Category Archives: random musings

Stranded on Saturn: An Open Letter to GM

SATURN_logoDear GM:

I don’t understand a thing about bankruptcy, or what it means to file for Chapter 11 versus Chapter 7, so I can’t comment on your actual financial status.  Nor would I presume to tell you about business practices or pretend to understand whether you are truly worth the huge amount of tax dollars that we — make that I — am investing in you.

But hear me out here for a moment.  I’ve bought American cars my entire life, starting with a 1978 white Trans Am with a gas guzzling 434 horses under its hood — which I totaled (not my fault!) and then promptly bought a 1979 blue Trans Am, with a, uh, much more efficient 403 at its front end.  After spending more than a decade carless, I bought a Jeep Wrangler, and a Ford Explorer which I later traded for a Saturn sedan, in an effort to ratchet up my fuel efficiency.  So, you can’t say I haven’t played ball.  You can’t say I haven’t been supportive.  I’ve bought American, even when others were pointing and laughing.

But now, in the midst of all this mess, I see you’re phasing out the Saturn.  You’ve officially lost me. 

Say what you will about the Saturn — that it’s stodgy, non-sexy, non-soccer or non-hackey Mommish — it’s still one of the best cars I’ve ever owned.  At seven years old, it’s got nearly 130,000 miles on it, it’s on its original transmission, it’s only grudgingly needed new brake shoes and new tires, and has never been in the shop for any major work.  It has, without a doubt, earned the nickname we’ve given it: the Man of Steel.

Further, my local Saturn dealer in Frederick, Maryland is perhaps the most honest dealership I’ve ever seen.  Every time I bring my car in, convinced some odd noise or herky jerk behavior means a major, expensive repair, they inform me it’s a minor problem that can be fixed easily and inexpensively.  When a tail light went out, they charged me six dollars for the light itself, and nothing for the effort of installing it.

Further, they’ve picked up my business for maintenance on our Jeep Wrangler.  When our local Jeep dealer, which shall remain nameless (*cough*Fitzgerald*cough!*), kept finding one absolutely critical problem after another — each of which, I was told, had to be repaired right then and there or the Jeep would implode on the spot like the Bluesmobile — I finally decided I had had enough.  I took it to our Saturn dealer, told them we had been informed the Jeep was teetering on the edge of disaster and gave the mechanics carte blanche to find the problem.  After an hour, they came back to me with puzzled faces, saying it needed new spark plugs, and there was a minor repair that needed to be made in the passenger-side wheel well, but that was about it. For someone who can’t diagnose a car problem, much less fix one, that’s the kind of service I need. 

Look, I get it.  You need to downsize and become more efficient.  But really, you’re demolishing the one room of the house that seems to be structurally sound while trying to salvage the other rooms that might be prettier, but have already been corroded by termites.

The management at my Saturn dealer informed me that they’re hoping the Saturn brand can survive independent of GM.  I hope so.  As one of your millions of newly-seated stockholders, I’ll be watching  carefully — but so far, you’ve not done much to persuade me to stick around.  You’ve kept your showhorses while letting your workhorse go.  Not a promising start, in my book.

As I said above, I’ve been in your corner all along.  Convince me to stay there.

Your pal,

Brian

Dear Abbey

abbeyAbbey came to us as a stray puppy back in March of 2001. From what we could tell, she had been running with a pack of stray dogs — which probably included her mother — and after one of those famously impressive Phoenix monsoons that come rolling in on Spring evenings, she had somehow gotten separated from her pack.  A group of neighborhood kids found her and brought her to us, having heard that Barb’s Golden Retriever had died several months before.  At 30 pounds, the dog looked like a puffy German Shepherd, and a neighbor told us he guessed she was about 6 or 7 months old.

Wrong.  We took her to the vet who took one look in her mouth, saw all baby teeth and pronounced her only a little more than three months old.  She was going to be a big dog.  To this day, I tell people that had you asked me if I wanted a dog that was a cross between a Doberman Pincher and German Shepherd and that was going to weigh more than a hundred pounds, I’d have thrown you off the porch.

