Sunday, August 28, 2011

My Trip to Costco

Alexas Loves Costco.

I took my first trip to Costco earlier this afternoon to purchase a membership. On the advice of a couple of friends, my wife was persuaded that the amount of groceries we purchase would easily make up for the price of joining over time. I'm not sure that it ever will, but that probably won't keep us from trying to milk every bit of savings that we can out of our membership. In addition to an obscenely large bottle of Scotch, we also bought a doggy bed for Alexas that is certifiably many times larger than she is, selling for roughly half the cost on Amazon.

Walking around the massive warehouse, I had several mixed reactions.

My initial thought was "this is exactly why Al Qaeda hates us," and while the conclusion is dramatic, it's also quite true. If Costco isn't the poster child for American opulence, then I'm really not sure what is. By every objective measure, that store is huge. Huge. It's shelves, which span the entire height and length of the building, are stocked full of every conceivable product one could ever want or need. (Although, there was a notable absence of products from Apple). From discounted computer software to relatively inexpensive and presumably, relatively fresh salmon, the store was a treasure trove of American consumerism. Given economic disparities between countries like America and, say, countries like Afghanistan, it's easy to see how the seeds of envy, jealousy, and hate could grow. Any 'reasonable militant' could simply look at places like Costco (or Sam's Club, BJ's, Walmart, Target, etc.), realize that such stores will never exist in her home country, and blame every economic woe on the 'greedy Americans' hogging all the goods.

On the other hand, I realize that I've used a loaded term, consumerism. In fact, somewhat frightening, and almost certainly annoying protests were held this weekend warning of the coming 'class war,' demanding to know 'which side are you on.' I fancy myself as more of a Switzerland whenever the class wars are waged, but as an unabashed proponent of the free-market, the libertarian in me responds to the sentimentalist above by noting, "That's just how markets work. Someone had the idea to form a company based on the concept of selling bulk products to consumers rather than selling to retailers only, and I'll be damned if the idea wasn't a smashing success. I will drink my ridiculously inexpensive alcohol tonight, and, accordingly, sleep like a baby - albeit a very drunk one." The simple point being that if local supermarkets can't compete, then shouldn't they go out of business? Why should the market reward inefficiencies?

But again the sentimentalist in me considers that the ground isn't exactly level at the foot of the economic cross. Companies like Costco can leverage billions of dollars in annual revenue to sell products at deeply discounted prices thanks to their incredibly low product mark-ups. Mom and Pop supermarkets could never compete because they lack billions of dollars to leverage and offer competitive pricing.

And on, and on the conversation goes. I don't claim to have a solution. If I did have a solution, you could (and should) contact the folks at the Nobel Headquarters, and tell them this year's Nobel Prizes for peace and economics have all but been picked up. I'd certainly be a more worthy recipient than our hapless President who somehow won the Nobel Peace Prize while orchestrating three wars around the world. Of course, he was only a warmonger twice-over at the time.

Still, the interesting thing about shopping at Costco was the simple fact that no one seemed to be having the internal dialogue above in their heads - except for me. That's when I realized that I am weird. So, rather than revel in my eccentricity, I happily walked up to the checkout to pay for the doggy bed and scotch, knowing that I would drink the scotch, and knowing that Alexas would still sleep in our bed rather than the doggy bed I had just purchased. In fact, after posing for the photo above, Alexas promptly got up, and lay down on our king-sized bed. And maybe that's the lesson of consumerism.

The point of consumerism isn't really to be satisfied. That would make the world markets tank for sure. The point of consumerism is to feel you need something, pretend you enjoy it, and then lumber back to the bed you're used to sleeping on.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thoughts on Blogging, and Time

Wasted Time

Earlier this week my wife was twenty minutes late getting out of work. I took my typical 11 mile bike ride to reach her office by 4:30PM, only to swelter for twenty minutes in 106 degree heat. By the time she emerged from the cavernous enclave better known as Tucson Medical Center, the water in my water bottle tasted like a hot cup of tea, minus the tea.

To understate matters, I was upset. But not with my wife. The lone thought that came to mind over and over while I baked on my favorite bench was how much I hate wasting time. The situation was a bit like Dostoyevsky's white bears, no matter how hard I tried not to think about wasting time, I ended up thinking about wasting time. This may seem a bit compulsive, and it really is, but I realized from a young age that time is the only thing in life that you can't get more of. You can get more money. You can acquire more possessions. If you are lonely, you can fill your life with with more relationships. The super lonely, like former NY Gov. Spitzer, can even pay to fill their lives with more relationships.

