Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Electric Car

Family Car

For 6 days, starting last Wednesday, I had the privilege of driving a Chevrolet Volt. A lot has been written about the Volt, a vehicle that to a large extent runs on electricity. But, until recently it has been very difficult to get behind the wheel of one.

First things first: I had the Volt for 6 days. During those six days, I drove 348 miles. This included my regular commute, as well as picking up and dropping off children, local errands, a night out, and so forth. In the course of my driving, I used a total of 1.74 gallons. That is not a misprint. 1.74 gallons. That comes out to exactly 200 miles per gallon. Let's say that again: 200 miles per gallon.

Highlights? Oh, start with the very first song I turned on Sirius/XM Kids Place Live when I picked up Elianna the first day: They Might Be Giants, with Electric Car. I couldn't make that up if I tried.

Then, there was the extreme quiet. No "car noise" while on electricity. This means, among other things, getting full fidelity on the (really nice) stereo system. I got to listen to Wrecking Ball several times.

Of course, it impressed friends. Showing up with a Volt just makes a statement. Everyone wants to see it, and to know, "does it really work?" That it comfortably seats 4 adults, and handles well, goes over as well as it being electric.

Just last week, Presidential candidate New Gingrich said thatyou can't put a Gun Rack in a Volt. While that particular bit of idiocy was being shot down with ease, we found that the Volt easily accommodated 4 sets of skis, poles and boots while also carrying the family.

Maybe best of all has been the kids' reactions. Being dropped off for school from a Volt means you've just arrive in the cool car. And I got to be the cool dad. It's nice to be the cool dad, every once in a while.

Sunday night was Aaron's birthday. With the help of a website from Chargepoint I was able to determine that the city of Milford has multiple electric vehicle charging stations. With a little more research, I found that Milford had installed the charging stations just two months ago. Milford is a nice little town, but in 20 years of Michigan living we've probably only been there 3 times. So I made the decision: We drove to Milford for dinner. We found a nice restaurant, and in the time it took to eat we had enough of a charge to get back.

Was there a down side? Yes: Every time the charge ran out. It's a fine gas car, too. I really really liked it as a gas car. But as an electric car, I was in love. At 200 miles per gallon.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Credit Denied

I tend to live on plastic. I charge everything I can. I use cards with no annual fees and cash back features, and I never carry a balance or pay late. Except for not paying interest, I'm a "good customer."

So I'm always surprised when something seems to go wrong. Yesterday, something went wrong.

I went to the incomparable Russell Street Deli in Detroit's Eastern Market for lunch. I used to go there frequently when I worked within walking distance, but have only been rarely in recent times. They serve the best $3.95 soups money can buy (cash only). Eating lunch there -- even by myself, which was the case yesterday -- always makes me feel good. So, as I sometimes do after a lunch at Russell Street, I decided to roam the nearby shops.

First stop was to Germack. Germack is known for their pistachios, but what I love is their fresh-made peanut butter. A simple old-fashioned grinder, and they'll do it on the spot if there's none on the shelves. And it's less expensive than Jif. Germack just moved from a much smaller location outside Eastern Market; this was my first time in the new store. I pulled out my Mastercard, and for $3.50 I was on my way.

Next stop: Rocky Peanut. Another local institution that's the go-to place for spices and oils after the demise of Rafal Spice. I didn't really need anything, but the chocolate slab looked good, and for $3.84 and another swipe I had some.

I was headed back to the car now, but came upon a store I'd never seen before: Mootown Creamery. Well, that $3.95 garlic soup at Russell Street was great, but it left room. I had to check it out. A scoop of ice cream -- they sell Hudsonville, not homemade, but I wasn't caring yesterday -- cost $3.18 with tax. I pulled out my Mastercard.

Denied!!

The clerk was polite and apologetic. She said the machine acted weird when the weather was bad (there were flurries at the time). It gave her a weird message to call. We tried running the card again:

Denied!!

The clerk, apologizing more, served the ice cream anyway (I eventually paid with my Discover Card).

My surprises were just starting. When I checked my email, there was a message from HSBC Card Services Fraud Prevention Alert. Lori, arriving home at about the same time, was treated to multiple voice mails from HSBC, and before she could even check them, HSBC was calling again. They went through the charges and demanded she call me (she laughed at them, thanked them for spying on me for her, and refused). Then their representative "explained": Did your husband travel to Detroit? As if no one would do such a thing. As if my home in West Bloomfield is on a different planet, and not just 3 towns north. As if I wouldn't legitimately have a series of charges under four dollars in 3 stores that happen to be next to each other. As if a series of charges like that indicates that my card must have been stolen, apparently by a thief without much of a plan. Never mind, even, that I signed all of the receipts.

Yes, I work in Detroit. I'm there every day. Sometimes I go out for lunch, and when I'm at a place that doesn't take American Express, I used the HSBC Master Card. Or, used, anyway.

Now, it's tempting to assert that HSBC has some profiling going on. Or that they're just somewhat inept. I'll note that they also denied a routine $20 charge I made last year for Elianna's summer camp; that time they explained that the location (the camp is in Canada) was suspicious. But at least that was in a foreign country. Last I checked, Detroit's still here.

Elianna is having a nice dessert tonight: Chocolate. From a slab.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wrecking Ball

Earlier this evening, a long-awaited message finally showed in my inbox: Bruce Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, had finally leaked. It didn't take long for my inbox and facebook to overflow.

Press reports had hinted that this was Bruce's "angriest" album to date, but coverage of some of the lyrics -- with Guthriesque references to bankers and robber barons and fat cats -- had left me concerned that the anger might come off as an over-the-top pose.

