Don’t expect this week’s gas-out to solve anything

Last Saturday a woman standing in line with my wife and I told us not to buy gas on May 15.

She beamed at her Ford Super Duty pickup. She said she’s tired of paying so much to fill it, and she’s looking forward to sticking it to the gas companies.

The gas companies love people like her.Voluntarily not buying gas on May 15 won’t solve anything because people are just going to buy more gas on May 14 or May 16. My wife sees this effect on her business, on a smaller scale, all the time. On and around April 15, she doesn’t sell much because people just paid their tax bills. So the cashflow dips, but then the customers are back with a vengeance within a couple of weeks. To a lesser extent, the same thing happens on most major holidays.

Business is like that. Every business has at least a few slow days in a year.

Gas-outs have been happening ever since the beginning of Gulf War II. I remember people at work talking about one in 2002, and another one in 2003. I’m sure there have been some since then but my e-mail filters usually catch them.

In case you don’t remember, in April 2002, gas jumped to $1.40-plus a gallon. Then in September of 2003, it surged to $1.70-plus a gallon, then it backed down into $1.50 territory. By mid-2004, we were in $2.00 territory, and it’s been there ever since. Well, except when it’s been $3 a gallon, that is.

Did you ever think $1.40 gas would sound good?

Gas prices are high right now primarily for two reasons. One is investor speculation. You can buy gasoline futures the same way you would buy stocks. And right now it’s a much safer bet that $100 invested in gasoline right now will be worth more in August than the same amount of money invested in, say, Time-Warner stock. So investors with a Las Vegas mentality (and there are lots of them) have been investing in gasoline and, in some cases, crude oil, which is the raw material gasoline is made from.

The second factor is, well, we’ve proven time and again that we’ll pay these high prices. We’ve been paying $2 a gallon for gasoline for three years. When gas prices go up, there’s no incentive for the oil companies to rush to fix the problem that caused prices to go up. We keep buying gas, and they keep raking in record profits year after year.

There are a couple of things we can do to drive gas prices down again. But none of them are short-term fixes.

Basically, we’ve gotta burn less gas. Driving less helps. Instead of running to the store the minute you remember you need something, make a list, plan out a route, and go get everything in one trip. Google Maps has a cool new feature now where you can punch in a destination, then add multiple destinations, and drag them around to try to find the optimal route and cut down on backtracking. Every little bit helps. I use this web site every single weekend. Besides saving me gas, it almost always saves me more time than I end up spending planning the trip in the first place.

But that Super Duty pickup truck is an even bigger part of the problem. Every day when I go to work, I see people driving ever-bigger pickup trucks. Or Chevy Suburbans. Pickup trucks are designed to haul cargo, while Suburbans are designed to haul families. As commuter vehicles, they’re doing neither. At 12 miles per gallon, all they’re really doing is burning a lot of gas.

My Honda Civic burns 1/3 the fuel that a pickup truck burns. It’s not even a hybrid. I get mad when it costs me $36 to fill its tank. But when a pickup truck with a 30-gallon tank is sitting on empty, you’re looking at $90 to fill it.

Most of us only haul stuff on weekends. Given that it costs $30 to rent a U-Haul, you would be better off driving a Civic during the week and renting a U-Haul on the days you need to haul a lot of stuff. Odds are you’ll find you really only need a lot of cargo space a few times a year anyway.

The same logic can apply to large vans and SUVs. A lot of people buy those and justify them by saying they go on a trip once or twice a year and they need to haul a lot of luggage and extra family members. Considering that monster vehicle is costing you anywhere from $30 to $60 a week more to drive than a passenger car costs, it’s costing you about $1,500 a year to drive that thing. And that’s just in gas–it’s not even counting the higher monthly payments. It would be a lot cheaper to rent the thing twice a year. Even renting a 15-passenger van would be cheaper.

And if you rented those vehicles when you needed them and drove a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla the rest of the time, you’d be burning 1/3 the fuel you’d otherwise burn. Drive a hybrid, and you might be able to drop that down to 1/4 or so.

