Thursday, August 1, 2013


                My Nicholas turned 12 today, and the occasion has me thinking back to my own brush with that awkward, not-quite-a-kid/not-quite-a-teen year.
                It was 1973, and I was entering junior high—the same junior high that Nick will attend in just one week.  Only when I went there, it was brand-spanking-new.  So new, in fact, that construction wasn’t finished yet and we had to do double-sessions at another school. 

                I was in orchestra and played the violin.  I had a crush on Anita, Regina and probably half-a-dozen other unobtainable girls.  The OPEC oil embargo was going on, so the grown-ups were all complaining about gas prices.  I had my first encounter with P.E. class, running the mile and showering in a big room with other guys.  Government safety rules required shock-absorbing front bumpers on cars, so my beloved Corvette (when DID that crush start, anyway?) went through cosmetic surgery and had its chrome front bumper replaced with a body-colored urethane one.  (The old chrome bumperettes remained in back and would be replaced in 1974 with a matching rear urethane bumper, making the 1973 a one-model-year-only oddity.)

                More than anything, though, I remember Edgar Rice Burroughs.  We had a class in seventh grade called “Core,” a two-hour affair that included English and social studies.  Because my new junior high was sharing a campus with another school, our Core class was in a portable.  My English teacher loved Burroughs, and for one of our units he required us to read a Burroughs book and write a report on it.  He explained that Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan, and offered us a big pile of his own personal Burroughs collection.  I chose the 1914 classic Tarzan of the Apes, and my life was transformed.

                Burroughs was enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the time, so nearly all his novels were in paperback.  My family had just moved across town to a new house in a new neighborhood, and there was a new outdoor mall just down the street with a Little Professor Bookstore.  I nearly lived there my entire twelfth year, buying Burroughs book after Burroughs book.  I’d ride my bike there several days a week just to see if anything new had come in.  The proprietors nearly adopted me.  The Burroughs book covers were glorious paintings of muscular heroes and shapely damsels in distress, and while it’s true that you can’t judge most books by their covers, you could with these: The words inside backed up the covers’ promise.
                My bedroom in the new house was my kingdom—a loving tribute to Burroughs, model trains, and the innumerable plastic model cars and planes I’d built.  I had a huge modular desk/bookshelf unit my dad built for me, and in the middle was a gigantic corkboard that folded down to make a table for my trains and slot cars.  On that corkboard was a large map of a land I knew better than my own: Barsoom, home world of John Carter of Mars. 

                What a messy mix of nerdly and cool I was.  Mostly nerdly.  I didn’t play any sports, but in P.E. I was strong and fast, which at least earned me the respect necessary to allow for my violin playing and book reading without being bullied.  Little did I realize at the time, but that would be a pattern for my life: As the years went by, I did indeed become a bookish, weightlifting, car-adoring, classical-music-listening mish-mash.  Those credentials earn you the title “Renaissance Man” as a grown-up; as a kid, they leave you lost between worlds.

                But twelve was a glorious year, a fantastical year.  I was perpetually high on Burroughs-driven fantasies: Wild, romantic, heroic visions of glory and grandeur, all while my real life was anything but.  I was a shy kid with one or two carefully chosen nerdy friends, trying to figure out where he fit.  And completely incapable of talking to cute girls.  They’d look, they’d inquire.  But when it turned out I didn’t really do anything, they’d move on.  I just couldn’t get into that circle.

                And now, here’s my own kid at that very age.  It’s funny that I don’t spend more time visualizing what Nick must be going through.  Is there a fantasyland inside his head, as there was in mine?  Does he see reality but not quite live in it, as I did?  Is he struggling to fit?  Is he wrestling with that transition from little boy to teenager, as I did?  Does all of it kinda freak him out like it did me?

                Twelve is probably the first year of my life that’s really, solidly fixed in my memory.  I have bits and snatches of years prior, but I can really summon 12 in my mind and almost hear it, smell it, feel it.  Is that what my Nicholas is going through right now?  That stage?  Because that 12-year-old—that me from 40 years ago—left a mark.  He’s still in here.

                Which means that my Nick—the little boy in the other room watching TV as I type this—is, even now, a glimpse of who he’ll be in 10, 20 or 40 years.  Wow.  My Nick is . . . 12.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Travel Hopefully

There’s so much about a road trip that mimics real life, and yet I, for one, am slow to apply the lessons of one to the other.

