Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Blog has Moved

Please see the blog here now, and update links and Bookmarks/Favorites as needed:


If you are just now finding this out, then the first entry you see at the new site will be many days beyond where this one left off.

To read all of the Bessie Story (which is where this version of my blog ended), go here:



Monday, November 21, 2005

Bessie Crashed and Crunched

Hey, I’ve been looking for that, was the first thought that ran through my head. All the cassette tapes that had been under my seat had rushed forward to rest under my feet. A homemade copy of Led Zeppelin III had re-appeared after weeks on the MIA list. I never risked playing original tapes in that $29 deck I had bought at Rex.

Dad’s going to kill me was my next thought, and those are the words I was saying as I got out of the car and walked to the front to assess the damage. “Oh man, oh man, oh man. This is bad. This is bad.”

One of the two young ladies who had climbed out of the Camaro walked over to me. “So, are YOU okay?” she asked, with a tone of sarcasm in her voice.

“Oh, yeah, I think. I’m sorry. Are you?”

This is when I was pretty sure I recognized one of them. Yep. She had been one of my babysitters years before. That certainly added to the embarrassment.

In an odd bit of timing, a police car pulled up and stopped at the end of the road the Camaro lady had intended to take.

After declaring Bessie a disaster area, and thanking myself for always wearing my seatbelt, I checked out the Camaro. It didn’t seem too bad to me. It was probably about two or three years old, and besides a little pushing in of the rear bumper, there was just a wrinkle above the doors. Apparently that last part is where it got nasty. The Camaro lady’s insurance company said it was totaled. Ouch.

In addition, I got ticketed for following too close, and was not helped by a witness who said I was “fiddling with the radio.” Dad’s insurance company would not like that one bit. I was not following too close. And I wasn’t messing with the radio, I was... oh, nevermind.

While the wrecker driver hooked Bessie up to his rig, I was reminded of another misadventure.

My first (undocumented) moving violation came behind the wheel of Bessie, before I even had a driver’s license. What’s the statute of limitations on this, anyway?

One day, after my buddy Travis and I had been listening to music, riding our three-wheelers, and probably playing a few games on our Atari 2600, I let my brother know that Travis could use a ride home.

“Why don’t you just drive him home. It’s not very far, and it’s mostly on backroads,” my brother said. He probably was watching some sort of football game or other event, and back in those days we didn’t have a way to pause TV as we watched it. I’m sure being of driving age and hauling around your younger brother and his friends gets old. I was 14 or 15 at that point, and I had driven quite a bit with Dad riding shotgun.

Although part of me told me not to do it, I took my brother up on the offer. It wasn’t the first time I had made a bad decision in this arena; I had driven my dad’s Suburban (unbeknownst to him) to friends’ houses in the past. On the way there, Travis and I decided I would drop him off at the end of his driveway so that his parents would not see who drove him home. They would just think that my brother had driven him, as long as neither of us did anything stupid.

It was that last part that got me.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bessie's True Colors

At one point when I lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when I was a new kid in town trying to prove himself, I did something rather stupid. I couldn’t have just painted my face. Okay, painted my face again. Sheesh. Get off me. This time, under cover of darkness, I went out to the street, where Bessie was parked, minding her own business. In my hand I held a container of dark brown shoe polish, the kind with the sponge applicator tip. Her hood was a light tan color -- the perfect canvas for my planned artwork.

It was the week of the big football game against the crosstown archrival Northside Grizzlies, so I thought it would be cool to draw a large bear paw print on the hood, with a circle around it and a slash through it. Effectively, I was saying, “No Grizzlies.” Pure genious. I was up very late making it look just right. I would drive to school displaying my school pride and park it in the lot for all to see. We had an open campus policy for lunchtime, so I could get some exposure then, too.

About halfway through second period the next day, I started thinking that 1) I now was a target for angry opposing team fans, and 2) brown shoe polish was made to stay on. That last revelation resulted from a rather brusk comment a friend made in first period. “That was stupid” is pretty close to a direct quote. I asked to be excused, borrowed Windex and paper towels from the band hall, and headed out to try to undo my fiasco. CTRL-Z was not an option. Already I was formulating a story of vandals drawing graffiti on my car. My apologies to anyone who heard that version.

I ripped paper towels from the roll, one after the other, as I rubbed, scrubbed, sprayed, cussed, and did it all over again. I made a muddy brown mess, but finally managed to get the last vestige of the polish off the hood. I grabbed all the used paper towels and the Windex and stood back to see how it looked.

