Saturday, November 24, 2007

Under One Roof

It’s now official: I am no longer a mid-town resident. I have survived the move and various other non-related events from that week – all but the unpacking which has yet, officially, to begin. I spent Thanksgiving, thankfully, all under one roof.

It was a timely move: having worked on the clean-up phase this past weekend until almost 10pm, I began feeling uncomfortable carrying odds and ends out to the car parked in front of my old apartment. Monday, then, when I went in to finish up, I heard that one of my neighbors, a resident of almost forty years there, had been mugged at gunpoint, walking back to his house after parking the car around 10:30 the night before.

For those readers outside the immediate vicinity of Central Pennsylvania, it has been a strange autumn here: the third week of November and many trees still had their leaves, and many of them still hadn’t changed yet. It has been autumnally cool but not really cold, only a brief encounter with measurable snow.

One of the things my grandfather always said: the date of the first measurable snow will indicate the number of measurable snowfalls that winter. I’d never really kept track of it since it sounded so odd for a scientific man like him who kept meticulous records to say that: one year not too long ago, with the first snow on December 4th, we had five measurable snows, so that wasn’t bad, but one of them as I recall was a 12" blizzard. Last year, we waited until I believe January 21st for the first official snowfall and we only had a few snowfalls, though the storm around Valentine’s Day was one to remember! So I cringe thinking “what if 18 is the correct number this year?” I think I’ll keep track of them on the kitchen calendar this time.

Several years ago, my mother had gotten, with the best intentions, some exercise equipment. While I stood there in my senior moment calling it first a “walker” (no, that’s for later), then a “stroller” (no, that’s at the other end of the cycle), the word finally came to me: “treadmill.” I know she had used it for a while, but living alone she was always concerned it would suddenly kick itself into highspeed and she would be stuck on it, going 40mph, hanging on for dear life and unable to step off the machine. This past weekend, I discovered that not only was it still plugged in back in its corner of the living room, it still worked. So I have started using it myself, set at a leisurely pace to accommodate the still aching pulled abdominal muscle, sneaking my way gradually into a routine of 10-15 minutes a day (it’s a start). The photograph above, taken a few days ago, is the view from that corner, so it was, at least for a couple days, a rather pleasant way to spend a few minutes.

I have also gotten back into the routine of putting seed out in the bird feeder, a simple squirrel-accesible affair nailed to a post on the back porch. 25 years ago, we would have sparrows and purple finches by the busload but today, other than the occasional white-crowned sparrow, most of the clientele are tufted titmice, chickadees, juncos, once in a while the Carolina wrens along with infrequent visits from cardinals and blue jays. And of course, the squirrels and chipmunks.

In the past two days, I have also seen a red-bellied woodpecker (so named despite the fact the red is on the cap and back of its neck, but not on the belly – not that they would call it the red-necked woodpecker – just enough to distinguish it from the red-headed woodpecker with its full head of red). Once in a while, there’ll be a downy woodpecker in the Japanese maple, maybe a flicker, once a meadowlark. In the front yard which is more open and meadow-like, there are birds I never see in the back yard: the bluebirds have probably left for the winter but yesterday I watched a family of white-breasted nut-hatches in the one tree out front.

But it was windy on Thanksgiving Day despite temperatures flirting with the 60s, so now most of the leaves have dropped, including the Japanese maple in the photo above, now an array of bare branches over a carpeting of dark red mulch. Still, looking out at night, seeing it in the light of the full moon is still a beautiful sight.

The kittens have turned 7 months old this week and it will soon be time to take the lone female, Blanche, in to be spayed. Their mother, the ever-elusive Frieda, has begun putting on weight but more uniformly than before: perhaps it’s just an indication she’s getting enough to eat rather than, having been spayed over the summer, that she’s discovered a secret uterus somewhere. I rather doubt I could coax her into joining me for a stroll on the treadmill.

And I am getting back to composing after being interrupted these past two weeks with the move and its follow-up: several hours were spent Thursday trying to figure out where I’d left off and how it should continue from there. I’m not convinced yet I’ve found the best solution.

But one day at a time, as they say... one day at a time...

-- Dr. Dick

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Adventures of a Luddite: Man vs. Car

For sixteen years, I drove a fairly basic car. It didn’t have much in the way of fanciness to recommend it and it was kind of boxy and ugly to boot, but it got me where I needed to go (except for those times it kept stalling on me whenever I’d fill the gas tank: that was kind of weird but only lasted for a few months) and, when the end came, I only went to replace it because it just wouldn’t pass inspection any more. Yeah, I felt like I was abandoning an old friend when I dropped it off to pick up my brand new used car, a much snazzier version I’ll probably be lucky to be driving sixteen years down the road.

