The Stubborn Problem Of Consumer Confidence

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index fell in May to a recent low, causing some to fear that we may be on the cusp of the dreaded “double-dip” or “W” recession.  Economists expressed surprise at the news.

The only thing surprising about this news item is that some economists are still expressing surprise that American consumers aren’t more bullish about things.  Seriously, what world do these guys live in?  Leaving apart the weird notion that you can gauge something intangible like “confidence” with anything approaching scientific accuracy, what has happened recently that would encourage anyone to feel more upbeat about the economy?

For those who live in ivory towers or in the canyons of Wall Street, here is what those of us out in the country are seeing.  We know people who are out of work and have been out of work for a very long time.  We know college graduates who have gotten their degrees from fine institutions and can’t find even an entry-level job.  We know that gas and food prices have gone up since last year.  We’ve watched businesses close.  We’ve seen houses in the area sold at foreclosure and other houses in the neighborhood that seem to have been on the market forever.

So don’t tell us that some arcane leading economic indicator should cause us all to be doing handsprings.  We’ll believe the economy is getting better when our nephew can find a job and the house down the block gets sold.  Until then, understand that we are going to be cautious, and careful — and don’t be “surprised” that we are staying that way.

Game Of Thrones

Yesterday Kish and I decided to take a chance on HBO’s new dramatic series, Game of Thrones.  We watched the first episode with some trepidation, because neither of us particularly cares for the sword and sorcery genre.  I’m happy to report that our trepidation was totally unwarranted.  We have now watched and very much enjoyed the first four episodes of this sprawling, brawling tale.

The series is set in some unknown land in an era like Europe’s Middle Ages.  There are lots of plot threads.  A whoring king sits somewhat uneasily on his throne, the subject of plotting by his wife and her incestuous brother, the appalling son of his assassinated predecessor, and probably countless others.  The king calls upon his trusted friend to wade into the political cesspool of the capital city to act as his closest aide and advisor.  The son of the mad former king has arranged for his sister to be given in marriage to the warrior king of a barely civilized tribe, who is to lead the savages in a bid to topple the current king.  A gigantic wall lies at the northern edge of the kingdom, built generations ago to keep out the “white walkers” — winter-loving creatures who have become the stuff of fairy tale and bedtime story — and manned by a depleted army of celibate guardians.  Winter is coming, and winter apparently can last for years. The families of the leading characters all have back stories that feature death and betrayal.

There is a lot to like in this show.  The cast, led by Sean Bean as Ned Stark, the head of the Stark clan and the king’s new right hand man, is excellent top to bottom.  Peter Dinklage is especially memorable as the smart, cynical, sharp-tongued, yet apparently decent dwarf brother in the dysfunctional Lannister clan, who regularly clash with the Starks.  There is the usual dollop of violence, nudity, and sex scenes found in most HBO series, but also the authentic-feeling costumes, sets, and general production values that also characterize HBO productions.  The fantasy element, so far, has been played with a light touch.  We’ve particularly liked the role of the wolf cubs adopted by the Stark children and which now, barely tamed, have played an important and mystical role in the unfolding events.

We’re hooked!

It was Inevitable

What happened earlier today with the Tressel resignation is really no surprise to me, except that it took as long as it did for him to resign. As I mentioned in a previous post back in March, Coach lost my support when he signed the NCAA document on December 8th saying that he knew nothing about the tattoo parlor incident when he in fact had received details the prior April.

I can understand that initially Coach Tressel’s thoughts were that he wanted to protect the players and that there might have been an issue with confidentiality, but when you forward the e-mail about the incident to Pryor’s confidante in Pennsylvania and not to the athletic director of Ohio State, that’s a HUGE mistake in my humble opinion. Tressel should have come clean during the March press conference and he didn’t.

I am also bothered about the way athletic director Gene Smith and school president Gordon Gee handled the situation once they knew about it. When Ohio State held the press conference Gene Smith should have said that the university was going to conduct a more broad and comprehensive investigation to determine if there were more rules infractions that took place. Maybe then the details of car deals and living arrangement benefits might have been uncovered.

For Gee to say to the media, I have no intention of firing Coach Tressel, I only hope he doesn’t fire me has to be one of the dumbest statements I have ever heard ! Has college athletics gotten so big that the president of a major university is afraid to reprimand his own coach ? I think that Gee was treating Tressel as if he was above the NCAA rules that every other school has to follow and I think this is inexcusable.

