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  1. Easy-to-follow investment tips for 2014
    Thursday, April 17, 2014
  2. Something to be grateful for on Tax Day: ambulances
    Tuesday, April 15, 2014
  3. 100,000 miles (continued)
    Thursday, April 10, 2014
  4. The death and resurrection of Archie
    Wednesday, April 09, 2014
  5. College sports are about to change (continued)
    Tuesday, April 08, 2014
  6. The Planet of the Apes pilgrimage
    Wednesday, April 02, 2014
  7. College sports are about to change
    Monday, March 31, 2014
  8. Why we should care about what happens in Ukraine
    Friday, March 21, 2014
  9. The Snackeez: Brilliant, or an abomination?
    Wednesday, March 19, 2014
  10. A post about nothing
    Monday, March 17, 2014

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The Cannonball Run

A couple weeks ago, Ed Bolian, an Atlantan, drove from Manhattan to Redondo Beach, California — 2,803 miles — in 28 hours, 50 minutes.  Nobody has ever driven across the United States faster.

He did it in a Mercedes CL55.  Since the Benz only had a 23-gallon gas tank, he installed two others in the trunk so he could cover 800 miles without stopping.  He put the spare tire in the back seat with his assistant and packed two laser jammers, three radar detectors, a police scanner, two GPS units, snacks, and a bedpan.

He picked a weekend with a full moon and clear weather.  He left Midtown at 9:55 p.m. and was in St. Louis before dawn.  He had multiple scouts ahead by 150 to 200 miles, driving at the speed limit, to warn him of police, construction, or other problems.  That allowed him to average 98 miles per hour.  At one point, he hit 158 mph. 

During the entire cross-country trip, Bolian only stopped for 46 minutes.  He let his co-pilot spell him for 40 minutes while he took a nap but otherwise drove it all.  He was in New York one night, drove like a bat out of hell, and was in Los Angeles the next night.

When he was in high school, Bolian interviewed Brock Yates, who, in rebellion against the 55 mile-per-hour speed limits of the 1970s, invented the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash:  The Cannonball Run. 

In the early 1970s, Yates did the same route in 35 hours, 53 minutes.  That's about seven more hours than Bolian's time last month, but might be even more impressive since Yates did it without GPS, cell phones, sophisticated radar detectors, and all the rest.  Inspired by the experience, Yates wrote the 1981 movie The Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, and Bert Convy.  (It's entertaining, but I'm sure you'll agree that it's nothing compared to the other Burt Reynolds speeding and anti-establishment film, the vastly superior Smoky and the Bandit.)

Bolian thought Yates might relish the new record, but he can't really share the news because Yates suffers from Alzheimer's.  He plans to visit anyway.

I've driven across the United States five or six times in my life.  I never came close to doing it in 28 hours.  Usually it took about five days, and yet each time I was in a rush, trying to get somewhere I was moving as fast as I could.  I was usually driving a U-Haul.

There wasn't anything romantic about those trips.  Since I was looking to make time and not meander through the roses, I traveled in the no-man's land of interstates, where you are nowhere but everywhere at the same time:  Applebees and Motel-6's, KFCs, Chevrons, Burger Kings.  Everything is exactly the same wherever you go.  Gasoline and carbohydrates.

For thousands of miles, there was nothing but the sky and flat land, the stripes on the road, my own faint reflection in the glass.  The huge, mysterious strips of rubber from semi tires left abandoned on the side of the road.  

Sometimes in the summer, the fireflies would hit the windshield and give one last explosion of light.  Then they disappeared with everything else.

For one trip, my mother flew from Idaho to Washington, D.C. to keep me company.  I tried to talk her out of it, but she said she wanted to go with me.  I've never driven across the U.S., she said.  It will be fun to see the country.  It was a kind gesture, and I was grateful.  Now that I'm a dad, I can see why she did it.  That's a long way for your kid to drive alone.

I loaded everything I owned in a U-Haul and attached a trailer with my Jeep on the back.  We had 2,400 miles to go.

I could tell from the beginning I had rented a lemon.  It was an ancient, rickety heap, and we broke down on the first night in Cumberland, Maryland.  It was an August weekend, nobody was at U-Haul.  Somehow I reached a local mechanic, and he said I could start it up if I put a screwdriver in a certain place on the ignition.  Sure enough, it started.  I had a choice:  I could get a replacement truck on Monday, unhitch the Jeep, move all my furniture to the new truck, rehitch the Jeep.  Or I could just use the screwdriver.

So I used that screwdriver in Cumberland, Maryland, and all the way across the country.  Mom and I drove together the 2,400 miles.  After I stopped for gas or after we had spent the night in some interstate hotel, I started the engine with the screwdriver.

It was a miserable, hot drive.  Theoretically, the U-Haul had air conditioning but you couldn't tell.  The FM didn't work.  I tried AM for a few hundred miles.  You can listen to Christian, Mexican, Rush anywhere in the nation.  I switched the radio off. 

Mom and I talked for four days as the country rolled by.  For a moment, I'd get excited to see a road sign telling me I had 240 miles to somewhere, and then I'd realize that somewhere was a long way from where I was going.  Mom talked some, listened a lot.  Now that she's gone, I wish I had those four days back. 

That screwdriver always worked.  I hated it at the beginning but we laughed about it.  Mom said, you'll always remember that screwdriver.

One night toward the end, we were driving at night.  Somewhere in Wyoming.  We had been quiet for a long time, a little beat after a long day on the road.  Mom looked out her window.  Wow, look at that moon, she said. 

I didn't see it at first.  I had to lean forward and look across, but there it was.  Full and yellow, just an inch above the horizon.  Later, when we stopped for the night, we looked at it from the railing of our motel as we shared a pizza.  We figured maybe we'd be home the next day.

The All-Time Worst Halloween Candy (continued)

These are the worst Halloween candies of all time.  No matter how many others I consider, I still think that Bit-O-Honey is the foulest candy ever invented, although I heard from a surprising amount of people that it was their favorite.

Some readers had good additions.  One thought Big Hunk bars belonged on this list, because while "the wrapper makes it look like a Hershey bar, inside it looks like an oxidized dog poo."

