offered Kevin, taking a final drag on his cigarette. “But just wait until the BMWs start breaking down.”

“A lot of good that does me now,” I said. “Aren’t the scooter dealers organized?”

“We hate each other,” he said. “There’s constant bad-mouthing.”

“Well,” I said sounding a bit Clark Kent-ish, “I’m a journalist and I’m going to look into this.”

“You should,” he said. “I’ll call you on the 9th or sooner if I can.”

And with that I set out hiking to my next appointment.

Back home after a long bus ride, I’ve learned more — most it from the Web. Surprisingly, I find no outrage. No lobbying. No one has taken up pitchforks — yet. If the revolt happens it will be an odd-ball, two-stroke coalition of loggers, boaters, water skiers and scooter owners.

Best to start with my own, so I clicked to the Oregon Scooter Club site, signed on and posed the obvious question: “Has anyone out there with a two-stroke engine had problems with the ethanol in the gas?”

I don’t know whether the response will be tumultuous or a feeble sputtering or both.

I do know that this has the feeling of being the beginning of something.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Down Home Down Time

After two weeks of down time from blogging, I’m slowly getting back up to speed.

I may never get fully back to the old post-a-day pace. I’ve concluded that even bloggers — ESPECIALLY bloggers — need to smell the roses.

In my time away I spent four days in rural North Carolina at and around my sister’s horse farm situated a safe distance from Charlotte.

She has 10 horses, six dogs, five cat, two pigs and a tolerant and supportive (in more ways than one) husband.

My 10,000 daily steps took me down country roads beyond the fence line. Deer, raccoons and a fox crossed my path. Packs of dogs barked at me. I met an elderly neighbor who walks with a 7 iron ever since he was confronted by a rabid fox.

I’m sharing a photo of calves staring me down because their look matched that of four good-ole boys in a booth at a local restaurant where they really do serve fried green tomatoes.

I don’t know what makes a Yankee look like a Yankee, but I must have. There I was, snared in The Stare. It wasn’t hostile, mind, just unblinking and deeply noncommittal.

Wandering the back roads, I came across this an abandoned hulk of machinery with a promising name. I’m not sure what the “new idea” was. Probably a bad translation from the Japanese. To be exact: A bad translation from the Japanese come to rest in a North Carolina barnyard.

I probably stared at the name as long as the ole boys and the calves stared at me.

To bovines and Tar heels, I was probably the perplexing equivalent of a bad translation for a human being.

When it comes to alien, I can’t come close to my sister, a Northern liberal hussy if there ever was one. Her car bears in-your-face bumperstickers, and yet, the locals long ago moved beyond mere “tolerance” of her. Now they drawl in affection for her and her exuberant horse-happy ways.

It was a fun trip, which marked her 60th birthday to boot. I surprised, even shocked, her by showing up unannounced. If there was a gift in all of this, it was hers to me.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Consumer by the Sea

Strange what you can get for less than a $20 bill especially if you find yourself at the beach for a few days with time to browse. In Manzanita and Nehalem, where the ion-charged ocean air does strange things to the brain, my consumer choices were measured, modest and bizarre.

At a cavernous, jumbled recycling center, Manzanita hearties have set up an eclectic recycling barn (left) for life’s cast-off flotsam and jetsam. In my frenzied typewriter collecting days the place was always good for a bargain. (You mean that you are selling that Olympia SM3 for $15?) On recent visits to the big corrugated building, I’ve found the typewriter section barren. Discovered perhaps.

Just as well. My life and basement, packed with 50 of the old bangers, has no room for another typewriter.

But there are always the practical knick-knacks from the “office supply” section. On this trip, I snapped up a file card holder for 50 cents and one of those magnetic paper clip dispensers for another half dollar. I was tempted by a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle but realized that the real price wouldn’t be one dollar but at least 12 hours hunched over its parts. Not worth it.

On up the road at the community thrift shop, there was the matter of the circa ‘60s Olivetti adding machine. I have one of these already, purchased for its crisp Italian design. The thing doesn’t compute; it just looks great, very Italian. It now resides in the depths of my closet. So here was another one. $3.50. Gorgeous. Perhaps it worked although Olivettis are notorious for function not following form, or anything else for that matter. The calculator was missing the axle for its paper roll. Not a good sign. I could have asked the chatty gray-haired woman behind the counter to plug it in on the hope that it might add 2 and 2 and come up 4. But if it did, I would be tempted to buy it, and for what?

Instead I popped for a sturdy $2.50 work shirt marked down from $5.

Down the road in Nehalem, I found an 1898 edition of The Oregonian in the antique mall, which, alas, is going out of business. The mall folk wanted $10 for the yellowed, sealed-in-plastic Oregonian. Tempting, but I had already scored an 1884 edition at a garage sale a few years back for a lot less. I use it to show my students that way back then, before Fox and CNN, the news was crafted story telling of the kind that produced a Charles Dickens, a Stephen Crane and a Mark Twain. I left the paper and its old, old news to age some more in the mall.

The next morning, a Sunday, I went into serious NEW news withdrawal and set out to find the New York Times at the local espresso bar. Stacks awaited vacationing urban customers. They were waiting in line to buy "All the News that's Fit to Print." Because Manzanita is considered a “remote” outlet, the paper cost $7, nearly as much as the ancient Oregonian. Measured in dollars, the great monetary yardstick, the respective values begged comparison. Past versus present, Oregon versus New York, 19th Century versus 21st.

I chose New York and the 21st Century present, plus a 12-ounce cup of coffee and a lemon zest scone for $4.50. In less than the time it took to wander through the thrift shop rejecting the Olivetti and buying the shirt, I had devoured the coffee and the scone and the Book Review section.

I was out $11.50 plus tip for a nourished brain and body.

Thinking back on it, I could have bought the old Oregonian and the Olivetti adding machine for about the same amount.

I have no regrets, but I do wonder (don't you?) what will happen to them there, exposed to human and other elements drawn to the sea.

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