This newer car has a lot of now-standard bells and whistles, things that weren’t available in the Dark Ages when I’d bought the other one. The CD-player was a nice plus and I find myself listening to the radio less, now, when I’m driving around, especially on weekends. I’m finding Simone Dinnerstein’s “Goldberg” Variations wonderful mood-adjusting music for driving to and from work, for that matter, especially in heavy traffic.

I never needed a keyless entry remote before. You walk up, put the key in and unlock the door. Why do I need to do it from 200 feet away? (Do I sound like Andy Rooney? OMG, I’m even beginning to look like Andy Rooney…) Turns out, it didn’t really work from 200 feet away, after all: sometimes I’d be standing two parking spaces away and it might work. Okay, big deal.

Then there was the alarm system. Living in mid-town Harrisburg at the time, I thought this was a good idea, given the increase in crime in my neighborhood. Of course, I had a garage to park it in, but you never know.

Keep the car empty, they told me sixteen years ago, and no one’s tempted to break in. But it got broken into anyway, by a short person who apparently just wanted to steal the car, not anything that was in it (I know this, because they’d adjusted the rear-view mirror). And a neighbor’s car had gotten broken into by one of the more colorful local characters who thought the cigarette lighter was really cool-looking. Great.

Some time in April, after moving into my house, I’d gotten into the car to retrieve a CD from the player. I quickly turned on the ignition, retrieved the CD, shut off the ignition and the car started to scream. I couldn’t figure out how to shut it off. Now, at the time, I was sitting in my garage. It’s not like I was trying to break in or anything.

So I called the dealer’s service people and they said “oh, that means it’s in Valet Mode.” What, I asked naively, is Varlet Mode? No, no, he clarifeid, "Valet Mode." They explained what that is but could not answer how it got there. After several calls, the solution was just to bring it in for them to look at. Later.

Checking one of the booklets, it appears I had three choices: Normal Alarm, Valet Mode and Off. Since “Normal Alarm” was for some reason no longer one of them, I opted for “Off” since the alarm would just start screaming every time I put the key in the door.

This worked fine for several months. Then an odd thing happened. Parking on a city street one afternoon, the alarm (which, you'll remember, I had turned off) started screaming when I got out of the car and locked the door. It stopped when I got back in and put the key in the ignition. Weird. It's like I was trying to break out of my car.

This happened two more times, each time when I parked on a city street. Like it could smell fear.

Then last weekend, it happened again, only it wouldn’t stop. Nothing I did made a difference. Finally, after two minutes of ear-splitting din, it just stopped. But every time I put the key in the door or in the ignition, it would go off again. I couldn’t drive the car. So I called a friend to come in and give me a ride back to the house. Because it was the weekend, the service garage wasn’t able to help me till Monday morning.

And so Monday, I called about the car. Nope, nothing as easy as “press the alarm button three times while turning the key in the ignition and clapping in a flamenco rhythm” to reverse the curse, of course. “Bring it in.” Which means it had to be towed. They gave me a special dealership roadside service 800-number to call.

“And where are you,” I asked after I reported to this guy what I would need.

“Arizona.” I had an image of me waiting while this tow truck was driving out from Phoenix.

They connected me with a local towing service (hmm, I think I could've done that myself). They would be there in 40 minutes. Well, make it 90, but hey…

So the guy went to get the car ready to be hauled up onto the flat-bed. This took about fifteen minutes. During which the car’s alarm system never stopped screaming except every two or three minutes when it might take 15 seconds to catch its breath.

Did I mention I have a hearing condition where certain frequencies can attain near-painful levels? Mmmmm...

By mid-afternoon the next day, the car was… well, not exactly ready. I had originally said I just wanted the alarm system disemboweled. They told me they weren’t sure they could do that since it was tied into the car’s computer and removing it might affect other electrical systems. Swell.

But an hour later, I was assured they could, if I really wanted them to, disable the alarm. Would it be covered by the expensive warranty package I had purchased with the car the year before? Uhm, well, no, that wouldn’t be a repair, would it, and the warranty would only cover certain repairs.

Ah. So if I had them fix the alarm system so it worked properly, would that be covered under the warranty? Well, not exactly. So, I asked naively, because something screwed up with the computer, I would have to pay this out of my own pocket? Uhm… yes...

So it would cost me $158 to disable the alarm system and keyless entry. Or it would cost me $485 to repair it.

Curiously, I’d just gotten a recent offer from Dell about buying a new PC with a discount that would make it under $500. So I could buy a whole new computer for what it would cost to fix one bell and whistle (as it were) on my car’s computer.

So I made my decision. And peace has once again returned to Hooterville.

-- Dr. Dick