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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Trickle Down Economy?

We're facing State Govenor and Senatorial elections in November, and a bunch of others I can't remember, so campaigning is rife. I don't get to vote as I'm not a citizen, but I can watch and wonder what is going to happen.

Obama and the Democrats are facing what has been called The Enthusiasm Gap. As I recall, what Obama promised in his campaigning and post-election speeches was a long, hard haul to get out of the economic recession, and that it would take years, probably longer than his longest possible 8-year period of office. Somehow people took this to mean a short, easy haul, and as we're still in the recession two years on they are losing enthusiasm. To be dreadfully generalistic, Americans are very much about instant gratification, and if they can't have it NOW with chocolate sprinkles on top then it isn't worth waiting and someone needs to be blamed.

For two years the Republicans have been on a platform of just saying no to every Democratic effort, but they've realised that you have to actually have some policies of your own for an election, so they are now campaigning on a platform of tax cuts for the rich, and reducing "Big Government".

The idea of the former is that richer rich people will create jobs for everyone else, so the more money they have the better for everyone (eventually). The tax cuts would result in a budget deficit of $70,000,000,000 (that's $70 billion) over ten years, so naturally that can only be balanced by a reduction of "Big Government" which translates in reversing the new health system initiatives that for me are key to a better America.

The problem with the Republican plans are that they've already been tried, and failed. Bush already intiated tax cuts for the super rich, and it didn't stimulate the Economy. The question now is whether they are allowed to continue, or we go back to higher rate taxes for the rich. What the economy needs is money in the hands of people who spend it on goods and services within the country, and that is the middle and lower income families.

"Big Government" is not something that Obama invented or created, but something that has been developing for decades. The idea is that the Government has grown too big and pries too much into private affairs, thus spending tax dollars on matters in which it should not be involved. I'm all for reducing Government spending, but not at the cost of a 100% privatised medical system. I know people who have been financially wiped out by a single medical bill, and I see a lot of people who are not getting the treatment they need because they can't afford it and haven't got the insurance to pay for it.

What I'm really hoping is that as the country climbs out of recession (and it might take another ten years), regardless of who is in charge, that the average American has learnt that living on credit is a bad idea. If you haven't got the money for it, don't buy it. Save up for it and then buy it. Chances are by the time you've saved for it, you won't want it anymore. I'm also hoping that the changes to the medical system are allowed to come to fruition, and people see that they are an improvement on the "I'm all right Jack" era.

The problem is that people like to have lots of nice things around them, even if they are paying through the nose. They want a big car, even if they can barely pay for the gasoline. They want a big house, even if they can only just manage the monthly mortgage payments. They want their own skis, a kayak, a quadbike, a kitchen full of gadgets, you name it, they want it and NOW.

Halloween Preparations

I can hear you thinking "Halloween, isn't that at the end of October?", but in the US preparations start early. We've had decorations and candy choking the seasonal aisles at WalMart for weeks already, and now people have started decorating their houses and gardens.

I presume the idea is to allow all the local ragamuffins the opportunity to scope out the neighbourhood and work out where the best candy haul is to be found. It's an Oregon State Law that all children must collect their own weight in candy on Halloween, and with the average plot at least thrice as wide as in London, there's a lot of walking ahead of them. There's a danger they might get too much exercise and end up thinner than they started.

A few days ago Beth and I visited a huge temporary Halloween store to check out their wares. Halloween in the US is really just an excuse to dress up, for both children and adults, and the costumes range from traditional ghosts, witches and wizards, vampires and werewolves to pirates, doctors & nurses, Policemen and Firemen (and women), Romans and Egyptians, superheroes, military uniforms, and ninjas. There are bizarre options like a hamburger, cup and ball toy, cellphone, or beer keg. Pretty much anything goes, even clowns, which are frankly too scary and likely to give the kids nightmares.The wierdness is that most of the ladies' costumes had a distinctly sexy vibe, with short skirts and plunging necklines. Moreover this wasn't restricted to an "adult" age range, but started appearing in the teenagers and tweens costumes. If you're a girl and over 7 you can start dressing in a provocative manner.