I agree on the Big Hunk's poor presentation.  But if you can get over that, they're really delicious.  The company that makes Big Hunk describes it as "a long-lasting mouthful of chewy, honey-sweetened nougat filled with whole roasted peanuts!!  Only 3 grams of fat!!"  They had me at "nougat."  I don't think anything with nougat belongs on the list.

I'm sure I'll have additions when I see the results of trick or treating tonight.  But for now, I think black licorice should be added.  You know when you're really hungry at some meeting and far from any food, and during the break all they have is a vending machine?  But you're so hungry you'll eat anything in that vending machine.  So you look at the choices and decide on some Fritos because you're in more of a salty mood.  All you have is a $5 dollar bill, and you put it in the machine but it's really wrinkly, and no matter how many times you put it in, the bill just comes shooting back at you.  So you have to approach somebody to see if they're willing to exchange bills, and the only person that has change is a guy that's somewhat uptight about it.  All he has is five ones, which he counts out one by one.  Finally, you get to the vending machine.  You put in a dollar.  But the Fritos are $1.25, and the machine informs you that it's rejecting you, because the exact change is needed. 

You're screwed.  You pound on the machine.  You curse at it.  But nothing happens, and now you're told that the break is over, and it's time to go back to the meeting.  And you're left standing there, starving, holding your dollars.  I think black licorice tastes like those dollars.

Breaking Bad: I made it!

TV Show - Breaking Bad Wallpaper

For weeks I've been going through life on pins and needles, trying to sprint through the entire Breaking Bad series before somebody or something gave away the end. 

It wasn't as easy as it sounds.  I had to be careful what I read, and on the rare occasion when I watched anything else on TV, I had to have the clicker on standby in case the conversation strayed toward Breaking Bad's finale (which happened surprisingly often). 

Above all, I had to do some marathon viewing sessions, including a recent sleepless night when I binged on the last five episodes without a break.  But I did it, and somehow it felt like an achievement.  I can die now. 

Out of respect for those who still haven't finished (or for those who don't care and are tired of all the obsession), I won't give any spoilers here.  But I don't think it ruins anything to say that the conclusion was the most satisfying of any series I've watched.  That
 might not be saying much.  Quite often, series finales are disappointing.  They can be overhyped or try too hard to tie everything together.  Or the endings just fall flat.  The finale of Seinfeld is a prime example.  Sometimes, it's better to let the next-to-last show be your last show.

With a few exceptions I won't identify, though, Breaking Bad finished just right, with the perfect combination of tied and untied loose ends. As it was throughout the series, the writing and acting were terrific.

A couple scenes stand out (and I don't think I'm spoiling anything here).  Throughout the series, there was the occasional flashback or flash forward that had little to do with the main storyline but allowed a glimpse into the characters.  In the finale, they flash back to Jesse making a wooden box during high school shop class.  Many episodes earlier, he had referred to making the box, and you got the sense that it was one of the few happy moments in his tortured life.  That they spent time showing that flashback during the finale — when there was still a lot of ground left to cover — was a nice touch and could only have been pulled off by writers who know they've created full characters.

Then there was the scene near the end when Walt watches his son walk into the shabby apartment he's sharing with his mother.  By that point, Walt has wrecked the son's life with his decisions.  It's a quick scene, understated.  But with one look, Bryan Cranston captures all the cumulative emotion that Walt must have felt then: the regret, the pain, the unrequited affection.  That scene alone made watching the series worthwhile.

The only thing I didn't like about the last episode of Breaking Bad was that it was the last episode of Breaking Bad — but it's just another credit to the writers and actors that they went out at full strength.  One consolation is that a new season of The Walking Dead just started.  Since I was trying to watch about 40 episodes of Breaking Bad as quickly as I could, I'm already three episodes behind.  But with the endurance I've built up, I can crank that out before breakfast.

Spot the authentic government shutdown quotes

I think you'll agree that the government shutdown was a miserable experience for everyone, and there isn't much to miss about it.  Still, now that a couple weeks have gone by, it's fun to reminisce about some of the inflammatory statements that came out of it.  See if you can spot which of the shutdown quotes below are real, and which ones are fake (answers below):

A.  "This is my idea of fun."  U.S. Rep. David Schweikert.

B.  “I do not like green eggs and ham.  I do not like them, Sam I am."  Senator Ted Cruz.

C.  "The national parks are overrated, and I think it's good to give the bears a little time off."  U.S. Rep. George Johansen.

D.  "We're not going to be disrespected.  We have to get something out of this.  And I don't even know what that is."  — U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman.

E.  "I just don't think it's right at all to call Barack Obama a traitor.  I haven't come across any evidence yet that he has done one thing to harm Kenya."  North Carolina Rep. Larry Pittman. 

F.  "Just as the Fugitive Slave Act was an overreach by the federal government, so too we understand that Obamacare is an assault on the rights of individuals."  New Hampshire Rep. William O'Brien.

G.  "I think the American people are watching all of this.  The American people are studying all of this very carefully.  And I think the American people have reached one conclusion:  They are tired of being called 'the American people.'"  U.S. Rep. Julie Coksentoasten.

H.  “I like their little burgers.  I’m a big fan of eating White Castle burgers.”  Senator Ted Cruz.

I.  "This country isn't ran by just one individual.  It's ran by four branches."  U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin

J.  "I think the American people should look at the shutdown as an opportunity.  Let's say it lasts 15 days.  That's about 4 percent of the 365 days in the year.  So they can just deduct 4 percent from their federal income taxes."  Senator Fitzhugh McDuffie on the tax advantages of the shutdown.

K.  "There's no towel service.  We're doing our own laundry down there.  And we pay a fee to belong to the House gym."  U.S. Rep. Bruce Brayley on sacrifices by members of Congress at their gym during the shutdown.

L.  "Yes, it's a drag not to get a paycheck.  But thankfully, I'm rich."  U.S. Rep. Paul Pratt.

M.  "Today was good.  Today was fun.  Tomorrow is another one."  Senator Ted Cruz.

N.  “[John McCain] is a guy who's been to Syria and supported al Qaeda and rebels.”  U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert.

