Sunday, January 25, 2009

To all Ford Executives

Dear Sir or Madam,

I wish to make my opinions regarding the 1991 Mercury Sable station wagon currently owned by myself and my fiancée known to its’ creators and their business successors. It is a burgundy-colored vehicle with a 3.0 liter engine, automatic transmission, power locks and windows, the original cassette player and seats which, despite nearly two decades of use, remain attractive and comfortable. It seats six people, seven if some of them are small, and on several occasions I have employed its’ generous rear capacity for moving from one residence to the next and picking up large items.

In November of 2007, for example, I acquired a secondhand clothes washer and dryer, both of which fit in the back of the Sable at the same time, allowing my fiancée and I to pick up the items in only one short trip. One month previously, we drove the Sable from Morgantown, West Virginia to the South Park area of Pittsburgh to visit a haunted house. Three of our friends and my fiancée’s two siblings joined us for the trip, and despite the vehicle’s age and low roof, everyone had a lovely time. (It helped to have two friends of comparatively short stature who agreed to use the rear ‘jump’ seats.) Despite several opportunities, I have declined to replace my Sable with a more modern SUV –as an industrial engineer, I have come to believe that the higher ground clearance is a factor in rollover crashes and that lower cars are safer cars. I have also measured the interiors of some SUVs belonging to friends, and the inside capacity of the Sable defeats them all.

These are the positive opinions I have to offer you. I present them partly in the interest of fairness and partly because of the old maxim ‘if you can’t say something nice, best not to say anything at all.’

For the past four months, my fiancée and I have been struggling with a level of designer incompetence to rival the Tacoma Narrows Bridge as we have repaired our 1991 Mercury Sable’s brakes. The initial failure took place in mid-October, as we were returning with my fiancée’s godson and his mother from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois to our apartment in Morgantown. With no prior warning, at night, in the middle of Ohio, our Sable lost all brake pressure and almost its’ entire capacity to stop. This was at highway speed, and it was only by virtue of my fiancée’s alertness and ability to downshift that three adults and a five-year-old child were not killed. After ascertaining that there was some kind of fluid leak, we managed to limp the vehicle to a service station, where, after three hours, we succeeded only in having a temporary ‘plug’ fitted for the rear right line. We made it home to Morgantown just as the sun rose and began the process of repairs the next day.

I am not a stupid man. I realize that many Americans would rather go deeply into debt, replace cars with the frequency of computers and trust the gaggle of grease-covered mechanics who do nothing but replace parts until something works. I am not the type of person who does this, however. When my car breaks down, I repair it myself; asking my fiancée for help if needed and consulting a mechanic only when the job requires tools I do not own (a category that dwindles in size every Christmas and birthday,) a full hydraulic lift, or more man-hours than I can comfortably spare in present circumstances. Engineers and college students tend to work on weekdays, and since my fiancée and I have yet to start a family, we usually find ourselves with more than enough time for our cars’ maintenance and repair. I’m lucky in that she shares my interest in automobiles, and at times she exceeds my capacity for patience with stubborn parts, persistent difficulties in diagnosis or frozen bolts.

This was not the case with the Sable’s brake repair this past afternoon. An otherwise polite and calm 22-year-old female, my fiancée lost patience with the Sable’s designers and their executive superiors and demanded a profoundly obscene retribution (using anatomical and mechanical terminology I had not been aware she possessed,) be extracted from their persons by means of a procedure I believe she invented on the spot out of sheer pique. I will not detail much of her remarkable expletive, except to remark that she seems certain that all Ford designers and executives are male, given the method of redress she described. I found this outburst alarming, to say the least (she has a gift for description which has more than once been the downfall of my mind’s eye,) but, given the situation which the Sable presented, perfectly understandable.

The frustration encountered this afternoon was the culmination of four months’ work, countless hours lost and more inconvenience than the vast majority of drivers would tolerate. After having made a complete and careful replacement of both rear brake lines (including innumerable blistered thumbs and the abject frustration that comes with the available flaring tools,) the master cylinder, both rear pressure cylinders and the rear brake shoes (I had the cover off and figured it would be a good time to do so,) it became patently clear that air remained somewhere in the Sable’s hydraulic system. We had bled the rear brakes to perfection, replaced every possible component in the system, and the conclusion reached was that the only possible place for air to hide was in the calipers of the front disc brakes.

Naturally, we had tried to bleed the front brake lines four months ago in Ohio. The obstacle to this was the fact that the Ford Motor Company, in an attempt to save some thirty cents per wheel eighteen years ago, had manufactured the bleed screws out of the preposterously soft and cheap alloy engineers in my trade know as ‘pig metal.’ Any and all attempts to loosen these nefarious products of executive greed and quality-cutting parsimony resulted in stripping, bits of metal and frustration. We had bled the brakes at the flexible line instead, and after exhausting all other locations from which air could possibly be bled out, we concluded, correctly, that the air lay within the caliper, trapped by the obstreperous pig-metal bleed screw that no power on Earth could move.

