Thursday, July 3, 2008

The American Patriot

There has been a lot of talk about patriotism lately, from the local to national levels, from the quietest conversations at the coffee shop to the loudest babble on the cable "news" shows.

Patriotism emerges as a topic of conversation in our society from time to time, usually to be dusted off and to have its best rhetoric shined up for important occasions, such as Independence Day or hotly contested political races.

Understand, please, that I do not mean to malign or cheapen discussion of patriotism and what it means, in both historic and contemporary contexts. Open and frank discourse on the nature of patriotism, of our rights and responsibilities as citizens, is a crucial element in maintaining the health of all levels of civic life in our republic.

The problem, as I see it, is that the loudest voices speaking out on what it means to be an American patriot today are far more concerned with political one-upmanship than they are with exploring and conveying the true notion of civic love and commitment.

Most of the public discourse on patriotism that you will hear today is concerned primarily with determining who can lay more claim to patriotism, who has claimed the bragging rights for loving America more than the other side, who loved America first, who loves her most, who can display the largest collection of patriotic pins and banners (made with pride in China).

If you haven't witnessed this immature trivialization of American patriotism, I invite you to tune in to your favorite or least favorite cable news network and bask in the glory of competitive patriotism, an incredibly dignified exchange only rivaled by the social dynamics of a third grade playground.

But, the most disturbing trend in American discourse on patriotism isn't the inane squabbling over who waves the biggest figurative flag, but rather the ever-increasing tendency to equate patriotism with a blind and unquestioning reverence of political power.

Somehow, somewhere along the way our society has largely come to define the patriot as the one who poses the fewest questions and raises the least objections to policy, party and government in general.

This has created a very tidy dichotomy in American patriotic fervor: those who unfailingly agree with me are patriots, those who venture down a different path of political thought are, at best, less worthy to bear the name 'American.'

It is sadly ironic that this denigration of American patriotism has reached an all-time high on the eve of our two hundred and thirty-second observance of Independence Day, a day to commemorate the fact that our forefathers completely rejected a form of government to which they had previously been loyal adherents.

On July 4th, 1776 the signers of the Declaration of Independence, all highly respected and successful members of British colonial society, risked everything to advance a simple and yet daring proposition: that the people have the constant right and obligation to question and demand accountability of their government and, when necessary, to effect fundamental changes in the composition and course of that government.

In spite of the rhetoric that America is bombarding itself with today, the honored title of patriot is not to be withheld from those who scrutinize the government, who ask difficult questions and dare to publicly disagree with the powers of the day.

Patriotism, as it was defined and declared at our nation's founding, demands that each of us constantly question the government that we have created, that we keep our eyes on the path ahead and keep at least one hand on the reins that guide our republic.

As we set out to celebrate this Independence Day, then, I would urge that we view the day as not only an observance of our nation's historic birth, but more importantly, as an opportunity for all of us to reaffirm our obligations as custodians of American liberty.

Our forefathers declared our independence. We must bear the burden of continuously enacting that declaration, of ensuring that government continues to serve and survive at the will of the governed. Only then do we deserve to drape ourselves in the vestments of the American patriot.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Culture of Giving

'Inner Republic' is written from my perspective as a small town reporter and columnist and relative newcomer to this rural community, and it reflects on the peculiar dynamics of this microcosm of American life.

Please read, share and feel free to send me your thoughts and feedback.Some of the statistics in this post are from last year, but the point remains the same.

--originally published in the Fairview Republican on August 9th, 2007.

Hundreds of participants and supporters came out for Fairview's Relay for Life recently, and all together raised funds for the American Cancer Society to the tune of $73,000.

If we assume that three quarters of the money came from residents of Fairview that works out to about $20 for every resident, and that's counting the kids and jobless.

That average may be skewed one way or the other, but the important point is that a tremendous amount of money was raised for an important cause from a relatively small population base.

And the generosity of our community does not start or stop with Relay for Life. From benefit dinners to church fundraisers and charity auctions the people of our community just seem accustomed to giving.

It is also important to remember that our giving does not stop with monetary donations. We give our time to civic organizations, nonprofits and our neighbors. It's virtually impossible to take on a project in Fairview without someone stopping by to offer advice, sometimes a lot of advice, and to pitch in and help.

