Back To Borax

Yesterday I had a very juicy burger for lunch. When I went to the restroom to wash my hands after I was finished, I found this soap dispenser offering “Boraxo” powdered hand soap to help with the wash-up process.

Boraxo? As in 20 Mule Team Borax, the long-time laundry soap sponsor of Death Valley Days, the old TV western that Dad used to watch?

Borax is a sodium compound that is found in places like Death Valley–hence the logic of the old TV show sponsorship–where water evaporated and left behind dried mineral deposits. Boraxo soap is a white granular powder. You use the plunger at the bottom of the dispenser to apply Boraxo while your hands are wet. The water dissolves the powder into a gritty, soapy substance that, in my view, does a very effective job of giving your hands a thorough cleansing scrub.

Borax used to be a popular cleaning ingredient, but it fell out of favor with some people because its grittiness and alkaline component can irritate your skin. But the Boraxo dispenser in the bathroom suggests that it is being rebranded as “naturally sourced,” “non-toxic,” and “eco-friendly.” In short, they’ve apparently got the 20-mule teams at work again and headed out to the Death Valley deposits to gather the borax.

The return of borax soap in the name of eco-friendly cleaning makes me wonder if we might see the resurgence of Lava soap, which was made with actual pieces of pumice–volcanic rock that also could accurately be described as “naturally sourced.” Lava commercials featured large male hands covered with axle grease that were quickly scoured to a pristine state after a rough encounter with the Lava soap, and mothers everywhere thought that if Lava soap could defeat axle grease, it might actually get the layers of dirt and grime off the hands and faces of 9-year-old boys before they say down to the family dinner.

With the emphasis on eco-friendly products, we might be moving back to the era when cleaning products were a little bit tougher than the fragrant soaps and foams that dominate modern bathrooms, but aren’t found in nature. You might want to give Boraxo a try–and keep an eye out for Lava at your neighborhood supermarket.

When (And How) Is A Candidate’s Health Fair Game?

There is a very interesting Senate race underway in Pennsylvania. The race promised to be unconventional from the beginning, with tall, bald, goateed, tattooed, sweatshirt-wearing Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman taking on TV celebrity and political neophyte Mehmet Oz. But the race really took a turn when Fetterman suffered a stroke in May–an apparently severe stroke that Fetterman now says almost killed him–causing “Dr. Oz” to go on the attack about whether his opponent is healthy enough to do the job.

There are lots of issues that candidates for a Pennsylvania Senate seat would logically address, but Fetterman’s health became a focus after his campaign limited his appearances and he has had obvious problems with halting speech when he has participated in rallies. The Oz campaign, which has been trailing in the polls, has tried to capitalize on the issue by pressing for a debate. And, because modern politics can’t resist the gutter, the Oz campaign has done so in cheap and mean-spirited ways–such as by promising that it would pay for any medical personnel Fetterman might need to have on standby during a debate.

The Oz campaign tactics have been sharply criticized, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and others have increasingly recognized that Fetterman’s fitness to serve is a legitimate issue. As the PPG editorial put it: “If Mr. Fetterman’s communication skills have not yet recovered sufficiently to effectively debate his opponent, many voters will have concerns about his ability to represent them effectively in Washington.” The editorial also noted that the Fetterman campaign was unduly optimistic about his condition and his prognosis, and that recovery in the aftermath of a stroke is “notoriously unpredictable.”

Yesterday the press reported that the Fetterman campaign has agreed to a debate on October 25–two weeks before Election Day. The parties are still wrangling about details, but one of the conditions that has been agreed upon is that Fetterman will be able to watch a closed captioning device during the debate to deal with his acknowledged auditory processing issues, and that debate viewers will be told about that. With a debate now on the schedule, the PPG has called upon the Oz campaign to stop the attacks that, in the newspaper’s words, has turned the race into “an exercise in insult comedy rather than a serious contest on the merits of the candidates as potential U.S. Senators.”

Anyone who has known a stroke victim, as many of us have, will recoil at a political system in which an opponent thinks it is appropriate to disrespect and make fun of someone struggling with post-stroke limitations. Even by modern political standards, that’s low. At the same time, strokes clearly can be debilitating, and it is reasonable to question, with decency and respect, whether someone recovering from a stroke and experiencing impaired auditory processing can actually perform the duties required of a U.S. Senator. I expect that many curious Pennsylvania voters will tune in on October 25, wondering what they might see.

