Thursday, January 29, 2009

Boom Boom. Out go the lights.

This is what I always imagined it would look like at the
end of the world – strangely beautiful from a respectable
distance, but really no place you want to be.

If any tree in northwest Arkansas survives this ice
storm, I think it will be my big Spruce out there by the
street. Rather than snapping and collapsing to the
ground with terrifying sounds resembling those of
an avalanche, it just dropped it’s many arms and is
standing there, slumped, like some dejected, frozen
child who didn’t get the toy he expected for Christmas.

It was Christmas, or just after, in 1993 when I removed the lights and decorations from the tree and carried it out there to plant it by the sidewalk. Just a five-foot tall baby then, and I never really expected it to get this huge. I hope it makes it.

Three days after the frozen rains started here, I understand there are still something like 50,000 people without power. The hotels are full (some have folks sleeping in their lobbies) and, according to what I have heard from people staying in them, some have doubled their room rates. What a lovely humanitarian thing to do when so many people are displaced from their homes, freezing. There’s a conspicuous absence of public shelters, as if the few short years since have erased everyone’s memories of Hurricane Katrina. Not that I would compare our little disaster with that one, but the concept is the same.

We decided to ride this one out at home. Our power flickered a few times before going out for most of the day following the storm, but then came on for a few hours before going out again, then back again staying on all night, and so far this morning. Survival instincts kicked in while it was out, and we turned our living room into a big tent by putting up curtains and photography backdrops over the openings to the dining room, foyer and hall. This left us with just the living room to heat with the fireplace when it was supposed to drop to 6 degrees that first powerless night. The only problem with that was…. we had no firewood.

Rather than burn the furniture, (*mark this spot) we heated with the gas log lighter. I found a piece of sheet metal in the garage and bent it into an “S” shape so that the flame was hidden, under the metal. The little fire heated the sheet metal and the top of the “S” forced the heat out into the room, rather than letting it all go up the flue. Pretty clever, if you ask me.

Then we dug out the old tailgate propane cooker, left over from our son’s college football days, and made bologna melts for lunch. Odd as it seems, we were rather looking forward to “camping out” in the house.

Then the power came back on. Our disappointment didn’t last long, because it was soon off again. Then, into the night, it came on again for good – or so we thought – and we slept warmly in our own bed, in much better shape than thousands of other folks out there.

Three paragraphs up, you’ll see (*mark this spot). That’s how far I had gotten with this column before the electricity went off again, at about noon Thursday. It’s 5:23pm now and I have had just time enough since the lights came on to power up my computer and get this much more written. I wonder how columnists did this stuff back in the cowboy days when they couldn’t use their computers.

We found two restaurants open today and had Mexican food for lunch. Most of the people in that place were talking about their power still being off, and wondering aloud when they might have it back.

The sun was out, heating it up slightly above freezing today, and a lot of folks think this thing has passed. Not so. The thawing itself will release more tree limbs that will fall into more power lines, and more people will find themselves in the dark. By about Sunday, when the frozen pipes in the dark houses finally thaw out, water leaks will occur all over the place, flooding houses, ruining floors, and sending lots of already frustrated people back to hotels. Most will have insurance to cover those repairs and additional living expense, but many of those staying out now, because the power is out, mistakenly think their homeowners policies will reimburse them for the expense. That won’t happen unless a tree fell across the electrical service line on their property. There’s no coverage for such things during area-wide power outages. And guys like me have to be the ones to tell them.

That won’t be fun, and I’m not looking forward to doing it.

But the worst part of this whole thing for me is this: I came up with this scheme to win the Powerball by playing the same red ball numbers every time, until it hits. A whole bunch of white ball numbers, all with the same red ball. Of course, the odds are greatly against me on this, but I figured sooner or later “4” would hit.

Wednesday night, after all the weather problems, and the first time in forever I didn’t buy my tickets, guess what?

This year isn’t starting off so great.

© 2009, Rick Baber

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Day One

As I write this, we’re passing the 24 hour mark since
Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United

The sun came up today, at least here in northwest
Arkansas. In fact, at the moment, I’m gazing out the
window at a beautiful blue sky. A couple of finches are
playing on the huge holly bush outside my home office.

Quite to the surprise of many of my white brethren,
there was no knocking on the door (at least, not on mine)
early this morning by some new African-American Gestapo intending to shackle me and my wife and drag us off to work in some cotton field. I haven’t seen anything like that happening to anybody else on CNN, but, then again, that’s one of those liberal-biased networks that probably wouldn’t tell us about it until it was too late anyway. Due diligence would require me to check Fox News before writing this. Call me lazy.

It seems, at least here on this first day, that all is well with our first black president, and maybe we white folk won’t suffer the “payback” that has been talked about only in the presence of our own kind, probably ever since Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Oh, how many whites have dreaded the day that has passed without such incident!

Did we really think that day would never come? Through all the social evolution of America, and the rest of the world, did we honestly believe that only a white man could lead the land of the free and the home of the brave? Did any one of us, really, not want to live to see it happen?