I know that Kate and I could have never made the transition to Fairview without the invaluable help of family and friends, help we could have never afforded in another town.

But, what seems to come so naturally to us is still a bit of a mystery to some segments of our greater society.

In a 2007 report the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency, found that "the spirit of volunteerism is thriving in the heartland, but not so much on the coasts."

Thankfully, the federal government is there to create an agency with a $921 million annual budget to figure that one out.

Now, in defense of my brethren on the right coast, I will say that there are many small rural communities on the eastern seaboard where civic responsibility is alive and well. Who knows, there are probably even some on the west coast.

I think the CNCS findings would be even more pronounced if they compared rural and small communities with civic involvement in our nation's cities.

I haven't applied for a multi-million dollar federal grant to prove this, but I'm going to hazard a guess that the rate of civic involvement is higher in small towns.

And yet, the formula for "volunteerism" and civic involvement remains a riddle within an enigma that can only be unlocked by billions of dollars in federal research and assistance programs.

Last fiscal year the federal government doled out $2.5 billion in community assistance grants through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). Incidentally, the OFBCI falls under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, so next time you attend a Lions Club hamburger fry you can take pride in the fact that you're doing your part in the War on Terror.

Given the importance of pumping money into creating a sense of "volunteerism" that we apparently already have, you may say to yourself, "Self, $2.5 billion isn't really that much money, especially when we spend $6 billion a month in Iraq."

I propose to you that $2.5 billion is a lot of money. And, if you see any of the folks from the OFBCI, DHS or the federal department of redundancy department doling out money on the streets of Fairview, please let me know.

But, I don't think you'll find any of them around. And why should we care? Because we're footing the bill for communities that can't decode the mystery of helping themselves.

I'm not suggesting that a greater nation-wide sense of civic responsibility would eliminate our $400 billion deficit, or eliminate the need for federal and state social programs. Realistically, the weight of social needs in large cities is probably too great to rely solely on individual philanthropy.

But a renewed national sense of self-reliance, in place of our current culture of paternal entitlement, would go a long way to creating better communities and a stronger society.

All we can do here is continue to build on the culture of giving already evident in our communities.

We're probably not going to save the world, or the whales, or even the spotted gray titmouse. But by teaching our kids to take care of themselves and their neighbors we might just save our own little slice of this rock we call home.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Parade season is upon us

This is the paradingest town I've ever seen. We have a parade for the rodeo. We have a pre-rodeo pet parade. We have parades for homecoming, Christmas and the Gloss Mountain Cruisers car show.

Fairview is certainly not alone in its peculiar love of parades. Please understand, I do not mean any insult to the parading public by using the term 'peculiar.' But, nonetheless, grown men in clown outfits, cages of hermit crabs and horseback riders all making their way down the same street is, well, peculiar.

And yet these public demonstrations, sometimes somber, sometimes bizarre, and sometimes downright riotous, thrive in communities around the world.

Nearly every Spanish town has a parade of its patron saints, complete with ornate costumes, food festivals and reenactments of saintly martyrdom.

Most Caribbean islands and many South American cities have carnival parades that make Mardi Gras in New Orleans look like a ladies' temperance march.

Parade season in Ireland usually means polishing up the riot gear and making sure enough tear gas is on hand. Catholic and Protestant parades often combine into one indistinguishable mass of fists, head butts and general brotherly love. If this happens in the street you know its a parade, if it occurs in a stadium it's just a soccer match.

Now, Fairview can not claim to have some of the more exotic attributes of overseas parades, like the sweet smell of tear gas, self-flagellating pilgrims, or costumes that wouldn't make it into an R-rated movie.

But our parades have their own festive atmosphere, with the upside that you can take the whole family to our parades and leave the gas masks at home.

One of my first experiences with Fairview's parading culture was with the pet parade last year. Not having a dog, horse, or other traditional parade pet, our daughter Maggie decided to take her short-haired white house cat Monty for a ride in the parade.

So, she strapped him in her wagon, tied a bandana around his neck, and headed off to the parade. Nothing says festive like the homicidal rage of a house cat that's been pulled through a quarter mile gauntlet of people, dogs, and horses.

