RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Time for Common Sense (if not Insight)

Back in high school, we learned there were formulas for just about everything. A couple of them stuck: how to figure the circumference of a circle (Circumference = pi times radius squared) and how to figure the temperature from the number of cricket chirps per minute (Temperature = chirps in 15 seconds plus 40).

We didn't go to the same high school as the current administration. They learned, among other things, how to manipulate the price of gas to create approval before elections. Check it out. The highest price, according to Gas Buddy, occurred Aug. 1. Bush's rating was in the low 30s. Then gas prices started creeping down and Bush's rating started creeping up. Now it's in the 40s.

Whether or not that will result in more votes in November is yet to be seen. And probably figured by a formula so arcane we'll never figure it out. Like the logarithms it takes to figure the dew point.

And, while the reflective voters buy gas at the same pumps as the stupid, we can learn not to burn. I just got back from my annual drive to northern Illinois -- about 870 miles round-trip -- and I used about 15 gallons of gas. That's because I was driving my Honda Insight, a 3-cylinder hybrid car I bought in April 2001. It's the most practical commercially produced car available. Thrifty, speedy and about to be phased out due to lack of sales.

The Insight broke ground with new technology such as an engine that shuts off when the driver comes to a complete stop and puts the transmission in neutral -- at a stoplight, mailbox, traffic jam or cattle gate. And when my car is coasting or stopping, the computers direct its extra energy to the batteries to recharge them, so it never needs to be plugged in. It's a very smart car; its computers are constantly working to decide whether to travel on the batteries or gas engine.

So this column is an elegy to a good idea whose time seemed to come but has quickly gone. The Insight's sales were eclipsed by the Toyota Prius, another hybrid, and the Honda Civic hybrid. Don't expect to get 59 mpg with them, though. The owners I know are happy to get in the high 40s.

While the Prius and the Civic seat four or five, the Insight is (must I say "was"?) a two-seater, which is (was?) supposed to be its fatal flaw. Even though everyone usually drives alone, it's somehow less embarrassing to drive with three empty seats than with one.

Not that people aren't buying two-seaters. The Corvette is having a comeback, that macho little sports car, with its image of speed and attitude. It comes equipped especially with the fantasy that the buyer and a cool date will vroom off to a remote, romantic somewhere-special. A practical two-seater like the Insight -- well, that's a problem. No fantasy.

And then there's the stuff factor, like where do you put it? I can easily carry my briefcase, books, lunch cooler and lots of odds and ends, in a deep well in the hatchback floor. When that's full and closed up, there's room over it for a cello, a couple of saddles and bridles, or several sacks of recycling. I've carried entire meals for 40 or all the flowers for a wedding -- each of those on two occasions. My favorite fit is a 50-pound bale of hay, which fits in the hatchback with lots of room to spare. The old hands at the feed store try to talk the new ones into taking bets that the hatch won't close. It does.

One bonus to having a small car is that you remember to unload when you get home. When I had a Ford Explorer it was always full and I drove everywhere with a month's worth of stuff piled up. But, to be honest, with any car, there's always a load of stuff in the passenger seat that has to be moved when a friend jumps in.

Twice in the five years I've had the Honda Insight there have been times when I wanted to carry more than one passenger, and that's impossible. Once, when we had a houseful of guests, I rented a big luxury car. A luxury car looks good when you go somewhere expensive -- like to the gas station where it costs $50 to fill the tank.

It is to be hoped that the tumble in gas prices and the rise of the present administration in the polls doesn't mean a sweep for the Rs in November. But here's the marvel of democracy: One person with the attention span of a flash bulb and the wit of a trout gets the same one vote as one person who has studied the issues. Give up their SUV to save gas? Phooey. The trout rise to any flashy bait and cast their votes regardless of whether the flies are real or fake.

Courage, friends, and keep on working.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2006

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