Archive for October, 2008

Burn Baby, Burn

If death and taxes are life’s two most prominent features then I’m probably skating on thin ice because I’ve been smoking cigarettes for my entire adult life. I can’t imagine how much I’ve paid in tobacco taxes. Ohio taxes a pack of cigarettes at $1.25 per pack, so at the very least, I’ve given $35+ to the state, per month, for the past eight years. Roughly speaking, that’s $3,360 in taxes over the course of my Ohio residency.

The fact is however, that I never looked at it from a cost perspective. I smoked because I liked doing it. Doing so is not unlike spending $200+ for a game-day ticket to OSU football, except that smoking costs less. Factor in all the junk food and OSU paraphernalia like t-shirts, jerseys, body paint and car-mounted flags and smoking cigarettes for a month is considerably less expensive than attending one OSU football game.

Earlier in the year when I stopped buying cigarettes I discovered that I felt really lonely without them. I’m not much of a social butterfly and the activities that I’ve grown to enjoy – reading and writing, have almost always been accomplished with a cigarette in hand. If I went out for a coffee somewhere, I could sit quietly and contemplate the world around me while enjoying a smoke. No one really thinks it odd to see someone sitting and smoking alone at a cafe.

“He must be taking a well-deserved break” or “he’s obviously thinking through some terrific new idea”. This is what I thought when I noticed others doing it. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand refers to a lit cigarette as symbolizing a fire in the mind, the fire of creative ideas. Considering that Atlas Shrugged is said to be the basis of Alan Greenspan’s economic philosophy, who was I to argue with any of it?

The other activity I’ve always been fond of and precisely for the same reason, is bicycling. Its something that I can do most anywhere, and like the contemplation undertaken while smoking, I can contemplate the world while quietly moving through the space around me. When I lived in Utah I’d head out in the mornings for a day of riding through the canyons and higher elevation neighborhoods and when I returned home later in the day, I’d smoke a pack of cigarettes. Strangely ironic, but perhaps my success with integrating the two activities had something to do with the high-altitude training.

Smoking in Salt Lake City was an act of social rebellion. Paired with drinking – booze or coffee, it sent the non-verbal message that few dared to speak. For eleven of my fourteen years in Utah I lived in the golden glow of Angel Moroni. I had to move my bed to the other side of the room to avoid being kept awake from the spot lights that shined upon the center spire of the Temple. Maybe it was tit-for-tat, but those spotlights irritated me and having a smoke and a cup of coffee on my front stoop was social retribution.

When my social life turned to Finland I found no better place to sit alone and smoke than in Helsinki. Sober, the Finns have a difficult time being social so at most any cafe it was possible to sit for hours without saying a single word to anyone other than the clerk. With limited language skills at the onset, there couldn’t have been a better combination. When the social situation improved, things changed.

The Finns don’t smoke inside their homes, so a gathering always meant going outside to smoke. Even in the winter. Getting dressed to go out took the same amount of time as burning through one cigarette. While the tips of our cigarettes were on fire, our nose hairs were turning to ice. Still it seemed worth it.

In 1998 it was still permissible to smoke in Little Rock’s supermarkets. While I never went so far as doing that I marveled at the frail and wrinkled old women who tapped melons with one hand while holding a cigarette in the other.

When Columbus banned smoking in bars I vowed to stop going out for drinks. Smoking and drinking have been one in the same, like steak and potatoes, burgers and fries, and Jesus and the cross. Its a set. For awhile it was actually nice because I could buy a six pack for a lot less than drinking six at a bar and I had more money for cigarettes, but I was missing out on the social scene.

That was until I discovered that one of my favorite neighborhood bars was ignoring the ban. I popped in one night and discovered, through the thick blue haze, dozens of my neighbors tossing back drinks and enjoying cigarettes – at the same time!
“Linda?” I said as I fanned aside the smoke. “Is that you?”. I’d never seen Linda in a bar, and for that matter, anywhere without her husband in tow. But there she was, living it up. Drinking, smoking and laughing with everyone else. It was like the roaring ’20’s in there on any given night and I went back often. That bar had never been so much fun and the fact that we were getting away with something made it all the more exciting.

When the State cracked down I stopped going out again. Bars were getting old anyway and I was busy. I’d smoke on the way to work and on the way home or invite a friend or two over for a beer on the porch. And in the morning, it was coffee, cigarettes and reading the news on-line.

There was a natural order in things and my morning coffee and cigarettes were part of that natural order. During the night the Asian markets opened. Later the European markets opened and by the time I was awake, thanks to coffee and cigarettes, I was ready for a bowel movement prior to the opening of the US markets. They wouldn’t dare ring the bell until the counter-clock-wise rush of water made its way to the Scioto River.