O.  “Whatever gets them good press.  That's all that it's going to be. God bless them.  But you know what?  I've got a nice house and a kid in college, and I'll tell you we cannot handle it.  Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it?  That's just not going to fly.”  U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, comparing his decision to accept a paycheck during the shutdown with some colleagues' decision not to.

P.  "We're very excited.  It's exactly what we wanted, and we got it.  People will be very grateful."  U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachman.

Q.  "Does anybody remember Charlie Sheen when he was kind of going crazy?  And he was going around, jumping around saying, 'Winning, winning, we're winning?'  Well, I kind of feel like that, and I'm not on any drugs."  U.S. Senator Rand Paul.

R.  "They may be 33 years old now and not making a lot of money.  But in a few years they can just [become lobbyists] and make $500,000 a year.  Meanwhile, I'm stuck making a $172,000 a year."  U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey.

S.  "Are we accomplishing anything?  No.  Are the American people fed up?  Yes.  Was all of this a complete waste of time and money?  Yes.  Why am I asking myself questions?  I'm not really sure."  U.S. Rep. Charlene Green.

(Answer:   C, G, J, L, M, and S are fake, although M is an actual quote from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. Senator Ted Cruz really did quote from Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham on the floor of the Senate in quote B, but he used it in the exact opposite way from what the book meant.)

Should your insurance cover sex changes?

I received this letter from my insurance company:

Dear Member:

You are receiving this letter to inform you of changes to your contract.  The following exclusion was removed from your contract:  "Any procedure or treatment designed to alter an individual's physical characteristics to those of the opposite sex."

It was more thought-provoking than your average insurance form letter.  At first, I thought: "good."  I don't care what it is; if you can get an insurance company to cover something, then I'm all for it. 

But ultimately, the insurance company doesn't cover it; everyone who has that insurance covers it.  Out of curiosity, I looked a little to see how this might affect premiums, and found a range from about $9 per year to essentially nothing.

So it's a no-brainer.  On the other hand, should it matter how much it costs?  When you see what routine procedures many insurers exclude, it seems surprising that suddenly an insurer would decide to cover this one, which affects only a very small portion of the population.  Maybe that's why they decided to cover it.

What was most interesting was seeing the variety of reactions to the issue.  "Transgender is NOT a mental illness," one author wrote.  "Transgender is a legitimate, scientifically observable neuro-physiological condition which occurs during fetal development, and the people who suffer from this condition should be acknowledged and covered by health insurance providers."

An opponent wrote:  "Not having the genitalia of the gender you believe you should be is not a danger to your health. Therefore, it is cosmetic surgery and if you would like this surgery, you should be paying for it on your own."  Another:  "Becoming transgender is a choice .... As for homosexuality, the jury remains out to the degree to which homosexuality is nature or nurture, but there is certainly no evidence that one who gets a gender change does so out of natural tendency or need."

When you don't have a firm opinion about something, how are you supposed to take competing information like this and form one?

So what did I think?  It occurred to me that it didn't matter what I think.  In my lifetime, a gender change operation has gone from a revolutionary, headline event to something that insurers will cover routinely.  There are few things more conservative or objective than a private insurance company.  If the insurers are covering it, the matter is closed. 

Another thing I learned:  It's no longer called "gender change surgery" but gender "reassignment." Blech.  I'm sure there's a good reason for that term.  But it sounds silly, like a freshman dropping a course she didn't like.  Who comes up with words like those?  What's wrong with "change"? 

Observations from a lunch lady

Not many dads serve hot lunch.  At least that's what I was told when I volunteered to do it at my daughter's school.  And yet when I arrived for my first shift, the only other lunch lady was also a dad.  The cook was a guy, the clean-up guys were guys.  So at least for today, all the lunch ladies were guys.

They didn't give me a hair net.  Didn't even get an apron.  Just a couple of suffocating plastic gloves, which never really fit right.

There were three shifts: K through second grade; third through fifth; and sixth through eighth.  You could see the stages of childhood pass by.  The first group could barely hold their trays.  The second group was brimming with energy, too excited to eat.  The third group was hitting that tough stage in life, especially the boys.  Most of the girls were taller than they were.  Many of the girls were taller than us lunch ladies.  I sympathized with the guys.  Things grow at different times.  You can't control your voice.

The other dad was on the sandwich grill.  I was utility man.  I spooned yogurt into little cups, cut  orange slices, cleaned up all the gunk dropped on the floor.  When things got packed at the grill during the third shift, I stepped in as sous chef, prepping the bread for the grilled cheeses.  Somehow we got through it.

Even after all these years and all the preaching, kids still don't eat salads.  With great optimism, the school provided an impressive salad bar.  The only people who used it were the teachers.  And the lunch ladies, once all the kids were finished.  I ate a salad by myself by the playground, watching the older kids play kickball.  Man, it looked fun.

When you're in grade school, lunch — and the recess that comes after it — are still the highlight of the day.  You're in the same room all day long, mostly silent.  Then a bell rings, and you get to talk as much as you want, run around.  There was something reassuring about the timeless sanctity of lunch and recess.

School cafeterias always smell the same.  Is it the floor wax?  Ketchup?  It's something, because when I stepped into that cafeteria, instantly I was in third grade again.

Some kids didn't go through the hot lunch line because they brought their own.  Kids still use lunch boxes, but they're not metal or plastic like back in the day.  Some kids still bring brown bags.

There was a table for kids with allergies.  They didn't have that when I was a kid.

We served more than 200 kids in just about an hour.  Except for the salad bar and the orange slices, which had a lot of leftovers, they had just the right amount of everything.  How did they figure that out?  For a second, I was grateful all those kids had enough to eat and probably always would.  How many kids in the world didn't get a meal like that today?

When I was in grade school, we had two lunch ladies who made everything for hot lunch.  Everything, every day.  The hot lunch eaters complained about the food, but looking back it was pretty awesome.  I never saw anyone complain as they were eating their Cheese Yum Yums (which were sensational), or when the lunch ladies wore Halloween costumes.  It would be nice if you could go back and thank people that did things for you when you were a kid, but didn't appreciate at the time.

