Saturday, May 23, 2009

Are You a Native of Your State?

The history of America is about movement. The westward movement was the biggie. In some branches of my ancestral family, I can follow it along generation by generation, from Plymouth Rock Colony (Massachusetts), to Connecticut Colony, the Western Reserve (Ohio), Indiana, Iowa, and California. Another branch went from the New England colonies to Iowa with a stop in Ontario, Canada instead of Ohio or Indiana. My dad's grandfather did a boomerang movement, emigrating from Germany to Iowa, moved to Minnesota, then to Nebraska, and finally back east to upstate New York where he farmed to the ripe old age of 88.

People moved for different reasons, but often it was for economic ones. Often their livelihoods in those days were centered on the acquisition of land, and moving west afforded that opportunity. Once the country was more or less settled and the frontiers were closed (considered to be around 1890 by historians), they still moved around some, but many would put down roots and several generations might live in the same area. When it came, wartime was often an occasion that saw much movement within the country, naturally enough for economic reasons. Lots of farmers moved from agricultural regions to the cities where they engaged in war work making munitions, ships, or aircraft. Lots of poor people in the South moved north to the cities for work. On it goes; people still move around when they can find a better deal for themselves in a place different from the one they live in.

California has long been a place of economic opportunity and that's why many people from other states flocked there for a good long time, like starting in the Gold Rush of 1849, and continuing unabated even now, as people from Mexico and China still find it a better place to live than their home land. California has, for the most part, a forgiving climate that attracts people and enterprises. It has major seaports. A remarkable set of circumstances emerged to create what modern people would call a synergy that resulted in this great economic engine that is California.

The population movement continues now with the out-migration of people from California. Those leaving tend to be middle class, white and retired or close to retirement. As they retire, they want to live in a place with a lower cost of living and no state income taxes, like Nevada. This is simply the ages-old American tradition of looking for a better deal.

It isn't limited only to individuals who wish to move out of California. I was watching an interview on CNBC and it involved a businessman who had relocated to Nevada. His view was that lots of businesses are fleeing California, which has business costs that are typically 20% higher than other states. With the state budget currently 24 billion dolars in the hole, the future doesn't look any better.

I myself was a refugee from California. We moved to Washington state over 22 years ago. It was partially about money, because at that time we could buy more house for the money here than where we lived. There were other reasons, though. Neither of us particularly like heat, so we wanted to live in a cooler climate. We also never really felt that imbedded in the "California culture" and thought a move to another location might be for the better in that way.

In the intervening 22 plus years, where we moved to in Washington state has become increasing built-up and overdeveloped to the point where I'd move again if given the chance. I'm not allowed to move again, however, as my wife wants to stay around our adult children.

I'd lived for a summer in Washington in 1968, and had wanted to move there since that time. It took me 19 years to get around to it, and when I did it wasn't because other Californians were doing so. When we did move, other California emigrants were turning up here and there, but the big wave didn't hit until a few years later. There was a certain amount of resentment among some native Washingtonians against California migrants. After while, if the subject came up in a conversation and the person didn't already know me, when asked where I had grown up, I lied and said, "Iowa". They'd say something like, "Oh, that's a nice state." So, it was okay to be from any state other than California. California was unique as an object of rancor and demonization. We've all seen those bumper stickers that say "Colorado Native" or "Washington Native" or whatever. Native son pride. In many places, it means something to some people to be a local. I was born in California, a "Native Son of the Golden West" as they used to say, and not that common when I was in elementary school and many kids were "from somewhere else". California is the one place where being a "Native" isn't worth a s**t because so many people are from somewhere else; it's a pluralistic society that doesn't place any value on the provincial notion of being a local.

I've spent some time in Missouri when I was stationed there in the Army, and I later had a co-worker who lived there for nine years. In those small towns there, even if you have lived there for 20 or 25 years, you will always be an outsider because you weren't born there. It's the same way in western Iowa where my parents are from.

Some time ago, I had a discussion along these lines with a good friend of mine. We came to the conclusion that there's more to making a major move than economics. In order to make the move for that or any other reason, the people involved need to have a certain sense of adventure, or to put it a better way perhaps, they have be of the sort of personality that can overcome a reluctance to leave a comfortable situation. Not financial comfort, but the comfort of their familiar surroundings. Some people just can't do it. Naturally enough, people who are landed or well-to-do have less reason to leave their happy homeland. Of those who are not wealthy and have an opportunity to leave for some other place where the pickings might be better, some just can't bring themselves to do it.