I hope I am wrong, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the NCAA decides to open up a second investigation into the new allegations that have recently come out. I wonder how Buckeye fans are going to react when we are slapped with NCAA sanctions of one, two or three years of probation not to mention the loss of numerous scholarships. I am as big a Buckeye fan as the next person, but the next few years are going to be very tough for Buckeye Nation.

Disaster iN COLumBus

tornadoes in oklahoma, alabama and missouri. hundreds dead. Flooding all along the mississippi…Louisiana handed another RAW deal… and on this beautiful monday in Ohio, another implausible disaster….


no one will die, no one will have to live in shelters, or wait in line for potable water, BUT for Ohio State fans this latest disaster CERTAINLY hurts the most.

What do I think? Well, for starters, in 5 or 10 years or whenever the NCAA is finally reduced to the scrap and manure that it deserves to be, Tressel will be viewed as an innocent victim in the f*cked up system of college football, and college sports today. In any other aspect of society where people use their skills to make so much money, they would DEMAND their fair cut of the profits. To extrapolate the situation here, in the bluntest terms, Tressel was fired because some of his biggest star athletes, who came from poor backgrounds, sold memorabilia they earned themselves. Tressel covered it up, yes, but to protect his own players. Should a coach be held more accountable to the NCAA and compliance departments than to his own players? I think not, and you wouldnt expect that from a coach at ANY OTHER LEVEL. The bottom line is these athletes dont get paid, but make MILLIONS of dollars not only for their universities, but for TV networks and corporate sponsors. Problems similar to the OSU controversies of late will only increase in frequency until the clear hypocrisy in college sports is righted. When the time comes where the athletes who risk their lives to entertain us get the compensation they deserve, people will look back at the Tressel resignation (read: firing) and say “wow, that guy got screwed.”

Tressel was meant to be the OSU coach until he was in a wheelchair, hell, until he was in a hospital bed with an IV in his arm on the sideline beating the SH!T out of michigan for the 30th time. But thanks to the NCAA and Gordon Gee, and the idealistic, fantasy vision of college football, Tressel is unfairly disgraced and ripped from the legacy that was rightly his.

Goodbye, Coach Tressel, And Good Luck

Shocking news on this Memorial Day — the Ohio State University announced this morning that it has accepted the resignation of head football coach Jim Tressel.

This news is immensely sad.  Coach Tressel not only has been a highly successful coach, but also seems to be a good person who has done a lot for local charities and organizations.  It is tragic — in the Greek sense of the term — that Coach Tressel must leave a position that he seemed born to fill, under a cloud of suspicion and the steady drip, drip, drip of troubling news about NCAA investigations and other issues involving the Ohio State football program and its players.  The scuttlebutt is that the University strongly encouraged Coach Tressel to resign, which just makes the story that much sadder.

I don’t know the truth about the Ohio State football program’s compliance with NCAA rules and regulations under Coach Tressel’s stewardship.  When the results of the ongoing investigation are announced, there will be plenty of time for contemplation and consideration of those issues.  No one person is, or should be, bigger than the institution.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel saddened by the story of a man brought low, whose legacy will forever be tarnished by a scandal and his own apparent lapses in judgment.

I wish Coach Tressel and his family peace, and good luck.

Happy Memorial Day!

It’s Memorial Day, when every red-blooded American male’s thoughts turn to grilling.  Last night I broke out the ancient Weber grill, filled it with the remnants of last year’s charcoal, doused it liberally with fluid, lit the ceremonial fire ablaze for the first time of the summer, and engaged in the crucial grill scraping ritual.  I then took a healthy swig from the sacred malty adult beverage to commemorate the occasion and raised my face toward the warmth of the sun.  Soon the patio air was filled with the heady combination of charcoal smoke and sizzling meat.

Last night’s grilling featured cheeseburgers, brats, and some chicken thighs marinated in a mustard-vinegar sauce I prepared using odds and ends from our spice cabinet.  The brats and the chicken were both the products of Ohio farms, in keeping with my interest in local sourcing.  With all due modesty, I must confess that the meats were grilled close to perfection, and the chicken marinade was tasty indeed.  We also had Ohio sweet corn with butter and a gigantic fruit salad that I had filled with as much Ohio produce as possible.  We ate out on the patio as the evening sun filtered through the trees in the backyard.

Happy Memorial Day to all!  May your grilling adventures today be merry and bright!  And, as always, thanks to our veterans and the men and women in uniform whose sacrifices allow us to enjoy this holiday.

Brick Walkway Blues

Our house has two brick walkways and a brick patio.  I prefer the look of brick to the look of cement.  I like the darker appearance and the more old-fashioned feel that you get from brick.

