Dramatis Personae, Updated

Since meeting Beatrice, I've had the great fortune to add a number of additional people into the “supporting cast” of my life. Through the transitive property of dating (and soon marriage), her friends are now my friends and her family are my family. Technically, her family aren't mine yet, but it's all over but for the shouting, so I'll call them mine now. Here's my run-down of who's whom:

Baptista- Beatrice's father and my father-in-law-to-be. Yes, that makes Beatrice Kate, in fact, and me Petruchio, but I'm okay with that. Baptista is a solid, respectable man of means who got where he is through native intelligence, business sense, and work ethic. A doting grandfather. In retirement he and Merryweather live in a lovely house on a golf course and travel widely.

Merryweather- Beatrice's mother and my mother-in-law-to-be. Named after the youngest of the fairy godmothers from Sleeping Beauty. Goodhearted, practical to a near-fault, a perfect hostess and a blissfully happy grandmother. Where Baptista is stoic, Merryweather is expressive. She worked as a math teacher at the high school level for many years, and has the world-weary sense of humor to go with it.

Christoff- Yes, named for the ice-collector in “Frozen.” My brother-in-law-to-be. Good-humored and easygoing. Has his father's work ethic and his mother's expressiveness. An electrician, and infinitely more competent around the house than I am.

Cinderella- Christoff's wife. Named for her skill and dedication as a housewife. Keeps an immaculate home, and provides a loving and supportive environment for La Principesa and Caporushes. Was a sorority sister in college, and has a lot of sisters as a result.

La Principesa- Oldest niece-to-be, daughter of Christoff and Cinderella. As Harry Truman would've called her, “the boss's boss.” Talkative, opinionated, and excitable, just as you would expect a bright 3-year-old to be. It's my goal to turn her into a tomboy; her mother wants her to be a princess.

Caporushes- Younger niece-to-be, not yet old enough to play much part in these chronicles.

Cordelia- Beatrice's closest friend, named for the youngest daughter of mad king, Lear. Cordelia is sharp-witted, highly educated, and we wish she lived closer. She lives in Fountain Valley and works at Disneyland while also acting as a caregiver to her infirm father.

Miss Parker- Named for Dorothy Parker, the writer and member of the Algonquin Round Table. Miss Parker is sarcastic, brash, bighearted, and loyal. While Cordelia is Beatrice's oldest and emotionally closest friend, Miss Parker is her boon companion and best drinking buddy. A dedicated bachelorette, and life of the party.

Those are the major new additions to the cast by way of Beatrice's friends and family. I also have collected a number of work friends, and they need to be introduced, as well:

Gimli- Gimli is the head of the math department at Quartz Rock Secondary. He's actually six feet tall, but has the bluff, jovial, and occasionally bloody-minded character of his literary namesake. He and I are the founding members of the “Refreshment Comittee,” which is our way of making “getting together for a beer after school on Fridays” sound legitimate and professional.

Juno- Juno is the chair of the history department and as such, kind of my boss. She's also my “work spouse,” which means she checks up on me (in all senses of the phrase) at work, and keeps in very close contact with Beatrice. Beatrice, Rowena and I are working on finding her Jupiter. She's an officer in our union, and is kept in a frazzle almost all the time because of having a great many things on her plate.

Rowena- If Juno is my “work spouse,” Rowena is my “work sister.” She is a fellow first-year, teaching sixth grade math and english. She claims the title “queen of the nerds” on a semi-regular basis. Channels Ms. Frizzle, but with more sass. Named for the founder of House Ravenclaw. Engaged to Cedric, a wonderful guy who's teaching high school in Sherwood. Yes, that's a fake name, too.

There are a number of others, but I'll introduce them as they come into entries; for now these will suffice for the major players.


Need a New Username...

In all frankness, I should probably look for a new username. “Ronin” kind of rings hollow with my wedding three months away, and I haven't been on a paintball field in at least three years. A lot has changed in the last 20 months, and my life has consistently gotten in the way of chronicling my life on this blog. Which is a good thing, but also a little frustrating. I amuse myself (and I hope the three of you all who read my scribblings) with it, and it allows me to get perspective on things that happen as I write them down.

First and most important, there's Beatrice. The soon-to-be-Mrs.-Ronin has turned my life upside down in every good way. She cheers me when I'm down, calls me on my self-pity when I'm whining, roots for me when I need a cheering section, and brings sunlight into the gloomiest and most hidden corners of my heart. How exactly I convinced her to say “yes” is a mystery I will happily leave unsolved, because it is when I'm holding her that I remember what home feels like, and I don't want to screw that up. She's beautiful, she's kind, she's funny, and I love the sound of her laugh. Basically, she's perfect for me. If you're about to ask “Shakespeare's Beatrice, or Dante's?” the answer is yes. Smartass.

