INSITEVIEW- - tom shugart's weblog

Monday, June 30, 2003

Re-Thinking My Despair

Thanks to Adina Levin for her link to an article in the Washington Post which describes the impressive progress being made by Howard Dean in his use of the Internet for advancing his campaign.

In my previous post, I expressed my despair about the seeming inability of Dean or anyone else to amass the kind of funds that would be needed to stand a chance against the Bush juggernaut. Well, maybe I've been guilty of not getting it about the potential of the Net in a political campaign. As the article points out, the Net has been used with some success by Jesse Ventura and John McCain. And now Dean is apparently doing a good job of taking it to the next level.

Maybe there’s hope after all. Maybe a grass roots miracle can actually be brought to bear. You can be sure that I'm going to start following the Dean Internet effort more closely.

Can An Authentic Voice Be Heard Above the Slime?

An intriguing statement from Doc in a post yesterday:

"For the first time I'm starting to believe we are reaching the implementation stage of Cluetrain in politics: The point where voice and authenticity matter more than any campaign strategy."

This is precisely what the Howard Dean campaign is about. Up until now, I've been dismissing Dean as unelectable. But after watching him go mano a mano for an hour last Sunday with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, I’ve changed my mind.

Dean's a Ross Perot without the crackerisms. A no-bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is guy, In other words, a breath of fresh air. As with Perot, I think his approach has a chance of catching on as more and more people, hopefully, begin to wake up to the reality of how much they've been lied to by the present administration.

As for the unelectability factor, hell, there's no chance for any of the Dems anyway. Not against the insane amount of money that W has been raising in the past weeks. The shocker is that this is money (all $200 million of it) that is going to be spent before the conventions—before the general election campaign even gets underway.

During the entire spring and early summer next year, there will be endless commercials "defining" the Democrats in whatever way that Bush, Rove, and Gang want to define them--soft on security and patriotism, big spenders, you name it, any smear you can think of.

The poor Dems won’t even be able to raise half that much money—combined. And they’ll have to spend all of it fighting each other in the primaries. No matter how much we may hate it, and no matter how much the press and everyone else bitches about it, the fact remains that the outcome of modern campaigns is determined by TV exposure.

The irony of the much-touted McCain-Feingold election reform, which bans “soft” money, is that it has a built-in advantage for the GOP. Only the well-to-do can afford large donations of “hard” money—i.e., direct contributions to the candidates—that are now the only kind allowed. These, of course, are the very folks who are only too glad to chip in to the GOP cause.

Call me an incurable pessimist if you must, but I just don’t see how it’s possible for anyone to stop the Texas Terrorist. As long as none of the Dems can win, we might as well have a candidate who’s not going to mince words about the very scary directions toward which the dread Gang of W is leading us.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a candidate like Howard Dean for whom, to quote Doc once more, “voice and authenticity matter more than any campaign strategy?.”

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Radio Requiem

Thanks to Doc for the link to Signals from Nowhere, a splendidly written but highly depressing article by Walter Kirn in the NY Times Magazine. Doc quotes the article at length, so I won’t bother here. It’s a piece about the homogenization of American radio, something I’ve been lamenting from time to time in these pages.

In my recently concluded road diaries, I referred with sadness to the homogenization of American food, but the changes in the radio scene are equally disheartening. I always enjoyed listening to the disparate and regionally distinctive voices of American radio when I made cross-country auto trips. This is a treat no longer available, as Kirn’s article explains.

In our recent trip, Jon and I compensated for this dearth by having Jon’s outstanding CD collection at our disposal, so it blunted the disappointment. But I feel a sense of loss that my kids and their peers will never experience the multiple textures and cultural layers of this vast country that local radio used to offer the long distance highway traveler.

Maybe the existence and convenience of CD players in our cars of today renders modern drivers unaware or uncaring about the deplorable state of the radio industry as it now exists. Some commenters place the blame on the lobotomytized American public. They have a point. After all, it’s the same public that puts up with unhealthy, mass-produced food and blindly accepts the lies spewed out daily by the Bush Administration.

