Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Weird things make me laugh sometimes

My Father

No one likes to think about losing a loved one, but eventually each of us loses or is lost. Before that happens we have a compulsion to try to tell important people in our lives what we thought of them. Otherwise, regret traditionally follows.

As my father is advancing in years and seems to be toying with the notion of getting diagnosed with something heinous, I turn my attention to him. It never wavers far from him anyway, since we spent so much time together when I was young.

He was not a modern parent who hovers over every moment of an offspring's life in the current mode. Even if portable video had existed, he would not have immortalized my every act and made sure he was there to witness every school play, sports event and booger-eating contest behind the elementary school. Let's be reasonable. Reason is what elevates us above mere vessels of passion. Vessels of passion have a fine time riding their waves of unchecked emotion, but they can make quite a mess.

I shy away from describing life as a gift when it can go so wrong in so many ways, but I am grateful that my parents chose to be as responsible as they were after giving it to me and my siblings. I would rather have had a pool table than a baby brother back in the mid 1960s, but that wasn't my decision to make. We moved a lot and a baby brother was more portable. I've made my peace with that.

My father was a pain in the ass. Above all else he was dedicated to doing the right thing even if it inconvenienced him personally. Because this is a minority view, he was frequently frustrated, depressed and irritable. To a kid this does not look like a good advertisement for that lifestyle. But the value works its insidious way into your mind. Before you know it, you're being self-destructively conscientious as well. It may come out in chaotic and obscure ways at first. It may take a final form very different from the example of the previous generation. Still, it is there. At least the intention is there.

My father's devotion to the ideals of the institutions that raised him made him somewhat unpopular with many of the other inmates and functionaries of those institutions who had looser interpretations of the basic principles under which they were supposed to operate. He questioned authority not in a destructive way, but by insisting that it live up to the code it claimed to. He saw the larger picture in which the restrictions on personal gratification led to an overall higher standard for everyone. Take a little less, give a little more and it all comes around eventually.

Selfish bastards shortstop the part that comes back around, leaving the good guys holding a nearly-empty bag or the stinky end of the stick more often than not. The truly good just keep plugging, because they know that without them there would be nothing at all worth having. Society really would cease to function if everybody just went out and tried to get as much as possible for themselves. Witness it in action even now. So the poor guy with a conscience gets made to look like an idiot time and again. Or he receives hollow accolades from the grateful selfish bastards who pay tribute to the values without any intention of hobbling themselves with them. Only everyone knows at some level that the good guy really is holding everything together for the ones who can't or won't. For the very instant of the tribute, even the most cynical user feels genuine affection and gratitude for the grunt bending under the weight of stone.

My father, badly betrayed and abandoned by those who should have cared for him, was determined not to make the same mistake with his own family. Consequently, he made his own brand new mistakes. I can't think of any just at the moment, since he is omniscient, but he is human. Well, half human, anyway. I came to think he might be from some other race that lives by pure logic. Except when we made him go bullshit crazy mad by being bonehead kids.

For all his hard work and simple virtue, he had a curious attraction to the yachts and homes of the wealthy. He never did what was necessary to have those things, but never ceased to want them. That paradox marked his efforts throughout adulthood. He had an unfulfilled longing for certain personal accomplishments linked to a temperamental compulsion to put his own wants below the needs of others. As decades passed he seems to have developed more satisfaction in the service itself, but for a while he really did seem to be hoping for some recognition and compensation that would not materialize. A battle raged below the surface, sometimes barely below it, between his personal ambitions and what he saw as his higher self.

It was often painful to be his child. We could see that he suffered in ways we could not fix. When we went away to pursue education and work, we took away the family that he loved even as it made him turn purple and make strangling noises with rage. When we came back, we made him turn purple and make strangling noises with rage. At any family gathering we know before it's over we'll probably piss him off. That's how it is with someone who is the living embodiment of a conscience.

In church they say a person's hierarchy of devotion should start with God. Family comes below God. In the United States military forces, family comes below the job, too. I believe the military establishment would be just as happy if service members had no families. At best, service members' families might provide generations of faithful recruits. Short of that they're just a burden and a distraction. While I didn't feel we fell distantly behind the Coast Guard, I knew that when the orders came we would take them and that any relationships I had outside the immediate family had to bend or break accordingly. Work, and doing your job, was the highest calling. It made the family possible and it made one a useful member of society. Find something useful to do and do it devotedly.