On the other hand, making kids happy is the best kind of feeling.  I don't think those ladies needed thanks.  I certainly didn't need thanks for being lunch lady yesterday.  Still, almost all the teachers said it anyway.

Most of the time I was lunch lady, the cafeteria was loud.  Except when the very little kids ate.  Then it was silent.  Little kids don't feel obliged to make table conversation.  They just eat.

Are older skateboarders a little odd?

There's a cutoff age for skateboarding.  It's hard to pinpoint.  Maybe 19?  I can't name it.  But everybody knows it when they see it. 

Tony Hawk, age 46, and some other professional skaters can get away with it.  Nobody else can, and I can't figure out why that is.

You can bike, ski, snowboard, rollerblade, marathon, kayak, surf, bungee jump, and practically anything else through your 90s or your 100s.  You can do it until the day you die, and nobody gives a second glance.  In fact, with most activities, the older you are the more admirable it is.  If you skydive on your 100th birthday, your local newspaper does a story about you.

I suppose if you skateboarded on your 100th birthday, your local newspaper would do a story about you too.
  But it would be a different kind of story.  Part of it would have to explain why an old lady like you was skateboarding in the first place.

I thought of this on Saturday afternoon.  I was walking home.  Yellow and orange trees, blue sky.  The sun was on every leaf.  Then I heard a skater coming, not an unusual thing in a neighborhood with an ideal mix of hills, crooked sidewalks, and young kids.

But this wasn't a young kid.  Dude was at least 35.  Probably closer to 40.  He was doing a dope slalom down the middle of the street with his earphones firmly planted, eyes closed, grooving on something tasty, and he was on another planet. 

That's probably my answer.  Fair or not, Tony Hawk millionaires notwithstanding, most people think of skateboarding as an activity for boys too young to drive, hanging out at the 7-11 on Saturday night, drinking energy drinks and chowing on Funyuns, annoying but not harassing you, scuffing up the library steps and handrails with their jumps.  It's a sport for antis.  Troubled teens.

I'm not sure how it got to be that way.  There's nothing inherent about skateboarding that should make it different from jogging, or biking, or Zumba.  In some ways, it would be an ideal sport for older people.  It's cheap.  All you need is a skateboard and a little balance
.  You can go at your own pace.  Works the core and all that.

But I don't see skateboarding all of the sudden getting acceptable for old people.  For one thing, it would probably horrify the younger skaters and kill the vibe.  And for the rest of us, it would be like wearing your high school letterman's jacket.  Although I don't think I look too bad in mine.

Gravity: Excellent

A Real Astronaut Uncovers the Gaping Plot Hole in Gravity

When I first saw the trailers and commercials for Gravity, the new movie directed by Alfonso Cuaron, I had no desire to see it.  Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were astronauts.  There was something fishy about that. 

Clooney has played a wide range of roles over his career, and I think he's almost always solid or better.  Still, I had a hard time imagining him as an astronaut.  And what about Sandra Bullock?  Maybe I just hadn't seen enough of her movies, but she seems to play a variation of the same character over and over:  a funny, self-effacing, likable woman who gets put in a quirky situation but after some adversity catches the bad guy and ends up with the good guy.

How would that play with Clooney in space?  Would there be a love triangle on the shuttle?  It had to be cheesy.

I'm happy to say I was wrong.  Gravity is a unique, entertaining cliffhanger, all the more impressive when you consider the risks Cuaron took making it, not the least of which was expecting viewers to suspend disbelief about what seems like a farfetched premise:  U.S. astronauts are on a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope when Houston warns them that the Russians have destroyed an old satellite and the debris is headed their way at warp speed, just as they're completing the repairs. 

It sounds like a stretch, and apparently there's controversy over whether any of the events in Gravity could really happen — for example, this interesting piece by former astronaut Mark Kelly, probably best known as the husband of former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords (as a warning, Kelly offers a spoiler at the end).

But Calderon does such a good job of storytelling that I didn't care whether it could really happen or not.  And he does it within some narrow boundaries.  The movie happens almost entirely in space, and Bullock and Clooney are the only two actors we see (there are a handful of minor characters we only hear or who are dead by the time they appear).  Most of the time, Bullock and Clooney are performing with one hand (and sometimes two) tied behind their back.  They're weightless and floating in space, physically burdened by bulky space suits and helmets, and they have to rely only on their voices most of the way.

On the rare occasions when Cuaron does show their faces, he asks a lot of Bullock and Clooney, and for the most part they deliver.  At one point, as Bullock realizes her horrible predicament, Cuaron closes in on her face for what seems like ten minutes.  She barely speaks.  Bullock does a phenomenal job of portraying the fear most of us who grew up after the first moonwalk have probably imagined, and it's the question that holds the whole movie together:  What would it be like to be adrift and alone 300 miles above Earth with little hope of rescue?

Cuaron, who co-wrote Gravity, never lets the story stray too far from that basic question, and I think that's what ultimately makes the movie so good.  He spoons a few tidbits about the characters's backstory.  But he's more interested in making you sweat, as if you only had a few minutes of oxygen left and you'd suffocate to death with your body floating in space forever.  It's a juicy nightmare.

One of the best things about Gravity is its length.  It sprints you through 90 minutes, with very little fat to trim away.  For a moment at the end, I couldn't believe it was over.  Then as I watched the credits, I decided it was the perfect time to end it.  As I walked out of the theater, I felt relieved it was over.  But in a good way.

In defense of Pete Cenarrusa (continued)

I'm not the only one who felt compelled to respond to the article attacking Pete Cenarrusa within days of his death, and several of us agreed to write a joint post on the subject.  I'm happy to add my name to it.

Our post appears in A Basque in Boise (English); About Basque Country (Spanish); Basque Identity 2.0 (Basque); The Angry Brazilian (Portuguese); and 8Probintziak (French).  There will be others joining.

I've run a longer version of the post below, adding my personal views.

