Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Is this thing still on?

Oh, it is.

I may be dusting it off soonish.


Announcing Operation: Appleseed to benefit Marian Call


Some of you may know of Alaska-based singer-songwriter Marian Call, who makes really great music and has managed to pull off crowd-sourced tours of all 50 US states, most Canadian provinces, and currently is on a similar tour of Europe, as well as a crowd-funded album, Something Fierce, which was released last year but is being re-released on a broader scale next week.

I'm a fan, and Marian is such a great person that she's become a friend as well. And so when I heard that, last weekend while she was preparing to perform in Edinburgh, Scotland, a thief got into a locked basement room and stole her MacBook Pro, I was greatly saddened. Police were summoned, all of that stuff happened. But now she doesn't have a computer — the device she uses to record and mix her music, and run her business. Marian operates on a really tight budget — there's no tour bus involved, no fancy hotels, just cattle-car discount airfares, a Eurorail pass, and a lot of guest rooms and couches graciously provided by fans. So there's no real margin on the end of that shoestring for her to replace the computer.
That's when I had an idea. And while I was having that idea, I heard from Glenn Basden who was having a similar idea. We've since been joined by at least one additional conspirator, and we've decided to crowd-source Marian's replacement computer.

The specs: 15" MacBook Pro 2.3GHz ($1799), 8GB RAM (+$100), 750GB hard drive (+$100), standard display (no extra cost), and AppleCare extended warranty (+$349. Marian drives the Al-Can Highway yearly. It's a rough road) comes to $2348 shipped to her home in Juneau. This is what Marian had (okay, she said hers had 4GB of RAM, but more ram is more better and at $100 for an additional 4GB, it's easy).

This is where you come in. First off, SEND NO MONEY RIGHT NOW. What we'd like to do is get pledges lined up first. So:

– Email us, Jim Crider AND Glenn Basden with your name, and what you're willing to throw in toward Marian's laptop. (FURTHER UPDATED: We're in the close-out phase. If you're interested in helping, throw down to Marian's Tip Jar at her site linked above.)
– We will collect and tally the pledges, with regular updates here. I'll put together some sort of Google sheet with a running tally (minus the names of donors), which will be made public. Marian did that with her Euro Tour budget. Transparency is good.
– Once we have an idea that we're going to make it, we'll send everyone who pledged a way to send money to my (Jim's) PayPal account. There's a way to do this without incurring fees, and we'll make use of that.
– Once the money is there, I will buy the MacBook Pro directly from the Apple.com store and have it shipped directly to Marian in Juneau. I will post publicly-accessible images of the order confirmation (with personal info blanked out, obviously).
– Marian will be given a list of all donors minus the amount of individual contributions (unless she specifically requests it). It doesn't matter if you give $5 or $500 — just that you thought enough to thank Marian for making great music and sharing it with us.
– 100% of the money raised goes to Marian in the form of the computer, with any overage being donated to Marian's Tip Jar in the name of all donors. Neither Glenn nor I are keeping a single cent. In fact, we've already pledged some of our own money to the effort.
– We cannot offer any incentives other than our gratitude, nor can I say that your contribution will go toward Marian's Donor's Circle. This is an independent effort. Think of it as a fan-sourced Christmas present, or a payout from the Fan-Based Theft Insurance Company of Everywhere.
– Marian is aware of this — we're not being secretive about it (and once this hits her Donor's Circle group list, she'll know all of it anyway!) — but isn't controlling it. Please do not bug her about it — she's touring Europe with limited connectivity (and now, no laptop!) and has way too much on her plate already between tour logistics and relaunching Something Fierce. Any questions, email Glenn and me at the addresses above.
The pledge pool has already started: At least $500 is there already, from Glenn, me, and our other conspirator.
Thank you for your help — and please spread the word!

UPDATE #1, 4:00PM CST 11/7/2012: We're up to $800 pledged already! Thank you, pledgers!

UPDATE #2, 5:45PM CST 11/7/2012: Over $1400 pledges already! You can see the pledge sheet here.

UPDATE #3, 6:45PM CST 11/7/2012: We're at $2000, plus multiple Apple contractor or employee discount offers. Given that, the logical thing to do is to upgrade the hard drive to the 1TB option (+$100 above the 750GB drive, at retail pricing) if we hit the original $2348 goal, with any overage after the discount being given to Marian as promised. Because more storage means Marian can make even more music!