All the fumblings and false starts of my father's children have stemmed from the search for that worthwhile thing to do. We saw his treatment at the hands of the service and were not attracted to that avenue, so we sought things that we could enjoy and stand to do, day after day. Everything reflects a gradual convergence with his sense of decency. The usefulness of some of it might be debatable, but it could have been worse. In the meantime, you gotta have a job. Do good where you can. My father squeezed himself into an ideal of service that's hard to match. In a better world, not even a perfect world, enough people would realize the need to pitch in and make lives of the sacrificial few unnecessary. For now, though, everything decent rides on people like him.

Try to remember that if you catch him hanging out in front of the TV in his lounging attire.

Was that a strangling noise I heard?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Looking out for our interests

In order to keep investors interested in oil companies, OPEC has agreed to cut production by 2.2 million barrels a day, according to news reports. This is an effort to stop plummeting prices for petroleum.

Wiping off the rear view mirror I glance back at mid summer, when prices were spiraling upward and headed for unprecedented heights.

Neither the highs nor the lows are based in what you could call reality. But the highs were probably closer to the truth. So why not let us enjoy our illusion for a while? The market will correct eventually.

I know, I know. Petroleum is already an artificially modulated commodity. Like every other commodity in our economy, its price no longer reflects just the costs associated with bringing it forth from its raw state, shaping it into a usable form and transporting it to users. Everything gets tweaked or nudged if not outright bludgeoned and abducted. Values are manipulated to squeeze out more profit when possible. Does this compensate for the periods of loss or actually create them? A little nudge or a big shove upward seems to invite a countervailing downward motion in prices at some point.

Petroleum producers know they're dealing with addicts as surely as a drug dealer does. For the few of us who go into rehab and make it work, many more just keep on using. Money's just tight right now, okay? Just hook me up this once. Tide me over. I need this stuff, man. You don't understand!

Investors and people who service them will appreciate OPEC's move. People who can afford to pay a little more at the pump will welcome the lift this brings to their portfolios. Everyone else can just pump it and bitch.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts on the News

First, why couldn't Mr. Madoff's name be Howie instead of Bernie? Howie Madoff with all that money is anyone's guess. We're told it was a lapse in security by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Speaking of security lapses, where was George Bush's security detail when the shoes started flying? Why didn't we see a Secret Service agent diving across yelling, "Shoe! Shoe!" and taking a brogan to the noggin for POTUS?

To his credit, Georgie did a fine job of dodgin' for himself. I'd bet it wasn't the first time someone had shied something at his head for being an idiot.

Friends of mine have said they'd love to have done the same thing to him. I can't imagine anything satisfying about doing or saying anything to him. I look forward to ignoring him completely once he's no longer in office. We probably can't punish him for anything, so let's just get on with cleaning up after him and deny him the privilege of any more of our attention.

Quick Ford Tie-off

According to relayed information from the Ford dealer, the repair performed met Ford's current specifications. The flex-hose graft, properly done, is supposed to function as well as the original lines, now no longer available.

Interestingly, my mechanic was able to obtain and install proper lines. These include a flexible section, but not clamped externally.

The cost of transmission repairs rivals the price of a used car of similar vintage. The advantage of repairing this one is that I know its history and condition. I just have to decide which repair procedure to buy: transplant a used one, rebuild the current one or transplant a new (or rebuilt) one.

The transmission wizard likes to rebuild. He sounds like he works to my standard and the Gilford Guru's. I just don't know if I can afford that level of meticulousness in an eleven-year-old car.

Meanwhile, the long-suffering 1995 Toyota Corolla wagon provides daily transportation. Its age and decrepitude keep me from getting frisky. If it goes, I'm screwed.

This experience confirms that automatic transmissions are another example of the expense of laziness. A manual transmission has ONE clutch. Learn to use it. If you fry it, replacement ain't cheap, but it's a damn sight cheaper than anything inside a slushbox. Anything that performs work for you has to have some ability to think for itself. That means more parts working in greater coordination without any input from you. That means more little things that can go "sproing" and complicate your life much more than they were simplifying it while they worked.

At this point, automatic transmissions dominate. More than likely, my next car will have one, too. I'll just roll the dice the way we all do and hope I win the gamble and keep the red juice inside, where it belongs.

I notice transmission puddles along the road now more than I did before. When I see them down at the corner where the hotrod idiots do doughnuts and burn out thirty feet of rubber I just laugh at them. Along the roads and highways they tell a different story. Someone just got bad, bad news. The tow alone from some of these emergency landings would have been a chunk of change. If they didn't get the car stopped soon enough, their troubles have just begun.

And so the economy moves.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Ford Situation

I've heard nothing from the Ford dealer that screwed up my car. I don't expect to. From a pure business standpoint, he gains nothing by compensating me.