Doc quotes Matt who observes and asks,

“But what I really don't understand is, if it's so awful, why do people listen? After all, without listeners there would be no advertisers and ClearChannel would be dust.

So who loves this shit? "

For an intelligent discussion of who listens to the fecal airwaves and why they do it, read the comments to Matt’s post.

Friday, June 27, 2003

Sales and “Girlism”

I’ve been enjoying the back-and-forth between Halley, Dorothea, and Shelley on the subject of “Girlism,” i.e., the manipulative use of feminine wile, and related workplace issues. Anytime this crackling trio discusses gender issues, you want to lend an ear. Actually, there are many more voices besides these three engaging the thread—see the many comments at Burningbird, and Blog Sisters.

This whole discussion took me back to what it was like when I started out in the workplace after college. Before I was in marketing, I was in sales. In the mid-sixties, when I started out, you saw a woman in sales about as often as you saw a male flight attendant. In most sales organizations, it was as inconceivable that they would have a female in their midst as it would be inconceivable today not to have any women in the sales force.

Then, in the seventies, when the feminists began pushing, women started showing up here and there in the sales forces of some of the more enlightened organizations. But it was rough going—very rough. The rap on them was that they couldn’t handle rejection. Buyers would complain to sales managers that they didn’t want a female calling on them because they would feel less free to say no. They were afraid that the female rep would break down and cry, and they didn’t want to be put in that position.

There was a widely circulated report at the time—the name of which I can’t remember—which managers used as ammunition for not hiring female sales reps. The report inquired into all the possible ways in which males experienced rejection in pursuit of a woman’s sexual favors. The researchers looked at the period between the man’s first approach, by phone or in person, to the last moment before possible penetration. They identified 88 steps along the way where the woman could say no. (It’s interesting that I still remember that number).

Since any heterosexual male with anything faintly resembling a libido has experienced many of these 88 possible rejections many times over, the report concluded that men had a built-in experience of handling rejection that made them far more suited for sales. The report, although laughable in its science, managed to gain a level of influence because guys would read it and see their own experience validated—“Uh, huh. Oh, yeah! At least 88 ways. Don’t I know!”

However, as time went on, regulations became more strict, more women were admitted into the game, they proved their mettle, and attitudes slowly but surely began to change. Then, an interesting development began happening. Some sales managers started practicing a reverse discrimination. After being shown that women could sell as effectively as men, they then got the bright idea that they could USE women to get into more doors. They calculated that guys would be hypnotized by the chance to get a women into their office. The smart thing to do, many sales managers concluded, was to give hiring preference to females.

The idiocy never seems to stop. All I can say is that, during my advertising days, when media reps--many of whom were women--called on me, I NEVER once experienced any of them practicing “girlism” to influence the situation. It was the merits of their case, period. As for the male reps, every once in a while I would get some hard-ass whose hidden agenda was “I can outsmart you, you little piss-ant. And, besides, mine is bigger than yours.”

So maybe the modern sales managers are partly right. Everything else being equal, I guess I would rather have a woman call on me than a man—but not for the lump-headed reasons the managers think. No, It’s just that I prefer getting a professional approach. And in my experience, that’s what I get from the women.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Forsaking Brain Cell Count

Sya of Syaffolee blogs her self-disgust for wasting brain cell count on TV watching:

“I should smack myself for watching TV again. I can feel a brain cell dying every second I watch. Then again, I got to see what all the fuss was about from television personalities that were mentioned by more media savvy bloggers. Frankly, I don't see why people are so fascinated with them except for the fact that they're all so damn annoying.”

When I was in my twenties, I felt exactly as she does about TV. I eschewed the hell out of it, and ridiculed those who watched it.

Then came my thirties, marriage, children, working hard all day, coming home, being a daddy, helping with the house and homework, getting kids ready for next schooldays, getting myself ready for next day, and, finally, getting kids to bed.