UPDATE #4, 9:10PM CST 11/7/2012: As Marian would say, "YOU GUYS!!!!". We've hit, as I write this, $2628 pledged. As a result, we're looking at a couple of different stretch goal options — which are funded already. Stretch Goal Option 1 and Stretch Goal Option 2 posted on the pledge sheet. We also added a Time Capsule 2TB backup to all options. We're reaching out to Marian to see what she would prefer: the big 15" lump, or the easier-to-tote 13" with backup. But… since she's in Europe and should be asleep at the moment, we've got a bit of a lag. We'll launch Phase 2 (the actual gathering of the moneys) tomorrow once we've heard. All our pledgers will get an email from either Glenn or me outlining the rest of the process. And to ALL of you who contributed, who retweeted, who shared, who offered discounts, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

UPDATE #5, 11:00AM CST 11/8/2012: We've heard from Marian, and the configuration has been tweaked a bit. What she's looking for is now highlighted on the pledge sheet (link above). And it's *less* than the full hot-rod we were going to do (we're guys. We're geeks. Full hot-rod is how we roll). She already has a backup system, so the Time Capsule got dropped, and she says she doesn't need the higher-res screen, so that got dropped. While pledges are indeed still open (we've gotten a couple more this morning), I'll be getting Phase 2 up and running this afternoon, and will send that out to contributors via email. Added bonus: while Marian was aware something was afoot, she was not quite aware of the scale of this effort, and was delightfully shocked. Score one for the good guys: all of YOU! 😀

UPDATE #6, 5:30PM CST 11/8/2012: Phase 2 is underway. We're at 47 contributors, who have pledged a total of $3,043. Payments are coming in. Computer pricing verified, buying methodology also confirmed through our insider. This thing is happening!

UPDATE #7, Midnight CST 11/9/2012: Over $2400 already paid. Corrected the numbers above after discovering Glenn and I had duplicated one donor's info. The peril of having two people updating the sheets while pledges were coming in fast and furious. I expect a surge of contributions overnight my time as the folks in Europe start their day. The spreadsheet is current as of right now. Note that we have enough paid in already to GET THE COMPUTER!!!!

UPDATE #8, 10:45AM CST 11/9/2012: As of right now, $2672.34 is in the kitty, with several of you delightfully crazy folks upping your pledges. And we got a late pledge — and payment — this morning (my time. He's in the Netherlands, so it was probably afternoon his time). We're ALMOST DONE!

UPDATE #9, 5:35PM CST 11/9/2012: As of this writing, we have $2778.35 collected against a total of $3118 pledged, with 5 pledges outstanding. Yes, the pledge total went up thanks to another added pledge today. Hoping we'll get the rest in the next 24-48 hours or so, which will let us make the computer purchase, get the rest to Marian, and post the close-out documents before I "have" to spend next Thursday through Sunday in Austin, working the Formula 1 race weekend. Rough life, but someone has to make sure the drivers know what's going on ahead of them. Oh, so close: If the outstanding pledges come in at their pledged amounts, we'll have a total of $3153.35, with the MacBookPro and $902.35 going to Marian for her SOOPER SEKRIT plan.

UPDATE #10, 10:30PM CST 11/10/2012: We're down to one pledge still outstanding. After the last update, we got more pledges, and payments. Once all the money is in (assuming the last pledge comes in as pledged), we will have $3,324.85 in the kitty against $3,293.00 pledged. And… big news item #1: The MacBookPro has been ordered! Click on the link to be taken to the screen shots of the order confirmation (scrubbed only of addresses and phone numbers). With $2,251.00 committed to the computer, that leaves $1073.85 (presently $973.85) in surplus for Marian's Sooper Sekrit Plans. She'll be sharing that with everyone shortly — note it will likely be relayed through me as she is, obviously, tech-limited at the moment. I'll be sending an update email out to the contributor's list in a little bit. Once the transfer has been made, I'll post a screen shot of that transaction receipt on PayPal. Once more, Glenn and I have to thank all of you for participating in this effort. When we started, I was optimistic that we'd be able to scrounge up enough to replace the computer, and the response has been completely overwhelming. THANK YOU ALL!