Hot, Then Not

The classic real estate saying is “location, location, location.” The 2022 supplement to that adage might be “timing, timing, timing.”

For the last few years, we’ve been hearing about how hot the housing market has been in many places. Now there are many signs that the hot markets across the globe are abruptly cooling off, according to a Bloomberg article. It reports that increasing costs of borrowing, with central banks raising interest rates sharply to try to deal with inflationary pressures, are causing potential borrowers to think twice about paying big bucks for houses. As a result, houses in the formerly hot markets are looking at double-digit percentage declines in asking prices, and economists are forecasting a significant housing market downturn in 2023 and 2024. That’s a real problem for those people who have a significant chunk of their assets tied up in their houses–especially if they’ve paid “hot market” prices for them.

Yesterday’s consumer price index report in the U.S., which showed inflation is still far above targets, won’t help matters. The higher-than-forecast inflation numbers, notwithstanding recent declines in fuel prices, not only caused the stock indexes to tumble dramatically, it also is expected to convince the Federal Reserve to ratchet up interest rates again next week to try to wring the inflation out of the economy. That move would increase borrowing costs still farther and put even more pressure on potential buyers who would need to finance any home purchase. As interest rates rise, those potential buyers become more and more likely to stay put in their current housing and stay out of the housing market.

History teaches us that hot sellers’ markets don’t stay hot forever, and yet when such hot markets are here, some people expect them to continue indefinitely. It doesn’t take much for a sellers’ market to turn into a buyers’ market–especially if you are a buyer with ready cash who doesn’t need to take out a mortgage to make a purchase. It looks like that is the process that is underway right now, and as long as inflation remains high, that shift is likely to accelerate.

Bears In Pools

If you are considering whether to put a swimming pool in your backyard, as part of the process you undoubtedly receive a lot of legal disclosures about the risks involved in installing any kind of pool. I find myself wondering, however, whether you receive warnings about . . . bears.

I thought of this important question after seeing a news story about how a home security camera caught a bear going for a dip in a backyard pool in Monrovia, California. You can see the article and the video here. In the video, the bear climbs over a rear wall, tumbles to the ground, sniffs around the pool, then decides to take a lap and cool off before exiting the premises the way he came in.

I thought the video was unusual until I did a search for bears in pools, and found that there are a lot of YouTube videos and stories about incidents in which bears decided to take a swim in a pool. The videos show bear swims across the country, in California, Tennessee, Florida, and even New Jersey (where the bears probably have a Jersey accent). The bears aren’t picky about their swimming venues, either: they’ll gladly splash around in In-ground or above-ground pools. They don’t even mind a belly-flop, as shown in the picture above.

The homeowner who posted the video of the bear climbing his back wall for a swim took it in good humor, saying there was “never a dull moment” in his household. I wonder, however, how enjoyable it will be lounging in that pretty little pool in the future, knowing all the while that at any moment a bear could climb the wall and dive in. It’s hard to really relax when you are on bear alert and have to keep one eye open for a visit from a furry friend.

The Monkees, Redacted

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the news a lot lately. Many on the right think the FBI has recently become politicized–but the reality is that the agency has been involved in investigations of political matters for decades, ever since it was asked to look into loosely defined “subversives” back in the 1930s. Back in the J. Edgar Hoover days the FBI collected information on Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and . . . the Monkees.

What a second–the Monkees? The zany, made-for-TV rock band that had a brief but memorable TV show, produced a series of number 1 albums, were a sensation among teenagers, and incidentally recorded some great rock music that still stands up? The FBI investigated those guys?

It did. According to the FBI’s “Vault” webpage–which, if you’re interested, allows you to search for FBI records on line–the agency has two records about the rock band: “a 1967 Los Angeles Field Office memorandum on anti-Vietnam war activities and a second document redacted entirely.” The 1967 field office memorandum was released to the public about ten years ago, and is very heavily redacted. (You can see the original report, in its redacted form, here.) The unredacted portion reports on a concert the Monkees gave in which photographs were broadcast on a screen behind the band that a redacted informant considered to be “left-wing intervention of a political nature”–which in reality reflected what was actually going on at the time, like racial rioting and protests against the war in Vietnam.

