Monday, May 29, 2006

Auto autopsy

Memorial Day weekend, and I remembered the nation's war dead and bought a car. After all, what are people dying for in Iraq but our God-given right to drive cars?
I came to my senses and gave up the idea of buying a mega-horsepower luxury sports sedan. I bought a safe, sane and sensible Subaru Outback that's surprisingly nimble and luxurious. It has plenty of room for all the crap we haul around on trips. But I promise, this time, not to overload our car with permacrap. You see, when I traded in my old Honda CRV I suddenly had to empty it out right in front of the salesman, in the middle of the parking lot at the Subaru dealership. Despite weeks of research, here I was making a spur-of-the-moment car trade.
It was like an archeological dig, one that descended into the deepest layers of my paranoia and slobophrenia. Naturally, the car was littered with old napkins and empty water bottles, and the cup holders were crammed with salsa packets from Taco Bell. (Medium hot isn't bad at all, and worth stocking up on). But my, oh my, the hats. I had a hat under the seats for every possible personality shift, from preppy yachtsman to camouflaged lone gunman. And then there were the jackets, and sweatshirts, and raincoats and umbrellas. Be prepared, that's my motto, and be messy.
Then there were the earthquake supplies: gallons of bottled water, rolls of toilet paper (yet only one can of chili), flashlights, batteries, bags of spare clothes, hiking boots, medications, a first-aid kit, a sleeping bag and a crowbar. Just in case. To my way of thinking, if the Big One hit, I could live in my car and even launch the occasional rescue mission. When the Pretty Big One hit in '89, I had one measly flashlight, yet that made me the richest man in the office building. If an earthquake struck while I was in that Honda, I'd be the Bill Gates of emergency gear.
So I had to dump all this embarrassing stuff in the back of a squeaky clean Subaru in front of a witness, the salesman, who was a veteran of the Korean War. He probably got through that with one extra pair of socks. Honor our veterans, all right.
Anyway, the contents of the old Honda are back in the garage, the closet or the trash. All I put in the Subaru were jumper cables, a flashlight, two small bottles of water (for the dog, mainly) and one hat suitable for any mood and shade from the sunroof. Finally, I have a sun roof, and the sunny side is where I'm looking. When the Crankette is not yelling at me to keep my eyes on the road.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Driving Miss Crankette Crazy

Works every time. If you roll into a Toyota dealership on a bicycle, a salesman comes out and says, "Are you looking for a hybrid?" It's almost as if I was hugging a tree on the handlebars.
No, I'm not looking for a hybrid. I am a hybrid. I ride a bike for most of my miles, which are around town, but when it comes to highway and back road driving I'm a typical doofus American. I want a car that handles well, looks good and doesn't blow around like a golf cart. I have car disease, and I can afford to have it because I personally average about 75 miles a gallon, counting both my vehicles and the dabs of grease I put on the chain of one of them.
My car disease is full blown right now, because I'm car shopping, even if I stop in to look at the spiffy new Camrys on a Specialized commuter bike. The Camry comes in a hybrid model, but there's also one with a potent V-6 (rated at 31 mpg, so there.) You can see I'm far gone here. For once in my life, I want a car that can get on a freeway without a tail wind and I want to be surrounded by more airbags than a buffet table at a political convention. And I don't really want a Camry, which is Japanese for "AARP." I want to step up to an Acura TL (29 mpg and, hey, a Consumer Reports pick).
It would be nice if the car had safety restraints to prevent injury to my marriage, but that's my problem. I'm bugging my wife, the Crankette, with constant car talk.
This car disease runs in my family. My father bought a car every time his old one bored him, even though there were very few places to drive his cars on Cape Cod, except to drive my mother crazy, and to the refuge of her old Dodge van. The old man's last car was a BMW that was fast enough to get him to the pub and back before his oxygen tank ran out, and in previous years he bought, among many other vehicles, a Mustang convertible, a Miata, two Mercedes, a Rolls Royce (used and mostly not running), an International Harvester Scout and a Pacer. He was probably the only man in the history of the world to own both a Rolls and a Pacer. He was a genuine car nut, and when he walked up to a dealership the salesmen came running.
Don't worry, this will all be over soon. My old Honda, which handles like a turd on a roller skate and needs major work, will soon be replaced and I'll have to shut up and be happy with whatever lovely metal box I've chosen to sit in for the next decade.
I know I'll still be happier on the bike.
But, vroom-vroom!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Join the Army and See a Doctor