We tried everything. Conventional wrenches, specially-made hex nuts for the removal of stripped bolts, a drill-bit set intended for not only stripped bolts but headless ones, a welding torch…and this, of course, in the middle of a West Virginian January of some seventeen degrees Fahrenheit! We had worked constantly, at a minimum of three evenings a week on this repellent problem, waiting for parts to ship, flaring brake lines and threading steel tubing under a vehicle with “the approximate ground clearance of a golf cart, with the jack stands!” (my fiancée’s phrase,) all with increasing cold, frequent rain and now a persistent amount of snow. After replacing every other component in the brake system with the sole exception of the pedal, a thirty-cent bleed screw was the culprit. This same thirty-cent bleed screw which we could neither move, nor drill, nor cut away, was going to cost us thirty dollars per wheel and three hours more for a caliper replacement. Just for our car to stop and pass one of the easiest inspections in the United States, we had wasted months, and finally, at the moment when the Sable absolutely had to be repaired, a thirty-cent bleed screw?!

My good sir or madam, even if we allow you sixty cents’ cost for the screw by considering inflation, was it really so critical to your holy of holies, so obscenely offensive to your bottom line, that an extra thirty cents for steel wasn’t warranted? Have you never, in the course of what are undoubtedly happy lives, had to repair a car? Is there no snow where you live, and does it never rain? Are your finances so very lush that cars need only last as long as their mayfly-like warranty or do you somehow own slaves to do this kind of mechanical dirty work?

You who persist in maintaining that American cars are just as good as the Japanese, that the reason for the industry’s current appalling state is the failure of the American people to realize that your cars are just as good, I wish you well in your ignorance. The reason why the American people are turning their backs on you has nothing to do with gas prices or Union wages or even the fact that your ilk have worked harder against progress in the past fifty years and with more success than the Americans who invented the personal computer, cured forms of cancer and won world wars! The American people are not angry about the way electric vehicles were treated, the complete dismissal of biodiesel or the utter failure to consider their market preferences for the better part of a century. No, I tell you the American people have dismissed you because you have completely failed. Where it matters, you have cut off your noses to spite your face.

You created cars with wonderful longevity, excellent features and splendid looks –and so long as nobody dared require the cars to work or to last longer than the average cellular phone, your company did all right. There were enough people willing to sacrifice resale value, reliability, even safety for the patriotic smugness of ‘buying American’ even after you shipped the work out to Mexico. There were even people who liked your ungainly engines, your bizarre lines and the complete failures of basic engineering that have plagued your products since the Model T. Americans still liked you, even with all your faults.

But then you got crafty. You knew you couldn’t beat Toyota for reliability or Honda for quality, so you decided to go for price. You realized that the Bubba Joe git-er-done crowd was your best bet for the ‘buy American’ myth to work, so you priced your cars for the common man and designed your pickups to compensate for a Southern boy’s every shortcoming. You invested so heavily in aftermarket accessories with the house logo, in NASCAR sponsorships and in commercials so jingoistic that the propaganda artists of World War II were seen to have turned them off, that it was a miracle any American who wasn’t a Commie or a queer didn’t buy your cars –and you tried your damnedest to imply that anyone who didn’t was one of the above.

And in all that marketing, you loused up. You cut the costs on little, insignificant parts like brake bleeder screws, engine-mounting bolts, and spark plugs. You took the cheap shot on everything you thought a minivan mom from the suburbs wouldn’t see. Under all the shiny chrome, you built bumpers that could no more withstand a 5 mph crash than a canary could beat the Concorde. Behind all the talk of airbags and safety, you had a crash rate that compared unfavorably to that of military fatalities.

And what you neglected to remember, in your neurotic haste to please the Southern boys who still bought your junk, that some of us buy cars to work on ‘em. You forgot that your biggest fans were the guys who like when a tire blows and ask the wife to time them like it’s the pits at Daytona, the guys who rebuild engines, and the guys who replace their own damn brake lines. You didn’t consider what it would be like for a guy just a little while out of college who needs his old station wagon to run so his new-graduate fiancée can drive it to her first job. You didn’t think that a thirty-cent screw could destroy four months of a couple’s life, and you certainly didn’t think about the mechanics who always clean up your mess.

Well, this is one West Virginia boy who is done with Fords and their Mercury upgrades that fail when you need them most. I bought the Sable from my folks when I turned twenty and I hoped one day to teach my son how to work on it. I did manage to teach the woman who will quite shortly be my wife, and unfortunately for you, she’s angrier than I am.

