Friday, June 19, 2009

Doing the numbers on my RAV4

The economics of automobiles have never made any sense to me. Perhaps that’s because they aren’t meant to. Car buying and car ownership aren't rational decisions.

Today I spent $466 to have my 1999 RAV4’s shocks replaced (the thing rode like a buckboard) and the power steering fluid flushed and replaced. Likewise the brake fluid.

The mechanic also checked out the rest of the Blue-Green RAV. It generally got a good bill of health.

I reckon the tab was approximately 10 percent of the value of the little SUV, which has 86,500 miles on it. I don’t drive it all that much, but when I do, it reliably gets me from A to B, Z as the case may be.

Recently, for reasons that are hard to defend, I delved into what it would cost to buy a listed 2003 Prius. The answer was $8,500 plus the hassle of selling the RAV with its old shocks. With new shocks and the other work, I would have been out $9,000 before selling the RAV, which would likely have gone for $4,500.

So total out of pocket for a Prius after RAV sale would have been $4,500, more or less. Assuming, that is, there was nothing wrong with the Prius. Consumer Reports puts a big bad black dot next to “electrical” on 2003 Priuses. The owner I talked to on the phone said there was no problem with his car, but who wants the worry?

Then there’s the “little white van” factor.

I’m a fan of the "No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency of Botswana" series by Alexander McCall Smith. The hero of the books is Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally build” lady detective in Botswana. She adores her “little white van,” which always seems to be on its last rims. Ramotswe’s husband, J.L.B. Matekoni, happens to be a well-respected mechanic, and he knows the van's useful life is near its end.

In the series' most recent book, “Tea Time for the Traditionally Built,” the van finally becomes “late” as they say of the deceased in Botswana. The good news is that the story doesn’t end there. Little white vans, it seems, get second chances.

I’ve become a bit like Mma Ramotswe when it comes to my RAV4. What price reliable conveyance? What price the miles we've traveled together. The bonds we've forged? Never mind sex appeal, graceful lines and on-board gadgetry. We're talking loyalty here.

All things considered, $466 was cheap at the price.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hillsdale's one-day "Running Fence"

When I told Sylvia Bogart about my brilliant idea, she smiled her knowing Sylvia smile.

The executive director of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. paused, letting her bemusement prepare me.

Then she said, “You know that you’ll have to get everyone, and I mean EVERYONE affected by this, to agree.”

The idea, which I blurted out at a Hillsdale Community Foundation forum was simple: Shut down busy Capitol Highway between Sunset and Bertha Court for a single Sunday.

Sunday, July 25, 2010, to be precise — the day of next year’s Hillsdale blueberry pancake breakfast and community book sale.

We’d move the Hillsdale farmers market to the middle of the highway. We’d have music and street theater and face-paintings and a rummage sale and … and.

“I mean EVERYONE.”

Sylvia’s words were as true as they were risible.

She knew. Here was a community leader who had helped guide Multnomah Village through shutting down the very same thoroughfare for Multnomah’s rollicking annual parade.

So she was smiling, you see, because she knew the Great Hillsdale Capitol Highway Shutdown could be done.

I was smiling too, but only partly because of Sylvia and the Multnomah parade. I was thinking, as I often do in absurd moments like this, of “Running Fence.”

In the early ‘70s I’d dropped out of journalism and teaching to raise goats in rural, undulating Sonoma County, about an hour north of San Francisco. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a seemingly mad conceptual artist named Christo and his equally zany wife, Jeanne-Claude, proposed stringing an 18-foot-tall nylon fence over 24 and a half miles of private pasture owned by 59 ranchers. The fence would cross 14 roads. Gaps would be left for cars, trucks, cows, goats and stray human beings.

Here I quote from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s web page: “The art project consisted of forty-two months of collaborative efforts, the ranchers' participation, 18 public hearings, three sessions at the Superior Courts of California, the drafting of a 450-page Environmental Impact Report and the temporary use of hills, the sky and the Ocean.”

“Running Fence” paid for itself. But that’s another story.

Now here’s the strange part. While “Running Fence” was a visual delight to thousands, the primary reason Christo and Jeanne-Claude did it was to involve communities, government agencies, property owners, courts and Sonoma County residents . . . in art.

The couple delighted and rejoiced that they had to get everyone to agree. The endless civic, judicial and deliberative debates were much of what “Running Fence” was about. The longer and more complex the public involvement, the better.

“Running Fence” was artwork as everyone’s art work.

I don’t know whether we’ll shut down Capitol Highway for a day of celebration next July. But I do know that just thinking about it and deciding whether to do it will be good for Hillsdale.

If it actually happens, so much the better.

So how about it?

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Views of the News: Jefferson, Thoreau and Liebling

I gave a talk today about the future of newspapers and journalism. I introduced it with three quotations. Taken as a whole, they are rife with contradictions and questions.

