Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sweet Sixteen to Senior Citizenship

I had lunch with Donna today. We became friends the summer before our junior year of high school when I first moved to Wabash. From Sweet16 to 63. Hard to believe that many years have passed but our 45th class reunion was this summer, proving to us that we are, in fact, senior citizens.

Between us, we've been married to five husbands, borne two children, lived in several states and worked at jobs too numerous to mention. She was a telephone operator once, sitting in a room all night by herself, sticking cords into holes to connect callers. She used to dial me from West Virginia at 3:00 a.m. when her work was slow. Difficult to imagine in an era of cell phones and instant connections that phone calls happened that way. She also opened the first video store in our town when most of us didn't even know what a VCR was. Since then, they've become obsolete. I wrote a column and was provided one of the earliest computers by my syndicate when almost no private citizen had a computer. I could even send my columns electronically...at 1200 baud. Yee-hah!

None of the factories where either of us worked exist any longer, like the old General Tire down the street from me. Many Kentucky families, including Donna's own, moved up here to Indiana to get jobs at General Tire during World War II. My family moved to Wabash because of General Tire too. Mom was a Quality Assurance Representative for the federal government sent here to inspect gas masks.

I can't remember if Donna ever took her turn there but I did, cutting the excess rubber off of gasket pieces for a short time. It was piece work and the older women there warned me off producing too much which would cause them to get time-studied and the rate adjusted upward.

General Tire changed its name several times as it was sold and re-sold. A new sign would be put up out front but no matter what it said, we still called the place General Tire. It was such an elemental part of this community, we couldn't imagine that it ever wouldn't be there. Now, it's closed and weeds are growing up in the parking lot. Almost no place we have today pays as well, relatively speaking, as General Tire did. The workers came off their shifts black as pitch and stinking of rubber compound. They were, collectively, a rather rough bunch, prone to acts of violence during strikes. We felt sorry for them, having to spend their lives there in that hot, ugly place but wouldn't we like to have it back now? Thousands of Wabash families were raised on generous GT paychecks.

As for me, I worked as a realtor (good luck surving on what you can make selling houses in Wabash these days), a bartender (in a rock and roll bar where we had so much fun, most of us would have worked for nothing, and sometimes did when, it was all we could do to scrape the money together to pay the band on Saturday night) and a secretary (serving both sweethearts and shitheads - my favorite bosses: a Democrat mayor and a Republican sheriff). I was also employed in other factories bending pipe and cutting hose and taping harnesses, running a laminating machine and a drill press, soldering and stamping and inspecting. And for one horribly memorable shift, I worked in a chicken house which was a mini-Auschwitz for birds instead of humans. Afterwards, I wouldn't even accept my day's wages, it felt so much like blood money.

I worked at a Sheriff's Department and travelled the country bringing extradited prisoners back to face justice in Wabash County. I didn't care so much about the justice as the fact that most fleeing felons run to cool places, with beach towns being at the top of their list. Transporting a prisoner from Fort Lauderdale isn't exactly like taking a vacation there but, on the other hand, traveling is lots more fun when you do it in a fully marked squad car.

Donna and I both seemed to gravitate to government in our later work lives. I worked for a Mayor, a Sheriff, a Prosecutor, a School Principal. She worked for a high school, a county auditor. Some of our friends went on to the automotive industry and made more money than we did but, nearing retirement, the security of government turned out to be a a positive.

I was consumed by politics; she thought politics was the province of hypocrites and shied away from getting involved, although we both tended to be liberal Democrats.

She loves the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning; I love NASCAR and Jimmie Johnson. We both love to read.

She's a dedicated Grandma; I'm not a Grandma at all.

Sixteen to 63. We have shared graduations and weddings, poverty and maternity, death and divorce, happiness and heartbreak....47 years later we're still facing whatever comes together.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Republicans are Crossing Over.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how many NASCAR fans I think are certifiable in their penchant for paranoia. Now I have to say the same about the Republicans. (Of course, those two groups may be largely interchangeable so perhaps I'm really talking about the same people).

At a recent meeting of our Chili for Charity Cook-off committee, one of the members, who is a teacher, sounded off loudly about how he would not attend the convocation his school scheduled to allow students to watch a video made by the president to urge them to get their education.