I needn't have worried. One listen -- well, I guess it's 4 now, but the evening isn't over yet -- probably isn't sufficient to declare this a masterpiece. But it's damn good, and current. Musically and lyrically, the record is alive. Its people have been kicked in the gut and left to wither away, but they stand. Even the fallen stand to testify.

Bruce's previous album, Working On a Dream, was largely a personal album dealing with issues such as the realities of mortality. Songs such as "Kingdom of Days" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" have grown on me immensely in the 3 years since that album's release.

"Wrecking Ball" has a wider scope. Its opening track, "We Take Care of Our Own," is a slap against complacency and failure to act; the rest of the album quickly falls in line. "Easy Money" has a sardonic depiction of would-be two-bit criminals stuffed within a jaunty jig-like tune that reminds a bit of "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live"; "Shackled and Drawn" has a groove not heard on a Springsteen song since... since I don't know when; "Jack of All Trades" wraps a waltz tempo around a desperate man announcing, "I'll mow your lawn."

Ron Aniello produced this record, the E Street Band is largely absent, and Tom Morello provides several searing guitar solos; the soundscape is noticeably different than any recent Springsteen record -- calling more to mind "The Seeger Sessions" crossed now with originals, rock and roll, gospel, rap, and whatever influences Bruce chose to use. The sound is of liberation, of struggle. After Darkness on the Edge Of Town was released, Pete Townshend said, "When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album, that's not 'fun', that's fucking triumph, man." That's true once more: "Sing it hard and sing it well," he declares in "Death to My Hometown." And it's not just Bruce's singing; it's the entire package. Whistles, choruses, and trumpets blare; it all leads to this: "I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight."

If there's a pop song in the bunch, it's probably "You've Got It," which reminds me of "All or Nothing at All," just with danger (and a horn section) attached. "Rocky Ground" is structurally a re-make of "One Step Up" to my ears... musically. One was personal, and one is communal: There's a new day coming.

The album concludes with the living spirits of the dead: First, "Land of Hope and Dreams," which literally brings to life the ghost of Clarence Clemons's saxophone. And then, "We Are Alive," which tells the stories of those fallen in their tracks, and ends with a sound that will surely remind listeners of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and contains the memorable (to me) proclamation, "a dead man's moon throws seven rings," and, more forcefully, the declaration, "our souls will rise, to carry a fire and light the spark to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart."

The reactions in my facebook and inbox feeds have been generally off-the-charts, so far. This scares me a bit: If an "angry" album is universally well-received, then is it really too safe? If fat-cat Republicans and complacent Democrats all love it, then have they really been challenged? Somehow, I think Bruce is going to address that, straight up. And probably not without cost.

In a few weeks, I'll be spending my 50th birthday with Bruce Springsteen on the stage.

I can't wait.

Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Where the Cold Wind Blows

I had a classmates in college named Roosevelt. Everyone knew him as Rosey. I didn't really know him, just met him once, really. But everyone knew who he was. He was a star. His matriculation was reported in Sports Illustrated. He got straight A's. He worked for the governor of Arkansas. He won a Rhodes Scholarship. Everyone who met him loved him, pretty much instantly. And, everyone, everyone, already knew that someday Rosey would be the first African-American to become President of the United States.

This isn't about Rosey, though. Not really. But I thought of Rosey today, when considering recent events.

Last Friday morning, Jeff Zaslow died. His car skidded on ice in to the path of an oncoming semi; he never had a chance. I didn't really know him, just met him once, really. Sure, he did a magic trick for Elianna, who was 5 at the time. And we had a great talk about (what else?) Bruce Springsteen. After that, we traded emails for a time. He sent me articles. Read my website. All of it. Bookmarked it, he said, and noted the broken links -- not to point out that they were broken, but because he wanted to read the concert reviews that were supposed to be on the other ends of the links. This was all very much uplifting to me.

But after a few days the emails stopped, and a few months later Jeff published The Last Lecture, which catapulted him from being a locally well-known writer and Bruce-freak to an internationally well-known writer and Bruce-freak. The sign-off of his first email, "Hope our paths cross again," went unrealized; I never tried to re-connect.

But, this really isn't about Jeff, either. Not really. There are hundreds of perfectly wonderful eulogies written for him already, by perfectly wonderful writers who knew Jeff well.

On Monday of this week I went to Jeff's funeral at my old congregation in Southfield. People in the middle of terrible mourning got up and spoke with amazing grace and eloquence. His daughters quoted Springsteen tracks ("You're Missing" and "Without You"). He was spoken of in terms, almost, of reverence. Especially for how unimpressed Jeff was with himself, how his concern was always for others. And, of what an awesomely perfect father he was. But my lasting message, finally, came from one of his brothers, addressing the mourners in his own family and beyond who had wondered, "I don't think I can go on after this."

Zaslow wrote and said, consistently, things such as, "we’ve got to hug our kids and make the most of each moment, because you never know.” Inevitably, I'm drawn to this Springsteen lyric:
Where the cold wind blows
Tomorrow never knows
Where your sweet smile goes
Tomorrow never knows
You and me, we been standing here my dear
Waiting for our time to come
Where the green grass grows
Tomorrow never knows

I confess, I never much worried about having lost contact with Jeff Zaslow after that wonderful first meeting; we traveled in the same circles, even attended the same shul (albeit at different locations). Inevitably we'd meet again, our paths would cross...

Coming back from Spring Break, senior year in college, Roosevelt Thompson was driving northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike. A southbound semi lost a tire and skidded out of control, crossing over in to the northbound lanes. Rosey never had a chance.