Archive for October, 2005


Service Engine Soon

October 31, 2005

So I bought a car. I had planned on doing a blog entry about how my new(ish) Saturn rose phoenix-like and triumphant from the smoking ashes of the ruined Pathfinder. It was gonna be great. You’d have laughed. You’d have cried. You’d have had your faith in humanity restored. It would have been fun for the whole family and it would have Touched Your Heart. Unfortunately, I am not writing that entry. You see, after skillfully negotiating a fair price for the car I went to drive it the 25 miles home. Then at about mile 20 the Service Engine Soon light came on.

I do not care why the light came on. I do not want to know what’s wrong. I am returning the car tomorrow. After nine days of stress, fretting, research, shopping and worry all I want is something that will get me to work reliably for a couple of years. I do not want Service Engine Soon at mile 20. Fuck that. In Wisconsin I have 72 hours to return it for a refund, minus any “restocking fee” they may want to charge. Back it goes.

So I’m going to try to hit up another dealer tomorrow over lunch. See if I can strike a deal on one of the cars there that I like. Then immediately after work I will take this Car of Doom back to Mordor and cast it into the fiery chasm from whence it came. Wish me luck.

Note to the universe: can I please just have one fucking break here? Can I have one small thing go my way now? One teeny weeny corner of my life that is free from disaster and chaos? A car would be nice. Just a car. One whose Service Engine Soon light doesn’t come on for a good long time.



Fall Walk

October 30, 2005

Is there anything more insufferable than a bad writer trying to be good? Bear with me. I took this walk about a week ago, only hours before I was in the car accident. The good bits I actually composed in my head as I walked.

In spite of the rain yesterday I took a walk in the woods with my dog. I always dread rain at this time of year. The secret to a long and satisfying show of fall colors here in Wisconsin, I have discovered, is a cool, dry October that leads gradually to a blustery November, leaves blowing down gently into big crunchy drifts around Thanksgiving. This, in the due course of things, gives way to a frosty and stick-bare December which itself is, if you are lucky, topped off with a white Christmas. Heavy October rain tends to short-circuit the whole process, bringing down the leaves prematurely into soggy clumps that kids cannot play in. But yesterday’s rain was not heavy. It fell softly and steadily from a stone-gray sky of indeterminate ceiling.

logan in the woodsMy canine companion didn’t mind the rain nor was he cold. While I shivered in a sweatshirt, light jacket, hiking boots and a baseball cap, he made due only with his shaggy coat, all black except for the bright white star upon his thickly ruffed chest. He enjoyed this weather far more than the summer just past. This, after all, is the weather more like that for which he was born: rescuing shipwrecked sailors from stormy waters off the icy coast of Newfoundland, or shepherding a flock in the chill, misty, pre-dawn hills of Ireland and Scotland.

The trees, with their varied shades of ocher and purple, stood out vividly against the diffuse light of the overcast sky, and the deeper into the woods we walked the more magnificent they became. Their oranges, yellows and reds were pulled, it seemed, up from the ground, the last magic cast forth by the living earth before its long winter sleep.

When walking this same path some months before in high summer I happened upon a strange figure. His clothes were nondescript: a hat I seem to recall, shapeless and wide; and a thick beard. More memorable is what he was doing: picking berries from the high wall of brush on one side of the path. He ate them as he picked. His exact words I cannot now relate, but as I approached he told me matter-of-factly that there were berries and that they were good. He was smiling. I told him that there were what looked like wild raspberries up on the hill where I had just been. He merely regarded me pleasantly and continued eating. He did not invite me to eat berries with him, though I wish now that I had stopped and tasted one. Instead I continued on and left him there. Where was he now? I could not see him, but somehow I sensed that he was not far.; that perhaps he could be summoned with a song, and like Tom Bombadil, would come bounding merrily over the hill, offering to take us in where we would drink mead and meet the River Daughter.

But there were no berries today. As the path wound deeper into the woods the trees on either side of us seemed to be reflecting more light than they could possibly be receiving from the shrouded afternoon sun. Open to the sky though it was, the path seemed dimmer than the bright and inviting areas beneath the trees on our right and left. Their yellow glow was reflected perhaps from a different sun in some other unseen place. It crossed my mind, as I walked among the gentle raindrops, that I might leave the path and enter the warm light of that other place. Perhaps I would disappear entirely, only to emerge in some fairie land where I would sleep for a hundred years like Rip Van Winkle or be made the unlikely king of a race of magical beings. If my companion noticed anything unusual he did not speak of it, but, though free of any leash or command, he did not leave the path.