Yet, she’s turned out the be the best dog I’ve ever had.  You can tell me you’ve got the smartest dog there is, and I’d smile and nod, but you’d be wrong — because I’ve never seen a dog as sharp as Abbey (we named her Abbey not only as a nod to Abigail Adams, but also to the Beatles album Abbey Road).  It’s more than just, “Go get your dolly!” or “Find the leash!”  She really does understand complex sentences.  If you tell her, “Go downstairs and eat your breakfast, then wait in the front parlor for me to come down,” she’ll do exactly that.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

Even though we live along a state highway, Abbey knows enough to stay away from the road.  When I go out to get the newspaper with her, she’ll walk only two-thirds of the way down the driveway and will wait for me to come back from the street with the rolled up paper — at which point I hand it to her so she can sprint back into the house with it.

And she owns the neighborhood.  The four houses in our immediate vicinity are all accustomed to regular visits from her, and most keep dog treats to feed her, even though none of them have dogs of their own. Some mornings I’ll go looking for her, only to find her laying on our next door neighbors’ kitchen floor, swishing her tail happily while they read the paper over coffee.

When I’m writing, she’ll come quietly in and lay down on the rug I keep on the floor of my office (that’s her laying in her spot in the pic above), thunking her tail when I look up at her. Every once in a while she’ll beg for one of the Milk Bones I keep in a ceramic jar on my bookshelf, giving her head one of those irresistible doggy tilts.

Quite simply, she’s the best canine family member, friend, and companion any of us have ever had.  That makes it all the more heartbreaking for us to struggle with the reality that, at eight years old, she’s starting to get old. Like many big dogs, Abbey’s starting to develop problems with her hips, her legs sliding awkwardly out from under her as she tries to climb stairs or climb out of her bed.  The other morning, she took a tumble down the stairs; this morning, we helped her down, then — to her great disappointment — blocked her from coming back up.  As I finished dressing this morning, she laid at the foot of the steps, looking up wistfully, and once or twice giving a low boof! to hurry me up.

It’s not the end of the world, of course — Abbey likely has a number of years left in her — but we’re going to have to change some of the habits we’ve all long grown used to.  It’s also a reminder to continue to enjoy and treasure every moment we’ve been allowed the pleasure of having with this incredibly loving and special dog, who somehow found us all those years ago.

Here’s to you, dear Abbey — every moment we have you in our lives is a special one.

One Of Those Faces

I was shopping at Home Depot the other day, looking much as I do on any hot afternoon when I’ve been working in the yard and decide to take “just a moment” to run to the big orange box to pick something up: sunburnt, baseball cap on backwards, sleeveless black t-shirt (this one reading “Some Adult Assistance May Be Required”), workboots and shorts . . . yeah, I’m the very portrait of dashing, I know. 

Anyway,  I was standing in the hardware section, looking like a mess and fiddling with various thicknesses of chains, when a woman walked up to me with a very panicked look on her face.  “Can you help me out here?” she begged, laying her hands on me. “My husband sent me down here for ‘2 standard screws’ and I don’t know what that means.”

Well, I’m hardly mechanically-inclined, but I do know what a standard screw looks like.  So after a few moments of searching, I handed her an 85 cent bag containing exactly two screws.

“Thank you,” she said, beaming. “Now, can you tell me where I can find electrical outlets?”

I stammered something about how I thought they were over on the left side of the building, near the bugspray, but I wasn’t sure.  She gave me a look first of confusion, then of surprise.  “Oh!” she said, an almost visible light bulb coming on over her head. “I’m sorry, I thought you worked here.”

Now, as I mentioned at the outset, I looked nothing like a person who worked at Home Depot.  In fact, I looked like a vagrant.  But that happens to me a lot.  I think I just have One of Those Faces.

I’m also the Guy Who Always Gets Asked For Directions.  If you’ve been reading this blog even casually, you know what a laugh that is — I can get lost walking around the block.  Yet, I can be standing in the middle of a crowded city block in a foreign city, and there’s a one hundred percent chance that a complete stranger will come marching up to me and ask for directions.  Even when I explain that “I’m not from around here,” many will still take out a map, spread it out on the hood of a nearby car, and ask me to help them read it and figure out where they are.  And like an oaf, I’ll lean over the map — which is not only usually in a foreign language, but also looks as if it’s been used to mop up Sunny D — and try to figure out where we are, and how they can get where they need to go.  Usually I end up apologizing to them, feeling guilty that  I was of no assistance whatsoever.  I have no idea why they asked me for directions in the first place; I just have one of those faces.