In defense of Pete Cenarrusa

For days I had planned on posting a tribute to long-time Idaho public figure Pete Cenarrusa, who died last week at age 95.  Unfortunately, it took a disparaging article by somebody who never knew him to get me to do it.

To begin with, it’s strange to speak of “defending” Pete Cenarrusa from anything.  He was a wonderful person, somebody many of us admired and respected.  But he he was also a lifelong rancher, a tough man who saw his share of battles, political and otherwise. 

His parents were immigrants who grew up in neighboring Basque towns but met thousands of miles away in the middle of Idaho.  Pete’s first language was Basque, and he kept speaking it for the rest of his life, sometimes filling in with English words along the way.  He'd say things like, "Hori egin genuen Nineteen Seventy-Two-en." (“We did that in 1972.”)  He could get away with it.  If you are somebody like me, who learns a language later in life, that is a hero.  To hear him speak Basque was like listening to poetry.

He went to the University of Idaho, where he was on the boxing team and completed degrees in agriculture and animal husbandry (at age 92, he blogged 
that his favorite courses were nutrition, organic chemistry, and bacteriology — "I would recommend these courses to everyone in college").  He joined the Marines in 1942 and became an aviation instructor.  He flew for 59 years, finished more than 15,000 flight hours without an accident.

Eventually, he became interested in politics.  He was elected as a Republican to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1950 and served nine terms, including three as House Speaker.  In 1967, when Idaho's secretary of state died, the governor appointed Pete to fill the position, which he held until 2003.

He wasn’t a politician from central casting.  As Ben Ysursa, his friend and successor in office, said at his funeral, Pete wasn’t a good public speaker; but unlike most politicians, Pete knew it.  Still, it’s hard to argue with success:  Pete never lost an election, and he was in public office for 52 years, the longest-serving elected official in Idaho history.

When he died in his home last Sunday, Freda, his wife of 66 years, was there with him.

Pete was a kind man, my parents' good friend, somebody who probably helped thousands of others in his life.  He seemed like one of those people who would live forever.  After I learned of his death, I wanted to write something about him.  But what to say?  It was a big life.

Then I read an article in the Spanish national newspaper ABC by Javier Ruperez, the former Spanish ambassador to the United States (the Spanish version is unavailable online; here's the English translation).  Ruperez calls Pete a "Basque separatist,” a man filled with “blind obstinacy” against Spain “until the very day of his death.”  It was a piece written with venom stored up from an event that happened more than a decade ago, then spewed out just a couple days after Pete died. 

For full disclosure, my brother is a former Idaho legislator and current Boise mayor who was involved in some of the underlying events.  What I'm writing here is only my view.  I didn't consult with my brother.  He can speak for himself.  Pete can't.

And an important bit of background: Ruperez, the author, was kidnapped by the Basque terrorist group ETA in 1979.  He was held for a month.  After he was released, 26 Basque prisoners were freed, and the Spanish parliament agreed to create a special commission to investigate charges of torture of Basque prisoners.

I can’t imagine what Ruperez went through, and I wish it had never happened.  A horrifying event like that would certainly shape one’s world view.  But Pete had nothing to do with the kidnapping and would have been the first to condemn it.  That’s where Ruperez is wrong about Pete and about Basques generally.

Toward the end of his career, Pete announced the introduction of a declaration in the Idaho legislature that addressed a critical series of events in the Basque Country and Spain.  The declaration, officially known as a “memorial,” called on leaders in the United States and Spain to undertake a peace process and end decades of violence under the Franco dictatorship and ETA. 

In 2002, Ruperez caught wind of the memorial and immediately flew out to Idaho, alerted the Spanish prime minister, the State Department, and the White House.  The draft declaration’s intent to put an end to violence wasn’t good enough for Ruperez, who probably had to look for Idaho on a map before he booked the flight.  Suddenly, a statement by the legislature of a sparsely-populated Western state blew up into international news. 

As the memorial approached a vote, there was a lot of back and forth among the many parties that had suddenly become involved.  I wasn’t there, but I suspect a doctoral candidate could make an interesting dissertation out of the whole affair.  You could also write a book about Pete’s reaction, which was pitch perfect (and I’m paraphrasing, but I’m probably close):  Since when did the United States start checking with foreign governments about its foreign policy?

In the end, the Idaho legislature unanimously approved this memorial.  It described the history of Basques in Idaho, the earlier actions by the Idaho legislature to condemn the repression of Franco’s dictatorship, the efforts of Basques to maintain their culture, and all “but a marginalized fraction” of Basques’ condemnation of violence.

Perfect or not, it was a statement by a democratically elected governent.  But it seems to have haunted Ruperez all these years.  Before Pete’s body was even buried, Ruperez condemned him as “the inspirer and visible leader” of an effort that turned a blind eye toward violence, an effort that an Idaho Senate leader later purportedly told him was the result of “extreme ignorance by local representatives” about Spanish affairs and “the generalized willingness to please Cenarrusa in the last initiative he took on before retiring.”  Ruperez suggests that Pete was not typical of Idaho’s Basque community, that there are other, worthier representatives.

I don’t know Ruperez.  But he certainly didn’t know Pete.  In writing his piece all these years later, Ruperez probably is trying to please a constituency that has every reason to make Basques out as something they are not, and Pete offered an easy target. 

Regardless, it’s a small person who sticks a knife into the back of a man who has just died.

Ruperez closes with a quote he says comes from Mark Twain:  "Not all deaths are received in the same way."  Maybe that’s true.  As somebody who was lucky enough to know Pete Cenarrusa, I can assure Mr. Ruperez that Pete’s death was received with a lot of sadness, with the respect worthy of somebody who did great things with the life he was given.

(Photo by Glenn Oakley from Lava Lake Lamb, where Pete blogged occasionally)

I love the smell of SpaghettiOs in the morning

Dawn in Washington, D.C.  The government is shut down.  Tens of thousands of people here are suddenly laid off and not sure when they'll work again.  The Smithsonian museums are closed.  All the bitterness.

