Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I've got a bridge in Lake Havasu I'd like to sell you...

In Oklahoma, the grass and fallow fields began giving way to ground that was barer, with small shrubs scattered about. Also, it became hillier—and not gently rolling hills, but more abrupt changes in altitude, with microplateaus and nanocliffs.

Hungry for breakfast and having seen only dull golden grass contained by miles-distant bluffs for the past couple of hours, I searched for the location of the nearest food on the Garmin. It was 48 miles in front of me. Forty-eight miles later, where one state route crossed another, lay some kind of town amputation—as each piece of a singly cleaved earthworm often begins to grow into a new, whole worm, this collection of buildings seems to lack some of the basics of a whole, healthy town while possessing some extraneities. I didn’t see a town center, or any municipal buildings, but I did find a restaurant and what seemed to be a junkyard.

I entered the restaurant and was told “Hello” by an AARP-qualifying white guy in a mesh hat and flannel sitting at the table near the door next to a similarly dressed and aged man. After I sat down, a man who would win the part of Sitting Bull in any local theater production entered and greeted the two older white men, indicating that the enmity between the white man and the red has eased significantly. However, he did communicate with the waitress in Spanish, so my suspicions have not been completely alleviated, and I fear there may be a rebellion stirring.
Santa Fe is like one of those all-too-short, over-too-soon levels in a video game. It’s surreal. It’s bright and blue and Mexican and Amerdian (Amerindian) and surrounded by mountains so close that an errantly tossed tortilla might get caught on a peak.

As I drove down the blacktop, the afternoon sun was white hot in its aggression, transforming the tar lines on the asphalt into visual lightning bolts.

The diversity of the southwestern states was encouraging to see. Nowhere was this culture of inclusion, acceptance, and tolerance more apparent than in Albuquerque, which, if you can believe it, contained not only a Whataburger but also a Lotaburger, showing that there’s enough room for a rich, diverse citizenry, some prefering quantity of burger, some more highly prizing quality.

Another encouraging discovey I made was of a certain, apparently popular, type of Mexican music that sounded a lot like polka to me. It made me happy to know that such a tradition is still going strong in 2009.

The lack of any natural barriers out here really is amazing. The roads just go on forever - you could run a marathon blindfolded.

Others are deceptively marked, at least on the computer map I had. One of the “county roads” my Garmin recommended I take was pretty much just two tire tracks in the dirt separated from each other by grass. It ran along a rancher’s fence. My Camry, I assume, would be flattered by the Garmin’s faith in it, but some of the potholes looked like something only a flatbed truck or SUV could handle them, so I backtracked the way I’d come.

Driving into the mountains, approaching Yuma from the east at sunset, was beautiful—the sun setting behind the mountains left the sky above a brilliant rainbow of low-frequency visible wavelengths, all suddenly obscured by the monolithic, monochromatic, monodimensional, jagged-edged range that looked like someone had torn off a piece of black construction paper and pasted it to the base of the horizon. However, like one of those dual, mutually exclusively messaged illustrations, where it’s either a young girl or an old lady, depending on what you’re brain is categorizing the lines as, as I stared at this truly magnificent explosion of color and contrast, I realized that, approached from an inverse point-of-view, it was fear-inspiring, as it could also be conceptualized as resembling a beautiful color palate whose bottom portion had been torn off to reveal a black no-man’s-land beyond, from which the headlights of escaping cars dimly appeared and other cars foolishly entered, their brake lights disappearing into its gaping maw of voidity. Alternately, it looked as if termites had eaten through the bottom of the horizon on the set of The Truman Show, and true night slipped in for the first time. Additionally, it should be noted that one should not have been embarassed to admit that it struck one as if the end of the world had been blasted through, and now travel to and from whatever else was out there was possible by automobile.

Having headed north from Yuma and then turning east at London Bridge, I was driving through weather in the mid-seventies, headed for the snow falling up in Flagstaff.

Nearing Flagstaff, I passed a guy driving a car with New York plates, and I got the same kick-in-the-gut feeling of humility I get when I see some guy wearing shorts in weather so cold that I’ve yielded to pants. It’s the same feeling I’d get when I’d see a white guy from a non-English-speaking country getting by living in India—he’s not only white like me (the title of my autobiography, perhaps?), but he’s also getting by with a foreign language. I nodded at this man from New York and said, with grudging respect, “You win...You win.”

I also saw a car with Ontario plates...but those people are crazy.