Faintly, as if under the surface, my artwork still shone through. I hadn’t read Macbeth yet, so I didn’t know to say, “Out, out, damn spot!” In retrospect, had I known the line, I’m sure I would have used it. From that day forward, Bessie bore the stain of my impetuous youth.

That is, until I mangled her beyond recognition.

I was innocently driving down the road after school one day, headed to my dad’s office. Just before entering a curve I had navigated hundreds of times, I noticed a bug on the outside of the windshield. I was going to shoo the bug using the wipers.

Before you start laughing, stay with me.

The windshield wiper control on Bessie was not conveniently placed on a stick protruding from the steering column. Instead, it was on a knob on the lower left side of the dashboard. I had to tilt my head down to see what I was doing.

After rounding the curve with my head down, I looked up to see if the wipers had knocked off the bug.

Camaro. Left turn signal. Brake lights.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bessie was a Good Girl

Bessie was loyal. She never fought me when I pushed her to her limit. Sure, she had her bad days, but what old lady doesn’t? She was there for my grandfather, my brother, me, and then my first cousin. I have no idea where she is now.

Bessie was my first car, a 1976 Dodge Aspen Sedan, and in 1987 I bought her from my dad for $900. In the two years before I got her, Bessie had been my brother’s first car. My grandfather bought her off the lot back in the 1970’s. As I recall, a high school buddy of mine named her Bessie at a time when I just called her “Rawhide,” in reference to her leather-look hard top.

Ah yes, on the open road in a car that got me second looks, but not the kind most teenage boys wanted.

Dodge Aspen was a car line that started out strong, and was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1976, but then dropped until Chrysler pulled it and its Plymouth counterpart in 1980. Evidently it had numerous problems. It had rusting front fenders, as well as recalls on seemingly everything but the vaunted drivetrain.

If you’re old like me, you might remember the commercial jingle of the Aspen’s sister car, the Plymouth Volare. That corny song still rings in my ears. “Volare, oh oh OH oooh.”

My Bessie sported a 225 Slant Six engine that had a kick. I never tried to burn rubber from a dead stop, probably because I usually ran her on dangerously worn tires. She rode smooth, with soft shocks that made it feel like I was riding on waves. She didn’t exactly corner on rails, though.

Later in my two years behind Bessie’s wheel, any time I slowed below about 20 mph, I had to put her in neutral and rev her engine to keep her from dying. This made for some fun shifting in and out of tight curves, and got some strange looks from people stopped alongside me at intersections. I must have seemed like some crazed adolescent daring them in a car that had little business on the road, much less in a race.

She had spunk, though, and I think I would have had the advantage for about the first 10 or 20 feet. That’s how long it would take the opposing driver to overcome his or her amazement that Bessie had not fallen into pieces.

The one time I did race her, it was up a 4-mile stretch of steep, curvy mountain highway. We had two lanes so we could “safely” pass each other if needed. The other guy, a friend in a ragtop Jeep of some kind, probably was lucky he didn’t tip over. He ended up barely beating me because I just couldn’t bring myself to take that last curve fast enough to pass him.

Once, heading down that same mountain with my brother driving, I saw something silver out of the corner of my right eye. My brother saw it and we both realized it was one of Bessie's hubcaps. It had popped off the wheel and was rolling up the hillside on our right. It almost seemed to accelerate up the hill as we laughed ourselves breathless.

This next part, I’ve never told anyone the truth about since the day it happened. I can't detail it here right now. Tune in Monday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Tornadoes, Shmornadoes

My mobile phone rang as I swigged motel orange juice from a tiny foam cup. The storms had let up a little from the night before, but the motel lobby TV still showed tornado watches and warnings in the area. I figured the pilot was calling to say the flight had been delayed. I pulled the phone from my belt clip and flipped it open. Somehow, that never makes me feel as cool as Captain Kirk looked when I was a kid. With good reason that morning, it seemed.

“This is Mark.”

“Are you joining us today?” the man on the other end asked.

“Yes, at 7:30, right?”

He replied, politely, “No, it’s at 7:00.”

“Oh, jeez. Yes, I’m just at the Super 8. I’m on my way.” I glanced at my watch. 7:09.

