Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Canadian Jaunt to the Falls

We owed Ontario a visit, and we had a good excuse. 

Pleasant memories abound of trips to Canada’s West Coast—shipping out of Vancouver for a voyage through the inland passage to Alaska and an excellent land tour in the Victoria area.  But, although the Geezer has a family tie to Ontario, until last week I’d only set foot in the province once, and that was a very brief visit.

My great-grandfather, Joseph Coey, whose ancestors are buried in Ireland and Scotland, served in the Canadian Army during what is known as the Fenian War. The Fenian Society was a group of Irish-Americans dedicated to seizing Canada as a way of forcing the British to leave Ireland.  That didn’t work out. Although the Fenians mounted attacks for four years starting in 1866, the Canadians prevailed and the Fenians finally gave it up.

For his part in repulsing the invaders, Joseph Coey received a 160-acre land grant in Ontario from a grateful Canadian government. My mother inherited the land. It later returned to governmental control, but that is another story.

All things considered, why not plan a trip to Ontario as a special 51st wedding anniversary gift to ourselves? And what better destination than Niagara Falls, long a symbol of romance in North America?
Our destination--26 stories up overlooking the Canadian falls in the hotel in the center of this photo topped by the red sign. Does the high-rise to the left resemble a shot glass? A local said it was built that way because the first owner was Seagram's, a famous Canadian distiller of tasty stuff often served in shot glasses.

So off we went, bolstered by sound information and suggestions from son Lee and his fiancée Karen, who had visited the falls several times. The drive from our home covers 400 miles. Half of it is on U.S. interstate highways and half on multi-lane Canadian highways of similar design. Several important things about the roads, however, were far from similar.

About half the Michigan highways leading to the northern border crossing at Sarnia were riddled with cracks, potholes, and ridges.  Improvement work was evident on only one fairly brief stretch of interstate. Much of the time, we bounced along cursing the jolts and hoping the front end of beautiful wife Sandy’s car would arrive in Canada still connected to the rest of the vehicle.

It took five minutes to clear customs and get on the bridge to Ontario. The return trip included a half-hour wait at customs. Questions were more pointed and vehicles were being waved aside for searches. Perhaps the difference could be attributed to one-way terrorism fears?

The scenery, mostly farmland interspersed in hardwood forests, is remarkably similar when driving nearly straight east from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Niagara Falls. We caught some glimpses of foliage color along the way, but we were a bit early to experience the full effect. Although unable to be awed by fall color, we were impressed by the condition of the Canadian highways we traveled.

The going was smooth. At least 90 percent of the highways were newly paved or had been in recent years. Improvement projects were under way on most of the other 10 percent.  It was a night-and-day comparison of highway quality between the two friendly countries where much is the same, including restaurant chains and building architecture. Driving on Canadian highways was a pleasure, and not just because of the lack of bumps in the road. Several characteristics were positive.

Canada has one basic highway speed limit for all vehicles--100 kilometers per hour-- not different rates for cars and trucks. That translates roughly to 62 miles per hour versus the 70 m.p.h. top limit on U.S. interstates. On the way to the falls, almost all big trucks were driving close to the speed limit in the right lanes where they are supposed to be.  All other vehicles were traveling about 5 m.p.h over the limit. There weren’t any hangups at all. I think that was because the trucks were traveling at a reasonable and consistent speed in the proper lanes and they were easy to pass and thus didn’t impede smaller vehicles.

We returned on a Friday.  All the vehicles were going about five m.p.h. faster.  The result was the same—no hang-ups. We drove out on a Tuesday. I don’t have a clue as to why everyone was in a bigger hurry on Friday than on Tuesday. We traveled during the same hours both days. An approaching weekend, perhaps?

The net result of the lower speed limit in Canada was an improvement in gas mileage for us.  We joined the crowd and drove about five m.p.h. over the limit in both countries. We got 29 miles per gallon over the 200 U.S. miles and slightly better than 31 m.p.g. for the 200 Canadian miles.

It may be unique to Ontario, but we noticed far more Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler vehicles on the road than foreign makes. The U.S. brands were more prevalent than they are even in Michigan, home of “Motown.”