UPDATE #11, 3:50PM CST 11/11/2012: I'd hoped to have a formal announcement, but as Scott Barkan has spilled the beans, here goes: Between our surplus, plus the money that folks donated directly to Marian's Tip Jar, we are ALSO funding a replacement computer for guitarist Scott Barkan, who in addition to being Marian's accompanist, has his own music career going. Seems that, unbeknownst to us, Scott's own laptop decided to imitate a brick early on in the European AdventureQuest tour. Given that Scott is such an integral part of Marian's live shows, and is awesome in his own right, we're making it happen for him as well. We've got another Apple insider who graciously offered a discount, and so that's going to happen. But that's not all: what's left after that (and there's a reasonable sum!) will be donated by Marian to SuperHurrMegaBlizzicane Sandy relief. All the accounting will be posted just as soon as it gets sorted. And we've gotten another contributor today. Still one pledge outstanding, but I'm sure that will be sorted shortly. Wow.

UPDATE #12 12:05AM CST 11/12/2012: Briefly, the screen shots of the surplus transfer are now posted. $1,123.85 was sent to Marian's account. This is the money that goes for Scott's computer and for SuperHurrMegaBlizzicanestormard Sandy relief. While we're still looking for one pledge, it will be made up one way or another — there are as of right now 3 folks who have offered to make good on any shortfall. I don't want to invoke that unless necessary, but it's good to know it's there (that MasterCard I charged the computer on? Yeah, it's got an interest rate just shy of the state usury ceiling. No problem if we get all the pledges). This is a zero-margin effort: 100% of what was pledged went where we said it would.

::sends in cleaning crew::

Okay, it's a bit dusty in here.

I'm working 12-14 hour days. I'm also working some weekends. I had 69 billable hours last week and had to make myself not work on Sunday so I could get some laundry done.

Stuff will get posted here, just need to make the time to do it. Don't know when that will be.

And now I need to go back to work.

Art and Science: Zoe Keating at the House of Blues Houston’s Bronze Peacock Room

What? Since when did I start reviewing concerts? Well, since about now.

So a couple months back, I’m up late poking around on the computer, with my Twitter feed (I’m @autojim, of course) open in one window, and a tweet from singer Marian Call (@mariancall) comes across, that she’s listening to Zoe Keating (@zoecello). A few clicks later, I’m listening to the free streaming audio on Zoe’s website and reading about how she does it: 1 cello, a computer, and as many as 16 sound loops generated by the cello, which has been hot-rodded with a variety of pickups and microphones to get different types of sounds.

Being a music-powered techie, I’m always intrigued by the use of technology in the service of art — particularly in music. Now, there’s what I consider "good" techno music, where the emphasis is on the music and the tech serves the art, and also a fair bit of "bad" techno music, where the music is secondary to the tech.

Zoe’s music is decidedly the former. And because Zoe’s primary instrument is the cello, there’s a warmth and woodiness to the music that defies the technology completely — no carbon-fiber or titanium cellos for Zoe; she uses a custom-made instrument from France with a personality all its own.

A few paid downloads later, I had Zoe’s collection on my iPod. And I noted she was going to be playing here in Houston soon. Tickets procured, I was ready for a show.

This past Thursday, May 12, 2011, Zoe took the stage at the House of Blues Houston’s Bronze Peacock Room.

I knew it would be different from the recordings — there are enough YouTube videos, etc. of Zoe’s live performances to note all the differences — and that’s something I find interesting: that each performance of a piece is just that little bit different than the other performances of the same piece. Yet, because of the nature of looping, there’s an overlaying precision to the timing required — looping, done right, is amazing as layers build upon layers. Looping just that little bit off is a FSM-awful train wreck. On the recordings, of course, one gets to pick and choose from a number of takes and it’s as good as it’s going to get. Live, of course, can be a different story. Hoping for the former, but in any case looking forward to seeing how the layers of sound are built from nothing, we went off to the show.

I’d been to a few shows in the main Music Hall at House of Blues Houston, but this was the first time I’d been in the Bronze Peacock Room. Small stage, big open space, a few comfy chairs around the walls. This would be a very Bohemian show — we probably could have brought a blanket or yoga mat to sit on on the floor — but fortunately for my knees, we got one of the comfy chairs over by the merchandise table.