Ignoring the fact that I said, “Oh, jeez,” I grabbed my things and ran to the waiting Chevy Malibu rental, wind-blown rain spitting on me all the way. I drove through the small town as quickly as I could without attracting unwanted attention, to the small airport in the middle of cattle pastures. I parked under the covered loading area at 7:16.

“So, we’re okay for today?” I asked the pilot who had just taken my luggage.

“It will be a little rough on the climb out,” he said. Then, to the other pilot, who sat in the cockpit. “Hey, you have the keys?”

Clearly in a rush, the pilot in the cockpit stood and leaned out far enough to toss the keys through the small doorway. The keys went past the luggage pilot’s hurried hands and hit the ground.

“Sorry I’ve put everybody in such a rush,” I offered, somewhat lamely.

Another man emerged from the hangar and walked quickly toward the plane. “Is the window of opportunity closing?” he asked, clearly privy to information I did not have.

The cockpit pilot said, “Yes, it’s getting close.”

”That would be our window for takeoff?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the one,” Cockpit said.

“There’s a storm surge moving in,” said Hangar Guy as he climbed the few steps into the cabin and walked past me to take a seat.

Luggage pilot joined us and, as he pulled up the steps behind him and secured the door, said, “Guys, we’ll have a bumpy ride for about the first five minutes, and then it will be smooth sailing.”

Yeah, it’s the first five minutes that get you. I couldn’t believe it. After all that worrying last night, now I had made us late and possibly complicated things.

My part in it notwithstanding, I figured they wouldn’t need me for a while. I pulled out my music player, inserted the earbuds, and pushed play. Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue” took us down the runway and up into the clouds. When the first big bump hit, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.

It was rough. The plane once dropped enough for my seatbelt to dig into my hips. We bumped and bounced through the storm, and then the bumpy ascent was over almost as soon as it started. Eddie Grant turned my ears over to The Who, and the opening bars of “Who Are You” played as we leveled off above the clouds. Storm clouds are a striking sight from above.

I pulled out my laptop to start this post while it was fresh in my mind. Joe Satriani accompanies me as I type. We’re getting closer to the clouds. We were at cruising altitude less than 45 minutes.

I always think of my wife and son when I’m flying. The movie Spanglish, which I watched last night in my motel room, again reminded me to appreciate what we have. Now, heading back down into storm clouds on our descent, I close my eyes as Sister Hazel plays “The Best I’ll Ever Be.”
I miss you.
I miss being overwhelmed by you.
And I need rescue.
I think I’m fading away.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Stormy Flight

I had the sensation that the plane's rear end was fishtailing in the clouds, and it made a series of unplanned drops. I wanted the descent to be over, to stop the 9-passenger jet's shaking and bumping, but I didn't want it to end any sooner than the pilots had planned. I cranked up the volume on my Rio mp3 player, the sounds of No Doubt's "Don't Let Me Down" drowning out all others.
Laughing so hard
I got tears in my eyes
Walk in the park
Under sapphire skies
Just when things had smoothed out during our final turn toward the runway, it got rough again as we got down to about 200 feet.
Oh, I can't believe that you're still around
Almost forgot how you let me down
There was still a slight tilt to our attitude as we touched down, and I never had been happier to be on the ground.

I'm supposed to fly out on the same kind of plane Tuesday morning. The forecast calls for high wind and severe storms in the area, and storms at my destination. This morning's approach already had me a bit shaken, so I'm not looking forward to flying out again. I now wish I had looked at the forecast earlier so I could have driven back. I'm expected back at work by 8:30 in the morning, which leaves me little choice.

I've never been afraid of flying, and I know that driving is more dangerous statistically. Never while driving have I felt the way I did on that approach. Being up there among only strangers, at the mercy of nature's power, made me want to play the odds on the road.

The TV meteorologist just said that the atmosphere here is "all jacked up," and detailed the tornado watches and warnings. I'm waiting anxiously to see whether he says the system is moving faster than originally expected, and will be gone by morning. One way or another, I will.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

I Don't Wait Tables Anymore

Ten years ago this year, I started something that can’t end soon enough. It’s something that most people I know do, and the few who say they enjoy it are under suspicion of lying like dogs. I would say I’m indifferent about it, but the better word is ambivalent. There are moments I like it, because I always enjoy a feeling of accomplishment. Most moments, however, it gives me a hollow feeling.