These positive attributes come at a cost, of course.  When spring rolls around, you just have to reconcile yourself to the reality that, at several points during the spring and summer months, you will have to weed the cracks between the bricks — because those tiny slivers of earth seem to be the most fertile ground imaginable.  Is there some magical property of brick that encourages the growth of grass and unwanted plants?  And, in deference to Penny, we can’t really apply powerful herbicides.

All weeding sucks, of course, but weeding the cracks between bricks is like weeding, squared.  It is a precise operation where you have to grasp the weed at its base next to the brick and then gently pull straight up to try to get the roots, too.  Gardening gloves don’t really work because they are too bulky.  This delicate bare-handed process always results in fingertips and palms scraped against the roughness of the brick, as well as an aching back and sore hamstrings from being hunched over during the endless series of careful extractions.

When you have finally finished, the walkways and patio look great, but you know it is just a matter of time before you are going to have to do it again.  Such are the burdens of the brick walkway owner.

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

The riverfront in Porto.

I had a feeling that I would like Portugal. Like Istanbul and Athens, my two favorite cities from the first half of my trip, Portugal seemed like it would be “on the edge” of Europe, so it would have a less touristy, more intimate vibe, inside and outside the hostels. My intuition proved to be correct; Portugal was one of the best parts of my trip so far.

I spent six days in Portugal – three in Lisbon, three in Porto. Both cities were beautiful, thanks to plenty of hilly views, non-stop sunshine, and to the Portuguese custom of covering the outsides of buildings with colorful tiles. Unfortunately, the Portuguese also have a less pleasant custom of making their sidewalks out of bits of slippery tiles.

The Portuguese tile style.

More tiled buildings.

Lisbon was great, but gritty. Its oceanfront is taken up by a busy road and some decrepit buildings. It’s impossible – for a young man, at least – to take a walk without a few guys coming up to you and whispering “hashish, marijuana, coke.”

The main thoroughfare in Lisbon.

Another view of Lisbon.

Porto was my favorite of the two cities. In fact, it would rank near the top of my list of my favorite destinations on my trip. It has a beautiful riverfront with steep banks occupied here and there by layers of buildings, many of them abandoned and falling apart, but in a charming way (for some reason, deteriorating buildings look good in Europe but not in America). There are many tall bridges spanning the river, including one designed by Gustav Eiffel. Porto’s riverfront is one of the places that gave me a specific sensation that I’ll always remember.

Porto's riverfront.

The view of the riverfront from the top of Eiffel's bridge.

An abandoned building by the river.

Porto also has many lovely churches which use the tiled-exterior style.

I turned 25 the day I arrived in Porto, so I got a nice seafood dinner, compliments of my mom and dad. A pair of American couples at the table next to mine struck up a conversation with me, and when they learned it was my birthday they bought me a slice of cake.

Strangely, one of my favorite things about Portugal was that there weren’t many famous museums and historical sights that I felt obligated to go to. The only item on my agenda was to enjoy the beauty and the culture. This came at a welcome time; after traveling more than two and a half months, I was starting to feel a little burnt out. I took lots of naps, especially in the hammock they had in the backyard of my hostel in Lisbon.

I did some sightseeing, however. I took a daytrip from Lisbon to Sintra, where I hiked up to a 9th-century Moorish castle with a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside.

The Moorish castle.

Both of the hostels I stayed in were big hits. In Lisbon I stayed at the Lisbon Chillout Hostel. You already know that it was awesome because I mentioned that it had a backyard with a hammock. My hostel in Porto was the the Yellow House hostel. The hostels reminded me of my hostels in Istanbul and Athens in that they were small, they had great hang-out areas, and the staff socialized with the guests a lot. They both had breakfasts that were beyond anything I expected from a hostel at this point – an unlimited supply of cereal, toast, coffee and orange juice. Having gone more than two months without cereal, which is a major part of my diet in the United States, I ate about two bowls a day.

The chillout area of the Lisbon Chillout hostel, with hammock.

One of the employees at my hostel in Porto told me that there weren’t any hostels in Portugal until a few years ago, so all the hostels there are new. Maybe that’s why both my hostels were so good – they haven’t realized that hostel guests don’t expect to get an unlimited supply of cereal with their breakfast.

On the 28th I finally said goodbye to Latin Europe. I took a flight to Paris, and from there I took a train to Bruges, my current location.

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

Playing the Penny Slots

Back in March Bob and Kish went to the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia for a brief getaway. I remember seeing a post card from Kish on mom’s kitchen table saying how she thought mom would love the place so thanks to the suggestive post card and the mention of somewhere for mom to spend some of her vast fortune it got the wheels turning. This past Sunday several family members and I headed down to West Virginia to check the place out.