9:00 PM. Exhausted, but too early for bed. Solution? The Idiot Box. It was a savior. Never mind the loss of gray matter.

Kids are gone now, but it's become a fully ingrained pre-bedtime ritual that Jill and I continue to observe. We program the VCR for intelligent dramas so that we always have something of quality to watch when pre-bedtime rolls around. We most certainly don’t want to be imprisoned by the inanities of the usual prime-time TV fare. This means we have to cough up the extra bucks for umpteen premium cable channels—something that was out of our reach when we were in our twenties—not that we cared then, anyway.

I highly recommend this procedure to Sya and others when they reach that demanding stage of life when a little vacuous downtime becomes more precious than the cell count of their brains.

They may not think that that time will come, but, beware, it's more likely to do so than not. In the meantime, they should go right on killing their TVs.

Hoosier Pride

Congratulations to my fellow Indiana University alum, Steve MacLaughlin, who has helped keep the Hoosier banner high with his distinguished blogging over the past couple of years.

He now hoists the banner higher as Frank Paynter’s excellent subject in Frank’s latest interview. As a former Paynter interviewee myself, I’m further delighted to see Frank resume his interviews—for which he has a special gift. His insightful probing helps to bring out the essence of the blogger. It’s a big plus for all of us. Let’s hope Frank has plans for doing more.

Although Steve’s no longer teaching at IU, I’m sure he won’t mind joining me in a hearty “Go Hoosiers!”—to which I’ll add, “Go Steve!”

Monday, June 23, 2003


My three newest additions to my blogroll, it just so happens, are all female. Perhaps that pot-stirring wizard of all things feminine, Elaine of Kalilily, who’s just returned from a vacation, is casting a spell on me and invisibly pushing me toward her blogging sisters.

Just kidding, girls. Your blogs stand on their own as great reading. No sinister influences from The Crone are necessary.

A hearty welcome to Maria Benet of alembic; Rana of Frogs and Ravens; and the Invisible Adjunct (name unknown, but definitely female).

It Figures

I get quoted in Corante On Blogging today on my post about Comments—and, wouldn’t you know it? My Comments server goes down! Thanks to Hylton’s mention, I get a whole parade of hits from new visitors—and what do they see? No Comments function! I sure hope they come back for a second look, but I’m not counting on it.

Friday, June 20, 2003

Postscript On Comments

In my previous post on Comments, I asked the rhetorical question, “What’s not to like about Comments?” Later, in the cluttered recesses of my mind, I vaguely recalled that Dorothea Salo had written something arguing against the use of Comments—not for others, but for herself.

I’m so glad I remembered because I was on the verge of asking her--somewhat impertinently--why in the hell she doesn’t have a Comments function on her blog. After all, Dorothea’s a frequent commenter in other blogs--and just the other day, she praised Invisible Adjunct for its weekly practice of citing the best comment of the week and putting it up as a post. Her praise would seem to indicate an endorsement of the Comments function.

Given these facts, I was scratching my head about her not having this function on her own blog. Then my feeble memory kicked in, and I looked up her old post on the matter. Dorothea writes with such compelling logic and politeness, I would have to say that she’s articulated an unassailable reason for not having Comments on her blog. That doesn’t keep me from wishing she’d have a change of heart. But I really don’t expect it.

I want to thank Dorothea, by the way, for introducing me to the aforementioned Invisible Adjunct—a highly interesting blog. Its “weekly award” feature has given me a spark of an idea for this blog—not an award, but some sort of daily or weekly “something.” I’m going to try to flesh this out over the coming days and see what I can come up with. I need a new wrinkle of some kind to keep this blog from fizzling again.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Blogging Manifestos

Stanton Finley recently posted a beautiful piece called “Blocks,” which Mike Golby has interpreted as a blogging manifesto for himself--and re-christened it, “The River.” As always, Mike’s observations are well worth reading.

While attending a Bar Mitzvah last weekend, I ran across an inspiring prayer, and like Golby with Finley, I reacted to it as something that could be applied as a manifesto to my own relationship to blogging—encumbered as it often is with interferences of self-doubt.

