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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Here's how it goes:

When I was a kid, my dad used to gas up the car. He would drive up to the pump and eager attendants would swarm over the car, filling the tank, washing the windows, checking the oil, airing up the tires. Dad would fork over four or five bucks and drive away, a happy working stiff who'd just been treated like a king.

Those days are long gone.

First came the self-service pumps. Check your own oil. Wash your own windows. Air up your own damn tires. Then, as the air compressors at the self-service pumps gave out, they weren't replaced. If you needed air in your tires, you had to patronize the full-service pumps and pay more for your gas.

What do you suppose the chances are that I, the cheapest man on the planet, will ever, ever pay twenty-five cents more per gallon for access to an air compressor? Ridiculous! I'd rather spend $200 and buy my own bloody air compressor! It'll pay for itself in less than a year!

I've been trying for the past six months to convince my wife, Julie, that we need an air compressor. No go. "There's no room in the garage for it! We don't need an air compressor!"

We visited our relatives in Kansas. My brother-in-law Bill has an air compressor. I declare, well within Julie's earshot, "Hey, Bill! I see you've got an air compressor!" "Yeah." "What do you use it for?" "Airing up tires. Blowing sawdust off things. It comes in handy." "You hear that, Julie? Bill says an air compressor comes in handy!" "You aren't getting an air compressor," she says.

Back in L.A. I meet Julie for dinner after work (her work, that is...I've been home all day Writing Great Things). We have dinner. She says, "The car needs gas. I'm tired. I worked an eleven-hour day." Even I, a man, can recognize a hint when it's delivered with all the subtlety of a two-by-four upside the head. "Trade vehicles," I say, "You take the truck home, I'll gas up the car."

Now, I'm really good at noticing when tires need air. They make this flupping noise and the car won't steer, like is happening as I drive away from the restaurant. Normally I buy gas at the Costco, but they don't have an air compressor. So I pull into a station conveniently located on the way home, one that's been under renovation "for my convenience" for the last few months.

Apparently I had been inconvenienced in the past by the presence of air compressors, because they seem to have been removed. I leave, driving past a gas station that does have an air compressor but it costs fifty cents to use it. Ridiculous! I'm not paying that!

I drive five miles to a station that I know has a free air compressor. I gas up and then pull over to the air compressor. The hose is wrapped with duct tape and leaks like the throat of a lifelong smoker. After wrestling with it for a few minutes, trying to cover the holes in the hose with my fingers, I succeed only in letting out half of the air that was already in the tire.

I get back in the car and flup my way to the next gas station. I pull up to the full-service pumps and grab the air hose and start filling up the tire before they can stop me. They're going to have to pry this hose out of my cold, dead hands. Then I notice: There's no pressure gauge on the hose. Luckily, I have my own tire pressure gauge, a fine round one (not one of those crappy pencil-shaped ones). Unluckily, it's sitting in the glove box of the truck, which Julie drove home.

So I fill up the tires, guessing at the pressure and fully expecting one of them to blow up in my face and hurl me through the gas station wall like I read about in a novel once.

When I finally get home about an hour later, Julie is standing in the doorway. She was worried about me, I'd been gone so long. She thought maybe (wistfully, perhaps) I'd run off with another woman. I start telling her about my misadventure and she interrupts before I can get to the punch line.

"This is the air compressor argument again, isn't it?" she says. "Yes," I say. She sighs, her shoulders droop. Finally she says, "So, is this something you plug in?" I know I've won.

Later this week, I'm going to buy an air compressor. I'll have to do some comparison shopping. If you know anywhere in L.A. that's having a sale, please let me know. I'm not paying an arm and leg for this thing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

My hometown of Wichita, Kansas, recently spent $5.5 million renovating some parks. I don't know how the People In Charge managed to talk 200,000 tight-fisted Midwesterners into forking over that kind of moolah for what has to be considered an "arts project," but they did it. I think it surprised the People In Charge, too. In fact, I happen to have some email correspondence between Parks Director Doug Kupper and former Mayor Bob Knight (no relation) that, though fraudulent, might shed some light on the subject:

Dear Bob,

Wow! Can't believe we got the do-re-mi! In response to your request for a proposed budget, here's what I have so far.

Tree trimming: $5000
Removal of dog poop: $250

That leaves us $5,494,750 to fart around with. Got any ideas?

Doug


***

Hey, Doug,

Surprised the dog poop out of me, too! Hell, I don't know what to do with the rest of the $$$. Can we stick a bunch of big rocks in a circle like that Stonehedge place in England or wherever it is? My wife wants to go there and if we build one here in town it'll save me a few thousand bucks in airfare.

Bob


***

Dear Bob,

Sounds good, but we'll have to get away from the pagan-worship-dancing-naked-under-the-full-moon aspect. Any ideas?

Doug


***

Hey, Doug,

Whoa! Didn't know about the nekkid dancing thing!

Tell you what--get some big foreheads in the astronomy department at WSU to write something up and we'll stick it on one of the rocks. Have them write it so thick nobody'll make it past the first paragraph. When somebody complains, we'll tell 'em "Read the plaque...it explains everything." They won't, of course, and we'll be off the hook.

Bob


***

Dear Bob,

Brilliant!

Doug

P.S.: See you there on the full moon! :) :)


***

So that's what they did. They carved an explanatory plaque and cemented it into one of the big rocks. Here's what the plaque says. Really, truly.

As a place of reflection, study and celebration, these standing stones structure a technologically accurate astronomical observatory. It tracks the sun’s location by aligning the stones at sunset, sunrise, and at local noon on the first day of each of the four seasons.