Now Mickey Dolenz, the last surviving member of the Monkees, is suing to try to get the FBI to release the full records about the band. The lawsuit seeks “any records the FBI created and/or possesses on the Monkees as well as its individual members.”

In the grand scheme of what is going on in the world, trying to determine what information the FBI collected about the Monkees is a small thing, but it also raises a big point about transparency and getting a fuller accounting of the FBI’s activities over the years. It’s hard to believe that the document from the Monkees’ FBI file that was released in 2011 merited the heavy redaction it received; what kinds of information could it possibly contain that would reasonably need to be kept secret, decades later? Now that another ten years have passed, there is even less cause for continuing secrecy. I’m hoping the lawsuit is successful and we get to see what the FBI considered so important and secretive. Perhaps the lawsuit, and the reaction to any documents that are released as a result of it, will cause a reassessment of the agency’s actions and, particularly, its continuing, overly aggressive redaction of documents that the public actually has a right to see.

Reassessing Gorbachev

The death yesterday of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has caused a lot of comment about his role in ushering in the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s worth a few moments to think about those events that occurred more than 30 years ago and how they are perceived now.

The Washington Post obituary presents Gorbachev as the agent of change; it states that he “embarked on a path of radical reform that brought about the end of the Cold War, reversed the direction of the nuclear arms race and relaxed Communist Party controls in hopes of rescuing the faltering Soviet state but instead propelled it toward collapse.” He was a “towering figure” who engaged in “improvised tactics,” took “increasingly bold risks,” and “pursued ever-larger ambitions for liberalization, battling inertia and a stubborn old guard.” The Post views Mr. Gorbachev as the indispensable figure in the end of the Cold War drama, stating flatly: “None of it could have happened but for Mr. Gorbachev.” That view is reflected in the fact that Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Others disagree with that assessment. They see Gorbachev as the reactor, not the actor; in their view, the true change agent was Ronald Reagan. This evaluation of the 1980s focuses on President Reagan’s decision to ratchet up the social, economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union and Gorbachev with events like his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987. As a result, they contend, Gorbachev was left with few options and really didn’t have much choice as he took steps that responded to the Reagan initiatives and the outbreaks of resistance and freedom initiatives that began to appear in Eastern Europe. The Post obituary indirectly acknowledges this with its references to “improvised tactics” and “increasingly bold risks”: the person who sets the tone doesn’t need to improvise.

Which view of Gorbachev is right? I think the honest answer lies somewhere in between, recognizing that President Reagan’s approach helped to create and nourish the pro-freedom movement that narrowed the options and forced increasingly difficult decisions by the Soviet Union, but also that Gorbachev did always have a choice: he could have unleashed the Soviet army, applied the extreme and brutal repressive tactics that the U.S.S.R. had historically applied, or taken things to the brink of nuclear war–but he didn’t. We’ll probably never know precisely how essential Gorbachev was to those decisions, and how much support, or opposition, he had among members of the Politburo in refraining from calling out the troops or pushing the button, but it all happened on his watch. If a more bloodthirsty, reckless leader had been in charge of the Soviet Union at that time, things might have gone down very differently.

Mikhail Gorbachev may not deserve the over-the-top accolades he is receiving in some quarters, but he clearly was an important historical figure who played a key role. Mr. Gorbachev may not have torn down the wall, but he ultimately didn’t interfere with those freedom-loving Germans who did, and the world should remember him for that.

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

In 1787, as the Constitutional Convention was deliberating, there was keen public interest in what form of national government the delegates would decide to recommend to the individual states. According to a journal kept by James McHenry, a delegate to the convention from Maryland, on September 18, 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin whether the delegates would recommend a monarchy or a republic. According to Mr. McHenry, Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin’s famous response has a cautionary, but flexible, quality to it that makes it a perennial reference in American politics. Dr. Franklin’s quote was cited repeatedly, for example, during the Trump impeachment proceedings in December, 2019–so much so that some people created a drinking game requiring players to take a gulp whenever Franklin was quoted, again.