We walked on in silence, our breath visible in the damp cold. My bedewed companion’s fur hung lank and dripping, his head low to the ground. The path meanwhile had turned back on itself and we were heading back toward the place where we had first entered the woods. Another half-mile and we would be emerging from their unnatural glow and catching sight of the car. But suddenly in the path ahead there was a very large and golden tree, half its leaves still upon its fiery boughs, the other half forming a large scattered circle of yellow about its feet. I found this circle of leaves oddly pleasing. Their placement reflected only the shape of the tree itself and of the gentle breezes that must have carried them to the ground irrespective of the line of the path or, indeed, of any human thing. The path ahead was obscured under this cover. The golden wood encroached upon our way.

We did not not pause. Onto the carpet of leaves we walked, a calico-colored light emanating up from our feet and a golden glow raining down on us from above. We were caught in a sphere of light. In that moment fair Lothlorien itself could not have been more enchanting. And then we were beyond it, continuing on the ordinary path. We were through. Whatever magic the woods had that day, we had both witnessed and escaped it.

I put a red blanket down on the back seat for my wet and burred friend. He hopped onto it and we drove off in silence. I reflected that we all have a finite number of times to experience the magic of this season. How many do we get? Seventy if we are lucky? It is not enough.

Next will come winter and even if we visit the woods it will be asleep and we will know that it is sleeping. No, the magic of the season just ahead comes closer to home, in the cities and towns, in our homes. The holidays, with their lights and gifts and celebratory meals – that is the magic that comes next.


My (Crazy) Upstairs Neighbors

October 30, 2005

You might wonder what I’m doing up so late. The truth is I’m listening to rap music!

It all started when I moved into this place just over a month ago. I went to bed that night amid the boxes only to be kept awake until midnight by the unmistakable sounds of child feet running laps in the apartment above. Running laps and dropping toys. On the hard wood floors. On what is, essentially, my celing. It sounded like gunshots in a bowling alley. The weird part is, the babbling vocalizations accompanying the other noise seemed to indicate that the noisemaker couldn’t be older than two years of age.

Lying there that first night, I thought maybe it was a fluke. Some kid couldn’t get to sleep and everyone had a hard night. It was quiet by midnight, in any case. Not a big deal. But then it happened the next night. And the next. It happened almost every night that week. And the week after.

I want to make clear my own idea about kids making noise: there’s not much you can do about it. You can’t teach a two-year-old to be quiet, nor should you try. But I do think that two-year-olds belong in bed before midnight. Way before. Ordinarily I’d never presume to tell someone how to raise their kids – even someone who desperately needed telling – but when it impacts my ability to get a good night’s sleep for three weeks, I think it understandable that one Thursday night I marched upstairs with a suggestion or two.

“Hey, how about you give me a break and put your kid to bed tonight?” I know I shouldn’t have started the conversation this way. But there I was, tousle-headed, barefooted and hastily dressed at 11:45 in the evening. And I was pissed. I explained to the man who answered the door that the noise of his little one running and playing on the hard floor until midnight every night was keeping me awake; that it was very loud; that it needed to stop. The noise had reached such a crescendo, indeed had caused me to sit involuntarily bolt upright in bed, that I no longer thought it possible that the people upstairs could be ignorant of the level of disturbance they were causing. That is why I felt reality slipping away when the man in the doorway said “what noise?” Reality took another sickening lurch when he followed that up with: “turn down your damn TV!”

That was when my head exploded. Those who know me well probably understand why. For the benefit of everyone else, I shall explain: I don’t watch TV. Yes, I possess one, but I have no cable or satellite service, nor do I have an antenna. I have a DVD player and a Playstation. Neither the Playstation, nor the DVD player, nor the TV itself had been turned on in more than a week.

He shut his door and I went downstairs. The noise eventually stopped and I got some sleep. The next day after work I went upstairs and apologized. Sincerely. I told the man and woman who answered the door that even though there was a lot of noise I should not have come upstairs acting like that and that I was sorry. They seemed to genuinely accept my apology and introduced themselves. They said they would try to be quieter. We all shook hands and I went downstairs again. I felt better about the whole thing.

But the noise has not stopped. The landlord (a terrific fellow who takes a lot of pride in his building) seems to feel he has no authority to do anything about it. Nor does he seem convinced that there is a problem. I went up one other time to complain about the noise. I was much nicer this time. Apologetic, even. This time, in addition to telling me that there was no noise, she suggested that it was moot anyway because they were moving.