I once exited an office building amidst a crowd of fifteen coworkers, all of us walking together in one large group to go to lunch two blocks away.  With a committed group mentality, we stepped off the curb against the red light, jaywalking en masse across C Street, one great blob of humanity.  Guess who was the only one to get pulled out of the crowd by a passing police officer and cited for jaywalking?  Yup.  The guy with One of Those Faces. 

Perhaps the my finest hour was in a crowded McDonald’s, just north of D.C.  My pal Mike and I were driving to New York one Memorial Day weekend, and had stopped at Mickey D’s for something to eat — along with, it turns out, a busload of people on their way to the District for the holiday weekend.  As I stood patiently in line amid this enormous sea of people, a longhaired fellow in shredded clothes came staggering in the side door, wove his way through the crowd, steered past several crowded, overflowing tables, and planted himself squarely in front of me and began shouting directly into my face.  This went on for perhaps two minutes, when he suddenly stopped and strode out of the restaurant, ignoring everyone.

Mike shook his head, laughing.  “I know you say that happens all the time,” he said, ” but I’m not sure I would’ve believed that had I not seen it.”

But it does happen to me all the time.  I just have One of Those Faces.

No (TV) News Is Good News

I’ve had it.  I just can’t watch television news any more. 

I tune in each morning to get the headlines and the weather.  Instead, I get  newspeople who are more consumed with their own fake laughter, dumb banter, less-than-witty repartee, and projecting phony moral outrage than they are in giving me the headlines.  It’s not about news, it’s about events and personalities.  So instead of getting information I can use, I end up shouting at the screen and spilling my coffee.

Like Cardinal Ximinez, I stupidly keep giving the news channels three last chances, hoping I’ll tune in tomorrow and things will be better.  They never are.  It’s too much about ratings and winning time  slots than providing the news; consequently, it’s all about the outrage, not the coverage. And don’t try to talk me down, as I am no longer prepared to be rational about my annoyance.  I’m to the point where everything bugs me.

First up, there’s the new spin on the old “if it bleeds it leads” policy, focusing on some completely random incident and how it might just possibly kill you and everyone you love.  My favorite:  “Coming up, the latest on spontaneous combustion of wood chips at a local playground, and what you can do to keep your family safe.”  This report is immediately followed by incredulous stares and oh-so-objective handwringing from the anchorpeople that the government is doing nothing to regulate the use of wood chips on playgrounds.  And I wish I was making that up.

Next, it’s a panel of “experts” called in to debate the economy, or foreign policy, or health care, with a panel composed wholly of . . .  journalists and other newspeople.  I have nothing against journalists, but just because you’re a reporter who’s beat includes the local police station doesn’t mean you’re an expert on public safety.  I don’t mind having a round-robin discussion in which everyone gives their opinion on the chosen topic, but these talking head sessions are too often presented as providing viewers with the facts — which, to make the circle complete, then get reported by other media outlets as such.

And, of course, there’s the the endless rounds of dumb banter as reporters transition between stories, injecting unfunny commentary in the name of witty repartee, and then laughing waaay too hard at anything anyone says.  Worse, though, is the editorializing that is often almost casually dropped in following a story, as the anchors discuss the issue for just a moment among themselves (why they do this, I have no idea). 

In this department, the last straw for me was a moment on the increasingly vapid Morning Joe on MSNBC (yes, Joe, we know you were a Congressman, and cast LOTS of tough votes, and ran successfully for reelection, and defied your own president and yadda yadda.  And we know so because you tell us at 26 minutes past every hour, every day). 

Immediately following a piece on waterboarding, Scarborough engaged Meet the Press moderator David Gregory in a brief discussion on the letter of the law.  Here’s Scarborough’s outro on the piece:

…history has shown over the past seven years that actually it [waterboarding] is very, very effective. Let’s tell the truth. Let’s talk about what information we got with waterboarding and then we can debate it  . . . It’s effective but is it worth it . . . Maybe it would have been better for a couple of other cities to burn . . . um . . . instead of waterboarding and we can have that debate.  If you’d like Washington DC and Los Angeles to be obliterated by a nuclear blast I certainly respect your opinion and I think we should just talk about it.

(Video of this conversation is here.  Joe’s rant starts at about 3:10.)