Every once in a while, newspapers tell you something astounding, and I don't mean that a man can be hated for hitting as many home runs as Babe Ruth. Consider these stories from our two big California papers:
"Amid war, troops see safety in reenlisting," is a Sunday headline in the Los Angeles Times. Faye Fiore reports that Army reenlistments are running well above normal, largely because of the "generous health coverage" soldiers and their families receive. Sure, 18,000 troops have been wounded in Iraq, but they get the best medical attention and prosthetic limbs our tax dollars can provide (if they don't get discharged too soon). And soldiers' wives and tykes can go to clinics for free. In the civilian world, 46 million Americans have no health care at all, and still run the chance of being wounded in the streets.
Joining the Army to see a doctor is a trade-off. But hope you don't see too many doctors all at once.
Meanwhile, reporter Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle drops this jaw-dropper of a statistic: "Roughly 10 percent of Mexico's population of about 107 million is now living in the U.S." They generate $20 billion in income that heads south of the border, and experts say it's unlikely that any alliance of portly Congressmen and Minutemen in folding chairs can make them go home.
So this is our United States: Just generous enough to attract Third World peasants, but mean and stingy enough to keep Americans going to Iraq over and over again. Uncle Sam wants you to work cheap.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hey, Do I Work Out?

If we all hated gym class as kids, why are we paying to go to gyms as adults?
Maybe it's because the modern, well-equipped gym doesn't have rope climbs or sicko gym teachers who make you play dodge ball in shorts that are best accessorized with wedgies.
Gym clothes are still an issue, as far as I'm concerned. This rainy winter I joined a gym, but only after taking a tour and ascertaining that there weren't uniforms. The men didn't all wear stretchy tank tops and the women weren't all tightly coated in Danskin. Plenty of folks were wearing baggy sweats or XXL T-shirts over their 36-pack abs.
Furthermore, the exercise machines weren't installed behind plate glass along a busy sidewalk. What genius invented that? Let's see, we'll get people to pay thousands of dollars to run in yuppie cages in a zoo that's cruel to observers.
No, my idea was to get in shape, and getting in shape is ugly. My gym embraces the young, the old, the delt-enlarged and the cellulite-pocked. That's because it's not a commercial gym run by the kind of people who loved gym class in school. The gym is part of a nearby community center where fitness is not a competitive matter and nobody's trying to pick anybody up. Or maybe I'm just too winded to notice.
Working out is working out.

Monday, May 15, 2006

bad case of blogger's right not to blog

Why am I stuck in a blogmire? Why is writing these things so hard?
Partly, of course, it's because I don't do much. I could write about what I had for lunch, but the Crankette already has that beat.
It isn't just inactivity that keeps me from writing, though. That never stopped me as a newspaper columnist. Nor is it the lack of deadlines and scary editors. The blogging block lies in the very nature of the medium. You can write anything you want. You can write as long as you want. You could update readers all day long on every belch and sigh.
Or you could sigh and write nothing at all. This infinite empty space just sits in the computer like a non-directive psychiatrist, waiting for words.
Um-hum. Tell me about it.
Phew, the 55 minutes are up. Time to go to the gym. Or somewhere, anywhere.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Gas is not this gasbag's bag

Here's one thing I don't get about the incompletely gilded place I live.
Marin County is a hotbed (oops, almost said "hottub") of anti-Republican, pro-environmental activism. Or inactivism, since most of the politics takes place around morning lattes in coffeehouses. It's also the capital of mountain biking and road biking. But most of the bicyclists end up nowhere but coffeehouses to shoot the breeze about gears and global warming.
So how come I see so few people using bicycles as actual transportation, to work or to stores, instead of as $3,000 quadricep-building devices?
Every day I bike a few miles to downtown San Rafael, maybe to pick up some wine or go to the bank. (And always to a coffeehouse, I admit.) Once or twice a week I bike to the farmers market to get vegetables, fruit and cheese. Most days I'm the only person at the market who arrived on a bike. And this market is the belly of chard-hugging, petroleum-hating Marin liberalism!
Instead folks roll up in SUVs and BMWs to fill their hemp sacks with organic produce. What is the math here? Three gallons of irreplaceable hydrocarbons for five pounds of sustainable veggies?
Then, when I'm out in the bike lane, heading to town in my sweatshirt and jeans, the bicyclists who pass me (they all pass me) are wearing Vegas-colored Spandex and heading only to the blessed world of lower body fat. Why doesn't anyone actually use bikes as transportation? When I used to bike to work via the Sausalito ferry only a half dozen regular cyclists would be aboard.
In fact, there are those in these parts who use bicycles, the world's most efficient form of short-range transportation, as means to get to work and stores. They are the invisible people of Marin. At least they were invisible until very recently when they took to the streets en masse.
When I'm out on my bike the only others out there pedaling with a purpose are struggling, hard-working Latinos. They don't wear helmets or Lycra, or ride bikes worth more than most people's cars. Bikes, cheap bikes (which is what bikes used to be) are how they get around.
Now, I'm sure most of these guys, like everyone in America, would like to own a nifty car. And more horsepower to them in achieving the American dream.
But what's with all the liberals who say they hate cars but drive expensive ones three miles to the store? Get a cheap bike. Maybe you can even quit the gym.