She’s twenty-two and I’m twenty-seven. You do the math. We will probably live well into our nineties, and even assuming we quit driving at eighty-five, at an average of one new car every decade, you have lost ten potential sales. Considering that I will never be so abusive as to stick my kid with a Ford, I’d say more like twelve. That’s twelve times an average of thirty thousand dollars that your company has just lost, all because you tried to save a quarter per wheel on a stupid screw.

More than that, I’d say; you seem to have bought yourself a negative ad campaign for the next seventy-odd sale years. My fiancée’s already called her best friend to dish about the nightmare we’ve had today, and while her friend has a Mercury Mountaineer right now, after listening to the story, she’s thinking a Toyota sounds pretty good -another thirty thousand dollars you’ve flushed down the commode. Perhaps I didn’t mention that my fiancée is in advertising and one of the most persuasive, outgoing and funny women I’ve ever met. She’ll stop a stranger from buying a product she thinks is junk, just as she’ll tell a stranger to try something she thinks is great. I listened for five minutes to how she told her friend about your stupid brake-bleed screw before I had to leave the room and bite a towel to stop laughing. The way she tells a story, it sticks with you, and I have a nasty feeling she’s going to tell every friend and stranger from West Virginia to Doomsday just what she thinks of Fords.

It is not a pretty tale.

Now, some people would blame me for this whole mess, say it’s my fault I didn’t just by a newer car –and I’d agree, if my 1987 Honda weren’t easier than a kid’s toy to fix, as reliable as a new clock and so fun to drive, I took up pizza delivery for the lark of it. It’s brake cables are internal, I might add, and I’ve never had a moment’s trouble with the bleeder screws.

Other people might say this is just me trying to make you fix what you’ve already done screwed up, that an offer of new parts or a break on the price of a new Sable will shut my mouth and turn my fiancée into a regular flag-waving fan of Ford –if not their cars, then definitely their customer service. That’s generally how customer service works, you see, with the best companies taking complaint letters as an opportunity to get the best word of mouth for cheap. Beefing up the customer service or extending and expanding the warranty is a time-honored trick of American car makers for boosting sales when reliability reports or sales fall short of hopes.

And the Asian makes do it too. When Lexus had a recall in 1990 for their LS400 line, they went to the trouble of personally calling every owner and making the arrangements for the repairs. They also washed each car and filled the tank, so that when the owners picked their cars up, it felt like a ‘bonus’ instead of an inconvenience. Lexus was banking on the fact that the LS400, as a luxury car that was new on the market, would only be owned by the type of car enthusiasts that regular people would tend to listen to. They were right; Lexus has a great reputation for customer service to this day.

I don’t think the 1991 Mercury Sable is the type of car enthusiasts rave about, nor do I consider myself all that influential, but if you felt like sending me a pair of decent bleed screws, maybe my fiancée would be impressed that you tried, but it’s not likely. I’ve resigned myself to getting Hondas or Toyotas from now on, and she’s grudgingly agreed not to use the language she used while working on the Sable for describing its’ creators, at least when there’s the possibility of children or old people hearing it. As far as I’m concerned, your company is now irretrievable. If I didn’t need the Sable to last another three months, I’d gut the interior, put the comfy seats on eBay and sell the shell for scrap. (Shoot, if I wasn’t afraid of some other poor slob getting stuck with it, I’d donate it to charity.) If I owned any shares in your company, I would get the paper certificates printed and then sell them to my mother-in-law for $5 and a batch of brownies just to be rid of them.

The only reason I bothered to write you this letter and tell you what the real impact of your shabby design, shoddy parts and incomprehensibly bad products have been on a real customer and his family is so that you might have a snowball’s chance of changing your ways before they screw over someone else. After all, the economy’s getting worse, the bailout has a lot of hackles raised, and maybe the next guy who has to put up with your thirty-cent pig-metal bleed screws won’t have the sense to keep chocolate near his fiancée and anecdotes about American cars out of Congressional dinner parties –if only because of the language. I pity him the trouble and pain that I’ve just gone through, but if he decides to do more than write an angry letter, well, that’s his prerogative, your problem, and quite probably the best mix of justified vigilantism and schadenfreude since Catwoman fried Max Schreck.

I can promise you won’t meet any harm from my personal Selina Kyle, but unless you do a much better job in the future, I don’t have anything to look forward to but hilarious headlines, pity for your families and a sense of peace in my little red Honda.

Pig-metal bleed screws. Honestly!


Friday, August 8, 2008

Fuel Economy is Not a Hobby, Right?

This morning, in the midst of my PowerPoint-notes reviewing, corn-dog eating, pre-final exam panic, I checked my usual daily webcomics, news sites and favorite blogs. For the record, that is what I do every day, following the Brushing of Ad-Rat Teeth, the Hooking On of the Mighty Brassiere and the Putting On of Ridiculously Flare-Cut Pants.