"They can't force me watch!" he declared furiously.

And I'm thinking, "what's the big frickin' deal?"

To hear them tell it, the Republicans believe Barack Obama has Pied Piper-like qualities, able to lure their children, en masse, into converting to socialism, communism, fascism (whatever ism they are most afraid of). Maybe they even doubt their own strength to resist the president's magnetism. Why else would a 64-year-old man find watching a video so fraught?

Schools all over the country were in an uproar about WHAT TO DO! Parents protested that Obama was out to brainwash the youth of America. It couldn't be allowed because, I guess, our students are so weak-minded that even hearing so much as a few words by a president that didn't agree in jot and tittle with their parents' own political philosophy would corrupt them totally, turning them unthinking Obamabots. In today's Republican America, the kids must only be exposed to the party line. There is no such thing as debating issues, listening to opposing points of view, tolerance of the ideas of others....

Most schools ended up letting parents make their own decisions which may be the proper course of action, although I have my doubts about where that resolution eventually takes us? Can parents also make their own choices about curriculum, required reading, letting kids be taught by African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims? Does it lead to educational anarchy when parents get to call the shots about what or by whom their kids can be taught? I'm more inclined to think that the school system should make the decisions and any parents who disagree should find a private school that suits the comfortable environment of unquestioning non-diversity they require to feel secure, a school where judgement is discouraged in favor of obedience.

And when it finally all came down, what did President Obama say? Why, he encouraged kids to stay in school and get their education. That was about as subversive as it got. I'm sure the parents who saved their children from this kind of terrible propaganda heaved a huge sigh of relief and self-satisfaction.

Get a grip, people. You're losing it.

The Chase is On!

The last few weeks have been rather relaxing. I could watch the NASCAR races without biting my fingernails to the quick because, barring major catastrophe Jimmie's place in the Chase was secure. By the last two races, he'd locked in, so he was absolutely and positively safe.

Now it is back to high stress racing when my nerves start sizzling from the minute the green flag drops until the checkered does however many hours later.

The first 26 races almost seemed to be the tale of two seasons. The high achievers in the first 13 races were not necessarily the high achievers in the second 13. Jimmie and Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch shone at first, then all of them trailed off as time went on. In the end, neither Matt nor Kyle even made the Chase. Jimmie and Tony had built up enough points to stay at the top but face it, their last few races have been dismal.

Meanwhile, Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin, all of whom had struggled at the beginning, came on strong at the end. Those are probably the four with the most momentum heading into the Chase races.

Finally, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman maintained their place in the point standings, not with flashy performance, but steady competence.

So, if this is a season of divisions, perhaps, we can assume that the field will be tumbled again. That could mean that Jimmie and Tony's string of bad luck has ended and they'll be ready to fire up. Maybe, those who have been blazingly hot in the last several races will cool off. Or possibly the consistent middle will just stay consistent and tortoise their way to the championship while the hares self-destruct around them.

I've always been terrible at predictions but I'll make some none the less, just to show that I have the courage of my NASCAR convictions.

First, I put my faith in past experience. Jimmie and Tony are former champions with generally excellent execution, despite the series of glitches, like oddball lug nuts and inoperative radios and broken axles, that have caught them up in recent races. I think they'll be back at the top during the Chase. I'd include Jeff Gordon in the top three as well, simply because he's kept himself there all year.

Second, I'd be surprised if teams that haven't excelled in the first 26 races suddenly jump into superiority in the last ten (although last year, Kyle Busch was the exception that proves the rule in the opposite direction). This means that Roush will continue to be good but not great. Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya will remain the middle. (I don't buy the theory that Juan will now take the gloves off and race all out. I'm not sure it would work to establish a dynamic of cautious points racing for the Race to the Chase, then be able to suddenly flip your strategy in the Chase, but we'll see.) Kurt Busch is capable but I'd guess his crew chief leaving him right at the start of the Chase will be at least some distraction. For one thing, I wouldn't think there wouldn't be too much love lost between them (which may be part of the reason Tryson is leaving in the first place) and it may prove difficult for them to work together cooperatively. Busch is already a bit on the temperamental side and now Tryson doesn't have to take any crap.