But as ex- Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated yesterday, you can't get more time, and that's why time is life's most important commodity.

It's a bit dramatic to say that a few minutes in the sun profoundly shifted how I think about blogging. But in some ways it did. Over the past week I started thinking seriously about this blog, the time I've devoted to it, and most importantly what I hope to see from it - not only in the coming days and weeks, but in the months, and hopefully years still to come. While I have changed templates, and layouts many, many, many times, I have never tried to make the blog anything more than it is: a place where I can opine, and hold court on whatever topic strikes my fancy. And I've done this for nearly seven years, come December 24th.

In that time span, I've made just under 2600 posts. My traffic has gone from an anonymous voice crying in the wilderness (NH) to a voice with a slightly bigger bullhorn, crying in a different wilderness (AZ). Our readership is still fairly modest, averaging only about 2500 hits per month. But that's still much better than when I averaged only about 40.

Given that our blog isn't very topical, it's probably a small miracle that anyone reads Pax Plena at all. The bulk of my posts concern politics, music, faith, book reviews, cycling, and the occasional Lolcat of the Week. But Pax Plena isn't devoted to any one of these topics in particular. Still, in the greater blogosphere, the actual range of blogs and their topics is as wide and as varied as the internet itself. Some blogs are very narrow in scope, covering niche areas like the intersection of life and career building, and the affairs of a specific technology company (guess which company). Stiil, other bloggers cover broad topics like Indian Lawpoliticstechnology, cycling, faith, minimalism, sports, sport teams, etc.

I guess my conclusion is that that after seven years of blogging, it's time to start narrowing down the focus here at Pax Plena. To be clear, I'm not worried about missing out on traffic. That's not the point. But I am interested in developing the blog into something that is more engaging, more interesting, and more useful to readers. I want Pax Plena to maximize the effort and time I put into it. And I think I can do this with a couple of adjustments.

Let me add, I don't feel these seven years have been wasted. (Although, I have, at times, been wasted during these past seven years.) I sincerely appreciate each and every hit that comes my way. You readers make the whole exercise worthwhile. My itch for change stems primarily from the fact that I don't want to waste the next seven years of blogging because I didn't create a vision for Pax Plena when I had the chance.

My task over the next few weeks will be to figure out what exactly this means in terms of content, and quality. I suspect it will mean higher quality pieces (e.g., no more short posts containing only snarky links for your perusal). And, in terms of content, I suspect that the blog will cover a narrower range of topics, in effort to become more topic-specific. Or at least more topic-specific. But for you the reader, this simply means what it always means. Stay tuned.

And, regardless of which direction the blog takes, let not your hearts be troubled. Lolcats of the Week are here to stay. Your blogger loves you.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tucson's Newest Cyclist

Gwyn s Bike

Years ago my wife Gwyn lived in an Amish commune where all forms of modern transportation were shunned. Alas, she never learned to ride a bicycle.

I kid, I kid. Gwyn isn't Amish.

But it is true that for various reasons (viz. reasons I do not know) my Dear Wife never learned how to ride a bike as a kid.

After making a post on Twitter about our bike lessons last week, I was surprised to hear from various friends and readers that first-time, adult cycling is not an isolated phenomenon. Turns out, there are quite a few folks who have never learned to ride two-wheelers as kids. Growing up in Oklahoma, I just took it for granted that every child knew how to ride a bike. It was the quickest way to get to the mailbox from Grandma's. It was the quickest way to get to school from Mom's. And bikes were much easier for a ten year-old to drive than the Gator, although the Gator was driven plenty when it came for fishing. Suffice it to say, life on the farm was markedly different than life in metro-area, Tucson, and times have changed mightily.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I tried to help Gwyn learn to ride a bike, using my trusty steed. But the tires on my road bike were way too narrow for a new rider to learn on. She did a fine job of balancing, but when it came time to peddle, she ended up losing control, getting frustrated with a bike she simply wasn't prepared to ride. To her credit, she never wrecked the bike, which is more than I can say for myself, and in fact, she didn't even take a tumble. But after a few hours in the drive way, it was clear that a road bike was not a good way to begin learning how to ride.

Over the weekend, we decided that the best way for her to learn to ride would be to buy her a bike that was better suited to her comfort level. We considered three criteria in shopping for a new bike: 1) A bike with wide tires to make for easier balancing, 2) One that allowed for the rider to ride upright rather than bent over, and 3) A bike that was not so expensive that she would be afraid to wreck it in the event of a fall. For the record, the last point was made more out of practicality than a sense of fatalism of Gwyn's biking ability. One's wallet cries a lot less when wrecking a cheap Schwinn, than when one wrecks a Novara Verita Bike - at least my wallet does.