Imagine what would happen if 100 million households decided to cut the amount of fuel they burn by a third. That would actually stand a chance of causing fuel prices to drop permanently.

I think the government ought to try to sweeten the pot a bit, offering incentives for owning any fuel-efficient vehicle, not just hybrids, in order to encourage this to happen more quickly. But that would make sense, and petroleum companies and most auto manufacturers would oppose it, so I don’t expect it to happen.

But as long as people keep driving huge vehicles with capabilities they only use a handful of times a year, and just complain about sky-high gas prices, those prices will stay high. Complaining alone doesn’t accomplish anything.

I’ve talked economics enough, so if anyone’s still reading, hopefully you’ll indulge me for a few minutes. Every time I turn around, I hear about the problems with the possible solutions to the gasoline. Ethanol, biodiesel, and hybrids all have their problems.


Why aren’t we combining them?

The fact is, hybrids do save energy that otherwise gets wasted, and if you drive them correctly, that means better fuel economy. So a gallon of ethanol gets fewer miles per gallon than a gallon of gasoline. Wouldn’t a hybrid ethanol/electric engine more than make up the difference?

Biodiesel isn’t quite as efficient as petroleum diesel. But diesel fuel of any type gets more miles per gallon than gasoline. Why aren’t we building hybrid diesel/electric engines to reap even bigger benefits?

And why are plug-in hybrids only available as hacks by garage tinkerers? If you plug in your hybrid, you can do your local stop-and-go type driving entirely on electricity and not burn a drop of gasoline. Why isn’t this benefit available to the masses?

And why not take it a step further? My car sits in the hot sun in a parking lot for 8 hours a day, five days a week. What if it were a hybrid with solar panels, using those solar panels to charge the battery? Of course the benefit wouldn’t be the same as plugging the car in overnight, but the energy doesn’t cost anything either, aside from the cost of the solar panels.

Maybe there’s a good reason why a diesel/electric hybrid that plugs into the 110 outlet my garage and has solar panels on it doesn’t exist. But the light bulb didn’t exist either, until Thomas Edison decided its benefits outweighed the pain required to invent it.

Maybe there’s someone out there who knows how to build the thing. The world would be a better place if someone would.

Umm, no, as a matter of fact everything isn\’t OK…

The site’s been down again. As far as I can tell it didn’t stay up for very long on Saturday, but by 8 PM last Saturday, my DSL connection was the least of my concerns.

I got the phone call nobody ever wants to get. My girlfriend’s father was in the hospital and wasn’t expected to live.

They patched him together long enough for his closest relatives to get there, but Jerry died at 12:45 Sunday morning.I’ve been there, done that before. Today just so happens to mark 10 years since my own father’s sudden death.

The rest of what I write may not make a lot of sense, but I hope it will be helpful.

If there is anything worse than losing the closest of your relatives, I don’t know what it is. By “closest of your relatives” I mean your mother, your father, a child, or a brother or sister, or your spouse.

As my girlfriend and I drove to the nearest polling place last night to cast provisional ballots, she observed that it was like the aftermath of a breakup: Everywhere she looked, she saw things that reminded her of her dad.

That’s true. In fact, when describing dealing with a death to others who’ve never lost someone that close, I’ve compared it to a breakup. But, as I compare a death with the last breakup I had–which messed me up pretty badly, and I’ve got the therapy bills to prove it–I see two differences. Maybe three.

Difference one: It’s a lot easier for something good to come of a breakup than from a death, from your selfish perspective. It takes some time and effort, but it is possible to convince yourself that with a world population of 12 billion, your chances of finding something better than that b-word who dumped you (or who you just dumped) are pretty good.

But with death, those things that annoy you about that person start to matter a lot less to you. There was only one Jerry. Just like there was only one Ralph (my dad). To her, Jerry will always be the best dad there ever was, faults and all. Just like to me, my dad will always be the best dad there ever was. The best doctor there ever was, too. I will go to my grave believing that my dad could have saved Jerry. The fact that my dad actually was very highly qualified to treat Jerry is a technicality. I would probably still believe Dad could have saved Jerry even if Dad had been a dermatologist.