I don’t have a copy of the playlist, so I’m going from memory (if I get one, I’ll edit the post accordingly). I’m sure the first song was "Tetrishead" from the "One Cello x 16: Natoma" album. And we saw — and heard — the layers be formed, one at a time, overlaid. Zoe’s concentration on the timing was evident — and yet this, too, was in the service of the music, not overpowering it.

Between songs, Zoe talked to the audience — we heard how her trip to Houston had an unexpected snowstorm delay (in mid-May?) in Denver, which apparently resulted in her cello flight case (a case inside a case) getting thoroughly dunked to the point that moisture penetrated all the way to the cello — and she said if the sound was fuzzy, that would be the reason why.

It didn’t sound fuzzy.

The music continued — and as each song had its layers built, I noticed subtle differences in the looped playback versus what went in — was there some trickery going on? Yes — that pitch was very different than what went in! But… it worked. It was supposed to be like that. And while I was listening and enjoying the layers, I also noticed that she wasn’t using the foot pedals to trigger each loop. Was there another trigger, something built in to the cello, maybe? Technical me pushed those questions to the side — the music was in charge, as it should be.

After "The Path" (a song about going from the city to the woods and back and forth again, not entirely sure where you will end) and "Lost" (after all that movement, not entirely sure where you are) from her latest album, "Into the Trees", Zoe talked about how, when she started, she used a lot of hardware looping pedals, but the tech was catching up with what she wanted to do, and now her biggest limiting factor was RAM. Until she got her current computer, she couldn’t play one of her earliest pieces, "Exurgency" (from the "One Cello x 16" EP) live, because she’d run out of memory for all the loops that particular song requires. And then she played it. As good as the recorded version is, the live piece was better — more living, less "best take of each part". Keep in mind, this is over 8 minutes, and I lost count of the number of active layers — okay, truth be told, I lost interest in counting the number of active layers, as that would have detracted from my enjoyment of the performance.

There were some glitches — as Zoe started "Sun Will Set" (from "Natoma"), the computer "helpfully" supplied layers she hadn’t played yet. Zoe stopped and explained: you have to remember to delete the previous performance, otherwise the computer will kick in the last performance of the piece (presumably from sound check). A few clicks of the keyboard, and she restarted the piece. I don’t think it was a detraction from the experience, however. Quite the opposite: it added a human touch to the tech, a reminder that the machines are only as good as the humans who program them.

Another indicator that the music comes first: the cello itself had a say in the proceedings. Zoe checked tuning between songs — and at one point commented that it wasn’t out of tune — she just thought it was! Given the rather dramatic changes in climate the cello had gone through in the previous 24 hours, I’m surprised the tune didn’t shift more as the wood continued to get back to "normal" in a severely over-air-conditioned room, after experiencing whatever cool humidity San Francisco had to offer, two trips to altitude in airplanes, and several hours stuck outside Denver International Airport during a late-season snowstorm (Frontier Airlines has a lot to answer for in terms of how it parked luggage outside during a snowstorm), and then Houston’s heat, humidity, and, mid-afternoon, a major frontal system complete with severe thunderstorms blowing through. I could just imagine the poor cello begging the universe to give it a break and let it settle in!

What also impressed me was Zoe’s concentration — cello, like all bowed instruments, is rather physical to play, and then combine that with the precision timing required by the looping — and the desire to have some fun with the songs themselves during the performance — and you’re looking at a very intense 90 minutes or so for a live performance.

As the show was Zoe’s son Alex’s (aka #cellobaby) first birthday, the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Despite Zoe’s concerns, he took the singing very well — smiles and laughs — but did NOT want to leave the Mama so she could finish her show. Alex’s dad Jeff (#cellobabydaddy) did scoot him off without incident, and Alex was part of the meet-n-greet afterward.

Zoe performed two cover songs. The first was Muse’s "Time is Running Out", which she said she’d done in San Francisco International Airport as part of a music-to-the-masses series — and people weren’t sure if she was busking, or just stuck there with all her gear and decided to play — and, well, watch the film and see for yourself how people react. I note that later shows at SFO put the performers up on a platform so it was clear they were supposed to be there.