Next there's my steady job. As a teacher. I'm working teaching 7th grade World History at Quartz Rock Secondary in Pleasantville. And yes, all those names are fictitious. You're going to hear me bitch and moan about work, but that doesn't mean I don't want to keep doing it. The job is frustrating to the point of infuriation at times, and the job leaves me questioning myself regularly, but even with those drawbacks I'm still happier and more fulfilled by teaching than by anything else I have ever done, and on the days when things go right, the rewards of the job are astronomically greater than any other work on Earth. This is my home, professionally speaking. Doesn't mean I won't want to shift up to high school at some point (my true “dream job” is honors history instructor at a private high school, if I'm being completely honest) or possibly become an administrator, but education is where I belong. I'm not just holding down a job anymore, I actually have a career path I can see myself on for the rest of my working life. Which will be until I keel over behind my lectern at 90, if I have my way.

So I'm about to get married and I actually have a determined career. Clearly Ronin won't work anymore. Furthermore, paintball hasn't been my main obsession for some time now, so Woodsball is something of a misnomer, as well.

Which leaves the issue of what to call this blog now that I'm a contented, domesticated (if less domestic than Beatrice would like) non-bachelor. A couple of ideas:

-Benedick (with the title “Benedick's Married Blog,” subtitle “After the Wedding the Real Play Starts”)

-Cincinattus (who famously returned to his plow)

-Mr Istari (the wizards who the Valar sent to counsel the Men of Middle Earth against the plots of Sauron)

-Asuryan or Vaul (two of the Eldar gods, who gave the Eldar wisdom and artifice, respectively)

-Dante (with the title “Dispatches from the Paradiso,” subtitle “...or Purgatorio, if it's Tuesday”)

-Ulysses (having wandered and now found domestic bliss; also the subtextual reference to Joyce's novel and protagonist makes me smirk)

Suggestions from the audience will be considered, as will votes for any of the above. Nothing has changed yet, but soon.


Why Men are "The Way They Are"

Apparently a few days ago, my friends Mencius and Tzipporah (not their real names) got into a conversation sparked by Tzipporah's recent relationship history.  Tzipporah is a straight woman, and she asked Mencius, a straight man, for an explanation of why men are the way we are.  Along with whatever answer he gave her in person, he sent her this article.  Take a moment to read it, and come back.  Seriously, please do.  I'll wait.

Tzipporah linked to the article on Facebook, and asked in effect for peer review of the article by her male friends.  She wanted to know if the author had engaged in reductio ad absurdam or other low rhetorical blows.  I mean, we couldn't all think that way, right?  Men didn't really carry that kind of sense of entitlement, right?  We didn't all feel put-upon that way, right?

She was disappointed when the response from us y-chromosome carriers was an overwhelming "yeah, pretty much."

Now don't get me wrong.  None of us said any of the sense of entitlement and victimization described in the article was legitimate.  In fact I think we all agree that it's been inflicted on us by a culture manufactured to drive consumption and we would like to see that culture change.  That said, the second-to-last point the author brings up is an especially meaningful one.  I have particular qualification to remark on it for two reasons:  first, I have thirty ni- uh- well, let's just say over thirty years' experience being a guy myself, and second I have recently spent a lot of time observing male adolescents in the wild.

First, though, I would reframe the author's point.  He says we feel like manhood was stolen from us at some point.  I get where he's going with that statement, but he's writing a narrative about male anger.  I want to answer Tzipporah's essential question of "why are men the way they are?"  I would argue that a lot of our behavior and attitude are shaped by two consistent truths across multiple human cultures:

1. Men are all basically suffering from constant chemically-induced insanity.

2. We all have either had coping mechanisms beaten into us by society, or else we're in jail.  Or dead.

Testosterone is the culprit.  Testosterone, of course, is the sex hormone that defines masculinity on a biochemical level.  Both sexes have it, of course, but men have a LOT more of it.  I mean by this between 12 and 16 TIMES as much, by volume.  Women generally produce 0.5 mg of testosterone daily.  Men by comparison produce between 6 and 8 mg.

That doesn't sound like a lot, but ladies, please consider this: testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for sex drive.  When your menstrual cycle occurs, testosterone is generated as well as estrogen, and the testosterone is part of the heightened emotional pitch that precedes a period.  You know how ovulation makes you feel horny?  You know how you get perhaps just slightly more easily annoyed or frustrated before a period?  That's testosterone.  That's what testosterone makes you feel like.

Now, imagine CARRYING THAT AROUND IN YOUR HEAD EVERY DAY ALL DAY FROM AGE 12.  Only worse, because even during your menstrual period you're only carrying a fraction of the testosterone load that pubescent and post-pubescent males have to deal with ALL THE TIME.