Arizona is an enormous state (sixth in line after Alaska, Texas, California, Montana and New Mexico), so getting from one place to another here takes a while. Driving from where I live in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa to my mother’s cabin outside Prescott, for instance, is a two-and-a-half-hour commitment, yet my family takes it in stride and thinks nothing of it. Buckle the seatbelts and go, and just chill until you’re there. Even my kids get this, and are generally (and atypically) patient about the process.

Why, then, is patience so hard in other realms of life? The same guy who can sit motionless for a numb-butted six-hour drive to San Diego can look at the clock on a dreary workday afternoon and nearly come unglued that it’s only 3:00. Or put that guy in a situation where he’s waiting for a bad thing to go away—or a good thing to arrive—and he wants to scream.
I think the main difference between “road trip patience” and “life patience” is the distinct lack of visible progress that’s so common to the latter. What with in-car GPS telling you where you are, scenery whizzing by and regular Interstate signs assuring you of the dwindling number of miles to your destination, you know precisely when that fidgety are-we-there-yet part of your brain will get some relief.

Real life calls for a different sort of endurance.

God appears to understand that “life patience” does not come naturally. Why else would there be a Bible verse that says, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer?” Everything about that sentence feels like a ticking clock—a slowly ticking clock on which the hour hand is on knock-out drops. Google “Bible verses on patience” and see what you find. That verse is by no means alone. Evidently—and bluntly—this is something we humans appear to suck at.

And yet, when I look back over every life situation that’s required endurance, I see that all of them—100 percent—came to an end. Just like a road trip. I set out, I drove . . . I got there.

Apparently, then, the only unendurable life situation is . . . whichever one we’re in right now. And only because we can’t clearly see the end from here. But again, looking back at other equally unendurable situations, I recognize that I was never without road signs. I was never without something (or someone) that let me know I was, in fact, getting somewhere.
It’s curious that some of the most fun memories of childhood road trips weren’t the destinations, but the traveling—playing “I Spy” or “Slug Bug” with my sisters, reading as my Dad took us cross-country hauling a travel trailer, or just seeing new and different things pass by. Getting where we were going? That was a given with Dad at the wheel, so I relaxed and enjoyed the trip.

Would I go so far as Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive?” No. Arriving is good. But so is the journey. Waiting isn’t wasted time. Joy, patience, faith—they let the miles roll by easily.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


            For a guy who’s addicted to all the sensations associated with driving—the rush of wind, the blur of passing landscape, the visceral thrill of all the physical forces associated with motion—I can be confoundingly complacent.

            It was six years between college and my first fulltime job.  Another six elapsed between meeting my wife and marrying her.  Seven more until kid number-one.  And despite periodically pondering a job change, it’s been 23 years since I took my current job—the aforementioned first fulltime job after college.

            You could chalk it up to paralysis by analysis (of which I’m certainly guilty), but the simple truth is this: When it comes to life’s big things, I’ve always thought that unless I know exactly what to do next, I should just sit still.  Until I figure it out.

            It’s ironic, then, that stuck to the cork board in front of me at work are these call-to-action Bible verses: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Why’d I choose that one?  I don’t know.  If the only cough syrups that really work taste the opposite of good, then, by extension, it makes sense to choose a passage that’s the opposite of what I actually do.

            I want to do what the verses suggest, mind you, but here’s the holdup: “Trust” is a motion-word.   I mean, you can’t really sit still and understand anything about trust, can you?  Just as you can’t know anything about a car’s handling unless you’re driving it, or can’t steer a boat unless it’s sailing, you can’t sit still and figure out trust “in theory.”  You pretty much have no idea whether trust works until you’re doing something that requires it.

            Unfortunately, moving forward is what I rarely risk doing.  But lately I’ve taken a tentative step or two, and I’m starting to understand that there are some things you just can’t grasp until you’re moving.

            Now, I’m not devaluing the importance of planning, or suggesting that any motion is always better than no motion.  If you’re at the edge of a cliff, not moving forward is wise.  But in those tidbits of Solomonic wisdom above, don’t miss where it says to consult God “in all your ways.”   “Ways” are passages where motion happens, right?  The way you do things, the way you’re going, the way you get from here to there.  You can have a map that shows the way, but you need to take it off the wall and bring it with you to see what the map really means.  Mile after mile, you begin nodding in understanding as the map comes alive, the squiggly lines turning into real places instead of ink on a page.