These parades are fun for just about everyone, except maybe Monty. We decorate every possible kind of wheeled conveyance to the point of not being recognizable. We dress our kids, our pets, and ourselves up in elaborate costumes. And, we throw the kids enough candy to send the American Dental Association into an epileptic fit.

But, if we look past the costumes, music, candy and clowns we can see a deeper meaning to parades in this or any community.

No, the clowns aren't carrying a secret message. But, the size, attendance, and atmosphere of a city's parades can be a valuable indicator of that community's health.

I don't have any hard scientific research to back this up, or even any quasi-scientific poll results that I can manipulate to give the appearance of supporting my view of parades.

What I do have is a considerable amount of experience living in towns that did not have parades. Marydel, the town where I grew up in Delaware, did not have parades. It had the streets, the population, everything required to put on a parade.

So, then, why no parades? And, why should we care? Marydel, and many towns like it, do not have parades because they are towns without a community. They are geographically co-located homes and families that have little or nothing to do with each other outside of the required business transactions of daily life.

In towns like Marydel very few people would care to organize a parade for the public enjoyment. And if there were a parade, very few people would care to sit outside and watch their neighbors' kids display their pets, their accomplishments and themselves.

And yet, in Fairview, we're always ready to sit out in the sun and watch our neighbors and our kids display the best attributes of our town. We stage these bizarre demonstrations and then line up to watch them because we are a community, a community that enjoys celebrating together. So, next time you see a grown man in a clown costume doing donuts with a tiny car on Main Street, just think of what it might mean if the parades went away.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Creamed Corn: the green costs of ethanol

America has increasingly turned to ethanol to alleviate our dependence on foreign oil and to address the environmental concerns over greenhouse gases emitted by our transportation infrastructure.

Odds are good that when you fill up your tank next time you will be receiving gasoline blended with ethanol, and those chances will increase as the federal government mandates increased ethanol production at the nation's refineries.

Your tank of E10 ethanol blend will likely cost less than the competitors' fuel without ethanol, and it has been widely touted to decrease greenhouse gases and lessen our dependence on foreign oil imports.

With that in mind, this week I published the article pasted below in the 'Fairview Republican,' a weekly newspaper for which I serve as reporter and editor.

The article contains some information that is specific to Oklahoma, but the information on ethanol is applicable throughout the US.

It is a bit lengthy, but here are some highlights that are worth considering when pondering national energy policy, or when you're getting ready to purchase another costly tankof gas:
-Ethanol blended fuel will decrease your gas mileage by 3 to 20 percent, which means you need to see a corresponding 3 to 20 percent savings at the pump in order to break even on your losses from decreased mpg with E10. New vehicles will tend towards the 3 mpg loss, while older vehicles or vehicles with mechanical problems will err towards the higher end of the spectrum. The loss of mpg (requiring you to burn more gas) decreases ethanol's value in furthering energy independence.
-Ethanol fuels produce less CO2 (greenhouse gases) from the tailpipe, but they produce more ozone smog and some studies now indicate that the overall production of corn ethanol may drastically increase greenhouse gas emissions in the long run (due to increased land use and fuel use for farming, transportation and refining).
-Ethanol blended fuel costs more to produce, and is sold at an apparent discount due to a 45 cent per gallon tax incentive from the federal government to refiners.
-Ethanol fuels are not suitable for most older vehicles (pre-2000 models), and may damage engine parts and erode or dissolve rubber and plastic parts in the fuel system. Your owner's guide will tell you if alcohol based fuels are appropriate for your vehicle.

--originally published in the 'Fairview Republican' on Thursday, 26 June:

You may notice a new sticker on some local gas pumps, as a new state law requiring retailers to label gas with ethanol additive takes effect July 1st.

The law, which passed at the tail end of the last legislative session, comes amid growing use of ethanol in gasoline supplies, and some concerns over the effects of ethanol additives.

Gasoline mixed, or oxygenated, with ethanol is becoming increasingly common across Oklahoma and the U . S. as federal mandates require increased ethanol production at the nation’s refineries.

