Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bad Ink

You know, you almost had me there with your cool flier. Maybe I'd get some ink like the young folks: an "Angel of Death" like my young artistic friend drew on my arm with a Sharpie a few days ago.

That might help me cultivate a tough-guy Biker image. I'm not a man to be trifled with. Don't start none, won't be none--understand?

Then the Redhead noticed you spelled "available" wrong.

That would be just my luck.

No spell-checker on the needle.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Two Ways of Thinking

Part of my job at the Alabama Forestry Association is to help our members make improvements in the "supply chain." The supply chain includes all the people and steps involved in harvesting and transporting trees and timber to mills where they are processed into the products that you and I use each day.

A major component of the supply chain is road transportation, specifically trucking. I've been trying to learn all I can about it, especially about safety and ways to improve it.

I recently took a short course from the Auburn University School of Engineering on "Road Safety Analysis." The focus of the class was to be able to analyze and process traffic accident data in order to make improvements to the road network (signage, lighting, etc) that could help increase safety and save lives.

I won't bore you with the details of the class, but I wanted to give you one of the case studies and the discussion that ensued. I think it illustrates the current political climate in the U.S.--the nature of the debate between those who believe that government has the answers to our problems versus those who believe that we as citizens are better able to run our lives.

Keep in mind that I was the only person in the class who was not employed by the government. The others were all state or federal employees.

A city in Florida went through a "beautification program" sometime back. A part of that effort concerned redesigning some of the streets to include more greenery--trees, shrubs, and flowers--the sort of thing, I suppose, intended to make people want to stroll along and shop.

One particular street was modified from four wide lanes of two-way traffic to four narrow lanes with a long island of trees and shrubs in the middle. One side of the street was residential--mostly apartments and multifamily dwellings. The other side was commercial; comprised of small shops, restaurants and bars.

All of this was indeed attractive. The median was thick and lush with greenery--a city block a couple of hundred yards long between the traffic lights with a little oasis in the middle. A great idea at face value: good for business and good for the "planet" (whatever that means).

It didn't take long for a problem to emerge, however. There were twelve pedestrian fatalities within a fifty yard area of the street in less than a year.

A federal safety team was sent to the city to investigate. They viewed the site, reviewed the police reports, and interviewed store owners and some people on the sidewalks. A pattern quickly became evident.

All of the fatalities were Hispanic men. There was a large community of Hispanic farm-workers living on the residential side of the street. Many were employed in the nearby orange groves, and these workers were all issued uniforms--green uniforms. In the first informal interviews conducted in the neighborhood, the team found that the "official" number of fatalities was probably understated. The police indicated they believed that some potential fatalities had been unreported--physical evidence had been present that families of the victims may have removed the bodies before police arrived.

The federal safety team was gathering some useful information until a resident asked them who they were and what they were doing. When one of the investigators identified himself as being a federal employee, communication stopped. The neighborhood cleared. People went back into their homes. Children left the playground. Doors were locked, curtains closed.

Many of these people were obviously "undocumented"--or illegal, if you prefer.

The safety team was naturally curious about the actual number of unreported fatalities. Since the opportunity for more interviews with residents was over, they located the nearest Catholic church, which happened to be a couple of blocks away. An interview with the priest provided another useful bit of information. He indicated that he had conducted at least six funerals in the last year in which the bodies had been badly traumatized--"like they had been hit by a truck." The families wouldn't talk, and he had been left to wonder at the fate of his parishioners.

The safety team surmised that the actual number of fatalities was possibly 18 to 20 in less than a year.

There was one piece of the puzzle left--the "why?" The investigation team came back the next evening to watch the road for clues. The mystery was quickly solved.

The buses carrying workers from the orange groves arrived about six p.m. Soon after, workers crossed the road through the median to a bar on the commercial side of the road. None went down the block to the traffic light--they simply took the shortest route in the middle of the block through the median. A couple of hours later after sunset, the same men crossed back singly or in pairs. Even a casual observer could tell that the drivers and pedestrians couldn't see each other after dark.

The instructor asked for potential solutions to the problem. I sat quietly and listened to the proposals from my fellow students (remember, they all work for government agencies):

"We need to canvas the neighborhood. Go door to door and hand out fliers. Have a 'town hall' meeting to discuss the problem. We should educate the Hispanics that we cross at the traffic light in this country."