Forget the politics of the issue; that was just a plain dumb and irresponsible thing to say. And it’s dumb because Scarborough was just riffing, channeling Michael Scott from The Office and not really thinking about what was coming out his mouth even as he was saying it. 

That sort of casual badinage might be the way things work now, but it’s not working for me any more, any where. 

I’m done.

Back At It

My apologies for the lack of posts here lately — I’ve been hunkered down trying to get some work done on Project Blue Harvest.  It’s been slow going, but that’s mostly my fault, since I preferred spending some time with Madi during her Spring Break, and trying to get some work done in the yard while the weather was pleasant, rather than spending some seat time at my desk.

While I more than managed the first of these two items (quality time with The Kid), I waited too long on the second one.  I opted not to mow on Friday when it was 70 degrees, holding out instead for the promise of some wonderful Easter weekend weather.  Fat chance.  It rained all day Saturday, and Sunday was cold and windy.  I mowed anyway.

Anyway, now that I’m mission accomplished on those two important items, it’s back to the desk.  But I’ll see you back here shortly, I promise.

“The Despot’s Heel Is On Thy Shore”

maryland1Maryland State Senate President Mike Miller has asked that a state commission take a look at Maryland’s official state song to determine whether its lyrics should be changed or, more radically, that a new state song be adopted.

Why the fuss?  Well, Maryland’s state song — “Maryland, My Maryland” — while it wasn’t formally adopted as the state song until 1939, was written in 1861 by a loyal Confederate, who called for his home state to rise up and fight the Union.  It was penned by James Ryder Randall, a Baltimore-born journalist who was teaching in Lousiana in April 1861, when he heard the news that the first Union troops had marched through Baltimore on their way to protect Washington, D.C.  During the Civil War, Maryland was a border state, officially loyal to the Union — but in the early years of the Civil War, it was torn between Confederate and Union tendencies.  And no place was more torn than Baltimore, where residents rioted as the Union troops made their way through the city.

Learning of the riots, Randall immediately wrote — by candlelight, so the story goes — a nine-stanza poem, urging his home state to rebel and secede from the Union. “Come!” Randall urges several times, at one point beckoning Maryland to “spurn the Northern scum!”  (Rightly, it is still considered to be the nation’s “most martial poem.”)

With some minor tweaking (mainly by adding “My Maryland” at the refrain), it was quickly set to the tune of “Lauriger Horatius” (the same tune as “O Tannenbaum”) and became a Southern anthem — supposedly, Southern troops played the song as they marched into Maryland to begin their campaign at Antietam.  Given the ultimate turn of events, however, Randall is often called “the Poet Laureate of the Lost Cause.”

Here, then, is the opening stanza of Randall’s poem:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
Maryland, My Maryland!
His torch is at thy temple door,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

The “despot” in the opening line is, of course, President Abraham Lincoln.  But Randall’s just warming up; by the sixth verse, the Confederacy — especially Maryland’s border state of Virginia — is pleading with its sister state to stand and be counted with the South:

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Virginia should not call in vain,
Maryland, My Maryland!
She meets her sisters on the plain —
“Sic semper!” ’tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Randall brings things to a fever pitch by the eighth stanza:

Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Thou wilt not crook to his control,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Better the fire upon thee roll,
Better the blade, the shot, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the soul,
Maryland! My Maryland!

You get the idea — and hence Maryland’s dilemma, and Senate President Miller’s request that the song be looked at for modifications.  Some verses — including the fiery eighth stanza — can probably be read broadly, urging, for instance, Maryland to always rise up and overcome any “Vandal toll.”  Other verses, however, with their explicit references to Baltimore, Virginia, and other specific events, are more problematic.  In context, it’s a tough song for Maryland to embrace; Maryland was never a Confederate state, so the song can’t really be said to be memorializing a part of Maryland’s official past. 

In fact, its adoption as the state song, nearly eighty years after the Civil War, seems more a choice of convenience than careful thought — the result of a statehouse discussion that went something like this:

Senator:  We need a good state song.  What should it be?

Delegate: Are there any songs that have the word “Maryland” in the title?

Senator:  There’s “Maryland, My Maryland.”  What about that one?

Delegate:  What’s it about?

Senator:  I don’t know, but, see, it’s got the word “Maryland” in it.

Delegate:  Works for me.  I vote aye.