I thought of Franklin’s witty yet telling comment when I heard of President Biden’s decision to issue an executive order forgiving certain student loan debts for people earning less than $125,000. The President invokes the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act of 2003, a post-9/11 law that permits the Secretary of Education to waive or modify Federal student financial assistance program requirements to help students and their families or academic institutions affected by a war, other military operation, or national emergency. The Biden Administration says the COVID-19 pandemic is a “national emergency” that allows invocation of the HEROES Act to forgive the student loan debt. The precise price tag for President Biden’s executive order isn’t entirely clear. The White House says it will cost $24 billion per year over the next ten years, whereas a study by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania concludes that the plan could conceivably cost as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade.

Franklin’s quote comes to mind because the central idea of a republic is that the people will act through their elected representatives: the two houses of Congress. That is why the Constitution gives Congress a sweeping array of powers and responsibilities. In this instance, it’s clear that, in passing the HEROES Act in 2003, Congress did not contemplate that it was authorizing the President, acting through the Secretary of Education, to broadly forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt for thousands of borrowers in the wake of a global pandemic. Congress never held hearings or debated, for example, whether a $125,000 income cutoff is appropriate, or how much debt should be forgiven, or whether other requirements should be imposed in order for people to qualify for debt relief. In a true republic, all of those things would have happened, and the people would have had a chance to be heard, too, by reaching out to their representatives as the proposal worked its way through two houses of Congress, compromises were struck, and amendments were offered before the final bill reached the President’s desk.

I know people of good will who have argued both sides of the issue of whether broad student loan relief is a good idea as a matter of policy. I’m more concerned, in this instance, with how the decision was made. If you value the concept of a republic, it’s extraordinary to think that a President can commit the government to take on hundreds of billions of dollars in debt with the stroke of a pen by invoking an obscure provision of a law that has never been used for anything remotely resembling the President’s sweeping executive order.

In view of this development, would Dr. Franklin think we are keeping a republic?

High Times With The Hat Band

We’re driving back to Columbus and stopped for the night in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where we spent the night at the Vassar Alumnae House, a favorite lodging spot from the days Russell was a student here. It’s a classic venue that is steeped in Vassar lore and tradition. It also has a lot of marvelous old photographs—and I like looking at old photos.

The photo above, found next to the elevator on our floor, is of the annual Vassar College associate alumnae luncheon at the Hotel Commodore in New York City on November 5, 1921. It obviously was an enormous gathering. You immediately notice two things about the photo, upon careful scrutiny. First, every woman in the photo is wearing a hat. Second, no one seems to be having a very good time. That’s probably because the photo was taken during the early days of Prohibition (which started on January 17, 1920) and it was hot and uncomfortable wearing those elaborate hats in a hotel ballroom.

The 1921 alumnae luncheon may have been serious business, but the Vassar students we saw around campus during our visit last night seemed a lot more fun-loving. The end of Prohibition and the elimination of the hat requirement no doubt helped.

Downtowns, Up And Down

COVID still lingers–it seems like everyone has a friend or family members who has gotten it recently, or been exposed–and it’s looking like we’re just going to have to learn to live with it, long term. In the meantime, people are still trying to assess the impact of the shutdowns in various areas. One point of focus is looking at how cities–and specifically, their downtown areas–are doing in their efforts to bounce back from the prolonged 2020-2021 COVID shutdown periods.

A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley tried to answer that question by using a new form of measurement of activity. Rather than looking at an old-school measurement like office occupancy rates, however, they decided to look at cell phone user location data to see how many people have been going to the downtown areas in 62 American cities, and compare the data from pre-pandemic 2019 to the data for 2022.

The research team then used the data to calculate a “recovery quotient” for each of the 62 cities. The news isn’t good for many American cities, leading the research team to provocatively title their policy brief “The Death of Downtown?” Some cities, like San Francisco, have RQs that indicate that current downtown activity is only a small fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Happily, downtown Columbus is an outlier, with an RQ of 112, meaning that downtown activity in 2022 is above 2019 levels. That results puts downtown Columbus at the top of the list of large cities and third overall, behind only the downtown areas of Salt Lake City and Bakersfield.