When I started riding the bus to work in January I found that my smoking decreased. The stress of driving went away and while I occasionally lit up at the bus stop I couldn’t suck down two or three while on the way home. The important thing to remember was to smoke before making a transfer at Broad and High. Smoking there leads to being badgered by others for a cigarette, so before disembarking, the pack must remain out of sight at all times.

Limiting my driving offered a tremendous savings and when I tallied things up I discovered that I was spending five times more on cigarettes than I was on gasoline. The rate at which I smoked hadn’t changed but suddenly I felt ashamed of my gas-to-cigarette ratio.

When spring arrived I thought of planting tobacco after the garden had been tilled. Honestly, tobacco would have been the most cost-effective crop to plant and would have reduced my expenditures to such that I would have been able to pay off the car six months sooner. Publicly, I stated that I wanted to grow my own vegetables to lessen the amount that were trucked in. It was a way to reduce my carbon footprint – but secretly I wanted to grow tobacco so I could increase my carbon intake.

Soon enough I realized that it was time to stop. I was still bicycling – ten or twenty-mile rides still took place and I felt fine afterwords. To be able to do that twenty years from now seemed very unlikely and the vision I had of myself in twenty years looked more appealing in spandex than it did with an oxygen tank.

I didn’t finish the last pack of cigarettes that I had. I soaked the remainder of the pack in water and went out to buy some nicotine gum. It tasted better than I remembered – we used to have it on the plane at Finnair and it tasted like clay. I had to rearrange pieces of my life when I stopped smoking. The summer nights were the most difficult because it meant no more beer drinking on the front porch. It also meant limiting with whom I went out for coffee.

While the Nikkei and the FTSE opened on schedule certain parts of my anatomy did not despite my morning coffee. My bowels were tied in knots. The natural rhythm had been tampered with and consequently this was about the same time that the cracks in the banking system started. I won’t go so far as to say that there’s a correlation, but the timing is rather suspicious.

I wasn’t in a bad mood because I wasn’t smoking. The gum took care of that.  I was in a bad mood because I was bound up on the inside as if I’d eaten a block of cheddar. Something had to give – so I started smoking again. Within ten minutes I felt normal.

Eight days ago I decided, again, that I’d had enough. I soaked the remaining pack of cigarettes with water and went out to buy more gum. It’s getting colder and the desire for front-porch beer is over. The windows of the house are now closed up. The banking problems continue but the worst of it is probably over.

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I was looking forward to pulling in the additional WOSU stations with my newly acquired DTV converter box.  Unfortunately I ended up with no WOSU stations and even fewer TV stations than with analogue, so I decided to create my own content.

This is my first attempt with any video of any kind.  Even as a kid we never had home movies – so this is truly a milestone for me.

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When October Arrives

I get antsy when October arrives. When I was working for the airlines I would look forward to the start of my leisure travel season.  Summer traffic was over and the peak holiday travel was still over a month away.  Domestic and international flights were left to business travelers and there were always open seats to just about anywhere.  A weekend on either coast or a week in Europe was completely “do-able” – and there was still time to clean up the yard for winter.

Most of the time I’d take the entire month off from work.  After seventeen years of that, it’s still in my blood.  I’d kept a visual diary of my flights for years and this weekend I unrolled it.  Always wishing for an electronic copy it had never dawned on me to take a picture of it until today.  So here it is. (Control +) click to make the image larger.

The jumbled web of red lines over North America represent the life of a domestic flight attendant.  The long string of red lines stretching to Europe represent the good life of international flying.

I was fortunate to have worked with the airlines during the last golden age of air travel.  For the majority of my seventeen years of service the industry was expanding but it became evident by the turn of the century that things were changing.  Our duty days increased, our layover time decreased and shortly after I left the industry the pay cuts began.  Essentially, the industry was correcting itself.

The only part I really miss is being able to see my friends that are strewn throughout the globe.  There was a time when I’d easily fly to Miami to meet a friend for coffee, or pop into Little Rock to do laundry and visit a friend before heading back to work.  Dinner in San Francisco or a weekend in Montana were once the norm.

Thanks to Internet I’m able to remain in touch with a lot of old friends but we see each other less often.  I’m now more likely to join a friend for coffee in Upper Arlington, enjoy lunch in the Short North and grab dinner in German Village.  Still, it’s October and I long to fly away.

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It Only Requires an Invitation

You never know who you’re going to meet and when.  Last week while I was chatting on line I noticed someone near Cleveland who made mention of Finland in their profile.  I sent a message in Finnish and he replied in Finnish.  The conversation started.   For the hours that followed, we related stories back and forth, concluding that many of our experiences there were similar.

The similarities were uncanny.  We were both born in the US.  We both studied the language in and out of school, and as it happens, we have connections to two small farm towns in Finland that are only 32 km apart.  The conversation expanded when we discovered that his landlord in Brussels was an acquaintance of mine from Helsinki.  Really, what are the chances?