Federal requirements for biofuel production stem from as far back as the Alternative Motor Fuels Act of 1988, but the mandated pace of ethanol refining made a major leap with the president’s signing of the 2007 Energy Bill.

The 2007 Energy Bill, signed into law in December, requires that refiners produce 9 billion gallons of ethanol this year, a six-fold increase over last year’s production.

That requirement increases incrementally to a 36 billion gallon per year mandate in 2022, though most sources agree that annual production under current technology is limited to 15 billion gallons at most.

The federal government subsidizes its ethanol production mandates with a 45 cent per ethanol gallon tax break to refiners, decreased from 51 cents per gallon in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Federal plans originally called for the increased ethanol production to be utilized by so-called “flex fuel vehicles,” which can burn either straight gasoline or a mixture of up to 85 percent ethanol / 15 percent gasoline (E85).

Car manufacturers’ production of flex fuel vehicles, however, has not kept up with the mandated increases in ethanol production. Flex fuel pumps are also scarce in the U. S., with fewer than 2,000 E85 pumps available nationwide at the end of 2007.

What that means, according to Gail Alexander, owner of MLR Solutions Consulting of Brevard County, Fla., is that refiners are mixing their required ethanol production into E10 blend (10 percent ethanol) which can be used in conventional gas engines.

“In order for them to meet their quotas, they have to put the ethanol somewhere,” said Alexander, commenting on the rapid increase of E10 production. The American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) estimates that 46 percent of America’s gasoline supply is currently blended with ethanol (E10).

The two main reasons cited for supporting ethanol fuel blending are energy independence and the environmental benefits of burning ethanol as opposed to petroleum products. Imports currently account for more than 54 percent of American oil consumption, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

That figure has led many policy makers and consumers to turn to ethanol and other ‘biofuels’ as a domestic source of renewable fuel.Ethanol’s value as an offset to imported oil, however, may be dampened by a reduction in the miles per gallon achieved by using E10 blended fuel.

Alcohol based fuels have a lower caloric value per volume than refined petroleum, meaning that they produce less energy when burned than the same volume of straight gasoline.

Estimates vary, but petroleum industry and government sources cite a three to 20 percent drop in mileage from using E10 blended fuel.

In effect, that means that E10 consumers are burning more gasoline per mile to compensate for the lower energy output from the ethanol in the fuel mixture.

Alexander, who consults on the impact of ethanol use in automotive and small gasoline engines, stated in a recent interview that the mpg drop from E10 is more pronounced in older engines.

“Most people in the general population aren’t driving new vehicles in perfect working condition,” said Alexander, who estimated a 10 mpg drop across the population for E10 consumption.

The federal tax incentives for ethanol production do filter down to the consumer, to an extent, and E10 gas will generally sell for less per gallon at the pump than straight gasoline.

However, knowing whether or not the savings at the pump outweigh the cost of reduced mileage from E10 takes a little math.

Specifically, you must have a pump savings equal to your percentage drop in mpg times the higher price of straight gasoline in order to compensate for decreased mileage.

For example, if you experience a 10 percent drop in mpg from E10 use, and straight gas costs $4 per gallon, you must see a 40 cent price savings at the pump to balance the cost of buying more fuel to compensate for reduced mileage.

If you experience a three percent drop in mpg, you would need to see a corresponding 12 cent savings for $4 gas at the pump to offset the costs from mileage loss.

As for the environmental benefits of ethanol use, sources cite a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from burning E10 blended fuel.

ACE figures estimate a 29 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol, while other sources cite the CO2 reduction for E10 anywhere between 20 and 30 percent.

Those figures do not take into account the impacts of burning extra gasoline to compensate for mileage loss.

E10’s reduced output of CO2, the major component of greenhouse gases, has led the argument in favor of ethanol as an “environmentally friendly” fuel.

Some recent reports, however, may be tainting ethanol’s “green” image.

A 2007 EPA report indicates that, while E10 fuel reduces per gallon CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions, it also corresponds to a nearly 10 percent increase in nitrate oxide emissions, the primary component of ozone.

While ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, ozone formed close to ground level is the main ingredient in urban smog, and has been shown to cause respiratory problems and lung damage.