This is where the experience of teaching adolescent boys comes in.  See, I remember the experience of puberty from the inside of my own head pretty clearly.  I had a shorter fuse, I was actually kind of looking for fights (even though I knew I'd lose one if I found it), and I was constantly thinking about sex to the point that the thoughts weren't even *fun* a lot of the time, they were just distracting.  I saw all of that painted up against back side of my forehead, and it was pretty overwhelming.  I had the good fortune to have understanding and patient parents who had laid the groundwork years before for me to be properly socialized despite the sudden and massive chemical overdose I was subjected to.

Now that I'm teaching, I see that played out from the outside.  Boys who can't sit still because they're looking for chances to interact with and impress girls.  Boys who are pushing against any authority anywhere because their blood chemistry is driving them to be dominant.  Boys who say horrible, stupid, disgustingly inappropriate things to girls because they don't know how to filter the porn movies running in their heads out of their conversations.  Part of my job teaching middle school is to teach these boys how to behave in a socially acceptable manner despite the hormone in their blood shouting at them to fight, to mate, to dominate.  Without outside pressure, teenage boys in the first cascade of testosterone are horrible, violent, hypersexed monsters.  The "good" ones are riddled with internal guilt and confusion because they've been taught the things they're thinking are not nice.  The "bad" ones haven't been taught properly already and are acting on those urges.  Even the "good" ones sometimes can't help themselves, because they don't have any experience dealing with these bizarre thoughts.  Over the course of adolescence, hopefully they get taught that a) what they're experiencing is normal for boys and b) if they actually act on even one urge in ten, they'll face serious consequences.  If they don't get taught these things, they wind up in jail or dead.  This is why so many cultures have idealized self-control as a masculine virtue.  This is part of why men often have trouble showing emotion.

So here's the real kicker, and what *I* think Tzipporah needs to keep in mind whenever she's dealing with men: that first rush of hormones?  Those crazy, intrusive thoughts of sex?  That knee-jerk emotional resort to anger rather than sadness or fear?  Those things never go away. The amount of testosterone we're carrying around stays pretty constant and pretty elevated, even in men with "low testosterone."  I'm not saying that this is the be-all and end-all of what men are or what's going on inside a man's head.  I'm not saying that these urges define us.  I am saying that the tension between these urges and everything else we want to do and be is a central part of being a human male.  As Einstein said (probably trying to sound witty in front of his wife), "the rest is details."

Why Does Any of This Matter?

A student asked me that a couple of months ago.  I was substituting in a U.S. History class at a middle school here in Riverville.  I'd subbed for the class before, and knew the kid in question from assignments at the same school the year before.  He's a smart kid, and I really want to like him, but he has significant problems with authority and zero interest in school.  I suspect there's no reinforcement of consequences at home, but that's a point for another day.

On the day in question, the class had read a reader's theater play about the trial of the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre.  I had led them through a review of why the colonists were angry leading up to the Massacre, what happened on that night, and then they read the play.  I then asked them what they thought about what happened, and how they thought people at the time might have thought.  I asked if they had any questions.  At about that point Mansour (not his real name, of course) raised his hand.

I wasn't sure whether he was actually going to ask a question or disrupt class, but I called on him in the hope he had a real question.  I suspect he wanted to wrong-foot me with this one:  "Why does any of this matter?  All of these guys are dead, and this was hundreds of years ago."

I looked him in the eye, and tried to form the words.

To me, "why are we studying this?" is akin to asking "why do our cells need oxygen?" or "why do we have names?"  History is such a basic, blood and muscle fiber part of my own worldview that I have to work like an actor putting on someone else's persona to even consider a reality in which the question exists.

I thought of the struggles the first European settlers faced in America, the sacrifices generations of Americans have made to build our nation, and felt my heart skip a beat the way it always does when I sing the hymn "America."

I thought of the Battle of Runnymede and the Magna Carta, of Hastings, of the Glorious Revolution, of Thermopylae where a small band of Greeks bought time for Western Civilization at the cost of their lives, and the saga of all that blood and iron spent for the sake of nations and cultures stirred my blood the way it always has.

I thought of the Code of Hammurabi, of the birth of democracy in Athens, and of the stones at Gobekli Tepe that tell us we have been building centers of culture for uncountable spans of time, and I felt the dusty breath of Antiquity blow across the back of my neck, the way it always does.

I nodded, and tried to find the words.  What came out sounded like this:

"This matters because right now you are 13, and in five years, or six for a few of you, you will be able to vote.

"It matters because when the right to vote becomes yours it's important that you understand what happened to earn you that right.  A lot of people fought, and struggled, and died.  A lot of people, going back a LOT farther than the Boston Massacre, did a lot of thinking about how to build society.