But the Earth is still turning.  The sun still rises.  It's beautiful here today.  Hints of summer and fall.  Children are still going to school, and they still need to eat.  That includes my child.

I'm half asleep.  What to make for her lunch?  I haven't had coffee yet.  I don't have the energy to make a sandwich.  That's a multi-step, complicated process.

Back in the recesses of the pantry, I see a can of SpaghettiOs.  With meatballs!  Even with the warm weather, it's a good day for SpaghettiOs.  I heat them up and look out the window at the sun through the branches.  Staring at it without a thought in my head.

The concoction on the stove starts to bubble a little, so I stir it.  The smell of tomatoes at an odd time of day.

Then the SpaghettiOs are done.  I pour them into the thermos and twist the top.  Throw a cookie in the lunch box and oila!  My child will be fed.  Everything else I do today is a bonus.

I take the pan to the sink.  There's a little crescent of SpaghettiO left.  No meatballs, just the little Os in a meeting of tomato sauce.  Not enough to keep, too much to just throw out.  It's barely 7 a.m.  What should I do?  Should I eat it? 

I hadn't had a SpaghettiO since Olivia Newton John ruled the airwaves.

I put the spoon in and took a bite, and suddenly it was decades ago, a cold winter day when Mom was out and the house was empty.  The rest of the day in front of me.  Maybe see some friends, maybe not.  No list of things to do. 

The soft texture, all that sodium.  A moment from my childhood in a can.  Delicious!  I finished every bit of it.

It turns out that even as the sun is rising, when you are undercaffeinated and facing a day of work, finishing your child's SpaghettiOs can be an inspiration.  You see the world through her eyes for a moment.

Who are the people who approve of Congress?

schoolhouse rock bill

Probably the least surprising news this week is that Congress's job approval rating is 10 percent, the lowest in history.

Congress is now less popular than Richard Nixon during Watergate (24 percent), Communism (11 percent), and O.J. Simpson (also 11 percent).  For now, they are more popular than Fidel Castro (5 percent). 

On the other hand, the poll was conducted September 27-29, before they shut down the government — closing National Parks, searches for missing hikers, and the World War II monument for visiting vets (kind of) — while still collecting their paychecks.  They might catch Fidel, and maybe even make a run for Saddam Hussein, who is approved of by 3 percent of Americans.

Even in the middle of this train wreck, though, 10 percent of the population still likes Congress.  Who are they?  Are they people who like government shutdowns?  People whose IRS audits suddenly got cut off?  The mothers of members of Congress?  It's hard to guess, because I can't see how members of Congress even like members of Congress right now. 

The Breaking Bad spoiler paranoia

TV Show - Breaking Bad Wallpaper

If you are a latecomer to Breaking Bad like me and haven't caught up all the way to the end, you fear the landmines that are out there today. 

Now that the last episode has aired, and the smart people who had caught up or — even better — watched from the beginning know how everything ends, all it would take is a peak at a headline or a few words overheard in a restaurant to ruin the whole experience.  This is such a phenomenon that the New York Times did a story about it.

It's the blessing and the curse of the bounty we have before us today.  When the prime-time soap Dallas revealed who shot J.R. in November 1980, it was the second-most-watched program in U.S. television history.  That's because back then, you had one only shot.  You couldn't record it.  You couldn't get it on Netflix.  There was no box set.  You had to watch it when CBS aired it or else live with everyone telling you what happened.

Today, a TV show is like a book.  You can get it any time.  You can do it chapter by chapter, or you can stay up all night, mainline seven episodes, and finish a series in one week.

The problem is that unlike a book, popular shows are still seen by millions of people at the same time, just like always.  And, just like always, every one of those people has loose lips that are talking about it and loose fingers that are typing about it.  You didn't catch up in time for the ending?  That's your problem.

But I'm hoping that long-time Breaking Bad fans will have some mercy on the rest of us.  After all, when the show first aired in 2008, it only had about 1 million viewers.  That's likely because the show's premise seemed so ridiculous:  A high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer and begins cooking meth so he can provide for his wife and son after he's gone.  He relies on the help of one of his former students, who is a junkie himself.  The teacher's product becomes legendary in Albequerque, the southwest, and beyond.  They start making music videos in Mexico about the great Heisenberg, the teacher's drug manufacturing alias. To stretch things even further, Heisenberg's brother in law is a DEA agent. 

But despite that ridiculous background, the show becomes its own addiction largely because the writing and acting is so good, and the twists and turns are so dramatic.  It sucks you in.  In one key episode, for example, when the DEA agent/brother in law is poised to bust Heisenberg outside the meth lab Winnebago parked in the junkyard, you can't take your eyes off it because you feel like your world is about to explode.

Someimtes, when I was watching the show in a loop on Netflix, when I didn't even have to lift a finger to make the next episode appear, time lost meaning.  I became grateful for the show's creators, who, among other things, mercifully made a very short introductory riff so you skip through the credits and get right to the story.  I forgot where I was.  I might have been in Albuquerque.  I was rooting for the bad guys.  I was an addict myself. 

Unfortunately, at this point in my life I'm not an undergraduate anymore and time does have meaning.  I'm still about 25 episodes behind and it will probably take weeks or even months before I watch the finale.  On the other hand, without the ticking clock of the finale in the background, I plan to savor every episode in a way I haven't been able to.  Of course, for the next few days at least, when I walk around in public, I'll be covering my ears, shouting "Blah blah blah I can't hear you!" just to be on the safe side.  The brilliant thing about Breaking Bad and the age we live in generally is I probably won't be alone.

In general, baseball players are lousy fighters

Sox pitcher Julian Tavarez is set to hit Tampa Bay's Joey Gathright in the jaw yesterday on a play at the plate in the eighth inning.

For baseball fans, these are the best of times and the worst of times.  They're the best, because going into the last weekend of the season, there are still some exciting playoff races.  And then, of course, they finally have the playoffs and the World Series to look forward to.

But these last days of September are also the worst of times, because most teams have long been out of it, finishing the season in a whimper. 