The second cover gave a little technical insight — I’d noticed she was doing some of the loops without hitting any pedals on the MIDI controller, which the setup talk for this song explained: she can set automatic loops at X number of measures/beats/etc. It also gave a bit of insight into something that’s been written about elsewhere, namely how Zoe overcame severe stage fright by busking and playing in groups (as opposed to solo). She wanted to regain the feeling of playing in a group, and noticed that this one piece had a 32-bar pattern, so she could play all the cello parts at once if she set the computer to loop at 32 bars. And then, could we guess the piece? It was the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A Minor, which has been used in film scores for Zardoz and recently in The King’s Speech.

The night’s final song was "Optimist", from "Into the Trees", a song Zoe wrote for Alex at "negative 2 months of age", inspired by the hope she has for her son as he grows into the world. A magnificent performance of a beautiful song, which had the audience on its feet at the conclusion.

Zoe stuck around for a good hour after the show talking to fans, signing autographs (including a young fan’s rosin block for her bow!), and making sure to spend a little extra time with the youngsters who had just seen where classical music can go if you take that left turn at Albuquerque (or, in Zoe’s case, Natoma Street in San Francisco), and the one or two adults who went unabashedly fanboy/fangirl on getting to meet her.

Overall, a show I thoroughly enjoyed, and would recommend to any of my friends and readers with a taste for the mixing of traditional and technology. Zoe’s current tour dates are available on her website. As I write this, she should be taking the stage in Austin, Texas, right about now.

It’s Mother’s Day. Here’s a story of two moms.

There’s a lot of catching up I need to do, but first, because it’s Mother’s Day here in the US, is a bit of story about the two wonderful women I’ve gotten to call Mom. And a few other wonderful women who also played part-time or emergency-backup mom. This came about because Stephen "Stepto" Toulouse wrote a FANTASTIC post on his blog about his mom, and issued a challenge to write one of our own.

Back in 1968, a lady named Margaret Jane Crider (nee McCartney) gave birth to me in Los Angeles, California. I don’t recall any of that year in LA — around the time of my 1st birthday, Dad was transferred to Detroit and we moved. I have a few memories of those early years in the Detroit area, particularly going to the park with her, riding in the ’65 Mustang, getting soft pretzels at Wonderland Mall in Livonia near our home, some friends. Three years and a month after I came along, my brother David joined the party. Unknown to me at the time, Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer before they learned she was pregnant with David. David, thankfully, came along healthy and hale. But about a year later — and I do remember this — the cancer came back with a vengeance as a tumor in Mom’s brain stem. They treated it as best they could, but ultimately, Dad took a transfer to allow us to move back to Tulsa, the family home base.

Mom’s situation was that the tumor trapped her mind in a body that increasingly wouldn’t cooperate. We had a year or two in Tulsa, during which I started kindergarten, with her at home, but with Dad having to be on the road for work, and with Mom needing more and more care, she ultimately had to move to a nearby nursing home.

This was weird: she wasn’t OLD, and that nursing home was full of OLD PEOPLE. At first, we went to see her every night. And gradually, the frequency of the visits decreased. And it seemed like, to elementary-school-age me, that the less we saw her, the worse she got. It wasn’t until some years later I learned that the opposite was true: as her condition deteriorated, she didn’t want us to see her that way. It was her wish, but 6-8-year-old me didn’t see it that way.

I got in trouble a couple times for riding my bike over to the nursing home after school instead of going home. I was in 3rd grade, mind you, all of 8 years old, and this involved traveling along and crossing a major north-south artery in Tulsa, as well as cresting the tallest hill in SE Tulsa, without sidewalks or much of any support. I didn’t care: I had to see my mom, because if I saw her, she’d get better. I knew it would be that way. Sometimes, she was completely out of it. I didn’t care. I was there, and I knew she knew I was there. One time, I found her in her wheelchair down the hall, trying to get back to her room, but going the wrong way. I pushed her back. I don’t know if she was ashamed or embarrassed to be caught lost like that, but I want to think she was proud of me for finding her. Each time, Dad would find me there, with Mom, not at my friend’s house like I said I was going to do. He’d put my bike in the trunk of the big LTD and take me home.

I got in trouble with Dad, but it was for the danger of the main street, not because I went to see Mom. I think, even now, that he knew *why* I did it.