I had plans to go to Cleveland to see David Sedaris on Friday and he mentioned that he’d thought about going.  Because of a last minute cancellation, I had a spare ticket and offered it to him.  He accepted and later suggested that I come up and spend the day with he and another professor who was originally from Finland.  I accepted his invitation.  There was little hesitation considering what we had in common.

The drive up took me through parts of Ohio I’d never seen before.   From our base in Oberlin the three of us headed through Cleveland and to the small town of Fairport Harbor just thirty miles east.  The town’s economy once hinged on manufacturing and was settled by Finnish immigrants.  Today manufacturing is gone but the town is home to the Finnish Heritage Museum.  At the museum we were greeted by local residents who volunteer to keep the place up and running.  Coffee and traditional Finnish pastries mixed with conversation for the better part of the morning.

From there we ventured into Ashtabula County to check out the Covered Bridge Festival using maps and GPS to find our way through the back roads.  When we could, we left the car and walked and we did so through the town of Ashtabula, a town that has seen better days to put it mildly.  Along the lakeshore were the skeletons of former manufacturing facilities.  Rusting and fenced off, but beyond, the beautiful vastness of Lake Erie.

Hearing about the job losses in Ohio is one thing, but to actually see what has been left behind is quite another and it becomes easy to see why the state’s population is moving away and why the economic situation in Ohio is problematic.

Yet, despite the adversity, these little towns contain kernels of optimism, such as the pride invested in the new covered bridge that recently opened near Ashtabula.  A covered bridge wasn’t necessary here, but the traditions remain and hundreds of people lined the banks to see it.   A Washingtonian, a Minnesotan and a Finn were there as well.

While the trip was only around four hundred miles in total, I witnessed a couple of decades of Ohio history.   From the pre-Civil War mansions to the collapse industrialism – icons of the past dotted the landscape.  I came to realized that innovation has kept Ohio alive for generations.  Canals were replaced with railroads.  Railroads were replaced by automobiles and air planes. Manufacturing was added to agricultural.  Banking moved in.  Retail, education and medical facilities keep the city of Columbus afloat.  A renovated theater district in Cleveland brings new life into the city.

Perhaps its time to focus on innovation as the future of Ohio’s economy.  We can lament the layoffs and plant closures – wishing for a return of Ohio’s traditional workplaces, but wouldn’t it be wiser to harness the states resources to bring prosperity through innovation once again?

Our vast shoreline awaits use as an energy source.  Wind and tides have the potential to create electricity.   Idled manufacturing plants await new owners and the production of new items.  Vast acres of land with magnificent views await repopulation.  Vacated urban cores and small towns sit waiting.  Railroads connect all of it.

Ohio has the potential to become an innovative leader again – but we must first invite innovation to arrive.  We must take the lead and make Ohio into a 21st century incubator for innovation.  Every effort should be made to attract the businesses of experimentation and discovery to the state of Ohio.

We have the infrastructure to invest in experimental agriculture practices.  We have the natural resources to become the center of experimental energy production.   Our fields allow the winds to pass over them without being harnessed.  Our factories are poised to build these solutions.

Our cities are close enough to one another and this benefit should be used to showcase experimental and innovative transportation solutions.  Our cities are poised to benefit through unique social programs and experimental housing options.  Our schools can benefit when we work as communities to find new solutions to education rather than simply asking for more money.

In the past innovation has swept through Ohio.  Today we have to invest in bringing it back.  The challenge Ohio faces now is that other states are trying to do the same thing.  We just have to do it better, faster and more efficiently.  The benefit Ohio has is that the infrastructure and the resources are already here.  We only need a political climate to foster its return.

Columbus is fortunate because we’re doing well here even though Ohio as a whole is suffering.  As a city we do well in attracting the best and the brightest from around the world.  We have fun, as a city, experimenting with new ideas and creating new opportunities.  The dialogue and creativity produced here brings about more of the same.  People who have never been to Columbus come here and find things they would have never expected.

Now imagine a state-wide business model that invites the same innovation and experimentation.  Think of what can happen when we embrace the new changes that, like the past, have made Ohio a long-term beneficiary of whatever is coming next.

There is always a risk involved in putting forth and accepting an invitation to the unknown.  I traveled to a place I’d never been to spend time with people I’d never met.  It was a calculated risk indeed, but what was gained by accepting the invitation brought three people together who shared ideas, expanded a knowledge base, saw things they’d never seen before and met others who were willing to do the same.  If there hadn’t been an invitation, there would have been nothing more than talk.

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From Oberlin, Ohio

Mobile post sent by Urbaninfill using Utterlireply-count Replies.  mp3

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Join the Merion Village Association for it’s first Green Workshop on Saturday, October 18th.  Whether you have a large lot or a small plot of land, these workshops will provide you with resource-saving tips that will prepare you for spring gardening.  Rain barrel and composting kits will be available for purchase on site.

The event is open to all residents of the city.  Proceeds benefit the Merion Village Center.

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