I had done a little research on the internet before going and saw the Greenbrier had just recently added a casino with Blackjack tables, a craps table and multiple slot machines. Typically in the past when visiting casinos in Vegas I would only play the table games, but any more playing the table games has become much more expensive. I had a friend who played only penny slots, so I joined her in doing so and I really enjoyed myself. Earlier this year when I was down in St Marteen, I made up my mind to only play penny slots.

Below is an interesting video about penny slots and their new found attraction with the downturn in the economy so it looks as though my friend and I are not alone. People find it hard to believe when I tell them I won close to one thousand dollars playing the penny slots at the Greenbrier, but it can pay off.

In the old days you dropped a penny in the slot, pulled the arm and waited to find out if you were a winner, but not any more. With the resurgence of the penny slot, there has also come a reinvention of the penny slot by the gaming industry. You now have many choices as to how many lines you want to play and whether or not you want to multiple your bet. On some penny slots you can spend as much as ten dollars a spin or more. So it’s not really a penny slot any more, in fact most penny slots you can no longer bet a penny.

So next time you visit the casino have some cheap fun and check out the penny slots. It’s a good time and your money will hopefully last a little longer.

The Right Way To Eat Skyline Chili

Today I had a tremendous hankering for Skyline Chili.  I drove over to the nearest Skyline and got a regular three-way, two cheese coneys with everything, a large water, and extra crackers.  As I prepared to dig in I realized that not everyone may understand that there is one, and only one, correct way to eat Skyline Chili.  As a public service, I offer a how-to manual on this essential life lesson.

For those who don’t live in the footprint of Skyline Chili, I pity you.  In any event, please understand that a “three-way” is a plate with three ingredients — spaghetti, a sweet, dark sauce, and a heaping mound of thinly grated, brightly colored cheddar cheese.  (A four-way would add either onions or beans, and a five-way would add both.)

The first step in the consumption process is proper preparation of the chili plate.  Begin by adding a liberal amount of the hot sauce that is kept in a squeeze bottle on every table in every Skyline restaurants.  You should apply strips of the hot sauce, both vertically and horizontally, on top of the grated cheese, so that you end up with a kind of checkerboard pattern that will result in uniform hot sauce distribution.

Then, take the the oyster crackers and carefully place them on the top of the grated cheese, creating an oyster cracker blanket.  This timeless technique ensures that the lightly salted oyster crackers are properly spread across the chili.

Now you are ready to dig in — and this is where many novices fail miserably.  Recalling their days eating Chef Boyardee, they try to twirl the spaghetti, chili, and cheese on their fork.  This is a pathetic blunder that is deeply embarrassing to every experienced Skyline patron in the restaurant.  They realize that the only correct way to eat Skyline chili is by using the edge of the fork to cut down vertically through the cracker-cheese-chili-spaghetti mass, so that every bite is a small yet perfectly proportioned combination of spaghetti, sauce, cheese, and a cracker or two.  This is why proper pre-consumption cracker placement is crucial.

I prefer to eat my Skyline chili right to left, perhaps because I am right-handed.  I suppose you also could eat a plate moving left to right.  However, the key point is that you start at one end of the oval-shaped plate and move from side to side.  This approach maintains the structural integrity of the food mass.  If you begin in the middle of the plate, the risk is far greater that you will experience the dreaded cheese-cracker cave-in, and once that occurs you can never fully recover the initial flawless proportioning.

As you consume this tasty concoction, be alert to the need for cracker conservation, and also to the hazards of cheese hogging.  At some point, the cheese and sauce will have melded into a kind of melted cheesy shield that will skid over the top of the pasta.  If you facilitate the skidding process, you may end up at the edge of the plate with no cheese — which is another appalling faux pas.  Similarly, you want to have a cracker or two at the end of the plate to soak up those last few drops of cheesy/saucy goodness.  Don’t be caught shorthanded!

As you eat your three-way, you also should consume your coneys.  Any cheese drop-off from the coney — and there inevitably will be some — should be added to the remaining cheese pile on your three-way plate.  This necessarily means that you will consume the last of your cheese coneys before you finish your last bite of the three-way.

After you have savored your last swallow of three-way and gone up to the cash register to pay for your fare, remember that the meal is not yet over.  A crisp, refreshing mini York Peppermint Patty is as indispensable to the meal — and I do mean indispensable — as the extra bowl of crackers.

Correctly prepared and consumed, a three-way meal at Skyline Chili ranks among the finest fast food options the nation’s heartland has to offer.  But, as with everything else, there is a right way to do it and countless wrong ways.  Let’s get it right, America!