Third, we wait to see if any of the last of the season high performers can keep it up. If any of them can, I'd say it would be Denny Hamlin because he's been oh-so-close to being in the brotherhood of the elite before, just hovering on that edge. He seems to have found his footing now. It doesn't feel like a flash-in-the-pan, but the real thing.

No so, Brian Vickers. There may be championships in his future, probably are. That whole team is outstanding considering they are only three years old but I believe they'll be tripped up in the end by that very inexperience. They'll fit into that "need to lose one to win one" category.

Kasey Kahne is a hot property right now, capable of winning a championship but I doubt it happens until RPM gets all its ducks in a row and gets settled. They've been such a muddle of mergers and manufacturers that it seems like it would be hard for Kasey to put blinders on and ignore it all. It's bound to bleed through no matter how hard he tries to work around the stress.

Mark Martin - Mark is the one I find it most difficult to be unbiased about. If I put on my objective hat, I have to say that despite his early ups and downs, he seems to have found his stride and that stride could take him right to the championship. He's probably the most driven of them all. Jimmie and Tony and Jeff and Kurt can say they are champions. Whatever happens this year, that will never change. Maybe that takes a tiny bit of the edge off. Their places in the record books are secure.

The rest of them are young. Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers and Carl Edwards, et al, at least have the assurance that if they don't get the trophy in 2009, they have several years ahead of them to accomplish that goal. By contrast, this is put up or shut up time for Mark. Last chance to git-er-done. That adds an extra element of motivation to Mark's racing and could provide the edge.

So, what do I think is going to happen? I'm afraid to be arrogant enough to predict with any confidence for fear I'll be a jinx....but my fervently hoped for conclusion is Four in a Row for Jimmie.

I may need a ten-week prescription of Valium until we find out.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Computer out of the Hospital

I had no clue where the blaring siren was emanating from or what danger it was trying to warn me about but, judging by the noise level, it was obviously something drastic. Panicked, I ran through the house trying to track its location, finally discovering that it was coming from the computer. The S.O.S. on the screen read: "WARNING! FAN FAILURE! SHUT DOWN AND HAVE SERVICED IMMEDIATELY!"

I instantly pressed the power button to Off. That was on Sunday afternoon. First thing on Monday morning, as soon as they opened, I took it down to Visionary Web. The woman there said it might take a few days to fix it....if it could be fixed. She said he would have to take a look and make a diagnosis. I didn't know who He was but I thought about him in roughly the same way I thought about Dr. Robert after my Dad had his heart attack. The All-Powerful who had my loved one's life in his hands.

My computer is old and faded. I bought it during one of my lowest financial points. It was the cheapest they had at Walmart. It has always done everything I've ever asked of it, never complaining about the clouds of smoke that swirl constantly about its face, never holding it against me when I spilled coffee on its mouse or crumbs into its keyboard. It has held my manuscripts and photos and music downloads with tender, loving care. I love my computer. We are a lot alike. We're getting old but we both keep plugging along. It is one of the least elite of computers; I am one of the least elite of computer users. Many times, it has patiently waited, enduring my curses, as I fiddled and fumbled trying to figure out how to download software or install a program or upload a picture, getting it wrong before I got it right.

While it was in the hospital, I got out my laptop, a much newer computer than the desk top. I hate my laptop. I especially hate the keyboard. I can type about a thousand words a minute on the regular keyboard but I have to resort to hunt and peck on the laptop keyboard. The keys are too close together. There must be a secret "Vanish" key on the laptop keyboard because I'm always sending my Word document or website off into cyberspace without knowing how it happened. Or the cursor mysteriously moves itself to the paragraph above where it was so my words are inserted in the wrong place. Or it creates a new paragraph where I don't want one to be or changes the margins at its own whim. Or I can be right in the middle of reading an interesting article on NASCAR.com when it suddenly shoots me off to a new screen about the history of motor oil.

And I can never quite figure how the cursor pad and buttons equate to a mouse. Or why I have to sign in to Google (which I can never remember my Google password) before I can access my Favorites. Or how to hook the laptop up to a printer.

Anyway, I never quite appreciated how much of a friend my old computer really was, especially in the mornings. My days start with the computer and cigarettes and coffee and silence. Reading my e-mail, catching up on Facebook, roaming through the NASCAR sites, writing on a manuscript. There was a huge gap when I had to do all these things with the laptop, which seemed to enjoy being as uncooperative as possible.