This prayer, I should point out, was part of a Jewish Renewal service—i.e., a modern-day, non-traditional, free-thinking approach. It’s a version of “Elohai Neshama” (my God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure). It goes like this:

“There is a vitality, a life force,
an energy, a quickening that is translated
through you into action
and because there is only one you in all time
this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through
any other medium . . . the world
will not have it.
It is not your business
to determine how good it is, nor how valuable,
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours
clearly and directly,
to keep the channel open.”

You won't find two better practitioners of this manifesto than Golby and Finley. Thanks, guys, for being the examples that you are.

Catching Up

I’ve been making a nearly hopeless attempt to catch up on what’s been going on with my fellow bloggers. My recent self-imposed absence from blogging, followed by a long trip sans computer has left me out of the loop.

For example, Denise Howell posted a sonogram of her baby at twelve weeks. I didn’t even know she was—as the Brits say—preggers. I’m going to email her my personal congrats. Wonder if she’ll be changing the name of her blog to Bag, Baggage , and Diapers?

Doing the math, I figure that Denise must have been about a month along when Jill and I had our meetup with her in Mendocino this spring. I wonder if she knew and wasn’t telling? Anyway, wonderful news, Denise! Keep us posted.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Comments On Comments

Very delighted to read that Halley is going to install Comments—at long last. What’s not to like about Comments? I resisted them for the first few months of my blogging life. I was afraid that nobody would comment and that the string of goose eggs at the ends of my posts would be highly embarrassing.

In actuality, installing the Comments function was the turning point for this humble blog. People would leave a comment, I would start a conversation with them, wider exposure would flow out of the conversation, and new readers would drop by. Of course, Halley hardly needs the jump-start that I did, but just think of the great conversations that are likely to be stimulated.

Facilitation of conversation and discovering new blogs are the primary positives of the Comments function. When there is no Comments function and we want to respond to something, we’re often too lazy to crank up the email. A potential conversation is lost. A potential discovery of a worthy and previously unfamiliar blog may also be lost.

I would hate to miss out on these opportunities. Just today, for example, thanks to my Comments function, I discovered another terrific blog—alembic (you’ll have to go there to find out what the word means, unless you’re extra brainy)-- authored by Maria Benet--who not only is an interesting voice, but a fellow resident of the Bay Area. It’s always an extra treat to discover the locals.

So go Halley! Get those Comments up and running. It should be wild.

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Joy in Jackson

What a change Jackson was from the poverty by which we were surrounded just the day before. If you’re not a millionaire, forget it, Jack. Actually, they have a saying here: “The billionaires are driving out the millionaires.” My old Buddy, Ed, and his wife, Harriet, are two among a small and hardy group of non-millionaires who manage to squeak out an existence in this playground of the rich.

Not five minutes after we arrived, Ed, with the extra-keen observant sense of the pilot and writer that he sometimes is, pipes up with, I’ll bet you guys are in the mood for some good food.” Man, you go that right.

We piled into their SUV (naturally, everyone has one here) and drove north up the Hole for about fifteen minutes, straight toward the Grand Teton. We pulled up to a joint called Dornan’s and walked inside. There, curving behind the large L-shaped bar was an eight-foot high picture window with a backdrop so overwhelming that it almost made you faint when you entered the room. We were nearly at the base of the immense mountain, and the back-bar window perfectly framed it in its entirety. I could imagine becoming an alcoholic just by sitting at this bar and watching the color and light changes of the mountain throughout the span of entire days.

Oddly, only two people were at the bar. The reason soon became clear. The weather was pleasant and there was a large deck on the roof of the place with lots of tables. I’ve never had a lunch in a more spectacular setting. And to add to my pleasure, they must have flown in fresh romaine and other high-quality salad greens from California. I ordered a huge salad and vacuumed it up like a refugee from a concentration camp.