These store bought costumes aren't cheap. They start around $30, but that's just for the basics. If, say, your child wants to be a pirate, you'll need to add an eyepatch, hook hand, hat or headscarf, boots, maybe a flintlock pistol and cutlass. A knight will still need a sword and shield. I thought briefly about being a werewolf, which would just require a mask for face and hairy hands, with otherwise normal clothing. I might still go for that, as it's about the simplest and cheapest option I could find.

There are also many ways to decorate a house and lawn, with spiderwebs and fake spiders, plastic gravestones, dry ice machines, ghosts, corpse and zombie figures, bones, witches' cauldrons and much more. It would be easy to spend several hundred dollars.

I've been entertaining ideas since our arrival of a massive maze set up in the garage and driveway, with spiderwebs, spooky noises and all the works, through which victims visitors would wind their way to a big bucket of candy treats. I even started working out dimensions, possible construction methods and costs, but eventually my desire to keep money in the bank rather than invested in "stuff", resulted in a downgrading of the plan. The ideas are there for another year, but for this year we're keeping it simple.

In the end, and  I'm sure much to the disgust of the store owner, we bought one item for $7 which will decorate the house, and to which we will be adding some of our own touches. We can't set it up until near the actual day as it'll block the garage. We think it's innovative but understated.

My pumpkin patch, by the way, is in flower, but it's going to be far too late for any useable pumpkins.

Nestled in the midst of the stalks and leaves is one proto-pumpkin the size of a small egg.  It has a month to grow enough to be made into a jack-o-lantern, probably the size of a big egg.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Hi, do you need any help?

I've been working in my new role in the Electronics Department at Wal*Mart for two weeks, and am fitting in well with the existing team and learning more and feeling increasingly comfortable with every passing shift.

I have a lot more customer interaction in this department, and a lot less mopping up of chemical spills, dipping dead fish out of the aquaria, and heaving 50 pound bags of dog food. There's also less "zoning" (i.e. tidying the shelves) because most of our merchandise is either locked away, hung on locked peghooks, or housed on better designed display units. We do have to dust more, as the TVs in particular attract dust motes from the surrounding air.

My very first day was interesting as I had no opportunity to complete any of the "pre-requisite" training, but had to grasp the bull by the horns and start serving customers with no understanding of our stock beyond my own personal experience.  A couple of days later I was able to run through cashier training (which took about 5 hours), so I could at least complete a sale from the "Hi, do you need any help?" to the "Have a nice day."

Apart from cashier training, the pre-requisite training comprises a very long series of fairly short multiple choice tests, with a bit of blurb about particular products in between to base your answers on. Unfortunately this appears to have been written several years ago, and in the fast-moving world of consumer technology much of it is misleading, irrelevent or obsolete. No matter, I have to go through it, and occasionally I find something that I can use to expand my knowledge or improve my sales technique.

This past couple of weeks we've had a lot of business from new students arriving at the University, and looking to kit themselves out with all the necessities of student life. Many have come from out of state with a parent in tow wielding a credit card, and a couple have been blocked by their banks, so a word of warning. If you plan to travel to another state (or country) and spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars in one day, contact your bank beforehand and tell them of yor travel plans, or they may think your card has been stolen. Fortunately most people have alternate cards, but it's embarrassing for all concerned.

Late yesterday evening I was on  my own in the department acting as closer, and thankfully it was quiet as the local University Football Team (Oregon Ducks, ranked #5 in the country) were on TV. A group of five Chinese students were in the store trying to furnish their new accommodation, and asking a lot of questions about desks, tables, chairs, futons etc. With no associate assigned to the Furniture Department it fell to me to assist them, mostly talking to the one girl who spoke good English. After assembling a huge pile of flat-packed furniture on a cart, they revealed that they had no transport and needed to call a taxi to get them back home. First though, they had to go to a couple of other stores to get the things we were out of.
To cut a long story short, I had to leave the quintet at the front checkouts, where they (hopefully) paid for their items and parked them at Customer Services until they could collect them. I nearly called Beth to come with her station wagon and give them some help, as it's 4-5 miles from our store back to the University, and no taxi would be big enough to carry everything they had bought in one trip, but it looked like they were in for a long night and I still had a couple of hours of my shift before I would be free to help.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

This cat is NOT broken

I wanted to reassure everyone before we get started, that Ghost here is NOT broken, this is just how he likes to relax.