The American companies have large manufacturing facilities in Ontario. Their Canadian workers were threatening to strike during our trip. Part of the reason was the manufacturers demanded new salary controls and cuts in benefits. They did that because, after many years of lower costs in Canada, it now is cheaper to build cars in the U.S. This fact was mentioned in most U.S. media accounts of the strike negotiations. It was not included in any of the Canadian news reports I saw.

That’s the good news—Canadian highways were in vastly better condition, speed limits were more environmentally friendly, “the knights of the road” exhibited better behavior that minimized congestion, and Ontario car buyers are loyal to local brands. But the news is not all good. Those responsible for considering fundamental motorist comfort apparently had king-sized bladders and a disregard of the utility of some basic information.

On the Michigan leg of our journey we pulled into three rest areas. A few more might have been welcome considering the jolts to our kidneys from the poor road surfaces, but three did the job. Canada provided no highway rest areas whatever. An uncomfortable motorist had to take an exit to a gas station or eatery to use their rest rooms. Two we visited were in small cities.

Adding distress to the inconvenience, the Canadian signs indicating exits for small cities give the city name, but not the distance to the city. Thus, when we took an exit for Paris, Ontario, expecting nearly instant relief, we were aghast to discover that Paris was six miles away, something one learns only by driving there.  It was a near thing, but we made it to a Paris gas station! The gas was a dollar a gallon more expensive than in the U.S., but the relief was worth it.

Much of the big difference in gas prices is due to higher Canadian excise taxes. Does that explain the better road surface maintenance? Probably. Eliminating costs for roadside rest areas might also be a factor.

Although Canadian signage was delinquent regarding bladder relief, it was wonderful for tourist attractions. After about 50 miles driving through relatively sign-less rural landscapes, a golf course sign seemed to pop up beside the highway every mile or two. As we neared Niagara Falls the golf course indicators gave way to winery signs at about the same intervals.
Unlike some of the newlywed visitors, we fully mature marrieds actually spent some time looking at the falls. In fact, we went behind them and as close as you safely can get in front of them. Doing that requires proper rain gear to prevent a serious drenching by falls mist. Scenes from those and other Niagara Falls adventures will be featured in the next post.

Our route led to the good stuff.  Our stay at the falls was delightful. The next post will provide some scenes and comments. We enjoyed the whole experience. Ah, Canada! All things considered, great-grandpa would be proud.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Luring Fatties to Fast Food

A new analysis of mountains of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed Michigan is one of the fattest states in the nation.

Nearly one-third of Michigan adults are obese. We ranked fifth worst in the U.S., behind only Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Alabama. Such rankings are not precise, of course, but this one used body mass index data, a fairly good general obesity guideline.

It matters not.  Scientific studies are unnecessary. One need only look around at the hefty bodies waddling around the area.   But we ought to rate a little forgiveness.  Temptations to stray off the healthy eating path are many and powerful.

A "Hot and Juicy."
Last month, resistance to junk food was especially tough to maintain.  The local Wendy’s mailed an ad with seven coupons offering free or cut-rate goodies such as “The Baconator,” chili cheese fries, and a “hot and juicy” cheeseburger. Beautiful wife Sandy was across the little pond visiting relatives in Wisconsin, and I admit to succumbing to the lure of the Wendy’s ad (actually, more than once.) while her cooking expertise was elsewhere.

Cost-conscious diners could hardly do better.  Wendy’s served me a cheeseburger, fries, and a “small” drink for $3.26, including tax.  No tip needed there, either. When I presented my coupon, the clerk said, “Just keep it, you can use it as often as you want for the whole month.”

At about the same time, Rhino’s, my favorite tavern, entered the high-calorie, low-cost fray by announcing it would serve quarter-pound burgers for $1.50 as long as road construction nearby continued. The construction is planned to last two years! 

Wendy’s burgers are good; Rhino’s burgers are great.  No frozen patties at Rhino’s; each burger is “freshly made and hand-crafted” and cooked to order—rare, medium, or well-done, whatever you specify.

Until 6 p.m. at Rhino’s you can guzzle all the light beer served in frosted mugs you want for 75 cents a tap.  Combine the cheap beer and cheap burger with a half order of beer-battered fries (few humans can eat a whole order), and you have a lot of stuff.

Sandy and I do that once in a while. It’s a cheap date. Our latest bill for four beers, two burgers, and fries came to $12.35, including tax and tip.  Service at Rhino’s is excellent. Patrons who want to continue to fit into their jeans are wise not to show up to experience it very often.