I have to say from my own experience, even if you have the will and disposition to make a major move, it isn't particularly easy. You have to move your stuff which can be quite an undertaking if you have much. You have to find new banks, doctors, places to shop, and so on. You will be moving into at least one strange house, and maybe more if you rent before you buy. Your surroundings will all be new and that takes come getting used to and learning to navigate a new area is required. If you are working, you have a new workplace, new bosses and fellow employees to get used to, etc. If you have children, they will be going to new schools, finding new friends (or not), and doing new things or having trouble doing old ones. It's a pretty big deal.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sad State Affairs for the US Auto Industry

2003 Pontiac Bonneville

When I was in the Mount Vernon, WA area recently, I decided to drive by the dealer where I bought my Ford Crown Victoria in 2005. This dealer was about 40 miles away from my home, but I purchased the car there because it was a left-over new 2004 that they still had in their inventory the next model year. This dealer, Skagit Motors, gave me a very steep discount on the car to move it out. When I bought it, they gave me a nice calendar with a picture on it they made when I took delivery of the car. The calendar was designed to be used over again, year after year with a new refill pad. That's what I went by the dealer for today, to get a new refill for my calendar.

This car dealer was built north of town on some river low-lands, and was located in a complex that was promoted and developed as a kind of retail auto mall. There were many dealers located there, and the idea was a person could come to one location and shop around among all the brands offered to find the one car they wanted. The whole area was new, big, spread-out, and filled with new cars. When I have been in this complex a few times before, it was always bustling with activity. They even built a shopping area across the road from the car mall where you could go to get a meal and buy other things while you were in the midst of your car-buying spree.

Today, I visited this same car shopping mall for the first time in a couple of years (since the last time I needed a calendar refill). What a change has come over this place. The Ford dealer was still there, but there wasn't a single customer on the lot anywhere that I could see. There were five unhappy looking salesmen in the showroom with no customers to show cars to. They did give me a calendar refill, but it's a very cheap version of what I'd been given before.

Worse, the General Motors dealership that had been located across the street was closed and the lot was completely vacant. The Dodge/Chrysler dealer that had been next door was no longer a franchise dealer, but had been set up as a used car lot. Next door beyond that, the former Lincoln-Mercury dealer was closed up and a used car lot had replaced it. The Dodge and the L-M signs were still up on the lots, but only because it costs money to take them down and nobody in this business is spending one dime more than necessary. There were some other vacant lots around, but two import dealers were still open a little way to the north. The shopping area across the road from the auto mall was nearly all vacant, with businesses closed and just empty rooms behind the plate glass windows to look into. This former hive of commercial activity has had the flame turned down very low.

I noticed the Ford dealer had seven shiny, new Lincoln MKS sedans lined up out front. In the past, this dealer was not franchised to sell Lincoln-Mercury products. Since the L-M dealer nearby folded, I wonder if the manufacturer needed a place to shuffle these $50K cars off to and the Ford dealer was a convenient solution. I'll bet the manufacturer gave them a hefty incentive to take them; and I imagine that you can get a steep discount on one -- if you need a flashy car like that. Well, the factory has to do something with them. When the L-M dealer closed, these expensive cars had to go somewhere, and you can't expect another dealer to take this distressed merchandise onto their books easily without something to make them attractive in the way of making a profit.

It's ironic that at the time the American auto companies are in deep trouble, some of their stuff is the best they've ever made. Ford products, which I am fairly familiar with and have looked at new models of over the past year, are the highest quality they've ever made. Plus, they have a number of innovative new models both available and more coming shortly. One of my personal favorites is the new Ford Flex.

The legacy of Daimler-Benz's short involvement at Chrysler is still showing with their rear wheel drive cars, like the 300 series, the Dodge Magnum, and the Dodge Charger which are all good products and help me to forget the many years of shoddy front wheel drive cars they built that you had to put a couple of new trannies in before you hit 100K miles. Those nice, sturdy, economical Sprinter vans are a Euro legacy too. But, D-B has been out of the picture for a while now and it makes you wonder what Chrysler is going to do for new engineering and styling.

General Motors quality is still a bit behind, especially on their lower-priced cars. They have a number of innovative cars coming down the pipeline that show promise, but the question now is, will the company last long enough to see them have an impact on the market. I can't wait to see that stinkin' Cadillac Escalade hit the skids; it's a symbol of all that has gone wrong with America. Unfortunately, there are probably enough over-paid basketball players and other posers around to keep them in production. So, G.M. has to down-size, and they keep Chevrolet as the mass production brand (rental companies still need them) and they keep Cadillac because the profit margin on each unit is high. I can't figure out for the life of me why they picked Buick to retain and let Pontiac go. I don't know what the production figures were, but Pontiac had a full range of product, from small economy cars up to luxury sedans, plus they had the sports cars and even an SUV (the butt-ugly Aztec might just be the reason they decided to kill the brand!!) Buick doesn't have that breadth of product, and in this area at least, that share of the market. I see tons of Pontiacs around here but not that many Buicks. Well, maybe G.M. wanted to get rid of the very diversity of product that Pontiac had and concentrate on a narrower share of market. If that's the case, they must realize that they have surrendered a certain amount of market share to concentrate on another.