Perhaps more damaging, though, is a recent study by Princeton University published in the journal Science that indicates that ethanol production may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The study found that increased land usage for growing ethanol corn crops, combined with the fuel required to grow and refine biofuels, may cause a significant increase in the associated “carbon footprint."

Princeton University professor Timothy Searchinger stated in the study that “corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 percent savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.”

The federal government is hoping to move away from corn ethanol over time, setting its hopes on future developments in cellulosic ethanol, produced from a variety of biomass sources such as switch grass, corn stalk and saw dust.

The six cent reduction in the 2008 Farm Bill refiners’ tax incentives has been re-invested into cellulosic ethanol production research.

Opening the door to further ethanol research may be the positive legacy of corn ethanol additives, according to Kenneth Ditzel, an energy consultant for CRA International of Washington, D. C.

“While corn based ethanol is not the long term solution, because of competing requirements with food production, it has served as an avenue to second generation biofuels,” said Ditzel.

“The challenge right now,” added Ditzel, “is that cellulosic ethanol just isn’t an economically feasible option, but it will’s just a matter of time.”

Aside from questions of future ethanol research and the environmental and mileage concerns associated with corn ethanol, though, the most pressing concern for ethanol consumers today may be the negative effects of E10 gas on older engines, according to Alexander.

The chemical properties of alcohol based fuels such as ethanol pose certain risks to older engines, according to Alexander, which may be summarized as follows:
-Alcohols are water soluble, meaning they attract and absorb water moisture, which is then carried throughout the fuel system and engine. This quality makes fuel with ethanol additives particularly dangerous for marine engines, according to Alexander.
-Ethanol is a solvent, which may break down brittle parts in older engines. It may also dissolve resins and tank deposits that will then travel throughout the engine, potentially causing complications such as clogged fuel filters, carburetor jets and injectors, stalling and engine seizure.
-Ethanol is a drying agent, which can dry, crack and dissolve plastic, rubber, and certain types of fiberglass not specifically designed to be alcohol resistant. This effect is particularly pronounced in rubber and plastic parts found in the fuel pumps and hoses of older vehicles, according to Alexander.

Virtually all car manufactures now construct their engines and fuel systems to be compatible with alcohol fuels, but Alexander urged all car owners to check the fuel requirements in the owner’s manual, particularly for vehicles built before 2000.

For now, consumers can choose for themselves between E-10 and straight gasoline at the pump, though those options may begin to dwindle as ethanol production mandates increase.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Country fried culture: reflections on life in small town America

They say that certain life events can bring on increased levels of stress. Unforeseen, unexpected and, at the time, unthinkable changes in life's "master plan" can drive you to the point of mental and emotional collapse, and make you envy the lifestyle of prisoners in solitary confinement.

Some of the more common twists in the road that can make you feel like gouging out your own eyes and crawling back into the womb include changes in career path, increased work load, economic uncertainty, moving, having kids and drastic changes in lifestyle.

So, then, what happens when you do all of these things at once? I'd like to give you a comprehensive one-stop shopping answer, but, you see, I'm still sorting that out for myself.

In 2005 I unexectedly left what I had always planned on as a full career in the Navy, and suddenly found myself without a job, without a home and without any clear direction in life in general.

With nothing that could be accused of resembling a coherent plan, my wife Kate and I decided to move back to her home town with our two young daughters to visit for the summer and "sort things out." That was three years ago and, well, we're still here and still sorting. Luckily, we have benefited from the incredible generosity of family and close friends, who have all put in countless pro bono hours keeping us afloat and marginally sane.

The morning after we arrived in Fairview my father-in-law John and brother-in-law Levi gave me a job in the family business moving houses (that's moving the actual structure, not carrying out the boxes and furniture). I'm afraid I didn't realize it at the time, but that was easily one of the most professionally and personally rewarding experiences of my life thus far.

Last year I changed courses yet again and accepted a job as a reporter, photographer, columnist and later editor of the Fairview Republican, a weekly newspaper that covers a county of approximately 7,000 people. By the way, before you have time to wonder, Republican in this case has everything to do with the fact that we live in a somewhat free republic, and nothing to do with the major political party that bears the same name.