The Putting-On of a Gorramn Shirt does not take place until shortly before it is absolutely necessary to comply with local decency laws, a practice largely confined to summertime that began out of deference to Sparky's admiration of the female form and its' accompanying lingerie technology, but which has now become habit. There. I've justified the content warning at long, long last. Oh, and since you're going to ask, 38DD.

Anyway, one of the blogs I tend to check every day is 'The Consumerist,' a delightful little repository of vitriol aimed at businesses that louse up, among other things. This, in addition to 'Violent Acres,' is largely responsible for my daily recommended allowance of incoherent rage, which, as all sensible people know, is a source of fiber to Irish-Americans. I also frequently find humor in the posts of V. and the Consumeristas, which is why I keep reading them. I deal with my hormonal longing for kids (which all 22-year-old females, even misanthropic bitchy ones, have if they're on the Pill,) by reading 'Sweet Juniper' and wondering what fresh hell I can unleash upon a largely deserving world by creating a small person with half of Sparky's genes. (That, and I want to see what Sparky starts taking artistic pictures of once I give him a little girl to play with and unconformistically educate.)

Oh. Did I mention my writing style is hyperdigressive? It is. Enjoy.

Today, 'The Consumerist' ran a story about a new web application called 'Fuelly' which allows one to keep track of one's fuel economy. After I got home from 1. taking my exam (did well, I think,) 2. getting a job (bookstore, spiffy!) 3. picking up some Financial Aid paperwork, 4. buying an unusual, luxurious lunch for myself to commemorate a final exam well done and a job gotten (a 32-ounce Diet Coke and a Snickers, all gluten-free,) I decided to check out this 'Fuelly' thing.

To my abject delight, it proved to be just as nerdily exciting as the Consumeristas had promised me. One creates a page and a profile, then fills one's 'garage' with the cars owned, by make, model, year, and a few other details like body style and engine type. Then one updates each car's recent fill-ups, by mileage, price-per-gallon, gallons bought, and date of purchase. Fuelly takes this information, does something shiny, and then pukes out some shiny graphs, statistics and other finely-processed data I fully intend to wrangle extra-credit out of my Stat professor with.

I have only two problems with this delightful site. A. They did not include the option for a 1987 Honda CRX, only the 1988 and later (though the FAQ promises to improve that soon,) and B. the Fuel-Up part only lets one input fuel-ups from as far back as 2006.

B. sounds kinda picky, da'n't it?

Sparky's father is ALSO an engineer. As such, from the earliest days of my fiance's automotive consciousness, it has been held as Car Gospel that one keeps a detailed fuel log. His reasoning is much like that of my mother's exhortation to keep track of when one starts one's period: if you keep track, it'll tell you when something's wrong.

As such, the gas-log for Sparky's old station wagon dates back to November 1st, 1993. In case you were wondering, gas was $1.049 per gallon in those glorious days of yore.

(insert angsty anti-Bush, anti-OPEC, anti-SUV 'reality blows rhino rod' rant here. I'm not that sort of a blogger, kids.)

After Sparky got home from work today, we spent a happy half-hour or so setting up our Fuelly profile and inputting data on our two cars. Go ahead, pop a Firefox tab on it.

Why, yes. That is 41.4 average miles-per-gallon for our Honda CRX. Go ahead. Admire it. We're not self-conscious. *preens and strikes a pose*

Given the current state of gas prices, I predict Fuelly is going to see a lot of traffic. All the smugness of Prius owners (which may, in itself, be an alternative energy source,) has finally got an outlet with tangible 'lookit-this!' I don't see a lot of SUV and Mommyvan owners signing up, unless they're either statistic-fiends or industrial-engineers, because, frankly, they have enough pain, woe and angst in their automotive lives.

This is also going to be the sort of place where the already-blatant insufferability of people who have completed their biodiesel/SVO conversions goes nuclear. 'Fuelly' has a real-name option for profiles, but if one of those SVO people ever decides to hop on, do their account and "Actually, my car runs on fuel I pay NOTHING for! This is what I'm SAVING!" ...well, I predict their murder at the hands of several soccer-mom Trailblazers and tiny-cock Suburbans will be swift, if not particularly painless, as the folks stuck with gas-hogs will likely boil those smug, if forward-thinking hippies in vats of their own french-fry grease automotive fuel.

...And yes, Sparky is doing one. Soon. I can practically smell the fries.

So, yeah. This is kind of a commercial post. Go check out 'Fuelly.' Read 'The Consumerist.' Head over to 'Violent Acres' and discover either the crazy aunt you really, really really wish you had (I agree with V. on many things and adore her delivery,) or the most therapeutically infuriating blogger in the history of Teh Internets. Sometimes, when I feel particularly down, I imagine myself reading a VA post to an elderly relative. The fantasy of their conservative, 'pro-family' faces upon hearing things like 'if you have a kid you can't afford, it's child abuse' and 'child support is a bitch that hurts everyone,' is perhaps the most satisfying non-sexual one in which I indulge.