As bad as the situation is with the manufacturers, the plight of the dealers around the country and their workers tends to get forgotten as a part of the problem. Not only do the sales personnel suffer due to lack of new car sales, but the service department employees have less work to do as fewer and fewer cars are sold, and add to that the lousy economy keeps some people from bringing in their cars for repairs. A lot of the mechanics in the business, and in particular in rural areas, are walking around with their hands in their pockets.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mini Greenhouse Project

I'm not a serious collector of plants, but I do have 15 or 20 cactus and succulent plants. Many years ago when I lived in California, I had a large collection of them and even a small cactus garden. A few of the plants that I still have are remnants of that long-ago interest. Three or four of these are over 40 years old, my having gotten them in the mid-1960's.

When I moved from California in 1987, I left most of my plants at my parent's home where they have struggled along in a state of neglect for over 20 years. In the past couple of years when visiting my mother, I've taken some steps to close out the surviving remainder of those plants. Where I live now in Washington state is not a climate that is particularly conducive to growing cacti. However, enthusiasts cultivate cacti in England so why not Washington? I brought about six or eight plants home with me on two separate trips. I figured I had nothing to lose, as left mostly without care as they were, they would eventually perish anyway. With careful care, including moving them indoors for their winter rest period and out of the wet, they stood a decent chance of survival. So far, this has worked.

Part of my plan to cultivate these plants in Washington is to place them outdoors during good weather. In the Pacific Northwest, that means when there is no longer any danger of freezing and the moisture has eased up a bit. This period is approximately from mid-April to early October.

To enhance this time outdoors, two years ago I decided to get a small greenhouse. I didn't want to spend a fortune for so few plants, so I bought a folding, tent-like mini-greenhouse online. It was made out of plastic tarp material with a spring steel band that held it up. It lasted two years and by the time the second year was up, it was badly deteriorated and no longer serviceable. I decided that I would buy something more substantial to replace it. Checking online, I couldn't find anything that I could afford or that I wanted. I decided to make exactly what I needed. The pictures above show the result. The design rather follows the pattern of the punishment sheds in "Bridge on the River Kwai" but the sheathing materiel is clear, not steel. I'm no carpenter, but I took my time making this mini-greenhouse and used many existing materials that I had stashed away. The lumber was all freebies or scrap, and much of the hardware was as well. I had to buy three sheets of the clear PVC sheathing material for about $12.50 apiece, so by the time I got finished I had $50 or a little more in the project.

The stand or base that the mini-greenhouse is sitting on was not part of this project. I already had that on hand. I was driving down a street not far from my home, and this stand was sitting in a front yard with a "free" sign on it. I think it was originally made to support a water heater off the floor (code requirement). It looked potentially useful to me, so I stopped and wedged it into the trunk of my wife's Pontiac Bonneville. Before placing my mini-greenhouse on it, I covered the top with a remnant of some vinyl flooring that was left over from one of our bathrooms.

Now, I have my plants moved into it. There's plenty of room left; I may even get a tomato plant to put in there to use up the extra space.

If you're eating in the South and you wonder what that while pile on your plate is, them's grits

This question might just occur to you if you are travelling in the southern US for the first time.

Southerners can be sensitive about what you do with that white pile on your plate when they serve it to you. I have committed some of the violations of the "10 Commandments of Grits."

Grits are just another form of corn meal, ground a little more coarsely.

My mother, who was from Iowa, used to make Corn Meal Mush. Right after it was cooked, we would eat some of it as hot cereal, sugared, with half and half on top, and usually with some buttered toast for dipping. Then the rest would be refrigerated and it would solidify overnight. The next morning, my mother would fry up a big batch of Fried Mush in an iron skillet. The results were crisp, thinly sliced hot little morsels that we would put butter on and finally sorghum or molasses. If there wasn't any of those two sweeteners, we'd use clear Karo corn syrup which I still use on all pancakes, waffles, and French toast. When I travel on the road, I carry a bottle of Karo clear in the trunk of my car 'cause most eateries only have maple.

The frying of the Mush generated tons of smoke throughout the house and I can still recall seeing things through a fog on those mornings.

The four food groups of Iowa are:

1. Grease
2. Fat
3. Sugar
4. Starch

Many of those old Iowa farm gals in my family had some pretty hefty hams on their upper arms to testify to this fact.

The first time I had grits served to me was in Georgia. I knew right away what they were, sitting there piled in a puddle of molten butter. I asked the waitress for a bowl, which she brought to me. I scooped up the grits and dumped them into the bowl. Then, I sugared them and poured the coffee cream onto them and had a first class bowl of hot cereal. To this day, I keep a box of grits in the kitchen to be made into hot cereal on occasion. I can only hope that I don't go to Hell for treating grits so harshly.