A week ago we picked the bulk of our corn crop. We'd been puzzling over why the ears seemed to be shrinking, and hoping they'd recover, but it turned out that earwigs are so named because they eat ears of corn, and our crop had suffered.

The corn was a yellow/white mix, which pleased me as I thought this was only possible on different plants. We ate a few cobs the same day and very tasty they were. Next year we'll harvest earlier, and use some organic method to discourage the earwigs.

I took a couple of bike rides last week, as we had a couple of sunny days coinciding with my days off. On the first I stayed local, and discovered the above sign in the field just to the north of our road. I tried panicking, looking small and passive, being quiet, making sure there were no small children nearby, and walking alone, but couldn't tempt the cougar into view. On the far side of the field is a hazelnut (filbert) orchard, and I took a spin right round the field. Still no cougar.

The next day I drove further to the Valley River Center with  a bike strapped to a bike rack. Behind the Center is a massive carpark abutting the river, and along the river is a wonderful bike path. That's my car with the bike on its rack.

Just to illustrate the size of the carpark, the buildings in the distance are the (now defunct) Gottschalks, a department store that closed last year, and to the right the Regal Cinema. These are both part of the Valley River Centre Mall complex.

Off I headed along the riverside bike/footpath. The Willamette River has a bike path that runs along both sides of the river as it curves through Eugene, the brainchild of Mayor Ruth Bascom in the 70s. The path is wide enough for bikes and pedestrians to co-exist peacefully (unlike the Thames Towpath), and well paved and maintained (unlike the Thames Towpath). There are a few cafes, restaurants and bars alongside, especially on the north/east bank, so a well-planned route can start and end near a refreshment spot.

In remote corners the path meanders through woods, but always with the river gurgling along in sight through the trees.

At my turnaround just west of the I5 bridge is the Knickerbocker Bridge, named after a local character from the 70s. I could have gone on a bit further on the bike path on the north bank, but this was the easier option.

Viewed from the bridge, the river is nearly as wide as the Thames in some reaches, though shallower and less heavily trafficked. There are five foot/bike bridges in Eugene compared to three car bridges, showing how bike friendly the city is.

Back home, the cats have not been the least incommoded by my absense.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Prime Suspects

We got a list of ingredients for the voodoo doughnut, and Beth set them out in s spreadsheet for me, divided into:

1) The Doughnut
2) The Vanilla Frosting
3) The Fruit Loop Topping

There were about 150 different things in there. No wonder I had a reaction, I'm surprised everyone doesn't have an allergy to at least one thing in there.

Well we (i.e. Beth) went through eliminating things we (i.e. Beth) know I've eaten before, and after a while two suspects for the the lurgy-inducer popped out. We need to do more testing, but at present we think it's either propyl paraben or propylene glycol.

The latter is used in many topical applications, and many people have reported skin rashes. It's also used in some toothpastes, and has given people gum problems. What's it doing in my food?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Labor Day

The first Monday in September is a US National Holiday (i.e. Bank Holiday) called Labor Day and as I had the day off in my schedule Beth and I got to spend it together.

Labor Day celebrates the work and achievements of the common man in the US. Yay me.

We started the day with a half-hour cycle round the neighbourhood, which seemed very quiet for a holiday: maybe everyone was having a second Sunday lie-in. We never tire of looking at houses, spotting new houses for sale, and agreeing that ours is nicer.