Many people pointed out a similar problem when Reagan, and other politicians, adopted the song “Born In The USA” as a campaign song:  Apart from the song title and refrain, the song itself — a portrait of the darker side of the American dream — isn’t a terribly appropriate one to be campaigning with.

Ten years ago, Virginia struggled with this issue as well, when they decided that the slave minstrel song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” — with its references to “darkeys” and “massa” — wasn’t the kind of image they wanted to project. Virginia shelved the tune, adopting it instead as the “state song emeritus,” and launched a contest to find a new state song. Unfortunately, in 2000, Virginia suspended the contest.  At the moment, then, Virginia has no state song.

Ultimately, I think this is a matter that does deserve some further thought. The hardest part will probably be coming up with words that rhyme with “Maryland.”

Monday Mumblings

It was a long weekend, even though it feels like it should still be Sunday. Where did the weekend go?  Oh, wait.  I remember.

We spent all day yesterday just north of Baltimore, where Madi’s volleyball team was competing in a 15-team, all-day tournament.  Even though Madi and her teammates are all 13-years-old and younger, they were playing teams of 14-year-olds — and still came out of their bracket undefeated.  They ended up losing in the semifinals to a terrific team — who, in my fatherly opinion, caught all the good calls from a remarkably crummy and obviously blind down ref — but managed to hang tough, even requiring their opponent to score 27 points in order to beat them by the necessary two.  Madi’s been playing en fuego lately — no errors on sets, several kills and even a few good blocks — and I’m really proud of her.

In other Madi news,  I’m taking her to the orthodontist this afternoon for her pre-braces visit.  To her credit, Madi’s actually excited at the idea of getting braces.  I guess it’s because they look so different than they did in our day, where braces made it look like you had a mouth full of aluminum foil.  Now, it seems, they’re practically cool.  They still ain’t cheap, though.  Man, where are my foreign rights when you really need them?

Following our orthodontically exciting afternoon, we’re heading downtown this evening to go see Wynton Marsalis at the Kennedy Center.  We bought the tickets ages ago, when March seemed years away, and they’ve been hanging on our fridge until this morning, when Barb put them in my wallet so I don’t forget them tonight.  Because I have done that before.

And how’s your Monday shaping up?

Sorry, I’m Allergic…

Growing up, it seemed there was always one kid in my school who was allergic to everything.  He couldn’t play ball because he was allergic to grass.  He couldn’t come to my house because we had a dog.  He couldn’t drink chocolate milk because he was allergic to all dairy products.  He wielded his puffer like a six-shooter, braced and ready at the first sign of wheezing to jam it in his mouth and pump it.

My patience always wore thin with this kid. I didn’t have allergies, so I didn’t really understand.  It always seemed like all he  was really after was attention, not medical care.  The last straw for me was when he claimed to be allergic to both his mother and the television.  Punch my ticket, I’m getting off here. 

As I said, I didn’t understand, because I didn’t have allergies.  Or so I thought.

As I got older, I discovered that, like the other Jones men — namely my dad and my younger brother — I have a slight allergic reaction to fruit.  But not all fruit, just apples.  And it’s not one of those oh my god I can’t breathe! or I’m breaking out in hives! allergic reactions; instead, it just makes me sweat slightly below both eyes.  With my dad, it’s tomatoes, and with my brother, it’s oranges.  It’s not enough of a discomfort to stop any of us from eating apples, tomatoes, or oranges, but it is noticeable.

I thought that was the extent of it for me and allergies — until I moved to the Washington, D.C. area and discovered I had a much stronger allergic reaction to . . . (wait for it) . . . cherry blossoms.

Yup.  I apparently had a latent, unknown allergy to the humble white cherry blossom — an allergy that was happy to lie there sleepily in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where there was nothing to disturb it.  So naturally, I moved to the Cherry Blossom Capital of the World. The allergy sprang eagerly, enthusiastically, to life.

For the first few years I lived here, I simply thought I had the flu every March, before finally realizing my stupidity.  Now, of course, I have come to accept the fact that I can tell you — with a surprising degree of accuracy — the very minute that the very first cherry tree surrounding the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial has dared to bud.  First the sneezing starts, then it’s the itchy eyes, followed by two week’s worth of constant *ahem*ing.

It’s not misery, just massive discomfort for the next four weeks.  And, if I may say so to that kid with the puffer: it serves me right.