As day grew into evening, we gathered ‘round Ed’s dining room table for some barbecued lamb. Ed and I were tossing down vodka martinis and feeling no pain. Ed and Harriet’s son joined us and Ed uncorked some old Zinfandels that he’d been holding onto for just such an occasion. “No locals get this stuff,” he proclaimed. “Only my old drinking buddies.”

Needless to say, we were soon in our cups. Our respective sons got quite an earful as they listened to their glassy-eyed dads trading stories about the early days of drugs, rock, protest, etc. Then, feeling no pain themselves, they began to pitch in with stories of their own. It was a great bonding moment. When my sons were infants, I used to fantasize about someday being able to knock back some booze together and trade stories. Now it was actually happening and it was better than the fantasies.

Of course, we couldn’t look a drink in the face the next day and instead, rented North by Northwest. Jon had never seen it and we had just been to Mt, Rushmore, so it was the perfect choice. I’ve seen this flick at least six times and it holds up beautifully each time.

We got a good night’s sleep, bid a fond goodbye to our wonderful hosts, and set out for the final leg of our journey. In forty-eight hours, we would be eating California food again, sleeping in our own beds, and, in my case, enjoying the embraces of my dear and sorely missed wife.

On the Road—Postscript

I would be remiss if I closed out my road diaries without acknowledging my son Jonathan—my trusty shotgun rider, relief driver, and most importantly, disc jockey. Like most young people, Jon has one of those zippered binder CD holders that’s about as thick as five Sears catalogues. It was right under his feet throughout the entire trip. I revealed my out-of-it-ness by asking how he could afford so many CDs.

The dismissive reply was predictable: “Dad, nobody buys CDs anymore. Haven’t you heard of file-sharing and downloading?”

“Of course I have. I just haven’t spent any time thinking about it. I thought it was illegal or something.”

A shake of the young head and rolling of the eyes. End of conversation.

Happily, that was the only sour note. The lad’s collection was a revelation as well as another arena of filial bonding. It included the complete discography of The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Credence Clearwater Revival, plus many of my favorites from The Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, and others. The father’s heart was gladdened by the son’s appreciation of formative rock and roll.

I’ve referred in earlier posts to the absence of a current generation gap in comparison to anything like the way it was in the Sixties. I’m sure that anyone of my generation will nod in recognition when I say that, when we were young, the notion of parent and child enjoying the same pop groups would have been about as likely as the two of them sharing a joint or hit of acid.

In addition, Jon introduced me to some really cool present-day stuff—e.g., Beck. Beck is well known, of course, and I’ve certainly heard of him. I even have a single of his on a Hank Williams tribute album. But I’ve never listened to his wider work. Like many deserving contemporary artists, he gets scant airplay in today’s corporatized, homogenized radio universe. Oldsters like me are thus left in the dark. How true it is that having kids helps keep you young!

Another introduction from Jon’s collection that I particularly enjoyed was Portishead. There were others—very hip DJ mixes, for example, about which I was completely ignorant. But the hipness and the intoxicating beats were a pleasant counterpoint to the many hours of highway boredom.

What really blew me away was when Jon whipped out both his Miles Davis collection and The Modern Jazz Quartet. I had no idea his eclecticism had expanded to this level! There’s nothing like the feeling of parental pride. I never proselytized my kids about my musical tastes. Jon came to Miles and MJQ on his own, and I was duly impressed.

So kudos to Jonathan. He made a long trip eminently enjoyable. Now, maybe he can show me how to get some of those free CDs. I won’t go to jail, will I?

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Wandering Onward

Leaving the dreary plains behind, Jon and I headed south out of Rapid City for the half-hour drive to the famed Mount Rushmore. It was worth the side trip. Much more imposing than the photos. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the high-ceilinged, glass-walled restaurant looking out onto the monument that was the scene of the fake shooting of Cary Grant by Eva Marie Saint in the Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest, was still intact. Jon had never seen the movie and I delighted in recounting the scene to him.