That, and my fantasy about what it will be like when my future kid arrives, with college tuition assured since her conception, sensible, well-off older parents and a mother with enough education, free time and career-based clout to take over her school board if so much as a pin drops in the areas of gifted and special-needs support. I agree with V. that if you can't afford a kid, it's a dumbass idea to go having one. I also, however, insist that you go into parenthood ready and willing to go Samuel L. Jackson on the people who are most likely to attempt to fuck with your kid in the name of their bottom line. (Sparky has a brother with a disability and we were both gifteds. School boards across America should be competing for the privilege to pay for our condoms and birth-control.) Considering so many of my contemporaries are punching out hellspawn they'll never afford without mounds o'debt, I am prepared to be damn smug once I'm finally ready to have a kid. She'll be younger, but she won't have the issues so many poor kids grow up with in this full-of-fail country.

I digress again. Go try the Fuelly site. It has made an engineer and his ad-rat fiancee very happy this afternoon.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Engineerus industrialii and Me, Part I

As I've mentioned before, Sparky is an industrial engineer. I tend to announce it as if it were his species, but fellow girlfriends, fiancees and wives of these professionals will probably confirm the validity of the habit.

Engineers, unlike milkmen, retail salesmen and copy-machine repair guys, are engineers twenty-four hours a day. The milkman goes home, puts down his little bottle-rack, takes off his milkman costume (brooding, perhaps, about Kennedy beating Nixon,) and becomes an Ordinary Guy. He does not, we think, read up about the latest in dairy technology, dream of owning one of the new carbon-fiber cows, or draft plans for a better bottle-top, one that lets you use the old bottles to make ranch dressing. No, when Joe the milkman goes home and takes his costume off, he, much like Spiderman, is an Ordinary Guy once more.

At the risk of swiping my metaphor from 'Kill Bill,' engineers are not like Spiderman. They are like Superman, in that they are always engineering, every place they go. Hand an ordinary guy a beer bottle, and his response is probably alone the lines of "Dude! Sam Adams!" Hand an engineer a beer bottle and he will immediately think of four new uses for it, three design features he admires, eight flaws he thinks he can correct, and seventeen environmental issues he could use the beer bottle to fix, thus resulting in fast internet and peanut butter (the two requirements for engineer life,) for all.

The engineer is constantly analyzing and seeking to improve things -whether the rest of the world thinks they need it or not. He often devises a completely new and unique solution to what he sees as a problem with some item, only to have a five-year-old appear and demonstrate what the item in question is actually for and how it is used. In this case, the engineer's shoulders will slump momentarily, he will gaze at the item sheepishly, and in three seconds he will be cheerful once more and preparing to take the item apart. Doctors naturally fear engineers -not only will every device in the examining room be ruthlessly played with and possibly measured, but a diagnosis of heart murmur will probably prompt the suggestion that an alternator be installed -oh, right...yeah. (The sad-puppy look of the engineer is a truly heartrending sight, irresistible to nerdy females, and perhaps the reason for the survival of his unique species.)

The engineer does not read the manual. He takes out his graph paper and his number-two mechanical pencil and makes his own as the item is dissected. Only in the case of a particularly large and complex item with unusual value (such as a Honda or a favorite cousin with a burst appendix in the middle of nowhere,) will he open a manual, and at that time, said manual tends to attach itself to the engineer on a semi-permanent basis. It is carried in his backpack (as engineers lean toward the utilitarian and often the ergonomic, a briefcase is a creature unknown to him,) and the pages become dog-eared and yellowed, like the beloved pornography of a long-haul trucker. The engineer rivals only the English major in his tendency to notate margins, and the amount of graphite found on the edges of graduate-students' copies of Faulkner, we all know, is sufficient to lubricate small-electronic parts.

The consciousness of the engineer, and therefore his perception of himself and his environment, tends to run to the binary. He is either clothed or naked -concepts like 'formalwear,' 'business attire,' and 'weekend clothes' are only introduced in his senior year of college, usually after the first interview in coveralls over a science-fair t-shirt from middle school goes badly. There is either food or no food -hence the extreme premium engineers place on a mate with even minimal adeptness in the kitchen. They have been known to dwell exclusively on one foodstuff, switching only when a more efficient or tastier alternative is presented, or Student Health tells them they've got scurvy. The frozen-food industry is mainly responsible for the proliferation of engineers since the 1950s -before, many are presumed to have died from eating nothing but homestyle biscuits and grape jelly.

The McDonald's dollar-menu double cheeseburger, lately rumored to be in jeopardy for its' continued existence, is a crucial part of the engineer food-chain. Should it disappear from menus, many engineers, particularly single ones, will die.