The Houston Astros, for example, are 43 games out of the lead in the American League West.  This weekend, during their final three games, they're hosting the New York Yankees, whose season is also over.  Unless Houston fans want to jeer the Yankees, why watch the games? 

That's a hard question to answer.  Not surprisingly, the Astros got a zero Nielsen TV rating for their game against Cleveland last Sunday — which means not a single one of the 581 Nielsen viewers in Houston watched that game for even a minute.

The Milwaukee Brewers did somewhat better this year, but are still 22 games behind the Cardinals.  For a Brewers fan, what's there to watch?

Judging by the sports highlights, it seems the biggest event for Brewers' fans lately might have been the dispute this Wednesday after Brewers' outfielder Carlos Gomez jacked a home run off Braves' pitcher Paul McCann.  When he hit the dinger, Gomez took about 15 minutes rounding the bases, overdoing the celebration to get back at McCann, who hit him in the knee with a fastball on June 23.

When Gomez apporached home plate, Braves' catcher Brian McCann stopped him, and the two started jabbering away.  Both dugouts cleared.

I saw the highlight many times the next day.  It was a lead story on ESPN and everywhere else.  And it struck me that the whole episode, like most bench-clearing episodes in Major League Baseball, was really a pathetic sight.  Although players from both teams eagerly sprinted from their dugouts, they did what most baseball players do during these kinds of situations — they stood around and tried to look like they were about to fight.  But they never fought.

ESPN and other sports media love to show these bench-clearings because they seem to promise a spectacle, something to look at when there's really nothing else there and the bleachers are empty (just look at the Milwaukee outfield stands). 

And yet they're hollow.  Usually, the players run out and jump around and yell at each other  The umpires and coaches spread their arms to try to keep the peace.  And yet if you watch closely enough, most of the time there really isn't any need to keep the peace.  Most of the players aren't fighting, they're just posing.  You can see their hearts aren't really in it.  There are exceptions, but almost every time these things look like little playground kerfuffles among a bunch of sissies.  At most, they throw little slaps at each other.

The Brewers-Braves scrum got me wondering why the fights in baseball aren't better.  All these players can't be chickens, can they?  Are they worried about ejections?

The only explanation I have is that professional baseball players might be like professional cellists.  Why break your hand, which is your money maker, just because of a fastball thrown back in June at somebody who may not even be your teammate next year?

I can understand that, but sometimes I wish more players would remember what a wise man once said:  Never fight.  But if you get in a fight, have some pride in yourself and make it a real fight.

Anti-social media

You bought into all the marketing about how great life is with a vast social network.  You're on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, all the rest.  Everybody wants a piece of you. 

But are you happy?  I doubt it.  Now you have all these empty relationships with people you don't even know or like.  You forgot what your grandma taught you:  quality over quantity. 

The good news is that just as easily as you built up your social network, you can tear it down: 

When you are having dinner with somebody, repeatedly interrupt the conversation with long cell phone conversations.  You don't even have to wait for somebody to call — initiate one yourself!  Talk away, the longer the better.  Then send and receive multiple text messages, completely ignoring your dinner companion, whom you won't see again.

When you get on a crowded elevator, keep your back to the closing doors and face everyone for the duration of the ride.  Smile.

There's a guy you know, Peter.  He's unlikable, always bragging about his huge income.  And yet you still feel the need to be nice.  You greet him every time you see him:  Hi Peter.  Fortunately for you, his name is Dirk and from then on you won't have to deal with him.  The lesson is that by using incorrect names, you can cut down on your social network.

On Facebook and Twitter, give a minute-by-minute report of your day, every little detail.  Write about how tired you were when you woke up, what you had for breakfast, everything up until you fell asleep snoring with the TV still on.  Send lots of pictures of your cat.  Write thousands of passionate words on how you feel about Obamacare or about the elections.  Repeat that every day.  Boom!  The "likes" start going away.

When you receive what is called a "spam email" from Christian Mingle, you might consider using a device to the side of your computer that is known as a "mouse." This "mouse" allows you to click on the "spam email."  You can then click the "delete" button.  Boom!  No more Christian romance.

For $39.95 you can buy a a Bluetooth headset.  Strap it t to your ear and talk about anything you want to very loudly.  You don't even have to turn it on!  Have fun.  Make it sound complicated.  If somebody approaches you wanting to make conversation, all you have to do is point to your headset.  Boom!  No more meaningless chit-chat.

When you are in a drug store and see somebody you know, pretend you don't know them.  Be obvious about it so they feel snubbed and tell other people what they think of you.

Let's say you are trapped in a conversation with somebody who is prone to bloviating on and on about their view of blah blah blah this or blah blah blah that.  Walk away.

Get a Doberman.  Name him Frisky.  Walk him around unleashed.  As he sprints toward neighbors, say "Oh, Frisky. You're such a rascal!"

Date label, shmate shmabel

You're shopping.  You just want to get in and out.  You're looking at the chicken.  But all you see are a bunch of cellophane wrappers informing the grocer that they have to "sell by" a certain date.  And that date is today.

What do you do?  You want your fajitas.  But what about that date?  What does it mean?  Well, it turns out that much of the time, it means nothing:

Sell-by, use-by and best-by dates do not indicate whether a food is safe to eat, or even if is still tasty.  Sell-by dates provide information to retailers about how long to display a product.  Best-if-used-by typically indicates a date after which the food will no longer be at its highest quality — as defined by the manufacturer.  But the meaning of those terms varies from product to product, and even among manufacturers of the same products, because there is no industry agreement on definitions and on which labels should be applied to which foods.

But if you're like me, sometimes you don't catch the date until you're getting dinner ready.  That's when you find out the "sell by" date was a couple days ago.  Then you might do what most people do.  You toss it: 

Fifty-four percent of consumers say eating food past its sell-by or use-by date is a health risk, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.  A 2011 survey conducted by the Food Marketers Institute found that 91 percent of consumers occasionally discarded food past its sell-by date out of concern for the product’s safety; 25 percent said they always did so.  Food waste has reached record levels.  In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of food is thrown away. 

I've never liked "sell by" labels.  The grocer seems to be saying:  Who cares about you?  We just want to get this stuff off our hands.  Then it's your problem.