Start with two questions: Can the role of newspapers as described below by Jefferson, be filled by the “New Media” of the Internet? Or are the young demonstrators in Iran proving that New Media are far more potent in checking government abuse than newspapers have ever been?

The basis of our government’s being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Are the news media superficial? Or does the vastness of Internet allow us to “soar above or dive below” the thinness of “Old media” as described by Thoreau?

I have no time to read newspapers. If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events which make the news transpire — thinner than the paper on which it is printed —then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them. Henry David Thoreau, 1853

Finally, what is the news? Does it rely on “news media”? For many, the real news might be that they have been sleepwalking through life. The real news awakens them. That is what Thoreau was telling us when he famously wrote in “Walden”: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

We need to find, and make, our own news. We are our own news medium.

Which brings us to Liebling, author of “The Wayward Press.”

“People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” A.J. Liebling 1904-1963

As you can imagine, the words of Jefferson, Thoreau and Liebling gave us a few things to talk about. . . .

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fear and my cell phone

Slowly, every so slowly, I’m developing a troubling, but under-examined relationship with my cell phone.

This little slab of circuitry is beginning to engender fears in me.

“What if?” fears.

What if I should find myself in a situation where I need it? Having it “on me” makes me feel marginally safer.

In the morning, when I consider whether I should hook my LG VX 5500 to my belt, I imagine dangerous situations I would never have thought of as recently as three years ago.

Sure, the cell phone can be a convenience, but my primal reason for having it is fear, a fear I never had before.

Increasingly I’m not even considering the option of leaving it at home. I am making my cell phone a “necessity” in a world that is suddenly more threatening — at least in my cell-phone state of mind.

My cell phone is changing me. I am less trusting. Without it I feel less safe. Some might even say “anxious.” Could Valium be in my future?

Did the cell phone’s inventors intend to make us fearful of our world? How about the manufacturers?

I’m sure fear is part of the marketing mix. (Also, being friendly, open, available and "successful"— which, in their own way, are causes for anxiety.)

We need cell phone-free days as reminders that the world is a kinder place than our cell phones would have us believe. (We also need a break to remind ourselves that we are friendly, open, available and “successful” even without cell phones — in the "old" face-to-face world.)

When strap on my cell phone, I occasionally wonder about those with concealed weapons. How do they feel as they holster their revolvers in the morning? Fully armed, how do they see the world?

Like cell phones, technology is not neutral. It changes us. We must continually study and be aware of how.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

We are that we are

Out of the silence of our Quaker meeting this morning, my friend Ron was moved to stand and speak. He recounted the story of Moses climbing Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments from God.

When Moses asked God's name, God answered, “I am that I am.”

Ron recounted the story because on Saturday, he and I were among about 30 Quakers who participated in a workshop in which we were asked to experiment with our differences, our "polarities." We were directed to place ourselves in a line that stretched between extremes. At one end were those who experience God as “personal” and at the other end were those who experience God is “impersonal.”

We placed ourselves between the extremes, closest to the one we believe in.

A diversity of friends, pastoral and non-pastoral, attended the workshop so that we managed to span and include the extremes. We even had one atheist Friend who was beyond the extreme at the “impersonal" end. One of the workshop’s leaders, a Quaker pastor, thanked our atheist Friend for being with us to add yet another dimension to consider. I stood next to the atheist, mostly because I don’t agree with naming the nameless, ineffable power that most call “God.”

The workshop’s exercise was fascinating. We proceeded to explore the “polarity” of the line by dividing the group down the middle with the “personal God” believers in one group and the “impersonals” in another. Within the groups we were asked to apply adjectives to what “God” is to us. Then we discussed our views of “the other” group’s view of God (“naive,” “sterile,” “atheistic,” “anthropomorphic,” "self-righteous," "sinful," etc.). After that, each group sent a two-person delegation to share the discussion results with each other. In a polarized world, our leaders noted, this rarely happens.

The four-person meeting in the middle of the room revealed a similarity of sorts. Each delegation was harshly judgmental of the other, and, significantly, both had fervent, deeply held views about God. In talking about the divisions, a unity became clear.

Ron (and I’m sure all of us who participated) had been thinking about the exercise from the day before. Ron rose today to say that he had concluded it is possible for God to be both “personal” and “impersonal” at the same time. Which brought him to the story of God’s telling Moses “I am that I am.”

Ron’s insight engendered two in me. “I am that I am” is very close to what Buddhists call “suchness.’ Or “is-ness.” Moses’ encounter with God is akin to the story of the Buddhist sage, who when asked the meaning of life, said, “Who is asking?”

My other thought was this: Although our line had distinct polarities, it was one continuous, uninterrupted line. As one of the workshop’s leaders pointed out, it was an example of the “the joy of paradox.” Unity in division; division in unity. All it took was for the hands on the ends to clasp each other to make a circle.

It’s not hard to do, not really. If only we would meet and share.

I am that I am; we are that we are.

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