Fat-food enticements seem to be everywhere in Plainwell, Michigan. Real cheapskate aficionados can walk a block past Rhino’s to the Tenth Street Saloon.  There you can get TWO hotdogs with chips for $1.00. It’s frightening. We’ve only entered the place once. Nothing healthy is served there.

At Wendy’s and Rhino’s, burgers come with a leaf of lettuce and a slice of onion and tomato.  Can we claim that bow to veggies as one small step toward better health for Michiganders?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

In Grateful Memory

Pfc. Shane W. Cantu (U.S. Army), 20, Corunna, Michigan. Died of wounds suffered when hit by shrapnel, Charkh, Afghanistan, August 28, 2012.


Unfortunately, the Geezer doesn’t have the time or resources to honor all Americans and  NATO allies who are dying daily in Afghanistan, so memorials are limited to service members from my home state of Michigan. You can find a record of all American deaths at

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Which Party Will Win the Deceit Contest?

There’s nothing new about politicians making deceptive or downright false statements. And neither Democrats nor Republicans have a corner on deceit.  But when those who traditionally go all out in support of one party or the other publish criticism of their own standard bearers, we’ve come a long way downward.

That happened in the wake of the Republican National Convention.  Not once, but twice.

The Chicago Tribune, our family newspaper while I was growing up, rarely has a good word to say about a Democrat and has staunchly supported Republicans in every election within memory.  Yet, Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune editorial board, took Republican campaign managers to task in a post-convention story titled “Team Romney’s War against Facts.”

The author said, “There’s no excuse for the fantasies repeated by myth-building politicians, like the evening’s star speaker, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, even after nonpartisan media fact checkers have found the statements to be untrue.

“For example, Romney grandly promised, ‘I will begin my presidency with a jobs tour. President Obama began with an apology tour.’ Ah there goes the ‘apology tour’ again. The line lives in Republican stump speeches, despite its winning ‘four Pinocchios’ months ago from the Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler, among others.

“In fact, the president has never apologized for anything on his foreign trips, although previous presidents have.”
Both parties are being watched. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler recently gave the Obama campaign four Pinocchios for a 30-second ad attacking Mitt Romney as a "corporate raider" and for outsourcing jobs. Kessler said, "On just about every level, this ad is misleading, unfair, and untrue."

Page also singled out a Republican ad concerning welfare as a particularly blatant lie:

“When the welfare ad,  for example, says the Obama administration has ended the work requirement in the landmark 1996 welfare reform law, that’s simply false. The administration is offering states a chance to apply for more flexibility in determining their own work requirements, if they agree to actually raise the number of people they move from welfare to work.”

Fox News, perhaps the ultimate conservative medium, posted a column by Sally Kohn, a contributor and writer, which came down hard on Rep. Paul Ryan for statements in his speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination.

Kohn said, “To anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.

“The good news is that the Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth. Said fact checkers have already condemned certain arguments that Ryan still irresponsibly repeated.”

The Fox writer then listed as examples four specific lies Ryan told to the cheering convention audience and millions of television viewers:

1. While Ryan tried to pin the downgrade of the United State’ credit rating on spending under President Obama, the credit rating actually was downgraded because Republicans threatened not to raise the debt ceiling.

2.  While Ryan blamed President Obama for the shut down of a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, the plant actually closed while George W. Bush was in office.

3. Though Ryan insisted that President Obama wants to give all the credit for private sector success to government that is not what the president said on the subject.

4.  Though Ryan accused President Obama of taking $716 billion out of Medicare, the fact is that amount was savings in Medicare reimbursement rates, which should also save Medicare recipients some out-of-pocket costs.

Kohn concluded with a statement that any caring American would endorse:

“Elections should be about competing based on your record in the past and your vision for the future, not competing to see who can get away with the most lies and distortions without voters noticing or bothering to care. Both parties should hold themselves to that standard.”

This week the Democratic National Convention holds the spotlight.  Will the speakers stick to facts, thus raising the bar for discourse during the balance of the campaign?  Or will they try to better the GOP’s convention performances with a barrage of lies and distortions?

We’ll know when the fact checkers issue their analyses after the speechmaking is over.