Consider it clinically. His good customer, my father, is old and unlikely to buy any more cars there, so he's more of a liability than an asset. Ford as a brand gains when people like the cars and keep buying new ones, not when they try to own them for five or ten years. The dealer might make it back in service if the customer takes the car to the dealer for service, but most frugal, long-term car owners probably get tired of dealership service departments pretty quickly.

Long-lived used cars make Ford look good, but their true monetary value is hard to quantify. In each individual case, the car itself and its cheap-ass owner are an annoyance.

The dealer gains nothing by helping me out. I don't live in that town and I don't have money.

Disposing of the financial aspect, consider the moral one. Repairs often carry a warranty, but that is usually measured in days or weeks. While it's undeniable that the botched repair led directly to the breakdown that damaged the transmission, the service department at the Ford dealership can say that subsequent mechanics had ample opportunity to notice the substandard repair and correct it.

I might do damage to the dealership's reputation, but I live far away. And what auto dealership doesn't have a few stories circulating about questionable things they might have done? I single out none of them, distrusting all of them. Hey, prove me wrong, guys. Prove me wrong.

Auto dealerships are not all staffed by crooks and con men. They're just big institutions with all the problems a big institution normally faces when maintaining quality control. Repairs are not like manufacturing. A category of repairs might all be very similar, but they're not all alike. They don't fall perfectly into a time-and-motion model of efficiency. But big institutions have notorious problems dealing with creativity and adaptability. A little bit slower technician might yield much better results but cost the company too much money because they're willing to settle for lower precision for quicker turns. That's only one aspect of the problem.

If the dealer who screwed up my car is the smart business man I take him to be, he will do what he has already done: take the information, pledge to look into it, and do absolutely nothing while he waits for it to go away. Neither my father nor I have enough public relations value to make us a good investment.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ford dealer owes me a transmission, but I don't expect to get it

Funny how things happen. The transmission oil cooler lines in my car rusted out and failed when I was on a trip to visit family. The car was repaired by the local Ford dealership. Instead of putting in the real replacement lines, which are steel, they cut the rusted portions away and clamped in short sections of rubber hose. They did not call attention to this fact.

I trusted the repair shop at this facility, where my father has done business faithfully for years. The bill was not cheap, after all. They'd jumped in for a brake job while the car was there.

Rubber grafts are an emergency, short-term repair. I was not told I had received a short-term repair. I was told the lines were repaired.

Oil degenerates the rubber hose. Unlike the metal lines, which rust and develop leaks slowly, the rubber fails catastrophically. Fluid blows out rapidly. As a result, internal parts of the transmission suffer damage from heat and lack of lubrication. According to my car guru's transmission guru, I probably smoked a clutch pack, leading to the strange slippage between second and third gear.

The benefit out of all this is that I got to meet, by phone, yet another cool, down to earth mechanical guy who digs what he does and loves doing good work. It makes me want to round up sick transmissions and send them to him. But such ministrations aren't cheap. Not by a long shot. The ballpark repair estimate for his recommended option, or indeed any of the options he laid out, is around the blue book value for the car.

People complain to me all the time that they've spent more on repairs and upkeep to their bicycles than they paid for the bike itself. I answer that the value of the bike exceeds its cost, which makes it a better bargain. Whenever you have to pay someone to take conscientious care of your stuff, you are buying a portion of their life.

As the dealership demonstrated, a high price tag does not guarantee that the work was well done. Examining the bill in detail now, I could see where the part cost showed a cut corner. Since I did not know the price range for such parts going in, I had no warning flag to tell me to probe more deeply when I first got the bill.

Until I resolve this issue, I cannot drive the car. The conscientious transmission guy is even farther away than the Gilford Guru. He sounds well worth the trip, but do I roll the dice on a drive down there, hoping I won't smoke more tranny parts, or pay huge sums to have it transported there by flatbed truck? No AAA Plus for this boy. It's cha-ching as you go, beyond the first few miles basic motor club courtesy would cover.

This is why I go through all the crap I do to go to the mechanic who always takes good care of me. Between the underhanded and the incompetent, it's too easy to have expensive mistakes made on your behalf in the world of automobiles.

The bill for all this is going to cut deeply, along with the bills already incurred for other things that needed to be done right when they needed to be done. There's nothing frivolous in my economy, yet it is still stretched to the breaking point.

All because of some two-bit hack in a dealership garage.

Whatever you do, do well. Take pride in your work and your integrity. Be honest and give full information. The people who tune you out, who complain that you're boring or make their dumb, thoughtless lives too hard can go get humped by the courteous dudes in the matching blue shirts who call you sir and screw you hard while you're anaesthetized by their marketing.

I'm kind of pissed about this.