"I really, really like this stuff.  If we can get you to like it, nothing would make me or Mrs. Jones happier.  But you don't have to.  What you need, no scratch that, what *I* need, is for you to remember what our society is founded on and why, so you can be informed when you exercise that right.

"I need you to be able to put events in chronological order, to think of cause and effect, and remember the mistakes made by those who came before us, so you can avoid another Hitler or another Emmett Till or another Manzanar.

"You need to learn this so you can make our country live up to the promise our founders made.

"That is why this matters."

Mansour was unmoved, and seemed deflated that instead of getting flustered I'd gotten impassioned.  But about a third of the class looked like they had understood, and that made it a good day.
Ralphie vs. Santa

News, and a Bit About Christmas Carols

It's not winter yet, but it sure has felt like it here in Northern Riverville.  So much catching up.  Now, most of you who read this (all four of you- thank you for your sufferance) already know the news of the last few months, but here's the Cliff's Notes for anybody whose only window into my misadventures is this here blog:

I moved into a new place with Fawkes and Scarlet.  Fawkes is the GM of the Pathfinder game I play in most Friday nights, and Scarlet is the southern belle who has graciously agreed to be his wife.  Both wonderful people and (fortunately for me) infinitely patient roommates.

I finally got the A-Wing sold.  Long story, for another time.

I've been working steadily as a substitute, and have managed to get one letter of recommendation.  Waiting on the CCTC to approve all my bona fides to finalize my clear credential.

Most significantly, I've gotten lucky enough to convince a lady to spend her free time with me.  She's got wavy brown hair, a brilliant smile, dancing brown eyes, and Lord help me she has the most wonderful, ringing laugh I have ever heard.  I've fallen pretty hard for her, and she has indicated that she likes me enough to keep me around, so I'm a very happy man.  For now, I'll refer to her here as Brigid.

So, with the news update out of the way, I am moved by the spirit of the season (this is the time of year when this blog historically gets the most attention) to write about music.  Specifically about Christmas carols.

In short, I love them.  I love hearing them, love singing them, love the spirit behind them, love basically everything about them.  Even though I have only been truly religious for the last few years, I have always found the stories and lessons in Christmas carols resonant and moving.  It's impossible for me to hear "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" or "Joy to the World" without feeling an immediate surge of spiritual joy and uplift.  The same goes for "Gaudete."  "We Three Kings" is one of my favorites, and the sense of wonderment and mystery it evokes for me is transporting.  "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is similarly a favorite and like all the rest I've listed it's one I can't help but sing along to.

More secularly, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Deck the Halls," and "Christmas is a-Comin'" all warm my heart and make me want to give voice to my inner Danny Kaye.  I'd say my inner Bing Crosby, but I'm sure that Virgil would simply start snickering at that, since she's criticized my singing talent in the past.  Yes, Virgil, I know, I'm still flattering myself by mentioning Mr. Kaye in the same breath as my own croakings, but be giving.  It's Advent, after all.

This is thus the one time of the year you'll catch me singing in public outside of a karaoke bar.  I know that my talents are limited, so I don't force my voice on the rest of the population the other eleven months out of the year.  But in December, when the spirit descends, you can't stop me singing.  I sing in the shower, sing along with carolers at Dickens Fair, sing as I'm decorating, and when The Hat is on my head and I'm struck by the spirit, I sing randomly in the street.  Christmas carols lend themselves to my abuse because they're generally melodically fairly simple and don't usually require a great deal of range.

At least, that's what I tell myself.  Hush, you, and add more brandy to your eggnog.  Leave a Santa wannabe his delusions.

Not only that, but in my experience, carols really do have a quasi-magical effect on others.  Hearing them puts the majority (and I use that term as a very careful qualification, because I do know a few individuals who are immune) of people in a joyful spirit and helps overcome negative emotions.

Case in point- airports.  At this time of year, airports are fortresses of Grinchdom.  Too many people are taking up too little space in bad weather, and the normal frustrations and peeves of air travel are intensified.  Security lines are too long.  Flights are delayed or canceled.  Everyone's nerves are frayed.  You can see it in their faces and hear it in the tones of voice they use- eyes are narrowed, lips are thinned by scowls and brows are lowered.  They get taciturn or snappish.  Standing in long lines with dozens or hundreds of other people, they get withdrawn and sullen.

I take it upon myself to take those moments to sing.  Those are the moments when I most need it, and if I have The Hat on I feel a duty to not let myself get unpleasant.  So, I choose a song I think people will recognize and I sing it.  I don't belt it, I don't impose myself on others, but I do, in a conversational volume, sing to myself.  Frequently I've gotten half-smiles or less enthusiastic responses from fellow travelers, but occasionally the magic actually works, and then it's a moment to hold in my heart.