This is where I fill in some info I didn’t learn until I was well into my teen years, from my maternal grandfather. Mom knew that tumor was a death sentence. And she told Dad that when she was gone, he needed to find a good woman and marry her, because he needed a wife and her boys needed a mother to look after them. Dad, naturally, wouldn’t hear of it: he had a wife, and she was it. So Mom started working with the family, and friends from church, and I think it’s safe to say she "encouraged" the meeting of Dad and Barbara, the wonderful lady I also call Mom.

In September 1977, just barely into 4th grade for me, and 1st grade for David, Mom passed away. I was quite a bit lost, and even then I felt for David, who never really had the chance to spend time with Mom when she was healthy and active. One of the interesting things about that is I tend to hang a lot with Mom’s side of the extended family and David has always been closer to Dad’s side of the family. Part of this is the relative ages of cousins on each side (David and I are the youngest on Mom’s side, just as she was the youngest of 4, while Dad is the oldest of 2), I’m sure, but also has something to do with our personalities and interests. I do cars. Always have. That’s from Mom’s side of the family (though she herself wasn’t terribly keen on it). David, not really. Ever. Though based on how David’s son is, he was certainly a carrier of the Car Guy genetics.

A lot of what went on in 4th grade is a bit of a blur. One of my best friends, Jeff Ball, had moved away from Tulsa to Colorado during the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. Jeff’s mom, Lola, was one of the Emergency Backup Moms. Luckily for me, my other best friends, Brent Estes and Steve Walton, were still there, as was Brent’s mom, Brenda, another Emergency Backup Mom, and Steve’s dad and stepmom (Steve’s parents had gone to high school with my parents — another level of connection).

But we were increasingly spending time with Barbara and her daughter Debbie. And sure enough, in April of 1978, Dad and Barbara were married, and I went from being the oldest child to being the middle child. Not a bad situation: now I had someone older to learn from (particularly helpful in the "avoiding getting in trouble" categories). And while neither Dad nor Barbara required it, both David and I started calling Barbara "Mom" pretty much from the beginning.

She earned it. Oh, yeah, she earned it. One of the first things that happened was she greatly improved our "cool" factor by nixing the usual-to-that-point school clothes of Sears Toughskins jeans — with iron-on knee reinforcements on the inside from the beginning — and made sure we had more fashionable choices, including shoes that didn’t have rubber toe caps (ala Chuck Taylors. They’re cool again now, but in 1978, not so much…). I pushed her. David pushed her. But she was consistent — we couldn’t get away with anything with her that would couldn’t get away with with Dad.

And we got to meet her family — the "third side" of the family. Her clan, the Garretts, are legion, and so we discovered a whole new group of cousins. And a whole new set of adventures there. It was the "third side" of the family that let me drive full-size tractors well before I was of legal driving age. That side had a private airplane brokerage. That side owned the World of Outlaws sprint car team for a while. That side had the big huge Christmas dinners with the giant yeast rolls and the barn/garage with the ’50 Ford in it. That side had the FBI agent uncle. So many things, so many people I wouldn’t have done or met otherwise.

I have no doubts that I, in particular, made it tough on her. I don’t think it was ever on purpose, or even conscious, but there was always this little comparison going on: she wasn’t my mom. And yet I never had any doubt of her love for me and for David, of her commitment to us as an entire family. Eventually, I made sure she knew how much I appreciated and loved her. It just took a while, I’m afraid. Not proud of that, but I hope I’ve made up for it since.

One incident from my college days jumps to mind: I went to school at U of Tulsa, just across town, and usually brought my laundry home on the weekends. Late in spring semester, sophomore year, Dad got transferred to Atlanta, and I came home one day to find Mom laying into David about something or other. I walked in the front door, laundry basket in hand, and she turned on me, finger pointing, and said, "AND YOU…" I dropped my laundry basket, and said something along the lines of "At least let me be home long enough to screw up before you yell at me." A brief silence. Then laughter.

If ever she’s doubted that I accepted her, I hope I set that to rest a long time ago. But I did. She picked up the baton and finished the job of raising David and me, children not of her, but her children all the same. And I love her as my mother.

While Mom/Barbara was (and is) present, I’ve never lost the memory, or indeed the influence, of Mom/Margaret. For a while, I was sure I’d just be a mechanic at the family auto repair shop. Oh, no, said Grandpa, you’re too smart to be "just a mechanic. You’ll be designing the stuff we just fix." That was Mom: she didn’t want her boys (including Dad) to work in that shop. It was a huge time sink. My grandparents and uncles often didn’t pay themselves in order to pay the guys & the bills. And Mom really, really hated that and didn’t want anything to do with it.