Having pulled into a rest stop somewhere above 5,000 ft, I got out and took some pictures of the snow. Returning to the car, I passed a guy wearing a flannel shirt with a shirt underneath, pants, boots, and a hat. He said to me, “You get the award for being inappropriately dressed,” as he looked at me in my winter coat, tennis shoes, and shorts. So that was nice. It was still 33 degrees, though. Still, after the New York-plate incident, I was taking what I could get. (It was 70 when I’d l begun climbing that mountain an hour before, and it would be in the mid-sixties when I’d return to the base a few hours later. )

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Of Gettin' Out of Dodge, the Gang Dalton, and Adventures Courtesy of Sam Walton

Stopped in to the Carr Audio store in Larned, KS, where I had been told they might have some kind of camera repair kit—dust had finagled its way onto an inner lens and dirtied almost all pictures taken using the zoom. I found two women in their 60s there. One asked me if I needed help.

“Yeah,” I said, “do you know if there’s a camera shop around here?”

“In Larned?” she asked. Then she laughed. So I laughed too. Then she told me maybe I should check Wichita, which I found out is where she does her boutique shopping. A guy in a Dodge City Radio Shack would later confirm Wichita as the camera-shop capital of Kansas, at least in popular opinion among those living along a three-hour radius of it.

“I think what you’d need to do is go to a specialist, like in a camera shop.”

“And there aren’t any...?”

“No, we haven’t had one for five years. I think the closest one’s in Wichita.”

Finally, I got the hell outta Dodge, although after spending more time than was in any way conceivably necessary in the Dodge Wal-Mart. Especially the parking lot. Hunted for the power cord to the GPS navigation unit for about half an hour. At least it was 60 F outside, or the repeated trips between the interior of the car and the trunk would have been even less pleasant.

Finally found it on the backseat underneath a bag.

Saw where the Dalton gang hid out—well, probably only used it a few times, said the curator. Until most of them were shot dead. But they were bank robbers, so that’s an occupational hazard. Something about the whole town coming out and shooting them on one of their heists—must have been a red state. I didn’t do much research, first of all because I was in a hurry to move before the sun set, and secondly, because the place freaked me out. The gift shop/former barn was fine, but the house was done up as if it were 1900. As far as I can tell, the gang consisted of three brothers and possibly a sister and her husband. And maybe one other guy. A couple of the brothers had been federal marshals, but then a third brother had been arrested, and, they claimed, mistreated while in jail. They used that to justify their engagement in some after-hours train robberies. And I guess it paid better, so they went into it full time. Anyway, the barn was connected to the house by a tunnel (really a ditch that had been covered with plywood and then dirt) through which they could escape to the barn, and thence, on horseback, if the police showed up at the house. It is obviously neat to have a secret tunnel in one’s house, but, as I said, I didn’t stay in the actual house very long because the only other person around was the employee, who was at the other end of the tunnel, in the barn, and the house was completely silent and made up as if the Daltons had just left. That was weird enough—with pictures on the table and some fake food in the kitchen—but the horror movie coup de grace was a little baby doll sitting on the made-up bed. I don’t know why five or six adults hiding from the cops would need to put a baby doll on their bed after having made it, but in this recreation, at least, there it was.

The guy manning the barn/gift shop wore a cowboy hat and vest and talked with a strong and kind-of-overdone western accent. When he greeted me I proceeded to reply somewhat hesitantly, in order to let him know that I wasn’t a five-year-old who needed to be patronized with the Old West accent. Then, as we began talking about his old sports cards and the book “The Physics of Baseball,” I realized that the accent was gen-you-wine. He was a nice guy, though, and we bonded over baseballic futility. (I told him I was a Pirates fan, and he admitted to rooting for the Royals.) Maybe that’s why he let me walk down the tunnel without having to pay the $4 charge, although at the time I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t so that he could viciously murder me, in keeping with the decor of the place.