As I looked out onto the carved faces of the four prezes, I couldn’t help but see visions of Cary Grant attempting to rescue the divine Ms.Saint, and being pursued by bad guys as he scampers over the forbidding rocks in his Gucci loafers, dapper as ever, every hair in place, suit and tie perfectly pressed.

As we left the Black Hills, we descended into the utterly boring central plain of the immense and sparsely populated state of Wyoming. Wyoming has some of the world’s most gorgeous scenery, but in the middle of it are these huge, ugly flats, scarred by all sorts of excavations from things being ripped out from the underbelly—coal, lead, uranium, oil, gas, you name it. The poor buggers who do the dirty work are, of course, much poorer than the dirt they excavate. They drive forlorn, beat-up trucks and live in ramshackle towns that look almost like “third-world” countries.

We can be sure, though, that the folks for whom they’re doing the digging are making out just fine. One of these would be Dick Cheney. As we drove through Casper, the Veep’s hometown, we passed The Casper Petroleum Club, and I thought to myself, “that sonovabitch was a big oil guy from the beginning.”

At day’s end, we reached Indian country—the Wind River Valley, home of the Shoshone and Arapaho—and bedded down for the night. Unlike some of the Indian country of New Mexico, there was no haute cuisine here, to be sure. Just a lot of grinding poverty.

Next morning, we headed up the valley toward Jackson Hole—one of the most spectacular drives to be found anywhere. As you leave the sandstone bluffs of the valley and climb into the mountains, you gradually rise to nearly ten thousand feet. Even though it was now June, the snow was thick, the alpine air unbelievably refreshing, and the views eye-popping.

Then--descending on the western side of the pass, the moment we were waiting for. The great valley floor of Jackson Hole came into view, with the mighty Grand Tetons thrusting skyward on the far side of the Hole, rising abruptly, thousands of feet straight up from the valley with no foothills to impede the view. What a sight! Surely one of the geographical wonders of the world.

We were on our way to the resort town of Jackson to spend a couple of days with my old college buddy, Ed Minczeski. Good food, drink, vibes, and story telling, in the midst of majestic scenery, were about to be ours. . . . (to be continued)

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The Fat of the Land

Before setting out across six hundred miles of tedious prairie, Jon and I decided to settle in for the night in the old meatpacking town of Austin, Minn—the birthplace of the real Spam, the home of Hormel and one of the bitterest, most notorious strikes in American history.

Next morning, over a truly crappy breakfast in a restaurant in which we were the only non-obese people in the entire place, we realized that, not only did we have hours and hours of boring, treeless, windswept landscape ahead of us, we were also not likely to see a good meal again until we crossed into California (with the exception of Jackson Hole about which more later). Nor were we likely to see many bodies of normal size.

Each time I find myself back in the heartland, it seems to get worse. The food seems to get more and more tasteless and toxic, and the inhabitants more and more rotund. How can the food be so bad—and so bad for you, I wonder, in the middle of one of the richest agricultural areas in the world?

It is said that the reason France has the best cuisine in the world is because the country is blessed with prime agricultural riches. Why doesn’t the same logic hold true here? Why is the food so unappealing, so unhealthy, so fat-producing?

Not trusting the accuracy of my memory, I double-checked with someone of my own age. “When we were kids,” I inquired, “weren’t the folks from the farmlands the ones who were hearty and lean? Wasn’t the food fresh and wonderful? Or am I just fantasizing?”

“No, no,” he replied. “Your memory is just fine. That’s exactly how it used to be.”

The culprit, obviously, is the corporatization of agriculture, food processing, and food service, plus the inability of today’s families to find the time to prepare good meals and sit down together for a healthy meal. Yes, the same time constraints exist in the large cities of the two coasts, but people have the discretionary income—plus the influence of foreign cultures—to buy and demand good food in their groceries and restaurants. Most of today’s farm families have to have a job in town to make ends meet. They may be growing food for others, but they only have the time and money for fast food crapola.

Each time we stopped somewhere during our prairie crossing, it made me sad to look at the people and recall the way they used to look out here when I was a lad. The richest country in the world, and our people are going to pot physically.