 I’m a fan of the British TV show Top Gear, and not too long ago they took an enlightening spin in a Formula 1 car.  Literally.  Despite the enormous mechanical grip the car derived from its low stance and fat tires, they were constantly spinning out in corners.  Why?  They weren’t going fast enough.  You see, much of what enables a Formula 1 car to take turns at vomit-inducing speeds is the aerodynamic downforce generated by the nose and tail wings.  But that invisible force can’t work until there’s enough air going over the wings to bring them into play.  When the Top Gear drivers finally trusted the car’s owner and counterintuitively mashed the gas even harder, the car settled down and took corners the way it was supposed to.

            Pretty funny, isn’t it?  A force you can’t see or understand, and that doesn’t work until you’re moving.  I wonder if Solomon was a race fan?


Monday, March 26, 2012

God Bless Wes

            God bless my neighbor Wes.  I may not have the disposable income to own a collector car, but by golly, Wes does.

            Three of them.

            A Vietnam vet and retired drug sales rep, Wes moved in across the street a few years ago.  I may be misremembering, but when I saw the carmine 1954 Buick Special and white 1969 Pontiac Firebird 400 he brought with him, I believe radiant halogen beams shot down from heaven, and a small garage band of angels sang Route 66.

            Since then, Wes has added a 1972 Pontiac Luxury Le Mans to his stable.  It’s red with a white vinyl roof, and it has those half-covers over the rear wheels.  Not really my style, but who cares?  It’s an old car and it’s in great condition.

            Here’s how this relationship works: I go out on Saturday morning to mow, and somewhere along the line Wes’s garage door goes up, signaling the start of a car-fiddling session.  Wes saunters over, I shut off the mower, and he fills me in on the latest headlight bezel he’s polished, cruise control he’s added or firewall he’s painted.  It’s an excuse for me to go over and have my own personal mini car show, and I always welcome it.

Thanks to Wes, I’ve enjoyed access to award-winning vintage cars on a level I’d never have had otherwise.  The Buick was even “Miss January” in a Hemming’s Motor News calendar a few years ago.  He’s let me touch them, sit in them and crawl under them.  Sometimes—be still my heart—he’s even let me help him work on them.  (Okay, “help” really needs to be in quotes there.)  But then came the day when Wes officially became The Coolest Neighbor Ever.  It was the day he let me drive—yes, drive—the Firebird.
The Firebird had always been my favorite.  I gravitate toward it, inquire about it more, and generally just can’t stop looking at it.  And Wes knows that.  A few weeks ago, he asked whether Jake, my 14-year-old, might like to earn a few bucks waxing the ’Bird.  I was only partially joking when I suggested that I should be the one waxing it, and that I’d do it for free.

Turns out there was something for me in the deal after all.  When Jake finished and we were looking the car over (it’s white, so missed wax can be hard to spot), Wes suggested Jake and I take the Firebird for a drive and handed me the keys.

The keys. 

What an incredible time machine.  Jake and I quickly got over the lousy vinyl seats, the thin-rimmed plastic steering wheel, the vague brakes and the squishy suspension (and, for that matter, the lack of shoulder belts): All we cared about was the rumble from that large V8, the view over that sexy hood, and the looks we got tooling around East Mesa with the windows down.  My son and I were both powerless to stop grinning like idiots.  “I’ve never driven in a car like this!” Jake shouted.

Truth is, neither had I.  A co-worker once let me drive his clapped-out ’65 Corvette, but it was in need of so much work that it was hardly representative of its class.  Wes’s 1969 Firebird 400 looks like it just rolled out of the showroom.  After the drive, I half expected to turn on the TV and hear Neil Armstrong giving the “One small step for man” speech on a grainy black-and-white TV, or to find True Grit still in theaters.  Although a modern-day Honda Civic is a superior machine in nearly every respect, that old Firebird provided something a Civic never could: An experience.  Jake and me in a fine old machine on a sunny afternoon.  Hard to beat.

I keep hoping that fate will conspire to allow me the finances to afford my own hobby car someday—say, a 1969 Corvette convertible.  My plea with God is that a fun car like that would make a good bonding experience for my boys and me.  But maybe God knows what he’s doing: as it stands, I’m having loads of fun while Wes pays the bills and does all the work.