The most notable moment was a couple of years ago.  I was standing, Hat on my head, in line with the population of Placer County waiting to go through security.  An announcement over the loudspeaker advised that there would be a delay, I forget why.  A collective sigh, followed by low grumblings, rolled through the line.  I quietly started singing "Deck the Halls."  The woman in line behind me picked it up, and we smiled at each other.  Someone farther ahead of me in line who I didn't see then picked it up, and then several others joined in.  Within two verses, I was singing with full voice, and there were easily twenty of us all singing along, with everyone in line who wasn't singing smiling.  When we finished "Deck the Halls," one of the brave souls who'd joined in started "Jingle Bells," and we all sang that one.  Enough new people knew that one that we even had a few folks sing through the verses not everyone knows!  A mood of frustration and disappointment had reversed itself, and everyone in that line got reminded of why many of us were traveling that day.  Just remembering that afternoon warms my heart and brings a smile to my face.

Perhaps you're not one of the folks who appreciates having a stranger sing at you in public.  Perhaps you're not a celebrant of Christmas, but of Hanukkah, or Yule, or even Eid al'fatr.  If so, I hope you don't take my singing as an attempt to impose my holiday on you; that's not what I'm trying to do.  I'm just trying, in my own faltering way, to embody the light that we all celebrate, in our own ways and with our own names, at this time of year.  Sing one of your songs, and I'll join in as best I can.  Even if you have no religious celebration, I hope you recognize the spiritual need that we all have for light and joy in the darkest, coldest part of the year.  And I hope you have a way to give voice and form to that light.

Working (on) Title

Last summer, I bought the Fury.  The A-Wing got moved from my covered parking spot out to an uncovered one at the back of the apartment complex.  There it sat, getting gradually buried by debris from the pine trees, looking forlorn and pathetic as I drove past it every morning to work.  I felt badly for it, since its decline wasn't really its own fault, and that sentimentality was one of the factors (that my own indolence) that led to me not sending it off to the vehicular equivalent of the glue factory right away.

In November, I moved it from that spot to a different one, still uncovered, in order to prevent it being towed away as an abandoned vehicle.

In February, when I moved in with Khaine and Isha, the A-Wing got moved to Tree and Rainy's driveway.  There it languished while I tangled with the Washington State Department of Licensing.  See, I needed to get rid of the car, finally.  In order to do that, I needed the title.  The title was registered in Washington, where I had purchased the car.  When the loan had been paid off, I was in the process of getting a divorce and the bank sent the title to the Queen of Air and Darkness, who never forwarded it on to me.

How hard could it possibly be to get the title, right?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is "a lot harder than you might think."  To get title sent to the right place, I would need to change my address on the title.  In order to do that, I would need the Washington state license plate number on the car.  To obtain that, I needed to get my Washington State Driver's License number, which required multiple emails back and forth with the DOL's central office.  I then got the plate number, which allowed me to change the address on file.  Sigh of relief, right?

WRONG!!!  At that point, I got to download the paperwork needed to apply for the new title, get the paperwork notarized, and mail the request off to a branch office of the DOL in Walla Walla County.  And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I called them today, many weeks after submitting the request, finally got ahold of someone in the office, and got the news that they never received my paperwork to begin with. So now I get to take the papers to get notarized again, and mail them (with delivery receipt service this time) again, and wait three more weeks to get the title.

In the meantime the car has attracted attention; a neighbor of Tree and Rainy's has left multiple notes on the car asking whether it's for sale.  And I don't really know the answer.

I need to get rid of it.  And I know that Pick 'n Pull will give me $400 for it, which is less than the parts are worth (the engine alone is worth $500).  A private buyer will probably be willing to give me $600, but between you, me, and the speedee-dry on the driveway, I don't know if I want to sell it to a private buyer to actually drive it.

See, it needs brakes.  And the driver's side window is stuck closed.  And the driver's seat upholstery is dead.  And the A/C doesn't work.  And the dashboard lights are out.  And the CV boots are worn out.  As are the CV joints.  And the steering makes a gut-clenching clunking noise whenever you turn right.  Or left.

What I'm saying is, it's a complete beater.  With mushy brakes, loose steering, and a shot suspension.  It's not quite a death trap, but I wouldn't sell a death and dismemberment policy to anybody planning to drive it farther than, say, the corner store.

So if I sell it to a private buyer, I have to disclose to them the extent of the work it needs.  Which will lead most of them to wave off, and anybody who buys it at that point will be desperate enough that I'll have to wrestle with the understanding that I've sold a hoopty to somebody who's almost certainly going to be driving it unsafely without getting the needed work done on it.  Now that I'm a Catholic, I don't need that guilt on my conscience.  At the same time, I don't want to part it out from Rain and Tree's driveway- they live in a neighborhood where a disintegrating car in the driveway isn't out of the ordinary, but I don't want to inflict an eyesore on them nevertheless.  Thus, as much as I feel like I'm getting hosed, for the sake of my own self-image I'm going to have to suck it up and let Pick 'n Pull make money off the carcass of my once-proud fleet interceptor.