The simple solution is rarely the one taken by engineers. An engineer, if told it might be fascinating to experiment with drinking, will obtain Everclear and proceed to systematically taste spiked versions of all three of his favorite potable liquids until he is either stopped or passes out. Ask an engineer if there could be buffalo wings for dinner, and one is more likely to encounter a frozen bag of bird parts and a horrifying mixture of every condiment in the fridge than the Domino's guy with a Styrofoam box and some bleu-cheese dressing. ("Still not spicy enough!")

Engineers also have imagination mixed in amongst their science-filled braincells. Give an engineer a kitten and a pad of graph paper, and in two days you will have enough in the way of conceptual sketches, measurements, fabric stress-test analysis and Web research for either a corporate proposal, grant-money plea or webcomic on the Amazing Jet-Powered Rocket Cat.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the type of creature I am marrying this winter.

I'm writing this while he cleans something up in the garage. He told me I don't want to know what it was. I agree with him.

I have also counted the cats and checked the fire extinguishers.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The weirdest CD ever

For some perverse reason, I recently dug out a copy of 'Aquarius,' the second album by dance-pop band Aqua. If you are not familiar with Aqua, the mid-nineties brainworm ditty 'Barbie Girl' was their doing. Why, yes, I am a masochistic fuck.

Wikipedia informs me that the members of Aqua are Danish-Swedish in origin -which begs the question of what goes on in those Scandinavian countries. 95% of the world's four-letter-named sugarpop comes from there. A sick imagination leads me to believe that it is some sort of regional industry, with little Swedish kids being separated into boy-girl, boy-girl foursomes and given a spandex budget and a Moog synth for their fifth-grade school projects. First ABBA and now this.

That being said, roller rinks were not worth going to in the late nineties if Aqua songs were not played. Aqua, Spice Girls, Semisonic and Weird Al songs, with the occasional selection from 'Grease,' (which, in case you were not a child recently and don't know, is the dirtiest of the apparently family-friendly musicals,) ah, such was the soundtrack of my wheel-footed youth.

And roller-rinks were a big deal to me in the late nineties. Two bucks to get in, another two for skates, three if you wanted Rollerblades, and all the Skittles and AirHeads your leftover lunch money could buy. It was the only place where you could simultaneously get and burn off a sugar buzz. If your folks weren't picking you up 'til nine, sometimes you'd get a soft pretzel with nacho cheese, which you could share with another kid -hopefully male and cute.

Some lucky kids formed couples, which meant they might break a wrist holding hands on the rink. There was schadenfreude for all, a wheel of instant-karma wherein a kid who turned to laugh at someone falling would slam right into a wall. Even the nerds got their moments of starlight there, beating the high-scores on the ancient arcade games I strongly suspected my mother of having put her initials on in the Seventies. ("That line of nines? My mother. Totally. Who else was 'SJE' in this town thirty years ago?") Kids who wouldn't talk to me at school shared pretzels and chatted like old friends, kids from other schools became the friends I would count on in years to come. I beat a bully at air hockey and he stood up for me on the schoolbus forever more. I helped a smaller kid up from falling and her big brother was the first guy I ever got to turn down for a date. The lights flashed and turned colors, the floors shone, and anyone could be cool for a brief moment. Even the geeky girl in the blue glasses.

When you're eleven, that's quality nightlife.

So here I was, listening to the one ballad Aqua saw fit to include on their second album, the title track 'Aquarius.' This was the roller-rink's 'slow song,' the one that had once accompanied a smaller, nervous version of myself skating while holding hands with a boy for the first time. That smaller version had been in the throes of a horrible crush on said boy, and hearing the song, it was hard to believe I was somehow twice the age I had been that night. I shut my eyes, saw the flashing lights, and for a moment I remembered what it felt like to be eleven and too terrified of falling down to avoid falling haplessly in that bittersweet thing called puppy love.

It's a pretty song. Download it if you don't believe me.

I opened my eyes and saw Sparky sitting at his computer.

"I think I've heard that song before..." he whispered. "They had it at the old skating rink."

We didn't grow up in the same small town -far from it. But it appeared we had a little more in common than I thought. (Of course, it was somewhat less likely that his crush had gone on to become a beloved friend who came out of the closet to the geeky girl in blue glasses before anyone else he knew.) After sharing some memories and winding up with a mutual craving for Skittles, we got on Google and discovered the nearest skating rink is only about 30 minutes away by car. We could go back in time and be that couple holding hands, and this time it would really last. Fulfilling childhood dreams is not something one can go about doing every day -but what can I say? We're the kind of people who like Aqua and the Spice Girls, we don't have good sense.

Wish me luck. If I break a leg, you'll all get more blog postings and who wants that?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Re: drawing petition

...Just because you know it's a deer doesn't mean anybody else can tell it's a deer. The fact that nine out of every ten large-size quadrupeds one sees in our region are frickin' deer doesn't mean that drawing doesn't resemble the Mutated Moose Ad Campaign of Ought-Seven as rendered by third-graders in glorious Crayola.