This article made me feel a little better, because it confirmed my suspicion that date labels are just a guide, and a rough one at that.  From now on, I'm going to use the philosophy I used in college, which is that as long as something is not stinky or groddy, it's okay to eat it.  That philosophy got me to where I am today, which is alive.

Is football worth it? (continued)


Now that we are deep into the season, I'd say the answer to that question I asked a while back is: absolutely!  It's the best sport in the history of the world.  But then Washington Post columnist George Will has to come along and spoil it:

Football’s doughty defenders note that other recreational activities, such as bicycling, injure more participants.  But only in football is long-term injury the result not of accidents but of the game played properly, meaning within the rules.  Rules could be changed by, for example, eliminating kickoffs, with their high-velocity collisions, and barring the three-point stance, whereby linemen begin each play with their heads down and helmet-to-helmet collisions are likely.  But such changes could be made only over the dead bodies of fans who relish mayhem from safe distances.

He cites the autopsies of 334 former NFL players, which showed they were three times more likely to suffer from neurodegenerative diseases.  Will, with his stuffy aura and corny bow ties, has never liked football, which he says combines the two worst aspects of America: violence and committee meetings. 

But as much as it hurts to admit, he might be on to something.  While he doesn't acknowledge that many injuries are caused when rules aren't followed — late or illegal hits, for example — he's right that players are hurt by the nature of the game, as they always have been but especially as it's played today.

The more I read things like this, the more I think that 10 or 15 years from now, football will be a completely different sport.  What then?  If it were to change to protect players, would I like it as much?  If they cracked down on certain tackling or blocking or eliminated kickoffs, it wouldn't matter.  Yet as Will's piece suggests, to really attack the problem they'd have to change the game's nature.  What if they eliminated helmets?  It would be just a little more exciting than flag football. 

When I really think about it, I have to admit that part of the game's appeal are the hits.  It wouldn't be the same without them.  But it's the normal hits, play after play, and not always the spectacular or cheap hits, that seem to do the bulk of the damage.

George Will, thanks a lot for ruining my weekend.

Living in the U.S. means living with mass shootings

In Bangladesh, there are severe floods.  Almost every monsoon season, roughly 20 percent of the country is covered in water.  Hundreds of lives are lost every year.  In 1998, 1,000 people were killed and 30 million lost their homes. 

In the Philippines, there are typhoons.  About 20 strike every year and many people die.  In 2012, more than 700 were killed by Typhoon Bopha.  About 5,000 died during Typhoon Thelma in 1991. 

In the United States, there are mass shootings.  In the last year, there have been nine mass shootings, defined by the FBI as a single incident in which four or more people are killed.  Eighty-one people died in those shootings, including the 12 that were killed this Monday at Washington, D.C.'s Navy Yard and the 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook elementary school who were shot last December.  It's hard to say how many have been injured.

It seems a little silly to compare floods and typhoons with shootings, which are entirely man-made.  But in the United States these events are happening in the normal course of life, like the recent floods in Colorado or tornadoes in the South and Midwest.  

Mass shootings happen in other countries too.  But it's worse here.  In the United States, there are 314 million people, and 300 million guns.  In Louisiana, it's legal to have a gun in church. 

I don't write this to be a downer or because I think there's a solution.  But living in DC this week it's on my mind.  Since Sandy Hook, I've come to accept that these kinds of killings will be a reality for the rest of my life and probably my daughter's life too.  I don't think there's anything that can be done about them.  All you can do is expect them and prepare for what you'd do if you were in the situation.  Like a fire drill.  They're inevitable.  You can only hope they don't happen to you or to the people you love.

Meet Chad, failed master of the haiku

i have a d
in creative writing
my comeback

mr johnson
solid at reading creative writing
good looking
inspiring to his students

according to the textbook
doesn't need to rhyme
no punctuation
japanese are really smart
grampa doesn't like them from wwii
but their poetry rocks

a roast beef sandwich
really good
especially with

the quick brown fox
jumped over
the lazy dog
then he got run over
the lazy dog smiled and went back to sleep

mrs. bologne
really nice in biology
that moustache

the curtain is fluttering
i'm bored
i smell grass
the fall leaves
also ben gay

you buy them for a girl, then they die
kind of like life

my fingernails
super long
i cut them
man it feels good

the thing
about haiku
no matter what you say
it sounds good because there's no capital letters or punctuation

the tips of her hair
over her freckles
her smile
she's dating that douche
why do girls like guys that suck

i'm thirsty
there's a drinking fountain
i take a drink
boom i'm not thirsty
kind of like life

the wind
a swirl of leaves
round and round in the corner
like they're getting their ass kicked

if i had friends those would be their names

i don't get
why the pittsburgh steelers
have their logo
on only one side of their helmets
why not have them on both sides

marky mark
marky mark
one hit and then done
what happened to him

today at lunch
i had a burrito
it was excellent
then i had a ding dong

i like these pants
but they're a little short
that's the thing about pants
either they're too long or they'e too short

raindrops on the windshield
she still has those freckles
i see her walking with him
shes wearing his lettermans jacket
he lettered in tennis which really isnt a sport

my friend bill
smell of an air freshener
kind of like life

I don't trust Vladimir Putin


Right now, most Americans oppose a strike against Syria.  Russian President Vladimir Putin may have done more than anyone to change their minds. 

In a
New York Times op-ed, Putin says that a U.S. strike in Syria would "throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."  He says "no one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria," but in contrast to every shred of evidence presented so far, he alone knows that the gas was used "by opposition forces, to provoke intervention." 

Then he sticks it all on the U.S.  "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. ... Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan 'you're either with us or against us.'"

Putin is a sleazebag.  Loathsome, swindling, Machiavellian.  A represser of free speech and gay people, thief of Super Bowl rings.  He poses for
shirtless horseback riding photographs.  It's hard to imagine a person in the world who cares less about human rights and international law.

So when he criticizes a particular U.S. policy — like trying to deter future chemical weapons from being used in Syria or elsewhere again — it makes me think that policy can't be all bad.