I needed to get my mind off of this sadness. Fortunately, as the sun drooped closer to the western horizon, the welcome sight of hills began to appear. We were getting near prairie’s end and close to a complete change of scenery—the gorgeous Black Hills.

The culture and appearance of the towns had changed from Midwestern to Western. We checked in for the night in Rapid City to rest up for the next morning’s jaunt into Mount Rushmore and a refreshing new landscape. The good food, however, would have to wait for a while longer …. (to be continued)

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Farewell Wisconsin

I owe Frank Paynter—and fellow Madisonite, Dorothea Salo—my regrets as I was actually in their fair burg but made no contact with them. Apologies, guys, but I was in and out in less than 24 hours, and was bustling about the whole time.

It’s too bad, because Frank, after breakfasting in Madison with me this winter, had suggested a spring or summertime visit to his farm for a barbecue. We’ll have to take a rain check, Frank. Keep the briquettes glowing and I’ll keep the brewskis iced, although I guess that’ll be for my lonesome as you don’t imbibe anymore. And maybe we can drag Dorothea and David out there. Have you guys gotten around to meeting yet? If not, too bad. Seems to me that you would have a lot in common—techie-talk, all-around smarts, sharp wit, writing talent, and disdain for the establishment.

Anyway, I was in Madison to help my son, Jonathan, pack up and bid goodbye to the beer halls and cannabis pads of this venerable college town. He had had no luck in finding someone to share the trip west, so I decided to inject myself as the co-traveler. The lad was duly appreciative, I’m happy to say.

The timing was right. I had been ready to unload our second car—an aging sedan—and buy a small hatchback. I also hadn’t taken a cross-country auto trip in many years, and that was something that I wanted to experience again.

When good ol’ Southwest Airlines came up with an irresistibly low fare to Chicago on one of their periodic 24-hour-take-it-or-lose-it specials, I decided to roll the dice, buy the ticket, and see if I could make an attractive car purchase over the Internet in the Chicago or Wisconsin area. Then, if the plan worked, I would pick up the car, get Jon, and head west.

My gamble worked out just fine. I got a great deal on a Matrix—a sporty new mini-wagon from Toyota. It’s on a Corolla frame, gets great mileage, yet has lots of cargo space—plus a very jazzy interior. I couldn’t be more pleased.

I purchased the car from CarMax, a giant super-store operation with a large and active Internet division—featuring extra-low prices with no-haggle pricing. What a great way to buy a car compared to the bad old days of grinding it out with obnoxious salesmen and layers of sales managers and F & I (finance and insurance) hucksters.

Everything is done by Net, phone and fax. When you show up, a friendly, no-pressure guy or gal in pleasing polo shirt is there to run you through the car’s operation, give you the keys, and send you on your way. About a fifteen-minute proposition. It’s no wonder that the old-line, Neanderthals of the motor trade are falling by the wayside. They will not be missed.

Since the car needed to be broken in at lower speeds and varied RPMs, we decided to cross the state on two-lane roads. We followed the bucolic Wisconsin River Valley to its mouth--the bluffs where the first white man, Father Jacques Marquette, laid eyes on the Mighty Mississippi in 1673—at Prairie du Chien. Then we went up alongside the great river for a couple of hours to La Crosse, where we enjoyed a final Wisconsin microbrew and pleasant dinner before bidding a fond goodbye to the Badger State.

The drive along the great river was something I had always wanted to do, but never had. I wasn’t disappointed. If we hadn’t had a schedule to keep, I would have been content to have ambled up one side of the river and down the other for days, enjoying the majestic vistas, staying in the quaint river towns, sipping brews in the old waterfront taverns, watching the river traffic float by, and fantasizing about all the history that’s gone up and down this great waterway.

But, alas, it was time to point the car westward. We crossed the wide, wide waters and ventured into southern Minnesota. After a thirty-mile belt of lovely, forested river bluffs, the endless prairie was about to begin. . . . (to be continued)