...Once I finally get the title back from Washington DOL, anyway. 
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The A-Wing is Dead; Long Live the A-Wing!!!

I didn't post about it previously, but my car got stolen sometime in the night of the 6th of August.  This was the second time the car had been stolen, and this time I decided that it was a sign from the Universe that it was time for the A-Wing to be replaced.  I had been prepared to wrangle with the insurance company over payment, and was resigned to having to make a car payment again, but frankly the A-Wing had become a beater long before and I was kind of hoping it wouldn't be found.  Right before it had been stolen, the engine had started making a strange half-whirr/half-whine noise that struck me as suspicious and which I had not been eager to take to a mechanic. 

Well, of course, it was found, in less than a week, and only a couple of blocks from my apartment.  Still making the noise.  The upside was I would have the car to get around while I hunted for a replacement.  I headed down to the Hacienda to visit The Commander and Dancing Queen, and though I continued looking, the search was less urgent.

Until last Tuesday.  By the way, it should be pointed out that the car was stolen (or at least I realized it was missing) on a Tuesday.  Readers familiar with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy may recall that Arthur Dent has a problem with Thursdays.  My problem is Tuesdays.  Tuesdays seem to be statistically the one day of the week most likely to give me trouble.  If the Vogons ever actually show up, it won't be on a Thursday, just you wait and see.  It will be two days earlier in the week, and I'll probably have car trouble.

Anyway, last Tuesday I was on my way to my Weight Watchers meeting when I noticed that I smelled something funny.  Plastic.  Something smelled strongly of plastic, like the way a rental car frequently smells, only stronger and even more unpleasant.  I couldn't tell at first if I somehow drove past something, like a Barbie factory or a polar fleece production plant, but as the minutes went by and the odor got stronger I came to the sinking conclusion that the problem was with the A-Wing.

I pulled into the parking lot at Weight Watchers and came to a stop.  I parked, turned the engine off, and watched as a thin, almost ghostly wisp of whitish-grey smoke flickered up from under the hood on the driver's side.  Now, I've had a number of incidents occur with smoking cars.  The A-Wing had a coolant hose rupture at one point and throw a cloud of white, cloying steam from the hood.  That sight was momentarily frightening, but not a death-rattle for the car.  I've driven a vehicle that spat ugly gouts of smoke out the exaust.  That was more serious, but still not immediately a sign the car was about to shuffle off its mortal coil.  No, the kind of smoke you need to be immediately worried about, the kind that means you now own a sort-of-mobile object d'art, is oily black smoke from the hood.  I've seen that, and it's the banner of the automotive Grim Reaper.  That smoke is generated by thrown rods or blown cylinders.  It is always accompanied by the kinds of sounds that only machines in extreme pain ever make, and you don't ever see it in wisps.  That stuff pours in angry, acrid clouds.  This was not that smoke.  But it was worrisome.  I popped the hood and took a look.

The Honda 4-cylinder engine is a work of impressive engineering.  It's impressive enough that I frankly never managed to learn what parts of it did which task.  I knew where to add oil, where the thermostat was located, and could make a guess about the location of a couple of parts.  I saw, on examining the ailing car's engine, that the smoke was coming from a wheel hooked up to one of the three belts running off of the main shaft of the engine.  It might have been the A/C compressor.  It might have been the hydraulic pump.  It might have been the secondary hyperdrive generator.  I suspect it was the A/C, but I already admitted to you I never really learned enough to be certain, and I didn't want to risk cutting a belt and finding out I had stranded myself in the parking lot of a strip mall eight miles from home.  I lack a certain amount of hap when it comes to automotive matters, but I've gotten enough life experience to not be a complete idiot.  So I couldn't just cut the wheel free.  At the same time, though, clearly it was not working correctly; I suspected from the noise it had been making while the engine was running that a bearing had gone bad.  Bad bearing, plus smoking, means potential seizure.  At best, that would mean the belt trying to drive that wheel would shriek like a stuck pig.  At worst, the whole engine could seize, making the car a completely-immobile object d'art.  Replacing the parts would cost a hundred bucks or more, and I had already determined that the car wasn't worth putting any more money into.  So despite the comparatively inexpensive nature of the repair, that wisp of smoke was the final nail in the A-Wing's coffin.  I limped home from my meeting, parked the Honda, and called Khaine and Unca Rainy to see about arrangements for getting to work for the rest of the week.