At ten Beth had a meeting arranged to sell a couple of table clamps she bought for her woodshop. Unfortunately the company she bought them from (Grizzly) have poor illustrations on their website and the clamps she bought wouldn't fit her worktable. Fortunately she was able to sell them on for only a $1 less than she paid, which was better than returning them for a refund due to postage costs. I came along too, and after the transaction we went shopping. At least I did, at a WalMart (not the one I work at) getting some essential gameday goodies in preparation for Thursday, while Beth showed her recently completed quilt to some friends at her local sewing shop.

Driving home we realised we had both forgotten Teriyaki sauce, and stopped at a Fred Meyer on the way, adding a few extras to the shopping cart. Back at Sweetwater we unloaded, and then spent a couple of hours relaxing in various ways before cooking some hotdogs on the BBQ for lunch.

After lunch we watched a couple of episodes of Medium, then relaxed again in various ways. I did a little light gardening, and soon it was time for another dog on the BBQ, then an evening walk together in a different direction round the 'hood..

A quiet day spent together, relaxing and enjoying the sunshine in milder temperatures than the last couple of months. Bliss.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Food Allergy!

Within the last hour I breakfasted on a Voodoo Donut, which Beth had brought back from her office for me yesterday as a treat. Within ten minutes I was having an allergic reaction!  Eek!

Before anyone gets worried, I'll tell you it's a very mild reaction and already the symptoms are easing. I got hives (white lumps) on my skin, in this case on my face, and reddening of the skin around the hives. Itchyness and hot skin in various places, not only my face and neck but also my chest, arms, upper back and legs. The skin on my forehead "cramped" up, I can think of no better description, resulting in mild Klingon-style ridges.

The reaction was severe enough to cause me to ring Walmart and cancel my shift for today. I don't want to scare the customers by looking like a leper. Hopefully they can contact my colleague who has the shift following mine, and he can come in early.

I previously had only one known allergy with similar skin reactions, to Paracetamol which is called Acetaminophen in the US, a painkiller used in Tylenol and many cold and flu remedies. Fortunately that one is easy to avoid, though it does limit my self-treatment options.

Beth was still at home, so she was able to examine my hives and confirm that I wasn't imagining it, and then she emailed the company that produce these donuts to see if we can identify the ingredient that caused the reaction.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


1st September, and a new month ushers in a couple of changes in the Milner houshold.

Beth has a new job, starting today at the University of Oregon, as she has been aiming for since we arrived last December. One reason we chose Eugene to settle was that it had a great University, so Beth could continue working in a higher education environment. Between her regular office hours and my irregular WalMart hours, we'll have less time in the house together, but will value or times together all the more. Beth has her woodshop, fabric crafts and gardening to occupy her free time, while I have my video games, DVDs, music practise, books, Playmobil den over Beth's shop, and...

Football! aka American Football outside the USA. The new season starts on 9th September with a Thursday night game between the New Orleans Saints (current Superbowl Champions) and the Minnesota Vikings (who didn't make it there), and most weeks for the next four months I'll have at least six games I can watch, live if I'm at home and recorded if I'm not. For 25 years I've been a follower of the NFL, on and off depending on how good the coverage in the UK was. Mostly it wasn't terribly good. Last year I could listen on the radio to the Sunday night game, but due to the time difference I recorded it and listened the next day. There was also one live game each week, but again I'd record it and watch the next available day.

It's unlikely I'll actually watch six games a week (that's at least 18 hours of butt-numbing couch potato time) but at least I now have the opportunity.

This week started nearly half an inch of rain, the first rain we've had in three months, and a welcome dousing for the garden that allowed me to turn off our sprinkers for a few days. The seasons are changing, with cooler evenings and mornings, though it can still get into the 80s during the heat of the day.

Another change in September is a move for me to a new WalMart department, Electronics. There'll be a lot of new things to learn, and I won't have to wash chemicals off my hands several times a shift after dealing with leaking bottles of laundry detergent, sweep up split bags of kibble, or scoop dead fish out of the aquarium.  Moreover it comes with a pay rise, which is very welcome.