Moving? Fine by me. I went downstairs thanking my lucky stars. Soon these horrible people would be gone and anyone would be better. I figured the problem was about to resolve itself. Imagine my surprise the next day when I received a call from my landlord indicating that the poor woman upstairs had called him to say she felt “threatened” by me and that she was going to call the police next time I came up. The landlord seemed to think that we needed to work things out “somehow.” I told him that working things out necessitated talking and that talking would necessitate me going up there. I hoped that this behavior didn’t constitute a threat to anyone.

I decided to risk it: after work I went up to talk about it. “We really need to talk about this noise thing,” I said. The woman did not want to talk. “I don’t want to come up here late at night because of the noise,” I said. “And I know you don’t want me here, either. So we have to talk about this.” But she didn’t want to. She closed the door. “I really don’t know what else to do,” I told the door. “I guess I’ll have to call the police myself next time there’s too much noise.” The door did not seem to care.

I tried to call the landlord but he didn’t answer. A few minutes later he called me. He had been on the phone with her. Naturally. I asked him what he thought I should do. He didn’t know. I invited him to my apartment on any night that was good for him. I told him that I did not think he could hear the noise and tell me that it was reasonable. I do not know if he is going to drop by, but he didn’t seem keen on making plans to do so.

But last night there was noise only for about 15 minutes at 11:30. Nothing before and nothing after. Nice. Nicer, I should say. Tonight? Tonight there are no kid noises. Tonight it is music. I’ve never heard music from their apartment before, at least none that bothered me. I was dimly aware that there was music tonight, but it didn’t really disturb me until I went into my bedroom and realized that it was emanating from the room directly above. Bumping, bass-heavy music. The kind that you hear through walls and floors. Definitely beyond what polite neighbors impose on one another after midnight.

I just finally broke down and went upstairs to complain. Nobody answered. The across-the-hall neighbor opened her door to say that she thought nobody was home. Still the music plays on in the room above my bed. I’d sleep on my couch if I had one.


Automotive Lust

October 29, 2005

Even if I don’t always live up to my ideals, I at least have a modicum of concern for the environment. I like EPA laws being enforced, I don’t complain about pollution regulations, I’d buy an electric hybrid if I could! But all of that was forgotten when I got behind the wheel of a 1997 Ford Crown Victoria LX today.

It was whisper-quiet when I started it up. I pulled out of the dealer’s lot and onto a side street. Luxurious power steering. Then I hit the accelerator and sank backward into the plush leather seat with what felt like two Gs of force. “Sweet Jesus!” I said out loud. Automotive lust awoke in my heart when I felt that V8 engine rocketing me forward. I drove around for a while, trying to observe the speed limit. Once I was sure that the car wasn’t making any odd mechanical sounds I turned on the stereo. Thin Lizzy was warning me that tonight there’s gonna be a jail break. I turned the stereo up loud and punched it. Swept up in the moment, I found myself singing along: “I can hear the hound dogs on my trail! All hell breaks loose, alarm and sirens wail!” I even did a gratuitous drum solo on the steering wheel.

Finally I pulled back in to the dealer’s lot and shut off the engine. I sat there for a moment, wiping sweat off my brow, stunned. The salesman looked over at me from the passenger seat and said “So you, uh, like it?”

Yes, I liked it but I don’t know if I could really buy such a thing. Price? Check. Super reliable? Check. Gas mileage? Not so much. Maybe I should take another look at that Mazda Protegee and leave these kinds of cars to the cops. The hard thing though is giving up the reliability. J. D. Powers gives the ol’ Crown Victoria its highest rating: five-out-of-five on long-term reliability. To afford that kind of reliability in a more fuel efficient car I’d have to get a Nissan, Toyota or Honda that had 100,000 on the odometer.

Decisions, decisions…


Rob Halford, George Takei and This Kid I knew

October 28, 2005

I knew this kid when I was about 14. He was a friend of a friend, really, but we’d hung out a few times. While we compared notes on our favorite Judas Priest albums and badmouthed the school bus driver, our favorite way of good-naturedly insulting each other was to call each other fags. Hey, we were kids.

Time passed and we drifted apart. He was a year older. It happens. A year or two later I heard that he’d committed suicide. Shot himself. The only explanation I ever heard was a whispered rumor: he’d been gay and hadn’t known how to handle it.

Even though we weren’t that close I still think about him. I wonder if he hurt inside when we used the words “fag” as a derogatory epithet and “gay” as a synonym for “bad.” Yes, he used them, too. But I can’t help but think that doing so damages a person on the inside. Even if you are not gay. It just never occurred to me at the time that real live gay people were within earshot and might be taking offense. I guess I could be forgiven, as I was just a kid. But did no adults hear us all taking like that? Why did none of them tell us how hateful and hurtful such things can be? I don’t remember any doing so.