Also, “yegg,” meaning a burglar who robs safes, or a safecracker, was dictionary.com’s word of the day that day. Here was one of the two accompanying quotations:

"A train robber is better than a public yegg" has been the campaign slogan of A.L. Jennings, train robber and member of the famous Dalton gang, who was nominated in today's primaries for County Attorney over a half dozen opponents.
-- New York Times, 1912-08-08

I told the curator that I was on my way to Albuquerque, and he had about a thousand suggestions of what to do in New Mexico—he was a big fan. He did admit, however, to having yet to see one of the state’s (main?) attractions—the burial place of Billy the Kid.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Of Quietude, the Cosmos, and Manure

Nebraska state bird? Western meadowlark. State motto? “Equality before the law.” State smell? Manure. Seriously. OK, I didn’t smell it in Omaha, but I stopped at two highway-side gas stations, and each time there was a distinct manure scent in the air. I’d stopped at gas stations all along the way. I’d stopped at gas stations in Kansas. I’d stopped at gas stations in Iowa. I’d stopped at many many gas stations in central Pennsylvania. I’ve never noticed such a scent. Each time I stopped in Nebraska, I did. (Also, the Internet seems to think that Nebraska’s state soft drink is Kool-Aid. Do you maybe mean “state fun drink” or “state pasttime drink,” Internet? When did Kool-Aid become a soft drink? Aren’t they carbonated? (dictionary.com says they are usually carbonated, but we all know it’s just covering its rear.))

Roads in Nebraska are also audacious. Maybe more so than Iowan roads. They just go where they want— no curving around anything. No weaving or diverting for hills or mountains or bluffs or buttes or anything.

An amazing thing that I photographically documented—I found a gas pump that had no pay-at-the-pump credit card facility. And I was able to pump first and pay later...AFTER DARK!!

Kansas may have even more stars than Iowa. It was amazing—on an unlit state route that ran through farming fields, I stopped and got out of the car and stared up at the sky. I could see more stars than I’d ever seen before—a big swath of them across the night sky. And even with a bright, though crescent, moon. And it was amazingly quiet. Not even any animal sounds. With fields that stretched for miles on each side. I don’t know what makes so much noise where I usually hang out outside, but it was noticeably much quieter than I’m used to. It was very impressive. You give up some things when you live with light and noise pollution from all the modern conveniences. I wondered what it would be like to camp out in those fields. I was kinda afraid a buffalo would sneak up on me and attack, however.

It woulda’ had to have been really quiet, though.

Driving through Kansas at night was disorienting. I had to keep squinting and unsquinting to try to get my bearings. I felt as if I were at sea—the fields stretch so far and are so flat that you can eventually see light in most directions—kind of like staring off into the cosmos. Some light sources are probably twenty times closer than others, but they all look equidistant, just of varying size or brightness, just as some people have imagined stars to all be on the edge of the same sphere (or hemisphere) surrounding us. It was also kind of like being at sea but in sight of the lights on shore—all blackness except for dots of light on the horizon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Inequity! The Inequity!

Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards is so upset, he went so far as to criticize Roger Goodell after learning the NFL commissioner made $9.759 million in 2008.

"I don't see him out there getting hit or nothing like that. The commissioner makes $9 million, so you tell me where the balance is? He doesn't put his life on the line, he pushes a pen.
from Ross Tucker at si.com (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/ross_tucker/02/17/freeagents/index.html)

"To what is this prelude?" I wondered with eager anticipation. "Finally, the hard-hitting statement we've needed, from that spokesman for egalitarianism, defensive end Ray Edwards, that will lead the way to a state where financial remuneration is based purely on the danger of the occupation! Finally, timber cutters, fisher(people (including kings)), and pilots (and navigators) will get the money they deserve for putting their lives on the line each day they go to work! Pizza delivery people, truck drivers, and farm workers will be compensated for the risks they take to perform their duties."

"What was that title again?" I asked as I scrolled to the top of the page.

"Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards pushes to raise hazard pay for military personnel"?

"Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards to launch campaign promoting fight club for successful Wall Street bankers"?

But no, it was just "Free agency is changing, and NFL players aren't happy about it". And Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards was just promoting a pay raise for Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards (and, presumably, others like him who must wait another year (one more than had been customary) before becoming unrestricted free agents unless a new NFL collective bargaining agreement is reached before March 5.)

Oh well. Let's wish him luck. The last player to die on the field was Chuck Hughes. That happened in 1971. Of course, Korey Stringer died of complications brought on by heat stroke while practicing in 2001, and Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams died of an enlarged heart during his team's offseason. In 2005, Thomas Herrion collapsed after a game and later died in the hospital. His death was attributed to ischaemic heart disease, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. And others have suffered permanent injuries, including spinal cord injuries, while playing.