Don’t answer that. I know there are still white people who will live out the rest of their lives looking back on January 20, 2009 with disgust and hate. People who really did believe that God gave America to the white man, and the white man should hang his head in shame for not being strong enough to keep it. I just, really, don’t want to know who those people are. If it helps, they can take solace in the fact that Obama is half white.

Try as I might, I am completely incapable of feeling the magnificence of the moment that had to be overwhelming to many older black Americans. I still feel pretty young, and I can clearly remember a time when black folk had to sit in the balcony at the movie theater because, apparently, they weren’t good enough to sit downstairs with us.

I remember the first black man I ever saw, in person. He was a policeman in Fort Smith, and I was a four or five year-old redneck in the making – a product of my neighborhood surroundings and of the times. I walked right up to him and, for whatever reason, just up and called him something I wasn’t supposed to call him. Embarrassed my mother half to death.

I remember the way I treated our black housekeeper in Little Rock in 1963, and how I continually ignored my mom telling me she was one of the sweetest people she had ever met. She never did anything to deserve the treatment she got from me. She didn’t have to. She was black, and I must have been better than her.

I remember my first and only black teacher, Mrs. Mathis, in the fourth or fifth grade at Fairview Elementary School in Blytheville. 1964-65. We kids didn’t know what to think at first, but she turned out to be pretty cool, and, surprisingly, she sure knew a lot about math.

I remember moving to Batesville in 1967, after the closing of Ethel O. Miller School, and sitting in class, for the first time, alongside black students. Their school was all but abandoned, and we used to take the bus over there to use the gym for off-season football practice in Jr. High.

I remember my first “black friend”, Beaver McCoy, who showed me it was OK to hang out and have fun with people that, only a few years before, I never even knew existed, except in stories told by the older kids on my block. Not good stories. Scary stories.

It’s 40 years later, and stories like that are still being told. They come as forwards to my e-mail account and sometimes as text messages to my phone. They warn the white man, me, of the perils that will befall our race now that we have given up the throne of power. And even as I read them, with a smirk on my face, I look up at the TV here in my office and see another old black man or woman, recalling the moment, with tears streaming down their face. And I try to imagine what it would be like to feel what they are feeling.

Of course, it is only day one. But I haven’t feared that knock on the door for many years.

© 2009, Rick Baber

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Last Presidential Ticket

There are still a few days left before President Obama
takes office and it looks as if the 2012 GOP ticket is
already taking form.

Let me be the first to predict the ticket – Sarah Palin and
Joe the Plumber. Literally. I mean, I think Joe
Whathisface will actually change his last name to
“ThePlumber”, for, you know, name recognition.

Right now, he’s come out with a new book and, as I
understand it, has been appointed as the US Ambassador
to Gaza – or maybe that’s “reporter”, for a web site called PJTV. Perhaps that stands for
“Plumber Joe Television”?

Joe told somebody on the news that he believes he will be safe in Gaza – God will protect him - because he is a Christian. The rationale behind that statement, when one considers he’s going to a place filled with battling Arabs & Jews, escapes me, but, hey, maybe that’s why I’m not in consideration for a cabinet position in the Palin/Plumber Administration.

In ThePlumber’s new book, it is said, he takes shots at John McCain (figuratively, of course) for supporting the economic bailout. In one interview he said, five or six times, that he wasn’t throwing McCain under the bus. While somewhat presumptive, that may be the smartest thing he has said. Throwing war heroes under a bus does not generally work well for political candidates, unless those war heroes are (how do you say?) Democrats, like John Kerry or Max Cleland.

Personally, I wish Joe all the best in his newfound career. I don’t blame him one bit for trying to take his 15 minutes and ride it for all he can. And I wonder if maybe there’s a politician somewhere I could get to come fix the float valve in my toilet. Getting tired of jiggling the handle.

Not to be outdone by all the attention Joe is getting from the press, Sarah Palin is also taking some shots at McCain and his failed campaign, as well as Katie Couric and Tina Fey. Everybody knows you’re not a serious presidential contender until you get into a real tussle with Tina Fey.

Sister Sarah was mortified when Saturday Night Live did the Tina Fey skit wherein Tina’s Palin character said she believed marriage should be “between two unwilling teenagers”. Pretty funny, everyone agrees, but nobody cleared that skit with Palin before running it. How dare they! It’s just another example of the media’s unfair treatment of Caribou Barbie. That incident may be the only time in the show’s long history that they didn’t get permission from a politician before doing a skit that made fun of her, or him. If this weren’t true, we certainly would have heard from Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or even Dan Quayle – surely Dan Quayle – by now. Palin, it seems, expects SNL to be fair & balanced, like Fox News.

Or maybe not. Could be she just wants to keep her name in the newspapers and on television for another three years, until the next presidential campaign begins. And, again, who can blame her? She was vaulted into the national light by John McCain, but everybody knows he’s washed up now. There’s nothing more he can do for her, but allow her to trash talk him and his campaign in order to keep her name, and her dream, alive. I’m doing my part.