Instructor: "Won't work. They don't trust you. They are afraid of being deported."

"How about an educational program at school? We develop training materials for the children, who will go home and discuss what they have learned with their parents."

Instructor: "Not bad, but that would take a long time. Eighteen people have already been killed in less than a year."

"How about doing the educational program through the church?"

Instructor: "Again, they don't trust you. If they didn't trust the priest enough to tell him what happened to their loved ones, what makes you think they will listen to you?"

The class fell silent. The instructor waited. I tried to be quiet, but that's not my strong suit.

"How about we cut down the trees down and get some lights put up? Plant some flowers or low-growing vegetation, but the rest has to go."

The instructor laughed. "I thought you were a tree man."

"I am. But no stupid beautification project is worth a human life."

He laughed again.

That is exactly what the city did--along with some additional lighting and a couple of signs.

Problem solved.

Now lest you misunderstand me, let me make something very clear. My recounting this story is not an attempt to make anyone look stupid or me look smart. It is simply a juxtaposition of two ways of looking at a problem. The students who were government workers thought in terms of government solutions. They were sincere in their belief that "programs" could solve the problem. They had no hidden agenda, and I really believe they thought their solutions would be effective.

My belief is that programs take time and cost lots of money. Our country doesn't have a surplus of either. I believe that direct approaches are better.

This is the true nature of the political debate in the U.S. today in the simplest of terms. Throw out all the labels, all the rhetoric, all the name-calling and political spin and you are left with one simple question: "who do I believe is best able to run my life?"

I hope you think it's you. I do.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Dog Tale

This little story is for my young friend Stephanie Pugh.

Steph recently lost a dog. I've lost a couple in the last few years. If you haven't loved and lost, you won't understand the way we grieve for an animal. And if you haven't loved at least one dog in your life--well, that's just sad. You've missed one of the great pleasures of life.

This story sounds like fiction, but it's not. I don't write much fiction, because I'm not smart enough. Besides, there are enough real stories around if you pay attention.

When I was very young, my mother's aunt and uncle lived in the country near Bessemer, Alabama. We would visit them on occasion, taking my grandmother (who couldn't drive a car) to visit her sister.

Uncle Lewis had an English Bulldog named "Tubby." He was getting old and grumpy by the time we first met, and I was warned not to pet him because he "didn't like children" and might bite. That was tough for a five-year-old kid. He looked like a big sack of slobbering sunshine.

The interesting thing about old Tubby was his daily routine.

Tubby's favorite treat was salted peanuts. He liked to have a small bag as a mid-afternoon snack. Uncle Lewis had taught him a unique way to get them.

There was a little country store not too far down the road. Every day about two o'clock, Tubby would begin to beg for his treat. Uncle Lewis would reach into his pocket, take out a dollar and give it to Tubby. He'd hold the bill in his mouth and go to the door to be let out.

Tubby made the trek to the store (where the owner was waiting), hand over the dollar, and receive his precious bag of salted peanuts. He then made the trek back home, bag in mouth, and scratch on the door to be let back in the house. He'd give the bag to my Uncle Lewis, who opened them and rewarded the bulldog for his savvy.

Too bad we didn't have YouTube back then. You wouldn't be able to say I made this up.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

An Open Letter to Auburn/Opelika, Alabama Politicians

Dear Idiots:

I hope you took the opportunity to ride around our little communities today.

Perhaps you noticed the traffic and the difficulty in finding a parking space at all our major shopping areas. Probably the largest crowds we've had in several years. Larger crowds than we've had during the holiday shopping season in the last three years.

I'm no genius politician like you all are, but I think it might have something to do with it being a "no sales tax holiday" across our great state. Seems that people will still get out and buy the things they need when they can save nine cents out of every dollar they spend, even in a recession, double-dip recession, global depression, or whatever you want to call this malaise.

Weren't you all the ones who raised our sales tax (coincidentally in both towns on the same day) a couple of months ago?

Might there be a lesson in this for you? Or are you just too stupid to understand human behavior and basic economics?

Perhaps if you cut our sales tax in half, we could have this kind of activity all along. People would buy all year long, and your precious revenues would actually increase. You could probably even all vote yourself a pay raise.

Enjoy your remaining time in office. Some of you will no doubt be re-elected, because voters have short memories.

But I don't. I won't vote for any of you, and I'll do my best to remind others not to either.

Have a great weekend, jackasses.