Well, after college and 20+ years as an engineer, I get to play with cars for fun. I’m pretty happy with how my life has turned out. A big reason for that are my Moms. Margaret. Barbara. I’d be extremely remiss if I left out my aunts, particularly Karen and Nancy. And I can’t ever not mention my grandmothers, Mary Jane and Mary. The Emergency Backup Moms, Lola and Brenda. All remarkable, amazing women who helped make me who I am now.

To my Moms, all of them, I salute you and I thank you. I hope I’ve made you proud of me. I know I’ve tried.

What the hell have I been doing?

(This post originally written Friday 12/17 and not published; it needed editing…)

There’s a one-word answer for it: Working.

See, once that little Gulf of Mexico situation settled down some (at least on our end — there’s still lots of cleanup ongoing), all the jobs that had been back-burnered to make way for the response got pushed back to the front burner… AND a whole large batch of New Stuff that we’re making to help our clients comply with the new (proposed/pending) regulations on top of all that.

Which means precious few of us have gotten much sleep around the office. The continuous work overload (our engineering staff is averaging over 250% utilization right now — we have 2.5 times as many hours of work than we have regular work hours on a 40-hour-week basis) has inevitably lead to some burnout and some folks leaving for other pastures. We did get a few new/extra faces in to help, but not enough to account for the additional workload. Supposedly that situation is improving soon. We’ll see.

I did manage to escape for the week of Labor Day to the Solo Nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I hoped mostly to show up, drive a bit, and relax/socialize a lot more. The ghods had other plans for me, however…

I drove from Houston to Salina, KS, on Saturday of Labor Day weekend — while I could have continued on to Lincoln, there was a Huskers game that day and the hotels were charging premium pricing — for the week! — if I checked in on Saturday. I saved more than $30/night by checking in Sunday. Which meant I got up Sunday morning in Salina, did my usual pre-flight walkaround on the truck and trailer, saw all was as it should be, and headed up US-81 to York, Nebraska, where I stopped for fuel…

…and discovered that the right side forward wheel of my trailer had pulled an Elvis and left the building. The wheel didn’t fall off — the wheel bearing failed spectacularly, so the wheel & tire, brake drum, and hub all exited, but not before chewing the living daylights out of the spindle. I don’t really know *when* exactly it departed, and I wasn’t about to turn around to try to find it somewhere in the 120 miles or so I’d just driven.


Do I leave it there at the truck stop and try to figure out a way to fix it by remote, or do I limp it the last 45 miles to the Nationals site in Lincoln and execute a controlled repair in an environment where I have a ton of friends, a ton of tools, and enough time to sort it properly? Nothing is dragging, the lone remaining right side tire is holding up okay and isn’t really TOO stressed…

I limped it in along I-80, just keeping time with the right-lane trucks and well below the posted 75 mph speed limit. Got there just fine. Looked at it in more detail and discovered that the spindle wasn’t separately-replaceable, and I’d thus need to do the whole axle assembly. And since it’s a 17-year-old trailer and these are rubber-sprung "TorFlex" axles, I probably better replace *both* of them so that everything is properly balanced…

And here’s where things get entertaining. I hunt down my Nebraska Region pal Mark Walker, who in addition to running E Street Prepared as I do, also is the liaison between SCCA and the Lincoln Airpark where the event is held. So he’s busy… and from Omaha, not Lincoln… but I just need a contact, and Mark’s someone who would either know where in Lincoln to tend to my trailer, or know who knows where. I find Mark up at the practice course, where things are pausing for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, the practice course is being wrangled by the Rebels Auto Club of Lincoln, a local hot-rod club, as a fund-raiser for their several charitable works. And one Jim McNeil of the Rebels overhears my conversation with Mark and just jumps in: "What kind of axle? What kind of trailer? Okay, you don’t worry about a thing. We’ve got shops, we’ve got welders, we’ve got trailer people in the club. Come find me after we close for the day and I’ll come take a look and we’ll get you sorted out." Guy didn’t know me from Adam and he’s just volunteered to solve all my problems.