By Friday, I was beside myself. I thought Monday through Friday consisted of "a few days" and I didn't want to go into a long weekend without the computer. So, I called. It seemed they'd been trying to get a'hold of me but called my office where I wasn't, to leave a voice mail asking my permission to run an intensive scan.

"Yes, yes, whatever it takes," I said, "but please, please, try to have it done before the weekend."

They did and it was. I brought it home Friday evening at about 6:00 p.m. Turned out, the only thing wrong was that it was filthy inside. The fan blades were so covered with dirt and dust, they couldn't go around. Besides cleaning out the physical dirt, He also cleaned out old files and registry errors and checked for viruses.

I brought it home. Hooked it up. It has a new lease on life. It's faster than before with all the crud cleaned out of both its innards and its memory. I typed some just for the sake of typing. My fingers flew, hitting only the correct keys. I checked out all my Favorites, just because I could.

I patted it. "I'm so glad to have you home."
"So, are you going to quit smoking in my face?" it asked.
"No," I replied, "but I might not wait until you are on the critical list before I take you for a check up next time."
I thought I heard it sigh but I could have just imagined it.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Ah, Teddy, the great lion of the Senate is dead. I wonder who will take his place? No one who is on the scene right now seems even close to being able to fill his shoes. Certainly not the other Massachusetts senator, the mealy-mouthed John Kerry. When Kennedy roared, people listened. No one listens to Kerry. His wife, Teresa, is the lion in that family. On either the Senate floor or in the younger generation of Kennedy's, I see only pale imitations of the patriarch.

I went to Washington once to testify before a Senate policy forum on unemployment that Kennedy was hosting. There were a handful of us, unemployed and poverty-stricken all, who were flown into our nation's capitol to participate. It was heady stuff for us to stay at an elegant hotel in Georgetown, to be wined and dined at a fine restaurant, to ride the senators' little subway between the Capitol building and their office building, to have lunch in the Senate dining room (Senateburger - $5.00, which was a lot in 1984), to visit Kennedy's office to view all the memorabilia of Kennedy accomplishments, including that of JFK's presidency, to be given a limousine ride to see all the landmarks of Washington.

It was obvious even then that Kennedy was a rock star of the Senate. The hearing room was filled with Senators and media people who were all ignoring each other until Kennedy made a late, grand entrance, at which time, every reporter and camera swung as one in his direction. The Boss had arrived.

He greeted each of us at the witness table. I still have the picture of our handshake. But I felt no warmth flowing from him. I got the distinct impression that he was all about the big picture, that he cared about us collectively but not personally. His focus was on issues, not individuals. That wasn't anything I felt slighted by. I acknowledged that his visions were larger than me as a person but that almost every political battle he fought was for the betterment of people like me....the uninsured, the unemployed, the discriminated against.

I turned against him during the primaries of 2008, both he and Caroline, whom I'd long admired, when they supported Barack Obama. To me, that tarnished both of them. I will always believe that they were motivated in large part by the fear that the Kennedy dynasty would be superceded by the Clinton dynasty....and that they weren't about to let that happen. Above all, the Kennedy legacy had to be protected against the upstart Clintons.

I don't know how much their endorsement affected the outcome. It wasn't even enough to enable Obama to carry Kennedy's own state of Massachusetts against Hillary. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton had campaigned for Ted in his last election when he had a surprisingly strong opponent so it was a slap in the face when he took Hillary's rival under his wing during the primaries. I guess his main loyalty was to his family and that's the way it played out. Although I remained an admirer of Senator Kennedy, I never felt the same fondness for Kennedy the man as I'd had before.

Still, Ted Kennedy will remain forever as one of the giants of American politics. He went from being the handsome, spoiled, lazy younger son, with Chappaquidick hanging over his past as an indelible black blot, to losing one brother who was president to losing another brother (who I firmly believe would have been president) to stepping up as the leader of the family. He could have said, "screw politics, the Kennedy's have sacrificed enough for the people," and lived a life of ease, but he didn't. Rather he worked tirelessly for over four decades to improve conditions for those who hadn't been given as much as he had.

Rest in peace, Teddy. You earned your place in history.