Difference two: Usually there is some choice involved with breakups. A couple of days, or maybe a week before my last messy breakup, I told a number of people that I needed to break up with her. When the time for the breakup conversation came, I had a list of conditions I wanted to present in order for the relationship to continue. As it turned out, I didn’t present that list because she broke up with me first.

Death is different. When that person’s time comes, there is no room for bargaining. Jerry was a classic example of that. When Jerry died, he had nothing left. There were at least three things that were racing to kill him. What had worked against the North Vietnamese and what had worked against his wounds and physical handicap and what had worked against his cancer didn’t matter anymore. Jerry was fighting to the end though. As he died, I looked down at his hands. They were clenched into a fist.

Difference 3: Death is permanent. With a breakup, there’s always hope, however remote, that it can be worked out and things can be every bit as good as they ever were, or maybe better. Or, to again overuse the example of my last relationship, if it can’t be worked out, you can go find someone a whole lot better who’ll make you forget about that old b-word.

Death doesn’t offer that.

So, since one’s previous experience with the end of a romantic relationship only inadequately prepares one to deal with death, how does one deal with it?

I have some ideas.

Grieve. I can’t tell you how to grieve. I asked a lot of people once how. They said, “Grieve.” Thanks a bunch. I once paid $1,400 for that answer. Hopefully you’re paying a lot less than that for the ability to read this. I’ll see if I can do better than that answer. Don’t stuff your emotions. Let them out. If they don’t come out in tears and screams and other stuff like that, they’re going to come out in other harmful and self-defeating ways that will poison your relationships and the rest of your life. So whatever it is that your body wants to do when you think about that person, let it, and the sooner the better. If a week has passed and you haven’t cried once, or maybe only once, you’ve got a world of hurt ahead of you. I know because I’ve been there. This is no time to be macho.

Take care of unfinished business. One of the things the Methodist minister who performed Jerry’s ceremony stressed the most was to bury the things about him that weren’t all they could be with him. Carry the good with you everywhere, but bury that bad stuff. I know for me, one of the things that finally helped was to role-play, so I could finally say those things I wanted to say to my dad but never got the chance.

Remember. Talking about the person helps. Tell those stories, and you might even want to go so far as to write them down. One of the reasons I got into genealogy was to preserve the memory of my dad and what made him the way he was. I only know the basics about his grandparents, but it’s something.

Find the things you both enjoyed and continue to enjoy them. Probably my best childhood memory of my dad and me was setting up and playing with his Lionel electric trains. My dad wasn’t a railroad buff in the traditional sense and I’m not either, but those trains were something we enjoyed together in 1986, and that’s the main reason they’re something I enjoy now. You’ll find things like that too. You’ll find some of them right away. Others will take years. That’s OK.

Honor. This is the one place where I’ll get Biblical. In Genesis, God said (I’m paraphrasing), “Honor your father and mother, so that it may go well with you and you will live a long time on the earth.” We all have our own ways of honoring our loved ones, but one of the best ways is to take that person’s qualities and not only emulate them–that is, make them our qualities as well–but to pass them on.

Take care of yourself. In some cases, it will be clear that some of the person’s personal habits contributed to an early death. I don’t think I need to say that smoking provides zero benefit and does a lot of harm to your body. The same goes for drinking excessively. And it’s very clear that some aspects of diet cause things like heart attacks and cancer. Some families are very prone to these things anyway, but while we can’t control our genetics, we can control our diet. So eat healthier than your departed loved one did, and the next time you see your doctor, mention what you know of your family’s medical history so that your doctor has some clue what to be watching for.

Learn from your loved one’s mistakes. I’ve already mentioned things like diet, drinking and smoking, but most people made other mistakes in life too. If you think about it, you’ll see what that person’s other mistakes were. Don’t copy those mistakes. Make your own. (You’ll have to work at that first part. You won’t have to work at the second.)