The thing that leaped out at me about the first sentence was the use of "structure" as a verb. I scooted over to the dictionary and found that, yes, it can be used that way. The question is: Why would anyone want to? When I contorted myself trying to connect the opening phrase with anything that came later, something in my back went "pop" and I lost all feeling below my knees. I scratched a hole in my scalp wondering how "it" (referring, I guess, to the "accurate astronomical observatory") manages to move these big ol' stones around to align them three times a day.

After a few hours of cogitation I decided that the paragraph means, more or less: "These stones line up to tell you where the sun is three times a day. You might want to come here and eat a sandwich; you'll have the spot pretty much to yourself, since everybody else will already know where the sun is and they won't be here."

The prose gets worse as the writers (yes, it took two of them to be this obtuse) go on:

The small ground stones and their medallions mark the sun’s shadow, falling from the southernmost standing stone, and a beam of light upon the center of the medallions from an eye atop the stone when the sun is at it’s apex, local noon, on the first day of each season.

Three people died trying to puzzle out what this sentence says. One other person read it and lived, but only because he's waiting for a verb to appear in the second clause telling him what that damned beam of light does. And, just to be cruel, I have to point out that the possessive form of "it" is "its" without an apostrophe.

The writers manage to confuse us even with short sentences, such as the next one:

The medallions note the specific date to be observed at local noon.

Nobody knows what this sentence means. Nobody.

Then the writers tell us:

If you sit on the benches and follow the line of flagstones to the west in the evening, you may watch the sunset directly over the other standing stones- setting to the south on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) and furthest in the north on the summer solstice (the longest day of the year). Conversely, the sun rises between the two bench stones from summer through winter."

I appreciate that the writers are giving me permission to watch the sun set. Or maybe they're using "may" in the sense of "you may...or you may not." Hedging their bets. "Conversely," you may (or may not) watch the sun rise between the bench stones, which effect you can also achieve in the comfort of your own home by pasting rocks on either side of any east-facing window.

But wait. There's more.

This “Solar Calendar” honors many traditions from around the world, a universal accomplishment that many cultures share. It’s practical application set down migrational, planting and harvesting cycles for many developing agricultural societies.

Again, connecting the first half of the first sentence with the second half is like trying to make sense of assembly instructions printed in China. The next sentence contains another misused "it's" and introduces us to the brand spanking new word "migrational," which has apparently displaced "migratory" in the English language.

Finally, the closing flourish:

Order in nature was first observed over long periods of days by tracking the sun’s movements, giving security and understanding to investigating minds that first sought to know our place in the universe. It begins the journey of astronomical wonder which now reaches far beyond our nearest star.

Only drunken people write phrases such as "long periods of days." And frankly, I question the whole assertion that order in nature was first observed by someone or something charting the sun's movements over "long periods of days." Were the writers there when order in nature was first observed? How do they know it wasn't observed in a matter of seconds (not days) by some clever and pensive caveman looking at a leaf?

How do the writers know what emotions the observation of solar movements inspired in our ancient ancestors? It's been my experience that astronomical observation leads as often to cutting out the hearts of animals in pure, dumb fear as it does to anything like security. And then (getting back to the subject of grammar) there's that "it" that opens the second sentence, referring to...what, exactly?

I wonder, as my investigating mind searches for our place in the universe, where bad writing comes from, and often I see the answer rising between the bench stones of my brain: It comes from the government, which pays good money to summon it forth.

Well, let's look on the bright side. At least these misbegotten words and turgid sentences aren't set in stone.

Oh, wait....


Monday, May 03, 2004

My computer quit on me last week. The little chip that tells it "you're out of the warranty period" worked perfectly and it died a year-and-a-week after I bought it.

So, I take it to Fry's Electronics and a few days later the technician calls, we have a chat, and he says he'll have it finished in about fifteen or twenty minutes. I kill about an hour and then hop into the truck to drive down the coast to Fry's, about half an hour away.

I wait in line for about fifteen minutes for someone to help me. (I swear, half of the people who work at Fry's must be paid to hang around and entertain the other half.) Finally the supervisor calls me into her presence, I hand over my paperwork, she looks everything up on their computer, and she informs me that "we're backed up, it'll be five-to-seven days."

I tell her that I spoke to the technician about 90 minutes ago, and that he told me it would be about fifteen minutes. She finds the technician...I'll call him "Twerpy." Twerpy tells me that my computer isn't finished because he "got sidetracked" and he has yet to install a memory card to replace the one that self-destructed so precisely on schedule.

For the computer-unsavvy, installing a memory card is about as hard and time-consuming as putting a piece of bread in a toaster, especially when the computer is already opened up and the old memory card has been taken out. It literally takes about fifteen seconds.

Twerpy starts to slink out and the supervisor explains, "He can't finish it right now because he's going to lunch." Twerpy says, "It'll be ready later this evening. Come back around 9:00."

I can think of only one thing to say, and it is, "No." Sternly. I mean...I mean....

Twerpy wants me to drive thirty minutes to Fry's after being told that my computer would be ready in 15-20 minutes, stand in line for fifteen minutes, then go home, then make another thirty-minute drive around 8:30 p.m. and pick up my computer and drive back...because he can't put off his lunch break for one freaking minute?

"No," I say. "It only takes a minute to put in memory. Do it. Or give it to me and I'll do it. Just get me my computer."

I get the bill from Twerpy and he gets someone else to install the memory for him. He has vanished by the time I get back from the cashier with my receipt, and that creates a panic because nobody knows the state of the computer...which is running just fine, thank you, with the cover off about ten feet from my nose, which is getting quickly bent out of shape.

They finally figure out that all they have to do is put the cover back on and scoot me out the door, which they do and which I do.

Tell me...exactly when did the concept of Basic Competent Service disappear from the American consciousness?

I want to know. I really, really want to know.

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