If we count all presumably football-induced deaths (and therefore, Stringer's), and even those due to pre-existing conditions that were exacerbated by the physical exertion required by playing the game, like Herrion's, (but not those, such as Adams's, which have no clear link to playing) I estimate that we maybe get a maximum number of one death every two years (or 0.5 deaths per year). If there are 32 x 53 = 1,696 players on active NFL rosters at any one time, then we have a rate of 0.5/1,696 = .000295 NFL players dying per season. I would assume it's less than that, but let's say, worst-case, that's what it is. That is higher than truck drivers, at a slightly lower risk of .00025 (according to this Money Central report: http//moneycentral.msn.com/content/invest/extra/p63405.asp). Are NFL players paid more than truck drivers? Mostly, I would guess they are. But the NFL death-on-the-job rate is four times less than that for loggers (at .00117). Are loggers paid more than NFL players? One would certainly have to assume so. And, of course, the average American worker has a chance of dying of .00004, which is about 1/8th the risk of the average NFL player. But how much does the average NFL player make? Around $900,000/year. (http://www.ehow.com/facts_5005211_what-average-salary-nfl-players.html) and (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_average_salary_of_an_NFL_football_player) Is this more than the U.S. national average salary of $45,600? Yes.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_average_salary)

Is it more than 8 times the U.S. national average salary? Yes. In fact, it's over 19 times as much.

And every NFL player makes at least $325,000/year, which is 7 times the average U.S. salary.

So, if we're equating salary to death risk in order to judge fairness, then the average NFL player is doing much better than the average American. And, as compared to the average truck driver, or the average logger...well...

But that damned Goodell! When's he gonna earn HIS money?!!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Oh, so I'M the Asshole?

1:20 a.m., Bombay

Ring. Ring.

“Hello?” I say as I pick up my American phone and wonder who would be calling me on it.

“The recent financial crisis has put many hard-working people into debt. If you are in debt and have been looking to consolidate your debt, we are here to help. We offer…”

“Beep.” (‘Cuz I pushed “1” on a hunch.)

“…”

“Hello? Is anyone there? You can’t plant me in your penthouse – I’m goin’ back to my plough…back to the howlin’ old owl in the woods, huntin’ the horny-backed toad…”

“Hello. Thank you for holding.”

“You are welcome.”

“So, you are having problems with debt?”

“With debt?”

“Yes. You held on the line to receive help consolidating your debt?”

“Yes I did.”

“OK, let me tell you that this program is supported by the federal government, and this call is being recorded for quality assurance. By the federal government.”

“OK.”

“So, how much do you owe?”

“I owe…lots.”

“OK. How much is that?”

“Like…many dollars. Lots of pounds. A whole lotta euros.”

“And how much – can you give me a number?”

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen thousand?”

“Seventeen thousand?!... Yes!”

“OK, and…”

“Euros.”

“Seventeen thousand euros?”

“Yes.”

“How much are you paying now?”

“For what?”

“Are you covering the full amount for your bills now?”

“Well, not for the ones I don’t pay.”

“OK, and…can you tell me how you got into this situation?”

“Well, you see, what happened is…I bought things…I used my credit card. I bought a lot of things…but I didn’t earn enough money to pay for them. Now, I don’t have to tell you what happens when you go on like that for a while…”

“…right. OK. My name is Joshua, and I work with a program supported by the federal government that helps people consolidate their debt. We work with a group of 17 or 18 lawyers to consolidate your debt and lower the amount you have to pay. What if I told you we could get your seventeen thousand dollars down to nine thousand?”

“Pounds.” (I know I said euros before – European money confuses me.)

“Pounds?”

“Yes. Seventeen thousand pounds.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Pounds sterling. British pounds.”

“What?”

“British currency.”

“…OK. So what if we could get your debt down to nine thousand dollars?”

“Nine…OK. That would be nice.”

“And you would pay two hundred dollars per week. If you did that, you could be out of debt within a year.”

“OK.”

“And if you paid more, you could be out sooner.”

“Yup.”

“If you paid three hundred dollars per week, you could be paid off just over six months.”

“OK.”

“So you would be able to pay two hundred dollars per week?”

“Umm…how much is that in pounds?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Pounds. British financial currency. British money.”

“I’m talking about America.”

“And when did we say I was…”

“America. Dollars. English.”

“…Umm…Wait…What language do you think they speak in England?”

“You know what? You’re an asshole.”

“When – at what point in the conversation did you ask me if I was in America?”

“I’m hanging up.”

“Wait. I just…no one told me I had to be in America…You’ve…hello? You’ve left me, haven’t you? Hmm…”
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