Indeed, God bless my neighbor Wes.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

So Long, Dan

                I’m not thoroughly understanding why I’m taking IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon’s death so hard, but I am.   I didn’t know him.  Never met the man.  Just watched him drive and live with glee and joy and enthusiasm.
                And now, he’s gone.
                I got so bored watching the ABC announcers yapping during the forever-long red flag period during today's race that I went upstairs to take a nap.  It was during that time that my 11-year-old, Nick, came in to tell me that a buddy of mine had just called.  Dan had died.
                I had DVR’d the race, and was able to watch the now-riveting parts of the ABC coverage that I’d missed.  I saw the announcement of Dan’s death, the crying of the other drivers and teams, the five-lap tribute (during which they played “Danny Boy,” of all things).
                During all this while, there were NFL games on other channels.  I love football, too.  I thought of all the times I’d seen an NCAA or NFL guy go down with an injury and heard the announcers get all serious, the players kneeling in prayer.  But those guys don’t die.
                In racing, they do.
                I love racing.  IndyCar, in particular.  The cars are so fast, so sleek, so cutting-edge and beautiful.  Nothing in sports eclipses the glory of the Indy 500.  But those open wheels . . . oh, those open wheels.  In Cars 2, female cars swooned over the open wheels of the Italian-sounding F1 character.  But those darned, sticking-right-out-there wheels—the nonsensical, aerodynamically unsound grandfathered-in homage to Indy’s early days, when they’d strip the fenders off of road cars to make them lighter and faster—have proven time and again to be horrifically dangerous.  Wheels touch, often on the counter-rotating leading and trailing sides, and carnage ensues.
                Nothing surpasses the beauty and sleekness of an IndyCar.  These slim, hyper-powered darts are the essence of motorsports.  But something has to change.  Ironically—and tragically—a new IndyCar chassis is in the pipeline for next year.  It’s a car Dan Wheldon test drove repeatedly—going so far as to jokingly call himself a “crash-test dummy” for the new chassis.  It features fairings that essentially enclose the rear wheels, reducing the likelihood of the very sort of wreck that cost him his life today.
                I keep seeing Dan’s photo from his Indy 500 victory this year—the one where he’s posed at the start-finish line with his wife, two-year-old and newborn.  The racing community and its fans loved this little Brit.  With his passion for racing, his impish smile and engaging personality, he’s the exact sort racing fans always love to see win.
                Godspeed, Dan Wheldon.  Grace and peace to you, your family and friends.  As the weeks and months pass, may we learn the lessons you taught us.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In A Good Place

            I just got my long-serving GTO back following two days in the shop having various services performed, and I realized a couple of things:  First, the old girl’s still got it; second, I am in a really comfy place with this car right now, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to leave it just yet.

            At six years old and with 80,000 miles on the odometer, the Goat has been my road partner longer than any car I’ve owned.  We’ve had a lot of fun together, and I still look forward to driving it each day.

Ironically, you’d never have seen that coming if you’d been there when I bought it.  At the time, see, I was in a love-hate relationship with a 2001 Corvette that owned me more than I owned it.  The Vette had been a financial reach.  With a second child on the way, it also was a badly timed decision.  It was so pretty and so glorious and so danged expensive that all I ever did was worry about it.  Commuting was a butt-clenching, white-knuckled nightmare, as I was incessantly fearful that every rotating tire on the road was about to toss up a rock.  I therefore put a mask on the car, which naturally led to washing the car every week, which led to vacuuming out the inside of the mask so the built-up dust wouldn’t chafe the paint.  And heaven help me when I took the car in for service:  Fearful that all the mechanics would conspire to drop tools on my car or open its doors into pillars, I often insisted that I be permitted to watch them work.  They loved that.

Ultimately, I was so scared to use the car as a car that I bought a used vehicle—a Chevy Astro van, no less—to serve as daily transport.  Even at the time, the irony was not lost on me: For the sake of my mental health, I—a car guy—was driving an utterly joyless vehicle while an incredibly rewarding sports car sat unused in my garage.

When the sheer absurdity of this arrangement became too much to bear, I bought the GTO.  Traded in both vehicles and actually made $12 on the deal.

The Goat’s looks didn’t inspire the lust or passion that the Corvette’s did, and it didn’t have the single-minded purpose that a pure sports car has, but it was the only GM product on the market at the time (the old Camaro was out of production, and the new one was still a twinkle in a designer’s eye) that fit my triune affordable-fast-fun requirements.  Besides, it had the same torquey LS2 V8 that Chevrolet was dropping into Corvettes.  My purchase, then, was made in a “This’ll do” frame of mind.

I’m sorry, my friend:  That’s how I thought of you back then.