I'll post on that, and on the (mis)adventure of the actual car hunt, later.  The important part of the story for purposes of this post is that I now have another car.  This one is a Mazda MX-5 Miata, 2001, with 75,000 miles on it.  The previous owner clearly babied it, and I am head-over heels in love with it.  It hugs the ground, takes off like a rocket ship, and the feeling of driving it with the top down is like nothing else I can think of.  It is such a kick in the pants that Khaine, who previously disliked convertibles, has let me know I can borrow his car any time I want to as long as I let him use mine while I'm using his to haul cargo.

Khaine?  Just so you know: Not.  Gonna.  Happen.

I feel a little bit guilty about how much I love the Mazda; the Honda was a faithful car, and was a lot of fun to drive for a long time.  In the last couple of years especially, though, it had started to turn into a rattletrap, which I know is all my own fault, and its steady decay just made me lose interest ever faster in really taking care of it.  So now that I've bought a newer, zippier, and oh-so-pretty replacement, I feel almost like I'm cheating on a faithful parner I had already been neglecting and even abusing previously. 

If the Honda actually had feelings, here's the thing that would probably be most galling to it:  I have given the Mazda the same nickname.  See, Khaine and I discussed this after test driving the new car, and see, the old Honda wasn't really an A-Wing fighter.  Yes, it was a two door coupe.  Yes, it had originally been the high-horsepower model of the Civic.  Yes, it was moderately zippy and fun to drive.  But no, it wasn't powered by a Novaldex J-77 Event Horizon engine, let alone a pair of them.  And no, it didn't have the A-Wing's exposed bubble cockpit.  The Honda might have been a Z-95 Headhunter, or a TIE fighter, but it was no A-Wing.

See, I've driven the MX-5 now, and it is the A-Wing.  It has the turning radius of a top, and a suspension that allows you to make hard turns at higher speeds than the Honda.  I haven't done anything crazy, mind you, but in test driving it I did push it a little bit, and it took me aback with how tightly it could U-turn and how fast I could make said U-turn without even chirping the wheels.  If I put the hammer down, coming off the line from a stoplight will actually flip your head back.  It accelerates like a cheetah after a gazelle, and I defy you not to grin maniacally when you hear the engine come to life.  Having now driven it for a day and a half, I can see very clearly how people use these cars for amateur race vehicles.

Re-read that last sentence.  People race these cars.  Stock.  As a thing.

Sitting in it with the top down, it genuinely feels like you're in the cockpit of a fighter.  The steering wheel, stick shift (it has a 6th gear!), and all the radio and climate controls, are tucked in close.  The line of the door panels, the height of the dash, and especially the height of the rear of the car, are low enough to feel like you're sitting under a bubble canopy. 

It has a 1.8 liter engine, and no back seat.  There is a trunk, but it's almost for appearance's sake.  This, friends, is a starfighter.  So it is that I now have replaced the A-Wing with the A-wing, 2.0.  At least for the moment, that's the car's name.  I may change my mind; it may become the Bearcat, or the Star Fury, or possibly the Actis (probably not the Actis; I don't want to reference Revenge of the Sith unless I have to).  For now, though, and I confess probably permanently, I have found the real A-Wing.

And I could not be happier to have found it.
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My Friends Speed Racer and Bran

I spent a long weekend down in San Diego visiting Dancing Queen and The Commander.  I had the chance to escape the grueling, hateful rays of the Riverville sunshine for a few days, which was nice, plus got to spend time with my family and some old friends I hadn't had the chance to see in a while.  Fencer and Archangel are both doing well, which was great to see, as is Speed Racer, which was even better.  He had been in and out of the hospital a couple of times over the last several months, and seeing him alert, upbeat and with his coloring back to normal did my heart good.

A little background on Speed, and why I make such a big deal about his coloring: he's been confined to a wheelchair since the summer of 1991.  He had a jet ski accident in which his neck was broken.  I'm not sufficiently well-schooled in the terminology to know what word to use, but he has no use of his legs, and cannot use his hands with any more dexterity than a crab has in its claws.  I really hope I don't sound callous in describing him that way; it's simply the most concise way I can think of to depict his level of physical ability.  Despite this very significant physical handicap, he has worked to continue his education, has maintained a circle of friends, and gets out and about frankly more often than I do.

I admire Speed a very great deal.  I am sure that during the last 20 years he has had any number of dark nights of the soul.  He has definitely had, and continues to face, constant challenges to his physical health.  The lack of muscle tone he has below his chest has led to repeated respiratory problems.  He's had more than one serious bladder infection, and beyond those major problems his forced sedentariness has led to skin issues and a host of more minor, but surely wearing, issues regarding his comfort and appearance.  He has had no end of troubles, but he has come through all of them with a strength of faith and a positivity of outlook that I can only hope to emulate.  He is consistently positive and hopeful in his outlook, and couples that with a generosity of spirit and a sense of humor that make me feel woefully small of heart by comparison.  I've nicknamed him Speed Racer because he's always on wheels, and if that choice of moniker seems like a jape, I assure you I don't mean it as one.  If you're at all familiar with the old cartoon (and if you aren't, go right now and make yourself acquainted- go ahead, I'll wait- back now?  OK, then) you know that Speed Racer was a man of action, always up for the next adventure and always the good sport out to do the right thing.  Those characteristics are the things that make my friend Speed who he is. 