I’m writing, of course, about working in an office job, the sole purpose of which is to help make somebody richer. If you do not do it and never have, then I hope that you are working as a stay-at-home parent, or enjoying fresh air somewhere while you earn a living. I’ve held other kinds of jobs, and I can think of nothing that compares to being stuck at a desk, staring like a drone at a computer screen, typing and clicking in random rhythms in an effort to please the company. I didn’t say nothing worse; I said nothing comparable. The occasional meeting breaks me out of the familiar, but breeds an ennui all its own. Although the company I work for is one of the best, it still has all the trappings of the corporate world and its bureaucracy.

Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t work itself that I dislike. When my efforts result in some sort of positive achievement, I feel satisfied. That last part is where the rub lies. Positive in relation to what? Teaching the starved to grow crops? Thriving on hostile takeovers?

Here’s where I assure you I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal. I love my electronic gadgets and am in other ways just as materialistic as most people I meet. And, although I do drive a rental-blue Ford Contour with 150,000 miles on it, it is not by choice.

Put simply, I would like my motivation at work to be something more than money. Whether it be expressing myself artistically or helping others, I know that I have more to give than a small bump in the bottom line. If increasing the company’s profits or trading personal or family time for a higher salary is what makes someone happy, then I cannot judge that. It just doesn’t fulfill me. There are some very close to me who I’m sure cannot understand that, and that’s fine.

That said, I know that there is more to a career than just supporting oneself while of working age. There’s preparing for retirement, in which I do not want to be a financial burden to anyone. I also know that there are other ways to make a difference, and I take part in some of those.

I am not the only one who wants something more intrinsically rewarding on the job. One long-time friend earned an art degree, and briefly struggled before becoming a computer helpdesk technician. Now he’s in an architecure program. More than 10 years after graduating college, perhaps finally he will be able to create for a living. Someone else, whom I met recently, would love to be an anthropologist or a writer, but like me is in the computer industry. Another close friend from decades back pursued his dream right from the start, and is in a well-paying recording studio job I often fantasize that I could do well and enjoy. The only catch? He lived with his mother until his late 20’s. Everybody’s situation is unique, but I’m fairly certain neither of my parents would have accommodated me. They gave me everything I needed and more in my childhood.

Certainly, there are hobbies, but time for them has dwindled greatly since my wife and I started a family. That last thing, by the way, is the best thing I’ve ever done. Being a father is more rewarding than a wordsmith of my meager talent could hope to convey.

I’m sure that part of my professional discontent stems from my lack of friendships at work. The first man I tried to make friends with spent exactly 3.2 minutes on pleasantries, then launched into gossip about various men in our company. I don’t care to know who cheats on his wife. That’s one part of my childhood innocence I think there’s no harm keeping. Once his usual lunch crowd arrived, they all absently ingested their pack lunches, and then passed out photocopies of that day’s New York Times Crossword. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” one of the ladies said. I can think of more enjoyable ways of keeping my mind tuned up than gang-tackling a crossword puzzle. Other available personalities obsess over sports, dating, cars, hunting, and other things that hold little to no interest for me.

There are two people with whom I can hold a mutually interesting conversation.

One is a very cool 50-year-old man who likes much of the same music I like. His sense of humor is similar to mine. He would be the perfect office buddy, except that his job description includes the pesky detail of being my boss. In one regard, I’m more fortunate than many -- he’s arguably the best boss I’ve had, and I can’t count them all on my fingers.

The other “guy” I buddy up with at work happens to be a woman. Though I suspected it within .05 seconds of meeting her, she and I did not breach that most personal aspect of her lifestyle until I was three months into the job. She is one of the nicest people I know, and if she harbors any of the stereotypical ill-will toward men in general, then she hides it well.

I have friends outside work, so making them at the office is not a priority for me. I suspect that as choosy as I am, having a different type of job would make little difference. When I start thinking like that, however, I remember the proven adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Never building bridges is just as harmful to a career as burning them.

I keep coming back to that deeper meaning, that meaningful individuality -- the desire to have a job that yields different results depending who does it. Data does not care who manipulates it. It all comes out as bits. The company will go on and my presence or absence will be transparent to the customer. On some level, I know that I also have a somewhat selfish need to be noticed.

I’m not sure how to make a change, but I know that I don’t need to do it right now. We need some stability for a while.

Each time my son names out loud a fire engine or a firefighter, he says, “help people.”

I like that he knows that, and I hope that if he doesn’t now, he will grow to understand just what it means. I smile and reply, “Yes, that’s right. They help people.”