As time has gone on, though, this car has endeared itself to me.  It’s also taught me a thing or two about what real, sustainable happiness is about.  For instance, isn’t it interesting how passion, for all its pulsating glory, makes such a poor companion over the long haul, but how a decent long-haul companion occasionally surprises you with passion?  And isn’t it enlightening to discover how a subtle form grows more beautiful when its function—its inner nature—proves its worth time and again?  And isn’t just plain being content a deep, deep joy denied to those whose only pursuit is passion?  You have to be in a special place to see these things, I think, and the GTO helps me see them.

Years ago, I read a book on Corvette history in which the author described the waning years of the third-generation Corvette—a model that was around from 1968 all the way to 1982, as “a comfortable senescence.”  I like that term, “senescence.”  It’s a graceful way to say, “The state of being old,” but in a warm, sweet, On Golden Pond kind of way.   I’m in a comfortable senescence with my GTO, and it’s good.

Yeah, I know I’ll replace it one day and begin this whole process anew.  I know I’ll go through that butt-clenching, white-knuckle phase.  And I’ll miss the GTO.  But the proof that I’ve actually learned something from her will come when I realize, I’m at that comfy stage again! 

I just pray it doesn’t take six years.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Short Trip, Long Journey

            My eldest son, Jake, could kick my butt at any driving video game out there.  But his first short stint behind the wheel of an actual car showed him just how different a pixilated car is from its non-virtual cousin.

            Jake’s been driving with me, of course, since the beginning.  I still remember how terrified I was on the trip home from the hospital.  I wanted to plaster our car with “Baby on Board” signs and have a police escort clear all the intersections.  Later, when he started enjoying Hot Wheels and other car toys, we began going for drives—first in my 1994 Camaro Z28, then in the 2001 Corvette that followed, and most recently in the 2005 GTO.  I’ve had a manual transmission all along, and Jake has progressed from placing a chubby little left hand under mine on the gearshift to actually changing the gears for me.

            The past few months, whenever I’m outside washing the car or working in the garage, Jake has begged to be allowed to move the car.  He’s sure he knows the drill of starting and moving the car, and will lay out the process step-by-step to prove it.  Regardless, I always say no.  Reciting the steps and doing the steps aren’t the same.  We let him start my wife’s auto-tranny SUV, but that’s a whole different deal.

            The other day, however, Jake got the jump on me.  He and I were going to go someplace on a weekend.  I was still putting my shoes on when he grabbed my keys and ran out the door into the garage.  I heard the garage door going up and thought I had at least a few seconds to finish tying my sneaker, but the boy was fast: I heard the GTO roar to life, then a screech, then nothing.

            I ran out the door and saw the car sitting about four feet rearward from where it had been parked, motor no longer running.  Jake was in the driver’s seat hanging onto the steering wheel, eyes wide, speechless.  I ran around the far side of the car to see if he’d come in contact with the edge of the garage opening.  No, but he was scant inches from it. 

Returning to the driver’s door, I tried to think of something to say.  I believe my first words were, “What the heck!?”

Jake finally started speaking, and the words tumbled out.  “I did everything right!  I put the clutch in and started it, but the car just jumped back!  I did everything right!  I didn’t give it any gas at all.  I don’t know what happened!”

It was then that I noticed the short skid marks ahead of each tire, and I put it together.  “Jake, did you move the seat forward before starting the car?”  He hadn’t.  Now, Jake’s tall for a 13-year-old, but not quite my height yet.  He simply hadn’t been able to keep his clutch foot all the way to the floor.  He may have lost focus, he may have wiggled or shifted—who knows?  But it was enough.  The GTO’s 400-horsepower engine doesn’t require any gas to get the car rolling—let up the clutch and it goes.  When it started backward, Jake panicked and braked, stalling the car.  “You just hit the brakes without putting in the clutch, didn’t you?” I asked.  Jake nodded.

When it comes to the boys and the doing of bad deeds, I’ve become much angrier over offenses that were far less grievous.  Considering this particular misstep involved my car, I’d have expected to be much more upset than I was.  As it happens, I mostly just felt relief that both Jake and the car were okay.  And the look that remained on Jake’s face told me that my yelling at him wouldn’t teach him anything he hadn’t already figured out for himself.  “You did the best thing you could’ve done, hitting the brakes like that,” I said.  Jake nodded, got out of the car, and walked inside.

That’s been a few weeks ago now, and he hasn’t pestered me for the keys once.

But he will.  That short trip inside the garage will become part of a longer journey, and we’ll write the next chapter in our driving history.