Writing my column for the Republican has been somewhat cathartic, allowing me the time and requiring me to take the effort to reflect on some of that sorting that I mentioned earlier. And, as a nice side benefit, it has turned out to be the first position in life that will actually pay me for my random thoughts and my indulgence in sarcasm and general smart-assery.

My current position has also given me the opportunity to observe the wonderful peculiarities of living and working in a good, close-knit small community in rural America. I would like to share those thoughts in coming blogs, not just because I like to hear myself talk, but because I think the anecdotes and lessons of small-town America resonate with all of us, whether it be from personal experience or mere curiosity.

I will be mixing in, in no particular chronological order, re-printed columns from the Republican along with some of my more recent columns and original blog entries covering politics, culture, current events and my sometimes random and perhaps inane thoughts on life in general.

The first installment, below, is taken from my first column at the paper last year, and it will serve as an introduction to anyone whom I have not yet met, or perhaps refresh a few old acquaintances that have suffered from my ineptitude at personal correspondence. I hope you enjoy, and if you have any comments or feedback, please let me know.

--originally published in the Fairview Republican in July, 2007.

Over the last two years I have enjoyed meeting and getting to know a good number of you. For those of you whom I have not met, I hope this will serve as a brief introduction, and I look forward to meeting and talking with you soon. I am a relative newcomer to Fairview, having moved here two brief years ago with my wife, Katie, and our two daughters, Maggie and Lucie. Kate is a native-born member of our community, but it took me a while longer to find Fairview.

I was born to James and Jean Neal (now residents of Fairview) and raised in the town of Marydel, Delaware. When you think of Marydel, think of a town with no stoplights and more feral dogs than people. I grew up around the water, learning to sail and going along on boat deliveries with my father on the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays.

My youth in Delaware was broken up by three years during which my family lived in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. We lived on a sailboat and I was home-schooled during that period, which afforded me not only a great education, but lots of time to explore the island and its reefs.

My memories from those days are highlighted by hiking through the jungle's river beds and cliff jumping with the other boat kids. Right now my mother is grinding her teeth over those same memories. Sorry Mom, but I highly recommend being ten years old on a tropical island.

The high points of my remaining days in Delaware were two years of school in a one-room Amish schoolhouse, and four years at Saint Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware. I attended the United States Naval Academy, where I graduated with a degree in political science in 1998. My first tour in the Navy was a temporary assignment to Vance AFB, and it was during that brief tour that I met and fell in love with Kate.

Kate and I were married at Saint Matthew's Church in Enid in 1999, and we quickly embarked on a six year whirlwind of changing duty stations and long deployments. I completed three deployments to western Europe and the Mediterranean, including a combat deployment at the beginning of the current war in Iraq.

Our last assignment in the Navy was to Rice University in Houston, TX, where I taught naval history and navigation to ROTC students.

When my time in the service was complete Kate and I began planning for our future. Adjustment from military to civilian life can be daunting, especially when you find yourself without a town to call home.

We had never lived together in one place for more than two years, and we both wanted to live in a community where we felt safe and comfortable raising our daughters. It did not take long to choose Fairview as our new and first permanent home. In the words of our daughter Maggie, "I like it better here than in the city; it's not so noisy."

For the first two years after we moved to Fairview I worked with my father-in-law, John and brother-in-law, Levi in Kate's family's business moving houses. I will always fondly remember the stories and time that we shared together on those jobs. Kate and I have also kept ourselves busy with the never-ending renovation of our house, and we are thoroughly enjoying our new lives in Fairview.

As I begin work here at the Republican I look forward to the opportunity of not only bringing you the news and events of our community, but also using this column to discuss how those events affect each of us in our daily lives. It is highly likely that we will disagree from time to time on my interpretation and opinions of these events.

It is certainly not my goal to stir up discontent, but I was once told that if everyone agrees with what you say all of the time you are probably not saying much at all. Friendly disagreement and discussion are essential to the health of any community, and I hope that when you do disagree with my writing you will contact me, or better yet write a letter to the editor.

In the words of my little Irish grandmother, "Disagreement is the spice of life." I look forward to sharing thoughts and opinions with all of you, and working together to sustain and improve our community.