I will admit here that I have not consistently been the kind of friend Speed deserves.  I have done a woefully poor job of keeping in touch with him when I'm away from San Diego, just as I've done with my other friends from high school.  Not only that, but when I visit while I'm in town, I'll admit to you all that it takes a certain amount of building up to call him and get together.  I feel like a terrible person for admitting this, but for a long time I had a hard time facing his chair.  It sounds stupid and weak of me, because it was, but a part of my brain was constantly aware of the wheelchair, of the weight of what might have been for my friend had he not had his accident, of the ways in which the scope and breadth of his life had been limited by a senseless accident.  None of this came from Speed, you understand, it was all me.  I've gotten better about it.

You see, I have another good friend who is similarly physically challenged.  We'll call him Bran, for now, after the character from "A Song of Ice and Fire."  Bran's limitations are congenital, rather than the result of a mishap, but similar to Speed's, and similarly to Speed he lives an active, upbeat life.  He is heavily involved in commuity activism, especially recently in the effort to fight a redistricting plan by the City of Sacramento that would have led to a significant loss of services in his neighborhood.  As time has gone on and I have seen Bran be such a powerful actor in his own life and the lives of the people around him, I have realized I was a prat to let some hardware get in the way of recognizing his inherent drive and passion.  As a result, I have been able to relate to Speed better as well.

It did still take a little bit of psyching up to call Speed.  And when Bran's caregiver comes by on game night, I still feel oddly awkward for a few minutes, mostly because I feel like I'm in the way.  But I hope that if they read this (neither of them is aware of my blog as of yet), they will be able to forgive me for my foolishness, and that they will know how much I count myself lucky to know them both. 

Sleepless in Riverville

Titled that way because I'm literally sleepless.  Haven't had a wink of sleep tonight after an attack of existential dread earlier in the evening.  That attack has passed, but its aftereffect has left me awake all night, and I called and left my boss a message about an hour and a half ago that I won't be making it in today.  After a night like this one, I would be worse than useless on the phone.

Insomnia is not something I'm usually plagued by, but tonight I had a case of the regrets that led to the realization that I'm 37, with essentially no retirement set aside, and eventually that is going to bite me in the hind end.  I know what I need to do to rectify the situation, mind you, but the stark nature of the realization gave me a shock, which led to recrimination, which led to self-loathing, which led to me not getting any sleep.

I prayed, earnestly, for half an hour, and the reminder that gave me of God's benevolence sent the panic away.  The aftereffect was, however, a state of anxiousness that I just couldn't completely shake.  More physical and subconscious than any real recognizable thought pattern I can switch off.  I've resolved that the answer, at least immediately, is going to be to walk for as much time as I can stand today.  Between a sleepless night last night and physical exertion today, hopefully sleeping will be easier tonight.  I say this, of course, with the sun still not up.  "Tonight" feels to me like it's still Sunday, rather than Monday, but I'm thinking ahead.

I haven't posted about work in a while (or anything else, for that matter) largely because the honeymoon period ended and I didn't really want to spend much time thinking about work outside of work.  Don't get me wrong; I'm glad to be employed, and I still like the people I'm working for.  I have just gotten to a place where the novelty of the job has worn off and I don't find anything entertaining in it.  The situation hasn't been helped by the fact that Tink got let go and I managed to piss Kaylee off and she isn't speaking to me.  That means that I am without work buddies, who would otherwise help make the work easier to get through. 

Even as I type this, I feel like a twit.  I have friends who are facing unemployment; compared to them I have very little to gripe about.  My problems are of my own creation, and I need to face up to them and be an adult about it rather than just beating myself up and whinging.  At the same time, though, I feel trapped by circumstances.  My biggest plan- getting my credential reinstated and going back into teaching- is hampered by the budget crisis in the state right now.  On top of that, I've been out of teaching for ten years and I had trouble breaking in before, and trying to start as a substitute is tough when I'm making the amount I am at ReallySmartGuesses.  I guess at this point the recrimination is that I have wasted the last decade of my life, and I'm afraid it's too late to reverse my course and actually get where I want to go.

These thoughts have been weighing heavily on me for a while now, and it feels liberating to have them off my chest.  I've been trying not to speak them aloud, partly because of feeling like a twit and partly just because giving voice to them makes them real, and I've been trying to tamp them down very hard.  I hope that this sleepless night, and sitting here to give voice to my fears, will allow me to do something about them. 

Thank you for reading.