Given that our main concern was cost, our bike shopping took us to Wal-Mart where we happened upon the ladies' Schwinn Admiral above. The bike boasts seven speeds, front and rear breaks, SRAM grip shifters, Shimano rear derailleurs, a bike rack, and a solid, steel frame. The bike seemed like a smart purchase, but what really sold her on this bike was its aesthetics - as you can see in the photo, it has a certifiably cool, retro look, coupled with extreme comfort while riding. Add to this a $149 price tag, and it was an easy purchase decision to make.

Gwyn will still need a lot of practice before she takes to the bike lanes along Skyline and Sunrise. But the change between a bike that was appropriate for her experience level, as opposed to my road bike, was remarkable. The last time we practiced riding, we spent at least two hours just learning how to balance on my road bike.  But within 15 minutes of getting the new bike adjusted, Gwyn had already mastered balancing on the bike, pushing off with her dominant foot, and pedaling unaided down the driveway. Before we called it an evening, she even felt comfortable making slow, 360 degrees turns!

Needless to say, I was quite proud of her.

I think there were probably two lessons that we took from the two bike-learning experiences.

First, a little patience goes a long way. This is an obvious lesson, but people have innately different senses of balance and caution. What works for one may not work for another, and this was difficult for me to remember. I just assumed that since it was easy for me to take up road biking, my wife would take to it as well. Really, what she needed was a bike that was better suited to her experience level.

Walk before you run, as they say.

Second, for adults learning to ride a bike, do yourself a favor and find a bike that you feel comfortable riding. Don't ride a bike simply because it's available. In terms of fit, Gwyn fell in love with her Schwinn hybrid because it allowed her to put both feet on the ground with ease. She also liked the comfy seat, and wide handle bars. At the end of the day, she loves her bike because it makes her feel comfortable to ride. And that's the point really: if it isn't fun, and it isn't comfortable, don't ride it. There are plenty of bikes available that can meet your needs.

Today we conquered the driveway. Tomorrow we might very well try the bike path. After that, who knows? Maybe one day we'll conquer the world.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Beta Fish Died Today

Empty Fish Tank

Our beta fish, Maestro, died this afternoon.

He fell ill early last weekend. He started acting strangely, floating on his side during the day, lying down on his side during the night. Soon his behavior became much more erratic. Without warning, he would sprint to the top of his tank for air, and allow himself to sink slowly back down to the bottom. After these fits of swimming, Maestro invariably came to rest on the smooth river rocks that lined the base of his tank. I like to think the cold stones gave him comfort.

When his illness began, my first instinct was to change his water, and this seemed to help. He showed a little sign of improvement, swimming around the tank, rather than swimming on his side. All seemed well for a day or two.

But last night the same symptoms came back. This morning I found him resting on the cool rocks again, his gills weakly breathing. Food held no interest to him. I can't imagine fish having overly complex minds. But it seemed like our little friend had simply lost the will to live.

This afternoon, I checked on him knowing the end was near. I found him in his favorite corner of the tank. He was already gone. But he looked at peace.

Maestro's tank sits empty now, beneath the windows in our living room. It's strange that a fish so small, could bring our lives such joy.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Little Pricks

Little Pricks

The piece I wrote earlier in the week about Ben Stein and the economic meltdown has weighed on my mind lately. It isn't a newsflash, but today's headlines abundantly suggest that we live in an era of unprecedented economic uncertainty, and global unrest.

Rioters in London burned their own homes in protest of UK budget cuts.

Wall Street twists in the economic winds - soaring on the smallest glimmer of economic hope, crashing with the least bit of turbulence.

Earlier in the week, naysayers warned of a Post-American planet, drearily musing whether we had already spent ourselves into oblivion.

Meanwhile, others have taken a fancy to questioning the value of higher education, as if society would be helped by the masses remaining uneducated, helpfully observing that most Americans are wasting money on anything more than a high school diploma (special reference made to law students).

In fact, people have become so fed up with bad news that nearly 200,000 people cancelled their cable TV subscriptions in the last quarter alone.

Not even President Obama gets a break. The latest poll numbers, bless his heart, show Generic Republican besting President Obama 47% to 42%. And just a couple of days ago his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard burned down (not really, but it did catch fire).

Make of the above what you will, but it seems fair to say that times are tough.