In unrelated, but somewhat more bloglike news, our kitten has developed the alarming tendency to break into the refrigerator, tear open any and all plastic bags (they usually contain tasty human food!) and, perhaps most perversely of all, to attack and bite to death every condom packet he comes upon. Does he have psychological issues regarding mylar? Is he asking for a baby brother? What gives?


We have two cats, of course. Alexei, The Gray One, has been my pet since I was in high school, but Arthur the Little Beastling is a feral we found and rescued at three weeks old just over a year ago. We named him Arthur C. Cat because the only way to get a tiny kittenlet to sleep is to purr for it -and, well, Sparky's deep voice reading some classic sci-fi was apparently close enough.

Alexei is a sensible, affectionate and somewhat doglike example of felinity -he's loyal, comes when called and has a weird tendency to 'bark' for attention. (As a small kitten, the household from which he came included a very paternal Great Dane/Shar-pei mix who took it upon himself to rear the kittens. Amusing sight.) He's a mixed-breed that resembles a Russian Blue, but with a sort of mournful expression. He's gray, after all, and tends to look like a little raincloud that will mew pathetically if you don't pet him.

Arthur, however, is one of those white-and-striped kittehs that look like either a white cat ran under a spray-paint stencil or a tabby cat was dipped in Clorox. His expression is usually of the "What the deuce?" inquisitive/fierce variety, and as I have mentioned, he attacks things. Gentle Alexei, despite being older and rather larger, is clearly not in charge of the situation, but he has been known to help calm the little beastling at times. It isn't that we don't adore both of our lovely cats -but Arthur's behavior's just been so bad lately.

It also doesn't help the little guy that his big brother is one of the world's biggest cuddlesluts. I do not exaggerate when I say that the sound of the toilet seat being raised causes Alexei to immediately awake or stop what he is doing (important catly business!) and race over to the commode to take advantage of his human's being stuck in one place for at least five minutes of high-quality cat petting. He will not be dissuaded from this, and we find ourselves alternately warning or...well, NOT warning dinner guests that the calls of nature in this house feature a cat telemarketer who wants you to upgrade your long-distance carrier to Stroking and Scritches. Compared to this level of saccharine adorability, is it any wonder Arthur distinguishes himself by becoming a juvenile delinquent with a tail?

Sparky has a spray bottle, though. It leaves the potato chips alone or it gets the hose!

Drawing petition

Hello all, its good to see this project getting off the ground at long last. Dusty has been putting off the start of this comic/blog for months now because she doesn't think she can draw - I strongly disagree : ). At any rate I would hope to see a few pictures posted here from time to time - one of my favorites is the following (she won't post it, so I will just have to describe it)

The first panel shows a hunter loading a gun in a tree stand with a tranquilizer dart, next panel the hunter stands over the deer with a can of 'deer safe paint', next we see the deer happily grazing with other deer, and we catch a glimpse of color on one side. Finally, months later, we see the deer through the window of a speeding car a split second before the collision - as the driver freaks out and swerves, we see clearly visible on the side of the deer, a full color ad for "Joe's Auto Body and Collision Repair"

What do you think, shouldn't she post this one?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


When I was a little kid, we would sometimes have spaghetti for dinner. This normally caused me to panic.

For those of you whose parents were not in theatre, spaghetti is, at approximately a buck a box and three for a jar of sauce, one of the cheapest foods imaginable. Only ramen is so brother-can-you-spare-a-dime economical. When you factor in a picky little sister who still only eats plain noodles, only dirt gives a more competitive bang for the kid-feeding buck.

When I was small, spaghetti dinners meant 'holy shit! Payday's three days off and we're broke!' Putting on the worn VHS of 'Lady and the Tramp' and throwing a theme dinner might have worked for my small siblings, but I was a fairly sharpish little six-year-old. I could tell when Mom and Dad were pulling overtime or worrying for the lack of it. I avoided spaghetti at all costs for many years, and on occasions when it was patently unavoidable, the tomato sauce always carried a coppery aftertaste of panic.

Sparky, however, does not have such negative associations, and as such, he harbors no grudge toward the cheap-ass food. He orders it in restaurants when he feels like it, has preferences about how it is to be served (the spaghetti of my youth came in 'hot,' 'cold' and 'Parmesan cheese on top,') and frequently requests it. To him, it is a special treat.

We had been dating for about two years before the dreaded s-word came up as a dinner possibility. We were at the grocery store and he picked up a box of it.

"Uh...dear? We aren't broke, are we?"
"Of course not. Why do you ask?"
"...That's spaghetti."
"I know."
"Oh. ...Was I bad?"
"You don't like spaghetti?"