Help Needed In Showcasing Columbus

We’re being visited for the weekend by a friend who is new to Columbus.  They are from an urban, East Coast location and have never been to the Midwest, so they already are enjoying the charms of backyards, green grass, white fences, and rolling countryside.

But what distinguishes Columbus from other Midwestern towns that have those same features?  How do we showcase our fair city?  Having never been to Columbus as a tourist, I don’t have the slightest idea of what tourists do when they visit.  We’ve suggested Easton Town Center, the Wexner Center, the Short North, and German Village.  It’s not football season, so an OSU game is out.  The Ohio State Fair hasn’t started yet.  What else?  The Ohio Statehouse?  The Arena District?  The Park of Roses?  It makes me realize that so much of what I really like about Columbus is not showy landmarks, but instead the people and the pace.

Am I missing anything?  I’d appreciate any suggestions!

In The Days Of Hai Karate

Why do you remember TV commercials from 40 years ago, but not the name of somebody you met five minutes ago?  Who knows?  But for some reason this stupid Hai Karate commercial, featuring the dorky glasses-wearing guy fending off an excited young woman, is engrained on my neural synapses as surely and inexorably as, say, the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies.

What did Hai Karate smell like?  Why would any guy want to wear after shave?  And why would any guy want to use karate on some girl who was interested in a make out session?  The commercial left these central questions unanswered, to be carefully pondered by the confused, soon-to-be-teenage boy who was trying to figure out what was cool and what wasn’t.

The Penny Chronicles

My name is Penny.

Sometimes, the rest of the pack goes away and I spend a few days with a bunch of other dogs.  This happened just a few days ago.  It’s not that bad, really.  In fact, there is one thing about it that I really like:  they give me a little neckerchief to wear when I’m there.  This last time, I got a pretty pink one with white polka dots.  I really love it!

Don’t get me wrong.  For the most part, I prefer to go natural.  I’m perfectly comfortable in my own skin, and I know I look pretty good already in my normal, copper-colored coat.  And too much clothing would be a pain.  Why would I want to be fumbling with trousers when I need to answer Nature’s call?

Still, I enjoy being fashionable once in a while.  I think a bright splash of color around my neck makes me look even better.  It helps me to stand out from the rest of the pack, and I like that.  When I go for a walk around the neighborhood in my pink neckerchief, I walk with head held high.

2000th Post

The Webner House blog has been around for a little over two years, and this is our 2,000th post.  It’s a milestone that deserves a brief mention.

In those 2,000 posts we’ve talked about travel, politics, TV shows, music, Ohio State sports, food, and whatever else strikes our fancy.  Along the way, our little family blog has received more than 74,000 hits and almost 900 comments from friends near and far.  Those statistics are tiny in comparison to the popular blogs on the internet, of course, but we’re not trying to be popular — we’re just trying to stay in touch and share our thoughts.  The comments have reminded me, time and again, how the internet is changing the world and bringing even people who live far away from each other in contact with only a few keystrokes.  In any case, we appreciate everyone who reads our stuff and takes the time to leave a message!

I also want to thank Richard again for creating the blog as a Christmas present, because it has been one of the best Christmas presents ever.  I’ve enjoyed writing my submissions, and I’ve enjoyed reading about Richard’s European travels, Jim’s political perspectives, Penny’s incessant hunger, and the other topics we’ve addressed.  This blog has been a lot of fun.

Soap Stack

If you want to enjoy the small pleasures inherent in using things up — or, alternatively phrased, if you are a cheap bastard who wants to avoid spending any unnecessary buck — it takes some work.

Consider the humble bar of soap.  You use it, and at some point it becomes a thin shard of its former self.  It could still serve its cleaning and lathering purpose, but the mechanics make it difficult.  You can’t really grip it in the normal way, because the pressure of your fingers would break it into even smaller pieces.  If you try to palm it instead, the slippery remnants slide from your hand.  And what to do about the odd-shaped hotel soaps — the ovals, and perfect squares, and little circles, all exotically scented — that you have collected during your travels?  This is why most soap ends its life cycle unhappily, tossed into the trash in frustration or melting into oblivion on the shower floor.

The solution is the soap stack.  Through careful engineering and soap size matching, the cheapskate constructs a multi-bar creation that maintains the bulk and heft necessary to proper soap usage.  It takes patience, and some dry aging, for the soap tails to become welded together into a functional unit, leaving you with a riotously multi-hued object.  But when it works, the result is an immensely satisfying accomplishment for the practitioner of household economy.

Of course, it drives Kish nuts when I do this.