The paper identifies various correlated explanatory variables for the different RQ scores, including the nature and mix of downtown jobs and the prevalence of remote work, commuting and public transportation issues, and the availability of downtown living space. The paper also notes the possibility of rethinking downtown areas and creating event spaces and destination areas to spur activity. Columbus has done a good job addressing these areas–particularly adding to the residential stock in the downtown area and placing sports venues, like Huntington Park shown in the photo above, in the city core–so I’m not surprised it scored well.

Policymakers have been predicting the death of downtown areas for decades but they are still here; I therefore wouldn’t be too quick to shovel dirt on downtowns. But the Berkeley analysis indicates that the COVID shutdown periods hit downtown areas hard. City leaders will need to focus on how to increase activity in their city cores as we move into the phase of learning to live with COVID.

Bad Reviews

Stars of stage and screen have been dealing with bad reviews for a long, long, time. For restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, it’s a more recent phenomenon, thanks to on-line rating services. And now the ratings game is being applied to pretty much every business and profession you can think of, including service industries, teachers . . . even lawyers.

Bad reviews are so commonplace that there are collections of “hilariously bad reviews” on-line–like this one. But while outside observers might chuckle at an internet reaming, every one of those horrific reviews left a business owner, a cook, or a server really smarting, and worrying that the review will seriously harm their business. In fact, studies show that people do pay attention to reviews in deciding where to eat, drink, or hire an electrician, and a crushing comment might just make a potential customer decide to go elsewhere.

What should you do if you get a bad review? One PR agency offers tips about responding to reviews here. Their main teaching is to respond promptly and constructively to all reviews, good and bad, and view the review and response process as an opportunity to build customer loyalty and show that you value feedback. That means not replying to a bad review with flamethrower comments of your own, but instead responding in a way that shows that you’ve taken the criticism to heart, are glad the reviewer spoke up, and hope that they will come back to give you another chance after you’ve implemented improvements.

Nobody likes to get bad reviews, but it’s a reality of our modern world. My guess, too, is that pretty much every business, no matter how good they might be, gets ripped by someone who visited on an off-day or just has a negative attitude in general. Learning how to respond to the bad reviews is as much a part of operating a successful business as developing your business plan or setting up your bookkeeping system.

Learning To Read

Reading is one of the most basic capabilities that humans can learn. It forms the foundation for virtually all forms of higher learning, provides a gateway into a range of knowledge as diverse as the thoughts of great minds of the past, modern technology, sports scores, and cooking recipes, and touches just about every facet of our lives. And yet, how much do we remember about how we learned this crucial skill? Learning the alphabet, associating letter combinations with different sounds until something clicked and the basic words became ingrained in brain synapses to the point where reading because easy–for me, at least, it all is lost in the mists of time that occurred before we got to the books about Dick, Jane, and their dog Spot, which I do dimly remember reading. (“See Spot run! ‘Run, Spot, run!’)

Those of us who are beyond the kids in school phase of our lives might be interested in learning that the educational community is struggling with the issue of teaching kids to read. Time magazine has an interesting article about the ongoing effort, which is precipitated by some truly dismal statistics. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, only 35 percent of fourth-graders met reading proficiency standards, and the numbers were even worse for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. Of course, the pandemic didn’t help matters.

The current dispute is about whether reading should be taught with a focus on phonics–that is, by drilling kids on how to sound out words, with all of the weirdnesses and exceptions you find in the English language (like way/weigh)–or whether kids who are introduced to reading will eventually figure out those rules on their own. The latter school of thought considers phonics to be boring. If I could remember this phase in learning to read, I’d probably agree that it was boring–but it worked for me, and for generations of kids.

Now the troubling test scores are causing educators, and politicians, to again urge the old school, phonics approach to learning to read. It might be boring for both teacher and student, they concede, but it evidently works–and that should be the acid test. And educators really shouldn’t be worrying about whether the methods they are using are boring, in my view. Much of learning math, science, and history involves rote memorization and repetition. It’s not thrilling, but it becomes assimilated in the brain, and when you are talking about the basics, that is what you are aiming for.

It will be interesting to see how the reading debate progresses–but if our schools aren’t taking the best, most likely to succeed approach to teaching kids how to read, we are failing to achieve the most basic goal of education, and leaving those kids unprepared to succeed in the modern world. That is just not fair, or right.