Now comes the touchy little end-of-the-world issue, however. According to a whole bunch of prognosticators, who apparently didn’t read Larry Stroud’s fine article about the Mayan Calendar in the Batesville Guard, it’s curtains for civilization on December 21, 2012. So, while the next (and last?) election will be over by then, whoever is elected President wouldn’t take office until January 20 of 2013. So, what’s going to be the campaign platform of the Palin/Plumber ticket? Lower taxes? I don’t know about the rest of you, and please don’t leak this to the IRS, but in the event of a cataclysmic polar shift of the planet and total breakdown of world civilization and all the “important” people zipping off in a spaceship to form a new world, I’m probably going to just forego the whole income tax thing and take my chances, there in my cave.

Truth be told, I can’t think of a finer couple to preside over the good ol’ US of A in those coming hard times. Palin could teach those of us not familiar with the art how to hunt and prepare wild animals for tasty and inexpensive meals, even if we don’t have helicopters from which to shoot them. And Big Joe could, maybe, rig up some pipes in the caves so guys like me aren’t always annoyed with having to jiggle that handle.

Consider this, if you will, the first newspaper endorsement of the Palin/Plumber ticket.

© 2009, Rick Baber

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Somebody Say “Geronimo”?

A while back, some brainiac with time enough to play
with numbers sent out one of those e-mails that got
picked up & forwarded by just about everybody – as
a joke, or rather, some trivial thing people could read
and agree with, and then forget because it was never
going to happen. The premise was that, instead of
“bailing out” big business, Uncle Sam could just send
that money direct to the people. According to the e-mail,
each of us would receive some ridiculous amount of
money – into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That would be way cool, but the numbers were off.
Calculators aren’t built to deal with figures above 10 billion, it seems, and people sometimes get confused with decimals.

According to the economic geniuses (and aren’t they all?) on talk radio, the combined total dollar figure for the bailouts of the auto & financial industries will end up being around $1 trillion. For you poor folks who aren’t accustomed to seeing numbers like this on your paychecks, that’s a one, followed by twelve zeroes, before the decimal point.

To put that figure into Reaganomics: if you got that much money in $100 bills, and laid them end-to-end, they’d stretch about 947,000 miles. If you could lay those bills down at the rate of one per second, assuming you were going the right direction and could hold your breath long enough, a man could be on the moon in about 9 years and two months, and it would only take about ¼ of the money to get there. A woman, of course, would take considerably longer, due to bathroom breaks, and might spend a few extra bucks along the way.

If the traveling man took only the money he needed to get to the moon, and invested the remaining ¾ at 2% compounded interest, he could pick up about $146 billion while he was on his way, making that trip a real bargain. He could have that interest wired to him and catch a ride back on the space shuttle for a paltry million or so.

Reaganomics is confusing. Why would anybody want to spend over 9 years on his hands and knees in space? Besides, I’m not good with decimals either, and this could all be a crock as far as you know. Let’s go back to splitting that money up between the taxpayers.

There are about 138 million taxpayers in the United States. If each of those people received an equal share of the $1 Trillion bailout money, they’d get $7246.38 each. That’s roughly $14,500 for a working couple.

If the Treasury sent each person their equal cut, with the stipulation that it would have to be paid, first, toward any mortgage(s) they had, then, viola, the mortgage companies are out of hock. Even those individuals who had mortgages to pay on would then have that much more disposable income, with which they could buy (guess what?) cars. And, suddenly, the car companies are back in business. The factories are producing again. People are working. All is well.

Those fortunate few who don’t have mortgages, and already have all the cars they want or need could invest their money into the new booming economy. Wall Street soars, and again, all is well.

So, as ridiculous as the “people bail-out” sounds on the surface, really, where’s the down side? Some may say that the government having to print a trillion extra dollars to do this would be inflationary. Sure it will. But, they’ve got to print it anyway, in theory. So, giving it to Big Business hurts the little guy even more, because now the wee bit of money he has is worth even less than before. Then he can afford to buy less. So the economy, overall, suffers. More businesses lose revenue, have to shut down, lay off employees. More people out of work who can’t afford to buy goods and services, and even more businesses shut down. And so it goes.

Where does that end?

Near Rogers, Arkansas, submerged under Beaver Lake, hides the remains of a once-thriving resort known as Monte Ne. It was built by a man named Coin Harvey, around 1901, died in the hard times of the ‘30’s, and buried with water when the lake was formed in 1964. Harvey was, among other things, an economist who proposed a law mandating the forgiveness of all debt and the abolishment of credit. In other words, in an instant, you don’t owe anybody anything, and nobody owes you. What you have is yours, outright. It is an interesting concept, if you think about it. But it didn’t get very far because then, as now, the entities that hold the debt are the ones in control of the entities that make the laws. They really have nothing to gain by helping out the little guy.

Don’t expect these government bailouts to do that either.

© 2009, Rick Baber