It’s ironic that one of our idols, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, was just as gay as can be. Perhaps if my friend had known he could have taken some comfort from that fact. (Today I look at Halford and wonder how it is that we didn’t realize!)

Today I have a different attitude. Not only am I careful not to use words in hurtful ways like that, I often call out young people when I hear them doing it. I am also careful not to affiliate with groups that unfairly discriminate against people like my old friend. (I’m looking at you, Boy Scouts of America.)

Anyway, I just wanted to tell you the story. Reading about George Takei today made me think of it.


Who do you know wants to buy a car? Me!

October 27, 2005

In other news, I need a car. A used car. All I need is something that will be reliable for a couple of years and get decent gas mileage. We’re talking a 4-cylinder coupe, hatchback or sedan. Something that would likely have an asking price between $4500 and $5500. Something that would be newer than the 1995 vehicle I just smashed up. Something whose odometer would read less than 100,000 miles. Something within a 50 mile radius of where I live.

It just so happens that a list which complies can easily be generated. It’s a large list!

I figure I can narrow it down quite a bit with the information on this page at Consumer Reports. Any cars in the “Bad Bets” are a definite no. Cars in the “Good Bets” may proceed to the next challenge…

Which is me running the Vehicle Identification Number through Carfax! I can run as many VINs as I want for 30 days. They tell me who originally registered the car and where, whether it has been in any reported accidents, and whether there has been any monkey business with the odometer. Not too shabby.

But even after all that it’s a hard decision. Anyone have used car buying advice? I probably should buy something this weekend or early next week at the latest.


Junk Charges, Speculation and the Tips of Icebergs

October 27, 2005

On what we on the left are calling Fitzmas Eve, I want to share with you my thoughts on the matter. With regard to Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury investigations, some right-wingers have recently said that charges like perjury and obstruction of justice are petty, junk charges; that they are wastes of taxpayer money and beneath prosecution. These are the same people who, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, waxed eloquent and passionate about the absolute necessity of prosecuting these exact crimes to the fullest extent possible. If they are aware of their hypocrisy they hide their shame well.

But actually I find that to a certain extent I agree with them. I don’t know that I’d say such crimes weren’t worth prosecuting, but I do agree that focusing on them is missing a larger point. In the case of Mr. Clinton the lies were in service of covering up a tawdry extramarital affair. That, after all, was what really happened. Focusing on the “real issue” behind the charge can be instructive with regard to the seriousness of case, at least in the court of public opinion. In the case of the current investigations, what would perjury and obstruction of justice be about?

On its face, I suppose such lies under oath would have been to cover up the crime of outing an undercover CIA agent who was working on weapons of mass destruction. Think that through for a minute. Post-9/11. CIA. Undercover. Weapons of mass destruction. Someone blew her cover, jeopardizing her work and the safety of the country. Doing so is a serious crime, perhaps even a treasonous one. Contrast the seriousness of this with the aforementioned illicit affair.

As if that wasn’t enough, something even worse nags at me. I wonder how far the story goes. What was Joseph Wilson butting heads with the White House about, anyway? The documents which seemed to indicate that Saddam Hussein was building a nuclear weapon. The one’s that turned out to be forgeries. The ones that Wilson turned out to be right about. The ones that the president told the American people about in his State of the Union address. The ones his administration used to frighten us into a preemptive war.

Who forged the documents? Someone made them for a reason. What was that reason?

Follow me here for a second. Let us assume that someone in the White House outed Valerie Plame deliberately, knowing full-well that she was undercover CIA. Let us also assume that these individuals did so for the popularly speculated reason: to discredit Wilson, who had tried to point out that the Sadddam/nuclear thing was bunk. Does it seem entirely unbelievable that the same people might not have arranged this bogus evidence in the first place? Do you think it impossible that whomever sought to discredit Wilson and retain the bogus evidence for going to war might also have planted that same bogus evidence to begin with?

Does it seem like a Tom Clancy novel? The kind that got made into movies starring Harrison Ford in the 90s? Maybe. But in my heart of hearts I suspect that it could be true. I recoil from the magnitude of the offense, but I think it entirely possible that someone engineered a scheme to steer our country, the worlds only military superpower, into an unnecessary war under false pretenses. A war in which many thousands have died. That is my guess as to the true size and shape of the iceberg whose tip may tomorrow manifest itself as a perjury indictment.

I guess it’s unlikely that such a thing would ever be proven, let alone successfully prosecuted. In a very real way, I don’t even want to know if it is true. But I fear that it may be.