As the adage goes, desperate times call for desperate measures, so it seemed only appropriate to draw some words of wisdom from the Bible - just in case. Serendipitously, the writings of an old friend from high school (published on Facebook, no less), turned my weary eye to the fifth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans.

Paul writes:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 5.1

I won't say the winds instantly calmed when I read the verse above. But something like that happened. I looked outside of the kitchen window, and saw our cactus sitting on the porch, warming in the sun, its tiny pricks of yellow gingerly reaching toward skies of blue. It occurred to me, that the world economy could crash this afternoon, and my cactus couldn't care any less. So long as my wife provides it the occasional drink of water, it will thrive regardless of the calamities besetting the kingdoms of men.

I can't help but think the cactus has it right. The little prick. At risk of being over broad, the verse above strikes me as the simplest statement of Christianity ever written. At its core, the message is a compact one of assurance, written to all those twisting in the winds of the stock market, written to all those questioning whether their education is worth the price, and written to all those forced to watch Netflix Streaming because they cancelled their Cable TV package.

The message is that faith in Christ yields peace with God. Nothing more. Nothing less.

The other stirring aspect of the short verse is that it is without qualification. It does not assure peace only to stockbrokers. It does not assure peace if only we make the appropriate spending cuts accompanied by corresponding 'revenue increases.' The point is plain. Those justified by faith have peace with God. Period.

Now, Stein's article questions the premise of our calamitous world entirely. "Meltdown? What meltdown?" he would say. While it's fair to question the origins of the situation, it's also disingenuous to deny the phenomenon altogether. As my wife and I wait for student loans to come in, the reality of hard times is clear to us. We see similar concern among our circle of friends - mostly young professionals, and students, or some combination of the two.

By contrast, Paul more or less takes the same approach to reality as my cactus Paul says, embrace reality. Sometimes life sucks, but come what may, those justified by faith have peace with God. It will be ok.

And if that conclusion is good enough for my cactus, well, it's good enough for me.

 

 

PS: I realize the many jokes I could have made when I titled this post 'little pricks.' Most lawyers, Tiger Woods, and Ron Paul all come to mind. But gentle readers, I can only hope that my effort at more reflective commentary will compensate for lone cheap laugh I tried to get.

UPDATE: Ben Stein adds some more thoughts in today's (8/12/2011) essay on the 'meltdown,' and reaches somewhat similar conclusions to those I reached yesterday:

6. The speculators do not have all power. There is only One who has all power and I live by His rules, not by the rules of fear and panic peddled by some cable TV systems.

So, I can keep some perspective and go on with my life after all.

And I can look out on this magnificent mountain lake and think how it must laugh at stock markets and the affairs of men.

[Link]

Stein's lake laughs at the affairs of men, much like my little cactus laughed when I picked it up.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My First Bike Wreck

Lesson Learned

It was inevitable. My coordination and dexterity levels are somewhere around those of the African Bush Elephant.

Today, while riding down Tucson's Ft. Lowell Road, near the intersection of Ft. Lowell and Dodge, I hit a rough patch of pavement that sent me head over handlbars, off my bike. Fortunately for me, the asphalt broke my fall.

When I got up, the first thing I did was look around to see if anyone saw me. I'm not sure why I do this every time I fall. It's not as if I have any more dignity to preserve at that point. Alas, this spill must have been particularly nasty since a local businessman came out of his shop to check on me. Fortunately, only my pride was seriously hurt at the time. I'd give the man's business a plug, but I was too dazed to notice where he came from except that it was out of one of the shops.

Once I had gathered my bearings, and feebly called my wife for a lift and first aid, I took a quick look at the scourge that caused my spill. Turns out, there's a 15 yard stretch of bike lane, eastbound along Ft. Lowell Road that makes the infrastructure of entire third-world countries seem desirable. Unfortunately, while I was humming along about 20mph, I didn't see the massive hole until it was too late.

Photo Aug 03 12 15 42 PM  HDR

In truth, the fall could have been much worse than it was. The bike lane at that point isn't very wide, so a speeding car in the outside lane would have been a real problem for me. But the reality is that I escaped with only a swollen wrist, and a couple of gashes from the fall.

My bike came out of the incident relatively unscathed as well. The only battle wounds that resulted were scrapes on my left Shimano Shifter.

I suppose if there's a moral to this story, it's that the City of Tucson still has work to do to make its cycling infrastructure both convenient and safe. I suppose if I had broken my wrist I would be less forgiving, but as they say in basketball, "no harm, no foul." The problem with this view, of course, is that the next bike rider who comes along and wrecks in the same spot may not be so lucky.

© Pax Plena
Maira Gall