Thoughts From The Southern Route

Yesterday, when I approached the I-71/I-76 intersection, my inner Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry voice asked if I felt lucky, and I did–so I took the southern route. And sure enough, as I rolled along I-76 in Ohio, I-80 in Pennsylvania, and I-84 in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, my luck held up. The weather was perfect for driving–dry and sunny–and I made excellent time. It all changed, unfortunately, when I passed Hartford and entered Massachusetts.

Once I-84 emptied into I-90, and I turned onto I-495 to loop around Boston, the traffic got heavy and moved into the frustrating stop-and-go mode, giving rise to the two eternal questions for drivers. The first is: if there are no accidents and there is no road work, why does stop-and-go traffic, where you actually have to come to a dead halt on an interstate highway, happen at all? Why doesn’t traffic continue to move forward at a steady, if slower, pace? Is it that somebody changed lanes and cut someone off, producing a domino effect of braking that ultimately produced standstills farther back in the line of cars?

I guess that is more than just one question.

And the second question is: why does the lane I pick in stop-and-go traffic always seem to be the slowest lane? I tend to favor the passing lane, reasoning that it will have fewer cars moving back and forth, and no one entering from access ramps, but yesterday the left lane was the worst for stoppages by far. The middle lane was better, and the far right lane seemed to have the smoothest traffic flow, notwithstanding the people coming onto the highway. Is that always true, and if so, why? And why would the left lane ever be anything other than the lane that had the smoothest traffic flow?

Finally, there is the E-ZPass issue. Do you get one, or not? Toll roads, and the use of E-ZPass rather than depositing money to a toll booth attendant, is clearly a northeastern phenomenon, as the above map demonstrates. If you’re driving east, E-ZPass definitely makes things easier, as you can roll past interstate toll booths without stopping, knowing that someone somewhere is logging your movements and charging you electronically, and you don’t have to fume about the person in front of you who moves up to the toll booth without having their payment handy, causing even more delay. I’ve not gotten E-ZPass because I just don’t feel like I would use it much, and there’s something about it that just irks me from a privacy standpoint. But on yesterday’s drive it became clear that we’re being tracked, whether we use E-ZPass or not, because on many of the toll roads there are no booths and the signs announce that if you don’t have an E-ZPass you’ll just be billed–which means your car is being photographed and the license plate information is being used to send you a bill. E-ZPass doesn’t seem any more intrusive than that.

Jack Kerouac wouldn’t be able to drive anonymously on the tollways of the northeast U.S. in the same way he traveled incognito in On The Road. In the western half of the country, where there aren’t nearly as many toll roads, it might still be possible. I do find myself wondering, though, about a question that I don’t think was addressed in On The Road: when Jack Kerouac encountered stop-and-go traffic, which lane did he choose?

The Northern Route Or The Southern Route

Today I’m getting up early and driving back to Maine. That means I’ll be making a crucial choice: the northern route, or the southern route?

It’s the kind of tough, coin-flip decision of which road trips are made. The “southern” route takes me on I-76, on I-80 though northern Pennsylvania, then up I-84, past Scranton, to slice across southern New York and then head north through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The northern route, on the other hand, takes I-71 to I-271 and then up to I-90 and follows it through northern Ohio, the stub of Pennsylvania where Erie is located, then past Buffalo and across the entire width of New York and pretty much the entire width of Massachusetts, too.

Which way to go? Do you take the risk of hitting a lot of traffic as you pass the Cleveland suburbs, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany on the I-90 route, or is the bigger risk the crummy road conditions and inevitably crappy traffic in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre corridor or as you roll through Hartford, Connecticut? Do you take the I-90 turnpike toll road, dealing with the issues that arise when, like all Midwesterners, you don’t have one of those “EZ Pass” units that allow you to zip through the toll stations, or do you enjoy the pleasures of the freeway? Which route is more likely to have a disabling accident, or active roadwork that will back up the traffic for miles?

I’ve driven both routes, and it’s basically six of one, half a dozen of the other. They are so close in terms of distance and likely travel time that even the most careful analysis could be upset by simple bad luck. I won’t be deciding for sure until I hit the spot on I-71 for the I-76 turnoff and go with a gut check. At that point, I’ll ask myself, in my best Dirty Harry voice: “Well, punk? Do you feel lucky?”