Therein lies one of the ironies of the age. I dreaded spaghetti and what it meant. I feared its' presence on the table as the sure sign of a coming Apocalypse, usually of a Daddy's-working-late and can't-read-your-story-tonight nature.

I didn't mind it, as far as taste. As a matter of fact, it was the one food I never did dare complain about. If Mom and Dad served spaghetti, they had enough worries. Least I could do was eat t he stuff gracefully.

"I d'know. It wasn't good at home."
"Really? How did your folks make it?"
"...While arguing and waving bills at each other, much."

I should point out at this juncture that not only is Sparky a hopeless engineer, he is the son of an engineer and therefore did not spend any portion of his childhood with his health coverage coming from the state. My folks were not dirt poor, either, they just had some lean times. Sparky's idea of 'lean times' is "When Mom was finishing her second degree and Dad was still building the house." My idea of 'lean times' involves frequenting pawn shops to keep the heating on in January.

Nevertheless, he understood once I explained the negative connotations I felt spaghetti had. Clearly, he explained, I had been conditioned to associate spaghetti with crisis times. (Why, yes, I had just told him that.) The engineer's solution for such conditioning, therefore, was counter-conditioning. We would have to eat spaghetti -really good spaghetti, and lots of it, and when there was nothing wrong. Hells, spaghetti should become one of our celebratory foods.

Yes, we have celebratory foods. Everybody does. Stick a candle in a dead raccoon and it becomes birthday roadkill, does it not? Shut up and let me finish.

So we made spaghetti. It was my task, as She Who Does the Cooking, to experiment with adding browned ground beef, cooked sausage, sauteed onions and all manner of spices to store-bought sauce, all in an effort of reconditioning. Normally, the more I get to jake with a food's recipe, the more I like said food. Sparky, otherwise known as He Who Does the Dishes, was well aware of this, and by playing my strengths against my weaknesses, he was soon able to make me into a mild aficionado and frequent server of spaghetti, in addition to many other things pasta.

Why, yes! He is an opportunistic git who wanted meatballs! Doesn't make him any less wonderful for trying to de-traumatize the daughter of theatre folk. And it's okay, I make him watch musicals.

This would be a fine place to end the post, perhaps with a recipe for a particularly tasty iteration of sauce I've developed to please Sparky. It would be a fine thing if that were the end of the anecdote.

I was diagnosed with celiac sprue this year, after about six months of lead-up symptoms and a surgery. For those not familiar with the Plague, celiac disease means that one cannot eat wheat gluten ever again, on pain of some dramatic symptoms Sparky calls 'rocketbutt.'

It seemed that the exercise he had influenced me to start getting regularly was not the only reason for my dramatic inverted-freshman-fifteen weight loss and Ethiopian-orphan-grade gut bloating. The pieces of peanut-butter toast I had been happily replacing meals with in an attempt to look a bit less like Mia Tyler and more like Liv (a patently stupid venture on which I shall never again embark,) were literally tearing my tripes apart and rocketing right through me, leaving no nutritional impact whatsoever -except maybe from the cinnamon and legumes.

The first few trips to the grocery store after my diagnosis were like the visits of a newly-frocked priest to a whorehouse, or perhaps a recovering alcoholic to a liquor store. "No more of this for me! Nope, nope, nope -this I can have, but who wants to drink straight margarita mix? Damn! Why on earth do I even live?"

It is only the celiacs of this world who realize just what a pervasive element wheat is in the American diet, or precisely how good the Asians have it with their delicious rice-laden food.

(I would like, at this time, to extend my thanks to the entire Asian continent and the nation of Mexico for producing rice- and corn-based dishes I can eat. In particular, the developer of the frozen microwaveable egg roll, or Celiac Hot Pocket, has my undying gratitude.)

Of course, spaghetti is made from the finest wheat -and almost nothing but. The food I had dreaded for so long...well, I was finally justified in that. Trouble was, Sparky still loves the stuff and I'd grown to like it quite a bit myself. I cursed the Deathly Sprue every time I saw a box of noodles, a jar of sauce, or 'Lady and the Tramp' for six angry months. All that reconditioning, and for what? A beloved food that I couldn't eat for fear of death by rocketbutt.

Luckily, my Amazing Best Friend sent me a big box of gluten-free goodies in which my autistic godson, her little boy, was not interested. (They say a gluten-free diet helps with autism symptoms sometimes, and hey, anything he doesn't like, Aunt Dusty likely will!) Said box contained crackers, cereal bars, mac-and-cheese mixes, cookies -everything I had resigned myself to a life without!

Oh, yes. There was also a package of brown-rice gluten-free noodles. My Amazing Best Friend is hell of awesome and full of win.

Tonight I made Sparky a crockpot-ful of meat-laced, fresh-sauteed-onion spaghetti sauce and we feasted like two dogs in a back alley. Life is good!