Here’s the kicker: Jim is as good as his word. He started making calls, found the Dexter Axle distributor in Omaha, we got the info needed, and got axles ordered for the trailer. But all this took a few days, during which I’m sweating about it instead of relaxing.

At the end of the week, I hauled the rig over to Jim’s shop, where we secured it as best we could… but we didn’t yet know what the lead time on the axles was going to be. The plan: I’d go home, and when the axles came in, I’d take a long weekend or something, drive up, we’d install them, and then I’d haul the rig home.

Which held up exactly long enough for me to get back to the office the following Monday, the second Monday in September. And went back into 12 hour days, weekend work, etc. No way I’m gonna get a chance to go back up there anytime soon.

Long story short, I finally got enough projects done to get a break the first full week of December. And then I couldn’t get a hold of Jim. He’d been calling me regularly, but when I tried to call him… no answer, no way to leave a message. Finally got through via a message relayed through a couple other people. So off I went… drove up Tuesday, we spent about 13 hours getting it all sorted out on Wednesday, and then I slept in and split the tow home into two segments for a couple reasons:

1) New axles. Need to stop and check things like bolt torques and bearing temperatures regularly.
2) This is supposed to be my "relax and recharge" week and it’s hard to do that if you kill yourself trying to tow 900 miles home in one stretch with unproven equipment.

It works out that Oklahoma City is about halfway between Lincoln and Houston, so I called up my cousin Jill, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while, and arranged to meet up for dinner, which was at something called Republic Gastropub. They had a bewildering variety of beers on tap and good food and an atmosphere that can best be described as full of people wanting to be seen in a place where people want to be seen. Jill, who has spent her adult life moving in and around the circles of government as elected official’s staffer or, presently, CEO of a local Chamber of Commerce, was identifying lobbyists, state reps, former state reps who were now lobbyists, etc. I was underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt, but what the hell. I was also generally underimpressed with the crowd, which isn’t a reflection on Jill but more of a reflection on my general attitude toward lobbyists and other self-appointed "power brokers" moving in the halls of government and working on interests other than those of the constituents of the elected officials they schmooze.

But it was great to catch up with Jill, who I don’t get to see nearly often enough. I’m thrilled that she’s finding success in her career and is able to do stuff like remodel her house (I’m still renting. I’d just like a house of my own at this stage…).

And then I trundled down the road and overnighted in Norman, where I’d miss most of the morning commute traffic by virtue of being south of it and heading counter-race.

Towing through Dallas sucks. There’s no other way to describe the experience. I really need to figure out a better way to transit DFW than I35E to I30 to I45.

But I got home with my trailer and car intact, just in time to do some delayed maintenance on the truck. Expensive week, between trailer axles, travel expense, and truck repair. Couldn’t be helped.

And back to work, where, to commemorate my week off, the work week has included a 12 hour workday and a 17 hour workday…

There’s a lesson out of all this: It certainly doesn’t hurt to be nice to people. Jim McNeil, his son Shawn, and the other Rebels Auto Club members who helped me out didn’t care that I was a stranger — okay, in Jim’s case, I don’t think he’s ever MET a stranger, just a new friend — it was real simple: another Car Guy in from out of town has a problem, we have the solution. They didn’t wonder what was in it for them, they just jumped in and helped.

Ordinarily, I try to stay on the "giving" side of the Car Guy karmic balance. This time, I was on the receiving end — and I’ll not pretend I didn’t need every scrap of help that was offered, either. The Rebels are going to get a little something from me for their charity work. Not because I feel like I owe it to *them* — more like I owe it to the folks the Rebels help out — Care packages and welcome-home packages for the troops, scholarships to the local technical college for kids wanting to learn the automotive trades, young-driver safety/anti-street-racing programs, toy drives…

And wouldn’t it just be great if we all adopted that attitude, even just a little bit? "What can I do to help you, friend?" It’s contagious. Over on another blog I started following recently, what started out as an effort by the blogger to help 20 people in need out with gift cards turned into, at last count, over 650 folks-needing-help and folks-offering-help getting matched up, in maybe 3 days. Every time it looked like they’d run out of things to give, more people stepped up.

In other news, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll get turned upside-down and dunked in water in a simulated helicopter as part of the training required to be certified to go out to offshore rigs and service vessels. At least it’s in a pool.