Still Digging For Jimmy

This summer marks the 47th anniversary of the abrupt disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the former head of the Teamsters Union. On July 30, 1975, Hoffa was last seen in a restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit; he was legally declared dead in 1982. Hoffa is one of the most famous missing persons in American history, right up there with Amelia Earhart. TIME magazine, at least, places Hoffa with Earhart on the list of “top 10 famous disappearances.”

In the 47 years since Hoffa vanished, the FBI has spent a lot of time, and done a lot of digging, looking for him. An interesting article this summer by a current Harvard Law School professor recounts the high points of the extensive, long-running, and so far totally fruitless search for Hoffa’s presumed remains. As the article explains, over the last 47 years a rogue’s gallery of criminals, with the kind of nicknames you would expect if you’ve watched The Sopranos, have claimed knowledge of what happened to Hoffa and where he can be found. Their stories have differed, placing Hoffa’s remains in Florida swamps, in the concrete under Giants Stadium, in a Georgia golf course, and at various locations around Michigan. The FBI has investigated the claims, often to the point of digging, and nothing is found. The most recent, nine-month-long investigation focused on a former landfill under the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the FBI reported just last month that the effort came up empty.

Based on the record, it’s probably only a matter of time before another colorful character claims to have been involved in Hoffa’s disappearance, identifies a new spot, and the FBI gets out the shovels and does more digging for Jimmy. But after 47 years, it seems like the trail must be awfully cold. Whoever actually knew what happened to Jimmy Hoffa hasn’t talked about it, and unless we get a verifiable deathbed confession, we’ll probably never know. But at the FBI, the shovels are still at the ready, just in case.

End Of The Stick

When I took drivers’ ed in high school, the classes themselves (taught by the phys ed teacher, of course) provided basic instruction on the rules of the road and touched on the existence of both manual and automatic transmission cars. That’s when I first was introduced to the mysterious functioning of something called a “clutch”–which, when you think about it, is an odd yet evocative name for an automobile part. In those days during the early ’70s, most cars came in manual and automatic options.

My in-car drivers’ ed classes, though, were taught in an automatic transmission car, so the mysteries of the “clutch” and the “stick shift” were left unexplored. And during my driving career, which is now approaching the 50-year mark, I think I’ve driven a manual transmission vehicle twice–once when I drove out west in a van, and once when I used a rental truck to move from city to city. Each time, I muddled through the stick shift process without really getting the hang of it, and was pretty much glad when the adventures ended and I could go back to the automatic world.

In the battle between automatic and manual, automatic transmissions have triumphed, and manual transmissions are increasingly rare–and soon will be no more, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. A sign of the decline of the stick shift is that in 2000, 15 percent of the new and used cars offered by CarMax were manual transmission vehicles; in 2020, that figure was 2.4 percent. Only about 30 of the hundreds of new vehicles for sale in the U.S. have a manual transmission option, and there are reports that even more manufacturers will be dropping that option in the near future. Even with sports cars that you associate with stick shift driving, automatic transmissions have had their way; in every year since 1970, for example, sales of the automatic versions of the Corvette have surpassed the manual option. After the last manual transmission car rolls off the assembly line, stick-shift aficionados will have to find their clutching pleasures in the used car market–but don’t be surprised if they buy up the last brand-new manual transmission vehicles first.

If you talk to a manual transmission driver, you’ll find there is a deep attachment between them and their stick shift. People drive a stick only by choice these days, and when they explain why they sound like the faithful trying to convert you to their religion. A manual allows you to really be in control of your car, they’ll say, or they will argue that manual drivers are better and safer than automatic drivers, because the need to constantly clutch and shift makes them much more attentive to traffic and road conditions. Really, though, you get the idea that they really just like fiddling around with the stick shift and that weird extra pedal, and for them driving their car is just like playing with a fun toy every morning.

It’s curious that manual transmissions have hung on as long as they have; after all, other throwbacks to the dawn of the automotive era–like hand-cranking the engine–have long since been tossed to the side of the road. The staying power of the stick shift is a testament to the true believers. It will be tough for them when we reach the end of the stick.